Just like I promised in that wonderful (non) article on monday, that I’m sure none of you read, here’s a review of three brilliant albums you might have missed whilst we were away.
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
Its actually quite irritating how infectious the opening refrain of Wesley’s Theory is, every time I’m cooking or in the shower and feel the urge to sing “Every Ni**a is a star” I have to remind myself that I can’t really… But that doesn’t stop the album being great fun to listen to; it’s well over an hour of various African American musical influences littered with cusses, bravado and political attacks. “This dick aint free” Kendrick tells his female companion (a metaphor for the music industry or America at large) over a frantic jazz soundtrack, and that’s broadly the story of the LP: a black man in America suffering from his own success (or “the yams”, as he calls it in ‘King Kunta’) and how, despite his wealth, he remains ‘Institutionalized’ by the Compton he described so vividly in ‘Good Kid…’ whilst at the same time being guilty of turning his back on the things that matter most to him.
I do feel that Kendrick was lyrically stronger in his previous outing – his self-deprecating narratives of a young black man in compton will go down as a highlight in rap history – but musically this album is on another level. Flying Lotus channelled jazz into rap expertly last year with ‘You’re Dead!’, but Kendrick certainly rivals this success with tracks such as ‘u’, whilst ‘These Walls’ give disco, and ‘You Ain’t Gotta Lie’ funk. Almost every song is a success in a form of lyric, music, or (as often is the case) both, and so deciding upon a highlight is difficult; the anger on ‘The Blacker the Berry’ (which serves as a more relevant, less misogynist ‘Blood on the Leaves”) is immensely powerful, ‘i’’s upbeat, lively, and ‘Mortal Man’ is a brilliant outr…heck, just listen to the whole thing!
Courtney Barnett – sometimes i sit and think, and sometimes i just sit
I predicted big things for Courtney Barnett in our ‘Class of 2015’ feature a few months back, and she hasn’t disappointed. She’s emerged as one of the finest lyricists in modern music (just listen to ‘Elevator Operator’ if you need convincing) – bringing her own unique blend of observational quips, witty narratives and Aussie-slacker style. “I lay awake at four, staring at the wall, counting all the cracks backwards in my best french. Reminds me of a book I skim-read in a surgery all about palmistry. I wonder what’s in store for me” she tells us in ‘An illustration of loneliness’, a collection of lines that say so little yet so much all in the same space. The guitars on the album are clearly nirvana inspired and the half sung, half spoken Aussie vocals send you to a sunnier place. But it’s not always so cheery, ‘Depreston’, a tale about the memories tied up in a home, sends me teary like only Sun Kil Moon has achieved recently: “If you have a spare half a million, you could knock it down and start rebuilding”
My one fear was that after being blown away by Courtney live a year ago she’d fail to translate the greatness she achieves on stage onto her debut record, but fortunately my fears couldn’t have been greater misplaced. One of my records of 2015 for sure, and it’s only April.
It should also be noted that much like Parquet Courts’ Andrew Savage, Courtney has also drawn all over the packaging, including on the cover, and has handwritten all the lyrics on the inner sleeve, including (like Savage) crossed out lines. A reason to buy the vinyl version and perfectly complimentary to the hazy summertime image
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
The first Sufjan Stevens record I’ve ever listened to right the way through…I should really give ‘Illinois’ a listen. His voice certainly needs getting used to, and at times the the mixing seems a bit off (listen to how loud the guitars are on ‘Death with Dignity’), but these are powerful songs and, quite often, beautiful ones too. ‘Should Have Known Better’ is one of these
The album, in its most part, is about the death of Sufjan’s mother (Carrie), the difficult life she lived, the complicated relationship she had with her son…although the lyrics, strewn in mythology and religious references, could quite easily leave the first time listener with much still to figure out…not that I’ll use this as a criticism, heck I’m obsessed with Matt Berninger, and the National’s lyrics are hardly straight forward…
One quality that I can appreciate immediately is the intimate feel of the record, the deeply personal lyrics and the slightly muffled sound given off an air of private confessions to the listener. This is especially evident on ‘Eugene’, where Sufjan shares the little, seemingly insignificant, memories of his mother “Remember I pulled at your shirt, I dropped the ashtray on the floor, I just wanted to be near you” Although the ‘insignificance’ only works to make the song more tear-jerking. At times this can make listening uneasy, though, such as in ‘The Only Thing’, where Sufjan remarks “the only thing that keeps me from driving this car / Half-light, jack knife into the canyon at night / Signs and wonders: Perseus aligned with the skull / Slain Medusa, Pegasus alight from us all”.
A difficult and complicated album, whose contrast with the delicate folk guitars and vocals only wraps it further in a mysterious veil. But, for reasons quite unquantifiable, by the end of the album I’m hooked …and the second listen was better than the first, and third so even more. A grower, they call it. In essence it takes you a while to fully appreciate what’s going on. They use that term for the National as well.
Can’t you just do ratings? Oh go on then…Kendrick and Courtney: A; Sufjan: A- I just knew that you’d use letters not numbers, such a pretentious prick! Whatever…