March

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.

B

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 With I Don’t Like Shit, Earl seems, rather, to have withdrawn into himself more than anything.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

B-

Madonna//Rebel Heart

God, is Madonna ever old. I mean, man, she is really, really old for this industry. How does she keep going? What allows her to stand against time whilst contemporaries rise and fall? Who even are her contemporaries? She’s seen so many vanish into relative obscurity over the past three decades. But why has Madonna hung around? Her voice has never been the best, her lyrics are nothing special outside all the religion, and of late she’s caught the eye by alternately being frightfully athletic or just falling over. Maybe it’s her variety, maybe it’s her consistency, or, maybe, it’s her Rebel Heart (it’s not, it’s those other two).

Her latest album is as consistently idiosyncratic as ever, pulling together elements of dub, dance, some acoustic guitar, and even a brief move into reggae; and then throwing on top lyrics that shift between self-reflexive and sincere, and shamelessly debauched. It leads to an album that’s difficult to come to conclusions over. It’s a struggle to reconcile the disparate tones Madonna works in on Rebel Heart, and her attempts at modernising her sound by working with producers Avicii and Diplo work only fleetingly. It’s telling that, early into my first listen of the album, I found myself writing an extended comparison between Madonna and the film, Still Alice. It wasn’t flattering. By the album’s end, however, I was largely sold. Listening now, I find myself continuing to fluctuate between these two modes of thought, shifting in time as Madonna drifts between sincerity (good) and desperate attempts at relevance (very bad).

The album starts off on a relatively strong footing, with Living For Love straddling the old and new with relative success. It’s a song that seems emblematic for much of the album – underpinned by a vintage Madonna dance feel and piano that calls back to classics such as Like A Prayer. Yet the song proceeds to self-destruct in a vortex of ‘new’ stuff on the chorus, and Madonna becomes utterly lost amid the production work.

As noted earlier, Madonna’s voice has never been strong, but it’s always been one of her trademarks. It is a thing that needs to be handled with ingenuity and delicacy, at once enhancing and masking her voice with tasteful effects work, but also making sure not to lose her unique character. For much of this album that character is lost. Will Orbit managed it with startling success on a series of albums at the turn of the century, reinventing the Queen of Pop with atmospheric production that lent an ethereality that contrasted well with her full-blooded, if not always polished, vocals. There’s none of that dynamism here, with the sound being more Theory Of Everything than Ray Of Light, buried under a mass of auto-tune. It makes for ugly, ugly music at times, and works to severely undercut her attempts at sincerity on many tracks.

The one moment the suffocating sludge of over-production works in the album’s favour is on Iconic, a song preceded by some words of wisdom by the inimitable Mike Tyson that then proceeds to somehow not be terrible. The spoken word chorus of “Iconic. Ironic.” has a cleverly jarring, glitched-out vibe that is both iconic and, yes, ironic. The song is something of a turning point for the album. It comes hot on the heels of what is undoubtedly the nadir – Bitch I’m Madonna, which sees the Queen of Pop try and compete with Queen of something Nicki Minaj. It’s a mess. Madonna attempts this kind of half-rap thing that she employs at other points on the album, and, bad as it is elsewhere, it’s never more terrible than here. But, from Joan Of Arc onwards, these kind of attempts at relevance ease up, and Madonna stops trying to be anything other than herself.

It brings the self-reflexivity of the album to the fore, and songs like Heartbreakcity can seem like a pop parallel to Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak. The effects-free vocals of this track are unquestionably the best the album serves up, which is unquestionably linked to the production ceasing to try and hold her to some kind of artificial perfection. Even Bodyshop, in which sex and vehicle repair are linked in stunningly heavy-handed fashion, comes across less as a porn scenario set to music and more like a slightly raunchier twist on the heartwarmingly sincere, amusingly innocent romance of The Beach Boys. It’s bizarre. Suddenly, with Madonna’s character behind the music rather than the production, it seems like she can get away with anything. The religion/sex dichotomy at the heart of her music seems less gratuitously forced, and more like subtle flavouring to remind you who you’re hearing. She even samples Vogue on the next track and pulls it off.

It all still seems like fresh material, but injected with a wry sense of her own musical self. She stops trying to be an artist from today, and starts being an artist who survived to today. It’s the move from Songs Of Innocence – attempts at being alternately sincere and relevant but coming off as artificial – and The Next Day – a self-reflexive study of a star too esteemed to ever really fail, criss-crossing through a career of myriad modes whilst injecting new flavours to varying success.

Unfortunately, however, for an album to take half an hour-plus to get to the point where it’s worth listening to is unforgivable in my books. This album could shed half its weight and it would gain a whole star. Not even replace it with better stuff. Just make it not be there. The four tracks of the deluxe edition build off where the core album ends, pushing to better, more distinctive things, and seem like better fits for the album that Madonna wanted to make, rather than the one she thought she needed to make. The title track is also inexplicably reserved for the Deluxe edition. It’s very odd, although the track itself is pretty dull. Even odder, since dull is one thing that this album rarely is. It’s always compelling for some reason, but only at its denouement is it usually for the right ones. Madonna, you’re still the Queen, and always have been – you don’t need Avicii or Nicki Minaj or anyone else to carry you.

Picks: Iconic, Heartbreakcity, Joan Of Arc

C+

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