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Justin Timberlake ‘Man of the Woods’ – Review

9 Feb

The knives are out for Justin Timberlake, and have been for a while. 2015’s inescapable ‘Can’t stop the feeling ‘ was generally treated with scorn by mean spirited critics, despite being statistically the year’s most popular song. And even before a note of ‘Man of the Woods’ was heard, The Outline published a scathing takedown of the album’s concept, based largely on the presumption that Timberlake was ditching Hip Hop and r&b sounds in favour of more traditionally white ones. Such a simplification, and misreading, of the artistic thought process patronises Timberlake, his collaborators and his achievements. Yet such criticism makes headlines and appeals all too easily to a right on readership ready to shoot down easy targets. It’s not Timberlake’s fault that in the years following the mostly well received ’20/20 Experience’ he’s walked in to a world where concepts like white privilege, ‘me too’ and cultural appropriation can straight jacket someone of his standing before he even opens his mouth to sing. To many, Timberlake’s sin is merely existing and thriving.

But Timberlake isn’t interested in joining in a political conversation. ‘Man of the Woods’ is an insular, personal record about family and nature and contentment that shuns politics and the wider world in general. And as much as I’d like to offer this review as a defence of his right to make exactly the kind of art he feels justified (excuse the pun) in making, I’m afraid this is where I have to change tact. You see i actually agree that ‘Man of the Woods’ is a pretty bad album – just not for the presumptuous reasons outlined above.

Of course ‘Man of the Woods’ is as polished as you’d expect from anything involving Pharel Williams and Timbaland but it sounds more amateurish than any project they’ve been involved in before. Who knows the factors at play behind that – perhaps, and this may be a patronising ‘perhaps’ – they ceded more responsibility to Timberlake himself. Or perhaps after years at the forefront of innovation, they have simply lost the magic touch. It happens to the best of us. Regardless, the consensus is in and very few people are happy. Aside from the divisive themes and cliched production choices, it disappoints for more traditional reasons: Melodies that strain rather than glide. Lyrics that scan as pretentious rather than empathetic. Hooks that don’t hook. Busy arrangements that do all the heavy lifting. Songs that feel, and often sound, disjointed and badly fused. Songs have been missing the mark for these reasons since the beginning of time.

‘MOTW’ is thematically cohesive but backtracks on the daring ambition of ‘The 20/20 Experience’, arguably the most inventive pop record of the last decade. The 20 songs on that mammoth album stretched out to encompass many moods, tempos and styles with extended running times that allowed for both playful frolicking and serious reflection. He still tries to cram all that in to ‘Man of the Woods’ but everything feels shrunken in comparison. ‘Midnight Summer Jam’, easily the grooviest song on her, feels restricted just as it’s getting in to the swing of things. Likewise, mid album momentum is crippled by a handful of snoozy half-ballads. Ironically, it is a case of too much and not enough.

Sometimes in pop music, the sharpest hooks can dig out the biggest holes. That’s what happened on Timberlake’s ‘Justified’ where the insane brilliance of the four singles showed up the album tracks in comparison (a lesson he learnt on the hook extravaganzas ‘Future Sex/Love Sound’ and ’20/20 experience’ where there was very little driftwood). ‘Man of the Woods’ in comparison is full of holes, but these ones weren’t carved out by hooks. In fact the album is oddly short of them. First single ‘Filthy’ was forgettable, and best understood as an experimental palette cleanser. But then came ‘Supplies’, the most embarrassingly inept major pop single I can remember this side of the last Katy Perry album. The song’s cringeworthy extended metaphor highlights all of Timberlake’s most notorious shortcomings as a lyricist, and unlike, say, ‘Sexy Back’ or ‘Pusher Love Girl’, he doesn’t use humour or cheekiness to get away with it. The album’s lyrics are often trite, banal, silly, corny and even creepy. His pretentious performances determine the listener’s response, and these lyrics are treated too seriously by Timberlake to be dismissed as careless pop cheese.

You certainly can’t accuse him of burying the lede. Song titles are as ‘duh’ obvious as ‘Flannel Shirt’, ‘Montana’, ‘Livin off the Land’, ‘Breeze on the Pond’ ‘Man of the Woods’ etc but sadly this isn’t a particularly rootsy or raw album. Highlights from past records indicate that Timberlake could benefit from a more natural, instinctual approach; but with one or two exceptions the songs on ‘MOTW’ feel stilted by over-production. Stacked harmonies, glitchy effects, convulsing beats, layered synth-lines – they’ve always been a part of Timberlake’s sound but here they feel like the safe retreat of a heavy hand. The simple, soulful approach of ‘Higher, Higher’, the country tinged ‘Say Something’ and the funky ‘Midnight Summer Jam’ suggest a more natural, less manipulated sound would work well for the more mature pop star.

And despite all its flaws, there is the strong sense that there is a fine album in here desperate to be released. His concept, as badly realised as it is, isn’t necessarily a bad one. A through line between country, funk and r&b certainly exists, with an under appreciated history, and Timberlake has the talent to draw eyes and ears to it. But ‘country with 808s’, as he described it, is too reductive a rendering of that genre melding concept. In the end, despite intentions, ‘MOTW’ is sonically indistinguishable from what he’s put out before. And that’s the disappointment. He’s coasting. Making bold statements and claims but without doing the hard work to back them up. He lacks the style, subtlety and sophistication of his old guise but the back to nature aesthetic is equally unconvincing. The end result is a disappointing mess.

4/10

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The Shins ‘The Worm’s Heart’ – Review

6 Feb

‘The Worms Heart’ finds The Shins reimagining, reworking and re-releasing last year’s brilliantly life affirming ‘Heartworms’. You don’t need any excuse to listen to that great album again but ‘The Worm’s Heart’ gives you one anyway. It’s being presented as a sort of stripping back, and for all it’s inspired melodies and typically beguiling lyrics, ‘Heartworms’ did feel a little busy and overly complicated at points, as if James Mercer had spent too long at the stove faffing about with seasoning when the basic ingredients were tasty enough to begin with. It’s a point he conceded in a recent interview where he said ‘Me, sitting there tinkering forever and getting too deep into the details of things — I think that ended up with having some of the Heartworms mixes being overwrought. ‘The Heart’s Worm’ then, in theory, works as an antidote, and its highlights succeed for exactly that reason.

‘Cherry Hearts’, the most spazzy and distracting moment on ‘Heartworms’ is here more simply rendered as a straightforward power pop song. The melody, always engaging, now has the space to truly stretch its legs. ‘Fantasy Island’ works for similar reasons. The 80s influenced song has been stripped of its shoulder pads, double denim and wayfarers and given a more laid back indie pop make over.

But as on ‘Heartworms’, Mercer wasn’t able to suppress his overactive imagination or controlling tendencies for long – despite the best of intentions ‘The Worms Heart’ is actually considerably more dizzying and ‘overwrought’ than the original album. It skits uncomfortably from genre to genre, tempo to tempo, mood to mood, so that the effect is akin to being on the most unpredictable rollercoaster in existence (a simile that makes the album sound considerably more exciting than it actually is).

The original album’s track listing has been flipped so that it now opens with a slouchy version of ‘The Fear’, a gorgeous meditation on an ageing relationship that still feels like a closing statement rather than an opening gambit. ‘Name For You’, therefore becomes the big finale, and likewise it doesn’t really suit its new fixture, nor does the funeral march tempo enhance the song’s naturally bouncy melody or sprightly lyrics. ‘Painting a Hole’, already the weakest song on ‘Heartworms’ from a songwriting stand point doesn’t benefit from a bare bones stripping of the psychedelic sound effects and original, effervescent arrangement. These new versions are so misguided it makes you wonder how a songwriter as gifted as James Mercer could have so little understanding of how best to render his own material. Before ‘Heartworms’ the only time he’d self-produced was on the band’s debut, a muddy sounding collection of endearing but hardly demanding indie rock songs. That record was recorded quickly out of necessity whereas Mercer sat in his home studio recording ‘Heartworms’ and ‘The Worm’s Heart’ for literally years. The difference will be obvious to even the most casual listener.

But all things said, those songs were some of the most engaging indie rock tracks of the past twelve months, and even dressed in odd new clothes that still remains true. All in all ‘The Worm’s Heart’ may be a misguided album, but it’s an enjoyable on . At times in fact, it’s an absolute blast. ‘Heartworms’ slinky disco makeover is elastic and ridiculously catchy (but then the song was already pretty fab in the first place). The reggae-lite lilt of ‘Half a Million’ and the garage rock stomp of ‘Mildenhall’ offer fresh flavours even if they don’t best their original incarnations. ‘Dead Alive’ now has a haunting arrangement to support its eerie lyrics though its melody is stretched and slowed like a record being played at the wrong speed.

This kind of track by track breakdown and comparison is kind of pedantic and nerdy, which perhaps tells you all that you need to know about ‘The Worm’s Heart’ – it’s an exercise in production targeted mainly at The Shins hardcore fans. The kind of people who have spun ‘Heartworms’ to death and are interested in something new to dig their teeth in to. I’m here for that – just not massively impressed with most of the new versions. Which makes me wonder what an unencumbered listener would make of it, in the unusual circumstance that they would hear it before ‘Heartworms’. I can’t see anyone picking this up over the original, and nor should they, but if they did what would they make of it? My main question though, is what could James Mercer have achieved if he’d spent the past twelve months writing new songs instead of pouring over old ones?

6/10

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Star Wars ‘The Last Jedi’ – Review

13 Jan

(I don’t write film reviews often but I felt compelled to note down some thoughts on the new Star Wars film)

There are a couple of moments in ‘The Last Jedi’ where super villain Kylo Ren gleefully advises ‘let the past die, kill it if you have to’. Despite coming out of the mouth of the film’s chief antagonist, director/writer Rian Johnson seems to have embraced the instruction with almost perverse glee. This is a complex film that takes a fizzing red lightsaber to the past, and does more than chop its hand off. In doing so Johnson has made the most divisive and controversial episode in the Star Wars Saga. He takes many risks, some of which work and many of which don’t. Some of which are devastatingly emotional and some of which are just plain devastating. It moves the franchise forward by breaking it apart from what came before. It’s failures are many and varied but it’s achievements are perhaps more significant if Star Wars is to have life in to a new decade.

The primary criticism of ‘The Force Awakens’ (a fantastic if flawed episode in the series) was that it was TOO nostalgic. But the things it was nostalgic for – classic storytelling, charm and charisma, admirable heroics, practical effects, a sense of magic, optimism – weren’t things tied to any one time period, let alone a single film. Lucas was heavily influenced by his art school colleagues, Kurosawa, Flash Gorden, War films and most importantly Jung’s theories on archetypes and Joseph Campbell’s study of myths, ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’. Lucas was a student of storytelling. Johnson on the other hand seems to enjoy hacking away at these established modes of expression that influenced Lucas. This is symbolised early on in the film when Luke tosses away his father’s lightsaber. It’s played for cheap laughs but the scene symbolises, either intentionally or not, the seeming disregard Johnson has for legends, trophies and conventions. Johnson is in search of something less tied to mythology and expectation, something more contemporary and complex. That means working against a legacy that George Lucas carefully created.

The whole ‘medichlorean’ philosophy that Lucas designed, and the entire concept of a ‘chosen one’ are purposefully disregarded. Rey is revealed to be a nobody. Her parents were nobody’s. Yet she can, and will, lead the revolution. And here we have just one manifestation of the politics of Johnson’s vision: the democratisation of the force, where you too could one day be a Jedi knight. Any inherited authority, either by sense of personal entitlement or through destiny or a single family dynasty, is thoroughly decried and dismissed. Of course there has always been a political undercurrent to Star Wars – it swelled to the surface in The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith – but The Last Jedi explicitly toys with a grab bag of modern political anxieties – absent parents, multi ethic alliances, feminist leaders usurping man-child upstarts, mutant dictators exploiting the weak and vulnerable, and the flaws of capitalism. To some this will seem welcome, overdue, necessary even, to other it will seem like unfortunate pandering and misplaced, self righteous posturing.

It’s not just the politics that will be divisive. On a purely cinematic level, The Last Jedi is more underwhelming than its predecessors. I’d always had Johnson pegged as something of a stylist, yet one or two memorable shots aside, nothing really strikes a note of individualism. The psychedelic scene where Rey looks down a hall of mirrors and sees… herself, is a perfect example of where a visionary director could have left a mark. Instead the scene is laboured and uninspired, as much of the movie is for its often tiresome two and a half hours. Scenes involving space dog fights and grand explosions have the potential to dazzle but the effect is numbed by sheer repetition. The most stirring of these scenes is right there at the beginning when an unarmed resistance fighter sacrifices herself to release futuristic grenades on to the enemy ship. Every other space battle after this feels emotionally empty and redundant in comparison.

Where Lucas wisely used classical structures and proven character archetypes, Johnson anarchically undercuts and undermines the same tropes. The story is deliberately sprawling and convoluted to the extreme; it dovetails in to several unnecessary subplots that ultimately fizzle out. At the end you’re left wondering – what has actually happened? What did Luke and Rey ACTUALLY do on that Island? What was the POINT of having Poe and Rose go to that casino planet? Did we REALLY need so many space battles? It makes you yearn for the relatively linear plot lines of the original trilogy.

And in that sense, The Last Jedi has less in common with The Empire Strikes Back (the film it was initially compared to) and more in common with the episodic adventure format of ‘Attack of the Clones’. But whilst that film (up until now the most flawed and disliked episode in the Star Wars series) had the zany flavour of a Saturday morning cartoon serial, ‘The Last Jedi’, feels much darker and less generous both stylistically and tonally. For example; the intrigue of the Canto Bight casino planet is only briefly utilised. Before you know it the characters have escaped, and a dimly lit, unambitiously framed chase sequence is underway. Similarly, the visually distinctive planet of Crait feels under-used; compare it to the rich and rewarding landscapes of Attack of the Clones – the water planet of Kamino, the futuristic cityscape of coruscant and the deserty Tatoine. But the prequels sleek modernism is seemingly too earnest to be of any kind of influence on this director. A shame, as their undervalued innovations were more ambitious than anything seen visually in The Last Jedi.

So the film is technically sloppy, superficially unambitious, structurally laboured, politically divisive and tonally off balance. It’s also got plot holes that will disturb the anoraks (you could argue that every Star Wars film since Empire has) but more significantly there are things about it that will alienate the film’s target audience – children. The film easily drags past two hours, and because it opens in fifth gear (with one of several space shot outs), it struggles to build any sort of momentum. It rattles from one overheated set piece to the next until they all just blur in to one frazzled mess. Children will get bored quickly and often. The emotional intensity of several key scenes, adult themes and even, at one point, swearing, may also impede a young audience’s viewing. The dialogue is also far too knowing to sound like it genuinely belongs in the Star Wars universe. The wide eyed, stumbling sincerity of George Lucas’ intergalactic vocabulary is replaced by irony, sarcasm and detachment. The jokes frequently fall flat and even his attempt at cuteness, with the porgs, feels cliched.

Snoke, the one character from Force Awakens who perhaps should have set alarm bells ringing, is a hollow cliche of a 21st century Marvel villain, and he’s mercifully, if Ludicrously, offed about half way through the film. This scene leads to one of the film’s unadulterated moments of ingenuity, when Kylo Ren and Rey team up to defeat a group of rebel guards, in front of a dramatic, blood red back drop. The choreography is slightly stilted but the drama is real, and in that brief scene the ambiguity over Kylo Ren’s future is genuinely intriguing. But by this point Johnson has blurred the lines between morals to such an extent that any kind of decisive choice would feel hollow.

But for all it’s flaws, the actors in The Last Jedi do a tremendous job, almost without exception (Domnhall Gleason hams it up a little too much as Admiral Hux and Kelly Tran has a remarkably blunted impact as new character Rose). Carrie Fischer seemed out of her depth and flustered in the Force Awakens, but she found her feet and gave a brilliant final performance as Leila (we can just ignore the whole flying in space bit). Oscar Isaac is typically charismatic as ‘fly boy’ Poe, Daisy Ridley delivers a moving performance as Rey, and Adam Driver is truly exceptional at expressing Kylo Ren’s inner conflict.

The true star though is undoubtedly Mark Hamil. For all his dogged enthusiasm, he never really impressed with his acting ability in the original trilogy but here he is more than convincing as a reclusive, weary Luke Skywalker. Hamil should be praised even more considering he was essentially asked to butcher his own character’s moral code and optimistic outlook. The Star Wars saga, fundamentally, has always been the personal story of the Skywalker family, and so every scene involving Luke (except at points involving awkward, winking gags) feels like the convincing and necessary continuation of an old journey. The emotional push and pull feels real and moving. After all, Luke has been through a whole world of pain borne out by a constant cycle of loss. The despair he feels in the Last Jedi is a logical end point for a life of disappointment.

The final shot featuring Luke, looking out at, then collapsing under, the twin sunset, poetically mirrors a classic early scene from Episode IV. That initial shot was an expression of optimism, desire and hope. Here it’s used as a sigh of exasperation. I don’t think many fans would have wanted such a sorrowful end for one of the most beloved characters in cinematic history. Yes he’s being heroic and brave but he dies deflated, if not totally defeated, his belief system shattered, with a former pupil bringing the galaxy in to chaos. Essentially all the good work Luke and the rebels did in defeating Vader is undone. It’s convincing but there is the obvious argument that Star Wars has never been about realism, and Luke, the archetypal hero, was meant to be above all that. In fact, the whole world, or Galaxy, of The Last Jedi feels more human and relatable, which is one of the reasons it’s winning plaudits from the critics and perhaps one of the reasons proper fans feel so conflicted. Is it too trivial to say that The Last Jedi doesn’t feel like a George Lucas film? That sometimes it doesn’t even feel like it belongs in the same universe? These characters are relatable, their choices understandable, and their depictions believable but the shades in which they are drawn are perhaps too realistic, and therefore undesirable. In the trailer, Luke warned the audience ‘this is not going to go the way you think’. He was right.

But there is one more scene after Luke’s demise, one that restores some of the mystique. Two slave children, glimpsed earlier in Canto Bright, are staring at the stars, playing at being Jedi. Specifically, playing at being the legendary Luke Skywalker. By sacrificing himself, Luke has secured his future as a mythic hero; someone who didn’t bring balance to the force but whose hope, optimism and sacrifices influenced future generations who perhaps could. By putting this scene at the conclusion, Johnson shows that he does have an affinity for the same myths and legends as Lucas after all. He is a dreamer as well. For all its unnecessary moral, political and narrative complexity there is a pretty simple idea at the heart of this story; with persistence and a little belief, good will triumph over bad. In that respect it isn’t so different from A New Hope after all.

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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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