Adele exists in a peculiar space, an undeniably massive superstar with a global audience, and yet she appears isolated from the broader culture, her stylings and proclivities placing her outside what’s considered cool in contemporary music for well over a decade now. This was perhaps less true in 2008 when debut album 19 launched her career, but here in 2021, Adele is more or less the only artist of her sort able to work at such pop heights, boasting four projects worth of soul-inflected, theatrical balladry largely detached from broader industry trends. Indeed, “old-fashioned” is the label they tend to stick Adele with, one the singer-songwriter seems to bristle at even as she’s held fast to her particular lane, but despite an intriguing pre-release joke about venturing into drum-and-bass this time around, latest album 30 doesn’t attempt to upset what’s worked, a natural progression that doesn’t necessarily equate to interesting growth.
This new one comes out six years after her previous, 2015’s 25, and like that album, 30 serves as a loose chronicle of that year in her life, charting Adele’s emotional reckoning with her son, former husband, and herself in the midst of the dissolution of their 10-year relationship. Expressed in a linear arc, 30 opens on the soft, jazzy, Judy Garland-inspired (technically Judy-inspired) “Strangers by Nature,” a track balancing warm production and vocal delivery with stark, sad lyrical content, the first lines we hear being “I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart.” Produced by Childish Gambino collaborator Ludwig Göransson, “Strangers by Nature” is one 30’s stand outs and sets the standard of production quality high early on with robust instrumentation and deft vocal mixing. It’s a standard the album is able to maintain for the duration of its 58-minute runtime and perhaps 30’s most satisfying element — so rare to see a modern-day Top 40 mainstay flex her budget this hard. Subsequent track and big single “Easy on Me” continues to impress in this way, setting the stage for Adele to really work her vocal range, belting frank, self-critical sentiment (“Go easy on me, baby / I was still a child”) over determined piano melody to (now-expected) bold effect.
In this way, 30 is at its best when it goes for classic, big Adele moments, updating and cleaning up what’s worked previously. This comes through on closing tracks “To Be Loved” (marking the return of wayward songwriter/producer Tobias Jesso Jr.) and “Love is a Game” as well, but 30’s core isn’t so strong, consisting of increasingly dubious formula switch-ups like cringey acoustic jam “Woman Like Me” and the twangy, faux provocative 2000s-core “Can I Get It” (courtesy of Max Martin and Shellback). Elsewhere, Adele tries out voicemail samples on “My Little Love” (in a nod to Tyler, the Creator/Skepta apparently) to not so great effect, forcing an intimacy more organically achieved in her vocal performance. What it all adds up to is an appreciably well-constructed album with occasionally searing emotional insight, often undermined by a classical roteness and confused attempts at persona reshaping.
The visual aesthetic of Silk Sonic — a supergroup comprised of resident cornballs Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, in case you haven’t heard — is attempting to convince you of something that their music repeatedly fails to substantiate: that this retro-fetishistic, late-capitalist enterprise in repurposing old sounds to a new audience is actually an authentic love letter to ‘70s Motown/Chicago soul stylings, made by two contemporary, (heavy air-quotes here) “hip” entertainers in their commercial primes. Indeed, their lead-up PR run — which included Mars tweet-begging the Grammy’s to let “two out-of-work musicians” perform at that year’s ceremony, a rather tasteless joke for a millionaire to crack given the current economic climate for most touring artists — had a convincing-enough veneer, especially realized in their promotional music videos. They were all self-satisfied in this goofy, wink-wink sort of way — and bordered on slapstick to the point that they could be classified as minstrelsy — but they at least had an air of superficial validity to them, where the idea of Mars and .Paak cosplaying as P-Funk members didn’t seem like that much of a stretch given the degree to which both comfortably inhabit this given genre/period-specific crossover space. They’re naturally charismatic performers with impressive vocal ranges, ones who aren’t afraid to ham things up and can provide a reliable degree of magnetism that’s required for an endeavor of this nature. There’s a lot of tough-talking one minute, then they play heel the next. At one point, each sings about how “this bitch got me payin’ her rent,” and it comes off like a light-hearted joke, a petty gibe from a heartbroken suitor.
This flippant attitude — a bratty mixture of both trite and trivial — permeates every second of An Evening with Silk Sonic, a half-hour exercise in sanitized make-believe that never rises above being merely inconsequential. It’s the “sonic” equivalent of children playing dress-up with their parent’s clothing, a cheap imitation of past successes — and a watered-down, lifeless form of mimicry at that. The lead single “Leave the Door Open” is syrupy to the point of becoming nauseatingly saccharine, aping that classic Philly sound with almost no personality beyond baroque orchestral instrumentation and some lush chord progressions; it aims for respectability instead of listenability, to be admired from afar as it’s played in doctor’s offices across America. Results this debased shouldn’t be too surprising, considering Mars is the crowning champion of delivering diluted, culturally appropriated easy-listening hits (.Paak’s a little better, but still major wack vibes all around); look no further than the lifeless “777” and even lamer “Skate.” In a sense, the album should be something of the optimal project for the two: a frivolous, inoffensive trip through yesteryear that compliments how artistically unambitious its lead vocalists are. An Evening with Silk Sonic certainly fits that depressing description — it’s ironic calling something this tedious a “success,” but these meager goals are indeed accomplished — but to what ends? Maybe as a testament to just how “low” a low-ceiling release can get, where something this devoid of human emotion or integrity could be considered “soulful.”
After a quick rise to indie rock prominence following 2018 debut Lush, Lindsey Jordan returns with her band Snail Mail’s follow-up, Valentine, an album constructed around stories of infatuation at every stage of a relationship. On this newest record, Jordan opts for a full band, contrasting her previous record’s sparse production with hints of a previous era of lo-fi indie pop. The emotional intelligence of the tracks is also nicely fleshed out, an achievement for any artist, but especially notable for one who is only 22. The combination of these two elements works as a tidy (re-)introduction to an artist who has, on only her second record, already been reborn, ready here to advance her particular sonic landscape.
It goes without saying that hearing Lindsey Jordan sing pretty much anything would, at the very least, make for interesting listening. She has a rich voice, with a texture that musicians often spend years trying to develop. It’s a quality that lends an immediate edge to her music over other artists working in the same rough genre, and one that sets her ceiling considerably higher. In the past, this was indeed the centerpiece to her sound, with a lone, muted guitar around to accompany. And this was a good sound, one that established her songwriter cred and helped develop a fan base, but on Valentine the addition of synths and booming instrumental accompaniment feels like a revelation, paired as they are with her intense vocal winding over them.
But it’s not just her sonic canvas that has expanded on this LP, but also her skill as a lyricist. Jordan has experienced noted hardship since the last record, ranging from writer’s block during an intense touring schedule to a stint in rehab (referenced on “Ben Franklin”), and it’s not an uncommon desire to want to recreate yourself after such intense personal experiences. In many ways, the relationships that she sings about on Valentine are articulating precisely that need for forward momentum, whether it be moving on from a lover who has iced her out on “Valentine” or “Forever (Sailing),” or one who loves deeply but also hurts deeply on “Glory.” It’s no accident, then, that Snail Mail’s drastic instrumental changes come tethered to narratives of needing to take drastic relationships, both facets seeking out new shapes and horizons.
More than anything, on Valentine Lindsey Jordan wants you to know that things are different on a second record. It’s certainly a bold move for an artist who found accolades on her first outing, one that could easily alienate an already loyal fanbase if miscalculated. But the payoff is significant, rising far above the early promise of Lush. Given success, reinvention is essential to any artist’s endurance, that much we know. What’s surprising and thrilling about Valentine is just how up to that challenge Jordan already is, offering no indication here that she’ll have trouble repeating the performance next time out.
Nine-member girl group Twice is one of the most successful K-pop ensembles working today. Managed by JYP Entertainment, they hit it big with the Korean public within the first year of their 2015 debut, and they’ve been churning out regular comebacks helmed by sweet, charming pop songs about love ever since. But it’s only within the last few years that Twice has started to transform into genuine album artists. Their promoted title tracks still lean toward easy-listening synthpop and lighthearted romantic concepts, but the breadth of their b-sides has expanded far beyond their signature sound. Highlights from their 2019-2021 EPs include pulsing dance-pop, salacious piano-house, blaring brass sections, and “Say So”-inspired funk, but the peak of their discography is by far the group’s second full-length album, Eyes Wide Open, released last October. Eyes Wide Open was an impressive, adventurous project and a shining example of what a K-pop album can be: each one of its thirteen tracks took on a totally different musical style (Dance-pop about insomnia! Filthy electronic drop! City pop! Cheerleader anthem!), and yet the end result felt cohesive, compelling, and like a huge step forward in the evolution of Twice’s artistic identity. It’s an album that never should have worked, but the fact that it did made it one of the best K-pop projects of 2020. Their third full-length, then — Formula of Love: O+T=<3, released this November — had a tough act to follow, and the results are mixed.
In a vacuum, Formula of Love is a perfectly good project. Twice are not in the business of putting out outright bad or thoughtless songs, even at the rapid release pace that K-pop comebacks demand: you could put this album on shuffle and enjoy whatever comes on (with maybe one exception). What makes it slightly disappointing is the distinct lack of variety on offer. Twice’s first fully English-language single, “The Feels,” was released at the start of October, and it’s fantastic — the lyrics are silly, but the melodic hooks are undeniable, the performances are fun, and the production is such glittering, energetic dance-pop that it’s impossible to resist. It’s one of Twice’s best singles in years. But then you listen through the first half a dozen tracks on Formula of Love, and you’re hit with a wall of similar dance-pop production that sounds both less surprising and less sonically sophisticated than “The Feels,” and the thrill starts to fade.
The most interesting b-sides on Formula are the ones that do try new things: “Espresso” is bassy, bouncy electro-pop, “Cactus” is a power ballad, and “Last Waltz” is gothic R&B (maybe?) with a pre-chorus that shifts into 3/4 time. A few of the experiments are more half-hearted: jazzy ballad “Rewind” is pretty but feels like a less successful version of Eyes Wide Open standout “Handle It,” and the less said about embarrassing “Lalisa” imitator “Hello,” the better. This album is also the first time that Twice has released subunit songs, with three of the tracks featuring just three members each, but they are none of the best songs and mostly sound like a way to get use out of leftover demos.
With repeated listens, the flood of dance-pop does begin to sort itself into standouts — “Fall in Love Again” deserves more of a spotlight than the tracklist gives it, and “Cruel” is an excellent showcase of the subtlety that the Twice members can bring as vocalists. But Formula is far less exciting than Eyes Wide Open, or even their summer 2021 EP Taste of Love, and it’s almost insulting how clearly JYP Entertainment has chosen to coast on this release and let Twice’s sound stagnate. The album’s release day single, “Scientist,” is so middle-of-the-road that it’s taken four paragraphs to even be worth mentioning: yes, it’s cute and hooky and pleasant in the moment, but the production is so devoid of sonic personality that it takes half a dozen listens to even begin to distinguish itself as a grower, which is not the way a single should be (especially not when it’s following in the footsteps of multiple other underwhelming recent title tracks from Twice). But it makes sense — it’s only been a year since their last full-length Korean album, and the group has released over a dozen songs as part of other projects since then. The JYP vaults are probably close to empty. It’s possible that the only reason this comeback was even a full album, rather than an EP, was because the company solicited a wide range of dance-pop demos as contenders to be their first English single, and, after “The Feels” was released, still had enough strong runner-ups remaining to fill out the rest of an album. That’s only speculation, but comparing the crisp production and mixing of “The Feels” to most of the other b-sides, which are noticeably less technically sharp, certainly makes you wonder. Formula of Love is full of individually enjoyable songs, but the project lacks the ambition it needs to be a truly compelling whole — Twice have already proved themselves capable of so much more.
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
How do you follow a cross-genre, cross-generational smash like Raising Sand — a record so wide in its appeal, it was christened Album of the Year by both the Recording Academy and the Americana Music Association? How do you test the atmosphere to see if lightning will strike twice, particularly when it’s fourteen years after the fact? For Alison Krauss, the way forward began with a Calexico song. “Quattro (World Drifts In),” a widescreen Western epic of utter desolation, was the song that convinced Krauss it was time to get the band back together; fittingly, it’s the opening song on Raise the Roof, a record that mirrors its predecessor from its title to its personnel list. It is as fitting a tribute as any to the strange alchemy that Krauss shares with her duets partner Robert Plant and producer/curator T Bone Burnett: What makes these albums special is how they make hushed intimacy sound absolutely massive; how they make wee-small-hours heartache sound as gnarled and mysterious as the ancient songbook from which they draw material.
The rapport between Krauss and Plant may no longer be surprising, but it remains sublime: On Raise the Roof, their harmonies intertwine so immaculately that you often forget you’re listening to two singers as opposed to a singular voice. Their hushed singing rarely rises above a whisper, but remains magnetic in its effect. And theirs is just one of the dynamite pairings displayed on the album. This music is as strong in its rhythmic explorations as it is its harmonies; give credit to drummer Jay Bellerose and upright bass player Dennis Crouch, both reprising their roles from Raising Sand and populating these songs with dusty grooves and sinewy swing. Burnett once again supplies the material, returning to some of the same deep wells as on the last album— just as before, there is a song by the Everly Brothers, another by Allen Toussaint— while also tapping into some exciting new reservoirs: The majestic Calexico track shares space not just with some familiar blues chestnuts (“Last Kind Word Blues”), but also a lesser-known Merle Haggard gem (“Going Where the Lonely Go”). A couple of the best songs allow Plant to take the lead: It’s always a joy to hear him tear into an old R&B nugget like “Searching for My Love,” which shakes and shimmies in time with Bellerose’ percussive rattle; meanwhile, he and Burnett provide the album’s lone original, a stinging country-rock tune called “High and Lonesome,” which wears its archetypes on its sleeve in the most winsome way possible. Then again, Krauss gets the supreme honor of taking lead on a Toussaint tune; witness the playfulness and ease she brings to the slinky “Trouble with My Lover,” backed by a terrific low-key thump from the rhythm section.
If Burnett is unassailable as a curator, his work as producer can occasionally frustrate. This album copies its predecessor’s greatest liability, which is Burnett’s obsession with making everything sound artificially old-timey. His stylized, vintage sound sands away a lot of the music’s rough edges, resulting in a vibe that’s just a shade too sleepy. A few songs do pick up some steam, and serve as welcome respites from the drowsiness: “Can’t Let Go,” a song associated with Lucinda Williams, offers a few fireworks, coming as close as anything here to replicating the easygoing rock of “Gone Gone Gone” from Raising Sand. Other highlights come when the album leans the other way, shifting full-bore into its ambient austerity. That’s most evident on “Going Where the Lonely Go,” where Krauss uses the song’s torpor to her advantage, mining fathomless depths of sadness and desolation. A few songs that occupy a murky middle ground cause the album to drag just a tad, yet their cumulative effect is notable: By presenting their wide-ranging collection of folk songs in such stylized quiet, Burnett, Krauss, and Plant highlight all the implicit eeriness, lonesomeness, and dream-state reverie that exist therein. Though a long time coming, Raise the Roof wears its long gestation well: It’s an album that both enriches and extends the accomplishments of its predecessor.