Our favorite things this week include the ways, alternatives, and consequences of self-medicating, and David Bowie's Berlin years.
Just days before Lil Peep, sad rap’s heir-apparent, passed away at 21, the current king put out his third studio album. Jonatan Leandoer Hastad—Yung Lean—is also 21, and as recently as 2015, it didn’t look like he’d make it even this far. Hastad was hospitalized in Miami that year after an overdose that caused a psychotic break. His music, a precursor to Peep’s, has always dealt with themes of drug use and depression, but because of the jaded, superficial way he discusses his issues, it’s hard to take them at face value. Warlord, his sophomore effort, written in the months leading up to his breakdown, was a cry for help that no one heard, buried in ambient synths and one-liners about Polo socks and Star Wars. His latest project, Stranger, finds him exploring the dark side more earnestly than he has in the past, while still delivering on the hazy angst that brought him to prominence in the first place.
Stranger starts strong with “Muddy Sea.” It’s a straightforward anthem eschewing fame and fortune, but Hastad still manages to throw in lines like “Snakes ‘round my house, and my clocks don’t tick,” demonstrating his knack for world-building. The second track, “Red Bottom Sky,” follows through more fully, painting an intensely melancholy picture of drug-addled dystopia. “Skimask,” which comes next, is lyrically lacking, but the Sad Boys production team—Yung Sherman and Yung Gud—save the day with some of their most exciting instrumentals to date. Their contribution to Yung Lean’s cloudy aesthetic cannot be overstated, and on Stranger, it feels more purposeful than ever. The Sad Boys are growing up, defying their meme status for something much more substantial.
The album loses some steam around the middle, but it picks up again near the end, when Hastad starts to really spill his guts. “Agony,” the album’s penultimate track, is probably the best song he’s ever written. Stripping away all the pretense and posturing of his characteristic bored-sounding bars, he sings all the way through, and even employs a children’s chorus near the end of the song to back him up on the hook: “Isolation caved in / I adore you, the sound of your skin.” The effect is chilling.
It’s unclear whether Hastad is entirely sober at this point, but he sounds much more in control than he has in the past. He’s certainly thinking harder about his issues, rather than projecting them solely for stylistic value, and that’s a positive sign. Yung Lean has a long life ahead of him, and on Stranger, he sounds committed to living it. (Raphael Helfand)
The first two David Bowie box sets, Five Years (1969 - 1973) and Who Can I Be Now? (1974 - 1976) told the story of an artist hiding behind characters at first, then trying to continue doing that when he was to wrecked to keep his act together. They collect his output up to Station to Station, and A New Career in a New Town (1977-1982) picks up the story with Low, “Heroes,” Stage, Lodger, and Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). In that period, I’d argue that Bowie finally figured out who he was as an artist. His collaborations with Brian Eno made experimentation a practice, but by Lodger and Scary Monsters, it became his identity. Songs weren’t shaped by an external character, narrative or process that got him outside himself; they were formed through intuitive processes that helped him find “his own voice”—a concept he destabilized throughout his career.
Low and “Heroes” remain essential listening, but the news here is Lodger. The album always seemed like the poor cousin after Low and “Heroes,” and it didn’t help that Bowie released it with an indifferent mix that was more of a default than a choice. While working on Blackstar, producer Tony Visconti fiddled with the Lodger tracks during a break, and the changes he made earned Bowie’s approval. They opened up the sound and made it easier to hear Bowie’s vocals and the sonic textures that connected the songs to the albums before it, even as his pop sense reasserted itself. Bowie gave Visconti the green light to remix the whole album, and while it still doesn’t as sound groundbreaking like those before it, it’s now easier to hear Lodger as a collection of great songs rather than great ideas. (Alex Rawls)
We all have our own ways of getting through the day. Yoga. Mindless snacking. Becoming more Danish. I like to unwind with a nice, long binge read of other people’s psychedelic experiences, which is why I was recently pleased to discover a free e-book edition of Through the Gateway of the Heart: Accounts of Experiences with MDMA and Other Empathogenic Substances.
Published in 1985 right after MDMA became illegal in the US, Through the Gateway shares 50-odd first-hand accounts from people aged 22 to 69, students, housewives, and businessmen among them. Each trip report is like a mini-opera remixed into an Oprah Super Soul Sunday episode chopped and screwed with some Magical Mystery Tour. “Love” is mentioned 145 times. Individuals visualize themselves as “a baby floating through the universe,” become “reunited with creation,” and arrive on a “plane composed totally of color.” A 36-year old “invalid” declares, “Clearly, unmistakenly, permanently I felt: I AM GOOD.”
Oh great, I can hear you thinking. Just what I give a shit about in these times where our Toddler Leader threatens heads of state in 140 characters or less—the blubbering of hippies from the ‘80s. But why not? There’s something endearing about a woman in shoulder pads and power blush, quietly uncertain, leaping into the chasms of her own mind. Scrolling through page after page of unironic, total self-acceptance you start to relax, inundated by unwavering declarations that we’re all okay, everything will be okay, and everyone is an incarnation of shiny divine love (basically, the opposite of what happens when you log onto Facebook).
“This is the drug we never took,” said one. “This is the natural state of human beings.” (Cara Lahr)
Listening to Khruangbin's track "White Gloves" feels like getting a little high. The song blends psychedelic rock and bass driven melodies, and the lyrics are layered underneath the instrumentals to create a calming, trance-inducing listening experience. The band first got attention for the 2015 "A Calf Born in Winter," but their new work adds a liveliness that was missing before.
The band's sound reflects their smorgasbord of influences. They're a threesome from Texas that blends retro Thai funk with electronic sound. This year they released single "Maria También" off their upcoming 2018 album, and it builds further on the psychedelic feeling of their work, completely lyric-less and telling a story with a guitar.
As Paul Lester put it in his Guardian review, if you're looking for "some wistful soul and slow-motion funk with an exotic ambience that offers hints of countries as far-flung as Hawaii and Japan, then you need some Khruangbin in your life." (Lexie Kirkwood)