The Monthly music wrap: June 2017
The return of Lorde, Frank Ocean and Radiohead live in Denmark, ‘OK Computer’ at 20, and more
I can’t pretend that I’ve ever enjoyed the music of New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde, but listening to her second album, Melodrama, which was released this month, I can recognise an aspect of her popular appeal. She sounds up close, and I mean that literally. On any given track – ‘Green Light‘, for instance, the album’s lead single – her voice is by far the most prominent instrument. Every sibilant hisses, every breath rasps. The magnification of her vocal presence suits Lorde’s songs, which are written from the perspective of someone busting to tell a secret and then telling it in public. “I know about what you did and I wanna scream the truth,” she sings on ‘Green Light’. What the cad did is never revealed; the song’s actual revelation is the proximity of Lorde’s voice, which practically crouches inside your ear.
This nearness is artificial, and bears no relationship to the volume or projection of Lorde’s voice in real space. (This isn’t to accuse her, as female pop stars have so often been accused, of fakery.) It’s achieved by signal compression, which, as the phrase suggests, make the quiet parts of an audio signal comparatively louder. Compression has always been a part of audio recording, but since the 1990s it has become a habit, bordering on an ideology, for pop music producers to compress each part of a track in order to make the whole as loud as possible, with the vocal loudest of all. A heavily compressed song will cut through on the radio, and on low-quality computer speakers, sounding “brighter” and more immediate.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Lorde doesn’t make overt use of Auto-Tune in order to change her vocal pitch. But the closeness of her voice is a production effect too, and one that, I suspect, has a lot to do with why people compare the experience of listening to her songs to reading entries in a diary. Her songs are an act of intimacy, with all that “act” implies, for after all a diary is written to be read, if only by its author. There’s even a song on Melodrama called ‘Writer in the Dark’, the lyrics of which blur Lorde, as a singer, with the titular character, who now enacts her public revenge upon a former lover. “Bet you rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark,” she sings, in a simulation of a quiet murmur that is, objectively, very loud. I can imagine what this combination of nearness and volume might do for Lorde’s predominantly young listenership; her voice suggests, like a friend might suggest, that you could be more insistently yourself.
Three weeks ago I was fortunate enough to witness a performance by one of contemporary music’s singular and most elusive artists, Frank Ocean. He has long been in the habit of cancelling shows (local audiences may recall, with some pain, that he cancelled the majority of his 2013 Australian tour after he’d arrived), and until the moment he walked onto a rain-slicked catwalk stage in a muddy field in Denmark, within about two arm’s lengths of where I happened to be standing, I wasn’t convinced that he’d appear at all.
This headline show at the NorthSide festival (a relatively new addition to Europe’s extensive circuit of outdoor summer music festivals) was Ocean’s first live appearance in three years, and so it marked the live debut of several songs from last year’s enigmatic but ultimately outstanding album, Blonde. Ocean never drew attention to either of these facts, and his way of drawing attention to himself was the exact opposite of what most performers in his situation would do: rather than get loud he got quiet, and then quieter, so that the crowd of ten thousand or so had to listen very closely.
No one listened harder than Ocean himself, who more than once chose to restart a song several times over, searching for a nuance of phrasing or expression that only he could hear. In another performer this might have felt disruptive, or precious, but in Ocean’s case it felt like an act of fidelity to the emotional impulse of his songs, which often alight upon a promise or a declaration – “I’ll be the boyfriend in your wet dreams,” he sings on ‘Self Control’ – before moving off again, as if to say “not yet”, or “not quite this way”. And what an effective act it was, and what a voice he has, a soul singer’s voice, supple and fervent. He would launch into falsetto runs and then have the audience mimic them; “You did good, you did good,” he would laugh back at us, which was transparently a lie, but a useful one, furthering the sense that we all just happened to be sitting in on his rehearsals.
Ocean is older than Lorde – 29 to her 20 – but the two of them share an interest in how new technologies can reshape both our private and public selves. On Melodrama, Lorde compares memories of a past relationship to a “supercut”, a form of video montage that only came into existence with sites like YouTube. And Ocean’s main conduit to the wider world since the release of Blonde has been via his Apple Music radio show, Blonded, which has allowed him to assemble playlists of influences (Outkast, Prince, Erykah Badu), peers (Burial, Kanye West), and occasionally his own new work. The notion of the self as a sum of publicly declared cultural preferences underlies many of our online actions, and interactions; each broadcast of Blonded can be, and has been, taken as Ocean’s personal statement, without him having to say anything in a literal sense.
Four nights ago I walked into a Sydney record shop, and the store was playing OK Computer, an album released in June 1997 by the English band Radiohead. Two days ago, as I walked home from the bus stop, I spotted a row of posters on a wall, advertising this month’s reissue of OK Computer. There has been, to use the technical term, an absolute shedload of writing this year about the 20-year anniversary of OK Computer. (I admit to having added a piece of my own to the pile, though not for this publication.) “We even have posters,” joked the guy behind the counter at the record store, “so that you can feel 15 again.” The repackaging of key musical touchstones of one’s youth is a sure sign that youth is well and truly past; I was 15 when OK Computer was released, and I won’t ever feel 15 again. But nor would I want to.
Radiohead’s first commercial release, the Drill EP, was released in 1992; a quarter of a century later they are still finding new ways of writing and recording songs together. Last year’s album, A Moon Shaped Pool, is one of their very best, measured and sorrowful, the songs breathed into life by hugely inventive, textured string arrangements. Their ability to change makes the backwards-looking focus on OK Computer a bit jarring, against the grain of the band’s own future visions. Last weekend they headlined the Glastonbury music festival, and opinion on their set was divided between those who thought it was brilliant and those who thought it was obtuse, shorn of recognisable hits. But apart from their early single ‘Creep’, which they played, Radiohead don’t really have any hits. They are genuinely popular without being chart-friendly, which is unusual.
OK Computer … well. It’s mostly already been said. It was an album that gave voice to a deep sense of alienation from modern politics and technology, and especially from politics configured as a form of technology: neat, efficient, a simple choice between delivery platforms. OK Computer was angry and weary, personal but also, in important ways, impersonal. Thom Yorke’s lyrics aped the slogans of modern advertising, as if the machines were taking him over. Yorke frequently uses his songs to express shame – that much has been obvious since ‘Creep’ – and OK Computer was, in part, a record about the terror and shame of having your deepest feelings captured and sold back to you, made at a time when digital technology was just beginning to indicate what life-as-metadata might feel like.
The success of OK Computer seemed to make Radiohead, and Yorke in particular, even more ashamed, and in order to keep themselves going they found ways to hide. On every Radiohead album since OK Computer Yorke’s voice has been masked, distorted, manipulated, and it’s been to the band’s great benefit. In liberating himself from the traditional duties of a rock singer – to narrate, to guide, to articulate feelings on a listener’s behalf – Yorke has been free to use his voice more purely as a musical instrument, of no greater or lesser importance than a guitar, a modular synthesiser or a drum machine.
Radiohead played in Denmark too, two nights after Frank Ocean, in a different corner of the same muddy field, and what moved me even more than the music onstage (it must be said that Radiohead are one the most powerful live bands you could ever hope to see) were the ways in which the music inhabited its audience. It was pouring rain, but nobody left. Everyone knew all the words, even when the words were mostly there for the sake of the sound they create – “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon”, for instance, which is the opening line of ‘Everything in Its Right Place’, a song that Radiohead recorded for Kid A, the album that came after OK Computer.
When Radiohead play this song live, band member Jonny Greenwood uses a Kaoss Pad, a small handheld sampler, to manipulate Yorke’s vocal in real time. Every performance of the song relies on this technique, but each version is different, the fragments of voice falling in new ways. The fact that ‘Everything in Its Right Place’ is received by an audience with something close to rapture indicates, I think, how many of us feel this fragmentation in our lives, or as our lives, as if there is no coherent self to hold on to, just each day’s exhibition of the scraps.
Of note: US-born, Berlin-based electronic musician Laurel Halo also manipulates her voice in weird and compelling ways; her third album, Dust, has just been released. Sydney’s Mere Women have a sound highly reminiscent of Siouxsie and the Banshees, which is no bad thing; their third album, Big Skies, is out now. Algiers released their first album, a politically charged hybrid of punk and gospel, in 2015; their second, The Underside of Power, melds Motown’s uplift with Depeche Mode’s new wave rigidity to potent effect, and they have lost not one iota of their urgency. Californian rapper Vince Staples is nimble and sharp on Big Fish Theory, while SZA does the hip-hop/R&B hybrid so common to contemporary pop in her own memorable way. Lastly, this month saw the premature passing of Prodigy, one half of New York rap legends Mobb Deep, from complications of sickle-cell anaemia. Befitting his stage name, Prodigy was an artist with skills beyond his years; he was only a teenager when he co-crafted a song, 1995’s ‘Shook Ones (Part II)’, that few musicians in any genre have since bettered.
Anwen Crawford is the Monthly’s music critic and the author of Live Through This.