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Album of the Year 2017: Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness

Julie Byrne, the rock in choppy seas (photo: Angela Lewis for portalsmusic.com)

Album of the Year

Julie Byrne

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.”

05/01/18

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Albums of the Year 2017: 6-2

(Perfume) Genius at Work (photo: leguesswho.nl)

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.

6

Julien Baker

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.”

5

Lorde

Melodrama

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.”

4

Perfume Genius

No Shape

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.”

3

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.”

2

Mount Eerie

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.”

04/01/18

Albums of the Year 2017: 11-7

St Vincent, a true show stopper (photo: Consequence of Sound)

This tuneful bunch features a number of perennial artists whose output is reliably smart, sharp and sonically wondrous. It’s been a mixed year for big names, with releases from some longstanding favourites (I’m sorry Arcade Fire, Gorillaz, and Laura Marling) falling flat, but these five are dependably fantastic, makig these five entries ones that I kept shuffling and reshuffling. Chances are I’ll do so again at some point, but for now, I’m happy with how this all lines up. Into the Top Eleven!

11

Alvvays

Antisocialites

I’ve kept Alvvays’ debut close at hand over the last three years, delighted to have discovered a group whose dreamy, colourful brand of pop is grounded by genuine smarts and an enduring shelf-life beyond a single golden summer. Alvvays offered gleaming hooks in a garage-rock scree, led by the charmingly acute nous of Molly Rankin and her clear, cut-glass voice. Antisocialites is even better: some of the fuzz has been shaved from the edges of the band’s sound, but the writing is as winsome as ever. Whooshing by in little more than half an hour, Antisocialites hopscotches from highlight to highlight without ever falling out of step: every melody sparkles and soars, from Alec O’Hanley’s nimble-fingered fretwork to Kerri MacLellan’s starry-eyed keyboards, which are given more room to swell and swoon.

Quintessential Alvvays janglers ‘Plimsoll Punks’, ‘Saved by a Waif’ and the addictive ‘Lollipop (Ode to Jim)’ boast the kind of fizzy effervescence you wish more guitar groups could pull off with such apparent ease and flair, but Antisocialites finds greater growth in the group’s emotional abilities. Rankin writes flavoursome tales that are contain just the right level of quaintness, whether she’s longingly kicking around under condominium lights, or dismissing a suitor with a bit of bloody poetry (“you’re an O and I’m AB”). ‘In Undertow’ and ‘Not My Baby’ perfectly negotiate the push-and-pull between toughness and vulnerability, the Stereolab strut of ‘Hey’ spies on the frustration constantly lapping near the surface of any union, and ‘Dreams Tonite’ is cards-on-the-table heartache of the highest order. Taken together, it’s a record brimming with delights: funny and touching, and all the medicine our inner teenagers require. Long may Molly Mayhem and her cohorts shore up on our doorsteps, always and forever.

“Alter my state to get through this date.”

10

The National

Sleep Well Beast

The National have always worked in service of the slow-burn reward, rather than shooting for instant gratification. Theirs are albums which grow and mutate from pleasant distractions on the first listen into rumbling monsters by the fifth, each rotation slyly revealing hitherto unnoticed channels of emotional clout, or subtle magic behind the instrumentals. And yet, even to this long-time fan, after six albums of hearing the Brooklyn quintet plumb the shifty trials and tribulations of the American yuppie experience, the prospect of more of the same did seem dispiritingly like low-hanging fruit. However, while Sleep Well Beast does little to dispel concerns that The National are relatively one-note in their work, the group surpass expectations once more in finding fresh potency within those familiar spaces.

The major trick this time is the heightened intimacy of the writing. Matt Berninger’s lyrics were co-written with his partner Carin Besser, and given many of these songs dig deeply into the fractures and fissures that scar long-term relationships, the results are so piercing as to be painful. These aren’t dramatic scenes, but ones of roiling, pent-up turmoil and constant clashes between longstanding love and the countless needles of hate that threaten to poke through. The album’s second half in particular – from the encroaching din of ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’ to the somnambulant title track – is a sequence to be marvelled at, overflowing with empathetic writing and some of The National’s most gorgeous compositions to date. Berninger and his band of brothers may not be full of surprises in sound and theme, but the way in which they continue to map painfully direct routes to the hearts and minds of their listeners is quietly revelatory. Being able to do so without ever rewriting their own rulebook is a hugely commendable feat, two decades into a career that maintains a steady, deliberate pace.

“You’d fall into rivers with friends on the weekends, innocent skies above.”

9

St. Vincent

MASSEDUCTION

Annie Clark continues to defy gravity in her ascendancy as an icon for our age. Her eponymous record as St. Vincent in 2014 felt like a culmination of all that her career thus far had been pointing to; all the promise and potential of her quasi-persona finally coalescing into what felt like a definitive statement. Imagining how on earth she’d follow it up was a true chin-scratcher, but in typically effortless fashion, MASSEDUCTION pivots into bells-and-whistles glam and machine-tooled pop in a move that feels like a thoroughly organic development from ‘Birth in Reverse’ and its ilk. This is a demented toybox of an album, filled to the brim with murderous hooks, venomous songwriting, and stimulating sonic left-turns, as Clark refracts pop culture, modern anxiety and her own slippery identity through a prism of her distinctive wit and robotic beats courtesy of Jack Antonoff.

Each track crashes into the next in a breathless rush that’s hard to retreat from once it’s in motion. Clark may reign supreme as the queen of the sludge guitar, but on MASSEDUCTION she joyously pinballs between disparate moods, tones and styles without losing her own artistic voice in the process, whether she’s trading in achingly spare balladry (‘Happy Birthday Johnny’, ‘New York’) or string-soaked sumptuousness that could melt icebergs (‘Slow Disco’). All are delicious confections, among which the frazzled nursery rhymes about chemical dependency (‘Pills’) and funky scrutiny of fetish culture (‘Savior’) are the least of the surprises in store. Her various collaborators continue to build the intrigue surrounding her work, but really, the St. Vincent story continues to be Clark’s show, and MASSEDUCTION showcases her mastery in full, glorious technicolour.

“Am I thinking what everybody’s thinking? I’m so glad I came but I can’t wait to leave.”

8

Kendrick Lamar

DAMN.

“It was always me versus the world / Until I found it’s me versus me.”

So goes the opening croon of ‘DUCKWORTH’, the final (or first) offering on the latest opus from Kung Fu Kenny. It’s a fitting encapsulation of the shift in focus taken by Kendrick Lamar on DAMN., which doubles down on the personal soul-searching that underscored broader narratives on To Pimp a Butterfly and good kid, m.A.A.d city. It’s not without its political and social sting in the tail, but for the duration of DAMN., Lamar wrestles with a whole army of demons, most of which fester in his own mind, informed by – rather than having form in – the outside world.

The titles are clues enough to what’s been shuddering through Lamar’s troubled psyche. There’s respite in the radio-friendly surrender to ‘LOVE’ and the magnificent braggadocio of ‘HUMBLE’, but at its core, DAMN. is an incredibly troubled and troubling dispatch. Lamar recounts strange dreams (maybe?) of his life ending violently, lacerates himself for the hypocrisy he partakes in even as he tries to be a spokesperson for the right causes, and by the time of ‘DUCKWORTH’ and the blistering ‘FEAR’, he’s obsessing over the terrifying nature of fate’s simple, unpredictable twists. It’s electrifying and sobering material, and Lamar’s precision in wordplay and flow is as world-beating as ever, the gauntlet thrown down to all comers on the ferocious second half of ‘DNA’ and in the impassioned admissions of ‘FEEL’. I might have ranked him eighth in this year’s list, but Lamar remains peerless in his field: nobody else in the game can keep pace with their own legacy, intelligence, and creative prowess with the same power and verve.

“So I was taking a walk the other day…”

7

Father John Misty

Pure Comedy

Joshua Tillman’s modern mission of brutally honest songwriting continues to take him – and his devotees – to very peculiar places. Pure Comedy’s 75-minute odyssey through mankind’s hideous foibles is by some distance the most bracing of his output thus far: a polarising and abrasively bitter broadside from which nobody is shielded. The humour is an inky black, any smiles made with bared teeth as Tillman verbally eviscerates himself and his fellows in humankind, the precious few moments of tenderness jostling for room with liberally dispensed loathing. Completing the effect is Tillman’s abandonment of yesteryear’s grandiose arrangements in favour of much more winding and skeletal piano- and string-led compositions, which only entrenches the love/hate nature that Tillman seems to revel in provoking.

Yes, Pure Comedy is pure Marmite. But when its languorous pace and uncompromisingly sober outlook on humanity is persevered with, the mass of material strikes a resounding chord. The western world’s predominant ideologies and modern trends are satirised, butchered, and ridiculed with unfailing wit, yet these swipes are not made soullessly: there’s a clear sorrow and compassion behind Tillman’s delivery which grants the album a new dimension of power. When one of his avatars wearily abandons all sense of clever pretension to simply live in blissful ignorance (‘So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain’), it’s a moment of self-preservation that’s both weak and wholly sympathetic. The world’s increasingly looking like an insurmountable mess, and this album catalogues it painfully well.

“The only thing that seems to make them feel alive is the struggle to survive.”

03/01/18

Albums of the Year 2017: 16-12

Thundercat, in the hat (photo: Amy Harris, rollingstone.com)

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.

16

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.”

15

The xx

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.”

14

The Horrors

V

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.”

13

Thundercat

Drunk

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.”

12

LCD Soundsystem

American Dream

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.”

02/01/18

Albums of the Year 2017: 21-17

Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield. Happy New Year! (photo: Carolina Faruolo for diymag.com)

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.

21

Queens of the Stone Age

Villains

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?”

20

Future Islands

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.”

19

SZA

Ctrl

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.”

18

Waxahatchee

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.”

17

Sampha

Process

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.”

01/01/18

Album Review: The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

Taking effect: The War On Drugs' Adam Granduciel (photo: nme)

Taking effect: The War On Drugs’ Adam Granduciel (photo: nme)

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.”

18/09/17

Live Review: Alvvays On My Mind

I will Alvvays love you: Molly Rankin and co. light up KOKO (photo: MP)

Alvvays

KOKO, Camden (08/09/17)

It’s Friday night at Camden’s beloved KOKO venue, and mid-gig, Molly Rankin treats Alvvays’ audience to a short, not-so-sweet anecdote about her day. It involves the brand-new pair of shoes that she’s been schlepping around with her for the past two weeks of touring: some white pumps that she finally saw fit to break in once her band had arrived on London’s streets. “I stepped outside,” she sighs, “and immediately, a bird shat on them. So that’s my fucking luck today.” She then raises an arm, gesturing to the sweeping, sold-out venue with an air of conciliatory triumph. “But hey, this is great!”

That unfortunate encounter with a conniving avian aside, it’s been an exciting day for Rankin and her bandmates. Today sees the release of Antisocialites, the second record from the fizzy dream-poppers, and after a bustling day of press engagements and live sessions, they’ve capped proceedings with a particularly glitzy show in the capital. Pillowed by rosy lighting, and playing beneath a moon-sized mirrorball that regularly sets KOKO’s balconies twinkling with fragments of technicolour, Alvvays perform with tried-and-tested confidence. Their newest studio output has been road-tested for some time, and after six years in the game, the band interact with tight-knit intuition.

The four-piece welcome their new drummer Sheridan Riley, and Rankin confirms that Alvvays “really like playing in England. Your cities are really close together.” It’s a lot of fun to be present, and to hear the bulk of Antisocialites before I’ve had a proper chance to pore over the record’s various delights. ‘Lollipop (Ode to Jim)’ is particularly winsome, Rankin’s bubblegum chorus establishing itself as a long-term earworm even before the second verse has properly kicked in. The pop-psych swirls of Kerri MacLellan’s keyboards add a vintage gloss to the swelling ‘Forget About Life’, and on the evidence of its reception, surging single ‘Plimsoll Punks’ has quickly become a live favourite, the dual guitars of Rankin and Alec O’Hanley dovetailing spectacularly.

What’s most impressive is that the tunes from their self-titled first album have lodged so deeply in the ears and hearts of fans over the past three years. ‘Archie, Marry Me’ is an obvious go-to anthem for the group, and its skyscraping “hey hey” singalong is inevitably contributed to by all present. But it’s the reception of the album’s deeper cuts that reveals how adored Alvvays have become: the bouncy ‘Atop a Cake’ gets one of the evening’s biggest cheers, and the swooning guitars of ‘Next of Kin’ and ‘Party Police’ bring those clustered in front of the stage to a state of frenzy.

Alvvays aren’t a band to define the times or articulate issues of vital importance, but they consistently hitch their wagon of jangle-pop goodness to solid songwriting, trading in sticky melodies and vocals that betray more than mere by-the-numbers heartache. Bands that mine that classic wide-eyed, bedroom-bound aesthetic may seem ten-a-penny, but Alvvays have a particularly nagging appeal, making music that outlives its catchy hooks and surface sheen. Here’s hoping they’re here to stay, although Rankin may want to get herself some fresh kicks.

Setlist

Saved by a Waif // Adult Diversion // In Undertow // Plimsoll Punks // Lollipop (Ode to Jim) // Not My Baby // Hey // Atop a Cake // Forget About Life // Your Type // Next of Kin // Ones Who Love You // Archie, Marry Me // Dreams Tonite // Party Police // Dives // Trying to be Kind

11/09/17

Album Review: Queens of the Stone Age – Villains

Dancing Queens (only 17 in ’73): QOTSA (photo: diymag)

Queens of the Stone Age

Villains (Matador)

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.”

07/09/17

Stay Gold: Favourites of 2017 So Far

Follow her voice: Julie Byrne (photo: Sam Williams, pitchfork.com)

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.”

Thundercat

Drunk

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.”

03/09/17

Live Review: Future Islands (Beauties of the Road)

The Future is Now: Samuel T. Herring searches desperately for a towel (photo: Claire)

Future Islands

Cambridge Corn Exchange (01/07/17)

Cards on the table, I’ve barely scratched the surface in discovering what modern musicians are capable of, but even so, it would take a monstrously detailed and impassioned argument to convince me that there’s a greater living frontman than Samuel T. Herring. And even if such a thesis was presented to me, I’d probably just counter with “yeah, but have you seen Future Islands live?” Because if you haven’t, then you’ll want to amend that as soon as possible. Listen (again) to the swelling, lung-dredging fervour that drives the likes of ‘Spirit’ and ‘Tin Man’. Now imagine the dials turned up even higher; the experience of witnessing such hurricanes of emotional outpouring in person. In the flesh, Herring is much more than a singer: he’s a force of nature, hellbent on reaching out to every single mind and body present in each audience. The man is a dragon.

Future Islands’ show at the Cambridge Corn Exchange (belatedly added to their exhaustive European tour, as the group made the hop from Belgium to Ireland) was surely a treat for all present, but for my sister and myself, it bordered on miraculous. Even given the group’s glowing reputation, we never expected the show to reach such magnificent heights. By the time the ecstatic ‘Ran’ rushed to a close, sweat was trickling from what looked to be every pore of Herring’s face. His forehead was gushing like a spring within the space of three songs, and in the space of two more, his whole shirt was sodden, moisture dripping from his elbows as he threw himself from one corner of the stage to another, his eyes never leaving the rapturous crowd.

Overwhelming perspiration is merely the most apparent symptom of just how much Herring pours into every single performance. Even his now-legendary display on the Late Show in 2014 doesn’t fully capture the extent of his animation onstage. The same fundamentals remained present and correct, but what was more palpable were the deep reserves of compassion and complexity powering those vocals and gestures. Herring pummelled his chest as if attempting to exorcise some great beast from his own lungs. His blazing eyes roved the crowd, locking and holding his gaze for prolonged intervals as he attempted to find a connection with as many individuals as possible. He flung himself onto the stage in belly-flops, leapt into high-kicks with remarkable elasticity, wrapped his mouth around his entire fist. He shrieked and yowled like a man possessed, looming and growling and towering over the audience, turning on a dime from manic to tender and back again, as starry-eyed synth-pop wept alongside him.

It was an incredible spectacle, yet charged with such great nuance and intense personal feeling that there’s no adequate way to do justice to his showmanship. It’s hard to fake such a reckoning of emotion and energy, especially considering that the length of the set stretched to a Herculean 100 minutes. And this isn’t to say that Herring’s bandmates were lacking in panache; William Cashion, Gerrit Welmers, and touring drummer Michael Lowry may have been much more outwardly stoic, but their taut, precise playing kept the show anchored and rich in melody. The sound was crystal-clear; to hear aching gems such as ‘A Dream of You and Me’ and the stunning ‘A Song For Our Grandfathers’ take flight was worth the price of admission. Welmers’ keys oscillated between pillowy and piercing as the urgency of the show dipped and peaked; Lowry hammered his kit with the recklessness of a John Bonham disciple, and Cashion’s melodic bass runs gave the night its backbone: the nucleus around which all else orbited. With over 1,000 shows in their wake, Future Islands are a well-oiled machine, able to leap from a simmer to full boil without breaking a sweat (with the obvious exception of one member).

Considering the sheer energy demanded of Herring for even a single song, it was revelatory that the pace of the evening never once flagged across twenty-four songs, democratically drawn from their whole catalogue. A chorus of hecklers repeatedly demanding ‘Beach Foam’ got their wish late in the game (“this is for all you motherfuckers who will not shut up” Herring growled, with a wink), and the scorchingly intimate ‘Little Dreamer’ capped the night with an atmosphere of hushed reverence. When the group finally left the stage – the frontman mopping his whole head with a towel that was surely well-past saturated – the venue still wouldn’t cool, fans pinballing around the hall, attempting to summon from within themselves guttural rasps to match those of Herring. The thrill held in the air like humidity; stepping out into the night was like returning from a different world, shaking ourselves out of a mesmeric funk.

My advice to everybody for whom it is feasible is to go and see Future Islands whenever the opportunity next arises. As pleasant as their recorded music can be, witnessing Herring’s ferocity – and sharing that experience in an audience of exultant fans – is utterly transporting. Don’t walk. Run.

Setlist

Grease // Aladdin // Ran // A Dream of You and Me // Beauty of the Road // Time on Her Side // Walking Through That Door // Balance // Before the Bridge // Light House // Doves // North Star // A Song for Our Grandfathers // Through the Roses // Seasons (Waiting On You) // Cave // Inch of Dust // Long Flight // Tin Man // Spirit // Black Rose // Beach Foam // Vireo’s Eye // Little Dreamer

09/07/17