Frank Ocean Blonde/Endless

[Boys Don't Cry/Def Jam; 2016]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: -less summer end-
Others: Arca, Beyoncé, David Bowie, D∆WN, Elliott Smith, FKA Twigs, James Blake, Kanye West, Outkast, Prince, Stevie Wonder

Languor, linger. I love you, interlude. There’s so much life in Endless and Blonde and there in between. Muttered words, birdsong, things falling apart, studio space clatter, voicemails, windblown interviews. Incidental noises. A hall with a hundred doors, each of them with a clearer world beyond: a garden of light and dollars, a glossy magazine cover, some spiral stairwell under construction off the highway, the McDonald’s drive-thru, the club, a beach before leaves fall on it. “Rain, glitter.”

It’s Frank’s life, which is poured into his songwriting with such clarity it’s like magic (work, smoke) how it blurs. His personality becomes the melody. Now, hearing that missing voice speaking at the edges of the channels, I think that maybe he had been there the whole time, just like we never said goodbye. “That’s a pretty fuckin’ fast four years flew by.”

channel ORANGE was elevated to an instant’s classic by the urgency of Frank’s self-disclosure as an Event and the hooky immediacy of its songwriting. Blonde is not of an instant, even if somehow all four years of waiting and working seem to have taken place in the last weeks of August, at summer’s end, right now. It’s a release so intentional and fitting that I wonder how it’ll adapt to winter listens, how it’ll remain a sustained portal to this season’s sentimentality.

Blonde is of instances, of stretches and yawns, creativity in recreation, invisible labor, a time-lapse collapsed into one space: the Endless workshop, a breathing room.

You had to be a little possessed to step into Frank’s workshop throughout the month, like: You at least believe in portals. A live stream bridging to a life stream — deliberate, graceful, probably holy? You binge-watched an empty room. His response to the crisis-ordinary is to take his time, to ask us to be patient. The first two songs on Endless aren’t even Frank Ocean songs, and the rest blur together with an anti-programmatic sort of dream sequencing. Like an Arca mixtape, the most gripping beat yet (“Commes De Garçons”) will vanish into something else after a few sweet seconds. The visual album also signaled the lived-in noise that flows through the twin-peaking releases: high and low; not in love and making love; meaning something to you (“Nikes”), but it’s no-thing, it’s no-thing (“Self Control”). They’re elusive, sensual listens.

There was a narrative hold to much of channel ORANGE’s lyricism. It was a procession of scenes, names, direct addresses. He was storytelling and constructing a world of heroes, even if the location he was singing from deconstructed those figures and their origins. The songs had movements, acts, arcs. Endless and (maybe to a lesser extent) Blonde meander and mumble, their most sweeping moments fade away, get interrupted, phase in and out of the song that names them. Not that there aren’t clear hits (the first three tracks of Blonde and “Nights,” even as they breathe in and breathe out, are radio fits). But so many of these 100-something minutes pass without drums to ground them. They seem suspended in air, visions.

In the drumless drift of the music, the only thing left to hold on to is Frank’s voice, which can’t go unsung anymore. His voice, the connective tissue between the two projects, unaccompanied and so emotive, surprises over and over in its versatility. Swelling harmonies and ad libs, deconstructed rounds (“Alabama,” whoa), spoken word, gospel, pop, rock, rap. Helium-shifted and slowed. Everything surrounds it, every feature (except for the jarring Andre verse to show just how solo both alum otherwise feel) is an instrument, a suggestion. That falsetto for Aaliyah to set Endless into frail motion.

Compared to the splash of color and information in the “Nikes” video that dropped the next night, Endless is a still frame. The slow motion of the black-and-white construction is therapeutic. Like watching the waves. I think of the boring (captivating) visual, the dispassionate camera focused on the mechanics of his work, while I myself am trying to get into the rhythm of labor: sanitizing a deep frier, washing dishes, biking to Walgreens, writing a poem.

The words on record are breathtaking for their deep focus, which is microscopic to the point of vaguery. Frank Ocean’s lyrics describe such specific scenes that their vocabulary is unmistakably about someone else, his own worlds within our own. The historical allusions (Trayvon, Palestine) are matter-of-fact, resonant in their context of a shared precarity but breezed by (or: underlying). The rest, like a diary’s code, makes secret references alongside aphorisms. Inscrutable, pinpointed. Blurry, blurry.

Languor isn’t lazy, it’s dreamy. To revel in Endless and Blonde is not to revel in a lack of energy that’s sluggish, stupid, unconcerned. It is to revel in creative energy that is unregulated, that takes its time, that flows. In interstices: the half-daydream, the vision that stretches those few seconds between morning alarms into a movie. Blur the barrier between still and motion pictures. You remember the highlights (how “White Ferrari” sounds so familiar, “Self Control” with its lullabye outro, the show-stopping “Nights” chorus, the restless soul of “U-N-I-T-Y,” when “Rushes” goes full For Emma, Forever Ago), but it’s everything else that matters, momentous by moment. Reversed sounds litter the album like an undertow. At the beat switch midway through “Nights” and Blonde, under “Futura Free,” all of it sounding the slip of time toward fall. “Every day counts like crazy,” and so the music counts out the time, taking down summertime with it.

Out of both torrents of songwriting idiosyncrasies, somehow one motif leaves me most shambled and at ease. It’s the recurring little organ melody in the interludes, Blonde’s heart. Always behind found sounds and interviews, it’s a Wonderland kind of soundtrack for these field recordings, a sort of warming nostalgia. It is a loop, pleasant, low-key. DVD menu dreamy. First memories. Condensation on a tallboy. “Rain, glitter.” Persistence. Taking it easy: Life immortality. Summer’s end, but Blonde is Endless.

Eureka!

Some releases are so incredible we just can’t help but exclaim EUREKA! While many of our picks here defy categorization and explore the constructed boundaries between ‘music’ and ‘noise,’ others complement, continue, or rupture traditions that provide new forms and ways of listening. Not all of our favorites will be listed here, but we think each EUREKA! album is worthy of careful consideration. This section is a work-in-progress, so expect its definition to be in perpetual flux.

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