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.

TIME Music

REVIEW: Alvvays Make Sunny Guitar-Pop Gold on Self-Titled Debut

Polyvinyl / Transgressive

The Canadian pop band's sunny debut puts lead singer Molly Rankin in fine company

From laconic, wise-cracking slackers like Stephen Malkmus and Bethany Cosentino to starry-eyed romantics like Stuart Murdoch and Tracyanne Campbell, the history of left-field, literate indie pop is littered with idiosyncratic, effortlessly charming vocalists. Molly Rankin, the woman who leads Canadian five-piece Alvvays, is a descendent of both lines; she’s a madcap schemer and a bleeding heart, equally likely to scamper away after tripping over her own feet and to plead a male pal to reconsider his disdain for the institution of marriage. Her actual genealogy is just as impressive as her musical ancestry: Rankin is a member of the Rankin Family, Canadian folk luminaries who have written and toured across the country for decades. She cut her teeth as part of the family’s band before striking out on her own with a 2010 EP; that solo project gradually picked up friends and nearby musicians and morphed into Alvvays. The band’s eponymous debut full-length is smart, sharp guitar pop, with songs shaped by lyrical playfulness, chiming, melodic leads, and Rankin’s bell-clear, yearning voice.

The band’s songwriting is possessed of both an impressive ear for structure and a remarkable generosity. Songs build in discrete steps to emotional crescendos, then hang there or ascend to an even higher level, rewarding listeners with a new melody or another round of a potent chorus; crisp, clean lines like the ones that mark “Adult Diversion” and “Archie, Marry Me” return for curtain calls, unfurling over top of simple, metronomic rhythms. The high level of execution is a necessity: many bands have written songs like this before, and well, so each new track requires a certain indelibility in order to stand out. The band is also differentiated by lesser peers by the strength of Rankin’s character. She’s immediately familiar and relatable, fully realized in a way that’s quite impressive given this is Alvvays’ debut; she could be the girl sitting across from you in a seminar, speeding with intent down a bike lane, relaxing in a park with a wide-brimmed hat. She spends a lot of time singing about love, and navigates that fraught terrain with an exuberance and palpable anxiety that belies her youth. It’s a perspective that equally suits jangling, up-tempo cuts like “Adult Diversion” and “Atop a Cake” and dreamier, more wistful songs like highlights “Ones Who Love You” and “The Agency Group.” Her voice, pure as spring water and able to easily reach lofty, piercing notes, is best served by the latter pair of tracks; she has a deft hand with heartbreak.

In the moments when listeners are able to tear themselves away from the band’s sticky, simple guitar lines, they’re rewarded with a lyrical wit and intelligence that nicely complements Rankin’s erudite persona. Spend enough time around smart people and you’ll meet characters who clearly derive personal satisfaction from putting together exquisite sentences and dropping ten-dollar words; it’s a precious source of joy, sure, but it’s infectious all the same. The members of Alvvays fit that mold: when Rankin tries to convince a romantic partner to stick around on “Party Police” by telling him that “we can find comfort in debauchery,” it’s easy to imagine the sparkle in her eye and the half-grin plastered on her face. It’s to the band’s credit that their toying with vocabulary and phrasing feels inclusive, rather than smug, and those aforementioned melodies act like gateways into their wordy world. It’s those two strengths, and Rankin’s innate likeability, that separate Alvvays from their peers in a genre that’s always ripe with aspiring stars.

TIME Music

Florrie Drums Up a New Song in “Little White Lies” Video: Watch

The long-bubbling singer's first proper single makes a big impression

British singer/drummer Florence Arnold, who writes and records as Florrie, leapt to a major label earlier this year after three strong self-released EPs. Her brand of pop music is playful, propulsive, and built around rhythm, bearing the influence of her work as a session drummer for the songwriting/production squad Xenomania. New single “Little White Lies” hasn’t appeared on a larger release yet — though a dub remix by Shadow Child was included on her April EP Sirens — but it’s a neat encapsulation of what makes Florrie’s work so compelling.

The song’s rhythm cribs from the cluttered, quick pace of drum ’n bass, but washes of cool synth tones and an assertive vocal from Florrie lend a more traditional pop feel to the proceedings. The quality that really makes “Little White Lies” stick in your craw is the joy it radiates; when the beat charges in to kick off the chorus, it feels like a necessary piece of release, a burst of energy that can’t be denied.

TIME Music

REVIEW: Miranda Lambert Strikes Gold on Platinum

RCA Nashville

The country superstar delivers more sass, twang and brio on her fifth studio album

With her bright, bold voice and easygoing charm, Miranda Lambert has a way of making everything sound simple: trucks can be fixed with spare parts and a little bit of elbow grease, respect can be earned by taking a stand and firing off a spunky retort, relationships can be healed over a few glasses of hard iced tea on a sunlit porch. She makes selling records look easy, too: starting with 2005’s Kerosene, each of the Texas firebrand’s first four studio albums have soared to No. 1 on the country charts, all eventually going platinum. (Her collaboration with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley as country trio the Pistol Annies scored a chart-topping album with their debut, too, although their sophomore set Annie Up just missed the No. 1 spot.)

So platinum is more than a sales designation to Lambert: it’s also the color of her hair (that’s platinum blonde, of course) and the title of her new record, her fifth full-length. Platinum doesn’t reinvent the wheel in any sense, but it doubles down on the qualities that have helped Lambert become one of country’s most reliable stars: broad, plain-spoken feminism, rousing choruses that split the difference between archetypal country and contemporary pop-rock, and frank, funny, fully realized depictions of the protagonist at the heart of these songs.

Lambert flips between two chief modes of operation on Platinum: smart, strong meditations on women’s lives and problems, and wistful, wise reflection. Like an older sister offering practical advice to a younger sibling, she tackles image and body positivity with good humor (on the sassy, bouncing title track, and honky-tonk laugher “Gravity Is a Bitch”) and lyrical nuance (the moody “Bathroom Sink,” the only solo composition on the record). The raucous “Priscilla,” the title a reference to the former Mrs. Elvis Presley, is a playful but revealing nod to Lambert’s relationship with fellow superstar Blake Shelton; graceful, moonlit waltz “Holding on to You” represents the other side of the coin for the pairing, trading lyrical cheek for blue sincerity and a soft, smoky vocal take that’s one of the finest on the album. The sum of these varied takes on contemporary womanhood is a clear, detailed portrayal of Miranda Lambert, country queen: she’s fiercely independent but empathetic, romantic but unwilling to compromise her values, packing heat and heart in equal measure. It’s an array of qualities that many people wish they could see in themselves, and it makes the songs on Platinum click.

Lambert’s other main lyrical realm is relatively new terrain for her; having newly entered her 30s, she’s spending less time charging forward and more time looking back than ever. It’s the device driving Platinum’s still-sharp lead single, “Automatic,” which finds her yearning for a time when everyone was still “doin’ it all by hand,” and it crops up again several times throughout the album. (Of course, it’s funny to hear such a ringing endorsement of tradition couched within a thoroughly post-Taylor Swift piece of country-pop, but the harmonies are strong enough to slide the contradiction through.) “Babies Makin’ Babies” is a gently tut-tutting, maternal look at young couples accidentally falling into parenthood; hearing Lambert’s bright, chuckling twang, it seems unfathomable that under a decade ago, she could’ve been one of the song’s lead characters. Closer “Another Sunday in the South” is packed with the sort of detail and rich imagery that has to come from someone who’s lived hundreds of such days, roasting in wicked heat and singing along to old folk songs. (It’s one of eight songs on Platinum Lambert co-wrote.)

The best display of reflective lyricism on the album is also its finest musical moment: “Smokin’ and Drinkin’” a collaboration with country group Little Big Town, drifts by like wisps of the very smoke mentioned in the song’s title, thanks to an incredible vocal arrangement. Lambert’s voice, and the voices of Little Big Town, twist and overlap like faded memories from a blurry night around a campfire, and it’s this quality that makes the song’s bittersweet reminiscing feel earned; they know they can’t go back, and they know they shouldn’t, but the part of them that’s stuck in the past is almost impossible to deny. The song fades out on rich pedal steel and impeccably toned guitar, slipping away like experience does — a specific, beautifully rendered moment.

Even when Lambert misfires in a musical sense, her charisma and the sentiment behind her compositions somewhat papers over any errant sonic choices. “Little Red Wagon” and “Somethin’ Bad,” a duet with Carrie Underwood, are closely related: one’s a dusty, uptempo ramble with speedy shredding peppered throughout, the other’s a glammy stomp through some roadside dive. Neither are particularly compelling in terms of melody or arrangement, but they’re essential when it comes to fleshing out Lambert’s character and setting the lyrical tone: they’re both confident, unabashedly sexy, and tightly controlled.

With these songs, Lambert reinforces the principles underlying both Platinum and the rest of her career: feminine strength, force of personality, and command of the situation. Further commercial dominance is sure to follow.

TIME Music

REVIEW: Ed Sheeran Multiplies His Appeal on x

Atlantic Records

On his sophomore set, the singer-songwriter uses his softness to his advantage

Though he doesn’t look the part of an international pop star and sex symbol, it isn’t hard to understand shaggy British troubadour Ed Sheeran’s easy appeal. His chosen genre, the one that anchors all of his slight digressions into other realms of popular music, is broadly popular, easily digestible, and resilient: when the world ends, it’ll be left to cockroaches and male singer-songwriters on acoustic guitars. But like many of the young people that buy his singles and albums, he’s a polyglot, raised on folk, R&B, hip-hop and rock in equal measure and comfortable incorporating each of those genres into his compositions.

Sheeran rose to prominence thanks in part to his rap skills — he occasionally breaks out a verse, when not employing his smooth, woolly tenor — and even when he’s sticking to a more traditional pop vocal mode, rap’s influence on his delivery is clear: he crams syllables into lines where they barely fit thanks to his dexterity, and plays with rhythm and pace like it’s second nature. That versatility, and a bit of Sheeran’s everyman charm, helped to make his 2011 debut full-length +, and singles like “The A Team” and “Lego House,” a slow-burning hit on both sides of the Atlantic. His follow-up, the simply titled x (that’s pronounced “multiply,” by the way), out June 23 on Atlantic Records, finds him taking even more concerted steps into genres other than acoustic pop-rock, and working with a host of distinctive producers who help to bend and shape his sound.

The album’s most prominent collaborator is reigning chart king Pharrell Williams, fresh off a relatively successful solo album of his own and still riding a hot streak that began last year with Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” Pharrell co-produced x’s lead single, “Sing,” and one other track on the album (“Runaway”), both of which are obvious descendants of the lusty pop-R&B that launched Justin Timberlake to solo stardom over a decade ago; “Sing,” in particular, is hard to imagine without recalling Timberlake’s “Like I Love You,” itself co-produced by Pharrell as part of the Neptunes. Sheeran does his best with these tracks, and his voice shines as it twists around his own guitar and Pharrell’s beats, but ultimately his sale of the lyrical material at hand falls short. Newly free from the relative tyranny of NSYNC, the young Timberlake couldn’t help but drip sex. Comparatively speaking, Sheeran is tame. The same problem plagues songs like the Rick Rubin and Benny Blanco-produced “Don’t,” a vicious takedown of a cheating lover, and the wine-addled “Bloodstream”: these songs have an edge that Sheeran lacks, and the material falters for it.

Sheeran rounds into form when he uses his softness to his advantage, cocooning himself in layers of warm harmony and setting that slippery, surprisingly agile lyricism against slowly building arrangements. “Photograph,” one of several songs on x written with Snow Patrol member Johnny McDaid, rises from a tender, emotive piano melody and becomes a slowly stomping, lighter-ready stadium ballad; Sheeran helps bring it to life with smart use of detail and powerful imagery, two moves familiar from the work of his friend and tour-mate Taylor Swift. (When he closes the song by mentioning a stolen kiss “under the lamppost, back on 6th Street,” you can almost hear the hearts young and old, beating and melting in a darkened arena.) “I’m a Mess” is another highlight, with Sheeran reaching deep and shredding his voice while soaring over luminous guitar chords. It’s a simple song, mostly reliant on Sheeran’s vocal skills and charisma to get over, but it works: when isolated and not made to press against ostensibly mature lyrical material, he displays a deft touch.

But the album’s greatest moment by a country mile is relegated to its penultimate slot. “Thinking Out Loud” shares a lyrical spirit with One Direction’s “Little Things,” which Sheeran wrote for the boy band’s 2012 record Take Me Home, but with what sounds like a few years’ worth of experience added: it’s an ode to the tiny things that drive love, a celebration of its magic, a fantasy of having grown old with a partner. Musically speaking, it’s pure blue-eyed soul, warm and woodsy in the vein of Van Morrison, unabashedly romantic and built around a vein of richly toned guitar. Sheeran is the core, the starry-eyed dreamer. He sings to within an inch of his life. When the lust, anger, drugs, and drink fade, you hope this kind of love remains. When Sheeran focuses on the latter, his success comes into focus, and it begins to seem wholly justified.

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