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.
First of all, Paul Simon has really grown into an adorable old man. He looks like he probably plays dominoes outside of the deli every afternoon. He looks like one of his own characters, because if he hasn’t yet written a song about an old man who plays dominoes outside the deli, he’s going to soon. Secondly, there is, as always, Paul Simon’s writing, which has only ripened with age. His songs, at this point, are as full and satisfying as a good short story. His writing has always been both literate and literary, but now it’s without the distraction of youthful angst, which screams me! me! me! instead of observing the world fully. I love really good observational writing, and Paul Simon writes about people and moments and feelings that feel real, outside of the usual concerns of pop. Pop songwriting is essentially hormonal, geared to appeal to young people who are screaming to be seen. Mature writing is about seeing what’s not screaming for attention, and not every songwriter, even very gifted ones, ever learns that.
There needs to be more baroque pop. There need to be more performers with a self-contained aesthetic and sense of drama. There needs to be more Florence Welch. She has no shortage of dramatic aesthetic wonders up her flowing gossamer sleeves. Listening to a Florence + the Machine record is like submerging yourself in a heady vision, a world filled with medieval and Pre-Raphaelite imagery and possible witchery. Those are things that spring to mind, and would do even if Flo didn’t contribute vividly visualized videos to flesh it all out. It doesn’t hurt that she has the kind of face that’s meant to be rendered eternally and larger-than life. In centuries past, she would have sat for painters. In decades past, she would have been a Hollywood icon. In today’s world, she commands the live-streaming video screens that loom over concert stages. It’s the kind of superhuman charisma that stands out, even in a field already dominated by the charismatic – and inspires florid prose from besotted armchair critics.
First off, Suck It and See is a dumb album title, to American ears at least, though the Arctic Monkeys assure us that in the UK it’s not a rude phrase at all. Two nations divided by one language, as they say. Title aside, though, it’s apparently become one of the essential rock albums of the 2010’s, an era that’s been short on good solid rock and roll. Somebody has to tide rock music through one of its periodic dead spells, and these guys nominate themselves. Hence the greaser hair. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been on the fence about Arctic Monkeys for a while, with the suspicion that if the competition were stiffer, they’d be less acclaimed. But they’ve been riding an upwards arc, with increasingly stronger music, and I’ve come around and had to admit they’re a good rock band who don’t really need a caveat. Yes, the world needs a good rock band right now but… Hey, hey, my, my, as the poet said.
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]).