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Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Write
1. Dawn Richard – Blackheart
I’ve only had this in my life for a month or two but it feels much longer, given how much work it’s done to shift my desires as a listener, to make space in my head for new sounds, for inorganic textures wielded and finessed as if they have physical existence. It’s a change I can hopefully extend to artists other than Richard, but for now I’m in complete, single-minded awe of her. It started here: Blackheart’s wealth of extended, infinitely patient instrumental passages, like the ones on Azealia Banks’ Broke With Expensive Taste and John Grant’s Pale Green Ghosts, where the beat continues on, sometimes with little to no accompaniment, toward some promised, unseen revelation on the horizon (“Swim Free,” 1:39). But it wasn’t enough to imagine Blackheart as electronic music, and Richard kept slipping away from whatever context I tried to place her in until the resulting whir finally resolved into a stable portrait, Dawn Richard, visionary of our times. “I was alone, like a tree with no leaves in the fall,” she sings on “Phoenix,” putting an ache into one of the rare moments that comes anywhere near conventional pop. But it’s not a mission statement. The music succeeds no matter how dense and disorienting, no matter how bare. I’m happy to keep buying digital albums above $8 if they’re as good as this and Vulnicura.
2. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
Okay, time to stop playing “King Kunta” everywhere all the time (in the city, and deep in the woods, and on the bus through Gary, Indiana, and at the major university your sister used to attend; some songs, while they’re new, should not be absent from any pocket of space on planet Earth, another speaker stationed to blast it just outside the radius of the first, but one person can only do so much) and somehow account for this immense album. I don’t know, it’s funny that a dense, knotty 80-minute object, subject to headlong or stop-start exploration, deemed oppressive and overwhelming at least once by every one of its listeners, was immediately streamed 10 million times and has by now, a month later, been considered from every imaginable angle, all relevant (except those that equate Lamar’s responses to interview questions with his lyrics, or with policy; this puts it best). We’re an amazing species, for whom no work of art could ever be too difficult. Thus, here’s pop music of the highest order. Praise of anything else that exists near its epicenter seems a bit willful and perverse, even if Blackheart is truly the better album.
Anyway, here’s the last 29 months in the life of the artist, ages 25 to 27. If the central question is “where were you when I was walking?”1 then the central statement is “I was walking,” so imagine Nico singing “These Days,” blown out to the most massive scale imaginable, as it must be for someone whose solitude implies the whole world. The album can’t go two seconds without treading past a bottomless well of allusions, both musical and other. The “I know everything” prayer of “Momma” brings to mind another 80-minute album, the one that opened with an adolescent learning “black and white is always gray.” “These Walls” ends with a half-quote of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City,” lightly warped by the decades. And to all those people who’ve bristled at the thought that a listener might place Kanye West or Migos above or on par with The Beatles, here’s one that will hopefully stick: The album version of “i,” like “Revolution 1” and “Revolution 9,” rewrites a pop single as something infinitely wearier, perhaps as redress to anyone who didn’t take it seriously in the first place. It’s as if Lamar knew people were going to smack him down with condescending words like “corny,” “cheesy.” On the album, he goes a step beyond The Beatles’ bluesy shuffle and sound collage, audaciously simulating a live environment so that he can stop the show and preach. The tears start flowing and don’t abate through the entirety of “Mortal Man,” which keeps breaking rules, ending with a poem (“not really a poem”), an imagined conversation with a dead man (his entrance is chilling), and a story. The sound of crinkling paper, heard throughout all of this, is alone among the holiest things committed to tape in my lifetime, even if it’s just Lamar reminding us he’s a writer.
1 Where was I? Out walking, too. I regret more than ever missing a Lamar show in my neighborhood in December 2012, for any clues it might have given me about the arc he’s traced since. Doesn’t he now sound astonishingly young, almost unrecognizable, on good kid? Doesn’t the listener?
3. Evans The Death – Expect Delays
Simply the poorest, unhappiest indie pop band of the century, with song titles to match, reminiscent of a time in American rock music (Scrawl, et al) when bleakness was a virtue and not antithetical to musical good times. Weighed down with depression (RIYL: No Depression) and impelled by madness (RIYL: Madchester), the band then imbues the intrinsic grey of the whole mess with the catchiness of peak Brit-pop. The grey won’t take color, of course, and the synaesthetic listener might find it colorless, but others might even forget themselves for a minute and revel in melodic fun.
4. Young Guv – Ripe 4 Luv
“Devon Williams got his Paisley Park invitation after all,” I quipped, referencing a long-held dream for a Prince/Slumberland Records convergence. Ripe 4 Luv isn’t too far off, and no surprise that it comes from Ben Cook, sometime-member of a band that once posed as all the fictional bands of a fictional 70s UK scene for a musical appendix to their own concept album. That is to say, Fucked Up can do anything, as can Cook a/k/a Young Guv, who could be documenting a contemporaneous American scene across these eight tracks. The overriding sound is an Exploding Hearts-style power pop of only slightly less ebullience and sincerity (wait for the way the chorus of “Kelly, I’m Not A Creep,” sweetly sung under crushing guitars, crests to shouting for a triumphant end), so that I keep wondering if King Louie, guru of modern kicks, is somehow involved.
5. Idlewild – Everything Ever Written
One band’s mere six-year gap between albums (Built To Spill, Mew) is another band’s career-altering hiatus and reunion. Idlewild falls in the latter category, with the new Everything Ever Written either a stand-alone gift to longtime fans or the initiation of Idlewild’s phase two. It has much in common with the more folk-leaning albums of their original run, but where Warnings/Promises was the mid-career pivot and Post Electric Blues the career capper, Everything Ever Written exists outside of that narrative altogether, its expansive 54 minutes fitting in a few nods to the band’s past but mostly occupied with in-the-moment concerns. Maturity is no longer the name of a band incrementally broadening its sound, but a fact so obvious to barely deserve mention. I previously looked at the album’s two advance tracks. Let’s look at some of the others:
a. “Nothing I Can Do About It” — I hate to start with what I’d deem the album’s only real “mistake,” so let’s treat it as a positive: Without that flat moment when the strings carry the beat and try to suggest the song’s blossoming, the album would be, if not perfect, perfect in its way, such a fine example of itself that it wouldn’t suffer being treated like any critic’s renovation project. Another positive: The moment is followed by its sonic foil, a cool, gnarled guitar line.
b. “Every Little Means Trust” — Blandness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and in both cases it’s appropriate that other beholders cause you to question your own eye. So I try not to look the other way when someone calls a band I take for granted “bland.” When I bring that word to this song, I can definitely hear something like Radiohead’s “The Bends” stripped of most of its urgency, but, oops, I’ve already listened enough times to claim and love it. It’s the band harmonies, I think, still so young and shy.
c. “(Use It) If You Can Use It” — An epic in Idlewild terms. The band tacks on an extra three minutes after a climactic blowout by preparing for another one, scaling back to the rhythm section and exploring the groove with a skeletal sound that initially brought to mind The Feelies. But that kind of taut energy eludes them—Idlewild’s nervousness was never perpetual, and now it’s entirely gone—and by the time they build back up for the finale, with horns, they’re more clearly in the realm of Wilco’s “Monday.”
d. “Like A Clown” — Many of the album’s lyrics fall along a how-we’re-living/how-to-live-well spectrum, but Roddy Woomble’s too skilled a lyricist for bromides. The wasted life lamentations of “Like A Clown” are directed toward some target I still haven’t figured out, so I don’t know whether it’s accusatory. But with its corker of an opening line, its lovely harmonies and nuanced playing, it’s for now the best song here, the second time in a row (after “Take Me Back To The Islands”) that an Idlewild album has been carried by a gentle country song.
e. “Radium Girl” — A sweet, melancholy little number, with a clipped, boyish vocal and an “oh-oh-oh-oh-oooh” buildup to the chorus. They could’ve sold it to One Direction, but wisely kept it for themselves. It’s wonderful.
f. “Left Like Roses” — For all that’s loose, improvisatory and jazz-influenced on the record, Idlewild’s post-punk DNA is still dominant. So as much as one might hope that this song’s piano melody would unlock and run to more imaginative places, it’s stuck playing those same hypnotic lines, unable to play anything a keyboard wouldn’t. The guitars handle the solos.
6. Gaz Coombes – Matador
Coombes’ second solo album is as many years removed from Supergrass’ Road to Rouen as that album was from their debut, I Should Coco, and it feels like an equivalent leap. Youthful exuberance turned to mournful maturity, and now turns to liberation, a man alone in his home studio running wild with all the sounds he’s accumulated over two decades. He leaves none of his former charms, energies or talents in the past, but leverages them all for lavish productions, brought back to earth by workmanlike self-accompaniment. It’s hard to think of another survivor of the 90s era of British rock/pop dominance who could, left to their own devices, mount such a successful solo home recording without a complete reinvention. Coombes remembers past excess and dreams big but doesn’t overwork the materials at hand, ending up with a perfect example of hi-fi self-production.
7. Jazmine Sullivan – Reality Show
When an R&B album takes the title Reality Show it’s easy to mistake it for the singer’s reality and overlook how good she is at writing characters, and singing their voices. There’s as much conceptual ambition here as there is in any of the other albums of the moment: Sullivan’s women speak about their lives with a lack of artifice while she remains artful, letting unspoken things reside in the beats and underneath the words. Inefficient elaboration of a theme is the lyrical strategy, resulting in a riper specificity than economy would allow. I love, on “Mascara,” how many words, how many tones and conversational detours, it takes for Sullivan to say the opposite of “I woke up like this,” and how the music stretches out comfortably to accommodate her.
8. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Sometimes the music itches and rambles in a stock sort of way—but no matter, that’s when Barnett’s a great MC in such full command of her voice that the beat is immaterial—and sometimes it really itches. That’s when she’s finally exhausted every possibility as a storyteller and hit a lyrical dead-end, a line that can’t be followed with a mere detail, so she turns to her guitar. On “Small Poppies,” it’s “I used to hate myself but now I think I’m alright,” cue the solo, and on “Kim’s Caravan,” it’s “so take what you want from me,” floating on noise.
9. Tom Brosseau – Perfect Abandon
With titles like Grass Punks, “Cradle Your Device,” and this new album’s “My Sweetest Friend,” I fancied him gay, but it turns out the punks in question aren’t radical faeries, the device in question isn’t flesh, and “friend” isn’t a coded word as often as I imagine it to be. And yet I selflessly allowed love to blossom just as my first impressions were being dashed, and now consider Brosseau a world-class charmer, a sort of living antique, the kind of guy who can open an album with spoken word that very slowly edges into song and still hold the uninitiated rapt. That opening tale, “Hard Luck Boy,” tells of a boy stashed inside a clothing rack at the department store, watching the legs of the women as they take the dresses, and it’s hard to figure out what’s hard luck about it until Brosseau finally begins to sing, and signals why he earlier delivered the line “I watched her walk away” with such significance. His storytelling extends well beyond his words, to the method of their delivery. It’s a smart way to begin the album, guiding the listener through the complexity of his folk music before the other nine beautiful songs have unfurled.
10. The Decemberists – What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World
Diagnosing our world while looking for signs of the one today’s children will end up living in, The Decemberists create a fatherhood album to complement Warp & Weft, comrade Laura Veirs’ classic of dawning motherhood, and it’s comparatively meager in all the ways that fatherhood is trumped by motherhood as a subject. Colin Meloy, father of two, can’t quite sustain the same great tremor that winds its way through Veirs’ recent work, but as she peered into the American wild with quiet alarm, so he considers gun violence and the water supply. Even the oral sex wishes of “Philomena” are so marked, the narrator ever so slightly embarrassed to still be lusting, long after the supposed fruition of his sexual impulse. Meloy’s fatherhood has clearly altered the energy of his band, and I don’t expect to be speaking of The Decemberists in terms of R.E.M. ever again, but I also don’t assume they’ve settled. What A Terrible World, for all its detours, has a clear thematic design that the next album likely won’t have to carry. The closing song, helpfully titled “A Beginning Song,” buzzes with a nascent excitement that’s elusive throughout the rest of the album, and when Meloy implores us or himself to “document the world inside your skin,” it’s as if he’s setting a new course, reclaiming his blood from the blood of his blood, sending forth himself and his children on individual journeys.
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