Monthly Archives: December 2016
My Spin on Masterworks: 25 of 25
On the surface, that’s a relatively obvious question to ask of somebody, but (in my experience, at least) it’s not one heard particularly often. We’ve generally become used to asking one another what music we’re currently listening to, focusing on what contemporary albums are worth seeking out, and keeping our eyes and ears on the horizon for hotly-tipped new releases. It’s a natural compulsion to engage with modern culture, but finding out what albums your friends first started their collections with years (or decades) ago can lead to some pretty entertaining discoveries and discussions.
Tracing the histories of our record collections can be a source of great pleasure. Taking the time to pore through our own shelves, we can pick out albums that have soundtracked different stages of life, many of which have likely come to resemble close companions down the years. Your first album may not have set a precedent for the musical voyages you’ve embarked on since, but whether you still enjoy that album or if it serves as an embarrassing reminder of bygone listening habits, it allows you to consider your own first steps into music, and to measure the evolution of your tastes from then to now.
Personally, I remember getting Demon Days on CD for my fifteenth birthday, having asked for it after noticing the healthy number of ubiquitous singles it housed: ‘Dare’, ‘Feel Good Inc.’, ‘Dirty Harry’. I suppose by modern (and possibly general) standards, that’s a pretty late age at which to start getting into music. Fifteen seems practically ancient when you imagine the iTunes collection of a pre-teen in this decade, and it was longer still before my casual enjoyment of music had grown into a full-on compulsion to listen, to discover, and eventually to write about it. Of course, before owning Demon Days, I’d been listening to works by other bands and artists, mostly on CDs sponged from my parents and older sister. These were mostly artists of the 80s and 90s, while my friends in school and college prompted me to try songs from more modern groups. I genuinely enjoyed many of these suggestions, while there were others that I probably wanted to like more than I genuinely did. In both cases, these songs and artists helped cement my sense of belonging in a social capacity. I was this kind of person, so I listened to this kind of music. Reductive as it sounds now, it was one of the ways in which I identified myself during some very overwhelming years.
Since then, things have become more varied. Over the past decade, passing interests have become obsessions, fandom has churned into devotion, and some sounds I once adored have completely disappeared from my listening life. I’ve disowned some of my earliest physical purchases (goodbye, The Kooks) and found renewed appreciation for others (hello, Queens of the Stone Age). I’m the first to admit that my tastes are hardly unusual or broad even now, but since those demon days of the mid-noughties, I’d like to think that my music collection has become more well-rounded. Throughout it all, however, Gorillaz’ second album has remained a staunch favourite. I might not dust it down for a revisit every month, but it’s a work which I’ve never viewed with anything less than fondness. Not just for the twangs of nostalgia, either: I’ve got a lot of time for the album’s colourful aesthetic, its playful genre-blending, and its window into the progression of the band itself.
Gorillaz have become constant allies throughout my past decade of album-hopping. Their singles provided the soundtrack to numerous teenage episodes, as well as some of my ill-advised steps into adulthood. They’ve made music that I’ve bonded over with friends and family alike: my sister and I were sucked in by the terrific video (and even more terrific hooks) of ‘19-2000’, and more recently I’ve watched my friend smuggle the rap verses to ‘Clint Eastwood’ into open-mic covers of Damien Rice songs. As I mentioned in my Slave to the Rhythm post, I share of lot of music with my dad, and we both grew to adore 2010’s Plastic Beach separately. To this day, he confidently ranks it in his personal top five, which is a pretty spectacular claim. It’s also my favourite Gorillaz LP to date (stay tuned for a hopeful update in 2017): it’s more adventurous than Demon Days in style and concept, and contains a bounteous showcase of collaborative gold. By 2010, Gorillaz were less of a virtual band and more like a roving band of musical swashbucklers, whose real faces eclipsed the two-dimensional characters and transformed Gorillaz into an even bolder presence.
But Demon Days still possesses magic in spades. ‘Feel Good Inc.’ may have oversaturated the airwaves back in its heyday, but its punchy production still blossoms when heard now: the terrific De La Soul verses and that bass riff give the song a sparkle that continues to glimmer brightly. MF Doom’s appearance on ‘November Has Come’ is slick, menacing, and a perfect fit to the woozy instrumentals, while there’s a nagging ache to centrepieces ‘El Manana’ and the funk weariness of ‘Every Planet We Reach is Dead’. Across this diverse and smudgy range of tunes, things occasionally tip into nuttier territory: the likes of fuzzy interlude ‘White Light’, warped hymn ‘O Green World’, and the love/hate Dennis Hopper parable ‘Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head’ have wrinkled noses of some would-be fans. But in my eyes, the album’s imperfections and goofy missteps clarify that Demon Days is first and foremost a joyous work. The fun factor continiually takes precedent over solemn notions of artistry, and the result is a vibrant, dramatic and humorous collection that’s refreshing and thrilling to dive into. Start-to-finish, I think it’s a treat.
So, what was the first album you ever owned? Do you still stand by it, or has it become too redolent of a cringeworthy time in which you owned dubious T-shirts and an even more dubious haircut? Maybe you bought it because you were trying to fit in. Maybe it was a gift from someone, possibly eager to hear your own thoughts. Maybe it was one that you spent a while saving up for, and you still treasure it now as you did back when you were giving it its first few spins. In a few years, the notion of what constitutes the first album you “owned” could be very different. What will be the average age at which people own their first records – if at all? I’m not going to try and prophecise anything, but with the advent of Spotify, Tidal et al, will it be possible to definitively mark the first album you ever “owned”, when a subscription to a streaming service makes that definition much more nebulous?
I suppose I can only speak for myself on this topic. The future trajectory of my album collection – and my relationship with music in general – will hopefully be a sprawling one, studded with more than a few questionable choices but also a handful of gems. There may be records in which I find an emotional bond to match that of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, or Endtroducing…, or Blue, or In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, or Immunity. But whatever my collection grows into from here, I can trace its history back to a definite start-point: Demon Days. And it’s an album I’m happy to call the first I ever owned. I may not turn to it in the same way as I’ll turn to another of the albums in this list, but I love it regardless. Not only is it a fun, catchy, varied pop album, it will always be my original touchstone in the form, and I still think it’s a great one. A masterwork, if you like.
My Spin on Masterworks: 24 of 25
I loved Immunity upon hearing it three years ago, but since then it has steadily become more than a mere favourite: it’s practically indispensable to me. There have been (and continually are) regular situations in which this album is the first thing I’ll reach for, whether that’s as an aural balm, or as a soundtrack companion. When I’m crossing London after sundown, heading for an overnight shift or just feeling a restless compulsion to walk, Immunity captures the thrill of wandering through the city, both immersed in and disconnected from its animation. At other times, its heavy throbs sharply evoke those nights in which time feels simultaneously condensed and stretched-out, whether I’m alone or in a crowd. More simply, it offers a dependable source of phenomenal sounds when everything else has become tiresome, and I crave that visceral shot of wonder it provides.
Immunity contains multitudes, but more than anything else, it provides an unfailingly formidable testament to the cathartic, indefinable power of music itself. To experience it from start-to-finish (preferably as loud as possible on a snug pair of headphones) is an inspiring reminder that a medium so excessively broad and easy to tire of (or feel overwhelmed by) still has the potential to tap into transcendence, when an artist or team creates a work capable of making a direct, genuine connection with its listener. Immunity does exactly this: it’s an experience that spirits you away, sets the imagination soaring, and swallows you up; heart, soul and ears. And it does so with no discernible words whatsoever: its profound impact is conducted purely through sound.
You can read a tremendous articulation of the album’s blow-by-blow impact at Arbiter of Taste, in which the album’s vivid power is brought into specific focus. For my part, I struggle to articulate exactly how each track resonates, what images and ideas it recalls, and why. It’s hard enough for me to identify and describe each of Immunity’s individual gracenotes, not to mention the way each one succeeds in shooting shivers down my spine or transporting me somewhere completely different. It’s possibly because there’s just too much I’d like to say about it, and I frequently run the risk of turning into a gushing mess (which has probably happened here anyway, but I’ve started, so I’ll finish).
I’ve barely researched how Jon Hopkins sculpts his songs at all. Unlike most (if not all) of the other entries in this series, I don’t want to know how this music was conceived in a technical sense, because integral to its enrapturing appeal is its aura of mystery. I fear that as soon as I’ve investigated the hard facts of the programming, the sampling, the editing, and so on, part of Immunity’s magic will fade. Hopkins deserves so much praise for his work on this album, and the talent he wields here surely single him out as one of British music’s brightest leading lights, and not just in the field of electronica. However, his work in Immunity is so accomplished that the thrill of the music is all-consuming in and of itself. Wherever the word “electronic” is raised in relation to music, there will be prompted some degree of discussion as to what extent the final product sounds “organic” or “synthetic”: how the artificial and the analogue sounds are blended and balanced. But with Immunity, the work is one breathtakingly fluid mass of sound that completely convinces the listener of its own energy and life force. Not only do I enjoy this music, I believe in it, and Hopkins himself completely disappears behind its vibrancy.
Statements like that run the risk of sounding overly hyperbolic, but the music of Immunity genuinely sounds alive and purposeful. This album moves: it’s restless, fidgety, cacophonous, constantly rising and falling, breathing and collapsing, growing and shrinking and mutating seemingly of its own volition. From the second the outside world is sealed off with that opening door slam, the music begins to twitch and shift like a waking creature, and the momentum it gathers across the album’s length is completely compelling. Those aren’t beats driving the album: they’re pulses. Once ‘Open Eye Signal’ has cycled up, the kinetic force of the music is palpable: the friction and mounting tension of that gradually warping bass stumbles to keep pace with that relentlessly surging rhythm. It’s a breathtaking and draining exercise in which the central elements contort into new forms, constantly clenching and unclenching like a huge muscle across seven minutes, as on the peripheries, celestial sounds and shapes glide past.
After taking a plunge into some of those breathtakingly glacial piano segments during ‘Breathe This Air’, things become even more oppressive in the commanding ‘Collider’, which resembles a thunderstorm of techno passing directly overhead, with synths striking down out of the accumulated mass. The whole passage vibrates with urgency over a looped sigh, which is simultaneously evocative of a sensual moan and the cold, steady hum of a life-support machine. As with every moment on Immunity, the textures are remarkable in their depth and range: the thick, smudgy brutalism of an overpowering bass or beat countered by flickers of light in the form of pristine keys, while in the background there is constant motion: a faint slow-motion firework, a wash of calming winds, the brittle creak of chairs and pedals.
Although the album begins with Hopkins ushering the listener into his studio, the album feels paradoxically huge as well as intimate. ‘We Disappear’ establishes this strange dichotomy with its soft introduction, as if Hopkins is allowing us a glimpse inside a miniature universe, before the arrival of a whomping beat suddenly envelopes all else – including your full attention. Even when Immunity flirts with ambience, the results are not “ignorable” in the Eno-coined sense: they work to complement the more aggressive passages, with each sound vital instead of decorative. Each individual track is rich, stunningly textured, and memorable, but Immunity is a holistic creation, and the full effect achieved by letting it consume you for its full sixty minutes is beyond description. After this heavy, dramatic, layered journey, the dying moments of ‘Immunity’ attain a peaceful fragility through bittersweet quiet. The mixture of clear, trickling piano keys, softly whirring effects, and King Creosote’s gentle, indecipherable croon is achingly affecting, as the album reaches its patient, moving conclusion.
However you chose to listen to the record –as an evocation of (or soundtrack to) a night out, a tribute to the physical properties of a particular place, the private odyssey of a wide-eyed gamer – the journey it offers has a definitive end point. But this astounding album invites the listener back time and time again, to discover things anew, to puzzle out the details while remaining breathlessly in awe of such an extraordinary, beautiful mass of sound. Over time, the effect becomes spellbindingly personal – at the very least, it has for me. This is an album which continues to move me in a way that very few records can rival.
Fuck me, trying to explain it just feels detrimental. Go and listen to it right now. This is elemental music.
My Spin on Masterworks: 23 of 25
Sign o’ the Times
Warner Bros, 1987
At the time of writing this piece, 2016 is finally creaking to a close, and like millions of others, I’m hoping that December 31st will serve as a firm door slam to one of the shittiest years in living memory. The long-term consequences of its most damaging upsets will likely prove to be increasingly bizarre and frightening in the years to come, but when 2017 hits, please just let the tumult die down for a while as we try to process what the hell just happened.
Peppering the cavalcade of horrors – global crises and tragedies, the unremarked and the unavoidable alike – so many generation-defying heroes of the past half-century slipped away, with periods of mourning becoming alarmingly regular. Crushingly, an uncommonly substantial number of those lost were true icons, the likes of whom it’s hard to imagine being rivalled in this age of flash-in-the-pan success stories. (You can practically hear David Bowie sniggering at modern fame in the title track to the monolithic Blackstar.) These weren’t just familiar faces or celebrities past their prime: they were totemic figures of inspiration who moved in their own orbit, and in doing so brought inspiration, solace, pleasure, and solidarity to millions. Their absence has been sorely felt, even if their brightest days were behind them during their final years. Yet many – even those whose productivity was in decline of late – still felt like vital presences on this Earth: lodestars whose very existence was a dependable source of happiness. Cast your mind back to the beginning of 2016, and ponder: who would want to imagine a world without Bowie, or Cohen, or Prince?
If the sudden headlines heralding the passing of Bowie were dislocating at the year’s outset, the loss of Prince Rogers Nelson in April was barely comprehensible. The tragic circumstances surrounding his death can be found in greater detail and with broader commentary elsewhere, but for now it’s worth remembering what he gifted to the world in his heyday. Even on this side of the millennium, Prince’s creative force was staggering. His final records may have lacked the irresistibility of his mid-80s winning streak, but he continued to prove his capacity for sharp hooks and intriguing songwriting, not to mention mindblowing live shows that could still spark the kind of widespread feverish excitement that few living performers could rival. In the wake of the tragic news, however, it was most natural for listeners (those old and new) to pore through the classic albums in his discography: the most direct way to celebrate the momentous achievements of an insuppressibly creative man. Personally, I locked my ears inside Sign o’ the Times for days on end, and was repeatedly struck by its vitality, its effervescence, and the sheer majesty of its musical design.
Prince’s years working with The Revolution were arguably the most lucrative of his career, and they certainly gave him the wherewithal to let his musicianship flourish. For his ninth studio record, he went it alone, detaching from his stalwart bandmates to take on even greater autonomy in the studio. It was a strange form of liberation (on record, the Revolution never seemed to cramp his style or sound), but there’s a sense of unbridled energy that permeates Sign o’ the Times; the sound of Prince stretching his wings and soaring wherever he saw fit in his words and music. Conversely, there’s less pomp and sparkle present here than there is on the album’s immediate predecessors; no showstoppers in the Purple Rain mould or ubiquitous singles like those found of 1999. Instead, this is an extended sojourn in which Prince is guided by his own whims, and operating at the peak of his powers, the result is nothing short of masterful: pop music at its most potent and assured.
The Sign o’ the Times that the world is now familiar with was condensed and consolidated from a triple-album Prince was working on following the disbanding of the Revolution. Material shelved from other projects (including “lost albums” Dream Factory and Camille) found a home on the final cut, but while the sixteen songs housed herein are eccentric and varied in style, the gleam of the daz is never compromised. For all its diversity, every song on Sign o’ the Times sounds at home, in this inclusive double-disc party that fuses styles with such élan that Prince makes it sound miraculously easy. Double albums are far from extinct, and the past decade has hosted several sublime works from artists whose conceptual ambitions and charisma suits the project (The ArchAndroid, The Suburbs). Even so, there’s something even more wondrous about double albums from decades past. By and large, they don’t reflect a pursuit of artistic credence inasmuch as they capture a freeing of inhibitions: a chance for musicians to revel in the sprawl: no neat contours, just an exploration of one cool idea after another. The Beatles takes listeners on a joyride through four strange brains, plucking melodies as easy as daisies while still setting listeners reeling with abrasive wig-outs and lyrics that veered from politically savvy to solvent-eroded. This is the double-album as a funhouse for creativity, with the results wilfully broad and unusual. Prince pulled off the same trick with Sign o’ the Times, but instead of forays into the avant-garde, his pop nous was consistently on-point.
Every corner of this album is crammed with earworms, and polished in that bombastic 80s sheen that has seen the album celebrated as one of the decade’s definitive works. This is a spectacular record to lose oneself inside: a world in which R&B, funk, soul, dance and even psychedelia coalesce into a dazzling whole. One of pop music’s key attributes is that it sounds so effortlessly simple, but close listening to Sign o’ the Times reveals Prince’s dedication to and intuitive knowledge of the craft. His staggering musical gifts are on display throughout, as well as his ear for the unexpected. The brief guitar coda of ‘Forever in My Life’ is unfailingly refreshing on every listen, likewise the drunken keys that flutter in during ‘U Got the Look’, or the taut, flawless build of ‘Strange Relationship’. Such was the power of Prince during this period, and the double-album format found him at leisure to explore whatever styles and ideas came to his fancy. Pick any sequence of songs and you’ll hear an artist pinballing between styles with revelatory skill. ‘The Cross’ stamps its way heavenward as it churns from a power ballad into an ecstatic drone, before ‘It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night’ captures a street carnival at full tilt. The soulful slow jam of ‘Adore’ ends things on a breathless high, and even if it’s a world away from ‘Sign o’ the Times’ itself in terms of topic and aesthetic, it fits as a snug bookend to an album of vivid technicolour.
There are many successful popstars who devote themselves to their work with utmost solemnity, but the best contenders are the ones unafraid of being playful. Sign o’ the Times is a wonderful album, not least because Prince was unafraid of incorporating his sillier ideas into the mix. His strange humour was as integral to his cultural character as his sensuality or fashion credentials. On this record in particular, Prince’s many sides are exposed; he shifts from one mood to another with tangible ecstasy. So it is that ‘Starfish & Coffee’ sits comfortably between two lascivious funk odes to bonking without resembling a sonic gooseberry. The title track takes a sweeping state-of-the-nation stance, lamenting the excesses and tragedies of the era in macro and micro; two songs later, Prince affects a petulant whine and spouts gleeful nonsense (“don’t wait for your neighbour / green eggs and ham!”) over a vault-rumbling beat for ‘Housequake’. Prince’s career was built upon one man playing many parts, and Sign o’ the Times can be heard as a showcase-in-miniature of his talents. It’s too much to claim that any one of Prince’s albums could adequately be cited as his definitive work, but it’s this one which comes closest.
At its core, Sign o’ the Times thrives on the charisma of its auteur. Prince has arguably made more accomplished start-to-finish records, but this is a double-disc whirl through his imagination at its most unbridled, and it makes for a fantastic trip (not to mention a terrifically catchy one). Here is Prince at his peak, showcasing all sides of his personality as well as demonstrating his frankly flabbergasting musicianship across sixteen slabs of gold. This is music from an artist with towering ambition and little in the way of inhibitions, sounding cooler than you could ever hope to be, even at its goofiest. And in an age when “you turn on the telly and every other channel is tellin’ you somebody died”, Sign o’ the Times offers seventy-nine minutes of vivacity, inviting us to play in the sunshine, dance the quake, set our minds free – at least for a while. When we know that hard times are coming, it can be comforting to know that at least for now, it’s gonna be a beautiful night.