2017

Lana Del Rey – Lust for Life

Lust for Life is the first Lana Del Rey album I’ve ever really listened to, although I had been generally familiar with her sound and aesthetic ever since “Video Games” made the rounds back in 2011.  Enough ink has been spilled (or more realistically, bytes of storage space allocated) over Lana’s said vintage 70s Los Angeles vibe to warrant me skipping that aspect of her artistry, but I will say that I tend to respect and admire artists that do stick to a well-defined aesthetic vision, and Lana’s latest only ratchets up that process filter Hollywood nostalgia another notch.

Lust for Life is 72 minutes of slow, atmospheric, moody ballads about romanticizing relationships that feel real only in the way old polaroid photos do; they approximate reality, but there’s something too inherently dramatic about the colors and lighting to ever see them as real scenes.  Take “Groupie Love“, one of two A$AP Rocky features (whose verses pair surprisingly well with Lana’s apathetic choral intonation), where Lana’s protagonist ignores the reality of her typically low-stakes groupie relationship and replaces it with something far more loving and intimate – “It’s so sweet, swingin’ to the beat / When I know that you’re doin’ it all for me.”  As the star, Rocky allows himself to be seduced by the fantasy (“you and I, so who do we trust? / You and I ’til the day we die”), and the cinematic strings and reverb effects complete track.  The song perfectly represents the juxtaposition of emotions on Lust for Life; every word on the track is inherently positive, but within the production exists the dreaded truth that relationships framed this way exist only in Lana’s imagination.

The wonderful and gorgeous opener, “Love“, sounds entirely sincere, remarking on the inherent desire to squeeze every last ounce of pleasure and happiness out of youth (“You get ready you get all dressed up / To go nowhere in particular / Back to work or the coffee shop / It don’t matter because it’s enough to be young and in love”), but the fact that Lana is devoting the better part of her album as an ode to perfectly capturing the feeling before it becomes heartbreaking nostalgia infers the other side of the coin.  The title-track, featuring The Weeknd, follows up with an almost identical sentiment, but magnified down to a single night, and with the threat of death (or worse, adulthood) rearing its head a bit more transparently (“We dance on the H of the Hollywood sign / then we run out of breath, gotta dance til we die // And a lust for life keeps us alive”).  And “Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind” sounds very much based in reality, but the inherent extravagance and escapism of the modern day music festival is about as far from real life as one can get within their local metro’s city limits, and Lana seems to realize this as she steps back and observes the scene from an older, more objective place (“What about all these children / and all their children’s children? / And why am I even wondering that today?”).

The record’s excellent front side is rounded out with the stories of relationships breaking apart at the seems (“Cherry”, “In My Feelings”) in overwrought, dramatic fashion (“Is it real love?  It’s like smiling when the firing squad’s against you”), lamenting over a summer fling in which our protagonist is essentially Tired of Sex (“Summer Bummer”, which features a great A$AP Rocky verse), and perhaps the crashing back to earth that spells the death of the relationship with the musician from “Groupie Love” on “White Mustang”.  By the pretty, optimistic, 10th-sequenced swan song “God Bless America – and All the Beauitful Women in It”, the closest thing to a ‘fist pumper’ we could ever expect from a Lana Del Rey album (I can just see the giant projected flag waving behind her at the live show), it feels like Lana has delivered her message and her vibe in a timely, succinct, and effective package.  There are absolute highlights, good features, and a nice push and pull of youthful excitement and world-wearied lamentation.

But the record isn’t 10 songs.  It’s 16 songs, and the final 6 feel both unnecessary and somewhat betraying of the album’s fairly insular perspective.  “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing” is an unnecessary political statement from an artist who works best as a blissed out blinder to my daily newsfeed, and it offers far from an innovative take on the current state of geopolitical affairs (“Is it the end of an era / Is it the end of America?”)  Similarly, “Heroin” feels like an unnecessary foray into the familiar-to-the-point-of-cliche rock song staple subject of using drugs to numb one from the harshness of reality (though to be clear, this song remarks on the tragic usage of another person, and it does feature a pretty intense ‘screaming’ section – “It’s fucking hot! Hot!”).  But to me, most egregious is “Tomorrow Never Came”, a riff on The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Comes” and a duet with John Lennon’s son, Sean Lennon, in which the production, melody and specifically Sean’s attempt to imitate his dad’s vocals so poorly represent The Fab Foursome it verges on parody even before the lyrics take a cringeworthy turn into self-reference- “Lennon and Yoko, we would play all day long / “Isn’t life crazy?”, I said now that I’m singin’ with Sean”.  (Vomits.)

Still, I find myself returning to Lust for Life over and over, thanks in no small part to the fact that because of it’s length I don’t often get past the ninth or tenth track, but also because I really like Lana’s vocal stylings, I really like the production, the album is easy to have on in a variety of scenarios, and the lyrics are almost always good and often filled with interesting takes on the fantasies that are historical relationships.  I don’t think this album is doing anything really original – Lana’s three previous LPs serve of evidence of that- but it completes its mission admirably, and I can forgive the glaring lack of tight editing on the track list (seriously, very, very few albums really need to be 72 minutes or longer).  If you didn’t like Lana Del Rey before, Lust for Life isn’t gonna change your mind.  But if you wanna feel like your drunk on lust and melting on the beach in some instagram-filter world, Lust for Life just might be for you.

Score: 9 / 13

Advertisements

SZA – Ctrl

Listening through Top Dawg Entertainment’s (label home of Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q and Isaiah Rashad) only female artist SZA’s debut full length, Ctrl, I’ve found myself thinking back to Frank Ocean’s masterpieces, Channel Orange and Blonde.  I think this is partially because these are among the best ‘R&B’ (if you can give Blonde a genre) albums I’ve heard over the last few years, partially because the production work of both records is so outstanding, and partially because both artists mine Forrest Gump for sexual innuendo.  But I think the true tying theme is the deconstruction of the complex emotions entwined with physical intimacy; power and control (from which the album takes its name), desperation, self-doubt, moral questioning and ambiguity.  Ctrl is absolutely a sex album, but, in the style increasingly common in today’s nuanced R&B writing (see FKA Twigs or The Weeknd’s older stuff), it’s also an incredibly personal record about what these encounters, these physical transactions of sorts, mean to SZA and her complex relationships, and how that empowers her as a woman in 2017.

Take third-sequenced “Doves in The Wind” (one of the many highlights that grace the album’s near-perfect opening side), where SZA and Kendrick Lamar thoroughly investigate all the connotations of ‘pussy’.  SZA asserts the importance of her sexuality (“You can never trivialize pussy”) and throws shade on anyone who attempts to diminish it (“Your dick is weak, buddy / It’s only replaced by a rubber substitute”), while Kendrick pitches the heterosexual male’s irrational take on the subject (“Niggas’ll lose they mind for it / Wine for it , dine for it – pussy / Pussy got endless prisoners, pussy always revengin’ her”).  Both artists complement each-other in a two-sided but refreshingly female-empowered take on sex.

But then on followup “Drew Barrymore”, SZA can relax into the perfect casual sexual encounter that can exist purely for pleasure, outside of power dynamics – “I’m so glad you could come by / Somebody get the tacos, somebody spark the blunt / Let’s start the Narcos off at episode one”.  This 360 evaluation of relations are part of what gives Ctrl heavy lyrical depth that also tackles depression (“We get so lonely, we pretend that this works/ I”m so ashamed of myself think I need therapy”), body image (“I know you’d rather be laid up with a big booty / You know I’m sensitive about havin’ no booty”) and aging into adulthood (“Hopin’ my 20 somethings won’t end / Hopin’ to keep the rest of my friends / Prayin’ the 20 somethings don’t kill me”).

But aside from its lyrical maturity, Ctrl‘s excellence is deeply indebted to how incredibly appealing and effortless SZA’s flow and cadence is throughout.  From her reggae inspired lilt on “Doves in the Wind” to her sinusoidal rap singing on opener “Supermodel” to the Destiny’s Child-like quickfire of “Wavy”, pretty much every vocal turn on the album is a home run.  She moves between singing, speak-singing and rapping with unexpected contours and emphasis on tracks (such as the Travis Scott-featuring “Love Galore”) like a surfer riding the curl of an endless wave.  And the production techniques applied to the dense and many harmonies that pop up throughout every verse and chorus of the record, including falsettos, echos and left-right panning (perhaps most notably on standout “Prom”), add even more dynamics and dimensions.  Through it all, however, SZA is never reaching, never shouting, constantly maintaining a cool level-headedness even on the record’s most emotional moments.  This choice to stay chill aligns perfectly with the album’s uninterrupted easy-going and minimalist arrangement choices.

Production-wise, Ctrl is full of interesting bells and whistles that tend to stay true to low-energy, bass and drums based arrangements, allowing subtle touches like the woozy, underwater synths on “Drew Barrymore” or the “Hotline Bling”-esque Trop-House notes on “Love Galore”.  As previously mentioned, the harmony and vocal overdub work account for many of the album’s most impressive moments, though crisp instrumentation like the snare drum that finally rolls into the final third of “Supermodel” are as satisfying as they are essential.  SZA makes room for four guest features, which feels like the perfect number, and packs them in toward the beginning and ends of the record, allowing her the space to solidify an identity through the record’s middle third.  Travis Scott and Kendrick both historically bat a high average on their features, but their voices here go above a good verse, syncing perfectly with SZAs relaxed but sexually-charged aesthetic.  Less so, however, for the abrasive Isaiah Rashad on “Pretty Little Birds”, the album’s penultimate cut.

If I had to nitpick, I’d say the more formless, down-tempo songs at the album’s center, “Garden” and “Broken Clocks”, hem closer to a traditional, less unique sound than what preceded and follow them, and the record, while in no means too long (50 minutes and 14 tracks) probably could have afforded to and benefited from their cutting.  Still, “Ctrl” succeeds lyrically and sonically, and in particular SZA’s unique vocals and singing style make it hard to go back to listening to airier or less distinctive vocalists.  As for standouts, “Prom” is a catchy-as-fuck low-key banger and “Love Galore” and “Doves in the Wind” are instant classics (also a big fan of the former’s music video).  I think Ctrl is by far the strongest R&B record of the year, and deserves to be seen as a shining example of the genre’s continued transformation come the end of the decade.

Score: 11 / 13

Gorillaz – Humanz

God this album is bad.  Every year there’s bound to be one massive disappointment from a critically revered artist, and thus far this year Damon Albarn’s beloved Gorillaz project is winning (losing?) that race by a landslide.  The first Gorillaz album since 2010’s solid Plastic Beach, Humanz arrives two years after Albarn reunited Blur for The Magic Whip, a so-so album that sounds exactly like you’d expect Blur to sound 15 years after their heyday, and three years since his sad, grey, lonely and boring solo album, Everyday Robots.  And it’s a mess in all the worst ways possible.  It’s dense in songs, features and ideas but next to none of them succeed.  It’s way too long, a 20 track, 48 minute slog that feels much longer.  There are six needless, corny interludes.  The vocal features are all over the place; verses from solid performers sound completely out of place on the instrumentals Albarn has built for them, and others are just awful regardless of what they’re rapping / singing over.  There is no trace of personality or presence from the imaginary band that the project takes its name for; rather, Humanz sounds like a collection of unsuccessful demos that should have been titled “Damon Albarn writes subpar, half-baked songs for people he thinks are cool and wants to work with.”

Humanz, like other Gorillaz releases, is a pseudo concept album about the slow, deliberate destruction of humanity at the hands of greed, warfare, deceit, inept government and late stage market capitalism.  And for the most part, the featured vocalists adhere to the theme in their lyrical content.  The album also has a cohesive production aesthetic; dark, heavy, bassy tracks with little in the way of colorful synthesizers or guitars.  And those are the only compliments I can give Humanz.  It’s sort of remarkable that Damon Albarn wrote hits like “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good Inc.“, but couldn’t manage to put together one catchy song anyone would remember five minutes after it’s ended.  It’s perhaps even more remarkable that he wrote beautiful, melancholy ballads like “El Manana“, yet not a single song here pulls at any heartstring or impresses with synthetic production.  The instrumentals are incredibly boring, repetitive and lack imagination completely.  Every track is just a 4/4 pounding bass rhythm with a few low, ominous synths, a rap verse or speak-singing passage followed by a ‘hook’ or ‘chorus’ that sounds almost exactly like the rest of the track, like the rest of the whole album, except with some sad, faux-tragic female vocalist or Albarn’s own voice singing banal, nondescript lyrics about how much the world sucks.

The proper opener  is Vince Staples on “Ascension”, probably the best song here (Vince Staples can’t really deliver a bad verse), but the production fails to impress, an uptempo, vaguely dark, vaguely electronic haberdashery featuring a canned gospel chorus sample chanting “higher”.  Things only get worse after that.  “Strobelite” is the worst combination of Albarn’s dancey, techno impulses and inoffensive 80s disco pastiche.  “Momentz” is practically unlistenable, not because De La Soul isn’t spitting as fast as he can, but because the underlying bass pounding out every quarter note sounds fucking awful, the chanted “Momentz!” vocal sample spliced in every 12 seconds or so sounds fucking awful, and the shrieking, wailing “Plastic on the ceiling!” bridge sounds fucking awful.  All the interludes are heavy-handed and completely unnecessary, such as “The Non-Conformist Oath”, where the ‘irony’ of a crowd repeating in unison “I promise not to repeat what other people say!” makes 50 Cent’s fellatio reference on “Candy Shop” appear subtle in comparison.

No song is pretty.  No vocal take is especially memorable or enjoyable.  Danny Brown probably has the best verse here (another rapper who rarely fails to be exciting) but the droning techno R&B number he’s paired on compliments his vocal style like salad dressing compliments ice cream.  There’s a track called “Sex Murder Party” that’s as bad as a song called “Sex Murder Party” could have been (yes, the chorus whispers “Sex murder party”), but far more boring – nothing fucking happens on this song at all!  The record stumbles and face-plants out the door with the penultimate “Hallelujah Money”, which features a bizarre baritone vocal from Benjamin Clementine reciting revolutionary lyrical content expressing the concept that money is the root of all evil (Gasp!).  But the closer is miles worse; an upbeat, positive song that sounds like it was Albarn’s attempt to write for Sesame Street (“We got the power to be loving each other no matter what happens!  We got hte power to do that!”) before Savages’ Jehnny Beth (yes, you read that right) shows up with an incredibly awkward and uncomfortable, nearly campy vocal take that makes me want to kill myself.

And through it all, where the hell are the Gorillaz?  The fictional band is nowhere to be found, no guitar lines from Noodle, no acoustic bass lines from Murdoch, minimal live drumming from Russel and only occasional vocal takes from 2-D (aka Albarn himself).  Albarn stated in an interview that he has 40 more Gorillaz songs that didn’t make the album (there are also six ‘deluxe edition’ songs you can get on iTunes or something).  If these were the 14 best songs he could put together, I can’t even begin to imagine the steaming pile of shit that are those other 40.

Score:  2 / 13

Young Thug – Beautiful Thugger Girls

Young Thug is one of the most interesting rappers to emerge this decade.  Ostensibly an Atlanta-based trap artist, his signature squealing, half singing, notoriously incomprehensible vocal style gives him easily the most unique voice in the game, a voice that’s been (deservedly) championed as well as condemned and imitated ever since his breakthrough single, “Lifestyle“.  He gets featured all over the place (most recently on two standout tracks from Drake’s latest mixtape), wears amazing and provocative outfits, features in a few wonderful music videos, and puts out mixtapes at a clip of two per year or so, his most recent being last summer’s solid Jeffery.  His newest mixtape, Beautiful Thugger Girls, is his biggest departure to date, away from both trap and rapping in favor of slow, smooth pop, sultry R&B, prominent singing, harmonies and acoustic instrumentation (the guitar on the cover isn’t entirely a red herring, despite the fact that Thugger’s holding it upside down).

Of course, for many (but not all), Thug’s Achilles heel has always been his lyrics.  Basically, every Young Thug hook and couplet remarks on one of the following subjects:

a) his desire to have sex with a woman

b) his desire to receive a blowjob from a woman

c) his desire to have anal sex with a woman

d) his request of a woman to let him ejaculate onto her

e) his desire to ejaculate onto a woman

f) his desire to ejaculate inside of a woman

Thus the album’s title, while not especially an apt description of the way Thug talks about women on the record, at least doesn’t seek to eschew the thought and intention behind every Young Thug song, album, mixtape, or what have you.  The record’s opening lyric is “Let me put that dick inside of your panties” (over a pretty sweet reversed acoustic guitar, however).  A sampling of the album’s hooks include “Fuck me, suck me”,  “Gimme the threesome, three three three threesome,” and “You said you gon’ fuck me to death when you see me, you said that you said that!”.  Granted, Thug definitely hedges far more toward admiration for women than misogyny (unlike nearly all of his peers), but aside from a head turning line here and there, Beautiful Thugger Girls contains exactly the vacuous sexual desire and bad puns you’ve come to expect from a Young Thug project.

Which of course doesn’t doom the album whatsoever.  No one’s going into this expecting Kendrick or Vince Staples, and if they were… lol.  But sonically, Beautiful Thugger Girls is for the most part a really nice listen.  Very few of Thug’s peers, especially within trap, can claim a song as pretty musically as opener “Family Don’t Matter”, with its acoustic guitars, tambourine and melancholy choral vocals.  “You Said” features some impressive guitar arpeggios (a sample, but still a good choice) and more harmonies, and “Me or Us” is basically a Bright Eyes song featuring Young Thug.  As far as melodic, singer-songwriter rap is concerned, Thug is setting the bar pretty high.

The low points come when tracks revert to derivative trap formulas, such as on the Future featuring snoozefest “Relationship” or the familiar dark, ambient flute stylings of “Tomorrow Til Infinity”.  Still, Young Thug’s vocals are truly all over the place on all of these songs, singing in a wide variety of voices, high and low, nailing vibratos, falsettos, interesting melodic turns and intricate harmonies.  Listening to the project is like riding on a Young Thug melody roller coaster, and closer inspection to what he’s doing with his voice, such as on the hook of “You Said” or spitting within the peaks and valleys of the latin-tinged, horn-featuring “For Y’all”, never fails to impress.

Beautiful Thugger Girls doesn’t have the best Young Thug songs (that’d be Barter 6) or make the loudest, most inventive Young Thug statement (Jeffery), but it is both his most cohesive and prettiest album yet, capturing an aesthetic and theme and sticking with it (despite that theme being, well, girls Young Thug is into).  At 14 songs and 55 minutes, it could have used with some pairing of the more uninventive tracks, but it’s still far from the trials of listening through his 18 song, 70+ minute Slime Season mixtapes.  As far as pop music is considered, Thug’s vocals are way more interesting than anything else out there, and as R&B, the tracks sound pretty good and Thug’s flow and acrobatics are typically impressive enough to make up for less interesting song structures.  I’d say this album is about on par with Thug’s two best records and continues to show development, which is a great sign.

Score: 8 / 13

Lorde – Melodrama

The first time I heard Lorde (outside of “Royals” on the radio in passing) was on a bus headed toward Austin City Limits in October 2013.  I had downloaded her 2013 debut album Pure Heroine and was ready to rip into it for a review for my college newspaper.  But one minute into opener “Tennis Court” I was completely blown away.  The lyrics and production were equally sublime.  The songs were catchy but catered to no pop music standards.  Pure Heroine did something few albums ever can; introduce a new artist with huge crossover hit potential who can also reshape the entire pop landscape.  Suddenly, dark, spacey minimalism was very in.  She wasn’t the first to hone this sound – see xx from 2009 or The Weeknd’s 2011 trilogy– but she successfully paired it with accessibility and personality without compromising any artistry.  In the four years since its release, Pure Heroine has only gotten better with age, and the fallout of its wake can still be seen on the charts.

Four years is a long time to spend on the followup to a massive commercial and critical debut, but Lorde isn’t a traditional pop artist, and she was right to think long and hard about what statement she wanted to make on her next LP.  Songs about the trivialities of being bored and sixteen probably won’t play well over two albums, but the classic “Im famous now and I’m still jaded” sophomore trope is played-out and lacks the idiosyncratic detail Lorde puts into her lyrical work.  Instead, for Melodrama, she chose similar themes to Pure Heroine, aged a few years, with renewed emphasis on contemporary party culture underscored by the paradox of the album’s titular expression.

Production- and writing-wise, Lorde turned most prominently to Jack Antonoff of Bleachers and Fun (who a few weeks ago released by far the worst album I listened to all year).  His penchant for “bombastic”, “feel-good” choruses burrows its way into opener “Green Light”, the most obvious play for dance-floor ready radio pop (where it seems to have been quite successful) and probably the record’s second weakest track.  Lorde still bites with a practiced cattiness, but the chorused vocals shooting for empowerment lack personality.  The production takes a turn for the better on the second-sequenced “Sober”, which returns to Pure Heroine’s spacious, bass- and reverb- heavy arrangements and antichorus structure (punctuated by sharp horns), and while the sentiment (the emptiness of partying) is classic Lorde, I find the refrain (“But what will we do when we’re sober?”) awkwardly straightforward.  “Homemade Dynamite” is the best of the dancey, “I don’t know how I feel about the banality of millennial club culture” three-song opening, letting a boom-clap beat and understated synths do the heavy lifting under Lorde’s practically whispered too school for cool delivery (“I guess we’re partying”, “Know I think you’re awesome, right?”).  Thus Melodrama‘s opening movement is effective at setting themes and a mood, but its “bangers” hardly bang and it doesn’t follow through lyrically.

“The Louvre” is another semi-successful attempt to make a minimalist anthem, and does feature a couple of nice lyrical turns (“They’ll hang us in the Louvre / down the back but who cares still the Louvre”) which see Lorde turn her attention to love interests, where she has a knack for striking a nerve.  But the refrain of “Broadcast the boom boom boom and make ’em all dance to it” feels like further rehashing of all the record is saying up to this point.  The album’s best song and centerpiece, “Liability”, succeeds by pulling away from all the tricks, featuring only Lorde’s capable voice, a piano, a couple organs and an excellent melody.  The image of Lorde returning home alone find comfort in herself (“So I guess I’ll go home into the arms of the girl that I love” / “All that a stranger would see is one girl, swaying alone”) is visceral and haunting, the emotion in the song’s lyrics and delivery feeling more real than anything that preceded it.

But the record loses me again on “Hard Feelings / Loveless” – I don’t care if its sarcastic, I just can’t get behind a refrain of “This is what they call hard-feel-ings”.  The production features some of the record’s best turns, again relying on anti choruses and huge harmony sections but bringing in bizarre and unexpected synth noises that give the some an anxious edge.  But Lorde is effectively a singer-songwriter, and so her lyrics and in particular her refrains are of capital importance.  Couplets like “Cause I remember the rush when forever was us / Before all the winds of regret and mistrust” are more than capable, but I struggle to find any more specific interpretation of her plethora relationship woes when they’re all built on the backs of similar poetic couplets evoking only a general wistful nostalgia.

The album’s back half has some of the record’s strongest moments – “Sober II / Melodrama” more successfully conveys the bitterness Lorde was shooting for on “Sober” (“All the glamour and the trauma and the fucking melodrama / All the girl fights and lime lights and the holy sick divine nights”) and “Supercut” makes a strong case for the record’s second best track, capturing a mood with detailed lyricism (“In your car the radio up / We keep trying to talk about us”) an excellent metaphor (“It’s just a super cut of us”) and a truly anthemic bridge into coda.  The song is successful where earlier spots on the record fail because it feels personal; this is one specific relationship, and not a blanket statement about a culture Lorde has surprisingly predictable ideas toward.  And “Liability (Reprise)” pivots successfully to Bon Iver style autotune, rehashing similar sentiments to “Liability” but with renewed cynicism.  And “Writer in the Dark”, despite being somewhat of a zero lyrically, is the only place where Lorde really lets an unexpected hysterical wild side let loose vocally.

But after a strong back half, the record chooses to close with its worst track, “Perfect Places”, which feels exactly like the record’s opening third, full of “big, theatrical” Antonoff choruses crowded by too many harmonies voicing the dopey “Trying to find the perfect places!” kids bop refrain, without any trace of the emotion and personality Lorde has displayed she’s capable of owning.  It’s a huge disappointment but also not atypical of a record as inconsistent as Melodrama.

Overall, I think this album has some excellent lyrical and production moments, but its play for a more generic dance pop sound does not go over well, I really don’t care for Antonoff as a co-writer on a lot of these tracks, and the lyrical themes frequently overlap and fail to stand out on their own.  There are plenty of catchy moments, playful moments and uniquely Lorde moments (I think like three or four songs feature full instrument cut outs so she can saying something clever and sarcastic), but the record utterly fails to capture a specific time and place without any more than an expected amount of nuance.  A lot of people already love this record, probably because they can really relate to that “God fucking damnit partying is so vacuous!” sentiment that shows up on pretty much every chorus here.  And after all, the album is called Melodrama, so cheers to cohesiveness (I also love the cover art).  But seeing how Lorde’s bassy minimalism has since been co-opted, I think that, aside from a few standout tracks, Lorde’s appealing personality and unique vocal stylings are the only things that save this record from being another generic pop album.

Score: 8 / 13

Forest Swords – Compassion

Forest Swords, aka England’s Matthew Barnes, is an experimental electronic and ambient composer who, on the back of his head-turning 2013 breakthrough Engravings, has entered the sphere of similarly styled and admired artists such as John TalabotDarkside and Jon Hopkins.  His newest album, Compassion, feels like the crumbling of civilizations on the edge of mythical apocalypse; not a bad aesthetic for the current day and age.  The songs feel ominous but filled with energy; not a calm before the storm, but rather a revelry.

Titles like “The Highest Flood” and “Panic” from the album’s opening third are apt descriptions of the sounds within, which are evocative of communal unease and paranoia.  The clipped, non-lyrical chanting vocals and clacking of wooden percussive instruments of the former feel ritualistic, while the tribal drumming and weaving synthetic oboe of the latter are intoxicating.  “Exalter” follows as the actual sacrificial ceremony, the sound of a prehistoric Central American civilization filtered through distorted electronic vocoders and drum machines.

The album takes a respite in its center third, as “Border Margin Barrier” and “Arms Out” move into more lulling, ambient territory.  “Sjurvival” is a brief comedown, taking a chapter from William Basinski’s book by incorporating the sad sounds of muffled, dusty brass instruments floating in reverb, before the huge strings and chants of the penultimate “Raw Language,” end the scene with a bang.  Closer “Knife Edge”, led by glitchy pianos banging out minor arpeggios feels like an epilogue, a credits roll moment following an intense psychological thriller.

Compassion is thematic and well-sequenced.  But while the songs consistently feel appropriately dramatic, the mood they create is fairly static, and few individual tracks standout (“Sjurvival” being a notable exception).  Forest Swords is clearly a talented composer and his soundscapes are dense, but the constant buzz of reverb, use of glitchy editing and intentionally choppy vocal production leave me desiring for some crystal clear, beautifully synthetic moments.  This album sets a mood and sticks to it, and the overall trajectory works, but there’s nothing in it that strikes me as particularly risky, novel or compelling.  I find the darker ambient trance of Talabot more gripping, and the detailed production textures of Visible Cloaks more interesting.  Some ambient and electronic fans will really dig this release, but for me it was at best fine and at worst repetitive.

Score: 6 / 13

Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up

Crack-Up, the third LP from famed Seattle indie folk act Fleet Foxes, convincingly cements the group’s place in the “3 for 3 club”.  The “3 for 3 club” is a term I made up to describe artists whose first three studio albums have all been very very good.  The reasoning is that while making one great album is hard, and two doubly so, going three for three signifies that you really really know what you’re doing.  You didn’t get lucky and you didn’t burn out, and you’re probably here to stay.  (Other recent indie rock inductees to this club would include Bon Iver, Vampire Weekend, Father John Misty and Tame Impala.)  But I don’t think there was ever any doubt that Robin Pecknold and co. were the real deal – I mean just listen to those harmonies on the chorus of “Helplessness Blues“.  The question, rather, was in what direction would the group push?  Would they move to more ambient, conceptual music?  Would they add layers of synths and other electronics, as bands are notoriously known to do on LP3?  Would they abandon their heavy folk aesthetic?  The answer is twofold; first, Fleet Foxes got really good at writing and arranging enormous, overwhelming and beautiful Fleet Foxes songs, and second, Pecknold got far more socially conscious and political as a lyricist.

Everyone is making Crack-Up out to be this soul searching depression record for Pecknold, citing his extended absence from the project, his return to school at Columbia, the album’s opening lyric of “I’m all that I need / and I’ll be til I’m through,” but Crack-Up is far more outward looking than any previous Fleet Foxes material.  Recently, Pecknold himself responded to a negative review of the record with a wall of passive aggressive text that’s generally in poor taste save for this hilarious quote – “If some of the lyrics are more imagistic than explicit, they’re still more engaged in the present world than anything on our first album, where the lyrics were just pure RPG fantasy.”  Correct!  After nearly a decade, Pecknold has successfully traded “I was following the pack all swallowed in their coats” for “Song of masses, passing outside / All inciting the fifth of July / When guns for hire open fire”, from standout Cassius, –, a song about Pecknold’s engagement in the protests surrounding the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.  Cassius here refers to the recently deceased Muhammed Ali, who shows up again in “I Should See Memphis”.

Both “-Naiads, Cassadies” and “Kept Woman” concern themselves with gender dynamics and feminism, the former addressing the perceived helplessness and delicacy of women by comparing them instead to elemental forces; “Fire can’t doubt its heat / Water can’t doubt its power / You’re not adrift, you’re not a gift, you know you’re not a flower”.  The second half’s “If You Need to, Keep Time on Me” acts as a calm and reassuring voice following the election of Trump – “How could it all fall in one day?  Were we too sure of the sun?  If you need to, keep time on me”.  The election is again referenced with optimistic sentiment on “Fool’s Errand”, where Pecknold sings to a marching beat “Blind love couldn’t win / As the facts all came in /  But I know I’ll again chase after wind”.  In short, Crack-Up is, unique to a Fleet Foxes’ discography, in time and in tune with the current political and societal climate.

But Crack-Up, lyrically dense as it may be (just check out Pecknold’s own Geinus annotations on “Third of May / Odaigahara”, about his relationship with bandmate Skye Skjelset), is really a record about the music and the arrangements.  This album is enormous.  From the one minute mark of opener “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumprint Scar”, a rushing cacophony of aggressively strumming acoustic instruments and pounding bass drum rock the listener into some of the densest instrumentation Fleet Foxes have attempted.  The song’s conceptual structure is phenomenal; Pecknold debates himself, a low, insecure voice arguing one point before the arrangement takes the song by force once again and no less than eight vocal harmonies scream back at himself.  “I am hardly made of steel” – “Tell me, are you so concealed?!”  The dynamics and juxtaposition of loud to soft are masterfully done.  The rest of the record’s A-side follows with further lush instrumentation – the finger picking electric guitars on “-Naiads, Cassadies”, the haunting, jumbled piano on “Kept Woman” standing apart from the fray.  “Cassius,-” barrels ahead like a rapidly rushing stream, symbolic of Pecknold’s fall into the slipstream of social protest and in theme with the album’s water motif.

Of course, this front side is all a build up to the album’s unbelievable centerpiece, “Third of May / Odaigahara”.  Pecknold finally let’s his voice soar above the arrangement alone, free of third and fifth harmonies, and soar it does, reaching an absolutely gorgeous high melody line.  That this is the most memorable, most sing-a-longable but also the densest and most conceptual and complex song here is astonishing.  Again, loud soft dynamics serve to highlight Pecknold’s back and forth with himself, moving through time in Fleet Foxes’ history, shuttling himself to Columbia and back to Seattle (“Now, back in our town, as a castaway”) but constantly comforted by friendship and music (“But I can hear you out in the center / Oh how we were made to be crowded together like leaves”).  The song moves into an aggressive minor key movement before making way for the ambient, Japanese-inspired “Odaigahara” section that caps off its nearly nine-minute run time.  This track is ridiculous and I wouldn’t be surprised to find it atop best song lists by year’s end.

Crack-Up is carefully sequenced, following the gigantic “Third of May” with the gentle and reassuring “If You Need to, Keep Time on Me”.  The album then falls into its darker, murkier second half, where the personal mantra-like “Mearcstapa” evokes cold Northern European seas both in lyrical imagery and ambient tone.  “On Another Ocean (January / June)” features ominous piano as Pecknold continuous to dig into himself and his choices.  The record ends the trek down the other side of the mountain with the nearly formless and drifting “I Should See Memphis” (which, I should mention, features my only issue with the production, on Pecknold’s vocal”) and the slow, steady title track, which again sees Pecknold debating himself in multiple voices (“I can tell you’ve cracked / Like a china plate”) before ending the record with horns, a choir of voices and the sound of someone running down a staircase and out the door.

Every second of Crack-Up is more densely arranged than just about anything else out there, the record alternates between personal and political, there are myriad conceptual moments carried out in the production, there are definite motifs and lyrical themes, the songs are often very beautiful, and the sequencing is spot-on.  The only fault I can really find with this album is that it lacks the catchy upbeat, marquee singles the previous records featured, and calling that a ‘fault’ feels pretty flimsy.  I think Fleet Foxes have delivered an album rich and detailed enough to warrant countless deep listens, each unveiling new pieces of the album’s many themes and textures.  I don’t know if this is my favorite Fleet Foxes album – I really do love singing along with the by now canonical melodies on many of the tracks from their self-titled debut – but it’s pretty much everything a band could hope to deliver on one fifty-five minute LP, and I anticipate seeing it referenced as one of 2017’s definitive albums in the years to come.

Score: 12/13