6. Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Rest”
Under the impression that Gainsbourg had all but given up her putative music career to become Lars von Trier’s muse, I wasn’t expecting a new album from her in 2017; nor did I imagine she’d release anything like the lead-off single “Deadly Valentine”, a perfectly formed, sleazy disco epic to which my immediate response was, “More of this, please.” Well, readers, rest assured Rest delivers, and in spades: from “Lying To You” to “I’m A Lie”, it’s less a stunning return-to-form than a total about-face. Writing her own songs for the first time and no longer giving a damn as to whether or not she resembles her titanic father, Gainsbourg readily shows she is every bit the musician as she is an actress.
5. Alison Moyet, “Other”
A sequel to her own 2013 return-to-form The Minutes, but also more musically diverse and a little riskier. A fearlessness pervades throughout—there’s a spoken word piece (“April 10th”), a curt kiss-off (“Lover, Go”), stripped-down piano balladry (the title track) and even a few naggingly catchy Yaz similes (“Reassuring Pinches”, “Giddy Happy”). Yet, despite having made peace with her electro-pop past, Moyet’s mindset is fervently of the moment. In an essay earlier this year, I noted in concert she still sounds remarkably comfortable in her own skin, but not at all complacent. Other as a whole wrings just the right amount tension from this harder-to-pull-off-than-it-looks contrast. Also, she hasn’t written such an impassioned anthem as “The Rarest Birds” in many years.
“The Rarest Birds”:
4. Jens Lekman, “Life Will See You Now”
As much as I wish Lekman wouldn’t take five years betweenalbums, if it’s necessary for his through-the-roof quality control, then so be it. He’s lightened up a little in the last interim, whether he’s borrowing musical cues from “All I Want For Christmas Is You” (on “To Know Your Mission”) or sampling Jackie Stoudemire on “How Me Met, the Long Version”. Still, he remains most effective as a fountain of empathy—he duets with kindred spirit Tracey Thorn (“Hotwire The Ferris Wheel”) and keenly struggles with how to express platonic love for a male friend (“How Can I Tell Him”). On the superlative “Evening Prayer”, about another friend who has just had a tumor removed, he sings, “It’s been a long hard year,” and I never fail to melt at its resonance in these challenging times.
(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #72 – released September 10, 2002)
Track listing: Yesterday’s Flame / Should I Feel That It’s Over / More / Hometime / Mary, Don’t Keep Me Waiting / Say It / Ski / If You Don’t Come Back To Me / Do You Ever Wonder / The Train I Ride / You Don’t Have To Go
It’s tempting to call Alison Moyet the original Adele in that she’s also a white British woman with an unexpectedly powerful, soulful voice, but that’s really about all the two have in common. While Adele conquered both the album and singles charts worldwide with 2011’s 21, Moyet first broke through almost thirty years earlier as one-half of Yaz (known as Yazoo outside the US.) Whereas Adele dutifully followed the Amy Winehouse template of applying her otherworldly vocals to accessible retro-accented pop (minus the drugs), Moyet and ex-Depeche Mode synth pioneer Vince Clarke crafted a forward-looking, yin/yang electropop. Their brief, bountiful run of UK hits (“Only You”, “Situation”, “Don’t Go”, “Nobody’s Diary”) played out like happy little accidents resulting from placing Moyet’s immense, warm, sonorous wail against Clarke’s sparse, cold but efficiently tuneful synth squiggles.
This tension boiled over to Moyet and Clarke’s working relationship, as they split up after just two albums. While Clarke went on to form Erasure with Moyet’s male near-equivalent, she forged a solo career successful enough (in the UK, anyway) to produce a terrific greatest hits comp a decade later. Fittingly called Singles, it collects most Moyet worth hearing through the mid-90s, from mainstream pop (“Is This Love”, “Invisible”—her only top 40 US hit) and dramatic torch ballads (“This House”) to covers of jazz (“That Ole Devil Called Love”) and pre-rock standards (“Love Letters”). There’s also a remake of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, a smattering of Yaz songs (including album track “Winter Kills”) and sterling examples of her attempts at a more personal, Kirsty MacColl-like sound via “Falling” and “It Won’t Be Long”, the latter one of the great lost singles of the early ’90s. That the bulk of Singles fits together so perfectly is a testament to Moyet’s enduring talent.
Singles concluded with a great new track, “Solid Wood” that found her relying more heavily on guitars and Beatles-esque harmonies than anything she had done previously, suggesting a potentially rich new direction. However, a dispute with her record label, Sony Music (supposedly because they thought her latest offerings were not “commercial” enough) resulted in an extended hiatus that lasted until 2002—seven years after Singles and eight after her previous studio album, Essex. Luckily for Moyet, she had the last laugh—her next album, Hometime (released on indie label Sanctuary Records) sold a quarter of a million copies in the UK, even with no hit singles attached to it. Furthermore, it was a critical success as well—her first solo record to establish her as something more than just a “singles artist.”
While I admittedly have never delved deeply into Moyet’s first four solo albums (1991’s Hoodoo is generally regarded as the best), it’s immediately apparent why Hometime is something of an artistic breakthrough. Its eleven songs, which mostly center on the final stages of a crumbling romantic relationship and its aftermath, form a thematic wholeness that little of Moyet’s previous work contains. Many of the song titles alone (“Yesterday’s Flame”, “Should I Feel That It’s Over”, “If You Don’t Come Back To Me”, “You Don’t Have To Go”) place emphasis on heartbreak, turmoil and loss. And yet, rather than wallow in despair, Hometime ends up a strangely, beautifully uplifting song cycle. This is the sound of a woman sifting through memories, considerations, disappointments and misunderstandings. Although the devastation in Moyet’s voice is loud and clear, she sounds remarkably stronger than ever, devoid of pity or lethargy.
Moyet conceived and recorded Hometime with production duo The Insects, who had previously written and arranged songs for Goldfrapp, Massive Attack and Something To Remember-era Madonna. Augmenting subtle electronics with guitars and strings, their musical backdrops often resemble a lusher, earthier Portishead—indeed, that band’s guitarist Adrian Utley plays on a few tracks here. One can even imagine this album’s title track, with its hazy, trip-hop shuffle, Billie Holiday-on-acid phrasing and “weird bass” (as identified in the credits) easily fitting on Dummy, although Moyet and Portishead vocalist Beth Gibbons are as disparate as fire and ice.
On the basis of other tracks such as opener “Yesterday’s Flame” (where Moyet comes close to the slinky elegance of Morcheeba’s Skye Edwards) and “Ski” (which works up a nice, burbling groove), it’s tempting to call Hometime Moyet’s take on trip-hop; like much of that genre, a few of the production touches scan as a little dated now, like the electronic bloopy noise that gives “More” its most noticeable hook. The synth filigrees and wah-wah guitar on “Say It” also practically scream early-Oughts contemporary R&B.
Fortunately, the bulk of Hometime sounds timeless, more so than most of her previous work, both solo and especially with Yaz. “Should I Feel That It’s Over”, for instance, opens on a bed of acoustic and electric guitars that feel folkish and almost pastoral, as if one has put on an old Cat Stevens record in error. Then, Moyet’s vocal kicks in and you’d never mistake the song for anyone else’s as her keen sense of dynamics envelope tragedy with a sense of discovery. The song’s earworm of a chorus is only bested by Simon Hale’s string arrangement, which subtly builds from the second verse, eventually reaching full flower as Moyet’s overdubbed vocals allow her to eke out whatever she can from the song’s already rich countermelodies.
“Mary, Don’t Keep Me Waiting” also masterfully weaves together a tapestry of classical folk guitar and up-to-the-minute synths with an intricacy that’s nearly orchestral in scope (at times coming to resemble a big, throbbing ball of sound) but miniaturist and surgically focused in content. Playing out like an Alice Munro short story, it vacillates between narrative (the title is the song’s first lyric) and pure feeling (the gorgeous “la, la, la’s” that punctuate each middle-eight), with its imagery (“The sky is black and it’s menacing me”) coming across as both poetic and strikingly lucid.
Many of these songs have hooks that cunningly sneak up on you. Take “Say It”, where she gradually, delicately lays out each word (“Love… you… gave… / so com-plete / I want… you… back…”) until letting loose in the chorus, tumultuously repeating the song’s title a memorable seven times in succession. Or the rock-soul flavored “This Train I Ride”, where the tentative, slow-building verses almost effortlessly lead right into the resolute but impassioned chorus of, “The louder you scream, the faster you go.” Or even “More”, where, line by line it feels almost repetitive (“It’s the stain of the moon,” “It’s the choice that I made,”) until Moyet delivers the punchline—the descendant, one-phrase chorus, “It’s you and it’s me and it could’ve been more.”
Hale’s string arrangements also add to Hometime’s air of (non-stuffy) elegance. They give “More” a fullness that makes the song’s contemporary elements more palatable, and they lend both gravitas and an air of suspense to “If You Don’t Come Back To Me”, a consummate torch ballad tailor-made for Moyet’s agility in conjuring up as many different shades of emotion as there are hues of color in the sky. However, they’re most effective on the album’s centerpiece, “Do You Ever Wonder”. With a harpsichord intro straight out of Bacharach/David-era Dionne Warwick, it’s another torch song but at a quicker tempo. As the insistent strings gain momentum, the melody seems to effortlessly glide from verse to bridge to chorus, complimented by tart, clever chord changes straight out of the Great American Songbook. Still, it doesn’t feel stale, thanks to both Hale’s arrangement (which makes the song sound like it could’ve been recorded anytime since 1963) and Moyet’s command of the melody, stretching out monosyllabic words to five and six syllables without relying on melisma, delivering the chorus (“I won’t feel anything / I’m lost without you”) with the required turmoil but also an unexpected, affecting sincerity.
Hometime concludes with the gospel-flavored “You Don’t Have To Go”. Evolving from an almost reverently quiet intro to an all-out, wailing-towards-the-void maelstrom, it reiterates the album’s ongoing themes of dissolution and loss. Moyet’s performance here is absolutely startling in its immediacy, especially as it threatens to careen out of control against all the effectively building guitars, strings and Hammond organ near the end. It’s no stretch to say she and the song achieve some sort of catharsis that Hometime has been building towards all along. I don’t know how much of its content she drew from her personal life (she had been divorced and remarried at that point), but it sure registered with me. Released just a few months after my own most serious relationship to date had spectacularly crashed and burned, Hometime could not have come into my life at a more serendipitous time; it remains one of the best ever “break-up” albums, in part because of how fluently it details and expresses one’s discombobulation after a relationship fails, illustrating how achieving some sort of catharsis is a necessity in order to fully move on.
Moyet would record sporadically throughout the next decade, her career itself only finding some catharsis when she re-emerged in 2013 with The Minutes, a heavily electronic collaboration with producer Guy Sigsworth and arguably her most innovative album since her Yaz days. She then worked with Sigsworth again on a more musically diverse follow-up, Other, earlier this year. Touring the States (for the first time in decades) in support of it, she appeared older and noticeably thinner (having dramatically slimmed down prior to The Minutes) but her voice had lost very little of its power. She performed hits and misses from throughout her career; the setlist even included one unlikely Hometime track, “Ski”. While that album remains her most resonant collection, the fact that she’s made some of her best work in her fifties (and appears utterly comfortable in her own skin doing so) is a cause to celebrate. She may never sell as many records as Adele, but Adele should be so lucky to have this rewarding a career (and back catalog) thirty years from now.