Florence humanises the machine on ‘High As Hope’

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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.

 

Kesha takes the highest road on “Praying”

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2009’s party classic “TiK ToK” may have sold Kesha – she’s dropped the “$” for now – as a one-note character, but it was one others wanted to play. A force at her initial peak, she wrote Britney Spears’ hit “Till the World Ends”, and had her schtick jacked by Katy Perry (“California Gurls”), Miley Cyrus and LMFAO.

For all the bludgeoning EDM and Auto-Tune, there was a perceptibly punk bent to Kesha Sebert’s music. She can belt like a rock star, but knows dance music is more conducive to free love than any other.

Praying” – her first single in four years, and first shot at a ballad release – is upsetting for many reasons, but the shadow it casts over her dollar-sign days is its first knife-twist. Addressing her troubling legal battle with producer Dr. Luke, Kesha takes the high road, and seeks to see the best in her abuser.

Religious references abound, but more so musically then lyrically. Ryan Lewis’s piano is the song’s backbone, propping up a quiet, dignified chorus, even as it blossoms into a stomping country-gospel rapture: “I hope you’re somewhere praying / I hope your soul is changing”.

Kesha’s naked vocal is impressive, and her zesty, adenoidal tone channels the melody better than any studio trickery could. A quiet admission of “I’m proud of who I am” is the link between her old and new material. Kesha’s self-love has suffused her search for both carnage and catharsis – so as long as she has it, the party is far from over.

Katy Perry’s “Bon Appétit” – “House-pop parfait with a cold, tart centre”

bon appetitForget fresh – Katy Perry’s “Bon Appétit” is practically antiseptic. That kitsch title comes with her signature lowbrow wink, but this electropop parfait has a cold, tart centre. Hackneyed ‘food-as-vagina’ puns are deadpanned in an alluring whisper. Eurodance synths stabs come thin and quick, and prick like a needle.

One of the song’s bigger risks may be the inclusion of hip-hop trio Migos. Following the streaming monster “Bad and Boujee”, Quavo, Takeoff and Offset are hot property, but their off-colour remarks about gay rapper iLoveMakonnen should raise brows – particularly as Katy’s own supposed brushes with bigotry have recently emerged.  

The good news is that Perry and Migos seem to be on the same prog-pop wavelength. She certainly makes them feel at home, with the house beat dropping into chill trap for a mercurial four-part verse. Speaking of drops, producer Max Martin lands a doozy for Katy’s base but velcro-like chorus: “Got me spread like a buffet / Bon appétit, baby!

Harry Styles’ “Sign of the Times” is a shaky six-minute pose

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For millennials, the past two years have been a crash course in uncertainty. Will the EU crumble? Should we ready our outfits for #nuclearholocaust? Go vox popping and you’ll find there’s only one thing the youth know for sure: Harry Styles will be a superstar.

Flanked by millions of fans and fêted by the media, Styles’ success is a rare inevitability. The One Direction heartthrob could afford to tear up the rulebook, but debut single “Sign of the Times” doesn’t even dog-ear a page for fear of creasing a holy text.

‘Sources’ were keen to cite David Bowie’s influence, apparent in the sense that he too had a Y chromosome and was known to sing over piano. At best, the song recalls Robbie Williams’ chest-puffing balladry – at worst, it’s a shaky six-minute pose.

Styles’ falsetto cuts through the neutered guitars and crashing drums, but strains to add meaning. Only a truly privileged artist can scream “We’ve got to get away!” while digging their heels into the safest sound imaginable. Now that’s a sign of the times.

Zara Larsson’s So Good: “Promising newcomer falls at the final hurdle”

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Zara Larsson and Rihanna share more than a cadence that’s catnip for radio.

Just like the Barbadian superstar circa 2006, Larsson holds immense promise, yet her international debut is at best a benign vessel for a half-dozen plastic-wrapped hits.

Last summer’s “Lush Life” is still a sticky party-starter with more choruses than sense. It’s also the best thing on So Good by far, and prefacing it with the feeble “What They Say”, a #motivational Instagram post set to music, is a telling cop-out.

A flexible singer, Larsson slings hooks like a sailor aboard everything from moody electro (MNEK duet “Never Forget You”), to schoolyard hip hop (“Ain’t My Fault”), to vogueing dance-pop (“I Would Like”). Aside from some killer singles, only “TG4M”’s dreamy tropical lilt really adds to her CV.

There’s never been a bigger gulf between title and song than on “Make That Money Girl”. That sassy name, along with the teenager’s unabashed feminism, suggests a banger for the ages, but its funereal beat is more befitting a documentary about sweatshop slavery.

Larsson has everything it takes to go A-list, but too often, So Good overlooks the spunky musicality that put her on the map. Drippy ballads like “Only You” and “One Mississippi” actively drain her charisma, and could be fronted by any Rihanna-lite ingenue.

Thank goodness then for Clean Bandit’s “Symphony” – a feel-good smash and vocal showcase that’s bought Team Larsson time to plan a crucial next move.

5.5/10

Grab some tissues and watch Clean Bandit’s self-directed “Symphony” clip below.