Top Ten Albums of 2014: 4 – 2
Top Ten Albums of 2014: 4 – 2
St. Vincent (Loma Vista / Republic)
A fellow music blogger and friend of mine wrote of the significance of eponymous album titles in his review of Warpaint’s latest LP. To repeat his words, in naming an album after oneself, an artist makes a claim that this album – more than any other album of his / hers / theirs – “is definitely and defiantly us”. In a recent interview with NME, Annie Clark clarified that her fourth album as St. Vincent took its name because her identity has never sounded clearer.
Truly, St. Vincent is a supremely confident and unreserved establishment of Clark’s artistic persona, with every single moment here emanating pure, unfiltered identity. There’s more than a shade of Ziggy Stardust in the DNA of the St. Vincent character, and with this particular move in her career, Clark’s creation has become unquestionably iconic. Her bushy brown locks of yesteryear have been blitzed by a platinum ball of static electricity. On the album cover, she directs a burning gaze into the viewer’s eyeline from atop a throne, resembling an empress of some dystopian kingdom. Both alluring and chilling, St. Vincent is Clark’s creative alter-ego, and on this self-titled package, she finally mobilises everything at her disposal to secure her place on that throne for good. And my goodness, it’s astonishing.
By focusing all that she has taken from her past three albums and channelling it into its most concentrated form, St. Vincent unleashes forty minutes of immediate, muscular art-rock. An electrical charge runs through this album; a sonic sizzle which brings with it an urgency like a racing pulse. Where Strange Mercy was steered by impulses and neuroses, St. Vincent is unflinchingly direct in its loudest moments, sounding almost mechanised as it rumbles along relentlessly, everything snapped sternly into place. The guitar solo that crowns ‘Rattlesnake’ shoots through the song like a bolt of lightning, the music’s parameters widening with each passing bar. Coldness is hinted at in the periphery of this atmosphere, but chaos comes first, with rubble-sized chunks of guitar shredding through anything remotely basic, as seen most brilliantly in ‘Huey Newton’ and ‘Regret’, whose riffs slam into the fray like falling meteors.
Yet keeping all of this tumult in check is a nigh-on celestial sheen, wrought equally by John Congleton’s finessed production, and Clark’s own luminary harmonies, which balm the album’s more robotic tendencies by bringing a human touch to the mixture. Although the words speak of destruction and dystopia, Clark’s penchant for the divine brings a much-needed lightness to the album, stopping it from becoming all-too-much. The fusing is seamless: ‘I Prefer Your Love’ sounds positively naked following the brassy blast of ‘Digital Witness’; its spacious, majestic opulence tingling with tender bliss. Equally, ‘Severed Crossed Fingers’ bows out in marvellously picaresque fashion: a slo-mo marching mantra peppered with rapturous sighs from Clark’s multiple vocals.
St. Vincent is an incredible work of art; so densely produced that it begs to be admired, but so inviting that it is unendingly listenable. Clark handles her material with unerring autonomy, bridging sci-fi yarn, cyberpunk fantasia, and modern day lamentation inside of forty hugely immersive minutes. As with many other albums which completely own their moment in time, St. Vincent is lightning in a bottle: a genuinely spine-tingling demonstration of an artist in complete, unequivocal control.
Spitting our guts from their gears, draining our spleen over years, found my severed crossed fingers in the rubble there.
LP1 (Young Turks)
Not only is FKA twigs’ stunning first album artistically uninhibited, and wholly pioneering in its convention-defying aesthetic, it’s also really, really disturbing. Some of the visions conjured by Tahliah Barnett on this album are borderline nightmarish: claustrophobic power-plays transmitted through unpredictably brittle beats and vocal effects which transform the singer into an extra-terrestrial being. Though individual flavours can be compared to other artists (originally, many moments on LP1 recalled Grimes’ Visions), this music is far too slippery to be summarised concisely. It’s so elusive, so shrouded in mystique, so otherworldly, that it’s a struggle to convey how one responds to it in both style and substance – of which there is an abundance of each.
Musically, LP1 is a monstrous tableau of contradictions. It defies categorisation as something sparse and skeletal, or dense and overbearing, because it is all of these things simultaneously. Deathly silences float airlessly alongside crushingly dense atmospheres, culminating in an intense claustrophobia courtesy of the album’s broad team of producers. It’s an incredibly thick listen, the push-and-pull between distance and intimacy tightening the feeling of entrapment as the soundscapes shift and pulse with a sensual ferocity. Beats clatter and snap, icy synths flutter as if of their own accord, and both channels are overloaded with tiny fragments of ethereal sounds: smashing glass, squealing voices, barely-there strings.
These fluid atmospheres are thoroughly bewitching, but it’s Barnett who goes in for the kill, wielding second-person pronouns in an almost predatory fashion to keep her listener ensnared. Throughout LP1, we are subject to Barnett’s whims and enticements, whether she is pledging to “kiss you for hours”, or commanding “motherfucker, get your mouth open”. When the sensational ‘Lights On’ plunges into its chorus, Barnett employs a cadence which is monotonous, vulnerable, and menacing all at once: “when I trust you we can do it with the lights on”. As it goes throughout LP1, the dominant force in this coupling is never made clear – a dichotomy which is cracked wide open on ‘Two Weeks’. The swelling sense of foreboding permeates the highly physical atmosphere, with Barnett’s snarls horribly disturbing, yet intoxicating; reconfiguring sex as a monumental power struggle.
This ambiguity keeps FKA twigs captivating as a guide through these alien atmospheres, no matter how depraved the content. The fierce slinkiness she projects is heavily imbued with a depressive weight, bringing a dark beauty to everything she touches. Barnett’s face on the album cover reflects this schizophrenic ambiguity: those stains smearing her face could be interpreted as decorative makeup just as easily as the mother of all bruises. Her gaze muddies things further: is she pouting in arousal, or moaning in exhaustion? Never once do the answers become clear; the deeper one tunnels into LP1, the muddier things become. Pretty much every other album on this list makes for a more inviting and visceral listen than LP1, but this album’s ethereal undertow crept under my skin more than any other record of 2014.
When I trust you we can do it with the lights on.
Sun Kil Moon
Benji (Caldo Verde)
With the possible exception of its title, everything about Mark Kozelek’s sixth album as Sun Kil Moon is steadfastly literal. It presents us with just over an hour of a man in his late forties drawling seemingly unedited anecdotes and observations about recent events in his life. There is no pretence, no reliance on metaphor, no sense of straining for poetry or imposing substance; just an organic unspooling of thoughts and experiences. Its arrangements are largely restricted to acoustic guitars, occasionally shaded with rhythm sections, with delicate filigrees and oaky melodies providing a bed over which Kozelek can sing with total honesty. What emerges is plain, mundane, and indelibly moving.
The meaning behind Benji is non-existent. It flows in a way which seems spontaneous, which is key, because it isn’t an album about the great joy or meaning that life brings; it only chronicles that sense of searching that we all get bogged down in. Kozelek draws attention to this hope in ‘Carissa’, but he never gives us any sense of understanding or resolution. For much of the album, he instead draws attention to trivial details: on ‘Ben’s My Friend’, the choruses are composed of the chants “blue crab cakes” and “sports bar shit”, and the narrative is a shaggy dog story involving a trip to buy lampshades and a Postal Service gig. And just as innocently as he references a trip out to lunch, Kozelek can be confronted by a death in the family, or sudden concerns about his parents’ welfare. These events aren’t treated as dramatic; they just occur alongside all the other stuff he goes through.
If there is a point to Benji, it’s most likely the notion that life is not neat or purposeful, but rather a bizarre sequence of events and accidents. Any ideas pertaining to the sublime are left at the door, and all that’s left is total and utter transparency. This is what Kozelek did. This is what happened. This is what he felt. Not everything on Benji slots together coherently, and it almost prides itself on its non-sequiturs, but Kozelek’s presence is so completely enveloping, it’s hard to cut it off short. The experience is akin to a confused, meandering memoir, where bereavement, childhood guilt, sexual experiences, familial love, and day-to-day activities are jumbled together, with everything laid on the table with equal consideration.
In this fashion, ‘Carissa’ is the perfect gateway into the album. Kozelek recounts the tragic fate of his second cousin (after whom the song is named); a woman who burned to death in a freak accident involving an aerosol can left in the trash. Kozelek agonises over Carissa’s passing, grieving both for her loss and for the fact that her death apparently held no meaning whatsoever. This idea does not compute with him, and he achingly insists “you don’t just raise two kids, and take out your trash and die”. But though he pledges that he will find poetry in her life somehow, it never surfaces. There are a number of deaths throughout Benji, but they are related alongside trivial knowledge, to the point where death becomes part of everyday living. ‘Carissa’ – and Benji as a whole – isn’t about the meaning inherent in tragedy; it’s about searching for that meaning, and the lack of final answers.
But although this sounds incredibly bleak on the page, Benji is a remarkably sensitive and strangely listenable creation. The purity of Kozelek’s lyrics and the simple beauty of his fingerpicked melodies are refreshingly candid, and the emotional spectrum isn’t confined to just grief. There’s a wicked sense of humour, too, from his self-effacing comparison to Nels Cline to the warmth that permeates his songs about his parents. ‘I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love’ and ‘I Love My Dad’ are both pretty basic, and the latter could easily be construed as cheesy. But it’s so heart-on-sleeve and unpretentious that both are utterly lovely, the former one of the most heartbreaking songs of 2014. Benji has the power to break hearts, but it’s incredibly warm and sympathetic, its stubborn bluntness both brave and poignant.
It’s a shame that Kozelek proved himself capable of being a douchebag later on during the year, during that snaffoo involving The War on Drugs. But the strength of Benji is such that it isn’t tarnished by Kozelek’s mean streak. In fact, Kozelek’s churlishness even reinforces the purity of this hour of music, which comes from the kind of man who makes cruel put-downs in public and wears a perpetually curmudgeonly frown, yet who can’t bear the thought of losing his mother, and feels searing guilt over a boy he once bullied at school. In brushing off any ideas of significance, Kozelek has paradoxically produced something truly outstanding.
An aerosol can blew up in the trash, goddamn, what were the odds?
And there we go: nine incredible listens, each one worthy of praise. There’s just one more to be announced, and my Album of the Year will be revealed tomorrow evening.
Posted on January 16, 2015, in End-of-Year Lists, The Music World and tagged Benji, Birth in Reverse, Eponymous, FKA twigs, LP1, Mark Kozelek, St. Vincent, Sun Kil Moon, Tahliah Barnett, Top Ten Albums of 2014. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.