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

bloom

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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

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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.

Florence humanises the machine on ‘High As Hope’

florenceandthemachine-highashope

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Score: 8/10

Has any pop singer in recent memory evolved their sound with more care than Florence Welch?

It’s been almost a decade since Lungs made her a star – a wood-dwelling sorcerer of booming goth-art pop that scored both indie and mainstream kudos. That ethereal character (and brand) is still present on fourth LP High As Hope, but this time, she works her magic in more mundane settings.

The arrangements are airer – piano, tribal drums, sly strings, the occasional brass section – and the songwriting doesn’t quite demand your attention like previous releases, but here there’s a deliberate – and welcome – effort to humanise the machine.

‘South London Forever’ knows it has a lot to catch us up on, and so starts with Florence’s boozy adolescence and E-fuelled partying days (name-checking legendary gay bar The Joiners Arms) before moving on to her millennial woes. What could have been self-indulgent ends up a sweet and confiding mini-epic.

This is a more frayed Florence than we’re used to, but even with the layers pulled back, she’s a fascinating artist. Guided by her titanic voice, ‘Hunger’ is exultant gospel-pop on the surface, but the connections the lyrics make between body positivity (‘At seventeen, I started to starve myself’) and emotional fulfilment are rich in pathos.

Welch’s range can be jaw-dropping, and the set’s many ballads give her ample room to explore it. But despite all the nips and tucks to her sound, it’s that banshee wail that tells you you’re listening to a Florence and the Machine song. And when those lungs get to work, she’s an instantly recognisable force in British music.

 

 

Great ‘Expectations’: Hayley Kiyoko’s out-and-proud debut

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Remember that Britney x Madonna song ‘Me Against the Music’? It’s always been a bit shit, but I do like Brit’s quasi-rap before the chorus. Across her debut album Expectations, Hayley Kiyoko’s pop instincts rarely falter, yet a stab at the Princess of Pop’s breakneck delivery on ‘Curious’ could be her ballsiest move so far…

Did you take him to the pier in Santa Monica? /
Forget to bring a jacket / Wrap up in him / Cause you wanted to?

(In pop music terms, this is a soliloquy. Hayley fires it out in five seconds flat.)

Jacking the beat from Fifth Harmony’s ‘Work From Home’, the single clicks and thumps in all the right places, even as the lyrics coyly confront a girlfriend over her heterosexual affair. The ‘If you let him touch ya…’ hook is niftily copied-and-pasted-and-pasted, allowing Hayley to vent her frustration, while maintaining her composure.

The 26-year-old singer and actress represents a post-Tumblr wave of young queer voices in pop. The fearlessness with which she’s presenting her sexuality is pioneering in itself. The album’s artwork finds her candidly revering the female form, and in her music, the corresponding pronouns come thick and fast.

Sleepover’ will be painfully familiar to any gay who’s crushed on a straight friend. Over a tender groove, Hayley’s fresh-as-morning-dew voice cries out for intimacy, and yes, for great expectations not met. ‘He’ll Never Love You’ is an intervention for a girlfriend in denial of her true identity, elevated by an impatient vocal.

The synth-pop production is largely dreamy and fluorescent, acting as bubble wrapping for Hayley’s vulnerable songwriting. This duality is no more apparent than on a daring pair of mini-epics that dominate the middle section.

Both are emotionally complex and serpentine in structure, but the album’s heart pumps hardest on ‘Mercy/Gatekeeper’. Segueing from pulsating dance to a rockier verse straight from Sky Ferreira’s hard drive, Hayley traces the root(s) of her depression: ‘I can tell you don’t get it / ‘Cause you tell me everything will be okay’. A portentous monologue about autonomy follows, and the epiphany is rewarded with a swirl of sumptuous synths and Haim-esque harmonies, for a cathartic finish.

Expectations is a mellow and atmospheric listen, but the laborious path to self-acceptance bears juicy fruit. The Kehlani-featuring ‘What I Need’ is sexy and of-the-moment, and deserves to be a minor hit. The funk-reliant ‘Palm Dreams’, meanwhile, soundtracks an impossibly cool party, a sequinned declaration that queer life really does get better.

9 / 10

Say something… anything: Timberlake and Swift’s Trumpian trap

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‘Sometimes the greatest way to say something, is to say nothing at all…’

This is the major takeaway from Justin Timberlake‘s latest single. Not only does it cop a line from Ronan Keating, it also plays right into Trumpian rhetoric – the steadfast belief that you, as a public figure, have been misinterpreted, not misinformed.

The spectre of Taylor Swift’s ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, looms over Timberlake’s upcoming release Man of the Woods. Attacking the same free press that covered such PR hiccups as her infamous Grammys speech, and Kim K’s Snapchat exposé, the lyrics were embraced and tweeted by far right rag Breitbart.

In the context of their feed – and maybe Swift’s album, since she’s yet to denounce white supremacists – these words push the narrative that hardcore conservatives form America’s righteous oppressed, who’ve been shut out for the sake of political correctness and butthurt snowflakes.

Even if this wasn’t Swift’s intention, she made sure we’d never really know by imposing a media blackout throughout her reputation campaign. No interviews. No justifications. As she wrote in a letter to fans –‘There will be no further explanation. There will be just reputation.’

The difference between Swift and Timberlake is that he is engaging with wokeness. He just sucks at it. Earlier this month, he tweeted support for #TimesUp – despite recently working with Woody Allen. He also preceded the hashtag with ‘My wife is hot!’. Yes, really.

His post-apocalyptic video for ‘Supplies’, meanwhile, gave nondescript nods to Trump, Kim Jong-un et al, and appropriated protest culture with a glibness that would make Kylie Jenner’s Pepsi commercial jealous. Needless to say…

After enjoying a career full of privileged behaviour – letting Janet Jackson take the blame for Nipplegate, an ‘All Lives Matter’-flavoured response to BLM – Timberlake’s finally being challenged by voices with a newly-found platform. The advent of Black Twitter in particular has made him answerable to a community he’s so often pilfered from.

Rather than seize the opportunity to understand the nuances of these discussions and strengthen his participation, Timberlake has hung a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on his conscience for all to see. In his own words, he doesn’t want get to ‘caught up in the rhythm of it’ – because, by virtue of his skin colour, he can afford not to.

Perhaps my analysis is an overreaction, one wrought from an attempt to pin meaning to inexpressive songwriting. Throughout, Timberlake and guesting country star Chris Stapleton trade vague inanities that could literally be about anything – but it’s important to look at the line Timberlake is towing in his promotion for Man of the Woods.

While a politically-engaged Katy Perry returned with ‘purposeful pop’ last year, Timberlake is being purposefully inoffensive. Festooning his music with whisky-warm guitars and donning masc rust-belt chic, he’s not actively excluding listeners with conservative tastes – which is fine, music is for everyone – but coupled with his radio silence on key issues, the project sends a worrying and cynical message.

On February 4th, Timberlake will headline the Super Bowl LII halftime show. The odds of a statement that’s a tenth as compelling as Beyonce’s Black Panther tribute are low, but I’m open to surprises. Whatever happens on the night, Timberlake is right about one thing – if he continues to say nothing at all, it will speak volumes about who he really is.