A pair of blues

Last night I played the blues.

Not THE blues, but the blues—a pair of bright blue vinyl records that have been on my shelf for a while.

The first, Lorde’s Melodrama, was one of the most critically praised albums of the past 12 months and it was among my top 10. I haven’t found myself going back to it a lot though—not like a lot of other well-reviewed albums from last year.

It’s taken a while for the vinyl to be released and as a deluxe package it was well worth the wait. Holding a record sleeve is still like holding a piece of art, and the cover of Melodrama is, literally, a work of art—the reproduction of an oil painting of Lorde lying in bed.

No less effort has gone into the contents of the packaging. There’s the gatefold sleeve itself (the record is a single disc only), a series of large-format arty photos, and a lyric/information sheet. And as for the translucent blue of the vinyl record itself … yep, gorgeous.

But at the end of the day (and I was playing it at the end of the day, so that’s not just a cliché) it’s not about the way the vinyl looks or how cool the packaging is, it’s about the sound. And that’s where the vinyl of Melodrama has some problems. Instrumentally, it sounds superb. The album is bright and spacious and the bass elements are reproduced well. It’s a pop album, but the songs have weight and the production has real depth.

The problem is with Lorde’s vocal, which is way too harsh. The sibilant sounds (the Ss, the SHs, the Cs and Ts) are so grating it’s difficult to listen to the vocal at all. It pretty much ruins the record, for my ears anyway. Any warmth the vinyl album gains over the digital recording is wasted on the shrill, prominent vocal. Sibilance often sounds more prominent on vinyl anyway, and on Melodrama it’s about as bad as it gets.

But the blue vinyl is beautiful.

Comparatively, U2’s Songs of Experience sounds incredible. The vinyl is also very blue. Here’s an example of where the record gives the album far more than the CD or digital download had. It sounds like a different album altogether. I’ve found Bono’s vocals harder to listen to on their recent albums—too thin, too grating—but on the SoE record it’s tempered enough to sound not just bearable, but powerful, warm, and resonant (yep, all the words).

Five tracks in the middle of this album—Summer of Love, Red Flag Day, The Showman, The Little Things That Give You Away and Landlady—are among some of the best U2 have ever written. The reason more wasn’t made of this album last year is because it’s, well, U2. They don’t smell too good these days. But if you can ignore the haters for 50 or so minutes, this is a great record that sounds even better on vinyl.

Apart from a glaring pressing flaw in the vinyl at the end of side 3, this is a stunning record. It’s given new life to Songs of Experience, and a fresh appreciation of just how good U2 are.