Let’s not bury the lead: last year I saw the best concert I’ve ever seen and may ever see, and the woman responsible was Janelle Monáe.
I never guessed when I first heard her that I would become such a huge fan. A friend had given me an excellent mix that included “Many Moons” from her Metropolis EP. I love it now, but when I first heard it, I didn’t know what to think. It was so hyper, so much going on; that Sesame Street riff! What was she on about? I might have Googled her at that point, and seen the cover of her EP. I was intrigued by her unusual look and her science fiction motifs.
Still, it took me until The Archandroid to sit up and pay attention. I’m sure I must have sampled some of the songs before I bought it, but I don’t remember; all I recall is seeing the album cover and thinking “there’s no way this can’t be interesting.” Fortunately, I was right — it’s an endlessly creative album, genre-switching effortlessly along a wide range from hip-hop all the way to 60s folk/pop, even including an Of Montreal-penned duet with Kevin Barnes before pitching up on the shores of whatever psychedelic island “Wondaland” hails from. It’s punctuated with orchestral interludes, the “Suites” that divide chapters of Monáe’s frame story of the privileged human elite and the tightly controlled android others. The allegory adds aesthetic spice to the whole affair — it’s fun to fill in elements of the story from the spoken pieces that hint at it — but it’s meaningful, too, especially as it continues to develop in the next album. It’s a clever, resonant device that gives her as much room as she likes to be explicit about her themes or oblique.
The Electric Lady takes a turn for the oblique in all but title. It’s the first release so far (unless you count the charming early-work collection The Audition) not to feature Metropolis-inspired cover art, and the genre-hopping is toned down a bit, with little here (“Look Into My Eyes,” maybe?) that resembles “Sir Greendown” or “Mushrooms and Roses.” Which is fine; Monáe is a creative enough artist that nothing she touches is ever going to sound entirely ordinary.
This is a generous album, too, overflowing with songs to the point where you almost forget you’re listening to one single record. The first third features the extended jam of the title track, the slow love ballad “PrimeTime,” and the empowerment anthem “Q.U.E.E.N.” And of course it kicks off with “Givin Em What They Love,” on which Monáe proves herself one of maybe a handful of artists who can invite Prince to guest on a track and not be overshadowed in the slightest.
The next sequence’s jewel is “Dance Apocalyptic,” probably my favorite track on the album.
So freaked out, worried about the bomb
Bought a house, but I’m allergic to the house pets
Your credit cards, working and a-bobbing
Just to make enough to pay your rent
What’s the matter?
Your chicken tastes like pork?
You have triplets instead of twins?
Is your food taste plastic?
But I really, really wanna thank you
For dancing ’til the end
You found a way to break out
You’re not afraid to break out
But I need to know
If the world says it’s time to go
Tell me, will you freak out?
It’s Monáe in microcosm: intelligent, compassionate social commentary set to irresistible melodies. It’s the end of the world, awash in carcinogens and economic disaster. Still, dance — because you have to.
And that’s just the halfway point. The whole album mixes Monáe’s lyrical concerns with musical celebration, not just of “Sally Ride” and “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes” but also the “Ghetto Woman” whose name you probably don’t even know:
Her eyes too heavy from working nights as a janitor
She’d keep it to herself and nobody could understand her
Even when she thought that she couldn’t she carried on
She couldn’t imagine both of her daughters here all alone
Before the tuxedos and black and white every day
Used to watch my momma get down on her knees and pray
She’s the reason that I’m even writing this song
We come in for a landing soft and sweet with “What an Experience,” which does for The Electric Lady what “The Morning Fog” does for Hounds of Love. It’s gorgeous, and the perfect ending.
This is such a dense record, at least as much as her previous works, and I’m still getting a handle on it even now. I was helped in this by getting to see her concert at the Warfield. The Electric Lady is an incredible album on your speakers or headphones, but let me tell you, you just haven’t heard a lot of it until you’ve heard it live.
I don’t even know where to start to describe this show to you. Like one of her albums, it was so full of incident that I can barely remember everything in the right order. Both the stage and the performers were dressed entirely in stark black and white. I’m pretty sure she came out in a straightjacket at one point, fitting with the running skit about how she’s a nutcase and constantly being chased by her doctors in lab coats. She’s a dynamo onstage, the single most energetic performer I’ve ever seen. Even after a seemingly endless mix of songs from her last three records, backed by a full band including vocalists, horn players, and all the rest, she did an extended hushed breakdown sequence, followed by a round of crowdsurfing. It all went on so long that while most of my brain and spine and arms and legs were enjoying the show, I had to devote a little bit of mental attention to figuring out what I’d do if I missed the last train home. If I had to, I was fully prepared to book a hotel that night and stay in the city. There was no way I wouldn’t be dancing till the end.
“Epic” is a fine word to describe that show, and also to describe the story — musical, allegorical — she’s telling with her albums. I can’t wait for the next verse.
Tegan and Sara, Heartthrob
Easily the best Tegan and Sara album since So Jealous, perhaps because it’s unabashedly pop. I admired the indie leanings of The Con and Sainthood but few of the songs really grabbed me. “Closer” was designed to, and did. “Goodbye, Goodbye” and “Shock to Your System” are great too, but it’s the grand “I Was a Fool” and the sweet, sincere “Love They Say” that really move me.
Lady Gaga, ARTPOP
Like Modern Vampires, it’s my least favorite, but that doesn’t mean it’s no good. “Venus” is batty but fun; “Sexxx Dreams” is obvious (and just a little bit too “kiss to turn the guys on”) but welcome; “Swine” is nasty but nice; “Mary Jane Holland” is the glammest ode to weed I’ve ever heard.
- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away