I am a fan of swagger.
I don’t mean cockiness. There’s a certain negative connotation to the word swagger that I don’t think it deserves. When I say an album swaggers, I mean it has a confidence that informs every song, every line, every decision. It’s particularly invigorating when those decisions shouldn’t work, when the record achieves a kind of alchemy on pure willpower and determination. When you know the music you’re listening to would fall flat on its face in the hands of a lesser artist, but the record itself betrays no sense of self-doubt, that’s swagger.
And that’s as fine a description of Janelle Monae as I’ll be able to muster. Her work swaggers. She’s incredibly ambitious – she’s rounding third on a seven-part concerto about robots on the run in a futuristic city, with five of the seven suites wrapped up – and she effortlessly combines old-school soul with a dozen other, more modern influences. When reviewing her last album, The ArchAndroid, I said her music sounds like the spawn of Prince and Erykah Badu, if that kid really liked Blade Runner. It’s still true.
I couldn’t have known this at the time, but both Prince and Badu pop up in guest spots on Monae’s second full-length album, The Electric Lady. This should tell you where she’s coming from – she creates some of the most imaginative, eclectic, original-sounding soul-pop you’ll ever hear. The Electric Lady covers suites four and five of the story of Cindi Mayweather, an android who committed the sin of falling in love with a human, and is simultaneously hunted and made famous for it. But if you think it gets bogged down in sci-fi concepts, you’re not familiar with Monae. Like everything she’s done, this record… well, swaggers.
The Electric Lady is a little more streamlined and personal than prior efforts, with a few songs that seem like stabs at radio hits. It’s in no way a typical pop record, though, and the first three tracks will dispel that notion. It opens with a surf-rock-inflected overture, then slams into “Givin ‘Em What They Love,” which features Prince on vocals and guitar. It’s a slow-burn powerhouse, a surprisingly mid-tempo opening to the record, but as it steps forward, sure-footedly, it builds into a convincing stomper with a soaring chorus. And then comes “Q.U.E.E.N.,” Monae’s duet with Badu. Over a particularly ‘80s synth line, the two knock this collaboration out of the park – it’s like they decided to show everyone else attempting soulful pop music these days just how it’s done.
The quality of Suite IV never flags, and its 33 minutes zips by. The title track is an absolute triumph, the ballad “Primetime” overcomes its cheesy lyrics with a fine vocal performance by Miguel, and “We Were Rock and Roll” is a lovely bit of nostalgic ‘70s funk mixed with ‘60s soul. And then there is “Dance Apocalyptic,” one of the year’s best singles – it’s a quick-step pop tune that somehow mixes ukulele, cheesy organ, cheerleaders, finger snaps and a killer chorus into an irresistible brew. You simply will not be able to sit still through this one. It’s fantastic, and it even ends with a Prince trademark – pitch-shifted spoken word.
“Look Into My Eyes” brings the suite to a close, and it’s marvelous, a James Bond theme with a male voice choir in the background and a hundred little Henry Mancini-esque touches. And this is what I mean by swagger – you won’t find another singer on modern pop radio who would do anything like “Dance Apocalyptic” or “Look Into My Eyes,” and they certainly wouldn’t do both on the same record. It’s an incredible show of confidence.
Suite V doesn’t quite hit the same heights, but it’s still excellent. After another overture, Monae slides into the traditional soul number “It’s Code,” and follows it up with the Stevie Wonder-esque “Ghetto Woman.” With the story confined largely to a series of interludes in the form of radio call-in spots, the songs are free to explore anything Monae wants, and she chooses love and yearning. There’s even a song called “Can’t Live Without Your Love,” with swelling strings, deft clean guitar and glorious harmonies. It’s perhaps more typical than you’d expect, but stick around for the middle eight, in which Monae pulls out a humdinger of a jazz melody.
The last few tracks are pretty much perfect, concluding the suite on a stratospheric high. “Sally Ride,” named after the first woman astronaut, is a dense, jazzy piece floating by on guitars and strings, Monae giving the delirious vocal line everything she has. “I wanna fly, fly,” she sings, as the electric guitar crashes in. Nothing about this song is typical, and neither is “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes,” which features another new-school wunderkind, Esperanza Spalding. The record ends with an anthem, unlike anything else Monae has done. “What An Experience” brings up her ‘80s influences, including that plinking, echoed guitar that found its way into half the radio hits of the decade, but mashes them into a perfect, blissful, easygoing end credits theme. There’s even a reggae breakdown. Yes, it all works.
Why does it work? Because throughout this record’s 68 minutes, Janelle Monae’s self-confidence never falters. She’s innovating before your ears, pushing soul-pop into new and more fulfilling directions, showing off her chops as a singer, songwriter and producer, and oh yeah, becoming a top-notch role model for female artists who are too smart to be music industry pawns. And she does all this with an effortless grin. The Electric Lady is another terrific piece of work from one of the best pop artists to emerge in decades. It swaggers like nobody’s business.
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It would be hard to call Neko Case’s music swaggering, but her own confidence has grown immeasurably since she first emerged as a solo artist with The Virginian in 1997. She was a country-rock crooner then, covering the Everly Brothers and Queen with equal aplomb, but over four more solo albums (and five records as part of the Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers), she’s blossomed. Her work now contains strains of country, but is a glorious hybrid of all the styles she’s absorbed over the past 15 years.
Her evolution reaches its apex (at least so far) on her sixth solo album, blessed with this delightful mouthful of a title: The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You. She still composes tuneful meanders, but this album pulses with a sense of purpose, of drive. Case has called it her most personal work, the one on which she stopped telling stories and started baring her soul, and if that’s what it took to get her to this next level, then more power to her.
Just listen to “Man,” on which Case subverts her own gender to talk about the roles she has played. “I’m a man, that’s what you raised me to be, I’m not your identity crisis…” The lyric is pure awesome, and the music rocks, hard. It’s louder than the last couple New Pornographers records, chugging forward with purpose. She follows it up with “I’m From Nowhere,” on which she sings over nothing but an acoustic guitar, lamenting a life in the music biz. It’s pretty, and it’s even more poetic and bracing after “Man.”
The Worse Things Get is Case’s most diverse effort, diving from the thick indie rock of “Bracing for Sunday” (“Friday night girl, bracing for Sunday to come”) to the completely a cappella “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” – that song’s beautifully rendered “get the fuck away from me” will take you by surprise, but it sounds perfect in context – to the sweet acoustic ramble of “Calling Cards,” complete with subtle trumpets. All that in just over seven minutes, too. A couple minutes later, she’s covering Nico’s “Afraid” with nothing but piano, vibes and autoharp.
It’s Case’s vision that keeps all this together, wraps it up as a single piece of work. When she asks, seemingly unironically, where she left her fire on the lovely dirge of a penultimate track, it’s puzzling – the fire is all over this album. Case seems to answer herself just fine on the closing number, “Ragtime,” one of her finest and most confident tunes – “I will feel myself invincible soon,” she sings, before the horns start blaring. It’s a tremendous closer, so much so that the three bonus tracks on the deluxe edition feel as tacked-on as they are. The Worse Things Get is a unified whole, and “Ragtime” is its climax. (The hidden snippet – Case saying “That was awesome” – sums it up.)
Case has taken some flack for the softer bent of a lot of this material, as if the only way a female artist can express her fire is by rocking out. Ignoring the fact that that’s ridiculous, Case has built her… um, case on a platform of diversity here, branching out in a dozen directions, yet infusing everything with her own stamp. I say that’s a perfect expression, and I hope she keeps on expressing it. Neko Case has blossomed into something simply splendid over the past decade and a half, and while The Worse Things Get is certainly a high point, I hope it’s just a rest stop, and she keeps on climbing.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.