Jens Lekman – Life Will See You Now
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.
The Mountain Goats – Goths
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.
Mac DeMarco – This Old Dog
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.
Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up
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.
Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
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.
Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me
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.