Time once more to assess the political landscape of new album releases. Which albums are entering into an informal coalition with anti-abortion, climate change-denying homophobes? Which are vindicated in the dignity of a magnanimous defeat, looking forward to a portentous horizon? Let's find out...
We'll start with undoubtedly the biggest release of the week – Katy Perry's Witness. As I have mentioned in the past, I class Perry's 2010 album Teenage Dream as the stand out album by a solo female pop star in the 21st century. It has a visceral quality combined with intelligent song writing and Perry firmly sitting in the upbeat melodia with which she seems the most at ease. I was less impressed by follow-up album Prism. Now after four years away, Perry returns with her fourth studio album (fifth if you include her wildly unsuccessful debut under quickly-dismissed original surname Hudson).
The album opens with title track Witness, a subtext-free, never gets going ode to... yes, you've guessed it... the perils of fame. Deja Vu contains the bold assertion that Perry's lover's “words are like Chinese water torture”. Perhaps we could Bill and Ted someone from the 16th century and see if they can validate the comparison. There is a delightful irony releasing a song that takes absolutely no chances whatsoever and naming it Roulette. Swish Swish could easily be the worst song I've heard all year. The extended basketball metaphor might just be saved that fate due to the lifebuoy tossed towards the end by the inimitable charm and precision of Nicki Minaj. Even the injection of the exceptionally talented Sia on Hey Hey Hey and Chained To The Rhythm can't drag this album above the level of mediocrity – another reasonable indication that the Antipodean has a honed qualityometer for what songs can readily be passed on.
There is a grandiosity to the backdrops that Perry chooses, though it ultimately serves as her downfall as it feels like she can never quite keep up, constantly struggling to wrestle attention back from her own music. The use of vocal effects is, at best, distracting – at worst, it creates an insurmountable barrier between Perry and her audience. Lyrically, the album has the depth of the shallow end of a swimming pool for Smurfs – the diminutive creatures to whom Perry sold her soul straight after wowing me so spectacularly in 2010. I think, all in all, it may be time for me to accept that the honest, gut-following, unassuming architect of Teenage Dream is a character that no longer exists – perhaps even time to concede that an album with which I was so impressed will forever sit as an anomalous island in a raging sea of indifference.
We're also going to take a look at Planetarium, a collaborative album between Bryce Dessner of The National fame, drummer James McAllister, composer and arranger Nico Muhly and Sufjan Stevens. It is the latter that really attracted my attention to this record. Stevens, an artist who I have admired since I first heard his album Seven Swans at university, is no stranger to a good concept album having released previous works centred on the Chinese zodiac and the Brooklyn-Queens expressway. For an artist that once announced his intention to write an album for each state within the USA before seemingly stopping at two, it appears his focus has now shifted to an interplanetary level. Like Gustav Holst before them, the quartet's album attributes each of their tracks to a celestial body and the result is nothing short of remarkable.
What originally started as a 2012 live endeavour begins in its album form with the track Neptune, a sweeping landscape pierced by piano that reflects the cold distance of its subject. Halley's Comet flashes past in 30 dazzling seconds of brilliance or anticlimax, depending on your perspective, before segueing into Venus, a track packed with amorous imagery that owes less to the planet and more to the goddess for which it is named. Lead single Saturn is imbued with a dance bassline on a fast-paced, dark-rooted track that unearths the origins of the God and his cannibalistic tendencies. The most memorable track, somewhat fittingly, is the epic Earth which uses ethereal tones combined with synthesised vocal effects to represent the dichotomy between Stevens' Christian beliefs and the technology-centric present and future that humans have created for themselves.
Though, as Gustav Holst may claim were he still with us, the idea is not entirely original, the execution is spectacular. The fusion of the classical elements brought by Muhly and the song structure of the rest of the group is seamless, creating a listening palette that is vibrant, complex, intricate and unlike anything you will hear elsewhere. The interludes flash like shooting stars across your consciousness, the true beauty being that these astronomical events can be rewatched to your heart's content. It may not be everyone's vessel of hot beverage but if you are seeking an album that is unique and thought-provoking then Planetarium might just be it.
Then again, I might be wrong. I am a Musical Moron, after all...
Heavenly Sufjan et al
Take us into space
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