Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty
Ishmael Butler (a.k.a. Palaceer Lazaro) may have filled Black Up with surreal imagery, subtly cutting commentary and pithy insights, but Shabazz Palaces is foremost about music, not words, about Butler and Tendai Maraire’s visionary productions that freely blend styles, live instrumentation and warped samples into something both claustrophobic and humorous. Their follow-up, Lese Majesty, finds them leaning into this side of their personality, crafting a dense, amorphous album of ethereal hip-hop, where Butler’s voice is often used for its sound rather than its content. While he’s still a big presence on Lese Majesty, he’s often relegated to the sidelines, even as the duo head for more quasi-conceptual territory. It’s a strategy that works in spurts. True to form, a lot of the music here is striking and fascinating, adding more electronic and psychedelic elements to Shabazz’ woozy, late-night jazz and R&B. The layered atmospherics of “Forerunner Foray” are indicative of where Butler and Maraire’s heads are at now, with that druggy, fluid flow threading its way throughout the record, from the nitrous blur of “Ishmael” to the similarly fleeting closer “Sonic Myth Map For The Trip Back.” Elsewhere the grinding guitar “Mind Glitch Keytar Theme” charts out new territory, while “They Come In Gold” and the THEESatisfaction-featuring “#Cake” could have easily slipped into Black Up. But it’s “Motion Sickness,” with its sumptuous synth tones and marimba noodling, that’s the best and most substantial track here.
Unsurprisingly, that track is also one of the few to position Butler front and center. And that brings me to the Lese Majesty‘s major flaw: its lack of weight and focus. The 18 tracks here on Lese are ostensibly broken up into seven suites, but it’s impossible to tell just from listening to it—each track bleeds into the next and over half of them clock in at about two minutes or less, meaning nothing sits in one place for long, so the whole album comes across like a shape-shifting DJ set more than a hip-hop record. Normally, this would be fine, but since the productions here are so preoccupied with the wispy, celestial and effects-laden, they sometimes lack a real anchor and can too easily slide right through the listener’s mind. Plus, the short track lengths mean some of the truly transportive instrumentals here, like “Divine Of Form,” barely get going before they disappear into the ether. The beats may be the most compelling thing about Shabazz Palaces, but Butler’s lyrics gave Black Up a heftiness and humanity the alien productions may not have otherwise had, and that’s something simply missing here. Even on the track whose title he lends his name (“Ishmael”), his voice is mostly lost in murky reverb. Fortunately, whenever Butler does get a word in edgewise, the album springs to life, whether it be the unsettling and referential “Solemn Swears,” the playful “#Cake,” or, even something as the “Touch and agree!” refrain in “Noetic Noiromantics.” His voice is otherwise too manipulated to keep tracks like “Colluding Oligarchs” or “Suspicion Of A Shape” from meandering about in their own sonic pool. It’s a disappointment, to be sure, yet even if it doesn’t all hold together, Lese Majesty proves Shabazz Palaces’ restless, creative spirit is as alive as ever, offering its fair share of forward-looking music. In other words, there’s no reason to think that they couldn’t bounce back with something as vital as their debut next time around.
“Weird Al” Yankovic – Mandatory Fun
Being that it’s 2014, let’s take a moment to marvel at Weird Al Yankovic’s career. For over 30 years (!), Al’s not just been a successful comedian but a multi-generational cultural touchstone, a force of giggly glee that somehow transcended the novelty of pop music parody to endure, while other musicians, actors, comics and artists fell by the wayside. Granted, Al hasn’t released masterpiece after masterpiece. Musical comedy is already a hit-or-miss affair, and when you’ve been at it this long, you’re gonna have some stinkers. But considering most people in his field only flirt with success before they dissolve into bar trivia and remember-when lists, his continued presence is downright astonishing. I’m not suggesting his career is based solely on luck or nostaligia—rather, it’s quite the opposite. His 14th record, Mandatory Fun, proves why, in his mid-50s, he’s able to still churn this stuff out and make headlines.
First, it’s important to note his parodies rarely have to do with the songs themselves. Other than the backing track and maybe a rhyming title, the rest can go wherever Al wants it to. This means Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” can be rewritten about a boastful repairman in “Handy,” and Lorde’s spectral “Royals” instead espouses the food preservation and alien-signal deflection benefits of “Foil.” And that’s one of the other keys to Al’s, and Mandatory Fun‘s, success: his mix of absurdism and observational humor. No one else is going to write a song about these things, and the disparity between the pristine pop productions and his mundane subjects propels some unexpectedly funny moments, like when the bombast of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” juts up against a static slacker protagonist in “Inactive.” Plus, even when he’s playing with material that’s been worked to death elsewhere, like grammar scolding (“Word Crimes”) or privilege (“First World Problems”), there are enough clever spins on the subjects to make them worth the effort.
It’s Al’s original material where things become a bit more iffy. Try as he might, his songwriting just isn’t always particularly memorable, despite their humorous resemblance to the styles he’s skewering. This means that when the jokes aren’t working, like in the pointless college fight anthem “Sports Song” and the Foo Fighters rip “My Own Eyes,” the tracks don’t have a strong musical center to anchor them. But, as always, there are spots where his material comes together. There’s the name-dropping, cowbell-loaded, southern-fried rawk of “Lame Claim To Fame” (“I used the same napkin dispenser as Steve Carell at a Taco Bell!”), and the corporate-jargon satire “Mission Statement” uses warm, CSNY harmonies to enhance the cold business-speak. “First World Problems,” meanwhile, goes all in for a Pixies homage (check the “Debaser” riff that kicks it off) and comes up aces. “Jackson Park Express,” the Cat Stevens/Phil Ochs/Ben Folds-ish voyage that ends the record finale “Jackson Park Express” is stuck in the middle. At 9 minutes, Al’s clearly going for the same over-the-top, “I can’t believe this is still going” territory previously traveled by “Albuquerque” or “Trapped In The Drive-Thru,” and while its tale of an imaginary, escalating relationship has its fair share of laughs, it also can’t quite justify its length. But despite these weaker moments, Mandatory Fun finds Weird Al in fine form. Because at his best, and the highlights here often find him around that level, Al’s music is a glorious, inclusive pop culture celebration, and like the album’s requisite polka cover medley (this one’s called “NOW That’s What I Call Polka!”), it’s mostly a giant, lively party designed to get everyone together to put a big, stupid smile on your face at all costs. For a mission that began in the Cold War-era, I’d say he’s doing okay.
Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Double albums are a tough trick to pull off (and even when they work, they aren’t always worth the effort put into them), but it’s easy to see why artists love to try them. They seem like such a great idea: a wider canvas on which to paint more. More instruments, more styles, more heady concepts, more everything. Arcade Fire are a band that never shied away from more, and the prospect of a double album almost seemed inevitable. But their gift for grandiosity (and the high that comes with winning a Grammy Award for Best Album) also makes them extra susceptible to the dangers of self-indulgence, so when Reflektor, their intensely hyped fourth album, was released in late 2013, it wasn’t exactly clear how it would end up. With LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy behind the boards, there was no question this would be a more danceable, playful Arcade Fire, one inspired by their frequent trips to Haiti and the Caribbean. This shift in approach isn’t as much of a shock as it seems: Arcade Fire have always been inspired by the nervy propulsion of post-punk and new wave. (Funeral is way more rhythm-heavy than you remember.) But those international influences make this more in line with other globetrotting electro-rock acts like mid-period Talking Heads, and it’s not just because Win Butler directly references “Heaven” on the first side’s skipping centerpiece, “Here Comes The Night Time.” Indeed, Remain In Light seems to provide a lot of inspiration for Reflektor, directly and not, sharing its concerns of identity and technology, its stylistic experiments and jump cuts, as well as the David Byrne-esque vocal and lyrical flourishes Butler occasionally employs.
But where Remain In Light is grand in scope yet focused in execution, Reflektor is just a giant, haphazardly brilliant mess. It’s not enough that they explore the themes mentioned above—this is an album that also touches on religion, mortality and uses allusions to Greek mythology and Joan of Arc as the basis for extended tracks. The music follows suit, with Arcade Fire trying a bit of everything, dipping into hardcore punk, dub, ragga, disco, African polyrhythms, funk and experimental electronic music, sometimes fusing these together into weird, oblong shapes. None of this feels particularly fragmented or jarring, per se, since the band’s voice and songwriting is distinct enough to keep up the flow. Nevertheless, the parts are far greater than the sum, so the collective wallop of the album is somewhat soft. Where each of their previous albums picked a certain thematic and musical palette and kept picking at it to find nuance and depth, here the smorgasbord approach treats everything more superficially, so the album lacks a clear through-line. Put another way, where, say, The Suburbs was made up of tiny moments that added up to something moving, Reflektor is made up of huge moments that don’t add up to much of anything at all.
So, for that reason (and because, debatably, a couple of tracks could be cut down a little), Reflektor is the weakest Arcade Fire album to date. But give it a few spins, live with it a little, and each of those individual moments emerge as bits of genius that redeem the record in a big way. The opening title cut marries Murphy’s expansive yet pointed production and Arcade Fire’s fondness for drama (plus a Bowie cameo); The raw “Normal Person” is their best rock song since “Power Out;” “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” is epic, R&B-infused post-punk, and the creepy, tear-stained synth-funk of “Porno” is their most fascinating experiment. Yet nothing gets the blood boiling like “Afterlife,” which, with its searching, desperate chorus, is the most from-the-gut cathartic song they’ve penned since “Intervention.” This plethora of ideas reveals a band in transition, and it’s often thrilling to hear this band try to sate their ever-ballooning ambitions, even if it’s not quite all there. But after three albums whose quality ranged from “masterpiece” to “near-masterpiece,” releasing a record that’s “very good” is no crime, especially when that slip comes from overreach rather than complacency. It may be a shaggy dog album, but it only confirms Arcade Fire’s position as one of the best bands of their generation.
The Dismemberment Plan – Uncanney Valley
The uncanny valley is a psychological phenomenon that refers to the uneasiness that comes with dealing with simulations that imitate human features and movements closely, like mannequins or CGI animations, but are unnervingly different. In that sense, intentional or not, Uncanney Valley ends up being the perfect title for the Dismemberment Plan’s fifth album and first in 12 years. Without a doubt this is a Dismemberment Plan record—Travis Morrison’s mercurial vocals and Joe Easley’s elastic drums confirm that—but there’s something…off. (And it’s not just the misspelled album title.) That “something” can be mostly attributed to the fact the band is a decade older and that 2013 is a much different year than 2001. Whereas a twentysomething Morrison spent the Plan’s early albums working through his anxieties and trying to cope with maturity, he’s now a man on the verge of middle age. With his concerns lying elsewhere, it makes some sense that the music is different: the band members are older and more comfortable with themselves, so it follows that their music is more comfortable too. This is still the same restlessly creative band of yore, but there isn’t the same urgency below the surface, that off-the-cuff inventiveness that made their best work sound so bracing and personal. That has a lot to do with the production, which is more expansive and polished than ever, snapping in samples and sound effects in and around songs like a puzzle, with every sound cleanly organized and mixed, even when it seems to come out of nowhere. In short, the Dismemberment Plan has never sounded this much like a well-oiled machine, yet once you get over the initial shock, Uncanney Valley ends up emerging as a sweet, hopeful, if not great, epilogue to the band’s story.
It’s their shortest album, and that focus keeps things tight and accessible, even when the band navigates through their trademark stylistic turns, playing like a streamlined, ironed-out version of Emergency & I. That directness has its perks, though, especially given Morrison’s ear for off-kilter hooks: the jerky vocals make “No One’s Saying Nothing” a brighter, smoother take on Emergency‘s “A Life Of Possibilities;” the effervescent “Waiting” and skipping “White Collar White Trash” are great, skewed pop, and “Lookin'” is the simplest, prettiest song in the Plan’s catalogue. Uncanney is still too weird to be their version of Weezer’s Green Album, the 2001 comeback that heralded that band’s current status as goofy pop formalists, but it still suffers from one of Weezer’s major late-period issues. Now, Morrison shares some of Rivers Cuomo’s endearing/annoyingly corny humor (the “When I say…you say…” sequence on “Let’s Just Go To The Dogs Tonight;” the sexcapade satire “White Collar White Trash”) and fondness of earnest sentiment that can border on cliché (the sort-of cheesy but very hooky “Go And Get It”). It’s not so much the stab at humor itself that’s the problem—in a world drenched in irony and emotional distance, it’s weirdly a bit refreshing to hear him going for broke on silly dad-jokes—it’s that because of it, the whole album comes off as slight. And that’s especially disappointing considering Morrison was a damn fine lyricist, who found comedy in everyday tragedy and vice versa, and while there’s hints of that here (especially in “Waiting” and “Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer”), it’s generally tossed aside for something altogether flat. That might be a deal-breaker for some listeners, the way it was for Weezer’s fans, but the relative consistency of the songwriting here should help quell the discomfort. After all, it’s hard to argue with more Dismemberment Plan, even if what you were served isn’t what you ordered. Keep an open mind, and you might just go home happy.
MGMT – MGMT
MGMT are a psychedelic band. To many, that may seem like stating the obvious, but it bears repeating, because when “Time To Pretend” and “Kids,” their two purest pop songs, became genuine mainstream hits, the public decided they were a synth-pop group instead. In other words, the image the duo made for themselves was corrupted, and the anomalies in their catalogue came to define them. So upon release, their superb second album, Congratulations, was met with some derision from fans and critics appalled to learn that the duo were going in a different direction. It’s fitting, then, that MGMT waited until now to release a self-titled album, because this is where Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser reclaim their identity as experimentalist weirdos, the kind who aren’t interested in penning Billboard singles. Indeed, MGMT is awash in studio-as-instrument trickery and trippy sound effects, evoking everything from the Flaming Lips at their bleakest to the tribal-psych of Prince Rama to Pink Floyd’s most whimsical sound-collages. Congratulations‘ reception eventually warmed once its detractors realized that there was plenty of hooks, melody and wit underneath the ornate arrangements and complex song constructions. I can’t see MGMT sharing the same fate: Even if it’s not abrasive, it’s willfully alienating, testing the tolerance of any fans holding out for easy pop catharsis. Of course, this would be easier to accept if the album was better than it is, and frankly, it’s a mixed bag. Taken as a bag of sonics, it works in spurts, particularly in the first half, when the songs are more grounded: “Alien Days” is an even more fragmented take on Congratulations‘ labyrinthine art pop; “Introspection” manages to sound both propulsive and drowsy, like sleepwalking motorik; the terse, tart “Your Life Is A Lie” is a darkly funny minor classic. Close listening reveals dense webs of percussion and electronics, ones that take repeated listens to fully appreciate, and it’s hard not to marvel at how smoothly all these elements coalesce. Ironically, that means for an eponymous album meant to reestablish the group, this record really belongs to producer Dave Fridmann. His unseen hand guides the duo’s every whim, reigning in the potential chaos and helping the record sound impressive, even when it’s less than compelling, which regrettably becomes an accurate descriptor as the album rolls along.
The latter half is dominated by elliptical, shape-shifting cuts that are meant to be the real meat of the record, as they completely eschew any sort of conventional structure in favor of mood and feel. It’s a smart impulse, but they stumble on the execution, as all these songs lack any sort of momentum or backbone. They sound stuck in first gear, always on the verge of transcendence without getting there, never reaching a level that you can’t shrug off. Aside from the static songwriting, one of the most striking issues about these songs is VanWyngarden’s vocals. Usually one of the group’s best qualities, carrying the melody and his rather underrated lyrics, his voice is sidelined as another instrument in the mix. Again, this seems fine in and of itself, but his mutters and murmurs sometimes clash with their otherworldly surroundings, so, weirdly, much of the second half of the album conceivably would work better if it were instrumental. But that’s just splitting hairs, because these tracks really just aren’t very absorbing or transportive. And not even the rosy-cheeked “Plenty Of Girls In The Sea,” ostensibly inserted as some sort of reprieve from the spaciness surrounding it, helps things along, wearing out its welcome with half of it left to go. MGMT reveals a band in transition, certain of the path they’ve chosen, but unsure just how to walk down it. Enough of this retains the intelligence and ideas of their best work, though, so hopefully they can come back with something more thought-through next time.
Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks
Maturity has a way of softening the edge of even the fiercest musicians, and the way they deal with that fact is what separates artists with long, fruitful careers from ones that shine bright and collapse. Fortunately, Trent Reznor falls firmly in the former category. Hesitation Marks, his eighth album with Nine Inch Nails and his first since 2008’s The Slip, proves he still has something to say and is finding new ways to say it. As an unrepentant workaholic, he never sat around long—even the long gaps between his ’90s albums were mostly due to his perfectionism, making sure he got all the details right—and the only thing that’s changed about his recording habits as he’s gotten older is his prolificacy. Nine Inch Nails isn’t his only gig anymore: Sure, he nabbed an Academy Award (along with producer Atticus Ross) for his film score work, but he’s become a husband and father as well (which spawned yet another side project, How To Destroy Angels, this time with his wife). All this is a long way of saying that Reznor isn’t the same man he used to be, so it stands that Nine Inch Nails follows suit. Hesitation Marks has the same general NIN sound, of course—Reznor isn’t looking to do some sort of 180 this late in his career—but it has a different air about it. He’s skeptical, but no longer so cynical; he’s brooding, but no longer so bleak. If that takes some of the edge off of his music, so be it, since the kind of me-versus-society persona that characterized The Downward Spiral, or, hell, even Year Zero, wouldn’t wear as well on a man facing 50. But what’s important is that Reznor is still an impressive songwriter and producer, and while the songs here don’t rank with his top-tier cuts, this is still a gratifying record, enough to show he, Ross and co-producer Alan Moulder haven’t lost their collective touch. Plus, familiarity isn’t a bad thing: the clever, eerie “Copy Of A” interweaves several layers of sound to find something new within the established formula, while the first single “Came Back Haunted” seems to be NIN-by-the-numbers before it’s buoyed by a strong hook. But when the record surprises, it’s especially welcome. Foremost among those moments is the power pop rush of “Everything,” a bright, hopeful anthem that sounds downright cheerful compared to the rest of Reznor’s catalog (and promises to be one of his most polarizing songs). Yet it’s bits like the springing guitar lines and sparkling keyboards of “All Time Low” and the growling saxophone that closes out “While I’m Still here” that position Hesitation Marks as the work of an artist who isn’t quite ready to settle into a predictable pattern, even if he isn’t trying too hard to rock the boat. Like a good portion of Reznor’s work, Hesitation Marks is a bit overlong and would have benefited from some tightening up towards the end, particularly since the album is front-loaded with much of its best tracks. Still, for someone who’s been around as long as he has, it’s amazing he’s still able to create music that’s, for the most part, this inventive and relevant. Looks like Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails are aging just fine.
Julianna Barwick – Nepenthe
That Julianna Barwick recorded Nepenthe in Iceland with Sigur Rós producer Alex Somers makes it almost too easy to draw comparisons between her music and that famed Icelandic group, especially because both artists create the sort of music that’s invariably described as “ethereal” and “crystalline.” And though Somers certainly gives Nepenthe the grandiose, otherworldly sheen of Sigur Rós’ most epic work, Barwick has put together something altogether different here. See, whereas that band carries the burden of the post-rock label, what with their atmospherics tempered by guitar symphonics and classical arrangements, Barwick uses the fragility and gorgeousness of her music as an end to itself, leaning on something more akin to New Age. Cooing, distant loops of harmonies hover like a choir of angels, while piano and barely intelligible vocals slide into the mix and dissipate just as quickly. Of course, this is the sort of thing that Barwick showed off on her last album, The Magic Place, too, but the scope is so much larger here, even as the emotional content grows more intimate. Inspired by personal tragedy and the isolation that comes with exiling yourself to Iceland in the winter, Nepenthe works through pain and loss in a surprisingly positive manner, acknowledging loneliness and anxiety without succumbing to anything like bleakness. I could rattle off signifiers for each of the songs here—the ebb and flow of early highlight “The Harbinger,” the string swells on “Pyrrhic,” the almost-pop melody of the icy “One Half”—yet really Nepenthe functions as one long, ever-shifting piece, which is its biggest strength as well as its biggest weakness. Meditative music such as this often requires extended compositions to get its point across, and certainly this album rewards close listening, becoming more soothing the more attention paid to it. Yet, when listening, it’s hard not to wish that Barwick changed up her approach a little more often from song to song. While regularly transportive, her minimalist, breezy soundscape lacks the strong melodic core of, say, Eno’s Ambient 1/Music For Airports, which means that the record can feel a little too transient at times, and, really, an extra element or instrument here and there could do the album good, actually illuminating its themes. Still, though that might be a dealbreaker for some listeners, it mostly feels like nitpicking since Barwick accomplishes her goals so well here. Nepenthe‘s title refers to an ancient, mythical anti-depressant, and just as that implies, this is ambient music as mental recuperation, a relieving dream after a terrible day.
Badly Drawn Boy – The Hour Of Bewilderbeast
As with a lot of great records at the turn of the millennium, The Hour Of Bewilderbeast was roundly acclaimed upon its release but generally overlooked when it came time for the best-of lists. And that’s really a shame too, because Damon Gough’s first album as Badly Drawn Boy is a knockout. Mostly due to his narcoleptic vocals, the record feels effortless and intimate, like a collection of bedsit lo-fi. Yet as the swooning horn and string arrangement that begins the album suggest, Bewilderbeast is far more ambitious than it initially lets on. For what’s essentially a debut record from a singer/songwriter, it clocks in at 18 tracks and over an hour long, and Gough plays most of the instruments himself. But aside from some genre-bending and a few production quirks (the goofy hip-hop interlude “Body Rap,” the sound collage on “Cause A Rockslide”), he uses all this skill and musicality in service of small-scale folky indie rock rather than any heady conceptual conceits or alienating experimentation (which, thinking about it now, might be the reason it’s so often overlooked). As a result, it’s a warm, charming, unique set of songs that has a surprising amount of range, with humor and earnestness in roughly equal amounts. There’s the dreamy, floating-on-clouds love song “Magic In The Air;” the obliquely menacing “Everybody’s Stalking” and “Say It Again;” the skipping, understated “Camping Next To Water,” and the touching, country-tinged “Pissing In The Wind,” to name just a few. And though the kitchen sink approach ensures that Bewilderbeast doesn’t really cohere or entirely justify its length, it’s the strength of the songs and their inventive, lively Wulitzer-n-harp-n-everything-else arrangements that keep the thing afloat the whole way through. Particularly in these early days, Gough is often compared to Beck or Harry Nilsson, and those are fair observations to make—all three are folkies who moonlight as musical polyglots—and anybody who finds themselves playing Mutations or Nilsson Schmilsson in heavy rotation will have plenty to fawn over here. And coming in right before the Strokes’ ascension and the rest of the ’80s revival, it just so happens to place a neat capstone on the slacker-rock culture of the ’90s, ushering out the old guard. While Badly Drawn Boy’s later output has its moments (especially on the About A Boy soundtrack, this record’s polished follow-up), he would never make a record as good as this again.
Pet Shop Boys – Electric
Pet Shop Boys are frequently labeled as a synth-pop or new wave group, and while that’s generally correct, it also gives short shrift to how diverse and rich their music can be. From chilly, extended house numbers to keenly observed pop songs to sunny disco cuts with Latin grooves, Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant have bent around the limitations of dance-pop to create intelligent music that’s as good for mulling over as it is for partying. And while 2013’s Electric isn’t a conscious attempt to touch back on all the different styles the Pet Shop Boys covered during their career, it does serve as a nice reminder that they’re capable of such fun, eclectic dance music. It’s also some of their most consistently energetic work, never turning down the tempo for a ballad or mood piece. Starting things off with the fine, borderline-aggressive house cut, “Axis,” the velocity rarely lets up, even when the album strays from extended pieces. There’s no Actually-styled straight-ahead pop songs here, but Tennant’s carefully honed wit and beautifully glassy voice snake their way throughout, whether it be the triumphant centerpiece, “Love Is A Bourgeois Construct,” the goofy “Bolshy,” or the darkly stylish “Fluorescent.” But what’s remarkable is that for a group nearly three decades old, they can still make these songs sound so distinctive and fresh while using such familiar materials. Hell, even when they invite rapper Example on the urbane, late-night disco of “Thursday,” the two artists feel of a piece instead of musicians awkwardly infringing on a different generation. And if that weren’t enough, they even make a successful stab at a Springsteen cover on the pulsing, club-ready “The Last To Die,” just to show off. Some of this vitality is due to Stuart Price, who co-produces here, to mostly beneficial effect, unifying the disparate threads of the record and painting things over with a shimmering finish. Yet it’s that same gloss that occasionally makes the music here feel calculated and cold in ways that keep the songs from reaching their potential. Certainly, a detached, even ironic, distance is a mainstay of the Boys’ style, but there were always emotions peeking below the surface, emotions that never truly bubble up here, even when the melodies and lyrics suggest they’re supposed to. Still, the material’s generally strong enough to shine through any of the sterilization, and even if isn’t exactly up to the standards of the band’s glory days (which, of course it’s not), Electric is an exciting collection of dance music by any measure. To paraphrase “Vocal,” it’s a record that simply feels right and so young, which, in this case, is more than enough.
Jay Z – Magna Carta…Holy Grail
It’s been four years since (the newly un-hyphenated) Jay Z’s last record—his longest ever gap between albums—but it feels like he never went away. Mostly because he hasn’t. For one, he’s a celebrity in his own right, half of the nation’s foremost power couple, the “business, man” with an empire beyond hip-hop. And then, it also feels like there hasn’t been a single major rap release in the last half-decade without at least one track he’s guested on, never mind Watch The Throne, his collaborative record with Kanye West, which spawned one of the most popular singles of 2012. In one sense, the five years between records (and the birth of his daughter, Blue Ivy) should have given Jay a lot to mull over, perhaps pressing him to try something new, either lyrically or musically. On the other hand, Hov really, really likes to rap about how rich he is, and when something like that becomes second nature, it can be hard to get unstuck from that rut.
So, he attempts to split the difference with Magna Carta…Holy Grail, a record frustratingly at odds with what it wants to be. Surely, as the album’s title and artwork imply, Jay uses high art as his muse here, and while its too conventional an album to suggest that Jay was trying to come up with a gallery piece himself, he certainly meant this to be some sort of departure, an event record that warranted his live performance at the MoMA. He’ll namecheck Mark Rothko and the Tate Modern, and interpolate Nirvana and R.E.M. lyrics as hooks, mixing and mashing popular and fine art in a way that seems like he’s commenting on the state of pop culture, but it really just provides a backdrop to his usual boasts. And that’s one of the major problems with Magna Carta: For all its posturing as some sort of statement record, this is really just Hov treading water. Not that this is always a bad thing. Jay Z is still a clever writer and a versatile MC, so even if he’s a bit set in his ways, his experience in the rags-to-riches-on-riches field means he can string together effortless material like “Picasso Baby” and “Tom Ford,” tracks that are distinctive enough to keep the album chugging along, yet not strong enough to gun for the career highlight reel. Unsurprisingly, the moments where Jay and his producers Timbaland and J-Roc push themselves tend to be the best tracks, or at least the most interesting ones. “Holy Grail” features a wonderful turn by Justin Timberlake against an cool, easygoing beat; “Jay Z Blue” finds the new father anxiously adjusting to a different lifestyle; he’s plainspoken about shunning religion on the uneasy “Heaven,” and the loose, fun “BBC” feels like a live group freestyle what with the overlapping vocals and asides.
But if “BBC” is a standout, it’s not just because of its quality, it’s because most of Magna Carta…Holy Grail suffers from Jay Z’s performance. If he was really trying something new with this record, it would follow that he’d sound passionate and revitalized, but Jay has rarely sounded less compelling or involved on record. He still has the flow but the energy is all but drained, and it hangs the already-thin material out to dry. At 59 minutes, it’s already a shorter album than many contemporary mainstream rap records, but at times, the sluggish pace can make it feel considerably longer. Prior to its release, Jay Z made a deal with Samsung to pre-release this record exclusively for Samsung phone users, spawning a massive ad campaign of online ads and guerrilla marketing. That’s sort of fitting: For all its artistic aspirations and inspirations, Magna Carta…Holy Grail feels much more ephemeral and disposable than anything worthy of museum preservation.