Feist – Pleasure

Okay, so, this one’s a fortnight behind schedule because of university work. I say this because yes, I am aware that there’s a new At The Drive In album out now and Pleasure probably wouldn’t be the most interesting album to talk about even if it wasn’t a few weeks old. At the same time, though, Pleasure is a really nice little album by a musician who, for me at least, has always appealed precisely through her mastery of unobtrusive, envelope-gilding (rather than envelope-pushing), politely intelligent albums, and it’d be remiss not to give it a bit of attention. So yeah, to clarify, I do recommend Pleasure. Buy it if you’re into indie-folk, try it if you’re not.

Compared to 2011’s Metals, Pleasure has a few more teeth bared. The riffs on the title track and “Any Party” and “Century” don’t snarl, exactly, but they do hiss and spit. At the same time, this never really thickens the broth (á la Bringing It All Back Home-era Bob Dylan); the song structure is very much designed to emphasize the spaces, not the crashes. Each moment of loudness is strung together by thin, nervy quiet, like a sudden blaring in a twitching seismograph. As Lisa Simpson put it best, “You have to listen to the notes she’s not playing.” Myself, I’m into Fugazi, so I’d normally slam this approach for killing the momentum, but Feist makes it work well. Part of it is that the riffier moments are genuinely pretty gorgeous in their own right; the chortling crawl of “Any Party” sounds almost Hendrixian and is definitely a strong point. The hurricane of scraping riffs and martial drums (and Jarvis Cocker’s… interesting narration) that concludes “Century” is another. Another part of it is that Feist’s tonal palette just turns out to be naturally geared to his sort of stuff. The coarse, thistly bite of her acoustic playing shifts fairly seamlessly into raucous-folk punk even when the change is tackled as a hairpin bend. Her voice – which has always had an intrinsically nice sound to it – helps out as well: it’s pure but in a grainy, unfiltered way, like spring water drunk straight out of the ground. Structurally, the album juggles its light and its heavy as well too, especially in terms of how vocal and instrumental melodies interact: confessions are made through loose, almost despondent strumming, which stumbles along with the vocal line as like a pebble being idly kicked along by a pedestrian. On “Lost Dreams” it’s compelling. On “Baby Be Simple,” it’s outright heartbreaking.

At the same time, what’s doubly impressive about Pleasure is how often it manages to twist up the formula in terms of what a “climax” is actually supposed to sound like. Given that the heavy moments are often more spasmodic outbursts than structured crest-and-troughs, the song has to remind us of its forward direction by other means. “Lost Dreams” layers on production noises to thicken up the atmosphere, but the real final act of the song is marked instead by a fog-dimmed chiming (which I’m guessing is the work of some sort of ghostly-sounding mutation of the piano) which doesn’t up the energy but sure as hell ups the tension. The twitching stumble of “Get Not High, Get Not Low” feels throughout the track like it’s caging in some straight-up, back-beating, rickety folk groove, and while that groove is never so melodramatic as to spread its wings when it releases, it certainly gets to take flight. “Baby Be Simple” concludes with something that sounds like a Theremin.

The album’s main flaws are nitpicks, and while there are maybe enough nits here to hold Pleasure back from being as satisfying as Metals, it’s certainly refreshing that that’s what criticizing the album comes down to. The title track doesn’t quite work, for one; it uses its weight as a licence to experiment with atonality, which really isn’t what I wanted from what is still fundamentally a pretty album. Although I’m kind of cheered by the Mastodon reference at the end of “A Man Is Not His Song” (which concludes with the opening of “High Road,”) I feel like that might have entertained Feist (who did a cross-over cover with Mastodon a little while back – her indie-folk reimagining of “Black Tongue” turned out pretty fun by the way) a little more than it entertains us. Still, Pleasures is a tender, imaginative, tightly-made impression of something loosely-made, and one of the better albums to come out this year so far.

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN

If Emperor of Sand was the album, out of all the albums I’ve reviewed, that I’d staked the most emotional weight on, DAMN is the one with the biggest shoes to fill. I mean hell, Kendrick Lamar’s table scraps made it onto my top ten last year; the last time he actually released a full length album it was so good I started a music blog just because I needed an excuse to tell everyone how great it is. It’s a shame, because DAMN is one of the best hip hop albums of the decade so far, and yet it’s still quite difficult to strike a particularly positive tone while describing, because Christ, of all the albums it had to be a position to be compared to, it had to be To Pimp a Butterfly.

Here’s the thing: DAMN isn’t just “great, but bad in comparison to To Pimp a Butterfly.” Even compared to To Pimp a Butterfly it’s good; the problem is that the things that make DAMN come up third to both of Kendrick’s past full lengths are shortcomings in imagination, not in execution. The result of that is that a lot of what’s great about the album are things we already know Kendrick does really, really well. Are the rhymes on DAMN T.S Eliot-level complex and delivered with the pace and fury of a John Coltrane sax solo? You bet your bottom dollar. Is the political commentary a masterful blend of insightful, heartbreaking and bleakly funny? Well, Kendrick legitimately samples white radio hosts dissing To Pimp a Butterfly for corrupting black youth, so yeah, give that box a tick too. Is Kendrick’s voice still an appealingly distinctive high nasal rasp? Yes, he remains the witty precise scalpel to Chuck D’s cudgel.

The weird thing about DAMN, though, is that it’s hard to say whether this is Lamar’s most or least mainstream release. Whereas To Pimp a Butterfly rushed headlong through genres and sprawled out through trailing melodic lines and spoken-word rambling, DAMN establishes a beat, thickens it up with samples, and gets Lamar rapping over the top. You’re less likely, as a result, to find anything in DAMN difficult to digest (unless you’re a white American who didn’t vote Trump but definitely feels like he wouldn’t have won if the left had stopped focussing on identity politics and had just stood up for the poor white worker), and the whole thing thus goes down a lot smoother. The flip side, though, is that there’s a lot less in DAMN that grabs your attention, and that means you really need to work to get the most out of it: the gorgeously thrumming bassline of “ELEMENT,” the subtler political notes of “HUMBLE,” the desolation at the climax of “FEAR,” are all things it takes a few listens to get to. Four songs in and To Pimp a Butterfly had reinterpreted p-funk, jazz, r&B and Kid-A-era Radiohead as hip-hop, and done the whole thing with stark, hypnotic bombast. By contrast, you could get to the end of DAMN and remember pretty any part of it as “that song with the dreamy soundscapes and the awesome rapping,” “that aggro song with the stompy bass parts” or “HUMBLE.” Once you realize that each of those songs are telling a different and individually worthwhile story, of course, you don’t begrudge that, but still, this is the first time Lamar’s expected us to put in that kind of legwork.

Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Taking DAMN’s stripped down approach as something totally unrelated to its overall quality, it still marks it as stylistically quite distinct from Lamar’s other work, and is probably better compared to the works of The Pharcyde or The Roots or Aesop Rock: still lush and jazzy, but with a definite groove at the heart. Evaluated on those terms, DAMN comes close to outshining the fucking sun. The ponderous, abyssal gloom of the chorus of “XXX” would be an enthralling contrast even with the shrieking melodrama of its bridge; the fact that it can share an album with the languid ghost-blues of “PRIDE” or the elegance of “LOVE” and still feel coherent is a miracle. The only track I can confidently say I’m not wild about is “LOYALTY,” which has to bear the burden of a perpetually-anticlimactic half-chorus, but to be honest, I’m at the stage where my criticism of an album is “oh yeah there’s this one song that doesn’t work,” you can be pretty confident that I’m recommending it as a whole.

And I am recommending it as a whole. As a hardcore Kendrick Lamar fan I’m always happy to geek out over the various problems that come to light if you try to slot it into Lamar’s discography, but that’s all academic. At the time DAMN was released I was convinced that Kendrick will probably be the name most positively associated with the 2010s in music, and by the time I got to the (chilling) conclusion of “DUCKWORTH,” I was more confident of that, not less. Check it out.

The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions

(Yeah, I know, I’ll get to Kendrick next week)

Hands up here: I actually only got into The New Pornographers about a month ago. Back in my eager-to-please teenage years I confess I was a bit too easily swayed by band names and probably turned down a few good bands because I didn’t fancy having to awkwardly explain to people what I was listening to, and it’s taken me until my 20s to correct this (see also: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Love, and Modern Life is War). This means the only New Pornographers record I’m familiar with is Mass Romantic, which is, to put it lightly, one of the catchiest pop-rock records ever written if not THE catchiest, and thus sets the bar pretty high. Whiteout Conditions is a pretty good album that I had fun with and would come away recommending, but no, it’s not as good as Mass Romantic. Is that a fair, professional comparison to make? No. Am I being paid to write this blog? Once again, no.

Whiteout Conditions is an appropriate name. Immediately we get a slightly polar vibe: the harmonics of “Play Money,” punctuating the flurries of New Wave-smooth guitars and synths feel like a lighthouse blinking in a blizzard. The title track is full of skittering melodic lines for the instruments, but the smooth, soaring panorama made by the vocal lines feels like the kind of thing you would play over an aerial shot of tundra or mountains on a David Attenborough documentary. It’s a smooth, shimmery album, which compares to Mass Romantic in the same way Power Windows compares to Moving Pictures, or Born in the USA compares to The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. I’ve always felt that doing that is slightly more of a risk than it’s often given credit for – if you take a pretty direct approach to songwriting, a good bit of earthy grit can be the difference between invigoratingly direct and totally milquetoast – and it’s a mixed bag here, with its various drawbacks colliding with the natural pros of the New Pornographers’ songwriting quirks and kind of neutralizing both into the realm of “basically pretty alright.” On the one hand, the New Pornographers’ naturally shambolic, flung-together approach carries through whether or not guitars or synths are the order of the day. Off-kilter vocal lines are still stitched together into surprisingly gorgeous harmonies, and instrumental lines still swing pendulously around each other, as though held together with slack string rather than glue. All that turns out to be vital, because it prevents Mass Romantic from sounding sterile or clinical. It’s still organic and unpredictable. On the other hand, it’s harder than it should be to enjoy the rollicking charm because soaring synths are big and obliterating sounding things, and have a tendency to drown out things that don’t march precisely in lockstep with them. Shimmer and synth, in other words, present problems that the New Pornographers are adept at overcoming, but aren’t otherwise a particularly natural companion for the band’s music. Although the melodies are pretty enough when they come, they’re not catchy in the same way they were on Mass Romantic because they always have to fight for breathing space against the ambiance.

Fortunately, although the album’s sonic vastness makes it difficult for the melodies to really hit home, they’re still pretty enough to watch even if you do have to do it through glass, which is why although Whiteout Conditions isn’t exactly memorable, it definitely isn’t boring. At any given moment on Whiteout Conditions you’ll be hearing piano arpeggios set against broad parachutes of drifting background ambienece, all foregrounded by layers of synth gliding up and down, sometimes given a bit of heft by the grinding ooze of guitars (see “Juke”). Lyrics are also a strongpoint, not because they’re particularly enlightening but because the New Pornographers have always understood that you could do a lot for a song by making your most anthemic chorus line your quirkiest lyric: Clockwise’s references to “the valley of the lead singers,” is charmingly absurd.

Whiteout Conditions is an album which refreshes but doesn’t quite satisfy overall. Fans of Krautrock will probably appreciate the New Pornographers’ idiosyncratic take on the genre, while hardcore fans of the band will probably find enough of their good qualities carry through to make Whitout Conditions worth their time. Call this one “casually recommended.” Don’t go travelling to visit it, but if you’re in the neighbourhood, sure, stop by.

Mastodon – Emperor of Sand

Folks who know me in the flesh will have heard me say a few times that I’m a fan of stories that don’t have happy endings, but see characters find the happiness in a sad ending: your Hunchback of Notre Dames, your Babadooks, your… well, pretty much any good Pixar film. Emperor of Sand feels like one of those. I don’t think I’ve ever had as much skin in the game as a critic than I do here: Emperor of Sand is not just a release by a band I’m an unapologetic fanboy of, it’s also a release by a band which, after flouting pretty much every rule of thumb by which you can make broad statements about heavy metal music, has been increasingly turning towards a stadium rock sound – and, as we saw in 2014’s fine-but-resoundingly-disappointing Once More Round the Sun, suffering because of it. Was Emperor of Sand going to see Mastodon return to form as metal’s genre-defying unstoppable mystics, or was it going to see them continue to water themselves down? Well… the story has a sad ending. But Emperor of Sand is a great album.

It was easy, given that Once More… was both Mastodon’s poppiest and weakest album, to overlook the fact that Once More… had flaws that had nothing to do with being pop. It placed way too much emphasis on vocal hooks for a band that had always been much stronger as instrumentalists than as singers, it veered a few times from self-aware into straight up self-parody (“Hey, ho, let’s fucking go…”) and save for the chorus of “Motherload” and the lyric “I want to hunt you/ let’s fight” it contributed pretty much nothing memorable (I still couldn’t hum you the riffs of half the tracks). Emperor of Sand certainly sounds more like Once More… than it does like any other Mastodon album. There’s nothing as janky as “Capillarian Crest” or as sprawling as “The Last Baron”; the most common models for songs are either rollicking cathartic shuffles in the vein of “High Road” (see “Sultan’s Curse”) or sinuous hard-rock grooves in the vein of “Halloween” (see “Show Yourself”, “Clandestiny”, “Precious Stones”). Vocal melodies are still primarily clean, and form important parts of choruses and climaxes. Bran Dailor brings some spectacular fills to the floor, but the grooves that the riffs ride are definitely stallions, not centipedes. It’s a stadium rock album: a little harder and more jagged than most, but still a stadium rock album.

The difference, though, is that this time Mastodon know what they’re doing. Although vocals are still important to the music, the interplay between guitarist and vocal melodies is much more significant this time around: the exhilaration of the choruses is what carries the singer, not what the singer has to carry. The weedy vocals (of either Troy or Brann – they’re increasingly hard to tell apart) of the chorus of “Steambreather” would have been crushingly dull if played over a backing groove, but when set to stabbing lead guitar chords, the weediness becomes a strength: the vocal line sounds swept up in the music, like words whipped away by the wind (which is, incidentally, one of old-Mastodon’s greatest strokes of genius – don’t tell me that Brent Hinds’ tone-deaf shrieks of “I can’t stand! I can’t breathe!” on “Hearts Alive” didn’t sound like a man being killed by a whale when there’s a Moby-Dick heavy riff in the background). The emotional and atmospheric tone varies and is consistently fresh: “Steambreather” is as eerie and ominous as “Andromeda” is anguished; “Word to the Wise” is as desperate as “Scorpion Breath” is cathartic. It’s the sound of a band that has learned how to incorporate its old strengths into its new sound. Yes, the tactics are more blunt-force and less unpredictable than they were in the past, but the core Mastodon emotional tone – arcane, mystic, primal but not masculine, aware that they are telling a story rather than imparting a universal truth but sincere in their telling of it – is still achieved. The appropriately named “Roots Remain” shows this best: Brent Hinds wrote the riffs in the spirit of uncomplicated pounding, but when he realized the song needed an emotional centre, the solo he played to provide it is unquestionably the work of the same virtuoso who, on “The Tsar,” taught a generation that shredding can be soulful.

It’s looking more and more likely that Mastodon’s days as luminaries are behind them. Emperor of Sand is a direct pop-metal album; cathartic and fun, and in places touching, but definitely not engrossing in the way Mastodon’s best are. To those of you who, like me, were hoping that this would end with Mastodon’s return to alt-metal darling status, then listening to Emperor of Sand is going to be like seeing how healthy and functional and happy your ex’s new relationship is. Mastodon and stadium rock are getting along far too well now for them to be likely to split any time soon. They’re good together. My advice? Buy a copy of Emperor of Sand and enjoy how cute a couple they make. It’s not the happy ending we might have wanted, but hey – we’re still going to get good albums.

The Jesus and Mary Chain – Damage and Joy

Christ, I’m getting kind of sick of good albums.

That isn’t meant to be a compliment, you understand. It’s times like this I wonder how intrinsically different my write-ups would be if I was a film critic. I mean if I were reviewing Logan I could, I suppose, make the case that it’s somewhat repetitive for James Mangold to take a comic book character as uncouth as a Black Sabbath riff and as foulmouthed as a Black Flag lyric and make him into the kind of guy who’s better set to Johnny Cash, but at least I’d be able to talk a bit about how the plot was somewhat different. Whereas with music, once you basically have a grasp of how to structure a song, and once you get good enough with your guitar textures that you’re not exactly sounding generic, it’s entirely possible to release albums which, although being completely passion-less and forgettable, are nonetheless really difficult to write unpleasant things about because I mean hey, they don’t exactly do much wrong. Is Damage and Joy good? Yes; it’s well made and decently unique. Does it really offer anything that can justify a recommendation? No, not really. And see, if this were a film, it’d probably be akin to Knowing or Surrogates: perfectly well-structured and enjoyable pieces that I’d not really encourage you to run out and see but I’d recommend if you were a fan of that kind of thing because hey, you might as well know the twists. Whereas if my review of Damage and Joy below appeals to you, honestly, you wouldn’t miss much by skipping it and putting on Doolittle or Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots or Songs for the Deaf instead.

Damage and Joy is at its best when it gets its muscle on. Album opener “Amputation” is a strongpoint: a chugging, stuttering riff kind of like a slow-mo version of “Whole Lotta Love,” that breaks into a dreamy, slightly TV on the Radio-esque verse. “Get on Home” and “Facing Up to the Facts” work on the same principle. It’s the ol’ Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins effect: sunny melodies played through pendulous, sluggish guitars, a cross between Pet Sounds and Dopesmoker. The album’s at its most enjoyable when it just embraces that – “Get On Home,” in particular, isn’t aiming for anything particularly transcendent but builds guitar-feedback, whooshing synth noises and Joey-Santiago-esque riff plowing into a vigorous sounding sonic cudgel. Joey Santiago is generally a useful reference point for this album, to be honest, because one of the more distinctive things that Damage and Joy does is pretty consistently rip-off the Pixies. I mean granted, pretty much every alt-rock band after the Pixies rip off the Pixies to some extent, but Christ it’s blatant here sometimes:  “Always Sad” could slot onto Trompe le Monde or Bossanova more or less seamlessly.

Although I’ve got to mark Damage and Joy down overall for being repetitive – pretty much every song after “Amputation” that works works in the same way as “Amputation” and not quite as well – each song individually does have a nice sense of direction, which is why while the album as a whole doesn’t exactly stand out it isn’t really boring to listen to. In fact if there was a moment on the album which pretty much perfectly sums up everything simultaneously satisfying and underwhelming about it as a whole, it would be track two, “War on Peace.” It’s a fairly standard Flaming Lips-esque soft-alt number, and it gets props for having a note of genuine danger to it: behind the woozy smog of the ambience, jagged, fragile guitar riffs slide over each other. At the end of the song, appropriately for a band as indebted to the Pixies as this, climax is achieved through volume: a sluggish, downtuned riff surfaces out of the miasma. All in all it’s well executed, but we hear the riff another five times over the course of the album, and I’m left wondering where those interesting guitars from earlier in the song were going. A band that recognises that tension is only useful when you’re building to something is a band that knows what it’s doing, but a band that was here to make a statement would’ve made the payoff for the tension something suitable for the manner of tension we got. “Los Felis,” with its playfully ironic “God Bless America” chorus is about as close as we get to personality on this album, and it’s fun but not enough.

Eh, at the end of the day Damage and Joy isn’t a bad album but my problem with it is that I’m not exactly sure who I’m helping by saying so. I don’t really know who would come away with their lives notably enriched by this, save for hardcore Jesus and Mary Chain fans or else people who once loved Doolittle and Siamese Dream but have by now listened to them ad nauseum. If you’re either of those, then I’ve got good news: Jesus and Mary Chain know what they’re doing, and they’ve done a decent job here. But after this year has now seen Cloud Nothings, Menzingers, Spoon and now the Jesus and Mary Chain all give me albums that I couldn’t really fault but also didn’t really find myself coming back to after I reviewed, I’m just kind of begging for something a little more auteur. Even if it doesn’t work. Even if it’s deeply flawed. Something with some risks and some passion that is only as much a masterpiece in as much as it avoids being a total fascinating disaster.

mastodon-emperor-of-sand

 

😀

Spoon – Hot Thoughts

So maybe it’s just been the case that 2016 was an easy act to follow; nonetheless, am I the only one feeling that 2017’s been pretty awesome so far? Losing Chuck Berry was a blow, aye, and Steve Bannon turning out to be less a troll than a Sith Lord has been pretty grim. But I mean anyone see Get Out? Lego Batman? Logan? Anyone follow the Dutch Elections? Anyone else enjoying watching the light leaving Paul Ryan’s eyes? Anyone else think 50 Song Memoir might genuinely unseat 69 Love Songs as the best Magnetic Fields album? Well, if not, here’s another good thing: Hot Thoughts, by Spoon, a really really good if not quite great album which I definitely had fun with and you probably will too.

Hot Thoughts more than anything else resembles a cross between The Strokes and TV on the Radio, although a little less intense than the former and a little less mystical than the latter. The ethos, though, is pure pre-Kid-A Radiohead, which is to say, “have your cake and eat it,” which is to say weird textural noises and quirkiness intercut by tangled, elaborate guitar melodies and jabbing riffs. The grooves are funky and lockstep-tight, and while the album isn’t exactly dark there’s genuine tension in the melodies that hang off it; note the building desperation in the vaguely Kashmir-esque “Do I Have to Talk You into It” or the brooding pianos of “First Caress.” It’s nicely mixed; the album isn’t inaccessible – hell, “Tear it Down”, with its stark quarter-note riffs and jaunty vocal line, only needs a slightly raunchier tone to qualify as one of the good Fratellis tracks – but the album throws just enough curve balls to hold interest as well as grab it. There’s also pretty much no filler here either. “Us” and “Pink Up” swap out the grooves and riffs for ambient noises and meandering, but while the latter feels like a bit of direction they both nonetheless are just as full of interesting ideas as the more direct tracks, with “Us” escaping the doldrums of ambient indie cliché by hiding within its haze stacks of Mingus-esque horns. I sense that Bowie’s Blackstar was an influence here, although while Spoon knows when to bear their teeth Hot Thoughts certainly a lot less eerie. It’s an album that recognises that you don’t need to write about dark or arcane subject matter to be tense about it; even poppy alt-rock is improved by acknowledging that real life is still high-stakes.

The album’s biggest problem lies in its dynamics, or rather its lack thereof, and while it’s certainly not a bad track I think “Whisperi’lllistentohearit” probably sums it up best. “Whisper…” is an ambitious track, building up a driving groove out of ambient noises and chanting with just the right arrangement of anacruses and rhythmic shifts to sound unexpected and drastic, but still coherent when you look back on in it. While the fluency with which that was achieved succeeded in getting my draw firmly dropped for about five seconds, I very quickly had to ask myself if this actually was a groove worth getting to at all. It very quickly just ends up being a drum-line with a couple of woozy synth lines hanging over it and Britt Daniel singing over the top, and while that sounds fine it definitely doesn’t deliver the visceral thrill I was tapping my foot in anticipation of. Songs do build and climax nicely in terms of how they mix and arrange their riffs and melodies, but it doesn’t really correspond to anything cathartic – or hell, even just more expressive. As a result, while it’s easy to work out the shape and form of each song, it’s comparatively difficult to remember. This isn’t consistently a problem, and “Shotgun,” which sports a nicely crunching main riff, breaks out of it, but then annoyingly “Shotgun” is otherwise one of the less interesting songs on the album, and I feel like its brashness and presence would’ve been better spent making “Whisperi’lllistentohearit” into what it was hyping itself up to be.

Still, it’s a fairly petty quibble, and Hot Thoughts is still overall an album I’d recommend. I don’t think that this is going to be one for the ages, but then maybe that’s why I find it so encouraging, because if this is what 2017’s musical boiler-plate sounds like, I’m looking forward to hearing its masterpieces.

 

 

 

The Magnetic Fields – Selections from 50 Song Memoir

Well holy shit, we are back. Consider the month of silence a minimalistic review of Laptop MD, a NYC based computer repair business notable for its rolodex full of extremely slow-shipping repair parts suppliers, their labyrinthine staff rotations that prevents them from working on your computer even after the part has arrived, and their unique ability to only notice defective hardware post repair not once, not twice, but thrice. As an addendum, consider any typos or grammatical errors here a review of whatever supplier they order replacement keyboards from.

With that out of the way – The Magnetic Fields! The Magnetic Fields are one of those bands that I was always more interested in than enraptured with; points on for minimalism, tasteful harmonies and lyrics, points detracted for a sometimes bafflingly inept choice of timbre, sometimes repetitive vocal melodies, and sometimes forgetting to actually write a song to go with their hook. Those are all things that could be said about 50 Song Memoir (I’m using that title because janky laptop keyboards don’t give a man time to piddle about with adding “Selections From” at the beginning each time – this review is, however, only of the abridged version available on Spotify because, y’know, needs must), and I’m pleased to report that if you weigh up the magnitude of each thing the net result is positive. In fact it comes away with a pretty big fat recommendation on it, because (and here’s a backhanded compliment) the average Magnetic Fields song is so bloody repetitive that if a song opens with something you don’t like you can just skip it outright and I can assure you that you won’t be missing anything. And when it is good, I don’t mean good in a visceral thrill way, I mean fascinating – witty, touching, relatable, all of that shit.

50 Song Memoir is an autobiography album, where each song corresponds to a different year in the life of main songwriter Stephin Merritt, although each song itself is more thematic than narrative. “A Cat Called Dionysus” explores infant naivety through bleak musings about trying to love an ungrateful pet; “How I Failed Ethics” feels more broadly a song about being at odds with the education system than about taking any individual class. It’s definitely the lyrics that lift this one up, but then that was always going to be the case, wasn’t it? My elevator pitch when trying to recommend The Magnetic Fields to my friends is usually something along the lines of “imagine if Philip Larkin came out as gay and then joined Arcade Fire,” and I don’t use the Philip Larkin comparison lightly. There’s certainly a superficial resemblance between Merritt and Larkin as writers – they both like simple words, they both have a knack for simple but imaginative rhyme schemes, they’re both crushingly, joylessly, gorgeously cynical – but it goes deeper than that. See, back when I was spending three years of my life bolting the brand of ball-and-chain euphemistically referred to as an “English literature degree” around my leg, I had to read Philip Larkin, and what always struck me coming away from him is that his poetry was good because it actually communicated things. Harp on as I do about Joanna Newsom’s lyrics (harp pun unintentional I swear) I’ll be the first to understand that there are plenty of times when I get the impression that the subject is something vast and beautiful that I’m being invited to feel more than to comprehend, and that isn’t the case with The Magnetic Fields. Every good Magnetic Fields songs sounds like a three minute explanation, made with perfect clarity, of an interesting subject; I come away from Magnetic Fields albums thinking about things I hadn’t before, and  – and this is a crucial part – aware that I probably couldn’t communicate them to anyone else much more efficiently than just by quoting the song lyrics. Once you can do that, the rhyme and the wit is all kinda secondary. Because of that, I’m not really going to bother saying what makes each song work lyrically, because really the only way to get it is to listen to the songs – which you should absolutely do.

Musically, it’s more a mixed bag, although still a fairly positive mix on the whole. Stephin Merritt’s sound is fairly typical indie-baroque stuff, but musically I’ve never found him quite as intriguing as Grizzly Bear or Fleet Foxes. Part of the problem is the difficulty in entangling the vocal melody from the guitar chords; “Ethan Frome,” “Why I Am Not a Teenager” and “Me and Fred and Dave and Ted” all sound a bit like Merritt ran out of ideas while writing them and just ended up singing along with the bassline (although all have saving graces – retrospectively the chorus, the climax, and an incredibly quotable rhyming chorus). Other times Stephin Merritt relies too much on his lyrics to progress the song and doesn’t write any motifs beyond the verse and the chorus. And then while sometimes I think that Merritt and I just have vastly different tastes in “weird-indie noises”, I can’t be the only one who thinks that St. Vincent’s manic guitar gnashing or Radiohead’s swirling ondes-martinot lines are a different calibre of entrancing from the whimsical tin-whistling of “Why I Am Not a Teenager” or the numbing drone of “How To Play the Synthesizer,” right? But then like I say, there is plenty to recommend, musically – “A Cat Called Dionysus” might boast The Magnetic Fields’ most striking chord progression since “I Think I Need a New Heart”; “No”, “Foxx and I” and “Be True To Your Bar” are all genuinely gorgeous, and “You Can Never Go Back To New York” has a vitality I didn’t think such a solemn band was capable of.

You know, when I started writing this I was gonna give this album a mixed-to-positive writeup with a recommendation for being genuinely auteur, but on reflection I’m actually gonna bump this up to being straight-forwardly positive. I’ve not heard the full album yet, but suffice to say this extract is enough to get it firmly on my shopping list. Don’t miss this one, folks.