[On The Record]: Confessional Records.

As the mornings get colder and the nights draw in close, I always find myself listening to albums of a more personal nature. Maybe I’m a bit voyeuristic, but I do love a good confessional or break-up record full of excoriating truths and heart wrenching tales. Somewhere in between the longing and anger though, there is a cathartic comfort to be found. Against the closing in of autumn and winter such albums can feel like small intense fires, which warm you through to your bones. So, I thought I’d give a rundown of some of my in-the-wee-small-hours-of-the-morning favourites…

Bob Dylan – Blood On The Tracks

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“Sundown, yellow moon, I replay the past, / I know every scene by heart, they all went by so fast.”

With any artist there’s always the tricky matter of how much to take as autobiographical and how much is artistic license. This is especially the case with Bob Dylan, an artist who has delighted in misleading and provoking listeners and critics alike. However, Blood on the Tracks, written around the time of his separation from then-wife, Sara, is probably the closest we will ever get to Dylan’s personal experiences and observations on relationships. It is a dizzying collection of scenes, some depicting longing and bitterness (‘You’re A Big Girl Now’), others articulating contentment and fond memories (‘Shelter From The Storm’). As ever though, Dylan playfully leaves questions unanswered in even his most detailed accounts and sometimes he merely treats us to a glimpse of a girl who “might be in Tangiers”, leaving the listener to draw their own conclusions. Even if these stories are not true of him, these perceptive songs are certainly true of somebody at some time or another and rank among Dylan’s finest work.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call

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“We will know, won’t we? The stars will explode in the sky, / But they don’t, do they? Stars have their moment then they die.”

After the chilling and blackly-comic Murder Ballads, The Boatman’s Call was something of a complete U-turn for The Bad Seeds. Where the former is lascivious and merciless, the latter is sombre and restrained, displaying monk-like calm throughout the grief and intense self-scrutiny. Sparked by Nick Cave’s break up with PJ Harvey, he would later denounce it saying “I’d got dumped by some bird and here I was making this grand statement – about some fucking sheila!”’ Despite Cave’s retrospective criticisms of the album, it remains one of the Bad Seeds’s best records and features some of Cave’s most beautifully written lyrics. The album moves from optimism on spiritual-devotional love songs ‘Into My Arms’ and ‘Lime Tree Arbour’ through to misanthropy and self-loathing on ‘People Ain’t No Good’ and bleak album-closer ‘Green Eyes’. Against the backdrop of meditative melodies from the Bad Seeds, it is Cave’s commanding voice which really drives the album home, striking through to the core as if he were delivering a sermon from a pulpit.

Eels – Electro-Shock Blues

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“Life is funny, but not haha funny, / Peculiar, I guess.”

 From an album whose near opening lines are “My name’s Elizabeth, my life is piss and shit”, you’d expect Electro-Shock Blues to be one long doom and gloom fest. Given the details of Mark Oliver Everett a.k.a. E’s life, you’d forgive him for it (see the album’s story in comics here). But as ever, E finds comfort in creating esoteric, feel-good music with a serious side. It’s a journey you share with E all the way to its stoic conclusion on ‘P.S You Rock My World’ (“I was at a funeral the day I realised I wanted to spend my life with you […] And I was thinking about how everyone is dying, And maybe it’s time to live”). Graceful and indomitable, the album is a lesson in carrying on. Just as good is his recent three album cycle Hombre Lobo, End Times, Tomorrow Morning which follow relationships from infatuation to disintegration to recuperation.

Joni Mitchell – Blue

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“The bed’s too big, / The frying pan’s too wide.”

The biggy in the confessional album world, Blue really is the archetypal confessional album. As Joni Mitchell broke up with longtime partner, Graham Nash, and an increasing post-60’s hangover began to set in for the summer-of-love generation, she moved away from her flower-child image and further explored the personal side of her songwriting. What resulted on Blue was Mitchell letting all her barriers down and giving herself over completely to unmitigated emotional expression, revisiting experiences of infatuation, insecurity, estrangement and giving a child up for adoption. The diverse emotional ground she covers is vast, conveying both painful and joyful experiences in all their emotional intensity. Probably Mitchell’s greatest achievement with this album though is that she really manages to communicate the emotions present in each song, and not just their sentiments.

The Horrible Crowes – Elsie

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“I heard a curse being born, / Forming each finger and forming each thorn.”

Set up by Brian Fallon and his guitar tech Ian Perkins as a more unplugged and intimate outfit than The Gaslight Anthem, The Horrible Crowes’s Elsie shot into the top five of my best of 2011 list and it has been played many times since then. Dealing with themes of loneliness and heartbreak, it seems no coincidence that The Gaslight Anthem’s following album, Handwritten, tackled more difficult personal issues than their previous output. On Elsie, Fallon strikes a fine balance between hushed and intimate moments like ‘Sugar’ and raucous belters full of rage like ‘Mary Ann’.  And while there are plenty of tear-jerkers (’Cherry Blossoms’ is particularly gut-wrenching), Fallon ultimately ends on an optimistic note with ‘I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together’. Raw, poignant and sublimely crafted, Elsie marks out Brian Fallon as a major songwriting talent in America today.

Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

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“For every life… forgo the parable”

Suffering from glandular fever and break-ups with his former band DeYarmond Edison and a relationship, Justin Vernon retreated to a hunting cabin in Northwestern Wisconsin over the winter of 2006 in order to lick his wounds. When Vernon re-emerged in spring 2007 he had recovered from his ailments and carried with him a collection of nine personal songs he had recorded. Self-released under the moniker Bon Iver (derived from the greeting “bon hiver”, French for “good winter”) on a small initial pressing in mid-2007 and later reaching worldwide release in 2008, For Emma, Forever Ago sounded like nothing else when it landed. Complex, yet minimalist, the album perfectly evokes the intimate atmosphere in which it was made, every note indelibly placed and resonating to fill the space. Meanwhile, Vernon delivers his cryptic lyrics in an elastic voice charged with emotional energy that stops you in your tracks. It is the sound of loneliness, introspection and, above all, healing. As ‘re:stacks’ fades out at the album’s close, there is the barely perceptible sound of Vernon walking away from the microphone and dialling a number, signalling that he is ready to return form hibernation.

Tom Waits – Blue Valentine

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“I’ll take the spokes from your wheelchair and a magpie’s wings, / And I’ll tie ‘em to your shoulders and your feet”

Despite his gruff exterior (and even gruffer voice) Tom Waits has always had a soft spot for romance, especially where the bungled and the botched are concerned. Even when his characters are in the gutter, more often than not they have one eye cast up at the stars. As Waits began to stretch himself and break out of his boho-poet image he made Blue Valentine, a blues-jazz masterpiece documenting romance in the dark areas of town, and the danger that inevitably follows. In some areas he is the danger (‘Whistlin’ Past The Graveyard and ‘A Sweet Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun’), and sometimes the danger finds him (‘Romeo is Bleeding’, ‘$29.00’). Sometimes he sings with tongue firmly in cheek (‘Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis’) and sometimes he is achingly honest (‘Blue Valentines’). Covering fractured romances in all their comic and heroic guises, Waits’s most triumphant moment is on the poignant ‘Kentucky Avenue’ where he recalls an intense childhood friendship with a boy who suffered from polio. A romantic album for all the broken things out there.

Josh Ritter – The Beast In Its Tracks

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“Oh, the appleblossom rag, lord, I’m such a fool, / For things that sing so sweet and sad, and are so goddamn cruel.”

For a year after a bitter divorce from his wife, songwriter Dawn Landes, Josh Ritter experienced difficulties sleeping, passing out from the exhaustion of an intensive schedule only to be wakened by nightmares. His dreams were so awful he took to fearing sleep, as if his grief were hunting him down. Out of this state came the germs of The Beast In Its Tracks, where he claims songwriting proved a retreat: “Some nights, the songs I was working on helped me stay ahead of it. Other nights, the heartbreak got me”. The album is actually cheerier than its birth might suggest and Ritter delivers much of the album from the perspective of having recovered and become a father in the interim. ‘A Certain Light’ and ‘In Your Arms Again’ sees Ritter safe in the arms of a new lover and thankful for the tranquility. However, The Beast In Its Tracks has plenty of the darkness of those haunted nights too, delivered often by sleight of hand. ‘The Appleblossom Rag’ covers self-deception in a plaintive solo acoustic performance while ‘Evil Eye’ and ‘Nightmares’ bounce along on cheerful melodies which disguise Ritter’s harrowing lyrics documenting his night terrors. Even ‘New Lover’, one of the uplifting singles where Ritter evenhandedly wishes his old lover well in the light of his new, happy relationship, has a sucker-punch at the end so sly that you barely notice it as the song sweeps you along on its jubilant energy: “But if you are sad and you are lonesome and you got nobody true, / I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me happy too”. Between the bitterness and newfound happiness, Ritter documents a long road to recovery experienced by many of us and perfectly captures that turning point where you realise “Yeah, I’ll live through this” on ‘Joy To You Baby’.

What are your favourite confessional albums? Let me know in the comments below.

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[Album Review]: Bon Iver – ‘Bon Iver’

‘Still alive who you love, You’re breaking your ground’

It is clear from the first listen to Justin Vernon’s music that he is particularly influenced by the seasons and his surroundings, so his choice to release this album in the middle of the year, on the cusp of summer, says a lot about the emotions he is trying to convey. In the frozen soul of For Emma, Forever Ago and the incandescent campfire of Blood Bank EP, both recorded in a creaky wood cabin in the Northern woods of Wisconsin, winter and the early thaws of spring were very much the seasons that  preoccupied Justin. Comparatively, Bon Iver begins with an Indian Summer that moves through winter and further into Spring. The album feels like a period of Justin’s life where he’s taking stock of his whirlwind success, travelling home to his beloved Eau Claire, WI and gaining perspective. Lyrically Justin still possesses that cryptically Ginsbergian quality, but like Ginsberg these vivid ramblings put you in the scene more effectively than a prepositioned piece of prose. Justin reveals very little, but in his succinctness speaks volumes: “Not the needle, nor the thread, the lost decree, / Saying nothing, that’s enough for me.”

Though I may receive a lot of flak for this comment, it is evident that Justin has been influenced by his collaboration with Kanye West on West’s album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Yes, ‘Ye can be a gayfish, but there is no denying he is a masterful and intelligent arranger. Justin was already a visionary in his compositional skills, but on this album his arrangements are deeper and more complex: Richer, lusher, more textured. After being picked up mainly for his acoustic confessionals ‘Flume’ and ‘Skinny Love’, Justin has been wary of being pigeonholed as a voice and guitar singer-songwriter: “I don’t want to be the guy with an acoustic guitar singing songs, because that’s boring for the most part.” This is probably one of the reasons Justin has opted for an even more ‘plugged in’ and layered sound than his previous efforts. Another reason probably has something to do with the process of building April Base Studios, WI which accompanied the recording of the album: “The whole time we were building the actual space is when the record was being made, sort of like this building metaphor for the record […] It just feels like this space where a lot of things happen.”Converted from an old veterinarian clinic with friends and situated three miles from the house Justin grew up in, as April Base Studios grew into a home cum studio so did the scope and depth of the record:  “I think the reason this record sounds the way it does as compared to For Emma is the excitement of not being in my early twenties anymore and building this place with my friends and really expanding on what Bon Iver could be as a project. Being like a team in building this place had a lot to do with the new record’s colour.”

Exposition ‘Perth’ sounds like the outcome of a jam session if Mogwai invited Justin to provide vocals: A towering and vast multilayered wall of roaring guitars and drums, growing and erupting around you like a volcanic ridge, capturing the infinite potential and barely contained energy of those wild summer nights. As the raging ‘Perth’ fades, ‘Minnesota, WI’ enters on an echoing guitar into a peaceful starry night. ‘Holocene’ feels like the first autumn leaves falling and the novelty of seeing your breath hang in the crisp October morning air, the signal of the changing seasons. It’s a gentle fingerpicking hymn with the tranquil energy of a running stream that contemplates the paradox of being unique but at the same time “not magnificent.” Thankfully it seems that success has not cured Justin of his introspection.

Towers possesses the reckless abandon of scattering diligently collected piles of dead leaves, bouncing along on a lively rhythm guitar before building bold horns and singing lapsteel into one of the album’s more anthemic moments. Changing gears, the grounding guitar coda of ‘Michicant’ has the cadence of a slow dance while wistful vocals remember an old love through the haze of nostalgic brass and synths. ‘Hinnom, TX’ feels like waking up one foggy day in a strange town and realising that there is nowhere you’d rather be but back home right now. The epiphanic, echoing piano offers sparse backdrop for the soothing interweaving of deep and high vocals. It seems to signal the beginning of regeneration that permeates Wash, where you step off the train in your home town, and pass all the old places steeped in memories; some changed, some not. Two piano chords gently reel as the vocals, horns and strings sweep around you like a breeze tugging at your heart, singing for Eau Claire, WI.

Mermon at April Base Studios

Lead single ‘Calgary’ wraps around you like a warm blanket in the midst of winter, helped by the warmth of being around the ones you love.  Beginning with warm synths and cumulatively growing layer upon layer of lush instrumentation, all the while centring upon Justin’s arresting falsetto and revealing the emotional core of Bon Iver. ‘Lisbon, OH’ is a brief and relaxing shoegazey instrumental that sees the ice around ‘Calgary’ thaw and flows into the spring awakening of album closer ‘Beth/Rest’. Justin really sticks his neck out on the final track artistically speaking since the heady 80’s flecked synths would not seem out of place in Top Gun. I’ll admit that it threw me, but after my initial bile simmered down a Peter Gabriel inspired love ballad unfolded which sees a yearning Justin stretching for the cosmos. It may be a little melodramatic, but ultimately love is and it is handled majestically here.

In terms of second album syndrome, there is always going to be a Catch 22 trade off. Do you consolidate your base and risk criticism for repeating yourself, or do you venture into unknown territory at the risk of alienating your followers? The answer I believe, as evidenced in this album, lies somewhere in the middle but leaning more towards pastures new. For sure, this album may estrange some fans who favoured the stark compositions of Justin’s wood cabin in North-Western Wisconsin. However, those who will continue to listen will be rewarded with the blooming of an artist who quite simply creates music unlike anybody else, transcendent music that just washes right through you. And if you scratch past the surface and listen carefully, you will hear that Wisconsin is very much still where Justin’s heart resides.

‘Bon Iver’ is available in record stores now. Bon Iver embark on an UK tour in October.

While you’re here why not check out ‘Bon Iver’ album artist Gregory Euclide’s website?

EDIT: Hear a stripped down piano rendition of ‘Beth/Rest’ here and see what you think