This week, I look at the musical phenomenon that is Adele, and how her first release in 3 years still has the music industry on the edge of its seat. We also buckle up for another wild ride with Eagles Of Death Metal on their new album Zipper Down, and take a snapshot from an oft-forgotten moment in Bruce Springsteen's catalogue, 1987's introspective Tunnel Of Love.
- You can catch the Keith Richards episode of Noisey's 'Guitar Moves' series on Youtube here.
- Adele's 2015 album 25 can be preordered on iTunes here. You'll get first single 'Hello' included.
- Eagles Of Death Metal's 2015 album Zipper Down can downloaded from iTunes here.
- Bruce Springsteen's 1987 album Tunnel Of Love can downloaded from iTunes here.
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02:53 to 09:34
Eagles Of Death Metal
09:35 to 14:40
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Hi there folks, welcome to the fourteenth episode of Musicology With The Eagle! I am The Eagle, your host on this journey of music discovery and discussion.
If you’re a music nerd like me, you probably spend quite a bit of time watching music interviews or documentaries. As we mentioned in last week’s episode, Youtube has become the portal of choice, and one channel I’ve gravitated to on the site is Noisey, which falls under the VICE media empire.
VICE has become known for its immersive investigative journalism, and they have some really cool interview series on the Noisey music channel, such as the British Masters, and my favourite: Guitar Moves.
One of their latest interviews was with none other than Keith Richards, and host Matt Sweeney was palpably star-struck by the experience. Who wouldn’t be, especially if it took place in Electric Lady Studios in New York City? The gist of the series is to have practical conversations about guitars, since Sweeney is quite the guitarist himself, having collaborated with the likes of Billy Corgan and Andrew W.K., and even playing on one of Johnny Cash’s American albums – as discussed in Episode 12.
This plays out perfectly for a wise old guest like Richards, who leisurely lights up a cigarette and chronicles his path towards learning guitar – starting with his grandfather teaching him a lilting Spanish piece as a little boy, to sitting for hours as a lonely teen, meticulously studying records of the time. And of course the two play guitars, Richards so at home on a trusty acoustic, which he says is what all aspiring guitarists should master and be intimate with first.
The part that really did it for me – even as someone who doesn’t play guitar – is when he wryly said that “there are two sides to every story” when playing. So many people think magical movements up and down the fretboard – a’la Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen – are what make a good guitarist. Richards, however, is a strummer at heart, and his thoughts on keeping both playing hands in sync were entertaining as they were pertinent. So if you’re a guitarist yourself, or want to be a fly on the wall for some interesting conversations about the instrument, check out Noisey’s ‘Guitar Move’s series.
“Hello, it’s me”.
It took just three words this past week to make the entire music industry collectively freak out. The queen had awoken, and she was ready to rule again over the charts and hearts and minds of whoever happens to be caught within her music’s orbit.
Unless you have been ‘Rolling In The Deep’ distant backwaters of our galaxy, you are probably aware by now that Adele is back, okay. In a big way.
Almost three years to the month since her last transmission, 2012’s colossal Bond theme for ‘Skyfall’, Adele picks up the conversation with her new single, simply titled ‘Hello’. But judging from the number of awards and perennial presence of her albums on the charts in the interim, you’d be forgiven for thinking that she never even left.
The universal appeal of Adele Adkins is a fascinating case study in today’s music. Very few, if any, artists can hold the very industry itself hostage the way she has while waiting for a follow-up to a record-breaking album. Yes, other female pop musicians like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry routinely find widespread success and cultural cache, blowing up the Twittersphere and blogosphere and whatever other spheres can be blown up. But when Adele speaks, it’s an exercise in minimalism and what some would say ‘authenticity’.
It’s no wonder she has been deemed a musical saviour, an artist who can actually convince the public to pay money for music. Even your grandmother likes her songs, and Adele’s earned respect from rappers to rock stars, each praising her heartfelt song-writing and lack of gimmicks. At the tender age of 24, she had already won 9 Grammy Awards and 1 Oscar, all while remaining just as level-headed, sweary, and downright hilarious as she was when she entered the scene with her 2008 debut.
I think that’s what also surprises people about her – myself included. It took me an abnormally long time to see the greatness of Adele, mainly because I was only vaguely aware of her through the deeply serious, heartbroken diva persona that pervades her records. Much like John Mayer, who she is on record sometimes belies the outspoken, occasionally goofy public image.
There’s also a psychological explanation why so many of us eventually gravitate to her music. According to a journal published on the Public Library of Science called ‘The Paradox of Music-Evoked Sadness’, listening to sad music actually creates positive feelings, such as peacefulness, in the listener, because you feel connected to the sadness of the artist but experience no ‘real life implications’ of the sad event.
This is where Adele really tapped into the public’s consciousness, and became the soundtrack of breakups worldwide with songs such as ‘Someone Like You’ or ‘Don’t You Remember’ – the former even being parodied on Saturday Night Live for reaching epidemic-levels of emotional button-pushing.
Fame as stratospheric as this often leads to a meltdown, and Adele very wisely saw the warning signs and tried to scale things back amidst surging success. It can’t be an easy decision to cancel a sold-out North American leg of a tour because of a vocal-cord haemorrhage, but that she did in late 2011, undergoing microsurgery to avoid permanent damage to her soaring voice.
She also began dating boyfriend Simon Konecki, fell pregnant with her first child Angelo, and once ‘Skyfall’ had had its day in the sun, she took a hiatus from music in order to "take time and live a little bit." After two incredibly personal records about heartbreak, she knew that whatever came next couldn’t just repeat the formula.
Staying out of the limelight and getting some rest didn’t automatically result in a renewed song-writing streak – actually, Adele suffered greatly from writer’s block in initial recording sessions for her third album ‘25’, which continues the age theme of her first two. It was so bad, she stated in an interview with Nick Grimshaw on BBC Radio 1, that “I felt like this was never going to happen, I was never going to finish this record. I thought I ran out of ideas and lost my ability to write a song. But my team were amazing, they’d tell me to go back to the drawing board if something wasn’t good enough. My biggest fear the whole time I’ve been writing is that I wrote songs that I didn't believe myself.”
Part of this was moving from the initial concept that focused heavily on her newfound motherhood, onto what she calls a ‘make-up’ record, reconciling aspects of her past and “making up for everything I ever did and never did”.
‘Hello’ emerged from some breakthrough sessions with producer Greg Kurstin, whose known for his work with other well-pedigreed female pop stars such as Lily Allen, Kelly Clarkson, and Sia. The duo also co-wrote three songs to appear on the record, due out on the 20th of November, which also shares writing credits with a diverse range of hit-makers including Ryan Tedder, Danger Mouse, Max Martin, and even Bruno Mars. So even if the emotional content has shifted, Adele has still kept a winning team at her side.
Those first three words have barely been uttered into the atmosphere, and the records have already started tumbling. At the time of recording this, “Hello” became the second-fastest video to notch 100 million views on YouTube, only being eclipsed by Psy’s 2013 ‘Gangnam Style’ follow-up ‘Gentleman’. Adele also trounced Taylor Swift’s record for most single-day views on Vevo, with 27.7 million views compared to Swift’s 20.1 million for ‘Bad Blood’.
And she did this all with another hushed piano ballad, full of brooding lyrics and nostalgic imagery. With a plaintive, sepia-tinged music video of her visiting an old dusty cottage and clearing up the place? It’s an anomaly! Other pop stars might do it once or twice – try a bit of blue-eyed soul and forgo the razzmatazz that keeps the kids coming back. But Adele’s built a career on that!
Talking of her image and the media’s fascination with her weight, Adele bluntly told it like it is: ‘I’ve never seen magazine covers and music videos and thought I need to look like that. To sell more records? I don’t even need to — I’m selling records as it is!”. It’s that spirited lack of compromise which makes her more than just a saviour on the charts.
Eagles Of Death Metal
Put your pretentiousness aside, everyone – we have a new album out from the boogie-rock buffoons Eagles Of Death Metal, and it’s as silly and outrageous as you’d expect. That’s right: Eagles Of Death Metal sound neither like The Eagles nor a scary death metal band – it’s a cheeky misnomer for describing the duo’s charged-up rockabilly rampages.
‘Zipper Down’ – with its literal, naughty cover art – is the first release from them in seven years, and the wait has been understandable. Childhood friends Jesse Hughes and Josh Homme have a lot on the go out of this carnally cartoonish side project: Homme, mentioned a few times in previous episodes, leads one of the biggest hard rock bands on the planet - Queens Of The Stone Age – and Hughes released a solo record under one of his many pseudonyms (Boots Electric), decided to become an ordained minister, and then get engaged to a former adult film star. Go figure.
Interestingly, Homme finds himself mostly behind the drum kit in the group’s dynamic, leaving the sleazy freak show to be directed by the now-Reverend Hughes. The moustachioed maniac is a true rock ‘n roll personality and sees himself as next in line to Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Marvin Gaye, and Prince: all of whom showed equal reverence for God and sex, though they were also haunted by the contradictions of their lifestyles. His enthusiastic jokey charisma (which has its occasional thoughtful moments) sets the tone for another wild ride of amped-up rockabilly beats, kickass attitude, and meaty riffs so finely grilled that they slide right off the bone.
Oftentimes I’m not sure how much of a parody the whole thing is – you get a distinct Spinal Tap vibe running through whatever they do, even when they try to nimbly balance lighthearted and brokenhearted on a country-flavoured song like ‘I Love You All Time’. Regardless of their sincerity, Eagles of Death Metal know how to kick-start a hillbilly dance party with their raunchy, playful humour – this time, the topics extend a tad further outside their root-‘n-scootin’ desires to smirking caricatures of L.A. hipster culture in ‘Silverlake (K.S.O.F.M.)’, with all its douchey do-you-know-who-I-am protestations leading to an existential crisis of sorts at the end: “I DON'T KNOW WHO I AM?!”
For those who gave Hughes’ Boots Electric debut ‘Honkey Kong’ a spin, you might recognise three of the best songs off of there now shamelessly appearing under this band’s name. Hughes doesn’t care – with his level of vanity, he has no problem covering himself. But the real reason is that Homme – who also produced all previous Eagles Of Death Metal albums – identified them as really good tunes that could do with another scuzzy interpretation. Smart move, dude.
The saw-toothed shimmying of ‘Complexity’ leads off the album and shows the band at their swaggering top gear, complete with a bouncy piano line and Hughes chanting their boldfaced mission statement: “it's so easy without complexity”. The aforementioned ‘I Love You All Time’ is also a Boots Electric special, as well as the dark, emotionally vulnerable ‘Oh Girl’, which at times comes across as a straight-faced Queens of The Stone Age tune. Weird.
Whilst ‘Zipper Down’ stays true to Eagles Of Death metal’s expected sound, it’s still a step forward in intensity. The guitar tones churn with more muscle than ever, and the drums smack harder. It’s plainly evident on the amphetamine-fuelled rush of ‘Got A Woman’, probably of the fastest, most claustrophobic songs they’ve ever done – two minutes of brain-battering punk with a microsecond break for air around the halfway mark. ‘Skin Tight Boogie’ is actually legitimately sexy, churning and smouldering with a slow glammy groove. It’s a long way away from the laugh-a-minute studio chatter of their 2004 debut ‘Peace Love Death Metal’.
We also get to see the gents approach another cover song, and instead of sticking to a stomping likeminded ancestor such as KISS, the choice ends up being Duran Duran’s synth-soaked 80’s ballad ‘Save A Prayer’. The sonic makeover reveals the beckoning innuendo that was there all along in the pin up boys’ eerie New Wave hit, now drowning in denim-clad distortion.
Look, no one was expecting Eagles Of Death Metal to make it past one record, let alone have four under their belts. Hughes and Homme were in it for the kicks, recording first and asking questions later - with the tape still rolling. Luckily on ‘Zipper Down’, their scrappy shtick is entertaining enough that it never gets too annoying. It’s still just the sound of two long-time buddies having a helluva lot of fun, spinning a yarn, and occasionally throwing in some truth for good measure.
For this week’s retrospective, we have a look at an oft-forgotten moment in a prolific singer-songwriter’s career – a mid-life turning point before some wilderness years.
By the mid-1980’s, Bruce Springsteen was the blue-collar all-American hero, riding on the success of his most popular album of his career, 1984’s stadium-sized ‘Born In The USA’. He and his gang of E Street compadres had toured the world in support of it, and had reached the widest demographics one could hope for after a decade of slugging it out together.
It seemed that artistically, he could do no wrong either, following his 1980 commercial breakthrough ‘The River’ with a sparse, dark set of acoustic hymns on the unexpected 1982 masterpiece ‘Nebraska’ to vary his image. But it took an inexplicable personal misstep for him to release one of the most inward-looking, troubled albums of his career.
After a whirlwind 7-month romance, Springsteen married actress-model Julianne Philips in May of 1985 amidst intense media scrutiny and lengthy touring, and despite them appearing to be opposites in background. This move caught a lot of people off-guard, as red-headed newcomer to the E Street fold, Patti Scialfa, had developed a blossoming relationship with Springsteen during the first leg of the Born In The USA tour, before Philips was introduced to him.
The marriage was not a bed of roses, and it led to a deep unhappiness for the couple which Springsteen couldn’t ignore when writing his follow-up album, 1987’s ‘Tunnel Of Love’. Far from being a series of odes to cosy domesticity, the unsettled collection of songs struggle with the perils of commitment, exploring the doubt, mistrust, and breaking down of relationships and the ideals we place on them.
Stylistically, ‘Tunnel Of Love’ is a rather pared-down, modest experience – but not to threadbare ‘Nebraska’ levels. Although members of the E Street Band were used occasionally on the album, Springsteen recorded most of the parts himself, often with drum machines and synthesizers. It ends up treading the middle ground – and I mean that in a positive way – showing sides of Springsteen that we would rarely, if ever, see again on record.
Only in recent years am I finding out about Springsteen’s shrewd and belabored image-crafting early on in his career. This is an artist who purposely shelved dozens and dozens of perfectly-okay songs in pursuit of an overarching narrative – by 1998, when the b-side box set ‘Tracks’ was released, it was estimated that more than 350 songs remained locked somewhere in his personal vaults. The amount of what-if’s this man’s career could’ve taken is frightening to consider.
At the time of its release, critics and fans alike saw the worrying signs contained in ‘Tunnel Of Love’, confused as to why a newly-married man would be covering such gloomy material. But many believed the themes to be a continuation of his socially conscious work spent evaluating broken promises and dreams in America, with these unromantic tales of love linking back to the shotgun wedding of ‘The River’s title track, or the dissatisfaction felt by the narrator’s little girl in ‘Racing In The Street’. In some ways, they were right.
The first half is familiarly universal: ‘Tougher Than The Rest’ is a stately, melodic, masculine love song focusing on infatuation, with a moody, menacing drum sound and tasteful, layered synthesizers which characterize the album. ‘All That Heaven Will Allow’ is charming and naïve in retrospect, giddy with the possibilities that young love will bring.
Even the hard morals of road-house rocker ‘Spare Parts’ or uncertainty found in ‘Cautious Man’ belie the schadenfreude to follow in the second half, beginning with Springsteen’s tender recollections of his wedding day on ‘Walk Like A Man’, promising his father with wet eyes that he will just do the same.
The title track is one of the strongest and most complex on the record, using a fairground funhouse ride as a metaphor for marriage, with Springsteen voicing this underlying fear that "It's easy for two people to lose each other/ In this tunnel of love". Tellingly, Scialfa provides excellent back-up vocals on the track, and Nils Lofgren steps in for a swirling guitar solo that tears through the retooled Springsteen sound.
The internal demons slowly start to consume our hero, and a pivotal moment comes midway through the album’s first single ‘Brilliant Disguise’ when Springsteen turns the doubt and mistrust on himself. It’s a nuanced, bitter look at a crumbling relationship where neither side is totally wrong or right. “God have mercy on the man/Who doubts what he's sure of”, and you almost want to look away from his pain, but as the unflinching accompanying music video shows, Springsteen won’t.
The final track ‘Valentine’s Day’ is one last gasp, a sighing salve which re-evaluates the heartache and recrimination preceding it. Here, the narrator is shook up about losing what he has, pondering the choice of returning to his loved one, or seeking deliverance on some untraveled road.
The real Springsteen would soon pick the latter choice, divorcing Philips by early 1989, and finding lasting true love with Scialfa – his bandmate, his lover, and the mother of his three children. The choice didn’t immediately yield commercial success – it would be another decade before the E Street Band would fully reunite and become the touring phenomenon they are now – but for a man who had only recently sung “We're the same sad story that's a fact/One step up and two steps back”, it was definitely a step in the right direction.
Well that’s it for this week, another episode in the can. As always, thank you for tuning in to our podcast. For newcomers, make sure to have a look at the episode description for links and additional info – we like to include some useful stuff there every once in a while. I am The Eagle, and you have been listening to Musicology With The Eagle. See ya next time.