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Review: Mark Knopfler, Privateering

The album pits Knopfler’s guitar against a seafaring rabble of strings, flutes, and the occasional pennywhistle, and the result is far more fun than this arrangement might suggest.

 

4.0

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Mark Knopfler, Privateering

Privateers were essentially pirates who had received temporary dispensation (often in times of war) from a king, a governor, or the regent of a particular trading company—“Licensed to take prizes with a letter from the king,” as Mark Knopfler sings on the title track of his new double album, Privateering. Such career scallywags sailed the liminal space between crime and duty, or (rather) found political opportunity to turn their criminal skills to account; this arrangement was always tenuous, and always temporary. To call Privateers a concept album would be somewhat amiss though. Knopfler’s notion of a traveling demimonde, always watching the sun from “a shore that isn’t mine,” is more of an organizing musical idiom that conjoins conventionally bittersweet love songs (“Miss You Blues”), distorted Dobro-led stomps (“Corned Beef City”), and the Leonard Cohen-esque “Go Love” (a beautiful bummer of a tune, which Knopfler phrases with singular grace on his slide).

The album pits Knopfler’s guitar against a seafaring rabble of strings, flutes, and the occasional pennywhistle, and the result is far more fun than this arrangement might suggest. On a 20-track effort there’s no avoiding fool’s gold, but Knopfler finds plenty of the real stuff too. Lyrically, he doesn’t emphasize the more swashbuckling aspects of the privateer’s life, preferring to extend his metaphors into questions of community and what constitutes it. Even the titles of Knopfler’s most famous work—“Sultans of Swing,” Brothers in Arms, and so on—are galvanized by a sense of outnumbered camaraderie and the idea that bands, musical or otherwise, are the social bodies in which we find our best selves. At the same time, lucre and the perils that attend it receive no little attention on Privateering (see: “Kingdom of Gold”). The man who sang about “Money for Nothing” in 1985 has finally made an album about pirates.

The filler songs smack of a desultory collaboration between Ry Cooder and James Horner, and the possibility that Celine Dion will slink into the proceedings seems, at times, very real. Knopfler rarely deviates from the blues-and-brigand palette, but when he does the results are strong. “Seattle” expands the string section from quartet or octet to what sounds like a chamber orchestra, and the band quietly stirs itself from melancholy to the tipsy exuberance of nostalgia, while Knopfler observes the silvering of his hair without vanity or regret, perhaps because he’s in love with the only woman who “loves the rain” as much as he does. “Still believe that there’s somewhere for us/But now it’s something that we don’t discuss/You’re the best thing that I’ve never knew,” he sings, with the same gravelly, chatty approach to melody that makes even his most processed ‘80s music feel like a joke between friends.

That same voice notes its own decline on “Used to Could,” oddly the most upbeat tune on Privateering. Knopfler’s an old salt, and one wishes that this saga of an album carried one or two youthful punches, but few other aging guitar heroes could pull off a double album about piracy. Keith Richards doesn’t count, since he basically is a pirate at this point. (Unlike Richards, Knopfler has never fractured his skull and bloodied his bandana by falling out of a coconut tree in Fiji.) If Privateering has its dead spots, Knopfler still remains a more consistent songwriter than most of his dad-rock compatriots. The pleasure isn’t in the gimmick or the dress-up, but in the disciplined play of emotion behind them.

Label: Verve Release Date: September 10, 2013 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Chastity Belt Creates a Space of Their Own On Their Self-Titled Fourth Album

The band learns how to navigate adulthood on their new self-titled effort, leaning on each other for strength and comfort.

4

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Chastity Belt
Photo: Beto Brakmo/Hardly Art

Chastity Belt’s music has become progressively self-reflexive over the years, the wry smile of their 2013 debut, No Regerts, giving way to a broader, deeper exploration of twentysomething anxiety on Time To Go Home and I Used To Spend So Much Time Alone. Julia Shapiro, Lydia Lund, Annie Truscott, and Gretchen Grimm are still learning how to navigate adulthood on their new self-titled effort, but where before they resisted change, here they begin to come to terms with it, and lean on each other for strength and comfort.

With production assistance from Jay Som, Chastity Belt presents a tangible thickening of the band’s sound, with the introduction of strings on “Effort,” “Rav-4,” and “Half-Hearted” and keyboards on “Split” adding texture to their characteristic fuzzed-out guitar arrangements. Each melody and every drum fill feels intentional, and the group’s shared vocals and light-as-air harmonies seem like a meaningful statement of where they are as a band—and as friends.

Nostalgia for times gone by winds its way through the album. The sparse opener “Ann’s Jam” pulls into focus an image of golden-hour driving while “singing along to scratched CDs,” as does the dreamy “Rav-4,” on which Shapiro reminisces about “going to the bar in her Rav-4.” The group basks in circuitous guitar melodies and the soft glow of memory, longing for something lost: On “Ann’s Jam,” the golden light of the drive fades (“Now there’s a thick fog/Around everything I’ve learned”), while “Rav-4” undermines that remembered bar as a place of possibility (“Lost my mind and much more, but who’s keeping score?”).

There’s a sense of a cycle, too, on “Elena,” whose title is a reference to Elena Ferrante, author of the four beloved Neapolitan novels that excavate a female friendship across multiple generations. The band has said that they read the books together, finding parts of themselves in Ferrante’s characters. Our stories are always the same, they seem to be saying, the cycle always repeats. It’s hard to move forward, whether it be from a relationship on “Apart” (“Can’t move beyond the should and should nots”) or with life and career on “Half-Hearted” (“Half-heartedly trying to get somewhere, but I feel I’m just catching dust”).

A simple resolution to the problem of growing up evades the band. The most optimistic sentiment on Chastity Belt comes from the mouth of someone else on “Pissed Pants”: “You said so casually, ‘Everything just works out/In time we’ll all be surrounded by what guides us.” Left to their own devices, Chastity Belt aren’t so sure: “Nothing ever turns out right,” Shapiro worries on “Elena.” Elsewhere, though, the atmosphere is more hopeful, as on “It Takes Time.” If all we need to come to terms with adulthood is time, then who better to spend it with than your best friends? Shapiro, Lund, Truscott, and Grimm work through their issues in a space they’ve created specially for themselves.

Label: Hardly Art Release Date: September 20, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The New Pornographers’s In the Morse Code of Brake Lights

The album is, at least by the group’s typical power-pop standards, a heavier, murkier affair.

3.5

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The New Pornographers
Photo: Concord Records

Since their inception, the New Pornographers have often been labeled a “supergroup.” Since A.C. Newman’s voice and guitar has rarely hogged the spotlight, it’s been easy to overlook the fact that he’s very much the mastermind behind the Canadian indie rock band’s coherent, but transcendently harmonious, pop sound. As a co-producer, he’s always displayed a nearly Brian Wilson-level gift for melding the group’s dizzying arsenal of talents, from Neko Case’s clarion alto to Dan Bejar’s quirky change-of-pace songs.

In the Morse Code of the Brake Lights is the band’s second album without Bejar and original drummer Kurt Dahle. But whereas 2017’s Whiteout Conditions buzzed along in familiar New Pornos fashion, with a bright, fizzy krautrock vibe and an equitable mix of vocalists, Brake Lights is, at least by the group’s typical power-pop standards, a heavier, murkier affair, with Newman’s voice sitting front and center for much of its duration. It doesn’t sound like one of Newman’s more intimate, acoustic-focused solo albums, exactly—too many orchestral flourishes, hyperactive keyboards, and Case showcases for that—but at least half of it feels more like A.C. Newman & Friends than any of the band’s previous efforts.

This has its benefits, introducing new shades to the New Pornos palette. Most of the band’s albums commence with a hopped-up drumbeat or a blaring guitar riff, but Brake Lights’s opening track, “You’ll Need a Backseat Driver,” begins instead with a disorienting minor-key swirl of tremolo guitar and plinking noises that takes a few seconds to lock into rhythm. A sugar-rush of a chorus arrives soon enough—not to mention a delicious circular bassline by John Collins—but the song’s darker, clanging style does enough to establish that this album isn’t going to be offering up more of the band’s usual high-art pop.

Even lyrically, “You’ll Need a Backseat Driver” establishes a new tone via a repeated refrain (which provides the album’s title), hinting that Newman is trying to send a clear message this time around. The nature of his wordplay is typically such that it can be hard to tell if he’s actually writing about something or just rhyming complementary syllables. But it’s not difficult to parse the political malaise that hangs over songs like “Need Some Giants” and the majestic slow jam “Higher Beams,” on which Newman offers a pointed “Fuck you for nothing.”

Many of the album’s charms are indeed born of the unexpected. “Colossus of Rhodes,” the band’s blusteriest track to date, rumbles along like the Hindenburg on a crest of concert-style piano, gurgling synths, and dramatic string swells that would sound absurdly overblown if not for Case belting the hell out of it with her peeling cathedral bell of a voice. The band also retreats somewhat from the heavy electronic focus of their last two albums, featuring a liberal and compelling use of strings, which scrape and wobble throughout much of Brake Lights.

When the album strays from its relatively sober tone, though, it loses some of its punch. The series of characteristically hooky but cottony songs that comprise its latter half might have sounded less monotonous had they been broken up by an edgier Bejar track or two. The album would also benefit from Kurt Dahle’s superb, rhythmically complex drumming. Dahle’s touch is palpably missed on the trickier songs here, like the lurching “Dreamlike and on the Rush.”

“The Surprise Knock” is a euphoric rush of ecstatic guy/girl harmonies and crisp guitars that stands alongside the likes of “The Laws Have Changed,” “Twin Cinema,” and almost any other of the band’s classic 2000s singles. But the track’s inclusion here feels like a consciously retro move (“Why don’t we play this song like New Pornographers 2005?” Newman says in the album’s press notes). It only throws into relief that, after 20 years and various personnel changes, the New Pornographers are a different band than they used to be.

Label: Concord Release Date: September 27, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Charli XCX Charts Her Own Path Forward with Charli

The album is full of contradictions, and they’re very much a part of the ride.

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Charli XCX
Photo: Marcus Cooper/Atlantic Records

The music Charli XCX has released since 2014’s Sucker forms a remarkable archive of a young woman figuring out who she is and what kind of artist she wants to be—one who’s unafraid to show her work. Early in her career, Charli’s prodigal skill at crafting hits like Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” and her own “Boom Clap” made her an ideal cog in the pop-music machine, a songwriter who could churn out potential smashes not just for herself, but other artists. But, from lyrics about independence on Sucker’s “Break the Rules” and a sneering reference to winning Dr. Luke’s validation on the album’s title track, to her decision to cancel part of her U.S. tour so that she could get back into the studio, the singer has always seemed determined to carve her own path forward.

Charli’s initial post-Sucker experiments seemed pretty discrete: The bone-jangling, Sophie-produced “Vroom Vroom” is nothing like the popping-bottles bounce of “After the Afterparty,” in turn bearing little resemblance to the smoky swagger of “5 in the Morning.” But where her 2017 mixtapes Number 1 Angel and Pop 2 felt like works in progress, the sound on the artist’s long-awaited third album, Charli, feels more resolutely hers. Charli’s ear for melody is rendered all the more sharp by primary producer A.G. Cook’s bold, refractive electronic soundscapes, and featured artists like Sky Ferreira and HAIM seem to be part of a more cohesive, shared vision than Charli’s past collaborations.

That’s not to say that she has it all figured out. If there’s anything that binds Charli’s songs thematically, it’s the singer’s candidness about how much she still has to work through. The car imagery of which she’s so fond is used as a metaphor on tracks like “White Mercedes,” “Next Level Charli” (“I go speeding on the highway/Burn rubber, no crash”), and “February 2017,” on which she examines the consequences of some of her worst behavior.

Charli undermines the party-girl persona she’s been cultivating over the past few years on the muscular “Gone,” which could be as much about coping with social anxiety as it is about navigating an industry that wants artists to be something they aren’t: “I feel so unstable, fucking hate these people/How they’re making me feel lately.” The isolation she craves, of course, also prompts anxiety of its own: “Did I lose it all? Did I fuck up?/Are my friends really friends now?” she worries on the aptly titled “Thoughts.”

The result is a collection of sad bops masquerading as bangers, just as perfect for the club as for a solo bedroom dance party. Like much of pop music, Charli’s lyrics favor broad strokes over more specific narratives, leaving her songs open to interpretation. One thing’s for sure though: The world of Charli is full of contradictions—of rolling up to the party only to immediately bounce, of never looking back only to yearn for a time past, of going faster and then too fast—and those contradictions are very much a part of the ride. The album might not be the end destination, but the road is Charli’s, and she’ll drive down it as fast as she likes.

Label: Atlantic Release Date: September 13, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Pixies’s Beneath the Eyrie Too Often Sounds Like Other Artists

The third album by Pixies 2.0 doesn’t do much to burnish the band’s legacy.

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Pixies
Photo: Travis Shinn

There wouldn’t be any reason for aspiring musicians to plug in a Gibson SG and noodle around at a Guitar Center if measuring up to Surfer Rosa or Doolittle were the standard by which we judged new rock albums. In the span of less than four years, the Pixies cranked out four albums that more or less defined the sound of American rock. And even though it doesn’t do much to burnish the band’s legacy, the third album by Pixies 2.0, Beneath the Eyrie, is the first one to even come close to approximating the thrills of their best work.

The Pixies have only grown more technically proficient as the years have gone by. Joey Santiago’s guitars alternately jangle and roar here, flipping between chilly spy-film riffs and all-out rock shredding, with nods to Ennio Morricone-esque spaghetti-westerns on some tracks. Years of growling seem to have seasoned Francis’s voice like a cast-iron skillet. During the Pixies’s heyday, the interplay between Francis’s brutal grunting and Kim Deal’s sweeter poppiness was a major source of the band’s dynamism, and Deal’s replacement, Paz Lenchantin, an excellent musician whose vocals and bass playing are uncannily close to her predecessor’s, allows the group to recapture some of that magic.

At its best, Beneath the Eyrie sounds a lot like the Pixies you remember. The album’s lead single and most memorable song, “Catfish Kate,” features a swelling power-pop chorus where Francis’s voice reaches uncharacteristic heights of pathos as he spins a characteristically surreal tale about a woman becoming a fish. “Ready for Love” has a similarly charming demeanor, with Francis “calling your bluff” to announce that he is, in fact, ready for love. “Bird of Prey” gets at a bit of the lyrical menace that Francis sometimes liked to play with in the past. In the song, the singer is a revenant come back from the grave who “sets [his] broken bone with a twist and a crack.” It’s a good tune buoyed by some bopping guitars, but Francis’s vocal take is heavily indebted to Nick Cave, tapping into a similar type of dread grotesquerie.

In this way, though, “Bird of Prey” is also emblematic of the album’s primary flaw. “This Is My Fate” sees Francis doing a spot-on Tom Waits impression, but apart from some tin-can percussion, the song doesn’t offer much to hook the listener. The banal “Silver Bullet” sounds like the Pixies covering the Smashing Pumpkins, an exercise that seems to have the relationship between those two groups totally backward. Too often, Beneath the Eyrie sounds like other artists, which is especially disappointing for a group like the Pixies, who have always been more trendsetters than followers.

Label: BMG Release Date: September 13, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Lower Dens’s The Competition Paints a Bleak Picture of Capitalism

The album questions the notion that competition is essential to human progress.

4

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Lower Dens
Photo: Ribbon Music

At its most reductive, the ongoing political debate about the rising socialist tide and socialism’s relationship to capitalism can be boiled down to this question: Are people made stronger when they compete or when they cooperate? On Lower Dens’s fourth album, The Competition, the band’s lead singer and songwriter, Jana Hunter, questions the notion that competition is essential to human progress. The world Hunter conjures is bleak, a picture of the wages of fully capitalized human relationships.

For Hunter, the problem is that “the competition” is rigged. In the face of a fixed game, the albums suggests, the oppressed have to strike back. “Empire Sundown,” which confronts income inequality, aims for retribution, not equity: “Look them in the eyes when they push you/Off the raft and make them watch you drown.” The chance to fix things has come and gone, and Hunter doesn’t want solace, but revenge. The pointedly titled “Young Republicans” finds Hunter taking on the mindset of the opposition. The song isn’t a call for empathy though; the titular figures cynically usurp the language of the oppressed, protesting that “we never asked to be this way.” Hunter pulls no punches, having them celebrate a type of anti-humanity, gloating that they were “born without souls or blood or skin.”

Hunter’s lyrics are spare but ghastly, and human carnage is a major motif throughout The Competition. On “Buster Keaton,” which takes its name from the great stone face of silent film, a young lover is forced to confess his feelings in the middle of sewing his mouth shut, spitting blood on his beloved. “In Your House” imagines a snake infiltrating a home and devouring the inhabitants, a metaphor for the costs of capitalism, while “Galapagos” concerns a volcano rising from the ocean, the planet threatened by “fire from the earth below.”

The world of The Competition is one driven by scarcity and overrun by the Hobbesian war of all against all. There’s no call for reconciliation or understanding, just a dark picture of a world in perpetual conflict. Lovers, families, and bodies are all rent asunder, all victims of our valorization of competition as the highest form of human organization.

Despite the forceful and overtly political nature of the songs, Lower Dens isn’t working in a traditional protest-song style. Rather than fist-pumping anthems or confessional folk songs, The Competition is full of tracks with glittering synth-pop arrangements that draw heavily on new wave. Lower Dens began as a post-rock influenced band, and they’ve embraced a bigger pop sound with each of their albums. Indeed, the style here is lush and orchestral, giving a rich accompaniment to Hunter’s powerful voice, which can move from sing-songy hiccupping to dark-night-of-the-soul keening within a single line.

The album’s sonic influences are also part of its political strategy. The intense polarization of our current moment was arguably born out of the 1980s, and the album draws on forebears like Depeche Mode and OMD. Where those bands were more interested in romance and personal drama, though, Lower Dens has larger geopolitical issues on their mind. The Competition uses the aesthetics of the ‘80s dance floor to try to understand the rising tide of global nationalism. That makes it an easy listen despite its divisive subject matter.

Label: Ribbon Music Release Date: September 6, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The Highwomen’s Debut Subverts Tradition to Deliver Its Feminist Message

At its best, the country supergroup’s debut employs personal stories to engage larger societal themes.

3.5

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The Highwomen
Photo: Alysse Gafkjen

Country music has always had a misogynistic streak (think of the proliferation of murder ballads and she-done-me-wrong songs), and the Highwomen—a supergroup consisting of Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires—was born out of a desire to combat the genre’s lack of gender diversity. Shires has said that the “high” in the group’s name should be taken to mean exalted or honored, but it’s also a nod to the outlaw country supergroup the Highwaymen. The Highwomen serves as a fitting thesis statement for the project, using the aesthetics of neotrad-country to unpack the group’s feminist concerns.

The album’s opening track, “Highwomen,” is a powerful and succinct recalibration of Jimmy Webb’s “The Highwayman.” Where Webb’s version explored supposed great men sailing the seas, building dams, and exploring space, “Highwomen” is centered around a more distinctly female experience. The song tells the stories of women who meet tragic ends as the result of sacrifice: a mother who dies helping her family escape war-torn Honduras, a healer mistaken for a witch, a freedom rider killed in Mississippi. Webb’s men are undone by hubris, but the Highwomen present characters crushed by an indifferent world that attempts to erase their voices. In the song’s final verse, the group pointedly harmonizes, “We are the Highwomen/Singing stories still untold/We carry the sons you can only hold.”

Other songs on The Highwomen give voice to women’s struggles in a more lighthearted manner, and with mixed results. Lead single “Redesigning Women” outlines the responsibilities that accompany balancing motherhood, a career, a social life, and relationships. The song boasts a laidback porch-jam feel, but for every clever line (“A critical reason there’s a population/Raising eyebrows and a new generation”), there’s a groaner that feels like it was yanked from a ‘90s standup routine (“Changing our minds like we change our hair color” and “If the shoe fits, we’ll buy 11” are especially clunky).

Much fresher is “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” which addresses the difficulty women face in maintaining an identity outside of motherhood. Over a quick-moving two-step, Carlile wakes up to find her “ceiling still a-spinning from a night that went too late” and children in need of attention. On the second verse, Morris talks about the toll touring takes on a family, but argues her career is essential to her emotional well-being. The bouncy rhythm and down-home instrumentation belie the weightiness of the issues being addressed in the song, but the strong hooks mean the Highwomen’s ideas remain lodged in your brain.

Other tracks provide interesting twists on old country tropes. “If She Ever Leaves Me” is a slick countrypolitan number in which Shires plays with gender expectations, warning a cowboy eyeing her (female) date that “if she ever leaves me, it won’t be for you.” “Heaven Is a Honky Tonk” imagines the afterlife as a barroom with an endless jukebox, while “Cocktail and a Song” details a dying father’s wish that he be remembered fondly. The album’s closer, “Wheels of Laredo,” is a high-lonesome song about wishing to be heading back to a lover’s arms. While the track isn’t overtly political, lines like “I was watching the jungle fires a-burnin’” and a reference to Mexico as a “not-so-distant land” broaden its emotional stakes. Like the standout “Crowded Table,” in which the group wishes for a “house with a crowded table,” it illustrates the Highwomen’s ability to employ personal stories to engage larger societal themes.

Label: Elektra Release Date: September 6, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell Eulogizes the American Dream

The album doesn’t so much subvert an idealistic notion of the American dream as perform a postmortem of it.

4

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Lana Del Rey
Photo: Interscope

Released just seven days apart, Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell and Taylor Swift’s Lover share a primary collaborator—songwriter and producer Jack Antonoff—as well as oblique references to Kanye West, with whom both women have had messy public feuds. Each album likewise represents a course correction in the trajectory of its creator’s career, but if Swift’s album is a sharp turn back to more listener-friendly pop fare, Del Rey seems as disinterested as ever in courting contemporary trends.

After two albums that found Del Rey doubling back to the hip-hop-inflected baroque pop of her 2012 breakthrough, Born to Die, Norman Fucking Rockwell picks up where 2014’s sludgy, more roots-oriented Ultraviolence left off. The singer has aptly described the new album as a “mood record,” a heady collection of psych-rock and piano dirges that pour into each other and rarely shift tempo from track to track. “Mariners Apartment Complex,” “Cinnamon Girl,” and “Venice Bitch” amble along to hazy, psychedelic grooves, closer in spirit, if not style, to Del Rey’s breakout hit “Video Games” than the hooky singles that have followed.

Norman Rockwell’s vision of America defined much of the 20th century, with illustrations that often depicted a sentimental—some might say naïve—interpretation of American life. Despite its parodic title, though, Del Rey’s latest doesn’t so much subvert an idealistic notion of the American dream as perform a postmortem of it. On “Venice Bitch,” which is rife with references to quintessential American icons like Robert Frost, Del Rey pines for a world that had already coughed its last gasp by the time she was born. And she wistfully delivers a eulogy for both pop culture and the planet itself on the apocalyptic “The Greatest”: “The culture is lit and if this is it, I had a ball,” she laments with a shrug.

Doom and gloom permeate almost every aspect of Del Rey’s depiction of modern life. “If you hold me without hurting me, you’ll be the first who ever did,” she sings on “Cinnamon Girl,” a shattering admission eclipsed only by her disaffected portrayal of love in the age of geosocial networking on “Happiness Is a Butterfly”: “If he’s a serial killer then what’s the worst that could happen to a girl who’s already hurt?” Norman Fucking Rockwell closes with the stunning, pointedly titled “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have – But I Have It,” in which Del Rey invokes the final sleepless nights of Sylvia Plath and answers critiques of millennial ennui with the soft bigotry of low expectations: “Don’t ask if I’m happy/You know that I’m not/But at best I can say I’m not sad.”

Enlisting one of pop’s premier producers for what is easily Del Rey’s least commercial album to date might seem ironic. But Antonoff has proven capable of pushing other female artists into the darkest corners of their respective pop worlds, and he allows Del Rey to explore her most indulgent inclinations here. She disappears for long stretches at a time throughout the nine-and-a-half-minute “Venice Bitch,” leaving room for Antonoff’s trippy guitar feedback and liquid psychedelic effects to ooze and distort like a fading memory before the whole thing evaporates in a puff of nostalgia. The album’s most viable single, “Fuck It I Love You,” is peppered with expletives, building to a frothy head of cerebral lust that begs comparisons to Ani DiFranco’s similarly paradoxical “Untouchable Face.”

Though it isn’t quite as long as 2017’s Lust for Life, the 68-minute Norman Fucking Rockwell can have a soporific effect. Many of the album’s songs are stripped down to little more than piano and vocal, eschewing the towering hooks and ornamental flourishes of Antonoff’s work with Lorde and Swift. Even a lush cover of Sublime’s “Doin’ Time”—which, sonically, might have fit better on Born to Die or 2015’s Honeymoon—is faithful to both the album’s downbeat, sadcore-meets-surf-rock aesthetic and the SoCal band’s own musical legacy, to which Del Rey’s sound is at least partly indebted.

Distilled to their barest elements, the songs on this album reveal themselves not to be hollow vessels for vapid self-absorption, but frank assessments of the psychic effects of a world spiraling into chaos. Del Rey has long cemented her status as a cult icon in the vein of a Tori Amos or Fiona Apple, whose influence on the title track is unmistakable, and she inspires the kind of fanaticism that often leaves her detractors perplexed. With Norman Fucking Rockwell, however, she’s made an album with the unfettered focus and scope worthy of her lofty repute.

Label: Interscope Release Date: August 30, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Taylor Swift’s Lover Course Corrects in Multiple Directions

The album attempts to be something to everyone, the surest tell that it’s as much reaction as it is creation.

3.5

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Lover
Photo: Valheria Rocha/Republic Records

There comes a time in nearly every pop superstar’s career when she—and, yes, it’s usually a she—is forced to repent for an album that went too far, pushed too hard, or simply suffered from a case of bad timing. The result is often a follow-up that plays it safe or tries to recapture past triumphs, which is then either exalted by critics as a return to form or ridiculed as an attempt at damage control. It’s a rite of passage that, with her seventh album, Lover, Taylor Swift seems keenly aware of yet uninterested in subverting.

Swift launched the latest era of her career with the cloying “ME!,” a veritable piss take on the bright and shiny pop of her 2014 hit “Shake It Off,” accompanied by a social media campaign self-consciously drenched in creamy pastel tones, jewel-encrusted hearts, and fluffy-faced kittens. It’s a decidedly stark contrast to 2017’s Reputation, which was defined by its combative tone and hard, hip-hop-influenced beats, and which earned the distinction of becoming Swift’s lowest selling album to date.

Swift has built an empire, in part, on her ability to harness often self-inflicted personal drama—revolving around former lovers, disloyal friends, and the media—into songs that display equal parts rage, cheeky self-deprecation, and heartfelt sincerity. The prickly Reputation leaned heavily on the former, and like so many pop reboots before it, Lover is an obvious course correction. Swift, however, seems ambivalent about her current station: “I say I don’t want [combat], but what if I do?” she muses on “The Archer” before proceeding to carpet-bomb listeners with the kind of pithy confessionals—“All of my heroes die all alone,” “All of enemies started out friends”—fit more for a therapy session than your average pop song.

That ambivalence runs through Lover. At times the album seems unsure of whether it wants to be a callback to 1989 and Red, or forge completely new ground for Swift. Opening Lover with a bit of seemingly arbitrary misdirection, “I Forgot That You Existed” is the kind of catty diss track—possibly aimed at Kanye West and/or Calvin Harris—that cemented the very reputation Swift laments in the lyrics. But it feels like a caricature of a Taylor Swift song, a defanged version of more satisfying clapbacks like “Bad Blood” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.”

Lover lacks a unified sonic aesthetic, ostensibly from trying to be something to everyone—the surest tell that it’s as much reaction as it is creation. The title track, whose lilting rhythm and reverb-soaked drums and vocals are reminiscent of Mazzy Star’s ‘90s gem “Fade Into You,” and the acoustic “Soon You’ll Get Better,” a tribute to Swift’s mother featuring the Dixie Chicks, hark back to Swift’s pre-pop days, while “I Think He Knows” and “False God” evoke Carly Rae Jepsen’s brand of ‘80s R&B-inflected electro-pop. A full-throated embrace of the latter direction might have made Lover feel less like a capitulation. When it comes to things other than boys, though, Swift has always preferred to dip her toes in rather than get soaking wet; her transformation from country teen to pop queen was, after all, a decade in the making.

Less gradual was Swift’s shift from political agnostic to liberal advocate. In the span of less than a year, the singer went from being the Aryan goddess of the alt-right to being called out as an agent of sodomy. They say you can’t put a genie back in the bottle, and Swift’s once apolitical music is now peppered with references to America’s current state of affairs, both thinly veiled (“Death by a Thousand Cuts”) and more overt (“You Need to Calm Down”). “I’m so sick of running as fast as I can/Wondering if I’d get there quicker if I was a man,” she sings on “The Man,” a track that makes sly reference to those who doubted her #MeToo moment.

“American stories burning before me/I’m feeling helpless, the damsels are depressed/Boys will be boys, then where are the wise men?” Swift ponders on “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince.” Of course, in this case politics is a metaphor for heartbreak. The track is her stock in trade, a richly painted narrative punctuated by cool synth washes and pep-rally chants. “It’s Nice to Have a Friend” is a similarly evocative portrait of young love whose spare arrangement—choral voices, steel drums, church bells, stately trumpet solo—is a stark counterpoint to the pointillist “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” a Pet Sounds-esque aural feast of swirling keyboards and quivering synths. “The Archer” is quintessential Swift: wistful, minimalist dream pop that displays her willingness to acknowledge and dismantle her flaws, triggers, and neuroses.

Some pop stars may be too big too fail. Swift’s songwriting suffers from occasional bromides, and Lover can feel both overthought and, at a lengthy 18 tracks, under-edited. But Swift’s well-earned reputation for over-sharing, reflective of the generation for which she’s become a spiritual envoy, coupled with her newfound egalitarianism makes her not just a compelling pop figure, but an essential one.

Label: Republic Release Date: August 23, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Jay Som’s Anak Ko Embodies Bedroom Pop As an Emotional Travelogue

The singer-songwriter balances the musical warmth of her bedroom-pop influences with some heavy emotional stakes.

3.5

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Anak Ko
Photo: Lindsey Byrnes

Even if you’ve never heard Melina Duterte’s music before, the singer-songwriter’s third album as Jay Som might still sound instantly familiar. Musically, Anak Ko—which means “my child” in Tagalog—takes inspiration from ‘90s dream pop, marked by jangly guitars, big, reverb-soaked drums, and mildly distorted vocals. Duterte mines similar sonic terrain as Yo La Tengo, and “Superbike,” with its swirling guitars and warm vocals, would feel right at home on the band’s 1995 album Electr-o-Pura. The song’s lyrics are spare but powerful, infused with a sense of wanderlust shot through with melancholy: “Said you wanted something else…Gonna breathe until you’re gone.” Duterte balances the musical warmth of her bedroom-pop influences with some heavy emotional stakes.

Though it lacks the immediacy of 2017’s Everybody Works, Anak Ko compensates with a more mature lyrical depth, prompted by Duterte’s recent move from her hometown in the Bay Area to Los Angeles, where she reportedly found love and quit drinking. Her vocals here are buried in the mix a bit, conveying the hushed intimacy of a late-night conversation. “Did you fall at first glance? Do you think you’ll take a chance?” Duterte asks on the standout “Tenderness.”

A longing for the freedom of the road pervades the album. Leisurely drums set the tone on “Nighttime Drive,” suggesting a meandering trip down familiar backroads with no particular destination in mind. Duterte’s voice falls somewhere between a sigh and a whisper as she sings, “We’ll be all right.” Traveling becomes a metaphor on the track, as she illustrates a tension between freedom and safety. Leaving a place you know opens the world up for adventure, but it means you might also lose some of the things you previously valued.

Anak Ko can feel homogenous, coasting along to the same relaxed midtempo rhythm. Duterte’s layered guitar sound and submerged vocals ensure that her songs whir along like background music. The closing track, “Get Well,” is the only song that deviates from her dream-pop formula, venturing into country territory thanks to the use of pedal steel guitar. But while it might lack a rave-up pop number like Everybody Works’s infectious “1 Billion Dogs,” Anak Ko offers plenty of reasons to follow Duterte down whatever road may lay ahead.

Label: Polyvinyl Release Date: August 23, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Bon Iver’s i, i Battles Back Against the Dark

The album finds Justin Vernon creeping into an autumnal melancholy and turning his gaze back toward winter.

4

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i, i
Photo: Graham Tolbert & Crystal Quinn

Justin Vernon’s debut as Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago, attained mythic status both for its content and the circumstances of its creation: a batch of heartrending koans poured out in the solitude of a wooded Wisconsin winter. The singer-songwriter initially came off like Kozelek-come-lately, with a bunch of sadsack songs backed by gently strummed guitars, but he’s proven himself to be a remarkably mercurial artist. And on i, i, he draws on rock, folk, electronica, hip-hop, and gospel, enlisting a broad range of collaborators to help build on the emotional directness of his early work without repeating the same musical gestures.

Perhaps the best analogue for i, i is the Byrds’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which Gram Parsons envisioned as an album-length treatise on the history of American popular music. Though the two albums don’t sound alike, Vernon’s big-tent group of collaborators allows him to grant himself a similar kind of scope. Vernon has a knack for blending disparate elements with impressive cohesion. On “U (Man Like),” Bruce Hornsby’s piano is immediately recognizable, but as Hornsby, Moses Sumney, the Brooklyn Youth Choir, and Jenn Wasner all sing alongside Vernon, their myriad styles effortlessly blend under Bon Iver’s singular aesthetic.

Vernon has described i, i as the end of a season cycle. If his 2007 debut represents dead winter, 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver the thaw of spring, and 2016’s 22, A Million a joyous reverie of summer, then i, i finds Vernon creeping into an autumnal melancholy and turning his gaze back toward winter. This time, Vernon isn’t contemplating the bitter disappointments of a failed romance, but the end of all humanity itself. The imagery is sharp and often ghastly: a gas mask hanging on an arm, rising seas and temperatures, and allusions to Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera. Throughout, Vernon presents himself as an observer surveying a world on the brink, close to becoming just ruined earth and poisoned sea.

These songs aren’t straightforward political diatribes though. Rather, they’re small puzzles that exemplify Vernon’s peculiar use of language. The tracklist looks like an assortment of Scrabble tiles: “Yi,” “iMi,” “U (Man Like).” The songs themselves are filled with obscure slang and outright neologisms. Once you start to unravel the threads, however, the lyrics begin to unfold more clearly. “Jelmore” takes its title from the way Vernon sings the first line of the song: “an(gel mor)ning.” The song’s Metroid-esque synth parts introduce a stark commentary on income inequality and planetary ruin. On the hook, Vernon sings, “We’ll all be gone by the fall/We’ll all be gone by the falling light,” which doesn’t evince much hope. When he declares, “I won’t lead no Calvary,” the clever wordplay almost balances the sense of defeatism.

The album’s penultimate track, the grim, thinly veiled “Sh’Diah”—short for “shittiest day in American history”—features the loneliest sax solo since “Baker Street,” a plaintive strain that perfectly captures the feeling of wandering the streets of a familiar place that’s suddenly stopped feeling like home. It’s followed by “RABi,” which examines the psychological toll of trying not to be miserable in chaotic times. The song is built around a meandering guitar and Vernon’s multi-tracked vocals, the spare arrangement putting the focus on his words, “I could rob I,” which, pronoun case error aside, is an economical unpacking of self-deception. As the track ends, he sings, “Well, it’s all fine and we’re all fine anyway,” at full voice before whispering, “But if you wait, it won’t be undone.” That dichotomy lies at the heart of the album: Time is running out, but what can one person do?

Vernon began his career by staring down the dark, and i, i is an album made for a time when that darkness has grown larger than he ever imagined. Sometimes he’s too indulgent: When his delivery leans into rap, he sounds like somebody doing an impression of Frank Ocean at karaoke night. His falsetto occasionally outstays its welcome, and decoding all of his Lewis Carroll-esque private language gestures can be tiring business. But the album seems to suggest that Bon Iver is transitioning from a band in the traditional sense of the word into a looser collective. Despite the album’s intense pessimism and anxiety, Bon Iver’s organization speaks to the power of forging a community to battle back against darkness.

Label: Jagjaguwar Release Date: August 9, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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