From PJ Harvey to Kanye West, 2015 Begins on Ambitious Note

Marc Hogan

By Marc Hogan

Lead News Writer
on 01.05.15 in News

To judge by the early going, 2015 could be a year with some of the more ambitious release plans in recent memory. After two years that ended with surprise albums — Beyoncé’s self-titled in 2013, and D’Angelo’s Black Messiah in 2014 — recording artists may be looking for new ways to build mystique around their music, particularly at a time when album sales continue to dwindle. They may also be taking a cue from the recent lavish album roll-outs from the likes of Aphex Twin, Daft Punk, Boards of Canada and Arcade Fire.

Lofty plans announced so far in 2014 have come from artists already renowned for their high concepts (PJ Harvey). But we’ve also heard of striking ambition from a long-silent hitmaker (Akon). Meanwhile, a lower-key singer/songwriter, Jens Lekman, has opted for an approach that’s as casual as it is sure to be intensive. And although Kanye West hasn’t exactly made his plans known just yet, anything involving the hip-hop giant and Paul McCartney (whoever that is) will surely not suffer from limited goals.

Harvey was fast out of the gate on January 2. She announced she’d be recording her upcoming ninth album, the follow-up to 2011′s Let England Shake, in public as an art exhibit titled Recording in Progress. Tickets to the sessions have already sold out. The performers will be behind one-way glass.

“I want Recording in Progress to operate as if we’re an exhibition in a gallery,” Harvey told BBC News in a statement. “I hope people will see the attention and the labour and the care that goes into making a recording. I hope people will see the interactions between everyone involved.”

Akon hasn’t released an album in more than six years, but as Billboard reports, the Senegalese-American singer/rapper/producer will return this year with a “five-part concept album” titled Stadium. “Thru out this long wait, there has been fans who stuck with me,” Akon posted on Twitter. “This Album is for you! 5 Albums 5 genres equaling STADIUM.”

Each of the five albums is titled based on genre: Stadium: Euro, Stadium: Pop, Stadium: Urban, Stadium: Island and Stadium: World. One single from each album is streaming now on Akon’s website, and they generally conform to the titles: respectively, the EDM ballad “Better,” with Atlanta producer Nico the Kid; the keyboard-based empathy plea “Each His Own”; “Whole Lot,” which has more of a trap-rap feel; the reggae-fueled Stephen Marley collaboration “Just a Man”; and the lithe, bouncy “Feeling a Nikka,” which features Nigerian pop star D’Banj, who has previously worked with Kanye West.

The ambition is head-turning regardless of the result. From a certain point of view, even the arbitrary, consumer-friendly “genres” look charming. But there’s no release date yet, so we’ll have to wait and see if the reality can support the heady concept.  And Akon’s most recent album, December 2008′s Freedom, though full of hooks, didn’t necessarily offer enough depth or breadth to suggest a quintuple album as an obvious follow-up move.

Lekman’s plan, at the same time, is no less ambitious. The singer behind 2007′s quietly stunning Night Falls Over Kortedala hasn’t released a new album since 2012′s rich but intensely melancholy I Know What Love Isn’t, and he’s since been exploring other approaches, such as last year’s underrated, SoundCloud-only WWJD Mixtape. Now, he says his New Year’s resolution for 2015 is to write a song a week and share it online.

“I’ve been longing to write about things that make sense one particular day but that might make no sense once the album comes out,” he said in a note on Soundcloud. “Then at the end of this year we can sit down you and me and listen through these 52 songs, and remember where we were and when we were there, who we kissed and who we missed. I’m looking forward to that.”

You can hear the first selection, “Postcard #1,” below. As with the project itself, it’s at once heady and modest, with unfussy piano chords behind lyrics that tend toward meta.

Then there’s the Yeezus creator in the room. First came the surprise New Year’s Day release of McCartney collaboration “Only One.” As in a way with Lekman’s project, that song had an intimate, person-to-person quality despite being the product of two hugely famous pop stars. A press release promised “several musical collaborations” to come between West and McCartney. One of those could be a blockbuster team-up between West, McCartney, Rihanna and Ty Dolla $ign, based on what Ty Dolla $ign told Billboard. That’s not five albums in one, sure, but it’s hardly less ambitious.

Elsewhere, only Death Grips know what to expect from the self-described “conceptual art exhibition” known as Death Grips. The supposedly defunct Sacramento group surprise-released a new instrumental album, Fashion Week, last night. Still said to be on the way from the trio is the rest of a new double album titled the powers that b. Ambitious? The first half found a way to fit Björk on every single track.

Nor are the challenging projects limited to music. As Danny Brown works on a follow-up to 2013′s masterfully bleak Old, he has told Australian radio station Triple J he’s also putting in time on a Dr. Seuss-inspired children’s book for his 13-year-old daughter. “You know how black women do so much — process their hair, change their eye color?” the Detroit rapper said. “It’s really about a little girl who does all these things to herself and changes herself, and she realizes she’s just better off the way she is.” Yes, the rap game might be hard while the writing game isn’t as much, but that’s just another exciting, risk-taking new project unveiled in the opening days of this young year.

Of course, it’s impossible to judge too much about a year by its opening days. But just flash back to this day in 2014. Morrissey made headlines for saying he’d written half a novel. West, much to his own chagrin, became a virtual currency. The Pixies released a surprise second new EP en route to their disappointing Indie CindyNews broke of Clay Aiken’s ultimately unsuccessful bid for Congress. And a 407-foot replica of the Eagles’ fifth album set the record for the largest vinyl album.

The ambitious projects teased so far this year might fail, too, but at least they won’t involve 25 tons of Hotel California.

Here’s to setting the bar high in 2015.