Album Reviews: June 2023

First Two Pages of Frankenstein / The National

Pink-tinged image of a young boy holding a mannequin's head, on an off white background. A "Hello, my name is" nametag sticker is on the head of the mannequin and the name "Paul" is written on it.

The National return with another beautiful The National record. The band is so good at what they do, they should probably just be a genre unto themselves. Frontperson Matt Berninger is perpetually in the depths of his brain (and heart, but mostly brain) and who can’t relate? Early in the album, we hear what we can assume is one side of a dialogue about who gets what at the end of a dissolving relationship (“Eucalyptus”). National songs offer views into often uncomfortable, oddly specific thoughts and moments that we’ve all found ourselves experiencing, to varying degrees. The band always manages to provide a body of water that fans gladly fall backwards into, enjoying every moment before surfacing. Best meant to be enjoyed in a complete listen, but highlights include “This Isn’t Helping (with Phoebe Bridgers),” “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend” and “Send for Me.”

The Price of Progress / The Hold Steady
Positive Jams/Thirty Tigers

Image of a building with pillars on at least three sides--appears to be taken early in the morning, or as the sun is setting.

Time for another batch of blissfully dense story-songs from Craig Finn and company. These character studies contain plenty of necessary details, unexpected turns and an always welcome dose of humor and heart. The Hold Steady make anthems about regular folk we know, have known, or are literally us. Take “Carlos Is Crying” for instance. We’re placed squarely in scene where the narrator’s longtime friend is experiencing an emotional breakdown at the old karaoke bar. Not every dude you know has the presence of mind (sober or not sober) to understand the weight of someone else’s troubles, and deal with it plainly yet gingerly—and with care. With such vibrantly told tales, who needs visuals? The Price of Progress is a lean, well-produced album more in line with the best of their work—more so than their previous effort, Open Door Policy. There’s a lot to love here, including “Understudies,” “Sideways Skull” and “Sixers.”

Keep Your Courage / Natalie Merchant

Image of a statue of Joan of Arc on a black background, with added solid-color circles (red, yellow & lavender).

The accomplished solo artist (and former force behind 10,000 Maniacs) offers her first album of original material since her 2014 self-titled album. Merchant’s delivery and accompanying music are always a healing balm, her sage wisdom a strong counter to sour times. On this album, Merchant allows the mood to darken a bit, but it is no less beautiful and hopeful than what we are accustomed to. Listeners discover the album’s overall theme and title within the final track, “The Feast of St. Valentine,” which nudges the masses to “ragged, weary crowd” to “march on.” Keep Your Courage is really a collection of love songs that use that lens to explore feminism, mythological characters, isolation and subsequently, the need for connection with others. Key tracks: “Come On, Aphrodite,” “Tower of Babel” and “Big Girls.”

Also available on Hoopla.

Memento Mori / Depeche Mode

Images of two decorative angel wings, each with an added arrangement of flowers in the center. Mostly black background with light gray textures behind the angel wings.

Following the loss of founding member and keyboardist Andy Fletcher, Depeche Mode deliver their exquisitely dark fifteenth LP, Memento Mori. In Latin, the title means “remember you must die.” Understandably, the record deals with heavy topics-not a stretch for DM-but are certainly more poignant after losing their beloved comrade. Aside from its central themes, the album is a testament to so-called legacy acts going against the expected business model of depending heavily on greatest hits tours and super deluxe edition reissue projects. Here, Depeche Mode make a strong case for pushing forward and creating new classics deep into a storied career. Psychedelic Furs member Richard Butler contributed to seven of the album’s twelve tracks, a collaboration that was initiated in April 2020. Highlights are lead single “Ghosts Again,” as well as “My Cosmos Is Mine” and “Soul With Me.”

DF: 6/23