1. Highway 29 – Bruce Springstee
The Ghost of Tom Joad is a startling record. From start to finish, its sound is troubled and depressed and, without the backing of the E Street Band to lift them, Springsteen’s compositions are quaintly muted (though naturally, they are no less striking). Recalling the warbling, tape-spool sparseness of 1982’s Nebraska, Tom Joad deals yet again with the everyday American, pitched once more against the troubles of working class life and the struggle to survive in such an enormous landscape. These range from desperate immigrants (Sinaloa Cowboys) to bitter husbands (My Best Was Never Good Enough). In-between these, there’s the beautiful Highway 29 – sort of like Thunder Road gone wrong. The narrative is incredibly simple, and any over-explanation of it here will only ruin things, so have a listen yourself. Concerning its delivery – growly, conversational vocals; fingerpicked acoustic guitar; soft synthesiser bass – well, the song is just magical. It’s certainly one of the Boss’ lesser-known numbers, but its exploration of a dark and failed elope – beginning in a shoe shop and ending on a snowy, alpine road – demands your attention. Compared with the explosive optimism of Springsteen’s early-career escapism (Blinded by the Light, Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), Born to Run), Highway 29 is remarkably dour, but it’s a seriousness that affords its author a sense of heightened maturity and reflection.
2. I Don’t Love You – My Chemical Romance
I’m an extreme latecomer to the party where My Chemical Romance is concerned. However, in taking so much longer to finally pick up a copy of The Black Parade, I find myself experiencing it in a very different way to those savvier friends of mine who bought their CDs on release-day in 2006. Coming at this LP as I do, from the other side of puberty, it doesn’t speak to me so directly as it does soundtrack my recollection of things. Consequently, I’ve got a pretty divorced connection to the music – which I like; it makes me think more objectively about things. To that end, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed The Black Parade as a shameless exercise in glam-rock nostalgia and rock operatics. Perhaps similarly symptomatic of my lateness, is my inability to accuse MCR of anything new – rather, I might instead suggest that they’ve done something older very, very well. I Don’t Love You is a highly melodic and ferociously distressed, waltzing maelstrom of melancholy. Gerard Way’s dramatic inflections ride atop a crashing, tsunami of theatrical instrumentation, scanning like a re-mastered Ziggy Stardust on the comedown. The band carefully tread between excess and sincerity, producing an historically indebted sound, whilst managing to retain emotional relevance. The lyric is very simple, but it asks an often-ignored question – “when you go, would you have the guts to say / I don’t love you, like I loved you yesterday?” My personal favourite moment here (those of you interested), is a very subtle lead-guitar nod to Queen at 2:53. If you listen closely, you’ll notice the phrasing has been nicked straight from Bohemian Rhapsody… and to be honest, who can blame them?
3. Glacier – John Grant feat. Sinéad O’Connor
It doesn’t take much to have me suddenly go off on one, waxing lyrically about the genius of Pale Green Ghosts and the beautiful misery of its Icelandic setting. John Grant (pictured) does something truly exceptional with his sophomore record and I haven’t the time to explain here what that is – only that you simply must try it for yourself. Following the infatuated rebirth of a previously disenfranchised and coked-up Midwesterner on his solo debut The Queen of Denmark, Pale Green Ghosts tracks Grant’s next submergence into despair… only this time, he goes armed with anger and a sense of indignation. The result is a fucking savage record – fiercely defensive; brazenly hostile; sonically and lyrically lacerating. All the while, however, the record is a winsome beast, and that dichotomy of energies is best observed on set-piece finale, Glacier, a rousing piano number that relates Grant’s lack of acceptance to a devastating geographical force. His wit is all over the thing (“precious minerals and other stuff” is a highlight) and, elsewhere, his new wave pedigree – shimmers of Billy McKenzie and Vince Clarke are visible through the cracks in Grant’s soft soul. In that sense, Glacier actually fits onto this list better than most songs – it’s perhaps the closest, sincere-sounding thing to Stephin Merritt’s own agonising hilarity. Do yourself a massive favour though, and listen to this whole album. Read about it on your way. It’s really great, honestly. Note: I don’t know why, but the piano tone here reminds me an awful lot of Scissor Sisters’ second album, Ta-Dah! Make of that what you will – it’s sort of unrelated, but there you go…