It’s been a while since we last heard from Future — if, and only if, one goes off of his previous track record’s metrics. For a while there, starting in 2010 and continuing into the next decade, fans could, at a bare minimum, reliably expect one, maybe even two or three (if you count the occasional EP and sole OST) releases from the Atlanta powerhouse in a given year. His influence on hip hop music seemed to grow exponentially — while also in tandem — with this flourishing output. More specifically, his run from 2015 to 2017 was a period of white-hot creative intensity that saw him at his absolute artistic and commercial peak; this was, as he so beautifully put it on his collaborative mixtape with Drake released after his magnum opus DS2, what a time to be alive. But since then, Future hasn’t been making the same type of record (qualitatively speaking) as he used to, spinning his wheels instead of pushing his sound forward — but considering the impact that he’s had on the culture at large, that’s okay in the grand scheme of things. I Never Liked You, his first album in two years, is further proof of both his consistent, borderline autopilot excellence and his more phoned-in qualities of late. There’s a certain sort of greatness here in how much mileage Future can get out of doing the bare minimum required; in that respect, call him the rap game Clint Eastwood.
Sure, he’s so jaded nowadays that he can’t write a halfway decent love song anymore (there’s the excruciatingly awful “Worst Day,” him at his whiniest) and he definitely plateaued at making these types of formulaic songs sometime around 2018. Yet, his delivery has also gotten so casually expressive that he can make even the most transient of songs here (the scorching opener “712PM”) stick with a slick-enough melody guiding it along. This, along with The WZRD and the criminally underrated High Off Life, form a nice little late-period run fueled by pure rockstar charisma, exercises in vocal swagger from a master of mumble rap. It’s a one-dimensional approach to songwriting (and, at times, taken to comically moronic ends like on “For A Nut”), but it’s always enjoyable to some degree, mainly when it’s up-tempo — which, thankfully, I Never Liked You is for the most part. “I’m Dat N***a” has him sauntering around like a total scoundrel caught in the act, slowing his second verse down for a fiendish emphasis (“Fucked her in the ass, made her pee pee,” the little rascal boasts) that helps to distract from how commonplace these lyrics, flow, and delivery are in the grand lineage of Future sex raps. “Massaging Me” is just as generic, vulgar, and immature; it also has lines like “We do this without any shenani’,” where the way he modulates his enunciation of “shenanigans” into an entirely different word reminds us of what we’ve been missing for the past year or so. “Gold Stacks” doesn’t even really embody the regular characteristics of a traditional rap song — it’s more just Future ranting about making straight women bisexual over a fast-paced beat in a manner that suggests he’s rapping.
Things, unfortunately, and also rather quickly, begin to lose steam with the one-two boredom punch of “Wait For U” and “Love You Better,” two tedious ballads (the former copy-and-pasting Tems vocals from another song) from a man who’s long-abandoned attempting sincerity — but the album regains its mojo with the aforementioned “Massaging Me,” where, again, he’s doing the same routine with little permutations. The best tracks after (the EST Gee-featuring “Chickens” and “Holy Ghost,” the most exciting thing going on here production-wise from ATL Jacob) get evened out by some questionable choices: former partner-in-crime Drake absolutely embarrasses himself with a forced “Thotiana” reference on “I’m On One”; there’s also that obnoxious guitar riff on “The Way Things Going.” And exactly where did that glib Talking Heads sample go from the now-finished version of “Keep It Burnin” that appears here? (That one comes a lot earlier, but the question is still worth asking.) This all adds up to another uneven, if somehow still fundamental, release from Future that typifies our current expectations: in equal spades smashing and slapdash, scattershot and sensational. At this point, would we really want it any other way?
Truly great Willie Nelson albums come in many different shapes, sizes, and styles: there’s the murder ballad-cum-redemption narrative of Red Headed Stranger, which wouldn’t have fared so well post-cancel culture, but which is still one of the most vivid story-albums in the popular music canon; the crooner-classic Stardust, still among the best set of standards put to record; the all-instrumental swing-jazz album Nelson cut with his late-’90s touring band, which doubles as a tribute to his self-professed hero, Django Reinhardt; the barn-burner of a collab album with fellow country legend Hank Snow; and the delicate and ruminative collab cut with the late Sister Bobbie. No favored formula — and he has a stable of them —always produces a winner – but if one album doesn’t hit, another (maybe two!) usually arrives in the succeeding 12 months or so.
Of course, that won’t always be true, which makes for a heck of a lot more sense when pointing out that any foolhardy suggestions that A Beautiful Time — 89-year-old Nelson’s seventy-second solo album — could be his last. Willie himself pokes fun at that more morbid notion therein with a bit of pitch-perfect levity: “Live every day like it was your last one / Because one day you’re gonna be right.” And while mortality is clearly on Nelson’s mind throughout, A Beautiful Time registers as something quite a bit different from what Robert Christgau once coined as the “nearness-of-death” album — referring to Warren Zevon’s The Wind and Johnny Cash’s American IV, among others. In part, that’s because death is a lot harder to pin down here: It’s an occasion for a “picking party” with Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, et. al on “I Don’t Go to Funerals,” and on the bookending “I’ll Love You Till the Day I Die” and “Leave You With a Smile,” it’s a reason to love with everything you’ve got, while you have the chance.
Romantic, wise, funny — A Beautiful Time is as rich an emotional experience as it is a masterful work of craftsmanship. Two classics anchor the set, both likely near-impossible lifts for anyone who isn’t the premiere interpretive singer in American music. Nelson wrings jazz and r&b out of Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song,” with lonesome harmonica blowing like a train whistle and a Daniel Lanois-ish solo expanding the sonic palette, harkening back to 1998’s Teatro. The phrasing is impeccable, an uncommon example of a singer recognizing the gravity and pathos of a great text — from the gritty, assertive way Nelson approaches Cohen’s still-resonant sociopolitical musings (“the rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor”) to the tender and vulnerable cadence of the gorgeous bridge, which does such a good job of breaking out of the theatrical folk template of the original that it sounds written to be performed as a bluesy torch song. A similar resourcefulness transforms “With a Little Help from My Friends,” turning the Beatles’ psychedelic Brit pop novelty into an earthy reverie — with whining pedal steel and rolling barroom piano setting the scene, while Nelson’s earnest care for every word he sings reveals layers of lyricism (“What do you see when you turn out the light / I can’t tell you but I know that it’s mine”) that the original wouldn’t have you thinking quite so deeply about.
Nelson has built more than one of his truly great albums from shrewdly selected and sequenced covers. But there are also a handful of exceptional originals on A Beautiful Time (all penned with longtime producer Buddy Cannon) that help to bring this great songwriter’s own personality and perspective to the set. The best of these — and, in fact, Nelson’s best new song since “Laws of Nature,” off 2014’s December Day — is “Energy Follows Thought,” a meditation on — of all things, in this age of excess and confrontation — the virtue of restraint; a gentle reminder to fix your mind and an effort to caution against reckless action. The music, sparse and textural, compliments the message, with Nelson’s evocative and abstract picking drawing out the latent ambiguities of his koan-like lyricism. More pro-forma in terms of style but just as expert is “My Heart Was a Dancer,” the kind of blue-collar story-song that represents the best of the outlaw country movement during which Willie came to prominence, while “I Don’t Go to Funerals” is the type of lighter, joke-y fare that Nelson has less reliably succeeded at in recent years — but here it’s cut with just enough biting wit, as well as a fantastic guitar solo, as to elevate it close to the level of the rest of this set. And while some might point to signs on this album of a diminishing vocal, and be fair in doing so — only now, at almost 90, is the greatest singer in American music starting to show tangle limitation in the high and low ranges of his voice — he still somehow ends up nailing the most demanding moments here, like the octave-jumping falsetto of “Leave You With a Smile.” That song, which ends this set on a moving and reflective note, succinctly reiterates Nelson’s take on the themes of this album: “If I could make my time with you stand still / There’d be no time that I would want to kill.” As much as he’s not afraid of death, he’s still enamored with life, and more inclined than ever to relish its best moments.
In 1976, Joni Mitchell sang about the “Refuge of the Road” — about seeking meaning and belonging through constant motion; about the itinerant life as both quest and escape. It’s a powerful concept that many other songwriters have mined, both before and since, but few have done so as fruitfully as Miranda Lambert. The road was a controlling metaphor for her 2016 masterpiece The Weight of These Wings, lending shape and structure to a series of confessions about heartache and self-inventory; through the imagery of covered wagons, getaway cars, and hippie caravans, Lambert turned the tried-and-true divorce album into a reflection on one pilgrim’s lack of progress, a prodigal’s search for love and fear of stasis. She returns to that imagery on Palomino, an album that name-checks dozens of cities and draws its name from a breed of show horses. Here, the narrative has become complicated: By all accounts a happily married woman, Lambert still sings about the road as a venue of escapism and self-discovery. She also understands more than ever how old memories haunt the highway, and attachment exerts its pull.
Between The Weight of These Wings and Palomino Lambert made Wildcard, a lighter and frothier affair that functions as a bridge between its weightier bookends — not just thematically, but also musically. The Weight of These Wings had a deep, live-band feel, while the glossier Wildcard was colorful and kinetic. Palomino splits the difference, offering a widescreen survey of the American highway, capturing red dirt and endless gray ribbon in vivid Technicolor. Produced by Lambert with Jon Randall and Luke Dick, Palomino is indebted to the earthy grooves of Little Feat and the golden era of country-rock. “Actin’ Up,” the glitzy album opener, finds Lambert boasting and vamping over greasy arena rock riffs; “Tourist,” her ultimate itinerant manifesto, glides along to finger-picked guitar and glistening pedal steel. She is equally adept at rabble-rousing anthems (“Strange,” “If I Was a Cowboy”) and late-night weepers (“That’s What Makes The Jukebox Play”). Indeed, Palomino finds Lambert consistently playing to her strengths: It’s one of the only albums in her catalog that isn’t weighed down by obviously-substandard country radio fare — there’s no “Something Bad” or “Automatic” here; the pre-release singles actually enhance the album’s themes and textures — and, in a raved-up gospel cover of Mick Jagger’s “Wandering Spirit,” she once again demonstrates faultless taste in selecting semi-obscure cover songs that enrich the surrounding motifs. By now it borders on the miraculous to hear Lambert find exciting new ways to drawl her vowels, but here she is again, providing delight upon delight with her wondrous phrasing. (Pick a favorite pronunciation from “Waxahachie”: Is it “Loo-siana,” or her tipsy alliteration when she sings “bourbon buzz”?)
Hearing Lambert play with full-band arrangements, following the spectral campfire songs of last year’s The Marfa Tapes, is a reminder that she is one of our most intuitive record-makers; indeed, while some songwriters fare best in a stripped-down setting, Lambert maximizes the potential of the studio to draw out all the color in her writing and singing. That’s especially evident on three Marfa holdovers, sturdy songs that are given full-bodied treatments here. The stuttering “Geraldine” is turned into a good-natured groove while “Waxahachie” immediately ranks among Lambert’s most bracing country-rock anthems. But the most impressive makeover is “In His Arms,” originally a whispered prayer, here burnished by atmospheric guitars. Listening to it is akin to seeing grainy film footage lovingly restored: While there were charms to its initial imperfections, the hi-def version is obviously the definitive one.
Lambert’s obviously experienced a lot of personal growth since the days of Kerosene and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, albums where she often played a lovingly-caricatured hellraiser. She’s now several albums deep into a wrestling match between hitting the road and “settling down” (as one Wildcard standout put it), and Palomino excavates further thematic richness. Functioning as a dusty travelog, the album finds Lambert claiming wanderlust as a feature, not a bug; in “Tourist,” she restates her oft-cited kinship with vagabonds and drifters. And yet the narrator of “In His Arms” isn’t moving just for movement’s sake; she longs only to rest in the arms of her beloved. “I’ll Be Lovin’ You,” a heavy groove, furthers the idea of the road as spiritual quest: Perhaps Lambert still hasn’t found what she’s looking for, but she knows her beloved is both map and compass. Elsewhere, in the flashy-and-trashy B-52s feature “Music City Queen,” misfits create their own community even as they settle for second-rate dreams. The narrator in “Waxahachie” bumps up against the limits of life on the run; “freedom’s overrated,” she demurs. All these themes come to a head in the wrenching closer, “Carousel.” One of Lambert’s most gripping ballads, it gracefully unspools the failed romance of a carnival dancer and her trapeze-artist paramour. Lambert clearly sympathizes with the itch to run away and join the circus; but as it turns out, love and heartache can follow you anywhere.
Action Bronson arrived on the scene circa 2011 with an irresistible mythos already formed around him (Albanian-American chef-turned-rapper with Ghostface-type delivery), backed up by the fact that he could really, actually rap. This music writing industry, always appreciative of a pre-packaged media narrative, bought in hard, and for a few years Bronson (aka Bronsolino, aka Dr. Baklava) was a much-hyped artist and festival mainstay. That hype died off somewhere around his 2015 album Mr. Wonderful (a half-excellent album), probably mostly because of his own shifting interests (i.e. various Viceland programs), but also because of those of the publications that initially propped him up, this more classically minded brand of NYC rap music very far from the center of the culture by the mid-2010s. That said, Bronson hasn’t actually left the public eye or slowed down particularly, keeping busy with those Vice shows and making a couple silly forays into Hollywood acting (most substantially, a tedious cameo in Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island). He’s kept releasing music at a steady clip as well, though with less urgency and apparent passion, with projects like 2017’s Blue Chips 7000 and 2020’s Only for Dolphins suggesting some intent on pursuing a more avant-garde, eclectic aesthetic that’s ultimately engaged with halfheartedly by the M.C.
Now, seemingly back to prioritizing his rap career more wholeheartedly, Bronson has managed to finesse the more challenged elements of his recent output to assemble Cocodrillo Turbo, one of his finest releases in some time. Positioned as a successor to Only for Dolphins and 2018’s White Bronco (all featuring hand-painted Bronson originals for artwork, plus general animal theming), Cocodrillo Turbo offers a concise 30 minutes of the Queens rapper going to work over an inspired selection of jazz-centric production with a focus and excitement that’s been missing from his recent work. This was particularly an issue for the forgettable White Bronco, While Only for Dolphins felt re-engaged but unwieldy and inconsistent. Cocodrillo Turbo pulls it all together, keeping to a similar general production aesthetic as those albums, but changing up the team, swapping out long-time collaborator Harry Fraud for other long-time collaborator The Alchemist. Bronson produces a couple of tracks himself, as does Griselda associate Daringer, the trio (plus a one-off from Mono En Stereo) managing to balance out a busy collection of sounds intersecting somewhere around jazz and psych/classic rock. Cocodrillo Turbo works because its dramatic stylistic pivots don’t really scan as such in practice, sample choices moving between twangy Thai pop rock on the Conway-featuring “Tongpo” (the recent ascendancy of Griselda Gang has worked out well for Bronson, a very early cosigner) and moody The Doors-type psych jams (actually borrowed from esteemed Texas rockers Bloodrock) on lead single “Subzero.” Bronson’s lyricism, somewhat recently threatening to collapse under the weight of self-parody, is more imaginative and outlandish than ever, crass, gonzo celebrations of unabashed hedonism equally repugnant and endearing. Bronson really only admits to self-doubt momentarily near Cocodrillo Turbo’s close, very quickly addressing his doubters — “They say Bronson disappeared like the AIDS from Magic Johnson’s dick” — before averting his attention to a Cadillac so big it could fit eighty Shaqs. As unbothered (and scuzzy) as ever, Action Bronson is at least making the music to back it up once more.
Because he’s released a continuous stream of new material over the last three years, Orville Peck made it perhaps too easy to forget that Bronco is officially his sophomore album. Preceded earlier this year by two EPs, Bronco Ch1 and Ch2, the album nonetheless manages to surprise, both in terms of previously unreleased content and, more importantly, in the clarity of Peck’s artistic vision. The album succeeds in largely the same ways as two other pivotal sophomore country albums: The Chicks’ Fly and Miranda Lambert’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. What Peck offers on Bronco is a dead-on assessment of everything that worked well about his debut, 2019’s Pony, and has leaned hard into those strengths while downplaying the elements that detracted, resulting in an album that teems with confidence. In Peck’s specific case, that means doubling down on the artifice of his persona: The unabashedly queer perspective performed in a hyper-masculine aesthetic that’s as much of a type of drag as is his masked-cowboy image.
The title track is an exercise in outsized self-mythologizing and self-aggrandizement, as Peck extols his inability to be contained or broken over a raucous bit of vintage surf-rock laced with pedal steel. “Blush” and “Iris Rose” play with country archetype of looking back on past exploits, set within an aesthetic that draws heavily from the “Outlaw” country era, with a sexual frankness that is both purposeful and self-conscious. A couplet like, “But spare me a thought if you got me hard / I know you had one deep inside,” could have been the setup for an easy joke, but Peck follows it by immediately redirecting back to a familiar trope, proclaiming, “I don’t miss you that much, but baby watchin’ you blush / Well, some of us just, we just gotta ride.” Bronco — and Peck’s entire persona, for that matter — could easily be reduced to an arch piss-take were the artist less skilled. But what songs like “Hexie Mountain” and the gorgeous power ballad “C’mon Baby, Cry” repeatedly illustrate is that Peck’s genre savvy runs deep. And like many of country’s most significant artists — and what he’s doing here is a piece with what the likes of Cash, Parton, Haggard, and yes, The Chicks and Lambert — Peck understands that artifice can be the whole point, so long as that artifice is deployed in ways that are believable and consistent. With Bronco, Peck affirms that he’s fully in on and in control of the joke of being a cowboy crooner in a fringed mask and how that’s just a means to a far greater end.
Let’s Eat Grandma
Let’s Eat Grandma have thus far been most loudly discussed in terms of their youthfulness, the British synth pop duo’s 2016 debut I, Gemini earning them acclaim and scrutiny when Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth were still 16 and 17. Featuring arrangements of songs written even earlier in Walton and Hollingsworth’s adolescence with unfortunate titles like “Eat Shiitake Mushrooms,” I, Gemini prompted as much critical condescension as it did hype, a surprisingly contentious response (or not) that in turn inspired much of their follow up, I’m All Ears. Higher profile and more refined than the first album, Ears enlisted very in-demand electronic producer David Wrench (immediately prior to him working on David Byrne’s American Utopia) and dearly departed SOPHIE to restyle the Let’s Eat Grandma aesthetic, prioritizing bombast and bright pop melodies anchored by arch, knowing songwriting that slyly undermines the skeptics. A satisfying saga so far, there’s good reason to be curious about Let’s Eat Grandma’s third album, Two Ribbons, which reunites Walton, Hollingsworth, and Wrench for a project that opens up some new possibilities for this band and takes steps to put them at a remove from the feedback loop that linked I, Gemini and I’m All Ears.
A confident return if not exactly one likely to endure, Two Ribbons doesn’t over-indulge in the glossy pop extremes of Ears, mostly resigning that material to the front-loaded singles “New Years Day” and “Levitation.” Massive tracks backed by arena-ready synths, these opening numbers don’t really set a tone as much as they serve as entry points into an album that ends up more contemplative and wistful than anything else. As vaguely implied in the title, Two Ribbons is the product of Walton and Hollingsworth finding their friendship tested over the course of their last tour, necessitating that they spend their writing sessions apart and inevitably reflected in lyrical perspective. With credits apparently split evenly between the two artists (most tracks crediting both, making it hard to discern who masterminded which) and the songs sequenced tonally, the schism and resulting division of labor isn’t dramatically obvious. Yet a divide is noticeable, with Two Ribbons’ front half offering a more delirious, brash perspective complemented by electronic dance instrumentals, and the back half contrasting with a selection of singer-songwriter-type ballads and field recording interludes. The gentle, twinkling “Sunday” and Britpop-leaning “Strange Conversations,” both of which come toward the album’s conclusion, offer ruminative diversions for Let’s Eat Grandma that are surely necessary for the group’s growth, but are undoubtedly less thrilling than what they lead in with. Still exemplary of smart pop lyricism even in its more wayward moments, Two Ribbons catches this band in the midst of re-evaluation, not quite yet where they want to be.
In spite of an announcement stating that they were through, Jason Pierce’s Spiritualized returns in 2022 with their ninth studio album, Everything Was Beautiful, bringing back the signature and soaring space-age rock sounds that have been a defining feature across their decades-long project. But while any opportunity to hear new music from the band is welcome, the lingering impression for listeners is likely to be a wish that the group’s further efforts would represent a leap forward in sound.
But let’s step back: As a band, Spiritualized has the particular ability to make the tracks that one would ordinarily find to be nice, albeit rote, sound rather spectacular. There’s the familiar gravity of sonic texture present on Everything Was Beautiful that was on their hit Ladies and Gentlemen…We Are Floating in Space, and indeed, the motifs and imagery deployed across this album are reminiscent of that former record, feeling vaguely nostalgic on a listen according to the clear similarities littered throughout.
Spiritualized has long been famous for using multi-layered instruments, while Pierce himself plays nearly 30 of the suckers on this record, but rather than overwhelm, these layers create a certain sonic drone that weevils into the back of the listener’s mind, once again delivering the driving force behind the particular listenability of the band’s entire catalog. Which more simply put, is to say that there’s an admittedly wild appeal in this established sonic palette, one that has been executed by Spiritualized for nearly 3 decades now. But it’s also in these “strengths” that one finds the double-edged sword: While these sounds are quite pleasing to listen to, it can be said that much of the treaded ground here is not new or much interesting in any sense. Nostalgia invocation often comes at the cost of innovation, something that Spiritualized has always relied on and become known for. Everything Was Beautiful, then, feels like a bit of a disappointment thanks to its reliance on these recycles, failing to push much forward or deliver anything that feels meaningfully new.
But still, if nostalgia can be considered painful or uncomfortable to some, Spiritualized instead decides to revel in it on Everything Was Beautiful. There’s a concrete defiance in this action, choosing the least punk option through which to soak in the past, while still managing to do so with a measure of bravado. Which is to say, for better or(/and) for worse, Spiritualized is the same band they have always been.