Loudon Wainwright, Lifetime Achievement ★★★★☆
“I have lived a lifetime, it’s hard to be believed / I’m near the end, time’s almost up, and what have I achieved?” Thus sings Loudon Wainwright III on the title track of his 26th studio album, Lifetime Achievement, at the grand old age of 75.
It carries weight when a venerable artist addresses issues of mortality, and there is undeniable poignancy in his contemplative acknowledgement that all the “gold records and blue ribbons, bronze statuettes and plaques” amount to “a hill of beans” compared to “the loving cup we long for”. But it’s not long before Wainwright is undercutting his own gravitas, rudely celebrating the joys of this world rather than fretting over the next.
The raucous opening track, I Been, finds the old curmudgeon thrashing his acoustic guitar and spilling out a succession of verbs about his daily activities, which apparently include “yawning”, “blinking”, “smoking”, “drinking”, “moaning”, “groaning”, “amending”, “atoning”, as well as “underpants wetting” and “farting whenever I sneeze”. There is something refreshingly unstatesmanlike about Wainwright at full pelt, declaring he wants to “figure out a way to live one more day / Keep going until I’m gone.” Amen to that.
When he made his debut in 1970, Wainwright was hailed as a “new Bob Dylan”. He turned out to be something far less exalted yet nonetheless fascinating: a diaristic chronicler of his own small life, in all its glories and failings. The not-always-revered patriarch of the Wainwright clan, he is father to singer-songwriters Rufus and Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche. He has written songs about his offspring, notably the comical baby-song Rufus is a T-t Man and (about Martha) the more troubling I’d Rather Be Lonely. Now, rather belatedly, 40-year-old Lucy gets her due on the charming Hat, in which Loudon spins a philosophical treatise from her first word (“Coulda been juice, might have been cat / Why in the world did my Lucy say hat?”).
His family have written songs about Loudon too, often unflatteringly, including Martha’s fierce Bloody Mother F---ing Asshole and ex-wife Kate McGarrigle’s devastating Go Leave. It is clearly not all roses being part of this songwriting dynasty, and Loudon has some fun on Fam Vac dreaming of a family vacation in which he gets to leave his “f---ing family at home”.
Of the 15 songs here, only a handful focus on the big subject matter implied by the title. Backed by a supple country ensemble, his plain but expressive voice remains remarkably unchanged after five decades of music making. Still, the end looms large on a neat pairing of closing tracks, How Old is 75? and Fun & Free. The first gets right down to it, reminiscing about his late parents and speculating on how long he’s got left, but the second finds him mowing his lawn and enjoying the simple things, concluding: “Spend life like it’s a spree / ’Cause it’s one and done – that’s it son – so do it for fun and free.”
The great joy of this late period album is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Lifetime Achievement is not so much a last will and testament as a bravura insistence on Wainwright’s intention to carry on living and loving for as long as he can. Neil McCormick
Aitch, Close to Home ★★★★☆
Aitch’s star has been steadily meteoric since a freestyle video – titled Straight Rhymez 1 and filmed outside his New Moston, Manchester home – went viral in UK rap circles in 2018. Aitch, Harrison Armstrong to his mother, promised a potent mix of boyish good looks, bags of confidence, and smartarse bars that triggered double takes and trackbacks (YouTube is awash with videos of people “reacting”’ to the song).
Since then, he has ploughed a similar furrow with a clutch of middling eight-trackers that pair sharp rhymes about sex and shiny watches with mostly US-styled trap beats. On Close to Home, he turns his gaze, well, closer to home: rapping confessionals, flexing over Noughties-aping R&B, and calling in a favour from Madchester raver-in-chief Shaun Ryder for standout romp 1989, which samples The Stone Roses.
On previous releases, 22-year-old Aitch has mostly occupied a cheeky-chappy persona who revels in flings, fistfights and taking flights. That has its charms. But the thing is, once it’s established that he has a lot of sex, there’s not been much more substance. Close to Home’s opener, Belgrave Road, provides some redress, as he hits record on the tape deck and opens up about the false trappings of his success and subsequent fame. “I love it at the top, but s---, it’s cold up there / Kind of found out how it feels to be alone up there,” he sighs, Drake-esque, over soft piano and skittering hats. He knows how to set a tone.
And when he takes a big swing, he can hit big. The title track is the highlight here: marching drums; huge, gorgeous harmonics summoned from a children’s choir; and stirring philosophies on the push and pull of chasing your dreams – and those you inevitably leave behind. It’s a shame the same approach wasn’t taken for My G, which precedes it. A tribute to Aitch’s younger sister, Gracie, who has Down’s syndrome, it risks being overshadowed by a saccharine Ed Sheeran chorus that adds little but distraction from the moving, vulnerable verses.
There are duds, mostly when Aitch is chasing LA acclaim and aping US trap rappers on tracks like Cheque or Fuego. But when he leans into the silky, bumpy ’90s-era smooth-licking RnB that he raised himself on – see Sunshine or R Kid – he’s hard to beat: his flat vowels and cool-as-owt Mancunian drawl make a perfect pairing. Aitch is best when he’s cutting beams through the Moston gloom. LA gets enough sunshine as it is. Will Pritchard
Demi Lovato, Holy Fvck ★★★☆☆
To the average punter, US singer Demi Lovato is probably better known for the unfortunate and seemingly endless series of personal issues that have affected her life than she is for her music. These issues include addiction, stints in rehab, an overdose, bulimia and mental-health struggles. Lovato’s 2018 single Sober didn’t quite mark the clean bill of health that the title suggested. Rather, it was an admission that she “wasn’t sober anymore” after six years on the wagon.
The 29-year-old’s eighth album, Holy Fvck, continues to address weighty issues head-on. It also marks a return to what Lovato calls her emo-rock roots, her music having previously embraced brassy pop, dance bangers and fuzzy indie electronica. (Back in January she posted a picture to her 139 million Instagram followers showing her with a group of record executives, all dressed in black. “A funeral for my pop music,” the caption read.)
And Holy Fvck is, indeed, a heavy album. Opening track Freak starts with raw, distorted bass. “Get your tickets for the freakshow, baby,” Lovato sings as the song veers into propulsive Avril Lavigne-style power punk. Lead single Skin of My Teeth sounds like a descendent of Hole’s Celebrity Skin, down to the phrasing and guitar riff. “Demi leaves rehab again/ When is this sh-t gonna end?” she asks. Within 90 seconds, Lovato’s voice has gone full Lady Gaga, all throaty intonation and lengthened “Rrrrrs”. The ballad 29 is a soaring slab of radio-friendly rock, while Heaven’s glam drumbeat makes it sound like a mash-up between The Sweet and Megadeth. Lovato’s lyrics are ironically dark: “Am I the only one looking for substance?” she sings on Substance.
Lovato cut her teeth as a child actress on Barney & Friends – a TV series about a fluffy pink dinosaur – before graduating to the Disney Channel. Holy Fvck seems like a deliberate attempt to put clear black water between then and now. Its cover shows Lovato tied up in leather belts on a vast cushioned cross. It’s the kind of sleeve on which Tipper Gore would have slapped a ‘Parental Advisory’ sticker in the ’90s.
The cynics among us may note the variety of music that Lovato has embraced in the past and see this current ‘emo’ stage as simply her latest guise. One wonders which genre she’ll hop to next. But this notwithstanding, Holy Fvck sounds like a genuine attempt to deal with a troubled adulthood and leave the past behind. James Hall
Panic! At The Disco, Viva Las Vengeance ★★★☆☆
Since they first emerged in the mid-2000s, Las Vegas’s Panic! at the Disco have often seemed like emo’s little brothers. Their breakout hit, I Write Sins Not Tragedies, was a sharp slice of theatrical rock that juggled ironic lyrics and flamboyant music, but to many they were a Fall Out Boy photocopy, My Chemical Romance in a top hat. Their 2008 follow-up album, Pretty. Odd. saw frontman Brendan Urie throwing all his energy into doing a Beatles impression. His next move was to channel the spirit of his hometown and become the emo Frank Sinatra to surprisingly great success – both 2016’s Death of a Bachelor and 2018’s Pray for the Wicked hit number one in America and made the top five over here.
Sixteen years in, the sound has changed, but Urie’s eye as a musical magpie has not. On Viva Las Vengeance, his main port of call is the radio rock of the ’70s and ’80s, adding his sparkly flair to the breezy melodic sounds of The Cars, Cheap Trick and Tom Petty, occasionally pouring Queen motifs over the top. It’s hard not to smile during the opening title-track when he announces, “Someone did me wrong, stole my favourite song”, especially when Urie commits such a brazen daylight robbery of Cheap Trick’s Dream Police three minutes later during Middle of a Breakup, and follows it up by opening Don’t Let The Light Go Out with a snatch of Janis Ian’s At Seventeen.
But if originality has never been Urie’s forte, his pearly-white star power and finger-clicking showmanship ably make up for it. A decade ago, he did a stint in Kinky Boots on Broadway, and more recently teamed up with Taylor Swift for the knowingly sickly ME! On Viva Las Vengeance, you can almost hear him grinning on each song, while his eyebrow-wiggling personality delivers lyrics such as “I’ll drag you to the opera so you think I’m clever” (Sugar Soaker) with the sharpness of a punchline.
It makes Viva Las Vengeance a fun, enjoyable vessel that spotlights a magnetic talent. The music might not entirely be Panic! at the Disco’s own – but like fellow Vegas bigwig Elvis, that’s clearly no barrier. Nick Ruskell