Sick of hearing about Justin Timberlake yet?
The Target-shopping, Manny's-chowing, halftime-showboating pop star will have the biggest album in the U.S. next week. The rap trio Migos, who performed multiple shows in town over the weekend, are currently on top of the charts. Both best-sellers are ... fine. But my pick of the week is from the sort of songwriter who doesn't get invited to Super Bowl Week events.
Mary Gauthier—Rifles and Rosary Beads
Gauthier’s drawl can be austere and her lyrics spare, occasionally pinching her emotional range, but that bone-scraping directness is ideal for these 11 songs, written with veterans and their spouses as part of the SongwritingWith:Soldiers project. The main theme is, as one title puts it, “The War After the War,” the lived details of memoir embellished with phrases as plainspoken as “My service was not a sacrifice” and as grand as a vision of “Heaven shining down on us/ Through bullet holes in the sky.” The musical settings mostly stay out of the way of the words, though a stiff folkie beat adds to the martial mood (as does that heavy percussion thud on “Soldiering On”) and a raw fiddle summons up old-time battlefields to remind us that the pain of a veteran’s ordeal comes as close to timeless as any human experience.
But the specifics of those experiences can also be timely. The female soldiers here reveal how much they have in common with their civilian sisters: The narrator of “Brothers” learns “to cry without a sound” so her comrades don’t think she’s girly and winces when Veteran’s Day speeches exclusively celebrate “the men who served”; another woman learns that “My enemy wasn’t Iraq” but rather the men she served with there. These songs aren’t polemics or apologies, and they’re not (at least not just) therapy. They’re expressions of an honest working-class realism, with sharp insight how the intense bonding of battle nurtures a desire for new forms of peacetime solidarity that the permanent wounds a soldier brings home make a necessity.
I’m not naive enough to think they stretched this sequel out to 24 cuts in order to display their versatility upon a vast canvas (or even to make any grand artistic statement beyond “more”)—now that Billboard factors streaming into its charts, any album with extra tracks has a better chance of landing at #1. (And the scam worked.) There are stretches of trap muzak where 808s skitter and tick with mesmerizing regularity here, and nothing’s obvious enough to hook a “Bad and Boujee” convert. But the trio’s effortless melodic elasticity stretches and snaps back into memorably unexpected shapes, slight rhythmic fillips summon new subtleties of cadence from each MC’s recognizable mic style, and their camaraderie and vocal interplay is unmatched in modern rap, with 105 minutes allowing Takeoff and Offset more time to shine.
Quavo’s still the star though, channelling Marley’s ghost as he wails “straight out the jungle” on “Narcos,” springboarding off the rhythmic lurch of “Auto Pilot” and swandiving into its synth ripples, repeating “Walk it like I talk it” in authoritative yet playful tones over an electronic simulation of someone playing water glasses—and that’s just the first third of the album. But fame sure as hell hasn’t made ’em any nicer to women: I wince at how hooky they make the phrase “she a gobbler” (something about insulting groupies always perks jerks up) and how eagerly they cosign 21 Savage’s guest-boast “Hit her for a minute then I passed her to the homie/ I don't wanna see you when I wake up in the mornin'” on “Bad Bitches Only (B.B.O.).” (When oh when will the good bitches get their song?) Sometimes, it’s enough to make me wish I didn’t understand English—or that Migos didn’t speak it.
Justin Timberlake—Man of the Woods
Unfashionably enough, I waited to hear the music before registering an opinion on this album. Even more unfashionably, I was rooting for JT, if only because we’re stuck with him. It’s apparently a revelation to many smart and usually attentive people that this boy band alum, Fallon bud, and Trolls voice actor is some kind of cornball. His idea of naughty (poking at her “pink” with his “purple”) still feels geared toward a very young, very suburban, very drunk bachelorette party; his personality remains a unique mix of fratty-smug and puppyish-needy. And now that music is a distraction from his day job as multimedia celebrity, his ability to somehow try both too hard and not hard enough has never been more jarring.
But until an earnest yawn of a home stretch that climaxes with Justin somehow botching the song to his son—the lowest hanging fruit in the grove of pop authenticity—he half-asses his hick-hop concept to coax a weird incoherence from esteemed over-the-hill collaborators Pharrell and Timbaland that I’ll take over the sleek retro synthesis of Grammy-sponge Bruno Mars. The Neptunes' harmonica break on “Midnight Summer Jam” and synth-imitating-pedal-steel on the title track, Tim’s warped space-age oscillations on “Filthy” and herky-jerk guitar funk on “Sauce”—these are sounds that open up new pop possibilities. And if Justin and co-writer Chris Stapleton sound way too comfortable harmonizing on the peeved white-guy shrug “Say Something,” they also collaborate on the most straightforwardly winning moment here, "Morning Light," a duet with Alicia Keys where Timberlake rhymes “I’m in love with you” with “All I want to do” and makes me believe him. I know. I totally get the urge to scratch his Teflon-sheathed privilege, really. But anyone foreseeing a backlash from this charming mess drastically underestimates Justin’s appeal. Not to mention his fame. He's gonna live forever. SLOW
Kyle Craft—Full Circle Nightmare
This tuneful Portlandiac is the kind of dweeb who loves retro pop because it lets him fantasize about how bitter he’ll be once he's dumped by the “Fever Dream Girl” and “Full Circle Nightmare” and “Fake Magic Angel” and every other imaginary woman he fashions with Dylanesque (ha ha sure right) excess out of wobbly stacks of incongruous nouns and adjectives. And he insists on chirping manically about it like Lindsey Buckingham after someone dropped an amplifier on his foot. As for the music, here’s a rave from PopMatters: “The overall vibe of the album is much richer, sonically.” I couldn’t put it any vaguer myself.
Go Slow No is a weekly survey of new and overlooked album releases. The rating system is pretty self-explanatory: GO means listen to this now, SLOW means check it out when you get a chance, and NO eans run screaming from the room if you hear so much as a note of it.