Will Toledo is the singer/songwriter/visionary of Car Seat Headrest. With Teens of Denial, his first real “studio” album with an actual band, Toledo moves from bedroom pop to something approaching classic-rock grandeur and huge (if detailed and personal) narrative ambitions, with nods to the Jonathan Richmond, Wire and William Onyeabor.
Although a tragic year in many respects (rest in peace David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen…), 2016 has undoubtedly been an amazing 365 days for music. So amazing, in fact, that our contributors weren’t able to cover every incredible release. That changes now. From Conor Oberst’s Ruminations to Kanye West’s long-awaited The Life of Pablo, from now until 2017, the Talkhouse will be honoring the records we missed this year.
– Brenna Ehrlich, Talkhouse Music Editor-in-Chief
The Life of Pablo is a repulsive album. This is obvious to anyone who listens to it, and must be acknowledged at the start of any discussion of it. This is an album riddled with lyrics about the dick of its creator, Kanye West. This is an album that asks if anyone feels sorry for Bill Cosby (on “Facts”). Kanye’s detractors have had no shortage of material to play with this year, and ninety percent of the lyrics on this album work almost solely in their favor.
It’s also one of the best albums I’ve heard in a long time — and one of the most beautiful. It’s very strange. My younger self would never have tolerated an album this reprehensible, this unrepentantly egotistical, yet I’ve probably listened to it more times this year than anything, aside from David Bowie’s Blackstar. Why? Well, it’s just good.
But this is music journalism, and we must do better. How does this album seduce? What is its power of attraction? In concrete musical terms, TLOP’s transitions most compel me. I might go into it intending only to listen to “Ultralight Beam,” but the experience of listening to that song feels incomplete until I hear the opening strains of “Father Stretch My Hands Part 1.”
“You’re the only power/You’re the only power that can—” The phrase cuts off and loops, never finishing its thought; the chord progression ascends over and over, with no root chord in sight. Then, suddenly, we’re on to the Future sample and fully into “Part 1,” a song that is, of course, incomplete without “Part 2.” Then “Famous” comes on, and somehow feels like a summation of all that came before it.
I can turn the record off after “Famous” — “Feedback” isn’t my favorite — but I can’t do “I Love Kanye” without “Waves” or without “FML” or without “Wolves” or without everything through “No More Parties in L.A.” Everything on this album is interconnected to such a high degree that it’s impossible to pull any single track off of it to explain its potency. This effect is not simply a byproduct of the artistic vision that guided this album’s creation — it serves as a large part of the artistic vision itself.
What is this album’s vision? Kanye calls it a “gospel album,” and while that statement seems intentionally paradoxical considering its content, it’s not a joke. “Ultralight Beam” is the easiest to recognize in these terms; the song is an unambiguous prayer, dedicated to the light of God. This light is a bit harder to spot in such songs as “Freestyle 4” and “FML.” Yet it does emerge, at the unlikeliest of times, in the strangest of places: in the club in “Wolves,” in the middle of sex in “Waves,” in abject poverty in “Low Lights” and abject wealth in “Saint Pablo.” It fuses these disparate themes into something that holds together in spite of itself.
Kanye is one of those artists whose works always serve as a mirror image of themselves.
What else is this album’s vision? Kanye is one of those artists whose works always serve as a mirror image of themselves, whose goal is to carve their own likeness as many times as possible, as accurately as possible, in as many angles as possible. This means he’s not simply singing about himself on his albums; the albums are him — a perfected version of himself, an ideal embodied in a body of work. All of Kanye’s actions are done in service of his art; all of his art is made to gratify himself. When we apply this symbiotic relationship to The Life of Pablo, reading its faults and fascinations in tandem with his actions during the album’s release cycle, we come to understand both his fractured persona and this chaotic “gospel album” more fully. Kanye is the modern sinner, broken by sin, held together by the grace of God. He is Saul/the Apostle Paul in the process of conversion, always with scales falling from his eyes, always with new ones forming in their place.
This newfound spirituality puts a new spin on things: Kanye on this album is not just Kanye; he is the Everyman, the archetypal protagonist of the Christian morality play. He plays his part with relish, perhaps more relish than would be tolerated in most church performances. Yet his struggle is universal in this context: “I just want to feel liberated” (“Father Stretch My Hands”) is the sinner’s motto, pushing one with equal force toward the freeing salvation of God and the contemplation of complete debauchery. We see this struggle through uncompromisingly human eyes, its shape and tenor changing from comic (“Now if I fuck this model/and she just bleached her asshole/and I get bleach on my T-shirt/I’ma feel like an asshole,” on “Father”) to frantic (“What the fuck right now?/What the — what the fuck right now?/What if we fuck right now?/What if we fucked right in the middle of this motherfuckin’ dinner table?,” on “Freestyle 4”) to ecstatic (“She grabbing on my — like/she wanna see if it’ll fit right/that’s just the wave,” on “Waves”) to despondent and repentant (“God, I’m willing/to make this my mission/give up the women/before I lose half of what I own,” on “FML”).
Through such human eyes, sin can look awfully similar to salvation: on “FML,” the impulsive sentiment of “wish[ing] I would go ahead and fuck my life up” shifts subtly into an invocation of pseudo-religious imagery in the Section 25 outro: “See through the veil/and forget all your cares/throw them, throw them away…”
It’s not just that he’s casting his problems in a religious light, though; that, in of itself, would not be enough to redeem an album that, we must remember, is morally and aesthetically repulsive in so many ways. No, what truly unites the pieces of this album and brings it into the transcendent realm of successful art is forgiveness: a concept that Kanye is intimately familiar with, a concept that he explores in visceral, unprecedented ways on this album. Kanye might not be a biblical scholar, but he is perhaps the world’s leading expert in toeing the line of judgment, of falling from grace and being restored through the infinite mercy of someone, be it God, fan, or critic.
A human being is a repulsive creature, too, when broken down into parts.
What Kanye understands, what he was recently trying to convey through a somewhat muddled series of speeches on Donald Trump, is that there is no sin too great to be forgiven, no act so heinous as to make the man intolerable, either in the eyes of God or ultimately of the public. The Life of Pablo thus shines in its heinousness. The album encompasses simultaneously the contemplation of the crime, the crime itself, the repentance of the crime, and the granting of forgiveness. It would be a thoroughly despicable exercise, except for the fact that we do forgive it; we do see the beauty in it.
A human being is a repulsive creature, too, when broken down into parts. It is only upon glimpsing the whole that beauty can be found. This idea pops up in the texts of many Christian authors (usually of the more depressive sort); as Fyodor Dostoevsky puts it in The Brothers Karamazov, “The face of a man often hinders many people not practised in love from loving him. But yet there’s a great deal of love in mankind, and almost Christ-like love.”
Kanye is closer to a Dostoevsky character than to Dostoevsky himself, but he has managed to create one of the most powerful testaments in recent memory to both the hideousness of a man’s face — his surface characteristics, his persona, his proudly worn sins — and the Christ-like powers of forgiveness residing in the public. Or, as Kanye puts it, “That’s all there was, Kanye/We still love Kanye…” Most of the time, we see a man’s faults, not his heart. The heart is likewise hidden on The Life of Pablo underneath a facade of faults, yet it shines through at the most unexpected moments.
There will always be more sin to get into after church.
Although I spoke earlier of the difficulty of isolating one song as representative of the album as a whole, perhaps there is one song that effectively reveals the layers of Kanye’s soul, and it’s hardly a song at all. “Frank’s Track,” a benediction that’s really the last verse of “Wolves,” is what Kanye chose to conclude the album proper and send us out into the world. Kanye, of course, also chose to canonize six additional tracks as “bonus joints” after this. There will always be more sin to get into after church. Yet for these thirty-eight seconds, we hear Frank Ocean and feel the purity of the moment, the fleeting freedom from sin, the cleansed soul at the end of a confession, the charred essence of the album and of Kanye: “I’m mixed now, fleshed out/There’s light with no heat/We cooled out, it’s cool out/Life is precious/We found out/We found out.”