My Spin on Masterworks: 25 of 25
On the surface, that’s a relatively obvious question to ask of somebody, but (in my experience, at least) it’s not one heard particularly often. We’ve generally become used to asking one another what music we’re currently listening to, focusing on what contemporary albums are worth seeking out, and keeping our eyes and ears on the horizon for hotly-tipped new releases. It’s a natural compulsion to engage with modern culture, but finding out what albums your friends first started their collections with years (or decades) ago can lead to some pretty entertaining discoveries and discussions.
Tracing the histories of our record collections can be a source of great pleasure. Taking the time to pore through our own shelves, we can pick out albums that have soundtracked different stages of life, many of which have likely come to resemble close companions down the years. Your first album may not have set a precedent for the musical voyages you’ve embarked on since, but whether you still enjoy that album or if it serves as an embarrassing reminder of bygone listening habits, it allows you to consider your own first steps into music, and to measure the evolution of your tastes from then to now.
Personally, I remember getting Demon Days on CD for my fifteenth birthday, having asked for it after noticing the healthy number of ubiquitous singles it housed: ‘Dare’, ‘Feel Good Inc.’, ‘Dirty Harry’. I suppose by modern (and possibly general) standards, that’s a pretty late age at which to start getting into music. Fifteen seems practically ancient when you imagine the iTunes collection of a pre-teen in this decade, and it was longer still before my casual enjoyment of music had grown into a full-on compulsion to listen, to discover, and eventually to write about it. Of course, before owning Demon Days, I’d been listening to works by other bands and artists, mostly on CDs sponged from my parents and older sister. These were mostly artists of the 80s and 90s, while my friends in school and college prompted me to try songs from more modern groups. I genuinely enjoyed many of these suggestions, while there were others that I probably wanted to like more than I genuinely did. In both cases, these songs and artists helped cement my sense of belonging in a social capacity. I was this kind of person, so I listened to this kind of music. Reductive as it sounds now, it was one of the ways in which I identified myself during some very overwhelming years.
Since then, things have become more varied. Over the past decade, passing interests have become obsessions, fandom has churned into devotion, and some sounds I once adored have completely disappeared from my listening life. I’ve disowned some of my earliest physical purchases (goodbye, The Kooks) and found renewed appreciation for others (hello, Queens of the Stone Age). I’m the first to admit that my tastes are hardly unusual or broad even now, but since those demon days of the mid-noughties, I’d like to think that my music collection has become more well-rounded. Throughout it all, however, Gorillaz’ second album has remained a staunch favourite. I might not dust it down for a revisit every month, but it’s a work which I’ve never viewed with anything less than fondness. Not just for the twangs of nostalgia, either: I’ve got a lot of time for the album’s colourful aesthetic, its playful genre-blending, and its window into the progression of the band itself.
Gorillaz have become constant allies throughout my past decade of album-hopping. Their singles provided the soundtrack to numerous teenage episodes, as well as some of my ill-advised steps into adulthood. They’ve made music that I’ve bonded over with friends and family alike: my sister and I were sucked in by the terrific video (and even more terrific hooks) of ‘19-2000’, and more recently I’ve watched my friend smuggle the rap verses to ‘Clint Eastwood’ into open-mic covers of Damien Rice songs. As I mentioned in my Slave to the Rhythm post, I share of lot of music with my dad, and we both grew to adore 2010’s Plastic Beach separately. To this day, he confidently ranks it in his personal top five, which is a pretty spectacular claim. It’s also my favourite Gorillaz LP to date (stay tuned for a hopeful update in 2017): it’s more adventurous than Demon Days in style and concept, and contains a bounteous showcase of collaborative gold. By 2010, Gorillaz were less of a virtual band and more like a roving band of musical swashbucklers, whose real faces eclipsed the two-dimensional characters and transformed Gorillaz into an even bolder presence.
But Demon Days still possesses magic in spades. ‘Feel Good Inc.’ may have oversaturated the airwaves back in its heyday, but its punchy production still blossoms when heard now: the terrific De La Soul verses and that bass riff give the song a sparkle that continues to glimmer brightly. MF Doom’s appearance on ‘November Has Come’ is slick, menacing, and a perfect fit to the woozy instrumentals, while there’s a nagging ache to centrepieces ‘El Manana’ and the funk weariness of ‘Every Planet We Reach is Dead’. Across this diverse and smudgy range of tunes, things occasionally tip into nuttier territory: the likes of fuzzy interlude ‘White Light’, warped hymn ‘O Green World’, and the love/hate Dennis Hopper parable ‘Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head’ have wrinkled noses of some would-be fans. But in my eyes, the album’s imperfections and goofy missteps clarify that Demon Days is first and foremost a joyous work. The fun factor continiually takes precedent over solemn notions of artistry, and the result is a vibrant, dramatic and humorous collection that’s refreshing and thrilling to dive into. Start-to-finish, I think it’s a treat.
So, what was the first album you ever owned? Do you still stand by it, or has it become too redolent of a cringeworthy time in which you owned dubious T-shirts and an even more dubious haircut? Maybe you bought it because you were trying to fit in. Maybe it was a gift from someone, possibly eager to hear your own thoughts. Maybe it was one that you spent a while saving up for, and you still treasure it now as you did back when you were giving it its first few spins. In a few years, the notion of what constitutes the first album you “owned” could be very different. What will be the average age at which people own their first records – if at all? I’m not going to try and prophecise anything, but with the advent of Spotify, Tidal et al, will it be possible to definitively mark the first album you ever “owned”, when a subscription to a streaming service makes that definition much more nebulous?
I suppose I can only speak for myself on this topic. The future trajectory of my album collection – and my relationship with music in general – will hopefully be a sprawling one, studded with more than a few questionable choices but also a handful of gems. There may be records in which I find an emotional bond to match that of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, or Endtroducing…, or Blue, or In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, or Immunity. But whatever my collection grows into from here, I can trace its history back to a definite start-point: Demon Days. And it’s an album I’m happy to call the first I ever owned. I may not turn to it in the same way as I’ll turn to another of the albums in this list, but I love it regardless. Not only is it a fun, catchy, varied pop album, it will always be my original touchstone in the form, and I still think it’s a great one. A masterwork, if you like.
My Spin on Masterworks: 24 of 25
I loved Immunity upon hearing it three years ago, but since then it has steadily become more than a mere favourite: it’s practically indispensable to me. There have been (and continually are) regular situations in which this album is the first thing I’ll reach for, whether that’s as an aural balm, or as a soundtrack companion. When I’m crossing London after sundown, heading for an overnight shift or just feeling a restless compulsion to walk, Immunity captures the thrill of wandering through the city, both immersed in and disconnected from its animation. At other times, its heavy throbs sharply evoke those nights in which time feels simultaneously condensed and stretched-out, whether I’m alone or in a crowd. More simply, it offers a dependable source of phenomenal sounds when everything else has become tiresome, and I crave that visceral shot of wonder it provides.
Immunity contains multitudes, but more than anything else, it provides an unfailingly formidable testament to the cathartic, indefinable power of music itself. To experience it from start-to-finish (preferably as loud as possible on a snug pair of headphones) is an inspiring reminder that a medium so excessively broad and easy to tire of (or feel overwhelmed by) still has the potential to tap into transcendence, when an artist or team creates a work capable of making a direct, genuine connection with its listener. Immunity does exactly this: it’s an experience that spirits you away, sets the imagination soaring, and swallows you up; heart, soul and ears. And it does so with no discernible words whatsoever: its profound impact is conducted purely through sound.
You can read a tremendous articulation of the album’s blow-by-blow impact at Arbiter of Taste, in which the album’s vivid power is brought into specific focus. For my part, I struggle to articulate exactly how each track resonates, what images and ideas it recalls, and why. It’s hard enough for me to identify and describe each of Immunity’s individual gracenotes, not to mention the way each one succeeds in shooting shivers down my spine or transporting me somewhere completely different. It’s possibly because there’s just too much I’d like to say about it, and I frequently run the risk of turning into a gushing mess (which has probably happened here anyway, but I’ve started, so I’ll finish).
I’ve barely researched how Jon Hopkins sculpts his songs at all. Unlike most (if not all) of the other entries in this series, I don’t want to know how this music was conceived in a technical sense, because integral to its enrapturing appeal is its aura of mystery. I fear that as soon as I’ve investigated the hard facts of the programming, the sampling, the editing, and so on, part of Immunity’s magic will fade. Hopkins deserves so much praise for his work on this album, and the talent he wields here surely single him out as one of British music’s brightest leading lights, and not just in the field of electronica. However, his work in Immunity is so accomplished that the thrill of the music is all-consuming in and of itself. Wherever the word “electronic” is raised in relation to music, there will be prompted some degree of discussion as to what extent the final product sounds “organic” or “synthetic”: how the artificial and the analogue sounds are blended and balanced. But with Immunity, the work is one breathtakingly fluid mass of sound that completely convinces the listener of its own energy and life force. Not only do I enjoy this music, I believe in it, and Hopkins himself completely disappears behind its vibrancy.
Statements like that run the risk of sounding overly hyperbolic, but the music of Immunity genuinely sounds alive and purposeful. This album moves: it’s restless, fidgety, cacophonous, constantly rising and falling, breathing and collapsing, growing and shrinking and mutating seemingly of its own volition. From the second the outside world is sealed off with that opening door slam, the music begins to twitch and shift like a waking creature, and the momentum it gathers across the album’s length is completely compelling. Those aren’t beats driving the album: they’re pulses. Once ‘Open Eye Signal’ has cycled up, the kinetic force of the music is palpable: the friction and mounting tension of that gradually warping bass stumbles to keep pace with that relentlessly surging rhythm. It’s a breathtaking and draining exercise in which the central elements contort into new forms, constantly clenching and unclenching like a huge muscle across seven minutes, as on the peripheries, celestial sounds and shapes glide past.
After taking a plunge into some of those breathtakingly glacial piano segments during ‘Breathe This Air’, things become even more oppressive in the commanding ‘Collider’, which resembles a thunderstorm of techno passing directly overhead, with synths striking down out of the accumulated mass. The whole passage vibrates with urgency over a looped sigh, which is simultaneously evocative of a sensual moan and the cold, steady hum of a life-support machine. As with every moment on Immunity, the textures are remarkable in their depth and range: the thick, smudgy brutalism of an overpowering bass or beat countered by flickers of light in the form of pristine keys, while in the background there is constant motion: a faint slow-motion firework, a wash of calming winds, the brittle creak of chairs and pedals.
Although the album begins with Hopkins ushering the listener into his studio, the album feels paradoxically huge as well as intimate. ‘We Disappear’ establishes this strange dichotomy with its soft introduction, as if Hopkins is allowing us a glimpse inside a miniature universe, before the arrival of a whomping beat suddenly envelopes all else – including your full attention. Even when Immunity flirts with ambience, the results are not “ignorable” in the Eno-coined sense: they work to complement the more aggressive passages, with each sound vital instead of decorative. Each individual track is rich, stunningly textured, and memorable, but Immunity is a holistic creation, and the full effect achieved by letting it consume you for its full sixty minutes is beyond description. After this heavy, dramatic, layered journey, the dying moments of ‘Immunity’ attain a peaceful fragility through bittersweet quiet. The mixture of clear, trickling piano keys, softly whirring effects, and King Creosote’s gentle, indecipherable croon is achingly affecting, as the album reaches its patient, moving conclusion.
However you chose to listen to the record –as an evocation of (or soundtrack to) a night out, a tribute to the physical properties of a particular place, the private odyssey of a wide-eyed gamer – the journey it offers has a definitive end point. But this astounding album invites the listener back time and time again, to discover things anew, to puzzle out the details while remaining breathlessly in awe of such an extraordinary, beautiful mass of sound. Over time, the effect becomes spellbindingly personal – at the very least, it has for me. This is an album which continues to move me in a way that very few records can rival.
Fuck me, trying to explain it just feels detrimental. Go and listen to it right now. This is elemental music.
My Spin on Masterworks: 23 of 25
Sign o’ the Times
Warner Bros, 1987
At the time of writing this piece, 2016 is finally creaking to a close, and like millions of others, I’m hoping that December 31st will serve as a firm door slam to one of the shittiest years in living memory. The long-term consequences of its most damaging upsets will likely prove to be increasingly bizarre and frightening in the years to come, but when 2017 hits, please just let the tumult die down for a while as we try to process what the hell just happened.
Peppering the cavalcade of horrors – global crises and tragedies, the unremarked and the unavoidable alike – so many generation-defying heroes of the past half-century slipped away, with periods of mourning becoming alarmingly regular. Crushingly, an uncommonly substantial number of those lost were true icons, the likes of whom it’s hard to imagine being rivalled in this age of flash-in-the-pan success stories. (You can practically hear David Bowie sniggering at modern fame in the title track to the monolithic Blackstar.) These weren’t just familiar faces or celebrities past their prime: they were totemic figures of inspiration who moved in their own orbit, and in doing so brought inspiration, solace, pleasure, and solidarity to millions. Their absence has been sorely felt, even if their brightest days were behind them during their final years. Yet many – even those whose productivity was in decline of late – still felt like vital presences on this Earth: lodestars whose very existence was a dependable source of happiness. Cast your mind back to the beginning of 2016, and ponder: who would want to imagine a world without Bowie, or Cohen, or Prince?
If the sudden headlines heralding the passing of Bowie were dislocating at the year’s outset, the loss of Prince Rogers Nelson in April was barely comprehensible. The tragic circumstances surrounding his death can be found in greater detail and with broader commentary elsewhere, but for now it’s worth remembering what he gifted to the world in his heyday. Even on this side of the millennium, Prince’s creative force was staggering. His final records may have lacked the irresistibility of his mid-80s winning streak, but he continued to prove his capacity for sharp hooks and intriguing songwriting, not to mention mindblowing live shows that could still spark the kind of widespread feverish excitement that few living performers could rival. In the wake of the tragic news, however, it was most natural for listeners (those old and new) to pore through the classic albums in his discography: the most direct way to celebrate the momentous achievements of an insuppressibly creative man. Personally, I locked my ears inside Sign o’ the Times for days on end, and was repeatedly struck by its vitality, its effervescence, and the sheer majesty of its musical design.
Prince’s years working with The Revolution were arguably the most lucrative of his career, and they certainly gave him the wherewithal to let his musicianship flourish. For his ninth studio record, he went it alone, detaching from his stalwart bandmates to take on even greater autonomy in the studio. It was a strange form of liberation (on record, the Revolution never seemed to cramp his style or sound), but there’s a sense of unbridled energy that permeates Sign o’ the Times; the sound of Prince stretching his wings and soaring wherever he saw fit in his words and music. Conversely, there’s less pomp and sparkle present here than there is on the album’s immediate predecessors; no showstoppers in the Purple Rain mould or ubiquitous singles like those found of 1999. Instead, this is an extended sojourn in which Prince is guided by his own whims, and operating at the peak of his powers, the result is nothing short of masterful: pop music at its most potent and assured.
The Sign o’ the Times that the world is now familiar with was condensed and consolidated from a triple-album Prince was working on following the disbanding of the Revolution. Material shelved from other projects (including “lost albums” Dream Factory and Camille) found a home on the final cut, but while the sixteen songs housed herein are eccentric and varied in style, the gleam of the daz is never compromised. For all its diversity, every song on Sign o’ the Times sounds at home, in this inclusive double-disc party that fuses styles with such élan that Prince makes it sound miraculously easy. Double albums are far from extinct, and the past decade has hosted several sublime works from artists whose conceptual ambitions and charisma suits the project (The ArchAndroid, The Suburbs). Even so, there’s something even more wondrous about double albums from decades past. By and large, they don’t reflect a pursuit of artistic credence inasmuch as they capture a freeing of inhibitions: a chance for musicians to revel in the sprawl: no neat contours, just an exploration of one cool idea after another. The Beatles takes listeners on a joyride through four strange brains, plucking melodies as easy as daisies while still setting listeners reeling with abrasive wig-outs and lyrics that veered from politically savvy to solvent-eroded. This is the double-album as a funhouse for creativity, with the results wilfully broad and unusual. Prince pulled off the same trick with Sign o’ the Times, but instead of forays into the avant-garde, his pop nous was consistently on-point.
Every corner of this album is crammed with earworms, and polished in that bombastic 80s sheen that has seen the album celebrated as one of the decade’s definitive works. This is a spectacular record to lose oneself inside: a world in which R&B, funk, soul, dance and even psychedelia coalesce into a dazzling whole. One of pop music’s key attributes is that it sounds so effortlessly simple, but close listening to Sign o’ the Times reveals Prince’s dedication to and intuitive knowledge of the craft. His staggering musical gifts are on display throughout, as well as his ear for the unexpected. The brief guitar coda of ‘Forever in My Life’ is unfailingly refreshing on every listen, likewise the drunken keys that flutter in during ‘U Got the Look’, or the taut, flawless build of ‘Strange Relationship’. Such was the power of Prince during this period, and the double-album format found him at leisure to explore whatever styles and ideas came to his fancy. Pick any sequence of songs and you’ll hear an artist pinballing between styles with revelatory skill. ‘The Cross’ stamps its way heavenward as it churns from a power ballad into an ecstatic drone, before ‘It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night’ captures a street carnival at full tilt. The soulful slow jam of ‘Adore’ ends things on a breathless high, and even if it’s a world away from ‘Sign o’ the Times’ itself in terms of topic and aesthetic, it fits as a snug bookend to an album of vivid technicolour.
There are many successful popstars who devote themselves to their work with utmost solemnity, but the best contenders are the ones unafraid of being playful. Sign o’ the Times is a wonderful album, not least because Prince was unafraid of incorporating his sillier ideas into the mix. His strange humour was as integral to his cultural character as his sensuality or fashion credentials. On this record in particular, Prince’s many sides are exposed; he shifts from one mood to another with tangible ecstasy. So it is that ‘Starfish & Coffee’ sits comfortably between two lascivious funk odes to bonking without resembling a sonic gooseberry. The title track takes a sweeping state-of-the-nation stance, lamenting the excesses and tragedies of the era in macro and micro; two songs later, Prince affects a petulant whine and spouts gleeful nonsense (“don’t wait for your neighbour / green eggs and ham!”) over a vault-rumbling beat for ‘Housequake’. Prince’s career was built upon one man playing many parts, and Sign o’ the Times can be heard as a showcase-in-miniature of his talents. It’s too much to claim that any one of Prince’s albums could adequately be cited as his definitive work, but it’s this one which comes closest.
At its core, Sign o’ the Times thrives on the charisma of its auteur. Prince has arguably made more accomplished start-to-finish records, but this is a double-disc whirl through his imagination at its most unbridled, and it makes for a fantastic trip (not to mention a terrifically catchy one). Here is Prince at his peak, showcasing all sides of his personality as well as demonstrating his frankly flabbergasting musicianship across sixteen slabs of gold. This is music from an artist with towering ambition and little in the way of inhibitions, sounding cooler than you could ever hope to be, even at its goofiest. And in an age when “you turn on the telly and every other channel is tellin’ you somebody died”, Sign o’ the Times offers seventy-nine minutes of vivacity, inviting us to play in the sunshine, dance the quake, set our minds free – at least for a while. When we know that hard times are coming, it can be comforting to know that at least for now, it’s gonna be a beautiful night.
My Spin on Masterworks: 22 of 25
Hmm… okay. If pressed, I’d say my favourite Radiohead album to date is In Rainbows. It’s a touching, beautifully crafted sequence, and unlike its predecessors, sounds free from all burdens of expectation. There’s barely a trace of grandiloquence in its ten songs, and each one is immediately accessible without sounding comparatively basic by the group’s standards. That said, if I want to marvel at an album’s all-enveloping sonic world, it’s Kid A, no contest: its eerie, otherworldly qualities are still completely transporting. Kicking through my twenties, I’m still finding fresh magic and relevance in The Bends, and this year’s A Moon Shaped Pool is comforting and disquieting in equal measure. Further down the scale, both Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief offer up some sublime moments, but as full-length listens, they’re underwhelming entries. Pablo Honey reflects a young band struggling to settle on an identity, but a few green shoots poke through, hinting at great things to come. I think that about covers everyth – oh, wait. The King of Limbs. I keep forgetting about that one.
Radiohead’s turbulent, ever-evolving catalogue is fascinating to examine. I could happily fill page after page writing about any one of the quintet’s nine existing albums, at least four of which I’d readily class as masterworks, for their own distinctive qualities. So why have I opted for OK Computer as an entry in this series? Or to be more specific, why have I opted to toast the Radiohead album that has been venerated so greatly – and for so long – that surely there’s nothing left to say at this point? Well, it’s precisely because of the deafening clamour of praise surrounding OK Computer that I’ve selected it. The appeal of the album has become slightly drowned out over the years; it’s now saddled with an intimidating amount of hyperbole to the point that it’s surprisingly easy to miss its genuine strengths.
Just as OK Computer is the Radiohead album that’s easiest to praise, it’s also the easiest to criticise. It’s been placed on such a pedestal ever since its release, it has become a clear target for disdain as sceptical listeners attempt to pick holes in what is regularly (and exhaustingly) flaunted as one of the Greatest Albums of All-Time™. In a way, OK Computer has steadily become the album equivalent of a GCSE set text: guitar music’s answer to Lord of the Flies or The Catcher in the Rye. It has been studied endlessly, its observations and ideas regarding human nature have remained staunchly pertinent, it’s a work still widely discussed which continues to prove influential for other artists in the form, and the consensus regarding its greatness is so inescapable that it can paradoxically seem to be a bland choice of favourite. Announce in public that OK Computer is among your most-loved albums, and chances are (especially in this age of hipsterism) you’ll be derided (silently, if not out loud) for such an obvious pick.
As such, it can be tough to connect with OK Computer free from the rhetoric and various attitudes swirling around it: the piercing rebuttals, the bewildering superfan theories, the heavy expectations it’s been lumbered with. It’s a shame, because while an album can undoubtedly be enriched by close attention, there are cases in which the works themselves become tiresome to regard; a state in which OK Computer has undoubtedly been put at risk. So I’m not going to try to defend this record’s perceived shortcomings or highlight striking new surprises hidden in its depths. Instead, I want to celebrate how amazing the album sounds on its own terms, because really, it’s a fantastic listen in and of itself.
There’s a lot folded into OK Computer, and a cursory look at its gestation reveals that its conception was something of a perfect storm. Still uncomfortable with their stratospheric rise to stardom, the band continued to recoil against the commercial machinations of the music industry, shirking anthemic songwriting in favour of stretching the rock song into alternative shapes. Thom Yorke exorcised his bewilderment at modern society in his increasingly sharp lyrics, and sketched out his tentative predictions for the coming millennium – many of which are still salient to this date. His words are occasionally impressionistic, but they capture very human concerns in the face of an increasingly cold and detached age. Anxiety over mankind’s uneasy relationship with ever-advancing technology are spotlighted repeatedly, amid bubbling paranoia, mental and physical deterioration (‘Climbing Up the Walls’ and ‘Let Down’), and the western world’s cutthroat emphasis on efficiency and speed. It closes with Yorke screaming at someone (maybe everyone) to “slow down”. Down in blur of sound and noise, the dust, the screaming, and the yuppies networking, his plea rings out, but whether it’s ultimately heard and processed is not clear.
As with every other work that becomes swamped with hyperbole, it’s possible to give the creators too much credit when assessing the quality of OK Computer. Time after time, Radiohead’s members have exhibited a keen intelligence and passion, but their career has admittedly seen its fair share of coincidences and (un)happy accidents too, not to mention the occasional misstep. But even so, without letting those theories get too detached from credibility, OK Computer articulates the paranoia and alienation that has characterised both the pre- and post-millennial years following its release. The band’s deriders label them as miserablists, but in truth, the group subtly locate the valour of the listener amid the confusion and chaos of modern life. There may be anger directed elsewhere (“we hope that you choke”), but Yorke extends words of compassion and solidarity to the everyman lost amid the tumult: “one day, you’ll know where you are”. ‘Airbag’ and ‘Lucky’ go so far as to cast their protagonists as superheroes, “back to save the universe” in the wake of cataclysm. OK Computer offers a sounding board for individuals who feel disillusioned with society and their place within it.
Above and beneath the words, the music remains incredibly powerful. If The Bends was a firm step forward for the group in terms of musicianship, OK Computer found their chemistry in full flow. Ed O’Brien, Jonny and Colin Greenwood outdo one another repeatedly with headspinning guitar gymnastics and subtle, left-field bass hooks. Philip Selway’s drums are spliced with machine-tooled beats and distorted loops to blur the line between human and technology. The results sound mighty, and there are some strange, subtle mysteries still lurking here and there. What the hell is it making that sighing noise during the coda of ‘Karma Police’? There’s the scree of tiny wails and squeaks that unsettle the second half of ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’, raising a few extra goosebumps in an already-haunting piece. And of course, there are the monstrous shapes and shadows shifting in the background of ‘Climbing Up the Walls’, behind Yorke’s jagged, barely discernible words.
It’s a potent blend of uncomfortable words and questing, forceful music, and instead of the awards and endless discourse, it’s this that keeps us returning to OK Computer. As we know, there’s so much that can be said about this album, and no shortage of commentary or criticism to sift through (ahem). But when all is said and done, the most refreshing thing to do is to cut straight through the wank and just listen to the music, because the strikingly affecting core of OK Computer can be reached with direct engagement. (Re)discover the delicate, crystalline beauty of ‘No Surprises’ and ‘Let Down’, both of which sound as stirring as ever. Check out just how stunning the dense guitar squalls of ‘Airbag’ are, lurching and squealing like rending chrome or shards of glass. There’s the slow-burn wonder of ‘Lucky’, the interwoven humour and grace of ‘Karma Police’, the towering headtrip that is ‘Paranoid Android’. Yes, this is an album of technical mastery and prophetic sentiment, but it’s also abundant in fantastic, creative and passionate songs.
Ultimately, that seems to be the best way to approach OK Computer: listen to it, not as the Greatest Album of the 1990s or whatever, but as the work of a group of people who took the time to articulate their worries for the future and set them to this single disc. Get away from the hype and try to focus on what’s there in the music itself. The punch, beauty, and ache is still there, without the need for any extra noise or commentary. It’s still relevant, still chilling, still wonderful. Stop reading and start listening.
My Spin on Masterworks: 21 of 25
Let England Shake
It would be a severe disservice to Polly Jean Harvey and her illustrious career to disregard her greater body of work in the pursuit of whittling her albums down to just a single definitive masterpiece. Moreover, to argue that her legacy would be of lesser worth had Let England Shake never been released would be outright insulting. Harvey’s iconic and enduring status was confirmed decades prior to the making of her eighth album, and she has cast a long shadow over the musical culture of the late-20th and early-21st centuries. She has been recognised – and deservedly so – with plenty of awards and plaudits in her time, but these gongs (such as the twice-won Mercury Music Prize) are ultimately unnecessary endorsements considering the breadth of her work and her continuous influence on modern artists. In a way, they’re merely signposts to that which is now obvious: PJ Harvey is in a league of her own.
Essays can be (and have been) written that would justify the status of any one of her albums as a modern classic. Looking closer still, to pore over her numerous collaborations, her restless trendsetting in sound and style, and her sharp-eyed take on matters of contemporary and historical significance, it’s clear that valorising one of her achievements over another can seem a little moot. So, in her versatile discography of distinctive treasures – Dry, Rid of Me, To Bring You My Love, White Chalk – why single out Let England Shake? In part, it’s because of all the records in the singer’s catalogue, Let England Shake stands apart most noticeably in the unflagging intensity of its vision, as well as packing the most convincing case for immortality beyond Harvey’s die-hard fans. It’s on this record that Harvey handles huge themes with calm and dexterity, writing music which is seismic in scope but not overwhelming in execution. Unlike some of her earlier offerings, Let England Shake does not strive to be mind-blowing or breathtaking, at least not in a scene-stealing sense. Instead, it is a deliberate and persuasively powerful work, which continues to demand attention after dozens of repeat listens.
Following touring duties for 2007’s White Chalk, Harvey immersed herself in examining the national character of her home country, digging especially deep into England’s military history, the evolution (and lack thereof) of its physical landscapes, and the way the country’s legacy has shifted (and soured) through time. An interview with Bridport News reveals her creative process more thoroughly, but the proof can be heard on even a cursory listen to the album itself: Let England Shake is rich in content, Harvey lacing her research into a cohesive work that isn’t the gruelling chore it would be in shakier hands. It’s one of her greatest abilities: to make records of this sensitivity and intellect look (and sound) simple.
Understandably in the wake of her studies, Harvey’s lyrics proved the starting point for Let England Shake, and the most prominent focus of the record is the Great War, the spectre of which hangs heavily over these twelve songs. Harvey’s perspective shifts back and forth between that of soldiers (“I’ve seen and done things I want to forget”) and a detached commentator amid scenes of unfathomable devastation. However, Harvey demonstrates a clear understanding that the horrors of war require little embellishment beyond the facts, and even when she references moments of truly horrifying violence, her delivery is graceful rather than heavy-handed. The album’s starkest song, ‘All and Everyone’, casts an eye over the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, and the event’s emotional gravity is kept in taut balance: “Death was everywhere / in the air and in the sounds / coming off the mounds / of Bolton’s ridge / oh, Death’s anchorage”. The haunting power of the song is summoned through these terse phrases and Harvey’s own singing voice, which is largely kept to her cut-glass higher register, giving an eerie beauty to her dispatches.
As for its sound, at first Let England Shake can feel a little unusual on the ears, if only because one would expect an album of its nature to sound more discomfiting. In truth, there’s very little drama to the music: no conventional crescendos or centrepieces here, just the occasional spike in tempo (‘Bitter Branches’), or stomping group chants (‘The Words That Maketh Murder’) to punctuate the watery, hazy aesthetic pursued by Harvey’s team. This tight ensemble included Harvey’s longstanding collaborator John Parish, as well as Mick Harvey and producer Flood, and their shared experience gives the album a tangible confidence that never tips into indulgence. Among the central mix of Harvey’s much-loved autoharp, commanding percussion and occasional groans of saxophone, guitars are mixed in murky shades, oftentimes sounding as though they are played underwater, or veiled behind thick curtains of fog. The uniform sound that emerges insistently creeps under the skin: it’s off-kilter but not otherworldly, sounding drawn from the past while never wholly familiar.
Those keen to pin down Harvey’s words to particular moments can find concrete references with additional searching, but generally, these songs are blurry around the finer details; never giving the listener a single linear path to follow. “The West’s asleep,” Harvey announces over the increasingly sinister prance of the title track; “let England shake.” It’s a terrific opening gambit that has life beyond one ascribed meaning, and it’s one of many phrases lodged throughout Let England Shake that can be picked out at will, and moulded to fit a particular notion. Harvey’s bold and penetrating look at her country’s history is rendered in broad strokes, many of which ring with additional potency in the wake of events following the album’s release. Her snarl of “goddamn Europeans / take me back to beautiful England” harks back to the trenches of the Western Front, but it also now queasily summons thoughts of Brexit and the troubling nationalism of modern Britain. With each new listen, Let England Shake reveals new layers of complexity, throwing up strikingly vivid imagery one moment before smudging away any specifics the next.
And when her language is kept clear and direct, the results are striking. Landscapes are represented in their contrasting beauty and brutality: in surveying the cliffs and coasts of Dorset, Harvey takes note of “jagged mountains, jutting out / cracked like teeth in a rotten mouth”, while during ‘The Last Living Rose’ her narrator pines for the “stinking alleys” and “grey, damp filthiness” of home. The stunning ‘Hanging in the Wire’ conjures its scenery not just through words but in its music; its delicate piano flutters hinting at faint glimmers of sunlight through iron-grey clouds. Mostly, Harvey evokes distinctly English pastoral landscapes, to the effect of giving these songs a timelessness that comes uncomfortably close to skirting romance. Harvey herself addresses this tense mingling of love and hate on the song ‘England’, claiming her country “leaves a taste / a bitter one”, though she ultimately professes “undaunted, never-failing love” for her homeland, in spite of the damage it has seen and wrought.
With Anglophilia still rife among musicians on an international scale, and considering the country’s social divisions that are more apparent than ever in the wake of Brexit, what is it that makes an “English record”? More than any of her peers, Harvey has produced perhaps the best outline of England’s character over the past century. Across the many layers of Let England Shake, we are given a study of the country’s battle scars and proud heritage, its awful losses and appallingly cruel machinations at home and overseas, and the gloom, beauty, and brutality of the land itself. This canvas may be broad, but this means it is open to be studied from many angles: a state-of-the-nation address, a tribute to those directly involved in England’s military operations, a love letter to the landscapes forged across millennia and frequently defined by the blood spilled on – and for – its soil.
There are rewards to be found whatever the lens one chooses to apply. And most hauntingly, it’s an album which poses to its listener perturbing questions of humanity. When looking closely into the horrors and cruelty reported on Let England Shake, Harvey returns the gaze of her audience in piercing kind, and – as has been the case for twenty-five years and counting – she refuses to blink first.
My Spin on Masterworks: 20 of 25
Arguments that lament the lack of “original” ideas in music are unbearably boring, and have been so for decades. Yet it’s a point which is raised again and again without fail, usually with the commenter making their claim as if he/she is dropping a bold new truth bomb.
Yes, things are very different in terms of how we process music as a culture. Genuine, head-turning surprises seem to be far fewer in number today, especially given we are granted the gift of hindsight. Thanks in no small part to the breadth and accessibility of music in its current environment, Big Releases are no longer unanimously hallowed as they might once have been. But that’s a given factor of changing times; we aren’t all going to reverentially gather around the stereo on the day of an album’s release like it’s Sgt. Pepper. As for the music itself, down the decades, the landscape has consistently relied on familiar patterns, whether they are being saluted, cribbed, recycled, warped or subverted. Popular phases will come and go in waves, ceaselessly revived and reborn.
But the true “originality” of a work is often far too nebulous to define with any degree of accuracy, and it’s stultifying to dismiss the worth of a song or album simply because it does not offer anything objectively new. The shape and substance of a work of art is measured afresh by each individual beholder; some personal significance can be discovered while perhaps more subtle intentions of the artist at hand go unnoticed. One step beyond this, who is to say that we can’t meddle with existing art to produce something else entirely? After all, it can be easy to the point of comical, since the means to build fresh works with existing materials is boundless. As an example, take a poem from a much-loved legend. Delete half the lines and replace them with your own. Splice it with lines from another poem – a pre-existing one or something you’ve penned yourself. Fiddle with the sequence. Turn the page itself upside-down and transcribe the weird new alphabet. To use a clunky platitude, put your mark on it. In most instances, it’ll be highly likely that what you emerge with would be deemed culturally inferior to the source material. But by having an active hand in reworking something, you have not only made a personal statement, but honoured the accomplishments of the creator. Even if your intentions were disparaging, by exhuming the material of someone else, you are expanding and continuing their legacy, validating the worth of their work.
DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing is defined by this spirit. It pushes for innovative new forms while being almost entirely composed of sounds that existed previously, many of them for years. DJ Shadow – aka Joshua Paul Davis – spent years scavenging record stores, yard sales and musty basements of the West Coast in his obsession to discover forgotten treasures, and in his music, he grants each of them new life. The fascinating documentary Scratch shows the extent to which he reveres the work of artists who put their imaginations to record, and in his restless cratedigging, he has unearthed the work of countless lifetimes. Many of the records he celebrates were discarded in their own time, dissolving into faint memory or total obscurity. But with Endtroducing, DJ Shadow holds them up to the light once more, building a fascinating collage of long-lost snippets which bind together brilliantly, each piece colliding with another to spark fresh energy.
Gaudy horror soundtracks that whiff of messy rendering are dusted down and stripped back until a strange beauty glimmers through. Tumbling boom baps are layered beneath chaotic drones and cameo appearances from detached voices: dialogue from left-field cinema (the chatter that ushers in ‘Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain’ is pulled from bonkers 1986 sci-fi western The Aurora Encounter), refrains from artists both contemporary (Beastie Boys) and time-worn (The Turnettes), and all sorts of other curios. While the sum total features barely a note of his own composition, in piecing together Endtroducing, DJ Shadow nurtured an undeniably original creation. It may have roots firmly planted in the past, but Endtroducing’s various branches grow and twist into shapes that are all its own.
Listeners with greater knowledge than I will certainly be able to perceive the deeper nuances in DJ Shadow’s work, and to more astutely appreciate his technical skills and the influence that his work has had across sampling, instrumental hip-hop, and beyond. But when it comes to the pure enjoyability of the album in of itself, Endtroducing is a wall-to-wall delight. For all its breadth, the album’s flow is steady and enticing, reminiscent of a hazy, half-remembered dream: ghosts of the past regenerated in one long, textured suite. Swept into this journey are dramatic epics (the sci-fi freakout ‘Stem/Long Stem’), ethereal urban ambience (‘Midnight in a Perfect World’), and landslides of hip-hop debris (‘The Number Song’ and ‘Mutual Slump’, both of which collapse a mass of source material into queasy, oppressive heaps).
Whether his cuts are audacious or subtle, DJ Shadow’s fine-tuned approach births genuine wonders. ‘Napalm Brain-Scatter Brain’ intently builds to towering heights with such apparent ease that it’s hard to believe it’s founded on a sequence of disparate elements. It sounds as organic as the work of Jon Hopkins while never hiding the crackly artifice of its various components. Suitably for its title, ‘Changeling’ mutates from one form to another, its spacey swirl interweaved with passages of beefy slow jams, skittering drones, and heavy-lidded jazz. Alongside these daring works are some more bizarre little non-sequiturs: who is the “beautiful girl” with “eyes as big as jolly ranchers” who gets a mention during the album’s untitled cut? Why are the album’s three ‘Transmission’ pieces so strangely unnerving? Above all, how does it all fit together so well?
DJ Shadow’s own apparent philosophy is teed up in a sampled interview with George Marsh that surfaces during the exquisite ‘Building Steam from a Grain of Salt’. As the track draws to a close, Marsh – an esteemed jazz drummer and lecturer – announces that “I would like to be able to continue to let what is inside of me […] which comes from all the music that I hear; I’d like for that to come out. And it’s like, it’s not me that’s coming. The music’s coming through me.” This notion of an artist merely serving as a vehicle for the work often comes across as pretentious twaddle, but with DJ Shadow’s careful resurrection of Marsh’s words, and supported by the song’s breathtaking melange of sound, it washes as wholly genuine. Literally, with his work, DJ Shadow takes lost treasures and finds a new form of communication, blazing new trails with instruments of the past.
Endtroducing is a paean to sound and the craft behind it; an album built with love, care, wisdom and wit. Despite being made with minimal tech, it more than holds its own in the modern fray, even beyond sample-based work. It can be spun comfortably next to Pink Floyd, Public Enemy, Four Tet, Portishead, Radiohead… most anything. It’s a thrilling listen for casual audiophiles, as well as offering a fount of long-lost gems for seasoned cratediggers, who can spend hours and days on end hunting through its many layers and non-sequiturs to find each single lift and tip of the hat. And no matter how little new material was conceived in its production, Endtroducing is an album as original as any you’ll ever hear. It’s a diverse, inclusive, and entertaining trip into weird and wonderful places, guided by your favourite DJ saviour. Dig in.
My Spin on Masterworks: 19 of 25
Young Turks, 2009
xx works a strange magic in making the mundane sound beautiful. It’s a shapely and beguiling début from one of the most surprising success stories of modern British music, and an album on which space is prioritised as much as sound to convey the intimacy that can be attained by two people. The dusky atmospheres of the xx’s songs are immaculately rendered thanks to Jamie Smith’s production, and each instrument possesses a signature style that seldom deviates across songs: cut-glass guitars dressed in reverb, warm and nagging bass lines, beats that coax and nudge rather than dominate. The end result is a work that is vague, hushed, and in many ways, so simple that it could appear flat and lifeless on paper. Even when the xx are at their most sonically lavish, the crux of their work is always plain – both musically and lyrically. And it’s this very plainness which makes xx such a quiet gem.
These songs are soft, lived-in, humble: love’s aches, pains and joys transmitted in short, simple exchanges. The charmingly succinct ‘VCR’ offers perhaps the best distillation of the xx’s appeal more than any other song. Its lyrics are nothing to marvel at, but the unremarkable nature of these phrases helps them to register as genuine. “I think we’re superstars,” Romy Madley Croft hums, accompanied by plinking xylophone. “You say you think we are the best thing.” As is the case throughout xx, there is nothing superfluous present: no overreaching poetry or sweeping gestures; just the acknowledgement of companionship and contentment. In its short span, xx rolls through the highs and lows of intimacy: those unparalleled feelings of warmth and security, as well as the sour fallout and lingering hurt.
Each song coheres around a you-me dynamic. “They” are never once mentioned, and the back-and-forth between Croft and Oliver Sim’s “you” and “I” gives xx its quiet, under-the-sheets intensity. It’s a two-hander trick that is enrapturing to follow as the vocalists divert and then dovetail, as on the excellent ‘Crystalised’, with its mesmeric undertow and a central hook composed of sighs. The singers generally trade verses before merging together for yearning choruses, and ‘Islands’ employs this trend with even lusher results, its heart-on-sleeve admissions of infatuation set to verses that bump and flutter like stirred hearts. The sentiment that “I am yours now / So now I don’t ever have to leave” taps into the hot cocoon of a relationship in bloom, delivered with wide-eyed naivety that is subsequently offset by the whispered pangs of ‘Heart Skipped a Beat’. In these subtle shifts in mood, the xx demonstrate a sharp awareness of when to accentuate the innocence or weariness of their music, so that they sound by turns awkward and wise.
It is intriguing that neither singer is talented in a conventional sense. Croft and Sim both possess pleasant voices, but neither is particularly dexterous or adventurous (at least not in this collection) with their range or performance. Yet this is not a bad thing, and is positively essential to the nature of xx. Suiting their plain lyrics, Croft and Sim perform with little pizazz, and it’s in their unpolished performances that one can hear their longstanding chemistry with one another. When the singers join to form a helix, their closeness burns above and beyond the limitations of their voices, giving these songs a sense of real attachment that is impossible to fake. At the record’s centre, each singer takes a solo outing, and the relative lack of dialogue between the two yields captivating results. Sim’s ‘Fantasy’ resembles an eerie fog that builds into a claustrophobic, droning second half, which is balmed by Croft’s gorgeous ‘Shelter’. It’s hard to pick standouts from an album of such consistency, but ‘Shelter’ makes a strong case to rank as xx’s highpoint. Its lovely, lonely guitar motif is matched by what is possibly the band’s most vulnerable moment: “Maybe I had said / Something that was wrong / Can I make it better / With the lights turned on?”
Whereas the singers provide xx with its emotional push-and-pull, Smith is the spine of the group, taking the private entreaties of his bandmates and packaging them with grace. His sparse beats and crisp production work point towards the club, but he strips back his influences to suit more reflective spaces. While drawing on elements from hip-hop and R&B, the xx’s songs are confined to insular settings: bedrooms and night buses, lit in the glow of laptop screens and desk lamps. ‘Basic Space’ pares down a skipping rhythm into its most skeletal form to fit the song’s glacial sheen, while ‘Infinity’ is given an added tension with the brittle crack of percussion that cuts through Croft and Sim’s ominous duet. It’s harder to gauge the input of fourth member Baria Qureshi, who was ousted from the band in shady circumstances soon after xx’s release. However, her contributions can be heard if one listens carefully; present in the additional layers of guitars and keys that occasionally flesh out the whole, and which were notably absent during the even more minimalist Coexist.
Although it references many of the prickly truths of relationships, xx never digs deeply into complex topics. The delicacy and transparency of the xx’s songwriting can’t hope to cover everything, but nor does the band pretend to. xx is an album of simple promises, private dilemmas, repressed hurt and tenderness, and it touches on these themes gently and with just the right level of mystery. The wide-eyed promises of ‘Stars’ are beautifully arresting in their bare-bones form. “Dear, it’s fine / So fine by me / Because we can give it time / So much time” croon both vocalists, closing the album on a note of the softest optimism. Like the ten songs that precede it, ‘Stars’ hints at so much more than what is offered on the surface. The simple components – single repeated notes, stark beats and plain words – are simultaneously basic and open-ended, glimpsing at a larger world from within its own bubble.
In some ways, extended forays into the xx’s world can become a little cloying. The decent but meandering Coexist showed that the group’s sound can be spread a little thin, and there are definite limitations to xx itself. In terms of the group’s long-term progression, it’s difficult to imagine for how long such a simple aesthetic can be successfully mined, and their upcoming third album will answer this question one way or another. In some ways, however, the thirty-eight minutes of xx are enough; after-hours thoughts in which anxiety and tranquillity collide. For the jubilant side of nocturnal life, we have the luminous solo output of Smith as Jamie xx. But when it comes to the doubts, the awkward pauses, the uncertainty and breathing space, we have xx. Once one has sunk into its intimate atmospheres, it quickly turns into one of those special albums which becomes a companion: music which you’re keen to have close at hand for the wee hours, and those mingled feelings of longing and belonging.
My Spin on Masterworks: 18 of 25
Joy Division’s second – and final – album begins with a drum pattern from Stephen Morris that was inspired equally by tribal music and the taut psychedelia of Can. Each tom hit lands with additional resonance under Martin Hannett’s supervision, echoing into empty space that is then partly occupied by a stealthy, prowling bassline. Simultaneously, we are given a peek behind the curtains of background silence into a grotto of dissonant noise: a series of disorienting and jagged sounds that mirror chittering gunfire, scrambled radio transmissions, and orthodontic instruments. Up splutters a guitar that screams and grinds like a chainsaw; more liable to hotwire the nerves rather than it is to carry an earworm. Amid this brooding thundercloud of noise, Ian Curtis’ deep voice commands all, repeatedly instructing the listener that “this is the way, step inside”.
The song is ‘Atrocity Exhibition’; six minutes that lay the splintered groundwork for what is to come. The experience of some albums can be likened to embarking on a journey, but to listen to Closer is more like entering a cavern. Its atmosphere (described through the years in adjectives such as sepulchral, crepuscular, and funereal) is disturbingly uneasy; the sharp contours that characterised Unknown Pleasures are here left frayed and raw, retaining the utilitarian economy of that album’s cuts while becoming more sonically harsh. Its songs occasionally teeter on the brink of anxious cacophony, as with ‘Colony’ and ‘Twenty-Four Hours’, which shatter the cold static of Joy Division’s previous works and hint towards a much rawer type of distress. It is a demanding album to listen to; emotionally exhausting and deeply, deeply troubling. I can’t claim to have heard every album ever made, but of the fair amount that I have given time to, Closer is very possibly the darkest. And yet, in spite of the sheer weight of its bleakness, once one is ushered into ‘Atrocity Exhibition’, time and time again Closer proves itself to be nothing less than an utterly gripping and extraordinary work of art.
As will always be the case for posthumous releases, for better or worse, Closer will forever be inextricably associated with Curtis’ suicide, and indeed, the album is riddled with allusions to depression, medication, existential angst, physical and mental debilitation, and hints towards an oncoming ultimatum as Curtis wrestles with a choice between two forms of damnation (“heart and soul / One will burn”). The lyric sheet is very clearly drawn from a tortured place. And yet, baffling – and even callous – as it may seem in hindsight, Joy Division’s three other members recorded Closer apparently unaware of the sheer depths of darkness that their music – and Curtis’ lyrics – were plumbing. Indeed, dispatches from the studios reflect a state of business as usual, the atmosphere allegedly shifting between that of boredom and the joy of improvised jams. All accounts and photos reflect a seeming normality; Bernard Sumner has repeated ever since that the group never drew parallels between their creative work and Curtis’ own state of mind, and the few snaps of the band at the time evoke a looseness that matches Peter Hook’s signature smirk.
And somehow, due to some collision of extracurricular elements and the musicians’ pure talent, Joy Division achieved something incredible. There is a pent-up aggression and drive to these tracks that goes one further than the refined productions of Unknown Pleasures. There is a greater dynamism to the songs, which feature confident use of fresh effects and textures. Sumner’s icy, skittish synths weave new unease through ‘Isolation’ and the tomblike ‘Decades’, while the whole group rally their energies for the choppy snarl of ‘Colony’. Elsewhere, Hannett’s fascination with digital delay trickery gives the inexorable dread of ‘Heart and Soul’ a strangely glossy sheen, which provides a ghoulish counterpoint to Curtis’ croon: “Existence, well what does it matter? / I exist on the best terms I can / The past is now part of my future / The present is well out of hand”. For all their other properties, these are wonderfully sculpted gems of post-punk, crafted with poise, confidence, and a keenness to evolve.
Of course, what truly elevates Closer to its near-mythic status is the presence (and in a way, the absence) of Curtis himself. Vocally, he sounds as strong and commanding as he ever did in Joy Division’s short career, his voice conveying that thousand-yard stare and straining urgency that has since spawned so many pale imitations. Lyrically, his work is magnificent, but almost unbearable to annotate. It is folly to make bold claims about lyrics, especially when circumstantial facts have been blurred by myths, endless speculation, and contrasting accounts. History has been distorted, both by lack of focused knowledge during the making of Closer and the pains of hindsight. And yet, when combined, all songs on Closer make an overwhelming suggestion that Curtis’ thoughts were drawn inwards: these are songs that are near-impossible to remove from their context.
Consequently, there is an overwhelming temptation to restrict Closer to a single – and ostensibly clear – meaning: it gives unflinching insight into Curtis’ psyche during the last months of his life. It is not for one person to determine how close this is to the mark, but such notions are inextricably folded into Closer’s tissue. Curtis’ self-examinations are shuffled in among terrible glimpses of war, societal oppression, treatment of insanity, and the isolation of the individual, and the lines between topics are frequently thin. ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ mixes its J.G. Ballard influence with a look into lunatic asylums opened as spectacles for the public: “for entertainment they watch his body twist / Behind his eyes he says, ‘I still exist’”. In these words, Curtis somehow occupies the position of both ringmaster and victim, the lyrics and tense delivery echoing his twitchy, nervous dancing.
Curtis’ closing remark on the same track is “take my hand and I’ll show you what was and will be”. It’s both a chilling portent for Closer as a whole, and a direct link to the very first words uttered on Unknown Pleasures: “I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand”. Perhaps somewhere between the two, the burden of appalling knowledge fell on Curtis’ shoulders, as his epilepsy steadily worsened, the music industry’s exploits took their toll, and the pressures of marriage and fatherhood amid the tumult became too much to bear. ‘Passover’ is particularly painful in its reflection of these ideas, as Curtis reflects a “crisis [he] knew had to come” while struggling with a dilemma of damning his family by leaving, or personally torturing himself by remaining. The mood only thickens as the album continues towards its chilling climax. The bipolar tempos of ‘Twenty-Four Hours’ conjure a terrible dread that is then realised in the desolation of ‘The Eternal’. Adrift on waves of piano under unforgiving, iron-grey skies, it’s almost suffocating in its haunting beauty. Finally, ‘Decades’ is almost beyond description, Curtis surveying traumatised “young men with weight on their shoulders” who are marched into “Hell’s darker chambers”. All elements cohere into an indelible whole: the thin, brittle clatter of percussion, the ghostly synth that dominates the mix following the second verse, Curtis’ final, repeated question as he slips away from the song.
It is concerning to see Ian Curtis frequently held up as a paragon, and the countless stories and myths that surround his tragic life have occasionally seen him hallowed as a Tortured Artist. This is potentially a dangerous title to impose upon him. He was mortal, he was human, he was flawed. He had to endure terrible circumstances beyond his control, but his conscience was not clear of his own mistakes and issues. What Closer transmits is the painful extent to which he grappled with his demons, and was tragically was defeated by them. To listen to Closer is to be unnerved, haunted, and awed, both by Curtis’ chilling intonations, and the economical power of the group’s music. Joy Division had set a bold new template for guitar bands, and post-punk was to blossom in their wake, reshaping British rock – and ultimately “indie” – for decades to come. We have Unknown Pleasures plastered on countless T-shirts and Greatest Albums of All-Time lists, but Closer is a truly peerless record. Powerful, intense, and unflinching, it provides a glimpse into the darkest recesses of a mortal mind in nine tracks of enduring power. Long before “emo” and “goth” music were to become stereotypes, Closer fused terrible beauty with an inexorable dread, and what a truly staggering album it is.
This is the way, step inside.
My Spin on Masterworks: 17 of 25
Sound of Silver
It’s unfortunate that in many circles, the word “hipster” has become synonymous with “wanker”. The term carries with it disparaging undertones even when its use is actually perfectly dictionary-approved. In recent years, perceived qualities of snobbery, try-hard chic, and general aloofness have become attached to the hipster subculture, with anybody expressing a potentially conflicting opinion on pop culture now easily dismissed as a hipster contrarian. Although this is mostly done in good humour, thanks to popular stereotyping, the values most associated with hipsterdom are now widely viewed as conceited and po-faced.
James Murphy is one of the archetypal hipsters of 21st century music, considering that from afar, he ticks an almost-infuriating number of boxes on the hipster-spotter’s checklist. There’s the oft-cited vinyl worship and his staggering record collection of the kind you’d spot in Dust and Grooves. There’s his earnest adoration of 80s icons, the discography of comparatively lengthy tunes built on endless repetition, the singles with names like ‘Losing My Edge’ and ‘Yr City’s a Sucker’. Just for extra points, there’s the requisite facial fuzz, left-field side-projects (including Manhattan’s Subway Symphony), and the thousand-yard-stare that graces almost all of his press photos. He ostensibly makes such an easy target for kneejerk disdain that even Arcade Fire’s Win Butler has admitted to reacting as such before the two musicians finally collaborated, declaring that Murphy appears “kind of insufferable” until you get past that first impression.
In truth, Murphy is a smart player who is much less precious than he first appears. He fronted (and effectively acted as the face and mouthpiece of) LCD Soundsystem, the dance-punk collective who left a searing mark on the latter half of the noughties before bowing out with a legendary four-hour farewell show at Madison Square Garden in 2011. Several days into 2016, Murphy announced LCD Soundsystem would be reforming for shows as well as further records, to a mixed reception of delight and disappointment. Some hardcore fans have argued that this revival cheapens the emotional charge of the band’s original blowout, but ultimately, the return of one of the past decade’s most-loved acts is cause for celebration. As with Murphy himself, the band risked alienating fans with their stylistic tics (those arty band photos, that fetishised monochrome colour scheme, the blazers, the badges, the aviators), but look beyond these surface details, and their creative output is anything but aloof. In fact, it’s wonderfully easy to embrace: at their best, LCD Soundsystem sounded amicable, sensitive and ceaselessly self-effacing, while succeeding in joining the dots between the hot-blooded propulsion of a rock band and the crisp leanness of a dance outfit. They may be hipsters, but they’re categorically not wankers.
Although 2010’s This is Happening is arguably the most enjoyable of LCD Soundsystem’s three LPs, Sound of Silver is the real jewel in the band’s crown: a record that contains a perfect balance of the group’s strongest assets. LCD Soundsystem were (and they remain) very cool, but they’re also super goofy. They achieved greatness without sounding as though they were flailing for it. Theirs isn’t music of prissy perfectionism and frostiness, but excitable jams where fun and flavour are the primary objectives. Hence, for every demonstration of edgy swagger, they equally revelled in moments of self-aware silliness: the cowbell solos, the pithy quips, the ecstatic synth squiggles. The video for 2010’s ‘Drunk Girls’ features Murphy and bandmates Nancy Whang and Pat Mahoney being menaced by a bunch of pranksters pissing around in panda outfits, while documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits shows the band’s live attack as an ecstatic affair.
A true sense of enjoyment and love for the medium shines through the veneer of LCD Soundsystem’s music, and on Sound of Silver, the band’s trademark mingling of the cool and the ridiculous entwines with wonderful results. ‘North American Scum’ might pack a monster of a chorus, but Murphy’s wails are those of a wannabe rather than a bigwig, any traces of affectation undercut by hilarious yelps of “you wouldn’t touch us with a ten-foot pole” and “don’t blame the Canadians!” (The best pronunciation of “Canadians” you’ll hear on record, guaranteed.) These gleeful forays into big, dumb fun are the perfect foil to the gripping pulse of the instrumentation. ‘Watch the Tapes’ has Murphy yowling like a teenager over a sticky bass riff, concluding that “we all get a little drunk and then we act like apes” after four minutes of mostly nonsense. The album leans on these dafter moments to steady more ethereal passages elsewhere, such as the title track’s techno bliss-out, which is given room to breathe across seven luxurious minutes.
This wit is so crucial because the band’s musical smarts are almost intimidating in of themselves. Musically, Sound of Silver is immaculate, announcing itself from the off as a work of impressive nous; a collaboration of minds who have spent years coveting hidden treasures from decades past, before reworking their influences into an equally powerful original creation. The layering alone in ‘Get Innocuous!’ is wondrous to behold: one hundred seconds in, additional manual drums join the poppy snap of the analogue drum machine, and a wobbly keyboard motif slowly muscles its way higher in the mix. Even before the vocal sloganeering (“don’t it make you feel alive?”) has worked its repetitive magic, ‘Get Innocuous!’ has announced the record as one of supreme musical dexterity. (And the song is so awesome it’s kind of embarrassing for everybody else.)
But Sound of Silver wouldn’t be nearly as loveable as it is were it not for its big, soft heart, and at the album’s core, Murphy proves his chops for jerking tears as well as moving hips. ‘Someone Great’ conveys its vulnerability over a thick keyboard hook and a range of pinging melodies, as Murphy comes to terms with an ambiguous loss. Contextual details (is this the end of a relationship? A sudden departure? Death?) are left foggy as the singer hones in on the aftermath in a wash of muddled emotions. In lieu of outright heartbreak, the sadness is felt with stupefaction and subtle dislocation, grief registered like a puncture in an indifferent world of unceasing movement. “The coffee isn’t even bitter,” Murphy notes, “because what’s the difference?” Beyond this shattering personal distress, the world coldly carries on: “and it keeps coming, and it keeps coming, and it keeps coming…” ‘Someone Great’ has such lasting power because it offers an honest glimpse of mourning in modern times.
It’s outstanding, and the centrepiece that it forms with ‘All My Friends’ is what elevates Sound of Silver more than any other present quality. ‘All My Friends’ is the kind of song that words can’t really do justice to. Suffice to say, it’s a song with which LCD Soundsystem captured the essence of something huge; a sublime, universal bittersweetness in a beautiful treatise on aging, honing in on music, companionship, and the homes we find in the chaos. “I wouldn’t trade one stupid decision / For another five years of life,” goes one single line, as the song accelerates towards its finale. It’s music that isn’t just heard, it’s deeply felt. Just listen.
It might be too challenging for me to articulate the power of ‘All My Friends’, but pinning down the winning formula of its parent album is comparatively simple. Sound of Silver is the most winsome creation of a group who knew how to be cool, as well as when to embrace the ridiculous. These songs strafe between pithiness and sincerity, lovingly tipping a cap to heroes of the past without succumbing to slavish homage. It’s sexy and stupid, hilarious and heartbreaking, and thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end. Whether the reformed LCD Soundsystem can top Sound of Silver is yet to be seen, but it’s one hell of a high bar to clear.
My Spin on Masterworks: 16 of 25
In theory, complete and utter sincerity should seem desirable. Instead, it’s an uncomfortable proposition to shoulder, especially for poets and songwriters. When feelings are presented at their most naked, there’s nothing to hide behind: nothing artificial to lean into, no irony to break the tension. Heart-on-sleeve writing can be courageous purely in its existence, but it can all-too-easily collapse into the polar pitfalls of being either overly basic or overly elaborate. The words are expected to retain the intensity of original feeling without simply resembling slapdash stream-of-consciousness. Braving such territory in sung verse can be even more intimidating: everything hinges not only on the words themselves, but in the delivery thereof. Huge, heartfelt ballads are generally associated with ostentatious bluster, but at their core, they represent a tremendous gamble: with all chips on the table, every single line or couplet must hold its place in the chain, lest the whole thing break into pieces. If the material fails to convince at any point, the artist’s emotional integrity appears compromised; a disastrous result that stings all the more for the highly personal nature of the piece.
Partway through St. Vincent’s headline performance at Green Man Festival in 2015, Annie Clark gave a lengthy (and occasionally bewildering) speech, into which she smuggled the observation that “it’s so much braver to admit that you love something than to say that you hate it”. While the rest of her words are largely gone from memory (except for a hilarious gaff about Greggs “steak burgers”), that particular truism has continued to percolate in my mind. Transparent expressions of love put one in a vulnerable position. When it’s clear that you hold something dear, it can be hurtful for somebody else to refute it (and by extension, yourself). This applies when defending somebody else, and doubly so when standing by your own thoughts or creations.
Listening to his sole completed album, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Jeff Buckley couldn’t possibly have suffered from such concerns: throughout Grace, Buckley sings from the depths of his soul without so much as a flicker of self-doubt. Grace is not a record that sounds fragile (at least not in the same sense as For Emma, Forever Ago and its peers) but it is uncommonly intimate, the words poured straight from the heart with no discernible filter of irony or pretense. Even when revisiting past treasures such as ‘Corpus Christi Carol’ or Nina Simone’s ‘Lilac Wine’, Buckley fills their compositional vessels with an emotional charge that is entirely his own; his fervent croon making their well-worn sentiments new again. In no small part, this is down to his astonishing voice, blessed as he was with the kind of swooping range that so many troubadours dream of. Equally, by the time of Grace, Buckley had developed a precise control over his vocals, his fiery caterwauling tempered by finesse and timing. His feelings may sound raw, but his style was far from unpolished.
As is often the case for the reception of so many heart-on-sleeve songwriters (especially those with a taste for the theatrical), there are plenty of listeners who are turned off by Buckley’s style, but that’s not for his work’s lack of sincerity. Grace is an album so thoroughly open-chested that it is worthy of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the output of artists Buckley himself worshipped – Simone, Édith Piaf, Billie Holiday – as a work of pre-eminent emotional intensity. Its ten songs are sharply drawn from defiance, angst, and soul-baring declarations of love which verge on hallowing. Even listening to the album’s best-known song – the oft-celebrated cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (which Buckley was actually drawn to after hearing John Cale’s own rendition) – proves a staggeringly intimate experience. Buckley and producer Andy Wallace present the song as unhurried, hushed, and spacious, with its few details rendered finely. The notes of Buckley’s guitar flicker like candles in the dark, his voice ascending from a dusty stool to scrape cathedral-sized heights. The emotion driving the song can be heard through every breath, and it never once sounds affected or disingenuous.
In his own songs, Buckley pulls off even the most impossible of sentiments thanks to the very same sincerity. “I never stepped on the cracks ’cause I thought I’d hurt my mother,” he sighs during ‘So Real’ – the kind of lyric that would attract adjectives such as “drippy” were it not for Buckley’s sheer commitment to the part. On the opus ‘Lover, You Should’ve Come Over’, he builds from “my kingdom for a kiss upon her shoulder” to “she’s the tear that hangs inside my soul forever”, without faltering once. Around these peaks and valleys of romantic ruin, Grace’s edges are darkened like singed parchment paper. The “white horses” of ‘Mojo Pin’ are a torch-song cousin to Elliott Smith’s ‘Needle in the Hay’ of the following year, whereas ‘Dream Brother’ is a warning in the face of a friend’s temptation to self-destruct.
Buckley naturally holds the spotlight throughout Grace, but his bandmates are pushed to miracles in their attempts to match him, and sweet Jesus, the sound is just blissful. Listening to ‘Last Goodbye’ is like sending your ears on a four-and-a-half minute trip to Heaven. His subject matter is as old as time, but Buckley wrings fresh pain from an end-of-the-line dialogue with cut-glass phrases, while surrounded by tiny musical gracenotes. “This is our last embrace,” he asserts, and one of Karl Berger’s most gorgeous string melodies sails in to dovetail with the impossibly sharp pang, Buckley’s stretching ever so slightly to ask “must I dream and always see your face?” It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, so tiny in the breadth of the full album, but the effect is matched time and time again. ‘Grace’ itself shifts from jangly beauty to an explosive kick against the eventual dying of the light; a notion that would of course prove to be devastatingly timely. And yet it transcends its context and still sounds spirited and full of promise two decades after Buckley’s death: the performances are full of vim and gusto, and that hair-raising crescendo is a potent demonstration of the electricity preserved in the fibres of the album.
It’s dispiriting that to this day, the vaults are still being pilfered by music executives hoping to squeeze more lucrative posthumous releases from Buckley’s slim catalogue of work. This year’s You & I is a disheartening example of offcuts and demos cobbled together for the sake of capital at the cost of mystique. While arguably valid as insights into Buckley’s creative trajectory, many of the works dredged up following his death (aside from the more rounded productions lining Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk) show the artist at his most inconsistent, before he was able to fully realise the power of each recording. As such, Buckley’s less successful (and occasionally risky) endeavours have been canonised, at the risk of tarnishing his legacy.
And yet in spite of these blemishes, Buckley’s artistic immortality was confirmed long ago, thanks to the transcendence of what was completed on his own terms. Grace is certainly a tragic reminder of a talent lost too soon, but it carries within it so much life and fire, its emotions articulated with piercing sincerity that time has sharpened rather than blunted. In the span of its fifty minutes, not a single note rings false.