I like a little doom with my pastoral visions of chirping birds. Marianne Faithfull and Roger Waters are two artists who can’t envision a sunny day without an air strike on the horizon or a frolicking child without a tragedy to come home to. They’ve collaborated before, with Rogers writing songs for Faithfull, and she appearing in his stage production of The Wall. It’s a meeting of the minds, those two. She also likes hanging out with Nick Cave. Obviously, Faithfull is a lady who gazed into the abyss and the abyss gave her a fist-bump. Her last string of albums have been a mix of thoughtfully chosen covers and equally thoughtful originals, always exploring with both wit and wistfulness our collective 21st century blues. This track was written by Waters, and in very suitable fashion, makes a hat-tip to Lewis Carroll sound like something with much darker implications than a children’s rhyme.
Lily Allen – the snarky, neurotic Lily Allen who sang about insecurity, absent fathers and sleeping in the wet spot – is not who I would turn to for sappy love ballads. She’s someone whose natural irreverence doesn’t sit well sentimentality. Yet in 2013 she had a number one hit with a song so sappy it was featured in an upscale department store’s Christmas ad. Some of us have a knee-jerk cynical reaction to the Christmas propaganda of large department stores – it’s terminal-stage capitalism dressed up in heartwarming sheep’s clothing! It’s easy to imagine a young Lily Allen writing something satirical and hilarious about all those treacly holiday spirits, but Lily is a grown-ass woman now and a mother. And who is ever really immune to the charms of animated woodland critters, anyway? It may be an ad for John Lewis stores, but it has bunnies, and it’s a sweet song.
It looks like Hozier is going to survive and prosper after having the big hit of the year in 2014. Not everyone who bursts from obscurity to instant fame with a huge hit single gets to live it down. One obvious downside is that many beginning artists who luck out on one song simply don’t have any more material to follow up with. So they end up with a record of hastily written filler, which gets them dismissed by the fickle public. Hozier didn’t have that problem, though. He had a full record – and then some – of outstanding material. It was a joyous surprise when I played his first album that I enjoyed every song, even on the extended edition. He has a God-given voice, of course, and his songwriting is moody and poetic in just such a way that appeals to my Romantic sensibilities. Since then, Hozier has released an EP and a second LP, and though neither spawned a song-of-the-year hit, they were good enough to not need to.
Banks just released her third album, and I thought it was kind of… the same? Three records of all the same, even when it’s a very good same, gets boring. But I’ll always remember her debut as one of the best things to happen in 2014. Banks offered a heady brew of electronic atmosphere, sadgirl goth aesthetics, sexy R’n’B vocals and confessional songwriting. It was a combination of disparate elements that somehow felt like a sustained mood. Probably because it felt honest in its influences, as opposed to just painfully hip. It wasn’t just moody, it was really raw. Underneath some on-trend production lived a songwriter with a lot of soul. I find it interesting – and relevant – that Jillian Banks was writing music privately for years while earning a bachelor’s in psychology at USC. It explains something about the emotional astuteness of her music.
The appeal of Robert Plant’s Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar is that it sounds far older than it is. It sounds like something Plant himself might have done in the 60’s if his approach to making music had been less bombastic. It may have taken him decades to realize that everything doesn’t have to be screamed, but his roots haven’t changed. He still likes blues and folk music. And that’s just fine. No one wants to see Robert Plant get modern. I mean, no one wants to see old geezers trying to be edgy in general, which leaves old geezers with very few options. They could try to be edgy and embarrass themselves, or continue producing new material that sounds exactly like their old material, or stop producing new material altogether and just play the hits. Robert Plant is of the few who refuses to play the goddamn hits, and he’s also one of the few who still writes material that is both reminiscent of the old stuff and different enough from it to be interesting.
This is the first of a string of songs named Sober, which invites a series of conversations about sobriety. An important topic, to be sure. However, this song by Broods is not actually about sobriety. It’s a plaintive love song, which invites a conversation about certain songwriting tropes. Poets and songsmiths have been leaning heavy on the metaphor of love as an addicting intoxicant for as long as all of culture, so it’s safe to say that it’s been done from every angle. You could argue that it’s not even a metaphor, more an exact description of what love hormones do to the human brain. Either way, we never seem to get tired of it, and as Paul McCartney once wrote “What’s wrong with that, I’d like to know.” So enjoy a plaintive love song that’s not designed to invite anything deeper than your own plaintive feelings.
This might feel fragmentary, but maybe you should listen to the entire album. Bombay Bicycle Club are more of a sustained atmosphere band than a stand-alone singles band. That makes them a little old-fashioned, now that playlists have trumped albums as units of musical consumption. Nowadays, every song has to be a potential stand-alone single, in hopes of being picked for someone’s #MOOD playlist. I’m as guilty as anyone with this mentality; I’ve been trying break songs out of their original context since before platforms like Spotify made it so easy. I’m from the mixtape generation, I understand the urge to curate your own experience. However, there are still some artists who aren’t trying to be playlist friendly. Artists whose songs are best appreciated when you play 10 or 12 of them all in a row. What, ten songs in a row by the same artist? Now that’s a curated listening experience.