In this weekly segment, we review the most notable albums out each Friday and pick our album of the week. Here are this week’s releases:
Album of the Week: Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell!
If Lana Del Rey’s work has often felt like the definition of style over substance, then Norman Fucking Rockwell! is the album that changes it all. The pop singer-songwriter’s sixth full-length release is a record full of emotional substance – not only her best material yet, but also her bravest and most mature. Del Rey lays her soul bare on every single track here, and it feels painfully honest at times: “If you hold me without hurting me/ You’ll be the first who ever did,” she sings on ‘Cinnamon Girl’, as if whispering close to your ear, while a similar sentiment comes through on ‘Happiness is a butterfly’: “If he’s a serial killer, then what’s the worst that can happen to a girl who’s already hurt?” Producer Jack Antonoff, who has produced for the likes of Lorde, Taylor Swift, and St. Vincent in the past few years, doesn’t alter Del Rey’s sound all that much; but his subtle contributions provide the groundwork for her elegantly quiet voice to shine rather than drown in reverb as it often does, while adding instrumental embellishments here and there. It’s also Del Rey’s most musically coherent album, and at 67 minutes, rather than feeling overlong – another pop album full of filler designed for Spotify playlists – nearly every song (with the possible exception of ‘The Next Best American Record’, the weakest cut here), is impressively heart-wrenching and well-written. But Del Rey saves the best for last, a raw piano ballad with her voice front and center titled ‘hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it’, where she likens herself to Sylvia Plath, takes a stab at her critics (“They write that I’m happy, they know that I’m not”, she sings, a reference to the discourse surrounding her previous album Lust for Life), pours her heart out, and holds on to a tiny glimmer of hope – just enough to rise from the ashes, like Lady Lazarus herself.
Highlights: ‘hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but i have it’, ‘Love song’, ‘Cinnamon Girl’, ‘How to disappear’, ‘California’, ‘the greatest’, ‘Bartender’, ‘Happiness is a butterfly’, ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’
Tool, Fear Inoculum
To match the massive hype surrounding their first new album in 13 years, Tool understandably had to make Fear Inoculum their most ambitious effort yet. Every Tool album so far has been more than an hour long, but this one clocks in at nearly 90 minutes, with most tracks being 10-minute-plus progressive metal epics. And yet, it’s somehow sadly their most disappointing album as well; although almost every song here would sound impressive on its own, in the context of the record, the band’s approach starts to grow stale, as they rehash a lot of the same ideas over and over to the point where the album becomes monotonous, frequently repetitive, and at worst, exhausting. There are certainly stand-out, solid moments here, like the track ‘Invincible’, where Maynard James Keenan express the band’s concern with staying relevant in the contemporary music scene through familiar war metaphors (“Warrior struggling to remain consequential”), or ‘7empest’, which remains hypnotically engaging throughout its 15-minute runtime. But, utilizing similar structures and themes, other tracks just aren’t exciting enough to justify their length, while the interludes don’t offer much either. Tool’s comeback feels a little bit like the latest Quentin Tarantino movie: technically masterful, characteristically aggressive (though the violence – or heaviness – is curiously watered down), featuring some undeniably virtuoso performances (drummer Danny Carey shines the most on the album) and a morbid sense of humour, but ultimately overlong and occasionally vapid.
Highlights: ‘Invincible’, ‘7tempest’, ‘Chocolate Chip Trip’
Common, Let Love
Legendary Chicago rapper Common comes through with a breezy, soulful, and mostly laid-back album to accompany his recently released memoir. There’s nothing really extraordinary here, but it’s not trying to be – unlike his previous full-length release, 2016’s upbeat and politically charged Black America Again, Let Love is an easy-going, occasionally inspirational affair (despite what lead single ‘Hercules’ would have you think), with reliably competent rapping from an experienced artist who comfortably acknowledges and incorporates the new generation of hip-hop into his sound (he references the likes of Cardi B while featuring artists like Daniel Caesar and BJ the Chicago Kid alongside older souls like Swizz Beatz and Jill Scott). You can probably guess the main theme of the album from its title – or the title of nearly every song here, which includes the world ‘love’ – be it love for hip-hop masquerading as romantic love (‘HER Love’), or a generic love for God on ‘God is Love’. But the most heartwarming moment is ‘Show Me that You Love’, where Common sings about his relationship with his daughter with admirable honesty, admitting his mistakes and trying to view things from her perspective in the chorus: “Show me that you’re there/ Show me that you care/ I’ve been looking for you/ But you don’t wanna share,” Jill Scott sings on the chorus. This is dad rap at its finest. Unfortunately, much of the album is ultimately forgettable, but it’s a pleasant, sometimes moving listen while it’s on.
Highlights: ‘Show Me That You Love’ feat. Jill Scott and Samora Pinderhughes, ‘Good Morning Love’ feat. Samora Pinderhughes, ‘Hercules’ feat. Swizz Beatz, ‘Fifth Story’ feat. Leikeli47
Ezra Furman, Twelve Nudes
If Ezra Furman’s previous album, Transangelic Exodus, was an angry but meticulously crafted and ambitious concept album, Twelve Nudes channels that same kind of societal fury, this time in a raw and manically brief fashion. A ‘spiritually queer punk’ record, as Furman aptly described it, the indie songwriter’s eighth full-length release is filled with exhilarating, frantic garage rock tunes with the distortion cranked up and Furman’s unbridled, howling vocals as impassioned as ever. It’s a short but fun ride, with infectiously catchy songs like the opening single ‘Calm Down aka I Should Not Alone’ or the fast-paced ‘My Teeth Hurt’, but there’s a lot of personal pain behind these deceptively simple tunes. “Remember I tried to ask what it means to be a man? They threw me in the back of a truck and they tied my hands,” Furman laments on ‘Transition from Nowhere to Nowhere’, while on ‘Trauma’ he maturely proclaims, “Years roll on and they still have not dealt with our trauma”. It’s not as if there aren’t any playful songs here, though; the tongue-in-cheek ‘I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend’, by far the most musically accessible song on the record, is also the most lyrically subversive, making the impact of Furman’s gender-defying lines all the more potent: “All my friends are writing their resumes/ My responsible friends are applying for jobs/ But me, I was considering ditching Ezra, and going by Esme”. At the end of the day, despite all the pain and frustration, Furman suggests with the title of the closing track, ‘What Can You Do But Rock n’ Roll?’.
Highlights: ‘Calm Down aka I Should Not Be Alone’, ‘Transition from Nowhere to Nowhere’, ‘My Teeth Hurt’, ‘I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend’