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The 1975 ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ – Review

26 May

31st May 2018 feels like a lifetime ago for a variety of reasons but it was on that day that The 1975 announced their fourth album’s title ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’. July 2019, still a lifetime ago, was when they dropped the lead single and reiterated that the album ‘had to be out’ before they headlined Reading and Leeds festival on August Bank Holiday Weekend. Now, nine months and a further six singles down the line, following two public delays, brexit, and in the midst of a global pandemic, we finally have the album. ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ is a messy, sprawling, inessant, contradictory, brilliant, unapologetic love letter from The 1975 to the 1975. This is either everything you love, or everything you hate, about the best, and most divisive, band of the past decade.

Sometimes bands give you more when what you really need is less. The 1975 are not one of those bands. I mean obviously they give you ‘more’ (‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ features 22 songs) but the ‘more’ has always kind of been the point. ‘Too much’. Often ‘much to much’. If In the past they’ve been able to cohere their various ideas in to something relatively tight, well that was probably more accidental than anything else. ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ is sprawling by design. It’s consciously a buffet. Its much too muchness is a reflection of the way we consume modern media. As a consequence, you will find The 1975’s heaviest songs plotted alongside their most delicate. Their most introspective songs alongside their most goofy. Their most experimental songs alongside their most accessible.

There are various musical threads that weave through the fabric of the record. George has developed into a sophisticated producer, and his forays into British bass music yield some of the album’s most inventive moments. From ‘Frail State of Mind’ and ‘I Think There’s Something You Should Know’s anxious, skittering takes on Garage to ‘Shiny Collarbone’s deconstruction of Dancehall and ‘Having No Head’s more obviously indebted homage to Jon Hopkins. A drizzly, late night atmosphere hangs over the album, particularly in these stretches, which compliments Matty’s self conscious introspection.

At the other extreme are a series of gleaming, lovesick guitar songs that ride major chords out of the gloom. ‘You and Me Together Song’ channels late 90s melodic rock to describe both the romance and the realism of being in an adult relationship. ‘We went to winter wonderland and It was shit but we were happy’. It’s one of the least adorned and affected songs they’ve ever produced and it gets you like a lollipop on a hot summer day. ‘Then, Because She Goes’ pulls a similar trick while ‘Roadkill’s sturdier, but no less sugary, take on the genre invokes the highs and lows of life on the road. Here Matty employs a rambling, stream of consciousness style to divulge way more than we needed to know about his ‘tucked up erection’ and the time he ‘pissed myself on a Texan intersection’. It’s not the only song to graphically describe his private bodily functions. The aim, if there is one, seems to be to demystify and deglamorise the rock n roll lifestyle. He is deliberately putting his screw ups and insecurities on show. ‘I never fucked in a car, I was lying’ is how he opens the glorious r&b flecked ‘Nothing Revealed / Everything denied’, skewering the mythic ‘Fucking In a car, shooting heroin’, line from arguably the band’s most iconic song ‘Love it if we Made It’. It’s an overshare, certainly, but reflective of how time and time again Healy positions himself in a candid and unflattering light to lower your defences. The album is ultimately, in part at least, a deconstruction of the rockstar ego. It brushes off any trace of excess or extravagance and hones in on something eminently honest and relatable.

Though the band do bury the lede somewhat. They use the opening two numbers – ‘The 1975’ and ‘People’ – to convey urgent social messages about climate change and political and social disillusionment. But after this the band spend the next eighty minutes looking inward, not outward. ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ feels like an elaboration on the topics first raised on 2016’s ‘I Like it When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It’ (it never gets old writing that). These songs are about feeling too fragile to step outside your house while seeking intimate connections with strangers over the Internet. They’re about falling in love with the wrong person and feeling uncomfortable at parties. About feeling like someone you don’t recognise and, sometimes, not feeling anything at all.

Matty can be pompous and melodramatic. At his worst he gestures at progressive values in a shallow way through a kind of virtue signalling. There’s the careless reference to Pinegrove on ‘The Birthday Party’, for example, and the obscure depiction of a gay Christian’s internal conflict on on ‘JC 2005 God Bless America’ (not to mention opening track ‘The 1975’, which is given over in its entirety to the well meaning but increasingly polarising Greta Thunberg). It’s not that these topics should be out of bounds, rather that he frequently fails to explore them in anything more than a superficial or glib way. But, for his faults, you could never accuse him of lacking integrity. Even in these moments, you can hear him ready to take a pin to his his own ballooning sense of self importance. It’s his sense of humour, as much as his sincerity and self awareness, that ultimately brings him back to Earth.

Better, and more abundant, are the moments of understatement and nuance. ‘Bagsy, Not in the Net’ is, as the title suggests, about a reluctance to do something difficult but necessary for the greater good. Here the lyrics present glimpses of anxiety in action. ‘Try it. Don’t like it. Leaving you here is the thing that I fear so I fight it.’ Similarly, ‘Then Because She Goes’ uses painterly abstractions to convey love’s young blush. ‘You are mine. I’ve been drowning in you. You fracture light again. Beautiful. Please don’t cry. I love you.’ The vocals are processed and flooded below thick guitar strokes which just adds to the sense of sinking. Best of all is ‘Playing on my Mind’ which bridges the gap to the stream of consciousness style of ‘Roadkill’ and ‘The Birthday Party’ with poetic restraint and concision. ‘I won’t buy clothes online cause I get worried about the fit / but that rule don’t apply concerning my relationships…oh these things they have been playing on my mind.’ ‘Too Shy’ (already the band’s biggest and best hit to date) carries this theme through to one end point; a distressed protagonist hunting down free wi-fi late at night so that he can have cyber sex with ‘the girl of your dreams’. It’s funny, it’s smart and it’s irresistible pop music.

I understand why some people call this The 1975’s White Album but that comparison doesn’t really stand up to close scrutiny. For a start, The Beatles and George Martin meticulously sequenced The White Album so that although it was a diverse assortment of styles and moods it never felt anywhere near as jarring as ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ does. Here the grotty punk of ‘People’ grinds against an actual orchestral interlude, which in turn gives way to an early 00’s UKG homage. There are no smooth transitions. It’s deliberately destabilising. Even more startlingly, the most frequent and disorientating clashes happen within the first half hour. Momentum is frequently and consciously repressed. Other than the aforementioned ‘People’, the album’s opening 20 minutes contain nothing of much forward velocity. ‘Frail State of Mind’, the weakest of the early singles, skips along on a fractured loop and sleepy melody. The Birthday Party has a similarly lollaping rhythm and is full of meandering guitar noodles, causal background chatter and a vocal track that almost seems to tumble out of Matty Healy of its own slinky volition. Amidst the above two tracks is ANOTHER ambient, orchestral interlude. And yet this opening section coheres so much better than it has any right to, building towards an absolutely triumphant middle third. Of course It’s discordant but that feels like the correct setting for ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’.

The album is loud and assertive; at times I wonder if It spreads itself too far, almost obnoxiously, like a city banker on a crowded tube. But in general, I’m enthralled at the audacity and bowled over by the band’s ability to pull it off time and time again. Only a handful of acts have ever had the ambition to attempt anything this wide reaching. But a little much is sometimes made of their stylistic sprawl anyway – this isn’t genre tourism; the band always bend sounds and styles into their own image, whether it’s garage, dancehall, emo, ambient or folk. It still ultimately sounds like The 1975. Anyway, you won’t venture for too long without tripping over a bright DX7 synth or a pin sharp guitar lick. For all their evolution they still retain that essence of the desperately precocious, 80s indebted guitar pop band that first released ‘Sex’. On this occasion they skew back to that sound most explicitly on the hopelessly nostalgic ‘Guys’, an endearing ode to friendship formed and sustained over two decades. On the back cover of the album, the four of them appear, in black and white, backs to a wall, propped up alongside one another. It’s a moving image to accompany a moving record. ‘Guys’ builds to to a climax where Matty repeats over and over ‘you guys are the best thing that ever happened to me.’ After listening to ‘Notes on a Conditional form’, you see exactly what he means.

9.5/10

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The Strokes ‘The New Abnormal’ – Review

16 Apr

It’s hard to fathom now, but in 1992 Johnny Cash was washed up. Past it. Ignored by the Nashville community, dismissed by critics, and forgotten by the wider public; he was feuding with his record label and recovering from numerous surgeries and addictions. Then he met Rick Rubin, backstage at one of his concerts. The rest, as they say, is history. Rubin recorded Cash with two mics, a guitar and an emphasis on his truth. Their ‘American Recordings’ set a precedent. Over the next couple of decades, Rubin would take established but beleaguered superstars and whittle down their sound to the raw essentials whilst amplifying everything that made them superstars In the first place. In the time since, he has performed this same trick on everyone from Neil Diamond to Metallica. It was only a matter of time before he turned his attention to The Strokes.

The successful results are not that surprising. ‘The New Abnormal’ is easily the band’s most focused and cohesive record since ‘First Impressions of Earth’, their messy but generally majestic third album. Rubin’s bright mix emphasises the core essentials; elastic bass lines, interlocking guitar hooks and colour crayoned melodies, while smoothing out the band’s zanier tendencies. On a technical level, It has an identity – something The Strokes have been haphazardly scrambling around for since since the muted reception to 2003’s (now clearly acknowledged) masterpiece ‘Room on Fire’.

The two albums that the band put out in the last decade had the whiff of low risk, low reward. ‘Angles’, a bouncy update of the band’s signature pop-rock sound, was the better of the two. It contained a handful of genuinely great throwbacks alongside some more adventurous curios. As good as it was, it sounded like the fragmented product of five individuals playing different songs on different continents. And there was some truth to that. Even more so, ‘Comedown Machine’ sounded laboured and lacking in focus. It half heartedly cast an eye down several new roads but seemed too lazy to set down them with any enthusiasm or urgency. They didn’t particularly promote either album, save for a smattering of festivals here and there, along with some bad-tempered press interviews that focused more on drug habits, fall outs and family dramas. It gave the impression of a band past the point of caring.

‘The New Abnormal’ then is initially notable for how much the band seem to care. They’ve spent the best part of three months promoting and performing. Press interviews are still a little awkward (in the LA Times this week, Casablancas generously labelled this his fourth favourite project that he’s been involved in) but at least they’re giving them a go. On the album itself are strong signs that they are once more a group of brothers on the same page. The band recorded together in the same studio. The songs are credited to all band members, rather than the individual writer. The gaps between those songs are filled with studio banter, laughs and musical asides. In an affected kind of way, it goes some distance to recapturing the spontaneous, casual cool of a band so desirable that even Alex Turner, one of the coolest men alive, ‘just wanted to be one of the strokes…’

Of course, they are never going to be that band again. No-one is. The disheveled hair has flecks of grey. The vintage t-shirts no longer fit. The disintegrating converse have finally kicked it. ‘Is This It’ was a once in a lifetime masterpiece. To spend any longer asking – was that it? – would do everyone a disservice.

And so I’ll try to focus on the things they do now that they couldn’t have done then. Julian has finally found his range on the wonky, weird synth numbers like ‘At the Door’ and he no longer sounds out of his depth when using his falsetto. Reviewing ‘Comedown Machine’ I complained that his grizzled voice was ill-suited to the taut, clean synth pop he seemed so taken with. On ‘Selfless’ and ‘Endless Summer’ he proves me wrong. He’s a more curious vocalist, taking melodies in unexpected directions. On ‘The Adults are Talking’ he is surprisingly subtle, giving off a sultry r&b vibe as the band click and pop around him. On ‘Endless Summer’ he skews from angelic choirboy on the verses to demonic garage rocker on the chorus. It’s easily his most adventurous turn as a Stroke, and unlike in the past where his experiments sounded stilted or strange, he is largely successful. In the background his band mates are more restrained, doing what they do, as well as they’ve always done it, but more inwardly.

It doesn’t always work though. Occasionally the songs crunch awkwardly, like car gears getting jammed on a long drive. Tracks meander aimlessly past four, five, six minutes as if the band haven’t quite figured out how to end them. Important structural decisions like this feel botched; Fab is audibly, and half heartedly, invited to join in on ‘Ode to the Mets’. Elsewhere verses splutter in to choruses and choruses jut grind to a halt. Perhaps these faults feel more jarring because of The Strokes being who they are – ‘Is This It’ being one of the tightest, most meticulously constructed albums we have. When ‘Hard to Explain’ stopped on a dime after the first chorus, it felt like essential respite rather than there being a lack of a better transition. When Julian shouted ‘stop’ in New York City Cops, it was an imperative, not a request.

It goes without saying that there is something quite fitting about The Strokes releasing an album called ‘The New Abnormal’ at the time of Covid-19. They have form of course; this quintessential NYC band released ‘Is this It’ the week that the towers fell. The Strokes symbolised the end of one era, as well as the start of something new. They drew so much from the past, from an old Manhattan that was being both destroyed and gentrified literally all around them, and set the tone for a new decade of rebels and artists that followed in their wake. This dissonance between yesterday and tomorrow is encapsulated in their sound – something Julian Casablancas once observed when he said, and I’m paraphrasing, that he wanted their songs to have the quality of cassette tapes buried decades before being discovered and played in the future. ‘The New Abnormal’ once again summons that quality. There’s a lot here to get nostalgic about; the metallic guitar tones – reminiscent of Thin Lizzy but EQ’d to the point of sounding like Tron synths. The sluggish downstrokes meshing with Julian’s anguished drawl on the ironically titled ‘Its Not the Same Anymore’. Even the terrible, faux-philosophical lyrics (‘you’d make a better window than the door’). But there is the sense of something risked as well. ‘The New Abnormal’ is adventurous and creative. It’s a reassuring dose of familiarity – with just enough that is new – when so much else is unknown.

7.5/10

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Dogleg ‘Melee’ – Review

2 Apr

The way that Dogleg put it, ‘Melee’ has arrived at the worst possible moment. In a recent tweet they wrote “already thought this year was starting off as a huge trainwreck before this mess and now seeing everything we tried to build up go down in huge fiery flames makes me ridiculously depressed.” The album was recorded over a year ago. A lot of time has been spent clearing the way, like a circle pit being prepared during the countdown. They couldn’t have possibly anticipated that Spring 2020 was going to be a write off. That their tour would be cancelled. That promotional opportunities would be flushed down the drain. That they wouldn’t be able to leave the house, much let do a radio session. But the way I see it, there is no better time for this album. ‘Melee’ is the gut punching, kung-fu kicking Rock album you need in your life right now. It’s a cathartic whirlpool of tension bursting because there is no where left for the energy to go. It’s an album about battling anxiety in a time of widespread anxiety. In this context, ‘Melee’ feels essential.

Like many of the best guitar albums of recent years, ‘Melee’ lives at the intersection between a lot of misunderstood and misrepresented sub genres. It has the whiplash intensity of post-hardcore, the heart-rattling sincerity of first wave emo and the melodic ingenuity of pop-punk. The band also cite 00s indie bands like The Strokes and Arctic Monkeys as influences, and you can hear it in the bright hooks and tasteful way they structure and arrange the songs.

It’s part of Dogleg-lore that the band will give free merch to any member of the audience that can beat them at Super Smash Bros. Nobody has. The band convert that button bashing proficiency into musical efficiency. The riffs come hard and fast; completed with the practiced intensity of a pro-gamer battling the final boss. The momentum is carried by a drummer Parker Grissom who pounds every snare as if his life depends on him breaking the skin or drawing blood in the effort. The hit that opens ‘Cannonball’, possibly the album’s most vivid performance, sounds like a bullet being smacking the air.

The velocity never lulls – when the relentless onslaught of noise is occasionally paused, the silence is pierced by feedback or shouts that ring like battle cries. There are no slow songs and little sonic, rhythmic or musical variation. The closest they come is on ‘Cannonball’ where an acoustic chug briefly intercedes the noise before a choir of screams reset the status quo. Strings are introduced on ‘Ender’  at the very back of the album as a kind of curtain call but by then the damage to your eardrums has already been done.

The mix is fiery hot. You can almost feel the guitars vibrate. The vocals are mixed sensibly low to the point that you can frequently can’t make out what singer Alex Stoitsiadis is saying. A few choice affirmations do rise above the noise though: ‘will you be the fire or the wind?’, ‘time will let you down’, ‘I know it’s just you and me’, ‘I’ll keep it in my head, every increment.’ Stoitsiadis is no poet. His writing is vague and non-committal at best. But he’s able to summon incredible intensity with the limited tools at his disposal. The sentiments behind his words are carried by his raw and loud vocal performances.

Beyond the throat shredding, guitar thrashing and Nintendo references, lies a collection of burning heart on sleeve confessionals. Cryptic highlight ‘Fox’ finds Stoitsiadis floundering inside his own head, unable to articulate the thoughts that are ‘pressing against’ his skin. As the song rattles towards its end he exposes his deepest concern: ‘Any moment now I will disintegrate.’ On an album that hurtles around musical and emotional corners at a frightening pace, it’s a constant surprise that Dogleg don’t disintegrate. In spite of the odds, ‘Melee’ is a brilliantly triumphant rock record for 2020.

9/10

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Vampire Weekend ‘Father of the Bride’ – Review

11 May

On the cover of ‘Father of the Bride’, Vampire Weekend’s first album in six years, the earth is represented as a cartoonish symbol, offset by the striking whiteness of the background and a corporation logo for ‘Sony Music’. There is a song, ‘Unbearably White’, that elaborates on this tussle between nature and the bright, white hum of the digital environment we’ve created. ‘Presented with darkness, we turn to the light’ argues Ezra Koenig. But it’s the blinding light of computer screens, mobile phones and televisions that he’s referring to. In Ezra’s vision, nature will fight back. ‘There’s an avalanche coming…’ The album itself is populated by digital noise, electronic gargles and processing but these sounds are superseded by crickets chirping, frogs ribbeting and birds singing. In the liner notes, Father of the Bride is dedicated to planet earth, and in interviews Ezra has described being nostalgic for a Nineties brand of environmentalism and the Sega Mega Drive game ‘Ecco the Dolphin’. If their last album, ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ exuded an anxiety very specific to being in your late 20’s and living in NYC, then ‘Father of the Bride’ is about reengaging with nature, in a way that approximates hope. There is a freedom and relief to this. It’s like the soft exhalation after holding your breath. The smell of wet pavements after a storm.

Both the opening and closing tracks open with Ezra singing ‘I know’, but his wisdom isn’t borne from a knowledge of what is certain; rather an acceptance that some things aren’t, and will never be certain. ‘Father of the Bride’ has a certain calm stoicism that marks it out from its predecessor in a way that is unexpected considering how tightly wound and preoccupied with the passing of time, that album sounded.

It doesn’t start off this way. The record opens with wedding day drama – a bride uncertain of whether to stay or go – and this sense of quandary carries through to ‘Harmony Hall’, which establishes a theme of individuality vs group think. In this vision, the more that people harmonise the less articulate the message becomes. Individuals become lost in the crowd. ‘Wicked snakes’ are revealed. The song’s most memorable line is perhaps the most universal catch-22 of all – ‘I don’t want to live like this, but I don’t want to die.’ It’s a call for the freedom and peace that the rest of the album responds to.

This idea is returned to on the album’s pretty closer ‘Jerusalem, New York, Berlin’, where Koenig meditates on another heady concept – heritage. In particular, his heritage as a Jew, raised in New York, living in the shadow of both Berlin and Jerusalem. Like Harmony Hall, It’s loosely about lending your voice to that of the crowd until you eventually lose your sense of individual identity. Sometimes you can surrender yourself to a bigger idea that ultimately can’t save you, whether it’s religion (as represented by Jerusalem), culture (New York) or politics (Berlin): ‘You’ve given me the big dream but you can’t make it real’. It’s a song that acknowledges both dream and disaster and holds them along side each other as colours on the same spectrum. It asks the questions and provides no answers, with an acceptance that maybe there is no answer, just an ‘endless conversation’. On the boyunt ‘Stranger’ he puts it another way – ‘I used to look for an answer, I used to knock on every door / but you’ve got the wave on, music playing, don’t need to look anymore.’

‘Stranger’ is a self-assured riff on maturity. In every sense it exudes a confidence that only comes with experience. If before Vampire Weekend sounded like a band constantly searching for an itch to scratch, then the opposite is true on ‘Father of the Bride’ and its ‘tasteful palette’ of sounds. Warm horns and lush sprinkles of piano tickle the edges of the track and – of everything on the album – ‘Stranger’ in particular lifts the band to a higher level of serenity. The song details a cozy night at home, with Ezra listening to his wife and sister in law having a conversation downstairs. ‘I’ve left those wilding days of old, your house is warmer, the wilderness is cold.’ Some fans might miss the frenzied energy of Vampire Weekend’s early work or the rattling anxiety of ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ but few could argue with the largely content place they’ve now settled in. 

It’s definitely the baggiest they’ve ever sounded. The freshly pressed slacks are splattered with pricks of mud. The crisp, button down Oxford shirt has wrinkled and come untucked. The fringe has fallen below the eyebrows. It’s the sound of a band who are assured enough to allow their rigorous standards to slip ever so slightly but have the confidence to pull it off.

And after six long years away, it’s only fitting that Vampire Weekend return with an ambitious set of eighteen songs. Springsteen’s ‘The River’ has been cited as the model; a double album with a sense of thematic unity and cohesion rather than the sprawling, say yes to every idea approach of ‘The White Album’. Amidst this comfortable confidence is the sense that Vampire Weekend have never tried this hard before. Despite its length and strong sense of adventure, the mix is crisp bright and poppy; Ariel Reichsted is behind the boards, sharpening the hooks and generally making sure every diverse sound is blended in a nuanced way. As a consequence, the production is decidedly less idiosyncratic than Rostam’s used to be but also more accessible. In fact, the album is accessible on every other front as well. Ezra has largely dispensed with the expensive adjectives and exotic proper nouns that rippled through his older work. He still dances around the point, and his songs continue to be rich in allusion and metaphor, but usually there is a discernible message that might once have been cloaked or concealed.

The aspirational sophistication of the band’s early days lingers in the finer details – such as the baroque piano breakdown in ‘Harmony Hall’ and the combination of formal strings and Palm Wine guitar on ‘Rich Man’. But generally the references are more 20th century American. Several of the songs closely resemble the middling pop-rock of AM radio in the mid 70’s – Fleetwood Mac , Paul Simon, Carole King etc while a jammy middle stretch of the album has reminded a lot of people of Phish and Grateful Dead (references which admittedly go over my head I’m afraid). It’s the most collaborative album the band have made, featuring guest appearances both subtle (DJ Dahi, BloodPop®, Rostam) and immediately obvious (guitarist Steve Lacy of The Internet, and Danielle Haim). All of them pay off and compliment the generous, indulgent tone that the record strikes.

As a double album, ‘Father of the Bride’ is understandably imperfect. Three (three!) country duets with Danielle Haim is probably overkill (I myself could do without the slightly disingenuous ‘We Belong Together’ which is little more than a genre exercise without the necessary sincerity). The back half of the record feels a little lumpy at points, lagging with the inoffensive ‘Rich Man’ and ‘My Mistake’, both of which are more mood boards than songs. But you’re more forgiving of low points on a double album and in some ways it adds to the record’s baggy, indulgent charm.

In a recent interview Ezra said “After you make the black-and-white album cover with the songs about death, you can’t go deeper. This is the life-goes-on record.” Like the sunflower that grows in the morning, the Flower Moon that shines out of the darkness, or the protagonist in ‘Big Blue’ who finds solace in the beauty of the ocean during a particularly difficult time – Vampire weekend have survived and adapted after great uncertainty. This recurring theme becomes most clear on the penultimate track ‘Spring Snow’ where the sun melts the snow and ‘bells start to ring.’ The song’s reference to seasons passing and ‘the end’ suggests that the ticking doubts haven’t completed cleared from Ezra’s mind – after all, snow will fall again next winter – but for the moment that bed is cozy and the view outside is beautiful. Once again on ‘Father of the Bride’ man surrenders to the glorious, inevitable will of nature. And it sounds delightful.

9/10

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The Drums ‘Brutalism’ – Review

17 Apr

Back in 2009 ‘Let’s Go Surfing’ carried The Drums on a wave of hype that anticipated greatness. Both NME and Pitchfork, rarely united on anything at the time, crowned them ‘Best new band’ at the end of the year. In retrospect the song presented The Drums at their most accessible and least likely. Its wide screen romance is emblematic of their early output but the airy light-heartedness would not be easily replicated. In contrast to the reputation they’ve built since, as dour miserabilists, the track stands apart. Indeed, few songs smack of 2009 Obama-optimism as much this exhalation of ocean breeze. ‘There’s a new kid in the town, he’s gonna make it all better’ Peirce convincingly crooned. Ten years on, the folly in blind belief in an incumbent president is clear to see. But even now, listening to the carefree whistles and twanging bassline, it’s easy to get swept back up in that feeling for three and half minutes. Emotional escapism – whatever the emotion – has always been The Drums calling card. Which makes their latest trick all the more impressive; to maintain that glorious, escapist feeling while wading in to the territory of brutal self examination, hyper specific lyricism in the context of America, 2019. ‘Brutalism’ is therefore, in every conceivable sense, The Drums most daring album to date.

That sense of optimism captured on ‘Let’s Go Surfing’ certainly isn’t replicated but neither is the crushing pessimism of ‘Portamento’, ‘Encyclopaedia’ or ‘Abysmal Thoughts’. Instead, there is now a stoicism, borne from experience and increasing understanding of how the world works. On ‘Pretty Cloud’ Pierce glories in the unpredictability of love for another, equally impulsive individual, whether that brings sun or sorrow. ‘I am blisful in whatever you give me. I lean on the mystery…’ whereas a decade ago he was fretting about how he was ‘going to make you mine’ he now seems certain that ‘good luck and a good fuck, a glass of wine and some quality wine is going to make you mine.’

The Drums mythic romanticism and cinematic despair has been usurped by an almost zen-like ‘que sarà confidence. Jonny is at peace with his happiness and his sadness. He embraces his sexuality and desire. The mean spirited bitterness that soured some of his past writing has matured in to something like acceptance. The contentedness that exudes from the lyrics is perfectly complimented by the musical forthrightness. Sampled drums no longer get drowned in reverb. Instead, crisply programmed beats trickle loudly in the mix. The bass lines also get projected. Real chords consistently flow from the guitars for the first time on a Drums album and every sound coalesces together very neatly in to a polished pop whole. Compared to the lo-fi production and simplistic musicality of the group’s early work, ‘Brutalism’ sounds modern and glorious. None of the band’s personality is lost in the process either, if anything it’s an elevation of everything that marked them out as unique.

Pierce is still a romantic at heart, the type of sap who ‘bet my life on one kiss’, as he puts it in the title track. But this time around there is an understanding that the highs and lows of life approximate two sides of the same coin tossed by the hand of fate. On ‘Brutalism’ and ‘262 Bedford Avenue’ desire might lead to heartbreak, but it’s pursued anyway as an end within itself. The happiness described on the album finale ‘Blip of Joy’ may be temporary but it’s there to be cherished for the time it lasts. Jonny’s voice is as gooey as ever. He’s still coo-Ing and harmonising with himself, still reaching for notes ever so slightly out of reach, still sounding giddy at the possibilities of love and melody. In the heartbreakingly stark ‘Nervous’ he presents his most sophisticated and honest vocal performance to date, honing in on the particulars of a post-break up reunion with total clarity. ‘I Wanna Go Back’ is similarly moving, conjuring memories of the classic ‘Book of Stories’. The hooks may not as be as sharp, and the chorus doesn’t linger in the memory quite as potently, but the nostalgic sentiment is utterly moving.

Essentially ‘Brutalism’ is a colourful explosion of everything The Drums have always prided themselves on: sticky melodies, simple arrangements and vivid emotion. It’s firmly rooted in the tradition of indie pop but sounds less tethered to the sometimes cloying conventions of the genre. It’s also less tethered to the set of conventions The Drums created for themselves a decade ago. But the experimentation feels playful and sincere. Crucially, these still sound like Drums songs. Compared to the lumpy and awkward diversions of the band’s other left-field experiment, ‘Encyclopaedia’, ‘Brutalism’ feels like a more natural progression. It confirms once again, if it needed confirming, that The Drums are a group to treasure and one of the most inexplicably underrated bands of the decade.

8.5/10

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Leaving Neverland – Review

16 Mar

This month a new film premiered on HBO/C4 that presented old accusations against Michael Jackson in a new context. Wade Robson and James Safechuck, discredited former friends of MJ’s, have rehashed old, lurid accusations but presented no evidence or corroboration. They first made their claims – that Jackson persistently groomed and molested them over a period of years – in 2013/14 (Safechuck only approached Robson’s lawyer months later after hearing about the case on TV), when they tried to sue the Michael Jackson estate for 1.5 billion dollars. Now, following the wave of revelations about R. Kelly, Jimmy Saville, Rolf Harris and many, many others, these claims are being brought back to the surface in the form of a TV documentary and the public are suddenly more predisposed to give them credence. ‘Believe the victims’ is fast replacing ‘innocent until proven guilty’ as the maxim of choice when it comes to cases like this. However that is almost certainly an unhelpful approach. What is really needed is clarity, caution and context. We shouldn’t dismiss the allegations out of hand or shut them down, but we should hold them up to intelligent, critical scrutiny. After all, there is a lot at stake for everyone involved.

Leaving Neverland fails to do the above at every turn. It presents shocking accusations but fails to interrogate them. Only Safechuck, Robson and their families appear in this four hour film, where these trained performers, and Robson in particular (self proclaimed ‘master of deception’), have ample time to emotionally manipulate their audience. We get close ups of strained faces, telling stories that have been rehearsed and researched over years (incidentally, these stories have changed – or ‘evolved’ as Robson puts it – multiple times in that period). Sweeping orchestral music plays underneath evocative shots of Los Angeles. Heavily edited footage of Jackson is cut out of context and shown alongside the men’s testimonies to present him in the worst possible light. If you aren’t savvy to the techniques being used by the director, it is easy to get swept up in it all.

This is frustrating for people who have, for years, been studying Robson and Safechuck’s very serious allegations. In reality, what they have to say isn’t half as persuasive once you study their motives, personal characteristics and other important contextual factors. But the other side of the story isn’t really explored in ‘Leaving Neverland’, other than providing a couple of Jackson’s on screen rebuttals that weren’t even rebuttals to this particular case. Leaving Neverland is a openly one sided, unfair portrayal that we have every reason to contest. As a journalistic enterprise it falls way short of the standards we would expect. As a film it’s overlong, indulgent and exhausting. As a piece of propaganda however, it’s more successful, to the extent that it’s seemingly convinced a lot of critics and viewers. Nonetheless there are, even in people who have no prior knowledge of the accusations, reasonable suspicions. Most of the people I have spoken to who have seen the film have come away either mildly put out and conflicted, or totally disbelieving of what is being alleged. Anecdotally, I’ve heard of very few people IRL who have been swayed by what they’ve seen and heard in the film.

At the heart of this movie are two conflicting accounts. That of the accusers, and that of Jackson. Ultimately I think, and in the absence of conclusive evidence either way, it’s a question of who to believe. Having studied Jackson’s life and work at some length for the past two decades (I completed my dissertation on the subject at university) I came to the film knowing some important information. I knew, for example, that Jackson was tried in 2005, and found innocent by a strong willed jury comprised mainly of white, conservative mothers who in their closing statement asked the record to state that they came to the verdict ‘confidently’. Although like any lengthy court case, it was a complex affair, even a quick close reading of the court documents and countless testimonies provided will reveal why. In a trial expected to last up to a year, they’d wrapped things up convincingly in under five months. To be clear, this wasn’t an example of a rich celebrity buying justice – Tom Messerou, MJ’s talented lawyer, was undoubtedly persuasive but he has a history of working in impoverished black neighbourhoods and Michael was his first real celebrity client. He battled a sea of media bias and public disapproval. If anything a jury would have been predisposed to disbelieve Jackson. No, he was acquitted because the evidence showed he was innocent.

Prior to this trial, more accusations had been made by a boy named Jordy Chandler. Again, a whole book could be written on these allegations but, to summarise, they also didn’t stand up to close scrutiny. In this instance, Jackson (or more precisely, his insurers) settled the civil case for millions of dollars – an act that he came to regret. To the general public a settlement appeared to be as good as a confession of guilt. It wasn’t as straightforward as that though. Of course, you can’t just pay off accusations of child abuse and so the settlement didn’t effect the criminal case, which was resolved shortly afterwards (Jackson wasn’t even indicted by the two Grand juries that looked in to the case). For the record, Jackson wanted to fight and clear his name but simply wasn’t allowed. The settlement was explicitly NOT an admission of guilt.

Prior to the current cases, these are the only two serious claims that have been made against Jackson. Yes, gossip and salacious tabloid stories aside, only two of the countless children in Jackson’s life have ever made accusations. In fact dozens and dozens have defended him and continue to do so. In addition to this, the FBI assisted with investigations involving Jackson dating a twelve year span. Over 300 pages of public record documents are available that consistently support Jackson’s innocence. Some of these documents record details of the house raids that took place in the early 00’s. in 2004, for example, 86 officers, in one of the largest (if not the absolute largest) police raids in Californian state history, searched Neverland and Havenhurst, Jackson’s family home, where they examined the content of several computers, video libraries and a collection of 20,000 art books. The precise details of what they found are all detailed at length on other websites, but needless to say NOTHING of interest was found. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. This word appears time and time again in the FBI documents.

Of particular importance, Jackson’s internet search history, dating back to 1998 revealed that he had never searched for inappropriate material. It did show a healthy interest in heterosexual, legal pornography (a list of the websites he visited can be found elsewhere) but in all that time he never once attempted to seek out child pornography. I’m not an expert, but that strikes me as atypical behaviour for an alleged pedophile.

It was with this knowledge, yet trying to keep an open mind, that I started to explore the claims being made by Wade Robson and James Safechuck.

Wade Robson is the more suspect of the two accusers. Watching him talk in interviews, You get a sense of the tenacity and showmanship that allowed him to flourish in the Entertainment industry. Some important context, that is only hinted at in the film, is that prior to appearing in the documentary, Robson attempted to sue the estate (in a civil, rather than criminal, case) for 1.5 Billion rollers. In one hearing, the judge said he’d lied so many times under oath that ‘no rational juror’ could believe him. Being selective with the truth is something that colleges and ex-girlfriends also noticed over the years. For a man who, according to the film, lacked confidence, he made the surprisingly bold move of having an affair with Britney Spears, breaking up her relationship with Justin Timberlake – hardly the action of a shy wall flower. Of course that doesn’t have a particular bearing on these allegations, but it does at least suggest that he’s capable of deception.

Before Robson’s lawsuit was kicked out of court (an appeal is currently ongoing, pouring scorn on to the idea that Robson has ‘no financial motive’) he shopped around a book that no publisher picked up. He’s also sold his stories for TV and magazines. Several high profile celebrities have gone on record to state they have been offered hundreds of thousands to be critical of Jackson on camera. One can only imagine the numbers Robson and Safechuck are being offered now, by a media industry that is estimated to have lost billions when Jackson was acquitted in 2005.

At the turn of the decade, Robson suffered a mental breakdown, which in Robson’s own words, was a result of work stress and family pressure. This wasn’t his first breakdown, or his first time in therapy, but it was the first time he brought up the allegations against Michael Jackson – allegations that he had always strenuously denied, as a grown man, even in a court of law, under oath, in front of a hard faced jury and one of the most infamous prosecutors in America. So what had changed?

In 2012 Robson put himself forward for a high profile role as choreographer for Michael’s cirque de solie show, and was, to a small extent, strung along before being unceremoniously rejected in favour of a more experienced dancer. Robson no doubt felt hurt and disappointed – by his own account, he had seen the gig as a dream job and the fulfilment of a prophecy Michael had given him as a child. This rejection also added to the considerable financial burden of maintaining a Hollywood lifestyle he had become accustomed to. He sold most of his MJ memorabilia for thousands of dollars shortly after this (a fact he tried to hide from public record) but that was only a short term solution. Robson was categorised by one psychologist at this time as being OCD, with a family history of depression and suicidal tendencies, and one can only guess at what went through his head at this trying time in his life.

The other accuser, James Safechuck, was not involved in the 2005 trial – a judge wouldn’t allow testimony from him for technical reasons, so he was never approached by Jackson’s legal team (despite what he has since said to the contrary). Less is known about Safechuck, who has largely avoided publicity since the 90s, but there are a few similarities between him and Robson. Both have histories of mental health issues, both have had financial problems in the recent past and both felt hurt and rejected when they lost contact with the King of Pop. More importantly, both had uneasy relationships with their pushy stage mothers and distant fathers who they felt had used them in a pursuit of fame and fortune. Whether the accusations against Jackson are true or false, it is still shocking to think that a mother would allow their child to share a room with a grown man, under any circumstances. It’s perhaps telling that the only point in the documentary when the accusers appear thoroughly upset and angry is when they are discussing the relationships with their mothers.

Fully unknotting the truth is literally an impossible job, due to the fact that only two people will ever really know what happened in private. When it comes to Michael Jackson in general, what is fact and what is myth often appears to be a tangled web, that in his life was complicated by the man himself (it was he, for example, who orchestrated the ‘elephant man’s bones’ and ‘sleeps in an oxygen chamber’ myths). Famously, Jackson publicly denied having plastic surgery, whilst privately acknowledging the true extent of it. He also lied as a matter of habit when it came to interactions with the press, business associates and even his family. You can understand the thought – could this be just another lie? But in truth, those kind of wild tabloid stories about his surgery, shopping habits and personal relationships were exaggerations of the press that were actually encouraged – initially at least – by Michael himself. Throughout the 80’s, he actively sought the attention of the press and found it funny when they would print these made up stories. But there was nothing funny about the stories they would eventually start printing. ‘Jacko’s abused 24 kids’, ‘yes we had sex’ (actual front page headlines). Rather than back down, Jackson stubbornly doubled down and continued to defend, whilst maintaining, his friendships with children until the 2005 trial that is, after which he stopped spending time with children all together.

Of course we have to concede that Jackson undoubtedly asked to be held to a different standard than we would use on, say, an old old man who lives next door. If that man admitted to having sleepovers and parties with children we would rightly be alarmed and I don’t think any sensible fan would deny that Michael Jackson was more than a little unusual in this sense. Different. On another plain. And yet MJ’s circumstances were so unique, his psychological make up so complex, that in a sense he was different to the rest of us. Who else truly had a childhood like his? And therefore who are we to judge him by other people’s standards? Jackson said he liked children because they didn’t judge or condem him, they spoke to him without prejudice. And he, in return, wanted to use his experience and unique position to help children around the world. Based on his countless actions (such as donating all profits from world tours to charities and visiting hospitals in every city he visited) I believe we can take him at his word. Artistically his particular talents put him in the lineage of Michelangelo, Mozart, William Blake, Van Gough – other troubled, misunderstood visionaries who weren’t so much ahead of their time as in a different time and space altogether. Simply, he wasn’t like the rest of us. We can’t hope to understand what went on inside his mind.

Which is not to let him off the hook, simply because of his greatness. Great artists can be great sociopaths as well – history has proven that time and time again. But those close to Jackson, and even those who met him briefly, attest to the fact that he was a truly kind, loving individual. Of course he was no saint – fans who propagate this idea do him a dissservice – he WAS human after all, and he could be immature, impulsive, shortsighted and ruthless even with close friends and loved ones. But speak to people who knew him, who really knew him, and we get a picture of a devoted father and generous philanthropist. NOT a monster.

These allegations also have to be considered in a historical context where black entertainers have traditionally been undermined, their significance diminished, by journalists, authorities and – at times – the industry itself. Over the years this prejudice has revealed itself in both obvious and subtle ways. Whether it was Jarvis Cocker arrogantly pandering to his largely white, middle class audience by interrupting the only black artist invited on stage to perform at the 1996 Brit awards or MTV refusing to play his music videos in the early 80s – Michael Jackson has always faced scrutiny and barriers that you have to feel wouldn’t have been there for, say, David Bowie (who, as a matter of public record took the virginity of a thirteen year old at the height of his fame and went through a facist phase) or Jimmy Page (who dated an underage groupie quite publicly in the early 70s). This racial bias reveals itself in newspaper coverage that describes him as ‘once black’ and TV productions that still hire white men to play his part or the false allegations that he used sperm donners because he wanted white children. We can’t underestimate the role Race plays in the media’s all too ready inclination to throw this African American Icon under the bus.

Of course none of us will ever know the truth conclusively. That is an uncomfortable, frustrating fact for fans. And any objective, sensible person must have a tiny whisper of doubt in their mind at this point – we can’t ignore the fact that a handful of accusations (however incredulous) have now been made against him – even if that whisper is overwhelmed by confidence in Jackson’s innocence. But while there is no doubt that Michael Jackson exhibited very unusual behaviour, the fact it was unusual does not automatically mean it was criminal. Just because you don’t understand his motives, does not mean those motives were necessarily cynical. And even if you believe that it is unlikely his intentions were pure, well, what’s more unlikely than Jackson’s whole life and career? The moonwalk? ‘I Want You Back’? Jackson built an artistic legacy on being unique, and his private life was another reflection of that individuality. He defied the odds time and time again. Everybody believed he bleached his skin, and guess what, his autopsy proved that he suffered from the rare skin condition Vitiligo. Unlikely but true. Everyone said ‘Thriller’ would flop. It’s the biggest selling album of all time. Unlikely, but true.

In ‘Living With Michael Jackson’, the infamous Martin Bashir documentary, when MJ talked about children, I believe I saw sincerity and love in his eyes, not perversion and evil. And if it’s a question of believing him, the man I grew up admiring, or Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck, then I know where I put my faith. Does this make me naive? To me, naive is taking two proven perjurers at their word when their stories contradict countless other testimonies. Naive is not exploring all the evidence. Naive is listening to Dan Reid instead of the FBI. Naive is ignoring a 1.5 Billion dollar motivation. Naive is dismissing the verdict of the 2005 jury. Putting your belief in Michael Jackson’s innocence is NOT naive, it’s the more logical position to take.

Michael Jackson Wearing A Mickey Mouse T-Shirt

Busted ‘Half Way There’ – Review

16 Mar

Busted released their debut album on to a world that was between guitar trends. Nu Metal was fading out of popularity, while the garage rock revolution spearheaded by The Strokes hadn’t yet made its way in to the mainstream. Culture at large was saturated by a slick, commercialised pop that veered between the bad and the beautiful. Busted arrived to bridge the gap; a trio of enthusiastic teenagers who took the energy and silliness of Pop Punk and imbued it with a youthful poptimism that would appeal to the masses. Initially there was a lot to find distatestful; they appeared on top of the pops to perform ‘What I Go to School For’ with school uniforms hanging out and their instruments not even plugged in. But by the time they released their second album, 2003’s ‘A Present For Everyone’, it was clear that the band deserved to be taken seriously. They could really play their instruments, they did write their own material, and (dodgy American accents aside) they had forged an identity of their own; bratty, brash and excitable. Unfortunately, the whiff of teen girl fandom excluded the more serious music press and Busted developed an undeserved reputation as a throwaway boy band. It was enough to convince even Busted’s own, young and impressionable guitarist, Charlie Simpson, that he needed to leave the band in order to forge a more serious career as an alternative musician.

By the time Busted reunited in 2015, these boundaries between genres, and that snarky disregard for pop music, had disappeared. Young pop acts today don’t experience the same condescending dismissals that Busted had to endure. And looking back it’s easy to see how important the group may have actually been. Their string of catchy top 5 singles attuned ears to the sound of guitars, and made real instruments palatable for a big audience once again. You can draw a direct line between Busted’s popularity and the rise of acts like Franz Ferdinand, Snow Patrol and Arctic Monkeys a couple of years later.

It was therefore surprising that when the band reformed, they initially appeared to have no interest in returning to their signature sound. ‘Night Driver’ was an unexpectedly steely, synth pop project that, ironically considering why the band dissolved in the first place, emphasised the pop elements whilst downplaying guitars and live drums. It was a good album but it slotted a little too neatly in to the 80’s inspired, retro landscape alongside the likes of Taylor Swift, Chrvches and Carly Rae Jepson. Busted, once great disrupters, politely blended in to the background. Perhaps they were weary about setting foot in the past again after the disappointing failure of ‘Mcbusted’, the supergroup featuring members of Busted and Mcfly, that unsuccessfully sought to update Busted’s original pop punk sound.

Loud noises have been made about ‘Half Way There’ being a return to The original template – and it is – though sonically and musically it’s far more ambitious. In fact, it is the best out and out, big tent Rock album I’ve heard for a long, long time. It helps having legendary producer Gil Norton behind the boards and the ferociously talented Cobus Potenger on the drum kit. It sounds incredible – beefy drum fills, layered harmonies, heavy guitars and bright bass lines. If you’re only memories of Busted are of a slick, manufactured pop group the. You’re going to be very surprised.

Nostalgia dictates the musical flow, and also serves as the album’s chief subject. Opener and lead single ‘Nineties’ sets the tone, with a chunky throwback riff, power pop chords and lyrics that reference Mackauly Culkin, MJ and the Goonies. These are the same type of pop culture references that could be found on their 2002 debut, and also littered the juvenile ‘Mcbusted’ record in 2014. It works here where ‘Mcbusted’ didn’t mainly because of the context. These are songs about being hopelessly reminiscent, and at points they question that reverence for the past. The record has a thoughtful tone that bypasses nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, offering something more contemplative and interesting instead. At one point they spell it out as a question – ‘am I still in love, or is it just nostalgia?’ This theme permeates several songs – explicitly on ‘Reunion’, ‘M.I.A’, ‘All My Friends’, ‘It Happens’ and, of course, ‘Nostalgia’ – and implicitly on ‘Shipwrecked in Atlantis’ which tips its hat to their own ‘Air Hostess’ and Blink 182’s ‘The Rock Show’.

Over ten songs Busted rarely lapse in to indulgence or repetition. In fact it’s such a joy to listen to that you could happily hear ‘Half Way There’ two or three times in a row without getting bored. But ultimately the album is a temporary solution to the question of how Busted can continue to develop and mature. This is not the kind of album you could easily make twice; to do so would undo a lot of the progressive gains ‘Half Way There’ makes. They’ve addressed their past conclusively, and next time they will no doubt want to explore what the future has in store.

7.5/10

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