Willie Nelson at the peak of his powers, Bloc Party attempt a comeback – the week’s best albums

Willie Nelson still dazzles on his 97th studio album - Pamela Springsteen
Willie Nelson still dazzles on his 97th studio album - Pamela Springsteen

Willie Nelson, A Beautiful Time ★★★★☆

“There’s something to be said for gettin’ older,” a creaky voice croons with languid authority over a bed of sighing guitars. “Dusty bottles pour a finer glass of wine / An old beat-up guitar just sounds better / And wisdom only comes with time.”

Well, if anyone should know, it’s Willie Nelson. Beautiful Time is the country maestro’s 97th studio album, released on his 89th birthday. Take a moment to contemplate that lifetime in music. Nelson has been on the road since 1956, as long as any living and still working musician. During five decades of stardom, he has been knocking out albums at a rate of almost two a year, yet there is nothing hackneyed about his art. Beautiful Time is a tenderly elegiac and sweetly uplifting collection every bit as smart, funny and moving as anything the great man has ever released, showcasing an artist at the peak of his powers, with things he still wants to say.

“Live every day like it was your last one,” Nelson advocates on the jaunty Live Every Day, adding the winking proviso: “And one day you’re gonna be right.” It is one of six new Nelson originals, every one replete with quotable lines, delivered with his loose sense of timing in a voice that has got more interestingly gnarly without losing its innate melodiousness.

At his age, everything Nelson touches is inevitably shaded with mortality, and Nelson leans into it, imparting pearls of wisdom with the quiet authority of someone not interested in wasting his breath on trivialities. Energy Follows Thought proceeds at a stately pace, with Nelson articulating a personal philosophy more New Age hippy than country conservative: “Imagine what you want and get out of the way / Remember energy follows thought, so be careful what you say.” The surface ripples with spectral guitar lines, a reminder that Nelson is also one of the most distinctive guitarists country has ever produced, with a gypsy jazz touch drawing on his hero, Django Reinhardt.

The provocatively titled I Don’t Go to Funerals has a classic Nelson pay-off: “And I won’t be at mine.” It’s a cheeky romp that looks forward optimistically to a country paradise where Nelson conjures “a big old picking party” with “me and Waylon, John and Kris and our sweetheart Patsy Cline”. Since his outlaw compatriots Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash have shuffled off this mortal coil – although Kris Kristofferson, fellow namechecked member of the supergroup The Highwaymen, is still with us at 85 – Nelson (along with Dolly Parton) has effectively assumed the status of living repository of old country values. There is a clutch of fine songs here written for Nelson by some of Nashville’s leading contemporary tunesmiths, including the title track (a celebration of life on the road) and elegiac ballad Dusty Bottles that are surely destined for classic status.

Nelson also offers highly personal readings of The Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends and Leonard Cohen’s masterful Tower of Song. Like Cohen, Nelson grapples with old age fearlessly, offering himself as an inspirational guide to the dimming of the light. “My life has been a wonder and I found my place in time,” he asserts on I Don’t Go to Funerals. Amen to that. Neil McCormick

Let's Eat Grandma save themselves from separation, combining grief and growth on the album - El Hardwick
Let's Eat Grandma save themselves from separation, combining grief and growth on the album - El Hardwick

Let’s Eat Grandma, Two Ribbons ★★★★☆

The story of Let’s Eat Grandma would sound like something from a lovely but not particularly jeopardous teen movie – had it not actually happened. Two friends who’ve known one another since they were schoolchildren in Norwich release a highly-praised debut album of inventive electro-pop before they’re old enough to get served (2016’s I, Gemini). By the time they are, Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton find themselves working with the late electronic genius Sophie, up for an Ivor Novello, and booked onto Coachella in the wake of their 2018 follow-up, I’m All Ears.

Their third record, however, Two Ribbons, at times seems like a chronicle of how things went wrong in the worst ways imaginable. Out on tour, the pair began to notice static where once they had been almost telepathically close. In 2019, Hollingworth’s boyfriend, Norwich musician Billy Clayton, died of cancer; when they played Coachella that year, having cancelled the rest of their tour, it was in his honour – at a festival he’d dreamed of gracing himself.

Given the circumstances surrounding its creation, there is unsurprisingly a sadness at the heart of Two Ribbons, but even in quieter moments such as the acoustic Strange Conversations, or the atmospheric interlude In The Cemetery, the air is of light breaking through. And, equally often, there is a redemptive clarity and a wonderful sense of healing. Watching You Go tells its story of heartbreaking loss to an intensely uplifting pop rush, while Levitation has a Lady Gaga level of sassiness, and Insect Loop brings in some indie-sleaze guitar.

The closing title-track is a frank reflection on the feelings of drifting apart. But it’s in the album’s gloriously synthy opening throw, Happy New Year, that its heart is most clearly shown. “Nothing that was broken can touch how much I care for you,” sings Walton to her bandmate, “because you know you’ll always be my best friend, and look at what we made it through.” Rather than pulling Let’s Eat Grandma apart, Two Ribbons has tied them together again. Nick Ruskell

Bloc Party return with a refreshed line-up to deliver their classic indie-electro sound
Bloc Party return with a refreshed line-up to deliver their classic indie-electro sound

Bloc Party, Alpha Games ★★★☆☆

Bloc Party emerged during a moribund period for British guitar music in the 2000s, offering an angular, non-conformist brand of cerebral rock with emo trappings. As a black gay man, vocalist and guitarist Kele Okereke offered intriguing outsider perspectives on some of the staler cliches that had held sway since Britpop, almost inevitably bringing him into conflict with the reigning guitar superpower of Oasis.

After Liam Gallagher sneeringly described them as “a band off of University Challenge” and Noel dismissed them as “indie s--t”, Okereke responded by characterising Oasis as “repetitive luddites” who had “made stupidity hip” and advocating the values of “constant change and evolution”. Their 2005 debut album, Silent Alarm, sold a million copies and put them to the fore of a wave of bands straining to find a balance between populism and adventure, including Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys and Foals.

I think it is fair to say that (unlike their peers) Bloc Party never really found a comfortable space between those competing impulses, with Okereke increasingly focusing on a quirky, electronically based solo career. Bloc Party would break up and reunite like so many bands before, and by 2019 they were effectively in the nostalgia market by touring a revival of their debut album with a new rhythm section. So much for constant change and evolution.

Alpha Games is their first album in eight years, and if it suggests a band revived by revisiting their original inspiration, it is also a reminder of their innate discomfort with rock tropes. Their songs constantly shift in shape and form, from the tart indie meets blistering heavy rock of Day Drinker to the disco indie metal of Rough Justice and moodily epic soundscapes of The Peace Offering. Whatever is going on around him, Okereke’s talk-singing vocals seem to occupy a different space, with melodies taking off at oblique angles, or Okereke adopting a posturing and affected thespian delivery as if to emphasise his own ironic insincerity.

Callum Is a Snake grips like a snarling punk anthem, except that Okereke’s affected delivery of a stream of cliched insults (“Ooh you’re a wrong un’ / I’m officially washing my hands of you”) effectively mocks the narrator rather than the object of his fury. It is a vocal style that creates an uncomfortable distance between the singer and his songs, which may well be the intention.

But Bloc Party grip most at their least arch, when Okereke sings tenderly of loss on Of Things Yet to Come or just indulges in a glam riot on the dirty electro stomp of The Girls Are Fighting. Alpha Games should please their established fanbase, but Bloc Party still sound strangely ambivalent, trapped between the visceral thrill of lean, modern guitar music and their doubts about its form and function. NMC

Kehlani, blue water road ★★★★☆

When Spotify released its list of the most-streamed female RnB artists of 2020, there was one surprise name among the likes of Beyoncé and Alicia Keys. Kehlani’s second album, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, had come out in May that year and become a runaway success, lucidly reflecting the loneliness many people felt during lockdown.

With their new record, 'blue water road’, the 27-year-old (who now identifies as non-binary) faces the challenge of living up to that. But since appearing as a teenage contestant on America’s Got Talent in 2011, the Californian neo-soul musician has gained a reputation for telling unguarded stories about love, loss, survival and sexuality. This latest album of stripped-back contemporary slow jams is no different.

Recorded during a period of transformation – Kehlani both became sober and came out as a lesbian during the pandemic – ‘blue water road’ is an emotional tidal-wave. The artist switches between soft rapping and singing to paint a picture of the giddiest parts of a relationship, as well as their own spiritual journey. The lyrics are tender: “I can’t tell where your hair ends and mine begins.” At its best, it’s like a movie soundtrack. String interludes behave like camera pans between scenes; fuzzy production gives everything a dream-like quality.

The first single, Altar, is a highlight – a full-bodied ode to lost loved ones, with a strong hook – and More Than I Should sounds like Ariana Grande at her best. (No surprise, given the album was produced by Grande’s collaborator Andrew ‘Pop’ Wansel.) The record sometimes feels colder and more challenging than Kehlani’s early releases, and a guest appearance from Justin Bieber, who declares himself “turned on”, feels jarring. That said, if you’re looking for something evocative to put you in a sunny mood on a Sunday morning, you could do much worse than this. Kate Lloyd