by InRO Staff Music

Pop Rocks | Q2 2020 Issue – Part 1: Lady Gaga, Haim, The Strokes

July 20, 2020
Photo: Norbert Schoerner

Lady Gaga

Each new release from Lady Gaga following the Fame and Born This Way heyday is more disarming than the last — increasingly structured around an aesthetic idea with a commensurate conceptual looseness. With Chromatica, a 16-track LP divided into three segments with numbered instrumental interludes, Gaga offers the vague notion of “inclusivity” as a thematic entry into the album, which must be regarding its aesthetic goals rather than the lyrical content or the nature of its production — the songs on the album are concerned with self-empowerment and determination, and of the three collaborations on the album, Elton John’s is the only one that extends beyond mere ornamentation. The music itself generically draws from house and the genre’s associated visuals, suggesting futuristic space technology and intergalactic locales, positioning the record as the soundtrack to a utopian rave. Indeed, the songs themselves sound largely more generic than any of Gaga’s previous work: tracks like “Fun Tonight” and “Sour Candy” are forgettable takes on contemporary pop trends, while “911,” “Enigma,” and closer “Babylon” begin with some interesting ideas but don’t progress. 

On what’s probably her most image-forward album, the tongue-in-cheek embrace of contradictions — aesthetic, thematic, and conceptual — which made her last two studio albums such exciting listens is left behind in the parade of upbeat crowd-pleasers. The album’s strongest points, such as single “Rain On Me” and tracks “Plastic Doll” and “Sine from Above,”   lean into a particular facet of the world Gaga seems to be building here, linking emotionally grounded lyrics with the techno-dance sound, where the rest of the album is too anonymous to contribute meaningfully to this intended aesthetic statement. Those three songs also feature the best melodic progressions on the whole record, which, in combination with the pleasant cohesiveness of its overall production, encourages repeat listens. Still, a bit of ear candy isn’t enough, as Chromatica fails to measure up with Lady Gaga’s best material. Alec Lane


Neil Young

In an age where exhuming stacks of demos and alternate mixes has become the norm for so many older acts, Neil Young’s Homegrown — a scrapped studio album from 1975 — is something of a miracle, one of the rare archival releases that offers something substantial even for the most casual of fans. He has called Homegrown “the missing link between Harvest, Comes a Time, Old Ways, and Harvest Moon,” and indeed, its soft, rootsy sound aligns it with those country-tinged efforts, but digging beneath the surface, one also senses a resonance with the so-called “Ditch Trilogy,” the trio of dark, dour records which directly preceded Homegrown’s writing and recording. Given that Young’s ’70s run was one of the strongest in popular music history, it’s remarkable how well Homegrown holds up alongside its chronological peers. 

Young’s reasons for shelving the album seem to stem largely from the pain associated with its creation, coming in the wake of a difficult breakup with actress Carrie Snodgress: “I just couldn’t listen to it,” he wrote in a recent post, “I wanted to move on.” For Young, 45 years or so seems to have healed those wounds, but the heartache fueling these songs still bears an uneasy immediacy. “Love Is a Rose” (one of five Homegrown tracks which have already seen some sort of release) provides a fundamental sentiment: “Love is a rose, but you better not pick it.” With the exception of a few drug-indebted jaunts (the goofy title track, the blues jam “We Don’t Smoke It No More,” and the surreal spoken-word track “Florida”), the songs on Homegrown tend to center on the dissolution of a relationship and the thorny feelings that come with it. These range from bitterness (“Love Is a Rose,” “Vacancy,” “Star of Bethlehem”) to a more wistful quasi-acceptance. Opener “Separate Ways,” the clear standout, falls in the latter category: “Me for me, you for you / Happiness is never through,” he sings, backed by a groovy Levon Helm beat and Tim Drummond’s melodic bass guitar. “It’s only a change of ways / And that is nothing new.” But he doesn’t sound quite convinced. Brendan Nagle


Haim

“Goodbye for now” were the words that the Haim sisters posted to their individual Instagram accounts in early 2019, though the subtext was more promise than goodbye. Was it a new album? A huge tour announcement? Eventually, “Summer Girl” was released, a single that was followed by two others (“Now I’m In It” and “Hallelujah”) and then radio silence. There remained the suggestion of something imminent, but the official message was quite the opposite. It wasn’t until early 2020 that the group finally announced their new record, Women in Music Part III, and while the wait built immense hype, the sisters thankfully are up to the task on the new record. Haim’s latest is at once their most diverse, reflecting a wide variety of styles (often on the same track) and their most intimate, speaking to various personal traumas in their vulnerable lyrics. The effect is one of connection, a through-line found in the tight pop hooks on tracks like “I Know Alone,” “Up From a Dream,” and “All That Ever Mattered,” in jangly Joni Mitchell-esque one-takes (“Man From the Magazine”), and in a few damn good, old-fashioned rock songs (“Don’t Wanna,” “The Steps”). 

At times this hodgepodge doesn’t feel like it should work, but the band’s sonic charm and inspired production, from former Vampire Weekend member and frequent collaborator Rostam Batmanglij, consistently elevates. After deleting their individual social media pages, the Haim sisters joined forces on the band’s page, and it seems this was prophetic, in a way, of the sonic cohesion that is borne out across their new album. Batmanglij’s presence is felt on nearly every track, both his writing and producing a stabilizing force and undeniable boon for the album — Women in Music has the distinct feel of Haim at their most fully realized, evincing a track-to-track consistency never before achieved in their discography. In fact, the three singles from 2019 are present only as bonus tracks, and it’s a testament to the album’s coherent vision and texture that they manage to feel as much a part of it as any other cut. In this way, these final ten minutes prove fascinating: they are both past and present, transformed from their initial function as anticipation-builders into a victory lap of sorts. It’s a decision that reinforces the bold promise of Women in Music Part III: that though it may be a while before Haim delivers another record, it simply isn’t their style to look back. Andrew Bosma


Hayley Williams

If Hayley Williams intended to hide her anxieties behind the primary colors of Paramore’s After Laughter, it yielded the opposite (but nevertheless incredible pop) results. The pop-punk band’s Technicolor hues heightened the senses as much as they highlighted the irony between volatile emotion and upbeat rhythms, with Williams’ words and cadences landing with visceral impact. Another peculiar trade-off happens with the music on Petals for Armor, Williams’ first solo record since debuting with Paramore in 2005. She’s more forthcoming, allowing darker, intimate issues to emerge: “Dead Horse” opens with a candid voice message from the artist herself, who apologizes for the late response due to her depression. Despite this directness, the music somehow becomes more elusive — even when she falls back to the familiar, slick funk of her band’s latest album. Williams is more forthcoming as a lyricist here, demonstrating a better articulation of her internal conflicts, and yet, her songs are prone to wander, the footing more unsure. 

But the driftless quality Petals for Armor isn’t a result of aimlessness. The organization of the album, first packaged as a bundle of three separate EPs, inbues the record with a sense of chronology, following Williams’ pursuit of peace and situational clarity. The stylistically scattered aesthetic and sonic experimentation feels like a reflection of Williams’ struggle to find proper expression, particularly of varying shades of darkness. Her voice undergoes a number of transformations: her usual sharp, emo-influenced enunciation here loosens into a shifty murmur as it smoothly settles into the album’s liquid funk. Petals for Armor sounds like a ghostly echo of After Laughter, lacking as it does some of that record’s color and carrying forth a more introverted energy, but it’s a welcoming tone of hollowness, one that underscores Williams’ current thematic preoccupations. It’s an album that doesn’t so much aim to capture in music any immediate, all-consuming burst of anxiety, but rather one that seeks to express, in word and mood, how it feels when that unease lingers, seeping into everyday life. Ryo Miyauchi


Charli XCX

How I’m Feeling Now, the latest release by British pop-star Charli XCX and technically her fourth studio album, came to fruition just under a month after its initial announcement. In anticipation of the album, Charli invited her fans to Zoom calls and hosted Instagram Live sessions in which she played beats and shared lyrics, allowing the audience to weigh in on their preferences. The decision to publicize the production process and rush the completion of the album, given the confessional lyrical content which mirrors the branding of her last effort as an identifying statement, is either a generous way to comfort and include her admirers or a self-involved solution to her own boredom, depending on how you’ve valued her output in the last few years. Though the hype around 2019’s Charli was quite fierce — due in large part to her ardent and vocal supporters, that record was largely an unconvincing return to the studio album format, with a few great choruses and features but an overall far cry from the compact, hit-filled tracklist of her Pop 2 mixtape from the previous year.

Her newest album mostly trades the tongue-in-cheek tone for an almost diaristic outpouring, all set over abrasive production from her usual collaborator A.G. Cook, and a few others including Dylan Brady of 100 gecs. Though she adopts a more intimate persona with this record, the music itself hasn’t developed in any significant way over the past two-plus years. Catchy hooks and unexpected sound combinations abound, but nothing sticks. With the help of various big name producers, Charli XCX has undergone a number of identity changes over the years, from True Romance’s goth-inflected synth pop revival to the rebellious rocker with the Sucker album and now to a purveyor of experimental-leaning electronic pop. It’s clear that it’s in this latest rebranding that she’s found her niche, along with a devoted fanbase, but rather than facilitating the opportunity for her art to grow in any substantive way, it’s merely given her sound the time to become stale. Alec Lane


The Strokes

The New Abnormal is the distinct product of a band that has tumbled through the millennium’s first two decades and managed to shake off the grit. The Strokes have honed their sound enough to know what works and where they can expand, and with their latest record they have reversed course from 2013’s catch-all of bad experiments, Comedown Machine. Instead, they smartly return to the familiar embrace and working formula of nifty bass riffs and JC’s signature falsettos. While the album isn’t carbon copy of either Is This It or Room on Fire, nor does it reach those heights, many of The New Abnormal’s tracks could fit neatly on those tracklists — zone out for a moment here and it’s easy to be swept up in the throwback sonic textures of the early aughts. The New Abnormal isn’t just looking backward, however, embracing some synthy electronic elements and featuring a more pronounced keyboard presence, as well as clearer vocals. At its best, on songs like “At the Door,” an early release, and “Why Are Sundays So Depressing,” the album strikes an effective balance between the old and new, expressing a back-to-basics kind of evolution. 

However, it’s the album’s messaging that delivers the clearest sign that things have changed. A mood of brooding and self-doubt tinges everything and clearly establishes a new philosophy —  the confidence of 2005’s “You Only Live Once” has transformed into more of an imminent, existential threat. Strain your ear enough to discern Casablancas’s chronic mumble, and you’ll hear whispered words of longing, nostalgia, and, bizarrely, friendship (in fact, platonic love is a focus on four of the album’s nine tracks). Even the band’s expression of romantic love has matured, from the primal, rock-star haste of 2003’s “meet me in the bathroom” to “I’ll be waiting there outside, yeah, please don’t be long” (“Selfless”). To hear these new musings applied on top of familiar, older Strokes’ sounds admittedly creates a palpable dissonance, one that can be disorienting and, at times, disappointing. So while it’s tempting, and not entirely unfair, to argue that the rockers play it safe on The New Abnormal, there remains enough intentionality and lyrical self-awareness — “gone now are the old times” in the album’s closer, “Ode to the Mets” — to suggest that, for better and worse, they’ve simply grown up. Mary Spencer

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