The return of Brian Eno’s voice.
Following a 24-year hiatus (the last recorded utterance, to my knowledge, dating back to 1990’s Nerve Net), music lovers around the globe can finally celebrate the triumphant return of Brian Eno’s voice. Alongside Underworld frontman Karl Hyde, the musical pioneer responsible for narrative gems like “By This River” and “Dead Finks Don’t Talk” has lent his sublime vocal gifts to the text of two all-new, complimentary albums: Someday World and High Life. Furthermore, his voice can be heard prominently in the background of Marianne Faithfull’s recent take on Leonard Cohen’s “Coming Home,” which is (consequently) one of the highlights of her new album. Aptly, the opening track of High Life is titled “The Return.”
The return of Tori Amos’s hair (and voice).
In the years following Scarlet’s Walk, times were hard for admirers of Miss Amos: though I have always been eager to champion her many merits, I confess to finding myself at a loss trying to defend The Beekeeper. With the subsequent records, the music seemed to improve, but it appeared as though the Tori we once knew and loved had vanished amidst an uninspired, wigged-out and heavily photo-shopped fashion shoot. Just when we were prepared to give up (and long after many had already surrendered), she surprised us by signing to Deutsche Gramophone and putting out a cohesive song cycle entirely—and delightfully—unlike anything she had done before. This year, she continues down the path of self-renewal with an earnest album of new material. Barring the throwaway cover art, it appears as though her original nature has reemerged from under the posse of wigs.
Unrepentant Geraldines may not be the best work Tori has produced to date, but it has something more important going for it: authenticitiy. As evidenced by (what seems to be) the reappearance of her natural hair in the album’s photographs, it looks like the Tori who went missing over the past decade has finally returned; moreover, she has clearly come to terms with herself as an adult artist, and the renewed comfort she displays in her own skin is refreshing. Accordingly, the live performance I caught in her hometown (Washington, D.C.) this summer contained moments of inspiring reflection: in particular, an unexpected pairing of the Cure’s “Pictures of You” with a relic from her not-so-nostalgic past, “The Big Picture”—dating back to the days of her spectacularly bad pop group, Y Kant Tori Read. The result? A good-humoured moment of total acceptance, which found her sounding as great as she ever has.
The power of great American movie-making.
Though I will readily concede my growing lack of interest in a large chunk of the films being distributed on the American market, there were two gems making the rounds of U.S. cinemas this year—both of which should inspire faith in film as an art form for anyone in doubt. Jim Jarmusch and Richard Linklater, two well-established pioneers of independent American film, have both outdone themselves with their latest offerings (respectively, Only Lovers Left Alive and Boyhood). Movies like these make one truly proud to call this country home.
The power of great American song-writing.
It’s easy to forget sometimes—amidst the waves of auto-tuned pop singles, coming and going in a never-ending stream of un-noteworthiness. Though there are great songwriters to be found in every corner of the world, this country has had a remarkable track record when it comes to exceptional songs: songs that have trickled their influence down through the years, growing stronger and more pervasive with each glance over the shoulder. Current examples might not be as easy to spot as in the past, but there was at least one master class in American song-writing committed to record this year: I am speaking of the latest offering from Mark Kozelek—Sun Kil Moon’s Benji. The magnitude of this record’s power simply cannot be overstated. From the opening line of “Carissa” through the closing bars of “Ben’s My Friend,” Benji captures everything of note in the landscape of American song, preserving each moment like a Polaroid taken from the window of a moving car. Kozelek almost gratuitously offers up his most mundane thoughts and feelings for the listener’s scrutiny or disregard; throughout the process, he somehow helps us rediscover the very nature of emotional connectedness. One emerges from the experience almost unreasonably uplifted.
With new boutique reissue labels popping up every day, it seems a miracle there’s anything left to be discovered in the dustbins of recorded music. To the benefit of us all, every now and again an artist like Lewis will surface and force us to reconsider the status quo. While the back-story is far too strange and mystifying for a short summary to do it justice, a small taste of these ethereal recordings (recently given new life by Light In the Attic Records) is more than enough to make one want to find out more.
In between semesters at State university, I spent the summer devouring as many books as I could lay my hands and eyes upon. There were many fine discoveries, mostly quite old (and odd), but the most significant (by a long shot) was Edmund White’s astonishing biography of the late poet maudit, Jean Genet. Vast in scope, finely detailed, and—like any biography worth its salt—full of life.
The world continues (d)evolving into a creative landfill (in which every individual effort is essentially disposable), yet a handful of artists never cease to reassert their integrity—that ability to transfix beyond short-term surface appeal, and the drive to transform the most ordinary elements of everyday reality into olympian extrapolations of human essence. Among this latter group of characters, Nick Cave has been an especially prodigious and inspiring organism: the latest offering from his thirty-plus-year-old band sounded (amazingly) like an entirely new beginning, and the process of its making was captured with remarkable aplomb by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard in their documentary film, 20,000 Days on Earth. In addition to the film (which is a gift all its own), The Bad Seeds performed another series of rousing shows in support of Push the Sky Away—one of which I had the pleasure of witnessing firsthand at the Palace Theater in Louisville. If one were ever in need of a life-affirming experience, one need look no further than a stage lit up by this band’s (and this man’s) electric presence.
The Big Ears festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, is one of the most eclectic and impressive annual rosters of live music performances to be found anywhere in the country—and quite easily, anywhere in the world. This year, that roster included figures as diverse as Steve Reich, Tim Hecker, Dean Wareham (formerly the frontman of Galaxie 500), Television, Low, and Jonny Greenwood. Topping this list, the godfather of punk and art-rock made one of his first live appearances on a stage in the United States in many years. Witty, engaging, and charming as ever, Cale’s headlining performance at Big Ears was a dream come true for me—and for every fellow fan I encountered in the crowd. Running through a set-list which blended the songs of more recent efforts (Black Acetate and Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood) with songs that defined entire chapters of music history (from seminal albums like Fear, Helen of Troy, and Music for a New Society), Cale’s band was in top form; the man himself appeared to be grinning from cheek-to-cheek most of the time. Though nothing was spoken directly about the late Lou Reed (whom Cale had eloquently eulogized immediately after his passing in 2013), tribute was paid through a mind-boggling and profoundly moving arrangement of “Waiting For the Man.” Sometimes, actions speak louder.
In September, amidst a flurry of activity in my personal life, I made the potentially rash decision to join my partner on a three-day trip to London, England. The outcome was revelatory, encompassing Kate Bush’s triumphant return to stage performance, a retrospective of Jarmusch’s film career at the British Film Institute, and an exhibit of Dennis Hopper’s photography by the Royal Academy.
In addition to the many inspiring creations shared by the above-mentioned masters-of-their-craft, I had the opportunity this year to offer up my own modest creative contribution in the form of a song cycle inspired by the work of New German Cinema filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The album, Welt Am Draht, was recently released on vinyl through the support of an IndieGoGo campaign launched back in the Spring of 2014; the innate satisfaction of having one’s creation out and about in this big, wide world simply cannot be conveyed in words. All in all, a pretty good year.