Earl Sweatshirt Wrestles With His Demons on “I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside”

Coming out just weeks after Kendrick Lamar’s monumental “To Pimp a Butterfly” can’t be an easy blow for any hip-hop artist to take. Moreover, it can’t be easy for an artist to cope with an utter fumbling of his new album’s release. But Earl Sweatshirt is used to taking blows. With “I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside,” Earl has turned his anxiety, once pointed bitterly inwards, outwards into the microphone. It’s not just a good album for Earl, it’s a necessary one. “I Don’t Like Shit…” finds Earl in bitter combat with depression while simultaneously distancing himself from his past with Odd Future, securing his place as one of hip-hop’s young prodigies. Matured both in his lyricism and his production, Earl has released his best album to date.

If Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” is a massive social commentary, then Earl Sweatshirt’s “I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside” is a scathing commentary on the individual. Lines like “It hurt ‘cause I can’t keep a date or put personal time in, a reverse of the times when my face didn’t surprise you, before I did the shit that earned me my term on that island” may paint the picture of a man falling into fatalism, but it’s not that Earl’s given up hope. Rather, he’s found his own methods for exorcism. From the crippling relationship heartbreak of “Mantra” to the drug-addled paranoia of “Grief,” it’s clear that Earl’s not in a good place. Like all of us, though, he’s struggling to hash it out. “I Don’t Like Shit…” is painting a picture of the viper’s pit and inviting its listeners to take the plunge. Earl’s lyricism may be too much for some to take, but those willing to dive into the muck will find an artist whose pushing himself to the limits, both emotionally and creatively. Of course, none of this introspection would gut-punch as hard without the production to match; thankfully, it does.

Complimented by sinister, grimy production, the Odd Future veteran strikes gold on “I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside.” The album’s ten tracks wind through a murky cloud of lo-fi beats, rumbling bass and echoing synthesizers, setting a mood of perfect foreboding for Earl’s stories. It’s difficult to imagine the hard-hitting “Grief” scoring so well without its utterly monstrous beat behind it. The track rages onward to a bitter conclusion marked by swirling low-end noise before cutting into a quirk-riddled outro akin to a deranged circus soundtrack. In a word, it’s bleak, but’s it’s undeniably engrossing. “Mantra” also sets a great example of stellar production with its distant reverberations and stuttered beats. Earl’s lyricism is the primary beneficiary here; his stories are vivid enough on their own, but they truly come alive when set against the violent whirlpools of sonic muck conjured on the album’s best cuts.

“I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside” is undoubtedly Earl’s finest album to date. It’s an ugly, murky slab of music that takes an introspective look at a person struggling just to make it to tomorrow. More than that, it’s a stunning portrait of Earl’s demons, painfully realized and sharply pointed. It’s certainly not a pleasant record, but it’s sure to evoke some reaction. Whether that reaction is disgust or sympathy will depend entirely on the listener, but those who can stomach the oppressive mire are in for a ride.

8.5/10

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Enslaved’s “In Times” Feels More Like Recycling Than Reconciliation

The old adage “aged like fine wine” typically isn’t one used in the context of musicians, let alone artists working within the confines of rock and metal, but Enslaved make for the rare exception. Active since 1991, the Nordic quintet forged a path of blackened earth with withering records like the uncompromising “Frost” and 2001’s crushing “Monumension.” But standing still was never part of the plan; the band began experimenting with sounds of decades past, venturing further from their blackened core and closer to the progressive slant of 1970s rock. But that core – the blistering, inhospitable black metal – is exactly what the five Norsemen intended to recapture with “In Times.” Fusing that vile sound to the expansive scale of their most recent recordings should, in theory, have made for a definitive statement. It didn’t. Instead, Enslaved has finally shown its fans that even the tallest of giants eventually tumble down to earth. For the first time, Enslaved sound less like shrouded acolytes conjuring the raw element of their Nordic roots and more like tired imitators grasping at past glories.

Flickering sparks of the band’s ingenuity are scattered throughout the record’s six tracks, but these individual moments rarely cohere into compelling wholes. “Daylight,” for instance, features one of Enslaved’s finest guitar solos to date, but that stunning display can’t rescue the aimless drift of the tune it supports. Carried to that exhilarating conclusion on the weariest of riffs, it’s a chore to sift through the song’s nine minutes. Moreover, it’s a painfully vivid reminder of just how vital this band sounded a mere three years ago. Enslaved hasn’t just penned better riffs than this; they’ve penned better songs as well. Sure, album opener “Thurisaz Dreaming” may be the band’s most upfront assault in ages, but it also happens to be their weakest. As the track roars on, it becomes increasingly clear that Enslaved is stuck in a rut and spinning its wheels. Gruttle’s vocals may deliver the band’s promise of renewed brutality, but his ferocity is often deflated by the lifeless wash of noise beneath. It’s beyond disappointing given just how talented this crew has proven themselves over the years.

Even when the record shines, it can’t manage to sustain the luster. “Nauthir Bleeding” serves as the perfect example. The brooding ambient sprawl of the track’s intro churns through extended permutations of Floydian drama before exploding in a surge of primal fury. Beyond this clever bait-and-switch tactic, however, is yet another over-extended progressive jam that winds through far too many ideas, hitting unbelievable highs just as often as it hits head-scratching lows. “One Thousand Years of Rain” sports some of the band’s catchiest melodies to date but is ruthlessly sabotaged by the ridiculous medieval chanting that halts the song’s momentum. Inadvertently, Enslaved has created a mad game of back and forth between sheer brilliance and puzzling incompetence. It’s the type of song — and really the type of album — that a listener can only take so much of before throwing their hands up in the air, white flag waving.

Unfortunately, “In Times” is the type of record that’s going to leave fans wrestling with nostalgia for the better times. Never before has the band seemed so content to ride its own success, as if they’ve methodically pried the scraps from records past and furnished such a perfectly recycled replica that even they can’t even gleam the deficiencies. As Enslaved moves forward, change is going to be necessary; it always has been, but the need for new inspiration has become more apparent than ever. Enslaved, for better or worse, made good on its word to meld the past and the present, but it just might be time to leave both behind and gaze towards the future.

6.9/10

Godspeed You! Black Emperor Annex New Sonic Territory With “Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress”

“Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress” has a rather unenviable position in Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s storied catalog. Following up their celebrated return “’Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!” has certainly set listener’s expectations high, but not even those expectations compare to the unbelievable heights hit by albums such as “Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven.” Caught between both past and present, the band finds itself battling unfavorable odds for the first time. It’s been 18 years since “F# A# ∞” took the music underground by storm and redefined the possibilities for post rock, but neither time nor the legions of fans and critics have forgotten. Being stale, however, has never been one of the Canadians’ problems. Unlike Godspeed’s previous recordings, “Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress” revels in brevity without compromising the band’s massive sonic pallet. Rather, the group’s monolithic sound has been condensed and repackaged with a new electric ferocity not heard on previous releases. Here, Godspeed conjures a dystopian reckoning at a breakneck pace, blazing new sonic territory while living up to their own legacy in the process.

Veterans of the Canadians’ particular brand of apocalypse are likely to find “Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!” surprisingly immediate. Rather than spending most of its length building to a weighty conclusion, the track begins bursting at the seams in its opening minutes. Crashing drums, snaking guitar leads and wall-crumbling bass coalesce into a feverish deathmarch. It’s beautifully bleak – the type of cacophony only veterans of their craft could conceive, let alone pull off. “Peasantry” doesn’t hit its stride, however, until the doom-laden guitar solo leads into a wash of escalating noise. Of course, this wouldn’t be Godspeed without a dynamic shift. As the layers of sound collapse, it’s easy to imagine the sweeping panoramic of windswept hills scarred by some unspeakable hell, brown and ruined with the twisted metal of cars laid waste. It’s not until tracks two and three, though, that Godspeed truly flexes its creative muscles in new fashion.

Both “Lambs’ Breath” and “Asunder, Sweet” expand upon the droning interludes found on Godspeed’s previous album by fleshing them out into engaging, organic wholes. “Lambs’ Breath” segues straight out of the album opener into an ominous muddied rumble backdropped with echoed distortions. Oscillating pulses punctuate the sporadic surges of bass, as if to remind the listener that the world is well and truly gone. By now, it’s understandable if this is beginning to sound like it’s too much to take. It’s not. The album’s middle section works to effectively lull the audience into a trance. Rather than oppress the senses, “Lambs’ Breath” and “Asunder, Sweet” seduce them. As the track hits the six minute mark, only a minimal whir remains; earth itself has stood still, and we watch, mesmerized. Seguing directly into “Asunder, Sweet” is a smart move, as the album’s third cut inverts the preceding track, rewinding with an echoed sonic beacon that heralds the impending finale.

It isn’t clear just how important Godspeed’s expanded drones truly are until “Piss Crowns Are Trebled” pays dividends on the investment. Roaring to life with a massive, noise-laden soundscape, the album’s final track harks back to the grandiose climaxes that have defined the band’s storied history. Strings rise and fall in waves. The drums march onwards with militaristic precision. The guitars, dirtied with distortion, cast looming shadows. It truly is the soundtrack to the end of all things, but it’s also pure majesty. Here, Godspeed concoct an intoxicating, paradoxical mixture of impending doom and unbreakable hope, as if somewhere in the vast barrens of remaining earth, there’s purpose. In a word, it’s beautiful. It’s uncomfortable. It’s hideous. “Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress” is all the things we’ve come to expect from Godspeed and more. So close the blinds, shut the door and lie down. You wouldn’t want to see the world outside.

9/10

Ghostface Killah & BBNG Deliver Some of the Goods With “Sour Soul”

Though it may seem like an oddity on paper, the mix of Wu-Tang veteran Ghostface Killah and Canadian experimental jazz trio BADBADNOTGOOD makes a certain peculiar sense. Lately, Cole’s music has taken a turn towards the dramatic, thoroughly lacing his latest recordings with intricate plots of revenge and reincarnation, love and loss; it’s almost too good of a fit for the nocturnal, brooding jazzed out hip-hop trademarked by his triage of collaborators. Together, Ghost and BBNG strike a solid foundation for the ever-dreaded collaborative supergroup concept, coming out ahead of the curve with an album that isn’t just an avoidance of total disaster, but a moderate success on its own terms.

This success owes itself in part to Ghost’s abandonment of the over-arching thematic story-telling of “36 Seasons.” With “Sour Soul,” the testosterone-fuelled braggadocio of albums past makes its fierce return immediately apparent as Cole bursts through the gate with “Yo, cleanse, clean me of my sour soul, I’m vicious… I’m a twisted individual, they say critical, I say, nigga, I’m on top of my pinnacle.” Finally freed from the restraints of his own literary ambitions, Ghost’s lyrical game feels notably more flexible than it has over the past few years, if not more powerful. It’s difficult to shake the feeling that the Killah isn’t riding on his own skill, as if the genius of yesterday’s classics doesn’t osmose itself through the microphone on its own accord; this is still the same do-ragged legend we’ve come to know and love — just finely filtered through an endless procession of singles, albums, collaborations and the passage of time. It’s a perfectly solid showing when Ghost slides into the lines “from the righteous mind’s the law, he powers my soul, teaching me positivity in the whole, how to walk amongst evils and smile in the face of death, to speak knowledge and wisdom to my last breath,” but only the most fervent of Wu diehards are likely to claim this as one of Ghost’s standout performances.

Instead, the brightest moments on “Sour Soul” often come from BADBADNOTGOOD, whose shadowy atmospheric backdrops conjure a consistently immersive experience from track to track. “Gunshowers (feat. Elzhi),” the album’s fourth cut, sports a playfully morose guitar lick sliding back and forth over its deliberately paced beats; it’s the type of music any sensible rapper would foam at the mouth for, both because of its inventiveness and smooth, persistent cool. Unfortunately, the instrumentals aren’t quite as sophisticated as the band’s previous showing on the third BBNG album, but that’s a minor qualm to make given that this is altogether a different type of project – an eclectic jazz trio backing up a hip-hop legend, not an eclectic jazz trio reinterpreting and twisting hip-hop to its own unpredictable ends. Still, what’s here is notably impressive. Take the propulsive nighttime swagger of “Mind Playing Tricks,” for instance; it’s the kind of the track that inspires visions of late night escapades, sunglasses senselessly shading the neon jungle of the city as the scent of vodka permeates the sedan. It’s another hit from a group of talented musicians, but it’s not quite a homerun.

This is all just nitpicking the finer points, though. “Sour Soul,” despite lingering in the shadows of better records from both collaborators, stands as a solid success for both parties. No, this album isn’t going to stand alongside “Supreme Clientele,” and no, this isn’t going stand alongside “III.” But “Sour Soul” will stand all the same. And really, though, isn’t that more than enough in an age when most albums can’t even manage to crawl?

7.5/10

Steven Wilson Reaches an Artistic Peak with “Hand. Cannot. Erase.”

With each new addition to Wilson’s solo discography, the esteemed British rocker edged closer to the brink of burying himself beneath an inescapable mound of nostalgia. The mysterious ambiance of 08’s “Insurgentes” quickly gave way to better, impeccably crafted records, but each progression sent Wilson further back in time until “The Raven…” threatened to drown him in a sea of mellotron and extended jams. Sure, the seventies may have come and gone, but for Wilson, that time never left. The reverence was beyond obvious, almost as if he’d captured the very essence of the decade into a frame, fixated and possessed all at once. “Hand. Cannot. Erase.,” though, marks another story. That frame, once revered like some religious obelisk, seems cast aside, left to collect dust in some darkened corner. For the first time in years, Wilson seems free of that all-consuming obsession, finally stretching creative muscles in ways that audiences haven’t heard in years. Welcome to 2015, Steve.

This isn’t to suggest that the seventies have been abandoned entirely. Rather, that sonic reverence has been refocused into a more nuanced expression in a larger artistic vision. Throughout “Hand. Cannot. Erase.,” Wilson draws from his entire repertoire, bringing ambient, electronica, pop and metal into the larger schematic of the record’s design. These disparate elements coalesce far more effectively than anyone might have imagined. “Ancestral,” the emotional peak of the album, seamlessly welds each of these varied methods together into a perplexingly logical whole. Stuttered electronic beats punctuate the distanced verses, setting a mood of perfect foreboding before the track, minutes later, erupts in a feverish rush of primal force. Wilson may not pen the most creative metallic riffs, but when timed to such perfection the effect is staggering. None of this craftsmanship would matter, though, without a solid production to bring the intricacies of Wilson’s music to life.

Fortunately, the Britain’s talent for sound engineering isn’t lost on “Hand. Cannot. Erase.” The record’s fourth cut, “Perfect Life,” exemplifies this knack for exceptional production as the mechanical rhythms give way to the track’s first verse and Wilson’s vocals pierce the ambience with chilling effect. It’s a rare moment when the audience not only hears the artist’s voice, but feels it, too – like a palpable presence emerging from the speakers. “Routine,” undoubtedly one of the album’s highlights, wouldn’t carry such weight without the spacious mix allowing the acoustic guitars, violins, keyboard and percussion each its own room to breathe in crowded company. Here, Wilson’s talents as a songwriter and aural mechanic work in tandem to bring the ambitious recording to life.

And, really, if one word could summarize Wilson’s latest offering, ambitious just might be the one. As the album winds through its tale of isolation, loss and love in the metropolitan jungles of fast-lane life, it becomes increasingly obvious that this isn’t just an important album: it’s a critical one. “Hand. Cannot. Erase.” tells a story that’s vital to so many of us. Track after track, it only becomes easier to imagine the frenzied rush through the swarm of silhouettes, blank faces immediately forgotten against the insanity of the bustling streets. It’s rare for a record to even conjure an emotional response like this, and its rarer still for that record to linger afterwards and demand further investment. Unfortunately, given Wilson’s penchant for the underground, mainstream recognition just isn’t in the cards — no matter how deserved it may be. But, we can dream. We can always lose ourselves in that sprawling monstrosity of modern metropolis, captivated, terrified, and dream to disappear.

9.8/10

Andrew Bird Stumbles Forward With “Echolocations: Canyon”

Chicago’s own Andrew Bird has proved himself many things over the years, but “stagnant” sure isn’t one of them. From his time as an honorary violinist for the Squirrel Nut Zippers up to his latest studio effort, “Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…,” Bird has sculpted his artistic persona on the singular promise of forward momentum – the promise that, come hell or high water, he’s not one to find satisfaction just running through the motions. Sure, ever since launching his solo career in earnest with 2003’s “Weather Systems,” acoustic folk, indie sensibility and an ever adventurous attitude have come to consolidate the songwriter’s artistic core, but Bird has always found new permutations to keep listener’s engaged with his ever-expanding discography. Despite Bird’s remarkable penchant for reinvention, I’d be lying if I said “Echolocations: Canyon” didn’t surprise me. Slated as the first installment in a series of field recordings shaped by their self-titled environments, Bird’s latest album seems equally ambitious and preposterous, but eventually reveals itself as an interesting, if flawed, step forward.

Each of the album’s seven tracks was recorded within Utah’s Coyote Gulch, comprised of nothing more than a lonesome violin and the natural sounds of the rocky, desolate environs. Setting music to tape in such an unusual setting should provide some interesting results, and Bird finds success here. “Canyon” moves through its compositions with grace, conjuring a distinct feeling of natural isolation: nature itself begins to feel like its own living, breathing entity enveloping the listener in a shawl of starry nights and circling carrion. This trick works wonders for album opener “Sweep The Field,” whose plaintive strings unfurl deliberately over the tone of rippling water. As the Bird’s strings rise and fall, it’s not difficult to imagine the mammoth walls of dirt and stone in their pristine splendor, towering above him. “Groping The Dark,” the album’s next cut, follows a similar pattern to even greater effect. Here, Bird’s talent with the violin is on full display as he weaves through numerous sonic progressions, all the while capturing an impressionable essence of the wild. Not only does “Grope The Dark” cement itself as the emotional peak of the record, but it also works to justify the questionable virtues of Bird’s outdoor excursion. “Canyon,” however, soon begins to suffer diminishing returns as it delves deeper into its tracklist.

By the time the record’s third cut, “Rising Water,” comes to its close, the trick is beginning to wear thin. Given just how beautiful the sounds actually are, this is a shame, because with just some variation to the approach, Bird could have infused the record with a much-needed refresher. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the following tracks, but the singular approach can only sustain so many minutes worth of music. It’s almost too cruel a joke to remark that “The Return of Yawny” immediately follows the languid sprawl of “Antrozous,” but like many hard truths, it’s one that shouldn’t be shoved under the rug. Things only degenerate with increasing rapidity as the record continues its meandering drone. With each pass of the clock, the record feels all the more lost within itself. And, really, by the time “Before the Germans Came” rolls around, that’s what most listeners are going to be focused on. If this is what fans can expect from Bird over the next few years, they may find themselves wishing, for the first time, that he’d stayed where he was.

6.3/10

Modest Mouse’s Latest Single May Just Be One of Their Best

By now, most Modest Mouse fans have probably heard the first three singles from the upcoming album “Strangers to Ourselves” and decided just how excited – or just how disinterested – they are in the prospect of a new record. Cut loose from the burden of first impressions, “The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box” isn’t likely to sway listeners who jumped ship over the past month, but it should thoroughly cement the anticipation of those already invested in the return of Isaac Brock and company to the world of indie rock.

It’s immediately apparent that “The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box” is more of a “rock” song than its predecessors, sporting an energetic, propulsive beat backdropped against angular, rhythmic lead-work. This sonic framework recalls the band’s pre-“Good News…” aesthetic, conjuring a palpable nostalgia as it celebrates the quirk-riddled instrumentation of “The Moon & Antarctica’s” poppier numbers. This track, in many ways, could have been lifted straight from one of the band’s older records if not for its clear aim towards radio airwaves. More so than many of the band’s latest tracks, this song feels born for repeated plays with its hook-laden verses and remarkably infectious bridge.

This trend towards accessibility, begun in earnest on the band’s 2004 breakthrough album “Good News For People Who Love Bad News,” has seeped into every one of the band’s releases since and is in full-effect here as well. It’s difficult not to move along with the beat as Brock’s distinctive, nasal voice works its way through the lines “open up the window all the air, all the air is falling out, eyes vaccuum up light, sound is trapped by the mouth.” Brock’s vocal delivery all but guarantees this song is going to be stuck in the listener’s head for hours, but really, when the song is this much fun it’s hard to complain.

“The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box” strikes a remarkable balance between Modest Mouse’s past and present. While the song furthers the group’s foray into mainstream sensibility, it also manages to recall past decades of the band’s career through its odd, quirk-riddled instrumentation. Straddling the best of both worlds, the band’s latest single seems primed to clinch the attention of those awaiting the release of the band’s upcoming album.

8.9/10

Napalm Death Returns with a Vengeance on “Apex Predator – Easy Meat”

Few bands can claim to be the forefathers of their genre. It’s an honor reserved only for the masters of a particular craft or those accidental visionaries creating the sounds of tomorrow. Napalm Death is one of those rare bands who might just be both. Beginning with 1987’s debut “Scum,” the Englishmen began a continuous campaign of sonic warfare, setting the metal underground to the torch. Before the release of that critical album, metal had rarely been so visceral — so inexplicably kinetic and violent. “Scum,” then, gave birth to the grindcore genre, setting the stage for innumerable imitators. Since that time, a number of impressive bands have come and gone, furthering and reveling in the sounds first set to tape so many years ago. But, Napalm Death has been churning along with the horde, releasing record after record of pure punishment.  Less revelation and more solidification, Napalm Death’s 16th studio album is far less concerned with pushing envelopes than furthering the band’s narrative. “Apex Predator – Easy Meat” is just the next wave of the onslaught.

Kicking off with the title track, one thing is immediately clear: the band knows how to make an entrance. Druidic chants build and build before giving way to pounding industrial percussion as manic howls pierce the cacophony. It’s nothing if not an effective start, setting an ominous tone for what’s to come. Swirling guitars, frenzied growls and tidal waves of percussion follow, reminding any listeners who may have lost the plot that this is, in fact, Napalm Death, back and ready to pulverize the masses. Lead single “Smash A Single Digit” features the band trading harsh and clean vocals as the maelstrom surges beneath, building to a funk-laden groove to close out the proceedings. If there’s a mission statement track to be found on the record, this just might be it, surging with primal fury and the pure momentum we’ve come to expect from the Englishmen. Later, “Dear Slum Landlord…” effectively halts the record’s breakneck pace, opting for slow, winding lead-work before it culminates in Barney’s explosive roars battling over the mechanical percussion. It’s a smart move, one that keeps “Apex Predator” from devolving into pure indulgence as it transitions back into the madness with “Cesspits,” one of the record’s heaviest numbers.

If any concerns are likely to be leveled at Napalm Death’s “Apex Predator – Easy Meat,” it’s not with the music itself; rather, it’s the state of the band in general that may come into question. Typically speaking, the longer a group stays together, the more necessary – and the less likely – change becomes. For now, that doesn’t seem to be an issue for the four Englishmen, who’ve crafted yet another solid entry in their storied catalog, but given time, all empires fall, and the band may come face to face with the realization that their trademarked brand of brutality might not cut it anymore. Even so, that’s a worry for another day, because for now, “Apex Predator” certainly lives up to its title.

8.1/10

Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” is the Quintessential Valentine’s Album

Many of us can think of at least a couple scenes in movies, television or video games in which a sexual encounter was accompanied with a sensual, funky soundtrack. This tactic seems to be most prevalent in romantic comedies, which is odd, because there’s nothing inherently funny about sexual relationships. No, in fact, they’re quite serious. Many of us have been there — lost in moments — as our thoughts slip back to that special someone. It circles around in your head like an infectious song on repeat. It’s not just powerful. It’s beautiful. I’d wager that no one understands just how much more so than legendary soul man Marvin Gaye, whose 1973 album “Let’s Get It On” stands the test of time as a monolithic tribute to the passion of pure romance – the perfect album for the upcoming holiday.

Few songs have been so lauded for their pure sex appeal more than that iconic opening cut, “Let’s Get It On.” Opening with the quintessential funky guitar line, Gaye bursts onto the scene, crooning, “I’ve been really trying, baby, trying to hold back this feeling for so long.” As the song waltzes throughout its sultry soundscapes, it’s hard to imagine most listeners holding those feelings back at all. A simple, methodical beat and slow, pulsating bass push the song forward as Gaye’s voice rises and falls with effortless grace. Lines such as “if the spirit moves you, let me groove you, let your love come down, get it on, come on, baby” only serve to cement the song as an all-time classic cut — one that has undoubtedly filled the walls of countless bedrooms.

Of course, one track doesn’t make for a classic album. Fortunately, then, that Gaye brought out the best of his songwriting for the remainder of the record. “If I Should Die Tonight” is as moving a soul ballad as any, weaving through impassioned falsetto and swelling strings. The track reaches its emotional peak in its propulsive saxophone solo, leading into Gaye’s final verses: “If I should die tonight, baby, I just want you to keep this one thought in mind, that I will never die blue, ’cause I’ve known you.” Lines like these could threaten to derail the record into overwrought tear-bait, but Gaye’s peerless vocal delivery sells each and every verse with authoritative conviction. The album’s remaining tracks follow suit, delivering emotional blow after emotional blow.

That’s why I make sure I’m in a sentimental, romantic state of mind every time I decide to spin Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” Thinking of that special someone seems to enhance the experience in ways that an ordinary listen through the record just wouldn’t do. Whenever Gaye’s voice cuts through the air, it’s her face that comes to mind. It’s easy to reminisce of the first movie we saw together, and it’s easier still to recall the time spent on the bench by the lake. If the power to conjure those memories, and the feelings that follow, doesn’t cement Gaye’s 1973 album as a true classic, I’m not sure what could. “Let’s Get It On,” despite the pure sexuality of its title, is much more than just an ode to casual, primal dalliance; it’s a testament to the pure emotive power that springs forth from two people together and truly happy.

9.6/10

The Decemberists “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” Review

February is probably an odd time to make such bold proclamations, but odds are slim that there’s going to be a more cognizant, witty introduction than “we’re aware that you cut your hair in the style that our drummer wore in the video, so when your bridal processional is a televised confessional to the benefits of Axe shampoo, you know we did it for you.” Granted, Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy has always been a gifted lyricist, but there’s a crackling poignancy in these remarks given the lukewarm reception dealt to the band’s previous album, “The King is Dead.” Thoroughly cutting away any trace of grandiose theatrics, The Decemberists’ first venture into modern Americana marked new territory – and betrayal to those expecting another slab of eclectic excursions. By splitting the fanbase in this manner, “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” is immediately saddled with unenviable expectations. Uniting such diametrically opposed factions of followers is never easy, but then again, the Decemberists have never been ones to take the easy way out. Remarkably, almost impossibly, the band’s seventh album expertly plays to both sides without splitting at the seams.

Marking a welcome return to the bombastic instrumentation threaded throughout 2005’s “Picaresque,” half the record plays like an endearing ode to the Decemberists’ legacy. “Cavalry Captain,” for instance, compliments the galvanized bounce of its chorus with swelling horns and pounding percussion, not only making for an excellent kickstart, but a return to the energized songwriting legions of fans have come to expect from Meloy and company. Delving deeper into the tracklist takes listeners into the oral sex hymn “Philomena,” a retro-style ditty replete with accentuated feminine vocalizations coursing throughout. Songs such as these would feel right at home on the band’s earlier, more audacious and ambitious albums, and it’s a welcome return to hear this side of the The Decemberists once more, even if it’s only for a while.

While much of “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” dedicates itself to reverent throwbacks, the album also spends considerable time expanding upon the pastoral aesthetic debuted on the band’s previous record. Naysayers may raise initial objections to revisiting the rustic, bare-bones aesthetic of 2011’s “The King is Dead,” but these songs stand shoulders above their predecessors, better written and more affecting. No song better exemplifies this thorough improvement than “Lake Song,” which quickly posits itself as one of the band’s most emotionally draining cuts to date. Meloy’s lamentation of “and you, all sibylline, reclining in your pew, you tattered me, you tethered me to you” is a wrenching ode to young love, a rare side of the band not often peeked through the thick curtains of literary indulgences and arcane references. Elsewhere, “Easy Come, Easy Go” finds the band comfortably settled into a rural romp of bluesy guitar licks and countrified lyrical turns.

Setting these multiple, disparate elements of the Decemberists’ sonic pallet side-by-side might seem like a venture doomed to failure. After all, if debate among the band’s followers can’t single out a particular album as the discography’s cornerstone, how could any of them fall in line for an album playing to each with little regard for sense or cohesion? Somehow, though, they just might. On “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World,” the Decemberists have crafted a stark reminder of just why they’re so admired in the first place. This is a band that’s cherished not for its consistency in stylistics, but for its seemingly effortless penning of great songs. Fortunately, that shows no sign of stopping.

8.7/10