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Review: Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst Temper Their Gloom on Better Oblivion Community Center

The album capitalizes on the musicians’ best tendencies while largely avoiding their worst.

3.5

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Better Oblivion Community Center
Photo: Nik Freitas/Grandstand

Both Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst specialize in drawing listeners into their anguished, introspective states of mind. So while a collaboration between the two singer-songwriters might seem like a formula for melancholia, their surprise joint release, Better Oblivion Community Center, proves that both musicians are capable of capitalizing on their best tendencies while largely avoiding their worst.

The first verse of the album’s opening track, “Didn’t Know What I Was in For,” is quintessential Bridgers, her wistful voice laid over spare acoustic guitar. Oberst’s appearance in the chorus reveals a startling chemistry between his quivering baritone and Bridgers’s somber falsetto. Over swelling bass and E-Bow guitar, the song morphs into a mesmerizing exploration of the impotency of activism in a hyper-connected world.

“Sleepwalkin’” betrays an acumen for upbeat folk-pop that’s been rare in both Oberst and Bridgers’s solo work, while the infectious “Dylan Thomas” features unexpectedly rapid-fire witticisms and a driving guitar break. Nothing else on Better Oblivion Community Center quite matches the fervor of those opening tracks, but the album is studded with gems of a different sort, including the breezy “My City,” the synth-driven “Exception to the Rule,” and “Chesapeake,” a hauntingly beautiful meditation on alienation.

Oberst and Bridgers have built their careers on songs full of unfeigned personal torment, and themes of loss, loneliness, and addiction permeate this album. Yet, collaboration seems to have tempered their gloom. The songs on Better Oblivion Community Center are contemplative rather than declarative, granting the artists a chance to approach sorrow in a cheekier manner and find reserves of hope amid the wreckage.

The album vacillates between self-affirmation and self-abnegation, community and solitude, sometimes mocking our urge for self-care, sometimes finding redemption in it. This is a collaboration in the truest sense, often embodying the ambivalences of a conversation: “Can you hear it now?” the duo asks in the final seconds of “Chesapeake,” which ends on an unresolved high note that seems to capture the project’s ethos.

Label: Dead Oceans Release Date: January 24, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Beck’s Hyperspace Is As Lyrically Vague As It Is Sonically Minimal

Most of the album’s songs blend into each other so nebulously that they become collectively anonymous.

2.5

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Beck
Photo: Peter Hapak

Throughout his varied and unpredictable career, Beck has achieved constancy in one respect: an almost unrelentingly bleak worldview, a portrayal of pre- and post-millennium America as a Bosch-like inferno of indignities. It was there early on, in his adherence to the folk and blues tradition of biblical prophesying (“There must be some blueprint, some creed of the devil inscribed in our minds,” he sang on 1998’s Mutations), and it’s in his more recent work, darkening avant-pop efforts like 2008’s Modern Guilt and adding a global sense of sadness to ostensibly more introspective albums like 2014’s Morning Phase.

Which is why 2017’s Colors was so surprising: Aside from one or two tracks, it was Beck’s first unabashed, unironic feel-good party album. But if Colors was a million-dollar bash, then Beck’s follow-up, Hyperspace, is the comedown. While similarly heavy on beats and electronics, the album lacks its predecessor’s bounce and exuberance. This trade-in would initially appear welcome since, unlike Beck’s past genre experiments, which always contained an unmistakable personal touch, Colors’s glossy, airbrushed fun bordered on inhuman. By comparison, Hyperspace represents something at least relatively thoughtful, its skeletal beats and somber synth washes—a result of Beck working with co-producer Pharrell Williams—suggesting a period of midlife self-examination against a backdrop of perpetual twilight.

For a few moments early on in the album, Beck follows through on this premise. Opener “Hyperlife” acts as a brief prologue by announcing the album’s core theme of melancholic and disconnected excess, the phrase “crushing life” qualifying a desire for “more and more beauty, light” amid several interweaving synth textures. This leads into “Uneventful Days,” with deep keyboard washes and effervescent twinkles playing over a modest trap beat as Beck continues the theme with a lovely melodic vocal: “Never-ending days, never-ending nights/Everything I say, I know I can’t get right.” The mood is dreamy, numbed, and yet somehow hopeful.

But tracks like the album’s lead single, “Saw Lightening,” return both to the forced enthusiasm of Colors and to the hybridization of blues and hip-hop that Beck explored with far more wit on early hits like Odelay’s “Hotwax.” As one of the only “up” songs on Hyperspace, its forward momentum is undermined by a conventionally programmed drum track, popcorning keyboard blips, an annoying Pharrell verse, and faux-gospel background yelps that transform a lyric about the end of the world into what sounds like soundtrack music for an action movie.

What follows is a series of slight midtempo electro-pop ballads: “Die Waiting” sways with a brightness augmented by acoustic guitar strums, “See Through” emphasizes bubbling electronic percussion, and “Star” uses video game-esque bloops and a gently pulsing bassline as a nest for Beck’s falsetto vocals. It’s all in the chillwave vein and, while not oppressive like Colors, it’s also all extremely soporific. Aside from the ascendant airiness of “Chemical,” the gospel grandeur of “Everlasting Nothing,” and a few interweaving vocal lines that call back to the aural density of Midnite Vultures, most of the tracks blend into each other so nebulously that they become collectively anonymous. When something stands out it’s usually for an ugly reason: The title track’s rap breakdown is exceedingly cornball, and a few songs fade out so abruptly and awkwardly it seems like they’re embarrassed at their own meagerness.

Beck might have redeemed Hyperspace with his underappreciated lyrical genius, and he could have gone in two different directions in doing so: a return to the pared-down confessional songwriting that made 2002’s vulnerable Sea Change so universally resonant, or else the absurdist wordplay, apocalyptic imagery, and pop-cultural detritus that typically fill Beck’s songs to the bursting point with vivid portraiture and singular turns of phrase. (Even Colors achieved some, well, color with lines like “I want to see you with the pharaoh’s curse/The apple flower doggerel, the batteries burst.”) But there’s little of either throughout Hyperspace, which is as lyrically vague as it is musically minimal.

Instead of creating a unique world of characters, Beck populates too many songs with first-persona clichés (“I don’t care what I have to do/You know that I’m gonna wait on you”), and, elsewhere, his metaphors are rote and obvious (love is a drug on “Chemical,” disorientation becomes the directionless heavens on “Stratosphere”). By the time Beck finally gets to an original, gut-punching metaphor in “Everlasting Nothing”—“And I washed up on the shoreline/Everyone was waiting there for me/Like a standing ovation for the funeral of the sun”—it’s too late to make up for an album’s worth of platitudes.

Beck’s 2006 album The Information is a better example of his unrivaled funhouse approach to style and tone: By blending techno, folk, punk, hip-hop, Krautrock, blues, ambient, and groove-oriented rock, that album is by turns strange, aggressive, hilarious, disturbing, eerie, and fun, all while expressing wry dismay over our current cyber-Armageddon. In comparison, and for all its apparent now-ness, Hyperspace feels inconsequential and incomplete.

Label: Capitol Release Date: November 22, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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The 20 Best Rihanna Singles

We took a look back through the singer’s catalogue of hits and picked her 20 best singles to date.

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Rihanna
Photo: Roc Nation

Like Madonna before her, Rihanna possesses a shrewd ability to sniff out percolating trends and a willingness to zig when she’s expected to zag. “Russian Roulette,” “Diamonds,” and “Four Five Seconds” were all surprising moves for an artist who could have safely preserved the status quo. The Barbadian singer’s wild success, which includes 11 solo #1 hits in the U.S., can also be attributed to her seemingly steadfast work ethic, yielding seven albums in just the first eight years of her career. That streak ended with 2012’s Unapologetic, and she’s only dropped one album since then, 2016’s ANTI. While we wait out another dry spell in one of contemporary pop’s most unexpectedly enduring careers, we took a look back through Rihanna’s catalogue of hits and picked her 20 best singles to date.

Editor’s Note: Listen to our Rihanna playlist on Spotify.


20. “Four Five Seconds”

The reverberations of a “ella-ella” or “na-na” now feel something like a big bang: There would be no “We Can’t Stop,” no “Come & Get It,” without the syllabic tongue games Rihanna used to galvanize pop in the latter half of the aughts. Of course, hashtagging your way through vocals only gets a career so far, and if “Stay” saw RiRi try to demonstrate greater range through familiar forms, “Four Five Seconds” does so the way she knows best: by inventing her own. Paired with Kanye West in his rough crooner mode, the two bleat bluesy woes over Paul McCartney’s best Lindsey Buckingham impression. It’s an oddly affecting formula that’s unlikely to prove quite so imitable—though Miley and Selena are welcome to try. Sam C. Mac


19. “S&M”

To say the world wasn’t exactly thrilled to hear Rihanna, after just having bared her soul in Rated R about (among other things) “that incident,” singing about how much chains and whips excite her would be a gross understatement. Career momentum, and a little assist from Britney Spears on the remix, thrust “S&M” to the top of the charts anyway, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many admitting that they, too, like the smell of sex in the air. But screw it, we’ll say it. “S&M” might be the boldest of all Rihanna house jams, the moment when she truly found her Janet Jackson-circa-“Throb” stride. Eric Henderson


18. “Love on the Brain”

No one would ever confuse Rihanna with Amy Winehouse, but the doo-wop-inspired fourth single from 2016’s ANTI channels the late singer’s brand of throwback pop with its juxtaposition of retro instrumentation and, one might say, retrograde lyrics: “It beats me black and blue, but it fucks me so good that I can’t get enough.” Rihanna shows off her vocal versatility throughout the track, at turns cooing in falsetto and dropping to a growl, as she unabashedly puts her heart—and her brain—on her sleeve. Sal Cinquemani


17. “Man Down”

Rihanna’s follow-up to ANTI will reportedly be more reggae-influenced than any of her previous efforts. Of course, the singer has already paid homage to her roots countless times over the course of her career. One highlight is “Man Down,” about a woman who shoots a man in the public square, putting a feminine twist on Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.” Rihanna’s vocals are surprisingly agile, and “Man Down” is one of her most confident performances to date. Alexa Camp


16. “Rehab”

If “Umbrella” was a good girl’s gesture of generosity, “Rehab” is her reeling from the abuse of a bad man who squandered it. “I’ll never give myself to another the way I gave it to you” is one of the saddest Rihanna lyrics, but a blow blunted by the singer’s signature resigned delivery, deployed here as a coping mechanism. What might be a typical lovelorn ballad becomes tough and resilient, a tone well complemented by Timbaland snapping percussion and dramatic strings, and the anonymity Rihanna had been criticized for suddenly matures into a mode of vocalizing repressed emotion that she’d never before explored. It only took a crummy metaphor to get her there. Mac

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Through the Years: Madonna’s Iconic “Like a Virgin” at 35

We’re taking a look back at the song the Queen of Pop has perpetually made shiny and new.

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Like a Virgin

Confession: I’ve never cared much for “Like a Virgin.” Madonna’s 1984 single may be the first, if not the, signature song of her career, but it’s a trifle—a novelty, really—with its plucky, noncommittal guitar licks, sub-“Billie Jean” bassline, and the singer’s helium squeak of a voice. That last, integral element in particular has always irked me, as, from “Express Yourself” to “Don’t Tell Me,” Madonna has proven she’s capable of some deep, soulful performances. Of course, the vocals on “Like a Virgin” were allegedly employed by design, sped up to render Madonna’s voice more childlike and “virginal.” (It’s a trick she’s lamentably reprised on some of her more recent recordings.)

I’m in fairly good company, however, since both producer Nile Rodgers and Madonna herself aren’t particularly fond of “Like a Virgin” either, and she’s chosen to completely reinvent the song in masterful ways nearly every time she’s performed it. The single was released on Halloween in 1984, and this week also marks the 35th anniversary of the album of the same name. To commemorate this milestone, we’re taking a look back at three and a half decades of a song Madonna has mercifully, perpetually made shiny and new by sheer force of will and ingenuity.


MTV Video Music Awards (1984)

Feminists angered by Madonna’s choice of a belt buckle during her performance at the MTV VMAs in 1984 seemed to miss the fact that her groom was a mannequin and that she chose instead to consummate her vows with her wedding veil. By the time she’d descended her giant wedding cake, hit the floor, and rolled around on the stage, showing her knickers to the world, there was no confusion about what the M stood for in the giant MTV logo towering above her.


Music Video (1984)

Shot largely in St. Marks’s Square in Venice, Italy, the music video for “Like a Virgin” found Madonna playing Beauty to a man dressed as a Beast, specifically a lion (which not coincidentally happens to be the symbol of Mark the Evangelist). The singer is depicted as both virginal bride—sauntering impatiently through the basilica, undressing the furniture—and street harlot, hungrily prowling the bridges and canals of the Floating City.


Blond Ambition Tour (1990)

Ostensibly growing weary of her biggest hit, Madonna reinterpreted “Like a Virgin” with a Middle Eastern-inspired arrangement for her Blond Ambition Tour, casting herself as harem girl (the other “girls” being male dancers, natch, dressed in conical bras designed by Jean Paul Gautier). Having long shed her “Boy Toy” image for a more empowering, self-reliant brand of post-feminism, the Queen of Pop once again made it clear that “Like a Virgin” is first and foremost a paean to self-love.


The Girlie Show (1993)

The story goes that Madonna looked up Gene Kelly in 1993 to ask him to give her notes on her Girlie Show Tour, the sets and choreography of which were inspired by Hollywood musicals from the 1950s like Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain. “Like a Virgin” was originally intended to be sung by a man, and Madge had been toying with the idea of paying homage to Marlene Dietrich and French cabaret singer Maurice Chevalier by dressing in drag for a slapstick-and-vaudeville version of “Like a Wirgin.” Kelly, then in his 80s, gave his stamp of approval, and the rest is, as they say, history.


MTV Video Music Awards (2003)

After putting the song into retirement for a decade, Madonna dusted “Like a Virgin” off for the 20th annual VMAs, this time playing the groom to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera’s not-so-blushing brides in yet another gender-bending performance of her iconic hit.


Confessions Tour (2006)

In 2005, Madonna was thrown from her horse while riding at her country estate outside London, breaking her hand, three ribs, and her collarbone. The accident served as inspiration for her Confessions Tour the following year, which opened with an equestrian-themed segment. A knowing wink to the suggestion that there was nothing left of the pop star to reveal of herself, x-rays of her cracked bones were projected onto giant screens as she mounted a carousel horse, stroking the giant pole, and performing near-acrobatic moves to the beat of a discofied revamp of “Like a Virgin.” Back in the saddle, indeed.


MDNA Tour (2012)

Madonna ended up back on the floor for this striking, unexpectedly poignant rendition of “Like a Virgin” for 2012’s MDNA Tour. The delicate piano waltz was juxtaposed with the singer flashing her lady parts, defying those who’d for years squawked that the fiftysomething performer should put on her clothes and take a bow. Asking fans who likely paid a pretty penny for their front-row seats to throw money at her like a stripper might seem crass, but then this tour-de-force segues into MDNA’s “Love Spent,” a song about the dissolution of the so-called Material Girl’s marriage to Guy Ritchie, who reportedly got millions in a divorce settlement.


Rebel Heart Tour (2015)

After more than three decades performing the hit that made her a household name, Madonna took things back to basics for her Rebel Heart Tour, delivering a somewhat faithful rendition of “Like a Virgin” for fans around the globe. She didn’t roll on the floor and show the world her underwear, but she did hump the stage in homage to her infamous VMA performance and at one point stripped off her shirt.

See where “Like a Virgin” landed on our list of Every Madonna Single Ranked.

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Review: Celine Dion’s Courage Digs Deep But Largely Comes Up Empty

In terms of both length and theme, the singer’s 12th English-language album can feel exhausting.

2.5

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Celine Dion
Photo: Columbia Records

In recent years, Celine Dion has been less likely to generate headlines for her music than for her eccentric fashion choices and personal developments (her husband of over two decades, René Angélil, died in 2016). And the French-Canadian singer’s first English-language effort in six years, Courage, is unlikely to change that. The album opens with the club hit “Flying on My Own,” a rousing house anthem that’s a bit of a red herring. With the exception of “Lovers Never Die” and “Nobody’s Watching”—which deliver just enough peripheral urban-leaning pop and funk, respectively, to not offend Dion’s core audience—the rest of the album’s 70-minute runtime is filled with boilerplate balladry.

Though Dion doesn’t write her own material, much of Courage features lyrical references to loss and mourning. “I would be lying if I said I’m fine/I think of you at least a hundred times,” she sings on the title track, a heart-wrenching piano ballad whose lovely verses—“I talk to you like I did then/In conversations that will never end”—are put into stark relief by its schmaltzy hook. Co-penned by Sam Smith, “For the Lover That I Lost” is expectedly mopey, though it’s less so in Dion’s hands, her vocals erring on the side of understatement. She’s in fine voice throughout the album, though signs of wear are obvious (and welcome) in her scratchy belt on “Change My Mind” and the husky lower register she employs on “Look at Us Now.”

Co-written by Sia and David Guetta, the string-laden “Lying Down” feels both modern and classic, while “Best of All” comes closest to recapturing the timeless quality of Dion’s peak output. Perhaps intentionally, it’s not until the album’s last third that true joy breaks through, on the soulful, doo-wop-inspired “How Did You Get Here” and the gospel-infused closing track, “The Hard Way.” In terms of both its length and themes, the 20-track Courage can feel exhausting, alternating between platitudes about grief and self-empowerment that, with only a few exceptions, make what should feel cathartic sound empty and even anonymous.

Label: Columbia Release Date: November 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: DJ Shadow’s Our Pathetic Age Paints a Grim Picture of Modern Life

The double album speaks to the hyper-distracted way we live today.

3.5

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Photo: Derick Daily

Imagine a magician. He walks on stage and wordlessly holds up a canister of gasoline, which he then drinks from. He then places a stick of dynamite in his mouth and lights it like a cigar. The fuse burns down and the magician explodes, blowing a huge hole in the stage and soaking the audience with blood and viscera. As everyone is shocked and terrified, their ears ringing, the magician appears on a nearby balcony. Ta-da! You might ask how he did it. But a better question is: What does he do to equal if not to top himself?

Such is the problem that’s faced DJ Shadow since 1996’s Endtroducing…, which was genre- and era-defining in a way that few other electronic albums have ever been. His later output simply hasn’t been as innovative or exciting, destined to be read in the context of that triumphant debut. Perhaps that’s why Shadow’s sixth album, Our Pathetic Age, announces in its very title that his concerns are immediate. The cover, rendered in Pop Art style, shows a woman in semi-profile gasping as she looks at a smartphone. The cover art and title, taken in tandem, suggests that this double album is a stinging critique of our age of technological proliferation. Despite this, Shadow has said that he doesn’t intend his latest to be an indictment of modern life as much as a comment on it, one that speaks to the hyper-distracted way we live today.

Our Pathetic Age’s first half showcases Shadow’s renowned ability to build songs entirely out of samples. The best of these evoke clear referents through their soundscapes: “Intersectionality” layers synths on top of an icy, spare beat until it builds to a neon-lit climax that might make you wish you were riding in a spinner from Blade Runner, while “Slingblade” matches glitch-poppy drum programming to a fluttery, Koji Kondo-esque synth melody.

More compact than its sprawling title suggests, “Beauty Power Motion Life Work Chaos Law” shows Shadow’s continued ability to wring humor out of his work. The track starts with a funky synth figure that morphs into something more jazz-inspired, with jittery piano on top of splash-heavy drumming. Everything except for the drums drops out as the song comes to its conclusion, and Shadow delivers the punchline with a voice telling the drummer to “shut the fuck up” against a polite smattering of applause.

On the album’s second half, Shadow takes a back seat and welcomes an all-star cast of guests to bring their own identity to bear on the songs. De La Soul infuses the catchy, high-energy party anthem “Rocket Fuel” with their trademark infectiousness, while Nas and Pharaohe Monch trade furious verses on “Drone Warfare,” the most explicitly political track on Our Pathetic Age. The rappers address mass surveillance, economic inequality, corporate malfeasance, and racial injustice over an explosive, take-no-prisoners beat.

Ghostface Killah, Inspektah Deck, and Raekwon contribute verses to “Rain on Snow,” which starts with a tired Game of Thrones reference but recovers by showcasing the trio’s dexterous lyricism. Shadow lays their vocals over a ghostly hook (“Rain on snow makes it melt away”) and the juxtaposition makes their lines pop even more. “Kings and Queens” gives Run the Jewels another chance to make the case that they’re one of the best rap duos in history, and the gospel choir chorus tethers the song to the group’s Dirty South roots.

The title track and closer is a four-on-the-floor disco jam that makes excellent use of Future Islands’s Samuel T. Herring, whose delivery splits the difference between Tom Waits and Bill Withers and settles perfectly into the groove. His lyrics paint a picture of a relationship recalled through the haze of time, his memories framed by years of emotional decay. Balanced against the propulsive music, the song is as effecting as anything Shadow has ever done.

Less successful is “C.O.N.F.O.R.M.,” which is peppered with boilerplate carping about Twitter and social media from Gift of Gab, Infamous Taz, and Lateef the Truth Speaker, while “Small Colleges (Stay with Me),” featuring Wiki and Paul Banks, feels like something you’d hear in a grocery store. As is frequently the case with double albums padded with filler, Out Pathetic Age’s biggest problem is that too much of it feels disposable, anodyne, or tossed off. But Shadow still manages to get some strong work out of both himself and his guests, and he deserves credit for not trying to merely recreate the same trick over and over.

Label: Mass Appeal Release Date: November 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: I Made a Place Finds Bonnie “Prince” Billy at His Most Existential

The album is autumnal in its resignation to death as a necessary part of life.

4.5

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Mickie Winters
Photo: Mickie Winters/Drag City

“You need to knock this one out of the park,” Will Oldham sings on “New Memory Box,” the rollicking opening track of I Made a Place, his first album of original material in six years. If it sounds like he’s suffering from diminished confidence, don’t be fooled: Oldham’s albums as Bonnie “Prince” Billy always achieve a cohesiveness that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, and I Made a Place is no exception.

The 13 songs here feature straightforward folk arrangements of guitar, drum, bass, fiddle, strings, horns, and the odd synth part. This is a song cycle with cosmic concerns in mind, and the simplicity of the music renders Oldham’s voice (and lyrics) that much clearer. “Look Backward on Your Future, Look Forward to Your Past” is made up of a gently strummed acoustic guitar and the singer’s indelible yowl. The lyrics tell a story about a man named Richard who undergoes a transfiguration as his materialistic worldview is reshaped both by quantum physics and spiritual renewal. It’s weighty stuff, but Oldham sings the song with the playful shimmy of a George Jones tune. His ability to be profound and uproarious at the same time is on full display: “Get your sense of self from a hydrogen blast.”

The word “apocalyptic” is frequently applied to Oldham’s work, and with good reason: His worldview has been haunted by some unnameable or just unnamed cataclysm, from the recent past or lurking over the horizon. I Made a Place finds his fascination with catastrophe and collapse alive and well, though the subject is addressed more elliptically than on past albums. Instead of a dystopian depiction of civilization’s collapse, though, the album is autumnal in its resignation to death as a necessary part of life. Oldham is, for all his oddity, a deeply human songwriter, and throughout I Made a Place his tone is alternately celebratory and comforting.

Images of darkness, shadow, and fire pervade—though it’s unclear whether that fire is a conflagration or merely the world’s sole remaining light source. Yet the tone is rather ruminative. “This Is Far from Over” finds Oldham contemplating “shorelines gone and maps destroyed, livelihoods dissolved and void,” but he reassures us that “new wild creatures will be born” because “the whole world’s far from over.” Oldham’s gentle warble is set to a softly plucked acoustic guitar, and a flute solo closes things on a hopeful note.

Throughout, Oldham serves as our Virgil, shepherding us through the shadowy worlds he builds. Sometimes he’s funny and sometimes he’s sad, but he’s always there to keep the listener safe. “Squid Eye” delights in some Seussian wordplay and features the album’s funniest lyrics—“I’ll drive right in as if I were Aquaman’s kid”—set to a Bob Wills-esque swinging bluegrass song, while “The Glow Pt. 3,” the title of which nods to Phil Elverum, wrestles with love, impermanence, and dread from the vantage of the bottom of a bottle.

Some artists seem to have an uncanny ability to gesture to the infinite, to wring out from their chosen medium a staggering amount of profundity. Oldham is one such artist, having created an archive of songs that conjure the entire spectrum of human experience: hilarity and terror, joy and desolation, birth and death, and everything in between. I Made a Place is an apt title, as Oldham has carved out a niche for himself that’s not quite like any of his contemporaries. He unpacks the darkest and brightest parts of life with an unblinking candor. On the title track, the singer speaks about creating a home in a world you didn’t ask for. His thesis is simple: “I don’t know why I was born, but I have made a place.” In that one, softly delivered lyric, Oldham resolves a philosophy seminar’s worth of existential crisis.

Label: Drag City Release Date: November 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York Remains a Timeless Musical Document

Much of the power of this set is in the band’s intuitive ability to imbue their songs with new dimensions of subtlety.

4.5

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Nirvana
Upon its television debut in December of 1993, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York session was already monumental—intensely intimate and unique among prior episodes of Unplugged, which usually operated as greatest-hits showcases. In the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, however, the band’s performance assumed near-mythical status, airing around the clock in the weeks following the singer’s death and serving several roles for a shocked, grieving fanbase: a portent, memento, and elegy all at once.

Had they never appeared on Unplugged, it’s likely that Nirvana might be perceived in a significantly different light today. They were a ferocious and often unpredictable live act, capable of wreaking mayhem on their instruments and each other while delivering their searing yet melodic brand of punk. The release of MTV Unplugged in New York in November of 1994 provided a full window onto the kinder, gentler Nirvana only hinted at on the band’s three studio albums, and served as the high-water mark for ‘90s alternative music’s ascendance to Important Art just before its descent into self-parodic commerce.

Of course, commerce is alive and well in the 25th anniversary edition of MTV Unplugged in New York, which may be viewed with understandable suspicion by fans long inundated with special editions and live-show unearthings that have effectively wrung Nirvana’s catalog dry. (This year alone has already seen the release of Live at the Paramount and Live and Loud.) But considering MTV Unplugged in New York’s titanic place in rock history, this edition is revelatory for a simple reason: the inclusion of five songs from the rehearsal for the band’s performance that were previously only available on the show’s DVD release.

Over the years myths have grown around MTV Unplugged in New York, a major one claiming that the band was in shambles leading up to the taping of their performance at Sony Music Studios. While the new tracks don’t rewrite what we once knew about the performance, it nevertheless helps reinforce the skin-of-their-teeth story that’s largely been known only in anecdotal form. During the rehearsals, Dave Grohl’s heavy drumming undermined the acoustic sound, especially on rockers like “Come As You Are” and a cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” where his trashing instincts almost overwhelm the rest of the band. Thankfully, Grohl reined in his thundering style after he was offered quieter brush and Hot Rod sticks by Unplugged producer Alex Coletti just before the official performance.

While none of the five new tracks on this reissue are unlistenable, they’re expectedly unpolished and, as evidenced by occasional in-song directives and banter, unfocused and tense. Cobain’s vocals sound strained on “Come As You Are,” while on a cover of the Meat Puppets’s “Plateau,” several guitar licks and back-up vocals from Cris Kirkwood—who, along with brother and Meat Puppets co-member Curt Kirkwood, accompanied Nirvana on three of their own songs—are off-time and over-emphasized. In a sudden burst of inspiration during the televised performance of “Pennyroyal Tea,” Cobain performed the song on his own, and the result was more personal and harrowing than the electric version on 1993’s In Utero. In rehearsal, “Pennyroyal Tea” is undone by Pat Smear’s distracting backup vocals and a guitar played a turgid step lower than the one on the studio recording.

Beyond the fly-on-the-wall rehearsal tracks, the rest of MTV Unplugged in New York remains as it’s always been. The album hasn’t been remastered for this reissue, which is a bit of a shame, but perhaps augmentation works against its raison d’être. Much of the power of this set is in the rawness of Nirvana’s delivery, but especially Cobain’s. It’s also in the mesmerizing spell of the group’s intuitive ability to imbue their songs with new dimensions of subtlety and cast light on their own artistic worldview with several unusual yet impassioned covers, including their towering, chilling take on Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” MTV Unplugged in New York is simply a timeless performance, one all the more impressive for having come together through reserves of musical acumen and sheer guts.

Label: Geffen Release Date: November 1, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: FKA twigs’s Magdalene Is a Knotty Meditation on Self-Possession

A distinct feminine energy pulses through the singer-songwriter’s shimmering sophomore effort.

4.5

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FKA twigs
Photo: Matthew Stone

A distinct feminine energy pulses through FKA twigs’s shimmering sophomore effort, Magdalene. Coming off the back of a major public breakup with actor Robert Pattinson and a period of ill-health which left her creatively and physically depleted, twigs made it her mission—both in the writing of this follow-up to 2014’s LP1 and in the extraordinary wushu and pole training she undertook for her Magdalene tour—to embrace her pain.

Despite twigs’s vocal precision, there’s always been an element of unpredictability to her music, as the production on her albums is prone to spareness one moment and cacophony the next. And on Magdalene, she leans even further into that volatility, her crystalline, Kate Bush-esque falsetto shape-shifting into something richer and thicker on “Holy Terrain,” angrier and rueful on “Fallen Alien,” and sweeping on the transcendent “Sad Day.”

At times, twigs seems caught between personas. On “Home with You,” her raspy delivery of “The more you have the more that people want from you” gives way to a soaring melody in the chorus, in which she counters, “I didn’t know that you were lonely/If you’d have just told me I’d be home with you.” Anger and acceptance coexist here, one growing out of the other.

twigs has a knack for spinning mystical imagery out of everyday experience, and on the album she explores the shifting power dynamics at play in her life. The prying, judgmental gaze of the paparazzi can be easily imagined as a many-eyed monster in “Thousand Eyes.” Elsewhere, she calls upon religious references to subvert ideas of her own power. A lyric like “I lie naked and pure with intentions to cleanse you and take you” on “Sad Day” suggests both submission and dominance; the act of cleansing recalls Mary Magdalene washing Jesus’s feet, yet the phrase “take you” suggests that the object of her affections has no choice but to submit to her. Another often misrepresented biblical figure, Eve, comes to mind when twigs invites her lover to “taste the fruit of me” on the same song, but it’s not an act of temptation, it’s a plea.

For all the strength and self-possession twigs demands from herself and her lovers, she also provides space for the necessary grief that comes with saying goodbye to someone who wasn’t able to meet her there. And for all the spiritual power she’s filled with to “cleanse” and “heal” on “Sad Day,” she also acknowledges the periods when she can barely move on the cyclical “Daybed.” There’s little sense on Magdalene that twigs believes there’s an ideal way to be; all she can do is learn how to accept her own contradictions as a necessary part of growth. The album is a knotty meditation on the process of separating self-perception from public perception, and of twigs’s reclamation of her body and work as hers and hers alone.

Label: Young Turks Release Date: November 8, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Miranda Lambert’s Wildcard Lowers the Stakes to Diminishing Returns

The album lowers the emotional stakes but still manages to dole out plenty of country-rock bombast.

3

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Wildcard
Photo: Ellen Von Unwerth/Sony

In a recent New York Times profile, Miranda Lambert called her seventh album, Wildcard, “straight down the middle Miranda Lambert.” Indeed, the album is a decided shift away from the somber reflection of 2016’s 24-track The Weight of These Wings, which was largely informed by the singer’s split from fellow country superstar Blake Shelton.

In many ways, Wildcard follows in the musical footsteps of last year’s Interstate Gospel, the third effort from the Pistol Annies, Lambert’s supergroup with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. The first half of Wildcard tips its 10-gallon hat toward that group’s style, which is typified by its brazen humor. Opening track “White Trash” is a country-rock earworm that sets the album’s tone with a fuzzed-out beat and rollicking banjo riff as Lambert proudly declares that—despite her 401k, treasures in her closet, and fancy house—she just can’t keep her “white trash off the lawn.” It’s not a confession so much as a flag-waving anthem.

It’s this type of outlaw energy that catapulted Lambert to stardom on 2007’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and it’s still present in fits and starts on tracks like “Way Too Pretty for Prison” and “Locomotive.” The album’s lead single, “It All Comes Out in the Wash,” finds her rattling off an embarrassing laundry list of character flaws with a knowing wink. The song’s vignettes range from getting “frisky with your boss at the coffee machine” and “knocked up in a truck at the 7-Eleven” to pouring “a merlot to go,” all delivered with nonchalant coolness.

The album’s second half loses a bit of its impact when the tempo downshifts. Songs like “Bluebird” and “How Dare You Love” harken back to some of the shimmery pop of 2009’s Revolution, and Lambert lets the gloom in on the drinking ballads “Dark Bars” and “Tequila Does.” On the midtempo “Pretty Bitchin’,” she rotely employs various uses of the word “pretty” with diminishing returns, describing the pretty things she owns, how pretty she looks from the front and back, and a general feeling of her life being “pretty bitchin’,” all things considered.

And while the latter half of Wildcard constitutes a bit of a shuffled deck of genres, there’s enough of a kick to the album as a whole to warrant its title, and Lambert certainly has the chops to sell it. Though she lowers the emotional stakes (and tracklist count) here, she still manages to deal out plenty of country-rock bombast, even if she’s traversed these genre paths before. At the very least, it’s nice to see Lambert kicking up her heels and having fun again.

Label: RCA Nashville Release Date: November 1, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Kanye West’s Jesus Is King Is a Compelling But Veiled Act of Self-Worship

The album is impeccably produced but finds Kanye barely shifting his musical approach.

3

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Jesus Is King

Kanye West has all but solidified his position as popular music’s most innovative high-profile producer, with every shift in his aesthetic focus over the last 10-plus years serving to found a whole new subgenre or micro-culture within hip-hop. That is, when those shifts aren’t merely bringing already extant ones a greater level of attention. Kanye has also consistently come up with compelling ways of giving voice to the various narratives that he’s built his music around. That latter point is likely to be a bit more controversial than the first, but consider this: Even when listeners balked early on at the size of the ego on a Chi-town upstart who thought he could spit as well as he could produce beats for Jay-Z, or later when they took umbrage with the Kanye who spun unapologetic tales of dark, twisted celebrity demigods, or when they rebuked him only after his decadence started to fuel more explicitly autobiographical material, all of the resulting albums have been met with intense amounts of interest from both pro- and anti-Kanye camps alike.

With Jesus Is King, that reliable metric for gaging the success of a Kanye album suggests a less positive result. The music here is as impeccably produced as that of just about any Kanye release to date, but the shift toward gospel, while occasionally captivating and even convincing, more often proves that it’s more difficult for Kanye to apply his particular narrativizing gifts to faith than it is to the exploits of outsized celebrity caricatures, or the episodes of his own tabloid-baiting life. The big problem is how Kanye addresses the shift itself—in that Jesus Is King finds him barely shifting his musical approach.

The album’s prevailing mood is braggadocio, ever Ye’s true north, and the greatest basis for his boastfulness is, familiarly, the resilience with which he’s carried himself on the path to commercial and personal success: his defiance in the face of a press he sees as persecuting him, his resistance to the temptations of social media, his income figures overcoming his debt. The particulars of this message run counter to the ostensible thesis of Jesus Is King, the line—taken from this album’s “Closed on Sunday”—that resonates most with the message that a “born again” Kanye has stressed for most of this year: “My life is His, I’m no longer my own.”

Kanye’s own take on Kanye is still very much the focus here—and that becomes immensely frustrating when you consider “God Is,” the counter-example that the album provides. The track is Jesus Is King’s undeniable highlight, a fleeting glimpse of what a Kanye gospel album could sound like. His voice more cracked and vulnerable than he’s ever committed to record (no AutoTune, imperfections left undoctored), and over a looped sample of gospel godhead James Cleveland’s song of the same name, Kanye sings, or rather tunefully sermonizes, about his absolute dedication to his faith, and to this chapter of transformation in his life.

“God Is” is impactful, but more importantly, it shows the grace with which Kanye can deliver the sentiments of religious thought (“All the things He has in store/From the rich to the poor/All are welcomed through the door”) and the power of plainspoken prayer (“I know God is the force who lifted me up/I know Christ is the fountain that filled my cup”). The song, almost disarmingly, contains only one genuine brag—“Sunday service on a roll!”— and otherwise gives itself over entirely to “a mission, not a show.” Agnostics and believers alike may be moved by Kanye’s words, or, more specifically, by how he emotes through them: “God Is” comes up against the physical limits of Kanye’s voice at the same time that the artist arrives at an open-hearted acceptance of things beyond his control.

Contrast those sentiments with “Closed on Sunday,” which references Chick-fil-A in its chorus. There’s a schism that threatens the foundation of Jesus Is King, and it’s not one that should prevent Kanye from being both reverent and funny; it’s that his willingness toward blasphemy is so tempered to the point that it comes off as innocuous. “When I thought the book of Job was a job/The devil had my soul, I can’t lie,” Kanye raps leadenly on “On God,” a track that goes on to credit the Almighty with the production of the Yeezy Boost 350 sneakers but nebulously unloads blame elsewhere for the cut that the I.R.S. takes of their sales. Worse are the lyrics of “Hands On,” in particular the dopey outro, thanklessly sung by gospel lifer (and frequent Ye collaborator) Fred Hammond: “To praise His name, you ask what I’m smoking.”

Jesus Is King’s saving grace, then, is its predictably sharp production: from the Yeezy-less salvo of “Every Hour,” which features wall-of-sound vocals from the Sunday Service choir—who rip through an impassioned song that already sounds like a canonized gospel standard—to the triumphant, brassy fanfare of the much-too-short closer “Jesus Is Lord,” maybe Ye’s most baroque production since all of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The in-the-pocket production of songs like “Follow God” and “God Is” find him returning to one of his favorite formulas: A vintage soul sample first plays out relatively unabated, then is chopped and looped until it’s put in lockstep with a hard, galvanizing beat. “Follow God” takes as its foundation the Whole Truth’s “Can You Lose by Following God” and grinds a choice selection of bleating church organ and wailing vocal ad-libs against a pummeling bassline, providing the rhythmic bounce for Kanye’s elastic flow. The Sunday Service choir is again on hand to elevate “Selah,” essentially a rousing chant of “hallelujah” that’s augmented by dynamic leaps in octave and by Ye’s colossal bursts of percussive, scraping-metal sound effects.

There’s an issue here too, though, and it’s that some of the music on Jesus Is King may sound awfully familiar to Kanye devotees in the wake of what now probably amounts to the most significant leak of his career. Back in April, tracks from Yandhi, the album that Kanye was promoting until he indefinitely delayed it, made their way online, and included several songs that have been reshaped for Jesus Is King. Leaks can provide all sorts of complications when it comes to the experience of an artist’s finished product, even under normal circumstances, but it’s vexing that many of the Yandhi tracks have been carried over appear to have been tweaked specifically for the purpose of better aligning with Kanye’s embrace of his Christian faith. And the process of that revision has left many casualties, including the ingratiating “New Body” (and its snarling Nicki Minaj feature), which didn’t fit the God-fearing theme here but which also hasn’t been replaced by anything that’s nearly as tuneful or exciting.

The absence of quite a bit of material that would have otherwise been fit for release is especially glaring in light of Jesus Is King’s skimpy, 27-minute runtime. It also points to another problem, which is that Kanye doesn’t seem to have quite figured out how to translate his spiritual awakening to his music as confidently as he has nearly every other experience in his life on previous albums. All this amounts to Kanye’s least substantial album to date, which is certainly a blow to the faithful, who continue to walk the finest of lines, putting up with Kanye’s erratic career moves as a cost, with the reward being the reward of the music itself.

But Jesus Is King isn’t the work of a has-been either; there are flashes of genius throughout, moments that insinuate where Kanye could go next with his music. In a sense, the album’s modest pleasures play to its (intended) message, which is supposed to be one of human fallibility and the prospect of improving oneself. But Kanye is eventually going to have to confront the serious limitations that his faith is putting on the range of his art’s expression.

Label: Def Jam Release Date: October 25, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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