U2, “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” – Tom’s Weekly Jam

Confession time: I still like U2. It feels strange to have to ‘confess’ to liking a band responsible for some of the best and most influential rock albums of the 80s and 90s, but U2 occupy a weird space in our culture. Their newer work is scoffed at and written off, and their (admittedly somewhat misguided) efforts to remain relevant have been met with derision that other long-running acts escape. If a brand new Rolling Stones album had shown up for free in every iTunes member’s library, would the backlash have been anywhere near as severe as it was for U2’s stunt release for Songs of Innocence? We’ll obviously never know but I doubt it would.

It’s true that U2’s latter-day work often leaves a lot to be desired. With it’s obnoxiously dumb BA DER DER BA DER DER BA DER guitar riff and Spanish numeric exclamations, “Vertigo” is still perhaps the lamest lamest dad-rock song to be released this century. But does the stupidity of that track rob great songs like “With or Without You” or “Sunday Bloody Sunday” of their power? I really don’t think it does. Bands that have been around as long as U2 have are seldom able to recreate the magic of the music they produced at the height of their popularity, but it seems to me that U2 are unfairly singled out for falling short of their old work. It almost feels a little personal, like there’s something about these guys in particular that invites this reaction. Is Bono a tax-dodging megalomaniac who fails to practice what he incessantly preaches? Sure. But he and the other members of U2 have consistently demonstrated a dedication to their craft, slavishly reworking songs for years until they feel they’re ready to go out into the world. U2 truly seem to believe that they’re yet to record their best album, and while they’re probably wrong in that regard, they’re not going to stop trying to create it anyway.

And so it is that we get songs like “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way”, from their new albums Songs of Experience. It bears all the hallmarks of a modern U2 song: it’s big and anthemic, it’s a little overproduced, its lyrics are simplistic and its title wouldn’t look out of place on a motivational poster, but none of that necessarily makes it a bad song. In fact, I think it’s quite good! I evidently like it enough to make it my Weekly Jam. It’s incredibly sweet and touching, with Bono demonstrating a great vocal range and a great distorted guitar riff from the Edge driving the song forwards. No, it’s probably not going to appear on a Best Of U2 compilation any time soon, but it’s hard to deny the honesty that songs like this are infused with. Is it overly sentimental? Quite possibly, but I think U2 mean every single word and note. It feels almost impossible to get worked up over a band producing work so earnest and heartfelt.

Of course, in recent years, a new U2 release hasn’t been complete without an accompanying episode of U Talkin’ U2 To Me?, a podcast that has been the main cause for my reassessment of U2’s last few albums. The enthusiasm of hosts Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott for the band’s music, whether celebrating or critiquing it, is infectious In my teenage years and early twenties, I was quick to write people off based on nothing more than their taste in music and films. I was that guy. But now that I’m a little older I realise that it doesn’t really matter what you like or dislike, as long as you can explain your reasons for doing so. I now recognise just how unattractive a quality elitism is in a person, and have been doing my best not to exhibit it myself. I’m not always successful but my intentions are good, and in that regard I feel like I can relate to U2 a lot.

 

Syd Matters, “Obstacles” – Tom’s Weekly Jam

I’ve recently been playing through Life is Strange, an episodic interactive drama that passed me by when it was first released in 2015. This is a style of game I’ve been intrigued by ever since I first played and fell in love with Telltale’s The Walking Dead series all the way back in 2012, with its branching storylines and shifting character relationships quickly investing me in its plot. The influence of that incredible game is overt throughout Life is Strange, but developer Dontnod brings enough new ideas to the table to keep the experience fresh; unlike Telltale’s ever-growing stable of adaptations, Life is Strange features a completely original premise and cast of characters and, despite not offering the familiarity of a beloved franchise, was very quickly able to draw me into its world.

18-year-old Max Caulfield, a quietly intelligent photography enthusiast, is struggling through her first few weeks at elite arts school Blackwell Academy when she discovers she has the ability to rewind time. This rewind mechanic is put to very creative uses in Life is Strange, serving as not only a tool with which to solve puzzles but also as a way to preview the immediate consequences of decisions made by the player. Early on, shaken by the sight of one student threatening another with a gun, Max must decide whether or not to tell the school principal what she’s witnessed. Will the principal believe her? Will he be more suspicious if Max simply says nothing? While the player must eventually make a final decision, they’re able to get enough of a glimpse of the future to inform their choice. Max’s constant revisiting of her own past eventually has graver consequences but the game remains on a very human level, using a huge science fiction concept to tell a personal, intimate story.

“Obstacles” by Syd Matters, used to score the final moments of Episode 1, is similarly dichotomous in this regard, feeling small and epic all at the same time. As freak snowfall hits the sunny town of Arcadia Bay, we briefly visit each of the major characters in the story as they’re stunned by this strange weather, unaware that it represents a portent of a far more devastating storm. “Obstacles” is a major factor in the success of this sequence, linking these small scenes together and making these disparate characters feel like parts of a bigger whole. Something extraordinary is brewing in Arcadia Bay and its going to impact on the lives of each and every one of these people, something that is all too easy to forget when seeing so much of a story from the perspective of its main character. Other songs by Syd Matters can be heard throughout the game but none are used quite as successfully as “Obstacles”, contributing as it does to a transcendent sequence that is truly moving, something that too many people believe video games to be incapable of.

Weezer show

I’ve seen Weezer live several times at this point, and I’ve developed a pretty good idea of what to expect from one of their shows. They’ll play some of their classics from The Blue Album and Pinkerton, they’ll play just enough of their terrible hits like “Beverly Hills” to be annoying, and they’ll do it all with slick and well-rehearsed professionalism. The last time I attended a Weezer show was right after the release of The White Album, a record that was surprisingly excellent, and so I found myself in the unfamiliar position of actually hoping they’d play some songs from their new album. While I got my wish and was treated to live performances of LA Girlz and Do You Wanna Get High?, the novelty of genuinely enjoying new Weezer material wasn’t enough to make the gig noticeably better or worse than other shows of theirs I’d been to. Much like a Dairy Milk or most Marvel movies, a ticket to a Weezer concert guarantees you a good time, but it probably won’t deliver anything you’re not already expecting.

Colour me surprised, then, that despite Weezer’s recent singles causing me to anticipate new album Pacific Daydream less enthusiastically than I look forward to a punch in the face, I enjoyed the show I attended last Wednesday substantially more than any other Weezer concert I’ve seen. The reason? They kind of kept messing up. Their actual performances of the songs were as rock solid as ever, but it sometimes appeared that each of the band members thought they’d be performing completely different set lists. After opening with the sublime The World Has Turned And Left Me Here, guitarist Brian Bell launched straight into The Good Life and forced Rivers Cuomo to sprint to his microphone in order to begin singing the first verse in time. He made it, but the look on his face betrayed the surprise of a man who only realised he was supposed to be performing this song just as it started. Later in the set, after waiting awkwardly for a few moments for drummer Patrick Wilson to count him in, Rivers realised he’d once again made a mistake and sheepishly explained, “I guess me and Brian start this one”.

Pat hurled a drum stick high in the air and only just caught it. Brian’s guitar faltered and needed replacing mid-song. Rivers misheard a crowd chant and responded with his erroneous version multiple times throughout the night, his error getting funnier every time. These mistakes and imperfections infused the show with a totally new kind of energy, one that I’d never seen at a Weezer concert before. Cuomo is an incredibly calculated writer and performer, for better or worse, and seeing him and his band respond so positively to being pushed out of that comfort zone was a delight. For the first time, I realised I didn’t have a 90% accurate idea of what was going to happen moment to moment at one of their shows, and that was incredibly exciting. I love Weezer when they fumble and screw up; I just didn’t know it until I saw it.

St. Vincent, “Savior” – Tom’s Weekly Jam

St. Vincent’s new album  has been one of my most anticipated records of 2017, and I’m thrilled to say that MASSEDUCTION has completely lived up to my expectations. It’s another home run for singer/songwriter Annie Clark, and another great entry in an all killer, no filler body of work. This album is another home run from singer-songwriter Annie Clark, with fantastic co-production by Clark and Jack Antonoff (producer of another of my favourites from this year, Lorde’s Melodrama). I’m not a fan of the music that Antonoff makes when left to his own devices, but it’s not hard to see why he’s becoming the go-to guy for artists making pop (and pop-adjacent) music. MASSEDUCTION is a treat to listen to, with layered and detailed instrumentation and production that perfectly complements Clark’s songwriting. Her guitar work is as intriguing as ever, with her shredding distorted and affected to the point where it sounds like multiple completely different instruments over the course of the album.

Each St. Vincent album has been immaculately sequenced thus far, and MASSEDUCTION is no different. The record flows perfectly from beginning to end, almost as if it were conceived as one long piece of music rather than a series of individual tracks. While the first six or seven songs are generally more raucous and lively than the slower, more melancholy back half, recurring melodies and instrumental motifs help one section to transition so seamlessly into the other that you hardly notice the change occurring. While MASSEDUCTION isn’t necessarily a concept album, these strong ties between tracks help to unify the record as a cohesive creative work; indeed, this is a record that demands to be listened to from start to finish.

That’s not to say that the songs don’t stand on their own, however. I’ve written before about my love of “Los Ageless”, and like “New York” before it, “Happy Birthday Johnny” is an achingly perfect piano ballad. I’ve found myself returning to “Savior” the most, a funky track that in its opening moments reminds me of Dr. Dre’s “Xxplosive”, of all songs. Clark portrays a sexual relationship fuelled by kinks and role-play that ultimately fails to fulfil her emotional needs, which is deceptively heavy subject matter for such a catchy track. That’s sort of St. Vincent’s thing, though, and I’m so glad she’s back with such a brilliant record. I’m seeing her live in Manchester next week, and I can’t wait hear some of these songs live, “Savior” included.

The Rentals, “Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad” – Tom’s Weekly Jam

I’ve been a big fan of ex-Weezer bassist Matt Sharp’s band The Rentals for a while now, ever since I had their first album Return of the Rentals recommended to me a few years ago. Weezer will always have a special place in my heart no matter how many terrible albums they release, but Sharp’s work with The Rentals complements their discography nicely with catchy and fun songs and it’s always great news when they emerge with new music.

In “Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad”, Sharp reimagines his life and childhood as having been spent locked in a bitter rivalry with the titular inventor and mega-entrepreneur. Sharp, or at least the version of himself he portrays here, appears to view his life as a waste when compared to that of the founder of PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX, and this vein of regret and bitterness informs the entire song. The track goes on to imagine a world in which Sharp finds greatness as the first man on Mars, having found his way there on one of Musk’s rockets. It doesn’t matter that this achievement would far more belong to Musk than it would to Sharp; he just wants the same acclaim and notoriety as his rival, and doesn’t care how he gets it. These lyrics are wistful and forlorn, with Sharp pushing his emotive vocals to their limit as jangly guitar lines and subtle synthesisers fill the song out and, appropriately, give it a somewhat spacey feel. The track ends with a choral arr

Lyrical references to Weezer make it impossible not to think that this song isn’t at least somewhat informed by Sharp’s relationship with former bandmate Cuomo. While Cuomo has always been the sole credited writer of most Weezer material, Sharp’s basslines on The Blue Album and Pinkerton were an integral part of what made those records so engaging, and Weezer’s sound has always been a little empty ever since. While they’ve attempted small reunions over the years, their ‘special brand of dysfunction’ has always nipped any new projects in the bud. It’s a real shame, because their strengths are each others’ weaknesses; Cuomo is a great singer and songwriter but is hampered by his own bad taste, while Sharp has a great ability to fill out and add counterpoint to a track but isn’t as interesting a frontman. They produced the best work of their lives together, but as good a song as “Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad” is, it’s a somewhat painful reminder of a creative relationship that could have reached even greater height.

 

Kanye West, “POWER” – Tom’s Weekly Jam

Note: I was travelling last weekend, so I’ll be making two Weekly Jam posts in the coming days. I say this not for the benefit of my readers (I don’t have any), but for when I inevitably look back on these posts and am confused by the dates.

I’ve been having somewhat of a difficult time as of late, with life throwing plenty of personal and professional challenges my way. The last couple of weeks in particular have asked a lot of me, and in times such as these it’s prudent to take encouragement wherever you can find it. And so it came to be that on more than one more morning recently, I’ve been playing Kanye West’s “POWER” to pump me up as I get ready for the day.

This track is of immense personal significance to me, and was a key influence in the development of my musical tastes Growing up in the largely white suburbs of Surrey in the mid 2000s, the dominant form of music among my peers was indie rock. Like many teenagers at the time, my iPod was filled with the likes of Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, the Killers and even, for a brief moment, the Kaiser Chiefs (buying their album was a terrible mistake and I still regret the tenner I spent on it). I didn’t have anyone in my life exposing me to hip hop and, what with the biggest rapper in the game at that time being 50 Cent, I kind of viewed the whole thing as a bit of a joke. It just seemed like a lot of masculine posturing, a flaunting of wealth for wealth’s sake, and I didn’t really pay it much mind or respect.

And then in 2010, I listened to an album that totally changed my mind and opened my eyes to the artistic merits of hip hop. I was ridiculously excited for the then-upcoming film The Social Network, which prominently featured “POWER” in some of its TV spots. Finding what I heard catchy and a little intriguing, I popped over to Spotify and played it… and played it. And played it, and played it, and played it again. I became obsessed with the song, playing it a loop for hours at a time, and it led to me pre-ordering My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The rest is history, and Kanye West has since become one of my absolute favourite musicians, along with a number of other rappers who I wouldn’t have given the time of day in the past.

“POWER” has lost none of that addictive power for me in the years since, and hitting the play button on it will inevitably lead to me listening to it over and over for at least an hour. Those handclaps, those drums, that electric guitar that chanting… The track is perfectly composed and produced, and is edgy and hard-hitting without sacrificing its poppy catchiness. Kanye delivers a great performance, as he always does when he’s hungry and has got something to prove (the release of this song marked his emergence from the self-imposed exile he entered after he upstaged Taylor Swift at the VMAs). “POWER” sees Kanye rapping about the usual Kanye bullshit like how great he is and how other people are stupid for disrespecting him, but here’s the thing: he’s not wrong. Bizarre and obnoxious as his public persona can be, what often gets lost in media coverage of Kanye is that he’s really fucking good at what he does. The music scene would be a lot poorer without Kanye in it, and in this comeback track he makes sure everyone knows it. It certainly worked on me; “POWER” made a Kanye fan for life out of me, and will always hold a very special place in my heart.

Partner, “Play the Field” – Tom’s Weekly Jam

Another crazy week at work has once again left me relying on my Discover Weekly playlist for my Weekly Jam, but that’s fine because “Play the Field” by Partner is another really good track. This song by the Canadian pop-rock duo deals with the pangs of high school love, a situation complicated by the protagonist’s reluctance to admit her feelings lest she be bullied for being a lesbian. I can’t relate to that aspect specifically, but everyone remembers what it was like to have that first crush, to notice another human in that way for the very first time. This track is fuelled by that all-consuming infatuation, and is so charmingly earnest that it’s only slightly annoying when singer Josée Caron yells ‘Guitar!’ before unleashing a solo.

There’s a really sweet and innocent quality to the lyrics; though the song depicts the burgeoning sexuality of its school-age characters, it’s more about the butterflies-in-the-stomach sensation that young love inspires than anything untoward. Similarly, the composition and instrumentation is simplistic but extremely effective. Though I like to think my musical palette is a bit more complex now than it was when I was 13, I’m still a sucker for a cathartic power chord progression and some palm muting. “Play the Field” instantly sends me straight back to my teenage years when, for better or for worse, every emotion I felt was the most extreme version of it possible, and for a simple three minute rock song to have that kind of effect isn’t half bad.

I’ve given the whole album, In Search of Lost Time, a couple of listens and really enjoyed it. There’s not a huge amount of variety there, but songs like “Everybody Knows” and “Comfort Zone” . Unfortunately, what should be a quick and breezy listen is bogged down by several tedious ‘skits’. Didn’t bad rap albums kill those off at least a decade ago? Well, they’re back, and while they probably only total a couple of minutes, they never fail to stop the flow of the album dead in its tracks. Maybe they’d be easier to deal with if they weren’t so, well, pretentious? I don’t tend to find that word particularly helpful, but there’s no other way to describe recordings such as “The World Needs a Good Band” in which the need for a band that ‘really excites people’ is lamented.

Look, I don’t really buy into the whole ‘rock is dead’ narrative – musical trends wax and wane, and guitars will be back – but if rock really does need a saviour, it’s not Partner. Their music is good, and very enjoyable, but it’s not exactly Great with a capital G. And that’s okay! There’s enough bands in the world that they don’t all need to be forging the future of their respective genres. Sometimes music just needs to be fun and catchy and emotive, and that’s what Partner is to me. I don’t need anything more than that from them, and I hope they come to find that they don’t, either.

 

The Hold Steady, “Chillout Tent” – Tom’s Weekly Jam

It’s been a hectic week at work, leaving me with little time to seek out and listen to new music. In times such as these I rely either on my old favourites or my Discover Weekly playlist on Spotify, which is how I found the track “Chillout Tent” by the Hold Steady. How great is Discover Weekly, by the way? It can be hit and miss from week to week, and sometimes offers up 30 very similar tracks, but I’ve been enjoying a streak of fantastic playlists for the last month or so. Apple Music’s deep iOS integration hooked me for a long time but I dipped my toe back in the waters of Spotify a few months ago and haven’t looked back since, thanks in large part to this brilliant feature.

The Hold Steady is a band I’ve been meaning to listen to for a long time, their albums languishing in various streaming service libraries as I pass them over in favour of listening to Weezer or God-knows-what for the hundred thousandth time. When “Chillout Tent” popped up as a recommended song, I knew it was time to finally try them out, and I’m so glad I did. “Chillout Tent” is an unusual kind of feel-good track, with youthful tales of overdoses and doomed romances half spoken, half sung over a chugging rhythm guitar, and by the time a female voice began to sing the chorus over mariachi horns, I knew I was in love. This is one of those songs that makes me feel a bit happier when I’m sad and a bit sadder when I’m happy, a dichotomy that perfectly reflects the hormone-fuelled confusion that is inescapable when one is young.

It’s funny how a well-told story can make you nostalgic for an experience you’ve never had. While I love live music, I’ve never been a festival guy, valuing hot water and a warm bed far too much to spend three days camping out in a muddy field (I’m what you might call ‘soft’). Nonetheless, the events depicted in this song offer little attraction to me, I can’t help but feel a tiny pang of regret when I listen to it. Do I wish I’d ended more weekends as a shivering, strung-out wreck when I was a teenager? No, probably not. But there’s a sense of romance to the drug-fuelled escapades of the characters of “Chillout Tent”, and that’s something that is very difficult not to envy.

 

St. Vincent, “Los Ageless” – Tom’s Weekly Jam

A few months ago I started a Spotify playlist called ‘Tom’s Weekly Jam’, to which I add my favourite song of the week each Friday. My aim was to create a musical time capsule of sorts, a way of looking back and seeing what I was into at any given time, and I’ve managed to keep it up for about 18 weeks now. I’m still in love with some of these songs, while others have aged… less well, and reflect the fallibility of my taste. Either way, if it’s the song I enjoyed most in a given week, then it’s going in the playlist. Now that I’m writing about my other interests on this site, I thought it would be fun to post a few thoughts on each track that gets designated as my Weekly Jam.

This week I’ve been greatly enjoying St. Vincent’s new single “Los Ageless” from her forthcoming album MASSEDUCTION. I’ve become a big fan of St. Vincent’s ever since I first listened to her excellent Beats 1 show St. Vincent’s Mixtape Delivery Service a couple of years ago. Her warmth and charm on that show led to me delving into her back catalogue, from which I particularly enjoyed her first and fourth albums, and I’m greatly looking forward to seeing her live in Manchester next month. St. Vincent (born Annie Clark) is an extremely gifted songwriter who pulls off that tricky feat of creating music that is super catchy but remains interesting to listen to for the fifth, tenth and hundredth time.

If the contrast between “Los Ageless” and previous single “New York” is anything to go by, this is going to be a very diverse album; despite the titles suggesting some kind of thematic link, the two songs couldn’t be more different. “New York” is a wistful piano ballad, an ode both to the titular city and to a romance that lived and died there. “Los Ageless”, on the other hand, is bitter and acidic, a damning portrayal of the vapidness and shallowness that can be found in LA.  The song instantly betrays a strong Depeche Mode influence, the main riff bearing a distinct similarity to “Policy of Truth”. ‘In Los Ageless, the mothers milk their young,’ Clark sings breathily over synths and drum machines, the atmosphere moody and tense before we arrive at a really interesting chorus. The same pleading lyric is repeated and built upon here as the chord progression continues steadily downward, pulling us further and further into St. Vincent’s Californian pit of despair.

Where this song really comes to life, though, is the bridge. All instrumentation except for drums and a distorted, compressed guitar falls away as Clark sings in falsetto and guttural yells. This section of the song is killer, and while I wish it could go on for longer, I know that it has more value in its brevity than it would if it were extended. This bridge, which serves as a kind of climax to the song before an atmospheric outro, almost sounds like Nine Inch Nails, and I for one am ridiculously excited about St. Vincent’s music heading in this direction. Again, it seems that this album will have a pretty varied sound, but give me just one more track that matches the grit and intensity of this bridge and I’ll be a happy man. 13th October can’t come soon enough.