Heartfelt but bland: Ed Sheeran’s – (Subtract) reviewed

Whether by accident or design, the mathematical theme of Ed Sheeran’s previous album titles (+, ×, ÷ and = respectively) resolves rather neatly with – (Subtract). I interviewed Sheeran around the time of × and found him likeable enough but a bit out of reach. Multiplication did indeed seem to be foremost on his mind. Perched on the edge of a bed in a room above RAK studios in central London, he came across as a man obsessed with sales figures and chart placings, a coolly pragmatic mix of talent and ambition. (You don’t think Sheeran is talented? I watched him entertain 60,000 people in a football stadium for two

In defence of country-pop

I am aware that the music I enjoy is widely considered to be the worst ever produced in human history. Worse than a roomful of children with recorders, cymbals and malice; worse than a poultry abattoir. Every so often, someone will ask me what I listen to, and I’m forced to tell them the truth. ‘These days,’ I’ll say, ‘it’s mostly country.’ Their nose will wrinkle, as if I’ve just let out a stealthy fart in their direction. ‘But old country, right?’ they’ll say, almost pleading. ‘Classic country?’ No, not classic country. I like Johnny Cash fine, I appreciate Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings and all the

Rod Liddle

As good, and inventive, as modern rock music gets: Black Midi’s Hellfire reviewed

Grade: A+ The difficult question with Black Midi was always: are you listening to them in order to admire them, or because you actually enjoy the music they make? By which I mean when you’ve finished listening to them is it a sense of admiration which lingers in the mind, or are you captivated by one or another of their songs? Previously it has tended to be the former – and there is an awful lot to admire. If you add superlative musicianship to a certain witty and anarchic imagination, you end up with this rather deranged, occasionally irritating, millennial mash-up of styles, where jazz fusion meets post-punk, James Brown,

An intense slab of religiosity: Nick Cave’s Seven Psalms reviewed

 Grade: B There has always been a seriousness and intelligence about Nick Cave quite at odds with that which usually attends to the rancid, tottering, old tart that is rock music, so there should be no surprise that he’s left it completely behind. This is a collection of seven spoken word prayers to that entity with which the Australian has had a long and not always straightforward relationship, God. They are accompanied by minimalist synth and piano compositions – kind of three-note fugues – from collaborator Warren Ellis and none of them clocks in at more than two minutes. Intense religiosity has always both repelled and attracted Cave: here he

Humour, sweetness and sincerity: Father John Misty’s Chloë and the Next Twentieth Century reviewed

 Grade: A– In which Josh Tillman reimagines the whole back catalogue of 20th-century American pop music (except for rock), tilting heavily in favour of the 1930s-1950s. Lush strings, polite jazz and sometimes cocktail piano, big band stuff etc., plus the expected Tillman mordant humour and some unexpected sweetness and sincerity. There’s the country torch of Patsy Cline on ‘Kiss Me (I Loved You)’, the cabaret samba of ‘Olvidado (Otro Momento)’, Rodgers’ and Hart’s ‘My Funny Valentine’ homage on ‘Funny Girl’, and what we’re told is an attempt to kind of rewrite Fred Neil’s ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’ on ‘Goodbye Mr Blue’. The problem? If you hold yourself up before a century of

The awfulness of the Red Hot Chili Peppers has always felt weirdly personal

Squaring up to the prospect of a new Red Hot Chili Peppers album, I’m reminded of a vintage quote by Nick Cave: ‘I’m forever near a stereo saying, “What… is this garbage?” And the answer is always the Red Hot Chili Peppers.’ I can empathise. I don’t habitually harbour animus against artists I dislike, but something about the sheer scale of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ awfulness has always felt weirdly personal. Despite the kind of success that looks mightily impressive in a Wikipedia stat dump – 100 million record sales, multiple Grammy wins, numerous number ones – the Californian rock band have always been tricky to tolerate, let alone

No one should be doing indie rock at 43: Band of Horses’s Things Are Great reviewed

Grade: B That thing, ‘indie rock’, is so well played and produced these days, so pristine and flawless, that it has become almost the antithesis of what it was back at the end of the 1970s, when the term was invented. Then it referred to bands who released stuff on small independent labels because the big labels wouldn’t take them on. Shouty, angsty and angular, or just weird and beloved by the befringed dolorous yoof, in their anoraks or donkey jackets, the whole thing had a pleasing DIY feel to it, even if it sometimes grated. These days ‘indie’ just tends to mean anodyne power pop played by whining blokes

See this Russian hip hop star before they arrest him: Oxxxymiron’s Beauty & Ugliness reviewed

Grade: A+ I was going to review hyperpop chanteuse Charli XCX’s album this week, but it was such boring, meretricious, grandstanding 1980s retread electropop vacuity that I thought, nah, even if it is headed to the top of our ravaged charts. So have this instead. Oxxxymiron is Russia’s No. 1 hip-hop artist. Yes, Russian hip hop is indeed an oxxxymiron, much as would be Serbian reggae or Iranian gospel, but never mind. He’s a youngish Jewish bloke born in Leningrad, with a degree in Middle English from Oxford University, and is hugely popular in his home country. Is it any good, this album released late last year? It’s darker and

Fabulously boring: Weather Station’s How Is It That I Should Look at the Stars reviewed

Grade: C– Anyone remember that TV advert for Canada from the 1980s – a succession of colourful images, including a delicious pink donut, downtown T.O. and soaring mountain peaks, displaying the beauty, vitality and vibrancy of the country? It made me want to visit. Wild horses wouldn’t drag me there now – that glorious, vast expanse now the sine qua non of smugness and condescension. It has become a terminally precious country and we should withdraw our ambassador, or invade (that being the fashion). Weather Station, led by the fabulously irritating Tamara Lindeman, were once okayish indie folkies who have now become pretentious, half-assed purveyors of somnambulant fake jazz, like

Too neat but it has hooks aplenty: Avril Lavigne’s Love Sux reviewed

Grade: B Yay, life just gets better and better. World War Three and now this. More petulant popcorn pre-school punk in which Avril spells words stupidly and tells ‘bois’ how much she weally, weally hates them but acksherly weally loves them. This was momentarily captivating on the magnificently catty glam-rock thrash of ‘Girlfriend’ 15 years ago. Trouble is, Avril is now 37, older than the Prime Minister of Finland – and there’s something a little unbecoming in a mature woman still hanging around the school bike sheds and shrieking at those bois: ‘When I think of you I wanna throw up!’ Shouldn’t she be writing about pre-nups, the onset of

Pretty astonishing: Black Country, New Road’s Ants From Up There reviewed

Grade: A+ It is not true, fellow boomers, that there is nothing new under the sun nor no good new music being made. Just almost nothing new and almost nothing good. The majority is indeed toxic landfill, rehashes of that least appealing of decades, the 1980s, and performed by pasty-faced, limp-wristed, deluded woke idiots whose chief concern is to tell you their gender. But there are yet pockets of brilliance, just as there were in 1975 and 1995 — and this youngish Cambridge band (the only other place they could have come from is Oxford) inhabit one of those pockets. Upon completion of this, their second album, the lead singer

Has the whiff of Spinal Tap: Jethro Tull’s The Zealot Gene reviewed

Grade: C+   I bought the ‘seminal’ Jethro Tull double album Thick as a Brick from a secondhand shop when I was nearing my 13th birthday. I played it once and then wrote off the £1.85 of my pocket money with buyer’s grave remorse. Sometimes, when the yearning for that much better decade, the 1970s, overwhelms me I take it out of my vinyl collection as a salutary corrective: remember those ten years also gave us Baader-Meinhof, Idi Amin, the IRA and Jethro Tull. If folkish prog is on offer, I prefer the Strawbs, even if Dave Cousins is clearly a lot dimmer than Jethro’s idiosyncratic and likeable Ian Anderson.

A story of reflection and self-discovery: Anaïs Mitchell’s new album reviewed

Any artist who has habitually written or performed in character — from David Bowie to Lady Gaga — eventually arrives at their Mike Yarwood moment: ‘And this is me!’ With the release of her sixth solo record, Anaïs Mitchell has reached the point of personal revelation. ‘I’ve spent a lot of time trying to write in the voice of other characters,’ she says. ‘It felt like after so many years of working on telling other stories — now here are some of mine.’ In 2020 Mitchell was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. Nevertheless, she requires an introduction. I’m sure I was one of the first British

Lovely and wistful: Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s Barn reviewed

 Grade: A I have persisted in buying everything Neil Young releases since I first heard On the Beach as a callow but pretentious 13-year-old. To tell you the truth, the past 27 years have somewhat tested this commitment. There has been a fatal laziness in the songwriting, lyrically and melodically, since 1994’s Sleeps with Angels and the preaching has become ever more tiresome. But I continued forking out in the increasingly forlorn hope that he’d turn out something if not wonderful, then at least reminiscent of wonderful things past. And for lo, the grizzled old troubadour has done exactly that. This is a subtler incarnation of Crazy Horse, helped incalculably

Truly godawful: Ed Sheeran’s =

 Grade: C= My wife’s ill with Covid and demanding inexhaustible libations and difficult meals, which she will leave uneaten. The dog thinks it deserves a walk in the filthy sleet. The kitchen is a tip and the bins need emptying. I have a headache, a runny nose and the ghost of a ticklish cough. Can things get worse? Yes, yes they can. It’s The Spectator on the phone. Can you please review Ed Sheeran’s new album? As in: look, you’re feeling rough and put upon at the moment. So can we come round and smash your spectacles and rub human excrement in your hair? And all this a few weeks

In praise of seasonal chart fodder

Christmas: the most vulnerable time of the year. I heard ‘A Winter’s Tale’ by David Essex on the radio the other day and, oh boy. It was Noël Coward who wrote, in Private Lives, that smart little line about the strange potency of cheap music. It is a truism never more apparent than at Christmas, when we allow the gaudy and sentimental access to our hearts with only the most cursory of security checks. Songs that would never make it past the bouncers in May are whisked directly into the VIP area come December. A quick google confirms that ‘A Winter’s Tale’ was released in the run-up to Christmas 1982,

Reprehensible – but fun: Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s Complete DG Recordings reviewed

 Grade: B It must have been an interesting day in the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s press office when Blair Tindall’s memoir Mozart in the Jungle hit the bookshops in 2005. ‘He sat in the desk chair, pushed aside the first oboe part of Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers and tapped a pile of cocaine on the glass’ runs a typical anecdote. Even in 2005, it wasn’t really what anyone expected to hear from a former member of Orpheus — a youthful, conductor-less New York outfit who used to pose for album covers dressed in spotless white. For a brief moment during the 1980s CD boom, Orpheus was going to save classical

Cheap schlock has now become expensive schlock: Adele’s 30 reviewed

Grade: C The problem I have is that I thought she was pretty awful before — when she was just fat and from Tottenham. Now that she has been marinated in SoCal for six years, she seems to have become even worse: a kind of Meghan Markle with a larynx. It was cheap schlock all the way back then; it’s expensive schlock now — that’s the only difference. This is her divorce album, her ‘Hollywood’ album, her mature album, her BRAVE album according to her adoring… critics is obviously the wrong word. OK, it starts off with words — ‘I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart’ —

The quiet radicalism of the Chieftains

Pop quiz time: which act was named Melody Maker Group of the Year in 1975? The answer is not, as you might expect, some testosterone-fuelled blues-rock outfit or a hip gang of proto-punk gunslingers, but a gaggle of semi-professional Irish musicians who performed trad tunes sitting down, dressed for church in cardigans, sensible shoes, shirts and ties. The Chieftains were so far from rock and roll they met it coming back the other way. On the cover of Irish Heartbeat, a later collaboration with Van Morrison, they could be mistaken for a loose affiliation of farmers, minor office clerks and earnest ornithologists waiting for a bus outside the town hall.

Decent dream pop: Beach House’s Once Twice Melody reviewed

Grade: B+ Everything these days devolves to prog — and not always very good prog. Where once synths were vastly expensive, difficult to master and hell to maintain they are now in a place beyond ubiquity; every sound you want conjured by the press of a key, your song suddenly washed over with sonics that make it sound more important than it really is. It almost makes you yearn for Yes and ELP — at least they knew they were pretentious dullards using electronic wizardry to elevate the slightest of compositions. Dream pop and its self-harming kid sister shoe-gazing — both genres dating from the mid-1980s and the likes of