Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Record Label: XL
Radiohead have long trafficked in existential dread and political anger, and in a wider sense of twitchy bereftness that bends to fit any number of scenarios – their very own aural shade of Yves Klein blue, maybe, just a little more bruised. This arresting ninth album is bathed in it.
‘The damage is done,’ Yorke sings, even more exhausted than usual.
Overshadowed by the break-up of singer Thom Yorke’s relationship, announced last year, A Moon Shaped Pool finds the band mining their long and deep back catalogue, while pushing their compositional skills relentlessly forwards. Where 2011’s more granular and underrated The King of Limbs revelled in beats, A Moon Shaped Pool marks a frequent relaxation into more conventional songcraft – manna from heaven for a certain stripe of Radiohead fan. Jonny Greenwood’s film score sideline pays dividends, too, in the string arrangements and modern classical introduction to Glass Eyes.
The album starts and finishes on two older songs, material reworked in the light of new developments. Dating from as long ago as the Hail to the Thief sessions, Burn the Witch is A Moon Shaped Pool’s most forthright political statement, a warning against scapegoating outsiders that trailed the album’s release with a startling stop-motion animation video.
.At the far end of the tracklisting is True Love Waits, a relic that has been around since circa 1995. The title may tilt at the religion-inspired US celibacy movement, but the song – now made up of piano, vocals and percussion that sounds like a beetle using a typewriter – is about a fraught sense of love. (The “lollipops and crisps” line refers to a mother who left her young child alone for days with junk food). It climaxes with the words “don’t leave”.
You would not want to be so crass as to call this Radiohead’s break-up album; after all, there are four other band members. A song such as The Numbers (formerly known as Silent Spring) uses found sound, a little cosmic jazz, folk-rock acoustic guitar and accusatory strings to seethe specifically about ecocide. Ful Stop, meanwhile, is six minutes of encroaching electronic menace whose lyrics self-flagellate quite mercilessly.
But a few songs appear to conjoin macro with micro, with a sense of loss that encompasses disintegration on the home front and in the wider world. Daydreaming is one. “The damage is done,” Yorke sings, even more exhausted than usual. Things have got “beyond the point of no return”, and “this goes beyond me/Beyond you”. The coda is back-masked and sinister: “Half of my life,” it goes, according to people who have played it backwards. At a guess, it’s the 23 years the 47-year-old Yorke spent with the mother of his children, crowning a piano-led ballad in which it is easy to read divorce as well as disaster.
Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
Record Label: Columbia
The story goes that it was Leonard Cohen’s son Adam who pressed his father for a back-to-basics album, one where the most magnificent mutter in rock could operate unhindered by Cohen Sr’s taste for flamenco guitar and synths. We may have something as banal as pester power to thank, then, for this exquisite 14th album from the Montreal poet, held by recent Nobel laureate Bob Dylan – gnomic as ever – to be “No 1” to his “zero”.
The facts are these: Cohen is 82 and – after having toured solidly for five-odd years, remaking the fortune he lost to a thieving former business manager – is winding down. These eight and a half songs (the ninth is a reprise) were demoed in Cohen’s home studio; they are most often simply structured and direct. Once Cohen Jr and returning collaborator Pat Leonard (1980s Madonna) had buffed them up, they remain sparsely arranged, and are all the more powerful for it.
A few soulful angels alight on On the Level; some arpeggiating guitar and keening violin sweeten the sadness of Traveling Light. Here are Jewish cantors and Celtic fiddles, but mostly, Cohen’s voice is front and centre: the parchedness of Methuselah often matched by a roué’s playfulness.
This is an album of killer couplets, even the bleakest delivered with a half-smile. Finality is a theme. “I’m leaving the table/I’m outta the game,” growls Cohen on Leaving the Table, as a hollow-bodied guitar prangs lonesomely. The song is actually about the end of a relationship (or many relationships); of the death of a ladies’ man. (“I don’t need a lover,” Cohen rattles, with weary irony, “the wretched beast is tame.”) But the hair stands up on your arms nonetheless at these repeated leave-takings. Cohen’s gimlet-eyed title track doesn’t mess about, either. “Hineni, hineni,” he sings in Hebrew; (“Here I am”) “I’m ready my Lord Recommended Reading.” On Traveling Light: “it’s au revoir” – to a lover. As it happens, Cohen has back-pedalled in recent days, when the internet jumped to conclusions about the state of his health: there are more projects in the pipeline.
You Want It Darker could be addressed to fans pining for a return to Cohen’s bleakest songwriting; or a lover, or a higher power. As befits a lifelong spiritual seeker, born into a storied Jewish family, but well versed in scripture and Buddhism, the love songs have religious overtones, and the spiritual passages pack a lover’s passion. Treaty, for instance, seems to beg for a truce between warring lovers, but amid the rueful reminiscing is talk of water and wine, snakes and sin.
On the opposing side is It Seemed the Better Way, perhaps the most sombre song of all, one that tussles with approaches to faith. We did want it darker, it’s true, and Cohen has obliged. “It sounded like the truth/ But it’s not the truth today,” rasps Cohen, quite bitterly.
David Bowie – Blackstar
Record Label: Columbia
Blackstar has David Bowie embracing his status as a no-fucks icon, clutching onto remnants from the past as exploratory jazz and the echos of various mad men soundtrack his freefall.
David Bowie has died many deaths yet he is still with us. He is popular music’s ultimate Lazarus: Just as that Biblical figure was beckoned by Jesus to emerge from his tomb after four days of nothingness, Bowie has put many of his selves to rest over the last half-century, only to rise again with a different guise. This is astounding to watch, but it’s more treacherous to live through; following Lazarus’ return, priests plotted to kill him, fearing the power of his story. And imagine actually being such a miracle man—resurrection is a hard act to follow.
Bowie knows all this. He will always have to answer to his epochal work of the 1970s, the decade in which he dictated several strands of popular and experimental culture, when he made reinvention seem as easy as waking up in the morning. Rather than trying to outrun those years, as he did in the ’80s and ’90s, he is now mining them in a resolutely bizarre way that scoffs at greatest-hits tours, nostalgia, and brainless regurgitation.
His new off-Broadway musical is called Lazarus, and it turns Bowie’s penchant for avatars into an intriguing shell game: The disjointed production features actor Michael C. Hall doing his best impression of Bowie’s corrupted, drunk, and immortal alien from the 1976 art film The Man Who Fell to Earth. Trapped in a set that mimics a Manhattan penthouse, Hall presses himself up to his high skyscraper windows as he sings a new Bowie song also called “Lazarus.” “This way or no way, you know, I’ll be free,” he sings, smudging his hands against the glass. “Just like that bluebird.” Bowie sings the same song on Blackstar, an album that has him clutching onto remnants from the past as exploratory jazz and the echos of various mad men soundtrack his freefall.
Following years of troubling silence, Bowie returned to the pop world with 2013’s The Next Day. The goodwill surrounding his return could not overcome the album’s overall sense of stasis, though. Conversely, on Blackstar, he embraces his status as a no-fucks icon, a 68-year-old with “nothing left to lose,” as he sings on “Lazarus.” The album features a quartet of brand-new collaborators, led by the celebrated modern jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin, whose repertoire includes hard bop as well as skittering Aphex Twin covers. Bowie’s longtime studio wingman Tony Visconti is back as co-producer, bringing along with him some continuity and a sense of history.
Because as much as Blackstar shakes up our idea of what a David Bowie record can sound like, its blend of jazz, codes, brutality, drama, and alienation is not without precedent in his work. Bowie’s first proper instrument was a saxophone, after all, and as a preteen he looked up to his older half-brother Terry Burns, who exposed him to John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and Beat Generation ideals. The links connecting Bowie, his brother, and jazz feel significant. Burns suffered from schizophrenia throughout his life; he once tried to kill himself by jumping out of a mental hospital window and eventually committed suicide by putting himself in front of a train in 1985.
Perhaps this helps explain why Bowie has often used jazz and his saxophone not for finger-snapping pep but rather to hint at mystery and unease. It’s there in his close collaborations with avant-jazz pianist Mike Garson, from 1973’s “Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)” all the way to 2003’s “Bring Me the Disco King.” It’s in his wild squawks on 1993’s “Jump They Say,” an ode to Burns. But there is no greater example of the pathos that makes Bowie’s saxophone breathe than on “Subterraneans” from 1977’s Low, one of his most dour (and influential) outré moments. That song uncovered a mood of future nostalgia so lasting that it’s difficult to imagine the existence of an act like Boards of Canada without it. Completing the circle, Boards of Canada were reportedly one of Bowie’s inspirations for Blackstar. At this point, it is all but impossible for Bowie to escape himself, but that doesn’t mean he won’t try.
Thematically, Blackstar pushes on with the world-weary nihilism that has marked much of his work this century. “It’s a head-spinning dichotomy of the lust for life against the finality of everything,” he mused around the release of 2003’s Reality. “It’s those two things raging against each other… that produces these moments that feel like real truth.” Those collisions come hard and strong throughout the album, unpredictable jazz solos and spirited vocals meeting timeless stories of blunt force and destruction. The rollicking “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” gets its name from a controversial 17th-century play in which a man has sex with his sister only to stab her in the heart in the middle of a kiss. Bowie’s twist involves some canny gender-bending (“she punched me like a dude”), a robbery, and World War I, but the gist is the same—humans will always resort to a language of savagery when necessary, no matter where or when. See also: “Girl Loves Me,” which has Bowie yelping in the slang originated by A Clockwork Orange’s ultraviolent droogs.
Though this mix of jazz, malice, and historical role-play is intoxicating, Blackstar becomes whole with its two-song denouement, which balances out the bruises and blood with a couple of salty tears. These are essentially classic David Bowie ballads, laments in which he lets his mask hang just enough for us to see the creases of skin behind it. “Dollar Days” is the confession of a restless soul who could not spend his golden years in a blissful British countryside even if he wanted to. “I’m dying to push their backs against the grain and fool them all again and again,” he sings, the words doubling as a mantra for Blackstar and much of Bowie’s career. Then, on “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” he once again sounds like a frustrated Lazarus, stymied by a returning pulse. This tortured immortality is no gimmick: Bowie will live on long after the man has died. For now, though, he’s making the most of his latest reawakening, adding to the myth while the myth is his to hold.
Agnes Obel – Citizen of Glass
Record Label: PIAS
On her previous two albums, Danish singer Agnes Obel has tended to keep it minimal, relying on the stark beauty of her piano and voice to create a beautifully otherworldly sound. On Obel’s third record, Citizen Of Glass, the sense of strangeness remains, but Obel has beefed up her sound somewhat.
Not that Citizen Of Glass is a massive departure from Philharmonics and Aventine – there’s a sense of fragility that runs through all of Obel’s material, something slightly delicate that feels like it’s lulling you out of a deep sleep. Opening track Stretch Your Eyes has a ghostly feel about it, with its elastic bass and gently lulling strings, but there’s a tension forever bubbling underneath.
It certainly feels like something of an evolution for Obel – there are all sorts of obscure instruments on show (including a monophonic synthesizer from the 1920s called a Trautonium) and she experiments with electronica effects and pitch-shifting vocals. On Familiar, she even adjusts her voice several octaves to duet with a male version of herself – not a new idea (it’s a technique that the young British singer Låpsley has defined herself by) but on tracks like Familiar, the effect is absolutely stunning.
It’s Happening Again marks a return to more vintage Obel, a haunting piano ballad with some sweeping strings, while the hypnotic title track recalls none other than Japanese instrumentalist Ryuichi Sakamoto. It’s the more experimental tracks that tend to bury themselves into the memory though, such as the multi-tracked vocals of Golden Green or the dramatic atmospherics of one of the album’s standout tracks, Trojan Horses.
Obel has described Citizens Of Glass as her first concept idea – exploring the idea that people have dismissed the idea of privacy and that, with the age of social media, are happy to publicise their innermost thoughts and feelings to all. This transparency doesn’t apply to Obel’s lyrics though which are as poetic and obtuse as ever, although the aforementioned Trojan Horses does hint at the subject – “these bare bones are made of glass, see through to the marrow as they pass” runs the opening line.
The death of Obel’s father in 2014 also inevitably shadows Citizens Of Glass – although there’s no direct references to mortality and loss, there’s a deep sense of sadness running through the record, especially in the two instrumentals, Grasshopper and Red Virginia Soil. There are hints of the dark folk of Marika Hackman at times, especially on the eerie, somewhat spooky ballad Stone.
Some earlier fans of Obel may miss the more minimal sound of her early albums, and there’s certainly no big crossover track that will propel Obel to the mainstream. This is a haunting listen though, and one that will provide suitable company as the long winter nights start to draw in.
PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition
Record Label – PIAS
PJ Harvey memorably recorded The Hope Six Demolition Project as part of a Somerset House art installation last year. Her ninth album is now ready to land, and it takes us much further afield than the small box she created it in.
The double Mercury Prize winner’s latest effort follows four years spent researching and visiting Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC with Irish war photographer Seamus Murphy. The result is a characteristically gritty record that skilfully distils the pervading sense of desolation she experienced in places downtrodden by conflict and hardship.
Predictably, The Hope Six Demolition Project is unconcerned with mass market appeal, making it a tricky album to navigate and an even harder one to enjoy. Harvey assumes the role of a musical war correspondent, demanding immersion into a challenging theme underscored by powerful lyrical intensity. Unswervingly political, the originality comes from her position as an observer rather than a Dylan-style protester. Her words, here as visceral as fans have come to expect, could at times be mistaken for a Wilfred Owen poem.
Produced once more by Flood, who has worked with Harvey since 1995’s Bring You My Love, the new record presents detailed snapshots of the horrific aftermath of wars, both physical, as on the raucously rocky “The Ministry of Social Affairs”, and mentally, on the harrowing, sax-heavy “Chain of Keys”. Its a tough but important listen in a world plagued by social inequality.
Chugging guitar underlines the ever-present sense of disenchantment in ironically bleak opener “The Community of Hope”, named after a local charity and already controversial with Washington DC citizens angry at being branded “zombies” living in a “drug town shit-hole”. By closing refrain “They’re gonna put a Walmart here” you’re already drowned in life’s pointlessness, and there’s still ten more songs to go.
“The Ministry of Defence” hears Harvey apocalyptically conjure intimidating images of “sprayed graffiti”, “broken glass” and “balanced sticks in human s**t”, supported by aggressive guitars, while her disturbingly carefree falsetto on “A Line in the Sand” jars with its recounting of life working in an aid camp for the displaced.
There is a disarmingly upbeat tone at times, notably on midpoint song “Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln”, which reflects the morally troubling sight of “people lumbering over the grass to squeeze into plastic chairs” next to tributes rendered little more than tourist attractions by the ignorant masses. Thundering highlight track “The Wheel”, about those missing from war zones, reverberates poignant relevance in the midst of the refugee crisis.
“Medicinals” draws on modern day dependence on alcohol as a numbing agent to life’s troubles, rhythmic percussion recreating happier, simpler times of old before a sudden, effective drop in tempo and dynamics brings the listener smashing back down to earth where a wheelchair-bound woman swigs booze from a paper-wrapped bottle.
“The Orange Monkey” morosely continues the theme of buried history while “River Anocostia” opens and closes with the humming of black spiritual song “Wade in the Water”, a risky move that stops short of cultural appropriation thanks to Harvey’s strong retention of her own, unique sound.
Closing track “Dollar, Dollar” sees a beggar boy approach Harvey at some traffic lights, only for her car to pull away leaving him impoverished and helpless in the dust. This one packs a particularly guilty punch with its realistic road noise intro complete with children’s cries, Harvey’s vocals becoming as haunting as the vanishing dot in her wing mirror.
Despondency runs throughThe Hope Six Demolition Project, making for an unsettling ride. Harvey’s vivid storytelling audibly paints every sigh of it, reflecting the world’s injustices back at us and forcing us to inspect their ugliness.
Christine and The Queens – Chaleur Humaine
Record Label – Because Music
Last week, two contestants on the BBC1 talent show The Voice performed a cover of Anohni’s Hope There’s Someone. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a particularly extreme or challenging piece of music – it’s a ballad with a beautiful, lambent melody and profoundly moving lyrics that address a universal theme. Nor is it a particularly obscure song. The opening track from a decade-old Mercury prize-winning top 20 album, it has enjoyed an afterlife that has included soundtracking Dr Who offshoot Torchwood and being covered by both English folkies the Unthanks and EDM DJ Avicii. And yet it still felt startling to hear it sung on a Saturday evening light-entertainment show. Mainstream pop music in Britain – the kind on which programmes such as The Voice are supposed to be predicated – has seldom seemed more conservative than it does today: it sometimes feels as if it is being stringently policed to ensure that nothing strange or fantastic or novel, and indeed no one in possession of an identifiable personality, gets in. Artists such as Anohni – probing gender issues, informed by performance art and politics – can expect to be automatically confined to the margins, no matter how lambent their melodies or universal their lyrics.
It’s worth contrasting this state of affairs with regard to the career of Héloïse Letissier, who records under the name Christine and the Queens. In her native France, she is a huge mainstream star. Chaleur Humaine, the album on which her UK debut is based – with some of its French lyrics translated to English, and a few new, English-language tracks added – has spent most of the last two years in the French top 40, spawned a string of hit singles, earned Letissier two awards at the Gallic equivalent of the Brits, and a guest appearance when Madonna played Paris in December. Perhaps that is a result of Chaleur Humaine’s obvious pop smarts: listening to the melody of Saint Claude, floating serenely above a stark backdrop of stammering beats and delicate slivers of electronics, you can see how it ended up a top 5 single. Or perhaps they find Letissier the kind of endlessly fascinating, provocative artist whose very presence makes pop music a more interesting place: a pansexual woman “obsessed with the idea of having a dick and being a man”, who name-drops both Michael Jackson and the German modern dance legend Pina Bausch as influences, and turned to music after being co-opted by a group of London drag queens, hymned in her stage name.
Whatever the reason, it’s worth holding out the possibly vain hope that something similar might happen in the UK. Chaleur Humaine is a rich and rewarding album that works whichever way you slice it. If you want to take it as an extended musical treatise on queer identity and non-binary sexual orientation, there’s plenty here to keep you occupied. Take, for example, the opening track iT’s declaration of “I’m a man now and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.” (Later in the song, an unconvinced Greek chorus suggest: “She draws her own crotch by herself but she’ll lose because it’s a fake.” Or take Half Ladies’ defiance in the face of abuse: “I’ve found a place of grace … every insult I hear back darkens into a beauty mark,” she sings, before another fantastic chorus – one on which her love of Michael Jackson shines through – sweeps the song along.
If you just want to treat it as a collection of beautifully wrought pop music, then it functions fantastically as that, too. The sound Letissier and her collaborators – sometime Metronomy affiliates Ash Workman and Gabriel Stebbing – have constructed is hugely appealing: a simultaneously intricate and spare lattice of softly glowing electronics and occasional misty hints of R&B and hip-hop, not least on No Harm Is Done, which features the rapper Tunji Ige and piano. The songwriting is perfectly poised, subtle and restrained without being wilfully opaque: it never clobbers you over the head, nor do you have to unpick the songs to find the tunes. There’s a deeply affecting combination of delicacy and force behind her collaboration with Perfume Genius, Jonathan, or Safe and Holy’s combination of pattering hi-hat, piano and marooned sweeps of ravey synth.
It’s informed by a sharp musical intelligence – Paradis Perdus takes an exquisitely orchestrated, vaguely Pink Floydish track from a 1973 album by French singer Christophe and Heartless from Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak, identifies a common mood between the two, and melds them together seamlessly – but one that it chooses to wear lightly. You never find yourself in the presence of music that sounds self-consciously clever. Everything flows easily, nothing jars.
“A song is like a virus,” Letissier told an interviewer last year, “everyone can have it.” It’s a lovely sentiment, and Chaleur Humaine bears that line of thinking out: for all the seriousness of the issues the lyrics explore, it always feels like a pleasure rather than hard work. The question of whether it will prove as infectious in the UK as it has on the continent is a tough one: the innate conservatism of mainstream British pop sits pretty uneasily with an artist who clearly thinks pop music can be both an unalloyed pleasure and a conduit for ideas, a means of provoking thought, a world in which you can reinvent yourself at the same time. The question of whether it deserves to be is more easily answered.
Bon Over – 22 In a Million
Record Label – Jagjaguwar
Let’s get this out the way first: I have never liked Bon Iver. In the past, I found Justin Vernon’s overwhelming sincerity to be a mask for the utterly humourless, his tendency towards the maudlin to be a prop for those whose pain and sadness were merely much deeper, and far greater than anyone else’s. In short, I wished he would journey back to his log cabin and take up a far nobler pursuit. Whittling, maybe. It seems to be the fashion right now.
But against my entrenched displeasure, my anti-Bon Iver vibes that journey towards the sectarian I actually really, really like new album ‘22, A Million’. In fact, I’m actually kind of hypnotised by it.
One of the last occasions that fans in the UK glimpsed Justin Vernon was at last summer’s Glastonbury festival, located some 100 feet behind and 50 feet below a Yeezy-guided cherry picker. In a way, Justin Vernon and Kanye West are perfect for one another: the incredible overreach, the bizarre sense of self-worth, and the ludicrous, ludicrous lack of anything approaching irony.
And they are both entirely fascinating. After all, who else but Justin Vernon could effortlessly move in such abstract directions, but yet also provide some of his simplest, most effective songwriting? The tracklisting – which created a wave of social media mirth on its unveiling – is in fact attached to some of the downright prettiest work in the Bon Iver catalogue. Opening cut ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’ might veer towards the infinite with those lemniscates symbolism but it is in fact done and dusted in under three minutes – and that’s including those wisps of high-pitched, vastly distorted backing vocals.
‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’ may yearn to link sex with death, to be “unorphaned in our northern lights” but it’s also probably one of the first singer-songwriter efforts (which it still, loosely, is) to use the word “fuckified”. ‘33 “GOD”’ meanwhile, finds Justin Vernon in search of “God, and religions too” while (and we’re not making this up) staying at uber-hip Shoreditch spot the Ace Hotel – a search so stylishly noble and helplessly oblique that it somehow recasts Justin Vernon as existing somewhere between an aspiring hip-priest and Don Quixote.
And yet, and yet, and yet…
‘22, A Million’ is easy to mock – it’s a gift for the cynics out there, those desperate for Justin Vernon to make what would arguably be his first real, true misstep. But when the laughter stops what you’re left with is a real gem – a record laced with ideas, and fresh invention, but also one packed with SONGS.
‘29 #Strafford APTS’ is about as straight as Bon Iver play it on this record, all wistful acoustic guitar and a time-faded piano line with an effect half-inched from a Tom Waits LP. It’s ineffably gorgeous, and incredibly affecting. ‘Moon Water’ allows some of the record’s most straight-forward lyrics to fade into the abstract, the words dissolved in noise, an echoing saxophone sampled twisted and turned in an act of aural ablution.
‘8 (circle)’ is the longest track on the record, and it’s perhaps the closest Justin Vernon ever gets to fully unmasking himself: “Haven’t I locked up my failures?” he asks, “wouldn’t I be last to see?” It’s somewhere between an 80s R&B cut and a church hymn, affording enormous space to the vocal – and it needs it, uniting the record’s themes of religion, numerology, destruction by fire, and the art of forgiveness. Astonishingly, it aims to unite T.S. Eliot and Womack & Womack. Even more astonishingly, it kinda pulls it off.
Yes, ‘22, A Million’ is painfully, painfully sincere. Yes, it’s also hopelessly oblique, grandiose, and pretentious. Yet it’s also an absolute diamond of a record, at once fragrantly beautifully and also hopelessly complex, easy to disregard and yet thoroughly hypnotic.
ANOHNI – Hopelessness
Record Label – Rough Trade
Much has changed since Antony Hegarty’s last album, 2010’s ‘Swanlights’. Now calling herself Anohni, she’s traded in her outsider folk cabaret for a cutting edge electronic pop sound co-produced by Hudson Mohawke and avant-garde synth guru Oneohtrix Point Never. But those aren’t even the most remarkable things about ‘Hopelessness’, an album of righteous political fury that’s all the more powerful for being delivered so exquisitely.
Take the devastating opener, ‘Drone Bomb Me’, in which Anohni’s defiant tremor inhabits a girl whose family were killed by a drone attack and who now yearns for the same swift ending. “Blow my head off,” she demands over luscious, shimmering R&B. It’s hard to think of a more affecting recent response to state-sponsored brutality in any medium.
Not all of Anohni’s attempts to make the political personal are quite so successful. Occasionally it can feel like she’s just reading out Guardian headlines, but an undercurrent of simmering anger is palpable throughout. Anohni reserves particular ire for Barack Obama; on the song that bears his name, she pitches her voice down menacingly to castigate the president who promised so much yet still sanctioned “executing without trial” and “punishing the whistle-blowers”.
For the most part though, ‘Hopelessness’ shows that you don’t have to make dissonant, clashing music to express fury. Sometimes sweetly savage irony can be more effective, as demonstrated by ‘Watch Me’ (a cutting send-up of NSA snooping) and the perky radio pop of ‘Execution’ (“execution, it’s the American dream!”). Closing track ‘Marrow’ is another case in point, an almost unbearably lovely chord progression over which Anohni gently sings a list of world countries before bitterly asserting: “We are all Americans now”. ‘Crisis’ takes a different tack, asking simply, “How would you feel if I tortured your brother?” before building to a crescendo of emotional apologies.
Making relevant, accessible, uncringey protest music in this day and age is such a difficult task that most artists have decided not to bother. Anohni has been brave enough to take that risk, and the most vital album of recent times is the reward. “I feel the hopelessness,” she sings forlornly on the melancholy title track – but of course the value of an album like this is that it suggests things might not be hopeless after all.
Goat – Requiem
Record Label – Rocket
Goat make music as inscruitable and enchanting as themselves.
To listen to the music of monastic psych-voyagers Goat is to play the part of a detective. Theirs is a stateless, nomadic sound, barely a stampless space on a fully filled passport. Their knotted blend of East and West, African djembe with Funkadelic freakouts, immediately begs questions of origin.
The question, when asked, has been answered with layers of myth and misinformation: they claim to be from Korpilombolo in Northern Sweden, although they may spell the name incorrectly on their website. The pulsating, trancelike nature of their music comes under the influence of a voodoo tradition, which inspires too their masks an clothing; although this seems equally unlikely given Northern Sweden’s proximity to Haiti.
That such tall tales have only been half dismissed speaks volumes about their mind boggling sound: Fela Kuti, with Cream as his backing band, all four of them having gotten really, really, into witchcraft. But despite such mythologising, there is little chance of the band themselves overshadowing their work. Such tall tales serve as a smokescreen behind which the group retain their privacy. They do few interviews, fewer still in the runup to Requiem, so all the budding Goat detective has to go on, is a rambling press release which describes this as their ‘folk’ album.
On their third release the Goat sect largely give up their praise of the fire gods to worship the earth: images are of dancing in the African bush, ayahuasca in the Amazon. The opening track ‘Union of Sun and Moon’ is the first indication of the new pastoral charm with which they weave. From the opening strains of birds tweeting, and the chanted acapella vocal, off key and charmingly childlike (that feeling of peace later punctured with a primitive playground chant), you grasp for meaning, both within and without the music.
With the guitars slightly turned down, the mysticism and the spirituality has been turned up: “Psychedelic Lover” features byzantine style chanting, and the vocals regularly hit that sweet spot between keys, giving them a timeless, foreign quality. Pan pipes pepper the album, as do the almost tactile sounds of güiros, Koras, and a wider range of traditional, acoustic instrumentation. This only adds to the feeling of age many of these songs have: an air of wisdom and of inheritance which underlines Goat’s stated aim, and their folk credentials.
But Goat can still make a room writhe: their jam focussed methodology has always lent itself to trancelike, dancelike hip shaking, a solid groove laying the foundations before building layers and intensity. “Temple Rythms” sounds like an acoustic cover of Aphex Twin’s “Didgeridoo”, “Trouble in the Streets” pure sunshine ecstasy, a Cape Town carnival that plucks only the finest grooves from Graceland. There remains plenty to dig your teeth into, and Goat retain their head-thrown-back, hard rocking form on tracks like “All Seeing Eye” (like Ram Jam playing a Masonic hall), “Goatfuzz” (The White Stripes if Meg was frontwoman) and Goatband (Led Zeplin rushing on MDMA).
An album called Requiem begs obvious questions about the future of the band. Such a misanthropic collective could call it quits at any time. The penultimate track, “Goodbye” is softly triumphant and the strains from “Diaribi”, the first track from the first album, close “Ubuntu” the final track on Requiem. Ubuntu is a Southern African philosophical concept, roughly translating to ‘humanity towards others’ and emphasising the bond and one-ness of humanity. In this context, the album seems like a dying man pulling you close, and telling you to be nice to your brother with his final breath.
But to take this as a full-stop would be wrong. There is a feeling of higher power, an all encompassing truth or consciousness that pervades the album, and provides the thread to link their myriad sounds. Rather than an end, this feels like a reincarnation. They clearly do operate differently, communally, expanding and contracting and fluid, as band members drop in and out with their specific styles and instruments. Maybe it’s true that Goat are merely the latest in a long tradition of players from Korpilombolo, with its history of voodoo and unique musical style.
Often the creation of an elaborate backstory and diligent anonymity, like that of Jungle, or Deadmau5, is used to give credence to the music. In the case of Goat, the two form a cryptic, mystic, whole where it’s the music that gives credence to the myth. One comes from the other and vice-versa. The veracity of their story is irrelevant, so enchanting is the mixture of the two, in flowing robes and occultish masks. And there is certainly something heathen in the sacrificial brew, something of the Robert Johnson about it. Perhaps such music could only be made in a Faustian pact, in a Swedish voodoo commune, by a fluid group of masked musicians. However implausible that might be.
Credit – The Line Of Best Fit
Angel Olsen – My Woman
Record Label –
Angel Olsen’s latest is her best record yet, a bracing mix of sounds and styles congealing around songs of pain, sadness, and hope.
In 2010, Angel Olsen was a folk singer. Her first great song, “If It’s Alive, It Will,” sounded radically spare, like it had been recorded inside of a closet, or perhaps in another world. It contained some three-dozen epiphanies—one for each line. “Know your own heart well/It’s the one that’s worth most of your time,” Olsen sang, a mantra so disarming and wise it could cut through the thickest lo-fi fog. “If It’s Alive, It Will” was pure empathy. You might implant it in your brain as a reminder of how to live. You could never forget, then, that solitude begets possibility, or that loving a person can transform your mind, or that someone in the universe is currently as lonely as you. “If It’s Alive, It Will” embodied the poised philosophy of Olsen’s songbook to come. Introverted dreamers—people who are quiet on the outside while the world rages so loudly within them—always live by this loner logic. Olsen gave it a melody.
Modern noises vanish when Olsen sings. From the bracing incantations of 2012’s Half Way Home to Olsen’s folk-rock opus, 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness, her name is now synonymous with a voice. Each note tells a story. Hers are tales of absolute yearning and resilience. They honor the romance of being alone in your head. Olsen has perfected the idea that it is still possible—if language is precise enough, if the truth of your music is as elemental as color or blood—to write oneself out of time. Her lyrics have the conviction of someone like Fiona Apple: a profoundly individual presence that centers, above all, on self-reliance, on searing autonomy, on the act of becoming.
My Woman does this more vividly and lucidly and daringly than before. If Burn Your Fire was Olsen’s poetic manifesto, then My Woman lives freely within its world. Together, the two albums remind me of something Patti Smith once said, in 1976, distinguishing the literary Horses from its follow-up, Radio Ethiopia, by calling the latter “total physical energy” and also more implicitly feminine. My Woman walks a tightrope of love to figure out what it is—how to find it, how to allow it in, how to feel it, how to fight for it, how to let it go—by a person who does not lose herself in the process.
The upbeat A-side ranges from the sun-kissed to the blindingly bright. In the final moments of Burn Your Fire, Olsen asked, “Won’t you open a window sometime/What’s so wrong with the light?” and here she responds. She offers witty and taunting rhinestone-cowgirl come-ons that would make Dolly and Loretta proud. She lets loose a piercing, guttural, King-sized “Baby!” that shoots fire into the red. She shrieks “I’m still yours!” with sublime vivacity. My Woman contains soda-pop rippers as pained and distraught and irreducible as any girl-group classic: “Heaven hits me when I see your face,” Olsen sings with wide-eyed optimism that wilts on arrival, “But you’ll never be mine.” So much of My Woman is rock‘n’roll in the traditional sense, from a ’50s or ’60s jukebox, and it is positively electric, a total blast.
“Intern,” the synth meditation of an opener, is all shivers, a borderless dream-pop song that never quite begins or ends. It’s about the inescapable necessity, for all people, of figuring out who you are: “Still gotta wake up and be someone.” The winding synth melody has a surreal, Lynchian, merry-go-round shine. “I just wanna be alive/Make something real,” Olsen sings, a surprisingly conversational and sensible proposition. “Shut Up Kiss Me” has all the rapture of a black-and-white stop-action movie, with slapstick country humor: “Stop pretending I’m not there/When it’s clear that I’m not going anywhere,” Olsen sings. “If I’m out of sight then take another look around!” In the videos for both songs, Olsen donned a synthetic silver wig, bringing to mind the makeup of her beloved Dolly Parton: “I look so totally artificial, but I’ve always been the simplest person in the world,” Dolly has said. “I knew that there was wisdom and naturalness in me. The way I looked so false and was so real made a nice combination. It’s my fun.”
But Olsen’s fun songs—bright and sweet as they are—are a bit deceiving. The arrangements carry the levity and mania of infatuation, the feeling of total flight, but even here, Olsen’s writing is heavy as ever. (The poet Frank O’Hara once wrote, “each time my heart is broken it makes me feel more adventurous,” which is a fine synopsis of My Woman and the glitter that tempers its aching.) “Never Be Mine” sounds like the ’60s in Caetano Veloso’s Brazil, or Spanish guitar music. “Give It Up” puts a pure “Cathy’s Clown” melody over open Nirvana strums. They’re love songs, but it can never last, and inside all of them, there seems to be a message about the impossibility of ownership, which “Not Gonna Kill You” sings: “A love that never seems to curse or to confine/Will be forever never lost or too defined… However painful let it break down all of me/’Til I am nothing else but the feeling.” Like all of My Woman, it’s tough and tender at once, a bold rumination on how love and autonomy require one another.
And then the record slows. As “Woman” and “Sister” sprawl defiantly towards their eight-minute marks, Olsen’s warble stretches into impressionistic waves. The command of Olsen’s vibrato is wild but controlled—which is to say anarchic—and as the songs get longer, they communicate molecularly, contain more feeling, a haunted drama. The twilight jazz of “Those Were the Days” sparkles like city lights in water at night. On the ecstatic and feverish rave-up “Sister,” the guitar arrangement is enthralling, putting the starry tone of Marquee Moon inside a scorched Crazy Horse jam. “I dare you to understand,” Olsen later boils, “What makes me a woman.” The answer is in the nonlinear alchemy of her corporeal song.
The closer is a raw piano ballad called “Pops.” It is impossibly stark. Olsen’s voice sounds like it is pressed up against glass. “If you want the rainbow,” Dolly Parton once philosophized, “you have to put up with the rain.” “Pops” is all blurred raindrops, recalling Cat Power on You Are Free with the wonder of Judy Garland. Olsen sounds like she’s just been emptied of every tear in her body. The salt makes “Pops” glisten. It’s so filmic and classic-sounding that you can practically see a sole red balloon floating against the grey of a cityscape. “Pops” is Olsen’s heaviest song; it’s exhausting. But if ever there were proof that it is possible for life to be gorgeous and fucked-up in equal measure, at the same time, this song is it.
Burn Your Fire was Olsen’s detailed film treatment, but My Woman goes big-screen; it’s Olsen as auteur. “Know your own heart well,” she sang in 2010, “You could be surprised at what you find.” But part of following your heart, of knowing yourself, is understanding that it’s not a fixed muscle. The heart changes; it grows. Its beat speeds and slows as a symptom of life. Here, on “Pops,” Olsen asks, “What is it a heart’s made of?” Maybe you never find out for sure; maybe it’s the unending search itself that becomes the compass of our being. Love is a maze with no way out. But My Woman suggests that the way in is through self-possession.
Credit – Pitchfork