The War On Drugs
A Deeper Understanding (Atlantic)
An artist’s progression is measured in baby steps and giant leaps. As a career unfurls through the years, improvements can appear incrementally, each new release refining a winning formula with gratifying results, while hinting that there is even better to come. On the other side of the coin is the breakthrough moment, when all previously noted potential spectacularly clicks into place, yielding a magical sweet spot that is harvested for the duration of one blissful album. Both ascendancies – the steady bloom and the firework show – are rewarding to follow, but navigating the aftermath of the latter can be a particularly tough prospect. Bottling lightning is one thing, but maintaining – or replicating – its revelatory properties is the real test of mettle.
Take The War On Drugs: in the months preceding the release of A Deeper Understanding, it was hard to imagine Adam Granduciel and pals being able to raise the bar any higher following their sublime third album. Lost in the Dream is one of those inimitable creations, its ten songs accumulating to transport the listener to a shimmering sonic universe, in which a decade’s worth of heartland tributes and technical obsessiveness came to stunning apotheosis. The project’s status rocketed from generally respected to universally praised: many a publication held up Lost in the Dream as the best album of 2014, and for my part, I’d say it’s strong enough to stand as an all-time favourite. The attention Lost in the Dream accrued was thoroughly deserved, but as the dust settled, it was clear it would cast a long shadow over whatever was to follow.
It comes as a relief that The War On Drugs have crafted a record that keeps in lane without feeling like it’s merely making the same circuits. Granduciel and his team immerse themselves deeper than ever into sonic lushness on A Deeper Understanding, another horizon-chasing journey of a record that is sometimes profound, occasionally winding, and never less than gorgeous across its 66 minutes. The keywords surrounding the music are revealing in their familiarity: this is wistful rock music hewn from 80s Americana, retooled with genuine sincerity as opposed to bald nostalgia or irony. There’s a little more brightness and clarity following the enveloping haze of its predecessor, but wistful yearning and ruminations on isolation continue to balance the effect.
If this all sounds old hat, there’s nothing soulless or manipulative in execution. We’ve heard many of these tricks before, but they’re given fresh heart by the group’s earnest approach, and the opening stretch is flush with some of The War On Drugs’ best songs to date. As ever with Granduciel at the controls, everything interlocks with precision: each instrument pristine in the mix and serving to complement its partners. The guitars that plume through the final stretch of ‘Pain’ leave vapour trails in their magisterial wake, while the waves of synthesisers chopping beneath the storms of ‘Strangest Thing’ are goosebump-raisingly powerful. And then there’s ‘Holding On’: the wonderful lead single that goes galloping after the sun, Granduciel wresting himself from the past with an ache that gathers pathos at the same rate that the song does momentum. Over sparkling glockenspiel and gleaming slide guitar, it may be the most perfect summation of the band’s specialism to date: it encapsulates in form and content the urge to keep moving while never quite leaving the past behind. In its final eighty seconds, you can practically see the road markings rushing by beneath the tyres.
Even in the cloudier moments of the record’s second half, the attention to craft is palpable; the pulse of the percussion precisely to time, guitars twangs complemented by piano curlicues just so. The songs are given greater immediacy by Granduciel’s vocals, which aren’t buried as deeply as on previous work. When considering his past struggles, his shrug-off of concern with a hurried “I’ve been doing alright” during the loping ‘Clean Living’ is surprisingly moving, and on the following ‘You Don’t Have to Go’, he lets a little more intimacy slip into his delivery. It’s the dewy-eyed closer one would expect: the instrumentation steadily blossoming into a starry climax that’s custom-built to reverberate longingly into stadium rafters or festival skies. Lyrically, plenty of room is set aside for the requisite references to Granduciel’s time-honoured touchstones: winds of change, the break of dawn, distant trains and an endless horizon.
In fact, if there are shortcomings to be found in A Deeper Understanding, they mostly stem from Granduciel’s songwriting. The frontman has always been more adept at capturing moods through rotating images, rather than carefully articulated insights. On A Deeper Understanding, this tendency is pushed to its utmost, with his earnestness bearing the occasional wheezy platitude. Yet while the frontman won’t be winning poetry awards any time soon, his words do succeed at mirroring and bolstering the grand emotional canvas of the music itself. His overreaching paeans to the sky, the sea, and the road are cradled by pillowy noise that’s deep enough to swim in, and in a sense, this continues to be one of the group’s greatest weapons: conveying emotion through music when words won’t do. A Deeper Understanding is brimming with moments of paramount sonic beauty, when Granduciel’s perfectionism brings stunning results across the mix.
Although Lost in the Dream is more focused and potent in its emotional journey, its glorious shimmer wracked with palpable anxiety, A Deeper Understanding is a worthy sibling. It’s bound less tightly as a whole, but in its standout moments, it comfortably rivals anything Granduciel and his bandmates have achieved to date. The title is drawn from ‘Pain’, in a moment when Granduciel pleads “pull me close and let me hold you in / Give me the deeper understanding of who I am.” With his band’s MO rooted in immaculately-rendered yearning, Granduciel may never find such illumination. But as the stunning sweep of The War On Drugs’ music makes clear, there’s great beauty to be found on the search, and for now, they’re wise to continue taking the long way home.
“I resist what I cannot change / And I want to find what can’t be found.”
Queens of the Stone Age
By my reckoning, … Like Clockwork is a goddamn magnificent album, and I will fight anybody who disagrees. (At the very least, there will be a lot of muttering and grumbling.) For Queens of the Stone Age’s sixth record, Josh Homme and his merry band of desert sleazeballs turned in their most engaging, textured music for a decade, while breaking new emotional ground in their songwriting. It’s an album pockmarked by raw wounds, stitches and scars; the sound of Homme peering long and hard into more troubling places than is usual for this chieftain of hedonistic capering. While hardly jaunty, the result was a spectacular entry into the Queens canon: a coherent and powerful sequence that gave form to the struggles between Homme’s near-death experience and the rebuilding of a band that has seldom sounded so full of intent. Which naturally begged the eventual question, where to next?
To the dancefloor, obviously. Homme has always been a songwriter in touch with a keen sense of swing, even if said affinity is frequently hidden behind hard-rock bombast. His newly minted kinship with Mark Ronson needn’t cause as much of a stir as it has seemed to among Queens’ more hotheaded fans – those purists of rock machismo who are resolute in their disdain for agents of chart-topping earworms. But in truth, the two artists in collaboration should make a terrific fit: Homme’s penchant for propulsive grooves given a chance to gleam under the eye of a funk-loving producer outside of Queens’ inner circle. And absolutely, the first signs seemed to posit Villains as a well-judged flipside to its freighted predecessor: an escape, in Homme’s words, from “the bullshit of the day”.
For the most part, that’s how Queens’ seventh album hangs together, although the execution doesn’t always live up to expectations. Villains finds Homme shrugging loose much of the thematic weight of … Like Clockwork in favour of footloose debauchery, the album’s sound and style liberally splashed with cartoonish touches of the gleefully sinister. The curtain is raised to magnificent effect by ‘Feet Don’t Fail Me’, a walloping stomp-along that attains an orgiastic level of release after its extended introduction, bouncing irresistibly on foundations of wah-wah guitars and B-movie synthesisers. It may be the most perfect realisation yet of Homme’s utopian ideal: a union of the heavy, the sexy, and the goofy. It’s matched at the back-end of Villains by ‘The Evil Has Landed’, a breathless six-minute rush through a gallery of tumbling riffs that concludes in a classic Queens jive. Far from stodgy showboating, these highlights are distinguished by a looseness, the band’s classic rock heroics buoyed by a genuine sense of fun.
Yet there are several cuts on which Homme moves beyond smash-and-grab goodness. Closer ‘Villains of Circumstance’ is hardly a tearjerker, but the tenderness beneath its (surprisingly lovely) shuffle is earnest, as Homme calls out to his long-distance “hostage of geography” at a moment when the road seems particularly long and wearying. Better still is ‘Fortress’, which recalls 2007’s ‘Into the Hollow’ with its rougher edges smoothed out into something far more effective. Allegedly a song that Homme wrestled with for some time in the writing process, it’s a softer gem amid the rough-and-tumble of Villains; Troy van Leeuwen’s spacey synths picking out the bruises in this bare-chested entreaty for solidarity. It’s a terrific outlier on the album, and a successful palate-cleanser before the mine cart ride of ‘Head Like a Haunted House’, which careens at breakneck speed from one pulpy hook to the next.
Aside from a few lulls here and there, Villains is buttressed by sturdy songwriting, but Ronson’s presence as co-producer ultimately proves to be both a blessing and a curse. His taut, tidy approach gives a fitting sheen to Queens’ gaudy charm, but there are a handful of songs which suffer from sounding overly tempered: their harder-edged thrills sanded down to the point of detriment. ‘The Way You Used to Do’ particularly suffers from this malaise. It’s easy to imagine Queens completely nailing its snappy strut in a live atmosphere, but the studio version is just crying out to kick into a higher gear. Jon Theodore’s otherwise superb drumming is sidelined and drained of visceral impact, and when the gnarled guitar licks launch anew with each verse, I can’t help but wish Ronson had let the temperature flare up beyond the factory setting.
It’s a shame that these occasional missteps in production and pacing detract from the vitality of Villains, but it remains a pleasingly loose-limbed listen, riddled with melodic flourishes and charged with enough vigour to sate Queens’ devotees. It stands as the group’s most confident bound towards the disco inferno yet, with Homme’s inner Bowie given an enjoyable airing, and for the most part, it’s an environment that suits them well. And in a final analysis, for a group that’s been in this game for more than two decades, that’s a pretty heroic feat.
“Life is hard, that’s why no-one survives.”
There’s been so much to listen to (and write about) this year, and I’ve clearly been so overwhelmed by it all I’ve let album reviews fall by the wayside. For what it’s worth, as 2017 enters its final third, I’ve picked out ten albums that have been close companions across the past eight months. As always, this list is by no means exhaustive, and there’s plenty out there that I’ve not put my ears to just yet, but as a capsule for the right-here right-now, here are a handful of my favourites. More recommendations / disagreements encouraged!
Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
Pure Comedy was possibly my most-anticipated album of 2017 when the year began, and almost immediately it proved to split opinion among Father John Misty’s disciples. In retrospect, it seems obvious that a 75-minute opus rooted in plodding tempos and generally skeletal compositions from an infamously prickly provocateur should only settle for a love-or-hate response.
And yes, it’s pretty tough finding an adequate window in which to take in the numerous diatribes of Pure Comedy, but it adds up to a worthwhile experience. More so than the comparatively frenzied I Love You, Honeybear, the songs of Pure Comedy achieve greater power when heard as sections of the whole: each specific moral and biological calamity that is registered is joined by yet another, until the full grotesquerie of modern humanity is laid bare. And yet in many ways, Pure Comedy is bold not for its uncompromising finger-wagging, but for how genuine it sounds coming from Josh Tillman. The singer’s irony remains, but it sounds worn wafer-thin over time: the screaming laughter finally giving way to a screaming pain. Tillman is a prisoner to a lot of the same doubts and guilt as many of us, yet he articulates them with a striking acuity.
The Clincher: After all entreaties for reason and justice have shattered against the weight of a ruthless system, ‘So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain’ rolls in: a gorgeous swell that rises over and out of the chaos below.
“It occurs to him a little late in the game / We leave as clueless as we came.”
Future Islands – The Far Field
There have been better albums this year than The Far Field, and in full honesty, I felt pretty crestfallen during its first few spins. It’s an album on which Future Islands double down on their formula of pacesetting bass melodies and pillowy synths, and stick to it for forty-five glossy, though repetitious minutes. At first, I didn’t think it had the same punch as their previous two records, and individual songs don’t burst forth from the collection as they did on the magnificent Singles.
But after letting it settle for several months, and witnessing the group’s miraculous live abilities, The Far Field has won my heart. Beneath its surface pleasantness, it is an album of earnestly-felt melancholy, transmitted as Samuel T. Herring wrestles more closely with the demons that have clung to him down the years. With increasing intensity, he attempts to throw off or talk down the “shadows” that plague him: the various failures and guilt that he recognises in himself that consistently led him to re-evaluate his own character. These aren’t flailing anthems to rival ‘Seasons’ and its ilk, but the sincerity that charges every minute of The Far Field grows more apparent with each listen; those dependable instrumentations buttressing Herring’s lung-dredging cries. Sometimes a group’s flaws are why we hold them even closer to our hearts, and it is thus that even when The Far Field lulls, it still twinkles.
The Clincher: The pure perfection of ‘Shadows’, as Debbie Harry swoops in to soothe Herring’s hangdog howl. It’s a moment of hard-won catharsis that glows brighter for the frayed emotions that precede it.
“I’m no stronger than you and I’m scared.”
Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness
There are some albums that vibrate with urgency, albums that you can just tell you’re going to fall in love with. This year, I’ve recognised that anticipatory crackle about a surprising number of new records, and they have predictably and comfortably slotted snugly into my personal favourites. Julie Byrne’s Not Even Happiness, on the other hand, steadily and stealthily wound its way to my heart, and now I may well cradle it more than anything else I’ve heard this year. Succinct and spare in its design, Not Even Happiness most closely resembles a travelogue; the sound of Byrne taking stock of her perpetual transience, travelling through spaces familiar and alien with her father’s guitar.
Yet this is so much more than a tour diary, and it’s her mild observations of the everyday sublime that linger and percolate: a cloud drifting over amber fields, the disproportionate ache felt when somebody leaves the room. It’s a supremely graceful exercise of vocalising the stray, ephemeral feelings that pass in and out of our days. Not Even Happiness is a special album, one which simultaneously slows down and blots out the rest of the world, holding me in a keenly private hold. Byrne doesn’t need to shout to catch your attention; she commands it thoroughly with the softest of whispers.
The Clincher: The album’s centrepiece ‘Natural Blue’ is simply breathtaking. With only the softest embellishments of strings and bass, Byrne’s voice conjures a vast sky, fields spanning forever in every direction. It’s a beautiful place to be.
“I’ve been called heartbreaker for doing justice to my own.”
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Don’t play chicken with Kendrick Lamar. Where To Pimp a Butterfly was hurled like a grenade, DAMN. drops the pin and holds tight for as long as it dares. It’s a frenzy, an album that skirts self-destruction in its pursuit of greater auctoritas. A friend described DAMN. as a “mood album” to Butterfly’s “statement album”, and without putting too fine a point on things, that comment carries a lot of truth for me. To Pimp a Butterfly felt like a definitive cap to Lamar’s ascension: the oh-shit-how-do-we-follow-this? gauntlet that set an impossibly high bar for rappers and songwriters in all corners. On DAMN., Lamar turns further inward, resulting in music of greater complexity while its focus becomes more abstract.
Lamar is self-aware enough to recognise he’s at the top of his game, and he welcomes all daps, slays all who dare to rival him, and savours the ludicrous honours he has earned even while satirising them with venom. Simultaneously, he registers the fragility of his position and the web of cracks that could rupture beneath him at any moment, continuing to contest his own personal history and that of the United States. DAMN. is outright volatile in Lamar’s refusal to meet expectations, the songs rumbling on with unpredictable jags into distortion and smoothness, Lamar choosing to embrace risks instead of more-of-the-same, no matter how rewarding the latter would doubtlessly prove. There’s plenty to unpack and plenty of ways to read into DAMN., but there’s no one way to dissect a masterpiece, and Lamar’s aware of that just as much as we are.
The Clincher: ‘Duckworth’. Listen to it as the last track, or flip DAMN. on its head and take it as the opener. Whichever way, it’s a thunderbolt of storytelling and a haunting glimpse into the headspace of rap’s undisputed king.
“My left stroke just went viral / Right stroke put li’l baby in a spiral.”
Lorde – Melodrama
I have a lot of time for Pure Heroine. True, the notorious hype bubble could easily have burst its chances for survival, and some of the cuts could have done with further fine-tuning before the album’s over-eager release. Even so, it’s a steely debut, and has proven to have a solid shelf-life since its arrival in 2013. I’ve since been waiting for Melodrama to confirm Lorde’s savviness as a wunderkind of modern pop music: after skyrocketing to the forefront of left-field pop several years ago, would she fall or fly in the face of success’ long-term demands?
Happily, Melodrama is pulled off with aplomb, expanding on the promise of Pure Heroine while contracting its scope. The wry commentaries on teenage ennui and societal expectations are mostly gone (echoed most noticeably on the doomy crackle of ‘Homemade Dynamite’): instead we have confident assertions of embracing oneself, whether triggered by romantic cataclysm or the pains of growing up in public. Rather than disappear down the rabbit-hole of celebrity self-obsession, Lorde has kept her poise and delivered a healthy clutch of songs that are simultaneously catchy and queasy: the euphoria of youth’s final blazing bound up with angry swipes at the darker symptoms of an upwards rush to stardom. Melodrama isn’t a masterpiece, but considering her brittle MO, Lorde never promised us one, and credit to her for going her own way.
The Clincher: On ‘Homemade Dynamite’, Lorde unites her archetypal penchant for kiss-off sarcasm with the bubbling disquiet that characterises much of Melodrama. Complete with explosions (of a sort).
“What the fuck are perfect places anyway?”
Perfume Genius – No Shape
Seventy seconds into Perfume Genius’ fourth album, Mike Hadreas yanks the velvety rug from under our feet and goes for broke on a colossal, shimmering wall of sound that’s equal parts heavenly rapture and shit-your-pants provocation. It’s one of the most arresting opening gambits of the year so far, and it perfectly tees up No Shape: a record that squirms away from easy categorisation as it embarks on a series of dalliances with styles from all over the spectrum. There are majestic hymnals soaked in strings, thunderous tirades of justified rage, and strutting showcases that both strike and soothe the listener, each offering in dialogue with Hadreas’ personal and artistic past.
The kicker is that they’re all pulled off so dazzlingly, the chemistry of the album’s sequencing generating sparks as each song collides with the next. Holding it all together is Hadreas, whose delivery has never sounded so open-chested, his dramatic range swooping from forlorn lows to stratospheric highs at the drop of a hat. No Shape is a treasure chest brimming with magic, and the temptation to dive in again and again only grows stronger with each new listen.
The Clincher: It has to be ‘Otherside’, in how it mainlines the naked beauty of Hadreas’ previous projects, before the coin flips and the titanic confidence of No Shape bursts forth in red-eyed defiance.
“I’m here / How weird.”
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3
El-P and Killer Mike saved Christmas after a particularly shitty 2016: Run the Jewels 3 was the miracle that landed in the world’s stockings at the end of a year which severely tested our faith in all that is good and pure. But given RTJ3 made its official bow in January, I’m counting it among the class of 2017. And that sucks for the other artists in contention, because it’s hard to imagine finding a more compulsively listenable record than this any day soon.
RTJ3 is a smart, fast, ferocious beast of an album that sees the magical chemistry of El-P and Killer Mike reach heavenly levels of kush-clouded telepathy. Furiously charismatic, the duo weave around one another’s bars like excited terriers, as likely to square up to the villainous masters of western culture as they are to brag about their banana dicks (“your bitch go apeshit if she hit it”). As with RTJ2, this is an album of assured quality and consistency, yet where their sophomore is brash and squat in its brutality, RTJ3 is streamlined and a few shades less combustible. Yet Run the Jewels’ music still burns with intent and purpose, and their legendary status has found a new level of credence. Stay gold.
The Clincher: Even in a stellar run of bangers that have never been less than formidable, ‘Thursday in the Danger Room’ is unparalleled in its compassionate power. On an album of anger, unity, and rallying cries, ‘Thursday…’ finds both emcees paying tribute to friends lost to the world’s casual cruelty. What results is a flooring piece of work; the instrumentation glorious (aided by Kamasi Washington, no less), but truly, it’s the lyrics – and their gut-punching delivery – that elevates this to the status of masterpiece.
“Hell coming and we got about a mile / Until it’s over I remain hostile.”
Sampha – Process
After years of standing in the wings, bolstering the work of artists who have been accruing widespread recognition in the past decade, Sampha Sisay stepped into the light with Process, a record defined by its open fragility even when its beats rise to occasional cacophony. The subversion of stoicism may be a staple of music from any genre by now, but there’s still remarkable power to be found when the source is mined with integrity, rather than for bald manipulation.
In sound, Process grows from the ground up. Sampha creates shifting, layered soundscapes that build hypnotically, the likes of ‘Kora Sings’ and ‘Under’ composed of similar tissue as that of peers James Blake and SBTRKT, but Sampha’s heartfelt lyricism firmly sets his work apart. His tributes to his deceased mother, his half-remembered upbringing, and his own work and health threaten to be overwhelming in concept, but he articulates his emotional turbulence with care, the lumps in his throat genuine but not saccharine. Most of all, it’s his mother’s presence – registered through absence – that Process orbits, and it’s the sadness between holding on and letting go that magnifies the heart of the album and its author alike.
The Clincher: It’s been commonly identified as the core of his record, and for good reason. ‘(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano’ is a song to be treasured, lo-fi and immaculate all at once. Sampha’s tender vocal twinned with those fluttering keys conveys a private anguish that has finally cooled, but will never leave.
“You would show me I had something some people call a soul.”
Most artistic visionaries are so intimidating in nous and so intense in character that the notion of holding a normal conversation seems impossibly tricky. Can’t say I’d know how to share a few beers with Kate Bush. Conversely, it’s easy to imagine joining Stephen ‘Thundercat’ Bruner for a few scoops: his music encompasses such a range of topics that even considering that the man creates music of such splendorous fusion, he’s the sort of guy who’s just as comfortable cracking fart jokes or writing paeans to his cat.
Drunk is Bruner’s most idiosyncratic project to date, its sprawling tracklist glued together with outstanding displays of saucer-eyed dexterity. Ideas spill out of it like marbles spinning away from a run. Rubbing up against the luxuriant funk throwbacks and technicolour soul, his lyrics convey his own recent struggles and grief, counterweighted by videogame humour and riffs on anime body horror. The overall effect is head-spinning, but the sprawling mess is hard to resist thanks to Bruner’s knack for a hip-swivelling groove. By pinballing from darkness to daftness and successfully doing justice to each, Drunk makes for a weird-ass trip. For God’s sake take it.
The Clincher: The weird, trippy vortex of ‘Jameel’s Space Ride’, when the very strange collides with the very serious.
“Thank God for technology ’cause where would we be if we couldn’t Tweet our thoughts?
Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
Vince Staples has played a steady game since his first team-ups with Odd Future, and his gradual ascension both belies and is informed by his relative youth. With his unflinching gaze and disdain for bullshit in any form, Staples has no time to waste. The world’s creaking at the seams. There’s work to be done.
Staples hits hardest in his takedown of the poisonousness of imposed labels, and the ugly entitlement that can quickly grow out of them like mould. Big Fish Theory fittingly lands like a sucker-punch, its bloodied fists hidden inside its crisp, club-friendly production. Its sound is kinetic and instantaneous but also unsettling, and borderline hallucinatory at times. Amidst his compressed polemics, Staples welcomes a smart roster of guests who drift in and out of his swirling thoughts with ephemeral ghostliness. The voice of Amy Winehouse surfaces as a wrenching reminder of the mercilessness of the industry and the methodical victimisation of talent, which grounds Staples’ furious tirades against the crabs we’re surrounded by in this bucket. A fish can’t grow any bigger than the bowl it’s dropped into, or so we’ve been told. With his second album, Staples’ own trappings are already straining to hold him.
The Clincher: ‘Yeah, Right’, on which – with a little help from Kendrick Lamar – Staples holds a lighter to the inflammable braggadocio of his lifeblood, to raise something new from the ashes.
“Adam, Eve, apple trees / Watch out for the snakes baby.”
Cambridge Corn Exchange (01/07/17)
Cards on the table, I’ve barely scratched the surface in discovering what modern musicians are capable of, but even so, it would take a monstrously detailed and impassioned argument to convince me that there’s a greater living frontman than Samuel T. Herring. And even if such a thesis was presented to me, I’d probably just counter with “yeah, but have you seen Future Islands live?” Because if you haven’t, then you’ll want to amend that as soon as possible. Listen (again) to the swelling, lung-dredging fervour that drives the likes of ‘Spirit’ and ‘Tin Man’. Now imagine the dials turned up even higher; the experience of witnessing such hurricanes of emotional outpouring in person. In the flesh, Herring is much more than a singer: he’s a force of nature, hellbent on reaching out to every single mind and body present in each audience. The man is a dragon.
Future Islands’ show at the Cambridge Corn Exchange (belatedly added to their exhaustive European tour, as the group made the hop from Belgium to Ireland) was surely a treat for all present, but for my sister and myself, it bordered on miraculous. Even given the group’s glowing reputation, we never expected the show to reach such magnificent heights. By the time the ecstatic ‘Ran’ rushed to a close, sweat was trickling from what looked to be every pore of Herring’s face. His forehead was gushing like a spring within the space of three songs, and in the space of two more, his whole shirt was sodden, moisture dripping from his elbows as he threw himself from one corner of the stage to another, his eyes never leaving the rapturous crowd.
Overwhelming perspiration is merely the most apparent symptom of just how much Herring pours into every single performance. Even his now-legendary display on the Late Show in 2014 doesn’t fully capture the extent of his animation onstage. The same fundamentals remained present and correct, but what was more palpable were the deep reserves of compassion and complexity powering those vocals and gestures. Herring pummelled his chest as if attempting to exorcise some great beast from his own lungs. His blazing eyes roved the crowd, locking and holding his gaze for prolonged intervals as he attempted to find a connection with as many individuals as possible. He flung himself onto the stage in belly-flops, leapt into high-kicks with remarkable elasticity, wrapped his mouth around his entire fist. He shrieked and yowled like a man possessed, looming and growling and towering over the audience, turning on a dime from manic to tender and back again, as starry-eyed synth-pop wept alongside him.
It was an incredible spectacle, yet charged with such great nuance and intense personal feeling that there’s no adequate way to do justice to his showmanship. It’s hard to fake such a reckoning of emotion and energy, especially considering that the length of the set stretched to a Herculean 100 minutes. And this isn’t to say that Herring’s bandmates were lacking in panache; William Cashion, Gerrit Welmers, and touring drummer Michael Lowry may have been much more outwardly stoic, but their taut, precise playing kept the show anchored and rich in melody. The sound was crystal-clear; to hear aching gems such as ‘A Dream of You and Me’ and the stunning ‘A Song For Our Grandfathers’ take flight was worth the price of admission. Welmers’ keys oscillated between pillowy and piercing as the urgency of the show dipped and peaked; Lowry hammered his kit with the recklessness of a John Bonham disciple, and Cashion’s melodic bass runs gave the night its backbone: the nucleus around which all else orbited. With over 1,000 shows in their wake, Future Islands are a well-oiled machine, able to leap from a simmer to full boil without breaking a sweat (with the obvious exception of one member).
Considering the sheer energy demanded of Herring for even a single song, it was revelatory that the pace of the evening never once flagged across twenty-four songs, democratically drawn from their whole catalogue. A chorus of hecklers repeatedly demanding ‘Beach Foam’ got their wish late in the game (“this is for all you motherfuckers who will not shut up” Herring growled, with a wink), and the scorchingly intimate ‘Little Dreamer’ capped the night with an atmosphere of hushed reverence. When the group finally left the stage – the frontman mopping his whole head with a towel that was surely well-past saturated – the venue still wouldn’t cool, fans pinballing around the hall, attempting to summon from within themselves guttural rasps to match those of Herring. The thrill held in the air like humidity; stepping out into the night was like returning from a different world, shaking ourselves out of a mesmeric funk.
My advice to everybody for whom it is feasible is to go and see Future Islands whenever the opportunity next arises. As pleasant as their recorded music can be, witnessing Herring’s ferocity – and sharing that experience in an audience of exultant fans – is utterly transporting. Don’t walk. Run.
Grease // Aladdin // Ran // A Dream of You and Me // Beauty of the Road // Time on Her Side // Walking Through That Door // Balance // Before the Bridge // Light House // Doves // North Star // A Song for Our Grandfathers // Through the Roses // Seasons (Waiting On You) // Cave // Inch of Dust // Long Flight // Tin Man // Spirit // Black Rose // Beach Foam // Vireo’s Eye // Little Dreamer
O2 Forum, Kentish Town (30/06/17)
In naming Spoon the Perennial Four-Star Band, I am being in no way disparaging. Across a career that spans almost a quarter-decade, the ever-rotating team of Austin indie-rockers have steadily built themselves a reputation as the safest set of hands in modern guitar music. Every few years, Spoon will drop a record that may not blow (or change) minds, but will undoubtedly pop with terrifically tight songwriting, and sparkle with innovative studio wizardry. Within the standard parameters of guitar-keys-drums-bass, Britt Daniel and co. are able to run the gamut from skeletal riff-rock to pocket psychedelia, occasionally souping up the engine with funk, disco, and bluesy modifications, sounding fresh and coherent all the while. Not only is reliability among the band’s greatest assets, Spoon have also turned it into something positively sexy.
As you’d expect from such a CV, and with many years and miles on the road behind them, Spoon do not disappoint when it comes to live spectacle. The O2 Forum in Kentish Town may seem like a modest venue for such stalwarts, but in truth it’s the perfect home for a group whose music has always lingered on the periphery of the mainstream: always too sharp and self-aware to make a grab for sold-out success, but captivating enough to continue accumulating a devoted following as the albums pile up. As such, the majority of those in attendance seem to be disciples rather than casual fans here for a glimpse. In a setlist comprised entirely of bankable favourites, it’s interesting to chart those which receive the most audible adulation from the crowd. In this instance, it’s the crop of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga cuts towards the set’s close, as well as Kill the Moonlight‘s only look-in, the terse ‘Stay Don’t Go’.
Daniel himself is in magnificently fine voice from the first, his signature yowl rising to rebound from the rafters as ‘Do I Have to Talk You Into It’ and ‘I Ain’t the One’ reach their impassioned refrains. He’s a magnetic presence onstage; clad in a skinny-fit suit jacket, seemingly impervious to the room’s rising swelter, his gangly frame and angular features as engaging to follow as his voice is electrifying to hear. Daniel isn’t one for brazen showboating, but he retools the swagger of rock mythology with his deft range of tones; concealing heated passions behind an untouchable cool. At this stage too, his bandmates feel sturdier than ever as a unit. Fairly recent inductee Alex Fischel is now an integral contributor to the Spoon machine, and likewise Rob Pope and Jim Eno prove that it’s the group’s rhythm section as much as Daniel’s presence that keep the show oozing charm and dexterity.
With nine albums’ worth of material to cherry-pick from, every song launches like a firework, and aside from a rather baffling keyboard wig-out following the starry-eyed ‘Do You’, in which all members leave the stage save for Fischel, the set rattles along at a furiously brisk pace, songs snapping into position like Lego bricks the size of boulders. The transition from ‘The Underdog”s jaunty swing to the simmering urgency of ‘Rainy Taxi’, or the breakneck sprint through ‘Rent I Pay’, ‘Can I Sit Next to You’ and ‘Stay Don’t Go’ demonstrate a team of artists operating in near-telepathic synergy, and when they seriously nail a groove such as that of Hot Thoughts‘ title track, the experience is electrifying.
Although such a huge catalogue of work does mean that any set that Spoon curate will inevitably feel lacking in one or two diamonds, after decades in the game, these guys know how to work a room with supreme confidence. Readily surrender your ears, but be warned: they might just take your soul too.
Do I Have to Talk You Into It // Inside Out // I Turn My Camera On // Rent I Pay // Can I Sit Next to You // Stay Don’t Go // Don’t You Evah // Do You // Via Kannela // I Ain’t the One // Anything You Want // My Mathematical Mind // Don’t Make Me a Target // The Underdog // Rainy Taxi // Black Like Me // I Summon You // Hot Thoughts // Got Nuffin
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.”