Disavow the Gold Rush: Vampire Weekend through the eye of a needle

father of the bride

It’s hard to talk about Vampire Weekend without also discussing privilege. To be fair, they’ve largely brought it on themselves. It’s been more than a decade since the release of their first album, but you can probably still remember the uniform of their earliest iteration; to this day, no critic can mention them without also referencing the polo shirts and the boat shoes. And if you remember that then you might also remember a song called “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” its title borrowing the language of Congolese dance music while also betraying the band’s upper-class roots. There is a certain audacity to how this Ivy League indie guitar band with a white male singer has routinely pilfered from the African continent– a certain cultural immunity, even– but it’s to the enormous credit of Vampire-in-Chief Ezra Koenig that he’s generally handled his privilege responsibly. That’s never been truer than on the long-gestating fourth Vampire Weekend album, Father of the Bride, which finds Koenig litigating that privilege ruthlessly, both through drollery (he had to have known what we’d say about a Vampire Weekend song called “Unbearably White”) and through jaundiced melancholy. Surely it is telling that the song on which the whole album seems to hang is one about forsaking wealth. “Married in the Gold Rush,” a Grand Old Opry-styled duet with Danielle Haim, is a song about a union consummated in prosperity but destined to ruin. “We got married in the gold rush/ And the sight of gold will always bring me pain,” Haim confesses. But what’s really telling is that, on an album where the dominant mood is a kind of millennial malaise, a sad sack aloofness, it’s in this song that Koenig seems surest about how to move forward toward something like peace and contentment. “Time to disavow the gold rush,” he sings, “and the bitterness that’s flourished in its wake.” It sounds like a plan.

That song is preceded by one called “Rich Man,” which might put you in the headspace of Jesus of Nazareth and a certain young ruler. Here, Koenig alleges that he’s perhaps the only wealthy man on the planet whose treasures have brought real satisfaction. Maybe he’s telling the truth, but he certainly doesn’t sound happy on Father of the Bride, where nearly every one of the 18 songs weds major chords and a jubilant gait to lyrics laced with strychnine despair. Koenig sings here of crumbling institutions, broken covenants, and shattered faith; he sounds like a man who’s blessed but isn’t content, well-off but absent peace of mind. He may have been “born before the gold rush,” but what does it profit a man? When we encounter him on Father of the Bride, he’s sulking in the corner on his own wedding day (“crying in those rumpled sheets like someone’s ‘bout to die,” Haim appraises), bemoaning “this life and all its suffering,” apologizing to a forbearing partner for all his hand-wringing introspection (“all I did was waste your time”), and looking back ruefully on his gilded matrimony (“those wedding bells were ringing out our fate”). Maybe he’s more like that rich man from the Bible than he lets on; maybe he sounds so miserable here because he’s straining to squeeze through the eye of a needle.

Trouble on the inside spills over to trouble on the outside, and while Koenig tries to find some direction in his one wild and precious life he witnesses the slow collapse of his one wild and precious world. It’s the same world emblazoned on the album cover in glorious ClipArt chic; Mother Earth.bmp, Lindsay Zoladz calls it. And it’s the same world he laments in one song after another about ecological apocalypse. “Big Blue, for once in my life, I felt close to you,” he coos in “Big Blue,” a lover’s hymn for a dying world, voiced by a faithless paramour who’s come around too little, too late.  And in the following “How Long?”– even its title suggesting a psalm of lament– Koenig has his eye on the rapidly-rising sea levels; there’s no question as to whether we’re all drowning, there’s just the question of when. Meanwhile, “Harmony Hall” spies a serpent slinking through holy and consecrated spaces– the halls of power, God’s misty-wet garden, or whatever other hallowed place once thought incorruptible. In this context, maybe his boast about being a rich man with a satisfied mind isn’t a sign of contentment so much as callousness. You’ll notice that, amidst the clang and pep of “Bambina,” Koenig all but admits he won’t stick around when the shit hits the fan. “My Christian heart cannot withstand/ The thundering arena/ I’ll see you when the violence ends,” he addresses his lover, apologetic and shuffling for the nearest exit. The song’s animating emotion is a kind of pre-emptive survivor’s guilt. To know that, when the crisis comes, you’ll be one of the lucky ones who is spared the worst of it… what could be more privileged than that?

There’s another sense in which Koenig has always handled his privilege with care: Situated on the long historic continuum of white dudes appropriating African tropes and conventions, each Vampire Weekend album has tilted graciously toward respectful footnoting and generous contextualization. The man who brazenly titles his song “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” isn’t out to plunder; maybe to provoke, possibly even to troll, but mostly to draw connections and set the table for a more inclusive conversation. That conversation continues on “Rich Man,” which puts a properly-credited sample of the African guitarist S.E. Rogie into dialogue with American country and blues idioms. Koenig’s interrogation of privilege also leads him into more domestic pilfering than he’s ever done before, mining the fertile veins of dad rock in the same way previous albums sought inspiration on other continents. Included in this pan-cultural milieu are songwriting structures on loan from the Country Music Hall of Fame; African flourishes learned from Graceland; immaculate guitar tones snagged from Dave Edmunds, jittery funk absorbed from David Byrne; in “This Life,” the very same bounce Van Morrison conjured for “Brown Eyed Girl,” long a staple of oldies radio and middle school dances.

Such a bounty of sounds and influences suggests something of the Spotifycore ethos, a concentrated eclecticism that lends itself equally well to deep immersion or casual play, here funneled through the sprawl of a classic double-album structure. By all means, draw parallels to the venerated twofer of your choice– to the whiplash collisions of The Beatles, the globetrotting roots music of London Calling— but the most valuable antecedent of all may be Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. Like that album, Father of the Bride feels a bit like the outpouring of a mad genius whose perfectionist studiocraft can seem insular at first, but gradually opens itself up and provides countless details worthy of obsession. (The magisterial acoustic guitar figure that undergirds “Harmony Hall”? You can play it on an infinite loop!) There’s even a nod to Lindsey Buckingham’s punchdrunk drumlines in the brassy pomp and circumstance of “We Belong Together,” the only Father of the Bride track with credits for departed Vampire Rostam Batmanglij. Indeed, Vampire Weekend has never sounded less like a band and more like a Koenig solo venture, fleshed out by a revolving cast of supporting players who include everyone from Haim to a barely-discernible Jenny Lewis. Just listen to opener “Hold You Now,” where the song’s gestures toward country-music naturalism are disrupted by a sampled gospel choir, or to the Vocoder-warped cha-cha-cha in “Spring Snow,” and you’ll hear how Father of the Bride’s pleasures emanate from one-man-band studio impressionism more than they do the pretense of live performance. True to the double album spirit, some of the most rewarding moments are the most off-script ones, suggesting rabbit trails Koenig and Co. might circle back to on album #5; in “My Mistake,” the lone song here that doesn’t sound light and breezy, Koenig croons like a jazz singer and mopes like Thom Yorke; in a couple of jams with Steve Lacy, he gets noodly and winsomely weird; in “Sympathy,” he orchestrates a rowdy, speaker-rattling flamenco.

The scaffolding that holds all of it in place is a trilogy of he-said, she-said numbers with Haim– call them scenes from a marriage. The marriage trifecta begins with “Hold You Now,” where the chapel bells are ringing but Koenig’s worried mind is cluttered with second-guesses and what-ifs. In “Married in the Gold Rush,” he’s ready to disavow affluence but keep his bride by his side. And in “We Belong Together,” husband and wife realize that, for all Koenig’s jitters, their mismatched matrimony actually makes a lot of sense; he’s only sorry he’s wasted so much of her time with his anxieties. It would be a tidy end to the story were there not three songs left on the album, culminating with the hymn-like austerity of “Jerusalem, New York, and Berlin,” where Koenig’s back to second-guessing, lamenting the “wicked world” just outside his window. It’s an unsettled conclusion to the record, and maybe that’s the point: The quest for contentment may redeem “this life and all its suffering,” but it’s not going to cure it– and to ever feel fully at home here is a privilege none of us are meant to know.

Out of Orbit: The unquietable mind of Bruce Hornsby

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Who could have imagined, when “The Way it Is” first conquered the airwaves, that Bruce Hornsby would become known not primarily for his supple soft rock, nor his nimble piano work, nor even his easeful way with melody– but rather for his restless, unquietable mind? By Hornsby’s own admission, the success of that song was just a happy accident, no one more surprised by it than he; as Stephen Thomas Erlewine notes, he seemed to abandon pop celebrity the very instant he attained it, and since then he’s flitted from film scores to bluegrass to a stint with the Dead. Wanderlust is his guiding principle, the connective tissue for his body of work, and by this point there’s no justifiable reason to be thrown by his latest flights of fancy; after all, what’s one more rabbit hole from a man so prone to discursion? Take Absolute Zero, a new album that combines the filigree of classical music with the exploratory spirit of jazz, its songs inspired by Hornsby’s fondness for avant composers but also his readings in astrophysics, anthropology, literature, and history. Yes, it sounds like it’s from out of left field; but then, that’s long been Hornsby’s sweet spot.

That’s not to say the album is easily explained. Largely acoustic, Absolute Zero centers on Hornsby’s playing, which moves fluidly from flurried pointillism to plainspoken balladeering, from jostling polytonalities to elegantly rumbling funk. He’s surrounded variously by the thrum of woodwinds, the swell of an orchestra, and the disembodied gurgling of electronics; by the loose-limbed chamber sextet yMusic, long-serving giant of jazz Jack DeJohnette, and whippersnappers like Justin Vernon and Blake Mills, both of whom uphold Hornsby’s restlessness as license for their own unclassifiability. You can call this album many things– brainy, intricate, digressive– but one thing is never is is abstruse. Hornsby may have little interest in pop stardom but he has a keen interest in writing songs that are direct and emotionally available; it’s that instinct, coupled with the complexity of his musical ideas, that make Absolute Zero frictive, surprising, and alluring. On song after song, abstraction is settled into accessibility, complexity resolved into viscerality: Listen to how “Fractals” opens with a clutch of fluttering, syncopated notes from Hornsby’s piano, hovering over the shape of a melody and then suddenly congealing around the entrance of a rigid backbeat; in an instant, the song’s delicacy gives way to ruthless locomotion. You can hear the same kind of streamlined knottiness on “Absolute Zero,” where Hornsby’s piano ponderings are stitched together by the slip ‘n’ slide of DeJohnette’s cymbal work. On “Voyager One,” the band hurtles through the cosmos, woodwinds twinkling like stars in the vista, combustible low end providing the rocket fuel. (“[A] multidimensional hoedown,” Jon Pareles calls it.)

In a canon that’s full of passion projects and labors of love, Absolute Zero is both one of the boldest excursions yet but also one of Hornsby’s cleverest consolidations. Indeed, you could say that this is the nexus to which all his discursions have led. The lessons he’s learned in the movies come to bear in “The Blinding Light of Dreams,” a dizzying high-wire chase scene, tension masterfully sustained by the taut push and pull of the orchestra. And you can hear his affection for familiar structures and forms on “Never in This House,” a domestic diorama that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Costello & Bacharach collaboration. “Ecolocation” is only the clearest evidence here of Hornsby’s fondness for Appalachian vernaculars, a shambling jalopy of a blues number. And “Meds,” a collaboration with Mills and Vernon, illustrates the adaptability of his heartland roots: Listen to how it scales from the unsteady plunking of his piano to the kind of big, arena-swelling chorus his label undoubtedly hoped for in the wake of “The Way it Is” and “Mandolin Rain.” And don’t miss the scrape of the string section, imbuing just the right sense of wobbly unease into the song’s frayed edges.

Hornsby’s intellectual appetite is born out not just in his musical ideas but in his poetic conceits: He draws here from so many systems of inquiry that the album is practically a self-contained liberal arts education. But if he’s engaging with different kinds of analytic thought, he’s doing so as a way into the abstract and the imaginative; he’s less interested in the empirical than in the ineffable, so when he compares a relationship to geometric formations (“Fractals”), it’s not because he’s trying to quantify or explain love so much as to articulate its mystery. His interest in science sometimes spills into the speculative, as in the title song, where cryogenic freezing is posited as the best shot at redemption (“Another chance, it may be better this time,” he hopes). Other songs abide the plurality of complex emotions: “Cast-Off,” full of gauzy synths and spectral murmerings from Vernon, grapples for gratitude in the face of rejection; “White Noise,” based on the writings of David Foster Wallace, considers the deadening effects of chronic boredom. Hornsby is also drawn to historical narratives, both personal and cultural, here employed as frameworks for exploring moral formation and evolution: “Never in This House” chronicles the hobbling effects of a dysfunctional family life and longs to break the cycle, while “The Blinding Light of Dreams” CliffsNotes the history of racism in the American South, name-dropping Jim Crow and Harper Lee along the way. As skeletons rattle in the closet, Hornsby turns his attention to space travel: “Travelling to distant suns may be mankind’s only hope,” he sighs. It’s a thread that connects the song to “Voyager One,” where Hornby exhorts: “Let’s break out of our orbits, free of gravity’s effect/ Let’s leave our little planet, fix relationships we’ve wrecked/ Un-learn all our habits, make sure we all connect.” He’s taking an interstellar view of radical neighborliness, the space program his vessel for increased moral bandwidth and empathy. But he’s also dropping some clues as to what Absolute Zero’s all about: Through these works of imagination, Hornsby’s drawing connections between musical idioms and scholastic disciplines; he’s drawing an ever-widening circle around the orbit of human experience.

So Much Wrong Goin’ On: P!nk’s human condition

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Almost 20 years into her recording career, P!nk may have just now provided us the Rosetta Stone to her life’s work. In a song called “My Attic,” from her flinty and soul-searching album Hurts 2B Human, one of pop’s great survivors describes the inner sanctum where all her most closely-held secrets are kept behind lock and key: Internalized trauma, suppressed shame, creeping anxiety, unspoken confessions left to gather cobweb and dust. At the song’s start, P!nk cautions a lover against spelunking through all this accrued shit, but by its end, she’s cautiously optimistic that just maybe she’s found someone who loves her for her whole being– someone who can sort through the clutter in her attic without getting scared away. It’s a perspicuous metaphor for the harrowing nature of intimacy; how entanglement with another person can be liberating and terrifying at the same time.

This cocktail of trepidation and candor is a familiar theme in  P!nk’s songbook: As devotees know, she’s been granting us little glimpses into her attic since the beginning, and with each album she seems willing to open the scuttle just a little wider. When her first record came out in 2000, she was lazily lumped in with the teen pop crowd– she was 21 at the time– but by the release of M!ssundaztood she’d carved out a niche as the guardian and godmother of misfits and outcasts; she nurtured a community of Little Monsters long before Lady Gaga gave them their name. Since then, she’s weathered adulthood more gracefully than any of her contemporaries, and she’s focused her ministry among the m!ssundaztood by chronicling her personal crises with increased openness and heightened specificity. Funhouse was a divorce album; The Truth About Love a reckoning with the high cost of commitment; Beautiful Trauma a weary redemption of deep-rooted pain. Each of these albums smuggle confessional writing into glinting pop constructs, and taken as a body of work they signify a pop star who’s largely unequalled at projecting strength and badassery while remaining lucid about all the hurt she struggles to let go of; all the attic junk she’s hoarded that now crowds contentment out of her periphery.

If Hurts 2B Human doesn’t immediately stand out as a capstone or career-defining masterpiece– it’s another fine album in a catalog absent an indisputable peak–  it may well be the most intentional album P!nk’s ever made about finding peace amidst pain; the fullest flourishing yet of her tough-but-vulnerable style. These 13 songs amount to a personal inventory of all the ugly garbage she’s tried to shove into storage, here dragged into the light for a frank mental health evaluation. Of course some of the voices in her head are ghosts from past relationships; in “90 Days” she duets with Wrabel and channels anguish through the haze and swirl of Autotune, reasoning that a stint in rehab could help her kick drugs or drinking but there’s no place to go when you need to kick a broken heart. In “Happy,” she sounds like she’s using the tools she developed in therapy, confessing to issues with body image, pining for pharmaceutical intervention, psychoanalyzing herself, and landing on the breakthrough revelation that she’s “just scared to be happy.” The therapeutic modality continues in “Courage,” about finding the resolve to make healthier choices when there’s greater comfort in familiar dysfunctions. And “Can We Pretend” takes to the dancefloor for catharsis and escape, a temporary detox from a life of worry and beleaguerment. “Can we pretend that we both like the President?” P!nk chuckles, one of a couple of references here to how cultural and political dislocation can bleed into inward despair. (“There’s so much goin’ wrong outside,” she confesses on “Walk Me Home,” sounding battered but not defeated.) Like Sara Bareilles’ elegant Amidst the Chaos, Hurts 2B Human feels marinated in perilous times; political tumult isn’t the subject, but it is the point of view.

P!nk’s graceful maturation is born out not just in the level-headedness of her mental health inventory, but in the music itself. Nobody makes record like she does, albums that are hip without ever feeling desperate, but also old-fashioned without being stodgy or staid. Though she’s sanded down some of the rough edges from her earliest music in favor of smoother pop textures, she remains anchored in the arena-swelling structures of rock: In “We Could Have it All,” written with her old pal Beck, she sings over an electric pulse and a pouding chorus, post-morteming a relationship that crumbled despite all the odds being stacked in its favor. (“There were no black cats in our path,” she sighs; sometimes the only explanation is that things fall apart.) And in “Walk Me Home,” written with her old pal Nate Ruess of .fun, she demonstrates the ease with which she navigates humanistic anthems, a bit of The Lumineers’ big-footed stomp thrown in for good measure. But she’s never more comfortably in throwback mode than she is when finessing ballads, whether sleek and steely (“90 Days”), string-swept (“My Attic”), or cracked and frayed (the raw acoustic closer, “The Last Song of Your Life”).

P!nk is a classicist but not a dinosaur, and she’s always had smart instincts about how to fold contemporary sounds into her out-of-time constructions. “Can We Pretend,” featuring Cash Cash, channels EDM glitter into contoured AAA pop, while the lithesome opener “Hustle” bristles with horns, sound effects, casual defiance, and cheerful profanity. She brings in king-o’-Americana Chris Stapleton for “Love Me Anyway,” adding some rough and tumble to one of her most doleful weepers. All of these subtle metamorphoses ultimately end up sounding like P!nk, an artist omnivorous enough to stretch herself but self-sure enough to never make it sound like a reach. One of her most dexterous stretches here is in “Hurts 2B Human,” a wounded ballad tricked out with an electo-stutter and a low-key vocal assist from Khalid. Here P!nk sings of human fracture not as a symptom to be cured but a chronic condition to be managed; for close to 20 years now, she’s been showing us how.

Beyond Boundaries: The radical neighborliness of Rhiannon Giddens

thereisnoother

There’s a righteous word for the third Rhiannon Giddens album, made available to us by the Anglican priest Oliver O’Donovan. Litigating the ethical demands of Jesus Christ, O’Donovan writes, “Xenophilia has been commanded us: the neighbor whom we are to love is the foreigner whom we encounter on the road.” That same spirit of xenophilia emanates from there is no Other, nothing if not an exercise in radical neighborliness. Your first clue is the album title (including its stylized capitalization), a declarative statement with an attending moral imperative: Giddens conceived the album as a rebuke to othering, which tells us to fear the sidelined Samaritan, the wayfaring stranger, the alien and the immigrant in our midst; to apprehend their humanity as discrete from our own, if indeed we acknowledge it at all. Xenophilia offers no quarter for such separations, requiring not just that we affirm humanity when we see it but that we actively seek ways to esteem it. It asks us to maximize our moral bandwidth, perceiving every person we encounter as a neighbor to be welcomed and embraced. That’s a tall order, but Giddens’ album rises to the occasion, never preaching its point but proving it both formally and aesthetically. There is no Other amounts to an oral history of the cosmic neighborhood we share together, pieced together from porous and borderless folk traditions, sounds and cultures that bleed into one another, roots that run deep and in perpetual entanglement.  These songs come from street corners and mountain hollers, from juke joints and royal opera halls. They revel in the overlap of regional vernaculars, standing in defiance of taxonomy and hierarchy. They offer a multitude of ancient and not-so-ancient witnesses, attesting to the interconnectedness of human experience.

Giddens made the record with Italian virtuoso Francesco Turrisi, whose piano, accordion, and hand percussion accompany her array of stringed instruments; on four songs, they are joined by Kate Ellis on cello and viola. There are historic links between the folk instruments employed, and deep connections between the American and Mediterranean idioms they articulate, but you don’t have to be a musicologist to pick up on the spirit of fluidity and cultural cross-pollination; indeed, what’s always made Giddens so effective as a folklorist is that she values ancient texts not for their amber preserve, but for their mutability. “Gonna Write Me a Letter” is an old bluegrass rag, here dominated by Turrisi’s clamorous frame drum; the song’s cast in a low-end rumble that feels closer to the speaker-shaking dynamics of hip-hop than to the high-and-lonesome key of a string band. That same jostling physicality can be heard on “Pizzica di San Vito,” a buoyant dance number performed here with locomotive momentum, Giddens bouncing crisp Italian syllables off one another as Turrisi’s jangling percussion provides rattle and thrum. That’s not the only song that leans on Giddens’ apprenticeship in the opera; she sings everything here with magisterial command and regal phrasing, not least a couple of actual opera tunes. The famous “Black Swan” aria sounds less like a theater piece than a weird backwoods fairy tale, ominous and grim, while “Trees on the Mountain,” from Floyd Carlisle’s Susannah, transmutes the flair of the theater into the dusty plainspeak of folk music. Such boundaryless invention abounds on there is no Other, where Giddens and Turrisi rough up their classical music with the gutter panache of rock and roll, cast Appalachian tunes with a Middle Eastern canter, bathe jigs and rambles in a mystic glow, and make show tunes sound raucous and earthy. It’s no surprise at all that the album sessions were overseen by producer Joe Henry, unparalleled as a wayfinder along the haunted back roads of folk tradition; indeed, the most helpful antecedents for this record might be The Bright Mississippi and American Tunes, a pair of uncircumscribed reckonings with jazz-as-folklore that Henry made with Allen Toussaint, the latter album enhanced by two show-stopping vocal assists from Giddens herself.

The revelation in all of this is that songs and folk grammars are bridges to one another, entryways and corridors in the neighborhood we inhabit; that there’s ultimately no such thing as island or isolation. (“This ain’t no archipelago,” Andrew Bird might hasten to add.) Giddens makes that point explicit in her original “Ten Thousand Voices,” a dirge that drones and swirls like Arabic music and introduces the album with a web of mutuality; the songs we sing and stories we tell are but pieces of a larger mosaic, it suggests. A few of these songs present us with immigrant encounters. Another original, “I’m on My Way,” has a co-writing credit from Henry; it’s a vagabond’s clanging blues, finding meaning in the journey even as the destination remains unsure. (“I’ve only got the taste for something sweet as time/ Not bottled on the table but still hanging on the vine.”) Giddens also sings the standard “Wayfaring Stranger,” long the anthem of pilgrims making progress, here rising from the steady pluck of a minstrel banjo to the misty splendor of Turrisi’s accordion. It would almost be perplexing if this album didn’t have a song or two associated with Nina Simone, still the patron saint and north star for any artist whose aim is to evade being captured by category, and a thumping take on “Brown Baby” feels like the record’s linchpin; it’s the plea of a mother who hopes to leave her child with a better world, when the only inheritance she can really offer is the song itself, ratified anew by one generation after another. A pair of instrumentals speak volumes, in particular Giddens’ title track, where banjo and frame drum sparkle with symbiosis, completing each other’s sentences. And in “He Will See You Through,” the closing hymn of perseverance and preservation, Giddens does for church music what she does elsewhere for opera, stripping it of ritual to reveal the emotional utility and ancient wisdom at its core.

Indeed, maybe ancient wisdom is another helpful way of receiving this record. Describing the culture of America in the 1960s, Joan Didion wrote that it was a time when “no one at all seemed to have any memory or mooring.” It’s hard to imagine a markedly improved prognosis today, but there is no Other offers grounding and connection; to a birthright of songs that exist beyond boundaries, and to the only neighborhood in which such songs could ever grow.

No Good When I’m Alone: Out on the wire with Shovels & Rope

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Is it true that perfect love casts out fear? You’re liable to think so after spending time with the seventh Shovels & Rope album, a simultaneously tender- and lionhearted record called By Blood. Since last we heard from them, the husband-wife team of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst have become parents a second time over, and they spend these 10 new songs wrestling with family and all of its attending anxieties: How can two shambling and fallible human beings possibly do right by their precious and vulnerable progeny, let alone each other, here in the world where things fall apart and moth and rust destroy? If those questions put you in the headspace of Birds of Chicago and their beloved Real Midnight, another heartfelt reckoning with parental jitters, then God bless you. But where the Birds waxed eschatological, seeking joy and peace in a world hellbent on its own destruction, the Shovels document a more internal struggle: What they’re weighing here are the rigorous demands of family life against the dearths and deficiencies they bring into it. “I’ve been a disappointment from time to time,” understates Hearst in “The Wire,” and what spouse or parent or sibling couldn’t relate? The harsh light and high stakes of responsibility illuminate personal failings with a surgical precision, and Shovels & Rope devote more than a few bars to cataloging the ways they come up short. (“I’m prone to swing at mirrors/ I interrupt slow talkers/ And I need everyone to like me,” Hearst sings, an unsparing self-review.) But if family’s a pressure cooker, it can also be a support group, resource center, rehab program, and indeed a lifeboat for the shambling fools who see their own imperfections in light of their beloved and realize that they’re better off sticking together. “I’m looking out for you,” Trent thunders in one song. “Are you looking out for me?” In another, Hearst gives her answer: “I won’t fail you when I walk out on the wire,” she vows, determined not to let her anxieties become sandbags when her tribe’s counting on her to stay aloft. Maybe no family’s love is perfect, and maybe no parent is ever truly without fear—but at a minimum, By Blood bears witness to the emboldening effects of belonging.

These songs teem with joy and tension, failure and glory, so it’s only fitting that they’re married to the most unruly arrangements of any Shovels & Rope record to date. Trent and Hearst recorded the album at home and played most of the parts themselves, and the resulting collection pushes roots-rock austerity into the grubby margins of tumult and din. Scrappy acoustic guitar chords share space with pummeling drums and gnarled riffs, all while synths hiss and gurgle in the background, husband and wife crooning and yelping, raging and moaning. Just as the songs testify to the sanctifying effects of domesticity, the music finds clarity and sweetness within some of the harshest elements of the country and rock idioms: “The Wire” is razor-edged new wave, cool punk verses exploding into a boisterous chorus, while the fiddle-led “Hammer” dishevels its own folksy flourishes with lurching beats and cacophonous swells of noise. For a band that built its reputation on rustic simplicity, they conjure arrestingly vivid hues on “I’m Coming Out,” where the stomp and fuzz of The Black Keys collides with the psychedelic swirl of The Beatles, and they spark ignition out of the fumes of resentment on “Mississippi Nothin,’” which distills Springsteen’s blue-collar indignation into a four-minute primal howl. Most of the lyrics are delivered by the duo in frayed and not-quite-perfect harmonies, their voices bleeding into one another just as the tail end of one song bleeds into the opening strains of the next: They share sweet, single-mic intimacy in the wistful “Good Old Days,” and call out to one another from across the world or maybe just across a crowded bar on the dog-eared power ballad “Carry Me Home.”

All that bleeding befits an album about how the lives we share, their joys and their sorrows, spurn any effort at imposed order or segregation. By Blood arrives mere weeks after Julia Jacklin’s Crushing, a study in the perils of proximity, and in many ways makes for an illuminating counterpoint: Jacklin warned against the inevitable loss of self that comes from union with another, but Shovels & Rope often sound like they’re finding themselves through entanglement. “I’m Coming Out” references metamorphosis and beholds a transformation– at the beginning Hearst says she’s weak and small, by the end she’s suited for battle and ready to draw blood– but the song’s not a before-and-after so much as a both-and, an admission of how relationship can haul our best and worst selves to the surface, where they co-exist and frequently butt heads. Sometimes, transformation seems impossible. “Mississippi Nothin'” documents two people who’ve known each other since they were kids and now find themselves on the opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum; for the life of him our narrator can’t figure out how he wound up on the bad side of the chasm, nor how to make up the distance. And in “The Wire,” Hearst confesses “I’m no better than I’ll ever be,” a frank admission of limitation that might remind you of a Bob Dylan lyric (“as great as you are, man, you’ll never be greater than yourself”). Other songs are more hopeful: “C’mon Utah!” is set just after the collapse of a quasi-hypothetical border wall, and finds a dad riding like hell to reunite with the family from whom he was separated; and “Hammer,” a scruffy take on the traditional work song, could very well be about the unglamorous and never-ending labor of self-improvement. These songs are aspirational, their characters imperfect but straining for something better, and the Shovels convey the strain as something holy in its own right. Consider “Good Old Days,” where Trent sings to his partner: “Now you’ve been reborn, and I’m still a mouse in a maze/ And I’m singing out to you.” It’s wrenching not least for how viscerally he hungers and thirsts for righteousness, longing for something his beloved has and he knows he lacks. Tellingly, she’s singing the same words right back to him; the pursuit of righteousness is the work of a lifetime, it seems, and it’s not meant to be done in isolation. “I’m no good when I’m alone,” howls Trent in “Carry Me Home,” a line that may as well be the record’s thesis statement; in every sense, By Blood ratifies the sanctity of union, and affirms two strivers and seekers who are better for having found one another.

So I’ll Know What it Feels Like: On Sara Bareilles’ plausible deniability

amidst the chaos

When Sara Bareilles announced the release of her sixth album, she promised a patchwork of love songs, breakup ballads, and hymns to the exemplary grace and decency of the Obamas. It’s that last part that suggests Amidst the Chaos as a topical affair, one that lingers over faded glories as a way of avoiding contemporary traumas, but the songs themselves are more circumspect, and better because of it. Only on the closing “A Safe Place to Land,” where Bareilles and John Legend pronounce a benediction of courage over border detainees, does the album’s currency become irrefutable. Everywhere else, plausible deniability abounds. You could listen to any one of these songs and reasonably assume it’s about romantic triumph or folly. And yet, there’s plentiful insinuation that these songs were marinated in the times; as critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine notes, the album’s very title is a valuable and blunt shorthand for what life feels like in America circa 2019, and if Bareilles’ songs don’t have political weariness as their object, they suggest it as their point of view. In a masterclass of subtext, implication, and poetic imagining, Bareilles bears witness to what it means to maintain a joyful countenance when a rancorous national mood sweeps into the cracks and fissures of everyday living; what hard work it is, and how necessary. Meditate, if you will, on the words of “If I Can’t Have You,” a wistful chronicle of having, losing, and choosing gratitude over regret: “If I can’t have you/ then I’ll have to find a way to get through/ Though I don’t want to/ I have to do my best to recall/ That I’m thankful that I held you at all.” She could be looking back on a lost love or an evaporated civilization; either way, who couldn’t relate? There’s also “Saint Honesty,” where Bareilles summons the better angels of candor and truth—the truth that sets captives free and clears our path through any manner of bullshit. And what about “Eyes on You,” where the world’s spinning fast and out of control, but Bareilles chooses to hold her head high and keep her eye on the prize. Make of it what you will, and apply it to whatever tribulations buffet you. Its admonishment is simple and profound: Know hope. These songs are confident in their point of view, which means they don’t have to trip over themselves to pluck references from the latest headlines; they do something more valuable by capturing the blustery weather of a tumultuous planet, acknowledging the way in which cultural turmoil bleeds into personal dislocation, and providing sanity-saving articulations of resilience.

More than any of the five albums that preceded it, Amidst the Chaos makes its case through understatement and reserve. Up to this point, Bareilles has always thrived by blowing up her Carole King troubadour roots into widescreen, Technicolor pop confections; she knows how to apply studio sheen to sturdy bones, which is how “Love Song” became ubiquitous without becoming obnoxious. But to make Amidst the Chaos she stepped outside of her comfort zone, enlisting the venerable T-Bone Burnett to produce. He surrounds Bareilles’ piano with a multitude of session pros, among them mighty drummers Jay Bellerose and Jim Keltner; bass stalwart Dennis Crouch; ax slinger Marc Ribot; soundscaper Keefus Ciancia; and Milk Carton Kid Joey Ryan on harmonies. They stick to small gestures and intimate performances, warm and largely acoustic but never austere or inert. Burnett’s reputation is as a folklorist, and he does help Bareilles trace some of her roots; she sticks to the bluesy low end of her piano on the rumbling “Armor,” writes stately gospel in “Saint Honesty,” and creates shimmering soul perfection in the gently propulsive “If I Can’t Have You,” the kind of song you’d love to hear on an album by the Tedeschi Trucks Band. But what Burnett understands is just how little polish Bareilles needs for her songs to sound colorful and epic, which many of these do: “Eyes on You” sprints toward euphoria, while the opening “Fire” stokes glowing embers into a raging chorus. Just like Bareilles’ words, the performances convey clear emotions without overselling, her dramatist’s zeal kept in check by her devotion to careful songcraft.

Blessedly, Bareilles finds space for peace within the chaos: Reprieves come in the sultry sway of “Miss Simone” and the smoky reverie “Someone Who Loves Me”—the former a scene of everyday tenderness and romance, the latter a trust fall into the arms of an unfailing partner. She allows herself to shed light on all she’s (we’ve?) lost in the twinkling melancholy of “No Such Thing,” but ultimately realizes the futility in obsessing over the past (“I can’t fix it by fixating on a rewind,” she acknowledges.) That’s not to say that the past can’t illuminate the present. Check the bellicose “Armor,” where Bareilles traces a lineage of strength and resilience that runs through all the women who’ve come before; “strength means blessed with an enemy,” she intones, her resolve forged in the fire of tribulation and emboldened by the generations that blazed her trail. And in “Orpheus,” she spins familiar lore into an allegory of perseverance. “Hold me in the dark and when the day appears/ We’ll say we did not give up on love today,” Bareilles pleads; love blooms and hope springs in the land of the dead, because where else are such things to happen? These songs are saturated in joyful intent even as they’re littered with signs o’ the times, and none strike that balance more rousingly than “Fire.” Here, Bareilles documents a love she thought would last, now reduced to ash and rubble. “Someday, I won’t have to feel the cold/ But I do now so I’ll know/ What it feels like when I feel fire,” she declares. It’s a prophetic word for anyone enduring cruel winter, but knowing in their hearts that springtime will come again. No need to spell it out further: You know exactly what it is she’s talking about.

Always Been in My Nature: Josh Ritter’s history of violence

fever breaks

Like Martin Scorsese and Cormac McCarthy, Josh Ritter is drawn to histories of violence. In songs about misbegotten wars and gun-toting vigilantes, he’s traced the gnarled roots of American bloodshed, untangling the particular strains of solitude and exceptionalism that give birth to sainted renegades and self-justifying killers. These themes are well-documented in the folk tradition, and Ritter presents them in all their dread and allure. Consider a song like “The Temptation of Adam,” where two lovers fumble to make a life together in the shadow of the atom bomb, its imagery suggesting that the instinct to unleash carnage looms large over even our best intentions and purest inclinations; it’s emblematic of Ritter’s dogged chronicle of our collective heart of darkness. Consider also a composition from his album So Runs the World Away, where Ritter rummages through the haunted graveyard of American song and story for scenes of brutality and vengeance, assembling them into stomach-churning pastiche. The title of the song: “Folk Bloodbath.” In it, Ritter sounds like Indiana Jones coming face to face with the flesh-melting power of the Ark of the Covenant: A committed scholar and folklorist, he’s dug too deep and seen too much to return unrattled to the land of the living.

Fever Breaks—Ritter’s 10th studio album—opens with the kind of song he was born to write; not merely a continuation of his excavations, but one of the deepest digs yet. “Ground Don’t Want Me” is a gunfighter ballad, belonging to a folk lineage that encompasses both Marty Robbins’ big-iron epics and Guy Clark’s wistful revisions. Ritter inhabits a man living under a curse (“you’ll never get to heaven, son, so go to hell real slow”), fated to roam the Earth as an unbeatable quick-draw. No matter how many impossible, hopelessly outgunned situations he puts himself in, he somehow always blazes his way out and leaves a pile of bodies in his wake (“for every man a box, for every hole a rose”). He becomes a kind of ghost, wandering from town to town weighed down by his murderous guilt, envying the many men he’s sent to peaceful rest but unable to find it himself. The song reveals a writer who’s all but unequalled at finessed metaphors (“I’ve stacked the deck, I’ve held a dead man’s hand so many times”) and mordant prose (“in every town the brokenhearted rang their steeple bells”), but it’s his moral clarity that cuts deepest; Ritter’s gunfighter is being eaten alive by sin and shame, and he’s resigned to the fact that his past has prescribed his future, that the blood he’s shed has stained his soul. (Devotees may find it rewarding to imagine that this is the same boastful gun from 2007’s “Mind’s Eye,” brought low by time and conscience.)  Later in the album, Ritter reckons with an even ancienter tradition in his hardscrabble performance of “Silver Blade,” a song he originally wrote for Joan Baez; it’s a murder ballad about a maiden who escapes her villainous captor only by lodging a knife between his ribs, then using the same blade to dig the man’s unconsecrated grave. The lyrics include an insouciant forensic account of the deceased’s worm-ridden body, corporeal evidence of a toppled tyrant and lawless justice. It’s a mythology of violence rendered in flesh and bone; it establishes Fever Breaks as another folk bloodbath.

It might almost be unbearable were it not also exhilarating—a robust and freewheeling record that’s unlike any he’s made before. For that you can give much of the credit to folk hero/rock and roll warrior Jason Isbell, who produced the record in Nashville and plays on it with his well-decorated band the 400 Unit. Their most obvious contribution is muscle, and in “Old Black Magic” they provide the headliner with the most raucous moment of garage-rock mayhem in his entire catalog; he sings himself ragged just to be heard about the din of the guitars and the bleat of an organ. Yet Isbell and his troupe are as much about brains as brawn, and what makes them so symbiotic with Ritter is how nimbly they can adapt to the needs of his rich, varied songwriting: The 400 Unit crunches and grinds on “Losing Battles,” skips and gallops across “On the Water,” conjures dark storm clouds and ominous flashes of lighting on the sinister and dramatic “The Torch Committee.” Boon accompanist Amanda Shires, a blessing to every record she’s on, gives “Silver Blade” its sharp edges through flinty fiddle playing, while the band digs deep for both groove and twang on the loping “A New Man.” For all the ground covered here, Isbell’s most critical effect is to bring focus: Fever Breaks feels clean and compact with its 10 songs in 45 minutes, almost the opposite of Gathering’s rambling generosity.

The depth and breadth of these performances are the backdrop for wide-ranging Ritter originals that interrogate folk forms and elucidate all the lessons he’s learned about our appetite for destruction—one of the most significant lessons being that the true violence is the inner violence, the most rancorous battle the battle against the self. Ritter pines for rebirth in “A New Man,” and over the din of “Losing Battles” he casts the pursuit of justice as both a noble calling and a fool’s errand (“sometimes the righteous win,” he sings—but most times…). That same song suggests a history of violence encoded in human DNA, situating these calamitous mythologies under the Mark of Cain; “it’s always been in my nature to be the beast,” Ritter admits, facing down the man in the mirror like Nick Lowe did in “The Beast in Me” or Richard Thompson in “The Rattle Within.” Elsewhere, Fever Breaks studies the violence of separation. “I Still Love You (Now and Then),” one of Ritter’s most brutally understated divorce songs, finds a lovesick man chronicling the wreckage of his life as though describing the ruins of a battle field. But perhaps the greatest lesson of Fever Breaks is that violence to others is always, ultimately, violence to the self. “The Torch Committee” is the album’s dramatic fulcrum, a political allegory narrated in detached deadpan and outlining step-by-step the ways in which fear is weaponized to divide a people from itself (“sadly it’s the awful truth/ it’s them or us, it’s them or you”). And in “All Some Kind of Dream,” Ritter surveys the state of our crumbling ideals through the eyes of the immigrant and the refugee; the wayfaring stranger and the kids in the cages: “There was a time when we held them close/ and weren’t so cruel, low, and mean/ And we did good unto the least of these/ or was it all some kind of dream?” It’s a psalm of lament for a country that’s lost itself in an abattoir of its own making, but in the closing “Blazing Highway Home,” Ritter dares to dream there’s a road to peace somewhere, in this world or the next. It’s not much to go on, but when even hope can seem like a losing battle, it may be just enough for now.