Even though I live in North Carolina and would have been in no position, financially speaking, to shell out the $300 that scalpers were asking for tickets to the Weeknd’s first show, a gig at Toronto’s Mod Club that sold out in 90 minutes, I still got to be a part of the R&B singer’s concert debut. It hadn’t been 24 hours since Abel Tesfaye wrapped up his encore before his entire set was already up on YouTube. In a brilliant bit of reverse psychology, the show’s promoters told fans that recording was forbidden while making no attempt to confiscate cameras and phones, thereby guaranteeing that every fan would scramble to shoot and share their “exclusive” footage. Not only was “High for This” online, one dedicated fan had taken the time to edit some dozen recordings into a makeshift master, plucking the highest quality sound file from one video and setting it to a concert-doc-style montage of perspectives. I’ll admit I had one of those “gawd the Internet is cool” moments: I had just turned off an especially unsatisfying episode of MTV’s Unplugged, and now I had the opportunity to watch an artist I like perform music I wanted to hear.
Right now a lot of people want to hear the Weeknd’s music, and once they hear it, they want to talk about it. When the review aggregator Metacritic gave its mid-year report last month, the Weeknd’s first mixtape, House of Balloons, topped its list of the year’s most critically acclaimed albums. The Weeknd, along with alt-R&B fellow traveler Frank Ocean, has generated countless think pieces everywhere from Pitchfork to the Washington Post. And now that Drake has thrown himself in the Weeknd’s corner, it seems like there’s no limit on how far Tesfaye can go. There’s no question that he could have jumped on a major label at any point in the last three months, but at this point I know of literally no way you can pay for the Weeknd’s music. Tesfaye has stuck with his plan to release a trilogy of free mixtapes, the second of which, Thursday, went viral last weekend.
It’s easy to see Thursday as the archetypal “difficult follow-up to acclaimed debut” since it picks up many of the most experimental aspects of House of Balloons‘s art-damaged R&B and runs with them. From the perspective of a music critic, that’s a perfectly respectable move, though in the Weeknd’s case, it feels genuinely risky. When House of Balloons and Ocean’s nostalgia, ultra first dropped, a lot of discussion revolved around what to make of this new territory, which staked a claim somewhere between indie-electronica and radio R&B. There was one camp that immediately dismissed the trend as hipster music, and their arguments covered a lot of the points that skeptics used to make about rap groups like the Roots or some of the Stones Throw roster: you won’t hear this on urban radio; black people don’t actually listen to this; this isn’t real R&B; and so on. But where I’ve had difficulty selling some of my indie-inclined friends on the Weeknd, I know a number of folks, black and white alike, who listen predominantly to R&B and who immediately took to House of Balloons, which, for all of its critic-baiting references, owed its biggest debts to Prince, R. Kelly, Timbaland, and The-Dream. You could give the album to a Trey Songz or Drake fan and expect that they’d find something familiar in it.
I think R&B fans will be more likely to greet Thursday as the work of an outsider. More than on House of Balloons, the production is even more indebted to mid-‘90s trip-hop, the songs are longer and more abstract, hooks and big choruses are less frequent. Tesfaye is still an R&B singer: His fluttery falsetto runs and distinctly urban vocabulary are the most obvious cues that you’re listening to a black singer who’s largely influenced by other black singers. But aside from “Gone,” which sounds like a minimalist variant on a Timbaland track, Thursday spans a range of sounds that are darker and more abrasive than what R&B typically allows (Meshell Ngedeocello’s Devil’s Halo is the only R&B album I know that works so capably with the textures of experimental rock and electronica). “Life of the Party,” with its peals of distorted guitar and unnerving sing-song refrain, sounds like nothing so much as Nine Inch Nails circa The Downward Spiral. Meanwhile, “Lonely Star” recalls the Massive Attack of Mezzanine and “The Birds Pt. 2” samples a song by frequent Massive Attack collaborator Martina Topley-Bird.
Thursday, then, is a groove-oriented grower of a record, but my sense is that this is a product of intention and not exhaustion. Tesfaye’s lyrics are darker and more personal than on House of Balloons; if we’ve reached less friendly sonic landscapes, it’s because we’ve been made to witness more frightening parts of the Weeknd’s world, where every relationship (with women, with money, with drugs) is characterized by dependency, compulsion, and abuse. Lyrics don’t get much more harrowing than the part of “The Birds Pt. 2” where Tesfaye says, “She said please/Mercy me, mercy me/Let me fall out of love before you fuck her/She thanked me/She gave me all her pills.” Overall, you’re more likely to find Tesfaye singing in first person on Thursday than on House of Balloons: Where the latter served as a kind of exposé on a dark and debauched scene, Thursday feels more like a character study set in the world it established. If the songs here take a few listens to connect to, the engrossing drama of the lyrics and beats give plenty of reason for repeat listens.
“Rolling Stone,” for example, is a haunting, acoustic guitar-driven number that finds Tesfaye detailing a possessive relationship that seems to be between him and a girl, but could also be about his fans. “Baby I got you,” he coos, “Until you’re used to my face/And my mystery fades…So baby love me/Before they all love me/Before you won’t love me.” Lyrics like that make the listener feel complicit in Tesfaye’s exploitative, drug-fueled relationships because they highlight the similarity between the way his character moves through women and the way music fans commodify and consume in pursuit of the fleeting highs afforded by novelty and exclusivity. There’s a similarly unsettling moment when Drake shows up for his guest verse on “The Zone,” not quite stepping out of his nice-guy persona so much as showing how it can mask appetites that are just as predatory as Tesfaye’s. Drake instructs a pole dancer to sit down, wipe off her makeup, be herself—certainly kinder come-ons than we’d hear from Tesfaye, but isn’t the end goal still to get a vulnerable woman in bed, whether she’s given a false sense of security by a pill or just a smooth-talking MC?
Moments like those are where Thursday proves itself a worthy predecessor to House of Balloons, showing that Tesfaye’s has a vision for his project and the confidence to execute at his own pace. With its K-hole production and skin-crawling lyrics, Thursday makes it clear to fans hooked by the seedy allure of House of Balloons just how deep they’ve gotten in. What felt vicarious and anonymous is hitting uncomfortably close to home. I suspect things won’t resolve happily when the story is completed on the forthcoming Echoes of Silence, but at this point I’m less interested in making predictions than in enjoying the ride. The Weeknd is in full command of his craft, and at this point it’s almost impossible for me to imagine that he won’t deliver on the finale. He’s earned my trust, as would any other artist who had already released two of the year’s best albums.
Release Date: August 26, 2011
Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated
Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.3.5
Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.
Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.
On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.
Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.
For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.
Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Toro y Moi’s Outer Peace Bends Boundaries with Mixed Results
Chaz Bear’s sixth album as Toro y Moi bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.3.0
Having already concocted brainy dance music under the alter ego Les Sins, chillwave trailblazer, synth-pop alchemist, and psychedelic rock enthusiast Chaz Bear fully embraces the dance floor on Outer Peace, his sixth studio album as Toro y Moi. Pulling from sources as disparate as R&B, tropical house, and trap, the California-based singer bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.
Upon first listen, it seems like Outer Peace colors a rough sketch of a dystopian future where the material is mistaken for the immaterial, technology becomes a gateway to the metaphysical, and fleeting pleasures, prompting ever greater hedonistic pursuits. It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this dystopia isn’t some future prospect, but the present moment. With lines like “Mystic staring at his phone for oneness,” Bear masterfully defamiliarizes our world, exposing the absurdity of the digital age.
Bear charmingly pairs this oft-heavy subject matter with club-ready grooves. The existential crisis of “Who Am I” is juxtaposed with sweetly pitched-up vocals and a fizzy patchwork of synths. Bear’s playful approach to house music ensures that no amount of existential dread and doom can dampen the mood he creates throughout the album.
Bear’s tinkering, however, isn’t always transportive. The rather vanilla tropical house beat of “Baby Drive It Down” recalls Drake’s dancehall-lite, with a lifeless performance from Bear. His experimentation with trap is at first promising on “Monte Carlo,” with the support of a dreamy pillow of vocal samples, but coming in at two minutes, the track feels one note, lacking any tempo changes or even a bridge, suggesting it was perhaps better fit for an interlude.
The cover of Outer Peace depicts Bear gazing intently at a computer screen, surrounded by instruments in a clean, sterile room. He reportedly created the majority of the album during an unaccompanied two-week retreat off Northern California’s Russian River, and this isolation can be felt throughout. The album’s title represents the remarkable possibility of finding freedom from the outside world by letting loose on the dance floor and experiencing liberation in a crowd of strangers. Bear certainly takes the album there at several points, but in the limited scope and cerebral slant of these too-brief songs, he loses that outer peace.
Label: Carpark Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Joe Jackson’s Fool Is a Concise and Punchy Nostalgia Trip
On Fool, Joe Jackson sounds younger and angrier than he has in years.3.0
Joe Jackson has spent the better part of four decades trying to put some distance between himself and his debut, Look Sharp!, a collection of acerbic new-wave pop songs that earned him the label of “angry young man.” But on his 21st album, Fool, he sounds younger and angrier than he has since 2003’s deliberately retro Volume 4. Maybe it’s a symptom of nostalgia: Fool, after all, is being released almost 40 years to the day after Look Sharp!, accompanied by a tour that promises to draw from Jackson’s entire career.
The album’s first two singles, “Fabulously Absolute” and “Friend Better,” both seem to deliberately rekindle the spirit of 1979: the former with its wiry post-punk guitar and synth riffs, the latter with its snotty vocal cut from the same cloth as early Jackson hits like “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” Even the refrain of the opening track “Big Black Cloud”—“No luck, no money, no sex, no fun”—is torn straight out of the London punk playbook.
Not all of the album calls back so specifically to Jackson’s debut: With its jazz-inflected piano and flute, closing track “Alchemy” is a welcome return to the moody sophisti-pop of 1982’s Night and Day. More often, however, Fool‘s refined pop-rock recalls an amalgamation of styles from Jackson’s “classic” era while also reflecting his late-career maturity. Tracks like the elegiac “Strange Land” marry his long-standing jazz and classical ambitions with his undeniable knack for pop melody in a way that doesn’t shortchange either.
Jackson, though, still hasn’t quite shaken his tendency to overextend himself. The title track is well-played, with some virtuosic runs by longtime bassist Graham Maby, but it also careens from Jackson rapping into a megaphone to a madrigal-like bridge to a synthesized surf guitar solo. The Beatles-esque “Dave” holds together better musically, but its character study of a pure-hearted but simple-minded everyman, who could have something to teach us about slowing down and enjoying life, feels cloying and condescending.
If Fool doesn’t quite measure up to Jackson’s sterling early work, it’s still more concise and punchy than 2015’s Fast Forward and less self-consciously arty than his late-‘80s and ‘90s work. By now, Jackson has surely come to terms with the fact that he’ll never be able to outrun his new wave days; keeping it as just one of the tools in his expansive arsenal is a fine compromise.
Label: earMUSIC Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon