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Calvin Harris ‘Funk Wav Bounces Vol 1’ – Review

17 Jul

Calvin Harris’ recent run of fine form has been surprising to say the least. Earlier this year he put out the EDM regurgitation ‘My Way’, then a couple of months later, seemingly out of nowhere, came ‘Slide’, the Frank Ocean collaboration that bested anything contained on Ocean’s own ‘Blonde’. It was logical to look past Harris and credit Ocean with this song’s success – after all, this type of graceful melody and effortless vocals were already familiar to fans of ‘Chanel Orange’. Of course, appreciation was shown to Harris for coaxing Ocean out of his indulgent and pretentious phase and into making his purest pop expression in ages, but the plaudits went to Frank.

A month later came the Pharrel/Ariana Grande/Young Thug collaboration ‘Heatwave’ and it was suddenly harder to look past Calvin Harris’s own contribution. Of course Ariana sounded as beautiful as ever, Young Thug turned in his most memorable verses to date and Pharell’s Stevie Wonder impression was on point, but more than that, it sounded like a personal achievement in substance over style for Calvin Harris. Third single, and Future collaboration, ‘Rollin’, with its remarkably lucid (for Future at least) verses and catchy chorus, confirmed that the first singles weren’t flukes and Harris was indeed on to a winning formula. This is borne out by the album as a whole: ten largely glorious, lightly touched pop nuggets that sparkle in the summer sun. He described ‘Funk Wav Bounces’ as ‘feel INCREDIBLE’ music and it’s hard go argue.

The drops have been, err dropped, and the arrangements sound sleeker and more nuanced. Bluntly speaking, Harris seems less interested in dragging you to the dance floor and more interested in seducing the listener. The beats are less obnoxious and more slinky, the synths are less siren-like and more shimmery. True to the title, there’s a G-Funk lilt to the record that makes it the natural soundtrack for a summer barbecue. It’s not dissimilar to what Daft Punk achieved on ‘Random Access Memories’, if that album has ten ‘Get Lucky’s’ and less of the proggy detours. Every song is expertly designed to put a smile on your face.

Calvin Harris has given us glimpses of his true capability before: his often overlooked debut ‘Acceptable In the 80s’ was a fairly insubstantial but enjoyable blend of electro and indie influences, not dissimilar to what LCD soundsystem or Hot Chip were doing at the time. Second album ‘Ready For the Weekend’ was more forgettable; a 90’s house revival record short on nuance and big on beats. After that he transformed in to a full on chart monster, where shades and subtleties became increasingly difficult to find. Undeniable bangers like ‘We Found Love’ and ‘Dance Wiv Me’ lost impact when lined up alongside each other on the albums or a DJ’s playlist. For every ‘We Found Love’ there was a ‘What You Came For’, for every ‘Dance Wive Me’, a ‘Holiday’. As other producers became unfathomably infatuated with noxious elements he was largely responsible for popularising – the drop, for example – he started being blamed for the inescapable rise of EDM.

Maybe it’s this pressure to perform to a standard he set for others that has made him reassess his music’s purpose, but more likely it’s the realisation that big beat EDM ran its course a while ago. His last album ‘Motion’ was fittingly called because Harris really was going through the motions – and with diminishing returns (two songs failed to reach the top 10 – unheard of for him). Call him what you like but he’s always been an astute trend spotter and on ‘Funk Wav Bounces’ he wisely sidesteps the one he started in the first place.

Perhaps he feels that as he’s taken responsibility for his music’s failures in the past, he now deserves credit for its success. Therefore he rightfully makes a big deal about his exact role on ‘Funk Wav Bounce’. In the extensive liner notes he credits each and every instrument he personally played on the record – and there’s a lot of them. He’s also uploaded videos to YouTube, meticulously demonstrating how each song was constructed. One of the negative side effects of this promotion strategy is that it reveals the conceit and naked ambition behind each song. In its weaker moments you suspect that Harris has merely swapped one successful but tired formula for a more credible, but equally popular, one.  ‘Feels’, with a phoned in Pharrel verse and Katy Perry chorus, is too on the nose for its own good; Harris’ calculating intent suddenly feeling uncomfortably transparent. Similarly the Mark Ronson-aping ‘Cash Out’, with none too subtle appearances from Schoolboy Q and PARTYNEXTDOOR, and the vacuous ‘Skirt On Me’ with Nicki Minaj, try far too hard to attain Song of the Summer status.

But of course this is the bed Calvin Harris has made for himself – he’s ultimately only as good as the people he collaborates with. This must be grating. In pitchfork’s review of ‘Slide’ they barely mentioned Harris and dished all the praise out to Frank Ocean, yet if the song had failed you can guarantee where the blame would have lay. To most listeners, Calvin Harris is an irrelevance; a faceless musical manipulator who you wouldn’t be able to identify in a police lineup. But considering the amount of work that he personally put into ‘Funk Wav Bounces Vol 1’, you have to conclude that in future he will want more than that. He won’t want to rely on collaborators who will ultimately either steal the glory or ruin his instrumentals. He co-wrote, and was the sole player and producer, of every song here and has managed to make dozens of diverse talents sound like natural bedfellows whilst maintaining a singular aesthetic style. If you think that’s easy then listen to DJ Khaled’s sprawling and tasteless new album to see how badly it can go wrong. Make no mistakes, Calvin Harris deserves credit for ‘Funk Wav Bounces Vol 1’ and if he doesn’t get it then on Vol.2 he may decide on giving himself a more prominent role.



Lorde ‘Melodrama’ – Review

10 Jul

The classic disco acts of the 1970s had two aims, that often played out simultaneously: to make you dance and make you cry. This is a duality that Lorde understands explicitly. Her sophomore album ‘Melodrama’ references the act of dancing seven times, in a variety of contexts: literally ‘…on the light up floor’), metaphorically(‘…with the truth’), cryptically (‘…with all the heartache’) and as a unifying act ‘…with us’). Meanwhile the beats provided by a range of producers (including Lorde herself) are slinky and seductive, drawing you to either an imagined or real dance floor. It’s no surprise that this week she described the album as her thesis on the subject. Crying is mentioned just a couple of times, but the record physically moves you to tears at several crucial points. The dramatic coda of ‘Hard Feelings’ teases out unanticipated emotion from the line ‘I still remember how we’d drift buying groceries, how you’d dance for me/I’ll start letting go of little things till I’m so far away from you’. Her description of dancing with an imaginary companion on ‘Liability’ is equally evocative.

Dancing and crying are two things teenagers spend a lot of time doing, and this is an album that can be precisely called a coming of age record. Written during the dreg end of her teenage years, ‘Melodrama’ draws upon a house party and a break up as chief sources of inspiration. Her debut ‘Pure Heroine’ was a hook heavy, addictive record that inevitably saw the precocious 16 year old over reaching at a range of weighty subjects that were sometimes beyond her years. The best moments were the ones that drew from the most personal and universal emotions – the small town angst that informed ‘Team’, the growing pains of ‘Ribs’. On ‘Melodrama’ she draws exclusively from this personal experience, using a narrower palette to much greater effect.

‘Melodrama’ bests ‘Pure Heroine’ in almost every sense. Fundamentally Lorde’s writing is more ambitious, assured and confident, both in what she says and how she chooses to say it. Her style of singing is multifaceted – she sounds vulnerable one minute and on the warpath the next. Crucially, she is now living the subject matter rather than just commenting on or observing. The pain is localised and she is able to convey her emotion with clear control of mood and tone, which reflects in the music as well as the lyrics..

The production on ‘Pure Heroine’ was distinctively minimalist, which rendered key tracks like ‘Royals’ and ‘Tennis Court’ as sharp and unnerving, but made the less memorable final third a bit lacking. The tone shifts far more frequently on ‘Melodrama’, meaning that it keeps your attention from start to finish. Piano ballads like ‘Liability’ and ‘Writer in the Dark’ are placed carefully between four to the floor anthems and psychedelic pop nuggets. Occasionally Lorde flies a little too close to the sun; for example the blatant Kate Bush-isms in the chorus of the aforementioned ‘Writer in the Dark’ spoil what is otherwise a nuanced and daring song. For the most part though Lorde has produced an irresistible pop record that sounds like nobody else out there. Consider Max Martin’s response to lead single ‘Green Light’, which he described as ‘incorrect pop’. He meant it as a sort of back handed compliment.

The original French definition of melodrama was of ‘a romantic and sensational dramatic piece with a happy ending’. Lorde is certainly embracing romance and sensationalism in the final song ‘Perfect Places’ (‘if they keep telling me where to go, I’ll blow my brains out to the radio’) but it’s not really a happy ending – more a final epiphany. Life is a futile quest for perfect places that we are promised but will never arrive at. The album’s title ‘Melodrama’ hints at this realisation and also her perfectly timed self awareness that doubles as a defence mechanism. She calls out herself, and her complexities, before anyone else can. She does it throughout the album(most brilliantly on ‘Liability’). Teenage girls are frequently labelled as melodramatic because it’s the easiest and most efficient put-down at hand. Here Lorde goes some way to reclaim the tag for her own generation – not in a self defeating way but as an acceptance that an embrace of heightened emotion is a necessity for surviving your teenage years. It’s amazing that Lorde has the emotional intelligence to realise this at such a young age, and document that realisation on such a vibrant and dynamic record.



Paramore ‘After Laughter’ – Review

15 Jun

Paramore’s latest album, ‘After Laughter’, is on some levels the band’s most exuberant record yet. But its sparkly, shiney exterior is also a red herring; Paramore ask an interesting question – what happens when the laughter stops and could it be masking something? Despite first impressions, the album is challenging and deeply introspective. You can take the girl out of Emo but you can’t take Emo out of the girl. Contained in these pop nuggets are tear stained lyrics about a rising anxiety. The album opens with a typically forthright deceleration. ‘All I want is to wake up fine/tell me that I’m alright – I don’t want to die.’ The song’s Emo sentiments are delivered with a fizz, and the sweet/sour balance ensures the song scans as an upbeat summer anthem and not a morbid indulgence in depression. But make no mistake – this is heartfelt stuff.

From top to tail, ‘After Laughter’ is the most surprising album of 2017. I’ve long regarded Paramore as something of a joke. I dismissed them early on as a second rate, third wave Emo act. I tried again to get on board with the more tasteful ‘Paramore’ record but didn’t find anything worth sticking around for. Not that Paramore had any reason to be bothered by my lack of persistence; they have a large, loyal fan base who have stuck by the band through lineup crises, changes of sound and various controversies.

‘After Laughter’ is the consequence of all of the above. Gone is Jeremy Davis on bass whilst drummer Zac Farro returns to the fold after sitting out on the last album cycle. Upon quitting the band last time, Farro and his brother (guitarist Josh) posted a lengthy online statement that implied Hayley Williams had become a puppet of major label playmakers, who put pop goals in place of serious artistic progress. As if to shrug a ‘yeah so what’ at that point, ‘After Laughter’ is pretty much the pure pop album the Farro brothers had accused Williams of long wanting to make. It incorporates elastic grooves, twangy guitars and coca cola melodies that worm in to your ears. The clear pop punk influences of the past have evaporated almost entirely, leaving nothing but Williams’ twangy, southern accent as a reminder of past petulance.

Lyrically though, little has changed. Williams is a pessimist, to say the least – a justifiable position to hold but one that is exhausting to listen to over and over again. Here are just a handful of excerpts: ‘For all I know the best is over and the worst is yet to come’, ‘I cried till I couldn’t cry – another heart attack’, ‘I can’t think of getting old, it just makes me want to die’, ‘I just killed off what was left of the optimist in me.’ Yes, Williams truly is down in the dumps. Too often the lyrics indicate that she’s content to dwell in misery rather than confront it with any clarity or conviction. This can be frustrating. You end up agreeing with an ironic lyric on ’26’ where she says ‘man you really know how to get someone down’. Emo has always been self indulgent and whiney, that’s kind of the point, but you’re going to need a high tolerance for that stuff if you’re going to play ‘After Laughter’ on repeat.

One exception is the sophisticated ‘Idle Worship’; Williams’ tone is more reflective and her diagnosis more measured as she unpacks the fan/idol dynamic. ‘It’s such a lonely fall down from the pedestal you put me on’ she observes. ‘Grudges’ also feels more thoughtful. With a deft touch, the song tackles Williams’ relationship with Josh Farro and the bridges they built to restore a broken friendship. The song’s central epiphany is that problems are better when tackled in close company, with a healthy dose of humour. ‘We’ll laugh till we cry, like we did when we were kids, cos we can’t keep holding on to grudges.’ The laughter implied in the title doesn’t always have to be a mask – it can also be a remedy. That’s an argument also made by the music, which soars, fizzes and sparkles in a way that doesn’t allow you to dwell on life’s hardships. Who could possibly be sad when you’re having this much fun?



Harry Styles ‘Harry Styles’ – Review

16 May

Harry Styles is easy to root for. Whether he’s dating his way through Hollywood, buying pizzas for the homeless, modelling for fashion mags or staring in a big budget war movie – everything he does, he does with effortless cool. He’s one of the more loveable heart-throbs of his or any other generation, as countless teenage fans will attest to. But all that is rendered insignificant if the music doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. This debut, self titled album will be the true test of whether Styles has a shot at longevity and serious artistic integrity.

In the same way that One Direction diverted from the boy band cliches of matching outfits, lip synching and dance routines, they have also dispensed with break up tropes as well. When going solo, artists have typically trod one of two paths; the one pioneered by Robbie Williams, of the disgruntled bad boy wishing to unleash their inner rock star via unkempt power ballads; or the one created by Justin Timberlake, that of the formally angelic frontman wishing to unleash their inner sex God via slinky r&b. Not 1D though. For a start nobody, except the rather tiresome Zayn (who released a brooding and hook-averse album last year), seems bitter or unhappy with the One Direction brand. Secondly, each member seems intent on following their own path, not some stereotypical idea of what a pop star should do. Niall has hooked up with indier-than-thou singer songwriter Tobias Jesso Jr for a couple of smooth, acoustic jams that are pitched more for the mums than directioners themselves. Louis seems to be going in an EDM direction whilst, in the most unlikely turn of events, Liam Is readying a migos inspired trap album. Whatever the others get up to, there is unlikely to be any crossover with ‘Harry Styles’.

On his debut album, Styles primarily utilises simple, unfussy arrangements to highlight and compliment his soulful vocals. It’s remarkable how thoroughly he has progressed since enthusiastically but unconvincingly belting out ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ on an X Factor audition seven years ago. His range is impressive, whether tackling the falsetto chorus of ‘Sign of the Time’, the Jagger-isms of ‘Kiwi’ or the breathy croon of ‘From the Dining Table’. This voice is undoubtedly the star here but that effortless, timeless cool I described earlier is also important. Harry, who was in an Arctic Monkeys influenced school band when he auditioned for X Factor, grew up in an era of British music when the guitar, black skinny jeans, Chelsea boots and thoughtful, observational lyrics were in vogue. These are traits that he’s admirably stayed true to, even as they have fallen dramatically out of fashion. Because of this, ‘Harry Styles’ has the benefit of being so out of step with the times that it may actually sound new and unfamiliar to a young audience.

Considering that lead single ‘Sign of the Times’ had all the subtlety of Be Here Now era Oasis, it’s surprising how understated the other songs on ‘Harry Styles’ are. The album opens softly, with an acoustic balled called ‘Meet me in he Hallway’, which features only vaguely proggy background noises as accompaniment to Harry and a guitar. The album ends on a similarly sparse note, with ‘From the Dining Table’, a laid back moment of unguarded vulnerability where Harry pines ‘maybe one day you’ll call me, and tell me you’re sorry too…but you never do.’ ‘From the Dining Table’ is one highlight, as is ‘Two Ghosts’, which coyly references Taylor Swift’s ‘Style’ in both its lyrics and gorgeously heartbreaking vocals. The gentle percussion, and Harry’s fondness for warm, memorable melodies, suggests that he has less in common with a young David Bowie (as the pre-release hype hinted) and more in common with vintage Cat Stevens. No bad thing.

But before we get ahead of ourselves (and Cameron Crowe’s frequent references to the likes of Bowie, Queen, Beatles and Rod Stewart, in his recent Rolling Stone cover feature, was definitely that) we do need to remember that Harry Styles is still a young man of 23, and the sessions for ‘Harry Styles’ marked his first sustained stab at songwriting (helped, it should be noted, by seasoned pros like Kid Harpoon and Jeff Bhasker). That inexperience reveals itself in the flimsy choruses at the centre of ‘Only Angel’, ‘Woman’ and ‘Carolina’, not to mention the juvenile lyrics that will cause sensitive eyebrows to raise. It’s a miracle that in these hyper-aware times, nobody at Columbia warned Harry that opening one song by telling the female subject to ‘open your eyes and shut your mouth’ before telling her he couldn’t take her home to his mother ‘in a dress that short’ might not be the best idea. This is only one example of too many lyrical mis-fires to excuse.

It’s also exemplified in the way he liberally borrows from classic songwriting. The best tracks here are the ones where you can sense an influence, without being bashed over the head by it. The Beatles inspired riff and backing vocals on ‘Carolina’ are cute but the Blackbird inspired ‘Sweet Creature’ is a little too knowing for its own good. The Coldplay-esque melody of ‘Ever Since New York’ is moving but that central guitar figure is photoshopped directly from Badfinger’s ‘Baby Blue’. Then there’s the ‘Beenie and the Jets’ piano chords of ‘Woman’ and, perhaps most blatantly of all, the mimicking of ‘Amy’ by Ryan Adams – here repurposed as ‘From the Dining Table’, in which chords, melody, mood and even the prominent double tracked vocal technique are lifted wholesale (in spite of, or perhaps because of this, it’s my favourite track on the record).

‘Harry Styles’ is a flawed album, but show me a debut that isn’t. All these faults betray an undiluted enthusiasm and wonderment for the possibilities of Rock n Roll, glimpsed by a young man obviously unencumbered by any post-modern cynicism or hunger for a contemporary notion of trendiness (take note Zayn, Justin Beiber and Drake). We’ve all heard that the guitar is dead, well nobody told that to Harry Styles. (Without wishing to fall victim to Rolling Stone level overstatement) He may be an unlikely saviour but I think Styles has just beamed a smart and vibrant pop-rock album into millions of homes around the world. Who knows who’s listening, ready to pick up the baton. So yes, Harry has certainly passed the musical part of the test – and of course, he remains effortlessly cool and easy to root for.



Gorillaz ‘Humanz’ – Review

30 Apr

Over the past two decades and five albums, Gorillaz have created their own demonic, melancholic, star-studded world. If you’re already a signed up member, you’ll find a lot to love on ‘Humanz’, a typically madcap entry in to their discography. The tempos are faster, the grooves are slinkier and the sonic palette is more modern but it’s surprising how distinctively recognisable Gorillaz albums continue to be. ‘Humanz’ really does sound at one with ‘Plastic Beach’, ‘Gorillaz’, ‘The Fall’ and particularly ‘Demon Days’. There isn’t anything else out there that sounds quite like this. That’s even more commendable when you consider the vast quantity of guests Damon Albarn collaborated with – this time he hooked up with the likes of De La Soul, Danny Brown, Grace Jones, D.R.A.M and Benjamin Clementine.

Of course, as with past efforts, some collaborations bare juicer fruits than others (for my money ‘Strobelite’ ft. Peven Everett and ‘Submission’ ft. Kelela are the highlights, whilst ‘We Got the Power’ ft. Noel Gallagher and Jenny Beth feels like the biggest missed opportunity). The record well and truly runs out of steam after ‘Busted and Blue’, when the tempos slow down and the overcast mood becomes slightly too oppressive. It’s no shock to learn that when pitching the album to potential collaborators Damon called the album a ‘soundtrack for a party at the end of the world’. All Gorillaz records have been similarly apocalyptic, not to mention too long, too scatterbrained and too bleak – that’s part of their appeal to many fans, who will no doubt lap ‘Humanz’ up.

If this Is an imagined soundtrack for an end of the world party, then Damon himself plays the nagging parent, putting a downer on the vibe. Almost every time he opens his mouth he brings the mood down. It’s particularly noticeable on ‘Let Me Out’, where Mavis Staples and Pusha T’s synergy is interrupted by one of his typically lethargic melodies. This is similarly true of ‘Saturnz Bars’, where a usually irrepressible Popcaan gets dragged down by one of the sleepiest choruses Damon’s ever concocted. This disconnect between Damon and his collaborators is jarring, and the better songs songs on here are the ones where his presence is minimised.

Or indeed, brought to the forefront. The highlight of ‘Plastic Beach’ (still Gorillaz most well rounded effort) was the gorgeous ‘Melonholy Hill’ – essentially a Damon Albarn solo track. Here the equivalent number is ‘Busted and Blue’, a minimalistic number with a beautifully sad melody given an understated performance. The song highlights the album’s theme of disconnection (from political leaders and the world at large) and undercuts the cartoon group’s association with technology by emphasising real love over computer love. ‘Where do they come from, the wires that connect us…I can’t get back without you, be my love.’ It’s a message also reiterated in the album’s dying seconds when Damon reunites with his one time enemy Noel Gallagher’ to proclaim ‘we got the power to be loving each other no matter what happens, we got the power for that’. It’s an encouraging message that overrides the album’s prevalent cynicism, made more powerful because of Noel and Damon’s shared history. If those two rivals can build such a positive bridge then there truly is hope for all Humanz.



Kendrick Lamar ‘Damn’ – Review

24 Apr

Kendrick’s Lamar’s new mantra is ‘What happens on Earth stays on Earth.’ We hear it again and again on his impressive new album ‘Damn’ and it signals the clear intent behind the record. This is a knotted, spiritual album that acts like a clearing out of the junk of the soul prior to entry to a higher realm. The God frequently referenced on the album is the Old Testament God and Kendrick’s beliefs are not fashionable, evangelical or simplistic. He references curses, punishments and exile, and makes his sins (and their consequences) abundantly clear. Even more so than on ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, he’s talking from the depths of despair to a stained society. But ‘Damn’ was released on Good Friday for a reason, and thus Kendrick also gives glimpses of redemption.

In contrast to the opulent ‘TPAB’, on ‘Damn’ Kendrick goes direct – as if extravagant jazz arrangements and expansive funk samples are an indulgence we can’t afford in the Trump era. The truths delivered are sharper, clearer and pointed – the backdrops hit just as hard. Lamar is talking to a mainstream audience in language they will understand. The beats are thicker, harder and heavier. The samples draw more from soul and r&b. There are DJ scratches and drops that hark back to the late 80s, courtesy of the legendary Kid Capri. Nothing is unprecedented but that feels inclusive rather than disappointing; it may lack the musical flair of ‘Untitled Unmastered’ and ‘TPAB’, or the dark, distinctive atmosphere of ‘Good Kid, Maad City’, but it turns out Kendrick does old skool hip hop just as well as anybody.

To Pimp a Butterfly’ was structured around a poem that was revealed line by line in between the tracks. There is no such framing device here, although repetition is once again used to tie thoughts together. Samples of a Fox News debate about the social influence of Hip Hop are deployed throughout the record. One inflammatory extract comes courtesy of political commentator Geraldo Rivera who says ‘hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years’. Kendrick Lamar imagined this album as the most appropriate response. It froths with an anger and vulgarity that already has Rivera doubling down on his position. But equally there is unparalleled intelligence, imagination and integrity that you’d like to think would surprise the Fox News talking heads. The songs are sequenced to create a dialogue; they sing to each other. So ‘Humble’ follows ‘Pride’, ‘Love’ follows ‘Lust’ and ‘Duckworth’ follows ‘God’. All roads lead to ‘Fear’, the longest, most ambitious song on the record and the culmination of all the questioning and internal wrestling.

When Kendrick Lamar is at his best (and he’s at his absolute, fiery best on at least half these cuts) there is nobody in Hip Hop, Pop, Poetry or culture at large who can currently match him. Everyone else in the game should be exhausted just trying to keep up. Unfortunately, at times, Kendrick is slowing down and mimicking their moves – perhaps trying to let the crowds get a better look. On the (thankfully not included) stand alone single ‘The Heart IV’, Kendrick sounded out a siren call to the opposition. He’s clearly keeping tabs. And If he doesn’t call them out directly on ‘DAMN’ they he certainly tips them his hat. ‘Love’ is the worst offender; a diminished ode to such a grand topic that almost seems to say ‘anything Drake can do I can do better’. ‘Loyalty’ is another frustratingly slight and insubstantial song that features a guest appearance from Rihanna, who can’t muster a hook worth savouring. On ‘God’ (another title deserving of more than it receives) his casual drawl falls at the exact halfway point between Future’s and Young Thug’s. And I’m not the only person who hasn’t been sold on ‘Humble’ (alhough it is currently number one in the States). The song’s demanding, patronising tone has upset some feminists while his repeated use of the word ‘bitch’ in the refrain feels below someone of his intelligence.

If these concessions to mainstream tastes and lesser rappers are disappointing then they shouldn’t distract from what is largely a singular release from a true individual. Part of Kendrick’s talent is his vocal versatility – he’s always enjoyed trying on masks and subtly shifting tones, moods and his cadence. But he’s always best when he plays himself. On a physical level, nobody else could come close to matching the ferocity of Kendrick’s delivery on ‘DNA’, his sheer verbal dexterity on ‘XXX’ or the way constant rhymes and half rhymes trip of his tongue with such apparent ease (often flaunting natural onomatopoeia, assonance and alliteration in the process).

Back to that central masterpiece, ‘Fear’; what exactly is Kendrick scared of? Well, what have you got. He lists his fears in all caps on the track listing – ‘LOVE’, ‘PRIDE’, ‘LUST’, ‘DNA’, ‘DUCKWORTH’ (himself), and ‘GOD’. Mainly God. ‘Damn’, used as a verb, is something that God does. Damned, is how Kendrick feels. But closer to home, we live in a world where we damn each other as well. Constantly. Maybe one explains the other and vice versa. Kendrick is trapped in one such cycle. It’s a complex idea that Kendrick spends an hour unpacking. He contemplates salvation whilst staring down the gun of temptation; speaks of his sins in crude terms over explosive beats; preaches forgiveness whilst chastising enemies; Acknowledges his flaws even while flaunting them. He states it most clearly on ‘DNA’; ‘I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA.’ As I say, this album is Kendrick’s decluttering of the soul and an acknowledgement of his inherent (human) contradictions. It’s his attempt to come to terms with the ballers, Fox News, critics, gangs, God – but perhaps most importantly, himself.



Mount Eerie ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ – Review

2 Apr

Phil Elverum’s career has in many ways been defined by clear consistency. He has recorded music as Mount Eerie since 2003, the same year he married Genevieve Gosselin. Like waves that calmly lap on the shore, Mount Eerie records wash up every eighteen months or so, each one sounding roughly the same, and roughly as good, as the one before it. But any sense of consistency was surely disrupted in 2015 when Genevieve was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer, shortly after giving birth to a baby girl. Within twelve months, Genevieve lost her battle.

This is the difficult subject matter of ‘A Crow Looked At Me’, a record that chronicles the months before and after Genevieve’s passing in uncomfortable degrees of detail. It opens with the line ‘death is real, someone’s there and then they’re not’ and gets no less direct as it progresses. This album is an open wound slowly being healed by the air. Padding the autobiographical lyrics and simple melodies are unfussy musical arrangements – usually a guitar and tepid beat to just about hold things together. Most of the instruments used belonged to Genevieve. The album was recorded in the room where she passed away.

Over the last two years we have been gifted with some of the most moving albums about grief – ‘Carrie and Lowell’, ‘Skelleton Tree’ and ‘Stage Four’ to name just three. But even in this context, ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ feels unprecedented. Its insights about coping with loss feel poetically specific and universal at the same time. With what sounds like the most delicate ease, Elverum has crafted perhaps the definitive musical examination of mourning.

The passage of time – and its ability to simultaneously heal and exasperate pain – is a key aspect of this record’s framework. The narrative is roughly chronological; Elverum often counts how many months have passed since the death, as if crossing out days on the calendar. It creates a sense of momentum, only there’s never a clear sense of what we’re moving towards. Time is creeping on, the gap between the past and present is growing, but days, and thoughts, blur into each other. He never strays far from a handful of familiar chords and melodies, whilst he often repeats the same lyrics, scratching for some kind of revelation that will make things easier. The quietly tick tocking drum beat mirrors the seconds passing in half time, the barely there vocals strain for closure. This is the dull, thick fuzz of grief.

The songs often end with a simple, direct thought that expresses grief in the rawest terms possible. ‘I Love You’, ‘Death is real’, ‘how could I live?’ Art aims to convey real or imagined experience in the hope that it elicits some kind of vivid reaction and understanding. This is what mount Eerie achieve. Art that is as brave and brutally honest as this Is in some ways the most necessary, even if it happens to be the most difficult to consume. Of course, confessional art should not get a free pass simply by the nature of its candour (I am one of many who feel Sun Kil Moon’s haphazardly autobiographical lyricism is greatly overrated). There has to be a degree of craft and contemplation, otherwise what separates art from the glut of misery memoirs and tragic life stories that clutter shelves in book stores? But not to worry, ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ is the product of not just aching sincerity but also subtle craft and instinctive innovation.

There are many details of mourning that Mount Eerie manage to write about with real understanding. For example; Elverum spends much of the album seeking out and questioning signs and symbols. Contemplating if there’s any significance in the sound of a closing door, air coming through open windows, a fly buzzing around the room. Wondering if hundreds of Canadian geese on the beach, and later two Ravens flying towards the sunset, could contain any symbolism. In the final song he might finally have found what he is looking for. Hiking with his daughter, he hears the sound of a crow as they weave ‘through the cedar grove’. His daughter starts muttering ‘crow’ to herself. ‘And there you are’ Elverum sings cryptically. The record’s final line. The mysterious symbolism of the crow recalls the central metaphor in Max Porter’s recent novella, ‘Grief is a Thing With Feathers’, another piece about the grieving process written from the perspective of a young father. At points Elverum’s lucid poetry also reminds me of Sharon Olds, C.S Lewis, Mark Kozelak and John Darnielle. Yet perfectly, it’s also a distinctly unique album with no precident. ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ confronts tragedy head on and that bravery is rewarded. This is an album for the ages.