Let us once again take a flutter on the musical markets. Which albums are streaking ahead towards the finish line, leaving their rivals in their tuneful wake? Which are eating contraband pie on the sidelines beneath the dangling dagger of Damocles? Let's roll the dice...
Let's begin with Under Stars, the latest album by Scottish songstress Amy MacDonald. I must confess to being enamoured with MacDonald's first album, This Is The Life. Following closely on the path laid by artists such as KT Tunstall and Nerina Pallot, I felt MacDonald leaned into the demand for women playing upbeat songs that bridged the gap between folk and rock. Saying this, I felt a greater connection with her music – a lot of her songs focussing on the exuberance of youth and me being 22 at the time. Since then, I have attempted to engage with her other records with no great success. Under Stars is MacDonald's fourth studio album.
Unfortunately, my experience with this dose of Amy was no more successful than previous dabbles. I can't help but feel as if MacDonald has run out of things to say. The reckless abandon of hedonistic anthem This Is The Life and the carpe diem embracing Run have now been replaced by mediocre songs about achieving your potential in Dream On and Under Stars. Gone are the knees-up nostalgia of Barrowland Ballroom and the satirical spite of Footballer's Wife. Instead, we are treated to meek calls to action, half-hearted jibes at the double-edged sword of fame and a general feeling of lethargy. Where has the Amy gone who once asked us to 'put a ribbon round my neck and call me a libertine' in Let's Start A Band?
Under Stars is uplifting enough but then again, so is a Berocca (other chalky vitamin tablets are available). Both also give you the same bitter, artificial aftertaste. What I liked most about Amy MacDonald was her edge and it seems as though something has sanded her smooth. At one point, I thought of her as an equally-talented, more clean living female Pete Doherty (the subject, in fact, of her debut single Poison Prince). Her lyrics were cleverer, her voice didn't feel over-produced and there was a grimy glimpse of Glasgow that ran through her work which made for delicious contrast. It's a shame that the overcast, twinkling streets that used to inspire the work of a younger incarnation of MacDonald have seemingly now been replaced by the well-worn trudge between record studio and bank counter.
Next, let's take a journey into the remarkable brain of Jens Lekman, a Swedish musician who use to record under the name of Rocky Dennis – a reference to Mask, one of my all-time favourite films and one of the rare opportunities to appreciate the work of Cher. Anyhow, tangent completed, Lekman's album Life Will See You Now is his fourth studio album.
Musically playful and experimental, Lekman is a storyteller first and foremost. Each song has a thread to follow and the road is often littered with surprises and quirks. Our First Fight holds a simple, beautiful truth that any couple will be able to relate to. Wedding In Finistère contains my favourite lyrics of the year so far when it describes the uncertainty of getting married as 'Like a five-year-old watching the ten-year-olds shoplifting//Ten-year-old watching the fifteen-year-olds French kissing//Fifteen-year-old watching the twenty-year-olds chain-smoking//Twenty-year-old watching the thirty-year-olds vanishing'. How We Met, The Long Version goes back to the dawn of the universe to discuss the nature of fate. On a more serious note, Evening Prayer addresses the reality of the things in life that we fear and how our own fear is sometimes dictated by the fear of others around us. It is a very powerful song.
It was hard for me with Life Will See You Now not to continually refer back to the work of film director Michel Gondry, in particular his lesser-known 2006 movie The Science Of Sleep. In that particular piece, there is a distinct blurring of the lines between dreaming and waking with often surreal and exaggerated consequences. Lekman's work mirrors this – his stories dip seamlessly in and out of reality, always leaving the listener a breadcrumb trail. This creates an irresistible charm – lifelike tales viewed through a kaleidoscopic, almost childlike imagination.
We'll finish with After A Time, the fifth studio album by Australian artist Holly Throsby.
The first half of the album is an evocation of perpetual motion. Opening track Aeroplane channels a sound very reminiscent of Martha Wainwright to sing of adventure and the itchy feet of total freedom. Going To The Sea continues this theme as it takes us on a jaunt to the beach where birds twist and tumble on the liberating breeze and boats drift on an ocean of endless possibilities. Evening Stroll leads us through a shady grove in the company of fireflies, wrapped in a blanket of dreams. Just as the track's subject does, the listener is invited to bask in the song's tranquil power and lose themselves in reflection. What Do You Say?, a tender back and forth duet featuring Sun Kil Moon's Mark Kozelek serves as a beautiful interlude before the second act begins.
If the album's first part is about escapades then the second sets up stall far closer to home. It is the last day of your travels when you just can't wait to entrench yourself once more in familiarity. Find Your Way Home revisits the earlier beach analogy, accompanies it with a lazy guitar and reassures us that to want to be free is admirable but to want to belong is also understandable. Be You Lost wraps a musical blanket of comfort around us and protects us from the wild world outside.
Throsby has not so much created an album as she has a 37 minute space for contemplation. Her voice blows as a zephyr through the tracks, tone rather than lyrics taking centre stage. The real instrument is your own mind. Take your troubles, your worries and your frustrations and set them to Holly's soundtrack. Allow the peaceful calm to dampen their edges and emerge feeling more at one with yourself. Trust me, it can be quite a cathartic experience.
Then again, I might be wrong. I am a Musical Moron, after all...
Amy pays the bills
Holly's album of two halves
Lekman spins his yarns
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