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