I didn’t plan it this way, but three of the four albums reviewed below feature production by Jack Antonoff, a ubiquitous but not prolific producer who chooses his collaborators carefully. Tastefully, too — those albums are three of 2017’s best, and the fourth could stand lightening of the sort that Antonoff often provides. All four share a fixation on the pop move: not aiming for the charts, necessarily, so much as what it means to be straightforward, accessible, reaching out to say something to a substantial audience. It’s an admirable goal.
St. Vincent: Masseduction (Loma Vista)
After a decade spent honing her angular, skeletal, chickenscratch guitar sound, Annie Clark kicks it into overdrive, writing the fiercest hooks and most emotionally open songs of her career on an album whose tight, shiny surface matches the hot pink background and fetish outfit on the cover. Given the knottiness of her past work, the direct force of these beats and riffs surprises.
Despite production by Jack Antonoff, whose swelling climaxes and echoey fades have established him as the producer of the month in our current pop moment, nobody will mistake this album for an attempt at pop crossover — a spurious narrative whereby erstwhile cult artists suddenly reach out and go commercial even though their idealized retro notions of synthpop sound like nothing currently occupying the pop charts.
Clark’s impulse to write more accessibly makes this her best album regardless, an awesome example of synth-inflected guitar-rock, exactly as skewed and distorted as she’s always been while generating from her skewed distortion a caustic, restless, blissful musicality that’s new for her. Spiky drum machines brightly underpin linear sonic juxtapositions, as harmonically bent funk guitar intertwines around sped-up keyboard presets, interrupted by strategic bursts of ambient noise.
As befits such a sound, one needn’t peruse the lyrics to notice that this is her sex album — the way tracks like “Sugarboy” and “Young Lover” build rhythmically is evidence enough. These songs are ecstatic but fraught, less erotica than meditations on the benefits and drawbacks of erotica. The sadomasochistic role play in “Savior” gives way to an extended power negotiation, as her character’s attempts to control the situation, marked by a sharp bubblefunk riff, are undercut by her lover’s repeated cries of “pleeeeeeease,” the grand one-word chorus swelling up over the formerly restrained arrangement; the verbal ambiguity fascinates. Elsewhere the choked wails of her guitar subsume sweeter elements, like the nursery rhymes on “Pills” or the massive yearning chorus on “Los Ageless.” She’s playing with the dynamics of pleasure and abrasion, control and release.
However heartfelt, the slow songs meander; she needs crackling electricity in motion as a foil to lend her expressionism its bite. Mostly, though, this album constructs its own vivid, garish, squeaky veneer, a tangible plasticity. Credo: “Got a crush on tragedy.”
Lorde: Melodrama (Lava/Republic)
After scoring a novelty hit in 2013 about feeling contempt for a pop landscape she nevertheless wanted to infiltrate, the New Zealand teenpop star disappeared for four years to improve her image, and it worked, brilliantly. Ostensibly a song cycle about reeling in the wake of a breakup, absolutely an examination of romantic tropes as intensified or devalued by over-investment, Melodrama is creepy and sublime.
Lorde writes convincingly about adolescent turmoil in transitional periods, and the album is itself a product of such turmoil. The segue from her debut, the patchy Pure Heroine, to Melodrama is a charmingly transparent refinement of her presentational stance, much the way adolescents jump from persona to persona; the album buzzes not with any one persona but rather the heart-pounding thrill of projecting one.
Several songs address how to continually redefine the self in tandem with changes in one’s romantic life, especially after a breakup, while others scrutinize her own status as a persona-projecting young person. Lorde gets to comment on the dysfunction of Modern Love because, persona-wise, she sings as a young person actually experiencing Modern Love rather than an outsider speaking from a place of wisdom. Thus her grand pronouncements about the nonexistence of “Perfect Places” and belonging to the “Loveless Generation” have a gauche immediacy to them; she’s caught up in the action.
These deceptively simple teenpop songs may take a while to digest thanks to the music’s incongruous metallic harshness, as upbeat melodies coo from behind a veil of drum machines and whirring knives, breathy vocals against creaking percussion, plonking house piano, a sonic sharpness that’s disconcerting given the context.
“Sober” cruises spookily over simulated acoustic drum popping that explodes into rapid snare blasts at the end of each measure, plus spiky keyboards that also sound like drum machines; “Homemade Dynamite” soars and abrades simultaneously thanks to the contrast between her whispered falsetto and the clattery electronic sizzle. The consequent mixture of sweet and bitter captures Lorde’s mood on these songs exactly.
Projecting the magical faith in the world that is the secret of all great teenpop, as well as the horrible crippling anxiety such things can engender in people, she illustrates how naturally both conditions can (must?) coexist. She’ll be striking different poses for a while.
Taylor Swift: Reputation (Big Machine)
Between the wink-wink album title, the shock-scandal! flash of the album cover, and the corresponding decline of her reputation over the past few years, I was expecting something ghastly — the idea of Swift writing songs about media, celebrity, and her public image frighteningly evokes a suffocating spiral of self-regard. Instead, she delivers a sleek, friendly, often autumnal album about romance and commitment: classic Swift themes she handles warmly.
First things first: all of Swift’s previous albums have at least one token exercise in schlock, just to prove she’s still in touch with the people, but Reputation is the first to include a genuine Bad Song, the one song in which she explicitly addresses celebrity. Given the tendency of Taylor Swift songs to shed their autobiographical contexts over time, I don’t doubt that in a few years we’ll enjoy “Look What You Made Me Do” as a generic parody of her public image, but we’ll still have to deal with the grating electroclash beat and her inability to sound tough while looping her voice.
Otherwise, she’s grown into her skeletal synthpop sound, as her clear, unaffected singing suits these clickity drum machines and shiny keyboards and breathy overdubs. The vocal arrangements on Reputation startle, especially when she sings over herself (“New Year’s Day”) or whispers a chorus you’d expect her to belt (“Dress”); the resulting hushed sense of intimacy is unexpectedly moving.
For better or worse, Swift grew up as her fans did — starting in adolescence and moving onward from there, her career has modeled the maturation of one young woman assumed to be a composite, standing in for her whole fanbase. The former girl next door is now a confident, self-assured twentysomething. For the twentysomething to still fixate obsessively on schoolgirl crushes suggests the congealing of formula, and I wish she were more politically aware. Nonetheless, the irrepressible exuberance of these songs rebukes conventional notions of adulthood, and throughout the album, the twentysomething beautifully sketches the contours of an adult relationship. Over buzzing hooks and bubbling synthesizers, murmurs and exclamations and empty space, she sings her life and desire.
Reputation peaks with two quiet, burbling electroballads: “Call It What You Want”, in which having a healthy, comforting relationship with her partner is also an act of defiance against the outside world (“I did one thing right”); and “Delicate,” a heroic enactment of what it means to ask for consent (“Is it cool that I said all that? Is it too soon to do this yet?”). The faster and hookier tracks amuse too. When she sighs “I once was poison ivy but now I’m your daisyyyyyyyyyyy” on “Don’t Blame Me,” in her highest and most self-delighted register, she compresses into two seconds my entire taste in music.
Portugal the Man: Woodstock (Atlantic)
By virtue of sheer longevity and persistence, the Alaskan indie band Portugal the Man has come to define a particular strain of popular alternative rock: queasy glistening guitars, woozy electronic textures, and crooning white-soul vocals equal psychedelia as reconstructed by students of indie obscurantism. On their eighth album, they clean up the previously gnarled song structures, streamline the sound, and write a few hummable tunes.
Alternative rock bands do sometimes score hits, and this album has indeed achieved a certain degree of commercial success, but that doesn’t make it a pop move per se — more like a funk move, with thick bass parts and serrated, syncopated rhythm guitar figures underlining the higher, squelchier synthesizers.
Whether the end result resembles funk hardly matters; fluid rhythms and strong riffs enliven what might otherwise dissolve into a flighty ineffectual puddle. Electronic squeals imitating voices and a synthesizer riff doubled on guitar adorn the rigid yet slithery “Easy Tiger,” while “Live in the Moment” blasts forth with splendid confidence thanks to chugging bass, a smashing organ effect, and one of the band’s more rousing singalong choruses.
Occasionally they’ll try a big political statement; I won’t quote the French bit on “Noise Pollution” except to request that bands refrain from rhyming “Je suis Charlie” with “Can’t you see I’m feeling magnifique” in the future. But lighthearted psych-funk exercises dominate, breezing by with admirable frivolity. In fact, the album comes so tantalizingly close to aesthetic directness that it reveals the totality of the band’s commitment to mannerism.
Even when aiming for catchiness, they can’t stop fussing; they’re always straining to make a song more convoluted and finicky. It’s a malady typified by “Feel It Still,” the radio hit: sly bass, eerie bursts of horn, and a playful, descending guitar loop attach to a melody that would be sublime if John Gourley sang it an octave or two lower, in his natural register, rather than affecting a breathy falsetto in an awkward attempt at arch cool.
Pleasant as Portugal the Man may be, they tie themselves in too many formalist knots. Should radio success inspire them, I can imagine further simplifications doing them well.