Show Us the Way: Kamasi Washington’s psalm of ascent

kamasi

Some songwriters are celebrated for saying a lot with a little. Kamasi Washington’s whole thing is saying a lot with a lot. The saxophonist/composer’s first album as a leader was an epic—make that The Epic. He followed that with The Harmony of Difference, an EP that was ideologically supple, and as long as many full-fledged LPs. His new Heaven and Earth wears grandiosity in its title, and contains multitudes within its luxurious spread. Its two generous portions tower; its songs sprawl, most hovering near the 10-minute mark, not a featherweight in the bunch. Everything is writ large: This is an album about generational struggle, about narratives of oppression, resilience, and jubilee that are as old as time, as fresh as this morning’s headlines, told in the vernaculars of those who’ve gone before us.

Like The Epic, Heaven and Earth is loaded up with choirs and strings, rambunctious solos weaving in and out of the large-group ruckus. It’s an album built for bulk, designed to dazzle. And it does dazzle, even if it occasionally fatigues. Somehow, though, self-editing feels antithetical to Washington’s true gifts; indeed, if Duke Ellington was the premiere jazz miniaturist, Washington is one of its most proficient maximalists, and he generally makes smart use of his large canvases. He can create and sustain tension, as he does on an updated Bruce Lee theme, “Fists of Fury,” which packs one explosive blast after another into its tightly-coiled 10 minutes. He also knows how to give form and shape to symphonic drift; “The Space Traveler’s Lullaby” speaks itself into being through one unfurled wash of melody after another, cosmic ambiance that feels like an alternate soundtrack to Malick’s Tree of Life.

The album’s wide enough to host legions of touchstones, and it’s awash in shared history and cultural memory. Washington draws on the sounds and signifiers of the Civil Rights era and jazz’s deepest immersions in Afrocentrism. It recalls Curtis Mayfield’s elegant fight songs and Alice Coltrane’s cosmic excursions; Marvin Gaye’s seductive opulence and Max Roach’s protest suites. “Fists of Fury” uses congas, strings, and wind chimes to affect a breezy groove in the Curtis vein, even as its kung fu rhythms land one sucker punch after another. “Vi Lua Vi Sol” soars with an autotuned vocal hook that recalls the earnest supplications of Stevie Wonder. “Street Fighter Mas” is roiling G-funk, and the entire record throbs with the speaker-rattling pulse of electric bass, much of supplied by Thundercat. Of course, Washington’s allegiance to jazz lore is unshaken: He once again finds creative ways to bring standards into his program, here turning Freddie Hubbard’s rickety “Hub-Tones” into immersive, full-throated soul-jazz.

These are artifacts, but they’re also signposts along Heaven and Earth’s long and winding road—its journey from injustice to supplication, from oppression to enlightenment; a journey that takes us from the mean streets to the throne of God, then drops us back on Earth where there’s still work to be done, and where making righteous fists of fury can be a prayer language unto itself. These are big themes to match the record’s big sound– nothing less than the intersection between shared struggle, personal religiosity, and collective activism. The Earth disc is a psalm of lament. It rages against inequity, and even opens on an imprecatory note, vocalists Patrice Quinn and Dwight Trible vowing to turn open palms into implements of wrathful justice. The songs that follow are concerned with working out conflict, largely through instrumental numbers: “Can You Hear Him” builds from its punchy groove and call-and-response horns into an uncharacteristically combative synth solo, while “The Invincible Youth” opens with a horn section knotted up with tension and discord. These are songs that search and struggle; they wrestle the angels and kick against demons.

Heaven, then, is the psalm of ascent—an interstellar pilgrimage to an entirely different astral plane. “The Space Traveler’s Lullaby” pans out for perspective, peace, and bliss; later, “Journey” brings gospel into the picture with a moanin’ church organ. “The Psalmist” implores through its Love Supreme peals, and “Show Us the Way” and “Will You Sing” end the album with some of Washington’s most exultant playing. Washington lets his imagination run wild in these tunes, but it always runs through the prism of our collective history. Heaven and Earth’s rootedness reminds us that struggle endures, from generation to generation—but so, too, does our capacity  to address it with resilient hope and joyful noise-making.

Make Me Another Promise: The Milk Carton Kids sing American tunes

allthethings

At 14 words, All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do is an album title calling out for a shorthand. Consider a helpful phrase from the accompanying press release, “waltzing into disaster,” which captures well the album’s spirit of whimsy and foreboding. Its dozen songs, clear-eyed and bruised, reflect an older, more weathered version of The Milk Carton Kids, hobbling forward in the wake of disasters both personal and cultural. It’s an album whose margins are haunted by remembrances of runaway lovers and a nation that’s all but vanished; its narrators still remember how thing used to be, and sigh in the opening lines: “Just look at us now.” And, it’s an album that dreams a highway through the backwoods and byways of American folk song, employing canonical forms for their emotional directness and uncluttered sense of narrative. These are—to borrow another recently-popular title—songs of experience, tattered but true.

The Milk Carton Kids are Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, both of whom play acoustic guitar, sing in close, single-mic harmonies, and dodge comparisons to Simon & Garfunkel (and also Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings) that have never felt quite right; as songwriters, Ryan and Pattengale are engaged with an older school of parlor songs and soft-shoe routines that convey deep melancholy through wistful, romantic melodies. These new songs of experience, all of them originals, are their best work to date, conveying the emotional acuity and formal control of the great American songbook. They are plainspoken, and they contain multitudes. “Mourning in America,” a state of the union in the Rhymin’ Simon vein, reflects political dislocation through street-level detail and a sense of mundane weariness; “You Break My Heart” is a song about every heartbreak, even though it was pretty clearly written about a particular one.

This is the first Milk Carton Kids album to be recorded with outside musicians, and to guide them through this new adventure Ryan and Pattengale enlisted Joe Henry, a producer who’s developed a strong catalog of albums that wring spontaneity and joyful abandon from hallowed folk forms (for examples, see his work with Allen Toussaint, Aaron Neville, or his own recent Thrum). Henry presided over Nashville sessions that brought in a rich cast of supporting players. Levon Henry’s clarinet snakes through the fleet-footed “Younger Years,” while Russ Pahl’s pedal steel sounds like a high-and-lonesome train whistle in the background. Brittany Haas’ fiddle leads off “Big Time,” something like a last waltz crossed with a barn-burning hootenanny. Spectral, lovelorn ballads like “I’ve Been Loving You” have their edges frayed by ghostly piano and steel guitar, while “Blindness,” a haunted house of a song, seems to be dissolving as it plays, an apparition fading back into shadow. There are subtly cinematic effects in every song here, and none as good as the harmonies of the Milk Carton Kids themselves; the genius of this record is how it broadens their scope while maintaining the centrality of their chemistry. It never doesn’t sound like a Milk Carton Kids album.

The result is an album that takes cues from some of the ramshackle myth-making of The Basement Tapes; the well-worn, second-hand Americana of Gram Parsons; the casual virtuosity with which Willie Nelson synthesizes roadhouse roots into something seamless and supple, with Pattengale’s ragged lead guitar ably filling in for Trigger. The album’s centerpiece is “One More for the Road,” an impressionistic epic that stretches Sinatra’s wee-small-hours desolation across the broader canvas of the American frontier, a saloon song by way of a campfire rag.  “Nothing is Real” is weary juke joint R&B, swaying in place to its dawning disillusionment. “Younger Years” recalls the wispy cowboy songs of Marty Robbins, while “You Break My Heart” is a lovelorn standard, thread-bear ruminations from a spectral Cole Porter. “I’ve Been Loving You” marries songbook formalism to country twang so ably, it sounds as though it should have been included on Stardust.

The songs were born of fracture and chaos—break-ups and relocations, health scares and a declining national mood. They sound suitably beleaguered and wary in their evocations of wayward countries and faithless lovers, and it is occasionally hard to tell whether a given line is meant to reflect personal crisis or the broader tragedies unfolding around us. (For that particular synthesis, there remains no better model than Joe Henry’s 2007 album Civilians, a singular songwriting achievement of such elegant and alluring metaphors, it can’t help but be seminal for younger writers like Ryan and Pattengale.) “Just Look at Us Now,” chronicles the curdling of youthful idealism: “We wanted to prove we were something, we were special/ We knew in our hearts we weren’t the only ones,” the song goes, and it could just as easily be a story of fated lovers or of an exceptional empire’s slow crumble. “Make me another promise if you dare,” Ryan sings, hard-won skepticism from someone who’s been through the ringer. “Mourning in America” allows for less ambivalence, capturing a disheartened trudge through an atmosphere of malaise. Later, when Ryan and Pattengale sing “I’ve been loving you all wrong,” it could be either the patriot’s boondoggle or the fool’s sad revelation; either way, they sing it like it’s too little, too late. “Unwinnable War” imagines love as a battlefield, though there’s always the outside chance it’s just about the battlefield as a battlefield; even “Big Time,” ostensibly a party jam, masks a menacing eschatology: “This’ll be the last time/ we’re gonna have a big time.”

These are all familiar lessons from the Songbook, learned anew with each new generation: The times, they change. Things fall apart. We come, in the age’s most uncertain hour, singing American tunes. The Milk Carton Kids end their album with a great one. “All the Things…,” performed by Pattengale with haunting vulnerability, is a divorce song, written from a place of reflection and regret. But for its bridge, the spare arrangement suddenly breaks open into a full-color dream sequence, Ryan joining in and the two of them daring to imagine something like peace and reconciliation. They sound like they know they’re not the first to wake up and find their house in shambles; to lift up a song for better days.

Stories We Tell: Myths and memories from Lucy Dacus, Neko Case

historian

On “Nonbeliever,” one of the 10 generously detailed and finely chiseled songs on her second album Historian, Lucy Dacus renounces the faith of her parents: “You threw your books into the river/ Told your mom that you’re a non-believer.” On a later song, “Pillar of Truth,” she sings from the perspective of her ailing grandmother, offering a deathbed prayer: “Lord, have mercy/ On my descendants/ For they know not/ What they do.” It’s a trick of time and a gift of perspective that allows Dacus to connect the dots between these two stray lines of dialogue, turning a set of personal reflections into a more complicated story that spans generations, allowing small reckonings with faith and doubt to suggest a more expansive interrogation of loss, inheritance, and belonging.

It’s that sort of narrative sculpting that Historian is concerned with; this is an album about how we are all our own chroniclers and biographers, seeking resonance in the stories we tell, the organization we impose on our lives and our crossed paths. The songs are all about the benefit of hindsight; opener “Night Shift,” majestic and confessional, uses romantic dissolution as its premise, but Dacus is almost more concerned with how she’ll deal with the love songs she wrote, how the meaning of these relics will change with time and experience. (“In five years I hope the songs feel like covers/ Dedicated to new lovers.”) The almost-title track “Historians,” performed as a string-swept denouement, goes beyond self-mythologizing, wondering about the role we can play in telling one another’s stories: “I’ll be your historian/ And you’ll be mine/ And I’ll fill pages of scribbled ink/ Hoping the words carry meaning.” It’s storytelling as collaboration, and intimacy as a creative act.

Dacus is a miniaturist who gets the details right, something that yields her some pantheon-level opening lines (“The first time I tasted someone else’s spit/ I had a coughing fit”) and evocative snatches of conversation (“You talk like you don’t know/ the walls are thin”).  Over the course of Historian, those details form a patchwork mosaic—a portrait of the artist seeking meaning in disruptive loss, forging an identity that’s equally informed by genealogy and her own agency. She’s paired her pliable melodies to muscular rock arrangements that similarly balance little details with grand flourishes. Save for the final benediction, the entire album is played with the hum of electricity—as if to simulate the brain’s after-hours buzz, flitting between ideas when it ought to be getting some rest—and Dacus confidently leads her band through plenty of stomp and fuzz, minor-key strumming exploding into winding, cacophonous solos. Even in the din, these songs all sound immaculately formed, and Dacus tucks plenty of texture inside—peppy horns in “Addictions,” a lazy country ramble in “Yours & Mine,” both crawling blues and industrial grind in “Timefighter.”

The latter song also reveals Dacus’ gift for deadpan, her pithy summation of human mortality suggesting little point in trying to overcome it: “I fought time/ It won in a landslide.” Death comes up more than once on Historian, and on “Pillar of Truth” it’s the loss of her grandmother that makes the singer question all the things she thought were unshakable: “I’m looking at you/ a pillar of truth/ turning to dust.” Amidst crumbling certainties, Dacus seeks refuge in inherited memory: “Raised in the age of the milkman/ I can’t claim to understand.” She’s telling her grandmother’s story—and in a season of doubt, it aligns her to something transcendent and true.

She’s not the only songwriter who’s thinking about the stories we tell about ourselves and about each other. Hell-On is the first Neko Case album in five years, and the best yet at marrying her tall tales and florid prose to suitably wrinkled, knotty musical backing. She favors impressionistic metaphor and dense imagery to Dacus’ stark confessions, but much of her album is similarly concerned with human agency as exerted through storytelling. “Halls of Sarah” interrogates the blurry line between inspiration and exploitation, remembering all the women who’ve served as muses, only to have their lives cannibalized for art: “You see our poets do an odious business/ Loving womankind as lions love Christians.” Meanwhile, “Curse of the I-5 Corridor” is a hazy and slanted autobiography that winds through memory and regret—diary entries and shaky reminiscences turned into personal legends.

Case made Hell-On with producer Björn Yttling of Peter, Björn, and John fame—an expert in literal bells and whistles who gives Case the most exquisitely detailed and lived-in production of her career, sounding at once dingy and ornate. She’s never sounded further from alt-country orthodoxy than she does on “Hell-On,” which opens with dancing marimba and clattering percussion that sound stolen from Tom Waits’ junkyard. Faded synths fray the edges of “Last Lion of Albion,” fueling the song’s sense of corrosion and decline. Even the liveliest moments feel well-worn: The sighing guitars on “Gumball Blue” make its power pop feel rust-covered, while handclap rhythms and girl group harmonies shake dust off of “Bad Luck.” But the record’s most leathery effect is the voice of Mark Lanegan, who brings a drifter’s uneasy gravitas to “Curse of the I-5 Corridor.”

Finally, we have a Neko Case album that sounds as gnarled and immersive as her songwriting. And she rises to the occasion with some of the most supple, allusive writing of her career. Hell-On certainly packs some winningly skewed Neko-isms, from winking self-deprecation in “Bad Luck” (“trying to pass riddles as poetry”) to a succinct gesture at oppressive masculinity in “My Uncle’s Navy” (“bullies are not born, they’re pressed into a form”), but its biggest narrative coup is how it both broadens and deepens the vernacular Case has been building her entire career. Case opened her last album with a song about “fighting to be wild,” and the one before that with a comparison of desire to a runaway tornado; she’s drawn to the natural world in its savage beauty and alluring danger, and Hell-On is full of references to rivers and shorelines, wildlife and unfurled stars. In Case’s songs, nature is dangerous yet vulnerable, something to be feared and nurtured all at once. When Case tells us to “be careful of the natural world,” it’s both a request for tenderness but also a word of warning. “Halls of Sarah” paints a picture of appropriation and abuse: “Men build their industries around you/ Diverting rivers in your hair/ They’re looking for their own reflection/ You’re left to die of exposure, Sarah.” There is an ominous undercurrent throughout the record, a feeling that the delicate things will only endure our mistreatment of them for so long.

But is Case singing about nature as nature—or nature as femininity? There’s no reason it can’t be both, though recent profiles, documenting how Case’s own story has been hijacked by powerful men, suggest that there’s autobiography lurking not too far inside these dense images. In other words, she’s doing the same thing as Lucy Dacus—crafting a personal mythology as a way to cope with uncertainty and doubt. In the last song, “Pitch or Honey,” she sings: “I love you better when you’re wild/ Suits you better if I say so.” It’s a line that echoes back through her entire body of song—a reminder that she’s still following her narrative thread, still engaging us in the story of her life.

Cry That River: Glen Hansard sets out for shore

betweentwoshores

Every sailor comes to a moment in the journey when arrival and departure are equidistant; when all that’s visible is endless sea, and the simple choice is to either turn back or keep moving forward. Irish singer and songwriter Glen Hansard is an accomplished mariner, and it was a seafaring adventure that inspired his new Between Two Shores. The album is populated with characters who are adrift, unable to see the shoreline, unsure of what comes next; each one faces either romantic dissolution or political unrest, and resolves to move forward despite their doubts. It’s an album about “movin’ on” and “setting forth,” as two different songs put it, choosing motion over stasis and trusting time to sort out the rest.

His characters have their trepidations, but Hansard has never sounded more assured. Between Two Shores is an album of supple craft, eschewing flash in favor of fundamentals: Hansard draws equally from his days as an arena rocker (“Roll On Slow” sweetens its bar-band grind with a full complement of E-Street horns) and a folk singer (“Movin’ On” is a spare, prickly acoustic number, sent up into the rafters by Hansard’s hearty yowl), and gracefully blurs the lines between the two (“Your Heart’s Not in It” has a rousing, rustic thump). He very nearly borrows a title from The Basement Tapes for “Wheels On Fire,” which rides a cantankerous organ groove and fumes at an unnamed political oppressor, and he captures the swaying R&B of Moondance-era Van Morrison for the pained ballad “Why Woman.” Hansard lets his craft drift into uncharted waters, too; a few songs were recorded with jazz drummer Brian Blade and members of his Fellowship band, and they recall the pastoral folk and blustery swirl of another Van Morrison era—Veedon Fleece and its stormy weather of the soul. All of this is comfort food—music that’s lived-in and wrinkled, warm and welcoming in its melancholy, as cozy and familiar as a favorite afghan, or perhaps just a favorite Nick Drake record. It’s the most satisfying Glen Hansard album yet—intimate, nakedly emotional, bolstered by writing that’s sturdy and direct, performances that are earnest and easygoing.

Rivers are important here, not only employed as metaphors for time’s onward push but also evoked through the slippery currents of the music. “Wreckless Heart” ebbs and flows with a lazy babble until a watery trumpet solo carries it off into the mystic. “Setting Forth,” meanwhile, conjures the sea’s steady pull, its piano-led verses gently insistent, rumbling percussion like dark clouds along the edges. And then there’s the benedictory flow of “Time Will Be the Healer,” a song that emanates endless tranquility, even as Hansard’s voice rises from a whisper to a howl. It’s the perfect encapsulation of the album’s emotional directness, its preference of plainspeak over oblique metaphor, its weathered determination; in it, Hansard acknowledges that the pain of a broken heart can seem unending, and that some days all you can hope to do is ride it out. He plays the role of the consoling friend—he can’t make the hurt go away, but he can offer the wisdom of someone who’s seen his share of scrape-ups: “Keep your friends and neighbors close at hand/ Stay busy with your wok and don’t give in/ To the bottle or your self-defeat again.” Indeed, much of Between Two Shores is concerned with staying afloat and pushing ahead through periods of doubt. In “Wreckless Heart,” when he says he’s going to “cry that river,” it sounds more like catharsis than despair, a willingness to acknowledge grief, be changed by it, and move on. But the album’s best song is “Setting Forth,” about being brave and hopeful as a matter of intention, and independent of external circumstances. “I’m setting forth/ with my instinct/ I’m setting forth/ With my doubts,” Hansard sings. Sometimes, in choppy waters, all you can do is keep sailing; as for where you’ll wind up, only time will tell.

Made for This: On quick study Cardi B

cardib

On her debut album, Invasion of Privacy, Cardi B raps that she was “made for this.” It sounds like a brag, but if anything, the typically cocksure MC is selling herself short. A relatively new kind of celebrity, Cardi B leveraged Instagram infamy for reality TV stardom before “Bodak Yellow” vaulted her into hip-hop’s upper echelon; even her haters won’t deny that she has God-given charisma, immense personal magnetism, and innate media savvy. What impresses the most about Invasion of Privacy, though, is how self­-made she sounds. Cardi kicked the album down the road a few times, delaying its release so that she could truly become a student of hip-hop—not just its culture, but its craft. She’s also spoken openly about working with ghostwriters, something that many rappers would decry as inauthentic. For Cardi, though, it’s a sign of her hustle: She’s made herself an apprentice in order to get really good, and really good she’s become. She’s got an encyclopedia of flows—compare her playful Caribbean lilt on “Be Careful” with the crisp, percussive boasts of “Money Bag.” At 25, she’s somehow old enough to remember when MCs filled their bars with jokes, in sharp contrast to the moodiness that’s settled over hip-hop in the streaming (read: Drake) era. (MVP zinger: “My little 15 minutes lasting long as hell.”) And her technical finesse isn’t the only way in which Invasion of Privacy feels classicist: It runs a relatively lean 13 songs with a clear opener (“Get Up 10,” an explosive scene-setter) and a definitive ending (“I Do,” a scorching, what-more-could-she-say denouement), all of which feels oddly out of place amidst the album-as-playlist ethos of Post Malone and Migos. It’s almost surprising that there aren’t any skits here, so vividly it recalls the glory days of mid-2000s rap blockbusters, yet there’s never a sense that Cardi’s a throwback; she’s simply studied up, made the effort to give her music a strong foundation of history and craft. “What bitch working hard as me?” she asked when “Bodak Yellow” first dropped, and she’s been backing it up ever since.

By doing the work and honing her chops, Cardi’s made a debut that’s self-assured, multi-dimensional, and consistently entertaining—but more than that, she’s developed the vocabulary she needs to tell her story, combining personal flair with a familiar vernacular. Her hip-hop scholarship goes deep enough that she can pull its most shop-worn tropes into her service; Invasion of Privacy is structured around her actual rags to riches story, and fame and money are invoked throughout not just for their material value, but as spiritual tokens, metaphors for how her self-made hustle has already born fruit. “Look, they gave a bitch two options/ Stripping or losing,” she says at the album’s outset, and it’s hard not to think of Jay Z’s famous don’t-try-this-at-home admonishments (“Like I told you sell drugs/ No, Hov did that/ So hopefully you won’t have to go through that.”) Hers is neither a cautionary tale nor a story for direct emulation; she’s merely testifying to her personal road to redemption. Aggressively vulgar and unrelentingly antagonistic, Cardi is conversant with hip-hop’s most combative strands, and on Invasion of Privacy she takes the genre’s most hallowed subject matter (i.e., why I’m doper than you) and bends it toward feminism. KRS-One famously compared hip-hop lyrics to “confidence sandwiches,” and Cardi’s come fully loaded; she’s done everything her male counterparts can do, backwards and in high heels, so she’s earned the right to clap back at Hov on “Drip” (“Anna Mae got cake by the pound,” she taunts, a belated but definitive answer to Jay’s controversial “Drunk in Love” line) and to offer a femme flip to Project Pat on “Bickenhead,” a song that weaponizes sex and has men getting played (“Spread them ass cheeks open, make that pussy crack a smile/ Lock your legs ‘round that nigga, make him give your ass a child”). On the chorus, Cardi laughs all the way to the bank: “Get some guap, guap, get some chicken/ guap guap, get some bread.”

Impeccable though she is in her old-school craft, Cardi’s no retro act. She’s perfectly comfortable with modernity, navigating trap beats and hazy sound effects on “Drip,” a Migos team-up that’s as good as anything on Culture II. (Takeoff’s speakerbox-rattling, doubled-timed verse is one of the year’s best, yet even he can’t steal the spotlight from Cardi.) And even though she’s mostly coloring within the lines, her oversized personality spills out all over the place: Witness the joyous energy of her boom-bap Bronx boogaloo, “I Like It,” where Cardi’s home-town pride is so infectious, the only term for it is roots music; she plays with dialect, with flow, and with history itself, flipping a Pete Rogriguez sample into something that’s of a piece with Latin pop circa 2018 but also proudly in hip-hop’s wheelhouse. “Best Life,” one of the album’s lynchpin tracks, brings Chance the Rapper on board to interrogate success and connect Cardi’s materialism to divine blessing; the song’s prosperity gospel isn’t as nuanced as what Chance offered on Coloring Book, yet it allows Cardi to bring a certain cosmic awareness to her rise-to-stardom story: “I got further than them hoes said I will ever get/ and that only goes to show that only God knows.”

Not that she’s too eager to share credit with the Almighty; “I did this on my own,” Cardi boasts, unashamedly self-made. But success is seldom uncomplicated, and Invasion of Privacy’s triumphalism leaves a little room for self-doubt. Behind its barreling aggression, “Money Bag” reveals the insecurities of a suddenly-rich person who frankly has no idea what to do with all her cash. Perhaps it is telling as well that on the most intimate song here, a slow crawl “Thru Your Phone,” the dominant emotion is mistrust. It’s worth noting that Invasion of Privacy came out around the same time as Kali Uchis’ Isolation, a declaration of independence but also a reminder that it’s lonely at the top. Meanwhile, Janelle Monae’s new Dirty Computer, like Cardi’s record, celebrates liberation but does so in the context of familiar traditions and institutions (in Monae’s case, actual elder statesmen, from Prince to Stevie to Brian Wilson, play pivotal roles throughout the album). Invasion of Privacy asserts its auteur’s hustle and testifies to her unique point of view, even as it hints at both the cost of success and the tried-and-true structures needed to achieve it. Maybe, in the end, no one’s truly self-made after all.

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

tree of forgiveness

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

isolation

“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.