an album a week

#52: "Faith" - George Michael (1987)

Well, folks. Here we are. When Fiona and I set up this idea, getting to the 52nd album felt very long away. But, as with every passage of time, sure enough, it comes along, whether you're ready for it or not. This year has been relentless for so many of us all, for so many reasons. Where 2016 felt like constant EastEnders episode finale hooks, complete with stabbing outro, 2017 has felt like one worthy Netflix Original series after another, all dark Instagram filters and blank thousand-yard stares. But, cast your mind back to 364 days ago and there was I, having a very Merry Christmas, drinking something fizzy and finally starting to relax, when the news came in that George Michael had suddenly passed away.

Now, I wasn't aware of how much I would miss the man born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou until he was gone. What I do remember is staying up late, secretly, to watch the Channel 4 midnight preview screening of his video for Freeeek! hearing about how erotically charged it was going to be, which ignited my preteen curiosity, of course. I watched it - and I thought it was hilarious. But he was in on it. That was the point. A joyful-to-the-point-of-hysterical overflowing of saucy winks. What else would you expect from the gleeful gospel singer of, "Sex is natural/ Sex is good"?

Gospel is not a term I'm using lightly here. Going back to the beginning, Faith is, like my forays with the Purple One, a rewarding and, yes, spiritual listen for a heathen like myself. There's so much love here. Love in a sexual sense, love in a community sense, love for yourself, love that's confusing and substituting, but love nonetheless. It's a record rich in personal revelation without stumbling into self-obsession. George Michael wants you to be happy and free and, my word, you feel that that goodness is a tangible, achievable thing when you're listening to him.

That Michael wasn't around for the year his seminal album turned 30, well... That's sad. I knew about the scandals, his being in the press consistently for car crashes, trysts and weed. Given what's been going on for the past couple of years in the public eye, this seems so tame as to be endearing. Besides, it was Michael who stood in his own artistic stead and made the channel broader and more accepting for those to follow. After achieving phenomenal success with this, he follows it up with a video full of supermodels, burning his own iconography. Now that is someone who embodies the paradox of being human, remaining your own whilst embracing change. Who knows what the next year will hold? But we'll get there, soon enough. And in the meantime, you've just got to...

#20: ALVIN LUCIER - "I AM SITTING IN A ROOM" (1969)

This might be one of the longest tracks but shortest albums that we will cover on this project. It could also be said to be one of the most 'out there', as it's not musical in the orthodox sense but is still an artist's intention expressed through sound, recorded and distributed. Reading about Alvin Lucier and I am sitting in a room made me think that reviewing it looked set to be more craic than any of Steve Reich's offerings at least. I fancied delving into something genuinely experimental and came out the other side feeling pretty relaxed. Though that may have had more to do with the fact that I listened to it in the bath. I entirely recommend doing this yourself, incidentally, especially if, like me, you're not much of a bath person either, thereby doubling your helping of experimentation.

The experiment is as follows. Lucier reads out a piece of text, no more than four or five sentences, explaining what he is doing and predicting what will happen. So far, so science. What Lucier is doing is recording his voice reading this text, then playing it into the room that he is sitting in, recording that and playing it into the room, repeating this process until the natural frequencies of the room completely obscure Lucier's voice - apart, he notes, from possibly the rhythm of his speech. The version I listened to is, I believe, the original 1969 recording lasting just over 18 minutes, not the higher-fidelity version recorded in 1981 that is about 45 minutes long. Turns out that 18 minutes is plenty of time to layer ambient frequencies over a human voice to obscure it entirely with a not unpleasant drone and feel sufficiently soaked.

Admittedly, listening to I am sitting in a room isn't super experimental for me in the sense that I've listened to albums of this kind before. As I've told anyone generous or socially obliged enough to have bought me a glass of red wine, The Disintegration Loops by William Basinski is one of my favourite pieces of music and, if the bottle is finished and the whisky brought out, what I hope it will sound like in my head when I die. During a particularly dark time, Basinski found tapes of his old compositions that were beginning to disintegrate. He recorded playing them over and over, recording the act of decay and creating something new. Or was it merely the documentation of something falling apart? The slight rise of hiss and grain that eventually blooms like a fireball and devours everything in its path. A sonic Sorites paradox. When did it stop being that thing and become the other? Repetition's effect on the brain - or mine, anyway - is to accept what information has already been offered and truncate it, skip to the end. But I am sitting in a room helps hold your attention after several goes round because they aren't actually repetitions but iterations with incredibly slight differences that build to something almighty.

Not one for the wedding dance floor playlist but if you have a spare 18 minutes and fancy something both meditative and oddly energetic, run yourself a bath and sink deeply into both. 

#16: Van Morrison - "Astral Weeks" (1968)

Reviewing is a funny business. Films, books and theatre were very much my wheelhouse. Probably because I had one or more of training, experience and ambition in each of them. I understood what was involved, the pitfalls, the effort, the triumph. Music didn't feature. Then Fiona came to me with the premise behind 52A/52W. It scared me, in the good way. 

This experiment isn't just about getting more familiar with music but also training my critiques in an area I don't feel that I have much standing in. Music is something I've always enjoyed because, y'know, I'm human. I've been in awe of the technically adept and hugely talented musicians that have crossed my path but understanding music with any skill, that's beyond me. Though I did use to play a mean ocarina back in primary school. That tells you a lot about me - and my primary school. I've dabbled with singing lessons on and off but mainly as an aid to overall vocal technique, not for any serious performing or professional means.

What I'm getting at here is that music is a powerful beast that I've played with and admired from afar but have never tamed or claimed as a house pet. Thinking and talking about music is still very new to me but I think that I can just about apply my own principles of criticism and get by - though you are more than free to disagree, Dear Reader, and tell me why on our various contactables.

I am meandering about the essence of criticism because this is a very personal response to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. That's what struck me about it, that I wasn't expecting it to get under my skin how it has but that's where we are. I'm going to consider it objectively, obviously, and place it in the wider canon as best I can, which many others have done pretty well because it's kind of a big deal as an album don't you know... (I vaguely did but didn't know that Van Morrison was Northern Irish until last week so there you go) But, in order to be honest and transparent, leaving out the impact it has had on me would not be doing good criticism, in my book. So if you don't mind reading from my book too, subjective disclaimer duly delivered, shall we?

Back in 2012, Rolling Stone put Astral Weeks at no. 19 in their 500-strong list of the Greatest Albums of All Time. No mean feat, there, particularly for a debut solo album conceived and recorded in the wake of a nasty legal battle between Morrison and the widow of the head of his former record label, Bert Berns. Berns and Morrison were disputing Morrison's musical future - Berns thought he should continue in the pop vein whereas Morrison wanted to try new musical territory - and Berns died of a heart attack, having a previously undiscovered congenital heart defect. His widow, Ilene, blamed Morrison. Astral Weeks is definitely a massive departure from Morrison's previous work, perhaps best characterised by Brown Eyed Girl, and I can't help but wonder if there's a strange grief and working through to acceptance at play here, that Morrison did eventually get to try a new sound but in the aftermath of significant stress and tragedy.

Not that I have been through anything like Morrison or the Berns recently but I've had a few knocks to my confidence, alongside some health issues in my immediate family, the bruises of which I'm nursing. I won't go into specific detail but suffice to say I'm doing a lot of facing down my ego. So it's probably surprising only to me that an album entitled Astral Weeks, which references the idea that there's a spiritual body separate from the physical as well as rebirth, during Easter, has been quite so effecting. Morrison himself has been modest about the album's success and lasting legacy, but its inception and recording sounds like a mysterious, fluid process. Divination, even. The musicians in the band have been reported as saying that they had no idea what Morrison wanted from them, as he didn't tell them at any point. When discussing the lyrics, Morrison says that he didn't really understood what they meant. They came from a stream-of-consciousness rather than any specific life experience. Morrison was guided more by representing certain feelings instead of the facts. Not about anyone in particular but still about specific human experiences, he created something that everyone had a window into.

Well, that's how it made me feel. Like most days, I began with a to-do list. My confidence and motivation has been ebbing rather than flowing of late, which has got in the way of my efficiency with doing things, which gets at my confidence... So there's a spiral. It's slow just now but I've been on it before and I know the consequences of leaving it for too long. After having just recovered from a bad virus that left me bedridden for a week, I woke up with a hefty cold. I am not the best patient. Unable to do much, I fret about not doing much, which impedes relaxing and just getting better. This was one of those days were I couldn't concentrate on anything, couldn't show for much, feeling like I'd let people down having to cancel and postpone... Then, I thought, well. Better crack on with listening to this week's album, seeming as I have to write about it and all. I sat down, pressed play - and something about those first few chords, I felt the shackles and tangles of my mind and the day disappear. I was streamlined.

But how does it sound? Objectively speaking, in an attempt to understand Astral Weeks as part of the wider musical canon, there's a lot going on. There's folk elements, jazz, classical, rock - but really, it sounds like an entirely organic string of sound. It's hard to separate the strands because, well, I didn't want to. It's wholesome and pure, not in an ascetic sense, but in a round, deep, ripeness. Though I'm not a synaesthete, when I closed my eyes - I genuinely listened to most of this album with my eyes closed, you guys - I could see colours, shapes, movement. Like any abstract art worth its salt - maybe more than a pinch - Astral Weeks has direction and form that guide you through something unfamiliar but it's all the more fresh for being strange. It made me think of standing in front of a huge Rothko or Pollock painting, and of what was said about the surrealist H. R. Giger's work on the eponymous Alien, that it looked like something from a dream, something rising to the surface from your unconscious mind. Morrison's voice is bold and expressive but not always crystal clear. It's another instrument among many. The lyrics are there if you listen out for them but Morrison seems to be more interested in cohesion, producing a certain sound from several, rather than projecting his own singing voice. His own artistic voice, well that's very much there. The meaning of the words are there but they're not the sole source of meaning. They're poetic and prayer-like in places. Repetition is used within each track but not to the point of wearing what's there thin to the point of nihilism. 

Listening to the whole album, start to finish in one sitting, with my eyes closed - it made me feel better. I'm streaming it through Spotify but I wonder what it'd be like to have it on vinyl. Eight tracks in total, four on each side. Part One: In the Beginning. Part Two: Afterwards. Beginning of what? After what? It doesn't matter. The event isn't the point. The anticipation of it, then the acceptance of whatever it is, whatever it has been - those are key. There isn't a neat resolution because Astral Weeks doesn't follow a specifically conventional narrative but it does have a simple spine of passing through time, indulging in nostalgia - and being lost. 

I have been feeling a bit lost recently. I don't think I'm the only one. Morrison himself said of the album that, "You have to understand something,...A lot of this ... there was no choice. I was totally broke. So I didn't have time to sit around pondering or thinking all this through. It was just done on a basic pure survival level. I did what I had to do." This basic purity comes through, not in a sense of desperation but in someone doing what they want to do and what they have to do in one fell swoop. Listening to this album gave me a vantage point, an emotional osmosis where my feelings overflowed into a sound that recognised and represented those feelings, reducing mine to bearable levels. Maybe you won't feel the same. But I hope there's something out there like this for you. 

This isn't the first album I've had this reaction to, as there have been different ones for different stages in my life, including one that I won't mention because our mega spreadsheet of planning-ahead glory informs me that Fiona is going to review it, but these kinds of albums genuinely keep me sane. The final track, Slim Slow Slider, is a brief one. It sounds like the thought process of fretting about how to look after someone you know, who you think is in trouble. It finishes with Morrison singing, "Every time I see you / I just don't know what to do", then slapping his guitar. And then it's just done. Ambiguous and unsolved. 

The entry for Astral Weeks on the Rolling Stone website concludes that "[Morrison] was going deep inside himself, without a net or fear." That is a kind of bravery I aspire to, in creative ventures and in life. If I manage to come up with anything close to Astral Weeks then I'll be astounded. If I don't, so be it - but at least I'll have done what I have to do.

Sometimes that's enough.

#14: Beth Orton - "Central Reservation" (1999)

There was a time, not that long ago, when the response from my friends as I would be on the cusp of enthusing about an album I had just discovered was to cut me off mid-flow. "Ethereal female vocals with a modern twist on the folk singer-songwriter with chanteuse and / or electronic elements?" they would say, accompanied with the most endearing eye-roll possible. I would agree, shaken, like the tablecloth had been whisked away without disturbing a single piece of cutlery. But I got the picture, eventually. Mournful-sounding ladies are very much my 'hing. Yet, somehow, I have let Beth Orton completely pass me by. Until now.

Central Reservation gained Orton her second Mercury Music Prize nomination and it's easy to see why. That sensation of having heard an album before though you can't consciously think when that would be possible, then you realise how impactful it must have been on release, how much effect it still has, that that's kind of the point. Orton has a distinct voice and register, less on the Kate Bush and PJ Harvey end of the spectrum and more towards Feist and Laura Marling. Trying to describe her sound gets me running into paradoxes. She's husky but clear, deep but soaring, tender but bold. An utterly remarkable voice that isn't clipped to be more conventionally appealing, that is magnetic nonetheless. There's nothing wan about the musical arrangements. They are robust, bursting forth with jazz, folk and rock touches that feel anything but derivative. 

And yet... You can have too much of a good thing. There's not much variation between songs and each track feels like it's made its point then goes on for another minute. Maybe something meditative is the aim, which is definitely achieved, but there's a sense of stretch and repetition that held this back from being really spectacular for me. When an album speaks to you, or rather, gives you the language for certain experiences you had difficulty finding yourself, it's best when it doesn't drone or blur. But then I'm someone who doesn't think our attention spans are shortening and that brevity is an underrated virtue. Perhaps this is the anathema of art but I'd happily have Orton as a guest at any dinner party, with this playing on a low volume in the background. Soft, welcoming, setting a certain energetic tone but not engaging for full focus.

Altogether, quite polite - and I can't help but feel Orton deserves to make her demands known.

#4: FRANK OCEAN - "CHANNEL ORANGE" (2012)

Like most of the world, I first heard about Frank Ocean when he wrote a poetic, pensive blog post about his first love. The post wasn’t very long – but it was big. Ocean was talking about his feelings for a man. That a man working in the machismo of the hip-hop and R&B could essentially come out in this way was a shock to most, as he single-handedly shattered the rigidity of that exact stereotype. Fortunately, his post garnered an overwhelmingly positive reaction. With the small task of expanding the boundaries of an entire genre complete, Ocean followed up with the release of his first LP, channel orange. 

channel orange is many things at once. An evocative, provocative expression of emotion, Ocean is staggeringly sensitive and insightful. Keep reminding yourself that he was 25 at the time of its release to get the occasional spine shiver on top of the ones he already deals you. For someone who has proven to be so idiosyncratic, the album simply begins and finishes with tracks titled Start and End. The album opener samples the PlayStation start up screen noise, text message alerts and idle conversation, setting what is to come within a specific generational ambience. The album emanates youth but criticises the superficiality and bragging that so often comes with the work of Ocean’s peers. Short and sharp track Fertilizer is a conscientious shrug of resilience, stating simply that whatever negativity comes Ocean’s way will only fuel his growth.

It is wrong to call this a confessional album because to confess, you have to feel guilty. This is an introspective album that is intimate and lyrical without being obtuse. Contemplative, yes, through its lush melodic strings and lyrics with references to sparring verbally with Japanese Senseis, but not anxious. A personal declaration of strength in vulnerability, and the wisdom that comes with that.

Can you tell that I love it?