Tracking New Music Releases with Zac Wittman: Earl Sweatshirt, FKA twigs, Bonobo, Elvis Costello & The Imposters, The Lumineers

Written By Zachary Wittman, Music Columnist

A huge release week has come, giving us excitement and disappointment from some of the most acclaimed names in music both old and new. We are in for one heck of a year so far!

Earl Sweatshirt – Sick!
Abstract Hip Hop
Released January 14, 2022

4 Globes out of 5

Waiting for an Earl Sweatshirt release is exhilarating. You never know when it is coming, but when it arrives, you know you will be intrigued. The young rapper has become one of the most revered individuals in his craft, creating deeply personal and introspective records that push the limit of what you can call an album. At only 24 minutes long, “Sick!” stands as another wonderful update to fans.

A few years ago, Earl released the earth-shattering “Some Rap Songs,” one of the most personal albums in an already deeply personal genre. That release, while also brief in its length, had a heavy emotional toll on listeners.

“Sick!” revisits many of those feelings, but in a much more positive outlook. Instead of looking backwards, Earl meditates on the people he has lost, both through death and outgrowing friendships, as well as the pandemic, as the title implies. The production across the album is the best he has worked with yet. The tracks alternate between trap and drumless, two opposing production styles that somehow compliment each other perfectly across the 10 tracks presented here.

One song, “2010,” has some of Earl’s most thought-provoking lyrics, analyzing the growth one experiences in a decade. “Tabula Rasa” features a verse from both halves of Armand Hammer, Billy Woods and Elucid. The three emcees meld together well over the stuttery soul vocals and clanging of bottles in the background. The sampled slinky piano line feels straight out of a classic 90s rap cut. “Vision” is another great song, but Earl drops a controversial line that can be read as either a rejection of drug addiction or the COVID-19 vaccine. Earl does not seem like the type of person to put others at risk, so the exact intent of this line is debated among fans.

Surprisingly, the album doesn’t touch on the pandemic much otherwise. There are a handful of lines that are directly commenting on it, but as a whole it seems to instead serve as a reaction to the United States’s affairs surrounding the pandemic. While these types of albums are beginning to grow tiring as we go deeper and deeper into this pandemic with no end in sight, “Sick!” is different enough to not feel tiresome. The record closes with “Fire In The Hole,” which might be the greatest beat Earl has rapped over. It is absolutely stunning in every way, ending with an extended piano coda that gives you time to pick your jaw up off of the floor. The other tracks are also great, but the short lengths can make it seem like they are merely interludes for the longer tracks. On the other hand, this album keeps up an impressive sense of flow and structure, never feeling like it drags for any period of time.

Earl has graced us with yet another incredible project, but it comes as just slightly less than “Some Rap Songs” in the grand scheme of things. Despite having the higher highs, it doesn’t carry a narrative weight that is as compelling or gripping as the prior album. The new outlook in Earl’s music is reassuring, as he seems content. Even though he has never released long albums in the past, I do yearn for a more comprehensive release of his.

FKA twigs – Caprisongs
Alternative R&B
Released January 14, 2022

3 Globes out of 5

Pop music had grown incredibly ambitious in the early to mid 2010s with the rise of many artists and producers pushing the fold to new levels. FKA twigs stunned the world in 2014 with her stunning and sensual debut album “LP1,” only to smash that record with her follow-up EP “M3LL155X” the year after. 2019’s “Magdalene” made her a superstar, landing on best-of lists across all spheres of the music world. Now, she has returned to release her newest project, this time framed as her first mixtape.

So what makes this a mixtape? Well, essentially only the concept that it is formatted like a tape that twigs made due to the album’s inaugural line. In all honesty, it feels right to call this a mixtape, as it keeps her true album cycle from seemingly declining. Yes, unfortunately, this tape does not hold a candle to any of her past work. It is commendable how uniform the album’s sound is, as it manages to sound cohesive despite drawing from an incredible amount of genres.

That is exactly where this release’s problems lie. Most of the intriguing elements of genres like UK bass, drill, footwork, afroswing and dancehall are diluted to conform to a fairly standard soft trap-pop crossover. The DNA of the songs are, at their core, different, but they are homogenized to a point that the average person couldn’t deviate from each track’s influence. Some might view this as a good thing, as it makes the album feel like a more complete statement, but it ultimately makes it feel somewhat half-baked.

Lyrically, twigs still handles the same sensual themes as usual, this time more positively than her prior album. The detailing of a hedonistic lifestyle is great to hear from an artist who has expressed as much grief as she has in her songs. However, it doesn’t articulate very well through her writing and comes off as surface level. The drama and intensity she normally delivers seems to have seeped out, perhaps through the metaphorical hole left in her heart as she attempts to pull herself up on the first night out after a breakup.

The record uses astrology as a main narrative point, which is interesting to hear. Of course that practice has many people entirely too against or for it that it becomes an explosive subject to discuss, but it adds an undeniably interesting layer to this record. That being said, a lot of the spoken word segments and interviews strung throughout the tape reek of generic Twitter-level commentary on “vibes” and “energy” that feels unintentionally regressive to the album’s narrative.

In spite of the tape’s shortcomings, it is not without some good tracks. “Darjeeling” and “Thank You Song” are both songs that make this whole project worthwhile, as they supply twigs a platform to lay down some of her best lyrics and vocals. The production across the album is smooth, but not something that really elevates twigs like it would another artist.

Overall, it is at its worst underwhelming and at its best pleasant. Maybe it is the sheer high quality of her past work that makes this a disappointing listen, but FKA twigs can do better. At the end of the day, I’m just some guy giving my opinion, and I am ultimately incredibly happy that she has found herself in a better place both physically and mentally and decided to share that feeling with her fans through this project. After all, that is the only thing that matters.

Bonobo – Fragments
Released January 14, 2022

4 Globes out of 5

Everyone has that one friend who is always great at giving music recommendations. My buddy Nick Nazak has gifted me some of my favorite musical discoveries ever since early high school. Phoenix and James Blake are two artists I spin regularly thanks to him. About two Christmases ago, he told me to check out Bonobo as we discussed the Minecraft soundtrack by C418. I had heard bits and pieces of his work since that conversation, but this is the first new album of Bonobo’s that I am going into as a fan.

“Fragments” is quite the oxymoron of a title, as this record has a wonderfully cohesive flow throughout its 12 tracks. The instrumental songs do fare a bit better than the feature-based vocal ones, but there is really no point on the album that it can be considered weak. From the album cover alone, you know that you are in for a chilled out ride. The production has a clean sheen that allows the arrangements to pop, from the grand string sections to every little bleep and bloop.

“Elysian” is a fantastic slice of folktronica that shows how full Bonobo’s arrangements can sound. The more electronic cuts, such as “Otomo,” will satisfy any fan of house or electronic music. The one song that steals the show is without a doubt “Age Of Phase,” which stands among Bonobo’s finest work and an incredibly compelling cross of microhouse and deep house. The Joji-featured track “From You” is not exactly a standout for me, but I know many people will absolutely adore this cut. The following three tracks give the record a solid finish.

If you are not familiar with Bonobo’s work, this is a wonderful starting point. It is perfect for both focused listens as well as chilled out homework stretches. This isn’t a groundbreaking album or anything, but it is some great downtempo and house music with elements of R&B mixed in throughout. If you are looking for a good album to settle into the new year with a clear mind, check this one out.

Elvis Costello & The Imposters – The Boy Named If
Pop Rock
Released January 14, 2022

4 Globes out of 5

At this point in my music listening, when I think of Elvis, Costello is the first one to come to my mind. His brand of energetic power pop and fearless genre experimentation makes him one of the longest-lasting songwriters of his time, and he is still putting out quality records 45 years into his career. “The Boy Named If” clocks in as Costello’s 32nd album and his fifth with the backing band iteration known as The Imposters.

Right out of the gate, Costello and co. explode with the noisy and raucous “Farewell, OK.” It’s the most outright punk he and the band have sounded in years. The title track follows, and it is a pleasant stomper of a song. “Penelope Halfpenny” is one of the few times that Costello’s age cracks through in his voice, as the vocal processing during the verses sounds out of place.

The one thing I noticed that brought me great joy as the album went on was the return of that signature keyboard sound his band has used since the 70s. It is so recognizable and hearing it adorn these songs brings a lot of joy to the ears. Costello also shows that not only has his voice maintained much of its richness on a track like “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love?,” but his guitar playing is also still exceptional.

In his years of genre experimenting with full country and vocal jazz albums among other ventures, Costello leaves room for those styles to seep into this record. “Paint The Red Roses Blue” brings the jazz while “Mr. Crescent” has tinges of alt-country. Everything sounds purely Elvis Costello in the end, though. The band sound like they are especially having fun during “The Man You Love To Hate,” complete with clangy pianos and psychedelic organs that give the whole song a cabaret feeling as well as hooting and hollering during the song’s closing.

It is almost mind boggling how consistent Costello’s catalog is. Only a small handful of albums can be considered lackluster and that is even considering his ventures into writing symphonies and soundtracks. Even if “The Boy Named If” doesn’t hit as much as his classic work, it is still an album worth checking out. Hail to the king (of new wave, that is).

The Lumineers – Brightside
Folk Rock
Released January 14, 2022

2.5 Globes out of 5

There’s that weird conundrum with music where something is popular, yet no one talks about it anymore. Have you heard one person express excitement for The Lumineers’s new record? I didn’t think so. And yet, their fourth album arrived with little fanfare but streaming success.

To be fair, they did trick me into thinking this would be a good album. Their past work rides the line between disingenuity and honesty. On the surface, it is commercial folk music made for the masses. Peel back an album like “Cleopatra” and you will find a heartfelt little set of tracks. Examine it deeper than that and you will find that it is still amateurish work that mangles true emotions into something stale and edible for the radio.

I was interested with the lead single and title track, as it seemed the group was following The Killers and Bleachers towards Springsteen-ization. However, it would seem that the heartland rock direction was merely a ruse. The following track and fellow single “A.M. Radio” is still a fine folk track, but it doesn’t land as well as the opener. This cycle repeats throughout the album, setting up something more interesting than what comes. “Where We Are” is seemingly catchy, but something feels missing from the arrangement. Maybe it’s how hushed the chanting backing vocals are or the repeating piano line, but it feels like it lacks power. I was ready to not comment on “Birthday,” as I think no one should write an original birthday song. Not even The Beatles could do it. Not even George Harrison himself. The Lumineers tried and it sucked, but then that stupid key change ending came in and made the song insufferable.

The rest of the album goes in one ear and out the other. Despite forgetting almost every song after it ends, it feels like the album is a lot longer than its half-hour runtime. Not only that, but many of the songs sound the same, which isn’t great for an album this short with only nine songs. I would ask who this album is even intended for, but it seems to be doing fairly well despite my previous understanding that The Lumineers had significantly waned in popularity. I guess if you like their older work, you will like this, but even their older releases sound more interesting than this. Just don’t expect anything more than that out of this. This is the definition of “fine.”