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.
St. Vincent doesn’t like to be questioned about where her songs come from. She doesn’t like to be accused of writing about herself. She retorts, rightly, that the presumption of intimacy in songwriting is incredibly condescending and inherently gendered. We may ask a man if he’s writing about himself, but we don’t take it for granted that he does. Songwriter Annie Clark resents the assumption that she’s incapable of purely intellectual writing. That having been said, though, intellectual and imaginative writing, and emotionally intimate writing aren’t mutually exclusive, and it is in fact the tricky balance of being both that marks the songs of St. Vincent, while escaping the skills of most other songwriters male and female. St. Vincent writes incredibly intimate songs that feel like they’re coming from directly inside her head; it also so happens that St. Vincent herself is a fictional persona. We never really know what Annie Clark is thinking and feeling, we only know what she wants us to know St. Vincent is thinking and feeling.
My blog doesn’t always reflect my listening habits in real time, so you probably didn’t know that I had been listening to K.Flay just about every day in 2018. Yeah, her and Yaeji. Blood in the Cut was a suitable soundtrack for a mental breakdown. Kristine Flaherty is by no stretch of the imagination a good singer, which is painfully apparent when she performs live, and her white lady rap skills are no match for Debbie Harry’s. Her strength lies in her confessional songwriting, and her trainwreck-next-door charisma. She will remind you, painfully, of yourself at your worst times; or of your most dysfunctional friend, the one who can never quite stop spinning her wheels. There are a lot of confessional female singer-songwriters these days – a lot! – becoming critical darlings by laying out their feelings, but most of them belong to a tradition of ladies being sad in a genteel and harmless manner, acceptably doe-eyed and acoustic and vaguely reminiscent of Joni Mitchell. K.Flay belongs to a much smaller contingent, the ones who fly their “fuck you I’m a drunk slut” flag loudly and proudly and trace their lineage to riot grrrl and punk rock and old school hip-hop. Being sad isn’t a genteel conversation with an acoustic guitar, it’s a lonely and drunken journey of dark nights and splitting headaches and barely remembered sex with ugly people. For some people life is a quest to wring themselves into some kind of shape, and a drive to redeem your shitty experiences by bleeding it all into art. That’s what being a rock star stems from: just being a fucking rock star, even if you’re homely and can’t sing.
For some of you older folks, St. Vincent may still be considered a ‘new artist’. She is under 40, after all, and has only been making records for about a decade. But really, you should be all on board with her by now. It’s been a very satisfying trajectory, as a fan, to watch such a gifted artist rise from being an indie singer-songwriter who inspires mild respect from the Pitchfork crowd to real rock star status. Because not too many people fill the role of a real rock star – complete with vision, ambition, style and persona – anymore these days. It’s just really, really heartening on a deep-down personal level to witness the birth of a complex and interesting and hopefully long-lasting star.