The Ultra Vivid Lament

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Album: The Ultra Vivid Lament

Artist: Manic Street Preachers

Released: September 10th, 2021

Highlights: Still Snowing in Sapporo, The Secret He Had Missed, Into the Waves of Love, Afterending

Despite having both the respect of most rock aficionados, especially those from the United Kingdom, and a long solid discography that now gains its fourteenth entry, the Manic Street Preachers were never groundbreaking from a musical standpoint. Starting with their hard rocking debut, “Generation Terrorists”, the band initially allowed their inflammatory political stance and vicious lyrical themes to be the defining traits of their work, and with the unbelievable talent of James Dean Bradfield to turn his bandmates’ turbulent free-flowing words into catchy songs, the boys from Wales were quick to become an explosive sensation. Yet, even if the Manic Street Preachers were never musical revolutionaries, their lengthy career has at least allowed them to show enough talent to eventually drop their original punk-guerrilla demeanor in favor of varied aesthetics.

As such, especially as they grew older and tamer, the band branched out; and Bradfield, who is responsible for the tunes alongside drummer Sean Moore, proved that more than the leader of a passionate political band, he is a bonafide pop rock songwriter of notable skill. With that ability, the Manic Street Preachers have been able to do a bit of everything, including operating as outsiders in the Britpop scene (“Everything Must Go”); making the usual album packed with wild stylistic detours (“Know Your Enemy”); going into glossy turn-of-the-century alternative rock (“Lifeblood”); betting on mostly acoustic instrumentation (“Rewind the Film”); and producing a record centered on electronic experimentation (“Futurology”). “The Ultra Vivid Lament”, the group’s latest work, is yet another link on this chain of rhythmic variations, with the Manic Street Preachers embracing lush piano rock.

Given “The Ultra Vivid Lament” is slathered with a layer of shiny gloss, the kind of music it packs is not exactly unprecedented for the band; in fact, comparisons with “Lifeblood”, from 2004, are pretty much inevitable. And since that album is, among fans, one of the most divisive entries of the group’s catalog (with some hating it for its excessive polish and others loving it for its strong songwriting), “The Ultra Vivid Lament” is unlikely to be received very differently. Nevertheless, perhaps as a consequence of the fact Bradfield composed most of the tunes on his piano rather than by using his guitar, there is a notable gap between the two records, because this 2021 release is a considerably quieter affair than its 2004 sibling.

It is not that “The Ultra Vivid Lament” is an album of introspective piano ballads. Quite on the contrary, most tracks on the record have that energetic forward motion that has always been characteristic of the Manic Street Preachers. But with Bradfield’s guitar clearly taking a backseat to the piano and with the music exhibiting a finely produced sparkle, “The Ultra Vivid Lament” sees the band flirting with pop more strongly than ever, to the point all the glitter has led many to claim the clearest musical influence on the record is none other than ABBA; more precisely, the quartet’s expertly crafted piano pop, not their disco leanings. To an extent, giving “The Ultra Vivid Lament” such a label is dangerously reductionist since, most certainly, that attitude was prompted by the first singles, “Orwellian” and “The Secret He Had Missed”, which do get very close to the signature sonority of the Swedish icons; far more than any other tracks of the work. However, the fact this evaluation of the album is not too far off the mark is a good indication of what the Manic Street Preachers are going for here.

The new artistic course makes at least one victim: the invariably gripping guitar acrobatics of Bradfield. They are by all means here and their quality remains excellent, but save for the one in “Still Snowing in Sapporo”, the more subdued tones of these spotlight moments take away some of the energy Bradfield usually brings to the forefront. Yet, even with its tendency towards piano pop, “The Ultra Vivid Lament” is still a Manic Street Preachers album through and through. There is the initially quiet introspective cut that develops into a sweeping rocker (“Still Snowing in Sapporo”), the catchy political anthem (“Orwellian”), the radio-friendly pop rock duet (“The Secret He Had Missed”), the melancholic ballads (“Diapause” and “Afterending”), and the songs with choruses that are so easy, natural, and effective it is shocking to realize they had not been written before (“Complicated Illusions” and “Into the Waves of Love”). Aside from Bradfield’s unmistakable fingertips in melody and structure, the other component that brings the Manic Street Preachers stamp to “The Ultra Vivid Lament” is, of course, the writing of Nicky Wire.

Based on the feelings evoked by his usually poetic imagery, it is easy to conclude the bassist is tired; not because the lyrics are poor, which is not the case, but due to how he frequently alludes to a worn out state of mind. Although many of the tunes are vague when it comes to revealing the source of that fatigue, the fact “The Ultra Vivid Lament” often nods to political losses and polarization makes the album come off as the band’s reaction to the current political climate of their home and of the world as well, and that seems to be the main cause of Nicky’s tiredness. He watches facts being ignored and words being twisted (“Orwellian”), he talks about forged desires and toxic agendas (“Blank Diary Entry”), and – as an older man – he sees himself defending the middle ground and remembering the battles he has lost in the past (“Complicated Illusions”).

Some may argue that given their status as a fiery political band, which was mostly built on the early days of their career, maybe the Manic Street Preachers could have come up with a more earth-shattering response for a time of such turmoil even if they are now older and much more mature than the boys who wrote “Generation Terrorists” in 1992. But, in the end, there does seem to be a glimmer of hope. Showing there is still a little of the left-wing rebel inside him, Nicky asks those around him to keep on fighting while saying the elite, represented by the boys from Eton, will not win (“Don’t Let the Night Divide Us”), which indicates that he may be tired and worried, but that he is far from being defeated. Sure, that is far from being a grand statement and, backed by glossy piano rock, the message may end up being somewhat diluted. However, when it is all said and done, the Manic Street Preachers know they cannot change the world on their own, but they can influence the general outlook by being among the hands responsible for a far greater push; and, in that sense, “The Ultra Vivid Lament” fits the bill just right.

Musically, the album is far from spectacular. “Quest for Ancient Color”, “Don’t Let the Night Divide Us”, “Black Diary Entry”, and “Happy Bored Alone” are melodically uninspired, and in the case of the third one, the result is a huge disappointment considering it features the stellar vocal talent of Mark Lanegan. Moreover, the record’s musical proximity to “Lifeblood”, which is stronger in terms of songwriting, means it can feel like either a retread or a moment of stagnation. Nonetheless, “The Ultra Vivid Lament” has enough strong tracks to qualify – at least – as a pleasant listen, and although its turn towards piano pop has the potential to alienate some, it can equally attract a few and show the Manic Street Preachers still have a few kicks in them, even if they are softer and poppier.

five

Challengers

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Album: Challengers

Artist: The New Pornographers

Released: August 21st, 2007

Highlights: My Rights Versus Yours, All the Old Showstoppers, Myriad Harbor, Adventures in Solitude

There have been uncountable albums in the history of music whose making is strongly associated with certain mind-altering substances of varying degrees of legality and strength. “Exile on Main St.” was created by The Rolling Stones while the house in which it was recorded received constant shipments of heroin; “Be Here Now” is the sound of Oasis swimming in a pool of cocaine; “On the Beach” is part of a revered trilogy of records by Neil Young that were put together while he indulged heavily in alcohol; “The Libertines” was miraculously assembled as one of the band’s two leaders, Pete Doherty, struggled with crack addiction; acid was involved in the construction of dozens of psychedelic works, including The Beatles’ “Revolver”; The Velvet Underground’s “White Light / White Heat” walks hand in hand with amphetamine; and although marijuana had certainly been a part of Bob Marley’s diet for quite a while before 1978, perhaps no album of his is as intimately tied to the leaf as “Kaya”.

When they debuted in 2000 with the release of “Mass Romantic”, though, The New Pornographers broke into new territory as far as substance abuse goes by making a record that was fueled by obscene amounts of coffee. Truth be told, there are neither oral nor written reports that this was the case, but it is hard to explain the highly energetic, bombastic, hyperactive, and wordy power pop forged by the band via any other drug. Yes, there are plenty of other narcotics that would be able to produce the wild euphoria responsible for tracks like “Lettter From An Occupant”, which are bursting with a silly type of energy that would be downright embarrassing if it were not being backed by such magnificent hooks and captivating confidence. But a coffee overdose seems like the most plausible explanation for the band’s sound.

The reason for that is simply that it would be very weird to picture Carl Newman and his bandmates walking through the shady streets Lou Reed described in The Velvet Underground classic “I’m Waiting For The Man” only to be harassed by the cops, meet a suspicious drug-dealer, and eventually score some heroin. As their music proves, The New Pornographers sure enjoy some sweet and loud rock and roll, but they do not look like the kind of people who would drown in the dangerous cliches of the genre’s lifestyle. Their power pop carries such a strong undercurrent of indie and geeky mannerisms – as if they were early Elvis Costello with the anger replaced by calculated corniness – that one is more likely to find them inside a library, with members sneaking up to the espresso machine a few dozen times during the day in order to get their blood pumping for the upcoming gig.

In “Challengers”, however, it feels like either the band has abandoned their coffee addiction or someone changed the espresso formula due to budget concerns and ended up diluting the grains in too much water, because the explosiveness so blatant in its predecessors is mostly gone. In a way, it is a move that makes sense, because by 2007 The New Pornographers had already put out three albums – including the rightfully highly praised “Twin Cinema” – that exploded relentlessly from beginning to end. As such, a turn towards calmer waters is a stylistic shift that came just at the right time for the band. Yet, as it is bound to happen when groups alter their music, fans of their early work might find that the record is a bit too tame for their liking.

With that change, what The New Pornographers do is veer towards heavier folk leanings. To a point, the genre had always been a part of their sound, much thanks to how some of the band’s members – especially Neko Case and Dan Bejar – strongly dabble into folk in their careers away from The New Pornographers. But in “Challengers”, rather than sticking quietly to the background, folk comes more prominently to the surface, going as far as leading the way in most of the tracks. Because of that constitution, “Challengers” as a whole makes comparisons between The New Pornographers and their peers in indie geeky bombast, The Decemberists, not seem so absurd, with the notable difference that while the latter focus on relatively serious and meaningful storytelling, the former goes for senseless wordplay and mindless power pop fun.

The result is that, in “Challengers”, songs take a little longer to cook and arrive on the irresistible accessible hooks that are the ultimate weapon of The New Pornographers. If up until “Twin Cinema” tracks would blow out of the gate fully formed and dragging listeners for the ride, those of “Challengers” require some willingness and attention on the part of fans. “My Rights Versus Yours” starts sparse and acoustic, only hitting a defining electric chug and its central melodic line more than one minute into the proceedings; “All the Old Showstoppers” is quicker to explode, but its quieter verse reaffirms the notion that The New Pornographers are operating at a new pace here; and as the most extreme proof of that fresh approach to songwriting, the excellent “Unguided” teases so much at the arrival of a cathartic moment that the tune goes on for six minutes, which is almost a progressive rock threshold for a band that usually operates in the three-to-four-minute standard.

To boot and further drive home its folky inspirations, “Challengers” dares to occasionally turn its back on fun hooks to bet on introspective beauty instead. The title track is an almost fully acoustic number where Neko Case is left alone to sing and shine; “Failsafe” borrows the tremolo effect from The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” to coin a song that flirts with the more dancy vein of dream pop; “Adventures in Solitude” is half call and response harmonization between Case and Newman, and half orchestrated catharsis; and “The Spirit of Giving” concludes by ascending into the heavens with prayer and preaching, as if it were a classic gospel song.

Sometimes it feels the highs of “Challengers” are neither as astounding nor as frequent as those of its three predecessors and, allied with its diminished immediacy, that characteristic may cause some to look at the record as a lesser entry in a marvelous artistic run. However, as the bouncy, energetic, fun, and silly “Myriad Harbor” and “Mutiny, I Promise You” prove, “Challengers” still finds The New Pornographers at the peak of their power pop prowess. Sure, none of the tracks here are likely to make listeners feel like they have been hit by a wild high-speed train of fun; ironically, the only one of the record’s tracks that breaks this rule and rides a wave of bombast from beginning to end, “All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth”, is also the album’s weakest song. Yet, anyone that is patient enough to keep on waiting for the hooks to emerge will probably realize “Challengers” is a solid release by The New Pornographers that slightly shakes up their sound at the right moment.

five

Da Lama Ao Caos

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Album: Da Lama ao Caos

Artist: Chico Science & Nação Zumbi

Released: April 1st, 1994

Highlights: Banditismo por Uma Questão de Classe, Rios Pontes & Overdrives, Samba Makossa, Da Lama ao Caos, Computadores Fazem Arte

Located in the northeast region of Brazil, one of the country’s poorest corners, Recife is similar to many of the other metropolises found in the South American giant. While it has an elite that is able to flirt with Western European living standards, its most destitute inhabitants – which make a huge portion of its 1.5 million population – struggle in conditions that are much closer to those of many African countries. Recife, however, has its particularities, and the most important one might be its swampy river shores, known locally as mangues. As the city grew, these wetlands were often regarded as undesirable sites, with – in a turn of ignorance – some even going so far as not caring for their preservation. And this derision heavily contrasted with the nearby beachfront, which was coveted by those who could afford it.

With time, in a rather unsurprising sequence of events for a place with so much inequality, Recife split into two: its coastal neighborhoods, facing the Atlantic Ocean, became pristine marvels of tropical wealth. Meanwhile, in many cases just a couple of miles from these glistening streets, the poor were relegated to the chaos of uncontrolled urbanization, having to find a way to build precarious homes by the swampy undesirable inlets. Since life always finds a way, one man’s trash soon became another’s treasure, and Recife’s lower class quickly learned not just to survive in the wetlands, but make a living out of them, as the exchange between salty and fresh water caused the submerged vegetation of the rivers to be brimming with fish and, especially, crabs.

In normal circumstances, absolutely none of those matters would have anything to do with music. “Da Lama ao Caos” (which translates to English as “From Mud to Chaos”), the debut album of Chico Science & Nação Zumbi, completely changes that, though; and fully understanding what it contains necessarily goes through grasping the nature of Recife itself. The band comes from the muddy side of town; and looking around him, Chico Science, their leader, sees a city with clogged arteries. These blocked veins are not just streets ridden by traffic jams that resulted from unbridled urban expansion: they are the poor stuck in the inhuman conditions of the riverside slums; they are the growing inequalities; they are the violence generated by lack of opportunities; they are the old desire to destroy the mangues suddenly becoming the wish to wipe out the environment where the poor have built their precarious homes; and they are the lack of contemporary cultural activity in a place where one half spends life climbing the corporate ladders of capitalism while the other only has enough energy to try to survive.

Chico Science & Nação Zumbi attempt to cure Recife of its illnesses through the only way they can; that is, via music. And taking one step ahead, they opt to do it by igniting the spark of a totally new movement, dubbed manguebeat. Although plenty of bands around the city at the time were part of that cultural wave, “Da Lama ao Caos” is its most mainstream example, succeeding in breaking o bit ut of local frontiers to reach a nationwide stage. The record, however, ranks as a little more than that, because its elaborated ideas, when paired with the band’s social consciousness, turn it into a manifesto that is broadcast in the shape of fourteen songs, making it no surprise it starts with a speech.

To a global audience, the best way to summarize the sound Chico Science & Nação Zumbi bring to the table in “Da Lama ao Caos” would be comparing it to internationally known rock figures; and in this case, the closest one would probably be Rage Against the Machine. Chico Science, frequently using images of crabs and mud, raps much more often than he sings and even when he steps out of social matters, all one needs to do is dig a little deeper to discover there are always political undertones to what he is saying. Meanwhile, Nação Zumbi could neatly fit into the alternative metal box: when the guitars come in full force, they land with volume and weight that nod to Black Sabbath (in terms of sludgy tempos) and early Metallica (in terms of nasty tones); but when not flooring audiences with volume, their guitar and bass duo know how to drink from funk to build scratchy syncopated rhythms over which Chico Science can spill his characteristic poetry.

Comparisons to Rage Against the Machine, however, cannot account for how, rather than relying on explosive and somewhat predictable choruses, the hooks of “Da Lama ao Caos” actually emerge from Chico Science’s creative flow as well as his smart usage of similar word sounds that bounce off of each other, sometimes forming wild tongue twisters. Furthermore, tying the band to international standards would be even more criminal because Nação Zumbi ultimately sports a sound that could only have come from Recife itself. The main trick is that this early formation does not feature a standard drum set, which is replaced by a section of four percussionists, with two of them using a specific type of local drum called alfaia. Taking inspiration from the regional genre maracatu, an Afro-Brazilian rhythm of notably distinct percussion work, Nação Zumbi dumps a heavy dose of entirely genuine African heritage into the heart of rock music, and there is not a song in “Da Lama ao Caos” that does not feature absolutely stunning rhythms that are pivotal to the essence of the tracks.

As the album goes on, Chico Science, sometimes via brief memorable sentences exploding with power, summarizes a multitude of feelings that should be recognized by the children of Recife’s swamps. He understands the extreme necessities of poverty breed crime (“Banditismo por Uma Questão de Classe”); he depicts the chaotic rush of daily life and shows how the death of a poor man is treated with indifference by a town too busy to care (“Rios, Pontes & Overdrives”); he points out the quick growth of the city only amplifies inequalities (“A Cidade”); he sees culture and music as tools that can help one escape reality, celebrate their identity, and even maybe get a better life (“Samba Makossa”); he urges his peers to open their eyes and ears to their surroundings in order to become culturally and socially aware (“Antene-se”); he longs for a love to add colors to his life (“Risoflora”); and, on the album’s most acid moment, he perceives hunger as an obstacle that stops people from thinking critically, implying its existence may be the intentional consequence of political projects (“Da Lama ao Caos”).

Through its run, “Da Lama ao Caos” finds good variety in the realm it creates: the title song is a guitar-based sludgy metal crunch that drags listeners into the swamp; “Banditismo por Uma Questão de Classe” is a fiery and funky rap-rock; “Rios, Pontes & Overdrives” has a surprisingly modern danceable beat; “Samba Makossa”, as its title implies, speeds up the slower maracatu percussion to nod to the famous samba of Rio de Janeiro; and “Computadores Fazem Arte” is a cyclical, hypnotic, and highly melodic moment. Yet, with most of its highlights centered on the first half, “Da Lama ao Caos” drags a bit towards the end thanks to two merely decent instrumentals, a long closer that is a somewhat failed experiment, and a trio of tunes (“Maracatu de Tiro Certeiro”, “Antene-se”, and “Risoflora”) that though good do not live up to the rest. Still, it is hard to think the cultural revolution idealized by Chico Science and others could have had a better initial display. Twenty-seven years after it, Recife remains divided between a rich coast and riverside slums; the album’s message, however, resonates in its alleys. Hopefully, the fruits it has produced and will certainly still generate should eventually bring forth the major change both the city and the country as a whole so desperately need.

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Return Of Saturn

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Album: Return of Saturn

Artist: No Doubt

Released: April 11th, 2000

Highlights: Ex-Girlfriend, Simple Kind of Life, Bathwater, New

For a while during the first half the 90s, it seemed like No Doubt was going to be that decade’s version of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The comparison may seem absurd at first, but the parallels are actually plentiful. For starters, these were two Californian bands of mostly white youngsters who found the identity of their sound in the merging between rock and a rhythm of black origins: funk for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and ska for No Doubt. In addition, rather than approaching that mixture with seriousness, the bands thrived in employing a silly tone in their music. It is not, of course, that they lacked respect for the genres they were drinking from; much to the contrary, there was genuine admiration displayed in what they were doing. But youthful energy got the better of them and their output came off as a bit foolish.

To accentuate the comparison, in both cases the bands were able to make it out of that initial cocoon to showcase a more mature form. While the Red Hot Chili Peppers did so with their “Blood Sugar Sex Magik”, No Doubt broke through on the strength of “Tragic Kingdom”, their 1995 album. A key difference, however, was that if the former group found success with the same creative nucleus that had made four albums, the moment of revelation for No Doubt came when Eric Stefani, the brain of the band until that point, opted to get out of the picture, leaving the task of steering the ship to somebody else. And although, in a way, most of the members rose to the challenge and carried the load, it was his sister, Gwen, who stepped into the spotlight more firmly.

“Tragic Kingdom” had been a bit of an unexpected hit. A band that had, up to that point, published two commercially failed records and almost been dropped by their label as a consequence was trying to give it another go under the guidance of an inexperienced leader. However, not only did No Doubt perform the tracks as if their lives depended on it, because they did, but the band also matured and wrote with the same sense of urgency. The time to grow up, even if ever so slightly, had arrived, and the four members pulled through it, with an occasional hand or two provided by their former leader.

As the follow-up to that pivotal work, “Return of Saturn” does not really sound like it was made with blood, sweat, and tears. “Tragic Kingdom” was incredibly well written, but it was rough around the edges, showing a band on the verge of stardom; comparatively, “Return of Saturn” is much sleeker. This is by all means the creation of a band that had succeeded and, as a consequence, gained access to the recording company’s vault that paved the way to better production and greater aspirations. Sure, there was already plenty of pop to be found in “Tragic Kingdom”, as it exhibited the traditional brand of accessible, catchy, and energetic alternative rock that No Doubt would become known for. But “Return of Saturn” is a bigger pop statement. It is a work put together by people who had already made it and were thereby able to look at the process of creation like well-versed professionals.

It is a description that makes “Return of Saturn” sound like it was easy to birth, but evidence truthfully points in the opposite direction. A whopping five years actually separate the two albums: a dangerously large interval that had already killed the seemingly unstoppable momentum of other bands, like Elastica and The Stone Roses, and one in which No Doubt faced plenty of creative obstacles. As such, even if generally feeling like pop rock bliss composed by experts at the craft, “Return of Saturn” has undertones that indicate it is the product of a crisis, with the one that was being faced by Gwen Stefani being in most evidence; a natural consequence of the fact she was the leader of the group and the person responsible for writing lyrics.

The name of the album refers to the astrological phenomenon that is believed to hit those that near the age of 30, with the specified planet coming back to the point where it was on the person’s date of birth and that human having to face the responsibilities of adult life. For Stefani, who was around that age when much of the record was made, the crisis brought by Saturn seems to be one related to love and marriage. Throughout the work, almost not a tune goes by without her longing for what she sees as true love. Some songs, like “Simple Kind of Life” (an orchestrated power ballad with lo-fi treatment) or “Marry Me” (a passable loose ska jam), dive fully into that topic. Meanwhile, others deal with marginal feelings related to that subject; the stop-and-start punk of “Ex-Girlfriend”, for example, has Gwen wishing for the end of empty relationships. And a number of tunes approach matters that are part of the cauldron of emotions that boil up as one gets older: lusting for those that should be forgotten (“Bathwater”), envying youth (“Staring Problem”), and even mortality itself (“Six Feet Under”).

It is, fortunately and naturally, a far cry from the material of their first two albums. And even though the subjects are neither rebellious nor electrifying, not only are they true and well-handled, but No Doubt also does not forget the value energy has for their music. “Ex-Girlfriend”, “Six Feet Under”, and “New” flirt with the good kind of pop punk; “Artificial Sweetener” bangs in distortion aided by a keyboard that lends the track a new wave feeling; and “Bathwater” as well as “Staring Problem” recall the group’s early days by incorporating brass into the racket, even if the latter exaggerates on the silliness. “Return of Saturn”, however, is a record of ballads, and it is in them that its biggest weaknesses can be found, for although “Simple Kind of Life” more than proves the band can write a slower tune very well, that consistency is not kept throughout the tracks.

The first issue comes in the album’s sequencing itself, as the rockers are more prominently present on the first half while the ballads appear mostly on the second; given “Return of Saturn” has one hour of music, this imbalance causes it to drag towards the end. Secondly, nearly all of the slower songs follow the same pattern: jangled guitars or muffled punk riffs on calmer verses with loud emotional explosions on the choruses. It occasionally works, as it does in “Too Late”, and the melodies are generally good, but the fact the best two ballads here (“Simple Kind of Life” and “Magic’s in the Makeup”) do not use that formula is quite revealing of how a leaner or perhaps more varied approach to them would have done “Return of Saturn” some good. Due to these misses and a set of energetic tracks that show some punctual inconsistencies, “Return of Saturn” is not quite as good as its predecessor. Nevertheless, its strength cannot be denied, and No Doubt’s first record after finally breaking through is an enjoyable portrayal of how success does not make one immune to problems: be them creative or personal.

three

Homegrown

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Album: Homegrown

Artist: Neil Young

Released: June 20th, 2020

Highlights: Separate Ways, Try, Homegrown, White Line, Vacancy

As a result of the ever-shifting tireless mind of Neil Young, many have been the projects that – during his long career – have either failed to gain enough traction to get out of the ground or simply been left lying complete on the cutting floor of the editing room of his prolificness. And though a quick survey among his fans is bound to elicit a number of endeavors whose non-fulfillment have left them frustrated, when asked to choose one between those they would want to have access to the most, the biggest slice would be likely to point to “Homegrown”, an album Young put together in the middle of the 70s and that was so prepared for release that it even had received an album cover. However, right when it was about to be green-lighted into the market, Neil – as he is wont to do – changed his mind and left it behind.

The reasons why “Homegrown” has always had such a legendary status are numerous and understandable. For starters, it was produced by Young during the 70s, a decade when he chained a sequence of incredible albums that has hardly been matched. Furthermore, as the artist’s lore says, the record was scrapped in favor of the masterful “Tonight’s the Night” following a listening session when the two were played back-to-back and Neil opted for the latter because he perceived “Homegrown” as an unbearable downer; and considering “Tonight’s the Night” is itself utterly dark, such comment generated curiosity. Finally, general descriptions of the work have been published throughout the years, with Jimmy McDonough in Young’s biography, “Shakey”, talking about each track and Neil himself saying “Homegrown” was the missing link between his three country albums (“Harvest”, “Old Ways”, and “Harvest Moon”), two of which rank among his greatest successes.

As of this year, Neil Young fans can stop wondering and start listening, because nearly half a century after “Homegrown” was tackled yards away from reaching the audience, it has finally been released to the general public. And although the assessment made by Neil regarding the album’s style pointed to good old country, just like the record’s iconic cover, what comes out of “Homegrown” is a weird blend between “Harvest” and “Tonight’s the Night”. From the first, it gets the crispy acoustic value of the genre, its harmonies, and its instrumentation: case in point, besides Neil himself, the most prominent musician in the album is the always magical Ben Keith, who brings a dobro, slide guitars, and backing vocals to the table. From the second, meanwhile, it borrows the feeling of drugged despondency, as its acoustic numbers are so frail they frequently threaten to break and its electric tracks reek of the emotional abandon of “Tonight’s the Night”.

In fact, “Homegrown” at times feels disjointed. Over the years, the record’s tracklist surfaced in many forms, with songs coming in and dropping out of what was supposed to be the finalized album with such a speed that it revealed the work’s nature was foggy to all parts. The now officially released version is one that is very rough around the edges; such quality, it is worthy pointing out, has always been present in Young’s best works. But in “Homegrown” it seems to be more glaring than ever: the twelve tunes are mostly very brief; a few, like the piano-and-voice “Mexico”, feel underdeveloped; and “Florida”, a lo-fi spoken-word retelling of a hallucinatory dream or drug trip that is accompanied by the playing of wine glasses, feels like a quirky B-side.

It may sound like criticism, and at some points that spirit does detract from the album, but Neil and his crew sure know how to make the rambunctiousness work in their favor. Take, for example, the ironically titled “We Don’t Smoke It No More”: built on a traditional blues pattern that is held for five minutes, it is mostly a loose instrumental that eventually reaches a couple of verses when Neil and the group basically state they have quit drugs. The decadent smoky vibe, however, very much the same one that was prevalent in “Tonight’s the Night”, says otherwise, and with all of those involved being clearly quite stoned, a listener cannot help but both applaud the jubilant vibe the band keeps and feel some of that joy as well. Other great, though creatively superior, moments of rowdy drug-fueled rock emerge in the excellent “Vacancy”, a galloping electric tune that is reminiscent of “World on a String” from “Tonight’s the Night”; and the title song, which had already seen the light of day in 1977’s “American Stars ‘n Bars”, but that here gains a looser and more interesting version.

On its acoustic tracks, the record also features a few songs that Neil ended up putting out in albums that followed the shelving of “Homegrown”. “Love Is a Rose” is a short folk tune with a sweet simple melody and some harmonica, and it was released – in the same version that appears here – in the compilation “Decade”. Similarly, the haunting beautiful dirge of “Little Wing” had shown up in 1980’s “Hawks & Doves” and “Star of Bethlehem”, which features gorgeous harmonies by country legend Emmylou Harris, was also present in “American Stars ‘n Bars”. More notable is the case of “White Line”, published in 1990 as a vicious rocker and one of the highlights in the excellent “Ragged Glory”, it emerges in “Homegrown” in its original form: a stripped down unplugged take with Robbie Robertson accompanying Young on guitar that serves to make it even more clear that the track has one of the best melodies ever coined by a songwriter who is a master of the craft.

Speaking of impressive melodies, “Homegrown” holds three marvelous gems that only an artists of the caliber of Young would have dared not to release for over forty years. Opener “Separate Ways” recalls “Out on the Weekend” from “Harvest”: anchored on a steady basic beat, barely driven forward by crispy guitars, and haunted by the touching pedal steel of Ben Keith, it is one of those sad part folk part country tunes that took Young to stardom. “Try” has a similar construction, but although the singer still sounds absolutely defeated, the more positive lyrics, an eventual rising piano, and the backing vocals of Emmylou Harris sprinkle some color into the misery. Finally, “Kansas”, which has nothing but one guitar and voice, is utter dark misery, the one fans would expect from Young during the “On the Beach” and “Tonight’s the Night” era.

It goes without saying, but “Homegrown” ends up not living up to the expectations that surrounded it. After all, there are not many records out there that could have delivered material to match a legendary status that was built for almost half a century. And, in fact, if put side by side with much of Neil Young’s output during the 70s, it would be closer to the bottom of the list than to the top. Some of its impact is certainly lost due to how a slice of its tracks had already been heard either as they appear here or in a slightly different format. Moreover, its little flaws are hard to deny. Yet, likewise, the same can be said for its greatness: it is simply inescapable. The decision to release “Tonight’s the Night” in its place might have indeed been the correct one, as that album is clearly much better. But denying the world of the beauty, misery, wildness, and excellence of “Homegrown” for so long was a mistake: one that Neil, as the artist and originator of these tracks, had the all the right to make, but one that has thankfully been corrected.

Frances The Mute

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Album: Frances the Mute

Artist: The Mars Volta

Released: March 1st, 2005

Highlights: Cygnus….Vismund Cygnus, The Widow, Cassandra Gemini

The nature of “De-Loused in the Comatorium”, the debut album by The Mars Volta, comes as a rather nice surprise when the context that surrounded rock music at the turn of the century is taken into account. While the bands that were supposedly revitalizing the genre and presenting it to a new audience sourced much of their inspiration from a back-to-basics approach, like The Strokes and The White Stripes, to name a few, the 2003 record constructed by the Texan sextet was anything but simple. Its long multi-phased tunes, conceptual grandeur, and jazz looseness – in fact – made the work land on one of the rhythm’s most inherently complex variations: progressive rock. And true to the style’s forward-looking name and boundary-pushing heart, the band repackaged it originally with a layer of Latin influences that were true to their heritage as well as a shell of volume, speed, and modern sound manipulation techniques that were extracted from various musical movements that unfolded after the genre’s peak in the 1970s.

In spite of its idiosyncrasies, and perhaps partially due to them, “De-Loused in the Comatorium” was a commercial and critical hit. And so, for its sequel, “Frances the Mute”, the band opted to keep the course to see what else they could pull off within the same scope. Consequently, much like the debut, “Frances the Mute” gravitates around a concept; one that, once again, revolves around the group’s deceased sound technician, Jeremy Ward. While carrying out repossession orders, he allegedly found, in the backseat of a car, a diary containing the memories of an adopted man’s search for his real parents. Noticing he had a lot in common with the guy, Jeremy kept the diary, and the material in it would eventually inspire his bandmates’ development of the thematic chain that keeps the tracks of “Frances the Mute” together.

People mentioned in the book had their names used for the characters that appear in the plot as well as for the songs’ titles themselves. And as the album rolls on, the protagonist – Vismund – gets ever closer to the truth, with each person that shows up revealing extra bits of information. Cohesiveness aside, it is worthy to point out that “Frances the Mute” suffers from the same problem that held back “De-Loused in the Comatorium”; that is, its lyrics are so cryptic that it is unlikely listeners would figure out what the record is talking about if its creators had not revealed it. Truth be told, this sophomore effort is, to a degree, clearer than the prior release, as one can pin down references to a disturbing tale that involves Vismund’s mother, a rape, one or more priests, a murder, a child deformed whether as a result of the violence of its birth or as an outcome of the natural biological roulette, and an attempt by the woman’s sister and mother to speak out against the crime.

The stream of dumbfounding verses is not as extreme as the one seen in “De-Loused in the Comatorium”, which housed linguistic oddities such as “Transient jet lag / Ecto mimed bison / This is the haunt of roulette dares / Ruse of metacarpi”. Therefore, the feeling that the writing is trying so hard to be smart that the only target it is hitting is that of silliness is not so constant. Yet, in spite of clear evolution, lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala still struggles to make words sound good side by side, as seen in “My nails peel back / When the taxidermist ruined / Goose stepped the freckling impatience”. His tendency to opt for flowery vocabulary has two negative consequences: firstly, it invariably implodes the fluidity of the lines, which is a quality one would expect to gain from employing odd words; secondly, it punctually makes the verses so indecipherable that their meaning becomes lost and the plot’s impact is diminished.

The joy of listening to The Mars Volta, however, mostly stems from the band’s daring and inventive instrumentation. On that front, a few complaints can be made, since “Frances the Mute” features some electronic interludes that do not build interesting ideas and, in comparison to “De-Loused in the Comatorium”, the record does not create spectacular melodic moments with the same consistency. Nevertheless, most of what its five tracks and seventy-six minutes offer is satisfying. As opener “Cygnus….Vismund Cygnus” evidences, the group is still heavily toying with dynamics. Starting with a quiet acoustic intro of guitar and voice, it does not take more than one minute for the band to explode out of the gate with ferocity, as the rhythm section of Jon Theodore and Juan Alderete de la Peña lock onto an impossibly fast groove adorned by the hyperactive guitar of Omar Rodríguez-López and the high-pitched voice of Cedric. As the tune evolves, though, the band stops for a calm and seemingly improvised instrumental break, rises back up to an orchestra-backed apex, reaches a coda where the song implodes, and finally makes the piece evaporate into a mass of electronic beeps.

Out of the other four cuts, two follow a similar pattern of loudness and quietness. “L’Via L’Viaquez”, narrating the protagonist’s encounter with his aunt, plays with the band’s mixture of American and Hispanic heritage, possibly ranking as the most obvious example in the group’s discography of that blend. Its fierce hard rock verses are sung in Spanish; contrarily, its choruses, which turn down the volume to fall into the sway of Caribbean percussion and piano, are written in English. Meanwhile, closer “Cassandra Gemini” is – in all of its thirty-two-minute glory – a giant among other stars of progressive rock. Carrying the record’s best chorus, whose lyrics nicely encapsulate the journey of Vismund, it feels massive, and as it goes through its multiple phases, it makes good use of an orchestra, a brass section, electronic elements, and – of course – a whole lot of fast hard rock madness to barely let listeners breathe.

Differing from these tracks, the pair of “The Widow” and “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore” show other, more accessible, facets of The Mars Volta. Rightfully chosen as the first single, the former is – surprisingly – sheer pop rock goodness: clocking in at three minutes, when its dull electronic outro is discounted, it is a ballad with acoustic picking in its verses, a beautiful melodic explosion in its chorus, and a blistering guitar solo. In turn, the latter, is slow mass of echoing guitars, noises, and horns that seems to be floating in outer space, threatening to come back to the ground in its dramatic brass-infused chorus, and building to a climatic final part.

Even with its reduced, but not totally eliminated, lyrical problems, “Frances the Mute” winds up not being as enjoyable as “De-Loused in the Comatorium”. From a musical perspective, it is not as significant of a revelation as that record, regardless of its stronger Latin roots and its duo of calmer tracks. Furthermore, though great, its heavier, fast-paced, and more expansive tunes – which are, in the end, the heart and soul of the band – for the most part do not exhibit the major hooks boasted by nearly all the songs from its predecessor. Still, the album remains as further proof that, in the peak of their powers, The Mars Volta were an excellent progressive rock act; one that, to a degree, showed the trappings of the genre, but that – at the same time – was good enough to give a generation without many contemporary examples of the style their own musically adventurous idols to admire.

On Avery Island

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Album: On Avery Island

Artist: Neutral Milk Hotel

Released: March 26th, 1996

Highlights: Song Against Sex, Where You’ll Find Me Now, Naomi, April 8th

There is nothing incredibly romantic about the Avery Island that lends its name to the first album by Neutral Milk Hotel. In the real world, it is nothing but a salt dome covered by swampy land and surrounded by the bayous of Louisiana. However, the combination of the record’s cover, depicting a distorted yet colorful carnival, and the music contained within it, constructed by Jeff Mangum and given flight by the arrangements and production of Robert Schneider, materializes the image of a whimsical but odd location. In it, as if unable to grow up when confronted with the sheer brutality of the world, the playful innocence of childhood has – instead – been corrupted and driven wild, retreating to a somewhat safe realm that it has created for its own sake.

It goes without saying that many are the elements of “On Avery Island” that contribute towards forming that image; a work of art that is this consistently themed cannot, after all, be built on a single trick. But most of the credit for that achievement has got to be attributed to the talent of Jeff Magnum. The singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and – by the time the album was recorded – only official member of Neutral Milk Hotel approaches serious topics, such as suicide and the heartbreaks generated via what he perceives as meaningless sex, by using words and sentences that exhibit a degree of naivete, as if he were unable to comprehend those subjects thoroughly or express himself without being clumsy. And to boost that frail nature, he proceeds to sing his lyrics with a visible vulnerability that is somehow coated in the layers of self-defense which are only exhibited by those who have dealt with these troubled matters way too often.

In spite of the awkward surface, though, there is not – almost miraculously – anything uncomfortable about the way Jeff Magnum approaches those points; he comes off, instead, as likable and sensitive. Consequently, the blows land fiercely. When writing about the death of his grandmother and the regret he felt for not being there beside her when it happened, for instance, he uses the simple imagery of one who has just recently learned the concept of spirituality, singing “As her spirit is climbing / Through the hospital wall and away / And I wanted to hold you / As you made your escape”. Delivered with so much sweetness and with a voice whose lack of formal qualities adds a high degree of sincerity to the feeling described, one cannot help but be moved by it.

Given the fragile quality that underlines the album, it would be easy to picture Magnum quietly going through the tunes of “On Avery Island” while sitting on a bench and shyly strumming an acoustic guitar. The work, however, carries a noisy lo-fi aesthetic that gives a totally unique edge to the material. It is not, of course, that the recording style was a stranger to the indie rock genre. Earlier in the same decade when Neutral Milk Hotel put out their only two efforts, the boys from Pavement had already built a successful career on such sounds, and “On Avery Island” does have a bit of a lazy lethargic aura that could draw comparisons to Stephen Malkmus’ group. The originality of the album actually stems from the unlikely pairing of the folk heart of the tunes with the noisier side of the lo-fi ethos.

With three exceptions, Magnum’s voice barely gets a rest from having to climb over thick walls of feedback to be heard. On some occasions, they come in temporary bursts, which is what happens in “You’ve Passed”, where the wave of noise rises and falls back as the electric guitar is punctually strummed. Mostly, though, the barrage is a relentless attack, giving these songs, which are very much pop and melodic at their core, a heavy distorted underbelly. It is a move that creates a constant mixture of irresistible hooks and nigh-hardcore buzz, one whose closest widely known comparison is perhaps the first trio of albums released by Weezer; with the difference being, naturally, that where Rivers Cuomo is a power pop fanatic who is unavoidably awkward, Jeff Magnum is merely a reserved guy who drinks from folk.

His brand of folk, though, is not just noisy. It is also filtered through a very well-constructed psychedelic lens. It is through it, in fact, that “On Avery Island” gains the carnival contours that appropriately fit in with its cover, complementing the innocent wonder of Jeff Magnum’s lyrics. Adorning the record’s sonic assault are keyboards and horns that bring an extra wacky component to the already frantic music; and while the electronic sounds of the former instrument make it seem like the theme park’s carousel is spinning uncontrollably in slow-motion, the brass gives off the impression that the place’s marching band has collectively spiraled out of its mind due to an unfortunate blend of drugs. In addition, this psychedelic value carried by “On Avery Island” is also responsible for firmly tying all of the tracks together, as thanks to the way the tunes smoothly transition between one another the record feels like an atomic whole, further establishing a powerful aesthetic coherence.

In this wild imaginary space built during “On Avery Island”, the introspective and the noisy stand side by side comfortably. The album’s three quietest cuts – the mostly acoustic trio of “A Baby for Pree”, “Three Peaches”, and “April 8th” – are sad delicate beauty, but even if they are more soothing than the rest of the songs on the record, they are not without their share of weird sounds as the last two have low drone-like hums that add a haunting aura to the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the work’s more cacophonous side, although quite uniform, smartly draws from different sources: “Song Against Sex” is a torrent of words and images delivered in ways that challenge the concept of metric, vaguely recalling what Bob Dylan tends to do; “You’ve Passed” sounds plodding, threatening, and exotic, with its dissonant instrumentation recalling “Venus in Furs” by The Velvet Underground; “Gardenhead” is so reckless and heavy it almost qualifies as hardcore; and the sweet melody of “Naomi”, when paired up with its slower pace, nods to the more emotional branches of punk.

At times, the conceptual psychedelic side of “On Avery Island” happens to get the best of it. Clocking in at a ridiculous thirteen minutes, closer “Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye” is motionless instrumental noise and reeks of unnecessary indulgence. “A Baby for Pree” and “Where You’ll Find Me Now” are essentially the same song, with the latter being the much better and more developed version of the former. And “Someone Is Waiting” is more of a coda to “You’ve Passed” than a standalone track. One might say instances such as these, besides contributing to the album’s thematic cohesion, also go along with its ramshackle lo-fi vibe, and that argument is certainly not invalid. Nonetheless, they indicate that, as fully formed as it may sound, “On Avery Island” is not the full realization of a musical idea. Such peak would only truly come with its sequel, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”; regardless of that shortcoming, though, Neutral Milk Hotel’s debut is one incredible musical trip down a rabbit hole of corrupted innocence.

Colorado

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Album: Colorado

Artist: Neil Young and Crazy Horse

Released: October 25th, 2019

Highlights: Olden Days, Green Is Blue, Milky Way, I Do

Fifty years separate “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”, the first album Neil Young ever recorded alongside what would go on to become his signature backing band, Crazy Horse, and “Colorado”, his 2019 release that has the singer-songwriter reuniting with the band for the first time since 2012’s “Psychedelic Pill”. It goes without saying that the five decades that stand between “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and “Colorado” have seen the world go through many changes; however, as every Neil Young fan ought to know, Crazy Horse has stood immune to it all, aware that as their leader went through a myriad of musical experiments and different sets of musicians, he would always eventually feel like returning to the comfort of the band that is so firmly attached to his legacy.

And so, following a stint of six years during which the ever prolific Young produced five albums with collaborators that ranged from Promise of the Real to Jack White, the old man opens the doors of the barn to take the horse for yet another spin. For fans, that is a move which always brings, with it, both excitement and hope; but this time around, it seems the two feelings come in extra intensity. For in addition to, naturally, rejoining Neil Young with the filthy and spooky plod of Crazy Horse, the reunion that gives birth to “Colorado” also comes amidst a series of irregular albums and a creative streak – including a lengthy tour – in which Young’s enthusiasm with the youth of Promise of the Real at times made it seem like his collaboration with Crazy Horse was done.

As it turns out, it was not, and with guitarist Frank Sampedro being replaced by Nils Lofgren, who records his first studio album with Crazy Horse since 1982’s “Trans”, the trio which is complemented by Ralph Molina and Billy Tabot answers the calling of Neil Young. Unsurprisingly, “Colorado” has all the makings of a record put together by that historical collaboration. As the perfect accompaniment to the singer and his usual stylistic explorations, Crazy Horse knows how to get nasty and throw themselves in the mud by using rough guttural guitar distortions that are employed to build mid-tempo songs while simultaneously succeeding in conjuring beauty via sweet harmonizations when the tunes ask for it. And it is out of these pieces that “Colorado” is mostly made of.

At times, these elements appear separately. The traditional harmonies are used to bring an extra layer of smoothness to tracks that, leaning to a softer side, venture into the mixture of folk and country that Neil Young showcased in albums such as “Harvest”; meanwhile, the bellowing guitars and the trudging rhythm that is so peculiar some – as it happens in pretty much all Crazy Horse records – will call it amateurish and dull, are the backbone of earth-shattering hard rock cuts. More often than not, though, those pieces will appear together, unlocking a sound that, nearly exclusive to the collaboration, manages to be instinctive and primitive at its core whilst exposing an aura that is delicate and sentimental. “Colorado” thrives because of that nature, which ought to make all fans happy with the fact Neil Young and Crazy Horse are still going; the album, however, cannot escape some of the problems that have afflicted the songwriter’s output as of late.

Firstly, there is the matter of the lyrics, which suffer not just because Neil Young has turned a bit mono-thematic in recent years, with the focus of the old hippie shifting to environmental problems and politics, but also because he seemingly cannot tackle those topics with poetry, relying on direct wording that results in oddities like “I saw mother nature pushing Earth in a baby carriage”. Secondly, there is the songwriting itself, which has simply become irregular. Finally, and probably greatly contributing to the prior item, there is how Neil Young is now way too devoted to his ever-standing belief that working too much on songs erodes their quality, a philosophy that did wonders to his discography when he was in his artistic prime but that, lately, has caused more harm than good, as the tunes are sometimes not developed with the due care and the takes that make it to the album sound a bit premature.

The tracks that are damaged because of those problems are many. “She Showed Me Love”, which at thirteen minutes should theoretically qualify as the tasty Crazy Horse jam of the album, is actually a disappointment as a consequence of bad lyrics, an uninspired melody, and a lack of musical ideas to justify its length. Both “Help Me Lose My Mind” and “Shut It Down”, although passable, have Young ranting over solid hard rock groves that are broken up by harmonized choruses; an idea that he has explored way too frequently in his latest works. And “Rainbow of Colors”, borrowing the melody from Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side”, is a shot at a sing-a-long rock anthem that praises the different kinds of people who live in the United States; despite its good intentions, the result is lackluster and partially embarrassing, with its only saving grace being that it is not half as bad as “Children of Destiny”, the song from 2017’s “The Visitor” in which Young used the same recipe.

Still, amidst the mistakes, and appearing like proof that Neil Young is an incredibly talented individual who, past the age of 70, is still working hard and sharing his gift, “Colorado” also happens to hold some gems. “Think of Me” is a beautiful and positive acoustic song that – with drums, a piano, a harmonica, and plenty of harmonies – could be a missing track from the excellent “Prairie Wind”. “Olden Days” is a gorgeous reflection on the loneliness of old age, and thanks to a heart-touching guitar lick by Nils and an unexpected falsetto by Young, it gains a lot of emotional resonance. “Green Is Blue”, led by a piano and complemented by gentle guitars, is a great environmental tale that stands shoulder to shoulder with the classic “After the Goldrush”. “Milky Way” is such a slow and precariously loose Crazy Horse jam that it continuously threatens to break down. “Eternity” is simple and playful thanks to its unusual backing vocals. And closer “I Do” is an introspective acoustic number that, in a rare turn for late-career Neil Young, operates lyrically on many levels.

Therefore, the reconnection between Neil Young and Crazy Horse ends up being only half of a victory, because as great as that match may be, it is simply not enough to allow the former to escape the habits that have plagued him in recent years. In many cases, “Colorado” displays a Neil Young that packs all of those problems into the same version of himself, and even if that person in question is a beloved old man fighting a very worthy fight in the best possible way, the music he produces can be poor. Still, Neil Young is just too good to fail completely, and with Crazy Horse by his side he actually produces a work that is decent, sinking to notable lows in numerous cuts, but coming across multiple successes that should make all listeners that sit down with “Colorado” happy that Neil is active and pumping out records.

Ghosteen

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Album: Ghosteen

Artist: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Released: October 4th, 2019

Highlights: Spinning Song, Bright Horses, Waiting for You, Sun Forest, Hollywood

It is understandably hard to dissociate 2016’s “Skeleton Tree”, the sixteenth album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, from the death of Arthur, the band-leader’s fifteen-year-old son. After all, not only do many of its lyrics work as perfect references to that sad occurrence, but its body – made up almost entirely of slow-tempo atmospheric tracks that dwell on heartbreaking sorrow and emotional despair – also make a strong case for the establishment of such a link. Yet, that correlation is not entirely true; after all, by the time tragedy struck, the record had been almost completed, with only a few sessions remaining to conclude the album, meaning that most of its pieces – save for perhaps a bunch of verses and vocals – were already in place by then.

Contrarily, when it comes to “Ghosteen”, the sequel to “Skeleton Tree”, the connection simply cannot be denied. The title of the album, which employs an Irish-language suffix to create a word that means, in a direct translation, “little ghost”, is already large enough of a clue to let listeners know what the record is about. “Ghosteen” and Arthur are one, and all of the songs Nick Cave created for it uniformly stem from the feelings and ideas that have gone through his mind ever since his son passed away. As consequence of that, “Ghosteen” travels through a spectrum of emotions that is only accessed by those who have suffered tremendous losses in life; a myriad of sentiments that will be introduced to those who have not, and that will be painfully familiar to those who have.

With all tunes being a product of the collaboration between Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, “Ghosteen” works, from a musical standpoint, like the final chapter of a trilogy that began with 2013’s “Push the Sky Away”. In it, following the departure of two of the Bad Seeds’ most important and long-tenured members, Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey, Ellis emerged as Cave’s most prominent collaborator, and together the pair went on to explore the atmospheric minimalism of lush ambient music produced by synthesizers and droning violins. “Ghosteen” is the, supposedly, closing entry of that phase, and it also qualifies as its most ambitious instance, for it dives much deeper into these elements than its two predecessors.

To a point, that ambition serves “Ghosteen” quite well. The textures it conjures are, at times, almost orchestral, slowly developing a series of isolated elements into various movements that continuously build via slight variations, achieving the emotional apexes that Nick Cave’s lyrics and themes call for. That complexity, in fact, reaches its pinnacle in two of the album’s final three songs, “Ghosteen” and “Hollywood”, which flex the atmospheric sound Cave and Ellis have crafted so extremely that they push past the twelve-minute mark. Yet, much like “Push the Sky Away” and “Skeleton Tree” did before it, the band – with their head firmly buried deep in what is, for the Bad Seeds, totally experimental grounds – does not forget that, above all, these are still meant to be pop songs even if they are dressed up in great minimalism; and for that reason, “Ghosteen” does not fail to bring many hooks – of the heart-wrenching sort, of course – along into the crushing journey it proposes.

And a journey is indeed what “Ghosteen” qualifies as. Only, as Nick Cave himself appears to realize during the course of the album, the road that is followed by it has no real end; it is guided, perpetually, by the wish to find a feeling that brings relief: be it understanding, conformity, peace, or the strength to move on completely. However, the events of the past simply have too strong of a gravitational pull, never truly letting go and distorting the path so violently that it sometimes moves sideways or even backwards. And as he despairs for a thread of hope, he seems to just be able to uncover some comfort in three thoughts that, quite appropriately, close out the album: the ideas that peace of mind is still a long way away, that he will find relief when his time comes, and that – as evidenced by a Buddhist tale he narrates – every family in the world has already gone through a major loss.

It is an utterly devastating conclusion, not only due to its miserable nature but also because of its undeniable truthfulness, and it is brutal to see Nick Cave expose himself so clearly in his lyrics and in his singing. He tries to hide in a world of fantasy only to be brought back into reality by thoughts of death (“Spinning Song”); he talks himself into believing in the impossible return of his baby (“Bright Horses”); he breaks down as he calls to Arthur (“Waiting for You”); he remembers happy moments and sees bad omens in them (“Night Raid”); he depicts beautifully sad images, always tinged with the presence of his son, of ghost-like children ascending into the Sun (“Sun Forest”) and of galleon ships sailing into the morning sky (“Galleon Ship”); he picks up broken messages that come from beyond the grave (“Ghosteen Speaks”); he gets lost in sad cyclical thoughts of love (“Leviathan”) as well as stuck between the present and the past (“Ghosteen”) ; he seeks refuge in his imagination (“Fireflies”); and he runs away from it all looking for some solace (“Hollywood”).

In the end, he does not find what he was searching for; perhaps nobody truly ever does. But he learns how to work through it, coming across lifelines to which he can hang on. And all of the process from initial despair to some sort of consolation is mapped in the tracks of “Ghosteen”. There is no denying that, be it from an artistic or from a personal standpoint, the album is a product of admirable courage, for it takes some barely charted bravery for someone to be so open about such intimate sadness in front of so many people. At the same time, “Ghosteen” feels utterly necessary, because other than the fact its lyrics make it blatant that creating the album went hand in hand with the attempt by Nick to heal some of the wounds, it also comes off like a message from someone who has been through the worst of all pains to all of those who have experienced, or will experience, similar tragedies; an outwards scream that tries to make it clear that nobody is really alone when facing relentless sorrow, for it might as well be the most human of all feelings. Those details alone are enough to make “Ghosteen” a must-listen and another powerful entry in the almost immaculate discography of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

In the face of such importance, the fact that its tracks contain atmospheric beauty, lyrical sadness, and melodic creativity of a rarely seen sort is a nice bonus. At some points, though, not all of those elements are present, and when that happens, “Ghosteen” can hit some spots that – given its nearly seventy-minute running time – feel like they could have been cut, as it happens in “Night Raid”, “Ghosteen Speaks”, “Leviathan”, and “Fireflies”, which either fail to come up with compelling melodies or dynamic instrumentals. Yet, “Ghosteen” is still able to remain engaging all the way through, because whether it is through the strength of its core message, through the brutal sincerity of the process it narrates, or through its emotional power, it is an album that carries a spiritual force that is very much real, as if Nick Cave tapped deep into a well of misery – perhaps deeper than any other artist – and dared to take what he found to the surface, transforming it into a healing potion for himself, a musical gift to his fans, and a gentle helping hand to those who have lost somebody.

Tonight’s the Night

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Album: Tonight’s the Night

Artist: Neil Young

Released: June 20th, 1975

Highlights: Tonight’s the Night, Roll Another Number (For the Road), Albuquerque, Tired Eyes

Like it happened with “On the Beach”, its predecessor, the title of “Tonight’s the Night” can be awfully deceiving. While the first record was given a name that brings ideas of a relaxing paradise to mind, only to then reveal itself to be an album built on bitterness, anger, and lonesome contemplation; the second was dubbed with an expression that electrifies the brain with positive expectations and youthful excitement, almost making the neurons prepare themselves for impending hours where limits are few and possibilities are many. What lies below that surface, though, is the depiction of – quite possibly – the darkest and most depressing moment of a career that has lasted for more than fifty years, as the proclamation of the sentence that names it was spurred not by thrill, but by the kick in the gut that one receives when discovering someone close to them has passed away. And in the case of Neil Young, that crushing sensation came twice in a very short interval.

First, the singer-songwriter went through the horror of discovering his friend, the talented guitarist Danny Whitten, had overdosed on alcohol and medication in the evening of the very same day he was dismissed by Young from an upcoming tour due to his inability to keep up with the rehearsals. About six months later, and serving as the subject of the title track, a telephone call let him know one of his roadies, named Bruce Berry, had met the same fate via a combination of heroin and cocaine. The human tragedies that lie within drug-inflicted problems were not by then unfamiliar to Young, who in 1972 had already addressed the topic in the classic tune “The Needle and the Damage Done”, a track inspired by how he saw strangers, those around him, and even himself lose a bit of their talent and humanity to those substances. But the deaths of Whitten and Berry appeared to be some sort of tipping point for Young, a juncture when the pile of catastrophes grew so big that it broke him.

It is out of that wreck that “Tonight’s the Night” emerges. The title works as a reference to the nights when he was told about those deaths; the nights when friends were lost; families were shattered; tears were shed; and eternal scars were created. And even though it is impossible to know for sure what Young felt on those days, he does a pretty remarkable job in conveying it through music, for as the opening track silently announces that tonight is the night when tragedy is about to arrive via a phone call, listeners are taken through an emotional journey that holds no bright colors or points of relief, as the album navigates a spectrum dominated by sorrowful shades of white, black, and gray.

As far as records concerned with sadness go, though, “Tonight’s the Night” is somewhat strange. For although it certainly works as a funeral of sorts, where its attendees are so destroyed by grief they can barely speak, there is an unusual celebratory vibe that permeates it. Part of it has to be attributed to the raw and honest way in which the album was recorded, as throughout its course it becomes clear that besides committing most of the tunes to tape while so heavily intoxicated that all of the tracks threaten to fall apart, Young, his band-mates, and the work’s producers opted to use a lot of first takes – in all their spontaneous erratic glory – in the construction of the album. As such, “Tonight’s the Night” is immaculate in how it takes its audience to a room where musicians that chose to drown the sorrow of their unbearable losses in drugs and alcohol – the very same substances that killed their friends – gather around a microphone to play for the souls of the departed.

It is a smoky, drug-addled, and real musical celebration that is part burial and part seance, and amidst flubbed notes, clumsy harmonies, mistimed entries, and blundered lyrics, raw human misery comes through. “Tonight’s the Night”, however, is not just a work of bold atmospheric greatness, it is also a masterclass in songwriting, and it is in the combination of those elements that it shows its qualifications to rank as a rock and roll landmark. Presented here, in reckless abandon that is too depressed and drugged to get up from the chair on which it is sitting, are numerous staples of the Neil Young repertoire, including ballads of uncanny beauty, hard rock numbers whose guitars are played from the gut rather than from the heart, cuts of charming folk simplicity, and tasteful country infusions, all underlined by a piano-rock approach that gives the album its central musical personality, and in each of those categories, the harvested crops of “Tonight’s the Night” come either on top of the rest of his rich output or quite close to the summit.

The two versions of “Tonight’s the Night”, which open and close the album, are visceral, tense, bare-bones, and threatening. “Speakin’ Out” is piano-based blues at its loosest state. “World on a String” is a short, fast, and catchy slice of riff-focused hard rock. “Borrowed Tune”, which employs a slowed-down version of the melody from The Rolling Stones’ “Lady Jane”, shows Young at his frailest, as he confesses he has ripped Jagger and Richards off because he is too wasted to write his own tune. “Mellow My Mind” is so soft, tipsy, and beautiful one is inclined to give Young the relief he asks for. “Roll Another Number (For the Road)” has stunning harmonies sung by vocalists that are too stoned to get them right. “Albuquerque” stars a pedal steel guitar that tugs at the heart and is, by itself, enough justification to place Ben Keith as the instrument’s greatest and most tasteful player ever. “New Mama” is such a fragile combination of voices and acoustic guitar that it feels like it will break at any moment. “Lookout Joe” is a clumsy and energetic explosion of distortion. And “Tired Eyes”, which alternates an almost narrated verse with a drunk chorus of gorgeous melody and cathartic sorrow, is absolutely gripping in its sadness.

Most haunting and moving of all, though, is “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown”. Quietly stuck in the album’s first side, it sticks like a sore thumb when compared to the rest of the tracks not just due to fact it is a live recording, but also because of how it carries a purely happy energy that has no place in a work like “Tonight’s the Night”. Its inclusion in the album, however, is more than justified once one realizes that the person who sings it, plays its lead guitar line, and signs it alongside Young is none other than Danny Whitten himself, in all of the beautiful and inescapable glory that he had before an overdose ended his short life.

More than a nod to his departed friend or even proof that the stoned musical seance that is “Tonight’s the Night” was so well-conducted that the spirits of the dead did come out of their graves, it serves as a poignant warning on how substance abuse has the capacity to corrode lives little by little until they simply cease to be; and that the overwhelming sadness which lingers on in the hearts of those who stay behind – one that is accurately documented in the other tracks of the album – has a weight that is equivalent to the beauty of that soul and the capacity that it displayed for touching the lives of those around it. And in spontaneously exploring, via fantastic music, these two sides of death, the one that is snuffed out and the one that desperately tries to find the strength carry on, “Tonight’s the Night” acquires the magnitude of an all-time great artistic achievement, and also of a brutally vivid depiction of life at its roughest emotional edges.