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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REVIEW: "Wild Young Hearts" by Noisettes

The alarm bells started ringing when Noisettes’ second album was trumpeted as their discovery of synths and dancey pop froth, and discarding the odd fuzz-guitar soul-punk skronk that made me love their first album so much. Then the first single from it soundtracked a car advert. Oh God. It’s going to be bland and forgettable and over-produced and will junk all the things that made Shingai Shoniwa and cohorts so odd and thrilling.

Thankfully, they’ve sidestepped that. True, on first listen, the fuzz has been held back, and Shoniwa’s voice is occasionally multi-tracked over lush strings. There are more of the quieter, almost old-fashioned nylon-strung ballady songs that peppered the second half of the first album (the opener “Sometimes”, and the odd, “To Kill A Mockingbird”-quoting “Atticus”), but also Winehouse-Motown parodies (“Never Forget You”), peppy New Wave pop (the title track), as well as the anticipated synth monsters. The single “Don’t Upset The Rhythm” packs a big singalong chorus, tinkly little triangle lines, and fun meta-textual touches (“Kick, snare, hat, ride!” sings Shoniwa). The other song with its eye firmly on a dancefloor is a punchy lady-anthem called “Saturday Night”, again with a poppy chorus and bwoooooomy synth swells and glockenspiels and a pigging cowbell solo. Shoniwa is still in sterling voice, her vocal melodies always interesting, not always expected, more controlled, a little more measured.

So, a more confident, less scrappy, more cohesive album, with some of the more interesting musical corners knocked off. Then, the lyrics come through. My.

The first album was slightly nondescript, lyrically speaking. Yes, it was exciting when Shoniwa sung things like “We compliment each other like Satan and Christ”, and “Tell your ASBO friend to sling his hook”, and we get a bit of that here (“Can’t get home? / You can use my dog and bone”), but there were also long songs about travelling on a Tube (“Mind The Gap”) which are thankfully not repeated here. And what exactly was “Bridge To Canada” about?

Here, however, the real shocker is that almost every song has at its heart a really, really upset woman. For this is surreptitiously a breakup album (or possibly the rarer form – a break-up-with-someone-who-isn’t-my-partner album), and it’s only on closer listens that you peel back the sometimes jaunty, sometimes pleasant music to find lines like “Taking lovers just might keep my tears at bay / But the dam will break at any hour” from “Sometimes”. Or “Just tell them / We could be building / Something out of our despair” from “So Complicated”. Hell, even the song that optimistically begins “There’s a boy I like south of the river” has Shoniwa impatiently demanding “Let it start! Let it start!” and depicts her standing in the rain without a coat.

Like one of my other favourite breakup albums, “Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer” by Of Montreal, here the highs are manic highs – frantic and urgent (“Go, baby, go!” yells Shoniwa, and – later – “Cheap kicks are alright!”) and the lows are self-lacerating (In “Every Now & Then”, she hopes against hope for “Someone to tear the curtains down / And let the light back into this empty room”; in “24 Hours”: “Hey lover, I’m in limbo”; in the title track “Tell me when will we learn? / We love it and we leave it and we watch it burn”).

It’s not a constant bummer (like “Sea Change” by Beck – an album I can’t get through without a quart of glycerin and a Jolt cola) because the music is varied and fun, although occasionally just minor-key enough to prompt a little soul-searching. In fact, despite the lack of a huge kickass single like “Sister Rosetta” or “Don’t Give Up”, it’s a more promising album than the first, as it doesn’t tail off as dramatically as “What’s The Time Mr Wolf?”, and an album as barmy, and British, and intelligent, and emotional, and old-fashioned-and-yet-modern, should be purchased and reacted to. So do that.

But seriously, please, someone give that girl a hug.

Letters from Ljubliana: A Theatrical Blogger Speaks – Friday

[Written for Noises Off at the National Student Drama Festival 2009.]

Super-Hi to you all from Andrzwej Haidonsk who is me at Ljubliana for the National Slovenian Post-Drama Festival. I have heard that I was the subject of a question of knowledge at your quiz show in the Festival, and I am flattened that you are talking about me. I am consterned to hear that Andrew Haydon, my counter-point, was in a team who did not know that the NSPDF stood for National Slovenian Post-Drama Festival, and thought it stood for National Student Post-Drama Festival. Of course it is not! Students making theatre? It will never happen! They are more likely to do the sex or write the essay.

Today I looked at three post-plays, all of which were post-interesting, and which I am going to post-discuss with you post-haste. Post-ibly. Possibly. This is a joke in English!

It has been a long festival and so I am quite tired. Sometimes I look at a little play and grow all sleepy, and The Wake is what I then have to do. Nudge me! I am out for a count! But that did not happen in this, which was a look at fluid dynamics in a bottle of Ljubliana’s most promising beer Jacqt. There was a bottle of beer on a column like the Greeks have. And we all stood around and looked into it. Perhaps the post-drama was inside. In liquid form. Perhaps inside a bubble of beer gas was talking to another bubble of beer gas for a long time and not doing anything of note. Maybe that is where the post-drama was sitting.

Next to the bottle of Jacqt there was a tub of margarine. How could we look at fluid dynamics in this? It is a semi-solid! And also it is stored in a non-see-through plastic tub. I think to myself, “This must be a double-bill with the play The Wake! This is Tub. I did not even know that that was happening. What a surprise!” Was it a good surprise? No. I was worried that I would not get to my third play that day. It was a scheduling nightmare! What the frick would we do? But for good luck, the third play “Sad Since Tuesday” was also on the Greek column. It was a Tuesday cut out of a magazine and it was all soggy from the tears of someone. Unless it was beer. Or margarine.

What the shit is this? Three plays together? The Festival Director is even not trying any more! Three plays together! This is shit. They shall hear of this in Lodz, in Minsk, even in Berlin!

It was a shitty end to an extreme festival and I hope to blog at length about it when I get back home, but now, I must leave you. Here’s my viewover the whole bloody business. It was good.

Letters from Ljubliana: A Theatrical Blogger Speaks – Thursday

[Written for Noises Off at the National Student Drama Festival 2009.]

Smell me! It is the musk of importance, for I am Andrzwej Haidonsk reporting from the National Slovenian Post-Drama Festival here in Ljubliana, where the women are women, the men are moose, and the moose are post-dramatic. Hey, boys! They are! They stand doing nothing but lowing. What is lowing? I don’t know! I heard it in a Christmas carol!

All the talk at this year’s NSPDF is about characters. There are, we can all agree, far too many of them. We must have many fewer characters and replace them with concrete slabs or breezy blocks. In one of the plays the other day, I almost cared about a character in it, and I want this not to happen again. My friend Pyotr once accidentally fell in love with a character in a play and tried to marry it, but then the actor who played her was all like “Um, no!” and Pyotr was all like weepy weep. He then killed a dog with diabetes by feeding it too much chocolate. It’s true! This is why post-drama is best. No characters.

The first play we saw today was Me & My Friend.. This was in a coffee shop in town, not a theatre, which is the sort of fricked-up shit that we do in the post theatre world.. When I arrived, I saw my friend Pyotr there. He had a brown sack by his feet. I called out to him “Pyotr! What are you doing in this play?” and he said, “This is not a play, I have just planned to meet you. It is a meeting for friendly social reasons.”

I was excited by this. But I wondered what was in the sack. This made the meeting not post-dramatic.

“What is in the sack, my friend Pyotr? And how did you get our coffee meeting in the NSPDF programme?”

“Well,” said Pyotr, “have a look in the sack.”

“I do not want to, Pyotr. To look inside the sack would create a dramatic situation which I, as a fan or big fan of post-drama, would find not good.”

“Look inside the sack,” said Pyotr.

“I do not want to, Pyotr. You have put this event in the brochure of the NSPDF. I cannot be involved in any drama. Leave me alone, Pyotr. Leave me alone,” I said, in my calmest voice, so to avoid any drama at all, and ran from the coffee shop.

I did not want to look in the sack. It would have been another dog. Although if I think of a dog in that bag, it creates drama in my head, and that is the last place I want it!

I ran from the coffee shop to burst into the installation piece The Last Yak. A cow was tethered to a steel post. It has two party hats on its head in the place of horns. A painted sign reads “Yak”. I am guessing this is the last yak in the world, or the title would be meaningless.

A man then came in and said, “This is the last yak in the world. Because of a simple virus, the yaks are dying. And now, they have called me, a veterinarian doctor, who will cure the yak with simple antibiotics. However, the antibiotics are on a train and shall soon arrive. I hope they do before the yak dies.”

A nurse then came in and said, “The antibiotics are on their way, but there is a delay on the train and the antibiotics may arrive later than expected.”

The man then said, “Well they had better hurry up. Unless this yak gets antibiotics in the next 90 minutes, it will surely die!”

They then waited for the antibiotics, but I left soon after. I was shaken up like a can of Tab Clear because of my interactions with Pyotr, but also… “The Last Yak” had characters in it who I had empathy with, a plot that would be resolved in the course of the play, and drama! Stinking drama!

What has happened to this post-drama festival?!