Nico Muhly is a New York-based composer and songwriter. He has collaborated with Björk, the National, Philip Glass, Usher, Antony and the Johnsons and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, among others. You can follow him on Twitter here and visit his website here.
Let me tell you a story about my phone. Four times in the last few years, it has made a certain series of Noises. My current theory is that the Noises are generated when a critical mass of gays text one another at the same time. The first time, it was when Michael Jackson died and I was in a fever-dream in St. Petersburg, Russia, having just interviewed the homeless-looking and possibly insane conductor Valery Gergiev. The second time, it was when Whitney died, and I was absurdly having gnocchi with certain friends and then other friends rang and we had to pull the whole evening over “to be together in this time of need.” The third time, it was when I got off a plane last week in Rome, and I thought to myself, “Girl, not Janet, not tonight.” It was a false alarm: it was just that English diver announcing that he was fuxing a man.
Then, last Thursday night, I was asleep in a very, very rural hotel in Iceland when the phone made the Noise again. I was almost too scared to check it, but then, in my benighted fumbling, my computer and iPad turned on, and they started making sonic ejaculations too, which they hadn’t made for Michael or Whitney. What is it, I thought, the President? My mother? Of course the answer was that the internet wanted to send me many gigabytes of Beyoncé’s new unannounced album and its attendant videos, and of course I moved heaven, earth, ice, and lava to have my computer in the one square metre of the hotel that could actually make this happen, because I am an homosexual and these Knowlesian dispatches are treated, by cultural necessity, as oracular and as gospel: gnomic, poetic, abstract, and very, very relevant.
At first I was anxious about the description of it as a “visual album,” because these days, which albums aren’t? I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Lady Gaga video, but I know that her appeal — even to me, not ever having beheld her on purpose — is partially to do with her Visual Presentation. Beyoncé’s songs, on this album, connect to one another not just musically, but via a seemingly personal, almost Forrest Gump-like time-traveling woman’s journey through various eras and — I shudder to say the word — styles. It’s unbelievably ambitious and through-composed; where the music can feel unrelated from one song to the next, the video is especially and carefully elided, and where the video is stylistically at variance from one song to the next, the music itself creates an emulsion between all the various incarnations of Beyoncé, our tour-guide through heaven and hell. Her voice feels, here, stretched in all the best ways, and she is experimenting with various modes of vocal production, vibrato, enunciation, and textual stylization. She is relishing the individual words of her lyrics, and savoring the shapes of the phrases the songs demand of her. When she freaks, as is her wont, a bridge or a second chorus, it is an insane and welcome delight.
Can we start with the statement that I basically loved this album? And then I will go song by song and talk about what, for me, felt like a reinforcement of this love, and where, in places, my love was challenged? I am going to talk, interchangeably, about the music and the videos, as that is how this thing was presented to me, as well as to the poor taxed wi-fi of the rural hotel and its staff. So if you’ve only heard the music, you should probably watch the videos, and if you’ve only watched the videos, you’re probably fine?
This is a beautiful song. On the video, there is a long introduction with piano and strings. Use real strings, please, Beyoncé. The piano might be real but it sounds like the most expensive fake piano on the market. One would love to think that this is a comment on the artificiality of beauty — we’ve become accustomed to an expensive fake in favor of the built-in and beautiful imperfections of reality — but I doubt that was the reason for this particular oversight. Bey: call me; you know where I stay. The beat is solid when it comes in: four on the floor and a fucked-up snare on two and four. Then, in the second part of the chorus, it splits into a gorge ’90s r&b beat. The effect is simultaneously modern and retro: we are clearly in the era when the beat does not have to be swung or jagged, but also we remember the empowerment discourses of the ’90s, from which these lyrics seem to have been derived. Is it just me, or did everybody else briefly flash back to a teary-eyed moment in the car listening to Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” back in the day?
There is one thing that I am going to add here, which is that in a lot of tableaux throughout this video (and indeed most of the videos here), Beyoncé is the most light-skinned woman of color in evidence; I only offer this because in the floral Koyaanisqatsi-like social media time-lapse bloom that accompanied this release, much of which was breathlessly sent to me in various formats, I couldn’t help but notice a lot of chatter about this. I think it is probably a good thing that issues of representation not just surrounding but also between women of color are boiling over such that they appear consistently across the dashboards of privileged, potentially indifferent, white men.
In this video, there is that famous black albino male model Shaun Ross, who is painfully beautiful, and whose video job it is literally to weigh in Beyoncé for her beauty pageant; it is entirely (and perhaps fully) possible that she knows precisely what she’s doing here and that she is punking these corners of the internet in advance of their objection to something over which she enjoys no control.
I live for this track. Je suis ici 4 this track. The intro is harmonically identical to the intro to the video of “Pretty Hurts” — again, I wish she had hired real strings. The video is affected and delicious. It’s like Pleats Please™/Got Milk™/boobies, ribs, ’n’ veiled abs. Her hair is layed like Michele Lamy in a nunnery, wearing the Shroud of Turin. I love everything about this. In the “Haunted” section, we get a wonderfully ghost-like, drugged, low-voiced Beyoncé articulating, “I know if I’m haunting you, you must be haunting me/It’s where we go, it’s where we’ll be/I know if I’m onto you, I’m onto you.” There is something textually quite forward-looking about the haunted being the haunter; it’s the hauntologies of Wide Sargasso Seameets Ju-on: The Grudge, but all coming 2 pass in a sort of Belle-Époque Brooklyn or potentially New Orleans. Then, suddenly we are deep into something reminiscent of that frenetic and genius sequence in The Shining where suddenly all the ghosts are there blowing one another in furry suits, meets the “Justify My Love” video. It’s this wonderful musical trick where the verse of a song can have five notes in it, freeing up the chorus to have only three; it’s not right, really, but it’s more than okay. It makes a frantic, churned sauce, and relies not on the thrilling vocal acrobatics of Beyoncé’s Destiny’s Child years but rather on a form of manic solitaire: lonesome and brilliant.
“Drunk in Love”
Is this the GarageBand “trilling strings” patch? Is this the generic “Eastern Vocalist” patch? What’s going on here? In the video there is some strange monstrance or something? Then the beat come in! Thank God! There is nothing, in terms of frequency, between the processed belly-dancing nonsense and the bass pulse, which is the most satisfying thing in the world. Beyoncé seems almost compulsively driven to pronounce words both Southern and Not — we have drinkin’ and drankin’ within nanoseconds of one another, and “fingers” approaches a Delta-ish “fangers” if you listen closely.
Yes, this bridge! It feels conversational and stylised — she delivers “last thing I remember is our beautiful bodies grinding off in that club” almost like a robot at first and then the text obeys a fierce gravitational pull back into conversational English and then tips into a decidedly Northern AAVE pronunciation of “club,” truncated and Arabically stopped.
The dance moves for this video are essentially the only ones I know how to do in public or private, so this is, quite literally, my jam.
The version of the lyrics I have here claim that she says, “He sweat it out like washed rags,” which is all well and good, although I would posit that she says “wash-rags,” which is slightly more delicious. The way she says “surfboard” is absolutely out of control and not conversational.
DID JAY Z JUST SHOUT OUT TRINA TALMBOUT, THE BADDEST BITCH!? I really hope so. I don’t like that people have forgotten about Trina.
I have no ability to speak about what is or is not appropriate about the following snippet uttered by Jay Z: “Catch a charge I might, beat the box up like Mike/In ’97 I bite, I’m Ike Turner…” although I suspect it’s best left alone in these pages. Or not. I’m sorry, everybody; I just don’t know. Didn’t one of these cooter-exposing chanteuses say “beat up the pussy” about Drake on Twitter (more on her later) and then it turned out that she was in a dissociative fugue state? I don’t like the phrase, but perhaps it isn’t mine to dislike in the first place. Ike Turner: just saying. Mike Tyson: is his presence in an episode of SVU a form of penance?
I cannot wait until somebody remixes this for precisely 90 seconds in the gay bar. I think this song contains precisely 90 genius genius genius seconds up until, and including, when she clicks like a woodblock before the word “flavor.”
Also, I am culturally anxious about “Skittles” as a sexual reference, having spent the last year and a half on the internet, where Skittles, along with iced tea, have taken on an uncomfortable racist seat in which…
Wait, has the entire beat changed? Is she saying, “I want you to turn that cherry out?” Does she now have a permanent crimp? Are we in the “Purple Rain” video? Is this the best thing I’ve ever heard?
Oh wait, it’s over now, and it’s back to the part that will be remixed and played underneath “My Neck, My Back” in the gay bar, as is quite right; if any track needs a Xhosa tongue-click revitalization, it was that. I know I’m being selfish here, but I think I’m also evincing a certain generosity because this track is actually not the best, but there is real sideways potential here.
I will make you all a bet that more homosexicals than women will be using the phrase “turn that cherry out” before next weekend. In fact, the minute I file this piece I am going down to the bar to verify this.
This is one of these songs where each syl la ble of the cho rus has its own note with a rest in be tween it and its neigh bors. More synth strings in this; I can’t bear it! Do we all agree that this track is a filler track, or am I grotesque and unfair?
I mean, this is the song of our times. This is great. Everything about this is great. Literally every sentient being in the universe is credited on this song, although it sounds to me like a Timbaland joint. I hope that the person who wrote the line “I sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker” got paid many euros. The video is happening and it is great and retro. I myself have not performed (or, for that matter, received) fellatio in a limousine, so I will take her word for it that if Beyoncé herself were, indeed, performing it, it would require her going upon her knees, although it seems much simpler and, in point of fact, more discreet to simply lean over there and get to work. However, one has had the intelligence that her husband’s penis “could block the sun,” so she probably knows much better than anyone the logistical choreography required to get ‘r dunn in the back seat of any vehicle. Also: did everybody else know it was called the partition? I would have called it the divider, or perhaps the rood screen. And, further, the partition, I should think, was the entire dividing structure, whereas the thing she’s asking to be rolled up is just a window in the middle of it. It is also possible that limousine technology has improved since the last time I took one, which was two years ago in rural Québec. But this is neither here nor there; I was scared/excited when I saw in the track list that this song was going to be about Partition, as in, India/Pakistan, and that we would be treated to a mid-song rap by Gayatri Spivak herself, or like, chopped and screwed audio of Muhammad Ali Jinnah if Diplo already had Gayatri in the studio under some sort of exclusivity.
Speaking as somebody in a relationship with Ambien, I have cooked naked, half-naked, sad, and angry. I have a variety of small oil spatter scars across my abdomen which only healed quickly enough to be replaced by others caused by more ambitious culinary efforts — have you ever pan-fried veal on an hypnotic? This song speaks to me, especially now that I have been taken off all drugs fitting this description. I usually wait for my man to be physically at home before I start cooking for him, and I would, perhaps, recommend the same for Beyoncé, because it is good to have somebody chop herbs fully clothed. I love this guitar sound. She has it basically doing fading pulses across an irregular number of beats, and it is the perfect musicalisation of anxiety that isn’t directed anywhere except into the atmosphere it inhabits. The trick, beloveds, with anxiety about where your man is at: you can’t be too mad, because there is always the off chance that he has been struck by a car and isn’t, in fact, creeping. This song really “gets” it, in that sense; it is anxious, but in a luxurious environment, which creates an additional anxiety. The urgency is a simmer rather than a boil.
In the strange video, Beyoncé walks out of her apartment past some Dickensian children who turn out to be paparazzi. There is a straight couple (of which the man is actually a gay I know from my gym) making out in what I presume to be TriBeCa. Then I can’t figure it out — it looks like she goes to meet a man in a hoodie on the Upper East Side, which can’t be true, because nobody would ever wear a hoodie on the Upper East Side. I love this song.
This song is not for me. I am not here for this song, in the words of the entire internet about things they don’t particularly like. But I don’t dislike it; it’s just not my personal slow jam. There is too much instrumental information bashing around on the downbeats and the whole thing feels like it’s been the victim of an interior designer working desperately on commission. Has nobody heard those Prince jams where the instrumental genius is in how little there is going on? Are we not in the post-Yeezus landscape? The actual minimal places in “Rocket” are shabby-chicly overlaid with the sound of a record player hissing and fuzzing completely inappropriately, both musically and dramaturgically. In this video, I have seen more black and white silhouettes of Beyoncé’s mons pubis than I have seen of Antonio Sabato, Jr.’s adonis belt up in that Janet Jackson Herb Ritts video, which is saying something.
I feel like this song is going to speak really directly into the hearts and minds of a great many people. The video is beyond gorgeous — it’s like butoh/Pleats Please™/Ann Demeulemeester and Anna Teresa De Keersmaker don’t sue anybody shhh. There are genuinely muscular men in sand — I mean thick dudes, not twinks from the dance belt with an Equinox membership. The various hooks in the song are fussy and overly busy. I still don’t 100% understand what Drake is doing in this song, but this clap sample sounds fucking amazing. I will also add that Drake looks really great and pansexually sexy in a kind of dun-coloured oversized t-shirt, but then there is a really ill-advised and not-in-keeping-with-the-choreography black… tank top, I suppose, that reminds me of the “Un-Break My Heart” video, and not in a necessarily good way; one imagines a rather expensive course of waxing and manscaping to achieve that Beyonçaise level of pellicular smoothness on the shoulders.
We are dealing with a sort of overstuffed situation here. I love The-Dream with every fibre of my body but it feels here like perhaps there were too many cooks in the kitchen? It feels like they should have taken off one accessory before going to the club, just for practical reasons like it might get caught on a speaker cable or under-bar coathook or something. The video, evidently by Terry Richards, looks a bit anonymous. I love the pulsed synth that underlies this song, and I love Beyoncé’s enormous smile throughout the video. This feels like it belongs to the gravitational pull on Beyoncé’s world (and indeed, Solange’s) to that of the 718’s other major export: so-called indie rock. This can, I think, only represent a good and productive alliance. I would perhaps add that while I appreciate the slow pronunciation shift between “lights out” and “xo” (calling our ear back to the “onto you/haunting you” game from before), the line “love me like xo” seems strange; how many of us know people who sign off on emails to us with “xo,” whose necks we would literally wring if we could climb through the laptop screen? Indeed, “xo” is my most poisonously deployed written closing. A lot of people love me like “xo” but frightfully few take it to the next level. Beyoncé, you have my number. Je t’attendz.
I am a little confused about the ***s before the title of this song, so I will just offer you my own reading of the glyphs, which is a form of scare quotes or inverted commas designed to make us actually really think about it what it is/means/could mean when a woman is described as being flawless. I like it. This song is great. It is genuinely felt, but also almost too fast, like a medical emergency or hypomanic episode. When the beat gets fast, it feels almost out of control, as if somebody’s crept into the control room and sped up the track overnight. The video, by Jake Nava, is perfection. The spoken bit, by Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, feels, I would say, almost perfectly placed in the mix, with one small danger, which is that it feels more like a texture with substance rather than substance with texture. I am going to leave it to other commentators to debate whether or not the definition of feminist spoken here (“a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes”) aligns with the visions (social, political, or economic) of this album, but I will say that I am overjoyed by the tentacular internet argument that is spiralling out of this album and the questions it has posed. I have spent time today with an essay called “The Problem with BeyHive Bottom Bitch Feminism” — people are actively and aggressively thinking about this.
I could live the entire rest of my life without remembering this song. It is an insult to all the talent involved here to not be using a real string section with a gorgeous arrangement. I am really happy that Michelle and Kelly got to sing on this track. If somebody had dug up, like, four extra thousand dollars, they could have had a really 3-D string arrangement and gone for it and I could have been bumping and grinding in my elevator.
The sadness of this song comes from its composition and not, necessarily, from its production. The simplicity of the vocal production is much welcome here, though, and Beyoncé’s voice against the single drum is elegant and gorgeous. Some keening electronics carry us heavenwards towards a shout on the word “no,” sampled and allowed to echo over the climax. This is such insane and precise vocal production, and we should all be paying attention to how this works for future reference. What we do not need to be paying attention to is this piano playing. My fear is that even if this is a real piano, it is a very, very clean and perhaps Japanese one; the few mechanical noises (the soft, subtle brush of the felt against the strings) have been sterilized and hidden. The touch of the player is overly forceful and, I would argue, a few milliseconds ahead of the beat; the effect is less reverentially ecclesiastical and more those dudes banging around in the basement of Guitar Center. For a sense of the exact opposite approach, listen to the piano on the Sigur Rós track “All Alright,” where it is muffled, textured, and appropriately at odds with wherever the “click” might be — it gives the song lift, and a focussed attention to the ways in which grief is more of an amplified vacancy of sound than a fistful of notes. The austerity of Beyoncé’s song, compositionally, and, indeed, much of the track deserves a more nuanced touch.
This song itself is really satisfying; I sort of wish the production and the song were slightly divorced. Again, there is a huge missed opportunity for real instruments — the credits, tellingly, reveal a “violin” arranger; but surely this is a woman whose voice requires not just violins, but violas, cellos, basses, violas da gamba, trombones, zithers, hurdies-gurdy, the works! Every sound in this mix feels in focus here, in the unfortunate way of an animated film where each blade of grass is in slightly too perfect detail. I know that many people love this kind of music mix, and I feel churlish even pointing it out, and it is really masterfully done, and it’s no more a criticism than an observation.
Beyoncé is so fun and great and major. I am going to spend, I am sure, the rest of my life listening to six or seven of these tracks a few times a year. I am so happy she released it the way she did; I think that had she and her PR or whatever futuristic PR thing Beyoncé has made a traditional campaign around this, we’d have all been too distracted with other things to properly deal with it. By releasing it in the middle of the night, it feels unexpected and magical.