Good albums of 2017, part 5

Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm

Out in the Storm

I originally felt that what was good about Waxahatchee was the arrangements – that is, the basic hyper-raw stuff was, like, fine, but it wasn’t all that compelling until it was formed into interesting songs. Then I saw her do a solo set that was totally amazing, and it completely reversed my viewpoint – the most basic aspects of her songs are what really weave the magic. So hearing this album after that was kind of A Thing, on account of a) it’s a polished and professional rock album, so it’s both highly stylized and completely straightforward, b) the demos were all released alongside the album, so you also have all the songs in their elemental forms, and c) it’s actually about changing perspectives.

The thing about the demos is that they make it very clear that the whole of each song is already there at that point. With rock in particular you’d think that you don’t have it unless you have the big sound, but the demos clearly have it. The two notes and the vocals on “Recite Remorse” actually are the whole thing. Of course, the importance of the vocals is far from trivial – they don’t have any particular gimmick or even complexity to them, but Katie Crutchfield’s plain-sounding voice is deceptively powerful. But it’s also the majesty of structure, the way that, when you have things organized in just the right way, you barely need anything at all. So this is almost like a white paper on songwriting; you can see the whole thing being built from the ground up.

And yet, as much as it all sounds like everything coming together, it’s actually about things falling apart. It’s a calm and dignified act of coughing up blood. With the extreme amount of polish and professionalism, as well as rock being particularly suited to expressing confidence, the heavy self-abnegation and even shame in the lyrics comes across very strangely. The singer here is someone committed to her own smallness and vulnerability, while the foil she sets up for herself consists of overbearing self-assurance. The album opens with “Never Been Wrong” as a criticism of the kind of person who promotes “narcissistic injury disguised as masterpiece,” and the singer’s complete admission of her failure here (“I got lost in your rendition of reality”) ends up being her active defense. Recognizing that “I could have fought with you forever and never break through,” she chooses to quit the war for order and let go of comfort. The album’s straightforward and even placid nature ultimately forms a commitment to chaos: “I went out in the storm, and I’m never returning.” This decision isn’t made in resignation, as grim acceptance of an unalterable reality, but as a positive choice, as the actual right thing.

“Sparks Fly” is the center from which the rest of the album grows out. The fact that the song doesn’t sound at all live-wire-y physicalizes the conclusion that things aren’t just how they feel to one individual. Electricity is a potential difference; it doesn’t arise by itself from one particular type of material, it happens when wires cross, or when things strike together. It’s by changing her perspective, by “seeing myself through my sister’s eyes,” that the singer is finally able to make the choice to stay unreconciled – which includes the irreconcilability of other perspectives, the absolute inability to get through to some people, and the necessity of dropping dead weight. “I know you don’t recognize me, but I’m a live wire, finally.”

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Good albums of 2017, part 4

Austra – Future Politics

Future Politics

I’m putting this on here because I’m completely conflicted about it. I’ve tried, but I can’t bring myself to like it. The vocals are still killer, but the music here is chill in the worst sense to the term: neither energetic enough to be exciting nor unpleasant enough to be interesting. It’s dull and unevocative, and all the more so for the blatant provocativeness of the titles. It completely goes to sleep halfway through and never really wakes up. None of the lyrics add enough context to compel attention (again despite the titles; for the record, this was written before the bottom fell out of the world, so it’s not explicitly about that, but as you know, everything happening now has a cause and was foreseeable and is understandable, so addressing anything in this vicinity bears on that endeavor. Not that that matters right now).

But despite all this, I don’t actually think it’s bad. I mean, it’s clearly not a “mistake”; it’s clearly exactly the album it’s supposed to be. But I don’t feel like any of the available options here really add up. One is that it’s a good album in the service of evil – obviously not, like, in the Leni Riefenstahl sense, but nonetheless a bad idea that happens to be expertly executed. This is putting the line in entirely the wrong place, though; if you actually accepted this proposition the amount of aesthetic culling you would have to do would be totally untenable. So the alternative (the one that most people accept implicitly and that you’re probably rolling your eyes at me for not just assuming) is that this is a perfectly salutary work that just happens not to be to my taste. That’s certainly the easy answer, but I’m pretty sure it’s too easy. I’m pretty sure my objections here are substantive. I’m not personally against chillness; I’m actually low-energy to the point of immorality. Rather, chillness is rationally harmful in ways that can be elucidated in technical philosophical terms. So I’m intellectually obligated not to close this case. I feel a very strong gap here, and I don’t know where it is, and I’ll admit that right now that’s all I have, and that my only claim on your time here is that I think this issue is worth highlighting. I guess this is the sense in which this album really did make an impact on me. It’s something I can’t understand yet, but which I’m forced to acknowledge right now.

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