Lucinda Williams can be hard to listen to sometimes. She writes about real life, life so real it doesn’t belong in the world of entertainment. There are things that even songwriters, novelists and poets have a hard time confronting head-on, and those are people whose business is to confront the human condition. It’s also their job to make the human condition bearable, and some things just can’t ever be made bearable. Suicide is one of those things. Sure, there’s a lot of songs and poetry about suicide, books and Netflix shows about it, paintings of Ophelia looking luminous in her watery grave. Which just goes to show that there is literally nothing in the world too ugly to be turned into an Instagram aesthetic. But that’s just posturing, not real life. Real life tragedy burns a ragged hole in the people who experience it, right down to the soul. That’s something we like to avert our eyes from, not seek to be entertained by. It’s something only the most fearless artists dare to confront, and what they come up with isn’t really ‘entertainment’. More like collective therapy, personal catharsis, a lesson of some kind, a moment of empathy and recognition. The real experience of grief makes art that can’t be mistaken for exploitation or romanticized posturing. Lucinda wrote this song for the singer-songwriter Vic Chestnutt, who died by suicide partly because (and it will always be partly and it’s always conjecture, and we’ll never truly ever know these things) he could not, even as a relatively well-known and successful musician, afford the medical care he needed as a disabled person.
Here’s a curio project for completists: Rome, an homage to the music spaghetti westerns, produced by Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi and featuring songs by Jack White and Norah Jones. An interesting and unusual combination of elements that jells unexpectedly well. Those old movie soundtracks have become an unintentional genre all their own, and any homage to them is always welcome. Jack White and Danger Mouse, between the two of them, wear more hats than the VIP lounge at Ascot, so this is hardly an odd project for them to come together on. How and why they lassoed in Norah Jones – whose breakthrough hit album is pretty much the musical definition of basic – I don’t know, but this is the one and only time I’ll give her a pass.
Lady Gaga is kind of an absurd character, constantly teetering on the edge between self-serious and silly. That balancing act is inherent in being a pop icon, because it is to some degree absurd that we have people we call ‘pop icons’ in the first place. Lady Gaga knows this, obvious fact that it is. She may have a bit of a messiah complex, which of course comes with the territory. She’s also not afraid of going to far into the absurdity of it all. Going as far over the top as she does is dangerous territory, and if you’re going to risk looking ridiculous, you might as well embrace your own ridiculousness to the fullest extent. Hence, a dress made entirely out of Kermit the Frog. And if you’re going to go Europop, you’d better go full Europop and don’t let not speaking German stop you. Lady Gaga knows exactly one word of German, and that’s enough to write a song with. It’s gibberish, even the English parts, but she delivers it with every ounce of conviction her little body can muster. And that makes it an unqualified triumph of pop songwriting.
It is A.R. Rahman’s time to shine. He’s a well known name in India, but that generally doesn’t translate to any sort of status whatsoever in the English-speaking world. Yet he was – briefly! – in a band with Mick Jagger, and he gets Jagger to sing in Sanskrit. If hearing Mick Jagger go Bollywood is something you’ve fantasized about, this is your only chance to scratch that itch. Jagger fronts a glorified blues band most of the time, and fans don’t seem to like it when he goes off and gets weird, but doesn’t it seem like he hasn’t sounded this energized in years? He’s belting out that Sanskrit chorus like it’s the most fun he’s had in a decade, which may actually be true.
At the end of the day, nobody does Tom Waits better than Tom Waits. (That shouldn’t even have to be said.) Tom Waits shows the kids how to do the crazy-old-man-in-a-hat boogie, and he shows up his peers as well. Who else can clap back at the Rolling Stones and then gets Keith Richards himself to play assenting backup on it? Oh, there will be satisfaction, Tom Waits demands it. He will have scratched every itch and won every duel by the end of the day. At the end of the day, he will be ready to roll of the mortal coil with no unfinished business. He will exit with swagger. Whatever satisfaction Tom Waits is checking off his list, it’s deeper and more diabolical than anything an angsty twentysomething trying to get laid has in mind.
The kind of rock stars who take the time to look like rock stars are kind of a dying breed, but there’s a few left who still understand that the leather pants and the panda-bear eye makeup are almost as much of an art form as the music. The Kills are one of those holdouts. They know that grimy garage noise rock is great on its own, but it’s even better when it’s part of a full-on aesthetic that promises that if you fluff up your hair just right then a life of glamour and creativity can be yours too. Rock and roll is a way of life and you can’t live it in cargo shorts and flip flops. Fucking pompadour your hair up real tall and put on some boots and skinny pants. If nothing else it will get you laid. Look at how ugly Jamie Hince is, and he married Kate Moss.
The Decemberists have not only mastered the trick of writing songs that sound like they might belong in a different decade; they write songs that sound like they could be hundreds of years old. On a superficial level, we think we know what the trick is: the trick is that a well-deployed mandolin or fiddle goes a long way towards making something sound ‘traditional’. But there’s plenty of fiddle-laden songs that still sound like the hot millennial garbage that they are. To sound traditional, you have to learn about tradition. It’s having an ear for history, if you will. It’s being the kind of music nerd who knows their way around madrigals and pibrochs. And it’s knowing how to deploy the lowly fiddle without sounding like it’s hoedown night at the Old West Saloon.