Sometimes a good press kit will set up your album for some easy reviews. Maybe this makes the reviewers happier (since their narrative is comfortably preconceived for them) and hopefully it ends up getting your artist a more positive review. But it can just as easily lead your album into a deadening review echo chamber of repeated anecdotes, pounding out all of the music’s subtleties and rendering it into a one-note work. This is the danger that critical darling Natalie Prass is facing with her sophomore album, The Future And The Past.
When the lede of this story should be ‘Natalie Prass ditches the chill n’ mellow, delicate soul sound of her debut for a jarring disco-funk collection with the occasional odd anthem,’ every review of this set takes pretty much the same path, clearly laid out like tasty breadcrumbs for a reviewer to follow: ‘Natalie Prass had a follow-up album; she swears she did, and it was gonna be great, but then TRUMP HAPPENED. So she set fire to it, and now you have this response to the 2016 election, just a mere year-and-a-half later.’
Loads of reviews did a serviceable job of noting the genesis story and then diving into the stark musical departure. NPR’s review by Brittney McKenna spends one simple and quick line referencing The Story, then immediately cuts to the chase and drops some excellent and entirely valid musical comparisons to Prince, Janelle Monáe’s recent Dirty Computer album, the Fugees, and Mariah Carey circa 1997. Jim Beviglia writes a piece for American Songwriter that devotes two sentences to The Story and moves on to admire Prass’s subtlety: “She wisely doesn’t get too specific with any political concerns, instead just making oblique, ominous references to the obfuscation of truth and threats on the horizon (like the “wolf in wolf’s clothing” mentioned in “Ship Go Down.”)” Filling in the blanks of Consequence of Sound’s fantastically clear-cut review format, Tyler Clark begins: “The Lowdown: After America got the Bad Ending on its playthrough of the 2016 presidential election, Richmond singer-songwriter Natalie Prass scrapped the intended follow-up to her stunning 2015 debut in favor of a new collection of songs inspired in equal parts by feminine resilience and a box of Janet Jackson 45s.” NAILED IT. Review could’ve ended there. It does, however, continue with a solid (and brief) reflection on the album’s strengths.
Key takeaway: None of these reviews mention Tr*mp by name.
And then there’s Olivia Horn’s review for Pitchfork, which gives this album a 7.7 by way of giving our Dear Leader a 0.0. At times, it seems more like an op-ed in The Times than a review of a new album. Reading this piece alone (and it *is* the first review to show up in a Google search) would lead any potential listener to believe Prass’s album is a nightmare snapshot of our current moment in time, and it follows the press kit story to its fullest possible ending.
We get to the end of the first paragraph: no mention of the music. We get to the end of the second paragraph: no mention of the music, other than Prass allowing herself to “indulge in passing moments of joy,” which wouldn’t indicate any departure from her previous album. And then, in the third paragraph, Master Horn digs out the album’s most on-the-nose song, the nasty-women-celebrating anthem “Sisters,” and, quite creatively, weaves its middle-of-the-album doldrums location as a statement of intent rather than a simple boost after a ballad or two: “On day one of the Trump presidency, “Sisters” might have made the most sense as the album’s showpiece; […] the track could easily serve as a pump-up jam for droves of banner-waving women in pink. Now, nested seven tracks deep, “Sisters” feels more like the album’s bedrock.”
It’s in the fourth paragraph that the most relevant complaint, one that the other reviewers didn’t note, pops up for a *brief* moment of actual music criticism in what’s otherwise essentially a socio-political tract. Horn notes, “But on “Sisters”—and throughout The Future—the grooves cut deeper, threatening to overpower her melodies.” Yes! It’s true that the light voice Natalie Prass brings to her songs works very well in the Matthew E. White vein of whisper-soul, but it gets a little trampled in this mix. This is an expert observation and a good tip for Prass who should know the limits of her instrument. But then, in a wildly creative but ultimately destructive flourish, Horn continues: “That contrast has political implications of its own: The tenderness of Prass’ voice poses a challenge to the notion that brute force and bluster are the most effective ways to relay a message.” Lord help me. Love the justification, but that’s a reviewer making art out of other art only in order to mold the criticism back into the overarching narrative of the review.
Olivia Horn pulls similar tricks often in this review. The writing itself is excellently done, albeit wildly pigeon-holing. She writes:
“On The Future’s reproductive rights anthem, “Ain’t Nobody,” she repeats the words, “Ain’t nobody can take this from our hands.” The song sounds upbeat, but the words have the ring of an affirmation strategy; she’s like a college student chanting “I’m not tired” to keep herself awake in the final hours of an all-nighter.”
Phenomenal simile, but to call this track a “reproductive rights anthem”? That meaning can certainly be pulled out of its lyrics, but the song can also stand the test of time (ideally well into an age when we’ve put the nonsense debate over reproductive rights to bed) by simply being about self-empowerment in general. This moment in time is ephemeral and (hopefully) will pass; an album that you’re writing a mostly positive review for will last much longer. But Horn wants to lock it right into this moment: “As she puts it on “Ship Go Down,” “I’ve always felt the rain/But now a hurricane is pouring on me.” That hurricane is an endless torrent of depressing headlines and empty rhetoric.” Now *that* is a thoroughly definitive statement about a song that’s anything but definitive.
Coincidentally, I stumbled across an Ian Cohen review posted on Pitchfork a few days later that managed to perfectly sum it all up. Cohen wrote, “The current tendency to view music primarily through the lens of politics can be aggravating and even, at times, counterproductive.” Hallelujah to the King of the Takedowns! It’s always tempting to rely on a narrative to judge the output of our musical artists, but let’s hope that these audio adaptations of the soul can transcend our petty current reality. If not, then Trump has already won.
David C. Casey