Album reviews: Niall Horan - Flicker, Pink - Beautiful Trauma, Destroyer - Ken

Also Willie Nelson - Willie’s Stash Vol. 2, John Carpenter - Anthology, and Lucinda Williams - This Sweet Old World

Andy Gill
Thursday 19 October 2017 12:55
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Destroyer, Ken

★★★★★

Download: In the Morning; Tinseltown Swimming In Blood; A Light Travels Down The Catwalk; Rome; La Regle Du Jeu

According to Dan Bejar, the title to Destroyer’s 12th, and possibly best, album came to him upon learning that it was the original name for the ballad “The Wild Ones”. This epiphanic moment (“I was physically struck by this information”) led to its appropriation for a set of songs seething with dark knowledge, as Bejar peeks behind the curtain of appearances in search of underlying motivations.

It can be a brutal business. In the allegorical “Saw You At The Hospital”, the mental patient’s gown is always undone; while the social posturing of “A Light Travels Down The Catwalk” is succinctly dismissed with the brusque assessment “Strike an empty pose/ A pose is always empty”, the aloof model’s progress marked by alienated synth tones and a sinister electro thud. It’s not a pretty sight. Venality crawls through these songs, with hints of Roman excess suggested in “Rome” and “Sometimes In The World”, from which Bejar backs away in moral disgust. “I can’t pay for this, all I’ve got is money,” he demurs in the latter, his sensibilities scorched by shame. Time and again he’s forced to leave his own songs, exempting himself from blame; and if it’s a belated departure, as in “Tinseltown Swimming In Blood”, he grabs for the moral high ground of the artist: “I couldn’t see, I was blind/ Off in the corner, doing poet’s work”. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

Never one to stick to the same musical path, Bejar has abandoned the poised string arrangements and rolling jazz horns that backdropped his tales of the city on 2015’s Poison Season, mostly in favour of a grim electropop more in keeping with his memories of the late Thatcher era when he was first gripped by music “like a sickness”. “Tinseltown...” unashamedly borrows the pulsing style of “Blue Monday”, with a few strangled squawks of sax beached on its outro, while the trudging drums and fuzz-drone of “In The Morning” have the battleship-grey tone of Eighties industrial new-wave, with a thread of hopeful organ swamped by implacable waves of disillusion.

The frail, weakling sax appears again at the ends of several other tracks, its louche manner a recurring motif for the ennui and ethical enervation haunting Ken. For all the urgent activity and keen observations in these songs, it’s this distracting social emptiness that one takes away from the album – as signalled by the concluding “La Regle Du Jeu”, where chattering keyboard underpins a tale of ruthless impersonality. An homage to Jean Renoir’s peerless, ice-cold comedy of manners, it’s an indication of how high Bejar is aiming, and how low our world can stoop.

Niall Horan, Flicker

★★★☆☆

Download: On The Loose; Since We’re Alone; Flicker

Give the lad his due: it would have been easy for the One Direction heartthrob to trot out a collection of ersatz R&B crowd-pleasers, but on Flicker he keeps faith with the West Coast influences that first drew him into music. On tracks like “On The Loose” and “Since We’re Alone”, the formula of fat, warm bass and drums anchoring light guitars and harmonies comes straight from the Fleetwood Mac playbook (indeed, the latter’s guitar vamp irresistibly recalls “Dreams”). Elsewhere, his grasp of country-rock modes is firm but light, Horan harmonising with himself on “You And Me” like a reedier version of Don and Phil Everly, while lilting folksy strummers such as “Seeing Blind” and “Flicker” glow like late-afternoon sunlight in Laurel Canyon. Lyrically, Horan pushes no envelopes, sticking to earnest love plaints and poignant reminiscences for the most part, and even offering to listen to his girl’s problems in “Fire Away”. Clearly, a chap who knows exactly what women most want from men.

Willie Nelson, Willie’s Stash Vol. 2: Willie And The Boys

★★★☆☆

Download: Cold, Cold Heart; Mind Your Own Business; Can I Sleep In Your Arms; I’m Movin’ On

This second archival offering from Willie Nelson derives originally from the 2011 sessions that produced Heroes, on which his son Lukas (more recently backing up Neil Young with his band Promise Of The Real) was prominently featured. Another son, Micah, was subsequently added to these recordings of country standards, mostly written by Hank Williams, supported by sundry other Hanks (Locklin, Cochran and Snow). It’s a pleasant enough set, with some dazzling ensemble work by Willie’s band, though not without a few dubious moments: the difference between Willie’s relaxed command of “Move It On Over” and his sons’ more forced deliveries makes for a shaky start to the album, but by the ensuing “Mind Your Own Business” they’re sensibly following dad’s lead as regards pitch and tone. And the family harmonies bring a warm glow to Cochran’s “Can I Sleep In Your Arms”. Best of all, though, is “Cold, Cold Heart”, a gilt-edged lament given suitably moving treatment.

John Carpenter, Anthology (Movie Themes 1974-1998)

★★★★☆

Download: Assault On Precinct 13; Escape From New York; The Fog; Vampires

It’s the rare director who also does the music for their films, and none has done it as effectively as John Carpenter. This collection of re-recorded themes confirms his keen attention to mood and tonal colour, though the alterations are sometimes irritating – notably the itchily urgent percussion track rattling along beneath the familiar keyboard motif of Halloween. The real game-changer here is “Assault On Precinct 13”, its declarative synth riff applying a tight coil of latent menace tinted with smears of fatalist string-synth; “Escape From New York” revisits similar territory with the dark, dystopian majesty of its descending keyboard figure. Ennio Morricone cleverly emulated Carpenter’s signature sinister mood within the grandeur of an orchestral setting for his biggest project The Thing: sadly, the synthesised version included here is much less effective. Elsewhere, instrumental motifs signal locale and style – such as steel guitar for the bloodsucker western Vampires – while the minimalist cycling piano melody of The Fog was surely the inspiration for at least one John Grant song.

The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead

★★★★☆

Download: Bigmouth Strikes Again; The Boy With The Thorn In His Side; There Is A Light That Never Goes Out; I Know It’s Over; Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others

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Sometimes, things should be left to lie. But while heritage mania exerts such a profitable pull on parents’ disposable income, old “album classics” like The Queen Is Dead are doomed to be disinterred, draped in a desperate plethora of distracting outtakes and live recordings which, in this case, simply detract from the cold, wry purity of the original release. The piquant combination of Morrissey’s blithe aloofness and double-edged, acidly humorous lyrics with Johnny Marr’s endlessly inventive, precociously African-influenced guitar parts was rarely more effective than here. And certainly, Morrissey’s lyrical charm has never been more precisely focused than in the claim “Now I know how Joan Of Arc felt”, which pings haphazardly between wit, empathy, contempt and self-pity, a gestalt of his entire character. It’s in this type of condensation, rather than the inflation of a multi-disc box set, that perhaps best represents The Smiths’ legacy.

Pink, Beautiful Trauma

★★★☆☆

Download: Revenge; Beautiful Trauma; I Am Here

Secure behind the protective pop wall erected by producers such as Max Martin and the ubiquitous Greg Kurstin, there’s little room for originality here. Which may be for the best, given the mid-album limpness imposed by the gratingly wistful, cello-draped childhood yearning of “Barbies”, which oozes insincerity. Pink’s on safer ground riding the pumping pop-funk of “Secrets” and the title-track, a celebration of the way her lover inspires “my perfect bravado, my beautiful trauma” – and, perhaps, her questionable way with metaphor and metonymy. It’s a style most oddly employed on “I Am Here”, a strident, stomping affair demanding to know “where does everybody go when they go?” which brings new meaning to the notion of “muscular Christianity”. But the obvious standout is the single “Revenge”, which alternates between rap and sung sections. Her own efforts at rapping, however, are brusquely shown up by Eminem’s contribution, a swift slide into antipathy succinctly concluding, with characteristic fury, “You’re a whore! This is war!”.

Lucinda Williams, This Sweet Old World

★★★★★

Download: Something About What Happens When We Talk; Memphis Pearl; Sweet Old World; Little Angel, Little Brother; Pineola

To mark its 25th anniversary, Lucinda Williams here re-records in full – along with a handful of outtakes – an album unfairly overlooked in the wake of her 1998 breakthrough masterpiece Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. It’s a revelatory affair, bringing a fresh, raw focus to brilliant songs steeped in lust, death and loss with a blend of sly rockabilly and blues-tinged country-rock. She excels at tales of wrong turns and lost dreams, her sympathies with the single mother trapped by former glory in “Memphis Pearl”, and especially the loser so affectionately depicted in “Little Angel, Little Brother”. But there’s no false sentiment wasted here: the bleak murder ballad “Pineola” exemplifies her gift for unpeeling charged moments through telling details whose banality, in this case, evokes the numbness of its aftermath. Her voice, meanwhile, has grown into these songs splendidly: it’s amazing how much brazen sensuality she can bring to an image like “Saw you in the laundromat, washing your clothes/Getting all the dirt out”.

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