reviews

Don’t Mistake Kindness For Weakness: Tori Kelly’s “Unbreakable Smile”

I’m just a girl and her guitar
Trying to give you my whole heart
If there’s anybody out there listening to me
All I have is a story and a dream
Here I am, and that’s all I can be…

It took me a long time to search out Tori Kelly’s Unbreakable Smile. I think this is because after I moved, I stopped having a reason to listen to Top 40 radio anymore. I can cater to my ingrained interests (One Direction, Justin Bieber’s Journals, and Taylor Swift’s Speak Now World Tour Live). I listen to Spotify for free at work and pay for Apple Music in the evenings. I listen to Zane Lowe, Greg James, and Annie Mac for outside perspective. “Haim Time” on Beats 1 when I happen to be home on a Thursday evening. Nick Grimshaw if I can’t sleep and I manage to catch him live. Gilmore Guys podcast if I’m having a particularly slow day at work, and Marc Maron when he’s got an interesting guest that piques my interest.

The first time I heard of Tori Kelly was back in November. I’d won tickets to VH1’s Big Music in 2015: You Oughta Know taping. I wanted to see James Bay, Ella Henderson, and Hozier perform their hits for an intimate audience and the larger American viewing audience. I’d already paid earlier in the year to see entire sets of Hozier and James Bay in Royal Oak and Chicago respectively. The entire audience erupted into claps when Tori Kelly came on stage. I didn’t recognize her. Cascading curls and long legs, Tori fiercely yielded a guitar with a smile. I didn’t know anything about her and her “authenticity,” but I was charmed by her polish and talent. She repeatedly came out to dazzle us all with her openness. I made a mental note to listen to “Should’ve Been Us” when I got home. As Gretchen and I left early, we could hear Hozier and Tori starting to play the sound checked “Blackbird” cover.

Tori Kelly/James Bay Grammy performance mash-up audio of “Hollow”/”Let It Go”

Tori Kelly’s performance with James Bay at the Grammy’s is worth checking out. Their mash-up of “Hollow/Let It Go” was beautiful, haunting. I read some pieces in February that said they slowed down the already stalled award show, but I’ve never met a ballad I didn’t want to hear on repeat. The decision to have James and Tori collaborate was smart, a decision that understood their overlapping core identities as singer-songwriters who put on great live performances with grit and wit. While I loved seeing James back Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” on guitar at the Brit Awards, I think this Grammy’s performance allowed both performers to shine. I’d buy an entire album of their joint sultry rock ‘n’ roll. The mash-up breathed new life for me into Tori’s “Hollow.”

Tell me, darling, will you understand me?
And not show me your cards?…

“Hollow” is the emotional center of Unbreakable Smile. There’s never been a song with claps that I don’t enjoy (ok, maybe that’s not entirely true). Tori Kelly’s “Hollow” was made for afternoons after school where you need to hear So hold me / wrap me in love. To think there’s someone who would do that, even on the bad days. It’s for evenings where you’re laying down, face planted in a pillow crying over an error at work. Tori’s voice is meant to rouse you, embolden you. She does this expertly.  By the final notes of “Hollow,” I don’t know why I was sad in the first place. Why I didn’t see that I don’t have to be empty.

The only song I’d heard off Unbreakable Smile was “I Was Made For Loving You,” which I first heard long before I knew who Tori Kelly was. I’d fallen down a rabbit hole of Ed Sheeran tracks on YouTube and clicked on this duet that I’d never heard with an artist that wasn’t Taylor Swift (I didn’t know Ed could duet with female’s not named Taylor). Tori’s voice lends itself well to emotional yearning, longing. Ed’s verse matches her heart and soul:

Hold me close through the night
Don’t let me go, we’ll be alright
Touch my soul and hold it tight…

I hope there’s never a point in my life where I tire of Ed Sheeran’s vulnerability. Tori Kelly holds her own against Ed’s recognizable vocal flourishes. This is a collaboration that makes sense. While it established and introduced her to a new market, their joint effort lyrically matures her voice. Ed knows how to write a love song, and Tori’s big heart grounds the song. There’s an earnestness, genuineness in both of their vocal performances. All I know is, darling, I was made for loving you.

Tori Kelly shines on “Unbreakable Smile” and “Nobody Love.” The former finds her responding to critics (already?) who want to categorize her. So call me boring, call me cookie cutter / Call me what you want… Pop music in the 2010s is all about empowerment and authenticity, and it’s nice to hear Tori celebrating her truth. As she brushes off detractors, she emboldens herself and all of us to “keep on singing.” Tori Kelly collaborated with Max Martin, the Swedish producer behind most of the smash hit pop records of the last twenty years, on “Nobody Love.” As with every other Max Martin produced track, the song is an earworm. I challenge you to not blare the chorus while singing along, Ain’t nobody, nobody, nobody love / Ain’t nobody love, ain’t nobody love like you do…

I’m excited to see Tori Kelly grow as an artist. I look forward to a future album from Tori where I listen from start to finish without skipping around.  For her duets to be with men her age (looking at you LL Cool J). Fingers crossed that her and James Bay put their songwriting chemistry on a follow-up record. While Tori might not have been Best New Artist at the Grammys, I’m thrilled at the prospect of her songwriting longevity. I want to continue to get to know the girl who told us, When I know the truth is never wrong / I’m alright, this is right where I belong…

ICYMI: Tegan & Sara

You probably know this, but I won’t be able to live with myself if I don’t share it anyway. This year of our Lord 2016 is maybe the best year ever, so far, and it is definitely the weirdest, but it just keeps on giving and giving and giving.

In brief: Tegan and Sara are finally following up their (amazing, Taylor Swift-inspired) pop triumph Heartthrob, and their eighth studio album Love You To Death is coming out on June 3rd. The first single off the (incredibly titled!) album is called “Boyfriend”, and if you are looking for the perfect track to put on the mixtape you’re making for the cute-but-confusing girl in your life, it’s right here. You treat me like your boyfriend / I don’t wanna be your secret anymore. It feels like the perfect followup to Heartthrob, and I can only hope that the rest of Love You To Death is as dancey, as bubbly, as blisteringly pointed.

Love You To Death is out June 3 from Vapor Records. You can pre-order it on iTunes for an instant download of “Boyfriend” and “U-Turn”.

The Way The Human Heart Works: Eric Bachmann’s Self-Titled Release

This is the thawing season, and it hurts. My heart, frozen all winter, is melting, and my tears choke me and bang at the back of my eyes. And this album sounds like almost-spring, like tears hanging heavy in your throat, like thawing. “Belong To You” starts with a long, lonesome piano lilt and then a steel guitar, so sad, comes in. It stretches out like the long evenings of late winter. I had a dream, Eric Bachmann sings, to one long-lost. One of those loves that still feels so strong and real that in dreams you think they’ve returned to you, only to wake and find out they have not. I woke at the break of dawn to the silence of the boats on the bay, as I reached out for you—but you were long gone. Do the long evenings bring relief? Do they ease your thawing, aching heart? If they do, even a little, it is a merciful thing. “Mercy,” with the bright jangle of the cymbals and the doo-wop backup vocals, sounds like ‘60s pop, almost too sweet, until you listen to the words. I don’t believe in armageddon, heaven, hell, or time regretting. I’m gonna love you like we’re all each other have. Sometimes it feels like armageddon is the only thing left to believe in, but maybe sometimes there’s still something else to hold onto, when you can love someone—or many someones—like you’re all each other have.

“Masters of the Deal” is about injustice, about the South and its false promises, about violence and racism. It’s a political song, which surprised me a little. I read an interview with Eric Bachmann, oh, a decade ago, wherein he said something along the lines of: “I find the way the human heart works a much more interesting topic than how much Bush sucks.” But then, “Masters of the Deal” isn’t a straightforward political song. This is no didactic punk band shouting at you that this sucks and if you don’t agree you’re wrong, it’s a story that’s as much about the way the human heart works as it is about anything else. How can the human heart allow us to commit such violence against each other? Speaking of the human heart—sometimes it needs chemicals to allay its ache, as in “Modern Drugs.” The sweet swing of the piano and the percussive brush sound like New York City to me, and I recognize the characters in this song. They’re older versions of characters from previous Crooked Fingers albums. They’re older versions of characters from my own life. Straight life is such a bore, says the refrain, and though I don’t touch modern drugs anymore, I still feel that way sometimes. The heart still longs for what used to take the edge off. And there is “Dreaming.” The opening piano reminds me of “Moonlight Sonata,” that saddest, most beautiful sound. In the yellow pines, I hear the wild bird singing the sweetest lullaby that set my mind to dreaming, Eric sings. Oooooh, ooooh, croon the backup singers, a chorus of dreaming ghosts. Then: Hey love, don’t turn on me now. I was gonna fight for you. A plea, repeated four times. My throat thickening with tears. Hey love, don’t turn on me now. I was gonna fight for you. I was gonna fight for you.

“Separation Fright,” “Small Talk,” and “Carolina,” while all good tunes, are the most forgettable songs on the album. They are not anthems or ballads, not for me; they don’t make me smile with sweetness or cause the tears to well up in my eyes, in my throat. My thawing heart does not long to hear them. The rest of the songs would be stronger if Eric had cut these three tracks and released this as an EP rather than a full-length album. Again, it’s not that I dislike them, it’s just… The first time I listened to the album I spent the entirety of it waiting for a moment I wasn’t sure would come. I was waiting for a moment of recognition, of revelation. See, Eric Bachmann has written a lot of songs, a lot of albums that hit so close to home for me it was as though he’d ripped the stories from the pages of my diary. (Most notably his 2006 solo album, To The Races, and the 2005 Crooked Fingers album Dignity and Shame.) And I hoped beyond hope that this album would have at least one song like that, one song that would make me say: “Get out of my head, god damn it.” When I got to the second-to-last track and hadn’t heard it yet, I doubted it was there at all. But then the final track played, and yes, yes, there it was.

“The Old Temptation.” It is the longest track on the album, it feels endless and I don’t want it to ever end. For all the love you leave along the wildly winding way you choose to go, there’s never any meaning. The way the city lights all shine and glow as you approach, but you don’t know. It makes you feel so alone, so alone. And yes, and yes, get out of my head, god damn it. It just seems I was always leaving, and this song knows that feeling. Halfway through, the lyrics end and there’s this beautiful instrumental bit with ambient noise in the background that sounds like an AM dial flicking between frequencies. Like you’re on the road, in the middle of nowhere, trying to find a song to sing along to. And look, here comes a voice faintly through the static, a voice from some distant station. You can barely hear what he’s saying, but the words you do catch make you cry: evenings. Old photographs. Never to be seen again. The end of the track brings me back home, with a bird chirping like the springtime birds outside my window.

I don’t love this whole album, but “Belong to You,” “Mercy,” “Masters of the Deal,” “Modern Drugs,” “Dreaming,” and most especially “The Old Temptation” make it well worth repeat listens. And it does my very human, thawing heart good to hear songs by someone like Eric Bachmann—someone who is wearied by the world but still holds onto a clutch of hope. Maybe there’s hope for me, if I can just get out into that springtime and find some new temptations.

Eric Bachmann is out on Merge Records. More information and purchase information is available via Merge.

Falling in Love/Lust with The 1975 in Glasgow

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A low drone noise has been radiating from the speakers for the past half an hour. I’ve just downed one vodka tonic and I’m gripping my second. I look up and see the outlines of three rectangles above the stage, three dark boxes waiting to be filled with light. There’s nobody behind the microphone yet.

I didn’t even care about The 1975 six weeks ago. Then “UGH!” came on the radio when I was driving my mum’s car late at night and I almost crashed it into the wall at the end of my parents’ street. I’ve crashed a car once before, on the journey home from kissing a boy who I then fell obsessively in love with for ten years.

Next I saw the video for “UGH!” The section at the beginning before the set is crushed with light felt like taking a deep breath. I saw the clapperboard in front of the camera, saw them all line up in front of the set, then I saw Matty Healy in silhouette, and I waited for him to start singing, and when he started, I was in love. Three minutes of him in what felt like a hundred different outfits, with the set glowing blue and pink and static in the background. I’d never thought about him for a second before then.

It all happened so fast.

It’s 8:45pm and the drone is louder now. I’ve been thinking about this exact minute, this specific pocket of time for weeks. The anticipation I’ve felt about seeing this show has been so intense that it has become physical. The week before I see them I can barely eat and I have to drink to calm my nerves. I keep thinking about the five minutes before they go onstage. If I can’t keep it together when it’s far enough in the future to be abstract, how will I cope when it’s close enough to touch, when the lights go down, when I can hear the ripple of screams from the other side of the crowd? It’s sickening anticipation, it’s wanting them – wanting Matty, specifically – now and forever or just wanting him to never arrive onstage, to leave the country, to get out of my life forever because I can’t handle the possibility of his presence.

The lights go down. The girls at the other side scream. There’s Ross, the bass player, then Adam, the guitarist, then George, the drummer, then a long pause. Then Matty, leather fringe hanging from his arms and corkscrew curls hanging in front of his eyes. First it is “Love Me” and then “UGH!”, no stopping between them; it’s perfect and breathless and there’s no time, there’s no time to intellectualise that this is happening right now, right in front of me. It’s living inside the “UGH!” video for an hour and a half – the same set and a different colour scheme for each song. I feel like the girl in the a-Ha video who dissolves into her television.

Matty’s the centre of attention at all times – of course he is. He’s taking his jacket off, then pulling his cowboy shirt out from his jeans, then unbuttoning it halfway through the show. He walks around the stage with his glass of wine and he’s mesmerizing. He’s half expert sex angel – licking his lips and then throwing his head back during “Robbers” – and half embarrassing cousin at a wedding, addressing us as ‘ladies and gentlemen’ with his thumbs up after every other song, playing up to and then completely shattering the much-discussed image of him as a studied pretender to the rock star throne.

Even when they’re onstage the push and pull of wanting and having doesn’t stop. The moments when Matty disappears and reappears are the most delicious, even more than the time he spends dangling from the edge of the stage screaming with his head between his knees. At the end of “Anobrain,” he climbs up behind drummer George’s drumkit and stands behind him for the end of the song, then he disappears behind the set, and the lights turn to television static. As the band starts to play “Fallingforyou,” their most intimate song, Matty emerges, climbing onto the amp stack, a shadow against the buzzing static behind him. I can’t see him singing the words, he’s a silhouette, but I feel the sense of sexual possibility, the wanting, the longing for someone who might long for you too. Then he leaps to the edge of the stage, back into the light for the best line – “I don’t want to be your friend / I want to kiss your neck.” The song ends with a bass rumble that I can feel crawl up my toes, through my heart and into my lips – the climax of the drone from the beginning of the show. What I’ve been waiting for since I first heard “UGH!” on the radio, since I bought the ticket for the show, since the lights went down at the start. The moment when the anticipation makes way for the actual release.


Claire Biddles is an artist and writer based in Glasgow, Scotland. She makes work about crushes, regional glamour and the relationship between pop culture and real life.

nonrequired reading: let’s be social about books

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“In the heaven of werewolves, there’s just new grass folding back into place.”

Some books I have read as of today, March 28th, 2016, that I want to talk about:

Mongrels (Stephen Graham Jones) is a book about werewolves but it is really about family, about stories, about the ways that we knit ourselves to each other. It is about the way that sometimes you have to lie to get closer to the truth – sometimes a story is diminished in the telling, so you have to scale up accordingly. It is very sad and very beautifully written, and I cried about it. It is also fairly scary at points in a sort of creeping way, and it also made me care about werewolves for maybe the first time ever. I feel about most werewolves the way I feel about zombies – their narratives are usually very predictable, very boring, and very predicated on violence as the only answer. This book went a long way toward changing my mind. 5/5 would read again.

This Is Not A Test (Courtney Summers) is a zombie book – again, not a narrative that I love – but it is about a girl who wants to die. It is a really fascinating thing to watch unfold, and it hits very close to home, and it gave me good-vampire-narrative vibes, which I think says something about me – I am very interested in people who don’t want to be vampires, in any narrative, because what they are saying at its core is that they do someday want to die. I’m getting a little off track, but it is very good and genuinely moving and I love Courtney Summers a lot, always. 5/5 will probably not read again but am very interested in reading the sequel.

Into Thin Air (Jon Krakauer) is, as you probably know, a personal account of the Everest expedition of 1996, during which a blizzard killed eight people and mangled a lot more. I knew about it, had read about it, have fallen down many Wikipedia k-holes about the death zone, the edema, the Khumbu icefall which you can only cross in the very early morning when it’s still cold because the ice shifts and falls during the day. But reading about it from Krakauer’s perspective makes it much less academic and, at the same time, much more understandable. I cried a lot – it is a very hard read, a series of very senseless and avoidable deaths, but it is honest and beautiful. 5/5 will someday read again; will not watch the movie again.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours (Helen Oyeyemi) is a new collection of short stories by one of my favorite authors. Read it, read it, read it. 5/5 will read again ASAP.

Paper Tigers (Damien Angelica Walters) is a well-written but ultimately not-as-thrilling-as-I-wanted horror novel. 4/5 will not read again, but maybe worth a read for you if it’s been a while since you got a little freaked out.

Currently I am reading an advance copy of Kissing in America (Margo Rabb), which I am almost a third of the way done with and still undecided about. I think I like it, although I don’t love the writing, but I am reserving judgment because our narrator has a tendency to belittle beautiful girls. There is a lot of poetry in it though, and I am remembering more and more lately that I do love poetry, have loved certain poetry for what feels like my whole life. I am also in the middle of Richard Siken’s Crush (see! poetry!). Next on the list is Juliet Takes a Breath (Gabby Rivera), which I am deeply excited for. I will keep you updated.

I’m on this app now, it’s a new app, they only have it for Apple products so far, but it is called Litsy. It’s like Instagram, kind of, but only for books. There are not a lot of people on it yet, so I can’t quite tell how good it’s going to be, but I think it’s one of those that’s only as good as the content. So if you like your Goodreads app but you don’t love Amazon or whatever, and you want to take pictures of your books or look at the pictures that I take of mine, you can come check that out if you want. I’m on there as @furiosa. Do you have book apps you use other than Goodreads? Am I barking up the wrong tree? Let’s talk about it. Let’s talk! About books! What are you reading? Do you feel that the romance novel as an institution is unfairly maligned? Imagine that my head is propped on my hands and I’m doing a very attentive listening pose. Go!

“Made My Decision To Test My Limits”: Ariana Grande and Willa’s Artistic Impulses

Being a woman shouldn’t feel like a political act in 2016, but there are still days that I navigate my commute to and from my Bushwick apartment as men holler, cars honk and bodega workers sneer at my ass and I forget how I mustered the courage to leave my apartment at all. My wardrobe is not utilitarian in nature. It’s impractical and loud. I wear patterned dresses, sparkly boots, and sheer crops anywhere and everywhere. These days, since moving, every morning as I go through my closet I find myself reaching for pieces that will allow me to blend into my new surroundings. For perhaps the first time in my life, I don’t want my fashion choices to be noticed at all. I once had the luxury of hiding behind my car, the tinted windows and blaring bass. My chances for interactions in public with strangers wanting to comment on my outer appearance with whispered comments were slim. There was rarely vulgarity; outside of “nice skirt” from women who understood the pains of finding a well-fitted pencil skirt, there were rarely any comments at all. That is not my current reality. Just last week a man followed me to the subway, muttering about what he’d like to do to me given the opportunity. Quite frankly, my iPod has become a lifeline. When men shout, “Didn’t you hear my compliment!” I can walk past truthfully—eyes on the ground, paces brisk—knowing that I didn’t hear whatever choice of words were their idea of a “compliment.” Turning the volume up, I am soundproofed. I can no longer hear the tasteless comments. If I put on the right track, I can even feel bulletproof.

Ariana Grande’s “Dangerous Woman,” released on March 11, replaced Rihanna’s “Needed Me” as my kiss-off track on my iPod last weekend as I walked (stalked down the pavement like it was own personal runway) to the grocery store, Forever 21 and Rite-Aid.

I have a confession to make before I discuss “Dangerous Woman.” Ariana’s appeal has long eluded me. Don’t get me wrong. I pined for her hair during the years of Victorious. I have her collaboration with Childish Gambino on my iPod. I danced in my car to “Problem.” I longed for Harry Styles’s demo version of him singing “Just a Little Bit of Your Heart” as I listened to her soft, hushed ballad. I paid for “Bang Bang” featuring Jessie J and Nicki Minaj. I highly recommend her Christmas Kisses EP. It’s that, quite frankly, I’ve been mystified by Ariana’s image. The image that at times seemed infantile. I’ve been trying to educate myself. I am well aware as of late that Ariana might be one of the most vocal musicians who is actually living the lyrical content of confidence and control her songs exudes to fans. Last year, I clapped alongside Tumblr as Ariana told off the media for insinuating that she couldn’t simply be “friends” with One Direction’s Niall Horan. Identifying as a feminist, Ariana told her fans and detractors, “I am tired of living in world where women are mostly referred to as a man’s past, present or future PROPERTY / POSSESSION.”

“Dangerous Woman” feels like an appropriate extension of Ariana’s brand. Weeks after coming to the defense of Kesha, an early collaborator of Ariana’s, amidst her longstanding legal battle with Sony and Dr. Luke over allegations of sexual assault, Ariana uses her pipes to speak up once again about another definition of womanhood. Right from the start, Ariana doesn’t “need permission.” Taking control of this kind of moment / I’m locked and loaded / Completely focused, my mind is open… If 2014 was the Year of the “Good Girl” in music, I am ready for Ariana to celebrate the bad girl. Or at least a girl with shadows, edges. I want a blueprint of how to sneer back, how to command my own potential. Makes me wanna do things I shouldn’t / Something ‘bout, something ‘bout… Performing the track on Saturday Night Live last weekend, an episode that also saw her hosting, Ariana, poised and controlled, asserted through countless sketches that she really does knows exactly what’s she doing. Nothing to prove and I’m bulletproof and / Know what I’m doing…

I’d like to thank Spotify for putting Willa’s “Swan” on their New Music Friday playlist after Ariana. There’s a fluid movement between singers. Much like “Dangerous Woman,” Willa’s track demands the listener’s attention. I’m not in love / Don’t have the touch / Don’t have the time to bend another little church boy’s mind (again)… This track feels like an extension of our current cultural climate of Tinder, social media, and Broad City.  While I could make the time for a relationship with it’s ease of familiarity and takeout orders and nights in sprawled on the couch, I don’t want to make the time to date. A few weeks back, I met a guy at a bar. There was promising witty bar side banter, but when he dropped he lived in Westchester I knew our “meet-cute” was over. It’d basically be the equivalent of a long distance relationship in New York City. Dating is engaging and thrilling at it’s best, tedious and tiresome for the most part. I don’t have the money to see friends for dinner on the off chance I’m not working late into the evening with production’s ever-changing schedule, let alone a night to offer potential OkCupid dates who will ghost. In a culture where you can list off in a profile who you are, it’s apt of Willa to inform the listener she isn’t an angel, trophy or debutante. If that’s what her suitor is looking for, they can move right along. Swipe left. I’m not a swan / Pretty in a pond…

Two weeks ago, I bought Rebecca Traister’s All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. I’d recommend it for witchsong readers. Traister writes, “Women find themselves growing into themselves, shaping their identities, dreams and goals not necessarily in tandem with a man or within a traditional family structure, but instead alongside other women. Their friends.” The thesis of the book, which I’ll admit I haven’t finished as of yet, can best be summed up by Willa’s declaration in “Swan”, Don’t have the time / Call it a crime, to find everything I need in me (mind)… The book focuses largely on the female friendships that make life in the twenty-first century feel whole, complete. We are increasingly a world of dangerous women no longer seeking to fulfill the archetypes of “sweet treats.” I’m glad Ariana and Willa are providing us the soundtrack to blast if we ever need to be reminded of just how perilous we can be.

Bonus: If you are a fan of Ariana’s “Dangerous Woman,” check out the A Cappella version she released yesterday.

The Saddest Songs Are in Major Keys

“Hallelujah California” – Luna Shadows

Daddy always warned that the saddest songs are in major keys is a line that kills me, because this song is not in a major key. But then, songs about California are usually not in major keys. It’s not a sad song at all; it’s just a melancholic California song, a song of mirages, of someone disappearing slowly into the horizon from your seat on the sticky pavement. It’s a song we hear over and over again, from “Hotel California” and “California Dreamin’” to everything Lana del Rey has ever written.

Limits EPMt. Si

Mt. Si unites the unstructured dreaminess of shoegaze with a heavily defined, often jarring beat. They allow a drop here and a chord there to push themselves out from the haze of lazy synths and floating vocals, bringing your attention to their significance in a song you could sleep through. The beat is often melodic and sounds like a natural noise, compared to all the electronica happening around it. While the harmonies and even the tracks themselves tend to melt into each other, that occasional beat gives Limits a sharp, resounding definition.

“U Up” – Soft Lit

From the title alone, I had been convinced that this song was by dudebros. Oh no, I thought, this is a song either relentlessly bashing or misogynistically embracing “u up” and I hate it. I’m so sorry, Soft Lit, for making this stereotypical assumption! Here it is: a lady (okay, and a guy on synths) giving that guy who texted “u up” an even more apathetic response. Sliding into nothing, she whisper-sings. You think like I got time/But you’re not on my mind. It’s not the “u up” itself that is the problem, it’s the dude who just can’t get over her hiding behind the lazy text.

“Don’t Worry About Me” – Frances

Frances reminds us that melodies, in and of themselves, can be sad and beautiful things in her single “Don’t Worry About Me.” If I were listening to it in my room or on a redeye flight far away from home, I would almost certainly cry. But this song eclipses a specific emotion, and my ears tend instead to focus on a single note, a pause, or an elongation. Because there’s so little to parse, I’m forced to focus on subtle changes in harmonies and cadences.

“Souvenirs” – Cardiknox

Thinking of yourself as a tourist in your own relationship is unique in just how cold it feels. “Souvenirs” is in a major key (the saddest songs are in major keys), and through it Cardiknox describes physical objects and scenarios instead of the emotions attached to them, as though they’re foreign to her. She wants — more than anything — to keep those memories as her own, but she describes them as though she’s borrowed them from a stranger.

“Good As Hell” – Lizzo

Lizzo (of “Let ‘Em Say,” a song I’ve been obsessed with since I first heard it for Broad City’s most recent season premier) dropped this single for the sure-to-be-amazing movie Barbershop: The Next Cut. And like any tried-and-true banger, the song comes with an incredible chorus: If he don’t love you anymore/Just walk your fine ass out the door/I do my hair toss, check my nails/Baby how you feelin’? Feelin’ good as hell. This is a love-yourself song that fits in perfectly with a movie that praises the inherent beauty in blackness and uses its community to fight oppression. Go listen to this song, then go reserve your ticket for Barbershop 3, which comes out on April 15.


Carson is a 23-year-old who discovered the joys of the Backstreet Boys two years ago, when she fell down a pink fur-lined rabbit hole into the world of pop. She has since taken it upon herself to make an exodus into the underbelly of the glitter-covered beast. You can find her Spotify account here and you can also find her on Tumblr

Teen Dreams with The 1975

It has been so long since I felt like this. Ricocheting against myself with the force of a slammed door traveling up a wrist, howling inside the closed room of my body but still somehow wide open to the mess of things, a sea spread flat and waiting for rain, waiting for sunshine, my surface dappled and troubled and permeable, a shivering mess of light and shadow: this is where I am these days, most hours awake and some sleeping too. I tremble a lot. Sometimes I catch a smell rising off my skin, hot and sharp, floral like the magnolia petals falling off the tree at the end of the block — ground into the pavement by someone’s careless heel, firm pearl pink cut through with rot.

It’s been three years since The 1975 released a full-length album and in that time I have mostly been getting to my desk job on time and remembering to pack a salad for lunch and hanging up my silk blouses when I get home. I’ve been steady. My skin has been okay. I’m grown, is what I’m saying, but lucky for me, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it dropped two months into the first time I’ve been off the birth control pill since I was sixteen, and this shitstorm of hormones leaves me in exactly the right emotional space to experience it for what it is. I’m a teenager again, utterly defenseless against the way the world moves into and through me, a conduit, bathed in my own electricity, jittering and dripping. I start splashing and sloshing and sparking hot when a wire touches me and there is a wire touching me almost all the time.

What I’m saying is, I was ready for this because I wasn’t ready for this.

This is music for teenagers, maybe even more than The 1975 was. This is sloppy and atmospheric and posturing. These are songs with brash dumb lyrics that are trying too hard, fake-cynical lyrics that don’t manage to disguise the emotion that brims and breaks and swells beneath them. Matty Healy chooses words like a stoned college sophomore whose midterm paper is due at noon, meaning mostly it’s a mishmash of messy diction masking ideas uncomplicated enough to shine through despite that, but sometimes he gets the glitter of something genuinely great. It’s fucked up to think that the same person who wrote “If I Believe You” — which muses on religious belief and atheism with all the nuance of a pretentious seventh grader who once read Richard Dawkins’ Twitter — can turn around and put out lines as biting and clean as I don’t want your body but I hate to think about you with somebody else.

A lot of these songs revolve around romance but rarely do the women in his songs function like traditional love objects; my favorite game is flipping the characters and marveling at how easy it is to imagine lines like you used to have a face straight out a magazine / now you just look like anyone as being sung at him instead of by him. The criticisms he levels at girl after girl become, in aggregate, a story more about him than about them, and meanwhile those criticisms are things like you took a picture of your salad and put it on the internet, which rotate their subjects from reductive intellectual-bro stereotypes into tiny narratives so perfectly relatable and nuanced that I kick the air with delight every time I hear them. Does he know he’s doing that? Is he trying to be mean, or has he been dedicating himself to ensuring each person who appears in his songs seems three-dimensional enough to sustain a full-length novel? I honestly can’t tell, but if I had to bet money, I’d say he has no fucking clue.

What is infuriating about Matty Healy is that he thinks he’s so smart, but even more infuriating is that he actually is smart, just not in the ways he seems to think he is. He loves to talk in interviews about what he writes about — fame, philosophy, the bitterness of love, questioning God — but, frankly, he’s not giving us anything new on those fronts. What happens in these songs that pushes them from the trash your local litbro writes to actual fucking poetry is the way he fails over and over to be convincing, the way he demonstrates that a self is most purely beautiful in the places where it is unable to disguise its vulnerability, and he owes almost all of that to how fucking good he is at writing and producing music. It all happens in the sound.

If these were really rock songs, they’d be all wrong, but they’re all as pop as pop can be. Pick and choose any and all of the usual adjectives — lush, glittering, soaring, sugary, thumping, tremulous — they’re all there, but they’re new somehow, and that’s where the genius is. I mean, can you believe synths can still sound revelatory? Every third radio station is playing something that sounds like a Kygo remix (and don’t get me wrong, I love that), but this album is beyond that. “A Change Of Heart” starts out with a canned eighties-prom-slow-dance Casio beat and floats like a silver Mylar balloon into a theremin break which wavers gently through a sea of iridescent bubbly echoes that genuinely would not be out of place in an Enya song, and you guys, my heart! When I listen to this I forget I’m on the train, I forget I’m anxious, I forget I’m anywhere other than floating in a starry mist. I put myself at risk of stepping in dog shit every day because I can’t listen to “Somebody Else” without my chin tipping skyward while my feet move me forward over all those filthy streets that Matty Healy is pretending to talk about. This isn’t music for looking at the world clear-eyed and pointing out faults and spitting truth. This is music for feeling.

My favorite song on this album is “Paris.” I have a rule for myself that I’m not allowed to put repeat on for the songs I love, so their magic doesn’t wear thin, but I’ve broken it with this one. I think it will take me hundreds of listens more to find out why it makes my whole body sing with certainty and understanding, but for now I am preoccupied with how it sounds like acknowledging past selves — not any specific self, only those that once existed and are now gone, whether by accidental change or conscious growth. I never felt much heartache from Casablanca‘s classic “We’ll always have Paris,” and for me the buoyant refrain of how I’d love to go to Paris again, and again, and again and again, and— is its antithesis: you can choose to acknowledge an ending by glossing over your hurt with a certainty and finality you do not feel, or you can allow yourself to linger in how beautiful it would be to have it one more time. I always prefer to sink myself in the wanting. Besides, these days, walking past jasmine vines with a pink buzz of chemicals flooding my blood, it seems that sometimes it isn’t up to you anyway. No matter how much you believe a part of your life to be finished, it can always split you right back open.

all i know are sad songs

I saw Garden State for the first and only time when I was seventeen with a boy I thought I loved who kissed me too rough too heavy too urgent like he had something to prove and it wasn’t about me but I was there. I didn’t think it was a good movie but I cried anyway and I cried again when the sweater he let me take with me to college stopped smelling like him. I still don’t think it is a good movie but I get why it mattered to people and I find myself forgiving it more as I get older, the pitiful shout into the void that it is, the pointless rage against a machine of which it is a part. I haven’t thought about it in a long time but the other day I heard this new Mike Posner song and all I could see was Zach Braff sitting on a couch while the world happens around him.

There is something very uniquely appealing to me about dance songs about sadness. Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own”, Katy Perry’s “The One That Got Away”, a lot of Tove Lo’s body of work, almost all of Sia’s – these are all songs about pain, from the gaping wounds to the paper cuts, all of the varieties of hurt that exist, and they are all songs you can dance to. “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” is one of these, and it is a perfectly crafted song, because it sounds exactly like it feels.

They said “tell us how to make it cause we’re getting real impatient”
So I looked ’em in the eye and said

You don’t wanna be high like me
Never really knowing why like me
You don’t ever wanna step off that roller coaster and be all alone
You don’t wanna ride the bus like this
Never knowing who to trust like this
You don’t wanna be stuck up on that stage singing
Stuck up on that stage singing
All I know are sad songs, sad songs

There are days when writing hurts me more than it helps, when it feels like I am dragging my organs out of my body through my mouth and when I get them out into the light it wasn’t even worth it. There are days when I am convinced that everything I have written and will write is garbage. I am not alone in this; this is not a unique feeling, but it is very isolating, isn’t it? To be convinced of your own terribleness is a weird and addicting form of narcissism, poking at a bruise to watch it bloom purple, I don’t know. But the thing about it is – even when I feel like I am a terrible writer, that my writing is vain and self-serving at best and vain and self-serving and poorly written at worst, what do I do? I keep writing. I don’t know how not to write, so I keep writing. I write that I feel terrible about writing, that I hate writing, that I am sad and alone in the world when I am neither. This is why I forgive Garden State now; this is why I love “ITAPII”. Sometimes the thing that keeps you alive, the only thing that makes you happy, doesn’t really make you all that happy. Sometimes it doesn’t make you want to live. But it is the only thing you have, so what do you do? You make it self-referential, you keep digging it out of yourself. Mike Posner is disillusioned and lonely and tired of making music but he knows it makes him happy, he knows it’s what he is for, and so he wrote a song about it.

I’m just a singer who already blew his shot
I get along with old-timers ’cause my name’s a reminder
of a pop song people forgot
and I can’t keep a girl, no
‘Cause as soon as the sun comes up
I cut ’em all loose and work’s my excuse but the truth is I can’t open up

I think it’s easier to talk about pain in a dance song because people don’t listen as hard; people don’t expect it to be sad. You don’t listen to the Ryan Adams cover of “Shake It Off” if you’re in a good mood, is what I mean. So when Mike Posner calls himself a one-hit wonder, when he says the truth is I can’t open up it almost gets lost, sounds like a throwaway line because he needed a rhyme, and I think that’s how he was able to let himself say it. The original song was an acoustic number, a little ditty with a voice and a guitar and nothing else, but that’s not the song that’s on the radio. Mike Posner decided he was ready for people to hear him again but he wasn’t ready to be quite so honest with it, and so – this remix.

This song feels like sitting on the couch while the world happens around you. It feels like dancing alone in a crowded room watching someone you used to love kiss another girl. It feels like closing your eyes and giving in to your sadness, just for a minute, letting it pour into you and fill you tip to toe and somehow, ultimately, it feels like a kind of happiness. All I know are sad songs, but some of them you can dance to, and that is enough.

In (a Kind of) Memoriam: School of Seven Bells’ “SVIIB”

“Confusion” is the name of the penultimate track on School of Seven Bells’ SVIIB, and although it comes near the end of the album, it is the clearest encapsulation of SVIIB as a whole — a delicate, emotional paean. This album is the two-member group’s final record: guitarist and co-writer Benjamin Curtis died of lymphoma in 2013, halfway through the creation of SVIIB.

Now that you’ve been armed with this knowledge, you’re going to read this album in a certain way, picking it apart and finding the death in it, hidden beneath gentle ethereality. You’re going to find the sadness in its beauty, to notice how so many of its songs end on a single, poignant note. And once you know, is it possible to divorce yourself from that knowledge, to keep from applying it where it doesn’t belong? It’s hard to say. Some tracks, like “On My Heart”, seem to be more a reaction to ending a romantic relationship. The sharp sting of jealousy in lines like You won’t give her the ground, just forget her puts it clearly in context. This song isn’t about dying at all! It’s upbeat, but biting and confused. What are we now? At the same time, you get a sense of the unending in the repetition at the end of the song: With me, your love’s safe. It’s not a stretch to say that What are we now? is a question in two contexts — what are we now that you’re gone? What do we mean by gone?

Alejandra Deheza and Benjamin began their musical relationship in tandem with a romantic one. That romance ended before Benjamin was diagnosed with cancer, developing into a more platonic partnership — best friends and c0-creators. While “On My Heart” reigns as one of the most upbeat, enigmatic tracks on the album, others read like melancholic odes — “Elias” and “Confusion” are some of the more mournful of the bunch. “Elias” is nostalgic, focusing on specific moments and memories, and “Confusion” is a sweeping representation of SVIIB’s (theorized) thesis.

“Confusion” washes over you, bathing you in somber synths. It’s a lullaby, singing you to sleep — whatever that sleep may be. Assuming an assured tone, breathing in and out with every change of a note, Alejandra sings, over and over — again, finding the unending in these repetitions — Confusion weighs heavy/And I understand/Nothing of these changes/Changes, these changes. She reverbs and repeats so much that you don’t know what’s real and what’s just an echo.

The song takes forever to fade out, the instrumentals persisting long after Alejandra’s vocals end. You know that she’s playing you to sleep, but she’s waiting for that explanation — waiting for the confusion to clear. She’s not demanding or sad, but she seems almost haunted as she comforts you, watching you drift off into the ether.

While you should listen to “Confusion” last, if you can, “Music Takes Me” provides a good follow-up — a middle ground between School of Seven Bells’ most somber and most optimistic pieces. The steady, solid synths feel, to me, like they are attempting to discover the unknowable. I feel you as I breathe, sing the songs you sang to me/I hear you in my sleep/Seeing you with me as I dream. Magic and mystery prevail, the song showcasing psychedelics and 80’s new wave at the same time. And just when you think it’s all over, the synths melt into elongated, distorted guitar notes, a smoother hum emerges, and the song’s meter shifts, almost imperceptibly, into an uncomfortable 2/6. But soon the idyllic 4/4 returns to soothe us, and Alejandra’s voice fades out with her background music.

The greatest aspect of this album — and when I say great, I mean the largest, grandest, most all-encompassing aspect — is that it’s not sad, exactly, or angry, or even understandable, all reasonable things to expect from an album assumed to be about a loss. It’s tinged with so many different things, sadness and yearning — hints here and there — but ultimately it is a eulogy for something we can’t quite grasp. The greatest aspect of this album is its explanation of death, which is an enigma, neither positive nor negative. It just is.

You can listen to SVIIB in full on NPR’s First Listen, found here.


Carson is a 23-year-old who discovered the joys of the Backstreet Boys two years ago, when she fell down a pink fur-lined rabbit hole into the world of pop. She has since taken it upon herself to make an exodus into the underbelly of the glitter-covered beast. You can find her Spotify account here and you can also find her on Tumblr