Band embrace anguish on 16th album.
"All the things we love, we lose," Nick Cave sings on "Anthrocene," a dark and jazzy rumination on loss from Skeleton Tree, his captivating 16th album with backing band the Bad Seeds. The song as a whole is so understated and loose that the earnestness of his lyrics catch you by surprise. Here is the dean of literary gothic song-craft, a master of wordplay, symbolism and irony, baring his soul like never before.
Although Cave still writes safely from the perspective of characters on Skeleton Tree's eight songs, the grief on each track is undeniably and uniquely his own. Last summer, while Cave was writing the record, one of his twin sons, Arthur, age 15, fell off a cliff to his death in Brighton, England. In the film One More Time With Feeling, which chronicles the making of the LP, Cave describes the aftereffects of his death as "trauma" and while it's impossible to tell exactly what parts of the album were written after he suffered such unimaginable tragedy, there's a sadness that pervades each of the songs in a way that's never previously surfaced in Cave's music. The record resonates with raw, emotional intensity in a stunning way.
In the past, whether as the frontman for post-punk bruisers the Birthday Party in the early Eighties, the lead lothario in Grinderman in the Aughts or with his ever-fluctuating orchestral-rock crew Bad Seeds over decades, Cave has reveled in foreboding, abjection, doomed romance and cruel fate. In 1996, he recorded an album called Murder Ballads, which claimed 60-or-so fictional casualties, and on his last album, 2013's Push the Sky Away, he morbidly turned Miley Cyrus into a bizarre symbol of inexplicable yearning in an otherwise pale song of despair. But on Skeleton Tree, it's much harder to separate Cave's art from his reality.
Musically, the record is uniformly and unusually sparse, dwelling in deep, bassy tones. Its closest analogs in the Cave catalogue are the ghostlike tones of his 1986 meditation "Stranger Than Kindness," the all-encompassing sorrow of 2001's "As I Sat Sadly by Her Side" and the whole of his brilliant 1996 singer-songwriter outing The Boatman's Call, but without the latter's canny wit. It's a sharp contrast to the rootsiness and gospel inflections of Push the Sky Away and his previous Bad Seeds LP Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!
He whispers in places where he used to shout, but his inflection says everything. "With my voice, I am calling you," he howls on Skeleton Tree's morose and eerie lead track "Jesus Alone" (sometime after the introductory lyric, "You fell from the sky and crash landed in a field") and because his voice rises above the soft piano, symphonic swells and jazzy drums, the heaviness of his words hit hard. When singing about a "Girl in Amber," as is the title of one shimmery Skeleton Tree track, his voice noticeably quivers: "I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world/In a slumber 'til you crumbled ... Well, I don't think that anymore." And on "Distant Sky," an ethereal song with an almost New Age-y arrangement and an angelic guest appearance by Danish soprano Else Torp, his heartbreak once more rings out above the serenity, "They told us our dreams would outlive us/They told us our Gods would outlive us but they lied."
Then there's "I Need You," a song propelled by a steady fuzzy synth line over which Cave sings an off-kilter melody that never quite syncs up to the music, but it's his observations that are significant: "Nothing really matters when the one you love is gone ... I need you." It's an ode to a woman in red, but the loss feels weightier than usual for Cave.
The most surprising thing about Skeleton Tree, though – more than Cave's newfound seriousness and modest arrangements – is how it ends with hope. The title track boasts not only the album's fullest musical arrangement – gentle swelling synthesizers, a gorgeous piano lead, scratchy acoustic guitars – but also its brightest lyrics: "I called out that nothing is for free/And it's all right now." He repeats that last line three times in a way that suggests he means it, or at least that he's trying to convince himself that he means it. If he didn't, it would be all too overwhelming.
Topics: Nick Cave
Songwriter proves ready for her spotlight moment.
While an eight-year veteran of the bedroom-to-Bandcamp scene, Universe marks Jess Locke's second coming, as the singer-songwriter's honest, TMI-bordering diary scribbles are beaten into bite-size slogans by a full-band backing. As expected, the fidelity boost comes at the sacrifice of some of Locke's heart-wrenching fragility, but not her poetic punches, which hit hard whether taking on self-worth, the pros of self-medication or unflinching self-analysis. Sense a common thread? Thankfully, despite sharing the spotlight, Locke remains the centre of her own universe, the perfect place for her blunt vulnerability to thrive.
Amiable countrified album for former X Factor runner up.
Originally sold as a generic-brand rock & roll bad boy balladeer, Dean Ray has ditched the saccharine bullshit and crafted a record that takes mid-20s existential worry and uses it as fuel for mature, beguiling country-folk tunes. At times coming off like a bluegrass Jeff Buckley with plenty of banjo and brushes ("Green"), and a world-weary Ian Moss acolyte ("Call It a Day"), Ray delivers a set that's steeped in Australiana and affecting story-telling, like the confessional tales of "Alcohol" and "Six Feet Under". The down-on-his-luck outlaw rocker motif isn't new, but Ray's talent turns it upside down with terrific verve.
More arresting and confessional indie rock from Nashville band.
Alicia Bognanno doesn't mince words. "I cut my hair, I feel the same, masturbate, I feel the same," she howls on the album opener. Bully play the kind of wiry, slightly out-of-control indie rock Pavement and Superchunk pioneered in the Nineties. They move from inspired to imitative on "Guess There", and the see-sawing guitar and throbbing bass of "Seeing It" shows their debt to the Pixies is ongoing. Still, with a singer as arresting and confessional as Bognanno, the songs demand attention. When she shreds her throat with lines such as "I've been staying away from the west side, trying to keep away from the booze and you", she sounds brave, not broken.
Sydney folkie returns with more apple-pie optimism on LP five.
Fans of Lenka won't be jolted by a sudden change of sound after 2015 album The Bright Side. She's produced Attune herself and it's a more stripped back record, largely acoustic and organic in keeping with the subject matter. The title is a reminder to all of us, Lenka included, to reconnect with the natural world. But the songs are as winsome as ever, and while Lenka's rosy outlook often rings twee, you have to admire her ability to make even dying sound cute, as in afterlife ballad "Disappear". The Sally Seltmann co-write "Heal" is the strongest track on an album with simple charms that are both quaint and refreshing.
Psychedelic plot continues to swirl for guitar cosmonauts.
There's less to prove and more room to breathe on the second album of the Church's new era: a 10-song doddle after the monolith of 2014's Further/Deeper. But between the shifting keys and ecstatic dream-state chorus of "Another Century" and the filmic apocalypse of "Dark Waltz" is an eminently familiar envelope of sonic architecture. Guitarists Peter Koppes and Ian Haug weave a seamless continuum in the synthy wash of "Submarine", then jangle and chime blissfully nostalgic through "In Your Fog". From ocean to desert, Steve Kilbey's astral visions wax reliably majestic and mercurial. Did you want peyote with that?
The pop star shows off her brassy firepower.
Demi Lovato is at her pop-princess best when her majestic wail takes over, as the high points of the singer's sixth album attest. The title track channels the brassy clamour of her 2015 smash "Confident" into maximum-overdrive R&B; "Sexy Dirty Love" throws back to the robo-funk era, with Lovato using its fluid bass line as a springboard for vocal pyrotechnics. The LP gets bogged down in chilled-out trap pop (see the Lil Wayne-assisted "Lonely"). But slow jams like "Concentrate" perfectly balance the downtempo and the energetic.
Melbourne artist realises her potential on debut album.
When Ecca Vandal emerged in 2014 with "White Flag", she appeared to be an artist fully formed. A brash electro-punk anthem complete with striking DIY film clip, it wasn't a question of how good it was, but more where did she come from?
Putting out singles is, of course, a different exercise to releasing a debut album, something not lost on the singer given that she spent a year-and-a-half constructing Ecca Vandal. That the record contains only one previously released song ("End of Time") suggests she resisted the urge to rely on past glories, and a good thing too, for this is a vibrant, dazzling collection of new tunes. Vandal made it clear early on that she wouldn't be boxed in to a certain sound, but the real art here is her ability to fuse multiple genres coherently into each song, as opposed to having the "electro one", the "punk one" and so on. Melody, too, is a going concern, meaning hooks fly thick and fast, be it in the electronic thump of "Future Heroine", the punk guitar rave of "Broke Days, Party Nights" or the stuttering beats of ballad "Cold of the World".
Vandal is an astute lyricist, "Price of Living" taking aim at Australia's offshore detention centres ("Back there I was a lawyer and a mother/Now I'm stuck behind barbed wire"). Only the Garbage-esque rock of "Out on the Inside" feels superfluous to needs – a minor blight on a stunning debut album.
Indie Sydney-siders knock the dust off after a long hiatus.
Having split in 2007, Sydney guitar-pop boffins Hoolahan return to almost the exact same sweet spot they hit with their 1999 debut, King Autumn. From the shoe-gazey opener "The Morning Roll" to lead single "Ev'ry Time You Go", Hoolahan mine a rich heritage of jangling guitars and sweet vocal harmonies. Like the Go-Betweens, Hoolahan place more emphasis on songwriting than having a consistent sound, bouncing confidently between densely-textured bliss-pop, psychedelic experimentation and alt-country twang. While it's not the most cohesive record, Casuarina sounds like talented musos needing to get some great songs off their chest.
Slinky debut from Northern Beaches brotherly duo.
On their debut album, Oli and Louis Leimbach have thrown the kitchen sink of funk, folk and synthy electro at their garrulous, sunny indie pop. The insidious reggae of "Risky Love", pop bounce on "Other Way Round" and deafening echoes of the Strokes on "Can I Be Your Lover" are covered in gooey layers of instrumentation, as barely a moment goes by that isn't polished to a gleaming sheen with horns, strings and playful experimentation. It's all exceptionally pleasant, but it's hard to shake the feeling its heart is being subsumed by its need to prove its worth, even on chest-bursters like "Underground" and "Top Of My List".
In sound and vision, the greying golden god is still on fire.
We carry a flame for lost love. We carry fire to vouchsafe humanity, with all its accumulated wisdom and empathy, through dark days. Robert Plant has a bet each way here, shifting between intense romantic longing ("Season's Song", "Dance With You Tonight") and calling out inhumanity in the savage "New World..."
He referenced the image once before, on the stunning musical watershed of Mighty ReArranger in 2005. But these days are far darker and his mission more urgent at the crossroads of east and west, and at "the dimming of my life" he references wistfully in the dusty swirl of "The May Queen".
That title carries a cheeky glimmer of his past, of course. But his last few albums with the Strange Sensation/Sensational Space Shifters are about kaleidoscopic consolidation, not dry nostalgia: Bron-Yr-Aur and Appalachia, Mali and Morocco fuse seamlessly in this bonfire to incredibly potent effect.
This world spans the rich, slow strings of "A Way With Words" and the title track's mystical twang of djembe and bendir; the terse historical polemic of "Carving Up the World Again… a wall and not a fence" and a majestic duet with Chrissie Hynde on a mellowed rockabilly tune, "Bluebirds Over the Mountain".
Few troubadours alive have this much to carry, let alone do it so lightly. Fifty years since his first album, Plant remains essential.
Smashing Pumpkins head honcho strips back with pleasant results.
Billy Corgan is no stranger to self-indulgence – remember that eight-hour live set inspired by Siddhartha? – so seeing him use his full name on this solo offering sets off the 'pretentious warning' alert. The truth couldn't be more different – this is the most straight forward, stripped-back album of Corgan's career. Accompanied by piano and/or acoustic guitar, the Rick Rubin-helmed Ogilala suffers only from being perfectly pleasant, nothing more, nothing less. "Aeronaut" and "Archer" contain melodies so wistful and beautiful they weaken the knees, but elsewhere Ogilala is notable mainly for hearing Corgan in such raw surroundings, as opposed to its songs.
Sprightly but vanilla electro-pop from arty LA talent.
Given Lawrence Rothman's ongoing experimentation with dazzling and often disturbing video clips and a shape-shifting Bowie-like approach to his own look and style, the Californian's debut LP is surprisingly conventional sonically and musically – a series of upbeat synth-based tracks with roots in 1990s R&B (How To Dress Well, who references the same period more successfully, appears on the so-so "Wolves Still Cry"). In moving away from the adventure of darkly excellent 2013 single "Montauk Fling", Rothman is playing it safe, but his deep, sensuous baritone remains a striking point of difference.
Wordy New Jersey DIY punks deliver storytelling good times.
One of the surprise success stories of wordy, beardy-man-feels punk, the Front Bottoms' easygoing nature belies just how smart, insightful and genuinely moving their ouvre can be. Brian Sella remains strikingly relatable as the everyman with the reedy storytelling voice coughing up sneaky-deep narrative gems like the travelling doubt of "Raining". The plaintive "Trampoline" and charming "Don't Fill Up On Chips" are terrific, but the perky synths on "You Used To Say (Holy Fuck)" and the ponderous "Grand Finale" land awkwardly. But for communal drunken sing-alongs ("Ocean", "Everyone But You") and bud hugs, few do it better.
Spunky diva keeps the energy high, vitriol catchy on seventh album.
Pink was dominating the charts with spunky, real-talking anthems back when today's slow-sad divas were in preschool, and her seventh LP is a reminder of that. The title track and the strummy "Whatever You Want" are vintage Pink, with juicy hooks and pop-rock muscle; "I Am Here" underscores its EDM-powerment message with a gospel choir. Beautiful Trauma's chilled-out middle sags, but "Revenge," her bad-romance duet with Eminem, is an early shot of energy; Max Martin and Shellback's homage to Dr. Dre's skip-step beats may be too on the nose, but Em's rhymes nicely recall a time when even lunatics rode bright hooks.