On Humanity or Myself: The majesty and menace of Iceage

beyondless

What does it even mean to be a rock and roll band in 2018? There’s more than one answer, of course, some more satisfactory than others. If you’re in Greta Van Fleet, you may understand your charge to be equal parts torch-bearing and opportunism, exploiting Led Zeppelin cosplay to preserve in amber a particular lineage, with any luck seducing Spotify’s rock algorithms along the way. If you’re one of the Twenty One Pilots, meanwhile, you may feel unencumbered to renegotiate what rock even means as a taxonomy— or at least a marketing term— while betraying tenuous allegiance to its tropes and traditions. Iceage has the best idea of all: reassembling rock’s most familiar building blocks in a way that’s bracingly anarchic and unpredictable. That’s the highest praise imaginable for an album like Beyondless, which crackles with majesty and menace: It makes rock and roll sound dangerous again, using time-tested motifs and ideas to create the illusion you’ve never heard anything quite like it.

You can discuss the album through a list of its influences, but it wouldn’t quite convey the record’s exhilaratingly off-balance equilibrium— how it sounds sure-footed and lawless, swaggering and implosive. By all means, talk about how the group borrows from Johnny Thunders’ arsenal of buzz saw guitar riffs and chattering sound effects— but also be sure to mention the queasy cabaret number “Showtime,” where they zero in on the quality that truly made the New York Dolls dangerous and ahead of their time—how they took trashy theatricality dead-seriously, their lack of irony dogged and demented. You can also mention Iceage’s deployment of acoustic flourishes on “Under the Sun,” but be sure to mention how their spindly folk always sounds sinister and alienating; when they go rustic, it’s not to conjure the comforts of home, but the hard-boiled torment of a murder ballad. Like any good rock record, you can also describe this one by enumerating its forms of movement: “Hurrah” is a bruiser right out of the gate, hurtling forward with waves of tremulous bass and a distorted Chess Records riff, while “Thieves Like Us” patiently builds from a country shuffle into a howling boogie. “Catch It” is thunderous and slow, but “Pain Killer” almost qualifies as an anthem, buoyant horns lifting it out of its Exile on Main Street murk. Consider it an argument for one of rock’s most enduring value proposition: Transcendence through trash; uplifting primitivism.

Seedy and literate in equal measure, the songs on Beyondless find their perfect narrator in Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, who slurs his way through tales of decay and debauchery, filtered through skewed poetry. Never exactly aloof but also not as alarmed as you think he should be, Rønnenfelt is a kind of bemused oracle; the world is burning, but at least it makes for a crackling good yarn. He waxes apocalyptic on “The Day the Music Dies,” which rattles and hums with bad omens, and on “Hurrah,” he channels a soldier intoxicated with bloodlust. It’s a song about state-sanctioned violence, told in a language any plutocrat could understand—the language of capitalism! (“I was told to protect and serve/ But I’m here to supply a demand,” he grins.) What gives these signs o’ the times such intrigue is that, as he drifts through crumbling streets, Rønnenfelt can’t shake the corrosion in his own soul—what Richard Thompson might call “the rattle within.” On “Plead the Fifth,” he’s racked by guilt: “Unravel and come undone/ plead the fifth on all accounts.” On “Beyondless,” he’s a faithless lover, borrowing his half-hearted apology from a Dylan classic: “If you think I am the pillar which you needed/ Believe me, dearest, it ain’t me.” These songs are hard-boiled and unflinching, but also invigorating; from the abattoir of Rønnenfelt’s imagination blooms a florid storytelling, equal parts Tom Waits impressionism and midnight-black Nick Cave comedy. The best yarn here is “Thieves Like Us,” which begins with Rønnenfelt filing a restraining order—“on humanity or myself.” It’s a fine line between misanthropy and self-loathing, and the song only ratchets up the urgency from there, both in its feverish narration and its locomotive rhythm. “Hush as I spill my wayward theory,” Rønnenfelt sings, the barstool philosopher calling his grotesque salon to attention. He’s not the first to tell this tale, but you’ll hardly remember when you’ve heard it told with such panache.

Deep in the Railroad: Black Thought & Salaam Remi make old rap new again

Traxploitation

“The rap John Henry/ They send me deep in the railroad,” boasts Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought. It’s the perfectly low-key self-mythology for a gifted technician who’s always been about the grind, eschewing flashy short cuts for refinement of craft, exhibiting a steel-driving work ethic from his prodigy days to his current station as a hip-hop oracle and survivor. The Black Thought value proposition is the same as ever, lyrical excellence, thrills derived from pure technique, head-snapping couplets and multilayered quotables. The fruit of his labor includes an enviable catalog with The Roots (see Things Fall Apart, undun), institutional approval (see Jimmy Fallon, Lin-Manuel Miranda), and a growing consensus that he is at once underrated and a serious GOAT candidate. With Streams of Thought Vol. 2Traxploition if you’re nasty— he finally has the one crown jewel he’s lacked: A brainy and ballistic solo album, nine perfectly-honed bangers that give Thought’s rhymes the opulent framing they’ve always deserved. As ever, he’s put his back into it, and he’s triumphed on his own terms, mining white-knuckle exhilaration from verbal skill and luxurious soul beats. Almost 20 years after he promised us the next movement, here he pledges “the new shit”—the joke being that his old-head rap is executed with such flair and bravado, it sounds more advanced than any of the deconstructions and mutations you’ll hear from the younger cats. This isn’t throwback rap, but the platonic ideal. “Child rhymers don’t come at the old timers,” he quips on “Long Liveth,” and it’s not get-off-my-lawn so much as kiss-the-ring. The warning is persuasive: After decades of going deeper and working harder than anyone else, the rap John Henry finally has his submission form for untouchability, a master class in speaker-rattling, mind-expanding proficiency.

The mantra here isn’t reinvention so much as reclamation, an exhibition of traditional rap tropes as creatively fertile and emotionally rousing. Thought’s partner is Salaam Remi, a noted beatmaker well-credentialed for his work with Amy Winehouse and Nas. His aesthetic is streamlined splendor, and here he draws on the blaxpolitation soundtrack palette—think crisp snare pops, head-bobbing bass, humming oboes, trilling flutes—to create loose, live-sounding environments for the MC’s unrelenting flow. The result sounds like The Roots’ analog warmth blown up to symphonic scope, meaning Black Thought’s rhymes finally have the regality to match their diamond-cut precision. Check the gold-plated, vibranium-girded “Streets,” where a declaiming Black Thought is the center of gravity for soaring string arpeggios and clattering low-end rumble. What Vol 2. offers that its fine 9th Wonder-produced antecedent didn’t is breathing room; that five-song quickie was a throat-clearing exercise in sheer density, but here there’s a little more elasticity, funk, and finesse. Listen to how the tight Rat Pack groove on “Get Outlined” unravels into sax skronk and clattering percussion,” or to the way “How to Hold a Choppa” cools down for Thought to ruminate over cooing woodwinds and rattling hand percussion. There’s aggression, too, usually in quick bursts: “History Unfolds” is a clenched rock and roll brawler, while “Long Liveth” festoons its thunderous boom-bap with twinkling chimes, an immaculately bejeweled bludgeon.

Black Thought is “the breadwinner, dead center, head-spinner” in all this, not so much preaching black excellence as personifying it—embellishing, enjambing, flipping similes, creating dense webs of language that seldom leave room for proper choruses or hooks. (And when he does need a hook, he can sing it himself, as he does on the album-closing R&B bop “Conception,” credited to his Reek Ruffin alias.) He’s not the first rapper to wax cerebral about his own dopeness, but there’s a special pleasure in what Black Thought does here: Some rappers get duller as they age, but his years of dues-paying bear out in incredible linguistic punch and precision. He holds court like the statesman that he is, in a way that’s not unlike Pusha-T’s wizened oration on DAYTONA—the difference being that Pusha’s a coke-rap specialist where Thought’s porous imagination leaves more room for empathy and intersection. “Fentanyl,” the loose tumble of jazz that opens this set, could almost be a rejoinder to Pusha’s dealer sagas (“real drugs do real things,” intones Black Thought); meanwhile, where so many rappers connect black excellence to capitalism, Black Thought largely eschews Rollies and Benzes in favor of a less materialistic approach. “Save us, Sammy Davis, Belafonte, Quincy Jones/ Mahatma Gandhi, James Baldwin, Jesse Owens,” he calls out on “Streets,” an invocation of the ancestors that sets up Black Thought’s own tragedy-to-triumph memoir: “I changed from a rock boy to a rock star/ Hijack the elevator to the top floor/ I’m takin’ everything that’s left like a southpaw.” His expert braggadocio is grounded in stark realities. “What I’m haunted by is knowing where the bodies are buried,” he admits on “Soundtrack to Confusion,” and he unearths a few of them on “How to Hold a Choppa,” where he just needs 90 seconds to connect chattel slavery and lynchings to the prison industrial complex—all part of the ongoing “war on the heavily melanated.” When he pivots from the political history to family affairs, it lands like a sucker punch: “Now am I wrong if I teach my son to properly hold a choppa/ and how to bring down a helicopter?” More than one song speaks of blindness (“if you can’t see what’s happenin’, you just can’t see”), but the rap John Henry has been bearing witness for decades now. “I had a black thought and they called it wokeness,” he quips. He’s been saying this shit for years, and with greater eloquence than anyone else; the rest of us are still trying to catch up to Black Thought.

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 gifted 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 stature 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.

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 steely resolve. But that’s just part of the story: Desperate Man is tenacious but also reflective, and Church spends most of it articulating the lessons hard knocks have taught him.

It’s an album about how hardship leaves us clinging to the essentials– and appropriately, it’s the most succinct album he’s ever made. Unexpectedly, after some early albums that felt gangly in their ambition, Church has gotten good at getting to the point. He 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 condensed Church’s outsider attitude and sly eclecticism. Desperate Man runs a tight 36 minutes, and Church’s prog-rock fantasies only surface once, 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; instead, it’s unostentatiously catholic. 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 all atmosphere, a woozy immersion in 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). He’s scaled the charts without compromising his outsider image; he does things his way, and just happens to generate hits along the way. It’s not hard to imagine him finding another one with “Hippie Radio,” a fleet-fingered ramble through classic Pontiacs and FM glory; its multi-generational storytelling finds just the right shade of sepia. Even more perfect is “Some of It,” which stitches 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. This is a master class in country songwriting– a song where concrete particulars add up into something that’s universal (as opposed to general.)

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 who sometimes seem bound by their traditionalism in a way Church never does. He loves old-time country but he’s 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. There’s a freedom to these recordings, a comfort both with history and modernity, that opens up plenty of avenues for expression.

And what Church expresses here is heartache and resilience. Like Mr. Misunderstood, Desperate Man has the feel of smudged autobiography; the writing isn’t confessional but it does reflect Church’s emotional state. 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 once: “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 anyone 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.