The Book of Traps and Lessons by Kate Tempest
Widely regarded as the UK’s leading spoken word poet, Kate Tempest returns with a new solo album. The collection is a mix of personal and political.
Thirsty & Keep Moving Don’t Move are about a lesbian encounter, Kate’s sensory overload, and overpopulation. Brown Eyed Man details the psychological repercussions of racism. On Three Sided Coin she talks about British imperialism, climate change and demon leaders.
I Trap You reveals Kate’s desire to be both free and in a relationship at the same time, and on All Humans Too Late she calls out internet trolls.
Album highlight Hold Your Own is probably the most inspiring and immediately relatable, with its focus on what is important in life, and the emptiness of consumerism and masquerade. Firesmoke is an ode to a female partner with arguably the album’s most seductive beat. Holy Elixir, another highlight, has a sinister, psychedelic mood, part historical throwback and part conversation with a fortune teller lady of sorts (or is it an imaginary voice in Kate’s head?) who claims protesting is useless because nobody listens. Closer People’s Faces features a discreet piano, hinting at the Brexit farce in the UK, a plea for change, and, similar to the theme of Hold Your Own, encouraging salvation through nature and authentic human connections.
The lyrics are persuasive, and more confessional than previously, but isn’t a big step forward as the political messages seem to be variations of things we have heard her say before. Despite having Rick Rubin on board as producer, a lesser album compared to the ambitious storytelling and haunting beats on her 2014 and 2016 records. But a lesser Kate Tempest album is still better than most releases in 2019. As another RYM reviewer alluded to, there are killer lines on the opening half dozen tracks, such as the chilling “seven billion humans” section. I read somewhere she scaled back the production so her words are at the forefront and easier to hear. She slowed down her delivery as well which I welcome. The second half of the album is stronger and more accessible. Hold Your Own, Holy Elixir, Firesmoke & People’s Faces sound like proper songs.
Western Stars by Bruce Springsteen
A cinematic, nostalgic album about the American West. Some very good tracks (The Wayfarer, Western Stars, Hello Sunshine, Moonlight Motel) while other moments feel musically one-dimensional (Tucson Train) or cloying (Sundown, There Goes My Miracle). The album has a sense of play-acting, by design no doubt, with Springsteen disguised as characters. The real man is hidden but of course if you want to know about him the autobiography is not far away.
The Secret of Letting Go by Lamb
I love Lamb and nice to have new music from them. The first half (tracks 1-5) of the 2019 album is not their best work, hurt by so-so lyrics, and a tinny production on Bulletproof and the title track. The single Armageddon Awaits is decent but the shift from quiet to loud is a bit jarring. However these initial tracks grew on me with further listens.
The atmospheric second half (tracks 6-11) I found more replayable, and reminiscent of the group’s earlier sound. I like the vocal performance on Imperial Measures while album highlight Deep Delirium impresses, a dazzling instrumental. One Hand Clapping is an assured closer.
Office Politics by The Divine Comedy
This review is of the 16 track standard edition. A deluxe version exists with 31 tracks. The album’s concept is similar to the satirical Charlie Chaplin movie Modern Times (1936), but obviously set in different eras. Witty songwriting with darker undertones, critical of contemporary life.
Lead single Queuejumper has a spring in its step with lyrics about getting ahead even when jumping the queue is morally wrong.
The title track describes our politically correct times, if you step out of line you get fired. Harder to hide inappropriate behavior with social media. I was wondering while listening if Hannon has actually worked in an office environment or merely researched how things are.
Second single Norman and Norma suggests wife Norma was unfairly fired after maternity leave. Absolutely Obsolete is about a relationship where the husband feels replaced by his wife’s pornography app but in broader terms is about technology making workers obsolete.
Infernal Machines goes for a dystopian mood and wouldn’t have been out of place on a John Grant solo album.
You’ll Never Work in This Town Again is about machines taking the jobs of people, and algorithms (Netflix, YouTube) advising us what to do next, stripping us of imagination.
Psychological Evaluation finds the singer questioned by a computer about his well being and hints at a sadness that a machine (probably due to budget cuts in a firm) is taking the place of a real conversation.
The Synthesiser Service Centre Super Summer Sale is a self-indulgent track about buying synthesizers.
The ballad A Feather in Your Cap has a nice synth outro, describing disappointment over a short fling with hope of more.
I’m a Stranger Here could be about a character mixing with younger crowds and feeling out of place.
A theme seems to be nostalgia for how things once were, most evident in Dark Days Are Here Again.
Philip and Steve’s Furniture Removal Company arguably is a jingle and becomes tiresome.
Opportunity Knox speaks for itself while After the Lord Mayor’s Show contemplates how fun is followed by work.
The closer When the Working Day Is Done (a homage to Nick Drake’s Day is Done ?) is one of my personal favorites from the record with a beautiful orchestral outro, exploring the routine of going home after work and the hollowness of an unfulfilling job.
To sum up, I don’t know if I’d play the album often, sixteen tracks is a bit of a mouthful. Many songs are good but not great. Does have relatable lyrics and those who have worked in an office might connect the most. I wouldn’t call it laugh out loud funny but at times mildly amusing. Thematically Neil Hannon is not reinventing the wheel, but with his own spin on technology and the work space. A good album although I’m (on first listen) not feeling drawn to it emotionally. Perhaps that will happen on further plays. Based on the artwork, I was hoping for some fun office anecdotes and banter between co-workers, and there really isn’t any, which is a pity. The emphasis appears to be on “politics” over “office”. Probably needed to be more personalized for me to fall in love with it. The stories, aside from Norman and Norma, feel generalized rather than unique.
Then again, maybe I missed the point, as an article described the LP as “a (sort of) concept album with an overarching theme about the depersonalised nature of work and modern life”.
According to a recent interview: “Part of the reason for making this a double album is to keep some of the weirdness”, Hannon says.
On the Line by Jenny Lewis
The opening five tracks have distinctive melodies, good songwriting and fine vocal performances by Jenny Lewis. I like the rock sound, thumping drums, piano, and closing guitar solo on Red Bull & Hennessy. The lyrics suggest freedom and the open road. Another stand out is Heads Gonna Roll which goes in a country/Americana direction. The Beck collaboration Do Si Do is beautiful too.
The quality dips significantly in the second half with some weak lyrics and skippable songs.
Singer-songwriter Lewis has spared no expense and is supported on the album by Beck, Ringo Starr, Don Was (bass player of the 1980s funk-rock band Was Not Was), Benmont Tench (keyboardist of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), respected session drummer Jim Keltner, and under-fire singer-songwriter Ryan Adams.
What do you think of these picks? What are your favorites of 2019? As always, comments are welcome. Next week, I’ll post my top 5 albums of the year so far.