Reviews Roundup: Bridget Jones’s Baby; Angel Olsen, Against Me!

IN CINEMAS

Bridget Jones’s Baby
Bridget-Jones-baby-poster.jpgWho’d have thought it? This is not only better than Edge of Reason (hardly a challenge), but also the original Diary itself. The reason to watch has always been Renée Zellweger, and she’s on fine form again here: a truly bizarre casting choice originally, she has made the role entirely her own, despite that overtly artificial accent. Bridget was always endearing because of her flaws, not in spite of them, and so Zellweger’s put-on British mannerisms strangely made the character all the more loveable, an obvious failing to place alongside her minor obesity, accident-prone nature, and terribly self-conscious public speaking. Like Mr. Darcy, we love her just the way she is.

A dozen years have passed since the last movie and we begin with Bridget turning 43. She is still single, so we get the requisite scene of her singing along to ‘All By Myself’. But then, in the first sign that this film will be a bit different, she turns it off and chooses to jump around to ‘Jump Around’ instead. Throughout the film there’s a distinct lightening up in tone this time around, a party atmosphere that dispels the middle-class singleton woes which occasionally bogged down the first two instalments.

So Bridget goes to a music festival, dances to ‘Gangnam Style’ at a christening, and has glorious one-night stands following both events. Even after she becomes pregnant, due to the failure of some dodgy eco condoms, the lightness of tone remains – we see very little of the ailments that carrying another human being inside of you might entail. The running time is better taken up with jokes about the two potential daddies, each one trying to outperform the other in paternal and romantic affection.

They are confidently portrayed, with Patrick Dempsey here replacing Hugh Grant (a sad loss) as Colin Firth’s love rival; he is less caddish and a little more dim, a dating guru who relies on algorithms to explain successful relationships but can’t seem to find one himself. He might not seem like an ideal partner for Bridget but, well, he is a billionaire. And has a ‘big puppet’. So can he replace the reliable, yet regrettably married, Mr. Darcy in her affections? Colin Firth has long been the weak link in this saga, too comfortable to fall back on his stereotypical casting as… Mr. Darcy, the reserved yet sensitive aristocrat with a heart of gold. Here, however, he gets more of a chance to shine, having to prove his comedy chops in scenes with a heavily pregnant Bridget to manhandle, and he has a quieter, subtler romantic rivalry that, because the other fellow is a decent chap, can’t come to fisticuffs in quite the same way as it used to do with Grant.

The film’s a hoot really, and I heartily recommend it even to those who haven’t seen the first two – the gags are strong enough and the performances accomplished enough that no prior knowledge of Bridget’s history is required. I love that the character’s grown up and changed over the years, but only a little, because the filmmakers well know perennial infantilism is a part of her charm. I love the digs at hipster culture (and their beards). Love the strength of the supporting cast, especially the ever-wonderful Jim Broadbent and Emma Thompson, both of whom are… well, wonderful. There’s so much to love, placing it safely up there with Deadpool, Love & Friendship, and Ghostbusters in the premier league of the most entertaining comedies of the year.

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ON SPOTIFY

My Woman – Angel Olsen

angel-olsen-my-woman.jpgThe album format is to Angel Olsen what the diary is to Bridget Jones: a chance to unmitigatedly unspool her relationship and life problems. With bad poetry and minus the comedy. I’ve tried to engage with her melancholic vision on numerous occasions, but unlike Leonard Cohen, with whom she is frequently compared, I can’t detect any warmth, humour or humanity in her writing, which makes her morbid tours of despair hard to care much about. If she doesn’t care about other people, why should we care about her? The music doesn’t help, with Burn Your Fire for No Witness eschewing melody and songcraft in favour of limp acoustic folk constructions. My Woman is certainly an improvement on that front: the first half of the album especially has a little more fire to witness – by which I guess I mean drums and electric guitar. The synth soundscapes on ‘Intern’ conjure up a one-woman Joy Division/New Order atmosphere, a welcome pastiche that raises a smile. ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ and ‘Give it Up’ actually rock a little. Her vocals are pretty compelling on the sneering ‘Not Gonna Kill You’. But then she settles into default mode and on the album’s second half, in which the blossoming relationship she has begun to describe falls apart, the music recoils into itself in an introverted move that reflects Angel Olsen’s nature. Nothing wrong with being introverted, of course, and occasionally it brings out some nice touches: I like the quiet, countryish slide guitar on ‘Woman’, for instance. But I find that the lack of empathy, the ironic disregard for romanticism, and her repressed vocal performance makes the navel-gazing unbearably claustrophobic at times, a little repetitive and more than a little tedious.

This is a competitive time for indie singer-songwriters, with some brilliant young talents emerging: Courtney Barnett, Kate Tempest, Grimes, Withered Hand, and Car Seat Headrest in particular spring to mind, and in order to compete with them Angel Olsen is going to have to considerably up her game. I insist that I’m not being wilfully perverse in suggesting that Bridget Jones can tell us more about modern romance and self-examination than Angel Olsen. At this moment in time, I sincerely believe it.

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Shape Shift with Me – Against Me!

against-me-shape-shift.jpgUnlike either of the above, when Against Me! tackle romance, they can’t help but imbue it with the fiercely political. So a lyric such as ‘Always starts with a gal or a guy at a bar/And ends in a broken heart’, a simple enough sentiment, is immediately followed with ‘To the last cock you suck, to the last cunt you fuck/I’m forever your girl’, throwing in some gender and sexual nuance to challenge lazy pop music stereotypes. Anyone who knows this band should be aware that their lead singer, Laura Jane Grace, came out as a transgender woman in 2012, an act which has informed everything they’ve released since. 2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues was heralded as a new direction for punk, rebelling against its macho underpinnings with a testament of her newfound life as a woman, but I found that it was too defeatist in attitude and suffering from emo bullshit lines like ‘Slit your veins wide open’ and ‘Black me out’ as a reaction to the pain caused by her transition. For a truly transgressive statement, try 2007’s New Wave, a flat-out masterpiece that melds the personal and the political with enormous success and contains the first seeds of Laura’s gender doubts: ‘If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman… I’d grow up to be strong and beautiful like her’.

Well, now she has grown up to become a strong and beautiful woman, and on Shape Shift with Me she displays the first signs of coming to peace with this and her sexuality. The great subject here is not suicide or depression, but the very essence of life: love. Not in any coy or soppy way, but with a sense of possibility that doesn’t preclude short-term flings: ‘Rebecca, kiss me, but let’s not fall in love’ she sings on my favourite cut, one in which she still wants to be hit ‘like a bus’ by the proposed romantic (or is it just sexual?) encounter. Love is an ever-changing emotion of wide-ranging possibilities in Laura’s eyes, and it ultimately involves seeking out multiple partners and inviting them to try and ‘shape shift with me’.

So, like Bridget Jones in the above film, Laura has finally had enough of feeling sorry for herself and is down for some good old-fashioned sex with a side of love. Which I support wholeheartedly, and I find immensely moving considering the dramatic changes that have taken place recently in her life. But although I can see the joy in the words, I can’t hear it in the music, which follows the usual punky pop progressions yet without the same urgency that has helped them to transcend their simplicity in the past. Some of the performances are confused because although the lyrics are largely optimistic, Laura’s vocals can’t help but sound perennially pissed off, undermining and struggling to represent the contentment she seems to have reached in her life. And, worst of all, the downbeat emo tone of previous albums creeps back in at infrequent yet still irritating intervals, most noticeably in ‘Dead Rats’. Nevertheless, it is a step up from the philosophically muddled Transgender Dysphoria Blues, and leaves me with hope that they can recapture the magic of New Wave again some day.

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The Beatles: Are They Really the Greatest Rock Band of All Time?

‘Well of course they are,’ I hear many of you saying, ‘they’re the most successful and they invented the very idea of being a rock band.’ The first claim, in terms of album sales, is certainly true, but means very little: Celine Dion is one of the best-selling artists of all time, after all. The second claim is a fallacy that has been presented as fact by tired publications like Rolling Stone and Classic Rock over the years, to the point where we no jazz-honors-the-beatles.jpglonger question it. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that Buddy Holly’s The Crickets were an autonomous band who wrote their own songs long before The Beatles did, and whose name, presentation (as four men in suits), and rockabilly style The Beatles consciously aped in their early years. Hundreds of bands were forming in Liverpool and around the UK in the early 60s, modelled on the innovations of The Crickets, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and of course Elvis Presley: The Beatles were just one of them, and they certainly didn’t invent the guitars-bass-drums combo. But as we know they were the first to erupt into a major commercial force. Why?

You could be cynical and argue, as Piero Scaruffi does in this infamous Beatle-bashing article, that it was all just a case of ingenious marketing on the part of Brian Epstein (manager) and George Martin (producer), who constructed the idea of four loveable, cheeky moptops playing black music in a way that was palatable for white audiences and sold it to the masses. This theory holds only amongst academics who like to think that popular music is a capitalist con to dupe gullible people into parting with their cash. It assumes that Beatles fans were, and still are, all thick as pigshit (Scaruffi calls them ‘peasants’), working class morons with no understanding of real music, whatever that might mean, and whose lack of education makes them easy prey to advertising.

On top of being offensive, this ignores the broadness of The Beatles’ appeal when they first emerged, a cross-cultural phenomenon of a kind that had rarely (if ever) been previously witnessed. Of course marketing played a part in stirring up the frenzy known as Beatlemania, and both their photogenic faces and cheerful, unthreatening demeanours (symbolised by the suits – nobody’s ever done any harm in a suit, have they?) helped to make them popular across the generational divide that is often said to have defined the 60s. But that doesn’t sufficiently explain the scale of what Greil Marcus describes as a ‘pop explosion’, something that affected (or infected, depending on your point of view) every walk of life and directly changed the listening habits of millions of people, and the reverberations of which can still be felt today.

As I’ve mentioned before their music was far more derivative than is often acknowledged, and in the early years it was explicitly so, with half of their albums being comprised of cover versions of rock, pop, and R&B classics. So if it was not simply a case of marketing or innovativeness that made them so successful, what was it?

I think the key to understanding the phenomenon comes, once again, from Greil Marcus:

Back at the radio I caught “I Saw Her Standing There” and was instantly convinced it was the most exciting rock and roll I’d ever heard (with Paul’s one/two/three/fuck! opening—how in the world did they expect to get away with that?). Someone from down the hall appeared with a copy of the actual record—you could just go out and buy this stuff?—and announced with great fake solemnity that it was the first 45 he’d purchased since “All Shook Up.” Someone else—who played a 12-string guitar and as far as I knew listened to nothing but Odetta began to muse that “even as a generation had been brought together by the Five Satins’ ‘In the Still of the Nite,’ it could be that it would be brought together again—by the Beatles.” He really talked like that; what was more amazing, he talked like that when a few hours before he had never heard of the Beatles.

The exhilaration with which The Beatles infused the world was not because they were the first rock n’ roll band, nor the most heavily promoted. It’s simply because they were the best, the catchiest, the ‘most exciting’ as Marcus puts it. Individually, they were not much up to scratch as musicians: George was a mediocre guitarist, a virtual clone of Carl Perkins; Paul was a decent rock vocalist but a dreadful balladeer; John was a much better all-round vocalist but still quite stiff and unconvincing as a guitarist; and Ringo was the cheerful amateur along for the ride. When compared, instrument for instrument, with The Rolling Stones, they come up short. But it was as a complete set, as a band, that The Beatles cohered better than just about anyone before them or since, the Stones included. Their unity – the haircuts, the suits, the accents, but also the harmonies, the trio of frontmen, and the songwriting credits – seemed to signify a surging, optimistic national unity emerging from the sterile austerity of the 50s. So when that fella Marcus describes above envisions their generation being brought together by The Beatles, you can see why, and it only partially sounds like hippie nonsense.

the-beatles-wikipedia-the-free-encyclopedia-55c98138448cc.jpgOvercoming their great limitation (mediocre musicianship) to create the most powerful music of the 60s, The Beatles embodied the spirit of punk well over a decade before it was due to be born. They powered through amateurism with confidence, speed (songs rarely ventured past the 3 minute mark), an enthusiasm for music and life, and most of all a reckless creativity that uncovered boundless possibilities within the 4/4 rock format. Their inspirational message, and the reason that they’re still the touchstone for bands forming to this day, was that suddenly anyone could give it a go, or so the thought went – four working class Liverpool lads with absolutely no musical training had produced some of the best music of all time, so why not me?

Of course, very few bands would be able to duplicate the brilliance of The Beatles, because although they made it look easy, and perhaps it was to them, songwriting talent of their calibre is exceedingly rare to find. What makes them so fresh to listen to even to this day is their attention to detail: the stop-start phrasing of ‘Love Me Do’, the famous sixth chord that ends ‘She Loves You’, the guitar solo that drifts away without a rhythm section on ‘I Feel Fine’, the mocking call-and-response of ‘I’m Down’, the exquisitely reassuring harmonies on ‘If I Fell’, the descending guitar runs that accompany John’s cries for ‘Help!’, the gorgeous acoustic opening that anchors the country-tinged ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’… The list goes on and on, moments that never fail to surprise and deliver shivers down the spine even after hundreds of listens.

You might notice that these moments all come from early on in the career of The Beatles, and that’s deliberate: I feel that their greatest contribution to musical culture came before the run of albums that started with Rubber Soul and gained them the artistic credibility they so craved. Too often, The Beatles are overpraised for their experimental tendencies, as if the use of sound effects, trumpets, orchestras, and forays into Indian ragas and avant-garde soundscapes are indicative of artistic genius on their own. In fact, the miracle of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, both excellent albums, is not that they play around with so many different genres, which is a rather superficial kind of achievement. It’s that they never lost sight of the melodicism and sense of fun that always kept them grounded, even when indulging in the most ridiculous of psychedelic excesses, such as the kaleidoscopic circus effects that rise to consume ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’, still a remarkably great, hummable tune.

But on The White Album and Abbey Road they went too far – although there are terrific songs on both, they are far too erratic in quality to be judged as masterworks. The White Album in particular suffers from being frontloaded with all of its best moments (except ‘Yer Blues’), leaving the final half an hour on the second disc as one of the worst passages to ever exist on the album of a major band. It culminates in the infamous ‘Revolution 9’, which stands as absolute proof that experimentalism on its own is not equivalent to artistic success.

Believe me, I still love – and I mean love – most of The Beatles’ catalogue, from beginning to end. But I still feel that their towering reputation as artistic geniuses often obscures any objective judgments from being made about their works. We are expected to believe that Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road ushered in the era of the concept album, when they both conceptualise in rather half-assed ways: they are much better viewed as good, in Sgt. Pepper’s case outstanding, collections of songs (see Robert Christgau’s review of Sgt. Pepper, the most accurate assessment that I’ve ever read).

The Beatles’ genius, I would argue, and their greatest conceptual achievement, stems from their much more profound work in the early years, when they were a plain old rock n’ roll band singing silly little love songs. Because although love might seem a little bit silly, that’s actually just one of an infinite number of things that it is, and The Beatles managed to explore it from a vast range of different angles. Take ‘She Loves You’ for instance, which I regard as their masterpiece. It’s easy to dismiss as naff, but take a closer listen: brilliantly, it’s written from a third person perspective, which means that The Beatles are getting all excited about the romantic attention being paid to someone else. The ‘oohs’, the rs-431-the-beatles.jpgjubilant guitars, and the ‘yeah yeah yeahs’ are all triumphant affirmations that love exists in the world, not just somewhere but everywhere – ‘she loves you’ is so generalised it could be sung to just about anybody and everybody. That’s why the chorus appears again in the long fadeout climax of ‘All You Need is Love’, another song that is a paean to the universal nature and importance of romance.

It’s easy to be snide about such innocence, particularly when artists like Bob Dylan and the Stones were making dark, politically engaged music about the sinister side of the 60s at the same time. But as someone who believes passionately in the need for the escapist element of music and culture in general, and who also unashamedly believes that love not only exists but is one of the most variable and fascinating aspects of the human race, I give The Beatles a standing ovation for taking both of these philosophies seriously and embodying them in their art.

So they’re my favourite band, the one I listen to the most frequently and with the most pleasure, but I still believe that they’ve been a little overinflated. The greatest band? That suggests they were the most influential, which is an incredibly difficult argument to make – I would say that more rock bands have followed in the mould of the Stones and Led Zeppelin, for example. Or perhaps ‘greatest band’ means that The Beatles pushed musical boundaries the furthest, which is again questionable – The Velvet Underground are one band from the 60s I would argue more fully explored the boundless possibilities of rock as a medium for experimentation.

The arguments over which is the greatest band will carry on, and The Beatles will most likely continue to triumph, for as long as there is rock n’ roll. But it won’t last forever. Do you really think, in 10,000 years, if by some miracle the human race is still around, that people will still be listening to The Beatles? I hope not. The great achievement of popular culture is that it’s temporary and knows it, suffers no delusions of grandeur and doesn’t pretend that it’s going to last forever. It’s all about enjoying yourself in the moment.

So don’t worry about whether The Beatles are the greatest band or not, it’s a trivial question. Just be incredibly grateful that you happened to be alive at a time when you were able to enjoy their joyous, beautiful, effervescent, and meaningful music. Then let it enrich your life.

 

Reviews Roundup: Things to Come, Mustang; M.I.A., Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

IN CINEMAS/ON CURZON HOME CINEMA

Things to Come 

A calm has descended upon French cinema recently, a cinema which so often has been things-to-come-poster-600x471.jpgwild with invention: from the tragicomic, barely restrained insanity of La Règle du Jeu to the delirious fantasies of Jean Cocteau to, of course, the boundary-shattering New Wave films of the 60s, it has been ripe with formal experimentation and a profound understanding of how cinema does not need to be realistic, or even naturalistic, in order to convey truth. Lately though, as stated, a certain calm has descended, with low-key minimalism and handheld photography the defining features of a range of films including Blue is the Warmest Colour, A Prophet, Dheepan, Bang Gang, anything by the Dardenne brothers, and now Things to Come.

I admire all of the above, beyond the psychologically dubious films of the Dardennes, because of their prioritisation of character above plot mechanics, but Things to Come is easily the most character-driven of them all. It is about one woman, a middle-aged academic, Nathalie, who was once a radical Communist but now looks upon the student protesters obstructing her entrance to work with disdain. She has settled into a privileged, middle-class lifestyle, with a husband and two children, and they are surrounded in their comfortable apartment by a multitude of books that form the foundation of their marriage. She bumps into a former student, now an anarchist writer, who derides her as a sellout leading a morally empty life, and it is implied that she agrees with him. But can she help it? Nathalie lives in constant fear of things to come (Death? Loneliness? Intellectual irrelevance?), and these bourgeois privileges help to maintain an order in her life that is cruelly exposed as a sham, first when her husband leaves and then when her mother unexpectedly dies.

Isabelle Huppert, as Nathalie, is the reason to watch this film. She is one of the world’s greatest living actresses, a superlative and nuanced performer who is equally unafraid to take bold risks (The Piano Teacher) or to play reserved support in an ensemble (Louder Than Bombs) depending on what the situation dictates. In Things to Come she takes centre stage, and unsurprisingly is a captivating presence, her impassive face betraying emotional tics that can be missed at a blink but when captured poignantly imply torrents of pain and apprehension. But she also ably carries the film into moments of levity, with one sequence in particular, where she searches for an elusive phone signal, a genuine comic delight. It helps alleviate the occasional boredom of the long philosophical discussions that lead to nowhere (on purpose, I’m sure), and the film’s inability to provide any of the supporting characters with quite the same depth.

Writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve is capable indeed, creating here a miniaturist portrait akin to Chekhov, and the lack of grand dramatic gestures is refreshing. Patience is required, and it is not entirely paid off, yet the whole is almost worthy of Huppert’s quiet magnetism: she is marvelous, much too marvelous for words.

You can watch it here online: https://www.curzonhomecinema.com/#!/film/CRZ_THINGS_TO_COME

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Mustang

mustang-poster-600x815.jpgI somehow missed it earlier this year, but I highly recommend checking out this Turkish/French debut feature from Turkish/French filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven, which can now be streamed online. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars and lost out to Son of Saul, a more obviously worthy picture but not, I feel, as honest or impressive an achievement.

It concerns five orphaned sisters growing up in Turkey with their grandmother, in a traditional rural community which places enormous value on arranged marriages and the domestication of women (the girls describe their home as a ‘wife school’). After being caught in some harmless play with boys at the beach, they are locked in their rooms by a disgusted uncle, who forces them to wear ‘shapeless, shit-coloured dresses’ and learn how to cook, in preparation for their pre-approved suitors. But burgeoning sexuality, coupled with an impatient appetite for excitement, leads the girls to find creative ways to escape and experience the world beyond – naturally including boys. Still, they must inevitably return to their family and imprisonment, and the arranged marriages that ultimately await them. Some of these will end happily, some in tragedy: not all of the girls will survive.

This sounds impossibly grim, and certainly the stifling nature of life for young women in a backwards patriarchal system is depicted without compromise. There’s no point beating around the bush with soppy notions of moral relativism: any society that allows the subjugation of women should be challenged, regardless of the culture (religious or otherwise) from which it has emerged. Therefore the youngest girl in the film, Lale, is a rebel who embodies this argument and confronts both her uncle and the system by which she has seen her sisters sold off like barnyard animals to the highest bidder. She dreams of escaping permanently to Istanbul, a symbol of autonomy in the film that might appear somewhat naïve after recent anti-democratic events. But it is the hope of a better future, embodied by a liberal, metropolitan society, that is important and not the specific city itself.

Through Lale’s energetic presence the film finds its way to overcoming a gloominess that infuses some of her older sisters, transforming it into a celebration of the indomitability of the human spirit under duress. Ergüven proves adept at creating dramatic heft from tonal contrasts, with the stifling claustrophobia of life in the house/prison set against some of the most joyous, liberated scenes in cinema this year when the sisters transcend their confinement, including a moment where their bodies gyrate in ecstasy at an all-female football match and, significantly because women are still not allowed to in some middle-eastern countries, a sequence where Lale learns to drive.

Mustang sustains to an exciting climax where the traditional and radical factions of the family are pitted against each other once and for all. Not all of these family members have been fully fleshed out by this point, and we do not care about some of them in the way we should, which betrays a lack of experience on Ergüven’s part. But we care plenty about Lale, the film’s feisty spirit of rebellion and, yes, that dreaded word ‘feminism’. More than enough to be immersed in and totally concerned by what happens until the very final frames.

You can watch it here online: https://www.curzonhomecinema.com/#!/film/CRZ_MUSTANG

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ON SPOTIFY

AIM – M.I.A.

image.jpegWe’re supposed to believe that AIM is M.I.A.’s last album – a fairly common gimmick these days (remember when Eminem ‘retired’ in 2005?), and one I view with scepticism. But if it is to be her last, she will have left behind quite a legacy: five albums, of good to outstanding quality, two excellent mixtapes, and arguably the greatest single of the 21st century. Not bad.

A critical consensus seems to be emerging that AIM is too diffuse and lacks focus. I’m slightly baffled by these attacks – her music has always been diffuse, that’s an enormous part of its charm: Indian, Jamaican, Liberian, American, Australian aboriginal, British, and of course Sri Lankan themes, rhythms, and direct samples have ever been thrown into the mix for her own kaleidoscopic, genuinely disorientating, genuinely international, genuinely individual form of music. This is not just exciting on a primal level, but thematically supports her ambition to speak for a ‘Third World Democracy’, an invented construct which consists of a global underclass of refugees, immigrants, and the generally oppressed who fly across geopolitical borders just like the Paper Planes in her most famous song. Modern music and our increasingly globalised culture are diffuse in nature, which is why M.I.A. is one of the most important artists of our time, because she reflects this so dramatically and authentically.

As for lacking focus, M.I.A. actually seems as fiercely concentrated as ever on her favourite political themes, complaining about borders on ‘Borders’, visas on ‘Visa’, and lack of freedom on ‘Freedun’. Not quite sure how the critics missed them. Rolling in on her swagger van from the ‘People’s Republic of Swaggerstan’, she both parodies and embodies leftist ideals of universal humanism, scathingly one moment: ‘Do you wanna sign my petition?/It’s for the people with dedication’ and poetically the next: ‘I don’t need a religion/I’m a new frontier on horizons’. All of these lines come from a song which co-stars Zayn Malik, chosen I believe for his Pakistani heritage in another symbolic gesture towards the breakdown of traditional notions of nationhood. It’s all about focus, you see, and M.I.A. displays plenty of it.

That said, I would agree that this is her weakest album to date, but not for the lazy reasons cited above. It flounders a little because the creative energy is not as headspinning as on earlier instalments from her career, by which I mean the wordplay is not as funny or inventive (‘staying rich like an ostrich’ is one of the worst puns of the year), the choruses are not as addictive or hooky, and the beats are too often approaching second rate (only ‘Visa’ truly gets the pulse running). Not one song approaches the highs of ‘Galang’, ‘Bucky Done Gun’, ‘Paper Planes’, or ‘Bad Girls’. Collaborations with Skrillex, Blaqstarr, and Diplo don’t generate the cheap thrills that they promise to on paper.

Maybe that’s what people mean when they call this lacking in focus: quite simply, that it doesn’t have enough good songs. If so, they should be more careful with their words, because attacking an artist in such a way, especially one who is deliberately difficult to pin down, and is philosophically committed to blurring boundaries, is rather unhelpful. Still, AIM is a minor work, and one she should be able to improve upon in her next release. Because there will be a next release, right?

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Skeleton Tree – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

nick-cave-skeleton-tree.jpgI must admit that I approached this album with some dread. Last year Nick Cave suffered an unspeakably awful tragedy: the death of his teenage son, who fell from a cliff in Brighton, not far from where I currently live. Cave has hardly been a comfort at the best of times, obsessing over mortality, murder, and the macabre on his recorded output for over three decades. So an album from the darkest point in his life was a daunting prospect – not anywhere near approaching the unimaginable prospect of losing a child, of course, and I don’t mean to diminish Cave’s process of grieving in any way, but I knew that his perpetually adolescent morbidity would not leave him well-equipped to deal with such trauma, which would make for a fearsomely harrowing listening experience.

I was right. Yet looking into the making of the album complicates things, because writing and recording started in 2014, before Cave’s son died, and was completed in the aftermath, which throws into question how far the lyrics are a direct response to this tragedy or a premonition: the opening line for example, ‘You fell from the sky/Crash landed in a field/Near the River Adur’, appears to have been written beforehand, which is deeply unsettling. Cave’s been so consistently transfixed by the idea of death that both this and the rumination ‘I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world/In a slumber til you crumbled, were absorbed into the earth/I don’t think that anymore’ could easily have coexisted on any of his previous albums, so contextualising them in the event of his recent loss is both inevitable and questionable.

What is truly undeniable, however, is the haunting devastation of the music, so relentlessly bleak as to be almost voyeuristic in its insight into Cave’s turmoil. The Bad Seeds never rock, never break out into the magnificent fury that epitomises their legendary live performances, instead being subdued to the point of claustrophobia. Harmony, melody, and tunefulness are all elements that can’t survive in this arid environment, built up from waves of reverberated feedback and electronically derived howls of despair that quietly fill in the caverns audibly gaping in Cave’s normally unassailable baritone. Like Johnny Cash in the American Recordings albums, his voice’s struggle to sustain a note or even stay in tune makes the human suffering behind it all the more apparent. That’s why I think this album is voyeuristic, because it’s defined by Cave’s need to openly exhibit his pain.

I understand this need: it is the artist’s impulse. But I feel it necessary to take an objective stance and declare this album a weak one, despite my sympathy for the tragic circumstances in which it was made. It is flat in tone and the music rarely achieves transcendent moments (Else Torp’s vocals on ‘Distant Sky’ are an exception). I would not recommend it to anyone who is grieving, nor would I turn to it myself, because there are already far more varied, tricky, and accomplished albums out there: John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, for instance, or Iris DeMent’s My Life, or Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog. These all tackle the experience of losing a loved one in both specific and universalised ways, tackling a wide range of emotions that console as well as despair, therefore overshadowing the singularly insular Skeleton Tree.

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Reviews Roundup: Sausage Party; Britney Spears

IN CINEMAS

Sausage Party

Let’s face it, Seth Rogen’s films have always been a bit of a sausage-fest, so this one reallySausage-Party-0.jpg shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s based on a deliberately stupid idea by Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Jonah Hill: ‘What would it be like if our food had feelings? We very quickly realised that it would be fucked up.’

And fucked up it most certainly is: as the food items are inevitably sliced, diced, and eaten alive by the humans they refer to as ‘Gods’, the gross-out humour quickly reaches South Park levels of extremity. But Sausage Party also aims for South Park levels of satirical insight: much has been made of its atheistic moralising, and the critics are right, religion does get the most jabs here, with the downright silliness of a belief in the ‘Great Beyond’ shown to increase the divisions between the different food types and leads, for example, to demands to ‘kill the fruits’. What’s more, everyone secretly wants to screw each other, but they abstain out of a fear that ‘the Gods are always watching’ and will punish them in the land beyond the supermarket. And then they die anyway…

A neat idea, but as this year’s glut of failures have already proven (Batman vs Superman, Suicide Squad, Miles Ahead, the remake of The Jungle Book), high concept does not always equal high quality. Sadly, this film falls down on what should be its primary selling point: the jokes, which are substandard. With the Rogen team on board, you might be able to guess a lot of them anyway – yes, there are male junk, pot, and potty-mouthed gags galore. In his live action output he’s managed endless variations on the same punchlines – and I’m not ribbing him, their goofy stupidity is self-conscious enough to be frequently charming. But here there is just too much reliance on the assumed shock value of watching different animated foods swearing at each other, which stops being subversive and starts being tedious quite quickly. Plus the script’s food-related puns are just as bad but more frequent than you might expect, and pop culture references to Saving Private Ryan, Stephen Hawking, and The Beatles are not amusing enough to rise above the level of pastiche.

A shame, but then again I can’t entirely knock a film whose message is to stop worrying about the afterlife and to start living out your innermost desires, so long as they don’t harm anyone else – because if not now, then when? ‘The Great Beyond is bullshit’ – exactly. And when the film’s utopian alternative to religion is depicted in a genuinely outrageous scene (you’ll know it when you see it), which almost landed it with an NC-17 rating in America, I can’t help but be cheered by its unexpected existence at the end of a woefully bland summer for cinema.

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ON SPOTIFY

Glory – Britney Spears

britney-spears-glory.jpgListening to Britney’s early stuff these days is mildly disturbing – she comes across as a distinctly weird male producer’s submissive bimbo fantasy: she’ll let you hit her …Baby One More Time, she was Born to Make You Happy, she’s addicted to you though she knows that you’re Toxic etc. Her tinny, weak, babyish voice and porno schoolgirl outfits helped to deal a further blow to the empowered feminine pop star image forged by Madonna. However, as time wore on and seminal artists such as Pink, Beyoncé, and Rihanna carried on the Material Girl’s work in the no-male-bullshit vein of female pop, Britney sniffed a commercial wind and soon followed suit. She did well to do so: on tracks like ‘Circus’, ‘Womanizer’ and especially ‘Piece of Me’ there’s simply no doubting that she sounds like a bad motherfucker.

Yet she’s never convincingly sustained this attitude over album length – until now, that is: Glory is her crowning achievement to date. Of course it’s about sex, but that doesn’t mean it’s dumb, and it certainly doesn’t mean it’s anti-feminist, as some clueless cultural commentators always pounce in to argue. On the beautiful opening track she reverses gender roles and plays Christian Grey to her partner’s Anastasia Steele in a bondage fantasy; on another she puts on a Private Show for her man which ends with his tasting her ‘apple pie’; on yet another she demands that a lover stop talking and ‘come talk to me with your touch’. On nearly every track Britney sounds in control, of both her own pleasure and her man’s, making Glory an advocate for mutually enjoyable sex to place alongside Beyoncé, even if it doesn’t quite reach the same ecstatic heights. ‘Nobody should be alone if they don’t have to be’, she insists. Right on.

When Britney attempts to move the album’s discussion on from sex to love, the results are more mixed: ‘It’s just so hard to forget ya’ and ‘I’m not gonna ask you for something/Just luv me’ are very dull choruses indeed. But suddenly there will be moments of perceptiveness to stop you in your tracks: when she discovers a woman atop her boyfriend, for example, who exasperatingly she realises looks ‘Just Like Me’, a concern that obsesses her more than the act of betrayal itself. And brilliant lines such as ‘Put your love all over me’, which manages to be both a double entendre and not, more than make up for any occasional slips into mawkishness.

The music itself never stops resisting sentimentality, a combination of slick R&B and EDM which comes to a head on ‘Clumsy’ with a bass drop that is both cheesy and, accompanied by a defiantly girly ‘woo!’ from Britney, incredibly charming. The sonic precedent here is clearly Justin Bieber’s Purpose, but that album fell flat on its face due to lifeless vocals, whereas Glory opens up new avenues of vigour and subtlety in Britney’s voice that just keep on giving. Try ‘Man on the Moon’, ‘Love Me Down’ or ‘What You Need, for instance, exciting and mature and surprising performances the lot of them.

Glory is like all of the best pop music: it just wants to make you laugh, it just wants to make you smile, it just wants to make you dance – and if you think there’s something artistically redundant in all of that then you’re wrong – but it also contains lyrical surprises that evolve in power and complexity all the time. So she doesn’t actually write her own songs. And uses autotune on occasion. Tell me about it. I’ll be over here, listening again, having too much fun to care.

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