Saturday, November 20, 2021

Review: 30 • Adele

“Divorce, babe, divorce,” Adele told a fan on an Instagram live stream who asked about the subject matter of her newest studio album, 30. Coming from a woman whose celebrity relied on curating some of her generation’s most devastating heartbreak songs even when she was happily married, the answer – though oddly spirited and conversational – didn’t come as a surprise. No, it had become a universal truth that Adele’s next record had to be a divorce record just minutes after her separation was announced to the public. But then we hear 30, and as it turns out, divorce isn’t the album’s linchpin per se, but rather only its genesis – the starting point for an hour’s worth of music that exercises self-care, self-reflection, and most often, self-indulgence.

30 documents Adele in motion, as she takes a bold step forward in discovering what more an Adele record can offer. And in that regard, she sees some success: “Strangers by Nature” slowly animates the record like a Disney film, while “My Little Love” lingers like a foggy morning, addressing her divorce with her son directly. The first half of the record, where these two tracks reside alongside unmistakable Adele ballad “Easy on Me” and shocking highlight “Oh My God,” undoubtedly offers more interesting extractions of her inspiration than the latter, where the album begins to teeter into more underwhelming, overlong spaces. The last two tracks stretch to almost seven minutes each, and the two before it are five or more minutes – and all of them, including the overdone gospel breakout session “Hold On,” feel as if they’ve said everything they need within the first few minutes. 

In that way, 30 can be a frustrating listen, overwrought and unending in ways that work against its own interest. There’s no denying that Adele cuts right to the quick of her emotions here: No uncertain terms are used to describe how she feels, down to voice memo conversations with her son that narrate pieces of “My Little Love.” The songs are vocally and melodically sound, offering a little something onto which a listener can latch and hum along in the moment. But then many overstay their welcome – most often, when they reside in Adele’s torch song wheelhouse, where she grows comfortable enough to ignore the coda – and dilute any semblance of a true apex. Maybe Adele has made music too far advanced in life experience to resonate with a 25-year-old man. But more likely, Adele made a record that is stretched thin by its own ambition. It’s not a dishonorable effort, but it’s certainly not an instantly memorable one, either.

30 is available now under Columbia Records.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Review: Valentine • Snail Mail

There’s something in the way that Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan delivers lo-fi rock music that seems off-kilter. She comes into her melodies just below pitch, smacking an arbitrary note then sliding down a stanza. The pieces never really congealed on Lush, a debut record that backlit an imperfect vocalist with thin, concise guitar work. It sounded like a teenage garage band project, because without a record label’s backing, it would have been just that. Thinking Lush carried itself with as much appeal as a coffee shop’s open mic night, I feared Snail Mail just wasn’t for me. But then came Valentine, Snail Mail's sophomore record.

Valentine torches a path that its predecessor failed to forge: Its use of guitars and keys are crunchier and more interactive, and its tight melodies sizzle before they burn. Jordan is a full-grown rocker now, having toured a record, gone through a bad relationship or two, and spent time in rehab – and she sounds like it. “You wanna leave a stain like a relapse does when you really tried. And damn, this time, I really tried,” she bleeds down “Ben Franklin,” the album’s red-hot highlight. “Madonna” stings, too: “Body and blood, lover's curse. Divine intervention was too much work. I don't need absolution, no, it just hurts. We're not really talking now.” With interesting choices in instrumental texture and uncomfortable melody to complement Jordan’s exacerbation, the two songs – plus the absolute thrasher of a title track – reintroduced Snail Mail as an instantly brilliant songwriter.

While early morning hymnal “Light Blue” suspends love in midair, most of Valentine becomes a pensive tale of defeat and disenchantment, caught in the throes of a sloppy, codependent relationship. “Who was I to ever want like this? You got so mean. Pouring out the Jack and consequence when you’re with me,” she admits on “Automate,” a linchpin to understanding the record’s catalyst. Every line reads poetic but with purpose, as Jordan commits to her feelings without reservations: Not many people could sound so confident in declaring, “I’m like your dog,” or “You owe me. You own me,” to an ex-partner. The record’s buzzier rock influences feel more actualized than her last record, managing to dissolve the barrier between the burning fires of obsession and the persistent nag of envy. “Forever (Sailing)” may pick up a wavy little disco lick in its pursuit to knock an ex from Jordan’s head, but as the rest of the record proves in a robust display of arms, there’s no chance of forgetting that soured valentine.

Valentine is available now under Matador Records.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Review: Blue Banisters • Lana Del Rey

Two new Lana Del Rey records in seven months would have turned the year 2013 on its head. At that time, the genesis of Lana Del Rey seemed to have been far too swift for an artist who had putzed around for nearly a decade without catching fire. Within a matter of months, Lana Del Rey would be launched from fickle online shitposter to the golden standard for a class of alternative pop pessimists to follow her high glamour, high drama debut Born to Die. In the heat of her newfound celebrity, she was ready to quit – but fans clung to her, begging for more in fear that their new favorite artist would be burnt out before long. Little did we know that in 2021, Lana Del Rey would make the hardest pendulum swing of her career, releasing two albums (and tease even more) before scrubbing her presence from the social media platforms through which she built her career.

Like the record that preceded it earlier this year, Blue Banisters reframes Lana Del Rey as a literalist folk songwriter of sorts. While Chemtrails Over the Country Club traced the Midwest, bringing with it a roadsy Western slant to Del Rey’s music, Blue Banisters is planted in solitude. Del Rey capitalized on the pandemic to retreat to ordinary life, as if her mid-2010s surge in status was a fever dream. Her inward narratives are unfussy and lack her telltale sensationalism as she conveys the immediate world around her, from her friends by the pool to “a picture of me on the wall of me on a John Deere.” Rather than blanket them in expansive metaphor, tension and shortcomings are placed in plain English this time around – “My father never stepped in when his wife would rage at me, so I ended up awkward but sweet,” she sings on “Wildflower Wildfire,” a track that is a theoretic standout but falls flat in its huffy execution. “Text Book,” though, is a more intriguing listen, as she inspects her previous relationships with men and her father: “You've got a Thunderbird. My daddy had one, too. Let's rewrite history. I'll do this dance with you. You know I'm not that girl, you know I'll never be. Maybe just the way we're different could set me free” 

The record is far disconnected from the artist who once transformed her dullest realities into overwrought, near-timeless noir, though it’s an understandable one given that cosplaying as Marilyn Monroe and singing songs of imminent disaster while superimposed over an American flag is a bit too on the nose for the occasion. In turn, while the songs are her slowest burners yet, the songwriting is a fast and loose snapshot of today. Sure, there are some love songs – “Thunder” is a gorgeous addition here, smoldering with a ‘70s pop-rock energy, and “Arcadia” has become an essential ballad in her repertoire – and some heartbreak songs, but the record is time-stamped in 2021. As she eyes down the barrel of isolation, “Black Bathing Suit” falls apart into three song structures, with harsh tempo changes and an outright vocal breakdown. She damns her pregnant sister’s boyfriend on “Sweet Carolina,” a family affair written with her father: “You name your babe Lilac Heaven after your iPhone 11. ‘Crypto forever,’ yells your stupid boyfriend. Fuck you, Kevin.” Sorry, Kevin. And sorry, Baby Lilac Heaven.

Upon first listen, it’s easy to tell what Blue Banisters is not. It is not the kind of high gloss record that made Lana Del Rey a musical harbinger. It is not always pretty or even particularly interesting: She breaks into an off-key wail in most of “Dealer,” and its closing chunk of the record immediately reveals itself to have been cobbled together from past albums’ rejects. But this record is also not as insulated or as deflective, either. It takes time with Blue Banisters to understand just how many bricks the record pulls from the retaining wall between the person and the persona. Even for how clunky the songwriting can become as she rushes through stanzas to squeeze in every last detail, the songs expose her hardwiring in ways her past major label records couldn’t consistently achieve. It would be unwise to call the record a return to pre-fame form for Lana Del Rey, among the most unpredictable power figures in popular music. We can never be sure where she’s going next, but what’s important about Blue Banisters is that she didn’t go anywhere at all – and it left her no option but to inspect a harsh reflection in front of her.

Blue Banisters is available now under Interscope Records.

© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall