It should be no surprise that Real Estate’s third album is another impeccably crafted piece of beautiful guitar music. The New Jersey band has only made the necessary updates to their sound over the past few years, like polishing a statue into perfection. The album’s first few tracks offer everything we’ve come to love about this band, with sunny jangle-pop songs (opener “Had to Hear” and single “Talking Backwards”) butting next to nostalgic, minor-key songs about suburban splendor and decay—like being depressed about seeing a high school friend that never moved on, Matt Mondanile (also of Ducktails) sings “I walk past these houses where we once stood/I see past lives, but somehow you’re still here,” with perfect precision on “Past Lives.” Real Estate’s lyrics have often taken a back seat to their shimmering guitarwork, but here they’re a bit more prominent, shining a light on Mondanile’s minimalist approach—despite how lovely the music is, songs like “Crime” are pretty depressing when you get down to it, with lyrics like “I wanna die/lonely and uptight.” Musically things have expanded a bit, as the band throws in more overt nudges toward easy listening and ’70s singer-songwriters in “The Bend” and country tinges in the gauzy, pretty “How I Might Live.” Instrumentally, these guys are just top notch, as they make instrumental “April’s Song” an album highlight, even without Mondanile’s soothing vocals, allowing his tremoloed, romantic guitar lines to do the singing for him. Atlas is simply a stunningly beautiful piece of guitar pop.
St. Vincent’s absolutely breathtaking new album begins, as Annie Clark’s previous albums have, like some unearthly musical. Clark seemingly touches down from another planet, asking “am I the only one in the world?” on opener “Rattlesnake” amid all manner of alien guitar and strange percussive squelches. “Birth in Reverse” similarly paints a vivid picture, starting with the lines “Oh what an ordinary day … take out the garbage, masturbate.” “Birth in Reverse” explodes into an extraordinary, paranoid chorus of restless glee. Clark’s way with words has never been more cutting, as on “Prince Johnny,” which manages to be strikingly specific while keeping its deeper existential meaning vague (“Remember that time we snorted/That piece of the Berlin Wall you extorted?” is her best rhyming couplet yet.) Even her ballads bite—“I prefer your love to Jesus” is a thoroughly loaded line repeated on “I Prefer Your Love,” giving depth and conflict to what’s on the surface a beautiful, Kate Bush-inspired love song. Musically, Clark employs everything from decaying choruses (“Prince Johnny”) to hip-hop synths (“Huey Newton”) to Prince-esque atonal funk (“Digital Witness”), but it’s a remarkably cohesive listen, as though each element has been thoroughly considered and sanded down to perfection. As implied by naming her fourth album simply St. Vincent, it’s an album that seems to be about truly knowing oneself—or the thrilling discoveries that come with a lifetime of seeking that knowledge.
“If you still have some light in you, then go before it’s gone,” Angel Olsen sings on the harrowing “White Fire,” the slow-burning centerpiece of her stunning new album, Burn Your Fire For No Witness. Olsen doles out hard-won truths and tragicomic observances in a voice that splits the difference between Emmylou Harris’ sweet coo and Cat Power’s smoky drawl, sometimes coming through just above a whisper, though she can wake the dead when she wishes, reserving her power for choice moments, belting at the core of the Velvetsy “High & Wild.” The former member of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s band seems to have poured every inch of herself into her breakthrough album, going for a full-tilt rock stomp on songs like “Forgiven/Forgotten,” referencing Hank Williams on gleeful ode to loneliness “Hi-Five” and virtually fading into the ether on beautiful songs like “Dance Slow Decades,” begging you to sit closely. Burn Your Fire For No Witness is one of the best albums of the year thus far, an emotional trip that leaves its mark.
The prolific Mark Kozelek has been undergoing a career renaissance of sorts. Whereas songs in his ’90s project Red House Painters were often autobiographical, if morose and romantic, if, to call his recent releases with Sun Kil Moon confessional would be an understatement. Not only is Benji a classic example oversharing in the social media age, it’s just a new classic period, the best thing he’s done since RHP’s heyday. Two songs directly address Kozelek’s love for his aging parents as he himself hits middle age (“I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” and “I Love My Dad” are far from ironic, though they cover ground beyond what their titles suggest). “Dogs” covers Kozelek’s history with women in sometimes excruciating detail, from his first kiss at 5 to getting bathed by two women. Part of what makes Benji so masterful is how Kozelek blends rich physical details, with references to Panera Bread and Pink Floyd records, along with impressionistic accounts, such as his atmospheric telling of what caught his attention in a Led Zeppelin film (“I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same”) and what that says about him as a person. It can be a lot to take in at once—“Micheline” at first feels like a diary dump, though it ends on a touching note about his grandmother—but most of the time, the details are funny or poignant or both, coming through clearly with little more than Kozelek’s wavering, creaking voice and reverbed acoustic guitar. “Ben’s My Friend,” which ends the album with its catchiest song (and curiosity value, due to its titular subject being Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie), is a sterling reminder of how many little things add up to the sum of our lives, making a pretty refrain out of “blue crab cakes,” throwing in some horns and flamenco guitar for good measure and tying the album up nicely with a reflective bow. Simply put, Benji is an album for fans of songwriting and storytelling, the mastery of which makes it unmissable.
Xiu Xiu’s best album in years harkens back to their darkest early days with an uncompromising sound. Trading in the pop tones of his last couple of albums for a palette of grays and blacks, aided by harsh (in the best way) analog synths, Angel Guts gets Jamie Stewart back into his most confrontational mode, though there are still unmistakable pop hooks (something Stewart hasn’t quite ever gotten credit for) lurking beneath songs like “Stupid in the Dark.”