An appreciation of the 12th annual Dayton LGBT Film Festival

It was a beautiful mid-October weekend in Southern Ohio, and a modest-but-dedicated crowd of midwesterners congregated in the lobby of Dayton’s Neon Movies for its annual LGBT Film Festival. Over the course of the weekend, a total of seven feature-length films and ten shorts would be screened for the festival’s attendees (Yours Truly made it to five of the features and nine of the shorts). The films ranged in subject matter: from high school rom-com, to maudlin countryside English drama, to a documentary about the most world-renowned drag ballet troupe, to a family portrait set in a small Alaskan town. Collectively, the films seemed (to this viewer, at least) to represent the best and, on one or two occasions, the worst of LGBTQ culture in the 21st century. Which is a testament to the quality of the festival and its selection process: for the dregs only make the gems pop that much more; and as in every year prior, there were far more gems than dregs.

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Alex Lawther plays Billy Bloom: the frustrated (and frequently, frustrating) protagonist of Trudie Styler’s Freak Show. © 2017, IFC Films.

The festival opened on Friday the 13th with Trudie Styler’s independently-produced teen comedy-drama, Freak Show. For want to move on and discuss some of the more worthwhile features showcased during the festival, I am tempted to fall back on the old adage “the less said about it, the better.” But of the few disappointing features this writer endured over the weekend, Freak Show actually presents a substantial number of worthwhile talking points. Sadly, the finished film appears mostly oblivious to its own potential; and when the filmmakers seize upon the opportunity to say something of substance in the picture, they either lack the vocabulary to communicate it effectively, or forfeit the opportunity altogether in order to fall back on easy clichés and grossly oversimplified (not to mention divisive) rhetoric. In fact, it is more-than-likely that anyone with anti-LGBT inclinations would not only have their fears reinforced, but emboldened by the film’s misguided perspective.

For starters, it is impossible to read Freak Show as anything but a direct descendant of the prolific American television entrepreneur Ryan Murphy—and more specifically, the zeitgeist-defining Glee franchise on Fox television. From the outset, Styler makes her stylistic template all-too-clear: from the upscale school environment, to the character (stereo)types (the hunky-jock-with-a-heart-of-gold; the Christian goody-two-shoes cheerleader; the loud-and-proud queer kids) to the generic, broadly stylized photography and editing, Freak Show lives and breathes the DNA of the cultural harbinger that preceded it. With one key difference—which the picture wears on its sleeve rather clumsily and cluelessly: that whereas Glee emerged during the Obama years of “hope and change,” Freak Show is presented as a product of desperation in “the age of 45.” Which makes it all the more disappointing that, rather than presenting alternatives and proposing solutions to the mean-spirited cynicism of the country’s cultural hurricane, Styler & co. seem to have gotten lost somewhere in the storm.

I find it especially interesting to note that Freak Show (a borderline cruel comedy) was helmed by a woman director: in my personal reading of the picture, the fundamental mistakes made by Styler’s production were the product of good intentions—yet they seem to echo an unhealthy trend permeating the country in 2017. Namely, the trend of going to bat for an identity/gender/ethnicity outside one’s own, but resorting to blindly aggressive (verging on plain mean) tactics that many of the persecuted individuals stuck in the limelight might well feel inclined to reject—if given a chance to speak. It is all-too-apparent that Styler has an emotional investment in her protagonist, the precociously flamboyant Billy Bloom: one questions, however, whether this same emotional investment has been applied towards any of the other characters in the picture. For it appears that Styler’s empathetic range is about as myopic as the picture’s screenplay (adapted from a book that I’ve never read, and am in no position to criticize), and her specific lack of empathy for one of the narrative’s primary antagonists—the goody-two-shoes cheerleader, Tiffany (played capably—perhaps too much so—by Willa Fitzgerald)—is telling. The narrative’s intentions backfire with each cringe-inducing line forced upon Fitzgerald’s caricatured cheerleader (an archetype one could surely recognize without the undue delineation granted here), espousing every bigoted stereotype of the religious Right, but without even a hint at the human fallibility that enables such nonsense. (For comparison, note that Billy is never painted as anything less than a victim, though his distinctly privileged and narrow worldview just as readily coincides with that of a bully.) Styler & co. have gone to such great lengths to mock and vilify their antagonist, that any viewer with a modicum of trained compassion might feel compelled to jump to Tiffany’s defense.

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Though criticized by some prominent figures of the religious Right as a distortion of adolescent norms, Ryan Murphy and the writers of Glee actually displayed a consistent effort to humanize their Christian characters and respect the broad range of belief systems among the show’s viewers. © Fox Television, 2015.

As for our protagonist, Billy Bloom represents pretty much all the negative sterotypes of queer youth, with few identifiable virtues. For instance, Billy is frequently seen quoting Oscar Wilde, yet in practice he represents none of Wilde’s resiliency, wisdom, or empathy for his peers. He bemoans his ostracization at school, yet intentionally exacerbates the problem by presenting increasingly rarefied and flamboyant incarnations of himself from day to day—simultaneously expecting and lamenting criticism. Looking back on the picture, I am reminded of an insight shared in the documentary Rebels on Pointe, screened Sunday afternoon: speaking in relation to the ethos of the film’s subject (a drag ballet troupe), one commentator insists that dancers “don’t have to fit in, but they have to be able to function.” When in Freak Show, the blame for the protagonist’s inability to do either is foisted upon a cheerleader, I can only hope that no one buys the implication (particularly LGBTQ teenagers, for whom the picture was most clearly intended; what kind of message is this?)

Our protagonist (and the film he fronts, for that matter) waves a banner of blind acceptance and tolerance, but he routinely displays a lack of awareness, empathy, and respect for those outside his sphere of influence. In a particularly telling sequence, Billy decides to compete against Tiffany for the title of homecoming queen, and subsequently attempts to outshine his competition at a stadium pep rally. Tiffany, who proudly states she has been preparing for this occasion since 7th grade, presents herself on a predictably decorative float with a banner announcing her candidacy; Billy ostensibly one-ups her by riding in on a float shaped like an enormous high-heeled platform shoe—holding a guitar and playfully pantomiming the act of making music. Watching the broadly painted scene unfold, I found myself struck less by the grandiosity of the protagonist’s presentation, and more by the way the scene inadvertently highlights the empty ambition of Billy’s character, and the movie in general: for while they both offer an occasionally credible guise of substance—fragments of a message: an increased awareness and understanding of LGBTQ issues, perhaps; or some vague missive of empowerment—they evidently lack the ability to make any real music with the tools at their disposal. By the film’s long-awaited close, its creators have succeeded only in drawing our attention to the weakness of their own propositions; never having bothered to investigate (much less address) the source of the bigotry they feigned to condemn. (On a more positive note, I will take a moment here to champion the never-ending talents of Bette Midler and Celia Weston: two beacons of on-screen light who never fail to shine brightly.)

But the night was’t a total wash: the short that preceded Freak Show, a 12-minute drama centered upon a young man of color who enters the world of drag and discovers his queer family (in the same vein mined by Jennie Livingston 27 years prior), presented us with an endearing portrait of queer family dynamics. The boy’s mother (played smartly by Yolonda Ross) convincingly represents the real-life struggle of mothers around the world—recognizing their own distance from the cultural orientation of their offspring, but ill-equipped to traverse the gap and (in some cases) reluctant to even try, for fear of challenging one’s own convictions (the dual meaning of the film’s title, “Walk For Me,” further highlights this theme). Driving home at the end of the night, I found myself regretting the disparity in runtimes between the two features.

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Brenda Holder makes herself up as Paris Continental in Elegance Bratton’s economical but effective short film, “Walk For Me.” (No major distributor attached.)

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Saturday’s offerings proved much more rewarding—starting with a selection of “Top Drawer Shorts” (seven in total): three of which were forgettable, three of which were good, and one that was outstanding. The first entry, “Something New,” assumes the form of a light-hearted romantic comedy (the writer and star, Ben Baur, was present for the screening and explained during a brief Q&A that he found inspiration in the romantic comedies of Meg Ryan: having never personally acquired a taste for Ms. Ryan’s whitebreaded brand of bourgeois lovesickness, I confess to having no horse in this race, and will temper my criticism accordingly). While essentially innocuous, the script is tepid at best, and outright callow in its lowest moments. Which isn’t to say that queer comedies haven’t traditionally been shaded in tones of callowness; but when no other qualities can be discerned, one wonders if this might be all the filmmakers have to offer.

The second short in the series, “The Devil is in the Details,” offered us something more substantial—but juxtaposed against its hollow predecessor, it almost felt over-compensatory. A period piece set in a 19th century French borstal for girls, the film centers on a young woman achieving the realization that she was born with hermaphroditic genitalia. As her testes painfully descend throughout the short’s exposition, the faculty grapples with the boundaries of gender identity and ultimately decides to transfer the student to an all-boys school. Beautifully shot and impeccably acted, the only shortcoming I could perceive in “The Devil…” was its somewhat constrictive running length; which is, in film terms, a definitive compliment.

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Laure LeFort plays Alexina in Fabien Gorgeart’s noteworthy short, “The Devil is in the Details.” © 2016, Première Ligne Films.

Next up, the festival’s first “true story” offering: titled “Imago,” this quasi-documentary explores life through the eyes of a 15-year-old transgendered girl, who decides to write a letter to her father outlining the reasons she cannot bring herself to spend time with him anymore (the end credits explain that the screenplay took this real-life letter as its source material/inspiration). The film is short, effective, and memorable: one gleans the distinct impression that the filmmakers bit off just as much as they could chew within the budgeted amount of screen time. The film was followed by what read to me like a failed Saturday Night Live skit (“Haygood Eats”), and then came the cream of this anthology’s crop—a short documentary entitled “Bootwmn.”

Somewhere between Christopher Guest and Louis Malle’s American documentaries from the 1980s (God’s Country; …And the Pursuit of Happiness), “Bootwmn” is a charmingly earnest, refreshingly non-abrasive portrait of a self-proclaimed Texan bulldyke named Deana McGuffin. Charting her journey from apprentice to her grandfather’s boot-making enterprise, to a visionary boot designer/boot-maker in her own right, the film toys thoughtfully and playfully with themes of authenticity, communication through creativity, and the objective value of a work ethic. Throughout the film we meet two of Deana’s employees, and join them as a fly on the wall during their adventurous decision to enter a pair of queerly decorated boots (known as the “Gay State” boots) into a highly traditional Texan boot-making competition. For fear of spoiling the outcome of this altogether remarkable celebration of the human spirit, I will refrain from saying more.

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Deana McGuffn (center) flanked by two of her workshop assistants in the delightful dark horse of a short, “Bootwmn”—directed by Sam McWilliams & Paige Gratland, and backed by a crowdfunding campaign. (No major distributor attached.)

The penultimate short, an Australian drag piece titled “Picking Up,” was fine but forgettable. And while not as forgettable, Danny DeVito’s cute and aptly titled “Curmudgeons” left me wanting (of what exactly, I’m not sure). My vote for Best Short is cast for “Bootwmn.”

Up next—and following immediately on the heels of the “top-drawer shorts”—one of two full-length documentaries included in this year’s line-up: The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin. Comprehensive in scope and scintillating in detail (including the sultry anecdote of a threeway with Rock Hudson), Untold Tales is a delight, and is bound to win over fans and first-timers in equal measure. In classic documentary form, filmmaker Jennifer Kroot places Armistead’s first-person narrative of his own life’s story within a well-rounded framework of objective context from third party sources. For example, when Maupin explains his defense for having outed other celebrities at the height of his own fame, Kroot quickly jumps to the perspective of other LGBT voices who alternately support and criticize his motives—with a pause added for the viewer to reach their own conclusion. At no point does Kroot’s focus stray far from her central subject, but the sheer range of perspectives, stories, and insights shared throughout presents a veritable kaleidoscope of 20th century queer culture. Ultimately, Maupin emerges (like all great documentary subjects) a fascinating, admirable, and flawed character—whose life work (and story) raises as many questions as it provides answers. It goes on to win this year’s Audience Favorite award.

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While I regretfully missed the Saturday evening screening of Sensitivity Training (directed by Melissa Finell), I returned for the late-night showing of Shaz Bennett’s commendable feature-length debut, Alaska is a Drag. Filmed in rural Michigan but inspired by the filmmaker’s own experiences gutting fish for a living in a small Alaskan town (while dreaming of making it big in the movie industry), Alaska comes across as an honest, assured, and pretense-free family drama—raising issues of identity and conformity with all the wisdom and humor denied us by Friday night’s feature. The star of the film, Martin L. Washington, Jr., delivers an absorbing and memorable turn as Leo—the twenty-something Alaskan drag queen who dreams of making it big and moving to the big city, but is trapped gutting fish for a living and tending family wounds. At times reminiscent of characters in a Jarmusch movie, Martin’s tangible rapport with his on-screen sibling (played by Maya Washington; no relation) gives the film life and frequently compensates for the frailties of its writing. The film is shot simply and effectively, and the photography is, at times, inspired—particularly during the sequences of the family RV at night, and the transitional sequences of the siblings strutting home down a dirt path. The exceptional supporting cast of Alaska is rounded out by Matt Dallas, Christopher O’Shea, and Kevin Daniels—with smart cameos by Jason Scott Lee (Dragon: the Bruce Lee Story) as Leo’s affable employer, and Margaret Cho as the town’s drag king bartender.

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Martin L. Washington, Jr., and Maya Washington star as an endearing set of siblings in Shaz Bennett’s full-length feature debut, Alaska is a Drag—previously released in 2012 as a short with the same title. (No major distributor attached.)

Leaving the theater at the end of this second night, it struck me that Alaska is a Drag handled many of the same issues and themes marketed by the opening night’s misfire: the queering of masculinity and jock culture; interpersonal conflict and religious conviction; the tension between longing to fit in and wanting to stand out. What worked in the latter film, but not in the first? For starters, Bennett’s film leaves something to the imagination—a quality I can only speculate is closely linked to a filmmaker’s respect for the audience’s intelligence. More importantly, Bennett (who wrote the film as well as having directed it) insists upon an understanding of each character in her film’s tapestry; which isn’t to say she allocates equal screen time to each character, but simply that she refrains from taking any cheap shots, and commits herself to practicing the fundamental message queer culture has been striving to convey for well over a century. The message: that everyone deserves the dignity of their own personhood—and the plight (read: struggle) of humankind is to recognize and respect this universal dignity.

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The third and final day of the Dayton LGBT Film Festival read like a victory lap. I missed the first feature (Pushing Dead, directed by Tom E. Brown), but made it for the two final screenings: Bobbi Jo Hart’s documentary on the (in)famous Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, titled Rebels on Pointe; and this year’s heavily-hyped British import, God’s Own Country—touted as a more explicit Brokeback Mountain. Both films successfully live up to the hype surrounding them (a second screening of Rebels on Pointe was added, at the last minute, to accommodate the Dayton Ballet dancers who could not make it to the first screening), and it is authenticity that emerges as the weekend’s clear winner.

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Dancers of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo waiting in the wings of Bobbi Jo Hart’s endearing feature-length documentary, Rebels on Pointe. (No major distributor attached.)

In Rebels on Pointe, the viewer is introduced to the world of drag ballet through an all-access pass into the real lives of dancers for the world-renowned Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo—the first and foremost all-male (and all-gay) ballet company; committed to rendering post-modern (and frequently comical) interpretations of historically celebrated ballet works. The film is gentle, intelligent, smartly pieced together, and irreverent in all the right places. As we get to know each of the dancers profiled by Hart & co., we discover an eclectic range of personalities, family backgrounds, dance résumés, and cultural origins. One dancer is a young Cuban emigre whose mother was a dancer of note in his homeland; another is a thirty-year-old American who struggled to fit in with the orthodox ballet company he had initially joined—finding himself more properly challenged by the the more experimental director of the Trockadero; another is a forty-year-old man whose parents underwent a generational struggle to embrace their son’s life pursuit (they eventually came around, and are featured memorably among the filmed interviews); yet another has chosen to relocate from his native land of Italy, in order to follow his dream and make his family proud. Hart expertly weaves the dancers’ stories together with selected snippets from live Trockadero performances, and the finished product emerges as something between a behind-the-scenes Madonna tour documentary, and one of Jean Rouch’s sociological studies.

Speaking of studies, God’s Own Country wound the weekend down on a note of decided realism. Set in the stunningly photogenic Yorkshire countryside, this feature-length debut by director Francis Lee is likely to acquire a fair share of international accolades before the year is up: and rightly so. Filmed with the same grace regularly displayed by one of its two main protagonists, the Romanian heartthrob Gheorghe (played with quiet magnetism by Alec Secareanu), God’s Own Country tells the tragicomic tale of a young Englishman (played by Josh O’Connor) following in the footsteps of his father—a modest sheep farmer—and willfully suppressing his own dreams of finding romantic fulfillment with another man. As his repressed inclinations toward tenderness habitually transfer themselves into acts of rage and brutality, Johnny (O’Connor) embarks upon a gradual but believable journey of self-discovery; visually, his journey is matched by the characters’ endeavor to surmount the harsher elements of the stark, cold country.

There are many directions in which Lee’s film could have easily mis-stepped, but it is a testament to his skills as a budding filmmaker that he managed to avoid every opportunity to genericize (or scandalize) his subject matter. As with any film of note, the photography merges with the sound design and the chemistry of the actors’ performances to create a fully-formed piece of moving poetry: a whole that can be read both as an eloquent sum of its parts, and as an entity onto itself. O’Connor deserves special commendation for the complex definition of his lead performance, which successfully elicits every audience response imaginable over the course of the film’s roughly two-hour runtime: from disgust to sadness; from anger to empathy; from laughter to scrutiny. In Johnny, we find a protagonist with both the nuanced pathology of Terry Malloy or Jim Stark, and the primal force of Jake La Motta. Here’s looking forward to what Lee (and O’Connor, for that matter) have to offer us next.

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Alec Secareanu (left) and Josh O’Connor (right) play accidental lovers in Francis Lee’s confident and affecting debut feature, God’s Own Country. © 2017, BFI Films.

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Seen together, the films selected for the 12th annual Dayton LGBT Film Festival effectively presented a sort of running dialogue between disparate perspectives and ideologies throughout the queer community: a dialogue that transcends time and identity, but occasionally gets hung up on or the other (or both). In granting the auspice of victory to the notion of “authenticity,” I propose that the finest observations presented throughout this dialogue emerged from a place of genuine creative expression, whereas the weakest commentary appeared wrapped up in a shiny bow of commodified entertainment. A contrast that resonates most markedly in our contemporary cultural climate—in which these same factors of commodification and hollow entertainment, which have regrettably (but nevertheless, successfully) embedded themselves within our cultural and political landscapes, threaten daily to consume all forms of genuine interest in (and expression of) the human condition.

We see it in the contrast between Freak Show and Rebels on Pointe; or the chasm of perspective (and intention) separating “Something New” from “Bootwmn.” We also see it in the recurring re-appearance of negative gay stereotypes: the callow sex addict who treats his fellow humans like objects; the pompous and shallow histrionics of a young queer kid who expects the world to bow at his feet; the self-righteous rebukes directed at anyone and everyone whose politics conflict with, or simply stray (no matter how minutely) from the advancement of one’s own interests. Perhaps these stereotypes exist to remind us that these character flaws still exist; in which case, point taken. But one could just as easily argue that these character flaws persist to this day as a byproduct of perpetuated stereotypes; in which case, maybe we would all be better served by letting such vacuity go, once and for all. Maybe we would be better off by simply embracing the compassionate perspective outlined in the work of Shaz Bennett, Francis Lee, Bobbi Jo Hart, and Jennifer Kroot (and the works of Louis Malle and Jean Rouch before them): that everyone is entitled to the dignity of their own personhood—and it is our charge to recognize and respect this dignity in others, as much as it is our journey to discover it for ourselves. In the immortal words of St. Francis: to understand is to be understood.

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a short story

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Images from the ulter nation music videos—now streaming on YouTube. Album available for streaming, download, and as a deluxe CD digipak on BandCamp.

The waves swell against the glass of the tank. Behind closed eyes, the writer lies dormant—dreaming of a film he’d seen, somewhere in his youth. In this unknown film, a boy runs through a high-rise apartment building: each room is filled with a different memory from his past. Some of the memories never happened: impostors, infringing upon the integrity of his consciousness.

The boy stumbles from one door to the next—alternately frightened and dazzled. The last door on the left of the 11th floor opens onto an unfamiliar scene: firemen surround a blazing building, the nozzles of their fire hoses pointed at the base of the tower. Their intentions prove no match for the relentless blaze; stretchers carry heaps of ashes away from the building and onto the cracked pavement of a city street. The boy gazes in confusion, unsure of what he is seeing. He closes the door and climbs the stairs to the next floor.

He runs back and forth along the hall of the twelfth floor. Distant voices laugh, moan, and howl from behind closed doors. The boy spots a key protruding from one of the closed doors, and precociously attempts to turn the lock; the key stammers and doesn’t quite give way: not a match. He pauses and contemplates this curious, newfound object. After a minute’s deliberation, the boy pockets the key and runs back down the hall to the stairwell. He opens the door and descends.

The writer awakens. Disoriented by somnambulistic visions, he picks the sleep from his eyes and gazes at the white plaster of the ceiling. He sits up on the side of the bed and plants his feet on the wooden floor; his face lands in the crook of his palms. The usual morning regimen follows, then the writer descends the staircase and puts on a pot of coffee: the stimulating aroma wafts through the house, and the writer has a seat in the living area. He listens as the brew finishes its cycle, and tunes in to the sound of the morning hour. He glances out the window, looking out onto the street he lives on: the writer then tries to make sense of the fleeting images still lingering from last night’s sleep—before they dissipate altogether, like steam rising from his morning coffee. He cares less about the meaning of the images, but is troubled by his inability to recall them. Dreamspeak can be such a transitory phenomenon… like a foreign language that one longs to decipher, but knows not where to begin. The coffee finishes its brew, and the writer pours himself a cup.

Fragments of images flicker behind the writer’s eyes—with each sip of scalding coffee providing a stimulant that simultaneously triggers and erases recall. He faintly remembers a high-rise building; a stretcher of ashes; a boy holding a room key; waves in a water tank. And a film. Or were these all just parts of a film? The writer has another sip of coffee before setting the mug down on the countertop, and then he wanders back up the staircase. Upstairs, he takes his place in front of the Device he had constructed the year prior: a tall cabinet housing 70 non-flatscreen cathode ray tubes; 7 rows stacked into 10 columns. He retrieves something from a corner of the room and approaches the Device with a miniature piano: something to write with.

The writer lifts a floorboard and uncovers a console of four buttons and two knobs. He presses the first button on the left and the television sets come to life—one by one. On the first set, a man and a woman ride together in a top-down convertible; late ’50s model, early ’60s hair. On the next, an elevator door slides open, revealing tired office personnel leaving from the day shift. On the next screen, Brakhage’s painted blobs splatter in epileptic rhythms across a blacker-than-black background: below, an empty rest stop in the dead of night; a trash receptacle lit by a lone streetlamp. In another corner of the televisual collage, a young woman with a hood wrapped around her face rests her cheek on a stone tabletop: half-filled glasses telepathically slide from one edge to the other. A waterfall; a highway; a hand. A street sign with “DEAD END” plastered cynically across an orange octagon. On the other side of the tank, a familiar image: waves splashing in a clear water tank—gradually revealing the silhouette of a sleeping woman, on the other side of the glass.

The writer’s a priori recall of the image triggers a slight electrical stammer; a typical occurrence—no cause for concern. He activates a switch on the miniature piano, and with three notes sets off a chain reaction between the sleeping silhouette and the two screens directly adjacent to her image. The image drifts back and forth across (or more accurately, throughout) the three TV sets, and it is then that something most unexpected occurs. Instead of coming back to rest in their original order—as the screens had been programmed to do, upon completion of the keyboard’s prompts—the silhouette drifts farther afield. He now spots it in the upper right-hand corner; now in the lower region, hovering somewhere between the fourth screen from the right and the fifth screen from the left. The image has found a propulsion of its own, and it now weaves itself seamlessly from one image to the next: one minute assuming the shape of disease; the next, the face of determination. Next, the shape of wonder.

Tinkerbell comes to mind, as the image morphs itself again and again—transforming itself repeatedly throughout the bank of disoriented screens. For the first time, the writer discovers an unknown melody on the keyboard, with the images on-screen dictating the direction of the notes. No longer a slave to his own fickle creativity, the woman’s silhouette spells out the finest sounds the writer has ever caught himself in the midst of conveying. Then, a malfunction: the image halts and swiftly diminishes in the center of the Device, until it is only a single three-color pixel—a dot in the center of a dead bank of screens. Much like the dream, the writer is left trying to wrap his head around the wondrous shape and texture of the secret melody. Alas, total recall is again rendered futile, in the total darkness of the television screens. Like a visitation from an angel: everything after seems less.

A startling silence looms in front of the device. The writer presses a second button, to reset and reactivate the screens, but nothing happens. The writer faintly hears the sound of the ticking clock at Headquarters, miles away from home; counting down the seconds to doomsday. Suddenly, a screen in the upper corner comes to life: after a few seconds of static and faint white noise, the white waves in the image assume the shape of a boy—entering an empty stairwell from an upper floor in a high-rise building. The boy hesitates as he closes the heavy metal door behind him; the sound of the latch echoes throughout the tall, rectangular stair space. On the landing, the boy spots a trail of dark liquid and an open matchbook: on the lid of the matchbook, the word “DISSOLVE.” The boy studies the objects, a key in his hand. Without contemplating the scene for too long, he places the key in his pocket, lifts the matchbook, and strikes a match: as the small flame climbs the phosphorous of the matchstick, the boy casually tosses it against the trail on the floor.

The flame of the match turns into a blazing trail of flames, drifting up the stairs of the high-rise in a rapid, thoughtless motion. The boy reacts with a rapid motion of his own: running down the stairwell and out onto the street; gazing compulsively at the tower as the flames first rise, then collapse along the length of the tower. As the boy’s gaze drifts upward, the writer recognizes his features as his own—and in an instant, each of the still-dormant television screens has come to life again: each projecting a blackened stretcher, filled with a different set of ashes. An officer in plainclothes paces slowly along the pavement, setting a small placard in front of each stretcher—random numbers written in black felt-tip. The boy approaches the officer and asks innocently: “What is that you’re doing?”

The officer doesn’t hear the boy at first, and the boy asks a second time. The officer turns slowly from the stretcher he is leaning over, then speaks in a low tone: “I’m returning them to their source.”

Boy: “What’s that?”

Officer: “The source. The birthplace of memory.”

The boy tilts his head in confusion. The officer sighs lightly and indulges his curiosity: “Each of these ashes is a memory; they must be returned to their source.”

The boy rights the angle of his visage and asks: “Why?”

Here, the officer smiles and leans forward on one knee: “If they are not returned, they cannot exist. And if they cannot exist, they cannot change.”

The boy ponders this explanation before asking skeptically: “What about the ones that weren’t real?”

The officer shrugs. The boy looks at the ashes in dissatisfied disagreement; he seems to question the authenticity of each slain memory—contemplating a way to sniff out the illusory ones from those which, in fact, had existed. But the wet particles and seemingly random numbers appear before him as a blurry and soaking mess, and distinction is seemingly impossible. The boy takes a step back. He finds the handle of the key in his pocket, and clutches his fingers against its teeth. The writer thoughtlessly places his own hand in his jean pocket: in it, he finds a small stone. The boy looks up at the tower in flames, pauses for an instant, and runs off into the rain-slicked night.

The Device suddenly de-activates itself a second time. The writer presses the third button in the floor panel: nothing happens. This time, it doesn’t appear as though anything will. The writer gazes in silence at the blank screens: he hears the ticking of the clock in the distance. He realizes that everything is still possible, just before the ticking stops.

“I still dream of Orgonon
I wake up crying”
– Kate Bush (from “Cloudbusting”)

Vice Principals is the show that every American adult—and more specifically, every racially disoriented white American—should probably be watching and talking about over dinner. As it becomes increasingly difficult to satirize reality (with reality itself having become an un-ironic satire of social indecency), the creators of this half-hour HBO comedy series (Jody Hill and Danny McBride) have somehow managed to pointedly encapsulate everything bad that is afflicting our country’s societal wellness—while at the same time saving a space for the remaining dregs of decency, which are routinely squeezed out of similar attempts at encapsulating our problems in dramatic form. It’s a program defined by its crass, cruel, grotesquely arch, and (often unexpectedly) black comedy. But while the ostensible victim of the show’s first season was a black woman climbing the ladder of upper management in a public school system, it is the show’s prime villain (her cold-blooded VP, Lee Russell) who undergoes the greatest scrutiny and, ultimately, comes across as the “biggest loser.” Unlike other programs (in both documentary and fiction realms), which consume themselves with endeavoring to paint the plight of the minority citizen in shades of self-pitying helplessness—with a frequently less-than-subtle nod to a (typically white) social justice warrior, who rides in like a knight in shining armor to save the damsel in distress—Vice Principals is a ruthless portrait of the victimizers; making no excuses, and taking no… well, maybe a few prisoners.

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Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) sizes up her two infantile and devious cohorts in HBO’s Vice Principals. © 2016, HBO Networks.

When Dr. Belinda Brown (played superbly by Kimberly Hebert Gregory)—the impossible-not-to-be-enamored-with principal who sets the show in motion—is brutally forced out of its equation at the end of the first season, one feels a profound sense of loss. But not only hers: ours, as well. (If anything, Dr. Brown likely considers herself released from the toxic environment of her fellow protagonists’ making.) It is our loss to not have her as a prominent part of the show’s perversely hysterical conversation anymore, being left to contend exclusively with the petty hooligans who have taken her place. In actuality, at the start of the second season’s premiere episode, we find Dr. Brown alive and well—reunited with her husband and two kids, and living a good distance from the deranged vice principals who attempted to ruin her life (and very nearly succeeded). When she begins to hint at her own departure from the show’s narrative, it not-so-subtly calls to mind the departure of our country’s previous commander-in-chief—whom we’ve since seen skydiving, vacationing with his family, and generally conducting himself like an all-around decent human being. All the while, total chaos and insanity looms in the place he used to sit, and a nation is left watching history re-play itself out like a warped VHS tape of white power rallies, devastating hurricanes, incredulous White House leaks, presidential scandals, and arrogant white kids with bad haircuts and polo shirts, armed with tiki torches to defend poorly sculpted monuments of the Confederacy (just when you think you’ve seen it all…) It’s hard to watch this last season of Vice Principals and not blow a wish for Dr. Brown to come back and give one more inspirational pep rally in the North Jackson High School auditorium—just to feel a tingle of hope, that all is not (yet) lost.

Looking back, the first season was a chore for many to sit through: it garnered justifiable criticism for subjecting viewers to an exhaustive, vicarious experience of racist/sexist intimidation and persecution—which so closely echoes the real-life experiences lived by millions of Americans. But while the show certainly has its fair share of “cover my eyes ’cause I can’t bear to see where this goes” moments, I would argue that it remains a rewarding, perhaps even necessary experience for white Americans (especially white men). It forces the viewer to witness the devastating outcomes of intolerance, but not from an easy “scared straight” perspective; instead, the viewer actually has to do some work—to connect the dots between the shallow instincts that compel a person to behave in such a hateful fashion, and the reality such a person must effectively disengage from in order to fulfill such absolute hate. For hate is, ultimately, an uninhabitable condition (something one needs constant reminding of at this point in time). To highlight this truth, there comes a moment in every episode during which VP Neal Gamby (our anti-hero-cum-protagonist, played by McBride) will catch himself in the middle of some atrociously mean-spirited act—typically provoked by his far more nihilistic partner-in-crime, VP Russell—and question his ability to follow through with his ruthless vows, eventually caving in to his own vulnerability. In these moments, the viewer recognizes that even the Scroogiest of conservative white men has a soft spot, somewhere deep down; and in this act of empathetic recognition, the viewer finds their own embers of hateful inclination slowly sizzling out. (In turn, viewers with an overtly racist and/or sexist inclination—who might, at first glance, align themselves with the diabolic intentions of Russell and Gamby—are bound to cave in by the first season’s conclusion, upon realizing the fruitless and dispiriting outcome of the protagonists’ hate.)

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Vice principals Lee Russell (left, Walton Goggins) and Neal Gamby (right, Danny McBride) contend with the unsustainability of their own prejudices. © 2016, HBO Networks.

Since the inauguration of 45, I’ve been troubled by the response of many a despairing liberal to the ill-informed cocktail of bigotry and racial intimidation perpetuated by the president and his base. On the one hand, it seemed to me the reaction of liberals was disproportionately soft—compared to the out-and-out violence (verbal, physical, psychological) that we found ourselves up against; on the other, it seemed a pretty ill-advised approach to fight fire with fire: to attempt and wipe out hate by singling out and shaming the haters, many of whom are so blinded by their own misinformation that they fail to recognize their bigotry as hatred incarnate. I recall beating my head against a wall (literally), and exchanging a series of frustrated emails with friends, most of which culminated with a half-joking recommendation that we split the country in half, effectively separating the evolutionists from the devolutionists. In seeking a broader perspective, I found myself drawn to the brilliant and frequently sardonic songs of Randy Newman, which have—throughout the past four-plus decades—effectively charted the folly of the stupid white man in America; sans effigies, platitudes, or other common forms of creative scapegoating. And I asked myself: Where are the Randy Newmans of today? Where are the Gore Vidals, the James Baldwins, the Nina Simones? How come every visible attempt at protesting the ignorant insanity of 45’s America appears to swing toward the two outer extremes of timid sloganeering and destructive violence? (Fortunately, not long after I went through this line of questioning, it was announced that Mr. Newman would be releasing a new studio album later this year—providing a much-needed salve. Far less fortunately, so many voices belonging to people of color have been effectively suppressed, repressed, depressed, or extinguished altogether; rendering it difficult for the range of creative perspectives the country ought to be represented by to truly flourish—and sentencing the fate of acceptable social protest to a kneel in a football stadium.)

Setting aside the apparent racial intolerance that has festered throughout the country (and the Russian interference that reinforced this intolerance through strategic interventions on social media), part of this dilemma likely stems from another root cause of 45’s presidency: the mindset underlying that lamentable term, “political correctness.” In hindsight, it is difficult to imagine 45’s candidacy gaining the kind of momentum it generated without the scapegoat of liberal hyper-sensitivity. Every slogan developed throughout his campaign served to highlight this critique: from “crooked Hillary,” to “bad hombres,” to “what a nasty woman,” to the cringe-inducing “he can grab my…,” to the swiftly appropriated “deplorable and proud of it,” the racial hatred permeating the campaign’s tone was matched only by its general disdain for pre-meditated and/or sensible syntax. And as with all false generalizations and stereotypes throughout history, there was, in fact, a justifiable criticism at the onset of this profane game of Chinese whispers. Namely, the criticism of the left’s increasingly rigid thinking on the subject of policing language: a well-intentioned effort to nip hate speech in the bud, but one that has frequently neglected to take into account the Quixotic nature of its own pursuit. For just like the idealist of Cervantes’ great novel, the “P.C. police” (as they’re commonly referred to by irritable right-wingers) often find themselves chasing windmills and missing the forest for the trees: so wrapped up in the semantics of isolated incidents, they lose sight of the motivators behind the language they are policing—which might foreseeably range from absolute, vitriolic hatred; to an infantile desire to provoke or offend; to sheer ignorance of the meanings attached to the words one has chosen.

It is within this context that Vice Principals presents a swooping breath of fresh, tension-splitting air. Although the premise of the show is itself a persistently tense exercise in caustic polarization, the manner in which it mirrors the real-life tensions surrounding its creation (considering that the first season’s airing coincided with the peak of the 2016 election) serves to deflate the pressure accompanying its subject matter. Here we find three character types that are frequently subject to the “politically correct” treatment—an effeminate, plausibly closeted gay man; a heavyweight divorcé; and a well-educated woman of color—released from the popular liberal’s cocoon of cultural suffocation, and allowed to live and breathe as characters that are every bit as nuanced as they are dense; almost like actual people. And if the show has a secret ingredient in the recipe of its greatness, it most likely lies within this astute recognition that vilification and deification are equally ineffectual tropes (both in narrative terms, and in lived reality). It would be easy—all too easy—to rewrite the show with Gamby and Russell (embodied by the relentlessly brilliant Walton Goggins) as dyed-in-the-wool hate-mongers, with a cheaply sketched-in backstory of how they came to be so hateful (e.g. childhood abuse; bullying; exposure to violent crime): the rest of the series—assuming the form of a prime-time melodrama—would essentially write itself, with the characters either achieving progress towards an awareness of the origins for their respective prejudices; or, conversely, digging their heels in deeper and, eventually, falling on the sword of their own bigotry. Not only would such a literal execution of the premise be uninteresting: it would render it increasingly difficult for the actors to bring any real pathos or complexity to their characters, since such a narrative is ultimately a glorified journey from point A to point B. In other words, this more “sensitized” approach would present the antithesis of a real person’s life journey, which invariably presents a more complex trajectory through various stages of change and emotional/intellectual growth.

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Gregory (right) provides the heart and soul, and Goggins (left) the diabolical thrust behind Vice Principals—the only great satire thus far broadcast on American television in the year 2017. © 2016, HBO Networks.

Rather than taking the easy way out of contending with bigoted protagonists, Hill and McBride have boldly chosen the more challenging, and far more rewarding narrative approach. In Gamby and Russell, they have created two strangely… lovable bigots. Not that one loves them because of their bigotry (the show is structured in such a way that such sympathies are unlikely, at worst); one loves them in spite of the raging ignorance and intolerance that continually threatens to swallow them whole. Instead of being vilified and caricatured as two creatures from the black lagoon who’ve arisen to claim some distorted interpretation of supremacy, Gamby and Russell are just two stupid white boys with no real grasp on the concept of emotional maturity—and watching their psyches disintegrate from episode to episode is every bit as comical as it is maddening. Not unlike our current president, whose racist inclinations frequently appear to stem less from an inherent sense of racial superiority (I mean, just look at him), but more from a cynically strategic approach to soliciting support from pockets of the U.S. voter base, which any seasoned politician with a modicum of decency would refuse to entertain (e.g. David Duke and his cohort, and at least half of our Presidential Cabinet). But the real masterstroke of Vice Principals is that, despite the uncanny parallels between our presidential administration and the admin of North Jackson High, the show succeeds precisely where the president’s administration has failed: by actually making us care about the fate of its ignorant protagonists.

It is safe to say, at this point, that hardly a person in the country—or, more broadly, on the face of the earth—can be bothered to care about the personal fate of the 45th president. It is, in fact, difficult to think of any figure in our nation’s history who has been so widely (and so justifiably) reviled, across the board of political identification and cultural affiliation. And true to form, 45 has surrounded himself with individuals who only serve to further dehumanize his public persona: compounding the reality television aesthetic of his own making, and continually escalating the threshold of public disdain. And I would here argue that it is this aesthetic of idiocy—this constant talking down to the citizens of a country who, by and large, know they deserve better—that presents the biggest hurdle for his detractors to surmount. The brilliantly monotonous condescension of Maxine Waters, in addressing one of the president’s multiple administrative chumps, Steve Mnuchin, provides a case study in the only appropriate way one can respond to such arrogant bluster: consistently raising the point (“reclaiming my time”) of our administration’s inadequacy, incompetency, and seemingly interminable disrespect towards the citizens whose interests it has been charged to uphold.

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Dr. Belinda Brown: carrying on with conviction and humor. © 2016, HBO Networks.

Likewise, in Season 2 of Vice Principals, Dr. Brown brilliantly dismantles Neal Gamby’s initial hypothesis regarding his violent assault at the culmination of Season 1: upon being accused of Gamby’s attempted murder, the former Jackson High Principal scoffs at this suggestion, instead drawing Gamby’s attention to a tattoo she has had affixed to her back—depicting her two former vice principals actually eating shit, while smiling and amorously holding hands. It’s her own personal idea of revenge: a gesture that hilariously highlights the racial divide at the heart of Season 1’s tension. For whereas the white male testosterone pumping through Gamby’s and Russell’s systems repeatedly compels them to acts of childish violence and lashing out, the cool “been there, done that” attitude of Dr. Brown—whose past experiences with indignant white men can only be imagined by the viewer—empowers her to keep her calm and carry on with humor and conviction: two things the country (if not the world) is in most dire need of now.

It has yet to be seen how the remainder of the series will play itself out. As Russell and Gamby delve deeper into their farcical investigation of Gamby’s shooting, one can’t help but think of the President’s own glorified wild goose chase: to single out his dissenters, and thereby satiate his acolytes with a gushing fountain of persecutory accusations directed at the liberals they all thumbed their noses at this last election (or, to expand upon this metaphor with an even more precise one, the noses they cut off to spite their own faces). Two well-played scenes in the most recently aired episode serve to highlight this real-life parallel: in one, Gamby enlists a black security guard from the school to search the lockers of multiple black students, all of whom he has targeted as prime suspects for his attempted assassination (without a shred of evidence, of course). After finding nothing but homework, textbooks, and a scientific calculator in one boy’s locker, the security guard observes in a disheartened tone: “Man, you actually made me think he was guilty!” The other scene in question entails Russell planting a hot mic in the teacher’s break room, in order to tune in to the gossip taking place behind his back (most of it directed at his gaudy wardrobe, social awkwardness, and apparently deadly halitosis): when he later proceeds to fire his entire faculty for subversion, one immediately thinks of Sean Spicer, Steve Bannon, Reince Preibus, Sally Yates, Michael Flynn; the Mooch.

For some prospective viewers, this will all prove a little too much too soon. And yet, in bringing ourselves to truly care about the fate(s) of Gamby and Russell—in wanting them to get at least a little woke; to stop being such selfish assholes, and to play a little bit nicer—there’s a chance we might bring ourselves to care a smidge more about the fate of this altogether asinine administration, along with the misguided minions who stubbornly refuse to withdraw their support for it. In turn, and for better or worse, it is they who now dictate the fate of our nation.

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Depeche Mode performing at the “DTE Energy Center” (formerly Pine Knob) in Clarkston/Detroit, MI, on August 27th, 2017.

I’m standing in a sea of people (most of them dressed in black, or something approximating), bobbing my head in nonverbal agreement as Dave Gahan leaps about the stage at a large outdoor venue in Clarkston, about an hour north of Detroit: according to its Wikipedia entry, the venue was formerly known as Pine Knob, before the “Pine” was dropped from the name. (Presently, the amphitheater is referred to by the markedly less spirited name of the corporation leasing it for advertisement.) Gahan slowly scans the crowd as he melodiously observes—in that well-established, sensual growl we’ve all grown to know and love: “You’ve been kept down/You’ve been pushed ’round/You’ve been lied to/You’ve been fed truths.” The theater grow increasingly silent, as fans lean in to decipher the words to a song from the newest Depeche Mode album: “Who’s making your decisions?/You or your religion?/Your government, your countries/You patriotic junkies…

The crowd roars with something between consensus and confusion; as though torn between the pride of one’s own patriotic addiction, and the awareness that this rather mundane line of lyrical questioning may be too on-the-nose for comfort. The roar swells to a cry of total submission as Gahan and songwriter Martin L. Gore join in unison (an octave apart) to deliver one of their most downbeat-ly whip-smart choruses (“Where’s the revolution?/C’mon, people, you’re letting me down“), before lunging into a second verse of inquisitive befuddlement at the evident complacency among the masses they once dedicated an entire album to.

The performance was riveting on multiple levels, not the least of which rates Gahan’s incredibly active on-stage presence. But beyond the acrobatic microphone twirling and hip-shaking, the timeliness of this tour couldn’t escape even the most oblivious of audience participants. In the previous week’s news cycle alone, the country learned of 45’s reversal of a ban on police departments purchasing military gear; the bafflingly inappropriate Presidential pardon of “America’s toughest sheriff,” Joe Arpaio; and the devastating wreckage being caused by Hurricane Harvey in the Southernmost regions of the country—calling to memory the fiasco surrounding the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (and not yet calling to mind the wreckage of Hurricane Irma, still only a blip around the corner in the minds of most citizens).

With this as the backdrop, one couldn’t help but pick up shades of their ingenious Rose Bowl concert in June of ’88, which provided source material for one of the most legendary and influential live albums of the decade—Depeche Mode 101. Nearing the end of Reagan’s second term in office, and coinciding with the start of the UK band’s crossover success with listeners in mainstream America, the event was a phenomenon of culturally relevant bombast: from the then-quite-shocking, counter-religious anthem, “Blasphemous Rumours,” to the anthemic-yet-poignant “Black Celebration” (simultaneously calling to mind the band’s gothic glory and the dark cloud of AIDS), to the heroin-streaked exhilaration of “Never Let Me Down Again,” to their brilliantly ambiguous tribute to the virtues of capitalism (“Everything Counts”), 101 was a bona fide, counter-cultural harbinger. It was only fitting that it should’ve been captured by the acclaimed documentarian D.A. Pennebaker—who previously lent his visionary perspective to documentaries on the fateful Altamont festival, the Monterey Pop festival, Bowie’s final Ziggy concert with the Spiders From Mars, and the cultural zenith of Woodstock (among others). To this day, Pennebaker’s 101 film carries a gravitas that few other filmed music documents of the decade can reasonably lay claim to: the fact that the band had yet to unleash their most enormously successful record and tour (Violator) merely serves to highlight the historical weight of this concert; and more broadly, the on-going significance of its performers.

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If one were to search for a musical document of comparable relevance, one shouldn’t have to go far to stumble upon that other behemoth of ’80s alternative pop, U2—a marginally more commercial enterprise by this point in the decade, but one that shared more than a few key ingredients: both were UK imports (a feature more proudly showcased among Bono & co., but an important element of both bands’ successes); both shared fairly inauspicious, working class origins; and they both shared a genuine love of American R&B—something that may be more apparent to U2’s bevy of American listeners, but is no less true of their more broodingly electronic counterpart (if in doubt, refer to the twangy riffs in “Personal Jesus” and “Pleasure Little Treasure;” or the surprising gospel ballad, “Condemnation”). They also shared a common visual design aesthetic, as seen through their respective work(s) with the acclaimed photographer/filmmaker, Anton Corbijn, and by their frequent reliance on highly polished, cinematic imagery.

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Depeche Mode (from left to right: Martin L. Gore, Dave Gahan, Andy Fletcher) photographed by Anton Corbijn in 2017.

More significantly than their sonic and visual similarities, however, the two bands in question represent something far more macro and culturally meaningful: they both pointed—more adroitly at some times than others in their wide-spanning, lucrative careers—to the vastest possibilities of bombast in the still-blossoming arena of pop music; an arena that could be argued to have since dried up, having reached the most dreaded end of ought-to-be-extinction. Back in 1988, stage design aficionados had yet to see the likes of Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour; jumbo-tron technology was still in its formative stages; and holograms were simply cheap stickers on plastic rings found in Cracker Jack boxes. There was an air of possibility and experimentation surrounding the prospect of a commercial band doing an arena tour. Surely, financial dividends proved to be the over-riding intent in such pursuits for many an interested party (as demonstrated in borderline-comical form at the end of Pennebaker’s film of 101, when the venue’s merchandising team—many of whom had never heard of Depeche Mode, and were clearly doubtful the band would be able to fill even a small portion of the rather sizable football stadium—scratch their heads in befuddlement as they wade in a sea of cash spent by loving fans on t-shirts, buttons, programs, pins, and posters); but the late ’80s represented a real pinnacle in the development of large-scale pop music performances, and it wasn’t all just about the dough.

A most telling example of this tug-of-war between commercial and artistic interests was the infamously over-wrought tour in support of Bowie’s 1987 studio album, Never Let Me Down: christened the Glass Spider tour, after one of the album’s showcased tracks, the venture was simultaneously a success and a fiasco. Though it is estimated that six million people attended performances throughout the tour, raking in roughly $86 million for the parties involved (thanks in part to sponsorship by PepsiCo, a decisively controversial move that would go on to provide a template for every large-scale touring act to follow), the Glass Spider tour was widely lamented by music critics as an overly-indulgent display of pomposity. Conversely, more open-minded critics displayed a willingness to read between the broadly painted lines of the tour’s dated production, in order to recognize the artistic intent hidden beneath the permed hair-dos and expensive props. Bowie himself appeared to be questioning the very reasons for his artistic continuity—a process of artistic disorientation that would follow him throughout his subsequent project as lead singer in Reeves Gabrels’s post-rock band, Tin Machine.

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U2 (from left to right: The Edge, Bono, Adam Clayton), as the subject of the 1988 film Rattle and Hum, directed by Phil Joanou. © 1988, Paramount Pictures.

Within this context, the dual phenomena of U2’s Rattle and Hum and Depeche Mode 101 seem to represent a turning point in the history of pop music: a point at which the interests of art and commerce converged most neatly, just before parting ways most decisively—the interests of commerce having emerged victorious, once and for all. And while the past 30 years have seen tours of much greater scale and ambition, one is hard-pressed to find moments of such decisively widespread cultural zeitgeist in music history books. The skeptical reader should keep in mind here that both of these concert films (the former directed by Phil Joanou) were major theatrical releases, which—alongside Prince’s equally innovative Sign O’ the Times concert film—paved the way for pop music documentaries as diverse as Madonna: Truth or DareDixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing, and Peter Bogdanovich’s Tom Petty documentary, Running Down a Dream. Along with Demme’s acclaimed film of the Talking Heads Stop Making Sense tour, and Scorsese’s film of The Last Waltz (released a decade prior), the two features in question can be read as a sort of end-of-the-road signpost in the evolution of pop music narratives in mainstream film. For since then, there have been no mass-distributed music films of commercial note to take a pop music figure as their subject—apart from Justin Bieber: Never Say NeverKaty Perry: Part of Me, and Glee: The 3D Concert Movie (it is worth noting, however, that independently-produced documentaries on more cult-ish music figures—such as Rodriguez, Fela Kuti, Nina Simone, Conny Plank, and Death: the band—are currently on the rise in art houses and on Netflix).

With all of this taken into consideration, one would be forgiven for asking: what ever happened to meaningful bombast? Did Bob Geldof’s (debateably) miscalculated Live Aid events signal the end of an era once marked by pop-rock grandiosity—opening the door for a new generation of self-righteous pop stars, whose boastful passion for fundraising is outweighed only by their passion for the public’s attention/approval? Did the increasing involvement of corporate interests (signaled by Bowie’s Pepsi-endorsed Glass Spider tour, later culminating with TicketMaster and major concert arenas—such as the aforementioned Pine Knob—mutating into vehicles for commercial advertisement) drown out the artistic interests that previously endeavored to exert total creative control over such endeavors? Or is it just that, at the end of the day, a culture of cynicism has finally won out? I suppose that only time will tell; but an educated guess might well lean in the direction of the last hypothesis.

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David Bowie once more sets the template for pop music protocol, when he accepted the sponsorship of PepsiCo during his 1987 tour in support of Never Let Me Down, christened The Glass Spider tour (May 30th to November 28th, 1987).

And this is (in part, at least) why moments such as a live rendition of the new Depeche Mode single, “Where’s the Revolution?”, carry such a startling resonance in 2017. For not only is the song itself perfectly suited for the socio-cultural themes defining our day and age; the mere fact of a major touring band resorting to such an earnest strain of cultural commentary presents a sound for sore ears. In hindsight one finds that, as the early post-Live Aid years gave way to the dawn of slacker-ism, grunge, and a newly commodified variety of hip-hop (frequently laced with lazy machismo and even lazier beat-programming), the notion of a singer-songwriter earnestly expressing concern about the state of the planet began to completely evaporate. Women in pop music became (even) more heavily fetishized, with the boy band phenomenon representing the homo-erotic counterpart of a plastic pop movement coming into full swing. In seeming retaliation to such vacuousness, “hard” pop bands (with acts like Green Day and Blink-182 at the softer side, and Slipknot/Limp Bizkit/Korn at the harder end of the spectrum) represented, in actuality, another side of the same coin. The start of this cultural trajectory might arguably be traced back to the pop art movement—the formal separation of sincerity from artistic expression—but there have since been erratic flickers of endeavored sincerity; like the Green Day/American Idiot craze that swept the nation in the early aughts, or the hard/soft dynamic of Karen O and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Alas, the former example carried with it a distinct aroma of Hot Topic prefab-ness, while the latter has struggled to find stable footing between a drive for artistic integrity and an expectation of commercial success—resulting in a slew of overly eclectic records with several high points, but little in the way of textual consistency.

Compare this to Dave Gahan conducting his umpteenth live rendition of the hit Depeche Mode single, “Enjoy the Silence,” fully trusting the audience to sing the first run-through of the chorus (without missing a beat or a lyric) as he simply holds the microphone above the roar of the crowd. Other contemporary artists might lay claim to some catchy singles, but such cultural “events” seem harder to come by with each passing day; and while there is a greater wealth of brand new, quality music for us to consume than ever before, none of it carries the same conferral of greatness, which was only made possible through an unspoken agreement: that the forces of art and commerce should continually battle and work out their differences within the top 40. Case in point: the most recent, worldwide U2 concert series—supporting the 30th anniversary of their 1987 masterwork, The Joshua Tree.

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“I want to run/I want to hide.” U2 performing “Where the Streets Have No Name” against an astonishingly widescreen backdrop of Anton Corbijn-directed cinematography, at the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, IN (September 10th, 2017).

Among the litany of great studio recordings produced during the 20th century, few can lay claim to the sheer magnitude of factors that triggered the enormous success of this album: from the band’s on-going collaboration with acclaimed producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, to the engineering work of Flood, to the great kaleidoscope of American songwriting influences permeating the album’s 11 tracks, to the promotional album photographs snapped at Zabriskie Point by Anton Corbijn—right on down through the one-two-three punch of hit singles: “With Or Without You,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, and “Where the Streets Have No Name”—it is a massive understatement to remark that all the right elements collided to form this behemoth of pop majesty. Building on the vast, open sound palette first patented by Eno and Lanois on The Unforgettable FireThe Joshua Tree begins with a great fireworks display of sonic dynamism and never lets up, retaining a shimmer of splendor even in its quietest moments (“Running to Stand Still;” “Mothers of the Disappeared”). Performing the album live in its entirety, start to finish, may seem like a parlor trick or a novelty act to some; but for the millions who have attended a performance of this anniversary event (including myself) it likely represented so much more.

For how can you pin a reductive label on a cultural phenomenon that has captivated so many hearts and minds throughout the years: a record so overwhelmingly full of pathos and soaring melodies, that many (if not most) who attend its live performance find themselves spontaneously able to recall every note and lyric to every song—including such minutia as the spoken word piece in “Bullet the Blue Sky,” or the staccato wails of “raining” that line the climactic resolve to “One Tree Hill”? Personally, the experience brought to mind a worn-out cassette tape that once resided long-term in the tape deck of my beat-up Ford Probe, having been lovingly transferred from a vinyl copy of the record I had pulled out of a crate in a thrift store. The sound of the record—brilliantly engineered so that, even in the most depreciated format, and played on the most dilapidated of sound systems, those waves of synth and effected guitars couldn’t fail to wash over the listener, swallowing us up in the grandness of its enterprise. In the album’s official “Making of” documentary, Flood speaks of the production process in terms of it being “very different from anything I’d ever approached before. It was a first for so many things. The whole process was totally different… The type of sound they wanted for the record was very different from anything anybody had asked for: open, ambient, a real sense of space, of the environment you were in. Not normal requests.”

As it turned out, the sound of The Joshua Tree wound up being one of the most highly imitated sounds developed during the annals ’80s pop: its reverberations can be traced directly through Flood’s later work with PJ Harvey, The Smashing Pumpkins, New Order, and—most pointedly—Depeche Mode, having soon after produced their beyond-sensational breakthrough in 1990 (not to mention the sound of other arena-filling acts of the ’90s and aughts; such as Radiohead, Garbage, The Verve, and Coldplay, to name a few). But in the case of U2 and The Joshua Tree, the decision to crack the band’s sound wide open—incorporating entirely new spaces and textures—seemed to reflect more than just an aesthetic choice: indeed, a parallel can be drawn between this newfound openness, and the utterly non-cynical, total sincerity and dedication of the band itself. Producer Brian Eno defined this level of dedication in the same “Making of” doc as follows:

“I had got a real sense that this band was capable of making… something that was self-consciously spiritual to the point of being uncool, and I thought uncool was a very important idea then, because people were being very, very cool. Coolness is a certain kind of detachment from yourself; a certain defensiveness—in not exposing something—because it’s too easy to be shot down if you’re exposed. Of course, everyone was in the process of shooting U2 down. They were not favoured, even though they had a big public following, but critically they were thought to be rather ‘heart on their sleeves.'”

In other interviews, Eno traced this disconnect between the band and the popular trends surrounding them back to their national origins. In a 1994 interview, for instance, the producer reflected: “When you think about it… cool isn’t a notion that you’d often want to apply to the Irish, a people who brilliantly and easily satirize, elaborate and haggle and generally make short stories very long but who rarely exhibit the appetite for cultural disdain—deliberate non-involvement—for which the English pride themselves… It is this reckless involvement that makes the Irish terminally uncool. Cool people stay around the edges and observe the mistakes and triumphs of uncool people (and then write about them)” (quoted in Noel McLaughlin’s essay, “Eno, Ireland, and U2”). Regardless of its roots, the “terminally uncool” demeanor of a band like U2 is bound to carry with it implications as complex as the demeanor itself; for instance, many music critics—bound to an arbitrary code of “cool”ness (read: aloofness)—tend to keep a calculated distance, whereas more non-critically oriented listeners may find themselves flocking to their enormous sound like moths to a flame.

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U2 performing “Beautiful Day”—the first encore to follow their full live performance of The Joshua Tree at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Needless to say, the demographic makeup of a U2 concert audience is a mixed bag, with a marked contingent of “non-critically oriented listeners” (I commented in passing, just prior to the start of the show at the massive Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, that I’d never seen so many audience participants wearing the official tour shirt to the concert—a generally accepted faux pas among dedicated concert-goers). Just in front of us, two forty-something women clad in tight jeans and fancy blouses devoted a good half-hour of the show’s warm-up time to snapping a puzzling, unimaginative series of “selfie” photographs with their phones; now from the left angle, now from the right. As the headliner worked their way through a powerhouse of a set, I was further confounded by one of the two women’s insistence on standing perfectly still for the duration of the performance (including the slower numbers, which provoked more embittered attendees seated behind me to instruct “okay: it’s time to chill…”), occasionally raising a hesitant arm in an apparent attempt at emotional involvement—before finally deciding against it and returning to a stance of stoic semi-engagement. It dawned on me, during this shameless exercise in people-watching—a habit I’ve never been able to break totally free from at live concerts, despite my best intentions—that the band’s audience has likely grown more and more generic (and consequently, less and less musically-informed) as the years have advanced. Strangely enough, it would appear that a band once renowned for its emotional over-zealousness, has since become a huge draw for individuals wholly detached and removed from the pure, childlike love of music this band sought to foster from the very start. But here I digress…

As far as Yours Truly is concerned, the performance could hardly have been more emotionally involving, or more existentially absorbing. From the opening guitar lines of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” to the final refrain of the downbeat Achtung Baby anthem “One,” the performance was a wholly riveting and visceral exercise in what one might call “meaningful bombast.” For there was hardly an insincere moment to be had throughout the evening (barring Beck’s more irony-laden—at least, one hopes—rap-centric performance that comprised the event’s entr’acte); and I gladly count myself among the many attendees who caught themselves singing along to every song on the album proper, along with the earlier-era numbers they chose to open with, including the stunningly powerful “Bad”—my personal favorite U2 song.


The band’s intro to the album’s explosive culmination, “Exit,” was smartly paired with an image well-known to movie lovers: a pair of clenched fists flanking the stage screen—with the letters “l-o-v-e” tattooed across one set of knuckles, and “h-a-t-e” across the other. A film clip preceding Corbijn’s re-imagined visual (inspired by Robert Mitchum’s malevolent preacher in the 1955 Charles Laughton film, Night of the Hunter) shows a beady-eyed huckster addressing a town on the subject of a great wall he plans to build to keep bad people off the streets. Earlier in the night, the band’s lead singer had subtly reconfigured a lyric in “Sunday Bloody Sunday”—from “when fact is fiction and TV reality” to “when fact is fiction and reality TV.” Contrasted with Bono’s plea throughout “Exit,” to want to “believe in the hands of love,” this early bit of foreshadowing presents one of many arrows throughout the evening pointing to the night’s emotionally pivotal close (“One”). (As for the Joshua Tree denouement, it lived up to its reputation as a truly epic showdown between Edge’s painterly guitar, Larry Mullen’s loud-soft percussion, and Adam Clayton’s deceptively versatile bass lines—weaving in and out of unison to form one of the band’s most dramatic/cinematic numbers in their entire repertoire.)

On more than one occasion, the event called to mind the Depeche Mode concert in Detroit just a couple weeks prior; not merely for the slew of music-cultural associations enumerated above, but because the pure sincerity (or sincere purity?) of both performances stands in such stark contrast to just about everything that remains of pop music. When Dave Gahan led the crowd in an acapalla sing-along to the contagiously hummable chorus of “Everything Counts” (in a goosebump-inducing reprise of the grand finale to 101), it seemed to have been drawn from the same well of energy that fueled Bono’s leading the crowd in Lucas Oil Stadium through the gospel-inflected chorus of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” When Gahan and Gore introduced their setlist with the hauntingly topical themes of “Going Backwards” (a song about “turning back our history,” “piling on the miseries,” and “counting all the casualties”), it paralleled the tense, patriotically-tinted paranoia of “Bullet the Blue Sky” (“and through the walls you hear the city groan/and outside is America…“). Unlike certain younger, more precious and precocious performers (whose names I will refrain from mentioning here, for fear of this turning into a piece of disparagement, instead of a piece in praise of a lost art), the age of these two remarkably active bands serves to enhance the convincing power of the messages buried in the texts of their songs, or hiding in plain view across their surfaces. A song as majestic as “Red Hill Mining Town” is hereby rendered even more powerful through our awareness that there are few (if any) songwriters of Bono’s age, at the time the song was recorded (which, by my count, would be 27), writing anything in the vicinity of its stately elegance.

Arguably, it is this difference—more than any other outstanding aspect of these bands’ tremendously moving and awe-inspiring tours—which sets their achievements (past and present) aside from those of the up-and-comers (and-now-they’re-goners) numbered in the contemporary pop charts. For here we have two bands from the last days of an era we might as well refer to now as “pure pop:” an era that began with Sam Cooke and The Shirelles, but burned out around the time of the debut albums by The Stone Roses and Oasis. Which isn’t to say there are no sincere pop artists left standing; but rather that the medium itself has become so contaminated with self-conscious irony and advertising obligations, it can no longer embody the wholly innocent open-mindedness it once revolved around.

And yet, walking back to our car at the close of Depeche Mode’s Detroit performance, we spot (for the second time) a pair of twenty-something hair metal kids losing their shit to a perplexing setlist booming from their truck’s stereo system—a mix that betrays no critical discrimination between The Doobie Brothers and Def Leppard. The possibility of such open-mindedness can’t help but bring a smile to one’s face. Here, I could even present myself as a case in point: having turned 30 during the same year as the U2 album I saw performed live the other night, my perspective is a generation removed from the folks who first came to know and love this music. Consequently, I can discern no un-surmountable barriers between the oft-perceived coolness of Brian Eno’s solo work, and the loud vulnerability of U2’s arena-filling anthems. They both seem (to me, at least) possessed of the same innocent open-mindedness that gave birth to the vernacular of pop music. Along with the more darkly tinted vulnerability of Depeche Mode, they embody a sort of sensual integrity that seems consistently lost in the shuffle of our increasingly incidental, soundbyte-streaming culture.

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Depeche Mode performing David Bowie’s “Heroes,” as an encore to their Spirit tour setlist in Detroit.

Digging in the recent confines of my memory, I return to that stellar performance at the Pine Knob amphitheater—and that deceptively passive incitement to “snap out of it” couched within the new Depeche Mode single (“Where’s the Revolution?”). In hindsight, it seems to me less a call to arms, and more a call to re-awaken one’s emotional engagement with the human condition. Just as Bono’s closing tributes to influential women throughout the annals of history (accompanied by the achingly beautiful high point in Achtung Baby, “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)”) read less as an act of political confrontation, and more as a genuine gesture of outward compassion to the plight of humankind; something that we, so accustomed to the cynical overtones of 45’s America (and to the passivity that produced it) may feel challenged to accept at face value.

Nonetheless, such compassion is there for the taking, spread throughout the global tours of two monumental bands who refuse to give in to the temptations of self-effacing irony—insisting instead on the primal emotional forces that propelled them to crossover success in the first place. Like John, Paul, George, and Ringo; or Keith, Charlie, and Mick; or Bruce; or Prince. Or Mavis; Nina; Marvin; and Joni. Or Stevie, Christine, and Lindsey; or Chaka; or Whitney. Like the Starman/Blackstar of pop music himself, whose “Heroes” was so lovingly and movingly recited by Dave Gahan at the closure of the band’s Pine Knob setlist (easily the finest vocal performance the frontman delivered that night; as though he had set aside a special reserve of emotional energy for this tribute, set to the simple, startling image of a black flag waving against a gray sky). At one point, Bono inserted an unexpectedly moving tribute to the late heathen of pop, as well—remarking that “nothing has changed… everything has changed.” The phrase could hardly ring truer.

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Lucas Oil Stadium fills up with expectant fans of that most successful Irish pop band, touring their most successful studio achievement.

Identifying the muses of Dirty/Clean’s ulter nation album and video project.

“Women of the world, take over
‘Cause if you don’t
The world
Will come
To an end
And it won’t take long.”
– Jim O’Rourke (from “Women of the World,” off the LP Eureka)

In the following interview, Josh Egeland questions Josh England on the subject of the latest Dirty/Clean album (ulter nation), and the music videos that have been produced in support of it. The interview took place Saturday, August 12th, over coffee and muffins. Questions asked and answers given were transcribed as closely as possible, with punctuation and parenthetical notations added for editorial purposes.

* * *

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Josh Egeland (je) interviews Josh England (JE) on the topic of Dirty/Clean’s ulter nation project.

je: So I guess we can start by reviewing the videos.

JE: Okay.

je: How would you respond to allegations of plagiarism, pillaging, or creative appropriation?

JE: That’s your leading question?

je: I think it’s a fair one.

JE: Well, when you put it that way, I guess the videos are kind of plagiaristic. They do pillage from films far greater than the music on the record, and therefore represent a form of creative appropriation. So I guess I would respond by pleading guilty.

je: So you don’t personally perceive a problem?

JE: I can understand why it might be perceived as ethically problematic by some… but no, I don’t have a problem with it. Have you been to the movies much lately?

je: Can’t say that I have…

JE: …It doesn’t appear that we’re missing much. I’ve seen a lot of contemporary film-makers not struggling hard enough to discover the possibilities their predecessors had explored decades prior. Which wouldn’t be an issue, if they’d only discover possibilities of their own. But there just doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of possibility to take in at the box office… it’s all so pre-determined now, especially the CGI stuff. The way I see it, the movies I’m “quoting” in these videos—possibly the more well-known ones, even–they’re not as widely recognized or embraced by the upcoming generation as they were by my generation, and the generations before mine. I suppose, in a way, there’s a relief to be had in the notion that younger generations can discard the cultural baggage of their ancestors; in another way, it seems to reflect a broader trend of major attention deficits. I’m not delusional enough to convince myself that, by featuring these clips in my obscure little music videos, I’ll bring about some big revival of cinephilia. But I guess I see this less as pillaging, and more as showcasing: highlighting the possibilities of a craft, which currently appears addicted to its own degradation.

je: But there are still good movies being made, no?

JE: Absolutely! But as with any number of pursuits in our advanced technological age, the butter seems to be spread out rather thinly. It’s like this remark of Brian Eno’s, from an interview with some British magazine earlier this year: the problem isn’t that there aren’t good records being made anymore, but rather, there’s too much good music out there, and no honest distribution system in place to facilitate a genuine zeitgeist (as opposed to a strategized one). But with movies, I think we’re far worse off. It’s like we went from a generation of film brats, all scrambling to fill the director’s seat, to a generation that doesn’t appear to have any real perspective on the historical weight of the craft itself.

je: And you think you’re in some kind of position to address this perceived oversight?

JE: I don’t pretend to be an expert on the matter, no. But I’ve spent more hours digesting movies than most people spend digesting food in their lifetime. Maybe that’s what seems to be missing… true love of the craft, as opposed to love of one’s own style; there’s a lot of that going around now. Did you see La La Land?

je: Yes.

JE: Case in point.

je: It wasn’t a great movie, I’ll give you that. But the intention behind it seemed noble.

JE: And that’s the problem. There’s nothing more detrimental to a good movie than a self-imposed aura of nobility.

je: But how is what you’re doing here any different? I detect a hint of self-righteous nobility in your complaint…

JE: I’m not trying to reproduce the feel of a bygone era by running off a photocopy and filling it in with new faces.

je: But you did cover a rather early OMD song on this latest Dirty/Clean record, didn’t you?

JE: That was a very personal… a very important song to me. Not just as a musician, but as a person. If you listen, there’s nothing really stylized in what we did. Our cover is straightforward and fairly removed: I made a very deliberate, very mindful decision to not come across like I was cashing in on a classic. I hope I succeeded; I mean, if it had been successful, I would’ve been embarrassed… Which is in part why it’s tacked on at the tail end of the record. At one time, it wasn’t even going to be on the record.

Official music video for “Souvenir”—a cover of the 1981 Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark single—directed by Jennifer Taylor.

je: So if you don’t view your project in line with stylistic homage, what category would you place it in? Or is there a category you feel comfortable with?

JE: I personally view our video experiment more in line with DJ culture, and other sorts of post-modern music and video production. When you think back on it, and despite its detractors, the early days of MTV saw the rise of several different approaches: straight-faced, lip-synced performance clips; “literal” music videos; and those experimental, sometimes disengaged montages of found footage. Have you seen Devo’s music video for their early song, “Mongoloid”?

je: I think so. It’s kind of literal, isn’t it?

JE: It is—but it’s also made of found footage, so it’s pretty abstract. And that’s what makes it work, as a video. It’s the surrealism behind it: the message beneath the surface. If something “found” can coincide so directly with the message in the song, then the message can’t be all that original in the first place, can it? It’s a concession of redundancy. It’s about not pretending that what you have to say is entirely original, but accepting that it’s been said before; and its strength lies in its repetition.

je: Let’s move on and talk about your selection process, in putting these videos together. How do you decide what clips are going to accompany each song?

JE: Mostly by intuition, which is how most of the songs were written. In fact, a lot of the films quoted throughout these videos provided fairly specific inspiration for the songs.

je: I imagine you’re referring to “Red Desert,” “Eclipse,” and “I.D. d’une Femme”?

JE: All of them, really. But yes—those all carry film titles in their name, so the influence of those movies could have been more prominent.

je: I can’t help but notice that the women in these films are showcased more prominently than the male protagonists, in looking at your videos. Was that deliberate?

JE: Yes and no.

je: [expectant pause]

JE: Well, to the filmmakers’ credit—all of whom, in reference to the clips selected, were men—women were showcased rather prominently in their movies. I mean, god: Monica Vitti and Antonioni… can you think of a more visually co-dependent relationship in the history of movies, between muse and director?

je: [pensive pause] Robert Altman and Shelley Duvall; Fassbinder and Schygulla; Godard and Anna Karina—and later, Anne Wiazemsky; John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands; Lynch and Laura Dern…

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David Lynch and his long-time muse, Laura Dern, appearing side-by-side in Twin Peaks: The Return. 2017 © Showtime Networks.

JE: Godard and Cassavetes both cast their wives, which is a different dynamic altogether. Altman utilized Duvall in supporting roles, often—strong ones, no doubt. And Fassbinder used an entire theater troupe’s worth of women actors, more or less as frequently as he used Hanna Schygulla; she just got paid more. Lynch has a fairly fetishistic, late-era Buñuel thing going on these days… Have you seen how he’s cast Chrysta Bell in the new Twin Peaks?

je: There is a bit of the proverbial dirty old man in him…

JE: But at least he’s upfront and transparent about it: like the Mael brothers. I’ll take that over these broad gestures of pseudo-feminist empowerment vis-a-vis male writers looking to get laid, which is what we appear to be seeing a lot of these days.

je: Let’s get back to Antonioni.

JE: Certainly. What was the question again?

je: Was it a deliberate choice, for you to showcase Monica Vitti more prominently than, say, Marcello Mastroianni or Gabriele Ferzetti?

JE: It was a deliberate choice insofar as my eye instinctively gravitated towards the scenes with Vitti, Moreau, Maria Schneider, and Daniela Silverio dominating the frame. When you watch those films—the alienation trilogy, The Passenger, and Identification of a Woman—you’re basically just waiting for the women to come back into the picture, whenever they’re not in the scene. It’s actually the entire premise in Identification of a Woman, just as it is in L’Avventura. Only Mastroianni and Jack Nicholson come anywhere close to competing with the women for our attention, as viewers. And they still fall short some of the time, in my opinion.

je: But Jack Nicholson is the protagonist in The Passenger, and Mastroianni and Moreau play the leads in La Notte. I mean, isn’t Monica Vitti only in that one party scene?

JE: Yes—the one that Pauline Kael lambasted, in multiple reviews. Have you read her take?

je: I think so…

JE: If I’m recalling correctly, she referred to Vitti’s performance as a failed parody of a Hollywood glamour girl.

je: Ouch. I take it you disagree?

JE: I don’t know that I disagree, so much as I never gave it much thought from that angle. I mean, Monica Vitti is so captivating as a performer… maybe what Kael responded to so negatively in her performances was the way that she routinely sabotages, or at least calls into question, Antonioni’s over-reaching authorship of those movies. I’ve never quite been able to determine whether she just wasn’t a very good actor, and couldn’t execute her character the way it was written, or if she was a really amazing actor, trafficking in deliberate obtuseness. I think that’s part of what makes those movies so intriguing to this day; because there are other ways in which they have not aged well.

je: I take it you’re referring to that one scene in L’Eclisse

JE: That’s certainly a prime example! And in a perverse sort of way, it’s a testament to the unstated brilliance of Vitti’s performance: you can’t quite tell whether she is personally oblivious to the culturally abhorrent implications of donning blackface, or if she’s doing a really spot-on parody of an oblivious, bougie white woman. Either way, the scene itself is lamentable, and it probably spoils an otherwise great movie for many viewers.

je: While we’re on the subject of racial representation, how would you respond if someone criticized your project as Euro-centric?

JE: I suppose I’d have to say that it is. But isn’t it sort of obvious? I mean, the CD packaging has more Italian text on the cover than it has English. But like I’ve already written and spoken about in previous interviews, that component of the project pertains very specifically to my experiences growing up in Europe, and not experiencing my homeland until many years later. I’m fairly certain that if I had reached out farther than what I’m familiar with, geographically speaking, it would’ve seemed about as forced and incoherent as one of Monica Vitti’s malapropisms.

Official music video for “Red Desert,” showcasing more of the muses who provided inspiration for the songs on ulter nation. (More muses featured in the videos for “Eclipse” and “Into the Night (Pt. I)”).

je: Let’s talk about the most recent music video, for “Red Desert.”

JE: Sure thing. What do you want to know?

je: For starters, I notice that your credits in the video description highlight all the women in the video, but you neglect to make mention of the men. And it does seem to me that Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy [in Tarkovsky’s Stalker] and Richard Harris [in Antonioni’s Red Desert] share quite a bit of screen time with the women in your video.

JE: True, but that’s beside the point. “Red Desert” is one video for which I would definitively answer “yes” to your previous question—about how deliberate my “casting” of these women might have been.

je: What are you trying to convey through this gesture?

JE: I’m not sure that I’m really trying to convey anything in particular. The video is less a statement than a summoning.

je: Not sure I follow you…

JE: It’s most obvious in the Marianne Faithfull clips from that odd little Kenneth Anger movie, Lucifer Rising. And the scenes with Monkey, Stalker’s daughter in the Tarkovsky film.

je: You’re referring to the supernatural, then?

JE: Not just the supernatural in general, but the supernatural power of women in particular, throughout the annals of history. While working on the songs for ulter nation, I was reading a lot—which I find to be very helpful, creatively—and I was struck by this chapter Marianne Faithfull has published about her experiences with Kenneth Anger. It was for her second autobiography, called Dreaming My Dreams. Have you read it?

je: I believe so.

JE: It’s a great read. I think I like it even better than the first one. There’s this chapter where she recounts the full story of how she was living on this wall in Soho, strung out on heroin, and Kenneth Anger showed up and invited her to fly with him to Egypt to play [mythical figure] Lilith in one of his experimental movies. She did the part, but then realized, as she was crawling through a Muslim graveyard with Max Factor blood dripping off of her, that maybe it wasn’t such a great idea. She paints a more broadly desecrating picture of Kenneth in that first biography, but enough time seems to have passed by the time she revisits the story in her second book… she seems a little less one-sided on the matter. But she still seems affected by the fact that he placed some lame little curse on her, after she published that first tell-all.

je: She has had an awfully challenging few decades since then…

JE: Yeah, but she’s survived, hasn’t she? I mean, tomorrow isn’t a given thing, and the reaper will eventually pay us all a visit. But getting back to my initial point, I think Marianne Faithfull is a testament to the resiliency of humankind—and of women, specifically. I wanted to highlight that in the video for “Red Desert.” It’s a song that takes, as inspiration, my perception of women as having been trapped, all throughout history, in a man-made machine fueled by this primal fear of what might happen if they were unleashed. Like in Red Desert, where this incredibly engaging woman lives out a perfectly unnecessary, meaningless existence—in a landscape that’s been depleted of natural resources and coated in smog. Looking back, I think a lot of really great critics, like Pauline Kael, voiced their anger and disdain for this movie out of an incredulity that such a premise could ever come to fruition. It may be one of the first truly convincing, fully-realized dystopian films… a sort of antidote to Buñuel’s utopian vision of Robinson Crusoe.

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Monica Vitti rules the screen in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964). © renewed 2010, Criterion Collection.

je: [pause] Yeah, I can’t think of anything made prior to it that is comparable, at least in that regard. There’s a lot of dystopian motifs at play in the works of German Expressionists, but few are convincing from the standpoint of realism. And in looking at the clips you used in the music video, it does seem as though Antonioni’s film carries a pretty startling visual resonance—considering our current cultural and ecological circumstances.

JE: It totally resonates today. Because here we are thinking, “how much worse will things get, if, or when the effects of climate change become irreversible and totally relentless?” The movie itself came out around the same time the worldwide ecological movement started gaining momentum. You know, those years following the ravages of World War II, when the costs of environmental disregard started showing. But it seems to me there was a lot of complacency at the time—even within the movement. Which isn’t to say people didn’t really care about the environment, only that folks couldn’t easily appreciate the full ramifications of what all was at stake. Not as easily as we can now.

je: But aren’t ecological issues universal? I mean, they affect men just as eminently as…

JE: …women, and children; and cats, dogs; bees and plants. Of course they do. But we seem to be perched at a point in history where progressive politics—if they actually are going to persevere, and don’t just crumble in on themselves—will face a self-imposed choice between identity politics and environmental politics. And I sense an inherent danger at this intersection: that by quarantining social issues in order to focus on the “bigger picture,” we may still lose the war, and our social problems will only have gotten worse.

je: …Having lost the battle and the war simultaneously.

JE: Exactly. I mean, if we can’t all even brings ourselves peaceably live together on this planet, why try to save it?

je: And conversely, if we can’t bring ourselves to save the planet, why bother living peaceably together?

JE: They’re mutually dependent clauses. I think that’s something Antonioni implied, intentionally or inadvertently, in the text of Red Desert. The implications of the dilemma are totally discomfiting, and I can appreciate why someone like Pauline Kael would be miffed by a premise this bleak. When you consider the potential for nurturing and painting the environment you want to live in through artistic expression, it’s as if Antonioni did the exact opposite, while at the same time displaying a sort of willingness to put up with this uninhabitable world he created. Like Monica Vitti, he leaves us wondering about the degree of intended irony in his performance, as director. But deep down, I believe he was rooting for humanity. I think if he had been a total cynic, he would have just filmed buildings and left the people out altogether.

je: I believe Fassbinder made the same argument, in response to those allegations of misogyny: that a true misogynist wouldn’t even feature women in their movie.

JE: Yeah… looking back on that one, it’s an over-simplified retort, but it still rings true. I mean, I think the most popular form of misogyny these days is of the “I want women to exist, but only as pregnancy vessels” variety; you know, the whole Handmaid’s Tale, Mike Pence sort of thing.

je: There’s also a troubled history within the gay community…

JE: Yes. Men seem to be a recurring problem in this picture, don’t they? I mean, there have been truly militant, men-hating women throughout history…

je: You mean Valerie Solanas?

JE: Yeah, that whole SCUM Manifesto clique. But historically, most of the world’s sexist rancor seems to come from the other side of the gender spectrum—the side with the most inherited economic power.

je: An interesting point, but I fear we’re getting side-tracked. Let’s get back to that bit about summoning…

JE: Okay, shoot.

je: What do you see as the relationship between Monkey, Marianne, Julianne Moore, Monica Vitti, and Jane Bowles (as played by Debra Winger)?

JE: Apart from the fact that they all acted as my muses during this project, I think they are all women whose presence on-screen seems to summon an other-ness, an untapped energy—something beyond everyday, superficial gestures of power.

je: Please explain.

JE: Take Marianne, for instance. I mean, she was at (or near) her very lowest in that Kenneth Anger film. But she steals the movie, when you look at it today. All the other expressions of mystical occultism in the picture seem pretty hokey now, but she was an outsider from the start, and she carries that with her throughout her scenes. Even as a homeless woman strung out on heroin, she was able to project something way more powerful than all the other kitschy, ponderous gestures of magic in Anger’s movies. When she sobered up and started putting out these wonderful records, I think it became apparent just how under-estimated she had been, creatively speaking, in her formative years. Back when Kenneth Anger could be held up as this great, subversive film-maker, but Marianne could only be seen as a rich, spoiled junkie. I mean, that was hardly ever the public’s perception of Mick, and he had far more auspicious beginnings…

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Mick and Marianne, cotton candy in hand; photographed in the late 1960s by Jonathan Stone (date and location unknown).

je: And then there was the whole “Sister Morphine” debacle…

JE: Yeah. But they worked that one out eventually: I think there were some pretty pragmatic implications at play in her exclusion from the original songwriting credit—something to do with the Stones’ publishing arrangement. But the outcome didn’t reflect the nuances at play. She wasn’t really perceived to be a creative contributor to the Stones by most people, at the time.

je: So by featuring only her scenes from Lucifer Rising in the “Red Desert” video, are you attempting to restore some kind of artistic merit to her legacy?

JE: I don’t know that I would go that far… I mean, hasn’t she already done that for herself, several times over? She’s that rare sort of artist, whose records just seem to get better as years go by.

je: Good one.

JE: The pun wasn’t intentional. Horses and High Heels and Give My Love to London are truly amazing records.

je: And Before the Poison. And Kissin’ Time

JE: And Vagabond Ways: her reading of “Tower of Song”…

je: We’re getting side-tracked again.

JE: Rightly so.

je: Let’s talk about the other women in the video—Jane Bowles and Julianne Moore, for instance.

JE: Sure. Jane Bowles was this amazingly ahead-of-her-time fiction writer, whose work was largely eclipsed at the time by the popularity of her husband’s writing.

je: Paul Bowles.

JE: Yes. He hit it pretty big with The Sheltering Sky, but Jane had published her novel, Two Serious Ladies, some years prior. And Two Serious Ladies is arguably a much smarter novel, and maybe more prescient, in terms of literary evolution. It’s this wonderful, counter-hedonistic tale of two women vacationing together in Panama: they basically go searching for squalor, and then wind up in all these unnecessarily dangerous situations.

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Jane Bowles, photographed for Vogue magazine in 1946.

je: I’ve read it. It’s a very different sort of book, I’ll give you that.

JE: I think it’s one of John Waters’ favorites.

je: That would make sense.

JE: As for Julianne Moore, the scenes featured in our video are from a movie she did with Todd Haynes in the ’90s, called Safe.

je: A deeply unsettling movie-going experience, if ever there was one.

JE: It’s a challenging movie, to be sure. But it’s brilliantly subversive.

je: As I recall, you never really find out what caused her character’s illness, or whether it was psycho-somatically induced.

JE: Exactly. Like Picnic at Hanging Rock; or those really abstract noirs, like Laura. But it’s also subversive in its portrayal gender dynamics, and its dismantling of character stereotypes. For instance, there’s this therapist at the desert resort she goes to, played by Peter Friedman. When you first discover that he has HIV/AIDS, you’re naturally compelled to sympathize with him, as a character. I mean, Safe came out just two years after Jonathan Demme taught movie-goers that individuals living with AIDS are still people: at the time, that was a pretty radical idea to be conveyed through mainstream channels.

je: Through Tom Hanks, no less!

JE: Exactly! Even though he’d done Bosom Buddies and Bachelor Party, he’d earned a pretty straight-laced, non-delinquent reputation by the time of Philadelphia. And that performance set in motion a shift in public perception, in viewing people who live with HIV/AIDS. Hanks’s performance provoked viewers to sympathize, but in a really pitiful way; which I guess is the first step towards developing empathy for the plight of others, but it barely scratches the surface.

je: I think the proximity in time, between Demme’s film and the epidemic that wiped out the gay community in so many American cities, played a pretty significant role in the movie’s sentimentalized codes.

JE: I can only imagine how fresh those wounds must have been… But I also think there were some apparent detriments in the selection of Hanks, and in his subsequent characterization of Andrew Beckett. It wound up a little stilted in the direction of talking down to your audience. It also seems, in some ways, to echo that terrible phrase, “the deserving poor:” Hanks was seen by many at the time as “the deserving homo.” But this openly queer filmmaker [Todd Haynes] came along just two years later, subverting a fairly recently developed audience expectation with the character of Peter, who has the same illness but isn’t entirely sympathetic. Suddenly, the audience has to confront this culturally normalized, cognitive fallacy: the ridiculous idea that people living with illnesses—and specifically, individuals living with HIV/AIDS—are by default pitiful and apologetic.

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Julianne Moore as Carol White, the confined protagonist of Todd Haynes’s early masterwork, Safe (1995). © Sony Pictures Classics.

je: Wouldn’t you say that Moore’s character comes across as pitiful at times?

JE: For sure! But it’s what you read into it; what you project, as a viewer. If you study her performance, which is a tour de force, you’ll notice she doesn’t really do a whole lot, in terms of positive character reinforcement. She’s just this slow-moving negative space, incapable of finding fulfillment within the shitty environment she’s entrapped by. And Peter winds up being this sort of oppressive male figure—flying in the face of what we’ve been conditioned to expect; especially when you consider that the author is a gay man.

je: What about Monkey, the daughter in Stalker?

JE: Like Marianne Faithfull in Lucifer Rising, she’s the real star of that movie, if you ask me.

je: Not a convincing assessment, if one were to judge by screen time. She appears in just a fraction of the movie’s three-hour running length.

JE: Screen time isn’t entirely relevant when considering who’s the star of a picture. Who do you see as the star in Blade Runner?

je: Harrison Ford[?]

JE: See, that’s where you’re wrong. It’s Rutger Hauer’s movie: Harrison Ford’s detective is only there—and I mean this narratively as well as interpretively—to lead you to Roy Batty. Who is, like Julianne and Monica’s characters, an entrapped outsider.

Official music video for “Into the Night (Pt. II),” featuring the entrapped outsider of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982): Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer).

je: As far as I can recall, however, Monkey isn’t much of an “entrapped” figure in Stalker.

JE: It is implied that she’s living with a physical disability. In this way, she’s entrapped by the limitations of her movement. Which she later succeeds in compensating for—or overcompensating for—through telepathy. I mean, if you really break it down, the girl who plays Monkey in Stalker makes the entire movie: visuals aside, I find the journey with the three men kind of tedious at times—which I’m sure was intentional on Tarkovsky’s part. But as far as entertainment goes, the movie succeeds because it saves the payoff for that very last scene. And Monkey is the payoff.

je: You certainly get a lot of mileage out of that scene in your video.

JE: It’s just an incredible piece of finished film, and I couldn’t pull myself away from it in the editing stage. And Natasha Abramova totally sells it: the magic of the scene; the mystery.

je: She looks kind of bored.

JE: Well, as with your reading of Julianne Moore, that’s just a projection. She doesn’t have to project a specific thought or idea in the scene, because all the scene seems to require is her presence—her aura. Like Marina Abramović, or Joan Crawford, Abramova’s presence is so far greater than the limitations of the medium. I think a lot of men who are filmmakers scramble to bottle this essence within the vessel of their movie—not always malevolently, mind you—but so often we’re left wanting more than what they were able, or willing to capture.

© 2010 Scott Ruddwww.scottruddphotography.com scott.rudd@gmail.com

Marina Abramović, being present (from her 2010 installation, The Artist Is Present).

je: So it sounds like this focus on women may have been more intentional than you led me to believe at first.

JE: Could be, I don’t know. Does it really matter?

je: In a sense, I think it does. I mean, don’t you think that restoring women’s perspectives within the arts is a job best done…

JE: By women? If we’re going to state the obvious, this entire project amounts to nothing more than a fledgling attempt at expressing my view of the world we live in.

je: Glad to hear you’re not posing as a provocateur. That would’ve been embarrassing for us both.

JE: If I’m trying to prove a point through this project, it’s how the history of women in film–which is chronically troubled by cases of women being sexualized and abused; having to adopt men’s names, just to get the writing credit they’d earned as a woman; not getting to express their creative vision with the same sort of unrestricted leeway granted their male counterparts—is frequently a history of confinement. Which echoes the history of womankind. There’ve been all these great performances, and films made by women throughout history; but we’re left wondering just how [emph. added] much more illuminating these works could’ve been if the power deferential in our society weren’t so unevenly distributed along gender lines.

je: Isn’t that a fairly broad statement, artistically speaking?

JE: It’s broad, because there’s a broader truth in it. But there is another, more specific truth that I’m trying to comprehend in all this: and that’s the growing absence of subversiveness in the arts. That seems, to me, a bona fide cultural problem right now.

je: How so?

JE: Well, for starters, it’s made for a pretty lame and increasingly confined reality, as of late. Nobody seems to be making any real waves, unless they engage in acts of brutal violence, or sacrifice themselves at the reality television altar.

je: Have you considered that may just be the cost of contemporary comfort? I mean, with all the wealth and the luxury we’ve acquired in our society, there seems to be less and less of a call for subversiveness.

JE: That is a factor, no doubt about it. But it doesn’t seem to entirely account for the bigger problem, either. After all, income inequality is at an all-time high; increasingly consolidated corporations continue to own and buy up everything in sight. There’s plenty for people to be upset about in the socio-political arena, yet all of it—the instigators, the responders, the counter-attacks—seems trapped in this disorienting veneer of reality television. And all of our movies seem to be paraphrasing some kind of past, whether actual or non-existent: they’re either nostalgia pieces or superhero remakes, a lot of them taking place during the time of the “greatest generation.” And I’m not saying it’s all bad by default, but it’s getting kinda old; and the redundancy only serves to draw one’s attention to how much money they always feel compelled to spend, the second and third time around…

je: But doesn’t social unrest often breed nostalgia and escapism, as an alternative to dealing head-on with the real issues?

JE: For sure! And comfort is the antithesis of anarchy. But I think the level of complacency we’re seeing is basically a direct extension of our technological comfort, as opposed to reflecting our essential creature comforts. Which is fairly new, in evolutionary terms. I mean, I imagine there must be a lot of people out there who, if they were forced to choose between clothing or shelter, and having a smartphone—they’d take the phone.

je: That might provide the basis for an interesting study…

JE: It would, but I don’t think people really want to know the answer. We’re all afraid to admit how much we’ve been afflicted by technological addiction; and it’s been rapidly changing the way we all think, feel, and communicate with each other. It’s also changed the way we view one another—either strengthening or challenging our perceptions of each other. For instance, there was that moment of shock, when the breakdown of voters in the 2016 election came out, and we learned that a majority of white women voted for this disgusting, misogynistic caricature that we now have to live with for four years.

je: That was rather alarming.

JE: It was… But then I was equally alarmed by how quickly people turned around and criticized women for a tragedy that’s been playing itself out for centuries now: the tragedy of people being told not to be themselves, over and over, to the point where they start following the negative instruction. And it’s all kinds of people: women, gay people, trans-gendered people, people of color… In a way, I think mainstream progressivism is frequently culpable of a similar offense—only from the more informed end of the spectrum, and in a more constructive fashion: they often tell people how to speak, how to act. Which isn’t the best approach, either.

je: A rose by another name?

JE: Not really. I mean, there’s no comparing the fascistic, idiotic, and reactionary rhetoric of the present-day right wing, to the Lean Cuisine progressivism of the present-day left. But taking into account the advanced technology we’ve been armed and mobilized with, it’s become that much easier to convince millions of people to fall in line: to stop thinking for themselves and to silence their own subversive thoughts—which is even less arduous, for the powers that be, than forcing them into silence. It’s like that thing Pasolini said in one of those late interviews, around the time he made Salò: that bit about politicians displaying a tolerance as vast as it is false.

je: Like that picture—the one with 45 waving the rainbow flag…

JE: Exactly! And look how many gay men fell for it. I mean, it’s sad and disappointing, but it’s also a reminder of the overarching human problem at play here. I mean, identity politics are so prominent and so profoundly important right now, and there’s no reason to downplay them. But there’s also the broader consideration that human minds are being bought and sold every day by algorithms and advertisements: and most of the time, we’re totally oblivious to it.

je: Like all the people whose votes were bought by savvy researchers at Cambridge Analytica.

JE: …Or the consumers who only want to see movies or buy records—that is, if they still spend money on music—when they have a certain rating on Rotten Tomatoes, or have earned a certain baseline of shares and likes from their friends on social media. Which is so weird to me, because there’s this unprecedented access to the widest array of media on the internet, and yet the majority of consumers appear to be stuck inside the same handful of pre-determined pathways; whether it’s the Huffington Post, Breitbart, Vice, Marc Maron, or the guy with the big glasses who reviews music on YouTube. Not that I have a problem with Marc Maron; he seems like a really nice guy.

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Still from Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film, Koyaanisqatsi. © renewed 2012, Criterion Collection.

je: But wouldn’t you say there’s a more eclectic range of content and feedback on the internet, than there used to be in print?

JE: In quantifiable terms, yes. But you wouldn’t guess it by glancing through the first dozen or so search results. We’ve gone from one extreme to the other—from not having enough options to having too many options. And as a society, we’ve failed to establish any kind of real balance in our information hierarchy. It’s the prophecy of Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, fulfilled: a “life out of balance.” We can all see how it’s resulted in a lot of lowest common denominator communication—along with millions of people rehashing the same ideas over and over, not recognizing how they’ve been outmoded or disproven on any number of prior occasions. It all seems so tedious. I can only hope the previously foreseen possibilities of a one-way internet model appear less enticing to those who developed it, now that the worst of these possibilities are being actualized on a minute-by-minute basis.

je: What would you say are the positive possibilities that aren’t being actualized, artistically speaking?

JE: Honestly, I think the best we can hope for within the Berners-Lee system—as opposed to the Ted Nelson system, which would’ve been two-way, and would’ve preserved context—is post-modernist pastiche. It’s the only school of contemporary art that’s ironic enough to match the confused, constrictive implications of the World Wide Web. I mean, post-modernists used to get criticized in a lot of art circles—maybe they still do—for closing themselves off to more “genuine” modes of communication, and behaving as though irony were the only viable tone of creative communication. Then there were filmmakers, like Lynch and Almodóvar, who started pushing the limits of post-modernism in their movies—channeling this fairly surreal, but not-totally-insincere sort of melodrama that nearly took the medium to a new level, artistically speaking. I mean, we still have yet to live up to the possibilities revealed by Godard and Kieslowski; even Ophuls. But considering the state of the arts in 2017—not to mention the state of arts criticism—I’d settle for a revival of post-modernist irony at this point. Hell: I’d settle for just about any clearly stated artistic theory in the popular arts, at this point!

je: Let’s remember: Moonlight did win the Best Picture Academy Award this year.

JE: Yeah, that really was a beautiful thing… even though it probably wouldn’t have happened had 45 not been elected, which is a confoundingly sad thought. But you’re right: we must find hope somewhere.

je: Indeed. And besides, there’s nothing left to post-modernize.

JE: Touché.

* * *

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Natasha Abramova plays Monkey, Stalker’s daughter in Tarkovsky’s acclaimed 1979 masterpiece. © renewed 2017, Criterion Collection.

ulter nation by Dirty/Clean is available to stream and purchase on BandCamp.

“Well I been workin’ in a coal mine
Goin’ down, down
Working in a coal mine
Whew! About to slip down…”

There’s a memorable bridge in Allen Toussaint’s hit song, “Working in a Coal Mine” (first recorded by Lee Dorsey in 1966, but cleverly reiterated by the avant-punk Devo during their New Traditionalists phase): “how long can this go on?” Setting aside the uncanny relevance of the song’s labor-specific subject matter, this bridge—which operates as a segue into an endless loop of the song’s other two lyrics—may well be the defining phrase of 2017.


I’ve been publishing a series of essays (written while all of this insanity unfolds in real time) with the intent of trying to make sense of the insensible, and of enhancing my perspective with the insights—some timeless; some timely—provided by our shared experience of the arts. It’s become abundantly clear to me, and to many others with whom I’ve discussed the matter, that engaging in dialogue with others on current events frequently leaves us stranded and frustrated amid a disparate range of willfully self-directed interpretations. On the left, center-left, and center-right, we find a fairly willful adherence to some form of factual certainty and coherence (though even this can vary quite a bit, depending on the topic); on the right and far-right, and in certain fringes of the far-left, there remains a recurring, willful defiance of factual certainty, and an open embrace of the incoherent (who knew that flat-Earthers, Holocaust deniers, Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists, vaccination skeptics, and 9/11 truthers would become so… normalized? Or perhaps, stealing their line of attack, we are meant to believe they are the hoax: mere figments of Alex Jones’s disturbingly profitable imagination–or a series of engineered holograms posing as panelists on Fox News*). The doom-laden phrase, “triumph of the will,” has rarely seemed so relevant.

And as our respective news feeds continue to proliferate themselves—with our curated diets of information sources acting as an imperfect filter—we find the same streams of angry, embittered comments, flowing like a river of wasted time and effort beneath the bridge of each newly disturbing headline. An archetypal troll from the opposing side of the political fence will invariably pop up on any given news news site to rectify the perceived injustice committed by rival commentators; a clone of social consciousness will swiftly rise to the occasion on the other side, basking in the private glow of self-righteous fact-and-privilege-checking, and occasionally sharing their moment of triumph with their entourage of fellow liberal Facebook friends (“look at me! I was right… again!”) Undoubtedly, there is some social benefit to be attained by taking down trolls on social media. But as someone with no real taste for the sport—and a lack of adequate patience to keep up with the furious, sleepless pace of said trolls—I question whether this perceived benefit can ever outweigh the inherent shortcoming to this game: namely, the failure to affect any notable change in the offending party’s stance or conviction of their own rightness. More often than not, such exchanges leave both parties confident in their own private victory. To steal a lyric from Errol Morris: Every 1’s a winner, baby—that’s the truth!

Short of re-calibrating my own parameters for social media interaction (not to mention, reallocating valuable time in each given day, which could be used to research the issues most pressing to my community and call a Senator or Representative, in a more organized effort to bring about a concrete change for the better), I’ve settled upon my existing blog format as the ideal venue to explore these issues from a different angle. Since writing about films, books, music, and other media has always come more naturally to me, perhaps it’s best I operate within this scope—using arts as a lens through which these disorienting issues, events, and catastrophes might achieve a newfound clarity; after all, isn’t that what the arts were intended for?

* * *

zen-mc-1000x658

Robert M. Pirsig’s best-selling “Inquiry into Values,” first published in 1974. Pirsig passed away in April of this year.

A literary hero of mine, the late Robert Pirsig, wrote in his well-loved manual (Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) about the surgical knife that all of us—meaning, all thinking human beings—wield to divide and conquer various fields of knowledge. At great length, he expounds upon the assorted hazards and perks associated with slicing apart issues into identifiable components—with some incisions leading to a heightened or improved sense of awareness and understanding, and others leading to greater misinterpretation and chaos. One faulty incision I’ve found myself culpable of (on occasion) entails the somewhat naive division of “good” from “bad,” cut along the same lines used to objectively divide “fact followers” from “fact deniers” (or, worse yet: “alternative fact followers”). It’s the same mistake I see many commenters perpetrating in their counter-attacks to those pesky right-wing trolls: in less time than it takes for someone to even decipher the nuances of another’s perspective, the gauntlet of character aspersions has been thrown down, and ignorance has quietly been conflated with an innate “badness.”

It’s a tricky incision to navigate, to be sure. After all, ignorance is “bad”—insofar as it frequently provides a foundation for malicious, combative, even assaultive behaviors (not to mention bad life choices). But if one returns to the definition of the word itself, one will be reminded that ignorance is a mere “lack of knowledge or education,” and does not invariably imply malice. Because contrary to the view held by some (if not many), simply presenting factual information does not constitute a fully-formed act of education (though it’s certainly a starting point): explanation, moderation, and clarification are essential follow-up steps—steps, I might add, for which comment threads, memes, and sardonic commentary have consistently proven themselves structurally prohibitive. After all, how many times have we found ourselves questioning facts that contradict our pre-existing cognitive bias, or pointing to isolated incidents as vindication of our own fears? Perhaps Randy Newman said it best in a recent interview for BBC Radio 2, in which he observed of the many folks who voted for 45: “there are people who are older, looking for something to blame for hurting when they get up.” And whereas willful ignorance remains a perceived offense (in my private opinion), it is, nevertheless, a testament to the strength of the human will; and therefore our duty—as humans—to recall how all of us fall prey to misguided impulses on occasion.

But while I’ve brought myself to the stage where I can accept the fundamental error in this analytical incision, the foremost question on the tip of my tongue remains: “how long can this go on?” For it is clear we are at a tipping point, as a species, and the cliff we’ve perched ourselves on presents a longer fall than many of us are prepared to embrace (the fall of unmanageable climate change factors, a brewing civil war, and an all-too-near nuclear holocaust). A situation this urgent and precarious is unlikely to be resolved by memes, Twitter wars, and desktop social justice warriors. Quite simply, something’s got to give or go—and for the majority of the country (thankfully), that something is our current administration. If/Once 45 is gone, however, what next? To paraphrase a classic Stevie Nicks/Fleetwood Mac song, will we know how to pick up the pieces and go home? And where is home? For thousands of Americans who became victims of hate crimes following the election of 45, millions of minorities whose basic civil rights have been stripped and/or called into question, and the thousands of immigrants arrested and/or deported (many forced to leave with their naturalized, U.S.-born children), it is unclear whether the United States really is a home. If all it took was an ex-wrestling con man with a bad haircut and “billions of billions in foreign debts to scratch away the surface of social politesse we’ve so steadily clung to over the past five-plus decades, perhaps we were doomed from the start.

* * *

Just the other night, I revisited Billy Wilder’s classic Hollywood satire, Sunset Boulevard (1950). It’s a film I’ve known and loved since I was a teenager, but it has been years since I last screened it, and I found myself reading the movie in a very different light. Having just finished Kenneth Anger’s infamous tell-all Hollywood Babylon, I carried with me an increased appreciation for the proliferation of in-jokes and allusions to old Hollywood lore; I also carried an aftertaste of Anger’s cynicism. For as brilliant and frequently hilarious as Wilder’s film remains, there is a bleakness permeating the picture that corresponds both to Anger’s witchcraft-laced brand of queer mysticism, and our own country’s present-day aura of despair.

It would be difficult to watch the fateful narrative unfold and not draw parallels to our current administration: and if that lamenting, narcissistic ingenue of days gone by (Norma Desmond, unforgettably personified by Gloria Swanson) reads as a stand-in for 45, then Max—her chauffeur, doorman, and former director (played by the legendary silent filmmaker Erich Von Stroheim)—fittingly represents the monster who created him (Steve Bannon—who, ironically, got his start in the movies). And Joe? Well, he’s the aspiring go-getter who become inextricably entangled in the White House web: the young staffer who stumbled upon a seemingly golden job opportunity, had his doubts from the start, but was ensnared by the allure of climbing the ladder and joining the ranks of those who are winning so much they’re “sick of winning.” But there are several key differences between the scenario of Wilder’s film and our present-day circumstances—foremost of which is the simple fact that Norma Desmond actually worked for her position. Though propped up by the pampering adulation and decadent luxuries of Hollywood in the “roaring twenties,” Norma represents a beacon of hard-earned popular appeal: having starred in an untold number of pictures and climbed her way up through the sycophantic studio system, Ms. Desmond reflects the corruption of the social and economic structures that made such a life appealing in the first place. On the flip-side, our 45th president remains—and will forever be seen as—a reflection of his own over-inflated ego, and the unearned/un-achieved laurels he must rest upon in perpetuity to stoke its dying embers.

Sunset_Blvd-7

A camera-starved Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) descends the staircase at the end of Wilder’s 1950 Hollywood masterpiece—the only means by which the police can lure her out of her dressing room to face criminal charges. (Foreshadowing for the Mueller trial?)

If Norma Desmond is a first generation diva, having sweated her way to the top of the pop culture food chain (only to fall hard and fast upon entering her “golden years”), 45 is a third-generation wannabe—who is unlikely to fall very far, having the advantage of nothing to live up to (along with the simple socio-economic advantage of having a penis). Some Americans seemed to question how, at the apex of his candidacy, 45’s supporters found themselves willing and ready to overlook the appallingly direct and vulgar vernacular of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape that was dredged up; maybe they failed to recognize that 45 demonstrated no base-line of decency to hold himself accountable against in the first place. [How low can you go?/How loose is your goose?] Whereas Norma Desmond’s maniacal striving for renewed relevance and appreciation is perceived by the viewer as a testament to the ageist and misogynistic structure of the “star system,” 45’s perpetual striving for “big boy” status can only be read as fall-out from his failure to accomplish anything of note in his lifetime—which, in turn, is a testament to his unwillingness/inability to put forth even a modicum of effort. High-rises, casinos, cheap wines, steaks, and for-profit universities have abounded—his family name proudly emblazoned upon them; but something tells me, deep down, 45 is acutely aware of how vacuous and unremarkable they all are. Having failed to turn a real profit in any of these pursuits (apart from his campaign fundraising, for which he need only stand behind a podium and soak up the adulation of all his misinformed minions), 45 cannot fail to recognize what a miscarriage of potential his existence represents.

Having inherited large sums of cash and real estate from his more soundly ambitious (albeit no less unethical) father, independent analysis has shown time and again how 45 would have achieved greater success by not playing his shaky hand in the real estate market at all, and simply investing his inheritance in the stock market (setting aside the exaggerated “Occupy Democrats” claim, which fails to take into account the 8 years of mediocre business management between accepting his inheritance and embarking on his own, frequently miscalculated real estate ventures. Leave it to the left to manufacture superfluous critiques, when there’s already a plethora of legitimate terrain to pick apart). Which further highlights the mediocrity (at best) of his business abilities, and the incompetence (at worst) of his combined life’s effort. And whereas many ardent critics are quick to write him off as an oblivious idiot, my own interpretation rests upon the assumption that 45 carries a hyper-awareness of his own inadequacy. Hence the insistence on responding to every criticism with a roll call of his token accomplishments; a forced proclamation of “you see? I’m a big boy after all! I can do things… Big things!” In essence, it’s a “lady doth protest too much” condition—crossed with the propulsion for higher ratings and a natural inclination to feed the reality show of his own being. And this is where the similarities to Norma Desmond might be seen in greatest relief: for when all is said and done, both of these unlikely villains are stuck in a show of someone else’s design. Both dedicated their lives to living out a vainglorious dream, with the belief that it was of their own making; both now find themselves in their latter days, looking back on their lives and realizing that all they had to offer was a dramatic gesture—and the dream wasn’t even their own. And if Norma was a stunted screenwriter, and Hitler a frustrated visual artist, perhaps 45 is actually a big rig driver who missed his life’s calling(?)

Whatever the case may be, the Maxes of 45’s administration continue to fan the flames of this socio-political dumpster fire they’ve created, and the Joe Gillises of the White House remain trapped in a corrupted system that will leave no honest effort unpunished. But the show must go on; and here comes 45 again—gliding down a golden escalator, demanding his close-up. [How long can this go on?] In revisiting Wilder’s masterpiece, it dawned on me that the most relatable character (from a general audience perspective, at least) is Betty Schaeffer (played by Nancy Olsen)—the Paramount script reader who calls Joe’s learned sycophantic behavior into question. “Don’t you hate yourself sometimes?” she pointedly asks. “Constantly,” he replies. And just as Joe’s self-loathing echoes the self-loathing of Norma/45 and Max/Bannon, their collective self-hatred is paralleled by the general public’s disdain for a country that is sacrificing its remaining points of pride with every passing news cycle.

It is worth noting, in examining the similarities between Wilder’s scenario and ours, that Sunset Boulevard ends in bloodshed—and the movie itself is an ouroboros-shaped ghost story, eventually collapsing into its own murky waters. In his best-selling book, A Generation of Sociopaths (which I have yet to read), Bruce Cannon Gibney tackles the 21st century American crisis by placing the blame squarely on the mismanagement of the post-WWII “economic miracle” by spoiled-cum-sociopathic Baby Boomers. I’ll give Gibney the benefit of the doubt that his finished text isn’t as reductionary as his chosen title, but I can’t help but cringe at the finger-pointing inherent to such an analysis. Undoubtedly, 45 represents the very worst of the Boomer generation: stubborn, self-aggrandized, misinformed, and hyper-critical of everyone around him—since he cannot face up to the criticisms leveled against him by others. But to attribute the sins of some bad apples to the orchard of an entire generation seems to me yet another part of our current problem.

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There will be blood… Joe Gillis (William Holden) floats in a swimming pool at the start/end of Sunset Boulevard; a victim of his own complicity in Norma’s self-centered delusion.

From where I stand on the matter, every time an individual derives some entertainment from witnessing the unfolding disaster of 45’s administration, the shit show lives to die another day. Every time a bigoted troll or a self-righteous justice warrior engages in a Twitter feud or a comment thread argument, the flames of the dumpster fire rise higher. Every time a snarky analyst finds an easy linchpin for the crisis at-hand (whether by blaming a ratings-driven news network, or an entire generation), the intrinsic complexity of the variables at play is either muddied or diluted. And unless one looks the full catastrophe straight in the eyes, without flinching or cracking a smile, the reality TV apparatus will continue unabated—and it is quite possible that 45 will eventually achieve the career vindication he has sought for so many years: not through any sort of constructive accomplishment, but through the total disintegration of the fabric that once united this country—a nation that can no longer see past the fear of its own neighbor, or the disdain for those poor fools who fell foul of an increasingly irrelevant educational system (to the extent they no longer perceive it to have any real merit).

The Germanic notion of schadenfreude has historically enabled those with a wicked sense of humor to derive a perverse sort of satisfaction from the demise of others. In our current situation, such a concept cannot be deferred to for intellectual respite. For the demise at hand is our own.

“No one ever leaves a star. That’s what makes one a star.”
– Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950)

*I do hope the satirical nature of this observation comes across clearly for the reader. Anymore, it’s difficult to ascertain how anything will be interpreted—no matter how clearly spelled out it may be.

2017, in music: Part I (Jan. thru June)

Jump to:
2017 Selected albums
2017 Mid-year playlist
2017 Releases featuring Yours Truly

“The suspension of time is an important element in escape and recovery.”
– Mark Edward Achterman (from his essay “Brian Eno and the Definition of Ambient Music”)

“I think that when you make something, you offer people the choice of another way of feeling about the world … and as soon as people start practicing another way of feeling about the world, they actually create that world. As soon as you acknowledge the possibility of a certain type of being or a certain type of environment, you create that environment, because you tend to select and nourish those facets of that environment.”
– Brian Eno (quoted in a profile published in the October ’82 issue of Modern Recording and Music)

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Eno, Conny Plank, Moebius, Roedelius, and other voices of the ’70s movement to bring experimental tropes into pop music—throwing open doors that had been knocked on by the innovators who preceded them (Steve Reich, John Cage, Gavin Bryars…). Pictured here: Ambient 1: Music for Airports by Brian Eno; Cluster 1971-1981 box; No Pussyfooting by Fripp & Eno.

As both an avid consumer and a modest composer/producer, I spend a staggering amount of hours in any given week absorbing recorded music: scouting new sounds on BandCamp and YouTube; listening to newly acquired records (new and old releases in equal measures); working on demos and vocal contributions for various projects… But there have been times—watching the seemingly unending cycle of bad news unfold; placing frantic phone calls to my Senator; processing the latest terrorist attack, mass shooting, or sanctioned homicide by police officer—that I’ve pondered the ethical implications of spending as much time as I do (and I do) in this loop of musical digestion and creation. An essay I stumbled upon recently (written by Pauline Kael in 1967, on the then-novel phenomenon of televised motion pictures) seems to validate some of my running concerns, if transposed from the subject of film to that of music:

“If they [viewers of films on television] can find more intensity in this box than in their own living, then this box can provide constantly what we got at the movies only a few times a week. Why should they move away from it, or talk, or go out of the house, when they will only experience that as a loss? Of course, we can see why they should, and their inability to make connections outside is frighteningly suggestive of ways in which we, too, are cut off. It’s a matter of degree (…) Either way, there is always something a little shameful about living in the past; we feel guilty, stupid—as if the pleasure we get needed some justification that we can’t provide.”

One thinks of a time before recorded music, when performance, transcription, and interpretation were the only primary means to enjoy compositions of musical interplay. And whether interpreting (or writing) a song firsthand, or attending a live performance, it is inevitable that one should interact with a greater scope of external variables than what one encounters when listening to a recording: in fact, early innovators of recording technology were driven (at least, in part) by the limitations imposed by indirect transmission of musical ideas. But to echo Ms. Kael’s sentiment, the private enjoyment of a recording, from the safety and comfort of one’s own home—or one’s automobile; or iPod; or work computer—is, in a certain regard, “frighteningly suggestive of ways in which we… are cut off.” Which begs the question: must the suggestion at hand be inherently frightening? Is there not a rich tradition (in film, music, and—if one traces the lineage even farther back—the evolution from oral narratives to written texts) of individuals connecting to something bigger than themselves through all recorded mediums—let alone, the social phenomena that have since arisen from the communal enjoyment of records and television programs? Or is this tradition indicative of how we’ve settled for isolation tactics, considering the dwindling viewership of films in movie theaters, and diminishing attendance of live music performances? I suppose, if one were to carry the debate out to its natural conclusion, one might surmise the answer to be nothing more than “a matter of degree.”

Isolation vs. connectivity; outside interaction vs. inner-spatial reflection. It boils down to a question of ethics, I suppose: in what proportion ought an individual to invest time in the development of inner space, versus investing in an external network of connectivity to the “world at large?” Does seeking respite (at times, admittedly, escape) from the horror of current affairs—by delving into the vast universe of recorded music, or a film retrospective, or a book—constitute a deflection of reality, or is it nourishment for one’s wellness and empathic faculties? Is writing about such matters an exercise in intellectual wanking, or might such an exercise bring the inquiring mind closer to some meaningful conundrum at the heart of such a debate?

This line of thought has gained some nourishment from a book I’ve had my nose in recently, titled Oblique Music—an anthology of in-depth essays, exploring the boundary-shattering work of Brian Eno over the past forty-odd years. In one of the most compelling essays I’ve thus far encountered, the writer (Mark Edward Achterman) espouses his theory that Eno’s approach to ambient music is akin to J.R.R. Tolkien’s approach to the fairy tale: in his view, they both serve(d) (implicitly in the case of Tolkien, and explicitly in the case of Eno) the purposes of “fantasy, escape, recovery and consolation.” Instead of conveying a calculated message for the listener/readeror operating in the muddy terrain of allegory (which Tolkien openly despised, despite some misguided acolytes)these are works intended to help the inquiring mind achieve some respite from the drudgery and chaos of everyday life, with the sole caveat that they oughtn’t to provide “permanent desertion” (p. 90). Approached from this angle, Eno’s seminal series of ambient records, released during the late ’70s to mid-’80s, perceptibly coincided with Tolkien’s outlook: they proposed unrealized worlds and landscapes through aurally experimental atmospheres, while deliberately avoiding the structural archetypes of traditional “song”writing—archetypes which lend themselves all-too-readily to deconstruction by the listener with a predilection for in-depth analysis (which may, in turn, lead to a form “permanent desertion” when carried to extremes).

With that in mind, must it follow that only the music that is open in its outlook (vast yet precise; tonally dynamic, yet structurally ambiguous) should warrant our attention? If so, how does one explain the failure of ambient music to overtake pop music in critical and consumer appeal? Granted, many of the ideas underlying ambient music have burrowed their way into a variety of pop music forms (from the dreaded New Age music years, to the stripped-down production aesthetics found throughout recent top 40 charts), but the forms themselves have remained fairly consistent: case in point, much of Eno’s most-beloved work remains scattered throughout his more “conventional” outings—his four song-based/vocal studio albums from the ’70s, his collaborations with other pop vocalists (David Bowie, Karl Hyde, David Byrne, to name a few), and his production work for high-profile acts such as U2 and Coldplay. (Though Eno himself lamented at the end of the ’80s: “I don’t get the feeling of discovering new worlds from pop music that I used to get, just of being shown old ones over and over,” quoted in Tamm’s text Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound). Of his own accord, Eno somewhat recently returned to an overt appreciation for the singing voice as an end in itself—at the same time that he returned to more traditional forms of song in his solo endeavors: during a 2010 Paul Morley interview, he went so far as to disclose that he went out and joined a gospel choir(!) Pressed further on the subject, the artist explained: “They know I am an atheist but they are very tolerant. Ultimately, the Message of gospel music is that everything’s going to be alright … Gospel music is always about the possibility of transcendence, of things getting better. It’s also about the loss of ego, that you will win through or get over things by losing yourself, becoming part of something better. Both those messages are completely universal and are nothing to do with religion or a particular religion.”

Indeed, it goes without saying that music carries (within a given set of parameters) certain healing properties: whether by passive involvement (listening), or by active participation (performance), people can be consoled by music in certain forms. It also goes without saying that other forms of music operate counter to these intentions: either by conveying a pre-determined message, or incorporating sonically jarring elements (a subjective perception, but a perception nonetheless), other forms draw our attention to the idea of the music being performed—or, when ineffective (in this writer’s opinion), to the idea’s execution. In my own travels and travails, having collected and digested music(s) from around the world (and throughout the span of history), I’ve found most all of it to carry a modicum of beneficial qualities. And as much as quality itself tends to be a subjective experience—frequently trapped in the eye, or the ear of the beholder—it follows there must be something objectively appealing in these forms to justify their universality.

In his wonderfully entertaining book, Let’s Talk About Love, Carl Wilson bravely (and humorously) explored the subjectivity of people’s taste in music: at the end of his text, he surmised that a lot of cultural debate over the virtues of various musical forms—and most specifically, the debate over what constitutes “good” pop music—stems from a social division between those who have settled upon cultural capital as an identifiable (and often strictly defined) asset, and those who’ve developed a natural, easy-going relationship with the idea of music itself. One could say it’s a difference between a top-down hierarchy (where the listener is captivated by the journey from music as an idea, to music in a specific form), and bottom-up processing (wherein one’s focus is on connecting a specific sample of music to its original, platonic form).

In keeping with the all-encompassing reality of subjectivity in taste, Wilson makes it clear at the end of his book that he still generally dislikes the music of Celine Dion—which he willingly set out to understand, and to appreciate in greater depth at the book’s start. He reminds the reader that it is possible to straddle both of these positions outlined above: to have a concrete, cognitive appreciation for the cultural significance of music—but also to appreciate music as a sensual, topical, and ultimately popular form of amusement. To these viewpoints, we can add Achterman’s notion that music might also be a vehicle to explore as-of-unfulfilled possibilities: that beyond mere amusement or cultural zeitgeist, music can provide the sort of restorative peace that readers throughout the past century have found in Middle Earth—or that Brian Eno found in a gospel choir.

Whys and wherefores aside, music remains my greatest passion; and new music, my greatest anticipation. And every time I question my passion—along the lines of Pauline Kael’s critique of cultural hermits—I remember the way Mavis Staples comes in at the start of “I’ll Take You There;” and the guitar solo that tears “Sweet Jane” open at the start of Rock and Roll Animal; and the way PJ Harvey’s voice soars throughout Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. The unstoppable propensity of Devo’s “Uncontrollable Urge,” and the spoken song-poetry of Talking Heads’ “Seen and Not Seen,” from their Remain In Light album (with backing vocals and production by Brian Eno, nonetheless). The indecipherable dreamworld of Heaven or Las Vegas, and the plaintive future-music of Plantation Lullabies. The way the first Goldberg variation on Glenn Gould’s 1981 re-recording comes charging in, immediately after the mournful final notes of the opening Aria have died off; the majestically arpeggiated dance-floor propensity “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “Temptation.” The bass line to Nick Cave’s “Stagger Lee.” The sound of Marianne Faithfull’s voice disintegrating in the ’70s, and finding new life (in a subterranean register) during each of the subsequent decades. The way “Maggot Brain” stumbles into earshot following George Clinton’s ridiculous and prophetic monologue, as though it were crash-landing from a grimey dimension next door. The meaninglessly meditative interplay between John Lydon, Keith Levene, Jeanette Lee, Jah Wobble, and Dave Crowe on Second Edition

When seeking the justification that Pauline Kael asserts “we can’t provide” ourselves, for privately enjoying art, I am reminded of these. I’m also reminded of the fond memories accrued throughout the years, attending concerts by (at least) some of the above artists with friends and loved ones, or swapping custom-made mix tapes and word-of-mouth suggestions. I can further attest to the reality that the following musical highlights—all of which were released over the course of the past, chaotic six months—have helped to keep me from going totally fucking insane this year.

2017records

An incredible year for new music, and a troubling time for humanity. Let’s not convince ourselves these are mutually dependent clauses.

2017 Selected albums (so far/no particular order):

Room 29 by Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales
Pure Comedy
by Father John Misty
Slowdive
by Slowdive
50 Song Memoir
by Magnetic Fields
No Plan
EP by David Bowie
Crack-Up
by Fleet Foxes
Damage and Joy
by the Jesus & Mary Chain
“Drunk”
by Thundercat
Memories Are Now
by Jesca Hoop
Awaken, My Love by Childish Gambino
Common As Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood by Sun Kil Moon
Reflection by Brian Eno
Halo by Juana Molina

Room 29
by Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Written from the perspective of a room in L.A.’s world-renowned Chateau Marmont, the songs on this album are simultaneously agoraphobic and exploratory: they capture the “furniture music” mentality of Satie’s gymnopédies, or Eno’s ambient recordings, while at the same time venturing on a conceptual journey through time—within the designated space of the album/room. The high water mark of the record, “A Trick of the Light,” achieves the aural impact of a silver screen masterpiece, as the orchestrated accompaniment carries the introspectively omniscient narration into a visceral dimension that, ultimately, envelops the album itself. Is it a self-contained exercise in creative solipsism? Assuredly. But fresh air arrives in the form of narrative detachment, which prevents the songs from getting bogged down in the sort of reflexive exasperation of, say, a Roger Waters concept album. Also, “Daddy, You’re Not Watching Me” has to be one of the most brilliantly unsettling achievements in ambiguous song narration ever committed to record.

Pure Comedy
by Father John Misty
(SubPop)

A clear-cut nominee (and easy win) for “most thematically relevant record of the year,” alias J. Tillman’s third full-length (a sometimes indulgent double-LP listening experience) is so culturally on-the-nose it frequently proves itself to be more than a tad discomforting. As he croons magnificently about his on-going fascination with religious fanaticism and cultural idiocracy—with a sensuousness that sounds as authentic as it appears plastic—Tillman here runs the gamut from academic, post-modern pop synthesis (“Total Entertainment Forever” and non-LP b-side “Rejected Generic Pop Song March ’15 #3”), to long-form autobiographical folk song (“Leaving L.A.;” “So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain”), to existential philosophizing (“Things It Would’ve Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution;” “Ballad of the Dying Man;” “Two Wildly Different Perspectives”), to something between narrative surrealism and romantic balladry (“Smoochie;” “Birdie;” “In Twenty Years Or So”). At times too smart for its own good, the record thaws itself out as it gradually unfolds the entirety of its canvas; by the end, we’re in a bar with a live pianist performing “Naïve Melody (This Must Be the Place),” and it truly feels like “a miracle to be alive.”

Slowdive
by Slowdive
(Dead Oceans)

Words can hardly do justice to the finest moments on this record. If you have any reason to doubt this, have a listen, then read the inadequate words I’ve strung together on behalf of “No Longer Making Time” in the section below.

50 Song Memoir
by The Magnetic Fields
(Nonesuch)

Ambitious and disarmingly un-pretentious, Stephin Merritt’s assignment from Nonesuch to pen an autobiography in album form has yielded some of the most direct and entertaining songs in the Magnetic Fields oeuvre. From the opening notes of “’66: Wonder Where I’m From,” to the closing synth tones of “’15: Somebody’s Fetish,” 50 Song Memoir is incisive, strange, sad, and hilarious. Although—in technical terms, at least–a shorter undertaking than the well-loved 69 Love Songs, Meritt’s latest opus reveals a more versatile range of musical ideas than any of the collective’s previous outings. I had the distinct pleasure of witnessing the live 50 Song Memoir experience at the Lincoln Theater in D.C., over the course of two nights this March: the performances were impeccable and buoyant.

Prior to the first evening’s performance, it was announced that Chuck Berry had died of cardiac arrest. Before launching into the already locked-in opener for the evening’s second set (“’79: Rock’n’Roll Will Ruin Your Life”), Merritt mumbled into the microphone: “this one’s for Chuck.” Someone seated close to the stage howled out in response: “Chuck Berry’s the greatest!”—to which Merritt winced, raising a hand to his ear and silently reminding the audience of his hyperacusis condition. As he drolly delivered the brilliant refrain (“Rock’n’roll will ruin your life/Like your old no-goodnik dad/Kill your soul and kill your wife/Rock’n’roll will ruin your life/And make you sad“), the non-irony was lost on no one.

No Plan EP
by David Bowie
(ISO/Columbia)

Though everything on the No Plan EP was already available on the double-CD/triple-LP soundtrack to the off-broadway production of Lazarus, the EP is such a timely release that it fully warrants consideration on its own terms. Hearing the haunting refrains of “Lazarus” in 2017 is no less affecting than it was, heard at the close of the first side to last year’s un-surpassable Blackstar; one might even argue that it carries a greater weight now, considering the painful awareness—reinforced by time’s passage—that Bowie will not be returning to his followers in bodily form (much less, recording more pearls like the ones contained in this moving P.S.). But in keeping with the transcendence of his entire body of work, there is an unbounded freedom in the mournful strains of “Lazarus:” when he sings “this way or no way/you know I’ll be free/just like that bluebird/ain’t that just like me,” it cuts through the air like the brightest firework in the night sky, and we’re left gazing upward in wonder and sorrow.

Just as, when “No Plan” kicks in after the opening track’s fade-out, one might think of the music video released in support of the title song this January—depicting a small crowd of passersby, assembling in front of a shop’s window display (the shop’s sign reads Newton Electric, in reference to the character incarnated by Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth—and later, by Michael C. Hall in the stage production of Lazarus): the display is comprised of a stack of television sets, all tuned in to the same frequency, cycling through abstract, static-laden footage, and isolated words from the song’s lyrics. “All of the things that are my life/My desires, my beliefs, my moods/Here is my place without a plan.” In the age of 45, the words hit increasingly close to home; and the daydreamers among us may be prone to fantasies of stumbling upon such a window display, begging for the static to suck us in (not unlike the woman in “TVC15”); fans of Twin Peaks may also think of the electrical currents that link the “real” world to the other realms in the show’s universe—which, coincidentally, contain a trapped David Bowie alias (the character Phillip Jeffries, first encountered in Fire Walk With Me). It is also worth nothing that, in the new season of Twin Peaks produced for Showtime, Jeffries has been alluded—even spoken—to on multiple occasions; fan rumors abound that Bowie may have recorded yet-to-be-aired scenes for the series, which would surely be a cherry on top of an already-rich televisual return.

The final two original songs on No Plan, “Killing A Little Time” and “When I Met You” (both written for the Lazarus stage show, recorded here with the Danny McCaslin-led Blackstar band), present a powerful one-two punch—reminding us that Bowie was never one to linger in a state of despair. The former is easily the most aggressive piece of music to be released from the Blackstar sessions: “I staggered through this criminal reign/I’m not in love, no phony pain/Creeping through this tidal wave…” It’s a lurching, hair-raising throttle of symphonic brutalism; as he builds up to the cathartic chorus, one thinks inevitably of Bowie’s final days, and the 21st century clusterfuck we’ve been left here to contend with: “I’m falling, man/I’m choking, man/I’m fading, man/Just killing a little time.

One at least feels a sense of gratitude at having the perfect soundtrack to accompany it all (from “The Width of a Circle,” to “It’s No Game,” to “I’m Afraid of Americans”…). “This is no place, but here I am.

Crack-Up
by Fleet Foxes
(Nonesuch)

As though it were strategically released to coincide with (former Fleet Foxes drummer) Father John Misty’s Pure ComedyCrack-Up is a quietly meditative sound poem that is—to put it mildly—unlikely to play well with others in a mixtape setting. (Also like Pure Comedy, this is the third full-length in the Fleet Foxes discography; and although Tillman and the remaining Foxes are no longer be on speaking terms, Tillman released a warm statement in support of their latest endeavor: “an incredible album and a group of people I love and miss.”) It’s a record that washes over the listener—like the waves painted on the outer jacket, crashing against the dry terrain; dark clouds lingering on the horizon. I couldn’t name you a single song title or recite a single lyric, though I could hum any number of melodic fragments from the record, if prompted. In this regard, it’s an endeavor that comes quite close to Achterman’s definition of ambient music as “painterly:” “challeng[ing] musical convention and definition, presenting an approach to sonic construction and to listening in some ways wholly new” (p. 88). Also in keeping with Achterman’s (and Tolkien’s) views on pure, restorative art, Crack-Up sounds like a calm meant to coincide with the cultural storms of 2017. The record culminates in a wash of horns and strings, with (lead singer/songwriter) Robin Pecknold pleading: “All I see, dividing tide/Rising over me/Ooh wait/Oh, will you wait?” If there’s more where this came from, then gladly.

Damage and Joy
by The Jesus & Mary Chain
(Artificial Plastic Records)

Nineteen years have passed since the release of the last JAMC studio album—the under-appreciated double-LP endeavor MunkiDamage and Joy finds the Reid brothers picking up where they left off, and pretty much staying in the same place (musically speaking); and I mean that in the best of ways, because they deliver exactly what we’ve wanted—maybe even yearned for all these years. A chunk of the songs on this record were previously released as singles and soundtrack stand-alones: they’ve here been re-worked and re-recorded, to capture the impression of a cohesive whole, and the rehearsed-ness pays off beautifully. For there isn’t a wasted minute to be had throughout the entirety of Damage and Joy—a lean double-LP, with an average of 3-4 songs per side—and there’s just the right amount of production on it. One could argue there is nothing new to be had here, or (worse) that it’s an unnecessary reiteration of everything they’ve accomplished more succinctly on Darklands and Automatic. But even if one were to take such a stance, it’s hard to argue with the licks and moans of this record.

Like AutomaticDamage and Joy is so chock-full of Billboard-worthy single material, it’s damn near impossible to single one out for consideration. “All Things Must Pass” gets my vote on most days, but there are times when I want to shut everything else out and spin the Sky Ferreira duets “Black and Blues” and “The Two of Us” on endless repeat. Other times, the arm of my turntable gravitates towards “Presidici (Et Chapaquiditch),” in which Jim prefaces the chorus by insisting “Behind black eyes/My mind is fine.” It’s almost as if he had described the entire JAMC credo, in seven words.

“Drunk”
by Thundercat
(Brainfeeder Records)

I love Thundercat’s music. A compulsive noodler, this guy is so full of ideas—yet so precise in his viewpoint—that it’s hard to not be carried away by the enticing fumes of his retro-futuristic (one minute lounge, the next minute avant) jazz funk oddities. “Tokyo” is like Steely Dan on speed (and I always thought Steely Dan was Steely Dan on speed); “Show You the Way” (featuring Michael McDonald, and Kenny Loggins on vocals—no joke) serves up undiluted yacht rock ecstasy; and “Walk On By” (featuring Kendrick Lamar) captures the contemplative moodiness of a lonely late night stroll. Like Common As Light…, “Drunk” sometimes meanders a little more than one might like, but the disorientation pays off.

Memories Are Now
by Jesca Hoop
(SubPop)

Her first solo outing since last year’s beautiful collaboration with Sam Beam (a.k.a. Iron & Wine), Memories Are Now is easily my favorite Jesca Hoop record to date. Sparsely arranged and rhythmically loose, the songs on this album are smart, fresh, and startlingly energized. There’s a moment on the second track, “The Lost Sky” (around the 1:04 mark), where Jesca segues suddenly from a hypnotic, run-on verse into the unexpectedly inevitable chorus: “When we said/the words ‘I love you’/I said them ’cause they are true/Why would you say those words to me/If you could not follow through?” It’s the stuff dreams are made of.

Awaken, My Love
by Childish Gambino
(Glassnote Entertainment Group)

Awaken, My Love is one of the finest things to have been released in 2016, but I imagine I’m one of many who wasn’t able to appreciate this reality until recently. Having been released digitally in early December, and not having received a proper vinyl release until April 2017, the album is likely to find itself in limbo for inclusion on year’s end “best of” lists. That said, it deserves all the accolades it’s able to lay claim to. Like a sponge that soaked up all the finer elements of Maggot BrainThere’s a Riot Goin’ On, and Here, My Dear (with a dash of The World is a Ghetto thrown in for good measure), Glover’s third full-length emerges as a fully formed, post-modern R&B marvel.

Common As Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood
by Sun Kil Moon
(Caldo Verde)

It’s fairly safe to say (and perfectly acceptable to ignore) that Common As Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood is not going to make anyone’s top 10 list this year. To put it mildly, the record sounds like a calculated epitomization of everything most critics hate—and sometimes embody: disorganized, bloated, pretentious, self-righteous, unpleasant; and worst of all, there’s nary a hook in earshot. Added to that, it’s over two hours long (which is likely to resolve the above dilemma, seeing as most critics won’t even bother themselves with it; which is, perhaps, best for all involved). But as tempted as I am to dismiss this quadruple studio album as an unforgivable exercise is self-indulgence, there’s something here that can’t be shaken off easily. One thinks of Lou Reed’s Berlin (which, furthermore, is referenced in Kozelek’s other 2017 release with Jesu): at the time of its original release in 1973, the record was dismissed unilaterally; Stephen Davis wrote in Rolling Stone that it was a “disaster.” (Ironically, as I write this, I find myself flipping through an RS back-issue from a stack of magazines on my coffee table, and I’ve stumbled upon a surprisingly optimistic write-up for Common As Light…) Many years later, Berlin was more fairly reassessed by critics around the globe, who finally caught up with the Brecht-by-way-of-Fassbinder spirit of the undertaking: a song like “The Kids,” which once sounded unreasonably sadistic and psycho-dramatic, eventually resounded with an audience that could recognize it as a microcosm of universal themes.

Likewise, I’m under the current impression that Common As Light… will find an audience (if not now, then someday) that recognizes it for what it is: an aural road movie that feeds on the blood of American true crime and (North & South-ern) gothic folklore. Although its founding conceit may be its generous (or merely indulgent, depending on the listener’s perception) length, this is, in and of itself, something unique—dare I say, even (somewhat) new: a sustained narrative album that structures its song components like fully-formed, interlocking scenes—free of the obligation to re-state its musical themes at key moments, since every moment is painted to be a key moment, and the individual listener’s experience of its widescreen totality is what lends the thing perspective. For it is impossible to absorb everything on this record in a single sitting; the album comes with no listening instructions, but both physical format releases (vinyl and CD) hint that it is meant to be experienced as a two-part sound film—preferably, with an intermission in between.

Recurring themes include Richard Ramirez (anthologized previously in Benji), among a litany of other murderers and serial killers; the open road (epitomized in the cyclical texture and roaming structure of every song); Kozelek’s wife, Caroline; terrorism, natural disasters, and Donald Trump—in other words, the usual Kozelek-ian kaleidoscope of current events; David Bowie’s death… Most prominent among the album’s themes, however, is the act of writing: Kozelek constantly interrupts himself on this record, giving himself directions like “go back to the other part now,” and reading aloud an extensive write-up on the murderer of Dad Rock Slowhand Simpleton. While the act of self-interruption in a studio performance is nothing new (not only has Kozelek become prone to reading entire fan letters midway through a song, the trick itself can be traced back at least as far as 1970’s Nilsson Sings Newman), the pervasiveness of the act in the already meandering soundscapes of this album highlights its on-the-road mentality. During its most powerful moments, Common As Light… offers the distinct impression of visiting a hotel room in which some terrible crime or other took place; in its weaker sections, it all feels like a prolonged afterthought.

I challenge the willing listener to think of the record more along the lines of Satie and ambient music (or a distant, dysfunctional relative to Room 29): put it on and do some housework around it. You’ll find sections that draw you in momentarily, but then dissipate into a sonic texture that may blend nicely with running water in the kitchen sink. Because as indulgent as the premise may seem, this record often gives off the impression that Kozelek is knowingly taking the piss and (for a change) not taking himself too seriously. When the balancing act pays off, we find ourselves being genuinely affected by the serious stuff (and when it doesn’t—as in the breakdown section of the eye-roll inducing “Vague Rock Song”—we only feel a mild sense of embarrassment at having derived some amusement from it).

Just the other month—and in keeping with his astounding rate of productivity—Kozelek released a second collaborative full-length with the experimental British group, Jesu: it’s a far more accessible ordeal, and features at least one of my favorite songs of the year (to date), but I have yet to reach the level of comfort required to offer an un-assuming write-up. That said, I’ve no doubt it will rate more favorably.

Reflection
by Brian Eno
(Warp)

Tranquil, restorative, and thoughtful. Eno’s latest (the first ambient record he has released since 2012’s Lux) is a proverbial breath of fresh air. Released on New Year’s Day in an array of physical and digital formats, Reflection is available as a stand-alone 54-minute record, or as a digital app experience that offers up curated, self-generated permutations of the album’s musical leitmotifs on a seasonal basis. I recall putting this record on, for the first time, about a month into the administration of 45; it was a time of great confusion and disheartenment, and the ambient riverscape of Reflection provided a much-needed salve. It’s a great record to read or meditate with, and at that, it may prove to be the most utilitarian record of 2017. Regardless of how one perceives it, Eno has provided further validation (as if it were necessary) of the very real terrain outlined in Achterman’s essay on the restorative powers of ambient music.

Halo
by Juana Molina
(Crammed Discs)

I still remember taking my lunch break at my desk (as usual), and opening an email from a friend and musical collaborator, suggesting I check out an NPR Tiny Desk concert by Juana Molina. I grabbed my headphones and clicked on the link, and almost instantaneously forgot to fetch my food from the break room. The opening number of this performance, “Eras,” remains one of my favorite numbers of Molina’s that I’ve yet heard: a mind-bendingly fluid, totally unpredictable organism of a song, the performance draws you in unlike anything this side of the Krautrock years. As for Halo, it’s a dark, vast, slow-burning triumph of atmosphere-over-regiment. The arrangements are clean, sophisticated, and elemental; not unlike the music itself.

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Some favorites, so far: “Shadow” 12″ by Chromatics; Awaken, My Love by Childish Gambino; No Plan by David Bowie.


2017 Mid-year playlist:

  1. [listen] “Room 29” by Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales
  2. [listen] “Floor Machine” by Company Man
  3. [listen] “Total Entertainment Forever” by Father John Misty
  4. [listen] “Cassius, -“ by Fleet Foxes
  5. [listen] “Our Destiny / Roadhouse Garden” by Prince & the Revolution
  6. [listen] “Redbone” by Childish Gambino
  7. [listen] “Die 4 You” by Perfume Genius
  8. [listen] “Memories Are Now” by Jesca Hoop
  9. [listen] “Get the Sparrows” by Lioness
  10. [listen] “No Longer Making Time” by Slowdive
  11. [listen“The Greatest Conversation Ever in the History of the Universe” by Sun Kil Moon & Jesu
  12. [listen“Shadow” by Chromatics
  13. [listen] “Casual Backpiece” by Brian Baker
  14. [listen] “All Things Must Pass” by the Jesus & Mary Chain
  15. [listen] “Andy Warhol’s Dream” by Trevor Sensor
  16. [listen] “New York” by St. Vincent
  17. [listen] “Brutalisteque” by Final Machine
  18. [listen] “Arabian Heights” by Afghan Whigs
  19. [listen] “Paraguaya” by Juana Molina
  20. [listen] “Chili Lemon Peanuts” by Sun Kil Moon
  21. [listen] “Controller” by Hercules & Love Affair (feat. Faris Baldwin)
  22. [listen] “Reassuring Pinches” by Alison Moyet
  23. [listen] “’83: Foxx and I” by the Magnetic Fields
  24. [listen] “Down Endless Street” by Fleetwood Mac
  25. [listen] “Show You the Way” by Thundercat (feat. Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins)
  26. [listen] “In My World” by Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie
  27. [listen] “Omnion” by Hercules & Love Affair (feat. Sharon Van Etten)
  28. [listen] “Smoke ‘Em Out” by Cocorosie (feat. Anohni)
  29. [listen] “Dr. Mister” by Company Man
  30. [listen“Reflection” by Brian Eno
  31. [listen“No Plan” by David Bowie
  32. [listen] “April 10th” by Alison Moyet

Dr. Mister” / “Floor Machine
by Company Man, from Endless Growth
(Overthought Musik)

It creeps in on a wave of oscillating feedback, then leaves you in a pop-ishly experimental (or experimentally pop-ish?) mock-up of an exotic island retreat. The soundscape of “Dr Mister” occasionally calls to mind Jon Brion’s scoring work on Punch-Drunk Love—or Badalamenti and the private office of Dr. Jacoby in Twin Peaks. Whatever your mind may see, yours ears will grin. A similar effect can also be achieved with the album’s opener, “Floor Machine:” I challenge you to find a better verse re-entry point, elsewhere than the 1:27 mark in this uncontrollable hip-shaker.

Our Destiny / Roadhouse Garden
by Prince & the Revolution, from Purple Rain (Expanded Edition)
(Warner Music)

This unexpected 3 CD/1 DVD reissue of one of the most highly celebrated and beloved records of all time delivers the goods, plain and simple. And while it’s a treat to finally have all the B-sides and extended mixes bundled together on a single, official disc, the real loot lies in disc 2—containing previously unreleased material from the Prince vault (much of which hasn’t even been available on any of the countless bootlegs circulating since its original release). I’m hard-pressed to pick a favorite, but I’ve found myself most frequently revisiting “Our Destiny / Roadhouse Garden:” with its open, unhurried arrangement and unpolished veneer, it offers an illuminating glimpse inside the late artist’s working methods, and more-than-occasionally takes my breath away.

Redbone
by Childish Gambino, from Awaken, My Love
(mcDJ Recording)

Quite easily the song of this year’s Summer season, “Redbone” is an out-and-out funky miracle. I first heard the song performed on the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon show (whose only consistent saving grace appears to be his distinct selection of musical guests): if you have not had a chance to experience it yet, I advise you to treat yourself.

Die 4 You
by Perfume Genius, from No Shape
(Matador)

The fourth studio album by Mike Hadreas (alias Perfume Genius) is a fairly direct continuation of the sonic palette that comprised 2014’s Too Bright. But what it lacks in differentiation, it more than compensates for with beauty—as one might well ascertain by giving this album single a spin. Further listening: lead single “Slip Away.”

Get the Sparrows
by Lioness, from Time Killer
(Magnaphone)

The first full-length by the Dayton, OH-based collective Lioness is an eclectic and lively charmer. The album’s second track, “Get the Sparrows,” provides ample validation to support this assessment—with its Arthur Lee-reminiscent melodies, startlingly playful background vocals, and mariachi-esque violin parts. The entire gamut of Time Killer can be streamed on the band’s official BandCamp page.

No Longer Making Time
by Slowdive, from Slowdive
(Dead Oceans)

This song is so bloody good, it almost makes me angry when I hear it. It contains everything one could hope for from a 28-year-old dream pop band: ambience, unexpected curves, finely sculpted parts, and a hook so simple and modestly delivered that your jaw hits the floor, trying to understand how something so basic could summon feelings so complex. I recall listening to the record for the first time and thinking, as the song re-starts itself for a final run-through: “Gee, this is a really good song, too!” All I can say is the past 22 years (the gap between 1995’s Pygmalion and this, their 4th studio full-length) must have served them well. Further listening: the entire album.

The Greatest Conversation Ever in the History of the Universe
by Sun Kil Moon & Jesu, from 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth
(Caldo Verde)

The follow up to last year’s marvelous Sun Kil Moon / Jesu album, this year’s 30 Seconds… retains the same refreshing spirit of the collaboration’s debut (which ranked high on my list of last year’s favorites). This song, in particular—wherein Kozelek reflects upon a dream he once had, in which he sleepwalked through the house of Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson—is a gem. The Jesu-directed, triumphantly arpeggiated backing track provides a distinctly surreal, fittingly melancholic backdrop for Kozelek’s verbose song-poetry: when he talks about the performance he gave on the day of Lou’s passing, commenting that “what his album Berlin meant to me, I’m not even going to try to explain it to you,” he succeeds by not even trying (just as, when he tells anyone critical of his inclusive songwriting style to “fuck off and listen to ‘bye bye Miss American Pie,'” he succeeds in letting us laugh at and with him simultaneously). To echo the closing sentiment of the song: Thank you, Mark; I’m forever grateful for your music. (Further listening: “Twentysomething,” the hilariously moving tribute to the frontman of a U.S. indie band, titled after the kid’s self-penned paperback novel. It’s painfully gorgeous one minute, laugh-out-loud funny the next, and a living reminder of why Kozelek is one of the greatest American songwriters alive today.)

Shadow
by Chromatics, from Twin Peaks (Music from the Limited Event Series)
(Italians Do It Better)

Originally released in 2015, “Shadow” first reached my ears during the end credit sequence of the Twin Peaks limited-run Showtime series premiere. Johnny Jewel (whose solo/instrumental work is also showcased, elsewhere in the series) and his band can be seen performing the number in the Bang-Bang Bar at the close of Part 2, and I don’t know if I’ll ever shake the spine-tingling sensation that accompanied that first viewing. The series is, to put it mildly, one of the finest reasons to be living in 2017; and this song, along with other soundscapes for the show (including the timeless Badalamenti score, which received a stellar vinyl reissue by Mondo last November, followed by the even-superior 2xLP Fire Walk With Me score this February), is a four minute capsule of dreamy, synth-driven perfection.

Casual Backpiece
by Brian Baker, from Glue Stick
(not on label)

There’s a section in “Casual Backpiece,” around the 2:01 mark, that features one of the most perfectly anticlimactic pop song breakdowns I’m able to recall. I love everything about this track, and the synth run-out that carries the final minute to a close is pure joy. (Further listening: “Junk.” With its wonderfully downbeat, accidental chorus: “So many reasons to go wrong/So many reasons to go high/So many reasons to go crazy,” it’s a self-produced gem.)

Andy Warhol’s Dream
by Trevor Sensor, from Andy Warhol’s Dream
(Jagjaguwar)

I first heard of Trevor Sensor in a Jagjaguwar newsletter, announcing his debut full-length release (carrying the same title as this song). While the album cover was striking in its own way, I was caught off guard by what I heard after I clicked on the music video for the lead single, “High Beams:” a seemingly forced, grotty moan—howling something about angels, high priests, and mother’s milk (my partner pointedly observed that it sounded like a back-up singer for the Lollypop Guild). I’m still trying to separate some of the vocal stylings from the songs themselves—which perhaps is unfair to the guy, on my part—but it’s safe to say that the title track is one of my favorite things it has to offer. From the piano motif that fills the opening bars, to the gated reverb drum fills (kicking in around 0:38), it’s arguably the freshest-sounding arrangement on the record, and the song is modest but deceptively smart. Curious to hear where he goes next.

New York
by St. Vincent, stand-alone single
(Loma Vista)

St. Vincent’s latest single is a breezy piece of synth-pop balladry. Clocking in under three minutes, it’s catchier than just about anything on her previous full-length, and feels refreshingly bright and un-tortured. It also contains one of the most smartly phrased lyrical uses of “motherfucker” in recent memory.

Brutalisteque
by Final Machine, from rec_6
(not on label)

Roger Owsley (alias Final Machine) has been productive: with 5 separate new releases already under his belt this year (following the 5 EPs dropped in 2016), he’s continually proven himself to be a stalwart practitioner of what he loves; and what he loves is sound. One can surmise this simple fact from hearing any of his works on the official Final Machine BandCamp page. “Brutalisteque,” off the rec_6 EP, is a shining example of Owsley’s uncanny knack for toying between the extremes of experimentalism and trance-ism; it also would fit nicely on this year’s special compilation release of songs that inspired Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (The Wicked Die Young).

Arabian Heights
by the Afghan Whigs, from In Spades
(SubPop)

The Afghan Whigs remain a band that I admire more than love, but In Spades comes closest of any of Dulli’s projects I’ve yet heard to winning me over resolutely. “Arabian Heights” is a monster of a track, both living up to the gothic splendor of the album’s artwork, and showcasing their knack for masterful arrangements. (Also, some of the chording points ever-so-subtly to the similarly-named and insurmountably perfect 1981 Siouxsie & the Banshees single.)

Controller” / “Omnion
by Hercules & Love Affair, advance singles from Omnion
(Atlantic)

When I find myself feeling low, there are several pockets—mostly “guilty” pleasures—of my music library that I’m prone to digging in for consolation: Andy Butler’s shape-shifting music collective is one such pocket, and I’ve been eagerly anticipating their fourth full-length (their last one, which featured several terrific vocal contributions from the great John Grant, was a thirst-quenching foray into dark synthwave clubbing territory). If these two lead singles are any indication, it’s not likely to disappoint. “Controller” features the vocal slither of Faris Baldwin (The Horrors), and “Omnion” provides an unlikely showcase for the beautiful voice of Sharon Van Etten. Like everything that has preceded them in the H&LA catalogue, both are the equivalent of perfumed offerings to the nightclubbing gods.

Reassuring Pinches
by Alison Moyet, from Other
(Cooking Vinyl)

Alison Moyet is an artist I both greatly admire, and am frequently perplexed by. Incredibly smart, inventive, and articulate (which is to say, she has the ability to convey the first two virtues), she has dedicated a substantial set of her post-Yaz(oo) career to projects that sometimes test the limits of saccharine production, and the sort of songwriting that beckons from another era; in fact, on a recent studio album titled Voice, she was focused intently on covering the likes of Bacharach, Gershwin, and Brel. But much like the other revered British interpreters of Brel (Scott Walker and David Bowie), Alison Moyet seems to have kept something for herself throughout all these years, and one is bound to remain intrigued by trying to figure out what that something might be.

In Other, Alison delivers the most directly audible echo of her early Yaz years: the production is slick, but it carries some sharp edges and more than a few twists and turns. (The lead single, carrying the album’s namesake, was an alarming precursor: a percussionless, downbeat, understatedly mournful ballad, it’s a Pandora’s Box of possible interpretations. It also features some of the most hauntingly beautiful lyrics I’ve ever felt compelled to listen to.) In contrast to the more traditional Moyet solo fare mentioned above, “Reassuring Pinches” sounds both like an homage to the years of “Situation” and “Goodbye Seventies,” and a continuation of the themes heard on 2013’s The Minutes. Guy Sigsworth (who previously lent his producer’s ear to some really fine material by Madonna and Björk) matches Moyet adeptly at her ambitious and experimental musical game: a song like “April 10th” proves itself to be a brilliant synthesis of pop music theory from days gone by, while simultaneously pointing far out on the horizon of possibilities still to come.

Down Endless Street
by Fleetwood Mac, from Tango in the Night (30th Anniversary Edition)
(Warner Music)

Though slightly less so than last year’s long-awaited Mirage reissue, the bonus material on this Tango in the Night anniversary set contains a number of surprising gems. Foremost among them, for this listener, is this Lindsey-penned piece of surrealistic nostalgia (originally released as a B-side to “Family Man”), which often sounds like the missing link between the ’50s-inspired arrangements of Mirage and the crystal clean production of Tango. (Further listening: the beautifully simplistic “Where We Belong (Demo),” and strictly on YouTube, the neglected Stevie demo for “Joan of Arc,” which inexplicably did not get polished up for this deluxe package.)

In My World
by Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie, from Buckingham McVie
(BMG)

A friend of mine observed, upon hearing there was to be a Christine McVie/Lindsey Buckingham side-project this year: “This is either going to be really great, or it’ll be the most maple syrup-y thing ever.” As one might expect, the finished outcome manages to be both things at once. While at times over-wrought (production-wise; thanks, Lindsey), there’s an undeniable pop brilliance to the songs on Buckingham McVie, and “In My World” is one of the more solid Fleetwood Mac songs of recent memory not to have made it onto a Fleetwood Mac album. Further listening: the stomping opener, “Sleeping Around the Corner“—so infectious that not even the tortured embellishments of Sir Buckingham can hold it back.

Smoke ‘Em Out
Cocorosie feat. Anohni, stand-alone single
(not on label)

File under: “great guilty-not-guilty pleasures of 2017.” (Further listening: the Paradise EP by Anohni—a follow-up to last year’s stunning, post-transition Hopelessness).



2017 Releases featuring Your Truly:

ulter nation
by Dirty/Clean
(DirtyCleanMusik)

Our second full-length studio endeavor, ulter nation, is available to stream/download/order on our BandCamp page. Also, a playlist is available to stream on our YouTube channel, featuring a series of videos produced in support of the songs.



Art Will Not Fix This EP
by Plasteroid
(Overthought Musik)

The first EP by a new collaborative project, featuring Yours Truly on vocals. All of the music on Art Will Not Fix This was written by the brilliant Derl Robbins (Company Man—see above—Motel Beds, Peopleperson), and I’m proud to have been invited to recite some words on top of his arrangements.