Mumford & Sons: Sigh No More
My palm this year goes to the debut album from Mumford & Sons, a folk-rock outfit from the UK. I liked it the first time I heard it, and it has continued to grow on me throughout the year. In Marcus Mumford they have a wonderful singer. What really sets the record apart from the competition, however, is the songwriting. It is rare to hear a rock album in which themes of truth, hope, grace, and purity of heart recur, and that fact alone makes Sigh No More rather surprising and special. There is something about the spiritual vitality of this record that reminds me, ever so gently, of a certain Irish band that still hasn’t found what it’s looking for. In the beginning I turned to Sigh No More simply for good music; now I find I go to it for sobriety and refreshment of spirit. No-one is more surprised than I am. [Listen to samples]
Here they are performing “Roll Away Your Stone”. This song starts rather quietly but gathers steam as it goes.
Bob Dylan: Bootleg Series, Volume 9 –
The Witmark Demos: 1962-64
A long time ago, when the world was still young, a collection of Bob Dylan’s early, unpublished songs was issued on a disc called The Bootleg Series, Volume 1. That disc was bread and butter to me. You can imagine my excitement, therefore, when I learned that Volume 9 in the now encyclopedic Bootleg Series was going to revisit those songs again, and the sessions in which they were recorded, issuing two new discs of previously unreleased material. When you love something, the prospect of having “more of the same” is tantalizing indeed.
As it turned out, I found Volume 9 not quite as revelatory as I had hoped: most of the very best material, it seems, had been judiciously chosen for inclusion on Volume 1, so that what remained for Volume 9 has the character of something like musical flotsam and jetsam. Quite a few of the songs here are actually the same as on Volume 1, though in slightly different, and somewhat inferior, versions. In some cases the songs break off in mid-stream, Dylan remarking that he can’t remember the rest. Some of his famous songs are given here in early versions, in a few cases with piano accompaniment: ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’, ‘Don’t Think Twice’, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin” among them.
I will say this: if you have not heard the Volume 1 recordings, I do believe that this collection will blow your mind. Even in those early days, Dylan’s songwriting was terrific, and that voice was like a force of nature. In these songs we hear him sending exploratory roots down into the bedrock of American song, and from those roots, as we all know, a mighty oak would grow. Even if I judge that these Volume 9 recordings take second place to Volume 1, this is still an altogether remarkable collection, and one of the best things I heard this year. [Listen to samples]
Sufjan Stevens: All Delighted People EP
It seems that the Fifty States Project is dead, and that is a disappointment to me. Sufjan Stevens, after writing two records on Michigan and Illinois, respectively, promised that his life’s work would be to bring each and every state in the union under his musical wing. Such promises must now, I suppose, be attributed to the rashness of youth, for after a five-year hiatus he issued two new records in the closing months of 2010 — the All Delighted People EP in August and The Age of Adz in October — and neither has anything to do with the Fifty States.
Of the two new albums, The Age of Adz is undoubtedly the more ambitious and sweeping. Unfortunately — and I say this with real regret — it is a horrid, beastly thing. He has taken the songs, which for all I know were perfectly good songs, and thrown every kind of cacophonic device into the mix: computer bleeps, static blips, electrical feedback, old-school synthesizers, and, worst of all, drum machines programmed to peck out the herkiest, jerkiest rhythms you ever tried to lay ears on. The result is distressing, and I struggled to listen through to the end.
All Delighted People is another matter, thank goodness. As usual with Stevens the arrangements are elaborate and detailed, but at least here it sounds like music: there are recognizable instruments, and rhythms to which one can tap. There is a celebratory, and even ecstatic, feeling to the record, and he is painting on a larger canvas than before, not only because the songs are long, but conceptually, too, they are moving in a larger space than we have heard from him before. It is hugely ambitious, and he unbuttons a little, which is nice to hear. The guitar freak-out that opens the 17-minute closing song is something we would not have found (and did not find) on his last few records. All in all, it’s a fascinating record that shows that this talented musician still hasn’t reached the end of his tether. The Age of Adz obviously raises the troubling question of what we might expect from him in the future, but I’ll not look a gift-horse in the mouth: All Delighted People is delightful. [Listen to samples]
Taylor Swift: Speak Now
Say what you want about Ms. Swift and the legions of adolescent girls who propelled her, once again, to the top of the chart. The simple truth is that her songs have more hooks than a box of fishing tackle. From the first listen I found Speak Now pretty irresistible.
There is something very likable about Taylor Swift: a girlish charm, an impish sense of humour, a good-natured lack of self-regard, and, without wishing to be overly moralistic, there is something wholesome about her too; she believes in true love, and hers are romances in which marriage and children are the natural telos. It is enough to annoy the heck out of the grey lady feminists, which is great, and it is also something that young girls ought to hear. If it takes an earful of sugar to help that medicine go down, well, I have no objections. It is true that she loses her temper once or twice on this new record (“There is nothing I do better than revenge”), but this is balanced off by moments of moral counsel (“Why ya gotta be so mean?”).
I’m having fun. Well, it’s a fun record. For the first time she wrote all the songs herself, which is itself a noteworthy achievement since every Nashville mother’s son is clamouring to get a song onto one of her records. And, to give Ms. Swift her due, the songwriting on Speak Now is considerably stronger and more consistent than on her previous records. A song like ‘Long Live’, a lively reflection on fame and friendship, would have overreached her ability before; not this time. [Listen to samples]
Honourable mention: Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone [Listen to samples]; Innocence Mission, My Room in the Trees [Listen to samples]