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This Weekend I will Mostly be Listening to….. D’Angelo and the Vanguard – ‘Black Messiah’ January 3, 2015

Posted by guestposter in This Weekend I'll Mostly Be Listening to....

A very welcome This Weekend from SonofStan…

It’s a curious thing, but in a world where we are all presumed to live in a state of permanent distraction, where most media seems to budget for attention spans measured in fractions of seconds, and where we all have ‘portfolio careers’, flitting like butterflies, picking up professional development nectar from each fragrant if insubstantial resting point, where every business, at least in terms of (in-)security is like show-business, the pop process, which once seemed like the epitome of fleetingness, of merciless speed and instant obsolescence, now appears almost glacial in its slowness. These days, being a pop star may provide a better chance of a job for life than the Civil Service. The 2 albums and 6 singles a year, and frantic touring of a few decades ago has slowed to a 3 year + cycle of album, PR jaunt, world tour, festivals, pick up the Grammys and back into the studio to start the whole thing again.

Nevertheless, even in such an environment, 14 years between records is pushing the envelope. D’Angelo’s last LP, Voodoo came out in 2000; Bill Clinton was about to leave the White House, Al Gore was still talking about ‘the information superhighway’ and if any of us had access to the internet, it was accompanied by that teeth -on -edge dial -up tone. I remember when I first heard about Napster later that year; the music industry was still a fair few sea miles away from the iceberg – CD sales were at their peak and Voodoo sold well over 2m copies, amply recouping its production costs and the near 6 years it took to make. That record made him the undisputed creative figurehead of what was unblushingly called ‘neo-soul’; along with the likes of Maxwell, Erykah Badu and Lauren Hill – black artists, crossing over, and selling albums in the same kind of quantities as their white counterparts, and often to the same people.

And then he disappeared. Or sort of – a drunk driving arrest, a sting for solicitation of an undercover police officer, rehab….. it was beginning to look like a depressingly familiar tale of talent dissipated. About two years ago, though, he started touring again and more substantial stories of new material surfaced – one track, the uncompromising 1000 Deaths, surfaced briefly on YouTube. Still though, when, in early December, Black Messiah was rush released, it came as a shock, and for quite a few reasons – firstly, the explanation for the rush was frankly political; the verdict of the Michael Brown grand jury made getting it out there necessary. Not known as a particularly political artist, this said a lot about where the record was positioning itself, but even more about where Black America is at the moment. The man who was taking neo-soul into the 5-1 sound systems of luxury SRVs in the early noughties now had different things on his mind. The second shock was how good it was; not at all the work of an artist ‘wrestling with demons’ but a hugely ambitious, various, sonically daring and beautifully recorded and confident work.

There remains the weird fact that, these days, an artist can disappear for that long, return with a record that he could have made 2-3 years after Voodoo and not sound anachronistic; to be sure, it’s recorded on tape, with mostly live instruments, and mostly recorded playing together, but it doesn’t ever sound ‘retro’; but then, whereas once certain sonic signatures dated records as surely as rings did trees – that ’80s snare sound, the compressed ’60s bass etc. – now, and for the last 15-20 years, it’s actually quite hard to tell when a record was made, apart from a few obvious things like autotune and the ever worsening effects of over-compression. What makes Black Messiah such a modern record is not so much the sound of it as the way it plays with rhythm; this is people who grew up with hip-hop taking the feel of roughly sync-ed samples and transposing it to ‘real’ instruments. Sometimes, it’s so loose, it’s like they’re not playing together – until suddenly, like aural cubism, you hear it and it swings like nothing you’ve heard before. The bass playing especially – mostly Pino Pallidino, the man behind that queasy fretless fartiness of the early ’80s with Paul Young and many more – is so much not in the pocket, so behind the beat, it’s unreal – but when you put it together, it all makes a new kind of sense.

It’s a political album, as I said, and every review has referenced one or more of the following; There’s a Riot Going On, Sign O’ The Times, What’s Going On? – and, interestingly and accurately, in terms of it’s rhythmic disjunction and spirit of adventure, Miles’ On the Corner. The politics though, is not in the lyrics – or not all; sure, there’s the line every review quotes, from The Charade ‘All we ever wanted was a chance to talk/ ‘stead we got outlined in chalk’ but, as I was arguing on here recently, politics in music is as much about form as explicit message; 1000 Deaths, with its punk rock guitars and vicious bass riff, recalls Tony Williams’ Emergency in its ferocity – and reaffirms that rock music belongs to black people too. The decentered vocals, the back and forth conversations between lead and backing vocals – often D’Angelo multitracked – and the fragments of found speeches, also, weirdly perhaps, recalls post-punk and maybe more specifically, the Gang of Four. It takes a special kind of musical confidence for someone with such a great voice to do such violence to it, to make it part of the maelstrom rather than using it to provide a reassuring path through the chaos.

It’s not all gnarly of course; there are sweet, jazz- inflected moment, a few lovely ballads – Prayer, Another Life – each though, with that same rhythmic stutter, that initial uncertainty as to where the beat actually is.

I talked at the beginning about the weird a-synchronicity of the present age; as technology moves ever faster, popular culture seems to get stuck; Black Messiah, in such a context, is a genuinely modernist piece of work in that it stakes a claim on a future and relativises its antecedents – instead of the redundant bricolage of bits of the past stuck together to suggest possible other pasts, it invents and insists.

(1000 Deaths)

(Sugah Daddy)



1. WorldbyStorm - January 3, 2015

Fantastic stuff SoS. That’s on the list for new year purchases.


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