Under No Obligation
Where Supposed to Love Meets Want to Love

I’m trying to get away from thinking of Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. as a review column.

I know, that’s a little silly, since literally all I do in this space is review music. But I’m talking about a different headspace for myself. This project started 22 years (!) ago as a bi-weekly feature in Face Magazine covering contemporary music as it came out. It was a vacuum that needed filling – Face’s excellent staff featured a lot of focus on the classic decades of rock and punk, without lavishing much attention on the new stuff.

Granted, in the late ‘90s a lot of that new stuff was terrible. But I took it upon myself to dutifully cover that stuff, listening to it and giving my take on it. (Once upon a time I wasted some ink on a positive review of Limp Bizkit’s Significant Other, and I blame the ‘90s the way hippies blame the ‘60s for bell bottoms.) When I left Face and started this version of the column up, I stayed in the same mode, reviewing new music whether or not I liked it, as if it were still my job to do so. And for nearly 19 years I have essentially thought of this thing the same way.

But now, with my stated intention to make this more fun for me, I’m starting to interrogate those impulses. I’ve spent a lot of time responding to high-profile releases (or important lower-profile releases) just because that’s what would be expected of a weekly music column, and that’s time that I have not spent talking about the music I truly love. I’m hoping to address that balance. There is a sense of duty to it for me, still – I waxed ecstatic about Marillion last week, so I should really dip into the records the rest of the world is interested in this week.

Here’s a good case in point, though: I’m tired of talking about the National. Not only are they the darlings of the critical press, they’re well-loved among my friends, and people ask me about them all the time. So I’m kind of forced to find new ways to say “I don’t like them,” and to justify my own disinterest in them. Let’s be clear: I buy every National album, hoping that it will hook me, and that I will finally be able to join in the cultural conversation about them in a positive way.

So I did buy I Am Easy to Find, the band’s eighth record. (As a side note, someone had to remind me that they’ve had seven albums, since I totally forgot about 2017’s Sleep Well Beast.) I’ve heard it four times now, and I’m happy to say it’s my favorite National album. But I still don’t like it much. They’ve worked overtime here to address some of my big issues with their work – the textures and orchestration are lush and beautiful, and Matt Berninger is essentially a featured performer on his own band’s record, his mopey, somnambulant voice bolstered by strong lead spots from Gail Ann Dorsey, Lisa Hannigan, Sharon Van Etten and others. The rotating lead vocalists give this long record an appealing mixtape feel.

But the songs are still boring, and none of them stick. If I were to review this album, I would right now come up with examples where the elements all work, but the bones are weak. (OK, I’ll name one: “The Pull of You,” which includes vocals by Hannigan and Van Etten, a spoken-word section and some cresting and crashing instrumentation, all of which is in service of a song that repeats four chords for four minutes, with no chorus. It’s superficially interesting, and certainly a nice step forward for the band, but underneath there isn’t anything for me to grab onto.)

I don’t want to, though. I’m still listening to this and trying to love it, because it feels like something I should love. But I don’t, not yet. More than that, though, I feel like it’s something I’m supposed to love, and I’m trying to get beyond that idea. I’ve been trying for years, though, and I’m still susceptible to it. I make myself want to like it, and that only adds to the pressure when I don’t. I Am Easy to Find, while absolutely the best thing I have heard from this band, isn’t working for me as well as I know it is working for other people and other critics. I’m supposed to like it and I don’t.

But I’m even trying to move past the idea of having to review something I’m supposed to like, whether or not I like it. Here’s a really good example: Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You. I’ve been watching for her name ever since my friend Javi told me about her, and I’ve liked everything I’ve heard from her. I liked Lizzo even before I heard her records, just for what she represents – she looks nothing like the typical pop star, and instead of hiding it, she flaunts it, saying with every confident move that she knows she is beautiful, and she knows you are too. It’s a look the music industry needs, desperately.

But she’s also pretty awesome, musically speaking. Cuz I Love You, Lizzo’s third record, is a 42-minute burst of infectious energy. She has a powerful, bold voice and she matches it with bold songs about life, love and throwing like a girl. This is a record that struts, and every song is exactly as long as it needs to be, handing off to the next in three minutes or so. Flashy banger “Juice” is basically the song of the summer, but I love that it passes the baton to “Soulmate,” an ode to loving yourself that makes me smile every time. (“Woke up in the mirror, like, damn, she’s the one.”)

Basically, I love this record, which means I agree with the cultural zeitgeist for what is probably the first time in a while. Cuz I Love You deserves all the praise I’m lavishing on it – Lizzo makes me swoon for a soulful kiss-off tune like “Jerome,” proves she can hang with Missy Elliott on the clubby “Tempo,” gets sexy on “Lingerie” and leaves us with my favorite song, the effervescent “Water Me,” all with a remarkable energy that never flags. I’m excited to talk about it.

And yet I also feel oddly obligated to talk about it, because of the moment Lizzo is having right now, and I’m working on resisting that feeling. I waited quite a while to talk about it (essentially holding out for the CD release, which came more than a month after the digital release), riding out the hype. Normally when I dig something this much I’m jazzed to share my thoughts, but this time I kind of held back. I’m glad to be on record (ha!) with my love for this thing, especially since I’ve been asked where my review of it is. I’m trying to find the balance between obligation and joy, even when I really like something and could easily add to the chorus of praise.

I know, this is all very strange, and I’m probably the only one who thinks this way. That said, though, I’m glad to have a record to close things out with that a) I quite like and b) nobody is waiting for me to talk about. I’ve been kind of in love with The Head and the Heart since their debut in 2011, and that love only grew when they fully embraced their Fleetwood Mac influences on 2016’s Signs of Light. Their fourth record, Living Mirage, continues in that vein, and it’s similarly lovely.

This record is so sunny and sing-able that I don’t know how anyone could hate it. The Head and the Heart have mastered the art of positivity without treacle – their sentiments should come off as cheesy, but they never do. “People Need a Melody” ought to be so gooey that it collapses, but it soars. Opener “See You Through My Eyes” is exactly what you think it will be – singer Jonathan Russell wishing a loved one could see the beauty he does – but the band makes it work. There’s an organic quality to what they do – pianos, acoustic guitars, down-home harmonies – and this underpins all of their emotional moments, making them click.

I’m still not sure that something like “Honeybee” should work as well as it does, but it does. There are a lot of electronic drum patterns on this record, but somehow they don’t detract from the down-to-earth feel. Even a song called “Running Through Hell” is joyous – it’s simple, and it has a War on Drugs feel, but I like it way more than the National’s attempts at the same kind of thing. Hell, this is a band that ends their record by saying, out loud, “I believe in the glory of music,” and it doesn’t make me gag. It makes me smile.

Living Mirage is another winner from a band that doesn’t get as much attention as I think they should. Absolutely no one has been waiting for my thoughts on this one, which paradoxically makes me much more eager to share them. This is the strange headspace I am living in now, as I try to make this weekly labor of love less labor and more love.

Next week, I may or may not take the week off for my 45th birthday. When I return, though, I’ll talk about the strange and splendid new records from Esperanza Spalding and Brad Mehldau. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.