The show about that thing you love
Hey all. I’m utilizing this blog as a platform to share this piece of writing. Sorry if I got your hopes up about a new episode of the podcast. Though that does play pretty nicely into the theme of this post…
By: Christian Hagen
If there’s one thing to be said about music thus far in 2015, it’s that hype reigns supreme.
The sheer onslaught of anticipated releases from some of the last decade’s best acts is daunting. Names that haven’t cropped up in blogs for years are suddenly appearing under headings announcing “FINALLY ______ HAS A NEW ALBUM!” I can’t remember, in all the time I’ve been following the music press, a year in which this many artists are announcing their first records back after five, six, even eight years away. And that’s just the records that we know for sure are happening; there’s been so much speculation about the likes of Joanna Newsom and Frank Ocean that people are just setting themselves up for disappointment.
Which brings us to the problem: The Expectations Game.
It’s fair to hypothesize that one reason some artists don’t drop new albums for a few years, or take extra time in releasing records they announced a while ago, is a fear of expectations. The longer they wait, the more audiences expect, the more they build up this phantom work in their minds, until it’s all but impossible for the art itself to survive the ravenous hunger of an audience that is split between wanting more of what it already has and receiving something new and unique. Music fans can be insatiable, and with so many anticipated releases coming down the pipe, it’s inevitable that some, maybe even most, will fail to satisfy our appetites.
This post will serve as a continual rundown of the year’s music, from expectations to their conclusions. I’m a firm believer that writing about art requires more than a simple thumbs-up-thumbs-down ruling on quality; writing about art should create a lens through which a reader can approach a piece of art, a framework for their thoughts. Thus, this article will be viewing each piece of art through a lens of hype and pre-conceptions. There will always be other ways to look at art, and you should seek them out. Just because an album doesn’t stand up to hype doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile, and just because it does doesn’t mean it is.
But let’s take a look at what 2015 has offered us thus far, and check back throughout the year to see what it’s brought us.
EXPECTATION: I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m a massive fan of Doomtree, the Minneapolis-based hip-hop collective featuring seven of the most progressive artists in their chosen genre, whose thoughtful lyricism, twisted beats, and vocal hometown pride have made them living legends in the Twin Cities and have garnered them attention nationally. Their last collective record, No Kings, was a complex and diverse array of songs both grandiose and intimate. The individual members’ solo works in the intervening years have been hit-and-miss affairs, but always with a flair for displaying their unique skills. A new group album has all the potential of breaking them into the national hip-hop scene for real.
REALITY: In a word? Sluggish. On No Kings, Doomtree’s diverse tastes and abilities made for some spectacular, if occasionally exhausting, sounds. All Hands has all the same elements in place from that album, yet somehow they’ve lost the spectacle in favor of a more gritty, street-level aesthetic that simply lacks originality. It’s hard to understand how a group of seven people can make an album in which it’s so hard to tell the songs apart. There are strong moments, particularly lead single “Gray Duck,” which brings a welcome burst of freakish energy to the proceedings. And there is something somehow more satisfying about separating the songs out individually rather than listening to them in their intended sequence. But overall, the album feels like a missed opportunity. Just short of exploding, they chose to vent steam instead of letting themselves blow up.
EXPECTATION: The first new release from the notoriously literate heroes of the aughts’ indie-rock scene since 2011’s The King Is Dead could only be an improvement. After the grand ambitions of their rock opera The Hazards of Love, The King Is Dead felt like the band was exhausted under the weight of big ideas, as though they had given all of their energy into one album, and now they just needed time to recover. The result was a lackluster bluegrass revival that lacked cohesion or even strong songcraft. Four years to reinvigorate their creativity should be just what the doctor ordered.
REALITY: The first thing that’s apparent about WATW, WABW is that it doesn’t really sound like the folk-inspired twee of the group’s early efforts, the classic rock throwback of Hazards, or even the bluegrass of King, but rather something stuck in between all of those ideas. This probably stems from the album’s production; written in studio, without the burden of storytelling ideas that may have belabored them in their earlier years, the songs don’t have the chance to miss the mark on a higher target. But this is also the album’s biggest failing: It feels half-cooked. Lyrically, it’s surprisingly staid considering the band’s pedigree. And because there’s no overarching concept, or even a broader tone, to guide things, the songs are the definition of hit-and-miss. When they work best is when they capture something resembling their past, like the beautiful “Lake Song,” the grand but still personal “Make You Better,” and the surprisingly sinister “Better Not Wake the Baby.” But there are too many throw-away tracks; the sadly unfunny stab at self-deprecation on “Anti-Summersong,” the cheesy doo-wop of “Philomena,” and especially the grating, droning “Easy Come, Easy Go,” which really should have been how they treated that song in the final cut. It’s hard to call it an improvement or a step backwards, because the album barely has an identity of its own. It’s a collage of images good and bad, enjoyable and dull. It’s good to hear from an old friend again, but if they haven’t been doing anything that interesting, they quickly run out of stories to tell.
EXPECTATION: Fresh from the well-received but little-seen film musical God Help the Girl, with the music from the band and album of the same name, singer Stuart Murdoch was ready to get back to business with longtime indie darlings Belle and Sebastian, who hadn’t released a new full-length since 2010. Lead single “The Party Line” surprised many with its disco-infused tone, and some fans on the internet griped that Belle and Sebastian were about to lose their way for good.
REALITY: “The Party Line” wasn’t a fluke. Girls in Peacetime is one of the most upbeat and danceable records of Belle and Sebastian’s career. But that is in no way cause for alarm. Rather than eschewing their singularly simple aesthetic, they found a novel way to infuse it into a more radio-friendly style, adding things like soulful backup singers and swirling keyboards to garnish, rather than overpower, the songwriting. The results are thrilling, fun, and endlessly listenable. Opening track “Nobody’s Empire” is particularly grand. This isn’t to say that all is shiny and new. “The Cat With the Cream” and “Ever Had a Little Faith?” stand out as the most traditional B&S songs to appear on the album, and they serve to assuage fans of their earliest records while still enhancing the enjoyment of their new explorations. It’s a definite surprise of an album, but a welcome one.
EXPECTATION: Nothing buoys expectations like a reunion record. Ten years after the release of their swan song, The Woods, Sleater-Kinney announced a new tour and, even more surprising, a new album. There’s pretty much no better way to encapsulate the anticipation of fans and critics than that dry recitation of history: It’s been ten years. Now there’s something new. That’s exciting.
REALITY: One way to understand No Cities to Love is in the context of other “comeback” records throughout recent years. Often, when the wait’s been this long, there are only two possibilities: Either the album sounds surprisingly new and different from the old sound of the band’s previous work, or it’s so consistent with their sound that fans feel as though they never even left. You can look from albums like Guns ‘n Roses’ Chinese Democracy to My Bloody Valentine’s mbv. The more it sounds like the band fans know and love, the more they’ll like it. No Cities to Love fits into that category nicely. Sleater-Kinney still sounds like Sleater-Kinney. It’s the unique advantage this amount of time provides; had the album been released, say, in 2006, it might have been a solid but unremarkable addition to the band’s catalog. But as a comeback, it’s brilliant, capturing all of the raw energy of the band’s history and youthful verve with seemingly nothing lost in the gap.
EXPECTATION: This is more of a personal entry for me, as it would seem the majority of the music community completely ignored this album’s release. But I couldn’t possibly let it escape me. Elvis Perkins’ Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite albums, a record of breath-taking grace and beauty that served as a soundtrack for much of the time when I started dating my wife. His second record, Elvis Perkins in Dearland, was similarly beautiful, but surrounded by a full band, it had a strong foundation that maintained Perkins’ heartfelt, often heartbreaking songwriting. Six long years later, in which Perkins seemed to have dropped off the face of the Earth, he returned, announcing a new album, his first as a solo artist since 2007. The announcement was met with indifference by many, but for me and fans like me, it was a blessing.
REALITY: …Or so we’d hoped. Sadly, whether it was the intervening years away from recording, the lack of label support for decent production, or something more personal, the delicate songwriting of Elvis Perkins is reduced on I Aubade to ambling, dull, tuneless droning. It sounds like Perkins was sitting around a campfire with a guitar and a four-track recorder and started improvising for the first time in ages. The result is a mess. Perkins is mostly alone save for a few noisy friends who appear to be flanking him from the shadows on most of the tracks. It’s not unsalvagable; there are songs here, real songs, but they’re so distant it’s hard to tell if they’re really there or if the listener is just dreaming of the Elvis Perkins they loved reappearing from the wilderness.
EXPECTATION: BadBadNotGood have dug themselves a one-of-a-kind niche as the hip-hop jazz trio, whose dark and intense instrumental takes on rappers from Odd Future to Kanye, as well as their wild original cuts, have helped introduce a new generation to the possibilities of jazz. Ghostface is, well, Ghostface, possibly the best (living) rapper from the Wu-Tang Clan. Their collaboration could only be sonic mastery.
REALITY: …And so it is. BBNG’s sinister sound lends a cinematic quality to Ghostface’s exceptional flow, something like a darker version of The Roots. The instrumental breaks are gorgeous and exciting, the lyricism is top-of-the-line, the guest verses are immaculate (Danny Brown, who could still have a Hall of Fame career if he became a guest rapper full-time, naturally crushes it on “Six Degrees”). I mean, with all the talk of Kanye and Kendrick this year, “Ray Gun (ft. DOOM)” may still stand as the best hip-hop cut of 2015. It’s throwback, yes, but the live instruments lend the entire production an air of authenticity and, most importantly, coherence, that’s hard to capture with a laptop. I’m writing this in March, and as of right now, Sour Soul is the best album of 2015 so far.
EXPECTATION: Aside from his work on soundtracks and compilations, and his stint as the lead singer of Junip, Jose Gonzalez hasn’t released a new album of solo material since 2007. And that’s a shame, because time and time again, Jose Gonzalez has proven to be a singer-songwriter of soft polish and haunting vision. “Crosses” still lingers in the minds of listeners, and his ethereal voice is all its own. His is a talent sorely needed in this day and age.
REALITY: I can’t decide what’s more impressive: That Jose Gonzalez made a strong return to solo work, or that it might actually be his best album. Vestiges & Claws has a consistency that even his debut, Veneer, lacked, and an immediacy that his songwriting has never really had before. It’s still definitely Jose Gonzalez. He sounds pretty much exactly the same, tonally. But the songs carry a weight to them that makes them strong on their own, and together, downright breathtaking. Solemn and intimate, the collection of songs here nevertheless floats on the care and hushed mercy of their production. Gonzalez is not afraid of silence to emphasize a building sense of tension or to highlight a palpable air of loss. It’s a profound album that manages to exceed expectations not by doing something new but by perfecting what’s come before.
Even I thought I’d forgotten about this post, but twas not the case. As a reminder for those who don’t want to scroll all the way back to the top of the page: This post is examining 2015’s exceptional output of returning artists in the context of the hype and anticipation surrounding their work. This is not meant to imply that the only way to listen to these records is through a prism of this sort of expectation; I would encourage readers to try listening at least once in the context of the past, and at least once in an entirely different lens, preferably one provided by a critic with a different view than mine. It demonstrates the rich and complicated value of music that it is almost never one thing to all listeners.
EXPECTATION: It’s been eight long years since Modest Mouse’s last full-length album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, which, despite its exhausting title, was arguably the band’s most immediately accessible record. To many longtime fans of the band, this accessibility was more curse than blessing; the songs’ straightforward structures and easy melodies often lacked the depth and aggressiveness of the band’s earlier albums. Followed by a short, easily forgotten EP, that constituted the last of the group’s output. Rumors abounded, however: Recording sessions produced by Big Boi, the immediate exit of Johnny Marr, who was pretty much only present for We Were Dead, and a smattering of other whispers indicated an imminent record that was very different from what had come before. Then, silence.
REALITY: There are, in many ways, two eras of Modest Mouse, divided by the release of “Float On” as a single: The earlier years of a brash, abrasive, but intelligent band of talented and experimental indie brawlers, screaming into their guitars and violating their drums; and the later years elder statesmen of the “mainstream indie” movement of the middle-Aughts. To assuage fans’ fears, let’s get this out of the way: Strangers to Ourselves fits more into the former camp than the latter. The songs here would be totally understandable within the discography of the group circa The Moon and Antarctica, even the admittedly grating “Pistol,” which dabbles in electronic angst in much the same way the band did on tracks like the first half of “The Stars are Projectors.” And there’s a stretch, in the back half of the record, from “Coyotes” to closer “Of Course We Know,” that is virtually unimpeachable, full of the band’s best impulses, loud and free and full. Much like Sleater-Kinney’s comeback record, Modest Mouse benefits here from absence and a return to form that is all too welcome.
EXPECTATION: 2015 is maybe the clearest showdown of hip-hop royalty in recent memory. For the first time in ages, the two biggest names in the genre are releasing records in the same year, a direct challenge for king of the mountain. First out of the gate is Kendrick Lamar, the relative newcomer, whose Good Kid, MAAD City stunned critics and rap fans alike with its beautifully arcing story of street redemption. In the intervening years, Kendrick provided the world with some of the most stunning guest verses ever, capped off by his appearance on Big Sean’s “Control,” which caused such an uproar in the game that every rapper with something to prove felt they had to release a response track. Hype was high, and the mysterious nature of his record’s release (the title and cover art wasn’t announced until less than a week before it was available) made it all the more dramatic.
REALITY: It’s hard to think of something to say about To Pimp a Butterfly that hasn’t already been said, and harder still to analyze it in the context of the expectations surrounding its release. In many ways, it feels like a cut-off point, as though everything that came before this album in Kendrick Lamar’s career was an appetizer, a blip in history, overshadowed instantly by the monumental rise of this album. It’s remarkable, not least of all, because it both lives up to its hype and utterly ignores it. Early reports of the record’s sound (“It’s harder and darker, like Yeezus!”; “There are no guests at all, it’s just Kendrick!”) proved to be false. Even its Grammy-winning first single, “i,” sounds almost totally different on record than it did on the radio. So comparing it to its past, to the reports around its creation, is an exercise in articulating all the ways it defies the past, and those reports, and pushes forward. Like GKMC, TPAB is a quasi-concept album, not the sort of concept people might be used to when hearing the term, but no less narratively satisfying. It’s literary fiction to, say, Janelle Monae’s science fiction. And in that way, it’s a masterpiece. But beyond that, as an album-album, best understood as a cohesive collection of ideas rather than a collection of loose songs, its a rarity, and an immaculate rarity at that.
EXPECTATION: While it was supposed to be a surprise release, and thus didn’t have much hype surrounding it, when it comes to Earl Sweatshirt, there’s almost nothing but anticipation. The true secret of Odd Future, beyond the disgusting lyrics, the collective angst, the television show, and Tyler, The Creator’s internal struggle between art and anger, is that Earl Sweatshirt has always been the group’s best rapper. Even on Earl, at 16, still in the throes of the group’s sophomoric need to out-shock each other and the listener, his flow was the most consistent, his turns of phrase the most clever, his stories the most fascinating. Now that he’s grown up and mostly dropped the shock value, there’s been interest, even hope, in whether he can blossom into the great rapper we believe he can be.
REALITY: This is not a joke, and even outside the context of the record, but I have to say this: Someone needs to check on Earl Sweatshirt. I’m actually concerned for his mental health and safety. But about the album, it’s solid. It’s not the blooming that a lot of fans were hoping for, his grand entrance into the pantheon, but it’s probably his most consistent work to date, a brooding, personal, challenging record that feels like another entry in the “don’t sleep on Earl, you’ll see” narrative. Hopefully it won’t be too long before that story comes to its logical conclusion.
EXPECTATION: Laura Marling’s discography is apt to make anyone else feel lazy and unproductive by comparison. Since 2008, she’s produced five studio albums and four EPs. She’s 25 years old. But outside of the deep existential crisis a listener is likely to feel when confronting their own mortality in the light of a 25-year-old who’s already done more with her life than most of us will ever experience, what’s more impressive about Laura Marling is her confidence. Her songs speak of insecurity and naivety, but her songwriting is reflective of a strong spirit and a confident young woman. Comparisons to Joni Mitchell are reasonable and useful; like Mitchell, Marling’s output is emotional, progressive, and lyrically profound. Her longest and most powerful album to date, Once I Was an Eagle, was sadly ignored by much of the critical community when it came time to anoint 2013’s best music. But surely that would not be the case with her newest release, the title track of which made a splash on indie radio around the country.
REALITY: Short Movie is not Once I Was an Eagle, lacking that album’s cohesion and duality, but it is by no means a lacking record. Marling’s voice has never been stronger, nor her production more rich. The main difference between this and her most recent previous disc is that Short Movie is better understood as a handful of songs rather than as an album. But the songs in question are moving and vibrant. Beyond the unfortunate talk-singing of “Strange,” the record is replete with gorgeous melodies and the best sounds of any artist to be associated with the recent “pop folk” movement.
EXPECTATION: Father John Misty’s debut album, Fear Fun, was just the sort of divisive, hipster-baiting folk-rock record that invites a million blog posts. Discussion of the music largely focused on Joshua Tillman’s sardonic, incisive lyrics and bizarre television appearances. But hidden amongst the black comedy of the songs was a touching affinity for harmony and orchestration that served Tillman well in his days as a member of Fleet Foxes. A new track “Bored in the U.S.A.,” coupled with an intentionally silly performance of the same on Letterman, sparked the discussion anew, focusing on the song’s skeptical lyrics as an indication of an album that would read as a politicized continuation of the ideas on Fear Fun.
REALITY: While “Bored in the U.S.A.” and the biting, “Positively 4th Street”-esque takedown “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment” almost demand to dominate any discussion of I Love You, Honeybear, what might be most apparent to a listener hearing the album for the first time is how immediately accessible most of the songs are. It’s as if Tillman broke down the priorities of each track and determined that what he has to say is less important that how the songs sound and feel, and it makes for a much more pleasing experience that rewards repeat listens. The gorgeous “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” uses a sly classic rock guitar to perfection, while “The Ideal Husband” thunders forward with a swagger that belies its awkward lyrical tone. Here is a man spoon-feeding us his bitter thoughts one line at a time, but thankfully he’s given us a warm blanket to wrap ourselves in while we’re fed.
Obviously the year’s not over yet. Here are some anticipated releases with which I hope to update this post as the year progresses: Kanye West, Courtney Barnett, Alabama Shakes, The Tallest Man on Earth, Desaparecidos, Frank Ocean(?), Joanna Newsom(PLEASE!), and many more!