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The 1975 ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’ – Review

8 Dec

On the fabled ‘Antichrist’, from The 1975’s debut e.p ‘Facedown’, Matty Healy imagined hands and tongues ‘all covered in blood’ as he drowned in reverb amidst organ swells and cavernous drums. This was an unexpected diversion from the e.p’s lead track, ‘The City’ which was a heavily compressed and maddeningly catchy indie rock song. Even at the time people didn’t quite know what to think. In the Pitchfork review, Ian Cohen felt like the singles had ‘gone missing’ from the e.p, with an ‘unwise’ 3:1 torch song to burner ratio. From day one critics thought they knew what The 1975 should be about, and were somewhat incredulous when that wasn’t delivered to them. But for this band ‘Sex’ and ‘The City’ weren’t the point anymore than the ambient interludes, or post-rock instrumentals were. Dismissive critics be damned, The 1975 followed their noses, delivering numerous and two expansive albums of wild and experimental pop music. The threads have all been tied together on ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’ their most accomplished album to date. And surprisingly, critics seem to be on board, the culture having finally caught up to the band’s ravenous, insatiable taste for anything and everything.

Like the previous two albums ‘ABIIOR’ has a wide remit whilst also self referentially honouring the band’s impressive mythology. It opens with ‘The 1975’, a distorted callback to ‘The 1975’, the atmospheric introduction to ‘The 1975’, which was of course the debut album by The 1975. The same song opened their sophomore album, ‘I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It’ and has already been confirmed to appear on their next album ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’. If any of this reads as pretentious or ridiculous then you’d be half right. Crucially, the band’s endearing enthusiasm – not to mention incredible ability to pull this stuff off – overrides any cynicism you enter with.

Imagine the audacity it takes to create a song like ‘The Man Who Married a Robot’, a blatant update of Radiohead’s ‘Fitter, Happier’ that actually improves upon the original. Imagine out-Radioheading Radiohead. And then doing the same thing to Bon Iver (‘I Like America and America Likes Me’), Coldplay (‘Surrounded by Heads and Bodies’) and Drake (‘TooTimeTooTimeTooTime’). Like those stunt drivers who slide in to tight parallel parking spots, they only pull it off because any other outcome would be disastrous and unthinkable. The margins between genius and hilarious are so ridiculously tight when you’re getting Siri to narrate a monologue about a man addicted to the Internet whilst Disney strings swirl and sway in the background. It’s not hard to see how it could all go terribly wrong. This is an all-in, everything or nothing move, and they nail it.

It’s a difficult game, trying to establish your own identity whilst playfully pinching from the biggest artists in the world. It’s one they’re now masters at. All at once ‘ABIIOR’ will remind you of your favourite bands, whilst reminding you of no one so much as The 1975 themselves. Lead single ‘Give Yourself a Try’, which hurtles forward on the strength of a tinny drum loop and loudly compressed guitar squawks, has been compared to Joy Division but in truth the song is too soaked in irony and self awareness to sound like anyone else up The 1975. It’s a koi pond with a shimmering surface, reflecting whatever the listener projects – the millennial anxieties of infantilised adults, the post-modern sense that truth is evasive or the nagging, existential fears you can’t theorise away. It’s funny because revelation often is and emphatic because we live in urgent times. ‘What would you say to your younger self? Growing a beard’s quite hard and whisky never starts to taste nice’ is one of many quotables that tumble out with stunning regularity.

In a similar vein, ‘Love It If We Made It’ is an impassioned anthem for doomed youth and a fitting approximation of the intermingled dread and humour you feel whilst randomly scrolling down your timeline. Like a modern day ‘It’s the End of the World and We Know It’, the song is imperious and frantic in the face of possible annihilation. Cascading synthesisers and beats carved out of metal sound like aggressive approximations of the nostalgic 80s sounds the band utilised on their debut album. Just as ‘Give Yourself a Try’ slightly recalls a demented Joy Division, ‘Love It If We Made It’ may well remind you of a sinister ‘Downtown Lights’, that mid 80s melancholic masterpiece by The Blue Nile. It’s already been called a defining statement of 2018 malaise, and for good reason; it does after-all quote the leader of the free world (‘I moved on it like a bitch’) and will be censored for radio as a result.

Generally though the album steers away from the political, choosing instead to focus on the personal. As the title explicitly states, the band are particularly interested in the role that the internet plays in creating, sustaining and destroying modern relationships. Last year Arcade Fire were met with ridicule when they attempted to dissect online culture on ‘Everything Now’. It wasn’t the first time that a band of a certain age seemed sneering and out of touch when tackling the prickly topic. The 1975 succeed where Arcade Fire don’t by virtue of being totally submerged in online culture. They aren’t simply spectators, or commentators, they are absolutely immersive on a day to day level. Because of this they are able to comment on the sense of dislocation and alienation that is often a consequence of social media, in a tone that is empathetic rather than judgmental. They are able to prod without shooting targets down in to flaming wrecks. As Matty put it in an interview, he is ‘just asking questions’, not necessarily stepping up to answer them. Even the most moralistic moment, ‘I Married a Robot/Love Theme’ is narrated by Siri, and has an appropriately neutral, even handed tone. No approval, no condemnation, no judgment. Just observation.

Besides, the key word in the title is ‘relationships’ not ‘online’, and in 2018 It would be impossible to write about the former without some understanding of the latter. The internet is just another outlet for our self loathing and a vessel for our terrible excuses. When on ‘Tootime’ Matty’s girlfriend scolds him for not liking her Instagram post, and Matty replies ‘I only use it sometimes’, you get the point that is being made – and it actually has very little to do with social media. The narrator of ‘Sincerity is Scary’ (Matty himself?) has been using Social media in a vain attempt to control how people perceive him, ‘putting off conceiving’, putting off adulthood, content in his own self-satisfaction. The internet is a terrible escape, as all consuming as the pills referenced on ‘Surrounded by Heads and Bodies’ or the Heroin alluded to on ‘Its Not a living if it’s not with you’. Whether it’s drugs, fame, music or the internet, these characters are crippled by the crutches they rely on and desperately seeking real human affection.

More than an inquiry in to online relationships, this is evidence of one, as album standout ‘I Couldn’t Be More In Love’ suggests. The song is a soppy love letter to the band’s fan base; a group, largely but not exclusively, made up of teenage girls, who congregate on Redit, Tumblr and Instagram. A group who feel that they know Matty intimately from 180 character tweets and paid for meet and greets. It’s a genuine relationship, of a sort, and a modern translation of a very old form of hero worship. But perhaps it’s more reciprocal than in the old days. Matty’s generosity towards his fans, and the genuine sense of connection he feels towards them, radiates through the song’s lyrics, which are desperately emotive. ‘What about these feelings I’ve got?!’ He pleads – a throwback to the Emo sentiments of ‘Sex’ and ‘Robbers’. And If that’s not emo enough for you, then the very next song is called ‘I Always Want To Die (Sometimes)’.

Needless to say it can all get a bit heavy at points. ‘TooTimeTooTimeTooTime’ is as close as the album gets to fun frivolity. Its tropical house bass-line, auto tuned vocals and four to the floor beat will prick the ears of whoever is streaming all those Drake rip-offs saturating Spotify. More of this flavour would have been appreciated, especially in the second half of the album which does get bogged down by a sense of its own soul crushing import. A few of the slower tracks would benefit from some of the intensity and urgency of ‘Give Yourself a Try’ or ‘Love It If We Made It’, not to mention the uncomplicated fizz and froth of ‘TooTimeTooTimeTooTime’.

Maybe this is a good point to say that whilst I admire what the band have achieved here, and appreciate it’s numerous successes, I’m not sure that I like it as much as ‘I Like It When You Sleep…’ an album that was somehow, all at once, even more daring, and subtle, while taking itself a whole lot less seriously. ‘I Like It When You Sleep…’ was welded together by glam 80’s glue, all gated reverb snares and twinkly synthesisers. It’s harder to find ‘ABIIOR’s sonic through line, which makes the album feel that bit less cohesive and more overwhelming, despite being twenty minutes shorter.

The band have carefully styled ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’ as a classic album in the vein of ‘Ok Computer’ and ‘The Queen is Dead’ – albums very obviously about something. Statement albums. Albums designed for eternity, as much as they were for their moment, that nonetheless sounded as natural as breathing air. Make no mistake, ‘A Brief Enquiry In to Online Relationships’ is very much for this moment – and in that sense it’s a purposeful, exemplary record. Whether it survives in the same way as those other classics remains to be seen. On a melodic level the songs lack the sublime grace of, say, ‘karma Police’ or ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’, and Matty’s voice is not particularly memorable in and of itself. You also have to question whether an album as transparently ambitious and calculated as this can ever truly transcend its context. It’s expansive, technically nuanced, musically diverse and thematically complex – but it’s doesn’t cohere in quite the same instinctive, effortless way those classic albums did. Maybe that’s the point. This is a post-modern album, not a modernist one. My expectations are perhaps too tied to a canonical vision of Rock music that The 1975 do not pay heed to. It tries very, very hard to be very, very important; The 1975 know it and have acknowledged it. Your move. Too confusing? All over the place? Simply too much? Well, have you been online recently? That’s 2018 in a nutshell and this is the sound of 2018.




Earl Sweatshirt ‘Some Rap Songs’ – Review

2 Dec

We’re a long way from 2010, when Earl Sweatshirt emerged as perhaps the most imaginative, and certainly most divisive, rapper in a generation. His age, parentage and penchant for grizzly, grotesque imagery overshadowed his raw talent until ‘Doris’, his modest debut album, finally saw the light of day three years later. ‘Some Rap Songs’, his third album, is, as the title suggests, even more understated than his debut.

‘Some Rap Songs’ initially sounds like a spluttering cough of an album – something as tossed off as the jokes Earl used to make back in the day. His voice, noticeably deeper and less clipped than it used to be, is mixed low, beneath soul samples that stop, start and jitter. Only two tracks are longer than two minutes and the album is sequenced in a way that emphasises the whole rather than individual moments. There are approximately zero hooks on the album and Earl sounds less interested than ever in appealing to anyone’s expectations of what a rap record should sound like in 2018. And yet, ‘Some Rap Songs’ contains some of the sharpest and most deviously devised rhymes of the year.

Everything about ‘Some Rap Songs’ is that bit more nuanced and adventurous than what has come before. We’ve gone from silly similes to extended metaphors that build and advance as the album moves forward. He establishes the template within the record’s very first verse; wicked half rhymes, once used as an act of daring flamboyance, now develop along emotional lines and reveal the heart inside the genius. ‘Why ain’t nobody tell me I was sinkin / ain’t nobody told me I could leave and / yeah we could win again, seethin, wishin’ / seen teeth on the door, leakin’ again.’ To keep this precise momentum up for one track is impressive but to do it across fifteen is astounding.

Although Earl challenges himself to flip from topics and themes at will, this is largely an album largely about grief and family. Final track ‘Riot’ features a fanfare from his uncle, acclaimed Jazz musician Hugh Masekela, who passed away earlier this year, while Earl’s late father, poet Keorapetse Kgositsilealso is also sampled. Earl uses these songs to communicate feelings that are perhaps to raw to explicitly state. On ‘Penut’, he mourns ‘bless my pops, we sent him off and not an hour late / Still in shock and now my heart out somewhere on the range.’ On ‘Playing Possum’ a recording of his father is contrasted with one of his mother, UCLA professor Cheryl Harris giving a warm speech to an enthusiastic crowd. The two, who separated when Earl was very young, are made to battle it out; applause from the original recordings can be heard overlapping and drowning out any trace of Earl himself. There is an unresolved quality to the song, that makes it the perfect conclusion to an album that seeks much but finds little reassurance.

Musically, the album sounds like it’s held together by very little indeed. Simple, scratchy beats almost seem to decay as the songs progress. Samples are stretched across verses, which repeat, loop and slowly reveal hidden depths. This is a murky, muddy album. On ‘Red Water’ the central, howling loop hovers over Earl like a demonic nightmare. The track is over before any resolution is provided. ‘Nowhere2go’ has the record’s crispest beat, but even here it splutters randomly, interrupting Earl’s tired drawl. His oldest, and most familiar verse comes on December 24′ but it’s repurposed here as something even more stripped and edgy than the demo that’s done the rounds online. It’s over in ninety seconds.

In retrospect it’s very easy to see how Earl was something of a trailblazer back in 2010. Hip Hop’s current obsessions with youth, skater iconography and soundcloud reveal the precedent he set nearly a decade ago. More than that, the way in which he blurred the lines between Hip Hop, Soul, Jazz and Indie, whilst wearing that prankster’s grin, has been a clear influence on today’s movement. In some ways, ‘Some Rap Songs’ is an acknowledgment of that influence (its brevity and hazy vibe sounds very au currant) but more so, it sounds defiantly individualistic; the product of a boy wonder, who’s evolved in to a mature artist, still seeking to separate himself from the crowd.



The Lemon Twigs ‘Go to School’ – Review

16 Sep

The Lemon Twigs ‘Do Hollywood’ was one of the most accomplished debut albums of the last decade, rendered more remarkable by the fact that its chief architects weren’t out of school when they recorded the album for the legendary 4AD studios. Now, the band are describing their new, second album as a musical – and this isn’t a half hearted claim either, there are points were it really goes full on Bugsy Malone. To say that this is an unexpected development for a band coming hot on the heals of a cool, acclaimed debut might be an understatement. But then there was always a theatrical edge to the band that split critics down the middle, and a prevalent sense of ‘expect the unexpected’. For fans, ‘Do Hollywood’, demonstrated a range and ability that artists twice their age would struggle to compete with. ‘Go to School’ ups the ante in almost every sense; it’s even more eclectic, even more ambitious and, somehow, likely to prove even more divisive.

The attribute that Lemon Twigs have in spades, that separates them from the crowd, is enthusiasm. They remind us of how fun it feels to be young, celebrated and drunk on rock n roll. This is the band we would want to be in if we were 17 and had a touch of the same confidence, talent and tenacity (just one of the three might do). Every single song lives out a different kind of absurdist rock n roll fantasy with an excitement that belies any sense of giving a damn. Sincerity is just another pose. High kicks are the cost of entry. Eyes wide, eyeliner primed, glitter bombs at the ready.

And why not? When did Rock stars start taking themselves so seriously? In their heyday, bands like Queen and Led Zeppelin were characterised by flamboyant lead singers and a sense that they were in on the joke. Somewhere down the line Rock became the domain of boring Joes, your Royal Bloods and Imagine Dragons. And that really is a striking about The Lemon Twigs – the unabashed silliness of two brothers parading around on stage in tight vintage outfits, singing songs about a monkey who falls in love with a human girl. That they find the humour in their subject without becoming the joke is testament to an insane natural ability and impeccably well honed understanding of their genre.

This all encompassing rock n roll vision is filtered through a homespun lens that gives a charm to material that might easily become cliched in a more refined setting. The brothers produced the album themselves, from a home studio, and as a result it has a close, warm atmosphere that appropriately gives ‘Go to School’ a distinct vintage feel at odds with modern rock music. The Lemon Twigs are a throwback in other respects as well. The gutsy, bold songwriting, particularly in the opening few numbers, will remind you of Big Star, The Beatles Todd Rundgren, Beach Boys and The Who – all bands The Lemon Twigs have covered at gigs in the past year. These aren’t just imitations; theirs are unusual, creative melodies accompanied by expansive, and daring arrangements. In isolation, any one of these songs will inspire distinct admiration. The album’s success as a whole piece is more debatable.

The thing about musicals is that they have a strong visual element and almost always contain dialogue to set out exposition. Without either of those elements, Lemon Twigs rely purely on their lyrics to do the heavy lifting. Invariably the songs that advance the plot drag the album down. The middle third is particularly exposition heavy, and suffers as a result with show tunes that seem to serve no other purpose than to make a plot point. And, as you might expect, the storyline about poor Shane, an unloved and well meaning chimp,, doesnt keep your attention outright. Only when accompanied by blistering music, as on the incredibly powerful ‘The Fire’, or the explosive ‘Rock Dreams’ does the plot truly come to life. The campy piano ballads that clog up the middle stretch (‘The Lesson’, ‘Wonderin Ways’, ‘Born Wrong’) feel too calculated and generic to really excite.

Not all the songs benefit from being so tethered to the plot. The sincere message of ‘Lonely’ a disaffected, pretty ballad in The Carpenters mould, and a song written about personal experience when Michael was still at school, gets lost in between the more contrived showtunes. Likewise, the cute, yet moralising, ‘If You Give Enough’, and even the whip cracking ‘Queen of my School’, so memorable as The Twigs staple set closer, feel reduced in this context, burdened by odd plot details, awkward turns of phrase (‘Shane boy, be my toy / my pussy, you’ll employ’) and overbaked production.

In fact, Michael and Brian overegg the pudding at almost every opportunity. Too many songs descend in to ridiculous musical extravaganzas. The bossanova inflected ‘The Bully’ unexpectedly bursts in the second half with processional horns and marching band drum rolls. ‘Rock Dreams’ comes undone towards the end with a chorus of demented choir vocals that strongly remind me of the voices from The Beatles ‘Flying’. The hyperactive, scattergun arrangements nearly undid their debut but this approach feels more significantly detrimental on a record nearly double the length of ‘Do Hollywood’. The more understated harmonic touches on ‘Always in my Heart, Never in my Arms’ and particularly the coda to ‘The Student Becomes the Teacher’ speak to the Twigs true calling; not as stage school wannabes but as heirs apparent to The Beach Boy and Beatles.

Even so, their faults, if you want to categorise them as such, are endearing and stem from that genuine enthusiasm I gushed about earlier. The same instincts that led them down these roads are the same instincts that inspired the abandon and wonder inherent in their finest moments. They don’t just get by on giddy excitement either; their understanding of craft and there attention to detail is notable, particularly for anyone whose ever paid close attention to ‘Radio City’ or ‘Something / Anything’, classic albums of a similar ilk made by far more experienced artists, with significantly higher bank balances, in posh studios. Without meaning to be condescending, the fact that The Lemon Twigs produced a concept album as daring and accomplished as this, at their age, with their resources, is somewhat remarkable. ‘Go to School’ isn’t the masterpiece musical it desperately wants to be but it is something more precious – an unguarded, kooky snapshot of youth and a love letter to rock n roll dreams.



John Hopkins ‘Singularity’ – Review

5 Jul

On John Hopkins first album in five years, ‘Singularity’, You almost seem to glide from the big beats of the more recognisably techno numbers like ‘Emerald Rush’ to ethereal and quiet piano meditations like ‘Recovery’. On its best song, that voyage happens in the space of a single track; the twelve minute ‘Luminous Beings’, which pulsates and spins, fades in and out of itself, and seems to be in a near constant state of growth and dissolve. Songs like this dare you to dance and then stop you in your tracks. The vulnerability that comes then is even more stark because of what proceeds these moments.

At its weakest points (which are nonetheless few and far between) ‘Singulairty’ sounds like the sonic equivalent of an enthusiastic and well meaning gap year student ‘finding themselves’ in foreign terrain. But more often, Hopkins experimentation feels authentic, genuinely thoughtful and exploratory in revelatory ways. Pre-album talk about meditation and psychedelics made me cringe a little but actually the album feels enriched by the sense of adventure. There is a fluidity in the way instruments merge, melt and spring to life. And there is Interesting tension between the loud and quiet, fast and gentle, moments which feels like a step away from the repetition implicit in contemporary dance music.

Without a doubt ‘Singularity’ is one of the most sonically daring and textually complex albums of 2018. But it’s the gorgeous piano melodies and sparkling arpeggios that give this album heart. The simple ambient piano notes of ‘Echo Disolve’ gently rise and fall above what sounds like the distant hum of traffic and everyday life. Here Hopkins reclaims the calm in a loud and busy environment. Final track ‘Recovery’ is even more sparse, and even more beautiful, but it’s essentially take on the same idea. The reverb and the background noise disappear to leave just the piano. Here Hopkins classical training, and his experience, comes in to play – he’s never risked being this unguarded before. There is daring and honesty in this degree of simplicity. And as the album closes with the same note that opened it, there is a sense of the world spinning on its axis. It’s here you understand Hopkins interest in connectivity; the way in which sounds play off each other, the ‘drones’ and ‘bridges’ that connect notes, songs, worlds. Of course this idea is best encapsulated on track four ‘Everything connected’, which is a seamless juxtaposition of sounds and feelings. It’s perhaps too cliched to describe music as taking you on a journey but with John Hopkins ‘Singularity’, no other metaphor feels quite as appropriate.



Tracyanne and Danny ‘Tracyanne and Danny’ – Review

26 Jun

In 2015 Camera Obscura’s keyboardist and founding member Carey Lander passed away following a battle with osteosarcoma. The band understandably folded in on itself, and their future is currently uncertain. In the mean time, lead singer and songwriter Tracyanne Campbell has teamed up with Danny Coughlan, otherwise known by his stage name Crybaby, to work on an album of country inflected pop tunes.

‘Tracyanne and Danny’ is a grown up version of a Camera Obscura album, one where the heartbreak runs deeper below the surface, where the hurt is less hysterical and more ingrained. It comes in different forms – the grief of losing a friend to a vicious disease, the strain placed on a marriage by the arrival of little, pattering feet, the memories of a romance that burned brighter than any you’re likely to have again. The pin-sharp sting of love, of heartbreak, is less devastating from the distance of years but no less real; these are blurry repercussions of feels from the past making the present moment difficult. On ‘2006’ Tracyanne finds it difficult to relate to the melodrama of her old material – ‘I can’t believe this life was me/Now my passion is gone/I put my life in a song’ – but her voice, fragile and bruised, betrays the sentiment.

Musically, the passion is tempered, the arrangements more polite, the tempos calmed. The twee streak that shot through classics like ‘Suspended from Class’ and ‘French Navy’ has also gone, as have the easy comparisons to Belle and Sebastian that the band were oddly saddled with. But the finely tuned balance between giddy joy and melancholia is still alive. You can hear it in the playful opener ‘Home and Dry’ and the bittersweet ‘It’s Only Love When It Hurts’ (the number that bares the strongest resemblance to Camera Obsucra’s work). Their particular beauty comes in the way the sunlight pokes through the clouds. Darkness tinged with optimism; the sense that any emotion is worth feeling so long as it’s real and intense.

The musical qualities Carey brought to Camera Obscura were obvious for all to see – just listen to her stunning work on ‘Tears for Affairs for example. But equally important, perhaps, were her personal attributes. The sense of companionship she provided. The shoulder to lean on. The advice when needed. Her influence is exemplified neatly on first single ‘Alabama’, a touching tribute to Carey. ‘I liked travelling with you and you liked it best with me.’ It’s not the lyrics, nostalgic and unabashed, that break your heart, it’s the melody and the music. It’s hearing Tracyanne sing around the gaping hole provided by Carey’s absence, the strain in her voice as she sings a typically gorgeous melody without her best friend there underlining it. It would have been far easier perhaps write a dreary ballad that highlighted her sadness in fluorescent streaks but ‘Alabama’ is a far more fitting tribute, the type of song Carey would have loved (which just adds to the sense of longing). It’s essentially a sunny, uptempo Camera Obscura song given a loftiness and a real life weight that was not present in their more idealistic material.

In Carey’s absence, Danny Coughlin plays the foil. His contributions are major – he takes lead on roughly half the tracks – but like Carey, he seems to be more useful as something of a grounding presence for Tracey Ann: the confidant, the shoulder, the ear. He has an agile voice, with a confident, pitch perfect tone that sits in contrasts to Tracyanne’s more vulnerable, fragile phrasing. His lyrics are vague and simplistic and his singing, whilst sweet, doesn’t compensate by doing any emotional heavy lifting. His best role is as accomplice – his sweet harmonies enhance ‘Its only Love When It Hurts’, for example. Of his obvious contributions ‘Jaqueline’, a moon lit torch song, is the most memorable, with a vague sense of tragedy looming over the melancholic descriptions of a mystery lady. It’s a cinematic vision of sadness.

But generally ‘Tracyanne and Danny’ works best when it’s dealing with the real and personal, rather than the imagined. That said, there is a rare foray in to dramatic monologue at the album’s close; ‘O’keeffe’ tells the story of Georgia O’keeffe, a famous American painter who in 1929 ran away from her unfaithful husband. Moving to New Mexico, she took to painting a particular sunburnt mountain up to thirty times – an act of devotion and dedication to something unmovable. It was both a form of letting go and embrace. So it is that love serves as Tracyanne’s mountain, and songs are her paintings. On the surface they often seem indistinguishable, made of similar moving parts and romantic feelings, but each one is an effort to get closer to the source of something real and universal. An act of devotion and dedication to something bigger than her.



Kanye West ‘Ye’ – Review

3 Jun

In the background of one of Kanye West’s recent twitter videos, a tv was playing a clip of the wildly popular and somewhat controversial Canadian academic Jorden Peterson, lecturing on the importance of art. Peterson is best known for his instructive guidance videos and books, aimed primarily at young men, but he’s also something of an expert on narcasism and man’s capacity for evil. In one of his many lectures on the subject, Peterson theorises that everyone has great capacity for malevolence, and it’s only when we come to terms with that, admit it, reckon with it and understand it, that we can evolve in to truly good, and successful, human beings. Otherwise we’re doomed to a life of naivety and manipulation.

It sounds like an instruction that Kanye West may have taken to heart. ‘Ye’ (“I believe Ye is the most commonly used word in the bible, and in the bible it means YOU. So I’m you, I’m us, it’s us. The album is a reflection of who we are.”) opens with Kanye admitting ‘The most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest. Today I seriously thought about killing you…and I think about killing myself and I love myself way more than I love you so…just say it out loud to see how it feels…sometimes I think bad things, really, really bad things…’ The song continues on like this, as auto-tuned, harmonic mumblings swirl underneath – intense distillations of ideas Kanye has been nibbling at the edges of for years. On this album Kanye is laying his insecurities, anxieties and darkest desires bare for everyone to see. It’s a massive risk. He’s showing us his worst side, as well as him most vulnerable (no easy thing for him one suspects) and asking that we love him as much as he loves himself.

It’s an album largely about mental illness that declares on its cover ‘I hate being bi-polar. It’s awesome’. To my mind at least, ‘Ye’ inhabits some of the contradictions of being bi-polar: it’s at once impulsive, fanatic, impassioned, drained, sad and kind of haunting. It’s an album that sounds incredibly warm yet speaks so coldly. It feels monumental despite being such a slight thing. It’s generous with guest features (most of which are by talented, emotionally grounded young women) despite being such a self centred thesis. If the question is ‘who’s the real Kanye?’ then there are no clear answers on ‘Ye’, except, possibly, they’re all the real Kanye.

From a production standpoint ‘Ye’ is fairly similar to the Kanye produced ‘Daytona’, Pusha T’s recent comeback album. Both are seven tracks, and clock in at just over twenty minutes. Both feature well sourced and creatively manipulated soul samples, carefully articulated beats and minimal bars over spacious backdrops. It’s definitely a refined sound compared to the expansive and diverse ‘Life of Pablo’, and feels more restrained than even ‘Yeezus’ or ‘808s and heartbreaks’. It’s light on hooks (‘Yikes’ might sound like a single if the topics it discusses weren’t so alienating’) but rich in melody and gospel tinged choruses. In these senses it conveys a spirit of love and generosity, even as Kanye pulls away from the listener and doubles down on some of his divisive arguments without really elaborating on them.

Of course It’s impossible to hear ‘Ye’ divorced from the context of his recent behaviour. And he doesn’t want you to. In fact, he refers to his recent controversies frequently, if in no real depth. Those hoping that ‘Ye’ would provide insight or explanation will surely be disappointed, as will those who hoped he might brush over them all together. The most infamous of his recent comments was ‘slavery is a choice’. That provocative comment, here once again brought up on ‘Yikes’, was rightly criticised for being misinformed and unhelpful (despite being ripped from context, with Kanye’s more detailed justification, all but ignored). But this isn’t the first time Kanye has poked and prodded at the subject. ‘Blood on the Leaves’ from 2013’s Yeezus, a song hailed at the time as being a Black Lives Matter anthem, was equally reductive and insensitive for different reasons. It strikes me as odd that some people are only just realising now that Kanye West is a troll. That Kanye says, and does, stupid things. That Kanye can be insensitive. When his vitriol was directed at George Bush (‘George Bush hates black people’) or Taylor Swift (‘I made that bitch famous’) it was brushed off. Now it’s all anyone can talk about.

If this is the first time you’ve found Kanye’s comments problematic, you really haven’t been listening hard enough. Both ‘Yeezus’ and ‘Life of Pablo’ were explicitly misogynistic and racist at points. There were elements of that before as well, but the genius of 2010’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, for example, was in how Kanye wrestled with his ego; painting awful pictures and then stripping and analysing them. It was genuinely mature, conflicted stuff. There was none of that self aware drama on ‘Yeezus’ or ‘Life of Pablo’ and there’s little more of it on ‘Ye’. He just doesn’t seem interested in doing the hard yards necessary to layout nuanced, thoughtful arguments. There is a reason Kanye works so well on Twitter – it’s because he writes the most brilliant sound bites known to man. But that’s all they are, sound bites. Sound bites that don’t stand up to even the most simple scrutiny. And by the time he’s delivered one stinger (‘You know how many girls I took to the titty shop?’) it’s too late, he’s on to the next (‘if you get the ass with it that’s a 50 pop’). when his choice of topic was more trivial (‘Life of Pablo’ was totally apolitical) such an approach was tremendous fun. Here though it’s exhausting and divisive.

‘All Mine’ is the latest in a long line of Hip Hop tracks that demean and objectify women, simply for being women. The track seems to be a defence of infedelity; essentially a boy’s will be boys apology that is never even remotely convincing. It starts crudely with a verse by Ty Dolla $ign, ‘Fuck it up, pussy good, I’m ‘a pipe her up, make her mine’, and hits new levels of depravity when Kanye himself throws down: ‘Let me hit it raw like fuck the outcome / ayy none of us would be here without cum’. This is Kanye at his insufferable worst. ‘All Mine’s vulgarity is brought in to starker contrast by its proximity to ‘Wouldn’t Leave’, where Kanye recounts the aftermath of the ‘slavery is a choice’ comment. There are odd moments of vulnerability here (‘told her she could leave me now but she didn’t leave’ is a really interesting line – has Kanye been deliberately self sabotaging his success and happiness because he feels unworthy?) but the interesting revelation is that Kim’s initial angry reaction to the comment seems to have been ‘you’ gon’ fuck the money up’. Yes, the song is short on genuine understanding and doesn’t present any of its protagonists in a flattering light.

Another song that’s troubling is album closer ‘Violent Crimes’, which explores how Kanye’s understanding of women has changed since he became a father (changed in the ten minutes between this and ‘All Mine’ you mean?), or at least, how he thinks it’s changed. Addressing his daughter, he says ‘now I see women as something to nurture not something to conquer’ before making a tasteless pun about a ménage et trios. Once again, the proximity between the saintly and the sexualised, in a song about his baby daughter, feels creepy, as later when he starts talking about ‘the curves under you dress’, and a boyfriend ‘whooping her ass’ (of course Kanye isn’t the first man to see man to see women as one of two extremes – the Madonna/whore complex is well documented). It’s a pretty weird song, one where I’m sure he means well, but the fact he thinks this is appropriate is as clear a sign as any that his self awareness is currently at an all time low. And once again, his inability to see beyond women’s bodies – extended even to his own daughter, even in a song where he is making big claims about being a changed man – is astonishing.

But before we address the myriad of problems in the music of Kanye West, how about we zoom out a bit and examine the wider cultural problems within Hip Hop. Singling out Kanye in the same week that Pusha T’s equally problematic ‘Daytona’, and AS$P Rocky’s ‘Testing’, received critical acclaim feels unfair. Jay Z has said worse. So have Drake and Eminem. Cardi B and Azelia Banks are no more nuanced or insightful. Even the relatively enlightened Kendrick Lamar’s first number one used ‘bitch’ as the main hook. And they’re just the big hitters; things get a whole lot darker the further you go further down the chain. I’m not excusing Kanye West, simply suggesting that the issues are far deeper than many would care it admit. And anyway, that may be a part of what ‘Ye’ is but that’s not all it is.

In all the noise and chatter, something that has been lost (but is reaffirmed on this album) is that first and foremost in his tweets Kanye has been calling for love and tolerance. ‘Ye’s working title was ‘Love Everyone’. The front cover was supposed to be a photo of the doctor held responsible for the death of Donda West, Kanye’s mother. Forgiveness. Love. Connection. These ideas may not always be explicit in the lyrics but they are present in other ways. I hear it in the way Kanye’s production synthesises his past styles in to one and brings different genres and historical sounds together. I hear it in the diverse collection of guest vocalists who contribute so much for a cause much bigger than themselves individually. I hear it in Kanye’s bruised, hurt vocal tones as he tries, once again, to hit notes always out of his reach, and doesn’t stop trying. ‘Sometimes I take all the shine, talk like I drank all the wine’. He’s still reaching for truth, for love and for freedom of expression. He’s still knocking at doors and breaking down barriers. Still talking about things we don’t want to talk about. When you invest so much in an artist it can be hard to see their work objectively but I would argue that the Kanye of 2018 is no different to the Kanye of 2013, perhaps even the Kanye of 2003. He’s brash, insensitive, funny, daring, inquisitive, emotional, controversial, narcissistic, capable of great genius and capable of the opposite. To slightly misquote the handwritten message on the front cover of Ye: I hate Kanye West. He’s awesome.



Kacey Musgroves ‘Golden Hour’ – Review

21 May

‘Is there a word for the way that I’m feeling tonight/happy and sad at the same time?’ If there is then Kacey Musgroves should know it, she is after all, the master of observing the space between feelings, the nuances and subtleties that most country songwriters steamroll over. ‘Golden Hour’ is the most glorious of genre records; one that sounds like everything you love and nothing you’ve ever heard before. It takes tropes of country pop – pedal steel, slide, weepy melodies and big gesture strings – but presents them in new contexts. Disco beats anchor the glitzy ‘High Horse’, reverb drenches ‘Slow Burn’ (until it sounds like a mid 90s Radiohead song), and psychedelic perspectives skewer the orthodoxy of ‘Mother’ and ‘Oh What a World’. Even the songs that on the tracklisting suggest a certain predictability – ‘High Horse’, ‘Space Cowboy’ and ‘Velvet Elvis’ – find interesting ways to surprise you.

This is not necessarily an unexpected development. Musgroves made a name for herself with her effervescent debut ‘Same Trailer, Different Park’ which was memorable for the way it questioned conventions and long held Nashville traditions. Her lyrical style (it should be noted that she works with a host of talented songwriters) emphasised clever puns, dark humour and playful rhymes to create songs that were as catchy as they were thoughtful. Second album ‘Pageant Material’ was a quintessential sequal – It expanded her sound in interesting ways but ultimately contained less to recommend it.

‘Golden Hour’ is, in some respect, a more conventional country pop record. I’m far from an expert when it comes to this genre but it’s easy to hear echoes of other crossover acts – Shania Twain, Dolly Parton and Taylor Swift being the three examples that spring most readily to mind. The tempos here are more universally mid paced, the melodies perhaps marginally less adventurous, the arrangements, certainly, less playful. But in place is a sophistication and stateliness that only comes when you try your hardest to straighten out and broaden your appeal. At no point does Musgrove’s sound feel watered down; if anything it feels enlarged and more expansive.

‘Golden Hour’, in fact, is both skyscraping and intimate. Cinematic with the feel of an old home movie. It is, yes, both happy and sad at the same time. The songs that speak of new love (‘Butteflies’, ‘Oh What a World’) are good but the ballads that present more conflicted feelings are even better. ‘Space Cowboy’ in particular positions Musgroves as a genuinely moving country singer in the mould of someone like Kathleen Edwards. It’s not a perfect album – the mood is consistent but that could be interpreted as a lack of range, and it certainly begins to feel a little too mellow in the final third. The AOR stylistic choices and vacuum sealed production also rob the songs of some of their personality. But Kacey Musgroves is a young artist with a distinctive style, and ‘Golden Hour’ is her best work to date. This is an album to appeal to the Nashville diehards as much as Capital FM listeners, which, as Taylor Swift proved, can be a very lucrative junction to be standing at.