Review Roundup

17 May

Any evolution in Jason Isbell’s music has happened incrementally. Over the last two decades, initially occupying the George Harrison role of third string songwriter in Drive By Truckers and since 2007 as a solo artist, Isbell has developed a reputation for consistency and reliability. His has been the definition of a slow rise to success, accelerated slightly by his contribution to the ‘A Star is Born’ soundtrack. ‘Reunions’, his seventh album, is as assured as you would expect. He remains one of the finest at the craft of songwriting. Not a word here is misplaced. There’s no set up without a pay off. No emotion that feels phoned in. He spies the low hanging fruit and looks past it. Whether writing about sobriety, separation, grief or nostalgia (the main themes of ‘Reunions’) he always finds unexpected vantage points from which to untangle and prise open. Highlight ‘Oversees’ conveys an emigre’s anguish from the perspective of the family left behind. ‘St. Peter’s Autograph’ presents a husband’s reassurances and support for a partner mourning the loss of a friend. These songs are spare, careful, empathetic. His band, The 400 Unit, accompany him, steady as a rock but delivering some more nuanced textures and evocative soundscapes than on his previous, more linear records. In that regard, ‘Reunions’ might be the most inventive album Jason Isbell has put out, as well as the most incisive and understated.

8/10

At times in the past, Soccer Mommy’s music has been laidback to a fault. Guarded, intimate, relaxed – her songs were comfy to the point of being unremarkable; like dad jeans given voice. But ‘Colour Theory’ elevates Soccor Mommy without diverting from those central principles. It’s simply better. The melodies are brighter and more ambitious. The arrangements now have both the depth and clarity that was lacking on the debut ‘Clean’. Sophia Allison matches the candour and vulnerability that has always grounded her songwriting with the experience and sophistication that comes from touring the world twice over. As a consequence, ‘Colour Theory’ is knowing and dynamic. Songs like ‘Bloodstream’ and ‘Circle the Drain’ could be 90s Alt-Rock hits resuscitated from an MTV 2 netherworld. Despite the assortment of infectious melodies, crayon coloured riffs and sticky choruses, this is still a dark record, largely about the day to day realities of living with depression and illness. Allison depicts painterly images of childhood on opening track ‘Bloodstream’ before starkly contrasting that innocence with a description of self harm and trauma. ‘A river runs red from my knuckles into the sink and there’s a pale girl staring through the mirror at me.’ In contrast to the bluntness of her lyrics, her singing is sleepy, and the music slacks. It’s pretty but it doesn’t try to be. In the vary next verse she’s evoking ‘hydrangeas blooming off park trees.’ The complicated contrast (one of many) is one of the reasons her writing is so compelling. ‘Colour Theory’ offers no easy answers, just beautifully phrased questions and resonant uncertainty.

8/10

‘And It’s Still Alright’ was written and recorded in the wake of producer Richard Swift’s death. Swift, a longtime collaborator and confidant of Nathanial Rattelif, clearly made an impact on those he worked with and ‘Its Still Alright’ bears some hallmarks of his production, even in absentia. This is a mournful, moving collection of songs that gravitate around loss without ever being swept away by it. Ratteliff has recorded a curious, if not adventurous, collection of folk-rock songs that skew from hard wrought melancholia to light footed delicacy in a heartbeat. It’s admittedly patchy – heart tugging songs of sincerity like ‘Rush On’, ‘You Need Me’ and the title track contend with the more whimsical, and sometimes plain illusive, likes of ‘What a Drag’ and ‘All or Nothing.’ But in its finest moments there is real wisdom and comfort; melodies and words that feel naturally entwined and as ancient as the trees on the album’s cover. There’s little doubt Swift would be proud.

7/10

Car Seat Headrest ‘Making a Door Less Open’ – Review

12 May

Back in 2014, the same year they signed to Matador, Car seat Headrest released ‘How to Leave Town’ on Bandcamp. A diversion from their normal form of indie rock, ‘How to Leave Town’ included the fourteen minute synth oddessy ‘the Ending of Dramamine’ and the spoken word ‘Is This Dust Really From the Titanic?’ That they branded ‘How to Leave Town’ an e.p, despite it clocking it at an hour, spoke to the band’s ambition and their audacity. This particular achievement faded somewhat into obscurity however, when only a few months later Headrest released their debut major label album ‘Teens of Style’. New album ‘Making a Door Less Open’ is a callback to ‘How to Leave Town’, in the respect that it returns to a largely synth driven, electronic sound. But in most ways the album – the band’s first release of original material in four years following 2018’s ‘Twin Fantasy’ (a collection of rerecorded bandcamp demos) – lacks so much of what made that, and the group’s other recent albums, so great.

Will Toledo is a writer in whom several traditions converge; both a Matador slacker in the lineage of Stephen Malkmus and a product of the 21st Century Blogosphere, he manages to embody both traditional and experimental values. You see both sides of him on display here. These songs are as taut as any he’s produced. The production is clean and dynamic, and the arrangements are rarely as combustible as in the past, for better or worse. When it all comes together, as on ‘Weightlifters’, ‘Deadlines’ and ‘Martyn’, the band sound absolutely primed to headline the festivals they’ve been slowly climbing the bills at. These highlights may be modest in comparison to past glories but their charms are not insubstantial.

Although still prompted by imagination and an instinct for the wonderfully ridiculous, Will Toledo envisaged ‘Making a Door Less Open’ as a direct collection of songs rather than a unified, extended statement. This doesn’t particularly play to his natural strengths. You can usually work out what these songs are about, and where they are going, within the first 30 seconds or so. That is a striking development when you consider how unpredictable his writing has been in the past. He has shaved off unnecessary musical and lyrical excess, in an effort to hone in on something more instantly gratifying. The extent to which you think he has been successful will largely depend on how much stock you placed on his old way of working. It certainly doesn’t seem to pay off on lead single ‘Can’t Cool Me Down’, a dull and clunky track most notable for an awkward falsetto and the amateurish programming.

The next song is ‘Deadlines (Hostile)’, which, despite being the catchiest track on the album, is also at the heart of what’s frustrating about it. The song is largely about the pressures of getting an album written and put out. It’s descriptions of writer’s block are insightful and poetic (‘got a canvas as white as the moon but when I see it at night, it’s a sickening blue’) but when depicting the business side of the bargain (‘now I’ve got another question – if we run out of time can we make an exception for the piece that needs completion?’) it becomes crunchingly self aware and tedious. The song appears in two forms on the album; the electric rock version and later as a barely recognisable beat and siren driven rendition. There is a third version that appears exclusively on the vinyl in a kind of dubby, melted down mode, and a fourth, acoustic version that appears as the CD bonus track. They each have different lyrics and musical arrangements. It’s far, far too much of a good thing.

There is something cloying about this and the other pretences we are expected to endure; the fact Will Toledo is conducting interviews in a gas mask (an affectation that’s even more unwelcome considering the current pandemic) or that he’s labelling the album a collaboration with his alter-ego ‘Trait’. it’s more than a bit trying and pretentious. Even the running time (47 minutes) feels like a conceit to prick Headrest’s tradition of grandiosity. As a consequence of all this artifice, the album feels laboured despite its brevity; so even a straightforward song like ‘Hollywood’, with its silly refrain and d.u.m.b riff, feels more like an exercise in form rather than something impulsive and spontaneous. ‘Making a Door Less Open’ is self-consciously a sharp left turn but in moments like this it can’t help feeling like a strained, and largely superficial one.

Perhaps Car Seat Headrest are a victim of their own success. They have after all made three of the best indie-rock records of recent memory – ‘Teens of Style’, ‘Teens of Denial’ and ‘Twin Fantasy’. These albums felt like important statement albums to be ranked alongside ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, ‘Channel Orange’ and ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ in the canon of courageous, sprawling, inventive auteur records of the 2010’s. In comparison ‘Making a Door Less Open’ feels slight and insubstantial; a sparodiclly exciting but mostly frustrating experiment that doesn’t really work. An album lacking the hooks, the surprises, the tempo shifts, the unexpected chord changes and the odd tonal juxtapositions of those older albums. Everything about ‘Making a Door Less Open’ feels more linear and predictable.

It begs the question – who is this for? The blaring riff at the centre of the aforementioned ‘Hollywood’ swings for the bleachers but the song seems to mock the very people who might find enjoyment in it. With its sticky but condescending lyrics and a refrain of ‘Hollywood makes me wanna puke’, Toledo makes the rather *duh* point that the general public is complicit in commercial America’s hold over us. He has all the conviction of a fired up undergrad without any nuance or empathy. At least that song is catchy; elsewhere things get legitimately ugly. It’s hard to imagine anyone getting enjoyment from ‘Hymn’ where Toledo’s chopped up, out of tune warbling collides with a chintzy drum machine and irritating synth buzzes. I have similar feelings about the sounds Toledo uses on ‘Can’t Cool Me Down’, Deadlines (Thoughtful)’, and ‘Famous’. The smudged notes, sketchy arrangements and cheap aesthetic choices render ‘Making the Door Less Open’ a genuinely unpleasant experience at points.

Inevitably though, when one of your favourite artists makes a new album, good or bad, there are things to savour, and reminders of why Will Toledo is often considered to be the finest indie songwriter of his generation. I can hear what he’s trying to achieve and understand that conflict within him – the ambition to play against his pre-existing strengths and explore new and exciting impulses. The ambition to make something more accessible and universal perhaps. Surely an album as lacking in refinement as this wasn’t an attempt at commercial success? On ‘Deadlines (Thoughtful)’ he says ‘I am not so shallow. I am not that deep’. And maybe that’s the ultimate problem. Despite his ambitions, ‘Making a Door Less Open’ is not the direct, accessible ‘collection of songs’ that Will Toledo set out to make. Nor is it a particularly meaningful or moving album in his traditional mode. It’s peculiar, it’s obtuse, it’s interesting, it’s ameturish. It’s ok. But, like Toledo says, It’s not shallow and it’s not deep – and the middle ground is no place for Car Seat Headrest.

6/10

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The Strokes ‘The New Abnormal’ – Review

16 Apr

It’s hard to fathom now, but in 1992 Johnny Cash was washed up. Past it. Ignored by the Nashville community, dismissed by critics, and forgotten by the wider public; he was feuding with his record label and recovering from numerous surgeries and addictions. Then he met Rick Rubin, backstage at one of his concerts. The rest, as they say, is history. Rubin recorded Cash with two mics, a guitar and an emphasis on his truth. Their ‘American Recordings’ set a precedent. Over the next couple of decades, Rubin would take established but beleaguered superstars and whittle down their sound to the raw essentials whilst amplifying everything that made them superstars In the first place. In the time since, he has performed this same trick on everyone from Neil Diamond to Metallica. It was only a matter of time before he turned his attention to The Strokes.

The successful results are not that surprising. ‘The New Abnormal’ is easily the band’s most focused and cohesive record since ‘First Impressions of Earth’, their messy but generally majestic third album. Rubin’s bright mix emphasises the core essentials; elastic bass lines, interlocking guitar hooks and colour crayoned melodies, while smoothing out the band’s zanier tendencies. On a technical level, It has an identity – something The Strokes have been haphazardly scrambling around for since since the muted reception to 2003’s (now clearly acknowledged) masterpiece ‘Room on Fire’.

The two albums that the band put out in the last decade had the whiff of low risk, low reward. ‘Angles’, a bouncy update of the band’s signature pop-rock sound, was the better of the two. It contained a handful of genuinely great throwbacks alongside some more adventurous curios. As good as it was, it sounded like the fragmented product of five individuals playing different songs on different continents. And there was some truth to that. Even more so, ‘Comedown Machine’ sounded laboured and lacking in focus. It half heartedly cast an eye down several new roads but seemed too lazy to set down them with any enthusiasm or urgency. They didn’t particularly promote either album, save for a smattering of festivals here and there, along with some bad-tempered press interviews that focused more on drug habits, fall outs and family dramas. It gave the impression of a band past the point of caring.

‘The New Abnormal’ then is initially notable for how much the band seem to care. They’ve spent the best part of three months promoting and performing. Press interviews are still a little awkward (in the LA Times this week, Casablancas generously labelled this his fourth favourite project that he’s been involved in) but at least they’re giving them a go. On the album itself are strong signs that they are once more a group of brothers on the same page. The band recorded together in the same studio. The songs are credited to all band members, rather than the individual writer. The gaps between those songs are filled with studio banter, laughs and musical asides. In an affected kind of way, it goes some distance to recapturing the spontaneous, casual cool of a band so desirable that even Alex Turner, one of the coolest men alive, ‘just wanted to be one of the strokes…’

Of course, they are never going to be that band again. No-one is. The disheveled hair has flecks of grey. The vintage t-shirts no longer fit. The disintegrating converse have finally kicked it. ‘Is This It’ was a once in a lifetime masterpiece. To spend any longer asking – was that it? – would do everyone a disservice.

And so I’ll try to focus on the things they do now that they couldn’t have done then. Julian has finally found his range on the wonky, weird synth numbers like ‘At the Door’ and he no longer sounds out of his depth when using his falsetto. Reviewing ‘Comedown Machine’ I complained that his grizzled voice was ill-suited to the taut, clean synth pop he seemed so taken with. On ‘Selfless’ and ‘Endless Summer’ he proves me wrong. He’s a more curious vocalist, taking melodies in unexpected directions. On ‘The Adults are Talking’ he is surprisingly subtle, giving off a sultry r&b vibe as the band click and pop around him. On ‘Endless Summer’ he skews from angelic choirboy on the verses to demonic garage rocker on the chorus. It’s easily his most adventurous turn as a Stroke, and unlike in the past where his experiments sounded stilted or strange, he is largely successful. In the background his band mates are more restrained, doing what they do, as well as they’ve always done it, but more inwardly.

It doesn’t always work though. Occasionally the songs crunch awkwardly, like car gears getting jammed on a long drive. Tracks meander aimlessly past four, five, six minutes as if the band haven’t quite figured out how to end them. Important structural decisions like this feel botched; Fab is audibly, and half heartedly, invited to join in on ‘Ode to the Mets’. Elsewhere verses splutter in to choruses and choruses jut grind to a halt. Perhaps these faults feel more jarring because of The Strokes being who they are – ‘Is This It’ being one of the tightest, most meticulously constructed albums we have. When ‘Hard to Explain’ stopped on a dime after the first chorus, it felt like essential respite rather than there being a lack of a better transition. When Julian shouted ‘stop’ in New York City Cops, it was an imperative, not a request.

It goes without saying that there is something quite fitting about The Strokes releasing an album called ‘The New Abnormal’ at the time of Covid-19. They have form of course; this quintessential NYC band released ‘Is this It’ the week that the towers fell. The Strokes symbolised the end of one era, as well as the start of something new. They drew so much from the past, from an old Manhattan that was being both destroyed and gentrified literally all around them, and set the tone for a new decade of rebels and artists that followed in their wake. This dissonance between yesterday and tomorrow is encapsulated in their sound – something Julian Casablancas once observed when he said, and I’m paraphrasing, that he wanted their songs to have the quality of cassette tapes buried decades before being discovered and played in the future. ‘The New Abnormal’ once again summons that quality. There’s a lot here to get nostalgic about; the metallic guitar tones – reminiscent of Thin Lizzy but EQ’d to the point of sounding like Tron synths. The sluggish downstrokes meshing with Julian’s anguished drawl on the ironically titled ‘Its Not the Same Anymore’. Even the terrible, faux-philosophical lyrics (‘you’d make a better window than the door’). But there is the sense of something risked as well. ‘The New Abnormal’ is adventurous and creative. It’s a reassuring dose of familiarity – with just enough that is new – when so much else is unknown.

7.5/10

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Waxahatchee ‘Saint Cloud’ – Review

12 Apr

Waxahatchee (formally self-recorded solo project of songwriter Katie Crutchfield, now a fleshed out band) have quietly been putting out some of the most moving indie rock records of the past decade. Fifth album, ‘Saint Cloud’, continues this trend whilst elevating the group’s ambition. In contrast to ‘American Weekend’s bruised, lo-fi ballads and ‘Out in the Storm’s scruffy Alt-rock vibes, ‘Saint Cloud’ is surprisingly bright. Here Waxahatchee have captured a sound akin to soft sunlight illuminating an old, country road.  The pretty melodies and colourful chord changes resonate sweetly but because of the material’s inherent melancholy, the exterior sunniness renders the album bitter sweet.

A lot of the song’s themes were solidified on journeys between Crutchfield’s childhood home of Birmingham, Alabama and Kansas City, where she currently resides. Recently sober, and in a settled relationship, Crutchfield felt well placed to diagnose and dissect years of self-neglect, substance abuse and romantic trauma. There is clearly a heaviness to these themes – one song, ‘Ruby Falls’, is about a friend who died from a heroin overdose – but the bad weather never overwhelms the optimism inherent in the performances.

The golden haze that reverberates from these songs forms a barrier between Waxahatchee’s gloomier records and this one. Inspired by the country and Alt-country fixtures of her youth, Crutchfield finds a way to derive beauty from the hardness of reality. Tears falling become ‘rain’, bones become ‘delicate sugar’, silence is spun in to ‘gold’. In the midst of despair, Crutchfield and her band find the sweetness, and encourage braveness. ‘You might mourn all that you wasted, that’s just part of the haul / tangling up all of your good fortune, bearing the heart of the fall / you won’t break it after all.’

But that valuable quality doesn’t necessarily get at what makes ‘Saint Cloud’ so good. I could draw a parallel between this and Arctic Monkeys 2011 album ‘Suck It and See’ – two unexpectedly bright and articulate records released after particularly dark an introverted periods. Like ‘Suck It and See’, ‘Saint Cloud’ is a relatively straightforward album. You’ll find the choruses exactly where you expect. The chords are simple enough. The arrangements are light and undecorative. ‘Saint Cloud’ isn’t particularly profound and it’s certainly not innovative but in its clarity Waxahatchee have created an incredibly accomplished record. Take highlight  ‘Can’t Do Much’ (maybe my favourite track of 2020 so far). Obstinately a tender, upbeat love song but one full of odd imagery (‘my eyes roll around like dice on the felt’), uneasiness (‘in my loneliness I’m locked in a room’) and humour (I love that much anyhow – can’t do much about it now’). Both the song, and the album, are about accepting the good alongside the bad and coming to peace, and finding the joy, within that. 

8/10

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Caribou ‘Suddenly’ – Review

6 Apr

Caribou, one of several monikers used by Mathematician and  musician Dan Snaith, is responsible for some of the most emotionally resonant dance music of the past decade. As his career has progressed, Snaith’s productions have slowly morphed from the kind of hard boiled Electronica that sounded so revolutionary at the turn of the century, into a more whimsical blend of intimate psychedelia and beat driven dream pop. ‘Suddenly’, the follow up to 2014’s masterful ‘Our Love’, continues the slow retreat from the dancefloor to the bedroom. The album art depicts a ripple in an otherwise calm bit of water. The album also tries to contend with the aftershocks and consequences of disrupting forces – loss, trauma, anxiety- and does it in a similarly peaceful and mesmerising way.

Snaith is singing more than ever. His voice is coiled and cagey – distinctive in its own way but unlikely to be the sole reason anyone arrives at a Caribou record. His lyrics are also more fleshed out than before. On ‘Our Love’ he frequently spiralled around catches of conversation or simple declarations. Here he breathes flesh to similar sentiments, expanding and dissecting his them to prise clarity and wisdom. Although he uses vocal samples as much as ever, his voice, and his words, are now entirely central to his music. 

The electronic gargles that open ’Sister’, track one on the album, gradually harden in to synthetic squeaks and blips as Snaith offers disarming reassurances to his family that he’s changing. It’s an unconventionally muted opening to what is still obstinately a Dance record. It signals the tone and mood of an album that, in contrast to its title, does nothing with much urgency. There is another side to the record though. Scattered among the more ambient pieces are a handful of catchy bangers. Here, more than ever before, the focus is on hooks, whatever the source. ‘You and I’ uses the kind of dusty vocal samples that could only have come from the deepest recesses of a crate digger’s collection . ‘New Jade’ circles around a tiny vocal loop that expands and reverberates in a deliciously psychedelic way. ‘Home’ is all soulful notes, funky licks and handclaps; a House Jam from another planet. The fact it turns up on a Caribou album is more than a little surprising. With its Motorik groove and Calypso piano arpeggios, ‘Lime’ feels more oblique. Even here though, Snaith can’t resist breaking the tranquility, abruptly snapping the song with a surprising spoken word section in the final third. There are more conventional, up-tempo numbers as well such as ‘Never Come Back’ and ‘Ravi’, both of which would sound great in a tropical club under sunny skies.

The six minute finale, ‘Cloud Song’ starts as another plinkity -plonkity synth exploration before evolving in to a kind of percussive, mid-80s Prince Ballad. The last words Snaith helplessly utters are ‘I’m broken, so tired of crying, just hold me close to you.’ It’s conveys a vulnerability so rarely heard in electronic music but the delivery is blustery and blunted. This is a little too true of the album as a whole. Compared to the vivaciousness of ‘Our Love’ or the wildness of ‘Swim’, ‘Suddenly’ feels just a little too restrained. The watery textures and quiet melodies give the record a pretty anonymity that is at odds with the colourful and creative atmospheres he’s created previously.  The trade off is that ‘Suddenly’ feels intimate and honest. It’s not his most musically daring release, not by a long stretch, but it’s certainly his most emotionally daring one.

7.5/10

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Dogleg ‘Melee’ – Review

2 Apr

The way that Dogleg put it, ‘Melee’ has arrived at the worst possible moment. In a recent tweet they wrote “already thought this year was starting off as a huge trainwreck before this mess and now seeing everything we tried to build up go down in huge fiery flames makes me ridiculously depressed.” The album was recorded over a year ago. A lot of time has been spent clearing the way, like a circle pit being prepared during the countdown. They couldn’t have possibly anticipated that Spring 2020 was going to be a write off. That their tour would be cancelled. That promotional opportunities would be flushed down the drain. That they wouldn’t be able to leave the house, much let do a radio session. But the way I see it, there is no better time for this album. ‘Melee’ is the gut punching, kung-fu kicking Rock album you need in your life right now. It’s a cathartic whirlpool of tension bursting because there is no where left for the energy to go. It’s an album about battling anxiety in a time of widespread anxiety. In this context, ‘Melee’ feels essential.

Like many of the best guitar albums of recent years, ‘Melee’ lives at the intersection between a lot of misunderstood and misrepresented sub genres. It has the whiplash intensity of post-hardcore, the heart-rattling sincerity of first wave emo and the melodic ingenuity of pop-punk. The band also cite 00s indie bands like The Strokes and Arctic Monkeys as influences, and you can hear it in the bright hooks and tasteful way they structure and arrange the songs.

It’s part of Dogleg-lore that the band will give free merch to any member of the audience that can beat them at Super Smash Bros. Nobody has. The band convert that button bashing proficiency into musical efficiency. The riffs come hard and fast; completed with the practiced intensity of a pro-gamer battling the final boss. The momentum is carried by a drummer Parker Grissom who pounds every snare as if his life depends on him breaking the skin or drawing blood in the effort. The hit that opens ‘Cannonball’, possibly the album’s most vivid performance, sounds like a bullet being smacking the air.

The velocity never lulls – when the relentless onslaught of noise is occasionally paused, the silence is pierced by feedback or shouts that ring like battle cries. There are no slow songs and little sonic, rhythmic or musical variation. The closest they come is on ‘Cannonball’ where an acoustic chug briefly intercedes the noise before a choir of screams reset the status quo. Strings are introduced on ‘Ender’  at the very back of the album as a kind of curtain call but by then the damage to your eardrums has already been done.

The mix is fiery hot. You can almost feel the guitars vibrate. The vocals are mixed sensibly low to the point that you can frequently can’t make out what singer Alex Stoitsiadis is saying. A few choice affirmations do rise above the noise though: ‘will you be the fire or the wind?’, ‘time will let you down’, ‘I know it’s just you and me’, ‘I’ll keep it in my head, every increment.’ Stoitsiadis is no poet. His writing is vague and non-committal at best. But he’s able to summon incredible intensity with the limited tools at his disposal. The sentiments behind his words are carried by his raw and loud vocal performances.

Beyond the throat shredding, guitar thrashing and Nintendo references, lies a collection of burning heart on sleeve confessionals. Cryptic highlight ‘Fox’ finds Stoitsiadis floundering inside his own head, unable to articulate the thoughts that are ‘pressing against’ his skin. As the song rattles towards its end he exposes his deepest concern: ‘Any moment now I will disintegrate.’ On an album that hurtles around musical and emotional corners at a frightening pace, it’s a constant surprise that Dogleg don’t disintegrate. In spite of the odds, ‘Melee’ is a brilliantly triumphant rock record for 2020.

9/10

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The Weeknd ‘After Hours’ – Review

30 Mar

The Weeknd has fluctuated between greatness and mediocrity since the start. In fact, he might be the most inconsistent pop star of the past decade (with, perhaps, the exception of frequent collaborator Drake). ‘House of Balloons’ was an exceptionally accomplished mixtape, one that redefined the boundaries between R&B and indie and can reasonably be called the most influential debut in recent memory. Its quick follow up, ‘Thursday’, was totally forgettable. In the years since, his releases have generally skewed from the pretty good (‘Beauty Beneath the Madness’, ‘My Dear Melancholy’) to the pretty bad (‘Starboy’, ‘Kiss Land’). But nothing (save perhaps the mesmerising single ‘I Can’t Feel My Face’) has touched ‘House of Balloons’ greatness.

And it’s becoming increasingly clear that in all probability nothing else ever will. Nonetheless, ‘After Hours’ is his most successful album since that debut. It is easily more consistent and enjoyable than anything he’s put out recently. Here, The Weeknd has managed to artfully blend the blurred melodies and bruised beats of his nascent mixtapes with a brighter pop production. It results in both catchy hit singles like ‘In Your Eyes’ and ‘Blinding Lights’ alongside darker excursions such as ‘Repeat After Me’ and ‘After Hours.’ It’s hard to imagine a better amalgamation of The Weeknd’s varied interests and tendencies.

The Weeknd’s last album, 2017’s terribly transparent ‘Starboy’, was bloated with filler and suggested that the artist who had made his name with a trilogy of expertly curated and cohesive mixtapes, had lost sense of his own strengths. ‘After Hours’, on the other hand, despite clocking in at nearly an hour, is largely fat free. It’s also surprising – considering how stodgy and lethargic ‘Starboy’ felt – that ‘After Hours’ is ingeniously sequenced; slowly morphing from noirish r&b in to a blockbuster pop record. Producer Illangelo, sonic architect since the early days, is back but his more experimental urges are largely kept in bay by an array of mainstream pop producers like Max Martin, Metro Boomin and Frank Dukes. Together they weave divergent threads together in to a cohesive whole.

In a recent SNL television appearance, Abel Tesfaye emerged bandaged and bruised; fake blood dripping on to a sharp red suit. This visual juxtaposition between the immaculate and the nihilistic neatly symbolises the musical and lyrical themes of ‘After Dark’. Across the album Tesfaye describes his vices – drugs, sex, narcissism – while, occasionally, striving to escape them. ‘I don’t wanna touch the Sky no more / I just wanna feel the ground when I’m coming down’ he declares on the album’s closing track. Only seconds later, he puts it more bluntly ‘I don’t wanna get high no more.’ Of course this is very familiar territory for The Weeknd. The problem is, he never convinces you that this is an honest aim. He opens the album by using signifiers of indulgence to create a cloying, convenient mood. It’s too hollow. Too easy. Too predictable. This is true of too much lyrical content, particularly in the album’s opening half. He’s depicting the same daemons that he has used as crutches in the past and far too often it feels insincere. On the otherwise engaging ‘Too Late’ he reverts to the familiar cliches – ‘don’t let me drown’, ‘bad thoughts inside my mind when the darkness comes’ ‘we’re in hell’. This is not deep and it’s not moving. It’s a Hollywood exploration of depression and dependency.

The pop ballads strike me as more authentic. The pristine ‘Scared to Live’ is surprisingly generous and regretful. He even sounds vulnerable on ‘Save Your Tears’, where he describes his personal heartbreak and uncertainty in totally relatable terms. Here he comes to the realisation that he is at fault for his own failures and makes an effort to transcend that pain. The metaphor he returns to, time and time again throughout the album, is of bleeding out his demons. ‘I wanna cut you outta my mind’, ‘girl I’m bleeding out.’ But there is a lot about what he wants or doesn’t want to do, and not a lot of positive action. It amplifies the sense of indulgence and self pity that sours the album’s mood and prevents ‘After Hours’ from being a loveable album (and I’ve not even mentioned the misogyny and sickly puns that taint ‘Snowchild’, ‘Leaving L.A’ and ‘Heartless.’)

But you don’t necessarily listen to The Weeknd to deep dive into the lyrics. Frequently these day his music is an aesthetic. A debauched lifestyle soundtrack. That’s a bit of a shame, considering how much meaning we could derive from his early, genuinely conflicted, mix tapes. But then again, the flawless pop of ‘Blinding Lights’, ‘In Your Eyes’, ‘Scared to Live’, ‘Save Your Tears’ and ‘Hardest to Love’ makes it feel like a fair exchange. These are some of the best high concept pop songs of the year. Considering these songs have come from The Weeknd – an artist I once loved but just about given up on – makes ‘After Hours’ feel all the more like something to cherish in these uncertain times.

7.5/10

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