Album Review: Utopia by Björk

By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)rating 4

The greatest looming threat to a pop singer’s career isn’t necessarily a diminishing talent for songwriting. More often than not, it’s the artist’s waxing age that does him or her in. Popular music is so heavily steeped in the exaltation of youth that showing even the most innocuous signs of aging can spell death for a musician’s career. Crow’s feet and receding hairlines won’t move albums or bolster streaming numbers when there exists an arsenal of cherubic up-and-comers at the ready to capitalize on the vacancy left by those former hitmakers. In the face of oncoming cultural irrelevance, these older artists are left with essentially two options: accept defeat and resign to a life of musical obsolescence or combat the aging process by way of artistic reinvention.

Madonna fended off antiquity by crafting pop songs through her ever-morphing registers of personal maturity. Neil Young did it by striking up avuncular (and symbiotic) relationships with the likes of Devo and Sonic Youth. And Bowie had burned through so many iterations during his career that his name is practically synonymous with musical metamorphosis.

But for Björk, musical mutability has been less a carapace against the ravages of time and more of a compulsion. Embracing the onslaught of alternative rock in the late ‘80s with the Sugarcubes and later discovering electronica the following decade, Björk’s career is a brazen protest against musical stagnation. To be sure, there have been no periods of stasis for an artist whose career has thrice begun in earnest. Yet on Utopia, her ninth album as a solo musician, Björk mistakes heterodoxy for being boundary-pushing and heartbreak for wisdom in an engaging yet familiar meditation on interpersonal relationships.

Utopia marks the second collaboration with producer Arca, whose panoply of twitching, programmed synths undergirds and guides Björk through her vicissitudes of jubilance, despair, and altruism. Relying mostly on Apollonian chamber music, Arca, along with fellow producers Rabit and Björk herself, crafts a thoughtful collection of dynamic, if lukewarm instrumentals. A delicately plucked harp carries Blissing Me. An ethereal chorus propels Features Creatures. The album’s title track is driven by a flute. As are Losss, Courtship, and Paradisia. The music is decidedly stately in its restraint, but Björk’s artistry has never championed understatement in the interest of normalcy. This raises the question “Can Utopia be called ‘experimental’ if it resists subversion?” Is Björk truly challenging herself or just giving us more of the same?

In response to the malaise and despair of Vulnicura, a self-described “heartbreak album,” Björk seeks to attain self-actualization on Utopia. Inaugural track Arisen My Senses explores the physicality of love as it intersects with musicianship and the advent of the internet: “Just that kiss / Was all there is / My palms pulsating of the things I want to do to you.” Physical sensation proves the gateway to fulfillment, much in the same way solitude and pastoral asceticism do in the Emersonian Claimstaker. “The forest is in me […] This is my home.” She’s markedly more ecstatic in comparison to her lovelorn self on Vulnicura, but Björk isn’t without trepidation when it comes to happiness. On the track Utopia, though she’s found comfort in her current situation, “Utopia: it isn’t elsewhere, it’s here,” Björk maintains an untraceable wariness about her: “My instinct has been shouting at me for years, saying ‘Let’s get out of here!’ / Huge toxic tumor bulging underneath the ground here.”

Ideas are inherently fragmentary. David Lynch likens them to fish swimming in our consciousness that are caught by chance rather than created by design. Björk seems to feel similarly, given that most of the lyrics to Utopia are fractious in form. As such, many lines come off as insular and underdeveloped. In the case of Saint, they’re plain clunky: “She has entered me thousand fold often / And undone knots at my most awkward.” The same is true of Courtship: “I then upturned a green-eyed giant / Who upturned and entered me.” The three producers’ decision to largely forego the inclusion of drums creates a decentering feeling, which is exacerbated by the songs’ fractured lyrics, yet they rarely add up to anything significant. And when attached to Björk’s amorphous melodies, her words only distract from the aesthetic of her voice.

The fallout of her past relationship hasn’t quite yielded the profundity she aims for on Utopia. It’s left her more guarded, certainly, according to The Gate: “My healed chest wound transformed into a gate.” But Björk doesn’t arrive at any major conclusions about love. She is, however, careful not to sully her children’s conception of a relationship in the wake of her heartache: “Tabula rasa for my children, let’s clean up, break the chain of the fuck ups of the fathers.” She’s selfless in her resolve not to let her shit ruin others’ chances at happiness. A benevolent gesture in a record otherwise overflowing with navel-gazing.

Björk’s youthfulness is self-evident in her resistance to stagnation and complacency. She’s outgrown alt-rock as well as dance music, but her alacrity to explore new musical territory keeps her from the status of musical curmudgeon. If we’re lucky, she’ll continue to embrace the future of experimental music and search out new musical identities for the rest of her career. If we’re luckier still, they’ll be more fruitful than here on Utopia.

Album Review: Knox Fortune – Paradise

By Ryan Martin (@RyanMartin182)rating 4

You might recognize Knox Fortune from the smash single off Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book last year. He’s a wildly talented producer who works closely with Chicago artists like Joey Purp, Vic Mensa and KAMI. Finally, Knox has a project of his own to demonstrate his talent to the world.

Knox’s star-studded track record has fostered high expectations for Paradise, leaving little doubt that Knox might be able to pull out a couple marketable singles and really make a name for himself as an up-and-coming indie R&B/Pop artist. Paradise doesn’t play consistently from front to back, though. Starting with an all too brief intro and an infectiously quick drumbeat as the backbone, No Dancing does little to set the stage of what to expect with Paradise. Lil Thing follows it up and shows Knox at his best. The beat sounds like pink skies on a late summer evening. His voice is smooth, with a catchy hook and creative instrumentals. If there’s some potential to be recognized throughout this project, it’s right here.

Throughout Paradise, Knox stumbles finding not only his sound but his voice too. Knox’s voice is pitched, auto-tuned and lowered throughout the album, leaving the listener unable to pinpoint exactly who he is as an artist. Torture, one of Paradise’s four singles, shows this with distressing conclusions. Knox’s voice is so auto-tuned it clutters the track, not clearing a path for the otherwise beautiful instrumentals. It almost creates an amateurish atmosphere for the track.

Knox is a talented producer, creating some really interesting instrumentals throughout Paradise. 24 Hours is a great example, a number whose bouncy, sticky bass dominates the entire track. Unfortunately, there isn’t a strong hook and Knox’s vocals are again an issue, sounding careless and slightly distorted.

Not only does the Chicago artist’s inconsistency lie with his vocals and hooks throughout Paradise, the overall tone is confusing. No Dancing doesn’t give the listener enough time to settle into the groove: Stars and Lil Thing sound like woozy daydreams, a sound Knox actually seems at home on, and I Don’t Wanna Talk About It is reminiscent of a dance-punk song from the ’80s.

Bouncing recklessly between tone and sounds, by the end of the Paradise the listener doesn’t feel closer to understanding who exactly Knox Fortune is. It’s one of the few pop albums in recent memory where the instrumentals play a bigger role than the vocals do. This is not to say Knox doesn’t have a decent voice, but the effects he puts on his vocals will make you think otherwise.

Knox Fortune is an artist who has an incredible amount of potential and has already proven he can make hits. Unfortunately, Paradise is a clear indicator that more time is needed to craft a specific sound and voice for the pop star he desires to be.

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Track Review: Taylor Swift – Look What You Made Me Do

By Andrew Barr (@weeandreww)

When Taylor Swift teased her long-awaited return with snake animations on her social media accounts, it was clear she was coming out firing for the many enemies she made in the years after her wildly successful 1989 record was released. The title of her new record, Reputation, and accompanying artwork further confirmed this, with Swift’s face half covered by newspaper columns which simply read “Taylor Swift” repeatedly. The album’s title is written in a font that seems to reference Kanye West’s almost iconic The Life of Pablo font, hinting that Reputation could see Swift firing back at ‘Ye following the very public fallout they had last year.

While Swift personally didn’t make many friends off the back of 1989, few could deny the appeal of its sugary synth-pop tracks like Wildest Dreams or Welcome to New York. However, on lead single Look What You Made Me Do, she has completely abandoned that sound, as her vocals are delivered on top of a hip-hop beat. On the basis of this track only, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say she has adopted this sound solely to continue her beef with West as the sound doesn’t suit her whatsoever and her choice of beat is a poppy, watered-down trap one. Yeah, it’s honestly as bad as I’m making it sound.

If Swift singing over a trap beat doesn’t sound bad enough, there are two points in this track where her delivery could legitimately be called rapping – at the end of the second verse and in the track’s simply awful chorus, which hears the mega-star dully repeating the awfully prosaic track title. Not bad enough? The chorus almost exactly rips-off Right Said Fred’s I’m Too Sexy, so much so that the group are credited as co-writers.

The part of this track that will generate the real headlines are the lyrics, which sees Swift coming out on the offensive; it’s speculated that there are lines on here about long-time enemy Katy Perry as well as Kanye West and his wife Kim Kardashian. It feels like Swift wants the beef with the Chicago rapper to hit the front page, with lyrics such as “I don’t like your little games / I don’t like your tilted stage”. More often than not though, the lyrics just feel incredibly petty with lines such as “The world moves on, another day, another drama, drama / but not for me, not for me, all I think about is karma.” With lines like this, you have to wonder why Swift is even continuing these beefs when both Perry and West have been silent on them for months.

Look What You Made Me Do seems to have been picked as the lead single solely because the unsubtle lyrics will hit headlines, rather than having any real redeeming qualities musically. At possibly the track’s worst point, Swift includes a sample of herself saying “the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now, why? Because she’s dead”, and if this is a sign that she’s abandoning 1989’s sweet pop template to go in this new direction then Reputation could be one of the year’s worst records.

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Track Review: Beck – Dear Life

By Kieran Cannon (@kiercannon)

Regular listeners will have learned by now to expect the unexpected when Beck announces new music. The Los Angeles multi-instrumentalist has roots in folk and blues but over the years has served up a bewildering array of styles, incorporating everything from lo-fi to country to hip hop in his extensive back catalogue. His latest offering, Dear Life, arrives hot off the heels of a long-awaited announcement confirming the release date of Colors, his first full-length LP since 2014. Due to be released October 13th on Capitol Records, this record signals yet another departure from the laid-back folk rock of Morning Phase towards a more pop driven style, influenced in no small measure by Prince and LSD-era Beatles. Check out the music video below, featuring a bizarre montage of psychedelic-drenched clips narrated by lyrics.

The fourth single to be released from the upcoming album, Dear Life follows the precedent set by the others and ushers in a new era of poppy, upbeat Beck – with a twist. While the rest of the album is set to be packed with euphoric summer anthems, such as the uptempo scratchy-guitar driven Dreams, this latest single hides an existential cry for help behind funky piano melodies and layers of psychedelia. If the rest of the album is outburst of happiness, an expression of contentment with his marriage then this particular number serves as a counterbalance. “Dear life, I’m holding on / How long must I wait / Before the thrill is gone” the chorus rings out, a cynical rebuke to the relentless optimism displayed so far: surely it is only a matter of time until the roof caves in around him?

Until recently, Beck was seemingly no wiser to the planned release date of Colors than anyone else; however, he has developed a coherent vision about what lines the new material will tread – “it’s not retro and not modern“. Despite this and the undoubtedly catchy piano/drum combination, it seems to lack the cutting edge of tracks from comparable albums such as Midnite Vultures. Most of his output merits repeated listening to uncover moments of sharp wit, clever turns of phrase or passages sung with tongue planted firmly in cheek but the renowned wordsmith appears to be going down the route of straightforward, face value pop with his most recent offering. Whether he can effectively pull this off throughout the course of the whole album remains to be seen.

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Album Review: Lana Del Rey – Lust For Life

By Will Sexton (@willshesleeps)

Lana Del Reys aesthetic can sometimes be mistaken for her repeating the same formula because it works. Her nostalgic sound and gorgeous voice is something that has always defined her and her songs to the point where if you hadn’t heard the song previously, you’d know it was hers. The first single Love was slightly mysterious in the way that you couldn’t tell if the new album Lust For Life would be different in anyway, as it was quite a safe choice as a lead single. However you will be pleasantly surprised that Lust For Life is Lana Del Rey’s most versatile album.

What is immediately different with Lust For Love is the instrumentation used on some of the songs. For example, songs that were released before the album, including Summer Bummer, Groupie Love and Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind all have a trap/hip-hop influenced drum beat, usually electronic drums too. The classical instruments that Lana has used for the previous three albums are still there for the most part of Lust For Life and that makes the new drum beats a new variation on how she does things, which is a nice breath of fresh air. Her aesthetic is something that has been recognised as a force to be reckoned with when it comes to slow burners, as previously stated, but the change is appreciated. The use of more acoustic guitar is also noticeable, making you feel like you’re sat in a garden in the sun relaxing and having Lana serenade you to sleep.

Politically charged lyrics are something that musicians are not shy about implementing in their work, especially recently, and Lana is very open when it comes to to hated for the current President of the United States. This comes with the lyrics in the song When the World Was At War We Kept Dancing, the chorus of the song pondering the question “Is this the end of America?” and to be honest no-one is sure. Lana has also been reported trying to use witchcraft on said President and you know what, why not?

The songs on this album grow on you too. Songs like Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind weren’t flawless on first play but with repeated listens, they definitely start to have an appeal. The thing that has been so appealing about Lana is that you can get lost in her music, whether it be driving somewhere or just relaxing at home, her music helps you melt into a certain place. Lust For Life does just that, and with a punch at times because of the new approach to her song writing and instrument choice.

Lust For Life seems to be Lana’s most mellow album yet, which is saying a lot. On top of this, in addition to the new instrumental influence, it appears that Lana is putting more of herself into her music, arguably more than ever before. Throughout this LP it seems more personal at points, especially on the song Change, as it strips away all of the epic orchestral instrumentation and gives her voice a bigger space to impress.

On the whole, Lust For Life has been more enjoyable than say her previous album Honeymoon – Lana has embraced a change and it’s worked in her favour. The features on this album are interesting too. Two songs feature rapper A$AP Rocky (one also featuring Playboy Carti), an expected feature from The Weekend and also a song with Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac fame. The slower songs on this album boost it up a few places and new styles like Groupie Love and the title track Lust For Life are an interesting change of pace of Lana. An interesting album that is definitely worth a listen.

7.5/10


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Track Review: Kesha – Praying

By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)

Am I dead or is this one of those dreams, those horrible dreams?” asks Kesha at the beginning of the video for Praying, her first single since 2013’s Crazy Kids.  As she bemoans her existence and questions her faith lying afloat the decrepit remains of a dinghy in an Ingmar Bergmanian moment of introspection, she entreats for death.  “Being alive hurts too much.”

            Kesha Rose Sebert’s legal strife has been highly publicized (yet only sporadically discussed) over the past few years, with journalists and fellow artists almost unanimously siding with her over much-maligned producer Dr. Luke.  In light of her allegations of his sexual and emotional abuse, it’s impossible not to read Praying as a response to the tribulations Sebert has incurred since the lawsuit’s inception in late 2014.  But the track isn’t a gesture of submission and wound-licking, it’s a song of survival and resilience.  This is Kesha’s Lust for Life.

            The singer’s supplication for her life to end is a necessary valley; only at her nadir can she summon the strength to “fight for [her]self” and attain inner peace.  As such, we see Kesha taking the high road here.  While she can be caustic toward Dr. Luke (“When I’m finished, they won’t even know your name”), her overall message is one of forgiveness: “I hope your soul is changing, changing/ I hope you find your peace.” 

            Praying is a marked departure from her previous singles.  Eschewing former themes of prurience and hedonism, Kesha displays a seldom seen openness in the form of a sobering, contemplative ballad.  Stentorianly sung over dour piano chords, Kesha’s affirmations may border clichéd at times (“some things only God can forgive”), but they never lose their cogency.  This has always been a talent of Sebert’s—her ability to convey a particular sentiment or construct a specific scene in her music often allows for the inclusion of well-worn turns of phrase, but never to detrimental effect. 

            Per the iridescent text at the end of the music video, Praying is a new beginning for Kesha, a second act following the years-long adversity pervading her professional life.  Whether it was out of maturity or catharsis (or both) that the song was written, Kesha effectively distances herself from a pernicious past without indulging in needless self-pity or petty invective against her adversary.  If the last three years have been “one of those horrible dreams,” then Praying is Kesha’s much-needed awakening.     

7/10


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Album Review: Lorde- Melodrama

By Patrick Dalziel (@JoyDscvryPaddy)

When Lorde first released Pure Heroine at 17, she instantly gained notoriety for her cutting art pop. Rightfully so, her debut was exceptional, and after a long four year wait we finally have a follow up LP. Coming in the form of “Melodrama” the new album is big, bold and devastating. More realised and confident, it is a fitting follow on to everything Lorde embodies.

Her debut was a meticulous subtle attack on celebrity lifestyles and youthful obsession. Now on Melodrama the focus has shifted. No longer an outsider looking in, Lorde has had to find a new angle to approach the topics from. What we’re presented here is far closer to an album of coping mechanisms: from the partying extravagance of opener Green Light to the fixated love within The Louvre, this feels very much like a handwritten guide of how to survive high society New York.

It’s an interesting idea, and one that is reflected in the production. Everything is pushed slightly too loud, hiding some of the more complex melodies that would have been championed previously. Potentially this could be a statement from the singer regarding originality in the pop world, where regurgitation rules over innovation. The desperation to avoid this heavily inspiring the songs within Melodrama.  Take for example, Homemade Dynamite, a slow burner that gradually adds layers of noise and detail through it’s run time to create a sense of infatuation. It’s loud, over the top but still has a sense of restrain applied to it and upon deeper inspection is remarkably introspective. What we’re seeing here is a refusal to dilute the message while appealing to a massive market. A risk that could have gone very wrong.

When the first single, Green Light, was released many worried that her trademark intensity and honesty would diminish in favour of going bombastic. This definitely isn’t the case, though, given that her influences include Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, crushing lows accompanying the extreme highs, most notably on Sober and Writer in the Dark, both of which are sombre moments of clarity in the hedonistic landscape of Melodrama. Sober, coming straight after the pounding Green Light, is a slow paced hangover to the opener’s exuberance. Whilst the latter is one of the best stand out tracks present, it begins as what feels like a callback to Pure Heroine, before taking a completely unexpected but welcome shift. It’s here we see who has possibly had the largest impact on Lorde during the writing process, Kate Bush, with the vocals on the chorus sounding heavily inspired by Bush’s early works such as Wuthering Heights.

Upon repeated listens to the album her overall influence becomes more evident. The slightly left field production, full of distorted sound effects and overwhelming volume are all very Hounds of Love, shown most clearly on Loveless, which is squeezed into the second half of Hard Feelings. However here, the influence is less vocally based and far more sonically. Crashing drums open the track before being drowned out by a series of cold electronic noises, to unsettle and intrigue. This style fits Lorde’s output spectacularly, and creates a contrasting world of vibrant cynicism.

This atmosphere is remarkably important to the album. If the world built in the runtime was anything less than totally absorbing Melodrama could very easily have fallen apart. Instead it’s a glorious invitation into this decadent alternate universe. Lorde is as helpless to its charms of it as we are, and through the space of the eleven songs we experience every success and misstep in time with her. It’s not so much a storyline per se, more of a selection of notable nights told in brutal honesty.

Overall, Melodrama is nigh on perfect. It’s joyous and celebratory of the singer’s successes but maintains everything she became known for. It’s nice to see that writing songs for the Hunger Games series hasn’t swayed Lorde towards more commercial ventures. Especially when trips down a more avant-garde route produce such high quality output.

9/10


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