Album reviews: Lady Gaga - Joanne, Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker, Pretenders - Alone, and more

Also Agnes Obel - Citizen Of Glass, Wovenhand - Star Treatment, and Otis Redding - Live At The Whisky A Go Go

Andy Gill
Wednesday 19 October 2016 15:23
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Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker

★★★★☆

Download: You Want It Darker; Treaty; It Seemed The Better Way; Leaving The Table

"I thought the past would last me, but the darkness got that too,” sang Leonard Cohen four years ago on Old Ideas, the first of what now seems like a trilogy of late-blooming reflections on age, love and faith, each one darker than its predecessor – as, the title of this latest set suggests, we want it.

Mostly produced by the singer’s son Adam, You Want It Darker finds Cohen as frustrated and regretful as any 82-year-old has a right to be, railing variously against the world, his own weakness and god. Sometimes, all three at once: “If thine is the glory, then mine is the shame,” he murmurs in “You Want It Darker”, an epistle to the big man upstairs in which all parties are party to the wretchedness of life. “I struggled with some demons, they were middle-class and tame,” he concedes, adding grimly, “I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim.” Dark enough for you?

While the song rides a typically Cohen-esque urbane loping bassline, his son’s production hinges on the iconic religious tones bookending the song, with the lowing synagogue choir (from the Montreal synagogue of Cohen’s own bar mitzvah) of the intro replaced for the fade by the ululations of a solo cantor. Elsewhere, the arrangements are similarly spartan, allowing Cohen’s shadowy baritone to state its case clearly. A lone, sadly rhapsodic violin and more gentle choral humming tints another song about loss of faith, “It Seemed The Better Way” (“...though no one but a fool would bless the meek today”), while simple piano and organ parts carry songs such as “If I Didn’t Have Your Love” and “On The Level”, while “Travelling Light” has the gait of a weary, enervated tango.

Gently marching strings furnish an aptly martial underscoring for the conflict imagery of “Treaty”, the latest of Cohen’s romantic mea culpas, which reveals how, for a Great Seducer, love is an essentially narcissistic, even solipsistic, pastime, its protagonist apologising “for that ghost I made you be”. It’s just one of several sharp, stinging twists casting new and unusual shadows on old themes in You Want It Darker, culminating in the mordant, bitter advice of “Steer Your Way”: “Steer your heart past the truth that you believed in yesterday/Such as fundamental goodness, and the wisdom of the way”. That’s plenty dark enough for now, thanks.

Lady Gaga, Joanne

★★★☆☆

Download: A-Yo; John Wayne; Come To Mama; Sinners Prayer

Since Artpop, Lady Gaga’s musical career has tended towards retrenchment. The Cheek To Cheek duets album with Tony Bennett established her credentials as a “proper” singer; and now this Mark Ronson-co-produced effort effectively abandons the electropop dance arrangements of Artpop in favour of more stolidly rockist fare, as if pursuing rock’n’roll authenticity. And to a certain extent it works, especially when Josh Homme’s on hand to lend gritty riffing and imaginative lead lines to some tracks: his spiky but fluid breaks on “A-Yo” and “John Wayne” are undoubted album highlights. Sadly, the bombastic orchestral stomper “Perfect Illusion”, a much-anticipated collaboration with Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, is less impressive, just stridently dull; while the peace plea “Come To Mama”, co-written with Father John Misty, is a big, sax-seasoned anthem in the Spector/Springsteen stops-out style.

Pretenders, Alone

★★★★☆

Download: Alone; Roadie Man; Never Be Together; I Hate Myself

Producer Dan Auerbach continues his remarkable run of legend refurbishments – buffing up classic acts’ core values with a touch of modernist lustre – with Alone, the best Pretenders album in years. He captures Chrissie Hynde’s insouciant, flick-knife charm brilliantly on tracks like “Alone”, the splashy, ramshackle blend of wiry guitar and rollicking piano bowling along as she celebrates being on her own, “prowling the streets with the poets and the creeps and the deadbeats”. As befits both Auerbach and Hynde, it’s an album studded with subtle rock references – the MGs/Meters groove of “Roadie Man”, the little offbeat T Rex vamps sparingly applied to “Gotta Wait”, the “Walk On The Wild Side” loping bass of “The Man You Are” – and it’s no surprise to find an authentic legend, Duane Eddy, adding his inimitable twang to “Never Be Together”. The result is a fine album, subtly varied in both musical style and lyrical slant.

Agnes Obel, Citizen Of Glass

★★★☆☆

Download: Stretch Your Eyes; Stone; Familiar

Citizen Of Glass was inspired by an article Agnes Obel read about the phenomenon of the “Gläserner Bürger”, or “glass citizen”, reflecting the increasing transparency and openness – and shrinking privacy – of people’s lives, particularly in the age of social media and state surveillance. Ironically, however, the songs on her third album are more concealed in their arrangements than before, despite a sonic palette still based in the slim, austere piano and cello settings for which she’s known. “Familiar”, for instance, features a resonant piano monotone and aggressively chugging cello, whilst Obel’s vocal slips disconcertingly between male and female intonations, while elsewhere new instrumental timbres lend fresh flavour to the songs – hammer dulcimer on “Trojan Horses”, marimba and layered vocals on “Golden Green”. Most effectively of all, the rolling figure of a high guitar, perhaps a cuatro, brings life to the woodland reverie “Stone”.

Wovenhand, Star Treatment

★★★★☆

Download: Come Brave; The Hired Hand; All Your Waves; Golden Blossom

On Star Treatment, Wovenhand prime mover David Eugene Edwards locates the shared space between Native American and Middle Eastern modes, with an exciting exploration of spirituality and music that draws Montana close to Mesopotamia. It’s a music parched in desert sun, lost in forest gloom, abandoned on endless prairies: land and elements dominate the imagery which Edwards declaims with stern, religiose intensity, against arrangements ranging from the Gun Club-style gothic rockabilly of “The Hired Hand” to the abstract avalanche of drums and guitars harking, in “Swaying Reed”, to the Tigris. Elsewhere, the dense, droning weave of guitars in “Crook And Flail” and “Golden Blossom” recalls The Byrds, Popol Vuh and Tuareg desert-blues. At its best, it’s quite thrilling: the galloping drums and strident guitar clangour of “Come Brave” perfectly evokes its Indian imagery, while “All Your Waves” develops a mysterious, tsunami-like power all its own. Majestic stuff.

Otis Redding, Live At The Whisky A Go Go

★★★★☆

Download: Satisfaction; Mr Pitiful; I Can’t Turn You Loose; I’ve Been Loving You Too Long; Respect

“Holler as loud as you want, stomp as hard as you want to,” Otis Redding instructs the tiny crowd at Los Angeles’ Whisky A Go Go, “Just take your shoes off – get soulful!” It’s April 1966, and Redding’s star is starting to shine brighter than ever thanks to the Otis Blue album and crossover hits such as “Respect”, “Mr Pitiful”, and his cover of the Stones’ “Satisfaction”, with horns pumping out the guitar hook, as Keith Richards had originally intended. His three-night, seven-set stint at the Whisky bulges with an energy and intensity that Otis raises and lowers with no diminution in passion, in sets alternating stompers with soul ballads that allowed the singer, his driving nine-piece band and the audience to catch their breath before launching off again. Compiled in its entirety on these six CDs, it’s an object lesson in musical crowd-control.

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Melanie C, Version Of Me

★★★☆☆

Download: Dear Life; Something For The Fire; Numb

With her seventh album, the most prolific former Spice Girl offers her most accomplished solo outing so far, a series of ruminations on life and love that reflect her growing maturity. The opening “Dear Life” establishes the tone, with a lyric – “should I lay back and let the tide wash over me, or fight?” – in effective recasting Hamlet’s soliloquy to express worries about losing control of her life. Set to fluttering piano tremors and swelling cymbals, it’s an intriguing direction taken up in the title-track, where Chisholm determines to be a different character from the one romantically paralysed in the synth stomper “Anymore” and the philosophical “Something For The Fire”. Marked by an inventive title-hook featuring multiple autotuned vocals, “Numb” sums up this general theme of alienation, while “Escalator” offers a potent metaphor for the wearying pace of modern life and ambition.

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