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Diminishing returns in 2009
By MICHAEL BRODEUR  |  December 31, 2008

QUIETUS: Antony and the Johnson’s new full length is dedicated to Antony Hegarty’s “art parent,” dancer Kazuo Ohno.

I've always liked the idea of there being some weight to the "nines," meaning: if you're a year, and you're going to perch yourself at the very edge of a decade, you'd better be ready to represent. We want to look at you and see something bursting wide open (like London Calling in 1979), or watch something lose its grip on significance (like New Order with Technique in 1989); we want to witness a divine birth (Paul's Boutique and 3 Feet High and Rising were both '89), or behold a harbinger of doom (Cher dropped Believe in '99). Of course, these sorts of expectations are purely editorial. It's not like record companies are consciously trying to sum up the decade with their '09 schedules. (Would Franz Ferdinand be dabbling with dub on Tonight: Franz Ferdinand if that were the case?)

It's getting a lot trickier for albums to successfully tell us much about our times. The not-very-useful short explanation is that we've "gone digital," but there are real ramifications that come from splitting our fundamental units (albums) into a dizzying swirl of particles (from singles to mash-ups to remix stems): we're left with a decade (perhaps the first one ever) that can be more clearly understood through sound bites than statements — where fragments trounce frames. Whether that's a bad thing depends on how much you look to your artists to lead the way; and a look ahead to '09's first batch of releases suggests that more artists are holding mirrors right now than lanterns.

Early 2009 promises to be a time of attempted resurgence for many — and some will have it easier than others. An understandable demand for quietus at the end of such a destabilizing decade will provide nice conditions for the arrival of The Crying Light, the first new full-length offering of ghostly cabaret from Antony and the Johnsons, due out on Secretly Canadian on January 20. It's a contemplative, beautiful batch of songs, dedicated to Antony Hegarty's "art parent," dancer Kazuo Ohno. The following week, whistling multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird will release his fifth album Noble Beast (Fat Possum). Last month, in an Opinion piece for The New York Times, Bird remarked, "If an artist is creative enough, it should be possible to make great art without resorting to self-immolation," but his songs regularly back up his addendum that he tends to "err on the side of discomfort." Beast will be a welcome arrival (in a grim time) for Bird's continually charming ability to whistle your heart into your throat, but also for the balance of clear-eyed ambition and wild uncertainty that its title hints at and that its songs enact so deftly.

Other anticipated returns might meet rockier receptions. Early tastes of Lily Allen's It's Not Me, It's You (EMI, February 7) make it hard to take the '07 star with the wryness she intends in her single, "The Fear," as she sings, blissfully, "I don't know what's right and what's real anymore." The comparably candy production on this, her sophomore release, doesn't maintain a knowing-enough distance from the consumerist laments that she's crammed into her lyrics, and it ends up sounding a bit hamfisted and disingenuous — it makes her cover of "Womanizer" sound austere. On the same day of Ms. Allen's release, Courtney Love will make available her second solo record, Nobody's Daughter, as a digital-only release through her website. The album was written largely on a Martin acoustic lent to Love by Linda Perry while Love was in rehab in 2005. After slowly writing, tracking, and pruning the record (on which a collaboration with Billy Corgan, "Samantha," survived), the end result is less a step forward for Love than it is a return to the unpolished form that once distinguished her — for the better.

Elsewhere on the comeback trail, U2 is priming the public to receive their 12th studio effort, No Line on the Horizon (March 3) — well, priming that part of the public that didn't manage to hear it blasting out of Bono's villa in southern France, that is. With the album's producer trifecta of Eno, Lanois, and Lillywhite, many have speculated that it could be a return to their Achtung Baby post-glory-days — but it may be just that album's marketing savvy that survived the long trip from 1991: three limited-edition box-set editions will be released at three different price points, each featuring a film from Anton Corbijn, a song from Will.I.Am, and a book of curiosities — the hardcover edition nudging the set up to $96. Running to stand still, indeed.

(I should throw in that Morrissey's Years of Refusal will be out February 16 on Attack/Lost Highway. It won't fling us headlong into the future, but it is another Morrissey album and should cause more pleasure than fuss.)

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