Saturday, 31 December 2016

The streets groan with little Caesars ...

or, in full,

The streets groan with little Caesars,  Napoleons and cunts 
With their building blocks and their tiny plastic phones Counting on their fingers, with crumbs down their fronts 

from Darker with the Day, the last track on No More Shall We Part, the 2000 album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

Up until this year's extraordinary Skeleton Tree, I'd say that No More Shall We Part was my favourite Nick Cave album, closely followed by The Boatman's Call. One of the many things those albums have in common is Nick does a lot of walking.

No More Shall We Part is a very walking album. Darker with the Day begins "And so with that, I thought I'd take a final walk" ... he's just walking around, saying what he says.

It reminds me of running - running in the sun around Tooting, Wandsworth, Clapham Common, in the rain and snow around Sevenoaks, around Ashford and Willesborough.

Even on my best days, when there was a great big sun smiling down, I'd run with hatred and loathing, I'd run as if every amateur, dilettante, hack, cowboy, clone, little Caesar, Napoleon and cunt was my sworn enemy.

It can make one feel special, walking or running through the world, observing and thinking you and Nick Cave are the only ones who realises it's a world of hacks, Caesars, Napoleons and cunts, but, of course, everyone else is thinking it too. This is hardly one of Nick Cave's most insightful lyrics, but it's the sheer deliciousness of the juxtapositions and the annunciation which makes it such a joy. Cunts, he said. Oh, yes. To this stately, mournful tune, cunts. 

And then there's delight in the next two lines - the bit about crumbs down their front reminds me of a bit in Stewart Lee's latest Comedy Vehicle about Rod Liddle having food down his front. Sadly, it's not on youtube or anywhere, so you've either seen it or you haven't, there's no way to describe it.

So, it's been a shit year for good things, the left has lost, let's be honest, the balance has tipped and the window of hope has closed. We're back in some dark ages and they may be the darkest of the lot.

But there are still marvellous master craftsmen like Cave and Lee, there's still great joy in self-righteous loathing, sometimes I don't think I'd swap that for all the hope in the world ...

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Albums in 2016

It's been a hell of a year, all told. Propitious personal circumstances made it a year I got to listen to a lot of music (while all other cultural interests fell by the wayside), but, neverthless, 2016 has been, all told, a heavy year for hope and all that. A lot of what's happened in music has reflected this. Gloom and doom and depth and darkness everywhere. Beyonce's Lemonade, which seemed at once like an unusually serious, major work, could seem almost trivial in comparison to some of what's come along. Not that that takes away from its quality.

BeyoncĂ©'s been great for ages, of course, for almost two decades. She's so far pre-eminent in pop music it's not even fair. But this album, this Lemonade, this has something truly special about it. I haven't even ever watched the accompanying film. Perhaps I should, but the music alone is enough for me. 

It was one of those rare albums that hit me instantly - first listen, I was gripped, going with the journey through the different songs. Some people have said there are some lighter, less effective songs in the second half, but her vocal always lifts them. It's a concept album that works - it's personal and political without feeling forced. It's also a brilliant incorporation of the best of the indie America, a perfectly executed crossover, where rock and RnB fans can hook onto the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Jack White and James Blake and the Weeknd and rap fans can enjoy Kendrick Lamar, and song after song leaps out at you. It's a great, great album, the comfortable best of nearly every year.

There are a few themes in the best music this year. One of them is, of course, death. We'll get to that. The other, which I just touched upon, is what Gram Parsons called "cosmic American music". In a country which seems, from a distance, to be as horribly divided as it's been for 150 years, some of the great albums and musical moments flew in the face of it. Beyonce made music for everybody. So did country singer Sturgill Simpson. Frank Ocean did a song which referenced Trayvon Martin. So did Drive-by Truckers. So did Lady Gaga (a terrible terrible song). Beyonce appeared with Dixie Chicks at the Country Music Awards. People walked out. Doh.

I assumed Beyonce's album would be at the top of most Best Album lists, but those I've seen are reasonably divergent. Near the top of most is Frank Ocean's Blonde, but I'm not having it. With his fine voice, original view and sharp intelligence, people desperately want Frank Ocean to make great music, but he doesn't. Blonde is one long dirge. In the second half there are snatches of Carpenters and Beatles tracks, and they're like coming up for air when you're drowning in sludge. He sings like what he's saying matters, he sings like he's gifting you a melody, but genuine insight and melody are scarce. To judge it, say, as a dreamscape, something to get lost in, or perhaps to judge it as a singer-songwriter album, it falls short. It's no Astral Weeks, it's no Songs in the Key of Life, it's no Blue. It's far too long, it takes a tremendous effort to get anywhere with it.

And like a lot of albums this year, it has indulgent, boring spoken word bits. What is with that? The only effective use of spoken word intermissions I heard this year was on Solange's 'A Seat at the Table' where the various people talking (family, friends, rappers) were woven into the music beautifully. Solange's album may, narrowly, be the second best Knowles album of the year, but it's a cracker, and a real grower. Her voice doesn't soar like her sister's, and when there's rage, it's more gently conveyed, but it's a superb, serious work of consequence, which never bores.

Laura Mvula's The Dreaming Room also has a slightly daft spoken word bit, but I think that's one of the most underrated albums of the year. The level of her accomplishment, the otherworldly brilliance of her voice, seems to be taken for granted in the UK. The column inches she merits have not found her a natural audience yet.

I also loved Michael Kiwanuka's album, which was everything to me that Frank Ocean's album wasn't - warm and rich, something to get lost in, full of soul and melody, unforced insight. It was also bold and expansive musically, beautifully produced. I returned to it several times throughout the year.

I'll quickly run through albums which caused a stir which weren't necessarily personal favourites. Skepta's Konnichiwa won the Mercury, and, you know, it's fine, it's actually rather sweet in places, and Shutdown is a tremendous song, but there was a lot in it which ploughed old ground lyrically. I think it was talked up a little more than it deserved.

Kanye West's The Life of Pablo was a mess. I was a big fan of Yeezus, which had a contained, controlled, punkish fury, a darkness which demanded to be heard (if darkness can be heard). The Life of Pablo was the sound of a man with no sense of judgement left. His Glastonbury set showed that. It could have been awesome, but he made some terrible decisions. I found The Life of Pablo almost unlistenable. 

Not as unlistenable as Drake, the most baffling superstar ever. His most noteworthy songs are loathsome and casually misogynistic, and then it's downhill from there. He featured on Rihanna's album, which I quite liked, but went on a bit, and didn't beg to be listened to over again.

I even listened to the Lady Gaga album a few times which was, at least, not boring. But everything she does is so forced, it's hard to bear. And 'Angel Down', another song which references Trayvon Martin and gun violence, was just the lamest, most meretricious song of the year, the kind of pap that would turn the most bleeding-heart liberal into a raving hawk.

I quite liked the Emeli Sande album, it had a couple of great songs, but it was generally overwrought and a bit of an opportunity missed perhaps. On the other hand, the Christine and the Queens album Chaleur Humaine really showed how to do it, fat-free, slick yet moving, it quietly became one of my favourite albums of the year.

There were several albums by stalwarts which kept my love of Scottish pop alive, the best of which was by Teenage Fanclub - they just do it, they always do it. The severed alliance (severe dalliance) of King Creosote and The Pictish Trail released albums in the same month, each of which touched on their falling out, a fierce, rather sad, internecine dispute which rather belies those monikers which must have seemed such a hoot in more innocent times. King Creosote is one of the great British songwriters. Emma Pollock, Steve Mason and Colin Macintyre of the Mull Historical Society are not far off - melody and imagination come streaming out of each of them.

As for the great English artists - PJ Harvey's album didn't work for me - it was an attempt to say something important, but the lyrics were ho-hum, the message was laid on a bit thick - her voice sounded surprisingly unsure of itself. Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool was my favourite of theirs since OK Computer - I'm not a massive fan, so that's not saying a huge amount, but it was a pretty beautiful piece of work. Sounded a bit more like Coldplay than you'd think, though ...

And the great Americans? Well, of the younger (not that young) ones, I loved the Conor Oberst album Ruminations - a return to form for me after about a decade off it. Clear, sad, meaningful songs, a lyrical gift which remains astounding at times. He still has the capacity to be one of the best, I reckon.
Wilco are the best band in the world, so I love every Wilco album. Each new Wilco album, funnily enough, makes me realise how good the last one was. This one was Schmilco - I listened to the last one, Star Wars, a lot, in the week it came out ... but Schmilco was a low-key treasure itself and I know I'll love it even more in a year or two.
Then there was Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam, alumni of the Walkmen and Vampire Weekend respectively, whose album I Had a Dream That You Were Mine was almost as good as I hoped it would be, but not quite. I do want the Walkmen to get back together, I'm afraid.

case/lang/veirs was one of the most pleasurable albums of the year - three great singers and songwriters - it had a bit of everything, sometimes eerie, sometimes folky, sometimes, sometimes poppy. Jenny Lewis was also in a "supergroup" called Nice as Fuck. It wasn't great.

There were two or three tremendous country records - the Margo Price one didn't quite come good on its early promise, but Sturgill Simpson's A Sailor's Guide to Earth was brilliant. Drive-By Truckers' American Band was one of my albums of the year, the first time I've really got what they were all about. Proudly southern but right-on, for want of a better word, it felt doubly poignant in a year like this - taking digs at the NRA, the hypocrisy of white America, it was a wolf in sheep's clothing. A nod as well to Jason Isbell (formerly of Drive-By Truckers) - his Something More Than Free came out last year, but I only discovered it this year - it's every bit the equal of his old band.

Right, finally, on to the old dudes. Some year for the old dudes. Iggy Pop's album was critically acclaimed but I haven't listened to it yet, or Neil Young's, sorry. The Paul Simon album Stranger to Stranger is great, actually. He's still innovating, still interesting. It's a clever, sweet, modern record.

I wouldn't usually place Paul Simon above Bob Dylan but this year there was no contest. Ironic that in the year he was honoured like never before for elevating songwriting like no one else, Bobby released his least consequential album ever (and there are few contenders, Christmas in the Heart). Oh great, another album of Frank Sinatra covers, said no one. The first one, Shadows in the Night, was actually rather lovely, and it's not like Fallen Angels is substantially worse, it's just unnecessary. Though, hopefully, my theory, that, just as he rediscovered his mojo with two albums of covers in the early 90s, Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, so will this be a platform for an album of Dylan-penned attempts to enhance the Great American Songbook. Nice theory, let's hope so.

Enough of Dylan. For a while in January, I felt like I'd put my money on the wrong horse. I wondered if Bowie was the larger figure all along. To some, to many, he surely is. Comparisons are pretty invidious. They occupied pretty different spheres in the end. Bowie's end was a masterstroke, in any case. As if planned, though not entirely planned. The last two songs on Blackstar, Dollar Days and I Can't Give Everything Away, just couldn't have been better. I genuinely think it's his best record for 40 years.

And then there's Leonard. That was a blow. I've been listening to him ever since, primarily You Want it Darker, with its lovely closer Treaty. The only thing nagging me is I remember thinking, before he died ... I'm not sure this album is quite as good as the last one. It doesn't matter now, I just think I can't in all honestly judge it one of the best albums of the year.

In the end, there's only one for me. One that stood out far above the distinguished crowd. Cohen and Bowie's albums were about death primarily, while Nick Cave's Skeleton Tree was about grief and loss and love and a bare beauty you very rarely hear.
As the various End of Year lists have come in, seeing Skeleton Tree, on some of them, 15, 21, 23 has had a tragicomic absurdity, as if there is genuinely a field of peers and genuinely 22 albums that are "better" than it. It stands alone, it hardly belongs in these lists.
Nick Cave's always been a master, and he's written deeply powerful, heartrending songs before. In truth, the last few albums were enjoyable and immaculate but left me a little bit cold. There's nothing cold about Skeleton Tree. The genius of it is not just to harness the grief but to give it its head. Maybe unwillingly, Cave lets you in, he emotes, he doesn't stand above it. It's in the voice. He even lets the craft go a little. Just a little, and the album's all the better for it.

The stark beauty is almost unbearable at times. Girl in Amber, the third track, is the one for me, the first moment where the listener struggles for air. "If you want to leave, don't breathe ... a word" He lets neither himself nor the listener off the hook.
There are eight songs on the album, five are utterly beautiful, the other three are utterly compelling. I'm not sure this isn't one of the very greatest albums ever made. The 22nd best album of the year it is not.

So, those are the albums I'm going to write about. Oh, one more, the Monkees album - tremendous. Really.
And these were the other albums I listened to a few times, just so you know. Some of these were good too, some of them were a bit crap.

Singing Saw - Kevin Morby
Distance Inbetween - The Coral
Crab Day - Cate Le Bon
Side Pony - Lake Street Dive
The Colour in Anything - James Blake ... boring
Hopelessness - Anohni ... caught me on an off day
Let the Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul - Dexys ... the irish bits worked
Love You to Death - Tegan and Sara ... ok, too polished now
Why Are You OK - Band of Horses ... rather than being great like you used to be
Patience - The Invisible
The Bride - Bat for Lashes ... good, just never quite grips me all the way through
Night Thoughts - Suede
Freetown Sound - Blood Orange
Light Upon the Lake - Whitney ... liked this
Eyes on the Line - Steve Gunn
Furnaces - Ed Harcourt
No Mind No Money - Beach Baby ... promising
Mangy Love - Cass McCombs
Foreverland - The Divine Comedy ... pretty crap i'm afraid
Trick - Jamie T ... had three fabulous songs near the end, didn't like the rest, hated the single
My Woman - Angel Olsen ... very good
We Move - James Vincent McMorrow
Commontime – Field Music 
Untitled - Kendrick Lamar
Second Love – Emmy the Great  pretty good
Painting With – Animal Collective
Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop - Love Letter to Fire ... a pleasure
Sunflower Bean - Human Ceremony
Steve Gunn - Eyes on the Line
Banks - The Altar
Yorkston/Thorne/Khan - Everything Sacred
Hiss Golden Messenger - Heart Like a Levee
Weyes Blood - Front Row Seat to Earth
Lambchop -FLOTUS ... If only
Dawes - We're All Going to Die ... always fun, but so cheesy
Regina Spektor - Remember Us to Life ... bit tame
Bon Iver - 22 A Million - bit exhausting and unrewarding

And so, my albums of the year

  1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree
  2. Beyonce - Lemonade
  3. Christine and the Queens - Chaleur Humaine
  4. David Bowie - Blackstar
  5. Drive-By Truckers - American Band
  6. Laura Mvula - The Dreaming Room
  7. Solange - Seat at the Table
  8. Michael Kiwanuka - Love and Hate
  9. Paul Simon - Stranger to Stranger
  10. Radiohead - A Moon-Shaped Pool
  11. Sturgill Simpson - A Sailor's Guide to Earth
  12. case/lang/veirs - case/lang/veirs
  13. Bright Eyes - Ruminations
  14. The Monkees - Good Times
  15. Leonard Cohen - You Want it Darker
  16. Teenage Fanclub - Here
  17. Wilco - Schmilco
  18. Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop - Love Letter to Fire
  19. Bat for Lashes - The Bride
  20. Angel Olsen - My Woman
And my favourite songs
  1. Girl in Amber - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
  2. Dollar Days - David Bowie
  3. Distant Sky - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
  4. Freedom - Beyonce
  5. Night 52 - Christine and the Queens
  6. Overcome - Laura Mvula
  7. Hurts - Emeli Sande
  8. Sign of the Times - Jamie T
  9. Treaty - Leonard Cohen
  10. Sea Stories - Sturgill Simpson
  11. Tilted - Christine and the Queens
  12. Build Another Brick - Mull Historical Society
  13. The First Sight - Teenage Fanclub
  14. 1000 Times - Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam
  15. Love and Hate - Michael Kiwanuka
  16. Me and Magdalena - The Monkees
  17. Skeleton Tree - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
  18. I Can't Give Everything Away - David Bowie
  19. The Hustle - Lambchop
  20. Happiness - Wilco