ARBITER OF POP // 1
Running through all of JT’s songs about love and relationships – specifically Cry Me a River, My Love, What Goes Around, and now Mirrors – is a vein of anxiety. Whether his thoughts are messing with his head, or full of all things matrimonial, these songs are riddled with doubt, error of judgement and desperate questions, either borne out in the open from present agony, or the underlying consequence of insecure fingers that have been singed.
“Why did you leave me, all alone?”
“(So don’t give away) My love”
“I guess I was wrong”
“Cause I don’t want to lose you now / I’m looking right at the other half of me”
With much of his life played out in front of lenses – from the Mickey Mouse Club to his latest album cover – a particular reason for these relationship anxieties is apparent to all: romantic loss, all the worse for being played out in public. By having relationships with such famous women Timberlake undoubtedly brings this upon himself, but nonetheless, opening his heart comes with such open consequences that the stakes might well seem all the higher. When your heart causes you to see someone’s face everywhere, a world tour can’t help the situation.
Though these songs are not always strictly confessional, first person pronouns are nonetheless one of the foremost features of his song-writing vernacular (there’s 7 in the above examples alone), and the effect is to entrench this anxiety deeply within Justin himself. How much of his relationship woes have been the result of self-deception or even self-destruction is not our business, but anyone can relate to the fact that carrying a buried wound of any sort means that even in the present, even at a moment of greatest stability, the idea of sudden loss can weigh imminent. We may not know what we’ve got until it’s gone, but we can still toss and turn at night about losing it long before it ever is.
“Coming right back here to you once I figured it out / You were right here all along”
What makes the emotional arc of Mirrors so glorious, is that all of these aspects - the anxiety, the loss, the scars, the fixation on the self - are all present, but treated from a position of self-awareness and happiness – not just reliant on another – but a sense of integral contentment instilled by progress through and life with another.
“So now I say goodbye to the old me, it’s already gone”
At the moment this self-aware realisation fully registers in the song, a sonic switch-up occurs to compound this personal development. The towering, romance bordering on melodrama conjured by the dominant synth riff, the swelling orchestral backing, and Timbaland’s idiosyncratic looping beat-box textures drop out, a dynamic already teased by the solely drum-led, open-lunged, arms in the air breakdown/chorus/BEST BIT, and the atmosphere and pace changes substantially. In their place we now have twinkling keys, a subtle metronomic beat, almost total calm, and one of the most intimate, richest vocal performances of Timberlake’s career. The self-possessed subtext fades and he gives himself over entirely, whilst never having been more entirely himself. All that’s left is the repeated declarative:
“You are, you are, the love of my life”
Mirrors is the emotional and musical highlight of one of the, if not the most, ambitious pop albums of the young century. 8 minutes 5 seconds long and – unlike the 20/20 projectitself - fully justifying of its length, nonetheless perhaps most satisfying of all, is that there’s no time for grand close, only a growing sense of peace as the instrumentation floats into the increasingly minimal. The song ends in an ellipsis free of anxiety, resting in the comfort of ‘to be continued’.
CHRISTOPHER T. SHARPE
ARBITER OF POP // 2
JANELLE MONÀE // Q.U.E.E.N.
In her breath-taking performance on Later… earlier this year, our white suited heroine skidded round Holland’s studio with visceral energy, all the while pitching every note to perfection. That forcefulness on stage, combined with the fact Monáe’s responsible for some of the decade’s smoothest, most soulful R&B, might seem a tad contradictory, but the Atlanta-based Electric Lady seems to take dismantling preconceptions, however small and seemingly insignificant, as a personal responsibility, and it’s precisely this which makes her such a great writer of pop music – with Q.U.E.E.N. one of the loftiest peaks in a pristine discography.
Just take the way the track’s opening spring-loaded guitar wobble is controlled and choreographed to perfection as the song evolves, sometimes teasing, sometimes entreating, but rarely losing its purchase on your (frankly overjoyed) earlobes. As layers build Q.U.E.E.N. is never blatant or manipulative, because it relies on its own infectiousness to do the dirty work of finding that part of you, however small or well-disguised it may be, that really wants to dance, before proceeding to feed it with soul and feel-good sound.
Sonically, there are all sorts of virtues here that could whip the ground out from beneath you, especially what with the way Monáe can conjoin throwback R&B with orchestral arrangements and seriously retro-sounding flourishes on the keys, barely pausing to catch her breath. Q.U.E.E.N. is as dynamic as the Electric Lady herself – at once both ecstatic and immaculately presented, switching from expansive string breakdowns and passionate rap to the playful and tongue in cheek – however, what really makes the song so damn special is that, not only is it a further realisation of the Cyndi Mayweather concept that Monáe’s been pursuing since her first EP and a polished bauble of 24 carat pop, but that it’s also the most feminist, pro-individuality, pro-equality pieces of music to have ever got anywhere near 8 million YouTube hits.
At more than a few moments it can feel as though Q.U.E.E.N. is the embodiment of that strut Monáe seems to own so well, which lets you know she’s forever the ruler of her realm. This track is almost a manifesto for everything that Monáe wants to change about the world – whether that be the demonisation of the ‘other’, judgement, infringement upon people’s human rights – and it’s the fact it pulls off this idealism without a hint of self-congratulation that’s so very important. The sound of preaching has never been sweeter.
ARBITER OF POP // 3
KATY PERRY // Roar
2013 was (/is/hopefully always will be) the year in which I’ve never felt more intensely, deeply shitty about myself. Trigger over-share alarm.
My life isn’t hard. I’m fortunate enough to be completely healthy and still not look after myself well enough. I have a core group of people who care about me deeply, who I love deeply back and don’t tell often enough. I’m intensely lucky and intensely dumb-foundedly aware of that fact. Yet still - whether it be my perceived absence of capabilities and potential, the Fort Knox full of flaws, almighty balls-ups and terminal mistakes that lay behind me and probably ahead of me, or the crippling sense of ennui surrounding my place in and impact on the world around me - the last eight months in particular have felt entirely out of my control, bright moments drained of all their colour, my small ship cut adrift from the fleet and taking on water. Rejections, essay all-nighters, a lonely slog through my finals, 17 years of education arriving abruptly at its apparently definitive end, and, most crushingly of all, my heart broken.
It’s now July. My achievements feel immediately worthless. Various escape plans ranging from Snowdon to Tuscany don’t work out beyond immediate distraction.
I’ve missed the boat, have no future and have moved back home.
I hate myself.
I wish I hadn’t done this to myself.
Katy Fucking Perry - full title - should not have been one of the people to come closest to resolving that utter mess of a situation.
It is now August. These keys are brazenly ripped near-wholesale from Sara Bareilles. These lyrics are almost impossibly generic.
I’m falling madly in love with friends I thought I might have lost all over again.
I’m all-too-briefly writing for one my favourite music websites.
I’m in Yorkshire.
I’ve never felt more open.
I’m in Edinburgh.
I’m running out of money.
I’m getting creative again.
I’m passionate and stupid.
I’m starting to like myself.
I realise I have always been myself.
It is now September. This song should not be absobloodypositivifuckinlutely amazing. Those drums have no right to be so huge.
I should not be inwardly and outwardly screaming this and pumping my fist in the shower/whilst walking the dog/at my desk/in the car/in public spaces.
I should not be connecting with someone I’ll never meet, who I’d conceived of as a product, this deeply.
Things are getting better.
It is now December. I read that Scott Hutchinson also loves this song. I read that I should stick to my guns. I read that this song is important.
I’ve never felt more comfortable being this uncool or writing about myself.
My heart still aches daily, but no longer constantly.
I’ve not managed to take any huge strides forward yet.
But I’ve never been more ready and desperate to turn the page, believe in myself and get on with the next stage of my life.
I’ve never listened to Prism. I don’t really want to. Roar is still more than enough. Thanks Katy.
ARBITER OF POP // 4
LORDE // Royals
There’s a telling difference between the “US” and full-length, ostensibly International, version of the video for Royals. It’s the same video from the same director Joel Kefali, but the US version has been resolutely VEVOfied, and deliberately dilutes the artistry of the original in place of foregrounding youth and beauty in search of dollar signs – using another face as a brand to launch a hundred million clicks.
May’s version is as cold and sparse as the song’s gloriously minimal production, focused on intensely scrawny protagonists worming their way through another disaffected day in beige, hollow suburbia. Distinguishing features are rain, an unmade bed, TV static, interior daylight, boxing gloves, shaven hair and blood.
With each radar-like percussive pop the scene changes, but only thrice does it return to the 16-year old in the 4-minute run time. The longest take is a wonderfully drawn out 26 seconds, which swaps out the quick cuts, and focuses on an isolated, small brunette - not for aesthetic reasons - but instead to foreground the calmly composed, patient interchange of her lead and harmonising vocals. The effect is to emphasise the maturity of the music, the significance of the lyrics, and pinpoints Lorde’s role as a narrator, side-stage from these beautifully mundane - yet bordering on George Saunders-esque asbract - extracts that dominate, and yet completely complicit in, and familiar to, them.
The US version meanwhile, does away with this rare patience, and instead returns to the carefully batted eyelashes with a regularity that distracts from the overall message. Intentionally so patently, the advertisers that interrupt your YouTube stream and the fast food chains that sponsor her interviews wouldn’t want you to think too deeply on themes of consumerism and conspicuous consumption now would they?
Because this is the central significance of the song, not solely teen suburban blues, or a racist agenda*. This is the closest pop music has come to even vaguely registering the effect and moral underpinnings of the 2008 financial crash and its continued zombified continuance.
Like Lorde, all we can see is the impervious aristocrats marrying off with only commemoratory dishes and Disney for any kind of realistic frame-of-reference, because “it don’t run in our blood”. Social media, television and advertising offers us an ever-escalating and impossible glimpse of “grey goose […] jet planes” and “islands”, probably on the plastic smart phones we bought on credit, and which we now huddle around for warmth because we can’t afford to heat our homes.
Royals isn’t a sophisticated treatise, or even a suitably brutal takedown of the hyper-rich and their protective socio-industrial exoskeleton. But then, I don’t expect sixteen year olds to know what to say, let alone do, about the 1% still persisting with the neo-liberal charade even with the curtain half-torn down, donning their face-stomping boots and topping up the punch bowl with We Can’t Stop/Greed is Good/No Such Thing As Society cocktail to anaesthetise the masses. Yet equally, I didn’t expect a teenager from New Zealand, who thinks Rumours is a perfect album and digs Majical Cloudz, to compose a pop song that’s possessed of world-weary wisdom down to its sonic foundations, and that perhaps most reassuringly, balances that cynicism with the legitimate realisation of the value of innocence before it’s been lost. So let’s see what happens.
[*Bayetti Flores piece is noted, her position wholly understood, and ultimately rejected. I honestly believe this to be the first tentative mainstream transmission from a youth who conceives of pop culture through a post-racial (not de-racialised – that we are most certainly not) lens, in which “hip-hop culture” is no longer other (by which you can read black if need be), shocking somehow, or ironically adopted, but just part of the large body of all-pervasive mainstream codes and conventions of reference**. The key is “everybody’s like”, “every song’s like”.
**I.e. Accepting, without even the necessity of a question, that Jay-Z can headline Glastonbury, blue-eyed soul dropped the prefix, Miley’s twerking, Justin Bieber owns a Maybach, Lil Wayne can play guitar, and white teenagers have their New Era peaks pointing stage left.]
ARBITER OF POP // 5
DISCLOSURE // White Noise
Electronic music in its entirety - let alone just house and its many sprawling mutant offspring - rarely reaches heights as dynamic, as frankly plain essential, as the second single from Settle. Sophisticated for your head and primal for your feet, White Noise swoops expertly between gloom and euphoria, mood and tempo honed, every texture refined into the realm of the exceptional without ever losing any of that ever-appealing filth and immediacy.
It’s guided by the Lawrence brothers’ glorious knack for pinpoint percussion that’s informed all the highlights of their career thus far. That framing bass drum stomp, compelling hi-hat, the subdued beat echoing in stereo through the intro and verses, the intermittent influx of cowbell and tambourine patter, in the pre-chorus build all dropping out in the name of laying the stage for that gigantic chorus clap.
That’s before we even contemplate the preposterous arsenal they have at their disposal that lies above this percussive core. White Noise is an absolute monster and it’s been out there uprooting trees, kicking up sandstorms and shattering dance-floors all year. Travel in pairs.
PERFORMANCE // MOUNT KIMBIE + oOoOO // THE FLEECE, BRISTOL
Electronic music and live performance cross over each other in a grey area. With the generalised boom in the possibilities and exposure of this sphere - one that’s seen a plethora of artists ranging from James Blake to Skrillex to Tim Hecker rise to prominence over the last decade - the codes and conventions of what connotes a performance of this nature have been up for interpretation, redundancy, innovation, and bastardry in equal measure.
One drizzly night in Bristol, Mount Kimbie and oOoOO accordingly offered two vastly polarising approaches to the medium, performances that provoked questions and echoed far beyond the confines of The Fleece.The former? An intoxicating fusion of the tools of the trades (samplers, synths, pedals etc) with the propulsive energy of organic, live instrumentation. The latter meanwhile felt alienating and even disengaged, oOoOO inadvertently trying the audience’s convictions about the authenticity of his music in a live setting.
Spending much of the set on the floor of the stage obscured from view, leaving only the peak of his New Era and a brief loop of projected imagery in his wake, oOoOO’s set felt both idiosyncratic and wholly predictable. Intermittently he’d briefly emerge again, wielding a controller in hand almost as a declaration of proof. This isn’t to say his music - imagine How To Dress Well produced by Haxan Cloak, blisteringly stark bedroom R&B – isn’t a nuanced honest affair, or that his performance wasn’t made up of an intricate series of triggers, sequenced loops, and live mixing when down on the decks. It couldn’t help but feel though, that any specific craft or intrigue was lost in translation as, when finally stood upright, oOoOO wandered about on stage as if playing Bop-It whilst watching paint dry. In a room that wasn’t ready to move, his set ought to have worked harder to either instigate that movement or pour the concrete into their shoes.
Mount Kimbie on the other hand, immediately set about capturing the Fleece. Opening up with Crooks and Lovers key cut ‘Carbonated’ inevitably turned the dial up a notch, but Kai Campos and Dom Maker just kept twisting. Material drawn from CSFLY has been worked through over the last few months so that it possesses a tangible fullness, a weight, which comes from combining their deep production - bass that’s almost biological in its depth, throbbing, pulsating – with the live setting of live guitars and drums, to create these sounds, not just pressing play.
In that vein ‘So Many Times, So Many Ways’ and ‘Blood and Form’ are absolutely stonking live. As a pairing they showcase the key components of 2013-era Kimbie: their flexibility of reach between post-Fly Lo jazz grooves and minimalism, between experimental, dissonant textures and an abstract club-readiness. ‘Blood…’ in particular really pounds off record, and it’s down purely to the human element, the introverted mantras of the subdued dual vocals counter-posed with the pummelling drum beat to exhilarating effect.
Unexpectedly, the one slight down-point was ‘Made to Stray’. Having extolled its virtues to all and sundry all year, expectations were perhaps exorbitantly high, but it undoubtedly felt a couple of notches quieter this time around… slightly slower and drawn out in the live setting so that it crept its way in and snuck out again. It’s a less utterly absorbing but still intriguing re-interpretation, undoubtedly still a song of weird, unfathomable frazzlement, steeped in encompassing atmosphere and intoxicating haze.
So where does that leave us with electronic music in live performance? Well, anticlimactically, at the nub of music in the first place. There cannot and should not be a diktat, but with such a transient happening, in such a finite setting, you ought to take that time and the tools you have in order to act, to be felt, to leave make your mark.
CHRISTOPHER T. SHARPE
MATTERS // MERCURY PRIZE // AN UNWEEDED GARDEN
AHEAD OF WEDNESDAY’S ANNOUNCEMENT OF 2013’S MERCURY PRIZE WINNER, AOT WRITERS HAVE BEEN SINKING THEIR TEETH INTO THE NOMINEES, DISCERNING BETWEEN MOUTHGASM MARVELLOUSNESS AND INDIGESTION-INDUCING MUSICAL BUGGERY.
Where would James Blake be without his voice? I’d posit that he wouldn’t be making uncomfortable, scratchy, alter-club bass music; he would probably be making brash chart electronica and writing beats with David Guetta. This may be unfair, but my point is that Overgrown is an album that is all about presence; all the invoking of an absent other feels, to me, like the assertion of a voice rather than a genuine longing. That is to say, what James really wants is not the absent other, but a means of making prominent his own presence.
In light of the Overlord of the Overgrown triumphing tonight, here’s Chris Blewitt’s perspective on the record the Mercury committee deemed the Best of British Music over the last 12 months one more time.