My favorite albums of 2017Read More
1. David Bowie - Blackstar
“This is all I ever meant / That’s the message that I sent”
Aging becomes this measuring scale, and on one side is the fear of acting too young and on the other is the fear of being too old. More and more I appreciate large-format pop music in theory as opposed to in practice, save for the moments where I’m extremely high or drunk. I “get” songs more than I like songs. I have more empathy for music than I do love for it. Maybe what I actually feel is pity for young musicians and my increasingly older self. This is hard to admit.
In the shadow of my favorite album of 2015, Joanna Newsom’s Divers, I wrote about how pop albums should stand as monuments. They should exist across time, weather erosion, stretch tall and root deep. Not all pop albums need to do this, but I believe the best ones do.
I understand that this flies smugly in the face of pop’s stated purpose and contradicts the waterfall dopamine rush of a pop song being one of the greatest feelings in the world. And maybe I am feeling myself too much by saying that pop music should be architecturally sound and be built of studied form and tested against history. But as I lose even more of my hair, I need to define myself less by instant gratification not because I fear arrested development by being constantly at the mercy of what is young and mad viral, but because life is already too full of instant gratification.
The best albums demand patience and exude permanence. Good art doesn’t need to be difficult, but art (especially music) exists now in a space bombarded daily by bad-faith, tech-funded impermanence. Instant, reductive, fast-paced, anxiety-filled impermanence is how we absorb news and culture, and a wry and disaffected pose is how we got to revere 2016 as “the worst trash fire” in the first place. In the sense that music means anything in the twilight of sanity (and I have serious doubts about this), the best of it serves as a bulwark against the ephemeral horrors of modern life, or my modern life. And as I age, I believe this will be more and more the truth until I die.
Death will surely be the final note, the resolution back to the immortal tonic. Death serves as a marker for that which is so fundamentally important to society. It can’t be refuted. In this post-truth year, death is the only certainty we could verify, so we raced to it often because there was no measure of veracity greater than that. In coping with fear, we turned collectively towards the thought of walking into the ocean, of falling into the void, of setting ourselves on fire, of a mass elegant poetic suicide, of goth as an unassailably authentic posture: the gallows humor that has persisted for centuries, the rumination on mortality that has been the subject of our human rituals since forever ago. Death means it’s real, and I believe Blackstar fucks with that myth. In a year collectively defined by the death of all we held dear, Bowie recorded an album that presaged it, embraced it, and transcended it.
How rare is it that we are subjected to an album that slipped so quickly out of our grasp, one that we couldn’t manipulate or mold into our own story. Or first, how rare is it that the snare on every song sounds different. Sometimes it’s wide open like a dinner bell on “Tis Pity,” and sometimes it’s muted, or enveloped, or digitally condensed. The drummer, Mark Guiliana, a New York session guy, buries himself so deep in the pocket by the end of “Girl Loves Me” he almost disappears in between the beat. Lost in the wonder of Blackstar is this backing band who swing so spectacularly hard. They make the music big and viscous, filled with hundreds of sounds that holds court with Low and Tarkus and Geogaddi in a smear of introverted and paranoid fusion. Yet these jazz ringers remain always in service of Bowie.
Together they mold Bowie’s death mask, a permanent impression of his last visage. Not the lightning across his face, not Pierrot the sad clown, but this bleary rumination of betrayal and mores and death by way of a Jacobean play about incest, Lazarus, linguistics, and a moody saxophone. Together it forms this elliptical statement about David Bowie himself. It’s grand. “Oh, honey, I’ve got game” like for sure.
When we imbue an album with the death of the artist, we give it some untouchable credibility. Is this fair? Blackstar is art that means something, because death is, after all, the ultimate truth. When music and death collide, we’re forced to reconcile with death ourselves. Is Kurt’s setlist on MTV Unplugged a suicide note? Does Nick Cave’s last album about the death of his son cash the check on years of goth performance? No, probably not, but it’s the one thing we all know to be true in life. Death became something so popular this year that it became part of the zeitgeist, an overarching theme by the end of it. On the eve of the destruction of social and economic equity, the thing the unites us is we all are vectoring towards our graves.
Bowie knew he was dying so he wrote his eulogy. Or Bowie knew he was dying so he offered us his last words. Bowie left us secret messages in the grooves of his album for us to decode. Or maybe Bowie is chance personified, the genderless chaos of the universe, the here and hereafter, with impossibly perfect sartorial choices and eternally great hair. Maybe he’s all of this or none of this. Just because we know death, does not mean we know Bowie.
And anyway, this whole final transmission before he ascends back to space is a rather cheap summation not only of his illustrious art, but for this album of fractal sound, so finely textured and tuned to a dry and bawdy mood and theme. If you do view Blackstar as some prescient sign-off from Bowie, remember are still lines of such luxurious banality that ground him to the soil here on earth. The way he sings “Where the fuck did Monday go” has stayed with me all year, the lilting rhythm so curt in its resignation. It was my own old-man meme, my own aging Vine that I could reapply over and over. This is the trudge of life. This was made for me and all of us.
The magic of Blackstar is that in his death, Bowie retains control over this album and himself. This is like viewing a rare comet or seeing Saturn crash into Jupiter, an event so spectacular it just had to be planned. Whether it was done on purpose or achieved by fate, Blackstar remains a singular and cosmic moment in pop music. The unknowable ball of fire, who may have died long ago, still casting light because we are so far away from its center. That’s Bowie, shining and untouchable. That’s pop music, magical and monumental — and maybe something that glows brightest before it disappears forever.
2. Anohni - HOPELESSNESS
3. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
Read some writing about A Moon Shaped Pool at Pitchfork.
4. Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition
5. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree
Read some writing about Skeleton Tree at Pitchfork
6. Bon Iver - 22, A Million
Read some writing about 22, A Million at SPIN.
7. Beyoncé - Lemonade
8. Oliver Coates - Upstepping
Hear me talk about Oliver Coates on my RBMA Radio show, Undertones
9. Young Thug - JEFFERY
Read some writing on JEFFERY at SPIN
10. Kaytranada - 99.9%
11. Cass McCombs - Mangy Love
12. Whitney - Light Upon the Lake
13. Jenny Hval - Blood Bitch
14. Angel Olsen - My Woman
15. A Tribe Called Quest - We got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your service
16. Jóhann Jóhannsson - Arrival OST
17. Eleanor Friedberger - New View
18. Parquet Courts - Human Performance
19. Mitski - Puberty 2
20. Preoccupations - Preoccupations
What patterns of thought do I need to break myself out of, what patterns of behavior do I need to change, and what is the value of my actions. Is it liberal in-fighting, my preening elitism, the perceived value of sarcasm, a smug sense of self-righteousness? What do these things mean to me as a member of this community, my family's community, the community of the world? It's easy to feel very down about the efficacy of your work, passion, and the dumb things that bring you some joy when you just took the biggest L of your life. Especially (I can only imagine) if you are a marginalized voice targeted by Trump and the hegemony that lofted him to power.
It feels very acutely like I woke up at a funeral, the incomprehensibility of it all: the culpability, the regret, and somewhere beyond all that, the hope that in this platitude feels so cheap but en masse feels like the only raft out of here. I am trying to be a student of this world and those around me, to listen more, and not bark out prescriptions for my friends and enemies. I'm trying to battle my own weird psychology and ego to fight for something better. And I want to be better, and fight harder for those I love. Condemn lies, fight authoritarianism, and push into the abyss of the unknown, where you might encounter something fearful (like a sincere blog post) which can allow you rediscover something about yourself that might help someone in need.
This is how close I was to Prince when I saw him play what I have always regarded past present and future to be the greatest show I've ever seen. He rose out of the floor with his Telecaster strapped like a quiver to his back and the first words he said in his well-obviously-I-will-never-be-this-cool voice were, "Is it alright if I play this thing?" and everybody screamed and he went into "Let's Go Crazy." He did "Nothing Compares 2 U" with Jennifer Hudson, Maceo Parker came out and played on "Cream" and then I followed him to an after show at the House of Blues where he sang Sly and the Family Stone covers and played bass solos until 3 a.m.
I was also about this far away from him in the basement lounge of a New York club once, some presser for introducing his new 3rd Eye Girl band. Doug E. Fresh was DJ'ing and when Prince finally walked in to the club, Doug E. Fresh blasted DMX. I sat around until almost 3 a.m., watching Prince sit across the room in a booth well out of earshot surrounded by six huge bodyguards, until, finally, he got up and started playing half-hearted pool as an excuse to dance with several women only when Busta Rhymes came on. I could have walked over to him but I didn't because he's Prince and he has an impenetrable aura. It was as if he knew I was meant to be in awe 15 ft away, as is the cosmic order of things.
I think being just that close to him these few times is always how I feel about his music, that it's always just out of reach in front of me suspended as the best music of the 80s made by a sexual revolutionary and sartorial dandy for whom perfection is a fuck buddy he keeps around when he needs it. How do you get close to that? How are you supposed to hold that near your heart? I love Prince, I do, he is assuredly my favorite musician of all-time (the riff on "Bambi" or his tightwire delivery of "on ly want to see you un der neath the" or he calls Ronald Reagan RONNIE god I should never have started) and I loved that he orbited around me, voguing in this forbidden space only he should occupy. Too close and you get the wag of a finger and a pursed smile.
Of course he's inclusive and charitable, and we all share heaping portions of his race, his sexuality, his mercuriality, his peerless shade game. But I don't know if I'll ever feel this specific way again, that being forever just out of reach someone is what made them so definably great. And maybe it's because he finally feels further away now that's really making me feel this one.
Anyway, as he says: "Shut up already, damn!"
I’ve had the misfortune of witnessing two different managers be arrested at work. The second time was at a small-town Wisconsin Papa John’s after he was awarded his fifth DUI which in effect closed down that Papa John’s and left me without my college job as a pizza delivery driver. That’s the end of that story, except maybe a note to say that Wisconsin ranks third in the nation when it comes to bars per capita, and the domestic and economic circumstances that led this older man to become a general manager of a Papa John’s did not also ensure that a bunch of college kids who showed up to work consistently stoned and showed no regard for company-mandated cheese portions would not also lead him to drinking and driving. I genuinely hope he’s doing fine.
The first time was at a small-town Wisconsin Taco Bell. It was the summer of 2002, a strange time in America. We had just lived through 9/11, and we had yet to taste the citrus-lime flavor of Mountain Dew Baja Blast, which would become Taco Bell’s first official co-branded beverage only a few years later. It was in this cultural abeyance that I was witness of and party to a rag-tag embezzlement scheme perpetrated by my manager Tyler.
Tyler was enrolled at our town’s college, or maybe he wasn’t. I didn’t know. We mostly talked about seven-Layer Burritos, Mexi-Melts, and Nachos Bell Grandes. He never smiled, and as a 17-year-old kid living in the Midwest I had never met anyone who was unhappy and not faking it. This is to say Tyler was not very approachable. Our only non-taco conversation that I recall took place one afternoon when I rolled into the parking lot playing Trick Daddy’s “I’m A Thug” loudly from my car.
“You like Trick Daddy?” Tyler asked.
“Yeah I love Trick Daddy. He’s one of my favorites.” I did not love Trick Daddy, nor was he one of my favorites. But I did lie because I was nervous and I didn’t like conflict. “I can get you the new Trick Daddy CD if you want.”
“Really? It’s not even out yet.”
“Yeah well my friend works at a record store he said it’s just sitting on the shelf.” None of this was true, and I didn’t know that Trick Daddy’s Thug Holiday wouldn’t be out until August, and it was only the middle of June. I hoped that Tyler would just forget about this whole conversation, although I could tell that after we talked that afternoon, there was a glint in his eye, which I charitably took to mean he now respected me.
A few nights later after work he invited my co-worker Tom and I to drink on the floor of his college apartment. As two teens with nothing else to do, what could be better? Tyler bought me a giant Smirnoff Ice and bought Tom a 40oz of Mickeys and we sat and played a drinking game on his stained carpet with two other older people I didn’t know. To this day, the gap between me feeling cool and me actually doing something cool has never been wider. In that moment I felt warm and spectacular.
It was shortly after this that Tyler, Tom, and I started working the closing shift at Taco Bell. The closing shift at Taco Bell in a college town is full of every bad archetype you can imagine, but considering we would all go out back and get high behind the dumpsters and come back in and start working again, it usually evened out.
On nights when there was a concert at the nearby Alpine Valley Amphitheater, it was especially bad. Cars would be backed up onto the street while they waited for their Grande Combos to be made, which was going to take a minute because the bags of beef were still de-thawing in the boiling Bunn water and the automatic frijoles dispenser is squirting out a diarrheic stream of grayish mass because the beans did not get a chance to congeal in the boiling Bunn water and the soft shells are not steamed and the gun that squirts the guacamole-flavored compound is broken and there’s no chicken prepped and Tom and I are far too stoned to solve any of these problems with speed or alacrity.
While we were tittering and making burritos, Tyler worked the drive-thru window. “I’m going clear some of these orders so we get our times up, you guys good?”
This was Tyler’s way of cheating the Taco Bell computers that measured customer service in the drive-thru. If you cleared the orders and wrote them down on pieces of paper, the average wait time at the end of the night would be drastically lower. In reality you were moving at a leisurely pace while cars full of hungry Phish fans waited for their Grilled Stuft Burritos with less patience than they had displayed during a 22-minute rendition of “You Enjoy Myself.”
What Tom and I didn’t know was that Tyler was cancelling the orders outright. He would take the car’s order, write what it was on a piece of paper, take the cash, and then cancel the order on the screen. The customer gave the cash to Tyler, we gave the customer the food, and Tyler kept the cash in his pocket.
At the end of the night, at almost four in the morning, Tyler gave me and Tom $20 each. “Thanks guys, you made this go a lot faster.” “Holy shit,” we thought, “Tyler tipped us because we are that cool and good.” There was that warm and spectacular feeling again, donated to me by from someone who didn’t need anything from anybody.
Two weeks or so passed and as I pulled in to work one afternoon I saw two police cars parked near the front door. Tom came out the back and told me Tyler was in the back room and that he was going to be arrested for stealing.
“He stole over a thousand dollars over the last couple of months,” said Tom. “They did an audit of the food weight and whenever he was working, the food weight didn’t match up to the end-of-day receipts, and the cops are investigating how much money he stole.”
We knew, of course, that our tip was in hush money. We realized it back then too, but who was I to question Tyler, who had invited me over to his house to drink a 40 of Smirnoff Ice and to whom I stilled owed an unreleased copy of a Trick Daddy album? He walked out of the Taco Bell and into the back of the police car. I never heard from him again.
A few months later, I quit, and Tom followed suit shortly after. We weren’t going spend our senior years being uncool losers working at Taco Bell without Tyler. We insisted, in the face of inevitable doom, that were going to do something with our lives.
20. Jamie xx - In Colour
This is consistently a pleasure to listen to thanks in large part to its marketing, Jamie’s guitar settings, Young Thug, and “Gosh.”
19. Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear
Turns out his merlot smirk as he faints over his own wit and passion is charming, even if (or especially because) it is also what music writers like to do.
18. Earl Sweatshirt- I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
Necromantic scrolls that read “The club is for cowards.”
17. Oneohtrix Point Never - Garden of Delete
Best music for staring at people on the train and convincing yourself that the city you live in is a simulation and it’s best to try to escape.
16. Pusha T - King Push — Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude
Pusha T raps like if Droopy Dog was a serial killer. I like the sound of his voice more than any one.
15. Jessica Pratt - On Your Own Love Again
Time-bent stories of heartbreak and the few partly sunny days around them.
14. Yvette - Time Management EP
Full disclosure: This rips.
13. Natalie Prass - Natalie Prass
To say so much while hiding in the songs is a delicate but underrated trait (Or: Vodka gimlet as music).
12 . Hop Along - Painted Shut
This, of course, is the opposite. Wrote a little about this here.
11. Holly Herndon - Platform
The scrim between IRL/URL and the transdermal art applied to it is still engaging, I guess, but I also think Platform is the peak, and it will prove difficult for other albums to code/weave something as good as this.
10. The Armed - Untitled
Perfect art hardcore that makes me want to eat a tire and throw a couch into the sky.
9. Fred Thomas - All Are Saved
So tuned, detailed, and manic that he can undermine it all when he sings that it’s “a series of IRL moments cloaked in the vagueness that songs give.”
8. The Mountain Goats - Beat The Champ
Great stories, untold before and never to be told again. The only album to make me feel amazed like I imagine a kid should and happy like I imagine an adult should.
7. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell
6. Viet Cong - Viet Cong
You know when a song comes on the radio and your brain accidentally turns the 1 into the 2 and you're hearing the song off-beat and with new, backwards ears a second? That's the kind of joy I get listening to this album over and over.
5. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
All the little stuff made big.
4. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly
All the big stuff made bigger.
3. Alabama Shakes - Sound & Color
I don't know what cheap poison people drank that made this album land so low on so many year-end lists. It's spectacular. Brittany Howard's voice is hall of fame, the songwriting is sharp and cosmic, and the band carve a new path in that subtle, transcendent way that Vampire Weekend and Spoon did with their last albums. Sawdust with luster.
2. Tame Impala - Currents
Wrote a long piece about this album here, but will always reiterate, "She was holding hands with Trevor/ not the greatest feeling ever" is GOAT.
1. Joanna Newsom - Divers
Here's a loose, very macro thesis that I'll close this year out with because it's what I believe to be important: Music is a function of architecture, and with a foundation buried deep within the earth, it should outlast the march of our lives.
That is, if its structure sturdy, if it is sound, and well crafted, then it can withstand a flood. The form of music (the article "music") is stronger than whatever cagey scenes it spawns from, than its ego, than its botched rollout, that the press surrounding it, than whatever capitalistic systems it functions in. To Pimp a Butterfly, Currents, Sound & Color, and Divers are four albums built in ornate defiance of temporal whims. They are classics, within and without time. They are new wonders that stand as bridges, statues, and obelisks on this earth that offer a place of secular study or religious worship. They are monuments.
Cultural cachet, as it exists as we move into the second half of this decade, should also be imbued into new artifacts that will outlast us. Let our disillusionment with everything drift away from the lol nothing matters gif and cheap flights to "the void" and move to a logical next level as we face certain ecological and political despair, and praise also that which works beyond the character limit and the default tone of bemusement of our collective art intellects.
Pour our respects into anything that makes us crane our necks and laud pieces of art are so vast that we cannot even begin to see our ego reflected in it. With whatever brief history we have left to record, we should also honor the craft of music, as a tradition and even a vocation, and use that to erect brilliant displays so that there is something left of us that is not just the truly privileged whinging our lives away in circles that seem to grow bigger but realistically stay imperceptibly small. What will be our monuments?
And I also wrote more about Divers here.
Alex G - Beach Music (listening to this album makes me feel exactly two things: pleased and that his next album will be spectacular)
Carly Rae Jepson - E*MO*TION (undeniably the high bar for pop set by pastiche and proletarianism. half the songs really show up, the others are just fine, but her songwriting is way too spelled out (or syllabled out, blammo!) for me to strain for deeper meaning or do something more than honestly appreciate.)
Circuit Des Yeux - In Plain Speech (for those few among us who live and die by Haley Fohr’s voice, the Adele of the underworld)
Dr. Yen Lo - Days With Dr. Yen Lo (would spend hours locked in concrete chambers with Ka’s voice dripping onto my forehead)
Foals - What Went Down
Protomartyr - Agent Intellect
Sheer Mag - II EP (also one of the best shows I saw this year)
Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Multi-Love
Vince Staples - Summertime '06
The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die - Harmlessness
yMusic - Balance Problems (poseur new classical pick)
Young Thug - Barter 6
I went to high school with this kid who had undiagnosed Aspergers named Matt. He was one grade below me and was ruthlessly teased by kids. Everyone called him gay because there were no out gay kids at our school. I fault our administration for not making our small, sub-zero town a safe place for this to happen (no queer alliances, no school seminars, just don’t ask don’t tell for teens). They called him gay because he was different, and the kids would say, “What are you gay or something?” and I remember him recoiling at the thought and screaming that he’s not gay. He had no response other than the truth and everyone laughed at him spitting and stomping and mugging his anger. I’m recoiling just typing about this.
Our theater teacher gave him great bit parts in some of the plays and he always crushed it on stage. Matt and I also took karate when we were way younger, so when he got to high school, I tried to look out for him when I could (but being the vastly uncool music/band/theater geek I didn’t exactly have the goodwill of the kids who teased him. I also just didn't do a great job at that). Matt had the kindest, most innocent heart and was taken advantage of by anyone who knew how to implement lazy sarcasm because Matt didn’t pick up on any social cues. I’m talking rudimentary sarcasm, purposefully bad jokes, which of course is the lingua franca of idiot teens. He was not included in much of the theater games and didn't get things deeper than text. He knew that he should memorize his lines and follow the blocking. He was great at it.
Anyway after he graduated high school he stayed in my hometown and got a job at the factory where you often work if you stay in my hometown. I reconnected with him on Facebook many years after high school. I haven’t seen him since and only interact with him on Facebook. There he shares many deeply conservative memes all day long, as if the “Marine Todd” meme laid eggs and out bursted hundreds of likeminded Drudgey memes: "Immigrants should go back to Syria, share if you agree!!!” "If we had one of these guys [beefy soldier in camo holding an assault rifle] in every school, we wouldn’t have school shootings.” “Keep Christ in Christmas”. Then he posts stuff like this almost every day:
He is the person who sits at the end of every internet joke. He is your straw man. Matt. Matt is your guy who posts those unbelievable memes and cannot tell if you don’t realize that that’s Neil DeGrasse Tyson sitting on the train or not. Matt is the guy you manually retweet so your friends can own him. Matt is the voice that irony has adopted. “Can it, loser” or “Guns are good” are things he would say because that is apparently what he believes now.
I can’t imagine the trauma he’s had in his life, his domestic and economic disparity, and all of the selfish people who have made it infinitely more difficult for him to communicate truthfully with someone else. Whatever happened to Matt in the intervening years when I left high school since he started working at this factory, whatever caused him to became someone lost in the Breitbart comments, whatever anger that he has that is fueled by people on his end of the spectrum and those off the spectrum, I know it must be difficult. I know he’s working on getting a tech degree. I know that he’s posted several very sad posts about getting his heart broken.
So when some schmuck doesn’t get that that this dumb thing is a joke
I feel very bad. We define these online people by their inability to pick up on social cues and then mock them in our circle of progressive friends who can definitely pick up on irony. I’ve done this many times, we all have, not that it matters because life isn't measured in two hefty sacks of good deeds and bad ones. But when someone clearly doesn't get it, or someone takes a poor tack in a reply or misreads someone’s politics or irony, I think about Matt.
The soft autumn rain will pelt
The tones and rhythm of your name
And I will miss you Zane Malk.
Though you remain among the living
Doing what it is you do (singing, maybe)
(or dancing) (or maybe you are an actor)
I bury a heavy piece of you today
But only to make you lighter
And so that you may finally learn to play the piano
And so that you may finally get your pilot’s license
And so that you may finally be in a band and become famous
And so that you may finally know yourself
And tell me who you are
For I am unclear (in that regard).
Let your past (which, to be sure, remains unknown to me)
Illuminate your future
Let it light your way ’round and ’round life’s paddock
Let it limn your former achievements (whatever they may be)
(I’m not sure)
So that you may shine anew.
And we may know you Zorb Mulnk
Not as the painter or biologist or tech blogger or
large bearded soccer coach or guy who was biking through the park
yesterday (in tight shorts blasting techno music out of a small speaker) that you were;
But for who you truly are.
I’d love to know.
You can't curate empathy. Social media is not a responsive platform, especially as we run full speed toward this orb of empathy that glows brightest during times of global trauma. But let's say—in order to survive a few more years on this terrible earth—humans are inherently good. We all seek empathy, in our own bruised and inscrutable ways.
So we're not galled by the lack of empathy in others. The true gall that inspires screeds and jeremiads and endless moral positioning in the moments during and immediately after trauma, is that our social platforms are not calibrated to map the infinite paths toward empathy.
Should you unschedule those innocuous tweets? Should you avoid politicizing a tragedy? Should score some brand points at the expense of the xenophobes? Should you change the logo of your company to the colors of the French flag? Should you tell a story about that time you were in Paris? Should you just say one thing to show you're a human being? Should you say nothing? When is it ok to talk about something else again? When we all feel like just this once we could rally around this one beautiful point of empathy, it's a scrum to get to the middle of it.
This is not a fault of us humans, or your collegue who you temporarily muted, or your friend from high school who you rage-unfollowed. It's the fault of technology. Neither Facebook nor Twitter (nor blogs for that matter) are built to handle the byzantine pathways of how we deal with trauma, and how each person seeks empathy. One person's path towards do-goodery is another person's worst nightmare, and this dissonance is laid out in two-dimensions surrounded by the scheduled and promoted tweets, event notifications, crass opportunism, trolls, racists, the unaware, and the vast sums money that underly each byte of data.
This is the scrum, and it will never be perfect. The thing is, when we all focus on this empathy and we strive to understand and write our words of wisdom and platitudes of lesser wisdom, we see that finally that we are indeed human beings, in wholly different in terrifying ways. It shatters the binary dialogues of twitter into thousands of pieces, impossible to parse.
What is the root of this person's behavior, and why is it not like mine? This empathy scrum transcends politics, gender, race, profession, and suddenly we see that the stakes are raised on platforms that are chiefly used for dumb conversations and Michael-Jordan-crying-memes. Now, we have real human moments, and the folly of social media is that no platform could possibly capture us as humans. No level of curation could prepare us for that.
The way we cope and deal with this ancient, biblical trauma ranges from singing Papa Roach at karaoke to laying in bed and doing nothing. This was the difference between me and one of my best friends. In our offline conversation, it was a mutual understanding, even if maybe deep down inside we were a little disappointed in each other. But we knew what the other needed, and we loved and respected it nonetheless.
But to know how others deal with trauma is to let them, and not judge them, even if it seems insanely stupid or extremely prescriptive.
You want to go see my buddy’s band next Monday? They play at 11 at this bar in Waukesha. It’s not really a bar, it’s more of a karate studio you can smoke in. I’ve never been, but my buddy’s playing this acoustic bass he got on Craigslist three weeks ago because he needed something to do after he broke his ankle playing ping pong with his niece. She got a slice past his right side and in diving for it, he flung himself over the banister right onto his sister’s DVD rack. At the hospital, my buddy told me the ping pong table’s placement on the upstairs landing was only temporary while he moved it out of his room to look for some bass picks, but he could never turn down a game with Mattie. Why he sleeps on a ping pong table is a long story, but it’s some calculus to do with a house fire, his sciatica, and a nauseating fear of ants.
So he has to play in a cast Monday, which sucks for him because it’s his first time with the band. He used to play bass in that band Dr. Gore, that funk black metal band my buddy said sounded like “early Chili Peps defiling H.P. Lovecraft’s corpse”? I never saw them, but they all wore baseball caps.
Well, they all wore baseball caps except the DJ, who had a rare condition where his hair hurt. Doctors said it had to do with extra nerve endings bottled up on his skull his hair that caused him searing pain at the slightest touch. One tousle could send him into a coma. Before my buddy joined, the band had to cancel a gig due to a long stretch of breezy nights.
The sad thing is, my buddy didn’t know about the DJ’s hurting hair, so his first night with the band during the DJ solo, my buddy noticed he wasn’t wearing his cap so he went behind him and slapped his cap on the DJ’s head, who without hesitation keeled over onto his turntables. At the police station, the DJ’s lawyer told us that that the words "DON’T TOUCH MY HAIR OR I COULD DIE” printed on the front and back of his shirt were all the grounds he needed to file an assault with intent charge. My buddy swears that he thought that was the name of a band he played with Pewaukee. The case is still in the early stages of litigation, but his bail bond put him deep in debt and then when his house caught on fire, he had to move in with his sister and her daughter Mattie.
They live in the subdivision with all the McMansions on the west side, but are totally house poor after his sister's divorce. The only other piece of furniture in the living room other than the DVD rack is a couch that sits in the middle of the carpeted room that faces nothing. There's no window, no wall, no mantle, no TV, you sit on the couch and there is this unnerving feeling you are looking at nothing, such is its geographical positioning and the voiding architecture of the room. Of course, you are staring at something, but the room seems to slip away to the periphery. There are doorways that hint at structural meaning, a pathway into what can be be seen as definitively a kitchen, surely a coat room, of course stairs to the basement, but the view from the couch lacks any kind of function, only space defined as space, a glint of a banister, corners of drywall, an endlessly beige carpet, and Mattie waiting to play ping pong.
The couch is where my buddy is sleeps now, because of the cast. He takes off the seat cushions and sleeps on the wooden slat then covers himself with garbage bags, because of the of ants.
His new band is supposed to be pretty good. My buddy says they sound like "Violent Femmes trying to unfuck the economy.”
Also I think it’s doors at 11 and my buddy’s band goes on after the openers.
Maybe my ears are fragile. It feels like the aperture between my ears and my head is twisting to become smaller and smaller. Years ago I pictured the opening to be the size of silver dollar, my secret biological anomaly that allowed music to enter unassailed and in heaping portions. What you would call an undiscerning ear I would call a mania that wanted to devour every sound and its attendant emotions. I loved it. Now it feels that music just barely squeezes through a pinhole into my life.
Love will rust, because as soon as you begin to love you enter into a contract with time. And that initial rust is fine and unavoidable, you will just get used to the changing color of its frame. If you’re too mindless with it, corrosion comes next, and its original form starts to decay, though this too is fine and reparable. But if further unattended, if truly neglected, corrosion gives way to toxicity and then this thing you love poisons you and you die a very sad death.
These are the three stages of lapsed love. Avoid the final stage, because it becomes a heavy tumor that breeds contempt or worse: irony. It will kill you unless you pour concrete over this thing that once gave you such joy and seal it off like Chernobyl. Then it will petrify and serve as a historic landmark you visit on the days that come with that vague sadness you can’t name, and then you remember, yes, these are the things that I will carry with me forever and that, too, is fine.
For Joanna Newsom, these relics are deeply embedded within New York City, as they are in ourselves, as they are between time and love. This is Divers, her fourth album, and her greatest.
There are petrified moments of death and triumph throughout Divers that stretch across the space/time continuum. Most symbolically, there's the statue of Ozymandius, made famous in Shelley's poem as a man looks at the inscription on the crumbling structure that reads, "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair." Newsom echoes this in the futuristic of “Waltz Of The 101st Lightborne” as she eyes Golden Gate Bridge and the Bering Strait from presumably her starship as the song speaks of how there is "unlimited simulacreage" to live now that we've conquered space and time. She comes back down to the Earth on the title track to speak of a more internal relic: “I ain't saying that I loved you first, but I loved you best.”
A note about Newsom: These songs of sci-fi time wars and transcendent symbol-drawing between Ancient Egypt and early 20th century NYC, her older songs of clams, star ledgers, butchers, and barrows have very little market value. They are, by nature, arcane and autonomous, which is part of what makes Newsom so unmeasurable as an artist.
But in her music there is a political message simply stated. Those rusted knick-knacks and prose that appear to have no modern cachet work to counterbalance all that does. On Divers, there is the obscure NYC mayor John Purroy Mitchell, King Tamanend, the garden of Chabot, a mill-wheel, a kiln, one ear of corn, a woman standing in the rain wearing a mackintosh, and on an on. These are the fading constants in the world, still humming low beneath our lives. She writes with a furiously untamed pen only to find that one thing can endure. It’s what makes Newsom one of the most important musicians of our modern time because it can be an exhausting enterprise to live simply, to write simply, to create simply, to put into words what needs to happen to conquer all the stuff that lays ahead and all stuff that’s left behind. Leaving the ephemera is no easy task.
Newsom understands how truly difficult it is to find a place and have peace there, which has been a long-running theme of her music: Where can we find peace? Can we find it in "unlimited simulacreage" of the time/space continuum? She is less concerned with who I am. She is always more concerned with where can I be to be who I am. Where in the digital and physical world can you find who you are?
What makes Newsom hard to handle is not the music itself (in fact many of these songs songs are made up of the same three-chord motif that’s just like anything on pop radio, only it’s examined and expanded in strict rhythms like one thousand nodes on a music box) or that her language is language-y. What separates Divers from other music is that it stands in ornate relief to a kind of daily discourse that relies on brevity and easy consumption. It has a dissidence toward the speed of life and the bemusement we experience on a micro level every day, the hourly frustrations of social media, the hot takes, the many thousands of memes we use to connect with each other until the next one takes hold in pop culture.
It takes courage to break this cycle, to write without reference, to sing untuned to common pitches, to inherit biblical proverbs, to interrogate ourselves deeply and without reflexivity, to encompass the past and look toward the future and not feel the stasis of the melancholic present where a toxic love of life poisons that which endures.
The greatness of Divers is that Newsom understands that the past can also crumble and toy with our lives. Empires fall, and heroes lay buried in ruins, like Ozymandius in Egypt, King Tamanend and John Purroy Mitchell in New York, and all out previous lovers. Newsom sings of so many forces at work on this album it becomes a surreal jumble. These songs rarely have something what you could call a chorus, they just have a direct momentum as if she’s piercing through this universe at light speed. Yes, everything happens so much, but where do we go to escape these things? Maybe we do need the infinity of time and space and that "unlimited simulacreage."
It is always tempting to shrink this idea, and distill it to a more common form. Part of undermining art as a form of critique is to let the world know you are a well-balanced person, both within and without the artist and her work. But doesn’t that, at the crux of life, bely the wars that we’ve fought, martial and romantic, social and personal? The music of Joanna Newsom fights the cause of letting love lapse. It is something of antediluvian proportions, of tangled verse and bouncing cadences, because sometimes great wars call for great weapons.
The world is large. No, the universe is large. No, it is time that is largest. No, it is love. What could possibly be more true than this? What deeper meaning do we want out of life than to live for joy and all its scraggly hairs, and who dares try to find it in a way that is more beautiful than Joanna Newsom? It should be all of us.
Joy, this quizzical thing that Newsom has talked about since “Emily” on Ys:
We could stand for a century,
with our heads cocked,
in the broad daylight, at this thing:
landlocked in bodies that don’t keep —
dumbstruck with the sweetness of being,
till we don’t be.
This I believe above all. For every Drake lyric adapted to an Instagram photo, find these romantic facets of the world, and embrace that risk of loving something with no cachet. When you find those facets, make that place your own, wherever it is.
Divers has re-opened my ears to believe that this thing joy is an immutable force in this life, and to wrestle with it as if I were in one of those Italian paintings, with ancient marbly muscles and alabaster skin. This, now, feels right:
The moment of your greatest joy sustains:
not axe nor hammer,
can take it away, and it remains
And it pains me to say, I was wrong.
Love is not a symptom of time.
Time is just a symptom of love
and of the nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating
Joy of life.
There’s an idea that I’m paraphrasing and torturing from an essay in Dave Hickey’s excellent memoir Air Guitar that says something like we write about music in the hopes that we give credence to ourselves. What we laud as worthy also in turn makes us worthy, so that somewhere in the ether we become one with the music. That’s why I’m writing this, and this is a terrifying thing to type out: Divers gives me joy, and it makes feel joy again.
This is a good cover because Blake and Vernon are remarkable vocal arrangers. Go back and listen to "I Never Learnt To Share" and hear how he keeps undermining the main melody line. And of course it's the same thing Vernon does on "Woods," a song I think is more impressive on paper. No one's handing out gold stars for arrangement in snowy indie rock or air-duct electronica, but these two are some of the best. The new chord voicings on here are so subtly implemented, and the Rickenbacker sample at the end is a great coda. Two gold stars.
Went ahead and made a web portal for me. This includes my published writing, my less than published writing, photography, and a robust contact page. Under "Writing" there are links to a selection of things I've written that you can read online. Under "Photography" some of my favorite photos I've taken. And for here, picture, if you will, this space to be used as an old shopping bag where I'll put things that I think are neat and swell. Thanks, friends.