After two album cycles that culminated in a massive sold-out tour (with multiple headlining dates at major music festivals), Ariana Grande has returned, triumphantly, to reaffirm her status as one of the world’s top tier pop artists. Positions is a victory lap, one that solidifies Grande’s bonafides as a songwriter by fusing some of her most sensual lyrical content to date with her most self-confident. The album’s rollout was casual — a few teasers and one single — which turns out to be representative of a more laid back, less dramatic approach. Gone are the maximalist pop beats of Sweetener, the dark sensibilities of thank u, next, and the piano-heavy theatrics of My Everything. Positions replaces these with more traditional R&B beats and an emotionally mature approach to lyricism that signifies Grande’s evolving self-perception in recent years. Opener “shut up” doesn’t mince its sentiments: “Guess it fuckin’ just clicked one night / All them demons helped me see shit differently / So don’t be sad for me.” That song is likely meant as a coded missive directed toward detractors. But ”34+35,” “nasty,” and “my hair” turn their attentions to Grande’s relationships and sexual partners — with an explicit intention of communicating her own interests and needs, rather than just playing the coy and demure flirt. Positions’ title track, meanwhile, is about the flexibility of relationships, and even the reflexivity of gender roles.
More to the point, “Positions” finds Grande taking control when she needs to (the music video for the song depicts her, in one of many roles, as the President of the United States). The message is clear: In any relationship that she’s in, Ariana is her own woman — whatever she wants to be. As if to drive that point home even further, the song “pov” registers a rejection of relationships of codependency (“I’m learning to be grateful for myself”) while, at the same time, expressing a seemingly at-odds desire to view herself as her partner views her (“I wanna love me / The way that you love me / For all of my pretty and all of my ugly too/ I’d love to see me from your point of view”). Even the track’s warm string arrangement and tight vocal harmonies resonate with shared experience and togetherness, while maintaining a strong sense of value in the experience of reflecting on the self. All of this skillful self-defining seems to ensure that Ariana Grande will continue to remain in pop’s spotlight for some time to come; her star power is overwhelming and her “personal brand” is at an all-time high, such that she can pretty much do whatever she wants. (Not for nothing, the music video for “34+35” contains multiple visual references to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis). Albums like Positions show exactly why such artistic latitude is deserved.
My Life 4Hunnid, YG’s latest, is the type of record one produces when they’ve officially given up on the whole trying thing when it comes to their music. This is relatively unsurprising, considering that indifference has been the defining characteristic of YG’s past several albums, each a considerable step-down from the prowess of Still Brazy. Instead of a sophomore slump, he’s somehow found himself in a junior, senior, and now postgraduate slump, with each release containing less urgency and fewer memorable hits than the last. It’s a shame to think it likely that the biggest cultural impact this man will probably ever have is “FDT” — though he has tried (rather unsuccessfully) to recreate that same energy a few times over now, and here tries again with the new iteration “FTP,” with the P standing for “Piggies”… wait, I mean “Police.” But this is old news, which isn’t to say YG can’t further comment on it, but he doesn’t bring anything close to a fresh perspective on the topic. He’s fine with repeating himself at this point, which, when speaking on larger sociopolitical issues, is asking a lot of attentive listeners.
But even outside of that, the lack of promotional material for his fifth studio album is warning enough that nobody associated with making this had their heart in the right place. The brevity of this project — barely passing the half-hour mark, with two interludes and only a handful of tracks that are longer than three minutes — suggests contractual obligations needing to be filled in order to get out of a record deal; a more bad faith reading could be that YG simply doesn’t care anymore, which might be more accurate considering the actual music present. He seriously thinks naming a song “Swag,” with a chorus consisting of him muttering “swag” a lot, is cutting it in 2020. But retrograde he stays, even down to his violently misogynistic tendencies — which is a tad ironic, considering his recent attempts of trying to be “woke” in the eyes of the LGBTQ+ community (though this could have been to win over his former partner, the queer Kehlani, who he cheated on; time can only tell) — and penchant for crafting wannabe radio-friendly tracks that will never, ever chart. One can’t even really argue that YG is staying particularly brazy these days, what with how outright bored he comes off most of the time as he pedals comatose, syrupy love ballads and limp G-funk bangers. If this album properly represents the life he’s currently living, then a life 4Hunnid is not a life worth pursuing at all.
The Drive-By Truckers are no strangers to grandiose sociopolitical statements; in their catalog you’ll find a rock opera that navigates their identity as sons of the American South and plenty of songs that tangle with their country’s complicated legacy of racism, violence, and injustice. Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that the Truckers would eventually broadcast a front-lines report from the dark winter of Donald Trump’s America. That album, The Unraveling, was unveiled early in 2020, and stands as the bleakest, most nihilistic work in the band’s oeuvre. Of course, its grim, prophetic countenance looked ahead to a global pandemic that took the Truckers off the road, forcing them to do pretty much what the rest of us are doing: Work from home. The New OK, released a few months later, has some holdovers from The Unraveling sessions as well as a couple new songs that the band pieced together from separate studios.
While this second missive feels updated in its specifics (you’ll hear references to the racial reckonings triggered by the death of George Floyd, for example), the worldview remains the same — which is to say, grim. And yet, this album is also quite a bit less oppressive, not because the Truckers have suddenly found the silver linings of life in Trump’s America but because they sound like they’re taking more joy in making a ruckus together. They lean harder into R&B than they have since Go-Go Boots, digging into simmering Muscle Shoals soul on “Tough to Let Go” and working up a full head of steam on the furious, fascist-baiting “The Perilous Night.” (No other band of their station is quite this good with groove; remember that time they played back-up for Bettye LaVette?) There are also some moments of gloriously greasy garage-rock din, first in the sludgy title song and finally in a raucous cover of Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away,” sung with venomous glee by Mike Cooley. Actually, the album’s only significant drawback is that Cooley, always a perfect foil for Patterson Hood, is relegated to only a single original here, though he certainly makes it count: “Sarah’s Flame” is a biting modern-day history, chronicling how the roads of neo-Naziism and Trump-style autocracy all run through the barrier-breaking degeneracy of Sarah Palin. It’s a breezy singalong, witheringly funny and maddeningly accurate in its diagnosis of American malaise. It’s emblematic of The New OK’s righteous indignation, its cathartic humor, and its raucous sense of fun.
After a prolific year that yielded one solo album and two records with her band, Big Thief, Adrianne Lenker returns with two more albums — diptych songs and instrumentals — each of which play to her strengths in different ways. Songs, unsurprisingly, focuses on Lenker’s lyrics, while instrumentals showcases the singer-songwriter’s compositional (and improvisational) style. Both albums were recorded live, resulting in an intimate sound that leaves space for every creaking floor and deep inhale. Throughout the lyric-focused songs, Lenker refers to a recent heartbreak — a breakup that forms the framework of the set’s intertwining narratives. The preferred mode of expression here is a longing for the past, for perhaps both a time when the chronicled relationship was still alive, but also resonating with the circumstances of the music’s actual creation: quarantined in a cabin during a global pandemic. These songs are about the experience of distance, as evident on “ingydar” (“You are as far from me as memory”), and the loss which it breeds, as heard in the reticence of “zombie girl” (“I almost would’ve kissed your hair, but the emptiness withdrew me”). Lenker hints at the reason why the relationship she sings about has ended — by insinuating that “an emotional distance” was there already before the physical distance to which it led. On “dragon eyes,” Lenker succinctly captures the problem of differences in personality (“I don’t want to change you / I don’t want to change). Songs’ sister album, instrumentals, is notable for being the result of improvisational exercises at the end of the songs sessions; it effectively winds-down the project with an appropriate quietude, a cathartic denouement after an assertive personal expression. Coming after multiple years of near-constant writing and touring, songs/instrumentals itself may well mark a graceful end to an era of Lenker’s art. Of course, we can’t know that for sure — there may be more music soon — but if this work does turn out to be the start of a period of rest, she’s earned it.
The Smashing Pumpkins
The year is (was) 2020, and Billy Corgan, the Draconian master of alt-rock melancholy, as apt to slam power chord riffs on guitars stacked 40 high as he is to whine about whores and heartache over slinky synth lines, has finally got the band back together — well, most of it, anyway. Jimmy Chamberlin, the manic skin-beater whose fondness for heroin led to his brief dismissal from the Smashing Pumpkins (hence the drum machine melancholy and glittery gloom of Adore) and rhythm guitarist James Iha are both credited participants of the inconsequential new Pumpkins album CYR; only original bassist D’Arcy Wretzky (who didn’t actually play bass very often anyway, it should be said) had her offer to rejoin reneged, petulantly, by Corgan. Siamese Dream and the self-pitying bombast of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness have aged poorly, especially compared to the fantod howl of Layne Staley, whose pain makes Corgan’s sadness seem silly, or the irreverence of Corgan’s loathed Pavement. So now CYR, a spiritual kindred of Adore and whatever Corgan has been doing for the last ten years, is out, and it is every bit as bad as you’d expect, all tired keyboard tinkering and spindly-voiced musings about fractured wishes and diamonds cutting hearts. Don’t be fooled by the marketing company claiming a return to form — this is Corgan doing Corgan, 70-something minutes of nostalgic navel-gazing, goth-lite masturbation, with none of Chamberlin’s heroic fills (e.g. “Geek USA”). As suggested by the album art and his own Libertarian confessions, Corgan has less in common with the great frontmen of the ’90s than he does another pseudo-literate egomaniac: Ayn Rand.