(RCA *** 1/2)
Considering that Donald Glover has said 3.15.20 is his final album — and that it’s his first in four years — you’d think he could have come up with a proper title.
Instead, the rapper-actor-writer-Renaissance man who calls himself Childish Gambino as a musician decided to name it for the date it first appeared on the internet. (It then disappeared briefly before its official release March 22, but that’s another story.)
Most of the songs are also identified by their time stamps, such as “24.19” and “47.48,” but that’s the only thing even slightly undercooked about this 12-track collection.
The new album is the follow-up to 2016’s “Awaken, My Love!” and combines that album’s deliciously deep George Clinton-style psychedelic funk with the aggressive, experimental edge of Gambino’s 2018 track “This Is America,” his interrogation of racial violence.
Glover as Gambino raps and sings, compares himself to Afrobeat founder Fela Kuti (on “53.49“), and even goes a little bit country on “35.31.” “Algorhythm” takes a page out of Yeezus-era Kanye West as it builds martial, mechanical momentum, then effortlessly slides into a chorus that finds the soul in the machine.
Elsewhere, the entirely impressive 3.15.20 nods to Prince without being merely imitative. “Time” features Ariana Grande on a guest vocal, conveying end-of-the-world paranoia that speaks to the moment.
At the album’s core are two songs about fathers and sons. On “19.10” Glover remembers his father instilling black pride in his 6-year-old self. And “47.48” ends with a cautiously optimistic conversation between Glover and his own son. “Are you scared of the world? Is it hard to live?” he sings. “Just take care of your soul / Let the beauty unfold.” — Dan DeLuca
Sufjan Stevens, Lowell Brams
(Asthmatic Kitty ** 1/2)
Sufjan Stevens’ last song-oriented album was 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, an understated, heart-wrenching response to his mother’s death and to her relationship with his stepfather, Lowell Brams. The new Aporia, in part, commemorates Brams’ retirement from running Asthmatic Kitty Records, the label Stevens and Brams started in 1999.
It’s billed as a New Age album, inspired by Brian Eno, Boards of Canada, Vangelis, and Enya, and it grew out of improvisational jam sessions. It’s nearly wordless and mostly vocals-less, with brief tracks built on ambient keyboard drones and oscillating textures.
The word aporia can mean a puzzle or an impasse, and many of the album’s song titles are also Greek philosophical terms that will probably send you to a dictionary: “Misology,” “Ataraxia,” “Eudaimonia.”
Over the course of its 42 minutes and 21 tracks, sounds gradually burble to the surface and then fade, leaving placid keyboard tones.
While there are fascinating moments — the percussion that propels “What It Takes,” the voices that rise out of the ether in “Climb That Mountain”— the tracks feel fragmentary and disconnected. They’re not long enough to allow a listener to sink into a mood, and most are not structured or layered enough to lead to a climax.
On albums such as 2005’s brilliant Illinois, Stevens crafted thrillingly complex arrangements. Aporia is about tone and atmosphere rather than narrative and melody. It’s a set of glimpses. — Steve Klinge
The James Hunter Six
Nick of Time
Even more than his old boss, mentor, and fellow U.K.er Van Morrison, James Hunter draws deeply from the well of American soul and blues for inspiration. The typically fine Nick of Time suggests he has not yet reached the bottom of that well.
Hunter’s sound is unabashedly vintage, but he has never come across as a mere revivalist. For one, he uses those influences to create taut, lyrically smart songs of his own. For another, he can offer up both the grit of Otis Redding and the smoothness of Sam Cooke (even if he doesn’t have Cooke’s silken pipes), backed by a band with horns and keyboards that would sound at home in both a roadhouse and a supper club.
Here, as on 2018’s Whatever It Takes, the singer-guitarist leans toward the sweet soul of Sam, playing romantic lovers. There’s the pleading one in “I Can Change Your Mind,” the contented one in “Never,” the frazzled one in “Can’t Help Myself,” which shows his inventive way with a lyric: “If monkeys rule the world by 2092, they’ll have written Hamlet before I get over you.”