Wilco // Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has always felt just out of reach. It’s easy, 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 had already been 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 slight smirk becoming more pronounced by the second. Tweedy is not the prototypical singer-songwriter. His voice doesn’t shine 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 some critics as plain and overly sentimental. But something clicked with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and sixteen years later, it’s still difficult to tell exactly what went right. But above all else, the album 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 seemingly soaked in metaphor—are very simple. There are dozens and dozens of moments in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot 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 just exist but free enough to test 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 was apt to focus on small musical minutiae in individual songs, such as the brief transition from “Ashes of American Flags” into “Heavy metal drummer,” an event seen in Sam Jones’ film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco, which documented the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Tweedy was wholly unconcerned with the transition, more focused on the broader thematic questions of the album. Attempting 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, Tweedy removed guitarist Jay Bennett from the band.

At nearly the same time, 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 closely 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. Poetry abstracts reality, separating its many parts in an attempt to piece them back together in a way 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 for that matter, neither do 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.” He seems to be making some off-color reference to reincarnation. Dead leaves can return to their tree, but the tree takes a different form; it is certainly not the same, but is it altogether that different? If the American flag is reduced to ashes, who’s to say we can’t pick up the smoldering pieces and build anew?

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, on the whole, 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, in a sense, because there comes a point in everyone’s life where worry supersedes carelessness. It becomes harder and harder to let loose. The chorus, in contrast, 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 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 populating his mind. Each song on YHF works 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.

Early-album track “War on war” is arguably YHF‘s best song. Deceptively straightforward, the song 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 dictate 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 has doubts. 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 is just that—authentic; YHF is unafraid to pose the kind of questions that beg for an answer. Each track is furiously independent, but when wrapped together, the full picture emerges. I’m convinced that picture looks different to each individual.

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, intense 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.

 

Chris

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”

 

 

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.

 

Chris

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Radiohead // Kid A (2000)

Kid A is numb. It is an immensely paranoid record, the fractured ramblings of newly-crowned auteurs lost in a hellscape. It is scared. It is scary. It has no desire to crawl out of it’s own skin. It was a premonition: Kid A essentially predicted our future. It is one of, if not the, first album to be experienced primarily on the internet; its relentless weirdness and complicated circumstances accurately reflect the disconnect of modern life. The entire world is now at arm’s reach, and yet somehow we have never felt more alone.

Kid A is also a child of strain. On the heels of what critics were already calling the saving grace of alternative rock music, OK Computer, Radiohead was now one of the most famous rock bands in the world. The band suffered a crash and burn, unsure of what to do next, where to go and how to get there. Thom Yorke experienced a mental breakdown, plagued with intense writer’s block. He had no desire to be a famous musician. For him, music was an escape, a “way of moving on and dealing with things.” The critical and commercial success of OK Computer ripped away his anonymity. He became closed, isolated, the allure of rock music evaporating all around him. He was hostile and divisive, hellbent on changing. Stripping preconceived notions of what a “Radiohead album” should sound like, Yorke and fellow band mates Ed O’Brien, Philip Selway, and Jonny and Colin Greenwood confronted very high expectations. They then kindly told those expectations to fuck off.

The first twenty seconds of Kid A are an ominous prelude. The warped vocal effects and dissonant harmony (a combination of synthesizer and drum machine) combine sparsely, and the song rarely settles on one chord. “Everything In It’s Right Place,” in addition to being the first track on Kid A, was also the first song Thom Yorke wrote for the album. Written using only a piano, Yorke’s lyrics are few and far between, and largely unilluminating. Kid A is not a revealing album. Yorke sings “Everything, everything, everything / In its right place,” as though he’s not really interested in singing at all. Thus begins the album’s numbing effect, the aggressive disconnect amidst a clamor of unnatural sound. “Everything In It’s Right Place” segues into the title track. The intro (a clash of light piano and warped, almost alien sounds) is a bait-and-switch of high measure. This is the title track of a Radiohead album, but not once is Yorke’s voice unmanipulated: in fact, the lyrics are often unintelligible. Yorke spends the song wrapped in sound, lazily humming lyrics I imagine he scribbled on eight or nine lines of notebook paper. Perhaps the most revealing aspect of “Kid A” is Yorke not wanting his voice or lyrics to rise above the noise. He seems resigned, content even, to lie back and let the synthesizer make all the moves for him. The track doesn’t necessarily stand out. It is not flashy or gutsy. It’s just there, present, existing. And that makes it essential.

To that point, like very few albums before or after, every single tick of Kid A‘s forty-nine minutes and fifty-seven seconds is essential. It is the definition of album. You cannot choose a single song that rises above its whole; there is no “Karma Police” or “Paranoid Android” to isolate and play on repeat. “The National Anthem” turns the traditional Radiohead partners of guitar and drum into drone. Phantom sounds occasionally break through, foreign and unhinged. Yorke poses the question “What’s going on?” with frightening deliberateness. It is an angry song, disaffected and disjointed, eventually devolving into a downright scary mess of broken jazz. “The National Anthem” is anxiety and paranoia becoming tangible. Nothing gets along. Nothing blends together. Each element is alone, distinct—a heavily crowded room full of introverts, the music reflective of their rapid, darting thoughts.

Kid A continually and obsessively buries itself within itself. The instrumental “Treefingers” doesn’t amount to much more than cautious harmonies, closed off and quiet. High pings resembling the song of windchimes lift it from its brooding sadness. There’s a feeling “Treefingers” captures that we’ve all felt. It’s not historical or contemplative, nor is it particularly nuanced or sophisticated. It is a song of utility: what it does is isolate. It makes you feel alone, and not even alone with your thoughts—aloneness, in the purest, truest sense. In life, there are moments of lightness and humor and joy. But in the interim, the long inhale between brief exhales of lightness or humor or joy, that is where most of life is lived.

“Idioteque” is the centerpiece of Kid A. Jonny Greenwood’s pointed electronic score is dominated by bassline and creaky, insect-like treble. The song is schizophrenic, a rambling prophecy of some impending apocalypse. The lyrics are a gut-punch, the closest Kid A comes to hitting home. “Who’s in bunker, who’s in bunker? / Women and children first.” “Ice age coming, ice age coming.” “We’re not scaremongering / This is really happening, happening.” “I’ll laugh until my head comes off.” True to the album’s bleakness, Yorke sounds more narrator than whistleblower. The song at turns propels and halts, Yorke singing with purpose, a singularity in this soundscape.

As is usually the case with albums I love, one lyric or musical element stands above the rest. I have a tendency to boil an album down to one point, one meaning, something solid I can pin down and decompound. For me, this point appears early in Kid A, on “How To Disappear Completely,” the album’s fourth track. Strings stir to life. In comes the soft strum of guitar as ambient noise breathes in the background. Thom Yorke gently sings: “That there, that’s not me.” No moment captures the emotional disconnect of Kid A quite like that sentence. There’s no air of pretension, no lofty metaphor to dissect and critically evaluate. It’s the idea that the you sitting behind the glow of your phone or computer or some other worldly distraction is not you. That is not the real you, the essence of you. You’re merely pretending that’s you. It’s easier that way, there’s less work to be done. You can plug in, shut off, and forget. We have been warned. In that way lies madness.

To be frank, most of what I’ve said may sound like total bullshit. And I get that, I really do. I may be running in circles, talking for sake of talking, finding meaning where it doesn’t necessarily belong. But Kid A is truly an album capable of leaving a lasting mark, and it’s surprising how rare that is today. Were the album released this year, I can guess many people would listen to it, cram “Idioteque” into a playlist and leave the rest as scraps. What’s so amazing is Kid A does not, and cannot, function without all of its parts working in tandem. Without “Treefingers,” “Optimistic” just wouldn’t make sense. It would ring hollow. That completeness makes Kid A special. This is an album capable of translating fear, paranoia, and impermanence into music. It predicted the future, one of ever-better technology and connectivity. It cautions that the steady incline of society, in its rapidity and repetition, can numb the senses. It fears the future, yes, but refuses to turn its back to the noise. Kid A is never, and will never be, more pertinent than in the very moment you’re listening.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: The album in its entirety, front to back. Close your eyes, tune out the world, and listen to it in one sitting: I promise, it’s worth your time.

Kendrick Lamar // good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012)

The heart and soul of good kid, m.A.A.d city is that of a film, so much so that Kendrick spells out this fact for us on the cover. It has an abundance of characters, both large and small, and moves in and out in waves of emotion, flashes of action and denouement, containing all the nuances of a well-imagined docudrama. Our protagonist, a young Kendrick Lamar, documents a day in his life in Compton, California. He and his friends spend their evenings driving around, smoking weed, drinking liquor, and gangbanging; they are no saints, but then again, they don’t pretend to be. Kendrick dramatizes this life in a way that neither condones nor condemns. What’s a poor 17-year old supposed to experience outside of his surroundings? What is the world outside of inner-city Compton? Kendrick asks us the question, but he never gives us the answer. After all, a film is not necessarily about the ending. It’s about the experience of watching it for the very first time.

good kid, m.A.A.d city begins with a prayer, a foreshadowing: “Lord God, I come to you a sinner, and I humbly repent for my sins.” This first line, heard from the distant, iffy audio of a tape recorder, introduces us to “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter.” Kendrick can’t help but share his excitement at the prospect of meeting Sherane,  saying as he drives “Seventeen, with nothing but pussy stuck on my mental/My motive was rather sinful/’What you trying to get into?'” His youthful energy segues into the reality of the situation, as the song suddenly halts and is interrupted by a voicemail from his parents. Kendrick took the minivan and said he’d be back in 15 minutes, but kids will be kids. This family thread becomes an important crux of the album, as Kendrick’s parents play supporting lead roles of sort (the voices of Kendrick’s parents are his actual parents, which adds a great deal of weight to everything they say). Already, in the album’s first three or so minutes, we’ve been introduced to four characters (Kendrick, Sherane, Mom, Dad) that will recur over the course of good kid, m.A.A.d city. At the end of “Sherane,” Kendrick’s father is pissed, telling his wife to “Cut my motherfuckin’ oldies back on, you killin’ my motherfuckin’ vibe,” which blasts us right into “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” a track whose intro resembles much of Kendrick’s sultry jazz stylings on Section.80, comfortable in it’s own skin. Kendrick sings softly, “I am a sinner, who’s probably gonna sin again/Lord forgive me, Lord forgive me, things I don’t understand/Sometimes I need to be alone.” It’s a matter-of-fact statement that is incredibly relatable. It’s a miracle how the album ties together as a whole, as though it were designed to satisfy both underground and mainstream rap fans equally. It’s a sought-after feat in the world of rap music, one nearly unattainable by even 2012’s standards. But Kendrick manages to tell his story and entertain you all in the same.

Another audio recording acts as the outro to “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” Kendrick’s friend saying “I got a pack of blacks and a beats CD, get yo freestyles ready.” Cut to “Backseat Freestyle,” a romping track with an insane frontside bass and off-kilter clang. It’s pure fun, a young kid called K-Dot trying on his rapper hat, testing his limits and pushing past them, in turn rapping double-time and grovelling his voice uncomfortably low. “The Art of Peer Pressure” follows, Kendrick finally arriving at his narrative, carefully dictating he and his homies activities, setting the scene. The homies are out tonight to “complete the mission,” the mission being a robbery on a house they’ve “been camping out for like two months.” Kendrick was pressured to believe that these missions were a necessary part of growing up in Compton. “Money Trees,” one of the most straightforward rap songs on the album, features an excellent Jay Rock feature and a telling chorus: “It go Halle Berry or halleujah/Pick your poison tell me what you doin’/Everybody gon’ respect the shooter/But the one in front of the gun lives forever.” The song leads into another appearance from Mom and Dad, Mom again calling about the minivan which is yet to be returned. Kendrick’s dad, drunk, is having the time of his life, telling Mom “Girl I want your body, I want your body ’cause of that big ol’ fat ass,” which rockets straight into “Poetic Justice,” a slow, romantic track. So romantic, in fact, it features a famous Janet Jackson sample (“In the thunderin’ rain”) and Drake, whose presence doesn’t feel the slightest bit out of place in Kendrick’s universe. The song is not without weight, with Kendrick asking us directly, “If I told you that a flower bloomed in a dark room, would you trust it?” It’s a question asked in earnest. I’m not sure he knows the answer himself.

If you split good kid, m.A.A.d city into two acts, “Poetic Justice” is the end of act one. The audio recording outro of “Poetic Justice” introduces us to a scarier side of Compton; Kendrick is jumped by two guys in hoodies, previously mentioned all the way back in the opener, “Sherane.” There’s a threatening lilt in a hooded man’s voice as he asks Kendrick where he’s from. This propels the album into “good kid,” Kendrick welcoming “mass hallucination, baby,” that being the cult of assimilation surrounding his gangbanging lifestyle. Kendrick steels himself, pledging to get the fuck out of there as soon as possible, by any means necessary. Easier said than done. “m.A.A.d city” hits you in the face from it’s opening seconds, blasting and booming a rousing hood beat, a nervous Kendrick detailing all of the horrors he’s witnessed in Compton. Narratively, it’s both fascinating and deeply skillful storytelling, with the track following the trauma of being jumped in “good kid,” and immediately segueing to a state of PTSD. About halfway through, the track flips, Compton legend MC Eiht telling Kendrick to “wake yo punk ass up.” Kendrick’s hesitant delivery is fitting. What he describes is his terrifying reality of life in inner-city Compton. His dad told him to get a job, but he got fired when his friends convinced him to stage a robbery. He doesn’t smoke weed anymore; the first blunt he ever smoked was laced with cocaine and had him “foaming at the mouth.” Kendrick’s final verse begs a question: “If I told you I killed a nigga at 16, would you believe me?” Kendrick uses this last verse to speak to all inner-city children, pleading that there is something beyond this, that there is indeed hope if you can grab onto it. His last words ring clearly: “I live inside the bell of the rough/Compton, U.S.A. made me an angel on angel dust.” Made Me an Angel on Angel Dust.

The outro of “m.A.A.d city” finds Kendrick once again with his homies. They tell him to just lay back, relax, and drink a little. This brings us to “Swimming Pools (Drank),” a reluctant and hazy party anthem. Kendrick begins by trying to rationalize exactly why people drink; relax, kill your sorrows, fit in. What on the surface appears to be a club anthem is actually an introspective study of alcoholism and it’s connection to peer pressure. Kendrick has said he purposefully contrasted that mainstream sound with this subject matter, and it’s extremely effective, especially considering the audio recording it ends with. Tough talk, gunshots, and death.

Kendrick’s story has finally come to a head, and the towering, mournful “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” is good kid, m.A.A.d city‘s opus. In it’s first movement, “Sing About Me,” Kendrick assumes the perspective of two different people. The first is positive, maintaining optimism; it’s the tragic and true story of Kendrick cradling the brother of a friend who had been shot, told from his friend’s perspective. He tells Kendrick, “I’m fortunate you believe in a dream/This orphanage we call a ghetto is quite a routine,” leading to “I know exactly what happened/You ran outside when you heard my brother cry for help/Held him like a newborn baby and made him feel/Like everything was alright and a fight he tried to put up/But the type of bullet that stuck had went against his will.” His friend isn’t really sure where to go, he seems lost but hopeful. He says it’s sort of silly, gangbanging, how we “trip of off colors” and kill our own brothers and sisters for some small claim to fame or recognition.  It’s also all he knows. It’s “been with me forever.” But he’s grateful, truly, that Kendrick could be so kind and unerstanding: “And I love you cause you love my brother like you did/Just promise me you’ll tell this story when you make it big/And if I die before your album drop, I hope—.” Gunshots cut him off. The soft strum of the beat never falters. The second story is told from the perspective of Keisha’s sister; “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)” vividly detailed the true story of a prostitute on Lamar’s Section.80. This introduces all of us to the idea that Kendrick being a realist is not always a positive. Keisha’s sister is also a prostitute, and explains that she doesn’t want his goddamn attention, she gets enough of that on her own. She’s hurt, and more obviously, angry that Kendrick would flesh out these truths of her very real sister for all the world to hear. She painfully spouts “And matter fact, did I mention that I physically feel great?/A doctor’s approval is a waste of time, I know I’m straight/I’ll probably live longer than you and never fade away/I’ll never fade away, I’ll never fade away, I know my fate.” Keisha’s sister proceeds to fade into silence, Kendrick wondering exactly what his purpose is as an artist. Is he meant to be a realist or a soothsayer? When does exposition become intrusion? Is the truth really worth all this? He has problems looking in the mirror. His stomach is so overwhelmed by the flap of butterfly wings he feels sick. “And I’m not sure why I’m infatuated with death.” Who among us could blame him? Growing up on the streets of Compton, California leaves it’s fair share of scars. Kendrick keeps battling inward, asking “Am I worth it? Did I put enough work in?” And then the hook, “Promise that you will sing about me.”

The second part, “I’m Dying of Thirst,” finds Kendrick at the crucial crosswords the album has been building to. “Tired of running, tired of hunting/My own kind, but retiring nothing” he desperately sings. Kendrick is finished taking his life for granted. He seeks repentance, to be washed in the blood of Jesus, for his thirst to finally be quenched. He wants to learn what it means to be whole: “What are we doing? Who are we fooling?/Hell is hot, fire is proven/To burn for eternity, return of the student/That never learned how to live righteous but how to shoot it.” A woman notices Kendrick and his homies, who are losing it after one of their own was gunned down only moments earlier. She approaches, and tells the young men that they’re indeed dying of thirst, and only one thing can quench their thirst: water. Holy water. We are transported to the beginning of good kid, m.A.A.d city. They pray: “”Lord God, I come to you a sinner, and I humbly repent for my sins…”

This is truly the spirit of good kid, m.A.A.d city, the search for repentance, reconciliation, and peace. “Real” finds Kendrick at peace with his place as an artist, one who refuses to embellish, one who sees truth not as a formality but as a responsibility. Mom and Dad come back at the end, in the album’s most touching moments. They take turns on Kendrick’s voicemail:

Dad: “Sorry to hear what happen to your homeboy, but don’t learn the hard way like I did homie. Any nigga can kill a man, that don’t make you a real nigga. Realness is responsibility, realness is taking care of your motherfucking family, realness is God. Alright that’s all I wanted to tell you, just make sure you call us back when you get this message. Here go your mom.”

Mom: “… I hope you come back, and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let ’em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person. But when you do make it, give back, with your words of encouragement, and that’s the best way to give back. To your city… And I love you, Kendrick.”

good kid, m.A.A.d city holds a very special place in my heart. It’s a beautiful, honest, painful, cinematic, and graceful work of art. Like the best films, it finds a way to touch and entertain. Wounds are healed, bridges built, people reborn. It’s the idea that you can reinvent. You too can rise from the ashes of your past self and come out on the other side new, whole, peaceful. Flowers can bloom, even in dark rooms.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Backseat Freestyle,” “Poetic Justice,” “good kid,” “m.A.A.d city,” “Swimming Pools (Drank),” “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” “Real”

Arcade Fire // Funeral (2004)

And thus, 21st century art-rock was solidified. Funeral is an interesting and emotional amalgam. It’s title stems from the untimely deaths of numerous family members that preceded it’s release. It was an instant modern classic, combining art-rock and baroque pop themes in an album wholly focused on the tedium and suffering of life in the current century. There’s a cloud hanging over Funeral and there always will be. It is at once euphoric and melancholy,  free of definable concept or conceit. An album born from death and illuminated by life.

Funeral begins what I like to describe as the “Power 3” of Arcade Fire listening (followed by 2010’s The Suburbs and 2013’s Reflektor). Win Butler, lead vocalist and songwriter, has his hands full with this one. Or rather, filled his own hands. People come and go throughout, but the themes remain air-tight, hellbent on finding some sort of answer to eternal questions. “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” is an operatic opening, flowing gently on and on, reaching it’s climax well after it was deserved. Butler chimes, “And if the snow buries my, my neighborhood/And if my parents are crying/Then I’ll dig a tunnel from my window to yours/Yeah, a tunnel from my window to yours.” Thus begins this ubiquitous theme of feeling both isolated and connected. This is continued in three more iterations of “Neighborhood,” which carry the bulk of the album’s first act. “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” is an allegory unto itself, packed with symbolism I can’t quite define, and neither can most. “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)”—my personal favorite of the four—rides a strumming lead guitar and uplifting chimes, led by Butler’s aching, breathless voice. It’s a stadium song, one that refuses to halt and stop: “I went out into the night/I went out to pick a fight with anyone/Light a candle for the kids/Jesus Christ don’t keep it hid!” Those lyrics encompass a certain kind of white suburban sentiment, that things are kept hush-hush, unspoken of, quietly locked behind closed doors. “Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)” is the denouement, the musical reprieve of the first three movements. Strings balance gently with acoustic guitar, Butler’s distinct voice both whispered and piercing, the song moves along artfully, gracefully. He sings: “It’s not a lover I want no more/and it’s not heaven I’m pining for/but there’s some spirit I used to know/that’s been drowned out by the radio.” That last measure embodies these movements; one realizes Butler is not merely selling metaphors but in fact speaking about music itself, that too many musicians have in fact lost their idea of art and it’s intangible rewards.

The second half of the album is not as streamlined, but just as structured. “Crown of Love” demonstrates that while Funeral may be bleak, it is never without positivity. In fact, it exudes positivity; it burns slowly as bonfire and begs for you to dance to it’s sorrow. “Wake Up,” a song that would spend a decade destined for coming-of-age movie trailers, is brilliant, uplifting, and infectious. There’s something innocent about the song, with Butler singing “Now that I’m older/My heart’s colder/And I can see that it’s a lie” so honestly it hurts. The chorus is as simple as it gets, a successive series of Oh’s backed by an unrepentant battalion of guitar, cymbal-ping, and indistinguishable noise—a chorus so messy and free it actually feels like a relief, like youth itself. Then we wake. Near the end, “Wake Up” changes, living up to it’s promise. The reflective Oh’s are left behind in favor of short and sweet vocalizations sung under a bright, hopping piano line. Butler speaks (not sings) directly to us, proclaiming “You better look down below,” which can be interpreted as either a heads up or a wink-wink moment. It’s a fantastically economical use of time.

From it’s first guitar strums, “Haiti” sounds simple enough. Classic indie-rock masquerading as folk, a simple rhythm aided by drum and the occasional intrusion of some electronic, otherworldly element. That’s fine enough, as the first two minutes of the song play out as expected. Then we’re left without the lyrics. Régine Chassagne (multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, and Win Butler’s wife) offers up a soft, unaffected voice which subsides and only sound remains, somewhere between a hum and a drone, little flares of sound sparking in and out. For a second, Chassagne inhales quickly as though she’s going to begin again, only to be cut off by the guitar. It’s amazing to listen to this song, recorded in 2003, with the full knowledge I have of the Haitian earthquake that devastated the country in 2010. The song speaks numbers to that context, that so much was said and then some. Sometimes it’s just as well if we close our own mouths, open our ears, and listen to others.

“Rebellion (Lies)” ignites from the tail-end of “Haiti,” a song so lyrically dense I struggle to find something insightful to say. Butler begins by toying with ideological profundity, stating “Sleeping is giving in/No matter what the time is.” It’s a headache of a metaphor, the meaning changing from person to person. The lies we tell ourselves continue, with Butler angrily growling “Come on hide your lovers/Underneath the covers,” which is either an immensely personal recollection from his past or a tried-and-true universal sentiment. Having experienced the rollercoaster that was the first eight songs, I’m inclined to side with the latter. Funeral is not without it’s melancholy, but there’s something joyous in not only knowing the truth but having the courage to speak it freely.

Arcade Fire is concerned more with art than music. This is my personal opinion of course. Listening to their music, their albums as a whole, it becomes evident that they view the two, art and music, as one in the same. Funeral is an elegy for the old you, the person you chose to leave behind when, say, you first experienced death. Or failure. Or when you felt the most alive, those conscious breaths you take upon waking. Or the first time sadness crept into your heart, and the invincible feeling when you fought it back, all bloody knuckles and unshed tears. This is a funeral for your old self. There is infinite joy in that.

 

Chris

Favorite Tracks: “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out),” “Wake Up,” “Rebellion (Lies)”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Courtney Barnett // The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas (2014)

There’s been a heavy trend in music this decade. Singer-songwriters really like to write about the mundane. Whether that be the sad nostalgia of Kurt Vile waking on a pretty day  or the glossary-like detail of Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek or Mac DeMarco’s sweet love of cheap cigarettes. Few artists can hit the nail on the head when it comes to turning the every day into something more. That makes Courtney Barnett a needle in a haystack. Her lyrics are stacked with wit, aided by her lackadaisical, deadpan delivery. She is a 21st century storyteller, sharing small details that in turn erupt into a much larger, more pertinent picture.

Courtney Barnett is very down-to-earth. The Aussie singer-songwriter’s lack of too much care makes her long-winded The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas stand out among a sea of otherwise boring, meaningless peas of alternative rock. She never pretends to walk wheels around you with her witty songwriting, though she very well could. Even her backing guitars have a lazy Sunday sort of vibe to them, highlighted in “History Eraser,” as they slog and struggle to coexist with Barnett’s rambling, cheeky delivery. The song begins, “I got drunk and fell asleep atop the sheets but luckily I left the heater on,” with Barnett stretching small syllables, giving her voice a disinterested, alt-punk attitude. Just a song later, on “David,” she bluntly proclaims “I don’t really like any of your friends, but it’s not that hard for me to pretend/Hard for me to pretend,” some of the few lyrics in a rhythmic 3-minute jam. Barnett relishes in those small moments where the music can speak for her. There’s no use in overwriting about everyday life when most hours of her day are spent in contemplative silence.

Barnett’s matter-of-fact delivery rings with sincerity. “Lance Jr.” begins with “I masturbated to the songs you wrote/Resuscitated all of my hopes/It felt wrong but it didn’t take too long/Much appreciated are your songs.”  Humor this authentic is hard to come by in stand-up comics, let alone singer-songwriters. Barnett is uninterested in the messiness that metaphors drag along with them, instead opting to strike for the heart of the music and the feeling therein. “Lance Jr.” rings along with a strange, grungy, Nirvana-esque plodding, uncomfortable and unsure as the lyrics it begins with. But Barnett never falters. The epic “Are You Looking After Yourself” finds Barnett drawling and contemplating, coyly asking “Are you eating? You sound so thin,” taking on the role of an overbearing parent. She then recoils, singing “I don’t know what I was drinking, I should get a dog.” The free spirit Barnett exemplifies gives The Double EP a bright, sunny disposition. The small scope of these songs place Barnett in the minimal category of songwriters who are able to flip mundanity to profundity.

I’d be remiss to speak about this EP without mentioning it’s best song, “Avant Gardener.” This is an alternative song that works on so many layers. Beginning simply with drums, then dropping off into a hazy world of aimless guitar screeches and stoned rambling; Barnett describes the day: “I sleep in late/Another day/Oh what a wonder/Oh what a waste./It’s a Monday/It’s so mundane/What exciting things/Will happen today?” In her sleepy crooning, Barnett describes the mundane Monday she experiences, full of cutely small revelations, rhyming “I’m breathing but I’m wheezing/Feel like I’m emphysemin’/My throat feels like a funnel/Filled with weet bix and kerosene and—.” But there is profundity within these lines, a brash intelligence and wit Barnett tries so hard to undermine—or at least make you think she’s undermining.  The chorus following the second verse rings out, “Anaphylactic and super hypocondriactic/Should’ve stayed in bed today/I much prefer the mundane./I take a hit from/An asthma puffer/I do it wrong/I was never good at smoking bongs/ I’m not that good at breathin’ in.”

For all her lazy ramblings and sunny disposition, Courtney Barnett deserves to do a little breathing in. The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas sees Barnett at her most immediate, with songs full of humor and aimlessness, uncaring and unflinching. Barnett has said of her songwriting “But, you know, those small moments, if you paint them properly, they can represent this beautiful moment, or whatever it was that made you stop and consider it for a second.” Courtney Barnett manages to capture those small moments where life meets circumstances, transforming a minuscule moments into something larger, and even yet, more personal.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: “Avant Gardener,” “History Eraser,” “Lance Jr.,” “Are You Looking After Yourself”

 

Tyler, the Creator // Goblin (2011)

Tyler Okonma hates his own music. He says as much in Goblin‘s closer “Golden,” referencing his debut mixtape: “Mom works hard, still working on her Master’s/Son lies about, taking classes at community college/Just to record some bullshit he calls Bastard.” He doesn’t like rapping. His lyrics are so foul and divisive that entire countries have backlashed. It’s also important to note that the young man who dubbed himself Tyler, the Creator was 19-years old when Goblin was recorded. It is a record populated by hyper-violence, a loosely structured rambling of anarchy and depravity. It is immaturity incarnate, a young provocateur finding his style and testing his limits. It is also utterly, unquestionably original, sometimes to a fault.

A loose concept surrounds Goblin. Tyler spends certain tracks talking to his “therapist,” Dr. TC, an extension of the outsider theme that dominated Bastard. This is a record of frustrated youth. In the eponymous opening track, Tyler somberly raps “I wish Thebe was here,” Thebe being his good friend and Odd Future bandmate Earl Sweatshirt, who famously spent a few years in a boy’s reform school in Samoa. This confessional style says a lot about Tyler, that he has to build an entire concept around speaking to a therapist in order to actually rap about how he feels. And that’s right about where the sentiment ends. The rest of Goblin is an unapologetic burning of hip-hop themes. Following the opener, we have “Yonkers,” which, along with it’s demented music video, launched Tyler to semi-mainstream success. This is a 1000-level class introduction to Tyler’s infinite strangeness. He raps, “Green paper, gold teeth, and pregnant gold retrievers all I want/Fuck money, diamonds, and bitches, don’t need ’em,” with grovelled snark, daring you to make fun of his ridiculous bars. “Yonkers” has become the poster song for Tyler, it’s mix of dark narcissism and out-of-nowhere rhyme schemes. Oh, and that beat was all a joke anyway.

These first two tracks on Goblin set a high bar for the rest of album, one it occasionally fails to live up to. “Radicals” is a rambling mess, with a cheeky, light-hearted chorus that chants “Kill people, burn shit, fuck school.” It’s bleak, awkward moments like this that make Tyler’s second album nearly inaccessible to those not already bought into the Odd Future motto. It’s also one of the most important tonal moments in the entire album. Where “Radicals” isolates, the stalker tone of “She”—featuring an ever-listenable Frank Ocean—packs a production punch. The beat skids and sings, lightened the grim subject matter and giving an altogether youthful, free air to the song. This song introduces us to an inescapable truth: Tyler, the Creator is an amazing producer that fronts as a rapper. This is part of the reason why it’s almost impossible to tell when Tyler is being serious. On one hand, Tyler often sounds so ridiculous one wonders whether he’s performing some highwire satire act for comedy effect. On the other, certain disturbing lines are delivered with such earnestness they can’t be anything other than serious, right? Goblin is an isolating record. Upon one’s first listen, I would struggle to say one would want to listen again anytime soon. It’s bleak to the extreme, uncomfortable and awkward and populated with terrible, violent imagery.

It’s a struggle to properly pin down Goblin. It’s the work of a young artist, one struggling to find exactly what he’s supposed to say and the usefulness of his voice. But Tyler’s at his best when he sounds the craziest. Tracks like “Tron Cat” exemplify the manic energy Tyler is capable of exerting. Where most of Goblin feels like a slog, “Tron Cat” establishes Tyler not as only a competent producer, but a rapper capable of building lyrical layers onto his music in the right circumstances: “You niggas rap about fucking bitches and getting head/Instead I rap about fucking bitches and getting heads/While you niggas stacking bread, I could stack a couple dead/Bodies, making red look less of a color more of a hobby.” Tyler’s ultimate power as an artist is his ability to make you cringe. There is no rapper better at delivering a gut-wrenching line about rape or murder or whatever other atrocity comes to mind than Tyler, the Creator. That is not to say this is a positive, only a point of emphasis.

One mid-album line sticks out to me, the end of “Sandwitches.” It makes me both reel back and feel for Tyler all in the same: “And we don’t fucking make horror-core, you fucking idiots/Listen deeper than the music before you put it in a box.” Tyler, the Creator’s second album is for him. I’m fully convinced that Tyler produced and recorded Goblin with him and only him in mind, which would explain it’s inaccessibility. If there’s anything to take away from Goblin, it’s that Tyler is a supremely talented producer with a dark, rambling mind—a talented isolationist searching for exactly what music he wants to make.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: “Yonkers,” “She,” “Tron Cat”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sufjan Stevens // Illinois (2005)

Subtlety has never interested Sufjan Stevens. Illinois is no exception—take a peek at that cover art. The one that looks like it’s made with clip art. And that gushing album title? Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel the Illinoise. Illinoise? Really? Is he serious? Oh he’s serious all right, and he’s about to explain to you why Illinois is the single greatest state to ever exist in any nation in world history. The second album in Stevens’ slightly ambitious “50 States Project” (which was bunk from the start) sees the electronica of Enjoy Your Rabbit and the lo-fi Christian folk of Seven Swans dissipate. What remains is a remarkably beautiful hot mess—one of the most amicable, symphonic, and gorgeous indie records of the decade.

Building on musical themes from his previous album, Michigan, Sufjan goes all-in, employing a ubiquitous orchestra and backing choir, which gives Illinois a musical scope and diversity as massive as the state itself. What’s so fascinating about Sufjan’s music is it’s sense of form, or lack thereof. Some sounds are conventional; in other instances, particularly in his use of time signatures, compositions can be frustratingly complex. Another key separating factor is the minute attention to detail in the lyrics. “John Wayne Gacy Jr.,” a haunting ballad of Illinois’ most famous serial killer, sprinkles small details of Gacy’s life and crimes that in turn connect to the bigger picture. Sufjan chimes “When the swingset hit his head,” an actual instance in Gacy’s childhood that caused a blood clot in his brain. This personal fact segues into the macabre, with Stevens’ exclaiming “He dressed up like a clown for them/With his face paint white and red,” in reference to Gacy’s dubbing as the “Killer Clown,” and “He put a cloth on their lips, quiet hands, quiet kiss on the mouth,” calling to Gacy’s use of chloroform to subdue, molest, and kill his victims. It’s a shocking, intimate piece of songwriting, especially concerning the songs final lines, where Stevens turns the focus inward: “And in my best behavior/I am really just like him/Look beneath the floor boards/For the secrets I have hid.” This full-circle implication that everyone is capable of horrific strings of violence—that the only thing separating us from Gacy is our individual actions—is basically Songwriting 101 for any aspiring musician.

But Illinois is not all gloom and doom; in fact, Stevens takes a holistic approach to these songs, touching on all walks of life and locale within the state. Numerous cities get direct references (Jacksonville, Evansville, Peoria, Caledonia, Kankakee, Decatur) as well as famous historical figures in Illinois history (Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, Casimir Pulaski). Stevens even goes so far as to include a song about Superman, “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts,” because the fictional city of Metropolis is largely based on the city of Chicago. There’s a sweet ode to his stepmother, “Decatur, or Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!” which describes a trip Sufjan and his brother took with their stepmother to Decatur. It begins with the childlike innocence of “Our stepmom, we did everything to hate her.” The feelings Sufjan is able to invoke in these songs feel at once both small and universal, and all are delivered without a hint of irony or pretentiousness.

Musically, Illinois is largely a communal effort. Few songs break this pattern. “Chicago” is a fabulous example, generously employing strings, drums, keyboard, horns, and a backing choir. Sufjan uses Chicago as an allegory for his (or someone’s) constant reinvention: he is a man who loves, falls, and loves again: “I fell in love again/All things go, all things go/Drove to Chicago/All things know, all things know.” In those lyric lie infinite optimism, assisted by a perfect build and release. There’s a newness to the horns every time they appear, acting almost as a secondary chorus that propels the song, and the feeling, forward. “Chicago” is a beautiful tribute to mistakes, both large and small, and a reminder that we can always drop it and walk away, that we are capable of changing for the better. A different sort of optimism is expressed in “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts,” expounding on Sufjan’s belief in the inherent goodness of humanity: “Only a real man can be a lover/If he had hands to lend us all over/We celebrate our sense of each other/We have a lot to give one another.” The lyrics ring with sentimentality, but Sufjan’s distinct earnestness and skill as a songwriter elevate the song. Once again, Sufjan deploys horns, thrusting drums and loud, messy electric guitars. The song fades away in contemplation before being revitalized by the chorus. There is significance in that musical choice; nothing ever dies in Illinois, the feeling simply subsides for the moment, eagerly awaiting it’s inevitable return.

The excellent “The Predatory Wasp of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us” is both truth and embellishment. Sufjan explains “North of Sylvana we swim in the Palisades,” which is fiction, as the true-life story Sufjan tells took place in his home state of Michigan, not Illinois. But the heart of the song follows in the next stanza: “Oh how I meant to tease him/Oh how I meant no harm/Touching his back with my hand I kiss him/I see the wasp on the length of my arm.” The horns follow, lopping lower and lower as confusion and sadness settles in. There’s an innocence to Sufjan’s confession, as though he confused the intensity of boyhood friendship for unrequited love—but not once does he shy away from these feelings. In fact, he never shies away from any feeling. The song blasts it’s way back, the chorus beckoning “Oh great sights upon this state! Hallelu-,” with Sufjan underneath, “We were in love. We were in love./Palisades! Palisades!/I can wait. I can wait. ” The candidness with which Stevens’ expresses passionate feelings is what makes Illinois such a deeply affecting album; people and places come and go, but the feeling always remains, and feelings are no good if we refuse to acknowledge them.

Illinois is a special concept album. It’s unlike any other indie rock record I’ve ever listened to. The stories are by turns small and intimate, large and urgent, historical and contemplative. There is life, death, love, and passion within those lines, and the sense that, no matter who we are or what we’ve done, whatever life we’ve lived up to this point, there is some one and some place in this world that will accept us as we are.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: “John Wayne Gacy Jr.,” “Chicago,” “Casimir Pulaski Day,” “The Man of Metropolis…,” “The Predatory Wasp…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Danny Brown // XXX (2011)

xxx

Danny Brown is a singularity. I’m also pretty sure he’s insane. I’m not kidding when I say I’ve never heard a rapper quite like him. This is a man who relishes in his own depravity, his music acting as expositional therapy sessions detailing a pretty serious pill problem, a particularly dark sexual appetite, and the inner-workings of a frantic, manically creative mind. Something interesting preceded XXX. On March 16th, 2011, Danny Brown turned 30. Danny had some questioning to do, certainly—30-years old is a landmark for anyone. But there was one question that kept nagging and nagging and nagging. What happens when a gangster rapper turns 30? Danny Brown wasn’t sure of the answer, so he created his own: They act out.

XXX is technically a mixtape (whatever the hell mixtape means anymore). 22-tracks clock in at just over an hour. The songs move at a rapid clip, coming and going as quickly as the squeal of Brown’s voice, all strangled yaps and yells. For as fast as XXX‘s tracks flip from one to the next, most of the beats sound like they’re stuck in sludge. A grimy-electro vibe dominates the soundscape, highlighted in tracks such as “Die Like A Rockstar,” which sounds like someone spilled maple syrup on a Daft Punk track. Brown apathetically exclaims “I got that Kurt Cobain kind of mind,” then proceeds to reference Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jimi Hendrix, Anna-Nicole Smith, River Phoenix, Heath Ledger, Brittany Murphy—scores and scores of celebrities whose lives were lost to drug addiction. Drugs populate Brown’s universe, both that of his music and his reality. There’s something to be said about this sort of candidness, as though Brown gets a kick out of making you uncomfortable by shoving these brutal truths in your face and not allowing you to turn away. In the track that follows, “Pac Blood,” Brown squawks in the quasi-chorus “Rhymes that make the Pope wanna get his dick sucked/Had Virgin Mary doing lines in the pick-up/Make Sarah Palin deepthroat till she hiccup.” Ladies and gentlemen, you are not in Kansas anymore. Welcome to Danny’s world.

And what a fascinating world it is. Brown has a unique way of starkly contrasting songs that play one after the other. The tongue-in-cheek “Adderall Admiral” (guess what that’s about) is followed by “DNA,” a song whose chorus rings “It’s in my D-N-A/’cause my fam likes to get fucked up the same way.” Both songs are delivered with the same degree of frankness, delivered as casually as a fact in a high school research paper. The next track, “Nosebleeds,” sees Brown chasing a darker vein, describing a woman’s cocaine addiction with the intimate knowledge only a fellow addict could impart. It’s an amazing artistic choice, this juxtaposition of jokey metaphor with the cruelty of addiction. But perhaps it isn’t a choice at all. Brown speaks with alarming directness, a means of communication that cuts through bullshit and gets to the point. It’s just who he is, unapologetically blunt. That’s not to say Brown’s songs can’t be layered and complex (quite the opposite), simply that he knows what he wants to say and he’s going to find a creative and easy way to say it.

The latter half of XXX sees Brown work out some demons. His family scraps metal for cash in a song which bastardizes Jeezy’s iconic “Trap Or Die” chorus (“Scrap Or Die”) and imitates the Motown sound of his hometown Detroit while taking an east-side/west-side roll call (“EWNESW”). Of all XXX‘s second-half gems, “30” is the culmination of the mixtape, both in theme and in spirit. No bar is squandered. Brown starts by boasting, “Sent ya bitch a dick pic and now she need glasses.” What follows are Brown’s hopes and fears, obstacles he’s faced and dreams for his future. “30” sees Brown at his most passionate, aggressively yelling lines like “Bitch I’m still up in this bitch” and “But I always tell myself that it’s gonna get better/You know who you is, you the greatest rapper ever.” He isn’t bragging—he’s encouraging. Danny Brown has lived many lives in his 30-years, and as he describes, “The thought of no success got a nigga chasing death/Doing all these drugs in hopes of OD’ing next, Triple X.” Brown, for all his panicked chirping and wrenching metaphors and penchant for violent imagery, craves success more than he craves life itself. He has to succeed—otherwise, what’s the point?

One line in “30” hits me harder than anything else on XXX: “I never learned to rap, always knew how/Ever since a nigga 8, knew what I would do now.” I don’t think there’s any intended reference to Danny Brown’s particularly rough childhood in Detroit or some other starry metaphor about life, no. I think it’s Danny Brown once again speaking his mind. This is what he’s known his whole life and he refuses to turn away from it. He’s going to describe every microbe to you, every tiny, ugly detail. And damn if anyone thinks they’re gonna change that.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: “XXX,” “Die Like A Rockstar,” “Lie4,” “Monopoly,” “DNA,” “30”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Antlers // Hospice (2009)

The story is not unfamiliar. Young, male, Caucasian singer-songwriter secludes himself for months on end with the intention of suffering for his art. I suppose the idea is that seclusion breeds intimacy in certain forms of artistic expression, and there’s something admirable about a one-man-band approach, particularly in rock and alternative music. This may or may not have been the motivation of Peter Silberman, lead vocalist and songwriter of The Antlers, and for a few years, the band’s sole member. When Silberman finally settled on a concept, he found he needed assistance with additional instrumentation. He found it in Darby Cicci (bass, keyboard) and Michael Lerner (drums), and the two have stuck on to this day. But you’ve heard all of this before, right? These tropes are tried and true. Hell, Dave Grohl recorded the first Foo Fighters album all by his lonesome and that went much, much better than expected. What gives? When does a method of songwriting stop being inventive and start to become a gimmick? Enter Hospice, a brash, immediate, and painfully personal record about death and life, struggle and reprieve, and just about every human emotion contained therein.

Following one’s first listen, one might be surprised to find Hospice is a work of fiction. Silberman crafts an incredibly small universe with his lyrics and the music seems to react to his storytelling. The story describes a relationship between a male hospice worker and a female patient with terminal bone cancer. Throughout the course of her treatment, the two fall in love, and soon must confront the reality of their relationship and it’s inevitable end. Silberman has described the album as being about an emotionally abusive relationship and the depression that followed. The fiction Silberman crafts in his songwriting reflects his life experience in that the end is an inevitability. Sure, the knowledge of that inevitability can be buried or drawn-out as long as possible, but it will not continue forever. The issue will keep showing it’s face; eventually, something has to give.

Hospice opens with “Prologue,” providing us with a sonic introduction to the album. “Prologue” starts at barely a whisper, building to a very quick crescendo. The music seems to roam about, not quite sure where to settle; long stretches of rambling sound are broken only by somber piano chords and Silberman’s voice, which seems to echo in from somewhere far off. This is a record that uses Silberman’s light, sweet vocalizations as it’s own instrument, adding texture to each song. The aimless sound of “Prologue” diminishes, leading right into “Kettering,” the true beginning of the story. The album’s first words are delivered with a hesitant delicacy: “I wish that I had known in that first minute we met/The unpayable debt that I owed you.” Halfway through, the song erupts, all drums and loud grinding guitars and distant, impersonal vocals. Hospice functions less like a storybook and more like a film—emotions play out in flashes of unhinged sound, rising and falling and crashing together. The songs here feel both carefully controlled and somewhat improvisational. It forces one to be an active listener, something few albums have the ability to do.

It’s almost impossible to properly describe the anguish of Hospice. It’s what makes the album so affecting, this constant sense of dread and reflect, dread and reflect, repeat. No song better captures this helplessness than “Atrophy.” At nearly eight minutes long, the lyrics are spare and careful, with Silberman describing the inherent trouble of maintaining a healthy relationship when one individual is confined to a hospital bed: “I’ve been living in bed because now you tell me to sleep/I’ve been hiding my voice and my face and you decide when I eat/In your dreams I’m a criminal, horrible, sleeping around/While you’re awake, I’m impossible, constantly letting you down.” The melody of the song fades at the halfway point, overtaken by a rhythmic buzzing and chirping that collapses into a drone. The drone melts into the peaceful sound of wind-chimes, soothing us from the friction of before. One is given ample time to breathe, get lost in the moment… and back comes the guitar, simple and direct. The hospice worker has witnessed his girlfriend’s atrophy and he is lost, hopeless: “Someone, oh anyone, tell me how to stop this/She’s screaming, expiring and I’m her only witness/I’m freezing, infected, and rigid in that room inside her/No one’s gonna come as long as I lay still in bed beside her.”

Hospice contains numerous references to Sylvia Plath, including a direct connection through the third track, “Sylvia.” Plath was a pioneer of confessional poetry, poetry “of the personal,” which very often focused on extremely traumatic, truthful events and conditions of the human psyche; in Plath’s case, her battle with depression and suicidal thoughts, eventually culminating in her own suicide in 1963 at the age of 30. Silberman alludes to Plath periodically, with Hospice acting as a meditation on mortality. The album, at times, fixates on guilt and death in an almost obsessive manner—so obsessive it becomes beautiful. Tragic, but beautiful.

Silberman always intended for Hospice to be listened to from start to finish, carefully crafting the flow of his story to move seamlessly from track to track. But there are certain tracks that remain standouts, especially the album’s centerpiece, “Bear,” which contains some of the most earnest and, believe it or not, humorous lines in the album (“All the while I know we’re fucked/And not getting un-fucked soon”). The track, which serves as a set-piece for a 21st birthday, is strangely joyful and carefree, containing little or none of the desperation that consumes the whole of the album. It captures that brief glimmer of hope we seek out in times of tragedy, how when life is down and hope seems exhausted, we would give anything for a few moments of pure, unadulterated joy. “Two” is another standout. The track sees all the conflict of the previous half-hour come to a head, while reminding the listener that this woman is indeed slowly dying: “87 pounds and this all bears repeating.” That line so perfectly encapsulates the dread of Hospice, a detail so intensely personal that one can’t help but relate to it. Silberman’s songs so delicately balance that in-between, that contrast of life and death, joy and grief, peace and pain.

Hospice is an album about death, but it would be inaccurate to describe it as being only about death. It is an album that details the complexities of romantic relationships, the emotional damage people can cause to one another, the obstacle of finding happiness in the face of inescapable tragedy, and ultimately, the importance of living as hard, honest, and fearless as possible. That’s where Hospice lives, in that little space between pain and peace, grief and joy, death and life.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: “Kettering,” “Atrophy,” “Bear,” “Two,” “Wake,”