Album Review: A Swede, a Canadian, and a Goat Walk into a Bar…

Jens Lekman Life Will See You Now

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Every time I try to turn a friend on to Jens Lekman, praising his preternatural affinity for melody and his deftly layered instrumentation, the response is always, “Oh, like Sufjan Stevens!” But Lekman shares none of Steven’s baroque pretensions nor his myopic interiorizing impulse. Instead, he supplements boilerplate guitar-and-piano arrangements with primitive backbeats, jaunty guitar breaks, and steel drums while focusing squarely on the ordinary situations and small details that make up the sinew of human connection. There’s the worried bride he consoles with some Kierkegaard (“Marry and regret it / Don’t marry, regret it too”), the male aversion to vulnerability that prevents him from expressing (platonic) love to his best friend, the love story that stretches from before the Cambrian explosion to the time he asked a crush if he could borrow her bass guitar. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait quite that long for his next full-length.
A-

The Mountain GoatsGoths

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Having outgrown the Cure sometime around seventh grade and possessing a deep-set ideological opposition to the musical stylings featured here – soft rock, smooth jazz, adult contemporary – I was prepared for this to be the first Mountain Goats album I disliked. However, the thematic material here, which boils down to the disintegration of a subculture that itself fetishized decay, is a good deal more compelling than Beat the Champ’s exploration of the real sacrifices that go into fake wrestling, even if the instrumental trappings fail to pack the same wallop. That’s not to say the compositions, despite being sans guitar, are bad: the melodies are sweet and yearning without being cloying, and I’ll take John Darnielle’s crystalline half-singing over the ersatz Bowie of Andrew Eldritch any day.
B-

Mac DeMarco This Old Dog

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I can’t deny that I swoon when I hear this buck-toothed Canuck’s languorous, pellucid guitar-tone, but I also yawn during extended confrontations with his unflagging commitment to mellowness. Unfortunately, the guitar takes a backseat to dinky retro keyboards here, and he bombards us with ex-girl laments that he probably thinks sound awful wistful, but end up coming across as the whines of yet another indie sad sack. His one good lyric – “I’m home, there’s moonlight on the river / everybody dies” – appears on the tune about the death of his deadbeat dad, and he squanders it by closing the song with three minutes of tepid noodling. It’s high time for this old dog to learn some new tricks.
C+

Album Review: Angsty Rappers and Adventurous Soundscapes

Brockhampton Saturation

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What makes this rap collective so refreshing is the fact that they don’t shy away from the fact that, in terms of primary listenership, hip hop is music for adolescents. Consider “Trip”, with its chorus of “Today Imma be whoever I wanna be” and verses that include lines like “Trapped in the suburbs / We suffocatin’”. The last track, “Waste” is a clear nod to 2000s emo-pop, with vocals that recall the saccharine pathos of Dashboard Confessional. Of course, Brockhampton wouldn’t be so promising if their aspirations toward being an “all-American boy band” weren’t sullied by an ultimately endearing experimental streak: “Cash” is an alt-R&B ballad that glides by upon a single arpeggiated guitar, “Heat” is fueled by distorted bass blasts à la xxxtentacion, and “Bump”, the album’s most impressive track, flips back and forth between placid, reverb-sodden guitars and a whining, industrial beat. Overall, the album as a whole suffers from an overabundance of filler, but its highlights demonstrate that Brockhampton is capable of tight songwriting that flirts with new approaches to hip hop while also remaining rooted in pop traditions.
B

Tyler, the CreatorFlower Boy

In terms of production and flow, Tyler has grown in leaps and bounds since Wolf and Cherry Bomb – the beats, which show equal influence from lounge and video game music, feel immersive rather than pieced together, and his once stop-and-start flow has grown more nimble. Lyrically, however, there’s little of interest here – an entire track is about being bored – and I suspect that it’s due to this lack (along with the fact that two years ago Tyler was still hip-hop’s biggest homophobe) that so much attention has been given to his coming out on “Garden Shed”. On “911 / Mr. Lonely”, he complains about feeling lonely, and hypothesizes that it’s because he never had a dog, but I suspect that it has more to do with the fact that he makes obnoxious comments like “Everyone is a sheep / Me, a lone wolf”. On “November”, he claims to have “deep thoughts, deep thoughts”, and I believe him – I just wish he would share them with us.
C+

Vince StaplesBig Fish Theory

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The instrumentals here unfold like the petals of a paper rose, revealing the delights of each individual sound on offer, from the clattering, skipping drums on the SOPHIE-produced “Yeah Right” to the metal-on-metal squeal of “SAMO”. It’s all the more of a pity then that Staples has so little to say, with his lyricism fixated on the same three tired themes: being rich but eschewing the idea of material wealth as self-worth, being successful but still suffering from depression, and wanting commitment but being foiled by the fact that all women are hoes. It’s the sort of record that makes you wish you could forget your knowledge of the English language so as to better appreciate the auditory pyrotechnics on display free of distractions. Unfortunately, part of the problem is Staple’s stalwart, fastidiously measured flow, which ends up feeling like an effort at keeping sure footing as he attempts to wrangle unruly beats. While he succeeds on the tamer tracks (“Party People,” “BagBak”), we’re ultimately left with a project that feels underdeveloped despite resting on a splendid set of blueprints.
B

Album Review: Death, Nihilism, and Folkies

Fleet FoxesCrack-Up

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When the fleeced flocks who admire this Seattle outfit told me to expect a foray into ‘progressive folk’, I wasn’t sure what that meant. Upon listening, I’ve learned that it doesn’t mean waxing poetic about the joys of single-payer healthcare, although there are moments of gentle social commentary. (One of the best moments on the album comes when chief songwriter Robin Pecknold, singing about an experience at a protest, warbles, “I was in a river, as if in water”.) Rather, it means that tunefulness and structure are replaced by churning, baroque texture. The result is that these purveyors of merely pretty ditties have become purveyors of merely pleasant Songs. As far as lyrics go, I’m all for literary ambition, but Pecknold’s need to endlessly annotate his own words online and in liner notes suggests that he thinks that his allusions are so deep as to require unpacking, when the truth is that they’re simply too weak to stand on their own. It’s hard not to suppose that this change has been precipitated by his stint at Columbia’s great books program, given the classical references and whatnot. So he can namecheck Grendel in old English – my old college had a fraternity named Heorot.
B-

Father John Misty Pure Comedy

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There is a long and fruitful tradition of grappling with the fact that we inhabit a world devoid of meaning. Father John Misty, né Josh Tillman, is not part of that tradition. He engages with the idea of a meaningless universe by adopting a persona that’s ironic and supercilious, not realizing that transparently-fabricated-identity as meta-commentary has been a tired trope since before Lana Del Ray did it (though at least she had hooks.) Tillman’s unflagging condescension wouldn’t be so tiresome if his opinions (or at least those that can be salvaged from the abyss of endless mirrors of irony) weren’t so staggeringly banal and devoid of nuance – conceptual artists are equated with boy band managers, and socialism with Nazism. Of course, part of the shtick is attempting to undercut his own smugness with a few tips of the hat: he sings of a dying man whose last thought is whether his “commentary [has] been more lucid than anybody else”, and it’s clear that his target is not just the world at large but also himself. But taking this self-effacing approach is like admitting to being an asshole: it doesn’t make you any less of one.
D+

Mount Eerie A Crow Looked at Me

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Phil Elverum, in the best song of the year thus far, begins his album by pronouncing that death is “not for making into art”. The warning is clear: what follows is not for our enjoyment or consumption, but instead a document of the aftermath of his wife’s death from cancer at 35. By making small details signify, Elverum traces a portrait of absence that has the weightiness and beauty of a death mask: a backpack for their daughter arrives unannounced, and he realizes his wife was “thinking ahead to a future you must have known deep down would not include you”. If that sounds clunky, then be grateful that the lilting cadence of Elverum’s incredibly limpid voice has always been able to tame poetry that looks ungainly on the page. While this release is lacking the sonic innovation and climbing melodies that distinguished even the sparest of his past efforts, this feels intentional, meant to force listeners to confront the desolation of his experience. Besides, no one can say he didn’t warn us.
B