There’s nothing more thrilling than taking a sly peek inside a diary that someone has left lying around. Just a few furtive glances before they come back into the room. It gives you a glimpse into their innermost thoughts, their mind, their soul. It’s thrilling. There’s scarcely anything less exciting, though, than someone offering you their diary to read. The entries seem banal, humdrum, everyday. How could it be otherwise? Why would anyone let you read their diary if the entries were anything other than that? When Mark Kozelek started his new musical style around the time of Perils From The Sea with Jimmy LaValle, it was as if he had distractedly left his personal journal on the bedside table. Suddenly, we got the chance to get a brief glimpse inside his head. It was thrilling. Over the course of a few albums, we came to know his deepest feelings about his father, his girlfriend, his cat. It was so thrilling that even the expressions of boredom became somehow compelling. The long flights. The drudgery of touring. But then the experience changed. As album followed album in quick succession, what were once intimate insights seemed more like meaningless meanderings. The subjects remained the same, but the entries became banal, humdrum, everyday. The solution is to put the journal down and go listen to something else for a while. If that’s the context in which you find yourself putting on Mark Kozelek’s new album, then it’s a delight. Prettier sounding than some of his recent outings, it’s a window into his innermost thoughts, his mind, his soul. His dad’s still there. His girlfriend. His pets. He tells us what DVDs he watches and when. So, if you’re discovering Mark Kozelek’s new style for the first time, or if you’ve taken some time off and are coming back, then enjoy his new album. It’s thrilling.
Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
The internet will tell you that The Dark Side of the Moon synchronises perfectly with The Wizard of Oz, which is puzzling given the former lasts 43 minutes and the latter 101. But whatever. Anyway, soon the internet will be alive to the fact that the Arctic Monkeys’ new album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, synchronises almost equally perfectly with Stanley Kubrick’s classic film, 2001. Apart from the bit at the beginning with the monkeys, of course. Because from the first notes of the first song, ‘Star Treatment’, you can nearly taste Alex Turner’s martini as he steps on board the highly futuristic yet somehow slightly retro spaceship on his way to the moon. Throughout, there’s also the unnerving presence of the sentinel. Or Alex Turner’s bandmates as they’re called here. Silent and misunderstood. They’re part of the bigger picture, but goodness knows what they’re up to, so rarely are they called upon. For this could be an Alex Turner solo album. One man’s journey into the mysteries of life. It all comes to a head on the song ‘Science Fiction’. There’s a clue in the title. Sucked into the void, Alex emerges a better person, apparently having watched a Batman film on the way. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is a departure from the magnificent AM. It will divide audiences. Some just won’t get it. As HAL 9000 would say, “I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal.” Yet it’s not a bad album. Just different. And one that’s best enjoyed when synced to Stanley Kubrick’s psychedelic masterpiece. But just not the bit at the beginning with the monkeys.
Neil Young – Roxy – Tonight’s the Night Live
“I want to get into Neil Young. What album should I listen to?” To this – oh so jejune – question, there is only one answer. “Try Rust Never Sleeps and get back to me”. If they say they like only the first half, then pat them on the head and direct them to the Harvests and perhaps Silver and Gold if they’re the adventurous type. If they say they like only the second half, then shake their hand and tell them to check out Ragged Glory and hope that they discover Broken Arrow. However, if they say they like both My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue) and Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black), then there’s a further response. “Now go check out Tonight’s The Night and tell me what you think”. If they find it unlistenable, but still vow to put on Rust Never Sleeps every now and again, then at least there’s that. It’s a classic after all. But if they totally get it, then you’ve got them. Forever. For Tonight’s The Night is the quintessential Neil Young album. Full of gorgeous tunes (one of them borrowed from The Rolling Stones and not included here) and featuring steel, acoustic, and electric guitar, it brings together many of the different eras of Neil Young’s long career. (Excepting Trans). But its the magnificent approximateness of the performance that’s the clincher. It’s the key to Neil Young’s career overall. He may be the most fastidious curator of his own archives, but as an artist he revels in the gaps between the notes, the sounds that jar, the voice that wavers, the beauty of the immediate. Tonight’s The Night embodies this ethos. And this live version of the album at the Roxy from September 1973 captures that spirit perfectly. There’s about the best ‘Speaking’ Out’ you could wish for. A relatively tight run through of ‘Albuquerque’. And a moving rendition of ‘Tired Eyes’. So, if the question is “I want to get into Neil Young. What album should I listen to?”, the trick is to answer it in a way that gets them to wind up at Tonight’s The Night. Studio or Live at the Roxy version is just fine.
If you can’t think of anything wry, sly, faintly ironic, or even mildly amusing to say, then just signal that some really good albums have been released in the last few weeks and leave it at that.
Wye Oak – The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs
The more you listen, the better it gets. For Wye Oak’s new album isn’t quite as immediate as some of its predecessors. Nonetheless, it’s well worth making your way up a very large sand dune in what aren’t the world’s most sensible shoes to listen to.
Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
There’s a lovely languorousness to much of Golden Hour, including the title track itself. For an album with country roots and acoustic melodies, it still knows how to get into a slightly spacey groove. And there’s a beautiful song about mothers too.
Laura Veirs – The Lookout
The Lookout is Laura Veirs’ best album for quite some time. Produced by Mr Laura Veirs, the great Tucker Martine, the arrangements are impeccable. And as if that’s not enough, there’s a cameo from the Oscar-nominated Sufjan Stevens as well.
Simone Felice – The Projector
Some artists can tell great stories, but Simone Felice is the master. “Billy Sinclair with the willowy hair, Breaks into Trinity Church on a dare, Where the pastor hides a camera, To capture the rapture, The day that it comes”. But something has changed. On his self-titled solo album six years ago, the tales were told to their often bitter end. Now, though, they tend to take an elliptical turn, leaving you alone with just your imagination for company. “Billy gets afraid and he runs, Don’t look in the back room until you get older, Let the projector run over and over, Over and over”. It’s every bit as compelling as before. But scarier. To help keep him safe, Simone Felice is accompanied here by Four Tet and Natasha Khan, whose own album he recently produced. Their presence fleshes out the strum of the guitar. The plaintiveness of the voice. And adds to the density of the story. Whether it’s a serious song about human trafficking. “You know all the orphan girls in those desert towns, Change their old names to Crystal and Destiny, There’s a man they call ‘The Prince’ and they pass his number around, Says he can get them on an airplane to Kennedy”. Or an equally serious song about everyday life. “Fix the lights, Fix the fridge, Fix the faucet, Fix the kids, Fix my worries, Fix my brain, Hang me out like a scarecrow, In the wind and the rain”. Whatever the subject, Simone Felice is the master story teller. And The Projector is a wonderful collection.
Mount Eerie – Now Only
Now Only is Phil Elverum’s second encomium to his wife, Geneviève, who died of cancer in 2016. Like its predecessor from last year, it’s a record that’s easier and perhaps even wiser to ignore than to put on and listen to for the first time. That’s because you know the simple act of pressing play will inevitably lead to intense and prolonged feelings of morbidity and loss. They’re inescapable and almost unbearable. But then you knew that when you decided to press play. Like A Crow Looked At Me before it, Now Only is a testament to the immediacy of grief and its “feral eruptions of sobbing”. It’s also a checklist of the everyday banality of death, which is no less upsetting. “I went and wrote a check and got a cardboard box, full of your ashes, and a little plastic bag with your necklace, and I drove back home truly alone.” Perhaps more so than last year’s record, though, it’s also an album that hints at the next part of the grieving process. The desire to keep the past as alive as it once was, but the recognition that it’s bound to disappear in its previous form. “I don’t want to live with this feeling any longer than I have to, but also I don’t want you to be gone”. And the realisation that the future will hold only imperfect memories of a life that once was. “I know that you are gone and that I’m carrying some version of you around, some untrustworthy old description in my memories”. Some albums are uplifting in their sadness. They make you feel less alone by making you aware that you’re like many others. Like its 2017 counterpart, though, Now Only is not one of those albums. “No. No one can understand. No. My devastation is unique.” But it’s still an absolutely beautiful album. A crushingly emotional album for sure. But then you knew that when you decided to press play.
Soccer Mommy – Clean
“You’re made from the stars”, sings Soccer Mommy. But she’s not thinking of Ronaldo or even his little brother Ronaldinho. Her mind is on other things. Whether it’s her friend Mary. “She’ll treat you like a fucking toy, She’ll break your heart and steal your joy”. Or just herself. “Baby I lost my faith, I kissed him on the second date”. This is an album of up-close observations on friends and relationships. Soccer Mommy is 20-year old Sophie Allison. With a history of more-or-less approximate home-recordings already under her belt, Clean is a different proposition altogether. For sure, there’s a certain nostalgia for how things were. The warping of the tape spool on ‘Cool’. The slightly uneven vocals in various places. But throughout there’s the confidence of an artist who’s mature beyond her years. “I don’t wanna be your fucking dog, That you drag around, A collar on my neck tied to a pole, Leave me in the freezing cold”. It’s difficult to argue with that. There are hints of early Sharon Van Etten or Angel Olsen about Soccer Mommy. And just sometimes you feel that in a few years the arrangements would be fleshed out even more. But for now, it’s more than fine. Because Soccer Mommy is already more than merely a passive observer. A figure on the sidelines. She’s a real player.