Archive | August, 2019

Taylor Swift ‘Lover’ – Review

30 Aug

‘Lover’, Taylor Swift’s seventh album, doesn’t begin gently. ‘How many days did I spend thinking about how you did me wrong, wrong, wrong / lived in the shade you were throwing till all of my sunshine was gone, gone, gone.’ This is the Taylor Swift we encountered on ‘Reputation’ – back arched and eyebrow raised, railing against the enemy. But gradually, and wonderfully, she starts to loosen and exhale. She adopts a playful tone, audibly laughs at points, and sing-speaks to really emphasise the indifference she now claims to feel about the subject of the song. The musical backing feels equally nonchalant – a simple baseline, clipped rhythm and some subtle horn flexes. This is a deft, invitational opening that at once dispels the sour aftertaste of ‘Reputation’s ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, ‘Ready For It’ and ‘This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’.  

‘Lover’ is almost instantly a more generous album than its predecessor. With steely melodies and unfalteringly urban production, ‘Reputation’ sought to update Taylor Swift’s image in the mould of younger pop stars. On ‘Lover’ she embraces her own idiosyncrasies and interests, producing music very much in her own classic style – that whip-smart blend of candy coated country and throwback pop. This is a subtly ambitious, experimental update of that sound that matches ‘Red’s biographical specificity with ‘1989’s sophistication. Last time around she infamously said ‘I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now.’ This time she’s back, with a lot to say. 

The album ostensibly explores the myriad of love – it is called ‘Lover’ after all (the working title ‘Daylight’ would have been far better) – but that is true of every Taylor Swift album and this one diverges from that subject as much as any other she’s made (see the unfortunate, socially charged ‘Me’, ‘You Need to Calm Down’ and ‘The Man’, all best forgotten and all, inexplicably, chosen as singles). This time she seems, perhaps, more understanding of her theme, more self aware and self referential. It feels more knowing and as a consequence less fallible. Ultimately It’s a mature statement on a subject she knows inside out.

There is a familiarity to these songs, a sense that they belong to her tradition (which couldn’t really be said of ‘Reputation’). She exploits the ways in which melodies and motifs can evoke memories and prior connection. On closing track ‘Daylight’ she sings ‘I once believed love would be burning red, but it’s golden daylight’. Not only does this have echoes of a simile she used on ‘Red’, it also refers to that album’s liner notes, where she wrote ‘there’s something to be proud of about moving on and realising that real love shines golden… maybe I’ll write a whole album about that kind of love if I ever find it.’ Seven years on and here we are. like the best artists, Taylor Swift has created her own world with these special associations. For fans of her past work, there is so much about ‘Lover’ that will instantly catch your ear and make you feel connected.

She engages with the broad theme of love on multiple levels, many of them surprising, asking us to forgo our pre-made characterisations while challenging our perceptions about what she is capable of. she is flaunting her lyrical talents, demonstrating a command of language that compares to any of the great songwriters at their peak. She once again proves that she is capable of extended riffs, subtle metaphors as well as plain spoken accessibility – often in the same song. Take highlight ‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’, a song built around a clever extended metaphor. ‘I look through the windows of this love, even though we boarded them up/ Chandelier still flickering here cos I can’t pretend it’s okay when it’s not’. The song is dripping in relatable sentiment but is far too clever to curdle in to sacherine.

Swift’s writing has never been tethered to Country music per-se but it continues to borrow resonances from that genre. Here, ‘Get Better Soon’ most clearly uses Country motifs (plucked guitar, melancholy fiddle, gorgeous harmonies) to strike a sentimental  note, somewhere between despair and determination, in a song that record’s her mother’s ongoing cancer struggle. It’s as poignant and moving as anything in her back catalogue, full of raw insight and subtle imagery. That it follows ‘London Boy’, an unbearably fizzy ode to a Posh Brit, and proceeds ‘False God’, with its thin allusions to oral sex, speaks to how ‘Lover’ catapults from the sublime to the ridiculous in a way that almost seems designed to divide her audience. Sandwiched in between the brilliantly romantic ‘Afterglow’ are the two dud singles (more enjoyable in the context of the album perhaps but no less bewildering). The Giddy love song ‘Paper Rings’ sits between two break up anthems. This is what Taylor Swift enjoys. Her music doesn’t aspire to be definitive. She has an inherent distrust of pretension and indulgence and creates a sense that every word is sincere and meaningful. Happy, sad, up, down, serious, frivolous all meet together. Get Better Soon’ is no more or less important to her than ‘London Boy’ or ‘False God’. ‘Afterglow’ means as much as ‘Me’. Lover is a menu, take your pick.

In an influential 1950 essay, Charles Olson wrote that the poet needs to ‘go down through the workings of his own throat, to the place where breath comes from, where breath has its beginnings, where drama has come from.’ This is exactly what Taylor Swift has done on ‘Lover’. It truly does feel like a deep dive; an excavation of her deepest feelings, brought to the surface and presented as clear, crystallised pop music. There is a bravery to this, particularly when Swift has fought against misogyny and unfounded criticism for being so emotionally forthright. ‘Reputation’ was defensive and calculated as a consequence of that criticism. ‘Lover’ is defiant in a far more self-assured way – she sounds confident and comfortable in her own skin. No longer picking unnecessary fights, she’s too far ahead to engage with people stuck in her past.

8.5/10

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Bon Iver ‘i,i’ – Review

23 Aug

It’s easy to forget how popular Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon was a decade ago. He was interviewed by Jimmy Fallon on his late night show and parodied by Justin Timberlake on SNL. He won Grammys. Kanye West called him his favourite living artist and said, brilliantly, ‘I love him the way Kanye loves Kanye.’ In the years since he’s collaborated with West as well as Nas, Chance the Rapper and James Blake. Regrettably, dozens of auto-tuned warblers with pitchy falsettos followed in Bon Iver’s wake, unable to replicate ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’s strange, mythic despair. As Chris Deville memorably put it – “if everyone who heard ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’ formed a band, everyone who heard ‘For Emma’ grew a beard.” Vernon has spent much of the past decade retreating away from his signature sound and doing his damnedest to become something close to inimitable. 

So it is that Bon Iver has shifted from an insular, personal project in to a deeply collaborative one. More and more Justin Vernon has sought to move the focus away from himself. Fourth album ‘i,i’ truly sounds like the work of a community of artists. Both musically and thematically it elaborates on the idea of giving yourself over to another person, and embracing everything that comes with that sacrifice. Vernon is liberated by the idea of giving up control. A duality is extended from the title, ‘i,i’, to the way that songs seem to couple up, almost like call and response – one posing questions the other seeks to answer.

On ‘i,i’ the band capitalise on the anthemic sensibilities that have always lurked slightly under the surface. The album is brimming with arena sized chants and positive affirmations that feel designed to be sung back by gigantic audiences. In the opening verse Vernon sings ‘on a bright fall morning I’m with it/I stood a little while within it’ before affirming ‘I AM, I AM, I AM, I AM’.  At the album’s end he says ‘sunlight feels good now don’t it?’ These are unadorned, relatively straightforward lyrics that feel empowering and reassuring. There is a euphoric vibe to the record that puts it at odds with the restrained reputation Bon Iver have developed. What’s striking here is how many of the songs grab and shake you. ‘Hey Ma’ is by some distance the most moving song Bon Iver have put out in years, and also the most accessible. There is a strong melodic hook that appears where you expect it, then repeats; in Bon Iver’s world, that is something of a rarity. ‘Imi’, ‘Naeem’ and ‘Faith’ are similarly emphatic. They rise and fall in unexpected ways but always find a moment to emotionally crush you.

Occasionally though this lends to the impression that you’re being fed empty emotional calories. If you’ve ever felt seen by Bon Iver then even the sound of Vernon’s falsetto is enough to prang at your heartstrings. Is it just the ghost of an old feeling? Line to line, the songs present as fragments or pinches of conversation and thought. They can often be beguiling. They can sometimes be infuriating. Of course words don’t have to make mental sense if they make emotional sense. Oasis for one built a career out of gobbledygook, and Bon Iver are almost singularly adept at making nonsense feel like everything. I mean, take that song ‘Hey Ma’: ‘Full time you talk your money up, while it’s living in a coal mine/tall time, to call your ma, hey ma, hey ma.’ What does this really mean? It’s ludicrous on the face of it. But there’s little doubt it makes you feel something. Maybe you latch on to a word, maybe you hear something beyond them. Bon Iver capitalise on the power of music to take you past logic and rationality.

Those yearning for the simple, honest sound of ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ will take some comfort from ‘Marion’, a plain-spoken, acoustic ballad that meditates vaguely on the idea of understanding. Two lines get repeated over and over till the message becomes a kind of mantra. ‘I thought that this was half a love/follow to the rising sea.’ ‘Faith’, another song that throws back to the classic sound, continues in this vein. The song is full of hard realisation and reluctant acceptance. We find lyrics like ‘I shouldn’t hide’, ‘there is no design’, ‘it’s time to be brave’, ‘I know it’s lonely in the dark’ and ‘so what if I lose, I’m satisfied’. For a guy who famously took himself out in to the woods to write an album about the kind of despair there’s often no coming back from, these statements feel almost revelatory. 

‘i,i’ is an impressive culmination of a decade’s worth of experimentation. It connects various threads; from ‘For Emma’s acoustic questioning to the self titled album’s post-rock wonder and ‘22, a Million’s glitchy restlessness. It puts everything else In to perspective and acts as an accessible entry point in to a discography that has been consistently fascinating from the beginning.

8/10

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Review roundup

18 Aug

Clairo ‘Immunity’

Clairo’s ‘Immunity’ is a memorable debut that carves plush pop out of burgeoning emotions. Her voice is a breathy thing that, In its fragility, makes Clairo sound reluctant to commit to what she’s saying, even as she’s saying it. This hesitancy extends to the way she drifts nonchalantly from genre to genre, tackling lo-fi indie (‘Sofia’) as  awkwardly, and endearingly, as she does dreamy pop (‘White Flag’) or R&B (‘Softly’). Only lead single ‘Closer to You’ misses the mark, with a trap beat that conspires against her excessively manipulated vocals. Clairo is a sophisticated lyricist; her writing on the subject of blossoming love is nuanced and well observed, bypassing cliche and the usual pitfalls almost entirely. While nothing on ‘Immunity’ matches the majesty of ‘Pretty Girl’, the gem that propelled her to YouTube stardom in the first place, there is more than enough promise here to suggest that song won’t define her.

8/10

Bruce Springsteen ‘Western Stars

Bruce Springsteen’s first out and out solo album in over a decade is a surprisingly ornate collection that recalls the style of MOR country, popular in the 1970s. If the concept sounds questionable (song titles like ‘Tucson Train’, ‘Hitch Hikin’ and ‘The Wayfarer’ don’t help fill you with confidence) then the execution certainly isn’t; Springsteen hasn’t sounded this vital for a long time. 

On ‘Western Stars’ his aging characters are restless, moving from town to town, haunted by memories and the ghosts of their past. They’re In conversation with “the voice that keeps us awake at night“, trying to make sense of a world that is changing all around them. There are musical ghosts to reckon with as well – the howl of the guitar was born in ‘Nebraska’, the love sick melodies and opulent production are reminiscent of ‘Tunnel of Love’. Springsteen himself sounds weathered and mature – never more evocative than on the helplessly nostalgic ‘Chasin’ Wild Horses’ and ‘Moonlight Hotel’, two of the finest ballads he’s ever written. The lavish orchestral accompaniments are as wide as an ocean and deep as a puddle – they sound pleasing in the background but closer inspection reveals the water to be syrup. Still, Springsteen fans are more than used to a little saccharine here and there – that doesn’t stop ‘Western Stars’ being an unexpected triumph. 

7.5/10

Strange Ranger ‘Remembering the Rockets’

Strange Ranger are one of several fringe emo bands to emerge recently who sound more like Big Star than American Football. They front load their debut ‘Remembering the Rockets’ with melodic pop-rock before the paint flakes and reveals darker shades on the record’s second side. They’re stretching at points – three quzi-ambient instrumentals kill momentum and are too slight to be purposeful – but generally this is an impressive meditation on early adulthood. ‘Remembering the Rockets’ is a low key, subtly ambitious breakthrough.

7/10

Purple Mountains ‘Purple Mountains’ – Review

11 Aug

On Thursday songwriter and Poet David Berman took his own life only weeks after releasing his first album in ten years, ‘Purple Mountains’. Full of self deprecating humour and piercing insights in to the mind of a depressed artist, the album was greeted warmly by fans who had long given up hope of hearing new music from the reclusive genius. ‘Purple Mountains’ will be his final testament.

Inevitably, that fact colours your response to the album. You can’t listen to ‘Purple Mountains’ and not hear the despair that permeates through the generally uptempo indie rock. It was difficult before his death, it’s impossible now. So much of my initial gratitude for ‘Purple Mountains’ was borne out of the instructive way Berman seemed to transcend his depression rather than succumb to it. Behind every cry for help lay diverting wit and humour. He didn’t say he was suicidal, he said ‘I’ve spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion.’ It wasn’t just a storm, it was ‘icy bike chain rain of Portland Oregon.’ The stylistic sophistication, not to mention the honky tonk piano rolls and cowboy chords, somewhat softened the various blows. It’s now obvious that Berman couldn’t transcend his depression. His poetry, as stunning as it is, couldn’t fill the gaps in his private life. In fact, the opposite may have been true. ‘Darkness and cold rolled in through the holes in the stories I told’ is how he eloquently put it in one song.

The quality of writing here is masterful. These songs have a clarity which shouldn’t detract from their complexity. It isn’t easy to be articulate, harder still to be candid and vulnerable at the same time. Berman never hid behind his poetry; he used it to enhance what he wanted to say not cloak it. His cleverness was never the point, it still isn’t.

‘Purple Mountains’ is a deep dive in to the heady topics of faith, love and loss, and the intersections between them. Berman, who spent much of the last decade studying and practicing Judaism, asks frankly ‘how long can a world go on under such a subtle God?’ It doesn’t feel rhetorical. You hear the urgency and desperation. ‘What I’d give for an hour with the power on the throne’ he continues. It’s the futility of life that grinds him down, whether drinking margaritas in the mall or observing snow fall on the sabbath – what does any of it really add up to? Of course he’s grounded by love but continues to be disappointed that it can’t sustain him; one song is a plain-spoken elegy for his mother, several more detail the separation from his wife.

Throughout ‘Purple Mountains’ he tries to come to terms with his personal loneliness while constantly reckoning with the people at the edges of his life who care for him. This isn’t the sound of a sad sack with an acoustic guitar, crying in to his beer. It’s the sound of a man genuinely struggling through life changing emotions and trying to make sense of them. He’s accompanied by the band Woods who provide rootsy, unfussy backing – the wail of a pedal steel guitar here, some jaunty backing vocals there. Together, they keep the sound light and warm, even while excavating existential worries. 

At the album’s conclusion, Berman declares ‘If no-one’s fond of fucking me maybe no-one’s fucking fond of me! Maybe I’m the only one for me.’ It’s funny and self-aware but also sad and defeatist. There are moments like this throughout the record – flickers of light pricking, but overwhelmed by, the darkness. Berman was getting ready to take these songs on tour and by all accounts, as positive and hopeful as he was about performing live again, he couldn’t get through rehearsals without crying. These songs weren’t enough to save David Berman but within them are moments of truth, joy and comfort; difficult emotions articulated and dissected to the sound of life-affirming indie rock. These songs are, in other words, purposeful.

9/10

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Chance the Rapper ‘The Big Day’ – Review

8 Aug

On ‘The Big Day’s opening track, ‘All Day Long’, John Legend makes a defensive declaration on behalf of Chance the Rapper – ‘We can’t be out here pleasin’ everybody, we know who we are.’ It signifies, unwittingly or not, how the perception of Chance has shifted from the release of ‘Colouring Book’, an amazingly generous mixtape that he put out in 2016. Once the toast of Chicago – the artist who donated millions to City Arts projects, who gave away his music for free, who used his platform to shine a light on social injustice – Chance has, more recently, become known for shutting down critics on twitter, pressuring MTV to remove negative reviews and his increasingly goofy guest verses. An early plattitude ‘The halo can turn hollow’ – almost starts to sound like a self-fulfilling prophecy in the rear view mirror. 

In this context, Chance has doubled down rather than concede ground, choosing to write almost exclusively about his love for his wife and reverence for God. ‘I don’t care what people might say/ I know you know, I’ve got you always.’ On the surface this seems commendable but what seems sweet to one person comes across as sour to another. Is this a collection of heartwarming love songs or not so subtle humble brags?

Nearly a decade in the offing, The Big Day’ has to be the most long-awaited debut album of all time – but what exactly makes this any more of an ‘album’ than Chance the Rapper’s previous three long players remains a mystery. Ironically, considering the importance he clearly places on the ‘album’ designation, ‘The Big Day’ flows considerably more like a mixtape than the watertight ‘Acid Rap’ or ‘Colouring Book’. Stuffed with unnecessary skits and corny throwaways, and skewering between genres haphazardly, the album runs long at  80 mins. It feels like a lot.

The album is a throwback to the ambitious, thematically cohesive, skit heavy Rap albums of the early 00’s. Specifically it recalls Kanye’s ‘Late Registration’ in both scope and style. ‘Get a Bag’ is the closest homage, with its pinched soul sample and liberal use of puns. Chance shares Kanye’s audacity but lacks his genius in threading it all together. In this instance, 22 songs is simply far too many. 

And Chance stakes everything on you finding his personal life as interesting as he does. Equally, enjoyment of this album rests on your tolerance for uncomplicated happiness as a topic for art. Despite its length, Chance never really untangles or dissects marriage, with its myriad of complexities and complications. His wife, who he gushes over, is little more than a cartoon avatar used to symbolise his own gains. It’s a two dimensional representation of a love affair, stretched to cinematic lengths. More than that, his style is frequently overwhelming and confusing. The punchlines and similes tumble over each other (one fan counted – staggeringly there are 178 punchlines and 100 similes), some bounce off targets, some never even land. Peel back the the imagery and there isn’t much true insight underneath. What we do have is a lot, an awful lot, of joy. That Chance the Rapper should be so deliriously happy at the expense of nuance goes against the modern trend for sophisticated cynicism. Unadulterated love and commitment seem far fetched to many people in 2019, so no wonder the general response in the Hip Hop community hasn’t been too kind. 

Personally, I’m enthusiastic about the vibes Chance is trying to convey. He remains the most loveable rapper out there and at his best is almost totally unmatched (listen to how effortlessly the rhymes unspool on ‘We Go High’ for example). At points, as on the title track and the helplessly nostalgic ‘Do You Remember’, he nails it with the tools he has always utilised – hooks and humour. But his positive message is diminished by over-indulgence. My visceral reaction every time I’ve considered listening to this album has been an internal sigh. Like a lot of weddings, ‘The Big Day’ ends up being a tedious, epic slog pricked by moments of genuine euphoria and celebration. You’re left with a handful of good memories but the physical and emotional strain of the thing itself is daunting in advance and exhausting during. ‘Think it’s the greatest day of my life’ Chance purrs on the title track. That might be true for him but I’m not sure anyone else will feel that way.

6.5/10

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