On Beyonce, Love, Anger and Forgiveness
I’ve been slowing down the pace at which I consume and write about music lately, and it’s already having both positive and negative impacts. On the one hand, I’m pretty sure I know what I want to say about Beyonce’s Lemonade now. But on the other hand, I’m weeks late, and I’ve completely missed the cultural conversation about this record.
That’s OK, though. It’s not a conversation I need to be in. As a suburban white guy from the Midwest, my voice isn’t one that needs to be heard, my thoughts on this paean to black womanhood aren’t ones that need to be amplified. I’m overjoyed that the conversation about Lemonade has been led by the people for whom it was intended and with whom it most strongly resonates. (Here is a good example of the kind of piece I’m talking about.)
Another reason my voice isn’t an important one: up until a couple weeks ago, I haven’t paid much attention to Beyonce as an artist. I’ve enjoyed a couple songs, I’ve always liked her voice, and I staunchly defended “Formation” earlier this year when people accused it of being anti-police. (It isn’t.) But I’ve never heard any of her albums, and never felt a strong artistic attraction to what she does. So I’ve missed whatever maturation led to Lemonade, an album so far beyond what I expected from Beyonce that it left me dazed. And I also missed her building up the cachet and the platform to make a meaningful statement like this. Lemonade is for the millions of people who have kept up, who knew that something like this was in her. You should listen to them.
But if you are interested in what I think about it, I’m happy to tell you: I like it a lot.
The basics: Lemonade is a 40-minute album and an hour-long film packaged together, and they are different angles on the same experience. Both tell the story of a woman finding out that her man has cheated on her, and the songs cycle through emotions: denial, anger, apathy, emptiness, through to resurrection, hope and redemption. Along the way, Beyonce draws parallels between her man and her father, and draws strength from black women who came before her and are all around her. The record is unequivocally about her husband Jay-Z and their struggles to keep their marriage together after his infidelity. But like the best art, it’s about so much more than that.
But even if it were just about that, Lemonade would be a triumph. Its songs are as different from each other as they are from the previous songs of hers I’ve heard. They’re raw and authentic in a way I was not expecting – the anger in the first half feels like a geyser exploding, and the forgiveness and hope in the second half feels earned. It’s also musically interesting from front to back – this is an album that features guest spots from Jack White, James Blake and Kendrick Lamar, and not only does it make room for all of them, it plays like a single piece, like a suite.
It opens, as it must, with Beyonce finding out that she’s been cheated on, and reacting with denial, then rage. The loping “Hold Up” will forever be tied to images of Beyonce with a baseball bat, smashing in car windows, and as the album’s weakest song, it still makes an impression. The real stuff begins with “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” which is like jabbing at a wound and watching the blood gush. “Who the fuck do you think I am?” Beyonce growls, before scolding her lover: “When you hurt me, you hurt yourself, don’t hurt yourself.” It ends with a chilling verse, if you’re Jay-Z: “This is your final warning, you know I give you life, if you try this shit again, you gonna lose your wife.”
This is the stuff of tabloids, a vicious airing of dirty laundry, and yet throughout, Beyonce keeps the focus squarely on herself and how she feels. This isn’t an album about Jay-Z, this is an album about how one of the world’s most powerful women dealt with heartache and betrayal. It’s entirely internal, even the kiss-off “Sorry,” on which she insists over and over that she “ain’t thinkin’ ‘bout you.” (“Today I regret the day I put that ring on,” she sings, before calling out “Becky with the good hair.”) “Sorry” leads into “6-Inch,” and its attendant emotion is emptiness – this is Beyonce hitting the clubs, trying to shake off her pain, reveling in her image, yet still ending things with a plaintive plea: “Come back, come back, come back,” her voice breaking like her façade.
From here, the album turns. The songs get more organic, the emotions more foregrounded. I was stunned by “Daddy Lessons,” which complicates the narrative and the musical palette. Opening with a down-south brass band and sliding into a country-pop shuffle, “Daddy Lessons” finds Beyonce reminiscing about her own father, and how he told her to deal with men like himself (and, by implication, Jay-Z): “When trouble comes around, when men like me come to town, my daddy said shoot, my daddy said shoot…”
The strength and resolve she was taught at an early age manifest in the early songs of defiance and anger, but it’s this same strength that powers the second half of the album, on which she allows herself vulnerability and remains whole. The floating “Love Drought” finds her asking “what did I do wrong,” and then remembering that she did nothing wrong. The gorgeous piano ballad “Sandcastles” is a lament for her marriage – she’s willing to let it go, but she’s hollowed out by the thought. This song sports her most emotional vocal, and I mean that not in the American Idol sense of emoting for effect, I mean that in the “I feel like I’m eavesdropping on her pain” kind of way. “I scratched out your name and your face, what is it about you that I can’t erase,” she sings, like she’s tearing out both her heart and her throat. “Every promise don’t work out that way,” she sighs, then sits for a minute while James Blake sings the coda, “Forward.”
That leads into the amazing, extraordinary “Freedom,” the album’s most outward-looking song. Over marching drums and a thick organ, Beyonce sings of healing and self-love: “I’m’a keep running ‘cause a winner don’t quit on themselves.” On the visual album, Beyonce draws power from a legacy of black womanhood, and it’s jaw-dropping and powerful. Kendrick Lamar contributes a killer verse, a gospel choir fills in the spaces, the sound erupts. It is the most forceful expression of inner strength on the album, and it ends with Beyonce’s grandmother delivering the album title.
And to this point, it feels like Jay-Z should be expecting his walking papers. That’s what makes “All Night” so beautiful. A song of love and reconciliation, “All Night” is a smooth, joyous thing. It finds Beyonce still cautious – she needs time to know if she can trust – but ready to move forward. “Our love was stronger than your pride,” she sings, simply reveling in it. “Nothing real can be threatened, true love brings salvation back into me.”
I get teary-eyed at this song, not just because it’s gorgeous, but because it follows “Freedom.” She spends ten songs earning her power, expressing her strength, and in the end she chooses love, not because she has to, but because she wants to. Her reconciliation is not weakness, her forgiveness is not capitulation. There’s work to be done, and “All Night” is a song about committing to do that work, to not walk away even when she has every right to. The beautiful images of her family that accompany this song in the film only make it so much sweeter. It’s not a choice everyone can or should make – much of the album is about having the will to walk away – but I love that she made that choice, and how she made it.
The album ends with “Formation,” like closing credits music (literally, on the visual album). An expression of southern black female power, it carries on the work of self-reflection and self-love that drives the record, and serves as a call to arms. In some ways I would have preferred closing the album with “All Night,” but as a mission statement, “Formation” works. It also drives home just who this album is for, who it is meant to empower.
There is enough about Lemonade that is universal, however – love and anger and pain and reconciliation – that it will reverberate strongly with anyone who hears it. It’s obvious that my years of ignoring Beyonce as an artistic force (if not a cultural one) were a mistake. I’m on board now. Lemonade is a revelation, an album that is as vital and powerful as everyone says it is. It spoke to me in ways I did not expect, and has captivated me ever since. As I said at the beginning, nobody needs me to recommend Lemonade. But I’ll do it anyway. It surprised me, it moved me, and it has taken its place among my favorite things I’ve heard this year.
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A couple short trips before I go.
I love ‘90s shoegaze music, so of course I’m overjoyed that seemingly all of the ‘90s shoegaze bands are reuniting. My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Swervedriver and Medicine have all returned with new albums, and now it’s Lush’s turn. I always reservedly liked this English quartet led by Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson, and while they weren’t at the top of my list, I followed them through their twists and turns, from the pretty soundscapes of Spooky and Split to the crunchy Britpop of the underrated Lovelife. It was a seismic shift, and rendered them considerably more normal than their previous material, but Lovelife is hooky and loud as hell.
They might have continued in this vein, but the suicide of drummer Chris Acland in 1996 broke the band. Now, after 20 years apart, the three surviving members of Lush have reunited (with drummer Justin Welch of Elastica), and the first fruits of their second act have appeared on a four-song EP called Blind Spot. Stylistically, this sumptuously packaged platter is more in line with the early material, which means we get acoustic strumming with lovely reverbed electric snow sculptures carved into it. “Out of Control” could have been a single from Spooky, and the rest of the EP follows suit. It’s truly wonderful to have this band back, and I’m looking forward to the forthcoming full-length. Viva la shoegaze! (Now we just need The Moon Seven Times to get back together…)
Speaking of pretty noise, there’s a splendid new Julianna Barwick album.
Barwick is a Brooklyn musician who creates astonishing sonic caverns with her voice. She multi-tracks and overlays and loops that voice, often constructing entire structures with only the one raw ingredient. Her third album Will features thick synth strings and piano as well, and fewer of those towering vocals, and the effect is a more immediate and intimate record. It was recorded largely in isolation, like most of her work, but this one even sounds private, like you’re listening to unfinished pieces, as if she were playing them for you as a friend.
That’s a subtle yet profound shift for Barwick – her previous work wasn’t exactly inaccessible, but until you get used to it, it’s not exactly welcoming either. Will feels like an attempt to reach out her hand and draw you in, and that makes it her warmest album. If you’re new to her work, you could do worse than starting here. I feel like she might want you to.
Next week, Radiohead’s big surprise. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.