If there is any great surprise about The Magic Whip, it’s that it’s taken this long for song titles like “Lonesome Street,” “Ghost Ship,” and “Thought I Was a Spaceman” to grace the back cover of a Damon Albarn project, all of them suggestive of the kind of dislocation and malaise that run like dark, troubled waters through the albums of Blur and Gorillaz, to say nothing of Everyday Robots and The Good, the Bad and the Queen: Alienation that’s just a bit less brooding, a bit more gentlemanly, and somehow a bit more English than the 21st Century histrionics of, say, Radiohead. It is to Albarn’s credit as an auteur that these through-lines in his work are so distinctive and so distinguished, but it’s to the credit of Blur that, in actual practice, none of those or any other songs on The Magic Whip quite sound like they could have fit on any of Albarn’s extracurriculars; there’s a pop formalism that places the best Blur songs in the lineage of the Kinks, which is to say, not quite adjacent to Plastic Beach, while the songs are all tuneful and punchy in ways that the sleepy and staid Everyday Robots and Good/Bad/Queen never quite mustered. You can credit Albarn for the moodiness, the after-hours atmospherics, gurgling synths, and grimy, clattering beats that underscore these songs—by now familiar elements in the Blur discography, keeping Blur charmingly ramshackle and out of focus, Think Tank rootless and weightless, and The Magic Whip dusty and gray, tinged in melancholy like “Tracy Jacks” was but never quite swinging like that classic. The album never turns sleepy or unfocused, either, though, and to that we could give credit to Graham Coxon, the rather more conservative guitarist who makes sure these songs have memorable riffs and hummable melodies, as well as to the rhythm section who ground the whole thing, shuffle and stab when they need to but also lend “There Are Too Many of Us” a regal, stately grace. If this all sounds rather like a Blur album, well, it is: As a reunion project it doesn’t roar like Sleater-Kinney’s big comeback did earlier this year—and like that album, it never really surprises, either—but The Magic Whip is supremely confident just the same, picking up as though so many years hadn’t elapsed since Think Tank (and almost acting like that album never happened, actually). The record doesn’t reinvent Blur but it does suggest that they can still make killer Blur records, of a piece with The Great Escape and Parklife but with its own distinctions: They dazzle gradually, with careful craft, which is about the least exciting praise one might lend to a rock and roll album but it’s praise nevertheless. The Magic Whip comes on slow but charms indubitably, the skill and precision in its words, melodies, and arrangements bringing warmth to loneliness, allure to alienation, and real pleasure to having the gang back together.
“The Greatest” starts with Brittany Howard counting it off and ends with her cackling in glee, and in between she and the rest of Alabama Shakes slash and burn as though on board a runaway locomotive of rock and roll kinesis, the whole thing not quite sludgy or lo-fi but reveling in a certain roughness, Howard’s voice buried deeper in the mix than normal—a bold move for a band endowed with such a powerhouse singer—and the guitars skirting with the red. It’s representative of the rest of Sound & Color, not in its sound—the record devotes more time to slower songs and limber funk workouts than to brassy rock and roll—but in spirit: Sound & Color is the work of a group that is, I imagine, dynamite in concert but focused here on the possibilities of the studio, of songcraft, of—yes—sound and color, much of it provided by the great producer Blake Mills, who has a way of making the whole affair sound charmingly off-the-cuff and ragged even when he’s adding string accents and other studio effects. And that, too, is characteristic of the album, which has a rambling energy and a gritty sound that masks how assured and risky it is in its compositions and its craft. It’s got a lot going on, whether it’s the band riding a tight groove in “Don’t Wanna Fight” or dipping into country for a song called “Shoegaze,” connecting with the mothership on “Gemini” and discarding guitars altogether for the title song, on which Howard perches atop a bed of chimes and bells and keyboard tones. The album has been called weird, which is perhaps just another way of saying that it’s got character and balls, but it swings and swaggers enough that it’s never alienating or off-putting. (“I wanna touch a human being,” Howard sings in the opening title song, and she goes: This is an album made for connection and emotional availability.) For all these signifiers and doors into the record, though, what’s most telling may be what isn’t here, at least not much: On “Gimme All Your Love” the song slow-burns to an explosive vocal eruption from Howard, an old trick the band could fall back on song after damn song if they weren’t too intoxicated by the discovery of new ones.
Dwight Yoakam has always been regarded as the man who—like Gram Parsons before him—made country music palatable and even exciting for a new generation of rock and roll listeners, and he did so, funnily enough, by hewing closer to traditional country sounds than most anything else coming out of Nashville. So when I say that Second Hand Heart feels weirdly like his most country and his most rock and roll album yet, I guess what I mean by that is that it’s quintessential Yoakam—tough as nails, sweet as pie, proudly rooted in the honky tonk but perfectly content to ride on a giddy swagger that gleefully reclaims the joy and playfulness of the 60s.
In that sense it’s of a piece with the wonderful 12 Pears from a couple years back, if anything playing up the Beatles impulse and playing down the straight-ahead country just a bit, though of course that’s relative, and this album packs plenty twang (and some serious heat) on the old warhorse “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which thrashes and snarls like punk rock. It is a considerable testament to Yoakam’s effortless touch that he not only finds new shades of meaning in this much-interpreted song but that his genre-blurring treatment of it feels natural, not affected, and the same could be said of the ringing pop of “She,” the drawling “Off Your Mind” (the album’s clearest Bakersfield moment, winning for how it combines sorrow and playfulness in equal measure), the barnstorming rock and roller “Liar,” and the strutting “The Big Time.”
The album doesn’t slow down often—and when it does, on the wistful “Dreams of Clay,” it tends to be a little less vital than when it rocks—but finds romance and optimism in its raggedness, determination in its electric hum; in sound and in song it mirrors Yoakam’s fully-engaged return to recording, another renaissance recording from one of American roots music’s greatest renaissance men.
Yesterday, commemorating the centennial birthday of Billie Holiday, I wrote on Twitter that the woman only really ever sang one song, and that it went basically like this: Please love me. Hers was a song of brokenness and frailty, and of the strange beauty and grace that emanate from the cracks in a fractured heart—a resonance made all the more tragic and acute by its parallels in the singer’s tough, battered personal life.
The occasion of her 100th birthday—or, you know, just the ongoing fact that she is as great as any American singer of all time—has of course brought with it some tribute albums, particularly from jazz and soul vocalists who can’t help but walk down the trail that Billie blazed. The last two weeks have brought a couple of particularly fine ones—Jose James’ Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday and Cassandra Wilson’s more punningly titled Coming Forth by Day.
Of course the albums share some ground—“Good Morning Heartache” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” appear on both records, and so does “Strange Fruit,” which is pretty ballsy given how closely associated that song is with Holiday and how unimpeachable her version remains—but the greatest similarity is that both records are fairly brooding and introspective, dwelling in melancholy and if anything playing up Holiday’s wistful loneliness, even if neither album conjures it as gracefully as Holiday did in her prime.
It is worth noting that there was always more to Billie Holiday than the “loser songs” for which she is best remembered, other facets of her music exemplified by the he said-she said humor in “My Sweet Hunk ‘o Trash” (one of her great duets with Pops), the defiant stomp of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do,” or the late night revelry of “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer.” Neither of these new tribute albums stray too far from the more desolate stuff, though they each at least cast a glance in that direction—James in the breakbeat, full-band workout in “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” a charmer in its kinetic jazz energy, and Wilson with some warm-ish takes on Holiday-associated standards like “The Way You Look Tonight.”
James’ album is probably the more memorable of the two, if for no other reason than the great alchemy of “Moonlight” and, most significantly, his haunting and genuinely moving take on “Strange Fruit,” done here as a bare-bones spiritual complete with spectral clapping. He is one of the few to tackle this weighty work and actually make it his own, certainly not replacing Holiday’s version but actually managing to cast it in a new light. Wilson messes around with the melody and rhythm of the song quite a bit but her version—slow, crawling, creepy—doesn’t quite distinguish itself.
Which is not to say Coming Forth by Day is a bad or a rote record: Co-produced by Nick Cave’s go-to guy, Nick Launay, the record offers a kind of stylized, noir-ish version of dark Americana, moody and evocative but malleable enough for Wilson to really monkey with these songs and bring her own take to them. Jones’ album is shorter and is more focused on the interplay of a live jazz trio, including pianist Jason Moran, though ultimately both albums are—with notable exceptions—pretty somber, their inventions never quite conveying a sense of play. No, while both albums are clearly loving, they couldn’t rightly be called warm, and if their emphasis on melancholy is in many ways a fine tribute to Billie Holiday, it also underscores why she remains the most beautiful loser of them all.
Sufjan Stevens records always teeter along a thin line between artifice and authenticity: His winding, punctuation-laden song titles, alt-rap ambitions, and geography-bee showmanship all draw attention to the calculated nature of his act, yet none of that necessarily proves that what he’s doing is in any way inauthentic to him.
Stevens is not the first to shimmy down this swaying high wire; Dylan has been doing an act since day one, every bit of it theater and every bit of it (I believe) true to who he is: Just because it’s a show doesn’t mean it isn’t deeply felt. With Sufjan, though, I’m not always seduced into believing his particular narrative. I like him when the wire sways closer to the confessional side—the Seven Swans material generally wins me over, as do things like the hushed character study in “John Wayne Gacy Jr.,” which turns the touristy nature of the 50 States project on its head and flips it into a moment of real introspection. When he’s got the full orchestra and the cheerleaders and the bevy of cultural and geographic allusions, though, I tend to find his albums to resemble Rube Goldberg rigs. They may get the job done but I can see all the pieces moving, and even though I might admire the assembly I never forget that what I’m witnessing is machinery.
Carrie & Lowell is billed as his most personal album, which it may be, though it’s worth noting that this assertion is both unproveable and also uninteresting. It’s a song cycle about familial estrangement and death and processing complicated forms of grief, and I have no reason to doubt the songs paint a real picture of Sufjan’s life and his conflicted relationship with his late mom, but the whole thing could be a crock of shit and it wouldn’t mean anything to the ultimate efficacy of the album.
And it is an effective, most moving album—for me, easily the most seductive and believable work he has made, and lovely to boot. What makes it work is its synthesis: Many critics are referring to the album as simple, and in terms of arrangement and composition maybe it is, but the way the acoustic instruments and the synthesizers play off one another so symbiotically, always tasteful but also warm and superbly melodic, is no small or simple thing at all. The album sounds restrained, thoughtful but never fussy; it betrays real musicianship but doesn’t flaunt it or allow it to get in the way of the songs.
Other things that I normally dislike about Stevens work here. His lyrics can seem self-conscious and awkward when he’s shoehorning references to the State of Illinois into each piece, but here his rather precise way with words illuminates the awkward and conflicted feelings in the songs. And his voice, which has always been a little too thin and brittle for my tastes, sounds appealingly vulnerable in this context—always on the edge of breaking, just like the songs themselves.
I do not doubt that there is much to absorb from the lyrics—I have seen think pieces about how this is a profound work of religious art, about how boldly is confronts death, about how it is basically Sufjan’s “coming out” record, etc.—but for me, right now, I find the album to be gripping as it washes over me, the overall impression of the music and words being one of adolescence’s trembling awkwardness, and about the pain of growing up quicker than you might like to. It is an arresting piece of work, which is not something I tend to say about Sufjan Stevens albums, so on that level, anyway, it surely deserves applause.