Initially, I thought I’d drawn the short straw. What does a man shortly to enter his sixth decade, whose musical touchstones are David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Richard Thompson, Marvin Gaye, Laura Nyro, Sandy Denny, etc etc, have to say for himself when it comes to music in the current decade? What do we even *call* the current decade?
Two things became evident as soon as I started thinking about this: firstly, that I have *far* less disposable income now than I did before becoming a parent in 2005; second (and related): that my consumption of music these days is strongly shaped by my chosen method of acquiring it. I was a relatively early adopter of EMusic, and am still on a tariff which became obsolete for new subscribers many years ago: for $US10 per month, I get 40 tracks. Forty! There have been times when I’ve struggled to fill my allotment; now there is too much music I want to get – I have a waiting list. Emusic has a vast and varied catalogue, none of it from major labels. It’s something of a lottery what is and is not available. But by and large, excepting a shrinking number of artists whose latest works I will always want and will buy on CD if it’s not on Emusic, it’s what’s available on that 40 track plan that I listen to most.
As it happens, this is something of a Golden Age for me in this regard: five of the best records (yes, I know, and yes, that is what I still call them) of the last year have all found their way on to my smartphone and into my heart through the good offices of Emusic, who are not paying me to shill for them, and whom I will try to stop mentioning from here on in.
Let me start with what is certainly the least well known of the five: Robber Bride by Julia Gray. Julia has been writing exceptionally good songs since she was a teenaged A Level student playing the Kashmir Klub some fifteen years ago, before forming Second Person and achieving some cult success. Her song constructions are sophisticated without being at all ostentatious, the arrangements simple and mercifully uncluttered; her melodies are warm and sinuous, supported by her supple piano playing; and her voice is small, sure and intimate. And then there are her lyrics, which aim for and reach places that far too few writers even think of attempting. Her first solo album, I Am Not the Night, takes in Greek mythology, classic films, modern literature and obscure Morphine songs, alongside tales of love and loss and jealousy that are more familiar colours on the songwriter’s palette.
Robber Bride is her second album, and all its songs are based on literary themes – not that you need to know that. An attentive listener might work out that You Were No Good is about We Need to Talk about Kevin, but the song is strong and unsettling enough to survive on its own merits. Conversely, I have no idea what the inspiration for Home Is Where the Heart Is is, but it couldn’t matter less. The duet with Vin Goodwin weaves a dark and dangerous web, leaving the listener to impute their own meaning. The closer, a musical setting of John Donne’s sonnet Death Be Not Proud, is an object lesson in stillness and restraint, featuring a vocal so perfectly suited to the song that it is impossible to imagine anyone singing it better.
Musically and sonically timeless, Robber Bride could have been made any time in the last 30 or 40 years. This is certainly not true of Kate Tempest’s Everybody Down, which needs no introduction from me, as you probably knew about her long before I did. Everything about this brilliant record shouts “NOW!”, to the extent that it might well sound dated in ten years. But frankly, who cares when the ride is so exhilarating? Such is Kate’s facility with words that I was riveted from the first verse of Marshall Law, and followed the story, rapt, through to its denouement in Happy End. Story? Oh yes: this, dear reader, is basically a Concept Album, albeit one that might sound alien to lovers of Camel and Genesis, what with its Sarf London accent (which has been lambasted by a number of people, some of whom I can’t help feeling are Missing The Point), juddering rhythms and tales of drug-dealing chancers.
If Kate sounds very Now, Bjork continues to sound eerily Tomorrow. There are very, very few artists whose music seems quite as future-proof as Bjork. There is some alchemy at work which is beyond my power to delineate fully; what I can say is that she continues to combine cutting-edge technology (she has a rare ability to make machines live and breathe) with timelessly formal orchestral and choral arrangements, a trick she mastered on Vespertine, and which she may have refined even further on the new album, Vulnicura. The songs are long and overwhelmingly emotional. The string parts on Family are as riveting as anything I’ve heard this year.
There is more than one way to do “timeless”, of course. There are no painstakingly constructed microbeats on Mount the Air, which is increasingly sounding like the Unthanks’ magnum opus – so far at least. While still rooted in folk, they have gradually enlarged their range, to the point where I feel the need to coin some unwieldy portmanteau term like chamber-folk-jazz. They are writing more of their own material, which is giving their music an ever more personal skin, while Adrian McNally’s warm and exquisite arrangements mean they could just as likely pop up on Radio 3 as Radio 2.
Perhaps the most welcome development to these ears is that I have finally learned to love Becky Unthank’s voice. Rachel’s is and has always been immediately engaging: a crisp, pure voice of bell-like clarity. Becky’s is more of a harmonium, an airy, complex instrument which one reviewer memorably described as “singing chords”. Their sororal harmonies were always sublime, but I wanted Rachel to sing all the leads. Now, either Becky has changed or I have; she’s more in the spotlight than ever, and sounds beautiful, as showcased on the mesmerising title song which opens the album. The Unthanks seem pretty much unstoppable as they sweep into their second decade.
Also making the best music of a superb career in its second decade is Gemma Hayes, whose debut album appeared a couple of years before the Unthanks’. Her fifth, Bones and Longing, maintains the stratospheric standards she set with Night on My Side and has maintained ever since. On this record some of the songs are so stripped-back and spectral that they seem to defy the laws of how much you can take away from a song and still leave something compelling that makes you lean in. Palomino is a hypnotic, almost nursery-rhyme-like tune with a lyric that effortlessly achieves profundity without seeming to try. To Be Your Honey finds Gemma’s voice at its most adorably alluring. Why she’s not better known continues to baffle me.
In the light of all this fulsome praise, you might imagine that I am loving music in the 2010s, and that all is hunky dory. Well, not exactly. As in every decade, there’s a whole ocean of music that is terrible, or – worse – mediocre, on which is floating, sometimes precariously, the music we love. This has always been so; specific current gripes would be:
- The surfeit of droney singer songwriters with scarcely an interesting idea between them, a select cohort of whom are selected, possibly at random, to be granted excessive coverage, record-of-the-week baubles and glowing praise, which is then recycled (like their songs have been) for the next lot. Tom Odell; Laura Doggett; Ben Ezra. What are these people actually *for*?
- Formulaic writing by teams of replicants. It’s easy to moan about songs written to a formula, another longstanding gripe. What seems to be happening increasingly now is songs that sound as if they are *literally* written to a specific template: certain chord changes recur; melodic tics that make one tune an anagram of another; a few increasingly hackneyed lyrical tropes. It’s the death of creativity (except in an extremely narrow sense), and it’s deplorable.
- The rise of the Ducks. I realise that the email announcing that male singers must now quack instead of singing must have gone straight to my spam folder, but that doesn’t mean I’m not entitled to complain about it. Sam Smith, John Newman and the hilariously misnamed Maverick Sabre are the three most prominent offenders, but there are plenty more where they came from. That silly old snark about “music for people who don’t like music” has hopefully been retired (along with the egregious “guilty pleasure” nonsense), but regrettably our ears are now being assailed by Singing For People Who Don’t Like The Sound Of The Human Voice. No good can come of it.
So, yes, in summary, there’s plenty to grouse about and plenty of good music if one knows where to find it. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.