Sunday, September 12, 2021

Review: Star-Crossed • Kacey Musgraves

The divorce record: It’s what the people wanted – nay, demanded – from Kacey Musgraves once the news spread in July 2020. She and fellow country singer Ruston Kelly had split, ending the marriage that inspired the Grammy Award-winning record Golden Hour – a hypnotizing, evergreen depiction of newlywed radiance, even with the power of hindsight. For many, there was an assumption that a new record would be just as impassioned as the marriage record, just oppositely reinforced: Anger and betrayal should light up this record like the Fourth of July. Instead, what we hear is a record incredibly characteristic of Kacey Musgraves. Through Star-Crossed, she processes and accepts the situation for what it is: A couple who, when the stardust settled, just wasn’t meant to coexist in the home they had built together. Whether the fault was his, hers, or most likely, both of theirs, it doesn’t quite matter: It’s life, and it happens. How’s that for a divorce record?

It’s hard not to reference Star-Crossed against Golden Hour: They open and close the same book, from the same artist, with the same producers. This album traces the descent from love-soaked utopia, bookended with denial and bargaining on one end (“I’m your cherry blossom, baby. I don’t wanna blow away,” she sings on “Cherry Blossom,” an ear-catching sonic flare) and acceptance on the other. The album closes with a celebratory flute solo (“There is a Light”) and a cover of a decades-old Chilean song translating to “Thanks to Life,” released by its original writer shortly before she committed suicide in 1967. But beyond their stories’ continuity, the records are starkly different creations. Country becomes only the conversational, sometimes clichéd storytelling foundation here rather than the outward presentation: Star-Crossed coagulates into a soft, pillowy mutation of pop, psychedelia, and country, in which country maintains the recessive genes. 

With its songs tailored slim and songwriting choices tied to a targeted palette, Star-Crossed is much more reliant on a drumbeat than a heartbeat. “Justified,” where spaghetti western instrumentation is skewed into a dance floor outfit, might best represent the artistic vision and mission statement at hand: “Healing doesn’t happen in a straight line,” she sings, among the record’s most gripping statements. The song is fulfilling yet only vaguely familiar of Musgraves’ native country music; the same could be said of “Breadwinner,” a danceable moment of rebellion against her ex, and “Simple Times,” a cleaner cut, much closer cousin to Musgraves’ back catalog. Star-Crossed is, by design, an abrupt break from who Kacey Musgraves once was as an artist. The idealistic visions she curated and upon which she reflects in “Camera Roll” are no more: “Golden Hour faded to black,” indeed. 

Despite its inspiration, Star-Crossed is an easy, encapsulating listen. The songs share the same DNA, creating a starry blanket across the freshly blackened sky. Musgraves’ vocals sink into each song’s plush production work, insulating her stanzas and embedding her voice into the framework. Ultimately, she has created a crash pad to absorb the impact of her imploded relationship. Star-Crossed doesn’t sound like a divorce record, and certainly not a country one, at that. (After all, not one song here threatens her ex’s life or his possessions. No woman scorned here, folks.) The songwriting almost snips the theses out of her stories, saving only the metaphoric musings to swirl around the dilated soundscapes. In turn, Star-Crossed isn’t the transformative exploration of a specific feeling that Golden Hour was. It smooths the sharp lines in a difficult yet life-redefining situation, rendering a record that, yes, can sometimes feel somewhat detached from its core. But perhaps that’s the lesson: Life happens. It’s painful. We cope. We heal. We move on. Sometimes, we're just star-crossed.

Star-Crossed is available now under MCA Nashville and Interscope Records.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Review: Screen Violence • Chvrches

The headlines to any given coverage of Chvrches’ new record were written as soon as the pop trio decided upon the title Screen Violence: “Chvrches releases quarantine record for the viral age!” The album, yes, is technically the band’s quarantine album, recorded virtually as the bandmates were spread between Los Angeles and Glasgow – but its fittingly pandemic-era title is merely serendipitous. As every interpersonal interaction – big, small, vital, or casual – became technologically mediated, society at large seems to have grown more comfortable with the protection of anonymity in everyday interactions that was otherwise provided to only, say, social media trolls. Having been victim to both myogenic assaults and Chris Brown fans alike, the band knew a thing or two about internet warfare long before a fully virtual world – and much of Screen Violence rockets out from the viral pressure chamber.

The commercial attempt, the sell-out record, the label appeasement exercise – whatever its label, the band’s third album skewed the acceptable benchmarks for a Chvrches record. Asked to work for a band that already contained two in-house producers, Greg Kurstin ironed out the band’s quirks and slanted them toward his territory in arena pop. Compared to its predecessors, Love is Dead was a plain record – but also an angry one. That emotion, having thickened into flat-out resentment, becomes the vital carryover to Screen Violence, which returns to self-produced – albeit somewhat sharper and shiner – products. “He said, ‘You need to be fed, but keep an eye on your waistline,’ and ‘Look good, but don’t be obsessed,’” Lauren Mayberry sings on “He Said She Said.” The mistreatments and double standards stack atop each other until the pressure becomes too much: “I feel like I’m losing my mind,” she repeats in the chorus, a simple but effective climax.

In crafting intriguing soundscapes, the Chvrches of today is unmatched to any past iterations of the band: Together, they have pulled together their most vivid production work yet, tucking away electronic pyrotechnics in unexpected places and emphasizing band’s most exacerbated moments. Album opener “Asking for a Friend” pulls away to a near silent false ending while Mayberry extends a hand for help – “The past is in the past; it isn’t meant to last. But if I can’t let go, will you carry me home?” – before launching into an extraordinary starburst. Both “Violent Delights” and “Nightmares” channel rock opera: Blown out electric guitars and faux-string synthesizers create menacing cathedrals of sound. “How Not to Drown” continues well beyond homage, featuring The Cure’s Robert Smith on a spiraling synth rock centerfold: “Tell me how it's better if I make no sound. I will never escape these doubts. I wasn't dead when they found me, watch as they pull me down,” Mayberry and Smith duet in the song’s heavy chorus.

Screen Violence is a tense listen, uncompromising in the band’s rejection of fame. “And it feels like the weight is too much to carry. I should quit, maybe go get married,” she sings on “Final Girl,” perhaps the darkest reflection of Mayberry’s experiences. The band’s production choices – this time, they electrify their synthpop with a barbed progressive rock – only intensify the internal struggle between pushing forward or retreating to comfort. While this record bears more semblance to the band’s first two than their third, the band aggregates lessons from them all to craft their most gripping record yet. It glorifies our complicated relationship with broadcasted (or more fittingly for this side of the year 2000, streamed) trauma: Why can’t we look away from the scene, even when we are the victims on the screen? Will things ever be as good as they once were? Is there any way to persevere through the pain of unjust wounds? There absolutely is, and it sounds a lot like Screen Violence.

Screen Violence is available now under Glassnote Records.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Review: If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power • Halsey

On paper, Halsey’s fourth studio album seems like a fanfaction at best: Drawing inspiration from her recent pregnancy, the record was produced by Nine Inch Nails and accompanies a moody full-length IMAX film. On its cover, the artist is adorned in performative medieval cosplay, sitting on a golden throne with an infant in hand. All of it was dropped in one giant chunk overnight, presenting itself with the prestige and anticipation of a Beyoncé record. Though its exceptional marketing wrapper could tantalize anyone even mildly interested in the artist, a dedicated Halsey rock album seemed like a stretch for someone who jettisoned into the musical atmosphere cradled in a moody synthpop parachute – and that thought lingers even off the back Manic, an album that proved she boasts an efficient camouflaging ability to sidestep between numerous genres. Perhaps that’s because it was, in fact, a stretch: If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is mostly just a Halsey record. To its credit, though, it's one filled with interesting textures and uncontainable discomfort, even at a time in her life – her first full-term pregnancy – that society often paints as unconditionally glowing.

Halsey no doubt hyped the record she believed she made: One that pushed her to her outermost musical limits and wedged her into metal music. And if the three opening songs – collectively, an impressive crescendo from unsteady piano to electric rocker – were to represent the whole album that unfolds after them, that’d be a fair and honest campaign. In reality, Halsey frames up her trademarked sensationalism into a compatible industrial dance rock: Electric guitars, techno-revival bass lines, and pianos are used in rotation to carry most songs, but never en masse to overwhelm a song’s simple melodic heartbeat. Songs with high octane bass lines (“I am Not a Woman, I’m a God,” “Girl is a Gun”) throb against her cool vocals, meriting more of an intuitive hip shake than a head bang. On heavier numbers like pop-rock anthem “Honey” or instant standout “You Asked for This,” Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross carve a shallow trench to embed (rather than compete with) her vocals, often restrained as she rides through comfortable, undemanding melodies. In that way, the album more often elevates her strengths than it does detract from them.

With the album loaded in powerful songs, some others – namely, the Lindsey Buckingham-assisted “Darling” and “Lillith,” with its long faded Twenty One Pilots aesthetic – fall into the crevices between the album’s best moments. Even still, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power becomes her most uniform and interesting effort since Badlands. Flipping motherhood on its head, Halsey focuses on the underrepresented terror that surely ensues as a pregnancy matures: Far beyond the bodily manipulations that must occur to support another life, she faces the magnified responsibility and the potential motherly schism in public image. “You Asked for This,” for one, declares, “You wished upon a falling star, and then left behind the avant garde for lemonade in crystal glasses, picket fences, file taxes.” Fearing the loss of individuality, she channels anxiety into an exercise of power dynamics: How we identify power, how we gain it, how we leverage it, and ultimately, how we relinquish it to benefit another. The pathway there is littered in high drama and imaginative verbosity – but those are the landmarks that remind us it’s a Halsey record. And it’s a pretty good one at that.

If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power is available now under Capitol Records.

© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall