I put it to you that Justin Timberlake is an unlikely hero of mine. But the lustrous, laser-guided R&B of “My Love” and “LoveStoned / I Think She Knows” made FutureSex/LoveSounds a landmark release; no-one even attempted to try and match it. Continuing the idea that Timbaland saves his best production tricks for his near-namesake, we now get “Suit & Tie“. Continue reading Stress, & Lack Thereof
It’s bottomless, the end of the world. You’re falling, you’re being swallowed up, you’re disintegrating, the universe expands, everything recedes to a singularity. That’s certainly the vision of Lars von Trier in Melancholia, and of Yannis Philippakis in “Moon”.
That’s not what James Blake‘s “Retrograde” is about—though the music video stylishly depicts an asteroid devastating a creepy country house—but that’s certainly what the song sounds like. Those keening, careening synths in the chorus, grating against each other like enraged celestial bodies. The forlorn piano-work, filtered through a decaying, ruined air. And the bass, monotonic, rumbling and tumbling around the lowest end of the audible spectrum when it occasionally chooses to intrude upon the song.
“Ignore everybody else—we’re alone now,” Blake urges his lover, but he’s chased by his own ghostly echo. Then, in the chorus, he has a revelation: “Suddenly I’m hit / Is this darkness or the dawn?” But all around him everything is exploding; the musical fireworks speak of an inner turmoil.
On Blake’s debut LP, there were undoubted weak spots, principally when he settled back on his piano stool, diverted his voice away from the laptop, and came off sounding too meek, too plaintive. “Retrograde” promises a lot: the piano’s there, but it’s smouldering; the vocals are unmeddled-with, but imbued with a lustful sleaze. The song hangs on a wordless, soulful vocal hook, which spirals into an effortless grace, but “Retrograde” won’t settle for mere prettiness and artifice. It’s uncomfortable in its own skin, threatening to run away but never actually doing so—like the title of the album it comes from, it’s overgrown. But distinctly not overwrought.
I’ve finally got my hands on Talking Heads’ magnum opus, 1980’s Remain In Light, and my god it is funky. The first half of the album is built solely on repeating grooves, over which Byrne sings and mumbles about all manner of emotional and societal disconnection, while atonal squawks and whirring noises swirl around the ether. Many would regard Brian Eno’s great production feat as being U2’s The Joshua Tree – still the only album by said band that I can really palate – but I’d be willing to stake a claim for this masterpiece.
What struck me immediately about the album is just how brash it sounds, despite the sophistication of the music and lyrics lurking beneath. Exploding in with “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On), the pace and energy never really lets up. What sounds like a modem enters the song halfway through, with a weird, dazzling solo; African percussion fills up all the spare air, creating multiple layers of syncopation; towards the end, Byrne’s vocal tics resemble someone with epilepsy or Tourette’s – behaviour echoed by the frontman in the video for the album’s centrepiece, “Once In A Lifetime”.
The second half of Remain In Light takes on a more chilled-out vibe, using disconcerting washes of synth and discordant brass to create more tension. Finally, in the album’s closer, “The Overload”, we find a strange, Joy Division-inspired funeral march, which crawls at snail’s pace alongside waves of buzzing synth bass and undertones of keyboards. According to the album’s Wikipedia article, “The Overload” was indeed the band’s attempt at replicating the Salford quartet’s enviable sonic aesthetic, without ever having heard any of their music. It’s testament to the band’s songwriting variety and multi-talented instrumentation that the experiment works so well – far from sounding like a novelty party piece, it book-ends the album perfectly, sending a final farewell of anxiety to the listener in much the same way as “Decades” does on Joy Division’s parting shot, Closer.
Remain In Light, then, explores both sides of Talking Heads’ lyrical and musical concerns – it is at times deeply life-affirming; at other moments mid-life-crisis depicting. It is also perhaps the truest example of a collision of black music and white music, created at a time when the two disciplines never felt further apart. In that respect, we must of course thank the pioneering inroads made by Messrs. Byrne and Eno, which led to such a work. Last year, people heard Vampire Weekend and thought of Paul Simon’s Graceland. Though Remain In Light is undoubtedly a darker work than Vampire Weekend, maybe it is the more important antecedent in providing musical inspiration.