This week I look at new releases by pop-superstar-turned-indie-folkster Taylor Swift, singer songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, and chamber-pop artist Perfume Genius. Coincidentally, veteran drummer Jim Keltner plays on two of these releases.
All three of these records are currently placed among the eight most acclaimed records of the year according to the critical aggregation thread at: http://www.acclaimedmusic.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=9020&p=127344#p127344
If there’s a complaint of Taylor Swift’s career to date, it’s that everything has seemed so calculated. Her albums are almost always released at two year intervals, with a meticulously planned release campaign. Her lead singles have become progressively more execrable, calculated to stimulate maximum pop synapses. It was a surprise when Swift announced a album created in quarantine, then released it the next day.
Folklore is markedly different than Swift’s previous work – opener ‘The 1’ starts with minimalist piano, with Swift cussing in the first line. Swift feels emancipated, free to make the “indie record that’s much cooler than mine”. Her main collaborators on Folklore are Jack Antonoff and The National’s Aaron Dessner, who shared the co-writing duties with Swift on these gentle indie-folk tracks.
The marked change in style has helped Swift’s credibility. She’s always been an outstanding songwriter, right back to when she wrote ‘Our Song’ for her school talent quest in her early teens, but the more relaxed tone on Folklore has increased her appeal. She’s often been accused of taking too much material from her love life, but here she’s more like a novelist, writing narratives like ‘Cardigan’, ‘August’ and ‘Betty’ – accounts from all three corners of a love triangle.
Swift’s vocal melodies are gorgeous on tracks like ‘August’ and ‘Invisible String’. ‘Cardigan’ doesn’t feel like a lead single, but there’s no obvious single choice on a subdued, introspective record. ‘Mad Woman’ has a beautiful piano introduction, while the duet with a non-falsetto Justin Vernon on ‘Exile’ provides a rare moment of variety. Folklore is very good, it simply feels overlong, with 16 songs running over an hour and little stylistic variation. It’s difficult to know what to cut though, as none of the tracks are obviously weak.
Despite the different style, Folklore has enjoyed massive success – it only took a week to become the year’s best selling album in America. Swift’s on her eighth album, and the credibility-boosting Folklore bolsters an impressive catalogue.
Los Angeles singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers released the excellent debut A Stranger in the Alps, in 2017, but has since worked in collaborative settings. She collaborated with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker in Boygenius, then paired up with Conor Oberst for last year’s Better Oblivion Community Center. She’s back solo for Punisher, although Davis, Baker, and Oberst all contribute vocals.
Where A Stranger in the Alps was emotional and acoustic, Punisher pushes Bridgers into different territory, more eclectic and more electronic. These songs are subtler than before, but while I prefer Bridger’s crystalline voice in an acoustic setting, it does a great job of expanding her sonic palette.
The stream-of-consciousness lyrics recalls the songwriting confidence of peak-era Neil Young or Bob Dylan. Seemingly disconnected images paopulate these tracks. Most infamous is ‘Moon Song’ with its line “We hate Tears in Heaven/But it’s sad that his baby died” – which has upset the Eric Clapton fans paying attention.
Lead single ‘Kyoto’ was originally one of the gentlest songs on the record, but Bridger’s producer persuaded her to turn it into an upbeat number with horns and an insistent beat. Where Stranger sounded warm and welcoming, Punisher is often cold and unsettling, although the opening ramble of ‘DVD Menu/Garden Song’ and the countrified ‘Graceland Too’ will both probably satisfy Strangers fans.
While I don’t enjoy Punisher as much as Stranger – it certainly takes longer to enjoy – Bridgers seems destined to be a major artist who’ll be round for the long haul, and Punisher is a fascinating record that deepens her artistry.
Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Mike Hadreas has been releasing albums as Perfume Genius since 2010 – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is his fifth full-length. Hadreas has told interviewers that creating and performing the dance piece The Sun Still Burns Here has changed his approach, making his music more extroverted and universal. He nanes Townes Van Zandt, Enya, and the Cocteau Twins as influences on Set My Heart on Fire Immediately.
Perfume Genius is a gifted arranger – his atmospheric chamber-pop songs boast creative string parts. The impossibly ascending coda to ‘Jason’ is a moment of arranging brilliance. Chamber-pop is Perfume Genius’ most distinctive style, but I find his voice overly querulous on the slower tracks like ‘Moonbend’ and ‘Borrowed Light’.
I prefer Perfume Genius when he’s aiming for the pop jugular. ‘Describe’ marries heavy guitars and great pop instincts, while ‘On The Floor’ bounces along joyfully. The straightforward pop of ‘Without You’, and the big dramatic strings of ‘Your Body Changes Everything’ are also keepers, and ‘Nothing At All’ balances pop hooks with personal confession.
I don’t love all of Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, but the songs that connect are excellent.