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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Rebel With A Cause? Madonna's Rebel Heart

The problem with making a career out of pushing boundaries is that eventually you run out of battles to fight. After thirty years at the top of the ephemeral world of pop music, Madonna has reached a crucial moment in her career. Can she still, at age 56, be relevant and cutting edge in a genre that has always been obsessed with youth? After redefining the potential for a female artist to control and exploit her own body image, what is left for her to say that the young upstarts after her crown cannot better articulate? Put simply, does Madonna still matter?



I am not really interested in engaging with the borderline misogyny and outright ageism that surrounds discussions about what Madonna wears, or how she is photographed. My suspicion is that with hindsight we will see that once again she is a pioneer, extending the limits of the age when women can flaunt their sexuality, celebrate their beauty and their liberation without the automatic disdain of a crumbling patriarchy.

What I am interested in though, is the music. Madonna did not become the best-selling female recording artist of all time because she looks good in a basque; she achieved this by consistently creating thrilling and innovative pop songs. As she prepares to officially unleash her thirteenth studio album, Rebel Heart, I believe the only answer that matters regarding Madonna's continued relevance is this: is the music any good?



Despite the official release date still being a week away, like most of the world I have already heard Rebel Heart. Madonna was devastated when demos of many of the tracks from the album were leaked on to the Internet and this was followed by further leaks of finished tracks. While she implored fans to wait and rush-released part of the album on iTunes, I'm sure I'm not alone in finding the temptation too much to bear. I have bought the album legally as well, so my conscience is clear. I have been living with the album now for a few weeks and feel ready to give a verdict. 

This album has a vision. While on tour promoting her last album, Madonna witnessed first hand how the right to freedom of expression is under threat in many parts of the world. It led her to start the Art For Freedom project, a "global initiative encouraging creative expression that brings awareness to human rights violations", and Rebel Heart is borne out of that concept and her belief that:

"I have no choice. At this point, there’s no turning back. This is my role in the world, 
my work as an artist. I have a voice and I have to use it."


Listening to Rebel Heart it soon becomes clear that this is no legacy artist trying to recapture old glories; this is vibrant, of-the-moment pop music. Something of the light, power and, well, pure sex of Madonna in her prime has been rekindled by her need to express herself and it has similarly rekindled my love for her. After a couple of albums that felt like she was chasing the pack rather than leading it, Rebel Heart is more hook-filled than Taylor, more raunchy than BeyoncĂ© and more creative than Gaga. This is an album that has been toiled over, crafted, loved: no wonder she was heartbroken to have the big reveal stolen.

Each track has something interesting to say, but my highlights are:

Living For Love would crown any Madonna album in any era, a true dance anthem that sounds instantly familiar yet fresh and current. It's not over-complicated or trying to be too clever, it just demands you to get on your feet, throw those hands in the air and boogie (or whatever the kids call it these days).


Madonna's work has often been autobiographical and she loves to sing about herself, but Unapologetic Bitch has to be the ultimate summation of her world view. Although it's superficially a brush off to an ex, anyone who's even remotely aware of the pop culture of the last thirty years can't help but see some truth to the sentiment in the lyrics. But better than all of that, it is so damn catchy! It should be a single, if we can all grow up and get over Madonna's re-appropriation of the b-word.

I've always thought Madonna is underrated as a songwriter and believe she is responsible for some of the most beautiful ballads to grace the charts. There are two such on Rebel Heart that rank among her finest compositions. Ghosttown pairs a pretty melody with an apocalyptic lyric that finds two lovers as the last people standing as the world collapses. The chorus has an immediate hook and a quiet power. It is a message of hope, that love will conquer all.


Joan Of Arc is my standout track, it has a simple beauty that can only come from a truly brilliant and clever piece of songwriting. It takes the symbol of strong womanhood and subverts it, allowing us to glimpse something vulnerable and beautiful and true. This is not about being a victim, it's about the reality that all of us occasionally just need to be held and loved, to know that there is a safe place from where we can rebuild.

Of course there is a song about her vagina and a couple of tracks where the inspiration can't quite match the execution, but overall this is the strongest set of songs Madonna has served up since Ray Of Light. And I haven't even touched on the ten or so bonus tracks that will fill up various deluxe editions, many of which could easily stand proud on the album proper. Except Auto-Tune Baby, which is as terrible as it sounds.


So to answer my own question, does Madonna matter in 2015? On the only criterion that matters, the music, then the answer is a resounding "hell, yes". By finding a purpose to continue to create music, Madonna has rediscovered the creative energy that has always made her a revolutionary force in pop. It's been a while, but I'm once again living for Madonna.



Rebel Heart is (officially) released on 6 March in the US, 9 March in the UK, international release dates may vary. Visit madonna.com for more information.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Rae Of Light

It is a terrible, yet universal truth that pop music is not really for people over 40. By that I mean chart music, songs designed to be on the cutting edge of cool, mainlining in to the hive consciousness of young people. I swore when a teenager that I would never end up like my mum, who couldn't let go of the 60s. I would always like new music, I wouldn't get stuck in a time warp. Sadly, if I'm honest, most new music bores me. I'm occasionally tempted by a great hit single, only to find the promising talent stretched thin over a whole album. Remember when albums had a dozen (at most) great tracks? When videos were innovative and mesmerising? When the artistry seemed more important than the celebrity? I was beginning to think I would never fall deeply for a new artist again. Then I heard Rae Morris.


Rae is a Blackpool lass who has slowly and surely built a loyal following since signing to Atlantic Records in 2011, when she had just turned 18. Refreshingly, instead of rushing to release an album, Rae has been honing her craft through the periodic release of increasingly brilliant singles and regular live performances. This week, finally, Rae has released her debut album, Unguarded and it has undoubtedly been worth the wait.

I first heard Rae when her fellow Atlantic artist Rumer shared one of her songs on Facebook. It was called Skin and both the song and the stunning video completely blew me away. The music was hypnotic, the lyrics pure poetry and Rae's voice was unique, original and fresh, yet with a knowingness that belies her youth. The video is a work of art, simple and elegant, full of ideas and gorgeous to watch. I must have played it a dozen times straight.


Rae's next single was the equally original Do You Even Know? and it cast another spell on me. The music pulses, pulling you in, and Rae's voice soars over it. The chorus is an incantation, vulnerable, but strong. Is it a plea or an accusation? Again I couldn't stop playing it, to the extent that my husband almost put me in rehab over it.


The video is another thoughtful and innovative peice, showing once more that this is an artist at work. Rae is a mannequin, frozen in a number of odd positions and places. Watch the video to the end, the pay off is so satisfying I actually whooped the first time I saw it.


Another single followed and another completely original sound. Cold was a duet with Fryars, and allowed Rae to explore a relationship in her songwriting from both sides. Again there is such maturity on display, the ability to channel emotions and feelings and transpose them in a way that we haven't heard a thousand times before. Rae's vocal is superb, edgy this time and melding beautifully with the electronically icy vocal by Fryars.


With Closer and Under The Shadows following as singles in the lead-up to the album's release, Unguarded already feels like a Greatest Hits album. There is not a weak link to be found throughout, this is a debut album on a par with The Kick Inside or Little Earthquakes.


My favourite song on the album was also Rae's debut single from way back in March 2012, Don't Go, which has been reworked for Unguarded. It is a haunting ballad that showcases Rae's majestic voice and her unerring ability to write a hook. Here is Rae performing it live.



As you can see, I am more than a bit taken with Miss Morris. I was thrilled to get to see her play live while back in the UK in September, in a tiny room under Brighton train station. I didn't doubt that she would sound as great live as on record, but what I didn't expect was that she would seem so in awe of her audience, as if she didn't quite yet understand how special she was. I realised that I was fortunate enough to witness a star being born, at the very cusp of explosion.


I wish great things for Rae Morris and I know one day I will be sitting in an arena somewhere waiting for her to perform and remembering that September night in Brighton and that special young woman back when it all began.

Unguarded is out now in the UK, international release dates to be announced. Visit raemorris.co.uk for more information and to sign up for Rae's newsletter. Here more of Rae's music on her YouTube Channel or on SoundCloud.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

50 Words For Kate: #1 - Dawning

I have been fascinated by Kate Bush since I first saw her perform Wuthering Heights as a seven-year old. At thirteen, with the money earned at my first summer job, I began buying her albums and singles and fell completely under her spell. For over three decades, Kate has been an intrinsic part of my life. Her music affects me like no other, it speaks to my soul, ignites my imagination and excites my emotions. Quite simply, I cannot imagine what my life would have been like without this woman's work.


Through the decades the one element that left a slight pang of sadness was the thought that I would never get to see her perform her music live on stage. I was too young to have gone to her tour in 1979, but I bought the video of that show and played it endlessly. In some ways that made the absence harder, as Kate was electric on stage, in every part an equal to the artist she is on record.


Occasionally there would be stirrings that she might perform again, even one time when I heard it from her own lips. But each time it came to naught. It would become a regular topic of conversation with Amanda, my bestie and fellow Kate adorer: how amazing it would be, but how it might also cause us to expire from the stress of it all.


When the announcement finally came, just five short months ago, it felt unreal. Each day I had to check the news to make sure it was not another of the "Kate's doing a tour" dreams that sporadically troubled my sleep. And it was as stressful as we'd feared. That week between the announcement and the tickets going on sale was not good for my blood pressure. And the actual buying of the tickets... well, let's just say I'm glad nobody could see me shake.


Tonight, Kate Bush begins her 22-date residency at the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith, London. I wish her well with all my heart. I will be there in seven days' time, alongside Amanda, and we will be pinching each other. The dream is finally coming true.


These last 50 days, sharing Kate's extraordinary career with you through my own personal experience, has been a labour of love. Thank you for coming along for the ride and for the many comments and compliments that have made it all worthwhile. I'll be back in October, when the dust has settled, to share my thoughts on Before The Dawn.


Until then, here's a little something to cherish from the last time Kate played live...




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Monday, August 25, 2014

50 Words For Kate: #2 - Queen

When I was a child (running in the night), things like record sales, chart positions and awards mattered to me. I always wanted Kate Bush to sell more, climb higher and win accolades and was disappointed when other, less deserving acts beat her. I remember my best friend at high school, Ben, was a Madonna fan, and we would race to see whether Hounds Of Love or Like A Virgin was number one that week in the album charts. We argued over who was more talented, I listed Kate's many musical abilities, Ben pointed out Madonna played the cowbell.


As an adult, somewhere in my forties, I have learned to appreciate what matters most is not what the rest of the world thinks about something, it's what it says to me and how it moves my own heart that counts. Of course it's lovely when the artist you love is appreciated by the wider world, so it was a pleasure to see Kate recognised in three significant, if very different ways during 2012 and 2013.

In April 2013, Kate was at Windsor Castle to be awarded Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, or CBE for short, from Her Majesty the Queen. Kate later posted this "thank you" on her website:


I feel incredibly thrilled to receive this honour which I share with my family, friends and fellow musicians and everyone who has been such an important part of it all.
Now I've got something really special to put on top of the Christmas tree.
The 'everyone' in the quote above of course includes all of you.  Thank you so very much for all your fantastic support and encouragement.  I feel extremely privileged to still have an audience.  It's you that have made my work, which would otherwise have just been creative projects, into a success.
Many, many thanks to the best fans ever,
Kate  x

It was not the first time Kate had met the monarch. At a Royal Academy of Music event in 2002 Kate had asked the Queen to autograph her programme for her son, not realising that Her Majesty does not do such things. As Kate later said: 

“I would do anything for Bertie, including making an a***hole of myself in front of a whole roomful of people and the Queen.” 


On this occasion, there were no such lapses of etiquette. The smile on Kate's face says it all.


A year earlier, Kate beat the current critical darling, PJ Harvey, and multi-million selling Adele to win Best Pop Award for 50 Words For Snow at the South Bank Sky Arts Awards. Kate made another rare public appearance to collect the award:


The third honour was potentially the most exciting. It was rumoured that Kate was going to be performing live! Yes, the Closing Ceremony for the London 2012 Olympic Games was to be A Symphony Of British Music, and was set to feature some of the most legendary names in British popular music. Naturally those legends included Kate, and the rumours reached fever pitch when it was reported that she was shooting a new video for Running Up That Hill featuring Jude Law! This photo was apparently a leak from the set:


I had deserted London for L.A. the year before, but managed to tap in to the live streaming of the event. Just as well, as the US broadcaster decided to cut Kate from their delayed prime-time presentation! As predicted, the opening bars of Running Up That Hill began and the commentators seemed to think it was really happening to ya... 

video

I swear I watched the whole thing expecting she would appear, even to the bitter end I thought she might jump out of that pyramid, like a stripper out of a birthday cake. Oh well, I guess that confirmed the fact that she was never going to play live again. At least we got a lovely remix of R.U.T.H. It even reached number 6 on the UK charts!

What a lovely, triumphant year that had been for Kate. Now we all just had to wait and see what she'd do next...



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Sunday, August 24, 2014

50 Words For Kate: #3 - Misty

If I had to choose just one song from Kate Bush's repertoire to illustrate why she is such a special artist, then I would select a song from 50 Words For Snow that carries all the hallmarks of her genius.


Misty is the tale of a woman who builds a snowman, only to find him come to life. Naturally she falls in love and they have a romantic encounter. There are so many remarkable things about this song, which runs to well over thirteen minutes. The legendary jazz drummer Steve Gadd's playing is extraordinary here, intertwining with Kate's piano, managing to sound both free-flowing and deliberate at the same moment. The song has no chorus, but repeating themes that grow in significance each time we hear them.

Kate delivers one of her greatest vocal performances, fully demonstrating that despite its drop in register, her voice has lost none of its power to interpret and emote. Every syllable is perfectly formed, yet there is a roughness to her voice, the touches of time, which just adds to its beauty.

The main reason though that I would choose this track to represent Kate, is it shows her abilities as a storyteller. As a writer, it can take me hundreds of words to achieve what Kate manages in a few dozen lines of verse. While naturally a great deal of attention is given to Kate's melodies, her lyrics are equally important and equally individual. She has honed her skills over the years, realising that the fewer words you need to convey a feeling, the more power it holds.


Here Kate makes us believe that snow can live and breathe, that it can hold us in its arms, drive us to love and to the edge of despair at its loss. It's a fantastical premise, but it never once feels silly or flippant in her hands. From the magic realism of the blood from a cut hand bringing the snowman to life, to the woman's searing grief at the loss of her Misty, it is the birth of a modern fairytale.

Kate commissioned a series of short animation segments for three of the tracks from 50 Words For Snow, the most elaborate of which was Mistraldespair, this gorgeous stop-motion piece made for Misty.


So after the excitement of getting two albums in one year, we all wondered what would happen next. Kate said she already had ideas for another album, that sounded promising. One thing was certain, she wasn't planning any live shows, as she told The Word magazine in their December 2011 issue:

"I guess I haven't ruled it out, because I did enjoy it, but I have no intention of doing anything live because it wouldn't work with how my life is at the moment. Never say never, but I've got no plans."

Well that seemed pretty clear and definitive...



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Saturday, August 23, 2014

50 Words For Kate: #4 - Snowing

"Well, I knew I wanted to do a wintry record... then it just honed in on this loose theme of snow and everything started falling into place... For me it's so atmospheric - so evocative of so many things."

Completing the revision of her earlier work on Director's Cut clearly provided the catharsis Kate Bush had hoped for. She immediately began work on a brand new album, a collection of songs that shared a theme: snow. Astonishing everyone, probably including herself, she managed to get it ready for the winter of 2011, meaning she made good on her jest of delivering two albums in a single year. It was like 1978 all over again!


50 Words For Snow is, like the snowflakes it evokes, hard to pin down. It is a work of popular music, but it is not "pop". Kate has taken the freedom of jazz and created her own genre, allowing her unique creativity to follow each tangent and flash of inspiration. With no major corporate label to limit her freedom, she can choose to deliver an album of seven tracks that together provide over an hour of music. There are no longer any rules, there is no formular: it is art as pure as the driven snow.


She did attempt to release a "single", but Wild Man, a tender tale of a Yeti sighting set in the heart of Asia, was never going to make sense to the iTunes generation. It once again shows Kate's ability to conjure a distant culture by carefully and sensitively entwining their musical heritage into her own.


Unusually for a Kate album, there are other voices leading songs. Her son Bertie provides a haunting descant on Snowflake, falling from a cloud into the welcoming arms of his mother. Kate realises a personal ambition when she gets to duet with her hero, Elton John, on the time-travelling love story, Snowed In At Wheeler Street. Stephen Fry plays Prof. Joseph Yupik on the title track, a linguist challenged by Kate to name those fifty words for snow.


The classically trained voices of Stefan Roberts and Michael Wood create a perfect counterpoint to Kate on Lake Tahoe, a ghost story about a woman who drowns while searching for her lost dog.



The closing track on the album, Among Angels, is really a cheat, as Kate freely admitted it was written a few years before and has nothing to do with snow. However, I think it is the perfect ending, as it evokes shimmering summer, bringing us out of the cold, dark winter, into the light. From its false start to its abrupt ending, it has quickly become a cherished favourite of mine.


50 Words For Snow may have been one of the fastest albums Kate has ever made, but it in no way feels like a rush job. It is the work of a maestro, an artist in total control of their craft. Even in the 80 degree heat of an L.A. "winter", I can put the album on and feel the icy wind and the touch of a snowflake on my cheek.



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Friday, August 22, 2014

50 Words For Kate: #5 - Directing

"Sometimes stepping back one step can allow you to take two forward, and in a funny way that's what's happened."

Kate Bush decided to give herself a "do-over" and re-record a number of songs from The Sensual World and The Red Shoes to create a new album, Director's Cut. Perhaps we have Bertie to thank for Kate opening up to her past, surely he must have wanted to see and hear his mother's work?


Whatever the trigger was, I believe this project may have been pivotal in Kate's subsequent decision to return to the live stage after 35 years. Previously, she had quickly dismissed her past material, like most artists only hearing what she considered its flaws. Now she realised that she could reclaim her work and revise it, allowing it to live again in the present. In particular there are two tracks on Director's Cut that lead me to believe that while we may know the songs Kate chooses to perform in Before The Dawn, it might take us a while to recognise some of them.


The original This Woman's Work was a fairly traditional Kate composition; piano-centred, with subtle orchestration and a perfect pop length of 3' 35''. The director's cut added three minutes, lost the piano and the strings and replaced them with delicate, barely there electronica. This is a remake, not a re-edit. While obviously still about the same subject matter, it evokes a totally different mood and emotional response to the original. It is reflective and soulful, a meditation rather than the dramatic underscoring of the original. It is a clear symbol of how Kate has evolved as an artist, but it is also a beacon showing that her past, present and future are part of a continuum.



Moments Of Pleasure was also a traditional Kate song in its original form. To Kate this is a celebratory song about the joy that loving other human beings brings into our lives, while recognising that this opens us up to equally great hurt. This director's cut does not at first appear to be quite as radical. The piano is still there at the centre of things, though now it is softer, pauses and plays at tangents. Kate chooses not to sing the line "just being alive can really hurt", replacing it with a choral hum from an ethereal choir. It is a deconstruction of the original, respectful of its heritage, but brave enough to jettison everything but the core elements of the song that are needed to convey its meaning.


It's possible that Kate may have decided to similarly reimagine other songs from her past for her live concerts. If Director's Cut proves anything, it is that she is more than comfortable with the artist she has become, separate from trends, image, expectations. If Kate decides to revisit her older material in the shows, I expect she will want it to reflect who she is now, not try and recapture an echo of her past. Am I the only one excited by that prospect? Given the warm reception given to Director's Cut, I imagine I'm not...


If you would like to know my thoughts on the rest of Director's Cut, then read my earlier blog where I compare each track with its forebear: Unfinished Business.



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