There’s a lot happening in the music world, and we here at Heavy Blog try our very best to keep up with it! Like the vast majority of heavy music fans, our tastes are incredibly vast, with our 3X3s in each Playlist Update typically covering numerous genres and sometimes a different style in each square. While we have occasionally covered non-metal topics in past blog posts, we decided that a dedicated column was warranted in order to more completely recommend all of the music that we have been listening to. Unmetal Monday is a bi-weekly column which covers noteworthy tracks and albums from outside the metal universe, and we encourage you all to share your favorite non-metal picks from the week in the comments. As is tradition, we’ll be highlighting a few albums and tracks that struck our fancy over the past few weeks. Head past the jump to dial down the distortion:
Joan Shelley – Like the River Loves the Sea
The influence of sad girl singer-songwriter music has seldom been more potent. Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, Jessica Pratt, Tomberlin, Julien Baker, Julia Jacklin, and a host of others have released records in this vein over the past few years, culminating in a veritable onslaught of thematically heavy, emotionally rich guitar records that I hope never diminish in quality or frequency. But in the flood of high profile folk and indie records being released in this style, the name Joan Shelley is seldom mentioned, which is to this music lover a grave injustice. Combining elements of indie folk and country with a singer-songwriter aesthetic, Shelley has consistently released amazing music over the span of her nearly decade-long career. Her fifth solo release Like the River Loves the Sea is but a further testament of her prodigious talent, and one of the better records of its kind to be released this year.
If you have yet to be swept away by the indelible charms of Joan Shelley Like the River is not a bad place to get acquainted. Opener “Haven” is a warmly minimalistic track that feels almost like a nursery rhyme in its gentle cadence, and part of the magic of Shelley’s music is her ability to elevate straightforward arrangements into widescreen ruminations on both life’s simple pleasures and greatest questions. “Teal” builds on the opening tone of the record, eventually expanding into stone-cold stunner “Cycle”, which incorporates orchestral passages into the mix, causing the track to unfurl into an absolutely gorgeous finale that deftly displays Shelley’s further blossoming talents as a songwriter. It’s a record that never ceases to amaze in its understated complexity, both emotionally and compositionally.
If Joan Shelley is a new name for you, I strongly suggest that you use this opportunity to change that. Start to finish, Like the River Loves the Sea is a gem of a record that will most certainly wind up on one list or another for me come the end of the year.
Taylor Swift – Lover
Somehow the last Taylor Swift album avoided being the complete catastrophe everything leading up to it suggested it would likely be. Reputation (2017) might not pass muster when considered as a whole. Nevertheless, it contained enough quality standalone numbers (“…Ready for It?”, “I Did Something Bad”, “Dress”) to balance out the embarrassments (“Gorgeous”, everything from “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” onward). It’s an album I’ve found myself returning to far more often than I expected from my initial listens, and even the misguided pop melodrama of a track like “Look What You Made Me Do” has developed a certain charm in retrospect. Two years later and we’re faced with another jarring re-invention, with Swift abandoning her “good girl gone bad” heel turn in favour of what, on paper, would seem to be a more fitting Flazéda perspective. Rather than a return to form, however, Lover is an unfortunately vapid affair, whose shallow message(s) of resilience are likewise void of any redeeming features.
Maybe it just comes with the territory of being (one of) the most successful and popular performers on the planet but, between Reputation and Lover, it seems that Swift is in the midst of a sever identity crisis—as far as her public persona is concerned anyway. Swift’s transition from 16-year-old country hopeful on her 2006 self-titled debut to the chart-topping power pop of 2014’s 1989 was both a natural and gradual progression. Conversely, the changes in direction across her last two releases have been nothing short of neck-snapping, and neither have felt like a particularly good fit. For as severely manufactured as Swift’s career has been, it’s always been a self-directed production; compared to impressive, yet essentially edential, cookie-cutter competitors like Carly Rae Jepsen, Swift has always possessed and undeniable edge of self-determination. Not so on Lover.
The album’s identity is apparent from its awkward track progression. Lover alternates, almost unwaveringly, between low-fi, country-tinged ballads and upbeat, modern-pop “defiance”. As though a reflection of Swift’s recent rebrandings – such sudden and repeated transitions are incredibly jarring. Lover is not the only album to suffer such shocking incoherence in recent memory. However, in this case, the quality of the material suggests any attempt to rectify the album’s progression would be a futile endeavour. The ballads provide the better material, on average, but only insofar as they are largely inoffensive. As for its pop aspects: Lover mines all the least-inspiring tropes modern pop music has to offer, without bothering to blend them with any of Swift’s inherent appeal – even when she’s shamelessly rehashing her own previous material. “Cruel Summer” is the first of about half-a-dozen tracks on the album that sound like a re-tread of “Getaway Car” and Cornelia Street might have been impressive if it weren’t simply a sub-par version of “Clean”. At 18-tracks, Lover feels incredibly bloated (as is customary when trying to game the streaming system) and not single one of them warrants revisiting.
Ironically, the awkwardly rapped “You Need to Calm Down” might be Lover’s strongest pop-centric productions. The track feels the least removed from Reputation of any of the album’s offerings and is the only time on the record that employs enough self-awareness and tongue-in-cheek(ness) to paper over its intrinsic awkwardness. Swift’s decision to incorporate popular drag performers into the song’s marketing long after comparable pop figures like Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Ke$ha, Miley Cyrus and Little Mix had already broken that ground could be interpreted as a fairly cynical move. However, according to reliable sources, Swift also made a point of paying the performers well for their time (which, unfortunately, is not always standard practice – although I wonder if Alaska ever saw any royalties from Swift for essentially ripping off her “Snake Queen” schtick for Reputation), and the song’s release inspired significant donations to LGBTQI+ defence organisation GLAAD and support for the Equality Act. Swift is an effective ally, if nothing else.
The record’s nadir, however, comes in the form of lead-single “ME!”. The song is a collaboration with awkward-exclamation-inclined Panic! At the Disco singer Brendon Urie and also maybe the worst song I’ve heard since Swift teamed up with ex-One Direction crooner Zayn Malik for the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack (2017). At one point Swift shamelessly attempts to recapture the infectious defiance of “Shake it Off”’s playful pattycake breakdown, by “enthusiastically” reminding her listeners that “Spelling is fun!” For all its welcome positivity, the track’s plethora of platitudes are only skin-deep and the song itself draws further parallels to the drag community for how laughably similar it is in tone to Nina West’s children’s album, which is at least pitched at the right age group. Along with Swift;s musical maturity, the transition from her debut to 1989 saw her growing gracefully with her audience. Now it would seem she’s contracted a severe case for projeria, with Reputation signalling an adolescent regression and Lover all but infantile.
Had Swift done an about-face and released an album full of positivity-driven country ballads in an attempt to “get back in touch with her roots”, it may have been heralded as a bold and daring decision. Lover, however, is not that album and – although Swift’s momentum is more than substantial enough to successfully see her through such storms – it’s questionable how many Reputations and Lovers long-time fans have it in them to weather.