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…

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.

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.

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

There Are Better Things For Me: Wet’s DON’T YOU

If I could be stronger
And if you were just older
We might last this out longer
But the task just gets harder
And my face turned to red
From drinking all that dead water
And then again when you said
That I was my mother’s daughter


I had a creative writer professor in college who once told me that I only ever wrote about New England—no matter the subject, the character, the narrative thrust; it was implied, she explained, this imbued sense of place, a mentality. She meant it as a compliment and I took it that way because I was 19 years old and far from home and it felt grounding—proof that there was something sturdy about me, a familial line, something so subtle I didn’t realize it was there. It was recognition from one misplaced New Englander to another signaling to a shared experience, a tethering that kept me from floating off into space.

Wet is band made up of similarly misplaced New Englanders. Kelly Zutrau, Marty Sulkow, and Joe Valle grew up as strangers in different parts of Massachusetts before meeting in New York, where college, happenstance, and East Village apartment parties brought them together. The Massachusetts upbringing would be nothing more than a hyper-local bragging right if not for the fact that the three returned to the Commonwealth to write and record much of Don’t You, their debut album. Life in New York was wearing thin, Zutrau explained, so they retreated to Western Mass—Hadley, to be specific, where she went to summer camp as a kid—to expand upon the demos that first garnered them major label attention a few years ago. A woodsy little creative haven, the western part of Massachusetts has a particular sort of WASPy earthiness; it’s quieter, more spacious, ripe for writing workshops, pottery throwing and, clearly, song-making. But still, there is an instilled thread of Puritanism that we never really got around to abolishing: a penchant for reliable outerwear and thermostats set low, an unshakable suspicion of those who over-gush or over-share, a certain kind of reservedness that’s sometimes mistaken for stoicism for coldness. No matter how far you end up, the mentality burrows deep within you, it whispers, it pulls.

Which is to say, Don’t You feels like going home. Or, rather, it feels like moving away and it feels like needing to come back.


Just Moving in Slow Motion: Daughter’s “Not to Disappear”

Not to Disappear is an apt title for Daughter’s latest album, which sounds like it’s always just on the edge of fading completely into nonexistence. That’s not to say the songs are insubstantial, just that they float very delicately in and out of silence. Daughter has always had a gentle, melancholy sound, and on their latest effort, there’s a subtle undercurrent of anger underneath all the surface beauty of the music. Where their earlier EPs and albums relied on Elena Tonra’s soft, soaring vocal delivery to ground the songs, Not to Disappear uses an electric guitar to construct the central hooks and melodies. Each song starts off simple and ambient, with a few plucked guitar or piano notes behind Tonra’s hushed voice, but builds to a rousing finish, adding one instrument at a time.

Moving on/Just moving in slow motion/To keep the pain to a minimum, she sings on “How”. It’s this lyric that really underscores the emotional truth of this album: loss takes time to overcome, and loneliness can feel endless and brutal. I don’t know you now/But I’m lying here somehow, Tonra says on “Fossa”, her voice simultaneously lifting and blurring the words together. She whispers over and over to herself, I can’t be what you want/I can be what you want. But it doesn’t matter either way, no matter which is the truth, because Not to Disappear takes place in the aftermath, after the dust has long since settled.

The instrumentation is what really shines here, like the driving drums on “Numbers” that could belong easily to a U2 or Muse song: heavy, stomping, and clearly written for an arena show. After a sprawling, sparkling opening on “Doing the Right Thing” that loses the vocals in the shuffle, the songs stops in its tracks as a lone acoustic guitar matches Tonra’s vocal melody while she sings Then I’ll lose my children/Then I’ll lose my love/Then I’ll sit in silence. It’s a rare moment where the lyrics are sung directly into the listener’s ear, with no filter, no layers of atmosphere between the bass notes. The electric guitar (with enough reverb over it to make the National jealous) is the album’s star, particularly on “How”, where it takes over the chorus in a little riff that’s equal parts messy and glorious and melodramatic. It’s one of the best moments on an album filled with great ones.

The songs bleed into each other, with the echoing guitar that opens and closes each track, the tone and tempo that rarely diverges from the simmering, quietly angry melancholy. The only outlier is “No Care”, which is about a minute shorter and at least twice as fast as all the others. Oh, I’m too drunk to fight/hurling curses at your surface, Tonra sings over a frantic dance beat. No care, no care in the world/I don’t care, I don’t care anymore, she says, and you barely believe her.

If I had one complaint, it’s that the simple beauty of the music makes it hard to connect to the emotional weight of the words. Tonra seems to sing the entire album in a light falsetto, never placing any pressure on her voice. The result is that she sounds detached from her lyrics, somewhat hidden in the ambiance, the lush instrumentation. I feel numb/I feel numb in this kingdom, she sings deadpan, and I’d tend to agree. In the kingdom that is Not to Disappear, she sounds numb and exhausted, especially in comparison to that electric guitar, which carries most of the emotional energy of each song.

A thorough listen reminds me of light filtering through a thin, translucent fabric, as if each song’s core is caught between layers of gauze. Beautiful, yes, but almost hidden in the haze, the carefully constructed bleakness of its atmosphere. But a daze of an album isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You can lose yourself in its gossamer beauty, in the expansive, drifting sonic world it creates. If you’re lucky, you might even get to disappear.

Asif Becher is a 16 year old recently discovered cat lady who lives in the desert. She is often asked to “chill” about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Taylor Swift, a suggestion she finds absolutely ridiculous. You can find her on Twitter and on tumblr.

lonelier and more in love: “death of a bachelor”

Death of a Bachelor is maybe the best Panic! at the Disco album. It is definitely at the top of my list, at least, and I am still trying to pin down exactly why. There is something about it that none of their albums have had for me since 2005, a magnetic pull that defies explanation. I think – what I have settled on so far – is that it is Fever You Can’t Sweat Out for grown-ups, or people who think they’re grown-ups, or people who want to be grown-ups. For me.

Fever was what I needed when I was fourteen and bleak, neverbeenkissed cutting my eyes across a high school auditorium at a boy who broke my heart three years later, and I still think I’ve got more wit a better kiss a hotter touch a better fuck is the sexiest thing but it’s not what I need anymore. I still love it and I always will, but it’s not a mirror the way it used to be; I have moved further through the funhouse and now it is a reflection of a reflection, a shade of my younger self.

Lush is the best word, I think, to describe the difference – Fever had this urgency, this heat, this darkness, and Death of a Bachelor has these things too, but so lushly. It is bigger, softer, more alive, it is rich dark earth in which many things have decayed so that new things might grow. It is nightshade plants blooming beneath a velvet sky. The almost orchestral quality of this album, the harmonies, the horns, the vast spiralingness of it all – it is melancholy. But it is melancholy in a way that makes me indefinably happy, in a way that suggests that getting older isn’t a bad thing. It is growth, real growth, and it is beautiful. This is Brendon Urie’s first album on his own, without any of the other original members of Panic!, and it feels like it.

Death of a Bachelor opens with “Victorious”, a love song to success on your own terms – about defining success as what you have achieved rather than what you strive for. Brendon Urie described it as “giving ’em hell to get a taste of heaven”. You don’t have to win to be a winner; you don’t have to knock the other guy out to feel victorious. This is a song about the stupid wild nights of your life that you feel alive, drunk running down the middle of the street with a sparkler, proud of yourself for the simple fact of your survival. As I get older I have fewer of these nights, but I feel like I have more of them metaphorically, if that makes sense. There’s a part in the video where he doesn’t call his ex and they give him one of those gigantic novelty checks; there’s another scene where he walks an old lady across the street and gets the keys to the city. Your victories are what you decide they are – when you celebrate something, it’s an achievement. I drive work listening to “Victorious” and I’m like hell yeah I got out of bed, hell yeah I’m driving the heck out of this little red Hyundai. You take your wins where you get them, but you get to decide where you get them.

“Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time” starts with a sample of “Rock Lobster”, which is my favorite fact of 2016 so far. It’s driving and ominous and sexy – Urie does menace well. This is the morning after, pounding hangover and hazy memory, but there’s not a trace of regret in it. Sayin’ “if you go out you might pass out in a drainpipe” / oh yeah? Don’t threaten me with a good time, and that’s really all there is to it. Raise hell and turn it up.

(We talked about “Hallelujah” when it was released.)

The first time on the album that we really see Brendon coming to terms with essentially being Panic! at the Disco now is “Emperor’s New Clothes”, and what a time it is. Welcome to the end of eras he lilts, an assertion of his power, of his rightness. If it feels good, tastes good, it must be mine. It is a very vulnerable song for containing the line I’m taking back the crown, for being essentially a declaration of independence. I’m all dressed up and naked is the crux, the fear – here I am as Brendon Urie as Panic! at the Disco as a new and singular entity, take it or leave it (but please take it). The video starts at the end of “This is Gospel”, which is important – if you love me let me go.

“Death of a Bachelor” makes me want to peel off all my skin, in the best way possible. Like, we know Brendon Urie has a great voice, we’re all aware of this. And yet somehow I forgot? Or I didn’t really know, or something? It doesn’t matter – the point is this. “Death of a Bachelor” is an incredible ballad, a sweeping Sinatra-esque song that has just enough of a dubsteppy vibe to keep it interesting. And that voice! His fucking voice! There was a Chuck Klosterman essay once that was like, I don’t remember what the Would You Rather question was precisely but one of the choices was “Everything you hear for the rest of your life will sound like the lead singer of Alice in Chains”, and it was still better than the alternative, I think, if I recall, but what I am saying here is that if I could only hear one voice ever again it might very well be Brendon Urie’s. This is also a really beautiful song about love and what you give up for it, the way it changes you, the way it makes you better and worse and different and utterly the same. The lace in your dress tangles my neck / how do I live? / the death of a bachelor, but then – how could I ask for more? / a lifetime of laughter / at the expense of the death of a bachelor. 

There’s a lot of fun wordplay going on in “Crazy=Genius”, but the really important thing about this album’s “These Tables are Numbered” (it is, trust me on this) is that it is about Brendon Urie’s imaginary girlfriend telling him that you’re just like Mike Love but you wanna be Brian Wilson / said you’re just like Mike Love but you’ll never be Brian Wilson. No matter where it comes from, it’s something that you either have or you don’t. You can’t make yourself a Brian Wilson. You can set yourself on fire / but you’re never gonna burn, burn, burn.

“LA Devotee” is currently my favorite song off the album, although I do reserve the right to fall more in love with something else. It is so sly and cruel and perfect; it yanks you off your feet into the passenger seat of a Mustang convertible, watching the lights flash past in the middle of the hot dark night. This is the only song I’ve ever heard about LA that makes me want to move there, makes me want to be a girl in a swimming pool under the desert sky, makes me want a life so fast I feel like there’s never time even while I’m standing still. It’s got a very retro feel, sort of sock-hoppy in the way it uh-ohs, that simple drumbeat that I know there’s a name for, the horns! It’s almost Britpoppy, the way it bounces forward. It is maybe a perfect song, and the phrase the black magic on Mulholland Drive isn’t not an entire lifestyle waiting to happen.

Oh don’t you wonder when the light begins to fade? And the clock just makes the colors turn to grey? Nothing stays, not even your memories, and here again we see Brendon negotiating the idea of moving forward into the future, moving by definition away from the past. “Golden Days” is a promise not to forget even while it admits that remembering is impossible. Forever young but growing older just the same, as he looks at a Polaroid – you are young in your photos, your memories, and that is a reality but so is the reality of your physical body aging. You are forever twenty, tan, sipping champagne on a yacht inside a tiny flat square (shake it til you see it), and you are thirty, sitting in a record shop looking at a picture of yourself, you are always becoming something different but you are always the same. These things can exist simultaneously if you are strong enough to let them. Let the love remain and I swear that I’ll always paint you / golden days.

“The Good, the Bad and the Dirty” is mostly just fun to listen to, a door-slamming fight song in its most literal sense. If you wanna start a fight you better throw the first punch / make it a good one. Like, this is a fact – if you want to start the fight you have to… start the fight. But in this aggressive cadence it has more meaning somehow, more threat, more swagger. Come at me with everything you’ve got – if you wanna make it through the night you better say my name. All of the good girls act so good til one of them doesn’t wait their turn and you’re nodding yes, yes, ready to swing. I’m gonna keep getting underneath you is this album’s more wit a better kiss and it is just as sexy, just as dangerous. Even here, as in-your-face as it gets, there is melancholy – truth is that it was always going to end.

The album winds to a close with two really stunning slow songs. “House of Memories” is this grand, gothic number, a love song in sweeping minor chords, a love song that is about being alone. If you’re a lover, you should know / the lonely moments just get lonelier / the longer you’re in love / than if you were alone. There is the large formless ache of loneliness that comes from missing no one in particular, and there is the sharp twisting knife of loneliness that comes from missing your other half. Heart to heart and eyes to eyesbaby we built this house on memories. Memory isn’t a strong foundation; it’s mutable and fickle, and it’s certainly not permanent. But that’s all Urie wants here, a place in your house of memories. Put me on a shelf, as long as I can stay there; don’t forget me. It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all but it is also harder. Take my picture now, shake it til you see it. 

“Impossible Year” is almost cruel in its accuracy, its visceral realness. What a note to end an album on; what a way to make an entrance out of an exit. There’s never air to breathe / there’s never in-betweens / these nightmares always hang on past the dream. This, then, is what Death of a Bachelor is about, underneath it all, twining through it like blood in water. Loss, the kind that leaves you alone and breathless and waiting for the punchline only to realize that there is none. Urie can swagger and posture all he wants and we know he will be okay in the way that all of us will be okay, but that doesn’t mean it is easy and it doesn’t mean it will be the same.

Panic! at the Disco has become something entirely new and yet it is haunted by the ghost of what it was, and Brendon Urie lives with those ghosts every day. This album is his re-introduction to the world, his soul laid bare before the eyes of everyone who watched this band disintegrate over the past ten years. It is not an apology, but it is an acknowledgement of the part he’s played. There is bravado and vindication and bleeding rawness, and the brilliance of this album comes from letting all of them exist together. It is a very painful kind of growth, the cracking-open kind, the kind that leads to beauty and greatness and nothing but sky. It is the death of a bachelor, the birth of something new and incredible. It is lonelier and more in love than ever before.

witchsong top fives of 2015, albums edition

Sophia’s Top 5 4 Albums To Cry To of 2015

1) Carrie and Lowell, Sufjan Stevens

My mom loves this album; she heard an NPR interview with Sufjan Stevens while driving my brother to his karate classes and she listened to it, sent me an e-mail about it—“Sophia!! Have you listened to the new Sufjan Stevens album?” and that was enough to make me cry. I miss my mom, you know, but mostly I miss being sixteen and living at home, a quiet kind of mourning for a relationship that is still good but won’t be the same. There is a song on this album that goes “the only thing that keeps me from driving this car / half-light jack knife into the canyon at night / signs and wonders” and Sufjan’s voice is barely a murmur and the guitar twinkles gently in the background. The sob hitches in the back of your throat and it’s only natural.

2) Downers, Jamaican Queens

On this album there is a song called “Emo + Poor” and that is the main thing I have to say about it, really. This album sounds exactly like sinking into the horrifying black sludge of your brain feels, the kind where you aren’t really even trying to claw your way out anymore. I just wanna eat pills and sleep and you don’t understand me. I listen to this album when I would rather pull my own teeth out than touch anyone or listen to anyone, maybe, ever again. I’m still emotional and poor. From “Joe”: “In my defense, my dad’s a Republican / my awful grin says ‘yeah, come on in.’” This album is so awful and I am so awful and I am sitting in the car with this in my headphones on repeat for six hours. Singing along very softly, “you were a charming kid but now you’re grown” which is just the way it goes.

3) Beat the Champ, The Mountain Goats

Maybe you are a person who cries regularly about professional wrestling and I hope that you are, I do. I am not but I do regularly cry about this, a concept album about professional wrestling (I know nothing about professional wrestling.) I don’t know how to talk about this album except to say that it is mostly about sometimes winning and often losing, about having a hero and then maybe not, about small human figures like shadow puppets made so huge against the light in all our eyes. I have seen this album live twice and both times I have stood very still with my spine very straight, paralyzed by the force of my own strange devotion, fist stuffed in my mouth sobbing during all the piano solos.

4) Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording), Hamilton Cast

Listen. I mean, listen. Everyone and their mother has heard of Hamilton now and the hype is very real but this is an album about the delicate suspension of myth and truth, about storytelling, and it is important not in spite of but partially because of what everyone says. There is a song on here about George Washington retiring and I cry and cry. I think a lot about wanting to be a story and this is an album about people who are also stories, the way we make those stories back into people when we reconstruct them in our minds. This album is crying about George Washington at 2 AM sitting on your bathroom floor and the tile cold underneath your palms, fingernails curling up—crying not really about George Washington at all.

Top Five Albums We Didn’t Really Talk About But Kenzie Wishes We Had

  1. Shamir, Ratchet
  2. Flo Morrissey, Tomorrow Will Be Beautiful
  3. The Dead Weather, Dodge and Burn
  4. CHVRCHES, Every Open Eye
  5. Kacey Musgraves, Pageant Material


  1. Big Grams, the self-titled EP by a group that consists of Big Boi (of Outkast) and Phantogram (of every indie kid’s dreams). It’s apparently not gotten great reviews, but I am intrigued enough by the premise that I would have listened to it had I not been looping Get Weird incessantly.

  2. Black Lines, by Mayday Parade. Nothing’s as good as their first album – the one before the vocalist with the scratchy voice left – but the following few had enough tracks that I really, really loved to keep me interested. If Revival hadn’t dropped on the very same day I might have noticed it.

  3. Tetsuo & Youth, by Lupe Fiasco. I am always trying to get back into Lupe Fiasco – there are three or four songs of his that I will never get over, and The Cool was really formative for me somehow, but I have never managed to like… keep up with him, if that makes sense. Like, I kind of didn’t know he was still making music. But I would have listened to this if I’d known about it. It probably doesn’t help that Reflection showed up about a week later and stole my heart.

  4. Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, by Courtney Barnett. She might win a Grammy! She might be the only one nominated who deserves a Grammy! I don’t know! I haven’t listened! I blame Froot for this one.

  5. Magnifique, by Ratatat. I didn’t even know that this had come OUT and honestly I am furious. I love Ratatat, like, a lot, and I wish I had known they had more music because I could have been listening to it all! damn! year! I don’t even have an excuse!

Honorable mentions: Motion City Soundtrack, Blitzen Trapper, The Neighbourhood. I was told (erroneously, apparently) by Wikipedia that we would get new Atomic Kitten this year, as well as Becky G, Crystal Castles, and – somehow – Fleetwood Mac. None of these things have occurred, although there are eleven days left in the year. I am hoping to expand my listening scope this coming year – most of these artists are those whose work I’ve previously enjoyed, and I still didn’t manage to hear any of their new music. And that’s not even getting into the artists I don’t know about! All I’m saying is that I tend to get into musical ruts, and this year was pretty good evidence of that. One of my resolutions for 2016 is to broaden my horizons. Hopefully next end-of-year will see me with a longer list of things I did listen to, rather than a still-meager list of could-haves.

Aggressively Optimistic 17-Year-Old at Heart: Alessia Cara’s Know-It-All

When I was 17, I – much like newish pop star Alessia Cara – had a penchant for creating silly, more or less content-less YouTube videos. The videos showcase my room, a trip to Target, a dramatic retelling of a dog bite with sock puppets. If you watch the audio for “Seventeen” on her Vevo, you’ll experience the same innocence and childishness.

In fact, if you look at the audio tracks for all of the songs she’s thrown up on her YouTube channel, you’ll see the same thing. A fishbowl lens here, a selfie stick there. She’s all big eyes and moustaches and Quirky with a capital Q. And then! If you travel, as I did, into the depths of her original YouTube channel, you’ll see a vlogger girl who just wants to be famous, doing impressions of her favorite popstars, covering The Neighborhood. And her videos and mine are of the same stock! This is no Tyler Oakley: suddenly, the relatively polished style of “Seventeen” means more than a two-year age difference.

Because Alessia isn’t just a 19-year-old reflecting on the good old days of 17, of course. She’s reflecting on the age-old transition of unknown to blown-up, signed by Def Jam – not overnight, but for all intents and purposes, overnight. But “Seventeen” is bubblegum, and so is its video. A cheeky way of saying that she knows change continues to be in store as she grows in age and in popularity, Though the seasons change so quickly/Keep them buried in my heart/And never fought. It’s the age-old adage of the pop star, you know. Which brings us to “Here”, the critically-acclaimed “anti-social party-goer anthem.” But “Here” too, is once again about transitions.

So experience, obviously, is all about perception, and mine comes from being a university student on a dry campus, where frats controlled the alcohol intake of the freshmen population. And, despite my extroverted qualities, I’ve been “Here.” And so have my friends, and (probably) so have you. If “Here” is for the anti-social, we’re all the anti-social. Because even the most magical party loses some magic when you realize that you’re no longer 17 in your best friend’s bedroom, eating popcorn and watching Gossip Girl at 2 a.m. You’re underage at a party in a room covered in sticky beer, where you know five out of 50 people. And maybe in time you’ll reminisce about the wild nights, and keep pretending that you weren’t scared, existentially-speaking, of what you were doing there, but just for a moment.

Existential crisis never truly over, Alessia’s fear of the future duels with her ambition, both past and present. She steps back from wishing for the days of 17 and the fear of the college party and turns to dreams of unending childhood, dreams that still persist.

Apparently, her walls were actually pink, but she painted over them! (Literally. According to Genius.) And she misses them now, not even to her surprise. The ephemeral choice, Went from ‘when boredom strikes’ to ‘Miss Star on the rise,’ and God, does she know it. She misses the walls, her pink walls, symbol of girlhood and girlishness. Now, those walls are shiny and alien. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself, here. With remarkable clarity and self-knowledge that maybe really isn’t so remarkable, Alessia starts out in love with a fantasy of a room beyond her four pink walls. It’s the allegory of the cave, but in a pop song! And then there’s the tension of being out of the cave, she’s in the unreality of the clouds – all with a punchy beat and a shimmering joy in the chorus.

“Scars to Your Beautiful” is that Mary Lambert song (all those Mary Lambert songs), set to an R&B beat and backed by the angry, youthful optimism of the rest of the album. It’s certainly more polished in tone, but its lyrics are raw. This isn’t poetry, people. But the uniqueness of “Scars to Your Beautiful” doesn’t come from a uniquely beautiful nature, somehow. Or even of a uniquely feminist, body-positive perspective.

Still, the subject of the anthem, for this ambitious dreamer of a young pop star, is unique. Not an element of shame taints this song. She’s singing to the models and to you, the consumer of this album, telling you to let me be your mirror, help you see a little bit clearer/The light that shines within. And that’s it! That’s the climax of the album, where it was heading to. All this talk of time passing, of feeling uncomfortable and anxious, has led to a sweet, simple self-love anthem. This is where a 19-year-old girl wanted her album to go.

All that heavy praise aside, I felt so sad when I finished this album. Because, frankly, it sucks. It sucks that a 19-year-old had to write this album about needing to grow up, about having the maturity and foresight to cherish her “long-gone” youth. That she had to be the one to tell other young girls to love themselves, because the world doesn’t love them back. This responsibility falls on the back of a 19-year-old girl who wishes she could go back to 17, and she handles it beautifully. She handles it with a determined, deliberate naiveté; a refusal to grow up, truly. Embracing her youth passionately. And we could all learn a thing or two from Alessia Cara, but we could also, as always, learn from her “Wild Things”.

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

The Fire Hurts So Right: Grimes’ Art Angels

[Editor’s note. All of the art in this piece that isn’t Grimes’ – it’s Cathi’s. She is mad talented and I am so excited to have her words and her artwork here.  -A]


Talking about Grimes is fucking intimidating, you guys.

Her new album is stupid good. Like, stupid good.

It’s addled with a cheerful aggression and a confidence that’s feminine and coarse. It’s poppy and spooky and bloody and powerful. This is the kind of music that makes me want to stand on a rooftop and screech about how we need to show our female producers more love. There’s beauty in the technical.

Art Angels album cover, Claire Boucher

Art Angels is three days old now, opening with a swell of baroque-inspired strings backed by a heavy beat before evolving into the operatic tones that Grimes, the goddess that she is, makes with her lungs through some sort of magic that I’ll never fully understand. It becomes spooky. It growls. There’s a whirring that builds and builds before transitioning into a poppy number while she croons, this – this music makes me cry.

Me too, Grimes. Me too. The first time I listened to Art Angels I was exhausted, hungover just enough to feel it and riding a bumpy bus to work. You know those songs that double as a jolt or a burst, a collection of sounds that ripple and roll in just the right way, giving you a burst of energy and joy, no matter how you’re feeling? The second I heard her wailing the word ‘California’ I couldn’t help but let my whole head get swallowed up in a smile. The things they see in me, I cannot see myself. When you get bored of me I’ll be back on the shelf.  And when the ocean rises up above the ground, baby – I’ll drown.

If I’m being honest, the single “SCREAM” (our lord and savior Boucher’s first track producing for another artist as the primary vocalist, a Taiwanese rapper named Aristophanes with a really, really good soundcloud) did a better job of tiding me over than the fucking incredible video made for “Flesh without Blood” and “Life in the Vivid Dream”. Aristophanes’ vocals are sharp. They snarl and bite. They have claws that aren’t afraid to draw blood.  There’s something that I find beautiful about language barriers in music. It’s like, when I don’t understand the words being sung it turns the human voice into even more of an instrument than it was before. It’s abstracted. In the case of “SCREAM”, I had no fucking idea what Aristophanes was singing about until Grimes posted an English translation to her tumblr. As someone who doesn’t speak Mandarin, all I had to connect to was the venom and bile that fueled her words. There’s a sharp femininity to the track – one that takes no shit and is in control. It’s an anthem for a vengeful swamp witch, and reading the English equivalent of what she was singing while listening only made it better. If you can’t scream then swallow it down.

Can we just talk about how fucking amazing it is that Boucher does basically everything in her work herself? She didn’t just star in this masterpiece of a video – she wrote, directed, edited, art-directed and even color-corrected the entire thing to give it its hyperreal, neon glow. She produces, engineers, writes and performs all of her music. She drew something for each track on the album. It’s pure Boucher, and Grimes is the vehicle she uses to drive it forward.

I’ll never be your dream girl.

There’s something very pop about Art Angels that wasn’t as present on Visions. There were moments there where it felt like Boucher was toying with pop and testing its waters, but Art Angels is full-blown, poppy madness. It isn’t something to pigeon-hole, though – each track is as experimental and genre-bending as works produced by legends like Björk and Beck. Boucher isn’t afraid to experiment in her work, and is clearly comfortable in the role of a producer-engineer. Grimes is the alter ego she slung together to hold it all into place, creating a cohesive whole of avant-garde experimental pop.

VenusFly ft janelle monae
illustration for Venus Fly ft. Janelle Monae, Claire Boucher

Each track on Art Angels is very much its own, standing out while forming connections with the others – they are bold and bright, unforgiving and loving. They’re all delicious in their own right, coming together to create something beautiful and cohesive in its strangeness and curiosity. Give it a listen.

Just listen.


Cathi Beckstrand is not a writer, but she does feel comfortable self-identifying as a visual artist. She is based in San Francisco, posts a lot of drawings on instagram and sometimes remembers to put them on tumblr.