Harry Styles evokes indie-pop ecstasy on ‘Lights Up’

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Psychedelic gloss and a midway U-turn towards gospel make this a pleasingly soulful return.

Harry Styles is very good at writing songs about nothing. That skill has been a liability in the past – see laughably hollow solo debut ‘Sign of the Times’ – yet new single ‘Lights Up’ somehow makes sense of his flair for nebulous lyrical imagery. 

Presumably the first offering from the singer’s upcoming sophomore album, the song emulates the hushed ecstasy of indie-pop heavyweights like Miguel or Tame Impala, with a midway U-turn towards gospel and a psychedelic finish. 

Musings on knowing ‘who you are’ and shining ‘so bright sometimes’ land with all the sagacity of that guy who brings his acoustic guitar to every house party doing shrooms for the first time. Thankfully, the lush milieu and stacked harmonies add a soulfulness that would otherwise be missing. For three magical minutes, Harry Styles sounds like he’s got something to say. 

Watch Harry brush skin with some sweaty people (yes, woman AND men) in the ‘Lights Up’ video below:

Katy Perry burns rubber on new single ‘Harleys In Hawaii’

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Are those the macho revs of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle you hear? Or the enthused purrs of KatyCats the world over? 

‘Harleys In Hawaii’, the latest single from Katy Perry’s yet-to-be-announced fifth studio album, promises both. 

Produced by Charlie Puth and Johann Carlsson, it’s a tantalising midtempo built on guitar plucks and woozy synths. Giving her sexiest performance in years, Katy invites her lover – who may or may not hold a Hells Angels membership card – to join her on a tropical escapade. According to the fanciful lyrics, she apparently makes this suggestion on a rather humdrum Sunday, because that’s what being a millionaire is like. 

‘Harleys’ bridges the optimism of summer with the cool resistance of autumn, lying somewhere between Lana Del Rey’s ‘Doin’ Time’ and Camila Cabello’s ‘Havana’. Like the latter’s now-iconic ‘Havana-na-na-na’ hook, the titular island state is immortalised with its own equivalent: a breathy ‘Hawaii-aii-aii’. At least it should be a hit somewhere. 

Watch Katy burn rubber in the ‘Harleys In Hawaii’ video below:

 

Charli XCX’s outstanding new album is business as unusual

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Stream on Spotify

Score: 9.0/10

Add to library: Pretty much everything hun

Featuring collaborations with Christine and the Queens, Troye Sivan, Lizzo, HAIM, and Sky Ferreira.

Booking festival stages and Taylor Swift support slots might be a breeze with a couple of transatlantic smashes in your back pocket. But Charli XCX is a popstar who evolves so quickly, and challenges her creative limits so regularly, that her most accessible work – think the punchy, shout-along hooks of ‘I Love It’ or ‘Boom Clap’ – is simply trite compared to her post-2014 pivot to PC Music’s hyper-futuristic robo-pop.

The conflict between these two opposing creative avenues has defined the last four years of Charli’s career: an agonising yet fruitful chapter of label interference, one scrapped third album, two critically-acclaimed mixtapes and an EP, plus an endless stream of singles.

After seven attempts at landing a hit, one of those singles, the Troye Sivan duet ‘1999’, miraculously climbed to #13 in the UK charts last year. Songs like that fluffy bit of Y2K-nostalgia porn aren’t what make long-gestating third album Charli a triumph. If you look at the popstar’s recent body of work as a hedonistic, orgy-fuelled beach resort – housed within an alien dimension where it rains champagne and snows cocaine – ‘1999’ conveys as much of that fun as an official website. But it’s probably the reason Charli has been released at all.

Because here’s the genius of Charli XCX. So deeply ingrained is her pop know-how that, alongside years of reckless experimentation, she has continued to write enough chart hits – for herself and others, see: song of the summer ‘Señorita’ by Shawn Mendes & Camila Cabello – and rack up enough industry goodwill to sneak the abstruse synth gimmickry of hipster darlings A.G. Cook, SOPHIE and Danny L Harle into the mainstream.

Take ‘Click’, for example. As soon as the aforementioned single’s gentrified house-pop makes its tidy exit, a protracted blast of feverish synth confirms we’re in business-as-unusual mode. Co-starring Kim Petras and eccentric Estonian rapper Tommy Cash, it’s a godless hymn honouring the whips, the gold, and the instant gratification that comes with being a rockstar: ‘Get what I want like “click” / They want a pic like “click”’. The cocky rhymes are propped up by simple, evocative percussion – until Cash starts rapping about Sudoku and hashtags, and the production becomes openly hostile around him. The final 30 seconds is a collection of twisted, nightmarish sounds typically associated with demonic possession, seemingly added for no other reason than for the amusement of scaring the shit out of any Taylor Swift fans picked up from the Reputation Tour. Bewildering moments like these are what make Charli a triumph.

Thankfully, there are plenty of them. The belligerent ‘Cross You Out’ slow-dances to 80s-prom drums and extraterrestrial rumblings. On ‘2099’, Charli backs up her self-anointed avant-garde status with high-tech, and highly-textured, production. Best of the lot is the Missy Elliot-recalling ‘Shake It’ – a four-way battle royale between Big Freedia, CupcakKe, Brooke Candy, and Pabllo Vittar. Charli plays the part of referee, regularly stepping into the ring to remind you to shake it. Each of these iterations comes flavoured in a new vocal effect, with the singer mutating into everything from a malfunctioning android to sentient liquid.

Whatever creative lane Charli XCX has navigated over the years, she has never stopped writing inherently catchy hooks. Charli is a world where aggressive futurism coexists with comparatively meek but charming single options like ‘White Mercedes’ and ‘Official’. That alone makes it one of the most important pop records of the 2010s, and – if I may be so bold – the next decade to come.

 

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 beautifully 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.