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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 In its sleek modernity, and futuristic soundscapes it occasionally sounds xeroxed and, ironically, a couple of years out of date.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.

8/10

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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.

6/10

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Alvvays ‘Antisocialites’ – Review

22 Oct

Antisocialites’, the new album from Canadian indie rock band Alvvays, is exactly the kind of second album it’s difficult to get right: one that continues down the debut’s main road but finds interesting little diversions, without ever venturing too far off the beaten track. History is littered with failed sophomore records that have either been too similar to the debut, not similar enough, too rushed, too laboured over etc. The balance is so tricky to get right, especially when you have a lifetime to write the first album and a year to write the sequel. But on ‘Antisocialites’ Alvvays have achieved success in style.

The band’s self titled debut was a heady, intoxicating summer mix of folky melodies and crunchy riffs with indie pop sensibilities scattered throughout. It positioned Alvvays as an old school c86 type band come to life in the age of Spotify and Instagram. They sang melodramatically about living life to the emotional limit, burning out and blowing up. Their vintage aesthetic and melodramatic outlook are just as prominent on ‘Antisocialities’ but everything feels less amateurish and more accomplished. It lacks a water cooler classic like ‘Archie Marry Me’ but from start to finish this is a more consistently interesting record.

Rankin comes from a traditional folk background (as the daughter of the acclaimed songwriter John Rankin) and tellingly she is brilliant at shaping melodies that feel uncannily familiar, yet somehow fresh at the same time. The tunes are sticky sweet and She has has grown in to a confident singer, willing to hit high notes and bend melodies to her will. If you find cuteness cloying then a few of these songs may grate, but there’s an acidic element to her lyricism that undercuts the sweetness. Take for example a line from highlight ‘Plimsol Punks’; ‘When I chip through your candy coating you’re stuffed with insulation/Just strawberry ice cream floating with a hint of indignation’. Clever, funny, sweet but a little bit deadly.

The band burst through these songs at a Ramonic pace, pausing only here and there for a couple of show stopping, minimalistic ballads that demonstrate a more tender and heartbreaking side. ‘Dreams Tonite’ is probably the best example of this; a hazy synth ballad that finds the middle ground between Galaxie 500 and Mazzy Star. Sharp synths are used ingeniously through the album, giving the album a slightly more polished sheen than ‘Alvvays’. And although occasionally the enthusiastic use of the instrument blurs the lines between the other instruments, giving songs an unnuanced fuzz that is a little unsettling, generally it adds a new flavour to Alvvays sound.

Rankin’ an astute lyricist, both superficially (rhyming unexpected phrases like ‘you and me’ with ‘rhetorically’ and ‘metaphorically’) and on a deeper level as well. She writes about well worn subjects such as love and loss in engaging and original ways. The water is a source of constant inspiration and symbolism for her – ‘You find a wave and try to hold it as long as you can’ – she sings at one point, which could be a metaphor for how Alvvays have navigated the perilous waters of the rock world. Elsewhere though water is less a guide and more a source of nostalgia, danger or romanticism. On ‘Already Gone’ the draining of a pool represents the end of summer, and more tragically, the loss of youth. On ‘Forget About Life’ drowning in the lake is a tempting last resort for a worn out soul. ‘You’re the seashell in my sandal that’s slicing up my heel’ she sings on ‘Plimsal Punks’ as she describes a walk along the beach with a frustrating lover. Even here, a seemingly innocent, pleasurable activity has an undercurrent of pain and danger. It’s another good metaphor for a band who are so much more than the cutesy, indie pin ups they might initially appear to be. ‘Antisocialites’ sounds great in any trivial circumstance but if you have greater cares or troubles, it will hold you, share with you and indulge you.

8/10

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The Killers ‘Wonderful Wonderful’ – Review

3 Oct

‘Ive got soul but I’m not a soldier’. There is a fine line between genius and pomposity, and The Killers have never been afraid of dancing down it. ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’ was of course one of several top tier indie pop songs The Killers put out in the mid 00s. On ‘Wonderful Wonderful’, they’re looking to add to the collection.

‘Are we human or are we dancer?’ Was another memorable head scratcher The Killers once put their name to, and ‘The Man’ attempts to answer that question with – why not both? In the music video Brandon struts around, gesticulating, grinning, shaking his hips, pursing his lips and pointing his finger to the sky whilst never quite convincingly selling us on the idea of being in on his own joke. What is it to be a man in 2017? Someone who is traditionally masculine but ridiculously flamboyant? Someone who is equal parts Elton John and Bruce Springstien perhaps? Someone who is deeply self-confident, maybe a little arrogant, but not afraid to own up to it? ‘Whose the man? I’m the man!’ The line between sincerity and irony – that’s another fine line in The Killers world.

‘The Man’ is an arena for Brandon Flowers to poke fun at himself, or at least the version of himself who emerged in 2003. but it’s obviously a costume he enjoys wearing once again. ‘The Man’ is the most confident he’s sounded in quite some time. It’s fun – but conflicted fun. It doesn’t quite sound as effortless and emphatic as The Killers very best songs. Even so, it’s as close as The Killers come to their peak on ‘Wonderful, Wonderful’, an album that hedges its bets for the best possible reasons, but is inevitably patchy, partially as a result of that.

In some respects the album feels like the missing link between ‘Battle Born’ and Brandon’s excellent solo album ‘The Desired Effect’; combing the bombastic, elongated soundscapes of the former with the mischievous poptimism of the latter. But that doesn’t quite account for brooding weirdness of the title track, the stadium rock reach of ‘Life to Come’ Or the frantic energy of ‘Tyson v Douglass’. ‘Wonderful, Wonderful’ is now the fourth Killers in a row to sound nothing like the one that proceeded it, which is pretty impressive for a band as successful as this. It’s also the only one, other than their true masterpiece – the criminally underrated ‘Day and Age’ – where each song sounds different to the one before and after it. Don’t get me wrong, there is no mistaking these for anything other than Killers songs (don’t expect a ‘Kid A’ makeover anytime soon) but each track on ‘Wonderful, Wonderful’ has its own distinct personality.

Typically, when it comes to The Killers, the metric is ‘the sillier the better’, and that largely holds true here. Of course they’ve always been pretentious but it’s usually been matched with copious amounts of eyeliner and pink tuxedos. That’s why the dusty leather jackets, Dylanisms and tired, homeland rock of ‘Battleborn’ fell flat – it just wasn’t silly enough. The ridiculous symbolism of ‘Tyson v Douglass’, the bizarre narrative of ‘Run for Cover’ and the sheer audacity of ‘Life to Come’s central hook (‘just drop kick the shame!’) signal that the band are part way back to their comfort zone. Just leave your inhibitions and prejudices at the door when you arrive at ‘Wonderful Wonderful’, if you want to truly enjoy yourself.

If there’s a flaw with the album it’s that it still isn’t silly enough. The record’s bloodless closer ‘Have all the Songs Been Written’ is heartfelt but takes itself too seriously. And the chorus and hooks are so pedestrian that you have to wonder how it made the final cut. The same could be said of the flatlining ‘Out of my Mind’ or the somewhat tasteless ‘The Calling.’ Producer Jacknife Lee should have intervened more to add some glitter to these flailing tracks. You get the feeling Ariel Reichsted for one would never have let this do. The hooks don’t pop enough and the arrangements show no imagination. These are decent songs but they hint at far greater, unexplored possibilities. However, even these songs, failures as they are, are ambitious failures. And they fail in different ways – whereas everything that failed on ‘Battle Born’ did so in the same, tired way. There is a recurring sense of enthusiasm and genuine investment in ideas that redeems even the weakest songs on ‘Wonderful Wonderful’.

At its best, the album reveals a soulful, beating heart at the centre of its pop dream. The gorgeous power ballad ‘Rut’ is a dedication to Brandon’s wife, who suffers with PTSD. As the song builds, so does the emotion, until it erupts in to an anthem for all the broken hearts out there. ‘Some Kind of Love’ is another ode to Brandon’s wife that at one point remarks ‘you’ve got the soul of a truck on a long distance haul’. In the Killers world, this passes as a loving compliment.

I’ve read a lot of criticism, mainly from American critics, that The Killers are playing to smaller crowds with diminishing cultural and critical relevancy. This is not only factually untrue, it’s also disingenuous. Show me a band well in to their second decade that hasn’t lost some of their potency and popularity. Why not ask why The Walkman haven’t made a ‘Rat’ in ages or why LCD Soundsystem didn’t have a ‘All My Friends’ on their recent comeback album. Why do The Killers always get cast under the shadow of Mr Brightside? Why are they always held up to ‘Hot Fuss’? There’s a reason this album is the band’s fifth number one whilst most of their contemporaries reside In the where are they now file; it’s because they’re genuinely one of the best bands around. ‘Wonderful Wonderful’ isn’t perfect, nor is it a soldier, but it’s got soul – which is a daft statement, but The Killers will know what I mean.

7/10

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The National ‘Sleep Well Beast’ – Review

17 Sep

I feel like every review of a new National album starts from the assumption that it is going to be boring. When I return to them, I think I start from that assumption as well. I suppose their sad, slow songs are so good that we collectively forget there are both shaggier and sharper sides and edges to this band. Songs that shout, scratch and shriek. Songs that pop like balloons. All sides of the band are represented on their seventh (seventh!) album, ‘Sleep Well Beast’, whose biggest achievement is how it manages to readjust the temperature controls ever so slightly whilst essentially keeping the listener feeling comfortable and relaxed. This is still a National album, and it sounds like it. But things are just ever so slightly grouchier, darker and more agitated.

The big picture is that this is Matt Beringer’s divorce album – the twist being that the writing process actually saved the marriage. It encompasses all the rage, contemplativeness, grief, depression, optimism and renewal that that process implies. Nice idea, but, well, both Beyoncé and Jaz Z stamped their names on that idea on their most recent albums, and besides, every National album has covered themes of grown up, marital disharmony before. So what’s really new?

Mostly it’s the music. At times the sounds are more fragmented than they’ve ever been before, which makes it feel like the band members are working against an ideal of unity; rubbing up and pulling at the edges of each other. On lead single ‘The System only Dreams in Total Darkness’, a Woody Woodpecker guitar squeals and splutters in fits and spurts while brooding percussion builds tension and drama. On ‘Empire Line’, a tightly wound beat rattles against thudding synths. Peculiar vocal snatches, and a flickering high hat, disrupt Beringer’s bassey croon on ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’. The songs themselves aren’t anything particularly groundbreaking for the band, and a couple are completely forgettable, but it’s consistently fascinating on a sonic level. Throughout there are guitars shredding against crystallised beats or bass lines circling in spite of chaos and noise. This creates for a tension that makes ‘Sleep Well Beast’ decidedly not an easy listening record, in spite of the grand pianos and stately melodies that ground almost every song.

You sense it wouldn’t be quite like this if it were left to Matt Berigner. By quite some distance this is his sleepiest contribution to a National record. His singing is lazy – even on the frantic, oddly positioned rocker, ‘Turtleneck’, he sounds like he’s on downers, fighting against a head cold. Thankfully then, his lyrical contribution is as singular as ever. He shines a light on the dusty corners of a marriage; with a novelist’s eye for odd detail and a Soap writer’s awareness of pure emotive power. As I said before, marital disharmony is hardly new ground for The National – arguably nothing here hits as hard as ‘Slipping Husband’, a frantic song on the subject from the band’s second album – but they’ve never gone in at the angle quite so doggedly before. In the past middle age was a scary prospect, creeping around the corner, here it’s a living and breathing reality.

To compensate for the necessary dullness of what is being described – essentially a slow, mundane collapse of a relationship – Beringer’s language becomes typically colourful and unusual. His style is to mix stone cold realism with ambiguous surrealism, to leave the reader swimming in the contrasts. And so, for example, we get intriguing head scratchers like ‘for years I used to put my head in the speakers in the hallway’ and ‘no other faith is light enough for this place’, splashed in with the brutal, simple honesty of ‘I don’t need you, besides I barely even see you anymore.’ The overall effect is both disorientating and captivating – it’s what makes Matt Beringer such a unique lyricist.

He knows when and how to dial it back as well. The National have always been capable of delivering gut punchingly simple sentiments (‘About Today’, ‘Lucky You’, ‘Slow Show’, ‘I Need My Girl’), and here they do it with the album’s best song ‘Dark Side of the Gym’, a pretty tune with a refrain of ‘I’m going to keep you in love with me’. It’s a song about how quickly time passes – one minute you’re struggling to talk to the girl you like, the next minute you’re on the brink of separation. The ultimate message though is about perseverance and commitment, and The National remain the greatest embodiment of, and ambassadors for this idea. The small miracle is that after all these years, The National Still sound like The National. Altered a little perhaps but recognisable as the same band. Like the longest lasting marriages, they’re complicated, slightly unstable and built on a foundation of deep lasting love.

7.5/10

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The War on Drugs ‘A Deeper Understanding’ – Review

10 Sep

2014’s ‘Lost in the Dream’ was a nuanced, successful evocation of what Adam Granduciel had been hearing in his head, and trying less successfully to articulate with music, for nearly a decade. It’s predecessors ‘Wagon wheel Blues’ and ‘Slave Ambient’ were best described as promising, and ‘Lost in the Dream’ realised that promise in the most unexpected ways. That makes a follow up a tricky proposition, particularly when Granduciel clearly has such a precise idea of what he wants to achieve. He has no desire to divert from the formula that made that record such a success – moody melodies, crunching guitar solos, hypnotic synth drones under steady beats and extensive running lengths. So on ‘A Deeper Understanding’ he gains exactly that; a deeper understanding of what interests him musically and emotionally.

Or to put it another way, he’s still painting the same picture only this time the canvas is bigger, the brush strokes are broader and bolder and the colours, while largely the same, are brighter shades. This results in an album that is similar to ‘Lost in the Dream’ but equally successful.

Essentially, Granduciel is concerned with the intersections of feelings. The space where the past meets the present or love becomes loss. Or, as he puts it on ‘Strangest Thing’, ‘the space between beauty and pain and the real thing.’ Therefore this music is necessarily mysterious and unsettling. You never quite know where you stand or what exactly you’re being asked to feel. All that you know is that the feelings are strong nonetheless. Extended guitar solos convey exactly that mystery; they aren’t, like most solos, flashy exercises in technical wizardry, they’re direct and powerful personifications of uncertainty that nudge, dive, halt and grind in unexpected ways. In contrast, the reliability of the krautrock rhythms gives Granduciel something to kick against. The wash of synth arpeggios and reverb soaked backing vocals aren’t nostalgic indulgences, they’re ghosts – signifiers of a past trying to make itself heard and reconciled.

It remains difficult to express what is so moving about War on Drugs music. It consciously builds like fog rolling across a river and in its own way is just as hard to describe. One thing for certain is that it requires a degree of patience. You have to wait for the moments you love. The tension builds and builds across wide open spaces until it becomes almost uncomfortable. The release is astonishing. ‘In Chains’ is perhaps the best distillation of this. At nearly eight minutes long the song is certainly epic, but for large periods little actually progresses. This is what makes the moments of magic so compelling; the bright burst of synths three minutes in, the synthetic chimes at four minutes, The introduction of harmonies at five minutes, then the sudden ‘Be My Baby’ drum break at the ultimate climax before a harmonica wails at us from the distance. As the song fades it sounds like a Cure song, at other points it bounces off Tom Petty, The Boss, and Roy Orbison. But it never really feels like anyone but The War on Drugs.

Of course, they remain a divisive band to a large extent and if you don’t get it by now, ‘A Deeper Understanding’ isn’t going to change your mind. Their songs are still somewhat indulgent (the longest track is eleven minutes) and broadly sound quite similar. And if you were to participate in a drinking game where you took a shot every time they sang about darkness, rivers, trains, the road, lights, the sea, dreams or memories, then you would get very drunk very quickly (there’s one line in the final song where he mentions four of these things in a single line!). But even cynics are surely able to get on board with the shimmering pop of ‘Holding on’, the dramatic swells of ‘Strangest Thing’ and the sheer, jaw dropping, emotive ambition of ‘Thinking of a Place’? At some level, even in its darkest moments, ‘A Deeper Understanding’ is their most accessible record to date. It confirms to a wide audience what fans already knew – The War on Drugs are the biggest sounding, and one day hopefully the biggest, rock band on the planet.

9/10

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LCD Soundsystem ‘American Dream’ – Review

7 Sep

It’s fair to say that James Murphy gets a mixed reception in Lizzie Goldman’s recent tome on New York’s indie rock revival of the early oughties, ‘Meet Me in the Bathroom’. At different points he’s described as aggressive, naive, an underdog, a genius, a sociopath and a dictator. It’s probably nothing he hasn’t heard, or tossed around in his head, a million times before. Self awareness is the weight around his neck. But where he’s used it as a tool in the past (most brilliantly on the still relevant ‘Loosing my Edge’), it now drags him down to the floor. ‘American Dream’, his first album since 2011’s ‘This is Happening’, is a weighty, anxious, self conscious record that drags so much more than anything he’s released in the past but hits hardest when it trades in the irony for sincerity.

Of course it’s the album fans had no reason to expect. When Murphey called time on LCD Soundsystem after their triumphant Madison Square Garden shows six years ago, he’d done more than most musicians can dream of: and why not kill your band when its young, and leave a beautiful corpse? The trilogy of albums he’d put out at that point were an almost untouchable, impossible collection of dance rock hybrids that made good on two decades worth of singles, remixes, engineering, production work and general rock geek fandom promise. You could understand why he wanted to stick rather than twist.

But Murphey is nothing if not a rock Historian, and as such he will have known that very few farewell tours are ever actually that. Just as The Band eventually returned after ‘The Last Waltz’ and The Eagles reappeared with their ‘hell freezes over’ tour, so too, he must have anticipated, the day would come when he’d want to get his own band back together. If that leaves a general bad taste in some fans mouths (particularly after revelations that those Madison Square Garden ‘farewell’ shows were partly labelled as such for financial reasons) then that’s nothing that another classic album wouldn’t remedy.

In some respects it feels like no time has passed at all. ‘American Dream’ sounds like a logical extension of ‘This is Happening’s’ post punk and art pop leanings. Fans will recognise the skinny beats and stodgy run times, the array of vintage synthesisers and the cowbells. But there is a darkness that has crept in to the picture as well, belied by the tacky sunshine and blue skies artwork that adorns the front cover. It’s a darkness that isn’t particularly pleasant. On ‘Someone Great’ and ‘All My Friends’, songs with similarly heavy themes, you felt like you were dancing in to oblivion but on ‘American Dream’ there is no such imperative. Instead, you feel like you’re sinking slowly, or drowning, in to the depths. A change in tone and style was likely, necessary even, but the execution is too often cumbersome and laboured.

And yet Murphy remains a singular visionary. When he dares to venture down new avenues, the results are as enticing as ever. Opening track ‘Oh Baby’ is old and new at the same time. It begins with a trickling snare, before familiar synth arpeggios burst in, with James Murphey giving us his best croon to date. The song drips with a sweet sentiment that was previously only inferred from subtext. At first glance, LCD Soundsystem have aged into pretty romantics – an interesting twist. The subtle innovations continue on track two, the limber ‘Other Voices’, which feels like everything you loved about LCD Soundsystem with infinitely more mature funk.

In fact, much of the first half of ‘American Dream’ is impressive. ‘I Used to’ is slow to wake up, with a beat that drags itself out of bed, but eventually settles in to a groovy pop song. There are Post punk guitars thrashing about on the dense ‘Change Yr Mind’, that sound like absolutely delicious approximations of Robert Fripp’s work on David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ album. Amidst the dawdling rhythms and patient swells of ‘How Do You Sleep’ Murphey hits upon the albums most transcendent moments. The song is a none too subtle dig at former DFA co-owner, and best friend, Tim Goldsworthy, that looks back on a lost friendship with a mixture of sadness, resentment, jealousy, anger and repressed fondness. The rising drama is reason enough to justify the ten minute running time.

The tone sours considerably after ‘How Do You Sleep’ and the ideas feel less original and exploratory. ‘Tonite’ is a cheap rehash of any given New Order song that theories about getting old and becoming out of touch. Yep, you may have heard Murphy on that subject before – and actually he sells it most convincingly here, because he’s never sounded this old and out of touch before. He’s still tugging at the same anxieties: losing track of reality, and you friends. He’s still name checking obscure bands and still subtly shooting side glances to his knowing audience. He’s still struggling to get out of bed (literally). He’s still contemplating what comes next. If he sounded anxious and defeated before then that was never borne out by the music or melodies. On American Dream’s second half, he sounds positively defeated.

The most tiresome song on the record is also the one on which you feel Murphy stakes the most. The pretentious ‘Black Screen’ is a missed opportunity. It nabs the strong melody from Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘Sometimes, Always’ and reflects on the passing of friend and mentor David Bowie. The song cuts through the irony and winks with clear headed reflection and undiluted sensitivity. Ultimately though it meanders in to nothingness – a repeated motif of ‘you could be anywhere on the black screen’, dirge synths going absolutely nowhere for about five minutes longer than necessary, and ultimately a pulsating bass note, repeating into the distance. It’s a good summary of the album. It’s full of good ideas that are snuffed out by pomposity, pretension and repetition. ‘American Dream’ is not an abject failure by any stretch but it’s certainly not an equal of what came before.

2005’s ‘LCD Soundsystem’ started a conversation between the futurist pop of Britney Spears, the underground Bass music of the UK, and classic indie rock. It sounded important, relevant, in of itself and the world it existed in. ‘American Dream’ is far more insular, existing in a James Murphy vacuum. It does not attempt to engage with contemporary pop, dance or indie, instead it feeds off its own past, and the further past of the 1980s. For the length of time it takes you to consider this, ‘American Dream’ is a mammoth disappointment. Then you can kind of take it for what it is; an exquisitely produced, hit and miss, single minded, defiantly middle age statement on one man by one man. American Dream might be a stretch – but it’s certainly a James Murphey dream.

6.5/10

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