Six years ago, Sufjan Stevens made my Christmas.
That’s when he released the functionally-titled Songs for Christmas, a collection of the first five of his annual holiday EPs. See, Sufjan makes one of these glorious discs every year, featuring his renditions of Christmas classics and his original entries into the canon, and he gives them out as gifts to friends and family. And then, after he’s accumulated five years’ worth of them, he releases them commercially in a big, beautiful box.
I’ve been buying Christmas music for as long as I can remember, stretching at least as far back as that first A Very Special Christmas collection in 1987. (Yes, the one with “Christmas in Hollis” on it.) I have dozens of holiday records, and Sufjan’s Songs for Christmas may be my very favorite. It’s one I keep coming back to, and in recent years, it just hasn’t been Christmas for me until I’ve spun this set at least once.
So imagine my inexpressible joy at the announcement of the second volume of Stevens’ Christmas chronicles. Silver and Gold features five more annual EPs – 58 songs in total, lasting for two hours and 45 minutes. Seriously, I nearly did a full-on dance at work when I first heard the news. And yes, these EPs coincide with his The Age of Adz period, so I expect some strangeness and some unbridled ambition. (One song, “The Child with the Star on His Head,” runs for more than 15 minutes.) It’ll be Christmas music the way only Sufjan can do it.
Between that and the announcement of the first Godspeed You Black Emperor album in a decade, the back third of the year is looking up.
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This is the kind of column I hate to write.
Honestly, it is. Some critics love trashing new albums, excited at the chance to prove how clever they are, how they can slaughter even the most sacred of cows with their withering wordplay. I’ve never been that guy. I go into every musical relationship hoping to fall in love. I never want it to end in recriminations and pain. I never want to walk away unhappy.
But sometimes, it must be done. It’s especially frustrating for me when I find myself disappointed by artists who have knocked me out in the past. I never like realizing that the thrill is gone. Which brings us to this week. All three of the records on tap come from artists who have found their way into my top 10 list in prior years. This year? Let’s just say they won’t be there. None of these three albums are unlistenably bad, but they definitely don’t keep the magic alive. And when you climb so high, the fall is so much farther.
It shouldn’t be a huge surprise that Contestant #1 is Green Day. Now, I’ve been buying Green Day albums since 1994, like everyone else. But unlike everyone else, I’ve been tracking their career, hoping they would grow and evolve. And they have, much to my delight. After hinting at grander ambitions on Nimrod and Warning, the California trio shot for the rafters on 2004’s American Idiot, a rock opera in three chords. And then, amazingly, they went even farther on 2009’s terrific 21st Century Breakdown. This was the album where their songwriting caught up with their more expansive vision. In a lot of ways, it was the first very good Green Day record, and I was excited to see where they’d go next.
So what to make of Uno, their just-released ninth album? It’s the first of a planned trilogy, with Dos and Tre to follow in the next four months. Which sounds as ambitious as their last two, if not more so. How big could this music get that they need three CDs to contain it? Would they play with an 80-piece orchestra this time? How about a dozen guest stars singing different characters? After 21st Century Breakdown, anything seemed possible.
So of course, Uno is nothing like that at all. In fact, it’s the laziest, most tossed-off album they’ve made in more than 10 years. If you’ve been waiting for them to ditch all this “growth” and get back to making Dookie Part II, well, this is your year. They’re older, and they’ve calmed down a little, but musically, there’s no other evidence that 18 years have passed. Uno is three-chord pop-punk with no imagination, no spark.
Even worse, Billie Joe Armstrong has apparently decided to channel his 22-year-old self, filling these lyrics with bratty, sneering, shallow fist pumps. Hey, remember when it was cool to say “fuck” in pop songs? Remember how that seemed like a revolutionary act when you were in your early 20s? Armstrong sure does. “I’m taking down my enemies ‘cause they’re all so fucking useless,” he shouts on “Loss of Control,” and elsewhere he repeatedly urges the listener to “kill the fucking DJ.” “Fucking” seems to fill up any two-syllable hole in these lyrics. It’s the album’s most-repeated word.
There’s nothing really wrong with indulging your juvenile side, but it makes for a wearying 40-minute listen. Only a couple of songs – the aforementioned “Kill the DJ” and album closer “Oh Love” – break from the standard pop-punk template here, and some of these songs (“Troublemaker,” “Stay the Night,” “Sweet 16”) sound so uninspired that I can’t believe they took longer than 20 minutes to write and record. I certainly hope that this isn’t an indication of the quality of the entire trilogy, but it doesn’t bode well.
Then there is Mumford and Sons, who sprang from obscurity two years ago on a thundering wave of banjos. Mumford is a four-piece from London without a drummer, but with enough strumming acoustic guitars to make up for any loss of momentum. They play a ragged, rollicking form of folk music, which tumbles forward on rolling banjos and the emotional voice (and persistent bass drum thump) of Marcus Mumford. Their debut album Sigh No More impressed me enough to end up on my top 10 list.
And now, here they are with the follow-up, Babel, and it’s… exactly the same, only somehow less. There’s no mistaking this record for anyone else – the Mumford sound is in full effect, the wrist-breaking guitars and banjo plucks and raw vocals all present and accounted for. In fact, we’ve gone a little bit more epic, with more horn sections here and there, more massive walls of acoustic sound. This is definitely the band’s “prove yourself” moment, and I can feel in every corner of this thing that they believe they’ve made an important masterpiece.
If only the songs were better. Most of these tunes – and I’m just talking about the music now – are painfully boring. They fail to light upon anything memorable, any hint of a melody that can match “The Cave” or “Little Lion Man.” Occasionally it feels like Mumford is coming close to hitting a stride, like when “Ghosts That We Knew” rises up from its humble beginnings, but these moments are teases. The songs don’t really go anywhere. First single “I Will Wait” is the most memorable of the first eight tracks. And songs like “Lovers’ Eyes” make me want to claw my own out.
And that’s a shame, because lyrically, this is a very important album for Marcus Mumford. Most of these songs are about his faith, about coming through life broken and torn and turning to the heavens for comfort. “When I’m on my knees I’ll still believe,” he sings in “Holland Road.” “And when I’ve hit the ground, neither lost nor found, if you’ll believe in me I’ll still believe.” Later, in album highlight “Hopeless Wanderer,” he cries out: “But hold me fast, hold me fast, ‘cause I’m a hopeless wanderer, and I will learn, I will learn to love the skies I’m under.”
The closest thing to a hymn on Babel is also the closest thing to a great song. “Below My Feet” starts out delicately, but in true Mumford fashion, is soon whipping through the air like a hurricane, its wordless chorus rising and rising. “Keep the earth below my feet, for all my sweat, my blood runs weak, let me learn from where I have been, keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn,” Mumford sings passionately. One song later, in album closer “Not With Haste,” Mumford takes in lessons learned: “So not let my fickle flesh go to waste, as it helps my heart and soul in its place, and I will love with urgency, but not with haste…”
I wish I were the kind of music fan who could be happy with strong lyrics alone. The Biblical force of Mumford’s words is striking, but it’s blunted by the unfortunately typical music the Sons have written to accompany them. Babel may please some of Mumford’s fans, and those who love the strummy sound the band conjures will find much to like here. But for a band with a lot to prove, they didn’t quite come up aces this time. I like enough of Babel that I’m interested in whatever the band does third, but in the main, it’s a disappointing effort.
In the end, Mumford and Sons just didn’t try hard enough. British prog-pomp trio Muse, on the other hand, has always had the opposite problem. For five albums, they teetered precariously on the edge, always threatening to send their operatic orchestral sound careening over the top. On their sixth, the just-released The 2nd Law, they’ve finally made good on the threat. This is the album on which it becomes impossible to tell if Muse is a serious band pretending to be silly, or a jokey one trying to convince us that they’re serious.
Either interpretation works, quite honestly. This is Muse unrestrained, and there’s no way any of this is accidental. The 2nd Law, as messy and nutty as it is, feels like exactly the album Matthew Bellamy and his cohorts set out to make. It’s a strange combination of Queen, U2, Trans-Siberian Orchestra and, yes, Skrillex – there are electronic beats aplenty on this album, though not quite as many as the pre-release hype may have led you to believe.
Past Muse albums have often felt disjointed, but this is the first one that plays like an ‘80s Queen album on overdrive. None of these 13 tracks belong on the same piece of plastic. Opener “Supremacy” sets the tone well, with its jabbing guitar lines, horns and strings. You’re going to want to sit down and hold onto something when Bellamy gets to the title phrase – he lets his unshackled falsetto fly free, tearing the sky asunder. It’s something. By contrast, “Madness” is positively mellow, a simple computer beat and melody that reminds me of Zooropa-era U2. And then “Panic Station” brings the funk – slap bass, backwards snare, a hook line ripped off from “Thriller.” It’s hard to believe this is Muse, or that the same three guys came up with all of these songs.
But then, “Panic Station” contains their mission statement: “Do what the fuck you want to, there’s no one to appease.” Never have they followed that advice more than on the absolutely ridiculous “Survival.” This song, the official theme of the 2012 London Olympics (really), has its own orchestral prelude, the silliest lyrics Bellamy has ever written (“Life’s a race that I’m gonna win, and I’ll light the fuse, and I’ll never lose…”), and a laugh-out-loud choral arrangement to deliver them. At one point, the choir is repeating “You were warned and didn’t listen” while the strings flail and the guitars pound and Bellamy screeches. I’m pretty certain Freddie Mercury would have listened to this and said, “You know, dearies, you may want to take it down a notch or two.”
If you’re not doubled over with laughter at this point, you may want to press on, since The 2nd Law does actually get better. “Follow Me” is a simplistically-written lullaby for Bellamy’s infant son, so of course the band chooses to render it like a lost song from the Tron soundtrack. But “Animals” is pretty good, with its spooky electric piano and Radiohead drumbeat. “Explorers” is pretty silly – it’s an epic ballad about overpopulation that even works in the line “fuse helium-3, our last hope” – but they play it convincingly.
That’s as good as it gets, though, as bassist Chris Wolstenholme takes the lead vocal spot on two mismatched songs, proving that Muse without Bellamy singing just sounds wrong. And then the record ends with the two-part title track, which pushes the orchestral-dubstep sound to its unfortunate limit. The first part, “Unsustainable,” is unlistenably bad, its Cyberman voice and trashy electro-beat the closest thing to an overt joke here. And “Isolated System” feels flown in from a different album altogether, a shuddering whisper of a track that goes disco by the end.
And then it’s over, and you’re wondering what the hell you just listened to. Muse is far too talented to veer as sharply into Spinal Tap territory as they do on much of The 2nd Law. As the immortal David St. Hubbins said, it’s a fine line between stupid and clever, and too much of this album vaults right over that line. They’ve been on the edge for a while now, and The 2nd Law is proof that Muse needs to step back and reconsider. They’ve been making this music alone for a long time, and as they so eloquently state it, an isolated system is unsustainable.
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Next week, lots of choices. But I may go with Hammock’s gorgeous Departure Songs and Beth Orton’s lovely Sugaring Season. Tune in to find out. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.