TIME Music

Review: Belle and Sebastian Are as Nice as Ever on Their New Album

belle and sebastian girls in peacetime want to dance
Matador Records

The band’s ninth studio album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, is flavored with political awareness and a sonic adventurousness

Many things have changed since Belle and Sebastian formed in Glasgow nearly two decades (!) ago — the band’s sound, its composition, the size of its fan base and magnitude of its influence — but their music has retained one essential, appealing quality: kindness. In the band’s world of sound, characters are mostly flawed and sometimes flailing, but never handled with malice or pity; they’re celebrated for their imperfections. That kindness is intact on Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, the band’s ninth studio album, albeit flavored with political awareness and a sonic adventurousness that’s unprecedented in their discography.

When Stuart Murdoch cobbled together a band for a Glaswegian music business course in early 1996, the music he had been writing was hushed, insular, and tender, and it remained that way for about a half-decade before Belle and Sebastian’s palette started to expand. On mid-career highlights Dear Catastrophe Waitress and The Life Pursuit, Murdoch and co. added spice to their strong melodies and capable arrangements by folding in the sounds of Northern soul, symphonic ’60s pop, and ’70s glam, a tasteful and deft incorporation of influence. Despite that sonic expansion, the band’s songs remained resolutely focused on their interior world, a cluster of relationships and personal exploration that felt detached from anything resembling a larger picture. Belle and Sebastian dealt in songs about love, songs about faith, and songs about Belle and Sebastian; they were detached from any larger narrative, save trifles about potentially gay baseball players. (Summed up in one song, from 2010’s Write About Love: “I’m Not Living in the Real World.”) That’s changed on Girls in Peacetime…, an album where the songs brush up against political turmoil and international strife even as they’re served with typically wry humor. Songs about clubbing are given choruses like “Jump to the beat of the party line,” sleepy reveries are titled “Today (This Army’s for Peace),” and characters like the titular “Allie” find themselves paralyzed by the tumult of the world around them.

The roots of this expanded world view are complex — perhaps equal parts maturation on the part of the band members and aftershocks from last year’s Scottish independence movement, which the band supported — but whatever the cause, it comes with omnivorous sonics to match. Girls in Peacetime… was produced by Atlanta’s Ben H. Allen, a veteran with credits on albums by Animal Collective, Deerhunter, and Bombay Bicycle Club; he has a good hand with bright, rich arrangements. The new direction that’s received the most attention is the band’s turn towards the erudite, silky European dance-pop of the ’80s and early ’90s, as heard on lead single “The Party Line,” disco odyssey “Enter Sylvia Plath,” and the Balearic-flavored “Play for Today.” It’s not a bad look, even if it’s reminiscent of superior work three decades earlier by groups like Pet Shop Boys. But there are other surprising turns on Girls in Peacetime…, from the gaseous dream-pop of Sarah Martin’s “The Power of Three” to the jaunty, percolating middle-aged funk of Stevie Jackson’s strong “Perfect Couples.” It’s an album on which no two songs in sequence draw from the same well, and that makes for a varied and mostly engaging listen. Unfortunately, the experience is somewhat hamstrung by a tendency to sprawl more than necessary; the album clocks in at over an hour in length, and over half of its songs stretch over five-plus minutes. It’s a surprising problem, given that the band can typically tout economy as a strength, with a discography full of albums that are punchy and efficient.

Even with all of the new ground being tread, the album’s one true highlight happens to be the song that hews closest to the simple, warm pop gems that earned Belle and Sebastian a following in the first place. Opener “Nobody’s Empire” contains some of Murdoch’s most personal writing to date, a document of his battle with chronic fatigue syndrome — and subsequent recent relapse — that in turn became part of Belle and Sebastian’s creation myth. (Murdoch wrote much of the band’s early material while grappling with his condition in the early ’90s.) It’s touching and luminous, and serves as evidence of their depth of skill when it comes to pop songwriting; when you’ve been doing something well for twenty years, you develop a knack for pace and scale that emerges organically. The other tracks on Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance don’t always share that natural ease and comfortable size, but their musical diversity and geniality render them worthwhile for listeners amenable to Belle and Sebastian’s particular brand of craftsmanship.

TIME Music

Review: Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special Is at the Mercy of His Collaborators

Mark Ronson, 'Uptown Special'
Allido Records

The British super-producer has style to spare on his latest LP — even if most of it comes courtesy of his high-profile friends

Blessed with the facial structure of a moderately successful model and a Rolodex befitting someone raised among British musical professionals and the cultural elite, Mark Ronson was one of the first musicians to become a solo commercial commodity off the strength of his work as a producer. His taste forged in the crucible of the New York City club scene, Ronson vaulted to fame in the UK after producing much of Amy Winehouse’s landmark second album, 2006’s Back to Black. His own second album, the upscale covers record Version, debuted at #2 on the British album charts one year later, with assists from Winehouse, Lily Allen, and other big names. In the years since that ascent, he’s worked with just about everyone, from Bruno Mars to Adele to Lil Wayne to Paul McCartney. Now, he’s releasing his fourth album Uptown Special in a musical climate that’s a little more amenable to producers stepping out from behind the boards.

Perhaps the best evidence of that climate is the performance of the album’s lead single, the Bruno Mars feature “Uptown Funk”; it surged to the top of the American charts, Ronson’s first single to impact Stateside listeners in any significant way. The song is a great example of what Ronson does so well: he takes familiar, comforting sounds and genres — in this instance, the jumpy and crackling Minneapolis funk of the early ‘80s — and revives them, working with ruthless precision and genuine reverence for the source material. It takes serious craft to keep recreation on the right side of pastiche, and it oozes from “Uptown Funk”: the electric purple texture of the synths, the loose slap of the rhythms, Mars cracking wise like he just spent a weekend watching Morris Day live bootlegs.That craft is evident throughout the remainder of Uptown Special, too, whether Ronson is writing nebulous Steely Dan-esque jazz-funk rips with fellow superproducer Jeff Bhasker or summoning the impressionistic quality of Stevie Wonder’s ‘70s run with the help of the legend himself. In yet another show of Ronson’s eclectic contacts list, venerated author Michael Chabon contributed lyrics throughout the record, and his work infuses Ronson’s compositions with a sort of sordid California ennui.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPf0YbXqDm0

“Uptown Funk” wouldn’t exist without Ronson, but it’s a hit thanks to Mars, the pint-sized dynamo and world-class frontman; in conversations with casual music listeners, I found many of them had no idea the song wasn’t entirely his. And when a partnership doesn’t quite click — like Ronson’s work with Tame Impala vocalist Kevin Parker, a little too sleepy for this setting — there’s nothing he can do to keep the ship from sinking. It’s a problem that leaves Uptown Special in an uncertain place.

There’s no denying that every inch and detail of the album rings with real skill and intelligence, and yet the success of Ronson’s work is still ultimately at the mercy of his collaborators. His work is immaculate, but reliant on hired help for real vitality. When your signature is polish, it can’t really stand on its own.

TIME Music

Madonna’s Next Album Is Shaping Up to Be Her Best in a Decade

The singer's surprise release of several new songs reveals that the Queen of Pop hasn't lost her edge

When a handful of Madonna demos leaked last week — an event she called “artistic rape” and a “form of terrorism” — she decided to fight fire with fire by releasing the official versions of six songs cut from her upcoming thirteenth studio album, Rebel Heart. The bundle of new tracks represent her first collection of new material since 2012’s MDNA, a lukewarm flirtation with contemporary club music. Thing is, though, there’s a joy to every new Madonna release that’s just separated from determining the quality of the actual music: at this point in her career she’s pop’s cockroach, resilient and hardy and shockingly adaptable. With each new record, there are lessons about the genre’s present and near future in the specific sounds and figures she chooses to help realize her vision.

Based on this first batch of Rebel Heart material, Madonna is looking to strike a balance. First, there’s are the figures at the centre of EDM and synth-pop, her chosen modes of operation — meaning writers and producers like Diplo, Avicii, and Savan Kotecha. Then, she ropes in artists working at the vanguard across a variety of genres, from superstars like Kanye West to relative nobodies like producers Ariel Rechtshaid and Sophie. This is a savvy move — what a surprise, a smart play from one of the canniest pop stars to ever roam an arena — because it allows her to play to the masses while still pushing boundaries.

The songs that lead off this first Rebel Heart blast, lead single “Living for Love” and “Devil Pray,” could fit in neatly on the radio beside this year’s British house-pop crossovers and Avicii’s own “Hey Brother.” The ones that close it, namely the abrasive half-rapped Kanye collaboration “Illuminati” and caffeine-drunk trap anthem/Nicki Minaj feature “Bitch I’m Madonna,” hew closer to the spirit of PC Music’s obscure SoundCloud accounts and the sharp edges of Yeezus.

And because Madonna exists in rarefied air, the kind reserved for luminaries like herself and Prince and very few others, each of her new releases is less of an independent statement than a response to everything she’s done before, another chapter tacked onto an epic novel with no definite end. The tones, themes, and imagery that make up her musical toolbox — the frank sensuality, the various methods of intoxication, the lapsed Catholicism, the uncompromising confidence — are gospel at this point, and they elevate some of the more forgettable Rebel Heart material to a base level of pleasure. It’s fun to hear Madonna deliver a line like, “It might sound like I’m an unapologetic bitch / but sometimes you know I gotta call I like it is” (and try on 2 Chainz’ flow, just for kicks) because she has three’ decades worth of unapologetic bitchiness in her back pocket. It’s an easy score, sure, but it’s effective. And if the complete version of Rebel Heart, due March 10th via Interscope, can deliver a few more of those easy scores alongside a bit more adventurous songwriting, the album could be Madonna’s finest in almost a decade.

TIME Music

Review: David Guetta Falls Behind His Contemporaries on Listen

Atlantic Records

The super-producer who helped make EDM part and parcel with mainstream pop doesn't sound so fresh on his latest LP

Though he’s frequently lumped in with wunderkinds like Avicii and Skrillex as part of this decade’s EDM wave, David Guetta is actually a member of a completely different generation of electronic sculptors, one with roots in the clubs and scenes of the ‘80s and ‘90s that reigned when some of his contemporaries were still in diapers. Long before he mastered the art of the EDM-pop crossover, Guetta was just another capable DJ operating on the periphery of the French dance scene. He was a tangential figure present during the rise of French touch, a strain of dance music made distinct by the use of filtered and warped funk and disco samples that bloomed at the end of the ‘90s in France; Guetta failed to reach the heights of contemporaries like Daft Punk and Air at the time, but his 2001 single “Just a Little More Love” was enough to spark a full-length of the same name and a burgeoning European stardom.

As the decade progressed, Guetta racked up hit singles across the continent, but failed to achieve any sort of international success — the U.S. included. That changed with the release of 2009’s One Love, a star-studded affair that cracked American charts in a major way with help from collaborators like Akon, Kelly Rowland, and Rihanna. By this point, Guetta had largely abandoned the subtlety and playfulness of French touch for giant synth hooks, a focus on vocal takes, and the influence of modern hip-hop and R&B — but after a look at the chart figures for a single like “Sexy Bitch,” can you blame him? The set of singles that One Love spawned, and production work on The Black Eyed Peas’ titanic hit “I Gotta Feeling,” were some of the first volleys in what would become contemporary electronic music’s assault on listeners around the world.

Meanwhile, Guetta continued to explode: 2011’s Nothing But the Beat solidified his position as one of the world’s preeminent producers, with three top 10 U.S. singles and features from Usher, Sia, and Nicki Minaj. Beyond sheer numerical force, Guetta’s work on Nothing But the Beat penetrated the public consciousness in a way few producers had done to that point, paving the way for a new reality where they become stars in their own right rather than studio forces; every time “Titanium” played over gym loudspeakers or at a high school dance, it affected a tiny change in the pop landscape. Guetta is releasing his sixth studio album, Listen, out Nov. 24 on Atlantic/Parlophone, into that new landscape.

According to Guetta, Listen is his most personal record to date, though you’d be hard pressed to tell unless you did a little research beforehand. He wrote much of the album in the wake of a divorce from his longtime spouse, but it only bears fruit on the album in subtle ways: chords that are unexpectedly melancholy, lyrics that are a little more somber than his usual hedonistic celebrations. These are necessarily subtle changes because Guetta’s music is explicitly designed to achieve ecstatic, cathartic climaxes, the kind that’ll help listeners forget their own problems, and those moments remain the focus of Listen. A more palpable shift the record makes is one towards basic melodies on piano and guitar, and songs with a classicist streak built from the ground up on those melodies. The Emeli Sandé feature “What I Did for Love” opens with a garish piano line where it might have charged in on a beat in years past, taking its time to grow to its full size.

Listen’s main problem lies with its vocals, which are varied and largely anonymous despite another cast of international stars. Though Guetta takes a few sonic risks throughout the album — there are songs flecked with strings and country guitar, there are ballads and reggae tracks, there’s a lot of paint thrown against the wall — the performances that anchor these songs are sadly conservative, boilerplate house fare from an array of vocalists lacking any real character. Even stars who possess a semblance of distinct tone and texture, like John Legend — typically rich and soulful — are robbed of those qualities by overprocessing. The only vocalist who manages to stand up to the force of Guetta’s production is Sia, back for another few rounds after “Titanium,” who carries “Bang My Head” and the melancholy closer “The Whisperer.” And although Guetta can still craft a stadium-sized synth hook with relative ease, something about Listen — its structure, its lyrical content, its tones and decisions — feels a little outdated, like it would’ve sounded more at home a half-decade ago than now. That’s the trouble with a genre as vital and volatile as contemporary EDM: artists who reigned over their peers one year can find themselves struggling to keep up by the time they’re ready to release their next record. And while Guetta was instrumental in conditioning popular music for the rise of DJs and producers with his last two records, Listen finds him falling a half-step behind today’s dominant forces.

TIME Music

Review: Mary J. Blige Turns Dance Diva on The London Sessions

Capitol

On her new album, the R&B queen teams up with top UK talent with thrilling results

Artists who prove themselves adaptable or resilient become particularly beloved because they represent a suspension of mortality, creative or otherwise. People hope and wait for signs of life — for a few more transcendent Aretha performances on a covers record, for a surprise release from David Bowie, for sparks at a secret Prince show — and look to their heroes for the vitality they want to sustain in their own lives. So when Mary J. Blige — the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, and an institution for over two decades — made some surprising creative decisions at the start of this year, you could feel ears around the world pricking up.

It’s not as if Blige has slowed or disappeared in recent years; from 1997 to 2011, she released a new collection of original material every two years like clockwork, and has put together a Christmas album and a soundtrack album (for Think Like a Man Too) in the last year or so alone. But her recent projects have seemed explicitly designed to appeal to her base — namely adult black women, the kind who have followed her through personal turmoil and tremendous success since the halcyon days of What’s the 411? and My Life. The Think Like a Man Too soundtrack was her worst performing release ever by nearly an order of magnitude, and her most recent original full-length, 2011’s My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act 1) failed to spin off any sort of lingering hit, despite the best efforts of collaborators like Drake and Rick Ross. Mary was still doing Mary — weaving wrenching tales and delivering honest truths about love and loss, joy and pain, struggle and survival, all framed by classic soul — but it was a less and less valid mainstream proposition.

It seems overblown to say that everything changed in January of this year, but everything changed: when Blige joined UK dance-pop sensation Disclosure live in New York City to perform their song “F for You,” and subsequently released a studio version of that collaboration, it revealed an alternative path forward for her. Why fight to rejoin the mainstream when you can skip it entirely and become part of the vanguard once again? She came alive on “F for You,” recast as a spark plug superdiva taking a flame to Disclosure’s glossy, skittering garage (the British dance subgenre, not the structure). When she popped up again a few months later to perform “Stay With Me” with nascent pop-soul star Sam Smith at the Apollo Theatre, an exciting but isolated partnership began to look more like the start of a trend. And then, in September, an announcement: Blige’s next studio album would be The London Sessions, a collection made with the help of the UK’s finest young hitmakers and veteran American producer Rodney Jerkins, a.k.a. Darkchild.

It’s hard to overstate just how savvy, and inspired, this decision was for Blige. British pop exports have ruled the charts this year, from Disclosure’s slow burning single “Latch” and Smith’s handful of huge hits to mid-tier efforts from artists like Naughty Boy and Clean Bandit; by aligning herself with these artists, she’s sipping from a pop fountain of youth and subverting everyone’s expectations of what a Mary J. Blige record can sound like in 2014. Beyond that, the artists she’s chosen to work with revere her — something she makes clear throughout The London Sessions by including spoken clips of testaments to her relatability, her talent, her legacy — and know how to best frame her voice, whether in familiar or surprising new contexts. The result is a record that somehow straddles the line between a comforting, casual experience and a foray into uncharted, dynamic terrain.

There are tracks on The London Sessions, like “Doubt” and “Not Loving You,” that aren’t much of a departure from the music Blige has been making for two decades: confessional, sung with power and depth, and built to cultivate a connection with the listener. They are, perhaps, a little more spare, and inclined towards a clean, cool sound rather than oppressive warmth. In their finest moments, like on standout “Whole Damn Year,” they bear the weight of experience with grace and wisdom. Blige understands the time it’s going to take to heal properly because she’s had to do it before, and where a younger singer would wilt at the idea of a year out of the game she accepts it, serene.

And yet the album’s most exciting and lingering tracks are the ones where Blige cedes control and morphs into one of the world’s most skilled dance vocalists, putting her agility and power to work within the tighter confines of a sturdy pulse and a web of synths and samples. Disclosure collaborations “Right Now” and “Follow” are sleek and stunning, busy yet still soulful; on “My Loving,” she inhabits a ‘90s house track that could’ve ruled the radio alongside her own singles two decades ago. These would be fine songs even if performed by someone with half of Blige’s chops, but the pleasure and surprise that springs from hearing her subvert expectations and try something new elevates them to another level entirely. And while it’s tough to predict Blige’s next step given this hairpin turn, The London Sessions is proof positive that she’s still a creative force with great instincts.

TIME Music

Review: One Direction Hit Their Stride on Four

Columbia Records

On Four, One Direction's members are more involved in the composition of their material than ever before

In recent years, the release of a new One Direction record has become a November tradition on par with Black Friday sales and the first chilly blasts of winter. After being cobbled together by impresario Simon Cowell as part of the British version of The X Factor, the quintet — composed of Liam Payne, Niall Horan, Louis Tomlinson, Harry Styles, and Zayn Malik, if you need a refresher — has released an album every year like clockwork: no earlier than November 9th, no later than November 25th. All of them top the Billboard charts in their first week available. The music contained within each record has remained consistent, too: the band specializes in affable, buoyant pop-rock, drunk on youth and young manhood and sung largely in unison despite the small army of capable vocalists on hand.

At first glance, last year’s Midnight Memories was similar to the band’s first efforts — a perky lead single, a few folky stompers for balance, lyrical emphasis on love and lust and living in the moment — but a closer look at the album’s credits revealed a shift in their songwriting process. Working with veteran songwriters/producers Julian Bunetta and John Ryan, the band’s members — Tomlinson and Payne, in particular — began to play more of an active role in shaping their sound, with songwriting credits on all but two of the album’s fourteen main tracks. The result was a record that leaned toward arena-filling classic rock and power pop via chunky, bold riffs, spacious percussion, and booming chants; when it clicked, like on the spunky “Diana” and the Big Star-aping “Little Black Dress,” it revealed a valid alternative vision of chart pop that eschewed the dominant contemporary influences of dance and hip-hop, a vision almost unique to One Direction.

The band’s new record, simply titled Four, continues that evolution: its members are more involved in the composition of their material than ever, and the album as a whole takes another step towards the stadium-sized rock first suggested by Midnight Memories. There’s something endearing to the revelation that left to their own devices, One Direction’s members just want to make heart-on-sleeve, slightly cheesy ’80s arena anthems in the vein of Journey, Bryan Adams, and Bruce Springsteen circa Born in the U.S.A.; it does more to contribute to their obvious cultivation of a cool “we’re just regular lads!” identity than a year’s worth of goofy interview clips and candid documentary footage. Their take on the sound is immaculate: arrangements are grand and spacious, with guitar lines glistening and rhythms cavernous and blooming, and the band’s increasingly distinct vocals — allowed to sparkle via the use of harmony more than ever — at the forefront. Songs like lead single “Steal My Girl” and the dramatic “Fool’s Gold” have an expert sense of pace and scale, building from relatively quiet openings to giant, gorgeous climaxes, and even less ambitious songs like “Fireproof” and “18” feel designed to reach the back corners of the biggest venues on the planet.

The material is helped along by the fact that the band’s members are becoming more compelling, and recognizable, singers. Early One Direction records and lead singles often sound like they’re being performed by a cute gang of urchins, talented but lacking formal training: a pleasant overall sound, but thin and homogeneous. On Four, it’s easier than ever to pick out the voices of each member, from Tomlinson’s sweet, feminine tenor to Malik’s muskier, more sensual tone and Styles’ raspy swagger. Small steps from tone to tone within each song lend them a dynamism and varied palette that earlier compositions lacked, and when they come together to form a tricky, shifting tapestry on the golden, folky “Fireproof,” it’s the album’s best moment.

Four also sustains the subplot that becomes increasingly prominent with each new One Direction record: the boys’ maturation into men, and the constraints placed on that maturation by the demographic facts of their commercial proposition. Each member is now in their early 20s — old enough to try their hands at “18,” an Ed Sheeran-penned weeper about loving like you did at that age, without it becoming too laughable — and there are moments on the record where their sexuality, while remaining thinly veiled, is palpable. Take “Girl Almighty,” a high-energy gallop framed as a toast to the female form that’s largely an excuse for the band’s members to yelp, “I’d get down on my knees for you!” Most songs are less explicit with their innuendo, of course, but tracks like “Fool’s Gold,” “No Control,” and the spunky Styles-penned “Stockholm Syndrome” are ripe with lust and physical expressions of affection. It’s fun to find the spots on each new record where the band’s burgeoning adulthood pokes through their polished veneer, but it’s even more exciting to think about what’ll happen when their identity takes a step forward to match the progress they’ve made musically.

TIME Music

Review: Prince Is Revitalized on Art Official Age and PlectrumElectrum

Prince Cover Art
Cover art for Art Official Age and PlectrumElectrum Warner Bros. Records

On a pair of new albums, the Purple One is more relevant than he has been in decades

In the two decades since Prince’s long-tailed imperial phase finally wrapped — and yes, it’s been that long since his last top 10 hit, 1994’s “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” — his vigor has waxed and waned in a cyclical fashion. After the mid-90s minor triumphs of The Gold Experience and the sprawling Emancipation, he wandered aimlessly for a decade, only to recapture the world’s attentions with a pair of strong releases in 2004’s Musicology and 2006’s 3121; after that, it was back into a creative depression of his own making, with more energy devoted to scrubbing YouTube of his music than to writing quality songs.

Now, again, a renaissance: ever since the Purple One started using Twitter via the account of his current all-female backing trio, 3rdEyeGirl, last August, he’s been writing, performing, and operating as a public figure with renewed vitality. A riff on Dave Chappelle’s infamous impression in the cover art for single “Breakfast Can Wait,” a stellar guest spot on Janelle Monaé’s The Electric Lady, a hilarious appearance on New Girl, even a song inspired by the #ThisCouldBeUsButYouPlayin Twitter meme; all are evidence of a kind of re-entrance into the larger cultural conversation Prince hasn’t managed in a decade. The final piece is new music, and he’s finally delivered with two new full-lengths dropping in tandem: there’s Art Official Age, a solo record, and PlectrumElectrum, released as Prince & 3rdEyeGirl. In keeping with his larger resurgence, some of the best music Prince has recorded in years is spread across the two records. Even the failures contained within are interesting, which is more than one can say about Planet Earth or 20Ten.

Art Official Age is the superior of Prince’s two new discs, a collection built around a very loosely applied narrative — Prince has been placed into suspended animation and woken up 45 years in the future, in a world rid of misogyny or vanity — and a couple basic aesthetic attributes. It’s light, crisp, expertly sung, and consistently fun; it finds Prince engaging in a dialogue with contemporary pop music he hasn’t managed in a long time, never mind the decade-plus he spent representing the vanguard of said music. “Art Official Cage” nods to EDM with accelerating synth pulses and, hilariously, a little drop; “U Know” is lush, sneering hip-hop, stark and shot through with breathy moans. Elsewhere he churns out epic electro-pop ballads and breezy, brisk funk like “This Could Be Us” and “The Gold Standard,” the kind of songs he’s been making for over three decades, his voice still dexterous and feathery. And nestled within the album’s core, a song that manages to hang with the best of his recorded output in “Breakfast Can Wait,” a low-key expression of domestic bliss that’s warm, friendly, and effortlessly sensual. It’s as approachable as Prince has ever seemed.

Art Official Age also finds Prince incorporating his spirituality into his composition with a deftness and openness often missing from his other records. Many songs on the album, from “U Know” to “What It Feels Like” and “Way Back Home,” are explicitly religious — and indeed, the story anchoring the album is really just another version of apotheosis — but they aren’t oppressive or heavy-handed. Instead, they posit spirituality as just another source of pleasure and fulfillment, the way sexuality once dominated that aspect of Prince’s music, and illuminate the similarities between the two. It’s a restrained, mature expression of a major part of his life.

PlectrumElectrum, on the other hand, is sonically and thematically consistent, brash, and swaggering where Art Official Age is eclectic and laid back. The genre of the day is hard, bluesy rock, a good choice when it comes to showcasing 3rdEyeGirl’s technical skills; the instrumental title track is a solid example of the form, stuffed with chunky, bold riffs and expertly played rhythms. But while there’s evidence of proficiency to spare throughout PlectrumElectrum, the album is less compelling than Art Official Age, save slower-paced outliers like “Stopthistrain” and “Tictactoe.” Prince is a tough act to match when it comes to vocal agility and charisma, even in his mid-50s, and indeed the album’s best songs feature him playing an able duet partner and lending a touch of sensuality to the proceedings. Otherwise, songs like opener “Wow” and single “Pretzelbodylogic” are surprisingly anemic given the heavy crunch of their guitar lines and arrangements.

Even though PlectrumElectrum is a less worthwhile effort than Art Official Age, it still stands tall over most of Prince’s other late period output; on its own, it would mark a restoration of energy and liveliness to his discography for the first time in a decade. Coupled with another, better disc, it’s a startling return to relative form from an artist who has seemed wholly unconcerned with quality control — or even quality — for much of the last decade.

TIME Music

Review: Chris Brown Chases Hits, But Mostly Misses, on X

RCA Records

There are a few standouts on the troubled R&B star's latest LP, but taken as a whole, X is cynical, trend-chasing and largely impersonal

Pockmarked by stints in rehab and jail, mandated court appearances, and a shooting at his pre-VMA party this summer, 2014 has ended up another tumultuous year in a string of many for Chris Brown. The intense, continuous coverage of Brown’s legal drama, personal problems, and relationships casts a shadow on the fact that he remains one of pop and R&B’s most reliable hitmakers, more than a half-decade after his assault of then-girlfriend Rihanna threw his white-hot career into jeopardy. In the first half of this decade, he’s released four top 10 singles and two #1 albums, with features on dozens of other minor hits. Even as he spent much of this year bouncing between treatment and custody, his single “Loyal” lingered in the top 10 of both the pop and R&B charts; it achieved a level of cultural penetration (as measured by tweets and spin-off memes) matched by few songs released this year. Brown has been preparing his new album, the simply titled X, for nearly eighteen months, though it’s been plagued a series of delays and singles that failed to make a lasting impression on the charts. The final product is a widely varied mishmash of genres, producers, and collaborators that fails to achieve any sort of tonal or thematic consistency. It begs the question: other than a vehicle for record sales and controversy clicks, who is Chris Brown as an artist?

The best place to start a review of Brown’s strengths and weaknesses is his voice, a finicky instrument that lies at the core of his appeal. It’s thin, nimble, and agile, and possessed of surprising range; in many ways, it’s the musical manifestation of Brown’s skill as a dancer, his other major talent. Though he’s undoubtedly skilled, he doesn’t have the emotional depth or richness of tone required to successfully convey affection or generate a palpable mood; rather than drum up true feeling, he tends to sing about sex like it’s an athletic event, and about relationships as if they’re purely transactional in nature. (This was true even before he wrote and released a song called “Add Me In” that happens to couch a marathon bedroom session in hacky math metaphors galore.)

The qualities Brown lacks are thrown into harsh light when he’s placed alongside other male singers on some of the collaborations on X: Usher, Trey Songz, and R. Kelly all appear in the album’s first half and glide effortlessly alongside Brown, fluttering around him or summoning a sort of slippery salaciousness that makes him sound childlike by comparison. He sounds best on the songs where he can excitedly flit around, dipping in between zippy electro-funk riffs or sweaty synthesizer lines; “Add Me In,” dopey R. Kelly homage “Songs on 12 Play,” and the strobe-lit “Body Shots” all shine. The agility in his vice also pairs well with the strain of minimal electro-R&B currently in vogue, openly lecherous and hanging on two or three note melodies; the aforementioned “Loyal,” a stunner thanks to the writing of sordid rising star Ty Dolla $ign, and DJ Mustard knock-off/Akon feature “Came to Do” are both solid examples of the form.

You’d think at this point in his career — X is his sixth studio album, and he’s been a major star for nearly a decade — that Brown would have a decent handle on his comfort zones and weaknesses, that he would show even a passing interest in achieving some sort of cohesiveness or in doubling down on his strengths. This album is an hour’s worth of evidence that no such interest exists. It’s hard to get a handle on X because so much of the album is spent trend-chasing: there’s big tent EDM-pop with super-producers like Diplo and Danja, straightforwardly filthy R&B slow jams, moody relationship ballads, and even a folky crossover bid that sounds like a Phillip Phillips castoff, all contained within the album’s sprawl. And speaking of sprawl, the album isn’t helped by its length, either: stretching over an hour in length (and longer still in its deluxe form, stuffed with the singles that failed to launch the record in the first place), it’s tough to digest in one large sitting, and is rendered repetitive by recycled lyrical motifs and anemic production. The overall impression is that of an artist whose guiding light is commercial performance, rather than any sort of creative aspirations or overarching identity.

That’s perfectly fine, of course. It would be naive and wrongheaded to suggest that artistic achievement is the only appropriate motivation for musicians, or the driving force behind the music industry — but there’s a transparency and a spinelessness to X that makes it hard to connect with Brown as a creative human force, rather than a melody delivery mechanism. And that’s unfortunate, because given his long and well-documented history of personal strife — abuse, homophobia, cool defensiveness — that kind of basic human connection is the kind of thing Brown could probably stand to cultivate.

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