Sharon Van Etten – Darkness Fades
Released on Jagjaguwar Records
At her heart, Sharon Van Etten deals in desolation. Even on her poppiest moments – like 2019’s “Seventeen” – there’s a certain measure of despair that leavens the freedom, a surge upwards where you suddenly stop to consider at the peak how terminally fast you’re actually moving. On Darkness Fades she explores aspects of this old bleak feeling in a variety of new ways, some loud and some ghostly, all of them unsure and wary of what’s to come. It’s the perfect spring record for 2022, in other words.
Arcade Fire – WE
Released on Columbia Records
It’s been 12 years since Arcade Fire first skewered their particular flavour of haters. They were identified as the downtown kids, the art school kids, the ones who stood standing with their arms folded tight. I remember listening specifically to two people complaining about “Rococco” all the while seemingly unaware that the song was largely about them. These are the people for whom music is less a joyous experience and more a venue for games of cultural oneupmanship and a store of cultural capital. Oh, you like big gestures and earnestness? You rube, you pleb, you hayseed dumbass. Have you heard the latest Huerco S.? Of course you haven’t.
That’s always been the case for this band, though. When they were setting tiny venues on fire with their brand of collective catharsis in 2003 the culture was just as irony-poisoned as it is now. The grunge movement of the 90s told us it was cool to not care, to be flippant and cynical and nihilistic in a way that was safe for capitalist consumption. The Strokes changed the configuration in 2001 but not the underlying message: being clever and detached was the only way to survive, be more ironic than the next guy. It’s very little wonder, then, that a band as staunchly against this idea might make a name for themselves, riding a David Foster Wallace wave of New Earnestness into the light. Between 2004 and 2010 the band meant what they said, weren’t afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves, and carved out three masterpieces. Neon Bible and The Suburbs both captured the mood of their era. I consider Funeral to be the greatest album ever recorded.
Part of the problems with Reflektor and Everything Now were that they cloaked themselves, wrapped themselves up in layers of irony and cynicism. Reflektor is pretty good despite this; great songs, if a little all over the place in terms of style, and James Murphy behind the boards ensures a good time. Everything Now is not as successful, although when it hits it hits big. The singles were good, regardless of your thoughts on the bathtub line in “Creature Comfort”, and “Put Your Money On Me” and “We Don’t Deserve Love” are criminally underrated even among the band’s ardent fanbase. Still, the marketing rollouts for both albums were weird (for the former) or actively obnoxious (for the latter) and despite my insistence that Everything Now will eventually get a Lodger-style retcon in the future, the fact is that the band went into their sixth album largely on the defensive.
It’s interesting to note the reactions to this record and who they come from. A number of publications, many of them British, have called it a “return to form” because it resurrects the big gestures and earnest lyricism that marked The Suburbs. Most of these are publications that don’t really have anything to prove. Other outlets – The Quietus and The Skinny, most notably, but also the would-be cultural gatekeepers at The New York Times – find the idea of Win and Regine writing songs for their 9-year-old and declaring their other half to be their ‘race and religion’ with Peter Gabriel on backing vocals to be terribly cringe. The voice of the liberal establishment at The Atlantic went so far as to label it ‘cringy’, mostly because if you force yourself to feel things you’ll also have to feel all the war crimes you’ve supported over the years.
I don’t have any problems feeling things – there are no oil-and-blood-soaked skeletons in my closet – so the two Lightnings and the two Unconditionals get my heart racing close to how it used to a decade-plus ago. The two Age of Anxietys are a little more problematic; they recycle the disco-pulse of the Reflektor/EN era but they do it well and, in the conceit of the album, they represent the ego, I-driven impulse so that makes a form of sense, I guess. The gorgeous “End Of The Empire” conjures up both David Bowie and John Lennon (more the latter) and would have made a much better ending than the remarkably weak title track that brings the album to a diffident end. It’s not precisely a return to form, but neither is it gauche or uncool, as the publications who trade in ever-more-obscure experimental acts would have you believe. It is, in the end, a great album with some flaws that would have been much better received had the band been anyone but Arcade Fire.
JOYFULTALK – Familiar Science
Released on Constellation Records
Free(ish) jazz freakouts and slice-and-dice sampledelia straight outta Constellation Records, so you know they have to be long and sinuous and potentially life-changing.
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Endless Rooms
Released on Sub Pop Records
Their last album, 2018’s Hope Downs, seemed a bit 90s Syndrome to me: it had one admittedly great single (“Talking Straight”) and a whole pile of forgettable dreck. Endless Rooms is less forgettable, and I’m not entirely sure why. They still trade in a sort of R.E.M.-by-way-of-mopey-goth sound, but the songwriting lands better this time around. Maybe it’s because it’s more pointed – there’s references to Aussie racism and the spectre of climate change embedded throughout, much more prominently than before. Either way they have my attention now.
Kikagaku Moyo – Kumoyo Island
Released on Guruguru Brain
The Japanese psych band ends their run with some of the best music they’ve committed to (bits? Tape? What do we say now?). There’s some heavenly pop stuff, some hurricane guitar work, and some scratchy funk embedded in here, layered with bold, brassy horns that make everything seem much more consequential than it maybe is. Sad to see ’em go, but they’ve had a pretty good run.
Belle and Sebastian – A Bit Of Previous
Released on Matador Records
Belle and Sebastian are so fucking old that Lane Kim was repping them as an elder statesman band in like Season 2 of The Gilmore Girls. Like any good vampire, the duo continue to be both ageless and quite good at drawing blood, with the ability to craft dead-on pop as well as their real strength, whimsical twee moments.
!!! – Let It Be Blue
Released on Warp Records
Nearly twenty years after scoring a minor hit named after ol’ crazypants himself, Mayor Rudy, the New York funk band continues to make sounds like their name implies: chk chk chk, with disco-stepping bass lines and dancefloor grooves. Some groups are simply very good at what they do do and don’t need to experiment or try anything else. The cover of R.E.M.’s “Man On The Moon” is proof that !!! is one of those groups.
Otoboke Beaver – Super Champon
Released on Damnably
Squalling, noisy Japanese punk that is in your house and breaking your shit before you even have a chance to react.
Sunflower Bean – Headful Of Sugar
Released on Luck Number Records
I feel like if Sunflower Bean were from anywhere else they’d be bigger. They’re from Brooklyn, though, which means they have to compete with other bands that they don’t really sound much like. They’ll never headline Coachella or probably even SNL, but they play solid, guitar-heavy indie rock that consistently hits the right tone, and that’s good enough.
Maria Chiara Argirò – Forest City
Released on Innovative Leisure
Jazz obscured by clouds
(Her album is called Forest City, which is the nickname for the London I live in, which is not the same London at all. There was a brief moment of confusion when I was listening the first time).
Desire – Escape
Released on Italians Do It Better
Synth-heavy gloomy disco bangers? Influenced by Seventies giallo films? On Italians Do It Better? Sign me up.
Warpaint – Radiate Like This ★★★☆ (Virgin)
Ibeyi – Spell 31 ★★★☆ (XL)
Hater – Sincere ★★★ (Fire)
Soft Cell – Happiness Not Included ★☆ (BMG)
Chateau Chateau – Grow Up ★★★ (Kill Rock Stars)
C Duncan – Alluvium ★★★ (Bella Union)
Paradox Obscur – Morhogenesis ★★★☆ (Metropolis)
Red Snapper – Everybody Is Somebody ★★★ (Lo)
Sahara Hotnights – Love In Times Of Low Expectations ★★☆ (Universal)
Soccer96 – Inner Worlds ★★★☆ (Moshi Moshi)
The Stroppies – Levity ★★★☆ (Tough Love)
First Beige – Doplar ★★★ (Community Music)
Peaness – World Full Of Worry ★★★☆
Buck 65 & Tachichi – Flash Grenade ★★★☆ (Black Buffalo)
Pure Reason Revolution – Above Cirrus ★★☆ (InsideOut)
Ellevator – The Words You Spoke Still Move Me ★★★ (Arts & Crafts)
Simple Plan – Harder Than It Looks ★★
Jack Harlow – Come Home The Kids Miss You ★★ (Generation Now)
IDK – Simple ★★★☆ (Warner)