Review: David Bowie, “The Next Day”

I’m an occasional contributor to Third Way Magazine, a magazine of Christian comment upon culture which is available by subscription.

Here’s a review of “The Next Day”, the album by David Bowie, which originally appeared in the May 2013 issue.

Aging has been a preoccupation of David Bowie since the very beginning. It’s a metamorphosis much slower than his lightning quick development in the 1970s, from Ziggy to Thin White Duke to Berlin, but one he’s been aware of all along. “Look out, you rock n’ rollers / Pretty soon now, you’re going to get older”, he sang in 1971, and following a heart attack whilst touring his 2003 record Reality, he must have felt another change was about due. He effectively retired for the next decade, his output dwindling to an occasional guest vocal, his legacy complete.

However, within seconds of the start of The Next Day, we’re aware that someone has put something pretty exciting in Bowie’s tea, because he sounds engaged, creative, eager to take risks. The album opens with the thumps and screeches of the titular The Next Day, the angular chops reminiscent of his single Fashion, Bowie’s voice wheedling, hectoring and growling. The second track is even better, deepening the feeling of a creative corner turned – Dirty Boys is a quacking New Orleans funeral march by way of Iggy Pop’s Nightclubbing.

Rather than the late-period cosiness of his previous three albums, where aping the style of his glory days aimed to remind the world of his relevance, The Last Day has an iconoclastic glee at tearing away bits of Bowie’s history and deconstructing them for nobler ends. Valentine’s Day builds a slice of ‘70s narrative pop from a Mick Ronson-esque crunchy guitar line and sha-la-la backing vocals, and (You Will) Set The World On Fire trips between punky rock and Bowie’s inherent pop sensibilities. Even the cover art takes the past and cheekily, unforgiveably, obliterates it with a square of nothingness – the past informing the present, but ultimately discarded.

Bowie’s lyrics here are dense with oblique imagery, even in the quieter moments – exemplified by Where Are We Now, a gorgeous, heart-aching ballad which echoes his experimental heights by namedropping Berlin landmarks. He seems to be once again drawing inspiration from his long-term hero and rival Scott Walker; most notably on Heat, the final track on the album which sees Bowie appropriating Walker’s haunted crooning. Walker found a way to turn his pop career into a vehicle for albums like The Drift – challenging, uncomfortable, explosive – and maybe Bowie is now ready to follow his lead.

You get the sense that Bowie needed to make this album – that old creative spark ignited in the face of becoming an institution, an influence, passive and inert. On the title track he snarls “Here I am, not quite dying / My body left to rot in a hollow tree”, and mortality hangs heavily over the album; his raging at the dying of the light giving him permission to follow his impulses. It’s this emotion that turns it from a late-career cash grab into something more vital.

Creativity is bound to wax and wane over a fifty year music career, and The Next Day is a cogent reminder that passion and invention aren’t solely the preserves of the up-and-coming. After a break from the album-tour-album cycle and a wander in the wilderness, Bowie sounds reinvigorated and alive – ready to try something new in a career that has seen so much change. Thrillingly, it suggests he isn’t finished yet, and there’s still an appetite there for turning and facing the strange.

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Review: Frank Ocean, “Channel Orange”

I’m an occasional contributor to Third Way Magazine, a magazine of Christian comment upon culture which is available by subscription.

Here’s a review of “Channel Orange”, the album by Frank Ocean, which originally appeared in the September 2012 issue. This was written whilst I had quite a heavy cold, so some of the logic is a bit muddled. Sorry about that.

Six days before the release of his debut album, Frank Ocean posted a letter on his blog in which he talked about falling in love as a 19-year-old, and that love being spurned because they were of the same gender. Previously known as a songwriter for Justin Bieber and Beyonce, and an occasional member of puerile rap clan Odd Future, in Frank Ocean we now had something quite special. Historic, even. A major new talent in the world of urban music had announced that they had had, if not a gay relationship, then certainly same-sex feelings – something simply shocking to the homophobic rap community.

The timing was impeccable. Six days for Frank Ocean to be roundly praised by the music press and villified by moronic hordes on Twitter, before the music came. A guaranteed way of building hype for an unknown act, or an artist pre-empting the babble and baring his soul?

The first reason to discredit the PR stunt angle is that the music is so good. Ocean has written songs for others and so – like Kanye West or the Neptunes – his first solo album is eccentric, boundary pushing and uniquely his. Rather than Pro-Tooled clinical perfection, he favours ‘70s-sounding electric piano, with washes of gurgling synths. The beats are minimal, restrained, and his vocals are impassioned and refreshingly autotune-free.

The album isn’t perfect – there are some scratchy radio skits, and some songs lack hooks, resting instead on scrappy surrealism – but, when it works, it’s reminiscent of Prince’s Sign O The Times in its ambition and range, with a little ‘70s Stevie Wonder thrown in.

Freed from making something for the charts, Ocean tells tales of hollow, neon-lit glamour. It’s the opposite of bling – the drugs aren’t fun, and riches bring only loneliness. When he namechecks brands – on Lost, he sings “Got on my buttercream silk shirt / And it’s Versace” – it’s with a sad-eyed resignation, a sense that he should know better.

The best example of Ocean’s approach to wealth is Super Rich Kids, a fascinating song about aimless, moneyed youths. Over a lolloping piano reminiscent of Benny & The Jets, Ocean’s Odd Future colleague Earl Sweatshirt raps “The maids come around too much / Parents ain’t around enough”, whilst Ocean sings of stocks and shares – and, bizarrely, shower-heads – before concluding “I’m searching for a real love”.

The album really becomes special, however, when it addresses Ocean’s pre-release revelations. Bad Religion places Ocean’s narrator in a taxi, where the taxi driver responds to the narrator asking him to “be my shrink for the hour” with “Boy, you need prayer”. The narrator says “If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion”, before a masterful songwriting touch as he bends this concept back into his own situation, concluding that unrequited love isn’t much of a religion either: “Unrequited love / It’s nothing but a one-man cult… I could never make him love me”. Wrapped in swooping strings, it’s heartfelt and heartbreaking.

Similarly impressive is the deconstructed Motown strut of “Forrest Gump”, in which Ocean talks about his love, a boy “who wouldn’t hurt a beetle”, concluding “This is love, I know it’s true / I won’t forget you”. Ocean proves himself to be a writer of verve, equating the way the boy is “running on his mind” with the titular Tom Hanks movie. I mean, this isn’t your standard Usher joint.

It’s this eccentric openness that makes me feel this isn’t a PR stunt. Writing so movingly on unrequited love is a world away from the urban music of the clubs and the charts, and even further away from the violent and controversial imagery of Odd Future, and their de facto leader Tyler the Creator. Ocean is undoubtedly fond of using characters and narrative, often singing from different points of view (intriguingly, not all male), but it’s on tracks like Bad Religion, Forrest Gump and the opening track Thinkin Bout You, that the songs seem to drop the artifice a little. He’s singing from the heart.

Following the release of Channel Orange, Ocean has been opening for Coldplay in arenas, finding kinship in other acts famous for making emotive music for outsiders. The lines between genres have long been blurred, with Channel Orange similar in tone to Kanye’s work with Bon Iver – urban music taking cues from indie sensitivity. Frank Ocean has the urban grit thanks to Odd Future, and the songwriting chops thanks to his work with mainstream pop. How fitting that his coming-out should be the start of a creative blossoming into a dynamic, thrilling talent.

Review: Nicki Minaj, “Roman Reloaded”

I’m an occasional contributor to Third Way Magazine, a magazine of Christian comment upon culture which is available by subscription.

Here’s a review of “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded”, the album by Nicki Minaj, which originally appeared in the June 2012 issue. This is a slightly extended version. 

Let’s get it straight from the beginning – Nicki Minaj is not for everyone. Minaj represents the holy grail for teenagers seeking rudeness – a potty-mouthed rapper who happens to use her videos to showcase her fondness for provocative sexuality. She has said that she doesn’t make music for children and that, essentially, she wants to be judged on a gender-neutral scale against the most-accomplished rappers in the business. And yet, her fondness for pink wigs, video gurning, and perky pop production makes her catnip for younger girls, inviting the inevitable newspaper thought-pieces on her status as a role model.

On Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, her second studio album, Minaj is clear that she just wants to be one of the boys. The last words she says on the album are “I am the female Weezy”, after her Young Money stable-mate Lil’ Wayne. In fact, she’s a much better rapper than Wayne, with her creative rhymes and dynamic voice – sweeping effortlessly from squeaky bounce to growling panic – consistently more captivating than Weezy’s ugly, violent verses. But it’s this desire – not to be “a female rapper” but to prove herself worthy of her contemporaries – that dulls the sheen of Minaj’s talents. Rather than following her own idiosyncratic impulses, too much of the album is dogged by attempts to beat others on their turf.The album splits roughly into sections – the first nine tracks showcase minimalist production, with all pyrotechnics coming from Minaj herself, scrapping, scowling and yelling. Then we get five club-inspired tracks, followed by four bland ballads. It seems incredibly old-fashioned to complain about an album’s sequencing but it’s important. All three of these unofficial sections tail off in quality as they go on, and the homogeneity of neighbouring songs means that it’s a rather exhausting listen – like listening to three EPs, top-heavy with the singles.

The opening section gives the best sense of Minaj’s personality. For example, “Roman Holiday” starts with a strange cockney exhortation to “take your medication, Roman”, before this gives way to some pitch-bending Minaj rap, weird clicky minimalistic production, some apocalyptic dancehall toasting, and a brief appropriation of O Come All Ye Faithful. It is baffling, unhinged, and brilliant. Songs that follow feature ARP synth sirens, buzzing bass, and cavernous reverb, with Minaj’s raps confrontational, surprising, and too profane to print here. Guests like Cam’ron, Drake and Young Jeezy point up Minaj’s individuality through their gangsta saminess.

The second section – including the single “StarShips” – shifts into bright, multi-coloured pop with immense, over-produced Euro-club middle-8s. Minaj’s singing voice is often autotuned within an inch of its life, and these songs really could be sung by anyone.

Even worse are the ballads near the back of the album. “Fire Burns” is an Adele-esque breakup song, for goodness’ sake – she should be above that. These tracks feel like Minaj branching out into areas of inexpertise – studio experiments that neglect her genuine strengths.

Teasing any deeper, spiritual meaning from these songs is like searching for vitamins in candyfloss. Minaj is often speaking in character, with her multiple alter-egos all part of a complicated overarching history impenetrable to newcomers and tailor-made for internet messageboard discussion.

So, it’s a incohesive album, ham-fistedly sequenced, with some tantalising visions of an artist in development – there are glimpses of an individualistic creativity unmatched in rap since Andre 3000. This album doesn’t contain the crossover smash that takes Minaj into the mainstream – a “Hey Ya” or “My Name Is” – but then, I get the feeling that the mainstream is not where she wants to be. She might have been pulled in different directions by competing interests – producers, record labels, video directors, and her own restless creative desires. Or maybe she’s impatiently doing absolutely everything all at once, and waiting for the listening public to catch up.

Review: Lana Del Rey, “Born To Die”

I’m an occasional contributor to Third Way Magazine, a magazine of Christian comment upon culture which is available by subscription.

Here’s a review of “Born To Die”, the album by Lana Del Rey, which originally appeared in the April 2012 issue.

Video Games, the lead-off single from Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die, was ridiculously off-trend. If you had said twelve months ago that 2012’s first breakout star would be most often compared to Twin Peaks chanteuse Julee Cruise, you would have been politely ushered out of the room, but Video Games seemed ready-made for a film noir soundtrack, with Del Rey a 21st century fembot fatale.

Video Games was self-released with a YouTube video collage of scratchy archive footage, interspersed with Del Rey herself pouting collagenically into the camera. Proceeding at funereal pace, the song is undeniably captivating – minor piano chords; an insistent, nagging chorus – and hinted teasingly at subversion of a more spiritual nature. The song combined teenage lust with a sort of spaced-out, secular devotion – “Heaven is a place on earth with you” sang Del Rey, “It’s you, it’s you / It’s all for you”. The title of the album – “Born To Die” – toyed with this doomy, contemplative feeling further.

And so came the hype, swiftly followed by the backlash, and then the backlash to the backlash. For a while, Lana Del Rey’s were the lips on everyone’s lips. The writer Caitlin Moran tweeted of her desire for some kind of meter to tell her “what ‘we’ thought of Lana Del Rey each hour, so I don’t miss any sea-changes”. Across the music press, Del Rey’s privileged background, the alarmingly submissive content of Video Games’ lyrics, and even her changing her name from Lizzy Grant to her performing name were somehow seen as important revelations of inauthenticity.

Video Games hangs heavily over the twelve wildly-inconsistent tracks of Born To Die, with none capturing the lightning-in-the-bottle feel of that first single. Indeed, the subtle mix of sex, hedonism and attitude that made Video Games so enticing is here amplified and distorted – like a love poem yelled through a megaphone. “I heard you like the bad girls, honey” is distilled into the opening title track’s rather blunt line “You like your girls insane”, and there are plenty more examples to alarm all good feminists.

On the question of inauthenticity, Del Rey is clearly playing with archetypes in these songs – as witnessed by the exhaustive list of ‘50s-era references sprinkled across the album. Unfortunately, the archetypical role that Del Rey frequently plays throughout the album is not particularly likeable – obsessed with money and James Dean-esque bad boys, Del Rey comes across as less a teenage rebel than a spoilt brat, continually putting on red dresses and cooing knuckle-chewingly embarrassing come-ons, like the awful National Anthem’s “Money is the reason we exist / Everybody knows it, it’s a fact, kiss kiss”.

The album’s inconsistency is thanks to the muddled production which seems to be caught in two minds whether to apply Video Games’s simplicity to the other eleven tracks. There’s often a “throw the kitchen sink at it” approach to each song, with Badalamenti-style twangy guitar rubbing awkwardly against Timbaland-inspired beats and digital squelches worthy of William Orbit. You get the feeling that – given a producer with more of a singular vision, a Jon Brion, for example – Del Rey could do something a little more unique, but there’s a belated attempt with a lot of these tracks to kow-tow to current trends – like the way Summertime Sadness’s stuttered title apes Rihanna’s Umbrella.

Where Del Rey veers most dramatically from Video Games’ format – Off To The Races sung coquettishly in her higher register, or National Anthem’s ill-advised venture into rap – she falters, as her experimentation turns deadpan allure into dispassionate aloofness. However, on later album tracks like Million Dollar Man and Dark Paradise we see glimpses of Del Rey’s melancholy. In Dark Paradise in particular, she’s a haunted woman looking across the great divide of death, singing that she is “scared that you won’t be waiting on the other side”. A welcome sense of genuine contemplation, but not exactly a rigorous exploration of her soul. At the very least, she drops the name-checking and gets on with telling us how she feels. Born To Die is not a good album, but in these deep album cuts, where old-fashioned emotion rises above contemporary materialism, it’s a relief to see that there might be a little life for Lana beyond the one-hit wonder.

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Doing Data Input Whilst Listening To "The Drift" By Scott Walker

It’s my last week at work. For the past two days, I’ve been doing a lot of data input. I’ve had seven A3 sheets of information to input in four days. That’s one and three-quarters of a page per day. In the last two days, I’ve cleared four pages, so I felt able to kick back a bit today, and try a little experiment.

As I’m just doing data input, there’s no harm in me listening to Emma, my mp3 player, whilst doing it. Yesterday, I listened to the first two albums by the Shins. Tuesday, I tried listening to the Wu Tang Clan, which worked oddly well. But then… I had an idea.

You see, “The Drift” by Scott Walker has been lurking on my mp3 player for a while. I listened to a bit of it a while back, but never all the way through. This was because it was a bit scary. I felt pretty bad as my friend Jessie burnt it for me specially and I really should have listened to it by now. Anyway, what would happen if I forced myself to listen to the whole of “The Drift” in an office environment? This was my challenge!

Below, you shall find my track-by-track report of listening to “The Drift” whilst doing data input. The tenses are all over the place, but I think you get a good idea of the experience that I had. It was enlightening.

Or the opposite of that. It was endarkening.

Cossacks Are

The air conditioning seems to be cranked a little higher as my challenge begins. Seriously, is it colder in here just because of the song? The thumping drums are quite good at maintaining a rhythm, though. “That’s a nice suit / That’s a swanky suit,” sings Scott. How apt. I am wearing a suit! Thanks, man. It needs dry cleaning, though. This is going fine!

Clara

A gentle, yet threatening beginning gives way to cacophonous droning and that infamous meat-punching, punctuated by klangs of horrible guitar. It is oddly apt for the workplace. The stapler appears to be smiling at me. There’s a brief respite whilst I highlight an error using a blue highlighter; the droning stops so Scott can sing about Mussolini’s lover waiting for execution. This song is lending my every salary adjustment an enormous significance. Some electronic squiggling sound, accompanied by the sound of a man thwacking a side of pork, is giving me a headache. A man has started yelling – it might be in the song, it might be in the office. I can’t tell. Similarly, the sound of the cleaners putting some cups in the dishwasher is strongly redolent of wartime Italy. “This is not a terrapin!” sings Scott.

Oh good. The droning is back. Scott is whispering about poking a man with a stick. I notice someone, possibly me, has categorised this album as “Classical”. That might be a joke.

Dear lord, what was that?! Scott shrieked and surprised me.

Jesse

“Noseholes caked in black cocaine,” trills Scott, as I repeat the same data input pattern I’ve been doing for three days now. Someone calls the phone on my desk, but rings off after one ring. Sinister. I probably would have been too scared to answer it, in case it was Elvis’s dead twin, who this song is about. It’s a slow burning song, and isn’t giving me much of a rhythm to my inputting. “I’m the only one left alive! I’m the only one left alive!” howls Scott, a capella.

Jolson and Jones

Drums! Hooray! Accompanied by some electric crickets and some atonal organ. Boo. I really haven’t done a lot of inputting over the last song. I need this song to help me get down to it. It is unfailingly sinister. And, unfortunately for my work, its stop-start time signatures and free-form structure doesn’t really do what I need.

Ah! A crazed donkey has just started braying. “Curare, curare,” sings Scott. I’m just sitting here, a little dumbfounded. I pull myself together and input the salary information of someone in the Treasury department whilst a lone piper on a blasted heath toots plaintively – about what, I do not know. But it is scary.

“I’ll punch a donkey in the streets of Galway! I’ll punch a donkey in the streets of Galway!” yells Scott.

Cue

Five tracks in, and I think my productivity levels have been halved. Let’s hope for a nice jaunty singalong that will not invade my headspace!

No. We get threatening Holst-style strings and Scott singing on the same notes he has for the past four songs. No idea what this song is about either. I think he might have just sung “Charmed like a muscle” or “Charmed like a mussle”. Someone has started hitting a box. My colleague asks for a pencil sharpener; I ask him what he means. Turns out he just wants a pencil sharpener. This song is ten and a half minutes long. Sheesh.

Woah! Horrible, horrible Psycho strings! Over and over again! Scott is singing about a fat black crocodile. This is truly horrible. The strings slide down over and over again. “Slicing the swine!” bellows Scott. There was a regular beat for a while there, but it’s now stopped. Someone is playing a bugle horn.

A long lull with nothing of note happening. Well, nothing of note but CONSTANTLY BUILDING DREAD. Which comes to nothing – the song comes to a quiet halt.

Hand Me Ups

Blistering, atonal cacophony is the order of the day in the intro to this song. Following the quiet end of the previous one, it is deeply unpleasant. Gritty, distorted sine waves and someone singing inaudibly in the background. “I tried, I tried,” sings Scott, “Teeth taken out with a stroke / Rain running down a long spear… I felt the nail driving into my foot! I felt the nail driving into my hand!” There’s a nice saxophone bit playing in the background. A screaming sound from either a woman or a violin.

It goes without saying, this is the most unpleasant one yet.

Some atonal harpsichord is accompanied by a lute. “The audience is waiting!” croons Scott. As is my boss, waiting for me to input these numbers. Sorry, boss. This is an important experiment.

Did he just sing “bat the rat”? Is this a song about a summer fete? Oh. Probably not. He just sung about “splintering white bone”. I don’t remember that at a summer fete.

Buzzers

Radio static! Brilliant. That’s always helpful for data input. Now, some low singing about varnishing a fort (possibly), and someone hitting a wine glass. Someone in Marketing is doing terribly well with their salary.

Scott just came up with the first actual vocal melody on the album. It’s track seven! True to form, it was over the lyric “Somebody dies!” After “Hand Me Ups”, this is actually quite pleasant, although at the same time – of course – unbearably tense.

Oh. I’ve just worked out what that lyric is. “Stick the fork in him! He’s done boys!” That’s really put a crimp on my enjoyment of the song.

Psoriatic

This title doesn’t bode well. As it is 10.40am, I decide elevenses are appropriate. I avail myself of an over-ripe banana and a tiny can of executive lemonade and crash on with the song. This banana really is very ripe. “Jada! Jada! Jing jing jing!” sings Scott. The banana is too ripe to eat. You know when bananas are too ripe and they taste a little alcoholic, that’s what this one tasted like. The lemonade is sweet and fizzy. It also claims it is “Made with real lemons!” Great.

“Here come the blankets!” sings Scott. I do like a good blanket. This song isn’t so bad, perhaps because that banana was slightly more horrible than the song. The song is over. That wasn’t so bad.

The banana, however, was awful.

The Escape

Before this song starts, a colleague asks me to do some work for her when I’ve finished inputting. I obviously look a bit suspicious. To alleviate the tension, I give her a high ten. I’m not sure that’s appropriate office behaviour. My guide to what is right and what is wrong has been skewed by Scott.

I start the song. Gentle, military tattoo and quiet, threatening, descending double bass. Ah, and now skittering treated violin whilst Scott sings “You and me against the world!” I think he might be covering that Space song.

There’s only one track to go! This realisation gives me hope that everything will be okay.

Dear Christ! Horrible gremlin voices! Stalking strings! This is horrible! It’s like Orville is coming to kill me!

A Lover Loves

The beginning of this sounds disconcertingly like “If You Go Away”. Scott psst-pssts to get my attention. Leave off, Scott! I’m trying to do data input! It is gentle, and acoustic, and rather lovely. If it wasn’t for the pssting, it would be fine, but the pssting is really distracting. And then it ends.

"Dirty Birds" by Kat Flint

I’ve been fortunate enough to be given a copy of Kat Flint’s forthcoming album “Dirty Birds”, and I hereby attempt to influence you to purchase it, when you can. It’s very good. Songs such as “Ohio” and “Lonesome Crowd” contain an emotional sucker punch in the same vein as Sufjan Stevens’ “John Wayne Gacy”. Like Stevens, Flint is a storyteller, detailing the journey between a rural idyll and the grimy city – the title track namechecks Soho before commenting knowingly that this “is where TV came to die”. She is an exemplary lyricist, often seeming to write in character – a commentator on her surroundings, with the confidence to raise a weary eyebrow at the weaknesses and foibles of a screwed-up world. Some points in the album are exceptionally upsetting – always beautiful, charming, and welcoming, but incredibly emotional and heartwrenching. For the album, Flint has welded her Aimee Mann-ly glumness to a powerful musical engine, crisp string arrangements, tinkly glockenspiel and lovely picked guitar, and the songs occasionally launch into Bright Eyes-esque choral sing-a-longs. There are lots of highlights – my personal favourite track is “Saddest Blue Dress”, a tender and raw song about an extra-marital affair that concludes, agonisingly, “all my children will smile like the first time we met / It’s alright…” – it’s blisteringly sad.

I believe it will be out soon, but do check her myspace for details of when – it is a silvery disc to cherish.

http://www.myspace.com/katflint