Welcome to the new installment of Tracking, the regular roundup of our favorite new songs. Next up are great tunes from Kanye West, Tame Impala, Courtney Barnett, Passion Pit, Modest Mouse and Tobias Jesso Jr.
"Let It Happen"
After an under the radar announcement that they would be releasing an album in 2015, Tame Impala have slowly been ramping up. A handful of festival dates here, an interview there. Then, yesterday, they shattered the calm with the colossal "Let It Happen". Turning in a lead single where three would fit is a pretty ballsy move, especially after an extended absence. Frontman and sole songwriter Kevin Parker makes it seem like the only logical choice.
While he's been reasonably tight-lipped, Parker did promise a more electronic effort than 2012's Lonerism, and "Let It Happen" is more than a delivery. It bears a number of similarities to Lonerism's lead single "Apocalypse Dreams", including its towering ambition and blitzing organs, but it also thinks bigger. A cleaved synthesizer and stuttering snare rolls drive the first few minutes before the track begins to "skip", guiding in a groove designed to pop your eardrums, complete with vocoder harmonies and a crunchy, robotic guitar tone. But as far as 8 minute psych workouts go, it's fairly breezy.
Parker has a flair for channelling his anxiety into interminably catchy melodies. Here, his anxieties pile up in short order, and instead of succumbing to them, he embraces them. It's a mindset that was hinted at on Lonerism's later tracks, but never explored in depth. "Let It Happen" expands on the likes of "Nothing That has Happened..." and "Sun's Coming Up" while remaining tantalizingly open ended. Musically and thematically, it builds all sorts of bridges for Australia's finest rock act. Can't wait to see what word Parker is waiting to add to our vocabulary this time. — Brendan Frank
"People say I’m a hypocrite right? Yes, I am. 100%. I’m a human being. I’m super hypocritical. I can feel something one time and completely a different way another time. I do it in the design office. I do it in the studio."
Coming on the heels of the peaceful "Only One," the vulnerable "FourFiveSeconds" and the sorrowful "Wolves," all with a sense of deep calm and self-reflection, "All Day" feels like Kanye at his most hypocritical. It's brash and defiant; loud and clunky; confident and immature. And, of course, it's wildly addicting.
After kicking off 2015 by pushing a distinct "humbled father" narrative—dropping a New Year's lullabye with Paul McCartney, singing a campfire tune with Rhianna, premiering a heartwarming music video to the middle-aged moms in Ellen's audience with a soft-spoken demeanor—Kanye has now completely flipped the switch. "All Day" is not a song you'll want to play for your parents. Yeezy preaches the glory of his middle finger ("longer than Dikembe") and his wife's body, takes his usual stance on education (not a fan), and drops the n-word at a Django Unchained pace all while bragging about his massive wealth throughout. This is swag-rap at its finest. No happy-go-lucky Paul McCartney here.
Except...there is. Towards the end, Sir Paul's whistle cuts through the noisy, screeching sirens, as the inspiration for the massive opening riff is revealed (an unreleased 1970 McCartney solo song). But before he can get in another peep, the colossal synths cut him off and drown him out, taking the song to its natural, ugly end—a stammering,, Yeezus-style finale of spazzy sounds and abandoned melodies.
"All Day" seems to completely contradict the tone of Kanye's 2015 output, but it's not as out of place as you'd think. McCartney's still there, giving the track a surprising dose of unexpected sweetness. In its live performance, the visual aesthetic was less polished, but still featured that same off-white rectangular backdrop present on SNL and at The Grammys. And while the song isn't sweet or humble, it still features an overwhelmingly positive message: Kanye can crank out these funky beat head-bangers all day. If we're lucky, he'll keep doing it all year. — Adam Offitzer
"Pedestrian At Best / Depreston"
The two singles from Courtney Barnett’s upcoming debut LP Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit harmonize in binary opposition to one another:
“Pedestrian at Best” is an uninhibited declaration of Barnett’s own contradictions. Drowned in distortion and fuzz, the song assumes the role of a chaotic headbanger more than Barnett ever has, probably because it so matches her own introspective spelunking. Each confession blurs into the next, her internal monologue truly as “scratched and drifting” as she deems it herself. After three minutes of whip-smart blabbing, she comes—so satisfyingly—to no conclusion other than that she is “fake…alone…homely…a Scorpio!” This catalog of identities is the most appropriate response to her confusion, all completely disparate and clouding the head of our Fender-donning philosopher.
Conversely, “Depreston” is a stripped vignette that illustrates adulthood’s bleakness through the woes of house hunting. Barnett shifts her lens outward, now focusing on the suburbia around her to delineate her persisting discomfort. She snaps some unexpectedly nauseating images (“those canisters for coffee, tea, and flour,” “the handrail in the shower,” “a Californian bungalow in a cul-de-sac”), all in blatant protest of so-called maturity. The sarcastic undertones are more prominent than ever, though as always laden with dark humor. It ends with a meditation: “If you have a spare half a million, you can knock it down and start rebuilding.” The unfortunate reality is that Barnett has no such superfluous income at the moment (give it ‘til 2017, I would bet), so she’s forced to contort herself into a camp already fixed in Preston, or even society.
But the one characteristic rooted equally in both singles is Barnett’s state of being absolutely lost in the world—just like the rest of us losers. She sits (and thinks, here, but not always) uncomfortably between reckless teenage rebellion and submission to the heavy weight of “settling,” fusing into a mental maelstrom lyrically pinpointed on “Pedestrian,” but just as emotionally evoked on “Depreston.”
The irony behind Courtney Barnett’s constant self-deprecation is the wisdom at the crux of all of her songs. By repeatedly admitting her baffled state of being, she becomes one of the most humble songwriters of our time, one to which we can all relate on some level. Age, gender, race, class, or whathaveyou aside, no one has ever felt happily compartmentalized in the world. To hear someone profess our common state of uncertainty in two equally effective forms is at worst comforting, at best tearjerking. I find myself gravitating toward “Depreston,” personally, but each piece will resonate with listeners differently. The schizophrenic faction will find a home in “Pedestrian at Best,” and the observant will be homeless in “Depreston.” We’re all clueless about our identity and abode for the next few years, so let us bask in (to quote Björk) this beautiful state of emergency, so bothered and so at peace. — Matthew Malone
"Lifted Up (1985)"
“Lifted Up (1985),” the first single and opening cut from Passion Pit’s forthcoming third album Kindred is a downtrodden post-punk dirge of pounding reverb and heavily filtered vocals. Just kidding! This is Passion Pit we’re talking about here. Fans of Michael Angelakos & Co.’s wonderfully saccharine pop (myself included) need not be worried - “Lifted Up (1985)” is about as subtle as a sunburst.
There are so many things that this song compels me to do – dance in the streets, scream from the rooftops, and drive down an open highway with all of the windows down. An exuberant yipping greets listeners in the opening seconds as the song immediately reaches a state of permanent crescendo scored by pulsating synths and rafter-shaking drum beats that alternate between bouncing and stomping on verse and chorus. And what a chorus it is – a shout-along, anthemic chant that will dominate festival fairgrounds and make millennials nostalgic for a year they never even experienced. “1985 was a good year!” shouts Angelakos in a shockingly high register that continues to boggle the mind– but with this song behind him, he could be yelling about athlete’s foot and the euphoric rush would be undeniable all the same.
Don’t be fooled by the energetic tone, however – Passion Pit can make topics like economic recession and suicidial thoughts sound downright spritely. As an artist who has openly battled with bipolar disorder and depression in the past, Angelakos transforms these upbeat numbers into therapy sessions as he attempts either to smother or resolve his issues with a heavy dose of electropop. So when Angelakos sings about the joy of an angel descending from heaven to help him, that happiness is hard-won and well-earned. “Lifted Up (1985)” is hardly a vacuous party song – it’s an acknowledgement that the only way one can truly experience happiness is by first enduring the hardships of sadness and self-doubt. That’s some genuine insight for a song as unabashedly bouncy and sugary as this one - let yourself be lifted up too. — Zachary Bernstein
"Of Course We Know"
It’s been eight years since Modest Mouse last released an LP. Eight years! That’s untold eons in the music world: the tectonic plate boundaries of genres have shifted, tides have retreated, landmasses have split and since reformed. Yet on the basis of the releases from new album Strangers To Ourselves, Modest Mouse have weathered these storms of change with indifference, ready to reclaim their place at the summit of indie-rock’s big league.
“Of Course We Know” is the moody, slow-burning, melancholic gem that closes out their latest LP. Bedecked in singer Isaac Brock’s characteristic cryptic philosophical verse, and smattered in subtle psych-tinged effects, the track finds Brock at his most brooding - contemplating not only death and god, but the death of god. “The streets are just blankets and we sleep on their silky corpse,” he wearily intones as the track opens, before his existential pondering gives way to a demand for the willing sacrifice of the soul of the Almighty himself.
The instrumentation builds slowly, swirling around Brock’s outstanding vocals - which veer from understated and introspective during the early reflective verses, to wounded and impassioned during the final pleading refrain of “Lord lay down your own damn soul!”
The hypnotic track features stunning interplay between lead and backing vocals, until Brock’s gloriously perverse sermon bleeds away into a haze of twinkling, tender piano keys - before the final poignant admission of “of course we know.” No ode to deicide ever sounded so beautiful. Benji Taylor
Tobias Jesso Jr.
Say what you will about the term Beatlesque, Tobias Jesso Jr. embodies it. Throw in the underdog charm of Elephant 6, the psychidelicacy of the Zombies, and the vintage sheen of Harry Nilsson and you have a solid grasp of Goon, the gorgeous debut effort from the Canadian transplant. But Jesso isn’t just another mimic either. His rudimentary but highly utile understanding of the piano drives his songs, every stroke of the keys fitting like a piece in a jigsaw. Aided by a bucket list of studio vets—Patrick Carney, Girls’ JR White, The New Pornographers’ John Collins, and super-producer Ariel Rechtshaid—Jesso exhibits tremendous poise as he confronts how far he’s come while acknowledging how far there is to go.
Standout “For You” has its eye firmly on the latter, building out a picturesque reality with heedless optimism. With Jesso’s boundless sincerity and light-footed melodies, it’s really the only option. “I will build us a home for two/And if we needed more room there’s more time,” he sings, so close to your ear that he may as well be in the room with you. “For You” pulses, both rhythmically and from within, sculpting the basics of balladry into reflexive but immeasurably satisfying outcomes. — Brendan Frank