Spending six weeks driving around New Zealand with my partner opened up a lot of time to listen to music new and old. We got round to the albums that we really should have heard by now and wallowed in songs that have been ringing around our heads for years. I thought I’d share my thoughts on a few here. Out of all the albums we downloaded (thanks Spotify), two really stood out the most, demonstrating some of the very best song writing around at the moment.
SZA – Ctrl
The first time I came across SZA was when she featured on ‘Consideration’, the opening song of Rihanna’s 2016 album Anti. Her voice has the gravelly soul of the great Lauryn Hill, coupled with a gorgeous raspy softness, and I was definitely interested to listen to this 2017 solo effort. The opening track, ‘Supermodel’, is breath taking, and I’m finding it hard to think of another first song that is as arresting, intertwining musical simplicity with lyrics that epically twist and turn with the complexity of the person singing. Beginning with the unflinching bravado of ‘I been secretly banging your homeboy’, SZA swings between a gutsy, devil-may-care façade and a piercingly sensitive portrait of an insecure young woman newly and unwillingly single. Here’s an extract just to taste:
‘Ooh just get a load of them
They got chemistry
All they could say
We like brother and sister
Look so good together
Bet they fuckin’ for real
And they was right
That’s why I stayed with ya
The—the dick was too good
It made me feel good
For temporary love
You was a temporary lover
Leave me lonely for prettier women
You know I need too much attention
For shit like that
You know you wrong
For shit like that
I could be your supermodel
If you believe
If you see it in me
See it in me
See it in me
I don’t see myself
Why I can’t stay alone just by myself?
Wish I was comfortable just with myself
But I need you
I need you
I need you’ – ‘Supermodel’, Ctrl
Vulnerability palpitates here: she clings to the glorious image of her and her ex, looking at their relationship through the eyes of others and consolidating how well matched they were. What is so subtle but revealing in the next verse is the caesura of ‘That’s why I stayed with ya / The – the dick was too good’. Even when SZA’s words are telling one story or conveying one apparent response, the caesura indicates that there is something more powerful underneath, disrupting the lyrics and their delivery. The break between ‘the’ and ‘the’ comes across as a stumble or a stutter, as though she catches herself before she lets her emotions flow through again, shifting awkwardly back into the almost traditionally masculine bravado of physicality. It’s not convincing at all that she just stayed with her boyfriend for sex; the hesitating break suggests that by referring to his dick she is attempting, perhaps unconsciously, to obscure her emotional distress over the break up, or distract from the pain of it. In her attempt to show a lack of care, she demonstrates that she cares very, very much and herein lies the song’s heart-wrenching vulnerability.
This becomes even clearer because her bravado does not last long: the caesura is followed by the chorus, which comes with a series of repetitions, for example ‘see it in me’ and ‘I need you’, and a question, ‘Why I can’t stay alone just by myself?’ She is aware that she has a desire to be secure within herself, a desire to not feel lonely even if she finds herself alone, but she is nowhere near there with her self-esteem or her emotional independence. She implores with her ex that she could be his ‘supermodel’, perhaps suggesting that physical beauty is an important thing to him, something he values in a relationship. It also, however, suggests that this is something that she values too, because she wants him to see outstanding physical beauty in her. She is hurt by the fact that he has left her for ‘prettier women’, suggesting that there is something lacking in her beauty that meant she couldn’t make him stay. It is incredibly moving listening to a woman grappling with why her boyfriend doesn’t want to be with her. At times, she tries to be the archetypal strong, independent woman who needs a dick and not a man; but at the same time she is crippled by self-criticism and constantly looks beyond herself for happiness and acceptance in superficiality.
And so the album begins. It is truly an outstanding way to set the scene for the rest to follow, with my particular favourites coming in the form of ‘Drew Barrymore’ and the trippy ‘Doves in the Wind’ featuring Kendrick Lamar, which reminded me of Lamar’s ‘YAH’ from his Pulitzer-prize winning album DAMN. It has something of the Frank Oceanic about it too. The most famous song from the album, perhaps, is ‘Weekend’ which was given a Majestic Casual-esque makeover (sic ‘Funk Wav Remix’) by Calvin Harris. Whilst I am here for as much soul and funk as possible, the remix does lose some of the carefully crafted vulnerability of the original; the delicate mingling of devil-may-care and crippling self-doubt, where a young woman tries to embrace the freedom of temporary, flexible romance but definitely wants more. Overall, SZA is one of the artists I am most excited about at the moment. I am rarely convinced by portrayals or depictions of love and relationships in pop culture, but SZA’s raw songs are fresh and original in their sensitivity.
St Vincent – MASSEDUCTION
This was the album we listened to by far the most on our trip. I had been aware of St Vincent for a long time: the first song I can remember of Annie Clark’s was a collaboration with Grizzly Bear called ‘Slow Life’ from the Twilight: New Moon soundtrack (I don’t care what anyone says, the Twilight films were shite but the soundtracks most certainly were not. The soundtrack from this film, in particular, introduced me to Bon Iver, Band of Skulls and Thom Yorke); however, I had never taken the time to actually listen to any more of her music.
Initially, I got the wrong end of the stick with the title, reading ‘mass education’ and not ‘mass seduction’. This made the eponymous song, with its list of fetishes that get St Vincent hot under the collar, mildly confusing when I’d been expecting a manifesto on the importance of accessible, state-funded schooling. When I learned to read again (how ironic) it quickly became clear that this album is as passionate in its engagement with our hyperactive, hyper-sexualised pill-popping culture as I thought it would be about teaching. The tongue-in-cheek characterisation of sex, vanity and indulgence in songs like ‘Los Ageless’, ‘Sugarboy’ and ‘Savior’ are met with Jack Anatoff’s signature pulse-racing, electro-heavy production, creating a wacky Willy Wonka ride through the obsessions and repressions of modern romance.
These, however, are immediately offset and intermingled with songs that convey a real sense of desperation, the comedown after all the hype. Where individual grappling with anxiety, loneliness and regret, explored in songs like ‘Hang On Me’, ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’, ‘Young Lover’ and ‘Slow Disco’, is projected onto a collective future that is severely bleak. In ‘Fear the Future’, St Vincent demands an anonymous ‘Sir’ to confront the seemingly inevitable prospects of war and swelling oceans which, I think, is a blatant address to President Trump. The awareness of personal and political turmoil rubbing together and creating intense heat is centre stage on this album. They fuel one another and create a fast-paced, energetic trip that makes contemplation and reflection both necessary and unavoidable.
MASSEDUCTION excels because whilst heavy with complex synths, dark discussions of mental health and demonstrating palm-sweating horror at the damage we do to ourselves and others, it is never far from a wry wink or a cheeky elbow in the ribs. Much like the pills St Vincent describes raining down on us and propping up our lives, I listened to this album compulsively.
Other albums we listened to:
‘Pure Comedy’, Father John Misty – emotional encyclopaedia that is also warmly scathing in its criticism of humanity’s current condition: Trump, misogyny, religion, social media, cultural revolutions all take beatings.
‘Isolation’, Kali Uchis – the love child of Amy Winehouse and Rihanna. The happiest sounding sad songs I’ve come across in a while.
‘DAMN’, Kendrick Lamar – I miss the challenging, experimental narratives of ‘Good Kid, M. A. A. D City’ and ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, but Lamar’s lyrics have never been so performative nor complex than with this punchy, powerful album.
‘Melodrama’, Lorde – we couldn’t not listen to Lorde whilst in New Zealand (she’s from Devonport, Auckland). This album has become a certified modern classic and I would have loved for it to have been around when I was 20 and a mess. The sound engineering is great (see Jack Anatoff again) but the lyrics are gratingly immature at times; she’s perpetually self-deprecating but everything is always someone else’s fault too.
‘Konnichiwa’, Skepta – ‘Your ex plays in the Prem but you never see him taking a pen / ‘Cause if you can’t hit the G-spot when it comes to the spot kicks / Manna gotta wait on the bench’ is one of my favourite lyrics ever. More rappers need to pay attention to female sexual pleasure, please.
‘Ultraviolence’, Lana Del Rey – my go-to, come rain, shine, hell or high water. Del Rey and Dan Auerbach magic from beginning to end.
‘Big Little Lies’ Soundtrack – we listened to this so many times. A comprehensive textbook of blues and dream pop, featuring Charles Bradley, Michael Kiwanuka, Jefferson Airplane, Elvis Presley, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Agnes Obel, Alabama Shakes etc.
Personal playlists: featuring the likes of Tom Misch, Barney the Artist, Earth, Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye, Jamie Woon, Sade, The Beatles, The Doors, Leonard Cohen, Kate Bush, Enya (yes, really), Ann Peebles, Eminem, Whitney Houston etc.
 Released in 2017, MASSEDUCTION is one of a string of releases by American artists in that year who are seething and incredulous at the political fallout of the 2016 presidential election (see also Kendrick Lamar and Lana Del Rey).