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

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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

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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.

Canon Fire: Songbook subversions from Meshell Ndegeocello

When you were in grade school, did you ever create a self-portrait collage from cut-and-pasted magazine clippings? That’s often what covers albums feel like: Skewed memoirs assembled from lost-and-found media, disparate materials that somehow add up to a warped yet truthful reflection of the auteur. Such is the case with Ventriloquism, an assembly of interpretive performances from Meshell Ndegeocello—a portrait of the artist as a deep conceptual thinker, a champion of diversity, a questioner of canon, a faithful dissident.

Ndegeocello has never made the same album twice, nor has she ever released anything that’s merely a collection of songs: There’s always clear intellectual scaffolding to her records, and with Ventriloquism those ideological frameworks provide several points of entry. The most obvious is the album’s representational value: The 11 songs here comprise works from artists of color, and about half are songs by women. Inclusivity is built into this record from the ground up, and it’s reflected in song selections that come from the R&B, quiet storm, and new jack swing scenes of the 1980s through the early 1990s—songs all too frequently ignored when questions of canon are considered. In their original iterations, these songs were cheerfully featherweight, assembled from the stiff synths and drum machines that were en vogue at the time. Their fizzy-pop vivacity is a big part of their charm, yet it’s easy for effervescence to scan as ephemerality. Ndegeocello’s key subversive flourish is to add weight to them, making spectral songs feel wholly embodied. A performance of Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam’s bubbly “I Wonder if I Take You Home” trades the jittery loops of the original for the muscle and grit of live percussion, seeming to revel in the loudness of snares and the cavernous kick drum boom. At times the drums careen almost out of control, as if to flaunt the freedom found beyond the drum machine’s straight jacket. The song is proudly physical, but also bursting with ideas: It flirts with drum ‘n’ bass and reaches for hip-hop DJ effects, but ultimately settles into the sort of gnarled funk you might find on a D’Angelo album. Similarly, Ndegeocello adds ballast to Prince’s “Sometimes it Snows in April,” and without any radical retooling of the Parade arrangement. She shifts the focus from nimble piano playing to resonant guitars and bass, and the effect is to add considerable weariness and weight to the song, which is now and forever saddled with mortality, sorrow, and lamentation.

Much of Ventriloquism is played in the language of Americana or singer/songwriter fare, though Ndegeocello’s bass work ensures that each song maintains its sense of swing. Acoustic guitar and harmonica tropes have never wanted for respect within the pop canon, and Ndegeocello uses them not to legitimize these songs so much as shift the focus beyond the dated production choices to the strong bones that have always been there, just below the surface. She makes explicit something that’s often forgotten—that these songs were written as surely as any Bob Dylan or Neil Young original, and with a similarly canny sense of craft. George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” is played here, with layers upon layers of kitsch sanded away; Ndegeocello’s performance is an act of excavation not unlike what Dylan did on his Great American Songbook albums. Yet even in paring things down, she finds room for an entire universe of sound—cosmic keyboard swirls, call-and-response vocals, rattling hand percussion, and sick slabs of greasy guitar funk. Her take on TLC’s “Waterfalls” is even more radical: She performs it as an acoustic guitar ballad, allowing the wistful lyrics and cascading vocal lines speak for themselves.

Her tinkering with ideas of authenticity and “real” music, and the way they play out across questions of canon and culture, allow for backdoor explorations of other issues, like gender. On “Sensitivity,” Ralph Tresvant’s ode to kind-and-gentle manliness, Ndegeocello maintains the original masculine pronouns; singing in character may not be subversive in and of itself, but her decision to recast the song as an old soft-shoe shuffle certainly is, underscoring how antiquated the idea of decent, respectful manhood can seem. It’s a joyful performance, with synth squelches decorating the periphery and a parade of woodwinds stomping through the song’s bridge. Still, in the end, the record’s greatest illuminations come in moments of earnest clarity: Janet Jackson’s “Funny How Time Flies” sounds skeletal and haunted here, a song stripped to the bone by time’s forward march; and “Tender Love,” originally by Force M.D.’s, is done in acoustic singer/songwriter mode, without any subversion built into its performance—just an offer of vulnerability and need. All of these songs and ideas happily co-exist on Ventriloquism, held together not only by their ideological underpinnings but also by the singer’s clear affection for this, her chosen canon. The album contains multitudes, and is fiercely original.

Another Mutilated World: A swan song from Joan Baez

On Whistle Down the Wind, intended as the curtain call of a legendary recording career, Joan Baez says goodbye—all the while acknowledging that it’s never quite that easy. Think of the poet Adam Zagajewski, who exhorts us to “praise the mutilated world.” And think of Mary Oliver, who writes: “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” The songs on Whistle Down the Wind are love songs to a mutilated world and a beleaguered humanity, their weariness and valor resonating as much today as they would have at any given point in Baez’ recording life. But love songs they remain: In her trembling read of Anhoni’s “Another World,” a throbbing and delicate album highlight, Baez sounds like she’s stepping onto a train and already regretting her departure; she can’t articulate her search for a better world and a higher plane without rhapsodizing about this one. “I’m gonna miss the birds/ Singing all their songs/ I’m gonna miss the wind/ Been kissing me so long,” she sighs, holding fast to the mortal world in all its ephemerality and imperfection, still the surest thing she’s ever known. Or, as Baez sings on the Tom Waits- and Kathleen Brennan-penned title song: “I can’t stay here and I’m scared to leave.”

Baez has spent her whole life hymning the mutilated world, and mutilated it will remain even once she sings her last. Maybe that’s what she means by titling the album after a gesture of transience; maybe it’s an acknowledgement that, after decades spent singing against war and desolation, she’s ending her recording career with a song called “I Wish the Wars Were Over,” because of course they’re not. But the record’s deep melancholy waters her hard-won hopefulness, weathered and in full bloom: Eliza Gilkyson’s “The Great Correction,” the closest this album gets to a jaunt, imagines the day when the walls of Jericho crumble, a camel passes through the eye of a needle, and the darkest hour gives way at last to dawn. Nobody said any of this would be easy, and so a Josh Ritter composition exhorts us to “Be of Good Heart.” That same song voices a humility born of experience: “I never claimed to know it all,” she sings, summarizing decades spent bearing witness. “All I know is what I’ve known.” And there is resilience, too. Waits’ “Last Leaf”—originally done as a barroom lament with soul survivor Keith Richards—is notably more forceful here. Baez imagines herself a leaf that’s weathered every winter since Eisenhower; she’ll make room for the new shoots of green, but she won’t let go—not yet.

The risk with an album like this—intended as a last will and testament, reckoning with a world that’s in roughly the same shambles she found it in—is austerity. It was produced by Joe Henry, who is singularly gifted at working with septa- and octogenarian artists to generate works that expand their legacies, rather than Cliff Note them. He and Baez address the concern of an insular and self-serious album by steering straight into it, laying all their cards on the table: There aren’t many jokes here and no song that qualifies as a lark; just song after song that burrows deep into earnestness and empathy. It earns our trust through its candor and its sincerity; its cumulative effect is total disarmament.

Whistle Down the Wind stands among the most genteel Joe Henry productions; his inclination toward first-take immediacy, which summoned elegant swing on his Allen Toussaint sessions and hard-boiled grit on his work with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, manifests here as gentleness. Drummer Jay Bellerose, whose rolling thunder is a hallmark of Henry’s production work, mostly offers gentle thumps and cymbal accents. Baez, John Smith, and Greg Leisz join acoustic guitars into a blur of finger-picked melody, while Patrick Warren’s piano and pump organ surface with crystalline romance. “Whistle Down the Wind” sounds at once earthy and windswept, born of this world but no longer tethered to it. “Another World” is skeletal and pulsing, Baez standing ragged and unsure at the song’s center.

She trusts the warmth and sadness of these songs to shine through, and they do. Baez sings with too much affection for any of these songs to lapse into cynicism, and too much weariness for any of them to sound like celebration. And so she is caught between this mutilated world and another, better one she can’t quite imagine; she’ll cling to this until she can’t, and then she’ll let go. In the meantime, Baez leaves us with a Zoe Mulford song called “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” set in the wake of the Charleston church shooting: “But no words could say what must be said/ For all the living and the dead/ So on that day and in that place/ The President sang Amazing Grace.” To sing in the face of sorrow is an amazing grace, indeed; a tender mercy that only a broken world can allow.

Bodies in Motion: Turnstile’s Time & Space, reviewed

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Songs per minute seems as reasonable a metric as any for hardcore efficiency. On a ferocious new album called Time & Space, Turnstile barrels through 15 in 25, a breakneck pace where pummeling drums, molten riffs, and ragged screams race one other toward each song’s inevitable collapse.

It’s a record of jostling energy and considerable eclecticism, but you don’t have to look to its stylistic detours to get a sense of the band’s pancultural approach. Even the songs that rock more conventionally rock in all different directions: One of the best guitar moments is “Big Smile,” which starts as thrash ‘n’ roll before morphing into a punked-up Chuck Berry riff, only to spiral off in a flaming tailspin of harmony vocals and rattling tambourine. Those fleeting tastes of Chess Records aren’t the only time Turnstile invokes that old-time rock and roll, either; “High Pressure” signifies Little Richard and Jerry Lee through pounded keys and blazing speed. The atmospherics that open “Can’t Get Away” glisten like shoegaze, only to be obliterated by the album’s biggest, dumbest metal riffs. And for a band that never makes the rookie mistake of confusing volume for swing, it should come as no surprise that when they ditch singer Brendan Yates’ yowl for a melodic three-part harmony, as they do on “Moon,” the band’s pulverizing mayhem suddenly snaps into focus as scuzzy pop perfection. Forget the fact that Diplo shows up to enhance one of these tracks with his token bleeps and bloops, a gesture that’s not even among the top 10 biggest curveballs here: Turnstile is plenty eclectic all on their own, showing off countless ways of being loud, fast, and out of control.

Time & Space is so ruthlessly efficient that the mere presence of slow-downs—few and fleeting though they may be—feels dangerous. And yes, these respites offer further opportunity for the band to smuggle in some out-of-the-box ideas: Listen to how “Real Thing” opens with guitars that sound like revved engines, charging and careening through two clipped verses and a couple of anthemic choruses before smashing into an electric piano coda—the kind of loungey, half-ironic scene-changer that might pop up on an album by Flying Lotus or the Beastie Boys. More than being opportunities to ease into airy R&B or palate-cleansing electronics, these bite-sized breathers are critical to the record’s deliberate physicality; Turnstile’s brainy punks never forget that they’re making music for bodies, and Time & Space carries a natural ebb and flow between intense calisthenics and pulse-resetting cooldowns. Even the empty spaces are part of the album’s physical and ideological onslaught—punctuation marks that make the thrash seem thrashier, the rock more abrasive, and pacing both smarter and more daring.

Turnstile achieves a density of ideas through brevity and precision: Each of the record’s myriad small pleasures—whether punk swagger or stylistic variance—lasts a few seconds less than you wish it would, while the careful sequencing smooths out any kinks and curtails whiplash. The words are deployed with a similar deftness. “They want to take/ my right to be!” Yates howls toward the album’s end, ranting against an authoritarianism that need not be named; elsewhere, he’s “waiting for the real thing,” a sentiment that doesn’t need any concrete particulars to make it palpable. And on another, love descends “like a bomb on me.” Each line that rises above the din makes its mark, conjures something primal and identifiable, then recedes—narrative scaffolding for a blistering punk record that leverages thinky ideas to keep heads spinning and bodies in motion.