Miley Cyrus’ new single is a brutal tale of romantic incompatibility

mc sa.jpg‘Slide Away’ by Miley Cyrus isn’t just a dignified response to a tumultuous year. It’s also an instant classic. 

A campfire ballad drunk on late-90s electronica, the new single is patched together using assorted threads of inspiration that unspool with every listen.

‘Bittersweet Symphony’ is an obvious one, while the delicate string-laden outro mirrors the denouement to Madonna’s ‘Don’t Tell Me’, layered with bubbles of altered background vocals by way of Moby. The song’s title is utilised as a clipped and effective hook á la ‘Wide Awake’ by Katy Perry.

Unexpectedly, producers Andrew Wyatt and Mike Will Made It evolve these melancholic elements into an R&B-slanted ambience that feels bracing and comfortingly familiar all at once. Were there no words, you could almost call it an uplifting piece of music. 

But there are words. Very sad words. 

Addressing her fresh split from teenage sweetheart Liam Hemsworth after nine months of marriage, Miley isn’t angry anymore – just impatient. ‘Move on, we’re not 17,’ she instructs with characteristic grit. ‘You say that everything’s changed / You’re right, we’re grown now’

The song plays like a comprehensive checklist of a couple’s incompatibilities. Drinking. Drugs. Malibu mansions destroyed by fire. It’s a very mature genre of emotion, told – with brutal honesty – from a slightly immature perspective.

 

Normani’s ‘Motivation’ is an Ariana leftover served piping hot

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Take a look at me now,’ dares Normani throughout her debut solo single – as if a mere mortal could do anything other than stare, mouth agape, at the dawning of a superstar. 

The hip-popping, face-humping, leg-splitting visual for ‘Motivation’ is a choreographile’s dream come true, as the former-Fifth Harmonizer channels the sexy, athletic performances of Y2K R&B icons like Aaliyah and Beyoncé. Yet the horn-laden thumper itself was almost certainly rescued from Ariana Grande’s recycle bin circa 2018.  

Is that a bad thing? Almost certainly not. Written by Ms. Grande and a team of reliable hitmakers, ‘Motivation’ is every bit as strident and danceable as ‘Bloodline’ and ‘Bad Idea’ – two capital-P pop numbers from thank u, next that Ariana couldn’t be arsed to give the single treatment. In fronting an 8/10 bop that otherwise would have gathered dust in a vault, Normani is doing what us overdramatic gays call ‘the Lord’s work’.

‘Motivation’ may be a leftover, but using her luscious tones and jaw-dropping dance moves, Normani serves it piping hot. Popstars have built careers on a lot less. 

 

‘How Do You Sleep?’ and the burgeoning queerness of Sam Smith

sam smithBritain’s premiere genderqueer balladeer dials up the diva for his latest melodic electro-R&B jam. And it’s about time. 

Despite shooting to stardom in 2013 with one of the best dance tunes of the decade – the Disclosure collaboration ‘Latch’ – Sam Smith has never been a terribly interesting artist. 

His repertoire of weepy ballads and breakbeat-inflected toe-tappers has seemingly been developed with the specific intention of bringing a sophisticated ambience to department stores the world over, leaving little room for the openly gay singer’s own burgeoning flamboyance. 

Then came that performance at the Brits this February.

Joining Calvin Harris for his much-hyped medley of hits, Sam let his Pride flag fly in front of four million viewers – including yours truly. The person who showed up to belt out ‘Promises’ wasn’t the coiffed, earnest tenor I was used to. Here was a femme, Lambrini-drunk popstar ready to pose hand on hip, flick his non-existent weave, and just generally let us have it. As a fellow 27-year-old queer person, I felt unexpectedly represented.

A month later, in a bold and laudable move, Sam came out as non-binary

The real Sam Smith

On a musical level, new single ‘How Do You Sleep?’ doesn’t channel the sultry house throb of ‘Promises’. Instead Sam continues down the melodic electro-R&B route he explored on previous single ‘Dancing With A Stranger’, a duet with US singer Normani. But where that single’s presentation was stately and somewhat heteronormative, his latest video doubles down on the unfiltered extraness first glimpsed upon that Brits stage.

The first thing we see is Sam slouched on a chair at what appears to be an uninspired (read: heterosexual) video shoot. He appears depressed and despondent, and yeah, I would too if I were dressed like Homer Simpson. But not to worry! Help arrives in the form of a hunky studio assistant! Sammy the Jammy Bastard is then hauled across the studio, wrapped in the guns of a god (did I mention this man is a zaddy?).

In the next setup, Sam is decked out in a normcore mesh shirt and determined to keep up with his tight troupe of voguers, and is clearly in his element. Could this sequence be a metaphor for how Sam had to drag himself out of his Mother’s Day aisle comfort zone in order to be his authentic (read: fabulous) self? I’d bet money on it. I mean, if he wasn’t attracted to men before being swept up by that assistant…

The question is, does this particular song warrant such fripperies? Not really. Thematically, it’s a strong and refreshingly compassionate reckoning with a deceitful, possibly adulterous lover. But these lyrical pearls are strung together on a standard algorithm-pop structure. The emotional bandwidth that was so hard-earned is somewhat undermined by an inevitable squawking beat drop.

Perhaps that’s the canny sleight-of-hand Sam and his team have pulled off with this release. ‘How Do You Sleep?’ is safe enough musically to keep him afloat in the streaming game – but G.A.Y enough visually to ease the public into an enticing new era. If single #3 manages to sound like – and not just look like – a homosexual bop for the ages, one that gets played everywhere from supermarkets to circuit parties, then Sam can sleep easy knowing he’s well on his way to becoming a future queer icon.

Mark Ronson’s ‘Late Night Feelings’ is a mascara-smeared masterpiece

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Stream on Spotify

Score: 9.0/10

Add to library: ‘Late Night Feelings’, ‘Find U Again’, ‘Truth’, ‘Nothing Breaks Like A Heart’

Mark Ronson’s fifth album is an emotional knockout, buoyed by a stellar all-female line-up including Lykke Li, Camila Cabello, Alicia Keys, and YEBBA.

In this post-meme culture we live in, the threat of ‘catching feelings’ will provoke a near-ironic response from the nearest millennial and Gen Z listener. It is a response wrought with gory fears of rejection and heartbreak. If Drake’s ‘In My Feelings’ is to be believed, feels are a free pass to be uncompromisingly needy; if you ever receive a ‘Kiki, do you love me?kinda late-night voicemail, anyone with a fuckboi allergy would be wise to delete it.

Late Night Feelings basks in these connotations of messy melodrama, perhaps because Ronson acknowledges the resplendent beauty in watching yourself cry in the mirror. Don’t act like you don’t do it. 

As its cover art plainly reveals, this is a concept album about heartbreak. There are moments of camp – the 70s disco-infused title track basically stomps around swigging a glass of wine with mascara running down its face – but for the most part, Ronson’s MO is giving his contributors room to air their dirty emotional laundry, and the producer’s faith is rewarded with 13 nuanced takes on an age-old subject.

Camila Cabello dazzles on the minor-key tech house number ‘Find U Again’. The lovelorn damsel role she’s given to play is nothing new, but the popstar’s razory gargle and a helpful nod to mental health (‘I do therapy at least twice a week’) add shades of spunk to her unlucky-in-love character. 

The themes are consistent throughout, but Ronson’s productions span a pleasing array of genres – from country-dance hybrids (Miley Cyrus vehicle ‘Nothing Breaks Like A Heart’), to prog-folk (‘True Blue’, featuring Angel Olsen), to unremarkable tropipop (‘Don’t Leave Me Lonely’, the best of a triptych of tracks from rising star YEBBA.)

Only ‘Truth’ looks at heartbreak from an outwardly perspective. Alicia Keys and Portland rapper The Last Artful, Dodgr use their time in the studio to express their political discontent in Trump’s America, and share their top tips for staying sane in a society that’s becoming increasingly numb to injustice: ‘Keep on educatin’, meditatin’, anything to keep me up’. 

The track’s phat industrial hip-hop stomp and lyrical grit sounds more like something from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly than anything else here. The contrast is an absolute tonic in the context of the record. The crumbling democracy of a global superpower, the ramifications of which might just eviscerate civilisation as we know it, highlights the relative frivolity of our own personal, low-stake melodramas.

If Ronson likes to watch himself cry in the mirror, then he knows it’s always better when a fragment of your conscience, however tiny, knows the reason won’t really matter in the long run. Hearts heal. Eyes dry. Confront your reflection, top up your mascara, hit the town, and catch some late night feelings. 

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.