Album Review: 21 Pilots: Vessel
As a general rule, we usually don't review albums that came out four years ago. Then again, albums released four years ago usually aren't still in the Top 40, either. Twenty One Pilots' 2013 effort, Vessel, defies both of those general rules.
Over the last couple of years, the two guys who comprise Twenty One Pilots—Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun—have steadily climbed from obscurity in Ohio to the summit of the alt-pop mountain. Not only is the band's latest effort, Blurryface, still parked in the Top 10 after 86 weeks on the chart, Vessel keeps sailing along, too. As of this writing, it's notched 125 weeks on the Billboard 200.
So we decided to go back and review it. And I'm glad we did, because these 12 tracks—which go from sounding more than a little like Eminem one moment to being reminiscent of My Chemical Romance or even Owl City the next—are packed with psychological and spiritual insights … amid some deep emotional struggles.
"Holding onto You" is almost certainly about God: "You are surrounding all my surroundings/ … And I'll be holding onto you." The song finds the guys saying no to their fleshly impulses in an echo of 1 Corinthians 9:27 ("I'm taking over my body/ … And it seems a lot like flesh is all I got/Not anymore, flesh, out the door/Swat") as well as controlling their thoughts, a parallel allusion to 2 Corinthians 10:5 ("Tie a noose around your mind/Loose enough to breathe, fine, and tie it/To a tree. Tell it, 'You belong to me/This ain't a noose, this is a leash/And I have news for you: You must obey me'").
"Ode to Sleep" finds the band wondering why things are so much easier in the daytime. There's a nighttime battle with devilishly accusatory voices ("I swear I heard demons yelling"). But there's also determination not to give in. "I'll stay awake," we hear, "'Cause the dark's not taking prisoners tonight." Elsewhere, the song talks about an ongoing need for forgiveness, using lyrics that allude to Peter's three denials of Christ: "I'm not free, I asked forgiveness three times/Same amount that I denied, I three-time MVPed this crime." The lyrically dense track also talks of our tendency to deny our need for grace: "The start of the day when we put on our face/A mask that portrays that we don't need grace." Similar themes of overcoming internal darkness fill "Semi-Automatic," with the band declaring, "I will rise and stand my ground/Waiting for the night's return."
That internal battle continues on "Migraine." We hear a stark reference to suicidal thoughts ("Sundays are always my suicide days/I don't know why they always seem so dismal"), but that admission is followed by multiple lines that describe holding on to perseverance and hope: "Shadows will scream that I'm alone/But I know we've made it this far, kid/ … Life has a hopeful undertone."
"Car Radio" says a guy's stolen car radio has resulted in silence that forces him to ponder his life: "Now I just sit in silence/Sometimes quiet is violent/… I hate this car I'm driving/There's no hiding for me/I'm forced to deal with what I feel/There is no distraction to mask what is real." Later, the song affirms, "Peace will win/And fear will lose/There's faith and there's sleep/We need to pick one, please, because/Faith is to be awake/And to be awake is for us to think/And for us to think is to be alive."
"House of Gold" finds a son longing to care for his widowed mother in her old age. "Screen" poignantly talks of how hard it is to tell people the truth about ourselves, even those to whom we're supposedly the closest. Twenty One Pilots revisits those themes again in "Fake You Out." That track, and "Guns for Hands," both reference suicidal temptations as well. But the latter rightly says part of the solution for such isolating, damaging thoughts is to seek out community ("Together, let's breathe/ … Let's all go outside and join hands").
Album closer "Truce" begins, "Now the night is coming to an end/ … The sun will rise, and we will try again." The song admits the eventual reality of death, but also warns that death isn't something to be pursued or embraced prematurely ("Stay alive, stay alive for me/You will die, but now your life is free").
References to suicide are never glorified or romanticized; that grievous decision is consistently rejected and resisted. Still, it's possible that the band's lyrics about this serious subject could be taken out of context and heard incorrectly as a suggestive nod to that choice.
"Ode to Sleep" includes the self-recriminating line, "Metaphorically, I'm a whore, and that's denial number of four." More desperate struggles fill "The Run and Go," where a young man confesses to his father, "Pa, I'm not the one you know, you know/I have killed a man and all I know." I suspect we're meant to interpret that line metaphorically, but that's not completely clear.
Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun don't shy away from confessing some tough things and diving into hard subject matter. It's clear from start to finish that one (or perhaps both) of these young men have battled mightily with depression and its seductive handmaiden, suicide.
That said, it's equally (albeit subtly) obvious that their response to those struggles has been shaped by their faith, that their spiritual convictions arm them to do battle with the darkness within. Because of that counterbalancing influence, Twenty One Pilots ultimately delivers a message of honesty, hope and determination to young fans who might be quietly grappling with the same things.
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Album Review: Bruno Mars: 24K Magic
It's been almost four years since Bruno Mars dropped an album. (Though it may not seem quite that long since he was the main voice of Mark Ronson's smash hit "Uptown Funk" in 2014.)
Sonically speaking, he's increasingly mining a throwback vibe, mimicking the likes of Prince and James Brown in songs that have a deeper, old-school R&B groove than his last effort (2012's Unorthodox Jukebox).
Thematically, though, there's still only one thing on Mars' mind.
"Too Good to Say Goodbye" is the only track that doesn't focus on sex and/or partying. Here, Mars practically begs a woman who's apparently leaving him to give him another chance: "This can't be how our story ends," he tells her. "You're more than my girl, you're my best friend." Elsewhere in that track, he says, "I pray it's never too late," and, "If we're gonna fight this fight for better days/I know were' gonna make it."
"Finesse" includes an isolated couplet encouraging lifetime commitment ("Fellas, grab your ladies if your lady fine/Tell her she the one, she the one for life"). "Chunky" gives an approving nod to financially stable women ("Shout out to the girls that pay they rent on time”).
Sex is the main subject on the majority of this album's nine songs. "Chunky" and "Perm" sing the praises of hooking up with overweight women. The former says, "Girl, you got what I need (I got what you need)/37-27-42/Ooh, squeeze all of that into my coupe." The latter says, "Don't be stingy with your big ol' butt/You got a booty like/Whoa, wait a minute/ … You need to activate your sexy." Elsewhere in "Perm," Mars lets us know that he's not really looking for love with this woman: "Come on, baby, I love you/No, you don't/You never know, though."
Perhaps the most objectifying moment on the album comes on "Calling All My Lovelies," where Mars brazenly makes fun of the names of the women he casually sleeps with. "I got Alicia waitin', Aisha waitin'/All the -eeshas waitin' on me." Later, we find out that the woman Mars is trying to hook up with is actress Halle Berry (whose voicemail message we allegedly hear when the singer calls her).
More backside praise gets dished in the alcohol-sodden "Straight Up & Down": "This liquor got both of us faded/So gone, so gone, so gone/But your booty deserve a celebration/And I'm gonna celebrate it all night long." Ogling fills "Finesse" as well.
"That's What I Like" basically promises an opulent lifestyle in exchange for sex (dropping stripper jargon in the process): "Baby girl, what's happening?/You and you're a-- invited/ … Turn around and drop it for a pimp/ … Gold jewelry shining so bright/Strawberry champagne on ice/ … Sex by the fire at night/Silk sheets and diamonds all white." Likewise, "Versace" finds Mars striving to get his date out of her expensive dress as soon as possible. "Ooh, I love that dress/But you won't need it anymore/ … Let's just kiss 'til we're naked baby/Versace on the floor."
One song and one lyric on this breezy nine-track effort suggest that Bruno Mars is interested in a real relationship with someone. The rest of the time, it's all about sex. Bruno shamelessly woos women with his wealth even as he mocks their names and their weight. But Mr. Mars isn't much concerned with how the ladies he seeks to seduce might actually feel about his leering objectification. Instead he simply tells them (on "Chunky"), "If you ain't here to party, take your a-- back home."
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Album Review: One Republic: Oh My My
Most musical megastars don't thrive on anonymity. Yet despite nine years of hit singles and three very successful albums, OneDirection frontman Ryan Tedder is kind of shocked that his platinum-selling band isn't more immediately recognizable than it is. But he's also OK with that.
"We're … a band that's gotten where we've gotten, operating below the radar," he told radio.com. "We're maybe sonically ubiquitous; you've heard us everywhere, for almost a decade. But visually, we can still walk into a Walgreens and not get mobbed. That's been amazing."
Below the radar and sonically ubiquitous are apt descriptors of OneRepublic's highly polished fusion of pop and rock. Tedder and Co. excel at crafting easy-on-the-ears hits that you might well find yourself humming by heart … even if you couldn't name the band (or perhaps even the songs themselves) if someone asked you to do so.
Like previous OneRepublic efforts, the band's fourth album, Oh My My, offers a catchy, melodic, upbeat take on life … with just enough grit to prevent anyone from accusing these guys of being too sanitized or Pollyannaish.
"Human" unpacks a prayerful dialogue between a man and God. "Yesterday I talked to God, we had a conversation," Tedder begins. "Told Him that I'm sorry I lost communication." A bit later Tedder adds, "I said that the things I've been trying end up in frustration/Life ain't what it seems in any situation." The deity responds by suggesting that He can relate to how the man feels: "Then He said, He said the strangest thing/He said, 'How does it feel to be human?/Some of the best plans you make get ruined/Do people curse you and the flowers ain't blooming/How does it feel?'" Elsewhere, the song suggests that a medicated generation yearns for a deeper experience of transcendence ("Most of us are happy with some medication/Lord, I could really use some wings").
"Let's Hurt Tonight" recognizes that loving another person can be messy and painful. The song deals with weariness and conflict, but it suggests that couples with healthy relationships firmly confront each other ("When I was off, which happened a lot/You came to me and said, 'That's enough'"), and they stay engaged until they've worked through their differences ("So I'll hit the lights and you lock the doors/We ain't leaving this room 'til we both feel more/Don't walk away, don't roll your eyes"). "Born" insists, "I was born, born to love you." On "All These Things," a man tells his beloved, "I've been lost, but I'm here today/I'll do all these things for you/ … I'll tell you the truth when it's all lies." And "Heaven" promises delighted attentiveness amid turbulent times: "And when the world ain't righteous/It's raining Cain and Abels/I'll be trying to dance with you."
On "Future Looks Good," Tedder takes a hopeful stance about what's next ("I swear that you are, you are the future/And the future looks good") and vows to speak plainly even if others don't ("Because you know anybody, everybody else can lie/But honey, I won't see you with a, see you with a broken set of eyes"). "Better" finds a mentally ill man striving to convince someone that there's still hope for positive change: "Yes, I'm neurotic, I'm obsessed, I know it/ … I think I lost my mind/ … I swear I'm not insane/ … In the morning I'll be better."
The title track recognizes life's brevity ("Days are long, life's so short") and reaffirms a romance ("Just what I wanted, you're just what I wanted"). "Kids" fondly recalls adolescence but rejects the nostalgic notion that the past was automatically better: "I refuse to look back thinking days were better/Just because they're younger days." "Dream" affirms the importance of pursuing what we think is important, even if those around us are sometimes critical. "A.I." seems to pine for genuine love amid artificial counterfeits. "Lift Me Up" deals with asking for help when we're down. Similarly, "NbHD" longs for a happy ending even if the present is dark ("Searching the horizon for a sign/All I see is dark, but I sail on/ … Fly closer to heaven and far from hell").
Three songs contain a total of seven partially censored s-words, which is the biggest concern here.
"Wherever I Go" flirts with a reckless relationship ("I feel alive when I'm close to the madness/No easy love could ever make me feel the same"). "Let's Hurt Together" metaphorically conflates love and pain in lines that could be misheard as a literal suggestion: "They say love is pain, well, darling, let's hurt tonight." "Oh My My" includes lines about a couple connecting at a bar. Adolescent antics in "Kids" include smoking cheap cigars and staying up all night ("We were searching for Oz/We were burning cigars/With white plastics tips 'til we saw the sun").
"Fingertips" describes a young, unmarried couple drinking and falling asleep together: "You were talking about the night when I cashed out/Traded glances as I stole your lover's light/ … We were drinking from the same old glasses/That we borrowed from my roommate down the hall." There may be another cohabiting (or perhaps they're married, it's unclear) couple in "Future Looks Good": "Woke up staring at this, staring at this empty room."
I love that OneRepublic continues to deliver albums with a generally positive outlook. Ryan Tedder and his bandmates write songs that deal honestly with life's struggles even as they emphasize a message of hope and the possibility of positive change.
I'm less enamored with the way the band occasionally chooses to articulate its perspective on brokenness: via bleeped s-words that undermine the album's otherwise encouraging vibe.
Yes, I know they're partially censored. Yes, I know sometimes people say bad words in the real world. But I can't help but feel that the band's indulgence of profanity detracts from its otherwise mostly redemptive perspective on dealing with life's inevitable difficulties.
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Album Review: Britney Spears: Glory
"I don't believe in marriage anymore."
That's one of the confessions Britney Spears made to late-night host James Corden in a recent episode of his feature Carpool Karaoke.
And there was another admission as well: Even though she'd like more children, Britney's apparently not much interested in men or physical intimacy these days. "I might not ever go to men again," she told Corden. "I may French kiss someone, but I'm not going to marry anyone, no." Britney's candid, though admittedly brief, interactions on those subjects suggest she's perhaps weary of looking for meaning in relationships and sex.
Those statements, however, are at odds with the one on her ninth album, Glory. Indeed, the 12 tracks on the standard edition of the album (and five more on the deluxe version) focus almost exclusively on the subject of sex. So much so, in fact, that Salon reviewer Nico Lang wrote, "Spears is chained to her proverbial bed throughout Glory, her most overtly erotic record to date."
"Man on the Moon" could be heard as being romantic without being sexual. Spears sings, "I've been right here dreaming of you/Waiting for my man on the moon." And there's a fleeting suggestion on "Do You Wanna Come Over" that two people could do something other than getting physical: "Or we could be good and do next to nothin'." "Better" implies that actually knowing someone you're physically intimate with makes that experience more meaningful: "So right, so good/When you know somebody." "Liar" sends a serial cheater on his way, while "Just Like Me" suggests deep pain after discovering a man's infidelity. "Change Your Mind (No Seas Cortes)" features a guy who actually doesn't want to "cross the line" physically…
… even though Britney is determined to make him do otherwise throughout the balance of that track.
And on virtually every other track on this album, too, as it turns out. Album opener "Invitation" coos, "Let the inhibitions come undone/ … Put your love all over me." Bondage shows up as well ("I know it might seem crazy/But I'ma put you in this blindfold/I just need you to trust me"). "Make Me … " tells a would be hook-up partner at a bar to "cut the s---" so that they can get down to business: "No rules/From the bar to the car, let's take it back to my room/Igniting the heat of the moment, let the sparks fuse." Guest rapper G-Eazy adds, "I've always wondered what was off limits."
"Private Show" finds Spears playing the role of a stripper striving to please a man ("Work it, work, boy watch me work it/Slide down my pole, watch me spin it and twerk it"). The song ends with a giggling allusion to oral sex. We get similar winks at that activity in "Clumsy," which also talks about Spears and a partner "bangin' all over this bedroom."
"Just Luv Me" finds Spears almost desperately throwing her body at a man. "Ask for pieces of my body," she tells him. "Until all of it is yours/But I'm not gonna ask you for nothing/Just love me, just love me." The booty-call track "Do You Wanna Come Over" includes similar stuff: "Whatever you want/Whatever you need/I'll do it." Carnality, profanity and music mingle on "Slumber Party": "Neighbors say we're causing a commotion/ … We use our bodies to make our own videos/Put on our music that makes us go f---ing crazy." Alcohol gets added to the mix on "Hard to Forget Ya" ("Eyes locked on your body, sexy features, so iconic/ … Keep it going, let's get wasted"). In "What You Need", Spears purrs, "One time just ain't enough/ … I got that good, good stuff you can't erase/ … Give you what you want, I'm a certified expert."
After a breakup on "Man on the Moon," Spears turns to alcohol to take the edge off: "Drinking alone in my party dress/Would you come back if I looked my best?" "If I'm Dancing" mentions the Hindu concept of chakras (certain parts of the body imbued with specific spiritual powers according to some Indian religious traditions): "My chakra's all green and red/But he wants blue and green instead."
Britney Spears performed this album's first single, "Make Me …," at this year's MTV Video Music Awards. It was vintage Britney, a performance full of writhing and undulating, pouting and primping and posing. She even grabbed guest rapper G-Eazy's crotch a couple of times, as if to prove that she's still naughty enough to keep up with the young 'uns.
Yet I couldn't help but notice that her lip syncing was obviously off (something many others said via social media). She had all the "right" moves, but the whole thing just felt a bit off, as if maybe her heart wasn't quite in it anymore—even if she was obviously working very hard to prove otherwise.
I feel the same way about this sex-filled album after watching her Carpool Karaoke segment with James Corden. I'm just not convinced that Britney Spears is as interested in sex in real life as she insists she is throughout this album.
That said, many fans will likely take Britney Spears' latest effort at face value, accepting the message that's delivered from start to finish: that the greatest glory we can experience in life begins and ends with sex. Never mind that Britney may not even believe that hedonistic worldview she's still peddling after all these years.
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Album Review: Nick Jonas: Last Year Was Complicated
Nick Jonas, the youngest member of the now-defunct fraternal pop-rock trio bearing his now-famous surname, seems to be making a play for sympathy of sorts on his third solo album, Last Year Was Complicated. The complication he unpacks (in detail) revolves around a woman (or women) he's broken up with.
Procuring as much sex as he wants doesn't seem to be much of a problem for the 23-year-old former Disney star. But finding lasting, satisfying love? That's a much thornier proposition for the junior Jonas Brother … in part because he's still not sure he even wants to trade all those casual carnal conquests for lasting love with just one woman.
"Good Girls" ponders why some nice girls think they need to behave nastily to garner attention ("When did all these good girls decide to be bad?"), suggesting that it's partially because they're rebelling against their fathers ("Dancin' up on the table, getting' back at your dad") and partially because they've been conditioned to please lusty, leering men ("Don't wanna blame you for it, 'cause that's what we ask of you"). The song ultimately says a woman's appeal should be based on more than just her looks ("You know I love your skin, but is it deeper than that?/ … You know sexy isn't just what you see").
"Champagne Problems" laments, "We were the opposite of breaking up/Can't believe I'm losing you." Meanwhile, "Don't Make Me Choose" promises, "Whenever I can, I'll be there/You got a man who knows exactly what you need/ … If you wanna talk, I'll listen." "Unhinged" confesses, "You're not the first to try and diagnose what's wrong with me/I'll be the first to admit that I'm hard to please." "Voodoo" finds Jonas admitting he needs to get away from a woman he knows is a bad influence, but…
… that knowledge isn't enough to help him say no to her sensual charms. It's a weakness that shows up over and over again on Complicated. "Close," for instance, looks forward to minimizing the physical space between Jonas and a woman, even though he probably already knows this is a bad idea ("Oh d--n, oh d--n, oh d--n/I'm so perplexed").
Likewise, on "Champagne Problems" Jonas and a paramour break up, then promptly pop the cork on some bubbly and shed their clothes ("We got champagne problems/Only one way to solve 'em/ … Keep on, keep on drinking/ … How did our clothes end up on the floor?/Didn't we just break each other's hearts?") "Chainsaw" finds him violently responding to his cohabiting partner's decision to move out: "And maybe I'll just take a chain saw to the sofa/Where I held your body close for so long, so long/I'm gonna break the f---ing china/'Cause it's just one more reminder you're gone, you're gone." Later he turns to other unhealthy painkilling strategies, including alcohol ("Drink in my glass, better make it strong") and promiscuity ("Some nights wanna fill this space/A tight dress and a pretty face").
More suggestive physical fantasies fill "Touch," where we hear (among other things), "Go crazy/In the bedroom, babe/ … I wanna get inside your brain/Every part of you." Similarly sensual stuff saturates "The Difference" and "Under You."
"Bacon" finds Jonas pondering which he wants more, an always-willing partner ("Sizzling, white hot/Give me that sugar with the sweet talk") or a no-strings-attached existence in which he doesn't have to answer to anyone ("One thing I love more than being with you/And that's no ties, no drama in my life"). The same kind of self-centered ambivalence turns up on "Unhinged," where Jonas tells a woman that he's just not ready for a lifetime commitment: "I'm afraid to find out that I might be right for you/'Cause it's one step closer to life with you/And that's not me."
In the end, Nick Jonas' supposedly Complicated life isn't really anything of the sort. He's a young man who occasionally flirts with the idea of commitment. But he's much more committed to flirting—and a lot more than that—than he is making vows that would require him to subdue his self-absorption. He wants everything on his terms, but he's loath to be shackled to the self-sacrificing terms that a real relationship would demand of him.
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