Sunday, May 30, 2021

Countdown to 30: My Favorite Album From 2019


I can't believe it folks, we're almost there. This is the most I've committed to a project in a very long time.

I already know with 100% certainty what the album of the year for 2019 is. I'll still talk about the runner-up though, because it's not their fault that a perfect album was released the same year.

Vampire Weekend released another piece of absolute art in 2019, after a six-year break and the departure of Rostam Batmanglij. Father of the Bride sees the band exploring more musical styles than usual, and yet for the first time blending lyrical ideas into a somewhat cohesive story. 

Father of the Bride begins with "Hold You Now," which features Danielle Haim (of Haim) and contains the album title. "Hold You Now" is the first Vampire Weekend song to be sung as a duet and to feature a female voice. Koenig wanted to create a duet in which the two singers have opposing viewpoints. The chorus is sampled from the film The Thin Red Line, meaning Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer receives writing credit. Said chorus is sung by the Choir of All Saints from Honiara. The language used it Solomon Pidjin, the native language of the South Pacific Solomon Islands. It roughly translates to: "God, take my life and let it be//Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;//Take my hands and let them move//At the impulse of Thy love." 

My favorite song on the album by far is "Harmony Hall." I felt the song was somehow able to perfectly express my emotions in the year I finally decided to seek medication and help managing my mental illnesses. Of course, there is a great deal more to the song than what my initial listens garnered. The primary refrain of the song "I don't wanna live like this//but I don't wanna die" is a carry-over from  "Finger Back" of Modern Vampires of the City, much as the line "It feels so unnatural//Peter Gabriel too" was a repeated line in their early work. To me, that line expressed a great deal about mental illness. The song itself is in part about feelings changing over time, which may be why I connected to it as someone with bipolar disorder who is all too familiar with feelings changing. Other themes in the song are guilt and anger. In the wake of George Floyd's murder and the BLM protests in 2020, the band Switchfoot went ahead with their release of a cover of "Harmony Hall," explaining a bit more about the song itself in the process. Many have interpreted the title to be a reference to a dormitory at Vampire Weekend's alma mater, Columbia University, but Koenig has disputed this and as Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman explains in the footnotes to their cover video, "'Harmony Hall' takes inspiration from former slave plantations named Harmony Hall. For me, this is a song that acknowledges that if we are to change our future, we need to first confess our past." "Harmony Hall" has been Vampire Weekend's highest-charting single to date.

"This Life" is cowritten with iLoveMakonnen and Mark Ronson. It covers the theme of love not being as it was expected. A line from iLoveMakonnen's song "Tonight" is interpolated for the chorus, which is about a situation in which the couple have wronged one another equally and have the option to move on or move out. There is also a direct reference to Albert Hammond's "It Never Rains in Southern California," another track about subverted expectations. "Big Blue" features slide guitar reminiscent of George Harrison while the electronic backing track has been compared to Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak. "How Long?" interpolates Vampire Weekend's own "The Kids Don't Stand a Chance" and the chorus melody of Lily Allen's "My One" (which Ezra Koenig worked on with Mark Ronson the previous year). "2021" is built around a sample of an ambient track entitled "Talking" by Haruomi Hosono. It also features Jenny Lewis in what has to be the strangest guest appearance: simply a distortion of her vocalization of the word "boy."

"My Mistake" details the attempted passage of an immigrant into the U.S. for a better life. The refugee is ultimately caught and says that "Hoping for kindness//was my greatest mistake." Koenig's family came to the U.S. as Jewish immigrants seeking asylum. It's safe to assume he empathized a bit with the Mexican immigrants caught by I.C.E. due to the focus of the Trump administration that left many parents separated from their children.

Father of the Bride explores tough topics with an upbeat sound. It features Koenig telling many stories about an imagined life, an imagined marriage that is crumbling. The album is great at creating a sense of acceptable sadness. It's not the doom-and-gloom emo/goth kind of sadness, just a nostalgic longing for simpler times.

My 2019 album of the year is Beware of the Dogs by Welsh-Australian singer/songwriter Stella Donnelly. I was working on a review for this one back in 2019, and telling everyone I could to listen to it, but I never ended up finishing the review because I hate posting them a long time after the album has been released unless it's able to be a retrospective. I described the album as "the album we need right now" and "an indie pop album for the #metoo era."

Donnelly released an E.P. in 2017 and then Beware of the Dogs two years later. If the title didn't already explain it to you, the opening track, "Old Man" should tell you many of the album themes from the fore. "Old Man" details the exploits of a powerful man who sexually harasses young women, knowing that his position makes it unlikely that the women will retaliate. But the narrator is prepared to ensure that it doesn't happen to another young lady, which suddenly shifts the power dynamic. She also begins to hope that other men will help break the culture. The song perfectly describes the situation without sounding contrived, and it's an example of the kind of situations encountered by professional women all over the so-called developed world. Another song in this vein is "Boys Will Be Boys," a haunting song carried over from her EP Thrush Metal that confronts a friend's rapist and the entire culture surrounding him. It's a quiet, floating tune, capable of giving goosebumps. It also contains possibly my favorite line from the whole album: "Like a mower in the morning I will never let you rest." "Boys Will Be Boys" highlights the importance of men taking a stand against toxic men too, a message essential to the effectiveness of the song. "U Owe Me" describes another negative work environment, and serves as what could be a letter of resignation. It touches on the difference between the amount of work being done by the bartenders and managers and accuses this manager of sexual misconduct as well.

"Mosquito" is a seemingly romantic song. It's dreamy, but still with dark undertones in "baby, you're a light and I'm so attracted to ya//a malaria mosquito buzzing in the shadow." It's a stark contrast to "Allergies," a song which plays like breakup song for the same relationship with mentions of the lover never being home. "Allergies," however, definitely has a more morose feel and is defensive of the narrator's choices. I love the choice in this song to include sniffles as though the song is being recorded during a time of actual allergies (which perhaps it was). "Bistro" also discusses the rift between two lovers who don't often see each other or connect emotionally. It's a breakup song with simplistic but functional lyrics. "Bistro" has the most synthesized sound on the album.

The more I listen to "Seasons Greetings," the less sure I am certain of the subject matter, but it's a catchy, attitude-riddled song. It's angry in a smart-alec way. There's also something about the production that sounds nostalgic, as though I'm listening to it on a cassette. I think it's about a problematic relative. I love the line about "she was a punk//my mum's still a punk and you're still s***."

The obvious single of the album is the upbeat "Tricks," which was the first song to really hook me. "Tricks" is a track about the racist, addict f*boy everyone knows. His "southern cross tattoo" is referenced. The southern cross is a growing symbol of racism in Australia. The song is earworm levels of catchy, while still being simple and meaningful like the rest of the album.

"Lunch" and "Die" are both about reckless drivers. "Lunch" has a soft and slow melody and describes the man as being a bad listener. "Die" begins softer and slower, but develops more of a beat.

The lyrics get most complicated on the title track, "Beware of the Dogs." "Beware of the Dogs" is a highly political message. "Beware of the Dogs" is a warning not about actual dogs, but political figures who are oblivious to those around them, not realizing the power they hold makes them impossible to reason with, not caring how poor many of their constituents are. The chorus is a little more confusing. I don't know why the architect is setting fire to her house, whether it is because they failed to listen to her or something else. 

"Watching Telly" tells the story of an ill-suited matchup between Donnelly/the narrator at 21 and a 27 year-old lover. The narrator discusses a difficult decision she had to make without the help of her unsupportive partner. She also touches on the different challenges women have to face.

"Face It" seems to me to be about a relationship that has lost its trust due to a failing on the part of the man, whether it be infidelity or emotional manipulation. The narrator finds herself paining on her eyes and pasting on her smile to keep up appearances but seems damaged underneath.

Beware of the Dogs
is unafraid to be brutal, unashamed to be raw. It's soft and gentle whilst proudly calling out problematic men. Reviewer Robert Christgau describes the album as "a musical encyclopedia of a**holes." That description is amusing and pretty astute. Donnelly's album proves that you can be a soft-spoken soprano writing folk pop and still have a feminist message. 

Me in 2019 with a non-toxic male- my
boyfriend AJ.
Not only do I appreciate what Beware of the Dogs accomplishes lyrically, it has seriously affected the way I think about writing music now. I realize that I don't have to have a big voice to get my message across. Donnelly's ability to transform the mundane into a compelling story through use of her floating melody lines is another aspect that has influenced me. I actually saw this album on a few end-of-the-year lists, which was surprising but it was not nearly on as many lists as it should have been. I discovered Donnelly through Google Play Music as she was playing in Columbus, Ohio that night. So of course, I didn't get to see her, but I'm so glad I was introduced to her. I'm glad I convinced the man at my favorite Ann Arbor record store to let me have the faded promotional poster from the window, which now hangs proudly in my bedroom. I'm sure this album is a difficult listen for men. I know my boyfriend suffered through a lot of it, feeling the emotional weight and listening to me rant about how important an album it is. Everyone should hear it. Women can learn a lot about expressing ourselves, whereas men can learn a bit about what women suffer through, and problematic behaviors to watch out for. The whole album is simple musically, but incredibly complex and important.

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Join me tomorrow for my final article of this series (for now), my favorite album from 2020.

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