The refrain of “Too Good at Goodbyes” pretty succinctly sums up Sam Smith’s recent career as a blue-eyed soul superstar: “I’m never gonna let you close to me / Even though you mean the most to me.” Smith is nothing if not a passionate soul singer, dynamic and talented enough to tackle a genre marked by some of the greatest singers in recorded music history. Too often, however, his music remains at arm’s length with its inspirations. His sophomore album, The Thrill of It All, never plays or experiments with soul or R&B formulae, and it’s all the more cold and distant because of it.
In the late 1960s, Joan Crawford’s later years as an actress, she guest-starred on a CBS daytime soap opera called The Secret Storm, temporarily filling in for her daughter who had taken ill. At the time, Crawford was in her 60s, and her daughter Christina was 29. Yet still, for four episodes, Crawford portrayed the youthful Joan Borman Kane with not a hint of irony or self-awareness. Sometimes I think about that, and I wonder what it would have been like to follow that series during the ‘60s and witness Kane age 40 years over the course of a day without any sort of acknowledgement.
If Blue Album and Pinkerton are Crawford’s golden years as an actress, then Pacific Daydream, Weezer’s eleventh studio album, is Crawford in The Secret Storm. It’s been 25 years since Weezer first formed, and Pacific Daydream is perhaps their most unconvincing attempt to pretend they’re as young as they once were. Frontman and songwriter Rivers Cuomo can’t seem to occupy a space other than the kinetics of the band’s youth, and as they move further and further away from their golden years, their unique brand of geeky angst tends to sound more and more manufactured.
Much like the chocolate boxes of Forrest Gump, you never know what you’re going to get when it comes to Beck (unlike chocolate boxes in real life, which are clearly labeled). He’s a tough artist to pin down: a rapper, an Americana singer, a low-key alternative rocker. Beck doesn’t so much think outside the box as he just lives outside it, and it’s made his career an exciting one to follow. Beck’s previous album, Morning Phase, found harmony between understated acoustic guitar plucks and the uneasy ambiance of soaring strings. All in all, the 2014 album stood out as one of Beck’s finest achievements, which created an ineludible disadvantage for this year’s follow-up Colors.
In contrast to Morning Phase, Colors is exuberant and rejuvenative. Consider Beck’s career at the time—2008’s Modern Guilt officially fulfilled Beck’s record contract with Interscope Records, and he would remain without a record label for nearly seven years. Morning Phase, released under Capitol Records, was Beck’s triumphant return to the music scene, and the large-scale success of the album (including a Grammy win for Album of the Year) kickstarted a second phase of Beck’s career.
“There was a very strong positive feeling that was happening while we were making [Colors], this renewed appreciation and affection for playing music,” Beck told NME earlier this month. And renewed he sounds, with sprightly warmth and buoyant spirit nestled in his vocal chords, a far cry from the unflappable slacker messiah of the ‘90s. Colors is, first and foremost, a splashy dance rock record, something Beck has never really done before. But unlike most of his albums, what’s fresh for Beck isn’t necessarily fresh overall; Colors is catchy and glossy, but it gets by far more on Beck’s talents as a performer than a songwriter.
In the decade-plus since her major pop culture debut, Miley Cyrus has proven herself to be a walking, talking identity crisis. Following her rise to fame as the tween pop icon Hannah Montana and her subsequent post-Disney success with singles like “Party in the U.S.A.,” Cyrus underwent the inevitable attempt at maturation every teenybopper pop star goes through in an attempt to keep up with their aging base. The end result was Bangerz, a quasi-rebellious attempt to display just how far she’d strayed from her Mickey Mouse origins. And though Bangerz shot her to the height of her popularity, Cyrus went from childlike to outright childish, bragging about her sexual exploits and newfound marijuana habit as if society viewed these acts in the 2010s with the same degree of taboo it did in the 1950s. During the Bangerz era, Cyrus sounded less like an adult and more like a teenager demanding to be treated like an adult; it culminated in some of her worst mainstream music to date, as well as the infamous VMAs twerking travesty that garnered plenty of criticism for her alleged appropriation of Black culture.
It seemed she took the criticism to heart. After a four-year hiatus with no major music (outside of the unlistenable 90-minute SoundCloud release Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz), Cyrus has once again rebranded herself, this time as a wholesome, folksy pop-country singer on Younger Now. But despite transforming her musical aesthetic for the third time in her career, Cyrus is still highly lacking in imagination; like her past works, Younger Now is resigned to being a pale imitation of its genre, and ranks among the year’s worst albums as a result.
Upon listening to Sleep Well Beast, I recalled Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself, in which he refers to cinema as “a machine that generates empathy.” Music generates empathy in much the same way, generally on a more personal scale. Considering how intrinsic sadness is to the process of empathy, most music artists will, at some point or another, bare the moroseness of their soul for the sake of their art.
But some artists can outright weaponize melancholy. It’s something The National have done for years, and against all odds, it’s always managed to work in their favor. The band’s songwriting has consistently struck a powerful balance between despair and heart; even at its lowest emotional depths, their work is as animated as it is devastating. The result is a discography that, though not entirely heterogenous due to its repeated emphasis on themes of heartbreak and anguish, wholly explores dysphoria’s every angle, theme, and sound. It’s how The National have remained relevant all these years, and it’s why, even on their seventh album, they haven’t lost any steam in their empathy machine.
Note: The tracklist discussed in this review is based on the 1997 compact disc re-issue, which included songs from both the original UK and U.S. versions as well as the band’s first three UK singles.
The opening eight notes of “Purple Haze” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience are enormously crucial. For those eight or so seconds, a guitar chops through the surrounding darkness before diving into the boisterous body of the song like a cold, crystalline lake. Following that brief prologue of steady simplicity, Are You Experienced may adjust pace, but the album never drops its frenetic juggling act. As a debut, it’s an audacious, busy piece of psychedelic rock that finds a lot of breathing room in its loose structure, its constant sense of locomotion keeping it from becoming stagnant. Not only is Are You Experienced an earthshattering debut, it’s a high bar that no psych rock band has equaled in the fifty years since the album’s release.
For a period of time, it appeared as if The Fall would be the Gorillaz’s final outing following the April 7, 2012 announcement that the band had split. It would’ve been a somewhat gloomy end for the virtual band, as The Fall was little more than a pet project recorded on an iPad during the American leg of the Escape to Plastic Beach World Tour, hardly the swan song Gorillaz fans wanted or deserved. That period of time, however, only lasted between two to three weeks, as by April 25, 2012, co-founders Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett had mended their relationship and were confident a fifth Gorillaz record would be in their future.
In the years following Albarn and Hewlett’s reconciliation, Humanz (then untitled) felt like a foregone conclusion, which made its absence all the more frustrating. But over the last two years, while we were waiting, they were hard at work—Humanz sports twenty tracks plus six on the deluxe edition—collaborating across the musical spectrum with some of the industry’s most interesting artists: old, new, and soon-to-be-discovered. Albarn’s ambitions transcend genre, and Humanz explores a lot of different musical ideas and guest combinations; unfortunately, Albarn doesn’t always use these guests correctly, nor does he explore many of these ideas in any sort of depth. The result is an album that can’t help but occasionally feel half-baked, even when it works.