Review: Taylor Swift – Reputation

In which we go from “what is she doing” to “why is she doing this” to “how is she doing this” on Taylor Swift’s latest blockbuster.

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Taylor Swift – reputation
Record Label: Big Machine Records
Release Date: November 10, 2017

She clears her throat.

I’ve cycled through a lot in my first dozen listens of Taylor Swift’s reputation—incredulity, disappointment, confusion, elation, respect—but each time I press play, my brain locks onto the album’s ten-second mark, where she audibly clears her throat. There’s a whole world in that brief vocalization. It’s polite yet filled with purpose, a global superstar who’s somehow managed to be anonymous for a year letting the world know she’s ready to speak again. It’s deliberate, as if she knows she’s on the precipice of something and wants to make sure you hear her. I literally can’t stop thinking about it, because it’s the first moment on reputation when Taylor Swift lets you know that she is not. fucking. around. And it’s not the last time; she will tell you over and over again throughout this album. It’s all part of the plan.

Every musical choice on reputation demands submission, from the way songs stack topline melodies endlessly on top of each other to how the mechanized production beats you over the head with each industrial bass-wobble. Max Martin and Jack Antonoff may have overseen the album’s sound, but it more often feels like a cyborg soldered these tracks together, calibrating for maximum impact. The album’s sonics are partly an extension of “I Know Places”, a darkly rhythmic outlier on 1989, but Swift also works in skittering trap drums, hip-hop cadences, and elements of global music to synthesize the sound of 2017. She’s working in a dozen different modes at once (often on the same song), and she projects absolute confidence in all of them. Continue reading

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Thoughts from One of the Cured Kids

Processing what it means to be a lifelong Brand New fan in the wake of the sex abuse revelations of front man Jesse Lacey

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Jesus Christ, that’s a pretty face, the kind you’d find on someone I could save.
If they don’t put me away, it’ll be a miracle.

Perhaps the least important, most selfish reaction to the recent revelations that Jesse Lacey solicited nude photos from a teenager is that it’s ruined your favorite band for you. But for a lot of people, it has. My experience is below.

For nearly two decades—more than two-thirds of my life—Brand New songs have given words to my best and worst impulses. I have so many memories with this band: blasting their debut out the window of my first car, covering “The Boy Who Blocked His Own Shot” in the church shows of our local scene, playing their fourth album Daisy all night long on the night before I left for college. Their songs comforted me at my lowest moments with whispers and shouts. Their concerts were a safe space before I knew what the word was, a communion rite with the kids who felt like me. It’s not just a band; it’s a part of me. They are quite literally a reason why I am still here.

In a moment, that’s gone. It’s broken and it can’t be fixed. The only thing I can do is write about it. And perhaps it’s an egocentric way to process, but it’s how I’m doing it. Continue reading

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Matt Chylak’s Top 10 Albums of 2016

I have been in love with music for more than two decades at this point, and it’s led me to believe in a few essential truths.

The first is that the best music is cathartic. It speaks to a longing from deep within, a fix that feels physical: seams in your heart that need restitching; buried anxiety that needs to be let out through your lungs; an involuntary shuffle across the dancefloor. When done right, it can release a pheromone rush that sends your mood spiraling in any direction.

The second thing I believe is that the best music creates understanding.  Music is the sound of an artist showing you their take on the world, whether it be a specifically arranged sonic journey or a story unfolding in poetic time. But you respond to it too; it’s almost like bringing your perspective and the artist’s into the same space can somehow resolve them. Music helps you uncover an empathy that connects and binds you to the artist in a very real way.

The final truth that I’d like to propose is that the best music feels vital. It feels of the moment, like it has to exist in that very second when the sound is vibrating in the air. Sometimes there’s a political context or an emotional one, sometimes the energy is just right in the room or you’re thinking about how far the artist you’re listening to has come. But the thing that doesn’t change is how right it all feels, like everything in the universe has clicked into place.

I finally finished writing about my ten favorite albums from 2016. Each of these blends different forms of catharsis, empathy, and an absolute necessity to exist in ways that moved me this year. Hopefully you’ll find something that moves you too.

Continue reading

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Poem: “imagine me gone”

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imagine me gone

i don’t mean in the earthly sense. i’ve got no intention of dressing

myself in methanol and tethered roots, recycled organics

on a one-way trip to atmosphere. no. i mean what if sunlight

caught your eyelids tomorrow morning and you lifted your head and reached

to say what you wanted to say last night

but the sheets beside you lay clean as a forgotten apology?

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Recommended Track: “If I Believe You” by The 1975

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I don’t know if I believe in God.

It’s a little weird to type that sentence—I’ve certainly never done it before, and having spent all of my pre-college education in Catholic schools, I’m frightened to even consider that out loud. Sometimes I feel like a fraud, like I’m actively ignoring that religions are just stories that we tell ourselves to metaphorically illustrate a moral code. Other times, I am so enraptured by the world’s mysteries and beauty that I can’t help but be swept along by the thought of some grand design.

To put it simply, “If I Believe You” is a gospel song about not having any faith. Perhaps more accurately, it’s about living without faith through times of pain. The song’s main lyric feels appropriately like a plea from the Book of Job: “If I believe you, will that make it stop?” Vocalist Matty Healy approaches his own lack of faith with something resembling a tremble, turning over in his bed alone with a God-shaped hole in his heart. It’s one of many themes on The 1975’s second album, an audacious and intimate record that’s my favorite of the year by a wide margin.

Lyrics this overtly earnest could easily come off as cloying, but the song’s carefully crafted musical arrangement underscores the theme with assurance. You can hear this care in the perfectly placed flugelhorn solo, which creates some badly needed space and extends the song length from a traditional ballad into something much more ruminative. You can hear it in the plucked harp strings, which turn the song’s coda into something so tactile that you can practically touch them. Every flourish is thought out, visualizing an empty room that has something else there.

My favorite technique on display is in the innovative way the band records the song’s gospel choir. At first, the extra voices are there to traditionally reinforce the chorus, and it sounds great in an ’80s balladeer kind of way. But then the band samples that recording and chops it up, manipulating these swelling voices to create something truly otherworldly. Listen at 2:20, when it feels as if the heavens are literally opening up while Matty approaches the song’s climax: “And I had a revelation: I’ll be your child if you insist. I mean, if it was you who made my body, you probably shouldn’t’ve made me atheist.” It’s like someone turned on a light.

I don’t go to church often these days. When I do go, my favorite moments of every mass are the minutes after receiving communion. I always do the same thing: return to my pew, kneel, and put my face in my hands. In the quiet, I meditate on the dreams I want realized for others, on the people I miss, on the way the world is and how it could be. And in those moments, I don’t feel like a fraud; I hope that someone is listening, and solace takes me like a wave.

That same yearning is what I’ve found here. This is what prayer sounds like.

Spotify   Apple Music   Lyrics

Play this song: In the dark, when you’re not sure what you need but know you need something.

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Review: Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

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Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Record Label: GOOD Music / Def Jam
Release Date: February 14, 2016

I have to give Kanye West the benefit of the doubt.

It’s taken me a long time to type that sentence. The first 6 weeks of 2016 have been an incredibly exciting and frustrating time to be a Yeezy fan, with an album rollout that took “pop a wheelie on the zeitgeist” to a whole new level. After he rejoined Twitter, the world was treated to a real-time look at Mr. West’s creative process—the joy of discovery as he patched collaborators, beats, samples, and choirs together into an everchanging mess of (mostly unheard) sound. Most rap listeners followed along with every stitch, watching a signed notepad somehow become more valuable than most people’s cars. It’s the closest we’ve ever gotten to a transcript of a great artist’s mind in action.

Of course, this direct feed into The Life of Kanye West also led to a staggering number of tweets that could best be characterized as misogynistic and homophobic. He defended the widely accused rapist Bill Cosby. He called out an ex-girlfriend’s child after misreading an abbreviation. News stories about his sexual preferences (and his denials of said preferences) far outpaced stories about the music. It was hard to watch, and impossible to defend.

It was also completely predictable. As most people know by now, the most compelling thing about Kanye West the artist is that is nearly inextricable from Kanye West the man. In his efforts to show us everything, Kanye has never shied away from the parts of him that are the ugliest. In his pursuit of a greater Truth, he has never been interested in political correctness. And in his deep need to get the message across, Kanye has never so much as acknowledged brevity—for better or worse, the man is his own editor.

So yeah, this whole situation is fucked up. It’s led to some incredible writing and conversation about where the boundaries of artistic and critical expression lie, about how much sociopolitical leeway we give popular artists, and (most of all) about how incredibly disappointing it is that one of the most progressive musicians of the 21st century could espouse such regressive views.

But perhaps the most important conversation point of all: in the midst of all this digital turmoil, he actually, you know, released the album. Continue reading

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Short Prose: “New Song”

Archiving some writing.

Fig Tree in Camperdown Cemetery

New Song

It had never come this easy before. He’d done reggae, rap-rock, jazz fusion, moody blues, dark punk, death metal, doo-wop, blue-eyed soul, classical, afrobeat, crust punk, digital hardcore, and alternative everything. He’d pumped out techno beats, layered six-harmony a cappella tones, and once rapped for four and a half minutes straight using only obscenities, but it had never come this easy before.

The room is well-lit and the floor and walls are constructed from pine wood, the perfect timber for his acoustic six-string’s dulcet tones. The fresh aroma reminds him of a carpenter’s shop. Standing twelve by twelve, instruments clutter space, encroaching on the miniature stilted stool positioned centrally in front of his lone microphone. They hang off of the walls, higher and higher in the air, threatening a cacophonous avalanche should some earthly rumble quake the room. Keyboards, abstract drum set pieces, guitars and basses at ground level, the basis for most music. A higher gaze recognizes seldom-used tools, alto and tenor saxophones from his jazz days, trumpets and trombones, their bells still gleaming, a polished sheen. Still higher, at the quarter’s summit, hung the rarities, waiting to be brought down for an interlude: kazoos, Indonesian metallophones, pan flutes, Aztec slit drums, and a rusty accordion.

But they have no place in this particular morning’s song. Right now, it is just him and his guitar. He plucks the open G and B strings gingerly, relishing the perfect third they create before settling into a melody. He plays nothing complex; in fact, it’s a traditional tune, modeled off of basic progressions that any amateur could pick up immediately. Still, it rings true, an augmented seventh hanging in the air like an invitation to the theatre.

He increases his speed, running his forefingers repeatedly around the fret board as a well-seasoned miler might jog before a race, pacing himself to get in the mood. The scant sounds are coming together now, and he hears the first words of the song, sweet and light: I see a star on the sycamore tree. It never bothered him where the words came from or how they fit together (more often than not, they didn’t). He never wrote his lyrics down, and in fact never bothered to refine their meaning; the words had always arrived posthumously, wisps of White Sea foam curled on the crests of soundwaves. That was how he meant it, unedited life caught forever on a tape.

Suddenly, he has it. He strums evenly, matching his shoe’s tapping click track to keep tempo. In and out, in and out, in and out and in. Mistakes are common for this part but he rarely makes them, each purposeful flick of his wrist brimming with confidence and little trepidation. After finishing, he rises to grasp a tambourine off the wall, and settles back into the rhythm, complementing his background. Clink, Clink, Clink Clink Clink rattles the hollowed drum, matching his guitar perfectly.

Bass follows, a dropped D tuning brings a crisp rumble to the low end of the register. Bum bada Bum Bum Bum. No piano, after consideration. The complexities of the ivory might have suggested a backdrop for the tune, but in the end they’d intrude on the melody, and, after all, this was all about the melody. Besides, bass provides more than enough foundation for him to coat his six-string over.

With the skeleton of the song in place, he begins to add its true bones, sparsely sinewing his original guitar line throughout his framework. It flutters airily, cascading over the simple structure and filling it with pure, invigorating life.

He tinges the strings repeatedly, building a fine, joyful film over the dollop of music. It caresses him, eyes closed, mouth open wide, completing the opening couplet: I see a star on the sycamore tree, five limitless lines drawn away on a breeze. And those few words mean more to him than a thousand leaky windowsills or a million dying sea lions or a billion burning stars, because they are his and they are him.

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