It’s moments of blissful weirdness like this that make me love Sylvan Esso. I’ve often said that the best part of any artist’s work is oftentimes the novelties and throwaways tucked away on B-Sides and bonus discs. The little experiments and candid moments are like vestigial elements of the creative process, played with for a moment but meant to be left behind, preserved for posterity on a whim, overshadowed by the perfection of the real work but yet so very revealing.
Halsey is a restless artist who moves between genres as easily as she changes her look. It seems that, for the post-millennial generation, the idea that one should stick to an easily defined musical style is as old fashioned as the idea of ‘dressing your age’ or ‘not getting into a car with a stranger’. Everyone draws from everything, and it’s perfectly normal that a record be equal parts bastardized hip-hop, electronic dance music, piano balladry, confessional songwriting, and anything else the artist and her producers may find interesting. In Halsey’s case, her emotionally raw writing holds the center of what could have been a bland smorgasbord of trendy production ideas. Trying everything to see what sticks isn’t a bad approach for a young artist, really. If she wanted to, from here on out, Halsey could easily transition herself into a Norah Jones-style career as a ‘serious adult’ singer with a repertoire of sad ballads, except that I suspect that she would find it as boring as I find Norah Jones.
Yes, the song is just called “Song”. That kind of sums up the down-to-earth spirit of Sylvan Esso. Simple song titles, simple melodies. It’s not very often that you would describe an electropop duo as being down-to-earth or rootsy, but that’s Sylvan Esso. Amelia Meath’s other project is a bluegrass band. Sylvan Esso, with their two albums, aims to provide nice music for a nice, relaxing time. It’s chillout music, which may sound like a low-ambition enterprise, but it’s the very highest quality chillout music. The kind that continues to feel rewarding listen after listen, and stays with you long after you’ve finished your cappuccino.
In my household, it seems that Lorde’s second album has not caught on as much as her first one. It seems like we like her less as an angsty young adult than as a precocious adolescent. A big part of the appeal that shot her to fame was her ‘weird kid at the back of the class’ vibe, the way she turned a surprisingly perceptive eye on the feverish rituals of growing up. Her songwriting felt like a sleeper cell’s coded messages from inside a war zone. But precocious little girls have to grow up one day. If anyone could be expected to do it with grace and smarts, it’s Lorde, and she has. If it puts me off a little that her turf now includes the grownup matters of sex and drinking, it’s not because I didn’t want her to grow up. It’s because there’s already a lot of music being written about those things, from every imaginable perspective, and there always will be, because it’s songwriters’ Ground Zero. I want Lorde to work out whatever she has to work out with her first heartbreak and her first lessons in long lonely drunken nights, and move on to writing about something else already. She’s too good to get stuck writing about petty angst.
It’s always tricky to guess what, out of things that seem catchy and appealing at any given moment, will still be those things when the moment has passed. It’s the cold and unpredictable eye of history, which consigns most popular fads to the memory hole while exalting some obscure thing that only 25 people had noticed as world-changing. I know that not everything I initially wanted to listen to every day ended up staying a favorite, and the reverse. The year before last I declared Portugal. The Man’s Woodstock to be one of my favorite albums of the year. I pre-ordered it on vinyl and everything, being all ahead of the curve and whatnot, and now I have to live with hearing a soft-pop cover of Feel It Still as a corporate workplace playlist staple. That’s a pretty hard tumble from indie and cool into corporate-approved fake indie cool. Nonetheless, it’s not shaking me from my faith that this record is a keeper. History will decide what it will, but I’m going to go on listening to Woodstock like it’s the hit of the week.
Kudos to Father John Misty for turning a ten-minute dirge into a seven-and-a-half minute dirge for the benefit of his PBS audience. Not everyone subscribes to the idea that you should be able to say whatever you have to say in under three minutes, and that’s okay, but boy… Misty really backloaded his ACL Live performance with his dirgiest and most downtempo selections. One idea he does subscribe to is that he doesn’t owe it to his audience to give them what they want, and if he wants to only play his most sad and boring songs, or if he just wants to spend most of his set mocking the venue and the audience, he’s going to go ahead and do those things. Bad reviews be damned. That being said, he is a mesmerizing live performer, and his grumpy and unpredictable behavior is part of the act. It’s a rather old-fashioned notion that the artist should – nay, he must! – follow his impulses rather than allowing his performances to be dictated by any calculated attempt to appeal to people. The artist should not stoop to groveling for popular approval or debase himself trying to be more appealing. Which of course, are great career moves for someone who already happens to appeal to people. FJM, for his part, dutifully spent many years trying to appeal to people as a singer-songwriter of great earnesty, before realizing that playing intellectually hard to get is the real way to become appealing to audiences burned out on too many earnest campfire love songs. And it’s his nature as a neurotic compulsive overthinker that he’s been grappling with questions of what people want from him, and why, and just what he’s expected to and able to deliver.
In his calmer moments Father John Misty could pass as one of those 1970’s singer-songwriters who wrote about the beauty of California, the beauty of the open road, and the beauty of long-haired women. Except that he packs more words into his verses than James Taylor or Jackson Browne have in their entire vocabularies. “You stand alongside/And say something to the effect/That everything’ll be alright soon” may well be the most needlessly verbose line ever written, and given than lines to that effect have been written, many times over, with far lower word-counts, it’s hard to tell if the writer is being pretentious or satirical. And therein lies the litmus of how you perceive Misty himself. Do you find his ability to make the simplest sentiment sound like a thesis statement delightful, or does it make you cringe? I’ve been a devoted fan for years, so obviously, I’m in the delighted camp. Pop music is dumb, sometimes knowingly so and oftentimes obliviously, and delivered by dumb people in the hopes of appealing to dumb people. Meanwhile, people who’ve nurtured their vocabularies past middle school are under-served. We need role models to relate to, too. I, personally, can relate deeply to the kind of paralyzing intellectualism that makes people add extra words to all their sentences because they’re too emotionally stunted to say the two or three or five words that would actually express what they’re actually feeling.