Bono and Co. look inward for inspiration on "surprise" 13th studio album.
No other rock band does rebirth like U2. No other band – certainly of U2's duration, commercial success and creative achievement – believes it needs rebirth more and so often. But even by the standards of transformation on 1987's The Joshua Tree and 1991's Achtung! Baby, Songs of Innocence – U2's first studio album in five years – is a triumph of dynamic, focused renaissance: 11 tracks of straightforward rapture about the life-saving joys of music, drawing on U2's long palette of influences and investigations of post-punk rock, industrial electronics and contemporary dance music. "You and I are rock & roll," Bono shouts in "Volcano", a song about imminent eruption, through a propulsive delirium of throaty, striding bass, alien-choral effects and the Edge's rusted-treble jolts of Gang of Four-vintage guitar. Bono also sings this, earlier in a darker, more challenging tone: "Do you live here or is this a vacation?" For U2, rock & roll was always a life's work – and the work is never done.
Songs of Innocence is aptly named, after William Blake's 1789 collection of poems about man's perpetually great age of discovery – childhood. For the first time, after decades of looking abroad for inspiration – to American frontier spirituality, Euro-dance-party irony and historic figures of protest such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela – Bono, the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. have taken the long way 'round to metamorphosis: turning back and inward, for the first time on a whole record, to their lives and learning as boys on the way to uncertain manhood (and their band) in Dublin.
Bono's lyrics are striking in their specific, personal history. In "Cedarwood Road", named after a street where he lived, the singer remembers the fear and unrequited anger that drove him to music and to be heard – and which won't go away. "I'm still standing on that street/Still need an enemy," he admits against Clayton and Mullen's strident, brooding rhythm and the enraged stutter of the Edge's guitar. "Raised by Wolves" is a tension of metronome-like groove and real-life carnage ("There's a man in a pool of misery . . . a red sea covers the ground") based on a series of car bombs that bloodied Dublin one night in the Seventies.
In "Iris (Hold Me Close)", Bono sings to his mother, whos died when he was 14, through a tangle of fondness and still-desperate yearning, in outbreaks of dreamy neo-operatic ascension over a creamy sea of keyboards and Clayton's dignified-disco bass figure. "You took me by the hand/I thought I was leading you," Bono recalls in a kind of embarrassed bliss. "But it was you who made me your man/Machine," he adds – a playful shotgun reference to his youthful poetic conceit in Boy's "Twilight" ("In the shadows boy meets man") and his wife Ali. The teenage Bono once gave her Kraftwerk's The Man-Machine as a gift while they were dating.
For U2 – and Bono in particular – the first step on the road out of Dublin was the sound of a voice, and they name it in the opening track, "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)". U2 have always been open in their gratitude to New York punk and the Ramones in particular, and this homage to unlikely heroism – that kid you least expect to take on the world and win – is suitable honour: a great, chunky guitar riff and a beat like a T. Rex stomp, glazed with galactic-Ronettes vocal sugar. "I woke up," Bono sings, "at the moment when the miracle occurred/Heard a song that made some sense out of the world." U2 also pay due diligence to the Clash in "This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now", dedicated to Joe Strummer, and there is a strong hint of the Beach Boys' allure – their standing invitation to a utopia far from the Dublin grit and rain – in the Smile-style flair of the chanting harmonies in "California (There Is No End to Love)". "Blood orange sunset brings you to your knees," Bono croons in an awed register. "I've seen for myself."
These are the oldest stories in rock & roll – adolescent restlessness; traumatic loss; the revelation of rescue hiding in a great chorus or power chord. But Songs of Innocence is the first time U2 have told their own tales so directly, with the strengths and expression they have accumulated as songwriters and record-makers. This album was famous, long before release, for its broken deadlines and the indecision suggested by its multiple producers: Brian Burton a/k/a Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth of Adele fame and Ryan Tedder of the pop band One Republic. Those credits are misleading. Burton, Epworth and Tedder all co-produced "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" and contributed keyboards; that's Epworth on the additional slide guitar in "Cedarwood Road"; and Burton arranged the chorale in "Volcano". But the extra hands and textures are thoroughly embedded in the memoir. There is no time when the telling sounds like it was more than the work of the four who lived it.
And it is a salvation, U2 believe, that keeps on giving. "Every breaking wave on the shore/Tells the next one that there will be one more," Bono promises in the tidal sun-kissed electronica of "Every Breaking Wave". And "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" comes with a pledge to every stranded dreamer who now hears Rocket to Russia, Give 'Em Enough Rope or some U2 for the first time and is somehow, permanently, changed. "We can hear you," Bono swears. "Your voices will be heard."
Just find one of your own. Then shout as hard as you can.
Animal Collective frontman pushes boundaries on solo LP.
Avey Tare (aka David Portner of Animal Collective) describes Eucalyptus as an "electroacoustic movement" intended to be listened to as a whole. The result is a sprawling, elemental soundscape that draws on the textures and sounds of the natural world. On psychedelic opener "Season High", brushed acoustic guitar and Portner's hushed vocal are painted with delightful digital bloops that eventually coalesce into a hymn-like formation. There is some clarity amid the haze ("Roamer"), and though on paper Eucalyptus sounds dense, in the deft hands of Portner it gently reveals itself to be more than just a vanity project.
L.A. outfit continue down a misguided path on third album.
Not quite the one-hit-wonders many pegged them as, Foster the People nonetheless followed up their smash hit debut Torches with Supermodel, a record that lost its predecessor's restraint while amplifying all that was annoying about the band – mainly twee lyrics and overblown whimsy. On Sacred Hearts Club that sweet spot remains misplaced as Mark Foster leads his band through a kitchen sink approach to songwriting that, while occasionally catchy, if unsubtle (the chugging chorus of "Doing It For the Money"), more often feels all over the shop – the trappy WTF departure of "Loyal Like Sid & Nancy" – or crippled by lyrical daftness, as on "I Love My Friends".
Gruelling fourth full-length from indie rock band is their sharpest yet.
"I spend all my time learning how to defeat you at your own game. It's embarrassing." So opens the fourth LP from singer-guitarist Katie Crutchfield's great indie-rock band Waxahatchee: two clear sentences mapping out an album's worth of tangled regret, helplessness, endurance and shame – driven home with burning guitars and ache and hunger in her voice. It starts off the sharpest set of songs Crutchfield has come up with, from the big-drinking, scene-causing country of "8 Ball" to the Nineties guitar churn of "Silver" to the ruggedly pretty ballad "Sparks Fly." Each song is as grueling as it is thrilling.
The return of a cult favourite rewards patience.
Japanese musician Keigo Oyamada is a musical polymath, who as Cornelius takes mostly acoustic instruments and relentlessly chops and changes them to hyperreal effect. Eleven years on from its predecessor, Sensuous, Oyamada's sixth album is another slick structure bursting with electric piano tinkles, busy percussion, and chopped-up guitars. "Sometime/Someplace" blossoms into dreamy post-rock; "Dear Future Person" multiplies stuttering, glassy keys into a dizzying, complex hum; and "In a Dream" pops like the credits to an Eighties sitcom. Soothing yet tense, the push-pull of Cornelius' wonderful world stays attractively unknowable.
Reality star completes her electronic evolution on debut.
It’s not easy being a talent show alumnus. Pigeonholed into whatever genre the TV audience has deemed you belong to, it’s a hard task in the aftermath to reinvent yourself, but Celia Pavey has made a good fist of it to date – first with last year’s strong Fingerprints EP, an understated fusion of her folky roots with subtle electronic elements, and more prominently with her starring turn on Illy’s “Paper Cuts”, effectively torching the shy ingenue auditioning for The Voice with “Scarborough Fair” and rising from those ashes as an auto-tuned starlet singing over Flume-inspired synths.
Perennial sees Pavey embrace the beat further still; there’s nothing subdued about the dubby organ chorus on “First Week”, or the calamitous, whirring sirens on “Private”, and with Andy and Thom Mak producing, it’s all reasonably tasteful, if reeking a little of artifice. Pavey’s lyrics, meanwhile, are undoubtedly hers. She’s been through a breakup and spends a good few tracks singing about it, but it takes on a schoolgirl diary naivete – “whoever said it’s better to love than to lose has obviously never loved anyone,” she wails – while the slinky beat and crisp, clipped delivery of “Lady Powers” deserve a better name.
Perennial will probably sound great live, but Pavey needn’t forget that her unvarnished voice has always been her biggest asset.
Little Big League vocalist goes direct on second solo LP.
Despite being recorded as she mourned her mother’s death, Michelle Zauner’s 2016 solo debut, Psychopomp, sidestepped self-pity as she upscaled a selection of scrappy lo-fi recordings with near-suffocating levels of glowing optimism. The second stage of grief is, evidently, confrontation, as the comfort of obfuscation is stripped away on Soft Sounds From Another Planet. Instead she takes on that same morbid muse via sweeping cinematic shots (“Till Death”), art-pop abstraction (“Machinist”) and, at best, face-to-face, as with the title-track, where, snugly comforted in sorrow, she boldly states: “that’s not the way to hurt me”.
Musical maturity can’t hide emotional vulnerability.
On his debut album, Brisbane’s the Kite String Tangle (Danny Harley) attempts to subvert his electro-emo past. There’s deliberately detached house beats (“Waiting”), emotional nonchalance (“Selfish”) and brass-meets-bass bangers (“This Thing We Got”). The beat-heavy tracks showcase his best production yet, but he shines brightest through pain: tender moments of longing, loss and insecurity. The flitting beats and bulging bass of “Fickle Gods” are almost loud enough to veil despondence and jealous resolve. This is a contained yet expressive exploration of the muddy, uncertain terrain of emotion and relationships.
Melbourne trio revel in bleakness and brutality.
Not known for superficialities, Batpiss ram your senses into whatever horror they’re dealing with. For record three, that’s missing dead friends, as underlined by guitarist Paul Piss’s grotesque cover portrait. Gone is the punk immediacy of their 2013 debut, in its place the refinement of experiments in dirge: the discordant drag of “Golden Handshake” during which being cable tied at the bottom of a river is mentioned; the tempo raised a notch for the bawl of “N.U.M.N.”. Come the crash of the superb “Weatherboard Man”, it feels like the exit from a perpetual interment. One where, for better or worse, you too have felt the anger and anguish of grief.
Formidable talent overwhelms reticent personality on soul debut.
Few artists can boast the sort of touring schedule of Megan McInerney, aka Meg Mac, before releasing their first LP. The Triple J Unearthed 2014 winner has toured the US in the years since sharing vans and stages with D’Angelo and the Vanguard, a commitment that has doubtless stalled the rather un-Australian-sounding singer’s debut while helping to forge her increasingly bluesy direction.
Comparisons have already been made between McInerney and Adele, or Welsh songstress Duffy, but the truth is that McInerney falls somewhere in the middle – her voice is a rich instrument of impressive range, but her personality is not quite as penetrating. Neither seductive nor spiteful, her lyrics are undeniably from the heart, they’re just a little light on grit. Just shy of 35 minutes, it’s not a remarkably varied record, either, but what Mac knows she does so very well, whether it’s soul-steeped mellifluous humming or bending her vocal effortlessly around a dynamic key change, as in the earworm “Kindness”.
The production, from Fort Worth’s Niles City Sound team (Leon Bridges), is polished, almost to a fault; Mac’s more commanding when cruising confidently on voice and piano alone in “Shiny Bright”, or veering towards interesting pop territory on “Didn’t Wanna Get So Low But I Had To”, recalling Swede renegade Robyn in balladry mode.
Seedy bar trio walk the line between pathos and danger.
Here’s a bloke you don’t want to know, but you can’t look away. He is what he is: a man in conflict with nature, one step ahead of the blues, hitching outta town in the rain, looking for the Plan B he already kinda knows is gonna take him nowhere. You think you know lonely? This bloke knows lonely.
On their third album together, the sad, seedy composite character conjured by Tex Perkins, Don Walker and Charlie Owen is as reliable as a hangover after the races.
On a scaffold of block piano chords, sighing slide and twanging steel guitar he drags his scarred and sorry bones from closing time and “women of a certain age” to another truck stop and, well, “Here’s As Good As Anywhere”.
In that scene and “Summer”, he makes us feel the deadweight of a specific memory like a chronic ache. He’s less self-aware in the slightly more comical garb of “The Hitcher” and “Plan B”, but only in the sinister creep of “Just Your Luck” does he cross the line to endanger anyone but himself.
The broader the guffaws – “A Man In Conflict With Nature” blows his track winnings on “three hookers and some sushi”, for instance – the harder it is to suspend disbelief. Then again, compared to this guy, most of us lead pretty sheltered lives.
English songwriter’s masterful return to folk fundamentals.
With its mannered electronic tics, airs and graces, Work It Out (2015) aligned Rose with several mercurial English indie/folk-pop peers (Daughter, Bombay Bicycle Club et al). But on her third LP, the multi-instrumentalist tills the fallow fields of folk tradition with matchless poise and feeling. Harp solders a gilded cage around Rose’s delicate vocal on “Intro”, there’s timeless autobiographical acoustica with an undertow of longing and regret in “Floral Dresses”, while “Second Chance” shadows Carole King’s immortal Tapestry. Then there’s devastating piano ballad “Moirai”, which may well be the year’s most heartbreaking moment.
Spoken-word and post-rock soundscapes tell engaging story.
This English duo don’t write songs so much as make conceptual art pieces and academic research projects that happen to be musical. This is based on Welsh coalmining and it samples archived spoken-word and constructs soundscapes that are equal parts pulsing electronica and sprawling post-rock. They try to convey how industry and social cohesion are intertwined by using the words of the Welsh people who lived through the rise and fall of mining. The message is sweetened when they employ guest vocalists including Tracyanne Campbell of Camera Obscura and James Dean Bradfield of Manic Street Preachers.
Prolific grunge lords unleash their first double LP.
Fans of the Melvins are no doubt used to the bands’ gruelling work ethic by now, with over 25 albums and 14 EPs under their belt, they’re a collector’s dream, and a completist’s nightmare. A Walk With Love and Death sees the band settle into a familiar, if sinister, groove, despite being two different undertakings. One side, Death, is a standard release Melvins record, and the second disc, Love, is the soundtrack to a short film, A Walk With Love and Death. Surprisingly, it’s a cohesive set of ragers, largely devoid of the drone experimentation that you’d expect from a Melvins soundtrack. Yet another worthy addition to their hefty catalogue.
Desert and digital combine on vibrant debut.
“Ancient time in a new paradigm” goes the refrain on second track “Two Worlds Collide”, serving as a statement of intent for this extraordinary all-female four-piece from the Northern Territory. So we have an uplifting fusion of Indigenous rhythms (seed pods, clap sticks and so on) with woozy electronica occasionally reminiscent of Azure Ray or Mazzy Star (“Ngabaju”). Sung in both Mudburra and English, the album pulses with intensity as it explores and reasserts notions of femininity and family. Kardajala Kirridarra is proof of the boundless originality of Central Australian music.