Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Personal, Political, and Otherwise: King Kendrick Rules Pazz & Jop

Remember self-brander Amanda Palmer in the last days of 2016, blitzing journos in her safe Australian home? "Donald Trump is going to make punk rock great again," the pull quote went. "We're all going to crawl down staircases into basements and speakeasies and make amazing satirically political art."

Er, well . . .

Scanning the top forty albums of the 44th (or 45th) Pazz & Jop Critics Poll--which remains America's most comprehensive survey of "rock critic" taste--I have trouble descrying any political satire whatsoever. Granted, there's a big exception I'm saving for later, and although he's so fucking ironic who can tell, many would nominate snark king Father John Misty, whose 12th place 2015 I Love You, Honeybear almost convinced me he loves his wife and whose 13th place 2017 Pure Comedy almost convinced me he hates humanity. Thus Misty gained considerable traction in early spring, when there was still comfort in believing our walking slab of brain damage beneath a bad toupee was no worse than the voters who believed he would serve them rather than his vile class and viler self. He is worse, by miles, which I say as someone with near-zero sympathy for his "base." And in any case, what little political consciousness I discern among the rest of our poll-toppers is fervently sincere.

Here's to Jason Isbell's earnest The Nashville Sound, sharpened decisively by the self-critical "White Man's World"; to Algiers' militant The Underside of Power, soul-rock noise-metal that calls out racist massacres, dying sex workers, and democracy's broken promises as the horrors they are; to Margo Price's country-folk All American Made, which names "rich white men" as the enemy and remembers Iran-Contra in a world where most people are proud to remember their passwords. Here's to Rhiannon Giddens's slave songs and Hurray for the Riff Raff's immigrant songs too. And while it's less straightforward, maybe even in some not-actually-funny sense satirical, Priests' Gang of Four-ish punk-funk Nothing Feels Natural situates itself in the more abstruse territory of structural oppression, leftist turf they were already staking out when Trump was one more birther jerkola.

Maybe it's significant that the poll's most trenchantly anti-Trump finisher surfaced the same week as Palmer's prophecy; certainly Run the Jewels 3's political-not-satirical rap-not-punk would have finished above 34 riding a 2017 release date. But definitely it's significant that absent from our anti-Trump list are four other hip-hop albums: Kendrick Lamar's foreordained runaway winner DAMN, Jay-Z's 9th place "comeback" 4:44, Vince Staples's spare 18th place Big Fish Theory, and Migos's irrepressible 20th place Culture. Almost any hip-hop album signifies politically because almost any hip-hop album invokes the textures and details of black life, which always--always--involve racist oppression. Moreover, DAMN does at least utter Donald Trump's name, and Jay-Z not only celebrates his newly out mom's lesbian identity but weighs in with "The Story of OJ," where the "still nigga" repetitions put the race question in our collective face even if its dumb Dumbo joke wears almost as poorly as its explanation of why Jews own everything. (Credit, in case you forgot.)

Not one of 2017's hip-hop big four, however, takes Trump on. Staples rides his precise, hard-bitten realism; Migos scatter their playful, unpredictable hooks. 4:44 is as intimate as anything Jay-Z has recorded, apologizing credibly for how richly he deserved Beyoncé's dog-dogging Lemonade while waxing all too enthusiastic about black capitalism. But from Lamar we had reason to expect more. He became America's most respected pop star in record time not just because his evolved slur and expansive beats were so musically winning but because his persona was so unprecedented as a social fact. A good kid in a mad city, a conscious rapper who exercised his right to brag without acting superior, he left you wondering why no previous next big thing had managed a balance that felt so natural once he made it so. But just as he had a right to brag, he had a right to take a break. Sure, he knows that Trump poses a special threat to Afro-America. But his success protects him from the worst of it, and also leaves him with personal perplexities few of us can truly grasp. So long before DAMN appeared in April he knew he needed a "personal" album, and why not? Why shouldn't we want to know what this complex, talented person makes of songs entitled "FEEL," "LUST," "PRIDE," and "GOD"? Autocrats even crueler than Donald Trump have failed to extirpate such spiritual fundamentals from human life.

The odd thing was, however, that Kendrick Lamar was hardly alone. Rather than amazing satirical political art, many alt types who knew very well that they detested this president and wished they could do something about it decided that their best recourse was to pursue their muse as if he didn't exist, and so withdrew into the "personal," too. These efforts came in all shades of significance: Lorde and Waxahatchee testing their autonomies, Julien Baker and Big Thief toning their delicacies, St. Vincent and Jens Lekman perfecting their artistries, LCD Soundsystem and the National continuing their trajectories, SZA painfully pondering her sex life, Stephin Merritt painstakingly writing his autobiography, the War on Drugs perfectionistically plumbing their vapidity, Spoon and the xx repeating themselves. My personal favorite in the category were the New Pornographers, whose 51st-place Whiteout Conditions offered up eleven rapturous pop anthems with lyrics about the grimy business of purveying rapturous pop anthems.

All of the just-named explore and exploit song form, manipulating note sequences to provide the melodic frissons that were an essential yet increasingly insufficient selling point of twentieth-century pop. But for another sizable bunch of 2017 finishers, such niceties are even more peripheral than they are for the hip-hop beatmakers who do on occasion fashion what are candidly designated "hooks." Although most of them were singers performing what they would rightly insist were songs, for almost all of them the personal equaled the atmospheric if not the downright immersive. I'm talking Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead of reunited shoegaze legends Slowdive, post-soul emoters Kelela and Sampha and Moses Sumney, Thundercat's inebriated lounge-jazz-plus, longtime songscaper Björk, up-and-coming soundscaper Jlin, maybe the album Perfume Genius chose to call No Shape, definitely 41-50s Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith (soundscaper), Kelly Lee Owens (another soundscaper, jeez) and Daniel Caesar (craft-cocktail singer).

Although much history and many microgenres have come down since, figure this tendency goes back to 1995 or so, when an evolving profusion of unpeppy, hook-averse, "environmental" musics, tendencies, and attempted epiphanies began to be gathered under the rubric "post-rock" as the free-ranging vocal excursions of post-soul singers epitomized by Maxwell began to displace conventional songwriting in that world. It's also when post-rock prophet Simon Reynolds and his wife, Joy Press, published The Sex Revolts, where the critical keyword "oceanic" was retrofitted to describe both Can and Patti Smith.

From Terry Riley to Hassell & Eno to Oruj Guvenc to Oneohtrix Point Never and more (last year I added Marcel Khalife's Andalusia of Love to the list, also a L'Orange storyboard, if that counts), I have my own oceanic-etc. favorites to pick from in the rare moments when I need to micromanage a chillout, and I'm hardly suggesting they're all the same. Those in our top fifty certainly aren't. But though Sampha got a thumbs up from me in April, having listened enough to generalize briefly (and to fall for Jlin's Black Origami while giving Slowdive a bye), I doubt I'll ever play the others again. What's more, this doesn't appear to be some slowly evolving trend--no similar post-rock tendency was discernible in 2016, when Frank Ocean and Blood Orange remained rooted in articulated songcraft as they gestured toward soul vocalese, when in "rock" only Bon Iver and arguably Radiohead made comparable gestures, leaving us with Anohni's Hopelessness, an album that milked her delivery for every affectation it had in it to deliver not vague angst or dislocation but the most unabashed and explicit left propaganda ever to impress our electorate. So I find it somewhat disheartening that in Trumpjahr Ein, so many artists pursued their muse into a withdrawal some might unkindly label "escapist."

Others equally unkind, of course, might suggest that an old man's taste for peppy tunes from Chuck Berry and Fats Domino to Wussy and Whiteout Conditions might also be classified as escapist. I'd reply that all of them cheer me up in a tonic way that only enhances my appetite for tougher stuff (and also that the best usually come up with tough stuff themselves). Then I'd add that my own 2017 was rendered more bearable by three pieces of moderately amazing political art--in two cases satirical, in one case kind of punk, and in zero cases recognized by my fellow critics. Ladies, gentlemen, and others, I give you piano-playing singer-songwriter Dawn Oberg's one-mention three-song lounge EP Nothing Rhymes With Orange, from whence I borrowed the "walking slab of brain damage beneath a bad toupee" crack above; Hamell on Trial's 290th-place folk-punk Tackle Box, in which our president's "I'd like to punch him in the face, I'll tell ya" opens a record that insults cops, analyzes oppression, embraces fatherhood, savors lust, looks death in the eye, and makes room for four kiddie songs about a frog; and--most dismaying given P&J's ever-burgeoning hip-hop consciousness--Joey Bada$$'s 203th-place All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, a straight-up anti-racist message album that starts sweet to soften up the hoi polloi and gets tougher as it goes.

They're not enough, those three. But much more than our poll, they prove that politically engaged popular music of quality is an option under a catastrophic reign certain to become more so. Only one is at all rock, and none are post-rock. And now let me close by praising my 2017 one-two, neither peppy, neither conducive to casual listening, and neither rock or post-rock: Mount Eerie's stark 16th-place A Crow Looked at Me and Randy Newman's elaborate 30th-place Dark Matter.

Mount Eerie is the brand name of Phil Elverum, by his own description on this very record a pensive loner from the Puget Sound woods who in 2003 fell instantly in love with a woman he soon married. They had a daughter in 2015, and a year and a half later Elverum's wife died of cancer. That loss is all A Crow Looked at Me is about. Its first words are "Death is real/Someone's there and then they're not/And it's not for singing about/It's not for making into art." But then that's what he does, while simultaneously achieving the elusive chimera of not-art, for eleven unrelentingly desolate songs lasting 41:34. Like Mount Eerie's many earlier albums (except they featured occasional extra voices and ultimately some soundscaping), it's altogether occupied by Elverum's frail, lucid murmur and solitary guitar (augmented so subtly and rarely that you have to concentrate to even register this thrum or that rattle). Although Elverum is such a winning singer one might consider exploring his catalog, this entry will remain unduplicable. My favorite lines are "I now wield the power to transform a grocery store aisle into a canyon of pity and confusion/And mutual aching to leave" and "I don't want to learn anything from this." Listen three times and find your own.

Which brings us to our big exception--an old master of song form proffering his first album of new material since 2008's Harps and Angels. Dark Matter is a long way aesthetically from A Crow Looked at Me, even though both artists craft literal lyrics as if Bob Dylan had never existed, still a rare goal in this era. But the absoluteness of Elverum's literalism, one reason A Crow Looked at Me is some kind of classic, sets the album apart from songcraft as properly understood. And then there are Newman's unmatched chops as an orchestrator and profitable sideline in Hollywood theme songs, two of which he dragooned into enriching Dark Matter: the paranoid Monk theme "It's a Jungle Out There," which sounds a dystopian alarm the album is otherwise too subtle for, and "She Chose Me," written for a forgotten cop show circa 1990 and easily the sweetest love song in Newman's book. The four other conventional songs--about a wayward son; a dying wife and her hapless beloved; a fiftysomething surf bum; and Sonny Boy Williamson the 1st--are all gems. But on an album that ends acutely and fondly humane, it's the three opening songs, the first two playlets with Newman playing multiple parts and the third close enough, that are amazing satirical political art, complete with jokes that will make you chuckle long after you first heard them.

Written to the nth and arranged in exquisite colloquial detail, these are not songs to sing along to--well, maybe except for "Putin," written long before we knew Trump's hondling with the oligarchs would help put a tin-pot oligarch of our own in the White House. They find Newman pursuing his muse into turf not principally demarcated by the harmonies and tone colors it's rich in. In the first, "The Great Debate," an evangelical huckster deploys gospel music to rake in the shekels debunking evolution and climate change in the newly insane state of North Carolina. In the second, "Brothers," JFK triggers the Bay of Pigs out of his pure love for Celia Cruz. There are talking points by the dozen, but you have to sit and listen repeatedly to get them, and pat your feet in the process you will not.

Neither playlet addresses Trumpism per se, although Newman reports that he's written a Trump song he finds too simplistic, so maybe someday he'll let us hear it. But this is evolved popular music that casts a light on a confederacy of dunces who've yet to surrender at Appomattox and a government given to disastrous malfeasance even when it's run by the relatively good guys. It will not rid us of our walking slab of brain damage. That can only happen in a crass political arena. The hope is, however, that art as humane and achieved as these two albums, one wrenching and the other some deep and complex relative of hilarious, will give us another reason to try.

Village Voice, Jan. 22, 2018

2005 -- | Dean's List 2018