in Review

This month saw quite a few familiar faces returning with both highly anticipated and mildly anticipated albums alike. Some of the ones that fell more into the latter category I just haven’t had much time to dig into despite being Colin favorites, since they came out toward the end of the month (like Wilco’s Cruel Country or Craig Finn’s A Legacy of Rentals). Also, as much as I always look forward to a new Sharon Van Etten album, for whatever reason, her new We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong hasn’t quite been hitting with me. Maybe this is because much like I found with 2014’s excellent Are We There, her music is just a little hard to embrace during the sunnier parts of the year, even if this summer has already manifested just how much we’ve been going about this all wrong.

The Smile – A Light For Attracting Attention

Since I talked a bit about this one on the latest episode of The Pick, it’s probably not worth dedicating too much attention to A Light For Attracting Attention. Still, this Radiohead side project that sees Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood has been one of the more pleasant musical surprises of the year, since it’s hard to have that high of expectations for any Radiohead side project. And yet, this album is absolutely good enough to stand alongside a proper Radiohead album, while not having the burden of having to live up to the high standard that that band has created for itself.

Arcade Fire – WE

Despite being one of the more ubiquitous and important rock bands of my generation’s musical coming-of-age, I was on the fence whether I would even bother listening to a new Arcade Fire album. Reflektor was certainly a polarizing turning point for the band, and I definitely fell into the category of Arcade Fire fan that thought they’d lost sight of what had made them great (come on, no one goes to this band to dance). In my memory, Everything Now saw them reeling things in a bit, though to be honest, I barely remember listening to that album at all.

While I wouldn’t say WE quite measures up to the band’s first three vital albums, it’s a lot closer than I was expecting at this point. The way the album ebbs and flows as one multi-part suite definitely gives it the kind of grandiosity and ambition that made this band so thrilling at their peak. They’ve also scaled back (though not completely) the societal commentary of their last album (another thing no one really goes to this band for) and leans into more of that signature sincerity and beauty that they do so well. There are plenty of little moments from this album that have gotten stuck in my head (as well as the entirety of “Lightning II”), which unlike the past two Arcade Fire albums, is sure to keep WE away from the Mildly Pleased awards this year.

Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers

So… there’s a lot to unpack here. Though, after the five years since the Pulitzer-prize-winning DAMN., that’s kind of what you’d want from a new Kendrick Lamar album. Not sure if I would quite put this latest release in the same league as that album or the other instant classics in his catalog, To Pimp A Butterfly and Good Kid, M.a.a.d. City. Still, Kendrick is such a potent rapper and galvanizing figure that even when he’s a little all over the place like he is on Mr. Morale, there’s still a bunch of fascinating moments born out of his ability to turn autobiography into music.

While this is another deeply personal album from Kendrick, it’s less of a grand narrative in the style of Good Kid, and more of a fever dream of all the conflicting thoughts that were swirling around in his head during lockdown. Some of these have to do with fame, some of it has to do with his family and relationships, and some of it has to do with generational Black trauma. There’s also a little bit of half-baked delving into cancel culture as well as Kendrick grappling with his own inherent biases, particularly in “Auntie Diaries”, where he recounts his experiences with a trans family member in a way that’s well-intentioned, but I’m not sure is quite as insightful as he wants it to be. That’s kind of the recurring the feel of the album, as the raw honesty of Mr. Morale is mostly compelling, but after all Kendrick’s success and accolades, it’s hard to feel like he’s quite as plugged into the culture as he was when he was crafting anthems like “Alright”.

MJ Lenderman – Boat Songs

I do not know much about MJ Lenderman, but he seems like a chill, affable dude, and I have enjoyed getting to know him over the course of this album. The North Carolina singer-songwriter inhabits a sweet spot between ’90s indie-rock and alt-country that is very pleasing to my ears, while there’s a great wistfulness that hangs over everything like a late-summer evening. This album is Lenderman’s first recorded in a professional studio, while his earlier releases were lo-fi affairs released on Bandcamp. This can’t help but make me think of Lenderman as a more countryfied Car Seat Headrest, especially when the natural gift for songwriting he displays on Boat Songs shows big potential while also embodying a kind of homespun modesty.