How simple: ten albums that I’ve been playing to oblivion in the first half of 2018. Check back in a handful of months and we’ll see if they’re still top o’ the pile!
Against All Logic
Nicolas Jaar’s savvily assembled pick n’ mix of tunes that were thrown together amid his numerous other projects is chock full of the good stuff. From the opening booms and lithe licks of ‘This Old House is All I Have’, these eleven cuts are stitched together into something more than a mere grab-bag thanks to the uniform density of Jaar’s production and some effortlessly sharp sequencing. 2012-2017 dresses its hi-hat-happy beats with terrific funk and soul samples that shine a reverent light on the original material, rather than merely deploying them for window dressing or crate-digger credit. On ‘I Never Dream’, the irresistibly ecstatic vocals cascade while the rhythms tumble ever onwards, ‘Now U Got Me Hooked’ nearly steals the whole show with its magical utilisation of the Dramatics, and closer ‘Rave On U’ glitters like a lost cut from Caribou’s Our Love. These are fluid, visceral dance tracks packaged with taste and luxuriantly stretched out like so much taffy. Logic may be defied, but these tunes can’t be denied.
“A little bit of your love was all it took.”
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
A tremendous stylistic reconfiguration and an assured leap forward for Sheffield’s finest, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino elevates them from stadium-conquering goliaths to something even more precious: a squad of musicians you can genuinely put your trust in for the long run. Still charming, still tight, still clearly besotted with melodies and the potential dynamics of wordplay, Arctic Monkeys have made a record that rewards the faithful, one that offers fresh treasures with each new deep dive. I was lucky enough to experience their spectacular show at the Royal Albert Hall at the beginning of June, and what stood out was how well songs from all six of their records orbit one another when taken in a mixture; each unexpected segue a reminder of how much ground Arctic Monkeys have covered since their debut – and how fertile that ground has proven to be. For its part, Tranquility Base is the kind of album you can inhabit for days, wandering from room to room and basking in the charms and moody allure of each. The final circuits of ‘Four Out of Five’, the wonderful swoon of ‘American Sports’, the slow-burning release of ‘The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip’… Cute new gracenotes keep on popping up, and keep me coming back for more.
“You push the button and we’ll do the rest.”
Knock Knock is a wondrous cabinet of curiosities from the much-admired producer, aided by a healthy store of intriguing samples and a cast of guest vocalists who wander in and out seemingly at will. The sprawling sixteen tracks here find DJ Koze merrily drawing from hip hop, soul, dream-pop, folk and disco, each cut braided with peculiarities and hooks that are best appreciated in headphones. Because while the easiest label to plaster on Knock Knock is “dance music”, it’s a collection for the listener’s own interior dancefloor, with only a few stray cuts (the straightforwardly fun ‘Pick Up’, the jabbing chords and warped vocals of ‘Illumination’) propulsive enough to sound comfortable in a conventional playlist. Instead, this is a kinetic and imaginative jumble of hooks and beats that conjures wistful euphoria, like a string of mementos collected through years and decades, each one telling its own story tangential to the others, yet all of them adding up to a pleasing larger tale. Knock Knock is loping and lackadaisical, but when the results reach the heights of the blissful ‘Music On My Teeth’ or the album’s two fabulous Róisín Murphy collaborations, the experience transcends to something quite magical.
“I’m with it. Look at my teeth: you see music on it!”
A magnificent achievement from a group that has been dogged by bad luck and personal strife through the last few years, Microshift propels Hookworms into a new tier from their scuzzy, distortion-rich beginnings. Magnetic, psychedelic, precise and sprawling, the krautrock rhythms and surging hooks of Microshift thrum with a vibrancy that echoes Spiritualized at their 90s peak, yet Hookworms stand apart with their very personal route to this kind of breakthrough, which can be heard in the music itself. These aren’t sad-eyed works of melancholy by po-faced pretenders, but bracingly alive feats of songwriting and production that rise from the ashes of real hardships. These songs take in the death of close friends, grapple with body image and toxic masculinity, and on the staggering ‘Ullswater’, MJ delivers an open paean to his father and his ongoing struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. This is work of real depth and clout, and considering it was written after a flood destroyed much of Hookworms’ equipment and recorded work, every pore of Microshift bristles with energy, finding irresistible uplift on the upward swing from darkness. From the stunning build of ‘Negative Space’ through to the commanding close of ‘Shortcomings’ via high point after high point, Microshift is a colossal feat that represents a hard-won and thoroughly deserved triumph for the Leeds group. Savour it with them.
“I shouldn’t chase the past but there’s so much I want to show you, too.”
Bark Your Head Off, Dog
Hop Along’s latest demonstrates a subtle sharpening of their sound: on this outing, the production is a little bolder, the guitars have been wiped clean of much of their distortion, and the choruses have started to pop enough to rival anybody else in the game. The band’s central appeals remain intact, with Frances Quinlan’s incredibly expressive and evocative voice continuing to knot these folky garage-rockers together into something truly special. She sounds as playful, frayed, and mellifluous as ever, injecting charisma into songs such as ‘The Fox in Motion’, on which she bends her notes mid-word as effortlessly as sliding her fingers up a few frets. The songs that make up Bark Your Head Off, Dog are richly wrought, fable-like: on ‘Somewhere a Judge’ Quinlan details the scene of a deer’s death with a novelist’s eye for character and atmosphere, while on ‘What the Writer Meant’, she recalls watching Watership Down and being asked “isn’t this supposed to be for children?”, pondering why such odd, tiny moments are the ones that we carry through our lives. Her voice meets its perfect foil with Hop Along’s irresistibly bouncy jams, which frequently take flight to lovely places as on standouts like ‘Not Abel’, which kicks into an effervescent coda, and fades out with a guitar lick that’s pure ear candy. It all adds up to a wonderfully crisp listen, whose lyrics reward further digging and whose music is seldom less than a joy.
“I don’t know why I’m so mean each time I come around.”
What remains to be said about the miraculous talents of Janelle Monáe? Not very much by now, but I’ll gladly join the chorus in singing her praises. She’s already established her chops with two modern masterpieces in The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, and beyond her gifts as a songwriter and performer, she has showcased her versatility in multiple mediums – something she touches on during the exquisitely barbed ‘Django Jane’. For years, it has seemed that she can do no wrong, but it is only with Dirty Computer, and in moving away from her ongoing run of dystopian concept albums, it feels like she has finally become a world-beating icon. In the album’s release and promotion – the thoughtful interviews, the off-the-wall videos, the stellar run of singles – Monáe has demonstrated her creative élan and personal politics, but taken purely as a musical offering, Dirty Computer is track-for-track one of the finest works you’ll hear all year. In giving herself greater room to vent about contemporary crises without veiling her songwriting in fictional flourishes, Monáe strikes harder and with greater personal stakes, marrying her heartfelt pleas with a magisterial gift for melody across impeccably produced pop music. Dirty Computer is riddled with gold, Monáe’s personal and artistic voices intertwining at last to forge a work as emotional as it is spectacular. On her Metropolis suites, Monáe was dominating worlds of her own making. With Dirty Computer, she has started to dominate our own, and even with all the shit currently going on, we can feel lucky insofar that we’re living in the age of her ascendancy.
“Mansplaining, I fold em like origami.”
Five years since his masterful breakthrough Immunity, Jon Hopkins takes listeners on another odyssey of the headphones with Singularity. It’s a little less cohesive but just as aurally enveloping as its predecessor, inspired by something of an artistic gap year in which Hopkins made physical trips to deserts and mental trips to the cosmos with the help of DMT, transcendental meditation, and some particularly choice mushrooms. The gestation process was lengthy, and the expert level of craft and attention can be felt throughout Singularity, which blossoms and withdraws, towers and self-destructs across an hour of deeply textured electronic wizardry that bruises and balms the lucky listener – sometimes simultaneously. The entire trip doesn’t quite succeed in engaging all the way through, but it is flush with moments of magisterial greatness, from the title track’s crushing heaviness to the insistent chirrups of ‘C O S M’, both of which are prime showcases for Hopkins’ proclivity for summoning feelings of slack-jawed wonder. Such headiness comes in numerous forms on the album, but it’s the juxtapositions that give Singularity its force, as on ‘Feel First Life’, which provides a comedown from the titanic ‘Everything Connected’ with swirling chorals and Music For Airports delicacy. You can’t go swimming in the stars, but at its best, Singularity approximates that feeling pretty well.
“[no lyrics, but plenty of lovely pianos and whomping beats]”
The Future and the Past
The Future and the Past is a great record – emphasis on the “record”. It feels effortlessly in line with the vinyl classics you can imagine digging out of your parents’ collection, and yet it’s no hollow pastiche: this music is spry, catchy, and current. With a primed and ready sophomore scrapped in the wake of Trump’s victory, Prass regrouped and shifted her concerns from the personal to the social, and the result is an album that flicks a cool gaze at misogyny and rotten authority while embracing love and solidarity. It’s delivered over some of the smoothest grooves and beats straight out of early 90s slow jams, the music coming through the speakers thick and colourful as Prass croons about reproductive rights, recovers from the dizzying topple of logic, and shows a biting defiance in the face of skulduggery everywhere. Whether she’s taking the helm on bouncy R&B (‘Short Court Style’), slinky funk (‘Sisters’), or exploratory waves of lounge soul (‘Ship Go Down’), Prass brings everything to land, shining in the spotlight of an album produced and polished to the nines.
“Sing out your voices / This kind of noise is one that rejoices.”
The best Parquet Courts album to date is fresh, invigorating, and endlessly replayable, boasting their strongest set of songs yet, and to which Andrew Savage and Austin Brown have given their most focused efforts as songwriters. The former fires off diatribes at his most vitriolic, melding socio-political incision with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flourishes of poetry (“[violence] is a forest so dense and rooted in our past / it tempts us to become lost in its darkness”), while Brown exorcises personal ghosts and reckonings over woozier, glassier arrangements. When their throaty manifestos reach boiling point, what’s most discernible is the polishing of each individual player’s skills, which in turn complement and enhance all else in the fray. In Danger Mouse’s hands, equal attention is given to all, highlighting some terrifically inventive works of group interplay: the spacey breakdown that interrupts the thunderous ‘Normalisation’, the seamless stitching of ‘Almost Had to Start a Fight / In and Out of Patience’, and the effortless inclusion of pulpy funk (‘Violence’) and pub-rock pianos (‘Tenderness’) in their repertoire. The flair and breadth of the album’s sound and scope is considerable, every left turn comfortably taken with brisk efficiency. Fittingly for an album whose opening track concludes “collectivism and autonomy are not mutually exclusive”, Wide Awake! showcases Parquet Courts at their most unified, traditional heroics jettisoned in favour of ensuring every second of this thing snaps.
“I can’t count how many times I’ve been outdone by nihilism.”
Splintered, strange and staccato, Cocoa Sugar is the sound of Young Fathers operating at their most instinctive and unfettered. The Scottish collective plunge headlong into a mission of drawing punchy pop from a junkyard of grime-encrusted parts: crumbling pianos loop incessantly, rudimentary beats emerge as if from behind several plaster walls, and the vocals of Alloysious Massaquoi and Kayus Bankole shuffle between earnestly soulful and gleefully deranged. The result is more visceral and compelling than their previous releases: less concerned with polemic or conclusions than it is with bold sensation and impact. Cocoa Sugar zigzags through its songs at a chaotic clip, quickly building spooked atmospheres in which both singers deliver their bars of hushed urgency before letting them drop away, to make room for the next alien set-piece. The whole thing is slightly surreal but anchored by undeniably sharp hooks, especially in the stellar run at the album’s centre: the grot and glory viewed side-by-side and amplified for all to hear on this cracked gem of an album. As deadpanned during the exhilarating ‘Wow’, “everything’s so amazing”. (Additional bonus points for plastering that album art all over the country, too.)
“I wanna be king until I am.”
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino (Domino)
Ever since ‘I Bet You Look Good On the Dancefloor’ struck a major international chord in 2005, the heights of Arctic Monkeys’ popularity have never dipped below dizzying, but it was with the release of 2013’s AM that they broke into another dimension altogether. AM was deemed a classic almost immediately in the press and in the public eye; an iconic and stylish culmination of the band’s musical talents, as well as a crystallisation of the buccaneering spirit mythologised by rock stars down the years. Cut to spring 2018, and the swift and merciless backlash that greeted that album’s follow-up was the stuff aspiring songwriters’ nightmares are made of. Within minutes of its release, thousands took to social media to deride Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino as – in one instance – “dogshit”, touting feelings of crushing disappointment and even betrayal by a band they thought they knew. In truth, however, Arctic Monkeys are experts at playing the long game, and as keen fans willing to scratch beneath the surface will attest, they have accrued mainstream success throughout their career without making concessions to anyone but themselves. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is certainly far from what AM obsessives were expecting, and indeed hoping for, but to cite for the thousandth time a wry High Green kid’s opening gambit from 2006, “anticipation has a habit to set you up for disappointment”. Alex Turner would go on to reveal his feelings even more bluntly in an interview prior to the release of 2007’s Favourite Worst Nightmare: “as far as audience expectation goes, I couldn’t give two fucks”.
Although far from the prickliest of provocateurs in the business, this spirit of pursuing their own interests has always been central to the ethos of Arctic Monkeys as a unit. Whether Turner and co. were collaring Joshua Homme to produce 2009’s Humbug, writing soundtracks for Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, pitching in with Iggy Pop’s comeback or hanging out in P. Diddy’s kitchen, they have clearly been enthused all the way, beholden to their own whims rather than adhering to archetypes of what one of “Britain’s Biggest Bands” (ugh) should supposedly be. As such, they are one of the most consistent acts currently operating, which holds true for their creative energy and quality of output alike. “We’ll stick to the guns,” Turner thundered on 2007’s Who the Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys? “Don’t care if it’s marketing suicide, we won’t crack or compromise, your derisory divides will never unhinge us.”
And so the story goes with their sixth album: the work of a band following its own tried-and-trusted intuition. Pre-release singles? None. Traditional verse-chorus structures? Thrown to the wind. Artistic integrity? Firmly intact, and then some. These songs largely stem from demos Turner began composing in private on a Steinway piano gifted to him for his 30th birthday, and the results are bound together by a spectral, haunted quality that’s most evident in the handful of original vocal takes that feature on the final product. Coaxed by Jamie Cook and producer James Ford into a full-band release, the comparative spaciousness of the album’s sound is pulled into greater focus by its emblematic cornerstone: a taqueria-topped hotel on the lunar surface, in an area fast gentrifying in the wake of some irksome apocalypse or another back on Earth. It is via this concept that Turner felt able to address modern plights (the poison of social media, disconnection, failing compassion) and to reshape his songwriting style, opting for a “lounge-singer shimmer” somewhere between Father John Misty’s tart weariness and the dreaminess of Dion circa Born to Be With You. The results are delivered with enough empathy and sly humour alike to ensure that Tranquility Base never becomes a self-pitying view from the top.
When compared to the stomping immediacy of AM et al, it’s no wonder that Tranquility Base was so readily dismissed by so many. But for those willing to bear with Turner and friends, it’s clear that Tranquility Base is not without precedent in their catalogue. Musically, these songs share a kinship with ‘Don’t Forget Whose Legs You’re On’, a spectral (and sumptuous) B-side from the Humbug years, whose sparse, eerie ambience is echoed here in the likes of ‘Science Fiction’’s brooding theatricality and terse drum patterns. Combined with Turner’s flirtations with baroque and glam in his Last Shadow Puppets work, and his bandmates’ willingness to set aside individual egos in favour of a unified sound for each album, the seeds of Tranquility Base are not all that difficult to spot. But more so than anything they’ve released thus far, this is an album that takes time revealing its strengths, to be tuned into over weeks and months rather than intended to capture a fleeting moment or season. The kneejerk reactions it prompted were interesting to witness, but were also pretty pointless considering the album’s design. Tranquility Base is a different beast altogether, and while it will prove its own longevity in due course, it could tentatively be held up as one of the best choices Arctic Monkeys have ever made.
Always at the centre of Arctic Monkeys’ music, Turner inevitably takes the spotlight even more so than previously. There’s something insistently endearing about the pleasure he so evidently takes in playing with language, and Tranquility Base is liberally dashed with grace notes. On ‘Star Treatment’, the singer recalls “rocket ship grease down the cracks in my knuckles”, and halcyon days when “love came in a bottle with a twist-off cap”. Later on, he croaks about “the hottest tears you ever cried, multiplied by five”, and on ‘Science Fiction’, pokes a few holes in the fourth wall by musing on his own songwriting capabilities. His delivery is even more plummy and pronounced than it was on Suck It and See: you can hear him trying to feel the shape and contours of the words as they spill from his mouth. It’s arguably more than a little self-indulgent, but even when his lyrics fall on the obtuse side, there remains a captivating joy for wordplay that brings the bulk of it in to land. There may be one “Moon’s side boob” too many, but Turner is a curiously compelling narrator throughout these sojourns through space, surrealism and memory.
The same enthusiasm extends, as ever, to the songs themselves. Influences can be heard ringing from every nook and cranny, while the band smartly never loses sight of its identity: Matt Helders’ inventive, assured sticksmanship, Cook’s short, sticky guitar motifs, Nick O’Malley’s fluid basslines, more often than not cut to a Serge Gainsbourg-esque clip. Their infatuations du jours are tightly woven into the fabric of this music: the compressed oomph of Lonerism-era Tame Impala, the multi-harmonised airiness of Pet Sounds, the taut grooves of David Axelrod. This puppyish pick-n-mix is matched beat-for-beat by the references Turner stirs into his writing, including concepts lifted from David Foster Wallace, Neil Postman, George Saunders, and a cabinet full of sci-fi flicks. All grist for the Monkeys’ ever-ticking mill, and it suits them best when taken in its entirety.
As such, the decision not to release any singles prior to the album drop makes a lot of sense, but complaints regarding a lack of decent tunes are wide of the mark: hooks abound on Tranquility Base, but unlike those on AM – which squared right up to the listener with abrasive confidence – here they beckon us in further on repeated listens. The denouement of ‘Star Treatment’ is hitched to a gorgeous descending melody, and the moment of weightlessness following that first drum fill is a sublime welcome to Turner’s narcoleptic wonderland gone to seed. ‘One Point Perspective’ is better still, a tastefully low-key guitar solo swooping into the starry-eyed fug to great effect, as Turner pores over dreams (and to stick with the ongoing metaphor, planets) left behind as the whirlwind of life carried him forward to “quiet rooms like this”.
Although the pace lags occasionally, there are sparkling details hidden at every turn, well-buried in the mix so that the album reveals its winning moments on the fifth, tenth, twentieth listen. Stick with ‘Golden Trunks’ for its Beatlesy harmonies, and give Turner’s more outré observations in ‘Batphone’ the benefit of the doubt. It’s worth it for gems such as ‘The Ultracheese’, the triumphant, heartsore conclusion that swishes the curtain with a tired yet elegant grace. “I might look as if I’m deep in thought,” Turner croons, acknowledging years of posturing in press photos and music videos, before revealing the glimmer that was in his eye all along: “but the truth is I’m probably not, if I ever was.” It’s a lovely work of self-reflexive songwriting, one of Turner’s finest, and it closes the album exquisitely. Things are more straightforward elsewhere, such as in the gleefully demonic cacophonies of ‘She Looks Like Fun’ and the steadily surging melodrama exhibited in ‘American Sports’. And then there’s ‘Four Out Of Five’, quite simply one of the finest tunes the four have ever laid to wax. Poised, detailed, and tongue-in-cheek, it has the highest hopes for salvaging the band’s reputation among the disaffected many who eagerly dived into Tranquility Base on release day and felt their faces scrunch in angry bewilderment.
Of course, such a thing doesn’t matter a jot, and nor should it. Twelve years since they launched their firework of a debut, the numerous metamorphoses of the Arctic Monkeys have never been less than compelling to witness, and though these tweaks and turns have found varying degrees of success, the baseline quality has always been admirably high, especially when weighed up against their peers in indie stardom. Rather than settle for less and risk artistic stagnation for the sake of commercial security, with Tranquility Base Arctic Monkeys confirm – if it was ever in doubt – that they remain forward-thinking and incredibly generous to themselves and to their listeners. It’s the latest in a long line of reasons to put your money on them: they are in this game for all the right reasons, and on this evidence, for the long haul. Exactly how one of “Britain’s Biggest Bands” should be operating, and these days, that’s unheard of.
“Whaddaya mean, you’ve never seen Blade Runner?”
Album of the Year
Not Even Happiness
One of the symptoms of an album becoming a favourite of mine is how protective and selfish I start to feel about it. I’m not alone in this sensation of course; there are some works of art that connect on such a level that you wonder if anybody else quite appreciates just how much they mean to you. For me, Julie Byrne’s Not Even Happiness is one such album: there were definitely times at which I would privately insist that this record struck a specific connection with me alone, even as I shared discussions, listens, and live shows of its material with friends and fellow fans. Amid the chaos and the longueurs and the near-overwhelming cynicism of 2017, it became the album I most wanted to reach for in times of light and dark; the rock in the choppy seas of a year that never fully relented.
I assess and reassess my opinions all the time. Days, months, years later, I come back and reconsider my preferences in lists like these. I missed a lot of albums this year as it is, but I’m aware that even among those I did give time to, there are arguably more ambitious, creative, and timely records than Not Even Happiness. But this is the one I love more than any other. Within its half-hour span, I’ve found musical and emotional nourishment that still has me glowing in awe of and in gratitude for its creator.
I suppose that more than anything else, I’ve found a lot of comfort in Not Even Happiness. Not comfort in the “easy listening” sense, but because its marriage of words and music – and the expressions thereof – resonate so directly. I find something extraordinarily beautiful in the sound of this woman, playing her father’s guitar, singing of “seeking God within” as she navigates various states of impermanence, self-imposed and otherwise. In sound, the album is as crisp as a breeze rolling across a plain, the production rendering these songs in crystal-clear panoramas in which Byrne’s gorgeous voice hovers like a beacon. The stray instrumental embellishments here and there are lovely, from the pillowy, airy synthesisers of ‘I Live Now as a Singer’ to the flutes that bookend ‘Melting Grid’, but there’s little required beyond Byrne’s voice and her flickering fingerpicking to keep me enthralled.
In its structuring, Not Even Happiness brings to mind a written essay, one that’s meandering but never pauses to prattle. Comparatively speaking, it’s slight yet perfectly formed, every element in its brief runtime resting in a comfortable balance, aligned in style and concept without sounding meticulously engineered to the point of coldness. As these nine songs progress, and Byrne orbits ideas of solitude, travel, love and questing both geographically and spiritually, her writing recalls works such as Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost and Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse. That these works also hone in on travel as a key theme is another thing entirely, but I’m reminded more of how these writers produce works that drift along seamlessly, organised loosely around a central theme but touching astutely on various philosophies, micro and macro.
It’s in this way that Byrne lets her thoughts unfurl, composed in numerous junctures during her time spent touring the United States. She is fascinated by and beholden to the constant transience her career as a musician has placed her in, and she gazes at her physical and mental surroundings not in disenfranchisement but in wonder, with the occasional tinge of melancholy or weariness. ‘Sleepwalker’ is the most revealing entry in this regard, Byrne singing from a place of sorrow but not one of self-pity. “I travelled only in service of my dreams,” she states, tussling with previous beliefs that to become attached to another is too dicey a prospect in her circumstances. “Before you, had I ever known love?” she asks. Then: “or had I only known misuse of the power another had over me?”
She crosses the country, keyless and open-eyed, searching not for personal revelations but for equanimity as she goes. Sometimes it is enough to feel liberated in her nomadic state, gratefully observing the splendour of the cities and the people she passes by, whereas at others, her reveries come with pangs. Solitude is one thing, loneliness another, and in treading the ground between the two, Byrne finds exquisite reserves of feeling: “will I know a truer time / Than when I stood alone in the snow / And the moon was in the sky and it shone / And all the land glimmered beneath”. On ‘Follow My Voice’, she sings in falsetto that “to me this city’s hell / But I know you call it home”, and emphasises with sadness but no regret that “I’ve been called heartbreaker / For doing justice to my own”. Her journey is unselfishly her own, and it’s a beautiful thing to follow.
Gentle pockets of wisdom are scattered throughout Not Even Happiness, but it’s clear Byrne understands she is no oracle. Even when making peace with the changes and compromises her choices have wrought upon her life, there is still much that mystifies and eludes her in this world. She closes the album with an open question: “shall I be ever near the edge of your mystery?” Yet while she may not know all there is, she places her faith in the sublime, confident that natural wonders will continue to give her solace no matter where she travels or what she experiences. At the heart of the album, ‘Natural Blue’ most directly articulates this idea. I am constantly stirred by Byrne’s repeated mantra on this song, offered between wordless sighs and an aching string arrangement: a touchingly simple and powerful ode to the everyday phenomena that can leave us humbled and moved beyond belief.
On Not Even Happiness, Byrne is so effective at communicating these thoughts and emotions with poise and intimacy, and I’m grateful to have had it as a companion in 2017, wherever I have been. As winter took hold, I was lucky enough to see Byrne perform at London’s Union Chapel with one of my best friends. Sat in the pews, cradling mugs of hot chocolate with our feet slowly thawing from the cold, we and the hundreds present watched and listened so raptly, the atmosphere was one of hushed and hallowed awe. After the show, I got to meet Julie at the back of the hall, and she signed my copy of Not Even Happiness with a line from Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘Morning’: “if there is a place further from me, I beg you do not go”. Fittingly, this is an album I haven’t wanted to stray far from for quite some time. I treasure it like no other album of the past year.
“Follow my voice. I am right here.”
A round of applause for one last selection of five albums I’ve loved this year; some of the most emotionally resounding, aurally sublime, and addictively listenable records of 2017. Not all of them are made for comfortable listening, but all deserve high praise by my reckoning, especially considering the gruelling circumstances that several of these artists had to undergo in bringing their works out into the light.
Turn Out the Lights
“It stopped me in my tracks” is such a clunky expression. Like most clichés, it’s old, it’s tired, and it only seems to exist as a filler phrase, deployed without any honest gravity. But also like most clichés, while it’s hokey 99% of the time, there can quite unexpectedly come a moment when it suddenly lands a direct hit, the meaning behind it fitting the sentiment exactly. Julien Baker’s second album genuinely stopped me in my tracks: playing Turn Out the Lights for the first time was one of those holy shit, put down your tools and just FUCKING LISTEN experiences that left me in awe.
Baker’s raw, expressive voice, the intimate braiding of piano and guitar, the repeated structures of build and release; these are all touchstones of confessional songwriting, as familiar as the clichés mentioned above, but as it has always been, it’s how you breathe life into your words that proves the vitality therein. The songs on Turn Out the Lights are raw and unflinching, Baker’s lyrics placed with purpose rather than to fill blank spaces. Her agonies are her own yet are communicated relatably, circling rejection and nebulous distance – from a friend, from a lover, from God. She scrutinises, dismisses and pleads for her own self-worth, and keeps glancing her past struggles in the rear-view on her quest. Substance abuse, broken bonds and residual guilt are demons that never fully disappear when they exist in unforgettable memories, and these are songs not of redemption, but of continuous reckoning: no person is complete or comfortable forever. Through Baker’s translations of her own emotional state, her words – delivered in that steely voice – expand to provide listeners with a surrogate of uncommon acuity. “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out alright,” she wonders aloud. “I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is. I have to believe that it is.”
“The harder I swim the faster I sink.”
A spectacular leap forward after the promising Pure Heroine, Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s second album as Lorde exceeds all expectations, which were admittedly mixed to begin with. The hype was intimidatingly tangible and potentially destructive, and with O’Connor catapulted from suburban disenfranchisement (reckon she still hasn’t seen a diamond in the flesh?) to rubbing shoulders with Taylor Swift and pals (cough), it was hard to imagine Melodrama escaping the fate of so many difficult second albums.
Mercifully it does, and by quite a distance. This is one of the most enjoyable, accessible, and pristinely packaged LPs of the year; a suite of songs that are thematically, emotionally and sonically entwined with a hit rate that never dips, even as risks are taken (Kate Bush-league vocal leaps, sudden house pianos, a chorus that spells out “loveless” letter by letter) and the lyrics flirt with the stuff of first world problems. The latter are arguably unavoidable at this stage, but O’Connor keeps her head screwed on; she’s not in this to rack up sad emojis, but to mine the emotional whirly-dirly of jettisoning one’s teenage years with sympathy, frankness, and a splash of withering self-effacement.
O’Connor’s presence is magnetic. Throughout Melodrama she’s confident in a broader range of tones, her voice and her wordplay sharper and more focused than they were four years ago. Her knack for a snappy observation is constantly primed, whether she’s catching bitter glimpses of a past flame (“she thinks you love the beach / You’re such a damn liar”), or savouring her sweetheart, psychopathic crushes (“we’re the greatest / They’ll hang us in the Louvre / Down the back, but who cares? / Still the Louvre”). Between finding comfort in herself (the sublime ‘Liability’) to understanding – and appreciating – that hedonistic recklessness is a mere distraction from her insecurity (‘Sober’, ‘Perfect Places’), Melodrama chronicles not what fame has done to Lorde, but what she’s able to do with her fame, growing as an artist and a woman rather than getting chewed up along the industry’s assembly line. Having tackled teenage ennui and the messy mood swings of her early twenties, there’s plenty of fertile ground for her to cover in the future. It’ll be the property ladder and credit ratings next, just you wait.
“It’s just another graceless night.”
Mike Hadreas has been plagued with bigots, homophobes and haters his whole life. Earlier Perfume Genius records were rife with trauma, chronicling the despair of Hadreas’ life as an outcast in the throes of drug addiction and Crohn’s disease, not to mention the horrific prejudices that at times endangered his life. As his musical career has progressed, it’s been nothing short of exhilarating to see him begin to strut in defiance, from the quivering anger of Learning to the swaggering confidence he flaunted on Too Bright. His fourth full-length release is his boldest and most aurally dazzling of all; a hurricane of emotional and stylistic expressions that defines straightforward labelling, but one that is rousing from start to finish.
Producer Blake Mills deserves props for how incredible No Shape sounds. As Hadreas strides with aplomb through a genre pick-n-mix, Mills renders everything with crystalline precision. The deafening explosion of electronic glitter that punctures ‘Otherside’, the cathedral-friendly strings that aggravate ‘Choir’, the insouciant jam of ‘Sides’ with its terrific Weyes Blood back-and-forth; Mills captures it all in rich, sensuous clarity. What is exposed is an abundance of feeling, Hadreas’ emotional onslaughts given spectacular musical foils that range from the refined to the decadent, but bookending the jumble of No Shape are two pockets of genuine happiness. ‘Slip Away’ is a pounding race towards an ecstatic profession of unity that flies in the face of the oppressors (“they’ll never break the shape we take”), and ‘Alan’ is a heavenly ode to Hadreas’ long-time musical and romantic partner Alan Wyffels. In a discography – and a life – so upsettingly weighted with despondency and social stigma, these are moments to be cherished, and across the No Shape, the hard-won beauty of Hadreas’ arc and creativity is stunning.
“I want to feel the days go by / Not stack up.”
Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels 3
Back in September, I wondered if there would be a more compulsively listenable record than Run the Jewels 3 arriving anytime soon. Four months and a new calendar sheet later, I’m still waiting. El-P and Killer Mike’s third mission statement is baggier than its predecessors but just as blisteringly great; a rap epic that leans into the duo’s strengths as they relish the opportunity to dole out more phenomenal bars steeped in righteous fury and kush-scented camaraderie, laying down their testaments with the verve and energy of fiery upstarts. Assisted by an impressive roster of comrades-in-arms (Danny Brown, Zack de la Rocha and Kamasi Washington taking primary positions), Run the Jewels’ third is scaled-up and sharp, sounding thick and muscular from first to last.
Killer Mike has been the stronger – and more politically active – of the two personalities since before he and El-P hooked up, and he continues to lead the charge with some of the finest and most impassioned diatribes of his career. Yet his partner isn’t overshadowed this time, continuing to raise his game to match Mike’s mastery. El-P shines on RTJ3, both in his spectacular efforts as producer and beatmaker (seriously, the sounds on this album are ridiculous in all the right ways) and as a rapper. He sounds so much more at ease in his flows now than he did on the duo’s first team-up, and when the two emcees weave around one another with ardent ferocity as they do on ‘2100’ and ‘Everybody Stay Calm’, nobody holds a candle to their unstoppable charisma. The bruising one-two punch of ‘Down’ and ‘Talk to Me’ sets the bar for the rollercoaster to follow: hypocrites, tyrants, and Presidents are raked over hot coals, tributes are paid to departed idols and friends, dystopias within sight are surveyed with impassioned cries to rail against what could be. Getting to hear El-P and Killer Mike booming through some of these cuts at Primavera Sound was an easy high-point of my 2017, and going into 2018, the shine’s still not off this gem. The jewel runners reign supreme: the top tag team for another summer, at least.
“Dad, Uncle El, stay gold.”
A Crow Looked at Me
For four years running, without zero intention on my part, my second-favourite album of the year (at each time of writing) has been one formed in the shadow of death. Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell, Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree. Death is the centrifuge for these works, each artist having processed and been affected by it in a manners that are naturally very different and incredibly nuanced, their albums wracked with emotional turmoil. All three are inimitable works of humanism and spirit, but also of art.
A Crow Looked at Me is different. Phil Elverum’s document of his wife’s death and its immediate aftermath is not art – the singer admits as much in the first seconds of ‘Real Death’. While it remains a cornerstone theme in art and performance across all mediums, when death actually touches one’s own experience, in those real, immediate moments that are endured, it’s not an experience for art or measured thought. “All poetry is dumb,” Elverum states plainly. “Someone’s there and then they’re not.” In A Crow Looked at Me, he reports exactly what he goes through, with barely a trace of analysis, artistic projection or delusions of meaning. He tries to take care of his infant daughter. He throws out his wife’s detritus – her toothbrushes and her tissues. He receives items in the mail that she ordered before dying. He gets spooked, he gets bored, he breaks down at sudden moments. He begins to feel photos overtaking real moments: “the actual experience of you here, I can feel those memories escaping.” There is no filter on any of this, and as you’d expect, it’s tough. But living through the death of a loved one is tough, and for the overwhelming majority, it’s inevitable.
Concluding with one of the most haunting final lines ever put to record, A Crow Looked at Me is almost unbearably sad and difficult to look in the eye, let alone discuss at length. But by following Elverum’s commentary, it’s a listening experience that I’m grateful for: a report from a dark state that none of us ever want to comprehend, but one that we are likely to one day know: the numbness, the pain, the frustration, the vast and unthinkable loss. A Crow Looked at Me is not beautiful or devastating or cathartic. It’s a document, and one from which the listener looks at the world with fresh eyes. It seems more desolate, but a little clearer, too.
“I don’t want to learn anything from this. I love you.”
I wish that Top Tens could contain more than ten, because in many other years, some of these records would easily fit snugly into that tier of glory. Alas, such a concept is a paradox that defies maths itself, so they’ll have to make do with the Top Sixteen, which is still not to be sniffed at.
The War on Drugs
A Deeper Understanding
As sonically lush as 2014’s wonderful, wonderful Lost in the Dream but a little less rigorous in design, The War on Drugs’ fourth album is an hour-long soundscape to get lost in. Adam Granduciel’s perfectionism remains integral to the group’s steady success, and the finishing touch that brings many of these cuts in to land is that they sound so aurally enveloping, every element fitted and polished just so. Although as a full-length it’s less unified and cohesive than its predecessor, A Deeper Understanding is an album composed of stunning moments: a picturesque voyage in which magic frequently spills forth like a stunning sight appearing from around a bend. ‘Thinking of a Place’ shimmers like a road stretching on forever, baked under a low and heavy sun; ‘In Chains’ and ‘Holding On’ summon stadium-sized joy from their E Street crescendos; and album highlight ‘Pain’ is five-and-a-half minutes of pleasure. His platitudes may occasionally waft by without leaving much of a mark, but when Granduciel pours gusto into a lyric like “I resist what I cannot change”, it’s more than enough to get the job done. Call it highway music, call it dad-rock, call it a tastefully-done nostalgia fest which blends vintage rock subgenres (soft, psych, winding) into one lovingly curated package. Whichever way it’s diced, A Deeper Understanding sounds gorgeous.
“I’m moving through the dark.”
I See You
The xx are enjoying themselves! Seemingly stunned into creative paralysis after the gargantuan success of their debut, it’s refreshing to hear the tentativeness that plagued Coexist has been thrown to the wind in favour of a bolder step out of the gloom. With additional production duties handed over to Rodaidh McDonald, Jamie Smith’s skillset comes to the fore, his breezier instrumentals in turn bringing the best out of his bandmates. ‘Dangerous’ and ‘On Hold’ are the sounds of the trio savouring the chance to lock into a groove together, swaying in the sunshine rather than mumbling from the shadows. That’s not to say I See You exists in an emotional vacuum: Romy Madley Croft’s ‘Performance’ and ‘Brave For You’ find her leaning into distress (the latter is a shining tribute to her deceased parents) to draw strength, while Sim takes the lead on ‘A Violent Noise’ and the gorgeous wash of ‘Replica’ to address his own weaknesses and struggles with alcohol abuse. The immaculate sound of the record is matched beat for beat by these assured vocal takes, and what emerges is evidence that the trio have relaxed into a new understanding of themselves as a unit. Their acknowledgement that lightning can’t be rebottled has left them creatively liberated, and brought them to a fine place.
“Test me, see if I break.”
The Horrors’ fifth is their strongest front-to-back creation since their sophomore gamechanger Primary Colours realigned all expectations resting on their shoulders. With Paul Epworth at the controls and coaxing the group into glossier territory, V successfully blends the Horrors’ classic staples (motorik pulses, moody psychedelia, space-rock squalling) into a vibrant display built on punchy melodies. Opener ‘Hologram’ judders and groans without shrinking away from the earworms it’s founded on, Faris Badwan’s voice imbued with a little more thrust and menace as he keeps his eyes on the middle-distance. It sets an accurate precedent for the group’s most accessible collection yet, which concludes with one of the Horrors’ career highlights – and tune-of-the-year contender – ‘Something to Remember Me By’. A wide-open surrender to their anthemic impulses, it’s a thumping work of sun-drenched majesty; a fitting finish for this triumphant chapter in the band’s chronology.
“Let’s leave this ordinary world.”
Listening to Drunk is like tripping through Thundercat (alias Stephen Bruner)’s very own PlayStation game, one dug out of a dusty shoebox housing knackered GameBoy cartridges, a few smashed bongs, and graphic novels worn to pieces. Few albums sound as idiosyncratic as this, the work of an auteur whose technical flair is countered brilliantly by his own love of pop culture, soft rock, and fart jokes. Drunk is a ride unlike any other, swerving from rapid-fire whimsy (‘Uh Uh’) to twinkling, weightless glee (‘Bus in These Streets’), while taking in troubling sights along the way. He casts anxious glances over his shoulder to the cops patrolling his block (‘Jameel’s Space Ride’), frets over his own mortality and that of his friends, and the fractures in his psyche wrought by the tensions surrounding American race and class (‘The Turn Down’). As such, the sound of retreat into a private world is sympathetic, and while Bruner does throw out the occasional barb to the wider world, Drunk is a largely sweet and escapist vehicle: a sticky-eyed phantasmagoria that blends the virtuosic with the absurd. With Thundercat’s constantly enjoyable presence and some friends along for the journey (Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar, and Kenny Loggins himself), Drunk has been one of the most intoxicating states to exist in this year.
“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
For the magnificent live shows, the pithy commentaries, and the album itself, LCD Soundsystem’s comeback has been totally justified. American Dream lives up to the project’s rich past without feeling derivative or short on fresh ideas. Sure, the LCD coterie sound a little less goofy than they used to, but the long-term gains in the power of some of these songs more than makes up for a little less footloose fun. James Murphy’s oft-improvised broadsides at encroaching age, emotional haircuts, and DFA co-founder Tim Goldsworthy (chronicled in the whomping ‘How Do You Sleep’) are full of bite, and even when the emotional wiring is called into question by the frontman’s tongue-in-cheek manner, there’s no resisting the beautiful bombast of a crooner like ‘Oh Baby’ or the headlong rush into the glorious pile-up that closes ‘Call the Police’. As Murphy himself knows as well as anybody (as evidenced on the haunting ‘Black Screen’), heroes are disappearing alarmingly fast in this increasingly detached world. Thank goodness then that some are able to return, and give us exactly what we were hoping for.
“My love life stumbles on.”
The time has come again for my annual cap-doffing to the albums that kept me sane, satiated, and surprised during the past twelve months. It’s a five-a-day countdown until Friday 5th January, on which I’ll indulgently yak about my favourite album of the year and why I adore it beyond all reason. Until then, dig out your headphones, check your coat pockets for Jaffa Cakes, and join me in saluting favourites of 2017 before we draw a line under that bizarre year and crack on.
Queens of the Stone Age
Until his ill-advised kick at Chelsea Lauren, Joshua Homme had enjoyed a banner year with his Queens, racking up a series of triumphant highs even without considering the coveted appearance on CBeebies’ Bedtime Stories. It’s a shame that his recent onstage behaviour (while not to be condoned) has soured the aftertaste of Villains’ success, because on its own terms it’s a crackerjack of a record: breezy, kinetic, and both rigid and loose in all the right places. Sporting a beat-centric strut throughout its runtime, Villains is a notable entry not just for Mark Ronson’s oft-discussed hand in production duties, but also for the plausibility of the glam-era Bowie fixation the record flaunts, with cuts like ‘Domesticated Animals’ and ‘Un-Reborn Again’ bringing some playful glee to the group’s muscular riff-rock.
“Going on a living spree / Any wanna come with me?”
The Far Field
In the wake of the world-beating Singles and its end-to-end reserves of gold, The Far Field was one of my most-anticipated releases of 2017, but on the first couple of listens, I came away feeling ambivalent towards Future Islands’ latest. But over the course of the year, and having been blessed enough to see the group twice this year, I’ve returned to their fifth record again and again, and with each fresh spin, it has worn down my defences. The time-honoured formula the trio work now sounds sturdy rather than spectacular, lacking the novel value it possessed in the time of In Evening Air, but the emotional undertow remains a force to be reckoned with, and on the likes of ‘Cave’, ‘Black Rose’ and ‘Time on Her Side’, the sweeping drama Future Islands are capable of conjuring is unparalleled by many of their peers. Backed by his bandmate’s trusty prowess in propulsive melodrama, Samuel T. Herring firmly holds on to his status as one of the most magnetic and convincingly earnest presences in the business.
“The sea was large today, just as any other day.”
Dealing with the platforms and channels of contemporary romance is an unending trial; one of facing the overwhelming obstacles in the way of emotional connections, and how in the process, our identities can be tested and distorted in our own eyes as well as those gazing back. It’s a rocky road that Solána Rowe navigates with swagger and self-effacement in Ctrl, whether she’s taking sexual revenge against partners, plumbing insecurities about her own image (and how it can be weaponised for or against her), or revelling in the efficiency and mundanity of technology’s role in the romantic fray. Over two self-released EPs and a third on Top Dawg Entertainment, SZA’s gravitational pull has steadily intensified, and although Ctrl’s bounties were swiped from under SZA’s nose by her label in the wake of a frustrated gestation process, it’s a joy to hear that the result gels as wonderfully as it does. Ctrl is a smooth, slow plume of a collection that digs into its themes with startling frankness, and articulates their complexities with style and concision.
“I get so lonely, I forget what I’m worth.”
Out in the Storm
Between her band’s bristly assault and her own charismatic snarl, Katie Crutchfield has a knack for churning out tunes that insistently rattle around the mind from early listens. Out in the Storm is the most streamlined Waxahatchee record to date, on which Crutchfield and pals churn out some of their fieriest hooks and most compassionate feats of songwriting in a career already studded with gems. True to its title, there’s an electricity in the fibres of Out in the Storm, crackling through the moody kiss-offs of Crutchfield’s emotional revelations (the sour end of a long-term relationship looms heavy over ‘8 Ball’ and ‘No Question’) as well as some of her most arresting balladry (‘Sparks Fly’, ‘Fade’). Listening to her exorcise the maelstroms within through cathartic bedroom punk is an experience of painful empathy, as well as an impressive further development of the talents in the Waxahatchee camp.
“I was waiting for permission to take off.”
There’s not a great deal of happiness to be heard on Sampha Sisay’s Mercury-scooper, but the delicate earnestness of his fluttery delivery bears Process aloft as a gorgeous highlight of 2017. It’s an album pockmarked by uncertainty, fear, and grief, Sisay’s lyrics often hinging on dislocating experiences that send the world irrevocably sliding out of place, and how painstaking it can be to adjust and accept life’s ruthless curveballs. Sisay’s personal health, artistic coming-of-age, and the death of his mother are the major sources informing his songwriting, but his musical chops are so well-honed that the upsetting circumstances that inform his work are rendered into things of beauty. Process is suffused with sonic wonder, and the sound of Sisay coming to terms with disparate issues through his beloved medium of sound is remarkably heartening.
“We don’t have to talk / I just need you here.”
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.”