Album roundup – April 2015

The Decemberists, Modest Mouse, Father John Misty, Madonna

The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
I had no frame of reference for The Decemberists, prior to their 2011 album The King Is Dead. Fans may cry foul, spouting numerous -isms about me living under a rock or such like, but there it is. I took that record on board based on good notices and liked it, although it was strangely slow in being uploaded to the iTunes for some reason. No such drama with What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, which takes a different route from The King is Dead – where the former was a straightforward take on folksy Americana. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World doesn’t build on that particular sound; rather, it’s a freaky kinda hybrid, being folksy all the while mellowing out and reflection about how cool things can be when you’re married and in love, all the while shitty, shitty things happen in the world, like a nutbag killing some pre-schoolers in Connecticut. There are undoubtedly some critics, and even longtime fans, who will be sceptical of the whole shebang. Lead singles ‘The Wrong Year’ and ‘Make You Better’ are the most accessible, radio-friendly pop tunes. It’s a delight, but folks tend not to look for matters delightful in their rock music these days. More power to them Decemberists for it.

Modest Mouse – Strangers to Ourselves
This opus commences sounding like an off cut from some early 70s Harry Nilsson output. Are we getting all the more self-reflective with our age, harking back to our roots and influences? But then the record leaps back into Good News For People Who Like Bad News-mode of Modest Mouse bounce fury with the album’s first single, ‘Lampshades on Fire’. As ‘The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box’ stretches into its sixth minute, you start to think Modest Mouse are taking a dangerously ill-conceived venture into prog-rock territory, but then they salvage that strength they built on earlier with the album’s most vital track, ‘Ansel’. I’m quietly enamoured of Strangers to Ourselves, it misses not a beat – its fortunes laid bare in front of you, and each track is joyous, harmonious, layered and rich in musical possibility. I can pretty much lock this album in with what will be among the best albums of the year. Love.

Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
Ex-Fleet Foxes troubadour Josh Tillman works under the pseudonym Father John Misty and has in this record put out a folk concept folk album, more cynical about the American state than hopeful for the future. It’s the folk equivalent of Lou Reed’s New York to hisTransformer. ‘Bored In The USA’ is referred to by Tillman as a “sarcastic ballad.” (featuring the refrain, “Save me, white Jesus!”) Echoing the Nick Drake of Five Leaves Left era, Pitchfork Mediadescribed the song as mocking the “entire franchise of privileged white men making their spiritual void the dark center of the universe.” Tillman added a laugh track to the song, he says, as “a way of neutralizing uncomfortable ideas.” Maybe the inherent problem with musicians playing characters in their music is you don’t know when to take them seriously. Can you be ironic and detached and still make a pertinent point of your art? Seems like a stretch, but without the extra-textual frame of reference to Tillman/Misty’s background, this record stands tall as a work of a serious, talented musician and artist. The album’s highlight is a bitter, beautifully scathing attack on a gormless twit who came to visit one night, playfully entitled ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment’, with a fearless jab at this girl who came over and spoke bollocks and doesn’t use ‘literally’ properly. The surface is pained, but the undercurrent is someone having fun. He sounds tortured, but he’s probably not doing that badly. I’m really quite thrilled by this record.

Madonna – Rebel Heart
Maybe a song like ‘Unapologetic Bitch’ comes along and I’m not supposed to comment. Reggae seems to be an odd choice for one of the world’s whitest humans. “It might sound like I’m an unapologetic bitch, but sometimes you know I gotta call it like it is.” Sounds very much like MIA or Santigold… who take a lot of cues from Madonna themselves. And we’re back where we started from. So I can say without fear that Madonna is not-so-quietly disappearing up her own oeuvre. Context places these songs in a different mould than simply enjoying them on face value, but one can’t help but take these sounds as direct hits at one Mr G Ritchie, who was last seen not caring all that much and counting hisSherlock Holmes money. ‘Illuminati’ works, in part, when she’s not rapping. Then there’s the autotune technomix dump that is ‘Bitch, I’m Madonna’. And while ‘Body Shop’ is melodious and well produced, the lyrics are laughably bad. She seems to have mastered the art of the clumsy metaphor here. Oh, and in ‘Holy Water’, a recurring refrain is, “Bitch, get off my pole.” So, yeah. Utter shit. ‘Inside Out’ is not without its merits, but it’s all a blur after a while. And this thing turned out to be a ‘super deluxe edition’ with 25 tracks of it. I don’t know, I’m probably not the target demo. Gay dudes – some of them at least; the younger ones in tank tops – will probably lap every last note of this thing up. But I’ve been hard pressed to find an album of Madonna’s that has struck a chord with me as much as 1998’s Ray of Light did, one of the best pop albums of that decade, if not ever. Since then it’s been quality singles (‘Don’t Tell Me’, ‘4 Minutes’, ‘Jump’) on albums otherwise packed tight with filler and programmers (MusicHard Candy, etc). You’d think there’d be new ideas, cutting edge producers who want to lend their skills to the mix and take this woman, who has been making hit records for 32 years now, into new and interesting territory. But I stand, or sit, nonplussed. MDNA was unlistenable garbage. Rebel Heart ain’t that better.

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