By Deanna Costa
A selection of new songs that are about keeping sane in a world that seems increasingly out of everyone’s control — in nearly every sense.
“Hit Different” by SZA Ft. Ty Dolla $ign, The Neptunes, Pharrell Williams
This song sounds like 2020 – hazy, disorienting, oddly melodic. There’s something about SZA’s mournful, pleading voice that feels right for what has been such a somber year. The track is a brainchild of several collaborators, but the music and vocals flow together with ease. The first few introductory lines in the chorus are a bit redundant, though the repetition has the merit of setting up a hypnotic atmosphere. The various singers are slightly autotuned and layered over their own voices. In the lyrics, SZA and Ty Dolla $ign tell a heartbreaking love story, the rhythm taking on a ’90 R&B vibe. SZA intermingles rap with smooth vocals, as if trying to catch how our thoughts can quickly change direction. Her style has evolved beautifully over the past few years, but fans have only heard from her when she has performed on others’ tracks. For most of the year, SZA has been locked in a battle with her label, prompting a fan-led Twitter campaign to force the release of her latest album. Hopefully, this single is a tease to a recording soon to come.
“Once Upon a Dream” by Seth MacFarlane
And here’s another side of 2020 – distracting ourselves with fond relics of the past. Whatever MacFarlane’s intention was for this album, this song is filled with happy nostalgia. The little girl still in my heart is still watching Sleeping Beauty as I write, so I may be biased. But it is hard to argue that Seth does wonderful justice to this Disney classic. The single also serves as the first track of Great Songs from Stage & Screen, MacFarlane’s latest studio album, released on August 28. Seth seems to be lulling us into autumn with this project, which is best enjoyed listening to in its entirety. A tale is being told, each cover carefully arranged in an order that details the rise and fall of a grand love. The last song in the track listing is “Time for Parting,” suggesting that the affair didn’t last. We’re drawn in by the whimsical “Once Upon a Dream,” taken on a romantic roller coaster ride, and spit back out again.
“Good Job” by Alicia Keys
This song, by contrast, is the last track on Alicia Keys’s new album, Alicia. The powerful songstress’s writing abilities are on full display here, elevated by an understated piano accompaniment alongside her strong voice. Her vocals are emotional and lightly produced — this leaves room for a welcome spotlight on her natural talent. Many music lovers need this kind of comfort these days, especially New York fans who look to her to provide hometown pride. She lets the audience know in no uncertain terms what she’s feeling and who her message is for:
The mothers, the fathers, the teachers that reach us
Strangers to friends that show up in the end
From the bottom to the top, the listeners that hear us
This is for you, you make me fearless
You’re doing a good job, a good job
You’re doing a good job, don’t get too down
The world needs you now, know that you matter
In this time of turmoil, there can never be too many reminders that we all have important roles to play. We all matter to someone, and we can get through anything if we work together.
“Phantom Days” by Dark Tranquillity
Another melodic musical selection, “Phantom Days,” this one from Sweden’s Dark Tranquillity, speaks to current sentiments (on an international scale). The melodic death metal band has been spending most of the pandemic together in an underground recording studio in Gothenburg. What is sure to be a timely album, Moment, is set to be released soon — though it’s unclear when. This single is an early look at the sound they’ve been crafting since the recent departure of Niklas Sundin, a founding member who has been on hiatus since 2016. Two guitarists that replaced Sundin on tour over the past few years were invited to become full-fledged bandmates. To those unfamiliar with the six-piece troupe, the sound here may seem heavy, but metal heads will recognize homages to light rock performers who have inspired the group over the years. Power guitar riffs recall Pink Floyd and Rush’s heyday, accompanied by lead singer Mikael Stanne’s gruff delivery, half-screaming/half-crooning. Niklas will be missed, but the new guitarists are fine additions to the overall band’s signature sound. Good times are ahead for loyal fans and new ones alike.
“Flourishing” by Tom Rosenthal
Rosenthal has been garnering notice in the UK for almost a decade, but international recognition has grown slowly for the London native. Like countless other fathers across the globe, the pandemic demanded that he spend extensive time at home with his young children. Collaborations across the kitchen table resulted in his daughters’ first EP, which went viral shortly after being released online in late March. “Flourishing” reflects a more decidedly adult reaction to recent events in Rosenthal’s life: he’s “flourishing in [his] fishbowl,” where there is “nothing [he] can control.” The feel-good song suggests that this father is trying to cheer his daughter up. The tune starts slow, but the performer’s tell-tale high pitch and bombastic synths soon blast at the ears as a quirky beat picks up. “Nothing I can control — I’ve been flourishing my whole life.” Is he confident about this? Or is he attempting to convince himself, or us? Millennials love to identify with words like “Flourish,” “Flawless,” “Fierce,” “Shining,” etc. Tom seems to be insisting that flourishing is a by-product of being alive — it is nothing he can control, for better or worse. It’s not a bad way to keep sane in a world that seems increasingly out of everyone’s control — in nearly every sense.
Deanna Costa is a recent graduate of Boston University’s College of Communication, where she earned a B.S. in Journalism with a focus on Magazine Design. During her time at BU, she covered local concerts for on-campus publications in multiple formats. Outside of writing, she routinely interviewed artists and reviewed albums live on her weekly radio show, DJ-ed on campus events, and held the Studio Productions Director position in 2017. Currently, she is a full-time administrative assistant, a freelance music journalist, and host of the Arts Fuse Podcast: The Short Fuse.