As someone who has never been in a long-term relationship, Aromanticism gets under my skin in a way not a lot of albums do. Amid the tired chart hits about new love and true love, to have a voice, if not outright rejecting, at least affirming distance from the zeitgeist is refreshing. Our society is obsessed with partnership – if you’re not in a relationship there must be something wrong with you, right? Aromanticism isn’t an admonishment of this reality; rather, it’s the acceptance that these feelings of detachment might not ever go away, that maybe you’re supposed to be alone. Continue reading “Moses Sumney – Aromanticism”
“I’m weary of the ways of the world”, Solange declares early on in her third album, and she has good reason to be. Across A Seat at the Table’s 52 minutes, she confronts prejudice and violence, death and grief, anxiety and doubt. Her first project since 2012 new wave-inspired EP True – lush but narratively hollow – A Seat at the Table is a decidedly more ambitious, and personal, affair.
Restrained in delivery, but oftentimes scathing in its culture critique, the record places Solange at odds with the world around her – and the many injustices she sees within it, namely racism. But she doesn’t lose her cool. Contrasting the confrontational stance her sister often took on Lemonade, it would be easy to mistake A Seat at the Table as almost resigned at times. Her vocals may be light as a feather, the production airy and uncluttered, but the exasperation – and rage – is still just as palpable. “I got a lot to be mad about” she proclaims on Lil Wayne-featuring ‘Mad’ – one of the New Orleans rapper’s most affecting verses in recent memory, where he poignantly croons about attempting suicide over an emotive piano – one that courses through much of the record. Likewise, Sampha follows up his successful collaborations with Kanye West and Frank Ocean earlier this year with ‘Don’t Touch My Hair‘, joining Solange as she laments those who attempt to convince her to compromise her principles in order to feel accepted, and rejects the pressure to be submissive to such behaviour.
At 21 tracks – many of them interludes – it’s not a brisk listen. But even as Solange winds down with reflective Kelela duet ‘Scales’, you can feel her frustration that she still hasn’t had time to say all she has to say. Interludes of Solange’s parents and friends venting their frustration at the racism they experienced growing up – and still do – are scattered throughout the album, and underscore her own indignation. Above all that though, it’s a self-possessed effort. Amidst prejudice and violence, A Seat at the Table is the sound of a woman finding her voice and asserting her independence.
Blonde ends at the beginning. The latter half of closer ‘Futura Free’ is devoted to a chopped-up interview of Ocean’s little brother and his friends when they were 11 years old, where the interviewer asks deceptively easy questions like, “What was your first memory?,” and, “How long is a lightyear?”. We don’t get to hear their answers (although a full transcript is apparently printed in the accompanying magazine, Boys Don’t Cry) except for distorted mumbles and half-phrases, lending the outro an effusive air. In fact many of the tracks, without percussive beats for an anchor, possess qualities of ambient music. It’s up to Frank’s vocal performances and naked songwriting to drag these songs back down to earth.
Frank Ocean’s other new album, Endless, also ends at the beginning – as the title suggests. Cut down from 140 hours of raw footage, the 45 minute finished product is a visual album consisting of multiple takes of Ocean building a staircase combined together to look like enslaved clones. It doesn’t capture your attention, it doesn’t even try to; while watching, your mind might drift off to consider the theme he is trying to convey. Is the takeaway that Ocean, a gay man, is participating in the very machismo, hands-on field that is woodworking? Is staircase-constructing, like he suggests about his car obsession in his Tumblr liner notes, a “subconscious straight boy fantasy”? Perhaps the whole exercise was a lesson on the virtue of patience: instead of releasing an album, like the whole internet was clamouring for him to do, he was slowly building a set of stairs to nowhere. And then finally, after the so-called “endless” four year wait, he releases an album called Endless. How long is a lightyear? Twitter commentators might say it is the length of time it takes Frank to drop an album. For his part, Ocean remarks cheekily on ‘Skyline To’ that “that’s a pretty fucking fast year flew by…”
It’s appropriate that both these albums have a circular quality. The idea of distorting and trying to master time is a major theme on Blonde. On multiple occasions, Ocean begs for immortality, and at one point cries, “I wanna see nirvana but don’t wanna die.” The contradiction is pretty apt for an artist who is simultaneously in and out of the public eye. Frank Ocean doesn’t indulge his fans with constant Twitter and Instagram affirmation, and his private life is so unknown that until he mentioned the fact on his Tumblr, we didn’t know that he had moved to London. His enigmatic persona exists on the opposite end of the spectrum from an artist like Kanye West, whose constant media presence can detract from his actual music. On the other hand, his artistic work has been under constant scrutiny for the past four years. No other mainstream pop musician has had so much pressure upon a sophomore album release after such a short period of time (From ‘Futura Free’: “They wanna murder a nigga, murder me like Selena”). The Avalanches, up until only a few months ago, had not released an album in four times as many years. But in Frank’s universe, where he lives “so the last night feels like a past life,” the time between his debut, channel ORANGE, and now probably feels like an instant.
Blonde is a record that believes firmly in the healing nature of time. While usually soul-baringly empathetic in his songwriting, Ocean now assures his lover on ‘Ivy’ that, “I broke your heart last week, you’ll probably feel better by the weekend.” In regards to his jet-setting, partying lifestyle, he numbly concludes that “every night fucks every day up, every day patches the night up.” The album is a journey through time, a summary of Ocean’s maturation over the past four years. Through Frank’s eyes, we observe the transformative power of the continuum that destroys, creates, and, yes, heals as it cycles back upon itself.
The credits list for Blonde also seems to defy time. There are familiar names and expected collaborators, but also gracing the roll call are groups that have long ago broken up (Gang of Four, The Beatles) or even artists who have passed (David Bowie, Elliott Smith). Whether or not each certain artist was a bona fide contributor or simply a sample or inspiration is unmarked – which song each artist worked on is also not mentioned. This leads to a more engaging listening experience, as featured artists are also not credited in the tracklist; to find out who worked on which song, the listener has to, well, listen. Eventually, tiny details will emerge from the heft of the record. Beyoncé was applied like a paintbrush to the closing moments of ‘Pink + White’, Kendrick Lamar’s soulful crooning is a charcoal haze at the end of ‘Skyline To’. Most surprisingly though, experimental Swedish rapper Yung Lean has an uncharacteristically touching singing part in ‘Self Control’, stealing the scene with a warm, textured performance. And some collaborations are still being uncovered; until Apple Music confirmed it last night, there was only speculation to go on that James Blake and Bon Iver were involved in wistful cut ‘White Ferrari’. The most obvious feature is the return of channel ORANGE collaborator André 3000 on ‘Solo (Reprise)’. Using a new-school rapid fire flow à la Young Thug or Lil Yachty, 3 Stacks covers everything from hedonism, police brutality, fashion, gender roles, and disappointment with ghostwriting in just one minute and twenty seconds. In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Blonde collaborator Sebastian said that speaking in depth about his role in the album was against its “general concept… [Frank Ocean] was the architect and everybody was working with him to make it happen. The concept was more about focusing into the result, not about who did what. It’s personal, but I felt that everybody was here for the project, for the music, the energy, not especially for themselves.”
The enigmatic credit list and focus on deep listening ties into themes of information overload due to the internet era that Frank stresses throughout Blonde – and even more so in Endless. French DJ Sebastian tells a provoking story of love during the eve of Facebook in late-album skit ‘Facebook Story’, about how a relationship of his ended after refusing to “friend” a girlfriend on the social media site. “I’m right in front of you” he exasperates, “… It’s nothing. A virtual thing.” Ocean himself reflects on his confoundment with modern times on slow-burning ‘Seigfried’: “I can’t relate to my peers. I’d rather live outside, I’d rather chip my pride than lose my mind out here.”
Ocean’s disillusionment stretches into drug culture, which he seems to simultaneously reject and feed into. Cocaine is referenced on nearly every track as simply “white,” particularly cleverly in ‘Nikes’: “You must be on that white like Othello,” alluding to Shakespeare’s titular tragic hero who is a black man in love with a white woman. Interlude ‘Be Yourself’, which might have been comic fodder in the hands of a lesser artist, is composed entirely of a recorded voicemail from someone’s mother warning against usage of “drugs, marijuana, and alcohol.” Frank treats the recording with reverence and uses it to balance the ecstatic spree that takes place at the beginning of ‘Solo’, which is without a doubt one of the finest songs of Ocean’s career. The scene changes from a sweaty, acid-addled dance-off to a lonely night in Colorado, where Frank remembers, “I brought trees to blow through, but it’s just me and no you, stayed up ’til my phone died, smoking big, rolling solo…” before veering off into a tearful rendition of the chorus. His humane and realistic approach to drug usage (in the same song, he describes weed as “a cheap vacation”) is a welcome departure from the ecstasy-fueled EDM pop scene that has skyrocketed into the charts in recent years. Frank Ocean is self aware in his self medication, and the words of a mother – “Be yourself and know that that’s good enough. Don’t try to be someone else. Don’t try to be like someone else, don’t try to act like someone else, be yourself. Be secure with yourself” – haunt the rest of the album.
Her message also resonates with Frank’s relatively recent coming out. Shortly after the release of ‘Bad Religion’ on his last record, Frank turned to Tumblr to write a moving note on the first man he ever fell in love with. It was a massively important moment in modern music: Frank Ocean is one of the first openly gay R&B stars to ever exist. Blonde, however, is remarkably post-queer. Ocean has made his views on gay pride public before this, but here, he lets the music speak for itself. There are no overt pride references; instead, Ocean lets his beautiful songwriting represent the love he feels for previous boyfriends. A gay bar is mentioned once, but a casual listener not familiar with Frank’s sexuality might pass through this record thinking it is a “traditional” (that is to say, “straight”) pop album. The most revolutionary thing about Blonde is that is just is. There are no politics, but identity tension is present nonetheless. On the more sexually visceral Endless, Frank refuses to cower away from or be coy with his homosexuality: “Suck a dick long as a swan neck, put some real swans in the pond” is perhaps the boldest rap flex of 2016. In the note that accompanies the album, Frank writes, “Raf Simons once told me it was cliché, my whole car obsession. Maybe it links to a deep subconscious straight boy fantasy. Consciously though, I don’t want straight—a little bent is good.” Blonde is a total rejection of the heteronormative pop scene. Frank Ocean entered the music machine with a crowbar to make this record, and bend he did.
Ocean’s “straight boy fantasy” of cars is a constant presence in the album. As a gearhead, Frank Ocean experiences life first and foremost through the lens of what car he drives, whether it be his family’s Acura or his brand new white Ferrari. He worships the romantic ideal of the automobile, how it is a symbol of freedom and endless possibility. And for the journey that this album traverses, you’d need a car. Blonde will be remembered for its sexual freedom, its powerful imagery, and its groundbreaking artfulness, but it should really be remembered by this image that Ocean references in the liner notes for the album: “A seatbelt reached across her torso, riding up her neck and a mop of blonde hair stayed swept, for the moment, behind her ears. Her eyes seemed clear and calm but not blank, the road behind her seemed the same.” He’s describing to us a picture of a little girl, which instead of allowing us to see he offers for us to feel.
On previous projects, Frank Ocean’s lyrics have usually inhabited characters, or else were coloured in beautiful metaphor. Blonde is his most personal album yet, with almost every track possessing autobiographical qualities; the album can be described most accurately as a collection of memories rather than songs. Highlight ‘Nights’ breaks down halfway through, turning into possibly the most delectable rap verse Ocean has ever delivered. His delivery is shy and unassuming, but his lyrics are evocative and full of life. Frank details his time in New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina; his disillusionment with organised religion as a child, his love of music that was cultivated through the family car’s CD changer, and, after the storm, moving to Texas to live with a lover. We learn that their relationship is one-sided: Ocean is using him or her as a place to crash while he works night shifts to fund his escape to, we assume, Los Angeles, where he would start his music career. He covers all this ground in a short space but the moment stays suspended even as the track breaks down into a bridge and outro. Frank’s power with a pen is unmatched in modern music, and his unique gift of breathing vibrant life into verses and turns of phrase is unparalleled by even the greats.
This is just one example of his astonishing ability, you could pick any song off the album to cherish as a personal favourite moment. On ‘Ivy’, his teenage self has his first foray into love in the safety of his rental car: “We didn’t give a fuck back then. I ain’t a kid no more, we’ll never be those kids again.” A deer running across the road leads to steamy moonlit sex after Ocean turns off his car’s headlights to avoid scaring the animal (‘Skyline To’). ‘Good Guy’ is a mini-song/interlude that details his first encounters with an uninterested blind date where Frank remarks, “You text nothing like you look. Here’s to the gay bar you took me to. Here’s when I realised you talk so much more than I do.” There’s the religious imagery of ‘Solo’, and the cryptic lyrics of ‘Nikes’ and ‘Close To’. Each of these songs has an element of magic that is singular to a Frank Ocean record, and they all tie together beautifully. Listening to the record as a whole, little snippets separate and stick to you on each go-through, eventually weighing down on your body in a way that is most definitely physical, an experience that is simply intoxicating. The songcraft transcends its place in Frank’s vocals and enters your ecosystem, interjecting itself into your life in a manner as real as a visitor in the home. Ignore the words, and you might become sick from the baggage that this album will leave you with. Blonde requires iterative listens, regurgitation, and careful contemplation. It is a project that immediately elevates itself past mere sonic exercises and cultural phenomena, becoming almost sentient – ignore it at your own risk.
If it ain’t broke.
After three years of silence, the math rock trio emerges with a new album well worth the wait. TTNG have made some drastic changes over the past few years, trimming their lineup from four to three and deciding that This Town Needs Guns was a bit distasteful and what this town really needed was another music group going under an acronym requiring a PC explanation.
Many fans of Stuart Smith-era TTNG heavily criticised the release of 18.104.22.168.0 and the transition to the more polished, falsetto-favoured lyrics of Henry Tremain, but for many, this album served as a great introduction as it is far and away the most accessible album in the group’s discography. The three-year wait between 22.214.171.124.0 and Disappointment Island has not been a very transformative time period for the group’s sound, however. The record is a very safe, solid follow-up, expanding more upon the intricacies of Tim Collis’s clean, tappy guitar work while continuing to showcase the restless creativity of drummer Chris Collis.
The opening track, ‘Coconut Crab’, perfectly captures the lyrical temperament of TTNG. “Just simply paraphrase all that you’re feeling/into tiny bite sized bits/squeeze them tight so they might fit/over melodies.” Tremain’s opening lines beautifully summarise the rest of the album; Tremain assembles a pool of (mostly melancholic) emotions and squeezes them over the record so that, even without knowledge of the lyrics, one can’t help but feel slightly melancholic themselves. “Words likely have less merit/than the timbre of their sound/so sing anything you feel like/and don’t let it get you down.” This emotive expressiveness makes Disappointment Island highly accessible.
Despite the strong demonstration of emotion, the album lacks a certain level of depth and diversity expected from a band who has released three LPs and two EPs to date. The majority of tracks do not demonstrate the levels of dynamism seen on 126.96.36.199.0, Animals, or even their self-titled EP, and TTNG seem to have stopped considering the idea of using hooks. The tracks ‘Consoling Ghosts’ and ‘Bliss Quest’ serve to break up the album’s consistent tone and start out slower and more sombre while, over time, becoming more restive – before break out into the Collis brothers’ signature syncopation. The most diverse and longest track occurs about halfway through the album. ‘Whatever, Whenever’ lightheartedly explores existential inquiries before simmering down at about the 2 minute mark, suddenly taking on a solemn tone as Tremain reflects on “changing the sheets on my grave” and “reliving mistakes I’ve made.” The song builds and begins to crescendo, expanding slightly on each measure, leading to a final cathartic release in which Tim Collis slams on an effects pedal, driving the guitar tone towards a cheap, yet tasteful ‘crunch’ preset on a $100 Line6, which eventually resolves in a more mellow, signature-TTNG fingerpicked outro.
Disappointment Island is a solid follow up to 188.8.131.52.0 and strong third LP for the Oxford-based trio. TTNG have released a very safe record, choosing not to drastically deviate from their previous sound and ideas. The album is a huge improvement, lyrically, from their second LP and the Collis brothers’ synergy is at an all-time high. The high replay value of this album will keep many fans satisfied for a long time to come, while remaining accessible to potential newcomers. Disappointment Island is no disappointment.
Parquet Courts dial it back a little, and are all the better for it.
The silence is broken. The last time we heard from Parquet Courts, they had released Monastic Living, an EP that challenged fans with its experimental noisy instrumentals and almost complete lack of vocals. Fast forward a few months, they’re back with Human Performance, an album that tackles inescapable heartache amid the search for authenticity, and it’s unequivocally a return to form for the Brooklyn four-piece.
Instrumentally, Human Performance has a fair amount in common with the group’s past records, and they’ve never been less afraid to wear their influences on their sleeve. In the album opener ‘Dust’, listeners are greeted by a warm and fuzzy guitar riff and steady drums that hark back to the simplicity and repetition found in abundance on Monastic Living. On ‘One Man, No City’, the simple guitar rhythm and humming bass line easily place it as a worthy addendum to Light Up Gold. ‘Berlin Got Blurry’, instrumentally, is a call back to some of the band members’ Texas roots. With the help of arpeggio-infused western guitar riffs and chiming organs in the chorus, the group is able to vividly depict themselves as cowboys exploring the frontier that is Berlin, ‘lost’ but still certain of where they are.
The group continue to improve in songwriting, charming the listener with witty lines and wordplay, and just simply through the stories they tell. Lyrically, ‘Dust’ is – fittingly enough – about sweeping up dust from an abandoned home. Yet, the band beg the listener to think about the context of the song, and connect the dots between their departure into the noisy void that was Monastic Living, and the return home this record makes. ‘Human Performance’ lets the listener sympathise with both sides of a failed relationship. Andrew Savage – or the character he portrays – has betrayed his partner, but we also see an intense pain within him when he laments “It never leaves me, just visits less often. It isn’t gone and I won’t feel its grip soften without a coffin.” In ‘Captive of the Sun’, we hear Austin Brown rap about the symphony of cacophony that a night in New York City brings. While the idea of a Parquet Courts rap might sound like a bad joke, Brown is able to pull it off beautifully, and it’s a true testament to the band’s lyricism. With lines like “Dump truck man drops a beat with trash cans, call 911! We got therapy demands,” we hear a restless Brown kept up by the city that never sleeps. His sluggish delivery and rhythm paints an unexpectedly believable picture of a rapping insomniac.
Parquet Courts did what they were set out to do. Human Performance combines all the best elements from their back catalogue into one cohesive record, yet doesn’t feel dependant on them. It’s a fun listen, because that was all they intended to create. Unburdened by the obligation to explore new territory, the group have crafted thirteen of the best songs of their career. Parquet Courts didn’t reinvent the wheel, they made a great album instead.
Exciting Frustrating Nostalgic
Borrowing some elements from the experimental noise-rock of Julian Casablancas+The Voidz, as well as classic new wave sounds, the three tracks on The Strokes’ new EP remain very different from each other – an impressive feat for a 14-minute long EP (sans drummer Fab Moretti’s ‘OBLIVIUS’ remix). Yeah, normally this would produce an incoherent slush, but the three tracks neatly fit together in a narrative the band unfortunately felt the need to spell out for us with the title.
‘Drag Queen’ is their Future and opening track on the EP, and if this is what The Strokes will sound like on their next album, it is more than a step in the right direction. It’s certainly the most Tyranny-influenced track, featuring layered guitars, dark synths and a slick drum pattern, and without a doubt the wildest performance from Casablancas in any Strokes song this decade.
It’s a statement to how self-aware The Strokes are about themselves that ‘OBLIVIUS’ is the Present track. It really does feel like a blend of the messiest parts of Comedown Machine and the most exuberant scraps of Angles. It’s the weakest track on the EP, though at only three songs that barely holds weight, but it’s still a decent cut. It’s just all over the place, featuring an ill-advised Daft Punk sample, and a catchy lead guitar that, sadly, gets tedious after more than a few listens.
Past track ‘Threat Of Joy’ features the classic Casablancas swagger with the post-punkish instrumentation you would expect from any of their first 3 records, plus a gorgeous guitar outro. For those still pining for the band’s salad days, this’ll be a welcome jerk back to an alien time where The Strokes were considered infallible. A lot can change in fifteen years.
Moretti’s ‘OBLIVIUS’ remix is the closing track, and that’s really a shame. It’s not necessarily that it weakens the original (although it does), but it’s completely inessential, and more than a little gratuitous. If the band were trying to make a statement of how well they understand themselves and the evolution of their own sound, and what they plan to do next, a remix of the worst song on this EP really makes no sense, and it’s just completely out of place narratively and tonally.
Still, I’m excited. The Strokes recognise their flaws, and that’s a good thing. They seem to finally be having fun again, plus they seem to have a plan for what’s next. Who knows, they may yet have another classic in them, and I’m honestly thrilled about what’s next. Haven’t said that in a while.
An experimental but accessible work of art.
With each new Radiohead album, the same questions arise. Can they bring the magic back? Can they create out another OK Computer? Another Kid A? Or will they begin a fall into irrelevance? On their last full length LP, 2011’s The King of Limbs, Radiohead seemed to be on a downward trend. The album was their shortest to date, clocking in at just 37 minutes. The length alone wouldn’t cause such an outrage, as In Rainbows was just 5 minutes longer, and is considered top-tier Radiohead by many, myself included. TKOL just lacked that indescribable magic of Radiohead. The theme of album, as described by Thom Yorke himself, is nature, but the incessant looping and sampling of their own recordings created something unintentionally mechanical. It appeared that they had lost focus and direction, and were becoming Thom and the boys, rather than a band where each member contributed his own portion.
Fans of the band, diehard and casual alike, had high hopes for the mystical LP9. Endless theories and speculation took place all over the internet, but it wasn’t until the band erased their entire online presence (social media accounts, radiohead.com, everything) that something finally happened. They released ‘Burn the Witch’, a song that’s been around for over ten years but never recorded, along with a music video. Three days later, they released a music video for ‘Daydreaming’ and announced that their new album would be arriving just two days later. The announcement fueled even more theories about what songs would or would not be on the album, what direction they would be taking, and how they’d release it. Several years of hype is almost always bad for an album, as it usually fails to meet expectations. However, A Moon Shaped Pool does not only meet expectations, it exceeds them.
The album features an array of orchestral and choral pieces, all arranged by Radiohead’s own Jonny Greenwood. On first listen, it appears that Jonny took command of the album. However, the contributions of the other members become more and more apparent on further inspection. Colin Greenwood’s bass thunders in the background of almost every song, creating groove and rhythm as a foundation for the album. He sits comfortably in the background, but without him, much of the emotion in the music would be lost. Thom Yorke’s voice is as crisp and angelic as ever, perfectly complementing the choral and orchestral arrangements.
Yorke’s lyrics are perhaps at his most personal, most notably on the song ‘Glass Eyes’. He speaks directly to someone (likely his love), and ends the song with the chilling line “I feel this love turn cold”. Many believe that this, along with the inclusion of the decades old live favourite ‘True Love Waits’, is a reference to his recent split with Rachel Owen, his partner of 23 years. Many of the other songs have taken on a new meaning following the news of the split, like ‘Identikit’. First heard on their TKOL tour, the lyrics speak of “broken hearts” and “sweet faced ones with nothing left inside”. Though it may not have been written for this purpose (or maybe it was!) it certainly fits into the ‘end of a relationship’ narrative. Not all of the songs on the album are so apparently personal; however, it’s hard to deny that this is inherently a break up record. Many of the songs have been heard before: ‘Ful Stop’, ‘Identikit’, ‘The Numbers’ (formerly ‘Silent Spring’), ‘Desert Island Disk’, and ‘Present Tense’ have all been debuted live, some with the full band, and some just Thom solo. However, most of them have changed in studio, with the addition of strings or choir, or changes in the basic structures of the songs that make them sound fresh. Even to someone who has heard the Coachella 2012 version of ‘Identikit’ dozens of times, the album version retains a fresh sound.
Even with the new direction in sound, A Moon Shaped Pool is filled with familiar Radiohead moments. Jonny’s little twangs in the background of ‘Decks Dark’, Thom’s crooning in ‘The Numbers’ or ‘Present Tense’, Ed O’Brien’s atmospheric influence in ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief’, and Phil Selway’s technical percussion in ‘Ful Stop’ and ‘Desert Island Disk’. The album is a departure, but at the same time feels supremely like Radiohead. They’ve found the perfect blend of atmosphere, groove and emotion, and created an album worthy of its brethren.
Sturgill Simpson blurs the lines between country and everything else.
Sturgill Simpson is certainly an alt-country artist, however, to call A Sailor’s Guide to Earth alt-country is sort of a disservice to it. That’s not to imply there’s something wrong with alt-country, but pigeonholing it into any genre would be a mistake. Sure, Simpson can never truly outrun his twangy country charm, because that’s just who he is. However, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is the rare kind of album that transcends genre and influence to stand alone as just a piece of music, and a great one at that.
Throughout the album, A Sailor’s Guide’s songs stay rooted in country western music, most notably through steel pedal guitar and Simpson’s delivery complete with a honky-tonk drawl. However, the combination of these and the different elements Simpson borrows from across so many different styles of music create an album truly has its own style from start to finish. It’s a breath of fresh air amongst so many derivative and unoriginal albums common in a time where just about anyone can make music.
There are moments where Simpson’s drawl makes things almost comical, disarmingly so. On ‘Sea Stories’ he lists the Asian cities he spent time in during his stint in the US Navy with such pronunciation, southern drawl and all, that it sounds somehow effortless – you almost expect him to mention Tallahassee or Chattanooga. He then warns his son of how when you want to blow off steam by “getting high and playing Goldeneye on that old 64”, be wary because before you know it you could find yourself with an actual drug problem with real consequences. However, Simpson still avoids sounding too preachy by finishing the song by saying “flying high beats dying for lies in a politician’s war.” This triumphant, profound statement, telling his son to essentially behave himself only reminds us not to box Simpson in. Even further of a reminder of this is Simpson’s cover of ‘In Bloom’ that follows, which he’s turned into such a beautiful ballad it’s almost unrecognisable. Still, if anyone was going to turn a Nirvana song into a steel pedal laden country ballad, it would be Sturgill Simpson. He keeps it interesting here, incorporating a jazzy horn bridge that sounds more New Orleans than Texas country.
Simpson has more advice for his son on ‘Brace for Impact (Live a Little)’ but this time it’s a little different, telling his son to live as much as he can because life is short. This song is probably the most straightforward alt-country song on A Sailor’s Guide, and probably the weakest. Heavy synths close out the track, alongside a shimmery western guitar solo, making the track interesting if only for hearing what the two of those would sound like together. Later on, the penultimate song ‘Oh Sarah’ gives us the most straightforward country ballad on the album. Coincidentally, this old song rereleased from Simpson’s former band Sunday Valley is also one of the album’s highlights. This is him at his most vulnerable, speaking from the heart to the woman who saved him, and who continues to do so.
But right when we think Simpson’s lulled us to sleep, the album goes out with a bang. ‘Call to Arms’ is rocking and rebellious to the point where one would call it outlaw country if it didn’t have that jazzy horn section of a ska song or jazz orchestra. Simpson warns his son to be wary of bullshit everywhere, from phone and news corporations to the US military complex to the war on drugs. If this is Simpson’s way of showing his son he’s not a stiff, it’s certainly effective.
The closing number just reaffirms that Simpson is currently doing something that no one else in music is doing, certainly not country music, and is having a blast doing it. On ‘Keep it Between the Lines’ Simpson gives his son guidance to do just that, to keep it between the lines, but one can only hope that Sturgill Jr. strays from his dad’s advice, because sonically Simpson is doing anything but keepin’ it between the lines, and is all the better for it.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes go big and bold.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zero’s fourth studio album, PersonA, takes the band in a new direction with both their sound and their character. An eventful year saw the departure of bandmate Jade Castrinos as well as the arrival of band leader Alex Ebert’s newborn daughter. Both perhaps pertain to the album cover showing the band name, with the ‘Edward Sharpe and’ portion crossed out, leaving just ‘The Magnetic Zeros’. The record takes a careful approach towards delivering fans both their familiar upbeat sound as well as the new serious tone, and does so beautifully.
We were baited with the early release of the opening track, ‘Hot Coals’, which didn’t have the group’s usual upbeat sound, instead substituting in a dramatic, intense piano. ‘Uncomfortable’ follows suit. The song opens with awkward sound effects and then the lightning crash of piano chords. Throughout the track the piano is accompanied by the addition of simple drum taps, both of which feel like random interjections at points. Perhaps the purpose was to make us feel uncomfortable and, if so, job well done.
While the band display a greater affinity for diversity than ever before, there are still several moments throughout the record that feel decidedly Edward Sharpe. ‘No Love Like Yours’, keeps the free spirited and optimistic sound or their past work, and it’s no surprise it spread like fire. However, even the songs that do maintain the group’s distinctive mood are simpler and less layered. A lot of light piano melodies and a few emphatic horns pervade PersonA but somehow it’s the most unified the band has ever sounded.
This new approach the band is taking, attenuating their trademark folky/hippie sound, and replacing it with bold and dramatic instrumentals, has done them well. They keep their essentially heartfelt and thoughtful music, while at the same time growing their sound and exploring new ideas. PersonA gives fans both the urge to sway to some songs and tap to others. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros constantly give listeners somber songs that manage to get across their perception of happiness and love, and that has made them who they are today. However unsympathetically weird the band may be, and however raw they may sound, they always gift us sincere and truthful music.
Views is Drake doing what he does best. And that’s not enough anymore.
Drake is a chameleon. In the modern pop landscape in which he undeniably dominates, the question is often asked: ‘Is Drake a vulture – sucking dry trendy sounds and then discarding them – or is he a genuinely curious artist, trying his hand in new styles as they begin to gain cultural traction?’ The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle, but most have nonetheless chosen a side in this ever-ongoing debate and are unlikely to be convinced otherwise, regardless of what Views actually sounds like.
Throughout his different artistic periods, Drake has generally taken on a specific persona, more akin to a professional wrestler than a rapper. On So Far Gone Drake plays a heart-on-his-sleeve struggling rapper, but for Thank Me Later Drake is a wide-eyed but confident newcomer in the rap game. This transitioned to sensitive Drake on Take Care which showed us the effect of success and fame on his personal relationships, but with a new-found feeling that he had finally made it. On 2013’s Nothing Was the Same Drake’s confidence had led to full blown arrogance, which he backed up by turning pretty much everything he touched into gold. This seemingly endless stream of victories lead us to Drake’s most controversial persona, Toronto-by-way-of-Jamaica tough guy Drake, aka ‘The Boy’, showcased on last year’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. He oozed confidence, daring someone to try to take him down from his throne as king of the new school. He dropped a mixtape with Future, with song titles like ‘I’m the Plug.’ He literally, physically beefed up, and then won of the most public rap beefs ever. The controversy starts when the authenticity of these different personas comes into question, most notably the last one. The anti-Drake crowd finds most of its argument in that they find that Drake tries too much to sound “hard” and that actually he’s a “soft rapper,” contrary to the persona he’s putting on. While I see where these people are coming from, this is where Drake is like a pro wrestler. I know it’s fake, but I don’t care. Drake isn’t really the plug, and the police probably aren’t looking to his him and his crew to help solve a case, but listening to Drake purely for authenticity misses the point. Drake is playing a character, and while we know it’s not real, the end product is so well written and intricately crafted that his music is deserving of the kind of recognition it receives. The wrestling in the WWE is not real, but the entertainment is. The music of Drake is much the same. He may not be “real” by traditional hip hop standards, but that doesn’t take away from the ridiculous consistency and quality of his music.
Views is an album much like J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive, in that it’s a competent album disguised as a great one – and hyped as a magnum opus of sorts. That’s not to say Views is without the moments of greatness we’ve come to expect from a Drake album, however that the moments in between feel unusually average. Views’ best moment perhaps comes in the opener, ‘Keep the Family Close.’ This song is classic Drake, from the auto-tuned warbling about a girl who’s outgrown him, to the maybe Drake-iest line of all time: “Always saw you for what you could’ve been/ Ever since you met me/ Like when Chrysler made that one car that looked just like the Bentley.” It’s got a magnitude 9 beat: moody, orchestral, and theatrical. Drake’s always had a penchant for openers, so this is of little surprise. It’s Drake doing what Drake does best. However, as the album plays on, that becomes exactly the problem. ‘Keep The Family Close’ makes use of a voicemail in the outro, transitioning into boastful snythy ode to Toronto ‘9’. Drake talk-flows over a boom-bap drum beat, mixed with a distorted sample before sing-songing about doing major things. Next on ‘U With Me?’ Drake monotone sing-talk-raps about a girl who’s messing with his head. Stop me if you’ve heard these before. Don’t get me wrong, the songs are quality; the intricate understanding of crafting a song that Drake and Noah Shebib possess is still evident; every one of these songs is moody yet groovy, and as fun to listen to as ever.
But throughout Views you can’t escape the nagging feeling that we’ve heard this all before. ‘Feel No Ways’ is Views’ version of ‘Hold On, We’re Going Home’, a fun pop song that’s infectious – a car sing along if there ever was one. But again, it’s something Drake’s done many times over. The album really only deviates sonically when we’re introduced to dancehall Drake. It’s a welcome switch-up, and while it’s not groundbreaking stuff, it is really good pop with a Caribbean influence, accessible but contagiously catchy. Time will tell whether or not these tracks will hold up, seeing as bouncy pop loosely inspired by dancehall is all the rage at the moment. Hearing Drake say “ting” still sounds silly, but there could be a Kanye-808’s style situation where rappers latch on to the sound and it proves to be highly influential in the coming years. However, Drake really only spends a few songs exploring this sound, and it’s not enough to break the album’s dreary atmosphere that at this point just feels too samey. ‘One Dance’ is one of the albums highlights, and makes one wish that perhaps Drake would’ve spent more time honing his skills on songs of this style rather than doing what he already does best, again. ‘Grammys’ which features Future, feels more like a leftover of their collaborative mixtape What a Time to Be Alive than it does a fully-fleshed out banger from two of rap’s most consistent hit makers. ‘Too Good’ is pop gold, sure to dominate the summer radio, complete with a Rihanna feature and 2016’s sure-to-be most overused social media line “Last night I got high as your expectations.” Still, it’s hard to see it as anything but ‘Take Care Pt. 2.’ Ironically, the album’s possibly most interesting moment comes from Majid Jordan, not Drake, on ‘Summers Over Interlude,’ a smooth, soulful interlude leading up to the album’s penultimate track. It’s only a minute and a half long, but I can’t help but wonder why Drake didn’t add a verse or two, which would’ve probably made it the album’s best and most dynamic song. It’s certainly the most interesting instrumental on the album, simply for the fact that it’s so different from what we usually expect from Drake’s production. The album finishes with the title track, finding him rapping over a beat centred on a choral soul sample, generally reminiscing on his position in the rap game. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The beat on ‘Views’ is extremely similar to Take Care’s ‘Lord Knows’, but with inferior bars (and no Rick Ross feature). That doesn’t make it a bad song, but it does make for a deeply unsatisfying closer, and an apt summary of the album that precedes it.
This isn’t a condemnation, much as it may seem, but more of a frustration with an artist who repeatedly raised his own bar through quality and consistency. Drake has no one to blame but himself for our expectations of Views. It’s not a bad album; in fact, there are true moments of greatness on Views. The problem though, is that very good just doesn’t cut it when you’ve previously dropped two possibly generation-defining albums. Almost everything on Views Drake has already done, and better. The good news though, is that now he’ll have to evolve once again – and who knows where that’ll take him. And in the meantime, we can all just get down to ‘One Dance’.