O2 Academy Brixton, London (09/03/17)
Everybody loves a good homecoming reception. South London collective the xx have the pleasure of savouring theirs across an entire week, having sold out a seven-night run at Brixton’s O2 Academy to conclude their 2017 European tour. And as if a week’s residency in the 4,900-capacity venue wasn’t quite festive enough, the celebrations have been further embellished by a sprawling line-up of additional shows, parties, film screenings and radio events which the group have curated as part of the area’s Night + Day festival. For a group whose beginnings were so rooted in tense silences and whispered revelations, their current circumstances would seem to indicate an unabashed embrace of the limelight.
Yet such assumptions would be wide of the mark; in truth, it’s easy to see why the group pulled out all the stops for this particular return. As Oliver Sim emphasised during a fervent speech at the close of their second night’s set, this part of the world has been a stomping ground for all three members of the group since childhood. Treating the audience to a quick trip down memory lane, Sim recalled the night that his mum dropped him and bandmate Jamie ‘xx’ Smith off at this very venue to see the White Stripes: the first gig that either young’un had ever attended. This kind of “I never dreamed it’d be me up here” patter is common enough at any given live show, but Sim’s words carried a genuine charge, and the kick that the trio get from performing here – not to mention the adulation they receive from crowds on home turf – was immediately palpable. As with the xx’s music, through the nerves and shy wordplay, there’s a resolute honesty underpinning every move they make.
Speaking of, one of the main pleasures to be experienced when witnessing the group in a live capacity is a refreshed appreciation for their unaffected intimacy. The tight-knit friendship between the performers was discernible throughout, from wide-eyed glances between songs to a few clumsy hugs at the set’s climax. Likewise, the anxiety from which their songwriting springs was charmingly apparent: Sim and Romy Madley Croft fumbled through their brief speeches with quavering voices and helpless grins, their hearts clearly overwhelmed by the deafening, drawn-out applause that crowned several of the evening’s highlights.
The group were well-equipped to make the most of their extended tenure in the Academy: flanked by rotating pylons of mirrored glass and with a reflective ceiling that dipped and tipped throughout the night (showing off Smith’s impressive array of tech in the process), it was a marvellous set-up which would surely have dwarfed the group were their own figures not so quietly magnetic to behold. The result was a show of controlled tension-and-release, complemented with the kind of light spectaculars that seemed to directly channel the emotional eddies conjured in the music, from bristling agitation (‘A Violent Noise’, ‘Infinity’) to dewy-eyed tenderness (Croft’s spotlit solo rendition of ‘Performance’).
Teed up by the lush cascades of ‘Say Something Loving’, the xx’s set offered a democratic run throughout three albums’ worth of treasures. The contributions from their first two records work a stark magic that’s enough to fill the lofty recesses of venues such as this (Madley-Croft’s guitar lines revereberated from wall to wall like great shafts of light), but there were particularly fine results to be heard when the group tinkered with longstanding favourites, marrying the spectral sounds of old with the newfound mettle present in I See You and Smith’s own In Colour. A late highlight was reached across a seamless segue from ‘Fiction’ into the ever-beautiful ‘Shelter’, before the trio allowed the night to ascend heavenwards on the golden harmonies and choice samples of ‘Loud Places’, which closed the main set on a giddy, stratospheric high.
Although several of their renditions couldn’t quite silence the yakking of a handful of loudmouthed punters, the xx provided a beautiful experience that was moving in all the right ways. The frequent moments in which the whole hall was flooded with light drew subtle attention to how keen the xx currently are to connecting with their fanbase, and the nature (and aesthetic) of these performances goes some distance to disambiguating the meaning behind I See You’s title. The xx may still dabble in the shadows, but they’ve been peering out at the rest of the world ever since their intimations were first discovered. And on nights like this one, the gaze they return to the crowds brims with a heartfelt gratitude.
Say Something Loving // Crystallised // Islands // Lips // Sunset // Basic Space // Performance // Brave For You // Infinity // VCR // I Dare You // Dangerous // Chained // A Violent Noise // Fiction // Shelter // Loud Places // On Hold // Intro // Angels
Album of the Year
Everybody experiences ★ differently. Naturally, there is consensus to be found in the obvious places, where criticisms overlap in the adulation and recognition of particular aspects of the album. But David Bowie and his music made such a personal impression on each listener: his presence was so huge, so totemic, meaning so much to so many in different ways, that his final work – and how his death irrevocably factors into it – affects its audience with myriad permutations. As such, we can only approach ★ with our own individual perspectives. There is so often a general temptation to give an artist too much credit in thinking that they have specifically planned and engineered audience reactions from the start, but in truth, most are simply smart enough to know how much space to leave in their work. Bowie was such an artist, and ★ is no less forward-thinking than his other masterpieces.
I am writing this piece exactly a year on from the man’s death, and I can remember the strangely vertiginous reaction I felt when the news reached me. Losing Bowie seemed unthinkable, more so than any other cultural icon. Even when he wasn’t present at the forefront of culture (or present at all, such as the lengthy period of silence preceding The Next Day), he still felt like an unconquerable and indispensable part of the world we understood. We relied on him, even if we didn’t directly acknowledge it. From the announcement of his death, throughout the entirety of 2016, I struggled to get past it, and specifically, I couldn’t get past ★. There have been other albums whose circumstances of release have irrevocably altered how they are heard, and 2016 alone seemed to offer more than its fair share (You Want it Darker, Skeleton Tree, HOPELESSNESS). But ★ is singular in its effect.
Trying to fully grasp that Bowie knew he was dying during the album’s creation is a challenge. For one thing, the energy alone that this undertaking must have demanded is mind-boggling to consider, and beyond this there is the haunting matter of how Bowie approached his looming mortality and channeled it into his music. Self-aware references to his own state and outright farewells poke out of the album with each listen, and some of the additional coincidences of its lyrics are just too much to process (“where the fuck did Monday go?”, we all gasped along with ‘Girl Loves Me’ on the 11th January). It’s too significant to dismiss the fact that ★ faces down death, but in pursuing this intense artistic vision, Bowie sounded reinvigorated to a degree unheard since his 1970s zenith.
Recruiting Donny McCaslin and a team of boundary-trampling jazz musicians yielded dazzling collaborative results that would have blown minds even if the context of the album was of little note. The music of ★ is magisterial and adventurous: a restless and excited leap into bold territory that pays dividends for the attentive listener. The assembled group complement Bowie’s focus perfectly, nailing an intensity and kinetic force that is guided with precision by the steady hands of Tony Visconti. I get goosebumps at every bump and stab of ‘Lazarus’ alone: the tremble in Bowie’s voice as he cries “look up here, man / I’m in danger”, the slicing guitars that punctuate the verses. Most powerful of all is the dramatic, terrifying ascension of McCaslin’s saxophone, relentlessly building to a feverish apex before a dizzying tumble back to darkness. If we choose to understand ★ as an exploration of death, then ‘Lazarus’ is its gravest dispatch.
But in a beautiful subversion of conventional expectations, Bowie never once sounds maudlin or self-pitying. Even in staring down death, he exhibits that characteristic playfulness that ran through even his most avant-garde outings. The unsettling moods of ★ are counterbalanced with Bowie’s nose-thumbing glee and occasional lapses into pure whimsy. “I’m the Great, I am!” he brags delightfully during the title track, slipping a few wisecracks into the song’s mantra as he goes (“I’m not a gangster”, “I’m not a flam star”, “I’m not a porn star”). It alludes to the zest for life and music that powered ★, and by God, it makes for wonderful listening. Teaming up with old and new faces alike one more time was a clear source of excitement for Bowie, and his exaltation to work alongside such talents is palpable on the magnificent ‘’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’. (Apologies, but I have to break from pseudo-professionalism for a second. Fuck me, what a song this is.) The track is irrepressibly alive: Mark Guiliana’s pounding propulsion, the increasingly chaotic squalls of McCaslin’s sax, those gorgeous, brief twinkles of keys that give the verses a starry-eyed wonder. And then there are the lyrics: a jumble of weird, funny-dark imagery (“Black struck the kiss / She kept my cock”) before Bowie abandons words altogether and just screams in exhilaration.
The album’s moody centre is adventurous in a different fashion: the frantic, heavy groove of ‘Sue (In a Season of Crime)’ and the intoxicatingly sinister nonsense of ‘Girl Loves Me’ bear witness further to the passion Bowie poured into his last studio efforts, before ‘Dollar Days’ finally brings ★ to its stunningly emotional conclusion. ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ is the perfect ending to an album, and to a life’s work. There will surely be more songs exhumed and released in the years to come (as ‘No Plan’ was only a few days ago), but ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ is Bowie’s final farewell, curated by the man himself. A beautiful, tender and brilliant work of songwriting, it earns its beaming, unfussy sentimentality as Bowie throws everything into his vocal performance, his rallying partners giving ★ its final, triumphant push towards the stars. And then it – and Bowie – is gone.
For all that ★ is filled with life, its subject is death, and across the album, Bowie confronts it with various attitudes: with fear, with defiance, with humour. Above all, however, he meets it with the same spirit of adventure that was the constant throughout his career, whether the results were adored, panned, or shrugged off. It’s testament not just to Bowie’s artistry, but to his own strength and personality that his final work matches the vigour of his very finest albums. We all view it differently, and for me personally, ★ is more than a masterpiece, and occupies a wholly unique place in the canon of recorded music.
It may only have been a year since ★ was released, but I have no doubt that it will continue to resonate as powerfully through the coming decades as it does currently. No matter the milieu, in times of joy, strife, optimism, and need, I will always lean on the music and the mythos of David Bowie. The man himself may have left the mortal world, but we need never say goodbye to the eternal art he gifted it. In his life and works, wherever he went and whatever he did, Bowie was always our spaceman, our adventurer, our great explorer of sound, style, life and more. Our Blackstar.
“Ain’t that just like me?”
A Seat at the Table
Solange Knowles worked on A Seat at the Table in fits and starts through the eight years preceding its completion, and consequently, there’s a lot to unpack in the finished product. “I’ve got a lot to be mad about,” she makes clear early on, and the tensions and injustices she has felt and witnessed as a black woman propel the entire album. And yet, her anger is channelled into a search for redemption rather than aggressive diatribes: a calm flipside to her sister’s Lemonade, and a moving celebration of black lives and culture that argues for belonging above all else. A Seat at the Table is a fitting title for a record that sounds so inviting: it welcomes its audience to the discussion, its anecdotes and manifestos detailed with grace and patience.
‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ is the kind of protest song that resembles an open palm rather than a clenched fist, its force radiating without the need for dramatics. The same goes for its peers: ‘Cranes in the Sky’ and ‘F.U.B.U.’ firmly push against the bigotry and hypocrisy Solange and so many others are victims to, while remaining admirably open-hearted and generous in spirit. The sound is absolutely wonderful: laced with tasteful touches of Motown and soft funk, A Seat at the Table is heaped with earworms that flutter and snap alongside these celebrations of the self. Solange pitches her tone with fine precision, balancing her steely proclamations with joyous forays into liberating movement – not least on the effervescent ‘Junie’. There’s a lot to be proud about, too: when her mother venerates “the beauty of being black” during one interlude, her plainspoken honesty gets to the warmth at the core of her daughter’s album.
“I hope my son will bang this song so loud / That he almost makes his walls fall down.”
For several years, Angel Olsen’s talent has been in bloom for all to hear, but My Woman is undoubtedly a significant leap forward. No longer the preserve of alt-rock magpies, she has delivered the vigorous pop record that her music previously hinted towards, but seemed to shy away from. She hasn’t abandoned her signatures in compromise, but rather has embellished and fortified them further: the emotional charge is ramped up rather than watered down, and her zeal fills every note, whether her voice is trembling with vulnerability or raw with intensity. Olsen shows more of herself than ever before as both singer and songwriter: whether she’s howling through ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ or crooning dreamily as she does in the blissful ‘Those Were the Days’, her presence is generously multifaceted.
On an album that merges her folk and grunge trademarks with soulful deliveries and country pep, Olsen’s nous is apparent through the smoothness of the whole. Intentionally sequenced as an album of two halves, My Woman fits together perfectly, the winding jams of the latter side sounding like the natural comedown after the emotional expenditure of the album’s opening salvo. Her techniques as a songwriter are consistent, but she employs them to admirably inventive effect: where the guitar crescendos on ‘Not Gonna Kill You’ forcibly burst out of the song’s fabric, on the spectacular ‘Sister’, the build is akin to seeing fireworks launched in slow-motion: a revelatory moment of wide-eyed wonder that suits Olsen’s own ascension.
“All my life I thought I’d change.”
Channel Orange was far from simple in its constitution, but Blonde is thick with content to such a degree that a full analysis could easily fill a book. There is so much to be derived from its density that it invites patience and investment, coaxing its listeners into blurry, headier places than Frank Ocean’s previous full-lengths. Even if this less straightforward approach makes for a less gratifying listen than the slicker R&B of old, Ocean’s supreme knack for melody keeps Blonde welcoming. ‘Pink + White’, ‘Godspeed’, ‘Self Control’, ‘White Ferrari’: these tracks aren’t always forthright in their hooks, but the care of construction has yielded handsome results that make repeat plays appealing. ‘Solo’ is as rich in meaning as any other cut, but Ocean’s grasp and control of melody and flow elevate the song into a heavenly experience. Even based around minimal tools, ‘Nights’ sounds like a full feast of ideas; an impressive transformation from an anthemic montage of “everyday shit” to a coda of lounge soul, via a sequence of videogame guitar licks.
Blonde presents an opus of life’s makeup through fast years and rough hours. There are narcoleptic hazes (“skipping showers and switching socks / Sleeping good and long”), sudden jitters and outbursts (as nailed by André 3000), stark poetry (“weed crumbles into glitter”) and eloquently-expressed pangs of very modern fear and exhaustion. Ocean acknowledges that he is expected to be a spokesman, but Blonde connects with its broad span of followers by withdrawing into the intensely personal, as in Ocean’s reference to Trayvon Martin. It’s a tiny glimpse at an individual reaction: a haunting gut-punch rather than a polemic.
So often on Blonde, Ocean works magic by hitching deeply complex thoughts to the most mellifluous tunes. His formidable hit-rate would make such accomplishments seem effortless, were it not for the four-year gestation that alludes to the hard graft at this music’s core. This album presents a challenge to Ocean’s peers and listeners alike to match the ambition of his own creativity: a demand that we all raise our game to suit works of this intricacy and power.
“Want to see nirvana but don’t want to die yet.”
Car Seat Headrest
Teens of Denial
Whoever you are, if you’re in your twenties – or at the very least, can recall those hard knots of bewilderment and confusion that pierced (and possibly defined) your twenties – then you absolutely need this album. It’s essential. Coming across as a short story collection written with wit and candour, it’s a painfully acute opus set to subtly inventive lo-fi thrills. Will Toledo is no guitar hero, but his second major label album with Car Seat Headrest is thoroughly inspiring. The basic struts of garage rock are present and correct, but they’re dismantled and reassembled with dynamism belying the slacker-band languor Car Seat Headrest are audibly in thrall to. In seventy minutes, not a single hook fails to land.
But it’s Toledo who takes precedence, surrendering feelings towards himself from the very start: “if I was split in two, I would just take my fists / So I could beat up the rest of me”. From this sunny opening, Toledo eloquently stumbles from one ill-fated scenario to another: sobbing after a shakedown with some cops, screaming through an onset of social anxiety during a gig, trying not to piss his pants during a disappointing drug trip. Teens of Denial is brimful of honesty, hilarity, bewilderment and pathos, bound up in these unfortunate anecdotes that are joyous to hear. Toledo may shrug his way through some of these commentaries, but the lion’s share of them contain genuinely profound observations that stick as fast as the riffery. More ambitious and balanced than 2015’s Teens of Style, Teens of Denial lives up to its delightful song titles and then some. “You haven’t tried hard enough to like it”? It’s impossible to adore this album enough.
“Good people give good advice / Get a job, eat an apple, it’ll work itself out.”
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Nick Cave’s sixteenth studio album with the Bad Seeds is an unequivocal masterpiece. It’s a wrenchingly sad, haunting, and courageous work from a veteran who revealed a whole new depth of personal and artistic mettle in its creation. Questions regarding what aspects of Skeleton Tree were completed before and after Arthur Cave’s death are hard to dispel, but ultimately, they are rendered irrelevant by a work throughout which the weight of grief, pain and loss is articulated with devastating potency.
On these eight songs, Cave peers into the inky blackness of his imagination, sifting through lurid memories and conjuring surrealist imagery of slow-moving dread. The stalwart Bad Seeds match the desolate subject matter with brooding and eerie soundscapes, on which conventional choruses are few and far between. These songs unspool in oppressive clouds of rumbling distortion and disquieting flickers of noise. ‘Rings of Saturn’ hints towards gorgeousness but consistently retreats, the singer “too tongue-tied to drink it up and swallow back the pain”. The trembles in his voice contribute to the effect of the whole: the stony tone he adopts suggests his deeper anguish is shelled away, but there are times when this protective layer cracks and the monstrous emotional flood begins to pour out. The album’s final stretch is equally agonising and delicate. ‘I Need You’ is almost impossible to stomach as Cave’s relentless refrains become choked with yearning: his wail of “I will miss you when you’re gone” must have been unbearable to witness in the studio. Yet ‘Distant Sky’ and the title track combine to form a touchingly human coda to the sorrows that came before: pleas to let go of the suffering while nurturing the love that we are able to carry further.
In many of these songs, Cave calls out beseechingly into the abyss, and receives no answer. By the album’s end, he hasn’t found peace, but has steadied himself enough to reach a resolution of sorts, albeit a fragile, irrevocably altered one. Skeleton Tree may be forever haunted by its shatteringly tragic context, but ultimately, the music herein is of such power that it is magisterial in of itself. It’s an album I won’t forget: its abstract articulations of pain and grief beyond imagining are profoundly disturbing, but that same despair bears forth a terribly unique beauty.
“You believe in God / But you get no special dispensation for this belief now.”
Christine and the Queens
Chaleur Humaine technically counts as an album of 2014, but Héloïse Letissier’s crossover into UK success seemed to come when we Brits needed it most, as if to prove that not every cultural trend in 2016 had to come loaded with shady subtext. Witnessing her accelerated rise to fame since the release of a translated edition of her début has been joyous, her refreshingly spacious take on dance- and synth-pop matched note-for-note by a thumping heartbeat. Chaleur Humaine is an album of self-appreciation beyond Letissier’s own pansexuality: these songs cohere around her own arc of embracing herself, while simultaneously reaching out and inviting others to do the same. Underpinning it all, these are slick and concise pop songs, written (and translated, with varying degrees of faithfulness) with care but without fussiness: the truths are presented clearly and coolly, without recourse to melodrama. This inclusive and unpretentious brand of music was a heartfelt delight for many this year, and only a stone-faced bastard would begrudge Letissier the acclaim she has received. “I am actually good” she presses on the now-ubiquitous ‘Tilted’, and she’s right in so many ways.
“I’m in my right place / Don’t be a downer.”
A Moon Shaped Pool
If you really do want to, you can go snooping through A Moon Shaped Pool – and everything in its orbit – in attempts to dredge up evidence to validate the recent gossip (is it their last? Does it hint at what’s coming next? What of Thom Yorke’s marriage?), but there are times when burrowing down rabbit-holes is a pointless exercise. With Radiohead albums, there has occasionally been the risk that the more obsessive fans can’t see the wood for the trees, and while I’m in no doubt that plenty of significance is buried within these eleven tracks, simply listening to them as they are makes for a gorgeous experience.
Really, the true appeal of A Moon Shaped Pool is the music itself: this haunting hodgepodge of tunes, many of which have finally found a home after years of floating about on the peripheries (rare live footage, muddy demos, general rumours from one album drop to the next). They may not sit alongside one another in a way that brings cohesion to the whole, but the collection has scooped up beautiful oddities like ‘Decks Dark’, and demonstrates the breadth of Radiohead’s forward-thinking prowess as it shifts from the throbbing intensity of ‘Ful Stop’ to the steely rallying cry of ‘The Numbers’. While the album largely laps in dreamlike opalescence, the overall sense one gathers from it is that of restlessness: the sound of a group still not settling into an easily-defined routine. Radiohead are as cryptic as ever, but amid the fog of A Moon Shaped Pool, beautiful shapes loom into view, and it’s a pleasure to drift into this album over and over again.
“Just don’t leave / Don’t leave.”
Discovering that I loved this album was weird for me at first. I suppose I’m not in the main demographic for Lemonade: I’m a scrawny, speccy white guy who works in a bookshop and spent my teens bopping along to pleasantly anonymous indie-rock. I didn’t fully delve into a Beyoncé album until her surprise 2013 release, but it’s Lemonade which really stunned me into paying full attention, and it’s so outrageously good that there’s little to do beyond joining the rest of the universe in applauding it. No matter how much credence you give the dramatics behind the album’s release, Lemonade makes for a tremendous, tense, and hugely entertaining listen: a rallying cry with all the self-empowerment of Chaleur Humaine but thrice the gusto. Musically, it pushes the envelope of modern R&B by successfully assimilating almost every other genre under the sun, while its HBO release was a masterful demonstration of how albums can be presented and consumed through alternative means.
This album gives the impression of sounding universally irresistible (maybe not for Jay-Z, but let’s see how this whole saga pans out, hoax or not): its combination of Beyoncé’s no-fucks charisma and to-the-nines production is shocking and exuberant. There’s baseball bat swagger, tremulous vulnerability, and a levelling of blame and graciousness in equal measure. Knotty emotions are wrestled with even amid the fiercest cuts: ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’ and ‘Freedom’ crack with visceral aggression while plunging into headspinning quandaries, never once deflated by simplification. By the time Beyoncé invites all ladies present to get in formation, there’s no doubting her regal prowess. From open to close, Lemonade dazzles.
“I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself back up. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.”
Although there’s apparently little that’s original in the topics covered on Puberty 2 (the uncertainty of fledgling adulthood, relationship angst, the struggle to secure happiness on a long-term basis), what sets Mitski Miyawaki apart from her peers is that she absolutely nails the nuances beneath the blanket terms. The fears and insecurities that she purges over backdrops of fuzz guitar kick against simplification: in her writing she sidesteps the obvious and outlines the full weight of feeling behind each moment of (in)decision. The depression that plagues her is frustratingly nebulous: there are moments when she notices it like a knife in her leg, whereas during others she is fully conscious of being engulfed. This awareness she demonstrates gives significant heft to the songs on which she really lets rip, even as she staunchly avoids definitive catharsis: “I’d better ace that interview / I should tell them that I’m not afraid to die!”
‘Happy’ and ‘Fireworks’ distill the fickle nature of contentment without recourse to patronising Mitski or her audience, the singer’s turns of phrase sharply constructed rather than overwrought. ‘Your Best American Girl’ lingers on the building doubts and quiet acceptance behind a breakup rather than the turmoil of heartache: the verses capture the fragility of late-night worry, while the towering chorus emerges emboldened by honesty (not to mention a wonderful eruption of noise). Each song clicks brilliantly even when the whole sounds deceptively simple: listeners need to look closely to see just how well executed the trick is. There may be no shortage of confused twentysomethings attempting to churn their plight into art, but few have accessed the level of honesty and empathy attained by Mitski on Puberty 2.
“Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me / But I do, I finally do.”
22, A Million
(This article is leet-free, because I find it confusing and annoying to type.)
There’s a moment partway through 22, A Million which has lodged in my mind, and I’ve started to anticipate it with each play of the record. At the climax of the dizzyingly beautiful ‘33 “GOD”’, a distorted and barely perceptible voice croaks over the final piano notes: “why are you so far from saving me?” It’s an open question directly lifted from Psalms 22, and more than any one of the many cryptic phrases, declarations and entreaties scattered across the album’s length, this one feels integral to the whole project: the plea at the nexus of the emotional storm Justin Vernon weathered in the wake of the extensive touring for 2011’s Bon Iver.
Vernon is hardly a man forsaken, and when his situation is viewed in a broad perspective, he’s got to be pretty far down a Divine Entity’s prioritised list of people to save. And yet, his cries into apparent silence don’t rankle as first-world problems, but rather as a relatable and sympathetic crisis: the sound of a man whose uncertainties extend to what his own purpose is in life, and why it matters. He struggled through the past few years with writer’s block and panic attacks, recoiling against the rush of fame, and struggling to find adequate ways in which to communicate his fractured mindset to a now-huge audience.
22, A Million breaks down these matters in its form and content. The results frequently break away from the backwoods folk of old, and in place of catharsis, there are ellipses at every turn. Even when Vernon’s lyrics are at their most emotive and striking (“goddamn turn around now, you’re my A Team!”), they are rendered blurry by their context; a shuffled pack of surreal observations. But even if full understanding is out of reach, these songs remain touchingly accessible: once past the clattering abrasions of ’10 (Death Breast)’, the album is shot through with disarming beauty, not least on the gorgeous swells of ‘8 (Circle)’ and ‘#29 Strafford Apts’. It may not be handsome in a straightforward sense, but 22, A Million is a captivating and rewarding listen; an album to hold close in troubled times for the hard-won moments of solidarity it offers.
“I could go forward in the light / Well, I’d better fold my clothes.”
Well, at least the music was great.
The Hope Six Demolition Project
I didn’t find the time to write about the gigs I attended during 2016, but possibly my favourite live experience was PJ Harvey’s headline show at Field Day festival. Backed by a fearsome phalanx of tight-knit musicians and largely sticking with her new material, she sounded magnetic, gutsy, and utterly commanding from start-to-finish. It was a show that accentuated the strengths of The Hope Six Demolition Project, which casts a cold look at American foreign policy and the damage is has increasingly wrought on a global scale. Harvey’s reportage is less concentrated in its focus than 2011’s mighty Let England Shake, and more loosely bound in both sound and vision, but it’s no less unflinching in its coverage of the failures of government and communities alike. With her band strafing confidently between rollicking rallies (‘The Community of Hope’), militant stomps (‘Chain of Keys’) and eerie hymnals (‘River Anacostia’), Harvey presides over a rich tableau of sound, one whose edges are roughened and fraying to match her snapshots of poverty and decay. The results are frequently remarkable: ‘The Ministry of Defence’ lands like a hammerblow, and the combination of queasy, surging blues and Harvey’s steely refrains on ‘The Wheel’ still sends goosebumps shuddering up my back.
“Hey little children, don’t disappear / I heard it was twenty-eight thousand.”
Over the course of the year, I came to consider Boy King as something of a guilty pleasure. While it was far from panned, the general consensus among critics (and friends) has been that Wild Beasts’ fifth is below par for the group: a bold but disappointing swerve into uncharacteristically simple scuzz-rock. Well, sod those claims, and sod any notions of this record as a “guilty” pleasure. Its overall effect may be less spellbinding and poetic than that of its predecessors, but I love Boy King for its neon-hued aesthetic and unapologetically punchy approach. Here is the sound of a band following its gut instincts and going for broke: taking small but significant stylistic risks and sounding alive with glee as a result. As their delightful live shows this year proved, Wild Beasts are invigorated afresh as a quartet, and on record, the muscular production of John Congleton suits the relapse of Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming’s more salacious appetites: the vocalists skewering the perils of modern masculinity while simultaneously basking in its intoxicating glow. In a nutshell, Boy King is a simmering platter of thumping beats, grimy grooves, and low-slung sleaze from one of my favourite contemporary bands. That’s how I get my bang.
“These are blessed times that we’re living in / Down here on Earth all is forgiven.”
A Tribe Called Quest
We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
In modern times, it has become tiresomely easy to spot the bands whose comebacks have been hastened for the sake of self-indulgence, financial necessity, or even boredom. The spark of true relevance and artistic purpose is unmistakable, and the return of A Tribe Called Quest not only feels genuine in intentions, it’s an aching relief to witness their return at this particular time. Since Tribe last put their manifestos to record in 1998, a lot has changed – in the music industry itself, let alone on a global scale. But in other cases, some things haven’t changed enough, and as 2016’s headlines were apparently keen to attest, the world is rapidly backsliding at an alarming pace. Such is the climate in which Tribe were finally compelled to drop new material: equal parts aural balm and calms to mobilise. Urgency runs deep through We Got It From Here…, which runs to an hour of knotty, hard-hitting polemics without once losing its fire. With an intimidating roster of personnel ensuring that the production is tighter than ever, the bond of Tribe’s core members gleams at the heart of this record; the group ensuring that humanism shines through every bar. Just as they did twenty years ago, Tribe sound galvanised to be at the fray’s forefront, demanding that unity and happiness are recognised as more than abstract ideals: they’re rights.
“Motherfuck your numbers and your statisticians / Fuck y’all know about true competition?”
If her past albums released as Antony Hegarty were quiet in their potency, the first album released under Anohni’s new moniker ruthlessly stamps such tremulous beauty into memory with all-consuming rage. HOPELESSNESS is an unflinching riposte to the western world that lets nobody off the hook – including the listener. She spends these eleven cuts shooting from different perspectives and taking aim at various figures in a takedown of ideological apathy on topics ranging from climate change to drone warfare, treatment of terrorists and beyond. It’s a scattergun approach, but Anohni and her collaborators have produced a record of such ruthless directness that it lands with explosive force. The icy bluster of the music (largely courtesy of Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never) is dramatic to the point of confrontational: ‘4 Degrees’ strikes with booming severity, Anohni eviscerating our collective complicity in natural destruction for the sake of our own comfort. Elsewhere, execution is presented as a facet of the American dream over sparkling keys, the creepy ‘Obama’ levels crushed disappointment and fury at the outgoing President, and ‘Crisis’ is wrenchingly direct in its empathy with innocent victims of America’s military force. You could reasonably summarise the whole enterprise as heavy-handed and clunky, but given the scale of Anohni’s ambitions and the blatant horrors in her firing line, her sober tone is more than suitable: it cuts through our willful silence with severity.
“We are all Americans now.”
Cate Le Bon
Cate Le Bon’s own website summarises the songwriter’s fourth album as “a coalition of inescapable feelings and fabricated nonsense, each propping the other up”. It’s a suitably muzzy description for an album that combines clear, gorgeous melodies with fragmented observations, each tinged with a dreamlike quality. Yet beneath the wonky neo-psychedelia and playful riddles, what impresses most over repeated listens is the melodic muscle on display from Le Bon and her group. The overall ambience is akin to being invited into Le Bon’s own home, and peering through the vibrant clutter that fills all spaces in sight: the coat hangers, the crumby cookbooks, handprints on the windows, dusty cream blinds. Amid these environs, she sings and performs with a lightness of touch; her delivery artful but far from precious, high on wonder rather than a thickly fragrant haze. The results are intimate, inventive, and companionable: her influences are plain to see, but it’s a delight to sit with Crab Day and surrender to Le Bon’s melodic and lyrical fancies.
“All the towns are miniature / All the girls are beautiful ghosts.”
My Spin on Masterworks: 25 of 25
On the surface, that’s a relatively obvious question to ask of somebody, but (in my experience, at least) it’s not one heard particularly often. We’ve generally become used to asking one another what music we’re currently listening to, focusing on what contemporary albums are worth seeking out, and keeping our eyes and ears on the horizon for hotly-tipped new releases. It’s a natural compulsion to engage with modern culture, but finding out what albums your friends first started their collections with years (or decades) ago can lead to some pretty entertaining discoveries and discussions.
Tracing the histories of our record collections can be a source of great pleasure. Taking the time to pore through our own shelves, we can pick out albums that have soundtracked different stages of life, many of which have likely come to resemble close companions down the years. Your first album may not have set a precedent for the musical voyages you’ve embarked on since, but whether you still enjoy that album or if it serves as an embarrassing reminder of bygone listening habits, it allows you to consider your own first steps into music, and to measure the evolution of your tastes from then to now.
Personally, I remember getting Demon Days on CD for my fifteenth birthday, having asked for it after noticing the healthy number of ubiquitous singles it housed: ‘Dare’, ‘Feel Good Inc.’, ‘Dirty Harry’. I suppose by modern (and possibly general) standards, that’s a pretty late age at which to start getting into music. Fifteen seems practically ancient when you imagine the iTunes collection of a pre-teen in this decade, and it was longer still before my casual enjoyment of music had grown into a full-on compulsion to listen, to discover, and eventually to write about it. Of course, before owning Demon Days, I’d been listening to works by other bands and artists, mostly on CDs sponged from my parents and older sister. These were mostly artists of the 80s and 90s, while my friends in school and college prompted me to try songs from more modern groups. I genuinely enjoyed many of these suggestions, while there were others that I probably wanted to like more than I genuinely did. In both cases, these songs and artists helped cement my sense of belonging in a social capacity. I was this kind of person, so I listened to this kind of music. Reductive as it sounds now, it was one of the ways in which I identified myself during some very overwhelming years.
Since then, things have become more varied. Over the past decade, passing interests have become obsessions, fandom has churned into devotion, and some sounds I once adored have completely disappeared from my listening life. I’ve disowned some of my earliest physical purchases (goodbye, The Kooks) and found renewed appreciation for others (hello, Queens of the Stone Age). I’m the first to admit that my tastes are hardly unusual or broad even now, but since those demon days of the mid-noughties, I’d like to think that my music collection has become more well-rounded. Throughout it all, however, Gorillaz’ second album has remained a staunch favourite. I might not dust it down for a revisit every month, but it’s a work which I’ve never viewed with anything less than fondness. Not just for the twangs of nostalgia, either: I’ve got a lot of time for the album’s colourful aesthetic, its playful genre-blending, and its window into the progression of the band itself.
Gorillaz have become constant allies throughout my past decade of album-hopping. Their singles provided the soundtrack to numerous teenage episodes, as well as some of my ill-advised steps into adulthood. They’ve made music that I’ve bonded over with friends and family alike: my sister and I were sucked in by the terrific video (and even more terrific hooks) of ‘19-2000’, and more recently I’ve watched my friend smuggle the rap verses to ‘Clint Eastwood’ into open-mic covers of Damien Rice songs. As I mentioned in my Slave to the Rhythm post, I share of lot of music with my dad, and we both grew to adore 2010’s Plastic Beach separately. To this day, he confidently ranks it in his personal top five, which is a pretty spectacular claim. It’s also my favourite Gorillaz LP to date (stay tuned for a hopeful update in 2017): it’s more adventurous than Demon Days in style and concept, and contains a bounteous showcase of collaborative gold. By 2010, Gorillaz were less of a virtual band and more like a roving band of musical swashbucklers, whose real faces eclipsed the two-dimensional characters and transformed Gorillaz into an even bolder presence.
But Demon Days still possesses magic in spades. ‘Feel Good Inc.’ may have oversaturated the airwaves back in its heyday, but its punchy production still blossoms when heard now: the terrific De La Soul verses and that bass riff give the song a sparkle that continues to glimmer brightly. MF Doom’s appearance on ‘November Has Come’ is slick, menacing, and a perfect fit to the woozy instrumentals, while there’s a nagging ache to centrepieces ‘El Manana’ and the funk weariness of ‘Every Planet We Reach is Dead’. Across this diverse and smudgy range of tunes, things occasionally tip into nuttier territory: the likes of fuzzy interlude ‘White Light’, warped hymn ‘O Green World’, and the love/hate Dennis Hopper parable ‘Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head’ have wrinkled noses of some would-be fans. But in my eyes, the album’s imperfections and goofy missteps clarify that Demon Days is first and foremost a joyous work. The fun factor continiually takes precedent over solemn notions of artistry, and the result is a vibrant, dramatic and humorous collection that’s refreshing and thrilling to dive into. Start-to-finish, I think it’s a treat.
So, what was the first album you ever owned? Do you still stand by it, or has it become too redolent of a cringeworthy time in which you owned dubious T-shirts and an even more dubious haircut? Maybe you bought it because you were trying to fit in. Maybe it was a gift from someone, possibly eager to hear your own thoughts. Maybe it was one that you spent a while saving up for, and you still treasure it now as you did back when you were giving it its first few spins. In a few years, the notion of what constitutes the first album you “owned” could be very different. What will be the average age at which people own their first records – if at all? I’m not going to try and prophecise anything, but with the advent of Spotify, Tidal et al, will it be possible to definitively mark the first album you ever “owned”, when a subscription to a streaming service makes that definition much more nebulous?
I suppose I can only speak for myself on this topic. The future trajectory of my album collection – and my relationship with music in general – will hopefully be a sprawling one, studded with more than a few questionable choices but also a handful of gems. There may be records in which I find an emotional bond to match that of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, or Endtroducing…, or Blue, or In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, or Immunity. But whatever my collection grows into from here, I can trace its history back to a definite start-point: Demon Days. And it’s an album I’m happy to call the first I ever owned. I may not turn to it in the same way as I’ll turn to another of the albums in this list, but I love it regardless. Not only is it a fun, catchy, varied pop album, it will always be my original touchstone in the form, and I still think it’s a great one. A masterwork, if you like.
My Spin on Masterworks: 24 of 25
I loved Immunity upon hearing it three years ago, but since then it has steadily become more than a mere favourite: it’s practically indispensable to me. There have been (and continually are) regular situations in which this album is the first thing I’ll reach for, whether that’s as an aural balm, or as a soundtrack companion. When I’m crossing London after sundown, heading for an overnight shift or just feeling a restless compulsion to walk, Immunity captures the thrill of wandering through the city, both immersed in and disconnected from its animation. At other times, its heavy throbs sharply evoke those nights in which time feels simultaneously condensed and stretched-out, whether I’m alone or in a crowd. More simply, it offers a dependable source of phenomenal sounds when everything else has become tiresome, and I crave that visceral shot of wonder it provides.
Immunity contains multitudes, but more than anything else, it provides an unfailingly formidable testament to the cathartic, indefinable power of music itself. To experience it from start-to-finish (preferably as loud as possible on a snug pair of headphones) is an inspiring reminder that a medium so excessively broad and easy to tire of (or feel overwhelmed by) still has the potential to tap into transcendence, when an artist or team creates a work capable of making a direct, genuine connection with its listener. Immunity does exactly this: it’s an experience that spirits you away, sets the imagination soaring, and swallows you up; heart, soul and ears. And it does so with no discernible words whatsoever: its profound impact is conducted purely through sound.
You can read a tremendous articulation of the album’s blow-by-blow impact at Arbiter of Taste, in which the album’s vivid power is brought into specific focus. For my part, I struggle to articulate exactly how each track resonates, what images and ideas it recalls, and why. It’s hard enough for me to identify and describe each of Immunity’s individual gracenotes, not to mention the way each one succeeds in shooting shivers down my spine or transporting me somewhere completely different. It’s possibly because there’s just too much I’d like to say about it, and I frequently run the risk of turning into a gushing mess (which has probably happened here anyway, but I’ve started, so I’ll finish).
I’ve barely researched how Jon Hopkins sculpts his songs at all. Unlike most (if not all) of the other entries in this series, I don’t want to know how this music was conceived in a technical sense, because integral to its enrapturing appeal is its aura of mystery. I fear that as soon as I’ve investigated the hard facts of the programming, the sampling, the editing, and so on, part of Immunity’s magic will fade. Hopkins deserves so much praise for his work on this album, and the talent he wields here surely single him out as one of British music’s brightest leading lights, and not just in the field of electronica. However, his work in Immunity is so accomplished that the thrill of the music is all-consuming in and of itself. Wherever the word “electronic” is raised in relation to music, there will be prompted some degree of discussion as to what extent the final product sounds “organic” or “synthetic”: how the artificial and the analogue sounds are blended and balanced. But with Immunity, the work is one breathtakingly fluid mass of sound that completely convinces the listener of its own energy and life force. Not only do I enjoy this music, I believe in it, and Hopkins himself completely disappears behind its vibrancy.
Statements like that run the risk of sounding overly hyperbolic, but the music of Immunity genuinely sounds alive and purposeful. This album moves: it’s restless, fidgety, cacophonous, constantly rising and falling, breathing and collapsing, growing and shrinking and mutating seemingly of its own volition. From the second the outside world is sealed off with that opening door slam, the music begins to twitch and shift like a waking creature, and the momentum it gathers across the album’s length is completely compelling. Those aren’t beats driving the album: they’re pulses. Once ‘Open Eye Signal’ has cycled up, the kinetic force of the music is palpable: the friction and mounting tension of that gradually warping bass stumbles to keep pace with that relentlessly surging rhythm. It’s a breathtaking and draining exercise in which the central elements contort into new forms, constantly clenching and unclenching like a huge muscle across seven minutes, as on the peripheries, celestial sounds and shapes glide past.
After taking a plunge into some of those breathtakingly glacial piano segments during ‘Breathe This Air’, things become even more oppressive in the commanding ‘Collider’, which resembles a thunderstorm of techno passing directly overhead, with synths striking down out of the accumulated mass. The whole passage vibrates with urgency over a looped sigh, which is simultaneously evocative of a sensual moan and the cold, steady hum of a life-support machine. As with every moment on Immunity, the textures are remarkable in their depth and range: the thick, smudgy brutalism of an overpowering bass or beat countered by flickers of light in the form of pristine keys, while in the background there is constant motion: a faint slow-motion firework, a wash of calming winds, the brittle creak of chairs and pedals.
Although the album begins with Hopkins ushering the listener into his studio, the album feels paradoxically huge as well as intimate. ‘We Disappear’ establishes this strange dichotomy with its soft introduction, as if Hopkins is allowing us a glimpse inside a miniature universe, before the arrival of a whomping beat suddenly envelopes all else – including your full attention. Even when Immunity flirts with ambience, the results are not “ignorable” in the Eno-coined sense: they work to complement the more aggressive passages, with each sound vital instead of decorative. Each individual track is rich, stunningly textured, and memorable, but Immunity is a holistic creation, and the full effect achieved by letting it consume you for its full sixty minutes is beyond description. After this heavy, dramatic, layered journey, the dying moments of ‘Immunity’ attain a peaceful fragility through bittersweet quiet. The mixture of clear, trickling piano keys, softly whirring effects, and King Creosote’s gentle, indecipherable croon is achingly affecting, as the album reaches its patient, moving conclusion.
However you chose to listen to the record –as an evocation of (or soundtrack to) a night out, a tribute to the physical properties of a particular place, the private odyssey of a wide-eyed gamer – the journey it offers has a definitive end point. But this astounding album invites the listener back time and time again, to discover things anew, to puzzle out the details while remaining breathlessly in awe of such an extraordinary, beautiful mass of sound. Over time, the effect becomes spellbindingly personal – at the very least, it has for me. This is an album which continues to move me in a way that very few records can rival.
Fuck me, trying to explain it just feels detrimental. Go and listen to it right now. This is elemental music.
My Spin on Masterworks: 23 of 25
Sign o’ the Times
Warner Bros, 1987
At the time of writing this piece, 2016 is finally creaking to a close, and like millions of others, I’m hoping that December 31st will serve as a firm door slam to one of the shittiest years in living memory. The long-term consequences of its most damaging upsets will likely prove to be increasingly bizarre and frightening in the years to come, but when 2017 hits, please just let the tumult die down for a while as we try to process what the hell just happened.
Peppering the cavalcade of horrors – global crises and tragedies, the unremarked and the unavoidable alike – so many generation-defying heroes of the past half-century slipped away, with periods of mourning becoming alarmingly regular. Crushingly, an uncommonly substantial number of those lost were true icons, the likes of whom it’s hard to imagine being rivalled in this age of flash-in-the-pan success stories. (You can practically hear David Bowie sniggering at modern fame in the title track to the monolithic Blackstar.) These weren’t just familiar faces or celebrities past their prime: they were totemic figures of inspiration who moved in their own orbit, and in doing so brought inspiration, solace, pleasure, and solidarity to millions. Their absence has been sorely felt, even if their brightest days were behind them during their final years. Yet many – even those whose productivity was in decline of late – still felt like vital presences on this Earth: lodestars whose very existence was a dependable source of happiness. Cast your mind back to the beginning of 2016, and ponder: who would want to imagine a world without Bowie, or Cohen, or Prince?
If the sudden headlines heralding the passing of Bowie were dislocating at the year’s outset, the loss of Prince Rogers Nelson in April was barely comprehensible. The tragic circumstances surrounding his death can be found in greater detail and with broader commentary elsewhere, but for now it’s worth remembering what he gifted to the world in his heyday. Even on this side of the millennium, Prince’s creative force was staggering. His final records may have lacked the irresistibility of his mid-80s winning streak, but he continued to prove his capacity for sharp hooks and intriguing songwriting, not to mention mindblowing live shows that could still spark the kind of widespread feverish excitement that few living performers could rival. In the wake of the tragic news, however, it was most natural for listeners (those old and new) to pore through the classic albums in his discography: the most direct way to celebrate the momentous achievements of an insuppressibly creative man. Personally, I locked my ears inside Sign o’ the Times for days on end, and was repeatedly struck by its vitality, its effervescence, and the sheer majesty of its musical design.
Prince’s years working with The Revolution were arguably the most lucrative of his career, and they certainly gave him the wherewithal to let his musicianship flourish. For his ninth studio record, he went it alone, detaching from his stalwart bandmates to take on even greater autonomy in the studio. It was a strange form of liberation (on record, the Revolution never seemed to cramp his style or sound), but there’s a sense of unbridled energy that permeates Sign o’ the Times; the sound of Prince stretching his wings and soaring wherever he saw fit in his words and music. Conversely, there’s less pomp and sparkle present here than there is on the album’s immediate predecessors; no showstoppers in the Purple Rain mould or ubiquitous singles like those found of 1999. Instead, this is an extended sojourn in which Prince is guided by his own whims, and operating at the peak of his powers, the result is nothing short of masterful: pop music at its most potent and assured.
The Sign o’ the Times that the world is now familiar with was condensed and consolidated from a triple-album Prince was working on following the disbanding of the Revolution. Material shelved from other projects (including “lost albums” Dream Factory and Camille) found a home on the final cut, but while the sixteen songs housed herein are eccentric and varied in style, the gleam of the daz is never compromised. For all its diversity, every song on Sign o’ the Times sounds at home, in this inclusive double-disc party that fuses styles with such élan that Prince makes it sound miraculously easy. Double albums are far from extinct, and the past decade has hosted several sublime works from artists whose conceptual ambitions and charisma suits the project (The ArchAndroid, The Suburbs). Even so, there’s something even more wondrous about double albums from decades past. By and large, they don’t reflect a pursuit of artistic credence inasmuch as they capture a freeing of inhibitions: a chance for musicians to revel in the sprawl: no neat contours, just an exploration of one cool idea after another. The Beatles takes listeners on a joyride through four strange brains, plucking melodies as easy as daisies while still setting listeners reeling with abrasive wig-outs and lyrics that veered from politically savvy to solvent-eroded. This is the double-album as a funhouse for creativity, with the results wilfully broad and unusual. Prince pulled off the same trick with Sign o’ the Times, but instead of forays into the avant-garde, his pop nous was consistently on-point.
Every corner of this album is crammed with earworms, and polished in that bombastic 80s sheen that has seen the album celebrated as one of the decade’s definitive works. This is a spectacular record to lose oneself inside: a world in which R&B, funk, soul, dance and even psychedelia coalesce into a dazzling whole. One of pop music’s key attributes is that it sounds so effortlessly simple, but close listening to Sign o’ the Times reveals Prince’s dedication to and intuitive knowledge of the craft. His staggering musical gifts are on display throughout, as well as his ear for the unexpected. The brief guitar coda of ‘Forever in My Life’ is unfailingly refreshing on every listen, likewise the drunken keys that flutter in during ‘U Got the Look’, or the taut, flawless build of ‘Strange Relationship’. Such was the power of Prince during this period, and the double-album format found him at leisure to explore whatever styles and ideas came to his fancy. Pick any sequence of songs and you’ll hear an artist pinballing between styles with revelatory skill. ‘The Cross’ stamps its way heavenward as it churns from a power ballad into an ecstatic drone, before ‘It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night’ captures a street carnival at full tilt. The soulful slow jam of ‘Adore’ ends things on a breathless high, and even if it’s a world away from ‘Sign o’ the Times’ itself in terms of topic and aesthetic, it fits as a snug bookend to an album of vivid technicolour.
There are many successful popstars who devote themselves to their work with utmost solemnity, but the best contenders are the ones unafraid of being playful. Sign o’ the Times is a wonderful album, not least because Prince was unafraid of incorporating his sillier ideas into the mix. His strange humour was as integral to his cultural character as his sensuality or fashion credentials. On this record in particular, Prince’s many sides are exposed; he shifts from one mood to another with tangible ecstasy. So it is that ‘Starfish & Coffee’ sits comfortably between two lascivious funk odes to bonking without resembling a sonic gooseberry. The title track takes a sweeping state-of-the-nation stance, lamenting the excesses and tragedies of the era in macro and micro; two songs later, Prince affects a petulant whine and spouts gleeful nonsense (“don’t wait for your neighbour / green eggs and ham!”) over a vault-rumbling beat for ‘Housequake’. Prince’s career was built upon one man playing many parts, and Sign o’ the Times can be heard as a showcase-in-miniature of his talents. It’s too much to claim that any one of Prince’s albums could adequately be cited as his definitive work, but it’s this one which comes closest.
At its core, Sign o’ the Times thrives on the charisma of its auteur. Prince has arguably made more accomplished start-to-finish records, but this is a double-disc whirl through his imagination at its most unbridled, and it makes for a fantastic trip (not to mention a terrifically catchy one). Here is Prince at his peak, showcasing all sides of his personality as well as demonstrating his frankly flabbergasting musicianship across sixteen slabs of gold. This is music from an artist with towering ambition and little in the way of inhibitions, sounding cooler than you could ever hope to be, even at its goofiest. And in an age when “you turn on the telly and every other channel is tellin’ you somebody died”, Sign o’ the Times offers seventy-nine minutes of vivacity, inviting us to play in the sunshine, dance the quake, set our minds free – at least for a while. When we know that hard times are coming, it can be comforting to know that at least for now, it’s gonna be a beautiful night.
My Spin on Masterworks: 22 of 25
Hmm… okay. If pressed, I’d say my favourite Radiohead album to date is In Rainbows. It’s a touching, beautifully crafted sequence, and unlike its predecessors, sounds free from all burdens of expectation. There’s barely a trace of grandiloquence in its ten songs, and each one is immediately accessible without sounding comparatively basic by the group’s standards. That said, if I want to marvel at an album’s all-enveloping sonic world, it’s Kid A, no contest: its eerie, otherworldly qualities are still completely transporting. Kicking through my twenties, I’m still finding fresh magic and relevance in The Bends, and this year’s A Moon Shaped Pool is comforting and disquieting in equal measure. Further down the scale, both Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief offer up some sublime moments, but as full-length listens, they’re underwhelming entries. Pablo Honey reflects a young band struggling to settle on an identity, but a few green shoots poke through, hinting at great things to come. I think that about covers everyth – oh, wait. The King of Limbs. I keep forgetting about that one.
Radiohead’s turbulent, ever-evolving catalogue is fascinating to examine. I could happily fill page after page writing about any one of the quintet’s nine existing albums, at least four of which I’d readily class as masterworks, for their own distinctive qualities. So why have I opted for OK Computer as an entry in this series? Or to be more specific, why have I opted to toast the Radiohead album that has been venerated so greatly – and for so long – that surely there’s nothing left to say at this point? Well, it’s precisely because of the deafening clamour of praise surrounding OK Computer that I’ve selected it. The appeal of the album has become slightly drowned out over the years; it’s now saddled with an intimidating amount of hyperbole to the point that it’s surprisingly easy to miss its genuine strengths.
Just as OK Computer is the Radiohead album that’s easiest to praise, it’s also the easiest to criticise. It’s been placed on such a pedestal ever since its release, it has become a clear target for disdain as sceptical listeners attempt to pick holes in what is regularly (and exhaustingly) flaunted as one of the Greatest Albums of All-Time™. In a way, OK Computer has steadily become the album equivalent of a GCSE set text: guitar music’s answer to Lord of the Flies or The Catcher in the Rye. It has been studied endlessly, its observations and ideas regarding human nature have remained staunchly pertinent, it’s a work still widely discussed which continues to prove influential for other artists in the form, and the consensus regarding its greatness is so inescapable that it can paradoxically seem to be a bland choice of favourite. Announce in public that OK Computer is among your most-loved albums, and chances are (especially in this age of hipsterism) you’ll be derided (silently, if not out loud) for such an obvious pick.
As such, it can be tough to connect with OK Computer free from the rhetoric and various attitudes swirling around it: the piercing rebuttals, the bewildering superfan theories, the heavy expectations it’s been lumbered with. It’s a shame, because while an album can undoubtedly be enriched by close attention, there are cases in which the works themselves become tiresome to regard; a state in which OK Computer has undoubtedly been put at risk. So I’m not going to try to defend this record’s perceived shortcomings or highlight striking new surprises hidden in its depths. Instead, I want to celebrate how amazing the album sounds on its own terms, because really, it’s a fantastic listen in and of itself.
There’s a lot folded into OK Computer, and a cursory look at its gestation reveals that its conception was something of a perfect storm. Still uncomfortable with their stratospheric rise to stardom, the band continued to recoil against the commercial machinations of the music industry, shirking anthemic songwriting in favour of stretching the rock song into alternative shapes. Thom Yorke exorcised his bewilderment at modern society in his increasingly sharp lyrics, and sketched out his tentative predictions for the coming millennium – many of which are still salient to this date. His words are occasionally impressionistic, but they capture very human concerns in the face of an increasingly cold and detached age. Anxiety over mankind’s uneasy relationship with ever-advancing technology are spotlighted repeatedly, amid bubbling paranoia, mental and physical deterioration (‘Climbing Up the Walls’ and ‘Let Down’), and the western world’s cutthroat emphasis on efficiency and speed. It closes with Yorke screaming at someone (maybe everyone) to “slow down”. Down in blur of sound and noise, the dust, the screaming, and the yuppies networking, his plea rings out, but whether it’s ultimately heard and processed is not clear.
As with every other work that becomes swamped with hyperbole, it’s possible to give the creators too much credit when assessing the quality of OK Computer. Time after time, Radiohead’s members have exhibited a keen intelligence and passion, but their career has admittedly seen its fair share of coincidences and (un)happy accidents too, not to mention the occasional misstep. But even so, without letting those theories get too detached from credibility, OK Computer articulates the paranoia and alienation that has characterised both the pre- and post-millennial years following its release. The band’s deriders label them as miserablists, but in truth, the group subtly locate the valour of the listener amid the confusion and chaos of modern life. There may be anger directed elsewhere (“we hope that you choke”), but Yorke extends words of compassion and solidarity to the everyman lost amid the tumult: “one day, you’ll know where you are”. ‘Airbag’ and ‘Lucky’ go so far as to cast their protagonists as superheroes, “back to save the universe” in the wake of cataclysm. OK Computer offers a sounding board for individuals who feel disillusioned with society and their place within it.
Above and beneath the words, the music remains incredibly powerful. If The Bends was a firm step forward for the group in terms of musicianship, OK Computer found their chemistry in full flow. Ed O’Brien, Jonny and Colin Greenwood outdo one another repeatedly with headspinning guitar gymnastics and subtle, left-field bass hooks. Philip Selway’s drums are spliced with machine-tooled beats and distorted loops to blur the line between human and technology. The results sound mighty, and there are some strange, subtle mysteries still lurking here and there. What the hell is it making that sighing noise during the coda of ‘Karma Police’? There’s the scree of tiny wails and squeaks that unsettle the second half of ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’, raising a few extra goosebumps in an already-haunting piece. And of course, there are the monstrous shapes and shadows shifting in the background of ‘Climbing Up the Walls’, behind Yorke’s jagged, barely discernible words.
It’s a potent blend of uncomfortable words and questing, forceful music, and instead of the awards and endless discourse, it’s this that keeps us returning to OK Computer. As we know, there’s so much that can be said about this album, and no shortage of commentary or criticism to sift through (ahem). But when all is said and done, the most refreshing thing to do is to cut straight through the wank and just listen to the music, because the strikingly affecting core of OK Computer can be reached with direct engagement. (Re)discover the delicate, crystalline beauty of ‘No Surprises’ and ‘Let Down’, both of which sound as stirring as ever. Check out just how stunning the dense guitar squalls of ‘Airbag’ are, lurching and squealing like rending chrome or shards of glass. There’s the slow-burn wonder of ‘Lucky’, the interwoven humour and grace of ‘Karma Police’, the towering headtrip that is ‘Paranoid Android’. Yes, this is an album of technical mastery and prophetic sentiment, but it’s also abundant in fantastic, creative and passionate songs.
Ultimately, that seems to be the best way to approach OK Computer: listen to it, not as the Greatest Album of the 1990s or whatever, but as the work of a group of people who took the time to articulate their worries for the future and set them to this single disc. Get away from the hype and try to focus on what’s there in the music itself. The punch, beauty, and ache is still there, without the need for any extra noise or commentary. It’s still relevant, still chilling, still wonderful. Stop reading and start listening.
My Spin on Masterworks: 21 of 25
Let England Shake
It would be a severe disservice to Polly Jean Harvey and her illustrious career to disregard her greater body of work in the pursuit of whittling her albums down to just a single definitive masterpiece. Moreover, to argue that her legacy would be of lesser worth had Let England Shake never been released would be outright insulting. Harvey’s iconic and enduring status was confirmed decades prior to the making of her eighth album, and she has cast a long shadow over the musical culture of the late-20th and early-21st centuries. She has been recognised – and deservedly so – with plenty of awards and plaudits in her time, but these gongs (such as the twice-won Mercury Music Prize) are ultimately unnecessary endorsements considering the breadth of her work and her continuous influence on modern artists. In a way, they’re merely signposts to that which is now obvious: PJ Harvey is in a league of her own.
Essays can be (and have been) written that would justify the status of any one of her albums as a modern classic. Looking closer still, to pore over her numerous collaborations, her restless trendsetting in sound and style, and her sharp-eyed take on matters of contemporary and historical significance, it’s clear that valorising one of her achievements over another can seem a little moot. So, in her versatile discography of distinctive treasures – Dry, Rid of Me, To Bring You My Love, White Chalk – why single out Let England Shake? In part, it’s because of all the records in the singer’s catalogue, Let England Shake stands apart most noticeably in the unflagging intensity of its vision, as well as packing the most convincing case for immortality beyond Harvey’s die-hard fans. It’s on this record that Harvey handles huge themes with calm and dexterity, writing music which is seismic in scope but not overwhelming in execution. Unlike some of her earlier offerings, Let England Shake does not strive to be mind-blowing or breathtaking, at least not in a scene-stealing sense. Instead, it is a deliberate and persuasively powerful work, which continues to demand attention after dozens of repeat listens.
Following touring duties for 2007’s White Chalk, Harvey immersed herself in examining the national character of her home country, digging especially deep into England’s military history, the evolution (and lack thereof) of its physical landscapes, and the way the country’s legacy has shifted (and soured) through time. An interview with Bridport News reveals her creative process more thoroughly, but the proof can be heard on even a cursory listen to the album itself: Let England Shake is rich in content, Harvey lacing her research into a cohesive work that isn’t the gruelling chore it would be in shakier hands. It’s one of her greatest abilities: to make records of this sensitivity and intellect look (and sound) simple.
Understandably in the wake of her studies, Harvey’s lyrics proved the starting point for Let England Shake, and the most prominent focus of the record is the Great War, the spectre of which hangs heavily over these twelve songs. Harvey’s perspective shifts back and forth between that of soldiers (“I’ve seen and done things I want to forget”) and a detached commentator amid scenes of unfathomable devastation. However, Harvey demonstrates a clear understanding that the horrors of war require little embellishment beyond the facts, and even when she references moments of truly horrifying violence, her delivery is graceful rather than heavy-handed. The album’s starkest song, ‘All and Everyone’, casts an eye over the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, and the event’s emotional gravity is kept in taut balance: “Death was everywhere / in the air and in the sounds / coming off the mounds / of Bolton’s ridge / oh, Death’s anchorage”. The haunting power of the song is summoned through these terse phrases and Harvey’s own singing voice, which is largely kept to her cut-glass higher register, giving an eerie beauty to her dispatches.
As for its sound, at first Let England Shake can feel a little unusual on the ears, if only because one would expect an album of its nature to sound more discomfiting. In truth, there’s very little drama to the music: no conventional crescendos or centrepieces here, just the occasional spike in tempo (‘Bitter Branches’), or stomping group chants (‘The Words That Maketh Murder’) to punctuate the watery, hazy aesthetic pursued by Harvey’s team. This tight ensemble included Harvey’s longstanding collaborator John Parish, as well as Mick Harvey and producer Flood, and their shared experience gives the album a tangible confidence that never tips into indulgence. Among the central mix of Harvey’s much-loved autoharp, commanding percussion and occasional groans of saxophone, guitars are mixed in murky shades, oftentimes sounding as though they are played underwater, or veiled behind thick curtains of fog. The uniform sound that emerges insistently creeps under the skin: it’s off-kilter but not otherworldly, sounding drawn from the past while never wholly familiar.
Those keen to pin down Harvey’s words to particular moments can find concrete references with additional searching, but generally, these songs are blurry around the finer details; never giving the listener a single linear path to follow. “The West’s asleep,” Harvey announces over the increasingly sinister prance of the title track; “let England shake.” It’s a terrific opening gambit that has life beyond one ascribed meaning, and it’s one of many phrases lodged throughout Let England Shake that can be picked out at will, and moulded to fit a particular notion. Harvey’s bold and penetrating look at her country’s history is rendered in broad strokes, many of which ring with additional potency in the wake of events following the album’s release. Her snarl of “goddamn Europeans / take me back to beautiful England” harks back to the trenches of the Western Front, but it also now queasily summons thoughts of Brexit and the troubling nationalism of modern Britain. With each new listen, Let England Shake reveals new layers of complexity, throwing up strikingly vivid imagery one moment before smudging away any specifics the next.
And when her language is kept clear and direct, the results are striking. Landscapes are represented in their contrasting beauty and brutality: in surveying the cliffs and coasts of Dorset, Harvey takes note of “jagged mountains, jutting out / cracked like teeth in a rotten mouth”, while during ‘The Last Living Rose’ her narrator pines for the “stinking alleys” and “grey, damp filthiness” of home. The stunning ‘Hanging in the Wire’ conjures its scenery not just through words but in its music; its delicate piano flutters hinting at faint glimmers of sunlight through iron-grey clouds. Mostly, Harvey evokes distinctly English pastoral landscapes, to the effect of giving these songs a timelessness that comes uncomfortably close to skirting romance. Harvey herself addresses this tense mingling of love and hate on the song ‘England’, claiming her country “leaves a taste / a bitter one”, though she ultimately professes “undaunted, never-failing love” for her homeland, in spite of the damage it has seen and wrought.
With Anglophilia still rife among musicians on an international scale, and considering the country’s social divisions that are more apparent than ever in the wake of Brexit, what is it that makes an “English record”? More than any of her peers, Harvey has produced perhaps the best outline of England’s character over the past century. Across the many layers of Let England Shake, we are given a study of the country’s battle scars and proud heritage, its awful losses and appallingly cruel machinations at home and overseas, and the gloom, beauty, and brutality of the land itself. This canvas may be broad, but this means it is open to be studied from many angles: a state-of-the-nation address, a tribute to those directly involved in England’s military operations, a love letter to the landscapes forged across millennia and frequently defined by the blood spilled on – and for – its soil.
There are rewards to be found whatever the lens one chooses to apply. And most hauntingly, it’s an album which poses to its listener perturbing questions of humanity. When looking closely into the horrors and cruelty reported on Let England Shake, Harvey returns the gaze of her audience in piercing kind, and – as has been the case for twenty-five years and counting – she refuses to blink first.