Album Reviews – 45th Edition

everything_nowAlbum: Everything Now

Artist: Arcade Fire

Released: July 28th, 2017

Highlights: Everything Now, Creature Comfort, Electric Blue, We Don’t Deserve Love

Bands change. The only groups that never had to hear their fans complain about how they should go back to writing songs such as those of their good old days were those that limited their careers to one release, such as the Sex Pistols and The Heartbreakers. The fact that Arcade Fire has abandoned the indie rock brand they explored during their first masterful three albums has to be accepted. However, the fact the grounds they chose to explore in the two releases that followed their initial golden trilogy have yielded little to no significant results cannot be ignored. Following “Reflektor”, which tackled music from the disco and new wave era as well as Caribbean rhythms without doing them justice, the band leaves the sunny drumbeats of calypso behind and opts to further sink their hands into the synthesizers and keyboards that ruled over pop music through a portion of the 80s. “Everything Now” is the result of that move.

It is impossible to deny Arcade Fire has always thrived in making their albums thematically cohesive. The wonderful “Funeral” was about loss; the powerful “Neon Bible” gravitated towards a criticism of mass media; and the spectacular “The Suburbs” longed for a not-so-distant past. “Everything Now”, like “Reflektor”, leans in the direction of isolation. The difference is that while in “Reflektor” loneliness rose because of technology, in “Everything Now” the subjects of the lyrics find themselves alone due to consumerism (as exposed by the title track) and the self-centered Internet culture that makes people desperately strive for approval (as highlighted by “Creature Comfort”). The point the band makes is solid: not only because the hollow happiness found in purchases and likes does indeed lead to empty lives that hit the floor of depression quickly when the frailty of that joy is revealed, but also because these contemporary troubles speak to the hearts of a considerable part of their audience.

The problems, here, lie elsewhere. Firstly, they exist in the lyrics. There was levity and poetry to the four records that came before “Everything Now”. In this fifth work, however, the message is delivered through a ham-fisted approach. There is no space to read between the lines, which would be fine if there were some cleverness to the verses, but the smartness of “Everything Now” is summed up by the pun between “Infinite Content” and “Infinitely Content” the two tracks that divide the album in two halves drop. Secondly, there is the music. The album does hold redeeming moments: the title track has a catchy chorus and a warm instrumentation courtesy of a simple inspired piano riff and a precise keyboard; “Creature Comfort” is a decent shot at synthesizer-driven rock; “Electric Blue” is a good piece of synthpop, wonderfully sung by Régine Chassagne, that recalls Blondie’s ventures into the genre; and “We Don’t Deserve Love” is genuinely gorgeous, serving as the album’s clear peak.

Elsewhere, though, the band appears to be completely uninspired. The melodies are dull or non-existent, the tracks lack interesting dynamics and emotional appeal, and there seems to be such a shortage of ideas that concepts that could have been interesting as elements of a song end up being the cornerstone of most of the tunes. All of these complaints apply to “Peter Pan”, “Chemistry”, “Good God Damn”, and “Infinite Content”, which easily rank as some of the worst songs the band has ever put out. The good news that does come with “Everything Now” is that, fortunately, bands change, which means the Arcade Fire detour into new wave is likely closer to its ending than to its beginning. Therefore, a journey that has produced just a few gems worthy of being kept and two terribly irregular albums may soon give way to a more promising path, one in which Win Butler and company may hopefully put their musical gift to better use.

berlinAlbum: Berlin

Artist: Lou Reed

Released: July 1st, 1973

Highlights: Men of Good Fortune, Caroline Says II, The Kids, The Bed

Much of the rightful praise earned by The Velvet Underground, the band that introduced the musical and songwriting talent of Lou Reed to the world, comes from how the group was able to balance aggressive rock and roll with a knack for bold experimentation that verged on avant-garde. And that mixture always had a clear source, Lou Reed and John Cale, the act’s two creative driving forces during its first couple of albums; artists who represented, respectively, those two veins that guided The Velvet Underground through their pioneering trail in the back alleys of rock music. It comes as no shock, then, that without Cale, Reed would take the band into a more straightforward – yet brilliant – path during their final two releases (“The Velvet Underground” and “Loaded”) and start his solo career with a pair of works of stripped down rock and roll. That stream of borderline mainstream music, though, would come to an end with “Berlin”, his third solo project following the departure from the legendary band he had birthed.

Upon its release, “Berlin” was unique within the Reed canon for many reasons; first and foremost, though, its distinctive vibe originated in its theatrical nature. It is devoid of tracks that have the pop appeal of “Satellite of Love”; likewise, it lacks the thrilling rock of “Sweet Jane”. Instead, it tells a sordid tale that, save for its modern setting, would not be out of place on a Shakespearean stage; and it does so with music that comes off far more like accompanying pieces to a scene that plays out under the spotlights than regular tracks found on an album from its decade. Through the ten songs, listeners view Jim and Caroline meet and start their love story (“Berlin”); watch their relationship deteriorate (“Caroline Says I”); get a glimpse into the couple’s drug addiction (“How Do You Think It Feels”); contemplate Caroline’s journey into prostitution and Jim’s fear of losing control over her (“Oh, Jim”); become witnesses to brutal domestic violence (“Caroline Says II”); see the children be taken away from them (“The Kids”); and gaze as Caroline kills herself and Jim is left to think about his past and future (“The Bed”).

Reed tells that brutal story as if he were reading the classifieds of a New York newspaper, which makes the awfully sad tale sound completely commonplace. In a way, Lou is telling his audience life is like that for some people, and there is nothing that can be done about it. Such a mundane tone creates an intriguing dichotomy: it makes listeners passively accept what is being portrayed, connecting with the conformist nature human beings have programmed into their genes; at the same time, by doing so, it amplifies the sorrow found in the plot, for only in a disturbingly twisted world and in the mind of a disgustingly cold person would such a fate as the one of Caroline trigger indifference. “Berlin”, therefore, is psychologically masterful, and the conversational tone of Reed’s lyrics and singing is an artistic statement.

“Berlin” is Lou Reed exploring an experimental side he had lost when Cale left The Velvet Underground, and in a way it is Reed finding a distinguished style of songwriting and singing he would tackle through his career. “Berlin” is Reed reaching a new level of idiosyncrasy he had yet to find on his own. It is not thoroughly brilliant, as its instrumentation alternates between tracks that are too busy and disjointed (“Lady Day”) and songs that are monotonic acoustic dirges (“The Bed”) that while emotionally poignant do not present enough shifts and hooks to remain engaging through their running time. However, it is entirely powerful and invariably thought-provoking. For the good and for the bad, it is impossible not to have a strong opinion about it, which may have been Reed’s goal when he chose to talk about the sordid lives of those who live on the fringes of society; those who succumb to the harshness of the world.

ziggyAlbum: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

Artist: David Bowie

Released: June 16th, 1972

Highlights: Five Years, Starman, Lady Stardust, Ziggy Stardust

Ziggy played guitar. And it was with the electrical instrument in his hands and a message of hope in his mouth that the rock-superstar-turned-alien-messenger quickly conquered the world; surfed the waves of stardom to a life of love, promiscuous sex, fame, and drug-related issues; and retired as suddenly and unexpectedly as he rose to prominence. Ziggy’s story is brilliant because it blurs the line separating fiction from reality. By dressing as the androgynous glittery figure he created, Bowie and Ziggy became one. After all, how could anybody possibly tell them apart when the life and fate that was written for Ziggy was pretty much the same one that is reserved to rock stars such as Bowie? Through Ziggy Stardust, Bowie chose to make a mockery out of the blind adoration people have for musical artists. And, seeking to prove his point with the witty sensitivity that makes artistic geniuses, he became the messianic figure that is universally worshiped and idolized. He turned into what he aimed to criticize.

In the universe Bowie paints, Earth has fallen to the exploitation of its resources and humanity is given, on the record’s opening number, five years to live. Society, then, collapses: adults lose their grip on the responsibilities of reality; while kids, because of the degradation of the folks who are supposed to make them walk the line, gain access to everything they had always thought they wanted. In the midst of the chaos, Ziggy Stardust (a regular and decadent rock star, as the genre was on its way down) receives a message of hope from outer space. In his garish clothing, alien makeup, and red hair, Ziggy, advised by a managerial figure, takes it upon himself to sing it to the world. Desperately looking for a thread of relief to latch onto, the youngsters blindly flock to Ziggy, take him as an untouchable flawless idol, and the fabricated artist gains access to the debauched excesses of life successful rock and rollers sink into.

More than a clever and biting criticism whose layers of sarcasm are ingeniously hidden below the shiny fabricated stardust, Bowie’s fifth record works as a flashy farewell. With the death of the myth he constructs and destroys during the course of thirty-eight minutes, Bowie would abandon the rock music into which he was born and expand his experimental boundaries, a road that would culminate with his legendary Berlin trilogy. And he leaves the rock and roll ship not just by using Ziggy to bring down the heavenly aura that surrounded those who built it, but also by excelling in the genre. The eleven tracks of the album are utterly perfect exercises in rock music, as if Bowie opted to – before moving on – do everything he possibly could as well as humanly possible.

The theatrical “Five Years”, with its sweeping piano-based crescendo, is one of the finest opening tracks in musical history. “Starman”, “Lady Stardust”, and “Ziggy Stardust” tackle rock balladry in all its shapes, the first existing in a purely pop spectrum; the second swinging sweetly in the sway of its piano; and the third alternating melodic verses and an angry chorus. “Star”, “Hang On To Yourself”, and “Suffragette City” pay worthy homages to the purposely clumsy and out-of-control protopunk of The Velvet Underground. While “Soul Love” and “Moonage Daydream” are so embedded in the outrageous ways of glam rock that they could have been tracks written by Marc Bolan (who gets a respectful nod from Bowie by being the subject matter of “Lady Stardust”) for the genre’s seminal album: T. Rex’s “Electric Warrior”. At last, in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”, after singing praises to his heroes, bowing to their greatness, and thriving in the styles they forged, Ziggy disappears into the cosmic darkness as he succumbs to the weight of stardom that certainly must have hurt those he idolized. With Ziggy’s death, Bowie finds an escape hatch out of the empty and destructive rock and roll lifestyle. Ziggy would live on as a tragic legend; Bowie would soon be reborn.

the_idiotAlbum: The Idiot

Artist: Iggy Pop

Released: March 18th, 1977

Highlights: Funtime, China Girl, Dum Dum Boys

When one thinks of Iggy Pop, the first image that comes to mind is certainly that of a muscled and shirtless maniac fronting a reckless and dirty rock and roll band while dressed in impossibly tight jeans, stage diving with a certain frequency, emitting wild animalistic grunts, and – in his most insane years – smearing his chest with meat and cutting himself in public. Four years after surviving the implosion of The Stooges – the punk rock pioneers that went down in flames with the intensity and speed most expected them to – Iggy Pop emerged from the wreckage with “The Idiot”; however, unknowing fans who walked into the record found none of the bloody, violent, and sweaty environment that Iggy tended to feed off from to trigger the raw power of his instincts. Like a record by The Stooges, “The Idiot” is frighteningly menacing, meaning that Iggy is still effectively able to spook; unlike the three classic albums produced by the band from Detroit, though, “The Idiot” does not achieve such menace through brutality.

“The Idiot” is like wandering through the darkest part of town, finding the courage to enter one of its most poorly-kept alleys, and stumbling upon a creepy nightclub. There is this odd nearly mechanical music coming from within, and its conjunction with the odd-looking characters that come in and out of the establishment creates such an intriguing atmosphere one cannot help but go in. In there, amidst the smoke and the almost total lack of lights, visitors discover Iggy Pop – once the godfather of punk – has suddenly transitioned into a ghost-like figure whose deep voice floats over layers of electronic beats and sparse guitar riffs let out by his new band. Instead of tackling the stripped down aggressive somberness of the post-punk exposed by groups such as Joy Division, Iggy dresses the genre up in industrial noise and weird beeps while penning slow-tempo songs that retain the style’s tendency to let rhythm instruments lead.

The unexpected setting, aura, and experimentalism the album broadcasts are not without reason. Its alternative electronic nature is distinctively European, and it is no wonder its nucleus was put to tape in Berlin, perhaps the continent’s most avant-garde city. After falling to the bottom of the well of drug addiction following The Stooges’ breakup, Iggy Pop was lifted from the shadows by David Bowie himself – one of his biggest admirers. Therefore, it was under the influence of Bowie and guided by David’s restless artistic spirit that Iggy Pop put “The Idiot” together, and it is no accident much of the album’s musicality nods to the legendary Berlin Trilogy of records Bowie would construct shortly thereafter. Its dark electronic vibe stems from Bowie’s interest and first experiments in the genre, making “The Idiot” as much of an Iggy Pop record as a David Bowie work, and both artists gained a lot from the encounter.

“The Idiot”, however, is not just about collaboration, atmosphere, and experimentation. Great records need great songs; and the album is solid in that regard. Built around cyclical and restlessly repeating hooks (like the beat of “Sister Midnight” and the piano of “Nightclubbing”) and often opting for thinly structured tracks that do not present significant changes between verses and choruses, the music serves as a bed for Iggy Pop to spin his most obsessive lyrics yet and sing free of constraints, which he does wonderfully on “Dum Dum Boys” (a seven-minute epic about his old band-mates and whose constant and unchanging guitar riff is a highlight of the record), on the poppy “China Girl”, and on the closing “Mass Production”, an industrial beauty that alternates chaos and noise with bliss. “The Idiot” may not be truly representative of who Iggy is as an artist, but it is certainly the album that allowed him to move on with his life and give the world the wonderful music his solo career has yielded; Bowie must be thanked.

4 thoughts on “Album Reviews – 45th Edition

  1. From what I’ve heard, this is Arcade Fire’s first misstep. It’s a shame when this happens because it still gets more publicity than better works from more obscure bands. Personally, I think I’d rather advocate listening to the new album by The War on Drugs.

    1. You are right, it does get more publicity regardless of the quality it contains. As for missteps, in my book it is their second one, because I was not that much into Reflektor either.

      I have heard about The War on Drugs and that new record of theirs, but I will admit to never having listened to them. =p

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