Since Kanye West released The Life of Pablo early this year (see post below), for me he’s had the album to beat. Lyrically patchy, but sonically overwhelming, the work soldered together more musical ideas than most hip hop acts manage over three or four albums. But the times we live in - which appear to be overwhelming for most, regardless of your political persuasions - seem to have inspired some monumental works this year. Certain autumn releases have raised the bar even higher, offering a tonic for an unremittingly noxious politically-inspired and media-fuelled atmosphere.
Bon Iver’s 22, A Million brought me out of a long period of predominantly rap-inspired listening. The cover art alone is entrancing, weaving together glyphs and iconography to create its own labrynthine symbology. Rainbows (pinched perhaps from one or two old Zwan single covers) and eerie creatures (inspired perhaps by Stanley Donwood’s creations for Radiohead) contribute to sense of impending apocalypse. On 666ʇ, Justin Vernon observes that ‘sixes hang in the door / What type of shit to ignore?’ Such lines set creatively destructive sights on manifestations of darkness, however ambiguous they may be. Lyrically he charts a spiritual journey through the album which is left open to interpretation. But we are left with an overwhelming sense that beauty, patience and ingenuity can circumscribe the forces that might threaten a healthy state of mind.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds released Skeleton Tree, which like 22, A Million, delivers timeless songs and clear melodies within both analogue and electronic structures, both organic and mechanical systems. Songs like Anthrocene and Magneto present the listener with the voice of one of the true greats labouring under the force of a powerful, enshadowing storm, that builds slowly and never quite breaks. On Jesus Alone, the roles are reversed and God’s son is harangued by what appears to be the voice of the devil. From Anthrocene:
The heaven bound sea
The wind casts its shadow and moves for the tree
Behold the animals and the birds and the sky entire
I hear you been out there looking for something to set on fire
The heads bow children fall to their knees
Here they come now, here they come
Are pulling you away
There are powers at play more forceful than we
Come over here and sit down and say a short prayer
A prayer to the air, the air that we breathe
And the astonishing rise of the Anthrocene
The irony inherent in all art that aims to face down fear, is that by describing and evoking it accurately, the human imagination dominates it to a certain degree. By listening and striving to understand, we can add our efforts to the cause. This is why we ultimately find plays like King Lear inspiring, not damaging, to watch. The reader, audience member and listener is a hero in his or her own right, trying to overcome the odds.
A Tribe Called Quest released their new album last week, which will probably come to be seen as the rap album of the year, if not simply the album of the year. It is hip hop at its best, unstopping an unending flow of language, ideas, criticisms, imagery and celebration that focuses laser-like on the state of the US and the plight of those who don’t fit the mould of the majority and its concerns.
Confused and amazed, shook up with your brain missing lost
They planning for our future
None of our people involved
For those living in Trump’s America and post-Brexit Britain, let’s keep alive the idea that plurality is the basic stuff of humanity and that hope and creativity will always triumph over the fearsome singularity of negative thinking.