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Sharing a languid sensibility, three of the four albums below demonstrate a willingness to wallow in sound and mood. The exception is Sleater-Kinney, whose sonic immersion stems, rather, from a sense of existential terror. When the world encroaches, aural blankets are comforting, but they can also function as weapons.
Sleater-Kinney: The Center Won’t Hold (Mom+Pop, 2019)
On their second album since their reunion, with production by St. Vincent, Sleater-Kinney have embarked on their most startling sonic departure ever, augmenting their tight, noisy punk with fizzy electronics and rumbling found sounds. Alarmed, urgent, strained, and exhausted from striving, the album finds the punk veterans on their toes.
This album is so skewed, so different, it reveals the consistency of their previous records. Although their previous eight albums vary in many ways, their streamlined, explosive sound is so dependably uniform it seemed they could have continued in that vein forever, especially given that their previous album — and first in ten years — No Cities to Love, further condensed that sound to its raw essence. This album is a harsher, more challenging listen, rather than another loud, straightforward punk album.
St. Vincent’s production is crucial, but these songs don’t resemble her brand of warped pop-rock, or any variety of pop. The synthesizers play like jagged sheets of metal, slicing and disrupting their guitar riffs, and the riffs themselves clank and creak, like large, rusty industrial machines casting spooky, distorted shadows. There’s an ominous, dissonant crackle in the background that never disappears, and sometimes swells up as if to drown out a song completely. Where the noise in a Sleater-Kinney song is usually joyful, a controlled eruption of energy that ultimately cleanses and affirms, here it’s a threatening outside force, like storm clouds rolling in.
This is a strained album, often awkward, even desperate, but the sense of being jolted into a scary alien landscape suits a batch of songs about things falling apart, systems collapsing, boundaries breaking down, the need for personal connection and solidarity in the midst of chaos. They pronounce the album’s message on “Reach Out” when Corin Tucker sings, “Reach out and touch me/I’m stuck on the edge/reach out, the darkness is winning again” over warm, wavering guitar sizzle, and on “The Future Is Here,” when she croons the album’s sweetest, most mournful melody, declaring, “I need you more than I ever have/because the future’s here and we can’t go back.”
Times are tough when even Sleater-Kinney sound shaken. By drenching their sound in static, they’ve made their most fraught, emotionally wrenching album.
Lana Del Rey: Norman Fucking Rockwell (Polydor/Interscope)
Lana Del Rey has invented her own genre of syncretic kitsch, in which icons of glamour from America’s past half-century are contemplated and mocked in a voice that collapses countless distinct diva poses into a slurred, throaty drawl. This album is her California soft-rock jewel, a decadent dive into the sunbaked sounds and elaborate legends of Laurel Canyon.
Lana’s music has gradually become slower, quieter, and less electronic over the years, with more open space and room for echo, and here she wholeheartedly embraces a bygone mode of acoustic warmth. These songs stretch out with a languid theatricality, conjuring a sweeping romantic feel through sparsely arranged guitars and keyboards, and muted strings and horns, as she assumes her smokiest, most honey-coated voice. The guitar strumming has a rosy glow, and the parlor piano shares a gilded, wooden stiffness with early ’70s soft rock.
By invoking past modes of glamour through the lens of contemporary pop music, and thus creating a sort of fraught, ironic old-soul persona, a lonely romantic born out of time, she reflects Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry, and this album reminds me of Roxy’s Siren in particular: both albums move away from the textual disruption of previous work toward the critically respectable singer-songwriter genre and a newfound reverence for Americana, or, in her case, Californiana. Where Lana’s earlier albums, especially Ultraviolence (2014), were sung from the perspectives of multiple distinct character-archetypes, so that the songs contradicted each other when played in sequence, Norman Fucking Rockwell stars the same California dreamer throughout, writing her most emotionally direct songs ever.
She excels at this mode, and many of these songs twinge the heartstrings with an affected pathos she’s rarely approached — especially “Fuck It I Love You,” half exclaimed and half mumbled over thin, hypnotic, trembling keyboards, and “Love Song,” whose orchestral flutters suit her melody’s wounded grandeur.
The LA troubadour’s neatly structured song-craft and knowing, wistful allure also suit her. Her affectations heighten the emotion. She floats, sighing and cooing, rather enjoying her melancholy.
Bill Callahan: Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest (Drag City)
Whether he performs as Smog or under his own name, Bill Callahan’s many half-sung, half-spoken acoustic albums have a tendency to natter, blurring together into the same endless, grave, one-sided conversation. Uncharacteristically breezy, cheerful, and long (20 songs!), this one stands out as it catches the dour singer-songwriter in a contented, bemused, and lovely mood.
These songs wander, disinclined to repeat, melodic but not exactly catchy. Over quiet, burbling, sunbaked guitar arpeggios, he recites gnostic puzzles and surreal rustic parables in a deep, gentle monotone. His voice and delivery amuse, as his plain, masculine deadpan allows him to mock his own presence as a vocalist and the weird phrases coming out of his mouth, lending the words a welcome strangeness; it’s marvelous to hear him utter bits of turned folk wisdom like “A circle does what a circle does best” and “The past never gave me anything but the blues,” as if these are familiar American idioms.
The warm, sparse guitar plucking and pedal steel blush complement his mystic stolidity; the chord progressions move with the placidity of trickling streams and shine like dew on leaves in the morning sun (“Writing” sounds like the pastoral scene in a 19th-century opera).
Supposedly, this album is Callahan’s tribute to the joys and responsibilities of marriage, a calm, gratified affirmation of his settled adult life, which means he belongs to a contemporary pop tradition — for some reason, 2019 has abounded with long double albums commemorating monogamy and an artist’s settling down, from Chance the Rapper to Vampire Weekend. (The albums have to be twice as long because the life change is so monumental.) In this context, Callahan’s inscrutability serves him well, as his knotted confessions and twists of phrase are so private that they establish an easy intimacy, the appropriate mood for music that celebrates domesticity.
Perhaps because he writes in his own arch poetic register, he presents his dawning of the light as a personal development, not a rite of passage that awaits all men; he may have wandered into this lovely pastoral space, as the leisurely drift of the music implies, but he could just as easily wander out again. It’s this fragility that delights.
This album percolates and glows, basking in a honeymoon’s ephemerality. Its relaxed but persistent pace is captured in “Ballad of the Hulk” when, before launching into the song proper, he announces, “After this next song, we’ll be moving along.”
Angel Olsen: All Mirrors (Jagjaguwar)
Although she started out quiet and flickery, each Angel Olsen album has sounded louder and bigger, moving from raw lo-fi crackle to fraught electric folk to an imagined strain of retro ’60s country music. Here, she finally crams too many instruments into the same space, and they all burst forth and make a mess.
This is one of two renditions of the same album — there’s allegedly a bare-bones version she has yet to release. By contrast, the version reviewed here was recorded with a 12-piece orchestra that beefs up Olsen’s jangly folk-rock sound and inserts fruity textural filigrees wherever possible.
These songs are both grand and blurry; aiming for anthemic kick and romantic catharsis, she’s written giant choruses designed for breathless belting, which she does. Meanwhile, the layered guitars and strings and the watery electronics bleed into each other, creating a haze that she can’t quite yell through or stomp around.
On the opening “Lark” she murmurs the first verse over fluttering violins; then the beat drops and she wails the second verse as the drums thud and the strings screech queasily. The dynamics continue to jerk up and down, soft to loud, every which way, for another four minutes, and that’s how the rest of the album sounds, too. Synthesizers occasionally emerge as grounding devices, as when the buzzy keyboards in “New Love Cassette” pulse with reassuring regularity, but even then the steady beat has been subsumed by orchestral clouds and Olsen’s spiraling falsetto.
I associate this clunky production approach with collaborator John Congleton, who contributed a similarly topheavy density to Sharon Van Etten’s Remind Me Tomorrow. This album only perks up on the lighter, sparser “Spring,” a dizzy, infatuated ballad with a tropicalia melody, on which strummed guitars and sparkling keyboards entwine to conjure a crisp daze.
By filling in musical blank spaces, Olsen obscures her songs. It’s hard to tell what they’re about. She needs room to breathe, and she doesn’t find it.