For a while the genre was relegated to coffee shops and romantic comedies. Now it is confrontational again

Books, arts and culture
Prospero

THE BEST soft rock has always had a very hard centre. In its 1970s heyday it wasn’t the music of wine bars and drivetime playlists; it was the music of complicated emotions and adult lives. Think of its poets laureate, Fleetwood Mac and Eagles, and think especially of Lindsey Buckingham and Don Henley, and the lyrical thorns in their best-known songs, “Go Your Own Way” and “Hotel California”. Think of Carly Simon’s imprecations against awful men, or her brilliant later meditation on the everyday trials of marriage, “Coming Around Again”.

Eventually, soft rock became a byword for beige and bland; yet over the past decade it has again been seized upon in pop’s never-ending recycling of its own past. At first, it was the sound that appealed: in 2006, when Midlake released “The Trials of Van Occupanther”—all soft harmonies and restrained instrumentation—it seemed like a daring act by an indie group, in the face of the scratchy, scrappy music that dominated indie rock at the time. Soon that sound was subsumed into the fabric of pop, and Fender Rhodes pianos and dreamy vocals were all over the place, adorning mopey love songs.

Sooner or later, though, someone was bound to notice that soft rock could be more than the soundtrack to a rom-com. In 2010 John Grant, an American singer-songwriter, employed Midlake as his backing band on his self-lacerating debut solo album, “Queen of Denmark”, and the record’s inner darkness belied its melodic sunniness. In the past couple of years the trickle of spiky soft rock has become a flood.

This month has brought two such records, both by artists once categorised as “indie folk”. “Good Woman” by The Staves (pictured) saw the three Staveley-Taylor sisters pondering the nature of womanhood, and the expectations foisted on women, through the dual filters of the death of their mother and the new motherhood of Emily, one of the three. “I’d got to a point where I was being made to feel like I wasn’t enough,” Camilla Stavely-Taylor said earlier this month. “I was being told all these things that I should be doing to be considered a ‘good woman’: that I should carry my own shit and their shit and not complain.”

With “Ignorance” Tamara Lindeman, the lead member of The Weather Station, somehow managed to express rage and fear about the climate crisis, about capitalism’s role in it, about the encroaching sense of end times—“I should get all this dying off of my mind/I should know better than to read the headlines”—on a record that also managed to sound almost entirely pleasurable. “Ignorance” is both sparse and lush, with pianos and subtle horns providing a base on which guitar adds colour. It is music that feels both grand and intimate, as Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” once did and does.

It is an art at which women appear to be notably adept. The past couple of years have seen dazzlingly dark records of gorgeous music from Jenny Lewis (the brilliant “On the Line” was haunted by her mother’s addictions), Natalie Mering, recording as Weyes Blood (love as a technological dystopia ran through “Titanic Rising”) and Sharon Van Etten, whose album “Remind Me Tomorrow” opened with a startlingly bleak lyric: “Sitting at the bar, I told you everything/You said, ‘Holy shit, you almost died.’”

None of these records force themselves on the listener; there’s no instant grasping of the collar. They touch pleasure points rather than stridently wearying those who press play. This is music made by artists skilled enough to realise truths are more effective when you are persuaded of them, rather than having them bellowed at you. Long may this golden age of soft rock with a hard centre last.