Heaven Can Wait: Songs of experience from John Prine, Willie Nelson, Oak Ridge Boys

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By the end of his witty and wistful new album, Tree of Forgiveness, John Prine has managed to squeak his way into Heaven, where he proceeds to play songs, smoke cigarettes, and forgive everyone who ever wronged him. It’s a happy ending, and it’s well-earned: Prine is nothing if not a survivor, and Tree of Forgiveness feels scrappy and hard-won, both in its sound and in its form. It’s been 13 years since the last set of original tunes from Prine, and this new collection is endearingly tattered and terse: Its 10 songs—with copyright dates that span decades—barely comprise half an hour of music, and something like “I Have Met My Love Today,” at under two minutes long, feels like a precious fragment, the dog-eared remnant of some holy text that Prine’s been carrying around in his wallet through periods of creative drought and bad health. Throat surgery and cancer both left their marks on his voice, never frailer and never more expressive than here, the perfectly weathered instrument for a songwriter who remains a bemused participant in life’s tender mercies and tragicomic indignities. His gristle brings the weight of wisdom to “The Lonesome Friends of Science,” a song for the discarded and the forgotten that hinges on the revoked planetary status of Pluto, which Prine knowingly says “never stood a chance no how,” and his droll detachment keeps the minor-key “Caravan of Fools” from congealing in its own despair; his off-handed disdain for the crimes of the plutocrats suggest that there’ve always been hard times, and so far we’ve always found a way to live through ‘em. Prine’s lyrics are hardscrabble and plainspoken, but never at the expense of local color; on “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door,” his rural vernacular is as commanding as Lucinda Williams’: “I was in high cotton, just a-bangin’ on my six-string/ A-kickin’ at the trash can, walkin’ skin and bone.” Meanwhile, the whole album bears a sympathetic Dave Cobb production, one that prizes simplicity but lights up with color when the songs call for it: “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door” is roughed-up, ramshackle blues, “When I Get to Heaven” is a whimsical jamboree, and “Summer’s End” is buoyed by understated, cinematic strings. Some of the songs sound like trifles at first, but the weightier songs give context to the slight ones, until you realize they’re not so slight at all: Prine is the pilgrim making progress, winding his way through sickness and death, the Caravan of Fools and the lonesome plight of Pluto, all the while aware that he’s in his twilight years. The key song here is “Summer’s End,” which grounds everything else in a certain eschatological urgency; “summer’s end came faster than we wanted,” Prine admits. It always does—but knowing how things end brings focus and perspective. “Boundless Love” takes on a hymn-like quality, and “God Only Knows” turns regret into something more like penitence and contrition. It’s as though he’s condensed all the ragged wisdom and experience of his lifetime into these hard-boiled tunes, and chiseled away anything superfluous. We’re left with the stuff that really matters: “Come on home,” Prine pleads on “Summer’s End.” “You don’t have to be alone.” Even on this side of heaven, boundless love is there for anyone seeking it.

Prine’s not the only grizzled pro who’s singing about matters of life and death. At 85, Willie Nelson has certainly earned the right to enter the sepia-toned phase of his career, and his new Last Man Standing is at least his third album in a row to confront mortality head-on: For the Good Times paid tribute to his late friend Ray Price, and God’s Problem Child found him tackling old age through a series of remembrances, autobiographical sketches, and sly jokes. Last Man Standing ups the joke content considerably, allowing Willie to confront his twilight years with a light touch, an amiable chuckle, and just a hint of sentimentality thrown in for good measure. The latter comes mostly in the form of “Something You Get Through,” a tender ballad about saying goodbye to someone you’ve loved a long time; the pain never subsides, Willie reckons, but maybe it makes you tougher. More characteristic of the album’s playful streak is “Bad Breath,” a surprisingly philosophical ode to halitosis: “Bad breath is better than no breath at all,” Willie sings. And then there’s the wistful second-guessing of the title track: “I don’t wanna be the last man standing/ Wait a minute, maybe I do.” To outlive your contemporaries is a lonesome achievement, but have you considered the alternative? Willie wrote all 11 of these songs with Buddy Cannon, who also produced the set—and if the red-headed stranger doesn’t mix his American music idioms with the same staggering virtuosity he showed in the days of Stardust and Shotgun Willie, he remains casually eclectic, seamless and smooth in his intermingling of folk forms. Last Man Standing is very much a roots record, one that’s equally charming when it offers burnished blues (“Bad Breath”), Texas swing (“Ready to Roar”), rollicking honky-tonk sing-alongs (“Don’t Tell Noah”), and smooth, folksy shuffles (“Me and You.”) For all its amiability, the record isn’t without some prickliness; John Prine may make it into Heaven, but Willie’s aware that “Hell is a-waitin’ there too.” Of course, he’s spent his career writing tough songs that sound smooth and easygoing; that’ the achievement of Last Man Standing, and it’s the achievement of his lifetime.

17th Avenue Revival, new from the Oak Ridge Boys, has a couple of through-lines to the John Prine and Willie Nelson albums. Like Tree of Forgiveness, this nine-song collection was helmed by Dave Cobb, an in-demand country and roots producer whose reputation for traditionalism undersells his breadth and variety. This year alone, he shepherded the scrappy charm of Tree of Forgiveness, brought string-swept melodrama to Brandi Carlisle’s By the Way, I Forgive You, and helped Ashley Monroe revitalize emotive countrypolitanism on her sublime Sparrow. Here, he connects the Oak Ridge Boys to the spirit of the Million Dollar Quartet, bringing grit and immediacy to their southern gospel. 17th Avenue Revival also fits with Tree of Forgiveness and Last Man Standing for how it finds grizzled veterans offering song of experience, ragged wisdom for summer’s end. “Brand New Star,” the opening song, forgoes Prine’s sly wit and Willie’s deadpan jokes in favor of pure sentimentality; the song reckons that a lost loved one has been turned into a celestial body, an idea that’s not found anywhere in the Bible but does fit with a certain cultural evangelicalism. The schmaltz is balanced out by a seemingly sincere read of Brandy Clark’s “Pray to Jesus”—a tune where desperation points to either religion or gambling, whichever saves you faster—and what’s more, it lands with visceral impact thanks to Cobb’s stripped-down production: It’s just the sound of four guys harmonizing in real time, keeping the beat through snapped fingers and the occasional hand clap, Cobb’s acoustic guitar the only instrumentation. There’s also the pummeling rockabiliy of “God’s Got It,” which sells its message of divine sovereignty through sheer barreling momentum, and an album-ending performance of “Let it Shine On Me” that builds to a sanctified hootenanny. The record is thick with the snap of the upright bass, the lingering dissonance of pounded pianos, and the rattle of tambourines—but on slower songs, like the hymn “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” the Oak Ridge Boys supply all their own special effects through those well-worn harmonies. Because he aligns these songs with the aesthetics of rock, country, and blues, Cobb rightly places Southern Gospel within the continuum of American folk traditions—and indeed, 17th Avenue Revival sidesteps pageantry in favor of austere reflections on faith and devotion, its hopefulness in the Lord feeling tested and sincere. “Joy comes in the morning/ And outshines the darkest of nights,” one song says. They know as well as Prine does that summers end—but maybe that’s not the end of the story.

Live Fast and Never Die: Kali Uchis’ songs of solitude

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“Body Language,” the opening song on Kali Uchis’ Isolation, takes a mere two verses to move from the thrill of infatuation to the regret of a breakup. When the track opens, the singer is flush with excitement, ready to fall headlong into the arms of her lover; when it ends, she’s alone. The song—a cool Jobim breeze—captures that elusive bosa nova melancholy, the way Brazilian music can feel so light and effervescent, so sad and wistful at the same time. Though Isolation never returns to that sound, it’s a fitting introduction to a record that’s cocksure and easygoing, but also melancholy and aloof. Throughout the record, Uchis projects steely resolve and self-assurance; “Live fast and never die/ I’m moving at the speed of light,” she declares on “Miami,” and while the song is empowering, it’s also vaguely regretful: Uchis constantly pushes forward, she scrapes and she swaggers, she lays claim to what’s hers and doesn’t accept compromise; and she is almost always alone, solitude the cost of her freedom and mobility. The album is a full-length meditation on how autonomy can make true intimacy impossible; to give yourself over to another person, meanwhile, requires the sacrifice of personal freedom, a truth Joni Mitchell’s been singing about at least as far back as “Help Me.” And so these declarations of independence are also hymns of isolation.

There’s some irony, then, that Isolation is an album of blissful collaboration. Uchis, a Colombian-American soul singer, labored on the album for years, and by her own account killed off a number of pop trifles in favor of something richer, bolder, and more idiosyncratic. Her uncompromising vision won her many noteworthy co-conspirators: Isolation has cameos from Tyler the Creator and BIA, production assistance from Thundercat and David Sitek, support from Bootsy Collins and the Dap-Kings, and a co-writing credit from Damon Albarn. The record is audacious in its eclecticism, casually moving from the gentle caress of “Body Language” to the clenched and claustrophobic “Miami” and then never letting up from its freewheeling sprawl. (“When you fast forward you don’t ever look back,” BIA raps, in what might as well be the album’s mission statement.) It’s an album of thrilling juxtapositions: “Your Teeth in My Neck” is an acoustic thumper, recalling both the gnarled jazz of To Pimp a Butterfly and the analog allure of Mama’s Gun, while “Dead to Me” is a steely club jam, clothed in colorful, state-of-the-art synths. “Nuestro Planeta,” the album’s lone non-English language track, captures the pulse of contemporary Latin pop, and is immediately followed by the dingy, lived-in New Wave of “In My Dreams.” Uchis pulls it all together without letting the seams show, uniting the album around her unique aesthetic—one that’s conversant with hip-hop and keenly aware of the current pop charts, but also well-studied in indie rock studio craft and in classic soul constructions. Indeed, a couple of tracks here—including the swaying, sighing ballad “Flight 22” and the album-ending “Killer”—are unashamedly retro, the kinds of songs that could have fit on an Amy Winehouse record. Uchis could have made an entire career off of them were she not such a restless spirit, yet she hardly treats them as nostalgia trips: The throwback numbers feature some of her most playful vocals, as she clearly revels in the chance to engage with vintage tropes and lilting melodies.

The album is littered with dysfunctional relationships; in one song after another, Uchis stands in triumph, but also in solitude. One ex-lover is written off as a “Tyrant” while another—the one who stole her heart and broke it—is a “Killer.” “Dead to Me” waves goodbye to a hanger-on who mistakes obsession for commitment, and “Your Teeth in My Neck” takes on toxic relationships of another kind—the relationship between art and commerce. When Uchis allows herself moments of joy, there are strings attached: “Flight 22” is punchdrunk in love, but it’s set in an airport; its protagonists are both on the run, and their love is transient from the start. It may be telling that the album’s most unabashed love song is also its most retro-sounding, as though true union is just a story we’ve passed down—a theory that’s strengthened by “In My Dreams,” where Uchis is happy only in her interior world of fantasy. She is a tough-talker and a hard-boiled songwriter, generally eschewing sentiment and softness in songs that twist the knife: With the casual self-mythologizing of Cardi B., “Just a Stranger” flips the gold digger archetype on its head, portraying a woman who prefers money to love as a hero in her own outlaw anthem. It’s a ruthless and effective song of empowerment, but elsewhere, Uchis reveals some chinks in the armor. “Miami” is a song about how she moved to South Florida to make a go of professional singing, but when the money started rolling in, her family back home just assumed she’d become a prostitute. For women, even success comes with stigma, and the song’s flinty arrangement, head-bobbing but tightly-coiled, mirrors the ways in which the Promised Land can be a hidden trap. Both in its visionary execution and in its subject matter, Isolation casts Kali Uchis as a woman adverse to compromise; it celebrates her iconoclasm but also hints at the cost. “Just come closer,” she coos at the end of “Body Language,” reaching out for intimacy and connection. If only it were so simple.

Continuum: MAST plays Monk, Mehldau plays Bach

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It’s tempting to view songbook excursions in purely binary terms—assuming any re-litigation of a well-trod canon to be either an exercise in rote reverence or in cheeky desecration. A pair of new albums—both of them ostensibly jazz, or at the very least jazz-adjacent—have it both ways, exploring the contours of familiar songs and keeping the material both formally and spiritually intact, yet still allowing it to live and breathe in a whole new context.

Released for the great composer and pianist’s centennial birthday, MAST’s Thelonious Sphere Monk chops, screws, dissects, and bedazzles 16 Monk tunes—and just when you find yourself bracing for the next irresistible curveball, the album throws you a straight one, just to remind you of the skewed and enchanted beauty found in the originals. MAST is the project of L.A. guitarist and producer Tim Conley, who kicks these beloved songs down a staircase where they hit every electronic bleep and bloop along the way, but land without bruise or blemish: There’s not a song here that doesn’t pass through the filter of MAST’s colorful imagination, and not a song that’s anything less than instantly recognizable in its ravishing melody and off-kilter beauty. It’s an album where live jazz and trippy studio effects happily coexist: “Evidence” throbs with low end rumble and lurches through funhouse beats and samples before a full horn section comes in; the song cuts back and forth between trumpet and sax like they’re turntable samples, yet there’s visceral thrill to the horn players’ blazing fury and lively improvisation. It’s an album of thrilling transitions, too: As “Evidence” collapses into skittering beats, it melts seamlessly into the pulsing upright bass of “Bemsha Swing,” setting the stage for the clear melodicism of Conley’s electric guitar solo. Just as pianist Robert Glasper kept his Miles Davis tribute largely trumpet-free, Conley largely keeps pianos out of the spotlight here, highlighting the breadth and depth of his compositions rather than the rickety genius of his soloing—yet when Brian Marsella shows up to tickle the ivories on a fairly straight version of “Ask Me Now,” he connects the dots between Monk’s childlike whimsy and his roadhouse roots, proving that Monk contained multitudes. Elsewhere, Conley tests the resilience of these Monk tunes by letting them collide with more modern forms and tropes: A wobbly take on “Oska T” interpolates loose piano with a boom-bap drum beat, drawing a straight line from Monk’s wooziness to the punch-drunk beats of J Dilla. “Blue Monk” is done as a rattling headphone symphony, the melody carried entirely by the cavernous bass. An album-opening take on “Misterioso” allows Monk’s tune to drift in on a bed of synth ambiance and resounding gongs. “Epistrophy,” where a full horn section plays hot blues across breakneck drum ‘n’ bass, feels like the most maniacal thing here, until a late-album take on “Trinkle Tinkle” creates trance music almost entirely through the cling and clatter of percussion instruments. But no matter how much these songs are dressed up or dressed down, MAST retains their core appeal—their winking humor, their disoriented physicality, and most of all Monk’s melodicism, as unabashedly tuneful and romantic as Ornette’s or Billy Strayhorn’s. Only Monk himself composed richer, more imaginative Monk albums, and the triumph here is how Conley and his cohorts carry the torch of the composer’s own relentless reinvention—how he was always able to make these songs sound fresh again, no matter how many times he played them.

More austere but no less interested in songbook excavation as a catalyst for creative expression, Brad Mehldau’s solo piano album After Bach presents five Bach pieces—played with finesse and with passion—each followed by Mehdau’s reimagining. His ambitions are clear from the outset, as he spends just over a minute reciting the melody of “Prelude No. 3 in C# Major” before launching into his “Rondo” variant—the latter boasting an immediately recognizable melody but a looser, more languid pacing, the space between the notes transforming its mood from contemplative to gently swinging. Mehdau’s solo piano albums have long blurred the lines between classical and jazz (see Elegiac Cycles) and boasted knotty conceptual thinking (see 10 Years Solo Live), so it’s no surprise that After Bach offers something a bit more refined than a familiar “head” opening up to riffing and improvisation: Each of the “After Bach” pieces offers a thoughtful rewiring of the Bach original, with a “Flux” reading turning the “Prelude No. 10 in E Minor” inside out and a monumental “Ostinato” version of “Fugue No. 16 in G Minor” spending a full 12 minutes moving from expressionistic ambiance into a symphonic swell, gradually winding its way back down through classical precision and jazz abstraction. Mehldau presents a manifesto on timing and empty space, and as with the MAST album, he reinvents an enduring songbook without ever obscuring its resonant melodies. Most impressive of all is how Mehldau’s spritely playing and intelligent constructions make the album a warm and appealing listen, despite the fact that it technically plays each song twice in a row.

These two albums sound little alike, but make for accidentally illuminating companion pieces: Taken together, they lay out a continuum of classical music morphing into jazz, jazz evolving further into electronica; and, they both find progression in tradition, making a case for old songs as catalysts for new ideas.

After Midnight: Birds of Chicago give a little more

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“There’s time for it all/ But no time to lose,” sings JT Nero on Love in Wartime, the second Birds of Chicago album in a row to be concerned with ticking clocks and the fierce urgency of now. It might as well be the album’s mission statement: Love in Wartime is sprawling and focused in equal measure, creating space for all the Birds’ now-customary quirks—an extended clarinet solo; pop-literate lyrics that reference standards as far-flung as “Oh My Darling Clementine” and “Tears of Rage”—while maintaining a burning intensity throughout. Nero and his wife/co-conspirator Allison Russell make music that bridges pop hooks, folk intimacy, rock and roll energy, and gospel’s big-tent inclusivity. Their big break was 2016’s Real Midnight, an album forged in the fires of new parenthood and all its attending anxiety. The record portended wolves at the door, reminding us that the lives we build together all come with an end date. The Birds greeted apocalypse with party tunes, vowing love amidst frailty, real commitment in a world where nothing lasts and nobody keeps anything. Two years later, they’re releasing new music into a different world, one where it might feel to many as though real midnight’s come at last. Here’s an album for the morning after. Love in Wartime is about picking up and carrying on; it’s a soundtrack to the struggle, for love and for peace, for vision and for sanity. Though it’s not a concept record, it’s structured very much as an interconnected suite, opening with a brief instrumental prelude and doubling back on recurring themes—wake-up calls, resurrection, sojourners making their way through a world that’s not their home—and all the while it quietly rages against complacency. “We sat there and tried to remember our dreams,” the duo sings, their positivity rattled but not shattered. “No such luck, no such luck/ So then what, so then what/ There are songs to find and oh yeah, a baby to feed.” When idealism fails you, there’s still work to be done—life to live, neighbors to love— and any time spent moping is a luxury and a waste. So they’ve cranked the party tunes even louder.

Real Midnight was cut with producer Joe Henry and his gang of ringers, its focus on the band’s cascading gospel harmonies, their rich command of pop and folk music vernaculars, their big-heartedness and generosity. Love in Wartime, recorded with the full Birds touring company and produced by Nero and Luther Dickinson, finds those harmonies sounding a little more ragged, the performances a little more kinetic and band-oriented, yet the album exhibits the same warmth and humanism that made Real Midnight catch fire. It’s a companion piece from a group that’s been put through its paces, their congeniality all the more convincing for how weathered it now sounds. This is a record built for the road, and the tightness in these performances reveals all the miles and all the shows that helped birth it. Indeed, the Birds have never sounded nimbler than here, hotwiring their songs to locomotive beats and florid keyboard grooves, always making it a point to keep moving: “Love in Wartime” rises from an organ’s conversational hum to a big sing-along chorus; “Travelers” is galloping folk that breezes through tight couplets with graceful efficiency; “Lodestar” rises from a whisper to a roar, one of several tunes where Nero’s words ultimately give way to the band’s mighty swell; album closer “Derecho” shimmies and sashays to a Mardi Gras beat.

The muscle and the directness in these songs fits with the record’s themes of love as daily action and responsibility, even amidst disillusionment. It’s fitting, then, that the album’s first two singles are both swift kicks to the ass for anyone indulging in despair. “Never Go Back” is a scant two minutes of scruffy guitar riffs and sunny keyboard groove, punkish enough to stop with just a verse and a chorus, loose enough to include plenty of spirited woos and spoken French asides. Nero sings lead, and demands all or nothing—full-bodied engagement with the world in all its tattered beauty, or else what’s the point? (“I want all of your senses,” he sings. “C’mon, give ‘em to me!”) “Roll Away” is even punchier, and nearly as terse—rumbling country-rock with a handclap rhythm and thick harmonies. “I remember afternoons just waiting around to die,” it goes—but Love in Wartime is an album where the defeated find second chances: “I am not who I was and this is not that time now, cousin.” On other songs, the kick in the ass isn’t as swift, but it lands just as heavy. Listen to how the guitars scrape and moan throughout “Try,” a pained intervention for someone who’s thrown in the towel. “Try a little harder/ Give a little more,” the Birds sing, as though everything depends on it.

Love in Wartime resists cynicism, but it does acknowledge it. “We shook our heads in disbelief,” one song goes “as if there’s no blood in our streets/ as if there’s none of that old poison/ Hot in our veins.” The antidote is vulnerability. “Lord let me die before my child/ Prayed every mother far and wide,” Russell sings on “Superlover,” her voice frayed and her defenses down. It’s a spindly hymn that connects the album back to Real Midnight’s parental jitters, grounding the record’s uncertainties in something concrete and embodied. But a mother’s nervous, all-consuming love is a superpower, not a liability: “That’s a super love/ I’m a super lover,” Russell declares, finding strength in tenderheartedness and candor. And on the title track, she and Nero echo Kacey Musgraves’ indescribable wow: “You and I are here right now/ do you ever wonder how/ Many stars died just so that could be?” To be awake and alive, here and together is no small miracle—even in treacherous times. More than once, Love in Wartime references derechos, lines of intense storms that leave carnage in their wake. Nero and Russell sing like they’ve been through some storms before, and have learned to be joyful as a matter of intention, not circumstance. And so they stand with arms wide open: “Namaste, my derecho.” Even as the clock strikes real midnight, there are songs to be found, work to be done.

Out of the Past: Ashley Monroe’s Sparrow, reviewed

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If anyone’s going to make a countrypolitan record in 2018, let it be Ashley Monroe—who, as a singer, songwriter, and record-maker, is unparalleled at finding common ground between country traditionalism and country modernism. Maybe it’s a byproduct of her age. At 31, Monroe is much too young to be a first-generation fan of Willie or Loretta, let alone Hank; she makes records that suggest she came by her inclusivity honestly, immersing herself in the hard stuff (Waylon and Merle), the pop stuff (Bobbie Gentry and Glenn Campbell), and the contemporary stuff (Shania and the Dixie Chicks, let’s say) all at once, and has no interest in acknowledging any hierarchies or demarcations therein. Her 2015 album The Blade remains a master class in time travel, a record where bubbly country-pop hooks happily coexist with austere C&W, and Sparrow is a more subtle and sophisticated record still. Working with produce Dave Cobb, Monroe both upholds tradition while reshaping it in her own image, wielding countrypolitan’s brazen, string-laden emotionalism—big, sweeping arrangements made to haul buried feelings to the surface—with therapeutic precision: Her aim is excavation, not pageantry, and she uses the colors of the orchestra to illuminate the contours of the human heart. She’s just the right songwriter to tackle a record like this—one that’s deeply felt but never saccharine or maudlin—and she’s also just the right singer: A veteran of the Grand Ole Opry, Monroe can be performative without being showy; she inhabits her characters without chewing the scenery. Her nuance and precision bring these songs everywoman appeal: She convinces us that these stories are he own, but also makes it easy for us to hear ourselves in them.

It’s fortuitous timing that, just as Kacey Musgraves situates country’s pop inclinations within the broader tradition of honky-tonk plainspeak, Monroe resurrects its opulent and theatrical side for an album that’s haunted by trauma, blood inheritance, and loss. The opener, “Orphan,” uses orchestral bombast as emotional ballast, and recalls the pomp and sentiment of a classic Isaac Hayes or Scott Walker arrangement. It turns out to be a little bit of a red herring: Proving early on that they can pull off an old-school weeper, Monroe and Cobb mostly apply a light touch to these 12 songs, using lush orchestrations to rich and varied effect. They bring an expressionistic verve to “Wild Love,” which drips with romantic opulence, as if to mirror the insatiable desire in the lyrics, and they conjure the dusty, widescreen pop of Elton John circa Tumbleweed Connection on songs like “Rita.” “Hands on You” deftly deploys orchestral accents atop its slinky R&B groove, connecting Monroe’s music to country-soul. “Paying Attention” is country music dressed up as chamber folk, subtle string accents recalling albums like Beck’s Sea Change as much as they do Bobbie Gentry’s records. Both direct and multi-layered, Sparrow has the sturdy craft of a classic and a casual eclecticism born of the streaming age; it feels timeless but never retro, born of a particular lineage but never beholden to it.

Monroe wrote these songs (with a murder’s row of co-authors, among them Anderson East) while pregnant with her first child, and on the heels of therapy. She was just a teenager when she lost her father, and her mother flitted in and out of her life, two realities that factor prominently on an album that opens with a song called “Orphan” before moving into “Mother’s Daughter” and eventually “Daddy I Told You.” This is an album concerned with lineage and blood, with how the past shapes us and scars us. And so the great tragedy of “Mother’s Daughter”—a song for lovers, leavers, and drifters—isn’t that the mother is a wandering spirit, but that the daughter fears it’s a family trait. “Orphan” pulls out all the stops, not only with its lush orchestration but with its lyrics, gently touching on country and gospel tropes to convey the feeling of being totally rudderless in a world darkened of guiding lights. (God’s eye is on the sparrow, an old spiritual tells us, and you can decide for yourself whether that’s a comforting or an ironic evocation in a song that feels so utterly alone.) Even the Belle de Jour daydream “Hands on You” tangles with the past and its reverberations, idly grasping at a missed opportunity. And on “Hard on a Heart,” Monroe plays the wayfaring stranger, giving her traveling companion a pep talk: “I know there’s no turnin’ back/ The damage is done/ You know all we’ve gotta do, me and you/ We’ve gotta move on.” The twist is that she’s talking into a mirror, and indeed, the key to Sparrow is that it’s not a breakup or heartache record: It’s a reckoning with the self, and a portrait of the artist as the sum of all her tragedies and her triumphs, the battles she’s lost and the scars she’s won, the sins of her parents and her own road to redemption. It ends with “Keys to the Kingdom,” a dream of heaven, where Elvis is singin’ ‘bout Jesus and there’s rest for all the weary sinners. It’s a song that looks forward in hope: Here the singer’s moving out of the past, and she’s on to something good.

Surprised by Joy: Kacey Musgraves’ indescribable wow

goldenhour

There aren’t words enough for the rich, specific emotions Kacey Musgraves chronicles on Golden Hour, a record every bit as joyful as its reputation suggests but by no means simple or one-note. Musgraves is a songwriter who values precision enough to work the word “chrysalis” into her song about butterflies and to execute tight U-turns within the span of a single Sly Stone pun (“you can have your space, cowboy”), yet there are multiple times on the record where she opts for multiple words when it seems like one might have sufficed. “Is there a word for the way that I’m feeling tonight?” she asks in one of the album’s many guileless, artifice-free moments, as if she’s narrating her own writing process, stitching her words together in real time. “Happy and sad at the same time” is what she comes up with, and it’s as good a descriptor as any. Elsewhere on the album, she imbues the most general of observations with the full weight of holy wonder: “These are real things,” she marvels, as if suddenly gobsmacked by the very fact of existence. There may be a more flowery version of the same idea, but probably not a better one: Generally avoiding abstraction and metaphor in favor of emotional directness, Golden Hour is a masterpiece of plainspeak, cherishing mystery without harboring ambiguity. It’s an album about being awake and alert enough to practice active, in-the-moment gratitude, and letting your guard down enough to be seduced by love, surprised by joy. “Oh what a world,” Musgraves enthuses on one song. “And then there’s you.”  Maybe this is what Sam Phillips was talking about when she named an album The Indescribable Wow.

Her sense of wonder is channeled into a remarkable suite of songs that maintains perfect shape, tone, and momentum. Sumptuous and sparkling, album opener “Slow Burn” unfolds delicately, twinkling banjo notes surrounding the singer’s dawning sense of possibility; words pieced together in leisurely stream-of-consciousness, Musgraves dashes off some autobiography before her attention shifts to the world outside her (“In Tennessee, the sun’s goin’ down/ But in Beijing, they’re heading out to work”). And in just that moment, the track’s gossamer simplicity is awash with the brilliant Technicolor effects of pedal steel and keyboard, a broader mindfulness being born inside her. Dazzling color adorns the album, allowing its generally amiable mood to feel nuanced and textured: Vocoder effects in “Oh What a World” add sublime voicing to Musgraves’ earthly awe; “Space Cowboy” has cavernous beats that set it in a place of welcoming solitude; and on “Butterflies,” psychedelic flourishes create the cloud her head’s stuck in. It’s impossible to imagine these songs being any more vulnerable or affecting with a traditionalist’s Spartan arrangement, so closely are the color schemes matched to the singer’s interior monologues. The voice-and-piano sketch “Mother” feels like both a sonic and thematic outlier, yet even in its wistfulness it embodies Musgraves’ unfiltered emotional acuity as well as her musical precision. The lyrics express age-old human feelings—distance, separation, longing—as though they’re fresh revelations, and the song cuts out just at the point where it would turn into a boring area-filling ballad on anyone else’s album, leaving us with something fleeting and haunted. Its austerity throws the rest of the album’s vivid hues into context. In a time when country music “authenticity” is closely tied to analog simplicity—think of the fine, meat-and-potatoes records by the likes of Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell, both of whom work largely in sepia shades— Musgraves makes a case for country as omnivorous and all-encompassing, ornate and fun; she’s spoken of her allegiance to the outlaw sound but also her fondness for Tame Impala, and on Golden Hour she wears country music’s ongoing dalliance with pop as a badge of honor, even as she upholds the genre’s reputation for emotional candor. The hard stuff, the fluffy stuff, yesterday’s C&W and today’s crossovers—all of it can coexist as “real” country.

In fact, Golden Hour goes down easy at least partly because of how it synthesizes many recent ideas about what country music ought to be, particularly in relation to pop. “Slow Burn” is pitched somewhere between a campfire song and Seven Swans-era Sufjan Stevens, while another banjo-led track—the sleek, propulsive “Love is a Wild Thing”—is the kind of rootsy pop that might have populated an early Taylor Swift record. The island vibe on “Lonely Weekend” cannily captures some of the beach-ready tropicalia of Kenny Chesney, but turns it on its head: Here country’s good-times Jimmy Buffet fixation is used to champion solitude, the bright production given weight and grit by the lyrics’ melancholy undercurrents. The disco thumper “High Horse” could be another throwback to the soft rock era, but only if you want to leap frog over Shania Twain to get there. And here again, a subversion: For the album’s boldest turn toward pop sounds, Musgraves sprinkles in more cowboy movie and horse references than you’ll hear in any 10 songs on today’s country charts. It’s country’s earthiness wrapped up in country’s glam.

As a songwriter, Musgraves has always had a penchant for smirk and irony, but Golden Hour marks the point where her sharp writing settles into something unguarded, the winks giving way to songs of ravishing affection. She comes by her joy honestly—these songs were inspired by her new marriage—but it’s more a matter of intention than of disposition: “I’m the kind of person who starts getting nervous/ When I’m having the time of my life,” she admits on “Happy & Sad.” Her cynicism runs deep enough that she occasionally finds contentment to be ill-fitting, but those fleeting worries go a long way toward selling her earnestness elsewhere. It also helps that Golden Hour feels like a record about real, grown-up relationships—infatuation that deepens into commitment. “Wonder Woman” sets boundaries and manages expectations; there’s a lot of things she can do for her man, but saving him ain’t one of them. “Lonely Weekend” upholds the value of solitude within a relationship, and even the songs that cast their eye outside the marriage (“Mother,” “High Horse”) make the love songs feel more authentic and complete: These are real people with identities and relationships beyond each other. They have wild edges. They are unpredictable, and they’ll both make mistakes. All the singer can do is move forward awake and alert, ready to engage joyfully in whatever she encounters. “I used to be scared of the wilderness, of the dark,” she sings. “But not anymore, no.” Of course, the world hasn’t changed—love and sadness still grow wild and free. It’s the singer who’s changed. In her golden hour, she’s ready to pay attention.

B for Bullshit: Truth, nonsense, and Jack White

jackwhite

An avowed Orson Welles obsessive, Jack White pinched an entire Citizen Kane monologue for his early White Stripes song “The Union Forever,” claiming at the time that he’d seen the film more than three dozen times; he’d go on to name both a record label and a publishing house after The Third Man, the film that gave us Welles’ famous cuckoo clock speech. Now comfortably into middle age and past the auteur-prodigy stage of his career, White has made his equivalent of F for Fake, the final movie Welles completed in his lifetime. The film—ostensibly about art forgers and the meaninglessness of “authenticity”—is a masterpiece of stylish misdirection. It is colorful, kinetic, and oddly charismatic. It’s also mostly bullshit, a film about fakers that relies heavily on smoke and mirrors. Throughout, Welles inhabits a spectral editing room, exposing us to all the seams and frayed edges as he assembles footage seemingly drawn from two or three unfinished features, filling in the blank spaces with magic tricks and recitations of Kipling, rhapsodizing about the romance of charlatanism even as his sleight-of-hand diverts our attention from the scrappiness of his narrative. Welles’ attention never settles anywhere long enough for the film to make a cogent argument, yet it’s not ineffective: Its round-about garrulousness and patchwork construction somehow feel like appropriate vehicles for Welles’ broader skepticism concerning canon, expertise, and the slippery concept of what’s “real.” Its style is its substance, and the movie manages to be evocative even when it isn’t entirely articulate.

White’s Boarding House Reach shares many of these same traits; it is indeed colorful, kinetic, and oddly charismatic, and it employs plenty of smoke-and-mirror tricks of its own. For his third solo album, White took to his own version of Welles’ haunted editing room, allowing himself the modern indulgence of ProTools for the first time in his career. He’d previously written off such technological extravagances as “cheating,” a pout that Welles likely would have found childish. (“What we professional liars hope to serve is truth,” Welles says in F for Fake. “I’m afraid the pompous word for that is ‘art.”) Any form of artistic “cheating” is merely a tool of the trade and a means to an end, and it’s impossible to imagine this particular Jack White album without a little behind-the-scenes cutting and pasting: Boarding House Reach is very much a patchwork, stitched together from disparate sources (some songs date back to his days in the little room with Meg; others to an abandoned collaboration with Jay Z) and cobbled together to offer a blur of sounds and ideas, lively and less interested in linear meaning than any previous Jack White project. Like Welles, he keeps things moving forward at all times, smoothing over the album’s loose ends with a confidence man’s fast-talking charm. The closest thing to a traditional Jack White song—a snarling rocker called “Over and Over and Over,” not coincidentally a song he’s been kicking around since the White Stripes days—collapses into the strange musique concrete of “Everything You’ve Ever Learned.” “Ice Station Zebra” has pounding pianos and cymbal splashes right out of Get Behind Me Satan, but it also has White speak-singing in a jittery hip-hop cadence spun from Odelay-era Beck. “What’s Done is Done” feels like a traditional country ballad while the organ-drenched “Why Walk a Dog?” scans as a mopey blues parody. “Corporation” and “Hypermisophoniac” are both swaggering grooves stitched together from congas, drum loops, keyboard effects, and eruptive guitar solos. Indeed, the entire record feels as though it’s vamping just to stay afloat, churning out nonsense, artifice, and sincerity to the point where it’s hard to tell if any of this is serious or if the whole thing’s just a put-on.

But if the Welles film proves anything, it’s that evasion and misdirection have their uses.  Like F for Fake, Boarding House Reach employs obfuscation for both functional and thematic purposes. The record’s restless momentum helps distract from its loose ends and its lack of center, making it seem like much less of a hodgepodge than it really is, while the jarring juxtapositions of modern effects and old-timey conceits offer a clean break from White’s reputation as a traditionalist and a curmudgeon. The willful difficulty of these songs feels important, too. White’s lyrics writhe and seethe toward some kind of human connection, craving the freedom found in creative expression even as they wrestle with their own confused, tongue-tied narratives. They can scan as bullshit, yet the whole point of the record seems to be finding sense in the nonsense, affirming our human need for understanding amidst our contradictions and our misconnections. So, something like the odd spoken word recitation “Abulia and Akrasia” works on a meta level: Its winding prose and dead-end punchline may scan as mere rubbish, but then again they may also suggest an artist struggling against his own fancifulness just to make a plainspoken request. And if you buy that (as Welles might say) you might also buy that “Ezmerelda Steals the Show” is the frustrated outburst of an artist who’s tired of playing to a sea of cellphones. (The song describes an audience whose “faces to their gadgets fall south.”) “Why Walk a Dog?” seems earnest in its anti-pet messaging, but it could also be taken as another parable of creative discontent; “These cats seem to blow/ Everyone’s mind but mine,” White sings, hands thrown up in exasperation. The bizarre genre mash-up in “Ice Station Zebra” proves its own point about the insufficiency of language to explain creative expression: “Hear me out, it ain’t easy but I’ll try to explain/ Everything in the world gets labeled and named/ a box, a rough definition, unavoidable/ Who picked the label doesn’t want to be responsible.” And then there’s “Corporation,” an if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em anthem of dehumanization: “Yeah I’m thinking about starting a corporation,” White howls. “Nowadays that’s how you get adulation.” It’s a letter of resignation from a man who’s tired of his humanity going undervalued by the faceless conglomerates of the world. His music may baffle, befuddle, and lean into misdirection, but at least he’s trying to connect—and with music far too strange to bear the fingerprints of corporate meddling.

As for Welles, there’s a moment in F for Fake where he invokes no less an artistic authority than Pablo Picasso, saying, “Art is a lie—a lie that makes us realize the truth.” Boarding House Reach may cheat, it may bullshit, and it may not always make sense—but White’s stylish sprawl offers its own kind of truth-telling.