23 February 2012

2012: born 2 be strong

and we're off to the races! or the watering hole, i guess, to go by my basically arbitrary alcohol-themed sidebar ranking metaphor for the year*

2012! @)!@ [that's "2012" in "caps"] good stuff! after a kinda lackluster 2011 – at least, until the very end when i figured out what i'd been missing (though even then pretty much just singles, mostly in the dance/hiphop/rnb singles dept..) kinda feel like i and music alike are coming back a little refreshed. good things poppin' all over. it feels so good, it almost feels like 2010 all over again.

specifically, there are my two absolute hands-down favorite albums of the year so far – both of which i was already completely smitten with as of late january (both released 1/31, as it happens), and there's no real competition in sight. and the nominees for let's-just-call-it-a-wrap best album of 2012, yes already: be strong by the 2 bears**, and born to die by lana del rey

the 2 bears!! the 2 bears!! oh, my, god, the 2 bears. well. i know i'm a little weird and all, but why is nobody else running around the internet proclaiming this album the best thing since whatever? srsly. (yup, i've got officially the highest critical opinion in meta-land, by a solid 10 %pts.) (and lets not mince tapes here: this album is unquestionably a 10 in my book, but amg writers are basically not allowed to rate anything newly released at more than four and a half stars.) (and, ok, yes, pretty much every reviewer out there gave this 80% or at least 70%, but they're talking about "fun" like it's some kind of "novelty" or something. people, FUN is at the core of being don't you get it?)

but forget numbers. on the one hand, i basically already said everything i needed to say about be strong in my review. on the other hand, that review is just a lot of words put together, and words are pretty much boring. be strong is the opposite of boring. it has words, most of which are about music (and/or life, usually at the same time), but it says things about music (and/or life) that i couldn't hope to put to pixel with one whit of the oomph. and when it doesn't have words, it says those same things even better. okay, i need to stop this paragraph. just dance with me, ok?

[i just thought of: joe goddard's middle name should be "puts the god in"] [also: i had a fantasy of meeting hot chip, and telling joe and alexis how amazingly awesome i think they both are, but also having to tell joe, still in alexis' presence – after first, of course, telling him that i want to give him a bear hug – that he is the awesomest of the awesome. in fact, that he is hands-down my favorite person in music. especially now that james murphy is out of the running. though i guess that's not technically true.]

born to die, on the other hand... well, i said almost nothing i needed to say about it in my review. because, well, what can you really say in 75 words about something this ambiguously complex (/complexly ambiguous... that is: it's unclear whether it's really simple or really not simple.) [or even 90, since i totally went over word count and got cut; i'll post the full version hear when i get around to a round-up; we're about do.]

mostly, it's a hard album to write about. or, i should say, i have a lot of feelings about it which are hard to express. naturally i was pretty predisposed to like it (or, at least, have feelings about it) considering that it contains my #1 and #2 favorite songs of 2011. that's a pretty improbable head-start on my heart.

and i didn't know what to expect from the rest of it; "born to die" suggested it would be more like "blue jeans" than "videogames" – which turned out to be true, and which, to some extent, seems to be at the heart of the problem some people seem to have with the album. i can sympathize with that: an album more in the mode of "videogames" – one focused primarily around a smart, powerful, poetic songwriting voice – a voice with the degree of nuance and insight that song seemed/seems to contain – could have been something pretty incredibly great.

that's not really what born to die is. lizzie grant is, of course, a songwriter, and i would say a pretty good one, perhaps better, and she definitely has a hell of a voice (writerly that is, not to mention singerly) which is plenty powerful – or at least effective – in its way; which is full of – if not poetry, exactly, certainly poetics, and which, i am gonna say, is smart enough to know that there's more to being smart than being smart. (nuance and insight? i'll let that one slide for now.) but no, she isn't chan marshall. (which, honestly, i guess i'm just not a cat power person.) or whoever else "videogames" might have suggested. (in a weird way – in the way it discourses with melancholy, devotion, and indifference, perhaps – might i propose edith frost?)

instead, she wrote every song on the album with a collaborator – including "videogames," it turns out. (apparently, he supplied the chord progression. we'll probably never know how much of the lyrics on the album are solely hers, though it's certainly conceivable that most or even all of them are.) (which isn't to say that songwriters, of any caliber, can't collaborate while still maintaining their voice and self – that's probably a good hobblehorse to poke a few holes in one of these years.) (besides, forget "videogames" – after all, it was only my second favorite song of 2011. and it came to me at such a different time and with such a different set of associations that it doesn't really feel of a piece with the album anyway, yet, still.)

and, instead, born to die is an album of aesthetics, rather than an album of songwriting. damn is it ever. a super-pow wham-whomp aesthetic, full and fleshy and forceful – a musical aesthetic and a lyrical/linguistic aesthetic and a symbolic/poetic/conceptual aesthetic (not to mention visual, and also vocal) all of which fit together almost seamlessly, in a so-uncanny-it-seems-obvious way, though they could also stand separately, i think.

and basically, to get specific for a second, i think it's doing something really original, just in purely musical terms (setting aside, for now, any question of persona/content/context/subtext): there is nothing that sounds like this album. (is there?) really. it seems like such a basic, obvious formula – slow hip-hop beats, big gushing orchestral bits, and pop songs – but i can't think of anybody who's really made anything like it.

[matt proposed portishead and garbage, and yes i can see how those are prefigurations to some extent – and plus, it would be totally awesome if more bands decided to sound like those bands (and were actually able to do it) – but, no, not really, no way: portishead are spooky and alien and/or utterly detached/monotonically depressed, plus they don't really write pop songs; garbage are edgy and punkish and also schmaltzy and effusive and urgent, plus they are an electronic/rock band – lana del rey is none of these things, and more importantly she is hardly anything like either shirley manson or beth gibbons.] [here's one though: fiona apple. should have thought of that before, maybe. but i never completely loved her either...]

it's big, lavish, "produced," "pop," but it's not "pop" in any kind of familiar, narrow sense – it certainly doesn't sound like anything "on the radio" these days – the beats are sort of hip-hop (or possibly, if you like, trip-hop), as is some of the production personnel, but this is obviously not hip-hop music (even if, i will assert, lana does rap at numerous points throughout the album.) so, it's ...pop-by-default, i guess (cuz it's clearly not rock or folk.)

more interestingly though – and i have a little suspicion that this is lurking somewhere behind the issues/confusion/difficulty some people seem to have around the album, it's neither self-evidently "indie" nor clearly "mainstream" – in its sound, signifiers, anything. it's not readily recognizable as belonging to any particular established world/scene/concept. [<<it came from the internet....>>] even to hear her sing "i'm playing on the radio" feels weirdly incongruous (as in, how is this music that can coexist alongside other music?) – even if she probably actually is. (though, obviously, that's not the point... she is not actually telling us to "love [her] because she's playing on the radio." right? are you with me there?)

oh yeah, the words. i probably need to talk about the words. to be honest, i'm more interested in the lyrics of the album (or rather, they have, as yet, mostly presented themselves to me) as a collection of images; a lexicon of tropes; a bright smattering of clichés both old and newly-turned; a piecemeal articulation of an aesthetic or worldview (not, to be clear, one i would presume to ascribe to lizzy grant), than as direct, literal, content.

i would agree, sure, that there are some potentially substantially troubling things going on in these songs from a feminist/gender/sexual politics standpoint (not to mention from an emotional health standpoint.) and, yes, extremely similar lyrical themes are repeated quite frequently, ad nauseum perhaps (if you're prone to lyrical nausea) throughout the album. (in general, the album is extremely samey in most respects – something that definitely ties in with it having a strong, emphatic aesthetic – though that's not to say that the similar songs don't distinguish themselves as more individual – and some stronger, some weaker – with repeated listens.)

somehow, though, those things don't really bother me too much when i'm listening. maybe it's because almost nothing here comes across as "real": the album is so wholeheartedly wrapped up in fantasy, fantasies, of various kinds (wealth, fame, love, sex, youth, glamor, misery, hollywood...american dreams), it feels more like an exploration of fantasy worlds within worlds than anything really relevant to lived reality. (though, arguably, issues of sexual politics have as much to do with what's in our heads and dreams as anything else.)

anyway. forget the haters. screw the hype. i like it.

* not exactly sure how i arrived at that, or how "cheers (drink to that)" became the theme tune for it either – maybe i should switch it to "tubthumper"? – tho i do rather like it. but anyway h/t to bedbugs for the format; glad to see he's still using it. but why so samey, ernold?

**i called this "my favorite album of 2012, so far," and my roommate turned to me and said "um... it's like january 10th."

No comments: