Frank Ocean – Blonde
He’s one of the good guys. Since 2012 he’s been trying to write music commensurate with the urgency and force of his Notepad confession, only to discover that being semi famous means the audience views the art through the lens of the biography as if Frank Ocean were patron Sean Carter. This phenomenon can have an anesthetizing effect: songs with undeveloped melodies get a pass, mediocre singing confused with honesty. On his second official release in two days, Frank Ocean shows little interest in connecting. Because days are weeks in the internet hypercycle, listeners should have had a chance by now to form an opinion: Facebook needs you, folks.
“Less morose, more present,” he sings, intentions muddled, on one of Blonde‘s least memorable tracks – supplication or erroneous statement of fact? At its best Blonde exploits our unease if not boredom. Over swelling backing vocals and the tinkle of a piano, Ocean commemorates a love so devastating that it hollowed out life: “It’s all downhill from here.” Planet earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do is Blonde‘s unspoken message. Not so far from the decades of fiction and Hollywood film in which homosexual love ended badly. The first two thirds of opener “Nike” shows an Ocean electronically distorted to sound like an ages-dead blues crooner summoned with a ouija board to testify about the wages of greed. From Robert Johnson to PJ Harvey those who summon the blues regard the form as prayer while still reveling in the sin — or at least the memory of sin. Ocean’s one of the few practitioners who eschews pleasure; it’s possible that’s why he leaves me unmoved (2011’s Nostalgia, Ultra had a song called “There Will Be Tears”).
With cases like Blonde I’ve found “Hamlet and Its Critics” a lodestar. Obsolete for decades and quietly renounced by the author himself (in 2016 we would call it expert trolling), T.S. Eliot’s essay lambasts Shakespeare’s most famous play for never finding the object that corresponds to the emotion expressed in the text. “We must simply admit that here Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him,” Eliot wrote. “Why he attempted it at all is an insoluble puzzle; under compulsion of what experience he attempted to express the inexpressibly horrible, we cannot ever know.” To expose his material to sunshine he employs the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Andre 3000, but, in a stroke of singer-songwriter control, subsumes them. The result is a midtempo crawl beholden to a private argot of heartbreak. “Maybe I’m a fool.” “Two kids in a swimmin’ pool.” “I don’t relate to my peers.” These phrases and clauses come from “Siegfried.” By themselves they have an Imagistic resonance; stuck in a sequence of unforgiving woe, the track dissolves.
An avatar who’s helped thousands of young men accept the questioning of their sexuality, Ocean is still testing the volatility of his own aesthetic mixture. An affinity for the genteel yawp of Bon Iver and the skeletal confessions of Waxahatchee doesn’t make him college rock, though; Ann Powers and Jason King have posited Meshell Ndegeocello as a influence, and I hear it. Without knowing a scrap about his life, I’d say on the evidence that Ocean hasn’t yet made the inevitable transition from the heartache of unrequited same sex love to checking out guys’ asses and abs. Based on the evidence of the music, pleasure itself arouses his suspicions; it could be that suspicion is an arousal. He knows the dark without knowing the possibilities of what you can do in the dark. To be one acquainted with the night, he should reckon with the light. When I hear the lines “showed me love/glory from above,” I assume they’re not about his beloved peeing on him – I want that kind of carnality. Maybe collaborators and samples stimulate his most inspired work. Until the next visual album, however, Blonde too often reminds me of what Eliot called Hamlet‘s biggest flaw: “We should have to understand things which [he] did not understand himself.”