Monday, August 22, 2016

Frank Ocean: Endless first-listen review – brilliantly confounding

And so, after all the delays and rumours and teasers and the DIY-themed live streams, Frank Ocean’s new album is finally here! What, I hear you ask, is Boys Don’t Cry actually like?

Erm, we don’t really know. Because Frank Ocean being Frank Ocean, the album he has put out isn’t Boys Don’t Cry. At least we don’t think it is. Instead it’s billed as a “visual album” called Endless. Apparently, it is one big teaser – the teaser to end all teasers, if you will – before the real thing, with a brand-new title, arrives this weekend. Although haven’t we heard that before?

So what, I hear you ask – perhaps with a slightly less patient tone than before – is Endless like? And what the bloody hell is a “visual album”?

To answer the second question, the 18 tracks here have been released as one long video in which Ocean appears to get back on the home improvements game. We see him building a spiral staircase in his warehouse, while rocking various outfits – from an impressively baggy Jesus and Mary Chain sweater to a protective suit – as the music drifts by. And it really does drift, with brief instrumentals such as Ambience 001: In a Certain Way and the Daft Punk-sampling Hublots acting as segues. They also double up as palette-cleansers throughout what is a rich, varied and – at times – challenging musical feast.


Because Endless isn’t always an easy listen. There are computerised voices (arty curtain-raiser Device Control), hazy electronic shimmers (In Here Somewhere) and the odd snippet of conversation littered across Endless, the latter providing a pleasingly lo-fi counterbalance to what is overall a rather futuristic and lush aesthetic (the London Contemporary Orchestra provide a variety of sumptuous strings). Song structures are often free-form, especially through the second half of the record, where the point at which one song ends and another begins is difficult to keep track of. Strangest of all is the final track, Higgs, which seems to be a spoken-word advert for a Samsung Galaxy phone, read aloud by German artist Wolfgang Tillmans over pulsing electronica. It must have thrilled the execs at Apple Music.
Endless feels like an artistic statement before a pop album, even if it’s ultimately an impressive merging of the two

But the idea that this is a singularly avant-garde statement would be wide of the mark. There are clearly songs here, as proved by the swooning synth lines on Commes Des Garçons, or the reggae-tinged Slide On Me, staged over a skittering rhythm and acoustic guitar. It’s just that these tracks have the tendency to dissolve into cut-up voices, or pitch shifts, or electronic bleeps. That’s certainly the case on Alabama, but that shouldn’t discount the fact it also features Sampha’s gorgeously plaintive question: “What can I do to love you more than I do now?”

In fact, soulful melody is in no short supply throughout Endless, and Ocean’s voice ensures it’s delivered more passionately than any other mainstream pop star is managing right now. You realise how much you’ve missed that devastating falsetto the second it hovers into view on a cover of the Isley Brothers’ 1976 hit At Your Best (You Are Love). As Ocean gets busy with a circular saw (those stairs won’t build themselves, you know), the track embodies the merging of R&B and sadboy electronica that’s been developing ever since Ocean first emerged. (Hardcore Frankophiles will have heard a slightly different version in a 2015 tribute to Aaliyah.) The influence of James Blake, Sampha and Jonny Greenwood would have been heavily present here even if those artists hadn’t appeared on Endless.

Of course, your view of Endless may well depend on how you approach it. If you’re expecting a conveyor belt line of hits, then you will be somewhat disappointed as much of this album floats by hazily and with no clear direction. Endless feels like an artistic statement before a pop album, even if it’s ultimately an impressive merging of the two. You might wonder at times – perhaps as beats flicker by and Ocean starts sanding down a particularly rough piece of wood – what on earth is going on. But surely the whole point of Frank Ocean is that he likes to confound, and this really does feel like a brilliantly confounding, unique piece of work.

And besides, the full pop Frank will undoubtedly be unveiled when whatever Boys Don’t Cry is now called emerges. Probably. Possibly. Who knows with this most mysterious and intriguing of artists? All we can say for sure is that there are rumours that an image of Ocean’s face is gradually being projected on to the John Lewis store in Peterborough, along with a countdown clock to a date in March 2018, when etc etc etc.

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