We have a cool, grey, drizzly day here, slipped in between the scorching temperatures of mid-week and the warm temperatures from the weekend into next week. This makes for a nice accompaniment:
Oh, I see that Lana Del Rey has a new album out. Maybe reading a review will make a nice change of pace from the usu—
Watching fires ravage L.A. and Donald Trump ravage the U.S., Del Rey has shifted her kitschy patriotic fixation, dropping her flag-draped persona and making peace with a more complex, dystopian reality. “L.A. is in flames, it’s getting hot” she drones on The Greatest. “I’m facing the greatest / The greatest loss of them all.” Apt words for a planet facing a climate apocalypse.
Hmm. Well, OK, that was probably just an outlier. I’m sure th—
Call her Doris Doomsday: “The culture is lit/And if this is it/I had a ball,” she resolves with ecstasy and fire, a lightning rod of humor, sadness, and perception; flip jadedness and abiding love. Fanning the flames of a culture ablaze, Lana sings each word like a prayer, finessed with conviction and smoke, chaos and control. “The greatest” is a galaxy-brain moment in the pantheon of pop, and it belongs to a generation fully aware we are at risk of being distracted into oblivion, Juuling towards early death while watching Earth burn.
Sigh. I’m all for treating popular culture as worthy of critical attention, but it’s really tiring to see so many hack writers making their own histrionic prose the center of attention, eager to connect each new movie and album to The Present Moment and its Immense Significance. Thank goodness for streaming, so that I can actually, you know, hear what the music sounds like without having to take yet another indistinguishable 800 words of TRUMP CLIMATE YEEARRGH along with it.
Just a little over seventy-two hours ago, I only had a vague awareness of Devin Townsend’s existence. I still pay some attention to goings-on in the world of heavy music, even though, truth be told, I don’t find a lot of it appealing anymore. What can I say? I’m not a young man filled with excess testosterone, and my emotional palette contains more than aggression and depression, so a lot of today’s metal music just strikes me as too limited and boring. Somehow, over the years, I had gotten the impression that Townsend was an avant-garde, abrasive, noise-metal musician. You know, buzzsaw guitars, Cookie Monster vocals, etc. Well, I was very wrong, and I curse whoever misled me. He does have a lot of heavy songs, with galloping-herds-of-Brontosaurus kick-drums, 32nd-note riffs, and detuned guitars (he apparently tunes down to C and even B, which is also what Type O Negative used to get their massive, moaning-glaciers, tectonic-plates-shifting, footsteps-of-God sound), and he’s perfectly capable of shrieking and growling when he wants. But he also has some ethereal acoustic music, and he names Enya’s Watermark album as one of his Top 5 all-time biggest influences. This dude is seriously diverse.
The Lady of the House has had classical training as a singer, and so we’ve been enjoying the YouTube channel of a Scottish vocal coach, Beth Roars, and that’s where I first heard him, performing his song “Kingdom.” The way his spectacular voice climbs and soars from about 6:45 to 6:50 in that video gives me full-body chills every time. From there, well, he’s been recording since the early ’90s, and he’s quite prolific, so there’s a huge back catalog for me to dive into. I’m still only about half-done. Some of his songs, like “Namaste” or “Addicted,” sound like a slightly more melodic Ministry or Godflesh, with an aggro, industrial feel to them. Other songs, like the acoustic “Little Pig,” are more reminiscent of Pink Floyd. (And that song comes from a gorgeous collection of B-sides! Most bands should be so lucky to put out a proper album as good as that, and these are just the songs he had left over!) Some albums are more of a mix of heavy and gentle. His latest release, Empath, which came out this spring, is one where he says he tried, for the first time, to put all of himself into it, rather than compartmentalizing his different tastes into different projects (he’s recorded under Devin Townsend, The Devin Townsend Project, The Devin Townsend Band, and Strapping Young Lad, and probably others I haven’t uncovered yet). The closest comparison I can make is to Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, who is similarly capable of writing blistering metal riffs as well as feather-light, wispy melodies, similarly prolific, and who also physically resembles a giant thumb. But Corgan’s voice is much more limited (and definitely an acquired taste), and I personally have found much of his post-Smashing Pumpkins output to be forgettable and uninspired. No, Townsend appears to me to be sui generis. I wouldn’t have believed it possible to discover someone like him.
As any middle-aged or older person knows, it’s increasingly difficult to be surprised. History’s weight bears down hard on us; memory stifles imagination. Newer music tends to sound like things we’ve already heard done before (and done better). Older artists tend to be inconsistent quality-wise over a long career. So you can imagine what a total joy it is for me to stumble across a treasure like this. Dozens and dozens of songs to listen to! Genuinely fresh sounds, unlike any other artist I can think of! It’s disorienting, but in a good way. For a couple weeks or so, the whole world will feel almost new again. Every morning, I’ll eagerly look forward to listening again. There will be that delicious unfamiliarity with the songs for a while, where I remember enough of the melody to crave it without being able to remember exactly what’s coming next in the song. I’ll run some songs into the ground, listening on repeat day after day, until several days later, when I move to the next one in the playlist and joyfully realize that I’d already forgotten I bought this one, and I’ll get to fall in love with it again! I’ve been listening to music all day long throughout this weekend, and when I’m not, my head is heavy with melodies, some of which, being only half-remembered, morph into something unique, making me want to grab my own guitar and try to capture them before they drift away. Ah, but it’s so blissful to just stay put and let them ebb and flow over me…
And as it happens, this coincides with the new fitness routines I’m building. We joined a gym at the beginning of summer, where we started working with a personal trainer and a nutritionist. Like always when you change old habits, there’s a novelty to the new way of doing things that focuses your attention and makes a lot of details of everyday life stand out. Plus, we’re at that point in August where it’s still hot out, of course, but there’s a hint of fall coming soon. I’ve come to appreciate August, funny enough. I feel almost magnanimous toward it, as you can afford to feel toward a defeated opponent. “Well, summer, you did your best to kill me, but you’re getting weaker, and you’ll be gone soon. Thanks for putting up a challenging fight. See you next year.”
So, as I’m sure we’ve all experienced many times, there’s this fortuitous constellation of events and feelings that make certain time periods preserve especially well in the memory. I’m old enough now that I can somewhat recognize them as they’re forming, and it’s wonderful to think ahead to next year, when all of these particular details will look as if they’ve been caught in amber. Especially the songs. There’s not much sweeter than a song that calls to mind a specific time and place. Some melodies will go with you anywhere, like carry-on luggage, and will adapt to new circumstances. Some stay rooted to the place where they were born for you. Music that evokes the borderland between summer and fall might be my favorite of all.
A small part of me wonders anxiously how many more serendipitous discoveries like this there are for me to make, or how infrequent they’re likely to be. The wiser part of me just laughs at how quickly we become greedy for more! more! before we’ve even finished what’s in front of us. Who could be so ungrateful to demand to know if and when it will be repeated? It’s wonderful enough that it happened at all. This is exactly where I was always trying to get to. Let time continue on without me for just a little while.
This scene – a young person bored, with attention and time to spare, looking for music beyond the obvious and finding that music quite unexpectedly, then devouring it alone and in an almost embarrassingly profound way disappearing into that music and into the vision of the artist who created it – this scene no longer really exists.
…Spotify’s exponential growth and powerful machine-learning algorithms have changed the way music is consumed. Playlists, rather than albums are king; music is tailored to mood: chill, romance, focus; or to activity: party, workout, sleep. Pelly argues that this change has made music less diverse, less interesting and more like elevator muzak. Listening to music is not an aesthetic experience in itself (think Morrissey listening to Horses back in 1975) but something pre-programmed, inoffensive, ambient; an accompaniment to other activities. Streaming services have made entertainment feel like another form of work, another task, like answering emails, to be completed on a laptop or a smartphone.
Blockbuster movies, TV shows, and now music — I fear that before long, Mr. Lloyd will run out of predictable targets for his curmudgeonly rants. Judging by this trajectory, we can expect that by the time summer arrives, our critic will produce a column noting the signs of cultural decline in whatever fashions the kids are wearing these days.
DJ Nobody’s newest record was released last Friday. I downloaded it early that morning and took it with me on a 500-mile road trip. When I got home, I wrote to a music-loving friend and tipped her to listen to it. “Very nice, very sleepy,” she said. “How on earth did you stay awake while listening to this and driving?” True, it is a very mellow record, but nonetheless, it seems that any music that interests me acts as a stimulant on my brain. Even subdued, languid melodies can capture my attention and allow me to expatiate at length. I do most of my best thinking and writing while “high” on a new song. When I was probably three or four years old, my favorite song was Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia.” I remember hearing it one day in the car and demanding that my mom play it again, as she tried to explain to me that she couldn’t make a radio station do that. Apparently I was already well-acquainted with the magic of rewinding cassette tapes to hear songs again. Once digital music brought the “repeat” option into existence, we had reached the pinnacle of technological achievement as far as I was concerned. I’ve been known to spend hours entranced by a song, sometimes discovering, to my surprise, that I listened to it more than a hundred times in a row without tiring of it. I understand some people snort Ritalin or Adderall to achieve that type of intense concentration and absorption; I seem to only need the right combination of melody and rhythm.
Anyway, I’ve been a fan of DJ Nobody for over a decade now. How did I discover him? By going to Last.fm one day and doing a search for artists similar to the Chemical Brothers. His song “Spin the Bright Sun Rose” came up and I was instantly enthralled. His collaboration with Niki Randa on Blank Blue: Western Water Music Vol. II was, amazingly, even better. I’m not sure, beyond some superficial similarities, how much his music resembles that of the Chemical Brothers, but I’m still grateful to whichever algorithm pointed me in that direction. Why would my love of his albums be more “real” if I had first heard a song on the radio instead of a streaming service? What is more “authentic” about picking up an album because of the cover art, as opposed to a “similar artist” recommendation? What does it even mean to say that this artist is “like” that one? What Procrustean violence there is in that common word! How many Janus-faced ambiguities there are in trying to meaningfully compare one “similar” song with another! How reductive, how insulting to imagine that there could ever be an algorithmic padlock so perfectly designed as to imprison us in our solipsism forever! Like a children’s game of Telephone, even a search for simple terms like “psychedelic indie rock” or “big beat electronica” can produce some unexpected results. What kind of, dare I say, narcissist thinks that his generation was the last one with the interiority or the technological means to truly appreciate music?
Descartes infamously thought that animals, lacking souls, could not feel pain or emotion, and dismissed their whimpers and cries as equivalent to the sproings and clangs of faulty machinery (his student, Malebranche, put theory into action by kicking a pregnant dog as a demonstration). I feel pity for these modern Cartesians who coldly dissect mere “popular” music into its constituent parts, finding no “soul” among its studio wizardry and formulaic songcraft. Well, ’twas ever thus, Sturgeon’s Law. There have always been hack performers and unsophisticated groundlings. Devoted listeners, like devoted readers, have always been a tiny minority. Fortunately, despite the failings of both artists and audiences, there is still an unquantifiable space where the magic effect of music is produced by some strange alchemy. The sense of certainty in being a doomsayer is comforting in its own perverse way, I suppose, but I prefer to make the effort to keep my ears open and be ready for surprises.
The version of Cantique de Noël on this album may just be my favorite one yet (there’s a sample at the bottom of the page.)
I love listening to a variety of Christmas music, sacred and silly, choral and corny, but I think I can name three favorite carols. First, a lesser-known one from the King’s Singers:
“O Holy Night” may be my favorite traditional carol, but I really like Puddles the Clown’s version. I’ll never begrudge a man his gimmick, especially when he has such a magnificent voice:
And finally, this is a version of a folk song that I got on cassette a couple decades ago. I’ve never been able to find it online, so I finally just uploaded it myself:
As for albums, this year I’ve been enjoying this one from the Prague Philharmonic:
And Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops is a perennial favorite:
I read Jack Weatherford’s book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World some years ago and learned that, despite popular legend, Genghis was practically an Enlightenment liberal. (Weatherford has since written a couple more books on the same revisionist theme, though I haven’t read either.) Not being a scholar, my impression was that, while certainly interesting, it seemed too neatly counterintuitive — sort of like a book-length exposition of one of those “Everything you thought you knew about X is wrong!” articles you see all the time. But from what little I read of the critical reception, which seemed generally positive, it seemed there might have been substance to the thesis after all. If anyone took ferocious exception to Weatherford’s work, I’m unaware of it.
Anyway, now it appears that modern-day Mongolians, rather than wanting to sack and pillage Europe, just want to rock. I suppose this merging of cultures represents commodification of indigenous music, Coca-Cola colonialism, etc., but I do like the songs:
She retired from the music business nearly thirty years ago, with the wise words, ‘All rock-and-rollers over the age of 50 look stupid and should retire.’ In a later interview, she expanded on this theme: ‘You can do jazz, classical, blues, opera, country until you’re 150, but rap and rock and roll are really ways for young people to get their anger out … It’s silly to perform a song that has no relevance to the present or expresses feelings you no longer have.’ If only more ageing rock-and-rollers knew when to give up.
I’ve thought about this for many years now — is there such a thing as aging gracefully within the somewhat-limited confines of rock music? Is it possible to still use the same basic guitar-based template to express something more profound, more age-appropriate, than aggression, depression and sexual obsession?
It all depends, of course, on how we define rock (or, more broadly, pop) music. It’s not hard to think of instances where Grace Slick’s opinion is inarguable. I can think of many artists who have remained stuck in an image they cultivated as young men, even as it becomes pathetic to see them still playacting in middle- or old age. Certain genres, like Scandinavian extreme metal and gangsta rap, will always be the Lost Boys of Neverland, refusing to grow up or aim for any higher purpose beyond alienating parents and shocking the boorzhwazee. But rock ‘n’ roll contains multitudes; its family tree has countless branches. Was Morphine’s jazz-influenced minimalism adult enough to pass muster? Does Clutch sound creatively exhausted yet? Are TV on the Radio or Modest Mouse defined by a surplus of testosterone? Has there even been a Masters of Reality record that didn’t sound somehow both ageless and timeless? And how would we even classify Beats Antique? I could go on and on and on without doing justice to the diversity within mere “popular” music, so I think it’s rather obvious: an artform that has been around for sixty or seventy years has had no choice but to mature and evolve. Sometimes the critics, just as much as the enthusiasts, are guilty of refusing to allow it to age out of adolescence.
Besides, I take heart to think that even the British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, a man who is practically the embodiment of highbrow taste, a man who colorfully claimed that the electric guitar “owes much of its immense appeal to the obvious fact that it is strapped on and brandished like a livid dildo,” nonetheless professed an appreciation of Metallica, calling them “genuinely talented,” as well as “violently poetic and musical.” Well, then; if he can say that, then I can certainly continue to find something musically redeeming in Godflesh, Goldfrapp, Rob Crow and Joachim Witt.
This is a formula to kill artistic freedom – yes even by artists we may find deplorable, like R. Kelly or Kill, Baby, Kill. Every artist should take a step back at who Spotify is entrusting to carry out its new content policing.
Furthermore, modern artists should go to YouTube and dig up the footage of Frank Zappa and Dee Snyder testifying in front of Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center in 1985. If Spotify continues down this path, then artists need to realize they have the power to make Spotify suffer the same fate as the Tipper Gore group – an extinct laughingstock and stain on the history of free expression through music.
If you’re just joining us, we’re reading an article on Fox News’s website defending freedom of expression in…uh…popular music against new demands for censorship from…um…religious fundamentalists, a.k.a. rainbow-haired, pussyhat-wearing feminists, who are being supported, at least implicitly, by milquetoast liberals who see nothing wrong with organized pressure campaigns by moralistic zealots attempting to create obstacles between artists and willing audiences since only government can officially “censor” anyone. Well, the neo-Whigs who think that “It’s the current year!” counts as a persuasive argument will have fun making sense of this one, at least.
If there’s any reactionaries out there who can write a decent melody, the stage couldn’t be more perfectly set for you to position yourself as the newest phase in rock ‘n’ roll rebellion by giving this generation of church ladies the middle fingers and mockery they’re begging for. And best of all, they’ll give you all the free advertising you can handle. They won’t be able to help themselves.
If Schopenhauer had a religion in his youth, or at any time in his life, it was music. It was in music that he found intimations of a realm beyond the human world. The nature of things, he came to think, was ineffable. Language could not capture the reality that lay behind changing appearances. But what could not be spoken could still be sung or played.
— John Gray, Seven Types of Atheism
As Mark Sandman sang, “Music is like our prayer; it helps you reach somewhere.” Likewise, my faith is the substance of rhythms hoped for, the evidence of melodies not heard.