Setting Sons

setting_sons

Album: Setting Sons

Artist: The Jam

Released: November 16th, 1979

Highlights: Thick as Thieves, Wasteland, Burning Sky, The Eton Riffles

Like many other great bands, The Jam nailed the process of making a record right out of the gate, as their debut, “In the City”, is deservingly held in very high regard. However, it can be argued that the trio’s work in that first effort falls onto a bit of an odd middle-ground: it is by all means a fantastic and classic start, but one would not be criticized for saying the group had yet to find a voice at that point. The reason for that, of course, has to do with the timing of its release and the nature of its content: coming out in 1977, at the height of the punk fever and one month following The Clash’s debut, the album’s focus on punchy power-chord riffs and its touches of political thought meant that Paul Weller’s gang was too close to their peers for comfort. And because of that, although “In the City” certainly speaks volumes about the singer and guitarist’s knack for songwriting through its hooks, the record still runs the risk of being seen as a product that emulated the music of its time to a larger-than-desirable degree.

By the release of “Setting Sons”, however, the notion that The Jam could not break away from the crowd had been blown to pieces: not thanks their second album, “This Is the Modern World”, which had actually worked towards giving even more voice to their critics; but due to their third effort, “All Mod Cons”. In it, Weller emerged like a punk version of The Kinks’ Ray Davies; that is, someone who is able to make resounding points – in his case, political – via a nigh literary look at British characters and situations. To boot, he and his band had risen to the occasion and delivered a more nuanced musical package, because, sure, there was still plenty of punk rock in there: a better term does not exist to describe the iconic riff of “A Bomb in Wardour Street”. But, at the end of the day, the album opened itself to the influence of new wave and power pop, hinting at the future adventurous spirit that The Jam would display.

As the follow-up to that album, “Setting Sons” expands on that growth: if “All Mod Cons” was flexible, this forth chapter threatens to be eclectic. It is not a radical departure from the past: it does not flirt with post-punk and experimentation in the same way that its successor, “Sound Affects”, would do; and it certainly does not jump into funk and soul like The Jam’s farewell, “The Gift”. As such, when it is all said and done, punk prevails, guitars get the spotlight, and Weller is still rather angry at a number of different targets. But “Setting Sons” showcases a firmer grasp on the ideas that began being explored in “All Mod Cons”, to the point it is possible to say that if the band did indeed find their voice in their third record, in this one they polished it into its finest version.

Simply put, everything in “Setting Sons” shows a greater degree of maturity and inspiration. Paul Weller comes off as a man on a major songwriting streak: there is not a tune in the bunch that goes by without a hook that emits an iconic vibe; therefore, to unaware listeners, this is one of those albums where it is hard to tell what was a hit and what was not. Moreover, in lyrical matters, new topics have emerged while old ones have been enhanced. In the group of fresh subjects, “Thick as Thieves” and “Burning Sky” are tales about lost childhood friendships, but where the former paints the situation in a sad romantic light, the latter goes for a colder approach. Meanwhile, in the set of recurring ideas, there is “Smithers-Jones”, penned by bassist Bruce Foxton, which is an achievement in recreating the dullness of corporate life with beautiful music; and “The Eton Riffles”, which is likely The Jam’s most famous political statement: a brutal criticism of the British class system that looks at the privilege and nasty behavior of those who can afford to go to the country’s best schools.

That is not all, though, because the musical aspect of “Setting Sons” is also incredibly noteworthy. The instrumentation, arrangements, and production are much richer than before, and it is precisely through them that the album manages to surpass “All Mod Cons” in sheer flexibility. At times, the lushness is so considerable that listeners would be excused for thinking they are going through a British guitar pop album from the 1960s, written by forgotten contemporaries of The Who, The Kinks, and The Beatles. This is the type of sound The Jam was aiming for here, and although trying to stand beside those giants is no easy task, the band pulls it off – after all, they were in the process of becoming legends themselves. And the benefit of that strategy is astounding because no other punk band was going down that particular road, as those dinosaurs of the past were usually seen by the movement – at least publically – as figures to be avoided. As such, what The Jam cooks here is mostly original.

Yes, there are songs in “Setting Sons” that could have been present in “All Mod Cons” or even “In the City” without feeling like abrupt deviations: opener “Girl on the Phone” is an incredibly catchy slice of punk that flirts with light romantic pop; and “Saturday’s Kids” has pounding riffs, dirty guitars, and an ironic sing-along chorus. But everywhere else, the music is more dynamic. “Thick as Thieves” and “Wasteland” are the definition of anthemic: songs without choruses that keep building in sadness and melodic beauty to a cathartic release. “Private Hell” may concern personal matters, but it sounds like punk apocalypse. “Little Boy Soldiers” manages to be operatic in how it packs different movements in a little more than three minutes. “Burning Sky” is more straightforward, but it uses the looseness of the letter format of its lyrics to equally include numerous melodic shifts that form a punk epic. “Smithers-Jones” is an orchestrated piece of baroque pop that inevitably recalls “Eleanor Rigby”. And “The Eton Riffles” has The Jam employing the album’s instrumental fullness to assemble their heaviest song ever: an angry all-out guitar assault that also happens to be incredibly catchy.

“Setting Sons” is not perfect. Originally conceived as a concept album about a group of three friends who meet again as adults after a non-specified war, the record was not able to deliver on that promise due to a rushed recording schedule. As a consequence, only fragments of that idea survive, in tunes like “Thick as Thieves”, “Burning Sky”, and “Little Boy Soldiers”. But truth be told, that problem does not actually hurt the album, as it will go by unnoticed to those who are not aware of that background. What harms it are little irregularities that, in some cases, are a result of how it had to be put together more quickly than anticipated: “Girl on the Phone” is fantastic and “Saturday’s Kids” is decent, but they do not gel well with the other tracks; “Little Boy Soldiers” is a clever idea that does not quite stick the landing; and the inclusion of the fun cover of the soul classic “Heatwave” to close the record is, like the appearance of “Girl on the Phone” and “Saturday’s Kids”, a clear attempt to fill up space.

Yet, “Setting Sons” remains a wonderful achievement that marks a unique encounter between punk rock, new wave, and British guitar pop. And although the race for the title of The Jam’s best album is a hard one due to the consistency of the band’s short discography, their fourth release emerges as a worthy candidate: Paul Weller never wrote such an incredible batch of songs and the group never sounded as sure of their voice as they did here, especially because the trio would go on to disband without having enough time to fully polish the musical direction in which they would go after this album. Because of those qualities, “Setting Sons” should be an essential part of any punk rock, new wave, and guitar pop discography: it exists at the edge of those three sub-genres, and it masters them with class. There are not many other records that can make that claim.

five

Cruel Country

cruel_country

Album: Cruel Country

Artist: Wilco

Released: May 27th, 2022

Highlights: I Am My Mother, Bird Without a Tail / Base of My Skull, Tired of Taking It Out on You, Hearts Hard to Find, A Lifetime to Find

Although they arguably reached their artistic peak while operating within the indie and alternative scenes, the country rock label was always attached to Wilco. It made sense. For starters, the band’s frontman, Jeff Tweedy, initially emerged as one of the leaders of alternative country group Uncle Tupelo; therefore, a lot of Wilco’s early work – particularly their first two albums – exhibited traits of the genre, as if their key songwriter was progressively working his way through shedding the skin he had accumulated in the beginning of his career. Meanwhile, down the line, as Wilco grew slightly freakier and notably more experimental, the country qualification remained even if not much of the style could still be clearly identified in the band’s sound; this persistence might be harder to explain, but it can be attributed to numerous reasons: the popularity of Wilco’s early material, the fact none of their alternative generational peers came as close to the acoustic tonality of the genre, and the generally downcast demeanor Tweedy often showed during the group’s indie incarnation.

Yet, even though country was always there in some form or intensity, the bottom line is that Wilco never truly embraced the genre, at least not through the course of an entire album. Their first two records carried way too many radio-friendly electric anthems to qualify, and the works that followed may have had plenty of contemplative acoustic music, but they usually received a rather weird treatment before being committed to tape. That reality, however, changed with “Cruel Country”, because in their twelfth release, the members of Wilco – as stated by none other than Jeff Tweedy – throw themselves into country music without much reservation.

Based on the length of “Cruel Country”, one has to assume that either the band was very enthusiastic about that perspective or Tweedy happened to have a lot of unreleased country songs stashed away in his closet, because the album clocks in at nearly eighty minutes and contains twenty-one tracks. From the start, it is reasonable to see those numbers as problems; after all, rock history has shown repeatedly that long records are only able not to sink under their own weight if they check one of two boxes: variation or message. “London Calling” and “Exile on Main St.”, for instance, thrive because of the former; “Quadrophenia” succeeds due to the latter; and “The Suburbs” showcases both traits. “Cruel Country”, though, does not have these qualities.

In style, the songs merge into one another, since most of them are short acoustic tracks with delicate electric or piano ornaments; and over this instrumentation, Tweedy steadily sings in the sullen whispery mood he has uniformly adopted during the last decade or so. In message, meanwhile, “Cruel Country” does not really have a powerful overarching theme. Before the album’s release, Tweedy spoke of how the record was an examination of the beauty and ugliness that the United States was capable of producing; and country does indeed come off as the appropriate genre for that confrontation because while there is a lot of beauty in it, the style also has an intimate relation to regions of the country where ugly political ideas have the most traction. This interesting contrast, though, does not materialize lyrically to a very notable degree, because even if it is alluded to in the title track as well in a few others, the truth is the tunes that make up “Cruel Country” are mostly concerned with general sadness and relationship trouble.

The combination of these absences could spell disaster for the album, but surprisingly it does not. Surely, there will be listeners who will come away from “Cruel Country” thinking its songs are too similar and that the monotony of its mood mixed with its length turn the work into a nice substitute for sleeping pills. It might not be the fairest assessment, especially since “Cruel Country” is one of those albums that need to be given plenty of time for the music to sink in and the hooks to start emerging from the thick persistent fog; however, it is a reasoning that can be understood: perhaps a little more variety could have helped, maybe a stronger editing process could have made the record’s qualities be more evident, and there is a chance Tweedy could have elevated a few of these tunes by trying not to sound hopeless through an entire track. Nevertheless, the fact remains that “Cruel Country” might be the most enjoyable Wilco album in a long while.

Just like Big Thief had done it in February with their equally countrified and long “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You”, Wilco prove that sometimes lengthy albums can throw variation and message out the window to succeed via sheer songwriting power. Although they may take time to emerge, mostly because Tweedy does not wrap his voice around them too strongly, the melodies are notable throughout the record, regardless of whether they come to the forefront in choruses of sweeping sadness or in quiet verses whose nice little variations can pass by unnoticed. When it comes to lyrics, even if Tweedy is moving through places and themes that are very recurring to him and his audience, the words tend to not only land well, but also show that indie gloom goes rather nicely with a country tinge.

Moreover, despite not being stylistically varied, “Cruel Country” does a good job stretching its muscles in the tight realm it operates. Cuts with a full-band setup contrast with songs carried solely by Tweedy’s voice and his acoustic strumming. The slide guitar goes from evoking contemplative sadness in some tunes to ushering a borderline happy country fair flavor in others. And Wilco does not miss the chance to throw some of their alternative flair into these mostly rural proceedings. Although these odd turns are overall not very frequent, there are a couple of songs with extended instrumental codas, there are a few tunes that have unexpected variations in structure in spite of their brief nature, and there are tracks where traditional country instrumentation takes a back seat to Wilco’s more sparse ambiance, with drums, punctual guitars, keyboards, and other effects filling up the space.

“Cruel Country” may fail to reach the target Tweedy set for it, because not much in its constitution materializes as a trip through the beauty and ugliness of the rural United States. However, as a journey into country music by a band that had long been associated with the genre while never fully dabbling in it, the album is a success. Obviously, as an indication the group could have dug a little deeper, the material would have benefited from a thematic approach a bit more distant from the Wilco standard or from a higher degree of variation in mood. But it is safe to say most who spend a good amount of time with “Cruel Country” will be happy the band finally embraced their country roots in a nigh unadulterated state. And there is a good chance those fans will appreciate the fact that instead of a normally sized package of forty minutes, Wilco has delivered a whopping eighty minutes of good music.

five

Dropout Boogie

dropout_boogie

Album: Dropout Boogie

Artist: The Black Keys

Released: May 13th, 2022

Highlights: Wild Child, It Ain’t Over, Burn the Damn Thing Down

Regardless of what the future might hold for them, it is already safe to say The Black Keys have built a very unique career arch. Starting as a duo that rode the wave of the garage rock revival of the early 2000s while borrowing much of their musicality from blues, the band inevitably drew comparisons to The White Stripes; and since Jack and Meg had been around for longer, naysayers were quick to label Dan and Patrick as mere imitators. The truth, though, was – as it usually is – much more nuanced, and a good look at the facts ought to reveal The Black Keys were far from being copycats due to the simple fact they brought something new to the table. Because where Jack liked to pervert the blues via his weird pop sensibilities as well as primitive pounding, Dan and Patrick were more faithful to the genre, daring to build contemporary songs on top of licks, bars, and chord progressions born by the Mississippi.

Eventually, though, the recipe started to change, perhaps on account of how the band’s fourth album, the solid “Magic Potion”, showed signs that it was time to move on. And like any group with a good deal of artistic talent, The Black Keys started stepping away from their origins; a change that slowly occurred over the course of another four albums and that saw a progressively greater amount of pop, soul, and psychedelia being thrown into their sound. Blues aficionados that originally saw The Black Keys as the last of a long-lost breed may not have liked the metamorphosis, but it cannot be denied that the whole process brought positive results to the duo: they got more popular, penned a few hits, probably grew richer, and – most importantly – put together two excellent albums in “Brothers” and “El Camino”.

It is at that point where their career arch becomes unique, because while most groups would keep on going down new roads, The Black Keys – maybe influenced by the lukewarm response received by 2014’s “Turn Blue” – decided to go back to the past and rekindle their relationship with blues. Released in 2019, “Let’s Rock” was responsible for signaling that return. Arriving two years later, “Delta Kream” loudly proved the pair was very serious about this musical trek to the past due to how it was an album of blues covers. The year of 2022, meanwhile, sees the continuation of that trend with “Dropout Boogie”, which – to those that were for some reason still doubtful after two records – further confirms this is no brief detour or a quick fling with an old passion: it is for real.

Now, as flashy as it might be to say that The Black Keys are doing blues rock again, it is important to note such analysis is superficial. There sure was a lot of the genre in “Let’s Rock”, and for “Delta Kream” that goes without saying; but, particularly when it comes to the first one, when reading a statement like that it is easy to think the band is suddenly writing the new “The Big Come Up” or another “Rubber Factory”. That is not the case at all, because as not-so-silently stated by the cover of “Let’s Rock”, its music might be drenched in blues, but its main influence lies elsewhere; to be more specific, in T. Rex and its classic “Electric Warrior”. And the link exists in how both records are built on mid-tempo bars and rhythmic guitar bits that are blues staples, while covering it all in a scratchy distortion, in a hazy vibe that sometimes feels psychedelic, and in pop songwriting.

Describing “Let’s Rock” is essential when talking about “Dropout Boogie” because both are rather similar; one could randomly rearrange their songs to make two different albums and critics would not complain about lack of cohesion in any of the releases. On one hand, that is not a good sign because it screams of stagnation and because the only time when it is acceptable for a band to write two equal albums in a row is when they are honing their craft, which is a moment that is long gone for veterans like The Black Keys. On the other, “Dropout Boogie” manages to make that similarity more acceptable thanks to how it presents enough new elements to create some separation, as it seems to use “Let’s Rock” as a base rather than an artifact that must be copied.

Most of that distinction stems from how “Dropout Boogie” seems to go for a kind of middle ground between the version of The Black Keys that created “Let’s Rock” and the one that produced the more colorful quartet that includes “Brothers” and “El Camino”. Given the band’s career arch, it feels like with “Let’s Rock” as well as “Delta Kream” they were testing how far into blues they could go while maintaining the audience that they had gained with their massive more eclectic hits, whereas here in “Dropout Boogie” they are dialing back a bit and throwing those folks a bone by smoothing the edges, softening the roughness, and essentially looking for some balance. As a consequence, the record delivers blues rock that has a lot of touches from the soul, the pop, and the psychedelia that dominated the band’s second phase.

These traits are very present. They are in the more subdued guitar riff and in the female voices heard during the chorus of “Wild Child”. They are in the dancing groove that dominates “It Ain’t Over”, which becomes even more apparent due to the electronic buzz of borderline disco nature that accompanies the tune’s main hook. They are in the soul bridge of “For the Love of Money”. They are in the high backing vocals that appear in the chorus of “Your Team Is Looking Good” and many other songs. And they are omnipresent in both “How Long”, which is a lazy psychedelic ballad, as well as “Baby I’m Coming Home”, which culminates in a longing pop melody. Therefore, even if “Dropout Boogie” does carry a few tunes that stick more firmly to basic blues, like “For the Love of Money” and “Didn’t I Love You”, these stylistic inflections end up defining the work.

Sadly, though, the overall package does not amount to much for a few reasons. Firstly, this middle ground over which the band opted to build the album comes off as awfully safe, with the mixture it contains failing to capture most of the good characteristics The Black Keys had in the two distinct moments of their career. Secondly, maybe due to how it softens the rough edges of “Let’s Rock”, the record simply lacks the energetic punch required to make its blues rock framework truly click; in other words, “Dropout Boogie” reaches the ears like a work that was done by a great band in auto-pilot mode. Lastly, the songwriting simply is not there, and although there are a few notable good moments, many tunes qualify as pleasant but bland. Because of those issues, “Dropout Boogie” is the weakest blues-based album The Black Keys have ever put out; and if the quality of “Magic Potion” and “Turn Blue” signaled it was time for the band to end those respective eras, perhaps “Dropout Boogie” is an indication that the group should wrap up this return to the past and move on to more productive grounds.

five

Moondance

moondance

Album: Moondance

Artist: Van Morrison

Released: January 27th, 1970

Highlights: And It Stoned Me, Caravan, Into the Mystic, Brand New Day

In the case of most versatile songwriters, it takes a little while for them to show the different styles they can produce with their pen, which makes the whole process of change feel like natural artistic evolution rather than inherent eclecticism. Bob Dylan did not go from folk troubadour to electric beatnik poet in a day; Nick Cave’s transition from hellish gospel to heavenly balladry took more than half a decade; and Tom Waits spent quite a few years as the drunkard who plays sad songs for lonely souls at the local piano bar before becoming the circus leader of a haunted carnival of freaks, degenerates, and outcasts. In Van Morrison’s case, however, that versatility came more quickly, as each one of his first three works reveals a slightly distinct facet of his craft.

His awkwardly titled debut, “Blowing Your Mind!”, still carried the smell of blues and rock, especially in the long-winded highlight of “T.B. Sheets”; and these elements were undoubtedly linked to the fact Van had just left behind his Belfast band, Them. The follow-up, “Astral Weeks”, was folk rock that stretched its muscles via free-flowing jazz influences, as most of the songs crossed the five-minute threshold by engaging in organic emotional and philosophical journeys that made Van look like a man who decided to tape his search for musical catharsis or spiritual revelation. “Moondance”, meanwhile, abandons the pretensions that elevated its predecessor to the masterpiece status to show that the man from Northern Ireland could pull off radio-friendly soft rock.

Whether calculated or not, the move was understandable. “Blowing Your Mind!” had achieved success via the single “Brown Eyed Girl”, but it had hardly left a mark as a complete work. Meanwhile, “Astral Weeks”, as mighty and revered as it may be, looked like commercial suicide by an artist that was far from being established, since the meandering character of its tunes – be them long or brief – meant they were about the trip instead of the destination; as such, they did not produce any hook that was significant or immediate enough to make the album catch the ears of the general public. In that sense, it is easy to look at “Moondance” as some sort of compromise; a time when Van gave in to external forces because he felt this was a pivotal moment in his career: either he could commercially deliver in his promise as an artist or he would likely not get any other opportunities.

Yet, it is not all that simple. In a sense, “Moondance” could be compared to what Joni Mitchell would pull off four years later in “Court and Spark”. After all, both albums display very artistic and idiosyncratic songwriters that had previously challenged musical conventions presenting a work that, superficially, could feel excessively conformist. As usual, though, the devil is in the details, and like it would happen in “Court and Spark”, the greatness of “Moondance” is evident to anyone listening to it, but the elements that make it stand out in the midst of a flood of radio-friendly soft rock released during the 1970s – which is a fad that it partially helped create – are so sneaky that some who come into contact with the record might not even notice it to the point they are able to articulate it in words.

For starters, however, it is important to address the obvious: “Moondance” is beloved because it is an astonishing collection of great songs. If it were not so quaint, it could be one of those classic albums in rock history that could deceive listeners into thinking they bought a collection of greatest hits. Through the record’s thirty-eight minutes and ten tracks, Van Morrison simply does not miss, delivering a sequence of great choruses, an abundance of marvelous hooks, and a trove of emotionally meaningful moments that are catapulted to the sky thanks to beautiful arrangements as well as great performances by both Van and his band. The album’s soft nature means it never engages listeners too directly, but pretty much all of its tracks quietly envelop one’s brain until they begin to unconsciously sing along to the endless amount of verses that seem to have been built for that very purpose.

But the ultimate secret of “Moondance” is that, in a way, it does not completely abandon the spirit of “Astral Weeks”. In lyrics, Van once again emerges as a man who likes to write about moments of delight; those little simple events, often missed by most, that are capable of elevating the human soul to some sort of higher ground. And again, he finds these gateways to transcendence in nature (“And It Stoned Me”), music (“Caravan”), and love (“Into the Mystic”). He seems to be out in a search for borderline miraculous occurrences, and the songs lyrically and musically somehow capture this particular state of mind. Unlike it happened in “Astral Weeks”, Van will not take listeners on a seven-minute emotional journey about the beautiful girl he used to see walking down Cyprus Avenue as a teen. Instead, “Moondance” feels like an abbreviated version of that quest, either because it has learned a shorter path to delight or because it opted to focus on the transcendence that follows the long meditation.

What matters is that this approach brings a great degree of spontaneity to these concise tracks, and its success in “Moondance” makes it unsurprising this unchained impulse would become a concept that is intimately tied to Morrison as an artist. This freedom is everywhere here, albeit in a more restrained mode than in “Astral Weeks”. In the title song, where the record embraces jazz, there is a prevalent feeling of improvisation, especially in the walking bass line and in the woodwinds. In “Caravan”, the start-and-stop chorus seems to show Van testing his band, because the hook that signals the movement is used irregularly through the track to great effect. The transition between verse and chorus in “Into the Mystic” is so seamless it comes off like an organic transformation done on the spot. “Come Running” is the kind of joyful free-flowing southern shuffle that could have been executed by The Allman Brothers Band. “These Dreams of You” is loose and very well-played acoustic blues. “Brand New Day” has Van trading lines with his female backing singers in its cathartic chorus. “Everyone” has a hook so simple it appears to be ad-libbed. And the lalalalas of “Glad Tidings”, which also show up in “Caravan”, have got to be a spontaneous product of sheer happiness.

Immersed in this feel-good environment, “Moondance” absolutely grooves, because – as it has often been the case in his career – Van Morrison anchors his folk softness in the rhythm of the black music he admired, especially R&B, jazz, and soul. Therefore, both the album’s light and more energetic moments gain very tasteful power. Horns bring an extra dose of spiritual elevation to the chorus of the acoustic ballad “It Stoned Me”, the soul backing singers add beauty to the fragile whispered infatuation of “Crazy Love” as well as to the nigh gospel revelation of “Brand New Day”, and the thick rhythm section causes the title track, “Come Running”, and “These Dreams of You” to swing. Surrounded by these sounds, captured by its infinite hooks, and stunned by its marvelous songwriting, “Moondance” becomes impossible to resist. And perhaps that was Van Morrison’s plan all along, because by condensing the soul-searching without abandoning his identity, the invitation of “Astral Weeks” turns almost into an intimation for us to see life through his eyes. Consequently, “Moondance” is nothing short of revelatory.

five

We

we

Album: We

Artist: Arcade Fire

Released: May 6th, 2022

Highlights: Age of Anxiety I, The Lightning I, The Lightning II, We

A certain level of concern in regards to the dangers of modernity has been present in the work of Arcade Fire from day one. In their classic debut, “Funeral”, one of the key tracks – “Rebellion (Lies)” – talked about the hardships of living in a world drowning in mass-produced manipulation. In the follow-up, “Neon Bible”, television was given a dark hypnotic nature in “Black Mirror” and was employed by cynical televangelist in their power-seeking obsession. In “The Suburbs”, contemporary urbanization – with its malls and gated communities – destroyed organic neighborhoods and eroded the joys of youth by creating a generation of children who had their freedom severely limited. In “Reflektor”, among the many themes approached by the band, there was the irony of how, in a society that is more linked than ever, the finding of true connections and the showing of genuine empathy has become so rare. At last, in “Everything Now”, there was a deep dive into the matter of social media, with the songs mostly looking at the effects these networks have in the human brain, including depression, anxiety, insecurity, and attention deficit.

Given “We”, the band’s sixth record, kicks off the proceedings with a two-part track called “Age of Anxiety”, it is very easy to feel Arcade Fire has run out of new topics to sing about and that the group is merely repeating itself at this point. After all, as the song’s title implies, its verses go on to touch on matters that had already been vastly explored by lyricist Win Butler, especially in “Reflektor” and “Everything Now”, as the band’s creative leader talks about rather contemporary mental troubles: brainlessly consuming content just for the sake of it, feeling inferior due to the perfect personal image most people expose on social media, being suffocated by an onslaught of worrying news, and trying to find solace in pills that only make it all worse.

Instead of dwelling on those issues here, though, Arcade Fire uses them as the starting point for a distinct narrative; one that unfolds through ten tracks and, as it is the norm for the band, turns “We” into a conceptually cohesive whole. After emotionally succumbing to the woes of his era, the main character watches as the world itself crumbles, with the album gaining contours of apocalyptic science-fiction when the only way out of the sinking ship that is plant Earth involves an interstellar trip in the search for a new beginning. The ultimate realization of “We”, however, is a bittersweet one, as Win seems to point out that wherever it is that humans might go, our nature and problems will follow, and as he envisions a future where these situations will play out over and over again (perhaps in continuously different shapes), he concludes the best he can do is prepare future generations, his child in particular, to better deal with the inevitable turbulence and be there for them while he can.

Thematic value, though, is far from being the main concern when it comes to “We”, because in that regard – despite a few recent lyrical missteps – Arcade Fire has repeatedly proven they can deliver the goods. The big question mark hovering over the album in the eyes of those who have followed the band is actually centered on the music; to be more blunt, the focus is on whether the group can still produce a work that matches what they did on their first three albums or if the mixed reaction to “Reflektor” and the flood of negativity surrounding “Everything Now” mean that one of the greatest and most influential indie bands is irrevocably creatively finished. The verdict ends up falling somewhere in-between those poles: “We” might not be enough of a resounding success to sweep doubts away for good, but it is certainly a better album than its two predecessors.

If there is one particular aspect in which “We” loses to “Reflektor” and “Everything Now”, that would be musical reinvention. In those two albums, Arcade Fire expanded their craft to incorporate elements of synthpop, electronica, as well as Haitian music (in the case of “Reflektor”) and disco (in the case of “Everything Now”). Perhaps as a conscious reaction to the backlash, in “We” the band abandons that sort of experimentation to fall back on the safety of their early sound. As such, even though it is possible to glimpse remnants of their past stylistic detours, with electronic instrumentation punctually emerging in a few songs, “We” is by all means a return to Arcade Fire’s iconic brand of indie: folk at heart but grand in how it incorporates emotional outbursts and baroque pop orchestration into the formula. Because of that nature, it can be easy to label the album as a retread; and, to an extent, it certainly is. But at the same time, “We” is far from just being a redux version of “Funeral”, “Neon Bible”, and “The Suburbs”.

It is true that the two parts of “The Lightning”, which are the greatest moments of the record, could be put into any of those three albums without coming off as jarring, as the song builds to a bombastic two-minute rushing and pumping coda that is a burst of adrenaline matching that of “Keep the Car Running” from “Neon Bible”. The same logic applies to “Unconditional I”, whose earthly folk base and grandeur carries echoes of heartland rock. But, everywhere else, “We” appears as a far more intimate and electronic album than the band’s classic trio. The pair of tunes that make up the “Age of Anxiety” suite do reach explosive climaxes, but before that they are piano-and-voice ballads underlined by electronic beats. “End of the Empire” eventually uses keyboards and orchestration to swell into grandeur, but most of its four parts – which amount to nearly nine minutes – are spent floating in space via a soothing bed created by those same instruments. Sung by Régine and featuring backing vocals by Peter Gabriel, “Unconditional II” is a synthpop gem cut from the same cloth as “Sprawl II”, from The Suburbs, with bright keyboards adding sugar to what is essentially a very contemplative and wishful tune. Finally, the title track is a quiet closer sitting on nothing but an acoustic guitar and Win’s voice.

Like it happens with the theme, the music makes up for a pretty stylistically consistent listening experience; moreover, clocking in at forty minutes, “We” is a lean record that avoids the pitfalls of length that doomed “Reflektor” and caused “The Suburbs” to be perceived by some as excessively long. The problem with this brief nature, however, is that paired with the long multi-phased nature of the songs, it gives birth to an album with just a few tracks – eight, to be more precise. And when that is the case, any musical misstep ends up representing a considerable chunk of the work. Sadly, in “We” this issue is particularly evident due to how its two longest tunes are also the weakest ones by a solid margin. The almost seven minutes of “Age of Anxiety II” simply do not click: the call-and-response between Win and Régine, which was clearly intended as a hook, is closer to annoying than to engaging; additionally, its dancing electronic coda, which is basically half the song, is not a very interesting climax. Meanwhile, the four parts of “End of the Empire”, which essentially constitute one nine-minute track, are not dynamic enough to justify their length, lack a good melody, and are ultimately undone by Win’s poor lyrics, which evidently falter here despite being very good through most of the record.

As a musical middle ground between their three stellar early albums and their two usually maligned follow-ups, “We” may smell of compromise and retread, but a closer analysis ought to reveal a work that is relatively strong. Its sci-fi thematic aspirations are nicely realized in a concise fashion and are a very respectable nod to the Yevgeny Zamyatin book of the same name. Simultaneously, its music has a solid mixture of classic bursts from Arcade Fire’s past, which are the album’s best moments, with new good musical findings that are a direct result of the more balanced approach between indie and electronica. Consequently, even if it may not convert the non-believers or fail to rescue fans that moved on after its two predecessors, “We” is likely to be warmly embraced by many as proof that Arcade Fire still has something to say.

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Fear Of The Dawn

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Album: Fear of the Dawn

Artist: Jack White

Released: April 8th, 2022

Highlights: Taking Me Back, Hi-De-Ho, Esophobia, That Was Then This Is Now

Be it as the creative leader of The White Stripes or in the first two records of his solo career, Jack White displayed clear reverence for the traditional genres that gave birth to rock, with blues usually coming off as his greatest source of inspiration. It is true that, in a stylistic sense, what Jack did alongside Meg was rather different from the work he put out on his own: with her, he banged out garage tunes that echoed the utmost simplicity of blues; whilst alone, his tone was more subdued, polished, and sometimes intimate. Nevertheless, in both cases, his music, though sprinkled with quirky flights, remained anchored on tradition and it is safe to say most of his fanbase would be thoroughly satisfied if Jack opted to build a lengthy career out of those flavors. But then 2018 came around and his third solo effort, “Boarding House Reach”, was unleashed upon the world, proving that Jack White is a pretty restless individual.

Obviously, one could already have made that deduction by looking at his numerous side-projects or reading between the lines of the last two The White Stripes albums, but “Boarding House Reach” made that reality more blatant than ever because it burst through the boundaries of the genres Jack tended to explore. In essence, it was a rock record, but that label only truly stuck occasionally, because Jack seemed far more concerned with stretching himself towards avant-garde territory via electronic layers, strange production touches, and a songwriting approach that skewed his usual tendency towards pop hooks. In a way, it seemed that sensing rock music was no longer mainstream, Jack concluded that the time was ripe for it to be pushed to odd places; after all, since only the aficionados are still tuning in, one might as well take them for a wilder ride.

Because of the drastic artistic break that “Boarding House Reach” represented, “Fear of the Dawn” arrives alongside some degree of doubt, as one naturally wonders if that album was just a brief strange detour or if White is entirely committed to cementing himself as the king of rock and roll weirdness. As it turns out, the answer lies somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, because even though “Fear of the Dawn” shows no interest in reuniting the singer-songwriter with what used to be his style of composition, it does bring the music back to a firmer garage-rock format. In other words, the songs in “Fear of the Dawn” are still positively weird and initially unwelcoming, but most – if not all – of them could be executed in their entirety by a band armed with nothing but guitars, bass, drums, and a microphone; something that did not apply to “Boarding House Reach”.

This partial reconnection with musical past is made evident by how numerous of the tunes here could conceivably be done by The White Stripes themselves. While all of Jack’s previous solo works had at least one or two tracks with such a characteristic, in “Fear of the Dawn” this feature applies to nearly the entire album, as the majority of the tracks expose a very simple recipe: pounding riffs, guitars that are played at distortion levels that bring them within an inch of utter destruction, performances that are utterly savage in their rawness, and unexpected instrumental left turns where Jack goes atomic as he allows himself to be overcome by primal instincts only channeled by those who are very much into what they are doing.

One could point out that such list of ingredients is not too different from what The White Stripes brought to the table, which could make “Fear of the Dawn” a retread, and that argument is absolutely correct. However, a couple of components contribute to making the album radically distinct from what came before it, and the first is songwriting. With his former beloved band, Jack – whether intentionally or not – wrote for the masses, letting loose plenty of pop hooks that made the duo’s inherent wildness and oddity more universally palatable. In “Fear of the Dawn”, as it was the case in “Boarding House Reach”, Jack is writing for the converted (or perhaps for himself), which makes the record a work that is not concerned with delivering melodic sugar, focusing instead on the freewheeling energy that exists within the utter abandon of garage rock. Here, Jack is not trying to charm anyone into listening; contrarily, he is actually daring his audience to keep watching as he goes completely ballistic.

The second element, and possibly the most important one, that adds character to “Fear of the Dawn” is the sheer breadth of the sounds Jack is able to extract out of his guitar. In fact, it is this particular facet that is responsible for building a stylistic link between “Fear of the Dawn” and its predecessor. It feels like even if he loved all strange noises contained in “Boarding House Reach”, Jack was somewhat miffed he reached for them without using his signature instrument; consequently, this time around he enacts revenge upon the world by causing the guitar to emit a variety of textures that the average musician would extract out keyboards, synthesizers, or other electronic devices. Because of that, it would be no exaggeration to claim “Fear of the Dawn” finds a way to break into new territory for the guitar right in the middle of an era where there are rumors the once world-dominating instrument is done for good.

Given there is a prevalence of garage rock tunes that bring The White Stripes to mind, it goes without saying that the weird sounds of Jack’s guitar are mostly used in that context, creating – therefore – nastier and experimental takes on that music, which wisely employ that artistic freedom to boast rarely witnessed song structures and a good amount of instrumental freak-outs. However, in another detail that ties it to “Boarding House Reach”, “Fear of the Dawn” displays some eclecticism, opening the way for moments when the guitar is deployed to create hip-hop grooves, little flourishes that recall electronic beats, and other touches that sometimes are used in standalone songs but that occasionally also add unique flavor to cuts grounded on garage rock.

Because of its frantic experimental soul and the shunning of traditional hooks, “Fear of the Dawn” can get a bit lost on its carefree spirit, and during moments like those a few tracks can land on the ears like they are heavy, loud, and weird just for the sake of being so, exhibiting therefore a lack of purpose. Nevertheless, the thrill of listening to it will remain intact through most of the way to those who have love for noisy guitar-playing. And besides being the heaviest album Jack has ever put out, be it alone or as part of a band, it is also – up to its release – the most genuinely interesting record of his solo adventure, as it balances his newly found wish to take rock music to new grounds with what he does best as an instrumentalist: extracting a tuneful and refreshing racket out of electric guitars.

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Unlimited Love

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Album: Unlimited Love

Artist: Red Hot Chili Peppers

Released: April 1st, 2022

Highlights: Black Summer, Not the One, It’s Only Natural, White Braids & Pillow Chair

For such a long-running band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have always displayed a very good level of stability in their lineup. Vocalist Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea have been in for the ride from the very start. Meanwhile, drummer Chad Smith may have missed the group’s first three records, but he has since then become as essential to the band as the other two veterans. It is in the position of guitarist that it all gets shakier, because – as of 2022 – the Californian quartet has gone through a whopping eight guitar players, with five of them holding on to the spot for long enough to be there during the recording of albums. Despite such a slew of options, when asking any Red Hot Chili Peppers fan to say who is the definitive owner of that position, the answer is bound to be the same; even if some may utter appreciation for Hillel Slovak, one of the band’s founders and a young talent who was lost to heroin in 1988, the name of John Frusciante will get most, if not all, mentions.

Such dominance is, of course, not accidental. It was with John as their guitar player that the band began to mature in “Mother’s Milk”; it was in his presence that they recorded their breakthrough and most critically acclaimed album, “Blood Sugar Sex Magik”; and it was thanks to his fantastic creative input that the Red Hot Chili Peppers produced – in the run of “Californication”, “By the Way”, and “Stadium Arcadium” – a string of high-quality commercial successes that made them one of the biggest rock acts in the world. After leaving the group and staying away for a whole decade, during which the Red Hot Chili Peppers released two records and toured extensively with newcomer Josh Klinghoffer, “Unlimited Love” marks the return of Frusciante to the lineup; and given his history with the band, it goes without saying that their 2022 work arrived with high expectations attached to it.

Reportedly, during the sessions for “Unlimited Love”, a total of about fifty songs were recorded, in spite of how Frusciante himself had expressed self-doubt regarding his ability to compose straight rock tunes following ten years experimenting away from the genre. It is a number that could be credited to an outpouring of creativity stemming from the reunion of artistic soulmates, but the fact is that – at least with Frusciante – the quantity is not so absurd and could actually be considered par for the course to the band: the sessions for “Californication” as well as “By the Way” produced similar numbers, and those of “Stadium Arcadium” yielded an album with twenty-eight songs. Maintaining those traditions, “Unlimited Love” is a mammoth of seventeen tracks and seventy-three minutes.

Again, it is an extensive collection whose length could come off as exaggerated to most groups but that, for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, is standard operating procedure. The difference is that, this time around, the final product blatantly suffers because of that. Sure, some may argue “Californication” and “By the Way” were also excessively long; and an even larger portion of fans and listeners likely remember the two hours of “Stadium Arcadium” as bloated. But during “Unlimited Love” that problem is more apparent and undeniable than ever, which leads one’s mind to wander in search of explanations for why that is the case. And, as it turns out, those are pretty easy to find.

For starters, “Unlimited Love” simply lacks the variety of colors and flavors present in “Californication” and “By the Way”. Mostly, it consists of mid-tempo funky grooves of a very relaxing nature, with Flea showcasing outstanding creativity in outside-the-box basslines while Chad anchors the rhythm with class and Frusciante settles on guitar scratches. With a few exceptions, like in the great lead single of “Black Summer”, there is little of the psychedelic flourishes, layered instrumentation, and seeping choruses of the band’s turn-of-the-century pair of “Californication” and “By the Way”, as they go for – instead – the stripped-down garage setting that dominated “Stadium Arcadium”. It had the potential of being a successful recipe, as “Unlimited Love” could have emerged like a leaner version of that generally good 2006 release. But the album fails to get there due to its second prominent issue: a notable lack of remarkable inspiration.

“Stadium Arcadium” was certainly long, but it had numerous particularly notable centerpieces that drove the album to the stratosphere and kept its audience engaged. “Unlimited Love”, contrarily, lacks these revelatory points. Be it in the funky cuts that dominate it or in the pieces of calm balladry that punctuate it, listeners will know what to expect and they will get it every single time. Anthony will either rap or intimately sing during the verses only to kick into catchy bursts when the choruses come around, showing he still has the voice and the melodic knack to deliver moments that have the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ signature all over them. This is not inherently bad, as there is value in nailing a formula repeatedly. The problem with “Unlimited Love” is that most of these instances feel manufactured or mundane, because the inspiration to generate awe with some regularity does not seem to be there and the overall basic production makes the issue even clearer since it rarely works towards elevating the songs from their original raw state.

Aligned with the dominating quiet tone of the album, the absence of this spark contributes to the final problem that plagues “Unlimited Love”: the lyrics Kiedis has come up with. Gibberish has always been his style, but when that nonsense is accompanied by inspired melodies, frequent and great psychedelic touches, or frantic rhythm, the wackiness becomes more digestible and perhaps even evocative. When they are backed up by subdued instrumentation, though, they take a central position that makes their weaknesses more apparent. Aggravating matters is the fact that the quality of the gibberish has simply diminished; in other words, there is an abundance of downright embarrassing phrases, which are sometimes bad enough to take the power away from tunes that would otherwise be great, like “These Are the Ways”, in which a fiercely rocking chorus loses might due to what is sung in it. And this lyrical problem is so apparent that even Anthony indirectly admitted to it, saying the words in “Unlimited Love” did not go through any sort of quality control because he had trouble creating lyrics to all tunes the band produced during the sessions.

“Unlimited Love” is not a disaster. “Black Summer” is an immediate classic. “The Great Apes”, “Bastards of Light”, “White Braids & Pillow Chair”, and a few others feature creative guitar work by Frusciante. “The Heavy Wing” is a successful rocker. Closer “Tangelo”, the sole acoustic track of the package, is simple yet moving. At last, despite being predictable, most of the album’s ballads (with “Not the One” and “It’s Only Natural” being the highlights of the bunch) are perfectly fine because Anthony’s gibberish does not rear its head so much when it comes to love songs. Yet, as the return of John Frusciante, the overall result is very disappointing and the album could have been improved in several ways: its lyrics could have been polished, its size could have been cut, or – among the nearly fifty tunes created during its sessions – the band could have selected a more varied tracklist. After all, given what they have created alongside John in the past, it is hard to believe their reunion yielded so much bland midtempo funk and so little of everything else.

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Icky Thump

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Album: Icky Thump

Artist: The White Stripes

Released: June 19th, 2007

Highlights: Icky Thump, You Don’t Know What Love Is, 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues, Rag and Bone

Although creativity is often associated with absolute freedom of expression and the power to explore a boundless artistic expanse, there are times when establishing apparently suffocating constraints on the whole creative process can lead artists to impressive breakthroughs, as they are forced to work with a limited set of tools. For example, take the case of Jack and Meg, of The White Stripes. Setting out from Detroit in 1997, the pair wanted to play blues rock as a way to pay homage to the black musicians deeply admired by guitarist and vocalist Jack White. Although the style was far from being in vogue during that decade, the proposition by itself was not exactly original as by that point rock history had registered plenty of instances when white suburban kids from the United States or from across the Atlantic modernized blues so effectively that they made a fortune out of the venture. Jack and Meg, however, had a slightly different plan, as they opted to tackle that style with nothing but a guitar and drums.

To say that the approach worked would be an understatement: that limited setup made the duo birth a type of blues rock that was punk in its raw delivery, visceral in its no-frills presentation, and accessible thanks to Jack’s ability to write snappy pop melodies to go along with the raucous noise. Moreover, with the recording of four excellent albums in which the band progressively matured that sound whilst sticking to the same radical constraints, they were able to become critical darlings and a considerable commercial force. And it was not until their fifth record, “Get Behind Me Satan”, when Jack and Meg gave themselves the chance to move out of their guitar-and-drums configuration to go for a type of music that while still rooted in traditional American sounds and exhibiting garage ethos, allowed itself to get a bit weirder and stylistically varied.

“Icky Thump”, which closes The White Stripes’ discography and follows the unexpected sounds of “Get Behind Me Satan”, can – especially in the wake of its predecessor – be considered a return to the group’s roots after a short one-album detour. Where “Get Behind Me Satan” had a bunch of piano-centered tracks, not to mention the somewhat sinister marimba-led trip of “The Nurse” as well as the mandolin-based ditty of “Little Ghost”, “Icky Thump” mostly rids itself of stylistic oddities and posits that Jack and Meg still had something of value to extract out of a guitar and a drum-kit. Given the strictness of the setup and the fact that by that point they had already created nearly four hours of good music using it, one would not be considered crazy for betting against the band’s success in that endeavor. “Icky Thump”, though, beats the odds and shows The White Stripes could still break into new ground with their rudimentary approach.

Although labeling “Icky Thump” as a back-to-basics work is not incorrect, the version of The White Stripes seen here is not the same one that had appeared on the 2003 masterpiece “Elephant”. If that were the case, the “Get Behind Me Satan” journey would not have taught Jack and Meg anything worthy; worse yet, because of that, “Icky Thump” would have merely come off as a step back, something that is not very interesting from an artistic standpoint. Thankfully, none of those statements are true, and the reason “Icky Thump” is a meaningful trip to a not-so-distant past, rather than a dull retread, is exactly due to how, here, The White Stripes emerge once more like a garage blues rock duo, but – this time around – they are a band that is not afraid to add some layers and complexity to their primeval racket.

Examples that reveal such characteristic abound throughout “Icky Thump”, but three of its first four songs send that message with a particular clarity. The opening title track is based on a threatening pounding and culminates on an iconic riff that works as a wordless chorus; it is a formula that is not too distant from the one used on the classic “Seven Nation Army”, but the tune has various unpredictable instrumental breaks, including one where Jack improvises on a keyboard, that lend the song a quirky epic structure that suits the strange tale it tells. Clocking in at an unprecedented, for the group, five minutes and a half, “300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues” is equally filled with brief instrumental breaks, but most of its uniqueness comes from the fact it pulls a new trick in The White Stripes’ catalog, featuring bluesy acoustic verses that are interrupted by guitar freak-outs that make it seem the band is in the middle of the titular storm. Finally, the much briefer “Conquest”, which cleverly compares romantic pursuit to bullfighting, materializes its theme in music by bringing in a Spanish-flavored horn section.

If stripped to their essence, none of these compositions would have felt out of place in a record like “White Blood Cells”, as they display dirty straightforward playing laced with quirky jabs. As such, what fans get out of “Icky Thump” still has a blatant The White Stripes signature all over it. However, the elements that ornate these tracks and their wilder structures could have only been made by the group that went through “Get Behind Me Satan”, as here the duo often disrespects their unwritten guitar-and-drums rule and threatens to sound like an actual full band. And this attitude is nearly omnipresent in “Icky Thump”. It appears in the keyboards that soften “You Don’t Know What Love Is” to the point it becomes the track in the entirety of the band’s discography that comes the closest to being a bona fide – and excellently written – pop rock song. It can be seen in the mandolins and pipes that deliver a Scottish folk flavor to “Prickly Thorn, but Sweetly Worn”. And it is vivid in the pair of “I’m Slowly Turning into You” and “A Martyr for My Love for You”, respectively a bitter attack and a ballad, which have their drama accentuated via keyboards.

Of course, being a The White Stripes’ work, “Icky Thump” inevitably embraces the band’s traditions and boasts a light-hearted (and absolutely brilliant) acoustic closer, “Effect and Cause”, as well as a handful of tunes where Jack and Meg – in full attack mode – are left alone with their signature instruments; and out of that bunch, a couple of career highlights emerge in the utterly menacing “Little Cream Soda” and in the theatrical “Rag and Bone”, where the duo exchanges words in the role of junk dealers who try to convince listeners to give them their stuff while rocking proud and loudly. However, even in those more orthodox instances, the band still sounds fuller – albeit thankfully not overproduced to dullness – and the tunes come off as more full-fledged than usual.

“Icky Thump” may not be a peak for The White Stripes, as differently from the band’s trio of best records, the album has a few minor issues: “Prickly Thorn, but Sweetly Worn” and “I’m Slowly Turning into You”, which are instrumentally solid, can verge on annoying due to how Jack sings them on an uncomfortable high pitch; “St. Andrew (This Battle Is in the Air)” is an experiment that could have been cut; at last, the rocking “Bone Broke” and “Catch Hell Blues” are good but lack a defining trait. Yet, it is truly hard to find a band that waved goodbye to the world as stylishly as The White Stripes did in “Icky Thump”; and more impressive than that is how the record goes back to basics while proving the pair still had plenty to say within that limited style, showing that the guitar-and-drums constraint the pair imposed on themselves early on worked greatly to their benefit until the very end.

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The Boy Named If

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Album: The Boy Named If

Artist: Elvis Costello and The Imposters

Released: January 14th, 2022

Highlights: Farewell OK, The Difference, Paint the Red Rose Blue, Magnificent Hurt

It is a fact of life that most artists go through a very defined creative cycle as their careers go along. Early on, sometimes immediately and sometimes following a few works that display growing pains, they come off as musical revelations that can do no wrong, as the combination of a fresh artistic vision and the sharp pen of youth paves the way towards greatness. After that successful stretch, which to some lasts only one record and to others might be extended for quite a while, a degree of dullness begins to set it, be it because the songwriting chops start to fade or because said artist fails to successfully evolve past the musical style that initially brought them so many laurels. At that point, a fork on the road appears; one that, some may argue, separates the great from the good, the average, and even the bad. For while in some cases the degradation of creative output is irreversible, with the path ahead only presenting diminishing returns, others are able to take a higher ground that will lead to some late-career achievements.

Given he is neither Nick Cave nor Tom Waits, two of the few who have somehow escaped this narrative of ups-and-downs to stay exclusively on the road of creative success, Elvis Costello has followed this route. His initial run of glory came to a halt with the nadir of his career, 1984’s “Goodbye Cruel World”, and ever since then Costello has failed to reach the highs of that first run. In Elvis’ case, though, the narrative comes with a caveat, because despite the fact his discography since the 1980s holds no equals to classics such as 1978’s “This Year’s Model” and 1980’s “Get Happy!!”, the once angry and nerdy British punk has at least managed to keep the journey interesting and dignified thanks to a pen that still has some bite as well as a wish to experiment and build collaborations inside a myriad of musical genres, such as classical, R&B, baroque pop, and even hip hop.

As strange as it may sound, Costello’s remarkable consistency in the decades following his peak years is somehow detrimental to the perception of how good “The Boy Named If”, his 32nd album, actually is. The reason is quite simple: when an artist has been consistently good, but never exceptionally bright, for so long, it is pretty easy to take their presence and their achievements for granted. As such, any claims that point to the latest release by Elvis Costello as a work of some quality do not leave much of an impact in the ears of those who are still keeping track of the man’s career; after all, he has been so steady for such a lengthy period of time that the fact he has put out a good work is not news: it is almost a given. On the heels of such regularity, the only shocking news that could come out of Costello’s camp is if he happened to fall on his face and put out a record as bad as “Goodbye Cruel World” or as dull as “North”.

To correctly put “The Boy Named If” in perspective, rather than singing praises to its quality, a better strategy – therefore – is going ahead and relying on the old cliche of claiming this is the best record the artist has put out since a stellar and preferably very old album of choice. In the case of “The Boy Named If”, it might be the best release by Costello since 1982’s “Imperial Bedroom”. Of course, every listener’s mileage varies, especially when it comes to a songwriter with such a large, varied, and consistent discography as Elvis; consequently, there are those who might prefer his soulful collaboration with legendary Allen Toussaint, “The River in Reverse”; the frantic and wordy country of “King of America”; the rocking rebirth of “When I Was Cruel”; or the catchy material of “All This Useless Beauty”. However, quite likely, longtime Costello fans will hold “The Boy Named If” in very high regard.

Opener and third single “Farewell, OK” might lead one to think “The Boy Named If” is successful because after roaming through quieter realms of pop music, Costello has opted to pull out his guitar to rock like he did in the late 1970s. Considering the tune’s vicious riff, furious pace, and nearly shouted vocals, that is an easy assumption to make; one that is further confirmed by other noisier cuts on the album, like “Mistook Me for a Friend” and “Magnificent Hurt”, a duo where a mighty beat constructed around bass and drums as well as keyboards who sound fiercely cutting bring back memories of the “This Year’s Model” era. However, as a whole, the Costello seen in “The Boy Named If” is not the angry punk of his early days, but the pop chameleon that would emerge from 1979’s “Armed Forces” onward.

Considering Costello’s stunning eclecticism, it would be a bit unfair to say “The Boy Named If” is an excellent display of his multiple facets; after all, thirteen tracks and fifty-one minutes is far from being enough to encompass every genre he has toyed with during his career. Yet, “The Boy Named If” almost qualifies as a friendly abbreviated summary. There are sophisticated, percussive, and playful exercises that tread the line between pop and rock (“Penelope Halfpenny” and “The Death of Magic Thinking”); there are impressive and immediately likable electric ballads (“The Difference” and “My Most Beautiful Mistake”) as well as a gorgeous piano-based meditation (“Paint the Red Rose Blue”); there are heavy and loud guitar attacks (“The Boy Named If” and “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love?”); and even a couple of melodic detours into theatrical vaudevillian terrain (“The Man You Love to Hate” and “Trick Out the Truth”).

All in all, it is not a recipe that is new when it comes to Costello albums; in fact, his previous release, 2020’s “Hey Clockface”, already displayed a similar combination, even if it had a larger focus on mellower tunes. However, this time around the proceedings feel different due to how Elvis sounds absolutely revitalized. It is not because he rocks out more often, though that certainly helps; it is simply due to how “The Boy Named If” has neither dullness nor notable missteps. Sure, some songs are more interesting than others, and that evaluation will most likely hinge on what flavor of Elvis Costello every listener enjoys the most and the least. But overall, the record feels like peak Costello because he is clearly operating in maximum force both in melodies and lyrics. Truth be told, even through the lowest of his lows, Elvis retained the ability to come up with absolutely fantastic couplets, but in “The Boy Named If” he returns to the mojo of his peak. Melodically, meanwhile, where some of his recent works had some less-than-inspired moments, “The Boy Named If” is consistently good with remarkable and plentiful peaks.

Because of that, Costello’s 2022 release gives him the undeniable late-career peak that many of his songwriting peers had already achieved. To mention a few, “The Boy Named If” is to Elvis what the trilogy starting with “Time Out of Mind” was to Bob Dylan, what “The Rising” and “Magic” were to Bruce Springsteen, what “Old Ideas” was to Leonard Cohen, and what “Turbulent Indigo” was to Joni Mitchell: a late-career victory that more than being good is actually a return to the form of the days of glory. Since Elvis Costello never struggled creatively for as long as those other legends, it is easy to take “The Boy Named If” for granted as yet another solid work. But it only takes a few listens for one to realize this is quite a special pearl on a consistent sequence of gems.

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Hallowed Ground

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Album: Hallowed Ground

Artist: Violent Femmes

Released: May 14th, 1984

Highlights: Country Death Song, Never Tell, Jesus Walking on the Water, Hallowed Ground

It is always particularly tricky to firmly single out the point when any musical genre came to existence; after all, like it happens in any art form, rather than occurring in a very defined moment, artistic revolutions unfold little by little, with a myriad of previous rhythms and influences slowly being aggregated and transformed into something that is entirely new. Yet, when the Violent Femmes burst into the scene in 1983, carried by a self-titled debut record that would go on to become a cult classic, they did so on a musical mixture that was pretty unique; to the point it would not be wrong to claim they invented it. Led by Gordon Gano, the trio from Milwaukee landed on a genre that was labeled as folk punk, and although that is a name that might bring images of an acoustic troubadour suddenly electrifying their compositions to tackle some balls-to-the-wall rock and roll (much like Bob Dylan did in 1965, only wilder and with some Iggy Pop thrown into the mix), the whole shtick pulled off by the Violent Femmes was quite different.

Gano and his crew did not use electricity, meaning that the folk portion of the genre attributed to them came from the prominent use of a good old acoustic guitar, the instrument around which absolutely all of their tunes were built. The punk half of the equation, then, was left to be mustered by the two other main variables found in the formula of a rock band: composition and performance. Therefore, it was with the use of that pair that the Violent Femmes birthed a thirty-six-minute showcase of how a good deal of reckless abandon, youthful hormones, angry energy, and sharp concise writing could make an acoustic setup be as punk as a The Clash concert or a trip to CBGB in the mid-70s.

If every true punk rocker needs some sort of fire to be burning inside them, then anyone listening to the Violent Femmes’ debut would quickly conclude that, in Gano’s case, the origin of that flame was none other than adolescent sexual desire. While numerous are the bands that have been started and instruments that have been picked up with the goal of hitting it off with a bunch of girls, the Violent Femmes – in that very first album – seemed to be a megaphone for Gano to vent about his frustrations with the opposite sex, be it his heartbreaks, his unstoppable lust for pretty much any female he came into contact with in high school, or his failed attempts to fulfill his desires. It is material that can be horrifyingly embarrassing, sure, but it is music so simple, so irresistibly catchy, so stupidly fun, and so honest that not singing along to it is almost impossible, even if it is with some tongue-in-cheek thrown into the mix.

Imagine the shock, then, when the horny and somewhat light-hearted group from 1983 decided to, in the next year, start singing about Jesus and follow up their successful first effort with a weird and dark work that owes far more to gospel, country, and Gothic music than to folk or punk. That is what “Hallowed Ground” represents, and although the turn is rather abrupt, Gano has downplayed such transformation, claiming that the songs present here were written and ready to go at about the same time as those of the debut and that, in the end, the band had to choose whether they would begin their discography with the catchy acoustic tracks or the disturbing religion-soaked tunes. Given the difference between the two parts, it is a statement that might be hard to believe, but the truth is that the jovial Violent Femmes of the past can still be perceived in “Hallowed Ground”.

No, listeners will not catch Gano crying over a girl who ignores him here; they are far more likely to hear him refer to a bunch of biblical passages. Yet, these are songs certainly written by the same guy who penned “Violent Femmes”. The jittery melodies and quirky vocal hooks, out of which the Pixies would go on to build a career later on, are still present and they tower over the proceedings, turning these mostly gospel tunes into a strange sort of bubblegum rock. Moreover, especially when the album gets to songs that gravitate around acoustic instrumentation, the unique punk demeanor of its predecessor comes to the surface, because although here the unplugged guitar is usually accompanied by extra elements (like a marimba in “I Hear the Rain” and a whole country outfit in “Jesus Walking on the Water”), there is a recklessness to the performances that subconsciously ties “Hallowed Ground” to the debut.

In fact, stemming from that nature is another piece of the puzzle that allows the Violent Femmes to be far from unrecognizable in this second effort, and that would be how it is incredibly hard to tell if Gano is serious or not about his chosen subject. It is not just the inherent abandon of the band that leads to that question; the silly melodies, the exaggerated feelings exposed in the lyrics, and the wacky singing all contribute to that doubt. As such, if in the self-titled album all of those elements caused the Violent Femmes to come off with a veneer of parody and humor as they exposed their sexual woes, in “Hallowed Ground” it can be hard to tell if the religious undertones of the record are meant to be taken with a straight face, which creates an ambiguity that makes the weirdness all the more appealing. Truth be told, Gano himself has said he had a Christian upbringing and that the biblical nods as well as allusions to Jesus, God, and the Holy Ghost are serious. Yet, even armed with that information, a listener can be doubtful because “Hallowed Ground” is simply – and charmingly – very ambivalent.

Nonetheless, as much as it may still hold ties to the band’s past, “Hallowed Ground” undeniably breaks into new ground in multiple ways. The country-flavored acoustic epic tale of “Country Death Song” could, instrumentally, be in the debut, but both its length and its dark five-minute story – which is grounded on the tragedies often tackled by traditional folk music – would make it out of place in that record. Meanwhile, the electric quartet of “Never Tell”, “I Know It’s True but I’m Sorry to Say”, “Hallowed Ground”, and “Black Girls” is even wilder. The first is a Gothic seven-minute multi-phased tune, with a cathartic guitar solo included, that encompasses within it an overwhelming amount of darkness. The second is a gentle gospel ballad that could be sung in a church without many lyrical alterations. The third goes back to sinister Gothic terrain, albeit with a leaner structure. And the fourth, which has some questionable lyrics, is a wild guitar-and-brass jam filled with improvisational goodness.

Due to what came before it, it is awfully hard to judge who exactly “Hallowed Ground” was meant to appeal to. The hormone-filled teenagers that sang along to the Violent Femmes’ first record and probably related to the feelings exposed within it were possibly shocked that their favorite horny songwriter had suddenly decided to write about religion. Simultaneously, the crowd who enjoys gospel music is likely to seek artists that do not make it so dark and that are able to write it in a way that makes their devotion blatant rather than questionable. Yet, strange niche audiences do exist, and for those whose ears are open to the odd overlap between punk performance, folk instrumentation, country tinge, Gothic darkness, and religious imagery, “Hallowed Ground” should be a weird delight, because young Gordon Gano sure knew how to write a great hook, and in the Violent Femmes’ second effort they are as abundant as they were in the band’s debut, even if – here – they are dressed in much stranger colors.

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