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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Album Review: Paramore – After Laughter

By Jake Cordiner (@jjjjaketh)

After Laughter is the riskiest album Paramore have ever put out. 2013’s self-titled effort, while great in its own right, felt like the beginning of a metamorphosis for the band. They were gradually becoming a different beast entirely: with songs like Ain’t It Fun and Still Into You, they were starting to shed the “punk” from their “pop-punk” label, opting for an edgier pop vibe, and it worked with those singles being massive successes. However, a large portion of their fanbase was not happy in the fucking slightest with Hayley and co dabbling in the joys of pop, thus causing a divide in the Paramore community: those who were able to handle a band doing what they want, and those who weren’t. 

So Paramore were at a major crossroads in their career. Who do they make music for? Themselves or those who were dismissing their new direction? Well, on April 19th of this year, they answered that question indisputably: Paramore are doing it for themselves baybeeeeee! Hard Times is, simply put, around 3 minutes of pure pop bliss. It is the PERFECT opener to After Laughter (their 5th (fucking FIFTH) record). It’s all dancey synth, glittery guitar lines, and tropical drum lines. It sounds like Friendly Fires and CHVRCHES had a one night stand in Ibiza and decided to make a go of it, bless them.

Then comes Rose-Colored Boy. Oh my GOD Rose-Colored Boy. Hayley Williams is sounding better than she ever has, and it’s cracking to see Zac Farro back on the sticks. This song has an absolute topper of a chorus, alongside a lovely bit of gang vocals, being one of the album’s many standouts. Told You So comes next, and it will undoubtedly be a crowd pleaser when the three-piece hit the road later in the year.

As with most songs on the album, there’s a massive juxtaposition between the instrumentals and lyrics on the album on Told You So. Take the opening line for example: “For all I know, the best is over and the worst is yet to come“. Williams‘ lyrics are quite sombre and pessimistic throughout the album’s 12 tracks. The aforementioned juxtaposition works in spades, the (mostly) happy-go-lucky instrumentals allow the less than happy lyrics to stand out excellently.

Though it’s an easy record to gush over, there are one or two songs that don’t quite hit the mark of quality that the majority of the album upholds. Forgiveness, for example, is nothing more than a serviceable wee slow number. Certainly not offensively bad, but definitely one of the weaker tracks on the record. Same with Caught In The Middle, lyrically the song is one of the strongest tracks on the whole LP but musically it’s just a bit middling (if you’ll excuse that fucking shite pun.)

Would it really be a Paramore album without a soppy, but lovely acoustic ballad? 26 is After Laughter‘s answer to that question. And it might be the most beautiful song that Paramore have ever came out with. Hayley sounds gorgeous, as do the strings that pierce through the elegantly soft guitar at the heart of the track. This song really is a wonderful wee number, one that will slot neatly into your Sunday hangover playlist.

So, now comes the most important question about After Laughter: did Hayley, Zac and Taylor make the right decision in not listening to the angsty side of their Parafans? (Note: we’re not sure if they’re called Parafans but as far as Jake is concerned, they are now). In short, they absolutely made the right choice. After Laughter is the sound of a band finally making the kind of music they’ve been threatening to for years now.

And they’re all the better for it.

9/10

BEST TRACKS: Hard Times, Pool, 26, Rose-Colored Boy, Grudges


Finding yourself on the opposing side of the Paramore divide, where you see their last release as too polished and devoid of anything that made the band what they are, After Laughter is definitely a step in the right direction. Some songs may shoot themselves in the foot, Hard Times I’m looking at you, but the merging of happy go lucky instrumentals and dark lyrics make it the band’s most ambitious by far.

6/10 – Liam Menzies (@blnkclyr)

BEST TRACKS: Told You So, No Friend


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Album Review: Harry Styles – Self titled

Written by Andrew Barr (@weeandreww)

Long before One Direction announced their breakup hiatus, it was obvious that its members were trying to gain genuine credibility to prepare for their inevitable solo careers. Arguably the most successful in this front was Harry Styles, who always felt like the ringleader of the group that insisted it didn’t have a ringleader.

So how did Styles manage to gain such credibility while performing in a boy-band every night? Firstly, let’s not beat around the bush, Styles is gorgeous, and was clearly the group’s most physically attractive member. Secondly, he complemented his natural looks and established a signature fashion sense which saw him frequently named as one of the world’s best-dressed men in fashion magazines like GQ.

However, it was obvious even in One Direction that the biggest stab into credibility for Styles would come when he launched his solo career. It just so happens that his solo career got off to the best possible start – the lead single from his self-titled debut is the album’s undisputed highlight – the six-minute epic Sign Of The Times. The borrowed title would seem to indicate that the Cheshire heartthrob would channel Prince vibes on the first taster of his record but instead it is a glam-rock track dripping in David Bowie and Queen influences. Styles’ vocals are near-impeccable on Sign Of The Times as they are throughout the album, sliding effortlessly between a croon and a falsetto between the track’s huge vocal crescendo.

Sadly though, the lead single set unbelievably high expectations for the rest of the record, and it cannot live up to the (impeccably high) standards of Sign Of The Times. This track also foreshadowed two of the record’s most prevalent shortcomings. Styles is obviously eager to pay tribute to and show homage to his musical idols, but his self-titled debut sees him mirroring his heroes too closely at times, and many of his lyrics are average at best and drowning in cheap clichés.

Sign Of The Times subscribed to both of these weaknesses, bearing more than a passing influence to Bowie and Queen, while the lyrics came across as quite nondescript and generic. However, while this track exhibits these flaws, the instrumental and the vocals are so irresistible that the flaws don’t drag it down. Styles’ lyrical flaws are less prevalent here too – the track’s almost apocalyptic sentiment manages to grab the attention.

However, these flaws have a far more detrimental effect on many other tracks on the record. Second single Sweet Creature comes off as an ode to The Beatles Blackbird, but the track’s simple instrumentation – a lone acoustic guitar – just comes across as boring, and Styles’ average-at-best lyricism does little to save it. These shortcomings don’t expel every track from good song school though – Ever Since New York is a country-tinged track which bears more than a passing resemblance to many of U2’s works, but the instrumentation and lyrics are so good that even the one-line chorus of “Tell me something I don’t know already” is endlessly enjoyable – and provides one of the record’s highlights, despite the sub-par lyricism. On an even stronger note, the double-punch of Only Angel and Kiwi moves away from the ballads which comprise the majority of this record in favour of two genuine rock songs. These tracks hear Styles embracing the Mick Jagger comparisons he is branded with and writing two Rolling Stones-esque rock songs.

Only Angel’s into is misleading – a gorgeous minute-long piano and choir piece before a snarling guitar lick takes centre stage, which allows the usually humble Styles to exude arrogance when almost bragging about the girl who was the muse for this track. Perhaps the biggest compliment that can be paid to Only Angel is that it survives the god-awful “devil in between the sheets” lyric in the second verse, and still comes off as enjoyable.

Directly following Only Angel is slightly edgier cousin Kiwi, which manages to sound even more like the Rolling Stones, which is helped by the fact that former boy-band member and famed Nice Guy Styles makes not-so-subtle lyrical references to cigarettes, alcohol and cocaine. The lyrics here are an improvement, and the chorus consists of a girl telling Styles: “I’m having your baby/ it’s none of your business”. It’s hardly Shakespeare-esque, and is far from profound, but it’s perhaps the most memorable lyric on the album (only rivalled by a certain lyric on closer From The Dining Table) and it matches the track’s fun nature.

These two tracks showcase the best of Styles’ clear tactic to pay obvious homage to his influences but he doesn’t get it this right throughout the album. Penultimate track Woman hears Styles almost impersonate Elton John, and deliver a song with a sexy, seductive swagger but it falls flat on its face and the sickly one-word chorus consisting of only the track’s title and a “La la la la la la” singalong is a strong contender for the record’s worst moment.

It is worth remembering though, that Styles has taken risks with this record and should be commended for it. After his years in One Direction, Styles could easily have made a record full of pop bangers, which is confirmed by Carolina, which has a 60’s tinge but is undoubtedly the album’s poppiest moment, and it provides one of the record’s highlights, with another “La la la” singalong which comes off light years better than Woman’s did. What is frustrating about this record is it feels at times like Styles is trying to prove that he has good taste in music, but gets so caught up in this that he fails to develop his own sound. Both the opening and closing tracks are perhaps the only two indicators of what a Harry Styles song sounds like on this entire record.

Meet Me In The Hallway and From The Dining Table are both sparse, country-tinged ballads, and, Dining Table in particular hears Styles at his most confessional, opening with a lyric about having a wank, before declaring that he’d “never felt less cool”. Hearing these two tracks is frustrating, they are well-written and Styles vocals are fragile and alluring, but they leave the listener wishing that he had developed “his own” sound more on his first solo LP. Sadly however, what seems part and parcel of a truly “Harry Styles” song, at least on this debut, are rushed-sounding, shoddy lyrics. On a record where he pays such homage to his heroes, this LP can leave the listener wishing Styles had imitated his favourite band Frightened Rabbit a bit more closely, and come out with smarter lyricism.

This is not a bad record by any stretch, as the majority of the instrumentals and Styles vocals are vastly enjoyable. However, it remains a frustrating listen, as it hears Styles, credited for his fashion sense, wearing his influences so closely that he fails to develop his own sound on this ironically self-titled debut.

6.5/10


Outstanding piece of work from, what is now hard to believe, the ex one direction member. Highlights are Sign of the Times and Kiwi for me. A very mature feel, and a beautifully produced album.

8/10 – Gregor Farquharson (@gregoratlantic)

While there’s some definite highlights, there’s no denying the grandiose loveliness of Sign of the Times or the glam-rock good times on Carolina, far too often on Styles’ debut does it come off as record so deep-rooted in its influences that the man himself never gets a chance to spread his wings. A solid effort but one that comes off as just a bit disappointing.

4.5/10 – Liam Menzies (@blnkclyr)

Incredibly catchy and surprisingly slick debut. I’m not much of a fan of slow soppy ballads but the ones on this album resonate with me, which is quite hard to accomplish. Seriously impressed, will be listening to it all year!

8/10 – Will Sexton (@willshesleeps)

Personally I wasn’t too taken by it, although Harry obviously matured with this release, he hasn’t matured enough to break away from some of the tired out stereotypes of the genre he seems so fond of. Sign of the Times is a very strong song, however.

5/10 – Karsten Walter (@karseatheadrest)

A confident and wildly entertaining debut. The songs, whilst not at all complex, showcase Styles‘ voice incredibly well, and they highlight his keen ear for a catchy as hell chorus. Banger central.

8/10 – Jake Cordiner (@jjjjaketh)


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Looking Back At…Electra Heart by Marina and the Diamonds

By Nicola Roy (@circaslaves)

A cynical cross between the American Dream and a Greek tragedy, Marina Lambrini Diamandis exploded in a glittering mist back onto our radios five years ago with sophomore album Electra Heart, two years after her debut The Family Jewels.

In the lead-up to the release of the album, some kind of identity crisis overtook her website as a collection of GIFs and videos were uploaded involving her wearing the classic blonde curly wig and Hollywood pin-up makeup, all boasting the same tagline- ‘pick your personality’. It was soon revealed that Marina would be taking on a cruel and cold-hearted alter-ego for this album, compared to the naïve, I-don’t-know-what-I-want nature of the first- Electra Heart.

The sound leap from the first album to this was a huge risk- going from indie Björk-like tracks with hints of Lily Allen-esque sarcasm in the lyrics to electronic bubblegum-pop is something not many female artists tend to do, although the charts were dominated at this time by Ke$ha and Katy Perry. However, having collaborated with Liam Howe, who previously worked with the likes of Britney Spears, her transition to alternative pop was a seamless one.

Electra Heart is a cold girl, for reasons we assume to center around having her heart broken multiple times before. Album opener Bubblegum Bitch is a fun, fast-paced bop, but look past the beat and at the lyrics and they take on another, colder meaning- ‘I’ll chew you up and I’ll spit you out / cause that’s what young love is all about‘. Primadonna was the big chart number- a cheeky, sarcastic and over-the-top ode to wanting everything, and not stopping at anything to get it.

The upbeat tracks in this album contribute to one side of Electra’s perfect-girl personality- Beauty Queen. However, the other three sides (Homewrecker, Housewife, and Idle Teen) are much darker and act as stories rather than just songs. Teen Idle itself is a haunting monologue about suicide, eating disorders and a strive for perfection. Starring Role tells the painful tale of staying in a dead-end relationship when you know fine well they have feelings for someone else- ‘You don’t love me / big fucking deal / I’ll never tell you how I feel’. We see and hear Electra trying to find her place in the world when so much is getting in the way of perfection, and it is extremely rare that an album can make you dance away to one song, and feel the raw and painful emotion in the following.

Written and based entirely on her own teenage experiences, Marina provided us with a bittersweet ode to the American dream turning sour. This collection of songs is sharp, honest and humorous at times, and although the concept of the album can be difficult to grasp, Marina’s eccentric tapestry of alter-egos makes for a hugely enjoyable yet poignant listen.


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