As Long as There’s Tread on These Tires: Eric Church learns the hard way

desperate man

“Some of it you learn the hard way,” Eric Church sings on Desperate Man, an album that plucks austere truths from tragedy and trauma. He’s got every right to sing about hard knocks. Church had already left town by the time the shootings started at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, but not all of his fans were so lucky; he was wracked by survivor’s guilt, and wrote a song called “Why Not Me” that memorialized a man who was gunned down while wearing an Eric Church T-shirt. He’s also endured breakdowns to his personal health, subjecting himself to painful treatments just to weather the rigors of a heroic touring schedule. No one would blame the man for moping, but dejection’s a non-starter for a guy whose calling card is defiance—and with his back against the wall, he swings harder than ever: Describing himself as “a half-cock, full-tilt, scarred-hands-to-the-hilt, don’t-push-me, grown-ass man,” Church responds to darkness with hard-won wisdom, steely resolve, and a strength found in vulnerability.

These songs may not directly reference his tough couple of years (and “Why Not Me” isn’t present), but they do get to the heart of his emotional state. Unexpectedly, after some early albums that felt gangly in their ambition, he’s gotten good at getting to the point. Church made Desperate Man with producer Jay Joyce, one of Nashville’s best (see also his work with Brothers Osborne and Emmylou Harris). Joyce has a knack for country recordings that walk a line between no-fuss traditionalism and modern color, and between this one and 2015’s Mr. Misunderstood, he’s focused Church’s outsider attitude and sly eclecticism into winsomely compact and appealingly direct packages. Desperate Man runs a tight 36 minutes, and Church’s prog-rock fantasies surface just once, and briefly, in the lurching drums and stabs of guitar that interrupt “Drowning Man,” otherwise a desolate country weeper. That song’s not the only time Church indulges in saloon soliloquies here; “Jukebox and a Bar,” one of his warmest and saddest ballads, lays out the desperate man’s survival kit right there in its title. Yet the work Church and Joyce do is never reductive or one-note. They synthesize classic rock sensibilities on “Desperate Man,” Stonesy swagger hotwired to Little Feat’s Dixie funk. Church belts a chunky soul ballad on “Heart Like a Wheel,” and leads his band through a choogling clavinet boogie on “Hangin’ Around.” “The Snake,” acoustic blues caked in Delta mud and analog hiss, is the most unvarnished thing he’s ever recorded, while “Higher Wire” is a woozy immersion is wailing organ and smoldering guitar licks.

One of Church’s most endearing qualities is how he never acts like he’s too good for country radio, even though he most assuredly is. A proud outsider, he’s always done things his way, but it’s not hard to imagine him finding another big hit with “Hippie Radio,” a fleet-fingered ramble through classic Pontiacs and FM glory; its multi-generational storytelling finds just the right shade of sepia. “Some of It” stiches together fatherly truisms (“mamma ain’t a shrink, daddy ain’t a bank, and God ain’t a wishing well”) into a song about how most things worth knowing you just have to learn for yourself. Universal without being general, its patchwork assembly of concrete particulars offers a master class in country songwriting. These songs show Church at his best: He has a knack for penning pop-country tunes that update the outlaw aesthetic with sleek hooks and contemporary punch, an ace in the hole that distinguishes him from guys like Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton—both excellent songwriters whose work never feels quite as free as Church’s does. Church is a traditionalist but not a purist, and he’s internalized country craft well enough that he can bend it to modernity without causing it to break. Maybe the more helpful reference points would be Ashley Monroe, Miranda Lambert, and Kacey Musgraves—true-blue country singers each gifted in reinvigorating classic forms.

Like Mr. Misunderstood, Desperate Man has the feel of smudged autobiography; not every detail comes straight from Church’s personal life, perhaps, yet there’s a clear sense of how trying times have left him clinging to the essentials. He condenses existential worry into pithy parables and proverbs; opening song “The Snake” is the working-class cynic’s guide to politics and an oblique reflection of Church’s rock-and-a-hard-place state of mind. The album’s breezier numbers—“Desperate Man,” “Hangin’ Around”—both feel like they’re vamping over the abyss, maintaining their momentum just so as not to curdle into despair. An unfussy spiritualism shows up more than one: “Monsters” is a song about how evil is real, the boogeymen just get scarier as you get older, and sometimes your best defense is to drop to your knees and pray. Meanwhile, “Hippie Radio” taps into another religious impulse, hallowing the connective power of popular song. (Put it in the hymnal next to Maren Morris’ “My Church”—no relation.) Church’s resilience is stoically uncomplicated, and “Solid” vouches for the unglamorous virtue in being grounded: “You may think I’m way too chill/ But I get it done, got my daddy’s will/ And I’ll always, I’ll always keep a promise.” On “Drowning Man,” he responds to a declining national mood with a truer and purer Americana; Lady Liberty may be turning her back, but longneck beers and honky tonk women offer abiding consolation. The least complicated and most affecting sentiment of all is in “Heart Like a Wheel,” about two mismatched lovers who roll the dice and hope for the best. “Over or under, we’ll roll like thunder/ as long as there’s tread on these tires,” Church says. It’s a love song that champions perseverance for its own sake—a simple truth and a valuable lesson for all of us living through desperate days.

All This Useful Beauty: Elvis Costello looks backward to move forward

look now

There’s a helpful antecedent for Look Now, the first new Elvis Costello album in five years—but it may not be the one you think. True enough: Costello spent the summer of 2017 revisiting songs from Imperial Bedroom, hoping that album’s baroque décor might prove a trailhead for further explorations, and Look Now does share some of that album’s lushness, its elegance, its crisp pop formalism. He’s also likened the new record to Painted from Memory, his winsomely melancholy and darkly romantic 1998 album with Burt Bacharach. Bacharach co-wrote a few songs here, all of which lovingly recall Painted from Memory’s brazen emotion and classicist structures. But the most valuable touchstone of all is Unfaithful Words and Disappearing Ink, the 2015 memoir where Costello consolidated a lifetime’s allegiance to the mechanics of song. Look Now synthesizes, deepens, and expands on ideas from earlier Costello albums, but more impressively, it feels like the musical self-portrait of a songwriter and record-maker who’s always been obsessively devoted to the particulars of his craft. It has the vigor and punch befitting a man who was raised on The Beatles; a sophistication that speaks to his moonlighting as an operettist; tight, tuneful constructions that affirm his adherence to Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building in equal measure. It is masterful and peculiar: An album that builds on everything we know about Elvis Costello while revealing that he can surprise us yet.

Some of that baroque décor has been moved in from Imperial Bedroom, carefully re-arranged to underline emotions and accentuate tunes without ever adding clutter. “I Let the Sun Go Down” bottles whimsy and melancholy, flecked by brass and buoyed by Costello’s cheerful whistling; “Dishonor the Stars” is punchdrunk pop that builds into a sweeping orchestral chorus. Other songs find Costello slipping into his role as earnest piano-side crooner, balladeering with the warmth and sensitivity he mastered on Painted from Memory: “Photographs Can Lie” is anguished melodrama, “Don’t Look Now” a tender sketch of emotional intimacy, Bacharach anchoring both behind the grand piano. These reference points are merely the poles between which Costello unspools boundless color and imagination.

He made the album with producer Sebastian Krys, a Latin pop guru whose gift is finding the breathing room within lavish arrangements; it may be an album where Telecasters share space with celestas and jazz bassoons, but Costello and Krys keep things clear and punchy. Just listen to “Under Lime,” a champagne salute of an album opener, wrestling seven verses and one theatrical flourish after another into a tight five minutes of sleek effervescence. Its propulsion comes courtesy of The Imposters, making their first one-record appearance since 2008’s Momofuku. Drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher supply the swing, and Steve Nieve’s piano gives the song its sparkle.

Their muscle and finesse go a long way toward keeping Look Out visceral. They raise the heat on “Why Won’t Heaven Help Me,” bringing its percolating simmer to a boil, and their red-bloodedness leaves a few dents in the gleaming, airtight grooves of “Burnt Sugar is So Better,” written with Carole King. Regal horns lend elegance to “Mr. and Mrs. Hush,” but The Imposters manage to scuff things up a bit with Thomas’ flurry of cymbals and Nieve’s clenched piano groove. They’ve have aided and abetted Costello’s genre-curious eclecticism for decades now, and they’re as game to offer genteel support on “Don’t Look Now” as they are to rumble on “Unwanted Number,” a garage rock thumper festooned with symphonic swirl and snappy girl-group harmonies.

Mastery of form is nothing new for Costello, but Look Now is particularly effective in plumbing the emotional depths of familiar grammars. “Suspect My Tears” is a string-swept mountaintop ballad in the Motown tradition, with lyrics both bitter and empathetic in their chronicle of emotional manipulation (“you’re not the only one who can turn it on,” the protagonist says of his crocodile tears). “Stripping Paper” returns to the domestic conceits of Painted from Memory, here using wallpaper removal as a metaphor for marital dissolution; every strip that’s removed is a painful memory, once so bright but now faded and torn and ready for the waste bin. The song’s silent agony is all the more devastating for its mannered exterior. In the past Costello has sometimes been clever to a fault, but here deploys his wit with strike-team precision, both in the words as well as the arrangements; notice how much “I Let the Sun Go Down,” which surveys the wreckage of Brexit and mourns the slow crumble of Britain, recalls the pastel-colored music hall of Sgt. Pepper, a landmark of English nostalgia.

There are dark moments here: “Under Lime” brings Jimmie—the wannabe London cowboy from National Ransom—into the #metoo era, unmasking him as a predator passing for a gentleman. Costello dispenses with him cheerfully (“it’s a long way down from the high horse you’re on”), and lingers long on his compassion for Jimmie’s victims. In “Photographs Can Lie,” a daughter is shattered at the glimpse of an old family snapshot, ruing that her father isn’t the man she’d always imagined him to be. “He’s Given Me Things,” perhaps the creepiest closing song of any Elvis Costello album, is a twisted Gosford Park scenario set as a haunted, stately ballad: Here a mistress is elevated to privilege through a tryst with a rich man, and the tangle of shame, sex, and class warfare that ensues is worthy of a Jarvis Cocker album. (“He has an awful lot of money,” the woman says of her redeemer. “The past can be bought—and then erased.”)

Yet as Costello’s wit matures into wisdom, his once-legendary snarl has been replaced with a deep well of compassion: For the darkness at the edge of these songs, there’s also real empathy for the characters. “Unwanted Number” is a song about an unmarried mother navigating a thicket of slanderous rumors; Costello says he initially saw her as a victim, but his assessment changed after the song was finished, and he came to see it as a celebration of the selfless love she gives to her child, despite receiving so little love of her own. And in “Don’t Look Now,” a wife trembles in vulnerability at the thought of her husband’s stare, even as she wants so badly to be the object of his affection. The act of looking is a big part of what the record is about, even its title exhorting the investment of our gaze and consideration; in its sumptuous surfaces and empathetic songs, Costello proves again and again the value in paying attention.

Dig in the Dirt for Light: The surprising excavations of Sam Phillips

worldonsticks

Some songwriters you picture standing on stage holding an acoustic guitar, or dutifully stationed behind a grand piano. Sam Phillips you might imagine wearing a headlamp and wielding a pickaxe. On her many lovely and distinctive albums, truth and mercy lie sparkling and precious, buried beneath rubble and mire, there for anyone willing to roll up their sleeves and extricate them. “Dig, baby,” she exhorted us on 2004’s A Boot and a Shoe. “Let’s excavate the surface.” And now, on her new World on Sticks, she declares her intention to “dig in the dirt for light”—a line so quintessentially Sam Phillips, it might as well be the title of her memoir. She has always believed in deeper realities and unseen good; she has always been about the business of excavation.

World on Sticks joins a lineage of albums that haul that unseen good to the surface, mining grace notes from the most unexpected places. On The Turning, it was a crisis of faith; on A Boot and a Shoe and Don’t Do Anything, romantic dissolution. For her first set of songs since 2013’s Push Any Button, Phillips is writing in a more prophetic office, surveying the ravaging effects of unchecked prosperity and unencumbered freedom. It’s an album about how greed and capital strangle our connections to each other, to the environment, to any broader sense of mystery; about how limitlessness can be imprisoning, and desiring more and more satisfies less and less. “I want what I can’t have,” coos Phillips in a slinky, rattlesnake groove called “Continuous Limit,” dissatisfaction springing eternal. But the diagnosis is followed by a word of wisdom: “You don’t have to make a living when you’re alive/ You don’t have to make a killing before you die.” At every turn, the album resists materialism as a dead-end and a mirage; it sifts through ephemera for truth that will last.

This is weighty subject matter, but Phillips has made a career out of defying gravity. A specialist in pure pop, she has an easy way with melody that lends many of her albums summer soundtrack status, while her ear for breezy vocal hooks has won her steady work composing for shows like Gilmore Girls and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Her songs are always deliriously tuneful and terse, but what she never gets enough credit for is her role as the preeminent pop tinker. Ever since she started producing her own records Phillips has displayed an impish zeal for playing around with different tones and colors, and on World on Sticks she schemes a high wire balancing act between the tight-knit band alchemy that made Push Any Button crackle and the lush orchestrations of a string ensemble. The band includes Chris Bruce on guitar, Jennifer Condos on bass, and drummer of drummers Jay Bellerose on all things that shake and rattle; the strings are arranged by Eric Gorfain and played by The Section Quartet. It’s an alchemic match-up that combines the punchy energy of rock and roll with the intimacy of torch songs, and it results in visceral pleasures as well as impressionistic effects. “World on Sticks” is a study in melody, groove, and noise, Bellerose unleashing some of his most thunderous playing, punctuated by squalls of loose electricity. The bleary “Teilhard,” meanwhile, is a wind tunnel of rustling acoustic strings and clanking percussion. On the mournful “Tears on the Ground,” strings fall like shadows across a winding road, while on “Roll ‘Em,” a song about a sociopath, they create a black hole down which the singer disappears. All of these songs are uniquely evocative; all are impeccably succinct, hook-filled, and buoyant.

They chronicle failed connections, intangible realities all but abandoned to material concerns. There are lost connections to the natural world; on the spare and urgent opener, “Walking Trees,” Phillips contrasts the patient wisdom of the planet to the rootlessness of its inhabitants: “If we could find one place, we’d grow the roots down/ But we’re like walking trees/ We can’t stay in the ground/ If we could always keep moving and never stay where we are/ We’d have to hold to the underground to reach up to the stars.” (Remember on Fan Dance, when she sang that “God is growing underground”?) There’s also “Tears on the Ground,” which mourns for a world that can only endure so much negligence and abuse: “The Earth has fever in her angry eyes/ Fires make the waters rise/ As we’re watching her gardens die/ The future’s falling from our eyes.” Phillips’ songs cast our lost connection to the world around us as an act of profound self-destruction. But there are also songs about being lost to the self; “Roll ‘Em” is a dark confession of ruthlessness, the frank admission of someone who’s willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants; the plucky “I Want to Be You” is just as disturbing, a dispassionate song of self-estrangement. All of these songs are, on some level, about lost connection to objective reality itself, but none more explicitly than “How Much Is Enough,” which quietly rages against our era of epistemological murk: “Someone keeps giving out the wrong numbers/ We’re not supposed to know what’s true.”

Phillips’ lyrics are littered with signs of the times—or “signposts in a strange land,” as she once called them. “American Landfill Kings,” about an empire built on garbage, seems at first like a return to the moral witness of “Black Sky” and “Same Changes,” withering blasts of conscience that Phillips has largely backed away from in favor of songs that riddle and tease, suggest and provoke. Yet even a song like this one, with its sinister hurdy-gurdy rhythm, is scalpel-sharp in its diagnosis; it’s a snapshot of a culture of hoarders, where an obsession with collected junk reflects internal entropy and disarray. Its humor is mirthless and bleak—but remember Phillip’s mission statement: She’s digging in the dirt for light, and on the album’s final song she unearths some. It’s hard to hear the string-swept benediction, “Candles and Stars,” without thinking of A Boot and a Shoe’s “Reflecting Light,” maybe the most cherished of all Sam Phillips songs. Both are about the paradox of grace, how it can only be channeled through flawed and broken vessels. But where she had “worn out the world” on that earlier song, here she has no such luxury; on a planet cannibalizing itself, our only hope lies in reconnection. Atop stately piano and thumping percussion, Phillips sings: “If only with candles and with stars/ and broken light from dreams like ours/ we will still find the way through/ to love.” The song is just a glimmer shining through rubble– the kind of light Phillips has spent her entire career digging for.

To Burn What Fire May: The dark notions of Richard Thompson

13 Rivers

A short storyteller of unerring precision and economy, Richard Thompson can weave an entire tale within the span of a song title. Consider a composition from 2015’s Still, about a woman who’s prone to wandering and good at leaving; its title, “She Never Could Resist a Winding Road,” pretty much says it all. See also: “She Twists the Knife Again,” an exacting kōan of romantic betrayal. Thompson’s new album, 13 Rivers includes a gem called “Her Love Was Meant for Me”—a short, declarative sentence that a man would have no reason to utter if he were in a happy relationship with a woman who was true. Though the title lays out the song’s premise, it goes on for five minutes, Thompson worrying that prickly phrase as though rubbing a talisman, his electric guitar fuming in agony and indignation.

There’s a lot of electrified fuming on 13 Rivers, a devilishly pitch-black and thrilling album in a catalog that’s long on bleakness and fatalism, always offered with enough fight and finesse to keep dourness at bay. That’s another way of saying that it’s peak-level Richard Thompson. The self-produced set was recorded in just 10 days, its first-take clarity showcasing the righteous chemistry of Thompson’s band: Drummer Michael Jerome delivers both in-the-pocket swing and cling-and-clatter pandemonium, bassist Taras Prodaniuk is driving and supple, and second guitarist Bobby Eichorn, in an unglamorous role, enriches Thompson’s dexterous solos with color and depth. This may be the cleanest, most visceral album Thompson’s ever recorded, the best at capturing the agitated burr in his voice, the sting in his electric guitar, the powerhouse groove of his band. Whether that makes it the best of his solo albums depends on your tolerance for Rumor and Sigh’s textured Mitchell Froom production and your fondness for Mock Tudor’s suburban malaise, but it’s certainly a contender. And happily, following two sets of Acoustic Classics, one album of Acoustic Rarities, and the mostly-unplugged Still, this album is all electric, all the time. Thompson is one of our best acoustic guitar pickers; he is even more satisfying when he gets to let loose with a harrowing electric thrum, which he does over and over again here.

It’s a spare and uncluttered record—the very opposite of those busy Froom productions—yet it crackles with thunder and noise; it’s light on its feet even when delivering some of the stormiest music of Thompson’s career. A lot of that’s down to this crackerjack band: On “The Rattle Within,” a junkyard rag with pots-and-pans percussion, the rhythm section plays with an elastic pivot, lurching and grinding and pulverizing in perfect time with one another. “The Storm Won’t Come” billows and seethes, a dark twister zigzagging across the plain. There’s also credit due Thompson’s tunes, stalwart as ever. The Fairpoint Convention originator still has folk, not rock and roll, as his reference point, and he brings an appealing lilt to “O Cinderella,” a sea shanty with finger-picked glitter and an undercurrent of randiness (“O Cinderella, I’m not very housetrained it’s true/ but I want to dust cobwebs with you”). He’s convincing when he turns to power pop, too, as with the scruffy cords of “Do All These Tears Belong to You?” and the propulsive jangle of “You Can’t Reach Me.” Of course a guitarist of Thompson’s stature is contractually bound to offer the occasional slow blues, and he burns through a withering one here, a crawling menace called “The Dog in You.” These are all testaments to his rangy writing, and to the versatility of his band; like the best albums from Elvis Costello’s Attractions, 13 Rivers proves the pliancy of the four-piece rock and roll format.

The tenacity in this music—the growl in Thompson’s voice, the barbs emanating from his guitar, the band’s nimbleness and momentum—is invaluable: In lesser hands, these songs could easily curdle. Thompson’s still got his quick wit about him, but on the whole this is one of his more mirthless collections. He says he wrote it in a season of intense personal trauma, and again and again he circles back to the two recurring themes in his body of work—love gone wrong and the corruption of the human heart (the two concepts not unrelated). Few songwriters match Thompson’s dim view of humanity and its monstrous impulse; even Nick Cave and Tom Waits temper their songs of total depravity with paeans to romance, but all of Thompson’s romances are doomed. 13 Rivers has one of his most bruising and raucous songs of sin: A more sinister sequel to Nick Lowe’s man-in-the-mirror “The Beast in Me,” Thompson’s “The Rattle Within” runs through Jesus, voodoo, and organized religion, finding none of them satisfying balms for the evil that dwells in a man’s soul. “He wears your shirt and he wears your shoes/ He’s living there right inside your skin,” Thompson growls. It’s the oldest horror story in the world, about the man who keeps doing evil even though he doesn’t want to. “You’ve got notions, he’s got notions,” the song goes, Romans 7:19 rendered in its Thompson Standard Version.

It’s not the album’s only window into the heart of darkness. On “Trying,” an ominous pulse, Thompson sings: “If I should fall, fall off the shelf/ I’m only trying to be true to myself”—but if he’s a hostage to the rattle within, maybe being true to himself is part of the problem? “The Dog in You” is bleaker still, a startling confrontation with someone who derives pleasure in causing other people pain. And in the closing song, “Shaking the Gates,” Thompson knows he has only himself to blame for whatever misery he’s caused; “All I’ve done is lead myself astray,” he sings. Anyone who perceives misogyny in all those songs about untrue women is overlooking just how often Thompson puts himself under the microscope; in his world, waywardness is an equal opportunity offender. And here, he entertains one of his darkest notions right out of the gate. In the opening “The Storm Won’t Come,” he plays the role of Travis Bickle, waiting for a real rain to come and wash away all the sin and misery. “I’m longing for a storm to blow through town/ And blow these sad old buildings down/ Fire to burn what fire may/ And rain to wash it all away,” Thompson sings. It’s his break-glass scenario to deal with the rattle within. And if the storm won’t come, he’ll make one of his own. 13 Rivers is it—an album of intoxicating rage and holy thunder; the work of a dark master still fighting for the light.

Inside is Your Best Side: Sophie’s songs of the self

sophie

Start with the name, and read it slowly: Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides. I Love Every Person’s Insides. Buried just below the surface of the year’s most awkward album title is a coded message of acceptance and inclusivity, which turns out to be a helpful Rosetta Stone for the record itself. Here the producer and songwriter Sophie stitches together nine songs that are volatile and wildly dissimilar from one another; at first they sound jarringly mismatched, but slowly they reveal a calculated construction, an album with faultless narrative flow and internal emotional logic. These songs belong together; you just have to listen beyond the superficial.

That this erstwhile “singles artist” has made such a cohesive album is a revelation in and of itself. It’s her first proper long-player, following a number of production assists for the likes of Madonna, Charli XCX, and Vince Staples, plus a 2015 assembly of loosies pointedly called Product. All of that established Sophie’s behind-the-boards proficiency, but it never hinted at her depth as a conceptual thinker. On Oil, everything comes together. Individually, each song feels like a sonic extremity: There’s glossy soft-rock schmaltz in “It’s Okay to Cry,” garish house music abrasion in “Ponyboy.” “Pretending” is a drifting ambient whisper, leading into the punchy dance floor ecstasy of “Immaterial.” These antipodes are tempered and aligned with one another through Sophie’s immaculate sequencing, which gives the album peaks and valleys, recurring themes, set-ups with big payoffs. The caustic songs give weight and grit to the fluffier ones; the fluffier ones soften the hard stuff. “Pretending” is all build-up, and that’s the point: Its moody mediations are the powder keg from which “Immaterial” explodes, making its crowd-pleasing pop beats feel worked for, well-earned.

As a producer, Sophie’s gift is in how deftly she orchestrates feel. Sometimes this means courting whiplash through jarring textural mashups; “Infatuation” begins as gossamer synth-pop, but its dreamy reverie is buzz-sawed in two by searing electric guitar. Just as odd is the nightmarish industrial grind of “Ponyboy,” where steely beats lurch and scrape through a chorus of throaty growls and raspy moans; imagine it as the belated club mix for Tom Waits’ Real Gone, maybe. She takes special pleasure in modulating the human voice; there’s something gleeful in how “Immaterial” zig-zags between naturalistic clarity and robotic chirpiness. While these songs create sparks from how the individual components rub against each other, others are gripping for their purity. “Is it Cold in the Water?” rides one melodic crest after another, a three-minute demo of dance music’s ability to carefully regulate a series of highs; and “It’s Okay to Cry” defies gravity with its layers upon layers of featherweight synths and confectionary pop. If the Pet Shop Boys went all-in on candor and emotional plainspeak, this song is what it might sound like.

Thelonious Monk might have heard the “ugly beauty” in these skewed extremities, where the bumps and imperfections are there to be felt but also to dissolve into something majestic and immersive. Sophie’s cut-and-paste synthesis of moods and textures isn’t just an aesthetic choice, though; it’s also thematic. Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides is an album about the glory and the struggle in being self-made—and as its encrypted title suggests, self-realization is never quite simple or straightforward. “It’s Okay to Cry” rallies the album with a variation on that title, and an implicit call to self-love; “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way/ But I think your inside is your best side,” Sophie sings. (That last point is key: It’s telling that her first-ever recorded vocals come on her most emotionally accessible song about being true to yourself; most of the album’s vocals are handled by an accomplice called Mozart’s Sister.) “Immaterial,” the album’s emotional peak, dreams of liberation—from flesh and bone, from genes and blood: “I could be anything I want,” the song says, endless possibility springing from a rejection of all physical limitations.

But other songs suggest some of the tension that comes in remaking yourself, none more than “Faceshopping,” a glitchy dance beat that sounds like it was dropped into battery acid. Its relentless grind and nervous energy capture the fatiguing drive to close the gap between your actual and ideal selves. There is freedom in discovering who you were born to be, but pains in making that your lived reality. (Take note of the references to gender throughout the album; sexual fluidity is the grounding particular for these songs, but also the intellectual scaffolding for Sophie’s broader theme of questing for the real you.) But Sophie doesn’t make music for defeat, and here she gives the final word to hope. Throughout Oil, she sounds like she’s at play, testing the limits of pop music forms with brazen sonic extremes—or, on “Pretending,” abandoning form completely, another rejection of limitations. That playfulness may be the album’s answer to some of its toughest questions: Perhaps loving and accepting yourself begins when you take joy in the process of becoming.

Rattle & Thrum: Guitar heroics from The Messthetics, Nels Cline 4

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Whatever electric guitar pyrotechnics you’re seeking, you’ll find them abounding on The Messthetics’ self-titled debut. Is it riffs you like? Discover a whole compendium of them on “Serpent Tongue,” three and a half minutes of molten licks and spiraling solos, racing a relentless low-end pulse toward certain implosion. Or maybe you prefer your guitar heroes to lay back with some chill ambiance. Try “Your Own World,” just over a minute of shadowy noir; or “Once Upon a Time,” a moody meditation that unfolds with sheets of static and noise. And if you just want to swing, start at square one: On album opener “Mythomania” the guitar snakes through a rolling beat, descending into shards of dissonance before being reset by the drummer’s crisp break. The Messthetics is an exhilarating showcase of virtuosity and technique, made by musicians far too smart to rest on finesse alone: It might have taken them an afternoon’s time to blaze through an album’s worth of solos and loose-limbed jams, but instead they’ve sculpted and shaped their electric thrum into nine exquisite tunes that are awash in melody, powered by groove, and kinetic with the possibilities of chemistry and collaboration. It’s all packaged in an album with a big, clear sound, all three instruments roughly equal in the mix—a tell in and of itself: These songs were performed with jazz dexterity, but engineered to offer gut-punch rock and roll thrills.

The vocal-less power trio comes by their sense of boundaryless, gene-agnostic possibility honestly: Drummer Brendan Canty and bassist Joe Lally spent the better part of 20 years improvising a rhythmic language all their own within the hardcore trappings of Fugazi. Their rapport is critical but so is the disruptive presence of Anthony Pirog, an ax man with roots in jazz who gels perfectly with his fellow Messthetics even as he seems to keep them ever on a razor’s edge. “Mythomania” captures their high-wire balance of confidence and daring, craft and anarchy: It starts off nimble and swingin’, but the guitars become more discordant, the drummer’s pulse more haywire, until it all abruptly collapses into stomp and squall. There’s a showman’s flair to it, a real bravado in how The Messthetics are relentlessly tuneful yet take us just to the edge of chaos, and the rest of the album plays out with similar panache; between the three of them, these guys have done just about everything, and they’ve sequenced this record to condense decades of guitar innovations into a sleek suite with churning momentum and a seamless sense of mood. Listen to “Quantum Path, your local alt rock station boiled down into four minutes of pummeling, instrumental fury; its mayhem is the perfect set-up for the quick reset of “Your Own World,” followed by the taut ebb-and-flow of “The Inner Ocean,” where the guitars chime like early U2.

They save the biggest fireworks show for the album’s final few minutes: “Crowds and Power” begins as a headbanger’s ball before breaking into a dead sprint of thrash ‘n’ roll—yet even a song that’s meant to pulverize floats into passages of spacy exploration. The comedown, and the album’s lone break from the power trio format, is “The Weaver.” With a rumble of percussion, the hum of acoustic guitar strings, and even the gentle swell of a string section, the song benefits from the “Desolation Row” effect, wherein a record’s lone departure from crackling electricity somehow comes across as its rawest moment and its wildest curveball. Its placement at the album’s end is one final flush of inspiration. These guys clearly have chops, but the triumph of The Messthetics is that it’s a concise and absorbing pop record; virtuosity is never held up as an end unto itself.

They’re not the only ones who are packaging exploratory guitar work in elegant, explosive albums. Few guitarists have enjoyed careers as charmed or as diverse as Nels Cline’s, which includes regular shredding with Wilco but also an expansive back catalog of noise experimentations. In 2016 he released the big band-buffeted Lovers, a masterpiece of mood music and a heartfelt salute to Gil Evans, Bill Evans, and Quincy Jones. Now comes Currents, Constellations—recorded with a much smaller unit but once more leaning hard into straight jazz, nary a guitar freakout or dissonant patch in earshot. The band, christened the Nels Cline 4, includes Scott Colley on electric bass, Tom Rainey on drums, and Julian Lage matching Cline on guitar. (The two ax men have a buzzing Verlaine/Lloyd chemistry.) The record is all about knotty interplay, yet like The Messthetics, it’s an album that goes beyond virtuosity for its own sake: From its thick, dank sound there emerge gnarled riffs, nervous tension, and a twisted fusion of jazz improvisation with rock and roll energy. Pick any given track and you’ll hear a clear melody laid out with both ravishing beauty and frayed, beastly menace.

The menace comes mostly in the record’s steely opening salvo: “Furtive” crashes into being with the ominous splash of cymbals; Colley and Rainey sketch out a nervous, jittery rhythm, and the guitarists dance all around it with curled licks and razor-edged runs. “Swing Ghost ‘59” lurches and thumps like Frankenstein’s monster, its halting cadence suddenly opening up into irresistible mutant bebop in the song’s closing stretch. And speaking of halting cadences, “Imperfect 10” is a tight coil of off-kilter melody and rattling percussion, sounding like a Thelonious Monk tune as reimagined by Marc Ribot. These songs bundle nervous energy and dense guitar interplay into tightly tuneful packages, and their jolt of rickety energy makes it seem as though the whole album’s humming with loose electricity, even when things slow down a bit in the back stretch. “As Close As That” is a hushed continuation of Lovers’ wee small hours mood, while the set’s lone cover—Carla Bley’s “Temporarily”—is spectral and spare. Like The Messthetics, Cline’s record has an obvious and delightful outlier: Flowing with a pastoral, Veedon Fleece ambiance, “River Mouth (Parts 1 & 2) is part electric drone, part acoustic reverie—nine minutes of gentle ebb and bottomless tranquility. Just when you think you’ve heard every kind of guitar magic, a master like Cline hits you with another.

Every Moment to the Letter: Amy Helm sheds light

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The phrase, as you’ve probably heard it, is “this too shall pass”—a promise that hardship is fleeting and trials last only for a season. On a ravishing and resplendent new album called This Too Shall Light, Amy Helm schemes a deeper redemption. Supported by a ragged troupe of harmony singers, she lifts up 10 songs of heartache and grieving, world-weariness and weathered hope. With voices smeared together in messy, unkempt community, Helm and her crew turn private sorrows into shared experiences. Their premise is that the hard times aren’t just here to be gotten through, but actually reclaimed; that the whole of our lived reality (“every moment to the letter”) is kindling for joy and catalyst for illumination. Or, if nothing else, as good a reason as any to get together and sing.

This is only the second album Helm has released under her own name, but it reveals the sure-footedness of a veteran. The years and miles she logged with her band Ollabelle are etched into this loose and lived-in set, a community sing-along that casually intermingles gospel, soul, rock, and folk idioms, all of it sparkling with first-take immediacy and the thrill of shared discovery. Helm convened quick, unfussy recording sessions with producer Joe Henry, who’s in the midst of a banner year (see also: Steep Canyon Rangers, Joan Baez, The Milk Carton Kids). It’s a synergistic pairing: Henry has an unbeatable track record in coaxing pantheon-level performances from powerhouse singers, and Helm is one of our best. She can write, too, but here aligns herself with the interpretive singing tradition, and she and Henry connected over songs that are perfectly pitched for achieving the desired tenor of hard-won hopefulness. One wonders how long Henry kept The Milk Carton Kids’ “Michigan” in his back pocket before deciding Helm was the right vessel for its desolation and resolve; or how cathartic it was for her to lift up Allen Toussaint’s “Freedom for the Stallion” as a prayer for clarity in an era of murk. The ace in the hole is Rod Stewart’s “Mandolin Wind,” not only because it’s one of the greatest songs of all time nor even because it connects the album to the tattered emotion and earthy romance of Rod’s Every Picture…/Never a Dull Moment prime. It’s the album’s beating heart because of how it sneaks up on you: Its protagonist endures coldest winter and darkest night before being surprised by joy, heartened by love’s durability. It embodies the album’s dogged optimism and tested perseverance.

Henry’s go-to engineering guru, Ryan Freeland, captured these loose sessions in all their rafter-shaking power and clarity. It sounds as immediate and as visceral as any album they’ve made together. You can make out every popped snare and rattled tambourine from Jay Bellerose in crackling detail; follow Jennifer Condos’ limber bass as it snakes through the clamor of voices; get lost in the woolly hum of Tyler Chester’s organ and keys. But in an album about singing as a work of redemption, the harmonists are the ones who come in clutch. They include Adam Minkoff along with—crucially—Allison Russell and JT Nero, better known as Birds of Chicago. The most warmly humanistic of bands, their geniality and deep harmonies color everything they lay a hand to. Helm’s miniature cloud of witnesses imbues even the most hardscrabble songs with the lilt of compassion. Listen to how they sow little eruptions of joy through the tough-as-nails title track, a lithe groove where Doyle Bramhall’s electric guitar squalls fade into snapped fingers. And hear them in “Michigan,” all but underwater in dashed romance and Chester’s organ wash—until the chorus comes, roaring in celebration at the freedom to just belt it at top volume.

Community is a big part of what the album’s about, and Helm’s sense of belonging reaches back beyond what’s visible, encompassing even the ancestors. She’s a keeper of the flame, a singer who holds lineage close to her heart—not least the lineage of her legendary father, Levon Helm. His confederate Robbie Robertson has a writing credit here, as Helm swings and swaggers through a wonderfully sweaty R&B number called “The Stones I Throw,” a relic of Levon & The Hawks’ days lighting up bars. But if Helm is buoyed by heritage, she’s not beholden to it; her aim isn’t to live in the past but to remake it in her own image, something she does on a read of Henry’s song “Odetta” (a literal invocation of the ancestors). The original recording featured a high-stepping gospel piano motif, which here spills its sanctified ebullience all over a boisterous bridge; Helm holds it together by her own solemn authority.

This Too Shall Light concludes with two songs that tie it all together. First is T-Bone Burnett’s “River of Love,” haunted when Sam Phillips sang it on her album The Turning but quietly hopeful here; the song sparkles as Helm follows the rivers of grief and struggle, truth and belief back to the origin points, reassured that they were running long before she got here and they’ll keep running long after she leaves. The final song is an acapella read of the traditional “Gloryland,” wonderfully rough and craggy, with an arrangement credit shared between Helm and her father. Here there’s light shed even in death, the true end of suffering and sadness. Those who’ve gone to Heaven shall weep no more, the song promises; and for those of us still breathing, at least we have something to sing about.