Happy Thanksgiving! Here are four albums that reflect and respond to the dire state of the union.
Superchunk: What a Time to Be Alive (Merge)
The legendary Chapel Hill indie-punk band’s third album since reuniting at the start of the decade fits their general noisy, speedy mold, but not since the early ‘90s, if ever, have they recorded an album so short, compressed, and explosive. Embracing an overtly political mode out of desperation or resignation, they rock frantically.
Supposedly, this is the protest album we’ve been waiting for since the 2016 election, the concentrated blast of punk rage to obliterate all your anxieties and enemies beneath distorted guitars, martial drumming, and rousing choruses, an explicit musical condemnation of the dystopia the president hath wrought. But the sunny melodic uplift, counterposed strategically against their furious electric rush, aims for conventional catharsis and hence plays as a comforting device, especially for fans who expect unkempt crackle from their power anthems.
The critical longing for political anger channels a displaced desire to hear Trump vanquished in song, which can’t happen; the triumph would ring hollow, and the disappointment of returning to the real world after the record’s over would crush. An effective punk protest album in 2018 must somehow acknowledge its own limitations, the futility of representation, and the snowballing impotence of the alternative rock subculture, and that’s what this album does.
“Reagan Youth,” which extols the ‘80s punk band of that name before concluding “Now we know the truth/there was more than one Reagan youth,” captures their dilemma. These are songs about the collapse of idealism above all. How deluded they and their generation were, they belatedly realize, to think alternative rock was going to save the world (“Too late we find our feet”), and the admission of failure also counteracts it — metaphorically, in song only, but bracingly.
The fuzzy, clanging, nevertheless streamlined guitar roar, bursting forth with trebly riffs and solos and rhythmic slams between verses, resonates with a yowling clarity, while Jon Wurster’s drums throb with an agile speed that implies a light touch. Mac McCaughan sings the warm, simple tunes with a deceptively cheerful grin beaten down by experience, the perfect voice for these anthems of coping despite it all.
This album’s familiar sound and rousing emotion function as formal comforts rather than formal challenges, but we need comforts in these times. “Everyone is acting normal/but no one’s sleeping through the night,” declares McCaughan, strangely reassured by the peculiar feeling of recognizing a communal misery as his own.
Noname: Room 25 (Bandcamp)
Noname is the friendliest of the new Chicago soul-jazz rappers, exclaiming and murmuring her intricate rhymes over music whose organic flow effortlessly carries her. On her second self-released album, she cultivates a thoughtful, buoyant interiority.
Even compared to most neosoul, this album makes excellent background music, as Noname and producer-collaborator Phoelix bring together a relaxed, layered live band whose velvety strings, bubbling keyboards, and bent guitar chords flicker. Closer attention reveals a style of soft, careful rapping so assuredly cheerful that her rapid rhythmic bursts and tempo shifts sound like colloquial speech. Mild harmonic dissonances enhance and respond to her verses in unassuming ways, and there’s a lean, driven energy to both her voice and the band that ensures elegant, nimble motion.
Like so much recent Chicago hip-hop and R&B (minus the cloying juvenilia), her trick is to evoke the specifics of daily life — quotidian anxiety, relationship trouble, relationship bliss, police violence, money struggles, worrying about her career, casual moments of fun, and so on — in a blithe, magically easygoing mood that couldn’t possibly reflect her lived experience of the world, or for that matter anyone else’s, so spiritually peaceful it’s almost surreal. Thus does she depict an internal resilience that comes into being through the act of aspiration.
“Blaxploitation” hops around over a plucked, bouncy bassline seemingly designed for her fastest, sprightliest syllabic chatter, while “Prayer Song” assembles brushed cymbals, amassed vocal sighs, and ascending watery burbles into a shimmering electronic tapestry. “Regal,” whose core keyboard hook matches the delight in her voice, gradually builds up a delicate compendium of countless instruments swaying and fluttering in the breeze — airy flutes, keyboards, seagulls, synthesized clicks and squeals, possibly a harp. It’s her brightest moment of contained joy.
Noname’s gentle songs of common sense and the uplift of quiet places suggest the pleasure she takes in constructing cheer, a rare gift. The album glows from beginning to end.
Blood Orange: Negro Swan (Domino)
Over the past few years, Dev Hynes has established himself as an indie go-to producer, with an extensive list of experimental pop-R&B credits. For his own music he reserves the weirder stuff, stretching out into atmospheric ponds of electrosoul and pleasant repositories of gloopy texture.
Hynes’s albums exhibit the strangest relationship of parts to whole in alternative R&B. As on the largely similar Freetown Sound (2016), individual songs blossom when you pay close attention to them, like the percussive funk rhythm guitar noodling over the drum machine’s steady clack on “Charcoal Baby,” or the warmly radiant “Saint,” in which a flushed confluence of keyboards and murmured horns gives way to a relaxed, shifty beat and Hynes’s aching voice, just like the previous album’s “Augustine” and “Desiree.”
But these albums don’t consist of individual songs; here as before, the musical tracks are embedded between quieter, more hypnotic textural pieces and spoken-word interludes by Janet Mock and Puff Daddy, who solemnly explain Hynes’s philosophy of life and how he intends listeners should interpret his music. If these are to be believed, the quivering fragility of this music reflects a sociopolitical anxiety alleviated by immersion in trickling keyboard effects, flute ripples, the soothing qualities of raw sound. The array of cooing, grunting, echoing voices behind him — sometimes his own, sometimes a chorus of guests — simulate a supportive aural community that buoys him, cheers him up, overwhelms and subsumes his own presence as a singer.
If the album’s composed macrostructure had foregrounded the sharpest hooks and most savory sonic details, it would astound and calm. Instead, the squelchy bits dominate; somehow all the gushy sighs and oozing synthesizers dissolve, and the general background effect is that of a flailing, gooey formlessness. Extracting the distinct songs from this mixture takes time.
This album collects a large number of lovely sounds and even melodies, but the ambience of the whole obscures them. Sometimes escaping into aural sensation invites the temptation to never leave.
Tune-Yards: I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life (4AD)
For a decade now, Merrill Garbus has written complex songs about political inequalities and human relationships, performed in a jumbled lo-fi collage style whose rickety acoustic core shares space with found sounds and electronic splashes. On each album, her music has become harsher and more disjointed, as the songs gradually become less songlike and more fragmentary. Here, they finally shatter.
Lyrically, what distinguishes this album is a particular focus on racial injustice, perhaps prompted by unease about her own role as a white woman splicing elements of foreign and especially African music into her own shambolic bricolage. In song after song, she interrogates herself, criticizes her own artistic project, apologizes for her artistic project, ponders the paradoxes of her artistic project, and by extension race relations in America. Critical dismissal was inevitable, n as was the counterargument that it’s unfair to dismiss those few white artists who dare acknowledge their complicity in racism and try to make art that confronts and unpacks such paradoxes, however clumsily.
I only wish the album were intelligible enough to address these ostensible themes, or at least construct a convincingly chaotic, syncretic soundscape. Garbus has always loved lo-fi fragility for the way its patchiness can make listeners uncomfortable — her erratic juxtapositions evoke a sonic backwater whose ingredients fail to click together and are more interesting that way — and here she goes overboard with this approach. The album simply sounds unfinished. The opening “Heart Attack” jitters over a rattling tapestry of interlocking rhythms, a cluster synth drums banging against each other and making a racket, while the keyboards and strings remain calm; things unravel from there.
Largely dependent on the high, linear plinking of electronic bass, this music is thinner and more static. Whether she’s arranging looped vocal samples, pitched percussive tinkle, or conventionally melodic piano chords, the fragments stand immobile, straining for an inert complexity. The lyrics consist of ever shorter aphorisms, obscure turns of phrase, simple contradictions; half the songs repeat the same minimally varied lines, as if to slam the point home. But only her most elementary ironies (“I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of travels with African men”, etc) carry political resonance.
Garbus makes messy music for a messy world, but this album’s sporadic bursts and empty stretches mirror her self-doubt too exactly. Her next album will no doubt sound different; this direction has reached a dead end.