Album Review: The xx, ‘I See You’

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Following a five-year absence, the xx have returned with some of their strongest, loveliest and most sophisticated work yet in I See You. The record packs a remarkable level of emotional drama into its 38 minutes, with fearless producer Jamie xx (whose terrific 2015 coming-out party In Colour hinted at a uniquely eclectic shift in sound), guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist Oliver Sim wearing their stadium aspirations proudly on their sleeves.

The Londonite four-piece-turned-trio cut a major swath in the alternative universe with their 2009 debut xx, a stark, skeletal, mesmerizing record that stripped indie dance-pop down to its most basic elements. The follow-up, 2012’s Coexist, saw the band take an even more minimalistic approach to songcraft, with some tracks reserved to only ringing, shoegazy guitar and quavering vocals. With I See You, they expand their creative palates to create a fascinating, dreamy meld of house, post-punk and shoegaze.

It’s clear the band is doing things differently this time around, and they make a point of telling you as much from the start of the opening track. “Dangerous” begins with grandiose horn noises before breaking into a dancefloor-ready drum-bass beat. The beat thumps on infectiously as Croft and Sim croon about entering and navigating a love affair with reckless abandon: “I’m going to pretend that I’m not scared/If this only ends in tears/Then I won’t say goodbye.”

Working with regular collaborator Rodaidh McDonald, Jamie makes ample use of his newly-refined prowess as an electronic producer on this record. He plays a pivotal role in the band’s new musical direction, his lush, intoxicating sonic textures form an ideal foundation for the aching sentiments of his bandmates. The arrangements are warmer and more complex, yet they retain the chilly shimmer of the group’s previous work. The ringing, U2-esque guitar is still very much present, but this time it’s buttressed by the sounds of organ, horns, strings (including avant-garde legend Laurie Anderson on viola), and – in a notable first for the group – the prominent use of vocal samples. The samples aren’t exactly obscure (soft-rockers Alessi Brothers on the vaguely dubstep “Say Something Loving,” Trio Mediæval on the divinely hypnotic two-become-one anthem “Lips”), but they’re expertly woven into the record’s motif and elevate the meanings of the songs themselves instead of functioning as mere ornaments.

As songwriters and as vocalists, Sim and Croft have never sounded stronger or more self-assured than on I See You; Croft, in particular, seems to drift out of her comfort zone, displaying a more dynamic side of her reserved, breathy voice. The duo have mastered the art of exuding passion in their vocals and words while still maintaining a sort of detached coolness. They often have admitted in interviews to singing “over” each other instead of “to” one another – a dynamic that serves the group and their music well as their lyrics keep a delicate balance between desire for human connection and observing connection from a distance with a cold exactness. “It’s so overwhelming/The thrill of affection feels so unfamiliar,” they sigh on “Say Something Loving”; “I don’t know what this is, but it doesn’t feel wrong.”

This lyrical focus – love, intimacy and youth as a disjointed, alien experience  – continues throughout the album. “A Violent Noise” uses a distinctly club beat, albeit far darker and more subdued, to evoke the experience of young clubgoers and the abstract numbness and confusion youth and clubgoing constantly entail – the feeling of being alone on a crowded dancefloor. “With every kiss from a friend/with everything I pretend not to feel,” Sim sings. “Am I too high? Am I too proud?/Is the music too loud for me to hear?” On “Replica,” somber, airy guitar and church organ-like chords flutter over thumping bass as the two contemplate the struggle to avoid imitating the mistakes of the preceding generation: “Is it in my nature to be stuck on repeat…Do I chase the night or does the night chase me?”

Emphatic lead single “On Hold” presents an interesting contradiction. It’s one of the brightest, most upbeat songs the xx have ever crafted, packed with soaring synth notes and crackling breakbeats, yet its lyrics overflow with isolation and a fruitless quest for understanding, complete with astronomical imagery (“The stars and the charts and the cards make sense/Only when we want them to/When I lie awake staring in to space/I see a different view…Now you’ve found a new star to orbit…When and where did we go cold?”) A chopped-up, garbled sample of Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” transforms into a Tower of Babel, enhancing the supreme bewilderment and disorientation. Altogether, the track is a gorgeously subdued statement that ranks among the group’s best.

The devastating “Performance,” which bears perhaps the closest resemblance to the band’s previous work of anything found on I See You, is another standout moment. Here, Croft’s voice levitates over a barebones guitar/bass backdrop and swelling, brutish orchestration courtesy of Paul Frith and the Iskra String Quartet as she all-too-appropriately connects the concealing of emotion to a stage act (“If I scream at the top of my lungs, will you hear what I don’t say…I do it all so you won’t see me hurting/When my heart it breaks/I’ll put on a performance/I’ll put on a brave face”). The song touches upon a crucial point; after all, what is love in our modern world – indeed, what is the very art of music – if not the adoption of personae, the projection of feeling – an elaborately staged performance? Croft’s words take on an even greater poignancy when, ultimately, the illusion becomes reality as she and her lover drift further apart (“The show is wasted on you/So I perform for me”).

It’s the closing track, “Test Me,” however, that drives the whole thing home. The song begins as a slow, unadorned dirge with minimal percussion but gathers energy in its final minutes, gradually adding layer upon layer of wailing synths, vocals and drums to form a hauntingly vivid soundscape. Add Croft’s and Sim’s entreats for their respective lovers to “take it out on me,” and it’s an incredibly heartbreaking note on which to end this record. But heartbreak is what the xx do best, and here they manage to find new and intriguing ways to express it.

I See You is a beautiful and magnificently realized work that highlights the xx’s individual and collective strengths while successfully challenging them to explore uncharted territory. If you’re still in need of proof of their relevance and vitality in an age when lackluster, play-it-safe “alternative” music chokes the airwaves, this is the record to do it. This group is a force of extraordinary gravitas and potency, and it’s sure to be thrilling to watch what they do next. (8.4/10)

The xx

I See You

Released January 13, 2017 by Young Turks

Produced by Jamie xx, Rodaidh McDonald and Romy Madley Croft

Classic Album Review: Deerhunter, ‘Monomania’

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[Originally published May 10, 2013]

As I write this, I have not yet finished listening to Deerhunter’s sixth studio effort; my Spotify is not reacting well to the poor Internet connection in my bedroom, and it’s turning into this whole big deal. But judging simply from the 8 of its 12 tracks I’ve heard at this point, I can confidently state that I am in love with this record. It’s just that incredible.

The recently reunited Bradford Cox and co. are in top form on Monomania. The classic elements are all here: Cox’s imitation-Lennon-via-George Harrison vocals, substantial but never overstated; Lockett Pundt’s jangly, endlessly echo-y guitar riffs; and the truly hip percussion work of Moses Archuleta, all wrapped in a swirling cocoon of feedback and garage-fuzz. And yet, the group’s playing has rarely ever sounded tighter than on this record—thanks in large part to the addition of able-handed newcomers Frankie Broyles and Josh McKay on guitar and bass, respectively. The band also happens to have expanded their musical palate, with the various players jamming on Indonesian gamelan, Wurlitzer, Baldwin organ, and steel guitar, among other nifty gadgets. (Okay, not quite as striking as the random sax solo on their 2010 record Halcyon Digest’s “Coronado,” but still pretty damn striking.)

The songwriting rocks, too, with Cox’s and a bit of Pundt’s (“The Missing”) beautiful, cryptic lyrics exploring previously virgin territories of paranoia, alienation, and confused love. Each track begins with a lovely and devastatingly infectious hook that lets you know instantly that it’s going to be fantastic. From the tinny fog-machine opening of “Neon Junkyard” to the drum-saturated whir that closes out “Leather Jacket II” to the laid-back sighs of “Dream Captain” and “The Missing,” each of these songs will ease its way into your brain and heart. (Expect to hear “Back to the Middle” played sporadically at a Hollister near you—and expect to love it to pieces.)

With all these powerful, radio-ready hooks—along with tasteful production from the band and veteran co-worker Nicolas Vernhes (Microcastle)—this could easily be considered Deerhunter’s “poppiest” record. Indeed, they’ve been easing away from the experimental tendencies of their early records in favor of a more pop-oriented sound (a listen to the stellar cut “Memory Boy” from Halcyon should give you an idea of what I’m talking about).

But Monomania, like most of the group’s work, is “poppy” in the sense that it mirrors one certain Kurt Cobain’s efforts to create the “perfect pop song” with just a smidgen of grungy grit. And when these guys lay on the grit, boy, do they ever lay it on thick. Listen to the quirky, rowdy noise-jam/freak-outs at the end of the title track and “Leather Jacket” (themselves a testament to the clear blast the reunited ensemble had in the studio this time around) and you’d swear this record was made in 1992, hand-produced by Albini himself. But this is by no means a grunge throwback, nor is it a sloppy throwaway effort; the band once again does a stellar job of combining their varied influences with their own unflinching avant-garde vision.

In the end, the best thing about Monomania is that it provides us with a peek at something truly magical: a band doing what they do best, to the best of their ability–and obviously loving every feedback-soaked minute of it. (8.7/10)

Deerhunter

Monomania

Released May 7, 2013 on 4AD Records

Produced by Nicolas Vernhes

Classic Film Review: ‘Nebraska’

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[Originally published March 18, 2014]

In this era of modern cinema—namely, with the arrival and ubiquity of color film—black and white film has enjoyed a considerable boost in popularity. It has come to signify an awareness of and appreciation for the glorified days of early cinema—there was, obviously, a time when every film was shot this way. However, such films can come off as contrived and pretentious, even unoriginal—something that any poor sap with a Monochrome setting on his video camera can create. Alexander Payne’s latest opus Nebraska, however, was clearly filmed this way for a reason.

The film opens on a series of wide shots showing a grizzled geezer in a black jacket hobbling determinedly alongside a treacherous Montana freeway. As it turns out, this old fellow is Korean War veteran Woody Grant (played by prolific Western star Bruce Dern). A fraudulent piece of publisher’s junk mail has led the boozy, emotionally distant Woody to believe he has won a million dollars, and he intends to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska (hence, the title) to claim his earnings—all much to the dismay of his long-suffering wife Kate (June Squibb) and their grown sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk). David eventually decides to drive his father to Lincoln. En route to their destination, they organize a family reunion in Woody’s tiny, eccentric hometown of Hawthorne. There, they encounter plenty of would-be well-wishers eager to cash in on Woody’s newfound wealth—including his shady former business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach).

With Nebraska, Mr. Payne (About Schmidt, The Descendants, et al) has once again brought a compelling, heartbreaking, and gorgeous story to the screen, thanks in large part to a well-chosen and able-bodied cast.

Throughout a career spanning half a century, the 77-year-old Dern has either been tragically underutilized or typecast as a psychopathic villain. Now, at long last, he seems to have arrived at a role deserving of the masterful craftsmanship and acting range. In this touching, emotionally raw performance—by far the best of his career—Dern is the film’s tragic hero. With his unkempt hair and thick stubble; his gravelly, wobbly whisper of a voice; and the eternal look of bewilderment in his gaunt face, Woody Grant is a man contending with his own mortality and the mistakes of his past, but with a fading grip on the present. We see him come to terms with a long history of alcohol abuse and a less-than-idyllic family dynamic, all while he struggles to ultimately regain his will to live—he intends, for instance, to buy a brand new truck with his prize money “just to have it.”

Heavy drama touched with light wit has become a Payne trademark, and Dern’s performance brings this to the forefront. We find ourselves, as viewers, affected in opposing ways by the saga of this confused old man and his worried family. We despair alongside Woody when his ex-bar buddies belittle him for believing in the sweepstakes hoax, though all the while we knew he had it coming. We get plenty of snickers out of his forlorn antics, but are still heartbroken by his slow descent into senility.

Not to be overlooked is former About Schmidt scene-stealer Squibb, whose Oscar-nominated performance in Nebraska showcases tenacity and guts that rival those of actresses a third her age (she’s 85, thank you very much). While we delight in Kate’s colorful, merciless commentary on hers and Woody’s younger days in Hawthorne (in one memorable scene, she flashes an ex-lover’s grave to show what he “missed out on”), we also sympathize with her plight as a devoted wife who wants her husband to get on the right track. “I never knew the son of a bitch even wanted to be a millionaire,” she exclaims upon learning of Woody’s alleged winnings. “He should have thought about that years ago and worked for it!”

SNL alums Forte and Odenkirk, meanwhile, set their boisterous comedic chops aside for a while and counter the frenzied personalities of Squibb and Dern with a firm grounding in reality. In so doing, both men successfully demonstrate their impressive range as performers.

Now back to the elephant in the room—Payne’s decision to shoot the entire film in black and white, with help from perennial collaborator Phedon Papamichael (The Descendants, Sideways). Granted, it’s commendable that the notion was fully realized, and when it works—which it does, for the most part—it’s brilliant. Yes, monochromatic images of David unsuccessfully attempting to sell a stereo system to a young couple and Nebraskan locals fumbling their way through karaoke tunes are odd and a bit, dare I say, contrived. However, we see the method to Payne’s madness when we encounter stark, sweeping wide shots of the rambling Midwestern landscape through which father and son travel—all augmented by a lovely, sparse, and folk-tinged score from multi-instrumentalist Mark Orton. It’s a stark contrast from the lush Hawaiian backdrop of 2011’s Descendants—a film which, interestingly enough, lost to a silent film throwback, The Artist, for Best Picture that year.

What’s more, this black-and-white world further highlights the nature of its haggard, embattled protagonist. At one point, we close in on Woody, gazing out into a barren field surrounding what remains of his childhood home. “I was gonna be a farmer,” he sighs. “I don’t know what happened.” And in that poignant moment, we feel just as uncertain as he does.

Nebraska has its flaws, but they are minimal in contrast to the end result. It’s a beautiful, brilliantly executed story that explores not only a journey through the Midwest, but the far more rugged journey through human life—a journey which, like it or not, all of us travel together. (8.8/10)

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Nebraska

Director: Alexander Payne

Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk

DoP: Phedon Papamichael

Black-and-white, 114 mins.

Released by Paramount Vantage (November 15, 2013)

Classic Album Review: The National, ‘Trouble Will Find Me’

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[Originally published May 24, 2013]

When you think about it, the National bears striking similarity to Arcade Fire. Both are independently-born merchants of arty post-punk/folk anthems with impassioned lyrics. Each has spawned countless imitators who, despite their earnest efforts, have never been able to truly duplicate its sound. They have both created a genre all their own and revolutionized music forever within the first decade of this fledgling century.

That being said, who’s stopping the National from making an Arcade Fire album?

Does that frighten you? It shouldn’t. True, Trouble Will Find Me – the sixth studio effort from the Cincinnatian-turned-Brooklynite sextet, and their first since 2010’s High Violet  sounds a hell of a lot like the brilliant work of those darn Canadians. The soaring choruses and ooh-aahing choirs are there, as is the cryptic, passionate songwriting. Need I mention that Richard Reed Parry (yes, that Richard Reed Parry) plays bass, piano, and God-knows-what-else?!

But that’s not all. The album’s collaborators are a laundry list of art-indie’s cream of the crop, including (but not limited to): Sufjan Stevens and Thomas Bartlett (Doveman) on keyboards; backing vocals from St. Vincent and Sharon Van Etten; and bits and pieces provided by members of Beirut, Dark Dark Dark, Antony and the Johnsons, Bedroom Community, Atlantic Brass Quintet, and Clogs (guitarist Bryce Dessner’s instrumental side project).

Okay. Take a breath. Just soak all that collaboration in. Okay. On we go.

This potpourri of co-conspirators may seem overwhelming – a post-punk New Year’s Eve of sorts, where it seems impossible for each component to have an ample say. And yet the band manages to incorporate all these varied influences into one coherent whole and wrap them in its trademark blanket of chilly New Wave-influenced post-punk. Thus, on Trouble Will Find Me, the band creates something truly unique, yet strangely familiar.

The album opens with soft Dessner guitar over a shimmering post-punk landscape as frontman Matt Berninger’s weary baritone shivers, “You should know me better than that/I should live in salt for leaving you behind.”

Next comes the imposing, dark single “Demons.” It’s a repetitive, dreamy, ageless-sounding drone with eerie guitar humming and a thin wall of strings in the distance. Think Nick Cave fronting Disintegration-era Cure. Here Berninger even squeezes in a rare obscenity (it starts with an ‘F’) that can easily go unnoticed by casual listeners.

“Don’t Swallow the Cap” is one of the many standout tracks on the album. Synthetic drums and siren guitars envelop a somber yet somehow hopeful tale of death and loss. “When they ask what do I see,” croons Berninger, “I see a bright white beautiful heaven hangin’ over me.”

The mesmerizing instrumentation continues throughout the record. From the gorgeous muted guitar-piano conversation and fluttering strings of “Fireproof” to the slow, spaced-out 3/4 keyboard dirge of “Heavenfaced” to the jazzy piano and urgent fretwork of “Pink Rabbits,” there’s rarely a dull moment on any of the thirteen tracks–or rather, rarely a moment that feels commonplace. The whole thing gives the listener the feel of waking up at 4:30 AM – in New York City, perhaps – barely awake, just beginning to make sense of things.

In case you haven’t noticed, this album has a certain overriding theme as far as songwriting is concerned. It’s a darkly meditative opus, lyrics awash with regret over mistakes made on both sides of some nameless relationship. And as we’ve come to expect from these guys, the writing is top-notch. “I’m having trouble inside my skin/I try to keep my skeletons in,” coos Berninger over cool synthscapes and guitar rings on the serene “Slipped.” “I’ll be your friend and a fuckup and everything/But I’ll never be anything you want me to be.”

Berninger, of course, to continue the Arcade Fire compare-contrast, bears little resemblance to Win Butler with his Ian Curtis-meets-Steve Kilbey vocals. But though he sounds apathetic and distant to the layman, his voice has a certain peculiar passion to them; when he growls “I need my girl,” you’re thoroughly convinced that he does need his girl.  When that voice is put in context with its surroundings, it works spine-tingling miracles.

Trouble Will Find Me is full of lovelorn romanticism and aching regret – with just a hint of hope for redemption. This is an art of which the National can pride themselves on being masters. Coating their canvas with a shroud of darkness, they simultaneously touch it up with spots of light and beauty. What results is a grandly emotive and frightfully powerful record – one of the best of the year thus far – and further proof that these six young men figure big among the musicians that matter most today. (8.4/10)

The National

Trouble Will Find Me

Released May 21, 2013 on 4AD Records

Produced by Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner

Album Review: Brian Eno, ‘Reflection’

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2016, man. From the election of a fascist demagogue to the most powerful office on earth to the rise of said demagogue’s antagonistic neo-Nazi supporters to the death of seemingly every beloved public figure, the year we just exited was often downright brutal, and it took a remarkably heavy toll on most of us. As always, we’re trying to optimistically hype up the new year as a fresh start, a chance to begin again – and yet, the future ahead still seems more uncertain than ever before.

Leave it to an artist as pragmatic and inventive as Brian Eno, Earth’s long-reigning ambient musician-producer laureate, to create a record that perfectly emulates that uncertainty while doubling as a meditation on both the good and the bad of the past year. Released on the very threshold of 2017, Reflection is an epic ambient journey in the form of a continuous, 54-minute track that exhibits the balance of light and dark 2016 was for much of the world.

The track begins in familiar territory, with serene, lightly buzzing notes pulsating over hazy, dark tones that whir and swirl beneath, gradually gaining prominence. As the track flows forward, the foreboding background hum repeatedly threatens to pull the listener under, only to be disrupted by a series of light vibraphone (?) hits here, an icy synth there. Eno sustains this mood for the next hour while mostly managing to capture the listener’s attention throughout. In several places, the hum itself enters the forefront, cycling back and forth between one earbud and the other. 2016 definitely felt like this at many points, with overwhelming darkness blotting out every trace of light. At other times, Eno’s signature ambient noises layer on top of one another to create a peculiar, lush tapestry of sound – the few precious moments in which we were able to gain for ourselves some semblance of peace. All in all, the track doesn’t sound drastically different from Eno’s other ambient work, but it does serve as yet another powerful testament to his genius as a producer and his ability to use repetition and a meditative atmosphere to create hypnotic, arresting worlds of sound.

Throughout his long, remarkable career, Eno has proven himself to be nothing if not a futuristic thinker, making Reflection’s apparent fixation on space hardly surprising. The track is laden with interstellar noise – metallic clangs, blurred rumbles that sound like rocket launches, UFO-like buzzes and beeps. One receives the mental image of an astronaut floating through the vast silence far above the Earth, looking down at the disarming serenity of the planet. Is Eno telling us not to worry – that none of this shit matters because we’re all literally floating through space on an enormous blue rock – that our chronic self-importance as a species means nothing in the scheme of the expansive universe aboard which we just happen to be temporary passengers? Maybe, maybe not; but the idea is certainly appealing.

And yet, for all of its astronomical underpinnings, the album itself bears a distinctly personal feel. Most of his groundbreaking ambient work in the 1970s and 80s saw him collaborating with such gifted instrumentalists as Harold Budd, Laraaji, Jon Hassell, and Daniel Lanois; however, the credits for Reflection list Eno as sole performer and producer. This is his meditation – his introspective look back at his life, particularly its most recent twelve months.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to discern from this record what Eno’s vision for our future might be. But if the supreme serenity of the ambient bloops and bleeps that seep through Reflection’s omnipresently grim synth backdrop is any indication, he appears to see faint flickers of light in the dark. The painful memory of the past is far from gone, but there is hope, however dim, for the days to come.

Like Eno’s best ambient compositions, Reflection is a minimalistic yet enticing soundscape that works as background music but also makes for a deeply rewarding close-listen. It’s one of the most inspired and darkly beautiful pieces of music he’s released in a while– and it couldn’t have come along at a better, more appropriate time. (8.5/10)

Brian Eno

Reflection

Released January 1, 2017 on Warp Records

Produced by Brian Eno

Album Review: Run the Jewels, ‘Run the Jewels 3’

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Watching Run the Jewels’ evolution has been truly exhilarating. In three years and as many albums (not counting the feline remix smorgasbord Meow the Jewels), Killer Mike and El-P have accomplished more than some rappers do in their entire careers. What began as a modest collaboration on Mike’s 2012 record R.A.P. Music has developed into something truly special—with each release, the duo has grown more passionate, more politically-charged, more royally pissed-off. Their latest effort, the aptly-titled Run the Jewels 3—unleashed upon an unsuspecting world three weeks early last Christmas Eve—is their strongest yet. Mike and El are angrier than ever (with what’s happened in the past year, my God, do they ever have reason to be), and their message of righteous rage has never sounded more timely or urgent.

When listening to RTJ3, the first thing one notices is the record’s immaculate production quality. El-P’s beats have always been incredibly raucous and eccentric, but here he pulls out all the stops—rattling percussion; screeching, warped synths; soaring orchestral backdrops. The tracks bleed into one another seamlessly, resulting in a record that plays like a short film with a brilliant script and breathtaking cinematography. The pair maintain this action movie soundtrack intensity for 51 thrilling minutes, displaying their radical energy in brief and powerful outbursts.

The album opens with a portentous organ crescendo, followed by majestic cymbal rides over distorted, muffled guitars that recall Kanye West’s ‘10s work. With an intro like that, you’d better strap in and listen to what the fuck these guys have to say. Mike then proceeds to tear into knockout opener “Down”: “I hope, I hope with the highest of hopes/That I never have to go back to the trap and my days of dealing with dope.” He then exchanges verses with El about their respective past struggles—Mike’s as a former dope hustler, El’s as a down-and-out indie-rap darling whose fortunes turned after partnering with Mike. RTJ3 thus begins hopefully on a note of perseverance and defeat of adversity.

Despite this, as mentioned before, there’s plenty to be mad about. The fiery, brutal “Talk to Me” is the record’s most blatant indictment of the Orange One. Mike, who spent the last year and a half fervently campaigning for Bernie Sanders, places himself on the spiritual battleground of an America that doesn’t value his life—with a sampled paraphrasing of Ephesians thrown in for good measure. “Went to war with the devil and Shaytan,” he thunders; “He wore a bad toupee and a spray tan…My job is to fight for survival/In spite of these #AllLivesMatter-ass white folk.”

It doesn’t stop there—on “Hey Kids (Bumaye),” the group calls for an all-out revolution: “Say hello to the masters, on behalf of the classless masses/We showed up, ski masks, picks, and axes to murder asses/Lift up our glasses and watch your palaces burn to ashes/Fucking fascists, who the fuck are you to give fifty lashes?” The ever-impressive Danny Brown closes out the track with a frenzied loop-de-loop that threatens to outshine Mike and El themselves.

As the album continues, the hope expressed in “Down” is diminished by the realities of racial violence. El plays a corrupt Chicago cop on “Don’t Get Captured” – the title itself an empty warning from the media on how to avoid death at the hands of police (“Is that blunt? Well, hell, so’s this boot/We live to hear you say, ‘Please don’t shoot'”). On the devastating, string-and-piano-laden “Thieves!,” Mike speaks eloquently and bluntly on the ethical double standard between police brutality and subsequent riots among the black community. The track samples MLK as well as Rod Serling’s spoken prelude to “The Obsolete Man.” The message is clear: no riot starts in a vacuum, and people can only have so much taken from them before they retaliate against the takers. Mike’s frustration at the demise of Sanders and the rise of Trump is extremely palpable; by the time we reach frenetic closer “A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters,” we find him in tears as victims’ mothers are paraded onstage at the Democratic National Convention. The apocalyptic nightmare reaches its climax with the doomy, futuristic “2100,” with perennial collaborator Boots delivering a drama-saturated hook: “Save my swollen heart/Bring me home from the dark/Take me up, take me up, take me up.”

“Thursday in the Danger Room,” however, is where shit truly gets real. As saxophone god Kamasi Washington blares somewhere off in the distance, the pair grapple with the very concepts of life and death as El visits his dying friend and fellow MC Camu Tao (“Death’s a release but a much bigger beast is a living on limited time/Like how do you look in the eyes of a friend and not cry when you know that they’re dying?”) and Mike faces the impossible task of consoling a fallen comrade’s loved ones (“Trying to search for the words that will comfort her soul and her spirit and mind/I tell her that it’ll be fine/But deep down I know that I’m lying”). It’s one of the most affecting moments on an album with no shortage of high points; it provides remarkable insight into the psyches of these two brilliant musicians and forces the listener-as-human to confront mortality itself.

RTJ’s wordplay is in top form throughout the record, and as one might expect, they never mince words. When they’re not taking a stand against the world’s evils, they’re effectively and often hilariously hyping themselves up as a force to be reckoned with. They draw from a seemingly endless well of innovative insults and roast their foes to a smoldering crisp. The ferocious single “Legend Has It” buzzes with enormous electricity as Mike and El take turns firing venomous verbal barbs over a hard-thumping, menacing beat with skeletal percussion. The two set themselves up as bloodthirsty murderers, vicious foes who take delight in quite literally slaughtering their haters. Mike, in particular, sounds gleefully demented when spewing fireballs like, “We are the murderous pair/That went to jail and we murdered the murderers there/Then went to Hell and discovered the devil/Delivered some hurt and despair.” The climax, however, comes in the track’s final 45 seconds, when the two deliver threats and brags in rapid succession right up to the zero mark. Add that to the repetition of the band’s initials by a cheering crowd as a makeshift battle cry, and these guys have got intimidation down to a science. On the sophomoric “Stay Gold” (i.e., Pony Boy, Mike’s son), you can almost see the smirks streaked across their faces as they boast about their wealth and the women in their lives. With “Call Ticketron,” they add their 2015 gig opening for Jack White at Madison Square Garden to their rapidly-expanding calling card as El playfully confirms that the “last two pirates alive are still yarghin’”.

Run the Jewels 3 is rambunctious, terrifying, merciless, and heroic – a testament to the supreme talent and conviction of its creators. There’s a certain beauty to it as well – two very different men from incongruous backgrounds united in a noble quest to make the world just a little less shitty. We’re a long way from things getting better, but for now Mike and El are fighting tyranny with all they’ve got and aren’t about to quit anytime soon. “I told y’all suckers!” Mike yells early on in the record. “I told y’all on RTJ1, then I told you again on RTJ2, and you still ain’t believe me!”  Maybe this time, we’ll pay attention. (9.2/10)

Run the Jewels

Run the Jewels 3

Released January 13, 2017 on Run the Jewels, Inc.

Produced by El-P, Little Shalimar, Wilder Zoby and Boots