Guess it Was Something I Shouldn’t Have Done: Bruce Springsteen and the hunger of a lifetime

western stars

In “Western Stars,” the title song from his nineteenth studio album, Bruce Springsteen introduces us to a grizzled character actor. In his glory days, the man was a staple of cowboy pictures, back when there was still an appetite for such things; he even shared a scene with John Wayne. Now, he mostly catches checks by appearing in commercials, hawking credit cards and “that little blue pill that promises to bring it all back to you again.” But the unspoken tragedy of Western Stars is that nothing’s coming back to anybody; that things will never again be as they were. The shambling daredevil in “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” will never walk without a hobble. The runaway in “Chasin’ Wild Horses” can never return to the home he abandoned. The  country songwriter in “Somewhere North of Nashville” transmuted love into heartache and heartache into a tune, but there’s no alchemy in the world that can reverse the process and give him back what he lost. You get the sense that none of Springsteen’s weary men could join Bono in his paraphrase of the sinner’s prayer: “Reach me/ I know I’m not a hopeless case.” And they would likewise find little comfort in the haunted hymnal of Over the Rhine, who dare to hope that they’re “not too far gone” to get “undamned.” For Springsteen’s men, redemption is no longer a live option on the table. They have spent the prime of their life courting restoration; now in their twilight, they have to learn to make peace with their cavernous hollow. 

The political allegory writes itself. There is a palpable sense of irrevocable loss here, the dashed dreams these characters wrestle with suggestive of the vanishing American life Springsteen’s been lamenting almost since the beginning, never feeling less like a memory and more like a mirage than it does here. “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact/ But maybe everything that dies someday comes back,” sang Springsteen on a bleak album called Nebraska— but that was 25 years ago; and while Western Stars doesn’t sound as stark, its eschatology is just as unforgiving. Here Springsteen ends the album with a song called “Moonlight Motel,” named for what was once the site of a holy rendezvous between two young lovers. Now one of them visits the parking lot of the long boarded-up hotel by himself, drinking two shots of whisky and pouring a third one on the cold earth. Both the union and the site of its consummation are long gone, and they’re not coming back any more than the cowboy pictures, the American Dream, the middle class, the civilization we all thought would outlast us. (The burning question, same as ever: Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?)

Springsteen uses a musical shorthand to underscore these songs of time and its ravages, hearkening back to an era– was it real or imagined?– when popular music could be nakedly sad, unfold at a leisurely pace, and bear the warm countenance of luxuruous string sections and acoustic instruments. Replacing the muscle and majesty of the E-Street Band with the splendorous melancholy of a string section, Springsteen has made an album quite unlike any he’s made before, one that’s equally indebted to the crisp formalism of Burt Bacharach and the lush country of Glen Campbell. He counts a few familiar names among his list of collaborators– wife and harmonist Patti Scialfa, long-time fiddle accompanist Soozie Tyrell, producer Ron Aniello–  but the lyric sheet’s biggest tell is the name Jon Brion, who decorates several songs with drums and farisfas and celestes, recalling something of the gentle sparkle and easygoing opulence he’s brought to albums by Kanye West, Fiona Apple, and Brad Mehldau. The gentleness is key: Some albums are overwhelmingly disconsolate, but Springsteen’s melancholy is always warm, welcoming, and alluring; it envelopes you just like a Nick Drake record might, channelling an impressionistic vision of American vistas whose vivid Technicolor is slowly fading into washed-out pastel. In “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe,” Latin rhythms are ironed out into easy-listening exotica. “The Wayfarer” lilts and glides across luxuriant strings and chattering castanets. In “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” the string section creates a canopy of stars, while the high-and-lonesome steel guitar of boon sideman Greg Leisz keeps it earthbound and dusty. “Sundown” revisits the symphonic pomp of Born to Run’s Phil Spector-isms– and in what may be the album’s biggest surprise of all, Springsteen convinces that he’s actually gotten better at handling those big Roy Orbison operatics. 

Springsteen has spent close to 50 years mastering perspicuous metaphors for male malaise– many of them automotive!– and he’s gotten them so streamlined, so close to the bone that they just barely register as metaphors anymore. “I got two pins in my ankle and a busted collarbone,” sings the weathered narrator of “Drive Fast (The Stuntman).” “A steel rod in my leg, but it walks me home.” He’s a broken man; a man being held together. Other songs employ the language of prodigal sons. “Maps don’t do much for me, friend,” says the drifter in “Hitch Hikin.’” “When I go to sleep I can’t count sheep for the white lines in my head,” admits “The Wayfarer,” restless any time he’s not in flight. In “Tucson Train,” a heartbroken man waits at the station for his lover finally to return, years of separation giving way to possible jubilee. It’s the most brazenly hopeful song on the record, unless of course it’s really a study in self-delusion. Surely it is ominous that the song has the same premise and the same locomotive sound effects that conclude Frank Sinatra’s classic downer Watertown, where a possibly-crazy, probably-misguided fellow similarly waits for salvation coming down the rails. Both Springsteen and Sinatra allow their songs to fade to black before telling us how things turned out.

It is hard to think of many writers who capture men– their fracture and their resilience– with the same tenderness and specificity that Springsteen does. (Richard Russo?) He is clear-eyed in assessing their wretched estate, but invariably chooses affection and empathy over pity. “Guess it was something I shouldn’t have done,” understates the narrator in “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” the latest in a long line of Springsteen characters who went out for a ride and never came back. This is just the delicacy with which an old man might rue the mistakes of his youth: He’s candid about his regret but also careful not to make too much of it, lest his entire sense of self shatter like glass. The country songwriter in “Somewhere North of Nashville” isn’t so zen; he spends sleepless nights replaying the biggest mistakes of his life on an endless loop. “I traded you for this song,” he says into an empty room. Again you might think of a U2 line: “Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief/ First they kill their inspiration, then they sing about the grief.” And for what? “All I’ve got’s this melody and time to kill,” Springsteen sighs.

Of course, this character is no stretch for Springsteen, who’s been writing about men like this all his life. What distinguishes Western Stars is its sense of hard-earned wisdom. In “There Goes My Miracle,” a man sees his last chance at happiness walking out on him, never to return– and he’s been battered and bruised enough to call it for what it is rather than cushion the blow with florid prose. “Heartache, heartbreak/ Love gives, love takes,” goes one line, its moon-June rhymes suggesting a kind of wizened plainspeak. The narrator in “Hello Sunshine” is more enlightened still. “You know I always liked my walking shoes/ But you can get a little too fond of the blues,” he sings, the prodigal realizing that he’s wandered long enough. It’s a song about choosing hope as a matter of intention, and it resonates all the more for the many years Springsteen’s characters have stared into the abyss. Indeed, his catalog teems with young men who rant and rail, who roam far and wide looking for the missing piece, satisfaction for their hungry hearts. For the old men of Western Stars, there’s no piece to be found, no satisfaction good enough; slim odds at best for a third-act miracle or surprise salvation. If they find redemption, it’s in the peace they make with their fracture; the realization that the hunger lasts a lifetime. Maybe none of them find restoration, but at least some of them find rest.

The Past is Ash and Dust: John Paul White’s golden age

the hurting kind

“Darling, if we find a time machine/ the past’s the last thing that I want to see.” John Paul White sings those words on “Yesterday’s Love,” a tear-stained honky tonk number at the center of his handsome new collection The Hurting Kind, and at first the admission may baffle you. Certainly it sounds a little odd for White to eschew the good ol’ days in the middle of an album obviously and explicitly modeled on the values and aesthetics of a bygone era. “I had been burying my head in ‘countrypolitan’ stuff like Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline and early Roy Orbison, and a lot of Chet Atkins and Bill Porter records,” the singer explains. “I think I was doing that because I was looking for that style of music in today’s world, and for any artist doing that type of thing. Then I decided to make the kind of record that I wanted to sit down and listen to – one that I’ve been looking for and can’t find.” Chasing classicism, White schooled himself in vintage Nashville songsmithing, working closely with veteran pens like Bobby Braddock and Bill Anderson– writers whose formal inventions have become established conventions– as well as keepers of the flame like Jamey Johnson. The resulting 10 songs find the jagged emotion within supple craft, and White adorns them with all the right period detail– twinkling barroom piano, weeping pedal steel, guitars and drums, even the occasional swell of a string section. It’s an album steeped in history, yet it isn’t exactly a time machine. “While you try and chase the fading sun/ Oh, don’t you know it sets on everyone?” White asks; invoking the past while bristling against nostalgia, The Hurting Kind gleans lessons from days gone by while acknowledging the folly in trying to turn back the clock.

If White’s wrong about anything, it’s that they don’t make albums like this anymore. You can slot The Hurting Kind on the shelf beside Ashley Monroe’s Sparrow, Alison Krauss’ Windy City, perhaps even Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars— albums that move away from the austerity-as-authenticity ethos and suggest that lushness can be just as honest, just as sophisticated, and just as historical as music that’s made to be bare-bones and unadorned. White’s devotion to sturdy craft pays off with full-bodied arrangements that haul his emotional truths to the surface rather than burying them under schmaltz and polish; it’s a work of excavation, and White, along with co-producer Ben Tanner, employs sumptuous studio arrangements with scalpel precision, offering them as their own kind of emotional plainspeak. That’s the whole point of “I Wish I Could Write You a Song,” where the object of White’s affection is literally too beloved for words. (You might be reminded of Bob Dylan’s line: “All my powers of expression, I thought to sublime/ Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme.”) She deserves a masterpiece while he can’t even nail down a single verse to capture her splendor– so instead he offers this seething fever dream of lovestruck wonder and writers-blocked frustration, where ultimately it’s the lush color of the band that articulates what words can’t. (His robust voice, one of the best in country music, helps.) Meanwhile, the wounded closer “My Dreams Have All Come True” hijacks both the musical and lyrical vocabularies of Roy Orbison for a slo-mo, operatic trauma; acknowledging a relationship’s collapse, White sighs that it’s a reality sprung straight from his nightmares. Ghostly steel guitar flickers at the song’s periphery; it sounds like a house slowly evaporating into cinder and smoke.

The Hurting Kind is a record that’s respectful of tradition but skeptical of sentiment and memory– and you’ll hear all the proof you need in “James.” The sparest moment on the record, it’s mostly just White picking his guitar and quietly bearing witness to an aging Marine whose faculties are failing him; he can remember his drill instruction but he’s not entirely clear of your name, and White’s tender narration captures the sad resignation of a man whose sense of himself is slowly being whittled down to “odd bits and pieces.” He’s not the only character on the album who’s trying to maintain his bearings amidst time’s merciless churn. Lee Ann Womack stops by to  share romantic war wounds in an opulent, Grand Old Opry-style duet called “This Isn’t Gonna End Well”– as in, “when you kiss me I can tell this isn’t going to end well,” an admission that past heartaches yield a truncated future. White also has a gift for preserving moments of tension: Listen to the prickly “The Long Way Home,” where a travelling troubadour’s suitcase full of songs takes him farther and farther from his family. It’s a song born of friction, and White sings it like a man grasping for domesticity like a rope being jerked through his hands. Most harrowing of all is “The Hurting Kind,” which sensitively chronicles a woman trapped in an abusive marriage. “Love is hard to find/ but your love’s the hurting kind,” whispers White; with no salvation on the horizon, all she can do is retrace the steps that led her here, over and over in her head.

You can tell from White’s traditionalism that he understands the allure of golden-age thinking; and you can tell from the way his songs litigate nostalgia and question linear memory that he doesn’t quite trust it. He airs his incredulity in “Yesterday’s Love,” where “the good old days, well, they’re good and gone.” But his most withering critique of sentimentality comes amidst the sawing fiddles and ringing guitars of “The Good Old Days,” a study in human progress; noting that we’ve come so far and still have so far to go in realizing “the true and equal worth of every woman and every man,” White calls bullshit on back-in-my-day moralizing. “The past is ash and dust/ our best days are in front of us,” he pledges. He’s taking the long view, imagining an arc of history that ultimately bends toward justice. But until it does, we’re caught in time’s riptide, just trying our best to hang on. And if country music has taught us anything, it’s that sooner or later time makes fools of us all.

None of Us are Free But Some of Us are Brave: Jamila Woods watches her ancestors

legacy legacy

Somewhere in the multiverse, an alternate version of Jamila Woods’ LEGACY! LEGACY! exists in a state of unregenerate corniness, its songs to Zora Neale Hurston and Eartha Kitt taking the form of musical Wikipedia entries or Hamilton-style exposition, its invocation of Miles Davis bedecked with an obligatory trumpet solo, its conjuring of Muddy Waters landing right on the nose with its approximation of the Chess Records sound, its open letter to James Baldwin name-checking Fonny and Tish while cantilating shamelessly from The Fire Next Time. The album as bequeathed to us by our benevolent timeline is many things, but corny ain’t one. True enough: The Chicago singer, poet, and activist names each song here for an oracle– most but not all of them black Americans– but at every turn she resists rote hagiography or biographic recitation. What could have been a mausoleum feels more like a lively dinner party, Woods summoning her ancestors to the table for a cross-generational exchange of lived experience and ancient wisdom. It’s a cloud of witnesses that attests to a full spectrum of black struggle and black pride, and within that framework posits endless revelation concerning strength and vulnerability, identity and legacy, fear of man and love of enemy. As it happens, Woods’ “MILES” doesn’t include a single horn, though it does capture some of the clattering funk and in-the-red heroin intensity of Davis’ bristling 1970s recordings, just as its lyrics (“I’m better than your best”) recall the apocryphal tale of Miles sneering to a record label executive that he could cobble together a band that rocked 10 times harder than The Rolling Stones. Likewise, there is no obvious or literal blues facsimile in “MUDDY,” though it does ripple with crude, speaker-rattling bass and swagger with veneerless shit-talk (“Motherfuckers won’t shut up!” is how the song opens). And “BALDWIN,” the album’s dramatic apex, pairs Nico Segal’s spritely brass with meditations on how fear kills and love frees, codifying a committed discipleship to America’s most consequential chronicler. “My ancestors watch me,” Woods boasts on a song named for the poet Nikki Giovanni, yet it’s just as accurate to say that she’s watching the ancestors, keeping one eye on the counsel of the past and following their lead as she navigates the treacheries of the present.

Maybe the true multiverse is the one Woods carries inside her– the cultural lineage she harbors in her DNA and filters through her own distinct personality. “No one you can name is just that one thing they have shown,” Joe Henry once sang, and throughout LEGACY! LEGACY! Woods proves that she contains irreducible multitudes. “Must be disconcerting how I discombob your mold,” she shrugs on “ZORA,” sidestepping category and classification without breaking a sweat. Elsewhere, she cites the precedent of the ancients as all the authority she needs for endless reinvention. “I’m a fable,” she intones on a spacy meditation for Sun Ra, and in “EARTHA” she adopts a playful sing-song voice to narrate her move from people-pleasing into self-acceptance: “I used to be afraid of myself… now I’m too far grown for your plot.” The album-opening song for Betty Davis bears witness to a woman on the cusp of transformation; what begins as a jazz daydream morphs into cross-talking funk, a musical shorthand for personal rebranding. Even the sound of LEGACY! LEGACY! asserts its identity through plurality; the tracks– mostly from A-Slot, with pinch hits from Odd Couple and Peter Cottontale– form a seamless suite of R&B, consistent in mood but rich in detail, carefully perched between stylish, contemporary beats and the warm, analog allure of classics like Mama’s Gun and Voodoo. The jostling, tough-talking “ZORA” condenses the glitz of an orchestra into its lithe choruses, while “GIOVANNI” parts feathery synth clouds with an explosive electric guitar solo. A late-album song for Octavia Butler coos and rattles with blissed-out keyboard flourishes. The momentum never wanes, and the banger ratio is 100 percent.

The surfaces of the album may glisten, but there’s trauma beneath them– and you don’t have to dig very deep to find it. Like the remarkable Songs of Our Native Daughters record, released earlier this year, Woods’ album lingers long over violence enacted on black bodies, and black women in particular. A song inspired by the poet Sonia Sanchez meditates on the legacy of chattel slavery, and extends the blessing of moral clarity; “it was bad,” Woods summarizes, a verdict that startles in both its simplicity and its weight. From there, a guest rap from Nitty Scott traces scars that have been carried for generation upon generation, and exhorts careful self-inventory: “Do you love yourself? Are you healing your trauma?” It’s not just physical bodies that are plundered, but also bodies of work, and several songs wrestle for a sense of autonomy over creative output. Amidst bleating keyboards and skittering drums, “MILES” pokes a big middle finger in the eye of the minstrel tradition: “In the old country/ you could make me tap dance, shake hands, yes ma’am/ but I’m a free man now,” Woods struts, rattling off her rhymes with crisp enunciation that a lot of rappers would kill for. Meanwhile, the song for Muddy Waters celebrates a blues vernacular so rooted in experience, it can’t be commodified or contained: “They can study my fingers/ they can mirror my pose/ they can talk your good ear off/ oh, what they think they know.”

There’s also a song for artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose work provided the title for the most recent Jon Batiste album; it’s based on an interview where Basquiet was asked to name the source of his anger. He smiled rakishly and refused his interlocutor the satisfaction of an answer. Woods turns it into a study in emotional freedom, an admission that even anger is something that can be hijacked if you’re not quick to claim ownership. Like everything else here, she sings it with an ineffable cool, and a twisty guest verse from theMIND simmers but never boils, Slot-A building percolating funk through call-and-response vocals and fleet cymbal work. LEGACY! LEGACY! calls injustice for what it is but never quite rages, choosing positivity not so much out of high-mindedness but rather as an instinct for survival (“fear ain’t no way to live,” reads one morsel of ancient wisdom). “SUN RA” imagines simply ceding the planet to evildoers and staking a new world somewhere in the cosmos– it’s sort of the flipside to A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Space Program”– while “ZORA” locates the righteous value in being the bigger person; “My weaponry is my energy/ I tenderly fill my enemies with white light,” Woods affirms. And in “BALDWIN,” hate is too great a burden to bear; “My friend James says I should love you anyway,” Woods sings, the brass band swelling behind her in solidarity. Bolstered by the ancestors, Woods is emboldened to walk through dark days speaking her truth, abiding her multitudes, extending charity even to those who only wish her violence. “None of us are free but some of us are brave,” she sings in “ZORA”– taking her place in a long lineage of courage.

Cloud of Witnesses: Brad Mehldau searches the Scriptures

Finding gabriel

When something’s broken, it’s always wise to check the manual. That’s what the jazz pianist and composer Brad Mehldau does on his new Finding Gabriel, an album born of grief and confusion over crumbling institutions, shattered societal guardrails, and the prevailing sense of things falling apart. Trying to make some sense of these beleaguered times, Mehldau searched the Scriptures. “Finding Gabriel came after reading the Bible closely for the last several years,” he explains. “The prophetic writing of Daniel and Hosea resonated in particular, as well as the wisdom literature of Job and Ecclesiastes, and the devotional words of Psalms. The Bible felt like a corollary and perhaps a guide to the present day—one long nightmare or a signpost leading to potential gnosis, depending on how you read it.” So the album is a Bible study, but perhaps not in the way you’d expect. There’s no attempt here to summarize Judeo-Christian dogma; instead, Mehldau preserves the voice of the Bible as a library of human experience– the collected testimonies of migrants, asylum seekers, wayfaring strangers, and prophetic hosts pleading for the Kingdom to come. It’s an album about life amidst chaos, and if it doesn’t settle on any answers, it upholds the search itself as something holy in its own right; something that binds us with the great cloud of witnesses from the past.

Mehldau’s immersion in ancient wisdom is well-annotated, the liner notes appending a textual citation to each of its 10 songs. Not that you necessarily need them: Even the biblical novice will register “Born to Trouble,” which juxtaposes the deep blue of Mehldau’s piano against the antiseptic indifference of an analog synthesizer, as a meditation on the plight of Job; “Striving After the Wind,” which chases vanities through a haze of loops and squelches, as a repartee with the Teacher from Ecclesiastes. Even so, anyone who plans attendance in Mehldau’s Bible study will want to do the readings in advance. You might even supplement with Jesus’ words from John 10:27 (Mehldau’s citations keep it Old Testament, but there’s no reason we should stick to such arbitrary dispensations): “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” Or this, from Psalm 55: “I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice.” The ancient wisdom posits time and again that voice is a connection point between humanity and the divine, and Mehldau seems to grasp the theological weight of that on Finding Gabriel, a largely lyric-less album that’s bedecked with a host of vocalizing witness-bearers. When those voices do congeal around actual words, they tend to be faint expressions of need; one song opens with a slow and bleary exhalation, then Mehldau’s simple request to “make it all go away”– a crude prayer language, perhaps, but as relatable as any Psalm. Much more often, voices unite in wordless supplication: They appear in “The Garden” one after another, like so many stars appearing in the night sky, cooing and moaning as the song’s weariness builds toward ascent. Just as the sheep know the call of their shepherd, you’ll know from the timber of these voices that they are searchers and seekers, lifting up holy groanings even when intellect and vocabulary fail them.

The voices that swoop and dive through these soundscapes– not unlike the unruly choirs that add vocal ballast to Kamasi Washington’s records– include such luminaries as Kurt Elling, Becca Stevens, and Gabriel Kahane. You’ll hear Mehldau himself speak up a time or two, but even when he’s not at the mic, the whole of Finding Gabriel bears his unmistakable voicings. Mehldau is justly celebrated for his brainy, deeply conceptual solo recordings (After Bach, 10 Years Solo Live) as well as records that expand the lexicon of the traditional jazz trio (Seymour Reads the Constitution!), but Finding Gabriel feels closer to Largo or Highway Rider— albums that required a broader palette to capture the eccentric colors of his imagination. It’s an expansive record that consolidates much of what Mehldau’s done before but also carries the thrill of experiment and discovery: “The Garden” opens with a narcotic keyboard haze learned from his beloved Radiohead, its gauzy reverie ultimately blasted open with righteous skronk and howl from trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and breakneck drumming from Mark Guiliana. “Proverb of Ash” captures the meditative feel of Mehldau’s solo piano recordings, only here he accompanies himself on synths and drum loops, the result a wonderfully rickety one-man-band groove. “O Ephraim” is an elegiac cycle that thrums with anticipation, while “St. Mark is Howling in the City of Night” teeters from an arena-rock backbeat into the delicate swell of voices and strings. The animating tension in all of this is between Mehldau’s usual intellectual robustness and his willingness to negotiate new sounds and textures; you can tell that there’s concrete ideological scaffolding holding all of this together, yet much of the album is played on keyboards and synthesizers that were new to Mehldau, keeping these performances just slightly off-kilter and exploratory.

The voices themselves are what make the greatest impression, yet they’re subsumed by the voice you hear on “The Prophet is a Fool,” a composition so formally audacious and thematically brash that it casts a shadow over everything else on Finding Gabriel. Here, Mehldau rolls the tape from a political rally, including the voice of the 45th President of the United States inciting his acolytes into fear-mongering isolationism. Mehldau himself verbalizes blunt commentary. It’s unsubtle, but perhaps Mehldau would tell you that it’s pitched at just the right frequency for a brutish age. And maybe there’s more to it than it first seems. With the rally scene, the pianist provides us with a study in discipleship– a reminder that we all have voices to whom we’re accountable, whether they’re heads of state or simply ragged figures testifying in the desert, ratifying the prophets who came before them. Either way, sheep always recognize the sound of their shepherd. The Bible tells us so; Brad Mehldau bears witness.

By the Grace of Your Strength: Redemption songs from Our Native Daughters


You might not expect there to be any dance tunes on Songs of Our Native Daughters. This is, after all, an album released on Smithsonian Folkways, an imprint famous for its scholasticism. It’s named in homage to a James Baldwin collection. Its liner notes contain assiduous footnotes and recommendations for further reading. The songs– all 13 of them– trace the long tendrils of the African slave trade; give names to the skeletons that still rattle in our closets; linger long over violence enacted on the bodies of black women. It is unflinching; demanding, even. And yet, less than four minutes in, there it is: “Moon Meets the Sun,” featherweight and buoyant in its gossamer banjo rhythms, an airy mbaqanga dusted in American ash and clay. It almost sounds impossible, and it’s not even the only dance tune on the record: A late-album highlight called “Music and Joy,” creates wide grooves through sparkling polyrhythms, offering just what its title advertises. So if you read the album’s elevator pitch and want to psych yourself out of it– if you assume its achievement is academic, that it’s a righteous and necessary album but ultimately a harrowing listen– don’t. Lean in and you’ll discover a record that’s musically deep and robust; songs that ask us to sit with atrocities but not to settle for them. Remarkably, Songs of Our Native Daughters is both unsparing in its witness-bearing and uncompromising in its sweep of redemption. “We smile to the sky/ We move to stay alive/ And we’re dancing,” one song beams; this music is based in scholarship but enlivened by the resolution to wring joy from desolation; to mine the unthinkable for wisdom and light.

It’s no surprise that a project like this would spring from the mind of Rhiannon Giddens– celebrated folklorist, deep conceptual thinker, minister of neighborliness, curator of what she dubs “black girl banjo magic.” There’s plenty of that here thanks to the convening of blues conjurer Amythyst Kiah, borderless folk visionary Leyla McCalla, and luminous Bird of Chicago Allison Russell, all of them writing, singing, and playing multiple instruments. Even the assemblage of this group, like the summoning of The Avengers, feels momentous; a reclamation of folk forms often supposed to be indigenous to white, rural America but actually rooted in the African diaspora, nurtured and sustained by generations of women. Songs of Our Native Daughters is that secret history writ large, manifest through songs that accommodate both the highlife rumble of “Music and Joy” but also the sawing fiddles of “Polly Ann’s Hammer,” the sinewy blues of “Black Myself,” the  prickly bluegrass of “I Knew I Could Fly.” It’s a history that’s been carried through suffering and physical trauma– through “blood and bones,” as one song puts it– and these women honor that history through narratives that never hold back or evade specificity. Many of the receipts of chattel slavery are aired here, including reckonings with the plundering of bodies, the theft of children, the crack of whips, the corruption of Christianity into slaveholder religion, and economic devastation that festers still. Giddens unpacks the economics most explicitly in her spoken word piece “Barbados,” where slavery is condemned as a moral affront but then accommodated as a capitalistic necessity. It’s a song that chases the intellectual seed of racism and injustice, but other songs are purely visceral; “Mama’s Cryin’ Long,” a tour of violence wrought upon black women, is set to hand claps and thumping percussion, each one landing with a bruise. “Slave Driver,” sinister and traumatized, charts slavery’s warped genealogy, naming illiteracy and poverty as its spiritual children. “Moon Meets the Sun” locates the moral authority that slaveholder religion abandoned: “May the god that you gave us/ forgive you your trespasses.”

These are songs of integrity, historic precision, and moral clarity; they’re not written to make anyone feel better. And yet those very qualities are what make the album’s redemptive work so astonishing and so believable. It would be grace enough to hear these women channel suffering into “music and joy,” or to hear how “Moon Meets the Sun” traces back a long lineage of perseverance and strength (“we’ll survive this” may be the record’s single most stirring example of plainspoken resilience). Kiah supplies the pluck in “Black Myself,” which posits defiant self-respect as its own form of ancient wisdom (“I don’t creep around/ I stand proud and free”). But it’s Russell who’s ablest to turn sorrow into gladness. She sings the album-closing “You’re Not Alone,” which cries out to be performed by Mavis Staples and which summons the witness of the ancestors as a deep reservoir of courage (“All the ones that came before you/ their strength is yours now”). And in “Quasheba, Quasheba,” she tells the story of a distant grandmother who was captured in Ghana and sold into slavery in Grenada. Russell acknowledges a loss that’s incalculable but finds within it a fountainhead of hope; it was through Quasheba’s tenacity and survival that an entire family line blossomed. “By the grace of your strength we have life,” Russell sings, her voice just one of the multitude of blessings that sprung from Quasheba’s resilience. Over and over, Songs of Our Native Daughters tells the stories of women’s bodies being wrested into instruments of commerce, transmuted into crops and into gold– but Russell reframes the narrative. In her telling, a woman’s life is the seed for generations to come, a family tree that stretches on. It’s a song Quasheba’s captors never could have intended.

(Incidentally, the folds of the Rhiannon Giddens Extended Universe include not just Songs of Our Native Daughters and Giddens’ bridge-building collaboration with Francesco Turrisi, but also a recent solo album from McCalla, titled The Capitalist Blues. In it, the Haitian-American singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist creates a jostling and anachronistic vision of her New Orleans home, one that hums with humor, empathy, and pan-cultural imagination. The title song, a vaudevillian shuffle set to old-timey banjo strumming, surveys the wreckage of late stage consumer capitalism; “Aleppo,” a distorted punk-blues, surveys the wreckage of falling bombs. By no means are the two songs unrelated. Listen to this album and then chase it with a repeat of Giddens’ “Barbados” if you really want to feel the capitalist blues.)

Disavow the Gold Rush: Vampire Weekend through the eye of a needle

father of the bride

It’s hard to talk about Vampire Weekend without also discussing privilege. To be fair, they’ve largely brought it on themselves. It’s been more than a decade since the release of their first album, but you can probably still remember the uniform of their earliest iteration; to this day, no critic can mention them without also referencing the polo shirts and the boat shoes. And if you remember that then you might also remember a song called “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” its title borrowing the language of Congolese dance music while also betraying the band’s upper-class roots. There is a certain audacity to how this Ivy League indie guitar band with a white male singer has routinely pilfered from the African continent– a certain cultural immunity, even– but it’s to the enormous credit of Vampire-in-Chief Ezra Koenig that he’s generally handled his privilege responsibly. That’s never been truer than on the long-gestating fourth Vampire Weekend album, Father of the Bride, which finds Koenig litigating that privilege ruthlessly, both through drollery (he had to have known what we’d say about a Vampire Weekend song called “Unbearably White”) and through jaundiced melancholy. Surely it is telling that the song on which the whole album seems to hang is one about forsaking wealth. “Married in the Gold Rush,” a Grand Ole Opry-styled duet with Danielle Haim, is a song about a union consummated in prosperity but destined to ruin. “We got married in the gold rush/ And the sight of gold will always bring me pain,” Haim confesses. But what’s really telling is that, on an album where the dominant mood is a kind of millennial malaise, a sad sack aloofness, it’s in this song that Koenig seems surest about how to move forward toward something like peace and contentment. “Time to disavow the gold rush,” he sings, “and the bitterness that’s flourished in its wake.” It sounds like a plan.

That song is preceded by one called “Rich Man,” which might put you in the headspace of Jesus of Nazareth and a certain young ruler. Here, Koenig alleges that he’s perhaps the only wealthy man on the planet whose treasures have brought real satisfaction. Maybe he’s telling the truth, but he certainly doesn’t sound happy on Father of the Bride, where nearly every one of the 18 songs weds major chords and a jubilant gait to lyrics laced with strychnine despair. Koenig sings here of crumbling institutions, broken covenants, and shattered faith; he sounds like a man who’s blessed but isn’t content, well-off but absent peace of mind. He may have been “born before the gold rush,” but what does it profit a man? When we encounter him on Father of the Bride, he’s sulking in the corner on his own wedding day (“crying in those rumpled sheets like someone’s ‘bout to die,” Haim appraises), bemoaning “this life and all its suffering,” apologizing to a forbearing partner for all his hand-wringing introspection (“all I did was waste your time”), and looking back ruefully on his gilded matrimony (“those wedding bells were ringing out our fate”). Maybe he’s more like that rich man from the Bible than he lets on; maybe he sounds so miserable here because he’s straining to squeeze through the eye of a needle.

Trouble on the inside spills over to trouble on the outside, and while Koenig tries to find some direction in his one wild and precious life he witnesses the slow collapse of his one wild and precious world. It’s the same world emblazoned on the album cover in glorious ClipArt chic; Mother Earth.bmp, Lindsay Zoladz calls it. And it’s the same world he laments in one song after another about ecological apocalypse. “Big Blue, for once in my life, I felt close to you,” he coos in “Big Blue,” a lover’s hymn for a dying world, voiced by a faithless paramour who’s come around too little, too late.  And in the following “How Long?”– even its title suggesting a psalm of lament– Koenig has his eye on the rapidly-rising sea levels; there’s no question as to whether we’re all drowning, there’s just the question of when. Meanwhile, “Harmony Hall” spies a serpent slinking through holy and consecrated spaces– the halls of power, God’s misty-wet garden, or whatever other hallowed place once thought incorruptible. In this context, maybe his boast about being a rich man with a satisfied mind isn’t a sign of contentment so much as callousness. You’ll notice that, amidst the clang and pep of “Bambina,” Koenig all but admits he won’t stick around when the shit hits the fan. “My Christian heart cannot withstand/ The thundering arena/ I’ll see you when the violence ends,” he addresses his lover, apologetic and shuffling for the nearest exit. The song’s animating emotion is a kind of pre-emptive survivor’s guilt. To know that, when the crisis comes, you’ll be one of the lucky ones who is spared the worst of it… what could be more privileged than that?

There’s another sense in which Koenig has always handled his privilege with care: Situated on the long historic continuum of white dudes appropriating African tropes and conventions, each Vampire Weekend album has tilted graciously toward respectful footnoting and generous contextualization. The man who brazenly titles his song “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” isn’t out to plunder; maybe to provoke, possibly even to troll, but mostly to draw connections and set the table for a more inclusive conversation. That conversation continues on “Rich Man,” which puts a properly-credited sample of the African guitarist S.E. Rogie into dialogue with American country and blues idioms. Koenig’s interrogation of privilege also leads him into more domestic pilfering than he’s ever done before, mining the fertile veins of dad rock in the same way previous albums sought inspiration on other continents. Included in this pan-cultural milieu are songwriting structures on loan from the Country Music Hall of Fame; African flourishes learned from Graceland; immaculate guitar tones snagged from Dave Edmunds, jittery funk absorbed from David Byrne; in “This Life,” the very same bounce Van Morrison conjured for “Brown Eyed Girl,” long a staple of oldies radio and middle school dances.

Such a bounty of sounds and influences suggests something of the Spotifycore ethos, a concentrated eclecticism that lends itself equally well to deep immersion or casual play, here funneled through the sprawl of a classic double-album structure. By all means, draw parallels to the venerated twofer of your choice– to the whiplash collisions of The Beatles, the globetrotting roots music of London Calling— but the most valuable antecedent of all may be Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. Like that album, Father of the Bride feels a bit like the outpouring of a mad genius whose perfectionist studiocraft can seem insular at first, but gradually opens itself up and provides countless details worthy of obsession. (The magisterial acoustic guitar figure that undergirds “Harmony Hall”? You can play it on an infinite loop!) There’s even a nod to Lindsey Buckingham’s punchdrunk drumlines in the brassy pomp and circumstance of “We Belong Together,” the only Father of the Bride track with credits for departed Vampire Rostam Batmanglij. Indeed, Vampire Weekend has never sounded less like a band and more like a Koenig solo venture, fleshed out by a revolving cast of supporting players who include everyone from Haim to a barely-discernible Jenny Lewis. Just listen to opener “Hold You Now,” where the song’s gestures toward country-music naturalism are disrupted by a sampled gospel choir, or to the Vocoder-warped cha-cha-cha in “Spring Snow,” and you’ll hear how Father of the Bride’s pleasures emanate from one-man-band studio impressionism more than they do the pretense of live performance. True to the double album spirit, some of the most rewarding moments are the most off-script ones, suggesting rabbit trails Koenig and Co. might circle back to on album #5; in “My Mistake,” the lone song here that doesn’t sound light and breezy, Koenig croons like a jazz singer and mopes like Thom Yorke; in a couple of jams with Steve Lacy, he gets noodly and winsomely weird; in “Sympathy,” he orchestrates a rowdy, speaker-rattling flamenco.

The scaffolding that holds all of it in place is a trilogy of he-said, she-said numbers with Haim– call them scenes from a marriage. The marriage trifecta begins with “Hold You Now,” where the chapel bells are ringing but Koenig’s worried mind is cluttered with second-guesses and what-ifs. In “Married in the Gold Rush,” he’s ready to disavow affluence but keep his bride by his side. And in “We Belong Together,” husband and wife realize that, for all Koenig’s jitters, their mismatched matrimony actually makes a lot of sense; he’s only sorry he’s wasted so much of her time with his anxieties. It would be a tidy end to the story were there not three songs left on the album, culminating with the hymn-like austerity of “Jerusalem, New York, and Berlin,” where Koenig’s back to second-guessing, lamenting the “wicked world” just outside his window. It’s an unsettled conclusion to the record, and maybe that’s the point: The quest for contentment may redeem “this life and all its suffering,” but it’s not going to cure it– and to ever feel fully at home here is a privilege none of us are meant to know.

Out of Orbit: The unquietable mind of Bruce Hornsby

absolute zero

Who could have imagined, when “The Way it Is” first conquered the airwaves, that Bruce Hornsby would become known not primarily for his supple soft rock, nor his nimble piano work, nor even his easeful way with melody– but rather for his restless, unquietable mind? By Hornsby’s own admission, the success of that song was just a happy accident, no one more surprised by it than he; as Stephen Thomas Erlewine notes, he seemed to abandon pop celebrity the very instant he attained it, and since then he’s flitted from film scores to bluegrass to a stint with the Dead. Wanderlust is his guiding principle, the connective tissue for his body of work, and by this point there’s no justifiable reason to be thrown by his latest flights of fancy; after all, what’s one more rabbit hole from a man so prone to discursion? Take Absolute Zero, a new album that combines the filigree of classical music with the exploratory spirit of jazz, its songs inspired by Hornsby’s fondness for avant composers but also his readings in astrophysics, anthropology, literature, and history. Yes, it sounds like it’s from out of left field; but then, that’s long been Hornsby’s sweet spot.

That’s not to say the album is easily explained. Largely acoustic, Absolute Zero centers on Hornsby’s playing, which moves fluidly from flurried pointillism to plainspoken balladeering, from jostling polytonalities to elegantly rumbling funk. He’s surrounded variously by the thrum of woodwinds, the swell of an orchestra, and the disembodied gurgling of electronics; by the loose-limbed chamber sextet yMusic, long-serving giant of jazz Jack DeJohnette, and whippersnappers like Justin Vernon and Blake Mills, both of whom uphold Hornsby’s restlessness as license for their own unclassifiability. You can call this album many things– brainy, intricate, digressive– but one thing is never is is abstruse. Hornsby may have little interest in pop stardom but he has a keen interest in writing songs that are direct and emotionally available; it’s that instinct, coupled with the complexity of his musical ideas, that make Absolute Zero frictive, surprising, and alluring. On song after song, abstraction is settled into accessibility, complexity resolved into viscerality: Listen to how “Fractals” opens with a clutch of fluttering, syncopated notes from Hornsby’s piano, hovering over the shape of a melody and then suddenly congealing around the entrance of a rigid backbeat; in an instant, the song’s delicacy gives way to ruthless locomotion. You can hear the same kind of streamlined knottiness on “Absolute Zero,” where Hornsby’s piano ponderings are stitched together by the slip ‘n’ slide of DeJohnette’s cymbal work. On “Voyager One,” the band hurtles through the cosmos, woodwinds twinkling like stars in the vista, combustible low end providing the rocket fuel. (“[A] multidimensional hoedown,” Jon Pareles calls it.)

In a canon that’s full of passion projects and labors of love, Absolute Zero is both one of the boldest excursions yet but also one of Hornsby’s cleverest consolidations. Indeed, you could say that this is the nexus to which all his discursions have led. The lessons he’s learned in the movies come to bear in “The Blinding Light of Dreams,” a dizzying high-wire chase scene, tension masterfully sustained by the taut push and pull of the orchestra. And you can hear his affection for familiar structures and forms on “Never in This House,” a domestic diorama that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Costello & Bacharach collaboration. “Ecolocation” is only the clearest evidence here of Hornsby’s fondness for Appalachian vernaculars, a shambling jalopy of a blues number. And “Meds,” a collaboration with Mills and Vernon, illustrates the adaptability of his heartland roots: Listen to how it scales from the unsteady plunking of his piano to the kind of big, arena-swelling chorus his label undoubtedly hoped for in the wake of “The Way it Is” and “Mandolin Rain.” And don’t miss the scrape of the string section, imbuing just the right sense of wobbly unease into the song’s frayed edges.

Hornsby’s intellectual appetite is born out not just in his musical ideas but in his poetic conceits: He draws here from so many systems of inquiry that the album is practically a self-contained liberal arts education. But if he’s engaging with different kinds of analytic thought, he’s doing so as a way into the abstract and the imaginative; he’s less interested in the empirical than in the ineffable, so when he compares a relationship to geometric formations (“Fractals”), it’s not because he’s trying to quantify or explain love so much as to articulate its mystery. His interest in science sometimes spills into the speculative, as in the title song, where cryogenic freezing is posited as the best shot at redemption (“Another chance, it may be better this time,” he hopes). Other songs abide the plurality of complex emotions: “Cast-Off,” full of gauzy synths and spectral murmerings from Vernon, grapples for gratitude in the face of rejection; “White Noise,” based on the writings of David Foster Wallace, considers the deadening effects of chronic boredom. Hornsby is also drawn to historical narratives, both personal and cultural, here employed as frameworks for exploring moral formation and evolution: “Never in This House” chronicles the hobbling effects of a dysfunctional family life and longs to break the cycle, while “The Blinding Light of Dreams” CliffsNotes the history of racism in the American South, name-dropping Jim Crow and Harper Lee along the way. As skeletons rattle in the closet, Hornsby turns his attention to space travel: “Travelling to distant suns may be mankind’s only hope,” he sighs. It’s a thread that connects the song to “Voyager One,” where Hornby exhorts: “Let’s break out of our orbits, free of gravity’s effect/ Let’s leave our little planet, fix relationships we’ve wrecked/ Un-learn all our habits, make sure we all connect.” He’s taking an interstellar view of radical neighborliness, the space program his vessel for increased moral bandwidth and empathy. But he’s also dropping some clues as to what Absolute Zero’s all about: Through these works of imagination, Hornsby’s drawing connections between musical idioms and scholastic disciplines; he’s drawing an ever-widening circle around the orbit of human experience.