This week we look at new releases from Nigerian Afrobeats/soul artist Tiwa Savage, indie-folk band Fleet Foxes, and musical polymath Sufjan Stevens.
Nigerian singer and actress Tiwatope Savage was a late bloomer. While graduating with a degree in accounting, she also served as a backing singer for George Michael and Mary J. Blige. After spending her teens in the UK, she graduated from Berklee College of Music and returned to Nigeria to establish a performing career. Turning 40 earlier this year, Celia is merely Savage’s third studio album.
Celia covers a lot of bases – musically it encompasses Afrobeats, R&B, Soul, and pop. Lyrically it’s also broad, covering women’s empowerment, lust, and God. While Celia isn’t particularly explicit, it’s boundary breaking for a female Nigerian artist to discuss carnal matters. It’s a patriarchal culture; when Savage’s husband divorced her in 2016, he also accused his mother-in-law of witchcraft. The record is named for Savage’s mother, and ends with the hymn-like ‘Celia’ Song’.
Savage’s vocals are outstanding, her honeyed voice helping this disparate collection of songs to achieve unity. Single ‘Koroba’ sticks close to Afrobeats, while ‘Temptation’ with Sam Smith feels Western. The uplifting and spiritual themes of ‘Glory’ and ‘Celia’s Song’ end the record on a sincere and beautiful note.
A record with a scope as wide as Celia is often asking for trouble – aiming to please everyone, but ending with noone satisfied. But Celia is exquisite, a multi-dimensional portrait of a fascinating woman.
For some bands diversity is overrated. No one complains when The Ramones or AC/DC make the same album over and over again. Robin Pecknold’s Fleet Foxes fall into the same category, making ornately harmonised folk-rock – I can’t imagine them making any other kind of music. Shore, their fourth record, gives them a brighter production. This accentuates their retro stylings and Shore recalls a 1970s record by America or Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
Most of these songs are irresistibly pretty – all melody and harmony. Shore was released on the autumn equinox, appropriate for a record that’s often themed around communion with natural phenomena; song titles include ‘Wading in Waist-High Water’ and ‘Sunblind’. Pecknold had recorded most of the music for Shore before writing lyrics – most of the words were inspired by post-lockdown trips into the Catskill Mountains and Lake Minnewaska.
Lockdown also necessitated that Pecknold recorded without the rest of the band, but even without his bandmates he reels off 15 consecutive tracks of gorgeous folk-rock. My favourite is ‘A Long Way Past The Past’, beautifully harmonised with horn punctuations. The evocative acoustic guitar riff of the opening ‘Wading in Waist-High Water’ sets the tone, while ‘Can I Believe You’ soars with its sophisticated instrumental hooks.
Shore is gorgeous and timeless – a great Christmas present for an ornery uncle who thinks that no-one’s made worthwhile music since the mid-1970s.
Sufjan Stevens’ career has been largely defined by its unpredictability. Over a two decade recording career he’s bounced between gentle indie-folk, grandiose arrangements about US cities and landmarks, and creative electronica. Stevens’ latest effort, his first studio effort since 2015’s acclaimed Carrie and Lowell, is notable for its mundanity.
Stevens explained this to The Fader.
I wanted things to feel more universal and more generic, in a way. I embraced the use of cliches and catchphrases and idioms and colloquialisms. All that stuff started to like become the impetus for the songs, the meanings behind the songs. I kind of wanted to speak to the lowest common denominator. I wanted the songs to keep moving and be simple on the surface and to feel accessible in a way, as much as I’m able to do it because like even at my most poppiest, I’m a far cry from what’s being played on the radio right now. That was all really, really intentional.Sufjan Stevens, The Fader
Of Stevens’ past work, The Ascension is closest in tone to the glitchy electronica of 2010’s The Age of Adz. As with Adz, The Ascension feels lengthy, sometimes connecting emotionally but not musically enticing enough to sustain its long running time.
Despite Stevens’ approach, songs like ‘Tell Me You Love Me’ still make an emotional connection. ‘The Ascension’ is an ambitious mini-epic that recalls the unfettered creativity of Illinois. Although it wouldn’t have fit the finished record, b-side ‘My Rajneesh’ is also notable as one of the most fascinating records
One of Stevens’ weaker efforts, but he’s always worthy of respect for following his muse; hopefully it pumps out another classic next time around.