The Boy Named If

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Album: The Boy Named If

Artist: Elvis Costello and The Imposters

Released: January 14th, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

five

Trans

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Album: Trans

Artist: Neil Young

Released: December 29th, 1982

Highlights: Computer Age, Transformer Man, Sample and Hold, Like an Inca

After building an unmatched streak of greatness throughout the 1970s, Neil Young went for quite a wild ride during the following decade. Like it happened to many of his generational peers, some of his work in the 1980s fell victim to the production trends of the time, which were not inherently bad, but were certainly far from being a good combination for the type of material he tended to write. However, although drowning in reverb, getting carried away with the use of cheesy synths, and making proud use of lousy-sounding gated drums could all be selected as recurring themes in the output of Young through the 80s, they are ultimately dwarfed by a concept that appeared far more often in his discography of that era: genre-hopping.

If in the 1970s Neil had built a career out of both a mixture of folk and country as well as sludgy hard rock, which he generally produced accompanied by Crazy Horse, in the 1980s he left those tight confines to do some well-intentioned – but usually unsuccessful – exploration, which is why a confused fanbase and very angry record company eventually got a rockabilly album (“Everybody’s Rockin’”), a work of pure country music (“Old Ways”), and a trip down the alley of blues rock with a big brass band riding shotgun (“This Note’s for You”). Absolutely none of those detours, however, were as unexpected as the one seen in “Trans”; because while rockabilly, country, and blues rock were all somehow related to the rock and folk Young produced in his classic era, what this 1982 release carries comes from virtually nowhere.

Trans is such a weird little piece that it is even hard to corner it so it can be properly labeled. A look at the personnel sheet reveals that, at its heart, the album involves the usual Neil Young sidekicks playing their signature instruments: the Crazy Horse gang is on board, and so is legendary Ben Keith with his slide-guitar magic. But although the core of “Trans” does have the expected mid-tempo sludge and plow of a rocking Neil, the record’s surface has the shiny electronic layer of a synthpop work, with a blaring Synclavier presiding over much of the music. As if that combination were not sufficiently weird to alienate most of his audience, Young opts to sing most of the songs through a Vocoder, a device that processes his voice so that he sounds like a hard-to-understand robot.

Conceptually, it is a classic recipe for disaster: a veteran singer-songwriter that built his fame on folk and hard rock during the 1960s and 1970s looks at the synthpop-making youngsters of the early 1980s and decides he wants to join in. And in practical terms, it is an undeniably strange adventure. As such, it should come as no surprise that “Trans” is disliked by many and is usually seen as an integral part of a lost decade for Neil. Yet, those who are willing to look past the initial shock and able to deal with production values that are obviously dated might just discover that “Trans” is not just the craziest result of Young’s genre-hopping; it also happens to be the best work born out of those experiments.

For starters, there is the matter of the vocoder. More than a stylistic choice, the heavy processing that Neil’s voice goes through has meaning, as his hard-to-understand robotic sentences are intended to capture the feeling he experienced when trying to communicate with his son, Ben, who was born with cerebral palsy. The vocoder, though, does not simply get a pass because of the heartwarming story behind it; it should get praise because it suits the material of “Trans” very well, which ought not to be a surprise considering that by 1982 Kraftwerk had already proved quite a few times that mechanical voices are an excellent match for synthpop. In fact, this theme of elements that would otherwise be tacky clicking in place nicely because of the music is at the center of the album: the 1980s production that would go on to harm – to varying degrees – many of Neil’s works during the decade is great for “Trans” due to its synthpop nature; moreover, the touching balladry as well as the mid-tempo sludge Young tends to forge alongside Crazy Horse snuggle smoothly in the arms of the odd genre.

The first facet of that partnership and its fine marriage with synthpop show up in “Transformer Man” and “Hold on to Your Love”. The former, which was written directly about Neil’s son, has the singer’s voice absolutely drenched in the Vocoder and as the verses progress, their pitch gets higher and the melody blooms into utter beauty. The latter, meanwhile, ditches the Vocoder but is driven by a full-blown synthesized groove, and a quick listen to its catchy chorus and signature Crazy Horse harmonies makes one wonder why it never became a hit. The second facet of the partnership, the heavier side of the spectrum, is more frequently explored, generating a wide and interesting myriad of feelings frequently anchored on strong melodies. “We R In Control”, “Computer Cowboy”, and “Sample And Hold” are mechanical, threatening, and dark, sometimes appearing to anticipate a cold future dominated by robots. Grounded on a sleek picked futuristic guitar riff, “Computer Age” is a great encounter between rock and synthpop. Finally, “Mr. Soul”, which Young wrote in 1967 for his first band, Buffalo Springfield, is reclaimed and heavily redressed here, with its repetitive and iconic riff being a nice fit to the machinery of “Trans”.

Despite mostly being a synthpop album, “Trans” does not stick to that genre all the way through: two of the nine tracks stray very far away from synthesized rock. It is a move that was not exactly new for Young, as even some of his most revered releases have one or two tunes that stylistically stand out like very sore thumbs; and in a way, it could be argued that the pair of tracks that step out of the line here stop “Trans” from feeling unified and threaten to make it come off as a mess. Although the complaint is certainly not invalid, it loses a bit of weight when the quality of these alien cuts – which bookend the record – is considered. Opener “Little Thing Called Love” is an absurdly fun rockabilly track where Ben Keith’s slide guitar and Nils Lofgren’s electric piano throw one hell of a party, with the band drunkenly joining in to sing the chorus in beautifully harmonic fashion. Meanwhile, closer “Like an Inca” may, on its magical soaring chorus, also exhibit those classic Crazy Horse harmonies, but it is a vastly different piece of music: a nine-minute acoustic epic whose strums bring the Andes so vividly to mind that it is possible Neil ripped them off from the titular civilization.

Ultimately, it is easy to see why “Trans” is a record that generates many negative responses. Its production is dated; some of its tunes can be mechanical, cold, and downright odd; most of its vocals cannot be understood; it showcases a legendary artist extremely far from the musical rhythms that gave him such status; and it is not even stylistically consistent. However, somehow, these alleged flaws click into place to form an enjoyable whole. Its 1980s production is a perfect match for its synthpop heart; its mechanical beats embrace the robotic vocals to paint dark pictures of either a sinister future or a painful difficulty to communicate; its two visits to other genres are fantastic; and its experimental nature proves that be it in the safe confines of his folk-country and hard rock or in the embrace of other genres, Neil Young can write remarkable melodies.

five

The Mollusk

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Album: The Mollusk

Artist: Ween

Released: June 24th, 1997

Highlights: Mutilated Lips, The Blarney Stone, Buckingham Green, Ocean Man

Whenever an outrageously idiosyncratic band signs a deal with a major label, there is always – understandably – some concern among fans that the pressures that come with a contract of the kind will harm creativity freedom. Take the case of Ween, for example. Before signing up with Elektra Records in the early 90s, the duo formed by Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo had spent over five years working independently and cultivating quite a reputation with amateurishly recorded lo-fi tracks that jumped between countless genres and boasted lyrics drowning in juvenile jokes. Out of that phase, the pair was able to squeeze not only a vast collection of cassette tapes but also two full-length releases – “GodWeenSatan: The Oneness” and “The Pod” – that together carried more than two hours of material that was absurdly noisy, highly experimental, unbelievably eclectic, positively crude in humor, and occasionally quite catchy to boot. Yet, as unlikely as it may be, and probably because of that last characteristic, by 1992 Freeman and Melchiondo were dragged into the bowels of the music business.

Their first two albums as part of the ruling system, though, showcased Freeman and Melchiondo had opted to be a nuisance from within rather than a cog in the machine, since “Pure Guava” as well as “Chocolate and Cheese” were – like their predecessors – works so big they felt unedited, so varied they could come off as unfocused, so abrasive they were bound to please only established fans, and so thematically ridiculous an unaware listener would probably conclude the lyrics were written by high school students. As such, at least during that period, Ween fans could safely sleep in the knowledge that the wackiness of their favorite music maniacs had not been tamed by the powers that be; and it is precisely at that point that “The Mollusk” comes in.

Released in 1997, “The Mollusk” sees Ween putting together, for the first time ever, a work that falls into the definition of what the boring general public perceives as an album. Obviously, that does not mean its predecessors were not proper records; they were, when it is all said and done, sequences of songs published under a name and with beautiful cover art. But thanks to their length, variety, and noise, they were more likely to be seen by most human ears as wild experiments in madness to see what sticks to the wall than as calculated efforts that are intended to deliver some sort of message. “The Mollusk”, on the other hand, is notably well-behaved: it clocks in at only slightly over forty minutes, it is almost devoid of lo-fi aesthetic, and – more shocking than everything else – a good look at what is sung in it reveals it might even have a degree of thematic cohesion. In other words, “The Mollusk” is Ween sitting down and making a normal album.

It is possible to say that before “The Mollusk” Freeman and Melchiondo had already done something of the sort. After all, one year earlier, the pair had gone down to Nashville, gathered a bunch of experienced musicians, and released “12 Golden Country Greats”: a concise trip through all corners of the titular genre that does not leave the duo’s signature humor out of the equation. However, given that project’s focus on a singular style, the Ween stamp it carries is a bit faded, as if it were a little detour on the journey rather than an actual stop. “The Mollusk”, on the contrary, has the band’s fingertips all over it because despite its cleaner production and controlled size, it is a wild journey through a kaleidoscope of genres, which is what one expects out of Ween.

Truthfully, when compared to works like “The Pod” and “Pure Guava”, the genre exploration conducted by “The Mollusk” is not so significant. For starters, the record does not have enough room to be so wild since it only has fourteen songs whereas its older brothers either approach or break the twenty-track threshold. Secondly, as revealed by its title and cover, “The Mollusk” has a notable lean towards maritime music and sounds that nod to the ocean, which narrows its boundaries considerably. Yet, inside them, the record has quite a ball, going through an old-timey vaudevillian ditty (“I’m Dancing in the Show Tonight”), a drunken pirate song akin to Tom Waits’ carnival period (“The Blarney Stone”), a slice of medieval balladry (“Cold Blows the Wind”), an art pop exercise on imitating Peter Gabriel (“Buckingham Green”), and an irresistible gem that either single-handedly inaugurates the underwater folk genre or at least marks its peak (“Ocean Man”).

The king of the proceedings, though, is undoubtedly psychedelic pop. It is hard to pinpoint exactly why Ween decided to go so strongly in that direction, but the fact is that the genre benefits the record in at least three visible ways. The first is that it opens the door to a myriad of sonic oddities that lend “The Mollusk” the necessary quirkiness that fans want from Ween; the best example of that result is in the hilarious effects thrown into the vocals of “Mutilated Lips”, which is a fantastic and trippy pop song. The second is that it equally unlocks production trickery that helps the album attain its aquatic soundscape, like the keyboards that imitate woodwinds in the title track, the unsteady wave-like rhythms of “Polka Dot Tail”, and the lush ambiance on the obscenely silky-smooth pop of “It’s Gonna Be (Alright)”. Finally, betting on a genre that is – at its best – cleverly melodic and technically skillful plays right into the hands of the band’s greatest abilities.

Although humor and eclecticism tend to be the terms most closely associated with Ween, they had always been a group that thrived on melody and on technical prowess, especially the one exhibited by Melchiondo with a guitar in his hands. Nevertheless, in most of the material that preceded “The Mollusk”, songs in which these two variables met were not so easily found because one had to sift through a good deal of wildness to locate cuts that went for one without leaving the other behind. In “The Mollusk”, however, the balance between technical goodness and melodic excellence is the norm, and guided by the light of catchy and musically rich psychedelic pop, Ween delivers an absolute barrage of great tracks that are memorable from a singalong standpoint as well as from an instrumental perspective; the solo in “Buckingham Green”, for example, should be mentioned in any list that attempts to rank epic guitar moments.

Of course, this being a Ween album, there are still a few moments when Freeman and Melchiondo go a bit too far into the joke and hit bum notes: opener “I’m Dancing in the Show Tonight” lacks creative spark, “I’ll Be Your Jonny on the Spot” nods to their noisy lo-fi origins without leaving much of a mark, and instrumental “Pink Eye (On My Leg)” is a bit dull. However, by any standards, “The Mollusk” is a major musical victory. It proved Ween could find a balance between their impetus for wild experimentation and the focus usually required to produce a solid album, and it manages to hit that target perfectly without relinquishing any type of audience they may have. Fans will still find humor, eclecticism, and eccentricity; while outsiders will encounter a tuneful work filled with catchy and fun tracks. As it is the pattern for Ween, “The Mollusk” is dubious enough to leave one guessing whether the duo is tackling these genres out of love or out of mockery; what is not questionable, however, is the caliber of its songwriting genius and the joy that can be found in this pleasantly watery collection of tunes.

five

In Absentia

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Album: In Absentia

Artist: Porcupine Tree

Released: September 24th, 2002

Highlights: Blackest Eyes, Trains, Prodigal, Collapse the Light Into Earth

Writing good songs is by no means an easy task, regardless of the genre in which the artist chooses to operate. However, there have always been especially tricky particularities when it comes to penning a worthy progressive rock tune. As the punks themselves were quick to point out in anger during the 1970s, there is something inherently pompous – and therefore contrary to the spontaneity of rock music – about setting out to create conceptual works with multiphased tracks containing lengthy instrumental passages as well as movements that recall those of a classical piece. Any band who veers too far into that territory is bound to come off as being too pretentious for their own sake. To prevent such excessive self-indulgence, progressive rock composers have no choice but to counterbalance that excess with some good-old pop hooks, consequently having both to develop a talent for merging the complex with the catchy and to be aware that going too far into the latter spectrum is not wise either, lest they want to alienate their original audience.

For Porcupine Tree and its leader, Steven Wilson, the reaching of that middle-ground did not come quickly. Some fans may argue that by the group’s second or third albums (“Up the Downstair” and “The Sky Moves Sideways”, respectively), the band had already reached that point. But it was not until their fourth release, “Signify”, that the guys were able to trim down all the fat to deliver a work that was challenging, yet approachable and thoroughly likable, and with that magic equilibrium attained, Porcupine Tree would unleash a sequence of progressive rock classics, like “Stupid Dream”, from 1999, and “Lightbulb Sun”, from 2000. Coming on the heels of those records, “In Absentia” partially continues the trend while also somewhat setting a course of its own.

The continuation comes from how “In Absentia” is an album that packs sequences of instrumental flexing, examples of structural complexity, and moments of melodic accessibility without going overboard with any of them. Moreover, even if sometimes it manages to tie all of those elements inside the same track, it is able to do so concisely, for although most of its twelve tunes have more than five minutes in length, the longest ones fall below the eight-minute mark. Meanwhile, the sign that “In Absentia” is breaking away from the band’s successful immediate past and the proof that Steve Wilson is an artistically restless individual comes in how the album throws a solid dose of loud metal instrumentation into the music.

In a way, the mixture was – at that point – neither unforeseen nor new for Porcupine Tree. Anyone listening to the direct predecessors of “In Absentia” will notice that contrasting mighty walls of guitars with acoustic passages that could have come from a pop-rock album could be considered the band’s signature sound; however, here, not only do the guys simply choose to be louder and heavier than ever, usually building the instrumental portions of the songs over a fierce metal pounding, but they also go for that volume more often, with just four of the tunes escaping the touch of deafening distortions.

Opener “Blackest Eyes” is swift in announcing the increased potency of Porcupine Tree’s aggression. Right as it gets to twenty seconds, the band erupts in a burst of fury, with debuting drummer Gavin Harrison showing he was a perfect fit to play on a record of this nature by delivering furious rolls and fills. And just like it perfectly encapsulates the album’s volume, the tune is also a vivid display of how the group masters dynamics and how the metal leaning of “In Absentia” makes the gap between quiet and loud more blatant than ever, since the song has a mostly acoustic body that peaks in a chorus of angelic harmonies before returning to a vicious guitar attack. Even if acoustic passages are not as common as they were in previous works, given the more subdued moments tend to be led by muted electric crunch, keyboards, bass, or synthesized effects, this dynamic trait appears in a good slice of “In Absentia”, equally emerging – with various structures – in tracks like “Gravity Eyelids”, “Prodigal”, “The Creator Has a Mastertape”, and “Strip the Soul”.

This meeting between a soothing type of progressive rock and the violence of metal may be the defining trait of “In Absentia”, but it is far from being the only trick it knows how to execute. “Trains”, the album’s most popular song, does eventually turn heavy as it approaches its closure, but most of its six-minute length is an acoustic, layered, and multiphased adventure that includes a handful of notable melodic movements. “Lips of Ashes”, “.3”, and “Heartattack in a Layby” are ethereal psychedelic clouds of gentle sounds and floating melodies. “The Sound of Muzak” has tense verses with picked acoustic guitars and nearly spoken vocals that unfold into a heavenly chorus. And closer “Collapse the Light Into Earth”, with a piano, strings, and harmonies drifting through outer space, is a touching gem that treads the line between transcendental chant and apocalyptic echo.

Despite the variety found in the tone of its songs, “In Absentia” is a very consistent album in terms of sound, working inside a delimited spectrum and exploring it to its furthest limits. This coherence also exists in the record’s theme: even though it is not a conceptual work, the album tends to touch on psychological issues that can run so deep they may cause a person to lose touch with reality, with who they are, or with any sort of morality. Consequently, Steven Wilson’s main concern, which has always been the pressures of modernity, reappears but is accompanied by subjects such as regret, child abuse, and serial killers. At times, the disassociated images and thoughts that try to replicate the consciousness of the record’s troubled individuals can seem like they are excessively heavy-handed, but their usually dark nature has such synergy with the music of “In Absentia” that the fact Wilson appears to occasionally try too hard can be overlooked.

Nevertheless, “In Absentia” has a couple of problems that are not so easy to ignore. “Strip the Soul” is simply a weak tune; lacking any sort of melodic spark, its quiet-and-loud dynamics feel like a needless exploration of ground that is better covered elsewhere in the record. Besides, the four tracks right in the middle of the album are a classic case of questionable sequencing, since three of them (with the excellent “Prodigal” being the exception) are heavy on instrumental passages, which while great could have used some separation. Yet, there is no denying that “In Absentia” is a marvelous work of progressive rock and one of the brightest spots of Porcupine Tree’s discography, because in addition to boasting that ever elusive balance between complexity and accessibility, it also carries a heaviness that suits its subject, a firm acoustic pop-rock layer that makes it approachable, and a new artistic step-forward for a band that would go on to build one of the genre’s most impressive runs of records.

five

Pressure Machine

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Album: Pressure Machine

Artist: The Killers

Released: August 13th, 2021

Highlights: West Hills, Quiet Town, Runaway Horses, In the Car Outside

For better and for worse, The Killers had never been able to shake off the bombastic sound that was so pivotal in propelling them to the eyes of the public in 2004 with “Hot Fuss”. On one hand, that characteristic played right into the hands of Brandon Flowers’ songwriting, which – with a knack for explosive choruses – was sure to keep on delivering at least two major hits per album. On the other hand, however, the fact The Killers seemingly only knew how to operate in full throttle meant that, outside a very dedicated fanbase, questions remained as to whether the band was anything more than a one-trick pony that was destined to be a classic case of a group that releases one debut of stunning quality only to then enter a brutal process of artistic stagnation with ever diminishing returns.

Rightfully, a follower of the band’s trajectory can argue that with the warmly received “Wonderful Wonderful”, their fifth release, Brandon and company were able to tone down the explosions that by then had become predictable to fall on tamer soundscapes made up of keyboards, synths, and guitar effects. But the truth is that, even with that record, The Killers could not get away from their natural lean towards grandiosity; they had merely swapped the cinematic heartland rock of Bruce Springsteen during the “Born to Run” and “Born in the U.S.A.” days for the equally bombastic arena-rock-for-the-masses frequently weaved by U2. In other words, they had simply exchanged one type of grandeur for another.

With their seventh album, though, it seems change has finally truly come for the band from Nevada; and, as it turns out, they end up gaining a lot from it. Although Brandon Flowers, like his bandmates, spent a good portion of his life in Las Vegas, an important part of his childhood unfolded in the state of Utah, within the small towns of Payson and Nephi. And it is the last one in particular (whose population sits at around 6,000 inhabitants) that he uses as a source of inspiration for “Pressure Machine”, in which he holds a magnifying glass to the elements that surround the people who live in such a small community at the deep heart of the United States and turns those individual pieces into serious, thoughtful, and subdued – especially for The Killers’ standards – tracks that come together to paint a larger and very vivid picture.

Since the moment Brandon Flowers burst into the scene as a songwriter, comparisons between his work and that of Bruce Springsteen have been common, and understandably so. After all, here were two artists that used bombastic heartland rock to turn the mundane struggles of average American characters – be them workers or anxious teenagers – into heroic tales. As such, when Brandon, with “Pressure Machine”, suddenly steps on the break to coin more intimate pieces about folks who have fallen through the cracks of the American Dream, it is only natural for one to be reminded of Springsteen’s “Nebraska”, the dark, lo-fi, acoustic, and masterful 1982 release by Bruce. But, ultimately, “Pressure Machine” is not so daring: even though amateur-sounding recorded interviews with some inhabitants of Nephi precede nearly all the tracks, lending them a very real context, this is a finely produced album that – appropriately – sounds like it came from an important band and a major label.

Needless to say, the fact “Pressure Machine” lacks the sonic audacity of “Nebraska” does not detract from its worth. More importantly, this aesthetic disparity does not even make the comparison absurd, because what The Killers achieve here is by all means similar: like “Nebraska”, “Pressure Machine” is a realistic glimpse, frequently narrated in first-person, into the vast United States that exists away from the country’s worldwide-known and highly influential urban centers. Wearing the shoes of various characters, occasionally within the same song, Brandon touches on topics, people, and events that he, from personal experience, knows to be a part of a small and isolated community such as Nephi. There is the knowledge, sometimes sadly resigned and sometimes satisfied, that most people will never leave the town; there is the strong faith and the equally powerful pressure generated by religion; there is the beauty of living in the midst of natural splendor; there is the kid who causes trouble around the place; there is the young man who is driven to suicidal thoughts due to how his homosexuality is not accepted; there is addiction to opioids; there is the yearly rodeo; there are crimes and stories whose tales spread; and more.

Immersed in this mixture of light and darkness, musically, what makes “Pressure Machine” so special is that although the brand of heartland rock present here is quieter, the fingerprints of The Killers are still all over the tunes; that is, in this work, the band nails the elusive artistic achievement of changing one’s sound without abandoning the signature characteristics of one’s music. Yes, almost half of the songs on the album (“Terrible Thing”, “Runaway Horses”, “Desperate Things”, “Pressure Machine”, and “The Getting By”) are intimate guitar-and-voice cuts punctually embellished by harmonies or strings; and all of those are the types of tracks The Killers of old would never have gone for. Consequently, save for the voice of Brandon Flowers and a couple of melodic peculiarities, there is not much in them that can be connected to the group’s previous material. These folk moments are, however, nicely counterbalanced by a set of more muscular songs; and in these, some of the band’s bombast comes through.

Opener “West Hills” is cinematic from the start, encompassing characters as well as scenes that exist in Nephi and in the natural expanse that surrounds it, but it cooks quietly for more than two minutes before unleashing strings and guitars on the repetition of a chorus that gets progressively grander. “Quiet Town” is a straightforward mid-tempo rocker that could have come from Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town. “Cody” is tasteful country rock with a sweeping chorus. “Sleepwalker” and “In the Car Outside” follow a structure mastered by The Killers in many of their hits: pulsating verses led by keyboards that are catapulted to explosive choruses, the former supported by a more electronic arrangement and the latter by gorgeous ringing guitars. And “In Another Life” is every bit as anthemic as “When You Were Young”.

Accompanied by a strong set of calmer tracks and at times being themselves formed by a few segments of a more subdued nature, the climatic moments of these bombastic tunes have room to breathe, taking advantage of wider dynamics to be more effective than ever. And the fact “Pressure Machine” is filled with the most remarkable group of melodies Brandon Flowers has created since “Hot Fuss” certainly also helps in that regard. When those two qualities are considered alongside the thematic marvel displayed within the album, the result is that The Killers have pulled off a musical rarity: with their seventh work, they have not only broken a trend of artistic staleness that had been going on for a while, but they have also reached a career-high when their best days seemed to be far behind them. And best of all, they did so without completely abandoning the bombast that has always defined their music.

five

Blue Weekend

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Album: Blue Weekend

Artist: Wolf Alice

Released: June 4th, 2021

Highlights: Delicious Things, Lipstick on the Glass, Play the Greatest Hits, The Last Man on Earth

While the indie class of the 2000s was interested in either reviving garage rock ethos or exploring the value of bombastic compositions, that of the 2010s had its eyes firmly set on the introspection of dream pop. Be it innocently playful or overwhelmingly depressive, the independent scene – the apparent final bastion of rock music – spent most of that decade producing artists who loved gentle guitars, whispery vocals, as well as intimate songwriting. At times, that inspiration veered towards an earthly folk sound, giving birth to more organic acts like Big Thief and Phoebe Bridgers; on other occasions, though, the tunes floated straight to the ethereal realm inaugurated by the Cocteau Twins, and drifting in the vastness of that space one could find bands such as The xx and Daughter.

Coming from London and putting out their full-length debut right in the middle of the dreamy 2010s, Wolf Alice certainly belongs to that second group. Yes, singer and guitarist Ellie Rowsell may have started the act as an acoustic duo, but proving that in the minds of her generation folk music is not too distant from dream pop, the project began gaining members and shape until it slowly transitioned into a more ethereal atmosphere by the time of “Blush”, their 2013 EP. Yet, even then, there clear signs Wolf Alice was looking to explore far more than the gloomy quietness that their indie peers were keen on tackling; Ellie and the boys also wanted a piece of the furious guitar walls frequently exhibited by My Bloody Valentine, and they were more than willing to pack the two dream pop factions into the same work.

There is plenty of criticism that can be directed at “Blue Weekend”, the band’s third album. For starters, from a purely artistic standpoint, it showcases no significant evolution in relation to its predecessors; starting with “Blush”, Wolf Alice was quick to announce what they wanted and, eight years later, they are still doing it, because although “Blue Weekend” has the dream pop calmness often seen in the indies of the 2010s, it also contains an untamed guitar fury that is usually forgotten by members of that scene. Moreover, a complaint can also be aimed at the excessively derivative nature of the band’s music, which by closely embracing the shoegaze movement in its two key facets – the noisy loudness of My Bloody Valentine and the reverb-laden melodic beauty of Slowdive – ends up not finding the same level of originality encountered by other bands that are part of its class.

Certainly, there is truth to these points. However, they are not strong enough to disqualify “Blue Weekend”. Stylistically, it might not be very different from the two records that came before it, but it is not totally stale because it brings the Wolf Alice sound to its peak. And sure, the transformation it applies to its inspirations might not be enough to let the band claim the music as its own; this is by no means comparable to what fellow indies The White Stripes did when they brought blues to the garage or, to pick a more contemporary example, to what Phoebe Bridgers executes when she uses her love for Elliott Smith to bring singer-songwriter folk sadness to a new generation. Still, ultimately, all music is derivative in one way or another, and even if Wolf Alice might cross the line that makes one say similarities are just too big to ignore, it is undeniable that the emulation that they perform is not just well done, but also without parallel in the scene in which they were born.

Nevertheless, if a listener wants to look past the fact “Blue Weekend” is an excellent recreation of the sound of major shoegaze acts and visualize other qualities, they will most likely be able to do so. The first greatly positive trait is how the album blatantly pulls from a myriad of influences and consolidates those sources under the same cohesive musical umbrella. The muffled guitar of opener “The Beach” coupled with a melody that slowly gains steam makes it seem that, like a tune from a 2000s indie band that dabbles in bombast, such as Arcade Fire, the track will eventually explode into catharsis. The waves of reverb-infused guitars in “Delicious Things” recall Slowdive. The high-pitched vocals of “Lipstick on the Glass” and the track’s floaty aura nod to the Cocteau Twins. “Smile” has verses with so much nasty noise that it flirts with industrial music. “Safe from Heartbreak” has a heavy reliance on acoustic picking, which makes it the album’s most obviously folky moment. “How Can I Make It Ok?” toys with the electronic influences of shoegaze. And any time the guitars kick into overdrive to construct impenetrable walls of distortion, it is impossible not to think of My Bloody Valentine or Ride.

The second major strength of “Blue Weekend” is simply how melodically gorgeous it is. Always keen on building moving soundscapes, the dream pop genre has always heavily relied on channeling beauty through ethereal instrumentation and vocal work, and when it comes to the latter, Ellie Rowsell undoubtedly delivers. This is not the type of shoegaze which tries to hide uninspired melodies behind astounding walls of sound. That description may apply to “Feeling Myself”, which is the sole point of the album where the vocals meander; however, everywhere else, whether she is betting on full-fledged choruses (“Delicious Things”), recurring phrases that serve as hooks (“How Can I Make It Ok?”), or a more free-flowing structure that slowly rises to splendor (“The Last Man on Earth”), Ellie is constantly enchanting.

More than summoning beauty like never before, “Blue Weekend” also sees Wolf Alice take its other major facet (the noise-making) to its most fully realized state. Given at least half of the tracks eventually launch into guitar cacophony, examples of the proficiency with which the band rocks out are abundant, but the finest and most definitive one is unquestionably “Play the Greatest Hits”. Following a pattern established on the previous two albums, the track plays the role of the only cut in the work where the group goes loud and fast from the beginning to the end; and breaking the tradition, rather than being the dullest moment on the record, it is actually a strong contender for being the best one. Ellie’s voice still breaks into a somewhat silly childish wail when she chooses to scream, but the tune’s hook is so massive and the noise is so fierce that the punk attitude that seemed unauthentic in songs of the type in the past comes off as absolutely genuine.

“Blue Weekend” may not be revolutionary and it may emulate its sources with a proximity that is too close for comfort. Nonetheless, its power and quality are simply undeniable. From the get go, Wolf Alice always stood out among a sea of bands made up of dream pop fans on account of its choice to aim for shoegaze grandeur instead of going for quiet introspection with modern flavors. It was a move that worked well to isolate the group, but it was also a choice that led them to imitate sounds that had already been explored thoroughly in the early 1990s, making the whole experiment come with a large question mark attached to its value. With “Blue Weekend”, though, these doubts and questions can be put aside, because, sure, the album does not push the genre to new places; however, it shows Wolf Alice can put out a work that is a worthy addition to the hall of great shoegaze records.

five

Daddy’s Home

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Album: Daddy’s Home

Artist: St. Vincent

Released: May 14th, 2021

Highlights: The Melting of the Sun, Down, Somebody Like Me, ..At the Holiday Party

There has always been a lot of David Bowie in the work of St. Vincent. Stylistically, given both of them are quite linked with the contemporary sounds that have surrounded their respective careers, the overlap is rather thin, since they are products from totally different eras. However, from a conceptual standpoint, the British man from London and the American woman from Oklahoma certainly present a similar approach to their craft. It is not just because St. Vincent, like Bowie himself, quickly learned that there is great power and artistic merit in immersing oneself in an album so thoroughly that a new stage persona is born out of the experience. It is also, and probably most importantly, because the two have a knack for transforming the music they hear in a similar way.

St. Vincent operates in a pattern that recalls David Bowie thanks to how she is capable of going into a starring contest against the pop trends that are emerging. In that battle, her goal is to understand those fads so deeply that she can succeed in deforming them to the very edge that separates what is listenable and universally likable from what is weird and excessively highbrow. With that analysis, she can figure out how many odd beats, noisy elements, unusual production choices, freakish guitar solos, and outlandish passages she can squeeze into an indie pop song before it gets to the point where genius becomes lunacy. As such, more than an exquisite creator, St. Vincent has invariably been a transformer.

For someone who has, through six studio albums, excelled in conducting mutations, her seventh work, “Daddy’s Home”, ranks as a considerable surprise. Yes, there is a visual metamorphosis executed in St. Vincent herself, as the sexy pop diva seen during the “Masseduction” days makes way for the a sleazy and confident woman seen on the record’s cover; someone who has possibly gone through a rough past, lived dangerous loves, and sought relief on all sorts of substances, both legal and illegal, greatly shocking a very conservative society on multiple occasions. However, when it comes to the music itself, “Daddy’s Home” is less of a transformation and more of a channeling, as St. Vincent aims for rhythms and a production style that are blatantly old-school, nodding to the soft rock, soul, and jazz (all polished with a layer of psychedelia) that would likely get played in the shady bars that the character she is representing frequented during the early 1970s.

The selection of that period is, of course, no accident. As St. Vincent has pointed out, those years unfolded right between two massive cultural and musical movements: the hippie wave of the late 1960s and the punk rock tsunami that would hit in 1976. Surrounded by two phenomenons that were highly idealistic and shackled by all sorts of rules, that window of time saw genres freely flirting with one another to create gorgeous new sounds, and it is on that rich musical mixture that “Daddy’s Home” is grounded. Yet, even if it is decidedly bent on musically replicating a distant past rather than performing a radical transformation on the music that existed back then, “Daddy’s Home” is far from being creatively dull.

The trick here is that most, if not all, listeners will certainly grasp the era St. Vincent is paying homage to. That same audience, however, will likely fail to identify where exactly – be it a particular artist or an individual track – lie the sources of inspiration for the tunes of “Daddy’s Home”. Truth be told, there is a specific moment in the record when Annie lets one of those secrets slip by, since “Live in the Dream” sounds – in its beautiful floaty, lush, and hazy psychedelia – like a great lost cut from Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon”, including an epic guitar solo that almost replicates that unmistakable and untouchable David Gilmour tone. However, everywhere else, like the cunning woman on the cover, St. Vincent keeps her cards close to her chest: she does not reveal her contacts and will not disclose the names of her lovers, whether they are powerful New York City crime bosses or that charming young waiter that works at the joint across the street from her Brooklyn flat.

Despite that very tight connection to a defined time and place, “Daddy’s Home” is not without very clear St. Vincent fingertips here and there. “Pay Your Way In Pain” is jazzy, relaxed, and smoky like the rest of the album, but it has not just a pulsating distorted beat, but also incredibly weird interactions between Annie and her background singers; the title track boasts a couple of screams that nod to James Brown and an uncertain groove that seems to be too drunk to stand on its feet; and the excellent “Down” feels like a calculated compromise between a contemporary art pop hit and a retro funk number. Nevertheless, most of the album’s tracks have no such duality, fully dabbling in genres like psychedelic soul (“Down and Out Downtown” and “…At the Holiday Party”) as well as psychedelic folk (“The Melting of the Sun” and “Somebody Like Me”). It is not a wide stylistic window, but operating within it St. Vincent comes up with what is by far her most sonically uniform record up to date.

Nicely contrasting with that musical cohesiveness, inside the album itself her lyrics cover a myriad of themes. Although “Daddy’s Home”, much due to its title, received attention before its release on account of how it dealt with the fact Annie Clark’s father left prison following a decade-long stint locked up due to a white-collar crime, that topic is only touched upon during the track that receives that name. Everywhere else, St. Vincent talks about the painful struggles of life (“Pay Your Way In Pain”); reveals her appreciation for major female artists that came before her, like Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos, for blazing the trail she now walks on (“The Melting of the Sun”); fondly remembers a late childhood buddy (“The Laughing Man”); portrays a woman seeking revenge against an abusive lover (“Down”); discusses how her desire not to be a mother can be harmful to some of her relationships (“My Baby Wants a Baby”); notices how a friend tries to hide pain behind fake smiles and alcohol (“..At the Holiday Party”); shows reverence for a tragic Andy Warhol superstar (“Candy Darling”); and even writes a love song (“Somebody Like Me”).

Tied together by quiet drums, subdued funky guitars, soul background singers, a jazzy brass section, a sleazy aura, and a floaty psychedelic spirit, those lyrical themes and musical ideas meet in “Daddy’s Home” to form one of those records that have a very specific vibe; one that is preserved from the cover to the last seconds of the final track. More than being an impressively homogeneous piece that, in spite of that trait, does not allow its tunes to merge into another, “Daddy’s Home” is also St. Vincent’s most unwavering record. Undoubtedly, this is a work that is neither as electrifying nor as inventive as her previous albums, but, as far as songwriting goes, Annie has never been sharper, since there is not a bad tune in sight, or many melodies that do not hit or hook. And even though, like David Bowie, St. Vincent’s secret weapon is to infuse art into what she hears in order to transform it, she just happened to strike her most consistent moment in a work in which she chose to replicate rather than to mutate.

five

Bug

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Album: Bug

Artist: Dinosaur Jr.

Released: October 31st, 1988

Highlights: Freak Scene, Yeah We Know, Pond Song, The Post

As a more extreme and less popular version of the punk rock movement which inspired it, the American hardcore scene of the 1980s also naturally featured a far lower degree of professionalism. That is not to say the people involved in it did their job poorly or amateurishly; in many cases tasks were actually performed with much more passion than in its seminal counterpart. But given the corporate world of big labels and magazines showed little to no interest in taking over the reins of the music that was being made in the underground, the influence of money was minimal and positions – whether they were on the stage as a band or behind the scenes as part of the network that supported hardcore musicians – were far more accessible to anyone who was willing to give it a shot.

Ultimately, what this wide entry point meant was that nearly anyone with a guitar or the wish to say something could find a way in; a reality that for punk rockers in the 1970s quickly dissipated when the huge companies stepped in to attract its most famous offspring. As a consequence of that fact, American underground bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat, the Minutemen, Fugazi, and the Butthole Surfers, which were mostly made up of individuals whose visible artistic talents did not match up with the expectations of the mainstream, could plug in to the amplifiers and rock.

In their midst, however, roamed one guy who was a bit out of the curve. J Mascis, the leader of Dinosaur Jr., was certainly a member of this independent environment. His talents, though, were more akin to those of folks who transited in the pop music charts. He could play guitar with a high degree of technique and he would showcase that ability clearly by frequently stepping into blistering solos. He could write songs based on classic chord changes that exhibited a smoothness that recalled power pop. And, on what was perhaps the biggest challenge to the ethos of a deliberately noncommercial scene, Mascis could write melodies with the potential to reach thousands. As such, it is no accident that to many of his musical peers, the vocalist and guitarist of Dinosaur Jr. was always seen as the man with a gift.

In spite of these greatly marketable skills, Mascis and his band never made it big, which means that something stood in the way. Anyone listening to “Bug”, the third release by the group, ought to recognize at least one of the elements that ended up keeping Dinosaur Jr. out of the big leagues; and that would be noise. Mascis enjoys playing as stridently as possible, making it sound like whatever amplifier he is using is about to implode due to the volume. Because of that, his simple, approachable, and lovable pop writing is drenched in a vicious guitar attack that veers into the limit between what is tuneful and what is feedback. If that is not enough of a tall barrier to widespread recognition, then Dinosaur Jr. builds it higher thanks to the vocal drawl and slacker attitude of Mascis.

Those two characteristics need to be mentioned together because they are nearly inseparable. Like a moody teenager or a stoned uncle, Mascis sings as if he is totally detached from both the feelings he is talking about and the noise he is making; his attitude tells listeners that he either does not care or is simply too cool to make an effort. Locked inside this unique lazy demeanor that would go on to construct the careers of a few bands, such as Pavement, Mascis does not even try to sing within the parameters of what most would judge as merely adequate; likewise, although his inborn creative greatness hands him a bunch of pop rock gems, his choice is to leave them unpolished and augment their original roughness by giving them a bath in underground noise alongside his bandmates Lou Barlow and Murph.

This battle of accessibility versus laziness and abrasiveness not only defines the entire career of Dinosaur Jr., but also firmly puts them in the underground scene they would otherwise not be a part of. “Bug” is particularly notable for being the point in which that combat reaches its most interesting level. It is not a stalemate, because laziness and abrasiveness certainly win the round, but the balance feels just about ideal. Whether they are pushing forward furiously (“Let It Ride”) or floating in a lazy haze (“The Post”), the members of Dinosaur Jr. here are always pairing up the right amount of melodic goodness to keep one attentive with the correct dosage of ear-splitting madness to stop the whole project from diverging into the mellow terrain its sweet hooks could lead it into. The sole exception to the norm is “Don’t”, which – sung by bassist Lou Barlow – is a cacophony of screaming vocals and guitars, hence shifting the equilibrium too much to one side.

Like it happens with nearly all other works by the band, it is nigh impossible to say the murkiness of “Bug” is polished, but the album holds a few touches of care that greatly benefit its excellent material. “Freak Scene”, the best cut of the record, is a delightful constant barrage of fuzzy strum, but its melodic beauty is enhanced by an accompanying acoustic guitar on its second verse; and that element reappears with even more constancy in “No Bones”. At one point, “They Always Come” brings down the noise to let the melody shine, but Mascis humorously turns the tables by singing in an unusually muffled tone. “Yeah We Know” has a rhythmic driving force that when combined with the cold vocals recalls The Jesus and Mary Chain. “Pond Song” seemingly nods to R.E.M. by featuring jangling verses and a chorus that tames the feedback slightly. “Budge” has a hook played on a relatively clean and slim guitar that nods to Sonic Youth’s more conventional moments. And before getting to its glorious chorus, “The Post” has a large, sparse, and dark soundscape on its verses, which indicates some post-punk influences coming from The Cure, Talking Heads, and even Joy Division.

“Bug”, therefore, is not just an album in which the struggle between pop rock sensibilities and freewheeling hardcore noise-making that defines Dinosaur Jr. gets to its most ideal level. It is also a work that knows how to nudge its sound, even if ever so slightly, towards interesting places that add an unexpected variety to the band’s usually steady music. Given his slacker spirit, it is unlikely J Mascis will ever admit putting effort into bringing out the best of the tunes he wrote for the project or even working on any of the songs until they were truly complete. And anyone listening to the album is sure to feel parts are missing or that “Bug” was not finished. But the fact is there is nothing really missing, and the record is as complete as pretty much any mainstream release. The noisy, chaotic, and lazy mess is just how Dinosaur Jr. operates; and although that has certainly kept them out of the top of the charts, it has also made their greatness even more interesting. And that quality has never found a better display than “Bug”.

five

Punisher

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Album: Punisher

Artist: Phoebe Bridgers

Released: June 17th, 2020

Highlights: Garden Song, Kyoto, Chinese Satellite, I Know the End

“Punisher”, the second album by indie rock singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, derives its title from a quirky concept coined by the girl herself. In her mind, the term refers to a person who – as sweet as they may be – is completely unable to tell that those who are listening are not that interested in what is being said; and, as a consequence of that unawareness, the speaker simply keeps on talking without noticing they are the source of some social discomfort. As Phoebe puts it, a punisher can either be somebody one meets at a party and cannot stop rambling about bothersome topics or even a fan who, delighted at crossing paths with their idol, is too excited by the experience to even consider the source of their admiration might be busy, tired, or momentarily closed to interactions.

As an artist, it seems obvious Phoebe created the term out of personal experiences, since she is – after all – a human of some fame, which has undoubtedly caused her to be approached in less than ideal occasions. However, the album’s title song smartly shifts roles, putting the singer herself in the position of the one that is dishing out the punishment. And as a homage to her greatest inspiration, the person that is targeted by her uncontrolled mouth in the scenario imagined during the tune is none other than Elliott Smith, the legendary indie folk singer who died in 2003. Having lived close to Phoebe’s Los Angeles neighborhood before his passing, she imagines cornering him by his house and shudders at the mess she would make out of the situation.

Comparisons between Bridgers and Smith are nothing new, as they have been around since the girl’s 2017 debut, “Stranger in the Alps”; and Phoebe, even before writing “Punisher”, was never shy about who her biggest source of inspiration is. It is possible to say, though, that whatever parallels exist between the two artists – and they are certainly there – similarities have been somewhat over-amplified. In “Punisher”, Bridgers calls herself “A copycat killer with a chemical cut”, but the truth is her music is distant from Elliott’s. Smith was a folk singer at heart, one whose tunes of sorrow could be perfectly replicated when he sat on a stool with his acoustic guitar and almost whispered through a torrent of miserable words. Phoebe, on the other hand, is part of a far more developed indie scene, one with shiny production, full-band arrangements, and effects that add atmosphere to an intimate setting.

Rightfully, one could say that the passing of more than twenty years is responsible for that shift, as during that time the indie movement went on from being on the fringes of rock to the center stage; and such change in position transformed its aesthetic from garage lo-fi to delicate pop craft. Yet, the fact remains that the point in which the work of Phoebe truly meets that of Elliott is in the emotional realm. These are two artists that hold, in their writing, the ability to summarize devastating feelings in concise statements. They do not construct images carefully; they pile emotions on top of each other, remembering scenes in a fragmented dream-like manner in which every frame of the disconnected plot they retell was engraved in their heart thanks to the burning intensity of a feeling.

It is with that skill at full display that Phoebe returns in “Punisher”, and once more – as it was the case with Elliott – one has to wonder if the singer will be able to support the weight she carries on her shoulders. There is certainly a great deal of strength within her as well as an admirable courage in the fact she is able to be so open about it all, but the tunes are so delicate and her voice so frail that the breaking point always seems to be around the corner. As “Punisher” goes on, Phoebe checks all the boxes one would expect out of a sad album, including failed relationships, death, and depression. However, she adds to the pile some more unique and rather personal stories, including the lack of faith alluded to in “Chinese Satellite”; caring and trying to rescue a destructive person from their own demons in “Graceland Too”; feeling drowned by a mountain of terrible current affairs to the point one is sure the apocalypse is nigh in “I Know the End”; and, of course, the anxious awkward encounter of the title cut.

It is a lot of turmoil, but the weight of “Punisher” does not come solely from the fact it talks about sad matters; it also originates from how genuine Phoebe is as an interpreter and writer. There is little doubt she has gone through all feelings described here; this is no flowery storytelling. And the frailty of most tunes augments that perception. Guitars are always picked or plucked, rarely being strummed at all; the rhythmic low-end of the songs is created by a conjunction of occasional pulses as well as atmospheric effects by numerous tasteful synthesizers; and keyboards add a relaxing backing luster to the tunes, making them float in the air as if the instruments were being played on the surface of the Moon. In the middle of that aural magic, numbed by hurt, Phoebe painfully whispers like somebody who is watching a sad slow-motion film of her life passing through her mind.

Although consistent in mood and pace, “Punisher” finds ways to occasionally break out of the pattern that dominates it, a progress that makes it slightly better than its good but overly monotonic predecessor. “Kyoto” is a pleasant surprise, a tune in which Phoebe makes use of her band to rock out a little and go for a slightly faster tempo, which nicely suits the theme of disorientation seen in the track; in addition, the song is made brighter by the use of a brass section and both an infectious rhythm and a soaring chorus that make it perfect for radio play. “Chinese Satellite” adds more intensity to its chorus each time around, eventually throwing violins, frantic drums, and a noisy guitar into the mixture. “ICU” has a chaotic start-and-stop steady beat that owes a bit to The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting For The Man”. “Graceland Too” is catchy misery with a country tinge. And “I Know the End” has almost half of its running time dedicated to an epic cathartic sing-along outro that borrows from the indie rock playbook.

Overall, it is awfully difficult to find fault with “Punisher”. It is a concise work of great thematic and musical cohesion. Furthermore, it has no obviously weak cuts, even if some of its slower parts at times flirt with merging with one another in their lethargic beauty. As great as it may be, though, it is possible to say the defining work of Phoebe’s career is still – hopefully – ahead of her, because the one element that “Punisher” lacks is a unique creative spark to further separate it from the scene that originated it. Although not quite the copycat of Elliott Smith she shames herself for being, in wading through the terrain of well-produced indie sadness, Phoebe navigates too close to what a listener expects out of a genre that has been very omnipresent during the past years. And even if melodically and lyrically she is a point out of the curve, the music has yet to find a truly remarkable breakthrough. Consequently, “Punisher” is just about flawless, but its perfection is excessively grounded on what has been done before.

four

Never For Ever

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Album: Never for Ever

Artist: Kate Bush

Released: September 8th, 1980

Highlights: Babooshka, Delius, Army Dreamers, Breathing

Although not yet twenty when she sat down to put together her debut, Kate Bush was confident enough in her artistic vision to make sure that those around her – be them record engineers or executives in suits – became aware that she would fight to take ownership of her career. It is not that she did not appreciate the helping hands of the people who, amazed by her talent, played a key role in getting her a contract as well as in shaping her initial recordings, a cast of major rock figures that included Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. It is just that Kate knew that her ideas were so personal and unique that she would have to not only overcome a high degree of resistance, but also take control of the whole creative process in order to make her idealized musical concepts materialize as accurately as possible.

Case in point, when the initial single of her first album was being prepared, the record company pushed for the good yet standard-sounding “James and the Cold Gun” to be picked; Bush, however, famously stood her ground and made a case for the selection of the more ambitious “Wuthering Heights” instead, a daring choice that paid off when the song climbed to the top of the charts, stayed there for four weeks, and went on to become a pop classic. Despite the evident proof of her artistic tact, complete control over her work would take a bit longer to come. Kate’s debut, “The Kick Inside” was naturally not produced by her. Meanwhile, due to pressure from the label, which wanted to ride on the existing wave of success, the follow-up (“Lionheart) would be made too quickly. As such, the singer was not given enough time to develop fresh ideas, having to use older tunes and recycle the sound of “The Kick Inside”.

But then came “Never for Ever”. Released two years after “Lionheart”, it marks the moment when Kate Bush takes over, therefore emerging like the turning point that would down the line enable the creation of historical out-of-the-box classics like “The Dreaming” and “Hounds of Love”. Besides writing the tunes and performing them, Bush also produces the album alongside Jon Kelly; creates most of the arrangements; and plays, in addition to her usual piano, a horde of different synthesizers. These are all considerable shifts, but more important than what is written on the record’s credits is how it sounds like, and the change is absolutely notable.

“The Kick Inside” and “Lionheart” were tastefully produced. Yet, despite Kate’s eccentricity, which channels her pop songwriting into artistic performances, these records ultimately sounded like pop albums from the 1970s. It is a characteristic that makes them be true to when they were made; at the same time, though, such trait threatens to turn Kate Bush into just another run-of-the-mill pop act. “Never for Ever”, on the other hand, runs no such risk. Sure, to a contemporary listener there are a few synthesizer textures and vocal arrangements that will seem dated, but “Never for Ever” sounds thoroughly unique as it hops from genre to genre or pulls them together to form weird little babies. Here, Kate drinks from classical music, progressive pop, and rock to land on a fabric that is much truer to her essence, consequently highlighting the theatrical aspects of her music, which manages to be simultaneously appropriate for a stage, a cabaret, and a chamber.

Naturally, the production cannot be solely credited for the artistic leap of “Never for Ever”, as in many instances it is the nature of the compositions themselves that ends up calling for a different treatment. Nowhere in her first two albums had Kate written anything as sparse as “Delius”, as operatic as “The Infant Kiss”, and as filled with movements as “Breathing”. Because of that, the first is so ethereal that it seems to anticipate the dream pop of the Cocteau Twins, with nearly indecipherable vocal inflections included, by at least one year, and that description is also quite suitable for “Blow Away”, the next track in the album’s sequence; meanwhile, the second starts like a piano ballad before quickly revealing it is actually a dramatic orchestrated piece that might as well have been extracted from the key emotional scene of a musical; and the third is a series of beautifully disjointed passages which slowly rise to catharsis connected by the same overall melody, hence coming off as mini-suite.

Interestingly, in many instances the unusual constructions presented by the songs are a reflection of the equally unique themes Kate brings to the table, meaning that they work like musical representations of the lyrics. “Egypt” boasts a dream-like aura and is backed by a guitar soloing notes that immediately recall the country; yet, it features a haunting chaotic coda that nods to the conflicts and poverty present in a nation that is idealized as a touristic destination by many. “The Wedding List”, inspired by the movie “The Bride Wore Black”, has a woman going on a killing rampage as she searches for the five men who killed the groom on the day they were to be married, and as the driving verses depict her vengeful intents, the foggy choruses show how the press and public perceive her quest. “Army Dreamers” is brilliantly arranged and sung like a lullaby, but its marching waltz progression underscores the suffering of a mother who lost her young son when he was called upon to fight a war. And the junction of beauty and horror that the alternating passages of “Breathing” have serves to speak of a baby that will be born into a world poisoned with nuclear fallout.

Most of the eleven songs that make up the album follow this pattern of structural flexibility, which is greatly responsible for giving “Never for Ever” the progressive soul that best defines, but in the midst of this complexity, Kate also opens up a bit of space for more direct tunes. Despite the pronounced fretless bass that gives its piano-led verses a jazz undertone, “Babooshka” is pure pop glory straight from the 1980s, with an energetic performance by Kate’s band and well-placed synthesizers adorning it nicely. “All We Ever Look For” may have kooky instrumentation (including whistling) and a weird break with sound effects, but it is a controlled slice of psychedelia. Finally, “Violin”, which is best described as a fast-paced rock tune accompanied by the titular instrument, shows that the singer – who was admired by none other than John Lydon himself – was perhaps not totally immune to the punk phenomenon.

Truthfully, not everything in “Never for Ever” works. “Egypt” is clever conceptually, but it lacks a melodic hook to make it worth it. “The Wedding List” is one of those moments when Kate’s eccentric spirit gets the best of her, as the tune feels convoluted. And such oddity also affects “Violin”, in which her unique tongue-in-cheek vocal approach to the song flirts with annoyance or parody. Rough spots such as these cause “Never for Ever” to fall below the upper echelon of Kate Bush’s work, meaning that although it is an essential part of her discography, it is no match for what would follow, especially “The Dreaming” and “Hounds of Love”. Yet, it will forever remain as the moment when the little girl from Devon started to stretch her arms widely enough to control all aspects of her work, kicking off the transformation from singer to musical legend that would soon come.

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