In the Middle of the Worst of It: Pistol Annies on fire

Pistol Annies cover art

The Pistol Annies—Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley—have about a hundred different superpowers between them. Truth-telling, trash-talking, myth-making, hell-raising—their virtuosity runs both deep and wide. One thing none of them are great at is sugar-coating, and on Interstate Gospel—their third and most accomplished album—they are proudly, defiantly, even confrontationally unvarnished. “I’m in the middle of the worst of it,” Monroe sings toward the start of the album—and then comes the knife twist: “These are the best years of my life.” The group has always written about women deep in the shit—sometimes dumped upon them, sometimes self-generated—yet even their most desperate protagonists take the shitstorm in stride. Most weather it with their sense of humor intact; some come through it newly self-reflective; more than a handful are aided by booze or pills, and try though you might you can’t blame them. Interstate Gospel may be the most troubled Pistol Annies record yet, stacked with songs about divorce and regret, but this is a band whose jocularity and compassion seem directly proportional to the enmity faced by their characters. In other words, this is also their most rollicking, joyful, and confident album, the one with the funniest jokes, the most sophisticated blend of hazy autobiography and richly-detailed fiction. “We’re on fire, I think,” Lambert muses at one point, and it’s a line with double meaning—both a statement of emergency but also a not-so-humble acknowledgement that the Pistol Annies are on a hot streak.

That streak encompasses at least a half dozen classic albums between them, estimating conservatively; Monroe’s Sparrow, striking for how it finds room for personal expression within an established lineage, came out just a few months ago. It’s masterful in a different way than Lambert’s contemplative The Weight of These Wings or Presley’s razor-edged Wrangled, and one of the chief accomplishments of Interstate Gospel is how it showcases each Annie’s individuality but also the strength in their bond; the specificity of what each Annie does is sharpened, not flattened, by their fellowship. Maybe that’s why they chose to open the album, after a quick prelude, with “Stop, Drop, and Roll One,” a band introduction and theme song. (“One’s got the Tylenol, one’s got the Adderall, one’s got a drink in her hand,” they summarize, and if you’re not sure who’s who, just listen to when each voice enters the scene.) Presley’s verse on the song showcases the ease and economy with which she can tell a story: “Get this thing off of me, where in the hell is my bra?/ This hurts a lot more than the last time we did Mardi Gras.” Meanwhile, “Leavers Lullaby,” a goodbye letter from a woman born to run, is voiced by Monroe, reflecting a thematic strain that would have fit neatly among Sparrow’s assembly of gypsy hearts and wanderers. “Best Years of My Life” opens with a line that seems like a Monroe special—“I picked a good day for a recreational Percocet”—yet it’s almost more satisfying to imagine the line penned for her by an alternate Annie, the fruit of their sisterly camaraderie and intermingled sensibilities.

As for Lambert, she can’t help but be at the epicenter of what’s nearly a divorce album. Her severed ties with Blake Shelton comprise the most tabloid-worthy breakup among the Annies, and she addressed the matter at length on The Weight of These Wings, a double album where she took stock, admitted fault, and largely found virtue in Being the Bigger Person. Somehow, singing divorce songs under the Pistol Annies banner frees her to chronicle dissolution and its aftermath with an expanded range of emotions, including grief, shame, liberation, and glee. The grief and the shame come primarily in “Masterpiece,” a late-album stunner performed almost as a Lambert solo track, and of a piece with The Weight of These Wings. Here she agonizes over oblivion, anguishing over all the hard work that can go into keeping a marriage afloat just for it to capsize anyway (“like nothing ever happened,” she laments). Considerably perkier is “Got My Name Changed Back,” a courtroom jamboree that turns lemons into lemonade and a divorce settlement into rebirth (“Now who I was ain’t who I be/ I got my name changed back,” Lambert exults). That’s the Interstate Gospel prism, one where it can be easier to see the joy and relief in separation than in sticking it out. There’s no sadder line on the album than the pungent country one-liner Lambert lets loose on “Best Years of My Life,” about a woman who’s stuck: “He don’t love me but he ain’t gone yet.” Meanwhile, each Annie gives voice to wisdom and the healing power of time on “When I was His Wife,” a song of experience if ever there was one. “His love was enough to keep me satisfied/ I said that too when I was his wife,” sings Monroe, another leaver’s confession.

Pistol Annies are uniquely adroit at upholding the Lady Bird doctrine, where paying careful attention is really an act of love. That’s true even when their impish humor and their passion for archetypes veer close to cartoonishness; their empathetic streak is always there to save them. Less caring writers would let “Cheyenne” lapse into cliché, what with its protagonist who loves trashy tattoos and country music. When Lambert hits the longing in the chorus—“If I could treat love like Cheyenne/ If I could be just as cold as the beer in her hand”—it feels like the most nakedly autobiographical sentiment on the whole album. Likewise, the randy “Sugar Daddy” could have been a lark (“My sugar daddy’s got a rhinestone suit/ Got a snake in his boot,” Monroe coos), but it’s noteworthy here for its brazen celebration of feminine agency. Their propensity for empathetic nuance brings unresolvable ache to “Milkman,” which tries to unravel the complicated threads connecting mothers and daughters but ultimately tangles them further; and to “Commissary,” which addresses addiction and enablement by putting the tough in tough love.

Of the three Pistol Annies records, Interstate Gospel sounds the most sure-footed as it straddles country’s past and its present; it prizes both traditionalism and pop punch, and it sounds classicist without fetishizing analog austerity. (This catholic conception of country marks some of the year’s most enthralling albums, including Eric Church’s Desperate Man and Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour.) Working with producer Frank Liddell, who helmed all of Lambert’s solo joints, the Annies give equal statue to close harmonies and thunderous drums, finger-picked acoustics and fuming electric blues. The title song is an old-timey frenzy, pounding church pianos colliding with rollicking bluegrass. Presley’s biblical dad jokes (“Jesus is the bread of life, without him you’re toast”) split the difference between Grand Old Opry cornpone and Dixie Chicks irreverence. Elsewhere, “Cheyenne” lilts to a folksy fiddle, while “Sugar Daddy” crackles with loose electricity. These arrangements manage to surprise without ever seeming ostentatious: Listen to how “Got My Name Changed Back” ends on an Andrews Sisters high, or to how “5 Acres of Turnips” morphs from sepia-tinged regret into a psychedelic dream sequence.

It’s that song that may be Interstate Gospel’s true lynchpin: In a rural multi-generational epic, the Annies whisper about dark family secrets. (No specific allegations are made, but there’s talk of “generations of shame” and ominous holes in the ground.) But when the lurching honky-tonk blossoms to its coda, Presley sings amazing grace: “Something beautiful comes out of this dirt,” she declares. Just like that, deep shit is redeemed, through good humor, joyful intent, and sheer force of will—proof of the Pistol Annies’ superpowers working at their peak.

Something Like Stardust: On Robyn’s out-of-date emotions

honey

“They wrote a song about us/ It’s called something like stardust,” sings Robyn on Honey, a haunted masterclass in pop effervescence and emotional plainspeak. Or maybe that’s something like “Stardust,” the Hoagy Carmichael standard about how love is beautiful but never lasts. Disarming though it may be to hear the future-pop auteur and self-described “fembot” reciting from the dog-eared pages of the Great American Songbook, it’s a trustworthy compass blade for Honey’s lovelorn mood and heart-on-sleeve candor. This music is ravishingly emotional, but it’s also stoically utilitarian and subtly cerebral. It’s made to wash over you, a blissful current of deep feels, but also to provide helpful paradigms for self-care, and even to interrogate pop music’s vocabulary of grieving and resilience. You can enjoy the record on whichever of those levels you like, but what you’re probably going to want to do is just sit with it a while: Honey is a warm cocoon of an album. It offers you space in which to luxuriate. Its greatest virtue is its space-filling, mood-altering presence, guaranteed to change the weather in any room where it’s played.

It’s the first full-length Robyn has made under her own name since 2010’s Body Talk, and its gestation was anything but balmy. There was the death of a musical confrere; romantic dissolution; ongoing psychoanalysis; then at last, reconciliation with her lover. Honey maps it all out with diaristic precision; its nine songs are presented in the order in which they were written, and it’s the rare album that benefits from such a deeply confessional chronology. Its rhythms are those of hurt and healing; self-discovery and sustained vulnerability. It charts an emotional journey, something reflected in how the album blossoms; it’s disconsolate at first, then soul-searching, and in the end sanguine.

Robyn used the album’s themes as incubators for its sound. Her back pages are resplendent with bangers, tight and punchy singles drawn with clean lines and irresistible hooks, some of them shepherded into being with pop ninja Max Martin. (Body Talk was lined with self-contained stunners: “Indestructible,” “Love Kills,” “Time Machine,” etc.) Honey is ostensibly banger-free, though “Between the Lines” at least qualifies as a low-key thumper. (Your taxonomies may vary.) Working with a revolving panel of producers—Martin not among them—Robyn remains a redoubtable practitioner in sparkling pop perfection, but here her four-on-the-floor steeliness is softened; opening song “Missing U” shimmers and glows, its beats seeming to dissolve into glitter as soon as they hit the air. It’s a fitting tactility for a song that portrays a love like stardust, sparkling and ephemeral; “this residue is all I’ve got,” Robyn croons, a fembot rusting in her own tears (and only she could make a word like “residue” glisten the way it does here). “Baby Forgive Me” exemplifies Robyn’s new approach—“soft ecstasy,” she calls it—by unfolding with layer upon delicate layer of ethereal synths and whispered harmonies; it’s quiet but insistent, gentle in its caress but propulsive in its momentum. These songs mirror the singer’s state of mind—vulnerable, unguarded, but still committed to forward motion.

She pairs her new softness with songs that are a little more borderless than usual. She can still draw those clean lines—check the string-swept disco pop “Because It’s in the Music,” an uncorked bottle of wistful nostalgia—but in other instances she works in free form, as on the swirling “Send to Robin Immediately,” which boasts some of her sharpest hooks but is more like a trance than a pop single. The loungy exotica of “Beach2k20” hardly qualifies as a song at all; it’s a vibe, a five-minute working holiday in the world’s hippest elevator. The porousness of these songs has thematic resonance: As “Send to Robin Immediately” fades in she’s still singing the lyrics from “Baby Forgive Me,” suggesting feelings that bleed into each other and don’t always fit into tidy compartments.

Those feelings can be stumbling blocks for the singer. “All these emotions are out of date,” she laments on the heavy-hearted “Human Being,” her red-bloodedness a glowing ember against the song’s android pulse. On “Missing U,” she’s burdened by memories. “Don’t know how to use ‘em,” she admits—yet Honey is ultimately about how you can use brokenness and loss. The melancholy is immersive, especially in the album’s first half, but the point isn’t to wallow; it’s to feel, to give validation to grief, to be changed and to move on. “Baby Forgive Me” comes from a place of contrition, and advocates for generosity and reconciliation over relational politics; “You got the power/ You set the price/ But baby, be fair/ Be nice,” the song pleads. “Send to Robin Immediately” underscores the urgent need for candor: “If you got something to say/ I need to hear it.” (Isn’t it Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians that admonishes us not to let the sun go down without confessing the contents of our secret hearts?) Even the tropical holiday in “Beach2k20” has a therapeutic undercurrent: Sometimes the most soothing balm, for a troubled relationship or for precarious mental health, is just to get away.

Though Honey largely skips dancefloor heat in favor of easygoing sways, it’s still very much music nourished by bodily intimacy. That’s true of “Honey,” the album’s fulcrum, an overflow of warm eroticism following the album’s chillier first half, and it’s true in “Human Being,” which finds something tangible and grounding in physical closeness. By extension, Honey is an analysis of how the music that moves our bodies can also move our emotional needle. It gets pretty meta in “Because It’s in the Music,” about the power of a song to conjure unbidden ghosts; this is where “Stardust” is invoked, yet the song slowly becomes its own subject matter, a trigger for pained memories. Honey ends with “Ever Again,” funk that comes on soft and insistent. (The song channels Prince in how its kinetics are so smooth; it’s a body-mover in stealth mode.) Here, all the ghosts are banished; “that shit’s out the door,” Robyn says, then vowing that she’s “never gonna be brokenhearted ever again.” It’s a promise that even she must know can’t be kept, but pop music isn’t first and foremost a place for logic and argument; it’s a place for feeling, and Robyn’s inward-looking pop fantasia earns the right to end with one of the most indelible ones of all—the feeling of being indestructibly in love.

A Remedy for Nothingness: Noname avoids oblivion

room 25

“There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time,” the composer John Cage once wrote. “There is always something to see, something to hear.” Is it possible that Fatimah Warner—the 27-year-old Chicago rapper and poet who performs as Noname—meditated on these words while crafting her first proper album, Room 25? Packing a density of ideas into a sleek 34-minute package, the album seems to exist as a repudiation to emptiness. Noname flits from subject to subject, often within the space of a single couplet, and her rich tumble of language avoids the temptation to impose order on political anxiety, sexual vulnerability, or the awkwardness and the sadness that come with growing up. Our brains are conditioned to shutter these things off into discreet hierarchies, but Room 25 arrives as a kind of re-conditioning, an affirmation that all of these things matter, that everything we come across is to the point. If the album is about any one thing, perhaps the critic Briana Younger is right that it’s about coming of age; another way to look at it is that it’s about intersectionality, the overlap of lived realizations. Shunning the nihilism that’s long been hardwired into hip-hop—whether in Wu Tang Clan’s violent fatalism or in Run the Jewels’ embrace of the abyss—Noname’s music doesn’t abide the possibility of meaninglessness. What she does is closer to Outkast’s elevation of black eccentricity, or Beastie Boys’ pan-cultural interconnectedness: She invests everything with the weight of significance, and in doing so reckons joyfully even with fear and trauma, allowing that life as a young black woman is painful but never conceding that it’s senseless. Her album is—to borrow one of her own phrases—“a remedy for nothingness.”

Room 25’s posture of meaningfulness extends even to its purposeful embrace of hip-hop heritage. Noname made the album with producer Phoelix, and together they offer a more robust and varied update on the airy sounds of the Telefone mixtape. Reductive though it may be to liken her to one of the year’s other dynamic ladies of rap, it’s illuminating to consider how Noname’s approach coincides with Cardi B’s; both of them bring unique vision and personality to traditionist hip-hop sensibilities, but where Cardi B’s scaffolding is the big blockbuster rap albums of the early 00s, Noname roots herself in the analog allure of the Soulquarians—think Mama’s Gun or Things Fall Apart. (It’s telling that she name-drops D’Angelo on “Don’t Forget About Me.”) There are subtle psychedelics swirling around the edges of these songs—listen to the orchestral billow that lifts “Window,” or to the flutter of strings that caresses “Regal”—yet there’s nothing flashy or ostentatious about these tracks, most of them built on live band interplay. “Blaxploitation” lives up to its name without any need for horns or congas or chicken-scratch guitar; it’s plenty evocative with just a sleek undercurrent of fat bass, adding up to two tight minutes of low-end theorizing. “Don’t Forget About Me” sounds earthy and moth-eaten with its organ hum and slow handclap percussion, while “Montego Bae” navigates rhythmic twists and turns with the finesse of a samba (or at least Mos Def’s “Casa Bey”). When Noname does engage modern tropes, it’s not through the trap beats of Migos, but rather through the glossy keyboard tones and church-choir harmonies of Chance the Rapper, with whom she’s collaborated repeatedly; consider the glossy fade-in of “Self” or the spacy jazz of “With You.” The record’s lived-in sound is endlessly appealing, but also thematic: What it suggests is that, even as Noname testifies to the joys and sorrows of making her way in the world, she knows she’s walking a trail that’s been well-trod before.

Noname was a poet before she became an MC, and her performances sparkle with crisp enunciation and linguistic invention. She values verbal precision enough that, when she can’t locate a word for the existential dread that keeps black people awake at night, she coins her own (“I’m struggling to simmer down/ maybe I’m an insomni-black”). Such dread darkens the edges of this colorful album, as on “Prayer Song,” where skeletons still rattle in America’s closets: “I was lost but thinking I was truly free/ Darkness lingers in the wake of slavery/ Hold me close, don’t let me fall into the deep.” Ephemerality is an ongoing worry, too. “I know my body’s fragile, know it’s made from clay,” she raps in “Don’t Forget About Me,” but the fear that keeps her up at night isn’t just death—it’s oblivion. Room 25 feels haunted by the ghosts of black people whose bodies were transmuted into gold and tobacco and cotton; and by the women whose testimonies to abuse and injustice have been swept into silence. These are two different kinds of negation, but Room 25 is the portrait of a young artist who chooses joy over abyss. On the brink of erasure, she revels in her own tongue-twisting dexterity, delighting in the sparks that fly as syllables collide (“Penny proud, penny petty pissing off Betty the Boop”). She has sex for the first time, and recounts it with giddy earnestness (“fuckin’ is fantastic”). She does work that she’s proud of (Telefone “saves lives,” we’re told, believably), but turns on a dime to deflate her own self-mythology (“the secret is, I’m actually broken”). And she savors friendship, as on “Ace,” a posse cut with Smino and Saba, one of the gentlest chest-thumps you’ll ever hear (“the radio niggas sound like they wearing adult diapers,” Noname boasts, but mere seconds later she’s moved on to the virtues in vegan cuisine). There is no empty space or empty time on this record; nothing in its web of meaning that scans as cursory or superfluous. “Don’t forget about me,” one song says, and those words hang over the entire record: A remedy for nothingness; an erasure resistance plan.