Don't Ask If I'm Happy - The Top 10 Albums of 2019
I closed out 2018, and went into 2019, somewhat uncertain of what was going to happen with this site, and with my continual efforts at music writing. At the time, as I do by the end of most years, found myself somewhat burned out on the demands I place on myself as an ‘internet music writer.’ The constant search for new music, the hours spent listening, and re-listening, the afternoon and evenings spent gazing into a Word document, fingers on the keyboard, wondering how many times I can continue to use the phrase ‘evocative imagery’ before someone finally calls me out on it—nobody is asking me to do this. I do this to myself, but I also do it for myself.
I had also found myself in a strange place with non-music writing, as the outlet I had been funneling all of my personal essay writing was more or less shuttered, and I had spent November and most of December of 2018, creatively frustrated.
I knew that I’d be doing both less, and more, with Anhedonic Headphones in 2019. The ‘more’ meant creating a podcast, which I did, and will continue to do for the foreseeable future; the ‘less’ meant I would be writing fewer reviews, and I wouldn’t be writing about an album I had little to no interest in, simply for the sake of generating content to put onto the site with the hopes I’d get a few people to read it. The ‘more’ also meant I’d be writing longer, more thoughtful pieces on music that I actually wanted to write about, and share with people.
It meant a lot more thinkpieces, with a lot higher of word counts, with more footnotes for people to read at the end.
I published less than 90 entries on the site this year, and by the time you take away the entries regarding the podcast, or mixtapes I’d cobbled together, or personal essays, or magazine writing I’d shared, or thinkpieces when an album was celebrating a milestone anniversary and a deluxe reissue had been released, it would appear that I didn’t write about a lot of new albums in 2019—roughly 46 ‘new’ albums or EPs, if my quick scan through this year’s posts is accurate.
But for every record I do sit down to write about, there’s at least one, sometimes two, that don’t make the cut—that I listen to and pass on writing about, or that I intend to write about, but get too overwhelmed with the deadlines I set for myself; or, sometimes, I’m just simply too depressed to do it.
As I close out 2019, and go into 2020, I find myself, again, uncertain as to what is going to happen with this site, and with my continual efforts at writing—both about music, and not. The trick is to make it read as if its effortless, and I think I’ve succeeded at that in a number of cases. But it’s anything but. It’s hard, and it takes a lot out of me, and I am wondering how much, if any, of a break I should give myself, because this is, after all, something I’m supposed to enjoy.
If I wrote about 46 new releases in 2019, it should have been easy for me to pick 10 that I could call my ‘favorites’ of the year. Last year, and I had forgotten this completely, I apparently picked 15—I don’t really think I could have sincerely done that this year, but this list of 10 came together in a surprisingly painless way. The list almost built itself, really, because I knew going in what albums I enjoyed listening to the most, which ones I returned to the most, and which ones were the most thought provoking and challenging to me, that I’d want to share with others.
“In the Diaspora, as in bad dreams, you are constantly overwhelmed by the persistence of the specter of captivity.”
Taken from the book A Map to The Door of No Return, written by Dionne Brand, that quote is, more or or less, the only description given in the credits on YouTube for “2/26/12, Smile #2,” one of the most accessible, though painfully short, tracks from the dizzying, difficult, and fascinating album from Jasper Marsalis, who records and produces under the name Slauson Malone.
That video and that song led me to A Quiet Farwell, and that quote led me to Brand’s book—I may not be the intended audience for a book about Diaspora, but there is a quote from the final page in A Map to The Door of No Return that will stick with me forever: “A map, then, is only a life of conversations about a forgotten list of irretrievable selves.”
A Quiet Farwell, Marsalis’ first work after leaving the ‘genre negative’ collective Standing on The Corner, is impossible to describe, and is quite possibly like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Spread across 20 individual tracks—the longest nearly four minutes; the shortest less than 30 seconds—Marsalis effortlessly blends elements of jazz and hip-hop, but focuses on the dark spaces in between the convergence, making for a dissonant and disorienting listen, that, at its core, is a rumination and reflection on the black experience—both of today, as well as the past, and throughout the record, which is intended to be listened to from beginning to end, uninterrupted, Marsalis juxtaposes the beautiful and the ugly, never lingering too long on one or the other, and challenges you as both a listener, and a human being.
It’s difficult to explain, but there is a tangible difference between Alisa Rodriguez’s work as Apollo Vermouth, and her work under the name A Crushed Rose. Yes, both projects can easily be categorized as ‘ambient’ or ‘experimental,’ but there is, tonally, and atmospherically, a huge variance between the two.
Chilling, lonely, and seeming like it’s being broadcast from some kind of otherworldly, never-ending cavern, Rodriguez has outdone herself as an ambient composer and performer on Someone is Looking Out for Us, a long gestating project that finally saw the light of day this year. Arriving as a five track cassette via the (now unfortunately shuttered) Patient Sounds label, Rodriguez crafted the album, in part, using audio editing software, though its long, icy, incredibly stark drones sound so natural and organic, you wouldn’t think he use of digital manipulation would play little, if any, role in it at all.
Throughout Someone is Looking, Rodriguez explores both sides to ambient music—the gorgeous, like the ethereal, glistening cascades of “Sleeping Apart,” that both haunt and enchant; and then the dissonant and harsh, like on the abrasive, and borderline menacing “I Carefully Burned The Past (Part Two.)” The diversification in aesthetic is appreciated, as Rodriguez creates a creeping, alluring world that surrounds you completely every time you listen.
I spent a majority of this year, thanks to an album I listened to near the end of last year, immersed in the ever-growing and shifting world of what I commonly refer to as ‘internet rap,’ or, maybe a little less obnoxious of a descriptor—‘underground rap.’ Introduced to it through Livingston Matthews, the given name of rapper and producer Pink Siifu, I quickly learned of his loose connections to a number of other performers, many of whom are based out of New York, and many of whom are involved, in some way, with the sLUms collective.
Max Allen, or Maxo (not to be confused with Maxo Kreme), is one of the few artists in this loose group of peers to have, after two independently released efforts, a major label backing his full length debut, Lil’ Big Man, an arresting, confident, reflective, poignant, and jubilant collection of songs that showcase Allen’s talent as both a writer, as well as an emcee.
Lil’ Big Man, a feverishly short half-hour in length, works best when Allen is the most pensive, and most reflective, waxing a bittersweet nostalgia on the album’s first two singles, “Time,” and “In My Pennys”; and, similarly to a number of other rappers in his peer group, isn’t afraid of opening up—“Half the shit I deal with, I ain’t in your face about—just know that ‘bout me,” he states on the album’s second track, and the most recently released single from the album, “Strongside.”
Diverse in its production and aesthetics, but cohesive in its thoughtfulness, Lil’ Big Man cements Allen as a breakout talent of the year, and a voice to pay attention to in years to come.
After disbanding nearly as soon as they formed in the late 1990s, and after waiting nearly 20 years to follow up their debut, American Football haven figured out how to function as an active band making what can only be called ‘emo music for adults.’ Arriving three years after their second, also self-titled effort, the group’s third album (LP3 for ease of organization) is their most robust and lush—doubling down on the theatricality and technically dense arrangements found on LP2.
An eight track album seems brief, at first (and if you’re like me, and bought the special audiophile vinyl edition, pressed at 45 rpms, you get two songs on each side of the double vinyl set), but, much like the gorgeous, striking vastness on the record sleeve (a stark contrast to the insular photos that graced the covers of their first two records), there is a sprawling nature to the music as well, with two of the album’s songs, including the intricate, kaleidoscopic opening track, “Silhouettes,” running well beyond seven minutes in length.
LP3 also finds the band enlisting the work of guest vocalists—all female—with a memorable, visceral turn from Paramore’s Hayley Williams on the album’s finest moment, “Uncomfortably Numb,” and an absolutely devastating, haunting appearance from the usually reclusive Liz Powell, vocalist from Land of Talk, on “Every Wave to Ever Rise,” a song so emotionally difficult, I recommended it to a friend (also a fan of the idiosyncratic Land of Talk) over Twitter, and was quickly sent a scolding reply, and told never to suggest another song that would have to make them pull over off of the road and cry.
The thing that makes LP3 such an important, and emotionally stirring record is not just the gorgeous, fascinating instrumentation and arranging, or the soothing, charismatic vocals from frontman Mike Kinsella, but it’s in Kinsella’s lyrics—unabashedly earnest phrasing, like on “Heir Apparent”—“Maybe more than anything, I’m sorry you love me,” or on “Doom in Full Bloom”—“Now you’re buried in the library just so you could hide from me”; are these a little overdramatic? Absolutely.
Is that the point—yes, of course it is.
Adulthood is full of tension—mostly unresolved, or if it is resolved, it’s not in a health way. LP3, much like its predecessor, is a reminder that it’s okay to maintain a dark sense of humor, if you are even able to distinguish the difference between laughter and tears.
A total of 11 tracks, nine of which are ‘proper songs,’ the other two are instrumental interludes of sorts, rapper Caleb Giles’ third full length, Under The Shade runs no risk of overstaying its welcome. It’s the kind of refreshing, exuberant record that, at a sparse 24 minutes, could go on for much, much longer—and there are moments where you want it to, or ideas that you wish could be expanded upon, but it’s also the kind of record that is just so good, it is best just to step back, and be thankful that it exists at all.
Giles, young (all of 21) but wise beyond his years (you can hear it in the pensive rasp in his voice), is connected to both the Standing on The Corner collective, as well as loosely associated with sLUms, and he cements his status as writer and solo performer with Under The Shade, a stark and at times wildly clever meditation on what it’s like to be young and black in America.
From the gusto and the precise control of his cadence and on “Too,” to the head on collision between that song and the wistful song that follows, “Gather,” to the soulful, and mournful, instrumental “Syl’s Song,” which I, more than anything, wish would have been developed or explored for longer than 37 seconds, there is an amazing amount of diversity throughout Under The Shade, both in its production—at times, accessible, other times, a little less so—as well as in Giles’ ability to channel is emotions and way with imagery through his words, he his able to, lyrically, walk that line between sadness and joy.
Immensely enjoyable and thoughtful from beginning to end, the album’s most impactful track comes near its conclusion, in the form of the pensive, reflective, bittersweet “What’s Mine”—the kind of surprising, devastating, honest, and very, very real moment that actually knocks the wind out of you, stunning you with its beauty, every single time you listen.
Somewhere, within the 16 tracks of The National’s bombastic and challenging album that serves as a ‘companion piece’ to a short film of the same name, there is a much shorter, possibly less challenging album that would emerge as being slightly more enjoyable from beginning to end if a few things were simply cut completely.
Not so much doubling down on the sudden embracement of synthesizers and a more technologically bombastic soundscape that the group started exploring on Sleep Well Beast, The National, two years later, do seem much more comfortable and confident writing and arranging in a way that includes both organic instrumentation as well as chintzy sounding drum machines and an array of synthesizer and keyboard tones.
When it falters, it really does, unfortunately, like the sprawling, stream of conscious, ‘talk/sung’ “Not in Kansas,” which, if you’re looking to condense the album down, is first on the chopping block; but when it works however, it really does work, shifting between moody and slow burning, and enormous, triumphant anthems.
Opening with the glitchy, skittering double shot of “You Had Your Soul With You” and “Quiet Light,” musically the band is coming from an exciting place, but lyrically, and as a friend pointed out to me with the lyrics to “Quiet Light” after she had gone through a terrible break up two months prior, National frontman Matt Berninger is still writing from a dark, honest, human place—“I’m learning to lie here it he quiet light, while I watch the sky go from black to grey,” he sings softly in the song’s refrain. “I’m learning how not to die inside a little every time I think about you want wonder if you are awake…”
The pensive, swirling desperation of “Oblivions” is another stand out track from I Am Easy to Find, a song, like many on the record, that features a female vocalist taking over and Berninger easing himself into a supporting role; the conceit of including a cavalcade of female voices one of the things that connects it to the unnamed female protagonist in the short film directed by Mike Mills that shares ideas and phrases found within the music.
The finest pieces, however, and maybe as anticipated, are the most melancholic and slow burning—the album’s haunting closing track “Light Years” hit close to home, yes, but it didn’t compare to how terribly seen and attacked I felt listening to “Hairpin Turns,” a swooning, gorgeous reflection on the challenges of a partnership when one person in the relationship is a terribly depressed mess most of the time.
I was audacious enough, two years ago, to call The National the ‘American Radiohead,’ simply because this far along in their career, they are willing to take enormous risks musically, and as a band, continue to evolve with each record. The National can never go back to the shadowy, claustrophobic tension that made them household name nearly 15 years ago, and that’s okay—they aren’t those people anymore. Musically, the band is much more proficient and confident, and Berninger is an exponentially more confident frontman and singer, and I Am Easy to Find shows that, even when something doesn’t exactly work, the group is unafraid to push things in an ever forward moving direction.
I was sold, 100%, on Salt before the first song, “Play The Game” had even finished, during my initial pass through it, streaming it of McMahon’s Bandcamp page after reading a relatively positive review of it on Consequence of Sound, and if I’m not mistaken, my transaction of buying the record (along with a t-shirt) from her, had been completed by the time the second track, “Soon,” was underway.
The moment that sold me arrives during “Play There Game”’s refrain—lyrically, the song itself is devastating, but it takes a lot of time, and a lot of close listens, to unpack that. During the refrain, there’s a part where McMahon sings the line, “And I’m not proud of all the loud things I’ve been saying,” and every time she sings it throughout the song, she does this thing with her voice, only on the word "all,” where it becomes, yes, loud, but also dissonant, and harsh—harsher than anything else in the song; I mean, the song’s verses are more or less whispered, and the whole thing really takes off during the refrain. But that’s the point, and that’s the point of a lot of her songs, actually—structured in such a way that the verses are not negligible, but the refrain of the song is magnified so that you have to really go back, and intently listen, to get the entire conceit of the song.
But it’s that thing she does with her voice—the ugliness and guttural quality that she just fucking goes for, not even caring how out of tune she bends her own pitch—that’s the moment I knew.
Hailing from Australia and all of 25, McMahon has a reckless, low, smoky voice—and a way with phrasing that makes her wise beyond her years, and Salt, her debut full-length (after a slow roll out of a few advance singles) is structured in a staggering and impressive way, allowing McMahon to build up, gradually, towards and explosive peak, all before bringing it back down again, creating a jaw dropping nearly untouchable run of five songs out of six on the album’s first side. The fatal flaw—and it’s not even a flaw, so much, as it is a structural element to point out, is Salt is a little front loaded with its best, or at least its most memorable material, like the two aforementioned tracks, which are among its finest, as well as the slinking, shuffling, incredibly biting “Slow Mover.”
In a way, the sequencing reminds me slightly, at times, of Damien Rice’s O, in the sense that it, too, plays its hand on the first side, and saves the, maybe, less accessible or slightly more difficult material for the latter half. Salt doesn’t fall apart in its second half, but the pacing sure changes, and there’s no doubt that’s an intentional choice on McMahon’s part—and she closes the album with the heartbreaking, and visceral “If You Call,” presumably a song recorded in one sitting—you can hear the passing traffic coming through the open windows in the background.
Rarely do you find a debut record as startling, and promising, as Salt, and throughout the album’s diverse, raw, and infectious songs, it introduces, to a much larger audience, McMahon as a songwriting and performing force to take note of.
In the overcrowded marketplace that is rap music, in 2019, I dare you to find another album as audacious, as volatile, and as flat out impressive and intelligent as Hiding Places—because you will, more than likely, never hear something quite this smart, and clever, operating on so many different levels at once—leaving its listener in a dizzied state.
You will more than likely never find another rap record that references Great Expectations and Glengarry Glen Ross in different moments, while keeping one foot in the streets, with the other behind the locked door––reclusive, borderline paranoid, and incredibly irritable.
More than just an excellent rapper, Billy Woods is, above all else, an incredibly gifted storyteller. That’s the sign of good, thought provoking rap music—throughout Hiding Places, Woods blurs the line between fact and fiction, spinning stark narratives and bleak, desperate portraits that are so compelling, you are uncertain (and possibly don’t even really care in the end) what is real, and what isn’t.
The tension and claustrophobia that runs through the album is thanks in part to the production oversight of Kenny Segal, who is responsible for all 12 of the album’s beats—making it one of the most cohesive, yet wildly diverse, rap records I have heard in a long time. But it’s Woods, as a storyteller, who helps make that tension even tighter, and makes the space just a little darker, and a little smaller, with his desolate, desperate imagery.
Of all the startling moments on Hiding Places, and holy shit there are so very many, the most electrifying, and the one that lingers the longest after the album is done, arrives in the form of “Red Dust,” the swirling, disorienting closing track. Built around a dusty, ancient sounding loop of acoustic guitar strings, and absolutely punishing, bone shattering hits of percussion, Woods is unrelenting in the violent, often obsessive and uncomfortable narrative he creates: “I was in the ceiling when they swept the building,” he states, “I broke bred with killas and rapists—I got money with ni**as you should not leave with a child for two fuckin’ seconds.”
And, before you can even recover from his fury: “Don’t tell me that’s the past—I live in the past, it ain’t even that different.”
The song’s second verse, though, is where Woods casts a chill that never really recedes: “I want to show you what I learned from the worst people I ever known,” he confesses all before the song’s haunting, disconcerting final line. “Seeing you in hell—all I think about. They say ‘woods, that’s all she wrote.’ I know the list long—I put you at the fuckin’ top.”
In my original assessment of Hiding Places, I talked briefly about how Stereogum’s rap writer erroneously built the conceit of his entire review of the album around believing it was 100% about being ‘broke in America.’ Yes, it is, at times, about that, but it’s about so much more than that, too, and it’s the kind of record that even after almost a year of listening, it is still revealing the darkest parts of yourself. In the end Hiding Places is, really, about the things you cannot hide from no matter how hard you may try; it’s about waiting for your past to stick a knife if your back, but turning around just before the blade hits and openly accepting what we cannot escape from within ourselves.
For a little while, following the release of Leslie Bear’s dreamy, compelling 2015 debut full-length as Long Beard, Sleepwalker, enough time had started to pass and I began wondering if she had walked away from music. Four years isn’t unheard of between albums, but she, as a performer, was mostly inactive during that time as well, and remained relatively reclusive.
Walking away from music, and then returning to it, also isn’t unheard of—as was the case with Elizabeth Powell from Land of Talk, who more or less disappeared after the tour in support of her group’s second full-length Cloak and Cipher, in 2010, only to reemerge in 2017.
“Inactive” and “reclusive” are both accurate words to describe Bear’s four years of downtime, and she channeled that experience into her absolutely brilliant, swirling sophomore album, Means to Me, a borderline concept album about loneliness, isolation, and bittersweet nostalgia for a time you can never go back to.
Following the release of Sleepwalker, Bear eventually relocated to her native New Jersey, and fell into a terrible pattern of both isolation and nostalgia—all of her old friends were gone, having long since moved away, and she, on the cusp of an existential crisis, began to wonder, ‘what constitutes a home?’
Bear spends the entirety of Means to Me, asking that question, and in the end, really finds no resolution.
I don’t find myself compelled to listen to as much dreampop or shoegaze, or similarly inspired music as I once did, around a decade ago, but even though Long Beard, overall, is a very dreamy, ethereal band, there’s something so alluring about the way Bear bends those genres, or descriptors—swirling, shimmering, and glistening layers of guitars, and twinkling synthesizer add charm and depth, setting a musical bed for her absolutely heartbreaking lyrics to rest on.
It’s the lyrics, really, that make this record what it is—they are devastating, and Bear, as a songwriter, goes right for the throat, right out of the gate with the Mean to Me’s introductory, or ‘thesis’ statement, as it were, on “Countless”—“Still hoping you would talk to me through the colder months of fall, but you never called—you never called; I’m driving around mostly, trying to feel like I’m getting somewhere, but when I hear you on the radio, I feel like I’m nowhere at all…”
Then, maybe, the hardest line to hear—“I know I haven’t moved at all.”
As a songwriter, Bear has grown an alarming amount during her four years of exile; pairing with producer and multi-instrumentalist Craig Hendrix, who also serves as co-producer and engineer of Means to Me, the songs here are much sharper, and much more focused, when compared to Bear’s earlier material as Long Beard—moments of Sleepwalker wandered into what I hesitate to call self-indulgent, experimental territory, but here, the songs are very direct, an wildly infectious at times, which is a very surprising contrast considering just how fucking sad a number of them are.
Swooning and dizzying, honest, heartbreaking, and overall, a gorgeous statement from beginning to end, Bear’s somber narrative of nostalgia, longing, and wondering about the very idea of ‘home,’ does not follow a traditional narrative—there is a clear starting point, yes, and there is no real resolve the end, and with that being the case, Bear wisely structures Means to Me to place the listener deep within her existential crisis, allowing you to work yourself backward and forward, and perhaps unsurprisingly, finding bits of yourself, and your own experience, throughout.
If you would have pulled me aside at the start of 2019, and told me that my favorite record of the year would be by Lana Del Rey, I wouldn’t have believed you.
Before sitting down with Lana (Elizabeth Grant)’s fifth full-length album, Norman Fucking Rockwell, I knew very little about her, and I really hadn’t given her music much of a chance, which in retrospect, was a huge mistake on my part. And now, after a handful of months, going out and buying her other four records, and almost convincing two of my co-workers to drive with me to Madison to see her perform live, I still know very little about her.
Grant, in a sense, is enigmatic (among other things) but I think that’s part of the point.
Within the enigma, there is allure.
What I do know, and what it didn’t take me very long at all to figure out, is that Norman Fucking Rockwell is an absolute force to be reckoned with—an almost flawless collection of songs both brazen and beautiful, full of both a desperate kind of lust, and love, juxtaposed against each other; songs full of a palpable melancholy, but at in the end, a very fleeting glimmer of hope, which Grant concedes is a dangerous thing like a woman like her to have—but she has it.
Partnering with producer Jack Antonoff, who is credited with co-writing a number of the songs on Norman Fucking Rockwell, Grant has created an album that really works as a bit of a culmination of everything she has been doing up to this point, and makes very clear what she will be doing as she moves forward. The album, as a whole, is an enormous, audacious artistic statement—and even though, at times, Grant as ‘Lana Del Rey,’ comes off as being a caricature, or a persona that has been adopted, with a record this surprising, honest, and just flat out great, she demands to be taken seriously as an artist.
Musically, Grant and Antonoff stick to ‘torch songs,’ or piano balladry, for a bulk of Norman Fucking Rockwell, which given Grant’s aesthetic, that is perhaps what she does best—though the album shows a diversification in sound as well, dipping into 1970s, ‘Laurel Canyon’ inspired folk rock, psychedelics, and a few hat tips to the bombastic, glitchy, electro-infused pop music of her past; it also includes an ill-advised, breezy cover of Sublime’s “Doin’ Time,” of all things, which arrives early, and is the album’s weakest point.
But the most surprising thing about Norman Fucking Rockwell, and what makes this album so great, is Grant, as a lyricist, and her usage of dry, cutting, self-effacing humor, and painting vivid portraits of a tumultuous, difficult love.
Rarely have I ever felt so simultaneously seen and attacked by an album—but even before the album’s titular, opening track has concluded, I knew I was in for a record that was going to force me to examine difficult, dark parts of myself. “God damn, man-child,” Grant sings with a carefree swagger on “Norman Fucking Rockwell.” “You act like a kid even though you stand six foot two.”
Then, later, “I don’t get bored, I just see it through—why wait for the best when I could have you?,” which is maybe one of the meanest, most cutting lines on the entire album, which she follows with, “You’re just a man, it’s just what you do—your head in your hands as you color me blue.”
I hesitate to say that Norman Fucking Rockwell is a concept album, but it is a unified cycle of songs that, at times, is self-referential, and as it continues to unpack itself (and there is a lot to unpack here, folks) it becomes much more personal, both for Grant as the protagonist (and at times maybe an antagonist, depending on the song) as well as for the listener, as she unabashedly explores the recurring themes and ideas, and as it continues, it becomes difficult to keep track of all the quotable and notable lyrics: “Fresh out of fucks forever,” from the hilariously titled “Venice Bitch” comes to mind right away, as does the phrase, “If I wasn’t so fucked up I think I’d fuck you all the time,” from the album’s most brazen song, “Fuck It, I Love You,” which is the first moment that the very real, very desperate, very difficult love the record is based around comes in clearly.
You see, the further you get into the album, especially after the halfway point, the darker, and more difficult, it becomes. “There’s things I want to say to you, but I’ll just let you live—because if you hold me without hurting me, you’ll be the first who ever did,” she coos on “Cinnamon Girl,” one of the album’s finest moments; “I shouldn’t have done it but I read it in your letter—you said to a friend that you wish you were doing better. I wanted to reach out, but I never said a thing,” she confesses on the stark, volatile “California.”
There’s the contrast between the innocence of just wanting to dance with somebody, an argument that ends in tears, and the rock bottom observation—“If he’s a serial killer, then what’s the worst that could happen to a girl who’s already hurt?” Grant sings in the refrain to the sprawling, ever shifting “Happiness is A Butterfly,” where she also delivers one of the album’s most dramatic lines—“Don’t be a jerk. Don’t call me a taxi—sitting in your sweatshirt, crying in the backseat.”
Then, there is, of course, the entirety of “Love Song,” more or less the song that splits the album in half, and perhaps Norman Fucking Rockwell’s most personal reflection, and most haunting, beautiful moment, and after a lot of deliberation, my favorite song on the record.
Outside of the album’s lyrics, maybe, just maybe, the most surprising thing of all about Norman Fucking Rockwell is how much of yourself (if you’re me, anyway) you can see in it—reflected in both Grant’s voice, as well as the person she is singing about, which is the thing that first struck me about the record during my initial listens. And it’s difficult, and uncomfortable, at first, to have this realization, but it becomes easier with subsequent listens; and that’s yet another surprising thing about Norman Fucking Rockwell—you’d think that it would be the kind of record with a short-dated shelf life, or that you would burn yourself out on it too quickly, but that is far from the case.
The album concludes with the dramatic, autobiographical “Hope is A Dangerous Thing For A Woman Like Me to Have—But I Have It.” Sprawling and sparsely arranged (just Antonoff on the piano accompanies Grant’s vocals) it’s the album’s second longest track (second only to “Venice Bitch”’s staggering nine minute running time), and, lyrically and thematically, contains an idea that lingers long after the song, and the album, have concluded: “Don’t ask if I’m happy, you know that I’m not—but at best, I can say I’m not sad.”
The other day at work, my boss (and close friend) half jokingly said that we ‘manufacture our own highs and lows.’ After realizing what she had said, I took a moment before telling her that this was a conversation neither of us were ready to have.
What makes a high and a low? What makes someone, or something, unhappy—and what is the difference between unhappiness and true sadness? How much of the Venn diagram of both emotions overlap?
Even after four or five months, Norman Fucking Rockwell is a record that is still slowly unpacking itself to me, revealing more each time I listen, and in turn, I am still finding reflections of myself in parts of it. It’s a record that asks questions, or makes bold statements, but, much like the human condition it, in part, is representative of, there are no easy answers in the end, and little, if any resolution.