Ghosts of 2017
Eminem, Esperanza and the Oh Hellos

We’re in that weird part of the new year that still feels like the old year.

New music has started to come out. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club has given us Wrong Creatures, their eighth album, which I will get to next week, and NPR is already offering a first listen to I Like Fun, the swell new They Might Be Giants record. But it’s not enough to really feel like 2018 is in full swing yet. Meanwhile I am still catching up with things from the end of 2017, records that slipped out in the last weeks of December and are still awaiting my attention.

So consider this the last column of 2017, even though you’re reading it in 2018. Keep in mind there are still a couple dozen albums from last year that I bought and didn’t find time to hear, and that this column is not about those. It’s about latecomers, records that made it onto store shelves while I was in my annual top 10 list cycle and couldn’t devote attention to them. Although I am happy to hear recommendations for albums I missed from last year, should you want to send them my way.

We’re going to start with Eminem, just to get it out of the way. Seventeen years ago I called The Marshall Mathers LP the best album of 2000, and it’s a decision that has weighed on me ever since. I’d like to think I’m a different person now, one who would listen to Marshall Mathers’ misogyny and violent fantasies and find them repugnant, not envelope-pushing. Eminem, when he began, was conducting a large-scale experiment on irresponsibility and audience response, gleefully lighting fuses and then dropping cop-outs and wry “who, me?” grins. His early records are dangerous, manically vile things, but crafted with a satirist’s heart and the mind of a lyrical genius.

Since then, I have applauded every step Mathers has taken away from his Slim Shady days and toward becoming a real, honest artist. And over his last two albums, he’s done that. Recovery was his first stab at apologizing for his past mistakes and trying to atone, and The Marshall Mathers LP 2 was unlike any sequel I’ve heard. It was almost a point-for-point rebuttal and update, including an apology to his mother and some genuine emotional moments.

So why do I think Revival, Em’s ninth album, is so bad? I think it’s at least partially because I’m a different person than I was when I became invested in Mathers as an artist. I hear some of his worst qualities come to the fore here, and they’re no different than similar moments on the last two records, but now I find them inexcusable. Mathers addresses his own failures of character and personality on opener “Walk on Water,” and then apparently considers that carte blanche to display them.

Which is a shame, since the best moments of Revival continue his growth as a person, if not as an artist. The opening trilogy finds him grappling with self-doubt, then overcoming it. “Bad Husband” is the rawest and most real admission of guilt he has made to his ex-wife. Several songs detail bad relationships, and whether they are stories or diary entries, the lessons learned from them are made clear.

And the closing trilogy is remarkable, reflecting on his 2007 overdose and the impact it has made on his relationship with his daughter Hailie. “Castle” takes a trip through time, starting with Hailie’s birth and detailing letters he wrote her throughout her life. He dramatizes his own overdose at the song’s end, and then on “Arise” talks about the healing process he’s undergone since then. The ending is a head-turner – he rewinds the tape, literally, and raps the last part of “Castle” again, this time flushing the drugs down the toilet and seizing his second chance at life.

All of that is well worth praising, even if the music is somewhat lackluster. I also can’t fail to mention “Like Home” and “Untouchable,” songs on which Mathers aims his considerable lyrical skill at Donald Trump and systemic racism. His heart is in the right place on these tracks, and their up-front nature should please people who were surprised and elated at his anti-Trump freestyle. But all told, I’ve just described about half the record, and had he stopped there, I would think of Revival as another step in his rehabilitation.

But he didn’t, and the other half of the material sinks the first half like a stone. I won’t go into detail, except to say that Eminem is always at his worst when he thinks he is being funny. “Remind Me” samples “I Love Rock and Roll” for a bit about how he is only interested in a woman because she reminds him of himself. “Framed” brings Slim Shady back for a murder fantasy in which Shady is accused because his lyrics match the crime.

“Heat” includes this choice rhyme, which all but negates his anti-Trump stance from earlier in the record: “Grab you by the (meow), hope it’s not a problem, in fact about the only thing I agree on with Donald is that, so when I put this palm on your cat, don’t snap, it’s supposed to get grabbed, why do you think they call it a snatch?” One track later, on “Offended,” he turns positively childish, concluding a chorus about hoping people are offended at his rhymes with a promise to make them “eat my turds.” (That one has some rape lines that make my stomach turn, too.)

OK, so I did go into detail, but not nearly enough. The tragedy is that Eminem remains one of the most lyrically interesting rappers in the game. (Here’s a line from “Heat” I quite liked: “That’s just the thoroughbred in me, ain’t a better breed, my dog thinks so too, look at my pedigree.” Pedigree, pet agree? You groaned, but you respect it.) On about half of Revival, he harnesses that power for good, and despite some lazy, downbeat music (Ed Sheeran?) and lame sample choices, this material shows how far he’s come. And then on the other half, he proves he’s still a misogynistic jerk, reveling in his least appealing qualities and spitting out shamelessly awful sex and death fantasies. I’ve given him a pass on this material before, but I just can’t anymore.

* * * * *

I spent way more time on that record than I intended to, so I’ll keep the next two short. Which is fine, because the records themselves are pretty short.

I wonder if the people who voted for Esperanza Spalding to receive the Best New Artist Grammy in 2011 knew how right they were. I hope they’ve kept up with her career as she’s driven it down amazing new roads. Spalding was always brilliant – a bass-playing musical prodigy, she understands jazz in ways I never will, and can compose stunning, complex pieces in a number of idioms. But it’s the material post-Grammy that has captivated most, from 2012’s sparking Radio Music Society to the unstoppable power of 2016’s Emily’s D+Evolution. Her early fans probably freaked out a little at the acid metal and power trio rock of that record, but her innate sense of musicality was never absent.

If people freaked at that, I can’t imagine what they thought when Spalding announced Exposure, her latest project. Over 77 hours last year, she composed and recorded her sixth album live on the internet, working feverishly with no breaks. She entered the studio with no concrete ideas, and emerged with ten songs that are remarkably intricate and enjoyable. Yes, you can tell she was up against the clock here and there – two songs have no lyrics, and the last track is a bit of a jam. But Exposure is far better than its origins would suggest, and it shows just how good Spalding is, even under pressure.

My favorites here are, of course, the more complete ones, like “Heaven in Pennies,” which features piano by Robert Glasper, and “I Am Telling You.” Spalding never sings what you expect she will, aiming for notes that shouldn’t work, but do, and ending up with what sounds like deliberately arranged scat singing. Her band is tight, her bass playing extraordinary as always. I even like her sweet little duet with Andrew Bird, “The Ways You Got the Love,” evidently written and recorded in a few hours.

Exposure was only available for a limited time from Spalding’s site, and I ponied up for it. The resulting package is a delight, with a fragment of lyric sheet glued to the front cover (she made 7,777 of these, which means she and her team glued 7,777 fragments of paper to CD wallets) and a second disc of unfinished ideas that arose during the sessions. I don’t know how often I will listen to that second disc, but it provides an interesting insight into Spalding’s process. She’s like no other artist, and I’m happy I jumped in on this experiment.

Texas collective The Oh Hellos are conducting their own experiment, releasing their new songs as a series of EPs. The band remains independent, working for themselves and releasing music to their growing legion of fans. I’m definitely one of them – the brother and sister team of Tyler and Maggie Heath write astoundingly beautiful music, and the musicians they have assembled bring it to sparkling life.

The first of these new EPs is called Notos, and it’s just as good as I was hoping it would be. There are so many perfect little moments in these 21 minutes – my current favorite is when the drums kick over to double time on the previously lilting “Constellations” – and the band never puts a foot wrong. Their harmonies are gorgeous, the string arrangements thick and powerful, the songs compact yet as wide as the sky. I’ve yet to hear a song about our national discourse that puts as fine a point on it as “Torches” does, and yet they deliver it with grace.

If you don’t know the Oh Hellos, well, you’re in good company. But if you’d like to join us, check them out here.

That’s it for this week. Next week, 2018 begins in earnest. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles