Any sort of alternative aesthetic by definition makes a claim of authenticity, an insistence on representing things as they ostensibly are rather than as convention would have it. The albums reviewed below all make authenticity claims to varying degrees of success.
The War on Drugs: A Deeper Understanding (Atlantic)
Considered the great contemporary American classic rock phenomenon by excitable fans who neglect to mention the scarcity of the competition, this Philadelphia heartland/psychedelia band won over the masses with Lost in the Dream (2014), a bland, booming pastiche of rock noises. Their new album and major label debut, an even blander and more booming pastiche of rock noises, dives headfirst into a big, soaring, inarticulate, cathartic void.
One can’t call them the next great rock band when dozens of scrappier outfits with similar influences exist in every small town across the Midwest, nor can one call them the next great arena-rock band when Arcade Fire is currently thrashing about under that genre’s tyrannical yoke and U2 refuses to retire. It’s hardly perverse that a contemporary, acclaimed former indie band should most pungently recall corporate ‘80s soft-rock from Bruce Hornsby to solo Don Henley. A generation of music fans grew up internalizing guitar soar, light keyboard coloring, huge echoey drums, and wide expanses of musical space as essential rock attributes, and it makes sense that today’s self-conscious art bands should mimic yesterday’s commercial convention.
A Deeper Understanding rearranges these slick musical elements the way U2’s The Joshua Tree rearranges the sonic textures of postpunk — by streamlining them into an epic stylization, a thundering wash of sound beholden to ideals of scale and awe, whose immersive sweep conceals the fuzziness of the songwriting. The band’s tangy guitar riffs and glistening synthesizers keep unfolding to reveal layer upon layer of juicily textural polish, perpetually receding before a vast horizon of ambient haze. Adam Granduciel’s voice, a breathy wisp of a thing whose murmured soulfulness conjures the image of a cool blissed-out rock frontman grinning while bobbing his head to the beat, reveals the bland feelgood nature of the whole enterprise. Long guitar solos are everywhere, and some even repay undivided attention.
I wouldn’t fault listeners for shrugging past the theoretically meaningful elements and just enjoying the album as a compendium of scrumptious guitar textures, but emotionally it doesn’t code that way. The band’s felt sense of urgency demands one ponder the deep, sincere content, but the corresponding huge scale and sonic sweep gloss over any content one might find. That’s the paradox of arena-rock. The War on Drugs inhabit it more completely than most.
Fever Ray: Plunge (Rabid/Mute)
Having capped their discography with the untoppable electroexplosion Shaking the Habitual (2013), acclaimed left-wing avant-dance duo The Knife disbanded, each going separate ways until, one hopes, the spirit of fun inspires them to collaborate again. On her first solo album in eight years, frontwoman Karin Dreijer tweaks the group’s established template to best suit her own surreal bodily rhythms, crafting a giant, whirring, creaking, hissing, multidimensional musical machine.
By now her dominant mode is familiar: sharp, angular knots of electronic form, simultaneously harsh and erotic, plus lyrics that twist geopolitical and sexual tropes to reveal their intersection. This album sounds more like The Knife than the quietude of Dreijer’s past solo music, and it’s also more dance-accessible.
On Shaking the Habitual, The Knife’s melodic hooks are almost fully incorporated into the forward momentum of their rattling pitched percussion devices, a disorientingly abrasive effect that proves addictive after two or three listens. Here, the metallic dancebeats skitter and click independently, like they’re supposed to, while the keyboards play simple, repetitive tunelets that mesmerize, with conventional daubs of ostinato atmosphere softening the linear boundaries between each instrument. The spikiness of the record astounds anyway; from plinky synthesizer to buzzy synthesizer to crunchy synthesizer to scratchy drum machine to the choked strain of Dreijer’s voice, everything’s an irritant.
“Mustn’t Hurry” glides along carefully before unfolding to display a huge, glowing keyboard figure that keeps spiraling around her vocals, underlining the melodic nuance. This Country” assembles a jittery array of vacuum squeals and synthesizer presets that sound like metal rubbing against metal, which suits the mechanically catchy hook and Dreijer’s frenetic shouted slogans (“Free abortions and clean water/destroy nuclear/destroy boring”). “Plunge,” a calmly patterned instrumental, is no less scary.
Her most radical statement, musical or otherwise, is her demonstration that sonic ugliness is beautiful, that individual squeaks and scrapes and vibrations can fuse into an unexpectedly sweet racket. Number two is the album’s central credo: “This house makes it hard to fuck/this country makes it hard to fuck.” Yes they do.
Julien Baker: Turn Out the Lights (Matador)
Success in the singer-songwriter form is unpredictable, on a certain level impossible to explain, requiring a totally novel arrangement of factors each time — in a genre predicated on the simulation of direct expression by unique human beings, one performer can’t just replicate another’s dynamic and still claim to have a real personality. Tennessee troubadour Julien Baker, who started out as pop-punk before switching to a slower bare-bones approach, has somehow achieved such a permutation in a triumph of stark aesthetic simplicity.
Even as sad singer-songwriter testaments go, hers is a quiet one, but quietly captivating. What distinguishes the album from any number of nominally similar entries in the same genre is an enchantingly direct and compelling emotional clarity that reaches out and twinges your heartstrings. The point isn’t to luxuriate in sadness, nor to flaunt sincerity — the point is to find, not only in words but also in her enunciation of them and the emotional colors the music paints, a close musical approximation of one woman’s anxiety, which given the everyday normalcy of her persona could be yours too.
Baker sings over morosely chimed electric guitar, or minimal piano chords, or occasionally both, with delicate string counterpoint weaving in and out. Reverb provides its own sort of embellishment, as individually plucked notes on “Shadowboxing” and “Hurt Less” softly echo throughout and gradually fill the air. As a singer, her sharp, enunciated, elongated syllables add a plaintive sweetness that matches the bleakness of the music. With strong, simple melodies that easily bend to accommodate the inflections of Baker’s naturalistic talk-singing, accompanied by bright guitar arpeggios cutting through the aural space, she’s scaled the arrangements for maximum crispness and definition.
Her songs, while never explicitly Christian, address small daily challenges that skirt crises of faith — like “Hurt Less,” in which her decision whether or not to wear a seatbelt while driving taps into larger fears about mortality and agency. It’s an apt theme, for religious tropes often inspire such clarity in singer-songwriters, and this fragile, hushed, hymnlike album shares with Leonard Cohen’s last few a forthright, openhearted quality: a need to speak plainly before the altar of performance.
Like a candle burning in the dark, the majestic “Appointments” starts the album on such an intense note, voice aching, guitars ringing, that it can’t last. Later she’s calmer, which is reassuring. She radiates joy, and terrible beauty.
Moses Sumney: Aromanticism (Jagjaguwar)
Having established himself with a few EPs and a long string of guest appearances, alternative R&B singer Moses Sumney finally releases a debut album three years in the making, the product of obsessive tweaking. Like much contemporary alternative R&B, it garbles the distinction between groove and ambience.
Sumney wants you to take the title literally, as Aromanticism “seeks to interrogate the idea that romance is normative and necessary.” Song after song questions notions of coupledom and the possibility of love at all, from the ambivalence of “Don’t Bother Calling” to the despair of “Indulge Me” to the twitchy anxiety of “Doomed” (“If my heart is idle/am I doomed?”).
Whether all this counts as aromantic or antiromantic is another matter; renunciation is itself a grand romantic gesture, predicated on the power of the renounced object. To reject love is to tacitly acknowledge love’s power over you: a truism the album affirms, for musically, behold finely wrought romantic schlock of the highest order. The album illustrates how alternative R&B, or what was once called neosoul, has expanded and consequently swallowed up what was once called art-rock.
Listless folk guitar trickles along, sporadically joined by vaporous keyboards, sudden swells of harp and flute, plucky bass, queasy jazz chords, and various other eclectic ingredients. Sumney sings in a quavery drawn-out falsetto whose sweet, awkward quirkiness might better befit a backup singer. Often the sparkle settles into a hypnotic pattern, as on “Self-Help Tape,” whose overdubbed Sumneys chorus swoops around with delight, or “Lonely World,” which starts as a static acoustic ballad and gradually adds sound effects to mutate into a dizzy dance groove by song’s end. Elsewhere the atmosphere evaporates.
One wonders if, theoretically, the music fits the concept, if the shifty strain of Sumney’s groove mirrors his discomfort with romance. He’s recorded an album so mannered it’s cute and heartening.