Collected Works: Music

2017 Roundup


The Collected Works: Music column comprises short introductions to albums and compositions created between 1965 and 2016. This roundup is a summary of all the Collected Works: Music articles published in 2017.

In the dark

Karin Dreijer Andersson’s first release as Fever Ray snares its listeners in a tangle of electronic timbres, dragging us mercilessly into its ‘misty, mossy forest’ of audio. The album’s sonic hallmarks – whistling synths, bare drones, pattering percussion – seem designed to evoke eerie, nocturnal scenes, while the cover art appears to position Andersson as some kind of pagan deity or prophet.

The soundscapes heard on Sunbather, the debut of ‘blackgaze’ band Deafheaven, are just as compelling. ‘Windows’ documents a drug deal, pitting ominous low-register piano notes against traffic noises and the apocalyptic warnings of a nearby preacher. Other tracks are dominated by a swirling cacophony of distorted electric guitar, pummelled bass drum, and screamed vocals. The result teeters somewhere between catharsis and terror.

George Crumb’s classical piece Black Angels is, arguably, heavier still. The composer takes a form historically known for its refined, intimate nature – the string quartet – and tears it apart. Macabre tangos sit alongside digital manipulation and extended instrumental techniques. The work makes dizzyingly difficult demands of its performers, instructing them to recite streams of syllables, play crystal glasses, and bash tam-tams.

Musical soup

In 2017, the Collected Works: Music column included a pair of Krautrock classics – Can’s Ege Bamyasi and Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity – both of which playfully test new musical ideas and mix influences to great effect. Ege Bamyasi stirs together ingredients of rock, the avant-garde, and minimalism with ‘eager experimentation’. The ‘tinkering and tailoring’ of Radio-Activity, meanwhile, helped to pioneer new synthesiser-led textures.

This impulse to integrate multiple genres is also felt keenly in another pair of albums. The Esbjörn Svensson Trio’s Leucocyte upturns jazz conventions, affectionately caricaturing the genre and pulling it in new directions. Lau’s Race the Loser, similarly, deviates from what might be expected of a folk record. Wheezing accordion bellows, irregular time signatures, and complex chord progressions contribute to a fresh take on a centuries-old tradition.

Turning back time

Like Race the Loser, The Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World builds on the music of the past, albeit in a radically different manner. The project, created by James Leyland Kirby, was inspired by meetings with Alzheimer’s patients – specifically, by their responses to tunes from their youth. Dusting off old music-hall vinyls, Kirby added crackles and reverb to the existing songs, refashioning them as melancholic odes to times gone by.

Stephen Sondheim’s stage musical Merrily We Roll Along is also backward-looking; we meet an ageing composer before gradually rewinding twenty years to his youthful self. The songs range from ironic parodies to earnest Broadway belters, while Sondheim’s lyrics are as incisive as ever. With Begin to Hope, Regina Spektor delves into the history books, depicting revolutions – and pondering ‘orcas and owls, cigarettes and cocaine’ – from her seat at the piano stool.

Inimitable voices

While Regina Spektor is well known for her distinctive vocals, with her mid-phrase squeaks and stutters, And She Closed Her Eyes draws its warmth from Stina Nordenstam’s timid delivery, each word of which ‘sounds as if it could shatter’. From the hushed ‘When Debbie’s Back from Texas’ to the elegiac ‘Little Star’, each track barely rises above a whisper.

Hejira is a product of Joni Mitchell’s road trip across the United States, underpinned by the singer-songwriter’s descriptive flair and her ‘delicate, capricious falsetto’. Tracy Chapman showcases expressive depths on her self-titled debut, both as singer and guitarist, every heartfelt word complemented by a ‘furtive, fingerpicked chord’. Highlights include the single ‘Fast Car’ and ‘Behind the Wall’, in which Chapman narrates a tale of a neighbour’s domestic abuse.

Celestial resonance

While Tracy Chapman describes societal injustices at a close proximity, Sun Ra’s Space Is the Place and Janelle Monáe’s The ArchAndroid transport them to more fantastical settings. In the title track of Space Is the Place, chaotic free jazz gives way to joyful, utopian chants of unity. With The ArchAndroid, Monáe reimagines herself as a robot on the run, dispensing pop culture references and adopting countless genres in the name of equality.

With Eye in the Sky, prog rock band The Alan Parsons Project shares this interest in the otherworldly. The lyrics and song titles are steeped in mysticism, while the famed eye of Horus gazes out from the album’s cover art, cast in pale green and shimmering gold. In contrast with this thematic consistency, the music is stylistically varied, complementing its standard guitar, bass, and drum setup with appropriately grand orchestral flourishes.

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