Kanye West // ye (1 June, 2018)

Who hasn’t been late for work? So far as I know, it’s a universally experienced personal problem. You woke up late, overslept, eyes red-tinged and heavy and you hustle to grab your shit before you’re in real trouble. Likewise, sometimes you barely see a deadline approaching. And then that deadline—that day—is tomorrow. You try your hardest to skirt logic and blame other people. If I didn’t have to be at work so goddamn early, I wouldn’t be so late. If the deadline was sensible, of course it would’ve been met. Sometimes the outside world thinks you’re an idiot, and they treat you like one.

Kanye West is not an idiot. He is prone to histrionics. I don’t need to provide reference for this. Do you have a twitter account?

There’s something about the man that I can’t quite acknowledge. To say he’s complicated is played-out. I don’t know him, and therefore have no idea as to his personal character. Why does this matter? In my world, it doesn’t. Have you ever watched a Woody Allen movie? This is a parsed-and-parceled false equivalency, but it’s still the point I’ll make: The individual means fuck-all to the art. It blows, I know, but (for the love of whomever) give the lizard-brain it’s due place in the spotlight.

There’s a sadness to ye, one I can’t pinpoint. It’s a lonely album. It’s the album that arrived late to the party—late to work. “They don’t know they been dealin’ with a zombie,” Ye screams on “Yikes,” and if I had a die in my hand I’d roll a deception check. Honestly, what is he doing? Is the mystery supposed to be part of the fun? I can’t see the forest through the trees—is that my fault? Where do I sit in his universe? ye, at the seven-minute mark, feels like a rush job. Kanye showed up late to work. He can’t Pablo his way through this shit, either. Both sides of center teeter on the brim, 100%.

The lifeblood of the lost is in finding a true path. “Today I seriously thought about killing you,” Kanye says. Have you ever heard anything as honest as that?


With what phrase do I begin my reconciliation? At what time do I get to work? ye sounds good, I can’t lie. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the left-to-right ear-favoring “No Mistakes,” let alone the song-in-tow, “Ghost Town,” a complex mishmash of old and new Kanye strapped to The Detonator and launched, rather safely, into the sky. “Sometimes I take all the shine,” Ye sings, which could be a reference to Childish Gambino’s song “All the Shine,” or not. Again, at it’s core, “Ghost Town,” much like Kanye, is not beholden to the touch of minor entities: “I’m tryin’ to make you love me.”

“I put my hand on a stove to see if I still bleed, yeah,” 070 Shake sings and I’ve little insight as to whether this pain is for penance or posterity. There’s not much to be gleaned from ye—Ye is noticeably removed from ye, and I’m sure this is by design but this assertion is in no way inherent within the context of the music itself. “And nothing hurts anymore, I feel kinda free,” Shake sings, and can’t help but feel propelled by the emotional resonance of Shake’s voice. “We’re still the kids we used to be,” he sings, and everyone stares—ever briefly—into the mirror.

I did as much rush-job work as Ye himself, and I don’t have the storied-but-checkered past that merits merit as he. I want to hate it, but I can’t. Ye is an artist. He’s past the page of altering his imperfections: “And I am a nigga, I know what they want,” he says on “Violent Crimes,” and what could I possible do with that except absorb it? Sure, he references Trump a time or two, but why are you worried about that? Why did any of us pay attention to it in the first place?

Could that not be the point? I myself have had trouble learning to leave the man alone. He demands attention. This, to me, feels like the first of many. It’s a 23-minute prologue to a full-fledged explanation. Your boss-at-large will always, always ask why you were late to work. When, if ever, do you answer that question with complete, transparent honesty?




Vince Staples // Big Fish Theory (23 June, 2017)

The first song on Big Fish Theory, the second LP from Long Beach native Vince Staples, might make you forget he’s a hip-hop artist. Or, at least, that he’s supposed to be a hip-hop artist. “Crabs In A Bucket,” the opening track, appears as a phrase in Staples’ debut LP Summertime ’06. The song in which it’s uttered, “Señorita,” feels miles (and years) away. “We crabs in a bucket, he called me a crab / So I shot him in front of the Douglas,” he says, no lisp or lilt to him. “Crabs In A Bucket,” keeping cadence with Staples’ stream of increasingly experimental and boundless music, is not a braggadocio flex of power. It is not rap, exactly, nor is it hip-hop. Vince Staples’ music has, as of late, relied on electronics; he retains his schizoid, staccato delivery and bolsters it with a bevy of backing synth. All of his sonic ingenuity withholding, Vince Staples remains an enigma in rap music. “Nails in the black man’s hands and feet / Put him on a cross so we put him on chain” he deadpans on “Crabs In A Bucket,” the same Long Beach kid living in an increasingly racially-divided America.

Short as his career is so far, Staples is a self-referential artist. There are several throwbacks to his earlier work, overt winks dropped like breadcrumbs: the same Long Beach kid making different music. “Ramona, I was ’round that corner / Still down, I’m a Norf Norf soldier” he says on “Big Fish,” and I can hear the haunting, alien drone of Summertime ’06‘s “Norf Norf” in the back of my head. Likewise in his allusions to his own past works, he references other artists, both musically and nonmusically—old and new. Concerning the old, the cover art for Summertime ’06 is a clear derivative of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures; curiously, both records are careful and masterful exercises in minimalism. Big Fish Theory‘s ninth track is titled “SAMO,” an unquestionable chisel off Jean-Michel Basquiat’s block—a tongue-in-cheek reference to Basquiat’s graffiti pseudonym SAMO (“same old shit”). Concerning the new, there’s a timely shout to Kendrick Lamar (who features on “Yeah Right”) on BFT‘s fourth track “Love Can Be…”: “No shotgun seat, this dick ain’t free.”

The mark of a truly inimitable artist is a comprehensive, holistic understanding of their art form. This understanding comes not only in the form said art takes, but its basic function as well. Vince Staples has the chops to build a universe of sound and tear it to shreds with his delivery. For example, “745” claps a bass-heavy chorus trickled with celestial synth beats. These elements both clash and compliment Staples’ muted-tenor voice. “745” is a song of childhood dreams fully realized: “All my life man I want fast cars,” he says: “No green grass, no porch / I just want sea shores.” To Vince Staples, though, it’s clear that not all dreams come true. To Vince, love is an abstract concept. He feels its pull and yet it continues to elude him: “This thing called ‘love’ real hard for me / This thing called ‘love’ is a God to me,” Vince raps in his usual monotone, while his stone-faced refusal to linger on depression comes into focus. “Adam, Eve / Apple trees / Watch out for the snakes baby.”

On “Yeah Right,” producer Flume’s beat smacks and dazes. Vince Staples hates rap clichés. If his refusal to become one is not evidence enough, “Yeah Right” is fire to the kiln. The song title should be punctuated with a question mark: “Is your house big, is your car nice?” he starts, asking “How the thug life?” Kendrick Lamar is a fitting feature; he is another young black man raised in and around institutionalized poverty and violence—and yet another young black man who defied staggering odds and transformed his chaotic upbringing into uncompromising art. “K-Dot twilight the zeitgeist” Kendrick says, and we already know he’s right. Old rap clichés have had their day: money, cars, and women hold no weight. Realness reigns, like it or not. Vince Staples (and Kendrick Lamar) are nothing if not real. There’s not a cell in their bodies that reads “compromise.”

“These niggas won’t hold me back,” Vince raps on the chorus of “Homage,” and the man is practically sprinting. No one can hold him in check, not even himself. “Outrun my gun, I’m the bigshot now,” he says at breakneck speed. Vince curtails this boast with, yet again, a wink to the recent past: “Prima Donna had them like ‘wow!'” The following song is an entirely different story.

“SAMO” is stuck in sludge, a song that simultaneously bangs and halts. “It’s the same old thing / Watch me do the same old thing” he says, and it’s hard to shake the thought that Vince is taking shots at mainstream hip-hop’s principle fanbase. Once again, I come back to Jean-Michel Basquiat—I can’t count how many times his name has showed up on my blog. Basquiat’s influence in modern African-American art is so far-reaching as to be a blanket. Basquiat’s SAMO street art was obscure, oblique poetry; it was meant to confuse, confound, and ultimately start a discussion about the individual’s place in a capitalist society. Vince tips his hat to Basquiat, in his characteristic staccato: “We don’t do no bargain shoppin’, we don’t show no empathy / Empty out your pockets, $10,000 fee for that talkin’ / Eye contact is an extra five.”

Big Fish Theory‘s final two songs, “BagBak” and “Rain Come Down,” were released as separate singles prior to BTF‘s drop on June 23rd. In my understanding of Vince Staples, it makes sense; the two songs show Vince in two different lights. “BagBak,” a phonetic iteration of “back back” (as in “get the fuck back”), finds Vince relating back to the Christ-imagery in “Crabs In A Bucket.” Now, however, he is more lucid, more contemporary and vicious: “Our father art in heaven, as I pray for new McLarens / Pray the police don’t come blow me down ’cause of my complexion.” This theme goes all the way back to Vince’s 2013 EP, Hell Can Wait, a collection of raw and angry songs directly addressing police violence against black Americans. That was four years ago, and unfortunately (or rather disgustingly), not much has changed. Vince, ever the contrarian, holds trot with the mainstream media—his fear of an anonymous death at the hands of the police is thrown in at the end of the verse, almost as an afterthought. It plays second-heel to those new McLarens.

In contrast, “Rain Come Down” is a dark, almost gothic hip-hop song. Ty Dolla $ign’s infectious repetition of the chorus (“Rain come down”) rubs against Vince’s bleak lyrics: “I’m the blood on the leaves / I’m the nose on the Sphinx.” The former portion of the verse needs no explanation. The latter portion of the verse references a popular historical theory that Egypt’s Great Sphinx had its nose removed to hide its predominantly African features. The Sphinx and its broken, bastardized appearance is the essence of Vince Staples’ music. Civil disobedience means fuck-all if you don’t somehow connect it to our history.

Vince Staples, for better or for worse, is an artist with a steady, near-religious temperament. He is casual, matter-of-fact and, at times, positively stony. If he weren’t so goddamn unassuming, he may already be making his case to sit side-by-side with hip-hop’s greatest creators. Vince Staples is a rap dissenter, a man of clout and conviction unmatched in modern hip-hop music. Again, for better or worse, there’s no changing the man. As they say, “you can take the kid out of Long Beach….”

Vince Staples arrived some time ago. He’s here, at this very moment, bearing witness to yet another police shooting, yet another rapper falsely touting the gang lifestyle, yet another disparaged social class royally fucked by the system. Again, he’s here—he’s not leaving. In this blogger’s opinion, his place among contemporary hip-hop’s elite creators is cemented and dried. And as far as the Big Fish Theory goes—big fish prowl the water, gobbling up anything feeble or small enough to swallow. They are remorseless, savage; being cold-blooded is necessary to survival. In the history of hip-hop, in a sea of millions of MC’s and Soundcloud rappers and OG’s, Vince Staples cannot—and will not—be categorized. Vince Staples is a big fish, one we’ve yet to catch.



Favorite tracks: “Crabs In A Bucket,” “Big Fish,” “Love Can Be…,” “745,” “Yeah Right,” “SAMO,” “BagBak,” “Rain Come Down”


Kendrick Lamar // DAMN. (14 April, 2017)

“It’s levels to it, you and I know.” So says Kendrick Lamar; K-Dot, Kung-fu Kenny, Crown Prince of Music (of all size and shape) in 2017. There’s Burroughs, there’s Basquiat, and there’s Kendrick. It’s nearly two months after the release of DAMN., and there’s more and more to peel back.

I place King Kendrick among the great expressionists in modern art. He is a man of singular talent, capable of infusing his narratives with so many layers it’s near impossible to see through the folds. A “unifying theme” is nonexistent. Kendrick Lamar is a holistic artist. Every listen is a demanding exercise. good kid, m.A.A.d city is a vivid, cinematic album, a writerly journey through the Compton streets of Kendrick’s youth. To Pimp a Butterfly, a 79-minute jazz-rap-fusion opus, ranks among the greatest socially conscious albums of all time (and its companion piece, untitled unmastered., is a universe unto itself). And so arrives DAMN., Kendrick Lamar’s most daring balancing act to date.

DAMN. is a work of staggering abruptness and multi-dimensionality; it is an album full of combativeness. Kendrick v. Fox News. Kendrick v. Life. Kendrick v. Death. Kendrick v. Kendrick. That combativeness reaches further than Kendrick himself. Following my first listen, there was one word that stuck out to me, one word that described DAMN.‘s modus operandi: pivot. Songs seem to take on their own schizophrenic life, pivoting from one beat to another and back, itchy and uncomfortable sitting in one place for too long. “XXX.” is full of such moments, sprinting from its muted opening to the hollow rat-tat of Mike-Will-Made-It’s beat: “All right kids, we’re gonna talk about gun control” segues into “a sound of drum-and-bass,” Kendrick Lamar backed by U2. Kendrick Lamar backed by fucking Bono. It’s an unthinkable combination, completely surprising and, in that, ingenious: a supreme pivot.

Lead single “HUMBLE.,” accompanied by a striking music video, says all you need to know before you know it. It is impossible to escape Kendrick’s gaze. Save a few precious frames, Kendrick is staring dead center, unwavering and unquestionably speaking directly to you. He chooses what you hear and what you see. He pivots; with nothing more than a tap of his fingers, the video spirals and dizzily searches for a landing. DAMN., unlike the genius of it’s creator, has many launches and few landings.

For an album hyper-focused on freewheeling energy, DAMN.‘s subtext has music scholars salivating. Kendrick possesses such a perfect combination of mainstream appeal and intellect that every single one of the album’s 14 tracks has a Genius page packed, top to bottom, with intensely studied annotations—the line “This that Grey Poupon, that Evian, that TED talk” warrants a 211-word explanation. Kendrick Lamar carries with him a writerly pedigree. He is the Stanley Kubrick of albumcraft. Nothing is out of place; there are no mistakes, there are no accidents. He mentions a call from his cousin Carl in “YAH.” and we hear the voicemail nine tracks later on “FEAR.” On “ELEMENT.,” Kendrick says “Fake my death, go to Cuba, that’s the only option,” a reference to a theory that 2Pac—whom Kendrick “interviewed” in To Pimp a Butterfly closer “Mortal Man”—faked his death to escape the throes of fame. On the following song, “FEEL.,” Kendrick once again references the legend: “I feel like this gotta be the feelin’ what ‘Pac was / The feelin’ of an apocalypse happenin’.” In the music video for “DNA.,” behind Kendrick there appears a picture of Tupac and Snoop Dogg, both impeccably well-dressed, staring directly at the camera. It’s hard to dispute the similarities between Kendrick Lamar and Tupac Shakur, and I’m left thinking if maybe Kendrick feels like Tupac felt, that fame is so poisonous and suffocating it’s worth dying to escape.

But as with everything on DAMN., that feeling subsides. It’s levels to it, he says. “I just win again, then win again like Wimbledon, like serve,” he says on “DNA,” all posture and testosterone. He softens on “LOVE.,” a beautiful song featuring little-known collaborator Zacari, who sings in an even, heavenly falsetto. “Just love me,” Zacari sings, and there’s an ache in that voice that smothers denouncement. Kendrick is characteristically intimate, seemingly speaking to his high school sweetheart and now fiancee Whitney Alford. “If I minimized my net worth, would you still love me?” Kendrick sings, and I picture a sly grin on his face—he already knows the answer.

The Kendrick we meet on “FEAR.” is not shivering or paranoid. He sings backwards, to be sure, but he is barrel-chested and blunt. Kendrick imagines all the possible ways he could die, or rather could have died. It’s an amalgam of the Kendrick we first met in good kid, m.A.A.d city—but instead of revisiting that young man corrupted and governed by fear, Kendrick wields fear like a deadly weapon. “At 27-years old, my biggest fear was being judged,” he says—”fear that my humbleness is gone.” Through the track’s near eight-minute run, Kendrick challenges himself to believe in both his god and himself. Cousin Carl Duckworth preaches in the beginning of “FEAR.,” referencing Deuteronomy and the suffering therein. By the end, through all the trials and tribulations of Kendrick’s upbringing, Cousin Carl is still there. He believes. “I love you, son, and I pray for you. God bless you, shalom.”

On “GOD.,” my favorite track on DAMN.,  Kendrick pleads “Don’t judge me” over and over. Despite both his outer strength and enviable transparency, he is, by all measure, a Mortal Man. Kendrick can sing “This what God feel like,” and mean it. “GOD.” soars above DAMN., born from some spiritual trance, with Kendrick saying “Don’t judge me, my mama caught me with a strap / Don’t judge me, I was young, fuckin’ all the rats / Don’t judge me, aimin’ at your head for a stack.” It, as with all of Kendrick’s songs, has to do with where he came from and where he is now. His origin is his past, present, and future. He is not one to forget. Compton pumps in his veins—but more than that, faith and family prop up a brave, humble young man.

“DUCKWORTH.,” the culmination of an album rife with origin stories, is the origin story. It it an impossible coincidence. It is also entirely true. Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith robbed a KFC one night, where Kendrick’s father, Ducky, was working. Ducky offers Top Dawg “Free chicken any time Anthony posted in line / Two extra biscuits: Anthony liked him and then let him slide.” And as Kendrick says, “Pay attention, that one decision changed both of they lives.” The track reverses, and we’re back to the beginning, “BLOOD.” And Kendrick takes a walk.

DAMN. is not proof of the genius of Kendrick Lamar. It is not a victory lap. It is not an album of vicious rap songs. It is not rap. It is not hip-hop. As closely as I can compare it, it is The Godfather: Part II. We all come from somewhere—anywhere, really. And none of that, none of our story, our origin, who we are and where we’ve been, none of it means anything if we don’t make it mean something. Kendrick Lamar is the example. Here is a man who rose from impossible depths to look down from a throne of his own creation. This is not an accident. The man himself would likely be more humble in the face of such praise. But, as he says, it’s levels to it. As far as my voice matters, Kendrick sits at the highest.



Favorite tracks: The album, front to back—then back to front.

Death Grips: “Streaky” / “Black Paint” / “Flies”

There’s something gnawing at me. What that something is I’ve yet to uncover, but the chunks of flesh it’s snatched don’t go without notice. “Flag full of backslide,” says MC Ride, and I’m baffled that this is the first I’ve written about the perennial Fuck You’s—Death Grips. A collective of fist-clenching degenerates, Death Grips are a group (of sorts) hailing from, I guess, Sacramento, California. They’re pissed, maybe, or happy. Depends on which day you catch ’em. Concerning their newest releases from the forthcoming Year of the Snitch, well… call me a dissenter among the faithful.

White boys that love Death Grips hate “Streaky” because it doesn’t fit within their specific context of subversive hip-hop. It’s too catchy, too linear. It grazes mainstream, runs a finger up the unspoken, the forbidden. “Flag full of backslide.” In the spirit of subversion: Isn’t that the point, white boys?

Sorry, but did you fuck up your presets? In my experience—one that will undoubtedly be maligned as pocked and misguided—Death Grips is about nothing and everything. That sounds like a shitty cop-out, but its proved itself true. Charles Manson is a lunatic, but he proves an intoxicating lead-in to “Beware.” In which archive do you file this reference? Where is the fucking line? The chalk’s faded. What is social commentary and what is nonsense? These days, what’s the difference? More so, who cares?

“Streaky” fits nowhere except within itself. Zach Hill’s universe obeys no laws of physics. You’re lashed from end-to-end with woozy beats and cagey hi-hats. MC Ride, as always, is your carriage through foreign wilderness. Even if he’s not the most reliable tour guide, repeat listens reveal an undercurrent of a particularly weird sexual experience. Or do they? Honestly, I have no idea, and neither do you. “Flag full of backslide.”

“Streaky” is a single, sure, but why pretend that’s its fate? You and I know Death Grips. “Streaky” will have its place, its due process. It’s a puzzle piece, nothing more or less.


“Black Paint” is that oft-promised “Death Grips 2.0,” that bastion of musical wealth so greatly coveted by white men in their early-to-mid-20s that promises a hip-hop bend to what is, essentially, industrial-grunge music. It rips the whatever off my nails.

“Black Paint” is a jaw-grinder, a head-swiveler, an open sore you can’t help but find pleasure in picking. MC Ride’s voice pierces the ethereal and, of course, screams at you. “I am gonna take your coat, say thanks.” Thanks.

“I require privacy / I’m always thinking finally,” Ride bellows amidst the chaos of a drum-machine and fidgety slaps of vaguely rhythmic beats and whatever other cacophony-makers Zach Hill throws into the ether. It’s hell and home for Death Grips.

You’ll find neither solid ground nor meaning here. Retreat. Whatever place white men were looking for, me included, is lost in the smolder of these songs. Find a safe space. Hide. Forget about the meaning of music. Death Grips has ripped it apart. Will they piece it together? Again—who cares? Run. Run as fast and far as you can.

Just know that Death Grips is in tow, prepared to pounce on your insecurities, your self-inflicted ruin, your homemade hell. Find a friend, and for the love of God, hold them close.


“Flies vomit me.” Mania reigns. The frenetic energy of “Flies” is curbed only by what seems to be a constantly lowering pitch. The insanity of Zach Hill’s drum machine is truncated by an impending collapse. “Half-lidded,” Ride croaks.

The video cuts between night-vision camcorder footage of Ride rapping, hood- and cap-laden, and Ride suspended in midair, jumping (?). “Exception, complexion of silver-drinkers,” he raps. In the night-vision, compared to the cuts of his soaring above the ground, Stefan Burnett’s visage is noticeable pale, absent of shaded browns and blacks. “Exception, complexion.”

Death Grips is the embodiment of musical abscission. They rip leaf from stem, tear apart limbs, pluck a bird of its feathers. Then comes the mashing. Music becomes less about experiment and more about conquest. Domination, even. Pitch is ignored. Rhythm is an object. The idea of Death Grips as a musical act exists only in an echo chamber.


Tyler, the Creator // “Who Dat Boy” & “911 / Mr. Lonely” (29 June, 2017)

Tyler, the Creator has often struggled to control his sound. At times, especially early in his career, it seemed that his sound got the best of him. It was deathcore turned hip-hop, gothic to a tee; dark and oppressive, Bastard and Goblin are records hellbent on depression. That possessed sound made him famous. Tyler’s “Yonkers,” a song he considered “a joke,” launched him from internet obscurity to internet rap fame. But, as it turns out, he was right. That song and its beat betray the artist. Tyler Okonma is just not that kind of guy. He’s not all rape and murder and defilement. He has tangible value, an important sound to contribute to hip-hop. “Who Dat Boy” and “911 / Mr Lonely” are two of Tyler’s best songs in years, and he wears his sound better than anything he’s released before.

Tyler’s beats can be dark as night. Sonically, what makes his music stand apart is his use of contradictory sounds; beneath that cavalcade of bass exists a complex tapestry of instruments. Bubblegum pops, dirty synth, heavily-reverberated chimes, swaying strings. Tyler, the Creator’s most integral presence in music is not as a rapper, but a producer. “Who Dat Boy” builds from screeching tendrils of off-key strings to a bass-laden beat that slaps. “Who dat boy, who him is?” Tyler asks, and it’s hard to tell if he’s fucking with us or not. In the music video, Tyler blows up his own face and, with help from A$AP Rocky, stitches on a noticeably paler replacement. It’s an episode of The X-Files on acid.

“911 / Mr. Lonely,” a clear-sailing two-parter, finds Tyler back in his lonely place. The chorus, “911, call me sometime,” is a backhand to those friends that come around only in an emergency. Often, they just need help, and what kind of person wouldn’t help a friend in need? Tyler raps “I’m the loneliest man alive.” Frank Ocean, fresh off his own reflections on loneliness, echoes the sentiment: “I can’t even lie, I’ve been lonely as fuck.” The second act, “Mr. Lonely,” is a soaring R&B tune to rival Tyler’s best. He spends his money on cars and clothes, trying to fill some phantom void: “But what the fuck else do you want from me? / That is the only thing keepin’ me company.”

Regardless of whatever Tyler has in store for these songs—as of yet, there’s no official album confirmation—he continues to grow as an artist. He’s publicly stated that he doesn’t really like being a rapper, but there has to be a different explanation. Tyler Okonma doesn’t like being just a rapper. As he’s grown into his sound, he’s started singing more. Instead of filling sonic space with his voice, he lets his singular ear for production take center stage. Tyler, the Creator has hardly finished fine-tuning his mode of expression, but “Who Dat Boy” and “911 / Mr. Lonely” showcase a newfound musical and emotional maturity—and when it comes to Tyler, that fact is positively refreshing.






Mount Eerie // A Crow Looked at Me (24 March, 2017)

On July 9th, 2016, Phil Elverum’s wife, musician Geneviève Castrée Elverum, died of inoperable pancreatic cancer. She was 35-years old, leaving behind her parents, a husband, and a daughter not yet two-years-old. In Phil Elverum’s own words, “Words fail.” A Crow Looked at Me is not, in a sense, an album; rather it is a document of grief, a spare and sprawling prose-poem of a man’s thoughts and feelings on a love lost too early. Through much of the record, Elverum, in his eighth album under the name Mount Eerie, speaks directly to Geneviève. He does not mince words: “You have been dead eleven days,” he says, his mind and body a shell. Opener “Real Death” is a tone-setter; “Death is real. Someone’s there and then they’re not.” He has a journalistic, achingly personal way of talk-singing, conversing with empty air. A Crow Looked at Me is such an astounding record because it strips all notion of art from expiration; death as concept. It is the diary of a man in mourning, for both his dead wife and a child who will never know her mother. “It’s dumb, and I don’t want to learn anything from this. I love you.”

A Crow Looked at Me is understandably a hard listen, for numerous reasons. The songs were recorded with only a laptop and microphone. There is no complex instrumentation. Guitar and Elverum’s soft voice are the staples, occasionally buffed by piano keys and rough percussion and what sounds like a breathing machine. It can be an incredibly painful listen, but one I am unable to shake, unable to stop dissecting. The casual poetry of Elverum’s words, in talking to both himself and Geneviève, leave one breathless. In “Forest Fire,” Elverum deals with the passing of time without Geneviève, framed by a forest fire that has been burning since her passing. “The year moves on without you in it. Now it is fall without you.” A forest fire, a natural process of burning undergrowth and restoring nutrients to the soil—nature reclaiming her territory—is not an acceptable answer to a man in mourning. “I reject nature, I disagree.” This does not come easily. Mount Eerie has always been a passion project for Elverum, much of his music exploring his fascination with the natural world and its machination. But now, “The leaf on the ground pokes at my slumbering grief. Walking around, severed, lumbering.”

In “Swims,” Geneviève’s ashes are made to swim in the ocean. Of course, this box of ashes is not Geneviève. “I can’t get the image out of my head of when I held you right there and watched you die.” It is abundantly clear throughout A Crow Looked at Me that Geneviève’s passing is fresh, as though it were yesterday. She died in July, and not nine months later Elverum released this journal to the public. I can’t imagine that decision. It must have felt necessary, not art as therapy necessarily, but some way of honoring her. Both were musicians, both relatively reclusive. And now, one must eulogize the other. “Today our daughter asked me if Mama swims. I told her ‘Yes she does, and that’s probably all she does now.’ What was you is now borne across waves, evaporating.” Just before Geneviève swims, Elverum sings “We are all always so close to not existing at all,” no wry smile on his face, as though he has dropped profundity in the lap of the listener. No, not at all. “Death is real.”

On “My Chasm,” Phil grasps living a relatively public life without Geneviève. “Do the people around me want to keep hearing about my dead wife?” Knowing the answer, he chooses to seclude himself in her room and make music. On “Emptiness pt. 2,” Elverum further rebukes the idea that there is any life lesson to be learned from his wife’s passing: “There is nothing to learn. Her absence is a scream.” On and on he provides these short blurbs of numb poetry, so personal you can’t help but be reminded that, at some point, all of us will either deal with or deal this pain to another. On “Toothbrush / Trash,” Elverum grapples with fading memories. The song’s first act, a meditation on “The quiet untreasured in between times,” is focused on small, even mundane recollections of Geneviève. Her singing on the staircase, the slight smell of pine thrush in her hair, the squeak of her chair when she shifts her weight. The second act is an honest admission that Geneviève is gone, and she’s not coming back. The wind blows a door closed, and for just a second, Elverum thinks it may be her, returning from wherever it is she’s been. But he turns and sees no one, feeling only the wind between his fingers.

“Soria Moria” is crushing, an album’s-worth of ideas and feelings. Named after a painting by Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen, the mythical Soria Moria Castle is said to be a place of perfect happiness. The castle sits atop a large hill; a deep valley of fog blocks the direct path to the castle, forcing one to venture into the unknown and make their own way. “Slow pulsing red tower lights across a distance, refuge in the dust.” Phil’s idea of Soria Moria Castle is not clear. I’m hesitant to assign it a meaning; the castle, and the song itself, are a mystery. He is searching for that place, a refuge of light and happiness, but the road is murky and surrounded by clouds; he feels directionless, but he plods on. “I knew exactly where the road bent around, where the trees opened up and I could see. Way above the horizon, beyond innumerable islands.” Elverum’s poetics are incredible, this intent to give peace a physical body, a place one has to find independently. A castle and its many walls. And he is close. “I have not stopped looking across the water from the few difficult spots where you can see that the distance, from this haunted house where I lived to Soria Moria, is a real traversable space. I’m an arrow now, mid-air.”

“Are you dreaming about a crow?” On the album’s final song, “Crow,” Phil and his daughter are walking through the woods. They search for the forest fire zone where, in August, Mother Nature destroyed her flora and began to rebuild. As he hiked, daughter slung across his back, cradled and sleeping, a solitary crow followed along. “Sweet kid, we were watched and followed and I thought of Geneviève. Sweet kid, I heard you murmur in your sleep. ‘Crow,’ you said, ‘Crow’ And I asked, ‘Are you dreaming about a crow?’ And there she was.”

A Crow Looked at Me is not an album. Nor is it a work of art, truly. It is the most honest, unflinching, and heartbreaking thing I have ever come across. It is impossibly sad, wrought with death, grief, and loneliness. It is a wholly necessary album from a man trying something, anything to get by. He may never reach Soria Moria Castle, but that does not mean he won’t try. And through all my repeated listening, the hours and hours I’ve poured into this work, there is no profound sentiment to extract from this record; no punchline, no proper ending. I’m always brought back to the beginning, the entire album’s meaning found the last line of Crow‘s first song. “It’s dumb, and I don’t want to learn anything from this. I love you.”



Favorite tracks: the album, front to back.

Wilco // Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has always felt just out of reach. It’s easy (and perhaps convenient) to forget the album was recorded prior to the September 11th attacks, as the two seem irrevocably intertwined: the suggestive cover art (Chicago’s twin Marina City towers overlooking the Chicago River); song titles like “War on War” and lyrics like “Tall buildings shake, voices escape singing sad sad songs”; an unofficial release on September 18th, 2001. Musically, it is incomparably and irresistibly strange, idiosyncratic to a fault. In Uncut‘s original 2001 review of the album it was labeled, perhaps unfairly, as “Americana’s Kid A.” Yankee Hotel Foxtrot became a monolith, a work of art so infinitely flexible and brilliant it was immediately canonized as a true American masterpiece. And it was a hare’s breath away from being an epic disaster.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot lives and dies in the discordant piano clangs of album opener “I am trying to break your heart”—”Still I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t easy,” says Jeff Tweedy, his smirk becoming more pronounced by the second. Tweedy is not the prototypical singer-songwriter. His voice is not a beacon of light in the darkness; in fact, prior to YHF, Tweedy’s vocals were often downplayed in favor of more interesting guitar and percussion work. Likewise, his alt-country style of lyricism was dismissed by critics as plaintive and overly sentimental. But something clicked with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and sixteen years later, it’s still difficult to tell exactly what went right. Above all the noise, YHF revealed something that still holds true to this day: Jeff Tweedy is not afraid to make mistakes.

“There is something wrong with me,” he sings on “Radio cure,” giving no hint as to who he’s talking to. Later on, amidst a chorus of bright chimes, Tweedy crones “Distance has no way of making love understandable.” Both of those phrases—each one a mental double-take soaked to the brim with metaphor—are very simple. There are dozens upon dozens of such moments in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, one’s in which a two-lane highway is found to contain sudden speed changes, winding curves, and innumerable exit ramps. Each song is an experiment of itself, comfortable enough to live in its own skin and yet free enough to take no pause in testing its borders.

It therefore comes as no surprise that such a risky album spent a significant amount of time in limbo. Jeff Tweedy and guitarist Jay Bennett clashed constantly throughout the album-making process: Bennett wanted to focus on small musical minutiae in individual songs, such as the brief transition from “Ashes of American Flags” to “Heavy metal drummer,” an event documented in Sam Jones’ film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco, which captured the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Tweedy was wholly unconcerned with the transition, more focused on the broader thematic questions of YHF. In an attempt to bridge the gap between their different points-of-view, Tweedy invited record producer and musician Jim O’Rourke to mix “I am trying to break your heart.” Tweedy liked the results, and O’Rourke subsequently mixed the album. When all was said and done, continued strife resulted in Tweedy removing guitarist Jay Bennett from the band.

In concert with this clash of musical ideology, Wilco’s label, Reprise Records, came under new management. David Kahne, the A&R representative for Reprise, was left with the decision of whether or not to release the album. Worried about being bogged-down by tedious back-and-forth arguing, Wilco negotiated a buyout from Reprise, securing the rights to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in the process. Tweedy was hellbent on releasing the album as close to its scheduled release date (September 11th, 2001) as possible. The following week, on September 18th, Wilco streamed the album in its entirety on their website. It was a surprising hit; traffic to the website increased tenfold, and the subsequent tour was a massive success. Tweedy noted that audiences sang along to tracks that had not yet been “officially” released. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘s commercial release would not come until seven months later; Nonesuch Records dropped the physical album on April 23rd, 2002.

Once again, mistakenly, YHF seems a product of this tumult rather than an inanimate player. It is a work of art entangled in deep mythology. “Ashes of American Flags” paints an eerily prophetic picture of post-9/11 America. Tweedy half-sings, “I wonder why we listen to poets when nobody gives a fuck,” uninterested in waxing poetic about the chaos of modern American life. In Jeff Tweedy’s mind, poetry abstracts reality, separating its many obtuse parts into their own space in an attempt to piece them back together in a manner that makes complex thoughts, feelings, and experiences seem profoundly simple. That’s great and all, but Jeff Tweedy doesn’t really give a fuck—and, according to him, neither should we.

Chaos is forever chaotic; there is no way to rationalize hatred or violence or the collapsing twin towers of the World Trade Center. It’s all chaos; chaos and randomness. Tweedy brings the track to a sobering end, singing, “I would like to salute the ashes of American flags / And all the dead leaves filling up shopping bags.” Rather abstractly, Tweedy seems to be referencing reincarnation. Dead leaves can return to their tree, but in consequence that tree will take a different form; it is certainly not the same—but is it altogether that different? If the American flag is ignited and cindered, who’s to say we can’t reassemble the coals and build anew? And, before I continue, this man is on record as being not a poet.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, despite the flame and rubble, is not a record of doom-and-gloom. “Heavy metal drummer” is a pure nostalgia trip: “I sincerely miss those heavy metal bands / I used to go see on the landing in the summer,” Tweedy sings, and one pictures an 18-year-old Jeff Tweedy drunkenly headbanging to a Guns N’ Roses cover band. It’s bittersweet; there comes a point in everyone’s life where worry supersedes carelessness. It becomes harder and harder to let loose. The chorus is miles removed from the desolation described in “Ashes of American Flags”: “I miss the innocence I’ve known / Playing Kiss covers, beautiful and stoned.”

“Heavy metal drummer” is upbeat; the guitars smile and bounce among lively piano chords that puncture the end of every measure. For a man so openly opposed to “poetry,” Tweedy has a curious tendency to make a quiet phrase snap: “Unlock my body and move myself to dance,” he whistles, memories of carefree summer nights invading his mind. Each song on YHF ties together in the oddest of ways. “Heavy metal drummer,” is followed by “I’m the man who loves you.” The latter song begins with a wink to the prior—a smooth and smothered guitar riff, Wilco performing their sincerest heavy metal tribute, Guns N’ Roses-style.

Early-album track “War on war” is arguably YHF‘s best song. Deceptively straightforward, the track is constantly in motion. Rhythmic distortion melts into an infectious guitar strum, with Tweedy chiming, “It’s a war on war, it’s a war on war.” The chorus betrays the lightness of the music: “You’re gonna lose / You have to lose / You have to learn how to die / If you want to, want to be alive.” Once again, worldly context and pure happenstance inform the song’s interpretation. It’s an ominous precursor to the reality of a very real war, and a quietly damning statement on the uselessness of violence begetting violence.

On “Pot kettle black,” there is a less imposing statement that echoes the chorus of “War on war”: “But I’m not gonna get caught calling a pot kettle black / Every song is a comeback / Every moment’s a little bit later.” This could be Tweedy’s roundabout way of saying it’s impossible to plan for the future; hardships exists around every corner, and it’s a fool’s errand to formulate an answer—any answer—that would satisfy the randomness of life.

Penultimate track “Poor places” is perfectly scored by a luscious fusion of guitar and piano. Tweedy sounds increasingly desperate as the song moves forward; he references his own problems with alcoholism (“There’s bourbon on the breath of the singer you love so much”) and loneliness (“My voice is climbing walls / Smoking, and I want love”). In the midst of the other existential themes of YHF, these lines are positively human.

The album’s final offering, “Reservations,” is a song of uncertainty. “How can I convince you it’s me I don’t like?” Tweedy asks. The track is a necessary capstone to an album informed by personal experiences; it’s an unequivocal confession that Tweedy, even at his most creatively fearless, still doubts himself. But there’s something that keeps the song grounded—or rather, someone. “Oh I’ve got reservations about so many things / But not about you / It’s not about you.”

The future significance of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is unknown. That being said, it’s been fifteen years and the album feels as fresh and relevant as day one. It’s a purely American record, a holistic document of a pre- and post-war emotions. It comes off as authentic because it has no prophetic pretensions; YHF is unafraid to pose the kind of questions that beg for an answer. Each track is furiously independent and, when wrapped together, a painting emerges. It’s smudged in places, scratched in others, but its most important quality is its existence in the first place.

There is an irony sewn into Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: outward certainty and internal doubt walk hand-in-hand. That toeing of the line is what makes it so special—feelings are either taken at face value or left completely unsaid. It is an album replete with thousands of small, intensely individual moments, each burning hotter and brighter than the next. As I said before, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot lives and dies in that first minute of “I am trying to break your heart.” The instruments can’t quite find harmony; they are unsure of themselves, not confident to settle in any one place. Finally, through the clamor, a lone guitar breathes a soft rhythm and a song is born. Tweedy sings “What was I thinking when I let you back in?” That question, as with so many others, doesn’t need to be answered. It is best left alone; the answer exists, no doubt, but it is somehow just out of reach.



Favorite tracks: “I am trying to break your heart,” “Radio cure,” “War on war,” “Jesus, etc.,” “Ashes of American Flags,” “Heavy metal drummer,” “Pot kettle black, “Poor places”



Julie Byrne // Not Even Happiness (13 January, 2017)

However quiet and calm her voice, Julie Byrne is an incredibly self-assured artist. Her songwriting is immediate and elegant. She herself is a picture of so many folk artists that came before: restless, heartsick, fed up with the modern world and its boorishness. “To me this city’s hell, but I know you call it home / I was made for the green, made to be alone” she sings on album opener “Follow My Voice,” not at all timid. Not Even Happiness, Byrne’s second LP, is a rich work of beauty and—most importantly—clarity.

Byrne’s soft, velveteen voice and expertly plucked guitar are the foundation of Not Even Happiness‘ nine tracks. She is divinely confident, piercing small moments with incredibly observed lyrics (“Driving through southwestern towns that I had been in before / Sun split ember, and fields that span forever, forever”). On “Sleepwalker,” she sings “Before you, had I ever known love / Or had I only known misuse of the power another had over me?” at a careful, airy pace. Byrne is the archetype singer-songwriter, intent on solitude but somehow still longing for connection and companionship (“I grew so accustomed to that kind of solitude / But I long for you now, even when you just leave the room”). She is an artist of the old order and the new; picking at her guitar, daydreaming of a world with clear skies and green pastures. She has the power to reflect, relive, and heal.

“Melting Grid,” a magnificent piece of songwriting, finds Byrne (accompanied by flute) geographically tracing the places she’s been. Colorado, Wyoming, “Kansas, Arkansas, my fields they’re always rich and in fire.” Julie Byrne is an exceptional songwriter, one with the ability to tell a story while withholding intricate detail. Some of Not Even Happiness‘ most interesting stories are the ones she chooses to not expound upon. “And would you ask my permission the next time you absorb me?” she sings, her tone edgeless but resolute. There’s a sense that Byrne makes music as therapy, which allows her songs the rare opportunity to emanate purity. Not Even Happiness is a record without reservation, a small and quiet world where all things are of equal importance—in a sense, free. Her carefully scored “Interlude” is the perfect example, a simple harmony of strings and nearly inaudible piano atop the calming sound of ocean waves. It is silent, perfect, complete.

“Morning Dove,” Exhibit A for Julie Byrne the Guitarist, is a song from a woman who has spent much her life wanting and waiting. Both measured and urgent, Byrne’s lyrics are once again her greatest revelation; “All I bear, all I sieve, I thought of you so presently” she sings with her heart on both sleeves. She is not so much lovesick as she is a lonely soul, a woman convinced that no matter who or what comes into her life, there is a small piece of her that will always feel incomplete. But she is fighting the urge to isolate. “And life is short as a breath half-taken / I could not wait to tell you the truth.”

On “All the Land Glimmered,” Byrne’s guitar squeaks and clacks beneath her fingers, a necessary distress as she sings “Searching for an anchor, I’ve been seeking god within.” The track that follows, “Sea as It Glides,” is Julie Byrne’s “Hallelujah,” a tranquil walk through her happy place. Her guitar, as ever, is the propeller, and Byrne’s quiet, brilliant voice pays revery the word “You.” There is a sacred quality to the song, as though she has found the god she had been searching for within. Though many (if not all) of the tracks on Not Even Happiness play like love songs, Julie Byrne is not so quick to spill her heart on the page. Her heart is a roaming object, so often distant and closed-off that when she finally lets you into her world, it plays like a breath of fresh sea air.

In the spirit of many great folk records, Not Even Happiness is at once illuminating and aloof. It is the idea of art as therapy, as healing. It’s the work of a growing artist and an eager human being, one unafraid to admit “And yes, I’ve broke down asking for forgiveness / When I was not close to forgiving myself.” She desires clarity, a clear consciousness and an open heart. For Julie Byrne, happiness is simply not enough.



Favorite tracks: “Follow My Voice,” “Sleepwalker,” “Melting Grid,” “Natural Blue,” “Morning Dove,” “Sea as It Glides,” “I Live Now as a Singer”











Sampha // Process (3 February, 2017)

One trait of a true artist is the ability, or the desire (or the itchy, nagging urge), to turn the inside out—to stitch thoughts and feelings and experiences into something whole. Many musicians are constantly struggling for the right balance, a perfect symmetry of the personal and the artistic. South London-based producer/songwriter Sampha Sisay is a sucker for symmetry. It’s right there on the cover of his debut LP, Process, a meditative and magnificent record.

Sampha is an unassuming solo artist. He rose to notoriety with big-name collaborations, lending his skills as a pianist, producer, and vocalist to the likes of Solange (“Don’t Touch My Hair”), Drake (“Too Much”), and Kanye (“Saint Pablo”). While these efforts give us a glimpse of Sampha the musician, none of them provide any insight into Sampha the man. He’s a man in search of something, repeating phrases not for our clarity, but his own (“If ever you’re listening”). He suffers from severe social anxiety, something rarely touched on in the music industry (“I swear they smell the blood on me”). Process is an album that bleeds catharsis; certain songs are prone to intense rumination. And yet the record is, on average, remarkably spare. Harmony is the goal, not the method. The slight bump of bass on “Plastic 100°C” sharply contrasts a gently plucked harp. “It’s so hot I’ve been melting out here / I’m made out of plastic out here,” Sampha sings with the earnest emotion of a man familiar with fire.

Process is a swell of emotion. Sisay recorded the record during his mother’s battle with cancer, a fight she eventually lost in September of 2015. Her presence is felt throughout. “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” a beautiful tribute, is a simple and elegant song. Sampha moved back into his childhood home to care for his ailing mother, and the piano became his confidant, a place to vent when he needed it the most. He sings “You would show me I had something people call a soul,” a wrenching, revelatory discovery. Later on, Sampha admits “I kept the feelings close.”

“Blood on Me,” a sonically brilliant track, finds Sampha on the run. It’s an onslaught of paranoia, an extremely anxious man confronting his numerous demons all by himself (“I’m so alone now, swervin’ out of control now”). The song, rather than being a mere product of paranoia, succumbs to the panic. Sampha described the song as being a wholly cathartic experience. The pages are stained with expository nonsense (“Don’t throw the paint on me,” “In this forest runnin’ away”), subject to a dark spatter of Sampha’s in the background, slackjawed and droning as the piano clanks. On the following track, “Kora Sings,” Sampha loudly declares “You don’t know how strong you are,” well before ending the track with “It’s just me, myself, and my gun / Remembering the times.”

Grief is a process. It’s not a sketched-out 12-step program, no, but it’s a process nonetheless. There are ups and downs, victories and failures. There is no clear-cut path out of that maze. Maybe the only way to escape it is to feel it. Sampha feels those ups and downs, every victory and failure. He fleshes them out on these tracks as though he were jotting in his journal. Process, by its very nature, has no reservations. The romantic spontaneity of “Incomplete Kisses” is so down-tempo it could have been recorded by Michael Bolton. “Don’t let your heart hide your story / Don’t let your mind hide your story,” Sampha pleads. “Wait too long, you’ll miss it.” For a man who spent many years of his professional career hiding in the shadows, Sampha Sisay is finally ready to live in the moment.

A glassy-eyed Sampha ends his catharsis on “What Shouldn’t I Be?” It’s Sampha at his most meditative—he has arrived at the point of notoriety, but what exactly does that mean? “It’s not all about me,” he says, and means it. Process is a marvelous debut from a talented young man still trying to find his place. A young man who just lost a parent. A young man who finds himself at the crux of fame, and doesn’t know which road to take. “I wake up in my own skin again,” he sings, and I can almost see a picture of his mother on the wall behind him.



Favorite tracks: “Plastic 100°C,” “Blood on Me,” “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” “Reverse Faults,” “Timmy’s Prayer,” “Incomplete Kisses”




Radiohead // Amnesiac (2001)

If you treat Radiohead’s discography like a family tree, Amnesiac is the direct descendant of Kid A. Some might consider it the bastard child. Comprised of songs recorded during the same studio sessions, Kid A and Amnesiac will forever be bound together. And unfortunately, Amnesiac is often unfairly compared to its predecessor. There’s no denying that Kid A is a revolutionary album, for more reasons than one. But where that album contracts and repels at every turn, the individual songs that inhabit Amnesiac are much more inviting, free to stand out in a crowd. And they are by no means kitchen scraps. In fact, the plan all along was to split the twenty-some tracks into two separate albums: no EPs, no b-sides, but two cohesive works. Amnesiac stands on its own, an intriguing and experimental album from the most innovative band in popular music.

Amnesiac notably differs from previous Radiohead albums in that the songs don’t flow perfectly, or even nicely for that matter. There’s little to no through line. In places the record seems unsettled and fussy; in others, downright messy. More importantly, it is undeniably engaging. There is tension in this music. The anthemic Radiohead of old now bashed heads with a new sound populated by synthesizers, drum machines, and increasingly complex string arrangements. “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” is all clang and bang and synth, whizzing keyboards and wild percussion, Thom Yorke singing “Get off my case” with the careless conviction of a bored teenager. This is immediately followed by “Pyramid Song,” which feigns simplicity with simple elements (piano, Jonny Greenwood’s strings, Yorke’s high hums) that lumber along in an odd, slipshod timing. Two minutes in, Phil Selway’s drums punctuate the ballad, blending beautifully with Greenwood’s arching strings. These are the first two tracks on Amnesiac, and they couldn’t be more different.

The record is full of these moments, where convention strangely segues into experimentation and visa versa. “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” sounds like someone making nonsense music with a synthesizer. The fuzzy burst of beat is occasionally broken up by new elements, but no thing agrees with any other thing. It almost seems necessary, Radiohead exercising their ears, picking apart sounds and piecing them together in the slightest of ways. “You And Whose Army?” follows and immediately reminds of Radiohead’s ever-present influence in indie music: the muffled guitar strum and Thom Yorke’s soft vocalizations sound eerily similar to Deerhunter’s “Sailing,” to the point Yorke and Bradford Cox’s voices are nearly interchangeable. The song has a bit of a political bend to it, as do some of the other tracks on Amnesiac, adding layers and layers to an album almost overstuffed with sound and circumstance.

A clear standout, “I Might Be Wrong” makes ample use of more familiar instruments. The song is dominated by drum and guitar, unafraid to be itself in this collection of singular misfits. Yorke sounds annoyed, even angry as he sings “I used to think / There is no future left at all.”  There are certain moments where Amnesiac‘s ties to Kid A are unassailable. These tracks were born of the same process, a desire to strip away the old varnish staining Radiohead’s conscience.  Regardless, “I Might Be Wrong” is an individual, as is the next track, the decidedly less doleful “Knives Out.” Well, less doleful musically: the lyrics are a different story altogether. “If you’d been a dog / They would’ve drowned you at birth” Yorke sings, forceful and emotive. A lot can be extracted from those lyrics. Viewing it through a political lense, Yorke seems to be referencing a sort of social Darwinism, where the strong survive and the weak peter out. If you’d been a dog, you’d have been the runt of the litter. The fortunate prey on the less fortunate, “So knives out.”

“Morning Bell/Amnesiac,” which gets my vote for the strangest track on Amnesiac, alternates between harmonious chimes and haunting synth tones. It’s the original version of Kid A‘s “Morning Bell,” but where that song’s tempo was noticeably more metered and deliberate, “Morning Bell/Amnesiac” opts for a slower, lumbering tempo, and never really breaks from that formula. The most damning lyrics remain (“Cut the kids in half”), as does the ambiguity. Maybe it’s about divorce, maybe it’s a family tiff. With Thom Yorke, it’s often hard to tell.  “You can keep the furniture” he says, followed by “Release me,” a tired plea. “Dollars & Cents” reaffirms Radiohead’s fascination with live jazz music, specifically the works of genre legend Charles Mingus. More so than any song on the album, this is Radiohead working perfectly in tandem. Jonny’s distant strings and guitar play well with Colin’s slappy, menacing bassline and Selway’s delicate cymbal taps. Yorke’s lyrics (“There are weapons we can use / Be constructive with your blues”) ether earnestly speak to passive protest or mock your standard government response, a kind but stern suggestion to the people: quit fussing.

“Like Spinning Plates,” Amnesiac‘s penultimate song, is a moody and confusing exercise. Yorke’s lyrics are played in reverse, though they sound like actual words due to the fact that he sang them backwards. The crowning example of Amnesiac‘s dedication to experimentation over entertainment, “Like Spinning Plates” buries itself in synth, content to spend its short life lost at sea. Album closer “Life in a Glasshouse” is a sweet ode to jazz in all forms, at once lively and glum. It’s also a bit paranoid: “Well of course I’d like to sit around and chat / But someone’s listening in” the chorus rings, lead trumpets sounding off, one after the other. If there’s a single meaning to grab from these lyrics, it’s that the turn of the century really did a number on Thom Yorke’s psyche. This is not protest music, it’s music of derailed reality, a muddled dystopia where everyone is aware of what everyone else is doing at all times. The advent of the internet changed music forever. Amnesia set in, people jumping from band to band to album to song with little thought. People forgot where music had been, and had little mind to think where it might go in the future.

Amnesiac is a Radiohead classic, and rightfully so. It was the turning point for a band whose previous two albums transcended the genre trappings of rock or alternative. This new dedication to experimentation—to breaking down a song to its core elements and rearranging them in a particular and peculiar way—remains with Radiohead to this day. Without Amnesiac, would Radiohead have had the gall to record something like In Rainbows? I’d like to think not. It’s a record of twists and turns, starts and stops, the most popular band in the world playing not for fans or critics or album sales, but for the simple act of playing. Old met new, and Radiohead found it’s sound, an ever-warping piggy bank of instruments. Sometimes, we must forget where we’ve come from to get a clearer picture of where we might be going. Sometimes, it’s necessary to forget.



Favorite Tracks: “Packd Like Sardines in a Crsuhd Tin Box,” “Pyramid Song,” “I Might Be Wrong,” “Knives Out”