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

LNF.jpg

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!

 

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

dido

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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.

 

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

testament

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?

 

Years & Years refuse to obscure queerness on ‘Palo Santo’

Palo-Santo-artwork.pngStream on Spotify

Score: 8/10

Add to library: ‘All For You’, ‘Palo Santo’, ‘Up In Flames’

Years & Years introduced their second album with two uninteresting singles and a preposterous concept.

So it’s a relief that Palo Santo is a solid collection of tropical electropop, dripping with sweat, tears and charisma from frontman Olly Alexander.

The title refers to a pansexual metropolis that sprung from Alexander’s imagination, a place where androids rule, and humans are plucked from the streets to writhe around on a stage, using their flesh to provoke genuine emotion in an audience of automatons.

The accompanying short film is the kind of thing a person dreams up after eating a block of cheese and watching Blade Runner. It’s a lofty gimmick, but at least it’s one that articulates the record’s inherent queerness rather than obscures it.

What Palo Santo does successfully is depict the life of a socially mobile, twenty-something gay man in 2018. Across atmospheric ballads and glow-in-the-dark dance tracks, hookups (‘Rendezvous’), heartbreak (‘All For You’) and internalised homophobia (‘Preacher’) are each captured in golden melodies.

Like 2014’s Communion, images of Catholic flagellation appear as thinly-veiled metaphors for anal sex. When written to bouncy, playlistable beats – ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Preacher’ – they make for welcome additions to the band’s canon. First single ‘Sanctify’ exhausts the premise with a plodding tempo that had me checking my watch, but as the opener it’s inoffensive. 

Alexander brings an unapologetically queer perspective that deserves to be heard loud-and-clear. Trailblazing? Absolutely not. But his visibility shouldn’t be taken for granted in the current political climate.

Forget the sci-fi window dressing – by bucking heteronormativity, Palo Santo is a futuristic work in its own right.