Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Drake - More Life review

More Life, Drake’s latest album, has been the set of songs I’ve returned to most this summer. Released originally as, according to Drake, a ‘playlist’, Drake’s lyrics explore exactly the same topics we expect him to: isolation and success, sadness and fame, love and heartbreak. It’s the sublime instrumentals - which Drake doesn't receive a single credit for - that keep his music alive and keeps the listener coming back. Whether or not Drake has much choice over the instrumentals, and to what extent his record company aims to manufacture a certain sound for him is unclear - what is clear is that Drakes sound is one which captures the furious moment in which we live like no other. The range of samples at use here is eye-catching, with distorted snippets from The Ojays, Jennifer Lopez and Swedish singer Snoh Aalegra being woven through a rich texture of synths, beats and electronic notes. Just what is about this backing sound, then, that makes this music so good? Mark Fisher described it as the ‘gorgeous electro-downer haze’ that emanates like thick cigar smoke from all of Drake’s music: the sense of a party coming to an end, of, having spent all evening rushing around, trying to find some slither of meaningful connection, finally finding relief in curling up on your own and staring off into space in silence, as night turns into day.

The first two songs offer a showcase of what Drake the artist is all about. The opener Free Smoke is a blistering exercise of the anger Drake feels in a life that gives him everything but at the same time only has him wanting more. As a slow beat crunches amid the sound of alarms, we hear of how he is “all so spoiled now: more life more everything”, surrounded by people he doesn’t trust: “lot of niggas going bad on me please one at a time, I’m a move to Dubai so I ain’t ever have to kick it with none of you guys”. It’s in exploring these melancholic features of his life – in this instance, that success brings alienation from the people he thought he was close to – that Drake’s voice sounds most at home.

The second track, No Long Talk, sees Drake experiment with a Jamaican accent and suffers because of it: his rhymes feel forced, and his rapping descends into a kind of hollow bravado, boasting of sleeping with women and chasing people he doesn’t like out of town. This is Drake at peak-cringe, trying to wear the mask of a proud, beefy Jamaican crimelord having just, on the previous song, rapped furious about how lonely life is at the top. With the opening track in mind, it is between these two extremes that Drake's voice dances, either in catharsis, in exploring and finding meaning to his own sadness, or trying to violently break out of any melancholy by pretending to be someone and something he isn’t. Thankfully on this album, the former tends to win out.

The following four songs are up there with the best Drake has ever released: a waterfall of open, spacious sounds which ooze out of the headphones and in through your ears. Passionfruit is an awesome sound of strings, hushes and a tender vocal, which laments the near-end of a relationship turned sour. The next three songs are of a similar vein, riffing on crumbs of failed love and the inescapable, seemingly infinite hangover from fame and success that haunts Drake on every album he releases. The final one of these three, Madiba Riddim is my favourite tune on the record: he raps on the “voodoo spells put on his life, it won’t work- they have all tried” and only moments later is singing soft – “I can not tell who is my friend, I need distance between me and them". The transition from coarse rap to sweet song, from crabbed self-restriction to open air is something Drake does like no other mainstream rap artist, and offers a literal showcase of just what Drake finds him making music: therapy, in discovering a momentary escape from his surroundings, from what Fisher called the ‘pressures of [Drake’s] identity’ - the chance to be born anew, if only for a second.

It’s clear from listening to More Life and indeed any of his albums that Drake struggles severely with the pressures and binds of fame and success. On the one-hand, he appears addicted to the limelight and dollar-signs: “I don’t take naps- me and the money are way too attached to go and do that”, he spits, almost in fury, on Gyalchester. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Drake resents his attachment to money as much as he is willing to boast about it. In the age of scrolling down endless reels of news feed and Instagram pictures, this inner frustration at something you can't even stop yourself from doing over and over again feels like a microcosm for much of what goes on in our daily lives. On Glow, a collaboration track with Kanye West which begins with the lonely, warped sound of a synth uncoiling around a dark, sparse beat, Drake's sings in autotuned desperation: "I just take the dreams I been sold, and sell them for more - you already know". The following line, "watch out for me I'm about to glow" sounds even more like a cry for a help. The sense is that fame and money are the only games in town: though you know they’ll only leave you lonely and empty, they are the only options you can even start to try and pursue. Kanye goes on to rap that "we the new Abu Dhabi this our time" – it’s hard to think of a more fitting an image to the sound of More Life than that of wondering on your own through a capitalist megaworld of endless skyscrapers and shopping malls. Perhaps the time will come when Drake is able to dream anew, to create his own dreams, and that will probably be the point at which his muse is finally able to move on from the tortured contradictions of being famous and extremely wealthy. This time will you imagine, you hope, be a world away from Donald Trump and the desolation and pantomime freedoms of the neoliberal age.

More Life has also received attention for the use of two British grime artists on three of its songs - Skepta and Giggs. It’s not particularly obvious why this was done, other than for Drake, renowned for his privileged, middle-class background, to try and co-opt a perceived authenticity he has always craved yet never attained. Skepta raps on a whole song of his own, boasting of how he made it, fucked it, then made it again, while at the same time somehow managing to repeat the kind of self-obsessed hypocrisies that are Drake’s trademark – boasting of the size of his bank account, while at the same time trying to distance himself from other rappers who shout about buying Rolexes. As per Drake, forced bravado and misogyny aside, at least Skepta’s verses contain some kind of reflection, some hint of a man who is trying to work himself out through his art. Giggs’ lines meanwhile, sound like a snapshot of the very worst of British grime music, a blitz of promises to devour as much money, drugs and women as he possibly can, without any regard for anything else.

So sensitive over the perils of success yet so proud of his wealth, so in tune with his emotional side so yet so endlessly trapped in a cold rat-race of his own making, the various different masks of Drake only begin to make sense when you realise that behind it all lies a void of sincere identity, and one which Drake is prepared to try and fill with whatever he can get his hands on. It’s this clambering for something to hold onto though, an attempt to clutch a face or idea that’ll stick that resonates so strongly with the world we live in today. The pace of technology and the upheaval unleashed through whole societies by market forces means that there is little time for us to truly enjoy even the faintest moments of connection to each other that we find. It’s easy to feel sorry for Drake as More Life comes to a close, lamenting the loss of love and the loss of himself in Since Way Back, as he thinks about the place he left behind to conquer fame and wealth. He signs off with a promise to “get back to [his] regular life”, hoping it’ll “humble” him in Do Not Disturb. Perhaps a turn away from the excesses of being a global superstar can help Drake find some inner peace, and provide him with the chance to channel his artistic talents into thinking about how we can live a life of meaning and prosperity, both at once - a life that somehow avoids the plundering sadness Drake’s muse has been consumed by for far too long.

Sunday, 2 July 2017


Fairly old tune now but the industrial beats, the sense you're listening to the tune through a smoke-filled tunnel, those elongated strings, longing and reaching for something they never touch, the quick transitions of Ocean's voice from vulnerable affirmation to cathartic wail, and then the lyrics: hard to think another song which sums up the haunting emptiness that is the modern consumer experience more than this one

I think I started something 
I got what I wanted
did-did nah can't feel nothin'
even when i'm fucking
and every single record

I blame it on the...

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Desolation Row revisited: was that some kind of joke?

Desolation Row is the final track on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 album. Unlike the album’s other tracks, Desolation is an entirely acoustic number, travelling out long at 11 minutes 21 seconds. The song begins with a downbeat two strum, limping acoustic strings slowly tick and rick upon adoor. After four or a five seconds, just before Dylan’s voice enters, a second acoustic begins to whine, softly winds around the strumming dumbing beat, drifts in and out: light notes, small streaks of brief fire amid darkness.

They’re selling postcards of the hanging

They’re painting the passports brown

Noted for its wide range of canonical references, including Ophelia, Robin Hood and TS Eliot, Desolation Row is considered to be Dylan’s most literary effort. But the song holds so much more than just that. Desolation Row is one of the saddest songs I have ever listened to, a song about dejection, the final whimpers of a dying dream. Highway 61 was written only a year before Dylan’s infamous motorbike crash in 1966, and his subsequent 8-year break from touring and the media spotlight. Dylan had spent years in the centre of the public eye, his every move shadowed and his every sound waited on desperately by the folk music community. And his move from purely acoustic music to an electric sound, which began in 1964 with the release of Bringing it All Back Home saw a backlash develop against Dylan amongst the folk crowd. Instead of writing lyrical call to arms against the American Establishment, Dylan was criticised for abandoning the protest movement in favour of personal pantomime.  His lyrics depicted surreal moments, of stumbling upon Guernsey cows, of conversations with shadowy promoters about starting a new World War, instead of focusing on a specific political campaign. 

The Newfolk community’s criticism of Dylan was that in departing from protest songs, Dylan was downing his political tools, instead withdrawing into himself and his own phantasy in order to find creative inspiration. Yet it is clear from a song such as Desolation Row, that Dylan was beginning to find the world too sickening, too enflamed with madness to protest against anymore. Everywhere he looked, a carnival rocked of blood and misery. 

The beauty parlour is filled with sailors

The circus is in town

His songwriting began to consider this madness ironically, and Dylan began to create stage characters who would embody it within his lyrics. There’s the obscure vigilante Captain Arab in Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, and the various figures of authority who order workers about on Maggie’s Farm. But far from a turn away from the political, Dylan’s songwriting on Highway 61 is an attempt to depict society through song and metaphor. The Newfolk community missed the idea that by abandoning direct protest in favour of metaphor and fantastical paraworlds, Dylan was only trying to further entrench and enrich his art in the social fabrics from which it emerged. 

And now the riot squad they’re restless

They need somewhere to go

As lady and I look out tonight on, desolation row

The song is ten whole verses, scrambling out Dylan’s muse, his voice weary, strained, bearing more weight than the youthful croon heard on The Freewheelin. A sure part of this comes down to the sheer intensity of Dylan’s life at this point: as Scorcese’s No Direction Home alludes to, an incessant press and brutal touring schedule meant that as much as anything, the motorcycle crash allowed Dylan to spend some much needed time locked away from the outside world. You can see Dylan feeling the weight in these clips, his face bearing the look of a man ground thin, with nothing left to him but old routines, passing round and round a rat race he’d dedicated his life and artistry to escaping.

Einstein disguised as Robin Hood

With his memories in a trunk 

Passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk

Oh he looked so immaculately frightful

As he bummed a cigarette

Then he went off sniffing drainpipes, and reciting the alphabet

There’s an analysis to be carried out on how Dylan’s singing voice buckled under the heaviness of touring and media attention during those early years. But we underestimate the sheer genius of Dylan as an artist to believe him incapable of altering the sounds of his voice according to the song and time at hand. Because in Desolation Row and in the live performances around the time of Highway 61’s release, Dylan’s voice channelled not only the feelings of exhaustion and defeat which had swamped his own lived existence, but which were also beginning to swamp American society. 

  I want to accept this award, the Tom Paine Award, from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. I want to accept it in my name but I'm not really accepting it in my name and I'm not accepting it in any kind of group's name, any Negro group or any other kind of group. There are Negroes - I was on the march on Washington up on the platform and I looked around at all the Negroes there and I didn't see any Negroes that looked like none of my friends. My friends don't wear suits. My friends don't have to wear suits. My friends don't have to wear any kind of thing to prove that they're respectable Negroes. My friends are my friends, and they're kind, gentle people if they're my friends. And I'm not going to try to push nothing over.

The above is taken from a speech Dylan delivered in 1963, after receiving the Tom Paine award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Union, a collective of Civil Rights pressure groups. Dylan’s early albums serve as an incredibly accurate chronical of the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s. The Death of Emmet Till, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll deliver bitter, furious tirades against white on black murder, and the injustice of the American law in the face of this murder. Only A Pawn in Their Game recalls the murder of black activist Medgar Evers by a Klan member, situating the rage and madness of the white working-class in the South within the puppet-strings pulled by a ruthless, devastating American Establishment. 

Dylan’s attack on the March on Washington in his speech to the ECLU bears striking resemblance to Malcolm X’s view on what X termed the ‘Farce’ On Washington. 

      Yes, I was there. I observed that circus. Who ever heard of angry revolutionists all harmonizing "We Shall Overcome. . .Suum Day. . ." while tripping and swaying along arm-in-arm with the very people they were supposed to be angrily revolting against? Who ever heard of angry revolutionists swinging their bare feet together with their oppressor in lily-pad park pools, with gospels and guitars and "I Have A Dream" speeches?
      And the black masses in America were--and still are--having a nightmare

Dylan and X were both present at the March, though its impression on them was not one of the immense collective achievement reported through newspapers. Dylan left confused at what the March represented, also shying quickly away from any attempts to use him as a movement poster-boy. X believed the entire thing to be a sham led by the White Establishment, thereby diluting the true potency of the organised Black masses. 

And the only sound that’s left

After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up, on Desolation Row 

The Civil Rights Movement saw the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. It saw the end of school and housing segregation, again, both changes which were framed in legislation by the Democratic government at the time. But the fundamental class structures that had pinned Black people’s backs to the ground for so long remained intact, and ‘race riots’ continued to be a feature of urban life in the States well into the 1970s. America stumbled out of the 60’s fractured, still splitting at the seams. The optimism of the decade had spiralled up in smoke to the dark skies at Woodstock, and Desolation Row defines this moment like no other song, picking over the broken bones of the dead idea: that America could be a new place and that the past could be left in the past. 

A sense of harrowing failure creeps out from every corner of the tune. It’s there in the figure of a mad Einstein, crawling around the streets searching for a quick fix, and in the sadness and desperation of Casanova, with nowhere left to turn but extreme nihilism. The feeling on this song, in Dylan’s voice, is that he has reached the end of a road which started out a dream, and ended up a nightmare. Desolation Row itself as a place, is described by Dylan as the drowning sense of isolation and loneliness that takes ahold once you realise how fucked up things really are. Desolation Row is the place Dylan and his lady look out from, onto the restless riot squad. It’s the place where the Good Samaritan goes out to party, only to notice that everyone else has headed off inside. 

There’s also the hint that Desolation Row is not itself, a bad place to be. It’s where Dylan describes Einstein as having once played the electric violin to much fame and applause, and in the final three verses, the suggestion that Desolation Row is a place we absolutely must pass through in order to for anything to meaningfully change for the better, begins to emerge. It is the place Dylan wound up in 1966, having taken a battering from the industry of touring and recording music, the place he could set a seat down on his own, and, trembling from the madness which had bought him there, begin to apprehend just what on earth had been happening all around him. 

And at midnight all the agents

And the superhuman crew

Comes out and rounds up everyone who knows more than they do
And they take them to the factories

Where the heart attack machine

Is strapped across their shoulders and then the kerosene
Is bought down from the castles by insurance men who go

Check to see that no body is escaping to Desolation Row

For a long time this by far was my favourite verse on the song. It’s on surface, a seething critique of a society based on capitalist production, where powerless people are forced to sell their freedom for safety. And it ends on the insistence that wage-labour is in fact a means of stopping people from escaping to their freedom, to Desolation Row. 

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune

The Titanic sails at dawn

And everybody’s shouting

Which side are you on?

There’s a degree to which being cast off, thrown out from the merry-go-round smile of society can be a great thing. Some of the most painfully isolated times in my own life have been the most personally rewarding, offering the rare chance to regroup, to work out what is and is not important, and to allow my thoughts to run without the hassle or interruptions of others. Constantly wired to some device, plugged into a live network, it’s difficult to ever find this time today. Mark Fisher described it as: you can never be bored, everything is boring. You are never alone, you always feel lonely. It’s near impossible to escape to Desolation Row, and to survey the sure turn of the world around you for what it is, free from distraction. 

Between the windows of the sea

Where lovely mermaids flow

And nobody has to think too much 

About Desolation Row 

The Dylan that recorded Desolation Row was the Dylan in sunglasses, the shadowy figure who slipped on and off the stage, a man who had come to resent the adulation and popularity he had craved for so long. The early Dylan was fresh-faced, as you can see in these videos, basically a young boy writing music, performing it on stage to a captive audience, completely in love with the entire thing. But by 1966 the man on stage had come to resemble something quite different. He had mastered the trick pulled by the Clancy brothers, of holding a face of mystery on stage, as if, somehow, in Dylan’s words, ‘the performer knows something the audience doesn’t.’ As the faces in his audience which once sat in bewitched adoration now scrunched and booed and jeered, Dylan became only further alienated from performing. As well as in his voice, this alienation can be heard in the wail of his harmonica from live performances of the song in 1966. Like some kind of low-blue siren, the harmonica’s call comes as a kind of release within the song, the chance for Dylan to whistle out his sorrow and anger before singing the final verse. In these performances, the harmonica sounds something like a final cry, an attempt to salvage some crumbs of defiance while everything Dylan felt to be meaningful and important is gouged and beaten beyond any recognition.

All these people that you mention

Yes I know them they’re quite lame

I had to rearrange their faces

And give them all another name 

When feeling low, there’s a sense to which we don’t want the company of people who are still floating. Their happiness grates on our mood, as if it somehow stands for a lack of understanding on their part: look at how much they smile, they could never understand my sorrow. And perhaps Dylan’s final statement on Desolation Row, is to suggest that before things can progress, we must all, somehow, be able to understand each other’s pain: a reconnection to the other of some sort, that goes way beyond, way deeper than the bursting paraphernalia and the ubiquitous, hollow gestures of late capitalism.

Right now I can’t read too good

Don’t send me no more letters no

Not unless you mail them from, Desolation Row

Friday, 16 June 2017

what next for Tories

What next for the Conservative Party, then? Robert Halfon, the old Skills Minister was on the BBC three days ago insisting that the party was in need of a 'fundamental rebranding' from the Conservative Party to the Conservative Worker's Party, which should stand for election on the basis of a worker's charter. Of course, this shows just how far Corbyn has managed to swing the debate. Indeed, Theresa May's speeches since the election result have included the vague promise of a 'country that works for everyone', and there's no doubt that the party will be searching for a new campaign, a new message, after the disaster of her most recent campaign.

Turnout at the most recent election was 68.7%, the highest since 1997. The Conservatives  are aware of two things:

1) That the wealthy are overrepresented within the actual voting population. The poorer you are, the more likely you are to not vote

2) That Corbyn's strategy is to try and mobilise this group of alienated voters. With just under a third of the voting population not bothering to turnout to vote still, there is a large, untapped potential for Labour's message

The Conservatives then, must find a way of counterracting Labour's appeal to these potential voters, and this involves providing a meaningful answer to the fallout from neoliberal government, which has harmed these voters the most.

Even in 2010, David Cameron appeared aware of the need to show some kind of awareness of how tough things were at the bottom. Cameron stood outside the Downing Street front door promising his 'government will always look after the elderly and the poorest in our society', even before creating the bedroom tax, and before introducing ATOS into the benefits system.

But now, with an increasing portion of the middle class experiencing this fallout as well in the shape of stagnant wages, the Conservatives risk breaking the camel's back altogether, and must find a way of backing-up this rhetoric with policy and actual economic outcomes.

What I think could be interesting, something to look out for in the coming months as the Tories try to untangle the mess strung out by Cameron and then polished off by May, is a kind right-wing economic nationalism, similar to the policies put forward by Trump in America: essentially a promise to reignite the country's industrial base by repatriating low-paid manufacturing jobs. This to me seems the most obvious way out for the Tories, the most obvious answer to their most pressing question: who on earth is there left out there who can be persuaded to vote Tory, to help increase the party's share of the vote? Of course, Trump's success was a product of the fact that his opponent in the 2016 Presidential vote didn't properly address the neoliberal fallout, or try to offer her own answers to the alienation and inequalities in American society. It's vital that Corbyn/Labour distinguish their own programme for government, for remaking the structure of the British economy from that of the Conservatives, in order to prevent their own, very powerful message from being diluted and co-opted.