Newspaper article International New York Times

Artists Return to Issue-Minded Pop, and a Solo Country Singer Debuts

Newspaper article International New York Times

Artists Return to Issue-Minded Pop, and a Solo Country Singer Debuts

Article excerpt

Mary Lambert's "Heart on My Sleeve" and Nico & Vinz's "Black Star Elephant" are rare recent examples of issues-minded pop.

Sincerity went out of fashion, like, two decades ago, right?

That's one reason for the paucity of issues-minded pop in recent years. Whatever the real enemy is -- capitalism, narcissism or any of their cousins -- pop music has become an underused vehicle for unironic statements of change, a state of affairs that qualifies Meghan Trainor's "All About That Bass" as a real empowerment anthem. Broadly speaking, sloganeering has been exiled to the fringes.

And yet, a couple of times a year, a song penetrates through the self-involved clutter. Last year, it was "Same Love," the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis song about marriage equality that might have remained a curio were it not for, first, the duo's unlikely crossover success preceding its release and, second, the indelible hook written and sung by Mary Lambert. This year it's "Am I Wrong," a bright, Police- esque pop-soul number by the Afro-Norwegian duo Nico & Vinz, singers with clean, burr-less voices and relentless optimism.

For Ms. Lambert and Nico & Vinz, who made their initial mark by finding a way to make earnestness something more than a personal crusade, sincerity is its own performance. But their initial success forces a test: Can they stick to their causes in the face of pop's filthy, irresistible lucre?

Nico & Vinz embed their answer to that question in "People," a song from "Black Star Elephant," their first album released in this country. "If everybody were poor," the song begins, "we would all be rich." For a few minutes, they then go on to romanticize poverty, or lament the ways in which work takes energy away from family, and love, and spiritual purity. It's numbingly direct, ideologically underfed, and sure, catchy enough.

So goes the rest of this album, which gives the most obvious of platitudes the most glossy of sheens. Nico and Vinz are resolutely positive singers, and to complement that attitude, they've opted for production that echoes the neutered global pop of the 1980s, sprinkled with African influences. The album's social commitments are stronger than its aesthetic commitments, but it doesn't suffer for that. Behind that choice seems to be an understanding that reaching the most really means alienating the fewest. At minimum, it's the sort of approach that makes sentiments like the refrain of "Miracles" -- "It don't have to be miracles/The fire's within our soul" -- go down easier.

More so than Nico & Vinz, Ms. Lambert uses her soapbox for something beyond mere preaching on "Heart on My Sleeve," her major- label debut album. She, too, is a warm singer, but more in a nurturing way. Her politics are universal, but also severely personal.

This album is full of the sort of self-lacerating confessional music that was all the rage two decades ago, and now, in a different time, feels both completely foreign and surprisingly refreshing. …

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