Godspeed You! Black Emperor//Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress
As mind-bogglingly, speaker-splittingly epic as ever, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s latest nonetheless feels markedly less ambitious or sonically diverse as previous releases, instead seeming like the most bombastic form of ‘by the numbers’ record in human history. Split into two sides made up of two tracks each, as on the superlative Don’t Bend Ascend the longer tracks are really the ones worth tuning in for. At a mere 10 and 14 minutes respectively, they’re some way shorter than that efforts central movements, but the run-time is filled in by the intervening tracks offering more than just pallete-cleansing filler – as was the case on Don’t Bend Ascend. Always a tough band to critique, Godspeed work to a standard that is skyscrapingly high, pushing post-rock to extremes of invention and scale that contemporaries simply can’t match. What is perhaps most striking about their work is the emotiveness evoked by their finest pieces, often acheiving something that strives beyond mere awe – which is their default mode – and communicates instead a deeper sensation to the music. That never happens here. It is their most formulaic release. The formula is potent, but the effects are dulled by the sense that you’ve been here before.
Earl Sweatshirt//I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
It’s easy to forget just how young Earl Sweatshirt is. Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, the son of a poet (as he likes to mention mournfully), only turned 21 in February. Listening to I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, you hear someone who seems world-weary, all used up, running on empty. He seems less the angry young man of the Wolf Gang and more like some kind of Howard Hughes-esque recluse. It’s an insular, apathetic album, moodily hesitant yet irritated in the way a sulky teenager going through an existentialist phase might be. Or like Howard Hughes. Either way, this is not the sound of a man in his prime. It makes sense that the album isn’t prime Sweatshirt either.
His debut proper – 2013’s Doris – was an eclectic, energetic, and triumphant return for the prodigal son of the Odd Future collective. Earl came back from some time stowed away in Samoa seeming wiser, more self-aware, willing to push off from the shock and awe gimmickry of Odd Future into something sincerely drawn from himself. With I Don’t Like Shit, Earl seems, rather, to have withdrawn into himself more than anything. The collaborative, open nature that led to standout tracks like Molasses (where he holds his own with RZA), Hoarse (where he plays off BBNG’s stellar instrumentation), and Chum (where his monotone style meets some substance of feeling), is gone, replaced with a self-produced and largely solo-performed album that could have come out of Earl’s bedroom – or, more likely, his basement.
This move further into himself yields an album that, rather than further revealing the sensitivity displayed on Doris, seems cautious, defensive, guarded. The thick, woozy, vaguely trip-hop production lends an air of impermeability to the album. It all seems dense, the layers of fuzz and snail-like beats playing against Earl’s slower than usual rapping. His uniquely monotone, idiosyncratically paced flow seems to be functioning at its lowest gear, refusing to engage in trickery, and, really, refusing to engage at all.
But, for all this retreating and reclusiveness, I Don’t Like Shit remains a strong piece of work. The cautiousness could be called consolidation, the guarded lyricism a look into self-doubt. Earl gets these free passes because of the talent with which he pulls off even conservatism. This work doesn’t stretch Earl, nor, like releases by Kendrick Lamar and Young Fathers that sandwiched its release, does it push the genre.
But it is solid. At a mere 27 minutes it doesn’t have the time to be big or challenging. It only really has time for Earl. It doesn’t have the time to grate either, which, despite growing in strength as the album progresses, would have likely occurred had a full-length release been so lacking in variety. It is dense enough to seem like a possible grower, but there are few immediate standouts. Grief heralds an upturn for an album that starts off slow, dreary, and only fleetingly absorbing, benefitting from an injection of urgency in Earl’s performance even when the music remains muddily atmospheric.
At the same time, the muddy atmosphere is arguably what makes the album. Drawn more from the likes of Massive Attack than traditional hip-hop sources, Earl makes a case for himself as a producer with the talent to match his flow. Traces of the classic Odd Future sound are embedded – most notably on album closer Wool – but, throughout, seem distorted and distant, lending to the oppressive, claustrophobic feel of the album. The sounds match Earl’s slower style, and maybe when he feels like expressing himself more vividly they’ll grow too. As is, the sound of the album is compelling, but can just as easily wash over.
Brief enough to be an intriguing insight into one of rap’s most talented prospects, I Don’t Like Shit nonetheless can’t help feeling like a disappointment compared against the work of contemporaries, and, most frustratingly, Earl himself. Executed with skill but lacking variety and energy, the album comes off as more an experiment in self-production (and, in that sense a largely successful one) than one with any kind of serious statement. Earl, and Odd Future, seem to be treading water.
Picks: Grief, AM // Radio, Wool
Young Fathers//White Men Are Black Men Too
Young Fathers talked a big talk about making a pop album in the build-up to their first release off the back of winning the Mercury Prize for last year’s Dead. The album they’ve created isn’t a pop album. It’s brilliant, but not pop. It’s an album that strives to be pop, but ends up torn between that urge to create something joyous and the need to voice deep-seated resentments. Last year’s 1989 by Taylor Swift reminded everyone what great pop should be – invigorating, fun, and hopeful; Young Fathers don’t pull that off, but you can feel the longing to. It makes music that’s just as powerful as the best pop, but with something to say too.
Beyond the platitudes Young Fathers become a more difficult act to talk about. The first question is probably one as simple as “What are they?” Prior to their Mercury Prize win they were billed as rap or hip-hop – both of which are accurate, but incomplete. Their sound draws from too many touchstones to talk about, but perhaps their closest relative is the chaotic, tuneful collages of TV On the Radio. Their music bursts with the same feverish excitement and invigorating unpredictability, channelling aggression, longing, hope and, heartbreak into an enthralling mix.
It’s music that can drift from the “interesting” (read: jarring, dense, not necessarily tuneful) to the genuinely pretty. Take album opener Still Running, a song that opens, as any bold album would, with a bold statement: “Tonight I don’t love God.” From there the song is a clamour of voices over wailing guitar, Suicide-esque beats, and a wonderful sounding xylophone. It’s already an eclectic mix, thrown together in a propulsive song about loss, regret – the usual sad stuff. It’s performed emotively, but the vocals sit disingenuously with the music, albeit to great effect. The track bursts to life as it nears its conclusion however, as powerful, resonant piano enters the fray, lending a scale and emotion to match the vocals. It’s a trick repeated across the album and their use of piano almost universally outstanding.
It’s an album where a choral swell of “What you do to feel better?” can be followed by a bark of “Nothing but a barefaced lie / Is all you cunts can hold on to,” and nothing feels amiss. It can shift from the atonal, heavy mess of Feasting into the sprightly, soulful 27. It can brood and breed ecstasy in the same moment, but always feels coherent. There’s a palpable mood to the album, a sense of tension, but also of immense longing. It’s more of the dualism that flows through the album, the two sides criss-crossing across tracks. It can overwhelm with its overflow of ideas and sounds, but it never becomes too much. If anything the album finds itself strongest at its middle, although sole dud Dare Me (still good for a dud) halts the flow of the album just as it comes to an end.
More than anything, however, the shifting, unpredictable White Men Can Be Black Men Too breeds energy. A far cry from the pointed lethargy after collecting their prize, Young Fathers’ music never seems like a half-measure. It brims with passion – some of it the romanticism of Nest, some of it the angst of Old Rock N Roll. The album channels this energy and passion into music that may not be the statement on the nation that Kendrick Lamar’s latest was, but, as an expression of unique artistry, it’s just as compelling.
Also, how invigorating is it to listen to an album where the tracks released in the build-up aren’t the standouts? I’m looking at you Vampire Weekend, Villagers. No one should go into an album liking two or three songs and come out only really liking those same songs. None of their pre-release songs even make my suggested listens – how’s that for strength in depth? Young Fathers nail the length of this thing too. I’m a firm believer that albums should but rarely go over an hour, and look down on anything over about 45. This is roughly 39, the same territory as Pet Sounds. If ending on a comparison to Pet Sounds isn’t endorsement enough then truly nothing can sell this album. Mercury Prize number 2?
Picks: 27, Nest, Liberated