It’s that time of year where our skin gets dry and itchy. The trees are withering and it starts getting dark the second we get up in the morning. What could possibly carry us through this season of torment more effectively than some new tunes from wealthy pop stars?
Alcohol, for one.
But this is a new music post! Let’s take a look at what’s been happening in the world of music this month.
Taylor Swift – Reputation
Mark: Taylor Swift is arguably the biggest pop star working today. While this album has had an underwhelming critical reception, it has been selling ludicrously well. A good thing, too, as it appears that the video for “…Ready For It?” cost the equivalent of a small nation’s GDP to produce. Judging by this video and the previous one, Reputation seems intent on delivering Swift’s interpretation of “edgy”. It also appears that she saw the recent American remake of Ghost In The Shell and decided that it was mega-cooooooool.
Like Ghost In The Shell, Swift is attempting to make serious bank by unapologetically cribbing from source material of a higher quality and producing a product that feels empty, inauthentic and boring. Couple this with her baffling persecution complex and production-over-song-craft sound, and you’ve got the recipe for one eye-rolling slog of an album.
Gone are the dorky but tuneful ear worm pleasures of “Shake It Off”. Instead, we’re expected to sit through movements of aggroSwift faux-rap peppered over squalling bass-pads that should have died with dubstep, waiting for the inevitable sprinkling of classic Swiftian melody that will be included out of some cowardly self-awareness that they shouldn’t go all the way with their terrible ideas.
As this is going to be successful no matter how essentially miscalculated it is, there isn’t much more to be said. Unless you read this really fun article comparing Swift to Donald Trump, in which case there is a whole lot more to be said.
Josh: I was sick to death of Taylor Swift “takes” long before this record was actually released. There’s no denying Swift is a legitimate cultural phenomenon, though I was unable to figure out exactly what she was bringing to the culture even before the calculated, winking victimhood of Reputation‘s first singles. If she’s working out her feelings about falling from grace in the public eye (as in the much discussed first single “Look What You Made Me Do”), it feels like she’s inflating the degree to which anyone cares about her seemingly endless beef with Kanye West. If she’s playing at the impossibility of feminine existence in a patriarchal system, it’s rich to assert herself, the richest white woman, as in any way representative of what it’s like to walk through the world with limited privilege. But there I go with a “take.”
Metanarratives aside, Reputation is kind of just not good. From the casual diversions into rapping and squelching digital beats to the inexplicably incompatible collaboration with Ed Sheeran and Future on “End Game,” the record is a series of bizarre creative choices increasingly distancing Swift from the sound she made a name with. Several songs feel incomplete or cobbled together, despite what was almost surely a project scrutinized at every juncture. I was pretty mixed on 1989, in contrast to most critics. I’m similarly mixed on Reputation. There are a couple tracks I genuinely enjoy (like “So It Goes”), but too often the pop hooks feel buried, this time under a haphazard digital mess that is all tonally wrong. If this is Swift’s 808s & Heartbreak, I’m dreading her Yeezus.
Morrissey – Low In High School
Mark: In a world where white male vegetarians are all right about everything, Moz is king. The 80s mope-master is back to let us all know that he advocates staying in bed rather than trying to stay engaged with or informed about the modern world, which is just out to scare and emasculate you/him.
As a white male coming from the degree of privilege necessary to have heard The Smiths in my youth and thought “He sad like ME sad so this = profound”, I’m happy to have had the time and space necessary to reevaluate the legacy of this ding ding blowhard. I’ve come to the conclusion that bratty, moody musical gems from young people can crystalize into timeless classics, but if they’re still copping this kind of attitude into their 30s or later, they’re actually better suited doing commentary on cable news or something.
The featured track, “Spent the Day In Bed”, features Morrissey still sounding very much like Morrissey, but instead of crooning over the typically pleasing guitar work of Johnny Marr, he frogs-it-up over top of some low-key embarrassing synth licks and string pads. Ouch!
Josh: Low in High School is frequently musically-adventurous, occasionally quite brilliantly so. But noted dick Steve Morrissey can’t stop getting in the way and reminding you how annoying he is, like that friend you kind of hate hanging out with but do anyway and then feel angry with yourself for doing it. When he’s not sharing his obsessive fixation on oral sex, he’s railing against the media and the police. I mean, to be fair, who wouldn’t rail against a media industry that amplifies to the public every idiotic thing you do and say.
But while Low in High School plays on like a screed, it’s a mean, incoherent, and inconsistent one, virulently anti-war (and anti-soldier) yet borderline propagandistic as it trips over itself to defend Israel (“I can’t answer for what armies do / They’re not you”). Compare hilarious lines like “Gimme an order / I’ll blow up your daughter!” to something equally as angry but vastly more attuned to the comic absurdity of tragedy and violence like ANONHI’s “Drone Bomb Me.” It’s a shame, because musically, “I Bury the Living” is a hell of a rager.
“You need me just like I need you,” Moz says early on the record. Let’s be real, though, he needs us way more than we need him.
Tim McGraw & Faith Hill – The Rest of Our Life
Mark: I question what the fuck these two are doing putting on hideous formal wear and boarding a limousine in the middle of a deserted corn field. I must also wonder if this song was penned not as a genuine expression of marital commitment, but as a reminder to each other that you’re not supposed to cheat on your spouse when they get grey and fat. Most of all, I have to wonder how you smooch a guy wearing such a hat, and how you don’t just divorce him because of said hat. They hug at the end of the video instead of kissing, because she would totally hit her forehead on his dumb hat.
All of this being said, this song is a completely competent stab at the “song designed to be played at a white person’s wedding” genre. It is predictable and boring, just like a good marriage probably should be. It is amazing that these two are still together and I will give them credit for that above and beyond any feelings that I may have about their chosen form of expression.
No bow ties w/ cowboy hats, though. Good Christ.
Josh: I listened to a few songs from this album accidentally when I added it to my Spotify queue thinking it was a single. It was fine, if not particularly memorable. Gimme that Paul Brandt track from earlier this year. I have to disagree with Mark, though. I think he’s just jealous he can’t pull off the bow tie w/ cowboy hat look.
Sia – Everyday is Christmas
Mark: If every day were truly Christmas, we’d all be dead within a month. Pair this album title with this song title, and hopes were high for a Christmas-themed horror album. Instead, it is only horrible if you hate goofy pop music.
Sia’s voice is a tad nasally for my taste, but the production work is totally daffy and hooky, and the video is a high-spirited romp. It falls on the right side of Paul McCartney’s “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime”, but only just. The world stopped needing new Christmas songs as soon as Tom Petty penned “Christmas All Over Again”, but kids seem to enjoy them. Let’s get real – the only reason Christmas should continue to exist at all is the fact that it brings a little magic into the lives of some of the world’s kids.
So, if some kids have some fun with this goof-ball Sia record, who am I to argue?
The Body & Full of Hell – Ascending a Mountain of Heavy Light
Mark: I’m trying to write a thoughtful review about this new collaboration, but the blood spraying out of my nose onto my keyboard is making it difficult.
This is one bonkers slab of dread-crusted noise, and almost nobody I’ve met in my life will enjoy it. As with most of what The Body releases, this sounds utterly of itself, and the clattering hellscape that emerges is completely invigorating and terrifying if you’re game to give it a try.
Keep an open mind. Little robots with whirling saw blades for feet will dance around in your exposed brains.
Godflesh – Post Self
Mark: Godflesh has been around the block. There’s a comfortably well-worn feel to Post Self‘s industrial stomp. The title track roils with a cartoonishly ominous angst that would have felt right at home in my 1990s teenage bedroom. This may sound like a complaint, but I’m actually quite pleased about it. It evokes the sort of dreadful evil that my brain used to cook up while listening to any of the more nefarious industrial metal acts of my youth.
It’s a good thing that this came along. I think I may have been starting to understand my parents in the last year, and this has handily undone all of that progress.
Barenaked Ladies – Fake Nudes
Mark: Barenaked Ladies were an occasionally entertaining novelty act that at one time evoked the very feeling of being Canadian. They were kitchy and goofy, competent and harmless. It was embarrassing to like them, but it was a shared and knowing embarrassment that seemed innocuous. Like the songs that your drunk family will pull out and sing as gatherings near their conclusion (some of which may be BNL songs). We know that these things are kind of stupid, but they’re fun and they’re ours.
Then Barenaked Ladies kicked out their good singer and kept the bad one that raps really badly in every song, and they went from being an amiable embarrassment to an abject embarrassment. “Bringing It Home” continues this trend of the terrible, holding a reason to cringe approximately every three seconds. It’s all wrapped up in a brand of pop-rock so utterly without wit or edge, you’ll be pining for the days that these guys were writing problematic songs about Yoko Ono and doing mountains of blow.
Okay, only one guy was doing mountains of blow, but he was the fun one, from what I can tell.
Björk – Utopia
Josh: Björk’s greatest gift as an artist is being able to create singularly otherworldly soundscapes that are nevertheless inhabited by deeply personal concerns. Utopia is cyborgian in its design, a being born of tangible choir and woodwinds and baptised in a digital sea. It’s dreamlike and unpredictable in a way that feels unconcerned with anyone’s expectations, least of all the listener. But if you’re a fan of Björk, you already know what to expect (or, not expect, as the case is).
If 2015’s Vulnicura—number 33 on my top 50 albums of 2015— was the sound of mourning a dissolving relationship, then Utopia is the sound of being free. She imagines a feminist utopia so alien it feels as impossible as it does warm and inviting. I’d say I want to inhabit this created world of Björk’s, but a utopia is by nature uninhabitable without fundamentally altering its purity (especially one with gendered aspects such as this). Instead, we’ll settle for the glorious fortress of Utopia, where violence is rejected, pain is turned into strength, and love is so abundant that trying to contain it is “like threading an ocean through a needle.” Love can be found in the smallest details if you’re looking. These 14 tracks are a good place to start.
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Who Built the Moon?
I’ve never had much use for the Brit-pop juggernaut Oasis, but I’ve progressed from being irritated by the Gallagher brothers and their snotty drama to truly enjoying the vitriolic things that they spout off about each and every time they make news. I’m not sure if they’ve changed at all or if the world has changed around them just enough to make them seem like very hilarious plain-speaking media critics. Whatever the circumstance, give me a clip of Liam Gallagher complaining about making his own tea ever three or four months, and I’ll happily sanction whatever musical project he or his brother have got on the go that allows them both to remain just enough in the public eye that people ask then their opinion on things.
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds do not break any new ground on Who Built the Moon?, nor does it sound like they are trying to. “Holy Mountain” bops confidently enough through rock n’ roll tropes and provides a sunny little diversion. “Fort Knox” takes a run at propulsive, spaced-out psychedelia that fails a little more than it succeeds.
What really matters here is that Noel will have to do a press tour, and we’ll probably get a lot of really hilarious soundbites out of it. I hope he says “wanker” a lot.