If you’ve been reading the blog or listening to the pod then you’ll know that I love a debut. I’ve always been fascinated by the raw honesty of a debut and the breadth of ideas that they often bring. They’re often the culmination of everything that has happened to an artist up until that point. I think it was a Galagher who said something like ‘it takes you whole life to write your debut album … then the record company want another one 12 months later’. For Joy Crookes that ‘whole life’ was 22 years when she wrote and recorded this special debut album. However, ‘Skin’ is far from her first rodeo with 3 EPs and 13 singles recorded and released since 2016.
Joy Crookes was born in Lambeth and raised in Elephant and Castle, and moved to Ladbrooke Grove in South London when she was 14. During these teen years she taught herself the guitar and piano and started writing music, ‘I didn’t know then that this could be a proper job’. Joy went the You Tube route to self publish covers and then her own original music in what is now quite a common rites of musical passage.
In Oct. 2021 she released ‘Skin’. It’s 13 tracks, 42 minutes and is (all puns fully intended) … an absolute joy to listen to. Sorry. Whilst the album would mostly likely be described as nu-soul or something similar, the styles on show are vast, pop, soul, jazz, trip-hop shades of punk and even a track that feels like it could be a Bond soundtrack contender (To Lose Someone). The album feels really personal in a way that many records don’t, even when an artist in sharing their innermost turmoil. This feels like proper soul music, channeling her young (but old) soul.
In some ways it feels very much like a debut album; there’s loads of ideas thrown into the mix, she’s obviously exploring a rich soundscape that she didn’t have access to on previous recordings and there’s a brash confidence in the way that she struts and spins through the album. However, Skin totally lacks the naivety that many debuts (including ones that I love) suffer from. As we found with Arlo Parks this time last year, the signposts for her future output are numerous. She really could go anywhere on the next album … if of course Sony let her.
So, hold on tight … cause … we need to talk about Amy. My skin is crawling from even raising the topic of Amy Winehouse as it’s the worst lazy criticism possible. But, I am sorry, there are valid comparisons. But when I make these comparisons, I mean them as the biggest compliment to both artists. I loved Frank. It’s right up there on my list of faulted but adored debut albums. I properly fell in love with Amy Winehouse when I heard Frank. I felt like I knew her. ‘Skin’ has exactly the same kind of raw personality as Frank. They are both at times heart breaking and at the next moment amusing and jubilant. The broad, lush, widescreen soundscape that is employed on Skin is at times reminiscent of Back to Black. Both artists sound nostalgic and futuristic at the same time. When I say this album reminds me of Amy Winehouse I mean it reminds me of all of the things that I love about Amy Winehouse.
Lyrically, this album is a monster. Joy Crookes is a STRONG songwriter. This album really demonstrates her talent across what are quite different tracks in terms of style and subject matter. Relationships, gender politics, family shit, politics, and London are all in the mix. She writes about all of them in a personal manner that never looks the other way, is heartfelt and often well humoured. There are 1 or 2 tracks where the standard slips a little (Wild Jasmine being the track that comes to mind) but the album is strong enough as a body of work to keep momentum.
If this album was released earlier … even a month or two … I think it would have featured pretty high in my 2021top 10. It’s so easy to recommend to people. Thank you Joy, I’m genuinely excited to see what you do next.
Mano Le Tough, Irish-born Niall Mannion’s career within Dance music has been one that all young music fans dream of. Initially stepping into the realm of dance music after toying with indie music in his teens he was quickly discovered (within minutes) of posting his first tracks on myspace by indie disco stalwart Tensnake in 2007. Soon after he moved to Berlin and quickly built a musical and DJ led following that most would dream of. Combing through his back catalogue, though at times limited, quality his always prevailed and so has his reputation. This from Pampa Records sums up their artist to a tee:‘living alongside sought after personal singles, two full length albums, and remixes for, among others, The Pet Shop Boys, Roisin Murphy, Caribou and Erol Alkan, Mano became one of Europe’s most in-demand DJs, with headline performances across the continent’s dancefloors and the world’s biggest music festivals. Since early 2020, however, he’s been at home, attempting to channel inspiration from eighteen months without live music, amid the anxiety of a global pandemic’.
Any self proclaimed forward thinking dance music wanker like myself will point out that Mano Le Tough is one of the most consistent producers when creating adventurous dance records. In short the hipster dance geeks think he’s pretty special. His 2014 Boiler Room set is one of my most listened to DJ mixes. He has a slew of others that I regularly revisit. He’s a DJ that anyone serious about dance music should see at least once in their life, though this should not be a precursor to this album as this album takes you on journey that at times would create dance floor moments but is more moulded to more laid back situations with a rear view on the dancefloor.
Last year we discussed on the podcast about music that was being made in lockdown and what the music would sound like. Like last months’ album, we’re starting to see the fruits ripened from 18 months of isolation. Largely hashed out in early 2020 from demos and new ideas you get the feel that this is an album of calmness away from the constant travel and DJing in the worlds best clubs every weekend. Mannion has mentioned in a couple interviews that not having his foot in a club every weekend let him to push himself beyond the traditional 4/4 structure that the majority of his previous releases always came back to. One interesting point is that Mannion is often overlooked for both his vocals and indie tinged tracks within dance music, which both shine throughout this album.
We talk a lot about album order and the sequencing of tracks. After the masterclass of Billie Eillish, this too isn’t far away from perfection, though this is more like a perfectly arranged mixtape and less an overall piece of work. The length is hefty, 50 minutes and 12 minutes long. Although I can hear brother Joseph knocking his head on his kitchen table in Chorley at the length, I firmly believe that this won’t be an issue for him as the flow of this album is seamless. For Joey, the deep guitar lead dance feels will undoubtedly sit perfectly in his wheel house.
‘Aye Aye Mi Mi’ may be one of my tracks of the year and I suspect it’s got something in it for us all. I imagine dropping this in a back room somewhere with all four of us in attendance. I can imagine David doing a funny dance to it, Joey giving me his ‘what is this’ bass face, and Guy popping up his head whilst chewing the ear off of someone to swiftly lift his fist in approval. It’s an all-rounder that sits well in most places at most times.
From the psychedelic trip hop of ‘Moment to Change’ to the optimistic dreaminess of ‘Fado Fado’ and ‘Short Cuts’ and deep tinged dance bangers like ‘Pompeii’ and ‘So Many So Silent’ there’s more than enough to peak any music fans interest and keep them interested throughout the 50 minutes. Trying to pinpoint what this album is will be something that I think all of us will struggle to pigeonhole within a genre.
Although there have been similar albums within the realm of this album released recently, most notably new efforts by the Joy Orbison and Darkside, this album has connected with me the most. Perhaps the well woven slowdown sounds have moulded perfectly with the autumnal / early winter feels that I’m adapting to. That combined with the feeling that the likes of Caribou, LCD Soundsystem and Four Tet are all cut from the same cloth makes this album irresistible.
When explaining this album, it’s hard to pinpoint. Is it dance, is it indie, is it ambient, is there a point in categorising it? Whilst writing this I’m trying to get my head around why I love this album so much? ‘No Road Without a Turn’ perhaps sums it up best for me. It’s unexpected, full of emotion, it constantly evolves throughout. Both the song and the album, is something that everyone should have in their lives.
This album is currently or has been number one in over 20 countries. Eilish is genuine, bona fide A list pop star – she sits alongside the Taylor Swifts and Lady Gagas at the top table. Her clothes, her love life, her age, her gender, her fanbase, her lyrics and her career in general have all been dissected over and over again by the press and also by her fans. This is an album about what that feels like. Perhaps that’s not so strange – plenty of of pop stars have sung about life in the fast lane. But what is strange is what Happier Than Ever represents. Eilish is a pop star who makes pop music. You all know I’ll defend the P word to my death. But what extraordinarily INTERESTING place pop music has gone in the last decade or so. Sure, it’s been heading that way for quite a while – but it’s certainly a long way from the Pussycat Dolls and Girls Aloud to this album. It’s the total antidote to those artists. It’s not manufactured, there is no ‘persona’ that Eilish appears to hide behind, and the entire album is not written by a team of crack songwriters, with a list of producers as long as the tracklist. The whole thing, from songwriting to production, was made by Eilish and her producer brother, Finneas. Not a single other musician plays on the entire album.
So if it’s not pop in the old-fashioned sense, then what is it? Well – Happier Than Ever is intimate, downbeat, incredibly personal, political, angry, frustrated, passionate, world-weary, poetic, sexy, goofy and funny. And that’s just off the top of my head. It’s also as tightly constructed as a piece of Swiss watch-making, and it has the best sequencing of any album I’ve heard this year. I’ve tried to find flaws, but dammit, I’m having to look very hard. In short, it is FUCKING AMAZING.
What’s really interesting is what a rich, satisfying listen this is despite the aural palette of the album not really being that wide. Songs tend to come in two flavours – the first is somewhere between synth ballad and pastoral folk (Getting Older, Billie Bossa Nova, Everybody Dies) and sultry, stripped-back grooves with a hint of darkness and even foreboding (I Didn’t Change My Number, Lost Cause, Oxycontin). It’s hardly an upbeat album, but it certainly feels like a more mature and emotionally diverse offering than her first record, brilliant though her debut was by anyone’s standards. So why does this palette work so well on this record? Because it’s a journey. Because each song is a perfect, self-contained composition that’s been crafted beautifully – but then sequenced on a record that takes us through a giant walk through Eilish’s life right now.
We kick off with Getting Older, a rumination on what she’s about to explore through the album – how she can see herself growing, where she’s finding self doubt, trying to process the things that have already happened to her – and then suddenly ending with the bullet of the last extraordinary couplet –
I’ve had some trauma, did things I didn’t wanna Was too afraid to tell ya, but now, I think it’s time
And then she does. A toxic (former?) relationship in I Didn’t Change My Number – which she returns to in the title track Happier Than Ever; a secret new relationship on Billie Bossa Nova that’s then referenced again in the incredible NDA, then a beautiful act of self-love and hope in My Future (one of the highlights on the album for me). On we go through lust (Oxycontin), before we really get into the meet of the record – Eilish confronting the abuse that is endemic in the industry. She touches on this repeatedly in Goldwing and the angry, brilliant Your Power. I’m trying to imagine a pop album 10 or 20 years ago that could have a track like Everybody Dies, a song that genuinely explores the fear of death. Sound of the Underground it ain’t.
And then there’s the album’s mid point, a moment turns the question right at the listener on Not My Responsibility – do you know me? Really know me? Of course we don’t, despite her sharing herself right in front of us. She lays it out. This is what it feels like to be judged constantly. Would you like me to be quiet? There are plenty of artists exploring the notions of what its like to a woman in this universe, but honestly, I don’t think anyone is working at this level. That’s another thing we should discuss – the lyrics. They’re consistently brilliant, sharp, funny – they elevate the already gorgeously constructed melodies into a miniature portrait of entire story, time and time again.
So how come this downbeat, at times almost folky album doesn’t come over like Taylor Swift’s Folklore? I think the simple answer is that Eilish isn’t using the genre as a crutch to create something slightly artificial. Swift – who I actually really like – always feels like she’s calculated her every more down to the last carefully arranged artfully hung woollen cardigan. Eilish feels like this is the music that’s in her head and has come out of her mouth. The lack of gap between her work and the listener is surely one of the reasons this works so well.
Finally, a word on the production. It’s genius. Those hypnotic synths, that slightly narcotic quality to the washed-out electronic sounds. And then Billie’s voice itself – so close to your ears, it’s like she’s whispering into them. I wonder if she’s used that same crazy Binaural head mic that Perfume Genius used on No Shape. It reminds me hugely of that intimacy mixed with very emotional electronica. God it’s good.
Something to share as we think about our response to this record….For some reason, YouTube’s not allowing me to embed any of the songs from album – but it is allowing to embed this extraordinary conversation below – ‘When Billie Met Stormzy’. Apart from it being a total joy to watch two such engaging stars who clearly have such a love for each other’s work (in particularly, Stormzy fanboying over Eilish is just gorgeous), it’s fascinating to see two artists recognise the other’s care and craft in their work. They’re not where they are by accident. They’re both so talented, they’re almost freakishly so by normal human standards. So it’s easy to think that Eilish might not be the real thing because she’s so young or that she’s secretly propped up a production team. The opposite is of course true, as this interview reminds us – she got signed when she was 14 because she is just INSANELY talented.
Happier Than Ever is, by surely anyone’s definition, one of the albums of the year. Indeed, it might well be my album of the year. I mean, what else could really be this well-realised, this articulate, this full of incredible song, giant hooks, intimate whispers?
Man, I’m overheated, can’t be defeated Can’t be deleted, can’t un-believe it.
We’d better believe it. Bille Eilish is here to stay for a long time. This is only the next step on her journey, but what a fucking step it is.
Jubilee is Japanese Breakfast, (a.k.a. Michelle Zauner … and her band’s), 3rd album. I’ve never got my head around is it a band or is an artist but from now on I will refer to Japanese Breakfast as ‘her’ as Zauner is clearly the driving creative force behind Japanese Breakfast.
I nearly chose her 2nd album, ‘Soft sounds from another planet’ as album of the month back in 2017. If I had, you guys would have said ‘it’s ok … but it’s nothing special’ and I probably would have never considered double dipping and choosing her again. So all in all, I am glad I didn’t and I get the chance to introduce you to Jubilee instead. Soft Sounds was a solid, consistent 12 tracks of shoegazey niceness with occasional flourishes that caught you by surprise but were soon gone. Jubilee is almost the exact opposite. On Jubilee, the flourishes are to the fore, the melancholia is still there but it’s wearing better clothes and it has adopted a few new personas. It’s a brighter, poppier, classier affair with massive mainstream chops but don’t assume that’s it’s all surface.
For those that don’t know, much of Zauner’s creative career has been defined by her relationship with and the loss of her mother. Her music was and still is deeply touched by this experience. Her book ‘Crying in H Mart: A Memoir’ is a deeply personal reflection on the pain of growing up, losing her mother and … Korean food. It made no.2 in the NY Times Non Fiction Bestseller List in April 2021. The fact that this album is called Jubilee is massive. It points the way and hints at what to expect and represents a significant metamorphosis, musically and seemingly personally for Japanese Breakfast. There is a 40 minute podcast interview with Michelle Zauner by actor Minnie Driver that I would strongly recommend listening to that explores this in much mored detail and with a very delicate touch – https://open.spotify.com/episode/3LWPCfflisFbPsQqdvRBtd – be warned, I found it very moving but I do think it frames the album beautifully.
Back to the music, Jubilee is a 10 track, 37 minute album. Thank you Michelle. Great start.
Paprika, the opening track literally marches in, heralding the opening of the album with military snares and heralding horns. It’s a proud statement of arrival, perhaps of re-birth following her loss and grieving process? Perhaps I am reading too much into that but it seems beyond coincidence.
Lyrically the album is SOOOO strong and Paprika has some of my favourite lyrics;
‘How’s it feel to be at the center of magic To linger in tones and words? I opened the floodgates and found no water, no current, no river, no rush How’s it feel to stand at the height of your powers To captivate every heart? Projecting your visions to strangers who feel it, who listen, who linger on every word’
Through the remaining 9 tracks Zauner introduces us to Synth-Pop, British sounding 90’s Indie (Belle and Sebastian, perhaps even Camera Obscura?), haunting stadium ready ballads and even a nod to her shoegazing back catalogue. It would have been easy for the variety of styles and influences to result in a messy, patchy album. However, this isn’t the case. There is a thread, a spine running through the tight running time and I think perfect track sequencing. For me, the thread or spine is the genuine emotion, the feels, that drive each track. I believe every word and I feel every note. The brighter, poppier uptempo tracks are some of the most emotionally and significant. That significance comes from top notch, classy song writing.
For this 1st time ever, I feel strongly enough about each song to want to walk through the nine tracks that follow Paprika one by one;
Track 2 ‘Be Sweet‘ is pure pop perfection. One of the strongest tracks by any artist this year. It was my entry point into the album when it was released back in February. It was on a long list that I created with Guy and should have been my selection when we chose tracks for each other a few months ago. It’s a bit 80’s, it’s a bit cool, it’s lyrically intelligent and I love that propulsive bass driving the track forward.
Track 3 ‘Kokomo, IN’ trades, funky 80’s pop for 90’s British indie. An acoustic guitar gives way to harsh string plucks and then to dramatic sweeping string accompaniment. It’s melodramatic, moody and most definitely ‘pretty’. It’s sits next to ‘Be Sweet’ perfectly despite it’s decade-difference in reference points.
Track 4 ‘Slide Tackle’ has been highlighted as one of the weaker tracks in a few reviews … I don’t get it. It’s one of my favourite tracks. It opens like a track from Twin Shadow’s debut album. It’s as if ‘Be Sweet’ and ‘Kokomo, IN’ had a baby together … and that baby played the saxophone?
Track 5 ‘Posing in Bondage’ surprise surprise, Joey love’s the dark one about death. I think this is a beautiful track. It’s the first down-tempo, ballard (ish) track. Spending some time with the album’s lyrics reveals, surprisingly, that there are a lot less lyrics than you might think! When written down, the lyrics look sparse but when woven into the fabric of the track they take on heft, Posing In Bondage is a great example of this in action and one of my favourite tracks. The killer line for me in this track is much discussed in the Minnie Driver podcast …
‘When the world divides into two people Those who have felt pain and those who have yet to‘
Track 6 ‘Sit’ considering that Zauner is often described as a shoegaze artist, there isn’t a lot of it on this album. The exception is ‘Sit’. It’s got a droney, fuzzy guitar that sits (pardon the pun) just behind a very non-shoegazey vocal that sits higher in the mix than you’d expect. Its not a standout track but I think mostly because it’s on such a strong album. I’m in no way offended by it and enjoy it as a simpler pleasure.
Track 7 ‘Savage Good Boy’ … and we’re back to brighter, poppier sounds and melodies. It’s a well humoured, gender-role subverting, piece of perfect pop that is hard to ignore. It show cases Zauner’s ability to tell complex stories, simply and with impact.
‘I want to make the money ’til there’s no more to be made And we will be so wealthy I’m absolved from questioning That all my bad behaviour was just a necessary strain They’re the stakes in the race to win‘
It’s hard to think of catchier song about mankind driving itself into the apocalypse. If you can think of one please let me know.
Track 8 ‘Hell’ – another track that focuses on the theme of loss but done with beautiful pop melodies, lovely backing vocals, Bontempi-like synth flourishes and a big dose of horns. It flies by in two and half minutes but the oddly Morrissey-esque lyrics stick in the mind for much longer.
Track 9 – ‘Tactics’ – Zauner is at her vocally-breathiest, over a string driven, charismatic track. The opening swoon of strings should come as a surprise given the orchestration of the rest of the album but it doesn’t. Once again, the fluidity of the album’s movement from style to style is impressive. I assume this to be a big old lovesick love song to her husband and quite beautiful it is too.
Track 10 – ‘Posing for Cars‘ – If Paprika was a literal fanfare to start the album, then Posing for Cars is a definite ‘farewell wave goodbye’ to close and highlights the perfect sequencing of tracks on this album. It is a well considered finale that builds and grows in a stadium rock stylee, the first nearly 3 mins being free of percussion. But as the song grows it introduces strings, bass guitar and finally a screeching lead guitar solo that feels odd and perfectly in keeping all at the same time. The track is double the length of most of the tracks and for me closes out the album perfectly.
The critical response to this album has been largely very positive with a MetaCritic score of 88% with plenty of 100% reviews. Whilst I don’t think it’s perfect, I do think it is special. It’s very easy to consume and connect with. Its available on many levels. It can be background music, music to work to but I think best consumed when you can give it the attention that I think it deserves. I would be very surprised if I end up listening to any other album as much as this. This will feature highly in my 2021 top 10.
At best we will choose a hip hop album for our album of the month yearly, and it’s for good reason. Hip Hop is at times hard to approach, and hard to find time to listen to away from your kids as 4 middle aged fathers.
For me there’s more of an issue. I remember when I first heard the likes of Nas, Common (Sence) and Rakim. Each song was a lyric twisting journey into their world. As time passes I find it harder to find MC’s that blow me away with their word play. I often wonder is why latter generations of MC’s are less focussed on this? Does it matter anymore? The genre of Hip Hop is a bit confusing these days. I find it hard to understand how much of the hip hop that ‘the kids’ like these days is listenable. Misogyny, violence and criminality seem to be more prevalent than ever.
I came across Skyzoo in 2014 through his collaboration with his New York collaborator weight Torae. Instantly I was a fan. His word play and commentary put him amongst the hip hop heavy weights that I love. The more you listen to his lyrics the more layers to his lyrics you discover. Growing up in Brooklyn in the 90’s made him a student of some of the greats such as Biggie to Jay-Z and it shows. He has an uncanny ability to bring you into his world and keep you there. I was hooked and instantly delved into previous releases which included a heralded mixtape produced by 9th Wonder, followed by his debut album on 9th’s Jamal records (home of Rapsody amongst others) and later releases on two of my favourite labels; Duck Down Records and Mello Music.
You can find music from Skyzoo over the last 20 years, but the last 10 have seen him at his best. Releasing at least an album a year, it’s hard to find any weak piece of work among them. It’s understandable why he’s become one of the most respected underground MC’s around the globe. From working with boom bap super producer Apollo Brown to hip hop general Pete Rock, Skyzoo’s output is diverse and more-ish.
So this brings us to his latest effort, ‘All the Brilliant Things’. Like last month’s St Vincent album, it comes with a theme. This is an album about the gentrification of Brooklyn. Not only highlighting the change but also the world Skyzoo has grown up in, why he loves it, the memories, the stories and the dreams.
My notes for this album have been extensive. I was lost for words, how do you encapsulate the plethora of Skyzoo and what he does to this album? Lucky I read an interview with him where he described it perfectly. He said ‘My music has always been a combination of a few things: storytelling, motive, and intention’. That narrative rings true with another Brooklyn native that I love, Spike Lee. In fact there are cross overs throughout between the two. Perhaps I’ve seen too many Spike Lee movies.
I love hip hop albums that set the scene for the album on the first track and ‘Free Jewellery’ does it to a tee. Skyzoo dives in from the start. Weaving, layering, and provoking thoughts with each line. Amongst the journey he dips his toes into the irony of the critic’s interpretations his world whilst at the same time gentrifying it themselves.
‘So don’t mistake me, yo, I don’t do this for Complex
Nor a Pitchfork or any other facade
Where the culture is determined while chugging a PBR
And telling you how to represent all of the shit that you made
While they move in your building with their roommates’
‘Culture-ish’ is another remarkable track. Full of recollections…
‘I was buying art, my friends was buying dope.
I went and made friends with rappers that was buying both’
….was the line that caught my ears, but every line in the song is spotless. I’ve spent so much time getting my head around the layers of lyrics. He reminds me of Jay-Z on Reasonable Doubt. From Brooklyn or not, you’re pulled into his world (then and now) as you sit ring side in Skyzoo’s world in Brooklyn.
There are lyrics throughout outlining changing worlds. In line with the theme, but not blatantly. ‘The Scrimmage’ looks into money and how it’s made, old and new and it’s ruthlessness. I love the track lyrically, but when the track finishes with a clip of two people talking about being removed from their neighbourhood, it makes you listen again…. Because he was talking about it the whole time.
Hip Hop was born in the Bronx, but since its inception the New York boroughs all battled to own the top spot. Brooklyn arguably has a strong claim for the top spot. Jay-Z, Biggie, Sean Price, Yasin Bey (Mos Def), the list goes on. That mixed with exceptional graffiti artists and their influence on me is the reason Brooklyn has always facinated me. That fascination of Brooklyn for me and so many others may just kill where that fascination comes from; it’s soul. This album concept is well overdue. ‘Bed-Stuy Is Burning’ is not only the stand out track on the album but one of the best hip hop songs that has been released in recent memory as Skyzoo delves into the world he loves and how it’s crumbling at his feet.
‘To whom it may concern, don’t let this happen to you
True to what you heard, they want this back like a loop
They gave you a curb and kept you back on the stoop
And now what they prefer is to help you pack when you move’
There are few reviews on this album, but many podcast interviews with Skyzoo. From a fan point of view some say it’s his best lyrically rounded album while some say it’s too long and the beats could be better on many tracks. I don’t disagree with either to a point. Personally I think that this is an album that when digested the four of us will use as a reference point for many albums in the future as this in its’ bones has the feels. The song by song justification and the ability to continually discover with each listen. Its’ long term importance to all of us is unseen but on different levels this album is important to all four of us and is worth everyone digesting. I’ve stayed in New York three times for work, once in Brooklyn. I’ll take Brooklyn and day of the week. It’s mind kind of place. It’s cool. Like east London is cool. The hipsters came in and made it cool for the middle classes. But at what cost? This album is about that cost. About a changing neighbourhood. This message transcends globally.
One of most common narratives on the blog and on the podcast is album length. ‘All the Brilliant Things’ is 14 songs long and just over 55 minutes which is standard for a hip hop album. At first I considered that the album could drop the middle three or fours tracks, but lyrically they’re growers and some of the best on the album.
The more I listen to this album the more I discover. Will it be perfect to the lesser hip hop fans? I’m not sure. I love it because it’s out and out hip hop that also delivers on a social commentary that we should all digest.
St Vincent aka Annie Clark, has been a major part of my musical landscape for the last decade. I latched on to her first album, Marry Me, in 2007, and immediately loved its slightly wonky sensibilities wrapped up in brilliant songs, and it’s been a mostly highly rewarding experience seeing her career and her ambitions grow with every album. She’s now pretty close to being a bonafide star – certainly an indie star anyway – and I saw that first hand as she effortlessly and brilliantly headlined the End of the Road festival a couple of years back. My wife, Caroline, absolutely adores her too – maybe even more than me – so she’s an artist who has been played to death in our house over the years.
But I’ve long ago come to realise that she’s a Marmite artist. Many friends to whom I’ve recommended her have come back with a blank look on their faces – they don’t ‘get’ her at all. I do kind of understand it – her sound can be very angular and jagged, and she wields her incredible guitar playing (more on that later) like a weapon. She’s wilfully, unapologetically arty, and it can often feel like she’s hiding herself behind a series of different personas. She can make obtuse decisions – like starting an album as brilliant as Strange Mercy with a track as hard to listen to as Chloe in the Afternoon. She seems to delight in setting fire to her previous incarnation, and I can see that might feel frustrating to an artist you’re trying to invest. Me, I fucking love her. I love trying to find the real Annie hiding, sometimes in plain sight, in her songs. I love the way she paints a picture with a song. Just try and listen to Year of the Tiger (also on Strange Mercy). It’s like a little movie.
Funnily enough, me and Annie’s first real musical differences came on her biggest album to date, the behemoth that was Masseduction. Recorded with hot shot producer Jack Antonoff, he of Lorde, Lana Del Rey and Taylor Swift album fame, it was a radical departure to the angular, electronic indie rock of her previous work. It was unapologetically pop with a capital P, with more nods to Kylie and Robyn than her indie peers. It was a critical and sales hit, along with single Los Ageless, and opened her up to a new audience (and led to those festival headlining moments). Friends who don’t like Annie C have complained they find her a bit cold. I never felt that at all until Masseduction. It just didn’t connect with me. It felt a little calculated, and it was – well, just a lot less original than anything she’d done until that point. She was trampling on much more familiar territory and I just couldn’t get as excited.
So when I heard that Annie was channeling 70s rock and Bowie on the new album, then frankly, I was chomping at the bit. I wanted to hear something more organic, something more emotionally connected. And I wanted to hear that incredible guitar back up high in the mix. We should mention her guitar playing for a minute. If you haven’t seen her life, it’s hard to quite grasp how good she is. She’s Prince-level good. She’s UNBELIEVABLE. I think she’s probably the most talented guitar player of her generation.
Pay Your Way in Pain did nothing to dampen my excitement. What a fucking song it is. And what an opening track it is on the album. It’s a proper rock song, and it sets up that mixture of emotional pain and retro irony quite beautifully. And then the came the new look for the record. Blonde wig, leather jacket. All very playful, all very Annie Clark. But also this extraordinary backstory about her father’s incarceration (which by the way she has NEVER mentioned up until this point!). Daddy’s Home? Nudge nudge wink wink. And then came the 5 star reviews, and lots of them.
So what did I feel when I started to listen to the whole album. Initially, I was just so, so happy. I loved it almost immediately. It was exactly what I was hoping for. Perhaps more downbeat and slow than I was expecting, but it seemed to wear its heart on its sleeve as much as you could ever hope from a musician who’s often been careful to cover her tracks.
The big surprise was that this was also made with Jack Antonoff. Who’d have thought it? In fact, the two of them recorded quite a lot of the album between them. Did Antonoff allow Clark to find that musical voice she was looking for, did he just give her that freedom? Or was there still something a little bit calculated about it? That was the only nagging thing I had in my head now and again as I listened.
And then…the backlash started. I must say, in the interests of balance, that it’s hardly that much of a backlash – as of today, it still has a whopping 86 on Metacritic. But there were a couple of extraordinary reviews – one from Pitchfork that seemed to damn it with faint praise, as well a much more damning piece on Slate that argued that this was her worst album, comparing her unfavourably to fellow pop chameleons Prince and Bowie. Both of those articles contain some pretty unbelievable accusations (Pitchfork – it’s racially insensitive for St V to mention Nina Simone alongside white artists. Slate – she’s actually never been that good a lyricist. That latter one made me laugh out loud. ARE YOU FUCKING JOKING ME, MATE?).
The whiff of double standards on female musicians, particularly singular artists with their own vision, hangs heavy in the air. And I don’t think that for a second that Annie Clark is asking to be compared to Prince or Bowie. But let’s leave some of the stupidity of some of the worst comments, and ask the tricky question – have they got a point? Is this album the real deal, or is it a kind of well-executed pastiche of a kind of mythical musical past? I suspect that as a collective, we’re going to end up on different sides of that question. I can’t wait for the pod!
My own experience is this. There are a few obvious big, brilliant belters – Pay Your Way, Down, Melting of the Sun. Down might be my favourite song on the album. And some have called The Melting of the Sun a bit clunky. I think it’s utterly glorious – a straight down the line love letter to those who’ve paved the way for her. And the analogy of the patriarchy melting like the sun is delicious.
But actually, on repeat listening, it’s not the 70s pastiche, or the sitar playing (though I LOVE the sitar playing!) or the Bowie schtick that’s sticking with me. It’s the songwriting. And it’s the smaller songs that have come to be amongst my favourites. Down and Out Downtown is just beautiful, At The Holiday Party is sad and compassionate, Somebody Like Me feels like Annie reckoning with herself and her personas in a really moving way. And right in the centre, the extraordinary Live in the Dream. Yes, it owes a hell of debt to Pink Floyd, and also to Bowie’s Diamond Dogs in lyrical theme, but I just can’t get enough of it. I’ve listened to that one track to death and I find it genuinely moving.
There are odd things about the album that jar a little. I think the sequencing is odd – I’d have put Live in the Dream later in the album, maybe pulled Down further up. For me, the title track, Daddy’s Home, is the album’s weak spot, and it’s a shame it’s sequenced as Track 3. I think this the one time that the nudge-nudge sexy/existential pain 70s vibe just doesn’t quite work. She’s hiding behind the song and it’s not telling us anything about the real story of her father’s incarceration. It feels a little cheap to use that as a sell. That’s a shame.
But the rest of the album? I’m not seeing a persona. I’m seeing a real human being singing about real human things – disappointment, love, dead-end careers, loneliness, the death of a friend. The things that Annie Clark’s detractors accuse her of – being angular, being difficult, hiding behind a persona – I honestly don’t think that’s true of this album, title track aside. In the end, the songs speak loud and clear. And if you’ll excuse me now, I’m just going to play it again…
If you’re getting your teeth into Episode 10 of the podcast and the Weather Station’s brilliant Ignorance, you’ll know we also talked all about those artists that we found within its ten tracks. Some of the blog’s favourites ride high in that list: Kate Bush, Fleetwood Mac, U.S. Girls, HAIM, Phoebe Bridgers…. so we made a playlist of them all as a companion piece, something we’re going to try to do for each album of the month. It’s a bit of enjoyment if nothing else. Hopefully here it’s a bit more context to an album that gets better and better with every listen.
A short but functional post today. We only get to review one Album of the Month but of course listen to so much more. I thought I’d share a few of the new albums that have been a big part of my life in the last month or two;
Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to guess what albums are going to feature in the end of year round ups, even as early as January. ‘Home’ by Rhye probably won’t be troubling too many of these lists. It’s too nice. It’s too gentle. It’s nowhere near cool enough. But I love it and everyone that I have recommended it to has loved it too, regardless of their usual musical tastes. Listen without prejudice and enjoy.
Next is ‘Deacon’ by serpentwithfeet which is an ambient R&B celebration of big gay love and sex. I am not sure there’s much more to be said. It’s a beautiful, perfectly crafted selection of 11 tracks. Each has something to say on their own but also as part of the wider story. Pull the lyrics up when you listen, revel in the frankness of the stories told.
Finally, is ‘Menneskekollektivet’ by Lost Girls a collaboration between 2 Norwegian artists; Jenny Hval and Havard Volden. Here you’ll find 5 tracks, 46 minutes worth of surprisingly accessible, experimental electronica textured with spoken word, vocal melody and harmony, guitars and at time chuggy beats. Sometimes odd, always fascinating. I know Guy is enjoying this one and he may also post on this album too. I think this album is very much worth investing some time into.