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Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen

8 Dec

It’s immediately apparent that this is the album after the death of Nick Cave’s son. The melancholy is beautiful and everywhere. It’s much more of an ambient album than is standard for him and, if anything, benefits from the move outside. It does however also suffer a little from what becomes a slightly unvarying sound as a result though.

However, the grief comes through poignantly throughout. In particular, the retelling of the Buddhist parable of the house that knows no death in “Hollywood” is heart-rending. It’s a touching, beautiful album and one that you will not leave unmoved.

Earl Sweatshirt – FEET OF CLAY

28 Nov

Earl Sweatshirt has built a solid pocket of rap for himself. He makes muddy, complex, punishing rap in a way that no one else even really attempts. FEET OF CLAY however may have taken it too far.

His muttered, submerged raps are as awe-inspiring as ever. He puts together sounds and words in a way that’s simultaneously muddy and evocative, like scrying in a swamp. It’s singular and cohesive and often somewhat punishing as a result. He has such complex bars with lyricism as unique as it is skilled.

The punishment was always sort of the point, but this is the one where it feels a little unjustified. The album is just too dense and lacks the reward of a “Chum” or a “Grief” to really pay off the effort. If you’re an Earl Sweatshirt fan, then you already know that you should give this album a couple of spins, but if not, this is not the place to jump in.

FKA Twigs – MAGDALENE

18 Nov

FKA Twigs has long made some of the most interesting pop out there, but MAGDALENE is a full step above her earlier work. It’s easily her best album to date and one of the best albums of the year. She’s sharper, she’s more cohesive and this album just bangs.

There are the obvious parts, “holy terrain” works very well with the Future feature. The trap beat plays nicely against her voice and Future is perfectly understated. The heart of the album is in the thousands of little moments. There’s a beautiful vocal fragment to end “mary magdalene” and the pulsations of “fallen alien” are consuming and intense.

The album even works in the much slower “mirrored heart” and it fits expertly. The feedback in it adds a surprising heft and her lyrics are cutting. Coming as this album did, after a major break-up and a major surgery, it could have easily been a sledgehammer of an album, but her restraint makes the moments that reference the turmoil all the more powerful. Her finesse here is astonishing.

There are a few missteps in “home with you” and “daybed”, which just don’t do enough, but there is much more of note, like the beautiful and clever “sad day”. This is an album from an absurdly talented artist at the height of her powers and an album you don’t want to miss.

Kanye West – Jesus Is King

10 Nov

It’s a given now that a new Kanye album is going to be something of a production. Albums are promised and due dates come and go and you’re never sure what you will get until it comes. With Jesus Is King, what you get is a lot of truly excellent music and one of the more interesting albums that Kanye has ever made.

Coming in, I thought it would be a full gospel album. I expected “Ultralight Beam” extended into a complete album. Instead, although there is a very substantial gospel theme, the album as a whole is surprisingly diverse. There’s a heavy religious bent and the album is very cohesive, but my concerns about monotony proved entirely unfounded.

The album opens with a straight gospel track though, performed by the Sunday Service Choir that Kanye has toured with of late. It’s a good choir and a good way to open the album. It functions as a statement of purpose and a way for the listener to enter the mindset that the album asks for. It’s ablutionary.

It’s followed with “Selah,” which opens with Kanye rapping, but the centerpiece of the song is that same choir. Kanye has a couple of good lines (I like his biblical double-entendres), but the song is completely overpowered by the choir. It’s weapons-grade material to put into any song and it animates the song to such an extent that Kanye’s rapping after it feels completely subsumed by the echoes of that choral work. It makes for a powerful effect and one of the strongest songs of the album, but I feel that there’s space there for a better melding.

From there though, we go into “Follow God,” which really showcases Kanye’s ability as a rapper. In this and in “Hands On,” you can see technical rapping in a way that it feels that the earlier Kanye was just not capable of. He teases the chorus a couple of times in the middle of the song just to bull through it without taking a full breath and it’s dazzling. Even more interesting though is the center of the song, Kanye fighting with his father just to be told that it’s not Christ-like. The reality of spirituality is that it will be tested, and this struggle is one writ especially large with Kanye’s turn to God here. Kanye is famous for his emotionality, for his quickness to react, for his inability to think before he acts, and to see him address the struggle is valuable as it’s rare to see someone be honest and personal about how difficult it can be.

“Closed On Sunday” has a bit of the same. The Sabbath is a sacrifice as much as a respite and you can see the intent behind referencing Chick-fil-A’s decision to stay closed on Sunday out of respect for their faith. The production is sober and quiet and Kanye’s rapping is muted through most of it, which gives the music a heft that plays well with the theme and the wariness of the first verse, which then translates well into the second, often-shouted verse.

The Chick-fil-A association still leaves gristle in the teeth though. The company is far more famous for homophobia than for Sundays and to not only repeatedly reference them, but to end the song with a screamed invocation is overtly provocative. You have to expect that with Kanye, it is what he does, it gets the people going, but nevertheless I would have really liked it if he had backed it up a little. He explains “I Thought About Killing You” over the course of the song and that is why that piece is so strong, but here he simply provokes and runs, and it feels less than it should as a result.

The middle is a bit forgettable. It’s reminiscent of some of the more forgettable parts of TLoP to me, but I actually really like “God Is.” It’s just earnest and that’s nice to see. Earnestness is another of those things that’s critical to any understanding of religion, but it’s also one that people are often reluctant to center a song on just because of how uncomplicated it is. Uncomplicated is not the same as inferior though, and I like to see something straightforward every now and again.

For all of that though, “Hands On” calls out the Christians. It’s a necessary part of an album like this, it’s a good reminder that the struggle for spirituality is personal and not just subsuming yourself into a crowd. As above though, it’s also got strong rap from Kanye. His change of pace here is very clean. Again, it’s just nice to see how much Kanye has developed as a rapper. It was never his strongest suit, but his ability now unlocks a lot of musical space.

“Use This Gospel” helps close out the album well. Clipse are acceptable on it, but Kanye is great and bringing in Kenny G for a moment is very unexpected, but remarkably well done. It’s exactly the perfect sax interlude. The actual closer, “Jesus Is Lord” finishes right as it gets started, but that works well. It’s uplifting and beautiful and ends on exactly the right note.

Jesus Is King is not a masterpiece like MBDTF or Graduation and not as groundbreaking as 808s & Heartbreak or Yeezus, but this is possibly the most unique album that Kanye has ever made. I’ve never experienced anything that has quite the same thing to say about religion or Christianity. It’s sincere and honest in the way that only Kanye can be and the result is as personal as a fingerprint. It’s very good music and there’s plenty here to provoke thought, no matter what Kanye himself may have intended to say. It’s not without flaws, but it’s also just excellent music and it’s the album this year that I’m most glad to have heard.

Charli XCX – Charli

23 Oct

Charli has come a long way from 2013’s True Romance. That was an album that showed promise, but I don’t know how many expected Charli to be where she is now, legitimately bucking at the gates of superstardom. What makes her and Charli itself incredible though is that she is still a relentless innovator.

Admittedly, Charli does continue in the vein of her previous mixtape Pop 2, but it’s too rich a vein to complain of that. Her electro-pop-with-friends sound is still fresh and the new cast mostly works well with her.

“Gone” for instance is very good, punchy pop. Charli and Chris (of Christine and the Queens) have a fantastic push-me-pull-you dynamic that elevates both of them. Their trading of verses is thoroughly collaborative and yet contains enough of an edge to push both of them.

That edge would have helped in “Cross You Out” where Sky Ferreira slips a little too effortlessly into the song. It’s still good pop, but a little conflict might have tempered the whole thing.

Similarly, “Warm”, while a fun song, doesn’t feel like the collaboration with HAIM that I hoped for as much as a Charli song with a feature in it. It’s got some of the fun HAIM rock in it, but you sort of have to be looking for it. “February 2017” also feels like a little bit of a wasted opportunity due to how understated Clairo is in the song.

Her chemistry with Troye Sivan really makes the album though. “1999” may not be the deepest Charli cut, but it is as good pop as anything that she has ever made. It’s fun, it’s relatable and it’s very catchy. It was the lack of a single like this that brought down Pop 2 and having one of the quality of “1999” does a lot for Charli. “2099” is not quite as strong a single, but it’s a fascinating, futuristic piece.

There are still a couple of missteps. Lizzo is a bit forgettable on “Blame It On Your Love”, even if Charli herself does quite well in it. “Shake It” however is just not good. It’s noisy and grating and doesn’t do anything interesting with all of that noise. “White Mercedes” has Charli stretching herself into something more of power-pop, but that’s not really her métier.

Nevertheless, this is a strong pop album and one well worth spending some time with. Unlike thank u, next and Norman Fucking Rockwell!, this doesn’t feel like the album to take the artist to the next level, but it’s still a very solid addition to an oeuvre rapidly filling with them.

Nilufer Yanya – Miss Universe

18 Oct

This is a striking debut album. Nilufer Yanya immediately grabs your attention with her iridescent voice and bold music, both of which are used to great effect in songs like the excellent “Heat Rises.” She has a gift for combining that captivating voice with unexpected music to make very compelling music as in “Paradise” and in “Paralysed.” She keeps you off-balance expertly and does so with such brash strokes as too take your breath away. Additionally, her voice is really just fascinating in itself and she already has the ability to use it well like in “Tears.”

The album has a little too much air to fully recommend and her skits don’t do anything to help, but there’s already so much here to recommend. Miss Universe is both the promise of great things to come and, more surprisingly, the deliverance of those in itself.

Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!

7 Oct

To some degree, you know what you’re going to get with each new Lana Del Rey album. Actually, to a very large degree, you know what you’re going to get with a new LDR album. She’s taken her aesthetic of Hollywood sadcore and mined it thoroughly, albeit skillfully. There’s a grab-bag of images that come with any of her albums and they are the same fast cars, Gatsby, bad relationships, Hollywood glamour, nostalgia, Los Angeles style that you should expect by now. However, this iteration is her at her best. She’s brought a sharpness here that’s unprecedented and delivered one of the strongest albums of the year.

The opening track drops the one-liner “Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news” with a wonderful casualness and follows it later with the clever and scathing stanza “Goddamn, man-child / You act like a kid even though you stand six foot two / Self-loathing poet, resident Laurel Canyon know-it-all / You talk to the walls when the party gets bored of you / But I don’t get bored, I just see it through / Why wait for the best when I could have you? You?” and has an interesting pause for breath before the second you, before she cuts loose to sing it and this expertly transitions the song from the storytelling to the music. The schtick of the self-aware, submissive woman is becoming a little too routine, but she has mostly has the chops to still pull it off.

However, it falls apart for the less expert of her songs. “Mariners Apartment Complex” has a couple of very sharp lines (like the opening pair of “You took my sadness out of context / At the Mariners Apartment Complex) but it just doesn’t do enough of anything. It starts out with very strong storytelling, but then doesn’t deliver on it and is too laid back musically. Similarly, “Love song” is trite both musically and lyrically. “Cinnamon Girl” and “How to disappear” at least save themselves from the hyper-dramatization of the storylines with very well done music.

In the same way, “Bartender” manages to overcome the self-indulgence of the story with the fact that it’s just excellent music. Her voice works very well against the piano and song’s minimalism works very well. Unfortunately, it’s sandwiched by “The greatest”, which is just air and “Happiness is a butterfly”, which is as self-indulgent as “Bartender” but not as skilled. Mostly however, her missteps are saved by her ability to make very good music. “Doin’ time” is a fascinating cover and manages to match the album’s aesthetic, but is still incomprehensible as it is neither clever in itself nor as a part of the whole. It sounds good though. Her voice does a real number on the song.

When things come together though, the album really shines. The aforementioned title track is able to match her A-game lyricism with strong music and she is able to pull off the complete package fairly regularly. The trip-hop opening of “Fuck it I love you” is very strong and then she picks up the pace just to let it drop as she croons the chorus. Her lyrics are razor sharp as well. She’s pushes complex thoughts and detailed pictures with a remarkable economy of actual words.

“California” is the LDR aesthetic at its best. It has awkward slang, doomed relationships and space for her voice and the result delivers on the promise. Similarly, “The Next Best American Record” puts everything together.
The true highlight though is the single “Venice Bitch.” It’s slow, woozy dream pop done very, very well. It’s effortlessly ethereal and it’s got that good American imagery that she thrives on. It plays hard on the sadness of Americana and finds space for an amazing electric guitar squeal in the middle. It really does it all.

The album finishes with “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it.” It’s a shockingly risky song to make. It’s stripped down too far for comfort and that puts a lot of weight on the song and you can see it buckle under that weight repeatedly. However, the distillation of the song, the album and her entire body of work into the couplet “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have / But I have it” is extremely powerful and done beautifully by her.

Norman Fucking Rockwell! is not an album without flaws, and it’s starting to feel like those flaws will follow Lana Del Rey for her entire career, but it is nonetheless excellent. When she puts all the pieces together with the skill that she can sometimes summon, she makes music as good as any out there and this album has no shortage of those moments.

@murthynikhil

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