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a short story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boy: “What’s that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

JE: Okay.

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

JE: That’s your leading question?

je: I think it’s a fair one.

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

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

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

je: Can’t say that I have…

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

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

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

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

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

je: Yes.

JE: Case in point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JE: Yes and no.

je: [expectant pause]

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

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

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

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

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

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

je: Let’s get back to Antonioni.

JE: Certainly. What was the question again?

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

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

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

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

je: I think so…

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

je: Ouch. I take it you disagree?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

je: Not sure I follow you…

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

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

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

je: I believe so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

je: You mean Valerie Solanas?

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

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

JE: Okay, shoot.

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

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

je: Please explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

je: Good one.

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

je: And Before the Poison. And Kissin’ Time

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

je: We’re getting side-tracked again.

JE: Rightly so.

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

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

je: Paul Bowles.

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

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Jane Bowles, photographed for Vogue magazine in 1946.

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

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

je: That would make sense.

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

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

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

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

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

je: Through Tom Hanks, no less!

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

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

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

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

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

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

je: What about Monkey, the daughter in Stalker?

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

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

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

je: Harrison Ford[?]

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

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

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

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

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

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

je: She looks kind of bored.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

je: How so?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

je: That was rather alarming.

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

je: A rose by another name?

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

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

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

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

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

KoyaanisqatsiWeb1-3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JE: Touché.

* * *

stalker-scena-finale

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

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

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

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

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

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

image1 (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017records

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

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

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

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

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

Pure Comedy
by Father John Misty
(SubPop)

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

Slowdive
by Slowdive
(Dead Oceans)

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

50 Song Memoir
by The Magnetic Fields
(Nonesuch)

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

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

No Plan EP
by David Bowie
(ISO/Columbia)

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

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

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

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

Crack-Up
by Fleet Foxes
(Nonesuch)

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

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

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

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

“Drunk”
by Thundercat
(Brainfeeder Records)

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

Memories Are Now
by Jesca Hoop
(SubPop)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection
by Brian Eno
(Warp)

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

Halo
by Juana Molina
(Crammed Discs)

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

image3 (1)

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


2017 Mid-year playlist:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



2017 Releases featuring Your Truly:

ulter nation
by Dirty/Clean
(DirtyCleanMusik)

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



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

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


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

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

Trauma changes people.

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

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

And I defy the world to challenge his conclusion.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

Indigestion’s a pain.

I found myself in the midst of an especially bad bout last night, tossing and turning in bed, struggling to fall back asleep. In such instances, I occasionally find myself achieving a heightened level of awareness and concentration: as if hyper-awareness of one’s natural (or unnatural, as the case might be) biological functions carried with it an increased sensitivity to other surrounding circumstances.

In this instance, I found myself dwelling upon a recent essay in-progress, which seems to be going nowhere slow. The subject of my reluctant essay is the suburban experience (more specifically: American films that have explored suburban themes in a Mythical vein). It’s one of those frustrating instances where the writer knows what he wants to convey—even how he wants to convey it—but once all the pieces are lined up together, they no longer convey what was meant to be conveyed.

I’m reminded now of a startling incident that occurred earlier in my workday, as I was driving a client back to her residence—which was located in a somewhat run-down suburban neighborhood. As we drove past some smartly structured houses, I offered some casual observations to break the silence of the drive—small talk about some of the more striking residences, many of which featured alarmingly pointed rooftops. It was then that my client interjected a most unexpected anecdote: “Yeah… A lady shot her two kids in the head last night, over there by that school. I guess she had told the cops the world was a terrible place, and she didn’t want them living in it anymore.”

Understandably, I found myself at a loss to form a suitable response. I’m certain I said something nominal and insufficient, something along the lines of “that’s horrific,” or “how terrible.” It was a jolting reminder of just how fleeting and cruel this life can be. It also underscored the inadequacy of my writings on suburbia, which paled in comparison to this shocking anecdote—having failed to represent the surreal perversity of the suburban experience, in its full scope. A recently released Sun Kil Moon record came to mind, as well. In the opening track, “God Bless Ohio” (a follow-up, of sorts, to the preceding “Carry Me Ohio”), songwriter Mark Kozelek pays tribute to the Northern gothic elements of Midwestern living, touching upon a range of suburban issues: alcoholism; A.A. meetings; the loneliness of being a child; nursing homes; psychotherapy; human trafficking; mass killings.

Maybe I should just scrap my essay and let Kozelek’s song speak for me, instead.


Sleeplessness has been a recurring motif of 2017 for me. During the day, I frequently find myself struggling to concentrate on basic tasks—easily distracted by the latest development in the investigation of our president’s relationship with Russian oligarchs and government operatives, as well as the on-going toll of devastation mounted by a conscience-free Congress and an administrative agenda fueled by corporate greed, short-term private gain, and a stiff middle finger to the vast majority of our country’s population. I was struck by a recent episode of Bill Maher’s show on HBO, in which Dr. Cornel West and David Frum were guest panelists. In an exchange that was (admittedly) cringe-worthy at times, Maher and West sparred on the subject of the 2016 election: West, who was outspokenly opposed to another Clinton presidency, stood by his idealistic decision to not vote for either of the primary candidates; Maher challenged his decision with an itemization of some notable areas in which the two primary candidates differed from one another, with an emphasis on the compounded harm being inflicted upon minority groups by 45.

Hearing Cornel West’s voice rarely fails to bring me joy: his combination of humor, zeal, and intellect is unsurpassed by his few peers, and his perspective is fiery but reasonable. Watching him spar with Maher on this issue brought to light the deeply personal nature of his investment in politics, and I found myself torn between two equally impassioned points of view. As I think back on the debate, I’m struck by the awkward correlation between religion and politics in this country. Apart from the obvious investment of religious power in American politics, it strikes me that politicians in this country are frequently placed on a similar plane to religious leaders: they are often evaluated as much on abstract moral principles (or lack thereof), as they are on competencies and qualifications. West makes it clear during the debate that his opposition to Hillary Clinton was of a moral nature—a perceived “lack of integrity,” as he defined it. On the flip-side of the argument, we find the pragmatism of the vehemently atheistic Maher, who is able and willing to look past the character flaws of a given politician in order to hone in on the practical, real-life outcomes of their stances and actions.

Setting aside my love of Dr. West (and that tremendous laughter of his), I cannot help but feel a sense of exasperation at our country’s obsession with bringing religion into all facets of life. I’m reminded of an observation shared by a philosophy professor I had in college, who attended multiple symposiums at home and abroad, only to find that European nations have little (if any) of the political hang-ups our country has developed in this regard. Theories of evolution and creationism coexist peaceably; women, atheists, and non-Christian theists are allowed to hold public office without controversy; and outside the Vatican (a unique religious outlier, if ever there was one), it’s unanimously agreed that religion ought not to be a deciding factor in economic and social policy. I think of David Fincher’s American film masterpiece, Se7en, in which the seven deadly sins of Christian folklore provide the foundation for a rigorously coherent series of horrific murders. I think also of real-life horrors committed by the Ku Klux Klan (a white Christian organization); the so-called “conversion therapies” imposed upon gay people in Christian communities; the persecution of victims of rape, in an assortment of forms, under the alarming guise that their assaults may have been “God’s will;” the historical genocide of Native American people, performed in the name of a Christian God and country.

“God bless Ohio
God bless every man
Woman and child
God bless every bag of bones, six feet under the snow
God bless O
God bless O
God bless Ohio”

I think of the recent terrorist attack in Manchester, which stole the lives of 22 unsuspecting concertgoers and injured 120 others. (I will refrain from making mention here of the terrorists responsible for the attack, or the religion of which their organization is a perverse offshoot, seeing as how they have gathered sufficient negative publicity over the years—and it doesn’t seem to be helping any. Perhaps it is best to remove the plank from one’s own eye, first.) I think of all the different religions in the world that provide a foundation for the most appalling crimes against humanity, and I think of the unscrupulous support lent to our current administration by millions of American Christians. I think of that genius of early American cinema, Ernst Lubitsch—having just watched Trouble in Paradise for the first time the night prior. I think of the excruciating cleverness of Lubitsch’s characters; the hilariously amoral, yet totally functional relationships they foster and maintain with one another. I think of Jorge Luis Borges’s beautiful and unassuming essays, compiling assorted theories of eternity and ontology: the power of the human mind to overcome the self-inflicted impositions of religion—and the seeming refusal of the human spirit to embrace the assets of pragmatism. I think of Morrissey’s early song for The Smiths (“Suffer Little Children”) about two highly pragmatic, non-religious sociopaths from a separate, but equally dark chapter in Manchester’s history (Ian Brady and Myra Hindley). I think of the silence on the moors where their innocent victims were slaughtered; I think of the screams and explosions that jolted Manchester Arena on this god-forsaken Monday night. I think also of the solace offered during a non-religious vigil held in Manchester on Tuesday, to mourn lost lives and lost innocence; and the open gestures of solidarity extended by individuals and cities around the world—none of which required the pretense of religion to achieve their intended message.

Oh, human (t)error:
So much to answer for.


I’ve thought a lot (and continue to think) about the ways in which the jolt of last year’s election outcome sent shockwaves pulsing through every facet of the American experience—many of which we have yet to fully appreciate (or, in some cases, even to recognize). I’ve noticed tiny paradigm-shifts taking place in areas of everyday life, some of which are so minute they might be disputed as misperceptions. For instance, there’s the weekly program CBS Sunday Morning, formerly hosted by Charles Osgood and currently represented by Jane Pauley: previous segments on ecology and environmental issues have accentuated the well-documented, factual impact of climate change upon different parts of the planet (many of which provide source material for the show’s closing “moment of nature”). In the most recently aired episode, Jane visits the city of Amsterdam, where she is forced (as commentator) to acknowledge certain obvious changes in the landscape—including a visible rise in the sea level, and subsequent changes in irrigation. A phrase she uses in this segment has been stuck in my mind all week: “whatever the cause.” As in, “whatever the cause of these changes…” As if the matter were still up for debate.

I think of the shifts in media coverage that have historically accompanied drastic regime changes in different countries throughout the world. I wonder to myself how long it might have taken for Mussolini’s state-operated propaganda machine to fully infiltrate popular Italian knowledge, or for Lenin to convince his minions of the evils of Western living.

I imagine this essay reading like a poor man’s attempt at a Mark Kozelek ramble. I’m reminded, again, of my meandering essay on the suburban experience—and how truly difficult it can be to write about something when you actually have some pre-existing knowledge of it (in contrast to the old adage). In a way, such a task is even more difficult than writing about the unfamiliar: at least then, one can quite easily acknowledge and convey the limitations of one’s lived experience. But in the case of a subject that lies close to home, the writer is expected to have some sort of preternatural grasp on the topic—a near-omniscient, no-stone-left-unturned level of understanding. Maybe this is why so many Americans are turned off when a politician fails to publicly answer a question with utmost knowledge and understanding of their personal interests: instead, they’re expected to be godlike magicians, sauntering into town on the campaign trail and telling everyone exactly what they need (or, more commonly, want) to hear. God forbid a politician should ever be heard saying those three dreaded words: “I don’t know.” Far better to hear someone say: “I am your voice… I alone can fix it.

* * *

I think of the recent return of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s much-beloved television series, Twin Peaks. I think of what a tremendous joy it was, watching those first two hours of this new 18-part series—momentarily forgetting about issues of popularized ignorance and man-made atrocity (of both the religious and the non-religious variety). I’m grateful for creators—true creators—like Lynch and Frost, who seemingly have made it their lot in life to build upon and restore popularity to Myth (the only human creation that continues to transcend pure reason and pure religion). It makes me feel lucky to be alive, to witness the brilliant and awe-inspiring fruits of their efforts. I hope these efforts—and the efforts of other keepers of the flame—are ample enough to keep the Myth alive, for all the atrocities that are coming down the pipeline.

And I continue trying to shake my hyper-awareness of how terrible things have gotten. I continue trying to just live life, for what it’s worth, and not let it bring me down. But damn: indigestion’s a pain.

As the world continues to spiral into greater levels of global chaos, I find myself contemplating all of the common responses to the state of current affairs. In my previous essay, 45, Medea’s rage, and the sinking ship of American culture, I confronted the more nonchalant of these responses—that “nothing has really changed; it’s just business as usual.” This time around, I’d like to confront another common response that I’ve heard from several on-the-political-fence individuals—a contingent I often seek perspective and independent analysis from, taking into account the proposed neutrality of their socio-political stances. The response I’m referring to can be paraphrased as follows: “At the end of the day, we all want the same basic things for ourselves and for our loved ones. It’ll all work itself out.”

The first time I heard this response, I nodded in silent agreement, and thought to myself: you know? You’re right. What are we fighting for, if we all want the same basic things? But later, as I walked away from the individual providing this kernel of proposed wisdom, the flaw in their line of reasoning expanded—to the point where I could outline an entire chasm separating this pat observation from our observable reality. By the time I had thought it through from a variety of angles, the allegation seemed outright ludicrous. After all: is not the crux of political discourse that we don’t all agree on what we want for ourselves and our loved ones? Isn’t that why we (used to) teach civics in school, and have debate teams, and engage in reasoned dialogue surrounding the unanswerable but imperative question: How are we going to share in the direction of our society?

While I readily concede there are some basic human necessities we all share (food, water, shelter, and oxygen), I find it worth noting that even these universally accepted basics—the founding level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—are being called into question in our current state of affairs. Consider climate change—the most severe and defining issue of our time: the volume of individuals denying statistical evidence that our climate is changing, and that human beings are one of the biggest contributing factors (evidence that has now officially been removed from the EPA’s government website), indicates a disregard for the requirement of food and oxygen in the future. Likewise, passing legislation that would encourage and enable the contamination of our water supply (such as the decision to reverse policies preventing coal companies from dumping waste in our rivers) flies in the face of our shared need for potable water. At the end of the day, if we cannot agree that we need to conserve the planet, and preserve the natural resources that are essential to human sustenance (instead of flying off to Mars in one of Elon Musk’s space shuttles—where we may or may not find water); if we cannot agree on this, can we truly reach an agreement on anything? (And since when did the upkeep of planet Earth cease to be a non-negotiable for U.S. voters?)

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Thousands of protesters marched on April 22nd in support of evidenced-based reality; this is a snapshot of the rally held in Portland, OR. Photo by Alex Milan Tracy, courtesy of CNN and the Associated Press.

To build upon the foundation laid down in my previous essay (surrounding the two definitions of the word “myth,” which I will continue to differentiate as upper-case Myth vs. lower-case myth), it seems to me we are living through an era defined by myths. First, there is the myth that climate change (despite the overwhelming abundance of facts supporting its reality—let alone the observable reality of rising temperatures and increasingly erratic weather patterns) is a conspiracy developed by the Chinese, or by the liberal elite (the jury is still out as to which was the primary perpetrator, as I understand it). Second, the myth that we “all want the same basic things”—which once could have been categorized as an upper-case Myth, but as we can see from recent polls of public opinion, is no longer eligible for widespread consensus. Third, we have the dual myths surrounding issues of civil rights: on the Right, there is the myth that institutionalized racism, sexism, and homophobia (among other common discriminatory pretenses) do not actually exist; on the Left, the myth that prejudice can be wiped out by policing language and forcing the acceptance of cultural diversity through mainstreaming. In my own analysis, these are two of the most significant and detrimental of our current myths, so I’m going to devote another paragraph to defining them more clearly. In order to accomplish this, I find it is necessary to frame these myths in the context of the broader Myth they belie; by this, I’m referring to the Myth of freedom.

Like all (lower-case) myths, every Myth carries with it a note of unreality. The key difference between the two categories (M vs. m) lies in how the unreality is addressed. In the case of myths, the unreality inevitably provides a foundation for stupidity. Example given: a man believes in the myth that all young African-American males (especially those wearing hoodies) are up to no good—that they present a threat to the integrity of the community, and that this threat needs to be eliminated. This false belief leads to the callous and stupid act of murdering innocent young black men, under the horrific pretext of “standing one’s ground.” On the flip-side, Myths address the unreality by acknowledging the distance between reality and the Myth. For example: the Myth of freedom, as espoused by the founding fathers, indicates that it comes at a cost—that wars (civil and otherwise) are sometimes fought to preserve this abstract ideal, and to continually close the distance between the American reality and the American Myth. There is nobility in the Myth, even when it is of a purely quixotic variety, and even when it is pursued by erroneous means; there can never be nobility in myths, since they are fundamentally, intrinsically wrong.

Which brings us to the final, most devastating myth we are currently faced with: the myth (still held tight by many) that 45 is going to “Make America Great Again.” This myth can easily and readily be held up against the proven, objective reality that 45 cares for no one’s interests outside of his own, and that his own interests (which are profit- and ratings-driven) do not reflect the stated interests of his adoring minions. But just as with George Zimmerman and the late Treyvon Martin, the myth of the “great white hope” has provided the foundation for stupidity of a caliber we have not seen here in decades. And likewise, the liberal myth that mainstreaming diversity is not just a means to an end, but an end in and of itself, has proven fertile soil for many a stupid action and response on the Left. Ultimately, all of these myths present grossly miscalculated efforts to arrive at the Myth of freedom—without any of the legwork that history has proven crucial to its pursuit. They are wild goose chases disguised as shortcuts, and while at times the intentions of their travelers are entirely malevolent (as can be seen with 45’s “basket of deplorables”—the racists, misogynists, and ideological lunatics who congregate around the comparably ordinary and delusional Republicans at his rallies), one occasionally spots a kernel of good intent in a person wandering down one of these deceptive detours.

For instance, it appears to me that the current myth, “we all want the same basic things for ourselves,” is a desperate but worthy attempt—by concerned, confused citizens—to consolidate and process the disorienting array of recent events. It’s the nautical equivalent of clinging to a buoy in the middle of a raging hurricane, hoping it will provide a safe harbor; a beacon of stability until the storm blows over. At best, it’s an expression of solidarity: at worst, a cop-out. Ultimately, I suppose the very fact that so many people are turning to this same beacon for solace proves there is some legitimacy to its proposition. But seeing as how we can no longer really point to our basic necessities as positive criteria for our shared interest(s), we are left instead to interpret this expression of shared interest as merely a negative criterion—providing the outline for some vague, positive criteria which now require (re)defining. It is almost as if we were all trying to speak this shared interest into existence, but not recognizing that every person is speaking a different language and—in some case—speaking of different things altogether. In trying to reach a renewed consensus on our core priorities, a pragmatist (such as myself) may conjure something along the lines of a national town hall meeting—a symposium where every voting citizen gathers under one roof, to unilaterally vote upon what our shared interests are going to be, moving forward. “Do we want to have clean drinking water? Yay or nay? What about clean energy vs. coal energy? Or the planet itself: do we want the planet to remain habitable, or is that up for debate? What say you?”

Obviously, such a forum would be logistically unfeasible (to say nothing of the ideological lines drawn in the sand from the outset). But the idea of such a gathering—absurd though it seems—paints a clear picture of just how absurd our situation has become. I noted, in my previous entry, that ignorance was not always seen to be an admirable trait in dominant American culture: that citizens used to want its leaders to be smart, competent individuals—and that people used to seek out smarter folks than themselves, in order to learn from the experts and to advance in their cognitive growth (alas, such a pursuit is muddled these days by the dozens of self-proclaimed “experts,” seeking job security in professions for which they have no real conviction or proper qualification).

As I see it, we are at a tipping point in our nation’s history, and it is still unclear which way the full tilt will swing. Although the election of 45 is one of the most singularly idiotic and irresponsible actions our country has committed in recent history, the outpouring of public concern provides evidence to support the theory that folks might start to remember why intelligence and competency used to be given expectations in leadership. Considering how little is likely to be done, in the way of dismantling this administration anytime soon (since Republicans—well-known for prioritizing autonomy and authoritarianship over public concern—hold a Congressional majority in both the House and the Senate), we have at least two years of revered ignorance to survive, as a species, before our next given opportunity to redefine the tilt of our nation’s conscience. Put simply: we have two years (maybe less) to decide whether we want to be a country defined by a Myth, or a country defined by myths. One path leads to regeneration; the other to self-destruction.

* * *

Official music video for the title track of Father John Misty’s latest opus, released shortly after the inauguration of 45.

I want to shift gears at this point and spend some time talking about Father John Misty—formerly known as Josh Tillman, one-time drummer for the acclaimed indie folk/rock band, Fleet Foxes. Over the course of three immaculately produced albums (his most recent outing, Pure Comedy, was released this past month), Tillman/FJM has consistently and intelligently explored some of our country’s foremost concerns in the new millennium. On his first album, the practically flawless Fear Fun, Tillman embarked upon this quest with the apocalyptic sigh of “Funtimes in Babylon:” “Before they put me to work in a government camp,” he pleaded. “Before they do my face up like a corpse and say ‘get up and dance.’

Five years on from then, and I see no reason to believe he’ll be rounded up for government duty anytime soon. Case in point, Father John Misty appears to have finally arrived (on his own terms) to “the masses”—flown in on the wings of a typically impassioned performance on the resurgent Saturday Night Live, and heralded by the appropriation of a crucified Kurt Cobain impersonator in his most recent music video (to further drive home his renowned meta- factor, the Cobain stand-in is played by that lamented-yet-celebrated former child star, Macaulay Culkin). Interviews and radio features in support of the release have highlighted the polarizing dynamic of this latest offering, while taking care to note (and rightly so) that this is nothing new for Tillman. But while a few glowing reviews have emerged, and Paste Magazine has boldly named it the #1 album of 2017 (to date), the overall reception has appeared more lukewarm than that granted its satirical predecessor (I Love You, Honeybear). Of course, such things are subject to change at the flip of a coin, and I believe it both possible and likely that Pure Comedy will find its audience by year’s end.

Admittedly, the record is far from perfect. But flaws included, FJM Vol. 3 is a captivating and brilliantly executed double album—complete with odd little detours and a fascinatingly structured song sequence (the more full-blooded numbers are stacked towards the front; by the end of side 2, the energy has sunk into mellow contemplation—not unlike many a ’70s genre film/concept album. This appears, to me, in keeping with the original Misty spirit and aesthetic, which has always had one foot firmly planted in ’70s nostalgia). A glance at the obsessive liner notes (which unassumingly begin with a scripture from the book of Ecclesiastes) will inform the reader that Pure Comedy is to be heard from the mindset of a person slowly falling out of space, heading towards an extra-terrestrial planet occupied by a conjectured, half-formed species. This species, as one may expect from Tillman’s outspoken views on the state of the human race, is a doppelganger for homo sapiens. As with many a fable and experimental film, FJM has here removed the subject of his analysis from its natural context, and placed it in a stylized substitute context. The motives behind this literary strategy have been scrutinized by many a cultural scholar over the years, from an assortment of angles; one of the more common interpretations highlights the general understanding that by transposing a subject to a foreign environment, the subject is brought into greater relief for the spectator, and the Mythical truth of the subject’s existence is made clear. And if there’s one thing Father John Misty has been keen on from the outset, it’s the American Myth.

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Kirk Douglas embodies the Myth of the last great frontiersman in David Miller’s 1962 feature, Lonely Are the Brave © 1962, Universal Pictures

From name-dropping Joseph Campbell in the closing track of Fear Fun, to tackling the Myth of the Western lothario in “Only Son of a Ladies’ Man,” to dismantling the American Myth itself in I Love You Honeybear‘s “Bored in the U.S.A.,” Tillman has consistently emphasized the Mythical component in his work. At his most brilliant and incisive, Tillman’s alter ego comes across as the “last great frontiersman,” attempting to salvage something of the American Myth for future generations, while simultaneously pointing to the futility of Myth in the context of our present American landscape. Taken as a whole, his work calls to mind an early Randy Newman composition, “Cowboy,” best known as recorded by Harry Nilsson (whose vocal stylings are frequently echoed in Tillman’s own recordings); “Cowboy,” in turn, was inspired by the Kirk Douglas picture, Lonely Are the Brave—a filmed fable, depicting the Myth of the last great frontiersman. But whereas both Newman and Douglas embodied entirely different characters from one project to the next, Tillman has (for now, at least) made the bold decision to tether himself to this creatively engineered persona. One wonders whether his ideological commitment will prove the best use of his natural talents moving forward; one also marvels at the chutzpa required to make such a commitment in the first place. As far as his most recent outing is concerned, both appraisals seem valid. Let’s begin from a skeptic’s perspective.

One of the challenges that Pure Comedy presents for its creator is the Godardian effect—which Rainer Werner Fassbinder defined brilliantly by observing that his films “never get to the right audience” (as quoted in a 1969 interview with Joachim von Mengershausen). For as brilliant as Misty’s songs (and Godard’s films) truly are, it seems unlikely that everyday, disillusioned and misinformed Americans will connect with and/or relate to his deliberated, academic approach (just as the ramblings of Yours Truly are unlikely to ever reach this same, sought-out audience). That said, if ever there was an opportunity for Father John Misty to become a household name, that opportunity is now: the fact that he will be performing (and is already selling out) in proper theater venues across the world—as opposed to the smaller haunts of tours past—means he will be conveying his Mythical ideology to the broadest canvas of spectators yet available to him. Conversely, the rather downbeat quality of his latest offering (in comparison to album #1 and at least 2/3 of album #2) may present a challenge for those with a short attention span. Still, one hopes that at least a handful of dejected bigots will wander into one of these theaters and come out, in some small way, transformed.

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The Where’s Waldo?-meets-Bruegel album artwork for Pure Comedy, produced by renowned New Yorker cartoonist, Edward Steed © 2017, SubPop Records

The other, rather more apparent fly in the album’s ointment, lies is the complicated relationship between Tillman, his alter ego, his audience, and the press. Put simply, it is nigh impossible for any dedicated listener to appreciate the album (and its songs) on merits alone. Just as Warren Zevon’s and Harry Nilsson’s troubled lives often interfered with the audience’s ability to appreciate the pure craftsmanship and beauty of their songs (which they cranked out prolifically during their respectively chaotic careers), Misty’s flamboyant persona and his intentionally pompous approach to interviews—rather than illuminating the purity of his pursuit—often present barriers to the critical appraisal of his work. In part, his strategy appears to be rooted in shining a light on the self-obsessed, numbers-driven, and (frequently) clueless work ethic of present-day critics. But in order to effectively convey his critique, and to avoid the pitfalls of superiority-complex-guided sermonizing, Tillman has been forced to incriminate himself in these attacks. Ultimately, one could argue that his relentless entanglement with media journalists has diluted the clarity of the work itself (especially when he becomes overly self-conscious about how his persona is going to be perceived by the public). One wonders what he might be able to communicate if, like Randy Newman or Nina Simone, he were to throw off the shackles of self-incrimination and popular attention, and devote his energies to fully inhabiting the disparate characters in his songs—abandoning his ironic mission to convert the ignorant masses, and shifting back to the more purely narrative direction of Fear Fun. Sometimes, it seems that by dedicating himself to the perspective of an omniscient narrator, he’s actually taking the easy way out of the artist’s dilemma.

After all: if Tillman has an Achilles’ Heel, it would have to be his obsession with swallowing every cultural phenomenon in his vicinity and insisting on having the final say. To his credit, the focus of Pure Comedy on a conceptual journey (from outer space to a fictitious planet) provides the ideal framework to highlight his own frailty as a creator. It’s the sonic equivalent of a journey down the road to Compostela—or Damascus, or Canterbury: there are no great revelations at the end; no astonishing solutions. There is only the endless mystery of existence and the enigmatic process of self-discovery (epitomized in the gorgeous, 13-minute odyssey of “Leaving L.A.”). While it is difficult to imagine a more perfect album closer than Fear Fun’s “Every Man Needs a Companion,” “In Twenty Years Or So” provides a perfectly adept coda to the meta narrative of Pure Comedy—setting the finale in some unspecified piano bar, with the Talking Heads’ seminal “This Must Be the Place” playing somewhere in the background. As painstakingly developed as the album is, its finest moments seem to reveal themselves (as they do in this finale) when Tillman lets his guard and his pretense down. And at the end of the day, this vulnerability points to the most convincing message underlying his hyperbolic work: our artificial construction of “better-than-ness” (as defined in his self-penned liner notes) does nothing but interfere with our ability to be functional, decent, useful living creatures. And it is this pretentiousness—whether of artistic, political, or moral/religious superiority—that most explicitly interferes with our pursuit of Mythical freedom. This revelation is the album’s ultimate saving grace.

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Monica Vitti confronts the paradox of modern living in Antonioni’s Il Deserto Rosso © 1965, Rizzoli Films

These days, as Tillman has repeatedly observed, it is far more common for people to be seeking freedom from Myth, rather than running towards it. In the second (and stand-out) track from his latest album, FJM serenades the listener with the prospect of a civilization with “No gods to rule us/No drugs to soothe us/No Myths to prove stuff/No love to confuse us.” For an instant, it almost sounds enticing. And then we remember: this is the place we’re heading to. When listening to the record, I’m sometimes reminded of the quartet of divisive, ennui-fueled films (L’AvventuraLa NotteL’Eclisse, and Il Deserto Rosso) made by Michelangelo Antonioni during the early-to-mid ’60s. In these films, Antonioni (or Antoni-ennui, as one less-than-convinced reviewer christened him) explored the emerging struggle of modern man and woman in the latter half of the 20th century: namely, how will we adapt to a modern technological reality that renders many of our pre-existing human traits (close-knit friendships; emotional sensitivity; human kindness) seemingly unnecessary? Seen today, these films have a chilling, yet faintly comical quality to them: although many of his predictions appear startlingly prescient and somewhat profound, there is something undeniably absurd in the mannered movements and designs of his dystopic visions—which also call to mind the films of Jacques Tati; Playtime and Trafic in particular. Not unlike Pure Comedy, and the outrageous album artwork designed by Edward Steed (best-known for his regular contributions to The New Yorker), these mid-century filmmakers shared a common thread in their outlook: mankind is on the brink of a civilization with no need for civility.

It’s an assessment that puts us, as listeners and observers, in a curious position. While difficult to argue with, the finality of this assessment—which is essentially at the opposite end of the more cautiously optimistic: “we all want the same things”—precludes the possibility of a tenable paradigm shift. In “Ballad of the Dying Man” (and elsewhere on the record), Father John Misty directly confronts the dilemma of the modern-day progressive: he defines this dilemma in terms of our easy access to every hateful and ignorant remark perpetrated by ill-intentioned “trolls” (on the internet and in the press), and the apparent impossibility of doing anything about this without first becoming a contestant in their reality show (to further expand the meta- factor of the song’s narrative, its protagonist clearly calls to mind Misty’s own complicated relationship with millennial culture and clueless music writers). Put another way, the struggle of the contemporary conscientious objector can be defined by our having to acknowledge the existence of all these insignificant myths, in order to properly tear them apart and offer an alternative. And considering the pace of information technology and the seemingly incessant distribution of falsehoods, it is a hopeless and thankless task. It’s only fitting that Tillman should wind this song down with the following verse:

Eventually the dying man takes his final breath
But first checks his news feed to see what he’s ’bout to miss
And it occurs to him a little late in the game
We leave as clueless as we came
From rented heavens to the shadows in the cave
We’ll all be wrong someday.

But is that really all there is? One wonders. And the beauty of this album lies in its willingness to let us. Although replete with elements of finality, Pure Comedy is most easily distinguishable from its predecessors as a more contemplative and open-ended exercise in narrative songwriting. Tillman’s humbling concession at the end of “Ballad…” seems to stress this shift in tone, and it certainly makes one curious as to what his—and our—next move will be.

* * *

There is a song on the 1982 studio album by Bauhaus, titled “All We Ever Wanted Was Everything.” The lyrical counterpoint to this titular statement is: “All we ever got was cold.” As it stands, it seems that we Americans have gotten both outcomes over the course of this past century. While we remain one of the most wealthy and possession-obsessed countries on the planet, our voracious consumption habits and our extinction of humanity from popular culture have led to an expanding chill across the land. Some political commentators and historians have identified this as the chill of fascism; and while their assessment is far from groundless, the word doesn’t quite do justice to the magnitude of our socio-cultural problems. It seems more appropriate, in my view, to define this phenomenon as the chill of emptiness (which, oddly enough, has been amplified by the religious sector in the United States: a population that spent decades harping on about the spiritual dearth of their country, but ultimately committed the most spiritually vacant act of all by giving into the emptiness of 45). It’s enough to make any reasonable person question, with utmost sincerity: What exactly is it that we want?

At the close of this seemingly interminable nightfall on our nation’s conscience, maybe this will be the line of collective questioning that leads to the restoration of the American Myth—and the beginning of a new age. For if we cannot bring ourselves to dream of a better future, and to bring this future into the present, of what use are we?