The Music Review is a weekly set of capsule reviews on the biggest releases of the previous week, all curated by myself. Each week has an Album of the Week and a Dud of the Week (although, let it be said that the Dud is rarely a particularly awful album, just the one that I deem the weakest of that week’s big releases). The format allows for more reviews to make their way into the website without laboriously long essays on each album getting published.
Broken Social Scene and Jay-Z make their comebacks, and young, fresh bands HAIM and Telescopes return…
A look in the rear-view mirror. A heartfelt apology after a seismic cultural event. A total change of character in just 36 minutes.
4:44 is Jay-Z’s first album in four years, and his first since the cultural world basically ripped his chest open and tore his heart out after Lemonade. Indeed, the two records sound like two sides of a discussion, with both even acknowledging their existence on different sides of the same coin. But whereas Lemonade was sprawling in its emotional kaleidoscope, 4:44 is focussed on one, apologetic tone, albeit with the same scope for reflection as the former album.
Jay’s real skill here is to acknowledge the primary conflict of the album (in this case, with himself) and then holistically explore all the things that make him act this way: the street, his mother, his family, and, indeed, the hubris that hurt his wife in the first place. It’s deft (like I said, it’s only 36 minutes long) but also packed with dense observations and sharp criticism. Yet, he never loses the humility that makes 4:44 feel like such a profound sea change; confessionals are common, sprawling, verseless prose even more so. But it avoids feeling specifically banal because of its honesty, and never loses focus on the personal purpose for the album’s creation.
Jay apparently described the title track as one of the best songs he’s ever written; producer No I.D. (who does a sterling job here) calls it the best. But neither smack of conceit. Instead, it feels like an acknowledgement of the rawness and humanity that Jay himself even believes has been eroded by his millionaire lifestyle. Not only that, but both of them would be right.
Hug of Thunder – Broken Social Scene
Broken Social Scene’s comeback is better than it had any right to be. Largely relegated to the early 00s post-punk revival, the band’s resurgence is nothing short of a miracle, even more so now that the album that came with it is pretty fantastic. On the group’s instrumentals, there’s a clear desire to emphasise the atmosphere created by their sound. Influenced by post-punk timbres and ambient production methods, it feels fresh and up-to-date in the increasingly introspective pop world. Even on its louder moments (‘Gonna Get Better’, ‘Vanity Pail Kids’), the space created by the album is vast and shrinks the listener down to an almost microscopic size.
Similarly, the grandiosity of its lyrical references to the stars, thunder, mountains and the monstrosity of nature always gets pared back to the personal level, often with the vocalist speaking directly to someone. It’s startling, but the directness works and drives home the inward-looking smallness of the band’s perspective.
Highlight: ‘Protest Song’
Trying to work out one’s place in the world is a thematic staple of a lot of folk music (certainly the better kind). But it’s difficult to do that whilst bringing something fresh to the table. Lucy Rose manages to do just that, imbuing her latest album with a push-pull conflict in self-love and self-loathing. She flits from recognition of her own imperfections (‘I’m nothing like the vision you once formed’) to defiant, but nevertheless vulnerable, strength (‘I don’t want your diamond necklace/your disapproval cuts through’). It’s captivating, and though the musicality of the record can cause the songs to occasionally blur into one another, it’s possible to ignore that and just be taken by the music.
Highlight: ‘Floral Dresses’
Every Valley – Public Service Broadcasting
Public Service Broadcasting’s strange sound was originally born out of a love and passion for making education accessible. Placing historical samples over fantastic (albeit repetitive) music, the group’s passion has slowly moved closer and closer to the music, which here is an inventive, indefinable strain of alternative rock. Sometimes taking influence from more prog-rock sources, sometimes moving more into post-punk territory, but somehow always keeping that historical perspective pertinent throughout, they sound as though they are evolving hugely. Yes, the coal-mining plot of the album is crystal-clear, but never distracting from the simpler pleasures of the music itself.
DUD OF THE WEEK: Something to Tell You – HAIM
The sister-act would hate the comparison, but the group’s lyrical lamentations couldn’t be more Nicks-McVie here. On some of Something To Tell You‘s best moments, as was the case with much of Fleetwood Mac’s, it’s the blend of shimmering pop with that maudlin lyricism that hits home. Even when the words become more upbeat, the LA comparisons do, indeed, continue: beach-ready jangle-pop (‘Little of Your Love’) and bright synth-pop (‘Want You Back’) can only bring positive memories of The Beach Boys’ orchestral roller-disco weirdness.
But the group falls into the same trap as Days Are Gone, and this time it kills the album dead: as the second half begins, the writing becomes more introspective and the instrumentals quieted, more angular. There wouldn’t be anything wrong with that if they could pull it off, but even casual fans of the band will much prefer them in strutting hit-maker mode than as experimental studio gurus. Everything begins to drag in that second half, and it ends not only on a complete downer, but one that also sounds saggy and half-finished, calling time on the most disappointing album of the year so far.
Highlight: ‘Want You Back’