Saturday, August 24, 2013

Waxahatchee: Cerulean Salt (2013)


(Don Giovanni)

RECOMMENDED

Gifted singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield is a throwback figure; this is the second album of music she's released under the name Waxahatchee that owes its aural texture (or lack thereof) and mode of writerly catharsis to the indie and alternative rock scenes of the '90s, mainstream and otherwise. Unlike a band like Yuck or Real Estate, Crutchfield's prime takeaway from the glut of individualistic rock records issued in the wake of grunge is their directness. She sees these feedback squalls and quick, dirty guitar compositions just as a means to say what she already must cause she got no choice. In this sense, she's also an artist who could never have existed twenty years ago, maybe even ten, because there's a real sense in which every millisecond of this recording comes down to her specific decisionmaking process and not a soul else's, which is all the better. This is bedroom pop, but it reaches so far beyond, and sounds considerably better than this kind of album once did.

Cerulean Salt successfully if tentatively bridges a stylistic preoccupation hailing back to Superchunk and L7 with the confessional intimacy of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. Her songs aren't quite there yet, frankly, especially when one is finally intrigued enough to check in for a close rundown of the lyric sheet only to find somewhat clumsily overstuffed stanzas like "Could you be extraordinary? / We're alone in this gaudy mess / In the house of slurred speech / Sharing gravity to suppress." I mean, that's not bad, but it's not as straight-on revelatory as the singing makes it sound. Crutchfield unmistakably has something interesting to say, she just hasn't quite formed it with the same verbal precision she affords her music. But that doesn't matter as much as you might think in music this closed-off and pointed, because she makes up the difference with nothing but sheer will. Though her guitar and vocals both, she elevates this material until it sounds as hard-hitting and wounded as she wants it to be. (Ronnie Spector did more than almost anyone with lyrics far weaker and certainly less personal than this, mind.)

The controlled chaos of Crutchfield's extremely focused performances here is refreshing, as is her brevity; this flies by with thirteen cuts in thirty-two minutes, about half of them excellent and the other half certainly agreeable. The record offers a handy antidote to something like the irony-overload of Best Coast or the tiresome monotony of Ariel Pink, or even John Darnielle's peculiar brilliance -- owing much more to a performer like Fiona Apple, whose emotional complexity resists any reduction that her aesthetic delights in musical theater and percussive busyness might commit, whose content vastly outpaces (in the opposite direction to Crutchfield) any surface-level concerns about production or "fidelity." Of course, replace musical theater with gritty guitars that seem to stream out from the age when Butch Vig ruled FM radio for a spell. The songs are the thing, still; Crutchfield's got a certain affected lethargy just like her talented punk rock peer Colleen Green, but it's just an element of her unmistakable honesty.

That voice also can attain an angelic fray, a yearning, or it can belt with a cruel snarl while her music beautifully festers, refusing to pick up and launch. Her songs tend to stop before you're done with them, and she knows her way around an urgent pop hook but isn't always willing to share (small wonder she's opened for Tegan & Sara, whose current record is the explosion of stratospheric pop bliss this one explicitly denies). As raw as the music is, as simple as the oozing plods of non-arrangement are, the primary feature is hypnosis -- without showing any obvious flair for drama, Crutchfield's every tic and move is fascinating and, on something like the bass-heavy vulnerability "Brother Bryan" -- which peaks with the moving mantra "I am not well" -- you're lucky enough to experience all sorts of pin-drop, goosebump moments, and I'd wager that impression is even stronger if you see her live.

As modern day punk records go, this is eclectic and consistently intriguing, but it does become a little redundant in the back half, which is slightly disappointing given how much of a range is exhibited on something like "Coast to Coast," which begins as a beaming toothpaste commercial and slowly grows unhinged -- there's untapped imagination in these cuts. But Waxahatchee's control over the breadth of this record has its advantages too; its minimalism allows the show-stopper "Peace and Quiet," one of the truly remarkable rock songs of 2013, to unload itself as heavy as it needs to after a lengthy slow burn. Crutchfield's still feeling out the implications of her power on record (and so are we!); I wouldn't be surprised if album number three turns out to be a jolt of power harder yet to shake. She's already tapping something that hurts here, in the best way.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sam Cooke: Night Beat (1963)



!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Those who contend that Sam Cooke was just a voice, as though that wasn't enough, and as though that voice did not carry in it historical implications, might change their mind if they gave a close listen to this stark and fascinating, highly offbeat session that doubles as one of the definitive soul records of the '60s, but there's really no getting through to such a person anyway. If Cooke's language doesn't speak to you, what's left to say really? In taking in this period of R&B, Night Beat is as crucial as Otis Redding's albums. That it's less known is theoretically a testament to Cooke's slightly old-fashioned tastes and methods -- he offers little of the bump & grind or grit of Redding or Sam & Dave (it was all different live), with even his version of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" more Bill Haley than Big Joe Turner, and as a singer he somewhat resembles Nat King Cole at times (see: "I Lost Everything") -- but that doesn't explain why Wilson Pickett's excellent albums of the later '60s are generally overlooked, and the chronological distress caused by the rockist audience's disbelief that any worthwhile album was cut before 1964 (which is so damn exhausting) can't diffuse it either since Ray Charles' Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music of '62 is an acknowledged masterwork.

It's more likely that Cooke, who remains immensely popular, was known for delivering a certain kind of exuberant, tirelessly romantic single and Night Beat is a major outlier in his discography. In this guise it is similar to Sarah Vaughan's brilliant After Hours, also a stark and even foreboding recording with scant personnell that sounded nearly a cappella at times. Minimalism has never been an operative factor in any branch of soul save funk, but have you ever heard a Marvin Gaye record with the instruments stripped away? Did that experience rock you to your core? If yes, this album is for you. Of course, spareness is only half of what's going on behind Cooke's inexhaustibly brilliant singing, which is so consistently magic that several songs just keep plodding and plodding until he's tired and yet you never care, but the record, right down to its title, captures a sense of hung-over, city-streets introspection that calls ahead to more florid and bounding records like Gaye's I Want You and Television's Marquee Moon. In other words, this is truly nocturnal music, and the rare sort of record that's capable of changing the feeling in a room when you play it.

And more than superficially; it's not just that the lights are turned low, it's that the thing feels like a privilege to listen to, as though the low-volume band's sole focus is on crying out through the night and falling in line behind Cooke's phantasmagoric voice. That band encompasses, among others, Raymond Johnson and his crazed piano figures on "Laughin' and Clownin'," and most notably a 16 year-old Billy Preston on the organ, inspiring a heart-filling "play it, Billy!" from Cooke on "Little Red Rooster." But for the most part, the record very deliberately is a one-man show, underlined by the use of very simple, even repetitive compositions, mostly pared-down covers, that amount to a slowed-down, snail's-pace blues. Cooke's use of his voice for a darker confessional tone than usual is best exemplified by the haunting early pair "Nobody KNows the Trouble I've Seen" and "Lost and Lookin'," the latter nothing but bass, brushes and vocals, towering and wounding.

The vulnerability of Cooke's vocals on this session, more pronounced than ever, give rise to the real story it tells -- of urban alienation. His own composition "Mean Old World" is almost unbearably lonely, with the mournful slow dance of "I Lost Everything" even more despairing; but all the while, the beauty of Cooke's central performance is absolute. When he begins to hum on "Trouble Blues" or lament his "drinkin' and gamblin'" on "Fool's Paradise," time seems to stop. Cooke deliberately avoids any kind of release or crescendo, predicting the album as the next wave of rock & roll expression. Night Beat sustains its tension all the way through, and despite the cheerful finale, it retains its mastery as a deep cry from the heart. Had Cooke lived longer, it would have been one of many such treasures.

[SEE ALSO:]
Portrait of a Legend (1951-64)
The Man Who Invented Soul (1957-61)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

One-sentence reviews #8

Jay-Z almost made an appearance here but I need at least two paragraphs for that one.

***

Smith Westerns
Soft Will (2013)

(Mom + Pop)

After a while, all the '70s riffs and the endless parade of hooks far too closely resemble consuming excessive amounts of cotton candy, like the Cars without the compensatory sublime popcraft; the songs just aren't tight enough for that kind of stunt, nor is the performing, but it'll sink right into the buzzy background at a backyard barbecue or whatever.

***

The Apples in Stereo
Fun Trick Noisemaker (1995)

(SpinART)

RECOMMENDED
Basically coming off as a friendlier Neutral Milk Hotel, this extremely lo-fi debut record gives little hint of the playfulness that Robert Schneider would soon expose (despite its now-trademarked use of bizarre stock spoken-word recordings), but its melodic, fuzz-heavy constructions are certainly fun, if repetitive (and "Glowworm" is their best early song).

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Aretha Franklin: 20 Greatest Hits (1967-74)


(Warner Bros.)

!!! A+ COMPILATION !!!

There are soul singers, great ones even, and then there is Aretha Franklin. Her canon, like that of lots of similar immortals from Johnny Cash to Ray Charles, is full of flaws, but only because even the finest singer cannot fully reign over mediocre material, and this seems irrelevant in the face of an actual monument of flawlessness like 20 Greatest Hits. There are brilliant offerings in Franklin's recorded career not covered here, obviously, but not one second embodied on the disc is uninspired or even compromised, and indeed what is here is essentially beyond criticism. It constitutes the portfolio -- immaculate and untouchable -- of one of the twentieth century's truly great artists, in fact more than likely the best singer rock & roll has ever known. (I would say popular music, period, but for Billie Holiday.) You can make a tolerable case for Sam Cooke, who was nearly Franklin's equal emotionally, or for John Lennon, whose enormous capacity for passion eclipsed his technical shortcomings, but therein lies the utility of this particular compilation: it's essentially a monolithic refutation of any argument that anyone, ever, has been truly superior to Franklin.

She was 24 years old when she began her association with Atlantic Records and issued a series of frenetic, sensual, shock-to-the-system singles (and albums), and there is likely no other example of such an artistically and commercially lucrative artist-label combination; when you are digging through a bin of 45's and you see the beautiful Atlantic logo matched with her name, it is to breathe in sharply and realize you're holding something impeccably special, with so many legendary associations even if it's one of the sixty-odd Franklin hits that didn't merit inclusion here. What Franklin did before this, during an unhappy half-decade with Columbia in the early '60s, seems inconsequential by comparison; her work there has merit as a document of a brilliant performer finding her voice, but outside of a few well-curated covers and the occasional "Runnin' Out of Fools," the output prior to 1967 has little bearing on what was to follow, and certainly cannot define what places Aretha Franklin above everyone else. The sudden bursting out upon the move to Atlantic, an assertion of individuality after a quarter-century of hardship (a mother at age 12, and most of the '60s spent wed to an abusive husband, and the endless cycle of work and disappointment that formed the early part of her career), is among the greatest narratives in rock & roll.

It all changes immediately with the fevered, shattering "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," one of the most alarming singles of the '60s, and the kind of cultural moment that throws everything around it into "before" and "after" status. Franklin did not write the song but does all of the work that matters in creating a classic. She harnesses an arrangement that continually pulls the rug out from any conventional sense of how a rhythm & blues number would work up to that point, and thereby forever changes soul music; the repercussions of this song are still felt on the radio now. Her control of her powerful voice, carefully cultivated during the Columbia period (which was to her as Hamburg was to the Beatles), deliberately does not fire itself up immediately, like major influences such as Betty Harris, Ruth Brown or Otis Redding may have done with similar material. Instead she begins in the mode of a small, nearly muttered but ingratiatingly tuneful confidence -- and then as the song explodes and then finds new ways to explode behind her, with the red-hot relentlessness in Franklin's magical piano playing, her intricate phrasing and depth of feeling grow louder, more emotive, until the chorus: neither cathartic nor a conventional dramatic peak, it's a moment of pure, whispered, pregnant power, unabashedly erotic. The lesson is that she towers somehow with quiet control, and proves everything about her uniqueness and brilliance in this tight, florid drama that runs just 2:43.

And yet somehow, the nineteen songs that follow do not merely rest in the shadow of that earth-shaking masterpiece. There may not be nearly as much to say about "Rock Steady" or a ridiculously spirited and tense take on "You're All I Need to Get By" or the exuberant "See Saw" or the fiery and romantic "Call Me" or the powerful, celebratory classic "I Say a Little Prayer" or the raveup deconstruction of Ben E. King's "Spanish Harlem" or a "Don't Play the Song" that wholly eclipses King's or the wonderful "I'm in Love" on which you can't help but know she means it. But that's strictly because their brilliance, their absolute goodness, is so innate that to articulate it seems a waste of time. If you hear these songs and are not moved by them or stunned by Franklin's marriage of technical prowess to rawest blues-singer passion and engagement, perhaps rock & roll just isn't for you, because as far as I'm aware it never really improved on this; its movements are all lateral. The theme of this particular compilation is how Franklin's management of her own output resulted in these triumphs. Someone may, as she said, have told her to sit down at the piano when she moved to Jerry Wexler's Atlantic, but the distinctive, felt playing that result is the sort of recorded miracle that can't be reduced or quantified in its value -- every note seems as much to burst with emotion as her own voice, and something like this is a broad, career-wide trait that made her the giant she now remains. She wrote or curated songs that she knew would benefit most from her sense of gloriously calculated abandon, not the other way around.

When cataloging her biggest hits, of course, one is faced with the similar problem. If you've spent any time around a decent radio station, you know every beat of the defiant "Chain of Fools" and its delirious handclapped breakdown. You know that "Think," with its captivatingly unexpected "freedom" bridge that transforms a relationship song to an anthem of black equality, is as perfect a single as a pop singer has ever delivered. How do you even describe her frantic and sweltering version of Otis Redding's already hypnotic "Respect"? Every moment of it is in our cultural blood by now, and we can no longer neutrally hear something like that delightful moment when she sarcastically dethrones the man at her feet with a seductive "ooh, your kiss is sweeter than honey" then hits overdrive and screams out with a simple "guess what, so is my money!". As in Redding's original recording, the words are irrelevant when compared to the basic feeling of self-preservation and independence they embody; as Greil Marcus would put it, the song is singing her, and she is so overpowered that her grip on it is only tenuous, which thereby increases its incendiary power. This was, of course, surely deliberate. And what to say of the completely heavenly transformation of "Natural Woman," a Goffin-King song written especially for her whose sincerity of feeling is absolute and taken to the stratosphere by Franklin? With impressively keyed-in gospel roots, the song feels as if it's always existed, Crucially, respect remains a theme; this song is about love and devotion to a man, obviously, but it is a self-actualizing, equitable love that brings out one's best.

The biggest hits, with their often ecstatic romanticism, didn't emphasize one of the key elements of Franklin's versatility: her knowledge of the right way around the nastiest kind of groove. It's startling that the slowed-down funk "Dr. Feelgood" dates from 1967, and not merely because its lyric is so explicitly sexual, even fetishistic. But the foul desperation of "Save Me" goes one better with a riff and beat that directly evoke fucking -- the lyric may be less graphic, but Franklin has the confidence in her audience to expect they know what she really means when she, evoking Big Mama Thornton, orgasmically demands "If you think anything about me, save me," and it's not that she needs the Caped Crusader to rescue her from harm. In these songs, Franklin carries a tradition of almost therapeutic self-asserting sexuality that launches back almost exclusively through black women in popular music, backward to Thornton, Etta James and Lucille Bogan, forward to Betty Davis, Janet Jackson and Missy Elliott. It's a show of power, and it means something.

And it's because she has the manic energy and honesty to be so unabashedly direct that a song of crushing loss and desperation like "The House That Jack Built" carries weight even though it's faster and sprightlier than almost anything else here -- and is one of the Franklin songs that is guaranteed to bring down the house that Jack built, but the empty core at its center is deliberately unmistakable. Franklin wants it known that she does not need her man, but that her emotions are as wide-ranging and valid as anything on a sad white-boy heartbreak record like the Searchers' "Needles and Pins" or the Beatles' "Yesterday," and finally that she is a woman, an African-American, and a human, a human whose inner life cannot be reduced by any armchair-analytical cultural critic or audience member to either of the other two traits.

The most remarkable Franklin recording of the Atlantic period in terms of its innovation, influence and sensuous directness is probably "Daydreaming," an incredibly forward-looking R&B hit that essentially forecasted all that would change in the genre over the next couple of decades. Whereas all of Franklin's work had a heavy influence on pop music and soul in particular, it's not hard to imagine this song being released today and still being a huge hit -- which honestly is more than we can probably say for anything by even the Beatles, or so gigantic an inventor and contemporary of Franklin's as Al Green. Not that their records or the rest of Franklin's don't sound great still, but "Daydreaming," seen at the time as a bit of soul psychedelia in the vein of the Temptations' "Psychedelic Shack" and the Supremes' "Reflections" (or, more preposterously, as lite-jazz), has the intricacy and mild production-level surrealism of the best modern slow-jams. It skips over even the intermediate boundaries of quiet storm and neo-soul and just comes across as a complicated, immediate strike to the jugular in all of its weaving vocals and shimmering, reverb-heavy ambiance. The equally complex "Until You Come Back to Me," cowritten by Stevie Wonder, is no less intimate but adds swagger and enough of a cloudy lilt to make time seem to stop. (That song was a #1 hit between "Living for the City" and "I've Got to Use My Imagination"; what was that you were saying about not wishing you grew up in the '70s?)

My two favorite Franklin recordings round out this collection. "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," with the artist on both piano and organ, is one of a handful of songs invariably guaranteed to give me chills from the first intoned moments of her glorious vocal. Initially released as the b-side of "I Never Loved a Man," it continues Franklin's message of mutual respect in relationships and directly answers James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World": "They say that it's a man's world / But you can't prove that by me / And as long as we're together, baby / Show some respect for me." She so assuredly glides here from thorough command to vulnerability, and hence refuses to be painted as having a "persona." The point is that the hardness and fury of "Respect" is the same person now quietly demanding the same, the same person pleading for a connection on "Angel." She's not just a plaything, she's flesh and blood just like a man. The obviousness of any lyrical message in "Do Right Woman" -- and I personally think the lyrics are magnificent -- is irrelevant because of the manner in which Franklin communicates and expands every word of them, and maybe a little by our knowledge that her asshole husband was trying to drag her out of the studio the entire time she was recording it.

Jerry Wexler can take some credit for making Aretha Franklin the force she was on Atlantic; given that her subsequent work on Arista and elsewhere can't make many claims for artistic impact aside from being very well-sung examples of just the risk-free material you'd expect a veteran artist in her fifties and sixties and beyond to lay down for commercial release, maybe he did allow her to blossom. But she did the blossoming, and anyway I think it's simpler than that -- Atlantic Records became a haven of expression in this period, and in a sense so was the marketplace. In not just pop music but in film and in art generally, the '70s were a time in America when barest self-examination was seen as a mark of strength rather than weakness. There is no other time when Aretha Franklin's greatest song, "Angel," would have been possible, and could have reached #1 on the R&B charts, top twenty pop. Franklin opens the song by announcing with a hint of sadness that it's a missive of heartbreak from her sister Carolyn, which was in fact true: Carolyn wrote the song (a frequent collaborator during this period, she died of breast cancer only fifteen years later).

And then she starts singing, and it's as though she is miraculously transmitting her sister's every emotion to us, to not just be heard but joined by us -- sensitive, resigned, reluctantly hopeful but more than a bit pessimistic, and expressive of a genuine need, she sings of nothing more than the absolutely universal, timeless, typically inexpressible need to find and sustain love. The slightly jazzy arrangement is engulfed by the vocals of the two Franklins, by two voices united as one in a sentiment everyone listening will recognize and will immediately feel. Franklin does not simply express a familiar emotion here -- her vocal is emotion itself, and the song never particularly builds on it or does much more than meander around it. It doesn't have to. In June 1973, Atlantic released this as single and unleashed this moment of absolute empathy and ache unto the world. Nothing much happened besides people loved it, careers kept churning and moved on. But there it continues to live, a moment in time locked and captured forever, an inextricable part of numerous millions of people's lives still. With every repeat of "in my life," somewhere in the world we can know that another person doesn't necessarily feel alone, however briefly. Aretha Franklin could do that for you. I don't think anyone else could.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Kanye West: Yeezus (2013)


(Def Jam)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

The assault begins instantly. Partially an assault outward, sure, but mostly a deconstruction of image (think of the jukebox exploding in David Fincher's video for the George Michael song "Freedom '90") and, more pertinently, an forty-minute burst of self-destruction. At the very least, a frustrated self-examination, which coming from a Big Star can feel like the same thing. It's not as if Kanye West feels any need to apologize for the person and the artist he's become, nor should he, but the alienation of being constantly misunderstood and second-guessed would be a source of frustration for anyone. The solution in some quarters is to strike a concilatory tone -- "I said what I said and it was wrong, or was taken wrong, and now it's all this" -- but West is one of our greatest contrarians, so he'd prefer to provoke, which only lands him in hotter water with himself.

So his sixth record, Yeezus, becomes musically and lyrically an act of simultaneous defiance and terrified, maddened introspection. The things on his mind (sex, self-identity, black identity, consumerism) aren't so many leagues from any of his previous work -- or from the work of his myriad influences, especially Prince. But West intuitively investigates and embraces the contradictory forces of his compassion, his ego and his anger, and then embraces the cry out in horror that results. We needn't assume that West is playing himself in this role, as we have little evidence implying that he's even marginally as unstable as this remarkable, brilliant album makes him sound (how could he even get it on tape otherwise?), but nor do we have any call not to take it as a document of a particular mindset. As much as Lars von Trier's Antichrist was an abstract scream of despair at the mental anguish of a slowly recovering depressed person, Yeezus is a chronicle of the worst parts of a man falling apart. Like von Trier's film, it's necessarily divisive, pained, offensive, and curiously Gorgeous.

In the first seconds of the ferocious laser pointer of an announcement from on high "On Sight," Yeezus separates itself harshly from the lavish prog-influenced sweep of the transformative, transcendent My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; these twisted fantasies aren't beautiful anything, at least not conventionally. Minimalistic, beat-driven until it occasionally decides to collapse into a gospel sample, the song resembles acid house thanks in part to Daft Punk's production, but its paranoid streak hardly creates a sense of dance-floor bliss. West invokes The Dark Knight in his by now somewhat tired rant and rave against the state of urban radio that he influenced: "He'll give us what we need / It may not be what we want." Surely West, laughing like a mad scientist on the track, expected no more than anyone else that a mainstream audience would warm to this record's many left turns and almost abrasive minimalism, and he doesn't seem to care whether the bulk of his cult follows him down this road or not.

He probably also expected any fallout to come from material like "Black Skinhead," which conjures up Gary Glitter memories, Joy Division grit and King Kong metaphors in its parade-like pounding. The song was famously and quite gleefully performed in May on Saturday Night Live, a convenient stage and moment to use as a drawing of the battle lines between those who will permit West's left-field, aggressive expansion into industrial-rock territory (which he does more with, by the way, than any actual industrial musician I've heard) and those who will recoil for all sorts of reasons, destined to be painted with the same brush here. One is reminded of Stanley Kubrick's statement that no review of any of his films told him anything he didn't already know; not only is the baiting and doubt and button-pushing all expected, it's in the text: "Number one question they're asking / Fuck every question you asking / If I don't get ran out by Catholics / Here come some conservative Baptists / Claiming I'm overreacting."

If "Black Skinhead" seems perpetually to be threatening to take a left turn into pop but continually defies the notion, the next two songs don't bother to make even that much of a concession. "New Slaves" is one of West's scariest and most radical tracks so far, but "I Am a God" is one of the keys to the record. Its synthesized stop-start and incongruous pitch control experiments bring forth a chilliness and sense of isolationist dread. We aren't here to question or challenge its arrogance, which is plenty earned, and the consternation by some journalists is a depressing reminder that music fans can be a rather humorless crowd. "Hurry up with my damn croissants" is a hilarious throwaway line, a deliberate crack in the persona, not a flat invocation of privilege. Would it matter anyway? Rock bands in the '70s sang about wrecking hotel rooms and drinking hard and banging groupies, and a million sports figures receive little flack for proclaiming themselves the best, the point being that West is perfectly aware of the history leading to his conclusion. "Nobody can tell me where I can and can’t go," he told W. "Man, I’m the #1 living and breathing rock star. I am Axl Rose; I am Jim Morrison; I am Jimi Hendrix. You can’t say that you love music and then say that Kanye West can’t come to your show! To even think they could tell me where I could and couldn’t go is just ludicrous. It’s blasphemous to rock & roll, and to music.”

He's speaking there about a fashion show-related snub that's about as interesting as Jay Leno's motorcycle collection, but his reaction is interesting, and the feigned shock that greets every interview or action by West is so annoying that you start to understand why he is so defiant. We don't need fifty more essays about the greatness of West's music that call him out as a person. We need to be glad someone is saying things like this: "I made that song because I am a god, I don’t think there’s much more explanation. I’m not going to sit here and defend shit. That shit is rock & roll, man. That shit is rap music. I am a god. Now what?" We need to realize that one thing feeds the other, that anyone as smart and gifted as he is both seeks to push buttons and longs to be understood. It's a tired comparison, but fuck Axl Rose and Jim Morrison -- he's John Lennon or Bob Dylan or Prince, or any artist whose devoted individuality we find troubling, and we can whine that he is no longer speaking from the working class perspective of The College Dropout or we can realize that what he says now is equally honest; we can step outside ourselves long enough to realize that the life of a rich man with an unlimited recording budget, a famous girlfriend with a new baby and all eyes of the press on his every breath most likely carries its own frustrations. More importantly, we can realize that West's art is an outgrowth of his life, not a documentary about it. Does he let out those blood-curdling, tortured screams we hear on "I Am a God" regularly in an uncontrolled situation? Likely not, but how can they not be an expression of something real, if buried? "I'm so scared of my demons / I go to sleep with a night light," he says later on "I'm in It."

West is hardly the first rock star to craft an album on the basis of a slow slide away from sanity; Trent Reznor made a questionable career of it, and to return to Lennon for a moment there is Plastic Ono Band with its Primal Scream subtext... but I think most relevant to Yeezus is Talking Heads' Remain in Light, musically a much more instantly appealing but equally innovative record that eventually coalesces into an overwhelming sense of dread and nothingness, searching for an escape it cannot attain. The walls closing in are an apt metaphor not just for the travails of a public life ("I'll move my family out the country / So you can't see where I stay / So go and grab the reporters / So I can smash their recorders") but of human instability itself. So why can't we leave West alone and let him work, given that he has so much to say and says it so well musically and given as well that his work, while innovative, is in such a clear and well-defined tradition? There is a reason.

Institutional racism marches on even with the advent of privilege. "You see it's broke nigga racism / That's that 'Don't touch anything in the store' / And this rich nigga racism / That's that 'Come in, please buy more' / What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain? / All you blacks want all the same things.'" And there it is, in that mocking line on "New Slaves," the return of something we haven't heard in a while: the impassioned voice for the disenfranchised on The College Dropout, literally. It's a vocal tone we haven't heard from West since before the death of his mother. "New Slaves" cuts to the bone -- its hook, if we can call that, is dropped down to the essence of a single loopy keyboard trill, and West's voice must do the rest of the work in building its drama, catharsis and anger. It brings it all back home -- commercial aspirations and obsessions that West knows are bullshit and from which he is hardly immune, and how at any level of success, the role of the black individual is still seen in America as to somehow be subservient to those in charge. West posits, especially with his reference to the CCA, that his race is still seen as subhuman in the United States; the recent Trayvon Martin case in Florida seems to validate this if we didn't already know he was correct.

But "New Slaves" also contains one of those Kanyeisms you wish had gone back to the drawing board: a lot of sludge about raping your Hampton wife, while it unquestionably plays on and is meant to satirize black man-as-villainous-monster D.W. Griffith stereotypes, somewhat lowers and cheapens the discourse. More: "Rather be a dick than a swallower" is annoying homophobia slash sexism from a guy who knows better. There's so much wrong with "Eatin' Asian pussy, all I need is sweet and sour sauce" that all one has to do is quote it to protest it. Comparing the juggling of a wife and mistress to "apartheid" is... tone-deaf, as much so as that butt-stupid stuff about the Holocaust on Watch the Throne. And "One good girl is worth a thousand bitches"? Well-meaning, I guess, but fucked up beyond belief: women as stock, first of all, and then a surely tired and old-world slut-shaming notion of what makes a woman "good" or "bad," and the idea that a woman's goodness or badness is predicated on her sex life or her appeal to a man anyway, plus goodness or badness themselves being a non-bullshit concept coming from a guy who just spent the better part of an hour laying down the law on personal ambiguities. No thanks, dude, and it's most irksome because he's so far beyond this.

But I can't fault a great record for being problematic -- I'm pretty sure that's what makes a lot of them great -- and another movie analogy comes in handy: if I can count Black Narcissus or "Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs" as masterpieces despite their rampant racism, it should really be far easier to look past some unchoice lines in West's record. It isn't, because it's 2013, but nevertheless: I'm no less annoyed, but it doesn't affect my overall impression of the album too much. And a great deal of the shock over the album's lyrical content has been about things I find pretty benign, like assigning Civil Rights metaphors to sex, or description of graphic sex acts (namely, fisting) which are apparently consensual and thus who gives a fuck. "I'm in It" isn't much more graphic than "Let's Pretend We're Married" or "Automatic," recorded before most of West's fans were born, or for that matter Lucille Bogan's "Shave 'Em Dry," recorded decades before West's parents were born, and if I'm reading the record's themes correctly, literal and metaphorical imprisonment as slavery and sex as liberation make perfect sense even though alimony and child support as lynching does not. I'm also not particularly bothered by the repeated point-scoring in regard to mixed-race sex (provided the women themselves are not dehumanized, which is a separate matter), because again, that's a fuck-you to old-South paranoia, and if expressions of black-man prowess in the bedroom are off-limits, we'd better toss out those old Big Joe Turner and Dominoes 78s.

The second half of Yeezus is ever more brooding, less immediate, but equally compelling: shaped by a bizarre penchant for strange percussion, for the use of heavy breathing and guttural grunting as punctuation, for an almost itchy bottom-heaviness, and by its endlessly surprising dancehall influences (note the verse by Assassin on "I'm in It," the Beenie Man sample on "Send It Up"). The twisted melancholy of "Hold My Liquor" even makes time for some sense of hard-won romance -- "You love me when I ain't sober / You love me when I'm hungover" -- which it of course instantly doubles back on, but mostly is remarkable for its dramatic and somber build in the background of verses and sequences that become increasingly demented. Somewhat less unique but more attention-grabbing is "Blood on the Leaves," which casts more histrionic romantic problems into sorrowful rhyming verses and, in the vein of 808s and Heartbreak, sounds genuinely wounded. The song's use of a "Strange Fruit" sample (as performed by Nina Simone, not Billie Holiday, presumably for copyright reasons?) at first glance calls to mind the Clash's "Complete Control," an outrageously angry song about something incredibly petty (CBS Records releasing a song as a single that the Clash didn't want to be a single, seriously) in the pantheon of the hilariously melodramatic. And indeed, using "Strange Fruit" in the context of any heartbroken anthem has the effect of making West sound insensitive, and making his own lyrics sound even more like small stuff, but perhaps never before has he so effectively married his apocalyptic blues to a document of his failed relationships and the fallout from his shady promiscuity, and how even this sails back to the garish exposure of the limelight.

"Blood on the Leaves" might serve as a bit of a microcosm, then -- the continued dive down a rabbit hole of emptiness, for all the richness and power in West's life; his catalog of previous relationships, and his relationship with his late mother, has culminted in a sense of overpowering loss. It can't be accidental that the same performer who gleefully mocked conventional hip hop misogyny on his first two records now demands "hurry up with my damn menage" and pictures himself exaggeratedly unloved, "the door locked by myself and I'm feelin' it right now / Cause it's the time when my heart got shot down." Is he really talking about being dumped, or about something he ruined? That verse is from the musically semi-calm "Guilt Trip," which also contains the nakedly confessional "If you love me so much then why'd you let me go?" But one song later, he presents a night of sex followed inexplicably by "Her heart colder than the souls of men." Maybe that attitude answers the first question. Can this be anything but an intentional burnout? If we can already acknowledge that it's a provocation, it seems we can go that much further. It's handy to note that "Send It Up" only has one note of real aesthetic sensuality, that provided by King Louie's muttered, spit-out opening verse; its closing Beenie Man sample posits nothing more than that West will finally be left just with his vivid, painful thoughts.

After the most despairing run of songs in his career so far, Yeezus ends with the ubashedly beautiful, arrhythmic and soulful throwback "Bound 2," surreal and deliberate like the prior nine cuts but with the possibility of some redemption. Its howling samples of the Ponderosa Twins and Brenda Lee, and a completely wonderful bridge by Charlie Wilson, background a goofy and unusually contended, even domesticated West, who sounds tired and drunk and fat and happy here. The hints of romantic satisfaction on "I'm in It" and "Hold My Liquor" culimate in what sounds like the buzz, blissful and otherwise, of an extended relationship and family life -- "I'll turn the plane 'round, your ass keep complaining / How you gonna be mad on vacation?" He even accidentally (?) paraphrases Yo La Tengo's "Paul Is Dead": "Hey, you remember where we first met? / Okay, I don't remember where we first met." As Wilson's cheap island-porn Quiet Storm-style bellowing marries Lee's sly "uh-huh, honey," West takes it a day at a time and sees a way out of all this insanity. We made it to Thanksgiving, so hey, maybe we can make it to Christmas.

As much as I'd like to "turn my flea market of information into a beautiful living space," after a couple of months with Yeezus this mess is the best I can do. In some ways it's a direct and logical movement forward from West's prior records; its self-effacing bravado, despite the hype, really only underlines past tendencies. And its passionately ugly strip away into dirty, funky drum-n-bass minimalism, propagated in part by credited "executive producer" Rick Rubin, is a reasonable enough reaction to and away from MBDTF. But its urgent, fierce creativity and audience-screwing touch of the avant garde are a new avenue. It's hard to recall the last time an artist on Kanye West's scale released an album so clearly designed to defy and stunt expectations, so fully dedicated not just to innovation but to being actually difficult to listen to, an act of musical aggression. Kid A doesn't work as a comparison -- its pleasing dinner music was never the left turn it was cracked up to be except in the context of alternative rock at the time; not many people bought or were really expected to buy Neil Young, Prince and Stevie Wonder's strangest records. Yeezus would be a bizarre and courageous record at any given point. As ever, West's ability to cultivate and curate the talent around him and to spin something new and fresh of it is stunning.

So in terms of going nuts and reaching an uncharted creative peak under a spotlight, we have to go back to the Beatles. Yeezus is West's White Album -- in every sense, encompassing its deliberate short-circuiting of its pleasures, its many odd and surprising moments, and its comical non-cover art. My other favorite record this year is Vampire Weekend's; I seldom become this obsessed with any new album, much less two simultaneously -- that hasn't happened as long as I can remember. But Modern Vampires of the City is a Sgt. Pepper album, one I can, would and have recommended to nearly everyone I know; its appeal is that innate. Yeezus, then, feels like The Beatles because its chaotic weirdness and suggestion of slight (or more than slight) instability seem to cater so much and so precisely to my impulses. It's a record that seems just for me and I imagine a lot of its fans feel that way -- I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to anyone, but damn if it isn't just about perfect to these ears. As stated here before I'm sure, we're fortunate to be alive at the same time as Kanye West. "I've been a menace for the longest / But I ain't finished, I'm devoted / And you know it, and you know it." That's ego talking, sure, but it's ego well befitting America's very best popular artist.

[SEE ALSO:]
808s and Heartbreak (2008)
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
with Jay-Z: Watch the Throne (2011)