Kanye West, The Life of Pablo
Artist: Kanye West
Album: The Life of Pablo
Label: GOOD Music/Def Jam
Verdict: Kanye's ego finally implodes
"I added a couple of tracks." Did he what. Just two days before the extravagant release of The Life of Pablo, West's tweet revealed the addition of eight extra songs, taking his seventh album from a relatively concise 10 tracks to a whopping 18.
That makes Pablo, debuted at West's fashion-show-slash-album-launch-slash-ego-explosion #YeezySeason3, his most bloated release yet.
It is the best of Kanye. It is the worst of Kanye. Unlike the searing triumph of Yeezus, Pablo veers all over the place: at times brilliant, occasionally strange, compelling in places, but also infused with a level of lyrical weirdness that makes it an endurance test.
Just listen to the more-meta-than-meta I Love Kanye. "What if Kanye made a song about Kanye called 'I Miss The Old Kanye'," raps West. "Man that would be so Kanye." Kanye is as Kanye does, it seems.
Like that mid-album interlude suggests, much of Pablo's first half is tough-going, with the AutoTuned awfulness of Father Stretch My Hands Pt 1 containing unrepeatable lyrics that must have Kim Kardashian shaking her head, while T-Pain is surely queuing up lawyers for the barely listenable Highlights.
And even though Famous contains the kind of bounce that made Gold Digger so hot, it's let down by further lyrical indiscretions that understandably riled Taylor Swift.
At this point, if you're a Kanye West hater, Pablo doesn't give you much reason to stop hating. Which makes it even more frustrating that Pablo contains moments of pure genius. The trio of Waves, FML and Real Friends is surely the best triple-whammy West has included on any album - including Yeezus' Hold My Liquor, I'm In It and Blood on the Leaves.
First, Waves rides an echoing hook into thumping R&B bliss, then FML delivers the best hook from The Weeknd we've had since Can't Feel My Face, before some ghostly gremlins take over and make it even better. And the backpack rap of Real Friends is the album's centrepiece, a stunning throwback to The College Dropout that achieves the subtletly sorely lacking elsewhere on Pablo.
Add in the feel-good space crooner Ultralight Beam and the seriously odd Yeezus offcuts Feedback and Freestyle 4 and there's the makings of a short, sharp, sweet West record to rival his best.
But all those add-ons prove Pablo isn't the album when Kanye becomes a great rapper. Neither is it the one where he becomes a great singer. It's the one where Kanye becomes the best at being Kanye. Like all those "Yeezy Yeezy Yeezy" references being shouted over the hook in Facts, it's all just a bit much. Imagine being the guy.
- Chris Schulz
Dream Theater, The Astonishing
Artist: Dream Theater
Album: The Astonishing
Verdict: Bombast beats subtlety, prog the winner on the day
Those celebrating 40 years since the punk game-changer and still believing it wiped away prog-rock haven't been paying attention.
Concept albums, double CDs, orchestration and towering guitars have made a return these past two decades. Case in point, this double CD - by these long-running American prog-metallers (most of whom are Seriously Accomplished Players). It's their 13th studio album, a theatrical rock musical. Unlike many 70s album where the storyline involved demons, Tolkien and such nonsense, this is serious 21st century angst located i a dystopian future where rebels tap the magical power of music. ("Luke, reach out with your feedback"). With appropriate sound effects (C3PO, marching feet etc) alongside the stentorian and algebraic guitar and piano passages, doom-laden orchestration and choral parts, this sometimes starts with high drama then pushes upwards. The saving graces are the nuggety rock songs scattered about and ballads that allow you to catch your breath. Ambitious, enormous and new-prog rendered in HD/Cinemax? Absolutely, and a genuine headphone epic.
- Graham Reid (elsewhere.co.nz)
Mavis Staples, Livin' On A High Note
Artist: Mavis Staples
Album: Livin' On A High Note
Verdict: A spirited, heart-warming collaboration
The past five years have been something of a renaissance for 76-year-old Mavis Staples. You Are Not Alone and One True Vine were soulful, spiritual, and fairly solo affairs, songs tinged with sadness and wisdom. With Livin' on a High Note she takes a new approach, reaching out to younger artists for collaboration, determined to create uplifting, spirited songs. And it works. Despite having 12 different co-writers, the force of Staples' personality knits them all together and it's clear the stylistic nuances of everyone from M. Ward (who also produced the album) to Tune-Yards, Nick Cave to Neko Case have brought inspiration to her. Benjamin Booker's Take Us Back has a brilliant blues groove. The Tune-Yards' collaboration Action is full of New Orleans sass and Cajun grooves; sing-along Tomorrow (Aloe Blacc and Jon Batiste) has an easy charm; and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and M. Ward are responsible for the most heart-warming song on the record with Dedicated. Staples' voice is commanding and charismatic, but she's not afraid to leave in the rough edges either.
- Lydia Jenkin
Lucinda Williams, The Ghosts of Highway 20
Artist: Lucinda Williams
Album: The Ghosts of Highway 20
Label: Highway 20/Thirty Tigers
Verdict: Twelfth album a matter of life and death
Americana figurehead Lucinda Williams digs deeper into raw, mystical electric blues on new double album, The Ghosts of Highway 20. Focused on faith, death and rural Southern settings, Highway 20 sounds like a William Faulkner novel put to music. it's not something you'll put on at a party. But it conveys a haunting gravitas that conjures spirits and rattles bones. Those willing to lose themselves in the severe tone of the arrangements and stark imagery of the lyrics will find The Ghosts of Highway 20 casts a spell that will move you to contemplate the verities of existence. The album alternates between dirges (Death Came) and gnarled mid-tempo tunes with guitars tangled like barbed wire (Dust), with forays into hymns (Doors of Heaven), voodoo rhythms (If My Love Could Kill) and woozy waltzes (If There's a Heaven). The two covers, Woody Guthrie's House of Earth and Bruce Springsteen's Factory, fit with the album's obsession with survival and transcendence. Ghosts of Highway 20 confirms Williams belongs in the company of those masters.
- Michael McCalla, AP