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Review: Tyler, the Creator, Wolf

While Wolf feels like progress on some fronts, it’s also a resolutely conservative effort.

3.0

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Tyler, the Creator, Wolf

Their methods may seem novel, and the tenor of their crude, adolescent intensity may be previously unmatched, but Tyler, the Creator and his gang of likeminded roustabouts in Odd Future are hip-hop classicists. At a time when the genre is consistently in flux, they stick to the fixed markers of its archetypal vocabulary, making music that challenges sonically while remaining otherwise traditional. There’s the crude sense of humor, used to relieve the built-up tension of so much dense, complex wordplay. There’s the habit of handling emotional duress via confrontational swagger, lashing out at enemies real and imagined. There’s the prideful insistence on antisocial behavior, with angry fantasies related as actual exploits. The focal point of Odd Future’s rebellious métier, Tyler works within a familiar tradition of sublimated rage, oscillating wildly between ironic and genuine treatment of these emotions.

This sort of shallow iconoclasm, which pushes a surface level of innovation while holding firmly to conservative conventions, doesn’t allow much room for progress (think of the rapid splintering and disappearance of the similarly toned NWA as an example). Its dead-end nature is especially apparent today, with rap fully integrated into the pop slipstream, subject to its fickle demands and tidal patterns of steady change. This is why, on his second album, Tyler is already mired in both a continuing backlash and the halfhearted backlash to the backlash, while his more talented counterparts (Frank Ocean, Earl, Domo Genesis) have already achieved explicit mainstream success or cult adulation. It’s a situation that’s clearly informed Wolf, an eminently sensitive work that inherits its unevenness from Tyler’s wildly uneven personality.

Like Goblin, the album is a mixed bag of feelings and reactions, alternating between nastiness and innocence, exhilaration and exhaustion. The production is routinely strong, but things are weighed down by Tyler himself, who forcefully refuses to provide a palatable anchor to over an hour’s worth of material. Acting as his own producer, with a measure of authority that older MCs couldn’t imagine exercising, he bristles against the idea of playing to his audience, which means songs stretch on for way too long, confrontational attacks go too far, and self-lacerating attacks cut too deep.

This instability makes Tyler a fascinating figure, one of the preeminent young voices of the Internet age, torn between a compulsive need to share and self-loathing for the weakness he exhibits by doing so. If he were in control of all these emotions, the results might be trenchant and stunning, but he’s too caught up in self-pity, too eager to cast himself as the monstrous villain he thinks people expect him to be, a quality that makes Wolf hard to listen to and even harder to unequivocally enjoy. The album contains a few examples of truly transcendent, mature music (most notably the Erykah Badu collaboration “Treehome95”), but such tracks are tantalizingly scarce.

Writing about Chief Keef’s Finally Rich, I discussed the unfortunate tendency of rappers to calcify into unyielding forms of the molds in which they’re initially cast, the way the enabling assurance of fame will likely prevent youngsters like Keef from maturing. Hip-hop has always been divided between MCs incapable of change and ones with the power to evolve, and as rap becomes fused with the mainstream, we’ve seen more rappers with chameleonic abilities, a quality demanded by their new market status as pop stars, who’ve always needed to be mutable. Kanye West and Drake both started out with a mixture of neurotic self-doubt and defensive arrogance similar to Tyler’s, and both have found ways to circumvent the initial boxes they found themselves sealed into.

Tyler has the potential for such development, yet while his beats have evolved (the depth and texture of the sounds here demand headphone listening), his persona threatens to stagnate, with songs that take on new issues (the death of his grandmother on the intermittently gorgeous “Lone,” the response from fans and critics on nearly every track), but still fall back into the same nasty reactionary patterns, wasting time on extended tantrums and aggressive foot-stomping. Fame has given Tyler permission to be himself, but it also seems to have affected the shape of that identity, a reminder of how easy it is to stay mired in a celebrity Neverland of perpetual immaturity.

So while Wolf definitely feels like progress on some fronts, it’s also a resolutely conservative effort, marred by a neurotic sense of self-involvement that recalls Eminem at his worst (compare the fan screed of “Colossus” here to the latter’s “Stan”). Slim Shady’s career arc could serve as a pertinent warning for Tyler: Both are similarly rancorous, narrow-focus MCs who are clearly uncomfortable with the demands of pop stardom, tendencies that pushed Eminem into a bitter spiral of increasing irrelevance. Tyler isn’t there yet, but to prove himself a vital force he needs to move beyond certain issues, or at least turn his fondness for adolescent emotions and classic hip-hop tropes into something more focused and digestible.

Label: Columbia Release Date: April 2, 2012 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.

4

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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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Review: Sleater-Kinney’s The Center Won’t Hold Represents a Band in Flux

The album’s pop and synth elements mark a radical departure for the seminal rock band.

3

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The Center Won't Hold
Photo: Nikko LaMere

By the height of their popularity in the mid-aughts, culminating with 2005’s The Woods, Sleater-Kinney had morphed from a scrappy punk band into a rock behemoth capable of spinning out sprawling, almost proggy opuses. Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker built complex, blistering guitar parts that intertwined, bounced around, and frequently exploded into full-on Guitar Hero-style pyrotechnics. And all the while, drummer Janet Weiss laid down beats that were equal parts chest-crushingly powerful and playfully inventive.

The pleasure of listening to Sleater-Kinney has always come from hearing these three stellar musicians, each with their own distinct styles, mesh into a cohesive whole. There’s never a wasted beat, chord, or lyric in a Sleater-Kinney song. The Center Won’t Hold, however, represents a radical departure for the seminal rock band. Under the influence of producer Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent), Sleater-Kinney’s ninth studio album incorporates both poppier elements and dark, new-wave-indebted synths into their signature sound, a “new direction” that prompted Weiss to announce that she’ll be exiting the group.

The result of this broadening of their sound varies throughout. The title track is the biggest departure on the album—and also its weakest. For the first two-thirds of the song, Brownstein yelps menacingly over a beat that sounds like it’s played on found items in a junkyard. “I need something pretty/To help me ease my pain/And I need something ugly/To put me in my place,” she growls. The track doesn’t take any kind of shape until it’s almost over, when Weiss’s drums come thrashing in. Tucker howls the song’s title repeatedly, but coming from a band that’s always been unabashedly progressive, the sentiment lacks teeth.

Other tracks are more musically sophisticated, even if they lack the power of the band’s best work. “Restless” is a swooning, midtempo rumination on middle age and relationships in which Brownstein wrestles with the difficulty of asking someone to accept the very things that you don’t like about yourself. “Can I Go On” is a straight-up pop song, or at least as close to one as Sleater-Kinney is likely to whip up. It’s warm and funny, with a big earworm of a chorus, but the lyrical rhymes range from basic (“tired”/“wired”) to groan-inducing (“happy”/“napping”). Elsewhere, Brownstein implores the listener to “call the doctor, dig me out of this mess” over the skittering electronic beat and staccato synths of “Love.”

The album’s highlights are a pair of Tucker-led songs that achieve the best blend of the band’s newfound synth influences and their more punk bona fides. “Reach Out” is built around a synth figure in the verses before building to a guitar-shredding climax, with a shipwreck serving as a metaphor for bodily autonomy. The lyrics are more sophisticated than those of the album’s title track, displaying the type of political acumen that Sleater-Kinney has always been known for. “Never have I felt so goddamn lost,” Tucker belts on “The Future Is Here.” She and Brownstein could just as easily be talking about their band as the larger world when harmonize about how “the future’s here, and we can’t go back.”

The Center Won’t Hold clocks in at just over a 30 minutes and lacks a certain spark—a song with the barn-burning intensity of “Entertain” or the heartrending emotion of “One More Hour.” In many places, these songs feel derivative in a way that the band’s music never has before. The guitar tone throughout “Restless” is more like Real Estate than Brownstein and Tucker’s signature sound, while “Bad Dance” is mostly notable for how much the title nods to a much-maligned Prince song. Which makes the moments when the band locks in and delivers the adrenaline-pumping thrills that have been their trademark feel all the more effective.

Label: Mom + Pop Release Date: August 16, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The Hold Steady’s Thrashing Thru the Passion Is a Satisfying Head-Scratcher

While the album may lack instant anthems, it’s still a highly consistent and satisfying rock album.

3.5

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The Hold Steady
Photo: D James Goodwin/Big Hassle

The Hold Steady was hailed by Rolling Stone as “America’s greatest bar band” over a decade ago, but only in the last few years have its members begun to treat the outfit like an actual bar band—an outlet for a few booze-fueled weekend hangouts a year between old friends—rather than the prolific touring and recording workhorse it used to be. They haven’t mounted a full-length tour since 2014, and since 2012, frontman Craig Finn has released four solo albums to the Hold Steady’s one. The arrival of the band’s seventh album, Thrashing Thru the Passion, is thus both long overdue and a bit of head-scratcher. As it collects five new songs alongside five of the nine singles the band has intermittently released since 2017, the album has more of the feel of a well-curated B-sides collection.

While it may lack the exhilarating anthems of previous Hold Steady efforts, Thrashing Thru the Passion is still a highly consistent and satisfying rock album. Finn’s garrulous wordplay, honed through the complex character sketches of his recent solo work, is as sharp as ever, while the return of keyboardist Franz Nicolay for the first time since 2008’s Stay Positive throws into relief how much his contributions have been missed in the interim. Though Nicolay shies away from the arch E Street Band-style breaks he favored during his first stint with the band, from 2005 to 2010, his piano and organ on the woozy ballad “Blackout Sam” and the soulful, swaying-in-the-pews outro to “T-Shirt Tux” access intimate musical textures that haven’t been heard from the Hold Steady in years.

Despite the band’s growing ranks, Thrashing Thru the Passion is their least grandiose album since their 2004 debut. During the peak of their popularity in the mid-2000s, the Hold Steady was nothing if not ostentatious, with heavily guitar-forward mixes, Nicolay’s showy piano and Vaudevillian fashion sense, and Finn’s manic stage presence. Here they no longer sound like they’re playing to the arena rafters, in terms of both sonics and songwriting. This allows room for the energetic yet melodic warmth of “Epaulets” and “Star 18,” two concise tracks that might have been left off of previous albums in favor of more bombastic offerings.

Still, it’s hard not to miss the massive guitar riffs of the Hold Steady’s heyday. One might have expected the 2010 addition of guitarist Steve Selvidge to bolster the band’s already huge guitar focus and result in more of the Thin Lizzy-style dueling leads that founding guitarist Tad Kubler had been overdubbing in the studio. Instead, virtually the opposite has occurred. Kubler and Selvidge are too similar stylistically to create any real back and forth, but it’s not like they attempt much high-octane riffage anyway, instead employing mostly jangly arpeggios and chordal pounding (the basic, grinding power chords on “Entitlement Crew” might be the laziest guitar part in the Hold Steady’s catalog). The only proper guitar solo on Thrashing Thru the Passion, on “The Stove & the Toaster,” is thin and trebly, pushed back in the mix behind Finn’s vocals and the brass section that appears throughout the album. Only on “T-Shirt Tux” do Kubler and Selvidge wrap their fingers around the kind of big, thick riff that might have wound up on a Hold Steady album from the 2000s.

Even if the band’s guitar work isn’t what it used to be, Finn’s storytelling prowess certainly is, and along with his usual barrage of smartest-guy-at-the-dive-bar one-liners, an appropriate shift in his perspective as a lyricist is evident. If any of these songs were written with Holly, Charlemagne, the Cityscape Skins, or any his other old characters in mind, it’s clear that the glory days are far behind them. One gets the feeling that the subjects of these songs are closer to Finn’s age—47—than the kids he used to sing about. They can all get together again for a weekend of boozing and reminiscing (“Entitlement Crew”), but eventually living in the past can just get sad (on “Blackout Sam,” Finn warns of “Local legends with the far away eyes”). The drugs and parties don’t seem so romantic anymore; now everything’s just seedy and tense, like in the deals-gone-wrong tales “You Did Good Kid” and “The Stove & the Toaster.”

In short, the album’s lyrics feature exactly the kind of logical thematic progression one could have only hoped for from Finn 15 years after the Hold Steady debuted and he started turning stories about pimps and drugged-out bartenders into religious allegory. Like Charlemagne, Finn is still caught up in some complicated things—and after a period of uncertainty, it’s a joy that the rest of the band remains willing to go along for the ride with him.

Label: Frenchkiss Release Date: August 16, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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