BEST OF 2016: Songs Of Loss

It was interesting to hear Francis Whately this week confidently asserting that David Bowie didn’t stage manage his exit quite as perfectly as the timing of events makes it so tempting to assume. Johan Renck, the director of both the ‘Blackstar’ and ‘Lazarus’ videos, confirmed in Whately’s ‘The Last Five Years’ documentary that the setting for the latter’s visual representation had been decided prior to Bowie hearing that his treatment was to be concluded. It’s an almost instinctive reflex to think that some of the performance was altered as a result or that aspects were plotted with knowledge of the likelihood of his circumstances in mind, but we’ll never know for certain. Interpreting the ‘real’ meaning behind art is tricky enough at the best of times but, when it comes to scrutinising work born of grief and manifestations of mortality, our tendency to apply additional layers of interpretation from a distance in the future, laced with comforting hindsight, is almost unstoppable.

Three of 2016’s finest albums fell into this bracket for me. Two appeared to confront their maker’s demise, one more literally than the other, while the third seemed inextricable from the tragic loss of a child. Only ‘Skeleton Tree’, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, was released with the audience fully aware of those additional, meaning-distorting events. Both ‘Blackstar’ and Leonard Cohen’s ‘You Want It Darker’ just made it out into the world prior to their creators’ final breaths. Re-reading reviews of Bowie’s final album published just prior to his passing, it’s startling to be reminded of the theories around ISIS and shunning fame when scrutinising the lyrics. Whereas Cohen’s words were less oblique and had a finality suggesting at the very least a second retirement, it was simply unthinkable that Bowie – only recently returned from a lengthy absence and seemingly in prolific form – might be talking about himself. The difference in listening to ‘Dollar Days’ and ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ on Friday January 8th 2016 and on Monday January 11th 2016 spelt this out as clearly as any words can do now, some twelve months later.

By the time ‘You Want It Darker’ emerged, David Remnick’s remarkable piece on its author had been published in The New Yorker. It was clear from his encounter with Cohen that Remnick saw the reality of this man’s situation. Much coverage was generated by a comment about some new lyrics, “I don’t think I’ll be able to finish those songs. Maybe, who knows? And maybe I’ll get a second wind, I don’t know. But I don’t dare attach myself to a spiritual strategy. I don’t dare do that. I’ve got some work to do. Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.” If there had been any uncertainty about the meaning behind some of the songs on what would soon be confirmed as his final album, and there clearly was from reading advance reviews, then this largely put paid to it, coating it in a layer of grave meaning too heavy to shake.

I’ve still not watched ‘One More Time With Feeling’. I intend to, but couldn’t quite bring myself to attend a late night screening on my own of something I knew would likely dislodge certain emotions. The imminent DVD release will do for me, but coverage of it and ‘Skeleton Tree’ have hardly held back on the curious nature of the subject matter, with most of the lyrics written prior to the death of his fifteen-year-old son, Arthur, in the summer of 2015.  Some of the seemingly prophetic imagery is disconcerting and it’s pretty clear that the sonic palette of the record reflects the conditions of its creation, even if the raw materials had been crafted in advance of them. It is a staggering record, both ugly and beautiful at different times and sometimes simultaneously both. Else Torp’s majestic presence on ‘Distant Sky’ offers the closest thing to balm, while ‘Anthrocene’ seems consciously grubby in its production. The overall effect of ‘Skeleton Tree’ is less oppressive than one might expect and certainly not an album that one avoids because of its raw emotions. It is, as with all three of these records, great art from adversity.

After the comically awful artwork for 2014’s nevertheless pretty decent ‘Popular Problems’, it would have been reasonable to assume that Leonard Cohen was unlikely to ever add another classic to his beautiful but sporadic output. Not only were the visuals pinpoint perfect for ‘You Want It Darker’, but the thirty-six minutes of music serve as a quite magnificent farewell. The proximity of its release to my own loss perhaps played a part in this becoming so resonant and affecting, but it will be as tied to 2016 for me as ‘Blackstar’, despite the lack of a modern jazz band. The arrangements are sparse but specific: no lack of attention to detail for this final statement. ‘Leaving The Table’, ‘Travelling Light’ and the title track are particular high points, each addressing the subsequent departure in their own particular ways. However, the track to which I keep returning is represented in two parts. ‘Treaty’ appears to be a reflection on his relationship with God, Cohen’s low rumble stating rather wearily, “I’m angry and I’m tired all the time.” A deeply powerful track, no matter how many times you return to it, even its creator couldn’t resist revisiting it before pulling down the final curtain, concluding things with ‘String Reprise / Treaty’, elevating the refrain to elegiac status and allowing one final trip around those aching emotions. The procession concludes and a remarkable talent is lost to the world.

Like many others, I’m braced for the curious emotions of the media commemorating Bowie during the week marking one year since his death. While Cohen’s departure felt sad but at least plausible, the sudden switch from an imagined immortality to complete absence in the case of the dame was so hard to process. I have been watching endless YouTube clips of him pretty much ever since, lunging at each rediscovered interview from several decades ago and absorbing anything I didn’t already know about him. Adam Buxton’s ‘Bowie Wallow’ podcasts were a soothing treat and a righteous celebration, while Steve Schapiro’s book of photography offered fascinating snapshots from one of my favourite eras. My iPod has pretty much the entire discography on it, just in case there’s something obscure that I need to reach for at any given moment. The immersion in his work that was prompted by his passing faded a little over the months, but not a lot. ‘Blackstar’ didn’t leave the car for over a month after the news, ‘Station To Station’ soundtracked the journeys to and from the hospital during my dad’s final days and there was a week in the summer when I played almost nothing but ‘Low’, over and over. ‘Blackstar’, however, has been picked over time and again and I fear I have nothing new to say about it.

Having gleefully dragged my wife into the living room after she arrived home from work to hear the line “Man, she punched me like a dude” delivered with such gusto at the start of ‘’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’ on the day of the album’s release and puzzled over the references back to ‘A New Career In A New Town’ on closing track ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, we then spent an hour or so the following morning flicking through the ‘Best Of Bowie’ DVD, still in awe of the man. The weekend around the release of ‘Blackstar’ was as Bowie-saturated as any I had had in some time. It made the winding sensation upon being told on the following Monday morning by a colleague that he had died all the more sickening. Unlike some, I didn’t avoid the album as a result. It was a way of dealing with the news. A focal point for a potent range of emotions. And so began the process mentioned earlier, of applying hindsight to a set of songs that had already begun to assert themselves according to one set of rules only for everything to change entirely.

Blackstar’, ‘Skeleton Tree’ and ‘You Want It Darker’ have little in common musically or lyrically. They are linked by circumstance and by theme. They are all subject to the distortions of their audience but they all rise to the challenge rather than buckling under such weight. They bring comfort in times of distress and offer perspective when clarity is lacking. They are inseparable as my albums of 2016 and their potency remains undiminished.

February and March Reviews – Magnetic Fields, Michael Kiwanuka, Leonard Cohen, Field Music, Tindersticks, Mark Lanegan and more

FIELD MUSIC ‘Plumb’ (MEMPHIS INDUSTRIES)

After the extravagant sprawl of 2010’s double album ‘Measure‘, ‘Plumb‘ lasts for half the time, despite seeming to contain at least as many ideas and melodies across its thirty-five minute run time. Mere moments after tracks have got going they segue effortlessly into others, and while not as safe as Sir Thumbsaloft can sometimes be, it evokes at times the creative schizophrenia of early McCartney solo albums. ‘Choosing Sides‘, itself several songs in one, wails pleadingly: “I want a different idea of love which doesn’t involve treating somebody else like shit,” while ‘A Prelude To Pilgrim Street’ has a glorious drum workout, accompanied by Who-esque shimmering keys, which offers an affectionate nod to Keith Moon.

Plumb‘ cements Field Music’s reputation for truly magnificently crafted classic pop-rock, with an unashamed love of the grandiose soundscapes of the Seventies and a taste for adorning songs with neatly selected sounds from real life. The highly strung plastic-funk of ‘Is This The Picture?‘, all runaway drums and falsetto screech, serves an unlikely precursor to the string-laden, percussive swoon of ‘From Hide And Seek To Heartache‘. This paves the way for the a cappella burst of ‘How Many More Times?’ and near-instrumental orchestral flourish ‘Ce Soir‘. ‘Plumb‘ genuinely doesn’t sound like anything else being released right now, partly because it doesn’t even sound like itself for more than a few songs at a time. An exhilarating and ambitious collection, it should bring Field Music a deservedly larger audience at last.

It seems so very long ago now that I was playing this on repeat over the Christmas break, but it still very much holds up and I’d even consider being more effusive in my praise for this title, several months along. The purple vinyl pressing is an absolute delight, mastered to perfection, and the music is wondrous. The early solo Macca comparison is one I maintain rings true, and entirely topical with the imminent reissue of ‘Ram’.

LEONARD COHEN‘Old Ideas’ (COLUMBIA)

Eight years in the making, one might uncharitably say ‘Old Ideas’ is aptly titled, as little will surprise. However, that’s not to damn this gloriously produced and charmingly performed album. Mid-paced, soulful meditations are what we’ve come to expect from late-period Len and that is what we get, ‘The Darkness‘ and ‘Show Me The Place‘ as good as anything he’s done in several decades. ‘Amen’ isn’t far off being Tom Waits after a hot bath and a sit down, until the trademark syrupy backing vocals appear, while the thin, drum machine traits of old creep back in on ‘Lullaby‘. Still, plenty to get excited about.

New Cohen release and I get all of 105 words. Ah, what do you do? If you care about Len and don’t already know what this sounds like then I can’t imagine a pithy paragraph such as the one above is likely to change that state of affairs. I’ve not listened to it for a while, if I’m being brutally honest, but the vinyl pressing is cracking. It’s largely splendid and the tinny affectations of old are now almost out of his system.

MARK LANEGAN BAND – ‘Blues Funeral’ (4AD)

Possessing the finest album opener of recent times in the shudderingly malevolent ‘The Gravedigger’s Song‘, it would seem that the eight years since Lanegan last flew solo have provided the inspiration for songs of an astonishing calibre. This is a confident, bold and captivating record, and one which is dominated by that beguilingly ragged voice. Musical accompaniment includes turns from Josh Homme and Greg Dulli, with whom Lanegan previously worked as part of The Twilight Singers.

Gray Goes Black‘ picks up the electro touches from the opener and belies a penchant for Krautrock which puts in another appearance on the splendidly titled ‘Ode To Sad Disco‘. Having worked up some of these songs using keyboards and a drum machine rather than the guitar, ‘Blues Funeral’ possesses the fullest and most varied sound of his career to date.

When the guitars are foregrounded, Lanegan can still strut like the best: ‘Riot In My House‘ a particularly fine burst of energy. ‘Harborview Hospital’ is a curious collection of synth swirls and plodding drum loops, whilst tucked sombrely amongst the album’s louder moments is the melancholic ‘Phantasmagoria Blues‘.

Leviathan’, a squawly waltz, takes an unexpected turn towards the end when the repeated lyric “every day a prayer for what I never knew, this is one I said for you,” suddenly gains ‘Pet Sounds’ style harmonies, conjuring a sense of what Brian Wilson‘s more troubling moments may have sounded like in his head. In a good way, of course.

BUY THIS RECORD. Seriously. I still adore it. It’s a real headphones album and yet also one which will serve you well cranked up on the main system. Sharp writing and stunning delivery.

OF MONTREAL – ‘Paralytic Stalks’ (POLYVINYL)

After the studio pomp of 2010’s ‘False Priest’, Kevin Barnes retreated to his home once more and lost the gloss which raised eyebrows amongst some long-term fans.The results are largely excellent, with the usual explosion of restless melody at the fore. ‘Spiteful Intervention‘ sounds like a doo-wop Suede at the mercy of chronic moodswings, lyrically grim enough to warm the heart of every Magnetic Fields fan: “I made the one I love start crying tonight, and it felt good.” Squelchy-pop dominates, although the spun out fairground-gone-evil moments remain, most notably on closer ‘Authentic Pyrrhic Remission‘, leaving you wondering if your headphones have turned on you.

I think I like the idea of Of Montreal more than actually listening to the music. Which is not to say the music isn’t good, even intermittently excellent, but it does require a little…patience and a suspension of disbelief.

TINDERSTICKS‘The Something Rain’ (LUCKY DOG)

Opening with a nine-minute spoken word piece, with a neat sting in its tail, it’s immediately clear that this isn’t going to be a desperate stab for populism and huge sales. ‘Chocolate‘ has been described as a sequel to ‘My Sister‘, one of many highlights on their second album. And it’s somewhere between the passionate intensity of that classic record and the languid soul of their fifth studio outing, ‘Can Our Love…‘, that ‘The Something Rain‘ sits. Self-produced and with a grandiose sound borne out of recent performances of their many film scores, this represents their finest work since their return in 2008. Understated majesty.

Again, not an awful lot you can do with 105 words and an album like this. ‘The Something Rain’ has continued to grow on me in the intervening months and it really does stand up there with T2 as one of their finest efforts. Whereas ‘Falling Down A Mountain’ lost its charms over time, this latest effort feels truly substantial. It doesn’t give a toss what anybody else thinks and doesn’t expect to sell thousands upon thousands of copies. It’s there for you, dear Tindersticks fan. Don’t be rude, now.

MICHAEL KIWANUKA – ‘Home Again’ (MERCURY)

It’s rare that the hype surrounding an artist translates to genuinely wonderful music. Rare, but not impossible, as ‘Home Again’ proves. Warm, beautifully recorded vintage soul is the unashamed goal here and there are no weak links. The Bill Withers comparisons may seem a little grandiose but Kiwanuka possesses a quite phenomenal voice, which he flexes and curls around joyous moments such as ‘Tell Me A Tale‘ and ‘I’ll Get Along‘. With an acoustic undercurrent and sympathetic production from Paul Butler of The Bees, this is an absolute treat for fans of rootsy vintage soul and a remarkable statement of intent for a debut release.

You know how I generally come out in hives as a result of excessive hype? Well, that’s still largely the case – Alabama Shakes, anyone? – but on this occasion I was truly seduced. I love beautifully produced soul music. Sure, I adore my Motown boxsets and the like but that floral, intricate sound of Seventies soul is just about as euphoric as music can get. And, let me tell you, ‘Home Again’ deserves to be talked of in such circles. The novelty has not worn off. I haven’t found myself sobbing myself to sleep at night muttering “it should have been a six” and I’m still playing it regularly. Really regularly. The vinyl pressing is alright, though not as good as this album deserves. Just give yourself a chance to hear it. Several times. Then let me know how you get on.

CHOIR OF YOUNG BELIEVERS – ‘Rhine Gold’ (GHOSTLY INTERNATIONAL)

Haunting folk vocals with tricksy production and enormous ambition is not what you might call a revolutionary new idea for the music scene in early 2012. The cautious, unsettling way in which sounds seem to leak out of the speakers on album opener ‘The Third Time‘ is an effective way to draw the listener in, even if what follows is a little hit and miss. Studio gloss and sanitised drums too often leave things sounding a little safe, not least when compared with the truly wonderful glistening Krautrock chug of ten minute long album centrepiece ‘Paralyse‘. An album of that and they’d have me sold.

Honestly, ‘Paralyse’ shits on a lot of the new music released each week but also, sadly, a lot of the rest of its parent album. Worth seeking out that one, mind you.

THE MAGNETIC FIELDS – ‘Love At The Bottom Of The Sea’ (DOMINO)

After the dainty delights of 2010’s ‘Realism’ provoked a distinctly mixed response, ‘Love At The Bottom Of The Sea‘ finds The Magnetic Fields returning to their synth-pop roots. The lyrics are as sharp and malevolent as they’ve been in ages. Album opener ‘Your Girlfriend’s Face‘, concerning the hiring of a hitman, is blessed with the couplet “he will do his best to do his worst, after he’s messed up your girlfriend first.” ‘Andrew In Drag‘, meanwhile, has a radio smash chorus if not a radio smash title. The album’s fifteen songs all clock in under three minutes and the emphasis is on punchy, wonkily-melodic nuggets.

Ah, the electropop with moodswings and chronic flatulence is back and Stephin Merritt is beloved of the indie masses once more. ‘Andrew In Drag’ is still tremendous but there is much to love across this whole album. If you’ve ever loved them before then it’s time to give them another go and for those who’ve been there throughout the journey since ‘i’, I would imagine this will feel like a welcoming hug after a long, though largely enjoyable, walk on rough terrain.

DR. DOG – ‘Be The Void’ (ANTI)

Having pursued a smooth and soulful sound on 2010’s ‘Shame, Shame’ , the 2012 incarnation of Dr. Dog returns to their more customary shambling psychedelic pop approach, with hooks aplenty and a fondness for brash enthusiasm over studio polish. It’s largely endearing stuff and ‘Lonesome’ produces the instantly memorable hooky refrain “what does it take to be lonesome? Nothing at all,” which will serve as your new earworm for at least a week after initial exposure. ‘Do The Trick’ is a bouncy piano anthem, all swooning backing vocals and gentle lyrical clichés: “I count the days as they pass me by”, while ‘Over Here, Over There’ has a frenetic pop-punk pulse which could perfectly soundtrack the slightly inadequate walk of a hipster with their jeans half-way down their arse, but probably won’t win any song of the year awards. This slightly throwaway quality is what hinders ‘Be The Void’. While the impulsive nature of the recording undoubtedly leads to some fine moments of euphoric pop, the rough around the edges feel results in moments of filler, where a little more precision would have gone a long way. The diluted glam of ‘Warrior Man’ is crying out for a moment to send it into orbit, while album closer ‘Turning The Century’ comes across like an early Gomez b side, all muffled vocals and wanky sitar noodling. When they’re good, they are glorious and their enthusiasm is infectious, but there’s a little too much mediocre padding filling the, er, void.

Meh.