32 episodes

Reflections on the joys of discovering new music

The Year of Magical Listening Willie Costello

    • Music
    • 5.0 • 3 Ratings

Reflections on the joys of discovering new music

    032 :: RACKET

    032 :: RACKET

    FEATURING 

    This Ain't The Way You Go Out by Lucy Rose, released by Communion Records in 2024. Listen / Buy direct 


    "Light As Grass""Could You Help Me""The Racket"

    TRANSCRIPT 

    I thought I had heard everything the piano could do. And then I heard this. 

    What a way to announce yourself. It's a deceptively simple accompaniment, keeping time like a metronome and moving between just a few chords. But underneath it's playing wildly with rhythm, shifting between measures of 5, then 4, then 4 again, then 3 – quietly destabilizing us, but all the while still sounding like a pop song. 

    And then the whole song opens up into billowy synth pads and ascending arpeggios and a new, dilated half-time feel, as if everything we'd heard before has evaporated and we're now floating on top of it. 

    And then, just as quickly, we snap back down to earth, and fall back into the stumbling staccato of the verse. And in fact, this back and forth is what the song's about: the experience of shifting between two different modes of moving through life – on the one hand, the struggle of mundane existence, with all its discomfort, doubt, and pain; and on the other, this ethereal vision of a different way of being, without worry or care – though not necessarily a better way of being, for it only achieves its lightness by, as the singer says, "quietly hiding from reality". 

    But as the singer continues, "There's a greatness in our view." Neither vision tells the whole story or offers a full perspective on life. Rather, the truth lies in holding these two different visions together, side by side, as only our minds, or this song itself, can do. 

    But let's not stop there. Let's jump into another song, another feeling, and yet another inventive riff – this jaunty, popcorning, syncopated duet between the keys and the drums. It's not revolutionary, but man, does it ever groove. And then, yet another left turn into the chorus, which reverberates with new sounds of open chords and spectral harmonies. And then, the song starts to tear itself apart, disintegrating into a heap of distortion and halting rhythms. 

    It's all so perfect for a song that's about the incommunicability of one's own pain. It's like the music itself is reaching out for a new language, to express something that mere words cannot. And maybe music can't really express it either; maybe nothing is sufficient to "ever really feel it for you". But music like this is at least enough to make anyone take notice and listen up. 

    So let's do one more. The piano part is now an inversion of the previous two songs, rhythmically simple but harmonically dense, counting out the downbeats with a jazzy chromatic figure. The rhythm section fills things out with a punchy backbeat on the drums and a funky melodic counterpoint on the bass. And as things go on, the sounds get fuzzier, more raucous and resonant, a euphonious cacophony of instruments and effects blending into one. 

    And that brings us to the song's central metaphor: "Cause I'm still picking up the racket / And I hit the ball". Except the song's central metaphor is not actually a metaphor. The singer is quite literally describing their own process of physical therapy after a debilitating illness, which turned the simple act of tennis into a momentous...

    • 10 min
    031 :: I

    031 :: I

    FEATURING 

    Tigers Blood by Waxahatchee, released by Anti- in 2024. Listen / Buy direct 

    "3 Sisters""Right Back to It"

    TRANSCRIPT 

    This is an artist who knows exactly who they are. They know exactly who "you" are, too, the second person in all their lyrics. Every song on this record feels like a frank conversation that needed to happen. It might seem accusatory if it didn't sound so sweet. But that's the grace of honesty that only a clear-eyed observer of life can bring. So let's pull up a chair and hear what this singer has to say. 

    This song, like so many of the singer's others, traces out a relational dynamic, here between a "you" who is selfish and self-centered, to the neglect of others' feelings, and an "I" who has been burned one too many times, and describes their relationship this way: "All my life I've been running from what you want". It's an all too familiar situation, one person taking everything except for responsibility for their actions, while the other is left questioning their complicity as they struggle to break free. We don't know if the "you" of this song is a lover, or a friend, or a parent, or a sibling. But that's kind of the point, as we can see them all in its story and in the beautifully enigmatic imagery that it uses to get at this feeling, with lines like "am I your moat or your drawbridge?" or "it plays on my mind how the time passing holds you like pocket change". 

    Yet what I find most remarkable about this song is not its truthfulness or its poetry, but how the singer doesn't sound at all jilted, or heartbroken, or even just fed up. They're not giving voice to the anger and frustration and sadness that's surely there. Rather, the song feels like it's coming from a place of understanding, of knowing yourself and knowing others, and of finally being able to see a relationship for what it is. And that feels special. It's rare enough to reach a place like that in our own relationships; rarer still for a piece of music to commemorate that achievement, and to encapsulate a glimmer of how it feels. 

    But now let me be honest for a minute. Because as extraordinary as I believe this music to be, I do have to admit that it is just folk music at the end of the day. At first blush you might think that you've heard it all before: the common chord progressions, the easy melodies, that familiar country lilt. So why, then, is this the most affecting song I've heard all year? 

    First, to state the obvious, music doesn't need to be original to move us. And second, it's all in the details: that pristine voice; the perfectly tuned guitar tones; the uncanny harmonization of its chorus duet; and these gemlike lyrics that are like poems unto themselves, like "you just settle in like a song with no end". Other songs may be similar, but no song is just like this. 

    But there's another reason that this song is so affecting, at least to my ears. For me, this music has the special, ineffable quality that comes from an artist making exactly the kind of art they're on this earth to make. What I hear in this music is an artist who has found their voice, an artist who is less interested in writing the "best" songs and more concerned to write the songs that only they can sing. Because, in the end, that's all an artist can really ever do. It just takes some artists longer to get there. Every sound on this record just feels like it's in its right place. And there's nothing quite like that...

    • 9 min
    030 :: KNOWER

    030 :: KNOWER

    FEATURING 

    KNOWER FOREVER by KNOWER, self-released in 2023. Listen / Buy direct 


    "Knower Forever" "Do Hot Girls Like Chords?" "It Will Get Real" "I'm The President" 

    TRANSCRIPT 

    I'm ashamed to say it now, but I didn't think I liked this music at first. I resisted it, even. It seemed, to put it simply, too much. And by the way, this music, what's playing right now: it's nothing like the rest of the album. It's nothing like the songs I actually want to talk about. Then again, no song on this album is like the rest of the album. If there's one constant to this music, it's a refusal to stay in any one place. So maybe this, a sumptuous orchestral overture, is the most fitting introduction to an album that never ceases to subvert our expectations – like this. 

    See what I mean when I said that this music seemed like too much? What do you even do with a riff like this? It's so intense and sludgy and just kind of dumb, that it's hard to know whether it's meant in earnest or in jest. But one thing's for sure: the band is playing the heck out of it. And then the song flips on its head, opening up into these bright jazzy harmonies and pillowy synth pads, layered on top of an absolutely killer bass line. 

    It's so ridiculously groovy, it almost feels like a joke, like a spoof of a jam band. And the lyrics don't make things seem any the more serious, being just a list of things that the singer "[is] thinking while you are talking", like "does purgatory have snacks?" and "do hot girls like chords?". 

    But just as the band has us thinking that they're just goofing around, out comes this explosive solo, which is no joke. This is some seriously sick shredding. It's moving faster than I can even hear it. It's the sort of virtuosity that puts a grimace on your face, that feels like it's bringing us to the bleeding edge of what music can be. 

    This is music on overdrive, music that exists to be over the top, music that wants to show us that it can do anything. 

    So perhaps it's no surprise that this next song is something totally different, a sweet, singsong melody addressed to none other than Death. "Hey Grim Reap", sings the singer, as the keys chime in with a syncopated house rhythm and the band gets ready to move. 

    And then, with the verse, the band pulls back, the drums subdividing the beat into almost infinitesimal segments, with the keys and the bass interjecting in a playful unison. I don't know if this is the band doing hyperpop or glitch or chiptune, but whatever it is, it's never grooved so hard. 

    This is music that relishes in being stylistically all over the map, but if it has one consistent quality, it's an aesthetic of flexing, of showing that it can take any musical idea, no matter how wacky or crude, and make it sound like the coolest thing you've ever heard, just by sheer force of musical will. 

    But let's go even bigger. And what's bigger than a punchy bass line? How about a bass line played by a full brass section? How about a song about what it's like to be the President? 

    Yet again, this music is a ludicrous mash-up. The singer's mellifluous voice is paired with impish lyrics, as funky rhythms are...

    • 10 min
    029 :: FREE

    029 :: FREE

    FEATURING

    "Free From the Guillotine" by Ryan Davis & the Roadhouse Band, from Dancing on the Edge, released by Sophomore Lounge in 2023. Listen / Buy direct


    TRANSCRIPT

    I want to do something that's not easy for me to do on this show: I want to talk about an artist who's first and foremost a lyricist. Which means I will be talking over the very lyrics I want to highlight. It ain't gonna be pretty – but hey, life isn't always a walk in the park now, is it?

    What a perfect opening couplet. Someone in the singer's life just "got a new tattoo of an old tattoo". A friend, or an acquaintance, or maybe a stranger – but at any rate, someone wanting more of the same, or perhaps nostalgic for the past. The singer, meanwhile, and in contrast, has been restless, as they've "hunted and hunted for the dreams [they] thought [they] wanted". It may seem like no more than an offhand observation, but it sets the stage for the rest of the song, which finds the singer again and again sitting on the edge of their community and wondering if now might be the time to jump off.

    The song is filled with these gem-like, off-kilter aphorisms – wry turns of phrase that always get at something deeper, in the way that only metaphor can, like "we are busted stitches in the patchwork of the flag" or "I'm doing 25-to-life just waiting on a friend to get back from a piss". How better to encapsulate those twin feelings of unbelonging and captivity, of alienation and familiarity? You can almost see the singer leaning over a bar, looking out at the crowd and contemplating that next round, wishing for something different, while for the moment having nowhere else to be.

    But I don't want to be too reductive here. I don't want to suggest that these lyrics mean any one thing. The language is figurative, not literal, and that means it's less about what the lyrics are saying and more about all the things they bring to mind. It's about that free play of the imagination that such imagery stirs up inside us. And that's why, I suppose, the song feels to me at its best when it's at its most enigmatic and gnomic. Like what does that mean – "a negligible fraction of the holy trinity"? I love it, but not because I can decipher it. I love it for all the associations it conjures up – of cosmic insignificance, of a fall from grace, but also of the divinity still within us. In a word, it's poetry.

    And that brings us to the song's leading image: "to be free from the guillotine" – another resonant metaphor, suggestive of so much: the sharp bite of social ostracism, the spectre of retribution, and the shining promise of liberation on the other side.

    But the singer is always quick to undercut their own triumphalism. They're breaking free, sure, but they're not quite there yet. As they put it:

    I'm here halfway through at best
    With no clear pathway through the rest
    Playing contract tambourine in a shipyard plumber's band

    The singer doesn't know where they're headed; they just know that they've gotta go, and that they're gonna ruffle some feathers along the way, becoming "a willingly endangered bird of prey".

    It all feels so relatable, even if I'd never think to put it in precisely these words. It's that feeling you get when you recognize that you need to get out, to turn your back on the world you've known and make a better life for yourself, even though you have no idea what that life will be.

    And it's here that the song's persistent specificity starts to dilate and expand. The singer isn't just singing about themselves; they're...

    • 10 min
    028 :: FAIRYTALE

    028 :: FAIRYTALE

    FEATURING

    "Fairytale of New York" by The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl, from If I Should Fall from Grace with God released by Warner Music in 1988. Listen


    TRANSCRIPT

    Here's another one that fell through the cracks, another song I have no right not to have heard until now. And I couldn't even get to it in time for Christmas. But like the song's narrator, let's pretend that it's an earlier time and take this as an opportunity to reminisce on Christmases past, on better and worse years, and on dreams once held.

    If you, like me, are new to this song, it's a parable in three acts, the story of a couple of immigrant kids finding their way to New York City and each other. And it begins here, in the way young love often does, with tenderness and hope, a feeling that makes everything seem ready to burst open with excitement and anticipation.

    The song seems to understand so much about life, like how falling in love with a person often coincides with falling in love with a place. Or how nothing makes a new place feel more like home than coming across a piece of where you came from, like seeing the local police choir singing an old Irish tune.

    But the song also understands that new love never stays so pretty, and in its second act it shows how quickly those initial feelings of jubilation can sour, as the young lovers viciously bicker back and forth. And there it is again, that reminder of where they came from, now seeming like a symbol of the inescapability of who they were and still are.

    So how does it all end? In a word, ambivalently. Our lovers are civil again, but not without grievance. Because the song understands that the most powerful relationships in our lives are never simply one thing, but those where tenderness exists alongside bitterness, where the things we cherish most dearly are also those that break our heart.

    It's no fairytale romance, but it's all the more poignant because of that. It's no cheery Christmas carol, but it's none the lesser for it. And the song itself is no pristine composition, either; it's imperfect, and weird, and rough around the edges. But that's precisely what makes it so affecting. It's a celebration of life in all its messiness and complexity, and what better to celebrate on Christmas Day than that.

    • 6 min
    027 :: SWITCH

    027 :: SWITCH

    FEATURING

    "Psychedelic Switch" by Carly Rae Jepsen, from The Loveliest Time, released by 604 Records in 2023. Listen


    TRANSCRIPT

    This is an ode to my song of the year – the song I played more times than any other song, and that played in my head countless more times than that – a perfect song, an electric song, an unstoppable, irresistible song that never failed to sweep me up and carry me away.

    This song's pleasures are immediate and undeniable. But like the last time I talked about this artist, we must be careful not to overthink this music. Because what it's really about is that feeling that it stirs up inside us – that euphoria, that release, that palpable satisfaction. This isn't music to analyze; it's music that's here to make us dance and laugh and throw all our other cares away.

    But there is, I believe, a little more to this song, and so at the risk of flouting my own advice, I'm going to overthink it a bit. Because I do think this song is telling us something, or at least discloses it by the by amidst its revelry and exuberance.

    On its surface, this is a song about the transformative power of love: its capacity to act as a "psychedelic switch", to flip our minds into a new mode and change the very way we see the world, such that all our prior worries dissipate in the face of this new feeling. But this song is also unmistakeably a song about the transformative power of music, and its capacity to act upon us in precisely the same way. More than any other art form, music has the ability to lift our spirits in an instant. More than any other art form, the experience of music can be as euphoric and intoxicating as the experience of love. More than any other art form, music can even be indistinguishable from our emotions themselves. Like the singer says, they were "a sad, sad song" before. But now, with this song, it's like a psychedelic switch.

    And what is it like to be in such a beatific state? The singer sums it up in a single lyric: they'd be "satisfied forever with a couple of years of this". Like love, music doesn't need to be timeless to be worthwhile or meaningful or even life-changing. Some of the most important pleasures we feel are ephemeral ones. And music doesn't let us forget that, because music, in the best cases, makes us feel it. So here's to my song of the year, which even if it's just for this year and no others, is more than enough to keep me satisfied forever.

    • 6 min

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