Here are my reviews and scores for December 2017 albums.
Songs of Experience – U2
With their 14th studio album, U2 continue to do what they’ve always done and find inspiration through politics and love, showcasing it either through heavy, forceful choruses or delicate, echoing guitar textures. To briefly touch on the history just to save face, these last two album releases, meant to be paired as a single project, aren’t a good sample size to determine U2’s place in the music world. They’ve used similar ground level musical tactics over the last 30 years, though these last couple of works show a considerable decline in musical care and thought, existing only because the band keeps on reacting to modern day politics and knows that they have the power to get people to listen. They’re having fun making music while they’re at it, but this individual passion project is nothing compared to the level of captivation and overall power that they achieved in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Now, onto this specific work, since it’s ultimately worthless to compare it to anything else when discussing its quality. Despite an overall run-down, ho-hum feel to the moody textures and sameness in the vocals, there was still a considerable amount of strong songwriting. When working within upbeat tempos and good dynamic builds, Bono delivered some grasping choruses that emphasized shape and sat well within the music, giving good direction in songs like “You’re the Best Thing About Me” and “The Showman”. The melodies did not find similar success within slower, single dynamic songs, like “American Soul” and “Landlady”. There were several nice surprising moments of intrigue when the song could have just went nowhere and hammer home a message. Given that there weren’t engaging musical decisions around every corner, though, this made me believe that these songs simply lacked effort and relied all on intuition. That was actually not too bad for a veteran group like this, but if they had taken the time to figure out what the actual musical potential could be for each song, perhaps by stretching ranges more, giving stronger nuanced beats, or layer on more guitar effects, this could have been closer to achieving a more powerful delivery. There was a little too much of a bend towards stale modern day conventions of unnecessary melodic repetitions and flimsy soft textures, as if given the green light to do so in order to gain the attention of younger listeners, but that was never too much in the way and the music still held its overall integrity. The bass guitar use was the strongest element of the music, being the solid harmonic foundation and enhancing every new atmosphere it was in with forefront groove while the guitar was freed up to be more melodic and charismatic. While it may be one of their worst albums they’ve done, it’s still more enjoyable than most of today’s overthought marketed crap.
Final Score: 129/180
War & Leisure – Miguel
The music has a consistent groove with mellow tempos and a nice spotlight on the electric guitar, but that’s really all it has in terms of worth. The layers beyond the basic groove were either quite flat or quite tacky. The melodies had a strong presence within the music but never created a truly compelling line to deserve any sort of repeated listen. While they did use a wide vocal range and paint a rather happy-go-lucky picture, they had no surprise or juicy bits to mesh with the music on any other deeper level. On top of that, they weren’t paced well at all, being oddly dense in some sections while disappearing for an unwanted amount of time in others. The melody could rarely produce something that drew my full attention to it, and it seemed like that was a main goal for the music. Still, only the song “Sky Walker” was obviously annoying and ugly. The harmonic layer was a little more engaging and well worked to fit the mood, but it did nothing beyond that to give this work personality or excitement. In most songs it dipped into a boring repeated progression, but it was only boring in its lack of color, not necessarily the rhythm or the arrival points. A couple songs were actually driven by a unique, colorful progression, although still heavily repeated, that became the obvious standouts on the album. Again, the only real strength of this music was the consistent chill mood through nice use of the guitar. That doesn’t even amount to anything too noteworthy when comparing it with what’s out there already. The ceilings that this music reached are common ones, and they seem to help with marketability and appreciation from all ages. This can be pretty popular around the kids, but as a whole it lacks weight and conviction.
Final Score: 116/180
The Visitor – Neil Young & Promise of the Real
While there’s always a conversation to be had about new music, there honestly isn’t too much to say about this work. That’s mostly because the musical foundations, techniques, and deliveries here have been engrained in the ears of rock music listeners for at least 40 years, and Neil Young really does nothing to change that. That’s good news for some, namely Neil Young lovers, and bad news for some, namely listeners interested in hearing something they haven’t heard before. I seem to fall somewhere in the middle, as I can understand Young’s unchanged approach as it does carry a sense of smooth, uninterrupted, and valuable sound, but I also sense obvious musical improvements that could be made but I know won’t be. On top of that, music lovers across the spectrum seem to accept everything about that already, so the only attention this is getting is from those who have found real joy in Young’s simplistic, sensible, somewhat groovy musical approaches. He’s always been a reliable source of music for someone who just want nothing to sound out of place, an occasionally he’ll come up with a catchy tune. Nothing is really catchy here, though, with the album only being held up by the timely political themes in the lyrics. Melodically, there was nothing that took away from the experience, as Young used basic tendencies and understanding of linear motion to produce something for the words to effortlessly skate off of. In the grand scope of what they could have been, they were also quite boring, with a lack of any broad shape or bravery to move out of a comfortable vocal range. The harmonies fluctuated a bit more, being noticeably weak when a four chord progression carried no originality in color or meter, but mostly held up fine with a sensible structure that didn’t detract from the mood and allowed the obvious meanings to be deliberately portrayed. The timbre was slightly the most compelling element, but not by much. Only in the song “Children of Destiny” was there enough engaging additions to the basic guitar/drums/vocals sound, being the one track that actually had a fearless quality to it. With the basic guitar strumming and occasional keyboard/harmonica interlude, nothing sounded distraught or unwanted; but it also didn’t sound heartwarming or significantly delightful. Neil Young is good for today’s dads who just want sincerity and nothing to sound odd, and he delivers. It should be nothing surprising, and it’s really not worthwhile outside of Neil Young fans. However, this goes to show the level that Neil Young can reach by just showing up to a studio with any amount of lyrical inspiration. Many musicians try an execute abstract ideas or rest heavily on their intuition, yet they can’t come up with a song that grooves and sounds any better than the overly repetitive, bland, and predictable song “Digging a Hole” here. Young just needs to wake up in the morning in order to produce something that’s worth listening to by somebody.
Final Score: 113/180
Revival – Eminem
Rounding out the year is an album from an old pro that knows his strengths and did nothing whatsoever to compliment them. At least he seemed self-aware through it all, as much of his lyrics came across as him being in the moment, reflecting on how his audiences will most likely react, and then proceed to not care at all about what anyone thinks. That’s nothing terrible, but it didn’t amount to anything good. Eminem’s strength is his rhyming flow as a rapper, which in my rather novice opinion seems to go untouched in the world of rap. It’s obviously present here, with lots of juicy rhymes, nice plays on words, and continuous phrases that ignite energy. Of course, that’s only in his verses, and it wasn’t terribly consistent all the way through despite some very nice moments. He’s one of the best to ever write lyrical verses, but that’s certainly not the only element to the music. It was the obvious focus and reason behind the music, actually giving it a good sliver of worth. However, there’s so much that needs to go into making music aside from awesome rhyming dictionary manipulation. His style of fast, intricate rap needs the support from an invigorating structure in order to reach its full potential. It needs basic solidity from a remote backdrop that allows the rhythmic delivery of the rap to truly shine. Breaking away from obvious AB forms would also help. Nothing on this album gave any sort of consistent support to a melodic layer that ultimately got old with repeating techniques, although cool in itself. The beats were flat. The countermelodies were annoying. The samples from other songs were cheap and mood dampening. The guest artists were hardly collaborators, instead just grabbing the spotlight long enough for people to lose a sense of purpose and meaning in the music, even though some artists gave a couple interesting melodic hooks. Overall, this went on for way too long without any real reward. It’s not an abomination thanks to Eminem actually having a lot of talent, but it’s too one-dimensional and too uninspiring. I can only take so much word cleverness without engaging musical ideas. If this were most anyone else on the mic, it would’ve been much worse.
Final Score: 105/180