Everything Will Be Alright In The End

everything_will_be_alright_in_the_end

Album: Everything Will Be Alright in the End

Artist: Weezer

Released: October 7th, 2014

Highlights: Eulogy for a Rock Band, The British Are Coming, Da Vinci, Cleopatra

From the early days of their career, it was pretty clear that Weezer – more specifically their leader – had one incredibly hard time adjusting to the pressures, trappings, and expectations that come with being a popular rock band. Rivers Cuomo’s demeanor is quiet, introspective, nerdy, and lacking much self-esteem, and all these traits, especially when combined, forge a personality that is not quite equipped to deal with the spotlight; at least not without first going through a whole lot of growing pains. As such, much of the group’s career can be read as a clumsily performed balancing act between two forces: the need to deliver material that the fans will appreciate, a pull maximized by Cuomo’s low confidence; and the artist’s absolutely natural urge to give air to what he feels, which – in the case of Rivers – includes a good amount of awkwardly expressed sentimentality.

It has always been an odd road. Along it, advances and retreats have been common from both parts. “Pinkerton”, Weezer’s second work, was famously dismissed upon release only to slowly rise to the status of masterpiece over the years, with many changing their perception regarding the album. Similarly, the two records that followed it, “Green Album” and “Maladroit”, were initially treated warmly; however, as the band produced one dull shot at mass appeal (“Make Believe”) and two silly attempts to be hip (“Red Album” and “Raditude”), the pair began to be analyzed as part of the band’s classic period, exposing a genuine rock sound that fans claimed to miss and that Weezer – very much aware of those complaints – tried, but not quite succeeded, to revive in “Hurley”.

If there has been one point in this tortuous post-Maladroit journey in which the two sides of the struggle have been satisfied, with Weezer putting together the album that they wanted whilst pleasing folks who longed for the return of their classic sound, then it is “Everything Will Be Alright in the End”. Surely, as an artistic statement, its follow-up, “White Album”, is stronger, since it feels like a revitalizing step forward rather than a return to familiar grounds. But “Everything Will Be Alright in the End” is equally alluring not only because it is a fun listen, but also due to the fact it is a delightful rarity in music: a conscious and successful move by an older band to go back to sounding like they did in their glory days.

Here, it all begins with producer Rick Ocasek. The leader of The Cars, and master of constructing immortal tracks that matched the dangerous attitude of rock with the accessibility of pop, had already lent his talent to two of Weezer’s best works: their untouchable debut and their solid third release. His presence behind the board, therefore, points to the music the boys were aiming to create. And, by all means, they hit it right on target. Like The Cars did in their heyday, Weezer rose to stardom via the combination of rock and pop. But where Ocasek’s group drank from the keyboard gloss of the era, Weezer borrowed their sweetness from power pop as well as from The Beach Boys while getting their heaviness from hard rock, punk, and even the grunge that dominated the scene at the time they got their start. Consequently, like both the “Blue Album” and the “Green Album”, “Everything Will Be Alright in the End” is sustained by two elements: a stream of impossibly catchy melodies and a constant bed of guitars that is relentless like those of the Ramones, heavy like those of Kiss, and towering like those of The Smashing Pumpkins.

The return to the band’s roots as well as the ever-existing tug of war between Weezer and its fans are actually acknowledged by Cuomo himself in some of the lyrics, a move that brings thematic freshness to “Everything Will Be Alright in the End”. In the first single, “Back to the Shack”, not only does he recognize he might have alienated his audience with the musical detours he took in the years that preceded the record, but he also expresses concern over it, declaring Weezer will try to recapture the magic that was lost. As expected, the album also touches on Rivers’ usual topics of preference, including girls and his troubled relationship with his father, but even these tired matters seem to be tackled more charmingly this time around. When it comes to relationships, for example, “Da Vinci” is a likable, funny, and geeky love song, with the singer saying the subject of his affection could be neither captured by the Italian genius nor explained by Stephen Hawking; at the same time, in relation to his progenitor, “Foolish Father” turns the issue on its head when Rivers expresses fear that his daughter might see his own flaws down the line.

The album is not a smooth journey of power pop goodness all the way through. “Ain’t Got Nobody” and “Back to the Shack”, curiously the first two songs, are a tad average. Although they have plenty of guitar punch, with the second recalling the heavy metal flair of “Maladroit”, their melodies are mundane and their hooks feel forced. The opener, in particular, is further damaged by how in it – as its title indicates – Rivers falls victim to his greatest enemy, his self-pity, lamenting the fact he has been abandoned by his girl, his father, and his audience. Fortunately, as soon as “Everything Will Be Alright in the End” reaches its third cut (“Eulogy for a Rock Band”) and the spectacular riff it carries, the record kicks into a sequence of remarkable tunes that the band had not coined in well over a decade.

It is all there. Like it happened in the “Green Album”, the thick distorted wall of guitars joins the tracks at the hip, as if they were part of the same whole. Therefore, it is up to the elements buried in the noise – the searing lead guitar lines, the melodic work, the cutting solos, and the sunny backing vocals – to set them apart. And they do it quite well. “Lonely Girl” bursts out of the gate as immediately and loudly as “Buddy Holly”. “I’ve Had It Up to Here” has the band locking on a dancy groove and Rivers delivering a surprising falsetto. Covering the American Revolutionary War, “The British Are Coming” is the best song Weezer has produced in a while, making one wish Cuomo would take on historical themes more often. “Da Vinci” has verses built on playful whistling and acoustic picking that recall “El Scorcho”. “Go Away” is a sweet duet with Bethany Cosentino that mirrors the slower moments of the group’s classic era. “Cleopatra” pairs up unplugged guitars with electric ones in the same way as “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here”. And “Foolish Father” builds to a choir cathartically singing the album’s title over some hard rock pounding.

“Everything Will Be Alright in the End” is a triumph. And it is, thereby, suiting that it ends on what feels like a victory lap: a three-part suite that contains one song, “Anonymous”, book-ended by two loose and fun instrumental segments. Much like “The End”, which basically closed out The Beatles’ “Abbey Road”, it feels like a well-deserved celebration by a group that has just lifted a huge burden off its shoulders. But where the Fab Four were saying farewell to a career of musical wonder, Weezer is partying for a much simpler reason: getting back on track. On the great scope of musical history, the two occasions hardly compare; however, to Cuomo, to his bandmates, and to their fans, the moment will certainly feel just as big, because not only does “Everything Will Be Alright in the End” create a – temporary – peace treaty between the factions, but it also proves that Weezer is still capable of delivering good music, even if much of their output following “Maladroit” says otherwise.

Who

who

Album: Who

Artist: The Who

Released: December 6th, 2019

Highlights: All This Music Must Fade, Ball and Chain, Hero Ground Zero, Street Song, Break the News

It may be jarring to some, but fans of The Who – particularly those who are familiar with Pete Townshend’s personality and its unique blend of insecurity, arrogance, and dangerously honest rhetoric – will not be too surprised when they realize the band’s guitar player and songwriter opens the group’s twelfth album by penning a review of his own. Sung by Roger Daltrey, the first verses of “All This Music Must Fade” claim that “I don’t care / I know you’re gonna hate this song / And that’s fair / We never really got along / It’s not new, not diverse / It won’t light up your parade / It’s just simple verse”. It is a great, but obvious, defense for a man who – well into his seventies – knows that any music he produces at this point will be compared unfavorably to his classics of the past; and it is also a perfect description of what many people will feel regarding “Who”. Yet, the statement is not entirely accurate.

Townshend is correct when he says that the batch of eleven original tunes in the album is not new, diverse, or structurally challenging. Likewise, it does not take the knowledge of a music business insider to confidently state that the tracks of a The Who record released in 2019 will not light up any parades. He is probably lying, though, when he says he does not care. As much as the public’s perception of “Who” will not do much to affect the life a multimillionaire rock star, Townshend has always – accidentally – let the world know he is very much worried about the acknowledgement of his genius, and that is bound not to change. Finally, his immediate disparaging of “All This Music Must Fade” is downright wrong: it is a fantastic tune, one that carries his band’s signature sound whilst being contemporary enough to make it with any kind of crowd.

Although the quality of the songs oscillates as “Who” moves along, that is a description that could easily apply to the work as a whole. In a way, the record is a bit of a miracle; after all, since the band’s last good original product, 1978’s “Who Are You”, more than four decades have passed, and during that period the group was far from productive, releasing two mediocre LPs (“Face Dances” and “It’s Hard”) during the 80s that failed to reconstruct the band following the death of legendary drummer Keith Moon and publishing “Endless Wire” in 2006, a bloated and conceptual piece that diluted some very good musical moments amidst an overwhelming amount of lackluster cuts. However, looking at “Who” from another perspective reveals that its relative success makes sense.

Townshend has always been an excellent songwriter, and not only does “Who” come on the heels of a worldwide tour whose quality proved that, up on a stage, the current incarnation of The Who could still deliver the goods, the album also benefits from the fact it holds no frills at all. “Who” is the result of a well-oiled machine and one of the British Invasion’s brightest composers walking into a studio, doing what they know best, and putting the whole process on a tape. Without a storyline or an overarching message for him to get lost in, and with a very good band operating at high capacity, Townshend succeeds in assembling an enjoyable and straightforward rock album, an artifact that many doubted he was still capable of creating.

As it is the norm with The Who, the operation was not as simple as it looks. Townshend and Daltrey, who have repeatedly stated over the years they were never friends, recorded their parts separately and by using different producers. Nonetheless, it all comes together. Despite the lack of a unified theme, “Who” could be seen as some sort of older brother to “The Who by Numbers”, for while in the latter Townshend’s personal lyrics revealed that a rock and roll hero had come crashing into a mundane midlife crisis (showing such dreaded phase is an inevitability even to those who seem immortal), the former has numerous tracks that deal with old age. Starting with “All This Music Must Fade”, in which the songwriter embraces the fact that everyone eventually becomes irrelevant, regardless of whether they have written their names in the history books or not, the album features several moments when Townshend confronts his wrinkles, going into digressions about mortality, reincarnation, wisdom, and The Who’s own history.

It is a recipe that could be dangerous for a rock album, for the genre was never really favorable to the ramblings of older folks; “The Who by Numbers” itself was – despite its greatness – warmly received in large part because of its tendency to deal with thoughts that appear as the years accumulate. The theme, though, is much safer this time around: Townshend knows most of those who are still listening to him are old as well and, therefore, can relate; furthermore, still showing sings that – at heart – he remains a rebellious punk, he makes it clear he remains ready to fight. In “Rockin’ in Rage”, he mockingly and cleverly summarizes that conflict in the chorus when he says “I’m rockin’ in rage, forward and back / My bones is engaged / They splinter and crack”.

Appropriately, the music of “Who” also exhibits that dichotomy. It is punctually angry and occasionally contemplative. “Ball and Chain”, for instance, is a tense and quietly furious blues track where Townshend gets political, attacking the injustices of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp; “Beads on One String” is a ballad showered by lush synthesizers that seems to simultaneously comment on two kinds of war, those that are personal and those that are collective; “Break the News”, written by Simon Townshend, is a gorgeous acoustic stomp; “Street Song” could be the steady soundtrack to a march or a protest; “Hero Ground Zero” is – like the best tunes out of “Tommy”, “Who’s Next”, and “Quadrophenia” – simple but able to muster a gigantic size thanks to a layered arrangement that includes electronic elements and an orchestra; and “I’ll Be Back” is the classic Townshend jab at folk, being honest and filled with personal anguish.

“Who” fails to reach for full excellence due to a few dull moments: “I Don’t Wanna Get Wise” starts out promising but could have used a better chorus; “Detour” is playful and bouncy, relating to the band’s R&B origins, but ultimately uninspired; and both “I’ll Be Back” and “She Rocked My World” click as intimate statements but do not nail it as songs. However, there is no denying it is a worthy addition to The Who’s canon: it features tasteful production; it has Townshend being particularly inspired in his signature usage of synthesizers, which invariably enhance the tunes quite a bit; it boasts fantastic vocal performances by Roger Daltrey, whose voice has aged unbelievably well; and it simply contains a lot of notable songs. In the end, the self-deprecating statement that opens the album is nothing but a bluff; Townshend knows that “Who” is good, and most that listen to the album without questioning whether The Who should be making music as of 2019 (a matter that only truly concerns the members of the band and their will) are likely to realize it.

Colorado

colorado

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.

Ode To Joy

ode_to_joy

Album: Ode to Joy

Artist: Wilco

Released: October 4th, 2019

Highlights: Before Us, Everyone Hides, Love Is Everywhere (Beware), An Empty Corner

For a good while, Wilco has been slowly traveling down a slope. And such an evaluation is valid in two ways. Firstly, it is true from a quality perspective, as following 2004’s “A Ghost Is Born”, the creative spark that guided the group through its first decade has been progressively decreasing in intensity, with all albums that came after that work being unable to strike the same level of greatness found in those that the group had put together up to that moment. Secondly, it applies due to how it seems that, dragged by the increasingly sullen mood of Jeff Tweedy, their leader, the band has been digging deeper and deeper into an infinite well of melancholy.

Surely, fans may rightfully cry out that, along that journey, there have been a few outliers in the two senses. Although by no means amazing, 2007’s “Sky Blue Sky” and 2011’s “The Whole Love” showed promise that Tweedy still had some fuel left in him. Meanwhile, to lovers of the more electric and noisy facet of Wilco, a record like 2015’s “Star Wars” must have come like an unexpected gift, as it was mostly made up of the ragged guitar freak-outs that were once an abundant presence in their output. Still, in both mood and greatness, the arrow that describes Wilco’s career arch has been generally pointing down for some time. “Ode to Joy”, their 2019 release, represents a notable shift in one of those two fields.

Contrarily to what its title indicates, though, such change has certainly not occurred in the subject of tone. If anything, Tweedy likely named “Ode to Joy” as some sort of internal joke between him and those who listen to the music he puts out; an attempt at deception which is fully aware of its weakness considering that fans are, by now, way past the point of being able to believe Tweedy can be cheery or positive. He is the miserable, thoughtful, frayed, and lovable uncle of alternative rock, and he seems to wear that hat very proudly, as in “Ode to Joy” he goes into lyrically concise lamentations on lost love, isolation, the inherent difficulty of human relations, and his own inability to overcome the vices that lead him to stumble repeatedly.

If in the matter of words “Ode to Joy” ends up naturally bumping into old subjects and problems, in overall mood it actually ventures into new territory; and given the Wilco trend that the album bucks is not the one related to spirit, it is safe to say that this previously uncharted land is sadder and more lethargic than any of the sorrow that came before it, confirming that Tweedy is moving steadily downward. It is true that, to an extent, in terms of emotional weight, the band has certainly been more heart-wrenching in the past, but never has Wilco produced a record that feels so passive and resigned. Tweedy sings of sadness like a man that knows he simply cannot escape it, and like one who is very much used to the troubles that lead to this emotional state, he seems to – throughout “Ode to Joy” – just accept his fate and analyze it with his head hanging down.

It sounds like a lot of self-pity to take in; and, in a way, it is indeed. But Tweedy has a down-to-earth nature that makes his misery either easy to relate to, at least to those who have been there, or a target of empathy. With his hushed and defeated tone of voice, he contemplates what brings him down; simultaneously, the band follows suit, assembling an instrumental bed that is steady in its softness, a characteristic that makes it work like an ideal platform for the drowsiness that afflicts their leader. Save for the drums, which appear prominently and clearly in the mix, popping and clicking in well-recorded beauty, the rest of the instruments feel distant, uncertain, and inhibited, creating an atmosphere that is foggy yet intimate and allowing “Ode to Joy” to stand as an album of outstanding cohesion, as if all of its eleven tracks were truly part of a single uniform piece.

It all amounts to a magnitude of low-key quietness that may cause some listeners to look at “Ode to Joy” as boring, which would not be a completely unfair call. However, below a surface that is positively monotonic and whilst confined to a tight spectrum of sound, the album finds room to stretch. Anchored by a relentless bass drum, “Quiet Amplifier” repeats its main melodic line endlessly while an orchestra of guitars builds noise around it, making the track slowly swell; “Everyone Hides” and “Love Is Everywhere (Beware)” are straightforward, and somewhat energetic, pieces of folk rock; “We Were Lucky” is slow-moving and menacing, like The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs”, and – to make the comparison even more appropriate – it has a signature Wilco guitar freak-out that gives it an avant-garde edge; finally, “Hold Me Anyway” could pass for a happy playful track if it had different lyrics.

As evidenced by the omnipresent sadness within it, which is there even when it might appear like it is not, the recent Wilco trend that “Ode to Joy” ultimately breaks is the one that has to do with quality. It is the best work by the band in quite a while, possibly since the release of “Sky Blue Sky”, and its consistency is outstanding, with none of its tracks leaving a negative impression. As such, even if the whisper-like nature that permeates it may hide some of its hooks or beauty for some time, multiple spins are likely to eventually reveal them.

The calculated quietness of “Ode to Joy” could have been a trap to Tweedy and Wilco, as monotony and lethargy have been the villains behind some of their past missteps. However, here, that pitfall is thoroughly evaded due to the simple fact that the songwriter seems to have rekindled his relationship with the art of writing touching melodies. Carried by them, the simple, defeated, hopeless, sleepy tracks of “Ode to Joy” rise; not with the power of a wave, but with the welcoming comfort of a delicate mist, which slowly envelops listeners and takes them on a ride through the softest and most sullen music that Tweedy has ever produced. Thereby, whether the mood gets sadder or happier in the future, fans can be hopeful that the trend of quality can continue to rise, as, with “Ode to Joy”, Wilco proves they are still capable of producing very good material.

Ghosteen

ghosteen

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.

Free

free

Album: Free

Artist: Iggy Pop

Released: September 6th, 2019

Highlights: Loves Missing, James Bond, Page

A series of atmospheric hums emerge inside a wide and sparse soundscape. A duel of freestyling trumpets, one that seems to come out from somewhere in the depths of a dirty alley and another that appears to be far closer, is sparked. And suddenly, as the relaxing immersive racket reaches its apex, Iggy Pop shows up to deliver four words that seem to encompass the essence of his eighteenth album. “I wanna be free / I wanna be free / Free”, he speaks with that signature low tone, which has characterized him through his whole solo career but that has become surprisingly solemn and maybe even wise with age, before vanishing like a voice from beyond that has breezed by listeners with the goal of delivering a succinct message that hides some sort of major revelation.

If freedom is what Iggy wanted, then that is exactly what he has found with his 2019 release, “Free”. Following “Post Pop Depression”, his collaboration with Josh Homme and quite possibly his most successful album since 1977’s “Lust for Life”, Iggy could have certainly taken the easy way out, gathered the very same band, and built yet another testosterone-infused album that is as heavy and dark as it is sexy and insightful. But apparently, returning to good old straightforward rock after an interval of two albums and sixteen years was enough for the singer to realize that, ultimately, the genre that launched him to the world alongside The Stooges is also a hand that constrains him.

Suffocated by it, “Free” works like some sort of declaration of independence by Iggy Pop. Its unexpected style is likely to make it an album that his fans, especially those who jumped back into the bandwagon after “Post Pop Depression”, did not want him to produce at this moment in time. However, its content, title, and opening statement broadcast in blatantly defined waves that “Free” is the album Iggy Pop wanted to create as of 2019. In a way, it is strange that such a personal message is delivered through a record in which only three out of the ten songs have him as a co-author. On the other hand, though, such characteristic reveals that “Free” has a nature so urgent that it just had to be unveiled whether Iggy had the material in him or not.

The result is a piece that is, in equal parts, odd, charming, irregular, and daring. “Free” could be labeled as a jazz album thanks to how its most prominent instrument is, by far, the trumpet of Leron Thomas, whose improvisational spirit is so dominating that he gets writing credit for nine of the record’s tunes. It could also be filed under the ambient category, for the moments when Iggy is supported by background noise, usually accompanied by a horn, are more numerous than those when he has a full band behind him. Finally, it would not be out of place in the spoken-word universe, as it holds a bigger quantity of talking than of singing. What “Free” really is, though, is all of those musical moods combined into a brief but meaningful package.

All in all, two are the cuts in “Free” that approach what one would expect out of a contemporary Iggy Pop record. “Loves Missing”, the finest tune in the album by a large margin, still has fragments of “Post Pop Depression”, as it starts with a dangerous combination of drums and insinuating guitar licks before slowly accentuating its dark sexy vibe when more guitars come in and the beat gets progressively more chaotic. Meanwhile, “James Bond” uses a bit of the same recipe, with the difference that stands between both songs being the fact that while the former grows by moving forward, the latter does so by going in circles with an ever-increasing intensity. Everywhere else, “Free” poses a considerable challenge to those that step into it.

Even if there is a clear distinction between the album’s two halves, that difficult aura exists in both parts. The first five tracks of “Free”, with the exception of the opening number, feel more like fully developed songs. In addition to “Loves Missing” and “James Bond”, that initial segment also includes “Sonali” and “Dirty Sanchez”; however, where the first pair borders on conventional, the second duo is positively weird. “Sonali” has an unusual beat and a myriad of electronic adornments that, at least instrumentally, make it sound a whole lot like a Radiohead song, and Iggy Pop wears his Thom Yorke hat proudly by trying to deliver lines and melody amidst very uncommon musical timing. Quite contrarily, “Dirty Sanchez” is an old-school Iggy Pop rant that includes ridiculous character-building lines such as “You desensitized sluts / Are always playing with your butts”, with the twist being that it is backed up by a marching drum, an out of control trumpet, a call-and-response structure, and a guitar and bass that try to keep the madness anchored to a solid groove.

Following that segment, the second half brings with it a myriad of spoken word tracks that are perhaps a bit too tightly packed together for their own good. As different mixtures of atmospheric sounds and wild horns fill up the vast silence, Iggy Pop basically sits and reads poetry: two original texts, “Glow in the Dark” and “The Dawn”, as well as Lou Reed’s “We Are the People” and Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night”. Although Iggy’s voice does have the potential to make even a cake recipe sound engaging, it is unable to turn these tunes into must-listens, even when they consist of words as poignant as those of Reed and Thomas. Thankfully, though, the final part of “Free” does have a positive note, which comes in the form of “Page”, where an echoing picked guitar brings new spice to the side’s usual instrumentation while Iggy – taking full advantage of his voice – plays the role of a crooner as he sings a track that is beautiful, wishful, and moving.

Despite its highlights, which are indeed great additions to the Iggy Pop canon, “Free” never quite gains enough traction to be a good record. “Dirty Sanchez” is so terrible it is almost embarrassing, and not even the funny turns its rant takes can save it; “Sonali” simply falls flat; and the absurd amount of spoken-word tracks the album carries drags it down, even if none of them are downright bad. As such, “Free” winds up being a record that, while rather meaningful to Iggy Pop himself, will likely go down as one of the weakest entries in his discography, because although the album’s flirtations with experimental constructions and jazz are interesting – not to mention a nice nod to “Blackstar” by David Bowie, who was a crucial figure in Iggy Pop’s life – they are just not carried out with the required spark.

Beneath The Eyrie

beneath_the_eyrie

Album: Beneath the Eyrie

Artist: Pixies

Released: September 13th, 2019

Highlights: In the Arms of Mrs. Mark of Cain, Catfish Kate, Silver Bullet, St. Nazaire, Daniel Boone

The ominous nest on the cover. The gloomy title. The fact it was recorded inside an isolated church somewhere in upstate New York. All signs seem to indicate that the Pixies, in their seventh overall studio album and third since their return, have suddenly gone gothic. And greeted with the somewhat surprising keyboard, one that would not be out of place in The Cure’s “Disintegration”, that accompanies the rising guitar of opener “In the Arms of Mrs. Mark of Cain”, listeners may buy into that notion and have it partially confirmed when seeing that the following track on the batting order is named “On Graveyard Hill”. “Beneath the Eyrie”, however, does not follow through on that initially suggested thematic, presenting no major stylistic shift to those who are familiar with the band. And that is just about fine.

At this point in their career, the Pixies are unlikely to gain many new fans or break into some revelatory ground. They are not bound to come upon another “Surfer Rosa” or “Doolittle”, records that would go on to influence a new generation of musicians and all the ones that would follow. Likewise, it is highly improbable they will bring back into the fold former fans who think the band should not continue to exist when Kim Deal, their iconic bassist, is out of the picture. Right now, the Pixies are writing, recording, and touring for the converted: those who are able to accept the notion that the group is – and has always been – a vehicle for the songwriting of Black Francis to be broadcast as it is accompanied by the signature guitar playing of Joey Santiago, the tight drumming of David Lovering, and a talented female bassist and vocalist who is able to provide some sweet harmonies and is unafraid to occasionally take center stage. And under that guise, “Beneath the Eyrie” is good.

The record is not without its missteps. Age has, obviously and naturally, affected Black Francis’ voice and lyrics, but where the first is – despite far from its past might – still good enough to carry a tune, the second have lost their mythological and surrealistic charm, at times coming off as if they are trying too hard to land on that likable quirky former style. Moreover, out of the twelve songs brought by “Beneath the Eyrie”, three of them rank close to the bottom of the band’s output: the oddly theatrical “This Is My Fate”, whose only saving grace is how it aims for a new niche for the Pixies; the pedestrian “Ready for Love”, which does have a pleasant Santiago guitar break; and “Birds of Prey”, where Francis talks dully and the melodic combination of Paz’s backing vocals and Joey’s little licks fails as a hook due to how it is closer to annoying than to catchy.

Everywhere else, though, “Beneath the Eyrie” is safely above average. It goes without saying that such a mark is not quite good enough for a band that had a nigh immaculate original run of four records; and in the sense that the album certainly does not keep up with any of the members of that stellar quartet, it surely leaves the door open for arguments that mention a tarnished legacy and a pointless release. However, in the sense that the Pixies are a rock band and that “Beneath the Eyrie” is a rock record, what stands is the fact that their seventh effort is a mostly fun listen grounded on what the group does well, which is using punk guitars, aggressive grooves, bare-bones instrumentation, and an idiosyncratic match of lyrics and vocals to support pop melodies that surf the waves of constant shifts between quietness and loudness.

The usual suspects are all here. In “St. Nazaire”, the Pixies go hardcore, Black Francis screams without a care in the world, and Santiago finds a riff that is mean enough to evoke hellish images. Meanwhile, “On Graveyard Hill” and “Catfish Kate” employ the most well-known of the band’s recipes: verses anchored on raw bass and drums that eventually are pulled into exploding catchy choruses, with the difference being that in the first the Pixies lean towards the punk and in the second they step into the pop by adorning the cut with acoustic strums and an almost wishful melody. “Long Rider” does not stray too far away from that mold, even if it bets more heavily in the harmonization between Francis and Paz and on a darker tone in its verses, which evaporates by the time it gears up to the refrain. Other cards that the Pixies have pulled during their run, but that are not as common as these, also show up in fine form and in a slightly altered approach.

“Daniel Boone” can be compared to the classic “Motorway to Roswell” given it is – by the band’s standards of song length – a nearly five-minute acoustic epic; only where the track from “Trompe le Monde” was filled with alien guitars and an extraterrestrial plot, the “Beneath the Eyrie” centerpiece is an atmospheric low-gravity slice of lunar beauty. “Los Surfer Muertos”, sung by Paz, could be a great lost cut from “Bossanova”, as it carries the mid-tempo pace and mysterious wide soundscape of that record, being part surf rock on mushrooms and part outer-space weirdness. At last, “Silver Bullet” – a strong contender for the spot of best track in the set – is a western ballad (a theme already explored by “Silver” from “Doolittle”) that musically grasps the tension of a duel in the scorching Sun.

Closing with “Death Horizon, a simple acoustic song that is pleasant enough but not quite sufficiently great to justify the noble position it has in the album’s track list, “Beneath the Eyrie” is not completely solid. It has, after all, some very visible holes that are a bit hard to overlook. It is, however, by almost every single standard in rock music, a good album: its cuts are generally very good and, in their briefness, rarely overstay their welcome; its production brings out the best in the band, only intruding to highlight and bring forth notable aspects of specific songs; and its songwriting is competent even though the pen of Black Francis has clearly seen better days.

Its main problem stems from the fact that one of the few rock standards to which it does not live up is the original sequence of records by the band that made it. It is a curse that plagued “Indie Cindy” and “Head Carrier” before it, and it is a shadow that will engulf – even if partially – everything the Pixies will put out until they call it a day. To those that have fallen to it, “Beneath the Eyrie” will undoubtedly land flat, hitting their ears like the sound of a group that is dragging their legacy through the mud. To those who are still listening, though, it holds a good deal of value and some remarkable gems. And while the former group will, understandably, walk away in disgust; the latter will be happy to know Black Francis, Joey Santiago, and David Lovering are still – Deal or no Deal – doing it and enjoying the massive well-deserved laurels that they should have gotten between 1986 and 1993.

This Is Not a Safe Place

this_is_not_a_safe_place

Album: This Is Not a Safe Place

Artist: Ride

Released: August 16th, 2019

Highlights: Future Love, Jump Jet, Shadows Behind the Sun, In this Room

The cover of Ride’s sixth album, “This Is Not a Safe Place”, features an outstretched arm that seemingly tries to reach for the ocean. Those familiar with the band ought to recognize that large mass of water as a callback to the uncrested wave that dominated the art of the group’s debut, “Nowhere”, a record that alongside My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless” and Slowdive’s “Souvlaki” was pivotal in defining the shoegaze genre in the early 90s. Therefore, listeners approaching the record with some knowledge about the group and its history may look at its visual presentation as some sort of nostalgic longing, as if Ride were trying to recapture that long-gone magic.

By listening to “This Is Not a Safe Place”, however, what one is bound to discover is that its art is either a kind of ironic joke or that Ride does miss the past, but that such feeling is more related to youth or perhaps relevance than it is to stylistic matters, because “This Is Not a Safe Place” sounds nothing like “Nowhere”. It is not exactly a revelatory statement; after all, as their career evolved, Ride never really stood still musically, for even the successor of “Nowhere”, the joyful and colorful “Going Blank Again”, had little to do with its precursor, even if it did have a lot to gain back then if it had tried to mimic its successful prequel closely. “This Is Not a Safe Place”, though, does not feel entirely fresh as far as Ride is concerned, because it has very obvious precedence in the band’s discography.

That echo, in particular, is found in 2017’s “Weather Diaries”. The first album released by the band in twenty years, it works as a blueprint for “This Is Not a Safe Place”, the sophomore effort of this new era of Ride. Much like its predecessor, the record filters some of the inherent characteristics of the group while expanding others towards the space that was left open by the elements that were removed. The excluded feature, for the most part, is noise; one of the defining traits of shoegaze and one of the most prominent assets of “Nowhere”, the cacophony is almost nowhere to be seen. As a replacement to it, “This Is Not a Safe Place” leans heavily towards wide soundscapes filled with melodic lethargy.

It is not, obviously, that noise is out of the equation. Ride knows the genre it emerged from quite well, and it is aware of the expectations that surround it. It is just that rather than accompanying the entirety of the album’s runtime, the buzz is only punctual. As such, tunes like “R.I.D.E.”, “Repetition”, and “Kill Switch” are actually built around walls of feedback, while “Fifteen Minutes” has a chorus that bursts into a mass of static. However, not only are moments like those far outnumbered by tracks where blissful calmness takes over, but they are also lackluster when compared to the rest of the record, as they either feel forced (“R.I.D.E.”) or are downright awkward in their attempt to give a modern dancing edge to the band’s signature sound (“Repetition” and “Fifteen Minutes”).

The moments when “This Is Not a Safe Place” truly clicks are those when Ride comes into contact with their poppier side, the one that was vastly explored in the beloved “Going Blank Again” and in the polarizing “Carnival of Light”. In those instances, the band unearths a guitar sound that has the jangling grace of The Byrds and aural harmonies that also recall the folk rock quintet; nevertheless, even if in at least one cut that mixture is used to propel a straightforward pop rock gem, the irresistible “Future Love”, which could have easily been recorded in 1967 save for some of its more contemporary details, most of the times they are inserted in large heavenly environments that turn the jangling into chiming and the earthly voices into angelic presences.

In those tracks, Ride nearly turns into a psychedelic outfit. The guitars and vocals reverberate as if suspended high above the air, hitting listeners like soothing mist; and both the clean production and strong melodies accentuate that beauty. “Clouds of Saint Marie” sounds so vivid and peaceful that it feels like the musical manifestation of floating amidst the clouds; “Eternal Recurrence” is a trip through underwater darkness thanks to how it matches a steady slow rhythm with an underlying layer of hums and noises; “Jump Jet” grabs listeners by the arm and throws them into a vortex of moving colors, ranking as the album’s most blatant shot at psychedelia; and closer “In This Room” is a gorgeous epic that stretches close to the nine-minute mark without ever feeling indulgent, as its melody and highly atmospheric guitar work safely carry it to the title of best cut in the record.

Featuring the same sensory value and level of quality as those tracks, but exploring a slightly different palette of sounds, are “Dial Up”, “End Game”, and “Shadows Behind the Sun”. The first and the last adorn the album’s significant wide soundscape with a much simpler instrumental backing, as they gravitate around acoustic strumming supported by arrangements of electric and electronic nature; and in that match, “This Is Not a Safe Place” encounters music that is simultaneously intimate and distant; fragile and self-enclosed. “End Game”, meanwhile, is the antithesis of “Repetition” and “Fifteen Minutes”; a cut where Ride toys with building a song on beats and repetitive hooks of contemporary spirit and pulls it off remarkably well.

Although gathered one after the other towards the tail-end of the record, these three tracks serve not just to give “This Is Not a Safe Place” a pleasant sprinkle of variety, but also to display positive signs that the group, despite mostly treading the very same territory explored by “Weather Diaries”, is not longing for the past its cover alludes to. In fact, much to the contrary, “This Is Not a Safe Place” shows Ride is still trying to push forward and being able to find some success along the way. And regardless of the missteps it contains, the album is – in the peace, tranquility, and lethargy evoked by its guitars, vocals, and production – the output of a group that is very much alive, emerging as the rare example of a band that, following a long hiatus, has returned to build on its legacy rather than to tarnish it.

Fever Dream

fever_dream

Album: Fever Dream

Artist: Of Monsters and Men

Released: July 26th, 2019

Highlights: Alligator, Ahay, Wild Roses

If there was one particular fuel that powered many of the groups that were an integral part of the boiling indie wave formed during the late 2000s and early 2010s, that substance was innocence. It is not that the young people who played in those bands believed the world was a perfect place that would seek to do them no harm; after all, Arcade Fire’s “Funeral”, perhaps the foundation stone of that movement, was an album very much built on trauma, disappointment, and loss. It is just that, from the perspective of an outsider, it seemed those groups were confident that the youthful, honest, and somewhat naive energy that ignited their hearts could lead them not just to a better future, but also embed them with the inclination to continuously celebrate regardless of all the pain.

However, as most people – either through personal experience or third-party reports – know, sometimes the obstacles simply win out, and all those colorful gestures, anthemic sing-alongs, and jubilant musical catharses stop making sense. At that point, if a group is not true to their hearts, they can easily continue to put out tracks that keep up appearances; a strategy that may work for a short while, but that will eventually turn the artists into a caricature of their original selves, as it will not take long for the false facade to start showing its cracks. If, on the other hand, the musicians in question are sincere, they are likely to produce the frequently labeled mature album, a record that replaces whatever happiness and excitement existed there in the first place with loads of introspective sorrow.

With “Fever Dream”, it seems that Of Monsters and Men have reached that crossroad in their career, and the Icelandic quintet has chosen to take the latter path. It is not exactly a very surprising turn of events. Firstly, because honesty and vulnerability have always been essential components of their appeal; and secondly, because even though they were part of the indie scene’s branch that was the most prone to excessive naiveté and celebration (that is, the folky one), their songs, including the festive hit “Little Talks”, invariably carried sad undertones that stopped them from coming off like the many phony and slightly obnoxious bands that plagued the genre and made them emerge as likable, true, and relatable humans.

As a consequence of that truthfulness, “Fever Dream” cuts ties with any sort of wide-eyed wonder. The vocal interplay of Nanna and Ragnar, always an integral part of the Of Monsters and Men sound, feels less like a duet between partners that find in each other shelter from the storms of the outside world and more like distant messages exchanged by two lovers who are drifting so far apart they can barely touch and who see themselves so numb to any external stimulus that it is nigh impossible for them to feel anything. Therefore, “Fever Dream” is fragile, tense, and extremely intimate. So much, in fact, that at times it seems both singers are whispering rather than singing, and that quality makes the record stand quite close to the work of The XX, a band that, also via a mixture of female and male vocals, operates inside those same confessional confines.

That is not, however, the only break that “Fever Dream” brings to the table, since it also represents a huge shift in sound for the band. Truth be told, Of Monsters and Men have never actually sat still in musical terms, for stylistic differences between their debut, “My Head is an Animal”, and their sophomore record, “Beneath the Skin”, were already pretty notable. This time around, though, the leap is far larger, because the band instantly goes from an indie rock ensemble to a synthpop outfit. There are, of course, a few connections that can be made between “Fever Dream” and its predecessor, particularly in terms of the wide soundscapes they present and of the heavy use of prominent percussive bases in some tunes, like it happens in “Alligator”, “Vulture, Vulture”, and “Wild Roses”. In the end, nevertheless, the two are totally different creatures, as the large ringing guitars that characterized “Beneath the Skin” give way to keyboards, synthesizers, and a whole lot of electronic beats.

Even if commendable from a musical standpoint and honest from a thematic one, “Fever Dream” is not exactly a success. Its first two singles, “Alligator” and “Wild Roses”, are undeniably great, perhaps because they tap into a very good balance between the band’s charming melodic indie work and their recently discovered fondness for synthesized instrumentation. Everywhere else, though, the group simply struggles to latch onto a thread of personality. As such, “Fever Dream” ends up being one of those records that never truly offend listeners with outbursts of poor taste, but that fail to leave any sort of considerable mark to make them stand out from the surrounding crowd. Surely, at times, it is arguable that the album goes way too deep into its introspection, degenerating into sequences of slow tracks that are too similar to one another in their sulkiness; still, none of its pieces are truly bad.

The core issue here is that, for the most part, the catchy components of the songs – such as the choruses of “Stuck in Gravity” and “Wars” – are so commonplace there is always this looming feeling that they have already appeared somewhere else; more specifically, in the output of an artist that writes, produces, and arranges tunes with the sole purpose of propelling them straight to the top of the charts with a good amount of certainty. To a degree, it is sort of ironic that an album that is, in content and in lyrics, attempting to be honest winds up sounding so calculated, but it is precisely on that weird middle ground that “Fever Dream” lands, specially in the tunes, which are – sadly – the majority, where not even a glimpse of the original Of Monsters and Men can be caught.

It is always tough to identify the point after which change is so radical that it erodes what made a certain group sound great in the first place; and it is equally complicated to measure how much of that evolution is praiseworthy artistic growth and how much of it is negative loss of personality. And “Fever Dream” will offer plenty of ammunition to the sides that see it under a good and a bad light, for while it is hard not to be touched by the pop beauty of “Ahay” or moved by the way Nanna almost breaks down while singing the chorus of “Róróró”, it is equally unlikely that the ears of many longtime fans will make it unscathed through the excessive and fabricated gloomy gloss of “Waiting for the Snow” and “Stuck in Gravity”. Due to that, “Fever Dream” is worth at least one thorough listen, because despite lying at the end of a road that was new and exciting to the band, the path they chose to follow led them to the overcrowded waters of safe pop music. And even if to some that final result will be unpleasant, there is always a crowd out there that will fall right into the embrace of that kind of sound – especially when it is so genuine and relatively well-written.

Let’s Rock

lets_rock

Album: Let’s Rock

Artist: The Black Keys

Released: June 28th, 2019

Highlights: Shine a Little Light, Walk Across the Water, Sit Around and Miss You, Go

As its title clearly indicates, “Let’s Rock” – the ninth album by The Black Keys – arrives with the purpose of reconnecting the duo from Ohio with the sound that made them catch the eye of the indie scene in the beginning of the 2000s. And that is because following an opening winning streak of four records centered around blues and the stripped down music emanating from a simple guitar-and-drums setup, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney wisely decided to look for some artistic refreshment by forging what would turn out to be a long-lasting partnership with producer Danger Mouse, who worked together with the pair to slowly infuse the band’s purely rock and roll genetic code with flavors of contemporary pop.

It was a process that made their output more universally palatable and yielded a quartet of albums that gave them considerable commercial success; however, the last leg of that journey, 2014’s “Turn Blue”, displayed, in its irregular quality, that the once productive bond between musicians and producer was starting to show signs of fatigue. And in that context, “Let’s Rock” emerges like a sign that Dan and Patrick were wise enough to notice that erosion before it was too late, because not only does the record see The Black Keys parting ways with Danger Mouse, but it also is the product of a rather unpretentious studio session that recalls the way in which the group put together their first works, as “Let’s Rock” was born out of the band’s decision to walk into the recording booth with their instruments to see what would happen.

Looking at “Let’s Rock” like a retread to the past, though, is only visualizing about half of its constitution. After all, it would naturally be impossible for Dan and Patrick to push a magic button that would allow them to go back to being the guys they were in 2002. As such, although the album has plenty of echoes from those days, for all of its twelve tracks have a garage spirit that gravitates around prominent riffs, it also boasts plenty of remnants from the Danger Mouse era, because many of them feature beats as well as melodic turns towards dancing grooves that would make those tunes feel right at home in the music charts. And it is in that balance between The Black Keys’ blues roots and their trip through the waters of pop songwriting that “Let’s Rock” operates.

Concerning the more old-school portion of that recipe, there is one particular band to which “Let’s Rock” looks quite fondly, and that would be T. Rex. It is not just that the album’s cover presents an art style that strongly recalls that of the English glam rockers greatest classic, 1971’s “Electric Warrior”; the presence of Marc Bolan’s group is actually felt pretty much everywhere in “Let’s Rock. It is in how Dan employs, through most of the way, a guitar tone that is punchy and fuzzy; it is in how all of the songs never kick into full gear, being stuck in a solid mid-tempo groove that is grounded on rock and roll; it is in how the melodies have a notable sweetness to them, which is augmented by Auerbach’s soft voice; and it is in how female backing vocals, which are perfect for the moments when the tunes move to their dancing segments, are abundant.

Ironically, in spite of its nature as an album that juggles both the distant and the recent past of The Black Keys, “Let’s Rock” opens up with two tracks that do not do much merging of styles: “Shine a Little Light” is, in verse and chorus alike, a smooth pop gem that would not be out of place in “El Camino”, ranking alongside “Get Yourself Together” as the record’s most obvious nods to the Danger Mouse years. Meanwhile, “Eagle Birds” is pure blues rock, albeit one that gains glam contours thanks to the female vocalists that back Dan up in singing the song’s hook. Everywhere else, though, the junction of the two musical veins that have guided the The Black Keys through their career is evident.

“Lo/Hi” and “Go” are carried by irresistible fuzzy riffs in their verses, which are smoothed out by the somewhat sleek production, before exploding into excellent choruses that gain muscle and power thanks to the backing vocals; a similar construction, but with a more marked use of the female choir as a bed for Dan’s singing during the verses, is presented by the closing trio of “Breaking Down”, “Under the Gun”, and “Fire Walk With Me”. At the same time, “Walk Across the Water” borrows blatantly from T. Rex’s “The Slider” but succeeds in masking that inspiration ever so slightly by incorporating, into the original’s body, a pop hook that is way too contemporary to have been written by Marc Bolan; while “Sit Around and Miss You” employs much the same strategy, but – in its case – the victim is the chord progression from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Marry”, which is deployed as the basis of a laid-back quasi-ballad.

It is not a whole lot of stylistic variety, which is not too surprising since “Let’s Rock” has The Black Keys not only working with no synthesizers or keyboards, but also looking back to a time when they toyed around with a genre that has a very limited scope. But inside those tight boundaries the album finds a good deal of quality: its songs are catchy and get straight to the point, generating a listening experience whose length is just about right for its monochromatic ways; the homages it pays are flavored with musical twists that transform them considerably; and the record sounds like a good summarization of what the band has produced so far, wrapping the two distinct legs of their career into one neat package.

Not all that “Let’s Rock” contains is above average, in particular, its middle sequence of “Tell Me Lies”, “Every Little Thing”, and “Get Yourself Together” is generally passable, as they grasp for the inspiration that most of the other tracks, each to their own degree, show; additionally, the spark of greatness seen in the best moments of classics like “Rubber Factory”, “Brothers”, and “El Camino” is only seen in brief glimpses when the best songs of the album come around, meaning that its highs are not as praiseworthy as the highlights from other points of their career. Still, regardless of its punctual stumbles and stylistic limitations, “Let’s Rock” is fun and feels fresh in how it combines basic blues instrumentation with pop songwriting; more importantly, it shows that The Black Keys are looking to move on from an era that, despite being very productive, had clearly reached the end of the line.