Monday, October 29, 2018

If I Say (Single) - Mumford & Sons

I wasn't specifically planning on reviewing the new music from Mumford & Sons. After I had heard "Guiding Light", I found myself a bit underwhelmed - lyrically I really enjoyed it, and felt there was a lot to be appreciated - but the instrumental feeling somewhat lackluster. It was very much in line with the progression of sound I could expect from M&S, and didn't feel quite like it took any chances or risks; a little too safe to be memorable.

However, when I listened to the latest single, "If I Say", in a very intentional manner, I found myself i immediately much more drawn in. The song starts off slow and low, with just synths and keyboards providing the background for Marcus Mumford's vocals that match the softness of the instrumental. Despite that quiet nature, it is clear that the song has urgency, that it is working towards somewhere further on; adding elements with each verse, each repeating chorus. Strings and electronic drum elements mix in, as well as a full drum rhythm and the rest of the band members until the song reaches it's peak, building an intensity that's evident in multiple dimensions of the song. The lyrics of the chorus are really what bring the song together; 

"And if I say I love you, well, then I love you".

It's so simple, yet carries so much meaning and power to it. Marcus Mumford continually repeating his love, the words that mean something, that aren't just sounds that make up a phrase but words that barely manage to encapsulate an immensity of feelings that he truly, deeply means. It's something I've grown to appreciate more as I've grown older, and this song captures that life lesson and realization so well. 

The subtleties of this song, the lyrics building upon themselves and the instrumental slowly fleshing itself from a soft, delicate piece into a sweeping, breathtaking avalanche of sounds, are what impressed me and made me be a bit more intrigued about the rest of the upcoming album. The previously more unexplored use of electronic elements, the orchestral sense to the song, working a bit outside the norm of the band's previously tested waters; all of that is growth that I am appreciative of. Mumford & Sons had a sound they captured and perfected by their second album, but it is clear after their last album, Wilder Mind and their forthcoming album, Delta, that the band has more territory to explore.

I wrote most of this review on Saturday, the 27th. Earlier on the evening of the 28th, I found out that one of my closest friends lost his father. I found myself listening to this song after I got off work, turning it up in my car as I was driving along and thinking about my friend, thinking about his loss and how even though I hardly knew his father, I felt such sorrow, such a strong sense of mourning. The song built and I starting singing along with the chorus each time, growing and singing louder, until I was yelling it in my car despite feeling my heart in my throat and my eyes wanting to release these tears. Thinking about what this line might mean to my friend, imagining his father relaying that message to him, imagining our Heavenly Father reminding us of that love He has for us.

I already was really enjoying this song. But these kinds of moments, these kinds of instances of music and reality crashing together to create such beautiful and sorrowful moments; this is why I love music so, so very much. This song will most definitely hold a special place in my heart in the years to come.

I was going to put a rating, as I usually do, but that felt too calculated. Too cold. This is a beautiful song, and I think that you are sincerely missing out if you don't listen to it.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Trench - twenty one pilots

Trench was an album that I've been anticipating for quite some time, long before it was announced this year. Watching twenty one pilot's assent into the limelight has been more surprising for me, just in the uniqueness of their sound and appeal. Perhaps that is the strength and driving force behind it - the versatility of their sound, the fluidity, genre-hopping nature of the duo behind one of the biggest names in alternative music right now. It is because of that ever morphing sound, that constant drive and push towards new ground and sonic territory, that I continue to want more (and clearly many other fans do as well). I was very curious to see the direction of this album - their last album was a knockout, but was also still built outside of the limelight and without huge, looming expectations. Whatever came next, after Blurryface, however, was going to be under such intense scrutiny from the world, and I was interested to see how the band would tackle such a daunting task.

Trench was just the right step for the band. 

It has elements of Blurryface - more so than any of the transitions I've witnessed between albums for the band - yet is also it's own beast. Sound-wise, it's one of the more consistent albums for the band, exploring still while utilizing the tools and tones that the band has become known for. Some of the most interesting songs, instrumentally, are "Morph", "Cut My Lip",  and "Pet Cheetah" ("Jumpsuit" and "Levitate" are as well, but I already reviewed them here and here). 

"Morph" has a bit of a swagger to it, mostly thanks to that bass-line that grooves throughout the song, all with Joseph rapping tongue-twistingly fast over the verses. The chorus is my favorite part, however, with Joseph switching to sing as he alternates between falsetto and lower registers to create this beautiful contrast. The way the melody runs, it captures such a sorrow and loneliness in it that's impossible to not be affected by. 

"Cut My Lip" reminds me a little of "Ride" from the last album, but slowed down and with more intensity. The contrast between the verses and the chorus creates such an impact; these low, brooding moments of the almost stripped down verses with the synth driven chorus. The chorus continues to build with each rendition, bringing the listener to the edge of their seat time after time until the moment of certain breakdown - that is, until the band switches gears and cuts the momentum. It's done so masterfully, it gets me every time. I think the song is about to explode into this crazy, intense moment, but it switches into a more dreamy state, showing the band's awareness of the listener's anticipation and predictability of song patterns and their desire to cut through that to create something new. 

"Pet Cheetah" is probably the weirdest track on the album, switching between these gritty, synth driven rap verses and a more soulful, mournful chorus. It's a drastic enough difference that the different parts could be on completely separate songs, but they're not - the band really makes the song work as a whole unit. The best part is probably the outro, which consists of Joseph and other voiceovers repeating "pet cheetah" over and over in a very ominous manner as the song does a very light/minor breakdown. It's almost silly, but still really engaging and strong writing from the band.

Trench also goes even deeper into the mind of Tyler Joseph, with his transparency and honesty at the forefront of the songs and lyrics. I'll be honest, some of it is still over my head - I've been using Genius to see what the popular interpretations of the lyrics are, but only a few are clear to me. And I'm okay with admitting that, and knowing that the more I listen, the more I'll understand and decipher the lyrics. There's also a bit of a story woven into the album - this concept of Nico and The Niners and all the lore the band has built up leading to the release of the album. I haven't delved into that, but it is definitely heard in certain songs as well as the visuals provided by the connected music videos for "Jumpsuit", "Nico & The Niners", and "Levitate". 

I do know that the parts of the music I have been able to understand deals heavily in mental health and dealing with depression and anxiety. There's also a large amount of faith in these lyrics, something that I wasn't aware of from the band until recently - Joseph is a practicing Christian. There are certain lines that the meaning now becomes much more apparent with that in mind. For example, much of the song "Morph" deals with the notion of the inevitability of death, especially from a faith perspective. The following lines illustrate some of this:

"We're surrounded and we're hounded
There's no above, or under, or around it
For "above" is blind belief and "under" is sword to sleeve
And "around" is scientific miracle, let's pick "above" and see
For if and when we go above, the question still remains
Are we still in love and is it possible we feel the same?"

this part of the verse talks about how death is going to happen; as humans, it is unavoidable and ever present as a thought ("we're surrounded and we're hounded"). Three options are presented; "above", "under", or "around"; going to heaven, going to hell, or attempting to avoid death altogether (respectively). Joseph picks above, but wonders what it'll be like when he arrives - will he still feel, will he still love? I think this refers to the people in his life, whereas the annotator on Genius believes it is whether Joseph and God will still love each other (I don't know if or where it discusses that in the Bible/in theology, so if you do, please let me know). 

The amount that I can unpack from just a part of a verse of one of the songs astounds me - there's such a depth and multi-dimensional aspect to these lyrics, and it's part of what has kept me coming back to this album this past week. 

The song I want to talk about the most, lyrically, has to be "Neon Gravestones". I could tell this song was different just from the sound, the instrumentation and more somber mood inspired. However, the more I listened to and processed the lyrics, the more I knew this song was going to be the standout. "Neon Gravestones" tackles the notion of suicide, especially amongst celebrities, and how the way in which society reacts to these events becomes very dangerous. Early on in the song, Joseph sets the tone:

"We glorify those even more when they...
My opinion, our culture can treat a loss like it's a win
And right before we turn on them
We give 'em the highest of praise
And hang their banner from the ceiling
Communicating, further engraving
An earlier grave is an optional way

By talking about those whom we've lost in a way that highlights all their achievements, it can wrongly lead people, especially those who are emotionally vulnerable and possibly contemplating suicide themselves, to think that suicide can make them seem better to those around them - that their names might be glorified after death because of the tragedy. As Joseph points out later in the song:

"I could use the streams and extra conversations
I could give up, and boost up my reputation
I could go out with a bang
They would know my name
They would host and post a celebration"

Those lines further cement this idea further, the glorification of suicide.

Joseph makes sure to address the people who help enable this in the second half of the second verse:

"My opinion will not be lenient
My opinion, it's real convenient
Our words are loud, but now I'm talking action
We don't get enough love?
Well, they get a fraction
They say, "How could he go if he's got everything?"
"I'll mourn for a kid, but won't cry for a king.""

People can say that it's tragic, that the loss is terrible, but then refuse to adjust their mentality when thinking about the well-being and mental state of those in the spotlight. Just because they have material possessions and are considered to be well off, that's not enough on it's own. As we've seen many times, wealth and success and fame don't solve problems; often times, they make it more difficult to deal with and heal from. 

The idea of trying to write a song like this seems so incredibly impossible. The topic of suicide is difficult on its own, but to try and call out the way we've begun to shift our thoughts about the subject as a culture in a dangerous direction; I can't think of many bands that would be able to approach the subject in a way that honors those we've lost while pleading with and calling out the people and habits that enable more loss and tragedy to occur. I have such an immense respect for the band for taking this subject head on, as it's something I've thought about and talked about with friends, family, and through previous posts through the last year or so. It's absolutely important to talk about this, but also to act on it and work towards preventing more people thinking that suicide can be an answer. This song is by far one of the most important songs I've heard this year, if not the most. 

Not all the songs dwell in such heavy and dark places, however. Songs like "Legend" and "Smithereens" both have a much more lighthearted and positive light to them, especially the later. "Smithereens" is a love song at it's core, as the chorus states:

"For you, I'd go
Step to a dude much bigger than me
For you, I know
I would get messed up, weigh 153
For you
I would get beat to smithereens"

The song was written by Joseph for his wife, and is one of the more authentic and sweetest love songs I've heard in years. It's really important and well placed on the album, providing a respite for the listener and a song that brings a smile to one's face. 

While I think that people will always fawn over Blurryface as it was the album that broke the band into the spotlight, Trench is going to be one that really defines and cements the status of the band as being quality songwriters and incredible musicians. I think this is their best work yet - it feels confident while not being prideful, shows growth and awareness of the duo's fame and position without abusing it. This is masterfully made art; this is how music can transcend being simply notes and words and create an experience, a lasting impression. 

Rating: 5/5

Recommended: "Jumpsuit", "Levitate", "Morph", "Neon Gravestones", "Smithereens"