Have you noticed that albums have been getting shorter?
Sure, you still have your epics every once in a while, but I’ve noticed that most of the records I’ve bought this year hover right around the 45-minute range. If an hour is the exception, not the rule, then the same holds true on the other end – the line between and LP and an EP has blurred into irrelevance.
For me, half an hour is pretty much the shortest length I will accept if I’m asked to pay full album price. But lately I’ve been struck by just how often 30 minutes turns out to be exactly what a record needs, and no more. I have three examples of this phenomenon this week – I came to the end of all three of these albums and said, “That’s about right.” I’m not sure if each of these artists consciously determined the right amount of time people would want to spend in their worlds, but that’s how it feels.
In the case of Swedish singer Lykke Li, drinking in despair for longer than the 32 minutes it takes to listen to her third album, I Never Learn, might be too depressing. Li’s no stranger to heartbreak – her last album was called Wounded Rhymes, for pity’s sake – but I Never Learn is a sustained wallow in the saddest places of her heart. It’s a breakup album, of course, but one of those breakup albums that makes “you don’t love me” sound like the heat death of the universe.
Li’s dramatic pop sound is largely unchanged, just slowed down here. She still bathes her songs in massive-sounding keyboards, and her singular voice still cuts through. In “No Rest for the Wicked” she has written one of her most indelible singles, a simple pianos-and-keys thing that pivots on universal sentiments (“I let my good one down, I let my true love die, I had his heart but I broke it every time”) and magnifies them to near-epic proportions.
“No Rest” and second single “Gunshot” are as upbeat as this record gets. “Gunshot” is similarly terrific, a menacing bit of self-loathing – you’ll be singing along to the chorus before you realize it’s about killing yourself. (“And the shot goes through my head and back, gun shot, can’t take it back.”) It’s no doubt metaphorical, but when she repeats “never get you back” at the song’s conclusion, her ache is real.
But it’s on “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone” that Li truly tears her heart out. It’s a muted acoustic piece with the rawest, closest vocal she’s given us, despite being double-tracked. Her voice cracks, breaks, tumbles apart while you listen, and it’s like tiny knives. The song is a plaintive plea for true, unconditional love: “Even though it hurts, even though it scars, love me when it storms, love me when I fall…” It’s the last moment on the album where she allows herself to hope. The final three tracks are titled “Never Gonna Love Again,” “Heart of Steel” and “Sleeping Alone.” They’re all exactly what you’d expect.
That’s not to say they, and this album, are not great. As sad wallows go, I Never Learn is engrossing, and the huge production makes each falling tear feel like a tidal wave. It is just about the right length, and I think Li knows this. She’s allowed herself 32 minutes to wrap herself in pain and self-pity, and I hope she gets over it by the time she hits the studio again. Even by Lykke Li standards, I Never Learn is heartbroken, and I want to hear her find her feet again. Still, this is a pretty terrific little record.
* * * * *
Justin Currie peddles a decidedly different kind of darkness.
The former Del Amitri frontman has carved out a surprisingly acidic solo career, casting a dim lens on himself the same way Larry David does on Curb Your Enthusiasm. His third solo album is called Lower Reaches, and again combines his way with a subtle pop melody with his penchant for vicious self-reflection. If Currie really is what he paints himself to be, you won’t want to spend more than this album’s 30 minutes in his company.
If you remember Del Amitri, it’s probably for winning pop hits like “Roll to Me” and “Always the Last to Know.” His solo work took a darker path immediately, and Lower Reaches continues that trajectory. Currie is still charming, and still finds a way to make his cynicism hummable. Observe the brief “Every Song’s the Same,” in which he obliterates even the idea of writing songs as emotional expression. (Contrast this with Dan Wilson’s considerably brighter “A Song Can Be About Anything.”) Check out “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” which pinches Joan Jett’s title for an altogether more difficult portrait of pitiful co-dependency: “Loving you is what I gotta do, I couldn’t leave you even if I wanted to, ‘cause it’s the hate that feeds the fire of me and you…”
I should point out that all of these songs are catchy and hummable, clever guitar pop that never overstays its welcome. That remains true when the album slips into still darker territory, like the skipping “On My Conscience,” in which Currie delights in romantically destroying someone for revenge: “Whenever you think of me you’ll wonder whether I was lying, well, I don’t really care just so long as you are crying…” “Half of Me” is a pretty piano piece that leaves you feeling hopeless, as Currie delves deep into his psyche: “Half of me knows that half of me regrets ripping through the years without a hope of happiness, but half of me deserves everything he gets…”
Musically, Lower Reaches is a fine pop record – perhaps not as immediately compelling as it could be, but still fine. Lyrically, it continues Justin Currie’s journey into the pitch-black night, and I hope this is therapeutic for him. It’s sometimes a difficult listen, and I’m glad it’s only as long as it is, but I admire Currie for heading down this path unflinchingly. I’m not sure I’ll reach for Lower Reaches too often, but it’s impressive.
* * * * *
Speaking of records I won’t reach for too often, here’s Cloud Nothings.
Dylan Baldi’s scrappy little outfit was justifiably lauded two years ago for their sophomore effort, Attack on Memory. They enlisted Steve Albini to record it, wrote some gritty and hard-driving songs, and replaced all traces of the cute guitar-pop band they used to be. They were in particularly fine form on the nine-minute “Wasted Days,” which seemed to point to a strong future.
They don’t really get there on their third, the 30-minute Here and Nowhere Else. Throughout this lackluster document, Baldi tries his hardest to capture lightning in a bottle a second time, but the inspiration just isn’t there. And without Albini – the album was produced by John Congleton – the edges feel sanded back off. This album is fine, for what it is – a bunch of mediocre loud guitar-rock songs, screamed by a lunatic – but it never takes off.
There isn’t a lot more to say, unfortunately. The songs here are all pretty obvious three-chord bangers that earthbound, and even the long one this time, the seven-minute “Pattern Walks,” doesn’t whip up the storm you know this band is capable of bringing. Bless Baldi’s heart, he truly gives this record his all, and the band is right there with him, but with material this half-hearted, there’s really nothing he can do. Next time, Cloud Nothings need to keep the energy and attitude, and Baldi needs to write better songs. As it is, there’s barely enough here to fill half an hour, which makes the length of Here and Nowhere Else just about perfect.
* * * * *
Next week, we take a TARDIS to the ‘90s for surprisingly good records from Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.