Singers are getting more politically outspoken these days and more aware of the political implications of their influence.
Taylor Swift has been using her platform to register voters for the midterm elections. Queer artists like Janelle Monáe and Years & Years have used innovative visual albums to recast current political debates. But Barbra Streisand’s new album “Walls” is maybe the most overtly political release since the 2016 election.
Politics is nothing nothing new for Streisand. Her name was even found on one of Richard Nixon’s enemies lists, alongside other prominent celebrities. Throughout her singularly impressive career spanning six decades and boasting hits such as “Happy Days are Here Again,” “The Way We Were” and “People,” Streisand has been public with her politics.
But her new music is her most overtly political so far. She takes aim at current political problems and several of President Trump’s policies regarding climate change and immigration in particular. As she wrote in a statement about the album, “Even basic human decency appears to be melting away faster than the polar ice caps. I wanted to write and sing about some of these things … not only to convey my concerns, but also to state my belief that, if we remain vigilant to the truth, things can eventually turn around.”
The choice of “Walls” for the album title is, of course, a statement in itself. Streisand is keen to diagnose what she sees as the problem with contemporary society — namely, Trump. Yet the album feels somehow out of touch. She continually harkens back to an irrecoverable moment from America’s political past and seems stuck there.
That is not to say the music is bad. In fact, it’s a beautiful album that highlights in many places Streisand’s best virtues as a artist. She has never lost the unmistakable star quality of her voice, which continues to soar. And she is able to convey emotion with a great effect on the listener. Her mash-up of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and “What A Wonderful World” (first recorded by Louis Armstrong) is a tear-jerker. It’s Streisand at her absolute best.
The same might be said of her recording of “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” which again connects the her new album to songs protesting the Vietnam War. Beginning with a light string accompaniment, the song transitions to a jazzy piano waltz, before lurching forward into a funkier Motown rhythm. It’s an excellent recording and stands up well against other popular recordings of the song by Dionne Warwick and Tony Bennett.
“Better Angels” is another beautiful track. Unlike much of the material here, it offers a way forward. As she sings in the chorus, “We are not enemies/There is no good in that … We will find a way/Through all our differences.” The emotional arc of the song pulls the listener in from the beginning and like the best Broadway songs, it’s impossible not to sing along.
Other tracks on the album hardly live up to expectations, like lead single “Don’t Lie to Me,” a painful exercise in mixed metaphors that feels more like a Twitter rebuttal than a serious work. The video is worse. It has the aesthetic quality of an out-of-date campaign ad, pairing badly edited images with slogan-like text.
Needless to say, the album can be excessively preachy at times. Yet in spite of its melodramatic, heavy-handed tendencies, Streisand nonetheless manages to demonstrate her remarkable abilities as a performer. And although it’s unlikely to bring anyone new into fold, “Walls” is sure to please longtime fans.
After listening to Streisand, it’s almost a relief to turn to the world of Swedish dance-pop with Robyn. Her eighth studio album, “Honey,” is the newest iteration of her sound and it’s wonderful next step.
Since the release of her 1996 debut album “Robyn Is Here,” Robyn has been a dance-pop staple. And her three-part EP “Body Talk,” which featured the single “Dancing On My Own,” reaffirmed her place in pop and club scenes. Both “Call Your Girlfriend” and “Do It Again,” from her 2014 collaboration with the Norwegian group Röyksopp, have been No. 1 songs on the Billboard Dance Club chart.
Robyn is a master of musical silences. Her songs are not overfull, nor is every gap filled by a synth, guitar or vocal hook. “Human Being” featuring Zhala is a good example.
As an album, “Honey” is more interested in individuals rather than society as a whole. But at the same time, there’s something deeply comforting about her sound. It’s mellow and full of life, pulsating and reflective at the same time. And, of course, sexy. Very sexy.
Lead single “Missing U” begins with spiraling synth sounds which give way to a pulsing bass. One can’t help but be reminded of The Who’s introduction to “Baba O’Riley.” The songs “Between The Lines” and “Beach2k20” are the most experimental and fun on the album, featuring trance-inducing beats, alternation between spoken and sung vocals and a wide array of sound effects. Though too far left field for radio play, the songs offer an enjoyable variation between the two more traditional dance-pop tracks “Honey” and “Ever Again.”
Both Streisand’s “Walls” and Robyn’s “Honey” bring to mind the various ways artists deal with politics. Streisand speaks to a collective political crisis; Robyn turns inward. And if Streisand gives reasons to despair, Robyn reminds us to dance. Maybe that is a just as loud a political statement.