BEST OF 2017: 1. Kamasi Washington ‘Harmony Of Difference’

2015’s ‘The Epic’ clocked in at almost three hours and remains one of the most remarkable debuts of the decade, making no concessions to the potential listener and opting instead to simply array itself magnificently and wait for people to make sense of it. Those that took the time were slow to relinquish their newfound fondness for rhapsodising about an artist who could capture a delicious intensity on record and initiate those fearful of the genre into numerous corners of the jazz world.

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Alongside such company, ‘Harmony Of Difference’ is a mere slip of a release, termed an EP for barely exceeding thirty minutes, but much more substantial than that mantle implies. Indeed, only somebody who had put out ‘The Epic’ would feel minded to tag this release in such a way, so anyone about to grumble about an EP being number one should politely refrain. Intended as a neat musical metaphor for the joy of human diversity, these six tracks are all interrelated, with the concluding thirteen-and-a-half-minute piece, ‘Truth’, incorporating aspects of all that has gone before. And what comes before is quite a nifty genre primer for the uninitiated, hopping giddily across eras and styles with the sort of dexterity that will come as no surprise to those who are familiar with the debut. Coltrane, Hutcherson and Hancock each take their place in the DNA of ‘Harmony Of Difference’ and so too, on ‘Integrity’, does Sergio Mendes.

A polished swagger abounds on ‘Perspective’, appearing as the mists clear following the denouement of ‘Knowledge’. The song-suite nature of the EP is a joy and should ensure that nobody is foolish enough to skip about looking for cheap thrills. The rich soundstage and vibrant performances captured here are irresistible and further proof that Washington is a rare talent. The focus on melody and the concept of musical counterpoint make for a tighter affair than ‘The Epic’ and length isn’t the only reason why listeners may find this an easier starting point.

The spiritual swirl of the lead track, ‘Truth’, is quite staggering and its early release as a teaser for the whole set prompted entirely deserved adoration from many corners. The aforementioned interwoven motifs from the five shorter tracks that precede it make for an emphatic, instantly familiar, almost transcendental conclusion that is so gloriously absorbing that it takes considerable resolve not to put the whole thing on again the second that it stops.

I struggled to complete my initial review of this for Clash by the deadline, as it is such a grand concept achieved with remarkable efficiency that I’m not entirely sure I’m qualified to interpret it in any way. While ‘Harmony Of Difference’ will delight jazz fans, it is a truly incredible record irrespective of genre. If you are capable of feeling, you will find much to love here.

BEST OF 2017: 2. Amber Coffman ‘City Of No Reply’

I do not claim to understand how the record industry works in 2017, but I am fairly certain that putting an album out as a digital-only release, apart from a US vinyl pressing, doesn’t help with its exposure. As the year wore on, I remained perplexed that this glorious record hadn’t picked up more of an audience, but its relative obscurity may not have helped. Add in the obvious narrative around Coffman’s split from Dave Longstreth, with whom she was also a musical partner in Dirty Projectors, and it’s a wonder that people weren’t falling over themselves to offer up comparisons of this and the self-titled release by her former band, now essentially a solo entity. It’s worth saying, ‘Dirty Projectors’, with its not entirely gracious response to events, is pretty hard work and everything that ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ wasn’t. Intriguingly, Longstreth produced ‘City Of No Reply’ and was heavily involved in various aspects of its creation back in 2015, prior to a terminal rift in their working relationship opening up between its completion and that of his own record. Perhaps the twattiest line on that album being “What I want from art is truth / What you want is fame,” all part of a torrent of sniping that Coffman didn’t know was coming until its release was announced to the world. As a result of that timeline, however, it’s wise to detach all of that baggage from this record before listening.

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There is so much to enjoy here, rising out of a love of nineties R&B and seemingly obsessed with glorious, strident melodies. Opener ‘All To Myself’ will feel like safe ground for fans of Coffman’s previous work, with languid synths and a lackadaisical beat doused in reverb. It’s an incredibly strong way to set out your stall but the quality never relents. ‘No Coffee’ follows, an emphatically breezy track whose ebullient, Seventies radio sheen is instantly endearing. And they keep on coming. ‘Dark Night’ has those late-Nineties squelchy beats and what sound a little like steel-drum stabs, while ‘If You Want My Heart’ is a poised ballad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the Mary J Blige / TLC inhabited landscape of twenty years ago.

For ‘Under The Sun’, we’re back in vintage pop-rock radio territory, occupying similar ground to the recent trio of fabulous solo records from Eleanor Friedberger. The title track, meanwhile, has a dancehall nod and wouldn’t feel ridiculous with Wyclef Jean shouting ‘Shakira, Shakira’ over the top of it. The winding rhythm is a delight and the chorus an instant earworm. What you’re listening to is an expert pop album with a meticulously judged pace and a carefully crafted diversity. I still find myself marvelling at the trajectory ‘City Of No Reply’ takes over its forty-six minutes.

Nobody Knows’ follows an undulating synth line and feels like a critique of our permanently online culture: “I sit fixed, scrolling through words and pictures, like I’m paralysed / Nobody knows, nobody knows how I feel / Nobody sees my soul.” The piano figure with which it concludes is pretty special too. Closer ‘Kindness’ is built around a distorted organ line and talks of how “this love wants not to hinder our evolution.” One can only hope that, despite its confusingly low-key release, this marks the start of a long and similarly exquisite solo carer where that development can occur.

 

BEST OF 2017: 3. The National ‘Sleep Well Beast’

As an opener, ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ suggests that the languid mid-pace favoured on ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ is now the norm for a band previously capable of working themselves up into a twitching frenzy. However, not only does this track possess some lovely textures and a loose, spacious mood that rewards close listening, but it also fails to fully represent what follows. That 2013 effort remains a wonderful record which, as the 2017 review narrative has declared must be stated, now attracts criticism for being too polished and one-paced. It’s not true, but it did lack the spasming riffs and fizzing, writhing vocals of Matt Berninger at his most effervescent.

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By the time ‘Day I Die’ has clattered into view as the second track, any such retrograde anxieties will be appeased. It bristles with a ragged, screeching, monumentally catchy riff that is repeatedly let fly across Bryan Devendorf’s unstoppable drums. There’s plenty of musical light and shade on this record, even if the majority of the lyrics are looking at the complexities of middle-age discontentment, when the familiar becomes jarringly so. “Forget it. Nothing I change changes anything,” sings Berninger on ‘Walk It Back’, while ‘Guilty Party’ deploys some skittering electronics below stately piano as our narrator, and it does feel a little like living in a Richard Yates novel at times, tell us “I know it’s not working, I’m no holiday” and “We just got nothing, nothing left to say.” Just as, seven years ago, I wrote about the joys of wallowing in the mood of this band’s music, there is still an oddly enveloping quality to these desperately sad snapshots.

The Carin of ‘Carin At The Liquor Store’ is Berninger’s wife and, it transpires, co-lyricist. Fact, fiction, bit of both? Who knows? As someone who spent much of Christmas Day and Boxing Day rebuffing attempts to be told the marital affairs of various actors and presenters by relatives who spend far too much time browsing MailOnline, I have only marginal interest in the specificity of these things. As much as I love a decent music biography, I’m not sure I need to know which aspects are mutated and which are verbatim to adore the barely vertical, on and off the beat vocal performance that seems to tumble from Berninger’s mouth on this song. It’s utterly, utterly glorious and not even being dedicated to Morrissey on Later… can spoil it for me.

The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’ was a very fine way to tease the album’s release, with its early signs of the almost mischievous horns that pepper these songs, a righteous guitar break that elevates the track towards its oddly euphoric conclusion and a chorus you could use as a landmark in heavy weather. And then there’s ‘Turtleneck’, which feels deliriously primal amongst so much carefully layered music, with raspy, shouty vocals and everything-turned-up-to-ten garage rock.

There’s plenty more besides, such as the shimmering ache of ‘Born To Beg’ and the glittering but gnarly musical collisions of ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’, on what is a truly impressive step forward. You’ll always have those people who tell you that they’ve been putting out the same record for a decade, but that’s their loss. Indeed, this is arguably the biggest evolution of their sound since 2007’s ‘Boxer’, but I’m glad I didn’t go anywhere near it for reviewing purposes. It benefits from time and a variety of circumstances, slowly unpacking itself before you. It is one of the records of 2017 to which I have turned most frequently and which has proved hard to shift from in-car systems and the turntable alike. Always, always worth the wait, The National have yet again delivered a record that toys with your feelings with the same dexterity as some of the world’s finest writers.

BEST OF 2017: 4. Lorde ‘Melodrama’

No, I’ve no idea what I was doing in 2013, either. ‘Pure Heroine’, while not on the same stratospheric level as ‘Melodrama’, should have been in that year’s list and I imagine it has taken Lorde some time to get over such a public shunning. Apologies. And it’s not entirely surprising to find that Bowie is still influential, even beyond the grave. When the Brit Awards had a rare outbreak of both taste and understatement when organising their tribute to Mr B in early 2016, they turned to an artist of whom he was rather fond and had described as “the future of music.” Sure, I’d liked the singles but I hadn’t been paying attention properly. As I attempted to piece myself back together after her deeply moving take on ‘Life On Mars’, I realised that I had been remiss. By the time the campaign to unveil ‘Melodrama’ was underway, I was a fully paid up member of the fan club.

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While plenty of these songs adhere to the contemporary pop playbook, there is a lightness of touch, a constant sense that there’s more than just a decent melody going on and a commanding personality at the heart of this frankly brilliant album. I loved it on first listen. Honestly, how often does that happen? There is light and shade, there are artistic nods to influences and there are choruses to tickle the soul…oh, the choruses! ‘Writer In The Dark‘ is a pretty remarkable, sub-four minute, occasionally Kate Bush evoking, mainly low-key, piano-driven account of how difficult being in a relationship with her can be. It’s a useful point upon which to focus if you’ve breezed past, dismissive of a couple of radio bangers.

Liability’ is an obviously gorgeous song, again slow and accompanied by the keys, which reflects on her intensity and how it affects people’s perception of her. The intimacy of the performance coupled with the unflinching phrasing makes for something genuinely affecting. As good as those two tracks are – and they are very, very special – it’s not a case of several triumphs carrying the album. The pace of the verses on ‘Homemade Dynamite’ is gloriously lively, accompanied by impressive usage of the perfect pop pause. ‘Supercut’ starts with a euphoric piano line and gradually intensifying beats before exploding euphorically into a chorus that seems to project an image of Lorde’s utterly uninhibited dancing before the listener.

Much was made of how Max Martin was unimpressed with the structure of ‘Green Light’ in the media coverage when it was offered up as the first taste of ‘Melodrama’, but it’s a welcome reminder that even those artists working with the people creating the 2017 pop straightjacket know when something different is needed. ‘Perfect Places’ is a rather conventional end to proceedings but it features one of the magical but minuscule details sprinkled across the album, with a little ‘chick-chick’ before the chorus, almost as enjoyable as the quiet, hilariously deadpan attempt at an explosion sound during ‘Homemade Dynamite’. However, the most deliriously giddy little personal touch on the whole thing comes during other highlight ‘The Louvre’, with its swelling synths and sense of tenuous restraint. In the middle of this wonderful song come these lyrics: “We’re the greatest. They’ll hang us in the Louvre. Down the back, but who cares: still the Louvre.” There are those who remain immune to Lorde’s charms, but I can’t for the life of me think how.

BEST OF 2017: 5. Peter Silberman ‘Impermanence’

Regular readers of this list will be familiar with my borderline-lusty responses to the last two albums by The Antlers. ‘Burst Apart’ caught me a little late on in the year and should have been in the top five of the 2011 countdown, while ‘Familiars’ was very nearly in the same part of the 2014 shebang. The key to the success of both, even though they occupy rather different territory, is the combination of a melodic haze and Peter Silberman’s often falsetto vocals. In the very unlikely event that neither are known to you, feel free to take a couple of hours of quality ‘you’ time before returning to the rest of this piece.

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While touring ‘Familiars’, Silberman suffered an illness that strikes at the heart of the professional musician – extreme tinnitus and, initially, temporary total hearing loss in one ear. After persevering with the remaining shows, despite being in agony on stage, he took himself away from the bustle of city life and began to reflect upon the power of a silence he could not achieve. Missing his art but unable to work according to the usual rules, Silberman deployed a delicate singing style and a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar as his tools. The resulting work became ‘Impermanence’, an album given a title imbued with several meanings simply by knowing the context of its production.

There are two obvious reference points here, should you like that sort of thing. Firstly, and I do try to avoid wheeling this out more than once a countdown but sometimes needs must, there’s some of the spacious intensity of Talk Talk’s ‘Laughing Stock’ about tracks like ‘Karuna’. There’s also a hint of Jeff Buckley at his most intensely ornate, somewhere between his readings of ‘Corpus Christi Carol’ and ‘Hallelujah’, perhaps most noticeably on ‘Maya’. ‘New York’ is cut from similar cloth, the most conventional song here. It is, frankly, majestic.

However, don’t go thinking that this is some sort of pastiche, as it’s hard to think of another record in my collection that it sounds like. Yes, there are those shared aspects, but this is a thirty-seven minute immersion in a world without distraction, where every note, every word, every sound matters. It’s logical that, having been faced with the proposition of never hearing the world as you had until that point, Silberman opted not to waste a second of ‘Impermanence’. As a consequence, there are a number of particular moments that lodge in the mind as beautiful eruptions of sound. For example, the rhythmic conclusion to ‘Gone Beyond’ is a glorious gradual reveal in a piece that clocks in at over eight minutes and, with only six songs forming the record, brevity is not a key factor here. Also, during the title track which concludes the album, the combination of pump organ and synth creates a meditative soundscape that is still somehow not quite at ease before subsiding into the studio buzz, a brief period of actual silence and then another background noise intrudes. A fitting conclusion for an album built in a world where something was always interrupting.

There are times in life that this will not soundtrack well and it does, ultimately, command your full attention in that way that quiet but assertive speakers will hold a room rapt. However, when you have the time to give it, ‘Impermanence’ will offer plenty back. Don’t just give it a skim listen, if you’re in need of an introduction. I promise you won’t feel like a moment has been wasted in its company.

BEST OF 2017: 6. St. Vincent ‘Masseduction’

How to follow 2014’s remarkable self-titled fourth solo album? Well, at least initially, it would seem the key for Annie Clark is to emphasise cold, uninviting electronic patterns and challenge the listener to come along for the ride. Add in the disastrous ‘deluxe’ vinyl edition being so noisy that initial listens were a masochistic exercise in anticipating pops and clicks rather than absorbing the songs and my early conclusions were that ‘Masseduction’ was a mis-fire and it wasn’t going to become a favourite. Nudge along a few months and everything has changed. Figuring that it had been poorly served by a PVC-housed mangling at the hands of everybody’s favourite Czech pressing plant, I actually turned to digital listening to give it a fair crack. And then the melodies opened up, the quality seemed obvious and hasty assumptions were torn up.

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Early teaser track ‘New York’ is truly magnificent, the stunning bridge of ‘I have lost a hero, I have lost a friend’ especially. That particular part of the track is a reference to David Bowie’s passing, it transpired, and pretty hard to detach from every listen once you know. The immediate brilliance of this song didn’t make it any easier for the rest of the album to assert itself, but there’s plenty to obsess over here. Jack Antonoff was recruited for production duties, having also worked with Taylor Swift and Lorde, and there are signs of pop mechanics at work, although it’s hard to be too cynical about an album that talks of “pills to fuck, pills to eat, pills, pills, pills down the kitchen sink.”

There is an air of gloom hanging over ‘Masseduction’ that was, presumably, another factor in it not initially clicking but, as ever, the songs – covering drugs, suicide and despair – are still resolutely memorable. Take closing track ‘Smoking Section’, for example, which features lines like “sometimes I go to the edge of my roof and I think I’ll jump just to punish you.” Its first ninety seconds or so feature an unusually low delivery for Clark and an uncharacteristically straight-laced backdrop. Naturally, it does deviate from this a little in the middle, but it’s a stark conclusion to an album that rarely retreats.

Opener ‘Hang On Me’ is cut from more conventional cloth and gives an early impression of safe ground that is quickly removed by the aforementioned ‘Pills’. The crunchy guitar, backing vocals and general thrust of the title track evoke thoughts of the Purple One, its central lyric “I can’t turn off what turns me on,” only adding to this. ‘Sugarboy’ is Donna Summer does LCD Soundsystem, or vice versa is probably more likely. ‘Los Ageless’ has a glorious chorus and beats that will threaten to re-write the rhythm of your pulse at high volumes.

Johnny’s back for ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’, a recurring character who is getting a little meta now: “Annie, how could you do this to me?” It’s a gorgeous ballad that finishes on a sustained piano note before the minimal funk and earnest role play of ‘Savior’. ‘Young Lover’ is an endearing two-gear beast, with a chorus that sounds like somebody’s turned on the floodlights, while ‘Slow Disco’ is a curious, string-laden piece that shines but seems a little detached from this album’s world.

Whatever the block I had at the start, it has long since gone and ‘Masseduction’ is an album I find endlessly fascinating. I’m not always in the mood for it and it can sometimes be slightly annoying in its sonic attack, but when it catches me right, like winter sun on a faded wall, it provides a euphoric wash that is hard to beat.

 

BEST OF 2017: 7. Aimee Mann ‘Mental Illness’

Goose Snow Cone’ was enough to convince me. If you’re not familiar with this album then I imagine it will be enough for you too. It’s a pretty much perfect bit of songwriting. The melody is outrageously catchy, the arrangement perfectly matched and the performance utterly commanding. Having only really been aware of the odd track here and there from the previous twenty-four years of Aimee Mann’s solo career, this album caught me unawares. A couple of positive reviews flagged my attention when it came out and I fired up Spotify to see if the raving was warranted. By the time that truly stunning opening track had reached its conclusion, I had ordered the record and held off listening to the rest until it arrived. Thankfully, such cavalier record purchasing was rewarded with one of the most quietly affecting releases of 2017.

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Mental Illness’ is a largely sparse album, mainly driven by acoustic guitar or piano, with supporting strings deployed where appropriate. What percussive elements there are across these eleven songs keep a fairly low profile. ‘Simple Fix’ and ‘Lies Of Summer’ are the only tracks to feature conventional drums and they are arguably the least striking moments. ‘Poor Judge’ sounds like a classic handed down through the decades, stately piano and insistent violins accompanying a story of impaired perception borne of emotional baggage. ‘Knock It Off’ seems weary from the off, tired of the possessive character to whom it is being addressed.

Stuck In The Past’ is a gentle waltz that hinges on some gorgeous harmonies, while ‘Patient Zero’ uses a swaying melody and gleefully plucked strings to contrastingly tell the tale of an inevitable decline. The whole album conveys pithy stories with vivid imagery, the knack for unassumingly beautiful tunes providing a consistently beguiling framework. This is  a hard record to dip in and out of, so consuming and alluring is its environment. In a year of truly bleak news on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond, ‘Mental Illness’ has often provided some urgent balm. You don’t need hyperbole from me to find this an essential record. It doesn’t particularly break new ground or fit into any specific scene. It’s just transparently, unquestionably great.

BEST OF 2017: 8. Martin Carr ‘New Shapes Of Life’

While those that took the time to get to know 2014’s superlative ‘The Breaks’ embraced it as a melodic delight, its creator felt somewhat dissatisfied. It took the seismic impact of David Bowie’s passing to trigger a creative response that would become this album. Abandoning everything he had been working on and starting with the lyrics in order to set the tone, Martin Carr poured out a truth that he had skirted around and attempted to keep in check for some time.

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No one genre dominates proceedings, although a combined soundtrack of the life’s work of the Thin White Duke and a mix of Sixties and Seventies soul accompanied the writing of the album. Elements of those clearly had an impact across the eight songs that make up ‘New Shapes Of Life’, but there is one notable change for the already initiated. On this occasion, Carr’s trusty guitar was left out in the cold. Instead, he spent much of his time working with samples and seeing what his keyboard was capable of delivering. As a consequence of these various elements, a luxuriant pop sensibility forms the core of this album.

The mid-paced atmospherics of ‘A Mess Of Everything’ swirl around the dislocated purposelessness of being “stoned in the kitchen, awake at the dawn. The universe opens for me; go back to sleep ‘cause there’s nothing to see.” An aching chorus gives way to emphatic, synthetic horns and a stylophone buzz as beauty comes from pain. While the overarching narrative of ‘New Shapes Of Life’ is largely transparent, Carr inspired by Bowie’s self-expression to explore his own thoughts, the resulting music is overwhelmingly warm and inviting.

Three Studies Of The Male Back’ weirdly, brilliantly, evokes early nineties Bowie – he’s thorough, is Martin Carr – coming on like a turbo-charged ‘Jump They Say’ with its intro, before ascending to majestic places. The phrase “stoned as a goose” is an early doors highlight, but the lyric as a whole is concerned with a lack of identity and offers one of many references to the stark reality of the mirror across the record. Here is a voice trying to break through it all, but caught between laughter and despair even when watching a sitcom. “I’m not as good as I want to be and I’m better than I think I am,” he sings, as part of an account of pretending to see the world like almost everybody else. It’s a remarkable song and very possibly the best thing he has ever released.

Metaphors for collapse abound and Carr’s honesty around the subsequent impact upon his mental health makes explicit a context that is hardly hidden in these beautiful songs. This music poured out and then it stopped. Although a couple of other pieces were worked on, the frame of mind and circumstances behind ‘New Shapes Of Life’ were unique and these thirty-one minutes exist together as a record of that time, untouched since. All of which makes for a cohesive, immersive listen that heartily repays repeated listens.

As well as the confrontational truth of the mirror, the imagery of ‘the van’ runs across three tracks. At times it seems to represent the endless monotony of touring, having begged for freedom from industry grind during ‘The Main Man’ especially, but at others it seems to be the threat of mortality coming to take him away. Indeed, the penultimate track is actually titled ‘The Van’ and it audibly pulls up at the start of closing piece ‘The Last Song’, possessing a brief lyric that references an ending of sort, the aforementioned mirror dropping to the floor. As regrets pour out, the final line of the album describing this specific act seems to mark the conclusion of a difficult period. The sound of the door slamming that concludes ‘New Shapes Of Life’ appears to confirm this. Hopefully, this ending also marks the beginning of a new era for Martin Carr, an artist in rare form.

Buy it here or from any indie store with decent taste. 

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The above text was my lengthy review for Clash. I also wrote an interview piece for them, following up with Martin about the record and its context. I’ve included that below as he was very forthcoming…

Why do you think you ditched the guitar in the process of writing this album? Was it literally just a case of wanting to try something new or did it symbolise something you were trying to shake off?

The guitar had become another frustration; I couldn’t wring anything new out of it so I decided I wanted to write the whole album on the keys. My piano playing isn’t great; it was different soundings, tones and colours that I was after. It’s easier to dream at the keys, to take it slow and meditatively. Weirdly, since I’ve started playing the album live, I’ve really enjoyed playing guitar again. I don’t regret leaving them off the album, but they give the songs another dimension live.

You’ve mentioned recently that you had been attempting to make a living as a pop songwriter for others. What did you make of that experience?

I signed a deal with a publishing company that kept me afloat for a few years. Half was back catalogue and half new works. I’ve wanted to be in a position with access to writing for mainstream artists for years. I thought I would be really good at it. I fell for the same reasoning that so many others have fallen for that, because I wrote Wake Up Boo, I was someone who could churn out accessible pop songs, which completely ignores the evidence of 96.4% of my other works

I wrote a couple of things that I thought were really good, but then I found that what is required is finished tracks, tracks ready for daytime Radio 1 and my production chops are really not up to that, plus I don’t really understand a lot of modern pop music, even though I like some of it. The verse melodies are flat and sound like they’re written on keys rather than sung into the air, trapped and suffocating. Choruses are still great, mind.

Anyway, I was trying to write things I didn’t understand and it was frustrating and I should have concentrated on writing for older artists who still sing songs the way I write them.

You’ve said you were dissastisfied with your last album, The Breaks’. Why was that? It’s a beautiful record!

I have nothing against ‘The Breaks’, but I am given to drama and bridge burning. There are a couple of songs on there that are among the best I have written, particularly ‘Mainstream’. The problem for me is that I made an album that I had no interest in listening to and even less interest in playing live. I stopped writing songs in 2006 and it’s been a long, slow process in getting to where I am now: a place I should have been in ten years ago. ‘Ye Gods’ was me getting back to putting words and chords together; ‘The Breaks’ was more confident, but not in terms of production. I had no ideas how they should sound so I played my guitar and fortunately there were a couple of beautiful organs and keys in the studio plus someone, John Rea, who could really play them. What I really wanted, what I’ve always wanted, is a studio of my own where I can make my own music without the constraints of time and budget. I bought one in 2000 but I was screwed on the deal, never used it and lost a small fortune (losing small fortunes is my signature manoeuvre by the way.) I have that now and this album is the result; I’m looking forward to what comes next.

The death of Bowie spurred you on in a powerful way, and you’ve talked about the responsibility of the artist to be honest, but what did his passing mean to you? Was immersing yourself in his catalogue inspiring on a creative level or an emotional level?

Bowie inspired me to focus on something and write about that. Previously, I would decide what to write about halfway through writing, which is never going to work. The song would be unfocused and unfinished. What I took from Bowie (and whether or not it’s an accurate summation of his methods doesn’t matter. The result matters) is that if I use an object, in this case myself, and write about it, explore it, take it apart and put it back together, poke it, prod it, squeeze it etcetera then the focus is always there. It’s like painting a bowl of oranges: the resulting art is how the painter sees the bowl, it’s themselves they are revealing. I doubled down on this and painted myself. I made a hall of mirrors and in the end I couldn’t work out which one was me. I’m not sure I’m explaining this properly. I can’t remember how much of this was done consciously at the time.

You’ve quoted a particular lyric in the press release and even within the artwork on the sleeve – “Of muted desire and no fit state. I know my place, behind the glass.” The glass/mirror imagery is all over the record. What is the significance of it for you? To what extent are you now on the other side of it?

The best thing about this line is that I don’t sing it on the record. I changed the line from ‘no fixed space’ to ‘no fit state’ early on in the writing, thinking I would redo the vocals at some point, but I never did. I only realised that when I listened to it recently. The lyric was the one that opened the door for me, the jumping off point for the whole album. This is what the album is going to be about. I’m not going to pick it apart but it places me perfectly, at that time anyway. The mirror symbolises the way I was going about writing, exploring myself, staring into reflective surfaces. The glass is the barrier that I felt lay between myself and everything else. The Van is death

I always loved the lines from T.S Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’, “Between the idea and the reality / between the motion and the act, lies the shadow” which Lou Reed later nicked with his “Between thought and expression / Lies a lifetime.” Between all the things I wanted to be, for myself, my family and friends, lay the glass. The medication I take now hasn’t completely removed it but I’m happier with the way I am. In the end, acceptance can be as important as change.

Can you say a little more about the writing process? I know you were working with lots of samples and then playing things back with the keyboard, but what sort of samples were they?

I built songs from sounds; I stretched basslines and chopped synths etcetera. The way I work with a sample is to shape it the way I want and then replace it. The sound has gone but the idea of it remains. I forgot to remove one but I won’t say where for obvious reasons. I was looking for a groove with big strings. That’s the soul music side to it.

You’ve been very open about your mental health around the time of completing the record. Did the record push you to that point with its honesty, do you think, or did completing it allow you to get a better perspective on how you were?

I’ve had problems since I was a teenager. I knew I had them but I was so disorganised, drunk or drugged that I never asked anybody for help. There have been some real lows, even at the height of our success. I’ve been treated for depression but, after a year on medication, I’m still not convinced that’s the problem. I started out trying to find out what made me tick and the deeper I went, the more the dark stuff came out and I ended up in an intensely manic state. I couldn’t think straight; I was talking to myself or I would try to explain what was happening to me to an empty room. Even after I’d told my partner, I still wasn’t sure if I’d imagined it or not. Then I developed anxiety, which became worse after I started taking medication, but gradually I’ve started to feel better. The last ten months have been great. I can think ahead and plan for the future for the first time in forever.

Youve said you couldn’t go back to the music to work on it at all because you couldn’t return to that space but you’ve also said that it’s the first record that sounds like you and that more will follow. Does it concern you that those were the circumstances that produced such a special record in terms of continuing or is it more that you will apply those principles to whatever situation you find yourself in?

It was as if I was under a spell or some kind of fever. It was awful and strange but I made some great music so I kept at it; I didn’t want anything to change. I was working on ten songs but only finished eight. When I tried to write more I couldn’t do it. I mean, I could write songs, songs I liked but they weren’t ‘New Shapes of Life’ songs. Since then, I’ve written ‘Gold Lift and laid down a few ideas, but I won’t be writing anything else for a while. I have no doubts about myself now, in the song writing sense. I have everything I need.

Yes, you released Gold Lift’ earlier this year off the back of that hideous photo of Trump and Farage. Coupled with the continuously grim news arising from the Brexit vote, do you find that world events have a direct bearing on how you approach making music or is that sort of song a one off to get it out of your song writing system?

Part of my gloom last year was undoubtedly down to Brexit. Not the result itself particularly, but the realisation that so many people in this country were so prejudiced and full of hate for their fellow human beings, how all of a sudden things became so polarised: you were either Hitler or Stalin. The worst of it being Farage and his rich little Englander buddies, their lies and hypocrisy. I wanted to stick it to them and I think it came out alright. Politics you can dance to. I’d like to do more of that.

You recently talked about the mixed impact of Spotify and streaming services – on the one hand, they’re convenient but, on the other, not much help for the non-million selling artists. Is this culture at risk of several limiting the amount of new music being made five, ten years down the line do you think? It doesn’t look very sustainable from the outside.

I don’t really understand the impact that streaming services have outside of the fact that if people are streaming your record they are not buying it and if they’re not buying it then your record company are not going to give you money to make another one. I need to learn to be self-sufficient for when that eventuality happens.

 

BEST OF 2017: 9. Phoebe Bridgers ‘Stranger In The Alps’

Music’s capacity to prompt a response deep within you, involuntary and initiated by little more than a particular sequence of notes or well chosen chords, remains one of life’s most addictive elements. Something about the first twenty seconds of ‘Smoke Signals’, which opens this glorious album, has the capacity to send up the flare for imminent tears. I’m not saying it makes me cry every time I put it on, but that little flicker that something has just shifted inside you is dependably there with each play. It’s quite a skill but also quite an imperceptible thing to define. That whole track is quite special, atmospheric, intense and featuring the lyric: “We’ll watch TV while the lights on the street / Put all the stars to death / It’s been on my mind since Bowie died / Just checking out to hide from life.” It works for me and the rest of the record doesn’t disappoint.

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The break-up narrative of ‘Motion Sickness’ is brilliantly deployed, “You said when you met me you were bored / And you were in a band when I was born,” while the aching failure to reevaluate after the loss in ‘Funeral’ is presented unpolished for our attention. The moment during the final third of ‘Scott Street’, already no slouch, when an additional, higher pitched backing vocal enters and something like a bike bell is rung is deliriously beautiful. I quite sincerely get a little excited in anticipation of its arrival during every listen. The alchemical touch to which I alluded earlier plays its part at several points on ‘Stranger In The Alps’, finessing some already captivating songwriting.

Chelsea’ has a dextrously delayed drumbeat while ‘Georgia’ offers a more conventional sound, representing some of Bridgers’ earliest writing and likely to appeal immediately to fans of First Aid Kit. Both feature the typically magnificent vocal performances that are so consistently across this whole album. ‘Would You Rather’ features Conor Oberst doing what Conor Oberst does atop an ornate arrangement that pursues different textures to its near neighbours. The album concludes with a glorious reading of ‘You Missed My Heart’, one of the few Mark Kozelek tracks I haven’t been able to let go of since purging his increasingly frustrating and wilfully unpleasant presence from my record collection. The highlight of his 2013 collaboration with Jimmy LaValle, it appears here without its bleepy, electronic distance, instead marshalled by warm piano and delicate ambient textures. It’s the superior version of this captivating track, but clearly not written in or for her voice, which actually seems a shame after the pulsating honesty of tracks like ‘Funeral’ and ‘Smoke Signals’. Much of the early press for this album talked about artists who are backing her, but Bridgers has done more than enough on this debut to stand alone without need for reinforcements, be they in press releases, performance or even songwriting. It’s genuinely exciting to think where she might go next.

 

BEST OF 2017: 11. Melanie De Biasio ‘Lilies’

I’ve still not got over the first time I heard the percussive kickstart of ‘Gold Junkies’, the second track on ‘Lilies’. People do all sorts of ludicrously dangerous things to achieve the kind of thrill that this piece of music gives me every time I put it on. Push the volume up, and then a bit further, and ignore everything else for a few minutes. It will pull you deep into its world. Then, and here’s the slightly bizarre bit, having been fully immersed in it, try and describe what the song is actually made from. Tricky, isn’t it? ‘Gold Junkies’ is a fine representation of the majesty of ‘Lilies’, a record that is as masterful a manipulation of textures as anything since ‘Spirit Of Eden’. They may not share too much musical DNA, but that sonic skill is undeniable.

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For example, what is the noise being used initially to sustain the rhythm in ‘Let Me Love You’? De Biasio’s vocals seem to roam in and around the time signature of the track, whispered moments gathering momentum with the piece. ‘Sitting In The Stairwell’ uses just a metronomic click, the slightest of backing vocals and De Biasio’s voice, seemingly beamed in via vintage equipment, to tell a stark story violence on the streets: “there are roses on the sidewalk, there is blood upon the ground.” The electronic pulse of ‘Afro Blue’ is curiously lulling, giving way to the stark intensity of ‘All My Worlds’, which apparently lasts almost seven minutes but is over in an overwhelmingly intense heartbeat.

In the sleeve notes, De Biasio has written:

“The urge to surrender in sound, at home intimately.

All songs are instinctive movements of love and resistance.

The sound is humid, hot, close and direct.

It is the core of a woman.”

In four, short sentences she has done a pretty decent sales pitch for ‘Lilies’ and the four adjectives to describe the sound of it are perfectly chosen. Closing track ‘And My Heart Goes On’ appears to use heavy breathing as looping percussion, while a frankly malevolent flute weaves its way around a rather manic vocal. It’s a quite remarkable end to a quite remarkable album. No matter how well I may have communicated my love for this music, I simply can’t do it justice with mere words. Listen, dear reader. Listen.