Bettye LaVette: Things Have Changed (2018) – Album Review

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The best Bob Dylan covers album EVER comes, amazingly, from a woman who doesn’t even particularly like the man’s music: “I’ve never just sat and listened to Dylan. This is strictly the idea of the executive producer,” she told Rolling Stone in a revealing interview, “I have not heretofore been a Dylan fan, per se.”

Yet that lack of reverence is exactly what makes this collection so electric; worshipping at the altar of an artist saps the life out of all too many tribute albums, as take for example the recent Johnny Cash: Forever Words (what words are forever, eh?). 72-year-old soul singer Bettye LaVette, who has not even the tiniest fraction of Dylan’s success or fortune despite a 40 year career, has the guts to mess with the Nobel Laureate’s work, adding a ‘fucked up’ or a ‘bullshit’ here, a reference to Bruno Mars there, and swapping the gender pronouns on several tracks (Dylan pulled the same trick to queer “She’s Funny That Way” on this year’s Universal Love EP, so I’m sure he would approve). What’s more, she deletes several verses of “Ain’t Talkin’”, adds her own lines to some songs, and perhaps most impishly of all she chooses to cover tracks mostly from his ’80s to early ’90s “lost” period, which is by far his most critically maligned.

This idiosyncrasy suits the restlessly rebellious nature of Dylan, who of course has been covering other master’s songs himself recently with an equally erratic approach. And it adds so much more to the Dylan canon than just yet more po-faced covers of “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “Tangled Up in Blue” etc. It reveals the energy and brilliance hidden deep in the songwriting during his “lost” period, when his performances really were not up to scratch. “Political Science” sounds so much more desperate than it did on Oh Mercy where it was dry as hell, the repetition of “the next day could be your last” in LaVette’s rasp killing you as it continually prods at the open wound that is today’s politics; she sounds like she’s wiping the sweat and tears away from her eyes after every painful utterance.

At the other end of the spectrum, “Mama, You Been On My Mind” soulfully tips the hat to LaVette’s mother where the original seemed to kiss (or piss) off a lover. And “Do Right to Me Baby” actually generates some heat, a fast plane zooming rather than a Slow Train Coming.

All of this eclecticism is impressive and guided by LaVette’s range and responsiveness to the dense lyrics. But it’s also down to a stellar backing band, which includes guitarist Larry Campbell, who was actually in Dylan’s band for years, and drummer Steve Jordan, whose groove never wavers. Plus there’s a guest turn from Keith Richards, and lots of bongo and steel guitar embellishments that keep on surprising. It’s all spare, yet musically dexterous, and packed with flickers of nuance that you won’t get bored of investigating. Much like LaVette’s voice.

About half of the tracks meander too long to reach their destination (particularly “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Emotionally Yours”). And I’m somewhat disappointed that LaVette’s Dylan eschews the zanier, more comedic elements of his character. Yet Dylan is such an enormous, contradictory, and fascinating mess of a figure, that it’s somewhat wrong for me to impose my Dylan on LaVette, who has chosen her own here and has so convincingly argued for it. In fact, it’s more convincing as a whole than anything Dylan’s done since Love and Theft. Which deserves immense respect.

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Janelle Monáe: Dirty Computer (2018) – Album Review

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She’s done all the right things – got rid of the orchestral suites and 20 minutes of filler that bogged down her last two albums, written brighter and catchier songs, and relegated most of the sci-fi silliness to the accompanying “emotion picture”. So ignore all the guff about this being a portrait of our times etc.; I count only one line that has real contemporary relevance (“if you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy bite you back”). The rest is the same generalised dystopian territory about The Other (in her case an android) being victimised and brutalised by a futuristic society that she’s been mining since the beginning of her career. So generalised are the thematics that it could be applied to just about any era, where certain groups of people have always been subjugated – which is, I’m sure, the intention, to make this shit seem universal.

But though she’s no Margaret Atwood, George Orwell or Fritz Lang, I of course fully endorse and get behind the “love in queer spaces” schtick that she celebrates as an alternative to societal (usually white, male, heterosexual) oppression – now or in the vague future. I love that she’s had the confidence to come out as pansexual recently, and I love the reclamation of the colour “Pynk” from cock-rockers Aerosmith with such crafty lines as: “Pynk like the tongue that goes down, maybe… Pynk like the folds of your brain, crazy”. The video builds on that great idea of female self-identification as both lustful and intellectual, taking equal pride in both, with witty fashion choices that need to be seen to be believed. And when her vagina takes a monologue in the confidently rapped “Django Jane”, you know that this album is feminism done right – funny, bold, outrageous, and with just the right level of defiance to patriarchal norms (a high level of defiance).

So it’s easy to be in awe of this album – yet, unfortunately, it’s not as consistently brilliant as I’d expect a great one to be. There are some dud moments towards the end, particularly the 6-minute slog “Don’t Judge Me”, which kills the jubilant vibes of the previous 5 tracks with a slow march to nowhere, and the subpar “So Afraid”, which is only redeemed by the “Let’s Go Crazy”-inspired mission statement of the final track that follows it, “Americans”.

Yep, as has been widely reported Prince is all over this album, which makes sense as he was reportedly working on it with Monáe before he died. He’s there thematically in the “party like it’s the end of the world” track “Crazy, Classic, Life”, and he’s musically everywhere. From the stylistic voraciousness to the pop-funk-rock fusion at its heart, his influence is clearly felt, but particularly and most unavoidably on the “Kiss” ripoff “Make Me Feel”.

I say “ripoff” in the kindest possible way – I adore “Make Me Feel”, it’s easily my favourite song of the year so far, and it’s been in my head for days. Yet, ironically given the theme of the album, it’s a virtual clone of that Prince classic, from its stop-start syncopation right down to the bare bones of its spare funk. I like to see it as a homage, and a great one – Prince is my second favourite artist of all time (after The Beatles) and I sincerely wish more singers would follow his superb blueprint. And it’s an added bonus that my favourite song of the year also contains my favourite line: “powerful with a little bit of tender” is a phrase that has also been in my head for days, a perfect description of falling in love. Just perfect.

There are enough pop hooks and exciting rhythmic touches to keep the rest of the album close to that high level of artistry, although after multiple replays the infectiousness of “Take a Byte” and “Screwed” has faded for this listener. I think Monáe has some work to do to match the consistency of her greatest idol, The Purple One. But this is definitely a significant step in the right direction.

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Ashley Monroe: Sparrow (2018) – Album Review

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The artistic dominance of country gals continues. As Ashley Monroe’s vocals flutter above the strings and piano that adorn this album, I’m reminded that hers is perhaps the prettiest voice of all the great country women to emerge this century.

And perhaps that’s why, of all the Pistol Annies, she means the least to me. I’ve always preferred grit and character to prettiness, which is why I’ll always prefer Angaleena Presley and particularly Miranda Lambert to Monroe.

Yet, luckily, just like all of the other Pistol Annies, she’s got a hell of a way with words, which rescues her from floating away into the realm of mildly pleasant background music (like Kacey Musgraves’ overpraised Golden Hour). “Orphan” starts the album off with a touching question: “How does a sparrow know more than I?/When its mother is gone, it learns how to fly/With no direction, its wings in the wind/How does a bird know more than I?” It conjures up an orphaned child’s experience of hopelessness with an innocence that is made all the more poignant with the chorus’ “How do I make it alone?” Monroe lost her father to cancer at the age of 13, so it’s hard not to read this as autobiography. Not all of the other songs can be categorised so neatly.

But then, in a conceptual coup, she later on talks directly to her father, as a successful young woman who, like the sparrow she observed as a child, has learnt to fly: “Daddy I told you I was gonna fly/I’d get out of that town alive” she coos to him on the gorgeous “Daddy I Told You”. And then she flies even further in his direction on the last track, “Keys to the Kingdom”, where she joins him in heaven, and they are reunited as Elvis sings them a country tune or two.

And indeed, Elvis was partly the inspiration for the musical concept of this album, with his latter-period strings-dominated country phase all over Sparrow. Monroe decided to ditch long-time producer Vince Gill to work with Nashville’s eminent Dave Cobb, and together they create a mostly successful hybrid of country and classical embellishments. Sometimes it slips over into mawkishness and becomes a kind of ersatz muzak as opposed to country, which bothers me. But mostly the restraint of the musical touches makes it work. The strings rarely overpower Monroe, which is crucial because the lyrics are so important.

Intense therapy sessions apparently resulted in this album’s creation. It was worth it.

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Cardi B: Invasion of Privacy (2018) – Album Review

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Bronx stripper to Instagram celebrity to reality TV star to (the only one I care about) rap star – ain’t the usual route. But then, what is? I admire Cardi B’s guts, strength, and perseverance in this mean old world, what she calls her rags-to-riches “Binderella” story, even if she was once Bloods-affiliated. And I admire her music even more. Cardi has a dramatic, forceful, and resilient flow reminiscent of Nicki Minaj, if not quite as inventive, and her rhyming skills are impressive and inherently musical in the way they bend vowels and consonants to meet her huge, ego-driven will. “Bodak Yellow” became a number one smash last year off the back of her delivery alone, and deserved it. But it’s just one of many such highlights on Invasion of Privacy, which is fun pretty much top to bottom, with the only exceptions being a couple of slower ones that fail to generate interest in her “vulnerable” side (CupcakKe had the same problem this year as well). Cardi transcends the trap production elements that her music is inevitably tied to, trap being a commercial boon at the moment, with some great sample choices and guest stars who turn the party up. The Obvious Sample Brigade might be offended by “I Like It” and its generous helping of the boogaloo classic “I Like it Like That”, but I think it shows off her Latin roots (her first language is Spanish) with a pride that is massively endearing. The Obvious Guest Star Brigade might be offended by Chance the Rapper turning up for an extended spot on “Best Life”, but I’m certain that it’s one of the album’s highlights, and his trademark positivity definitively buoys up the mood on an already celebratory track. But really, overall, this is undoubtedly Cardi’s show, as she swaggers and struts and guns down real and imaginary enemies all across the album with irresistible panache. It’s the first album to really make me laugh out loud this year, several times, but particularly when she declares on “I Do”: “pussy so good I said my own name during sex”. Now that’s good. A new rap star who’s funny, charismatic, exciting, and musically adventurous? You better believe that everything about her’s the real thing – except her boobs, that is.

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Mount Eerie: Now Only (2018) – Album Review

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I’ve found it hard to write anything about Mount Eerie’s two latest albums because they’re so unbelievably harrowing. It takes courage to listen, let alone write about them. Written and recorded after the death of his wife, Geneviève, from pancreatic cancer, Phil Elverum writes so directly about his trauma, about the carnage left behind by death for him and his daughter, that sitting through them can be tough work. Not only does he confront you with the inevitability of death for all of us and our loved ones, but he does so with a bullshit-free approach that rejects any easy, trite path to a silver lining. There are no silver linings in death; only black, stormy clouds.

Morbid details linger – taking out the bathroom trash which contains the last, bloody bodily remnants of his wife, for instance, or her bones surfacing from the garden’s soil in Now Only‘s “Earth”. These details approach being uncomfortably voyeuristic. But they also have a point: to show that death is not a metaphor, not a thing to write about poetically (although he does try that out on occasion), but a real, biological, and inevitably messy process. And because he conveys the horror of death better than just about anyone I’ve ever heard, read or seen, I find myself returning to these albums, unable to avert my ears, on a regular basis.

Now Only seems to me even more powerful than A Crow Looked at Me, because Elverum’s emerged from the stupor of his wife’s death enough to attach some telling musical details to his writing that help to convey his frightening lyrical ideas even more clearly. So the 10-minute “Distortion” contains, yep, feedback distortion that builds to a climax under his description of a pregnancy scare following a one-night-stand in his youth, tying the thoughts of birth to the chaotic thoughts of death that permeate the rest of the album. Then, when the scare turns out to be a false alarm, the distortion recedes again, into the sea of everyday life that’s represented here by Elverum’s ever-tunelessly-strumming acoustic guitar.

He’s unafraid to multitrack his own voice on occasion to create a palimpsest of horror, perhaps inspired by John Lennon’s similar technique on Plastic Ono Band, the cornerstone of all frank, bleak, and unremittingly personal records.

And most disturbingly of all, there’s the title track, with its catchy chorus that you may find yourself, incredibly and awfully, singing along to several days later: “People get cancer and die/People get hit by trucks and die/People just living their lives/Get erased for no reason/With the rest of us watching from the side”.

The effect of the whole album is horrible, moving, and should not be missed by any honest person who wants to square up to where we’re all heading. Because Elverum is unflinchingly honest; he sings on the last track, “Crow Pt. 2”, in his quietly desolate tone of voice: “Every day that comes, the echo of you living here gets quieter/Obscured by the loud wind of us now”.

He’s reached a point following his wife’s death where their past together is beginning to fade, despite his best efforts to preserve her memory. And his future with their daughter is uncertain, as life always is with human beings – what if he dies in a plane crash, or gets cancer and dies, or gets hit by a truck and dies?

So where does that leave Elverum, and all human beings for that matter?

With just two words, really: Now Only.

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Young Fathers: Cocoa Sugar (2018) – Album Review

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Who would’ve guessed that the first ace hip-hop album of the year would come from Edinburgh? Anyone who’s followed this group, I guess. Comprised of two rapper-singers of Liberian and Nigerian descent, as well as a Caucasian beatmaker, this Scottish trio came to music lovers’ attentions and surprised everyone by winning the Mercury Prize in 2014 for their cheerfully titled debut Dead. Eccentric, eclectic, clever, and beatwise, they deserved it. Yet they’ve always made too much of a virtue out of being weird, and Cocoa Sugar is no exception. So, for example, a strikingly pretty gospel song like “Lord” is intercut with loud electronic buzzing, or the vocals in the catchy “Turn” are distorted to the point of irritation. These are examples of the band’s uncompromising nature, some might argue. Or perhaps they’re just a case of trying too hard not to fit in with pop culture norms, in the classic hipster mould? I’m not sure, but overall Cocoa Sugar is an enjoyable ride, weird-ass warts and all. Graham “G” Hastings’ beats scuttle across the album like insects, occasionally annoying yet always catching your attention and usually for good reasons, as on the rapid-fire “Wire” or curious bongo-ballad “In My View”. And the rappers deliver some neat lines in charismatic tones – they’re the second band this year to lay down the sarcastic phrase “what a time to be alive” (on “Wow”), and they sound just as bitter as Superchunk about the state of the world as they utter it, especially as they follow it up with another scabrous dose of irony: “I’m going to put myself first”. And then, at the end, they put forward a great defence of their musical and general strangeness: “Good men are strange, bad men are obvious”. Fair enough, lads. You almost convince me.

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Superchunk: What a Time to Be Alive (2018) – Album Review

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Sure, we all hate Trump. Right? But Superchunk hate all of his supporters too, and hate them hard: “All these old men won’t die too soon/Flesh balloons still waving their arms around”. Ouch.

Because they’re getting on a bit themselves, they’ve been around since 1990 the old codgers, Superchunk get away with this blatant ageism, although perhaps not their oversimplifying of why white people voted for Trump in the first place: “Darkness was all you wanted”. Hell, there were legitimate reasons to be frustrated with Obama’s America. And I’m sure many people saw hope in Trump for genuine change, as absurd as that may seem. Yet there’s no denying that everyone who voted for him was well aware of his sickening misogyny and racist attitudes, and in choosing to ignore that they deserve the world’s contempt. Superchunk certainly think so: “There’s a crooked line that runs/Through every crease in this map/And you want to take us all the way back” they spit at everyone who voted for him.

Perhaps a little more empathy would’ve made this a great rock album. But as it stands, it’s a terrific, waspish punk album with a driving purpose. Most tracks tackle Trump and his supporters head-on, as so little music has thus far. “How has it come to this?” the album gasps in horror, gazing at the moral abyss that is the Donald. “What a time to be alive!” it exclaims, with several lifetime’s worth of sarcastic resentment built up; the combined age of the four band members is close to 200 (and you can sense that weariness in “Erasure”).

Middle-aged they may be, but Superchunk have put out their most cohesive, youthful-sounding, and invigorating blast of rage so far. Since their renaissance in 2010 with Majesty Shredding they’ve been getting steadily better, more confident and dynamic with each release. What a Time to Be Alive zips by in just over half an hour, but it brims with great ideas, such as getting Stephin Merritt and Katie Crutchfield amongst others to join them on choruses to create a sense of community that counteracts the sense of alienation with their country. The overall feeling is uplifting not depressing, with “Break the Glass”, “Erasure”, and “Reagan Youth” perhaps their catchiest and most involving songs ever written. The music is welcoming rather than hostile; fun rather than abrasive. Song after song hits home, sometimes in less than two minutes. It’s all over so fast, like many of the best punk albums, but it’s catchy enough to merit the many replays its length allows for.

For a band that sounds so excited by music, Superchunk were brave enough to declare that they actually hated music in 2013, and in 2018 they still don’t think it’s good enough. Here’s lead singer and guitarist Mac McCaughan promoting the album: “I didn’t buy the silver lining some were promoting that ‘well, at least art and music will be great now!’ Obviously, any sane person would gladly trade four to eight years of terrible music for not having our country dismantled to satisfy the whims of a vengeful child and his enablers.”

Right on. I’d do anything for this album to not have to exist. But we’re here now; and Trump’s still in the White House; so hey, let’s make the most of it and play this one fucking loud.

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Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet: Landfall (2018) – Album Review

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In which two of America’s finest experimental artists team up to create a modern classical suite about Hurricane Sandy, the deadliest hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, which caused approximately $68.7 billion of damage (the fourth largest amount in American history). The damage happened to include Laurie Anderson’s house in New York, which had to be evacuated during the storm. That understandably traumatic experience provides the narrative drive of this album.

Kronos Quartet, fresh off their excellent collaboration with Malian collective Trio Da Kali last year, here create a frightening impression of the hurricane, with their traditional lineup swirling around each other in frenzies that sound bigger than the four instruments that are playing, simply because of the forcefulness and technical skill they evince. The way each player scrapes and drives the sound out from their respective strings can be frightening in intensity, particularly on “Dawn of the World” and “It Twisted the Street Signs”, which really do sound like their titles. They convey a fierce natural world, one that has no need for human interference and can easily eradicate mankind’s achievements with just the barest of warnings.

Laurie Anderson drives the apocalyptic vision of these pieces even further with glitchy electronic beats, distortions, and samples that rumble ominously beneath the acoustic instrumentation and occasionally erupt above them, as on “Never What You Think it Will Be”, which suddenly disrupts the somnolent flow of the previous track “Galaxies II” with its almost dubstep-like heavy introduction.

Yet I’m disappointed with the lack of Laurie Anderson’s distinctive narration on this album; she appears on only 6 out of the 30 tracks. To some of us, her spoken-word performances are as iconic as any of those by modern music’s great vocalists: so far as I’m concerned, she can proudly stand alongside Elvis Presley, Bryan Ferry, Morrissey, and of course her late husband Lou Reed. She’s every bit as distinctive, weird, tender, and frightening; her enunciation and timing is to die for. She should be considered the gold standard by any other spoken word performance artists. So the fact that Landfall is a mostly instrumental album at first limited my good impressions of it. Had she finally run out of verbal ideas?

But then I realised that the lack of spoken word performances was on purpose. Because Landfall is not just a concept album about Hurricane Sandy, it’s also a concept album about the failure of language to either describe or protect us from cataclysmic events.

Indeed, Anderson’s only attempt to describe the hurricane itself goes like this: “From above, Sandy was a huge swirl/That looked like the galaxies/Whose names I didn’t know”. She ends the description with a shrug, an acceptance of the limitations of her knowledge, and suggests how language can’t quite adequately describe the storm – she hasn’t got the words for it, she can’t offer up the names of those galaxies that it looks like. Then on the album’s centrepiece, “Nothing Left But Their Names”, Anderson contemplates how extinct animals eventually become nothing but their names in a book. Some people might think that this existence in a book grants the animals immortality, but Anderson knows better; in a later song called “Everything is Floating” (everything), she sees all of her books and all of her life’s work floating around in the basement after Hurricane Sandy, dissolving in the water, and she realises that nothing is permanent. Nothing lasts forever, not even the written word. Language is transient and inadequate; it cannot save us.

So it’s suitable that Laurie Anderson’s voice is lost in the storm on Landfall. Her musings float around the album’s wreckage, so ably conveyed by Kronos Quartet, like everything does in her basement following the storm, signifying so much, and yet signifying most of all human being’s insignificance in the face of the universe’s frighteningly unstoppable natural forces.

So it’s a work about our mortality, much like her previous masterpiece, 2015’s Heart of a Dog. And it’s a work about the frustrating limitations of language and technology, about the difficulties of human interaction in the modern age, much like her magnum opus, 1984’s United States Live.

It returns to all of her favourite themes then, but most of all, unspokenly, to her Buddhist faith. Because how does she react to the realisation of the pointless existence of mankind, and particularly of all the material possessions that we’ve accumulated, as she surveys the wreckage in her basement? With these words, in her inimitable voice:

“How beautiful/How magic/And how… catastrophic.”

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Rich Krueger – Life Ain’t That Long (2018) – Album Review

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In which a 58 year-old paediatrician from the US cobbles together his debut album (!) out of various folk-country-gospel-rock-R&B-jazz combinations. It works, partly because it’s so excellently produced and performed, but mostly because he writes his ass off and sings his vignettes in a style that evokes so many of the great singers from Van Morrison to Randy Newman.

Ironically, considering the album’s title, it can feel a little long (average track length is over 5 minutes), but Krueger uses the spaces in his songs to flesh out the many intriguing details. From past lovers to a car salesman to Sid Vicious and all the way back to Emperor Nero, his wit and perception can illuminate just about any character who wanders into the path of his keen writer’s gaze. Plus when he describes the year 1977 in “’77/17”, when he fucked it up with a perfect girl called Nancy, the setting feels as alive as any of his characters; everything he calls to our attention from the Bee Gees to “Susan Sarandon’s perfect tits” combine to paint a portrait of the past that reverberates with cynicism. And if you don’t get the decidedly bitter picture from the words then a rumbling, angry sax solo is there to help you understand.

Indeed, most of the musical touches manage to support the drama of the stories, and the overall ambition of the album is impressive. Girl group pop that’s been passed through the medium of Bruce Springsteen is evoked on “Then Jessica Smiled”; one of Van Morrison’s 70s live epics seems to ignite the spirit of the 7-minute “The Wednesday Boys”; some of The Band’s slower numbers (perhaps most of all “Unfaithful Servant”) bubble up to the surface of “What We Are”; Marvin Gaye and “Amazing Grace” are prominently quoted, both times for a good reason. With the exception of a female chorus that sentimentalises more than it energises, particularly on the icky (to my ears) “Can’t See Me in This Light”, all of Krueger’s choices sound magical. A violin that weaves its way in and out of many of the songs? Especially so.

I can only thank Robert Christgau for introducing me to yet another ace singer-songwriter, whose work I shall now follow for life. This is special, enlightening, and entertaining. I want more.

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Mary Gauthier: Rifles & Rosary Beads (2018) – Album Review

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In which a singer-songwriter from Nashville co-writes eleven songs with American war veterans and their wives; the result of her work with the charity SongwritingWith: Soldiers, this is Mary Gauthier’s most humane and moving album to date.

She sets the words and thoughts of these people to music that is respectful, sometimes harsh, and yet always empathetic. Overall, the album’s sound reminded me of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska; it has the same desolate atmosphere, a combination of acoustic guitar, voice and harmonica in which that trio of instruments sound so lonely and apart that they seem to offer no comfort to each other.

And yet here, coming in at expertly judged times, are electric guitars, violins, fiddles and a piano, which aim to soothe the broken souls on display in the lyrics. The music ultimately shows that we are “Stronger Together” (as the final track is purposefully called), and seeks to heal the minds broken by combat.

The veterans she collaborates with offer terrible glimpses into the mental devastation wrought by their time in war zones. On the opening “Soldiering On”, for example, there’s this heartbreaking turn of phrase: “I wore my uniform with honour/My service was not a sacrifice/But what saves you in the battle/Can kill you at home”. It sets up this album’s main driving purpose, which is to show that some veteran’s deepest scars are on the inside. How can you live with yourself after having killed others, paradoxically in order to have lived yourself? It’s a circle of hell that’s frightening to imagine. And this album helps you to imagine it.

Even more devastating is “Morphine 1-2”, in which a survivor wishes they could trade places with two of their dead comrades, and “Bullet Holes in the Sky”, in which another survivor views the celebratory atmosphere of Veterans Day with a mixture of emotions: “They thank me for my service and wave those little flags/They genuflect on Sundays, and I know they’d send us back”.

That last line is about as political as this album gets. It shows a repressed rage at the complicity of the masses in America’s ongoing fascination with war, and reminds us of so many scenes in Born on the Fourth of July. The leftist in me wishes there was a little more of this righteous anger on the album. A country that’s been constantly at war since the 1950s, and allowed so many of its own citizens to die or suffer for pointless military excursions, should be thoroughly taken to task. It’s not enough to point out that veterans need our help, as Mary Gauthier does so well; there needs to be calls for no more veterans to exist at all.

Yet the humanist in me finds this album to be a marvel, and also very important, in its acknowledgment of the ways in which women, as well as men, suffer in war. Seven of these eleven songs were co-written with women, including “Brothers”, in which a female veteran bemoans the language of Veterans Day (“Brothers in arms your sisters covered you/Don’t that make us your brothers too?”), and “The War After the War”, in which wives detail the difficulty of caring for their husbands after they’ve returned from combat (“I get no basic training/I get no purple heart”). Perhaps most tragically of all, “Iraq” tackles the issue of sexual abuse in the military, with a female mechanic finding herself fighting off the unwanted advances of a host of male supposed-comrades and ultimately concluding “My enemy wasn’t Iraq”.

I’m inspired by the braveness shown in taking on these thorny issues, and by Mary Gauthier’s determination to give a female voice to the traditionally masculine field of war and its traumatic after-effects. And I applaud the restraint of Gauthier’s own voice, which sympathetically relates the stories of all of these veterans without romanticising them all that much. Her unfussy vocals are perfectly suited to relaying the horrors that accompany the daily grind of survival for veterans.

In all, her album shows that most people will cling onto anything in order to survive, whether it’s something destructive like rifles in battle, something comforting like rosary beads at home, or something healing like music.

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