Getting caught up in the zeitgeist is so effortless, those artists that fall just outside of it can get easily washed up on the beach as part of a rogue swell.
All the more interesting, then, that albums just askance of the Twitterverse mania often find longer lasting status as influencing touchstones, or exciting marks of a breakout career. Sometimes what’s best is saved for later, when you stash it away from the world.
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, one of the greatest albums ever made, does not have many descendants. It came out during the peak of an alt-country wave typified by Ryan Adams and his friends, and while Wilco became world-beaters, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot often only gets mentioned within the breadth of Jeff Tweedy’s monumental career, when it deserves to be held aloft as a career-defining achievement.
Retro-country is currently having a similar moment. Dolly Parton heir Margot Price finally broke through her Nashville malaise. Kacey Musgraves feels like pot-country ascendent. Yet in the midst of Kurt Vile, Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson made a masterpiece of an album about lessons learned from a lifetime of wandering around the world.
The birth of Sturgill’s first child is nominally the impetus behind A Sailor’s Guide, yet Simpson frequently feels more like he’s giving himself a pep talk on how to survive in America in the face of hate and people that could care less whether you live or die. Dodging around traditional tales of road weariness and disillusionment, Simpson is throwing the kitchen sink of Southern music at his arrangements. Many of Sailor’s Guides’ most impressive cuts benefit from New Orleans zydeco horn sections “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” dusty soul and R&B (“Keep It Between the Lines”), and even deep-fried southern Lynyrd Skynyrd (“Call to Arms”). All three collide with traditional country to form something akin to Southern Prog, as if Simpson is trying to forge a bold new way forward with an album about being an adult human being.
Which is why the greatness of the record will probably go unnoticed, referentially, for a number of years. Sailor’s Guide is almost too advanced to draw from, too much an idiosyncratic artist swiping his way through the jungle to find paradise without stopping to look back and see that nobody is following along. The most apparent example of this is the revelatory cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” a slow-burning bar shuffle punctuated by slide and piercing twelve string guitar, which sets Simpson on an affecting look inward, reflecting on a life lived without the ability to love. It reads like a rebel’s look back, a marked reinvention of Cobain’s original grunge blaster.
Simpson’s rebelliousness, likewise, feels two steps removed from the traditional Southern brawler laments. He frequently grinds his axe against the military, a reasonable personal straw man given Simpson’s time in the Navy. Yet it collides with redneck country’s two common positions on the military: casual disregard, or full-blooded reverence. Elsewhere, Sailor’s Guide finds a way to work in parables about remaining on the right side of the tracks, lamenting the dark road many artists frequently find themselves on. For all its exciting bluster, Simpson’s Guide often feels like an appropriate guidebook for country life. His lyricism makes Guide a great country record; Simpson’s relentless pursuit of a developing country sound makes the album one of the year’s best.
RIYL: Peak alt-country Wilco, Jason Isbell, Waylon Jennings
Essential Tracks: “Sea Stories,” “Call to Arms,” “In Bloom”
Kweku Collins – Nat Love
Hip-hop had a huge April. Kanye West’s (secretly awful, messy and up it’s own ass) latest The Life of Pablo was freed from Tidal purgatory and released upon the world. Beyoncé took masterful control of her brand with the vicious and personal Lemonade, which, while unquestionably great, sometimes feels like an album more to be talked about than listened to. And… well, I guess this is big news… Drake released the utterly cardboard, boring-as-hell Views. Other than the highlight Kendrick Lamar and Future releases of earlier in the year, April was the month you could dive into the zeitgeist of modern hip-hop and (which the exception of the stultifyingly dumb Aubrey Graham) come out with some treasure.
Hip-hop, and its tentpole releases, often feel typified by the type of drugs related to the artists’ perspective. Future and Young Thug are blissed out on codeine. Beyoncé trips on her immense power. Kanye West vacillates between the comedown and rage of mood-dulling prescription drugs. Drake is defined by alcohol and molle. Kweku Collins, a just-outside Chicago rapper, sticks to one of the classics on his breakthrough sophomore LP, Nat Love: weed.
Nat Love feels of a piece with hip-hop of a particular age: late Aughts, mid-Graduation cosigned Kanye rap of early mixtape Drake and Kid Cudi. Drake forgot that anyone existed except for him, and Cudi got a little too faded, but Collins feels like a fulfillment of the promise of Cudi’s breakthrough classic single “Day & Night.” Nat Love takes its time moving through its stoned beats, big-echo drums and slow tempos, keeping a handle on Collins’s sometimes overly slam poetic verses. But instead of focusing on the faded philosophizing that would turn Cudi into a bore, Collins dives into his lovelorn heart and comes out with songs that are based around classic feelings of maturity in the face of love and heartbreak.
The sequencing of the album sometimes feels awkward, as Nat Love attempts to sandwich singles (“Stupid Rose” and “Death of a Salesman”) in between slow-burning personal pot meditations, but Collins makes sense of the record’s movements with his consistent voice. He rarely gets caught trying to overly impress with wordplay, coming off more human than thesaurus like rappers his age. He gets caught singing a bit too much on misguided singles like “Vanilla Skies” (which has a lovely Andre 3000 reference, to its credit), but when he stays moderately grounded and not faded in the clouds, Collins hits a sweet spot that almost no rappers defined by their drug use hit.
The hard-hitting “Ego Killed Romance” is an oddly menacing screed about finding the balance between getting caught up inside oneself and one’s own thoughts in spite of others trying to keep you grounded. On the opposite end of the spectrum, “The Outsiders” catalogues a cliché Romeo & Juliet love story, but Collins’s honest chorus about the universality of beauty regardless of location feels prescient within his Chicago heritage. Kweku keep the album’s varied production grounded with his thematic consistency, and he’s keenly aware of the potential of this album: “This feels like last summer… but this summer feel like my summer.”
That feeling is probably misguided, given the capital-m Major releases this month. But Collins feels poised to break into a space that has been dying for a representative since it lost Cudi to Kanye West insipid “I’m a special flower” syndrome. It’s debatable whether Collins will get caught in this same trap; he’s certainly getting some notable cosigns on the strength of this record that could drag him toward fame a little too soon. But even if he does, Nat Love will stand alongside A Kid Named Cudi as testament of the potential of a thoughtful, stoned early career move.
RIYL: A Kid Named Cudi, K’Naan, Chance the Rapper
Essential Tracks: “Stupid Rose,” “Death of a Salesman,” “1:30, Curbside,” “The Outsiders”
Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp
As one of the bands caught up in the Philadelphia indie rock scene explosion, brought about the backs of breakout superstars like Kurt Vile and The War on Drugs, Little Big League seemed poised to offer a refreshingly easy to digest, underrateable slice of rock with their great sophomore LP, Tropical Jinx. Yet as rock n’ roll from Philly gets pumped up to outrageous, if qualitatively deserved, heights, Little Big League lead singer Michelle Zauner zigs away from her band’s stardom with a hell of a shoegaze pop treatment as Japanese Breakfast.
Matching Little Big League’s framework of placing brashly progressive messages inside their mainstream indie rock, Zauner builds the pretty pop around diary meditations on her mother’s cancer diagnosis. It’s not as if Psychopomp is a sorrowful album (although it has its maudlin moments) — more like there’s a less playful air around Zauner than some of the arrangements, which is refreshing for the genre. With only a tiny palate cleanser in between, the plucky guitar and synth millennial romance of “Everybody Wants to Love You” turns into the morose, powerful wailer “Jane Cum.” Zauner exhibits a delightful disregard for matching lyrical tone with instrumentation, and the results are interesting trinkets of fuzz-pop around powerful lamentations about the state of one’s soul and the ever-present phantom of death.
The album’s seven full tracks (two are plaintive, synth-inspired meditations) dance around outward facing thoughts on being the other woman (“Triple 7”) and inward strategy sessions through sorrow (“In Heaven”), and are sometimes stark reminders that Psychopomp is a reworking of Zauner’s demos. But the slapdash narratives of the album also work in Zauner’s favor; she gets the chance to toss off lines like “I cling to your sleeves til they’re all fucked beyond repair / but in the night I am someone else.”
The prospect of death looms unsaid and large over Psychopomp, which makes the record feel more mature and more liable to be overlooked than most of Zauner’s indie rock peers. With the exception of “Everybody Wants to Love You,” Psychopomp doesn’t arrest your attention and demand it as some sort of modern meditation of a young person growing up. Which, of course, it is; Michelle Zauner just seems wholly uninterested in advertising her songs that way. All the better, as Japanese Breakfast feels like a fan’s keepsake for future use than a genre-crossing breakout.
RIYL: Little Big League, My Bloody Valentine, Asobi Seksu
Essential Tracks: “Everybody Wants to Love You,” “Triple 7,” “Rugged Country”
Other Albums Worth Checking Out
Colin Stetson – SORROW: Bon Iver collaborator and noted reed enthusiast Stetson appropriates Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony to majestic, disquietingly symphonic results. For anybody disillusioned by Explosions in the Sky’s sometimes excruciating sameness.
Sam Beam & Jesca Hoop – Love Letter for Fire: Iron & Wine songwriter Beam continues his historical list of inventive collaborators (Calexico and Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses among them) with powerfully smooth alto guitarist and singer Hoop. Another evolution of Beam’s trademarked back porch ethos.
Culture Abuse – Peach: Muscular punk rock that resembles something of a garage rock throwback to The O.C. zeitgest of the early Aughts. Don’t skip mid-album standout, shouter “Don’t Worry.”