Record #359: David Bowie – Blackstar (2016)

Death has a funny way or altering an artist’s work. Often when a musician dies close to the release of an album, listeners pore over the lyric sheets as if with a magnifying glass, instilling even the most circumstantial phrases with a sense of gravitas the artist didn’t intend. Joy Division’s Closer will forever be heard through the filter of Ian Curtis’ suicide. Johnny Cash’s American V: Hundred Highways will forever feel like a sage elder handing down his last piece of wisdom. 

In the same way, it is impossible to separate Blackstar from Bowie’s death.
 In this case, however, that’s by design. David Bowie knew he was dying. He knew this would be his last album. And it is just as mercurial and forward thinking an album as the man was himself. Nearly fifty years after releasing his debut, it would have been perfectly acceptable to release a sort of retrospective sounding disk, echoing any of his past versions: Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, The Man Who Fell to Earth, or even the blue-suited dancefloor master that dominated the 80s. But Bowie has always been one to sidestep expectations, and releasing a genre-stretching magnum opus two days before his death is the perfect Bowie move.

The sounds on here run the gamut from dark jazz with ominous saxophones and skittering drums to to frenetic rock and roll, coated with the occasional Broadway dramaticism. Girl Loves Me pairs industrial bass thuds with one of the strangest melodies Bowie has ever sung (and the most surreal lyrics–“where the fuck did Monday go?”). I Can’t Give Everything Away waxes melodramatic over an electronic pop beat. There are shades of Berlin’s fierce adventurism and Ziggy’s theatricality, but this is largely new territory for Bowie. And if anyone can use their impending death to usher in a new period of their work, it’s David Bowie.

Record #358: Ali Akbar Khan – Two Ragas for Sarod (1967)

Man, the sixties were weird, right? I’m trying to think through pop music history to find a more left-field cultural obsession than the sudden popularity of Indian raga in the later half of the 1960s, and I’m coming up short (maybe the bubble of whisper-quiet singer-songwriters in the mid 2000s, a-la Iron & Wine and his disciples?).

The ubiquity of raga in the ‘60s is perhaps best demonstrated in the discarded record collection I picked this out of: abandoned in a trunk on the side of the road between Emmylou Harris and Barry Manillow records (there was some Grateful Dead in there too). But you get the picture–everyone was listening to raga. It was so popular that it infiltrated even the most vanilla of record collections (to be fair, they also had a Pharoah Sanders record. I have a feeling it may have actually been a mixture of a parent and child’s collections). 

It’s not unexplainable though–in the (pseudo?) spiritual awakening of the hippie movement, scores of bands were already looking to India for philosophy and musical inspiration. And I’m talking the major players: The Byrds, Rolling Stones, and of course the Beatles, who spent months in India under the tutelage of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Even before the visit, George Harrison (who had a proper revival experience in India) added Indian flavors to his work without much diluting (see: “Within You Without You”). So naturally, in the same way that I started listening to Sunny Day Real Estate because all of my favorite bands cited them as an influence, many music fans in the 1960s went right to the source.

And to unaccustomed Western ears, the source can be a little strong. This album features two instrumental pieces, each an entire side in length, performed only on sarod (an instrument I just heard about today—it’s like a small sitar) and the tamla (Indian hand percussion). Both start out slowly and quietly in meditative drones, building and accelerating through their runtimes to almost manic conclusions (pity that tamla players hands). The later sections are writhe with rhythm changes and shifting strong beats, slowly building in tempo until you’re not sure there’s anywhere left to build to. And when it reaches a breaking point, it crashes to conclusion, leaving nothing but a few seconds of the drone strings ringing out. The album is both contemplative and exciting, but if I’m going to listen to it more regularly, I’m going to need a lot more incense.

Record #357: Comrades – Safekeeper (2014)

Didn’t I tell you I’d pick this up? Like this year’s Lone/Grey, Safekeeper, the previous album by post-hardcore trio (and super cool folks, even if I had to miss their set at Take Hold Fest last weekend, which made me very sad), gets its strength from its brilliant melding of melodic ambience and brutal metal bursts.
However, compared to their newest effort, Safekeeper spends more of its time on the more post-rock side of the spectrum. Much of the album is instrumental, carried by Joe McElroy’s delicious, delay-heavy guitar riffs.

The vocals that are here are split between bassist Laura McElroy (wife, not sister)’s soft alto and drummer Ben Trussell’s hardcore scream, and they spend their time meditating on spiritual quandaries (i.e., “there’s a map inside my heart to a place I’ve never known”; ”We are wanderers, wanderers all”; ”Hallelu, we don’t know who to sing to”). The lyrics are profound enough in their simplicity that they still weigh heavily through the instrumental passages, leaving the listener to feel their gravity. It’s an effective method, and one that makes Safekeeper a great release.

Record #356: David Bazan – Curse Your Branches (2009)

David Bazan has always made sad music. He cut his teeth as Pedro the Lion, the Christian slowcore band that made a name for themselves by being the sort of band that wasn’t afraid to confront the brutal honesty of their doubt or use harsh language in the Tooth and Nail crowd (though never while signed to T&N). But within that scene, his droopy eyed cynicism was always cut with a hint of redemption, knowing that, despite everything, God was still (at least mostly) good. Even on Control, Pedro the Lion’s most despondent release, there was solace in knowing that the godless main character was fictional.
Curse Your Branches, however, is David Bazan’s first full length released after publicly recanting his faith. Predictably, his already depressing brand of doubtful and self-deprecating lyricism is even more cutting when divorced from trust in God. On about half of the tracks, the weight is only lifted by pairing his words with upbeat pop songs. For instance, “When We Fell,” which asks God, “when you set the table and when you set the scale / did you write a riddle that you knew they would fail,” sung over a major keyed rock riff. The music can be a little disarming, until you listen to the lyrics a little more closely and have your heart drop out of your chest. 

The downtempo tracks are far less deceptive, but despite their minor keyed signifiers, they still catch you off guard. “Hard to Be” most directly refers to the aftermath of his fallout with God, challenging his Creator on putting us in that garden in the first place and mourning the divide between his family and himself that his doubt (or rather their continued faithfulness) has caused. “Lost My Shape” is a pointed fall-from-grace tale that is directed at no one in particular, but with lines like “you used to feel like the forest fire burning, but now you feel like a child throwing tantrums for your turn,” it’s hard to read it as a little autobiographical. After all, between disappointing his family (“Hard to Be,” “When We Fell”), failing his daughter (“Bless This Mess,” “Please Baby Please,” “In Stitches”), and heaping suspicion and anger on God (the whole album), he has pretty hard feelings toward himself. And with that in mind, while it is a deftly crafted and honestly written album, it is not one to be entered into lightly.

​One sidenote: I saw David Bazan play a house show shortly after his wife gave birth to their second child at home. He played Hard to Be, and after singing, “childbirth is painful,” shook his head and whispered “oh shit” before continuing to the next line.