Excellent sophomore album about the dangers and costs of fame; beautiful meditation on grief and loss; the Queen of Electro Smut.
Happier Than Ever
Like many people, I have enjoyed Billie Eilish’s quirky and accomplished debut record quite a lot. Since then, the teenage sensation has become one of the most famous people on the planet, won a bucketload of Grammys and had to come to terms with the surreal reality of pop stardom. Her second album sees Eilish deal with her dizzying ascent to fame, with the first track Getting Older openly yearning for simpler times: Things I once enjoyed / just keep me employed now, she sings wearily. Mid-album, a spoken interlude, Not My Responsibilities, addresses the court of public opinion that inevitably follows a female artist as well as the intense scrutiny of her appearance, with Eilish stating that she’ll present herself as she damn pleases.
It’s perhaps not as much fun as her more uptempo first album, and on the first few listens I felt that, at sixteen tracks, it was overlong and dragged down by too many slow woozy songs. Eventually though they’ve all grown on me; in fact the slower songs made me appreciate Eilish’s muted, breathy vocal style a lot more. I don’t think I gave her enough credit as a singer previously. I can also understand now why she was tapped for a new James Bond theme, as the retro aesthetics are more pronounced here. The glamorous “classic Hollywood blonde” album cover fits in well with all the sumptuous old-timey musical flourishes: a classic torch song here, some Brazilian bossa nova there.
Second albums are notoriously hard to pull off in any case, a follow-up to a wildly successful debut even more so, and a record about the downside of fame can very easily slide into whiny yawn-inducing cliches. So big props to Billie Eilish for avoiding the dreaded second album curse.
NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS
Skeleton Tree, Nick Cave’s previous album with The Bad Seeds, felt very much like it was shadowed by the death of Cave’s son Arthur, even if it was mostly written before it. Since then, Cave went on an extraordinary tour that was part solo show, part question time, where he candidly discussed his loss with the live audiences; I was very lucky to attend his Melbourne show which will always remain a very special memory for this Nick Cave fan. Then in 2019, there was Ghosteen, a double album written wholly after the tragedy.
It goes without saying that grief, mortality and making sense of a loss are the focus here, along with, if not exactly hope, then at least a sense of comfort in the realisation that no one is untouched by loss. Cave’s vocals at times feel so incredibly raw and vulnerable they made me feel almost uncomfortable on the first listen.
On the other hand, Ghosteen contains some of the most purely beautiful music Nick Cave & Co ever made. It mixes orchestral and electronic in the same spectral manner Skeleton Tree and Push the Sky Away have, but it takes things even further into the ambient territory while sounding more gorgeous and ethereal. A small part of me is hoping that Cave hasn’t fully abandoned the rock-based and piano-led incarnations of his band, but it’s hard to complain when you have a stunning triptych of albums such as these.
For some reason I completely missed out on this 2015 release, despite faithfully following Peaches since the turn of the century, when she made a splash with her signature electroclash classic, Fuck the Pain Away. It’s honestly a shame that this undeniably arresting track is probably where most people’s knowledge of Peaches begins and ends, because her body of work has remained consistently impressive since then, and her outrageous, cartoonish persona has always hidden strong pop sensibilities.
Rub may not match the poptastic heights of I Feel Cream (my personal favourite Peaches album) or the sheer head-turning novelty of her debut, but it does what the Peach does best: X-rated lyrics, themes of gender expression and pansexual free-for-all, deadpan rapping set against killer beats, tongue-in-cheek wordplay, and a mischievous sense of humour that probably endears me to her the most. Who else out there would reference Ayn Rand in a song called Dick in the Air?
There are some surprises too. The opener Close Up features the distinctive whispery vocal of Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth, while Feist, a frequent collaborator, pops up on the defiant closer I Mean Something (No matter how old, how young, how sick / I mean something). The album’s centrepiece and highlight, Free Drink Ticket, is a truly strange stream-of-consciousness rant against someone who must have done Peaches wrong, with dark lyrics that feel startlingly personal and Peaches’ vocals pitch-shifted to sound more masculine.