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.


 

Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton – Choir of the Mind

Choir of the Mind

I actually wasn’t even going to write about this one, for the opposite reason: it’s clearly Fine. It’s a good album that sounds good, and my initial impression was that that was it, and that it was otherwise kind of obvious and simplistic. The title allegedly refers to the endless war of competing voices inside your head, which like, we know, that’s literally all anyone ever talks about anymore, like that idea itself is the main thing crowding out most people’s heads, and I’m not convinced this really helps there. Like, “the things you own, they own you” is not exactly what I would consider shockingly original 21st century moral philosophy. Musically, too, it’s, like, a soft pop album. It’s not like it’s trivial, there’s nihilist abysses and bodies buried in the garden and everything, but it feels like something you’ve heard before. It kind of overstays its welcome in some ways. The songs feel longer than they need to be, looping around the same parts for what seems like forever, and the title track has way too many fucking words in it.

In this case I’m not actually confused, though. I wasn’t kidding about it being good, and with some time now I’m certain that it’s actually good. I don’t have a thorough technical explanation for this, but then I’m probably not supposed to. I can’t actually detect what it is that makes “Legend of the Wild Horse” sound good, it’s kind of dense and plodding without any clear draw (and certainly without any wildness), but it actually does sound good. The whole album is a good experience to listen to and it’s something that’s worth spending time on. At the risk of overshooting it, I think that the obviousness of this album is actually just the obviousness of the truth. Sometimes obvious things are worth paying attention to, and sometimes something that already exists is the right thing.


 

The Raveonettes – 2016 Atomized

2016 Atomized

This was a formal experiment – the songs were written, recorded, and released one per month over the course of 2016 – and it shows in an almost literal sense. Its low-ceilinged, metallic sound makes it feel like it was soldered together in an underground laboratory. The songs are disconnected and wildly variant in more than the way you’d expect, but even more than that, each individual song frequently swings back and forth between tones and tempos, so the whole thing is basically as disorienting as possible. At the same time, this is coming from a band that has fully mastered its sound, so they manage to make the whole thing work like this while also making it feel completely on-point. It takes a mystery and forces it to stay mysterious, and also forces it to stay engaging and vital, making the experience of the mystery itself, even with any possibility of resolution foreclosed, the thing that matters. With every explicit source of unity denied, the one thing that does actually hold it all together is the implicit underlying essence – the thing that you can’t actually hear or define, but that logically must exist. The closer takes this all the way over the top, plowing through at least four distinct songs, continually denying an ending by starting itself up again over and over in different forms, like a ghost refusing to die.


 

Chastity Belt – I Used To Spend So Much Time Alone

I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone

“Relatable” is one of the basic terms in which people generally praise things, but I don’t think this is really justified. If what’s “good” about something is simply that you recognize it from somewhere else, then it is precisely not telling you anything you don’t already know, and the only reason this can be interpreted as a positive thing is if all you want to feel is comfortable. It is in this sense that the problem I have here is that this is literally the most relatable album I’ve ever heard, like straight out of my fucking diary. (Representatively uncanny example: “I got up when it was getting dark / that’s not how life is supposed to work.”) Despite the departure implied by the title, this album is actually a particularly severe doubling-down. It takes the moody, introspective aspect of the band’s previous work, dives straight into the middle of it, and never looks back. It sounds more than anything like being alone in your own room, with your own thoughts.

This isn’t to say that it’s naive. The title track anticlimaxes here:

Out of the fog and finally feeling fine

My doubts are all gone and I’m having a pretty good time

Feeling like a real champ, but for how long

I used to spend so much time alone

The understatement and the tense, aching delivery undercut the literal sentiment: this person is clearly not fine and is not going to be fine. So the fact that it picks up a little bit right at the end ironically has the opposite effect: it underscores the feeling of enervation while backsliding lyrically, falling into self-recrimination one last time before drowning in a squall of feedback. But I also already knew this; it’s characteristic of the situation that you constantly feel like there’s something “more” you need to be doing, somewhere “out there,” that would finally fix everything, and that, despite things that seem like occasional positive signs, this never actually happens. (I gather that people who are constantly in the thick of things feel the same way in reverse, that if they could just get away and “recenter” then everything would be fine, hence new-age meditation apps and soforth.) Expecting “advice” in a situation like this is clearly foolish, but what’s striking here is that an album explicitly about transition and change so resolutely refuses either. It’s constantly tense and implicitly aspirational, and it never gets beyond those feelings.

So it’s obviously pretty “down,” but the top-class guitar work helps a lot. It’s on that level that the album actually does shine brighter than the dawn – which suggests something else hidden between both kinds of lines. The occurrence of this type of expression in expert-level work implies that it’s not as banal as it sounds. It isn’t a complaint or a failing; it’s part of the basic structure of human social reality. The album never gets beyond it because there is nothing beyond it. The things that seem “inspirational” are actually the other way around: not lights that guide us closer to reality, but illusions that distract us from it. This is everything we have.


 

Sallie Ford – Soul Sick

Soul Sick

I’ve felt in the past that Sallie Ford could be a little too cute for her own good, but she really brings it all together on this one. It features her tightest songwriting and classiest production, with killer musicianship all around. Combining this with lyrics about depression, doubt, and failure makes it all vividly emotional without being either maudlin or twee. The fact that this is all as straightforward as possible, in terms of both sound and lyrics (“I’m talking about that feeling when you feel like giving up”), is, paradoxically, what makes it unusually affecting. The content being so wallowy while the style is so retro-cute (it honks the honk only because it is fully capable of tonking the tonk) cancels out the downsides of each mode of expression and leaves nothing but honesty and power. Even if you’re one of these op-ed assholes who’s always complaining about kids these days being too “ironic” or whatever, you just can’t listen to this and claim that any of it’s any kind of pose. This is a person expressing herself in the form that she prefers to use, and she’s doing a really good job of it. You don’t have the option of taking a high-handed approach here. Your options are to hit it or quit it.

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