Will 2015 Be The Year Of The ’70s Singer-Songwriter?
The beginning of Natalie Prass’ album is both plainspoken and grandiose. Prass pours out her heart with a pillowy gentleness, her words fluttering like feathers as she details her internal turmoil. You can almost hear her heart snapping in half as she laments, “My baby don’t understand me anymore.” Yet there’s resolve in her voice too, and it’s reflected in the orchestral accompaniment that slowly blooms around her. As the usual rock-band alignment of guitars, drums, bass, and keyboards builds steadily from hushed solitude to a big, bold mid-tempo sway, so does a fanciful, even playful assortment of strings, brass, and woodwinds — the sound of Matthew E. White’s Spacebomb operation in all its splendor. Prass is singing about the gut-wrenching experience of falling out of love, but the sensation brimming through the music is unmistakably joyful.
“My Baby Don’t Understand Me” is a bellwether for the rest of Prass’ album — the whole thing sounds like that; it’s spellbinding; you should listen to it — but the song is also indicative of a rising trend in indie rock. A handful of music’s most exciting new voices are channeling their talents into music that recalls the sincere singer-songwriters of the 1970s. There are unmistakable traces of Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake in Prass’ delicate ruminations, artists who fleshed out heartfelt tunes with wistful cinematic swells even though they were capable of stopping the world with just voice and guitar. The ’70s were rich with that kind of talent, and Prass isn’t the only one mining that era for inspiration and coming up with gold.
We’re experiencing a renaissance of earnest, diaristic music, one that extends beyond a single genre or scene. So yes, Pratt’s album is similar in spirit to the homespun ’60s folk of Jessica Pratt’s On Your Own Love Again, the sultry synthetic ’80s pop of Twin Shadow’s Eclipse, and the ’90s guitar-rock bloodletting of Waxahatchee’s Ivy Tripp. But the albums I’m thinking of are more specifically triangulated to that ’70s sweet spot when heavily orchestrated studio-pop bombast was often applied to tender, world-weary, expertly crafted tunes. They conjure the ghosts of Randy Newman, of Harry Nilsson, of Todd Rundgren, of Paul McCartney, of Elton John when he could really send you to the moon.
All those voices and more echo throughout Tobias Jesso Jr.’s debut album, Goon. Jesso’s status as a novice piano player dovetails marvelously with his wide-eyed, childlike treatises on heartbreak. The sweeping production that buoys the howling “How Could You Babe,” though, is strictly professional. (So are lyrics like “And did you have some help deciding to forget my name?” Damn.) Album opener “Can’t Stop Thinking About You” practically reaches out and embraces you, and you want to hug it back for the way it approximates an old sitcom theme song. The arrangements throughout the project are so understated that even when they hit big, they feel small. You’d think he brought back the Mellow Mafia if you didn’t know Girls’ Chet “JR” White and the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney were the ones behind the boards.
White’s late, great Girls are one of the only bands I can think of that constitute a forerunner to this sound coming back into vogue. Jesso has credited Christopher Owens’ give-no-fucks vocal strains for giving him the inspiration to go for it, and even when seemingly every uncool genre was being subjected to nostalgic reclamation, Owens was one of the only artists grappling with sensitive singer-songwriter stuff. Haim’s easy, breezy, beautiful pop-rock almost singlehandedly made the world’s commercially ambitious indie-rockers want to sound like Fleetwood Mac, essentially a Voltron built from this sort of singer-songwriter. Speaking of famous Macs, DeMarco’s Salad Days certainly played a part in bringing Nilsson’s style back. And the California cavalcade of Beck, Ryan Adams, and Jenny Lewis deserves some shine for summoning the spirits of Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt last year.
One other act that helped kick off this wave is Father John Misty, the project of former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman. Tillman’s forthcoming I Love You, Honeybear improves on his 2012 debut Fear Fun in every way; it’s a career-defining record, a tour de force, an apotheosis of Tillman’s “’70s hippie lounge-lizard persona.” Honeybear shares Goon’s melancholy quality, but Tillman trades the McCartney-like earnestness that permeates Jesso’s music for the sarcasm that defined Newman and Nilsson. He’s as forthright as Jesso, but where Jesso comes off as fragile, Tillman’s lines hit with blunt force. He’s the standup comedian who throws tomatoes back at you.
Honeybear is also the most postmodern of these records, and not just because Tillman’s razor-sharp lyrics are always threatening to slice him right back. There are sonic anachronisms too, from an electronic beat on “True Affection” to the ironic canned laughter on “Bored In The USA.” Tillman used the latter tune, on which he ruthlessly skewers the American dream and seems damned sad about it, to announce the album. It’s easy to see why: “Bored” is grandiose tragicomedy, the sound of swinging for the fences, slipping on a banana peel, and still hitting a home run. But the sardonic wit Tillman applies to domesticity is perhaps even fiercer when he directs it at some boho airhead on “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment”: “She says, like, literally, music is the air she breathes/ And the malaprops make me wanna fuckin’ scream/ I wonder if she even knows what that word means/ Well it’s literally not that.” It keeps going from there, and it only gets better. Hopefully, the same will be true of this renaissance he’s helping to initiate.