Innovation always comes from the most unexpected sources. No one who sets out to innovate or create a new vision generally succeeds. It's mainly when an artist is inspired purely by their own ingenuity that they create something visionary.
Two amazing recently released singles have set the tone for what we will call experimental in 2016. They mix and match genres, wax and wane between sounds, and push forward the boundaries of what we see as pop and rock. One is by a new artist, who has only released one prior album. The other has been doing this sort of thing for years, yet it's no less shocking coming from a man who should be slowing down and entering his reflective period.
The former, Kiran Leonard, is a Mancunian singer-songwriter whose new album, Grapefruit, will be released next March 25. It's his sophomore effort, but you'd never guess this was crafted by someone so young. The lead single, “Pink Fruit,” is a sprawling 16-minute masterpiece that glides easily between indie, math, noise, progressive, metal, and emo in just one track. It's practically an album unto itself.
Leonard lists his many influences in the description of the track. Among them are Dirty Projectors, Eraserhead, and Nick Cave's Grinderman. I personally would throw in some Thurston Moore, Tera Melos, American Football, Idiot Pilot, Radiohead, and others, but there's so much going on here that you can't box Leonard in as a product of his influences. “Pink Fruit” is at once standing in the shadow of all those great artists, and forging something completely new in the process. I can't say I've ever heard anything quite like it. And this is just the lead single.
The other such innovator is David Bowie. Everyone knows how he continually reinvents himself and is constantly developing new sounds; he's the perennial trendsetter. On the other hand, Bowie's story took a harrowing path in 2003. After a few backwards-looking releases that sat comfortably in Bowie's catalog as late-career accomplishments, but nothing new or too exciting, he suffered a massive heart attack that would change everything.
After his near-death experience, Bowie disappeared from music. He has yet to perform live again outside of stray guest appearances with artists such as Arcade Fire and David Gilmour. For ten years, he did not release an album. Many suspected he was sick or dying. In fact, he was simply living comfortably in retirement.
Retirement in music is a joke, though. Few ever truly stay quiet for the rest of their lives. Bowie came back in 2013 with The Next Day, which showed traces of new directions but mostly relied on his bag of classic tricks. If you thought that this would be his final statement, a collection of new songs that sounded like classics, you were wrong, and obviously not paying attention to the chapter-beginning title of the record.
Bowie will return on January 8 — his 68th birthday — with Blackstar, his 26th studio album. He will once again shock the world with a forward-looking experimental piece that defies any accusations of him succumbing to the sort of comfortable releases normally reserved for 68 year old musicians.
The lead single and title track was released last month with an accompanying ten-minute video. Reportedly the song was to be longer, but because of iTunes' limitations on sales that require singles to be under ten minutes, Bowie demanded that it be cut down. That's how committed Bowie was to the idea that this would be his statement of purpose to the world.
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And what a statement it is. Growing and building for ten minutes along a jazz inspired landscape, Bowie has officially entered his Scott Walker phase. Walker, the legendary singer-songwriter who turned to broad experimental works in his own later years, has long been Bowie's hero. Every trendsetter looks up to someone.
Bowie hinted at this direction on The Next Day's final track, “Heat.” It was vastly influenced by Walker, but showcased Bowie's own flare for the weird and the beauty and grace that his singing voice still possesses after all these years.
“Blackstar” is a deft stab at imitating Walker's stylistic conventions, but Bowie is still Bowie. He just can't help but twist and turn everything he's interested in or influenced by to conform to his own vision. That's how true visionaries work. Bowie's space fetish and quirkiest tendencies all pour through as he performs, blindfolded, in the short film that accompanies the song. (Bowie also released a snippet of Blackstar's next single, "Lazarus," earlier this week.)
The two singles combine to make up two of the most interesting songs released this year. Look for the album drops as soon as possible, because these are definite candidates for album of the year if they hold true to their respective previews.