Review: Beck, Morning Phase

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 “Morning Phase”, the album by Beck, which originally appeared in the April 2014 issue.

Everyone needs sad songs occasionally. A little musical wallow can be an important part of the healing process – whether you’re getting over loneliness (Nilsson’s “Without You”), a departed child (The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home”), or the destruction of Jerusalem (the Book of Lamentations – not as catchy, that one).

Sea Change, Beck Hansen’s 2002 album, was a collection of tear-drenched songs inspired by the break-up of Hansen’s nine-year relationship, and as such provided some superior material for moping around your bedroom crying. These were songs performed at a glacial pace, draped in sincerity rather than the slacker cool of Beck’s career highlight Odelay.

Now, twelve years later, he’s gathered the same musicians together for a tonal sequel to Sea Change – this time the blood-letting coming not as a response to the death of a relationship, but following an extended period of incapacity because of an injury to his spine.

Because of this shift in the source of the misery, Morning Phase’s mood is more one of existential malaise than the raw nerve-endings of its prequel. Indeed, after a ten-year marriage and two children, Beck sometimes seems a little bit too happy to be singing sad songs – the music plucking the heart-strings, but the lyrics only offering formless cut-up poetry in response.

There are glimmers of commentary about his injury – lines like “Bones crack / Curtains drawn / On my back / And she is gone” from Say Goodbye are practically begging for lyric nerd interpretations on – but it’s more the mood of these quiet, slow songs that communicates the grief.

Stylistically, the homage to Sea Change is striking – Nick Drake-esque folk augmented by stately, deliberate country swing. The lush strings of Hansen’s father David Campbell are once again employed to great effect, washing over the finger-picked guitars; particularly on “Wave”, where the nautical swells of the string arrangements underline the woozy mood. However, taken as a whole, there’s an unnerving sense that Hansen is walking a path he’s already ventured down; the great innovator’s comforting retreat into the language of his past.

There are a few diversions – the emphatic piano stabs of “Blue Moon”, some lovely phased keys in “Unforgiven”, or the Gothic country of “Turn Away” – but the album’s tone is so monolithic, so uniform, that it slips effortlessly into a forgettable slab; Beck as background music.

As a second-generation Scientologist, Beck is – presumably – extremely familiar with the ‘auditing’ process, where individuals relive past traumas to free themselves of their baggage. It is perhaps unfair to suggest this, but maybe Morning Phase fulfils the same function. It’s Beck talking us through his post-injury isolation, telling us how it felt to be in that room. Lonely, motionless, inert – his thoughts fractured, his sense of self washing away on the tide.

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.

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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Icon of the Month: Doctor Who

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

Here’s an entry for their regular “Icon Of The Month” column, which didn’t get used in the end (someone had already done Doctor Who). It includes a joke about the Cartmel Masterplan, which you can read up on here if you want to be a NERD.

In the history of the long-running BBC TV programme Doctor Who, 5th October 1991 is not a particularly impressive date. The programme was in a period of indefinite hiatus, cancelled by the BBC after poor ratings, erratic scheduling, and an increasing reliance on impenetrable storylines and effects on a shoestring. But on 5th October 1991, I met the Doctor and asked if he was ever going to go on an adventure with Robin Hood, and he said that was a good idea. And it happened in a conference suite in Coventry…

Alright, it wasn’t actually the Doctor, it was Sylvester McCoy, and it was at a convention that lived up to all the cliches you’d care to throw at it – sweaty men-children in Vervoid costumes – but at that moment, a TV show, of all things, reached out and sparked the imagination of a small, thoughtful, bespectacled lad.

That’s what it’s been doing to children of all ages since it was first broadcast in 1963; its early years inspired not only by a need to fill the gap between Grandstand and Juke Box Jury, but also a desire by the Head of Drama Sydney Newman to create a science-fiction show that educated – where the time-travel was an excuse to inform kids about Paleolithic tribes, Marco Polo, and the Aztecs. Of course, most of that went out the window with the second story, which introduced The Daleks – faceless fascistic robots who terrorised both the travellers in time and space, and generations of children.

The creative inspiration of Doctor Who comes from the penny-pinching improvisation of those early producers and writers, who accidentally stumbled across the reasons behind the programme’s uniqueness and longevity as they struggled to get it made. The TARDIS was initially due to change shape every week to fit in with its surroundings, but it was the creative response to a lack of budget – or indeed “a broken chameleon circuit” – that made the Doctor’s ship a police telephone box, whether it landed in the distant past (a quarry) or the furthest reaches of outer space (a quarry). And rather than just replacing the actor when first Doctor William Hartnell’s deteriorating health got the better of him, the production team decided that the character’s alien nature could encompass “regeneration” into Patrick Troughton – the Doctor cheating death not for the first time, and certainly not the last.

And so the programme became a mainstay of BBC Saturday nights, with a host of monsters, and an evergreen central character who encompassed flamboyant authority (Jon Pertwee), toothy madness (Tom Baker), and doe-eyed cricket obsessive (Peter Davison). But by the time of Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor – a barbed cynic unpopular with audiences – it was clear that the programme wasn’t connecting with the kids it had been created for. It needed a break.

And a break it got – sixteen long years from 1989 to 2005, with only a brief, Americanised, TV movie for comfort. By the time it was announced that it was returning to BBC Saturday nights, it was difficult to ignore that little voice that said “It’s not going to be any good, and – what’s more – Billie Piper’s in it…”

When it returned, it was at full strength. Showrunner Russell T Davies once again “regenerated” the show, making it vital to a new generation of kids – particularly focusing on making it fresh and fun for girls, who traditionally didn’t care what the Cartmel Masterplan was. I once met a writer of Doctor Who who grabbed me, a relative stranger, by the shoulders and said with obvious joy in his eyes “It’s back! It’s really back!” When I heard my six-year-old cousin yelling “Exterminate!”, I knew it was true.

Episodes may respond to the time they were created – robot versions of Trinny and Susannah from 2005 already seem as hopelessly dated as a 1963 episode’s in-jokes about impending UK decimalisation – but the idea of an eccentric wandering hero, engaged in adventures both exhilarating and terrifying, remains indestructably appealing. And it’s that central character that I think attracts Christians to Doctor Who – he’s rather familiar.

Kindly, a little bit mysterious, good with children, surrounded by doting friends… both completely alien (literally or figuratively) and wonderfully human.

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