Album reviews: Taylor Swift | Pearl Jam | Paraorchestra | Kathryn Williams & Withered Hand

Taylor Swift’s 11th album is full of sharp lyrics and intriguing pop culture references, but does it all have to be so earnest, asks Fiona Shepherd

Taylor Swift: The Tortured Poets Department (Republic Records) ***

Pearl Jam: Dark Matter (Monkeywrench/Republic Records) ***

Paraorchestra: Death Songbook (World Circuit) ***

Taylor Swift PIC: Getty ImagesTaylor Swift PIC: Getty Images
Taylor Swift PIC: Getty Images

Kathryn Williams & Withered Hand: Willson Williams (One Little Independent) ****

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No less an event than the release of Beyoncé’s new country banger, Taylor Swift’s 11th studio album arrives with less musical bells and whistles attached but with four physical editions – titled The Manuscript, The Bolter, The Albatross and The Black Dog – featuring artwork inscriptions and an alternative bonus track apiece.

With The Tortured Poets Department, Swift has settled into her mellow thirtysomething musical groove alongside her regular songwriting collaborators Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, while the album title smartly references the teen angst on which she built her brand.

Knowing the lyrics will be raked over, she wastes no time in playing a blinder. “I was a functioning alcoholic, till nobody noticed my new aesthetic,” she sings on Fortnight a suburban soap opera which musically keeps the lid on the latent picket fence passions. Next, she second guesses the listener, dropping in a reference to a typewriter on the title track. In less time than it takes a millennial to look up said archaic contraption online, she wonders “who uses typewriters anyway?” Maybe the characters in the whimsical indie film this song could soundtrack?

Pearl Jam PIC: Danny ClinchPearl Jam PIC: Danny Clinch
Pearl Jam PIC: Danny Clinch

Classic and pop culture references follow, most intriguingly a namecheck for The Blue Nile on Guilty As Sin? lobbed in just as the album has succumbed to same old tame old business as usual – from the gentle picking at romantic scabs on Down Bad to the tasteful beats of So Long, London. Despite the exclamatory title and the presence of Florence Welch, Florida!!! is notable mainly for another quotable observation: “my friends all smell of weed or little babies”.

Elsewhere, Swift covers the art of masking on I Can Do It With a Broken Heart and shines a light on a common relationship delusion on I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can). Does it have to be so earnest though? At least, she gets to throw her head back and holler, accessing her witchy side on Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me? Stevie Nicks, who contributes her own tortured poem to the artwork, would approve.

Rock and pop producer Andrew Watt has graduated from Justin Bieber to the Rolling Stones in a few short years and now, like the Stones on Hackney Diamonds, Pearl Jam benefit from his sonic elixir, opening their 12th album with the choppy, efficient Scared of Fear and the apoplectic vocals, pile-driving drumming and searing metal guitar solo of React, Respond.

Dark Matter roams freely between Springsteenesque roots rock (Wreckage), punk spirit (Running) and swelling arena rock (Won’t Tell). Even Eddie Vedder’s breezy song for his daughters, Something Special, is refreshingly unsentimental.

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The Charles Hazlewood-led Paraorchestra, featuring a number of professional disabled musicians using assistive technology, teams up with Suede frontman Brett Anderson for Death Songbook, a solemn symphonic covers collection of songs about love and loss. Japan’s Nightporter is worthy of resurrection with shimmering Wurlitzer and haunting woodwind. In contrast, Suede’s She Leads Me On is almost irrepressible. Anderson also gets stuck into Jacques Brel’s My Death and, along with Nadine Shah, treats Skeeter Davis’s The End of the World with gothic relish.

Dream team of the week, however, goes to Kathryn Williams & Withered Hand, two natural born songwriters with, it transpires, an effortless chemistry, sounding like a unisex Everlys as their voices intertwine on Our Best, a melancholy memorial for those they have lost. This was the first song they wrote together but there is more yearning emotion waiting to be bottled on the languid country comfort of Grace and indie folk paean R U 4 Real, plus bonus points for covering Cat Stevens’ joyous Sing Out from Harold and Maude.


Cantabile: Anthems for Viola (Delphian) *****

At the heart of Jamaican-American violist Jordan Bak’s debut Delphian album are two mainstays of 20th century solo viola repertoire, Arnold Bax’s Sonata for viola and piano and Benjamin Britten’s haunting Lachrymae, the latter written for the legendary Glasgow-born violist William Primrose. These are thoroughly absorbing performances, Bak and his pianist Richard Uttley engaging lovingly with Bax’s mercurial narrative, the chiming suggestiveness of the opening bars opening up briskly to reveal a magical, lyrically-expressed landscape of shifting moods and colours. Britten’s masterpiece, inspired by John Dowland’s eponymous song, is equally profound, consumed with overriding melancholy, yet airily refreshing. Equally stimulating are the shorter works complementing these: Jonathan Harvey’s spectral Chant for unaccompanied viola, Vaughan William’s elegiac Romance, the first ever recording of living American composer Augusta Read Thomas’ luminescent Song Without Words, and the idyllic plaintiveness of Chinese-born American Bright Cheng’s The Stream Flows. Ken Walton


Kenny Garrett & Svoy: Who Killed AI? (Mack Avenue) ****

Post-bop soprano and alto saxophone ace Kenny Garrett strikes up a surprisingly effective partnership with producer, pianist and electronica whizz kid Mikhail Tarasov, aka Svoy. Opening synth wallowings may invoke momentarily the wan ghost of prog rock before a skittering groove digs in with a vengeance for Ascendance, Garret’s sax signalling that the only way is indeed up. The seven tracks flow through near-continuous swarms and storms of electronica The intense drive and soprano-sax-synth sparring of Miles Running Down AI cheekily lifts its title from Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew album but also brings to mind the sax-keyboard chemistry of Shorter-Zawinul, while Transcendence sees sax and synths float sublimely together. Without the overt yearning associated with My Funny Valentine, their one cover, here it sounds like an incantation against sullen drones and twitters, before the closing Convergence combines catchy sax hook with further, irresistible drive. Jim Gilchrist

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