Each month ‘Refrain’ delivers its verdict on some of the best albums out now.

Zara Larsson: VENUS

Zara Larsson’s fourth studio album, VENUS, struts its way through infectious and playful beats with the perfect balance of nostalgic soundscapes and inconsequential lyrics. Larsson doesn’t add extensive layers of meaning and purpose throughout the lyricism of the project. Instead she favours a collection of 12 danceable tracks. While this is commendable, at times the record can feel like background noise with very few noteworthy highlights.

The album shines however, through its production which feels incredibly nostalgic yet not dated. There’s an explosive euphoria to these tracks which can remind you of pop music from 2012-13.

This is felt more intensely at the start of the record through songs like More Than This Was, and, On My Love, which features David Guetta, a notable producer and hitmaker of that time period.

The standout track on the album is Ammunition. The witty lyrics coupled with the use of percussive elements is a delight for the ears. The record does utilise ’80s synths on some of the tracks, most notably on the lead single Can’t Tame Her, yet because it’s not used in the production of other tracks throughout the record, it can be a little jarring. It makes the overall sound of the record feel a little bit uneven and inconsistent.

VENUS is Larsson playing it safe. While it offers a little bit of fun and character, it remains as superficial as most purely joyous pop music can be.

larsson.               zara


Usher: Coming Home

Comfortable in his role as a lover, Usher plays with that confidence and sensual charm on his ninth album, Coming Home. Across all 20 tracks, he sounds assertive of the fact he is happy with where things are at in his life. The experimentation and versatility of the record is a testament to that, with Usher trying his hand at many genres from his traditional R&B and Pop to K-pop, Afrobeats and Electropop.

Opening with the title track, Coming Home, he spares no expense at setting up the incredibly sexual tones of the album. This is shown through his smooth vocal delivery and constant repetition of the lyric, “Baby I’m comin’ (home)”.  The interpolation of Billy Joel’s 1983 hit Uptown Girl follows on the track A-Town Girl, where Usher similarly describes a girl from Atlanta rather than New York City.

Kissing Strangers is a sleek R&B track about the intricacies of human romantic relationships and is a real highlight of the album. Stone Kold Freak has a grooviness similar to The Weeknd’s work on Starboy, 2016. Ruin sees Usher incorporate Afrobeats into the production style for the first time in the album, which was a welcome change from the sounds leading up to it.

Past that point however, the album does seem to plateau as Usher eases himself comfortably into the music he creates. Almost blending in with the production, he invites us to experience the rest of the album as one never-ending and feel-good song.

Whether that’s a positive or negative, is purely up to you.

usher               bloke


Brittany Howard: What Now

Brittany Howard’s second solo album, What Now, is an existential exploration of love and peace. Crafted during the pandemic, the record feels universal and uplifting yet intimate and self-destructive.

Earth Sign opens the album where Howard sings over an organic sounding atmosphere of echoing chimes, until a synthesised base interrupts the calmness. The journey has begun. Howard flaunts her musicality through a dizzying world of blues, jazz, soul, psychedelia and funk.

The title track What Now is a funky induction into the toxicity of some relationships, as Howard sings in a raspy voice: “If you want someone to hate then blame it on me.”

In To Be Still, Howard likens herself to a flower and her lover as a gardener – “I daydream you would grow me for one summer”. She recognises that her lover can be gentle with her but ultimately it is up to her to be gentler on herself, “I wonder if I didn’t have to wonder, to be still”. Only then can she truly grow.

Another Day sees Howard praying for a better future. To live in a world “where you can go outside, and be who we want, and see who we like”.

Overall, What Now explores what happens when Howard chooses love over everything else, and it’s a colourful musical journey through open fields of flowers and rainbows after storms.

flowers                hair

Main image Canva montage of supplied images.