Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars

 

Bruce Springsteen’s 19th studio album Western Stars is out today on Columbia Records. The 13-track release marks Springsteen’s first new studio record in five years. Produced by Springsteen and Ron Aniello, the album draws inspiration in part from the Southern California pop records of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Western Stars features music from more than 20 players, including Patti Scialfa, Jon Brion, David Sancious, Charlie Giordano, and Soozie Tyrell.

Listen to Western Stars here.

To celebrate the release, Springsteen has also shared a music video for the album’s title track, directed by Grammy and Emmy Award-winner Thom Zimny. The video features Springsteen in scenes inspired by the song’s lyrics, performance footage and vignettes shot in Joshua Tree, California.

Watch the “Western Stars” visual here.

“Western Stars” is the second Thom Zimny-directed video from the new album. Springsteen previously shared a Zimny-helmed performance clip of “Tucson Train,” which Esquire referred to as “heart-swelling,” adding “Springsteen seems to be steadying his gaze on the grittier, more difficult corners of his mind.” Prior to the two visual pieces, Springsteen shared “Hello Sunshine” from Western Stars, which NPR Music said “has a kinship with great country philosophers like Willie Nelson and Charlie Rich.” He also shared “There Goes My Miracle” from the album, which Billboard noted “reveals a whole different gear from the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.”

Check out what press is saying about Western Stars.

“Hauntingly brilliant…it’s nothing like the Boss has done before…Western Stars is more than worth the trip.” – USA Today

“A gorgeous love letter to the idea of songs providing salvation…the sort of magic Springsteen specializes in conjuring.” – Entertainment Weekly

“Some of Springsteen’s most beguiling work ever…the sound dates back to Springsteen’s youth, and he channels it masterfully.” – Rolling Stone

“Breaks fresh ground for the veteran rocker…his storytelling skills are as strong as ever.” – Associated Press

“A work representing an entirely new direction…an album steeped in myths, and yet, it also seeks to puncture them.” – Wall Street Journal

Billie Eilish When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

Pitchfork review by Stacey Anderson

The debut album from the meteoric pop star lives in a world of its own: gothic, bass-heavy, at turns daring and quite beautiful.

Billie Eilish has suddenly become an obscenely famous pop star—the kind with 15 million Instagram followers, sold-out shows around the world, a haute modeling contract, and couch time with Ellen DeGeneres. Her brilliance is an obvious truth; just ask any teenager in America as they wait patiently for the rest of the world to catch up to their consummate taste in pop music.

Of course, the 17-year-old Eilish is still waiting for her teeth to straighten out. This fact trumpets the arrival of her debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?: For its intro, Eilish removes her much-loathed transparent braces in a series of lightly gross, ASMR-worthy slurps, and proclaims, “I have taken out my Invisalign and this is the album.” She then dissolves into heaving cackles, the kind that alienates any onlookers too prissy to partake. There are several more oddball moments like this—absent-minded humming to a track, giggling asides—that remind us she’s still a precocious, creative teen girl on this rocket, and all her gothic proclivities don’t cancel out how much she’s enjoying the ride.

Her rise has been striking: At 14, she put the song “Ocean Eyes” on SoundCloud, a glassy, straightforward ballad with tearful synths and woozy, Lana Del Rey-indebted crooning. She snared a young fanbase with her hooks and raised her middle finger to pop’s status quo; here was this music that shifted between genres—from pop to trap and EDM—made by a lawless young female singer sporting baggy, androgynous clothes. She cast her bored, listless eyes upward instead of batting them at the camera. She filled her videos with flowing black tears, plunging needles, and arachnid hors d’oeuvres instead of twirling around sleek cityscapes. Eilish’s creepy eccentricity feels so removed from the pop formula; it helps distance her from the music industry’s historically lewd maceration of teen idols. Eilish just seems sharper, meaner, more self-sufficient—a young star from Los Angeles, in the grand tradition, but one that could only have come along while its hills are burning.

The best moments of When We All Fall Asleep play firmly into this formula. Inspired by Eilish’s frequent night terrors and lucid dreams, the album juggles dark compulsions with grim eulogies, balancing her feathery vocals with deep, grisly bass. Like her spirit animal, the spider, Eilish can weave something that is at once delicate and grotesque: In “you should see me in a crown,” she lulls the listener into a false idyll with her murmured lilt, then leaps off the cliff of a tectonic dubstep bass drop, her sneer fully audible. (That the title is cribbed from Moriarty, the beguiling psychopath of television’s “Sherlock,” also speaks to her pull toward the sinister.)

“xanny” plumbs sincere anxiety over more marrow-shaking bass, the kind that could blast apart a few pairs of headphones. Eilish’s voice crossfades over the narcoleptic beat, and slips into full despair, whimpering her most self-aware lines on the record: “Please don’t try to kiss me on the sidewalk/On your cigarette break/I can’t afford to love someone/Who isn’t dying by mistake in Silver Lake.” Eilish’s lyrics wonderfully underscore how all teen angst is both fiercely sincere and an affect of being only partially informed.

A similar spirit drives “bury a friend,” another early single. Despite the vocoder-style distortion, Eilish’s voice feels even more intimate as she hisses, “Step on the glass, staple your tongue” in a farcical singsong. Eilish has namechecked Tyler, the Creator as one of her greatest influences; in her slightly jazzy trill, too, she also nods to her clearest pop progenitor, Lorde, who cleared much of Eilish’s path with her autonomous creative control, heavy-lidded social observations, and blithely goth aura.

Still, all Eilish’s weaponry can’t stop her most overtly pop track, “bad guy,” from going stale. A snappy pulse launches Eilish into a litany of taunts against her partner. Over the rubbery electro beat, she says she’s the “make-your-girlfriend-mad type/Might-seduce-your-dad type.” It gave me pause because it suggests that perhaps Eilish isn’t so far removed from the teen pop continuum as we’ve come to believe: How different is her bragging about statutory rape, culturally, from trussing up 16-year-old Britney Spears in pigtails and plaid? Even if it’s a teen girl’s decision, entirely, to flaunt her sexuality (or engage in provocative roleplay), the line crosses a boundary plenty of adults were happy to cosign.

The quieter moments of When We Fall Asleep nod more to Eilish’s past, and to mixed results. Much like her first EP, 2017’s Don’t Smile at Me, they skew glum instead of macabre, even briefly twee. “wish you were gay” spotlights Eilish’s vocals, which deserved better than being spackled with canned studio laughter and self-involved lyrics in the lamentable lineage of Katy Perry’s “Ur So Gay.” Minimalist, mournful piano ballads like “listen before i go” and “when the party’s over” further prove her vocal talents amid larger inertia. Throw in a cheeky, extended riff on an episode of “The Office” on “my strange addiction”—which smatters in clips of the Dunder Mifflin crew reacting to Michael Scott’s own contentious creative efforts—and you have an album as widely collagist as a teen’s bedroom wall.

Twenty One Pilots – Trench

Billboard review by Chris Payne

On their first new album since the duo’s shocking mainstream takeover, Twenty One Pilots have steadfastly refused to give up their eccentric core tenants.

In the three-plus years since releasing the concept album Blurryface — a deceptively pop-friendly exploration of frontman Tyler Joseph’s personal demons — the Ohio pair sent three tracks to the Billboard Hot 100’s top five and moved more than 1.6 million units of the breakthrough album (according to Nielsen Music). It was enough to make them bankable household names, as befuddled critics and industry gatekeepers finally had to admit these suburban misfits into pop’s commercial elite. They won a Grammy, then stripped to their underwear on the national telecast. Five months later, drummer Josh Dun accepted a trophy at the Alternative Press Music Awards by speaking cryptically about the new fictional universe that would host their then-unannounced Blurryface follow-up.

Arguably 2018’s most widely anticipated rock album, Trench revels in the confounding genre-blurring and cavernous conceptualism that has defined Twenty One Pilots over their nearly decade-long existence. If anything, it’s weirder than its predecessor, and even more self-assured in its pursuit of a cohesive concept, which again centers on Joseph’s inner-turmoil.

On Blurryface, the titular character represented the frontman’s insecurities in writing and performing; on Trench, similar forces of anxiety and depression are manifested in DEMA (a fictional city Dun mentioned in that APMAs speech) and a band of enforcers called Nico & The Nine, whom Joseph, Dun and their allies, the Banditos, are perpetually trying to evade. If that seems like a lot (it is), this new universe was at least detailed in the pair of singles that introduced the Trench cycle back in July. The bizarro reggae of “Nico and the Niners” outlined the adversaries, and the vicious, bass-driven hardcore of “Jumpsuit” explained Joseph’s getaway tactics: special garments that make them invisible to their pursuers. The latter spent three weeks in the Hot 100 and quickly shot to No. 1 on Alternative Songs, flexing Twenty One Pilots’ streaming and alt-radio muscle despite near-impenetrable oddness.

“Jumpsuit” is Trench’s opening track, and Joseph ends it by screaming its chorus amid an air-raid bass breakdown. The album never again approaches such brutality, despite the unusually strong case it makes for Twenty One Pilots-gone-hardcore. Instead, Joseph and Dun re-maneuver familiar Blurryface touchstones — perky reggae textures, ukulele beds, paranoid backpack rap — alongside jarring new developments. The menacing slow-burner “Chlorine” slinks by with menacing, Zaytoven-esque piano twinkle before descending into complete darkness. Back-to-back Side A highlights “Levitate” and “Morph” deploy rapid-fire breakbeats and jarring left turns that recall the Prodigy and DJ Shadow, suggesting what a virtuoso percussionist Dun has become. Electric guitar has little (if any) presence on the album, yet “The Hype” and “Legend,” both jubilant, crowd-ready panoramas, carry a good deal of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? in their DNA.

Perhaps that’s why these two are just about the only previously unheard Trench tracks that sound like potential singles (“My Blood,” its most radio-friendly song, recently broke into the Alternative Songs top 10). Joseph’s shrill falsetto does recall a litany of commercial alt-poppers from “Pumped Up Kicks” to “Feel It Still” (and countless also-rans in between), and its frequent appearances occasionally grow grating. It’s awfully difficult to keep an album this sprawling and freewheeling cohesive at the same time, but outstanding sequencing and production continuity meet the challenge over Trench’s 14 tracks. Twenty One Pilots employed a handful of producers on Blurryface, but this time, that cohort is down to Joseph and new collaborator Paul Meany, frontman of intrepid alt-rock veterans Mutemath. Again, there are no features. This is a band that’s defiantly productive when it’s furthest down its own weird wavelength.

It’s no coincidence they’re awfully good at pissing off rock traditionalists too. We’re talking about the sort who prefer their songs siloed off into familiar scenes like punk, metal and alt-folk and are often older than Twenty One Pilots’ legion of streaming generation devotees. But there’s meaning in the madness. Against preposterous odds, Trench is simultaneously ambitious and cohesive and ought to convert some outsiders. As for a repeat pop takeover, it has so far failed to find footing on the Hot 100 and, massive fanbase not withstanding, the crossover door could be closing for now. What’s certain, though, is that the massive fanbase isn’t going anywhere. Trench matches the stakes of Blurryface and all its demon-conquering, genre-blurring catharsis, while raising it one on the sonic universe holding it all together.

Paul McCartney – Egypt Station

Rolling Stone Review by Rob Sheffield

Make a list of all the songwriters who were composing great tunes in 1958. Now make an overlapping list of the ones who are still writing brilliant songs in 2018. Your list reads: Paul McCartney. Sixty years after “Love Me Do,” his legend already inviolable, Macca keeps adding new gems to his songbook, with nothing to prove except he’s the only genius who can do this. Egypt Station, his first in five years, is a deeply eccentric song cycle in the Ram mode, made with pop savant Greg Kurstin. The past fifteen years have been a glorious time to be a Paul fanatic—the man has been on a songwriting roll, ever since the 2005 Nigel Godrich jam Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. (And oh yeah—in his spare time, he happens to be still the greatest live performer on earth.)

Egypt Station flows as a unit, structured like a long ride on a cosmic train, beginning and ending with ambient railway-station noise. It comes five years after 2013’s New, where he stepped out with the psychedelic nugget “Queenie Eye,” one of his funniest and weirdest ever. (Real talk: “Queenie Eye” would have been a top 5 song on Magical Mystery Tour.) These days, he’s not on any kind of assembly line—he only makes albums when he’s got enough worthy songs saved up, which is why his recent work has been top-notch. On Egypt Station, he mixes pastoral acoustic reveries like “Confidante” with intimate piano confessions like “Do It Now.”

Macca spends most of the album singing in character, voicing sentiments people don’t usually expect from this guy. Case in point: “I Don’t Know,” a ballad of mid-life doubt. (“I got crows out my window, dogs at my door / I don’t think I can take any more.”) He’s also picked up a knack for silly sex songs like “Come On To Me” or the ridiculous “Fuh You,” which basically serves as a sequel to his 1971 shagathon “Hi, Hi, Hi.” With the Romantic Beatle slavering “I just wanna fuh you,” it makes “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” sound subtle.

This album’s masterpiece: “Dominoes,” one of those Paul creations that feels both emotionally direct yet playfully enigmatic. An eerie acoustic guitar hook, worthy of the White Album, builds for almost five minutes, complete with an old-school backwards guitar solo and the disarming farewell line, “It’s been a blast.” It aims for sonic territory someplace where “Too Many People” meets “You Won’t See Me,” yet it ends up somewhere different entirely. “Dominoes” is one of his toughest solo moments ever—it has the unmistakable McCartney touch everybody else keeps failing to copy, yet it feels totally fresh and new.

All Egypt Station has that playful spirit. “Back In Brazil” is a surprisingly successful electro-samba detour, while “Do It Now” expresses the same sentiment as his classic John Lennon elegy “Here Today,” as an older-and-wiser Paul reflects on the kind of emotional resolutions you seek when you realize how short life is. “Happy With You” is a sober folk oddity: “I sat around all day, I used to get stoned / I liked to get wasted but these days I don’t.” Even the timely anti-Trump protest “Despite Repeated Warnings” is a 7-minute mini-suite in the style of “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”: even when he’s pissed off about political apocalypse, Paul gonna Paul. As he always should. And as Egypt Station suggests, as he always will.

John Hiatt: The Eclipse Sessions

Paste review by Eric R. Danton

John Hiatt  had as good a run as anyone between 1987-2001, a stretch that yielded eight albums, including some of his best. From Bring the Family through Thank God the Tiki Bar Is Open, Hiatt was in peak form as a songwriter, and a succession of ace backing musicians helped bring his music to life. (Even the critically and commercially unloved Little Head from 1997 is better than its scornful reviews.) His albums since then haven’t been bad, they just haven’t been particularly distinctive, an issue he goes some way toward rectifying on his latest.

The Eclipse Sessions is Hiatt’s first new recording in four years, his longest pause between albums since the ’70s. The break seems to have done him good: these songs feel more focused and purposeful than on some of his other recent releases. Apart from one track, “The Odds of Loving You,” there’s also a merciful absence of the gruff aging-white-guy blues that Hiatt and other singers of his vintage sometimes fall back on. Instead, he nestles into a rich folk-rock vein on these 11 songs, blending acoustic and electric guitars with the thrum of an organ and the ever-steady hand of drummer Kenneth Blevins, who has played with Hiatt on and off since Slow Turning in 1987.

As you might expect from a guy who just turned 66, Hiatt is in a reflective mood as he considers aging, love and his past selves. He recognizes his own shortcomings on opener “Cry to Me,” and hopes that having a tender heart helps balance them. Hiatt is just as gentle on “Hide Your Tears,” resonant piano and a baritone guitar part framing his worn-in voice. He picks out a melancholy acoustic guitar part on “Aces Up Your Sleeve” as he assesses a once-smoldering love that has cooled over the years; and twists the knife on “Nothing in My Heart,” a sullen rebuke to “the one who showed me how / To hide my love away.” It’s not all downhearted takes on dulled and tattered emotions. Hiatt has always had a sly sense of humor, which is in evidence here, too. He gets some mileage out of a double meaning on the wry “Over the Hill,” which includes a sharp guitar solo from producer Kevin McKendree’s teenage son, Yates.

At its core, The Eclipse Sessions shows that Hiatt remains a songwriter worth listening to: He’s a skillful lyricist with a singular voice. Yet anyone who’s been releasing albums for as long as Hiatt has tends to bury themselves under the weight of their earlier work, which fans have been imprinting on their souls for decades. If his latest album doesn’t quite rise to the level of Bring the Family or Slow Turning, well, that’s a high bar, and Hiatt is not the same person as he was in his mid-30s. But the past is past, and The Eclipse Sessions is strong enough to make an impression of its own.

A Star is Born – movie soundtrack

Vulture review by Craig Jenkins

Real stars, the astrophysical ones, are born through a lengthy process of collapse. They begin as tiny reactions in the midst of clouds of dust and gas in space, condensing and bonding over hundreds of thousands of years until the collected heat and mass result in nuclear fusion. It’s poetic that A Star Is Born, the enduring tragedy of the Maines, a Hollywood power couple whose fame dynamic grows catastrophically unbalanced, has built its titular star time and again under a pall of collapse and decay. That’s art. That’s showbiz. You make sacrifices to get to a better station in life. That’s Phoenix. That’s Jesus. The story of A Star Is Born abides because it is familiar. But it taxes because it is cruel. The destruction of the male lead is mechanical in its effectiveness. It treats its female lead like a hunk of iron ore, something that needs to be manipulated and refined by a professional to tease out its inner strength.

Bradley Cooper’s latest incarnation, the film’s fourth, is one of the best because it works hard to make you like the characters, to make you believe they like each other, and then to show you why you never should’ve trusted it with your feelings to begin with. As much of a joy as Judy Garland is in George Cukor’s 1954 adaptation, it never seems smart for her to pour so much time into James Mason’s bullish Norman Maine. As believable as Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson are as a couple in the quiet moments of Frank Pierson’s 1976 iteration, barroom brawls and pistols fired at helicopters give certain sections the tone of a Charles Bronson film. Cooper and Lady Gaga’s Star works because it’s charming and realistic in its staging, acting, and music. It’s part One Crazy Night and part Greek tragedy, a little bit country, and a little bit EDM. I believe in the 2 a.m. drunk stumbling into a gay bar because it’s the only thing open serving alcohol and being paralyzed by great karaoke. (I’ve seen it!) I believe in the kitchen clerk with the gobsmacking voice, the Yes tee, and the Carole King Tapestry LP hanging on her bedroom wall. I believe in the doting dad who’ll never let you forget the time Paul Anka paid a compliment to his singing.

Cooper’s musical performances in A Star Is Born dramatize the discouraging sensation of trying your best and losing. Failure and death are chilling undercurrents in nearly all of his songs. Writing alongside gifted country troubadours like Jason Isbell and Lukas Nelson — son of Willie Nelson and leader of Promise of the Real, which currently serves as Neil Young’s backing band — Cooper produced a batch of songs haunted by time and memory. “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,” the Isbell song muses with foreboding clarity. “Too Far Gone” and the duet “Diggin’ My Grave” double down on the fixation with mortality. Cooper is surprisingly effective singing the sad songs; the only points where you remember you’re watching a movie star play a musician are heavier tunes like “Black Eyes” and “Alibi,” where the actor strains too hard to play the part of rock star and comes out with a lot of gruff vocal tones and emotional boilerplate, but even those seem believable as old blues-rock hits that still pop for older crowds.

The rise of Lady Gaga’s Ally Maine amid Jackson’s systematic self-destruction is both a heavy-handed rockist parable and a clever opportunity to modernize the film’s music. Ally’s growing pop-radio traction makes for some cunning Gaga qua Gaga dance-pop tunes as the film moves along, and her character finds footing as a backing vocalist, a songwriter, and later, a solo star. The solo Ally tunes reunite Gaga with Artpop producers Nick Monson and DJ White Shadow. “Hair Body Face” sees the singer presiding pridefully over her comfort zone in the same way that Barbra Streisand’s Mrs. Maine comes to life belting out slow-boiling, melodramatic ballads like “Evergreen.” Like ArtpopA Star Is Born’s overt pop moves are fascinating, but “Why Did You Do That?” and “Heal Me” ride promising verses to choruses so canned they threaten to prove Jackson’s point that Ally is more “real” when she’s reaching deep for pained blue notes. Gaga’s ease with soul and country tunes, foreign-language standards, and torch songs means that Ally’s journey toward (and later, away from) big radio songs is more illuminating than the performances where the line between Gaga the real-life pop star and Ally the imaginary pop ingenue begins to blur.

“Shallow” is the big-deal duet of this soundtrack, and deservedly so. The hook is a freight train, equal parts “Bad Romance” and Born to Run. The thunderous last-minute key change and home-run final chorus are worth every statue the tune stands to snag next awards season. The songs that gamble most on the natural soulfulness of Gaga’s voice reap the best rewards. “Always Remember Us This Way” is a patient ballad co-written by veteran country songwriters Lori McKenna and Natalie Hemby that takes flight when the singer breaks out hooting wordlessly after the second verse. “Look What I Found” is top-notch retro soul that relies on Gaga’s upper register to convey the breathless rush of a new crush. Her voice is equally powerful in small moments, like the bit of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” sung in tribute to Judy Garland in the film’s title sequence, and in colossal ones like the show-must-go-on closer “I’ll Never Love Again,” a jack of Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” so heartbreaking that it’ll make you cry in spite of yourself, which is frankly the arch purpose of the entire endeavor.

A Star Is Born is the Hollywood myth writ large, a survey of doomed silent-film actors that keeps getting revived because its root truth — that fame is a beast that bucks when you least expect it — has not changed in 80 years. It’s fitting that Gaga, an artist who warned that fame was a monster a decade ago, should embody the role of Mrs. Maine with such grit and grace. This isn’t her first go at blending music and acting, and it won’t be her last. It’s an ambitious venture for Bradley Cooper as well, blotting away the stain of the gaudy, indulgent ’76 version of this film by teaching himself to direct, write songs, and sing live on the journey to becoming Jackson Maine. A Star Is Born perseveres in spite of its minor faults and quirks, and it shines brightest in its music. The lasting gift of a great musical is watching the soundtrack grow a life of its own outside of it; it won’t be long before these songs dominate the kinds of bar karaoke nights where Jackson met Ally in the first place.

Elvis Costello & the Imposters – Look Now

Pitchfork review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine

Joined by his Imposters in the studio for the first time in a decade, the silver-tongued songwriter turns tunes from abandoned musicals into a surprisingly cohesive record.

More than a decade ago, Elvis Costello suggested his recording career may be over. “I’m not of a mind to record anymore,” he told Mojo. “There’s no point… In terms of recorded music, the pact’s been broken—the personal connection between the artist and the listener. [The] MP3 has dismantled the intended shape of an album.” For a spell, it seemed Costello was making good on that promise. After 2010’s sprawling National Ransom, he effectively retired from the studio, resurfacing only for Wise Up Ghost, a collaboration with the Roots that they actually initiated. Earlier this year, Costello revealed he survived a bout with a “small but very aggressive” cancer, so his return to the studio for the sumptuous Look Now, his first album with the Imposters in 10 years, is especially welcome.

Costello stayed busy throughout the past decade, pouring his energy into themed-based shows, whether reviving his Spectacular Spinning Songbook after a quarter-century or transforming his memoir into a solo tour that partly played as an homage to his dear departed dad. Just last year, he and the Imposters—the name he gave to the Attractions after dismissing perpetual pest and bassist, Bruce Thomas—celebrated the 35th anniversary of Imperial Bedroom, the 1982 album where Costello’s sophisticated songcraft really flowered.

During this self-imposed studio exile, Costello continued to write, something he proved with new songs during each tour. He kept his eye on the other sort of stage, too. He had two theatrical projects in the hopper with Burt Bacharach—one based on their 1998 album, Painted From Memory, the other a new concept—and toiled away on a musical adaptation of A Face in the Crowd. None of these came to fruition, due to the complexities of Broadway financing, but their pieces are, in part, the fodder for Look Now.

Imposters drummer Pete Thomas cobbled a few of the demos Costello had sent into a playlist, modeling it after Dusty Springfield’s sultry 1969 classic, Dusty in Memphis. Intrigued by the sequencing, Costello began to fashion an album from these homeless tunes and stray songs, poaching from his unfinished musicals and rifling through his cupboards of compositions. Echoing Momofuku, the 2008 album that marks the last time Costello recorded with the Imposters, Look Now plays at first like a simple set of songs that eschews grand concepts for immediacy.

Despite their statliness, these tunes are startlingly direct, both emotionally and melodically. They carry only the vaguest air of Costello’s signature cleverness and no trace of anger. Opener “Under Lime” is Costello’s explicit sequel to “Jimmie Standing in the Rain,” a 2010 tale of a down-on-his-luck cowboy crooner. “Under Lime” chronicles a dark backstage exchange between the washed-up singer and a young female intern. It’s a dazzling tune, a miniature five-minute musical where the dexterous arrangement matches wordplay so witty that the title’s lime comes to represent alcohol, stage lights, and the grave. It suggests the arrival of a rich, audacious song cycle. But the rest of Look Now proceeds at a gentler, empathetic pace, lingering upon the bittersweet plights of their protagonists—usually women, always etched with kindness—instead of rushing toward a conclusion.

These details abound because this material had an unusually long gestation. “Suspect My Tears,” a gorgeous ballad that functions as a showcase for all the melodic tricks Costello learned from Bacharach, first aired during a 1999 duo tour between Costello and pianist Steve Nieve. Costello revived “Unwanted Number”—a sensitive girl-group pastiche written from the perspective of a teenager dealing with an undesired pregnancy—from a 1996 film loosely based on Carole King’s time writing at the Brill Building. He penned “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter,” a densely layered confection, with King herself around the same time. Rather than forming a patchwork, these disparate origins inspire a surprisingly cohesive album, as they follow a distinct, deliberate point of view—lush, complex, and proudly mature, music that champions tradition while shunning nostalgia.

As a collection of tunes, Look Now is a triumph for Costello, a showcase for how he can enliven a mastery of form with a dramatist’s eye. But as an album, Look Now is a success because of the Imposters. Unlike Imperial Bedroom or Painted By Memory, the focus isn’t studio trickery or strings but rather the lean muscle of a band who has spent decades following their leader’s every whim. They are a sharp, supple outfit that can swing and sigh, sometimes within the same number, as when they effortlessly pivot between bossa nova verses and a radiant chorus during “Why Won’t Heaven Help Me?” This subtle sophistication and palpable flair make Look Now more than a mere set of songs—it’s a record worth getting lost within.

John Prine – The Tree of Forgiveness

John Prine’s The Tree of Forgiveness Is an Imperfect But Moving Summation of His Strengths

 by Winston Cook-Wilson, Spin

Bonnie Raitt’s comparison of John Prine to Mark Twain seems apt on many levels. Both are singular American storytellers and ironists, with wits sharper and stranger than their peers. Although this is not always the case, Prine’s music feels humble and unassuming. Nearly 50 years into his career, the role he now assumes in the canon of American singer-songwriters is similar: the one who influences and mentors the people who make the hits, a “cult favorite” whether that describes the situation totally accurately or not.

In reality, Prine is a far more complex and contradictory voice than he’s usually given credit for being, and his genius is more formidable. His songs project a distinctly Midwestern, no-nonsense attitude, but they juxtapose poignant realism, hallucinatory parables, and non-sequiturs, the latter inserted to point out the absurdity of the enterprise. His deepest observations may come as throwaways in some shaggy-dog story, and his silliest lyrics may be set to some of his most beautiful music (see, for instance, Bruised Orange’s “Sabu Visits The Twin Cities Alone”).

The Tree of Forgiveness, Prine’s first album of original songs in nearly 13 years, attempts to compress the contrasts he has exploited throughout his career into one concise package. It has a certain plaintiveness befitting a late-period statement in a legendary artist’s career, channeling the wistful selections on his more chintzily produced ‘90s albums The Missing Years and Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, and 2005’s understated Fair and Square. The more brutal character sketches of his early albums (including his most revered song) have been marginalized in favor of more cosmic platitudes and comic dalliances. There’s no prestige-y veneer (think Rick Rubin’s American Recordings) to soothe the homespun quality of these recordings. Instead of surging string sections, there are faint Mellotron warbles and hints of slide guitar, often courtesy of Jason Isbell. If this record wasn’t actually made in a living room, it could have been. The album’s slightly roughshod quality channels the creative process behind it. Many of the songs are leftovers from past writing sessions finished up (for instance, the Phil Spector co-write “God Only Knows,” which dates back to 1977) and more recent, eccentric musings committed hastily to tape.

Every story Prine tells about himself these days draws the image of the real John Prine with the average-joe narrators in his songs. As if workshopping a lyric, he claimed during his recent Tiny Desk Concert that he only recorded his new album on Tuesdays, because “that’s when they serve meatloaf” in Nashville (Prine’s interest in the city’s meatloaf specials is borne out by a tidbit from a recent biography). The songs on The Tree of Forgiveness reify this fictional version of the contemporary Prine, eating pork and beans on his porch and thinking back on lost time. Many great country singers have capitalized on their own outsized, checkered reputations in their music as they aged–Merle Haggard and George Jones being two particularly spectacular examples. But Prine’s fictional version of himself is quite the opposite of those Tennessee legends’. The banality of Prine’s snapshots of his supposed life routine is crucial to his songwriting–the counterpoint that gives his existential aphorisms more weight.

On The Tree of Forgiveness, the choruses are not quite as cathartic and catchy as they once were, and inevitably recall the same Prine melodic cadences and structures that have endured throughout his near-50-year musical career. From co-writer to co-writer, results vary. The funereal, Trump-haunted Dan Auerbach cowrite “Caravan of Fools” sounds a bit more like budget Townes Van Zandt than a John Prine song. But elsewhere, the mischievous spark returns, usually on Prine’s collaborations with seasoned Nashville hitmaker Pat McLaughlin, with whom Prine has been writing since the ’90s. Their breezy opener, “Knockin’ On Your Screen Door,” is the simplest possible schematic of Prine’s skill set as a songwriter: a three-chord two-step with a verse that’s the same as its chorus, strongly amplified by a couple of evocative turns of phrase (“I can hear the train tracks/Through the laundry on the line”) and a sense of deep loneliness at its margins. If you’re looking for much more, then you probably shouldn’t be listening to a new John Prine record.

Here, as always, Prine’s most distinctive ideas come when he’s writing alone, threading out some strange daydream beyond its logical conclusion. His solo effort “The Lonesome Friends of Science” is a perfect example of a whimsical concept–Pluto being declared a planet rather than a star–stumbling into profundity. From “Pretty Good” to “Lake Marie,” a common tactic of Prine’s has been to pull the concepts of his verses ever further from the topical thrust of the chorus. Nowhere is that more evident than on “Science”‘s tangent about an Alabaman version of Vulcan recalling his acrimonious divorce from Venus. Similarly, “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)” guides us through two verses about an overeager young man with gel in his hair trying to woo the daughters of farmers who are coming into town to trade their eggs and cream. But ultimately, the extended yarn is a memory: the boy, now “Grandpa,” is jolted out of his reverie, wetting the bed and hobbling around the nursing home as “eternity approach[es] fast.” Somehow, in Prine’s elocution, the twist is charming rather than morbid.

This is far from the only place on the album where Prine contemplates the afterlife. Heaven has been a recurring staging ground for Prine since the beginning of his career–see “Fish and Whistle,” “He Was in Heaven Before He Died,” and “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” for instance. As he explains during The Tree of Forgiveness’s hootenanny finale “When I Get to Heaven,” the record’s name is taken from a fictional nightclub Prine hopes to open in the sky. He names his cousin and brothers and hopes he’ll meet the funnest relatives in the Great Beyond. Here’s hoping The Tree Of Forgiveness is not either an incidental or deliberate farewell. If it must be, at least it’s both a suitably goofy celebration of his career and a dignified capstone.

Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

Kacey Musgraves Just Put Out One of the Best Records of the Year So Far

Brandi Carlile – By the Way, I Forgive You

Carlile’s sixth LP is a move toward her prestige era, a moment when she’s expected to reconcile the warring parts of herself for a growing audience.

One of Brandi Carlile’s strongest points, to her admirers, is her ease with the tonal switch, moving abruptly from honing pin-sharp details at full volume to whispering evocative commonplaces. There’s a similar quality in her relationship to genre: Her deft straddling of country and folk suggests Americana, but Carlile is too restless for that. After the churning and most welcome rock dalliance of 2015’s The Firewatcher’s Daughter, her sixth album is on first listen a return to the acoustic arrangements she favored in the Bush II years. But hairpin turns are Carlile’s specialty, and By the Way, I Forgive You turns out to be something less than an advance but more than a retreat: It’s a move toward the prestige era of her career, a moment when she’s expected to reconcile the warring parts of herself for a growing audience.

Her collaborators this time are an impressive bunch. A Shooter Jennings credit, in Nashville circles, is the musical equivalent of a Michelin star, a welcome sign of her growing ambition. He and Dave Cobb—the latter helming celebrated albums by Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, and Jason Isbell—co-produced this LP, and they and Carlile (along with longtime bandmates and co-writers Phil and Tim Hanseroth) have got their shit together. Which is not to say there are no reaches: By the Way occasionally succumbs to the overwrought, as if Carlile were still auditioning. She should know better than to outsing orchestras, especially when the late Paul Buckmaster conducts them (“The Joke”). When the arrangement and the song are right, though, the risks pay off. The acoustic hooks, string section coda, and admissions of wanderlust on “Whatever You Do” suggest “Moonlight Mile,” and while her version doesn’t come close, Carlile’s instincts are sure: Knowing she’s singing a keeper dovetails with her narrator’s determination to stay stoic.

Using the offhandedness of the album title as lodestar, Carlile examines the wages of contrition—who needs it, who benefits, the effects on survivors. For gay men and women, reconciliation is an inevitable part of the burden of history. Or call it a whistling in the dark. Hard lives darken By the Way, recollected with the mild unease of someone who has to go home a couple times a year. “I never met a coward I don’t like,” she observes in “Whatever You Do.” An observation as criticism, for one of those cowards is Carlile herself. “Most of All” addresses warring parents whose lessons don’t fit gender expectations: The dad in this song taught her the wisdom of keeping a cool head, the mom how to fight. “Sugartooth,” the album’s catchiest number in part thanks to Jennings’ rolling keys, is a valentine to a schoolmate who’d give you the shirt off his back so long as you didn’t take his drug money. “He was a liar but not a fraud,” Carlile sings, in one of By the Way’s pithiest inversions.

If there’s one subject music-biz lifers know well, it’s the road, where payoffs come in the future if at all. Carlile’s second album, released just over a decade ago and containing her best-known tune, “The Story,” only went gold last year. Rarer still to find an artist who distills the banality of hotel rooms and mud-streaked tour van windows into approximations of wisdom. Told from the point of view of a woman whose young daughter still astonishes her, especially when this daughter breaks heirlooms, “The Mother” pivots around the declarative statement, “I am the mother of Evangeline.” No-nonsense, even curt, “The Mother” is this album’s finest moment. Loudon Wainwright III could have written it.

As the success of Isbell’s The Nashville Sound has shown, there’s an audience for records like By The Way, I Forgive You, particularly when their narratives require fictive leaps no higher than the average 2 Chainz album does. And Carlile has the kind of respect from peers that this audience goes for: With 2017’s Cover Stories project, the likes of Dolly Parton, Pearl Jam, the Avett Brothers, and Adele treated her songs as if she were John Hiatt in 1989. A weakness for vocal histrionics plagued Hiatt, too, recall. But the 36-year-old songwriter, who can count a former president as a fan, knows this is her moment. The album’s a tad awkward, like many projects steeped in the mild tea of sincerity, but By the Way, I Forgive You is the necessary next step in a shrewdly managed career. Brandi Carlile requires no forgiveness from us.