Here’s what I’ve been listening to for the past two months:
Bon Iver’s 22, A Million.
1. I was an extremely casual fan of Bon Iver before 22, A Million came out, but the YouTube lyric videos pulled me in. I knew enough about Justin Vernon to know that his music swirls in the indie folk genre, and that Kanye West is a big, big fan.
2. When this album first came out, there were people on my assorted timelines who were upset about it — it didn’t sound like old Bon Iver, and it was too weird to be wistful about. First of all, artists are allowed to experiment and grow just like the rest of us. Second of all, it takes a few minutes to actually listen to the record and reflect. You’ll find that he’s working with the same variations on the theme of loss — like the dissolution of a relationship, an identity crisis — and adding new sonic elements suggests an even more violent break from the past. I much prefer 22, A Million to the earlier Bon Iver albums, because it seems far more urgent, visceral and profound. This is what I love about music — that artists can evolve and make something new and exciting.
3. This album gives me both Walden Pond and Blade Runner vibes, with a little bit of a My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy influence.
4. Vernon is an exceptional lyricist, and I like that the lyrics of this album are steeped in biblical imagery. One of my favorite lines is from “715 – CR∑∑KS”: “Honey, understand that I have been left here in the reeds / But all I’m trying to do is get my feet out from the crease.”
5. I love the stylized song names, and also the use of the OP-1. My favorite songs are “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” and “33 ‘GOD’.” I hope that Vernon has more to explore in this vein, and that there are some cut tracks floating around somewhere.
Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo.
1. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve tried to sit down and write something about Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, and I always come up short or turn my attention to something else. I went to a Saint Pablo tour concert in October — which was incredible and magical — and I thought that with the amount of time I’ve spent listening to this album that I finally needed to get some words out about it. The first ones are that it is not a perfect album, but it’s still a masterpiece.When people on the Internet say that this isn’t a “good” Kanye West album, I know that they didn’t really listen. (I know there’s been a lot about Kanye the celebrity in the media lately, and I hope he’s doing okay.)
2. For my senior capstone project, I wrote an essay about Yeezus. I argued that the album was his ontological exploration of being a producer of music while also being a product as a celebrity, meaning that he makes art at the same time the public is shaping a persona and perceptions about who “Kanye West” is. After listening to and dissecting The Life of Pablo, I think that argument still holds up extremely well. This album is an extension of his Yeezus meditations, and even more so one on his public persona. The questions he asks himself on this album are “Who is Kanye West?”, and “Can I separate a private sense of self from the public sense of self I’ve created and the world has created for me?”
3. Let’s talk about “No More Parties in LA,” for example. Kanye talks about spending all of his money at Louis Vuitton, matted-out sportscars and buying pink furs for his daughter — and how that’s supposed to inherently mean something important, that the money signifies status and getting on Kanye’s level is unattainable. But the hook is “no more parties in LA, please baby no more parties in LA,” suggesting that he doesn’t want to be around people who subscribe to this hollow lifestyle. When you couple that with the lyrics that suggest he’s just trying to be an artist (“I feel like Pablo when I’m workin on my shoes” and his borderline-paranoid lines about driving around in an armored car), there’s this murkiness he can’t seem to clear up. Does he want to have that wealth and fame, or was it this huge stunt that he can’t get out of without sacrificing the level of exposure his art has? Or is he just playing with the image of what the public thinks Kanye West is? These are the questions I ask myself with every listen.
4. Rap music will never fail to be fascinating to me, with the incredible artistry of wordplay and how each line is dense with at least two or three levels of references and callbacks. It is poetry.
5. The opening of “Father Stretch My Hands, Part 1” is what dreams are made of, and you have not lived until you’ve witnessed the transition from “I Love Kanye” to “Waves” in a stadium with your friends and 17,000 other people. “Ultralight Beam” is one of the most affecting songs I’ve heard in a long time. If you have not listened to this album, you need to before the year is over.
Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.
1. 2016 has been my year of Bob Dylan discovery, and I have really enjoyed digging into this part of American musical history at this particular cultural moment. It’s been cool to listen to the music and read the interviews that were published at the time and oral histories, and I’ve been trying to better understand just how seismic this music was. Anyway, shout out to Jeff Bezos and Amazon Prime music for having most of Dylan’s discography on demand for free. So far, my three favorite albums are Bringing It All Back Home, Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited.
2. Before we go any further, we should probably talk about his Nobel Prize. Do I think he deserves it, based on his literary contributions? I do. Do I also think there are a lot of other people who maybe deserved the Nobel Prize for literature a little more? Absolutely. That is the extent of my opinion on Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize.
3. I love singing along with “But you’d better take your diamond ring, you better pawn it, babe” in “Like a Rolling Stone.” What a great metaphor in a song about security and materialism.
4. It would be beyond awesome to do a road trip of Route 61 while listening to this album. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has had that idea, and I doubt I will be the last.
5. My favorite tracks are “Tombstone Blues,” “Ballad Of A Thin Man” and “Highway 61 Revisited,” but any of the tracks from the three albums I mentioned are great starting points for getting into Dylan.
What have you been listening to lately? Let’s talk about it in the comments.