This Friday the 13th saw the launch of three satisfying albums, from genres that couldn’t be more different from each other: Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers from the celebrated rapper and Pulitzer Prize-winner Kendrick Lamar, The Black Keys’ Dropout Boogie and Florence + the Machine’s Dance Fever.
Fridays have conventionally been the day most new albums drop—a tradition buttressed by commercial reasons, such as Billboard’s weekly tracking (Friday-Thursday) of new music for its charts, and the fact that streaming platforms refresh their new music playlists on Fridays. Sometimes, this leads to largesse of the kind I am referring to.
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Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers is Lamar’s first album in five years—the last album, Damn, which came out in 2017, got him the Pulitzer Prize. Few albums are awaited with the sort of anticipation that his new works are.
Lamar is considered to be one of the most influential musicians of his generation. As a rapper, his style, lyrics and album concepts are pretty unique. His music straddles jazz, funk and soul and his lyrics are literate, dealing with personal issues and social hot-button topics such as racism and politics.
On the 75-minute, 18-track Mr. Morale, he never seems to be deliberately stretching his songs; for the listener, there is never a moment of dullness. Lamar talks about his new family, his partner and two young children; about his struggles with writer’s block and several personal issues, including a reference to the sexual abuse his mother suffered.
Even if you are not into rap, most of Lamar’s albums (notably Damn, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and To Pimp A Butterfly) have the power to potentially convert you. Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers is no exception. What strikes you is his honesty and ability to share his most intimate feelings. He talks about seeking therapy, about self-doubt, infidelity, and addiction to lust. It’s an album that demands multiple listenings and, for Lamar, who has already won dozens of awards, including over a dozen Grammys, this album could certainly bring in more.
The second album of note is The Black Keys’ Dropout Boogie. Debuting 20 years ago with the spare, minimalistic and raw The Big Come Up, Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney, the Ohioans who make up the band, have taken their music and turned it into a high-energy, full-blooded southern rock sound that makes them stand out among contemporary blues rockers. Auerbach and Carney are in their early 40s now but not for a moment does their high-voltage, energy-driven new album seem boring.
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Always influenced by southern blues, the duo’s Dropout Boogie is rock-influenced and danceable, but also very soul-inflected. There is a very funny video, a sort of parody, for Wild Child, one of the tracks. In it, Carney, the drummer, states that the band will reconnect with its “blue-collar roots” and will rock.
That’s exactly what they do on Dropout Boogie. The duo has incorporated elements of southern blues rock, evoking the sound of older bands and musicians such as the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, especially in standout tracks such as Didn’t I Love You and Burn The Damn Thing Down. In fact, Billy Gibbons is featured on one track, Good Love.
Dance Fever is Florence + the Machine’s fifth album. Fronted by Florence Welch, whose music is often compared by critics to singers such as Kate Bush, Grace Slick and P.J. Harvey, the British indie rock band’s sound is influenced by the experimental and stylistic forms of art rock or baroque pop, in which elements of classical and orchestral music are discernible.
Welch’s compositions often have a sort of romantic Renaissance period feel, sometimes with a hint of darkness. The title of the new album, Dance Fever, may be a reference to the mass hysteria that was apparently a phenomenon in the 17th century, when people would dance to exhaustion or even death in a sort of trance—some believe, in an attempt at exorcism. On the album, fittingly, Welch sings like a person possessed, and the music, replete with drum samples and pop synthesiser hooks, conjures up an image that is more live performance than studio recording.
There is an element of darkness and personal struggle in her lyrics. In Choreomania, she sings: And I am freaking out in the middle of the street/ With the complete conviction of someone who’s never had anything actually really bad happen to them/ But I am committed, now, to the feeling and then I don’t know how it started/ Don’t know how to stop it/ Suddenly, I’m dancin’/ To imaginary music.
As I mentioned, the new albums from Lamar, The Black Keys and Welch couldn’t be more different from each other but listening to them back-to-back over a single weekend is like immersing oneself in a panoply of contemporary genres. In other words, it is extremely satisfying!
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First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
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