Welcome to the new installment of Tracking, the regular roundup of our favorite new songs. Next up are great tunes from Rihanna, Kanye West and Paul McCartney, Florence and the Machine, Sufjan Stevens and Father John Misty.
Rihanna and Kanye West and Paul McCartney
Q: What do you get when you combine a pop dynamo, a visionary rapper, and a fucking Beatle?
A: A rousing campfire singalong. For stubborn, hedonistic celebrities. Naturally.
“FourFiveSeconds” isn’t the most obvious result of the A-list talent involved, which is exactly the point. The rootsy tune, so radical in its modesty, may also be the most inscrutable single to climb the Hot 100 since Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” somehow became a thing. Recorded during the sessions for Kanye West’s follow-up to Yeezus, “FourFiveSeconds” is the lead single to Rihanna’s still-unnamed eighth studio release (though reports indicate the song may also appear on Yeezy’s version of Born in the USA). Paul McCartney strums a simple, folky lick on the track, which he co-wrote and co-arranged. As such, “FourFiveSeconds” sounds closer to the spare and heartbreaking West and McCartney collaboration “Only One” than the ready-for-radio production of Riri’s previous non-bangers.
Nevertheless, “FourFiveSeconds” is Rihanna’s showcase. Her contribution, not just a hook, but the song’s central performance, explains why Kanye gifted the track. A brilliant rendition at the Grammys proved Rihanna's brassy instrument is only improved when scuffed with a little bit of rasp. West’s supporting vocal, sung without digital tweaking, is also surprisingly sturdy. Lyrically, “FourFiveSeconds” is slight, an obstinate duet between lovers, at rope’s end and also a DUI away from court-ordered rehab. The only line that lands with real emotional oomph — “See, all of my kindness/ is taken for weakness” — also substitutes as a baked-in response to any criticism that “FourFiveSeconds” replaces percussion and heavy sampling with an acoustic guitar and, during its spectacular bridge, organ chords.
The song raises a couple of nagging questions. Is there any way “FourFiveSeconds” can fit comfortably on both Rihanna’s and West’s upcoming albums? If so, what does it signal about either LP? These are fun queries to obsess over until we know more about those releases. I understand the lukewarm response to “FourFiveSeconds.” But the potential left turn it signals, for both artists, is genuinely exciting. In fact, all the harrumphing and hand-wringing seem like the desired result. Perhaps kumbaya is the new fuck you. — Peter Tabakis
Florence and the Machine
"What Kind of Man"
For every year that passes, Florence Welch gets five years younger. Though her voice — underrated alongside British vocal shredders like Adele and Jessie J — has remained robust all the while, Florence has steadily gravitated away from her Kate Bushian reverie of folklore and magic. Until now, the transformation has been subtle, with dance-hinting jams like “Shake It Out” and the meatier “Spectrum.” But “What Kind of Man” sheds every last whimsical cobweb off Florence’s ballroom gown without one glance backward. She’s stripped her canvas of everything except the barest emotion and power riffs, and it all functions wonderfully with Ms. Welch’s booming chants.
Lyrically, “What Kind of Man” turns a new leaf as well. In describing her torturous relationship, Florence experiences “a fire of devotion” and is thrown incessantly “back, back, back against the wall.” She manifests her despair in a diatribe, rather than an expected ballad, alluding to her sporadic bits of previous glory (“Swimming,” “Kiss with a Fist”) all the while. But at first, it’s unclear who’s going to seize the power. The song’s interlude plays with our endurance at nearly a minute long, and a deceptive omen of another languid track from Ceremonials. We are made to work for what we want as listeners, and when the electric guitar breaks through icy synths, you’ll be glad you’ve built up an appetite.
Nonetheless, only the chorus, albeit repetitive, reaffirms the single as Florence’s best anthem to date. It is this centerpiece — the violent heartbeat via bass drum, fiery horns, soulful harmonies and the rhetorical inquiry/plea, “What kind of man loves like thiiis?” — in which Florence stakes her claim to both her personal relationships and her admiring blogosphere. Never has she sounded more capable, tenacious, or vibrant.
If any of this (including, perhaps, the sharper-than-ever album art) is a harbinger for How Big How Blue How Beautiful, the new album out in June, something wicked this way comes. A more direct and less forgiving Florence reigns over the line between indie and mainstream, pop and rock, the gray areas where artists can be superheroes and superheroines without losing touch with their own genuine artistry. — Matthew Malone
"No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross"
In the mid-aughts, still bathed in the afterglow of Illinois, Sufjan Stevens committed a feat common among our greatest artists — he began anew. In recent years, he’s graced us with a series of complex and challenging albums in complete contrast to the super-folk that made him famous. The jittery, electronic Age of Adz. The hyperbolically large Silver and Gold that defamialirzed once-lovable Christmas classics. Hell, The BQE was about a freaking highway.
All this is to say that, for the first time in years, the Sufjan Stevens singing “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” appears as someone we recognize from his folk stardom of old. There’s the fingerpicking and iconic feather-whisper. There’s the obliquely lonely lyrics and Christian imagery. There’s even some soaring ‘ooos’ and our favorite end-phrase falsetto. It is, unsurprisingly, beautiful.
Of course, by now, we expect beauty from Sufjan. Habituated to his preternatural ability as a composer, we may even consider simple beauty a bit of a disappointment. However, the outstanding first single from his upcoming album Carrie and Lowell — named for his stepfather and recently deceased schizophrenic, alcoholic mother — goes to a place Sufjan has rarely allowed us: into Sufjan. This distinctly personal, vulnerable perspective on subjects like death, god, love, and parenthood is something unique in his music. In some ways, it’s his most ambitious song. While Sufjan has, to some degree, used his talent as a shield — like a musical Wizard of Oz — “No Shade” finally allows us behind the curtain, to a place where the grand and intimate all mix with natural ease.
This has always been Sufjan’s gift, to reconcile the absurd and immense with the idiosyncratic and immediate. To say, “fuck,” in that sweet, Christian voice. To break hearts with a song that references vampires and dragons and Casper, the ghost. To let us into his world, but with a warning — you will find no comfort here. Even Jesus suffered. Even Christians curse. There is no respite, really, anywhere.
Plus, as Sufjan keeps reminding us, even if you find comfort, “it’s only the shadow of the cross.” It’s not real. — Jesse Nee-Vogelman
Father John Misty
"Bored in the USA"
I first heard “Bored in the USA” performed on Letterman. It was another week or so before I realized the laughter that came two-thirds of the way through the song was a pre-recorded — you can hear the laughtrack on the studio version.
This makes sense to me. Listening the Father John Misty, it’s unclear exactly where to draw the line between comedy and rock. When I played the song for my aunt, she commented it reminded her more of Flight of the Conchords or “that John Stewart.”
In this way, “Bored in the USA” stands out from rest of I Love You, Honeybear. While the whole album is hysterical, it’s rarely comical in the mold of his exceedingly worthwhile debut, Fear Fun. It’s less punchlines and perversion, more ________ and ________, anchored in his recent marriage (as real-life musician Josh Tillman) to filmmaker Emma Elizabeth Tillman (the dominatrix from the video for his song, “Nancy From Now On”). Many of the songs on Honeybear explore, with a surprising candidness given Tillman’s irreverent trickster track record, what it means to be in fucked up, in love, confused, but ultimately spiritually optimistic. On “Bored in the USA,” however, as beautiful and sparse as the song actually is, it’s impossible to escape the sense that Tillman is eternally winking — caught somewhere between lover, charlatan, and druggy psychopath. I wonder if he can tell anymore when he’s joking.
Which brings me back to the laughtrack. God help Josh Tillman if he ever said something serious without making a joke. If he ever failed to undercut a great line about being replaced by children with a manic imploration for salvation from “White Jesus.” If he ever said, “I love you,” to a person instead of to a purposefully nauseating honeybear. Who knows what would happen?
Of course, as the saying goes: when times are tough, you either laugh or cry. To his immense credit, Father John Misty is one of the only indie outfits operating today that equally emphasizes the humor of the world alongside its tragedy. “Bored in the USA” stands out for challenging the surprisingly rigid bounds of indie rock sincerity. And for that reason, along with his flowing hair and luscious beard, more than a few are destined to fall in love with him. — Jesse Nee-Vogelman