Author Archives: Matthew

The authoritative ranking of ABBA Gold

ABBA Gold is the apex of the compilation. It hails from a bygone era—the pre-streaming era—before all the hits and misses were in one place together by default. Once, collections like this were produced to satiate a legendary beast called the Casual Fan, who wanted access to the hits and didn’t want to be burdened with the deep cuts. 

This is what ABBA Gold was designed to be. But, oh, it is so much more. It is the definitive ABBA experience: the central canonical text. It is a piecemeal masterpiece; it is ABBA’s best release. It is one of a small handful of the greatest capital-P Pop albums ever contrived, and they are all contrived.

Granted, this is at least partly because ABBA were not an album band.* For example, the album that spawned two of the greatest pop singles of all time, “S.O.S.” and “Mamma Mia,” contains by my estimate: zero other tracks that are even good—let alone timeless. There are two kinds of album bands: those that are ruthlessly consistent (e.g. the Beatles) and those that are pleasantly weird even on their off days (e.g. Neil Young). ABBA are neither. You don’t want to listen to their bad songs. Don’t listen to “Rock Me.” Don’t do it. 

Don’t. 

The other reason ABBA Gold is a special case among compilations is even simpler: ubiquity. Since its minimal, black and gold art hit Walmart shelves in 1992, it has become the defining image associated with the band. In the quarter century since its release, ABBA Gold has entered into the public consciousness not as an afterthought, but as an ABBA album. The ABBA album. Notwithstanding the one that’s almost actually called that

So, while the Red and Blue albums and Decade remain treasured items in many record collections, they are fundamentally less essential than ABBA Gold. That’s not to say that it’s better than those albums. There are a handful of weak tracks on ABBA Gold that could stand to be replaced with more minor hits, or some of the stronger album cuts. 

But in the end, those weak tracks barely register. Nobody’s best songs are more satisfying, cathartic, and flawless than ABBA’s. This album’s top-tier tracks are hewn from marble. They are natural phenomena that ABBA merely discovered. Listen to any other ABBA album and you’ll note that they’re contemporaries of the Bee Gees. Listen to ABBA Gold, and you’ll realize that they’re peers of Mendelssohn and Ellington. 

To be clear: it is 2019. You can have as many or as few ABBA songs on your phone as you want. You can make your own ABBA compilation. You can let one of Apple’s expert curators or Spotify’s algorithm do it for you. Compilation albums are an obsolete format. But not this one. Because it’s ABBA Fucking Gold

Below is my detailed appraisal of this genuine monument to human brilliance, in the only format possible on the internet: a ranked list of songs. 

19: Does Your Mother Know

does_your_mother_know_28abba_single_-_cover_art29The biggest duffer on the disc by a mile. It’s almost a sure bet in the ABBA corpus that a male lead vocal indicates a bad song, and probably also a creepy one, c.f. “Man in the Middle.” I don’t like songs about adult men pursuing underage women *John Mulaney voice* AND YOU MAY QUOTE ME ON THAT. To be fair, that’s less true of “Does Your Mother Know” than “Man in the Middle.” The narrator in this one has some scruples, but he’s still a condescending jackass. 

If we must have a song about a troublesome, unexamined power dynamic between an older man and a younger woman, couldn’t it at least be “When I Kissed the Teacher?” That one’s got better hooks.

18: Thank You for the Music

r-1281000-1206061520.jpegA music hall number, but the treacly, sentimental kind rather than the fun ironic kind. I hear you ask: how can you be complaining about sentimentality… in an ABBA song??? It’s a valid point. 

Here’s the thing. I think there is a time for sentimentality, but that time is when you are indulging yourself in misery and despair. “Thank You for the Music” is hardly the only sentimental song on this list, but the good ones are despondent love dirges. Those of us with a tendency to wallow in self-pity might see ourselves reflected in songs like “The Winner Takes it All.” Their sentimentality is the point: they exist in a world absent of rationality, like we all do sometimes. 

But anybody who sees themselves reflected in the trite platitudes of “Thank You for the Music” must be an empty, grinning skin balloon. If you’re going to compose a panegyric to the power of music, at least have the courtesy to couch it in mythic language. At least have the courtesy to write the Hymn to St. Cecilia

17: I Have a Dream

i_have_a_dreamCharitably, you could read it as a song in the tradition of “Whistle While You Work” or “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” in which the singer is trying as hard as they can to ignore something unpleasant. But “I Have a Dream” doesn’t offer any specifics about what the unpleasant thing is. Moreover, the cheery music makes it seem like the singer’s strategy is actually working. Where’s the tension in that? 

 

 

16: Chiquitita

chiquitita_lovelightPresumably it made a ton of money for UNICEF. But it’s basically “Blackbird” with a less memorable melody and the panpipes from “El Condor Pasa” grafted on. It is the song on ABBA Gold about which I have essentially no opinion. 

 

 

 

 

15: The Name of the Game

abba_-_the_name_of_the_gameIt’s weird to me that the compilers of this album shunted so much of the weaker material onto side four. If not for the promise of “Waterloo” to finish, you might be inclined to switch off at the three-quarter mark. I often do. 

“The Name of the Game” has some nice harmonies in the chorus, but it bides its time in the verses. Plus, it is a dreadful illustration of what I call “the ABBA problem.” The ABBA problem is the fact that sometimes ABBA’s lyrics take on a disturbing new dimension when you consider that they are written by two men, for their wives to sing. (See: “I’m a Marionette” for the most distressing example.) Lines like “I think I can see in your face there’s a lot you can teach me” and “I’m a bashful child, beginning to grow” are deeply icky when you think of Benny or Björn being like “yes, I would like to hear my wife sing that.” Ugh. 

14: One of Us

abba_-_one_of_usABBA excelled at writing songs for those of us who do not experience emotional numbness, but rather a surfeit of negative emotion. This song is right in their comfort zone, which is horrible anguish painted in broad strokes of luminous colour. So basically—adolescent anguish. There are subtle gradations of maturity in ABBA’s heartbreak songs—songs of innocence and songs of experience. This one’s the former. And that’s fine. We should all be willing to admit that pop music is actually for kids.

“One of Us” is an outlier on ABBA’s weatherbeaten final LP. Nestled among paranoid Soviet disco and divorce anthems, this one’s a teen movie reenactment, where a young woman cries in bed “feeling stupid, feeling small.” Its power comes from the fact that most of us are only one bad experience and a few drinks away from being our teenage selves again. 

13: Fernando

abba_-_fernandoABBA’s storytelling side isn’t well represented on ABBA Gold. And fair enough—they do usually traffic in relatable generalities, like most pop bands. But occasionally, a Johnny Cash/Bruce Springsteen/Kate Bush impulse surfaces and they get into character. It happens in their mini-musical The Girl With the Golden Hair. It happens in “The Visitors.” (If there’s one track that’s not on ABBA Gold that should be, it’s “The Visitors.”) And most profitably, it happens in “Fernando”: a tale of two comrades-in-arms. 

It’s a slow burn to that magnificent chorus, but along the way, we get a pair of glorious, serpentine verses, packing in extra lines and syllables so gracefully that you never notice how weirdly shaped the musical phrases are unless you go looking. When the third verse comes around, you realize why these two soldiers are singing so wistfully about such a frightening experience: they’re old and grey, and this story has receded into a sepia-toned fantasy for them. 

“Fernando” is a barely imperfect pop hit. The arrangement lets it down (there’s that pan flute again), and a couple lines don’t stick the landing (“the roar of guns and cannons almost made me cry”). But the chorus is iconic, the story connects, and hey—it’s the ABBA song that forced Brian Eno to admit he was a fan, so there must be something to it. 

I suspect this might be the one people yell at me for not placing higher. But honestly, it’s nothing but bangers from here on out. “Fernando” is the shit. Here are twelve songs that are even better.

12: Waterloo

abba-waterloo-singleABBA songs generally sound either dated or timeless. There isn’t really a lot of middle ground—you’re either rolling your eyes at the audio equivalent of dancing lamé, or you’re marvelling at how these songs could still be hits today. They are either painfully “70s/80s,” or they are ethereally detached from time.  

Odd then, that ABBA’s breakout hit is a throwback to about 1963. Its infectious groove is what music school kids call a “shuffle feel”: a galloping “dut… duh dut… duh dut” that permeates the early Beatles records like a whiff of mothballs and dissipates gradually after Revolver. It’s a strange fish for 1974. It’s a strange fish on ABBA Gold

“Waterloo” presages the sensation of listening to later ABBA hits: on the surface, it’s a blast of pure musical euphoria. But pick at that surface for a couple minutes and it reveals something… off. The English is stilted. That shuffle beat is a decade out of phase. And the premise is flat-out obtuse. I highly doubt that any person in the world has ever realized they were falling in love and immediately jumped to the battle of Waterloo as an apt metaphor. 

None of this matters, of course. “Waterloo” is a rave-up of grand proportions. It’s the song where ABBA found their core identity: completely human and a little bit alien at the same time. 

11: S.O.S.

sos_-_man_in_the_middleIt’s all about those synth arpeggios. They’re more than a cool effect—they hold the song together. This is one of ABBA’s secret weapons: a seamless transition from one part of a song to another. 

The arpeggios are doing more work than simply changing the key. (“S.O.S.” uses the classic structure of verses in a minor key, chorus in major. It’s a key change we’re used to hearing. There’s no need for any clever business to mask it.) They’re changing the whole mood of the song. It’s pretty desolate at the start, but the chorus is a banger. You need some kinetic energy to get from one to the other without it feeling like a smash cut. Those arpeggios are an efficient, elegant way to do it. They hold a song together that might otherwise feel like two separate, excellent but incompatible songs. 

I’m not convinced that either section of “S.O.S.” measures up to all the later hits. But the ingenuity of its construction makes it better than the sum of its parts. 

10: Voulez-Vous

voulezvousQuick! What’s your favourite ABBA riff? This is a question you have probably never been asked. (If so, was it me who asked you? Doesn’t count.) 

Killer Riffs are the province of a different kind of band from ABBA. The farther you get from Delta blues, and the closer to Tin Pan Alley, the less likely you are to write a Killer Riff. This is one of the few ways in which the Rolling Stones outpace the Beatles. ABBA falls squarely in the Tin Pan Alley camp. And yet, here on “Voulez-Vous,” we undeniably have a Killer Riff. Most of ABBA’s attempts at disco sound faintly awkward, but the rapid-fire 21-note riff that launches “Voulez-Vous” provides so much momentum that it almost doesn’t matter what comes after. 

And what comes after is pretty great, anyway: the horns and “a-has” in the chorus, the rising drama of “and here we go again, we know the start, we know the end,” the juxtaposition of the French title with the colloquial “ain’t.” It’s an uncomplicated delight. 

9: Money, Money Money

money_money_moneySpeaking of Tin Pan Alley, here’s a straight up showtune. To my ears, “Money, Money, Money” has one of ABBA’s two or three best arrangements—certainly the most elaborate one on this collection. The song itself is a rueful drama with a fabulous, vampy vocal from a careworn Frida Lyngstad. But it’s the piano and mallet percussion that brings it to life. The restlessly repeating honky-tonk pattern at the start of the verse underscores the anxiety in the lyric. The plunk-plunk-plunk piano line before the chorus, which switches the emphasis pattern halfway through, makes it sound like ABBA called up Irving Berlin for a co-write. 

(Note: I’d originally written there that ABBA “exhumed” Irving Berlin for a co-write, but he was in fact alive at the time and 88 years old. He died in 1989 at 101. Irving Berlin outlived ABBA by seven years.)

8: The Winner Takes it All

abba_-_the_winner_takes_it_all-elaineMisery. Destitution. Dolor. Regret. Classic ABBA. 

“Inside every cynical person is a disappointed idealist,” George Carlin used to say. Swap out “idealist” for “romantic,” and you’ve got “The Winner Takes it All.” This narrator expresses herself with surging melodies and rising drama—the language of a romantic. But the sentiment she’s expressing is boilerplate cynicism. Love is a game, she’s learned. This is a heartbreak ballad sung by a person who’s either never heard a heartbreak ballad before, or who’s never had any reason to trust them. It is a loss of innocence made manifest as music. 

It builds and builds, expanding outwards from a lonesome soul at the piano to a whole disco universe consisting solely of one woman’s pain. A sadder and a wiser woman she’ll rise the morrow morn and pretty soon she might even give up on lines like “the gods may throw a dice, their minds as cold as ice.” 

“The Winner Takes it All” is too much, stated too bluntly. No matter; it’ll still break your heart after a couple drinks. 

7: Knowing Me, Knowing You

knowing_me_knowing_youIt might be the ABBA song where the pieces fit together the best. And there are a lot of pieces. Six chirpy chords off the top evaporate into a dramatic, torchy minor key verse. The chorus starts with a title drop and chunky guitar chords. Seconds later, we’ve gotten to “breaking up is never easy,” and the song’s finally made it to its major key home. (Like Schubert, ABBA gets sadder when they’re in a major key.) The chorus gives way to the riff half a measure before you expect it to. A pair of electric guitars wails at each other while one of them dies of consumption, and we’re back into the verse.

Although it comes from four years earlier, “Knowing Me, Knowing You” is as much a song of experience as “One of Us” is a song of innocence. It’s there in the title, twice—the disappointment explicitly comes from the condition of knowing. It is the tragedy of inevitability in retrospect.

That whispering in the second verse is ridiculous, though. 

6: Lay All Your Love On Me

r-333553-1420933322-5058.jpegAnxiety disco in a gothic cathedral. Imagine those opening synth chords played on a gigantic church organ. “Lay All Your Love On Me” is a perversely liturgical-sounding song. It is borderline blasphemous; daemonic.

But who is the demon? Is it the potentially philandering lover the narrator is singing about? Is she truly paranoid, or is our narrator a victim of gaslighting? Or maybe the narrator is the demon. Maybe she’s Kathy Bates in Misery, winding up to preemptively break some ankles. 

Either way, this song is pure evil

5: Super Trouper

super_trouper_-_single_coverThe first few times I listened to “Super Trouper,” I thought it was about the transformative power of performance—how the thankless grind of touring evaporates into ecstasy when the narrator goes onstage. I was hearing what I wanted to hear. Those of us who are not pop stars would like to think it’s a rewarding life; that the artists we choose as vessels for our own dreams are in fact “living the dream.” 

But “Super Trouper” tells the opposite story: that performance has become meaningless to the performer. No line in ABBA rings quite as hollow as when the narrator refers to her audience as “twenty thousand of [her] friends.” Still, it’s one of ABBA’s most affirming songs, specifically because it emphasizes how civilian life offers deeper rewards than stardom. It isn’t the stage lights that dispel the darkness for the singer, it’s the comparatively mundane experience of a functional human relationship.

Mind you—for ABBA, functional relationships proved to be more difficult than topping the charts.

4: Dancing Queen

abba_-_dancing_queenI am not the first person to hear a hint of melancholy in “Dancing Queen.” I could explain it with junk music theory. (“It’s done with suspensions… it’s about the way chords resolve…”) But the melancholy of “Dancing Queen” is really a matter of perspective. 

You are the dancing queen,” the lyric goes. An incurable optimist might hear this as an inclusive statement, bringing the listener into the show. (“You are the dancing queen! And you are the dancing queen! And you are the dancing queen! EVERYBODY IS THE DANCING QUEEN!!!”) But we’re not used to hearing pop songs sung in the second person—most of the time, we’re only explicitly involved in a pop song when the singer is entreating us to do something in the imperative: “Shake it up baby, now/twist and shout.” 

So, when we hear “you” in “Dancing Queen,” instead of assuming that we are the protagonist of the song, we infer the presence of a narrator, talking to a specific person. And if there’s a narrator, with an inner life all of their own, there’s an unspoken line after the title drop: “You are the dancing queen… and I am not.” 

Sure, it’s got a chorus like a box of neon crayons. But “Dancing Queen” is sung from the darkest corner of a brightly-lit room. 

3: Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)

gimme_gimme_gimmeABBA’s disco apotheosis. Leave it to them to write a song designed for dancing, which also explicitly points out the dark side of why people go out at night. It’s the same reason Springsteen pulled up in front of Mary’s porch, entreating her to come along for a joyride: “I just can’t face myself alone again.” It’s not just about love, or even sex. It’s about the tragedy that we are genetically predisposed to fear loneliness, but we are not universally adapted to avoid it. It’s about how hard we have work to escape the pull of the abyss.

The chorus is iconic, but as with so many ABBA songs (“Super Trouper,” “S.O.S.”) the crystallizing moment comes immediately before the chorus. When Fältskog sings “no one to hear my prayer,” drawing out the last word for two measures, she hangs on the seventh of the chord far past the point when you expect it to resolve upwards. She holds the song in an extended moment of almost. Her prayer never reaches its destination. The crowd dances on as all her efforts come to nothing. 

2: Take a Chance On Me

take_a_chance_on_me_28abba_single29_coverartI could go on forever about how every great ABBA song is a dark psychodrama dressed up in pastel colours. But really, everybody already knows that. The real reason ABBA songs are so good is that their hooks are a hit of pure dopamine, even when melancholy does register. 

“Take a Chance On Me” is on one level a fairly pathetic song about a person so besotted that they’ll passively wait in line for a relationship that will probably never happen. But the groove of the “Take a chance, take a chance, take a take a chance chance” backing vocals is so undeniable that you can’t help but feel it might work out after all. The arrangement is packed full of audio bonbons like the pulsing synths on “It’s magic” and the incongruous country guitar lick after “I can’t let go, ‘cause I love you so.” It’s fun. It’s just fun

The most telling moments in the song are the choruses where Fältskog and Lyngstad sing “bah bah bah bah BAH” over the first couple lines, in spite of the fact that there are perfectly serviceable lyrics available for that bit of the chorus. You can hear them right at the start of the song. Those nonsense syllables aren’t filling space. They just feel right. That one moment, maybe more than any other, demonstrates why ABBA are the best pop group ever. 

1: Mamma Mia

mamma_mia_intermezzo_no_1There are more cathartic ABBA songs than “Mamma Mia.” There are more expressive and sincere ABBA songs too, that reflect listeners back at themselves more uncannily. But, look. If that’s all that ABBA songs were, they wouldn’t stand up to the kind of compulsive repeat listening that they do. The real reason that ABBA is a great band has nothing to do with their ability to articulate specific human emotions. Hundreds of bands can do that. What makes ABBA special is that they write music that feels like it’s always existed. I can’t explain it any better than that. The first time you hear a great ABBA song, it’s like becoming aware of a natural condition of the human mind that you hadn’t previously noticed, but which was always there. “Earworm” doesn’t begin to describe it. An ABBA song can become a part of you. That’s never been truer than in the case of “Mamma Mia,” because “Mamma Mia” is almost elementally simple—it is built with the smallest possible building blocks.

Next time you listen to “Mamma Mia” (do it now), note how much of it is made up of sequences of two alternating notes. Tick TOCK tick TOCK tick TOCK tick TOCK in the intro. MAM-ma MI-a at the start of the chorus. Almost everything the xylophone does fits that pattern. It’s an unsettling pattern—low-level anxiety rendered in music. Take the opening. Each of the first seven notes is either a statement or a question. “This. What? This. What? This. What? This.” Then the harmony changes and the questions become even more insistent. “What!?! This. What!?! This. What!?! This. What!?! This.” No answer is ever final enough to prevent another question. This music is unstable on a granular level. It’s the musical equivalent of this guy, except he never regains his balance. That’s part of what makes “Mamma Mia” so addictive: it is based on maybe the simplest riff possible, but it’s a riff with narrative perpetual motion baked into it. It can never be certain, can never sit still. 

But of course, it’s not enough. We need a point of contrast. Enter the lead guitar, with a line that surges upward with all the decisiveness that the two-note riff lacks… and then slumps down again. Most of the melodies in the verses follow the same pattern: surging upward (“I’ve been cheated by you…”), and slumping back down (“…since I don’t know when”). 

So: we’ve got a restless two-note riff that cycles endlessly, and a contrasting melodic pattern that charges forward only to lose its nerve and double back. This, in a song about a woman who is caught in a destructive cycle with her significant other (“here we go again”), who decides to finally break that cycle (“so I’ve made up my mind it must come to an end”), only to realize that she can’t (“one more look and I forget everything”).

Beethoven, music history’s most celebrated Swiss watchmaker, once labelled two three-note fragments of a string quartet movement “Must it be?” and “It must be!” With two tiny phrases, distributed throughout a piece, he told a story. It’s a remarkable achievement, one that musicologists have been drooling over for centuries. ABBA did it too. All hail the three Bs: Beethoven, Benny and Björn. 

“Mamma Mia” is ABBA’s best song, a crowning achievement in popular music. It is music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all. You are “Mamma Mia” while “Mamma Mia” lasts.


*I believe the perfect ABBA record collection contains the following: ABBA Gold and The Visitors. The latter is their final LP, and it’s massively more consistent than the rest of their albums. It is also usefully underrepresented on ABBA Gold (only “One of Us” made the cut), so there’s not much in the way of redundancy. There are a handful of worthwhile deep cuts scattered across the other albums—especially Arrival—but nothing that compares with their top-tier hits. (Inconveniently, most of the good stuff from before The Visitors was also left off the hilariously titled collection More ABBA Gold, which is fairly tepid.) Tom Ewing has opined that “every ABBA song has something good about it.” I think that’s quite generous, but I take his point. When you listen to an original ABBA album that isn’t The Visitors, you constantly hear brilliant ideas that you wish were attached to better songs. 

Notes on Moby-Dick (still not finished): Part 4

LET US SET SAIL ONCE AGAIN UPON THESE LITERARY OCEANS. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t read any more of this book until I kept up with my note taking. I’ve caught up with myself now, so we should be able to speed onwards from here. Okay. *deep breath*

Chapter 33: The Specksynder

Having just finished his digression regarding the taxonomy of whales, Ishmael now moves on to… another digression. This one is about the role of the specksynder (or more properly, as Dr. Parker informs me, the “speksnijder”): the chief harpooneer of certain whaling cultures that stood in equal esteem to the captain of the ship. From here, Ishmael transitions into a musing on the ways that people acquire power, and how they wield it. Specifically, how Ahab wields it: without any unnecessary display of majesty or pomp, but with the occasional lapse into tyranny. (Just ask poor, abused Stubb, who just before all of these digressions was recovering from being kicked.)

But the really interesting thing, at least for somebody with my particular obsessions, lives in this chapter’s short final paragraph:

“But Ahab, my Captain, still moves before me in all his Nantucket grimness and shagginess; and in this episode touching Emperors and Kings, I must not conceal that I have only to do with a poor old whale-hunter like him; and, therefore, all outward majestical trappings and housings are denied me. Oh, Ahab! what shall be grand in thee, it must needs be plucked at from the skies, and dived for in the deep, and featured in the unbodied air!”

Here we have the closest thing we’ve had so far to Ishmael admitting he’s a bullshitter. In his many digressions, he touches on royalty. One might think he’d rather be writing a great royal drama in the vein of Shakespeare’s Henriad. But he (Ishmael, though possibly also Melville) is compelled to draw his story from his own experience, which doesn’t touch on emperors and kings. And so, to tell the story that he needs to tell, he must pluck Ahab’s grandness from the skies — from his own fathomless imagination.

How many of us have done the same? Surely, we all have a friend who comes alive in the stories we tell more vividly than they do in person? Just because a person doesn’t have the outward appearance of literary greatness doesn’t mean they can’t attain it when paired with an energetic storyteller.

jorge_luis_borges_28crop29

One of Melville’s biggest fans.

It never ceases to amaze me how concerned Melville is with whether or not his fictional narrator is telling a true story. Obviously, it’s not a true story. But the fact that it might not even be fully true for Ishmael is a huge part of what makes this such a rich book. I’m quite certain it’s what made Jorge Luis Borges so enamoured of it.

As a quick aside, the poem I’ve just linked there is a big part of why I decided to read Moby-Dick in the first place. Any book revered by Borges is likely to appeal to me as well. Having cracked into it, I must say I wish Borges hadn’t included his line about “the pleasure… of spying Ithaca.” He’s referring to Odysseus’s home, of course, and thus to the concept of home in general, especially the home you return to after a sea voyage. But as we’ve discussed previously: in Moby-Dick, home is death for the soul. I think Borges knew this perfectly well and just couldn’t resist a classical reference. Still, he redeems himself and then some when he describes Moby-Dick as “azul Proteo” — “blue Proteus.” Another Odyssey reference, this time to the ever-transforming water god. Quite so. If Proteus were a book, he’d be this one.

Chapter 34: The Cabin-Table

There’s a reason I’ve leapt right back into the question of Ishmael’s authenticity. And that’s because the perspective from which this book is told is about to shatter completely. That process begins here, with a chapter where Ishmael tells us in great detail about things that happened in a room where he wasn’t present. (Unless he’s a truly excellent spy, but I feel like he would have told us.)

I think I’ve heard somebody say at some point that Ishmael has a tendency to “disappear” — as if he narrates only some of the book and the bits of it that he couldn’t possibly know are written in a different authorial voice altogether. I don’t buy that for a second. This chapter is manifestly still told in Ishmael’s voice. Who else would make reference to Belshazzar and the German emperor’s seven imperial electors during a description of a simple dinner scene? Who else would remark, after Flask lacks the courage to help himself to butter at the silent, tense table: “Flask, alas! was a butterless man!” If he’s telling us about things he couldn’t possibly know, well fine. I guess he’s making them up. This, after all, is the same guy who won’t straightforwardly tell us what his name is. But it’s him, and make no mistake.

Also, I can’t say whether or not this description of what mealtimes are like among the officers of a whaling vessel is accurate. But I can attest to the notion that there’s a delicious authority that comes from hosting others at your dinner table. “Who has but once dined his friends, has tasted what it is to be Caesar.” I do love cooking.

Chapter 35: The Mast-Head

And now, A BRIEF HISTORY OF PEOPLE STANDING ON TALL THINGS. I’m not joking. At the start of this chapter, Ishmael is summoned for his first lookout shift on the masthead. And before telling us anything about what that experience was like for him, he decides to let us in on his research about WHO WERE THE FIRST PEOPLE TO STAND ON VERY TALL THINGS. It’s not the builders of the Tower of Babel, clearly, since that got blown over by God before it was finished. So it must be the Egyptian astrologers with their pyramids (again with the pyramids). Ishmael enumerates the various historical personages looking out over great modern cities from atop towers: Napoleon, Washington, Nelson.

pun dog

my primary asset as a critic is the breadth of my reference points

And just when you think that this indulgence is even more of Ishmael’s (or Melville’s) customary perversity — weaponizing the reader’s exasperation for comic effect — he brings it back around to the whaling vessel. According to Ishmael, the masthead aboard a ship is an evolution of mastheads that were once posted onshore at Nantucket and New Zealand, where a lookout would call to the manned boats in the harbour when a whale came near the shore. And these onshore mastheads surely are just evolutions of the same principle that led the Egyptians to build the pyramids. It all comes back to the pyramids.

This fucking book, sometimes, I swear to God.

Later, as he explains what it’s actually like on the masthead (uncomfortable), Ishmael makes a metaphor where a coat is your house, but then makes sure that we all know it’s just a metaphor and that a coat isn’t literally a house. “You cannot put a shelf or chest of drawers in your body, and no more can you make a convenient closet of your watch-coat.” So: you can, in a sense, bring your house with you to the masthead in the form of a coat — except that a coat is not a house, so you cannot actually bring your house with you to the masthead. Great, good to know.

It comes as no surprise at all when Ishmael reveals that he was a terrible lookout. He’s got far too much to think about to worry himself with something so mundane as doing his job.

I think this is one of my favourite chapters of Moby-Dick.

Chapter 36: The Quarter-Deck

In a lesser, saner novel, this would be chapter one. Our knights and squires are all assembled and at sea. The one-legged captain paces the deck, his brow as heavy as his gait. And at long last, he calls the crew around him to tell them why they are aboard this ship — to tell us why we are reading this novel. It took Ishmael sixteen chapters to invoke the name of Ahab. Here we are in chapter thirty-six, and only now does Ishmael allow a character to speak the dreaded name: Moby Dick.

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From Christophe Chabouté’s comic adaptation, which I’ll read someday. In English.

As it turns out, the aim of the Pequod, the particular whaling vessel that Ishmael was fated to be aboard by Queequeg’s god Yojo, is not in fact to harvest as much sperm whale oil as it can, but to secure a more abstract commodity: vengeance. As we already know, Ahab lost his leg to a whale on a previous voyage. We now learn that the whale responsible for his disfigurement was itself a disfigured brute: a gigantic albino sperm whale “with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw.”

Aside from finally telling us what every contemporary person who will ever read Moby-Dick already knows, this amazingly non-diversionary chapter also provides us with the first substantial bit of verbiage from Captain Ahab. His language reminds me of two vastly different literary figures. The more obvious (in fact, intentional) of these is Shakespeare. Like the great characters of Shakespearean tragedy — Hamlet, the Macbeths, Othello, Iago, Lear, etc. — Ahab is capable of expressing complex, abstract thought through inventive language. Ishmael’s even good enough to signal this particular reference point to us by including one of his increasingly frequent stage directions at the start of the chapter, and by allowing Ahab an (aside) direct to the reader in the middle of his speech to Starbuck, more on which momentarily.

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Worse things happen at sea…

The other literary figure I’m reminded of is H.P. Lovecraft. Stay with me here. Lovecraft wrote “The Call of Cthulhu,” his classic tale of pure evil manifesting as a sea monster, in 1926. Ahab’s got him beat by 73 years. But the similarity between Ahab’s description of Moby Dick and the entire milieu that’s come to be known as “Lovecraftian horror” is undeniable. In the previous chapter, Ishmael self-identified as a Platonist — a person primarily occupied with the world of ideas, rather than the physical realm. Here, Ahab joins the ranks of those who see past the world of the senses, but Platonist he is not. He is something more akin to a Gnostic.

For Ahab, the physical world around us is nothing more than a “pasteboard mask,” obscuring the true nature of the forces that lurk just beyond our perception. “Hark ye yet again the little lower layer,” he tells Starbuck. The white whale is no mere animal upon which Ahab desires revenge. It is his portal out of the Matrix. It is his red pill. (Let’s for a moment pretend that very useful phrase hasn’t been appropriated by shitheads.) It is the serpent of Eden, which some of the ancient Gnostics worshipped.

And it is also a vast and incomprehensible manifestation of the unknowable evil power that governs the universe. It is Cthulhu, three quarters of a century ahead of schedule.

This chapter also shows us the moment of Starbuck’s foretold “fall of valor.” He is the only person onboard who’s so level headed that his soul isn’t completely taken in by Ahab’s extraordinary rhetoric. And yet, when it comes to the moment he could express a counterpoint — perhaps establishing a quiet resistance among the crew — he demures. It’s Starbuck’s religion that leads him to condemn Ahab’s thirst for vengeance. But religion leads him all the same to the only rational conclusion voiced in this whole chapter: that the white whale is a dumb brute upon whom vengeance would be wasted.

But we’re in Ahab’s story now. He’s the only character aside from Ishmael who manifests as an intelligence in himself — clearly Ahab has taken up residence in Ishmael’s mind. And even if he’s making nearly all of this up, which he clearly is, this Ahab is as real to Ishmael as he is to himself, because this Ahab is a part of him. We are witnessing a story where the only tenable view of the white whale is that it is a manifestation of pure evil that must be wiped from the earth.

Starbuck never stood a chance.

Chapter 37: Sunset

The next three chapters are soliloquies by three characters who aren’t Ishmael. Some may suggest that this lends credence to the theory that Ishmael just vanishes from the novel sometimes, but we’ve already been through my thoughts on that bit of rubbish.

On the topic of Ahab having taken up residence in Ishmael’s mind, I think there’s a reading to be had of Moby-Dick that the whole thing is Ishmael’s attempt to exorcise the demon Ahab that haunts him. We’ve talked from the very start about the idea that Ishmael’s tendency to get distracted from the story for long periods of time exists because the story is traumatic. These are events that have been rattling about in his brain for who knows how many years (“never mind how long precisely”), perhaps having become sensational in the process. Certainly, he’s changed all the names, or we surely wouldn’t have had a prophet named Elijah. And Ishmael has acknowledged openly that Ahab is at least partially a construction.

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This is not Moby-Dick.

But I want to guard against a banal reading of Moby-Dick where the central question becomes simply whether anything that happens is real. Moby-Dick is not Life of Pi. For one thing, Ishmael’s Ahab is as grand and beguiling as he is terrible. And he’s clearly relishing the opportunity to put words in his mouth. (“I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it.”) And for another, some version of this story clearly happened to Ishmael. He wouldn’t be telling it to us in such astonishing detail if it hadn’t. So I’m going to put the question of what’s real and what’s fake aside for a while now, and just start looking at what’s actually happening in the words on the page. We’ll see how long that lasts.

Regarding this monologue by Ahab, I will only say that it’s well worth reading aloud. I’ve read most of Moby-Dick aloud at this point, and I can’t recommend it enough. As more characters begin to enter the narrative, reading aloud helps to note the extraordinary variety in their modes of expression. Where Ahab is concerned, it puts an even finer point on his debt to Shakespeare’s greatest characters. And it makes clear that Moby-Dick is one of the most theatrical novels ever written.

Robert McKee has written that the strength of theatre is in showing the ways that people communicate with each other, whereas the strength of novels is in painting intimate pictures of the lives people lead within their own minds. In that sense, Moby-Dick is almost a piece of theatre, because Ishmael is always talking to you — not himself. Moby-Dick is the world’s longest TED talk.

Ironically, it’s in these next few ostentatiously theatrical chapters that the book veers closest to that portrait of a mind’s interior that novels are supposedly so great at providing. But the theatrical tradition Ishmael/Melville’s riffing on is the Shakespearean soliloquy, which exists specifically to show what’s going on in a character’s head. So I suppose this isn’t anything particularly unexpected and I’ve basically just been spinning my wheels for two paragraphs. Moving on.

Chapter 38: Dusk

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This is Moby-Dick.

Oh, Starbuck. Your death is going to hurt the most.

Every character in this book is fun to spend time with, but Starbuck, severe old Quaker that he is, is possibly the only truly admirable person aboard the Pequod. And in his first appearance since his “fall of valor” at the quarter-deck, he is already berating himself for allowing Ahab to overwhelm him and put the crew’s lives and livelihoods in danger.

And, on the curiously recurring topic of “Moby-Dick making accidental forward reference to major horror franchises,” Starbuck also refers to the white whale as a “demogorgon.”

Chapter 39: First Night-Watch

We’ve had soliloquies from Ahab and Starbuck now, so let’s continue down the line and hear from Stubb. Always good to get inside Stubb’s head. He’s really smart in a very dumb way, like the drunk porter in Macbeth, except we get to hang out with him for more than one scene.

And like a great many Shakespearean fools, Stubb enjoys commenting on the fine line between comedy and tragedy. “Wise Stubb,” he calls himself, and while he isn’t exactly right about that, he’s not wrong about as much as you’d think. Certainly he has a sense that this entire enterprise will lead the whole crew to madness.

Interestingly, Dr. Parker’s notes inform me that the rhyme Stubb recites in this chapter was written by a friend of Melville’s, Charles Fenno Hoffman, who was interned in a madhouse when Melville was writing this. *shivers*

Chapter 40: Midnight, Forecastle

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Daggoo, as imagined by Rockwell Kent.

Now, because Flask isn’t worthy of a soliloquy, we get a chapter of dialogue from the harpooners and sailors. Maybe the most remarkable thing about this chapter, which is basically just drunken cavorting, is how plainly Melville is trying to portray the multiculturalism of the crew. The sailors who speak in this chapter come from scores of places both general and specific. We’ve got two black characters in Daggoo and Pip, a young boy who sweeps up. We’ve got Tashtego of the Wampanoag. We’ve got the expected handful of Nantucketers. But we’ve also got sailors from Denmark, France, Iceland, Malta, Sicily, Long Island, the Azores, China, the Isle of Man, India, Tahiti, Portugal, England, Spain, São Tiago and Belfast. This, perhaps, is the best argument we’ve seen thus far for Moby-Dick as “the great American novel.” There’s even a drunk racist dude to put the finest possible point on it.

Chapter 41: Moby Dick

One thing that will continue to drive me nuts throughout this book is the maddeningly inconsistent hyphenation of Moby Dick. In the title, it’s hyphenated. Throughout the book, it isn’t. EXCEPT for one time in chapter 133. (Thank you, Command-F.) It’s making me crazy. Anyway.

If anybody still has doubts about how utterly bonkers this book is, there is a moment in this chapter where Ishmael suggests that sperm whales can teleport. He’s not entirely convinced by this, but he won’t dismiss the possibility out of hand. And since Moby Dick himself is such a storied and borderline supernatural beast, Ishmael is more willing to ascribe him with special powers, like the ability to be in two places at once.

(Also, among Moby Dick’s deformities is a “pyramidical hump.” Pyramids everywhere.)

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Art from Mastodon’s Leviathan. Trust a metal band to nail the tone of this book.

Ishmael’s got two main orders of business in this chapter. One is similar to what he was up to way back in the chapter about the chapel, where he called attention to how many people die at sea. Similarly to that, this chapter is about the dangers of the sperm whale, and of Moby Dick in particular. Many thought it suicide to give chase to even an ordinary sperm whale, let alone a fantastical giant brute of one. Discursive as he is, Ishmael does know how to keep you reading.

His other order of business is to give us a more detailed rendering than we’ve seen before of the story of how Ahab lost his leg. This is at best second-hand storytelling, but it’s a rollicking good bit. After the white whale had “reaped away Ahab’s leg as a mower a blade of grass in the field,” Ahab was confined to his bed for weeks, laced into a strait-jacket to prevent him from lashing out with all the remarkable strength that was left in him. His madness came on thick and fast, and then apparently subsided. But, as Ishmael says in one of the book’s best lines so far: “Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form.”

Thusly maddened, Ahab sets to sea with the three mates most likely to see him to his purpose: the mediocre Flask, the reckless Stubb, and poor Starbuck, who almost but didn’t quite manage to conjure up the strength of character needed to protest.

More than ever, it feels as though the story’s about to get underway. Naturally, it isn’t.

To be continued.  

Notes on Moby-Dick (which one day I will finish): Part 3

LET’S REVIEW. Ishmael has set sail at last aboard the whaling vessel Pequod, captained by the mysterious Ahab, about whom much has been implied and little has been actually established.

Chapter 24: The Advocate

Having just delivered his most generous volley of actual story thus far, Ishmael now stops in his tracks to mount a defence of the whaling industry to anybody who may not approve. This is a difficult chapter to parse. On one hand, we have not known Ishmael to be an especially ironic person in the story so far. He’s a bit of a liar, certainly, but a sincere one. So, perhaps we ought to simply take him at his word that he sees whaling as an honourable profession.

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Not Ishmael.

On the other hand, one of the most compelling readings of Moby-Dick in this day and age — a reading that allows it to speak to our times rather eloquently — is the environmental reading. It’s easy to look at this novel as a story of humanity’s attempt to dominate its environment, with catastrophic consequences. There are those who believe Melville actually intended the story to be read this way. If that’s true, then we’re faced with the first serious case of Melville, our author, disagreeing with Ishmael, our narrator. Ishmael steps an inch closer to Lemuel Gulliver, a narrator that Jonathan Swift transparently thought was an idiot.

I’ve been tripping over myself to square these two scenarios, because I desperately want to read Moby-Dick as an environmental story, but I also adore Ishmael and I want him to be as smart and modern as the author who created him. Maybe it isn’t impossible to have it both ways.

Here’s something: the most outlandish claim that Ishmael makes in this chapter is that whaling helped to end colonialism in South America. He actually credits whaling with the emergence of “eternal democracy” in Peru, Chile and Bolivia. This is patently absurd, and Dr. Parker’s footnotes tell me that Melville was well aware of its absurdity. If we’re taking Ishmael at his word, this idiocy is the most Gulliver-esque that he ever gets.

But I can’t accept this. We’ve established that Ishmael is deeply traumatized and that the entire process of telling this story is, for him, a deep dive into the experiences that left him that way. And Ishmael himself also told us explicitly in the first chapter that he is “quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it.” Surely, having been through the traumatic episode of his voyage on the Pequod, Ishmael would be quick enough to perceive the horror in whaling. I think that in this chapter Ishmael is simply extending his customary social niceties to the grandest monster in his past: the entire edifice of the whaling industry. Certainly, this will enable us to more easily sympathize with the slew of experienced and enthusiastic whalers he’s about to introduce.

I like to think that Ishmael’s spirited defence of the whaling industry is more a debate club exercize than a sincere attempt to convey his opinion. If whaling was indeed Ishmael’s Harvard, as he claims, it taught him well. This is probably a fairly weak reading of this chapter on my part. I don’t expect anybody to be especially convinced by this. But I’m not in university anymore, and these days it’s more important to me to find a way to read books that makes me enjoy them the most. And this is the reading that achieves that. Take it or leave it.

Chapter 25: Postscript

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A person who does NOT smell like fish.

Here we have a tiny chapter that is such fake news it wasn’t even included in the original British printing. Ishmael continues his argument from the previous chapter by pointing out that every British monarch is consecrated with oil at their coronation — and alleges that the oil in question is sperm oil, doubtless lending the newly-crowned royals a none-too-pleasant aroma. I have determined this not to be true, though I would have appreciated some guidance from Dr. Parker on this point. WHERE ARE YOU WHEN I NEED YOU DR PARKER

Anyway, the oil used in coronations starting in the 17th century is a perfume that includes orange blossom, cinnamon and jasmine among other things. The one used to anoint Elizabeth II wasn’t far off from that same formula. And here’s Ishmael being all “the royals smell like sperm whales!!!” Pah.

Chapter 26: Knights and Squires

After 25 chapters of exposition and postulating, it is now time to meet our main characters! The next three chapters consist of tell-don’t-show character sketches of the six men we haven’t met yet who are crucial to the story to come. Either Ishmael or Melville is clearly aware of what a blunt instrument the character development in this novel is turning out to be — how else do you account for the description of Starbuck as “A staid, steadfast man, whose life for the most part was a telling pantomime of action, and not a tame chapter of sounds.” Faced with a man of few words and many actions, Ishmael is rendered completely baffled. Because, what do we have here but “a tame chapter of sounds” that entirely fails to elaborate on what “action” the “pantomime” of Starbuck’s “life” may have entailed?

I’m not implying that this chapter is bad, lest anybody misunderstand. It’s just unusually direct in the way that it straight up describes a character’s personality rather than allowing them to demonstrate it. The personality he paints for Starbuck is one that rings true to me. There were never any whalers in my family, to my knowledge, but there were plenty of fishermen. The most successful of them shared Starbuck’s unceasing conscientiousness and wariness of the sea. They had no patience for anybody with a cavalier attitude towards a dangerous job. They, too, knew “that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.”

I like this Starbuck. He’s severe and humourless, but he is the sort of person you ought to have on your team. Ishmael implies that this story will at some point bring about a “fall of valour” in Starbuck. Brace yourself.

Chapter 27: Knights and Squires

Here we have a chapter with the same title as the previous one. Sometimes I feel like Ishmael only breaks the chapters up because he gets a bit too excited and needs an excuse to get back down to business. At the end of chapter 26 he’s basically praying — a thing he’s apparently more willing to do as a storyteller than as a character in the story. What’s the easiest way to get from “bear me out in it, O God!” back to the mundanity of “Stubb was the second mate?” Chapter break.

Stubb, incidentally, is the second mate. He’s a man so unconcerned by the dangers in the world around him that he hums as he hunts sea monsters. Ishmael ascribes his cheerfulness to his constant habit of pipe smoking — a pipe containing only tobacco, we’re told. We’re treated to another of Ishmael’s dubious cosmic notions, which is that all the world’s air is polluted by the misery of every person who’s died here. Stubb’s pipe, we’re told, filters all that out. I think Ishmael’s just too polite to say that Stubb’s none too swift.

The third mate is Flask, and you’d think he’s the last person Starbuck would want to be working with. “I will have no man on my boat who is not afraid of a whale,” Starbuck said in the last chapter. Yet here’s just such a man. It’s Flask, more than Stubb, who strikes me as a liability aboard the Pequod. Stubb’s dumb, but he isn’t likely to pull anything too impetuous. I’m not sure I can say the same for this Flask fellow. We’ll see.

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How to set up a chessboard.

Finally, we meet the harpooneers. First up, there’s our beloved Queequeg. Next, there’s Tashtego: an indigenous harpooneer from Martha’s Vineyard. A bit of digging reveals that, whether Melville knew or cared, the indigenous people from the region Tashtego hails from are called the Wampanoag. One gets the sense from Ishmael’s description of him as the descendent of brilliant archers that he is in fact a good deal swifter than Stubb, who he serves as harpooneer. Finally, the diminutive Flask commands a harpooneer named Daggoo: an enormous black man that Ishmael describes in the same mutedly condescending tone as he does all people of colour. But as ever, his intentions are clearly better than most of his contemporaries’ would be. He makes a point of mentioning that in whaling, while officers are almost always American (he means white), the industry’s workforce is massively multicultural. This is the workforce he takes pains to glorify at every turn. Remember: this is the narrator who told us in his first chapter how “the commonalty lead their leaders,” and the one who told us only one chapter ago how brightly God’s dignity shines “in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike.”

Moby-Dick is, however inadequately, a multiculturalist novel. This is what Ishmael, and doubtless Melville, wants us to realize as he sets up his chessboard.

Chapter 28: Ahab

Ask anybody who knows the broad strokes of Moby-Dick to tell you the name of a character in it, and they’ll most likely come up with Ahab. This, in spite of the fact that this novel has one of the most famous first sentences in all of literature, and that sentence is “Call me Ishmael.” Adaptations of the novel have a tendency to shunt Ishmael to the side in favour of the one-legged captain of the Pequod. It’s not hard to see why that is — Ishmael’s a novelistic conceit: a massively multidimensional character who nonetheless has very little to do with the actual story. The story belongs to Ahab. And even Ishmael knows that this character is his ace in the hole.

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This is the cover of my beloved Norton Critical. But with all due respect to the artist Oleg Dobrovolskiy, this is how exactly NOBODY pictures Ahab.

Witness the difference between how he introduces Ahab and how he introduced his slew of inferiors in the last two chapters. He was willing enough to sum up Stubb, Flask, and even Starbuck in a few declarative sentences, the way an undergraduate might in an exam. But with Ahab, after teasing the reader with suggestions and premonitions and dropping his name with little context, like “Bad Wolf” in Doctor Who, Ishmael permits us to get to know the mysterious captain the way that any preternaturally observant sailor would: first by taking careful note of his absence, then with shock at his sudden presence, and gradually taking stock of the man from his appearance and ways of moving about the ship.

I’m not saying Ishmael’s offering us anything like an objective view of Ahab, even at this early stage. He is categorically unable to avoid imparting his own sense of things onto them when he describes them: “moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe.” When he writes like that about his tragic anti-hero, Ishmael all but ensures that he himself will be at best the second most memorable character in his own story. Poor guy.

Chapter 29: Enter Ahab; to him, Stubb

He speaks! If we are to believe Ishmael, which of course we should not, Ahab could be overheard mumbling to himself as he descended into his cabin, “It feels like going down into one’s tomb.” Unless I’m very mistaken, those are his first words in Moby-Dick. Even when he has urgent character development to attend to, Ishmael refuses to stop beating us about the head with portents of death.

Also worth noting: the title of this chapter is a stage direction. Ishmael will play with this a heck of a lot more in later chapters, but for now it’s just one more indication of how much he’s puppetmastering his story into a dramatic shape, rather than laying it out genuinely according to his memory. And indeed, this chapter finds Ishmael penning a soliloquy for the second mate, Stubb, who’s starting to feel something like a Shakespearean fool: a hapless, much abused dogsbody who stumbles upon nuggets of wisdom in his rambling speeches to nobody.

(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

King Lear and the Fool in the Storm by William Dyce. A cool thing about making blog posts is Googling random shit and finding dodgy old paintings.

After the episode that the chapter title alludes to, in which Stubb and Ahab interact for the first time and Ahab abuses Stubb with Shakespearean overzealousness (“I will not tamely be called a dog, sir,” says Stubb; “Then be called ten times a donkey, and a mule, and an ass, and begone, or I’ll clear the world of thee!” replies Ahab, measuredly) and possibly kicks him so hard he instantly forgets it happened, Ishmael quotes Stubb directly in a speech that goes on for a whole page, during which there is nobody else around. Note that one of the people who isn’t around is Ishmael himself, unless we conjecture that he is very good at inconspicuously listening to people talk to themselves and remembering it word for word. I think not.

My favourite bit of Stubb’s soliloquy is the bit where he entirely abandons all thought of Ahab and thinks instead about sleep:

“Here goes for a snooze. Damn me, it’s worth a fellow’s while to be born into the world, if only to fall right asleep. And now that I think of it, that’s about the first thing babies do, and that’s a sort of queer, too. Damn me, but all things are queer, come to think of ‘em. But that’s against my principles. Think not, is my eleventh commandment; and sleep when you can, is my twelfth — So here goes again.”

Love it.

Chapter 30: The Pipe

If Ahab and Stubb ever had anything in common, it would have been their mutual love of pipe tobacco. And as if to drive home the fact that the regal, revenge-maddened Ahab has nothing at all in common with the foolish and carefree Stubb, Ishmael devotes an entire sublime little chapter to the act of Ahab throwing his pipe overboard: “What business have I with this pipe? This thing that is meant for sereneness, to send up mild white vapors among mild white hairs, not among torn iron-grey locks like mine. I’ll smoke no more.”

Chapter 31: Queen Mab

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“Gotta find the queen of all my dreams…”

Mab, of course, being the queen of dreams, most famous for being in the best bit of Romeo and Juliet. And here we have more prime Stubbiana, though this time Ishmael actually gives him an audience for his ramblings: the thoroughly disinterested third mate Flask. Stubb, preoccupied by the kick that may or may not have happened the previous night, has had a weird dream that he’d be best advised to keep to himself, but naturally he can’t.

In Stubb’s dream, Ahab is kicking him and Stubb attempts to kick back, only for Ahab to suddenly turn into a pyramid. Pyramids are, of course, the subject of many a whack-a-doo conspiracy theory. They are ancient, mysterious and inscrutable. Possibly extraterrestrial. Much like whales, if you subscribe to that sort of thing. And like Ahab lost his leg at battle with the white whale, in his dream, Stubb’s leg pops off as he attempts to kick the pyramid. Here we have Stubb manifesting not so much as a Shakespearean fool, but a holy fool — the kind of hapless idiot that superstitious villages would defer to because they had visions of the truth in their madness. Unbeknownst to him, Stubb has dreamed a reenactment of how Ahab lost his leg — except in this version, Ahab himself has become the monster. *OOOOOOOOOOOO*

Stubb finishes recounting his dream just as Ahab calls out for the crew to keep an eye out for white whales. And Stubb once again demonstrates that though his wits may be dim, his intuition is second to none: “A white whale — did ya mark that, man? Look ye — there’s something special in the wind. Stand by for it, Flask. Ahab has that that’s bloody on his mind. But, mum; he comes this way.”

Aaaaaaannnnd CLIFFHANGER.

Chapter 32: Cetology

At last we’ve made it to the most infamous chapter in Moby-Dick. Just as we’ve started getting to know our ostensible protagonist and his retinue of old salts, Ishmael once again draws the story to a screeching halt to enumerate and categorize the different kinds of whales.

It’s these bits of Melville’s novel that might compel a contemporary reader to label it “bloated” or “indisciplined.” Which is probably right. But like I said at the beginning of these notes, I wasn’t at all interested in reading Moby-Dick when I was under the impression that it was primarily a seafaring adventure story — the sort of story it’s made into in the adaptations that prioritize Ahab over Ishmael. It wasn’t until I cracked it open to “Loomings” and met our maddeningly discursive narrator that the book called out to me. Adam Gopnik put it better than I possibly could in a New Yorker piece about an abridged version of the novel in 2007:

“When you come to the end of the compact Moby-Dick you don’t think, What a betrayal; you think, nice job — what were the missing bits again? And when you go back to find them you remember why the book isn’t just a thrilling adventure with unforgettable characters but a great book. The subtraction does not turn good work into hackwork; it turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound, sane book. It still has its phallic reach and point, but lacks its flaccid, anxious self-consciousness: it is all Dick and no Moby.”

Hear, hear.

In light of all this, you’ll be unsurprised to know that “Cetology” is my third-favourite chapter of Moby-Dick thus far (I’m still only like halfway through this thing, god help me), next to “Loomings” and “The Lee Shore.” And how could it not be? This is the chapter in which the most bookish man to ever sail the seven seas categorizes the whales using terminology taken from bookbinding.

This choice on Ishmael’s part is not arbitrary. He is intentionally thumbing his nose to science. As far as Ishmael is concerned, a whale is not a mammal; it is a giant fish. Because of course it is. Just look at it. Read the story of Jonah, or any of the sources that Moby-Dick’s eighty epigraphs came from, and you’re sure to find it referred to as such. Reason may have it that a whale is not a fish, but the popular imagination says otherwise, and Ishmael finds that far more important.

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Duodecimo is even littler.

And so, we have whales categorized in “books.” The big ones are “folio whales,” named for the largest size of book, the middle-sized ones are “octavo whales,” named for one of the middle sizes, and porpoises are classed as “duodecimo whales,” after one of the smaller sizes of books. Ishmael guides us through several examples of each, pausing to offer folksy sailor’s wisdom on many of them. He also, amusingly, offers a list of probably fictional whales that includes the blue whale, which was thought to be either extinct or altogether legendary when Moby-Dick was written.

But the real reason to love this chapter comes at the end of it, when all the taxonomy is done and dusted. Ishmael takes pains to inform us that his system of categorizing the whales is incomplete and inadequate, and hopes for some enterprising soul to make amendments to it someday. It isn’t so much that Ishmael couldn’t be bothered to finish his Whaleipedia himself: it’s that he’s built his entire aesthetic around incompleteness. That’s what he was getting at back in “The Lee Shore,” when he wrote that “in landlessness alone resides the highest truth,” landlessness being the state you’re in on an unfinished voyage. It also ties in with Ishmael’s perpetual unwillingness to just get on with the story the way that Gopnik’s abridgers would have him do. That would be anathema to him, because the end of the story is death. All of these sorts of things — endings, destinations, homecomings, logical conclusions and states of certainty — are anathema to Ishmael. Home is death for the soul. Better to die at sea than live on land, as Milton might phrase it.

Ishmael savours the journey and rues the destination. Very soon we’ll learn that Ahab is the other way around. The white whale must die. Everything that happens between now and that teleological endpoint is a mere inconvenience.

“God keep me from ever completing anything,” Ishmael proclaims in an aphorism that defines him and this novel better than maybe any other single sentence. Maybe it defines me, too. How many things have I left unfinished? How many times have I pulled the brakes on a train of thought before arriving at a troubling certainty? And how long will it take me to finish this book? Perhaps I, too, prefer to remain adrift in the uncertain seas of exploration, frightened at the prospect of arriving anywhere?

We’ll soon find out.

To be continued.

The Final Omnibus

“As we all know, there is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition.” — Jorge Luis Borges

Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having no steady job, and nothing particular to interest me in empirical reality, I thought I would begin writing reviews of everything I watched, read and listened to. It is a decision I have lived by relentlessly ever since.

Now it’s time to stop.

To the dozen or so of you who constitute my core audience, thank you. And don’t fret — there will be plenty more nonsense for you to read here on matthewjrparsons.com in the future. But the exhaustive reviewing project that’s currently called Omnibus (still known to its friends primarily as Omnireviewer) is over, as of this post.

But as longtime readers will attest, if Omnibus is to vanish it is only appropriate that it should vanish up its own ass. And so, I present the last missive of the Omnireviewer. Strap in. In all my years of blogging I have never been as self-indulgent as this.

One review.

Literature, etc.

Matthew Parsons: Omnireviewer/Omnibus — Some things are so self-explanatory that you can review them just by describing what they are. “A prog rock album with only one 44-minute long song,” for example. Or, “a graphic novel that intertwines a gay coming-of-age memoir with a character study of the author’s father by way of the literature that fascinates them both.” Some readers will look at these descriptions and say “yes, please,” and others are philistines. Regardless, the point is that these particular works are so obviously the thing that they are, which nothing else is, that to say more would be almost superfluous. Surely there has never been a clearer example of this than the present one: “A blogger writes reviews of everything he watches, reads, and listens to for nearly three years.” You’re no philistine if that premise makes you run for the hills. But even if it doesn’t, if you’ve spent any amount of time at all on the internet — better still, any amount of time at all around me — you know precisely what you are getting into. To say more would be pointless. STILL, I PERSIST.

Before we go any further, let’s dispense with the no-paragraph-breaks schtick. That’s a policy I instituted early on to prevent myself from writing too much. It never really worked.

So. Was Omnireviewer any good? No, not really. I believe it’s the home of some of my worst writing, in terms of the actual quality and readability of the prose. But assessing the quality of things was never quite the point of the enterprise, nor should it necessarily be the point of reviewing in general — except in cases so superlatively brilliant or awful that there’s little else to say. Generally, I prefer a more rhapsodic approach — drawing connections, parsing out meaning, converting subtext to text. And if in my explorations I should happen to touch on the success of a given thing, fine. Quality vs. success is a subtle but useful distinction. To me, the former implies that there’s an objective standard to which everything can be held. And while I do half-heartedly believe that, I don’t trust myself to be the arbiter of such things. Neither does anybody else.

But success is different. Success, to paraphrase the great British avant-gardist Cornelius Cardew, exists in relation to goals. To determine the success of a venture, you need to know something of the intention of the venturer.

So, if we’re going to establish whether Omnireviewer has been a success, we need to explore why I started writing it in the first place.

***

Of all the various magical accoutrements in the Harry Potter books, my favourite one as a kid was the Pensieve — Albus Dumbledore’s magical basin full of thoughts. “One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure,” Dumbledore explains in my nostalgic fave, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. “It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.” I have often described Omnireviewer as my Pensieve: the technique I use to evacuate my brain of all the swirling observations and analyses of trifling pop culture matters that threaten to crowd out what’s actually important. It’s an easily avoidable place where those observations and analyses can live permanently, so I don’t feel compelled to annoy my friends with them in bars. At least, not when they don’t ask me to.

All of this is true, and it is a large reason why I’ve continued to write Omnireviewer for nearly three years. But it isn’t the whole story. And the Pensieve isn’t the only valid pop culture analogue for this weird project. For a more honest one, we’ll have to look back a whole generation to another totemic childhood text:

Lucy_Blanket

Omnireviewer entered the world on November 1, 2015, but the context for it dates back more than a year prior to that. The circumstances that enabled this blog emerged in the summer of 2014. That summer, two extremely ordinary things happened. Firstly, I finished grad school, marking the end of twenty consecutive cycles of school/summer/school/summer etc. Suddenly, I was all too aware that my life was now FREE JAZZ — structure be damned. Exacerbating this anxiety was the small matter that I had graduated with a masters degree in journalism, and the universe was laughing at me. ONE SINGLE DAY after I turned in my thesis — in the form of a radio documentary — the Canadian Broadcasting Company cut 600 jobs. “Screw you, Parsons,” said the universe, “and everybody who shares your ludicrous ideas about how to make a living.” Just as all this was going on, a relationship I’d been in for seven years came to an end as well. Like every breakup, it seems inevitable in retrospect. But at the time it seemed impossible.

Unemployment; breakup. I bring up these two extremely ordinary things only because they are the first two misfortunes in my life that I couldn’t just smile my way through. I’m not sure why. Unemployment and a breakup are empirically no worse than things I’d been through previously. Maybe there just comes a time in a person’s life when the emotional warp drive has to give out and you’ve got to rely on just a regular engine. I dunno. But prior to 2014, I always prided myself on my ability to be happy in spite of things. Losing that was like falling out of the sky.

What helped me was work. In the uncomfortable grey zone between graduation and the start of my first contract, some friends of mine tried to start a magazine. They brought me into the fold as a writer, and even though it wasn’t really my project, I contributed as much writing to its embryonic form as anybody. What else was I going to do with my time? The magazine never properly launched. But if nothing else, it kept me from going off the deep end during the worst few weeks of my life.

And since the experience of writing for that vapourizing magazine was such a lifesaver, I proceeded to try that method ONE HUNDRED MORE TIMES. Even when my work situation started to pick up, I had to be constantly doing things to distract myself from the swirly void. A friend proposed an epistolary project where we assigned each other albums to listen to. I eagerly accepted. I took up cooking with the vigor of Hannibal Lecter. I started running. At work, I built a huge interactive story about dead composers, cheerfully spending twice as many hours on it as I got paid for. (It has since vanished into the digital wastes, mourned by no one, least of all me.)

Over the next three years, I would start, and swiftly abandon, a history of progressive rock. I would write 20,000 words about Jethro Tull in a single week. I would put together, and never submit, a book proposal. I would take a class about writing for comics. I would begin and struggle to complete a set of annotations for Moby-Dick. I would make two comedy podcasts with one of the guys who started the vapourizing magazine. I would make podcasts on my own, which reside on my hard drive to this day, waiting for their moment.

Yeah, I’ve been busy.

But as of November, 2015, I was not busy enough. So I filled my time the way we all do. I watched TV. I went to movies. And since I’m me, I also read voraciously, listened attentively to my favourite records dozens of times in a row, and listened to 30 or 40 podcast episodes per week. And the more time I spent on that, the more aware I had to become of how little time I was spending in gainful employment or meaningful social exchange. So I made up a game to put it out of my mind. The game was Omnireviewer. Every Sunday since then, I have released a report on the game, with the week’s score tallied up at the top of the post. 17 reviews. 23 reviews. 35 reviews. Here was a game I could win.

linus

***

Since keeping score was always such a big part of what this blog has been about, let’s look at some final statistics:

Total instalments of Omnireviewer/Omnibus: 143

Total reviews: 2,822
Average reviews per week: 20
Largest number of reviews in a single week: 38

Total words: 441,637
Average words per week: 3,088
Highest word count in a single week: 8,493

A few notes on these numbers:

  • Bear in mind that I sometimes clumped together whole seasons of television in one review. A large number of the reviews I have written on this blog have been for more than one episode of a show or podcast. So, as impressive as the number 2,822 may look, it is still deflated somewhat.
  • A cursory Google indicated that novels tend to range from 60,000 to 100,000 words, on average. If we split the difference and go with 80,000, my reviewing habit has stretched to the length of five-and-a-half novels in less than three years’ time.
  • In spite of everything I’ve written here so far, I am intensely proud of both of these stats.

Speaking of pride, shall we move on to the set of statistics that make me the proudest of all?

Ttotal page views: 2,146
Average page views per week: 15
Highest page views for a single post: 117
Lowest page views for a single post: 3

They say that if you do any one thing on the internet for long enough, you’ll eventually find an audience. I am just pleased as punch to have disproved that rule. The post that got 117 views — still paltry, by any reasonable standard — accidentally demonstrated the real way to find an audience on the internet. It only received such a substantially above average number of readers because I got retweeted by one of the post’s subjects, the food scientist and cookbook author J. Kenji Lopez-Alt.

By the way, the post that got only three views was 3,000 words long. That’s one reader per thousand words.

“Really don’t mind if you sit this one out.” — Jethro Tull

When I started this project, I started it for myself. I made it public only for the sake of accountability. The thing that makes me proudest of all is that I kept writing Omnireviewer for as long as I did in spite of the fact that nobody read it. The human mind is a cobweb ball of rationalizations and suppressed motives. I’ve never felt like I can be entirely sure when I’m just looking for attention. But surely, here is numerical proof that this project stayed true to its roots.

One final note on the statistics, that only slightly undercuts what I’ve said above: these numbers don’t account for the people who saw my reviews on the associated Tumblr account. In some cases, this was substantially more, but mostly it was not. The numbers also don’t account for the homepage, which got a significant bump on weeks when my site’s URL was read on the radio. In the interest of transparency, my homepage has been visited 7,163 times since I started Omnireviewer. What a pathetic number. I love it.

***

On the topic of the radio: the best thing to come out of this blog was a column that I’ve been doing on CBC Radio 1’s North by Northwest since June of last year. I pitched it as a recurring summer feature on the show, and it just never stopped. Since the beginning, that column has distilled the best of this blog into purposeful nuggets of meaning and connection. It is Omnireviewer at its most Pensieve-like.

In the written edition of Omnireviewer, anything might prompt a veiled exegesis on the disappointments and regrets of my life. The Beatles’ Help. Olivia Liang’s deeply relatable work of memoir-through-art-criticism The Lonely City. The death of Anthony Bourdain. Chris Gethard. Maria Bamford. In the written edition, the music of Brian Eno is not only ingenious, but kind and restorative. In the written edition, Alison Bechdel is a saint, because she confirms the value in reading your own life as literature, like I do — drawing connections, parsing out meaning, converting subtext to text.

But on the radio, it isn’t about me. It can’t be. A public radio audience requires you to put aside your self-indulgence in a way that a blog with 15 readers just doesn’t. And that made for a far superior version of this project. Many paragraphs ago, I asserted that Omnireviewer wasn’t very good. That’s true, at least of its original form. But its radio form is one of the things I’m proudest of in my entire career so far.

In my last radio column of 2017, I flirted more dangerously than usual with the masked confessional approach of the blog. But I’m glad I did. I finished it with a segment on Margo Price’s “Learning to Lose,” a heartbreaking duet with Willie Nelson that struck a chord with me immediately. I closed out my year in radio with the sentiment: “Maybe next year we’ll learn to win.” Three months later I got a job as the associate producer of North by Northwest. I ran around, waving my arms in the air and laughing like a maniac. The context for this blog collapsed in a heap.

***

To me, Charlie Brown is not the hero of the Peanuts comics. It’s Linus — the would-be philosopher who stays positive in spite of his insecurities, which are made manifest in the blanket he cannot be parted from. Omnireviewer was a security blanket I wove to shield myself from the emptiness of my life. But unlike Linus, I’m not stuck in time. I can outgrow my compulsions. I don’t need my blanket anymore. Life is good. More to the point — life is good in spite of the fact that lots of specific things about it are not. At last, we’re back to where we started.

“God keep me from ever completing anything.” — Herman Melville

In the months to come, I’ll work on other things in my spare time. But not because I need to for my sanity — because there are things I want to make that I think people might enjoy. I’ll keep posting fun nonsense to this blog. Notes on Moby-Dick will return. I’m thinking about writing more short fiction. Maybe I’ll rank all the tracks on ABBA Gold. And I’m going to make some tweaks to those podcasts I alluded to earlier, and hopefully get them out in the world before too long. That’s what I’m going to do with the time I would have spent on Omnibus. I’m not convinced I could bring myself to do any of it if not for this blog. I’ve learned so much from doing this. I’ve made connections I never would have made. I’ve learned about the conditions under which I do my best and worst work. I got a job that I probably wouldn’t have gotten if not for this blog and the radio spots it inspired. And I have kept my head above water. I have nothing but warm feelings for this weird-ass thing I’ve been doing these past few years.

And so it comes to this. Omnireviewer has fulfilled its purpose, and fulfilled it better than I could ever have foreseen. Time now to set it adrift in the obscure internet sea where it has always resided and always will.

Pick of the week.

toaster.gif

Omnibus (week of July 22, 2018)

Truthfully, this isn’t everything I got through this week, but I no longer quite see the point in reviewing books (or binges) before I’m done them. And I sure as hell wasn’t paying enough attention to Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol to actually say anything worthwhile about it. So I’m afraid it’s all podcasts all the time.

Nine reviews.

Podcasts

The Daily: “Roe v. Wade,” parts 1 & 2 & “The ‘Ineligible’ Families” — The biggest takeaway from the three episodes of The Daily I heard this week is that Roe v. Wade did not start life as a controversial decision. The two-parter pertaining to that does a good job of telling the story of how that came to be.

Retronauts: “Super Mario Bros. 2” — I played this game as a kid, but I played the version for the Game Boy Advance. I have learned from this roundtable that this is a somewhat subpar version of the game, but it certainly maintains the original’s weirdness. This episode brought back nostalgic memories, which is what it’s for. That said, when I went back and tried to play Super Mario Bros. 2 on an emulator, I found that I no longer have the skill or patience.

You Must Remember This: “William Desmond Taylor” — I’m starting to wonder why Kenneth Anger even bothered faking so much in Hollywood Babylon. The facts, such as they are, and also the stuff that can’t ever be known, is interesting enough. I think this is shaping up to be the best season of this show since “The Blacklist.”

99% Invisible: “Everything Is Alive” & “The Shipping Forecast” — Everything Is Alive promises to be the best thing added to the Radiotopia roster since The Memory Palace. It’s an interview show with inanimate objects. This preview episode features a can of store brand cola, and it takes a wonderful, bittersweet (no pun intended) turn towards the end. Do listen to the 99pi version, through, because it contains an interview with the creator that is well worth hearing. And, back to regular business, “The Shipping Forecast” is outstanding. I love listening to Roman Mars talk about radio, and this is a very particular kind of radio, with a very specific design. It’s the perfect subject for this show, which at its best is still one of the crowning glories of the medium. Pick of the week.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again” & “Mission Impossible – Fallout & What’s Making Us Happy” — The Mamma Mia 2 episode is one of their best, thanks to a couple of beautiful, witty turns of phrase by Glen Weldon. That said, I shall not be seeing the movie. Not because I don’t like ABBA, but rather because I love them too much. I have a feeling I will end up seeing Mission Impossible: Fallout. Who can say.

Song by Song: “Train Song” — Well, I think this is a great song. Really beautiful. And I wouldn’t compare it so much to “Anywhere I Lay My Head” as I would to “Ruby’s Eyes,” which shares an identical melody with the introduction to this. But that doesn’t matter. This is still the better song.

Theory of Everything: “Pseudoscience” — I feel like I’ve lost track of this season, and I may not be the only one. The stories are routinely interesting, but when are we going to hear Benjamen Walker figure out how to continue making his weird show in the age of fake news?

Longform: Three episodes with Rukmini Callimachi — This is like four hours of conversations with the New York Times’ ISIS reporter-turned-podcaster about her job and how she got there. If you’re at all interested in reporting, you need to hear all three episodes this podcast has done with her.

On the Media: “The Centre Folds” — A pretty standard episode, with one outstanding segment about the misconceptions people have about both American political parties.

Omnibus (week of July 15, 2018)

Sorry I’m late. Busy week. What you’re getting is a bunch of reviews of things I took in while I was doing other stuff. So, podcasts. That, and a recap of one truly bonkers concert.

Eight reviews.

Live events

Too Many Zooz: Live at the Imperial — I had heard Too Many Zooz before I knew who they were. They are an intensely viral phenomenon that took root in the subways of New York City — a trio of bari saxophone, trumpet and percussion that transcends the rules of their respective instruments to produce something they refer to as “brass house.” It is EDM, but without the “E.” It is a hell of a thing. I have found in my superficial exploration of their catalogue that they are best experienced in performance, either as a fixture at Union Station, or on a concert stage. Their studio recordings are all well and good, but they need to be heard in the live context they were founded for to get the full impact. Accordingly, this concert was one of the craziest things I’ve ever witnessed. I have never seen a Vancouver crowd go this crazy for anything, and I have never seen any of these instruments played like this. I’m working on a theory that Matt “Doe” Muirhead is the only instance in all of music where the trumpet manifests as the id of an ensemble rather than the ego. Too Many Zooz breaks down clearly as follows: Muirhead (trumpet): id; Leo Pellegrino (saxophone): ego; and the King of Sludge (percussion): superego. Muirhead plays the trumpet as if he never learned how, although he clearly has. I studied the trumpet, and I have played with aspiring trumpeters from both the classical world and what is unusefully referred to by classical people as the “commercial” world. In both cases, trumpeters are neurotically obsessed with accuracy and technique. That’s because, regardless of what idiom you intend to play it in, if you learn to play the trumpet today, you learn it from a teacher. That means that there are deeply held and widespread values about what the proper way to approach the instrument is that simply don’t exist for, say, DJs or guitarists. Muirhead’s commitment to simply playing as loudly and aggressively as he can in every register of the instrument contravenes all of these values. It is trumpet playing as impulse rather than neurosis. Perhaps relatedly, his chops held up in the high range almost straight to the end of the show, which is not at all how I expected that to play out. I wish I’d heard Muirhead when I was still a trumpeter — if I had, I might not have so many stress dreams about playing my instrument, which now resides permanently in the back of my closet. Now, from the id to the ego. Chris Squire, the bassist from Yes, once said something about going to see the Who and spending the whole show listening to John Entwistle and watching Pete Townshend. Similarly, I spent most of the Too Many Zooz concert listening to Muirhead and watching Pellegrino. Like Muirhead, he breaks the rules of what his instrument is designed to do, but that’s less surprising among saxophonists. They’re educated in extended techniques. It’s no big thing. What they don’t teach you to do is shuffle, grind, twerk, thrust, dye your hair hot pink and put on your shiniest pair of short shorts. He often plays with one hand, using the other to gesticulate like a rapper. The effect isn’t purely visual: having only one hand on the horn at a time limits the notes he can play so that the musical effect also mimics the human voice. Generally, the band’s music is aggressively simple. Both Muirhead and Pellegrino have reduced their instruments’ melodic language to the minimal materials used by, for instance, dubstep producers. In longer songs, this can begin to wear thin. But Pellegrino allows himself more flexibility than the others: he draws on his training more; he plays faster. He’s magnetic as fuck. As for the superego, it strikes me that the King of Sludge makes more decisions on behalf of the group in general than the other two combined. His playing isn’t intricate, but he literally sets the pace at which the others are working, and any changes of pace come down to him. Together, the three members of Too Many Zooz are one of the most perfect and complete musical units I’ve ever witnessed. I have no idea what they’d be like with members changed out or added, and I have no desire to find out. New York City’s subway commuters had better appreciate these three. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

In Our Time catch-up — Where did I recently learn things I did not previously know about Henrik Ibsen, the city of Persepolis, Montesquieu, Echolocation, the Mexican-American War and noted arts and crafts proponent William Morris? Why, on In Our Time! Where else?

The Daily: “Why Believing Putin Will Be Hard This Time,” “Trump Sides With Putin,” “How Trump Withstand So Many Controversies” & “Facebook’s Plan to Police the Truth” — What a week. I listen to the Trump related episodes as my key way of keeping up with that insanity, because I cannot often bring myself to actually sit and read about it. The Facebook-related episodes, which do tend to arise whenever Facebook finds itself in the news, are one of my favourite sources of anxiety. What’s especially crazy about this one is the tape they play from a Facebook ad that expresses recognition of the reasons people signed up for Facebook in the first place, i.e. friends, and the reasons for people’s frustration with it now, i.e. that it became the default platform for the distribution of news and information, and it is a deeply flawed platform for that purpose. Alas, the episode also makes clear that nobody, least of all Mark Zuckerberg, has any idea what to do about this.

The Sporkful: “Live: W. Kamau Bell And Hari Kondabolu Play The Newlywed Game” & “How to Read a Taco” — The live episode is as fun as its guests, and the taco episode is almost as fun as tacos.

Radiolab catch-up — Didn’t get through the Gonads series. Nope. Brilliant as the concept of a mini-series on human reproduction is, I can’t get behind this show’s storytelling anymore. I dunno, maybe this is where I jump off. I haven’t especially enjoyed it for a while. I’ll tune in when it sounds like an especially good one.

Constellations: “chris connolly – black beach” — One of the best pieces featured on this show so far. It’s a simple conversation between two men who lack the tools to communicate intimately without awkwardness, because men aren’t supposed to do that, but who manage to do it anyway because they have to. Nice.

Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People: “The Chillionaire,” “Out of the Closet” & “Prison Bound” — The first two of these are perfectly fine episodes of Beautiful/Anonymous. “The Chillionaire” in particular is a great discussion of money and its consequences, which is not a thing people talk about. But neither of these compare to the sucker punch of “Prison Bound,” which features a woman whose life went off the tracks after she developed a drug problem, and who was at the time of the recording, heading to prison in less than a week for drug trafficking. It is relentlessly intense, and the caller is remarkably clear-headed about her mistakes and the struggles ahead. Gethard is remarkable in this as well — he asks the questions you’ll have as you listen, but he is judicious in the order in which he answers them, building up to the stuff that’s likely to be hardest for the caller to talk about. Sometimes Gethard’s big-heartedness comes out in the form of platitudes (as is the case throughout much of “Out of the Closet”). But here, there are no platitudes that would suffice. It is great radio. I found myself standing still in the middle of my apartment when I was trying to get chores done several times during it.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix Special ‘Nanette’ With Kumail Nanjiani” & “Skyscraper and What’s Making Us Happy” — The Nanette episode made me appreciate that special more, and I will probably watch it again now. The Skyscraper episode made me want to see it even less than I already did, but I like it when this crew talks about stuff they thought was dumb.

You Must Remember This: “Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle and Virginia Rappe” — Really good. I’m honestly surprised that this story hasn’t been on this show already. It’s something you learn about in film studies survey classes. (Maybe that’s why it hasn’t been on the show already.) Fatty Arbuckle is a pretty clear historical analogue for many of the abusive men in Hollywood today. In fact, now that I read that last sentence again, “analogue” isn’t the right word at all. He’s just an early manifestation of the same thing. But in Karina Longworth’s telling, there doesn’t seem to have been any real backlash to his widespread vilification, the way there is for many of the modern equivalents. Maybe that’s just a factor of the stricter insistence on propriety at the time. It sure wasn’t because people were less sexist.

Song by Song: “Cold, Cold Ground” — This is a good song. They don’t have a whole lot to say about it, but sometimes it’s just nice to be reminded that a thing is good.

Harsh Lily

A friend challenged me to write a story based on a phrase from a random word generator. My phrase was “harsh lily.” This is the result.

It was the opinion of most students at the Barrhead Flower Arranging Institute that no flower arranger’s course of education was truly complete without fighting at least one duel. The faculty and registrar of the institute naturally disavowed this tradition in their public statements, and no mention of it was made in official recruitment materials or the quarterly journal of the alumni association. But among those who earned the school’s coveted Certificate of Good Taste, the most respected were those whose reputations for balance of colour and gracefulness of line came paired with a slew of bested adversaries in bouts of fisticuffs and gentlemanly swordplay. These masters were referred to by their peers with the honorific “Harsh Lily.”

The title was first applied to Emmanuel Arboros, now recognized as the father of the neoclassical school of Central Albertan Ikebana.1 For a generation, Arboros was virtually synonymous with the phrase; one could refer to the teachings of the great Harsh Lily, and others would simply understand you to mean Arboros. This remained the case until the arrival of Marigold Shen to Barrhead. 

Shen’s scores of acolytes regarded her as the enfant terrible that the Barrhead Institute needed to shake it out of a period of drab stoicism. Under the directorship of Arboros — then in the throes of his late-career foraging period — there was a serious vogue for weeds and twigs, which critics and audiences alike were beginning to find tiresome. Arboros had thus far fended off his most serious detractors with a well-honed bare-knuckle brawling technique. And while Shen’s fists had loosened many a tooth from its socket, she had begun to champion a brave new fighting style. Her most eminent biographer tells us that Shen’s primary innovation (aside from the reintroduction of the lilac into arrangements in the serialist style) was the use of a cutlass.2

It was ultimately this innovation that cost Arboros his mass esteem, and eventually his title at the Institute. As a mere student, without any taste certification to her name, Shen had the audacity to challenge the director of the school, and the skill to best him. Naturally, Arboros’s remaining defenders rallied around him, crying foul over Shen’s use of a non-regulation weapon in a fight on Institute property. But the rules of Harsh Lily duelling were as flexible as the principles of flower arrangement itself. And ultimately, no matter how many rematches the elderly Arboros demanded, he could not muster enough vigour to defeat such a young and ingenious opponent. The final Arboros/Shen duel even brought us the sad spectacle of Arboros attempting swordplay, a practice he had disdained since his days as an apprentice gardener.

By this time, even the most conservative voices in the floral theory community had abandoned Arboros. Irrelevant and alone, he had no choice but to resign the directorship.  After a brief and inconsequential stewardship by the minor classicist Rose Rosé, the directorship was passed on to Shen with great pomp and ceremony, almost immediately after her convocation.

It was around this time that the term “Harsh Lily” became democratized. Shen herself had taken up that sobriquet as a final blow to her defeated predecessor. In private, she encouraged her most gifted and violent students to do the same. They began to sign their letters with it, for example: “James Augustus Anthurium, Harsh Lily.” Anybody could bequeath the title on themselves, but it became a special honour at the Institute to have Director Shen herself refer to you by it. By most accounts, this is what precipitated the escalation of student violence that led to the massive proliferation of confirmed Harsh Lilies, and eventually to the outlawing of the Barrhead Institute by the king.

***

Much has been made of the ephemeral nature of the Harsh Lilies’ masterpieces.3 Photographs cannot accurately represent their effect in three-dimensional space. They cannot be preserved in resin or lacquer without losing something of their sublime delicacy. Even the meticulous reconstructions of past masterworks being made in secret by contemporary florists cannot be taken as representative of the originals — however specific the artist’s notes may have been — because nature simply does not produce the same configuration of petals, leaves and stem twice (prohibitively expensive genetic engineering notwithstanding).

My opinion is that the entire tradition of legendary violence practiced by the Harsh Lilies stems (pardon the pun) from this fact. The urge to leave a mark on the world is a basic human impulse. To move through the world with the divine gifts of an Arboros or a Shen and to know nonetheless that your artistic legacy will not outlive you is a perverse fortune indeed. But, by expressing their frustration at their own impotence through the medium of punching, they ironically secured their legacies. For who among us doesn’t know these stories today?


1 Bellis-Perennis, Nicole: A Tree Among Flowers: The Life of Emmanuel Arboros
Black, Dahlia: Marigold Shen: A Life in Bloom
3 To provide only a few of the most notable examples, Tulp, Aleta: The Withering Art; Frye, Flytrap: Sublime Decay; DeLion, Daniel: Compost.

Omnibus (week of July. 8, 2018)

Ooh, look how pithy I am this week!

15 reviews.

EDIT: I wrote a short story. Check it out.

Movies

Late Spring — I’ve decided to rewatch some movies I first saw in my late teens and early twenties, during that phase everybody goes through in their undergraduate studies when you watch a bunch of arty, “important” movies. Let’s see if they hold up. I feel like they mostly will. This one sure does. To be fair, when I first saw this masterpiece by Yasujiro Ozu in a film studies survey course, I didn’t really get it. I do now. The story, minimalist as it is, is very moving. It’s about a young woman who’s trapped between her social obligation to marry and the responsibility she feels to stay home and care for her aging father. Setsuko Hara’s performance as the young woman, Noriko, is a thing of profound nuance — much more so than you’re given to believe at the start of the movie. At first, she presents as an image of genial femininity, always with a smile on her face. Ozu lures you into believing that you’re witnessing a two-dimensional idea of a woman, rather than an actual woman. And then he unleashes his mastery of interiority. Witness the scene in the Noh theatre, in which Noriko’s heightening anxiety over her father’s possible remarriage is conveyed without a word of dialogue. Much of this is thanks to Hara’s performance, which becomes progressively more melancholy as the film progresses. But a lot of it is simply in the way the scene is directed. A polite nod, another, a third, but awkwardly, and a sidelong glance. It gives you everything you need to know. But more than any of this, I just love Ozu’s eye for beautiful details. He does this thing where he transitions from scene to scene by just throwing in a few exterior shots of trees and houses with no people in them, and it gives this sense of stillness, even when the story starts to pick up tension. There’s a lot to be said for straightforwardly showing beautiful, mid-century Japanese homes and gardens on film. This is the sort of movie I want in my life in 2018. It provides a stretch of time where you’re not constantly connecting to all of the world’s problems; you’re just concerned with one very specific set of problems that play out very slowly. In spite of the story’s bittersweetness, the sensation of watching the movie is almost therapeutic. Pick of the week.

City of God — I’m amazed at how little of this movie I remembered. It’s good. I’m not sure it’s as good as I initially thought it was. There are details that rankle, like the character of Angelica, who is so important at the start of the film, disappearing completely about halfway through and never coming back. But it is a stylish and intensely watchable movie — it’s like something Quentin Tarantino would make if he had a firm grip on reality. I’m not much for gritty crime movies, generally. But if you’ve got a hankering for one — and you don’t mind several scenes of incredible brutality, including towards children — watch this.

Music

Let’s Eat Grandma: I’m All Ears — My first impression is a sense of general disappointment at their embrace of a producer-driven aesthetic, all dance beats and drops. But there is enough of their previously dominant aesthetic of DIY strangeness that I feel relatively confident that it’ll grow on me. The bells at the end of “Hot Pink” are reassuring, for one thing. So are the long tracks “Cool and Collected” and “Donnie Darko,” the latter of which being flat out prog. I need time with this, but it’ll be on the year-end list, never fear. If anybody can overcome my biases, it’s these two.

Podcasts

ZigZag: “Meet the Stable Geniuses” — This is fun, immediate, and high stakes. But it threatens to address things that go beyond its two hosts’ personal narratives, and that’s really what I’m in for. We’ll see if I rouse myself to hear more.

Song by Song: “I’ll Take New York” & “Telephone Call From Istanbul” — I really feel like they’re not addressing the irony enough. I’m all for taking artists at face value, but when presented with such an obvious piss take as “I’ll Take New York,” isn’t the only valid approach to examine who specifically the piss is being taken from? All talk of vibrato is irrelevant in the face of this. The “Telephone Call From Istanbul” episode sent me down a rabbit hole of listening to the first five tracks on They Might Be Giants’ Flood again and again. We’ll see if I ever get through the rest.

The Daily: “Trump Picks Brett Kavanaugh,” “Brett Kavanaugh’s Change of Heart” & Why Peter Strzok Wanted to Testify” — What a week of news. You can trust The Daily to at the very least bring you the best tape from the news cycle, i.e. Strzok’s testimony. But you can also trust them to analyze that tape better than any other show.

Arts and Ideas catch-up — I’ve been saving a bunch of these in my feed for ages, and mainlining them was satisfying. Seek out the recent episode that features Olivia Liang in particular — she wrote one of my favourite non-fiction books of the last several years (The Lonely City) and she’s just put out a novel. Got to read that.

Lend Me Your Ears: “King Lear” — Here is a podcast that dares to ask the question, what happens when a leader demands unequivocal loyalty and constant flattery from those who surround him? And it finds the answer to that question in Shakespeare’s most brutal play. Pick of the week.

You Must Remember This: “Olive Thomas” — Karina Longworth is good at finding sad, sad Hollywood stories, and she’s even better at telling them in a way that makes them reflect the world today. This series about the facts and fictions of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon is shaping up to be the most direct proof-of-concept the show has had thus far. Not that it has anything to prove at this point.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Jeopardy!” “Sharp Objects and What’s Making Us Happy” — I’m really glad they’re committing to some themes that aren’t immediately contemporary. The Jeopardy! episode is great. No Sharp Objects for me, though.

Code Switch: “Word Up” — I always like this show when it’s about education. They’ve done a fair bit on that, and it’s always good. Just an observation.

Theory of Everything: “The Power of Magical Thinking” — I’ve liked this series about fake news and its historical precedents from the beginning, but now that there’s magic involved I’m ALL IN.

99% Invisible: “Interrobang” — What if question mark, but also exclamation point?! That is the question this episode poses, and comes up with an answer that has actually been used as a single punctuation mark in an American legal decision.

Criminal: catch-up — The highlight here is a two-parter about the Gilded Age starlet Evelyn Nesbit, which is worthy of You Must Remember This. High praise.

Imaginary Worlds: “Imaginary Deaths” — One of the small problems with this podcasts comes with the territory of talking with fans, which is that they have really dumb readings of their favourite shows. I’m all for the sort of emotional engagement that makes a reader mourn a fictional character. But when you get actually angry at J.K. Rowling for killing Fred Weasley, that’s a misunderstanding of how fiction works. Authors aren’t taking dictation from on high. They’re just making stuff up. When bits of a story rankle, those aren’t mistakes; they’re choices. Not necessarily good ones, but the idea that a writer is somehow betraying their own creation when they make a choice you don’t agree with is… come now, people.

Omnibus (week of July 1, 2018)

It’s been a year light on instant favourites. There are a couple in here, though.

19 reviews.

Movies

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — Morgan Neville’s Mister Rogers documentary has already acquired a reputation for being a tearjerker. It is that. On the way home, I tried to figure out why. Nothing sad happens in it. True to its subject, nothing much happens in it at all. For me, it isn’t particularly nostalgic, either. I watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child, but I was so small that I barely remember it. My memory of television only extends back to Bill Nye the Science Guy, or thereabouts. So what is it about this nice movie about a nice man that hits me and everybody else so hard in the feels? For me, it might have something to do with my Pavlovian response to the music of Michael Nyman. But more broadly I think it’s basically this: Neville sets up the beatifically decent Fred Rogers as an alternative to the cynicism and mean-spiritedness that dominates public discourse today, and that periodically dominated it for the entire thirty-year run of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. There’s no mention of Donald Trump or contemporary politics in the movie, but there doesn’t have to be: celebrating Rogers’ big-heartedness is an implicit, gentle act of resistance to an administration that has of late been particularly cruel to children. The closest the movie comes to naming and shaming its target is in a sequence about the first episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, in which King Friday XIII tries to build a border wall. But even that is more amusing than preachy. The most moving moments of the film are the places where television intersects with history. Rogers dared to address the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in the forum of children’s television in his first season. And he stayed the course, casually delivering civil rights messages and folksy explications of intensely sad subjects. His rapport with children who have suffered trauma, be it the death of a pet or a serious medical condition, is a wonder to behold. As moving as any of this, though, is Rogers’ simple respect for children’s intelligence and curiosity. His show was famously slow, famously lo-fi, and famously concerned with, as Linda Holmes put it on Pop Culture Happy Hour, teaching kids how oboes are made. Obviously, all of this is catnip to me. Fred Rogers was a defining figure in the history of public broadcasting because he steadfastly refused to simply give the people what they want. He strove for the higher ideal of Making People Better, which is what public broadcasters are supposed to do. It’s just as instructive to look back on Mister Rogers in the era of Facebook as it is to look back on him in the era of Trump. That said, Rogers’ attitude (and by extension, the film’s) towards other approaches to television can be needlessly dismissive. There is an uncomfortably small distance between Fred Rogers’ distaste for conventionally entertaining television and Mary Whitehouse’s boneheaded attempts to censor the BBC. There’s an uncomfortable parallel between Rogers’ anxiety that children would watch superhero cartoons and think they could actually fly and Whitehouse’s media illiterate claim that children would see a cliffhanger where Doctor Who’s head was held underwater and think that he’d be held that way for the entire week until the next episode started. But ultimately, Rogers’ straightforward attempts to bring out the best in his young viewers overrides all of this. His is a philosophy that has vacated much of public discourse, including in the media, and we need it back. Fred Rogers believed in people, particularly children, and wanted to help them be better. That is why Won’t You Be My Neighbor is the year’s most beautiful film. See it while it’s in theatres if you can. It is best experienced collectively. Pick of the week.

Live events

Converge & Neurosis live at the Commodore — I don’t really do metal these days. But when invited, I don’t mind taking in a show. This triple bill (counting openers Amenra, who were not a major part of the advertising) featured exclusively bands that I had never heard. Amenra didn’t make much of an impression on me. I see what they’re doing, which is basically leaving as many elements out of their music as possible. That includes colour in their presentation, which consists of evocative, serene video projections in black and white. They build whole songs with almost no harmonic motion. They are admirably committed to their minimalism, but it’s not for me. In retrospect, Converge would appear to be the odd ones out on this bill — a hugely charismatic hardcore band sandwiched between two uncompromising metal behemoths. That charisma is largely the reason why Converge was the band that left the strongest impression on me. Where Amenra and Neurosis would never do anything so gauche as acknowledge the audience, Converge lives for the crowd. (The crowd lives for them, also: the mosh pit that formed during their set could almost be described as a ‘fight.’) Their frontman, Jacob Bannon, never stops moving. He greets the audience between songs, offering rousing encouragement to anybody in the crowd who may be a survivor of depression or family dysfunction, or who’s just learning how to be a parent. There is an odd warmth to Converge. I feel strangely compelled to draw a parallel to their polar opposite, Belle and Sebastian, who I saw last week. Like Bannon, B&S’s frontman Stuart Murdoch also wears his triumph over circumstances proudly. After such an unlikely charm offensive, what a shock to encounter Neurosis. They are the bill’s resident metal royalty, and they present themselves accordingly. Their songs stretch to ten or twelve minutes apiece, and when one of them ends, the lights go out. Spacey noises fill the venue. And we only catch another glimpse of these Old Gods when their performance begins anew. We don’t see them tuning up. We don’t see them moving equipment around (well, we do a little, but we pretend we don’t). We only see them when they are playing their instruments. They don’t wave or bow at the end of the set. They don’t do encores. They establish a stark and total divide between us and them. And in doing so, they make themselves terrifying. Heavy metal is inscribed on their faces. You pay attention. Loudness isn’t the half of it. In spite of this, and probably a little bit because of it, I spent the first three quarters or so of Neurosis’s set feeling distinctly that Converge had won the night. I surprised myself with that feeling, since Neurosis’s music is much more my style. There’s more transparency in it — enough variety in the texture that you can hear detail. In case anybody had any doubt that they’re musical iconoclasts, the keyboardist has even mounted a set of bass pedals to the top rack of his rig. Still, it wasn’t until the final two songs of the set that they totally won me over. “Reach” is from their latest album, and reminds me of what I loved about Opeth when I first discovered them: every minute of this long song is packed with as many musical ideas as most bands would put on a whole album. And the set ender, the title track from their apparently legendary 1996 album Through Silver In Blood was so mercilessly heavy that it left at least a portion of the crowd completely helpless as to how to respond. The atmosphere after Neurosis disappeared from the stage was of dumbfounded shock. None of these bands make the sort of music that I have space for in my life these days. I doubt that I’ll spend a lot of time listening to their albums. But the show was a thing to behold.

Music

Belle and Sebastian: Write About Love — Deeply underrated. A gem on par with Dear Catastrophe Waitress, featuring several of the band’s best tracks — especially “I Didn’t See It Coming,” which is a top five classic Belle and Sebastian song. Other standouts include “I Want the World to Stop,” “I Can See Your Future,” and the slightly Phil Spectory title track. Title aside, even “Calculating Bimbo” has a winning melody.

Belle and Sebastian: If You’re Feeling Sinister: Live at the Barbican — I feel weird saying this is better than the studio version. I came away from last week’s concert with a new appreciation for the early B&S material, and a general sense that it isn’t served well by the recordings it’s featured on. Ergo, this live album. It’s got a lot more energy than its studio counterpart, but Stuart still doesn’t quite sound like his energetic contemporary self. This is still 13 years ago, after all. People change. Anyway, I really like this. If You’re Feeling Sinister has been the hardest Belle and Sebastian album to get into for me, but this helps.

Comedy

Hannah Gadsby: Nanette — The premise of this is that Gadsby is leaving comedy and wrote this show to explain why. In practice, she effectively quits comedy halfway through the show. It is a deeply intelligent deconstruction of comedy. Gadsby points out the ways in which it differs from conventional storytelling, the way it prizes the release of tension over all other concerns, and the way it has been used as a tool of oppression as much as a vehicle for protest. There’s also a very resonant thread about art history in this, which ought to force anybody who has recently read E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, just for example, to reconsider some things.

Games

West of Loathing — For a brief time in high school, I was an enthusiastic player of a browser game called Kingdom of Loathing. Its intensely lo-fi aesthetic of stick figures moving through a world that looks like a 10-year-old’s Hilroy scribbler drew me in immediately, and the mercilessly consistent comic writing kept me there until I moved on to the next thing. It’s a type of gaming experience I wouldn’t have again until Fallen London, years later. Now, just like Fallen London has its one-player downloadable offshoot Sunless Sea, KoL has West of Loathing: a point-and-click adventure that takes its parent game’s pencil-drawn aesthetic and builds a Western out of it. It’s a total delight, and it’s been filling my free evenings for a couple weeks now. Here is a single moment that I think encapsulates the delightfulness of this game: at one point you find a pile of boards and nails, and you’re informed that you could probably build a crate out of these things. If you do, the game’s like “hey, it’s a crate!” And when you open it there are items inside. Brilliant. Aside from its wonderful comic writing, West of Loathing also plays well as a tribute to adventure games past and present. There’s a subplot involving alien technology where the puzzles play like something from Riven (but easier), and there is a culture of creepy clowns that could come straight from Sunless Sea. Both of these plot threads are semi-Lovecraftian in the way that all indie games are now. But that’s one genre among many that this game is juggling. I loved this. If you want to play a game that will make you smile, I highly recommend it.

Podcasts

Constellations catch-up — I’m all for sound art and experimental radio. I’m so for it that I’m frequently exhausted by mainstream podcasting. (Yes, there is such a thing as mainstream podcasting, for you terrestrial radio listeners out there.) But a lot of what I heard in the last spate of episodes from this podcast left me unmoved. They seemed to convey little except a cultivated aesthetic of artsiness. When the only thing to help you see the beauty in a piece is an interview with the artist after the fact, there’s a problem. But listening to this is worth it for exceptions like Meira Asher’s “refuse: military.01” which is a marvellous commentary on Israeli compulsory military service. It’s the perfect example of why it’s important to search outside the big podcast networks and public radio behemoths for good radio.

Bullseye: “George Clinton & Cristela Alonzo” — This is most worthwhile for the George Clinton interview, which is a real trip. He’s a genius that ought to be upheld more as one of the foundational figures in ‘70s popular music. He’s also very funny.

The Daily: “Assigning Blame in the Opioid Epidemic,” “How the Opioid Crisis Started” & “One Family’s Reunification Story” — The two opioid epidemic episodes are great and infuriating, particularly the first. The reunification story is very moving, and everybody involved is admirably committed to making it clear that this is the exception to the rule. It can be tempting to think of a story like this as the tail end of a narrative: children and parents were separated, and then because we heard the story of one reunification, it must be all over. You can’t listen to this story and feel that way, which makes it very responsible journalism, in my view.

In the Dark: “The End” — By necessity, this is an open ending. But it’s a good summation of a categorically effective investigation. I have nothing more to say about this season than I’ve already said. Suffice it to say it’s one of the best pieces of investigative journalism I’ve encountered all year.

The World According to Sound catch-up — The episode of this show that focuses on the first few minutes of the show that would become This American Life is fascinating. If there’s any takeaway from the “Sound Audio” season thus far, it’s that there are an infinite number of ways to make radio, and that shockingly few of them are represented in mainstream public radio and podcasting. TAL is where the aesthetic that has taken over those spheres came from, but it’s interesting to look back on how radical it was in its infancy.

You Must Remember This: “D.W. Griffith, the Gish Sisters and the origin of ‘Hollywood Babylon’” — I have been waiting for this for what feels like years, even though I didn’t know what I was waiting for. As it turns out, I think this season has the potential to be one of Karina Longworth’s best. The premise is outstanding: take one of the most influential books in the history of filmmaking, Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, and fact check it. In the process, we’ll inevitably cross paths with some of the most notable characters in Hollywood history. This first episode about D.W. Griffith and the Gish sisters offers proof-of-concept for that. It’s well known that Griffith was blithely racist, but this episode makes it clear that he was also a creep. Nice.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Mister Rogers Documentary ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor’” & “Ant-Man And The Wasp, Plus What’s Making Us Happy” — An accurate appraisal of Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and further permission to sit out the new Ant-Man.

Code Switch: “Code Switch’s Summer Vacation” — A light episode, for once, but a good one.

Fresh Air: “The State Of The Supreme Court” — It is not a happy state.

Out of the Blocks: “A Conversation with Mayor Catherine Pugh” — This is weird. The mayor of Baltimore is a fan of this podcast, so she interviewed the host in public. The result is a conversation between a journalist and a politician where it feels like the politician is not taking a risk. I know that’s not the point of this interview, and Out of the Blocks isn’t that kind of show, but that power dynamic implicitly makes me uneasy. Anyway, the mayor is correct to observe that Out of the Blocks is excellent.

Trump Con Law: “Justice Kennedy” — A good breakdown of why Kennedy’s retirement has thrown everything into disarray — but it’s also a bit less useful than most other episodes of this show, because everybody else is covering this too.

The Memory Palace: “Patience” — Nate DiMeo is very good at finding stories from history that resonate with the news cycle. This one is about a slave who was separated from her child by ruthless slave traders. It is devastating, and it does not resolve neatly. Listen to it. Pick of the week.

99% Invisible: “Roman Mars on ZigZag” — This is the fourth episode of a serialized story, but it’s the first to appear on a show that I listen to regularly. It reminds me of StartUp season one, because it is straightforwardly similar to that — both are stories of people trying to start podcasting companies. I think I’ll listen from the beginning, though I’m not 100% sure I’m sold. It depends on how much talking about blockchain there is.

Omnibus (week of June 24, 2018)

This contains one of my longest reviews ever, though a bunch of it is just a list of paintings, sculptures, woodcuts, lithographs, cathedral facades and interiors, ornate candlesticks etc. It also contains some of my shortest reviews ever because reviewing podcasts can be tedious. It also contains a lot of Belle and Sebastian. Enjoy.

25 reviews.

Music

Belle and Sebastian: Dear Catastrophe Waitress — In the past few weeks I’ve stumbled upon a couple things with unexpected connections to Yes’s unexpected commercial breakthrough 90125. It is not a particularly good album, so I’ll likely not heed the signs that are telling me to revisit it. But the two Trevors who made that album into a Yes album like no other (Rabin, a.k.a. the composer of the Hot Rod score, and Horn, a.k.a. half of the Buggles and the producer of this Belle and Sebastian album) are admirable people in their own right. This is my first listen through the full album, but I’d heard “I’m a Cuckoo” before. Trevor Horn’s influence on it was less obvious to me when I’d only heard The Life Pursuit. But now that I know what this band sounded like before they committed to actually sounding good, I get it. This is far from the high-gloss production we identify with Horn, i.e. 90125 and the first Frankie Goes to Hollywood album. But by B&S standards, it’s basically Purple Rain. It’s a great record. My favourites are probably “Step Into My Office, Baby” and “Lord Anthony,” but this will doubtless be subject to much reassessment.

Belle and Sebastian: The Boy With the Arab Strap — I’ll continue my odd habit of referencing Yes in Belle and Sebastian reviews, because this reminds me of Fragile in a very specific way. For Yes, that album was undeniably a step forward — the first to feature their classic lineup, and the home of several of their most accomplished tracks. It also contained five tracks designed to feature the band’s individual members, which are slight by design and hold the album back from unqualified masterpiece status. The album that had preceded it, The Yes Album, was a huge step forward in itself: the first album to consist entirely of originals, and the one that cemented them as critical favourites. Looking back on the two albums, the earlier one is the more consistent of the two. But nothing on it quite has the sublime confidence of “Roundabout” or “Heart of the Sunrise” from Fragile. I think this comparison is roughly analogous to If You’re Feeling Sinister and The Boy With The Arab Strap. The latter demonstrates a real advancement over the former in terms of the band’s performance and willingness to try out new instrumentation. “Sleep the Clock Around” is an album highlight for that reason: its synths and horns lend it the euphoric feel of much later Belle and Sebastian songs, like “We Are the Sleepyheads.” Even the Rhodes piano of the title track (which I only now realize the Decemberists totally ripped off in “Days of Elaine”) is a nice touch. But is anybody really going to think back on an album with tracks like “Chickfactor” and “A Space Boy Dream” as an unmitigated classic? Basically, I like this album a lot and its best songs are classics. But its restless need to try things makes it patchy in a way that its esteemed predecessor is not.

Belle and Sebastian: Tigermilk — Last week I expressed that I was slightly underwhelmed by If You’re Feeling Sinister, but I did think it was more than just nostalgia that made that album so revered. Now I’m reconsidering the role nostalgia might play. Because Tigermilk — Belle and Sebastian’s debut, made the same year as Sinister, first pressed on only 1,000 vinyl records, containing the first few recordings of songs from Stuart Murdoch’s massive songwriting backlog from his years with chronic fatigue, and presumably the ones in which he was most confident — is outstanding. It’s confident, it has hooks all over, Murdoch’s voice is strong, and it’s even fairly well recorded, which is not something anybody’s likely to say about If You’re Feeling Sinister, whatever its virtues. But only one thousand people at maximum heard it when it was released. Most people didn’t hear it until it was reissued in 1999, post-Arab Strap, at which point If You’re Feeling Sinister had already been enshrined as, if not a classic, then at least the Moment Of Revelation for the first wave of Belle and Sebastian fans. It strikes me that this album is similar enough to Sinister, and good enough on its own merits, that had it received wider distribution on its first release it might have had the same impact its successor did. That calculus reduces Sinister slightly, suggesting that the biggest thing it has going for it is the fact that it was the indie community’s first contact with the band. Don’t get me wrong, I really like If You’re Feeling Sinister, and it’s grown on me the couple more times I’ve listened to it since last week. But I love Tigermilk. “We Rule the School” is the most beautiful and delicate thing I’ve heard of theirs from before “Dress Up In You.” There are hints of the sonic variety I had assumed were first introduced on The Boy With the Arab Strap. The synth lead on “I Could Be Dreaming” is irresistable. And “The State I’m In” is delightfully funny and vulnerable at once. The Life Pursuit is still my favourite. After all, that was my first point of contact. But this is a close second.

Belle and Sebastian: How to Solve Our Human Problems — The last phase in my cramming for the concert. This is a compiled version of their three EPs released a few months back. It’s fine. There are some standouts, like the single “We Were Beautiful,” the leadoff to the first record, “Sweet Dew Lee,” and the Sarah Martin feature “Poor Boy.” But there’s a fair bit of chaff alongside it. Worth a listen, but only a few moments are worth returning to.

Live events

Belle and Sebastian live at the Vogue — What you don’t expect from a Belle and Sebastian concert, if you’ve never been to one and you’ve been marinating in their lo-fi early work for a week, is relentless energy. But you get it. This band, and particularly Stuart Murdoch, has mastered the fine balance of spreading catharsis without forcing it. There is no desperation in Belle and Sebastian — they aren’t Arcade Fire. Murdoch’s magnetism comes from the sense that he’s proven all he needs to prove to himself, and that it was a hard-won victory. It’s a confidence that radiates outwards to the rest of the band, with the effect that you can’t help but love them all. This was a great show. Musically, the band has the tightness of their post-Catastrophe Waitress records, and none of the sloppiness of their early ones. Excellent as those early records are, at least conceptually, nobody should mistake this for a loss. Many fans appreciate the sincerity of B&S’s lo-fi era — but they’re mistaking sincerity for an aesthetic. Nothing puts the lie to this notion like hearing the far more experienced modern iteration of the band play the snot out of “Judy and the Dream of Horses.” Songs from that era struck me as being better live — but only because they’re a better band now. Many of the highlights were early songs: a delicate reading of “We Rule the School,” a rollicking “Boy with the Arab Strap,” and “Me and the Major” transformed into a rousing encore. All of these hit harder in the room than on record. That’s less true of the later material, but a live performance only solidifies the brilliance of “I’m a Cuckoo,” “Sukie in the Graveyard” and especially “I Didn’t See It Coming.” Music aside, Murdoch also dispensed relationship advice and love hearts (one package of which he tossed cleanly into the balcony, which shouldn’t have been impressive but kind of was). Stevie Jackson wore a suit and was the spitting image of a British Invasion lead guitarist. Sarah Martin played a dozen instruments. A huge screen played wistful black and white video, which in the haze of the coloured lights became an animated rendition of the band’s album covers. The crowd was all about it. I am notoriously unmoved by most rock shows. But I left this show liking Belle and Sebastian a lot more than when I went in. Pick of the week.

KNOWER live at the Imperial — This concert preceded Belle and Sebastian in my week, but I’m reviewing it after. The contrast between these two concerts in a single week is not lost on me. The fellow nerd I saw both shows with summed it up rather well by pointing out that Louis Cole and Genevieve Artadi make music that is as counterintuitive as Stuart Murdoch’s is natural. Their melodies go off in every direction at once, they use complicated jazz school chords I don’t even understand, and they can change tempos on a dime. And yet it still all holds together. This was one of the few concerts I’ve been to by a group of professional musicians where it genuinely felt like anything could happen. This is the line that jazz fans use to explain the appeal of that music, and indeed this was a Vancouver Jazz Festival event. But this isn’t that. (Indeed, it’s not jazz — I’ll spare you my explication of the emerging genre of “meme funk” for now, but expect it in the medium-near future.) This is ludicrous dancing and drumstick throwing and lyrics about pizza. And I highly doubt that anybody else at Jazz Fest will be dressed as poorly. Cole was sporting a black t-shirt tucked into tiger-striped pajama pants and dark shades. It’s a look. Point is, KNOWER’s show is definitely not anybody else’s show. They are compulsively unpredictable. The most illustrative moment in the show came when Louis Cole called out to the audience to see if his cousin was still around (he’s got family here, shout out to the Coles). Turns out, Cole’s cousin is also an excellent drummer. When he joined the band onstage, the band started playing a song he hadn’t heard before. The premise of this song is that the band only plays for a few bars at a time before the drummer takes a solo. He goes wildly off in a direction that has nothing to do with the song itself, then counts the band back in and we’re back to where we started. So it would have presumably continued for several iterations, but in this case, the two Coles switched out on the drum stool every time the band started up again. And it worked. This kind of logistical fast-and-looseness only works for groups of supremely confident musicians. And they all are — the three touring band members included. Fun shit.

Literature, etc.

E.H. Gombrich: The Story of Art — Two flights and a quiet evening later, I know 99% more about art than before. As a person with very little visual imagination, who tends not to pay much attention to what’s happening in front of my eyes, this book made me see differently. Now I feel like I can go to a gallery and just enjoy the pictures, rather than spend 90% of my time reading the curatorial text. I’ve even started to look at photographs differently, making careful note of the compositions in news photos, and the expressions on people’s faces. (Check out the sneer on the woman near the centre of this story’s top photo. Or the play of light in this one.) This in turn has given me a greater appreciation of the work of painters who conceive of and craft scenes like this from scratch, or nearly. It seems to me that the biggest barrier to entry for appreciating works by painters like Vermeer and Rembrandt is how accustomed we are to seeing similar images in photographs. At the time, it must have seemed like magic for a painter to conceive of a scene like this one, with all of its personalities and reactions conveyed as if they’re of a piece with each other. Nowadays it takes a jolt of realization to fully recognize that a painting like this is the construction of a single mind. The Story of Art’s greatest asset is providing that jolt, without ever resorting to didacticism. This isn’t a book about arguments and value judgements. It is what it says it is: a story. Specifically, it’s the story of dozens of generations of artists trying to solve particular problems, like how best to represent nature in art, or how to convey depth in two dimensions. Gombrich’s central contention is that every artist, whether they know it or not, works inside a set of parameters that pose problems that need to be overcome. And if the artist is a great artist, we admire the resulting work of art for its beauty without even thinking about the reasons the artist had for making the choices they did. If Brian Eno could be bothered to write a survey of the history of art, it might not be so unlike this. Some of the problems solved are things you wouldn’t even think of as problems until you try to imagine a world where they hadn’t been solved. Here’s a crazy insight: think of an Egyptian relief carving. You know the ones I’m talking about — the ones where the head is in profile but the body is front on. You know why they look like that? It’s because the Egyptians hadn’t yet thought through the idea of conveying things as they saw them. Instead, they conveyed them as they thought about them. You can show more of a thing if you show it from different angles simultaneously. These images even have two left feet for this same reason. This is by no means a value judgement. In fact, the 20th century found Picasso doing much the same thing deliberately. One more example: think about what it would have been like to see a painting in perspective for the first time. You’ve never seen depth represented on a flat surface before, and suddenly there it is. Must have been like seeing Avatar. If you’re thinking about reading this book but wondering whether you might be better served by reading something more recent — I kind of can’t help you, because I don’t know any more recent books. But I can counsel you thus: Gombrich was clear-headed and sceptical enough to distrust certain fashions of his age that have come and gone, i.e. that creativity and madness are somehow intertwined. Even if this scepticism also made him discount Warhol, Rauschenberg and the other pop artists whose works still seem penetrating to us today, it seems to me a fair tradeoff. Gombrich’s outlook makes this book far less of its time than it might be. Of course, it is parochial in the way that all mainstream histories of creative endeavour have been until quite recently: people of colour are underrepresented save for the chapters on prehistoric art, which to Gombrich’s credit he clearly admires. And women are almost entirely absent — though even a critic writing in 1950 couldn’t ignore the stunning works of Käthe Kollwitz. The histories of these artists are something I’ll need to supplement my reading to learn. Gombrich saves his best writing for last. The final chapter of his original book (which, in my 16th edition is followed by an additional chapter on developments since then) sums up Gombrich’s idea that art tends to form around a central core of requirement, either from a patron or a flummoxing artistic problem: “We know that in the more distant past all works of art gained shape round such a vital core. It was the community which set the artists their tasks — be it the making of ritual masks or the building of cathedrals, the painting of portraits or the illustration of books. It matters comparatively little whether we happen to be in sympathy with all these tasks or not; one need not approve of bison hunting by magic, or the glorification of criminal wars or the ostentation of wealth and power to admire the works of art which were once created to serve such ends. The pearl completely covers the core.” Gombrich, circa 1950 is concerned about the fact that artists now exist for the sole purpose of creating “art with a capital A.” Maybe it’s our fault we don’t understand modern art: “If we do not ask them to do anything in particular, what right have we to blame them if their work appears to be obscure and aimless?” The point is: critics are important. Now that we no longer live in a world that accepts portraiture of the wealthy as great art for our times, there need to be people in the public who hold artists to specific standards. Today, this is a more resonant point than ever. Alex Ross wrote about it in the New Yorker only last year. So, read The Story of Art. You will enjoy yourself, and you will not necessarily even feel that you’re living in the past. A postscript: this is a dense book, and I feel the need to look through it again. So here, for your Googling pleasure, is a list of some of my favourite works featured in Gombrich’s book, upon a quick skim through. I can’t be bothered to link them. There’s only so much work I’m willing to do for y’all. Firstly, I love all of Gombrich’s tailpieces to his chapters, which are all images of artists at work that Gombrich does not comment on at all. It’s a nice touch. Here are more favourites, in order of appearance, with occasional notes: Caravaggio, Saint Matthew (both versions); Pablo Picasso, Cockerel; 19th century Haida chieftain’s house; Inuit dance mask from Alaska; Tutankhamun and his wife (c. 1330 BC); Hagesandros, Athenodoros and Polydoros of Rhodes, Laocoön and his sons (a favourite among favourites; enormously powerful; I desperately want to see it in person); Trojan’s Column (Google close-ups of this; crazily detailed); Court of Lions, Grenada; Mu Yüan, Landscape in moonlight; Liu Ts’ai, Three fishes; Saint Matthew (830 AD; artist unknown, but oh my god it’s practically Van Gogh 100 years early); the Gloucester Candlestick; Amiens Cathedral; Giotto, The Mourning of Christ; Virgin and Child (silver gilt statue, 1339); Paul and Jean de Limbourg, May; Masaccio, Holy Trinity with the Virgin, St. John and donors (the origin point of perspective); Donatello, The Feast of Herod; Jan van Eyck, The Ghent altarpiece; Jan van Eyck, The betrothal of the Arnolfini (there’s a mirror at the back of the painting, in which the painter paints himself painting; this is one of those decisions that seems almost unbearably clever when you think that he’d never seen a photograph); Benozzo Gozzoli, The Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem (one thing I didn’t expect is how colourful pre-Renaissance art can be); Leonardo da Vinci, anatomical studies (not so much for their aesthetic virtues as for their insight into one of the most obsessively probing minds of all time); Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper (it holds up); Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (so does this); Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel ceiling (quite possibly the greatest work of art ever made; there is much to be said for the intersection of skill and spectacle); Correggio, The Holy Night (the most convincing faces in the book); Correggio, The Assumption of the Virgin; Albrecht Dürer, St. Michael’s fight against the dragon (some of these figures could come straight from comics); Grünewald, The Resurrection (Blake before Blake); Albrecht Altdorfer, Landscape (better than landscapes from the heyday of landscapes); Hieronymus Bosch, Paradise and Hell; Federico Zuccaro, window of the Palazzo Zuccari (this one I will link because it’s bonkers for 1592); Giambologna, Mercury; El Greco, The opening of the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse (the most shockingly modern thing from before the 19th century); Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Peasant Wedding; Anthony van Dyck, Charles I of England (so dashing); Diego Valázquez, Las Meninas (so meta; so Borges); Frans Hals, Pieter van den Broecke (maybe my favourite portrait in the book; very loveable); Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-portrait (c. 1655-8; probably objectively better than the previous portrait, but I still like it a little less); Jan Steen, The christening feast; Jan Vermeer, The kitchen maid; Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa; Melk monastery; Francisco Goya, The giant; William Blake, The ancient of days; Joseph Mallord William Turner, Steamer in a snowstorm (basically impressionism); John Constable, The haywain; Claude Monet, Gare St-Lazare; Katsushika Hokusai, Mount Fuji seen behind a cistern; Victor Horta, Hotel Tassel; Vincent van Gogh, Cornfield with cypresses; Ferdinand Hodler, Lake Thun; Frank Lloyd Wright, 540 Fairoaks Avenue; Käthe Kollwitz, Need; Paul Klee, A tiny tale of a tiny dwarf; Piet Mondrian, Composition with red, black, blue, yellow and grey; Marc Chagall, The cellist; Grant Wood, Spring turning; René Magritte, Attempting the impossible; Salvador Dali, Apparition of face and fruit-bowl on a beach; Jackson Pollock, One (number 31, 1950); Zoltan Kemeny, Fluctuations; Giorgio Morandi, Still life (1960); Henri Cartier-Bresson, Aquila degli Abruzzi; David Hockney, My mother, Bradford, Yorkshire, 4th May, 1982, terracotta army.

Stephen Rodrick: “The Trouble with Johnny Depp” — A showbiz tale for the ages. This story of how Hollywood’s most bankable star went broke is worth a read even if you’re not interested in him. Rodrick at one point compares Depp to Elvis, which is very apt. Johnny Depp, circa 2017, comes off here like a man child with access to vast riches and no sense of personal responsibility. This piece also casts Depp’s domestic abuse allegations in a larger context of increasingly troubling behaviour.

Podcasts

On the Media: “Chaos Agents,” “Polite Oppression” & “The Worst Thing We’ve Ever Done” — The first two are standard episodes, and good ones. But “The Worst Thing We’ve Ever Done” is a feature episode with no specific time hook, and those are often the best episodes of this show. This one is about America’s insistence on rewriting history and not confronting the reality and aftermath of slavery. The comparison between this problem and Germany’s total acknowledgement of the Holocaust has been made before, but maybe never as deeply as here. For one thing, this episode brings up the fact that the Allies dictated the narrative for Germany going forward — an example of history being written correctly by the winners. But the rest of the episode points out that this is a coincidence of history, and it isn’t always like that.

Reply All: “An Ad for the Worst Day of Your Life” — Alex Goldman helps a guy whose wife died tragically take down the clickbaity ads that take advantage of his story. In the process, he elucidates the shady (but very profitable) world of those ad boxes with terrible stories in them. It’s good.

Decoder Ring: “Clown Panic” — Willa Paskin is a welcome addition to the pop culture podcast world. This show is turning out to be as much about analysis as storytelling, and that is good. This is the story of how scary clowns became more ubiquitous than happy clowns and what that says about us.

Song by Song: “Wire Stripped Special” & “Straight to the Top” — Sometimes this show is a bit dumb and I wonder why I listen to it. The idea that anybody could ever listen to “Straight to the Top” and see it as anything other than a complete piss take is ludicrous to me. Oh well.

Theory of Everything: “It is happening again” — More stories of fictional artists from Benjamen Walker. No complaints.

99% Invisible: “Post-Narco Urbanism” & “Right to Roam” — Two stories from two continents that aren’t North America. Nice. The Latino USA collaboration “Post-Narco Urbanism” is especially good, outlining how urban planning played a role in rehabilitating a Colombian neighborhood after the fall of Pablo Escobar’s cartel.

In the Dark: “Discovery” — This season of In the Dark has something that the first season of Serial had that no true crime podcast I’ve heard since (including Serial season two and In the Dark season one) has had, which is the occasional incursion of innocuous but surreal investigative side streets. In this episode, the team speaks to more than six different men named Willie James Hemphill, searching for one person with that name who might be connected with the case. It’s like something Peter Greenaway would write. I’m not sure if this or Caliphate is my favourite podcast of the year so far, but it’s a two-show race.

Ear Hustle: “So Long” — Stories of people getting out of prison. It takes a lot of planning. Imagine dating. This is really good.

Slow Burn: “What If Nixon Had Been Good At Football?” & “Live in New York” — The first is a crossover with Mike Pesca’s new sports podcast Upon Further Review, which sounds good but not good enough to impel me to listen to multiple episodes of a sports podcast. The live episode doesn’t really add much to the series. I am looking forward to season two, though. My lack of enthusiasm for these specific episodes notwithstanding, Slate’s killing it these days. This has been followed by Decoder Ring and Lend Me Your Ears, both of which I love. Good work, Slate.

Code Switch: “Immigration Nation” — This is a long-term look back on the times when anti-immigration fervor reached similar heights as it has in America today. History. It’s useful.

The Truth: “The Jesse Eisenberg Effect” — Starring the real Jesse Eisenberg! As the fake Jesse Eisenberg. This is the best episode of The Truth I’ve ever heard, and it’s basically an episode of Upon Further Review. It’s the fully dramatized, and hugely exaggerated, story of how Jesse Eisenberg’s letter to his favourite basketball player ruined the world. I love it. Pick of the week.

We Came to Win: “How Soccer Made It in America” — Another underdog story, and a perfectly good one. But I think I’m done with this show now.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Songs of Summer” — An NPR Music takeover featuring a great many songs that I cannot rightly say I care about. I dunno. Some years I’m in new music mode. Some years I’m not. 2018 isn’t a new music year.

Home of the Brave: “Lick the Crickets by Larry Massett,” “Rumble Strip: It’s a Podcast” & “End of Season One: A Walk On the Beach” — “Lick the Crickets” is bonkers and I don’t understand it, nor do I feel the need to. I need more of this Larry Massett fellow in my life. Rumble Strip isn’t for me. But the story Scott Carrier replays to finish off his “first season” of Home of the Brave is beautiful. Just a conversation with an old friend as they walk along the beach. Simple. It’s the sort of thing people should do more of.

Trump Con Law: “Taking the Fifth” — This ties the Hollywood blacklist to the Russia campaign — but only conceptually! Though, I really would like to hear that conspiracy theory. Anyway, it’s really good.

Bullseye: “Special: The Wire!” — I don’t know if I’ve ever heard an interview with Wendell Pierce before, but that man is interesting. This whole episode is great and made me want to watch The Wire again. Wherever will I find the time.

StartUp: “Arlan Hamilton” episodes 1 & 2 — I’ll always give a new season of StartUp a shot. But as interesting as Arlan Hamilton is, this show has become Gimlet’s “business podcast.” It’s no longer about the real-time tribulations of startup founders who may or may not succeed, like it was in its epochal first season and its hugely underrated second. For now, I’m out.