Katy Perry’s ‘Never Really Over’ deserves to be prophetic

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Katy Perry’s latest single takes the tastiest morsels of her signature Big Mac pop, rustles up a fresh salad of Scandi influences, and serves up a surprisingly nourishing meal.

As the pop icon’s tentative return to the charts after enduring the bloodthirsty backlash sparked by 2017’s Witness, ‘Never Really Over’ obviously has some commercial boxes to tick. Produced by Zedd and Dreamlab, the verses are standard tropipop and tailor-made for Spotify playlists, as Katy meekly describes a relationship she can’t shake. But then something magical happens…

00:29 Katy starts belting. It sounds like ‘Roar’ but less embarrassing.

00:36 Katy belts the name of the song. This definitely isn’t ‘Roar’. You’re listening to THE NEW KATY PERRY. She flopped hard and now the quality control is on lock!

00:47 Drums slap. Oh God what’s happening.

00:48 JUSTBECAUSEIT’SOVERDOESN’TMEANIT’SREALLYOVERANDIFITHINKITOVERMAYBEYOU’LLBECOMINGOVERAGAINANDI’LLHAVETOGETOVERYOUALLOVERAGAIN

A lot of the song’s beauty can be attributed to its sampling of ‘Love You Like That’ by Norwegian singer Dagny. Katy somehow adds more words to that 2017 blog hit’s tongue-twisting chorus, unleashing a barrage of crisp, stuttering synths and addictive iterations of the word ‘over’ (there are 12 in this part alone).

This momentum is taken to further heights as the song shifts into a sublime middle eight that clobbers you with memories of ‘Teenage Dream’, particularly the potent Americana of its ‘Let you put your hands on me in my skin-tight jeans’ hook. Yeah, Katy went there. 

Crucially, ‘Never Really Over’ comes packaged with a strong media narrative, a weapon Katy has not had in her holster for some time. Do lyrics such as ‘We were such a mess, but wasn’t it the best?’ refer to her once-tumultuous romance with fiancé Orlando Bloom? Or are they a plea to the casual single-buying fans who used to keep her record sales afloat via album-equivalent units?

You’ll have to keep streaming to be 100% sure!

 

Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Dedicated’ is a crisp and chic pop gem

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Stream on Spotify 

Score: 9.0/10

Add to library: Just delete ‘Now That I Found You’

Dedicated is Carly Rae Jepsen’s much-anticipated follow-up to 2015’s Emotion, an album that’s widely agreed among music fans to be the apex of contemporary pop.

That’s a hard act to follow, but as the title suggests, the Canadian maverick again comes committed to calibrating the perfect pop album. 

Say what you like about her, but Carly’s songs are instantly recognisable – or at least they would be if they were played on the radio (‘Call Me Maybe’ aside). Her cult fanbase have come to expect heart-on-sleeve tales of love, told through maximalist synthpop arrangements and petal-soft vocals gilded with a sweet rasp.

On her third effort, however, Carly shakes some of the fizz out of her sound. It’s a notably mellower set of tracks, even if the themes of intimacy and loneliness are no more bittersweet than they’ve always been. 

The bad news is there’s no full-throttle, arms-aloft bops a la ‘Run Away With Me’ tucked away in the tracklist. The good news is Carly is horny, which naturally makes the obsessively insular songwriting far more interesting than the crisp and chic midtempo music that surrounds it.

Lyrically, ‘Everything He Needs’ delights in a young woman’s newfound sexual power. To call it Carly’s smuttiest track to date wouldn’t be saying much. The 33 year-old has long been expressing her sexuality in the kind of girlish aphorisms a high schooler would have scrawled across their journal. This is what Carly excels at, and while her imagery is a touch more eyebrow-raising these days – ‘When he can’t sleep, I understand / Like pressure points, my love can ease him in my hand’ – it is still sung with a wide-eyed amazement that’s startling in its purity.

There’s no shortage of intoxicating subtlety – from lowkey yet melodious cuts like ‘The Sound’ and ‘For Sure’ (listen out for a gorgeous afrobeat outro), to the Parisian nü-disco throb of ‘Julien’. As one of the few uptempo moments of the album, ‘Now That I Found You’ is a crushing disappointment, blindly microwaving the effervescent joy of Emotion into a substance-less mush. Electric Guest collab ‘Feels Right’ is a jaunty, piano-led rocker that’s mildly compromised by an interesting choice of upper register courtesy of Carly.

I admit the standard I’m holding Carly isn’t entirely fair. To her credit, from the immense pressure of delivering another instant classic, she’s managed to forge a handful of diamonds. ‘Happy Not Knowing’ and ‘Real Love’ are snappy and affecting dance numbers, but only ‘Want You In My Room’ truly advances her sound.

Picking up where the herculean 80s pop of Emotion left off, Carly’s perfectly at home amid the track’s big 80s drums and twinkly guitars, but there’s a worldbeat flair to its deeply funky synths that’s new for her. At the song’s heart is an amusing ‘my window is open for you’ motif that’s very much from the Mae West School of Seduction.

It’s no accident that the album’s best track happens to be yet another insight into Carly’s libido. If Dedicated proves anything, it’s that the girl’s getting good at it.

Err, good at writing about it, I mean.

 

Dido: Still On My Mind – ‘Dinner party music with interesting new flavours’

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Stream on Spotify

Score: 7.5/10

Add to library: ‘You Don’t Need A God’, ‘Take You Home’, ‘Friends’

Believe me when I say I did not expect the first 2019 release I would write about to be from bloody Dido.

Still On My Mind isn’t a bad record by any means. It’s actually rather gorgeous. But despite the considerable artistic growth it signals, the singer is forever destined to be an early-noughties punchline.

‘Dido’ is shorthand for the era of British dinner party music. The glossy, post-trip-hop splendour of megahits like ‘Here With Me’ and ‘White Flag’ set the scene for a glut of MOR starlets – from Jem’s wafer-thin folktronica, to Katie Melua pondering over Beijing’s bicycle population, backed by acoustic guitar and (trigger warning) a Chinese bamboo flute.

As a Dido fan, I can admit she excels at precisely two types of songs. There are the vanilla ballads that sent 1999’s No Angel and 2003’s Life for Rent flying off the shelves at Tesco. Then there’s the vanilla house tunes, both solo and with brother Rollo’s dance act Faithless, which in this example are supposed to represent Dido’s adventurous side.

The good news is, for much of her fifth record, Dido commits to a headier, more electronic sound. Don’t get me wrong – what counts as an uptempo on a Dido album is still highly relative. You probably won’t end up pre-seshing to synthy delights like ‘Take You Home’ (with its seductive ‘la la la’ hook) or ‘Mad Love’. We’re still in red-wine-on-the-patio territory here.

What you should appreciate is the confidence Dido and Rollo – together writing and producing the lion’s share of the record – have in this material. ‘Hurricanes’ opens with guitar plucks and a cold wisp of a vocal. So far, so familiar. But it builds in a way that no other Dido track has before, erupting unexpectedly into an intoxicating chillwave climax.

The next track ‘Give You Up’ works well because it does nothing of the sort. It’s the kind of sparse piano ballad Dido diehards will love, complemented by a stunning choir. This time, there’s no payoff, but the fact that I found myself waiting for one at all makes this a good lesson in how to raise (and toy with) a listener’s expectations in the space of two songs.

Musically, there are some nice surprises – from the horn-laden (and just plain horny) experiment ‘Hell After This’, to the Balearic tones bubbling beneath ‘Friends’. Yet the biggest shock of all comes from hearing the gentle, unassuming Dido finally acknowledge her commercial accomplishments: ‘I’ve done a hundred things / You’ve only dreamed’.

No matter how vanilla the songs may objectively be, the staggering success of Dido’s first two albums means her place in the pop history books is guaranteed. For the first time in a long time, Still On My Mind suggests she’s ready to use her platform in an interesting way.

 

Fright Sound Tape: Your Halloween party playlist

My PostMore than any other night of the year, Halloween is your chance to dance like you’re somebody – or something – else.

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Don’t fuck it up! Turn off the lights, fill up your goblet, and whack on this spooky Spotify playlist of 20 holy Halloween classics – 10 old, 10 new.

1. Echo & The Bunnymen – The Killing Moon (1984)

‘Fate up against your will.

Through the thick and thin.

He will wait until

you give yourself to him’

‘The Killing Moon’ is a great post-punk rock record, period. The chorus above unravels with spontaneous grace, every word coming naturally and serving a purpose. Okay, purpose might be too active a word. The song’s presiding feeling is one of resignation – an acceptance of Fate’s master plan.

At the story’s centre is a romance doomed to end in at least one death. But the plot beats are signposted by gothic symbolism that keep things just on the right side of ghoulish fun. A serious piece of music then, but one that evokes the morbidity of the Halloween season as organically as a bloodied butcher knife.

2. Lady Gaga – Bad Romance (2009)

Catchy monster sounds? Yas! Nightmarish storytelling? Yas! Dance routine? Yaaaaass!

3. Michael Jackson – Thriller (1982)

The iconic ‘Thriller’ video opens with a disclaimer that Michael Jacksonin no way endorses a belief in the occult‘. Scoff as we might of the quaintness of the message – perhaps it was necessary. After all, no one in pop culture icon before or since has made the supernatural look more fun.

4. Britney Spears – Freakshow (2007)

Britney has never been afraid to experiment, sprinkling this slut-dropper with menacing dubstep wobbles way back in ‘07.

5. Bobby Boris Pickett – The Monster Mash (1962)

My friends and I sang the entirety of ‘The Monster Mash’ at our school talent show when we were 16 – with absolutely no backing track. That’s how iconic it is.

6. OutKast featuring Kelis – Dracula’s Wedding (2003)

Even when playing vampires sentenced an eternity together, Kelis and André 3000 are a match made in heaven.

7. Grace Jones – I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango) (1981)

Fusing a classic Argentine tango with reggae arrangements, this is a Frankenstein’s Monster of a song. But as usual, it’s Miss Grace Jones – singing with suicidal detachment – who brings the spook.

8. Childish Gambino – Boogieman (2016)

Like much of Donald Glover’s “Awaken, My Love!” LP, ‘Boogieman’ uses horror clichés to allude to racial tension in America: ‘But if he’s scared of me / How can we be free?

9. Cerrone – Supernature (1977)

TL;DR ‘Donna Summer does “The Monster Mash”’.

10. Katy Perry – Dark Horse (2014)

Shielded by walls of trap-for-kidz – before the real thing dominated radio – Katy plays the role of sexy sorcerer with aplomb.

11. Warren Zevon – Werewolves of London (1978)

Sharp imagery – ‘Saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand’ – and a howl-along chorus. What’s not to love?

12. Rihanna – Disturbia (2008)

There is a grim irony in this four-on-the-floor headfuck being co-written by Rihanna’s own Big Bad, Chris Brown.

13. Talking Heads – Psycho Killer (1973)

It’s almost unfair that we associate one music’s finest basslines with David Byrne’s paean to the murderous mind. But on an eerie October evening, the pairing emulsifies splendidly.

14. Peaches – Trick or Treat (2009)

A sleazy synthpop romp – with a lesson Michael Myers and his sexually active prey can agree on: ‘Never go to bed without a piece of raw meat.’

15. Rockwell – Somebody’s Watching Me (1984)

Rockwell owes a debt to Michael Jackson’s generous ‘backing vocals’ (he does the unshakeable hook), but the one-hit-wonder’s own paranoid rants are worth the price of entry alone.

16. Shakira – She Wolf (2009)

The lycanthropic ‘ah-woos’ may be fabulously half-hearted, but the Columbian superstar’s sexual liberation is anything but.

17. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – I Put A Spell On You (1956)

The legendary blues singer claims not to remember recording ‘I Put A Spell On You’. How fitting that he wails like a man possessed.

18. Travis Scott featuring Kendrick Lamar – Goosebumps (2017)

The goosebumps in question are romantic ones, but the horror-movie atmospherics still get under the skin.

19. The Rolling Stones – Sympathy For the Devil (1974)

Going solely by its lively groove, you could almost forget this is a darkly comic celebration of Satan’s role in historical atrocities. A devilish sleight of (red right) hand that makes it perfect for a Halloween party playlist.

20. Kanye West, Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj – Monster (2010)

On a career-defining verse, Nicki swaps alter egos with the ferocity of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. But by the end, the Minaj brand is as recognisable as any Halloween costume.

 

Troye Sivan’s ‘Bloom’ needs a splash of colour

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Stream on Spotify

Score: 7/10

Add to library: ‘My! My! My!’, ‘Bloom’, ‘Plum’, ‘Lucky Strike’

Anyone on the pop blog scene will be au fait with Troye Sivan’s ‘My! My! My!’ – the synthpop spectacular that sounds like Phil Collins sharing drugs with M83 in the bathroom of a Berlin gay club.

Understandably, the poptimist who fell for its whirring groove back in January might have tentative hopes for the Australian singer’s sophomore album to be something on the scale of Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion, an unapologetically sugary listen with enough five-star press clippings to soften its perilous fall from the charts.

But for better or worse, Bloom never again matches the glittery nerve of its big single (or its fabulous, voguing video).  

Then again, Troye was never obliged to stray far from his 2015 debut Blue Neighbourhood. The uncluttered, Lorde-ish stylings that album embraced have since proved popular with the masses, embedded in the kind of slow-burn hits synonymous with the streaming era. 

Troye plays it safe with ten mid-tempos buffed to a lustrous electropop sheen. Ironically, for all its approved-by-committee glory, there are zero single options here. Yet as a collection, Bloom is a rather fetching vehicle for its star, and at a mere 37 minutes, never outstays its welcome.

Queer lyrical themes aside, there’s not much of a spark to slower songs like ‘The Good Side’ and ‘Seventeen’. The former is John Grant-lite, the latter plugs the holes in its melody with a crap ‘oh oh oh’ line. At the same time, they’re both tenderly written snapshots of a young man’s burgeoning sexuality.

The pop-cynic would argue that the short runtime flatters Troye’s limited range, both as a vocalist and an emoter (not least next to a guesting Ariana Grande on the misleadingly titled ‘Dance to This’). Doe-eyed apathy is his brand, and although his flower is certainly in bloom, you might come away hoping for a splash of colour next season.

 

Ariana Grande’s new album is sweet and sour

ariStream on Spotify

Score: 7/10

Add to library: ‘No Tears Left to Cry’, ‘God is a Woman’, ‘Breathin’

Sweetener is Ariana Grande’s fourth album, and it’s a bit soured by its over-reliance on Pharrell William’s dry, faux-funk beats. Considering the two hits pulled from the LP – ‘No Tears Left to Cry’ and ‘God is a Woman’ – are both Max Martin cuts, surely the writing was on that wall that something wasn’t quite working?

If Williams’ productions win critical acclaim, it will be from journalists on a tight schedule. His songs are interesting enough for a minute, but Pharrell soon depletes his sachet of tricks. Not that you’d notice if you’re prone to the skip button and have a glut of albums to review by midnight.

Fortunately, I have time on my hands.

The Nicki Minaj-assisted promo single ‘The Light is Coming’ is admirably mental island-tinged pop, full of white-hot percussion and digital grind – until you realise the irate male vocal sample has been looped without any plan or artistic intention. It’s as if Pharrell built a skeletal first draft in the studio, popped out for a coffee, and never came back.

Ariana keeps her end of the bargain on ‘Successful’, toasting to herself and womankind with slinky cool, but her effort is somewhat undone by cheesy groaning keyboards. ‘Borderline’ harkens back to The Neptunes’ early-00s album fillers, and I now understand Kelis’ decision to cease working with them exclusively in 2003.

To Pharrell’s credit, the Piña Colada-flavoured ‘Blazed’ and the dreamy goodness of ‘R.E.M’ are fully realised successes, and prove Ariana’s collaborative instincts weren’t too off-the-mark.

Electro slowies like ‘Better Off’ and ‘Goodnight and Go’ offer pleasing restraint, but the first single ‘No Tears’ still towers over the album. Max Martin has crafted a daring piece of theatrical dance-pop here, as laden with UK garage as it is with heavenly wails.

This is Ariana’s first project since the terrorist attack at her concert at Manchester Arena last May tragically claimed 23 victims. In choosing the first single, Ariana and her team had to strike a delicate balance – uplifting but not glib, respectful but not in mourning. And they’ve passed with flying colours. It’s just a shame the rest of Sweetener doesn’t always hit the same sweet spot.

 

All Saints’ ‘Testament’ is proof they’re here to stay

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Stream on Spotify

Score: 10/10

Add to library: The whole damn thing

Maybe it was the ten-year gap between albums. Maybe it was the emotional gravitas Nicole Appleton’s tabloid-devoured divorce lent the songs. For whatever reason, 2016’s Red Flag gave All Saints the reboot they deserved. Testament isn’t blessed with a dramatic backstory, making its categorical brilliance all the more impressive.

This is simply All Saints at their creative peak. Unofficial fifth member K-Gee is back as producer, and ‘Pure Shores’/ ‘Black Coffee’ maestro William Orbit brings two tracks. Swirling electronica, 80s soul-pop, and tripped-out garage are among the many genres tested out, but they’re bound by meticulous percussion, a heavy low-end, and impeccable harmonies.

It helps that Shaznay Lewis is one of Britain’s most underrated pop songwriters. Love is the sole theme, and she paints it in all its forms. ‘Love Lasts Forever’ comforts a child nearing adulthood; ‘Three Four’ is a smutty sex romp; and ‘Don’t Look Over Your Shoulder’ escorts a freshly-dumped ex out of the house. 

The women relive their Orbit-helmed glory years on the transcendent ‘After All’. But ‘Testament In Motion’ points to an exciting future for both band and producer, with blissful balladry dissolving seamlessly into hip-winding electroclash.

Isolated from Red Flag’s PR opportunities, Testament makes All Saints’ raw talent impossible to ignore. In 2018, their boundary-pushing Britpop is even more audacious than it was in the 90s. Who among their peers can claim the same?