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clar·i·ty
ˈklerədē/
noun
  1. the quality of being clear, in particular.
    • the quality of coherence and intelligibility.
    • the quality of being easy to see or hear; sharpness of image or sound.

As is the case with any list, compiling a year-end best-of can be approached from a multitude of possible angles. For example, one could take a simple quantitative approach and tally up the number of listens per album (and with computer technology and ready-made apps like iTunes and Windows Media Player, this is easier than ever to assess). One could also decide to focus primarily on new releases which provided the listener with something truly new—a musical need that might not yet have been met by the existing records on one’s shelf. In my personal experience, this approach tends to take precedence, seeing as how there are fewer thrills in life more rewarding than hearing something so very different—so exceptionally invigorating, one feels as though the entirety of their life has been propelling them towards this encounter with a sound imperative to their very survival.

Truth be told, this year did not provide many such experiences for this writer; at least, not in that truest sense of “wow… I’ve never heard anything remotely like this before, and I can’t fathom how I’ve lived this long without that sound in my life.” Conversely, this year’s onslaught of top-notch new releases, from a variety of excellent artists—existing and debuting—provides the unique (and uniquely rewarding) experience of sorting through a litany of contenders for top 10 consideration, with few pointers in the way of “originality” to guide one’s selection (for with a century of recorded music to choose from, how can we expect anything new to expand upon the broad and rather loose parameters of what has already been proven possible in song form?).

After considering the various possibilities, I decided to adopt a distinctly personal approach before tackling this list you’re about to peruse. Although there may not be anything totally unheard of on this list—many of these releases are by well-established artists; those that are not, still represent iterations of well-established musical tropes—each of these releases were especially important to me this year: for they each carried within their grooves some incarnation of (or a clever play on) the notion of clarity. Which is a notion I find myself gravitating towards more and more each day, as its parallel concepts of logic and certainty run a daily risk of being rendered vestigial, and our country’s place on the planet (let alone our planet’s place in the universe) seems increasingly uncertain.

Something else happened to me this year, which has no doubt taken some kind of toll on the perspective I brought to this list. For midway through 2017, I turned 30; and while it was just another day in the life (I seem to have conveniently sidestepped that self-imposed age crisis brought about by an even decimal), I’ve definitely felt the beginning pangs of a weight—a weight which, I imagine, must accompany any person who has ever really lived. I find myself having a more difficult time recalling those trivial quotes and archival tidbits, which used to wait impatiently on the tip of my tongue; pearls of anecdotal wealth, spent too frequently (or held back for too long) to maintain priority status in the recesses of one’s memory. Consequently—and for some of my more long-suffering friends, somewhat thankfully—I find myself talking a little less.

This also means that I’ve been listening more carefully than ever, and I can say quite confidently that the music written about below has been reciprocated by the most astute level of interest I’ve ever harbored towards any year’s musical offerings. And true to form, for someone with a diminishing ability for instant recall, I found myself jostling from one title to the next on this list—saying to myself “ah, this is the one!,” over and over (think Patsy and Edy sampling French wines in that detoxing vacation episode of Absolutely Fabulous: “no, this is the one”). And if asked on a different day, in a different mood, the sequence of this list may vary somewhat. Regardless of the semantics involved, my only wish is that I’ll hold onto enough of my memory to recall these records decades from now, when I predict they will hold a comparable (and possibly enriched) luster of clarity and brilliance.

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Some of this year’s favorites. Clockwise, from top left: Mavis Staples / If All I Was Was Black; Fleet Foxes / Crack-Up; Jesca Hoop / Memories Are Now; Slowdive / s/t; David Bowie / No Plan; Johnny Jewel / Windswept; Magnetic Fields / 50 Song Memoir; Brian Eno / Reflection; Ryuichi Sakamoto / async; The Jesus & Mary Chain / Damage and Joy; Father John Misty / Pure Comedy; Sparks / Hippopotamus; Randy Newman / Dark Matter; Alison Moyet / Other; Jarvis Cocker & Chilly Gonzales / Room 29; Kamasi Washington / Harmony of Difference; Various / Twin Peaks: Music From the Limited Series Event; Charlotte Gainsbourg / Rest.

The list:

25. The Book of Law – Lawrence Rothman
(Interscope)

 

I first heard Lawrence Rothman via the phenomenal lead single from The Book of Law, “Wolves Still Cry.” My initial response: a sudden longing to exist in an alternate dimension, where Top 40 singles still sounded like this (top melody; a bridge; harmonies, even!). Fleshed out by Nile Rodgers-influenced rhythm guitar, subtle bass undulations, synthesizer flourishes, and Rothman’s occasionally breath-taking falsetto, the track merits fair consideration as single of the year.

Who is Lawrence Rothman? (Or, more appropriately, who are Lawrence Rothman?) A gender-fluid, multiple-personality pop star-in-the-making from St. Louis—now settled into the Cahuenga Pass of Los Angeles—whose debut album bring all nine of his split personae together in a shockingly accessible, disco-tinted fever dream. (If you’re not sold on the premise, just give the song a listen and try not to lose yourself in its iridescent perfection; if still in doubt, chase it down with the only-slightly-less brilliantine “Stand By“). Calling to mind one of the greatest living musical artists (who remains, shamefully, unknown to most)—the unsung King of Southern Gothic Country-dream pop: Daughn Gibson—Rothman has come out with both guns blazing in this fiercely dedicated collection of dance floor anthems and late-night ballads. They’ve even opened the gate to potential accusations of showboating, having performed as all nine protagonists in a series of original music videos produced in conjunction with the album’s digital release; think Annie Lennox in Sophie Muller’s Savage films, crossed with a more subtle/subversively confrontational Die Antwoord. The Book of Law reveals the typical shortcomings of an otherwise-brilliant debut (namely: a few too many iterations of the same idea; too many cooks in some of its kitchens), but it should still be a shoo-in for “best new pop offering” this year.

Rothman themself went on record in a recent interview, saying that “David Lynch saved my life.” One can only pray that Mr. Lynch will continue saving the lives of other fledgling musicians. If so (and if The Book of Law offers any indication), the future of pop may not be quite as dismal as I predict it to be, otherwise.

 

24. Awaken, My Love! – Childish Gambino
(GlassNote)

 

Released digitally on December 2nd of 2016, the curiously anticipated vinyl edition of Donald Glover’s third (and purportedly final) album under the Childish Gambino moniker didn’t hit the shelves of record stores until Spring of this year. A smart (and possibly unintentional) outcome of this delay in the album’s roll-out was that the album’s second and strongest single, “Redbone”—launched two weeks prior to the album’s digital unveiling—experienced a resurgence in popularity, and widespread radio play (for the “family-friendly” edit, that is). Of course, it couldn’t have hurt matters that the song was featured in Jordan Peele’s zeitgeist-achieving debut feature film, Get Out, or that the momentum of the movie’s multi-faceted success (critical, commercial, and socio-cultural) was equally contingent upon its association with contemporary trendsetters like Glover; who not only wrote, produced, and starred in his own exceptionally clever and irresistibly entertaining TV show (FX’s Atlanta), but had also previously poked fun at his own image—with a sly nod to the same issues addressed in Get Out. In one of the show’s later episodes, a character whose specialty is the appropriation of black culture prominently displays a copy of Awaken, My Love! among his assorted, fetishized African-American ephemera.

With Glover having had such a direct hand in the shaping of the public’s perception of his album—which is a remarkable achievement; both in song and production—the finished product courted some of the same risks that other contemporary cult/pop artists (think Kendrick, Beyoncé, Father John Misty, Ryan Adams) seem to run into perpetually: ironic overload. For a work to be truly successful as a piece of post-modern pop art, it is important to strike the correct balance between irony and sincerity; awareness and tunnel vision. It’s important for the work to demonstrate respect for this widely coveted (and dreaded) opportunity the artist has been granted: the opportunity to address an audience of millions, and to have one’s every word sought out and scrutinized; at least, potentially. It is a testament to Mr. Glover, and the quality of his craftsmanship, that he appears to have managed this responsibility more than capably: he has yet to get in the way of himself. His latest album carries more than a hint of irony, but at the end of the day, it’s just 10 consecutively solid R&B songs, and one throwaway (“California”) wedged somewhere in the middle.

Though slickly produced, there is an alive feel to the record that sounds entirely unlike anything else in the pop charts at present. More Sly Stone than Nile Rodgers, the album’s alluring sound was co-produced by Swedish composer, Ludwig Göransson (who also had a hand in engineering the first two Childish Gambino outings); the sound stretches itself in a variety of directions explored by funk pioneers during the ’70s, but it displays an adequate consistency to avoid critiques of dilettantism. As for the songs themselves, Glover weaves a tapestry of loosely related (and frequently cinematic) vignettes, stitched together by the “Maggot Brain”-channeling groove of “The Night Me and Your Mama Met,” and the What’s Goin’ On?-tinted refrain of “Stand Tall” (“Keep all your dreams, keep standing tall / If you are strong you cannot fall / There is a voice inside us all / So smile when you can“).

At the end of the year, Awaken, My Love! stands tall as a great modern funk album, with the finest song heard on mainstream radio this Summer. What more can you ask for?

 

23. 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth – Jesu & Sun Kil Moon
(Caldo Verde)

 

The self-titled debut collab, between American singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek, and British experimentalists Jesu (led by Justin Broadrick, formerly of Godflesh), went on to become one of my favorite releases of 2016. I suppose it’s only fitting that their follow-up LP, with its timely title and scenic album cover, should go on to become one of the most heavily rotated records I acquired in 2017.

30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth is perhaps not a great record; as with most of Kozelek’s recent output, there is at least one track I could entirely have done without (in this case, the 17-minute “Wheat Bread,” which reiterates all the shortcomings of previous over-indulgent Kozelek song-poems, with few of the merits his fans are prone to highlighting as a sort of pardon for failure to self-edit). But what it lacks in concision and cohesion, it more than compensates for through extended passages of inspired beauty and crystallized brilliance. Like, for instance, the ambitiously named “Greatest Conversation Ever in the History of the Universe,” which is purported to have transpired in one of Kozelek’s dreams between Lou Reed and Muhammed Ali. (For what it’s worth, he convinced me.)

When the sparkling arpeggiation of Broadrick & co. collides with the alternately spoken and sung verbosity of Kozelek’s narration, something magical happens: a(n al)chemical reaction of sorts, which returns to the listener a kaleidoscopic crystal of fused imagery and (occasionally, at least) unspoken insight. In “Greatest Conversation…,” for instance, the listener may well find themself reminded of Laurie Anderson’s recent film, Heart of a Dog—in which the multimedia artist paid tribute to her late canine companion, a scrappy rat terrier named Lola-belle. Throughout that film, Anderson recreated fragments of Lola-belle’s life (and after-life) through a combination of animation, live film, and personal narration; the latter of which frequently gives voice to Lola-belle herself, occasionally lending itself to a conversational tone. With a songwriter’s dream as the setting of Kozelek’s song, the listener may also find themself expecting the titular conversation to transpire between Anderson and the late Lou Reed, the iconic NY artist and life companion whose unique knack for nonsequitur and abrasive tenderness (if such a thing exists) was matched capably by Anderson’s tender abrasiveness and alien elocution. That Kozelek’s song manages to open a door onto each of these separate possibilities, without forcing the listener away from their own speculation (or worse yet, ignoring the existence of other portals altogether), is proof of Kozelek’s love for the imagination—and his love for the giants whose shoulders he often rests upon.

Another highlight from the record—an indelibly smart, and darkly hilarious paean to Michael Jackson (“He’s Bad”)—provided a recurring soundtrack for me, throughout this dark and tumultuous year. As a politics of division continues to supersede logic and rational discourse, Kozelek’s song cuts a jagged line through the air of righteous indignation and reactive scapegoating; the only musical equivalent that comes to mind is Randy Newman’s incisive criticism of southern nationalism, and the racist bluster of Lester Maddox (which was no less incisive in its portrayal of Maddox’s reactionary opponents). Just as “Rednecks” managed to baffle, enrage, and annoy pundits across party lines, “He’s Bad” effectively pulls the stopper out from the exposé-encrusted bathwater of our cultural climate; revealing, whether by implicit intention or happy accident, the inherent absurdity of the song’s own perspective. Bonus points are deserved for bravely including one of the most morbidly irreverent lyrical tributes to a deceased musical legend (“he didn’t stop ’til he got enough…“). In times as toxic and uncertain as the ones we find ourselves living through, such satirical adroitness might become one of the rarest and most assuaging commodities.

In addition to this uneven but consistently rewarding double-LP, Kozelek released another album of new material—one of his most ambitious to date—in February of this same year. Sprawled over two full-length CDs (or four groove-crammed LPs), Common As Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood merits a special mention for grandiosity and cathartic dedication. Though one may tire easily of its basic conceit (song-poems—more poem than song, usually—set against Steve Shelley’s crunchy drums and Nick Zubeck’s brooding basslines), the songs on Common As Light… contain passages of extreme beauty and unexpected horror, which stick with the listener far longer than the tiresome sensation one might generally associate with a two-hour-long Sun Kil Moon album. The opening track (“God Bless Ohio”) deserves a permanent place in the songwriter’s prolific rotation of live standbys.

 

22. Endless Growth – Company Man
(Overthought Musik)

 

The second offering from this Dayton, Ohio-based quartet of r’n’r veterans (three-fifths of the Motel Beds and one-fourth of Me Time) is a total delight. More refined and eclectic than the six-track EP (Brand Standard) that preceded it, Endless Growth tackles a range of fundamental rock standards with a satirical bent and the misbehaving elation of high schoolers on Summer break. We kick off with the foot-stomping, office party slayer “Floor Machine”—whose sometimes slurred lyrics seem to be about a girl (who either cooks or kicks good; or maybe both?) in search of a Led Zeppelin t-shirt. (Maybe the same girl who just wanted cheap boots and leather in Brand Standard?) Whatever the case may be, I find myself lending her pursuit my full-hearted support with every listen.

Other highlights include “Total Weenies,” “(Take) It Back (From the Limit)” (a jab at The Eagles, perhaps?), and the refreshing summer breeze of “Dr. Mister.” All throughout, lead vocalist Andy Smith proves himself as versatile a lyricist as ever, Tod and Darryl rip it up like precocious kids in a guitar shop, and the nimble drumming of Ian Kaplan provides a varied, rock-steady backbeat (let the records indicate that live-in-studio drums rarely sound as perfect as they do here). I had the good luck of seeing Company Man perform twice this year, and the band sounds every bit as locked-in to their corporate shtick on stage as on record; more-so, even, as their stage presentation highlights the Devo-esque performance art angle at every given opportunity—without ever letting it get in the way of the songs themselves.

One gets the distinct sense we are in the (still) formative stage of something big, weird, exciting, and fun here. While the clarity and quality of the songs on Endless Growth presents a tasty (and compulsively listenable) sampling of the group’s abilities, the cathartically entertaining live sound they’ve developed over the past year contains a bevy of untapped possibilities for future offerings. May their growth be as ambitious as their savaging of corporate culture.

 

21. Kraftwerk 3-D – Kraftwerk
(KlingKlang)

 

One of two entries on this list for which I might rightfully be chastised for “cheating,” the immense (and immersive) 8xLP box set collecting live performances of Kraftwerk’s post-Ralf and Florian discography—as curated in the past decade over a slew of jaw-dropping, state-of-the-art performances throughout the world (one of which, Yours Truly was fortunate enough to attend last August)—is more than just a treat for die-hard fans. It represents the culmination of a musical career with few contemporary parallels, which spans a range of artistic mediums and a litany of technological developments (many of which were propelled into mainstream use through the momentum of the band’s cutting-edge stage productions).

One of Kraftwerk 3-D‘s most startling qualities, on first listen, is its clarity (there’s that word again…) The soundboard-direct recordings contained in this set—once again representing the band’s cutting edge ethos through high-definition “3-D” surround sound—are of exceptional quality and dynamism. To have the quartet’s influential and endlessly replayable discography brushed up, and polished with a veneer of absolute consistency and accuracy, may seem like an affront (or even a sacrilege) to some listeners. And for most bands, such criticisms would probably hold true. But Kraftwerk are not, and have never been, “most bands.” Kraftwerk have persevered, throughout five decades of experimentalism and innovation, as the ultimate man-machine: the musical embodiment of a futurist harmonic between human effort and robotic precision. And just as there can only be one inventor for the light bulb, there simply cannot be another Kraftwerk awaiting us in the uncertain (and arguably unpromising) future of pop music.

For these reasons, and many more, Kraftwerk 3-D merits recognition and evaluation as a completed work onto itself. More than that even: it is the completed work of a band that never stopped looking at itself in the mirror, and questioning how they might possibly do (and be) better. With the prospect of a ninth (or twelfth, depending on how you’re counting) Kraftwerk album appearing dimmer with every passing day, it is all-too-likely that this—Ralf Hütter’s self-authored and meticulously developed ideal for the perfect live show(s)—will have to serve as the band’s imperfectly perfect epitaph. Imperfect, because the voices of Florian, Wolfgang, and Karl are sadly absent from the manuscript they co-authored with Herr Hütter (over the course of an incredible, and incredibly influential, decade in pop music). Perfect, because… well, have a listen.

 

20. Tie: Hitchhiker – Neil Young / Crack-Up – Fleet Foxes
(Reprise / Nonesuch)

As in the previous entry, it’s possible I’ll find myself accused of foul play in nominating Neil Young’s unexpected issuing of a “lost” album (originally recorded in 1976) as one of the year’s best new releases. To confound the accusation further, I’ve decided to commit a second faux pas by yoking this nominee to another, legitimate new release—the third full-length studio LP by Fleet Foxes (and first without drummer Josh Tillman, now consumed with his life as the ubiquitous contrarian, Father John Misty), Crack-Up.

 

For starters, let’s consider Hitchhiker. Recorded between a collaborative outing with Stephen Stills (Long May You Run), and American Stars ‘n Bars (home to the perennial live favorite, “Like a Hurricane”), Hitchhiker was intended for release around the time of the best-selling Decade anthology—before some unimpressed execs at Warner/Reprise decided to scrap the project and concentrate their efforts on promoting Decade (which included one of the scrapped tracks, a Nixonian eulogy titled “Campaigner”). It is still somewhat unclear what prompted Young’s decision to release the material at this point in time, but it’s easy to speculate.

Taken as a record in its own right, Hitchhiker is that rare bird of archival resurrection: it actually has wings of its own, and one never finds oneself contemplating the dreaded (but all-too-common) response to such endeavors—”gee, maybe there’s a reason this one didn’t get picked the first time around…” Young has himself explained that the tracks on Hitchhiker were recorded in a single sitting, in a daze of alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine use. The recording reflects the hypnotic pull of its circumstances, but never betrays any real limitations they might have caused. Ultimately, Hitchhiker can (and should) be appreciated for what it is: a remarkably solid record from one of the highest watermarks in the career of a genuine musical legend. As far as this listener is concerned, the record deserves further appreciation as one of the most stripped-to-the-bone incarnations of Neil yet to be heard in recorded form. In a way, the album fills in the missing piece implied by the excellent live film and album, Rust Never Sleeps, which begins with a full solo acoustic set including many of the same songs (followed by a sharp transition to the raucous r’n’r of the Crazy Horse portion, all of which is captured on the single-LP release titled after the film; the live acoustic recordings can be found on the double-LP, Live Rust).

The previously unreleased ballad, “Give Me Strength” (with it’s aching couplet: “give me strength to move along / give me strength to realize she’s gone“), is alone worth the price of admission: the bumped microphone at the 3:11 mark serves as an effective reminder that the tracks were recorded and mixed live; a fact which one might well forget when under the intoxicating spell of a master storyteller. 41 years on from its initial recording, Young’s songs—and his vulnerably assertive voice—remain as vital and transformative as waves against a shoreline.

 

Speaking of which, the waves that swell and crash throughout the 55 gloriously open-ended minutes of Crack-Up deserve as much credit as its human authors for delivering onto us one of the year’s most flat-out gorgeous albums. In a way, the two records can serve as companion pieces: the former being an example of evenly structured human inquisitiveness, and this a vast, stretching canvas of wonder, soaking up as much of the big, weird world around it as possible. Though a definitive nightmare for year-end compilation CDs, the songs in Crack-Up are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard from this band; and their stature only grows with repeated spins.

As far as what the record is “about,” I haven’t the faintest clue, really. All I can say is that, each time I put it on, I find myself falling back under the spell of its mythical language and seemingly ancient melodies. And I am reluctant to take leave of its warm, distant embrace—for fear that when next I reach out for it, the waves will have washed it all away.

 

19. Masseduction – St. Vincent
(Loma Vista Recordings)

 

Following the relative disappointment of St. Vincent’s self-titled (and non-4AD-affiliated) 2014 LP, I approached this latest offering with open ears and ever-more open expectations. Put in perspective, St. Vincent had more than its fair share of redeeming moments, and its inability to hold a candle to the excellence permeating every note (and sadomasochistic squeal) of Strange Mercy ought not to be held against it unduly. (And in comparing my own assessment of these past two albums to the critical consensus, it would appear I am in the minority anyway; this coming from a fan who is most likely to reach for Actor when craving an Annie Clark fix). Fortunately for all of us, Masseduction presents a bold return to Clark’s gleefully perverse and melodically flawless form. Whereas her previous offering pushed the envelope somewhat tepidly by proposing “I prefer your love to Jesus,” this time she shoots straight for the surrealistic stars: “Nuns in stress position / Smokin’ Marlboros… Drinkin’ Manic Panic / Singin’ Boatman’s Call / Teenage, Christian virgins / Holdin’ out their tongues / Paranoid secretions / Fallin’ on basement rugs.” Praise be to the ghosts of Buñuel and Dalí—and praise be to Ms. Clark for conjuring them so effortlessly, and letting us eavesdrop on this extraterrestrial dialogue.

It is safe to say that Masseduction contains one of the most versatile and enchanting sets St. Vincent has yet released. Taking as its setting a technicolor asylum, in which the characters have either lost their minds over lost love, or lost their love over lost minds, the album finds Clark casting herself in the role of a queen dominatrix—making her rounds of the ward, alternately snapping the whip of her seductive guitar work, or laying her saintly hands on the keys of a lonely piano to console someone’s pain. Personally, I find the album’s most rewarding moments to lie predominantly in these quieter passages: songs like “New York” and “Happy Birthday, Johnny” sound deceptively simple, but on repeat listens reveal themselves to be extremely sophisticated ballads, dedicated to friends (fictional or actual) who are stranded in a world of loss and confusion.

As far as high points are concerned, it doesn’t get much higher than the title track and the irresistible hook: “I can’t turn off what turns me on.” It’s the kind of song that make one smack one’s own forehead and say, “why hasn’t this been done before?” Now, it has. And it delights me to no end—to see that the world is paying attention and giving Ms. Clark her proper due, by showering this record with all the acclaim and recognition it (and she) so clearly deserves. Though patriarchy may have emerged triumphant at the end of 2016, the patent leather-clad seductress who gave us this record of beautiful melodies and twisted riffs mopped the floor with it in 2017; then kindly invited it to kiss her ass. If in doubt, have another look at the jacket.

 

18. “Drunk” – Thundercat
(Brainfeeder)

 

Two years ago, the world took note of the name “Kendrick Lamar,” as his brilliant double-LP breakthrough To Pimp A Butterfly swiftly proceeded to influence everything from the national dialogue on race, to the recording sessions of David Bowie’s final album. Fewer people seemed to take note of another name credited on that album: the name of Thundercat, a virtuoso future-jazz-funk bassist who was at least partially responsible for three of that album’s finest tracks (“Wesley’s Theory,” “These Walls,” and “Complexion (A Zulu Love)”). In fact, that very same year found Thundercat releasing an EP of his own (The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam), to accompany the doube-LP opus he had released two years prior: the darkly ethereal and wonderfully strange Apocalypse.

2017 found Kendrick once again sweeping widespread acclaim with his awaited follow-up to Butterfly, the succinctly titled (but less succinctly constructed) Damn. And while this latest offering by the verbally agile rapper left me wanting to return to the more pointed and thought-provoking brilliance of its predecessor, the latest LP by Thundercat kept me on my toes. Appropriately titled “Drunk” (considering its often fragmentary nature), the music Thundercat continues to produce is funky, intelligent, and sometimes outright bizarre; as though Zappa had finally discovered the 1 beat. And he’s often damn funny, to boot.

The first hint that something a little different is happening in this guy’s universe is provided by the presence of Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins on backing vocals, in the out-of-this-world lead single “Show You the Way.” Or the presence of an ecstatic, intricately arranged jam titled “Jethro”—which cuts itself off after a mere minute and thirty-five seconds of perfection. To put it mildly, Thundercat has a beat of his own to march to, and it seems unlikely that anyone would be able to talk him into altering it. This could present problems down the road, but for now, the rapacious diversification of his endeavor is a wonderful thing to behold.

In addition to the titles highlighted in this write-up, I can also advise checking out “Them Changes,” “Walk On By (feat. Kendrick Lamar),” “Tokyo,” and the climactic, 4-minute odyssey into the drunken “Inferno;” but even when taken as a whole, there is something interesting and thoughtful going on in most every track on the album. (Which more than makes up for the lack of polish in certain sections, or the occasional redundancy.) I look forward to the next offering with great relish.

Domo arigato, Mr. Thunder-gato.

 

17. Time Killer – Lioness
(Magnaphone Records)

 

Lioness (an eleven-piece band out of Dayton, Ohio) are one of the most refreshingly open-ended and lively new acts I’ve heard in some time. And with this debut full-length, they secured a consistent slot in my rotation of new music this year. Their songs frequently call to my mind the hyper-eclecticism of Arthur Lee, but the perpetual idiosyncrasy of the band’s writing defies simple homage. While in “Get the Sparrows” they sound as they though could be scoring a neo-Western, “One Day” and “Sham Wow” are way more Beatles than Morricone; and whereas “Relations” (or “America’s Country Freedom Song”) might give the impression of an outtake from the last—and vastly underrated—Talking Heads album, the fantasy novel qualities permeating “Ebony the Lioness” would seem way more at home in a ’70s concept album. And let’s not forget the album closer, which could be described as a remake of C.S.N.Y.’s “Our House” with chord progressions stolen from a Rush song.

My attempts at encapsulating the variety of material on Time Killer likely do a disservice to the remarkable consistency of the record. Seeing as how the parameters are set as broadly as possible from the opening track (though frequently set within the playground of 1960s-1980s pop music tropes), it seems a testament to the band’s diligence—and their fully contained point of view—that everything in here sounds of a piece. I can only speculate as to what they’ll go on to do with all this brilliance.

 

16. Damage and Joy – The Jesus & Mary Chain
(Artificial Plastic)

 

Damage and Joy is nothing more or less than a gift to Jesus & Mary Chain fans. In keeping with the track record they’ve established over the past thirty-plus years, there’s never a whiff of trying to appease the critics, trying to win over a bigger audience, or trying for anything, really, other than expressing their usual medley of disappointed awe for life itself.

Back in July, I observed that Damage and Joy finds the band delivering “exactly what we’ve wanted—maybe even yearned for all these years” (with what we wanted being a new Jesus & Mary Chain album). Five months on, this assessment remains sound. The songs on this record have provided many hours of companionship and escape throughout this profoundly damaged year, and it was with great regret that I missed an opportunity to see the band perform live again at a small venue in Louisville this Fall; I suppose I’ll have to resign myself to the memory of an extraordinary performance I witnessed in Indianapolis, five years ago. I’d never before (and haven’t since) danced with such reckless abandon.

The somewhat maudlin cast of the JAMC sounds increasingly nostalgic with each passing year, but not in a derogatory sense. In actuality, the band have continually embraced new trends (including, on this record, a guest appearance by Sky Ferreira and tracks recorded on separate continents, shared via e-mail), and their very origins belied a sound that was at least three years ahead of the curve (with My Bloody Valentine finally catching up in ’88). Rather than rooting themselves in an effort to recreate a lost past—or, as is more commonly the case with nostalgia, a past that never actually happened—the Reid brothers have left a unique stamp on popular music, perpetually pointing back to the pioneers who uncovered the possibilities they’ve made a living off of (Phil Spector, Muddy Waters, the Shangri-Las, and Einstürzende Neubauten) while hitching their thumbs on a road to the future of pop.

Jim and William went on record early in their career, explaining how they strove to make music they wanted to buy, but couldn’t find in any of their local record bins. With seven incredibly solid studio albums under their belt now, one hopes they’ve achieved their goal; and surely, they should be able to wander into any record store now, on any continent, and stumble upon a copy of Psychocandy or Darklands. But more than this, they’ve succeeded in inculcating at least one generation (maybe two, if more millennials choose to tune in) to the taste of their own deliriously direct, shamelessly melodic notion of hit music.

May we go forth and prosper in the fields they have acrimoniously sown for us.

 

15. 50 Song Memoir – The Magnetic Fields
(Nonesuch)

 

In March of this year, I seized upon the tremendous opportunity to see Stephin Merritt and his current incarnation of the Magnetic Fields perform his 50 Song Memoir, in its entirety, over the course of two nights at the Lincoln Theater (in Washington D.C). I’d refrained from listening to the album in its entirety up until this point, though I couldn’t resist sampling some of the advance singles, including the exceptional “’74: No” and “’83: Foxx and I” (the former, an ode to the absurdities of assorted theisms; the latter, a loving tribute to the pioneer of post-punk synth futurism, John Foxx). I find it difficult to put into words just how extraordinarily moving, hilarious, and heartbreaking those performances were. Just as he accomplished 18 years prior, with the surprising crossover hit of 69 Love Songs, Merritt has managed to condense so much of life’s tragicomic essence into the fifty vignettes collected in this set.

There are many layers to unpeel in this remarkable, entirely unique set of records (five in total, ten tracks per): the fact that Merritt was approached by a label executive with the idea to compose a musical memoir, and that he accepted the commission, seems entirely at odds with the assembly-line process of your average pop record; at the same time, is it really all that different?

It’s one of many big questions tackled by this prolific, sardonic chanteuse-stuck-in-a-bear’s-body in 50 Song Memoir. Other questions include (but are not limited to): How to distill an entire year of one’s life into a 3-minute capsule? How to truthfully capture the alternately eventful and uneventful passages of one’s life, from one track to the next, without ending up with a slew of boring throwaways? Most pressingly: what to write about years one through three? Part of the album’s reward for the listener, is the process of discovering Merritt’s answers to each of these questions; a greater reward lies in the songs themselves.

Stephin Merritt has given unto the world many a great song: from “Born on a Train,” to “Strange Powers,” to “Why I Cry,” to “The Book of Love” (and “Papa Was a Rodeo”), to “It’s Only Time,” to “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind,” to “Andrew In Drag,” every Magnetic Fields offering has featured at least one (and usually several more) song(s) worthy of permanent inclusion in the American songbook. When Peter Gabriel observed that Merritt was one of the greatest songwriters alive today (an observation that prompted his own gorgeous rendering of “The Book of Love”), there wasn’t so much as a hint of hyperbole. It is possible some listeners will be underwhelmed by the heightened idiosyncrasy of the songs contained herein: afterall, it is unlikely that many (or anyone, for that matter) will relate directly to songs about a cat named Dyonisus; wanting to be reincarnated as a cockroach; seeing Jefferson Airplane as a five-year old; moving to different parts of the country on a bi-annual basis, or overly heated debates with an ethics professor. This only serves to render the relatability of these songs even more noteworthy. For while you may not find anything as direct (or hopelessly romantic) as “Why I Cry” in this collection, it is more-than-likely you’ll surprise yourself with how much of this you might somehow identify with. The amount of insight into the human condition, contained within his hilarious love letter to Grace Slick (“’70: They’re Killing Children Over There”) or his envelope-pushing tribute to sadomasochistic codependency (“’04: Cold-Blooded Man”) is more than astonishing: it’s inspiring.

With 50 Song Memoir, Stephin Merritt & co. have succeeded in delivering a work as deeply eccentric as it is inherently popular; as kaleidoscopic as it is specific; as individual as it is universal. In the closing number, “’15: Somebody’s Fetish,” Merritt mumbles about how “everybody is / somebody’s fetish“—including his own bearish self. It may just be the most transcendent and hopeful line he’s ever penned.

 

14. If All I Was Was Black – Mavis Staples
(Anti-)

 

There are many great singers alive in the world today, but there is only one Mavis Staples. As detailed in the 2015 HBO documentary, Mavis!, the former Staple Singer has led a remarkably rich and adventurous life: from her days on the club circuit with Pops & co., to the family’s growing involvement in the civil rights movement, to the first faltering steps towards a solo career. More recently, Mavis has found new life among the unlikely likes of Jeff Tweedy and M. Ward—both of whom have lent a hand to writing and producing some excellent records for the artist on the Anti- imprint. It would seem that her long-overdue moment to shine has finally arrived; in a reflection of the music industry’s unfortunate blindness to history and racial oppression, it took a couple white guys to get the world to return their attention to the profound voice of a black woman, who (like Sister Rosetta Tharpe before her) opened our ears to the purity of song in the first place. After all, with her timeless delivery of those simple, powerful lines (“I know a place / Ain’t nobody cryin’…“), many a fledgling musician found their Rosetta Stone; their musical raison d’être. Heard in hindsight, “I’ll Take You There” barely constitutes a song—at least, not in the now-customary sense of the word. There’s call and response, but no real counterpoint; a fragment of a verse, paired with an even shorter fragment of a chorus (and a bunch of “help me now”s, thrown in for good measure). But within this 3 minute fragment of musical heaven, life itself unfolds: revealed unto the listener in all its funky glory.

It’s been one year since the release of Livin’ On a High Note; a refreshing collection of M. Ward-produced recordings, including original song contributions by everyone from Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), to Laura Veirs and Neko Case; to Ben Harper, Son Little, and Nick Cave. In between, there was a special tribute concert (I’ll Take You There: An All-Star Concert Celebration) and a little-heard, sensational single with Arcade Fire (“I Give You Power“). At 78, Mavis might be showing some expected signs of slowing down physically, but her productivity rate—and her engagement with contemporary music—is as active as ever. And her latest album with Jeff Tweedy at the helm, If All I Was Was Black, is easily the best one they’ve done together (yet).

There’s often a perception of effortlessness in the songs that Mavis sings: they seem to flow out of her like a rolling river; cascading over ancient rocks, and returning to the vast sea of wisdom from which they emerged. This organic quality is at its most refined and consistent across the ten tracks of this latest offering, which moves at its own deliberate pace, and avoids the hasty trends of pop music recording (which have imposed themselves upon the singer’s previous efforts to convey her natural grace and gravitas. Not entirely surprising—for an industry that believes itself to have evolved beyond such qualities, without fully appreciating them in the first place).

The title track (which appears to have borrowed its lead riff from Neil Young’s “Walk On”) neatly sums up the themes scattered across the album, but doesn’t infringe upon their complexity in the slightest. During a build-up to the song’s redeeming chorus, Mavis insists that: “If all I was was black / Looking at you, you might look past / All the love I give / I’ve got natural gifts / Got a perspective / Might make your shift.” At last, the singer declares simply, without a hint of pretense: “I’ve got love / I’ve got love.” No hashtag. No narcissism. No indignation. Just pure song: genuine expression.

There is so much to be inspired by in Mavis’s story; so much sustenance to be had from the wonderful recordings she’s blessed the world with, across more than half of a century of musical activity. What I personally find most rewarding about any album of Mavis’s (and this one in particular) is her unparalleled ability to contain multiple perspectives, all within the intense emotion and direct power of her voice. It’s the sort of directness that respects realism and idealism in equal measure: aware of the tremendous healing power it is capable of, but also sensitive to the knowledge that some wounds are beyond healing. There’s an especially affecting moment for this listener, during the album’s final track (“All Over Again”): around 40 seconds in, as she describes “the stars all closing in,” with Tweedy making a surprising transition to a tightly diminished chord at the same time that Mavis strikes the saddest note on the entire record. And then, a mutual release—back to the major tone of the song’s origin, with the hymnal chorus over top: “I’d do it / All over again.” And just as she did 45 years ago, when she promised to take us “there,” the entirety of life unfolds, in the most startlingly bright, darkly contoured shades. And my heart is filled beyond capacity.

 

13. Reflection – Brian Eno
(Warp/Oval)

 

A new Brian Eno record is rarely (if ever) anything less than a gift to music-lovers. Whether in ambient or vocal form, the work produced by this beloved thinker, innovator, composer, and reluctant (but marvelous) singer has enthralled this writer for many years—since his first discover of the second side of Bowie / Low. Over the past two decades, the artist has rather steadily seesawed between additional collaborative endeavors (with collaborators both veteran and new, including David Byrne, Karl Hyde, Rick Holland, and Jon Hopkins) and solo vocal/ambient pursuits. After last year’s lovely crossover, The Ship—in which vocal and and instrumental realms were blurred more bravely than ever before—the artist shows no signs of stopping; for this year, he’s added another two entries to his canon.

On New Year’s Day, 2017, Brian Eno released Reflection—his first proper ambient record since 2012’s Lux, and his most ambitious to date: in addition to traditional physical formats (vinyl and CD), the album was made available as a generative app, which would offer up new variations of the recording with each changing season. Though intrigued by the generative app, and impressed by the conceptual and technological prowess involved in its development, I found myself more drawn to the traditional format. After all, this is how I’ve come to know and obsess over every other Eno record, and why should this be any different?

As far as differences go, Reflection is very much alike his finest ambient albums to date (specifically, Ambient 1: Music for Airports and Ambient 4: On Land) and very much something else. Whereas previous efforts have been seemingly free-form, repeat listening often reveals the ways in which the artist limited himself to fit the format in which he was recording (namely, long-playing records). And while he was able to include thirty minutes of music per sidedue to the minimal instrumentation of each track, and the minimal amount of grooves needed to engrave the musicthe notion of expanding a piece beyond the time constraints of a single format, while still respecting the composer’s touch, was something difficult to execute with available technology. Up until now, that is.

Although I have only heard fragments of the generative app on-line, it isn’t terribly difficult to envision the infinite possibilities the sounds on this record contain for variation’s sake. It is probably safe to say that, depending on your personal inclination, you will either find Reflection terribly boring or fantastically hypnotic. (It is also possible to feel a little bit of each extreme.) The often somber, verging on menacing sound palette of the album harkens back to the first ominous strains of “Lizard Point;” in a way, it is possible to read Reflection as a long-delayed follow-up to On Land, insofar as it represent an even more distilled evolution of that album’s palette. And with the app continually responding to the curated, hand-crafted parameters of its composer, the artist seems to have finally achieved a total synthesis of chance happening and intentional sound design. For what it’s worth, it all sounds as brilliant as it is.

Further listening: the artist’s second release of 2017, Finding Shore, finds him working with a new collaborator, Tom Rogerson (who beckons from the English countryside of Suffolk), and creating some occasionally stunning moments of melodic ambience. Nothing as revolutionary as Reflection, perhaps, but hardly any cause for complaint.

 

 

12. Memories Are Now – Jesca Hoop
(SubPop)

 

Jesca Hoop has consistently intrigued and perplexed me, throughout a decade of folksy singer-songwriter recordings: it often sounds to me as though her albums are somehow wholly conventional, and totally out-of-touch at the same time. Though my occasional dumbfoundedness is (clearly) more my problem than hers, it pleases me to state that with this latest LP, I finally got it. Following on the heels of another beautiful album, Love Letter For Fire (written and recorded with Sam Beam a.k.a. Iron & Wine), Memories Are Now is a quietly—and sometimes, loudly majestic ode to the powerful frailty of the mind/spirit continuum.

The record opens with the disarmingly assertive title track, in which the artist declares: “I was not there, I won’t be there / I’m only here / Memories are now / I can carry this weight, I can stand up tall / Look you in the eye / You haven’t broken me yet / You don’t scare me to death / You don’t scare me at all though you try / I’ve lived enough life / I’ve earned my stripes / With my knife in the ground, this is mine.” Anyone who isn’t convinced better get out of the way, as she proceeds into her hymn of resiliency in the face of adversity: “Clear the way, I’m coming through / No matter what you say / I’ve got work to be doing / If you’re not here to help, go find some other life to ruin / Let me show you the door.

From here on, all bets are off, and the album proceeds to yield one four-minute sliver of fortune after another. In the second sliver, “The Lost Sky” (one of my personal favorites), the narrator addresses a fallen lover: “The bitter burn of a signal run cold / You became the dark star and left me all alone / A love like ours comes ’round once in a lifetime / Sending you a lifeline.” All throughout, the heightened emotional transparency of the lyrics is polished further—and brought into fine relief through the naked confidence of their delivery. Arguably the most powerful moment in the record lies in the sliver she saved for last: a magnificent marble of incisive writing, entitled “The Coming,” in which the singer single-handedly tackles the entirety of her life’s spiritual conditioning (and un-conditioning) in six minutes flat. That she manages to hold this momentum-generating revelation back until this far in the record—then walks away from the mic, after repeating the song’s opening thesis—is a bold statement, indeed: “Jesus turned in his crown of thorns today / And announced to the Earth and the heavens the end of his reign / He took a seat next to the Devil and said, ‘I need a new name’ / And the coming never came.

Perhaps most notable of all, none of my foreshadowing for the experience of this record is likely to have any diminishing impact on the reader’s own take. Because Memories Are Now ably represents one of the most sought-after qualities of a good record: something so elemental—so rooted in the energy of its creation and development—that it rejects simple analysis at every turn. In a time when simple analysis has become the stock and trade for many a weary civilian, an alternative is most welcome.

 

11. Room 29 – Jarvis Cocker & Chilly Gonzales
(Deutsche Grammophon)

 

The liner notes to the new album by Jarvis Cocker (Pulp) and accomplished pianist Chilly Gonzales read as follows: “Room 29 is a hotel room situated on the 2nd floor of the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, Los Angeles. Amongst other things, it contains a baby-grand piano. This record is the life-story of the room as told by the piano and one of the hotel guests.”

With Cocker playing the hotel guest and Gonzales playing the piano (quite adeptly, I might add), Room 29 spins a series of tales, both tall and quite small. Considering the notorious reputation of the Chateau Marmont, and the many celebrities liked to its history, it may come as somewhat of a surprise that most of the tales err on the smaller side (mentions of Jean Harlow and Howard Hughes aside; even then, this is likely the least scandalous stories you’re likely to hear about Howard Hughes in a hotel room). The quiet atmosphere is established early on, during the title track itself—in which the guest is welcomed into the room, and takes a mental seismograph of its energies (and past occupants). With much of the music sounding like never-before-heard Satie works, I would find it rather difficult to not be seduced immediately by this strange (and damn near-perfect) little record.

Following two fairly solid solo albums (the first one produced Graham Sutton and the second with Steve Albini), Room 29 finds Jarvis sounding better than ever before; at times channeling his inner Scott Walker to remarkable effect (such as in “A Trick Of the Light” and “Tearjerker”), at others sounding like a more lyric-oriented Jon Brion (such as in the pun-drenched and somewhat cynical little ditty, “The Other Side”). What I most likely love best about the record is its (seemingly) totally relaxed approach to a rather tautly structured concept. Although the songs are mostly built and sequenced with a sophisticated sort of symmetry, you might not tell it right off by the sound of these two. Which isn’t to say they ever sound sloppy; but rather, they sound so good together, it’s as though they’re never even trying.

One of the more innovative tracks on the album, “Howard Hughes Under the Microscope,” finds Gonzales accompanying an audio excerpt of an interview with David Thomsen (facilitated by Cocker, though his own voice is tastefully absent from the edited conversation). In “A Trick of the Light,” Cocker and Gonzales—backed by a full orchestra—thoughtfully (and rather movingly) deconstruct the illusion upon which cinema is established: a flickering series of stills, generating movement in the eye and the mind of the beholder, but never achieving the pulse of life itself. Throughout every song on Room 29, it is life itself with which the artists are most concerned. This quality, more than other, presents the most plausible key to the album’s total success.

 

10. async – Ryuichi Sakamoto
(Milan Records)

 

Many of the records on this list have been a part of my life for months now: their contents have replayed themselves, over and again, in a multitude of formats (vinyl records, MP3s on my iPod, mix CDs on road trips). async is not one of these records. Though it was released back in March, I did not acquire myself a copy for listening until just recently, when a friend reminded me of its existence. I remain grateful for this friend’s reminder, and even moreso for the music contained on this record, which is some of the most beautiful work I’ve ever set my ears to.

Following an extended hiatus (marked by the composer’s fight with throat cancer), async emerged—much like Eno’s Reflection—as a sort of carefully curated bonsai plant. Which isn’t to say its arrangement is impeccably tailored; if anything, async takes a cue from the literal meaning of its title, and revels in the messy possibilities of sound collage. What it makes of these possibilities, however, could hardly be more elegant and specific. Containing everything from multilingual spoken word extracts from Paul Bowles’s literary masterpiece, The Sheltering Sky (adapted for the screen in 1990 by Bernardo Bertolucci, whom the composer cites in his liner notes to have become like a brother); to David Sylvian reciting a poem dedicated to Andrei Tarkovsky by his father, Arseny; to found sound recordings collected by the artist over many years, the album is—much like a bonsai plant—the product of both careful deliberation and an openness to the accidental.

Beyond this sort of synopsis, words fail me in trying to describe the immense beauty and sadness of this record. All I can say is that I’ve never been moved to tears as swiftly as I was upon first hearing the Tarkovsky/Sylvian piece, “Life, Life,” which brought me to my knees—overcome by the power of its words, the understatement of its delivery, and the emotional precision of its instrumentation. I’ve summoned the bravery to revisit the track several additional times, but I have not yet succeeded in avoiding a recurrence of my initial response.

 

9. Hippopotamus – Sparks
(BMG Music)

 

There were many times during 2017 that Hippopotamus stood out as my foremost contender for album of the year. And if I were to remake this list on a different day, under different circumstances, there’s a chance it might yet. Regardless of charting positions (though I will have you know, Hippopotamus broke the top 10 on the weekend of its release), Sparks have yet to give us a bad record, and this is one of the best ones yet. From the opening piano chords and openly dismissive lyrics of “Probably Nothing,” to the fading funhouse sounds of “A Little Bit Like Fun,” the record tells us essentially everything we need to know about people.

There are so many fine qualities to admire about Hippopotamus, but in keeping with the theme of this list, it’s the clarity of the work that stands out most of all. In the clearly enunciated prose of songs like “What the Hell Is It This Time?” (in which the Lord looks down on all of his needy minions, bemoaning aloud of their bothers and sorrows) and “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)” (in which the lead character—or characters—engage in an inner dialogue about the merits and deficits of sentimentality), the verbose and well-read Mael brothers have hit a bona fide stride: they ride this wave of inspiration from beginning to end, with seemingly every moment as absurd, hilarious, and truthful as the one before it. Take the title track, for instance: in which Russell narrates a surrealist nursery rhyme about a swimming pool with everything from a Bosch painting, to a VW Microbus, to a snorkeling Titus Andronicus in it. The listener will likely find themselves questioning whether there will be another verse, after having heard what appears to be every word with the titular suffix (“-us”) available in the English dictionary; when he mentions the additional presence of “a woman with an abacus,” you might just be tempted to applaud.

As droll as the song-stories contained on Hippopotamus might seem on paper, the now-trademark playful gestalt of the Maels carries everything to a higher level than face value. In “Unaware,” the singer warns the protagonist “Don’t turn that corner / Stay unaware of it all;” in “Bummer,” he takes on the sycophantic displays of emotion known to accompany the funerals of famous individuals: “You deserve something more, but they go through the motions / They have seen on TV / People of majesty who can sum up a life with a phrase / They don’t know you.” And in the gobsmackingly perfect anthem to reluctant co-dependency, “I Wish You Were Fun,” a lover explains to his partner that: “I love how you run / With such a determined look, at that / I shouldn’t let it phase me at all, but I’m just plain old dumb / I wish you were fun.” It’s the sort of insight that takes years of curmudgeonly brooding—followed by years of reflectively distilling human neuroses to their innermost core—to put it all so succinctly.

 

8. Other – Alison Moyet
(Cooking Vinyl)

 

I find it somehow appropriate that Hippopotamus should be followed immediately by Other on this list. Seeing as how Alison Moyet’s latest could be read as a more emotionally intelligent (and vocally unrestrained) response to the testosterone-inflected bookishness of the Mael brothers, they ought to make for a thoughtful back-to-back listening experience.

Other is an amazing record (and a beautiful work of musical art), and I can only hope enough people pay attention to take note for future generations. Of all the solo records I’ve heard to date from Ms. Moyet, this is the one in which her musical accompaniment appears to have caught up most effectively to her vernacular. With former Madonna producer Guy Sigsworth (Music) at the helm, Moyet’s complex and multi-layered songs have met their match, and the rewards are palpable in the full-bodied likes of “Reassuring Pinches” and “April 10th”—the latter containing the artist’s first spoken word contribution, that I’m aware of (I do hope there is more to follow…). Moreover, Moyet’s unique strain of logophilia finds its clearest expression to date in “I Germinate” and, most notably, “The English U.” (And yes: it is an ode to a secondary vowel.)

The most essential and unforgettable song on the record, however, is the one bearing the album’s namesake. In “Other,” Moyet paints one of the saddest, most finely contoured and luxuriously phrased portraits of life outside the accepted. The chorus: “And nothing touching me / Nothing touching me.” I get chills just thinking about it.

 

7. Twin Peaks: Music from the Limited Event Series – Various Artists & Angelo Badalamenti / Windswept – Johnny Jewel / Anthology Resource Vol. 1: △△ – Dean Hurley
(Rhino / Italians Do It Better / Sacred Bones)

 

An achievement so great that it’s practically defied categorization (is it a television show, a film, or something else altogether?), Twin Peaks: The Return was one of the most consistently rewarding developments of 2017. Although it goes without saying that the series could not have first existed without the inspired genius of David Lynch and Mark Frost, music has always played a crucial role in the world of Twin Peaks; and its most recent chapters were no different, in this regard.

Released shortly in advance of the “Limited Series Event” premiere on Showtime, the reissued soundtrack albums to Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me had already become Saturday morning regulars: the perfect companions to a damn fine cup of coffee. Little did I predict how much the music in these new episodes—including at least one surprise guest performance at the end of each airing—would pull me in; keeping me awake at night and continually returning me to the space of Lynch’s and Frost’s making. There was so much new music, in fact, that it couldn’t even be contained within one album: spread over two double-LP soundtracks, a single-LP score (by guest composer Johnny Jewel), and an extended play collection of ambient tracks by recurring collaborator Dean Hurley, the soundscapes of Twin Peaks: The Return are diverse, but phenomenally cohesive as well. And while some may challenge the notion of four separate releases as a single album entry, I should counter that the collective impact of the music is what drew me to bask in every corner of the program’s consistently enthralling sound collage. In a sense, the collected music of this medium-transcending work is a work in-and-of-itself: a compilation by Lynch himself, for which specific ingredients have been hand-selected to produce a certain flavor.

Obviously, this flavor includes the unforgettable refrain by Angelo Badalamenti, that gorgeous Julee Cruise ballad (“The World Spins”), and another unfathomably gorgeous rendering by Rebekah Del Rio (this one an original, titled “No Stars;” Del Rio previously contributed her Spanish-language remake of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” to Mulholland Dr., in one of that film’s most memorable sequences). But in addition to the usual suspects, we have the cinematic, power chord-driven propulsion of singer-songwriter Lissie; the dilettantish synth samba of Au Revoir Simone; an updated recording of one truly incredible Sharon Van Etten song (featuring Jonathan Meiburg, of Shearwater, on organ); a new Nine Inch Nails song; Shawn Colvin doing Elvis; some ZZ Top, and a barroom stomper performed by David Lynch’s own son. And that’s to say nothing of the Johnny Jewel contributions, which are scattered throughout both of the Rhino-distributed soundtracks and the Windswept LP, distributed on Jewel’s own imprint. Of these, the crown jewel is most definitely the Chromatics song, “Shadow” (originally released as a stand-alone single in 2015). In addition to the title at the #1 spot on this list, this song is what I listened to the most in 2017.

 

The most significant thing about the music from Twin Peaks: The Return was, for me, its continual reminder to the listener, of the possibilities for creating a portal to another world through the phenomenon of sound. Just as Lynch succeeded in bending the time-space continuum (before throwing it out the window altogether) over the course of this year’s 18 new episodes, the songs that provided the backdrop for these episodes have the ability to open up entire worlds of their own. And unlike a nostalgia fetishist (think Tarantino, or Wes Anderson) who struggles to respect the multitude of different uses a given song might lend itself toward, Lynch has never allowed his work to get in the way of the music he chooses. Instead, his work is an on-going synthesis: a fusion of sight and sound, betraying an obvious wonder for the untold possibilities of the universe, while preserving a specific point of view and a consistent tonality. He is arguably the greatest living artist in the world today.

 

6. Pure Comedy – Father John Misty
(SubPop)

 

Pure Comedy prompted a rather extensive blog entry earlier this year, and I feel a tad reluctant to say anything else on its behalf. I suppose I can add that, after seeing Tillman perform this material live on stage, backed by his stellar touring band, my suspicion that this was a record every bit as good as I Love You, Honeybear (and in certain ways, an infinitely better one) was convincingly reinforced. Also, take note of the additional percussion and production contributions by Gavin Bryars: if Tillman continues down this exploratory road he’s been walking for five years now, the sky and his own ego may well be the only limits to what he could accomplish.

 

5. No Plan – David Bowie
(ISO/Columbia)

 

Those who know me well might presume that my only motive for including the final David Bowie EP (a simple four-track offering, titled after its closing track) was to seize one final opportunity to champion new music by the recently departed Bard of Art-pop. And truth be told, this certainly played a part in my decision to highlight No Plan as one of the finest releases this year (despite the fact that all of this material was previously included on a companion CD to the Original Cast Recording of the off-Broadway, Man Who Fell to Earth-inspired musical, Lazarus—in which these same songs are performed the show’s protagonist, Thomas Jerome Newton). Beyond my running sorrow for the loss of a near-peerless musical legend, however, the music on this EP has been instrumental to my resiliency in a year marked by domestic and international horrors, natural disasters, and a bevy of incrementally worsening man-made problems.

Though all four of these songs are exceptional and affecting in their own respective ways, the title track has easily held the most prominent place in my aching heart. Featuring one of the most flat-out gorgeous vocals the artist ever recorded during his time on Earth, “No Plan” is beyond stunning. Many critics and talking heads were quick to comment, following the artist’s death and his release of the monumental Blackstar, that this album clearly represented a sort of self-penned epitaph. While there is much to back up this interpretation (including the lyrics to “Lazarus,” which doubles as opener to the No Plan EP), I find it easier to read Blackstar as the final novel in a widely lauded, well-loved writer’s repertoire; which would render No Plan the calculated post-script (to a life known for consistently transcending any kind of pre-conception).

In “No Plan,” the artist enters into earshot crooning the beautiful lines: “Here, there’s no music here / I’m lost in streams of sound / Here, am I nowhere now? / No plan / Wherever I may go / Just where / Just there / I am.” Between the finely chiseled verses that remain, the chorus/bridge inserts itself (allowing itself to be clearly identified as having been recorded in a separate take): “All of the things that are my life / My desires, my beliefs, my moods / Here is my place without a plan.” While the EP was released on what would have been Bowie’s 70th birthday, there was a far more expansive offering bearing his name by year’s end: with the highly-anticipated, authorized box set (A New Career In a New Town) compiling the beloved Berlin trilogy (plus Stage and Scary Monsters), fans were given a juxtaposition of the artist’s dying wisdom, with the restless wandering of his early thirties. It’s the sort of thematic intersection that cannotor at least, ought not to be planned; and that makes it all the more noteworthy.

In addition to the musical releases bearing Bowie’s name in 2017, there was one other final, extremely special tributein the form of Phillip Jeffries, a character Bowie had played in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, reprised one last time in the show’s Return. Portrayed as a large steel canister, with a spout of steam pouring out of its head, Jeffries/Bowie provides Special Agent Dale Cooper with coordinates to some sort of inter-dimensional portalsetting the stage for the show’s stunning finale. Although Bowie was not alive when the show went into filming, and was unable to make a filmed contribution himself, I gather the impression that he would approve of the treatment. After all, is this not what the artist left behind as his most lasting of legacies: coordinates to unknown dimensions; a portal to possibilities never before realized?

No Plan closes with the artist drawing out the breath needed to deliver his final line: “This is not quite yet.” For better or worse, we are left to fill in the remaining canvas.

 

4. Slowdive – Slowdive
(Dead Oceans)

 

It strikes me in looking at this list that there were few traditional “band” LPs released this year to really seize me by the ears. And of the ones that stood out, none hold a candle to the organic perfection coursing through the self-titled return LP by these English shoe-gazers. The band has clearly put their twenty-two year hiatus to good useseeing as how the outcome of this most recent session is, easily, the best thing they’ve ever produced.

It begins with the aptly titled “Slomo,” in which the band drifts their way into the atmosphere, swelling to a grand finale of dueling guitar melodies, shakers, ambient textures, and soaring vocals by Neil and Rachel. Over the course of the subsequent seven songs (collectively, a perfect volume of dream pop), the band continues to ebb and flow in a variety of inter-related directions: from the Brit-pop-inflected “Star Roving,” to the downbeat majesty and winding bassline in “Sugar For the Pill,” to the apocalyptic piano balladry of “Falling Ashes.” There may not quite be “something for everyone” on here, but anyone who can’t find something to latch onto here probably isn’t worth getting to know as well as this record.

There’s little more I can say to champion this crown jewel in the band’s already-accomplished discography, but I do feel compelled to say a few words in support of the album’s shining moment. A playful (and highly skilled) sample of the band’s understated virtuosity, “No Longer Making Time” could be presented as a masterclass in smart pop songwriting and production. The interplay between Nick Chaplin’s subtly refined bass line and Neil’s open-ended guitar lead, bound together by the laid-back thrust of Simon Scott’s backbeat and a flawlessly harmonized set of lead vocals, presents a necessary and revitalizing counterpoint to the overstated (and often entirely unwarranted) bombast of most charting rock bands. With a consistent impression of finality imprinted throughout, the band has essentially succeeded in eulogizing their own bygone approach to the medium of pop-rock; an approach that has been symmetrically observed by My Bloody Valentine, and has only left a handful of inadequate imitators scattered in the dust. With the recent announcement made by Kevin Shields, that a new MBV offering lies around the corner, maybe they will have spoken too soon.

 

 

3. Dark Matter – Randy Newman
(Nonesuch)

 

Randy Newman is the sort of songwriter who comes along without a real precedent, and is likely to leave without a successor. Though his work has always harkened back to the great American songbook, and his ancestry betrays a natural proclivity for music composition (three of his uncles were Hollywood film-score composers), there’s a singularity to Newman’s perspective—and the continuously nimble workings of his musical mind—that stands and falls entirely on its own terms. If ever a musical artist has embodied the Groucho Marx ethos (“I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member”), it’s Randy: and it’d be difficult to argue against the theory that we are better off, as a species, for his contribution to the human discourse.

Released just one year after his completion of the top-notch, 3-part anthology (The Randy Newman Songbook: Vols. 1-3), but nearly a decade after his last album of new material (Harps and Angels), Dark Matter is easily one of the songwriter’s boldest, most heavily nuanced achievements. Often calling to mind the wide-ranging and dexterously subversive approach he applied (with comparable success) in Sail Away and Good Old Boys, Newman’s latest is a condensation and an expansion of everything he has done to date. In “Putin,” he blends the populism of “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)” with the cynicism of “Political Science,” and leaves us rolling in the aisles (“What if the Kurds got in the way? / Hey! Kurds and way, curds and whey!“). In “Brothers,” he invites us to eavesdrop on a hypothetical conversation between Bobby and Jack Kennedy (circa the Cuban missile crisis), and somehow winds up championing the carnal talents of Celia Cruz. In “The Great Debate,” the album’s ambitious, eight-minute deliberation between every politico-religious faction on the planet, he pulls off something that may never have been accomplished before in song: a multi-dimensional one-man play, offering a simple resolution to all the world’s problems (“I’ll take Jesus every time!“), and backed by a full gospel choir. Kinda like the first episode of Cop Rock, only better. (And I know what you’re thinking: That’s not possible. Just trust me on this one).

Upon first hearing the album in its entirety, I experienced a mild sense of disappointment. Which is understandable, considering that one is bound to set an unreasonably high bar for the possibilities of a new Randy Newman album. But after getting over the hump of what I had hoped Dark Matter might sound like, I found myself beyond-satisfied with the reality of its offerings; in a sense, this very paradigm-shift has been a reoccurring message at the core of Newman’s work. The shift is pronounced explicitly during “The Great Debate,” when a scientist is called upon to explain the concept of “dark matter” to the rest of humanity, only to have his largely inaccessible explanation shut down by a baser pragmatism: “Let me get this straight / You don’t know what it is / You don’t know where it is / And we can’t get any / Put that to the one side / Let’s put the Lord, faith, eternity / Whatever on the other side / Show ’em, Vance” (followed by a repetition of the consensus: “I’ll take Jesus every time!“) Here, in a neat reversal of the premise at the heart of “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind),” God is portrayed as a byproduct of mankind’s own lowered expectations: a fallback for a species that continually fails to confront, headfirst, the untapped potential of its own constructs (e.g. democracy, education, family…).

The album is bookended by my favorite of its nine tracks, “On the Beach”—in which the album’s narrator (perhaps Randy himself?) pays tribute to a classmate who dropped out of school in order to live out the life of a beach bum. The song calls to mind the films made by Woody Allen in his prime (Radio Days, in particular), as well as channeling the same inspired observationalism which permeated Land of Dreams. Though every verse and rhyme is a gem in its own right, my hands-down favorite is this simple ode to the bum’s resiliency: “Willie saw acid / Willie saw fear / Willie saw freebase / But Willie’s still here.” Rarely has the old adage, “they don’t write ’em like they used to,” seemed more apropos, than when comparing Newman’s economy of words to the blather of what passes for insight in many present-day circles.

In addition to the spectacular “Sonny Boy” (one of the finest singles of his entire oeuvre, and a more deserving contender than “Putin” for the forthcoming awards season), two mournful ballads, “Lost Without You” and “Wandering Boy,” round out this fine collection of material in a deeply affecting manner. In the former (which could easily be interpreted as a 40-years-on epilogue to Johnny Cutler’s Birthday—the original concept for the Good Old Boys LP), a dying woman’s wish to her children is that they respect and care for the alcoholic husband she’s about to leave behind. In the latter song (which also closes the album), an unidentified man at a party pleads for the welfare of a child who disappeared in the harbor many years ago. After all these years of alternately pulling our leg and our heartstrings, Newman hasn’t lost his knack for bringing us to tears with these humbling reminders of what we all share, and what we all have to lose.

Most reassuringly of all, perhaps, Randy’s leg-pulling abilities are as astute and absurd as ever: from another jab at those who are diminutive in stature (“Stand up sir, what’s your- / You are standing, forgive me“), to one of the darkest jokes yet presented in response to widespread police brutality (“So if you see a uniform / Do exactly what they say / Or make a run for it / I’m only kidding with ya“), this most American of satirists can still teach us all a thing or two about ourselvesthrough the healing powers of humor and melancholy. It’ll be a somber day, when we are forced to part ways with him.

 

2. Rest – Charlotte Gainsbourg
(Because Music)

 

Charlotte Gainsbourg’s eagerly awaited third full-length musical release (her fourth overall, including the half-live/half-studio recorded Stage Whisper) is the most convincing fulfillment of the musical promise bestowed by her late father. And in its own way, Rest could be argued as superior to any of Serge’s completed works: for it demonstrates a level of emotional clarity (melded with the family’s trademark intellectual shrewdness) that her father only ever dared to mock in others, having lacked the natural proclivity for displaying it in himself. (Though he came closest in the albums he wrote for Jane Birkin, following their tumultuous break-up.)

Simply put, Rest is a masterpiece. That Charlotte should have the natural aptitude for conveying what she conveys on this record, coupled with her Madonna-like astuteness for selecting the right collaborators with which to maximize the power of her words (including SebastiAn, Paul McCartney, and Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo), should offer all the proof needed to validate her potential as more than just another actor-turned-musical-dilettante. In fact, my first response to Rest—following the initial, flabbergasting wonder it inducedwas a longing to revisit her previous recordings, and reassess them as predecessors to this breakthrough moment. And lo and behold, it was all there from the outset: in the delicate beauty and timeless arrangements of “5:55” and “The Songs That We Sing;” the eccentricity and exoticism of “Me and Jane Doe” and “La Collectionneuse;” the concentrated pop precision of “Jamais.” With this latest achievement, she has magnified the very qualities that made her records worth listening to from the outset, and has essentially pulled the rug out from underneath her detractors. For anyone who fails to even remotely resonate with something on this record must either be dead or devoid of feeling.

I present, as Exhibit A, the second album track (“Lying With You”). A tribute to her father, the title boldly flaunts the double-to-triple-meaning effect, which Serge himself was so widely renowned for. But she doesn’t stop there: as she recounts fragments of memories featuring her father, the informed listener is bound to hear everything against the unforgettable images of “Lemon Incest” and Charlotte Forever, in which the father-daughter duo paraded their relationship before the public through a fictional pose of moral turpitude. More than just reveling in double-entendre, “Lying With You” is one of the most affecting and loving musical tributes I believe I’ve ever heard. The music video (one of several the artist has herself directed in support of the album) shows Charlotte wandering through the infamous Gainsbourg house on Rue de Verneuilthe walls all painted black; the décor a reflection of the late artist’s pathology, including a shrine of Birkin’s personal belongings (left untouched for over a decade following their separation), photos stolen from Salvador Dalí’s Parisian home in the 1950s, and the cabbage head statue from L’Homme à Tête de Chou. Edited roughly and sometimes saturated with a red darkroom effect, the video effectively captures the essence of the song itself: that is, a disoriented, mournful, profoundly endearing portrait of a daughter trying to make sense of a sometimes-absent father. The chorus offers a fine sample of the record’s many exacting (and surreal) lyrics: “My feet are hovering above ground / Ready to follow / My mouth is whispering in raptures / Celebrating you.”

Throughout the entire record, Gainsbourg appears to be possessed by these tremendous bursts of inspiration: melodically, lyrically, and sequentially, Rest reveals one marvel after another. In “Kate,” the artist paints a second gorgeous tribute to her departed half-sister, who tragically fell from a balcony in Paris in 2013. Having recently turned 46 (the same age Kate was at the time of her passing), the song is one of the only ones on the record to be sung entirely in French; the chorus is a wordless flight of notes, climbing the scales of the chord changes (an inversion of a fall…). In the title track and the album opener (“Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses”), she gives us a pair of adult nursery rhymes whose subtle, playfully cinematic imagery trickles throughout the remaining numbers.

While I find it difficult to choose a single track for consideration, it is nigh on impossible to argue with the album’s centerpiecea six-minute composition of futurist disco chamber music, titled “Deadly Valentine.” With a simple, descending top line melody (and an even simpler counterpoint highlighting the chorus), Gainsbourg has put to shame whoever her competition might be in the contemporary dance charts. (As if the song itself weren’t enough, she directed and starred in another video for it.) And then there’s the McCartney-penned “Songbird in a Cage,” which makes fine use of Charlotte’s spoken word abilities, but even finer use of her limited (but totally self-aware) singing voice. Rest closes with the relentless death-disco anthem, “Les Oxalis,” whose coda features a girl-child (perhaps a home recording of Charlotte, preserved by Serge?) singing the French alphabet. Forget the phonebook: her point’s already taken.

My only prayer is that this songbird goes on to write, sing, and record as many songs as her soul can carry. The world already seems a better place with Rest in it.

 

1. Harmony of Difference – Kamasi Washington
(Young Turks)

 

As the year wound down to a simultaneously dreaded, and anxiously awaited conclusion, it dawned on me that there was only one record I turned to unconditionally—on any given day—for comfort, respite, and clarity.

Kamasi Washington’s follow-up to his ambitious triple-album debut (aptly titled The Epic) was the record I listened to the most during 2017, but that isn’t the only reason I feel comfortable calling it my album of the year. In a strange way, every musical path highlighted in this year-end list leads back to the thesis at the heart of Kamasi’s latest record (marketed as an EP, but generous enough to be counted as a full-length in most other circles). Inspired by the simple idea that a multitude of voices are necessary to produce the most beautiful harmonies (this coupled with a series of paintings by Kamasi’s sister, Amani), Harmony of Difference is arguably the most musically informed, thoroughly developed, modestly sophisticated recording of the year.

The album begins with “Desire”—a melody every bit as profound and sensual as its title. Here we are introduced to the first of five interrelated themes, which will fuse together during the second half of the EP (titled “Truth”), ultimately resolving one another and, in turn, finding resolution. The opening theme is easily my favorite of the five, but Kamasi shows us—not in an academic way (thank god); more like a precocious child, enchanted by the inner workings of a wonderful phenomenon the academics have become numb to—that each of the themes are essential to carrying “Desire” to its destination.

Harmony of Difference has just about everything you could hope for in a record: wit, charm, ambition; musicianship (and then some), self-knowledge, sincerity; sexiness, intensity, and moments of pure calm. The dynamism of Kamasi’s band is simply extraordinary: having seen a live performance of theirs this past month in Cincinnati, I left the venue stunned by the sprawl of their sound palette, and the consistency of their perspective (which is, appropriately enough, the title of the fourth theme on this record). And whereas The Epic can be seen as a vast, impressive achievement for any artist, the concision with which this particular artist has honed and delivered its follow-up is a rarity; a joy to behold.

I will here share one final thought about the music on this list, and this album in particular. On Halloween of this year, I found myself on a train from Paris to Brussels, sitting next to my life partner and lightly dozing after a rush (souvenir-loaded baggage in tow) from our hotel to the boarding station. I had put in my headphones and set my iPod to shuffle; with the volume turned low, the little machine hummed through a selection of songs from an assortment of records (many of them on this list). Having drifted off, I can only speculate as to what was playing as I was dreaming. But I vividly recall opening my eyes and looking out the window at the French countryside, drifting by beneath a veil of fog—green hills rolling off into the distance. The song that triggered me to awaken was “Desire,” and I have had the good fortune of pairing this memory with the song on all further listens. Just in writing this, I am jolted by a vision of those big knotted trees, rooted stubbornly in the middle of an empty plain (not entirely unlike the tree on the cover of Harmony). And just as my week-long European visit served to remind me of the things I know and love in this world, Kamasi Washington’s music has reminded me to seek out the harmonies in life; especially in those areas that seem entirely discordant to us. For often, they are there for the finding: our task is merely to rediscover a child’s wonder; to regain our sensitivity to those phenomena that are so easily forgotten, when one tricks oneself into believing the answer is already at hand. Or that there can ever be a single answer…

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A deplorable year, in context.

petra

Margit Carstensen plays the embittered Petra Von Kant in Fassbinder’s 1972 film of his quasi-biographical play; pictured here during her final on-film meltdown in front of her family. © 1972, New Yorker Films.

It started with cocktails.

It was November 8th—Election night, 2016. My partner and I had dinner (nachos, I think) with a cocktail on the side, to try and wash away the bitter taste of the ugly year leading up to this occasion. We caught up on some pre-recorded programs in the DVR, and switched over to PBS for the occasional play-by-play of electoral returns. Of course, it was still “too early to tell” at this point; though the smugness of certain commentators—a less-than-subtle confidence in the already projected outcome (a Democratic “landslide”)—gave me pause.

In the months preceding this night, I endeavored to raise awareness of the complex and multi-faceted significance of this election—and the devastating ramifications if the Presidential seal were to go to the most corrupt, unqualified, and inexperienced candidate ever to campaign for this office (from foreign policy, to climate policy, to basic civil rights, to corporate privileges, to tax policy, to infrastructure, to cyber-security and net neutrality…) I had cautioned my Bernie-adoring friends that the so-called “lesser of two evils” was, after all, still “less evil.” I encouraged folks to consider the pragmatic perspective that many social workers (myself included) are forced to adopt on a day-to-day basis, as a consequence of living in an imperfect world with imperfect choices: while one can rarely take an action that will result in no harm whatsoever (with the notion of “no harm” being in direct opposition to the human experience), one can gather information and critically evaluate options in order to take the path of least harm.

As I sat in front of the television, sweaty glass of booze in hand, I saw the path opening in front of our nation: suffice it to say, it was not the path of least harm.

I would like to say that, in hindsight, I responded to this awareness with a proportionate level of disappointment. If I were to be perfectly sincere, I would admit that my disappointment and anxiety skyrocketed beyond any proportion I might’ve prepared myself for, and my subsequent display of emotion was probably on par with the most exhibitionist meltdown of a character in a Fassbinder film (think Petra Von Kant screaming at her family, drunk on the carpet; or Elvira recounting her history of trauma from inside a slaughterhouse). After fifteen minutes of incredulously gazing at the incredulity of the commentators on the TV screen, I wandered off to bed in a daze, and sobbed myself through a (seemingly endless) night without sleep.

Some time after, my partner wandered up and lay next to me—our dog Sam sprawled in between us: blissfully blind to the specifics of what was happening around him, but visibly aware that something was off. He rubbed his nose against my side and I scratched behind his ear, periodically reaching for my phone and checking the electoral map for signs of hope; none were forthcoming. At a certain point, I just stop checking—painfully aware of the heightened anxiety provoked by these micro-updates. And then, the indigestion started. And the routine visits to the toilet to try and purge the queasiness swirling around in my stomach. And the hours spent in near-delirium, staring at the ceiling and waiting for the night to end, while simultaneously dreading the thought of having to survive the night and emerge into the reality awaiting me on the other side.

I’m still lying awake when I hear the clicking of a computer—my partner having woken up before me (as per usual), now checking the news feed on his desktop. I counted the seconds between the first few mouse clicks, and the first audible, heaving sobs; I think it took about fifteen seconds. I turned my face into a pillow and cried.

* * *

I find myself reliving this fateful day, as I embark on this effort to put my experience of 2017 in some sort of context (call it self-therapy). I can’t help but feel that the answer to many questions that have arisen out of this disastrous, unsettling, and disorienting year, lies somewhere in the outcome of that night—and the collective reaction to an action taken by the smallest margin of our population ever to select a (proposed) “leader of the free world.” In the months immediately following the election, I was one of many to identify a heightened level of engagement with social media; and while I cannot attest to the motives of others, I will readily concede that my personal engagement was driven by a heightened awareness of the unprecedented impact social media had yielded throughout the course of the election. In reading the near-unbelievable, beyond-dystopian tale of Cambridge Analytica, and the well-documented strategies implemented by several shady figures in favor of a global right-wing coup, it became quite evident to me that we stood on the threshold of a deeper abyss than was projected by the most dour catastrophist during the election itself. I felt a compulsion to be more outspoken than I had been before (since, evidently, reserved compunction, blind faith in objectivity, and trust in the collective conscience of mankind had not yielded any favorable results). Looking back over some of the insights and commentary I shared publicly via social media at the start of the year, I regret none of what I wrote—but I can now recognize the general insignificance of my commentary with a greater degree of intellectual clarity.

This isn’t to say I’ve adopted a defeatist perspective. Today, I can sincerely claim (give or take a little) the same level of investment in the plight of humankind as I claimed last November; and the year before that, and so forth. But as our global village (if McLuhan’s term can even be fairly applied to our present-day climate) advances towards ever-increasing levels of chaos, I’ve become painfully aware of how incompetent and, in many cases, outright detrimental this twenty-first century drive to provide running commentary on the human experience has been to achieving any sort of actual progress. Retrospectively, in fact, one can trace the most recent phase of devolution (and devaluation) of the human species through a comprehensive anthology of our president’s impetuous Tweets—accompanied by the often-comparably impetuous retorts of commentators across the globe. If one were inclined to place these exchanges in context and illuminate the bigger picture for those in need of perspective, one could print this anthology of Tweets and comments and hang it on a wall in a museum; opposite this display, one could hang a display of climate data, pictures of the refugee crisis, profiles of newly-appointed right-wing judiciary representatives, annual hate crime statistics, research on hereditary traumaworld poverty statistics, annual gun violence statistics, opioid overdose statistics, and current nuclear arsenal statistics (with illustrations). The viewer of such an exhibit should be capable of drawing their own conclusions.

Suffice it to say, very little social progress has been achieved during the past year. One could go so far as to argue that we have taken such an enormous step back in our social evolution—the trajectory of social progress has been scrambled to such an extent that we have to redefine the very idea of social progress. For example: prior to the election, one could generally accept that, regardless of one’s economic status or party affiliation, sexual assault was a deplorable action. But something changed, somewhere along the course of the 2016 campaign trail. If one were to examine the Republican party’s response to the excavation of that infamous Access Hollywood tape, and compare it to their response to revelations that then-President-elect Bill Clinton’s had engaged in an extended affair, years before the 1992 election, one would have to resolve that the Right has either lowered their standards for outrage, or only complain when their majority is on the line. In addition to this, we find the emergence of a new Right-wing chorus (which will go on to be adopted by many a libertarian, third-party voters, and Democrats as well): the now familiar refrain of “fake news;” a magic potion for alleviating the symptoms of cognitive dissonance.

gennifer

During the historic 1992 campaign trail, it didn’t take long for the revelation of President-elect Bill Clinton’s 12-year affair with Gennifer Flowers to become a partisan weapon yielded by the Bush campaign to cast moral aspersions on his Democratic opponent.

In 1992, voters of all stripes wrestled with both the knowledge of Clinton’s affairs and an awareness that this information might be manipulated for partisan gain; in 2016, there appeared to be little-to-no wrestling at all. Polls at the time indicated that, by and large, 45’s base was actually strengthened by the revelation of the tape: casting the objective information of the tape aside, many of 45’s supporters voiced an opinion that their only concern lay with how this information might be skewed for partisan gain—and not with the implications of the information itself. In other words, the information of our then-President-elect’s predatory behavior (in combination with all the other evidence accrued to support the case for his predatory business practices) was as good as irrelevant. And so began the trend of alternative facts, and the convenience of being able to reject information that conflicts with one’s pre-existing belief pattern by merely denying its existence. Viewed along the action-reaction continuum, “fake news” was both a reaction to the leftist obsession with investigative journalism, and a positive action in its own terms (using “positive” in the Skinnerian sense). For by achieving an unspoken consensus among themselves—that information adverse to the advancement of one’s own political goals cannot (and should not) be bothered with in the first place—45’s supporters have succeeded in establishing a level of intellectual disengagement not seen at any other point during the nation’s past century of political discourse.

If we now consider this new right-wing action (“just say “fake news” whenever anything upsets you”), we must consider the subsequent leftist reaction (hyper-dramatically present the severity of upsetting developments, in an attempt to appeal to the emotional-spiritual side of right-wing fact-deniers). The leftist reaction can be seen throughout any number of impassioned Facebook and Twitter rants: that (somewhat-to-absolute) self-righteous outpouring of hysteria and concern, presented with all the pathos and drama of an argument in some generic TV courtroom drama. This brand of emotional reactivity has been, in some cases, strategically channeled to advance social issues (as in, most recently, Tarana Burke’s powerful #MeToo movement); on the flip side, the catharsis of social media engagement presents a stumbling block for individuals who have no conception of follow-through. For instance, the fanaticism of Howard Beale (Peter Finch) in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network (1976), which I see frequently shared (in the form of the “I’m as mad as hell” excerpt) by peers and acquaintances on social media, offers a prescient insight into the risks associated with commercializing outrage—though I fear some folks take the bit out of context and fail to apprehend the way it all falls apart.

In Sidney Lumet’s film of Chayefsky’s acclaimed script, Peter Finch convincingly plays a neurotic newsman who “flips a wig” after being let go from his job, and takes to the air to advertise his on-air suicide a night in advance. Instead of delivering on his promise, he launches into a sermon about how the world is going to shit, then beckons his viewers to run to their windows and yell into the streets with him: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” His viewers comply, and the station executives hear of a boost in ratings: they investigate the situation further, and realize there’s big money to be made selling outrage to the deadened masses. In a relatively short period of time, the mentally unstable Howard Beale has been asked to front his own television variety show—to feature his now-trademark impassioned rant as a sort of nightly act. Beale displays some resistance early in production, but by the end of the movie has been brainwashed to the point of putty in the station’s hands: a once genuine expression of repressed jouissance has become a weird sort of household name, and the television executives profiting from his mental health condition wind up having him killed, because of an eventual decline in ratings.

network

In Network, Peter Finch plays a hysterical newsman (named Howard Beale) whose psychosis is co-opted by his employers at the network for a spike in ratings. Once the act grows old and ratings decline, Beale is bumped off by his executives, who will continue accruing royalties from his downfall. © 1976, MGM Pictures.

While extreme and grotesque in its scope, and rendered for largely satirical purposes, Chayefsky’s work does seem to offer a cautionary tale for our time. In order to prevent becoming as pathologically shortsighted as Howard Beale, one must always ask oneself, when contemplating such catharsis: What purpose could this possibly serve? What’s the intended follow-up plan for one’s outrage—or is there one? Is it possible that one is just yelling words into a digitized vacuum, which then captures one’s words and capitalizes upon them, selling them off as part of a metadata package? Is this essay going to become just one more yell into the vacuum? One hopes not, but one never knows.

Since human beings have still failed to learn the lesson the universe endeavored so painfully to instill in us throughout last year’s election (the lesson: social media activity will not fix most things, or even anything; but it can readily make things worse if given the opportunity), we’ve apparently doubled down, and now find ourselves caught in the middle of a surreal and bizarre game of “who has the most sexual predators in their camp?” (As far as what this game is intended to prove or resolve, I suppose anyone’s guess is as adequate as the next person’s.) One by one—day by day—famous celebrities and political pundits continue to drop like flies in the ointment of this “to catch a predator” show; inappropriately enough, this surreal game has been (and continues being) overseen by the predator who set this chain in motion last Fall (don’t worry: he’s not going anywhere anytime soon).

In keeping with the chosen leftist reaction to overstate one’s passion for a given issue—in a vain effort to “wake the deadbeats from their slumber”—we now find the exponential possibility of human folly achieving the highest (or lowest?) levels of stupidity. For starters, we have the borderline-comical leftist insistence on the morally “wrong” connotation of sexual assault: as if by insisting strongly enough, those who believe otherwise might instantaneously be converted. Furthermore, this juvenile proclivity for moral sermonizing has embedded itself as a point of division between proponents of liberal policy. Just as the more die-hard idealists who upheld the “purity” of Bernie Sanders against the “corruption” of Hillary Clinton drove a wedge between the otherwise-united front of liberal voters (aided and abetted by the Russian trolls who targeted third-party and Bernie supporters with strategically placed news stories to reinforce their disdain for Hillary), we now have liberal idealists thinning their own herd (yet again) by singling out anyone who fails to fall in line with the outspoken chants leveled against perpetrators of sexual assault.

I recently stumbled upon an article which provides a textbook illustration of the infantile thought process underlying this leftist penchant for “out-idealist-ing” one another. In an online Stereogum/Spin magazine article (filed under the “News” heading), a writer named Peter Helman takes issue with comments and views put forth by the ever-divisive Steven Morrissey in a recent Der Spiegel interview (yet again, I find myself stumbling upon the commentary before the news itself; which, in and of itself, isn’t news). Here’s a verbatim transcript of the opening paragraph, as printed in the article (whose writer acknowledges openly that he did not bother to pursue a proper translation of the interview, and relied upon Google translator as arbiter of the interviewee’s meaning):

“Hey look, Morrissey said a stupid thing! It’s been a while since Moz has said something truly objectionable and not just, like, ‘Oh, Morrissey is kind of an asshole.’ But now, in an interview with the German news outlet Spiegel Online on the heels of his new solo album Low In High School, he’s come through with some genuinely terrible opinions.”

First, we find the distinctly liberal cocktail of snark and finger-wagging writ large in the opening statement: before we are even offered a glimpse at the musician’s controversial comments (let alone the chance to remind oneself, as hopefully all reasonable and grown adults do in such instances: “what do I care what some music journalist thinks of what some musician thinks of some matter with which he has no direct affiliation?”), we are instructed (seeing as how the reader cannot possibly be intelligent enough to reach their own conclusion) that the comments are objectively “stupid.” Then, we have the reinforcement of this admonishment coupled with an insistence that one ought to consider these “stupid” statements even more offensive than whatever the last thing the writer had admonished the musician about. Then, as if the message had not yet been clearly conveyed (after all, we’re dealing with a reading audience that cannot be trusted with their own thoughts), the writer insists that this latest interview with the Moz reveals “some genuinely terrible opinions.” (Be still, my fluttering outrage odometer!)

I’m disinclined to even bother with an analysis of the article (let alone the comparably over-indignant commentary of those who shared the “story” on social media; excepting for maybe Shirley Manson, who brought up a valid point in suggesting that Morrissey appeared to not have the latest updates on the “plot[s]” of Spacey and Weinstein), but I nevertheless feel compelled to provide some sort of a corrective to the borderline-toxic preachiness of these self-appointed messiahs to moral indignation. Not that Morrissey’s views, as quoted here, are even that noteworthy or idiosyncratic: if anything, they seem to echo the contrarian tone of similarly uneventful remarks delivered by Johnny Rotten earlier this year. But whereas Rotten and Morrissey are merely doing what they’ve been doing all along in their respective careers (namely, being abrasively provocative), Helman’s heavy-handed critique—along with any analysis bearing the imprint of such thoughtless indignation—inflicts the greatest damage of all on the integrity of an intelligent dialogue: for not only does it inherently reject the reader’s intelligence (something that neither Rotten nor the Moz, bluster aside, would ever dare try), it functions primarily as the byproduct of a profit-driven online press: a press which now feeds vampirically on the outrage of the web-surfing public, frequently leaning on the crutch of self-righteous indignation as a shortcut to increase clicks and shares. (Hm… that sounds familiar.)

And since “writers” (at least, the successful ones; the ones whose bread-and-butter is outrage-tinted click-bait) save the most upsetting/eyebrow-raising/scintillating bits for last (in order to maximize the advertisement space between the reader’s first click on the article and the long scroll to its disappointing finish), there must be some build-up to the exhibit of [insert celebrity’s name]’s horrifying remarks. Like an 18th century freak show, in which true horror would have to be instilled in the imagination of the visitor, before being deflated by the banality of the exhibit itself. (Sure enough, cries of “shame!” and “how dare he?” were heaped upon the Moz within minutes of the article’s posting; after all, what’s one more pariah on the fire…) In keeping with every other un-news-worthy observation shared by Morrissey in an interview, a scandalous viewpoint has been tried and condemned for failing to align with the prevalent vernacular and perspective of the times, and persona non grata status has been duly granted to the offending party. From what we know about the artist in question, one ought to suspect this is what he wanted all along, anyway: win-win (I guess?)

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Steven Morrissey’s 30+ year career has been consistently marked by stylized, overly dramatic outbursts, coupled with the artist’s vegan activism and often reactionary views. As a (by)product of the British punk era, Morrissey is to many a poster-boy for resisting conformity. Also  renowned as a legendary pain in the arse.

My point here isn’t that Morrissey’s statements should be defended: he’s a grown man and should take ownership of whatever non-sense and/or half-sense pours out of his twisted mouth. Rather, my point is to ask: What purpose could this possibly serve? And moreover: What does all this exhibitionistic “journalism” imply about the state of social commentary? Have we truly devolved to the point that an individual needs to preface any commentary on the subject of sexual abuse (and the inherently complex psychology of victims and perpetrators) with an assertion that one does, in fact, disapprove of sexual abuse and predatory behavior? Are there popular articles out there that I’m not seeing, in which individuals go on record saying that they condone sexual abuse, and wish there was more of it? And if so, is the tone of such deplorable articles so unrecognizable from the tone of a level-headed writer’s, that level-headed writers need fear their audience suspecting they might, in fact, be pro-sexual abuse? And if so, wouldn’t the abuser-shamers serve their purported mission more capably by tracking down those pro-abuse folks and chastising them? Regardless of the answers to any of these questions, nothing remotely edifying can come of such conversations, if we cannot bring ourselves to respect (read: allow) the judgment and intellect of our reading audience—sans these forceful and belittling cues to trigger our moral outrage.

Which brings me back to the actual problem at-hand, and the elephant in the room that remains perpetually sheltered from the storm of allegations swirling around him: the President of the United States. For unlike Morrissey (or Johnny Rotten), our president has made it clear time and again that he is pro-sexual abuse, and despite the skepticism of his supporters (who feared that their boy’s well-documented predatory behavior might be yielded by leftist commentators for partisan gain), he has displayed no compunction about turning allegations of abuse into political weapons—so long, of course, as the allegations are directed at individuals outside the Republican umbrella. Which renders it all the messier when individuals on the left allow themselves to get caught up in the hurricane of abuser-shaming (often with noble intentions, at least at the start), since this is exactly what the most powerful person in the country has been relying upon this entire year to advance a truly abusive agenda—not least of all, through his success in appointing an entire slate of unnerving judicial assignments: out-of-touch bigots and bloggers; unqualified lunatics who will shape our country’s legislation for decades following the inevitable demise of this administration. All the while, his White House continues to ignore and deny the allegations of 16 women who have confronted the public with their abuse stories, and the President remains… the President. As of this writing, there have been no formal inquests proposed in Congress to investigate and pursue these claims further.

I suppose I should feel compelled here to state my own disavowal of sexual abuse, and to verbalize my support for the victims who have come forth with their alternately harrowing and unnerving stories. I’ve chosen to refrain from offering any commentary on the subject up until this writing for a combination of reasons; mainly, as someone (and more specifically, as a white man) who has not suffered sexual abuse firsthand, I feel it isn’t really my place to remark on a subject so close to others, yet so distant from my own lived experience. I’ve found that, in such cases, it’s best to just shut up and listen to those who know what they’re talking about.

* * *

The title of this essay is taken from a track on this year’s Sun Kil Moon/Jesu collaboration, 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth. The song takes as its subject the child abuse scandals that haunted Michael Jackson to his early grave: it appears to have been inspired by a conversation on a plane between the song’s writer (Mark Kozelek) and a young woman traveling to Greece to perform in a musical of Michael Jackson’s life. The song paraphrases a conversation between the two, in which Kozelek asserts (rather firmly) that the world is, undoubtedly, a better place without a pedophile R’n’B star living in it. At first listen, the lyrics to the song are more-than-slightly jarring: casual listeners might be inclined to interpret this perspective to be the actual opinion of songwriter Mark Kozelek, whereas those who’ve spent time with Kozelek’s other recordings may recognize the sound of his (often) darkly satirical social commentary.


I can’t say for certain whether the lyrics to “He’s Bad” come from a place of sincere commentary or social satire, but I find it difficult to accept the former interpretation. In fact, the perspective of the song’s narrator is often so wince-inducing in its generalizations, one can only make sense of it when read in quotation marks:

“Is the latest on him true?
Well I don’t fuckin’ know
But if I had a son, would I let him get into a car with Michael Jackson?
Fuck no
I’m sorry for the bad things that his father did to him
But it doesn’t add up to building a Willie Wonka trap for kids
And changin’ the color of your God given skin
He made creepy videos that the popular kids liked back in the eighties
And once over a balcony he dangled a baby
And did the moon walk
And talked like a 9 year old girl
I don’t give a flying fuck what he meant to the mainstream world
Roman Polanski went down in flames and was incarcerated
But this young little kid addict will forever be celebrated
A hundred plastic surgeries and paid two hundred million to shut people up
Took someone’s child like it was nobody’s business and dragged him around on a tour bus

He’s bad
And he’s dead and I’m glad
He’s bad
And he’s dead and I’m glad
He’s bad
And he’s dead and I’m glad
He’s dead and to me it ain’t that fuckin’ sad”

The song has stuck with me all throughout the ups and downs 2017 (and it was, for the most part, a year of downs). A friend of mine, who suggested I check out the record, cautioned me in advance about the song’s “cringe-worthy” quality; at first listen, I shared in his assessment. But upon further listens, a space opened up in the longer instrumental stretches of the track, and I found myself strangely drawn to it. Presently, I find it to be a brilliant piece of songwriting—perhaps even moreso, if these are, in fact, Kozelek’s verbatim opinions. The song capably highlights a common trend of generalization and oversimplification among present-day liberal pundits: one might as well call it the “make sure the baby goes out with the bathwater” syndrome. Because it’s easy (and more precisely, facile) to take a step back from the strange and unsettling case of Michael Jackson, and surmise that he was nothing more than a sick man who preyed on children—that consequently, the world is better off with him dead than alive, and he might as well have gone sooner. But had he never lived, this song (a highlight from the record, I think) would not exist: not just its lyrics, but its arrangement, structure, arpeggiation… all of which pay tribute to the late “King of Pop.” Which begs the question: Is it right for one human to judge the life of another and determine they ought not to exist—or have existed at all? It’s the same question that underlies the debate(s) surrounding the death penalty; war; abortion. Taken at face value, the perspective of Kozelek’s song sides with the affirmative answer to this question. But interpreted satirically, the question remains open-ended. Unlike the above-mentioned Stereogum article, the reader of Kozelek’s song is actually given a space to think for themselves and reach their own conclusions; so that, even if these are the songwriter’s dyed-in-the-wool beliefs, we don’t feel pressured into adopting them as our own (or, conversely, into rejecting them outright).

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Michael Jackson was the subject of great public scrutiny throughout his short and strange life, which provides the subject for the recent Sun Kil Moon / Jesu track, “He’s Bad” (from 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth, available from Caldo Verde records).

I refuse here to entertain the idiotic question that somehow goes on being debated in certain circles: can bad people make good art? (I will, however, quickly dissect the idiocy inherent to the question’s phrasing: firstly, there is no such thing as “good” people or “bad people;” and second, what do you think?) However, I do find it noteworthy that a lot of angst appears forthcoming in the public response to revelations that Louis CK, Charlie Rose, and Kevin Spacey—celebrities that, unlike the blowhards who preceded them (Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and Harvey Weinstein) were somewhat well-liked—have lived messy lives and done some deplorable things. Each time a new pariah gets added to the fire (all the while, the President shakes hands with Duterte on a visit to the Philippines, and swaths of Puerto Rico remain powerless), I’m reminded of the excellent documentary Happy Valley, directed by Amir Bar-Lev and released in 2014—a year or two following the explosive child abuse scandals involving the once-respected Penn State coaches, Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky. In his film, Bar-Lev explores the American (and outright human) proclivity for placing a fallible person on a pedestal, and then shaking one’s head in disbelief when fallibility rears its ugly head. As I watched the reactions pour in on social media (friends who initially felt inclined to defend their heroes against the allegations, and as soon as proof was provided, reluctantly gave in to the evidence, tossing the baby out the window), I had a flashback to the confused street riots that followed the Sandusky trial—in which the townsfolk of Happy Valley alternately mourn and celebrate the dismantling of a statue once proudly erected to Joe Paterno (who was not convicted of perpetrating, but was found to have enabled Sandusky’s behavior after being informed of its existence).

The psychology of the townsfolk, which is smartly and respectfully explored by Bar-Lev in his documentary, can easily be transposed to the public psychology surrounding this irrational debate unfolding on our national stage; the key question in the debate is: Where do we store our dismantled idols? (As opposed to the far more proactive question, which everyone seems too afraid to pose: Why are we obsessed with erecting idols in the first place?) For some (and most specifically, for those employed in talk news) the answer to this question is “straight to hell.” Never in my adult life have I seen such a rabid drive—propelled primarily by pundits who appear to take more than a little schadenfreude in exposing the discovery of (yet another) sexual predator—to excommunicate individuals from their professions (before their employers have even had a chance to evaluate each situation and weigh in on the matter; a scary social precedent, to be sure), and hold their mock-trial in the court of social media (for an especially disturbing case-in-point, see the response of so-called “progressives” to the revelation—forecast eerily by a Roger Stone tweet—that Al Franken did some things in poor taste on his USO tours).

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A resident of Happy Valley, featured in Amir Bar-Lev’s 2014 film of the same name, takes a stand by the statue erected to honor Joe Paterno’s heroic status among the community. His sign reads: “Paterno, the coverup artist !! Paterno, the liar !! Paterno, the pedophile enabler !!” © 2014, Music Box Films.

On the one hand, this sort of “cleaning house” could be argued as a corrective to the long-delayed response of Fox News executives to the litany of allegations leveled against Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly (et al); on the other, the zealousness of this drive appears to be conspicuously overlooking the most powerful perpetrator in the room. And if we are not making an effort to prioritize the perpetrators who wield (and exploit) the largest amount of power, but gladly chase after those with relatively little power (yielding the digital equivalent of pitchforks and torches), then the only takeaway from this discussion is that humans are increasingly oblivious to their own addiction to the mechanisms of an exploitative society—to the extent that we routinely take private pleasure in exploiting other exploiters, all the while denying our own role in the circle of exploitation.

At the end of the day, it is this recognition of the multi-faceted power deferential involved, which appears to be the biggest stumbling block for most folks to navigate. Setting aside the heavy-handedness and gross over-simplification of Morrissey’s “controversial” remarks, he does appear to be clumsily pointing to a taboo truth that some people refuse to acknowledge: that in some (not all) instances, the prospective “victim” in the abuser-abused equation will find a way to subvert the power deferential for their own gain. And before the reader reaches for their pitchfork, allow me to clarify that I am speaking of these matters in the specific context of exploitative behavior within an exploitative society (one cannot ignore the reality that individuals make desperate decisions under desperate circumstances). One thinks of the psychologically-sound Lolita twist, for instance—in which an older man preys on a “nymphet,” only to find her turning the tables and exploiting his inappropriate adulation to achieve independence. Which isn’t to say that Nabokov lets Humbert Humbert—or his predatory leanings—off the hook; rather, he accepts the obvious element(s) in this equation, before pointing to the more taboo reality lived by more than just a few individuals in this power-driven society: a reality in which the exploited learns how to exploit, for lack of other identifiable options. (In her best-selling memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, author Azar Nafisi provides a feminist interpretation of Nabokov’s text—which she read as a metaphor for the often oppressive experience of life in the Islamic Republic of Iran; further highlighting the on-going significance of discovering fresh social commentary in old texts.)

Alas, such nuanced observations can never see the light of day in our current debate surrounding sexual abuse (or any other issue, for that matter), seeing as how the very idea of truth has already been co-opted and distorted by opportunistic sycophants and sociopaths at Fox News (and elsewhere)—who continue making a killing, selling dumbed-down distortions and good old-fashioned lies as substitutes for insightful commentary. And on the other side of the political fence, a vehement denial of nuance in sex politics frequently appears as a thin disguise for some vaguely misogynistic impulse to deny the emotional, behavioral, and psychological complexity of the feminine experience (for it’s easier to brand every woman a victim for life, even after they’ve made peace with their offenders and politely invited their defenders to piss off). Rather than confront the messy psychology and uncomfortable truths inherent to the dynamic between victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse, talk news pundits (few of whom can be considered experts in social psychology) have apparently reached a consensus that the best way to talk about the issue is to: not actually talk about it; shame the perpetrators until they’re out of a job; and run the interviews of the victims being forced to describe (in gritty detail) their abuse to the flashing lights and rolling cameras; over, and over, and over again… Similar to the way most pundits talk about gun violence (except, no one has actually lost their job for enabling mass gun violence through aggressive gun lobbying; not that I’m aware of, at least).

And again.
What purpose could this possibly serve?

What strikes me the most about Kozelek’s song (which inspired, at least in part, this meandering diatribe) is how it either intentionally or, perhaps unintentionally highlights the banality of its own perspective. Every time I hear the song, I think to myself “I would never go out of my way to listen to a song that presents such a perspective with utmost sincerity:” it would be like taking Randy Newman’s “Rednecks” at face value. A song that feels so stiltedly obliged to assert moral autonomy, while somewhat sadistically proposing a recommendation of death to criminal offenders…  What purpose could this possibly serve? One hopes, the purpose of irony. For in making the listener consider words and deeds of such strict moral outrage—in confronting us with our own respective failures to accept some amount of gray in our black and white lives—one might then feel a little wiser, considering the possibility of something else. Not unlike in the films of Fassbinder, who strove time and again to show the audience the need for change, while never spelling out what that change ought to be (after all, shouldn’t we be smart enough to figure it out on our own?)

In an essay from a book I’ve had my nose in lately, detailing the merits of RWF’s 1971 film masterpiece The Merchant of Four Seasons, author and former acquaintance Christian Braad Thomsen observes:

“Fassbinder […] shows the necessity of vigorous action on the part of the viewer. But he’s not a school teacher, who wants to raise his finger and tell the audience what they have to do, if they want to change the world. He is the Socratic artist, who uncovers how the existing possibilities of living have failed, and points out that change is necessary.”

Throughout his prolific and multi-faceted career, Fassbinder sought to demonstrate the mechanisms of his inherently flawed and power-driven society, clearly enough for any viewer—regardless of their education, intelligence, or station in life—to understand the mechanism and, in turn, recognize the need to rise above it. Three years after releasing The Merchant of Four Seasons, Fassbinder carried his vision of societal deconstruction to an even more poetic and empowered level with Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. In an interview given after the film’s release, Fassbinder observed that “I tend to think that if […] depressing circumstances are only reproduced in film, it simply strengthens them. Consequently, the dominant conditions should be presented with such transparency that one understands they can be overcome.” Rather than taking a sadistic pleasure in portraying the misery of those too enslaved by a social mechanism to recognize how breakable their chains might be, Fassbinder sought to show love for these strange creatures called “humans,” by perpetually revealing the existence of the chains—and the absence of a wizard behind the curtain. In film after film and play after play (and without any undue condescension or simplification), he succeeded in demonstrating that all individuals (regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, or politics) are capable of breaking the chains of exploitation, if they only choose to live a pure existence—predicated upon the inherent human values that society continually distorts (by claiming them as its own, and often assigning them a capital/nominal value).

Put plainly: one cannot go on playing un-elected judge to man’s folly, and resigning oneself to a vacant culture of reactionary outrage. That would entail rejecting the possibility of finding a different way to live, and to demonstrate, by example, an alternative to such folly. (And if one rejects the need for an alternative to folly, one is simply a fool.)

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In his five-part TV mini-series, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, Rainer Werner Fassbinder paints one of his most positive portrayals of people trapped inside a social mechanism they yearn to break free from. © 1972-1973, Westdeutscher Rundfunk. Renewed 2017, Arrow Home Video.

I’ve returned to Fassbinder many times over the past years, and have always left with an uncanny sense of premonitory relevancy and an inspired momentum. A DVD set of the recently rediscovered (and beautifully restored) TV miniseries, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, has been a close companion these past few months; I’ve rarely seen a film so genuinely positive in its outlook, let alone a film of his. His characters are shown (as usual) to be moving parts in a social machine, but all the parts in this machine move beautifully—and each on their own terms. Instead of falling back on jargon, party slogans, or naïve Marxist sentiment, Fassbinder shows characters from all throughout the power structure as somehow genuine and, just as importantly, capable of empathy (and change). He shows that action will forever speak louder than the most eloquent words—while simultaneously revealing how words and images can be employed to further the awareness of a need for action. Not just social (read: collective) action, but individual action. Presently, fleeting social movements (via trends, hashtags, and viral videos) demand wide-spread attention, and the individual finds himself trapped between a biological drive to engage with one’s own self-actualization, and the socially conditioned response to ignore or reject this drive: to follow the horde or disappear. Hence, the “individual” is celebrated, but only on the terms of the individual’s bond with society; if the individual does anything to sever this bond with society, the individual essentially (and in certain cases, actually) will cease to exist.

Indeed, it would seem as though excommunication has been the only fear to consistently unify individuals, in societies across the world—and throughout the ages. The higher the threat of expulsion, the greater the anxiety in one’s life; the greater the anxiety in one’s life, the greater the relish in the expulsion of another. (Following this train of thought, one shudders to think of all the threats and anxieties our current President must have accrued in his lifetime.) I find it especially concerning that so many straight, white, and self-proclaimed “feminist” men appear to be foaming at the mouth to call out anyone who fails to speak the programmatic lingo they’ve conditioned themselves to communicate with; one wonders if some (or perhaps many) of these individuals might be protesting so loudly, for fear of having their own past improprieties exposed. Either way, I imagine a casual time traveler would have a hard time distinguishing our media’s contemporary treatment of sexual abuse scandals, from the Warren Commission’s treatment of the “Red Scare:” so many people eager to see the lives of others demolished, for fear of being next in line…

In another section of Thomsen’s illuminating text (entitled Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius; quotes taken from the English text, translated by Martin Chalmers), analyzing Fassbinder’s explosively controversial (and for just reasons) play, Garbage, the City, and Death, the author reveals a parallel theme to the circle of exploitation: the corresponding closed circle of oppression—escape from which is a far more complicated matter. Thomsen writes that:

“Throughout Fassbinder’s work we see the oppressed assuming the norms of the oppressors, whether out of a conscious need for revenge or whether they have more or less unconsciously internalized the dominant norms. Fassbinder never has ‘pure’ heroes. Rather, he demonstrates one of the most melancholy consequences of oppression, that the damage to the souls of the victims makes them unable to find alternative norms, so that the only possibility left to them is to recapitulate the norms that have led to their oppression.”

While it sometimes feels as though Fassbinder has artistically resigned himself to a closed box of self-fulfilling prophecies, his work continually reminds the reader/viewer of the complexity of human behavior; a phenomenon which, after decades of misrepresentation (or reductive representation), we appear to have grown somewhat culturally blind to. (So we keep building new idols, only to tear them down after human behavior—yet again—reveals its darker potential.)

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In his 1981 feature film of Lili Marleen (pictured above: a resplendent Hanna Schygulla, in the titular role), Fassbinder reveals the cyclical nature of exploitation and oppression through the story of a Weimar cabaret singer in love with a Jewish man, at the start of World War II. As its despairing plot progresses against the oppressive backdrop of the Nazi regime, all of the protagonists catch themselves in the act of being exploited and exploiting others, to survive and to pursue the faint possibility of self-actualization in desperate times.

As I continue to revisit Kozelek’s song—from one month to the next, and one criminal celebrity exposé to another—I’ve decided that I don’t ever want to catch myself reveling in the demise of another human being. Those words, “He’s bad/He’s dead/and I’m glad,” ring hauntingly hollow; they don’t feel genuine… As a stand-alone thought, without corrective, they feel like a disservice to the vastly complex potential of our human nature. And yet, one is so very often stumped, when confronted with the death of someone who did truly terrible things.

This morning, the headlines read: “Charles Manson Dead at 83.” Later in the day, upon arriving at my office, I was made aware of a death in the immediate family of one of my co-workers. I felt (and still feel) a profound sadness for my friends and their family. I thought of Leslie Van Houten momentarily, and the families of his victims, but apart from that I could muster little in the way of an emotional response to Manson’s death. The words of Kozelek’s song ran through my head again, and they rang false again; seeing as how gladness was an emotion, and I couldn’t bring myself to fit emotion in the equation of Manson’s death. A custodian at the office made small talk with me about the news while changing trash liners, observing that: “Someone who did so many awful murders… If I’d had my way, he would’ve been taken out back and put down. Saved the tax payers some money.” I acknowledged his observation, and respected his right to view the situation in such plain terms; I clarified that the death penalty was (rather controversially) suspended in California around the time of Manson’s sentencing. After our brief exchange, and upon considering Kozelek’s song and the deaths of other infamous criminals (and criminal artists) throughout history, I decided to follow my gut. After all, he was somebody’s child, and somebody loved him. Gladness seems glib, even in the plainest of contexts.

* * *

Where does all this leave us?
And what are we to do with the pieces we have left?

In answer to the first question: we are left alive and awake in the United States of America. We have a Constitution that has up until now guaranteed a fairly open space for independent speech and individual commentary. We have great books written by great minds; illuminating films by directors who see (or at least saw) the potential for the medium to show the possibility of an alternative, and the accompanying need for change. Beautiful records by our favorite musicians; museums and galleries full of artwork to expand our horizons (unlike the talk shows, reality shows, and click-driven online journals that rely upon the shrinking horizons of their viewership, in order to sustain their traffic and ratings). Blank paper, canvas, web outlets (free while they last), on which we can project our visions of an alternative and our private and collective need to change.

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Anna Karina in Jean-Luc Godard’s dystopian masterpiece, Alphaville: channeling Alfred Hitchcock; channeled later by Ridley Scott. © 1965, Athos Films.

As for what we’re supposed to do with all this… well, that’s up to us: individually and collectively. I’m in no position to outline the course for an entire nation of people—each with their own individual views, ideas, convictions, and motives—but I do think we would be better off trying to learn something from the trials and tribulations we’re living through, rather than just repeating these tired tropes of scapegoating, public shaming, and language-policing (among other forms of dictatorial social conduct). As was sorely predicted by many of us, when the results of last year’s election rolled in, this year has been a nightmare on many fronts; and short of an organized revolt or an awakening of Republican consciousness, we’ll have to endure at least one more year of the nightmare. By continuing on the course our society has traversed this past year (a course that has both recycled traditional socio-economic exploitation tropes and invented new ones, thanks to the willingness of millions to surrender their thoughts, ideas, photos, and identities to metadata collectors—free of charge—to be exploited by the highest online bidder), we are sentencing ourselves to an increasingly dystopian future in which individual thought verges on extinction, civil liberties become novelties, sex is reduced to a formal contract, and humor is no longer recognized. Like Godard’s Alphaville, only far less cool to look at.

As far as my own experience of 2017 is concerned, I like to believe that I’m leaving this year older and more tired, but wiser as well; less quick to jump to conclusions, more open to the ambiguity of life and the possibilities for change. I advance into the wilderness of a new year with the knowledge that no socially-imposed chain of exploitation can hijack my freedom to think and act in accordance with a greater wisdom. Unless, of course, I grant this chain the power to do so.

“Even Richard Nixon has got soul.”
– Neil Young
(from the 1977 song, “Campaigner,” recently reissued on his Hitchhiker LP)

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”)

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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.

* * *

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.

Julianne_Moore_1995-Safe

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.

KoyaanisqatsiWeb1-3

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.

* * *

stalker-scena-finale

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.

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)

image1 (1)

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.

image3 (1)

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.


“It’s affected me in a way that I don’t understand, so that my reactions to things aren’t, um… the same as they used to…”
– Nick Cave in One More Time With Feeling

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Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds performing “Girl in Amber” on June 3rd, 2017, at the Masonic Temple in Detroit.

Trauma changes people.

Some of the changes it brings are seemingly minor: maybe we become a little more aware of our surroundings, or we no longer crave the food we were eating around the time of the traumatic event. Many changes tend to be life-altering—as captured by John Cale and Lou Reed in their final collaborative tribute to Andy Warhol, following the pop artist’s tragic death at the age of 58. Their achingly composed musical eulogy (Songs For Drellaculminates with the unforgettable impression of a train—never mentioned in the words of the song, but depicted vividly in the rhythmic chord modulations hammered out by Cale on piano. As assorted memories of the Factory (its characters and its products) flow together in an increasingly persistent stream of consciousness (also recalling the image of a train), Cale intones: “The whole thing quickly receding/My life disappearing/disappearing from view/Forever changed, forever changed/I left my old life behind and was forever changed.”

In the most memorable couplet of the song, he insists that: “Only art can see me through/Only heart can see me through.”

And I defy the world to challenge his conclusion.

* * *

“I’m transforming
I’m vibrating
Look at me now”
– “Jubilee Street,” by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

On July 14th, 2015, Arthur Cave—son of the prolific and revered singer/songwriter Nick Cave—fell to his death from a cliff at Ovingdean, near the family’s home town of Brighton. The following year, a documentary film (One More Time With Feeling) was released in conjunction with the 16th studio album by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, titled Skeleton Tree. On the night of the film’s worldwide release (initially indicated to be the only opportunity the general public might have to see it), I attended a screening at a peculiar little “independent film multiplex” in Columbus, Ohio, accompanied by my life partner and a pair of of dear friends—one of whom had turned me on to the annihilating merits of Cave and his extraordinary band, some years back. The screening took place Thursday, September 8th. The infamous U.S. presidential election of 2016 was nearing its anxiety-ridden apex, and I recall sitting there in a perplexed and tired state of in-between-ness. Before the film had started to roll, I found myself thinking of the river Styx, and of an earlier Nick Cave album, The Boatman’s Call—titled after that Mythical figure that is said to accompany departing souls, as they venture from this life into the underworld.

I remember the lights going dim in the theater, and the usual procession of “if you like this, you might also enjoy…” advertisements, which (unfortunately) seems to accompany every human experience these days. I then recall hearing the voice of Warren Ellis, before his face had even appeared on the screen—big and dear as life itself. At the film’s start, he is doing his part in an interview with the film’s director, Andrew Dominik. He describes the opening track of the as-of-yet-unheard album, and recalls a sense of eeriness while listening to the completed album with the band; for this first track is said to begin with someone falling out of the sky, and crash-landing to the ground. The filmmaker presses Warren slightly, inquiring whether he would be interested in describing the incident in greater detail: there’s a hint of tabloid journalism in Dominik’s request, but his inclusion of the question (along with Warren’s respectful refusal) seems to indicate a latent understanding of his own faux pas. Warren proceeds to explain: “I can’t imagine how you navigate such a thing… um, and, you know, I just can’t even fathom it… and watching this thing happen, just, to people that you love is… um, it doesn’t even… I don’t think it even makes you any… gives you any insight, really, into it. Because there’s a step with it you can’t… you can’t go.”

Shortly after making this hesitant—yet perfectly lucid—statement, Dominik encounters some technical difficulties with the 3-D technology of the film’s format (a recurring motif, as we soon realize); both he and Warren step out of the vehicle in which the interview is being conducted, leaving the focus puller to work his magic on the 3-D camera. The screen goes dark again, and we hear the sound of irritability merging with conscientiousness, as Warren explains (in a somewhat terse tone) that he is struggling to find the right approach when fielding some of the deeply personal questions being posed by Dominik. As the remainder of the film unfolds, the perfection of this introduction reveals itself to the viewer, seeing as how no one who is interviewed herein—much less Cave himself; or Susie, his wife—seems to be in any position to offer expert insight into the trauma lying at the core of the film (which, appropriately enough, remains unspoken throughout the majority of its running length).

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Warren Ellis, working on songs for the Skeleton Tree album in Andrew Dominik’s film One More Time With Feeling. © 2016, Picturehouse Entertainment.

What we are left with, in lieu of analytic comprehension, is a crystal clear perception of the change this tragedy has brought about in the lives of all those involved. Perhaps the most telling observation of all is disclosed about an hour into the documentary, when we hear Cave expound briefly on the link between Arthur’s passing and the Skeleton Tree album: “great trauma isn’t actually, uh… a very good thing. Sometimes, you know, we all wish we had something to write about… Trauma, I think, in the way that this happened, and the events that happened, um… it was extremely damaging to the creative process.” (He later expands upon this observation, explaining how the trauma came to occupy such a vast space, there was scarcely any room left for the creative process to unfold.) And indeed, looking back on the performances showcased throughout the film, the viewer can trace the troubled evolution of the eight tracks on the album—notably, perhaps, the shortest and least verbose of all the Bad Seeds’ studio albums to date. We see a fledgling attempt by Cave and Ellis to find their way into the title track, which is here performed as a pensive (if confused) dirge—Cave sticking to a downward progression of minor chords; Ellis fidgeting with different patches on the effects pedal for his violin, sounding jarringly electric in counterpoint. As we discover at the illuminating close of the film, this is a startling contrast to the finished result: a vast, pastoral, gorgeous fusion of words and music—made of the simplest (and by extension, the truest) chord progressions, now placed in the hopeful harbor of a major key.

As Cave repeats meditatively, in a recitation from an earlier scene in the picture: “There is more paradise in hell than we’ve been told.”

* * *

It’s nearing midnight on a Monday in June, and I just finished watching Richard Linklater’s second entry in the Before film trilogy, Before Sunset. I first saw the film at my local art theater, at the time of its initial theatrical run (during the Summer of 2004); I had seen it one or two additional times on home video, but seeing it tonight felt like seeing it for the first time. Perhaps it was the companionship of my life partner—absent from that initial viewing, as we had not yet met—that made this screening so different. Maybe it was the fact that we had, in fact, seen the final entry (Before Midnight) together in 2013, in the very same theater that I had seen the second entry with a friend some years back. Or maybe it was the simple fact that I have grown older; that my relationship to the film—which is, ultimately, about time’s passage—is evolving. Like those oscillating paperweights (the ones with metal rings, ranging in size, that sway concentrically around each other), swinging incessantly within themselves. Finally, I am struck by a recognition of how I, myself, have been altered by trauma; and how this change, in addition to the changes of time (and the change of one’s relationship status) inevitably alters our perception of life itself.

I find it significant to note that trauma comes in different shapes and sizes. For instance, there is the immediate trauma of being assaulted; there is also the profound trauma inherent to the premature death of a loved one. There is the equally profound, but frequently more scattered trauma of a natural disaster—or an act of terrorism. Then there is the experience of vicarious trauma, whereby individuals are exposed to a series of traumatic incidents (or, conversely, bear witness to a singular and majorly traumatic event). In all instances, the individual is affected irrevocably—on the psychological, the emotional, and even the physical level. Of course, this isn’t to say that recovery from trauma is implausible; for if this were the case, the trauma of leaving the womb would be an experience we humans could not recover from (then again, some will argue this as the injury at the core of the human condition). Nonetheless, trauma changes us; and like the oscillating rings of a paperweight, we must re-calibrate—in order to swing back towards that initial point of divergence. Unlike the paperweight, though, we never return to the exact point of origin in recovering from a traumatic experience: we cannot, for it is no longer there to be recovered. In such instances, and as the late David Bowie memorably sang at the start of his 2002 studio album, Heathen: “Nothing has changed/Everything has changed.”

I was struck by a variety of moments throughout the course of Linklater’s film, my mind and soul renewed as I reacquainted myself with its beauty at this later age. One moment that struck me as particularly memorable occurred towards the film’s start, as Jesse (Ethan Hawke)—one of the film’s two protagonists—fields questions at a book signing in Paris. Asked about the possible subject of his next book, Jesse explains how he is intrigued by the notion of writing a novel that takes place within the length of a pop song: one single song that could encompass “the sum of all the moments of our lives” (a quotation of Thomas Wolfe’s). It reminded me of something Nick Cave talks about near the start of One More Time With Feeling—something about the elasticity of time, and an email exchange on the subject between himself and a friend: Cave recounts how this friend was fascinated by the idea “that all things were happening, all the time;” that neanderthals are copulating at the same time that scientists are planning to colonize Mars; or if one were to connect this idea with Jesse’s reading of Thomas Wolfe (or Borges’s reading of Zeno’s paradox; or Joyce’s Ulysses), that a pop song might contain the entirety of human experience. Cave jokingly scraps the idea in his voice-over: “That is encouraging, right? And I think he meant well, but… it’s not true, because… if everything was happening now, I wouldn’t be sitting here waiting for the film crew to work out how to work this ridiculous 3-D black and white camera.” He completes his counter-argument by asserting drolly: “Right now, nothing is happening.”

 

It’s an argument one could easily level against Linklater’s trilogy of films—a trilogy about the miracle of human connection, the melancholy of separation, and the inscrutable phenomenon of time itself: for apart from the walking, the talking, and the arguing, very little actually happens. But as I lay there on the couch, enraptured by the pure poetry of film—seen through the eyes of Linklater, Hawke, and Julie Delpy (our other protagonist)—I could not bring myself to accept Cave’s simplified negation of such a beautiful idea. As though to reinforce the idea’s validity, the film ends with Jesse putting on a Nina Simone CD in Celine/Delpy’s Parisian apartment: the song is “Just In Time,” recorded live in 1961 at Village Gate in New York City. It transports both of our protagonists back to the time of their initial meeting, which was depicted in the first part of the trilogy (on a train, nonetheless—that most symbolic of all transportation modes); it simultaneously transports them to the more recent memory of Simone’s passing in 2003, at the premature age of 70. Jesse bemoans the fact that he never had a chance to see her in concert; Celine recalls having seen her twice in Paris, and then proceeds to expound upon the brilliance of these shows—re-enacting her memory of Simone’s performance while listening to a recording from decades prior (even re-creating Simone’s slow dance away from the piano, confronting the audience in one of her renowned acts of self-interruption). Celine then brings us back to the present, as she teasingly observes that her old flame is about to miss a scheduled flight back to the U.S. Jesse shrugs; the camera’s eye turns back to Celine dancing, eventually fading out into the end credits.

I’m reminded of another anecdote about Nina Simone, recounted by Warren Ellis in that other recent Nick Cave documentary, 20,000 Days on Earth. During a casual conversation with Cave around his kitchen table, Warren Ellis recounts a performance of “Dr. Simone”’s that they had both attended some time prior: Cave recalls the legendary artist taking a wad of chewing gum out of her mouth at the start of the show, sticking it on the piano; Warren one-ups his friend’s recollection by explaining that he retrieved this same wad of gum, and has preserved it in the cloth that Simone used to wipe her brow during that night’s performance. Cave asserts his jealousy, and Warren proceeds to recall how Simone had been brewing in her dressing room before the performance, “looking really pissed off and not wanting to be there:” when asked by a stage hand if there was anything she needed, she memorably responded, “I’d like some champagne, some cocaine, and some sausages.” He prefaces the anecdote by explaining that her performance was “one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.”

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Everything happening all at once, during Cave’s live rendition of “Skeleton Tree.”

Having never seen Nina Simone perform live (or David Bowie, for that matter) during the artist’s time on this planet, I am comforted by the notion that everything is happening at once. That while the world is being assaulted by a vast array of traumatic events on an hourly basis, I am simultaneously in the audience of Simone’s powerful Carnegie Hall performances, recorded in the Spring of 1964 for her In Concert album. And I am also in the crowd of David Bowie’s concert performances from the Spring of 1978, each time I dust off my copy of Stage. On the more mournful side of this incalculable equation, I find myself recalling Nick Cave’s performance of songs from the Skeleton Tree album (and beyond) during a recent concert I attended at the Masonic Temple in Detroit. I close my eyes, recalling how I had lost myself during the performance of “I Need You,” tears streaming forcefully down my cheeks—collecting in the palms of my hands. As Cave intoned each perfect word in the song—which includes such unfathomably gorgeous phrases as “I saw you standing there in the supermarket/with your red dress falling;” and “a long black car is waiting ’round/I will miss you when you’re gone/I’ll miss you when you’re gone away forever”—I inevitably thought of Arthur. And of David, and of Nina; and of a world in disarray, spinning away from its axis. I thought of my loved ones—my partner sitting next to me; my hand moving to his side, bracing for support. And I fall apart in the beauty and the sadness of it all: the entirety of life’s sorrow, contained within the length of a pop song.

Several hours before the show’s start, we were alarmed to read the headlines of a developing news story: another terrorist attack in England, this time directed at unsuspecting pedestrians on London bridge. As we sat in the balcony, waiting for the show to begin, there was a strangely oppressive tension in the air (exacerbated by the disorganization of the venue, which was clearly under-staffed—swarmed by confused attendees, searching in vain for their assigned seats): a few minutes before the band took the stage, one attendee (who we assumed to be struggling with some form of mental illness) started screaming irrational profanities at the top of her lungs. She kept at it throughout the concert, and we wound up migrating to a different set of seats by the fourth song. But driving back from the event, a friend who had joined us for the pilgrimage remarked upon how “surprisingly calm” he felt by the show’s end (the reader should here bear in mind that the penultimate track of the night was the exuberantly vulgar and intense “Stagger Lee”). Indeed, it was a shared sentiment. For there was something in the way Cave had wandered out into the crowd for the closing number (“Push the Sky Away,” an anthem of resiliency in the face of conformity and complacency). Even with his forceful request—directed at his band—to “start the fucking song,” the performance comprised a lasting moment of utmost serenity. “I was riding, I was riding home/The sun, the sun, the sun was rising from the field…”

Here was a longed-for point of convergence—a union between life’s sorrow and joy: the oscillating rings of human experience in a place of rest, at last. And now the tables have turned, and it is we who are pushing away at the horizons that attempted to shake us from ourselves.

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A panoramic view from above, as Nick performs the set’s closing number (“Push the Sky Away”) within the embrace of the crowd.

Upon returning to our hotel room, and endeavoring to put our perceptions of this earth-shattering performance into some kind of perspective, we found ourselves inescapably remarking upon the change we both recognized (between this and the previous two occasions on which we had the joy of seeing this band perform live). I commented on the palpable distance during the first two numbers of the night—“Anthrocene” and “Jesus Alone,” both off Skeleton Tree. Whereas in past concerts, Cave made clear from the outset the current of electricity between himself and his audience, this introduction felt more contained; more internalized. Much of “Jesus Alone” (the song that begins with the description of a figure who “fell from the sky/crash landed in a field/near the river Adur”) was performed with eyes closed—a ghostly projection of Cave’s face spread against the backdrop of the enormous Temple stage. “With my voice/I am calling you,” he mourned.

I cannot, with any degree of certainty, pinpoint the exact moment when the dam broke—when the artist gave way to the starved energy of his fans. All I can say is that it felt less like an act of possession than an act of submission; as if, for the first time in my experience of his live performances, Cave actually needed us as much as we needed him. He went on to assert, at several intervals throughout the performance: “I love you all… and I mean it.” He even commented playfully on how “beautiful” Warren Ellis was, as a person, pausing to remark upon the loveliness of his violin solo during “The Weeping Song.” And when he merged with the crowd at night’s end, it bore little resemblance to the time he advanced menacingly upon us, during an especially cacophonous performance of “From Her to Eternity” in Louisville. Instead, he seemed to be offering us what we had craved the most: a sense of unity. Unity of mind and spirit; unity of the individual self with the collective of humankind. We both remarked upon how Cave had provided a more explicit level of band-leading throughout the evening, directing Thomas to play more softly during “Tupelo”—or asking George to “take it easy” when re-booting “The Mercy Seat” (after an initial misfire): Craig observed it was as though he was “herding the rest of his flock, after having lost one of the herd.”

And as I lay my head down to sleep for the night, I thought of the final moment in One More Time With Feeling—when the credits roll over an otherworldly recording of Arthur, singing Marianne Faithfull’s beautifully maudlin “Deep Water:” “I’m walking through deep water/It’s all that I can do/I’m walking through deep water/Trying to get to you.” I thought of the river Styx and The Boatman’s Call—songs of mourning that Cave had released some twenty years prior. And as I sit here in the midst of this moment (and the eternal moment that contains all moments—present, future, and past; the latter two having been postulated by Borges [see pp. 123-139] to be entirely conjectural, and therefore irrelevant), I return to the beautiful words sung by Nina Simone in 1961:

“Just in time
you found me just in time
Before you came/my time was running low
I was lost/them losing dice were tossed
My bridges all were crossed/nowhere to go
Now you’re here
Now I know just where I’m going”

* * *

Towards the end of Dominik’s film, Nick confides (with a tone of cautious optimism) that he and Susie have “decided to be happy… like an act of revenge, of defiance; to care for each other and the ones around us.” Earlier on, he recites a movingly humorous piece of ad-libbing (titled “Steve McQueen”), wherein he observes that “everyone out here does mean, and everyone out here does pain/But someone’s got to sing the stars, and someone’s got to sing the rain… And someone’s got to sing the blood, and someone’s got to sing the pain.”

I still recall the drive back from that first screening of the film, this last September: the four of us were frozen in a state of contemplation, imagining aloud what the album might sound like on its own terms. The following morning, we rushed out to our local record store the minute it opened. Upon returning home from work, Craig and I put the needle on and absorbed the songs, basking in their simple openness—still haunted by the memory of the telling interviews laced throughout the documentary, and those final images of the cliffs at Ovingdean. And as I look back on the film, the record, the concert, and Simone’s song, time folds in on itself. Inexorably, I find myself returning to the labyrinthine writing of Borges, as he contemplates eternity in the all-encompassing moment:

“When we can feel this oneness, time is a delusion which the indifference and inseparability of a moment from its apparent yesterday and from its apparent today suffice to disintegrate.”

And yet again, everything is happening, all at once.

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Nick Cave at the piano in One More Time With Feeling. © 2016, Picturehouse Entertainment.