ryan pollie’s brisk, twenty-five minute new self-titled album is bookended by a pair of choral tracks, brief exercises that retain a remarkably cleansing effect. in the past year or so, pollie relinquished his nom de guerre of los angeles police department, battled cancer, and wrote many of the songs that would wind up on this record, but not necessarily in that order; he received his diagnosis after much of the album was complete, putting those songs – and their existential themes of mortality – into a slightly more immediate context.
under his own name, ryan pollie is much more clear-eyed in his approach to songwriting. the hazy ennui that dotted his output as los angeles police department – a perfect analog to one’s mid-twenties – has disappeared, bucolic slide guitars, straight-ahead acoustic strumming, and detuned piano chords reigning supreme.
breezy though its contents may be, ryan pollie’s aural affect is at times belied by its namesake’s lyrical tone; the plaintive refrain of “my god’s insane” on “aim slow” might serve as a mantra for the entire album, an attempt to explain the inexplicable. “only child” finds pollie addressing his diagnosis and its accompanying uncertainty head-on, while “raincoat” is a brief, heartbreaking ode to a relationship’s end.
the nostalgia of pollie’s earlier work as los angeles police department has throughlines in cuts like “leaving california” and “eyes of vermont,” both awash in images of childhood and home. taken in as a whole, this ten-song collection serves as a potent snapshot of pollie’s current existence, its delivery done in a timeless fashion.
we recently caught up with pollie via e-mail to discuss 1970s singer-songwriters, the fruits of collaboration, and his lingering affinity for new england. check out the transcript, lightly edited for clarity, below.
this is your first album under your own name after a handful as los angeles police department. was there anything in particular that led to you shedding that moniker?
totally. the past few years i’ve been getting heavy into singer-songwriters from the early 1970s. whether american, english, irish, japanese – most of the artists i fell for were making music so personal that the subject matter and the tone was so closely linked to the writer. like graham nash or jackson nrowne both writing really personal break-up albums (both about joni mitchell) – there was just no separation between the songs and the songwriter.
i came to kind of an existential moment where it felt like by shedding a “band name,” i was able to dig a little deeper with what i had to say and how i wanted to represent myself with my art. once i made the decision, it really provided a new space for me to grow as an artist, i think.
you wrote most of this album, which tends to grapple with mortality and the general essence of being, before receiving a cancer diagnosis. did you subsequently find yourself ascribing new meaning to those completed songs, or a new perspective on the contents and scope of the album?
i think that’s really perceptive of you to ask, maybe just because that’s absolutely what happened. i had written and recorded most of the material before i knew that i was sick, and the lyrical themes you are describing, that i was already exploring, became even more meaningful to me.
songwriting seems to have this magical prophetic nature sometimes. not always. but for this record, and this has happened to me in the past, i was writing songs about facing death, getting sick, ending a specific relationship – all things that just kind of flowed through me without knowing that they would be around the corner in my life.
the collaborations across this album feel especially significant, given the intimate circumstances surrounding its final stages of creation. can you speak a bit to any part or parts of the collaborative process you found particularly meaningful?
community was a huge part of the album process for me, and a really important part of my life through all stages of making the record.
i feel really proud of where i’m at as far as my relationship with my own work. i not only feel so lucky to have amazing friends and family supporting me in general, but i was able to collaborate with all of my friends in bringing the songs to life. i would reach out to all of my friends who play music, asking them to contribute on different days when i was writing and recording different songs, and they all were so graceful in that they really gave 100% of themselves to my art.
i can hear the personalities of all my friends all over the record, as if i’m spending time with them, as if they’re in the room with me. it’s nice to know that i’ll have that feeling when i play the record for the rest of my life.
i also mixed the record with one of my best friends while i was going through chemo: brian rosemeyer. he would be in a room with me, as i was pale and bald and sick – i looked like nosferatu. and he would not only give such caring attention to each track, but he was also a huge emotional support for me through that whole experience of getting cancer. i could tell he was emotionally invested in the story i was weaving together, and it really shows, i think, in his work. it was the best get well soon gift, looking back on it now.
your childhood home is on the east coast, but you seem pretty geographically and musically preoccupied with california. do any parts of life in new england – and its accompanying experiences – seep into your songwriting?
very much so. i wrote “eyes of vermont” in vermont – while listening to a lot of will fox demos. being among the trees, at the lake – it’s so inspiring to me visually and just gives me such a different feeling than california does. it was nice bringing that energy back.
i wrote “leaving california” – originally called “leaving california for vermont” – right after that trip as well. that song is about going home, the fear and anxieties of los angeles and the comfort of the green mountains.
“album of the fortnight” is a bi-weekly feature that digs into a recent release of note. the articles will run roughly during the middle and at the end of each month, always on a friday; the album or body of work in question will have been released at some point during that two-week span. this column focuses on art that resonates deeply, on pieces that necessitate more than just a knee-jerk reaction. next up: bill waters.
Bill waters is a blank canvas; he could be an unassuming next-door neighbor, the vaguely-recognizable guy from the bus, an office curmudgeon. in this context, waters is the moniker of songwriter and producer william smith, a twenty-something who hails from the hudson valley. humid is his first serious solo venture and bill waters is the vessel through which it is delivered, a beleaguered persona that allows songs to wax romantic freely, without any elements of self-consciousness trickling in.
the six songs that span humid are varied, but all harken back to the 1960s & 1970s soft pop waters acknowledges as a touchstone; the brisk “new car” segues seamlessly into the woozy, laid-back haze of “easy,” while penultimate cut “polyphone” is a sparse, tender entry swaddled in the warmth of an electric piano. equally impressive throughout humid is waters’ dedication to exploring the peaks and valleys of his vocal register. perhaps no one song better captures this than “milo and me,” a raucous ode to companionship that finds waters’ rich, sonorous baritone flirting with the cusp of falsetto.
through and through, humid is a remarkable songwriting achievement, a showcase of the depth possible with a modest amount of tools. we recently caught up with the man behind bill waters to chat about the album process; check out the transcript, lightly edited for clarity, below.
you record under the moniker bill waters, whose given name is an abbreviation of your own. is the moniker simply a stage name, or more of a persona you slip into while writing? maybe something else entirely?
bill waters is definitely a persona for me to slip into while writing. i think he’s some jaded 1970s recording artist that chain smokes and takes a lot of amphetamines – definitely a character that i lean into while writing and recording. it feels like something to almost hide behind, or like a barrier to put up while being maybe a little too sappy or romantic with the lyrical content.
i believe humid is your first venture as a solo artist. what projects have you worked on in the past, and what was the catalyst to strike out on your own?
i played in a band called dumb talk for a long time with a few of my good friends. that was great; we put out some vinyl and gigged around. that helped me get into the nerdier, engineer side of music as well.
i think with humid, i wanted to prove to myself that i could write, record, and produce something completely on my own. i was working a lot, and when you’re doing that it’s hard to coordinate schedules with other people and friends who also have lives. it’s also a good chance to release all of the little control freak tendencies that every songwriter has. there are definitely pros and cons to doing a record on your own, as opposed to with a band or engineer.
to that end, how did you approach the writing and recording process for the songs on this ep?
the writing process came in waves over the past year. a lot of it was me getting high and sitting in the bathroom with a nylon string guitar for an hour or two. the lyrical content seemed to flow pretty easily; i was starting a relationship with someone, and got to use all of the romantic influence that comes along with that. i think it’s hard to be falling in love and not write about that.
recording was a pretty special, interesting process. i was living with my friend in upstate new york and we had a little studio set up in our apartment. towards the end of july 2017, i had a week off of work, so i decided that was when i would record and mix everything. looking back, it was kind of a dark week. i would wake up, eat some eggs, binge on adderall and coconut water until i felt like i tracked enough, then pop a xanax and start drinking to bring my body to a screeching halt when the sun came up.
and for all the nerds out there: i used an sm7b for all the vocals, played the guitars through a fender twin reverb and a blown-out fender solid state amp, and i recorded most of the drum takes into a tascam 4-track.
i kept the air conditioner off because it was obviously loud as hell, and i think my body reached its peak temperature that week. i definitely had a moment where i realized the album had to be called humid as an ode to the remarkable amount of sweat my body released while tracking drums.
one of my favorite tracks on humid is “milo and me,” in part due to the noodling guitar lines and in part due to its subject matter. is there a particular backstory to that song?
oh yeah, there’s a juicy, sad story behind “milo and me.” milo was my sister’s dog that was staying with me for a bit in the spring. we had a great time an i got pretty attached. about a month later, he got hit by a car and passed away. i think that was the most depressed i’ve felt about a beloved animal passing away.
on a lighter note, i was listening to a lot of 10cc and sheer mag over the past year, and that’s definitely where the guitar riffs came from.
you seem comfortable in, and with exploring, myriad vocal registers. are there specific artist you’ve taken cues from while working on this project?
with recording humid, i had a lot more time to experiment with vocal performances and production. i think that gave me the space to find new registers, but there’s definitely some production trickery in there. i was messing around with varispeed (changing the tempo and pitch of the song) and was just discovering the magic of double vocal tracks and auto double-tracking.
as far as other artists go, todd rundgren was a big influence and kind of always has been. also, connan mockasin was a big vocal influence as far as experimentation goes.
humidis out now via forged artifacts. take a listen to the entire album below.
Gabe larson is an amiable guy. the kind of guy who greets visitors with a smile and a hearty hug at the doorway; the kind of guy whose bevy of anecdotes are instantaneously vivid and relatable; the kind of guy whose sheer warmth is analogous to the steaming cup of coffee proffered ahead of a candid, hour-long interview.
larson was born in los angeles but has lived in eau claire, wisconsin, for much of his life, absorbing a midwestern culture and work ethic that permeates the gorgeous collages of sound he creates as waldemar. the sprawling, bucolic textures of his visions ep – self-released last friday – are populated by affecting guitar melodies, improvisatorial horn arrangements, and walls of layered vocals, but an intensely personal, familial story about grappling with mental wellness is what especially resonates.
waldemar was cautiously – and privately – culled from the ashes of larson’s previous project, reverii, whose unexpected and abrupt finality heavily shook his confidence as a songwriter. as he slowly reconstructed his artistry, larson also began confronting a multi-generational battle with depression, drawing parallels between the life of his paternal grandfather and his own.
what results is a mixture of confessional and observational; the four songs on visions build slowly and with purpose, an analog to larson’s own self-actualization as an artist and a reflection of how his outwardly genial personality can mesh with a more serious internal struggle. side one standout “brotherly” is constructed on a warm pad of choral harmonies before spilling over into something more percussive, while closing number “signe” is also the project’s most ambitious cut, swirling every aspect of the waldemar aesthetic into a dense, ever-evolving soundscape.
visions was recorded throughout the early months of 2016 in eau claire with the help of larson’s younger brother, nick, and a host of local producers and instrumentalists. in october, gabe and i sat in his kitchen for over an hour, nursing cups of coffee and tea while discussing all things waldemar. the partial transcript below has been condensed and edited for clarity.
how soon after things with reverii wound down did you come to the realization that you wanted to do waldemar as a project? what was the impetus behind that concept?
reverii ended at this really brutal crux in my life; within that time period i hadn’t even been graduated from school for a year, didn’t really have much of a job – just bouncing around all of these different part-time jobs. i had a job as a painter for a guy in eau claire for awhile and i remember being in all of these houses staring longingly out the windows while i put tape on everything. it was this really difficult period of life where i was recently graduated and had no clue what i wanted to do; i knew i wanted to do music after i graduated, but then this band that was supposed to be the way i was going to do music ended and i was left with nothing.
that was the setting for everything, and i had to take time away from even touching music. eventually, i got to this point where i just had to write a song, and there were no expectations attached to it; i didn’t need to show it to anybody, no one had to know i was doing it. it was just for me.
the song that ended up coming out of that process was a song called “waldemar,” and it was a song about my grandpa, wally, who lived with my family for two or three years up until he died. he was a farmer who lived in minnesota, and he was this personification of depression for me. he was this very quiet guy who seemed, maybe not grumpy, but serious and sad – just kind of a hard person to be close to.
in stark contrast was my mother’s dad, my grandpa kermit, who was the most loving, friendliest guy ever; we spent tons of time with him, and he and i were very close. so, from a young age i could completely perceive this stark contrast between the two of them. i’d ask my dad why wally was the way he was, and he would respond, “oh, he has depression. he’s depressed.”
so i was this eight year-old kid getting my first example of this thing called “depression,” and i’d later learn that it’s this thing that runs in the family tree, like being prone to a heart attack or cancer – which my family is also prone to (laughs). i’ve got it on both sides; i’m probably going to die of a heart attack with diabetes and be clinically depressed. you have to laugh, or else you’ll cry.
i wrote this song about waldemar exploring ways you can be connected to people you were never close with, you know. i never wound up going to the doctor to figure out if i was clinically depressed – my dad was trying to get me to go – but for some reason i just wouldn’t. i think i just didn’t want to know. i wanted to have this hope that i’d come out of this funk and be okay, to not have to face any stark reality of having to carry this with me for the rest of my life.
the song was about my grandpa, but it was also about me and how i was wrestling this bout of depression. nobody knew that i wrote this song – i was writing it for me – but the song felt really good and honest because of that; it was a very pure writing experience. it’s very hard to write a song without thinking about your audience or how it will be critically received, but none of that was in my mind; it was just what felt right.
do you see a big difference between the music written for reverii and the music written for waldemar? what’s the biggest shift in your approach to songwriting?
both bands sound quite a bit different to me; even the way that i sang with reverii versus the way i sing with waldemar sounds like two different singers to me. which is weird, because i don’t feel like i was trying to do anything with my voice in either project.
i think the difference comes down to the songwriting process. i’ve relied on other people, up to this point, far less with waldemar than I did with reverii. i would come up with ideas but was pretty timid about them in a lot of ways; it would have to pass through a filter. with waldemar, i’m listening mostly just to myself with how the songs take shape.
but that’s been changing a lot lately, especially over the last six months when we started recording this record. my brother nick is a super gifted songwriter. he played bass in reverii, but wasn’t really part of the core group of songwriters. he was super young when he was in that band – i think a senior year in high school. he’s gotten more involved in the songwriting process at the ground level when i’m just starting to work on a song. he’ll be in the room with me and act as a sounding board, or just affirm an idea. sometimes it’s nice to have a person around whose musical opinion you trust. he and i have been treading into co-writing territory lately with waldemar stuff.
lyrically and conceptually, waldemar is mostly informed by personal and familial experiences, but aesthetically, there’s reference to a choral background; what else do you lean on? these songs are very ornately arranged and dense. what are you using as a jumping off or reference point?
when i’m really into writing mode i try to clear my palate and not listen to any music. there’s been times where i’ll listen to a song that inspires me to write, and the finished product clearly reflects that inspiration. so i try to clear my brain as much as possible to just be listening to myself, if that makes sense.
the way that i think about music is very much informed by my experience with classical and choral music. you’ll never catch me in the kitchen doing dishes to mozart, but my mom had me in piano lessons as a kid. piano always has so many parts working together to create one thing – even more so than a lot of other instruments. you have ten fingers that can play different notes at different times and be moving in melody and harmony – even more so than what you can do with a guitar.
i’ve been in a choir since i was six all the way through college. the past two years have been the first of my conscious life that i haven’t been in choir, and that’s shaped the way i think about music; i think in terms of layers, and the ways that different textures, timbres, pitches, melodies and harmonies can work together to create one sound.
i’ve performed way more with a choir than i ever have with a band, and have spent more hours in rehearsal with a choir than i ever have with a band, still, just because most of my life has been spent in a choir. i think that’s a pretty inescapable part of the way i think about music. it’s hard for me to say that it’s an influence, per se, but it’s the way i grew up thinking about music.
i think a lot of bands try not to list their influences because they want to be thought of as this total unique thing; i try to not shy away from that totally, just in the interest of recognizing that all of art is some sort of weird remix, in a way. you as an individual have this own unique collection of influences mixed with your own creativity, which then becomes your own contribution to the world.
i was pretty late to the game on the national. trouble will find me is now one of my favorite records, but i really only started getting into the national within the last year. i don’t think i’ve had enough time with that band to name it as an influence for me, but some things i hear in waldemar are these layers and depth that seem inspired by the national.
i also hear elements of my morning jacket’s the waterfall. something that i love about jim james’ vocal style is that there are times where he just doesn’t seem to care what he sounds like. he doesn’t mind the sound of clipped-out vocals, and there are times when the vocals just aren’t in tune. with my choral background, there are times where i just can’t stand that, but there’s something about the way jim james does it that i absolutely love. there are some vocals in “signe” that are totally inspired by what jim james does on the waterfall.
who else was involved with the recording process?
both of our producers – evan middlesworth and brian joseph – were huge in the recording process in terms of refinement. my good friend andrew thoreen, who’s in this great minneapolis band har-di-har – as well as in j.e. sunde and just generally all over the place right now – recorded all the trombone arrangements that are on the record.
evan performed some minor parts – well, i shouldn’t say minor – he wrote some bass lines on the record that are just creamy. he’s great at being like “hey, this isn’t working; you should try this” and doing it in a way that doesn’t make you feel stupid. and his suggestions are spot-on. prior to recording with evan, he had hired me on as an engineer out at pine hollow, so we had gotten the chance to work on records and develop some artistic chemistry together. it’s so important to have a great level of trust with the person you’re working with.
brian has his own studio called the hive, and it’s gorgeous. brian and evan are both two different types of musicians and producers; evan is very instinctual with decisions, which is super helpful, while brian really saturates himself in the sound and really thinks through the nitty-gritty. that’s how i think, so going through the mixes was a really long process. we went through mix revisions for awhile.
did you record some tracks with evan and some with brian, or were they taking independent looks at the same tracks?
evan engineered everything – well, almost everything. ten percent of the tracking actually happened here at home, mostly vocals and some random guitar bits as well. all of the tracking was done before it ever went to brian; evan did some standard reference mixes, and it was sounding great before it ever hit brian, who then took over and the songs came to life even more.
i basically handed over the reference mixes to brian and gave him zero direction. i wanted him to really approach it with an artist’s mind and not be thinking about what i wanted it to sound like. i wanted him to present me with different ideas for how everything can sound, and then i’d listen and pick and choose. i had my idea of how everything should sound, and i wanted his work to either confirm the ideas i originally had or to present me with something i never would have thought of. we went back and forth with that model for about two and a half months.
the four songs on this release are kind of long. it feels like a more significant body of work than just your customary introductory ep.
yeah, visions tops out at just about thirty minutes. track-wise, it looks like an ep; lengthwise, it’s toeing the line between ep and lp.
the ep itself is split into two halves, in a lot of ways. “totem” and “brotherly” are pretty old songs; they were kind of from the reverii days. “visions” and “signe” were written within six to eight months of recording.
the last two are much more in the vein of where waldemar is headed, whereas “totem” and “brotherly” are kind of these artifacts, the skeleton of reverii. the sound of reverii with a waldemar spin. i’m not trying to distance myself from them, but they don’t feel like waldemar songs as much, in a way. i don’t think they’d work in the context of a waldemar full-length.
when did you switch from calling the initial song “waldemar” to ascribing that name to the project itself? was there a specific moment, or was it more of a gradual absorption?
that’s a great question. i’m not trying to be some sort of mysterious artist, but honestly, i’m still trying to figure out the answer to that question myself. the short of it is that somehow, at some point, it just felt like that’s what it had to be called; this is what it needs to be. there’s something under the surface within me now that feels drawn towards this name, that feels that this is what the project needs to be called.
it feels strange that this band isn’t called kermit, after the grandfather i’m super close with. he was dying of cancer during the first tour we did with waldemar, and we had to cancel one of our last shows to go be with him. he ended up dying a week later. it was strange being on that tour – named after a guy we weren’t close with – meanwhile, the other grandfather – who we were close with – was dying.
in some ways, i wonder if i’m trying to reclaim this legacy of my grandpa wally that feels not anywhere close to the legacy kermit left. am i trying to redefine what his name means to me? i don’t know.
when i hear the name wally – or waldemar – i see the face of depression, in a weird way. i currently battle depression all the time, so sometimes i wonder if the reason i named my band after him was some way of facing one of my greatest vices. in some way, the name “waldemar” describes me; it’s like looking at your vice square in the face.
i think we carry with us a lot of hurt, shame, and problems, and the only way to heal from those is to bring them to light and call them what they are. for me, it’s depression, but there’s a myriad of things that other people wrestle with. a lot of times i think we just silently carry those around, and i’m of the opinion that true healing can only take place when things are brought to light,talked about, and wrested with intentionally. maybe naming the band waldemar is some sort of therapeutic way of naming this struggle overall, of looking at it straight in the face and doing battle with.
folks with access to basic cable television and/or an acceptable internet connection were treated to another exciting installment of kanye west’s unorthodox public relations practice last sunday night. as critically-acclaimed singer-songwriter beck began his acceptance speech for his album of the year award at the grammys, west briefly stormed the stage in what turned out to be mock protest before returning to his seat, ostensibly docile and in good spirits. the ensuing internet documentations of audience reactions bordered on priceless: numerous screen grabs and forever-looping vines captured multiple celebrities uttering phrases not suitable for television, while a clip of beyoncé mouthing “no, kanye, no!” as jay-z looks on in absolute horror went viral for an appropriately hilarious reason.
what initially seemed like a humorous reference to west’s infamous 2009 tirade was quickly reframed by a post-grammy interview, in which west asserted that beyoncé was the rightful album of the year winner and that the award ceremony would do well to recognize true artistry.
understandably, the internet erupted once again.
west elaborated even more the next morning to a tmz reporter at john f. kennedy international airport, assuring the gossip columnist that he did indeed enjoy beck’s music, but morning phase was not album of the year and even beck himself should know this fact. again, for someone with a history of being vociferous at uncomfortable (or perhaps just inconvenient) times, this clarification still did not bode well for west. social media was quick to collectively point out that beck played all of the instruments on morning phase and had a hand in its production and engineering yet beyoncé relied on a large team to create her own masterpiece, while a wide spectrum of people – ranging from forgettable high school acquaintances on facebook to michael mcdonald – asserted that west’s outburst was nothing more than a cry for attention from an untalented musician with an oversized ego.
west had been depicted as the villain once again, although this time his detractors merely proved the most salient points of his arguments. as one of my more level-headed friends pointed out on facebook, “it’s 2015 and artistry is cultural relevance,” a position at the center of west’s post-grammy interview. beck’s album was undoubtedly well-crafted, a nod to his near-thirty years as a recording artist, but was it memorable? did it have substantial cultural impact?
in comparison, beyoncé was surrounded by one of the most massive secret rollout campaigns in music industry history and has subsequently dictated how major recording artists consider unveiling their next highly-anticipated project. the album also featured a one-to-one ratio of songs and music videos – another unprecedented and game-changing alteration to the album format – and spawned a handful of singles that resonated deeply with large audiences throughout late 2013 and into 2014. was beyoncé’s album the best of 2014, if examined exhaustively and cohesively under a microscope? probably not, but it arguably carried more cultural weight and ingenuity than beck’s contribution.
west’s outburst also needs to be understood in the context of the grammy awards themselves, and the increasing antiquity of industry standards that they represent. the music industry has had a long and complicated relationship with non-white, non-male artists, and with black artists in particular. hip-hop was not recognized as a legitimate musical category until almost twenty years after it began to impact large swaths of american culture, and the category of best rap album has subsequently been whitewashed with artists like eminem and macklemore winning a collective 35% of the awards since its inclusion. the grammys also created an “urban contemporary” category in 2013, a confusing addition that at best allows p.o.c. artists more chances at winning an award but, at worst, comes dangerously close to officially segregating the awards ceremony into white and non-white pop categories.
these antiquated issues are well-documented and are rehashed in some form each year before the awards show airs; in some ways, the committee’s white paternalism can be an ample source of humor and satire, a sign that the old guard is on the decline and drastically out of touch with cultural reception of music. but the fact that race issues in the music industry are still so transparent midway through the second decade of the twenty-first century is incredibly frustrating to a wide variety of people, and must be especially so for those p.o.c. artists that routinely record grammy-caliber work. that beck – a white male with a long, positive history in the music business – received the highest accolades for an album that broke or challenged few boundaries while beyoncé – a black female with an equally positive, albeit slightly abbreviated history in the music business – was snubbed for one that restructured the album experience and continued to expand the confines of modern pop and r&b music underscored this skewered patriarchal and racist perception of the grammy awards.
cultural relevancy is – by and large – the main focus of west’s position against the grammys and against that particular award, but his manner of speech and timing inevitably spawned other critiques of his opinion. for those making secondary or tertiary arguments against kanye or in defense of beck, let me weigh them out and provide a bit of counter-intelligence.
first, the claim that beck is more deserving of the grammy because he played all of the instruments on morning phase does not hold up in the slightest. while that feat may indicate an impressive musical talent and a prolific compositional ability, it does not automatically indicate that said musician will create a superior product. that aspect also seems to have no bearing whatsoever on the industry’s decision in awarding artists, as recent recipients of the same grammy, like daft punk and adele, have had a host of collaborative artists, songwriters, and producers to assist them. countless multi-instrumentalists (see ty segall, mikal cronin, etc.) self-produce fantastic albums year in and year out, yet they are never in serious contention for an award so venerated as album of the year. i don’t believe that beck’s studio mastery had as much to do with defining his grammy nomination as it did to partially justify his win after the fact.
second, there is still a wild notion adopted by many that kanye west does not understand music, cannot intelligently construct a musical idea, and as such should not be allowed to pass judgement on what constitutes “good music.” such notions are likely cultivated by only witnessing kanye west the celebrity and not researching or understanding kanye west the musician. apparently it bears repeating that before he established a successful career as a rapper, west produced jay-z’s the blueprint and had a hand in crafting the sound of early 2000s hip-hop artits like ludacris. the barebones constructs of beats that would be approved for use by multi-million dollar rappers must have an adequate, consistent rhythm and at least some harmonic and melodic variance, basic elements of musical knowledge west time and again has demonstrated his grasp of. at this point, one could theoretically truncate the rest of west’s successful career and still use this brief period to illustrate his possession of musical knowledge and an ability to articulate opinions on other music around him.
the fact that west has maintained critically-lauded and commercially successful career under his own name erases any doubt of musical literacy, or of his qualifications to pass judgement on others. without west’s eclectic musical taste and insatiable appetite for new sounds his 2007 album graduation would not exist, which would subsequently alter the contemporary hip-hop landscape.graduation immenselyexpanded the sonic palate of mainstream hip-hop, rejecting the militant sounds of gangster rap that had dominated the landscape for nearly a decade in favor of electronic samples and references to house music. his comparatively introspective lyrics throughout the album and its follow-up, 808s & heartbreak, ushered in a more cerebral, analytical breed of rappers like kendrick lamar and earl sweatshirt, while his shift to darker, moody undertones undoubtedly paved the way for artists in the vein of kid cudi and drake.
west’s capacity to understand artistry and cultural relevance is high, as he has seen the reception of his own work drastically change the musical playing field and has surrounded himself with artists capable of performing the same feat. he doesn’t need to be humble, and he usually is not, although the fader has outlined instances in which west has relinquished his awards to artists he deemed more deserving, which should give pause to any accusations of a double-standard.
by and large, most of west’s deriders simply feel that he should have kept his mouth shut, that his comments were abrasive or insulting or unwarranted. the non-confrontational nature of awards ceremonies may dictate that the time and place to speak one’s mind is elsewhere, but it is paramount that west went so convincingly against the grain, that he refused to adhere to an unwritten set of rules. his comments solidified what many in the industry try to sweep under the rug: that recognition of true artistry often pales in comparison to a retention of the status quo and to keeping white male artists completely in the driver’s seat. that so many subsequently lashed out against him is an unsettling reminder that it is midway through the second decade of the twenty-first century and a post-racial music industry is a spec on a five-dimensional plane that seems utterly unattainable.
it was tempting to shift this segment’s focus to the queens’ 2005 effort lullabies to paralyze; this year marks the tenth anniversary of the album, and it’s always been one that has accurately reflected the drastic changes that impacted the band’s lineup and overall sound throughout the mid-2000s. but as important as lullabies to paralyze was, its successor was even more telling.
if lullabies served as a partial reset button for queens of the stone age, then era vulgaris should be championed as proof that the band’s retooling worked. the album sheds the band’s previous propensity for erratic song lengths and distills all of its contents down to similar sizes, offering up something that feels like the closest josh homme will ever come to writing a pop record.
sometime early in his career, homme coined the phrase “robot rock” to refer to the salient traits of his music. queens of the stone age was a robotic project in the sense that a large portion of its guitar riffs were repetitive in nature, becoming a continuous mechanism that powered the vast majority of their songs. this practice really came to a head on 2002’s songs for the deaf, with tracks like “first it giveth” and “go with the flow” leaning heavily on down-tuned, droning repetition, while others like “no one knows” and “a song for the dead” were cyclical in nature and relied almost exclusively on a pair of alternating riffs.
era vulgaris is decidedly robotic in a slightly different sense. sure, the guitar remains at the forefront of the band’s sound – because the queens wouldn’t be themselves if they didn’t ultimately adhere to a meat-and-potatoes approach to rock’n’roll – but era vulgaris portrays a new, unabashed embrace of analog synthesizers that become an integral part of the album’s sound.
riffs that would have previously been considered robotic solely due to their repetitive tendencies benefitted from this new sonic delivery, as the angularity of the synthesizers on “misfit love” and their brutal interjections throughout “turnin’ on the screw” adds an industrial dimension to the band’s aesthetic. it’s plausible to envision the entirety of era vulgaris being written and recorded in an abandoned factory, with buzz-saw guitar lines and metrically flawless drum parts metaphorically replacing the machinery.
part of this shift can be attributed to the changing landscape of principal songwriters in the band. the first three albums were largely a collaboration between homme and bassist nick oliveri, with occasional vocalist mark lanegan offering lyrical input. oliveri’s exit in 2004 precipitated all of the major changes in queens of the stone age, as new members troy van leeuwen and joey castillo filled in as contributors. lullabies to paralyze embodied that dark period rather well, but it felt like van leeuwen and castillo were trying desperately to write the fourth homme-oliveri queens of the stone age album instead of relaying their own creative input.
that’s why era vulgaris is so fresh and different, the outlier in the queens’ discography. never has an album, before or since, relied so heavily on elements of dance music or incorporated crucial elements of fundamental electronica without hesitation. even the band’s approach to the most resounding of homme’s musical tropes is novel, as they strip down the effectiveness of repetition to its very core. “sick, sick, sick” leans on a single note for over half of its duration, forgoing any semblance of melody in favor of strictly mechanized rhythm, and similar practices also ensue on “into the hollow” and “battery acid,” albeit with more melodic leeway.
the robotic nature of queens of the stone age is ever-present, and it will probably never leave. what makes era vulgaris so remarkable is how homme has used his complete mastery of the aesthetic to prop up melodic vocal lines that are pretty much the antithesis of his riff-based guitar playing. homme has always toyed with the notion that rock’n’roll does not have to be masculine, particularly by employing falsetto in his vocals.
his use increased as he became a more confident and permanent lead vocalist, and his unabashed embracement of the technique is on full display throughout era vulgaris. from subtle hints on “turnin’ on the screw” and “3’s & 7’s” to more concentrated usage on “misfit love” and “suture up your future.” this partial admission to vulnerability in turn opens up the possibility of more intricate, ambitious vocal contours which are evident across pretty much the entire album.
there’s a strong camp that fervently maintains that songs for the deaf is the finest queens record pressed to wax, and this is not an argument against that claim. while that album is undoubtedly a display of flawless musical talent, era vulgaris holds its own due to its ingenuity and moments of delicacy. the album’s lone bit of recycled material, “make it wit chu,” is repurposed from its desert sessions origins into a concoction that matches the aesthetic of the rest of era vulgaris, a slightly crass blue-collar love song to cool down with in between the more aggressive tracks.
there has always been an element of sexual allure in josh homme’s music and stage persona, and era vulgaris bears witness to that intersection. queens of the stone age might be the finest rock band actively recording, and era vulgaris runs the entire gamut of their musical ambitions and capabilities.
three mixtapes in one year suggests ambition, but the fact that abel tesfaye later remastered and repackaged his as a trilogy is indicative of a carefully crafted plan, one that incidentally helped to reshape a strain of modern r&b. three years later, that strain may feel as if it’s anything but innovative – partially due to the weeknd’s lackluster debut, kiss land – but the fact remains that house of balloons, thursday, and echoes of silence dictated a large portion of music’s trajectory in 2011.
each mixtape contained nine songs that were always haunting and mournful, yet they simultaneously propped up tesfaye as one of the most talented – and downright virtuosic – singers of this young millennium. his counter-tenor range frequently gave the illusion of falsetto while rarely actually employing the technique, allowing him to convincingly cover a michael jackson song and sing countless melismatic hooks with ease. combine that talent with a team of producers just as likely to explore post-punk and indie rock as they were to sample r&b and hip-hop timbres, and it’s no wonder that the three mixtapes found within trilogy hit as hard as they did.
i personally belong to the camp that digested each mixtape individually, in their originally mastered states courtesy of free download sites like datpiff. but i also subscribe to the accepted theory that all three are companion pieces, so i’m choosing to talk about them under the umbrella of trilogy. the breakdown will work like this: each mixtape will get its own set of paragraphs and will mostly be discussed in terms of its original presentation, but i’ll allocate a final paragraph or two to touch on the impact of the remastering on trilogy and how each bonus track fits with the rest of the mixtape. cool? cool. let’s dig in.
house of balloons is the magnum opus of the weeknd’s discography, yet even this mixtape threatens to not withstand the test of time. as pitchfork rounded up their top one hundred albums of the decade so far earlier this year, house of balloons landed near the middle of the pack, but the site’s stance towards the mixtape seemed almost apologetic, likening the weeknd to a “beta version of some music bot developed in a lab outside of toronto” in comparison to other artists prominent now. that may very well be true (kiss land seemed to consciously steer away from the definitive gloom of the weeknd), but it shouldn’t detract from the impact house of balloons had when it originally hit.
the weeknd first surfaced in late 2010, posting “what you need,” “the morning,” and “loft music” to youtube anonymously. all would later appear on house of balloons. the initial mystery and anonymity of the weeknd was crucial, particularly because it was indicative of both the creation of house of balloons and the subsequent controversy that followed.
the three original tracks posted by the weeknd were produced by a guy named jeremy rose, who details in an interview his relationship with tesfaye and how it went sour. the two stopped collaborating before the songs were posted, but both rose and tesfaye were credited early on by smaller blogs who covered the music. however, when larger outlets picked up on the sound, the anonymous allure was slipped into the weeknd’s persona. after house of balloons dropped in march of 2011, the general public learned of tesfaye’s role as the voice of the weeknd but were led to believe that illangelo and doc mckinney were the producers solely responsible for the haunting aura that permeated house of balloons.
rose’s involvement with the original collection of songs certainly makes him the initial architect of the weeknd’s sound, but not its primary one. it’s possible, and perhaps even probable, that illangelo and doc mckinney began their tenure with tesfaye as faithful replicators of the sound rose had crafted, but eventually they became innovators. the version of “the morning” that appears on house of balloons is radically different than rose’s original, sped-up and re-tooled, and “coming down” is the spookiest offering on the mixtape, with its gusts of white noise and its paralyzing bass synth stabs.
then there’s “house of balloons/glass table girls,” the title track and addendum that so accurately encapsulates both the lyrical and musical pillars of the weeknd. the repurposing of various elements of “happy house” by siouxsie and the banshees – primarily its guitar melody and vocal hook – adds the slightest carefree element, enough to complement tesfaye’s lyrical exoneration of his rampant drug use and poor treatment of women.
but the sunniest disposition ever attached to the weeknd quickly disappears as “house of balloons” dissolves into “glass table girls.” tesfaye’s cadence of “bring the 707 out” references both the muted bass-snare hit of a roland tr-707 – ostensibly used to create the track – and the type of glass table used to snort cocaine. and that’s the simple endgame of the weeknd: to get high and have sex with girls. tesfaye broods in a low register about mixing drugs and tells various anecdotes, effectively blurring the line between fiction and a first-person account. that’s what was so initially enticing about the weeknd: a grueling and explicit examination of an r&b lifestyle that was simultaneously sought after.
still, the sped-up beach house samples on “loft music” and “the party & the afterparty” (rose handled production on the front half of that track) were crucial points of cross-pollination that helped to push the weeknd’s sound onto an even larger audience. rose received credit for his work when trilogy was repackaged and released in 2012, although this was probably due to warranted legal complaints on his behalf. the remastered tracks on the house of balloons portion of trilogy received diligent attention, falling more in line with an audio snob’s expectations. low-end pulses resonate more, drum triggers feel appropriately crisp, and tesfaye’s vocal echoes are more apparent and contribute more directly to the desired ambiance. the only glaring omission is on “what you need,” which lacks the aaliyah sample that functions as the original’s calling card.
as is customary of many reissues (trilogy essentially functions as one), a bonus track is tagged at the end of each mixtape. house of balloons received “twenty eight”; the title refers to its numerical placement in the weeknd’s canon, but rap genius also tells me that it could refer to the approximate number of grams in an ounce. i’ll take their word for it. sonically, “twenty eight” is an extreme outlier from the muddy, drug-addled haze of the rest of house of balloons, and doesn’t follow its lyrical pattern, either. instead, “twenty eight” prefaces the sentiments found throughout thursday, where tesfaye weighs his artistic ambitions against primal instincts and aspirations of fame. the timbral flip-flopping between stock acoustic piano and post-dub punches is also an indicator of that dilemma, and slightly foreshadows the direction that kiss land would eventually take.
tesfaye was afforded the luxuries of time and anonymity while crafting and refining house of balloons, but both of those assets disappeared amidst the sudden media fervor and rampant digestion of his mixtape and the weeknd persona in general. he’d promised two more mixtapes by the end of 2011, a tall order for any artist, let alone one working under such sudden, intense scrutiny. the follow-up to house of balloons could have felt rushed or could have been full of throwaways from the first recording sessions; instead, tesfaye and his duo of producers offered up thursday, a haunting continuation that found the weeknd’s persona increasingly defined within the context of his main fixation.
already, tesfaye has succumbed to one of the key pillars of the stereotyped r&b lifestyle, as his philandering is self-referenced indirectly within the first ten minutes of the mixtape. indeed, “lonely star” immediately finds him offering the world to a nameless girl, ostensibly the same one that appeared in the more incoherent settings of house of balloons. but the song’s hazy coda finally provides context, reducing the girl’s identity to the one day of the week tesfaye has relegated her to. “life of the party” qualifies thursday’s place and purpose within the weeknd’s life, but the subsequent title track croons her identity more forcefully into a sense of nothingness, leaving the girl with few human qualities that aren’t sexual.
the turning point of thursday and downfall of the weeknd’s machismo swagger begins in “the zone,” arguably making it the most important track on the mixtape. after taking a backseat to his romantic proclamations, the weeknd’s rampant codeine abuse circles to the forefront again, this time in a more heartbreaking manner than it did throughout house of balloons. drake nearly missed the deadline for his feature on “the zone,” but his early co-sign of the weeknd morphed into an important collaboration and provided a more abstract angle into the drug-fueled illicit sexual activities that had begun to litter this new strain of r&b.
prior to “the zone,” the weeknd adopted a decidedly domineering and almost predatory tone, one he swaps out for cautionary tales and a sense of self-pity in both segments of “the birds.” in a rare instance that straddles the line between social commentary and self-examination, tesfaye realizes the danger his persona poses and advises his object of affection to distance herself from him. the three remaining tracks on thursday constitute yet another comedown, this time from an intense sexual endeavor as opposed to a drug-induced euphoria. interestingly, the final song on the mixtape alludes yet again to cocteau twins, this time borrowing the title of their 1990 album heaven or las vegas instead of a sample.
the production throughout thursday is impeccable once again, with the chores falling almost exclusively on illangelo and doc mckinney. while devoid of the discernible samples that populated house of balloons, thursday still maintains a singular mood that is incredibly emotive, particularly throughout the middle portion of the mixtape. the bonus track that appears at the end of thursday on trilogy is called “valerie,” again more sonically and conceptually similar to the weeknd’s debut album than any of the material on his mixtapes. the song’s inclusion at this point in the progression of trilogy is sensible – it’s a ballad sung to a girl the weeknd has wronged – yet the inclusion of a given name in the title suggests that this is someone entirely different than the thursday girl, rendering her identity a complete mystery.
if thursday embodied in any way the stereotypical sophomore slump of a promising new artist, then echoes of silence provided sufficient redemption. the final installment of the weeknd’s ambitious trilogy of debauchery is unquestionably the most desolate, at times transcending any conventions of r&b to explore more brooding formats like trip hop and post-dubstep. still, it takes a moment for tesfaye to spiral into that world.
echoes of silence opens with “d.d.,” a retooling of michael jackson’s “dirty diana.” bypassing his customary sampling of recognizable songs in favor of a straight cover may seem curious at first, but the song’s lyrical content is consistent with the illicit nature of tesfaye’s project and its selection may be a tip of the hat to the mtv critic who once likened tesfaye to the king of pop. he certainly proves his worth from a vocal standpoint, and illangelo’s atmospheric tendencies collide with militant drums and a surging bass line to make a case for the song’s position as the strongest of the three openers throughout trilogy.
as the haunting french-canadian vocal hook of “montreal” settles in, it becomes clear that echoes of silence is the weeknd’s version of a break-up album. more accurately, it’s an album that finds tesfaye reconciling with a loss while immediately returning to his tendencies of deception and seduction. subtle clues like the recycled lyrics from house of balloons point to the cyclical nature of the weeknd’s thought process, but it’s the overtness of “initiation” and “xo/the host” in particular that help to drive home his incessant, never-ending abuse of oxycontin and women.
in his own deluded way, however, the weeknd does manage to finally adopt some semblance of self-awareness and a set of morals. “next” primarily deals with his rejection of a girl based on a currently fulfilling relationship, although it’s delivered with the arrogant perception that he is desired solely based on his newfound fame and his position as the next prominent face of r&b. perhaps the most acutely self-aware piece on the mixtape is its title track; “echoes of silence” closes out the entire mixtape trilogy, and although it’s delivered under the lyrical guise of yet another one-night stand, a more important metaphor can be extracted from the song’s plaintive mood. instead of a back and forth dialogue between the weeknd and a nameless girl, “echoes of silence” functions more as a confessional from the weeknd to his fans, nearly begging them not to forget him as he steps away from his proliferate lifestyle in order to focus on his next project. tesfaye finally bridges the gap between fiction and feelings, underscoring that what once may have been a fantasy has turned into a less glamorous reality.
echoes of silence is, without question, the most intimate of the weeknd’s three mixtapes, largely due to the small amount of personnel responsible for its creation. aside from a clams casino co-production credit and juicy j’s spoken word outro on “same old song,” echoes of silence was the byproduct of a close collaboration between tesfaye and illangelo. while still taking the project’s downtempo nature to entirely new levels on “montreal” and “echoes of silence,” illangelo had the foresight to incorporate gritty, angular distorted guitar lines into the mixtape’s overall aesthetic, perhaps a nod to the stadium-rock aura the weeknd’s live show had begun to take on. this sensibility stretches into “till dawn (here comes the sun),” the final of the three bonus tracks on trilogy. it’s the most consistent of the three, finally indicative of both the sonic and lyrical qualities of the mixtape it’s meant to accompany (although there’s a case to be made that the girl is using the weeknd, not the other way around).
so, what does this all mean? nearly four years ago, a complete unknown came out of the woodwork and began the daunting task of reshaping the aesthetic of r&b, largely through the internet and by word of mouth, albeit very powerful mouths. 2007 is often cited as the year that kanye west changed the course of rap music, steering it away from the gangster lifestyle and towards one of eclecticism and vulnerability; while i hesitate to (and probably will never) put the weeknd on the same artistic level as kanye, 2011 seemed to function similarly, with how to dress well and frank ocean helping to craft modern r&b into an artistic niche as revered by critics as it is by teenagers on tumblr.
however, this new direction deviates from kanye’s rebranding from rap in the sense that it does not appear to be sustainable, at least not in its present trajectory. it’s been more than two years since channel orange, but that album already found frank ocean pushing past r&b confines and into psychedelia, while tom krell began unabashedly experimenting with pop conventions on his latest effort as how to dress well. of the big three, the weeknd is the only one who chose to stick almost exclusively with the brooding formula that had garnered him so much acclaim and attention, ultimately resulting in the mixed bag that was kiss land.
part of the lackluster appeal of kiss land can be attributed to tesfaye’s poor in-house retention skills. the casual discarding of jeremy rose perhaps should have been a red flag to doc mckinney and illangelo, both of whom chose to work on creating the weeknd anyways. mckinney noticeably disappeared from the project after thursday, leaving illangelo behind to craft echoes of silence by himself.
but illangelo proved himself to be more than capable, producing track after track uninformed and unassisted by anyone else that convincingly belonged to the weeknd’s aesthetic. despite his long tenure and indispensable role in creating one of pop music’s most enigmatic figures in recent history, illangelo contributed nothing to kiss land. while details on the split are beyond scarce, it’s become clear that tesfaye’s commitment issues move past the one-night stands in his music and extend to those that have helped shape his professional career.
as he prepped for a handful of cross-country tour dates, the weeknd released “king of the fall,” a standalone single that was his strongest piece of work since trilogy. it’s indicative of his fame-induced bravado and continued abuse of nearly every substance he can get his hands on, but further on tesfaye begins to make amends and attempts to rebrand himself. most importantly, he alludes to working with doc mckinney once again, who is to quincy jones as the weeknd is to a dark-skinned michael jackson.
the producers that worked on kiss land wasted their time trying to replicate an aura that had come almost naturally to mckinney and illangelo, and had to do so simply because tesfaye had fallen out with two of the most important instruments of his success. if this collaboration does indeed come to fruition, it not only shows the personal and professional maturation of tesfaye but the possibility that his artistic integrity may still be salvageable.
alternative r&b, or pbr&b as it’s become known sardonically in some circles, has already become a parody of itself. countless artists with a halfway decent croon and a computer with fruity loops try to add their brooding two cents to a stagnant conversation, dumbing down and threatening to kill what was once a promising offshoot. kiss land may have been the biggest perpetrator in this decline, but the weeknd still holds a unique position to save face. by reconnecting with his original collaborators, time won’t be wasted trying to replicate an outdated sound. instead, a delayed evolution of the weeknd’s sound may very well occur, and the promising follow-up to trilogy that was initially expected might finally be delivered. maybe.