2019 is officially out of gas.
I don’t mean that as a criticism in any way. Every year runs out of gas around this time, when it comes to new music. We’ve seen the last big new music Friday of the year, and it’s one I’d been anticipating for some time. Last week I chose to concentrate on Coldplay, but this week – my last straight-up review column of 2019 – will take a look at the other big ones from Nov. 22.
But here’s a quick look at what else to expect through the end of the year. Last week gave us a live version of The Soft Bulletin from the Flaming Lips, and a massive re-release box set for Prince’s brilliant 1999 album. (I’ll be digging into this over the coming days.) This week will see the release of The Decalogue, a piano piece by Sufjan Stevens performed by Timo Andres, as well as the new album from one half of The Who. And December 13 will bring us the debut from Canadian supergroup Anyway Gang and a live record from Gary Numan. All interesting, but nothing that I expect to change the shape of the year.
The two I have on tap this week were bright spots in my new release calendar, though, records that could have rewritten my top 10 list. This is always a possibility this far into the year, and given how much enjoyment I am getting out of (and how many words I spent on) the new Coldplay record, you can imagine that this is a case in point. Could this happen again, this late into the year?
Enough preamble for you? Fair enough. The first of our contestants this week is Beck, whose new Hyperspace is his 14th album. Hands up if you heard “Loser” in 1994 and thought, “Now there’s a guy who will stick around for 25 years and one day have 14 albums to his name.” I certainly didn’t, but Beck Hansen has proven himself a remarkably versatile and interesting artist. His catalog has a number of ups and downs, as you’d expect from someone who takes as many risks as he does, but he’s been on a hot streak lately with the gorgeous Morning Phase and Colors, his more mature take on “party Beck.”
I wish I could say that Hyperspace keeps that streak alive, but it’s pretty forgettable, alas. This is, for some reason, Beck’s radio pop album, full of pretty average programmed beats and autotuned vocals and cliched lyrics. I tried to make a case that Beck is satirizing this style, the way he took on sex-funk on Midnite Vultures, but I can’t. This is just a boring stab at music that never sounds like a good fit for him.
Hyperspace was largely produced by Pharrell Williams, and it’s tempting to lay the blame at his feet. The half-hearted hip-hop of “Chemical,” for instance, sounds like something Williams would have conjured up for someone more steeped in this genre, and Beck gamely takes it on, but never seems comfortable. But then, I think the same about “See Through,” a truly awful bit of pseudo-club-soul, and that one’s produced by Greg Kurstin.
No, I think this is mainly Beck’s doing – he’s taking another risky step sideways, and this one didn’t quite pay off. There are certainly songs I like, most notably “Saw Lightning,” which picks up the pace like nothing else here. The closing mini-epic “Everlasting Nothing” is pretty decent folksy Beck too, although by that point I have been ready to turn this off, every time. I know in a year or two he’ll be back with something that sounds nothing like this, and hopefully that one will work better for me. As it is, I am putting Hyperspace on the “interesting failures” pile.
I was a lot more worried about our other big-deal release of the week, Leonard Cohen’s Thanks for the Dance. Cohen was, to me, one of the finest and most compelling songwriters who ever lived, and I’m still mourning him even though he died three years ago. The final album of his life, You Want It Darker, came out 19 days before his death, and it was the perfect capstone to a peerless catalog. The songs on Darker found Cohen facing death without much hope for something better on the other side, and it was unflinching and powerful stuff.
Did we need another album after that one? Before I heard Thanks for the Dance, I would have said no. I’m always wary of these posthumous affairs – I feel like if Cohen wanted us to hear this, or to consider this part of his oeuvre, he probably would have said so. I braced myself for a collection of scraps, of recorded conversations set to music, of unfortunate outtakes that only serve to diminish Cohen’s legacy. I am overjoyed to report that Thanks for the Dance is none of those things. It’s quite wonderful, and I hesitate to find out more about how it was made, lest its spell be broken.
Dance was produced by Cohen’s son Adam, and he enlisted an army of brilliant musicians, including Beck, Daniel Lanois, Patrick Leonard, Matt Chamberlain and Damien Rice to create the musical accompaniment. Cohen is only credited with lyrics here (except on “The Hills,” which he wrote in its entirety), which gives the impression that these tracks were recorded as poems, and Cohen’s low, rumbly voice sticks mainly to speak-singing here, as he’s done for some time.
And man, it’s so good to hear that voice again. It sounds like truth to me, like wisdom, especially in these later albums where he is gazing into the abyss and reporting back to us what he sees. All of these lyrics fit in nicely with his usual themes, and none of them seem unfinished to me. (Maybe “Puppets,” the one here that seems a little facile.) It’s as dark as midnight, and that tone is set by the first track, “Happens to the Heart.” By the time it ends with this couplet – “I was handy with a rifle, my father’s 303, I fought for something final, not the right to disagree” – you’re swept up in Cohen’s imagery, and his despair.
The music here is perfect. I feared a tendency to over-egg these pieces, to try for larger orchestration in an attempt to make them more impactful. I shouldn’t have worried. Adam Cohen has a lot of experience working with his father’s words, and he has crafted a subtle, at times nearly inaudible, bed for them to lie on. The erotic “The Night of Santiago” is beautiful, ten musicians coming together to make something so quiet, so focused on the lyric, that I can imagine Leonard nodding in approval. That’s the feeling throughout, that the lyric is the most important thing here – when Sharon Robinson adds her voice to “It’s Torn,” she slips into the background, supporting Cohen beautifully.
My fears, it seems, were unwarranted.Thanks for the Dance is a lovely final bow from Cohen, aided by a team of artists who all clearly revere him and his work. The closing track, “Listen to the Hummingbird,” could not be more sublime: “Listen to the hummingbird whose wings you cannot see, listen to the hummingbird, don’t listen to me,” Cohen says as a benediction, and I have no trouble imagining him sanctioning these as his final words. It’s just the touch of spirituality and humor that made him a legend. I’m grateful for one last chance to hear from him, and I’m afraid I’ll be disobeying his final exhortation as often as I can.
That about wraps it up for 2019, and my schedule for the final four weeks is as follows. On Dec. 10 I’ll dig into some Christmas music from the year, on Dec. 17 I’ll list my honorable mentions and ineligible-but-worthy releases, and on Christmas Eve I will post my top 10 list. That leaves New Year’s Eve for Fifty Second Week, and then we’re into 2020. Thanks to all who have come with me on this journey. Excited to dive into year twenty.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.