Ah, the double album. What a complicated thing you are. How many double albums would make a better single album? Well, all of them, you could argue. But I think that, at its best, a double album that can offer something so much richer, shaggier and more honest about a band/artist and where it’s at than a nicely curated single. I’m thinking Sign ’O The Times. I’m thinking Tusk. And, of course, I’m thinking The White Album.
What do all those albums have in common? They’re sprawling. They’re free-wheeling. They encompass quite a few different genres and sounds within one record. Sometimes, they’re a sound of a band creaking at the edges, or falling apart. Oh, and they probably have a track or two we could do without. Not even the die-hardest Beatle fan (and I speak as one) would cry many tears if Wild Honey Pie or Don’t Pass Me By had failed to make the White Album final cut.
So where does Dragon (please don’t make me type out the full name of the album, which I’m sure we all agree is a fucking abomination of a title) sit amongst this? I guess we have to first acknowledge the extraordinary rise of Big Thief. The Brooklyn based quartet seem to have hit a crazy sweet spot somewhere between Americana traditionalists and indie wunderkinds. They encompass both the hipster Brooklyn where they live and the rural Minnesota and Texas of Adrienne Lenker and Buck Meek’s childhoods. Over the course of 5 increasingly confident albums, they’ve gone from new kids on the block to Grammy nominations and critical adoration. People FUCKING LOVE Big Thief. I’m one of them.
I first came across them about 5 years ago when I saw a Tiny Desk concert. The sound! The intensity! I was immediately smitten:
And yes, despite that, there is something elusive about them. I love them, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why they seem to do this stuff better than any of their contemporaries. Throw a rock in Brooklyn, and presumably you’d hit someone from an Americana indie band on the head. Is it just the songwriting? The passion of Lenker, and the interplay between her and Meek? Their appeal is hard to quantify. And as they’ve got bigger, there’s also been the beginnings of an inevitable backlash, a kind of ’what’s so special about Big Thief?’ This excellent NYT podcast does a good job of exploring this, especially as the host is one of those doubters: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-enigma-of-big-thief/id120315823?i=1000552637027
So what about the album? Christ, where to start? Well, it feels both like a progression from the excellent U.F.O.F. and Two Hands albums, and a giant leap forward – and perhaps also sideways, up, down, and in several directions at once. The variety of the songs is a bit dizzying, and it takes quite a bit of time to digest. Indeed, I still tend to listen to either the first or the second half of the album in one sitting, which is perhaps a strong hint that it’s almost TOO rich at times. In fact, if I’m being honest, I was confused about my initial response, and that was partly because the band had been slowly leaking songs onto Spotify, and EVERY SINGLE one of those songs were astonishing – so the more rag-tag, messy nature of the album felt almost like an anticlimax at first.
But as I stuck with it, every part of it began to grow on me. I started to love the stylistic changes, the random turns left and right. I began to enjoy the journey, the ambition, the blind optimism of committing this many songs to disc and having the confidence to just chuck it out there and let the audience work it out for themselves. I don’t think it’s always an easy listen, and it certainly has some weaker moments amongst many absolutely breathtaking songs.
Before we get into the songs, I want to say that I found it really handy breaking it up into the 4 parts of the album. It really helps make sense of the record and of the sequencing.
DISC 1/SIDE 1
The first few songs set up the schizophrenic nature of the album – CHANGE is classic Big Thief, as astonishing that might be one of the best songs they’ve ever written. TIME ESCAPING is a totally different beast, like a wonky pop song with that strange industrial rhythm section. And then, third track – WTF, they’re doing a really goofy country song, SPUD INFINITY, with a title as daft as the track. It’s certainly bold curation, I’ll give them that! CERTAINTY is a lovely duet that heads back into Laura Cantrell-style modern country. And then DRAGON (the title track) – what a glorious song, like a lost Dolly Parton ballad.
Opens with SPARROW, which perhaps outstays its 5 minute run time, the first track I felt wasn’t quite essential. But then – boom! – into Cocteau Twins (yes, really!) territory with LITTLE THINGS. Couple of tracks later, FLOWER OF BLOOD sounds like a 80s/90s 4AD band, all feedback and grungy guitars. Next track BLURRED VIEW is a creepy lo-fi thing, with crappy drum machine (or crappy drums!) and Adrienne whispering/muttering darkly into the mic. Repetitive and weird. On we go.
DISC 2/SIDE 3
What an opener. RED MOON is a personal favourite, a proper Lucinda Williams country song that’s robust and cheerful (‘that’s my grandma!’). NO REASON is another astonishing ballad and another highlight, with a chorus that will not leave your brain. This song runs round my head all the time. WAKE ME UP TO DRIVE is a bit of a dirge, but I like its lo-fi energy. But A PROMISE IS A PENDULUM is amazing, delicate and lovely.
So this is maybe where the album runs out of steam for me a little. Yes, it has one of the very best tracks on the album, SIMULATION SWARM. But I do wonder if too many of the last side’s tracks feel like a retread of earlier material. 12,000 LINES is lovely, but LOVE LOVE LOVE’s crunchy indie is a bit exhausting. THE ONLY PLACE feels like quite a minor tune. BLUE LIGHTNING is a lot of fun and sounds very much like the jam session it undoubtedly is, but by then I’m exhausted! And when I listen on Spotify, I often find myself thinking – oh is this the last song? And it’s not. Not a good sign!
So there we have it. It’s glorious, it’s confusing, it’s a mess, it’s ambitious. I guess the big question is – why did they make a double album? My guess is that they wanted to stretch their wings. They’ve made glorious single albums that work as a whole. They’re clearly prolific – look at the fact they released TWO albums – both amazing – in one year in 2019. They seem to me, on listening to this, that they’re just bursting with ideas, and they wanted to try out as many as possible. Whether that works for you will depend on how much you like ’em in the first place, and how tolerant you are of all these experiments, some of which are pretty free-wheeling.
For me, it works. It’s a wonderful album with some of the best songs of their career, but perhaps it just outstays its welcome a tiny bit. Having said all that, are there many songs I’d cull? Not really. Could they have made a more succinct single album? Well of course they could. Do I love that it’s a double album? I bloody do. Do I feel like I know the band better as a result? You betcha. Is it an occasionally frustrating listen? Of course it is: it’s a double album.
It’s about time, really. 21 episodes in and I’d been waiting for a new Metronomy album to arrive so we could finally cover it on the podcast. Disclosure: there’s no point in pretending otherwise, but I’ve been an unashamed fan since the blog started in the dim and distant 2010s, and in my mind, they’re a band that should fit right into the middle of our sprawling Venn diagram, so I was surprised to find out that Joey and Nolan weren’t nearly as familiar with them as I thought. Challenge accepted: at least as with many things, I have Pop Being David for company here. But I still wavered, with February’s avalanche of great new music from the likes of pod favourite Mitski, psych rock Animal Collective, Trentemoller as as well as heralded new year picks from Bonobo and Yard Act. In the end though, I couldn’t pass this up. I’d have kicked myself. And when I second guess myself I end up in the Talvin Zone ™.
My love affair with Joe Mount’s musical outfit began as it did for many, back in 2011 with their third album: The English Riviera. Its the record that really ‘broke’ the band, with its wry take on life and love in the English south coast and Mount’s home town of Totnes in Devon. Along with headline-grabbing singles The Bay and The Look came tales of small-town ennui, love, loss and introspection, all played out on a canvas of synths, crisp percussion, guitar licks and funk bass, and I was smitten. Yes, they were clearly a pop outfit, but they crept into the far more interesting territory of ‘alternative’ British pop music that had something to say, and an intriguing way to say it. For all the chart-ready vibrancy of the singles, there also sat musical beauty and character from the likes of Some Written’s soft tones, sultry funk of We Broke Free and the kaleidoscopic closer Love Underlined. It marked out a step up for the four-piece, whose line-up had been reworked and for whom Mount, as the driving force was proving his rare talents as – in my eyes at least – one of the country’s best singer-songwriter-producers.
I have very specific memories of the album too. I came to love it in the slightly surreal surroundings of Monaco. Having ligged onto a trip to the Grand Prix weekend with friends David and Will that worked in the feeder GP2 series, I was listening to its unfurling eleven tracks on the actual Riviera. I feel that Joe Mount would’ve enjoyed that irony (hi Joe, if you’re reading). So I’m always treated to both a really vivid recollection of the surroundings I was in, and a hark back to the start of my love affair with the band. I’ve not been back to Monaco since, but then I don’t need to. I just fire up the strings in that opening and I’m there. That led me to their underrated predecessor, Nights Out, which had its own idiosyncratic attraction, less so to the bedroom debut guitar/synth mish-mash Pip Paine (Pay The £5000 You Owe), but from which a lineage through to their later albums could still be traced. I gorged on the lot. I had found a band that I could love in the same universe at Hot Chip and LCD, one that took a more mainstream template and bent it to their own shape.
Before 2022, David actually chose their last album – the excellent Metronomy Forever – as one of our monthly picks in the ‘before times’ of 2019, but it’s a surprise searching back through the archives that it appears the only time we’ve done it, (though I’m convinced we did pick the English Riviera back in the proto-blog days of Posterous, at least as something we all listened to). It’s been a joy waiting for each album to come out, from the 60s-pop window of Love Letters, through the out and out punch of Summer 08‘s window to the pre-English Riviera years, through to the precursor to Small World, the more sprawling and interesting Metronomy Forever. Every one of them has brought new songs to love, new skills to marvel at, and an ever-growing adoration for Mount’s skills. All the while he’s been behind Metronomy’s success, he’s a modest but brilliant producer whose work’s been part of output by everyone from Robyn to thecocknbullkid and remixing everyone from Gorillaz, Goldfrapp and Lady Gaga, while being a big element in the supergroup of production talent on early pod favourite Jessie Ware’s ‘What’s Your Pleasure’?
Enter: Small World. Timing is everything, and many great albums from artists we love have missed the window for an AOTM: Caribou, Roisin Murphy, in recent times stood out here. So I have gambled somewhat on giving ourselves a compressed sixteen days from release to record, with this post coming only ten days in. We’ve had some albums for ten times that before now. But we’ve already had a taster in the shape of two excellent singles – Things Will Be Fine and It’s Good To Be Back (check the videos that top and tail this post) – to grace the start of 2022. An album of 9 songs over thirty-five minutes should be easy to gorge on. I just hope that it won’t be too short a time to hit that magic mark where you really fall for a record. After all, I showed with The Weather Station that it’s easy to be unsure when we record and to have changed your mind by the time we put the episode’s out. A very first world problem.
But I needn’t have worried, because Small World is an absolute joy, stripping back the layers while extolling the simple pleasures in life after the great reset we all felt. But it is also a marked departure. Musically, it’s still clearly tres Metronomy but there are some significant, if intriguing changes to the normal synth-pop template. The main one of these is the synths: they’re not absent, but very much on the fringes, something that feels unheard of for the band, and that may risk rubbing lots of fans right up the wrong way.
In fact, on the record sleeve – and I gloried in the vinyl here, something I’ve started most days working from home with in the background – Mount stated that the idea was to have none on the record, only piano and hammond organ. And a brilliant quote on their Instagram that’s both serious and self-deprecating that sums up the band in many ways: “I thought I’d like to do something musical, that isn’t very electronic…. someone taking themselves a bit seriously and thinking they should do a Nashville record. It’s almost a midlife crisis”. It’s funny because it just is, but also because Joe Mount is entering mid life. And while it doesn’t quite work out as synth-free, piano and acoustic guitars are very much a running motif of the album, from the cascading melody in the slow-burn opener Life and Death.
The tone is set from the off as one of change: middle age, family, introspection, anxiety, growing old. All things we’ve seen many times from artists that have gone from loose-limbed twenty-somethings to 40-somethings, looking back on their youth and forward into the future, but for Mount, whose musical character has been so steeped in pop and its youthful slant, this is something that comes with risk. And it’s album that’s much more personal, as he admitted in a recent excellent interview with DIY mag. “I’ve always thought that pop music is for teenagers, and I’ve always thought that I make pop music. So if what I do doesn’t interest those people, then I’m not doing very well.“
In Life and Death, there’s a bleakness to the lyrics that runs through the album at times, as Mount, far more than before, shifts from love, loss, parties and an ironic twist on English life to move himself towards the centre of the action: “It was fun what I did / Got a job, had some kids / See you in the abyss”, both perhaps a personal state of mind but also a reference to the two years the album took shape in, one where we all got more accustomed to both life and death itself. Not perhaps the sound of a content man, but it’s never quite clear with Metronomy how much is for lyrical effect and how much is real, because his relocation to the country and his first purpose-built studio has found him far more balanced with the life of a parent pop star than he’s sounded in years.
Trying to ascertain the feel for a new album is tricky. It takes time and investment, and there’s a (pleasing) bump in the road with Small World where, after the opener, the two singles then come in succession. Taken in isolation – they are almost the two tracks most out of step with the album’s palette. But when they sit in the first side of the 9 tracks, they actually take on a different hue. Things Will Be Fine’s nod to teenage angst (caused by the film that shocked many in this country, Raymond Briggs’ harrowing When The Wind Blows) can’t stay in the darkness too long: “I might save the day, i might change the world… Things will be fine“. It also referred to a mantra Mount was telling his children through the last two years, blending real life into the band’s more oblique metaphors of the past, and accompanied by a brilliant video that harks back to each of the band at 15). And its breezy guitar strums very much out of the 60s pop mould push things along, in a way that wouldn’t feel out of place on Love Letters. It’s Good To Be Back’s infectious lightness also is hard to avoid (along with the brilliant, strange video, a medium the band have always enjoyed to great effect since The Look). It’s the song that stuck in my head through January, but it’s after this opening salvo where things get interesting. It’s not diminishing those tracks, but ultimately, the lead singles will always feel a little incongruous when you’ve gorged on them before the album arrives.
It may be reductive to paint Small World’s change in tone as reducing the band’s strengths (and some have crudely done that) but I’ve found the album to be a continually rewarding and engaging experience, and it’s down to the subtle shifts in direction and style throughout that provide this again and again. There’s an argument that I definitely acknowledge, that when you strip away the synths and the bounce of so many of their previous tracks, that there’s potential exposure of some lyrical lack of adventure that Metronomy have been painted with the past. I see that. But it’s also doing a disservice to the beauty of the melodies and the near-perfection arrangements in this record too. Plenty of great pop music doesn’t need to be profound or lyrically mesmerising. Simply saying ‘this isn’t like Salted Caramel Ice Cream‘ is just stating a fact. To me, either you love Metronomy in all their forms or perhaps you rethink what your musical directions are. I mean, this is hardly Kid A here. Many of these songs could slot into an existing album without much effort, it’s just the whole narrative that feels different. But as much as many of their albums to date, this feels fully formed and whole.
Continuing the A-side (sorry, mp3 crew), Loneliness on the Run’s 90s-esque intro of plucked bass makes me think of Weezer and the yesteryear US-garage indie scene, but soars into a different space from its harmonies, adding a sprinkle of light in a starry melody in the break. Even as it moves along, there are unmistakably familiar splashes in each song. And vocal harmonies are a BIG, beautiful part of the record, elevating what feel like more formulaic tracks to something much more beautiful. If pianos are one motif, then acoustic guitars and harmonies are very much the other two in the triumvirate of what Small World does differently.
In the middle of it all, sits my album favourite: Love Factory. There’s a real 70s/80s AOR vibe on it, with its vocal interplay – not hard to see the lineage from Mount’s love of the likes of Steely Dan to this moment – and its treatment of love as something perhaps less romantic and spontaneous but ‘churned out’. There’s irony here – as the protagonist tries to show his usefulness in the face of the ‘factory’ production line – but the melody carries the song along on a cloud. Lyrically, it’s perhaps the simplest and most straightforward of the album but Mount’s talked about the song being ‘relentless’ here, with its looped melody and listing verses. But the fuzz guitar and circular piano phrases have had me woken up in the night singing its notes. That is hard to reject.
Lost My Mind is an interesting curveball, even as it shares some familiarity. The literal and metaphorical losing of one’s mind in the pandemic: ‘how friends of ours in quite different situations were just in apartments, on their own, feeling very isolated and out of touch‘ was another quite personal statement from Mount. But the music really evoked something specific in me. I felt a real Bowie energy here, with a sprinkling of Eno in the strange choral/vox synth chords, before the piano wig-out that closed the song. It really is hard to shake that feel, so I am fascinated if any of the group’s Bowie antennae felt similarly tweaked. At the other end of the pendulum, Right On Time (complete with a suitably daft skydiving video) urges us to try and ‘enjoy the sunshine’, even as we all sat in Covid-gloom. That even while things were scary and sad, there are simple pleasures we can take in.
The album closes with two more intriguing tracks. The first is a rare guest on the album outside the Metronomy universe: Hold Me Tonight sees Porridge Radio’s Dana Margolin join into what is arguably the most straightforward love song on the record. A tale of desperation and hope, unrequited love as Mount’s verses. It’s a relatively breezy 90s-esque indie pop jangler until Margolin’s striking vocals enter at the halfway mark: ‘so you found the courage / do you regret it yet / it’s not what you wanted / but I guess it’s off your chest’. I think it’s a fascinating dynamic where the male vocal is higher than the female, and less powerful, playing with the balance on literal and metaphorical levels. And a song that was a totally different slant, almost binned and then resurrected when Mount sent it to Dana for her input, turning it into a desolate and unexpected response. It’s a masterstroke of serendipity. I’ve listened to it so many times – and as someone that’s not really come across much of Porridge Radio – and I can’t quite place who the vocal makes me recall. I’d want to say Robert Smith but that doesn’t feel quite right. But it’s a definitely welcoming development and one of the standout tracks.
Closer I Have Seen Enough I first thought was a bleak tale of a failed marriage – we can watch the flowerbeds rising / Each year our children grow / I will sit with you in silence / As we watch our favourite show” – but it’s much less specific than that, of course echoing the pandemic, but also again urging us to enjoy the small, simple things in life. For a song that’s quite slow and maudlin, it’s quite the sleight of hand, actually having such a positive message. It’s also odd that it was originally planned to be sung in French. Mais non.
In living with this album almost endlessly for the last ten days, I’m naturally concerned that I’m going to be prejudiced not only by my own gasping adoration for the band, but also a need to step back and try and gain some perspective away from the churn of dozens (twenty now? more?) of listens that have made me love it more. But I could easily burn it out, and by the time we record (in a week) be sick of it. Or at least see it lose its lustre and perhaps edge closer to some of the ‘yeah, it’s lovely but….’ critical responses. But right now, it’s an album I can’t put down. And having waited three years since its predecessor, and seen such a departure, it feels much more like one whose ‘woah’ softens with each listen, and by now, just feels as Metronomy as ever. It also makes me wonder where their next album will go, and feel already excited about that.
I wonder what the others will make of it. I suspect I may be flying a lone flag here. I know brother @davidhallison is a big fan of the band, and should really like this, but I’m not so sure. And as the record approaches, it always gets more shaky when it’s a band you adore. Is it – as it has from others first reactions – ‘not Metronomy enough’? And for @misterstory and @nolankane706, perhaps too much of a departure from all those Metronomy bangers of the past? But I really do think this is an album – and that’s what we’re here for aren’t we? – that works as well as any of their previous ones as an entity. It is quintessentially English, has a theme, is perfectly short, and taut, arranged beautifully, and makes me want to go for another listen again and again (even if I have to turn the record over, at least I’m getting out of my chair). I may not convince everyone of this. But perhaps I don’t have to. I’m happy with it. Things will be fine.
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.
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.
Album choices emerge for all sorts of reasons. Timings of releases, life and plans intervening, how you react to a particular piece of music, the vagaries of record dates v release dates. Some months I am struggling for a choice, like with Genesis Owusu where I had to trawl around the internet in mild desperation (though that didn’t turn out badly). Other months I’ve either had an album in mind for a while or, if I’m lucky, a few. Sometimes the mechanics of the choice aren’t really important but it feels like a significant part of why I got here this time round.
This month started as a choice between LoneLady’s ‘Former Things‘ and Lou Hayter’sPrivate Sunshine. The latter was very much a summer record, and while one I really loved listening to, I wasn’t sure it had a lot of emotional or musical depth to it. This isn’t being unfair or unkind either, as it was a slice of great modern dancefloor pop. I tend to want something with some more chops when I know we’re going to dive deep into it here. Being away in July and August I also wanted to have something lined up so I wasn’t thrashing around way too late in the day, for my sake as much as others. But, of course, I still ended up – and still am, to an extent – in very unenjoyable mental patterns of questioning my choice, even after I’d ordered the CDs. This is partly due to Lump’s album coming out and me enjoying it so much, and then also Museum Of Love after it. But mainly it’s the case because while I really loved this album, I started to worry a lot about whether any of the rest of you would. Because it’s not in any way a straight-up warm, engaging listen in the way Jubilee was, so the comparison already felt stark and I have agonised more than is strictly helpful over that. But I realised that when I’ve second-guessed myself too much – hi Talvin, or indeed PSB – I’ve ended up going on something that’s not based on an original decision and regretted it. Plus if I love something, then I need to give much less of a shit about what others think, even if there’s a risk of a savaging.
So what drove this choice? I’d had LoneLady – Mancunian Julie Campbell’s one-person outfit – on my radar since (There Is) No Logic surfaced in March this year. It really was love at first sight and one of my favourite singles of the year. Once the album followed, it already felt like a complete sweet spot for me: female vocals and solo artist, guitars, synths, drum machines, a feel of the post-industrial music of our youths, be it Manchester’s seminal bands or the more synth-driven sounds of Sheffield. For every time I think of New Order or Joy Division, I also think of the Human League. Would that first impression last? For me, it did, but I realised at the outset it wasn’t going to be something wrapping us up in soft wool and keeping us warm in the autumn nights.
An interesting question to ask is: ‘would I have chosen Former Things’ if I’d heard Hinterland before it? I’m not sure what difference it would have made, but while there’s clearly a lineage, there’s quite a difference between that and the new record. It is definitely worth visiting, just to understand the step forward here. Hinterland really had guitar at its centre, but for Former Things it’s much more of a texture than its main instrument. But there’s as much similarity as difference, and it’s definitely a case that there’s progression here, which Campbell has talked about in the months before and after the release. Campbell relocated to London in 2016 with a residency – and studio space – at Somerset House which exposed her to an array of synths beyond her childhood favourite Yamaha keyboard. It started out as a plan to make ‘a techno record’ but it’s really wider than that, even if the dancefloor feel is strong.
Compared to Campbell’s previous work I then referenced, it’s clear this is a step in a different direction. So much more synth driven, from the opening bars of the Catcher, with its jerky, machine-gun drums and notes, and paranoid, discordant lyrics that echoed regret be it from the loss of childhood simplicity and emotion or the fear for existence: “O youthful wonder / it was all inside when I was a child / why does it fall so far away’? This was not an album that presented the listener with an easy experience. But it was – to me at least – enticing, a sort of attraction to the discomfort, so much in the same way that post-punk bands had in my younger days. Runnings towards this, as anyone that knows me, is a real contradiction given my avoidance of discomfort in many situations. But here we are.
There’s a bleakness and starkness about the album that I could see as unwelcoming, but it’s also something that chimes with me. Despite my sunny disposition, I spend way too much time worrying about the world, its politics, my family, our future, and so this album felt like a strange sort of balm that my thoughts were being brought so clearly and often to a slice of someone’s creativity. When we think about Jubilee and *that podcast*, I see some synchronicity here. No Logic’s melodies, its metallic stabs and crisp percussion giving it a foreboding: ‘dislocation, misdirection, only chaos and confusion’. I’m sure Adam Curtis is a fan. He would love Threats, probably the most extreme end of the menace that Former Things exhibits. It drips with paranoia and edginess, its industrial feel and avoidance of groove in favour of stuttering notes and bass squelches, it’s a stark, near-future world of suffering that leaps out: “I was a loyal sentinel / I could not leave my outpost / trapped in a dread condition / I did not heed the warning” as if Campbell is a helpless cog in the machine. This, if were not clear before, is not a summer BBQ album!
But to just categorise all of Former Things in this vein is to not give it its due. There’s light and dark, groove and rhythm, movement and flow. The title track almost feels like an outlier, and certainly is musically, with its acoustic strums, strings and popping keys but like many of the albums we’ve encountered lately, the lyrics do not align with the music. Talk of ‘I used to see magic in everything / but that has gone away from me / I can’t find the remedy’. It looks back, like much of the album, to the innocence of childhood, or at least the reference of it. Campbell has talked much about how Hinterland’s use metaphor has moved into much more open lyrics that focus on her internal anxiety, angst, fear and worry. In many ways it’s a very private world laid bare for the listener.
And yet if you sit with the album more than a few listens, there’s some musical riches. Time Time Time’s jerky late-night dancefloor moves and almost startling piano chords are majestic, and a track where the guitar sits like an 80s relic, slightly off-key and sat back into the mix. Fear Colours has a new-York electro vibe that I love, its synthesised vocals evoking Arthur Baker’s work and chords making me think of Technique, tracing that musical lineage back to the bands of Manchester past. Treasure is another favourite, a track that highlights something musically important for me: Campbell’s voice as an instrument. It echoes the fear, anxiety, propelling the songs along as the phrasing often cuts off notes and keeps in line with the feel of the song. It’s a really interesting device that I think adds to the feel of the whole album and comes up time and again. Terminal Ground closes with a cascade of dry notes, angry stabs and brash drums, as if it can’t let the listener rest, a stripped back track that nods to LoneLady’s previous albums and the surroundings they emerged from, in Manchester’s crumbling, post-industrial suburbs.
And while it’s another refreshing 40-minute special in length, the tracks are more elongated here. 8 tracks mean an average of five minutes, rather than Jubilee’s two extra tracks for that month. But with such an electronic feel, a four-four sensibility, it doesn’t feel like you’re waiting for the tracks to finish much of the time. Such is the restrained energy and menace that you aren’t really allowed to settle. It doesn’t fly by in the way Genesis Owusu, or Japanese Breakfast or Arlo Parks did, but it’s not trying to. It’s such a different prospect to so much of what we have done before us, it was a compelling choice for that alone, even if I’m really risking it here.
So this is a challenging listen, but one that I feel would be lazy to categorise as eight angular tracks that are designed to throw the listener off and put them outside a wall. It brings you in if you give it time.
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.
Where to begin, with an album that’s such a multi-layered, sonically ambitious, lyrically dense and deep affair? That is, mind-bogglingly, a debut? From an artist that 3 months ago, I’d never even heard of ?(more fool me) How did we get here with May’s album of the month, and This Is Not Happening’s 11th episode? Ten days ago, it wasn’t even my month to pick.
I was down for June, but @davidhallison‘s love for St Vincent meant we switched it up – as we have before – and instead of a month to choose an album I had a week, at a stretch. This is enough to induce seven days of anxiety, let alone having stung myself with Yves Tumor in Episode 3: an album that the critics loved, that I picked out of a big big hat, wanting to wilfully choose something I wouldn’t usually go for. In the end, I just didn’t love it, even though there were some uncut gems on there. So I sifted through over a hundred new albums released since January, trying to find something that stood out to me. I struggled, not wanting to simply pick something random. I even entertained a classic album, deciding that really, if I couldn’t find new music, perhaps I should have a word with myself.
Something made me go back to Smiling With No Teeth, the debut from Ghanaian/Australian artist Genesis Owusu. It turns out I’d read an article on him back in March and that must’ve been a subconscious call-back. How could you not remember – even in the recesses of your mind – someone who proclaims ‘I’m Prince, if he were a rapper in 2020s Australia‘? I can’t have been totally convinced. Perhaps it was my mind telling me that ‘I don’t ‘do hip-hop’. Of course, once I listened to the album, it was clearly not a hip hop album. In fact it is the first album in a long time I’ve really found impossible to pigeonhole, even a dozen listens in. Fifteen tracks, almost an hour (Joey would have to do another lap of his ‘album walk’) and my first impression? I was baffled, a bit overwhelmed. But, most importantly, I also wanted to come back.
And that’s the happenstance way I’ve come to gradually live with this astonishing album. One that opens with the electro ripple of On The Move, hitting you with an Afrika Bambaataa-shaped sledgehammer. Even from the first few listens, what started as bewildering collection of musically inventive, but attention-grabbing tracks, something gets you. It has that undefinable ability that good albums do: to start taking shape and working its way into your subconscious right from the start. Then you hit The Other Black Dog, with its relentless, cycling energy and edge, ‘a tale of black dogs with golden leashes‘ and you start to get an inkling of a theme as you’re still trying to wrap your head around it as a whole. ‘Oh, depression’, you think, like Arlo. But what you’ll slowly realise is that it’s much more complex than that. Because the ‘Black Dog’ isn’t just depression, on an album that touches on some heavy themes: it’s a reclaiming of a racist term often used as a racial slur against Kofi Owusu-Ansah throughout his life. Its double meaning gives it extra resonance once you grasp that. You can read many things about the artist and his music, (and you should, because he is a person who is magnetic when he talks about his craft) but I always want a few tilts at the album before I started gaining context, to simply take in the music, without prejudgement.
Because, before you start to get to exist with the lyrics, the music leaves quite the early impression. It’s hard to see a genre that’s not covered: the aforementioned electro and pulsing beats, then Centrefold’s silky r’n’b that nods at everything from Frank Ocean to The Internet via Outkast, paired with Waitin’ On Ya, with its vocoded, 90s-esque stylings that felt the strongest connection to Super Rich Kids, and I Don’t Need You’s scuzzy guitar-vocal interplay that feels every inch a modern pop record. Drown, which is as if lifted from an 80s teen classic soundtrack, its rasping guitars and pulsing synth bass notes, lifted by guitarists Kirin J Callinan’s vocals. By the end of ‘side one’ (because it really does feels like a ‘proper’ album in that respect’, I felt like I’d gone on a car chase through the last 40 years of my musical existence. There was a lot to unpack. And yet, as you feel you have a handle on the most modern of ‘urban pop’ (is that even a thing?) albums, it takes a darker turn.
The ‘side two’ of Smiling With No Teeth, even without the lyrical connections, turns south. Gold Chains‘ echoes vintage N.E.R.D. but drips with metaphor ‘When it looks so gold, but it feels so cold inside these chains‘, subverting the macho hip-hop culture and appearance with a frail soul. The album’s title track swaggers along a pared-back Rhodes and harmonies, all Frank Ocean again, but with a bleakness attached, while I Don’t See Colour, with its congas and toms that feel all throwback 2000s Timbaland/Pharrell doesn’t disguise any more, with the lyrics starting to come so to the front of the mix that it’s impossible to ignore: “When you see the black man, its riots and terror But when I talk about slavery, you weren’t there, how convenient“. And as the album progresses, the music sits further and further back, leaving you no escape from the message: its hooked you in, and now you’re going to listen. Because this is an album that takes the messages of black consciousness, racism, oppression, and burns the lived experience into the listener’s brain. You will not escape, because you cannot.
Black Dogs punk feel shouts straight-up racism and painful, paranoid memories of everyday aggressions. Whip Cracker takes it up ever further notches, pared back to only a kick drum and unconcealed anger: “Whip your hands / whip your ass / Whip your man’s whip / This ain’t the 50s, you ain’t talkin’ shit / Know your place, know your role / ‘Fore you get tripped / You ain’t no masters / Your place has been flipped‘, and when the guitar and bass rides in, it sounds like Prince, but with Killer Mike’s flow injected. A subversion not even across two songs, but in the middle of one. And this is, remember, a 23-year old man with so much material to work from, because – starkly, and unadorned – this is the reality for black people everywhere. And his statement, and its power, is something visceral to behold amongst the musical alchemy.
There is some respite, with Easy‘s familiar-sounding 80s patterns, and A Song About Fishing may sound like a closing credits track, but the fishless lake is Owusu’s existence casting itself into a life without happiness. This is the beauty of the album in one perfect example: hooks and melodies to love, with a lyrical message as bleak as anything can get. If No Looking Back sounds like an anachronism, it is. Originally the album closer, its 60s-soul was felt way too positive and sugar-coated to really end the record, which is why Bye Bye exists: an edgy, but 80s-soul and funk-flecked nugget that slips in bleakness aplenty: “How do I breathe with my hands on my own throat?”.
It’s often the case I go – as many do – on a journey with any album. But this in an odyssey. A fable. Even as you try to consume the album’s kaleidoscopic nature, its melodic whirlwind, its length, it takes investment to start to see the dust settle. It’s a good half a dozen listens before songs start to emerge from the storm, and when that happens, it’s a beautiful experience, because you can’t but admire the talent on display. And as with the album’s narrative, there’s a story behind its creation: from mainly working across EPs and singles with beats and computers, Owusu wanted a looser ‘jammed’ feel to the album, so enlisted a collection of brilliant musicians – Callinan on guitar, World Champion’s Julian Sudek on drums, and Andrew Klippel, label Ourness’ founder on keys and house producer Touch Sensitive on bass – and went through six days of mammoth sessions where inspirations were played to the band, and songs were sketched out from the jams and lyrics worked on. Plucked from the best of 50+ hours, out of which the songs emerged. It’s a hugely ambitious method, and one that, without the talent and filter to make it work – both from the superlative talents of the group of musicians to thread it together and its leader to distil that into its final form – could’ve easily resulted in an overblown, confused effort that sunk without trace. But once you read about Genesis Owusu’s life, inspirations and hear him talk about what his music means to him, once again, Smiling…. seems more and more likely as a result.
But Owusu didn’t want it just to be about the music: working in multiple media, with fashion, song, art, video. They’re all “tools for expression, of me to the fullest extent”. Music is really important but it’s “just the soundtrack, when I’m “trying to make the whole movie”. An all-encompassing artistic vision at this age and stage of a career that its hard not to be wowed by, supported by some striking videos to the album. Playing out the dual-Black Dog metaphors : with depression the ‘internal’ spectre and racism it’s ‘external’ partner, they’re sometimes wrapped up further in a break-up or love song theme, sitting at times as a character within that structure, a three-layer approach that demands time and dedication but reaps big rewards. The whole album is an exercise in taking musically dazzling methods then wrapping the lyrics into it so seamlessly, that it takes considered effort – and in this case, my actual reading of so much of the lyrics – to really get under that surface. But it’s stealth, a trojan horse effort that serves as a double-whammy when those words truly hit.
And they are an uncomfortable listen, but they are vital. I can’t possibly identify with much of that lived experience, but the energy, the anger, the rage that drips from the verses is impossible to ignore. Cast against the soul majesty of Sault, or Arlo Parks’ odes to angst-ridden teenage existence as a person of colour, and even RTJ’s nihilistic brutalism, this feels like it trumps even that. There is no sugar-coating, no desire to. But the unfiltered nature is as powerful as anything around it: “They passed the time / She gave her lies / He gave his life / Paid the price / In flashing lights / To gain his rights” in Easy. Dealing with the black dog as depression – something I can connect to far more – whether as a comment on gang culture clichés or the alpha-male assumptions of his appearance: “All my friends are hurting, but we dance it off, laugh it off / Scars inside our shoes but we just tap it off, clap it off” in The Other Black Dog, or “My other half that I swore I ain’t miss / Toxic, hundred percent batshit / Took my hand and started holding me down / Flicked thе crown, and said / You’ve got to let me drown“. It’s hard not to feel its impact in that shape-shifting flow.
Owusu talked of making the album he wanted to, free from any self-imposed expectation, with a desire to diverge from the soul/funk beats’n’drums hip-hop of his EPs, and its both admirable that – with all his confessed tumult – he can have the lack of ego and conviction to do that. Also that he can take all these ingredients and still come up with a work of such contrast and confidence as Smiling With No Teeth is, almost in a musical and cultural world of his own making. It feels like an album that could be only made on debut – that time when an artist can come to something with a vision that’s full of energy and unrestricted by critical expectation, or relative worry – but given its fully-formed vision, it’s hard not to wonder at the potential that lies in Genesis Owusu’s music. The message. The hooks. The colour of the palette. And tapping into something vital. Something that’s not just a reaction to the BLM-affected time we live in (in a recent podcast he was asked if that affected how he made the album and calmly explained that this has been a comment on his whole life) but the aggressions that pockmark a young black man’s life, character, mental health, outlook and future. This is, at it’s core, a deeply personal album, with focus and craft stupefying for someone in their early 20s. The justice will be if the album gets acclaim that it deserves when it can’t yet be toured or promoted in the usual way.
Let’s just get one thing out of the way. Disco is one of the finest forms of pop music. I don’t even want to hear an argument otherwise. But it gets a bad rap. The old ‘disco sucks’ chant still rings in the ears after all these years.
It’s light. It lacks depth. It’s silly. It’s throwaway. It’s too female, it’s too gay. It’s not the ‘real’ music of boys with guitars (thanks Men on the Internet for your views).
Obviously, this is a view of such reductive idiocy, it’s barely worth debating. if you can’t find the genius in a Roisin Murphy or a Robyn album, then maybe you don’t even like music. If you aren’t moved by ‘I Feel Love’, then maybe you don’t even have a pulse.
Actually, that’s what I like most in a disco track: emotion. Not just to want to dance, but to feel *moved*. And boy, is there plenty of that on this latest offering from our Jessie. Spoiler alert: I ABSOLUTELY FUCKING LOVE THIS ALBUM.
I loved Jessie Ware’s first album, Devotion, which cut a classy nu-soul vibe that felt like a Sade throwback. But I lost my way with her a little, and found her second and third a bit lacklustre, and treading the same path.
I chose this album without hearing it for the AOTM on the back of some really stellar reviews, and from Gay Twitter (or at least, Gay Twitter that I follow anyway…) losing their shit on how good it is.
They weren’t wrong. This is a major reboot which finds Jessie W rejuvenated and raring to go. Working with former Simian Mobile Disco stalwart James Ford, they mine the musical past in search of nuggets, and they nearly always come up with gold.
The most obvious influence is Italo-Disco and House of the 80s (and I LOVE that shit). The title track could be a lost classic. But it’s enormous fun hearing all the influences that went into the melting pot of this record. Opener Spotlight is a smooth opener that could easily be late Kylie. Ooh La La is total Nile Rodgers-era Duran Duran. Soul Control and Read My Lips are 80s soul-disco in a Gwen Guthrie ‘Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On But The Rent’ style.
And then the other obvious shadow on this album. No, not Roisin, it’s not as left field as that: I’m talking about Robyn. And I’m thinking specifically about her last album, Honey (a former AOTM wasn’t it?). Check out Save A Kiss – it could easily sit on that record:
The big questions is – do all these influences turn into something new? Does it feel as fresh and as contemporary as Robyn manages to sound? Honestly – well maybe not quite. It’s certainly lyrically pretty obvious and at times quite trite, which fits the vibe but doesn’t offer that emotional connection that Robyn so often does in her work.
But it doesn’t feel like a throwback record either. I was thinking of Daft Punk’s behemoth, Random Access Memory. Having deconstructed disco and funk in their early work, that album felt more like a more simple homage. I know it divided critics but I LOVE it. This album reminds me of that a little, in that it feels like a love letter to that music, while being very much its own universe.
Of course, the real test will be – will I stick this on at a party? And will I still be listening to it in a year? I don’t know yet, but I’d take a guess that I will be.
What’s Your Pleasure? Mine’s certainly this album.