Well, it’s been quite a year. If the Mayan prophesy of 2012 gets you bouncing, it would be quite easy to find examples of dark omens looming over us this year, signs that might portend the end times.
You may think I refer to the terrible devastation wreaked by Super-Storm Sandy, or the civil war in Syria, or the protests in Russia, or the collapsing Euro, or any number of the troubling events that erupted this year. But I think there is one incident/tragedy that looms larger than most.
Its something so large and its impact so profound and seemingly widespread, that it’s difficult to gauge, culturally, the long term effects of such a phenomenon.
And I’m not talking about G. Lucas selling the Holy Trilogy (further) down the river either, though I feel that won’t bode well for us geriatric Star Wars fans in the future. You may end up taking your grandkids to Star Wars on Ice! Believe it. Can you imagine? The drive-home conversation will go something like this:
‘I like the part where Jar Jar Binks keeps slipping over on the ice, Grandpa, he looked so funny. Me-sa fall down! Me-sa fall down! And the part where Jawas were chasing little droids everywhere, and then they all held hands and made big shapes and words on the ice, that was funny too. What was your favourite part Grandpa?’
‘Hmm. Let me think. My favourite part was when there were only three films and it finished with Return of the Jedi in 1983.’
‘I was your age then. I was nine. And Star Wars belonged to me.’
‘That was the best part.’
‘But didn’t you love Jar Jar on the ice? The icey slippy, Ani, me-sa fall down! That was funny.’
‘Nope. No I didn’t. One day when you’re older, you’ll understand the fine line between comedy and tragedy. That was not funny. That was tragic. Trust grandpa on this.’
‘Aw, come on, don’t be grumpy, Grandpa, just coz you’re old. Everyone loves Star Wars.’
‘I know. But ‘Star Wars’ used to mean one single movie…three at best. Now, it means a much bigger, tedious mess and sometimes, it’s just hard to—’
‘Don’t cry, Grandpa.’
Yep, that scene awaits many ageing Star Wars fans. In fact, it’s probably already happened, many times. The sting in that exchange is that little kid is right. These cultural landmarks belong to everybody. And no matter how much you may think they were betrayed—either by the overexposed mechanics of pop culture or the creators themselves (or both)—these icons will endure all manner of facelifts and makeovers and crossovers and cash-ins and spin-offs, and no force (Jedi or otherwise) will intervene to preserve or restore its dignity.
But…I digress. That’s not the omen I was talking about.
The darkening cloud that I refer to—which continues to poison and cheapen our already cheap and poisoned global culture—is much worse.
PSY’s Gangnam Style.
I won’t waste time reiterating the content of the video clip or describing the horse-riding hand-cuffed dance, I’m sure you know it already. If you haven’t seen the clip you’ve no doubt seen your local news anchor and/or resident B-grade celeb demonstrate the dance on whatever reality music show is currently running in your country. It’s everywhere.
As I write this, the clip for the song has accrued 822,158,515 views on YouTube. Now, according to 7billionandme.org, the world population is 7,083,246,670 (and counting), which means that over 10% of the entire global population has seen it. Of course, it could mean that ten people have watched it 80 million times, who knows? These days we ignore those kinds of inconvenient truths. These days we take YouTube hits as a direct indication of not only popularity, but record sales and fan headcount. It’s becoming the new next-big-thing barometer of Cool.
Which, of course, is dubious.
Of the 800 million+ views, it has seen five and a half million ‘likes’ and 335 thousand ‘dislikes’, which is also kinda useless info. But I guess that means about 800 million people couldn’t give a shit either way. We just watched it coz the link was sent to us in an email titled ‘You thought Rebecca Black was bad, well…’.
But this is how it works now. Credibility has trended straight through the looking glass. I thought the Radiohead song “Down is the New Up” was about depression, but I’m rethinking things now. (In fact how did I miss lyrics like: Your services are not required/ Your future’s bleak/ You’re so last week (and) All on candid camera…Topsy turvy town.) Don’t worry about talent or practice, it’s all about gimmick, and annoyance seems to be the most effective one going.
Annoying goes viral a hell of a lot quicker than it’s opposite; which I suppose is Entertaining or even Pleasing. Which, in and of itself, probably speaks more about the human condition and our constant wrestling with ego. It’s always been easier to say we hate something rather than we love something. Why this is, who knows? My two-bit theory is: Hate reinforces the ego (‘I’m not like that’ etc.) and we define ourselves through difference. Whereas love diminishes the ego with acceptance as we draw and hug things into ourselves.
And if the pissing matches and flame wars all stayed online, fine, I guess. But our virtual hate (and love) is spilling out into the physical world where it’s being misunderstood. This misunderstanding is happening because without the digital context that created it, it just a mess of numbers and stats and words and energy.
The mainstream media has been trying to keep up with the internet since the race started, and it’s still a few steps behind. But in its attempt to maintain some control and authority over things, it distorts and arranges the information to suit itself. Which becomes another kind of shouting match, where TV tries to present the Net like a show within a show, like it’s their baby (or an inferior version of itself). So it tries to belittle it and box it into byte-size segments that it thinks its audience wants. At the same time TV is supremely jealous of the Net and is always trying to adopt its slick new ever-changing wardrobe as it own.
This is a war, of sorts. As we watch New Media in the process of killing and replacing Old Media, the death throes that rattle Old Media as it flails and talks tough is simply how we perceive this paradigm shift.
So on one level, I see PSY’s uber-popularity and global clouding as the latest by-product of this Media War. These things get tossed up (quite randomly) out of the bitstream then batted around in the headlines by the titans (and inflated with publicity in the co-opting process) then spat out, pretty much.
It’s likely PSY will fall into the relative obscurity of the ringside much like Rebecca Black or the Crazy Frog, destined to become another over-hyped media artefact used in this tug-o-war until they break or expend their currency.
As these giants (New Vs Old) duke it out in the final stages of this Info War we’re seeing the synergy of the thing go a bit nuts and sling out these things into the stratosphere. PSY, Rebecca Black, even Susan Boyle are just a few (pop culture) examples of what results when two media mechanisms try to outdo each other in the coverage war.
TV: ‘PSY belongs to me now.’
Net: ‘I don’t think so.’
TV: ‘We own Gangnam Style.’
Net: ‘LOL, we invented Gangnam Style.’
TV: ‘Well, we’re spreading the word.’
Net: ‘LOL, no your not old man, we already have…’
TV: ‘Well, PSY is appearing on the morning show tomorrow and the hosts are going to do the dance with him! The whole city will be watching!’
Net: ‘We already had over 800 million views. Our audience is the world, idiot. You wouldn’t even have anything to talk about if weren’t for me…you’re just my suckerfish now, TV, believe it! It’s over. You’re yesterday’s news.’
Interestingly, or troublingly, is the role irony plays here. In regards to PSY or Rebecca Black or Susan Boyle, there always seems to be a veil of irony or sarcasm, as if we’re secretly (or perhaps not so secretly) laughing at them. The YouTube comments alone are enough to suggest this. With Susan Boyle it was her looks, with Rebecca Black it was the fact her voice and the melody was so gratingly one dimensional, and with PSY I can’t help but think his image (or at least the ways in which the western media present him) plays into every Asian stereotype and cliché since Sixteen Candles’ Long Duk Dong or The Hangover’s Mr. Chow or even American Idol’s William Hung.
What a lot of people may be unaware of is the cultural satire involved. Gangnam is an area in Seoul, South Korea, that is apparently renowned for a certain strata of their society who are perceived by some Koreans to be extremely superficial and materialistic. The song pokes fun at this sub-cultural stereotype. By lampooning this aspirational tendency, PSY is attempting to parody and critique the vanity and falsity of this lifestyle.
But I would argue that most western fans/viewers are unaware of this layer of meaning. (There are other K-Pop artists making political/social statements in their music that go largely unnoticed outside of Korea. The band Sunny Hill’s song “Is The White Horse Coming” is one example.) I think most people are just laughing along at the wacky dancing, digging the absurdist scenarios within the clip and/or ogling the pretty young girls and/or enjoying the sexual innuendo. (I even suspect a touch of internet sensation Matt Harding’s travel dancing in the Gangnam mix too. Can’t go wrong with a goofy dance.)
Whether or not the enormous popularity of the song inside and outside Korea means it’s successful as a political statement is harder to gauge. The message for non-Koreans is of course lost in translation, not to mention obscured by the hype, and ‘Gangnam Style’ has ultimately become synonymous with the dance style. Any intended punch in the sloganeering title has been disarmed and deflected by the cartoonish presence of an invisible horse.
The music itself is pretty straight forward hook-riddled bombastic pop that we’ve heard countless times before (I keep thinking Ricky Martin is guest singing the ‘hey, sexy lady’ part, and the crescendo-chorus sounds like a combo of [his late 90s hits] “Cup of Life” and “Livin’ La Vida Loca”), so I don’t think there’s anything special about that part of it. The lyrics for the most part are sung in Korean, so for a lot of people I imagine the only part they can sing along with is: ‘Oppan Gangnam Style’ which translates as ‘Big Brother is Gangnam Style’. Now, George Orwell gags aside, the use of ‘Oppan’ in Korean apparently means any older male friend. Used in the satiric context of the song, we can assume PSY is referring to his own character in the song. ‘I am Gangnam Style.’ Are you still reading? Explain all this to someone dancing to Gangnam Style and I’m sure their eyes will just glaze over. ‘Who cares?’
And perhaps that is the most accurate reading of all. That it’s meaningless. Gangnam Style means nothing. In time, just shorthand for that goofy dance fad of 2012. And what does it say about us as a global culture that we hungrily embrace Nothingness so readily and rapidly?
Within Korea (and outside) I think PSY may find with time that the exposure (and its attendant irony) will defuse any political/social motivations behind the song and render it the exact opposite: a total glamorisation and endorsement and validation of the very things he sought to ridicule. Everyone LOVES “Gangnam Style” = it’s totally cool to be Gangnam Style. Oppan Frankenstein.
The other troubling thing (and perhaps the most important) about the popularity of Gangnam Style is how it simply highlights our status as absolute consumers. I consume media, therefore I am. The media simply reflect this back at us. You like Gangnam Style?—well, here’s some more. The media requires of us such little investment and even less accountability. It’s all one anonymous click away. So we gobble it up again, like it or not, in a cannibalistic cycle.
A huge portion of YouTube seems to be people (I’m talking amateurs, not just professional companies) creating media about media: trailers for movies and TV shows and video games, cover versions of songs, dance routines, product reviews, un-boxing products, reviewing video games, playing video games, instructional videos, software reviews, IT help, etc.
There must be some vast psychic landfill site where all the waste product of this immense consumption ends up.
The illusion or paradox seems to be the apparent liberation of this new technology imprisons us. We seem chained to it. Chained to the iPhone. Chained to the iPad. Chained to the Xbox. Chained to YouTube. Chained to Twitter. Chained to Facebook. We can’t escape Gangnam Style even if we wanted to. Media is uploaded into our consciousness via complex osmotic mechanisms that turns it into air and water. We breathe it. Swim in it. Our immersion is complete no matter how wilful or resistant we are. It’s hard to defend against. And you’ll feel alienated if you try.
I, for the record, have NOT and will never (even under threat of violent death) dance Gangnam Style. My refusal is all I have. My dancing is a scary sight anyway. But it makes little difference, because PSY is dancing in all our heads. And he will remain there until he is replaced by the next thing. (Actually the poor guy will probably get dragged out to dance on cue from time to time in the coming years, but nothing he does now will ever eclipse Gangnam Style. Destined to be his cultural footnote, that dance will follow him everywhere.) Which is even scarier.
Anyway… on with the show.
For personal reasons I won’t go into, this year was kind of tough and it got me going back and listening to old things. Comfort music. A tonne of prog, a load of soundtracks, and Echo and the Bunnymen were on high rotation. But I did mange to sample a few current things that I dug. And for my few loyal readers, I thought I’d share my list of faves.
So here goes…
Lana Del Rey – Born to Die (2012)
I’m sure you saw multiples of this cover staring back at you in every music store you entered this year. Lana Del Rey got a lot of press/hype last year on the strength of the “Video Games”/”Blue Jeans” single. I thought the songs were great and looked forward to her album. What I found interesting was how the press seemed to turn on her. And I don’t think it was merely biting back against the hype either (I’d argue there’s far bigger culprits in that dept.), it seemed far more bitchy and personal. Reviews seemed to focus on her looks and her comfortable upbringing, as if this was just some good looking trust-fund kid with a pout and a lot of help. Or that her real name isn’t even Lana Del Rey, it’s the well-to-do sounding Elizabeth Grant. (How dare a performer take a stage name, that’s unheard of! I bet it says Lady Gaga on Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta’s driver’s licence.) I even read a couple of feminist pieces basically accusing her of wallowing in the kind of bad boy-yearning and blind-love giddiness that was weak and traditional and setting women’s independence back a few decades. Really? (Yet Katy Perry’s perennial objectivity and/or Gaga’s scantily clad shenanigans and/or the industry standard bootie-shaking which comprises a huge percentage of pop music videos causes less concern?) Even if she has been wandering over to the seamy side of the tracks and getting into trouble with Mr. Wrong, is she not allowed to write songs about her (character’s) experiences or her feelings?
There is an undeniable layer of Lolita to Del Ray’s image, and it’s probably as calculated as the next popstar, but where’s the moral relativism? Why are we holding Lana Del Ray up to different standards than the rest? And why is there so little talk of the actual music and her writing? Look, I’m not saying that Lana is some un-marketed troubadour from the streets, I just think she writes good songs and mixes it with a seductive conceptualised image that suits the Laura Palmer-esque themes of her material. Good girl gone bad? For sure. Original? Not particularly. But does she do it well? I think so. I’ll admit her hip-hop laced tracks aren’t my faves, but hey, that’s just me. There is still a lot to dig on this album. It’s dark. A hell of a lot darker than the poptarts mentioned above too. For all the fake-edge posturing of Gaga’s freak-stance, I find more compelling mystery and painful insight in Del Ray’s dreamy dirges any day. And “Video Games” deserves to go down as a classic (same with “Born to Die”, “Blue Jeans”, “Radio”, “Million Dollar Man”). Sad piano and overcast strings sleepwalk to the tempo of Angelo Badalamenti soundtracks in self-destructive late nite adventures, somehow scoring the times. Like a bride walking down the aisle and a funeral procession at the same time.
Also, her EP Paradise, released this month (November, 2012) is damn good too. Possibly even cooler than the album, coz its lighter on the hip-hop influence. Perhaps she’s realising where her strengths lie. Which seem to be those beautifully damaged ballads strewn about the shadowy landscape of her dreams.
Beach House – Bloom (2012)
Cool follow-up to 2010’s Teen Dream. This album seems to be floating into even more subtle territory than Teen Dream, requiring a few listens to begin to unlock the magic. But there is magic. And it’s as good as you remember. Vocal melodies and chiming guitar washed in the distance of time, like old memories petrifying into song. Nostalgia for not only yesterday, but tomorrow. Because some trajectories render them the same.
Flight of the Conchords – Feel Inside (And Stuff Like That) (2012)
OK, not an album, but one of the best songs I heard this year. If you missed the clip of the Conchords charity song, then check it out. Brilliant stuff. You’ll be walking around the house singing that one for days. Don’t forget to open up the lids.
Liars – WIXIW (2012)
Still the Philip K. Dick of current music in my opinion. No one can spook and unsettle quite like Liars. The spooky part is the way it strikes you after the fact. When the music stops you’re left wondering how they achieved the effect. Coz there are traces (again) of Radiohead (ala Drum’s Not Dead) and the electronics are recognisable and upfront, and it’s not like we’ve never heard synthesisers before. (And Liars are hardly the first band to get more ‘electronic’ in the last few years.) In fact the pad used on the opener “The Exact Color of Doubt” could be straight-out-of-the-box analog-synth emulator preset #1. But in the hands of Liars the sound palette used on this album becomes something else. There’s always been an approach to the instruments and the compositions more aligned to the DIY, post-punk school of non-musicianship. Not that they can’t play, but this creativity-first prowess-second stance allows them a freedom to explore radically different modes of sound production. The results can be pretty hard to categorise, and I don’t always like the end product. Other times I love it. But I guess that’s the point. These guys aren’t making product. It’s more like art. Whether you like it or not isn’t what’s important. These shapeshifters (with electro old-guard Daniel Miller [Mute Records/ Silicon Teens/ The Normal] producing) have offered up the creepiest album this year. (They also gave us the best video, with “No.1 Against the Rush” scaring out the race by a mile.)
Matt Berry – Witchazel (2009)
OK, so this was released three years ago, but sometimes it takes me that long to get hip to things like this. You may know Matt Berry from shows like Snuff Box, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and The IT Crowd, but what you may not know is that he’s also a musician (he even provided some tunes for [one of my fave shows] Saxondale). This is his third album, and after releasing it as a free download, it was put out on CD and vinyl. Berry’s talents as a musician are really impressive. He plays a huge collection of instruments with consummate skill, and his vocals are a real surprise. The music brings to mind the sophisticated chamber pop and prog-ish styling of The Zombies and early ELO. The lyrics may be laced with an obvious humour, but it would be wrong to simply label this a ‘comedy album’. Because the effort he’s put into this reveals an obvious passion and love for the genres. This album has a mood and vibe that is complete and inviting. And if you can manage to get Paul McCartney to guest on a track, well, that’s a pretty cool endorsement. This is really worth your time. Dig it.
Alberto Iglesias – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Again, not a 2012 release, as such, but it came out late last year, so my slowness is more justified. This is the soundtrack to the film by Tomas Alfredson based on the novel by John le Carré. Cool film. Cool soundtrack. The music perfectly dramatises the period noir-ish spirit of the film with a soft tension that at times reminds me of Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain (1960). Muted horns, atmospheric strings and shadowy bass tip-toe through the foggy streets of this dark Cold War city like professional spies. Great to slap on while you read.
Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes (2012)
I’ve only had a chance to listen to this twice through, but it made an impression. This is a beautiful crash of sound and voice. As the title suggests, this is a slightly softer landscape than Steven Ellison’s previous releases Los Angeles (2008) and Cosmogramma (2010), it reminds me more of (Warp label mate) Prefuse 73’s Everything She Touched Turned Ampexian (2009). The album reels with schizophrenic songs that splinter out like a fractured subconscious suffering the hypnagogic jerks that punctuate the distracted quest for sleep in a hyper-accelerated culture.
School of Seven Bells – Ghostory (2012)
Here’s another band who sound as though they’re adding a bunch of Krautrock and Post-Punk/early Synth-Pop to their record collections. Which is never a bad thing. After losing a band member (an identical harmonising twin sister no less) things could’ve faltered and weakened for the band, but they seemed to have rolled with the punch and moved forward. I played this album many times this year, and mostly in the car. There is a sense of movement and propulsion in their shoe-gazey surge of sound, backed by a ticking electronic ebb that colours time yet encourages focus. I was never speeding, this was even keeled cruising. Things merged and made more sense, I thought clearly. This is the trance-like effect. And I think these guys are underrated among the emergent bands in the last five years. They have a great ability for vocal melody and a keen sense of structure. It’s subtle yet hypnotic, and if you allow this music to imprint itself, it’ll serve you well. They give you a world. Much like Bat for Lashes, I’d cite Slowdive or Lush as vocal touchstones, they deliver dreamy messages that are at once direct but also allusive. Mystery has always been a valuable currency enabling music to wield unseen power, and this band is mining that precious element well.
Fan pledge: My favourite track on Ghostory is “Reappear” and I’d love to hear them explore this mode more…maybe add some more Ambient to their record collection and perhaps dispense with the drums altogether and get quiet. Alejandra Deheza’s vocals can pull it off.
Bob Dylan – Tempest (2012)
Sounds crazy, but (to employ an old timey rockcrit phrase) I consider this a ‘return to form’. And it’s only because I dug Time Out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001) and Modern Times (2006) so much that I was left a bit lukewarm when Together Through Life came out in 2009. Somehow that album didn’t do it for me. (I’m sure it’s me, and not Bob. I should give it some more listens and see if I can crack it.) So, as uncomfortable as I am saying such blasphemous things, I really like Tempest. The atmosphere he and his band create is thick and instant. And once they have you where they want you, then the spooky magic starts. Get hypnotised. Heed the voice. But don’t accept any open bottles from these men, and leave a contact number with someone. If you’re not careful you may not be seen again. ‘Someone must have slipped a drug in your wine/ You gulped it down and you crossed the line/ Man can’t live by bread alone/ I pay in blood, but not my own.’
Brian Eno – Lux (2012)
A return to total ambiance, from the man who invented the genre. Four tracks of searching tones that orbit the same celestial mass, glowing and giving off a sublime light that we call music.
The Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made the Radio (2012)
When I heard that The Beach Boys were reforming to put out an album (with Brian Wilson) I hunted around online to hear some tracks and give it a quick road test. The first thing I heard was the opening track “Think About the Days”, and I was sold. It was only a minute and a half long, but it immediately took me back to “Our Prayer” (off Smile and 20/20), with those drifting angelic harmonies and so I went out and grabbed a copy. It could’ve been a bit overblown, (sometimes old rockers try a bit too hard) but it’s actually a really sincere, straight forward album. It’s got that sweet pop sound and the songs are all pretty strong, and their voices sound great. It’s bright and happy, but there is also a touching resignation and time, age and memory are present, supplying that bittersweet element that allows the songs to resonate. The final three tracks “From There to Back Again”, “Pacific Coast Highway” and “Summer’s Gone” are prime examples. Smile as you weep.
The xx – Coexist (2012)
They became the critical darlings after their first album, so this was always gonna be a pretty scrutinised affair. And the response was a bit tepid. Now, that could just be the pendulum swinging back a bit and the press deciding to align their scores, but I feel that this album needs more time. Their first album really hit on something and gave us a taste of something that we (apparently) all really missed in alternative pop. Subtlety. Restraint. Quietude. Now, some might argue that Low have been doing that for nearly 20 years. Whatever the case, The xx hit, and hit pretty big. Admittedly, this album doesn’t have the catchy immediacy of the first, but it continues to stretch their stark stripped-back sound and construct subtle forms. Some people are pointing to departed band member Baria Qureshi as perhaps being a missing link in the sound, who knows? What I do know is nothing (especially art) comes out 100% the way you intended. You can plan and map and refine all you want, there will always be variations and loss of control in its execution. This is part of the deal. Whether The xx set out to make an album that seems to sustain a mood, more like an ambient album, rather than self-contained catchier songs is anyone’s guess. Perhaps we’re witnessing the transition period, the searching for new identity. Perhaps they themselves see it as flawed. Perhaps this is where they want to be. They never seemed to like the spotlight. So perhaps this is just camouflage.
Chromatics – Kill for Love (2012) and Symmetry – Themes for an Imaginary Film (2012)
Over the years, some readers may have noted a few mentions of the Italians Do It Better label. I’ve been a fan of theirs since the (relative) explosion of Glass Candy back around 2006. Chromatics were another band who got my pulse going with the addition of vocalist/guitarist Ruth Radelet and the release of Night Drive in 2007. That album was an exciting mix of retro influences like Donna Summer/Giorgio Moroder, Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter soundtracks filtered through a sexy analogue lens, defiantly poker-faced for the modern era. Johnny Jewel is the man behind many of the Italians bands (Glass Candy, Chromatics, Desire) and his guitar, keyboards and production is the key to the signature sound. He’s also admirably pursued the road less exposed. The inclusion of some of these bands on the Drive soundtrack lead to more press and interest from fans, but I dig that somehow this music is still (comparatively) under the radar. Because this is great music with (I think) huge appeal. Let the masses have Gaga and Minaj, that’s fine. This is far more stylish. The label has a distinct retro design aesthetic and markets itself with a chic minimalism which is a nice change from the heavy-handed formula we’re so saturated with. Kill for Love perfectly picks up where Night Drive left off, sounding part late-nite low-key downtempo club adventure; and part muted, melancholy soundtrack to the (perhaps regret-filled) past.
This year also saw the release of another Johnny Jewel project, Symmetry, which fully embraces the instrumental John Carpenter influence and his masterful soundtracks to films like Escape from New York and The Fog. This was a triple vinyl, double CD, and you can bet I got both. This album creeps out of the house in that thick absorbent analogue sound that scored my 80s/90s youth and fuelled the imaginations of a group of friends hell-bent on driving the empty streets and discovering the secrets of dark suburban nights in quiet neighbourhoods, eventually realising we were the secrets. Themes for an Imaginary Film, indeed.
Norah Jones – Little Broken Hearts (2012)
OK, of all the other great music mentioned here, this would have to take my Album of the Year award. (No, maybe Chromatics, no maybe Norah, no maybe Chromatics, no maybe Norah…) This is one of those albums that’s been perfectly realised, perfectly executed and perfectly put together. I read a few reviews that basically said: ‘Norah Jones has teamed up with hip producer Danger Mouse and given us an album that shows she’s not entirely sure of this new direction and is feeling a bit out of her skin’ etc. This response must be from people who missed the double bass and brushed snare sound of “Don’t Know Why” and simply refuse to let her grow and/or develop. Not only is this a damn fine album, I’d go so far as to say I think it’s her best album. Plus, after the Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi project, Rome (2011), which featured Jack White and Norah Jones, the collaboration seems like a logical one.
From the outset this album paints a brooding yet hopeful atmosphere of heartbreak and new beginnings. ‘Good morning/ My thoughts on leaving/ Are back on the table/ I thought you should know’ is the first line of the album, and it seems (once again) that whatever personal turmoil Norah is going through has been transmuted into fuel. Yes, Norah always had a good handle on the blues. And for songwriters, heartbreak is perhaps the most traded renewable resource on the planet.
Her new band exhibits a wise restraint throughout the album. Often hiding amid the keyboards, the guitar adds nice background textures then steps forward to lead a lick or two through the reedy reverb swamp of songs like “Little Broken Hearts”, “She’s 22”, “Take It Back”, and “4 Broken Hearts”. I couldn’t help but think: Man, this sounds like the band that would play the Road House in Twin Peaks. There is a distinct David Lynch soundtrack vibe to a number of these tracks.
The songs “Say Goodbye”, “Out On The Road” and “Happy Pills” provide a nicely placed bop and catchy swing to the album. There are a few songs that may surprise some people too. One is “After the Fall”, which is a beautifully cut gem that reflects light in patterns that remind me of In Rainbows-era Radiohead. The song “Miriam” may catch a few Norah fans off guard as she tells a tale of murderous deception with a steely nonchalance. She follows this hypnotic bloody dirge with “All A Dream” which is a moody love song that goes awry and starts to close in, revealing something much darker. Lovers become enemies here, while the guitar jags and moans in adjoining rooms, the drums martial some inevitable confrontation and the bass steals every suffocating scene.
So perhaps the content of a few songs might’ve thrown some fans and the palette is, at times, far darker than previous albums, but Little Broken Hearts once again showcases her skills as writer and performer, and is another creative step forward in her evolution.
by Decoy Spoon