Before this album, Blackberry Smoke had been on my radar for their chip-on-the-shoulder brand of rock, tinged with the rebel attitude of old school outlaw country. I liked a lot of their songs, but didn’t pay them a whole lot of the attention outside of the tracks I heard on playlists.
That is until now. You Hear Georgia has made me a full-time fan. And it’s about time. They have been making music for two decades.
This ode to southern rock riffs and catchy melodies is a pleasure to listen to from beginning to end. While it does stand up to scrutiny of lyrics and storytelling for the mos tpart, it’s also great background music for anything. Most prominently, I can see it as the perfect soundtrack to driving an old pickup on the backroads with an open beer in the console. I wouldn’t know, but I can pretend in my Mazda 6 on busy city roads with my refillable water bottle.
My first thoughts when hearing this album were that it sounds an awful lot like one of my all-time favorite bands, The Black Crowes. In fact, why have I never written anything about them? They’re easily a top 3 favorite bands of mine–but, I digress. Even though the southern rock genre is not the Crowes to claim, I admit that my love for them clouded my view of You Hear Georgia.
Am I going to try to be objective and review this album on its own merit? Absolutely. Will I succeed? Absolutely not. Inevitably, our own perceptions and bias will always seep into our opinions. But I tried. It’s a win for everybody though. Blackberry Smoke made a great album. I got to listen to it and enjoy it. I hope you do, too.
Track By Track Breakdown
“Live It Down” – Great way to start off the album. Rockin’, upbeat, hype. One of those “forget your problems and just party” songs that we need today. But haven’t we always needed them? A definite standout on the album, regardless of meaning.
Favorite moment: that juicy riff–also, peep the little solo toward the end.
“You Hear Georgia” – Paging the Black Crowes. From the wordplay, to vocal delivery (I kept checking to see if Chris Robinson was featured), to melody–the Black Crowes could do this song and it would sound almost identical. But the genre isn’t the Crowes’ alone. Blackberry Smoke has been in the game for a long time and they aren’t derivative of anyone. They do their own thing, and this song is fantastic.
Favorite moment: “You can’t see nothin’ past a shadow of a doubt.” Love this line.
“Hey Delilah” – Another southern rock gem, this song only gets better the longer you listen. The interesting guitar melodies and riffs distract from whatever the lyrics are saying. It’s about a strong-willed woman. But who cares? It’s good.
Favorite moment: A lot of the rhyming couplets: “She brings me the medicine; disposes of the evidence.” “You know I do what she wants, and not a thing that she don’t.” “She sold me out a time or two; I begged her, honey, how could you? She got a hand on her hip, and a finger to her lip, said, ‘hush, baby, that’ll do’.” “I’ll buy anything she’s got to sell; Man, that woman she really can give ’em hell.”
“Ain’t the Same” – A tiny bit more melancholy and a tiny bit slower, this song still tramples you. It could be the nostalgic themes and wistful longing, or it could be the driving drum tempo and sexy guitar riffs.
Favorite moment: “Nothing’s really changed, it just ain’t the same.” Yeah. I feel that.
“Lonesome for a Living (feat. Jamey Johnson)” – This jumped out to me as the most country track on the album, with the twangy, slide guitar and rollicking rhythm. I’m really fond of the way the vocal melodies marry the musical melody. It’s brilliant composition. The harmonies, and duet performances in general, are fucking great. Easily one of my favorites.
Favorite moment: just the whole vibe, man. You know?
“All Rise Again (feat. Warren Hayes)” – Very “south will rise again”, probably on purpose, knowing the theme of the album. Even if it’s not espousing southern values, the song is fairly generic rock fodder compared to the rest of the album. It’s an okay song though.
Favorite moment: that slide gee-tar is doing work.
“Old Enough to Know” – This song is the grandpa who pulls up a chair next to you and teaches you the ways of the world. You can see it in his wrinkles, in his white hair, in his worn clothing–he’s world-weary and whip-smart. It’s a folksy, rootsy song that I really enjoy. The change of pace is a nice detour, too.
Favorite moment: the vulnerability and rawness of the vocal performance and stripped down musical setup.
“Morningside” – I always forget what “Morningside” is. Not just because that’s a made up word for this song, but because it’s a perfectly fine song that doesn’t really stick out or do anything particularly great. It’s an okay rock song about going through tough times. The verses are stronger than the chorus.
Favorite moment: that it vaguely reminds me of a Black Crowes song, but I can’t put my finger on which one.
“All Over the Road” – A manic song about driving fast and living fast, this is absolutely a companion song to “Kickin’ My Heart Again”, the lead-off song for The Black Crowe’s 1998 By Your Side. You can’t convince me otherwise. The BC song is superior, but I still really like “All Over the Road” a whole bunch. I bet it would be great to crank on the interstate, while going 90.
Favorite moment: the idgaf attitude!
“Old Scarecrow” – This is so vague. What do you want to be “livin’ and let livin'” about? What “opinion” do you not care about? Are we talking about having different views on the economy or are you wanting people to leave you alone when you make racist comments? There’s a big difference. It’s also just a lazily written song, lyrically.
I mentioned this band in my 2020 anthems post about the songs that summed up my 2020. I had already discovered their song “Making Do” late in the year and thought it would be a contender for 2021 anthems. It still is. But more than that, I heard Lake Street Dive’s single “Hypothetical” more recently and fell in love with the entire album–nay, the entire band.
Lake Street Dive calls upon jazz, blues, the faintest tinge of Americana, and a general retro pop/old school vibe to create chill vibes, fun songs, and down-to-earth lyrics. Their songs across past albums deal with a multitude of interesting concepts and novelty themes, like “Side Pony”, “Bad Self-Portraits”, and “Good Kisser” to name a few. Lead singer Rachael Price was trained as a jazz and blues singer, which lends a breath of fresh air in this band setting that often skews toward blues-rock or roots-rock. It gives all their songs a neo-soul and retro vibe, even in the most modern of arrangements.
More than being any one particular genre, you should know Lake Street Dive is just a fun and easy band to listen to. The songs tell all, as they always do. Obviously, their 2020 release, is no different. I’m going to rank all the tracks on the album, from least favorite to most favorite, and talk a bit about each one–including its most memorable moment, for better or for worse.
11. “Sarah” – I’ve never really liked this song for a few reasons. First, it’s really vague and cryptic. “This is the last time that I say your name, that I play your game. Sarah, you can be sure.” My second problem with it is that the song melody and arrangement don’t match the tone and content of the song at all. Not in a fun, ironic way either. Rachael Price’s vocals are filtered through a vocoder, giving her an alien-like voice, while acapella, doo wop-style harmonies back her up. It’s an odd choice to say the least.
Most Memorable Moment: the odd, alien effect on the vocals.
10. “Feels Like the Last Time” – If you want, you could see this as the final arc in a story told on “Lackluster Lover”, “Anymore” and now “Feels Like the Last Time”. I don’t think that’s what they intended at all, but from a storytelling perspective you could make that case. It’s about how hot and cold a relationship can be sometimes, even one you’ve been in awhile. Melodically, it calls upon a bluesy-rootsy schtick, including some cool little harmonica parts. It’s good when you’re listening to it, but it sticks with you about as long as a deep-fried novelty treat from the fair. You’re going to forget you even had it after about an hour.
Most Memorable Moment: if I’m being totally honest, the way I remember this song is that it’s nothing like Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time”. But wouldn’t that be fun? If it were a satirical, “other side of the coin” to that song? Yeah, too bad.
9. “Being a Woman” – I generally support songs about social issues, like feminism. It brings awareness, has a little fun, and expresses unabashedly the feelings of the writers. However, it’s a little on the nose sometimes and a little bit forced. Some aspects of it make me cringe, i.e. “if I complain, they’ll blame my feelings; but look at the view from my glass ceiling.” It means well and it’s all true, but it could have used a little more time in the oven.
Most Memorable Moment: “when we stand up and protest, we’re called an angry mob, while another lone gunman loads up his shot”. Hitting a little too close to home there, but true.
8. “Lackluster Lover” – Jazzy and whimsical, this song somehow makes mediocrity and apathy in a relationship seem upbeat and bubbly. The melody and performance are good, even great. I really like the description of it as “poking sly fun at a hapless Lothario”. I enjoy a lot of elements of the song, but it’s definitely not one of my favorites. It has grown on me significantly as I listen for the nuance in the composition though.
Most Memorable Moment: vocal performance by Price is elegant and emotive. She is truly such a beautiful and fantastic performer.
7. “Hush Money” – Jazzy and poppy, this song is even more entertaining if you try to think of it as a true story, where the band is being paid off to be quiet about some secret. In fact, that’s exactly what the song is positing, but I wonder what specific “flame” they saw being “fanned”? Fun, neat song using a concept you don’t see often, if ever, in mainstream music.
Most Memorable Moment: the vocalization improvs. Price killing it, as usual.
6.“Don’t You Know That I Know” – A cute novelty song about two well-matched lovers, this track is almost entirely made out of silly or fun pairings to compare to the couple, i.e. “we’re like baseball and hotdogs; you’re Ferris Bueller and I’m your day off”. I’m not really sure what the chorus is doing with the overly wordy phrasing, “don’t you know that I know that you know that I know that you want me”, but it’s a cute, fun song that I can’t help but love.
Most Memorable Moment: The lyrical pairings to describe the couple in love, of course. Some of my favorites are: “the E Street band and the Boss”, “you’re happy hour and I’m 5 o’clock”, and “you’re the Captain Kirk to my Spock”.
5.“Anymore” – I think of this as the other side of the coin to “Lackluster Lover”. A neo-soul trek through realizing that your relationship is coming to an end, that you say you’re doing fine, but you’re “not really sure, anymore”. If it’s the 5 stages of grief, this is depression. I like how the song approaches the “chorus”. There isn’t really one. When the word “anymore” comes up in the stanza, it is emphasized and repeated, with an embellishment in the music. It goes to the next verse though, without much fuss or force.
Most Memorable Moment: I could pull out nearly any lyric and put it here. The whole song builds really well on top of each phrase, each line. You need them all, in context, sequentially, for maximum impact. But this whole stanza below is one I will highlight here.
Cause it’s just another battle Seems you’re still having fun So I say that you have won But I’m not keeping score anymore Anymore
4.“Making Do” – Here it is! The song that put the band on my radar. From it’s chill vibes, to the vocals, to the relevant lyrics about “making do with what you got”, it really just did it for me all around. Of course, in the pandemic era, the lyrics hit different. But the song was written pre-pandemic about climate change. Still, a lot of the lines could be applicable to dealing with any disaster or looming stress.
Most Memorable Moment: I struggled to come up with just one thing to put here. The whole vibe and chill approach is what made it so memorable for me.
3. “Hypotheticals” – Love this mellow, jazz/soul/indie rock fusion. I appreciate that the first word is “obviously”, which is the name of the album…Obviously. A song about new love, planning out your potential future. The excitement and uncertainty feels palpable, and my god, it’s just so fun to listen to.
Most Memorable Moment: the catchy chorus is just so damn infectious.
2. “Nobody’s Stopping You Now” – Absolutely fantastic song, in my professional and expert opinion. This is damn near the best song on the album. I love the message of just letting go, being free, and allowing the real you to show through. I think every woman could probably relate to this. Price said she and bassist Bridget Kearny co-wrote this as a letter to her teenage self.
Most Memorable Moment: My favorite couplet: “don’t try to be a woman anymore; nobody’s taught you how. Skin your knees and throw punches in the air; nobody’s stopping you now”
1. “Same Old News” – This Marvin Gaye-esque love song is even more inspired and beautiful because it’s a duet. Originally written by keyboardist Akie Bermiss, Rachael Price heard the song and insisted on it being a duet with him. I am glad she did. This was an instant classic for me. Every second of it is a joy.
Most Memorable Moment: the give and take of verse 2, when Akie says, “I would change my name–” and Price interrupts and says “What would you change it to?”, and he responds, “to anything, for what it’s worth”. It’s just a fun little improv moment that feels real and sweet.
What happened to Justin Bieber? As I’ve mentioned before, we are all just holding our breath waiting for Justin Bieber to return to his 2015 Purpose form. His entire comeback (coming back from being a douchebag) was marked with great collaborations and singles alike. It was finally not uncool to like Bieber. No longer a punchline, he actually made music you could enjoy in public.
So what’s happened since then? I don’t want to Yoko Ono him, but he got married. That’s not her fault. Love has made him a worse artist, apparently.
While I didn’t exactly give rave reviews to “Anyone”, it is still a likable, cute love song. Maybe not groundbreaking or perfect, but good enough. Apparently, that was just a preview for more of the same on Justice.
The only definitively non-love song is “Lonely”, where he at least tried to sing about something else, even if it wasn’t good. He would do well to try to channel this kind of pain and conflict into more songs, preferably with better lyrics and delivery, but I won’t be that picky.
My biggest problem with Justice, though, is that it lacks a lot of passion and meaning for an album that has such a clear motive for both. Musically, it’s a well-produced piece of pop music, but it lacks a lot substance. Most of the songs are well-made, palatable, but forgettable, pop songs. There’s nothing really wrong with that. It’s hard to see the forest for the trees, when the trees are just unremarkable trees. Let’s talk about the trees though, so you can see what I mean.
Here are my track-by-track First Impression thoughts (or as close to them as possible). Keep in mind that these thoughts would absolutely change…if I bothered to listen to this album more.
“2 Much” – Really weird that it starts with the Martin Luther King line about a “threat to injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. What the fuck does that have to do with the rest of this half-made song/prelude?
Best part: it’s short.
“Deserve You” – With flashy production and a hot 80s vibe, this track is one of the better on the albums. That being said, I still don’t feel compelled to listen to it outside of the album.
Best part: that juicy synth bassline.
“As I Am” Feat. Khalid – I really expected more for a song that scored a feature from Khalid.
Best part: Khalid
“Off My Face” – Oh hey, did you hear? Justin really loves his fucking wife. It’s actually a pretty good song though that diverges from the usual pop and r&b. Though the lyrics are over-the-top corny, they’re still wholesome and vividly imagined.
Best part: the acoustic guitar and Justin’s vocals synergize really well.
“Holy” Feat. Chance The Rapper – I already know this song from it being a single. It’s a great song, despite my dislike for Chance the Rapper’s style and voice. It’s probably not a great song, but I enjoy it all the same.
Best part: an actual beat, plus some organ. Unlike the shitty acoustic version, which should not be allowed anywhere near Chance’s rap part about Joe Pesci.
“Unstable” – Feat. The Kid LAROI – Whatever. This isn’t nearly as fleshed out or as good as they thought it was. Put it back in the oven. It’s not done.
Best part: ??
MLK Interlude – What the fuck is this? How does this relate to the rest of the album’s message? Unless he’s saying that the thing he would die for now (as opposed to when he’s 90) is his wife… which is just a horrible misuse of MLK. Oh, actually, what’s the next song?
“Die for You” Feat. Dominic Fike – Yeah. That’s exactly what the MLK Interlude was for. Cringe. Too bad because this song’s a banger. At least the verses anyway. I would have loved to hear Dua Lipa on this, by the way.
Best part: that sexy beat
“Hold On” – This is my favorite song on the album. It’s the only one that really stuck with me after I listened to the whole thing, deservedly so.
Best part: infectious beat, catchy hook
“Somebody” – If you listen closely, this song kind of sucks. But if you don’t, this song is pretty good.
Best part: another great beat
“Ghost” – Another song good from a technical standpoint, like “Somebody”, that is perfectly good and inoffensive until you actually listen to it. Put it on life support; maybe that will save it.
Best part: acoustic guitar choruses. Actually the song would be better with this stripped down approach for the whole thing.
“Peaches” Feat. Daniel Caesar & Giveon – This is a love song masquerading as something else. The something else is really good. One of my favorites, “Peaches” just screams summer single. DROP THE SINGLE, BIEBS.
Best part: just the whole vibe, man.
“Love You Different” Feat. BEAM – Melody straight up stolen from an arcade video game. I don’t really like it. No, I won’t elaborate.
Best part: that it reminds me of “What Do U Mean?”
“Loved By You” Feat. Burna Boy – With this generic title, I expected to hate this song. I don’t! This song wants to be loved by me, but instead I just like it as a friend.
Best part: the lyrics. Yes, I like a Bieber song for the lyrics, for once. The beat is pretty fat, and Burna Boy is a nice addition, too.
Best part: the “In The Air Tonight” transition to a more upbeat, 80s Contemporary Christian concert at the end.
“Lonely” – A song about something! Too bad it’s about as deep as a puddle lyrically. I appreciate the attempt and concept though.
Best part: meaningful lyrics about an actual source of pain.
TRIPLE CHUCKS DELUXE
Surprise! Bieber released a deluxe version of the album with some new tracks! I had already written the rest of this post and was polishing it for release when I realized these songs existed. So here are my thoughts on them as well:
“There She Go” Feat. Lil Uzi Vert – This song was clearly made to be a Tik Tok song and go viral with the youth. I’m not gonna lie though–it’s actually quite the jam, even though I’m not a fan of Lil Uzi Vert’s contribution.
Best part: beat and melody; harmonies
“I Can’t Be Myself” Feat Jaden – Today I learned Jaden Smith goes by just Jaden. I also learned that a “Circles” rip-off can be an amazing song that gives you a shot of dopamine with every bar. This is now my favorite song on the album. Period. It took me about 12 seconds to “like” it on Spotify. It has re-listening value out the wazoo. It’s poppy, dreamy, and even though it’s imitating another very famous song, it pulls off that imitation without sounding like a soulless carbon copy.
Best part: everything. The only flaw it has is that I can’t inject it directly into my veins.
“Lifetime” – Been there, done that. Boring. Next!
Best part: if you’re a teen or someone new to love, life, or lyrics, then the lyrics seem incredibly deep and meaningful. That’s not even a jab. It’s that I think this song is good for someone else, but it ain’t me.
“Wish You Would” Feat Quavo – This reminds me of poppier “No Sense” from Purpose, but Quavo is no Travis Scott.
Best part: that it reminds me of “No Sense”
“Know No Better” Feat. DaBaby – Okay. Yep. Listened to this. Then I forgot it.
Best part: DaBaby can sing????
“Name” Feat. Tori Kelly – Beautiful song about missing an old flame. I could listen to this again for sure.
Best part: lyrics, simplicity, Tori’s voice mixes well with Justin’s
Officially listed as county music on Wikapedia, the Pistol Annies are much more than what “country” might conjure up in your mind. They’re sometimes southern rock, sometimes blues, sometimes more Roots/Americana. Other times, they’re undeniably nothing else: invoking twang and tempo reminiscent of old school country tunes. Their storytelling ranges from heartbreakingly real to just plain fun, all with whip-smart lyrics and well-crafted melodies. There’s never an issue with balancing the spotlight, either, between Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley.
While I may not like most of what’s on the country charts these days, I do have a soft spot in my heart for country music. The Pistol Annies found that spot and burrowed in comfortably with three endearing studio albums.
To sum up the vibe and characters the band plays (assuming they’re not entirely autobiographical songs): bleach blonde white trash glam heartbreaking sugar baby wine mom house wife. And I am here for it. Even if I cannot relate to the antics being described, the ladies of Pistol Annies make it accessible. Being a heartbreaker has never sounded more fun. A dead-end marriage sounds tragically normal. Bad decisions sound like the beginning of good friendships.
If you want to hear a fan’s perspective on the best songs to listen to as an introduction to the band, you’ve come to the right place! Here are my Top 10 Pistol Annies songs. Unlike last time, I’m putting them in my personal favorite order.
10.“Lemon Drop“ – “Sucking on the bitter to get to the sweet part”, this little ditty is about all the minutia and struggles of every day life. Paying off your junky car, being elbow-deep in laundry all the time, racking up debt just to get by–all of this but still grinning and bearing it to get to the otherside some day. I’d say a lot of us can relate to this.
Standout lyric: “I got thrift store curtains in the windows of my home; I’m payin’ for a house that the landlord owns. Bought a TV on a credit card; it’ll take me ten years to pay if off.”
9.“Got My Name Changed Back” – A fun, upbeat tune about changing your name back after a divorce, this song is middle-aged, divorcee glam. Hell yeah, girl, get your name back.
Standout lyric: “I played to win, lookin’ back it’s funny; I broke his heart and I took his money!”
8. “I Feel A Sin Comin’ On” – Sultry and sexy in delivery and melody, this song is what you’d hear on an old West drama as the local brothel’s Madam seduces the county sheriff to gain his trust, and then betray him.
Standout lyric: “Give me tall, dark, and handsome, mix it up with something strong. I feel a sin coming on.”
7. “Sugar Daddy”– This blues-tinged number is another sultry and confident number that absolutely makes being a gold digger seem like a desirable trait. I really want a show about three women charming every man in Dallas and going on extravagant adventures and living in luxury without paying a dime of their own money.
Standout lyric: “My sugar daddy’s got a pool in the back, got a rifle in the rack of his Cadillac. Drivin’ me crazy.”
6. “Best Years of My Life”– A song about settling but accepting it, this song is sad, but somehow not incredibly depressing. It’s a sad situation, but the main character is just rolling with it. You know it’s mediocre but what else are you gonna do about it? Yeah, can you imagine, that’s actually not a super depressing song!
Standout lyric: “I was looking forward to, staying here forever cuz you asked me to. Didn’t think that I could do better so I settled down, in this ten cent town. It’s about to break me.”
5. “Hell on Heels” – Maybe THE quintessential Pistol Annies song, since it was their first single. It sums up their vibe pretty well. Seducing men, getting what you want, spending money, bluesy-rootsy music that makes you want to walk through a bar while wearing your best high heels. Even if you’re a guy, listen to this and tell me you don’t want to strut around downtown dressed to the nines.
Standout lyric: “I got a pink guitar, Lincoln Towncar from ole what’s-his-name I met at a bar. Got a high rise flat in Hollywood from a married man, wasn’t up to no good.”
4. “Unhappily Married” – This one is also about settling and accepting it but makes it sound so much fun. I love the rhythm and cadence of the chorus when the drums come crashing in. Delivery of the verses is so subdued, too, which makes the chorus that much more explosive. The bridge is the big payoff with a crescendo-ing guitar, almost as if to represent the escalating fights between the couple’s story.
Standout lyric: “We’ll both play our parts in this disaster; I’ll be the bitch and you’ll be the bastard.”
3. “Housewife’s Prayer”– Unlike “Best Years”, “Housewife’s Prayer” is depressing as fuck. I’m not one for being a housewife, or praying for that matter, but I relate to my core with the frustration and desperation here. It has always struck a chord with me.
Standout lyric: “I’ve been thinkin’ about settin’ this house on fire. Can’t see a way out of the mess I’m in and the bills keep getting higher.”
2. “Milkman” – With a title like “Milkman”, I expected it to be about a child’s questionable paternity or having a sordid affair. Instead, this song posits what would the singer’s mother be like if she had loved the milkman. She might have been happier, a little less uptight, and developed interests and passions of her own. As it stands, the mother has nothing going on in her life besides housework and loving her daughter and husband. In a lot of ways this song is my favorite because it’s such an interesting concept with great lyrics.
Standout lyric: “If mama woulda smoked her a cigarette, maybe she wouldn’t judge me. If she’d a done more than the dishes, untied those apron strings. She’d be sitting in her sundress on the back porch mixing whiskey and sweet tea. Mama never did think twice about feelin’ this free.”
1. “Stop Drop and Roll One” – This song will be stuck in my head for the rest of time just from writing it here. It’s not only catchy (a lot of their songs are catchy), but it’s catchy in a really specific way. The verses give and the chorus takes, but they flow into each other seamlessly. The song is always building and growing into the next line, the next bar, but it never reaches a peak. Normally that is a bad, annoying thing, but it works in this song and I don’t know why. Someone smarter than me please explain. The stream-of-conscious lyrics are reminiscent of partying and good times, while also going with the flow.
Standout lyric: “Sometimes the drifters are daisies; Sometimes the sane ones are crazies. One’s got the Tylenol, one’s got the Adderall, one’s got a drink in her hand.”
First Impressions is a segment where I give my first (minimally edited) thoughts on an album that’s new (or new to me), without research, months of listening, or the benefit of letting it “ruminate”. It’s a way to get out my thoughts much faster than the time and effort I would put into real album reviews, thoughts, and track rankings.
Oh, bet you didn’t see this coming. The lady who writes about The Weeknd and Miley Cyrus also likes Icon for Hire.
Actually, Amorphous, and IFH’s discography in general, isn’t too far removed from The Weeknd’s slick production and Miley’s flair for catchy hooks and genre-hopping.
On this record, the band continues with their themes of recovery, mental illness, addictions–and the struggles and triumphs that are entailed within. I have always connected with them because of the rawness and candor of Ariel Bloomer’s lyrics, paired with in-your-face, head-bangin’ rock. While the band is predominantly alternative hard rock, they have always incorporated plenty of EDM elements to some degree. You can add rap to the list now, too. Sort of.
The rap works, except when it doesn’t. Ariel is talented, but the aggressive yell-singing she has done in the past is a much better fit. On another note, I really like the production and mixing on this album. They’ve managed to stay true to their core style and sound, but I can definitely tell a difference in the way they mix together the electronica and rock parts together. The lyrics are also very good on Amorphus. There are a lot of incredibly poignant, well-crafted, and even, clever moments, showing Ariel’s growth as a songwriter. I’ve always enjoyed the way she paints a picture, but she stepped it up a few notches in several places here.
Highlights: Songwriting, good production, well-mixed electronica with rock.
Lowlights: some really bad rhymes that should have never made it past first draft, and the rapping is sometimes cringe.
Favorite track: “Brittle”. It’s not even close. The album is quite good, but “Brittle” is Icon for Hire pulling out all the stops. There are lot of good songs, even great ones, on this album, but if I made a tiered track listing, “Brittle” would be in its own tier. Probably. This is First Impressions. I shouldn’t make bold statements. Least favorite: If “Impossibles & Obstacles” weren’t an interlude, it would be the worst track. But it’s actually “Warrior”. Empowering though it may be in content, I cannot abide the rap verse, or…well, I don’t want to spoil it. Read the track thoughts below.
Grade: My completely meaningless grade based on an arbitrary rubric and bias is 88/100 (B). That feels about right. Or it’s way off. Who knows!
Track-By-Track Thoughts on Amorphous
My real-time thoughts that were later re-edited, or largely left alone. It depends on the song. You’ll be able to tell which one is which. I can’t wait to facepalm when reading these later!
“Brittle (Prelude)” – I love the strings, but are preludes necessary? Especially when they’re this short.
“Brittle” – Liked this song almost immediately, but went from loving it on the first chorus to worshipping it on the second one. Setting the bar this high on the first song is a bold move. They pulled out their absolute best moves on this song from the writing to the song structure and composition to the theme and message. It brought me to tears the first time I listened. And the second, for what it’s worth.
“Curse or Cure” – The hard rock, anthemic chorus will probably do well in concerts. you know, if we ever get them back.
“Enemies” – This one sounds like a Nightmare Before Christmas reject remix. It slaps.
“Panic Attacks” – Part of me hates that this is a “rap”. But honestly, Ariel kind of kills it. Plus, it sounds like it’s from the POV of the panic attack, or at least the source of it, and I think that’s really interesting and unique. The lyrics are really good, too.
“Seeds” – Is this annoying or cool? Maybe both. Rhyming “flames” with “history” is the real crime.
“Thirteen (interlude)” – felt this way since you were 13? yeah, I feel that. But stream of consciousness about how you “play in A minor because it feels like me”–ugh, I hate when songs talk about being songs. I just don’t like interludes, actually. They usually feel like they weren’t good enough to be a full song, but the band obviously liked it enough to want it on the album. Make a full song, you cowards. Oh they did already; it was called “The Grey” and it was fantastic. That’s what this is.
“Background Sad” – a change of pace, this ballad talks about how maybe she won’t get any better. I really relate to this. Is this as good as it gets? Am I always going to be background sad?
“Last One Standing” – Sort of a “rise up” from the lows of “Background Sad”, this song is another anthemic, sing-a-long, gather the misfits, fight the good fight kind of song. Should I add some more descriptors?
“Waste My Hate” – Another anthemic one, this one has a bitter bite to it. Love the marriage of hard rock and electronica. Very well-blended on this song. Classic IFH. Another one that would rank highly, maybe even 2nd, if this were a ranked list
“Impossibles & Obstacles (interlude)” – It’s not that this isn’t well-written or well-rapped, it’s just that it’s bad and I hate it.
“Sticks & Stones”– This feels like the sister to “Waste My Hate”. Another anthemic, vengeful, hateful song. Not sure what makes this song different from “WMH”. Oh, yeah, it’s this: “hell hath no fury like me; don’t mess with her majesty. Well-behaved women rarely make an empire.” The empire line rhymes with nothing and feels really out of place at first, though I admit the echoing of “empire” after that makes it sit in the air and imprint on your brain, so maybe it does work.
My real problem is this: the lyrics “hell hath no fury like me; don’t mess with her majesty” are good on paper. But Ariel insists on pronouncing “me” like “may”, so it sounds like she’s rhyming “may” with “majesty”. It made me cringe and recoil so hard the first time I heard it that I stopped and rewound it trying to figure out what she was saying, and dear god, WHY pronounce it this way? It ruins an otherwise impactful bridge.
“Warrior” – The chorus rocks hard, but the way it all slows down so she can say “damn it feels good to be a warrior” with a very Kesha vibe is just not doing it for me. By this point in the album, this song sounds a little formulaic and doesn’t stand out much. It’s still an empowering message, and I can’t hate on that too much. But I can hate on the rap attempts and how half-done the song feels. Come on guys! Did you waste all your best moves on “Brittle”? These things should come from an authentic place, not a half-hearted, try to make it a rap/rock anthem place. That’s not a good place. You remember 2002.
“Only Be A Story” – a reflective song that has Ariel wondering about her legacy after her death. It builds up into a big rock number, but starts with just a simple, beautiful piano. Maybe “Thirteen” could have been worked into this somehow. They’re different melodically, but simplistic, introspective piano ballads can find a way to coexist together, I imagine.
You Should Listen To is a new segment I will be doing in place of the song spotlight-type posts I’ve made where I write about a song I love. This space will now be for multiple songs that I want to showcase featuring a common theme. In most cases, the theme will be the artist or the genre.Lacking the research and overall fuller story that my other posts provide, this feature will be focused specifically on the songs.
I thought the modern R&B slow jam wasn’t my thing. It’s not a genre I’ve really gotten into much, besides an occasional toe-dip here and there. I’ve always enjoyed singers who lean more into the neo-soul, hip-hop, or pop elements. There’s something so intimate about R&B, and I guess it’s never really filled a need within me. If I want to listen to someone croon about sex, love, and heartbreak, I much prefer the classic soul singers of old, like Marvin Gaye or Bill Withers.
However, I’ve found that I definitely have a place in my heart for modern R&B singers who want to sing about relationships in a silky smooth voice. I heard Jhené Aiko on a best of 2020 list and decided to give her other stuff a listen (besides just the features I know her from). I love her vibe and her voice so much I knew she had to debut my You Should Listen To segment.
Here’s an unbiased, high-level look at some tracks* I’d like to showcase by Jhené Aiko. I’m no expert, nor do I claim this to be a comprehensive or “best-of” list. This is a new fan’s perspective on what I think her standout tracks are. I put them in reverse chronological order, just for some semblance of organization that wasn’t a ranking. Yeah, for once, I didn’t want to do track rankings.
*This will only include songs that she released, not her features on someone else’s track.
None of Your Concern (feat. Big Sean) – A good tandem with “Triggered”, especially considering that “Triggered” and “None of Your Concern” are about, at least in part, ex-boyfriend Big Sean. Not only does she remain friends with him though, he’s FEATURED ON THIS DAMN SONG. That’s iconic.
BS (feat. H.E.R.) – Beautiful, chill R&B jam that has quickly become one of my favorite songs by Jhené. H.E.R. kills it, too, and combined with her singing of “America the Beautiful” before the Super Bowl, I am definitely going to check out her music.
P*$$Y Fairy (OTW) – This absolute killer sex jam was the song on a YouTuber’s year-end countdown list that made me look her up.
Party for Me(feat. Ty Dolla $ign)– Her rap part is kind of cringe, but the rest of it is “24K Magic” Bruno Mars, retro goodness (which itself is inspired by late 80s and early 90s funk and soul).
Ascension (feat. Brandy) – Hey, remember Brandy? No idea if she’s making music anymore, but she’s a good addition on this hopeful lullaby that turns into a soulful mantra.
WTH (feat. Ab-Soul) – I usually don’t like songs about getting high, but–. Okay, I’ll write something different. Honestly, this song was saved by Ab-Soul’s verse. Otherwise, it would have been a good song, but ultimately left off the list.
The Worst – “Don’t take this personally, but you’re the worst.” Wow. She does know how to synthesize her heartbreak into a good song, doesn’t she?
Comfort Inn Ending (Freestyle) – Amazing that this made the list despite having no discernable beat or melody. I love her fun, breezy jams, but her songs about heartbreak and pain are amazing.
First Impressions is a segment I started for giving quick, minimally-edited thoughts on an album. Without the benefit of research, multiple listens, or letting it “ruminate”, I try to just give my first impressions of the album based on just a couple of listens. It’s fun to look back on and see what all has changed, a few months, to a year, down the line.This is the third installment.
Wasting Light is my clear favorite Foo album. I’m not saying it’s their best. It’s probably not. But it’s my favorite. Very closely followed by the former favorite, One by One. I also liked, and maybe even loved, Concrete and Gold (despite what this review makes it sound like). In Your Honor holds its own, despite not really having the material for a double album. Saint Cecilia is completely overlooked and underrated, probably because it didn’t receive much hype (and is “only”an EP). There Is Nothing Left to Lose is completely overrated because it has “Learn to Fly”, and a lot of poppy, filler crap. The Colour and the Shape is as exactly as good as it was when it came out–no better, no worse.
And rightfully so, I forgot Echoes, Silence, Patience, and Grace when I first wrote the above paragraph. I usually do, though it’s probably much better than I remember. I also didn’t mention their self-titled debut album because that was basically just demos and hastily-written written lyrics that were fashioned into a solo project that Dave put under the name Foo Fighters. There’s also one other album that I didn’t mention; we’ll get to that.
So where does Medicine At Midnight rank among these? It’s too early to tell if it’s my new favorite. First Impressions are not where favorites are made. No, real favorites are forged in the fire of a thousand listens. A slow burn over real time, real emotions, real situations. Wasting Light became my favorite not because it was a perfect album, but because of the memories I had while listening–how applicable certain songs and lyrics felt to my life. It became the soundtrack to my life. I listened to it nonstop for months.
Remember how Sonic Highways was supposed to be inspired by a different city for each song? That was hilarious. But, it feels like Medicine at Midnight took inspiration from a different genre or artist for each track. It doesn’t feel like a ripoff or a cheap imitation, either. Each track feels like a very intentional, well-written, hashed out, fucking real song. And all 9 of them deserve to be on the album. Each song truly feels unique and discrete from one another, while firmly having the mark of Foo Fighters on them.
I wasn’t going to do this initially, but I think First Impressions would be even more fun with some preliminary track rankings. I love lists. I love order. I love categorizing shit. If you don’t, feel free to not read this or care about it. I will also include my very-early, very little edited first draft thoughts on these songs. I hesitate to do so because many listens will definitely change how I feel and what I hear. But it’s SUPPOSED to. This bit is called FIRST IMPRESSIONS though. Not Final Impressions. Not Eventual Impressions.
Even if this is just for me to look back on and make fun of myself for putting one song above another, or laugh at my hilariously bad takes, it will be good for posterity. I’m not going to number them though because it’s not that serious. You can get the general idea that the favorites are at the end, while least favorites are listed first.
“Waiting on a War” – Oh, a song about something. I’m ready to cringe. It sounds like they missed doing stuff from the second half of In Your Honor. Why can’t you make your soft, acoustic little bullshit songs as intentional and good as your other songs? Did different people write this vs “Cloudspotter”? I just do not feel this at all. It eventually quickens the pace and turns into a faster, punkier rock song. Much too late though. And it completely lacks any passion. The vocal melody sucks ass.
“Love Dies Young” – uptempo, punk-type rock song. It sounds like they definitely wrote the music first, coming up with a cool riff, but not knowing what to put with it. This isn’t a bad topic at all, but is it a love song or an anti-love song? It’s not the worst song. It’s not the best song. I like a lot of things about it, for instance, if this is a filler song, then we’re doing pretty good.
“Chasing Birds” – This was the obvious Taylor Hawkins song, guys, come on. It’s a little repetitive, but it’s a nice, pretty song. Kind of like what “Happy Ever After” was trying to be from Concrete and Gold. But better.
“No Son of Mine” – The other song I didn’t realize I’d heard already. Good ole fashioned rock song poking fun at religious zealots. I think of Motorhead and the song “Barricuda” when I hear this one. I am not saying that’s RIGHT of me, but I’m saying that’s what I think of.
“Shame Shame” – I only heard this song once before this album. It’s good. Hearing it again, I think it’s probably great. But I’m not sure. I don’t even know what to call this genre mashup. I’m confused, but I like it. It’s very controlled confusion. I have a hard time remembering it after I’ve heard it, but when I DO hear it, I always think, “wow, this is really good.”
“Making A Fire” – Who is this, The Black Crowes? Background singers that vaguely sound gospel-influenced. Rock that has a 90s alt rock leaning. Southern rock chorus (or one that very badly wants to be). It’s like if The Black Crowes wanted to make “Bridges Burning”, but in their style, and not too obvious that they copied it.
“Holding Poison” – I’m definitely sure this position will change, but I do like it a lot. Then I hear it all the way through, and I’m like, yes, this is top tier shit. It’s like if “Rope” and “Dear Rosemary” had a baby. OMG. It’s Rosemary’s baby. I don’t know how to describe this song. It’s spunky and punchy, but there’s an air of despair. I mean, poison is in the name. That probably helps.
“Medicine At Midnight” – This is the exact opposite of the previous song in the track listing (“Waiting on a War”). It hooks you in right away. Imagine, having a melody and beat on all your songs. Imagine. This sounds like Grohl trying to do Bowie during his glam rock phase? Best I can do. There’s probably a better comparison. But it was a compliment either way. This has so many good elements going for it.
“Cloudspotter” – This would be very at home in 90s alt rock for the soft, subdued verses and then louder chorus. Kind of the Foo Fighters’ specialty. This is better than pretty much anything they actually released in the 90s though. I have no idea what this is about, but it sounds like it knows what it’s talking about. The rhymes are tight. It absolutely goes off in all of its weird, perfect glory. This could easily still be my favorite 6 months from now.
2020 should have been Justin Bieber’s year. He released so much music, whether it was his own singles, an entire album, or a feature. But he’s not Drake. He can’t just obtain good-faith clout by slapping his name on something mediocre. While he had success commercially on singles with Ariana Grande, Shawn Mendes, and Chance The Rapper, his album Changes was panned. Lead-off single “Yummy” in particular has received a lot of flak from critics and fans alike as being…oh, what’s the technical term? Not good.
I personally don’t think “Yummy” is really that bad. In fact, “Intentions” annoys me more. But neither of them are that bad, as far as pop song fodder goes. Are they good though? Of fucking course not. But this is the top 40; not the damn hall of fame. I give pop music a wide berth when it comes to being mediocre or disappointing. Does it have a good beat? I’ll vibe to it. I guess after Purpose and so many successful collaborations in the more recent years, we’ve given Bieber a high bar.
So did he get back to that high bar with his 2021 single “Anyone”?
He did not.
The thing though is it’s not a bad song at all. In fact, it has a lot of likable things about it. For example, since getting married, Bieber’s songs about love are like 100x more sappy and romantic, which feels completely genuine. This is a wholesome, sweet song, as far as content and lyrics go. I also like the subdued retro touches, like the reverb and double tracks. The “In the Air Tonight” drum transition leads us into a much more “loud and proud” display of the late-80s/early-90s vibe, injecting much needed energy and life into the song.
The problem with this is that it comes across as less Peter Gabriel and more contemporary Christian concert. This last chorus with the most energy lasts for about 30 seconds before it just ends. Why tease us with this at all? And why does it sound exactly like something you’d hear at some Youth Ministries Summer Jam for Jesus thing? The chorus, for all its attempts at being positive and uplifting, feels flat and empty, with only Justin’s soaring vocals to carry us through. They’re not bad vocals, but it’s just like, where is the rest of the song? It’s a weak-ass chorus.
Also, isn’t it weird that he tried to make an R&B album (key word: “tried”), and then made an 80s pop song? I am not saying I don’t like this direction (I do love this trend in current pop music) but most of Bieber’s career has been pretty much the exact opposite of this. Even when he was first starting out on the scene, he’d rather be caught with Ludacris than Phil Collins. Is he an ever-changing chameleon and student of music, like our friend Miley Cyrus, or does he just use black culture and black music like the latest outfit he wears… also like our friend Miley? Either way, it reminds me of another Justin that I know.
This isn’t the song from Justin Bieber that we needed and wanted. But maybe it’s what we deserve after expecting so much more from him. His best songs this past year were with other people: “Monster”, “Holy”, and “Stuck with U”. I don’t know if Team Bieber knows what they’re doing, but he still seems to find success no matter what he does. So, I guess he’s more like Drake than I thought.
My dad forwarded this song to me after these two performed at the Inauguration of Joe Biden. However, this review is about the studio version, since it’s the one I was introduced to and have listened to in preparation for writing this. I tried to listen to a version with Kirk Franklin on it, but we won’t talk about that.
My first thought upon first listen was that Justin knocked this out of the park. His performance is essentially flawless. My second thought upon second listen is that they needed Justin to prop up this song because 1) who is Ant Clemons? And 2) why is his voice autotuned to hell? Is that his style?
This review is about “Better Days” though, so I’m not going to stray too far from that, including listening to the rest of Ant Clemons’ work. Maybe this is his style. Maybe I should listen to his other work. Maybe I’m an asshole for not knowing who he is. Regardless of the reason, Clemons’ stylized voice really sounds out of place on a stripped-down song.
This song was written by Clemons and Timberlake in lockdown, in response to “frustrations and challenges”. That is completely unsurprising because it sounds exactly like a song that was written in response to the pandemic and the political climate of the past 4 years. In fact, my biggest gripe is that it’s a little bit weak lyrically. I feel like it wants my attention. It wants to say something meaningful. It feels a little flat. Like they wrote it purposely to be this contrived pandering during difficult times.
Speaking of contrived pandering, I don’t officially like Justin Timberlake’s “CAN’T STOP THE FEELING”, a title in all-caps for some reason for the Trolls movie he co-starred in. I thought it was obviously trying to be another summer feel-good song that was also attached to a movie. It felt like a cash grab. I could practically hear the songwriters discussing it in a conference room as they tried to write it. “What if we made another song like ‘Happy’?” Yeah, guys, that would be great.
As obvious as that is to me, I still cannot help but sing along to that song and feel even a tiny bit happier when I hear it. Damnit. Their plan worked. Whoever is on the Dreamworks music production team knows how to make hits–or, at least gather together people who do.
Similarly, I find myself wanting to like the gospel elements of “Better Days”, the hopefulness, the smooth croonings of my man, JT, who I am a big fan of. When I first heard this song, I thought it might even become a contender for “Song of 2021”. This year’s anthem.
The song certainly wants to be this year’s anthem. It certainly wants you to like it and see it as this optimistic, reassuring, gospel-tinged R&B jam. I want to see it that way, too.
Unfortunately, it’s just not. It has its moments, but it fails to really reach its full potential. It builds up to nothing and ends abruptly, instead of capitalizing on all the momentum it created.
It’s a perfectly fine, non-intrusive song that has a positive message and some pretty-sounding moments. But it’s just not going to change my life. I’m happy that they released something like this because of its intentions. I’m happy to hear Justin still serenading us with his beautiful voice. Also, the man will be 40 in 2 days. FORTY. He looks too good at 40. I’m kind of mad.
I don’t know why I say “we”. It’s just me. All my multiple personalities don’t really count as different people.
When I originally did a First Impressions on After Hours, I knew it was good. Even great. Some things have changed since then, some have stayed the same. My biggest takeaway is that it’s so much deeper and more nuanced of an album than I could have been expected to realize on a couple of superficial listens.
I was going to make a long intro and talk broadly about the album, but this is all that needs to be said: After Hours is a goddamn masterpiece. I already thought it was great, but after dissecting the lyrics and piecing together the story it tells, I’m ready to praise it as the work of art it is. This album is more than just a technical and musical masterpiece, which you can easily tell it is from one listen; it’s one of brilliant and beautiful storytelling, stitched together so masterfully into a cohesive, but discrete, narrative. I’m even more angry now that The Weeknd was snubbed at the Grammy’s. ZERO nominations for this dude? GTFOH.
One other note: because of the awkward nature of referring to him as “The Weeknd” or, worse, just “Weeknd”, I call him Abel a lot in this post, which is his real name.
Alright, the heart and soul of this review and this segment is track rankings–so let’s get to them!
F Tier – The F Were You Thinking?
D-Tier – D stands for Did You Even Try?
13. Save Your Tears – Yes, this has a cool 80s vibe to it, but so does half the album. This is the only case of a song truly revealing how awful it is over the course of researching and listening for this album review. I originally had it in C-Tier, but I am so fucking sick of it, especially since it’s come out as a single now.
It’s my least favorite song because it’s likely about Abel’s longtime on-again-off-again ex, Bella Hadid, but I don’t know why she would need to “save her tears for another day”, when the WHOLE SONG is about him feeling sad because she’s ignoring him at the club. The chorus alludes to getting back together and that’s why she should save her tears. But he broke her heart, and even admits it in the song. Why should she “love you for a second time”? It’s just a selfish song. I guess I’ve been there myself, but even with that understanding in mind, I can’t really get behind anything about this contrived, ugly song, except the synth bassline.
C-Tier – Songs that “See Tears” Because They Aren’t Better
12. Hardest To Love – While I’ve always thought it was off-putting how this song pairs lyrics about being a terrible boyfriend with a sick beat, that’s kind of just The Weeknd’s thing. The song is more about how he can’t believe she (probably Bella) still wants to be together after all they’ve been through. I can’t believe it either. He’s clearly hurt her a lot, by his own admission, and even he can’t understand why she still trusts him and wants to take him back.
All of that being said, I like “Hardest to Love” quite a bit more than “Save Your Tears”. The production team somehow pulls off mixing 80s keyboard and electronica, borderline dubstep, beats. This is a small detail, but I like the voice distortion they do in the second verse. It could be for narrative reasons, like emphasizing that he’s full of shit, but I like it, even if it was just to break up the monotony. I also like the outro that fades perfectly into “Scared to Live”. I’m a slut for great song-to-song transitions you can only get from listening to the album in order. More on that later.
11. Snowchild – This one has actually grown on me quite a lot. From least favorite to 11 isn’t much of a bump, but it’s still in better standing than it used to be. I do really like the mood, the melody, and the theme. The main problem I had with it upon first listen is the same problem I have now: I just cannot stand the barrage of wordplay and puns: “Walking in the snow before I ever made my wrist freeze/I was blowing smoke, had me dizzy like Gillespie.”
This couplet comes early in the song but is indicative of the whole problem. First of all, try harder. This sounds like a first draft. Second of all, less is more; there are far too many “ayyy, check out this cool reference” double entendre. Third, there is a way to make slick rhymes and turns of phrases on a reflective, nostalgic song, but this ain’t it. You know what song of his did this well? “The Morning”, from his compilation of remastered mixtapes, Trilogy. These are basically cousin songs, born 9 years apart.
This part is my favorite though, both musically and lyrically:
20 mil mansion never lived in it, zero edge pool never dipped in it Super star neighbor in my business, paparazzi trying to catch me slippin’ Goin’ on tour is my vacation Every month, another accusation Only thing I’m phobic of is failing I was never blessed with any patience
It’s also a really nice transition to “Escape from LA” where he wants to escape both memories of his ex and the general LA lifestyle. He ends by repeating that he’s “leaving, leaving into the night”. Both are really nice parts of the song that I wish were more front and center, instead of the goofy wordplay.
B-Tier – Songs That Are Good
10. Scared to Live – The 80s ballad of the album, “Scared to Live” is a solid song with great production (shocker). I can totally see awkward middle schoolers dancing to this at prom in the 80s. The keyboard that plays the main melody reminds me of the intro to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy”, just a little bit. Any connection to Prince is a positive for me. At first, I thought it was just a filler song of sorts, until I delved into the lyrics and the connection to Abel’s ex-girlfriend. The whole story is about him admitting, “I’m the reason you forgot to love”, but “don’t be scared to live again.” It’s kind of an olive branch, wishing her well and hoping she can recover and move on. It’s a glimpse at a more mature, more emotionally stable version of Abel. Don’t get used to it.
9. In Your Eyes – And here I thought Abel left behind his MJ impression. I’m a huge fan of the King of Pop, but we don’t need another “I Feel It Coming”, where he clearly just impersonates Michael Jackson the whole time. Thankfully, “In Your Eyes” has a much more toned down MJ influence. The 80s, however, are very strong with this track–serving up a catchy beat, beautiful synth bassline, and a little bit of sax at the end. It’s a perfectly good song that’s easy to listen to without much scrutiny. Therefore, I won’t give it any.
8. Heartless – Alright, I’m rewriting this entry entirely AND bumping it to B-Tier. This is why:
I lost my heart and my mind I try to always do right I thought I lost you this time You just came back in my life You never gave up on me I’ll never know what you see I don’t do well when alone You hear it clear in my tone
Why would this bump the song up the rankings? These aren’t the best lyrics ever, or anything. No, they’re not. But, they are a mirror to the bridge from “Faith”, the song that comes after “Heartless”. It’s very similar–like intentionally similar–in melody, and delivery to the one on “Faith”. When I recognized this, embarrassingly far into my listening and writing for this album review, I stopped cold. I had already recognized the parallels in both songs talking about “being a better man” and going “back to my ways”. But the bridge similarities gave me chills. I’m a big fan of sister song synergy (see “Cabaret”/”TKO”).
This song has taken awhile to climb into my good graces, starting in C-Tier, at number 11. In fact, since I’ve heard the single, I’ve never really given this song a full chance, I guess. Why? Because I’m heartless.
No, really, though. I’ve always thought this song was trying a little too hard to be something it’s not. The production and beat are practically begging to be a hardass rap song, but Abel is no hardass and certainly no rapper. I’m just not buying it, even though the song tells me how heartless he is, numerous times. Speaking of the title, I always thought “heartless” was a pretty poor word to describe what he’s doing in the song: getting laid, driving expensive cars, doing drugs. Those things do not make you heartless.
There could be many reasons why they’re making this (tenuous) connection. Like, he’ll never be able to love and care for someone because he’s too busy living that crazy, rich bachelor life. I guess “heartless” is a pithier way to get there. It could also be a song about doing all those things in response to your ex wanting to get back together, which would definitely be a heartless thing to do to someone who loves you. And a confusing thing to do, since half the album is him obsessing over her and missing her. Maybe he’s heartless because he doesn’t care who he steps on or who he hurts while he’s partying and living it up? I don’t know. But when you have three different explanations, it’s probably because none of them are good enough on their own.
In spite ofALL of that nonsense, I bumped this song up to number 8 because first of all, have you heard the damn beat? It really does forgive a lot of flaws. Second, once I made that mental leap for WHY he’s heartless (pick a reason; any reason), I started to sort of get behind the narrative a little. Sure, Abel isn’t a hardass rapper, but I don’t for one second think he’s making up any of this. I do believe he’s trying to have the time of his life in Vegas, covering up the pain, pretending he doesn’t care. He’s trying to do all of this and brag about it, when really he’s inflicting more pain on himself. If you don’t believe that, listen to “Faith”, which is basically the comedown of “Heartless”. Hell, listen to the bridge of THIS song.
I’m all about narrative. And the beat. That helped significantly.
A-Tier – Songs That Are Great
7. Alone Again – As the album opener, this track’s job is to set the tone for the whole experience. It’s not going to be your go-to song for anything, with no discernable beat or riff to dance to, but it’s stylistic, full of ethereal sounds, and beautiful synthesizers.
The reason it’s in the Great Tier is because of its incredible production, especially the transition from the drawn-out synth note in the bridge to Abel’s autotuned vocals in the latter half of the track. It’s a dreamy, hazy bit that holds your hand gently, at first but slowly becomes more ominous. The whole mood of the song slowly changes here. Now, you’re in a different song. He repeats a lot of previous lyrics with this heavy auto tune, but they have this new feeling of being more detached and more surreal. It’s not a detail that will jump out at you as being spectacular, at first, but it’s so well-executed. The album is full of stuff like this.
The chorus says: “I don’t know if I can be alone again”. That line right there says a lot. Whether you’ve been in a codependent relationship yourself, been obsessed with someone who broke your heart, or just miss being in a relationship, this line can work on many levels. He says it a lot, too, so it must be important. This song could have had nonsense lyrics and it would still be great, but it still has a plot to it, and I love that.
6. Escape from LA – This is classic Weeknd-fare–pulling back on the synthpop/80s-retro drip, in favor of a more moody and dreamy R&B style. It’s always been high on the list, figurately speaking. There are a lot of things that work really well here: the lyrics, the vulnerability in Abel’s voice, the mood. He makes me feel exactly what he’s going through–dejection, melancholy, missing his ex, memories that now feel sad, hating the LA scene. I also really enjoyed this reference: “Keanu Reeves, the way a n**** speed/Diamond cross hangin’ off of me; I’m fighting for my soul, Constantine”. THAT is how you do wordplay and pop culture references in a reflective song.
Another reason this is so high up is that it has three distinct phases of storytelling and musical composition. I love how verses 1 and 2 are different stylistically, but do their part to move the story along and add a new texture to the song. The bridge completely changes direction, in favor of a vibe-y, dreamy number that leads us into Abel reminiscing about a visit from his ex, while he was in the studio recording. I feel every bit of this song, especially this part in the studio. The Weeknd’s production team and Abel’s vocals know how to sell a song and its story.
S-Tier – Songs That Are Flawless
5. Until I Bleed Out – This is such a good song in theme, lyrics, and execution. I originally had it as high as number 1, but had to drop it because it’s such an intense and heavy song.
There’s no quirkiness in “Hardest to Love” to hide behind. There’s no bitterness or missing her like in “After Hours”. There’s not even the glimpse of acceptance and well-wishes from “Scared to Live”. It’s just pure pain and agony. “I don’t even want to get high anymore,” “I want to cut you out of my dreams.” I feel nothing but pain. There’s nothing I can do. I messed this up. I’m the worst. It’s a lot to deal with emotionally and doesn’t make for the best standalone listen. It’s at it’s best as the album closer–the story ender–with all the other songs before it to give it the most context and significance. It’s a fantastic song in concept and execution.
4. Too Late – There is something about the auto tuned vocals, crisp percussion, and sugary 80s pop vibe that hits that special spot in my brain. It’s almost like cheating. When that part of my brain gets tickled, it overrides all logic and reason. I automatically shot “Too Late” to S-Tier without any contemplation or debate from myself when I started putting the songs into categories. The problem with that is all the other songs on here received scrutiny, critical thinking, analysis. I don’t have anything else good or bad to say about this. It’s a fun track. I love it. I wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t make it “deeper”. I wouldn’t write it any better. I think it’s perfect as is. I don’t have 3 paragraphs to write about it, and that’s okay.
3. After Hours – I’m going to use this opening paragraph to talk about the Interlude right before “After Hours”. “Repeat After Me” is a Bruno Mars-style track that’s pretty clearly about Abel desperately trying to convince a woman into believing she’s still in love with him, even though she’s with someone else. I’m not the only one who interpreted it that way. I didn’t give it an official ranking because it’s hard to judge this song too much on its own merit, as an interlude. I did want to talk about it a tiny bit though because what’s there is good and helps the narrative; it’s just rather incomplete.
Now, let’s talk about “After Hours”, which is both a banger and a heartfelt song about pain and affliction. So, basically, “The Weeknd Special”. This track has risen up the ranks over the course of my writing this article, where it originally starting in A-Tier. There’s a lot going on lyrically, from dealing with his sadness and pain about hurting someone (my money is on Bella, even though this interpretation thinks parts of it are about Selena Gomez), to missing her, to apologizing for his behavior. It sounds bitter and remorseful in the same chorus: “Baby, where are you now when I need you most?” and “Sorry that I broke your heart”. This stream-of-conscious in the lyrics shows the cycle of emotions we go through during painful breakups.
I’d be remiss though if I didn’t talk about the musical composition and structure. It starts out slow and plodding, building up to a beat drop that comes a robust 2 minutes in. Before that moment, we are treated to a lot of expositional foreplay; haunting, echoing vocals; and a lyrical foundation to help paint a vivid scene. The addition of crackling film and clinking glass suggests two things to me: a) analog recording, b) smoking crack. But since my knowledge of both is limited, I’ll just say I like the aesthetic choice, regardless of their meaning. It’s a really well-crafted song from a musical standpoint, as every beat, every reverb, every second feels intentional, yet effortlessly executed. I love the way this song flows together and creates a big, tragic, touching story in one song. It essentially sums up the entire story and themes of the album.
2. Faith – I called this my favorite song on First Impressions because of the way it stood out from the other songs. Now I’m finding even more reasons to love it. I already talked in a previous entry about its synergy with “Heartless” and how this is the aftermath of everything that happened in that song.
Besides all the gripes I have about “Heartless”, there’s another reason that “Faith” is so much higher in the rankings. It’s the exact same concept, but executed miles better. He’s still doing drugs, he’s still numbing the pain, he’s still a “low life”. But I don’t get this false bravado from it. He’s not hiding anything. He’s self-destructive, past the point where he should stop. It’s not fun anymore. It’s not glamorous. It’s just pain. He still can’t stop. He can’t help it.
What always captured my attention about this song was the bridge that begins with this line: “I lost my faith; I’m losing my religion every day”. That’s the same bridge that “Heartless” mimics. The bridge here on “Faith” is a great contrast to the rest of the song’s musical composition. The other part that bumped this so high was the dreamy, ethereal part toward the end where it sounds like he’s singing through a drug-induced haze, lying on the sidewalk, waiting for the police to arrive. All his bad behavior leads to him being in “the back of a flashing car”, facing the consequences of his actions. All his antics are catching up to him.
It’s an absolutely perfect segue into “Blinding Lights”, especially with this lyric: “With the city shining on my face; The lights are blinding me again.” A song that clearly conjures up images of being obsessed with your ex, while you’re on a bender in Las Vegas, straight out of prison (I mean, clearly, right?). The same ex, who you’re so obsessed with that you say this about her on “Faith”: “if I OD, I want you to OD right beside me; I want you to follow right behind me. I want you to hold me while I’m smiling, while I’m dying”. Can I get a “YIKES” in the comments? Holy shit. That’s fucking intense. It’s a great story about a tragically co-dependent and unhealthy relationship paired with brilliant-as-always production.
Blinding Lights – Unclutch your pearls for a second and listen.
I really didn’t want to put this at number 1 because first of all: it’s the song that I’ve listened to the most on its own (it was my number 1 song of 2020 on Spotify), so I feel it’s a biased choice. Second of all: it’s generally considered lame when you’re a fan of an artist to love a hit single of theirs, much less consider it your favorite track from an album! Gasp!
I originally had “Too Late” as number one, but it didn’t feel right, despite that it’s a fun and awesome song. “Until I Bleed Out” was number 1 at one point because of the themes and writing, but it didn’t “feel” like number 1, either. I could have even put “Faith” here and it would have hit a lot of the same points that each of these songs hit. It was my favorite on First Impressions, after all.
But I decided to put “Blinding Lights” as number 1 because the true mark of a favorite song is that you do want to listen to it over and over again, outside of the album. I mean, I just made that up, but I’m going with it because it does feel right in this case. Hit or not, “Blinding Lights” is my favorite. It fits perfectly within the narrative of the album, but it’s also a killer standalone song.
And sure, it’s about codependency and an unhealthy relationship, but boy, is it disguised under an unbelievably catchy beat and infectious riff! Just like how “Can’t Feel My Face” was a song about doing blow, disguised as a fun, danceable song. I really do not care. It’s fun. I need fun. I’ll listen to it a hundred more times this year. It was my feel-good song a lot of the times, and my god, do I love bopping along to it. I don’t have much to say in the way of a technical breakdown, but if I did I’d talk about the perfect riff, the god-tier percussion, the gorgeous mix of vocals seamlessly between the melody. Those things make a good song from an engineering standpoint, but my connection to it is what made it great. Perfect. Favorite.