Love’s Like That, You Know: Nick Cave sees things as they are

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“There’s nothing wrong with loving something you can’t hold in your hands,” sings Nick Cave on Ghosteen, his doleful new album with the Bad Seeds. It’s as if he’s granting himself permission for the 11 stark, revealing confessions that occupy these 68 minutes—songs that cling tightly to vanished bodies and phantom limbs; songs that try to to wrap big bear hugs around ghosts and vespers; songs that pledge an intimacy that will last forever, in a world where moth and rust destroy. It’s the first album Cave has conceived since the sudden death of his 15-year-old son, Arthur. (Woebegone though it sounded, Skeleton Tree was largely finished when the accident occurred, its bleak lamentations prescient, perhaps, but not diaristic.) It is at once easy and right to hear Ghosteen as an extended meditation on grief, though it is also worth noting that Cave— seldom one to wear his intentions on his sleeve— never uses the word grief nor even death in these new songs. There’s another word that comes up time and time again, however. “I’m speaking of love now,” Cave sings in the title track, as if that’s not what he’s been speaking about this entire time. Ghosteen is an album about bonds that linger even when flesh and blood turn to vapor; and, about tending to the gardens of a marriage, even when both partners are hobbled by sorrow. You can hear the album as a collection of ghost stories, one in which the spirits themselves rarely appear; mostly we see frail humans going about their daily affairs, as though nothing’s changed, as though everything has. In one of many moments of heartbreaking candor, Cave sings about doing the laundry for someone you’ve lain in the ground. Life’s little rhythms, its daily devotions and acts of service, persist even through shattering disruption. “Love’s like that, you know,” Cave ventures.

Ghosteen is singularly sad, a season of fathomless lament and senseless tragedy preserved in amber; and yet, it’s nowhere close to being the insular downer that you might anticipate. Cave is essentially sitting shiva here. Rather than holing up in a dark room, he’s opened his doors and peeled back the curtains, inviting us, as though we were his very kin, to sit with him in his hour of crisis; to honor his loss with the fullness of our attention, and to receive the generosity of his unmasked witness-bearing. Like the recent Over the Rhine record, Love and Revelation, Ghosteen displays a real wisdom in not rustling for answers, nor reaching for platitudes to tell us everything will be okay. It won’t be, these songs suggest, and there is therapeutic value in simply abiding that truth together. The plainspoken need in these songs reflects the transparency of Cave’s Red Hand Files newsletter, and his ongoing questions-and-answers tour; and, it is reflected in the music itself, as starkly beautiful as anything in the Bad Seeds catalog. Cave says this album completes a trilogy that began with the murmuring Push the Sky Away and reached a harrowing level of low-key abrasion in Skeleton Tree; Ghosteen takes the weightlessness and perspicuity of those recordings and stretches them to their logical extremes. It is the most ambient Bad Seeds album, the most quiet, and the one most demanding to be played loud. Almost entirely drumless, the album wafts and pulses with the sound of analog synths, occasionally rusted over in dirty feedback loops, anchored here and there by Cave’s piano. “Waiting for You,” crisp and romantic, recalls the formal precision of The Boatman’s Call, but more characteristic of the album is “Spinning Song,” which heralds the earthy rock and roll swagger of Elvis Presley above the drone and hum of an vintage keyboard. The record sounds wispy, at times spartan, but it’s also disarmingly beautiful: “Bright Horses” builds from the hymn-like austerity of the piano and the twinkle of a vibraphone into cathartic swells of wordless human voices. It is to the eternal credit of the Bad Seeds that they mostly let their leader hold the spotlight here, though Warren Ellis brings his film scoring bona fides to bear in songs like “Night Raid,” so atmospheric, so drizzly and damp that when Cave’s lyrics reference rainfall, it almost feels superfluous; it’s a perfect concert of dank sound effects and muggy imagery. At the center of all of this is Cave, confessing, confiding, consoling; no, he has never sounded older, but neither has he ever sounded more open or free.

Not for the first time, we hear Cave searching for God from the depths of the abattoir; and just like last time, the results of his questing aren’t entirely conclusive. In “Fireflies,” a spectral spoken word piece toward the album’s end, he scavenges in vain for any sign of the Master’s hand. “There is no order here, nothing can be planned,” he confesses, his divine discontent no less pious than that of the blameless and upright Job. But his struggles for belief seem underscored with an implicit cry for the Lord to help his unbelief. In “Waiting for You” he turns his gaze to a priest and a Jesus freak, both surrendered to the idea that all the present heartache will lead eventually to Christ’s glorious return; Cave isn’t quite there, but he’s tantalized by the solace that a faith vocabulary can bring. Jesus himself is invoked throughout the album, never riding a white horse in victory but only ever lying in his mother’s arms, a crucified son; the Jesus of the downtrodden and the persecuted, the meek and the disinherited. Meanwhile, Cave envisions in “Sun Forest,” we’re all swaying alongside him on some manner of hanging tree. There’s a similarly grim picture painted in “Bright Horses,” where “we’re all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are.” The self-evident cruelty of the physical world makes him all the more eager to take up the vision of faith, and for half an instant, it lets Cave see past the abattoir and into the highlands, his voice curling however briefly in tantalizing joy (“I can hear the horses prancing in the pastures of the Lord”). But the song ends as Bruce Springsteen’s “Tucson Train” does, with the protagonist waiting at the railroad station for an absent loved one to return; in both cases hopes run high, and in both cases it’s unclear whether the holy fool will see his good faith rewarded.

Even in Ghosteen’s roaring quiet and its plainspoken candor, Cave never sounds like he’s alone. If loss has been a catalyst for faith, it’s also been an empathy generator; maybe that’s the point of “Hollywood,” which closes the album with an ominous 14 minutes of clattering low-end rumble. Toward the end of the song, Cave recounts the Buddhist parable of Kisa, who loses her son and is told by the teacher that she can revive him if only she finds a mustard seed from a household untouched by death. Of course, no such household exists; “everybody is always losing somebody,” Cave laments, death not just a momentary interruption but a continuous degradation. It’s a sobering reflection that Cave renders beguilingly beautiful in “Galleon Ship,” where he envisions himself taking to the sky in search of solace. “For we are not alone it seems,” he wonders, “So many riders in the sky/ The winds of longing in their sails.” Loss can feel isolating, but here Cave imagines his trauma as part of a great cloud of witnesses. There is also the witness of Cave’s lost son, manifest here as a fuzzy shape at the end of a corridor, as “a wish that time can’t resolve,” even as the wandering spirit Ghosteen who arrives with strange tidings of comfort and peace. His presence hovers over the margins of these songs, while Cave’s wife and Arthur’s mother, Susie Bick, often seems to occupy the center of the frame. The album is generous in remembering that the grief over a child is never proprietary, and unflinching in portraying the ways it can fray the bonds of marriage. “Ghosteen” alternates between the mundanity of loss and hallucinatory visions beyond the physical realm, at one point settling into a strange and unsettling scene of three bears in a post-traumatic funk: “Mama Bear holds the remote/ Papa Bear, he just floats/ And Baby Bear, he has gone.” In “Night Raid,” Cave looks back to the evening when his twin sons were conceived, seeing it now through a veil of tears; the suffering Jesus is there as well, promising hardship from the start. In “Waiting for You,”  husband and wife mourn in chilly silence; all he can offer her is time and fidelity (“just want to stay in the business of making you happy”). “Spinning Song” opens the album with scenes of Elvis and Priscilla, a rock and roll couple fated for tragedy— yet even facing down doom, the narrator has devotion on his lips: “And I love you, and I love you, and I love you, and I love you,” he pledges. It’s a promise he returns to in “Leviathan,” a subterranean trance that serves as the album’s fulcrum. “I love my baby and my baby loves me,” chants Cave, as though lifting up his daily prayers. It’s one sure thing he can lay his hand to— at least for now.

Riffs & Reveries: Guitar odysseys from The Messthetics, Tinariwen, and Bruce Cockburn

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Just close your eyes and listen and you might almost convince yourself that The Messthetics were test tube engineered by some ax-obsessed mad scientist, designed to highlight every conceivable expression of electric guitar heroics. Novices should begin with the group’s self-titled 2018 debut, a library of riffs and a testament to the elasticity of the power trio. Then, when you’re ready for the real brain melt, dive into Anthropocosmic Nest, the wirier and more disruptive follow-up; an album that conveys the same technical prowess as their debut, but jolts it with the gutsiness and bravado that only a year of steady touring can bring. This is a band equally adept at building locomotive grooves and then ripping them open with crackling pyrotechnics; at crafting immaculately linear rock and roll songs, then allowing them to dissolve in bursts of static and noise. Anthropocosmic Nest is demonstrably more anarchic than its predecessor, but what makes it lovable is the ease with which The Messthetics shift between clean, conceptual playing and the biggest, dumbest, most lumbering riffs imaginable: check “Scrawler,” where a clattering countdown launches the band into throttling, in-the-red punk, then deep-space jazz noodling. “Drop Foot” thrashes and bashes but then takes a strange detour into junkyard percussion and knob-tweaking chirrup, as if the band is suddenly caught in a swarm of chirping cicadas. Don’t confuse it with “Insect Conference,” a weird minute and a half of twittering sound effects. And don’t let either of those songs fool you into thinking The Messthetics don’t do straight-ahead beauty: “Pacifica,” coasts through wave after wave of glorious melody, its moody atmospherics suggesting an alternate timeline in which The Messthetics play straight shoegaze; you’ll even hear an acoustic guitar in “Because the Mountain Says So,” as clarion as a folk song, as insistent as arena rock. These songs are epic in their build and patient in their pacing, and set the stage for at least one more curveball: “La Lontra,” the next to last song on the album, may be its sleaziest rock and roller of all. Scratch the shoegaze thing; maybe what this band was really cut out for is hair metal?

The Messthetics’ restless spirit is more than equalled by Tinariwen, a caravan of literal nomads whose new Amadjar was assembled on the go, recorded guerilla-style at campsites throughout the Sahara. The album’s title is translated as the foreign traveler, and at first blush it seems like it could have been affixed to most any album the group has made since its 1979 inception, each one of them bearing witness to the roving curiosity and low-key political dissidence of these Tuareg exilees. Upon closer listen, devotees may find that Amadjar captures their rambling nature—the paradoxical way in which they sound so tethered to their particular part of the Earth yet also so defined by their transience and homelessness— as vividly as any Tinariwen album to date. The relaxed and intoxicating album, devoid of anything you could justifiably call a rocker, drones and swirls with loose guitar jams that stretch into endless night; campfire rags featuring call-and-response singing of hymnal austerity and pentecostal fervor. One thing that sets the album apart from other Tinariwen releases is how they’ve opened their caravan to other wayfarers, allowing a number of similarly restless non-African musicians to overdub textures, wrinkles, and vibes of their own. These post-production effects are so organic you might not be able to place them without consulting the album credits; the closest to being ostentatious is probably Micah Nelson, whose spritely mandolin on “Taqkal Tarha” finds the connective tissue between Tinariwen’s African traditionalism and American folk, gospel, and blues. Stephen O’Malley, of the band Sun O))), adds sinister cinema to the ghostly “Wartilla,” a minor-key lament where dexterous finger-picked guitar seems like it’s being sucked into a black hole of electric drone. Bad Seed Warren Ellis shows up several times to add mournful violin, and Cass McCombs enmeshes his own guitars with the band’s thick bramble. These guests all supply welcome accents and color, but they never steal the spotlight from Tinariwen’s endlessly hypnotic weave of guitars, hand claps, and community sing-along vocals. Those with a fluency in the band’s native tongue will identify plenty of agitation in their lyrics, but even if you can’t offer a literal translation, you’ll still feel like you’re basically speaking the same language: Theirs is a musical vocabulary of pilgrimage, of peace and community amidst rootlessness and upheaval. What could be more universal?

On the topic of pilgrims making progress, consider Canadian troubadour Bruce Cockburn, whose close to three dozen (!!) singer/songwriter albums document a lifelong wrestling match with the Almighty, plus an extended inquiry into pancultural musical traditions. Crowing Ignites is only his second album of purely instrumental acoustic guitar music, and what astonishes about it is how it conveys the same characteristics that make his sung poetry so compelling; these compositions are literate, questing, and mystical, seeming at once tranquil and disquieted. A couple of elegiac cycles come toward the front of the album— “Easter” is a contemplative resurrection reverie, “April in Memphis” a procession through actual funeral bells— but his pensiveness is offset here by a handful of earthy surprises. Cockburn doles out snarling blues licks on “The Moan,” but better still is “The Mt. Lefroy Waltz,” swingin’ after-hours jazz guitar complete with brushed cymbals and the sympathetic groan of a muted trumpet (the latter supplied by coronet master Ron Miles). All of this is recorded by producer Colin Linden in immaculate clarity, and suggests that Cockburn is as enraptured by sound and texture as he is high-concept songwriting; consider “Bells of Gethsemane,” where the rustle of acoustic strings stands out against the backdrop of haunted chimes and singing bowls, its very title evoking the Christ-hauntedness that’s always animated Cockburn’s music. There’s a resourcefulness of sound on other songs, too: “Pibroch: The Wind in the Valley” features guitar strings that thrum and drone in simulation of Scottish bagpipes, while “Seven Daggers” cuts a crooked path through chiming kalimba, the tactility of Cockburn’s playing shrouded in otherworldly mist. Such excursionary arrangements mirror the album’s probing spirit: His fleet-fingered playing keeps these songs in perpetual motion even when the mood is reflective, trying to lay his hands to revelation beyond words.

Wouldn’t Be the Same Port Arthur: Rodney Crowell’s uncertain Texas

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In 2001, Rodney Crowell released an album called The Houston Kid, a loose collection of myths and memories based on his own upbringing in the Space City. It’s one of several superb Crowell albums to set sharply-drawn character studies and propulsive narratives against the backdrop of his native Texas, local color inevitably spilling across the margins and tethering the stories to a specific piece of American soil. But if The Houston Kid was a portrait of the artist as a young man, the new Texas is more like a landscape painting, its very title suggesting a wide-angle view. It may be the first Crowell album where characters and stories cede the spotlight to cultural topography; here, local color is the protagonist, the animating force that gives Crowell’s songs their pungent flavor and narrative weight. In this stew of local vernaculars, the big picture looms in and out of focus, but all the little details are evocative and specific. Indeed, Crowell’s guided tour of the Lone Star State is biased and idiosyncratic, and probably not approved by the tourism bureau; it maps out landmarks and legends with the casualness that only a native son can muster, and its candor about the state’s shortfalls and contradictions only bolsters the sincerity of its hometown pride.

Crowell is much too smart to try to draw clean lines around the musical legacy of Texas; as a field guide to what Texas really sounds like, it’s abridged, lovingly curated, and more intent on capturing feel than recording a proper musicology. What might have been a sampler platter of country, rock, blues, troubadour traditions, and bordertown imports is instead a cheerfully porous intermingling of all of the above, its relationship to genre emphasizing fluidity over precision. Texas has a restless energy and jostling momentum that make it feel like a party record, even though it slips often into folksy introspection; imagine a jocular get-together where Guy Clark holds court with songs and stories, but Doug Sahm commands the playlist and provides a freewheeling ambiance. Crowell’s celebration comes with a Texas-sized guest list, and he slots local legends into supporting roles with the savvy of a great casting director (or a hitmaking rap A&R boss). When Billy Gibbons stops by, it’s to sleaze things up in the grease ‘n’ grind of “56 Fury.” Lyle Lovell croaks the chorus of “What You Gonna Do Now,” adding just the right touch of droll surrealism; Steve Earle shows up on “Brown & Root, Brown & Root,” affixing his gravelly authority to words like “infrastructure” and “Haliburton” and grounding Crowell’s fragrant impressionism to real-world political ambivalence. Even Ringo Starr is present, sending cymbals clanging and clattering across the pounding “You’re Only Happy When You’re Miserable.” (When you’re a Beatle, you belong to the world; perhaps Lubbock has nearly as much claim to him as Liverpool does.) Crowell hears the particular music in the crags and crevices of great Texas accents, and orchestrates it with precision: “Deep in the Heart of Uncertain Texas” finds Ronnie Dunn wrapping his smooth, operatic drawl around a rhapsody of chiggers and beer; then, a never-seedier Willie Nelson uses his roughed-up twang to request “a dimebag of dirt weed”— astonishingly, the first time he’s ever sung those words into the public record.

Texas revels in regionalism. More than any other Rodney Crowell album, this one suggests a songwriter who is as watered by the poetic tradition as the folk tradition, and many of the lyrics are put across through gnarled dialects and hyper-specific signifiers. In the lithe rock and roller “Flatland Hillbillies,” he zeroes in on a particular genus of redneck who seem to have a firm grasp on their particular social station: “River rats and jon boat shrimpers/ Trouble in our DNA/ It wouldn’t be the same Port Arthur/ If we got up and moved away.” He captures a working-class value system with even greater specificity in “56 Fury,” where the dialog is so terse and so hardscrabble it feels like it could have come from a Cormac McCarthy novel (“Pontiac and Cadillac ain’t even fit for hauling hay.”) Crowell’s records often exude a gentlemanly elegance, but he’s always sounded gleeful whenever he has a chance to get down and dirty, and he finds plenty of them on Texas; listen to “Treetop Slim & Billy Lowgrass,” a crime farce set to jutting Texas two-step blues. It’s essentially the film Hell or High Water as directed by the Coen Brothers (“Treetop Slim and Billy Lowgrass/ Fredonia rangers dogging your ass”). Elsewhere, Crowell ratifies a longstanding Texas storytelling tradition that encompasses everyone from his mentor Guy Clark to up-and-comers like Hayes Carll; “I’ll Show Me” is grimly comedic, full of sadsack brags from a man defiantly self-destructive (“Man seeking unemployment/ no gig too big to blow”).

But if Texas draws its power from nuance, it also finds resonance in Crowell’s knack for writing microcosmically. The album-closing “Texas Drought, Part 1” chronicles scarcity and desperation, tumblin’ tumbleweeds and last-ditch prayers; its austere beleaguerment is translatable across all kinds of weather, and the second half of its title suggests that if some problems have solutions, others just leave you hanging. Crowell’s Steve Earle team-up is a mudraker’s chronicle in the Woody Guthrie vein, and a psalm of lament for all the human collateral that’s left in the wake of capital progress. And a wispy song called “The Border,” featuring John Jorgenson, uses a political hot zone to meditate on the moral contradictions and psychic corrosion that we all keep in close proximity. In it, a law enforcement agent arrives home to his wife and takes off his bulletproof vest, but he can’t shake the things he saw on the job. He tells himself “it’s just the border,” hoping the misery he sees is tied to a place and not endemic to the human heart; he hardly sounds sure of it. It’s one of several songs here where you feel like, the more geographically particular Crowell gets, the more he speaks for us all.

A Seat at the Table: The Highwomen abide multitudes

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Institutionalized misogyny at a glance: In 2019, exactly one woman has had a #1 single on Billboard’s Country Airplay charts; that would be Maren Morris and her self-reliance anthem “GIRL.” That’s not quite to say that women have been completely absent from the radio; if nothing else, they have provided fruitful subject matter for many of country music’s most venerated dudes and bros. Jason Aldean had a chart-topping hit with “Girl Like You,” where he assures his beloved that she has lips like cherries, eyes like diamonds, and a “body so gold”— shopworn imagery that does little to distinguish the object of his affection (emphasis on object). There’s also “Good Girl,” a #1 from Dustin Lynch that rhapsodizes his beloved as an “angel,” a “keeper,” and “the kinda thing you gotta lock down.” Such songs make it disturbing plausible that Morris, in addition to being the lone female to summit the charts, is also the only contemporary country hitmaker who has ever actually spoken to a woman before.

This dismaying situation was hardly lost on Amanda Shires, a key player in the Americana scene. Absorbing plenty of country radio from the confines of her tour bus, she was mortified by the gender disparity; so many gifted singers and songwriters ignored, so many everyday stories left untold. She aimed to do something about it, and like many aspiring revolutionaries before her, her plans involved starting a band. The Highwomen, a homegrown problem-solvers caucus, includes Shires, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, and, curiously enough, Maren Morris, whose chart success is the exception that proves the rule. Their self-titled debut was produced by Dave Cobb, and features low-key support from the likes of Jason Isbell, Sheryl Crow, and Yola. It’s a handsome set of songs, carefully designed to honor the voices and lived experience of women. If country radio ever gets wind of it, there may be pandemonium at the realization that ladies are more than red lips and diamond eyes. And if it doesn’t, the credible excuses are very limited indeed; surely by intention, The Highwomen have made a record that’s not just pure of heart but unerring in craft. Maybe there’s a good reason not to play this on the radio, but lack of merit ain’t it.

The group’s name references The Highwaymen, a mid-80s posse made up of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson, back when each was still on’ry but on the downward slope of their commercial prime. Their theme song, the Jimmy Webb-penned “Highwayman,” mythologized rugged and manly men doing rugged and manly things, like brandishing weapons and working in construction. The Highwomen opens with a revisionist take on the song (co-credited to Webb), where all the macho stuff is replaced with a whispered history of the women who’ve been blotted from the public record— the waterlogged witches of Salem, Freedom Riders gunned down in their prime, traveling preachers with hellhounds on their trail. In robust harmony, the Highwomen declare themselves “the daughters of the silent generation,” standing in solidarity with women of the past whose quiet courage is too often left unsung. It’s obviously meant to be the band’s walk-on music, but at least two additional songs qualify as unofficial manifestos: There’s first single “Redesigning Women,” an unruly singalong where the Highwomen celebrate femininity with equal parts earnestness and jokes, sounding obviously proud of both (“when we love someone we take ‘em to heaven/ and if the shoe fits we’re gonna buy 11.”) You could also make a case for “Crowded Table,” a hymn of union, as the third bullet point in their mission statement; it’s a song about rolling up your sleeves to build the inclusive utopia Sleater-Kinney used to dream of, though the Highwomen cast it in the warmth of domesticity (“I want a house with a crowded table/ and a place by the fire for everyone”).

These songs triangulate the band’s politics, but it’s to their credit that The Highwomen isn’t all rallying calls and declarations of intent; they’re just as happy to show as to tell, and their material sticks up for the women who live in the margins of gender politics but don’t have the luxury of thinking about them every second of every day. (Possible summary of the album’s themes: Women have shit to do.)  In “My Only Child” (co-written with GOAT of GOATs and spirit-Highwoman Miranda Lambert), they linger over the particular pain and gratitude of the mother whose table isn’t quite as crowded as she’d like; it’s a quiet-storm tearjerker for the mom who wanted a big family but wouldn’t trade her lone progeny for anything in the world. There’s also Shires’ “Cocktail and a Song,” a fiddle-led wake written following her father’s diagnosis with terminal illness, which captures the particular tenderness between dads and daughters (“you’ve always been your daddy’s girl, nothing’s gonna change that now”). What The Highwomen argues implicitly is that stories like these are legion; so why don’t we hear them more often? As if to assert just how multitudinous the stories of women really are, the record ends with a Carlile number called “Wheels of Laredo,” an Old West set piece that recalls some of the conscious myth-making of The Highwaymen; hearing these women acquit themselves so ably in the hardscrabble outlaw vein almost feels like a victory lap. The song also appears on While I’m Livin, a Tanya Tucker comeback album co-produced and largely penned by Carlile. She’s spoken about wanting the song to become a kind of modern outlaw anthem, one that many different performers can sink their teeth into. The Highwomen literally set their own standards.

Any one of these dozen songs is tuneful enough to be a radio hit. Ironically enough, their fortunes on the charts may be hampered by the fact that they’re so grounded in traditional country craft. The Highwomen studiously resists the gurgling electronics, trap rhythms, and studio sheen that characterize Nashville’s pop vanguard, instead favoring a warm austerity that hearkens back to the values of the outlaw movement; it’s a sound that was mapped out by Hemby, long one of country’s most valued songslingers, and captured in an appealingly organic production from Cobb. “My Name Can’t Be Mama” begins with sawing fiddles that roll into jaunty barroom piano, Western swing with a hard edge; “Heaven is a Honky Tonk,” meanwhile, is an amiable, old-timey Gospel sway. These are sturdy constructions, rooted in decades of country record-making, but they aren’t museum pieces; for one thing, they’re too funny to be stodgy. The joke quotient is high, not least on “Don’t Call Me,” an uproarious dismissal where Shires tells her ex exactly where he can lodge any further inquiries or requests (“1-800-Go-To-Hell”). The classicist songwriting makes the one-liners sparkle, and it also helps cast at least some of these Highwomen in a new light; no one benefits from this context as much as Morris, who gets to show sides of herself her fine solo albums only hint at. Her “Loose Change” is one of the record’s understated delights, exhibiting a knack for taking plainspoken cliches and assembling them into something surprisingly barbed (“I’m gonna be somebody’s lucky penny one day/ instead of rolling around in your pocket like loose change.”)

Their embrace of country formalism makes it all the more striking when The Highwomen tweak the formula a bit, and a few songs pull the rug right out from under you. “If She Ever Leaves Me,” sung by Carlile but written by Shires and Isbell with Chris Tompkins, is a classic country infidelity song with a twist: The dude thinks he’s a couple drinks and a well-placed pick-up line away from sweeping a woman off her feet; he’s too dense to know he’s barking up the wrong tree, something the song’s narrator explains with wry understatement (“that’s too much cologne, she likes perfume”). Step back from it and you can hear the song as a meditation on abiding mysteries and multitudes. “No one you can name is just the one thing they have shown,” an old Joe Henry song posits, and The Highwomen bears witness. Just listen to “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” a tender and funny reminder that a woman is more than the sum of her children. “It’s not that I don’t want to, I just don’t want to today,” assures a loving but frazzled mom; just the kind of complicated admission for which The Highwomen have created safe harbor. They’re one of the only groups who would speak such things out loud; but they know as well as you do that they’re not alone.

Won’t Ever Have Another Like Me: On the unflappable Jazzmeia Horn

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What does freedom sound like to you? Maybe it sounds something like “Searchin,’” one of several remarkable originals from the singer Jazzmeia Horn. The song begins with a countoff— the brusque snap of fingers, the rolling cadence of Horn’s one, two, one-two…!— and at first blush the sheer speed of it might strike you as a headfake. But she’s not pulling your leg: For just over three minutes, Horn leads her five-piece jazz combo barreling down a swaying highwire, maintaining poise and precision even at breakneck velocity. Clamorous drum fills and the insistent pulse of the upright bass remind you just how close to chaos the whole thing is, but Horn sustains model unflappability; she is clean and clear even as she alternates between crisply-enunciated lyrics and frenzied scatting. It’s singing of such athleticism, an Olympic medal feels just as appropriate as a Grammy; either way, she doesn’t break a sweat.

Not everything on Horn’s exemplary second album, Love and Liberation, is quite so throttling or intense, but much of it seems death-defying somehow; perhaps it has something to do with the unforgivingness of the form itself. Vocal jazz rises and falls by the technical skill and personal charm of the singer, and there’s no studio obfuscation or production jujitsu to temper the high stakes. The jazz singer’s somersaults and calisthenics, her feats of dramatization and interpretation, are done on a bare stage and in broad daylight, and if she stumbles it’s all caught on tape. Yet at a mere 28, Horn doesn’t only master an unyielding format; she finds within it ample space for playfulness and personal expression.

It’s tempting to assume she was born for this, but actually, the singer’s genre bona fides aren’t quite as starcrossed as her name suggests. Horn grew up in the gospel tradition, and her jazz destiny didn’t come knocking until she was in her late teens. An encounter with the Sarah Vaughan songbook sent her deep down the rabbit hole, and like many converts, Horn made up for lost time, immersing herself in the holy writ of singers like Betty Carter and Nancy Wilson. 

On Love and Liberation, she boasts high-level technical proficiency, bringing to fruition all the lessons she learned from those vaunted singers of the past: bright countenance, regal bearing, command over the low embers of the blues as well as the cheerful effervescence of swing. It’s an album that more or less plays by the idiom’s established rules: Largely penned by Horn and recorded in warm, analog allure with her regular band, Love and Liberation sounds like it could have been cut at the Village Vanguard in the late 60s, or released on any jazz imprint in the decades sense. There are no obvious feints toward modernity, no fourth-wall-breaking attempts to redefine what a vocal jazz album can be. Yet within a closed system, Horn asserts her right to rearrange the furniture, slap a new coat of paint on the walls, and claim the whole of it as her domain. She’s a freedom-fighter but not an anarchist, and the record is all the more impressive for how it flourishes in symbiosis with her chosen orthodoxy.

You can hear, for example, how she experiments with acceptable speed limits, not just with the blazing momentum of “Searchin’” but also with the metronome pulse of “Time.” Here, the singer pleads with a jittery paramour to slow his roll and give her some room to breath; Horn delivers her lyrics in soft spoken-word, as though leading zen meditation, and the band relaxes into a steady, clockwork gait. It’s not the album’s only track to suggest poetic recitation as a tool in the jazz singer’s toolbox: In “Only You,” a spoken a capella duet, Horn and her drummer Jamison Ross voice two lovers weaving in and out of sync with each other, their criss-crossing lines of dialogue suggestive that harmony isn’t supposed to look like uniformity. It’s a story of romance as two overlapping truths, and a word-picture of what it means to be both an individual and part of a unit.

Jazz is the mouth of the river here, but several songs follow its tributaries: “No More” slinks and growls, a down-and-dirty blues; “Still Tryin’” hollers like gospel but isn’t afraid to let its lyrics get bawdy. Meanwhile, a cover of “Green Eyes,” from Erykah Badu’s unimpeachable classic Mama’s Gun, loses the old-timey winks in the original and instead dives into straight-ahead jazz balladry, the singer surrendering to cascading piano lines from Victor Gould. These songs suggest the virtue in Horn’s roundabout path to jazz singing; a willingness to approach the form reverently while celebrating its porousness. 

It’s a fitting aesthetic for songs that assert personal autonomy and individuality amidst personal limitations and external constraints. Many of them voice steely, confident women who insist upon love and romance on their own terms; “No man owns me, I belong to God,” Horn declares on “No More,” pledging her autonomy but not forgetting where it came from. The skittering “Out the Window” reclaims the mean ol’ devil woman trope from the Delta blues; you can hear the simpering smile plastered to Horn’s face when she cheerfully announces that, if push comes to shove, she’s perfectly capable of discarding her decorum and civility real quick. In the ribald  yarn “Still Tryin,’” she’s waylaid by a man who’s only interested in one thing; she rebuffs him a few times and ultimately concedes a dance, but it’s pretty clear who’s in control of the situation (“not too fast, now, Johnny/ ‘cause you’re still trying to get in my pants”). The flinty “When I Say,” a preschooler’s power trip, suggests that there are lessons to be learned from kids who know what they want and voice it without inhibition. “You won’t ever have another like me, so I shouldn’t have to beg and plead,” the song goes, an endearing crisscross of pride and petulance.

Amidst these sharp originals there’s just one songbook standard; Horn sings “I Thought of You” to end the album, accompanied only by upright bass, her bubbly scatting as buoyant as a full horn section, her command of molasses drawls and gentle coos as expressive as an orchestra. She sings it because she can; standing on the shoulders of giants, she sounds like nobody but herself.

Big Complication: Taylor Swift learns to trust the process

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“How many days did I spend thinking/ ‘Bout how you did me wrong, wrong, wrong?” asks Taylor Swift at the beginning of her seventh album, Lover. The math, it turns out, isn’t especially flattering. It’s now been two years since she chided a bully for his “little games” and “tilted stage” in a song called “Look What You Made Me Do,” widely perceived to be a diss of Kanye West. And it’s been close to nine years since “Dear John,” a quietly brutal rejoinder to an older paramour (“don’t you think I was too young to be messed with?”), generally assumed to be John Mayer. But Swift’s question is probably a rhetorical one; long notorious for her clapbacks and her kiss-offs, the Swift of Lover sounds like she can scarcely believe the time and bandwidth she’s wasted nursing grievances.

The new album opener, a cheerfully antiseptic groove called “I Forgot That You Existed,” sounds like a hard reset following the cloistered defensiveness of Swift’s previous album, 2017’s complex and combative Reputation. Call it an exercise in charitable indifference; a moment of zen; an example of what Over the Rhine calls “healthy apathy.” “Lived in the shade you were throwing/ till all of my sunshine was gone,” Swift acknowledges, with what might as well be the sound of a stone being rolled away, a wind of goodwill blowing down doors and loosening shutters. The Taylor Swift you hear on Lover seems like she’s just been roused from a deep funk. No wonder she nearly titled this album Daylight.

Swift has become famous for the diaristic candor and emotional precision with which she writes about relationships, so to explain Lover as a study in the various iterations of romance, from the first flush of infatuation to the wreckage of a breakup, may seem nondescript. What’s most disruptive about these songs is the grace Swift extends to partners both current and past; and for that matter, the gentleness with which she handles her own shortcomings. The writer David Dark observes that “to love a person is to love a process,” and that could almost be Lover’s epigraph. “My heart’s been borrowed and yours has been blue,” she sings in the title song, twisting the imagery of picture-perfect matrimony into an acknowledgment that we all bring baggage into whatever covenants we enter. “All’s well that ends well to end up with you.” Multiple songs on Lover reference the rolling of dice, and Swift emanates a stoic risk tolerance; all of us are works in progress, these songs suggest, mostly just improvising as we go. Love demands that we take the rough with the smooth; that we be forebearing with one another, and patient with ourselves.

It’s a liberating paradigm shift, and you can hear it in the way this album sounds. Following the chilly, stainless-steel synths of 1989 and the dour monochrome of Reputation, Lover is an album that abounds with bright hues and convivial spirits. The difference seems entirely one of Swift’s countenance: She is once again working with studio architect Jack Antonoff, her closest collaborator since ditching any kind of live-band pretense after the brambly, transitional Red. But where the previous album felt pallid, this one glories in color, detail, and texture. Not since “Love Story” has she written anything as irrepressible as “Paper Rings,” sparkling pop-punk that borrows its sing-along chorus from Grease. In “I Think He Knows,” Swift nurses a secret crush, trying to tamp down her obvious buoyance even as the music stutters and stammers with goofy glee. At 18-songs-in-61 minutes, Lover is generous in its sprawl, and finds time enough for loose ends and experiments: “London Boy,” transatlantic romantic doggerel, is the kind of lark that gives the weightier material some breathing room; “It’s Nice to Have a Friend,” a wintry interlude, suggests Swift could have a second career in outsider folk. Of all the albums she’s made in her imperial pop era, this one is the most robust, the most accomplished, and the easiest to love.

You won’t hear its jovial spirit shine any brighter than on “ME!,” the divisive lead single that pairs Swift with Panic! At the Disco singer Brendon Urie. Here she commands the razzle-dazzle fanfare of a full marching band, leading call-and-response chants that invert a laundry list of personal shortcomings (“I know that I’m a handful, baby) into a celebration of individuality (“I’m the only one of me/ baby that’s the fun of me”). Its Mr. Rogers-ready messaging may seem childish, but it’s the kind of childishness that a lot of grown-ups would give anything to recapture, a Rosebud moment happily arriving while the recipient is still in her full vigor. It’s difficult to imagine the song on any previous Taylor Swift album; it’s as though she had to endure some dark years and some growing pains before she found the value in not taking herself too seriously; before she was confident enough to be ridiculous. 

This is the freest she has sounded in a long time, evident not just in the serenity of her lyrics and the vividness of the productions, but perhaps most crucially in the way she sings. That Swift contains multitudes is one of the album’s underlying points, and she literalizes it with a full spectrum of voices. “Cruel Summer” is a hot house of anguished desire, written with the very busy St. Vincent; Swift coos the choruses in operatic falsetto, them delivers the melodramatic punchline in a blood-curdling scream. In “Paper Rings,” she hams it up, channeling her shopworn petulance into defiant joy. And in “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” she croons with the earnestness of a born country singer, which of course she is.

It’s not the only moment on the album that suggests Swift maintains some affinity for country music, though it’s sufficiently convincing in its plainspoken heartache to make you hopeful for a hardscrabble Ashley Monroe cover. There’s also “Soon You’ll Get Better,” equal parts pep talk, intercessory prayer, and whispered confession, delivered by Swift at the bedside of her ailing mother. The Dixie Chicks show up to harmonize, and the song’s acoustic hush becomes another sharp color on Swift’s palette. Earlier in the album she admits that she’s the sum of all her “exes, fights, and flaws,” and you can almost hear these country incursions in similar terms: They are old flames for which she still carries a torch; essential strands in her DNA.

When Swift and Antonoff do return to the gauzy synths of Reputation, it’s with a distinctly different tone. “The Archer,” conjures the same soft ecstacy of Robyn’s Honey, a warm cocoon in which a peacetime Taylor no longer feels the need to explain or defend herself; instead she studies the heavy cost of her prior pugilism. “And I cut off my nose just to spite my face/ Then I hate my reflection for years and years.” It’s a revelation born of trauma; like the freedom you hear in “ME!,” the contrition of “The Archer” sounds like it could only have come through Reputation’s curtain of darkness.

What makes Swift’s humility especially commendable is Lover’s covert thesis: We are what do, and are known by the things we enshrine in our hearts and ratify with our actions. “I wanna be defined by the things that I love,” Swift intones in “Daylight,” the cloud-clearing album closer. The intentional hopefulness of this record is a conscious act of self-construction; a dream of being better by doing better. She makes the point even more explicitly in “False God,” a sax-caressed slow jam that posits embodied love as a mirror of spiritual devotion. “Your religion’s on your lips,” Swift whispers. Our orthodoxy is our orthopraxy.

Swift’s readiness to brave love’s rough and tumble is not naive. She’s written enough breakup songs. She knows covenants between two baggage-burdened people, works in progress, are always going to be fluid situations. Some of the record’s most affecting songs weigh the cost of entanglement with another human being. In “Cornelia Street,” Swift’s haunted by loss before the relationship even begins; “I’d never walk Cornelia Street again,” she vows of a potential rupture, her love so consuming that to lose it would tarnish everything in its orbit. In “Cruel Summer,” she writhes in recognition of an impossible romance: “I love you, ain’t that the worst thing you ever heard?” she croaks. The only promise love makes is that nobody emerges from it unchanged.

How daring is it, then, that two of the album’s key songs employ the language of weddings, suggesting the courage of commitment despite long odds? “I take this magnetic force of a man to be my lover,” Swift solemnly swoons in the title song, a candlelit romance that stands tall as one of her indisputable masterpieces. (Worth noting: It’s also a solo writing credit for Swift, her first in a while.) And in “Paper Rings,” she invites her man to jump into the car and race with her to the nearest altar, knowing full well they’ve both got baggage enough to fill the back seat and spill into the trunk. “I want your complications, too,” she assures him. Love is all or nothing; the best any of us can do is learn to trust the process.

Shattered but Strong: Sleater-Kinney dips a toe into chaos

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Maybe it was never if, but when. Almost from the beginning, Sleater-Kinney’s breakneck speed and throttling urgency have portended collapse; in terms both romantic and political, the band has warned us that stability is transient, that sooner or later things always fall apart. In their famous song “One More Hour,” they voice two lovers who’ve long given up on eternity; in a world of impermanence, they’ll settle for a few precious minutes. And throughout the War on Terror-era One Beat, they remind us how quickly the moral calculus can change for a country on the brink of the abyss. The arrival of a new album called The Center Won’t Hold feels less like a warning than a prophecy fulfilled. After so many years of staving off entropy and erasure, there’s a notable shift in Sleater-Kinney’s apocalyptic outlook. Call it acquiescence to the inevitable. “And if the world is ending now/ then let’s dance the bad dance/ we’ve been rehearsing our whole lives,” one song suggests. This is the explosive finale they’ve been preparing us for. Least we can do is hit our marks and remember our cues.

As for what’s setting off their alarm bells, you can probably hazard a guess. The 45th President looms large over the album, even if he’s never mentioned by name; there is nothing here as courageously specific as One Beat’s valiant “Combat Rock,” but also nothing as schlocky as the Trump-baiting songs Corin Tucker wrote with her other band, Filthy Friends. The writing here is more impressionistic in nature, a blur of images and feelings to suggest a loss of social cohesion and a general sense of things coming unmoored. The title song almost sounds like a narcotic update to “Dig Me Out,” but where that earlier anthem wailed for transcendence, “The Center Won’t Hold” lurches toward a quick fix, be it money, drugs, or “something holy,” whichever is closest at hand. And in “The Future is Here,” Tucker summarizes the current state of disorientation: “Never have I felt so goddamn lost and alone.” Call it a wartime prayer. A song of lament.

Sleater-Kinney proves their own point about entropy, allowing a certain level of unpredictability into their creative process. Certainly the album is distinct from the athletic No Cities to Love, in which the world’s most essential punk band ratified their muscularity and terseness after a decade of silence. But if that record consolidated the fundamentals, The Center Won’t Hold scuttles them for spare parts. There are still molten blasts of raucous fury here, but they’re interspersed between icy synth-scapes, heavy-machinery beats, disembodied voices, and guitars that thrum like buzzsaws. It’s their Achtung Baby moment, and in the title song they hurtle headlong into Zoo Station, the creak and clamor of industrial percussion building into a cathartic jolt of three-piece electric mayhem. “RUINS” totters through a haunted house of trip-hop beats and flickering, low-rent static and fuzz. “Bad Dance” sounds like musical theater that’s rusted over, kitsch that’s congealed into something hard and mean. “Reach Out” combines the spiked pop of Cyndi Lauper with echo effects worthy of The Edge. “Dip your toes into the chaos,” one song counsels. Let it never be said that Sleater-Kinney can’t take their own advice.

Assisting in their industrial revolution is producer Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent, on hand with plenty of arthouse effects that sound like they could have fit on her own 2017 MASSEDUCTION (merely one of the most gloriously dark, demented pop records of the last decade). Her involvement proved divisive before The Center Won’t Hold was even released, but what’s most striking about the sound of these recordings is how acutely Clark understands what makes this band special. She wrestles their innate queerness into some of the most playful, borderline-campy material in the Sleater-Kinney canon; listen to “Can I Go On,” a frazzled showtune with a New Wave pulse. Elsewhere, she pushes them into some of the extremes of the Sleater-Kinney sound— “Restless” is their best (only?) slow song since “Modern Girl,” and the five-minute “RUINS” is relatively loose and jammy— but even scuffed up with weird sounds, these songs all have their finger on the Sleater-Kinney essence: They’re tightly-coiled and razor-edged; they bristle with tension that never quite abates, no matter how many times they erupt. It’s arguably less revisionist than The Woods, which ransacked the classic rock playbook to turn those taut little Sleater-Kinney songs into widescreen features. This one feels closer in spirit to the band that made Dig Me Out, albeit dressed up in fancy new duds. 

The Center Won’t Hold apprehends the void, but it doesn’t surrender to it. These performances are too hungry, too ferocious to feel like Sleater-Kinney has thrown in the towel; a band that can wrest existential anguish into howling vaudeville (“Bad Dance”) or sweet-and-salty synth-pop (“LOVE”) clearly hasn’t given up on punk’s street-fighting spirit. As critic Alfred Soto notes, Sleater-Kinney has long taken a position of “contempt for ‘centers,’” and maybe that explains the thread of anarchic glee that runs through these raucous recordings: Having seen just how far the monoculture has gotten us, the band isn’t entirely heartbroken to see it implode. 

Still, there’s real darkness. Like Titus Andronicus on An Obelisk, Sleater-Kinney turn the genre’s rabble-rousing inclinations inward, not just lamenting society’s collapse but also the rot of human depravity. “My heart wants the ugliest things,” Tucker sighs on “Restless,” an admission that trouble on the outside usually points to trouble on the inside. And in “RUINS,” she and Carrie Brownstein realize too late that they offered safe harbor to a monster who’s outgrown his cage, and hulks before them now as an unstoppable evil: “You’re a creature of sorrow/ You’re the beast we made/ You scratch at our sadness/ ‘Til we’re broken and frayed.” What these songs suggest is that we’ve nobody to blame but ourselves for the decay we see. The Center Won’t Hold teems with whirlwinds reaped; chickens come home to roost.

The principalities they name here aren’t necessarily political agendas nor even world leaders, but rather the slow creep of dehumanization. That’s certainly the vibe in “Hurry on Home,” a harrowing slice of devious kink. Over the clank and grind of what sound like haywire kitchen appliances, Brownstein sets a grisly domestic scene punctuated with monotonous violence (“you know I’m hair-grabbable, grand-slammable”). In Tucker’s “Reach Out,” salvation is framed both as physical autonomy (“my body is my own again”) and as validation from someone else (“reach out and see me, I’m losing my head”). It’s a song made sweeter, more powerful by its grounding in Sleater-Kinney’s long-standing commitment to indefatigable yet inclusive feminism: They have done the hard work of defining for themselves what a nourishing, empowering community looks like. They’ve never needed it more, and neither have we.

Alas, as critic Carl Wilson notes, even Sleater-Kinney’s skillfully-cultivated feminist utopia is subject to collapse; shortly before the release of The Center Won’t Hold, boon drummer Janet Weiss announced her departure from the band, citing creative differences and casting a shadow over the album’s release. It’s hard now not to think of Sleater-Kinney as another casualty of entropy, but they soldier on. The album ends with “Broken,” the most unswerving piano ballad they’ve ever put on a record. It’s a song of solidarity with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, in whose plight Brownstein and Tucker discover new depths of indignation and despair. “I thought I was all grown up right now,” admits Tucker. “But I feel like I’ll never be done.” Maybe we’re never supposed to reach a point where this world’s cruelties make sense; maybe persistent revulsion is a sign of conscience at work. Thank God for Sleater-Kinney, who even in fracture show us what it looks like to feel shattered and still be strong.