Star Wars ‘The Last Jedi’ – Review

13 Jan

(I don’t write film reviews often but I felt compelled to note down some thoughts on the new Star Wars film)

There are a couple of moments in ‘The Last Jedi’ where super villain Kylo Ren gleefully advises ‘let the past die, kill it if you have to’. Despite coming out of the mouth of the film’s chief antagonist, director/writer Rian Johnson seems to have embraced the instruction with almost perverse glee. This is a complex film that takes a fizzing red lightsaber to the past, and does more than chop its hand off. In doing so Johnson has made the most divisive and controversial episode in the Star Wars Saga. He takes many risks, some of which work and many of which don’t. Some of which are devastatingly emotional and some of which are just plain devastating. It moves the franchise forward by breaking it apart from what came before. It’s failures are many and varied but it’s achievements are perhaps more significant if Star Wars is to have life in to a new decade.

The primary criticism of ‘The Force Awakens’ (a fantastic if flawed episode in the series) was that it was TOO nostalgic. But the things it was nostalgic for – classic storytelling, charm and charisma, admirable heroics, practical effects, a sense of magic, optimism – weren’t things tied to any one time period, let alone a single film. Lucas was heavily influenced by his art school colleagues, Kurosawa, Flash Gorden, War films and most importantly Jung’s theories on archetypes and Joseph Campbell’s study of myths, ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’. Lucas was a student of storytelling. Johnson on the other hand seems to enjoy hacking away at these established modes of expression that influenced Lucas. This is symbolised early on in the film when Luke tosses away his father’s lightsaber. It’s played for cheap laughs but the scene symbolises, either intentionally or not, the seeming disregard Johnson has for legends, trophies and conventions. Johnson is in search of something less tied to mythology and expectation, something more contemporary and complex. That means working against a legacy that George Lucas carefully created.

The whole ‘medichlorean’ philosophy that Lucas designed, and the entire concept of a ‘chosen one’ are purposefully disregarded. Rey is revealed to be a nobody. Her parents were nobody’s. Yet she can, and will, lead the revolution. And here we have just one manifestation of the politics of Johnson’s vision: the democratisation of the force, where you too could one day be a Jedi knight. Any inherited authority, either by sense of personal entitlement or through destiny or a single family dynasty, is thoroughly decried and dismissed. Of course there has always been a political undercurrent to Star Wars – it swelled to the surface in The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith – but The Last Jedi explicitly toys with a grab bag of modern political anxieties – absent parents, multi ethic alliances, feminist leaders usurping man-child upstarts, mutant dictators exploiting the weak and vulnerable, and the flaws of capitalism. To some this will seem welcome, overdue, necessary even, to other it will seem like unfortunate pandering and misplaced, self righteous posturing.

It’s not just the politics that will be divisive. On a purely cinematic level, The Last Jedi is more underwhelming than its predecessors. I’d always had Johnson pegged as something of a stylist, yet one or two memorable shots aside, nothing really strikes a note of individualism. The psychedelic scene where Rey looks down a hall of mirrors and sees… herself, is a perfect example of where a visionary director could have left a mark. Instead the scene is laboured and uninspired, as much of the movie is for its often tiresome two and a half hours. Scenes involving space dog fights and grand explosions have the potential to dazzle but the effect is numbed by sheer repetition. The most stirring of these scenes is right there at the beginning when an unarmed resistance fighter sacrifices herself to release futuristic grenades on to the enemy ship. Every other space battle after this feels emotionally empty and redundant in comparison.

Where Lucas wisely used classical structures and proven character archetypes, Johnson anarchically undercuts and undermines the same tropes. The story is deliberately sprawling and convoluted to the extreme; it dovetails in to several unnecessary subplots that ultimately fizzle out. At the end you’re left wondering – what has actually happened? What did Luke and Rey ACTUALLY do on that Island? What was the POINT of having Poe and Rose go to that casino planet? Did we REALLY need so many space battles? It makes you yearn for the relatively linear plot lines of the original trilogy.

And in that sense, The Last Jedi has less in common with The Empire Strikes Back (the film it was initially compared to) and more in common with the episodic adventure format of ‘Attack of the Clones’. But whilst that film (up until now the most flawed and disliked episode in the Star Wars series) had the zany flavour of a Saturday morning cartoon serial, ‘The Last Jedi’, feels much darker and less generous both stylistically and tonally. For example; the intrigue of the Canto Bight casino planet is only briefly utilised. Before you know it the characters have escaped, and a dimly lit, unambitiously framed chase sequence is underway. Similarly, the visually distinctive planet of Crait feels under-used; compare it to the rich and rewarding landscapes of Attack of the Clones – the water planet of Kamino, the futuristic cityscape of coruscant and the deserty Tatoine. But the prequels sleek modernism is seemingly too earnest to be of any kind of influence on this director. A shame, as their undervalued innovations were more ambitious than anything seen visually in The Last Jedi.

So the film is technically sloppy, superficially unambitious, structurally laboured, politically divisive and tonally off balance. It’s also got plot holes that will disturb the anoraks (you could argue that every Star Wars film since Empire has) but more significantly there are things about it that will alienate the film’s target audience – children. The film easily drags past two hours, and because it opens in fifth gear (with one of several space shot outs), it struggles to build any sort of momentum. It rattles from one overheated set piece to the next until they all just blur in to one frazzled mess. Children will get bored quickly and often. The emotional intensity of several key scenes, adult themes and even, at one point, swearing, may also impede a young audience’s viewing. The dialogue is also far too knowing to sound like it genuinely belongs in the Star Wars universe. The wide eyed, stumbling sincerity of George Lucas’ intergalactic vocabulary is replaced by irony, sarcasm and detachment. The jokes frequently fall flat and even his attempt at cuteness, with the porgs, feels cliched.

Snoke, the one character from Force Awakens who perhaps should have set alarm bells ringing, is a hollow cliche of a 21st century Marvel villain, and he’s mercifully, if Ludicrously, offed about half way through the film. This scene leads to one of the film’s unadulterated moments of ingenuity, when Kylo Ren and Rey team up to defeat a group of rebel guards, in front of a dramatic, blood red back drop. The choreography is slightly stilted but the drama is real, and in that brief scene the ambiguity over Kylo Ren’s future is genuinely intriguing. But by this point Johnson has blurred the lines between morals to such an extent that any kind of decisive choice would feel hollow.

But for all it’s flaws, the actors in The Last Jedi do a tremendous job, almost without exception (Domnhall Gleason hams it up a little too much as Admiral Hux and Kelly Tran has a remarkably blunted impact as new character Rose). Carrie Fischer seemed out of her depth and flustered in the Force Awakens, but she found her feet and gave a brilliant final performance as Leila (we can just ignore the whole flying in space bit). Oscar Isaac is typically charismatic as ‘fly boy’ Poe, Daisy Ridley delivers a moving performance as Rey, and Adam Driver is truly exceptional at expressing Kylo Ren’s inner conflict.

The true star though is undoubtedly Mark Hamil. For all his dogged enthusiasm, he never really impressed with his acting ability in the original trilogy but here he is more than convincing as a reclusive, weary Luke Skywalker. Hamil should be praised even more considering he was essentially asked to butcher his own character’s moral code and optimistic outlook. The Star Wars saga, fundamentally, has always been the personal story of the Skywalker family, and so every scene involving Luke (except at points involving awkward, winking gags) feels like the convincing and necessary continuation of an old journey. The emotional push and pull feels real and moving. After all, Luke has been through a whole world of pain borne out by a constant cycle of loss. The despair he feels in the Last Jedi is a logical end point for a life of disappointment.

The final shot featuring Luke, looking out at, then collapsing under, the twin sunset, poetically mirrors a classic early scene from Episode IV. That initial shot was an expression of optimism, desire and hope. Here it’s used as a sigh of exasperation. I don’t think many fans would have wanted such a sorrowful end for one of the most beloved characters in cinematic history. Yes he’s being heroic and brave but he dies deflated, if not totally defeated, his belief system shattered, with a former pupil bringing the galaxy in to chaos. Essentially all the good work Luke and the rebels did in defeating Vader is undone. It’s convincing but there is the obvious argument that Star Wars has never been about realism, and Luke, the archetypal hero, was meant to be above all that. In fact, the whole world, or Galaxy, of The Last Jedi feels more human and relatable, which is one of the reasons it’s winning plaudits from the critics and perhaps one of the reasons proper fans feel so conflicted. Is it too trivial to say that The Last Jedi doesn’t feel like a George Lucas film? That sometimes it doesn’t even feel like it belongs in the same universe? These characters are relatable, their choices understandable, and their depictions believable but the shades in which they are drawn are perhaps too realistic, and therefore undesirable. In the trailer, Luke warned the audience ‘this is not going to go the way you think’. He was right.

But there is one more scene after Luke’s demise, one that restores some of the mystique. Two slave children, glimpsed earlier in Canto Bright, are staring at the stars, playing at being Jedi. Specifically, playing at being the legendary Luke Skywalker. By sacrificing himself, Luke has secured his future as a mythic hero; someone who didn’t bring balance to the force but whose hope, optimism and sacrifices influenced future generations who perhaps could. By putting this scene at the conclusion, Johnson shows that he does have an affinity for the same myths and legends as Lucas after all. He is a dreamer as well. For all its unnecessary moral, political and narrative complexity there is a pretty simple idea at the heart of this story; with persistence and a little belief, good will triumph over bad. In that respect it isn’t so different from A New Hope after all.



My favourite albums of 2017

24 Dec

1. Lorde ‘Melodrama’
2. Mount Eerie ‘A Crow Looked at Me’
3. The War on Drugs ‘A Deeper Understanding’
4. Fleet Foxes ‘Crack Up’
5. Sheer Mag ‘Need to Feel Your Love’
6. Kendrick Lamar ‘Damn’
7. The Drums ‘Abysmal Thoughts’
8. Cigarettes After Sex ‘Cigerettes After Sex’
9. Ryan Adams ‘Prisoner’
10. Bjork ‘Utopia’
11. Loyle Carner ‘Yesterday’s Gone’
12. The Shins ‘Heartworms’
13. Alvvays ‘Anti-socialites’
14. Hodera ‘First things First’
15. Jens Leckman ‘Life Will See You Now’
16. Julien baker ‘Turn Out the Lights’
17. Paramore ‘After Laughter’
18. Moses Sumney ‘Afromanticism’
19. Phoebe Bridgers Stranger in the Alps’
20. Big Thief ‘Capacity’
21. Taylor Swift ‘Reputation’
22. Calvin Harris ‘Funk Wav Bounces Vol 1’
23. Wild Pink ‘Wild Pink’
24. Cloud Nothings ‘Life Without Sound’
25. Harry Styles ‘Harry Styles’
26. Run the Jewels ‘Run the Jewels 3’
27. Thundercat ‘Drunk’
28. Slaughter Beach Dog ‘Birdie’
29. Life ‘Popular Music’
30. Childhood ‘Universal High’
31. Wolf Alice ‘Visions of a Life’
32. SZA ‘CTRL’
33. Brand New ‘Science Fiction’
34. Charlie Bliss ‘Guppy’
35. Slowdive ‘Slowdive’
36. Perfume Genius ‘No Shape’
37. Kasabian ‘For Crying out Loud’
38. The National ‘Sleep Well Beast’
39. Princess Nokia ‘1992’
40. Haim ‘Something to Tell You’
41. The Killers ‘Wonderful Wonderful’
42. A Savage ‘Thawing Dawn’
43. Surfer Blood ‘Showdonia’
44. The Menzigers ‘After the Party’
45. Forest Swords ‘Compassion
46. Sorority Noise ‘You’re Not as _ as you think you are’
47. Oso Oso ‘The Ynahon Mixtape’
48. Midland ‘On the Rocks’
49. Kolsch 1989
50. Rose Elinor Dougall ‘Stellular’

My Favourite Singles of 2017

24 Dec

1. Everything Now by Arcade Fire
2. Thinking of a Place by War on Drugs
3. Just Can’t Get Enough by Sheer Mag
4. Why Didn’t You Say That by Lemon Twigs
5. Blinded by Your Grace (part 2) by Stormzy
6. Perfect by Ed Sheeran
7. Slide by Calvin Harris and Frank Ocean
8. Sign of the Times by Harry Styles
9. Ain’t Nothing Changed by Loyle Carner
10. On My Mind by Jorja Smith
11. Are you leaving by Sassy 009
12. Green Light by Lorde
13. Your Love by Magic Gang
14. Third of May by Fleet Foxes
15. Without You by Ryan Adams
16. Popular Music by Life
17. Boys by Charli XCX
18. No one knows me like the piano by Sampha
19. Blood Under My Belt’ by The Drums
20. DNA by Kendrick Lamar
21. Hard Times by Paramore
22. Something to Remember me By by The Horrors
23. The Man by The Killers
24. Vampires by Jason Isabell
25. Near to the wild Heart of Life by Japandroids
26. Mystery of Love by Sufjan Stevens
27. Wendy’s Trash Can by Rozwell Kid
28. Despecito by Louis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee
29. Little of Your Love by Haim
30. Television Romance by Pale Waves
31. Love by Lana Del Rey
32. Bad Bohemian by British Sea Power
33. Bike Dream by Rostam
34. God bless this Acid House by Kasabian
35. In Undertow by Alvvays
36. Too good at goodbyes by Sam smith
37. On Hold by The XX
38. Your Cat by Slaughter Beach Dog
39. Feel the same by Bully
40. Follow the Leader by Foxygen
41. Young Dumb and Broke by Khalid
42. Bobby by Sandy Alex G
43. Emotion by Curls
44. Wall of glass by Liam Gallagher
45. Ascension by DJ Sports
46. Country by Porches
47. Ran by Future Islands
48. All Night by Big Boi
49. Victoria Falls by Flyte
50. You weren’t there anymore by Negative Gemini

Review Roundup

6 Dec

Julian Baker ‘Turn Out the Lights’

‘Turn Out the Lights’ is a haunting meditation on anxiety that rarely diverts from a formula of gently strummed guitar, chilly piano notes, simple melodies and subtle atmospherics. What it lacks in variety it makes up for with sheer dedication to theme. You’ll work out if it’s for you within about a minute of the quietly moving opening combo, ‘Over’ and ‘Appointments’. The latter established Baker’s favoured lyrical mode of blunt confessionals which tread a fine line between relatable pessimism and unflattering self pity. ‘Maybe it’s going to turn out alright / oh, I know that it’ not…’ she half sings as the song draws to a close in a style so unflinchingly honest it’s almost disarming. In its portrayal of depression, abuse and anxiety, and the way it handles these topics so maturely, openly and bluntly ‘Turn Out the Lights’ feels like a significant album for 2017.


Lemon Twigs ‘Brothers of Destruction’

Lemon Twigs are easily the most promising, traditionally set up rock band to breakthrough recently and the prodigious brothers’ new e.p expands upon last year’s debut ‘…Do Hollywood’. Whilst ‘Brothers of Destruction’ is smaller and more intimate in almost every respect (it was recorded quickly at home when the teens were 16 and 18) it suggests multiple possibilities and directions the band could opt for whilst tying them down to none. From the giddy pop of ‘Why Didn’t You Say That’, which recalls Todd Rundgren in his early 70s pomp, to the vaudeville vamp of ‘Intro’; from the torch ballad ‘Beautiful’ to ‘Love and Light’, which is a close approximation of ‘Smiley Smile’ era Beach Boys. What’s most inspiring about the Lemon Twigs, other than their age and talent, is their relentless enthusiasm and abundance of large scale ideas. They’ve talked up their next album, ‘Go to School’ and have already written songs for two further records. ‘Brothers of Destruction’ is an impressive taster of what we can expect in the future.


Sam Smith ‘The Thrill of It’

A couple of years ago Sam Smith was the next big thing. His debut was one of the most revelatory big pop albums of the past decade, thanks largely to his desperately emotive voice and heartfelt lyrics. It was hugely successful, bagging him a handful of number one singles and the James Bond theme (which earned him an Oscar nomination). Long anticipated follow up, ‘The Thrill of it All’, depressingly lowers the stakes by overstating the cliched songwriting and plastic soul production. The likes of ‘One Last Song’ and ‘Midnight Train’ are certainly polished and pretty but there is nothing that cuts like the howling heartbreak of ‘In the Lonely Hour’; only lead single ‘Too Good at goodbyes’ comes close. The album is disappointingly sterile and bloodless compared to its predecessor, and even relatively daring numbers like Yebba duet ‘No Peace’ and the conservative baiting ‘Him’ Lack snarl or bite. Smith sounds as glorious as ever, but ‘The Thrill of It’ unimaginatively draws a very straight line from 90s nu-soul to watery post-Adele balladary.


Taylor Swift ‘Reputation’ – Review

20 Nov

Taylor Swift has always stuck it to the haters. As early as ‘Picture to Burn’ she was calling out a scornful ex (‘if you come around saying sorry to me, my daddy’s going to show you how sorry you’ll be’ is my favourite of many delicious threats and put downs). On ‘Mean’ she was digging at high school bullies, on ‘Fifteen’ she trained her sights on the first boy to break her heart, and ‘Bad Blood’ took pointed aim at Katy Perry. Now ‘Reputation’, her sixth(!) studio album, is a full length album manifesto on the subject. The album tries hard to be a serious, thematically unified ‘statement’ album but it lacks the particular nuances needed to succeed on those terms. Nonetheless, it’s the most ambitious, divisive, eclectic, inventive, daring album Taylor Swift has ever made. Compared to the accessible pop of ‘1989’, an album most people could agree on, ‘Reputation’ feels like a risk.

But perhaps, a calculated risk. She tries very hard (and no doubt spent a lot of money) on trying to sound like her less interesting rivals in the pop charts. If ‘1989’ was a pop album in Taylor Swift’s own image – cute, quirky, retro, rated PG – then ‘Reputation’ is a pop album in the image of Ariana Grande, Rihanna and, dare I say it, Katy Perry. It’s dark, seductive, edgy and expensive sounding. In its sleek modernity, and futuristic soundscapes it occasionally sounds xeroxed and, ironically, a couple of years out of date. In 2014 she sounded innovative – to such an extent that a wave of imitators followed in her wake – now she is at the back of the queue, hoping there is somethings still worth queuing for.

Despite this, Taylor still writes the sharpest melodies and smartest lyrics in the game. And in its best moments ‘Reputation’ is weirder and more captivating than anything she has ever produced before. On ‘I Did Something Bad’ she inhabits the role of Femme Fetale, telling us that she plays narcissists ‘like a violin’. Here attack becomes the best form of defence – this is an embrace of bad behaviour as a means of survival. The song has a cutting production that revolves around a chewed up and spat out voice memo that recreates a sound Taylor heard in a nightmare. It sounds dynamic and vital. ‘Don’t Blame Me’ is bluesy, discomforting and unguarded. Like ‘Clean’ from 1989, it centres around a somewhat tired drug analogy but where ‘Clean’ compared heartbreak to addiction recovery, here Taylor seems to be enjoying the sense of dislocation and dizziness that comes from a high. As in ‘I Did Something Bad’, she’s breaking hearts and taking names – ‘Just playthings for me to use’, as she coldly puts it. This is a new way for the listener to think about someone who until now has cultivated a sweet, girl next door image.

After a first listen, ‘Reputation’ felt like a crushing and claustrophobic album to endure. There is very little of the brightness and wide eyed optimism that used to be so prevalent. But while it’s true that a hardened exterior makes emotional connection more difficult, the older Taylor isn’t dead (no matter what she says on ‘Look What You Made Me Do’) she’s just less easy to find. ‘Gorgeous’ is a very familiar love narrative. Taylor (single) meets a handsome guy (taken) in a dark club, falls in love instantly. There are some classic Swiftian metaphors at play (‘Ocean blue eyes looking in mine / I feel i am sink and drown and die’). ‘King of My Heart’ is ridiculously stately and classy for what is essentially a pretty cutting edge dance pop song. Following on from ‘Gorgeous’, and the brilliantly old school ‘Getaway Car’, we remain in classic Taylor Swift territory of Kingdoms, Kings, fast cars, Queens, lips, daydreams and a school girl crush. It’s pleasingly recognisable but sonically sounds brand new.

Not all the songs are as warm though. The album’s opening smattering of songs convey a previously unexplored, and not particularly flattering, mean spirited attitude. it’s there in the tight pop of the trap hi hats, the chilly deflections in the lyrics, and the acidic put downs that prick out from the melodies. Taylor seems hellbent on keeping listeners at arms length (which is to serve the album’s narrative; initially reserved, bruised and with her reputation in taters, Taylor puts up walls around her. Then she slowly falls in love and learns to accept people back in to her life). ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ and ‘Ready for it’ may just be the most distasteful one-two gut punch in the history of album roll outs. The nicest thing that can be said about ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ is that it was a brave choice of lead single. It’s awful, I think most people agree, but it’s awful in a conversation starting way. Anyway, it’s kind of hidden away in the middle of the album, and in this context feels like a lightweight, almost comical interlude. There is no hiding from the blaring ‘Ready For It’ though, which opens the album. The song contains a terrible Nicki Minaj impression and awful post-Yezus production from the usually reliable Max Martin, which unfortunately steamrolls over Taylor’s clever lyrical conceits. Track two isn’t a whole lot better. ‘End Game’ features Future and Ed Sheeran battling it out for the lamest guest verse in the already overcrowded playing field of 2017.

Luckily the album gets better the deeper you get in to it. ‘Delicate’ is a trippy little ballad that sounds like a demented Imogen Heep song. ‘Dress’ is a pretty steamy Rihanna homage that seems to have divided opinion. I’m not a big fan myself, but the dress motif is an iconic one in Country music as a whole and Taylor Swift’s songwriting particularly. Here it’s removal is a symbol of emancipation from expectation, politeness and restraint and so you sense its importance in the Taylor Swift story. ‘Dancing With Our Hands Tied’ is a pretty unimaginative club song until the bridge kicks in when the song becomes the soundtrack for an imagined, nostalgic slow dance: ‘I’d kiss you as the lights went out / Swaying as the room burned down / I’d hold you as the water rushes in / If I could dance with you again.’ This is heady stuff.

I was tempted at first blush to hear ‘Reputation’ as Taylor’s very own ‘History’, Michael Jackson’s mammoth and initially misunderstood masterpiece that followed several years on from Jackson’s own ‘1989’ (the fluorescent pop classic ‘Bad’, of course). ‘History’ was at times unnervingly, unflinchingly personal. Jackson openly confronted his detractors, unafraid to literally name names and expose his anger. While that resulted in classics like ‘Scream’ and ‘They Don’t Care About Us, occasionally that anger frothed in to a rather ugly and misguided petulance, as on the track ‘D.S’, which fired shots at the judge who attempted to prosecute Jackson in the early 90s. The parallel with ‘Reputation’ is clear. Sometimes Taylor’s mean face reveals nothing more than a childish snarl. ‘This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Thing’ is syrupy and petty, giving ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ a run for its money as the most cringe worthy song on the album. Swift describes a Gatsby-esque decadence and extravagance in the first verse before asking an unnamed antagonist ‘why’d you have to rain on my parade.’ In the chorus she breaks the fourth wall when she giggles ‘forgiveness is a nice thing to do…haha I can’t even say that with a straight face.’ Yikes…

Ironically ‘Reputation’ is not at all dissimilar to Kanye’s ‘Life of Pablo’ – both are overreaching, ambitious, eclectic collections of gems and coals that play to both the artists greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses. Like ‘Pabo’, ‘Reputation’ doesn’t just settle for mildly bad – in its worst moments it’s downright ugly. But even in said moments, it is a fascinating examination of human folly and ego from one of the most famous stars on the planet. It’s therefore captivating in ways that few other artists are capable of. You can summarise both albums as near masterpieces soured by an intrinsic, unjustified resentment and bitterness.

All that said, the anger that blights’ some of the early songs, and the self pity that wrinkles much of the middle, has dissolved by the time we reach the album’s beautiful final couplet of ‘Call It What You Want’ and ‘New Year’s Day’. Love, optimism, wins out. ‘New Year’s day’ is the most sparse and interesting song on here. The imagery is precise and evocative – glitter and candle wax on the hardwood floor – a sense of something special being tainted as a result of last night’s celebrations. Really though, this is a love song to the man who stays to help clean up the wine bottles the morning after. And that’s the revelation of this song. Taylor has always used the traditional fairy tale structure as a plot device – ‘Love Story’, ‘Enchanted’, ‘The Story of Us’ – but here she puts fantasy in the past, as she embraces the realism of true, hard fought love. A love that sticks around. ‘Don’t read the last page’ she pleads; the sincere hope that this is the start of something real, not the end of yet another make believe romance. And it’s this real, relatable hope that trumps all the self pity and resentment.



Weezer ‘Pacific Daydream’ – Review

16 Nov

Like all genius’, Rivers Cumo has constantly teetered on the edge of insanity. His music is often brilliant, often terrible, occasionally brilliant and terrible at the same time. ‘Pacific Daydream’ is no different. The ten track alblum is the follow up to 2016’s assured return to form ‘Weezer (The White Album)’, which prioritised classic songwriting, minimal production and surprisingly mature themes. ‘Pacific Daydream’ however, with its skittish attitudes, multitude of tasteless production choices and zany subject matter, follows more in the lineage of the handful of albums that proceeded The White Album, particularly ‘Raditude’ and The Red Album.

It starts off reasonably promisingly with ‘Mexican Fender’, a song built around razor sharp hooks as much as that play on words in the title. After this though things diverge wildly. The album contains a series of tasteless genre excersises that find Weezer doing their best Maroon Five impression. The E.D.M stylistic touches of lead single ‘Feels like Summer’ are even more unforgivable than the empty platitudes that puff out the lyrics. Even at their worst, you could never accuse Weezer of being this bland and middling in the past. The surprising R&B of ‘The Beach Boys’ will likely leave you scratching your head as well, longing for the relatively assured pop rock of ‘Hash Pipe’ or even ‘Beverley Hills’.

Weezer are in the unusual position of being both overrated and underrated. Their first two albums, as good as they are, are perhaps not as flawless as some critics like to suggest. Neither are The Green Album and ‘Make Believe’ as bad as the same critics say. But like Oasis on this side of the pond, Weezer are in the unfortunate position of living in the shadow of two brilliant records they have no intention of forgetting about anytime soon. Which means they sometimes encourage critics to hold them up to a standard they are never likely to reach again. You can therefore admire them for songs like ‘Feels like Summer’ and ‘The Beach Boys’ which at least try to steer them in a new, modern direction. It may not be what Weezer fans are clamouring for, and it may not play to their strengths, but these songs at least convey a sense of something being risked, and fun being had. Compared to recent, lifeless records put out by the likes of Foo Fighters and Muse, or more contemporary acts such as Catfish and the Bottlemen and Nothing But Thieves – that’s something worth celebrating.



Yusuf/Cat Stevens ‘The Laughing Apple’ – Review

31 Oct

Cat Stevens has always been on the road to find out, as he once memorably put it. Whether going by that name, Steven Georgio, Yusuf Islam or, simply, Yusuf, he’s been on that same trip since the very beginning. He’s gone through many different guises, but whether ballideering as a crooner in the mould of Engelbert Humperdink, a singer songwriter in the image of James Taylor or a spiritual singer and educator of Muslims, he’s always stayed true to that enlightening quest.

‘The Laughing Apple’ finds the singer songwriter reconciling his past in a couple of ways. He’s sort of re-adopting the Cat Stevens moniker, after years of going solely under his adopted name Yusuf (rather awkwardly, the album is actually credited to Yusuf/Cat Stevens). Also, he’s revisited his earliest material; some of these songs originally appeared on his 1967 album ‘New Masters’, others are from slightly after that but have remained unreleased. Largely the re-recorded songs are superficially similar to the original recordings, but they’ve been stripped of their lavish string arrangements and Cat’s ambitious vocal performances have been scaled down. Due to this the tunes are afforded a new intimacy and immediacy. None of these songs rank alongside the classics in his back catalogue but the likes of ‘Blackness of the Night’ and ‘Mary and the Little Lamb’ are fan favourites, given loving and usually rewarding new treatments here.

These songs were written in the infancy of Yusuf’s career as Cat Stevens and the best adaptations reflect on that innocence/naivety from the perspective of experience. ‘Grandsons’ for example was initially a somewhat humorous rumination on the ageing process from the perspective of a teenager. Here it becomes a sad and sincere take on the alienation and regret of the elderly. Elsewhere though, songs fail to transcend their original incarnation. When the production becomes a little heady, as it does from time to time, the stylistic choices feel dated and un-nuanced. ‘Blackness of the Night’, for example, bursts out with with synth arpeggios that could have been dusted off from an early version of pro tools. Worst of all, the title track’s gaudy arrangement makes the song a strange pantomime when compared to the giddy drama of the original.

Essentially this is an album cut from the same cloth as Johnny Cash’s initial ‘American Recordings’ album, where the legendary Man in Black took on his past life as a hell raiser and wild man of Country music by reshaping old songs and covers from a position of experience and wisdom. Yusuf though doesn’t particularly need to reframe the picture; what these songs highlight, after all, is how little his perspective has actually changed. Anyway, his last album was the back to basic, Rick Rubin produced covers album. What would be more welcome now is a record of brand new material – the sole new songs prove that he still has the gift for warm melodies and sharp observation. As pleasant as ‘The Laughing Apple’ is, you can’t help feeling it is little more than a redundant postscript to one of the most fascinating careers in British pop.