Over the weekend, we received a gift from not-a-god Frank Ocean: a long, complicated, beautiful LP called Blonde. We thought we lucked out with Endless, but Blonde is something else. It’s a wide-open album about feeling closed off (which Tom pointed out in his Premature Evaluation) and it’s an album you have to listen to as an album, a front-to-back work of art that Chris parsed in a Sounding Board essay. It can be hard to separate one song from the other, and as a staff, we debated long and hard over which track would make it onto this list. It came down to more than a few; “Ivy,” “White Ferrari,” “Nights,” “Solo,” “Godspeed,” and “Futura Free,” are all favorites. We settled on one to go alongside some other great songs that came out this week. Check ‘em out below.
It’s easy to lose yourself in a Chromatics song. “Dear Tommy” hurts; it feels as sharp as the shattered glass that litters its stylistic video. What we’ve heard so far from the band’s long-awaited fifth album has dealt with a very specific type of loss: that which makes you not yourself, that which makes you question everything about the person you once loved. As the title track and ostensible mission statement for Chromatics’ next (presumable) masterpiece, “Dear Tommy” is haunted by the specter of loved ones lost. The song is a letter but it’s also a means to an end; it’s a circuitous rhythm that allows for no dialogue. It’s the feeling of wanting an answer while knowing you’ll never receive a response, the dial tone on the other end of the line, the deadened air between a connection that no longer sparks. “Dear Tommy/ Just when I think I’m alright/ I see your face,” it begins. “Dear Tommy/ If I could hold you in my arms/ But I know I can’t/ You won’t compromise.” It builds to a haunting question: “Is this our last goodbye?” It’s as cinematic and beautiful as anything that the group has released, and it feels trapped by the weight of unknowing. –James
“I’m fine” has got to be one of the most common lies ever told, right up there with “That was my last cigarette” and “Sorry, I don’t have any change.” Because if there’s one thing harder than dealing with crippling anxiety alone, it’s allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to not have to deal with it alone. Even when someone cares enough to reach out, it often seems easier to just rattle off an unconvincing “I’m fine” than to admit, as Hazel English does, that “I don’t know why I’m terrified of everything/ Just to call the doctor seems daunting/ For most of my life I’ve felt a sharp uncertainty/ Now it’s just become a part of me.” If you didn’t pay attention to her lyrics, “I’m Fine” would be just the lovely summertime breeze it pretends to be. But instead of soothing, those sparkling space-age synths cut like a crystalline knife: “Every time you ask me how I’m feeling/ I just smile and tell you that I’m fine.” –Peter
There are still a few traces of Crying’s chiptune genesis on Beyond The Fleeting Gales, moments when the band’s history of video game music rears its pixellated head and you’re left to conclude, “These geekoids can really shred!” Mostly, though, the album reminds me of the gargantuan pop-rock songs that dominated the radio back when 8-bit gaming was all the rage. “Wool In The Wash,” with verses worthy of Trevor Horn and a playfully zany guitar solo and a hair-metal chorus like a trapdoor to ecstasy, is one sublime example. Many more are coming soon, so brace yourself. –Chris
Did you ever see someone walk into your house, for the first time, and just sprawl out on your couch, as if they owned the place, as if the place had been built and put together with them in mind? I’ve always admired the self-assurance it takes to pull some confident laziness like that, and I’ve never understood it. But that’s “Sister.” The song, essentially the centerpiece of Angel Olsen’s new album My Woman, has no real reason to be eight minutes long. It doesn’t go in a million different directions, and it never builds to the raging climax that a length like that would seem to suggest. Instead, it gets this badass country-rock twinkle going on its intro, and then it explores every place that twinkle can go. Olsen is all steely poise, singing opaque profundities about living life and dying right, letting her voice take on just the right level of hardbitten weariness. Guitarist Stewart Bronaugh takes his time, eventually getting around to some Mascis-esque blazing. Olsen lives in Asheville, North Carolina now, and you can practically hear the Asheville radiating off of a song like this. It’s an indolent front-porch jam, the type of shit you might knock out on a long and hot afternoon when you’ve got no place in particular to be. It’s a long, deeply satisfying exhale. –Tom
Where to start with an album of this magnitude? You could start anywhere I suppose, and I think that’s the point. “Nikes” is a hell of an opener, don’t get me wrong, but you could really put almost any song on Blonde in that lead-off spot because Frank Ocean isn’t concerned with getting on base. Everyone I talk to is confused by what this album “means” because they have dozens of scattered thoughts that they feel differently about from day to day. There’s a reason for that.
For Channel Orange we had a convenient narrative as a guidebook: a man coming out by looking back on his first summer with another man, and all of the brazen vulnerability required in sharing an exploration of the self. But for Blond(e), we simultaneously hear from a man that is more comfortable and confident in himself after four years of freer, openly gay living, and an acrophobic artist looking down from the extremely high pedestal we’ve positioned beneath him. That inner tension is all over the album, and because he’s uncannily brilliant at expressing it, it translates and disorients as he makes the intensely inward universal.
Several songs beautifully communicate Ocean’s dissonance and the loneliness it spawns, but “Nights” perhaps does it best. Its form mirrors Ocean’s individuality — complex, wandering, enigmatic, multi-faceted. Ringing guitar gives way to sustained synth progressions, then everything fades out and electric guitar echoes with frantic energy, then that energy dissolves into subdued piano. Hook-like earworms make a definitive refrain unidentifiable. The song’s structure or lack thereof is enough to make a compass needle spin, and we haven’t even gotten to the lyrics yet.
Ocean’s lonely, longing laments are potent. He draws people closer and pushes them away with the frequency and perpetuity of day turning to night and night turning to day. Family, friends, and lovers all face the same rejected fate, but he still aches for closeness. Distancing lines like “Shut the fuck up, I don’t want your conversation” and “I ain’t tryna keep you” clash with the yearning of “Your apartment out in Houston’s where I waited” and “Can you come by? Fuck with me after my shift.” He wants to see Nirvana, but he doesn’t want to die yet. And he communicates the enormousness of that competing duality through everyday experiences we can all relate to. Everyday shit. Every night shit.
Therein lies part of the undeniable allure of Ocean’s artistry. He can break down all of the enigma that he is and the often incongruous feelings and thoughts that stir within him, and encapsulate it like a pill for us to digest and process. He can also let it be raw and leave us to wonder. Both forms are potent, but like a drug, its effects can be unpredictable, altering us differently.
If I were to overdose on Blond(e), “Nights” would be my drug of choice right now. That might change tomorrow, but frankly (pun intended), I think it’s supposed to. –Collin