I never quite know what to say about Bjork.
Musicians often talk about getting their inspiration from some other plane of existence, and acting as messengers for some otherworldly force that creates the music through them. While I have never heard Bjork say anything of the sort, she’s one of the few I would believe without question. Everything she does sounds like the product of some alien civilization trying to approximate our pop music, and ending up with something bizarre and beautiful that sounds like nothing else on the planet.
On the one hand, Bjork is a stunningly creative artist, a genius sonic manipulator and a one-of-a-kind musical force. She’s never done anything halfway, committing completely to an uncompromising vision. (I mean, just look at her album covers.) It should be easy to lavish her work with praise. But on the other hand, that vision is so uncompromising that it’s almost impenetrable. Bjork makes music for an audience of one – herself – and it’s sometimes difficult to figure out just what she was going for, let alone whether she succeeded.
That was especially true during the years after her breathtaking third album, Homogenic, when she drifted more into tone poems and electronic meanders, with a stop-over in a cappella land. I can barely tell you anything about Volta or Biophilia, despite hearing them multiple times. But all that changed in 2015 with Vulnicura, easily her most human work in more than 15 years. Over thick, sad strings, Bjork detailed the dissolution of a long relationship in heart-rending terms, and the result was powerful. Still otherworldly and unique, but powerful.
It was also the beginning of her artistic partnership with Venezuelan musician Arca, which she continues on her new album Utopia. It’s a relationship that seems to spark the best in her. Utopia is her longest album at 71 minutes, and it’s overflowing with inspiration. Structurally it seems similar to Vulnicura – its musical foundation is built on strings and woodwinds, with electronic touches – but its mood couldn’t be more different. Utopia is a joyous record about love, rendered in major keys and light. Even Bjork’s trademark full-throated singing voice sounds sweeter here.
That’s not to say it’s sickly or sappy. This is still a Bjork album, still light years away from Justin Timberlake country. Everything is still delightfully alien, as the watery keyboards, boots-stomping-through-ice drums, harps and overlapping voices of the first song, “Arisen My Senses,” will attest. But Bjork has never sung so much about kissing, about longing, about simple emotions like missing someone with all of one’s body and mind. Some of this record is remarkably specific: “Is all of this excessive texting a blessing or just two music nerds obsessing,” she asks in the lovely “Blissing Me,” and she opens “Features Creatures” this way: “When I spot someone who is same height as you, and goes to same record stores, I literally think I am five minutes away from love.”
There are darker moments, of course. “Sue Me” (about the man who inspired Vulnicura) is as angry as its arrangement of skittering drums and flute sounds will allow, and the lyrics of “Tabula Rasa” – which seem to be about a cheating father and his effect on his children – belie the song’s almost cloud-like arrangement. But these are the minority. Most of the record is full of love. “The Gate” is a menacing-sounding near-ambient thing, but it’s about letting love flow though you, caring for others and being cared for in return. “Saint” makes the most use of the birdsong that connects this album together, spinning a delicate flute melody for a tale of the healing power of music. And closer “Future Forever” returns to that sparse sound from “The Gate” as Bjork exhorts you to “imagine a future and be in it.”
It’s great to hear her so blissful again, after the heartache of Vulnicura. If this is what a sexy album of love songs sounds like to Bjork, then more power to her. It may not sound anything like our earthling love ballads, but it’s beautiful, striking, grand and wholly unique. I’d expect nothing less from Bjork, and I’m looking forward to further puzzling this record out.
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I don’t know if this counts as a secret confession, but I always liked Oasis.
I don’t just mean from the start, because everybody loved them in the Definitely Maybe and Morning Glory days. I mean I enjoyed Heathen Chemistry and Don’t Believe the Truth and Dig Out Your Soul, records even the Gallagher brothers probably don’t remember much about. They were never as good as they thought they were, but when they got about the business of just being a Beatles-inspired rock band, Oasis were pretty great.
Of course, a significant part of that greatness grew from the tension between Liam and Noel Gallagher, who always hated each other a little bit. Their relationship has now completely imploded – the two reportedly don’t even speak, and they are always sniping at each other in the press. An Oasis reunion looks increasingly unlikely. The good news is that both Gallaghers have gone on to lead new projects. The bad news is that neither of those projects – Liam’s Beady Eye and Noel’s High Flying Birds – comes close to matching the band the brothers once fronted together.
Both have now released their third post-Oasis records, and it’s fair to say we’re seeing the new normal. Given that, it might be a surprise just how good Liam Gallagher’s first album under his name, As You Were, turns out to be. This record came out in October (yes, I held it so I could review it with Noel’s new one, which was just released) to some startlingly good notices, and it lives up to them. Liam has always been the more charismatic, with the more immediately appealing voice, but he’s never been the songwriter his brother is. As You Were works hard to change that impression, delivering a catchy set of 12 tunes with some genuine emotional underpinning.
I’ll admit to some surprise at the relative quality of these songs. “Wall of Glass” gets things off to an Oasis-y start, chiming guitars underpinning a big chorus with some catchy harmonica and gospel-style backing vocals. “Bold” gets into a shimmying acoustic groove, augmented by subtle strings, where “Greedy Soul” brings the bluesy rock. So far so-so, but “For What It’s Worth” kicks this album up several notches. A memorable mea culpa that somehow still remains defiant, this is probably the most thoughtful song Liam Gallagher has written. “Let’s leave the past behind with all our sorrows, I’ll build a bridge between us and I’ll swallow my pride…”
Much of the rest of As You Were is similarly thoughtful, in an everyman kind of way. “When I’m in Need” is a sweet waltz about love. “I Get By” lays down a Led Zeppelin-esque bedrock for a tune about moving on from a bad relationship. Closer “I’ve All I Need” is an amiable anthem of contentment, one that manages to get a George Harrison reference into the chorus. (They’ll always be the guys from Oasis, after all.) Overall I’m impressed at this rough-and-tumble little record. It outpaces his work with Beady Eye and marks Liam as a solo artist worth watching.
I’m similarly surprised at how much Noel struggles to keep up, given that his High Flying Birds has been the better of the two projects, by and large. Who Built the Moon, the Birds’ third album, is certainly not bad, but there’s a lack of inspiration you can hear from the start. Noel himself has lauded “Holy Mountain,” the first single, as a powerhouse, and it’s… you know, fine. It’s a standard blues-rock stomp with some nice saxophones and no melody to speak of. Much of Moon is built on groove and mood more than memorable songs, and while that groove is often awesome – check out the electric piano shimmy of “Keep On Reaching” – I found myself yearning for tunes I could sing along with.
Much of this album sounds like it grew from jam sessions, and if I had this group of musicians – including Jellyfish’s Jason Falkner on bass – I’d want to jam with them too. I like the looping chorus of “It’s a Beautiful World,” and appreciate the “Tomorrow Never Knows” psychedelic touches throughout, but found the songs oddly plodding. “She Taught Me How to Fly,” just as an example, is so bargain-basement blues-rock that I lost interest a couple minutes in. I enjoy the slinky bass-and-acoustic vibe of “Be Careful What You Wish For,” but ended up wishing for a chorus.
As a mood piece, Who Built the Moon is pretty good. The instrumental interludes fit in nicely, and carry the feel of the record forward. But for all of the sonic frippery and atmosphere, I think I enjoyed the bonus track best. It’s just Noel, his acoustic guitar and a piano player, live in the studio, singing what may be the album’s best song, “Dead in the Water.” It’s unfussed, unhurried and quite beautiful. I wanted more like this, more open emotion and simple, good songwriting. I know Noel has it in him. Here’s hoping for more of it next time out.
I’m definitely planning to keep up with both brothers as they move down their separate paths. I hesitate to make any Beatles comparisons, but so far their solo careers have been similar to those of John Lennon and Paul McCartney – decent, solid stuff, without coming anywhere near the heights they achieved together. I expect them to continue doing exactly that until they are old and grey. And I hold out hope that they will surprise me along the way.
That’s all for this week. Next week, U2, the Dear Hunter and my friend Greg Boerner. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.