1 | Beck brings the dawn’s early light
It’s a tough game when you’re the new Bob Dylan but nobody has finished with the old one yet. Identity crises can ensue. Beck Hansen’s career has often boiled down to an attempt to reconcile samples and surrealism circa “Loser” and Odelay with the unexpected introspection of a Mutations. They’ve all had their merits but only the I’ve-been-dumped epic Sea Change from 2002 comes close to what this new, 12th album Morning Phase achieves so comprehensively. Reconvening the Sea Change band, this a fully adult Beck record which sets aside his old breakbeats, skronks and gimmicks for a shimmeringly beautiful, direct style.
Full of pillowy orchestras and covered in golden light, Morning Phase examines the complications of the modern male heart with generosity and warmth rather than twentysomething confusion. There are two themes – separation and regenerative power of nature – and if there are a few Crosby, Stills and Nash harmonies in the haze there’s also a rigorous rejection of schmaltz. Sea Change was the ultimate heartbreak album. Now here’s one to put you back together again. Who’d have thought it?
What has he got to say for himself? “Believe me, I’m really untrained. I need some training. I’m making it up as I go.”
2 | The passion of St Vincent
Art rock tends to repel with its opacity, but Annie “St Vincent” Clark makes a journey into the avant garde sound like a night out with fine wines and finer psychedelics. Her music is a pleasure dome as well as an art space, a sensuous head trip. Now, on her fourth album, which is out now, she’s sufficiently seasoned and tempered for big audiences without having lost her core. This record is full of extraordinary songs and equally breathtaking performances. As if conscious that she’s making a brand new first impression, she’s given it the simple title St Vincent.
Clark grew up on Sonic Youth and Nirvana in the Dallas suburbs, dropped out of Berklee College of Music, played with The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens, and made an album with David “Talking Heads” Byrne. But here her oddball melodies, clashing tinfoil-meets-taffeta textures and imperious self-created image come together into something almost populist. On the cover, she’s up on a pink throne in dyed grey hair and a sci-fi dress: the supreme empress of the unconscious.
St Vincent is less grandiose and more rockingly brittle than its predecessors. Clark plays guitar in the Jonny Greenwood/Frank Zappa mode of deliberate malfunction. Hopscotch funk beats and twitchy electronics jostle for space in finely-observed songs about bad thoughts, sexual hunger and bad romances. And there’s sharp humour amid the lyrical dexterity, as on the song of stir-crazy domesticity “Birth in Reverse”: “Oh what an ordinary day/Take out the garbage, masturbate”. Calming iFolk for tech adverts this isn’t – enthralling, it is. As a bonus, she’s not bad at football either.
What has she got to say for herself? “I wanted to make a party record you could play at a funeral… With enough bounce that people could be moved to dance, but with enough heart and pathos that you could have it in your most vulnerable moments.”
3 | Wild Beasts find their evolutionary niche
From The Associates’ Billy Mackenzie to Antony “and the Johnsons” Hegarty to Sparks’ Russell Mael to every yowling metal singer, rock offers a rich tradition of men who sing like a woman suffering a fit of the vapours. For a good few albums, singer Hayden Thorpe’s histrionic, sexually indeterminate voice was both the USP and the Marmite factor of pagan-romantic Kendal-Leeds-London transplants Wild Beasts.
The surprise with their fourth album Present Tense is that he’s toned it down, along with his band’s tendency to follow him whirling into the ecstatic stratosphere. Their baroque, obstinately non-rocking indie sound is still led by fizzing electronics and drums in the Kate Bush/Japan style. But Present Tense is more sober, more reflective and more concerned with the increasing dog-eat-dog cruelty of modern life – signature line: “Don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck”. They may finally have found their sweet spot.
What have they got to say for herself? “If anything, we learned that we’re probably quite maladjusted to normal life,” says Hayden Thorpe. “It kind of suits us to exist on the fringes of society.”
This article first appeared in Esquire Weekly, our new iPad-only edition. Containing 100 per cent new and original content, it’s published every Thursday on the Apple Newsstand.