Sufjan Stevens has never been afraid to bear his heart to an audience. Even at his most thematic and theatrical–2005’s masterpiece Illinois–he wasn’t shy about including a line like “I cried myself to sleep last night” as the centerpiece of a song before asking the listener to question “are you writing from the heart?” But while Illinois buried its confessional nature amidst richly arranged baroque pop playgrounds, Carrie & Lowell is a thoroughly intimate affair; all you’ll find here are fluttering guitars, double-tracked vocals delivered with a whisper, and haunting synthesizer elegies bookending the album’s brisk tracks. It is an album that is simple and anguished to its very core.
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is a confrontational affair, and the initial response from the general public reflected that. As one of the most commercially successful and critically lauded rappers of the 21st century, looking to follow up 2012’s classic-in-its-own-right Good Kid M.A.A.D City, Kendrick Lamar bravely ensured that To Pimp a Butterfly was too dense to take in with just a listen or two. Infinite tweets, reviews, and “thinkpieces” have attempted to pick this piece of art to the bone, but not a single one will do this labyrinth of cultural and personal meditation justice.
If you were to travel back in time to the year 1968 and cryogenically freeze the guys of The Band, only to wake them up in the year 2015, you’d probably find them hanging out with the members of Houndmouth. Both groups are harmony heavy, folk-funk powerhouses. While The Band spent a whole bunch of years touring with legends like Bob Dylan, and recording a massive repertoire of legendary jams, Houndmouth is just now coming up out of Indiana with their second album, Little Neon Limelight, dropping on Rough Trade earlier this week.
In retrospect, Twin Shadow/George Lewis Jr. always belonged on a major label, though this wasn’t obvious at the time of his 2010 new-wave-revival debut, Forget. On Forget, retro guitars and a lo-fi drum machine kept Twin Shadow grounded in New Order’s more restrained brand of new wave instead of something flashier. Also like a New Order single, nearly every song on Forget reached for lasting vocal melodies. Songs like “At My Heels” and “Slow” were slick ‘80s style exercises in part, but the striking vocalist and memorable choruses left the lasting impression. Twin Shadow’s next album Confess (2012) honed in on these features and jettisoned potential distractions. While some missed the relative subtlety of Forget, this kind of pop music can benefit from directness. The intoxicating “This isn’t loooooove” on “Run My Heart”, “Five Seconds” with its “can’t get to your heart…”, “Golden Light”: Confess blew relationship feelings into massive proportion. If Forget is the Breakfast Club kids developing meaningful ‘80s connections, Confess is John Cusack in your yard with a boombox.