September 30th- Bon Iver- 22, A Million

Ever since 1965 when Bob Dylan plugged in his guitar to an amp and went electric folk musicians have sought various ways to explore and expand their sound and audience through the use of electronics. Bright Eyes did this huge acclaim on his Digital Ash in a Digital Urn LP and more recently Laura Marling has also ditched the acoustic guitar for one with a power supply. The extension of folk going electric has also run to rock, with Radiohead infamously changing their sound with the release of Kid A, and more recently to hip hop, with Kanye West’s Yeezus taking on industrial techno. Bon Iver’s 22, A Million owes a lot to all of these releases in its change of direction and artistic vision but perhaps most greatly it is indebted to the last release, as the vocal and production styles of Justin Vernon’s close friend Yeezy are a very strong influence on 22, A Million.

All of the above highlights clearly that those who purchase a copy of 22, A Million expecting the delicate folk of Bon Iver’s debut LP are going to be disappointed. There are elements of delicate folk and that stunning icy high pitched voice appearing on tracks like 00000 Million but even here a sample of Fionn Regan echoes across parts of the track adding something different to what has gone before. This referencing of contemporary folk artists occurs in other places as on track 4 where Bon Iver samples Paulo Nutini, it almost feels as if when reverting to the folk of old Bon Iver still wishes to cut n paste to express.

22, A Million treads a different path from what has gone before it and is littered with samples, vocoder and synth, which is coupled effectively with the folk that made Bon Iver an international success. At points the fracturing and confrontational style becomes difficult for the listener but in a very good way, a way, which in fact is again very comparable to Kanye West’s Yeezus. The first two tracks of 22, A Million conform almost whole heartedly to this stylistic and confrontational change, so much so, that in fact when some acoustic guitar and non-mechanised vocals appear on track 5 they act as a form of welcome relief.

Bon Iver is with 22, A Million challenging his listener to explore something else. To explore a more fractured sound in a more fractured world, he is confronting what folk can and should be in a post-modern world permeated by technology and the results are staggeringly effective. Track 3 is a perfect example of this: It’s a folk love song fed through a brutal vocal effects machine, to the point whereby it sounds like a robot voice from a Kanye West nightmare, yet with the story telling lyricism and heart ache roots the track contains many folk elements.

Bon Iver has always painted a dark and tortured picture of the world on his LPs often portraying emotional and personal turmoil and 22, A Million does feel similar in this vein. Yet even when plumbing the depths of darkness, as he does here, Justin Vernon finds beauty and despite being as dark as the night 22, A Million is as beautiful as the moment you spot the light of the first visible star.

Like those that went before him Justin Vernon has successfully changed his style and with 22, A Million is a very worthy contender for album of the year.

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September 9th 2016- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds- Skeleton Tree

Death and grief and loss are some of the most guttural and difficult themes a songwriter can cover. These feelings are perhaps even harder to convey when they relate to the loss of your own son. But on Skeleton Tree it’s exactly this tragic situation, which Nick Cave faces head on. On the 14th of July 2015 Nick’s son Arthur fell to his death at the Ovingdean gap in Brighton, Skeleton Tree is very much the emotional document of a man coming to terms with the aftermath of this event. The portrayal of such emotions has relatively little comparison in the world of music aside from Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven (also about his son falling to his death) but whereas Clapton finds redemption in the concept of life after death Cave finds none. Skeleton Tree is a brutal, difficult and brilliant listen.

Cave has always possessed an ability to deal with the dark and gothic but the added self-reflection on Skeleton Tree makes the album feel darker than anything that he has composed before. Cave’s words are as poetic as ever and the imagery he casts out on to the listener is, at times, given the death of his son is haunting. From lines describing falling to earth to hearing voices in supermarket queues, this is a portrait of grief and the beguiling way in which Cave describes it leaves the listener emotionally wrought for some time after the music has stopped. This is not however to say Skeleton Tree is unlistenable rather that it is emotionally draining and challenging, but then all too often brilliant music is.

The instrumentation on Skeleton Tree is sparse veering towards the electronic and littered with strings, synth and distorted bass and sound effects. It will be for some Cave fans a difficult listen in which a cult hero has taken a very experimental path. However, the arrangements on Skeleton Tree perfectly suit the subject matter of the album and force the listener into the protagonist’s claustrophobic and distressed world. There are influences of Bon Iver and James Blake throughout but Cave has really made any influences he has taken entirely his own.

Very few artists are ever faced with having to plumb the depths of human emotion in a way in which Cave has here. This decade perhaps only Kanye West on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy written after his mother’s death and that of his hero Michael Jackson has come close. Though in its despair Skeleton Tree shares much more thematically with Johnny Cash’s incredible American Recordings series, in which the country singer faced up to his own mortality and the loss of June Carter (his wife). For this album to be mentioned in the same vein as Cash’s album series and West’s album (which many critics see as being the best of the decade so far) really is testament to just how incredible Skeleton Tree is.

Skeleton Tree is an exceptionally difficult and challenging listen but is a very real document of grief and emotional distress if you can bear to stick with the dark subject matter here (and you should) you will discover that Nick Cave may well have recorded not just the best album of 2016 but one of the best, most brutal and brilliant albums of the last ten years. Very special indeed.

 

Tunes of the Month August 2016

 

  1. Sam Spiegel & Ape Drums- Mutant Brain- Released last year but now part of a stunning spike jonze video for kenzo this is certainly worth checking out:

 

2. Massive Attack- The Spoils- Best thing they’ve done since Teardrop? Easily.

 

3.  Caspa & Rusko- Fruity Loops- Proof the controversial bro-step originators do sometimes make a good tune, Wiley freestyled over the top of this (worth looking up in its own right)

 

4. FrancisandtheLights ft Bon Iver- Friends- Kanye West’s current favourite tune and a bit of a sunsetter, also rinsed by Zane Lowe on Beats Radio