If This Was A Movie: The Rise of the Visual Album



When Halsey announced that her upcoming fourth album was to be produced by legendary Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, it certainly raised eyebrows, but when she refused to release a single before recording it, and instead releasing a series of trailers for a 50-minute accompanying film, the responses started to fall into place. Musically, If I can’t have love I want power oscillates between the cinematic and the experimental, the gap between the two being effortlessly bridged by the production of Reznor and Ross. They pushed her to adopt improbable hip-hop and drum’n’bass moves on certain tracks, with intriguingly effective results, and their odd soundtrack style leaves fingerprints all over the place. flagship album “Bells in Santa Fe”. Most notable of all, however, is that Halsey transforms into a true pop-rock star throughout this record. The “You Asked for This”, “Honey” and “Easier Than Lying” guitars would sit more comfortably on, say, Against the Current’s latest EP, Fever, than alongside Halsey’s previous track record “Without Me”.

That said, this decision will come as no surprise to those who have followed it closely over the years. She has long expressed a desire to release a rock-inspired record (the 2015 “New Americana” reminded listeners that she was “raised on Biggie and Nirvana”, and those influences had to stay), as singles off album “Nightmare” and “Experiment on Me” openly flirted with pop-rock, but these were just simple shots compared to the lyrically accomplished and atmospheric album that If I can’t have love I want power turned out to be. Its centerpiece is surely “I am not a woman, I am a god”, which mixes all the different styles of the album over pulsating synths and an anthemic chorus, with a strong dose of irony that keeps it together. If I can’t have love … will compete with maniacal for the title of Halsey’s Best Project to date, but the two couldn’t be more sonically different, and that’s a compliment to his talent and large-scale ambition.

Visuals for “I’m Not a Woman, I’m a God” are part of Halsey’s accompanying film

‘Star-crossed’ / Illustration by Flo Brockman

At the other end of the musical spectrum, after finding mainstream success and the prestigious Grammy Award for Album of the Year for Golden hour, country-pop star Kacey Musgraves’ latest foray into genre-mixing music covers very different ground than Halsey’s heavier project. At damn, Kacey dives into light dance rhythms and finger-picked pop ballads, and even covers “Gracias a la vida” from “The Queen of Latin American Folk” by Violeta Parra. Indeed, it sometimes mixes the three styles: the title song combines Spanish guitar, dreamlike psychedelic and soaring cinematographic elements, with a beautiful result. Prior to the album, Kacey Musgraves said it would be a “modern tragedy” in three separate acts, and while the lines between these acts are somewhat blurry, the content of the record makes listening. devastatingly sad, as she empties her heart in the wake of her divorce from fellow country singer Ruston Kelly. It’s deeply moving to hear the same Kacey Musgraves who, on Golden hour, proudly declared, “I’m not a Wonder Woman… I’m just a human,” now lamenting sadly, “If I were an angel… Everything would be better.” It is this antithesis that makes Golden hour now forever inseparable from damn – they are the opposite sides of the same coin. “Golden hour turns black”, and that’s the real tragedy here.

The “Divorce Album” is a well worn trope in country music (the joke says if you play a country song backwards you will get your wife, house and dog back), and therefore, damn was always going to be severely scrutinized and compared to those who came before him, especially since they’ve always been so strong. Miranda Lambert 2016 The weight of these wings was one of the albums of the decade, and that of Carly Pearce 29 became one of the most acclaimed national projects of 2021. It operates in damn, then, that turns out to be not country at all, despite Kacey’s bizarre insistence that he has “more than a foot in the country than Golden hour”.

damn is an immersive album that remains irresistibly atmospheric from start to finish “

Where the first “justified” single falters for its unconvincing rhymes (the bland couplet “If I cry just a little / And then I laugh in the middle” is disappointing at best), the simplicity of Kacey’s turn of phrase sometimes plays out. to his advantage. The ballad ‘connecting scene’ is both unpretentious and beautifully touching: “So if you’ve got someone to love / And you’ve almost given up / Hang on despite how they drive you crazy … Because I ‘would love to do it’ I knew I didn’t have it that bad ‘. When it is most vulnerable, this collection is the most impactful. For all its lyrical shortcomings, however, damn is an immersive album that remains irresistibly atmospheric from start to finish – it’s a vibey gem backed by synths, ethereal harmonies and drum loops that offers just enough interesting production choices to veil the less imaginative lyrical moments. Or Golden hour successful because of its immediacy, damn is a producer, and that’s probably for the best.

‘Star-Mingled’ Film Features Appearances by Eugene Levy, Princess Nokia, Meg Stalter and Symone

What connects these two very different records is the fact that they are both visual albums – each released alongside a fifty minute film, in which they developed their musical visions. These projects have both been hailed as ‘ambitious’, ‘arty’ and ‘done’ since their release, and it would indeed seem that the creative flair and attention to detail of Halsey and Kacey Musgraves translated well to the screen. However, their overall success is exceptionally limited by the fact that – unless every listener is willing and able to subscribe to multiple streaming platforms at will – these films can be described as anything but accessible.

“If I can’t have love, I want power” / Illustration by Flo Brockman

The sensational boom in streaming services has gone hand in hand with the boom in the visual album. In this online age, where people rarely buy albums and often struggle to put a face to the songs on their playlists, the identities of artists are moving further and further away from their musical product, and in response , some have doubled down, turning to visual media as another form of self-expression. But it comes at a price. Given the absolute dominance of these paid monthly services over all forms of media, any excuse to outdo the competition is blinded by music executives, and exclusive releases of all varieties are poached by Apple Music, Spotify, and Tidal. . Visual albums aren’t immune to this trend: Beyoncé’s industry upheaval Lemonade was initially a Tidal-only version, and the last version of Billie Eilish A love letter to Los Angeles is exclusive to Disney +.

It is therefore not surprising that the new damn the film is exclusive to Paramount + in the US, and although Halsey initially avoided it by releasing his film exclusively in theaters, most fans probably don’t live near one of the chosen IMAX locations, and the film has now been predictably acquired by another US streaming service, HBO. Financially, these agreements make sense – damn and If I can’t have love … are bigger budget projects, and only the promise of profitability would have allowed them to be released. But it always raises a bigger question: who exactly are artists trying to reach? And why isn’t the answer “as many people as possible”? While some lucky fans will have been able to watch and replay the films at will, many will not, and the broader implications of this for the future of music are more than concerning. After all, who knows how long it will be before more artists start releasing not only movies but entire albums exclusively on, say, Apple Music, if Apple is threatening them (sorry, offering) with enough money. . The public will either have to pay five pounds a month for each subscription service or not hear new music at all. And if even Kacey Musgraves and Halsey, who composed these two passionate projects entirely with heart, can’t escape this business context, then creating music for fun may well be a concept on the verge of extinction. These days, it seems to be marketing above all else – or else.

Regardless of the dry corporate dialogue that accompanied it, the rise of the visual album in popular culture has undoubtedly breathed new life into 21st century music, and of course many will have enjoyed the films. damn and If I can’t have love, I want power. However, as singer Miranda Lambert so artfully pointed out in her own Marfa bands film earlier this year, “It doesn’t all have to be a business decision”. Truer words have never been said – I just can’t help but wish for a future in which record companies and streaming services alike.


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