Dave Stewart doffs his cap to the greats, Lykke Li is done with heartbreak – the week’s best albums
Dave Stewart, Ebony McQueen ★★★☆☆
Dave Stewart doesn’t do things by halves. The Eurythmics co-founder’s new album, Ebony McQueen, stands at a whopping 26-tracks and is the soundtrack to a film and stage musical project of the same name. The 90-minute album is available as a triple vinyl box set that comes with two additional EPs, two cassettes and a photo and lyrics book. Minimalist it ain’t.
A concept album on steroids, Ebony McQueen is a semi-autobiographical musical fable about a young man growing up, discovering music and finding true love with the girl next door. The music incorporates “every influence under the sun”, Stewart says, from The Beatles to Rogers & Hammerstein. There’s a fantasy element to the story too: the eponymous Ebony is a fictional voodoo blues queen, who Stewart says is a “living embodiment” of the blues music that inspired his career. Stewart sings all the songs but in the filmed version – which goes into production later this year – different actors (yet to be announced) will portray the different characters in the songs.
But is the music any good? Yes, although it can wear its influences extremely heavily. Some songs sound like parodies of the music they’re trying to honour. The Beatles, and particularly Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, are Ebony McQueen’s touchstone. The album’s intro, Quaalude Prelude, features an orchestra tuning up like in A Day in the Life. The sitar-heavy Walking on Blue owes much to Within You Without You. Meanwhile the strings and kitchen sink lyrics on title track Ebony McQueen bring to mind the alliteratively-similar Eleanor Rigby, which might, after all, be the point. There are strong Kinks flavours, and the song Unhappy Town is so much like Space Oddity-era Bowie that it’s impossible to tell if Stewart is knowingly doing an impression of the Thin White Duke or merely paying tribute to him rather too eagerly.
The songs work best when they’re looser and less obviously influenced by other people. There’s Got To Be A Devil is a raggedy bluesy funk, Daddy’s Got The Blues is a breezy acoustic ballad (although it still manages to tell us that “she’s leaving home”), and One Morning is an uplifting rocker. Jackie Where You Been is a song in two parts – and it’s great. All this said, the Bowie-meets-Beatles mash-up Sunshine is a fantastic song.
Ebony McQueen is a lushly produced opus. It sounds big and lavish. But it’s unquestionably too long. And although one of its raisons d’être is to pay homage to some of Stewart’s favourite artists, I wish he’d have had a slightly lighter touch in doffing his cap. James Hall
Lykke Li, EYEYE ★★★★☆
In a recent interview about her 2011 hit I Follow Rivers – a chart smash that became a dancefloor staple for the decade – Swedish artist Lykke Li acknowledged a career-long obsession with “those deep places that make you feel so much, where everything is heightened and cinematic”. A particularly sultry form of heartbreak sweeps across her work, from her indie-pop beginnings to 2018’s immaculate So Sad So Sexy with its flashy inventory of collaborators. Even the upbeat songs come tinged with woe.
On Li’s fifth album, Eyeye (pronounced “eye”), that cinematic emotion finds its full expression. Billed as “a breakup with the breakup album”, the record basks one last time in the cyclical nature of heartbreak, from its palindromic title and runtime to the accompanying videos: seven short, noirish scenes where start and finish melt into one. As compelling as these visual loops are, all they really do is underscore the gut-wrenching power of the music.
Fans of So Sad So Sexy’s high gloss might struggle to reorient themselves in the spectral, woozy world of Eyeye. Li sings into a cheap mic in her LA bedroom, against a restrained palette of analog synths, guitar, and piano. The pop hooks of her early work linger with the return of producer Björn Yttling, but it’s a skimpier affair, eight tracks bleeding into each other via domestic diegetic sounds: cicadas, sprinklers, a washing machine.
Despite the murky production, the writing takes deadly aim, right from opener No Hotel. Her frank lyricism anchors featherweight songs that build languidly and shimmer with heat, Lana Del Rey-style. Carousel could double as a dreamlike Hollywood score, while closing track ü&i dissolves into the background hum that began the album – and so the cycle repeats.
Eyeye may be more of the same from Li, but as a distillation of her music to date, and a final confrontation with heartbreak, it’s flawless. Amid the last cathartic tears, she’s looking herself directly in the eye. Kate French-Morris
Subjective, Start of No Regret, ★★★☆☆
Subjective is an electronic music collaboration between producers Goldie – who once had a claim to being Britain’s preeminent electronic musician with hits such as City Life and Adore you – and Ulterior Motive’s James Davidson. On their second album, The Start of No Regret, the duo wanted to create something more personal and considered, reflecting the title’s call to self-acceptance.
Perhaps the pressure of fame sparked Goldie’s decision to leave his homeland for Phuket, Thailand in 2015. But the sunny change of scene cannot always be heard here: many tracks are challenging and dark, cycling through the depths of human experience with references to longing, self-doubt and salvation. The album is at turns paranoid and pensive, panicked and poignant. Casual listeners of Goldie, with nostalgic memories of club nights, are likely to be disappointed – there are no floor-fillers here.
But that’s no bad thing. The best songs – such as the standout American Gods, about choosing self-love over doubt – feature bittersweet vocals that recall 80s/90s dance-pop. Elsewhere, the backing tracks are seductively down-tempo, relying on layers of melancholy piano loops and brooding guitar licks, while the grimy production on songs like Brushstrokes will have you giving them a second spin.
‘Subjective’ is a fitting name for the collaboration, as the songs tend to get lost in a mind of their own. At times, that’s a virtue – a track like Dark uses stop-start breakbeats to mirror the contortions of a paranoid mind. The vocals of artist Greentea Peng here are genuinely frightening; she struggles to articulate her battle with destructive ‘voices’, against a backdrop of eerie piano music.
Elsewhere, it doesn't work quite as well. The lyrics are frequently loose collages of sayings, the prime example being Paradise which repeatedly loops the phrase ‘I’ll follow you wherever’. At first, these refrains are invigorating, but repetition renders them hollow. While darker tracks masterfully depict the struggle for self-acceptance, the lyrics on the lighter tracks like Paradise don’t quite substantiate the album’s spirit. While at times, the listener may wish for a little more conviction, this is an album full of stirring moments. Jake Ruck
Cat Burns, emotionally unavailable ★★★★☆
London based 21-year-old Cat Burns is steadily rising from Streatham to the stratosphere. This year, her bittersweet and tenderhearted track Go – a song inspired by a friend’s breakup – found a second life on TikTok, where users appeared to post endlessly, soundtracking their own sentimental melancholy with the song. Luckily, the track’s viral status didn’t dwindle, but instead found material, offline success (Go currently sits at number three on the Official UK Charts, and doesn’t seem to be budging just yet).
With the release of her six-track EP emotionally unavailable, Burns is set to compete with Harry Styles for this week’s top spot on the charts. But unlike Styles, Burns doesn’t present herself as a self-conscious innovator or iconoclast. Her music is proudly pedestrian, and it’s all the better for it.
Inspired by Tori Kelly or an early-days Ed Sheeran, this is very much four-chords, cookie cutter, unchallenging, acoustic-led pop music – none of these are bad things. There’s nothing to distract from Burns’ compassionate and easily comprehensible messages, which you’ll be glad for. Covering everything from mental health crises to first loves and losses, emotionally unavailable deftly charts the affects of adolescence in an age of information overload and numbness.
Burns exists within a surfeit of confessional Gen-Z, bedroom-based musicians, but there’s a uniquely soulful quality to her singing and storytelling (perhaps down to her gospel upbringing), that makes her music far more emotionally resonant than the rest of the pack. She’s a chicken-soup-for-the-teenage-soul songwriter, sure, but there’s also a welcome element of “it’s not that deep” about her craft – each song strives to find the light in hard-to-navigate situations.
emotionally unavailable is tastefully well-balanced; it’s both light and heavy, prosaic and urgent. It’s the sign of a preternaturally gifted musician with one hell of a career ahead of her. Emma Madden
Melody Gardot & Philippe Powell, Entre eux Deux ★★★★☆
Melody Gardot, the American-born, Paris-domiciled jazz singer has returned to her first love. She first came to the world’s attention as a balladeer of wryly observed heartbreak, caught so memorably in the line from her hit song of 2009: “Baby I’m a fool who thinks it’s cool to fall in love.” It was sung in a voice of husky, thrilling vibrancy that spoke of damage and hurt as much as intimacy: Gardot had been almost fatally injured in a bicycling accident at the age of 19 and had to painstakingly recover basic skills and a sense of her own self. Song-writing helped, though at first she was too shy to perform the songs she picked out on her guitar. When she did venture on stage it was at first with a stick, but the voice spoke of toughness as well as fragility.
Six years later, having established herself as a properly bankable jazz chanteuse alongside Diana Krall and Madeleine Peyroux, she had a change of direction. "I've done the intimate thing, I don't want to do it right now. I want to dance,” she declared and to prove it came out with an album Currency of Man that was full of raunchy masculine energy. But it didn’t last long. Sunset in the Blue marked a return to ballads and torch songs and slinky-sad Brazilian-flavoured numbers.
And now comes her latest album Entre Eux Deux (“between those two”), beginning with My Foolish Heart – a song that sounds almost too close to her first big hit. It seems the heart is an organ that just will not learn, and these songs dwell on the various ways it can always be flattered and fooled and made sorrowful. It’s a relatively slender album, just 10 shortish songs conjured into being in studio sessions with her new best musical friend, the Brazilian pianist Philippe Powell. Three of them are in French, a language Gardot has long been fluent in, and one – Samba Em Prelúdio by Powell’s father, the famous guitarist and composer Baden Powell – is in a mix of Portuguese and French (the Portuguese in Powell’s rather husky baritone, the French in her much more aurally seductive contralto).
Apart from Plus fort que Nous, the song by Francis Lai and Pierre Barouh that became famous as the signature tune of the 1966 film Un Homme et une Femme, all the songs are jointly composed by Gardot and Powell. Gardot pens some good lines: “Be careful with what your eyes seem to say,” she advises a lover at one point. There are touches of humour here and there, as in Fleurs du Dimanche, which advises gentlemen admirers to leave bouquets at the hotel reception and not to wake the Sleeping Beauty. Gardot is at pains to emphasise the French/Portuguese strain in the music, which is certainly there, but some might say an even stronger influence on Powell’s soft-edged, bitter-sweet harmonies is Bill Evans. The song What of Your Eyes has a tenderly repeating pattern in the piano which is a dead ringer for Evans’s Peace Piece.
It's all beautifully soft-edged and nostalgic, and when there’s a move to something more cheerful and up-tempo, as in the song which tells us there’s no better place to be romantic than the Eiffel Tower (really? With all those tourists gawping?) it doesn’t last long. The eternally soft nostalgic sweetness could become enervating, but what saves the album is Gardot’s extraordinary voice, which injects an emotional truth even into those songs which aren’t so remarkable in themselves. Ivan Hewett
Everything Everything, Raw Data Feel ★★★★☆
With their innovative electronica and politically-charged lyrics, Manchester band Everything Everything have garnered considerable critical acclaim over the years, with five Ivor Novello nominations and two nods for the Mercury Prize. With their sixth album, Raw Data Feel, they have turned their attention to artificial intelligence.
It sounds gimmicky, but far from it: Raw Data Feel is a thought-provoking experiment that aims to reshape the dissociation and damage caused by endless scrolling into fodder for the dance floor. With the help of the University of York’s Contemporary Music Research Centre, raw data including LinkedIn’s terms and conditions, epic poem Beowulf, 400,000 posts from online forum 4chan and the philosophical musings of Confucius were fed into a machine to generate lyrics. Sadly, said lyrics weren’t up to much, so the (human) band had to come up with the other 95 per cent themselves.
Keeping things old-school paid off: singer Jonathan Higgs delivers wacky musings on Teletype and My Computer in his typically dramatic falsetto that, paired with the plucky, synth-driven beats, seems to push the listener down a futuristic rabbit hole, ready to explore this alternative universe the band have created. Pizza Boy is undoubtedly the album’s stand-out track, its catchy bridge (“Is it fun on your own / Just you and your mobile phone”) easy to envision being screamed at the top of a thousand lungs at this summer’s festivals. On Jennifer, the band takes a melancholic turn down memory lane, singing of the girl who “remembers her life is like a nightmare / Walking in circles and wasting her time” after spending every day tired, bored, and stuck in the kitchen in some sort-of Futurama-meets-The Stepford Wives fever dream.
They’ve earned constant comparisons over the years with the likes of Metronomy and Bloc Party, but Raw Data Feel proves that when it comes to experimental indie-rock, Everything Everything are in a league of their own. Poppie Platt
Also out: Harry’s House by Harry Styles, reviewed by James Hall here