Monthly Archives: January 2014
My Spin on Masterworks: 2 of 25
Beggars Banquet Records, 2007
The above phrase can be found inside the booklet that accompanies (the CD edition of) The National’s fourth album: their last full-length to be released via the Beggars Banquet label. Printed in stark white text, and superimposed over a blurry image of the band members wandering through a field, the phrase seems to announce itself as an epigram of sorts; perhaps a subheading for the title Boxer itself. (The phrase actually stems from a pair of lyrics from two separate songs in their discography: the former pulled from ‘Tall Saint’, and the later featuring on ‘Ada’.)
The reason I’ve started by drawing attention to this bit of trivia is because I’ve always found it particularly expressive of the near-mythic status which Boxer has grown to shoulder over the past seven years. It’s possibly the keystone album in The National’s existing discography; summative of the turning-point whereby the group sharpened its focus, and settled on a definitive sound which has since become their signature. The lyrical, tonal, and musical departures of Boxer have been augmented and elaborated in the group’s succeeding two albums, and the results have seldom been less than magical.
On a related note, I should mention that I could quite happily write essays for five of the six existing albums by The National, and still not exhaust everything I feel about the band. However, I’d argue that the richest arc in the band’s history spans the mid- to late-2000s, grounded most overtly in the shift in dynamics which took place between the release of their third and fourth albums. Both Alligator (2005) and Boxer (2007) are cut from similar cloth thematically, but if the former can be personified as a high-strung twenty-something howling his way life, Boxer is that album’s older brother: wearier, more reserved, sharper in perception but ultimately powerless. As such, although Alligator stands as a work of jagged magnificence, Boxer takes the crown, if only because its illusions of elegance are so furiously powerful. All the wine that was name-checked across its three predecessors has stopped fuelling energy, and started churning disappointment.
Although it branches off in a number of more specific subheadings, the main drive behind Boxer is a fixation with what it is to “grow up”. Such a theme may permeate the majority of the band’s oeuvre, but the concept of shouldering responsibility – and all the horror that entails – is particularly sharp in this collection. Yet even in spite of this apparently universal topic, there remains an air of mystery to Boxer; as with all the greatest albums, there’s an intensity rumbling beneath it: a sense that something significant has been registered in these twelve songs. It’s perhaps because of this that I’ve found myself obsessed with the ambiguity of the album’s title, and that “epigram”. Is the latter an urge for somebody to admit defeat (to “stay down”), or to feint weakness before delivering the killer blow?
It also deepens the discourse surrounding the record’s tortured conception. After the exhausting tours in support of Alligator, the group entered a frictional recording process, rife with frustration – at experimenting, at life’s hardships, and at each other. At the centre of the chain, all eyes were on Matt Berninger, who took painstaking time in carefully penning the new set of lyrics, which in turn forced the others to tinker with already tightly-ratcheted song mechanics. Such a drawn-out process resulted in an allegedly miserable and alienated period, which the Dessner brothers still seem keen to avoid discussing.
And the strain shows in the end product. The arrangements of Boxer sound hot and heavy, pressed down with a claustrophobia which wasn’t entirely present on the lurching Alligator. Naturally (this being The National), the songs themselves are inherently fidgety, but there’s an amplified itchiness driving the likes of ‘Brainy’ and ‘Ada’: a barely-restrained sense of fury which can be picked out of those cacophonous snare rolls and precariously-stacked guitar notes.
Possibly more so than any other National album, Boxer is a nocturne. The shiny city painted by ‘Fake Empire’ gleams in monochrome shades of black, white, and amber: a deceptively romantic sheen which is quickly swept away as night closes in. For all the opener’s poignant majesty, the real world that this album inhabits only properly reveals itself Bryan Devendorf’s elemental drums batter open ‘Mistaken for Strangers’. Sharply awakened from the dreamy stupor of ‘Fake Empire’, the reality becomes clear: this isn’t some Disneyfied “gay ballet on ice”. Such faux-glamour is simply a front for “another uninnocent elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults”. The Dessner siblings intertwine tangibly metallic guitar lines to growl beneath Berninger’s lament for the 9-to-5 shift. By the end of the song, we’re left in the dark, watching the lights glitter away in a muted fanfare of brass.
This inky blackness swirls through the whole of the record, manifesting itself in the muted despair of ‘Racing Like a Pro’, and the uneasy push-and-pull between jealousy and perversion which tars the hypnotic ‘Green Gloves’. The oppressive heat of the album’s first half only lifts long enough for ‘Slow Show’: the closest the band come to producing an anthem on Boxer, and an incredibly affecting portrayal of longing for intimacy. Steadily swelling from a refreshing appearance of acoustic guitars, it serves as a quietly triumphant shedding of Berninger’s armour, eschewing some of his more oblique mannerisms to cut straight to the heart of his awkward pangs of loneliness. Just check out the lyrics in the second verse:
Need to find somewhere I can stand and stay
I leaned on the wall; the wall leaned away
Can I get a minute of not being nervous
And not thinking of my dick?
On paper, the presence of such a crude allusion seems jarring, but as intoned through Berninger’s nervous baritone, it works perfectly as a descent into direct honesty. On ‘Slow Show’, nothing is dressed up: it’s a direct peer into Berninger’s insecurities, and consequently, makes for a deceptively powerful centrepiece. (And yeah, that’s a very real anxiety.)
Following its less elaborate – but more thematically unified – second half, the album concludes with the plaintive ‘Gospel’: a gentle, unassuming shuffle which only unveils its subtle, heartbreaking power to patient listeners. Grapeshot with painfully vivid scenes of domesticity, Berninger’s vocal melodies are particularly arresting, as they gracefully glide above his bandmates’ patient balladry. It’s a careful, warm touchdown, which closes itself with the album’s most fragile sentiment of all:
Darling, can you tie my string?
Killers are calling on me.
This final image is multifarious, and utterly devastating when properly unpacked. Dependency, yearning, an encroaching departure for some form of war (whether literal, or the battlefield of adulthood’s burdens); it’s all teed up in this final couplet. As Berninger murmurs the refrain one final time, the album fades with a soft sigh of resignation, tinged with the frailest (and cruellest) jot of hope.
No National album comes pre-packaged as a complete story, as Berninger has keenly emphasised during an interview for MOGvideos. Boxer is no different, but it somehow manages to coalesce into a cohesive assembly of small-but-significant moments which epitomise the shouldering of adulthood. The protagonists of Berninger’s fractured portraits are as confused and futile as we can all-too-frequently feel ourselves. These are people who fill themselves with quarters and embrace temporary highs. They fumble through conversations at parties while deeply craving more intimate connections. They build fake empires in their heads and dream of pleasures as simple as hanging up holiday rainbow lights.
And when they get knocked down, sometimes refusing to stay down is the hardest task imaginable.Boxer 1 Fake Empire 2 Mistaken for Strangers 3 Brainy 4 Squalor Victoria 5 Green Gloves 6 Slow Show 7 Apartment Story 8 Start a War 9 Guest Room 10 Racing Like a Pro 11 Ada 12 Gospel
Happy New Year, readers! A sincere thank-you for checking out my end-of-year list for 2013; whether outright disagreement or simple curiosity, I hope it sparks intrigue in some form at the very least. As with last year’s list, I’ve drawn up twin lists of Honourable Mentions and Ones That Got Away, which can be found at the bottom of this here rundown.
2013 saw the music industry hit something of a boom in terms of big-name releases, and condensing such a catalogue of riches into a (relatively) slim Top 10 list was a tough undertaking indeed. Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, here’s the list I’ve settled on: please do give it a read and leave a comment if you’d like to chip in with your own thoughts!
My Top Ten Albums of 2013
At first, it seems odd to brand Desire Lines as an overtly “remarkable” album. On the surface, it stands as a very pretty, if slightly monochrome listen: one which rarely deviates from formula with a curveball or unpredictable hook. And yet, when bedded in over repeated listens, all those details which seem commonplace to begin with reveal themselves as the modest dashes of magic they truly are. Desire Lines may not slap you in the face, but it doesn’t need to: the members of Camera Obscura work with a nagging insistence, their broader strokes candid rather than blunt. Special mention must be given to the particularly glossy production gilding these eleven songs: the liquid guitars, crisp rhythms and delicate synths are corralled into a smooth tableau which fizzes and pops with melodic warmth. It’s an immaculate – and immensely listenable – gem of an album.
Highlight: Following the balm of its brief introduction, Desire Lines blossoms into life with the gentle lope of ‘This is Love (Feels Alright)’: a track which exhibits Tracyanne Chapman’s voice at its most indispensable.
Days Are Gone
After being crowned victors of the BBC’s Sound of 2013 poll, Haim gracefully took the rest of the year on their own terms. While they could have feasibly hammered out a debut album in time for a golden summer, Este, Danielle and Alana kept their heads firmly screwed on, lingering in the studio for months to give Days Are Gone the attention it deserved. Yet they never vanished from the radar, maintaining a steady momentum thanks to the magnetic singles ‘Falling’ and ‘The Wire’, as well as a clutch of spectacular festival performances which more than justified the ever-ballooning hype. When Days Are Gone finally arrived at the end of September, it felt compact and accomplished, fulfilling its early promises for a fun, witty and durable pop record. Here we have a generous platter of eleven individually excellent songs, each ripe with their own hooks and charms, but which also harmonise delightfully when taken in sequence.
[Full review available at The Boar.]
Highlight: Following its second chorus, ‘Honey & I’ is swept into a spirited gallop, where the tumbling vocals of the united sisters are at their most charismatic.
These New Puritans
Field of Reeds
It may have been snubbed by the Mercury Prize panel, but These New Puritans’ third album remains a majestic creation. Bathed in mournful brass arrangements and jagged piano motifs, it’s a neo-classical work of dystopian grandeur, and the further one ventures into Field of Reeds, the more disturbing (and rewarding) it becomes. Songs which begin with curious, minimalist seeds gradually shape-shift into much more unsettling tapestries, with the dreamlike serenity of the album’s opening moments increasingly lost to genuinely haunting atmospheres. As Jack Barnett’s heavy drawl cuts snakily through the aural fog, his band push the sonic envelope ever further, utilising chromatic gongs, field recordings and the cries of hawks to better detail the grim scenery. Its sounds may be archaic, but Field of Reeds is a demonstration of music at its most pioneering; its chilling provocations always underpinned by the clarity of the band’s artistic vision.
[Full review available at The Boar.]
Highlight: After being wound tighter and tighter, ‘V (Island Song)’ suddenly releases the listener from the pervading claustrophobia, only to evolve into something even more sinister in its second half.
The members of Savages have strongly emphasised that their music should not be listened to as mere background noise. But once Silence Yourself starts playing, it’s tough to imagine ignoring it anyway. Following a 50-second sample of John Cassavetes’ 1977 film Opening Night, ‘Shut Up’ snaps to razor-sharp life, and from there on out, it’s nigh impossible to turn one’s attention away from the direct glare of the band’s post-punk ruckus. Behind those wiry guitar squalls and the Siouxsie-channelling yowls of Jehnny Beth, you can practically hear garage doors rattling, paint being stripped from the walls, and the ground rumbling beneath straining amplifiers. Indeed, a major aspect of Savages’ allure is that they sound like the band you wanted to front as a teenager. Their hooks are grimy, their identity is clear, and they know how to grab – and maintain – your full attention. Silence Yourself is angry, confrontational and unwavering, but also a howling joy to listen to. So, yeah. Shut up.
Highlight: The knife-edge breathlessness of ‘Husbands’: three minutes spent teetering on the brink of absolute mayhem.
Wakin on a Pretty Daze
It’s one of the most well-loved tactics in the musical handbook to strike a golden marriage between carefree, upbeat arrangements and melancholic lyricism. Yet on his fifth album, Kurt Vile goes one step further than most, by blurring the line between pleasure and anguish via his own woozy style of songwriting, which simultaneously sounds both heartbroken and liberated.
Sandwiched between the monumental bliss-outs of ‘Wakin on a Pretty Day’ and ‘Goldtone’, the songs ranged here are spangled with a lackadaisical psychedelia. It’s a welcoming environment to bathe in for seventy minutes, with Vile himself regularly dispensing doses of wisdom, while soft guitar melodies are drizzled over the rolling jams with all the warmth of sunbeams. Better still, the haze is filled with effervescent life, from the snappier riffs of the more visceral ‘KV Crimes’ and ‘Pure Pain’, to the joyous yelps which punctuate ‘Shame Chamber’. “Making music is easy: watch me,” Vile declares at one point. He certainly has a knack for making such luxurious compositions sound effortless.
Highlight: All ten-and-a-half minutes of ‘Goldtone’: every bit as heavenly as its title.
In an interview published in the 166th issue of The Fly, Jon Hopkins gave his own summary of Immunity, to wit: “the album to me sounds like an album, like one proper train of thought realised from beginning to end.” Without a doubt, this is the producer’s most accomplished work to date: one which invites listeners to form their own images over a vast and tightly-programmed canvas of experimental techno. It’s an undertaking which reclaims dancefloor-baiting whomps and reinvests them with a tangible humanity, as in opener ‘We Disappear’, which quivers with a restless beauty before sliding into the monolithic throb of ‘Open Eye Signal’.
This is an experience made for the nocturnal hours; one which combines the epiphanies of the all-night rave with glimpses of a more fragile transcendence, which recall lonely moments spent at a bedroom window. Hopkins’ roots in classical dexterity are manifested in the record’s spacious piano motifs, which can be heard as both infinitely cosmic and searingly intimate, playing off against the louder passages with legitimate profundity. In short, Immunity stands as a huge leap forward for Hopkins, its emotional heartbeat unceasingly at one with its rhythmic pulse.
Highlight: During ‘Breathe This Air’, the beats are stretched taut until breaking point, at which moment the scene vanishes, and a lonely piano motif shatters the claustrophobia with its stark, glacial ambience.
Trouble Will Find Me
The best way of approaching Trouble Will Find Me is being conscious of its slow-burn characteristics. With a full span of thirteen songs, The National’s sixth album is lengthy, unsurprising, and – taking into account Matt Berninger’s dry, subdued delivery – the band’s dreariest yet. But “dreary” is not synonymous with “dull”: it simply means that, in terms of subject matter and tone, the Brooklyn-based quintet have contemplated much starker topics than previously. However one chooses to interpret Berninger’s confessionals (is he grieving over a issues of faith? A traumatic loss? A romantic cataclysm?), there is no ambiguity that he feels helpless to escape from such throes of despair.
What at first I took to be an entirely average assemblage of low-tempo ballads gradually became an indispensable crutch during what was one of the toughest months of 2013 for me personally. Although I will never claim to have suffered as much as many others do (and on a much more regular basis), I began to understand just how hard it is to break a cycle of depression, no matter what strategies I kept repeating to myself. Immersing myself in Trouble Will Find Me at the time made me appreciate just how coherently The National had articulated various stages of sorrow. That’s not to say that hearing such music somehow magically restored me to my peak, but Berninger’s own grapples with depression became a strangely comforting presence: a companion which vanished through the glass with me.
I’m immensely grateful that I made it through such a turbulent time, and – as indulgent as it might sound – at how uplifting it felt to be able to call on songs such as ‘Heavenfaced’, ‘Graceless’, and ‘Hard to Find’ when I felt I needed a quiet form of support. And so, although Trouble Will Find Me is musically excellent in its own right, its high placing on this list is largely down to the fact that it holds such personal significance for me. Half a year on, it still glows with sympathy as much as it did back in May.
[Full review available here.]
Highlight: At the very heart of Trouble Will Find Me rests one of the strongest one-two punches of the year. The closing segment of ‘This is the Last Time’ is one of the most quietly devastating soundscapes ever plumbed by The National; heavy with cellos and featuring a dexterous cameo from Sharon Van Etten. And suddenly, from the deepest depths of Berninger’s grief, we are granted the most redemptive of catharses in the absolutely stunning ‘Graceless’. A faultless pairing.
Modern Vampires of the City
I really enjoyed Modern Vampires of the City upon hearing it for the first time in spring. When I came to write my original review, I was convinced that it provided a fantastic example of pop music at its most forward-thinking, and undoubtedly, it features some of the best individual songs yet released by Vampire Weekend. However, I felt it was a little too disjointed in its efforts to truly be considered a masterpiece. Something held me back from bumping up its score that little bit further into five-star territory. But as the months have slipped by, and Ezra Koenig’s lamentations of time’s remorseless passage were validated, I’ve come to realise just how elegantly constructed this album really is. The band have flourished, not just in terms of musicianship, but in all facets of their work, and are now able to weave their trademark intelligence and pop nous with a profound emotional charge.
The twelve songs of Modern Vampires proffer a flurry of images: snapshots and capsules of disparate stories, which ultimately connect to inform one primary kernel. The foggy sunrise of ‘Obvious Bicycle’, the postcard drama of ‘Hannah Hunt’, the sombre sweep of ‘Hudson’… Saabs aflame, freezing beaches, falafel shop romances… They are all drawn into a single sprawling portrait of existential anxiety: modern vampires channelling modern fears in a way which sounds adventurous, vibrant, and as irresistibly catchy as the band’s two preceding LPs (if not more so). What we are left with is a record to cherish, a band to worship, and a completed trilogy of excellent albums.
[Full review available here.]
Highlight: ‘Step’: a song so suffused in lyrical beauty and lush, harpsichord-driven instrumentation, it becomes a fairytale.
Queens of the Stone Age
… Like Clockwork
Although every musician in Queens of the Stone Age has flexed great chops as a performer, for the last decade, the band has effectively warranted a subheading as “Joshua Homme & Friends”. It’s an understandable enough tag: as founding member, frontman, creative driving force, spokesperson and iconic lodestone, Homme is a living legend in music; gargantuan in stature both physically and figuratively. Every album released since 2002’s Songs for the Deaf has flaunted Homme’s own unmistakable signature with increasing garishness, frequently to the point of depicting Queens as a thinly-veiled solo project.
Once again, there’s no doubting that … Like Clockwork is Homme’s album, but not in the manner of 2005’s Lullabies to Paralyse or 2007’s Era Vulgaris. Where those LPs displayed Homme’s gang at their most outlandishly stylised, the music here finally delves behind the swagger to reveal a songwriter at his most emotionally raw and forthcoming. Drawing on recent battles with depression and creative block, the ten songs of … Like Clockwork are lean and cogent thematically, pieced together in such a way which allows for a consistently engaging arc.
Brilliantly enough, such an emotional reawakening has coincided with the whole band’s sharpest musical vigour in years. The rhythmic thrusts in ‘I Sat by the Ocean’ and ‘I Appear Missing’ are all the more thrilling for their dynamism, and the bludgeoning riffs of yesteryear have been jettisoned in favour of much more textured guitar interplay. Although Homme’s persona remains front-and-centre, as a collective, Queens sound like a united front once again: a tight and revitalised unit ready to dominate once more in the wake of a long hiatus.
“One thing that is clear,” Homme proffers, moments before the album expires in a final breath of warped strings; “it’s all downhill from here.” Although such a portent seems highly unlikely on form like this, Queens certainly have their work cut out for them for album seven.
[Full review available here.]
Highlight: The revelatory delicacy of the album’s title track. God, did ever you expect Queens to move you quite like that?
Album of the Year
Once I Was An Eagle
It was always on the cards. Whereas other albums have grown in stature and revealed their merits to me gradually over the course of 2013, Laura Marling’s fourth is the only release I’ve yet reviewed which I felt immediately confident in giving a perfect score. Ultimately, titling Once I Was An Eagle as my album of the year means very little in the great scheme of things, but it does reflect just how emphatically I believe Marling has flourished as an artist with her latest enterprise.
After penning at least five separate articles on Marling this year alone, what else is there for me to say about Once I Was An Eagle? Though I would happily sing its praises all day, I don’t want to lay it on so thick that this treatise becomes nothing more than a dull rehash. If you would like to read a proper summary as to why I believe this is Marling’s masterpiece, you can read my original review here – I still thoroughly stand by the comments made therein.
Otherwise, as facetious as it sounds, I’d suggest that the simplest way to discover this album’s accomplishments is to seek it out personally. Whether for the first or the fiftieth time, listen to Once I Was An Eagle in its entirety. Gauge your emotional response, weigh up its qualities for yourself, and form an opinion. There are so many things that can be said about music like this, but sometimes it seems more appropriate to let the art speak for itself. And as she has proved across her discography thus far, Laura Marling needs nobody to speak on her behalf.
Highlight: The way in which each song flows into the next with all the grace of a rolling wave, drawing each component into a single suite, complete with narrative strands, theatricality, and compositional symmetries.
In order of merit, here are the ten albums which only just missed out on shortlist glory this year. If I wasn’t such a slow writer, I’d still happily wax lyrical about each of them, and have attached links to proper reviews where possible.
- Julia Holter: Loud City Song
- James Blake: Overgrown
- Daft Punk: Random Access Memories
- Waxahatchee: Cerulean Salt
- Arctic Monkeys: AM
- Local Natives: Hummingbird
- Everything Everything: Arc
- David Bowie: The Next Day
- Factory Floor: Factory Floor
- Disclosure: Settle
Ten That Got Away
And to bow out, here are ten albums which passed me by this year, for various reasons (chief among them overdosing on Wilco‘s discography and perfecting the art of procrastination). With a little luck and a lot of Spotify-ing, I’ll do my best to catch up with each of these in due course, but for now, here are a handful of albums which could well have been contenders in this year’s list, had I only given them the proper time and attention they needed.
- Boards of Canada: Tomorrow’s Harvest
- Bill Callahan: Dream River
- DARKSIDE: Psychic
- Fuck Buttons: Slow Focus
- John Grant: Pale Green Ghosts
- The Knife: Shaking the Habitual
- Janelle Monáe: The Electric Lady
- Parquet Courts: Light Up Gold
- Phosphorescent: Muchacho
- Kanye West: Yeezus
Aaaand that’s just about all from me in terms of assessing 2013! Although it hasn’t been my most prolific year for blogging, thank you so much for giving some of your time to this space; even the most cursory glance is much appreciated. One of my resolutions for 2014 is to become a much more dedicated blogger, so I’m going to be pushing myself to publish at least one article a week on the Quotesponge in the coming months. We’ll see how that pans out in time, but for now, all that’s left is to wish y’all happy listening and a happy new year!