Separating the singer from the song

Separating the singer from the song
Singer Tom Krell, the American troubadour behind How To Dress Well.

How can we know the dancer from the dance, asks poet W.B. Yeats in his 1928 poem Among School Children.

In the same vein, can we tell the singer from the song? Listening to this week's three releases - What Is This Heart? by How To Dress Well, Ultraviolence by Lana Del Rey and Everyday Robots by Damon Albarn - one confronts the existential dilemma.

Is it possible to differentiate the artist from the composition?

Tom Krell, the American troubadour behind How To Dress Well, isn't afraid to let down his guard.

His face is plastered up close on the sleeve. It's a full frontal stance that doesn't allow any metaphorical distancing.

This is who I am, and what I am about, is his message.

On this fully realised pop album, he asks, "what is this heart?", wrestling with the twin themes of loss and love explored in Love Remains (2010) and Total Loss (2012).

Yes, he's still channelling R&B via Mars, but he's sounding clearer and nearer too. Whereas previously he sounded submerged in water, obfuscated by fuzz or even in another building, this time he isn't playing any shadow game.

Right from the start, he lays his cards on the table. In the opening track, 2 Years On (Shame Dream), against ivory tinkles, synths and acoustic strums, he sings, close to mike, about an awkward ride with his family: "There was silence in the car/My mother is so angry."

No one is spared, but there's compassion in every sting.

"Pride for me (is) cut with shame," he confesses, as another Tom Krell comes in, whispering into his ear.

It's disconcerting.

Even when he goes into outer space in the sci-fi ballad Face Again, it's a cavern of Tom Krells undercutting one another.

"Look into my face again and tell me what I oughta be… 'cause I don't even know what's best for me," he keens, as drums trundle and his voice alters like Darth Vader's.

That's the album's accomplishment: It asks tough questions of itself and of you.

Similarly, Lana Del Rey - the creation of New York lass Lizzie Grant - raises lots of questions, but proffers no answers.

Her second album Ultraviolence doesn't clear the air. Instead, it deepens the mythology of the gangsta Nancy Sinatra.

Produced deftly by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, it's a hologrammatic feat which makes you wonder whether the issue of authenticity is relevant.

Teetering on self-satire, it cruises through torch ballads as self-evidently titled as Pretty When You Cry, Money Power Glory, and the revealing F***** My Way Up To The Top.

Assail her with issues such as feminism if you want, but in her unapologetic way, Lana Del Rey plays the Hollywood fame game and is winning.

As for Britpop survivor Albarn, he's reinvented himself as a sultan of cross-genres, flitting from Africa to the Middle East to China to the cartoon world (Gorillaz).

Everyday Robots is pitched as his solo debut, but anyone expecting lucidity may be in for a shock.

Albarn's melancholy-to-deadpan purr may sound folksy, but it's not wont to offer any insight into, say, altercations with, say, lifetime nemeses the Oasis brothers.

Producer and XL boss Richard Russell has created tactile surroundings - samples of birds chirping and sitcoms in between clattering drums and cut-up loops.

If anything, Everyday Robots is the soundtrack of Albarn parading as the Everyman you meet on the London Tube. Walk with him, but don't expect him to open up right away.

kaichai@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 26, 2014.
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