This week I bought Kamasi Washington’s new album Heaven and Earth.
Washington, as I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, is one of the most celebrated of the new vanguard of jazz visionaries. He first came to prominence with a nearly three-hour album called The Epic, which incorporated choirs and orchestras and all manner of sonic coloring into a strikingly traditional jazz odyssey. It was, in short, really good stuff. Heaven and Earth is presumably similar, and all of the reviews have been excellent.
Here’s the thing, though: it’s a double album, running to more than 140 minutes, with separate “Heaven” and “Earth” discs. And hours after it was released, reports started coming in of an unlisted, unheralded third disc hidden within the packaging of Heaven and Earth. One quick slice with a knife later, and there it was, nestled in the center panel of the CD wallet: “The Choice,” a 40-minute supplemental disc that brings this album well over the running time of even The Epic. (Kudos for an impressive bit of fan service there, Kamasi.)
I’m very excited to hear this thing. I have no idea when I’m going to find the time.
Long records still excite me. I’m thrilled whenever I have the chance to dig into a true musical journey, to hear a long-form statement from an artist flush with confidence. I used to be able to carve out those hours and then some, and welcomed albums that ran two, even three hours. These days, though, I’m starting to warm to the bite-sized burst of music. We’ve somehow decided as a culture that 20-30 minutes is a fine length for an album, instead of a by-definition EP, and while my checkbook is annoyed at shelling out full price for less music, my day planner is happier.
Initially, for example, I was surprised and irritated by Kanye West’s recently-completed five-albums-in-five-weeks blitz, since each of those albums runs between 22 and 26 minutes. All told, West has given us about two hours of new music (most of it produced for other artists), and charged us $50 for it. But even with my busy schedule, I managed to listen to all five of these things, and found that I cared about three of them enough to buy them. It was nice to be able to digest these quick paragraphs, as opposed to trying to dig into a novel.
Doing so confirmed for me that I don’t care about Pusha T – his drug dealer persona and willingness to go lower by putting a photo of Whitney Houston’s drug-laden bathroom on the cover of Daytona turned me off completely. The music on Daytona is fine, but Pusha himself isn’t worth even the 21 minutes it takes to get through this record. And while I was initially interested in Teyana Taylor, the one R&B artist in this lot, her album K.T.S.E. is basically one long sex romp, and it isn’t strong enough to stand up to repeated listens. (Not that I’ve listened to it repeatedly to make sure, but my first two runs through it weren’t promising.)
But hey, I wouldn’t have even listened to Teyana Taylor if not for this five-album initiative, so that’s a net positive. And the three albums I enjoy are all worthwhile. Yes, even Kanye West’s Ye, a far more mature and interesting piece of work than anything he’s done since 808s and Heartbreak. I’ve grown more and more disgusted with West since 2013’s Yeezus, with its rape fantasies and vile content, and 2016’s The Life of Pablo was better, but not by much.
So Ye is a mostly pleasant surprise, a low-key and, in the case of “Wouldn’t Leave” and “Ghost Town,” actually kind of sweet affair. Sure, it starts with a song called “I Thought About Killing You,” which is really just a short spoken therapy session with watery keyboards beneath it, and it ends with a song for his daughter (“Violent Crimes”) that steps into creepy territory, but for the most part this tiny little record is enjoyable. West remains a visionary musician, and his eerie, deceptively minimalist production is top notch.
The same holds for Kids See Ghosts, the best of this five-album salvo. It’s a collaboration between West and his former protégé, Kid Cudi, and it’s strikingly good. I’ve been a Cudi fan for his entire career, and West brings out the best in him. His vocals on “Feel the Love” are instantly memorable, his “mmm-mmm-mmm”s underscore the bluesy “Fire” remarkably well, and his raps on that and other tracks are sharper than he’s sounded in some time. West, meanwhile, sounds energized and inspired by Cudi, and Kids See Ghosts is musically the best thing he’s given us in years and years. The sound of this record has as many colors as its Takashi Murakami cover art, dipping into prog and folk and pop in equal measure. If you only hear one of these five albums, it should be this one.
I really thought my favorite would be Nasir, the first record from rap legend Nas in six years, but this 26-minute visit with one of New York’s finest is just pretty good. I’ve always liked Nas, but his top-notch records are few and far between, and he’s rarely risen to the heights of his celebrated debut, Illmatic. Nasir isn’t one of his best, but even middling Nas is worth hearing, and West, who has long dreamed of producing for Nas, knocks himself out on this thing.
Sonically this is the most varied and energetic album Nas has delivered in a while, and as it goes on, it gets deeper, with “Everything” and “Adam and Eve” rising to the top of the heap. Nas is still one of the best in the game, even if there are only a few moments on Nasir when he proves it. But those moments make this quick burst of a record worth it. (Nas’ failure to respond to allegations of abuse from his ex-wife Kelis leave a bad taste as well. I just found out about those allegations, and cannot fail to mention them when discussing Nasir, an album that does not acknowledge them whatsoever, but speaks out – perhaps hypocritically – on several other social issues.)
I’ll skip the rant about Kanye West making album releases by four other artists all about him, and recommend Kids See Ghosts, if nothing else. This five-week blitz was interesting for marketing reasons, but it also offered the opportunity for West to once again prove that he’s one of the best producers currently working. He’s a lousy human being, at least publicly, but he’s a compelling musician – even the records I don’t care about sound great – and this experiment showcases him at his best.
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There were several other short records that I managed to absorb and form thoughts about. Lykke Li’s So Sad So Sexy (34 minutes) is better than I expected, though certainly her bid for more radio-ready pop stardom, and the title sums up her brand in four words, so that’s nice. (Also on point for her image is a song called “Sex Money Feelings Die.”) Panic at the Disco’s Pray for the Wicked (also 34 minutes) is pretty killer – ten sharp, danceable pop-rock songs with hooks for days and one pretty piano ballad. I’m not sure how Brandon Urie keeps getting money to make these records, but I’m glad he does.
But if I’m being honest, there’s only one half-hour statement that I’m interested in talking about here, and that’s Bad Witch, the third in a trilogy of short records from Nine Inch Nails. I’ve been a Trent Reznor fan since his debut in 1989, and I still can’t believe it’s been that long. For that entire time, he’s been one of our most remarkable sonic architects, tearing up the NIN framework again and again, rarely giving his fans what they say they want. Along the way he became David Fincher’s go-to composer, and won the Academy Award for his score (with NIN bandmate Atticus Ross) to The Social Network.
Reznor is 53 now, and has grown far beyond the initial electro-rants of Pretty Hate Machine. His latest NIN project is a trio of EPs, and now that all three are here, they present a unified, bleak vision of the world we live in. 2016’s Not the Actual Events looked inward for hope and found only rage. 2017’s even better Add Violence looked outward, seeking solace in a world of presumably good people. And now Bad Witch completes that trip with a song cycle that dismisses humanity as totally depraved and not worth putting faith in.
The lyrics here are beyond bleak, spitting fire at our “celebration of ignorance” and shouting “When we could have done anything, we wound up building this.” If these three records are meant to depict a search for truth, then the moment in “God Break Down the Door” when Reznor sings “There aren’t any answers here, no, not anymore” is the true climax of the piece. Closer “Over and Out” ties right back into “Branches/Bones,” the first track on the first EP, and states that we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over and over.
It’s a despairing piece of work, and the music is unsettling in the extreme. Very little of Bad Witch sounds like you’d expect Nine Inch Nails to sound. Opener “Shit Mirror” (and man, it’s hard to make a case for an album as nuanced and sonically interesting as this one when the first song is called “Shit Mirror,” but what can you do) seems like it’s going that direction, but stops halfway through to present a clap-happy beat topped by a spoken mantra. “Ahead of Ourselves” drops a propulsive beat, but offers distorted wiggles and whispers in place of anything solid. Reznor sounds enjoyably unhinged here, especially when the bursts of guitar come in.
And from there, it’s all new ground. Reznor plays saxophone on the remainder of Bad Witch, and his low moan style only adds to the creepy factor of instrumentals like “Play the Goddamned Part” and “I’m Not From This World.” “God Break Down the Door” sounds like an outtake from David Bowie’s Blackstar, like some unearthly form of electro-jazz. And when Ian Astbury of the Cult chimes in with spooky vocals on “Over and Out,” he fits the strange and shiver-inducing musical soundscape perfectly.
There is no one else making music quite like this. That’s been true for most of Reznor’s career – probably since Broken, but certainly since The Downward Spiral. The fact that he keeps evolving, that Nine Inch Nails has been able to shift into something so different as Reznor has aged, is remarkable. Bad Witch is the capper to three years of intense activity (during which Reznor and Ross also scored Ken Burns’ Vietnam War documentary), and concludes the EP project (and the 78 minutes of music it produced) with absolute horror, but also with his trademark inventiveness and sonic meticulousness. It’s totally Nine Inch Nails, in that Nine Inch Nails has grown to encompass nearly anything.
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All right, it’s the end of June, which means it’s time for my Second Quarter Report. Basically, this is what my top 10 list would look like if I were forced to publish it right now. You all know the drill, and I’m sure, if you’ve been paying attention to my reviews, you know what’s going to land at the top. I’m pretty pleased that this second-quarter list is 100% different from my first-quarter one. It’s been a very good three months, in retrospect. Here we go.
#10. Laura Veirs, The Lookout.
#9. Frank Turner, Be More Kind.
#8. The Choir, Bloodshot.
#7. Kevin Max, AWOL.
#6. Sleep, The Sciences.
#5. Derri Daugherty, The Color of Dreams.
#4. Wye Oak, The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs.
#3. Jukebox the Ghost, Off to the Races.
#2. Darlingside, Extralife.
#1. Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer.
I expect the bottom nine will change, but it’s going to take a lot to supplant Dirty Computer as the year’s best and most important album. I know there are a couple here (Kevin Max and Derri Daugherty) that I haven’t talked about in this space yet, but those reviews are coming, I promise.
Next week, no idea, but probably some longer records. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.