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a contemporary reading of The Marriage of Maria Braun

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Hanna Schygulla confronts a history of patriarchy, racism, and genocide in the surprisingly comedic film masterpiece, The Marriage of Maria Braun. Now available in a new 4K restoration from Arrow Home Video (UK/Region B). © 1979, Westdeutscher Rundfunk.

The Marriage of Maria Braun ends with one of the most unforgettably jarring sequences in modern cinema. After attending a reading of the will for her deceased business partner (and one-time lover), the film’s titular character—a career-topping, bravura performance by Hanna Schygulla—steps into the kitchen, to light a cigarette from a stove-top burner. Not realizing she left the gas on the last time she had lit up, Mr. and Mrs. Braun both go up in flames, inside the house she slaved away the film’s entire duration to finance and furnish. With barely a second to register the shock of this sudden and fairly calamitous conclusion to the film’s engrossing narrative, Fassbinder boldly stamps the film’s end credits across the screen immediately after the explosion—with the film’s coda (the attorney and another beneficiary, having stepped out the front door just in time, quickly turn around and gasp in horror) playing out in the background.

Superficially, the finale constitutes a real shocker: one could argue it as a perverse variation on the deus ex machina, in which the protagonists are “saved” from the slow and silent death of their bourgeois existence (or one could engage in heated debate about whether or not the move was intentional on Maria’s part). On second viewing, however, it becomes apparent that not only does Fassbinder plant seeds of foreshadowing throughout (e.g. the multitude of scenes in which we see Maria lighting her cigarette on the stove; or the slightly paradoxical image of her pouring cold water over her wrist, in an apparent prelude to suicide, mere minutes before the final explosion), but that furthermore, the entire picture makes clearest sense when read as a comedy. A profoundly irreverent and socially subversive one, at that; but aren’t all great comedies? And is it not possible that Fassbinder took inspiration for this diabolical denouement (which was not present in Peter Märthesheimer original scenario) from the greatest—and darkest—dark comedy yet projected on the big screen, Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb?

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Maria Braun, lighting one of her last cigarettes from the kitchen stove-top. © 1979, Westdeutscher Rundfunk.

Setting aside speculation, what has been made apparent to this viewer by the text of this truly remarkable film—which merits inclusion on any list of great films released in the 20th century, as well as topping the list of Fassbinder’s own greatest achievements (although there are many contenders to choose from)—is Fassbinder’s uncanny ability for manipulating dramatic forms and genres; conveying radical ideas within a widely accessible medium, and restoring purpose to dramatic forms that have been stripped of their social significance through decades of authorial misuse. In The Marriage of Maria Braun, Fassbinder places his usual emphasis on the absurdity of social conventions, in order to raise the viewer’s awareness of their own enslavement—all the while exaggerating the punchlines beyond the parameters of superficial amusement. It’s hard not to chuckle, for instance, at the sight of Fassbinder in a cameo role as a black marketeer; or to laugh knowingly at Schygulla’s response, when asked if she might be interested in a collection of (German philosopher/dramatist) Heinrich von Keist’s writings: “Books burn too fast, and they don’t warm you up.” And it’s harder yet to distance ourselves from the pragmatism that underlies the absurdity of his characters’ situation, seeing as how it is the same pragmatism that underlies the entirety of modern existence in the so-called “developed” world.

If Maria Braun represents an ideal comic representation of mid-twentieth century ennui, one can only scratch one’s head as to what the 21st century equivalent might be. In the medium of film, the genre appears to have been primarily co-opted by sketch comedians, and perpetrators of that most dreaded cinematic invention of all: the “high concept” movie. Certain contemporary filmmakers, including voices as eclectic as Mike White, Judd Apotow, Greta Gerwig, and Jordan Peele, have tackled the genre from a slightly more idiosyncratic angle; but much of our mainstream comedy fare remains grounded in a soundbyte-oriented definition of comedy as a situational experience, as opposed to the broader definition of comedy as existential experience. White has proven an exception to this rule—with works such as the HBO series Enlightened and the Selma Hayek vehicle Beatriz at the Dinner pushing the laughs aside, in favor of bleak desperation and post-post-modern angst; and Peele has garnered significant accolades and audience super-fandom for his depiction of racial tensions in his Oscar-winning directorial debut (Get Out), though one could pose the argument that he settles too easily for ideological clichés and formulaic horror tropes—as opposed to pushing the more radical undercurrents of the film’s subject matter. In both instances, we find artists consigning themselves to an either/or dilemma between hope and despair; comedy and horror; provoking thought and proselytizing.

By comparison, Maria Braun remains—in all its cinematographic luster (courtesy of the late, great Michael Ballhaus) and historical incisiveness (courtesy of Fassbinder’s commitment to doing his homework, at all times)—a viable alternative to the polemical standards of comedic storytelling currently trending. Asked to choose between converting the viewer’s attitudes and provoking the viewer’s thought process, Fassbinder inspires independent thought as a vehicle for behavioral conversion; torn between comedy and horror, Fassbinder settles on melodrama as the ultimate popular genre—painting everything in bold colors and brushstrokes, then letting the audience decide whether to laugh or shriek. Finally, at the crossroads of hope and despair, Fassbinder chooses anarchy; carving out the shortest path between two points, and revealing the roundabout nature of mankind’s often senseless travails. Like the Marx Brothers before him (arguably his closest and least frequently acknowledged cinematic relatives), RWF betrays no agenda for social change in his film texts: instead of telling us what we need to change (or how), he accepts that the ultimate purpose of comedy is to reveal society as-is to be little more than one big farce. Unlike the Marx Brothers, who seemed content with savaging social conventions only to end up reinforcing them, Fassbinder was fed up and ready for a bigger change. And while his work has noticeably inspired contemporary queer filmmakers, from John Waters to Todd Haynes to Wong Kar-Wai, there’s an apparent scarcity of post-’70s film efforts dedicated to pushing radical liberal thought through popular genre forms (interestingly enough, the most successful efforts appear to have been in television: such as Norman Lear’s Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and All in the Family, or more recently, Roseanne).

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Roseanne Barr and John Goodman revive their widely beloved (and occasionally reviled) characters in the ABC sitcom, Roseanne. © 2018, ABC.

Though he frequently exhibited a hot-tempered impatience in his personal life, RWF displays a practically infinite patience throughout his work: always willing to break down the mechanisms of social oppression into ever-smaller moving parts (for ease of comprehension), one is hard-pressed to find a filmmaker in the 20th century as dedicated to making the world a better place. (A reality that often gets lost in popular interpretations of his work; including the exhausting documentary, The Story of Film: An Oddyssey by Mark Cousins, in which the writers focus primarily on allegations of misogyny in the artist’s personal relationships—before transposing these allegations onto his work; highlighting only The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, and ignoring the entirety of his remaining forty-odd films and television programmes). Realizing early on in his dramatic career that progressive cinema stood on the verge of atrophy via overly cerebral discourse (Godard and Pasolini) and increasingly esoteric forms (Antonioni and Resnais), Fassbinder took a prescient and decisive step back in the direction of a more universal film language. (Pasolini followed this move some years later, with his Trilogy of Life, only to feel betrayed by consumerist imitators and return to a more overtly radical cinema in his final epitaph). And as our present-day cinema persists in reinforcing the divide between art and commerce, it’s a move that merits study and, quite possibly, repetition.

In order for the reader to fully appreciate the brilliance of The Marriage of Maria Braun, a preliminary viewing of Fassbinder’s recently re-discovered TV mini-series, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, may first be in order. And considering how rarely this obscure work of Fassbinder’s had been screened outside of his homeland (up until this past year’s Arrow Home Video release), an international critical re-evaluation of Maria Braun—among other later works in the director’s filmography—could make for an interesting and illuminating dialogue. Frequently blacklisted by contemporary critics as a self-hating homosexual pessimist, Fassbinder is seen at his most bouyant, hopeful, and resilient in Eight Hours. Even after one takes into account his proposed follow-up episodes to the five installments he produced, in which things were slated to take a darker (dare I say, more Fassbinderian) turn, it’s difficult to dismiss the radiant joy of Luise Ulrich’s Oma, Werner Finck’s Gregor, or Schygulla’s Marion. More than any of his other works—televisual or otherwise—Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day is the work of a filmmaker fully convinced by his characters’ ability to transcend the belittling dynamics of their circumstances.

In this context—and following a run of increasingly bleak portraits authored by the filmmaker mid-decade (Fox and His Friends; Fear of Fear; I Only Want You To Love Me; In a Year of 13 Moons)—The Marriage of Maria Braun presents one of the most resilient characters in the Fassbinder universe. Not unlike Erwin/Elvira before her (in 13 Moons), Maria Braun is a woman oppressed by generationally perpetuated societal constructs. But whereas the personal turmoil that lay beneath the surface of 13 Moons (whose premise was inspired by the suicide of Fassbinder’s lover, Armin Meier) contributed to an intensely impassioned work, in which the line separating individual villainy from broader mechanisms of oppression was often blurred beyond recognition, the formally mannered melodrama of Maria Braun allows for a more advanced level of intellectual and emotional clarity. Which isn’t to say that passion is withheld from Maria Braun; but instead of enmeshing his characters in the dark web of his own private passions and hang-ups, here he permits the protagonist to revel in passions of her own. In this and other regards, The Marriage of Maria Braun can be argued as the most explicitly feminist work he ever produced.

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Maria Braun waits in the rubble of war-torn Germany for the unlikely return of her husband. © 1979, Westdeutscher Rundfunk.

Maria Braun is as passionate a character as you’re likely to find in the films of Fassbinder. Married to a German solider (Hermann Braun, played by Klaus Löwitsch) for one day, after which he is sent off to fight in the trenches of WWII, Maria spends the first half of the movie standing on the platform to the nearest train station; a sandwich-board, bearing her husband’s name and photo, slung over her body—to solicit information from passersby who might have the details of his death or survival. When she finally decides to throw in the towel, discarding the sign on the railway tracks and heading to the American G.I. bar for some action, no viewer can reasonably bring themself to blame her for betraying her marital vows. (And a couple scenes later, Maria is informed by a friend’s husband—just returned home from the front—that her beloved Hermann has, in fact, died in battle). Confronted with the stark and powerful imagery of dilapidated streets and buildings—places where people once lived and raised families, turned to rubble by tanks and air raids—the viewer cannot help but recognize the tragicomic absurdity of Maria’s situation (let alone the absurdity of the institution of marriage, as perpetuated by the patriarchal lineage of Western lawmakers). This is the second major precipitating moment in the film’s comedic chain reaction—the first being its titular wedding.

Over the course of the picture’s two-hours-and-spare-change runtime—unfolding briskly and economically—Maria Braun finds herself (and her passions) repeatedly cornered by twists of fate that might never have occurred, if not for the man-made boundaries and expectations imposed upon her. First, she experiences forbidden love with a somewhat older, African-American G.I. (Bill, played gracefully by George Eagles), who teaches her English and loves her with an evident tenderness. Forsaken by the racist and ageist “civilization” by which she is surrounded, Maria is again befuddled when her thought-to-be-deceased husband returns home—alive and in one piece (apparently, her friend’s husband was privy to false information). True to comic form, his return coincides with a sequence of playful lovemaking between Maria and Bill. Pushing the absurdity of the scenario even further—until it reaches the fundamentally absurd parameters of credibility itself—Maria breaks a bottle over her lover’s head, knocking him dead to the bedroom floor. (Sped up and stripped of its synced sound and full frontal nudity, it might’ve made for a memorable bit in a silent Chaplin comedy).

Episodic dominoes continue to tumble, as Hermann chooses to take the blame for his wife’s crime, rather than endure an in-detail spoken testimony from Maria on the subject of her inter-racial affair. With Hermann sentenced to an indefinite amount of time in prison, Maria finds herself back at home (“without a man”), with a yearning desire to make it up to her husband; a desire that is shown, in the unfolding drama, to be part social imposition, and part genuine passion (ultimately, is there a difference?) Studied dialecticians both, Schygulla and Fassbinder appear in this film to be more psychically and theoretically attuned than in any of their other collaborations—some of which were amateurish (Rio Das Mortes, The Niklashausen Journey), most of which were good (Lili Marleen, Pioneers in Ingolstatsd), and a number of which were spectacular (The Third Generation, Effi Briest, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, and Eight Hours, to name but a few). But only in Maria Braun and Eight Hours do we find Schygulla and Fassbinder bending overtly towards love. For in both works, the creators seem to be banking—albeit obliquely; tongue occasionally planted in cheek—on the possibility of transcending the oppressive bullshit of humanity.

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Irm Hermann (foreground) and Hanna Schygulla (background) work to transcend the bullshit of humanity in Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day. © 2017, Arrow Home Video.

We see it in the crucial penultimate scene, in which the will and testament of Schygulla’s deceased business partner (Karl Oswald, played by Ivan Desny) stipulates her as a shared beneficiary with her “wronged” husband. For while Oswald had only met Hermann once before (during a prison visit), he has projected his own unrequited love for Maria onto Hermann, subsequently choosing to subsidize Hermann’s existence upon his release. Recognizing in Maria’s husband a devotion that she, herself, reserves for Hermann in the final act (a devotion which will accompany her to the grave, unstated and unrewarded), Oswald appears driven by a combination of patriarchal impulses and personal pride to take Maria down a notch. And as they listen to his condemnation of Maria’s perceived coldness, the camera lingers on the couple’s faces (Maria’s in particular), revealing a shared response of sadness: sadness at the implication that one might have loved the other any more or less than they themselves were loved. (I feel compelled here to highlight the simple joy produced in this scene, as we are granted the frequently censored opportunity to watch a character think on-screen.) All told, Maria is shown to have been most persistently oppressed, by a multitude of social institutions (including the very manner in which her husband feels compelled to express his “love:” possessively and apologetically). In this moment of clarity, we—viewers and protagonist alike—experience a genuine breakthrough; and while Maria is ultimately driven to despair by her circumstances (and by the life choices they have inspired), her inertia makes room for the viewer’s own emancipation.

Taken at face value, the ending to Maria Braun’s saga may seem an unwarranted after-thought. But in the realm of the Sirkian melodrama, nothing can be taken at face value—least of all the ending: for the more incredulous and tacked-on the conclusion, the more urgent the viewer’s responsibility to read through the lines of its manufactured essence; to identify the reality beneath the facade—the truth that social convention will not allow to be spoken aloud in polite company (most commonly represented by the “happily ever after” motif, which masks the unlikeliness of utopia being achieved in real life). Under these conditions, the question then becomes: What truth is being withheld by the ending to Maria Braun? Multiple interpretations hold up to scrutiny; in this writer’s opinion, it is a somewhat shocking (considering the source) acceptance of the possibility that people might actually live happily ever after. At least, it’s as absurd—and therefore plausible—an outcome as the next.

A precursor to the “women’s lib” and “free love” movements, women like Maria Braun—who most certainly existed in the days of the Economic Miracle, by all historical (and hereditary) accounts—represent the more progressive side of re-education in the wake of WWII. This movement was prompted by a younger generation (the children of Maria Braun), compelled towards an understanding of the horror to which so many of their ancestors paid witness (and in which many were complicit), and by their longing for a world stripped of the factors that made the horrors of the holocaust possible in the first place (namely: the dual evils of mass industry and mass ideology). The finest and most influential voices of this generation would go on to shape utopian cultural movements for decades to come.

For many of this new generation, Germany had re-experienced Year Zero. Things had to change; or else, what good were any of them? Radical trends, both superficial and profound, ensued in all areas of the New German youth culture. From music (Can, Kraftwerk, Cluster) to film (Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff), from literature (Gunther Grass and the Vergangenheitsbewältigung movement) to theater (Action-theater and Anti-theater; in both of which Fassbinder played a significant role), a sea change was palpably taking place. And as with most movements, politics would lag behind, eventually catching up out of necessity; for a government can only be as functional or as deplorable as the culture out of which it has formed. Indeed, there was plenty in the immediate post-war period that remained lamentable—both culturally and politically speaking. Inundated by so-called schlager-rock, dumb b-movies masquerading as high art, and former Nazis being (re-)elected into office, the kids of the German New Wave collectively realized that something had to give before they could evolve as (a) people.

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Legendary music innovators Can took Germany (and the world) by storm during the decade of the New German Cinema. Circa 1972; photo credit unknown.

This provocation for change would have its more violent exhibitions, such as in the notorious Baader Meinhof/RAF incident and the emergence of neo-nazi subcultures; but it would also yield such tender works of art as the film subject of this essay. A work that shares an equal love for mankind and womankind (and all in between), while simultaneously pointing to the oppressive mechanisms—instilled from one generation to the next; cycling through phases of industry, depression, and recovery—that render this utopian love such a challenging concept to maintain. After all, if it weren’t for war, Maria may never have thrown her husband’s picture onto the railroad tracks; or engaged in a romance with an American soldier; or adopted all the negative and aggressive (and predominantly male-generated) cultural traits of the corporate mentality. And if it weren’t for marriage, this whole soap opera wouldn’t even have existed.

While a casual survey might indicate a general distrust and disdain for the idea of anarchy, it is important for an interpreter of Fassbinder’s work to recognize that his is a romantic anarchy: meaning, an anarchy that accepts and embraces its own untenability, while refusing to hide or ignore the basic appeal of its tenets. His condemnation of social constructs stemmed from a genuine, dialectical longing to embrace the multitudinous forms of civilization; all the while dismantling the most rigid ideological molds, and making room for better (if not always entirely new) ideas to take center stage. For instance, this essay would argue the central idea in The Marriage of Maria Braun to be a belief in the unsung possibilities for people to love fully and unabashedly, free of obligation or socio-culturally imposed restraints. (Fassbinder would return to this thesis again in Lola and Querelle, before rejecting it one last time in his funereal-yet-magisterial opus Veronika Voss).

Hanna Schygulla plays Maria Braun as a somewhat reserved small-town girl, who turns from a state of repression to a wild bout of hedonism, eventually settling for the upper-middle class formula of the new German economy; a formula in which hedonism become a commodity, and relationships dissolve into missed connections. And while we all only have ourselves to blame for some things in life, Fassbinder (& Märthesheimer) and Schygulla proclaim here that sometimes, society needs to reorient itself in the mirror of its own history: to scrutinize the systems of its own disintegration, without pointing fingers or placing easy blame; and then, to actively decide upon the course of its own future. Instead of turning to despair, they employ the tools of film comedy (wit; mischief; crisis)—refined through the shiny machinery of Hollywood movie magic—to show that it’s all just a laugh, seen in the colorful stage-light of the American melodrama. And conversely, the laugh is on us, as storytellers, when we fail to account for this interpretation and start taking ourselves too seriously—or thinking too rigidly.

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Left to right: Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), and Earn (Donald Glover) tap the more existential side of comedy in Atlanta. © 2018, FX Networks.

It would seem that now would be the ideal time for an existential comedy of this nature. Maybe this is why so many Americans gravitate towards the novelty act of “comedy news shows:” a longing to find the humor in their situation; to either lighten the load of current events, or de-mistify the real struggle(s) of social progress. And while some of these programs may be satisfactory from a purely anecdotal standpoint, they tend to lose their universality and impactfulness when they turn legitimate talking points into ideological wedges. Especially considering the unwanted (but entirely too real) threat of international cyberwarfare, we might well benefit from honing our models of universal communication and dialectical/critical thinking—rather than casting them aside in favor of jingoistic platitudes and passionate inaction. If for no other reason, because the humor that emerges from this climate of divisiveness is hardly ever humorous, nor does it serve the most noble purpose of comedy: that is, to bring people together in a shared understanding of their collective ridiculousness.

As far as this broader definition of existential comedy is concerned, this writer has been impressed by the cheeky work of writer/director Donald Glover in his original TV series, Atlanta (which manages, in its most brilliant and memorable episodes, to neatly extract the existential crisis at the core of its situational vignettes). The recently released Death of Stalin—an Armando Iannucci (In the Loop, Veep) theatrical film comedy about this very subject—alternates between moments of brilliant humor and morbid logic, though it occasionally seems overly aware of its own ominous timeliness. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird carries a distinct regional-and-therefore-universal flavor (as opposed to the more lamentable inverse), and Taika Waititi (What We Do In the Shadows) seems to be following in the humanist footsteps of Christopher Guest. By and large, however, American comedy appears to be adrift in a sea of ideological word-traps; monitored by cultural watchdogs who alternately attempt to foster a better society, or seek to contain that which they do not fully comprehend (and in many cases, a bit of both). Perhaps it is the existence of these very constraints that outlines the freedoms we find so appealing in comedy. Nonetheless, these constrictions have a way of asserting themselves possessively and repressively; dragging us back to primitive misunderstandings and oversimplifications, and enslaving us to a false notion of freedom that—while worded as a superficially different dogma within different social circles—is fundamentally redundant and divisive, and only serves to wreak havoc on our efforts to understand and to evolve.

Taken as a whole, it’s sort of hilarious.

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Betti and Maria swap truistic insights from the corner of a house party. © 1979, Westdeutscher Rundfunk.

In a particular memorable sequence, midway through The Marriage of Maria Braun, the protagonist finds herself one of only three passengers in the first class car of a train bound for Berlin. While trying to seduce the affections of a wealthy businessman (and in need of a source of income, with her husband recently imprisoned), Maria is approached by the third passenger—a rowdy and lewd G.I. under the influence (played by Fassbinder’s on-screen crush, Gunther Kaufmann), who appears convinced that Maria is a sex worker. The scene builds uncomfortably at first, as the dual themes of prostitution (selling one’s body to be part of a man’s business, vs. making one’s body a business) are brought into full relief, against our protagonist’s most noble intentions; but the tension breaks, as Schygulla pops off on the G.I. in filthy-but-grammatically coherent American slang—picked up from her previous affair with Bill. The viewer’s sympathies are then inspired to switch to the bright-eyed Kauffman, who looks somewhat intimidated and offended by Maria’s words—before confidently offering Frau Braun a military salute, addressing her as his superior.

The flip-flopping of power dynamics that permeates the middle section of Fassbinder’s masterpiece serves to define Maria’s trajectory in epic narrative terms. Only instead of it being a “great white man” at the center of a white man’s narrative, we find a woman in command of her own narrative; collaborating with a mix of creative individuals from different backgrounds and ideologies, and confident in her own POV—unafraid of getting lost in the shuffle. It’s the portrait of a woman inspired by the power of love, the quest for fulfillment, and the possibility of redemption in untold places. When one takes into account the remainder of the film’s character cast, one finds a range of different individuals, with different and entirely credible perspectives that conflict with or concede to one another (particularly endearing are Maria’s mother, played by Gisela Uhlen, and her girlfriend Betti, played by Elisabeth Trissenaar). They all demonstrate the capacity for a transcendent love, but only some manage to shatter the barriers of social oppression; and of those, only some manage to maintain their radical perspective (while others, like Maria, drift away on an ocean of creature comforts. Interpreted by certain critics upon its initial release, Maria was an allegory for post-Weimar Germany: “a character, that wears flashy and expensive clothes, but has lost her soul”).

Ultimately, Fassbinder and Schygulla seem to love all their characters in equal measure. They seem to be inviting us to love ourselves a little better: to demonstrate our self-love by actively confronting our surroundings, and dismantling the mechanisms of our own oppression (without substituting them for a different set of chains). They seem here to remind us that ideas are great, but ideologies are tiresome. That we can get more done by just spelling the problem out—ensuring we all share in a deeper understanding of the human condition—instead of operating from a private assumption of how things work and how we ought to fix them. They seem to be telling us that if we truly understand, we’ll be able to laugh about it; and if we can laugh about it, we might be able to really do something about it. Because when we’re allowed access to this universal laugh (a laughter that bravely confronts the darkness, rather than riding along with it), the darkness is no longer too frightening to bear. And once fear is removed from the equation, the soul can begin to breathe again.

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“Everybody looks so ill at ease
So distrustful, so displeased
Running down the table
I see a borderline
Like a barbed wire fence
Strung tight, strung tense
Prickling with pretense
A borderline”

So sang Joni Mitchell in one of her finest and most incisive songs—”Borderline,” from her early ’90s (quasi-)masterpiece, Turbulent Indigo. In a subsequent verse, the artist paints a vivid portrait of those who “praise barbarity / in this illusory place / this scared, hard-edged rat-race.” In closing, she gracefully dismisses the futility of every ideology mapped throughout the song, stating casually and assuredly that: “All you deface, all you defend / Is just a borderline.

 

While there are many songs in the Joni canon that can repeatedly bring me to my knees or force me to eat crow, “Borderline” presents a rather singular fait accompli. Because the entirety of human ideology crumbles under the weight of this simple yet elegant text; including every indulgence in such borderline surveillance, which Yours Truly has ever been myopic enough to commit to writing.

I can no longer number on the fingers of my two hands, the number of times in recent history that I’ve repeated a particular platitude: “we are living in strange times.” Every time I repeat the phrase, I seem to betray a quasi-mystical hope—hope that some rational explanation for our circumstances might be drawn from the ether of such banal truisms. Perhaps the time has come for us to throw in the towel, in searching for any explanation to any of this madness. Or perhaps, it is necessary for us to re-engage the power of the mind, and step outside the now-driven-into-the-ground parameters defining our socio-cultural dialogue. To examine this battleground from a different perspective altogether; to question the very validity of our failed parameters, and try—for a change—to actually understand where we are (vs. insisting on getting to where we want to be, as quickly as possible).

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David Bowie, standing by the Wall in Berlin; circa 1987, Glass Spider Tour. On the day after his passing, the German Foreign Office responded to the news by thanking him for helping to bring the wall down.

In my most recent post, I reflected upon the on-going relevance of David Bowie’s penultimate studio album, The Next Day. The post was titled after the album’s surprising lead single, “Where Are We Now”—in which the artist reflects upon his days spent living in West Berlin, during the late 1970s, recording a trilogy of monumentally influential albums with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti (as well as producing and co-writing a pair of equally significant Iggy Pop solo albums). The visually startling music video produced to accompany this single, directed by installation artist Tony Oursler, presents a static portrait of the artist’s studio life during this time: “sitting in the Dschungel;” “walking the dead,” waiting for a train. Though I’ll admit to being mildly perplexed by the song (and its choice for lead single) at the time of its original release, I can hardly think of a more timely artistic expression of what it feels like to live in 45’s America. The feeling of being frozen in time—unable to move forward or back; waiting at a terminal for a train that may never arrive, but unwilling to step outside the station for fear of the horrors that surround you on all sides (not unlike the oppressive weight of the Berlin Wall—yet another futile borderline).

In such a climate, reflecting on the past will continue to prove a necessary task for planting the seeds to a better future. For there remain clues scattered throughout our history, which may well provide us with the guidance needed to prevent this uncertain future from becoming an endless, Nietzschean reiteration of our pre-apocalyptic present.

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I was struck with the inspiration to pen this entry, after reading a noteworthy academic journal by Ringo Ossewaarde (a professor of sociology at the University of Twente, in the Netherlands). I stumbled upon the piece while searching for writings on dialectical reasoning in the 21st century, and I advise the reader to set aside the time needed to digest in its entirety. If you only have time to read one long think piece today, please close out of this post and give Mr. Ossewaarde precedence; for while I may not personally deem some of the ideological fears he ruminates on quite as severe as he deems them to be (and while others, like the resurgence of fascism, seem more pertinent to our present-day situation), I’ve rarely read a piece of philosophical inquisitiveness as pointed, engaging, and nuanced as this one.

In struggling to make sense of the messy political conditions we presently find ourselves in, it dawned on me that a lot of the conversations taking place among us on the national front seem to suffer from an abuse of classical debate models. Rather than originating from a place of reason, observation, and friendly dispute, most of our conversations on contemporary subjects seem to originate from a position of deliberate antagonism. An eristic position, as opposed to a truth-seeking position. With antagonism as the norm, it ought to come as no surprise, when individuals who have adopted a truth-seeking outlook are misunderstood by their detractors, and (unsurprisingly) taken down a notch for daring to seek the most truthful common thread—as opposed to indulging in the more lucrative activity of professional hair-splitting. Ossewaarde captures this emergent dichotomy with great aptitude and precision:

“In Plato’s The Sophist (226a), Socrates identifies the Sophists with ‘the money making species’, thereby asserting that they do not dispute for the sake of the search for truth but instead engage in the dispute as professionals, to articulate their own truth claims for a reward or as a job. In other words, the dialectic turns eristic when friends come to depend (for their rewards) on their own truth claims, so that they become unwilling to negate their initial views (negation would make them lose their rewards). Since victory and not truth is the ultimate goal of the eristic discussion, the Sophists rarely change direction and hence are incapable of progressing towards truth.”

And with one paragraph, Ossewaarde successfully outlines the disease that prevents us, as a society, from making any progress towards alleviating the animosity of our conversation. And while specific changes in policy (such as the Reagan administration’s overturning of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine; which effectively opened the doors for our ratings-and-sensationalism-driven news networks, and their rosters of theatrically impassioned talking heads who make a fortune by not bending to reason) have no doubt exacerbated our situation, it seems our culture—as well as the cultures of many European ancestors—have been drifting further away from truth-driven dialectical reasoning for decades prior to such official policy changes.

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Raphael’s painting of the School of Athens, located in the Vatican, it portrays the commingling of sophists and philosophers in a polis setting.

And while Ossewaarde’s journal singles out the dominant ideology of popular liberalism as one of the most toxic and limiting ideologies currently in vogue, one could double down on the same charges as they relate to neo-conservatism (beginning with the Nixonian era of American politics). Thus, the greater significance of this journal seems, to me, a broader awareness that “ideology is a disease of the mind.” A statement which, bold as it may seem, I find myself hesitant to counter. For have we not seen the rise and downfall of nearly every ideology known to man? And have we not witnessed the devastating effects such trends seem to have on the development of the human consciousness? From cults to religions; from feudalism to colonialism; from communism to fascism. Arguably, socialism provides the only notable exception to this rather overarching rule. And one could argue that this is due to socialism itself being rooted in liberalism—still an overriding force in global culture, precisely because it is the most rational of all the “ism”s currently on the table.

To clarify: Ossewaarde’s critique of popular liberalism (which incorporates multiple insights from thinkers like Mannheim and Mills) is not, explicitly, a critique of the founding principles upon which liberalism has been built. Rather, his critique aims to clarify how popular liberalism has managed to take noble concepts and distort them in such a way that has actually proven detrimental to their advancement. Take, for instance, three ideas central to the liberal ethos: civil rights, gun control, and public services (health, education, and unemployment benefits, for instance). On all three issues, liberals generally hold a more rational stance than their conservative counterparts—though fortunately, some conservatives seem to be shifting towards the light. But if one were to accept Ossewaarde’s critique of liberalism (as a positivist ideology), one would have to acknowledge that we might’ve found a better way to convey the truthfulness of the liberal position; at least, something above the blowhard tactics of a Chris Matthews or a Bernie Sanders.

Similarly, this critique holds up when one considers the splintering of liberals into increasingly small subsections: the pitting of one puritanical ideologue against another, perceived-to-be-less-than; resulting in a climate wherein a liberal feminist (HRC) who had engaged in some misguided commentary (much of it having been prepared by male advisors surrounding her) and used an insecure email server, could be deemed—by some—a greater threat to progressive talking points than a populist demagogue with a mafioso predisposition, actively espousing anti-progressive rhetoric, and willingly adding fuel to a raging fire of xenophobic sentiment. Whereas one individual may see the forest for the trees, another may only see the branches that don’t align with their personal vision of the forest. And it is this very failure to reconcile reality as-is, with one’s personal interpretation of how reality ought to be, that results in the “mind that can no longer think well” (Ossewaarde, p. 408). (Just as this writer still finds himself struggling, on occasion, with the reality that 45 is still the President of this country, despite every indicator that he oughtn’t be at this time; and despite every bone in my body recoiling at every idiotic gesture of his idiotic and actively oppressive regime. There have been times, no doubt, that this mind has not been able to think well about all this; which, to some conspiracy theorists, could be deemed another objective of this administration’s strategy to divide, conquer, and deflect attention away from the puppet-masters.)

In turn, Ossewaarde succeeds in dismantling the most popular utopian “distortion” of reality perpetuated throughout the annals of sociological philosophy. Marxism is therefore seen as: “an eristic (read: an argument that aims to successfully dispute another’s argument, rather than searching for truth) pathology to dialectical sociology… Not only does Marxism make an illegitimate use of the dialectical method, but, in that use, it theorizes the historically determined transcendence of the contradiction in an historically fixated end state – the classless society.” It is, like all other utopias, a fantasy that cannot and will never be achieved; because the dialectic it seeks to suppress is, in this writer’s humble opinion at least, inherent to human nature itself.

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Oprah Winfrey hosts a roundtable reunion of panelists who were first interviewed eight months into 45’s term as president. © 2018, CBS News.

For evidence of the dialectical urge in human nature, one need look no further than the number of U.S. voters who have lent their full support to the most mentally unstable president we may have ever entertained (or been shamefully entertained by). In televised interviews with some of the voters in question—including a recent Oprah panel reunion on 60 Minutes—one finds that these individuals are not, as is often portrayed by voices on the left, explicitly bigoted lunatics who wouldn’t know a book if it hit them in the face (though, to be certain, they exist also). Rather, they seem to be predominantly marked by a quality of anti-liberalism; which is different than anti-intellectualism (though occasionally commingled), because its antagonism lies most heavily within the notion of a truth being thrust upon them with no identifiable choice—versus being engaged in a rational dialogue that might enable independent acknowledgement of evidence supporting the correctness of liberal views (which, admittedly, some people will refuse to acknowledge even after a Socratic tutorial). Sometimes, this desire for active engagement manifests itself intentionally (i.e. “I can’t get past the way liberals talk”), other times, with little to no awareness of this desire even existing. In viewing the above-mentioned 60 Minutes piece, one may well note that the liberal-leaning panelists in this segment rarely succeed in effectively conveying the objective facts supporting their views. Rather, their attempts to relay the righteousness of their perspective is more commonly rooted in an observable emotion, which (to someone who might not share in the emotion, having not yet grasped the information which provoked it) generally serves to cloud the objective merit of the information being conveyed.

At the close of Ossewaarde’s thought-provoking commentary, the writer asserts that the greatest hope for a more radical sociology lies in the pursuit of a modern-day Socratic polis (publics)—sans slavery, of course—”in which the paideia – high culture – is continued through radical sociology.” This requires a separation from the elitist (and racist) mindset that underwrote the Greek polis, and an active process of adaptation to the circumstances of 21st century life within society. Most essentially, such an ideal can only be met if, and when, radical sociology succeeds in implanting itself within the machine of global capitalism. As explained by Michael Burawoy (a public sociologist who is currently attempting to reconcile an interdisciplinary range of sciences with capitalist enterprise): “globalization is wreaking havoc with sociology’s basic unit of analyses – the nation-state – while compelling deparochialization of our discipline.”

In other words, having altered the basic unit upon which the study of sociology was established, the pursuit of a globalized industrial complex (and its residual, globalized culture effect) has enabled powers on both the left and the right to call into question the very usefulness of a dialectical sociology (while, curiously, they still refuse to join forces in a single party of globalized fascism; for this is what modern life would resembled, if stripped entirely of  dialectical thought. The debate perseveres; which means that some thought remains, however distorted it may have become). An inverse dilemma is raised from this rejection of the dialectic: for if sociology has provided the backbone to social progress over the past millennia, can social progress stand a chance, when sociology is removed from its original role in the conversation? (And where might the arts, as we know and love them, find a more relevant place in this conversation?)

Burawoy and, to a lesser extent, Ossewaarde both seem cautiously optimistic about our chances for transcending the “ism”s of our time. Ossewaarde writes: “Since the positivist sociologies no longer serve the victorious, radical sociologists should no longer aim at negating positivism (Burawoy 2005a: 261, 266). Liberalism is no longer the foe of radical sociology. In the current crises of global capitalism, the very possibility of Burawoy’s public sociology and its resistance to global capitalism depends on a co-operative partnership with the positivist sociologies. This partnership is not a dialogue or friendly dispute between sociologists or scientists in general. Instead, it is a new deal in which positivism provides sociology with the legitimacy of a scientific discipline, while public sociology makes sociological knowledge accessible to democratic citizens, enabling them to make public issues out of their private troubles [emph. added].”

This may not seem like utopia to the reader, but it may well be the most comparable experience we can realistically hope for.

* * *

Where is hope?
While you’re wondering what went wrong?
Why give me light and then this dark without a dawn?
Show your face!
Help me understand!
What is the reason for your heavy hand?
Was it the sins of my youth?
What have I done to you?
That you make everything I dread and everything I fear
Come true?

Following the heavy blow of “Borderline” and the softer darkness of “Yvette in English,” Joni’s Turbulent Indigo closes with her magisterial “The Sire of Sorrow (Job’s Sad Song)”—in which the singer boldly re-appropriates the narrative of Job from the perspective of a woman (which, one supposes, is no more bold a gesture than that time she re-appropriated Yeats’s “Second Coming,” for her marvelous and profoundly underrated Night Ride Home album). It is a song—and a record—for our times; with its aching plea for an end to the never-ending reaches of trauma, and its desperate yearning for some hopeful resolve. Juxtaposed against the radical sociology of Ossewaarde and Burawoy, Joni’s music provides the inevitable counterweight to pure objectivity: pains for which no cold, objectively delivered explanation will suffice; horrors which no reasoned debate can rescind. The pure subjectivity of human trauma and lived experience, seeking resiliency through artistic acumen.

 

As I write this entry, I find myself simultaneously reading about the role that Facebook has played in the escalation of an ethnic cleansing underway in Rohingya, Myanmar. A report on the findings of a recent UN study, exploring the factors that have contributed to this genocide, indicates that: ” [Facebook] has … substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict, if you will, within the public. Hate speech is certainly, of course, a part of that. As far as the Myanmar situation is concerned, social media is Facebook, and Facebook is social media.” I recall the immediate aftershocks of 45’s election and subsequent inauguration; aftershocks which included a spike in U.S. hate crime, as well as the broadening revelation that Russian-funded social media propaganda had played a significant role in furthering homegrown acrimony. I think of how all these factors might’ve played out differently, had our culture not drifted so far afield from dialectical reasoning. Had radical sociologists played a more significant role in the evolution of social media technology, or had Ted Nelson been successful in launching his alternative proposal to the World Wide Web model (Project Xanadu). It is alarming, saddening, and somewhat humbling to see how a single century of human history can yield so many shortsighted turns; giving way to a chain reaction of negative consequences—some predicted, many unforeseen—and leading us to our present circumstances.

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Ted Nelson, interviewed in the 2016 Werner Herzog documentary on the history of the internet, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. © 2016, Magnolia Pictures.

I cannot seem to erase this longing, at the very core of my being, to (in New Testament fashion) turn over the tables in the marketplace of our status quo, and insist upon a return to some form of reasonable containment for dialectical contradictions. And while I am reluctant to overestimate the possibilities for art bringing about such a revolutionary change, I continue to be inspired by the surrealist ethos: to create such a shock to the nervous system of the established order, that it cannot help but question the sustainability of its own terms. As art continues being co-opted by the contemporary positivist movement, which seems intent on reforming the arts in an a priori manner (so as to make them redundant), perhaps that counter-reaction to the institutionalization of bourgeois sensibility—once referred to as the nouvelle vague—may have its day in court, once more.

For it is not a question of whether the dialectic will be recovered, or whether humankind will awaken to the benefits of its implementation in society. The dialectic is. If we do not take the necessary steps to accommodate its existence within the fabric of our reality, it will simply continue rearing its stubborn head in ways that further destabilize and undo the best laid plans of mice and men. Might we make room for it, instead?

Looking back on The Next Day, five years after.

“Where are we now?
Where are we now?
The moment you know
You know, you know”

It appears as though the work of David Bowie is only going to swell in significance as the years progress. The year is now 2018, and I’ve found myself drawn to his music as much as (perhaps more than) ever. As its five year anniversary was fast approaching, I chose to stroll down the memory lane of 2013’s The Next Day—just a few days prior to Valentine’s Day; its songs still ringing in my ears when word of the Parkland shooting hit my news feed. “The rhythm of the crowd / Teddy and Judy down / Valentine sees it all…” I still shudder to think of the horrific events of that day, and every other day I’ve spent in this country learning of children slain in a schoolhouse. I am repelled by the terribly distant (yet still terrible) possibility that the person responsible for this most recent tragedy was, in any way, inspired by a song.

 

In reflecting upon this eerie bit of synchronicity, I found myself thinking of an anecdote shared by Robert Altman, in his commentary track for the comparably prescient film masterpiece, Nashville. Altman recounts having received a phone call from a Washington Post journalist, following the assassination of John Lennon—inquiring whether the director felt any responsibility for that terrible event of December 8th, 1980. Altman reports he was flabbergasted by the question, and the unnamed journalist clarified his line of questioning as a reference to the tragic culmination of Nashville: the first pop culture narrative to propose the possibility of a pop musician being assassinated—without any immediately recognizable motive, even. In his typically smug manner, Altman dismissed the query with a question of his own: “Why didn’t you heed my warning?”

When one considers the impossibility of calculating the value of a person’s life—much less, one’s premature death at the hands of a violent assassin—such questions are utterly irrelevant. The journalist who had the audacity to blame an artist for the devastating actions of a self-proclaimed born-again Christian (Mark David Chapman—who, in another strange bit of synchronicity, had previously considered David Bowie a possible target) betrayed as much futility in his line of questioning, as Altman did in his retort. For how can a society—any society—effectively prevent the emergence of such sociopathic tendencies? Surely, legislative action can be taken to decrease the ease with which individuals access lethal weaponry for acting upon these tendencies; but if the tendencies remain, is it enough?

nashville_killer

David Hayward plays Kenny Fraiser in Robert Altman’s Nashville—a murderous face in the crowd. © 1975, Paramount Pictures.

I’ve meditated upon a similar line of thought, in light of the 21st century civil rights movement: our evolution from a kaleidoscopically splintered society with a dominant white male culture, to a more broadly integrated society—bolstered by an emerging, diversely amalgamated mainstream. Whereas the divisive rhetoric and violent repercussions of such an amalgamation come as no surprise to this writer, they present a rather apparent obstacle to the notion of cultural integration: How can we achieve a semblance of unity, when the very notion is perceived by so many Americans (certain minorities included) as abhorrent, or somehow intimidating? And will the shifting of power from one identity demographic to another yield the sort of positive cultural changes that have been forecast by many a liberal optimist—or might it eclipse the more noble intentions of movements initiated within minority groups, once all are able to rest at ease on the laurels of economic power?

Is this the more profound reason behind the refusal of white American women to elect our first American woman Presidential candidate: a subconscious fear that she might signal the end of a more radical feminism, instead perpetuating the already-established aura of centrist pragmatism? While these very words (“centrist” and “pragmatism”) have never struck me as particularly offensive, it does seem that many are put off by the notion of common ground. Perhaps some of these individuals perceive the long-standing tensions of identity-driven antagonism as a more fertile soil, in and of itself, for a more radical politics. (A deceptively shortsighted interpretation, as far as this writer is concerned; but an interpretation, nonetheless.)

I am here reminded of the final interview given by the radical Italian artist, Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose work I find myself returning to on a fairly frequent and compulsory basis. In this interview with Furio Colombo (published on November 8, 1975), Pasolini outlined his rather intricate philosophy of life in society using, arguably, the most simple (and possibly oversimplified) terms of his entire career:

“I miss the poor and genuine people who fought to abolish their master without turning into him. Since they were excluded from everything, nobody had managed to colonise them. I’m scared of these slaves in revolt because they behave exactly like their plunderers, desiring everything and wanting everything at any price. This dark obstination leading to total violence is not letting us see who we are. Whoever is taken dying to the hospital is more interested—if there is still some life left in them—in hearing what the doctors will tell them about their chances to live, than in what the police will tell them about the dynamics of the attempted murder perpetrated against them. I’m not putting intentions on trial and I’m not interested in the cause-effect chain, or in spotting who did this or that first and who is the guilty head of the gang […] If we have reached this point I would like to add let’s not waste time to label things, but let’s see how we can let water drain away before we drown.”

ernest-pignon-ernest-pasolini-rome

Pasolini, by Ernest Pignon Ernest. 2015

Not unlike David Bowie, Pasolini’s work appears to become increasingly relevant with each passing day, and his words sound (to me) increasingly timely. For we are clearly adrift in the murky waters of the 21st century, and the risk of drowning is rather prevalent—both in literal and metaphorical terms. For as the threat of climate change advances, unfettered and unrestrained by our nation’s near-sighted economic stakeholders, we find ourselves drifting around in ever-smaller circles of us-vs-them rhetoric: cutting down as many crooked branches as we can single out and incriminate, until there is barely any forest left to inspire us. (And all the while, the waters keep rising…)

I fear the reader may take the message of this essay to imply a rather pessimistic view of our future. While I cannot rule out the possibility of a violent end to the experiment of global economics—and while recently published photos of a convocation ceremony for an AR-15 assault rifle (hosted by the curiously named World Peace and Unification church in Newfoundland, PA) bear a rather uncanny resemblance to images from Pasolini’s hopeless critique of Western civilization (Salò)—I find myself increasingly drawn to the distant glow of hope. For all is not lost; at least, not yet. There are individuals among us who have dedicated, and continue dedicating their life’s work to strengthening their communities, and projecting goodness into the world; fostering the tenets of goodwill, service onto others, and an evermore precisely defined, optimistic view of the human potential.

Culturally speaking, I’ve found myself rejuvenated by Tracey Thorn’s latest solo album—Record. A straightforward, unabashed celebration of the feminist ethos and the power of shared experience, the songs on Record glisten with a wise, genuine optimism: a welcome antidote to the more heartlessly commercialized (and selfishly sensationalized) manifestations of liberal thought in the 21st century. Apart from the empowering anthem, “Sister”—in which the singer/songwriter assuredly and poetically states: “Oh little man, you’re such a baby / Put up your fists, nobody ever loved / Someone they were afraid of“—Thorn’s latest offering forgoes confrontational force. Instead, the songwriter finds power in the celebration of small joys—alternatives to the horrors of the big, scary picture which our society currently represents.

tracey thorn queen

Tracey Thorn offers up rays of light and hope on her latest full-length studio outing, Record. © 2018, Merge Records.

Ranging in topic from the pursuit of romantic fulfillment, to the challenge of conforming to gender norms/expectations, to the bittersweet experience of watching one’s child emerge into their own person, to the joy of taking one’s sorrows onto the “Dancefloor” and casting them to the four winds (“Play me ‘Good Times’ / ‘Shame’ / ‘Golden Years’ / And let the music play“), Record repeatedly finds solace and hope in this wisdom: that there is much more uniting us than our sensationalism-driven media permits to meet the eye. And considering how well-received the album has already proven, this is a wisdom that people may be thirsting for.

I’m not sure whether Pasolini would agree with this assessment (and I don’t especially care to verify; for as brilliant as he undoubtedly was, Pasolini was a man as flawed in his thinking as the next), but artists like Tracey Thorn—or Agnès Varda; Alison Moyet; Kate Bush; Mavis Staples; Wim Wenders; Todd Haynes; Richard Linklater; Wong Kar-Wai; Barry Jenkins; the list goes on…—represent, to me, this very notion of “fighting to abolish the master without turning into him.” They have each made the significant realization that the master is not the caricatured villain of “Brecht’s beautiful world” (to quote Pier Paolo once more). It is not—at least, not explicitly—45, or Putin, or Kim Jong-Un. Rather, “the master” is the oppressive cloud hovering above our respective pursuits of self-actualization: the negative forces, both external and internal, which collectively obscure our pursuit of happiness.

* * *

We are each of us presented, at some point in our lives, with a choice between leading a truthful existence, or giving into the corrupting, enticing vices of power. In what is arguably the most noble of all vocations (that of the artist), this enticement presents itself most prominently in the form of one’s own ego. We see its corrupting influence in the more indulgent works of certain filmmakers and writers, or the vain posturing of many a pop singer/superstar. Artists who place the power of their own personality before the virtue of humility; a prerequisite for speaking truth. Perhaps it is that we too often misplace the Aristotilean definition of art: the realization, in external form, of a fundamentally true idea. The thoughtfully sculpted marriage of form and content—liberating the spectator from the suffocating constraints of social norms and taboos, and facilitating our access to truths that are routinely prohibited, suppressed, or distorted by these constraints.

“Here I am / Not quite dying
My body left to rot in a hollow tree
Its branches throwing shadows / On the gallows for me
And the next day
And the next
And another…”

Which brings me back to the The Next Day—and its phenomenal title track; still simmering with all the rage of Dylan Thomas, or the beautifully obscene poetry of Rimbaud, five years on from its initial release. Following on the heels of “Where Are We Now?” and “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” “The Next Day” was released as a multi-format single on June 17th, 2013; including a square 7″ record and a Pasolini-inspired video. Filmed by Floria Sigismondi (also responsible for “The Stars” music video), with Gary Oldman and Marion Cotillard cast (respectively) as a reactionary zealot and a stigmata-struck saintand with Bowie assuming the role of the rebel Christ-figure; obviously“The Next Day” provoked a fairly impassioned response. Openly condemned by the Catholic League and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and removed from YouTube just two hours following its debut after reports of inappropriate content, the video (and the song) demonstrated that it was still possible to shock people. Despite the fact that there is little left to be shocked by in Western civilization, and even though the scandal was quickly replaced by the next piece of contemporary tabloid journalism.

TheNextDay_FloriaSigismondi

Left to right: Tilda Swinton, Floria Sigismondi, and David Bowie on the set of “The Stars (Are Out Tonight.” Sigismondi was responsible for two of the most memorable music videos in one of the most memorable video anthologies a pop artist has ever produced. Courtesy of the artist’s official website.

Perhaps this is the very meaning of the song: the artist’s insight that we seem to advance, as a society, through a redundant series of primitive motions and corrupt gestures; repeating the same mistakes and miracles from one day to the next (and another…). As though the entirety of human history could be condensed into a single, reflexive ritual: the ritual of human dogma attempting (and failing) to conquer the temptations of hedonism and mystery (And the priest stiff in hate now demanding fun begin). Consider some of the song’s most intensely visceral, explicitly ceremonial lyrics:

“First they give you everything that you want
Then they take back everything that you have
They live upon their feet and they die upon their knees
They can work with satan while they dress like the saints
They know God exists for the devil told them so
They scream my name aloud
Down into the well below”

The religious imagery of the piece—and more specifically, the poetic tone with which this imagery is delivered—appears to beckon directly from Pasolini’s painterly, blasphemous, often trance-like interpretations of ancient myths. Many of Sigismondi’s set-ups, though executed with smartly calculated steadicam moves (alongside other more advanced cinematographic devices than were available to Pasolini in his time) echo the frontal, 2-dimensional approach of the Italian filmmaker’s Trilogy of Life. Likewise, Bowie’s own phrasings bear a strong resemblance to some of Pasolini’s later poetry and prose—let alone the correlations of subject matter. And if The Next Day was to Bowie what Trilogy of Life was to Pasolini (considering both works were completed within the five years preceding each artist’s passing), then Blackstar can be seen as a distant parallel to Salò: both masterpieces of indescribable precision and prescience; both fully realized and self-contained coffins, incapable of letting anything else in, or giving anything else away.

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Bowie offers the world one final formulation of truth, as explored in Francis Wheatley’s documentary David Bowie: The Last Five Years. © 2017, HBO Documentaries.

Such is the culmination of a great artist’s trajectory. And in between “The Laughing Gnome” and “Button Eyes,” all variety of characters (with their variety of faces) came and went. One minute he was a rock-enamored alien from Mars; the next minute, he was “Halloween Jack.” One day he was a Thin White Duke, and the next, a golden-haired opportunist. (And the next day, and the next…) In this regard, two artists as superficially dissimilar as David Bowie and Tracey Thorn (or Pasolini and Altman) separate themselves from the crowd in equal measure: not so much by refusing to conform, but by epitomizing what it means to exist and to embody (rather than to blend). In this regard, these artists have all succeeded in truthfully representing, throughout their life’s respective works, what it really means to be a face in the crowd.

Take, for instance, the recently aired BBC/HBO documentary, David Bowie: The Last Five Years. At the culmination of his simple and deeply moving film, director Francis Wheatley chooses to showcase live footage of the crowd assembled around Bowie’s birthplace, after the announcement of his passing. The film refuses to sentimentalize the footage through editorial trickery; the footage speaks for itself, and it is allowed to roll unfettered by schmaltzy scoring or slow-motion effects. As the camera passes over each face, painted with a lighting bolt or a flourish of glamorous makeup, the viewer is instantly made aware of the universal relevance—and relatability—of Bowie’s work. Like many, his career began on rather inauspicious terms, with works that betrayed a superficial drive for commercial success and recognition. By the time of his final masterpiece, Blackstar (whose title welcomes a variety of interpretations, but most directly seems to echo a lesser known Elvis song, “Black Star,” released in 1960; which would make it a plausible distant relative to Scott Walker’s 2006 Elvis tribute, “Jesse“), Bowie had accumulated all the wealth and recognition an artist could possibly hope for—but his focus was unerringly on a servitude to his craft: the need to make one final, truthful gesture, before moving on to the other side.

© 1978 Roger Marshutz

Bowie summons the ghost of Elvis on the title track, “Blackstar;” a title that was previously used by The King for a song recorded during his sessions for the 1960 Don Siegel picture, Flaming Star, in which he played the lead role. Photo taken at a performance in Tupelo, Mississippi, on September 26, 1956. © 1978 Roger Marshutz

Likewise, the songs of Tracey Thorn linger with me most endearingly. They present a truth that is unt(a)inted by the self-aggrandizing, self-martyring tones with which too many words have been shouted into too many microphones. They empower without belittling; inspire without condemning. They remind us that art is for everyone: it is not an elitist exercise, or a purely cerebral experience. Nonetheless, art demands a baseline of cognitive and/or spiritual engagement from the audience; a caveat which I fear gets lost in translation, when fledgling artists attempt to force an agenda into the mainstream (after all, agendas can only serve to preclude an audience’s engagement; and truth itself is never in want of an agenda).

I remain skeptical (at best) about this recent thirst to excommunicate artists who have led problematic lives: to dismount their work from the walls of museums, or disregard a lifetime of achievement because of a single accusation (If things aren’t suited / Then they’ll get diluted). For if the purpose of art has been to confront one’s own oppressive “master,” and emerge on the other side with a truthful resolve, it would follow that art has served as one of the most effective therapeutic devices for troubled souls to connect with the rest of the human race. (Consider the life and work of de Sade and Genet, if the reader is in doubt as to the veracity of this statement.) I worry that this latest strain of anti-intellectualism, veiled by dubiously righteous intentions to “purge” criminal—and perceived-to-be-criminal—artists, will merely discourage troubled individuals (like these young men driven to slaughter their schoolmates) to connect with a viable alternative to violence and fascism. And if we are not successful at providing an alternative for those who are lost and disoriented in the back-channels of society, we are all guilty of negligence: of letting the water drown us out, while we stand in judgment of “who did this or that first and who is the guilty head of the gang.”

* * *

As dour as some of these affairs may seem to the reader, and as jarring as the following remark may come across, I presently feel a tremendous pull to believe in the general decency of humankind. The politics of our time are surely as toxic as they have ever been, but this has only rendered the search for reasons to be cheerful increasingly imperative. Put simply, one can no longer afford the luxury of lingering in the debris of a demolished civilization. One can only put forth a daily effort to start anew, with the acquired wisdom of our past failed experiments as a guiding light for what not to repeat.

 

“In any society, the artist has a responsibility. His effect is certainly limited and a writer or painter cannot change the world. But they can keep an essential margin of nonconformity alive. Thanks to them the powerful can never affirm that everyone agrees with their acts. That small difference is very important. When power feels itself totally justified and approved, it immediately destroys whatever freedoms we have left, and that is fascism… The final sense of my films is this: to repeat, over and over again, in case anyone forgets it or believes the contrary, that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds.”
– Luis Buñuel (from the critical essay, “The Discreet Charm of Luis Buñuel,” as translated in the English text The World of Luis Buñuel: Essays in Criticism)

“And I tell myself, I don’t know who I am
And I tell myself, I don’t know who I am
My father ran the prison
My father ran the prison
But I am a seer, I am a liar
I am a seer, but I am a liar
My father ran the prison
My father ran the prison”
– David Bowie (from “Heat“)

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.

image1 (7)

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 as a central protagonist, the informed listener is bound to hear this song 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), Charlotte chooses to sing exclusively in French on this track; the chorus itself 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…

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.