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.
Now it’s time to revisit one of my favorite one-off supergroups. I haven’t listened to Superheavy in a while, but it’s a record I’m always happy to pull out. Yeah, I actually went and ordered the LP, I liked it so much. I know you’re thinking “she’ll just pay for anything Mick Jagger does, even when it’s crap” and that’s definitely true. I also think that Superheavy is probably the best think Jagger has done in years, and almost certainly the best thing he’s done outside of his day job. But also, this record fills a need besides the need to be a Rolling Stones completist. There really aren’t that many albums that incorporate so much musical diversity all in one place. This is really one supergroup where each member brought their best stuff to the forefront and you can hear and feel each of their contributions. It’s not just “The Mick Jagger and a bunch of other people Show.” It’s five very different musicians working together as equals.
This Decemberists songs isn’t referencing Greek mythology or English literature or 1970’s folk music. It isn’t referencing any cultural artifacts at all. Its inspiration is much closer to home than all that. Colin Meloy wrote the song for his son Henry, who was about five years old at the time and diagnosed with autism. Meloy is hardly the first person to write about the fears and struggles of raising a child, but the difficulty of raising one whose brain works so differently lends it added pathos. Parenting can be a source of existential angst, I’ve been told, unique from the usual day to day angst of just living. Which could also be a source of creative inspiration, if children weren’t so damn labor-intensive and distracting. That’s probably not why the pool of pop songs inspired by children is relatively small (writers of pop songs can afford childcare, usually.) It’s just that nobody wants to hear a pop song about being responsible and sleep-deprived from constant worry; those things are most people’s daily reality. We want our pop stars to be sleep-deprived from cocaine binges and consequence-free sex.
Brian Eno and Rick Holland bring two of my favorite things together; ambient soundscapes and cryptic whispering voices. Eno provides the soundscapes, Holland provides the poetry, non-famous civilians provide the whisperings. I highly recommend Drums Between the Bells as one of the great Eno collaboration albums. Since he’s apparently long ago given up making interesting things on his own, but still brings the weird when an inspiring collaborator comes along.
It’s ok to check your brain at the door sometimes and just lose yourself to Shakira and her raging lady-boner. I’m not suggesting that Shakira is dumb. She is an incredibly accomplished person. But with all of her myriad talents, all she really wants to do is make people dance. We music critics tend to give unpretentious, happy music the side-eye, presuming that there has to be something lacking. Lack of soul, lack of talent, lack of passion, lack of anything to say. All of which, fair enough, do tend to be lacking in an entertainment landscape that leans increasingly on the work of robots. But I shouldn’t have to defend the joy that only a well made pop song can bring. Just pure animal euphoria, a three minute escape pod from reality. That’s what Shakira does, and she’s one of the best at doing it. She knows that music is one of the most powerful forces of unification; it’s the only surefire way to make people drop their differences and fraternize, even if only for an evening. She’s a superstar all across the fucking planet because her tunes need no translation, and everybody wants to dance, and it’s that simple. (But she still records English versions of all her hits, because she’s nice like that [and American audiences are racist]).
One thing about Paul Simon hasn’t changed; he still loves New York City. It may just be his lifelong muse. As much as he likes to safari, he always comes back to those familiar images of city streets. Now he’s a white haired old man with nothing left to prove and nothing to do but observe the eternal flow around him. There may be a shout-out to Jay-Z just to mark us in the present, but the cityscape hasn’t changed much either. Billboards and buildings may come and go, but the city’s role as the quintessential American pilgrimage place hasn’t wavered. It’s still all things to all people, and for Paul Simon, it’s home.
Lady Gaga set out to reinvent 80’s style arena rock, and it was just what we didn’t know we needed. Born This Way was full of ridiculously cheesy fist-pump anthems and power ballads. And it was good. So, so good. This is like a long lost Whitney Houston song, but better. So, so much better. Because it has the all of the brio and enthusiasm of a genuine camp aficionado. Obviously, Gaga just loves the hell out of the FM rock tropes of her childhood, but she wants to use them for art. That’s why she called one of her albums ArtPop, because she’s stupidly clever like that. Lady Gaga is a master of high-low, stupid-clever, trash-to-treasure.