Archive | November, 2019

Review Roundup

24 Nov

Big Thief ‘Two Hands’

‘Two Hands’, Big Thief’s second album of 2019, is more woody and earth-bound than it’s mystical predecessor ‘U.F.O.F’. As a consequence it’s both more accessible and ultimately less fascinating. Nonetheless, Big Thief are operating like an all time great band, one who are releasing music almost on a whim because that is simply what they do. There are no discernible big ideas here, few experimental urges, just a great band making great music that is somewhere between folk, indie and rock. ‘Forgotten Hands’, ‘Not’ and ‘Shoulders’ are imbued with the effortless, rough energy of peak Crazy Horse. Elsewhere singer Adrianne Lenker gets up close to the microphone to unravel her emotions over the sound of crumbling percussion and finger plucked acoustic guitar. Not everything sticks; the mellow final third is difficult to recall even after multiple listens, and Lenker’s lyrics feel less precise and complex than previously. Still, ‘Two Hands’ caps an incredible year for Big Thief who have cemented themselves as one of the best young bands out there.


Coldplay ‘Everyday Life’

Ostensibly Coldplay’s Kid B to Radiohead’s Kid A, ‘Everyday Life’ turns out to be, perhaps unsurprisingly, less experimental than billed. It is however an ambitious and thought provoking return to form – albeit the somewhat patchy form of ‘Viva La Vida’. Its sixteen songs vary dramatically in both style, gravity and quality, giving the album a scrapbook feel. The likes of ‘Orphans’ and ‘Church’ are typical later day Coldplay tracks – light, airy pop things that lift you up in spite of their almost inane sappiness. Also effective are the pretty ‘Daddy’ and ‘Everyday Life’ which essentially return to the drippy, sentimental tone that Coldplay made their name with. ‘Trouble in Town’ even recaptures some of the frazzled, meloncholic energy of ‘A Rush of Blood to the Head’. Less significant are the numerous sketches and genre experiments that pad out a pretty lightweight double album. At different points the band flirt pretty shamelessly with gospel, doo-wop, spoken word, choral music and contemporary classical. They do this without any real conviction – most of these more experimental tracks run under two minutes and feel like rote noodles rather than fully formed songs. But the record’s brevity and musical lightness are what make ‘Everyday Life’ enjoyable in spite of Chris Martin’s sometimes heavy-handed political themes. All in all ‘Everyday Life’ is the best thing Coldplay have done in years.


Foals ‘Everything Not Saved Will be Lost Part 2’

‘Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost’ is the second part of an audacious double album that Foals have drip fed to us over six months. In many respects Part 2 is worse than it’s decidedly average predecessor, which at least had some sonic variety. From the sweaty chug of ‘The Runner’ to ‘Black Bull’s cumbersome riffs, this album has all the subtly of early 00s U2 (I.e no subtlety at all) and none of that band’s melodic gift. It’s unbearably pretentious and surely the logical end point of Foals increasingly boring ROCK experiment.


Rex Orange County ‘Pony’

Rex Orange County’s major label debut ‘Pony’ emphasises the sweet, almost cloying, aspects of Alexander O’Connor’s soulful songwriting. If you are familiar with his first two albums then the combination of catchy melodies, moody chords and frank lyrics won’t come as a great shock. But you may be taken aback by how sophisticated the album sounds. The likes of ’10/10′ and ‘Never Had the Balls’ are properly polished pop songs with melodies that stick. Nothing quite delivers like the very best songs in his back catalogue (the untouchable ‘Loving Is Easy’, ‘A Song About Being Sad’, ‘Best Friend’) but ‘Pony’ establishes him as something more than just a quirky, well connected singer-songwriter. It shows his star potential.



Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds ‘Ghosteen’ – Review

10 Nov

Death has been a topic in Nick Cave’s art since the very beginning; from his most famous song, ‘The Mercy Seat’, to his most famous album, ‘Murder Ballads’. There has always been a performative element to his writing on the subject and a sense that he was somewhat flaunting tragedy in the name of art. But now the artless reality of his son’s awful passing has awakened a new, more fully realised perspective. ‘For most of my life I felt a strange gravitational pull toward an undisclosed traumatic event, that could only be described as a dreadful yearning, and I found it eventually in my son’s death – something that both destroyed me and ultimately defined me’. This album is an abstract, emotionally forthright exploration of how it feels to really lose and go on living.

‘Ghosteen’ is a fever dream of longing. Over two discs, Cave deep dives in to his grief, transforming it in to something magical, even mythical, and trippy. Cave is working towards a freedom from the heaviness of loss, as if he is trying to proceed upwards as a means of coping with all that is weighing him down. To have created something this weightless, in the face of overwhelming sadness, is not the least of his accomplishments.

He partly achieves this feeling through the use of spacious synth soundscapes. Here grief manifests in wide open, swirling plains. These songs aren’t tethered to beats or traditional verse-chorus predictabilities and so you lose sense of time and reality.  Of course grief itself is much like this, in its ability to up-end and disorient, and ultimately that’s why ‘Ghosteen’ has to be considered a successful evocation of the mourning process.

In a note published on his website, Cave said “in time we learn to absorb our loss, as a form of armouring, and that it can become our strength. That the very thing we thought would destroy us, now becomes a fierce source of creative power, as if our departed are breathing an essential energy through us, drawn from a wellspring deep within the trauma itself.” There is evident truth in this statement. But to call ‘Ghosteen’ an unprecedented triumph would be to ignore a decade of rejuvenated creativity. ‘Ghosteen’ is the spiritual conclusion to a trilogy that began with ‘Push the Sky Away’, a more daring if less affecting creation, and continued with 2016’s haunting ‘Skeleton Tree’. On ‘Ghosteen’ he simply pulls his ideas to their logical end points.

Over these soundscapes, Cave bends images in to strange contexts; horses with manes ‘full of fire’, dying stars, paintings of Jesus and a spiral of children climbing to the sun. Perhaps it’s escapism as a means of coping with reality or maybe it’s an investment in a fantastical kind of faith. But every now and then he will bring it back to earth in moments of crippling clarity. ‘It isn’t fun to be standing here alone, with nowhere to be / with a man mad with grief…’ The most spellbinding song is the title track where he subverts the story of Goldylocks and the three bears’ to highlight his loss in simple, affectionate terms. ‘Baby bear has gone to the moon on a boat, on a boat.’ Words won’t convey how SAD Nick Cave as he sings these lines. The fight has gone from his voice. ‘I would turn the world around if I could/there’s nothing wrong with loving something you can’t hold in your hand.’

It isn’t an easy album to listen to. Cave’s emotional territory of grief and longing offers no let up or relief. It’s absorbing and, by the end, a little too much. There is none of ‘Push the Sky Away’s dry wit and playfulness to bounce away the dread. Even ‘Skeleton Tree’ felt more manageable. Other than the runtime (an hour and change) perhaps it’s the lack of catharsis that makes ‘Ghosteen’ a struggle. But this is obviously a controlled album, given a unified focus by the unusual title ‘Ghosteen’. It is what it is by design, and it’s designed impeccably well.

Grief is an ancient feeling, and an ancient topic for art. The last few years alone have given us musical masterpieces by Touché Amore, Mount Eerie and Sufjan Stevens, not to mention absorbing prose and poetry by the likes of Jason Greene, Joan Didon and Max Porter. But there is nothing quite like ‘Ghosteen’ out there; an album about life as much as death, and the weird space in between where the grieving gather.



Kanye West ‘Jesus is King’ – Review

3 Nov

It’s been a topsy-turvy few years for Kanye West. On 2018’s slight and nervy ‘Ye’, he sounded like a shadow of his former self, even if the album was far more serviceable than his critics gave him credit for. ‘Ye’ was released during a tumultuous period, one in which he emerged from a short, psychiatric stay, re-appropriated the MAGA cap and infamously called slavery a choice. It was perhaps difficult to hear the songs above all the noise. ‘Jesus is King’ comes out of a comparatively calm context where the artist has mostly been in the news for the right reasons. Its creation has accelerated quickly, with several false starts and major tweaks (one version with a totally different cover and track listing was scheduled for release in September). At times it does feel rushed; In its weakest moments JIK sounds like a series of barely finished sketches and rough drafts. Some of the mixes feel unbalanced, his vocals are occasionally off. But impulsive, unguarded conviction is part of the appeal. This is undiluted 2019 Kanye.

The first words out of his mouth are ‘Jesus is King, we the soldiers’ and this is instructive. Kanye sees himself as someone waging war against an amoral culture that he has been an intrinsic part of for two decades. At one point he talks about having a hand on the weapon in ‘the spirit’s land’. He talks frequently about protecting his family and home. This is not a gentle album, it’s a blunt call to arms – and a sincere one. Short of the sarcasm, cynicism and twisted humour of his past work Kanye sounds more exposed than at any point over the past decade. On ‘God Is’ he even sings without his trusted auto tune, leaving the strains and cracks on show. He sounds vulnerable (and happy) for the first time in a long time, in thrall to a higher being than himself. ‘I won’t forget all he’s done… I can’t keep it to myself, everybody I will tell until the whole world is healed.’

The album opens with ‘Every Hour’, in which a cacophony of female voices tumble and twist their way around a rote gospel melody. At various point the pitch and pace seem to distort, giving the song an uncanny vibe. It’s telling that he gives over a significant amount of space on this album to other artists – he has always been a generous collaborator, and this time he puts them front and centre. Kanye arrives on track 2, to quote John 8.36 as tribal drums pound dramatically. It’s a soul-shaking entrance. 

Considering its slender run-time, Kanye packs quite a lot in to ‘Jesus is King’. At different points you’ll hear sonic throwbacks to iconic eras; ‘Selah’ is a sanitised take on the crunching minimalism of ‘Yeezus’. ‘Closed on Sunday’ and ‘Water’ nod to ‘808s and Heartbreaks’ bittersweet melancholia. ‘Follow God’ makes use of a dusty soul sample that’s not dissimilar to the one used on ‘Otis’. In fact, Kanye has rarely sounded this dexterous and giddy since the ‘Late Registration’ days. Despite the throwbacks, the overall atmosphere is decidedly different. Every note is shrouded in the blue and gold hue of spirituality. This is another iconic era, albeit one in which the album itself is but a small component. For all it’s successes, ‘Jesus is King’ doesn’t manage to quite capture the spontaneous euphoria of the live Sunday services which have been taking place in various locations over the past few months. On the whole It sounds slightly stifled and buttoned up, often collapsing or descending just as you feel it’s about to truly take off. There is no doubt that ‘Jesus is King’ is the start of a journey,  not the destination. 

There is something quite beautiful in hearing an egotist of Kanye’s magnitude repeatedly use the word ‘please’, asking to be humbled before the lord. Asking for help, and  grace; asking to be made clean. Many of the greatest artists throughout history have worked in service of the church, and that tradition has been continued by the best pop stars as well; Michael Jackson, Prince, Bob Dylan, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard among countless others have at various points, and to varying degrees, dedicated time and artistic endeavour towards serving Christ. Kanye’s contribution has the potential to be just as important if indeed it’s serious and sustained.

Unfairly, lot of critics have focused on what this album isn’t, rather than what it is. It’s not a long, complex dissection of what it means to be saved in the 21st Century. It’s not a strong theological or apologetic argument. It isn’t ‘Life of Pablo’ let alone ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.’ Some people have gone so far as to question his motives and sincerity. It’s a shame as they are missing out on a righteous and indignant collection of open hearted worship songs. The album is full of the hope, wonderment and joy that comes with finding faith. Maybe further down the line Kanye will reflect in deeper ways and share more sophisticated insight but right now ‘Jesus is King’ stands as a fizzy, euphoric exclamation of newly found personal conviction. Considering Kanye’s cultural standing, it’s an audacious move and one brimming with a positivity that is sorely needed in 2019. So In spite of its faults, Jesus is King feels like an important and meaningful contribution to the culture.