So astonishing is the confessional that makes up the second half of Voyage to St Louiscious that it could be set to the tune of the Birdie Song and still have you on your knees. In fact, it nearly is – a five-note ascending scale sung 32 times in succession has no right to be arresting, but in Meilyr Jones’ shivering hands it is, his delivery and lyrics combining to make the most unexpectedly piercing song of 2010.
The unexpectedness lies in the scene setting: Louiscious’s opening section is a spritely mariachi stomp whose tempo never permits a sense of introspection or lament, despite the themes of lost love. While the lyrical clues are there early – “The night we spent listening to Clifford T Ward, we found it quite funny but it’s you that I adored” is laced perfectly with regret – the mood and vocal delivery is all show-must-go-on resilience rather than anything more profound; indeed, the follow-up line, “those days are dead, look at us now, lost and alone!” is sung with almost a music-hall flippancy, despite its bleakness.
But then the song slackens, discards its flamboyance and begins the most eloquent treatise on heartbreak you’ll hear all year. Jones talks of his brain “rife with memories” – a horribly evocative image. He poses three consecutive questions with the ever-increasing panic of an exasperated man scrabbling to make sense of the unfamiliar – “Do you cry for me? Or have you moved along? Why must we move along? We are not in a queue!” It’s slightly manic, slightly nonsensical, and so believable. And all that’s before Jones suggests becoming a loved one’s tear in order to spend a night on their pillow, a concept almost Hemmingway-esque in how many gorgeously heartbroken ideas are bound up in one concise expression.
As he finishes his monologue, the band strike up once more and the stoicism and stiff upper lip seems to return. But in those two minutes of blood-letting – eloquent, articulate and admirably blunt – sadness and loneliness has seldom sounded so stunning.
Track 1: Horchata
Track 7: Cousins
Track 10: I Think Ur A Contra
There’s a school of thought in anatomy that, in terms of evolutionary design, the ear is the most impressive human organ, because its complexity is perfectly commensurate with its function. There are more intricate body parts, like the eye or brain, but they are overly fussy even for their awe-inspiring tricks, argue the academics. The ear, on the other hand, is precisely as elaborate as it needs to be; it is exactly fit for purpose, and that natural elegance is intrinsically beautiful.
A similar sense of organic but not overwrought complexity is the hallmark of Contra, and precisely its enduring appeal. After the success of their first record’s instantaneity, it would have been relatively easy for Vampire Weekend to bash out another twelve Oxford Commas. They could also have overcompensated for the chart success with a po-faced, overly muso record that was more eager to impress than it was to please (see MGMT’s latest). Instead, Contra is the best of both worlds: a perfectly formed, wonderfully measured collection of songs that are tuneful and stylish but also, without exception, substantial and brilliantly-realised pieces of chamber pop, with enough twists and originality to set it apart from the crowd.
Where Vampire Weekend’s first album felt overplayed within a few months, Contra doesn’t. It may lack the relentless cartwheeling of its predecessor, but actually, across an entire album as opposed to a two-minute single, that’s a virtue. With Contra, one gets the impression that Vampire Weekend were writing a single piece of work: there’s a cleverness here than isn’t intimidating, an insistence that’s never grating and a deliberateness that’s never heavy-handed. It’s a charming record whose construction and content are equally satisfying and perfectly attuned to one another, and it remains, nearly a year on from its release, the most well-balanced LP of the year: charismatic, sophisticated and effortlessly natural pop.
Listen to Contra on Spotify
Anyone who knows Croydon knows that it shouldn’t sound like this. Sleek, smooth and luxurious, Where You Should Be is a big-budget night of hedonism in a lavish New York club, all velvety throb and pouting synths – a far cry from the London satellite town synonymous with a grim girls hairstyle, ASBOs and cheap sportswear. But even so, Where You Should Be’s incongruent provenance is barely a beat of its brilliance. Its real pull lies in its confidence and swing, taking all the best elements of dubstep (the hypnotic bass, the great lolloping half-pace groove) and grafting them onto the modern American R’n’B blueprint to make an incredibly sexy, assertively heavy record that sounds effortlessly cool coming out of the back of a drop-suspension Escort.
Indeed, had Teddy Riley, the genius behind swingbeat pioneers Blackstreet (and essentially the inventor of new jack swing), grown up in Croydon in the 90s instead of New York in the 80s, then Where You Should Be would surely have been his calling card instead of the seminal No Diggity. Another brilliant example, following Monday’s Four Tet remix of VCR, of mining old genres to come up with something fresh, Where You Should Be has sass, swagger and real punch, and is one of the classiest R’n’B tracks you’ll hear all year.
In the past ten years, Damon Albarn has turned his musical chameleon skin many colours, but it took until last summer’s Blur reunion for him to rediscover his most affecting hue: that of the bruised, melancholic troubadour, the purveyor of grand, epic sighs on the scale of This Is A Low, The Universal and Tender. As the undoubted highlights of those gigs, perhaps Albarn felt moved to rekindle their majesty once again – Saturday Come Slow certainly suggests so.
And what vintage Albarn this turns out to be. There are opaque references to a far-off land, sung with an aching fondness; there’s a vocal refrain in the form of “do you love me?” which is just as everyman as “it really really really could happen” or “c’mon c’mon c’mon, get through this”, and accordingly tailor-made for festival encores. Its melody is simple, bewitching and graceful.
In terms of Massive Attack’s cannon, too, this is as haunting in its own way as Angel or Unfinished Sympathy – and, like Albarn, it’s a trick they haven’t successfully performed for well over ten years, making it all the more astonishing.
Spine-tingling and quietly urgent, Saturday Come Slow is Albarn’s most tender performance since, well, Tender, and Massive Attack’s most perfectly restrained. It is, quite simply, one of the most elegantly tired ballads of recent years.
Disc 1, track 6: Baby Birch
Disc 2, track 4: Jackrabbits
Disc 3, track 6: Does Not Suffice
Length is important in pop music. For those who gripe about buying an album only to discover it’s half an hour long (and to whom the counter-argument should simply be: “Revolver”), Have One On Me is an instant win – it is three discs and two hours of incredibly dense, beautifully written songs with variety in theme, arrangement and style. But, of course, value for money is different to virtue, and there’s none inherently generated by writing an album that takes two hours to listen to; in that respect, Joanna Newsom shouldn’t be recognised for the scale of her creation any more than the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary should be for theirs.
What is so impressive about Have One On Me, however, is that it totally justifies its marathon running time. Like the dictionary, it is long not because of self-indulgence but because it has to be – this is a record so complex and intricate, with such delicate ideas and intertwining threads, that it needs the space it commands. When Newsom tackles her acrimonious break-up with Bill Callahan across several songs, subtle dissections of the nature of love and loss are preferred to straight woe-is-me sentiment. When she examines the idea of homeliness at varying points, the ideas are crisply articulated in beautiful couplets but, nonetheless, they require thought and explanation that simply can’t be provided in a three-minute hit.
Her bravery in doing things this way, letting the music wend its natural way instead of bashing it into standard formulae, makes Have One On Me a deeply admirable record too. Yes, there’s a terrific pop hook on the title track, but it doesn’t appear until nine minutes into the song because that’s just when it feels right to unleash it; Baby Birch is six minutes old before it really gets going, but the scene-setting is as important as the action, and Newsom wants you to enjoy both.
I have an increasing suspicion that Have One On Me will one day be seen as a towering masterpiece – the musical equivalent of Guernica or Apocalypse Now in terms of its dimensions, detail and distinctiveness. After all, it’s still handsomely repaying careful repeated listening nine months after its release, and that kind of longevity represents something far more impressive than value for money.
Download Have One On Me or buy the physical edition direct from Drag City Records’ website
The last time it was acceptable to underpin a piece of electronic music with a breakbeat, Fatboy Slim was king of the dance world and the Propellerheads were considered perfectly reasonable contenders for the Mercury Music Prize. 1998 is long gone now though, and perhaps enough time has elapsed for a reprise. Kieran Hebden certainly seems to think so, and he has a point: for all its retrograde connotations, the crackly looped break that ushers in his remix of VCR is surprisingly refreshing: something this light and funky offers a pleasingly sharp contrast to the intensity and moodiness of most of 2010’s dance music. His new bassline for the track, too, feels like a forgotten friend, all bouncy and nimble against the brood and wobble elsewhere in the genre.
This being Four Tet, though, a straight big-beat remix this ain’t – his attentive fingerprints are all over the production, in the tiny oscillations that burble their way through the top end of the mix, separating The XX’s duelling vocals from the sparse guitars to which we’re accustomed, and his decisions about what to cut and what to keep from the original version are carefully judged to invoke rather than remind. In the understated techno beat that pulses throughout, too, Four Tet creates a nice echo, albeit a mutated one, of the original record’s percussion, and the end result is an inventive reworking of an already fine record: mellifluous, rippling and unexpectedly nostalgic.
Although virtually every incarnation of love has been discussed in song at some point, cocktails of love’s many guises all in one glass rarely spring up, and it’s exactly that blend that makes What Our Love Is such a moving piece. From one angle, the song is tender and sweet, offering companionship in the form of tessellated heads and shoulders and sleeping out underneath the stars. From another it plays on love’s neuroses, cautioning the listener not to go to bed if they fear something “waiting to grab you in the night and throttle hope from your heart”, there’s the calmness and security of doing a crossword on a Sunday afternoon, and from another angle still there’s something altogether more carnal and smirkingly smutty: “the smell of your box on my moustache” is surely the most unlikely line in a country song of all time, but it is gloriously evocative nonetheless, naughtily funny and no less sincere for its ribaldry.
The multi-angled approach serves to make the song all the more convincing too. This isn’t chocolate box love here; no, it’s a couple who are utterly dedicated to each other’s every facet, who are just as likely to go down on one another as they are to complete the puzzle page of the newspaper together. The sparseness lends the track a simple dignity, honesty and sensuality, and the contrast of arrangement with subject matter, especially in the second half, makes for a terrific paradox. That’s What Our Love Is might feel more 18-rated than most songs of its genre and subject-matter, but its idiosyncrasies render it as surprising as it is heartwarming.