East India Youth//Culture of Volume
Last year’s Mercury nominee makes mixed return with overlong, overstuffed Culture of Volume. Infusing the more languid, cool atmospherics of Total Strife Forever with a dance-y, rave influenced energy, William Doyle still struggles for consistency and still doesn’t know when to stop. Opening with the impressively angular and weird “The Juddering”, the album segues from its sci-fi soundtrack spaciousness into the airy crooning through which Doyle elaborates his disenchanted, disconnected perspective. The vocals come from the Matt Bellamy school of just too much, being impressive enough in a choral way, but not actually fitting the generally compelling music it accompanies. The sense achieved is of an album that is put together with great skill but little focus. Other instrumental efforts at old school dance are as interesting but repetitive as similar pieces on Total Strife Forever, communicating a sense that the East India Youth moniker is moving sideways more than anything else. Interesting but repetitive is the epigram for the album.
I thought Villagers’ first album, the navel-gazing, solipsistic Becoming A Jackal, was as terrible as it was over-rated. I thought their follow-up, Awayland, was surprisingly great. It found frontman Conor O’Brien working more with his band, producing bolder, more expansive, infinitely fuller songs. It pushed beyond the sparse, acoustic guitar-based vapidness that stands for the worst stereotypes of “singer-songwriter”. Darling Arithmetic draws more from that well – the terrible one. The album produced isn’t terrible, but, well, gosh if it’s ever unambitious.
The result is an album that rewards and repels in modes at polar opposites to its predecessor. O’Brien has returned to working as a lone wolf and the music produced is significantly less ambitious than anything like The Waves. Instead Darling Arithmetic works in slow, crisp beats and airy production work, all over staples of piano and noodling guitar. The music has a cohesion and unity that is satisfying, but also points to the sense of interchangeability of every song. By the end of the nine songs and thirty-six minutes, which is exactly as long as this album should be, you feel a bit like you’ve heard the same two songs over and over again. There’s the slightly up-beat, slightly-feisty one and the slower, soulful one. The Soul Serene sits somewhere in the middle, held up by the magnetism of its central bass hook. It may not be the most ambitious track, but it’s the best O’Brien pulls off in this more reserved, moody style.
The rest of the album is an easy listen, but one that rarely seems interested in really catching the ear. It settles for the finger tap. At most. The result of this highly unambitious style is an album that’s never actually bad – with the exception of the terrible title track – but not remotely something you’d actually recommend to someone unless they’d “connect to it”. Vocally O’Brien has tuned his half-spoken, half-sung style to a soulful sweetspot, but rarely pushes himself to anything more strenuous than normal speaking volume. Based on his singing I can imagine conversations with this man are conducted within inches.
One of the central problems I had with Awayland was the disconnected, word-vomit lyricism. Songs were constructed around a series of phrases that sounded meaningful individually but weren’t even remotely cohesive. It made for baffling listening at times. Darling Arithmetic avoids that pitfall, ditching the imagistic nothingness for tracks actually grounded in some form of narrative, expressing some kind of message beyond “this song is a bit ominous,” or “watch out for people because they are shit,” as was the mode of Awayland. Instead O’Brien has produced his most intimate, personal album, and, lyrically, by far his most rewarding. At times his musings on love, that oft-neglected topic, can veer into the sentimental and mawkish, but it’s grounded in an honesty and sincerity that leaves you feeling bad for criticising it. It’s much too open for that kind of cynicism, partly because there’s a keen sense of self awareness, as on tracks like Little Bigot, which up-ends its trite “Love is me, Love is all, Love is you,” with a stinging rebuttal to, well, a little bigot.
That track offers a way in to one of the album’s central themes and the one at the core of its sense of sudden openness. It may seem implausible but, as a gay man in Ireland, O’Brien has probably dealt with his fair share of little bigots. This album embraces that identity, and O’Brien deserves credit for that. It’s an album of immense longing and soulfulness, to the point of cliché, that just happens to be about men. That doesn’t excuse the heavy-handed writing, but it tells you that when he sings about Courage he knows what he’s talking about. The album opener starts with the lines “It took a little time to get where I wanted / It took a little time to get free / It took a little time to be honest / It took a little time to be me”; Darling Arithmetic has that same feeling of positive self-reflexivity. It’s a step backward from Awayland, but mostly a step inward. It means more navel-gazing, but a tolerable kind, and music that sounds at peace with that, content not to push things beyond the odd echo-chamber. Maybe his next release will have the freedom and confidence to sound as courageous as his words are here.
Picks: Courage, The Soul Serene, Everything I Am Is Yours
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