Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
Nick Cave has never been one to coddle. His music demands that listeners sit for a while with uncomfortable questions, for which he is seldom willing to offer a straight answer. The question posed by Carnage — a collaborative release with Bad Seeds’ lieutenant Warren Ellis — is simply this: What does the Kingdom of God mean to you? It’s a question you can’t escape; a “kingdom in the sky” is referenced, in so many words, time and again across the album, and what’s most fascinating is how the connotation seems to shift. In one song, the thought of a celestial city and an interventionist God sounds like a promise of hope; in the next, an omen of wrath; and elsewhere, a fool’s escapist fantasy.
Cave and Ellis wrote the material on Carnage during the year of COVID-19; described by its creators as “brutal” and “beautiful,” the album offers a sustained meditation on suffering, grief, and the tenacity of love, all filtered through a season of distance and loss. Cave’s elusive proclamations of God’s Kingdom are just one example of how his songwriting has become more impressionistic over time, and this slippery, mood-setting approach feels just right for Carnage’s transitory reflections. You won’t hear a lot of direct references to the pandemic, although a fetching torch song called “Albuquerque” features two lovers consoling each other as they are stuck at home, their travel dreams deferred. They can’t make their intended pilgrimage to Amsterdam nor Africa, and yet open roads are a motif throughout the album, setting a scene for escape, prodigal wanderings, and, in “Lavender Fields,” the sensation of being “appallingly alone.” The actual elephant in the room is a song where Cave invites all the demons of white supremacy to possess him, a reverse exorcism that finds him stalking and spitting violent, profanity-ridden rants about statues. This song, “White Elephant,” is the closest he has come in some years to the hell-raising narratives of his older, more punk-oriented material. (Meanwhile, the title song, with its Flannery O’Connor name-drop, can’t help but feel like a winking acknowledgment of the fatalistic persona Cave has cultivated over the years; he’s telling us that he’s in on the joke.)
Cave and Ellis have been collaborating since the mid-’90s, both in the orbit of the Bad Seeds and with a number of film scores, but Carnage is the first non-soundtrack album they’ve released as a duo. Fleshed out primarily with piano and synthesizer, it sounds at times like a continuation of the chillingly quiet music the Bad Seeds have been making as of late, particularly in the mostly-placid back half. And yet, Carnage is also the most raucous and textured music Cave has made in a while, shaking up the tranquil ambience of Ghosteen with a little bit of his band’s former menace, perhaps even a touch of Grinderman’s sleaze. On opening song “Hand of God” — an ominous incantation — Cave sings over rippling orchestral effects and an anxious drum beat. There’s rattling percussion and ragged violin flourishes to punctuate “Old Time,” pure gothic unease that answers the question, what would the Bad Seeds have sounded like if Ellis had been a member from the beginning? The album ends with a lovesick waltz called “Balcony Man,” where Cave compares himself to Fred Astaire and, speaking to his beloved, professes the one thing he knows to be true: “This morning is amazing and so are you.” Who knows what good that’ll do him when the Kingdom comes, but it’s a profoundly settling coda to Carnage’s disquiet.
T’was first decreed by the ever-ostentatious Young Thug to be the season of slime; then Gunna, his most felicitous protégée, declared it the juncture of drip. Now, there’s a new taxonomy to mark this period of human activity, coined by another promising student with a big-name teacher: it’s now Shiesty Season, proclaimed by one Pooh Shiesty. Signed to Gucci Mane’s re-imagined 1017 Records and recently certifying his ascendency with a viral 6ix9ine shoutout, the Memphis native’s debut mixtape is as auspicious as its figurative title suggests: the project is a genuinely engaging, bona fide star-making move for the rapper — with a heavy emphasis on himself as the prime selling point here. In many respects, this is your standard trap album of the week, a release that Kodak Black or Youngboy could have conjured up with minimal resources. The beats are sparse and ominous, barely hanging in the background, and consist of a few basic piano melodies and some crass high-hats. There’s a mellotron used on “Drop Some Shit” and a guitar lick found on “Seeing Red,” which gives you an idea of how scant things are production-wise. The features are divided into two groups: the phoned-in-favor variety — 21 Savage on “Box of Churches” and the aforementioned Gucci on “Ugly” — and the “here’s my buddy” type — whoever the fuck Big30 is, who appears twice. But where a lesser talent would take these routine elements and misappropriate them, Shiesty uses them to his advantage and ultimately builds off of them. Your beats are simple? Well, then you simplify every facet of the songwriting and give yourself room to maneuver. Do your guests suck? Easy, just sideline them as much as possible and trust in yourself.
Besides, Shiesty is a charismatic enough figure — one who can really sell his aloof, almost reticent attitude towards casual sex and posting death threats — that he often does best when left to only the minimal. “Back in Blood,” the closest thing Pooh has to a purpose of statement thus far in his career, works on the most fundamental of levels: it has a bulletproof hook, a clear command of vocal control, a slick flow, some cool ad-libs, a lotta “brrrs” that Pooh may or may not be able to control, and features a pretty funny play on Shiesty’s namesake courtesy of Lil Durk: “Pooh Shiesty, that’s my dawg, but Pooh, you know I’m really shiesty.” On “Making A Mess,” Shiesty and his two guests sound downright victorious over a triumphant horn sample, as each proceeds to produce the most degenerate flexes imaginable (“Glock got a switch, that bitch bisexual”), only to walk back with woke-r claims by the tail-end of the project (“Yeah, I know Muslim killers, shout out to them ahks”). But the crowning achievement of this sorta offhand bravado is the lilting “Neighbors,” with Shiesty’s presence felt in full effect as he elongates his deadpan inflections, slightly slurs his consonants, and brags about getting “free shit out the store because I’m fucking the clerk.” So sure, while Pooh’s certainly not re-inventing the wheel with his music, he pays enough attention to the core fundamentals of what’s required of him that it’s easy to forget such things. As it currently stands, the season of being shiesty is already off to a promising start.
The Weather Station
Oftentimes, the best solutions are also the simplest. In the case of Tamara Lindeman’s project under The Weather Station moniker, the answer seemed to be “add a full band.” Ignorance, Lindeman’s fifth record, is marked with rich synths, heavy drums (from two drummers!), a string section, and saxophone. This dense ensemble, when placed against Lindeman’s soft yet stunning vocal, makes for a gorgeous sound that extends far beyond the reach of any of the artist’s previous work. The album covers a wide variety of social issues: “Robber” issues a strong critique of capitalism (“No the robber don’t hate you, he had permission/Permission by words, permission of thanks / Permission by laws, permission of banks”), which is then also extended into a critique of colonialization by this born-Canadian (which Lindeman makes explicit through an allusion to “stolen land”). “Atlantic” speaks of the impending climate crisis (“Laid back in the grass of some stranger’s field / While shearwaters reeled overhead”) and reckons with the fear that comes with these changes (“Does it matter if I see it?/ No really, can I not just cover my eyes?”). And “Separated” directly addresses arguing with people online: “You try again your arguments out on me/ I try and tell you again / But if you wanted to understand me, you could.”
These songs seem to advocate for the taking on of a responsibility — whether that be to broad social change or a personal redress. But Ignorance is essentially introspective in nature, as evidenced by its soft, emotional closer, “Subdivisions.” The song’s last lines (“I wanted just to call you then, but still I knew I couldn’t / I left you back at home because I simply could not do it / Tell you I could be with you when I could see right through it / Our whole life”) notably lack the confidence that’s been projected elsewhere, and suddenly see Lindeman’s narrator questioning every decision she’s made (“In the wildest of emotion / Did I take this way too far?”). It’s that self-awareness and insecurity that make this record feel relatable, especially to anyone who has experienced a modicum of real anxiety before. And so Ignorance is a big step forward for Lindeman, not only in its wonderfully expanded instrumentation, but also through the scope of its emotional maturity — especially the desire to make one’s own anxieties accessible and familiar to the listener. In these days of mass media-bread panic, her message is an appropriate and impeccably executed one.
Conway the Machine
“In a class full of F students, the C student will always shine”: A classic bit of Big Ghost faux-wisdom (as extolled by Lukey Cage) from the opening moments of If It Bleeds It Can Be Killed, the latest collaboration between the blogger-turned-producer and Griselda’s Conway the Machine. Prior to retiring from his post as the internet’s foremost Drake skeptic, Big Ghost would offer up similar sentiments with some regularity, making a name for himself bemoaning the state of rap music post-808s & Heartbreak and railing against this quality of softness that was bleeding into the genre and (by his estimation) delegitimizing it. He hung up the blogging bit some time ago (perhaps foreseeing that culture was shifting to a place unfriendly towards snide commentary about effeminate mumble rappers or whatever) and has since convincingly repositioned himself as a producer; the staunchly classicalist aesthetics advocated for in his criticism are properly realized in his own production. In Conway, Big Ghost has found an ideal collaborator, a rapper embodying the artistic values that the producer has so vocally championed, and as well, an overt ally in the fight to bring hip-hop back to the year 2000.
As a member of label/collective Griselda Gang (along with his brother Westside Gunn), Conway has grabbed the attention of some major names (his next album, God Don’t Make Mistakes, will be released by Shady Records) and, at age 39, he seems poised to break out on new levels this year. While specializing in a flow and delivery very much in keeping with the stylings of Ghost Face (whose vernacular and syntax were the inspiration for Big Ghost’s blogging persona, by the way), Conway’s approach to grumbled enunciation is distinctly his own. Big Ghost is clearly this album’s mastermind, though; his production choices make overt nods to the aesthetic of the Wu-Tang Clan (cinematic strings and soul samples, mainly) while also incorporating guitars reminiscent of The Black Album on a couple tracks. Both producer and rapper seem uninterested in playing coy about their influences, likely in part because they recreate them quite elegantly. But in the process, they get a bit lost in the act of recreation — dreaming up an album that never was. Granted, Conway has an appropriate claim to the New York rap revivalism project, which is what makes this project mostly work. Big Ghost has found himself a like-minded artist who can convincingly (and with some firsthand knowledge) rap about slinging coke and the violence of gang life. Yet one wishes there was more than a performance of someone else’s performance here — Conway, a lively presence, surely isn’t best served delivering wilted bars about the autotune’s negative impact on the industry (12 years after “D.O.A.”!). In theory, there should be room for nostalgia-driven projects and the recycling of movements and aesthetics. But albums as stubbornly conservative (formally and lyrically) as If It Bleeds It Can Be Killed can track as silly — as if they’ve been created in defiance of culture’s natural tendency to evolve and mutate.
Shovels & Rope
Americana duo Shovels & Rope have settled into a predictable pattern with their album releases, alternating between new studio projects and entries in their Busted Jukebox series of covers albums. After 2019’s By Blood, they were due for another Jukebox entry; the first two albums in the series were delightful efforts, showcasing the duo’s playful approach to genre and providing a counterpoint to the general stuffiness of the current Americana landscape. That playfulness officially crosses a line of good taste on the new Busted Jukebox Volume 3, dubbed Busted Juicebox. For this project, Shovels & Rope have enlisted an impressive roster of collaborators, every one of whom should’ve known better, to cover a series of children’s or otherwise kid-friendly songs. The impulse behind the project is actually very easy to endorse. Particularly following a year that found most children confined to their homes without access to in-person socialization opportunities and enduring challenges with remote learning requirements, it’s impossible to fault Shovels & Rope for wanting to do something that might bring a bit of levity and joy to kids.
The lead single from their 2016 album, Little Seeds, was the breakneck “Botched Execution,” and that’s really the most apt descriptor for Busted Juicebox v3: however kind their intentions may have been, Shovels & Rope actively play against their strengths here, managing to come up with songs that are either unbearably twee or just outright dull, over roughshod production that would be off-putting to most young listeners. Children weaned on the antiseptic sounds of Daniel Tiger or Mickey Mouse Clubhouse aren’t likely to be drawn in by a rendition of “The Ants Go Marching” that’s punctuated by slightly out-of-tune guitar chords or by the cacophonous vocal layering between Shovels & Rope and Deer Tick on a just-awful cover of “Cry Baby,” and it’s unclear why any adult listener would be seeking out a rendition of “Hush Little Baby.” Sure, The War And Treaty’s Tanya Blount sings the fire out of “Tomorrow” (yes, the showtune from Annie) because of course she does, but to what end? Even the better tracks — John Paul White doesn’t completely embarrass himself on “What a Wonderful World” — still emerge as mere novelty recordings. The weaker efforts, particularly “Everybody Hurts” with T. Hardy Morris and a dreadful “In My Room” with Sharon Van Etten, strike a generally miserabilist tone that seems at odds with the album’s overall intentions. Shovels & Rope have demonstrated that they’re more capable than most when it comes to recording covers albums with purpose and vision, but Busted Juicebox Vol 3 is a career nadir that never should’ve made it all the way to the recording studio.