“He said, everything is messed up round here,
Everything is banal and jejune;
There’s a planetary conspiracy against the likes of you and me,
In this idiot constituency of the moon.”
—Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, “We Call Upon The Author”, 2008.
We are in an age where adults behave like children. This great unraveling is evinced by the music bludgeoned into the ears of thirtysomethings. Banal, mawkish, sub-literate pop that does a disservice to the genre’s great tradition. The gloss and sheen and sensuality of the 1980s and 1990s, when Prince, Sade and Whitney roamed (let alone Destiny’s Child and TLC), have been cast out of the temple, and false idols are worshipped. We must be at the nadir, with no brainy, chart-friendly pop to call upon. One Direction and their rudderless ilk seem to signal the eschaton.
But if we are at the nadir, there must be better things to come. And there are. And they seem to have the backing, if not the accompanying ring of the cash register, of major labels. Two recent albums ought to strike fear into this decade’s worst offenders.
Jessie Ware’s Devotion, released last year, is a tad front-loaded, but that’s a minor quibble against an otherwise exquisite album of dusky, husky, lovelorn pop. Echo-laden trickles of guitar scratch away at a template of tumbling bass, creamy peals of synthesizer, and sultry grooves. Ware’s voice rightly takes star billing: it’s an emollient creature, alternately earth-shaking (as on the power-ballad “Night Light”) and then whispering and hesitant (as on the pillow-talk-and-insectoid-electronics title-track). With every turn, she leaves you floored.
Late in the album comes “110%” (later retitled “If You’re Never Gonna Move” due to a minor sampling dispute), a skittering garage-inflected song which repeatedly spews out a sluggish Big Pun sample, in which he intones, “Carvin’ my initials on your forehead”. Against this backdrop of accelerated emotional submission, Ware’s contemplative refrain of “I’ll keep the dancefloor warm / But I’m still dancing on my own” could be interpreted as her weltanshauung. She’s determined to have fun, even if it’s just the contentment of a private, unwatched rave in her living room.
Ware, backed by the production from Dave Okumu (of The Invisible—now there’s a set of art rockers about whom we need to hear a lot more), Julio Bashmore (who lends his ear for dank, Bristolian rhythms) and Kid Harpoon (who provides the more anthemic cuts), needs to be topping charts. She’s got the pipes—and just as importantly, the emotional heft—to do so.
Faceless, starkly minimalist, and blushingly romantic, by right Rhye should be this year’s The xx. Mike Milosh and Robin Hannibal make music that mostly hits a sweet-spot between that Wandsworth trio’s “VCR” and Hercules And Love Affair’s “This Is My Love”. Is that too tight an intersection on which to base an album, let alone a career?
Think again. “Open”, the creatively titled first song on their album, Woman, is an instantly inviting paean to everlasting adoration, which begins with a flourish of strings and a flutter of woodwind. Then, the listener’s mind temporarily collapses as Milosh’s tender, androgynous and unforgettable voice concedes, “I’m a fool / For that shake in your thighs”, atop an insistent one-note pulse of bass guitar and a spare chord progression on organ. A track later, in “The Fall”, pizzicato strings morph into a lush, soaring arrangement to elevate the bittersweet parting of lovers (as the narrator’s introductory beckoning of “Make love to me… One more time / Before you go away” turns into the more desperate “Don’t slip away, my dear”).
The criticism that Rhye’s music is too dehumanised, too anonymous, too fit for lifts, is blown away by the—admittedly nameless—soulmates that inhabit their songs. They’re not party to raunchy or priapic narratives; rather, these are hopelessly lovestruck tales of never wanting to stir from the conjugal bed. The listless “One Of Those Summer Days”, with a breathy saxophone weaving in and out of reverb-drenched chimes, could be the more aching, hormonal cousin of George Michael’s, circa 1996 (see “Fastlove” and “Spinning the Wheel” from that year’s Older album). Is that a comparison to be embarrassed about? Hardly.
The manner in which Woman draws to a close should address the retort that Rhye have only one trick up their sleeve. This title-track, a stark-naked sequence of arpeggios that slowly unfurls into something more gorgeous—a gut-wrenching string accompaniment—over which Milosh moans and elongates the titular phrase into an eternity of longing and ecstasy, is at odds with the finger-snaps, subtle gestures and arch brass motifs that precede it. It’s the sound of a man gazing upon his chosen companion, and understanding, with pain, that this Arcadia is not permanent.
Now there’s something to chew over if your name’s Mumford, Snorefest, Sheeran, whatever.