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Entries in janice levens (7)

Monday
Nov202017

In Which It Is Just The Christmas You Lost To Cocaine

Workshop Blues

by JANICE LEVENS

Screen Shot 2017-11-18 at 5.46.18 PMEveryday Is Christmas
Sia
producers Sia Furler and Greg Kurstin
November 17th on Atlantic Records

I have no idea why Sia recorded Everyday Is Christmas, but it is best to not look this particular gift horse in the mouth or face. Some artists make jokes and others are sincere, but Sia occupies a discursive space between those two norms, and what a space it is. This metaphysical area is full of the following:

* puppies (Sia loves dogs, because they only judge people based on physical presence and potential as a food source)
* nature (on “Snowflake” Sia deals with the traditional version of  term. She is not so crass)
* elves (in the metaphorical sense)
* mistletoe (there is a positive aspect to touch)

Parsing the lyrics is sometimes a challenge. On “Sunshine”, Furler suggests, “Tell me your secrets tonight and I’ll get the elves working on them.” She adds, “Got the elves working so hard, make your pain stop.” I honestly never know when to laugh or cry on this album, and the preternaturally talented producer of Everyday Is Christmas, Greg Kurstin, doesn’t seem to either. This unexpected album is such a songwriting tour de force that even the most nonsensical lyrics land completely in the Santa’s Workshop of orchestration woven by Furler.


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On the album’s most formal and nearly devout track, “Snowman”, Furler manages a touching and deeply beautiful ballad that proves that almost any simile she writes can encompass anguish and joy at the same time. She sings,

Don't cry snowman, don't you fear the sun
Who'll carry me without legs to run?
Don't cry snowman, don't you shed a tear
Who'll hear my secrets if you don't have ears?

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Mostly Everyday Is Christmas seems to be making the point that words are mere shells, and the underlying arrangements are Furler’s actual voice. She is one of the most magnetic and intuitive musical talents ever to work in this genre, and if it feels like very few risks are being taken here, there is also the pervasive feeling that Sia is closing a door on a certain sound embodied by her 2014 masterpiece 1000 Forms of Fear.

On “Puppies Are Forever”, Furler sings, “Cause they're so cute and fluffy with shiny coats. But will you love 'em when they're old and slow?” This should not have affected me as much as it did either. But for some of us, the end of the year is when we are at our most vulnerable and plaintive. Timing is everything in life, and I am happy Sia made Everyday is Christmas for us this year.

Janice Levens is the music editor of This Recording.

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Tuesday
Nov142017

In Which Taylor Swift Becomes A Stranger

Iconoclasted

by JANICE LEVENS

Reputation
Taylor Swift
producers Max Martin and Karl Schuster
November 10th on Big Machine

When evening comes, I go back home, and go to my study. On the threshold, I take off my work clothes, covered in mud and filth, and I put on the clothes an ambassador would wear. Decently dressed, I enter the ancient courts of rulers who have long since died. There, I am warmly welcomed, and I feed on the only food I find nourishing and was born to savour. I am not ashamed to talk to them and ask them to explain their actions and they, out of kindness, answer me. Four hours go by without my feeling any anxiety. I forget every worry. I am no longer afraid of poverty or frightened of death.

- Niccolò Machiavelli

If Taylor Swift is anything like the person depicted on her new album Reputation, she is the most devious, complicated, multifaceted person ever to exist. Let us take our time with a line from "I Did Something Bad", which I believe in the end represents everything this woman is concerned with: "I never trust a narcissist, but they love me." Such a statement implies that every single association Swift has with other people is deceitful in some way. This admission is startling on another level, since it prizes the latter section of the clause over the former. The beginning of the lyric is a preference, the ensuing clause is a state of being.

Of course there is the possibility that this, like so much else on Reputation, is tongue in cheek, or simply written by one of the many co-writers Swift has worked with over the years. On Reputation, Jack Antonoff and the producing-songwriting team of Karl Schuster and Max Martin are present to work in the confines of Swift's familiar sound. But the lyrical voice is distinctly Swift's own, and the message is completely fucked up:

I stay when it's hard, or it's wrong
Or we're making mistakes
I want your midnights
But I'll be cleaning up bottles with you

Again, if this is true, it's desperately sad and twisted. If it's only a conceit, the expression of it is somehow worse. I know that massive amounts of money and adulation are capable of changing a person, but altering them to this extent is potentially what happened to Lady Macbeth. Of course, no one ever said Lady Macbeth is boring, and Swift is intent on focusing this aspect of her personality. On "Dancing With My Hands Tied" she explains, "I'm the mess that you wanted." Uh-huh.

But no one could ever think Swift was, or has ever been a mess. So that part is a lie, and probably a lot else on this album. Swift's last album, the more enjoyably pop 1989, sold ten million copies, and Reputation attempts to put it in the dust. The more considered, low-key elements of that album are completely submerged here, with Swift more often sounding like mid-career Madonna than any iteration of herself.

There is something dated about Reputation, which suggests that the 27-year old is becoming very old, very quick. The orchestrations are generally limited, leaving the focus on Swift's sharp, bouncy voice, which is at its best when breathily intoning in something like speech. "Dress" is her most complete and exciting track in this vein, explaining, "I don't want you like a best friend," hinting at a story she refuses to tell. Instead, we receive the following blandishments:

Even in my worst times, you could see the best of me
Flashback to my mistakes
My rebounds, my earthquakes
Even in my worst light, you saw the truth in me
And I woke up just in time
Now I wake up by your side

It would be compelling to watch Swift take on various new themes in her work, including authentic estimations of loss and love. Instead Reputation is an extended revenge fantasy on no one in particular. "I'll be the actress starring in your bad dreams," she blurts out on "Look What You Made Me Do."

When Niccolo Machiavelli retired from private life, he wrote his signature work, The Prince. The entire time he was longing to return back to politics, since it was what brought joy to his life. In The Prince, he explains that such a person must be able to change his views at a moment's notice. He isn't able to be honest, because it would mean losing his ability to defeat his rivals, and kill them when he can. This was what Machiavelli called virtu. I feel like Taylor Swift is articulating a new philosophy along these lines, which is essentially a return to the old.

Janice Levens is the music editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles.


Thursday
Nov022017

In Which Something Happened When You Were A Kid

Screen Shot 2017-10-28 at 7.01.18 PM

Nothing She Can't Do

by JANICE LEVENS

Stranger in the Alps
Phoebe Bridgers
producers Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska
September 22nd on Dead Oceans

"Jesus Christ, I'm so blue all the time, and that's just how I feel," Phoebe Bridgers admits on "Funeral." Disturbingly, this is one of the most uplifting tracks on her debut album Stranger in the Alps, a preciously perfect debut in the vein of collaborator Conor Oberst and a litany of folk predecessors who were nowhere near as good when they were 23.

But age is not anything but a number, and Phoebe herself is more than an amalgamation of moody ballads. Most prominent in Stranger in the Alps is Phoebe's hometown of Los Angeles, which lurks like the effete ghost on her album cover over the proceedings.

One reason that Phoebe's dark act isn't always convincing is that she is so articulate about her hard times. While she explains "I won't be home with you tonight" to Leonard Cohen on "Chelsea", you can tell that she is having fun in her melancholy. "No it's not important, they're just pretty words, my dear," she explains, "there is no distraction that can make me disappear." Thank God, for Stranger in the Alps is the most exciting debut this year.

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Bridgers' low, gravelly voice works perfectly on this material, although it lacks the resonance we encounter when she duets with Conor Oberst on the restrained, "Would You Rather". Hearing another voice echo Phoebe's comes as an alarming surprise, and is probably mistake. Breaking this sonorous monologue is distracting to the real purpose of Stranger in the Alps, which is to present a devastatingly accurate portrait of a woman in a particular time and place without any self-censorship; Bridgers' honesty is like a dinosaur bone delicately preserved in amber. Oberst is the dinosaur.

On "Scott Street", Bridgers hones in her self-doubt on an exterior force. Her subdued anger is all the more sour for its contained aspect, as she sings, "There's helicopters over my head every night when I go to bed. Spending money and I earned it. When I'm lonely, that's when I'll burn it." Here the underlying sound recedes from her singular voice, whereas on "Georgia", one of her oldest songs, the piano is more prominent, as if she is now slightly embarrassed by the directness of lyrics like "if I had breathed you, will it kill me?"

In the album's showpiece, "Smoke Signals", Bridgers ascends to another level of lyrical sophistication.

I buried a hatchet, It's coming up lavender
The future's unwritten, the past is a corridor
I'm at the exit looking back through the hall

You are anonymous, I am a concrete wall

By the end of Stranger in the Alps, Phoebe seems to have encapsulated how she wants her music to appear in the folk catalogue: on the serious, hard side of the ledger. "You gave me $1500 to see your hypnotherapist," she says without the slightest hint of irony. Let us hope she stays that way.

Janice Levens is the music editor of This Recording.

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