Author Archives: Matthew

The Survivors: Part One

A few years ago I went home to Fort McMurray and came back to Vancouver with many boxes of my old stuff, including a frankly unthinkable number of CDs. From the ages of about 12 to 23 I spent a pretty spectacular amount of my parents’ money on these things, and eventually an almost as spectacular amount of my own. Do I regret this? What would be the point? The truth is, I think I learned an enormous amount from all that dedicated searching and focussed listening. I don’t know if I’d be able to do the work I’ve done over the last few years without that experience. 

But things change, don’t they? I’ve taken up vinyl collecting because I am a complete reprobate, and I have an Apple Music subscription even though I know that streaming services are bad and wrong. These days, the only device I own that can actually play CDs is a MacBook that barely boots up. It feels inappropriate somehow to be surrounded by them. I just did a quick count, counting double albums as two and all the discs in box sets separately, etc. I’m sure I wasn’t completely accurate but I have somewhere in the neighbourhood of 624 discs here, none of which I will ever play again. I’m beginning to feel like it’s time to find these discs a new home. 

In fact, I offloaded perhaps a third of my collection as soon as I got it to Vancouver. The 600-plus discs that remain here are the Survivors. Not all of them survived for the noblest of reasons. I prioritized keeping CDs with potentially useful liner notes or especially beautiful design. I evicted many wonderful albums thanks to bare bones packaging. Now my shelves are lined with strange absences and ghosts. Marvellous recitals by Horowitz and Richter didn’t take their place alongside splashier sets by fellow legends. A tepid Jon Anderson live album was allowed to stay while Olias of Sunhillow was cast out. A previously wide-ranging jazz collection is now somehow missing Louis Armstrong. No amount of pretty album art could keep Dream Theater on my shelves, but their absence is felt nevertheless. 

In retrospect, I wish I’d taken a catalogue of what I had. Now that I’m once again looking to downsize, I feel an obligation to do right by the Survivors. In the spirit of Marie Kondo, I feel I ought to thank these CDs before I bid them farewell. So: in this series I’m going to go through every CD I still own, alphabetically by primary artist,* and take stock of the memory and influence I associate with each. And because I can’t resist the urge to quantify, I’ll offer a “measure of gratitude” for every artist before thanking them and sending them on their way. 

Claudio Abbado 
Vivaldi/Haydn (with Gidon Kremer, Adolph Herseth, etc.)

I’ve filed this under Abbado because of the rules,* but I bought it because of Adoph Herseth. Once upon a time, though few believe it now, I wanted to be a professional trumpet player. ‘Bud’ Herseth was the longtime principal trumpet of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and a person I was primed to idolize by every authority figure in my life. The fact remains that no matter how well he plays it, the Haydn trumpet concerto is kind of a boring piece of music. It’s also probably the most revered piece of solo music written for that instrument, which is why I don’t play it anymore. 
Measure of gratitude: Moderate. Thank you. 

Allpa Kallpa
Recuerdo a Chico Mendes

Growing up in Fort McMurray, our long weekend getaway of choice was to drive five hours south to Edmonton, the closest proper city. I loved the West Edmonton Mall. Not the stores, mind you, but everything else about it: the kitschy spectacles scattered through the mall’s massive corridors. The pirate ship, the whale, the fire-breathing dragon, the ice rink, the elaborate mini-golf course. And the bands who would occasionally perform by the escalators up to the movie theatre. Allpa Kallpa was one of them, an Andean pan flute ensemble. I harangued my parents to buy their CD and never listened to it. Years later I did. I feel like someday I might decide to explore the music of the Andes further, and when I do it will be because of a hazy memory of Allpa Kallpa at the West Edmonton Mall. It will not be because of this CD specifically. 
Measure of gratitude: Negligible. Thank you.

Maurice André
Trumpet Concertos (with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra)

Adolph Herseth (see Claudio Abbado) may have been my various mentors’ favourite symphonic trumpeter. But as a soloist there was nobody who could beat Maurice André. This recording with the most prestigious conductor/orchestra combo of their day is more entertaining than a whole record of trumpet concertos ought to be because of André’s jolly, seemingly effortless playing. I haven’t listened to it for years but maybe I should. One of the few trumpet recordings I’d recommend to people who don’t play the trumpet. 
Measure of gratitude: Moderate. Thank you. 

Ian Anderson
Thick as a Brick 2

Ian Anderson was of course the frontman, singer, songwriter and flautist of Jethro Tull. I have already written, self-indulgently and at length, about what Jethro Tull meant to me growing up. I may have called them “the band that introduced me to myself,” and I deeply regret being the sort of person who would say things like that in a public forum. Nevertheless, here I am again, writing self-indulgently and at length about my music collection. The fact that I have this tendency is probably Jethro Tull’s fault. Self-indulgence and length are two qualities I learned to admire thanks to Jethro Tull, and particularly to Thick as a Brick. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on that when we get to letter ‘J.’ But for now the subject at hand is Ian Anderson’s solo album Thick as a Brick 2, about which I have very little to say. It struck me as a cash grab at the time: the sort of thing you release when your best and most popular music is several decades behind you and you need a gimmick to drive some record sales. I haven’t listened to it for nearly a decade, and I’m not as upset about it now as I was then. Still, I remember it as a wilful misunderstanding of what was interesting and great about one of my favourite albums ever.
Measure of gratitude: Negative gratitude. Wish I’d never heard it. Thank you.

Jon Anderson
Live from La La Land

Another day, another solo album by a prog rock frontman called Anderson. The way I feel about this is similar to TAAB2 (see above) in the sense that it is a document of faded glory. Anderson sounds fine on this live recording, but I can’t help associating it with the one time I saw him live. My ex bought the tickets as a gift for my 19th birthday. It was at a casino in Edmonton, which is depressing in itself. Worse, Anderson was ill at the time and had been hospitalized for respiratory problems the previous evening. He could only manage about twenty minutes onstage. Frankly he sounded great, but he was visibly about to fall asleep. Around this time, his old band Yes was touring with the singer from a Yes tribute band in his place. This was around the time I realized that it may have been a mistake to exclusively admire musicians who started their careers twenty to three hundred years before my birth. 
Measure of gratitude: Negligible. Thank you. 

Johann Sebastian Bach
Sacred Masterpieces (John Eliot Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists)
The Art of Fugue/Musical Offering (Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields)
A State of Wonder (Glenn Gould, complete Goldberg Variations, 1955 and 1981)

The most substantial item in my small Bach collection is the John Eliot Gardiner set, which is a budget-priced 22-disc box. By disc quantity, it’s the largest single item on my shelves. I’ve only listened to most of it once. It was a Christmas gift, and I spent a big chunk of one winter holiday listening through the discs sequentially, like a list of chores. There is music I adore here, like the final chorus of the Christmas Oratorio, the opening chorus of the St. John Passion and the Agnus Dei from the Mass in B Minor. But the cantatas all blend together after a while, no doubt partially because of the insane, dutiful way I first listened to them. I have been on the precipice of loving this music for years, without ever quite getting there. The Bach I love is smaller in scale and more conceptual, like the Musical Offering. I also love the version of Bach that Glenn Gould adopted as a muse. Gould’s Bach, including but not limited to these famous Goldberg Variations recordings, is more exciting to me than anybody else’s. 
Measure of gratitude: Substantial. Thank you. 

Syd Barrett
The Madcap Laughs

There are two Syd Barretts floating around the periphery of “classic rock.” One of them is the tragic hero of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here: a distant memory, framed in terms of the success his band achieved after they left him behind. The other is contained on these solo records, where he isn’t merely a legend told by an unreliable narrator but an actual material presence to accept on his own terms. This Syd Barrett is not a tragic figure, though the studio banter on The Madcap Laughs seems like it’s trying to mould him into one. He is a brilliant, intuitive songwriter whose unforced eccentricity unlocked a door that David Bowie and Kate Bush walked through. There’s nothing like this.
Measure of gratitude: Enormous. Thank you. 

Béla Bartók
Concerto for Orchestra/Music for Strings etc. (Esa-Pekka Salonen, Los Angeles Philharmonic)

Both works on this disc have to contend with the troubling history of my music education, but astonishingly enough I have positive associations with both of them. I learned the first trumpet part of the Concerto for Orchestra for an exam, and the first movement of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was a central plank of one of my music theory courses. The Concerto is great fun to play, so much that I suspect Bartók intentionally wrote it with that in mind. And that opening movement of Music for Strings is modernism at its expressive best: the sort of music that reveals more of itself to adore when you pick it apart. In general I enjoy classical music less than I did when I bought this, but Bartók is one of the few composers that I’ve actually come to enjoy more. 
Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you. 

Howard Bashaw
Hard Rubber, Hard Elastic

I performed one of the works on this disc in Edmonton, Music for Trumpet and Piano, with Howard Bashaw’s input. That was actually a pretty great experience. It’s a great piece too, performed on this recording by one of my teachers, Russell Whitehead. It’s far from the best thing on this recording though: that’s Three Movements for the Hard Rubber Orchestra, written for a Vancouver-based ensemble that I’ve heard more from since moving to this city. I listen to that work pretty frequently. Bashaw is a bit of a composer’s composer, but I really think more people ought to give this a shot. It’s heady, but it’s also playful and energetic. 
Measure of gratitude: Substantial. Thank you. 

David Bates
Handel/Vivaldi: Dixit Dominus (with La Nuova Musica, Lucy Crowe)

This is the first of many CDs we’ll come to that I brought home from work when work didn’t need them. It’s a pair of good performances of Baroque works, of which the Vivaldi is especially interesting because it was only recently determined to be by Vivaldi. I really don’t have much more to say about this than that. It’s a “good classical recording,” of which I have many that I don’t especially care about. 
Measure of gratitude: Negligible. Thank you. 

The Beach Boys
Pet Sounds

I’m conscious of the fact that this collection really makes me seem a good 40 years older than I am. I feel like for lots of kids, discovering music is at least partially a way of differentiating themselves from their parents. I wasn’t an especially rebellious child. My musical discoveries were mainly from my parents’ generation, but with the aid of the internet. Pet Sounds was one of the absences from my parents’ collection that I noticed first, and I rectified it myself. Nowadays it’s hard to talk about it without veering into either the breathless boomer enthusiasm for it or the mild exasperation of later cohorts. I tend towards the former. If you can look past the hype and the ambition, you’ll find a warm and generous pop album that ought to be loved more and admired less. 
Measure of gratitude: Substantial. Thank you. 

The Beatles
The Beatles in Mono (13-disc box)
Yellow Submarine
Let It Be
Let It Be (Naked)
Abbey Road
Past Masters

You will have noted some ambivalence in the above remarks on the Beach Boys. I can’t bring myself to feel that same ambivalence towards the Beatles. I adore them unambiguously. They are as suffocatingly acclaimed in their milieu as the next artist on this alphabetical list is in his. (One guess.) But that apparently doesn’t matter to me at all. I love the Beatles so much it ruined my life. When I discovered them at age ten or whatever, they were the only band that meant as much to everybody else as they did to me. A few years back I used to joke that all I wanted was for every single person in the world to love me more than they loved anything else. Happily I’ve gotten over that, but it was the Beatles’ fault. 
Measure of gratitude: Incalculably vast. Thank you.


*This list is alphabetical by “primary artist,” which is defined as the top element on this list that is applicable to the whole disc:

  • Band name
  • Solo artist surname
  • Composer
  • Chamber Ensemble
  • Soloist
  • Conductor
  • Orchestra

Ghost Echoes, copiously annotated

To be clear, I know nobody asked for this. The audience for the first season of my podcast Ghost Echoes was fairly small, which was probably inevitable. It’s a very weird show. So I don’t have people beating down my door for me to go through my process in detail. But I want to. Ghost Echoes season one was a huge undertaking that’s been occupying me in one way or another for five years. I think it’s only natural I should want to reflect a bit–as much on the stuff that didn’t work as the stuff that did. Also, I do wish more creative people would break down their work the way Kieron Gillen does, because it’s really valuable reading for other people who want to make stuff. So, consider this ten percent public service, ninety percent exercise in vanity. 

Oh, and if you’re looking for me to give away the secret rules, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. 

First, some background. The idea for Ghost Echoes came to me in 2015, and it was supposed to be a blog. I was reading a lot of Elizabeth Sandifer and Chris O’Leary, whose blogs both followed the format of “discuss a body of work, piece by piece, in chronological order.” For Sandifer, the pieces were Doctor Who stories; for O’Leary, David Bowie songs. (Sandifer calls this way of writing “psychochronography,” if you must know.) 

The thing I loved most about both writers was the way they turned the comprehensiveness of their projects into a feature, and not a bug. Not every Doctor Who story or David Bowie song is as interesting as every other. So, if you’re going to cover each and every one, you’re going to have to find an unconventional approach to keep things fresh. Instead of simply discussing the topic at hand, Sandifer and O’Leary discuss an entire world that’s adjacent to their main subject. Their own personal lives and pet obsessions are fair game as well. (You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Doctor Who characters reimagined as elements from the cosmology of William Blake.) These blogs can be a little self-indulgent, but they’re also risky and complex. They can be thrilling to read, in a way that conventional arts and culture journalism almost never is. 

I thought I could have a crack at this. All I needed was an appropriate set of cultural objects to cover one by one and we’d be off. Enter the secret rules–and hey presto, there it is: a decades-spanning, eclectic list of LPs made by a cast of thousands ranging from celebrities to the hopelessly obscure. I had the subject for my blog. The only thing that made it different from the ones I’d seen before was that I could never tell anybody what that subject actually is.

The working title of my blog was “Infinitesimal Gradations,” Christ alive. I’d written one post when another pair of obsessions made me switch gears. Nate DiMeo’s The Memory Palace was the first podcast to convince me that one-voice scripted podcasts can actually work. DiMeo’s show tells historical stories, generally without any interviews or archival tape. It’s the sort of thing where, when you describe it, you might think it doesn’t need to be audio–it could work just fine on the page. But DiMeo’s writing is a sort of performance poetry. It demands to be heard, not read. Maybe, I thought, my psychochronography project could work in this format instead. Hearing Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This, which was even more similar to what I had in mind, sealed the deal. 

While I was considering all this, I’d been working on a pair of comedy podcasts with a group of writers I knew: The Syrup Trap Pod Cast and Mark’s Great American Road Trip. Neither one made it past five episodes, but they got me used to making scripted radio set in imaginary sonic environments, rather than the documentary-style stuff I was making at my actual job. And they got me writing music, for the first time in my life. 

At this point the ingredients were all there: Sandifer, O’Leary, DiMeo, Longworth, my dodgy sound design skills, and the secret rules. I changed the name to Ghost Echoes. 

All of this took two years. By 2017, I was ready to make some radio.

No. 1 – The Great Learning

There’s a fantastic old video of Stephen Sondheim giving a masterclass on how to sing “My Friends” from Sweeney Todd. He talks about how he wrote lots of ‘s’ sounds into the song’s opening lines to give it a whispered quality, and amp up the trancelike mood of that scene. “Thesssse are my friendsssssssseee how they glissssten…” 

So, when I needed to draw my audience into a theatrically trancelike mood, where better to turn for advice than to the greatest songwriter in the history of the Broadway stage? 

Ssssingerssss consssstructed thissss ssssonic casssstle out of ‘ifssss’… out of possssibilitiessss and happensssstansssse.” 

Somewhere in the forgotten depths of a Google doc, there’s a draft of the script that goes on like that throughout the entire first section: with at least one ‘s’ sound in every word, aside from articles and conjunctions and such. Obviously it didn’t work. But the first line of my Sssstephen Ssssondheim draft made the final cut, and I think it does the job: it establishes an atmosphere of weirdness. It keeps the audience from starting to think of this narrator, whoever he is, as a friend. (More on that when we get to episode three.)

But even more importantly, that idea of only using words with ‘s’ sounds in them just helped me start writing. It reduced the number of words that were available from a terrifying near infinity to a comparably manageable subset. Paying this much attention to the letters that make up words may seem a little eccentric. But as a prescription for the dread of the blank page, I highly recommend it. 

My point in bringing this up is that the script writing process started with the arbitrary imposition… of a rule. I am very serious about walking the talk. And I thought it was important to keep my mind trained on the theme of rules and rule-based creativity while I wrote this script, because the business this first episode needed to attend to included:

  • Explaining what Cardew’s The Great Learning is and how it works
  • Telling the story of how he got to the point in his career where he founded the Scratch Orchestra, and
  • Establishing the premise of the podcast

The thematic connective tissue between all of these is rules. The fact that the very first album prescribed by the secret rules happens to also be an example of rule-based creativity was practically dumb luck. As soon as I started reading up on The Great Learning, I realized that all I had to do was explain and advocate for Cardew’s approach to music, and I would effectively also be explaining and advocating for myself. I’m still slightly in awe of how elegantly everything came together. I really had nothing to do with it—the rules did all the work. 

Okay, I will take credit for one thing. The rules did not discover Emma Cons. That was all me. You can get from Cardew to Cons in two jumps on Wikipedia. And once I’d supplemented that reading with a proper trip to the library, I realized that putting Cons in the story would help to underline another important theme: that people are generally curious, intelligent and open minded when given the resources to be. Cons and Cardew prove that this is a valuable principle in social reform and in the arts. And it’s a very important principle to me. (I know I sound extremely public radio right now, but note that public radio is conspicuously not the forum in which Ghost Echoes eventually appeared.) 

Essentially, the connection between our three main characters (Cardew, Cons, and me) boils down to this: trust the audience. That’s another rule of Ghost Echoes, and the main purpose of this episode is to ensure that rule isn’t secret at all. 

A final note on the music: the Ghost Echoes theme song went through many variations throughout the season. Six out of the ten episodes have their own unique version. But this original one is my personal favourite. Partially it’s the way that it fits together with Cardew’s music. But mainly I love it because I made it entirely in GarageBand on an iPad. As a mediocre but very rigorously trained musician, I hesitated to use a piece of software that comes preinstalled on a mass market consumer electronic device. But I also didn’t (and still don’t) really know how to record and mix music the professional way. So I swallowed my pride, freed myself to work within yet another useful restriction, and it turned out great. There’s life advice in there somewhere. 

No. 2 – Roxy Music

In general, the famous albums were the hardest to deal with. For every episode of Ghost Echoes, I strove to come up with some kind of premise that went beyond “so, what’s the deal with this record?” But I felt like that was especially important with the albums by famous artists like Roxy Music, John Cale, and Nico. Enough has been said about all of them that I personally have nothing much to add. But the rules dictate that I must deal with these famous musicians somehow. So I’m obligated to at least find a novel way of framing what many people already know. I think the results of this were fairly mixed, and episode two sits right in the middle of the pack. 

I figured out the premise for this one after watching Ken Russell’s wonderful documentary about British pop artists, Pop Goes the Easel. Russell made this film in 1962 for the BBC program Monitor. It was one of a slew of films he made for the BBC that reimagined what an arts-focussed broadcast documentary could be. There are no dour talking heads or garrulous voiceover. Instead, Russell takes inspiration from his subjects and presents a collage-like cavalcade of arresting images, intercut with footage of the artists at work and moments of pure fancy, as when all of the artists in the film gather at a carnival to play bumper cars. 

I thought I could do something like that: a pop art collage about an album full of pop art-inspired collages. So, for good and ill, it’s got the most hyperactive sound design I’ve ever done, it’s full of archival tape from previous documentaries (including Russell’s) and it contains a frankly brazen amount of copyrighted material. If I ever receive a cease and desist, it will probably be for this. 

The conceit of “four short films about Roxy Music” came from the theme song–I’d come up with a fun silent movie honky tonk version of the theme, and I thought it would sound good with a film projector sound over it. So I needed a reason to start the episode with a film projector sound. Also, credit where it’s due to François Girard.

With those two conceits in place–the pop art collage and the four short films–I realized there would be parts of this episode where I would have to try and convey the sense of old Hollywood glamour that Bryan Ferry was so attached to. My reach kind of exceeded my grasp, here. In retrospect, I could have drawn on all the hours of Karina Longworth I’ve listened to and I might have come up with something. Instead, most of this episode is a shameless Nate DiMeo impression, the Roxy movie palace section in particular. When you’re writing in a very heightened register, there’s a fine line between poignant and cloying. DiMeo’s really good at staying on the right side of that line. In 2017 I hadn’t really figured it out, and I kind of still haven’t. 

Listening now, I hear a few things that mark this episode out as something I made a few years ago, with a bit less experience. The overcooked writing is one. Others include the omnipresent reverse cymbals, and the bit where I name all the rock stars who went to art school accompanied by a montage of tiny musical fragments. Those are choices that feel kind of hacky to me now. With the first episode, the stars aligned, and I managed to squeak out something I’m still proud of a few years later. That’s pretty rare. I can’t say that’s true of this one, although I think it’s got some good bits, particularly the stuff about Wagner: an unexpected recurring character. 

Incidentally, I cut an entire section shortly before the episode went live, about King Crimson. I released a fragment of that section as a bonus episode towards the end of the season to buy me some time to finish the finale. In the bonus episode, I offer an explanation for why I cut this scene, then totally contradict myself mere minutes later. The real reason I cut it is because it was boring. 

No. 3 – Little Red Record

The most challenging formal element of Ghost Echoes was trying to reconcile the fact that it is a third-person, exposition heavy, narrator-driven podcast with my desire for it to include an element of ambiguity and uncertainty. Whew, even trying to frame that in a sentence nearly made my brain fall out. I’ll try to elaborate. 

Let’s think about movies for a second. Most Hollywood blockbusters don’t force you to think all that deeply about how the story is being told; you’re just meant to sink into it. You can basically take for granted that everything that appears on screen, notwithstanding the occasional heavily signposted dream sequence, is “true” within the world of the movie. And story threads that seem unrelated in the beginning always connect in the end. 

But filmmakers also have a tradition of doing the opposite of this. Why are the integers 1 to 100 shown on screen sequentially throughout the duration of Drowning by Numbers? Why are large chunks of Shakespeare’s Henry IV interpolated into My Own Private Idaho? “What is the purpose of this jar? Why did I paint it this certain way???” 

It happens in prestige television, too: what’s with that scene where Don Draper nearly steps into an empty elevator shaft? The answer is not clear. You’re meant to come up with your own interpretation–or maybe you’re not. Even if you don’t, and you remain unclear forever, all of those examples are still satisfying, and they make sense in a sort of dream logic way. As Flann O’Brien put it, their components may be “entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author,” but this in no way invalidates the piece. 

I think this tradition exists in radio as well: obviously in sound art, which seems almost entirely based on unexplained juxtapositions of sound. But I’m sure it also exists in independent radio drama. And I can think of some examples from The Heart

But in general, the kind of radio that features a host or narrator talking directly to the listener (which is to say, almost all radio and almost all podcasts) resists this kind of approach. I think listeners have a notion that when they hear that familiar narratological voice, in the context of nonfiction, they can assume that person is there to explain things to them. They assume that part of the host’s role is to reconcile away any ambiguity and close the loop on the story–or at least to clearly lay out any remaining questions in a straightforward way, Radiolab-style

These assumptions are very understandable. When you tell a story with your voice on the radio, you’re basically doing the same thing as we’ve been doing at campfires and at children’s bedsides and in pubs since time immemorial. If you start telling a story to your friends, why would you refuse to fill in the gaps? Why would you insist on going on tangents, then not explaining their significance? Surely you’re telling the story because you want the people around you… to understand the story. Right?

My counterargument to that is based on a premise that many generations of radio professionals wouldn’t buy: that talking into a microphone isn’t necessarily the same as talking to people in person. The conventional advice given to beginning radio hosts is that it’s not a performance, it’s a conversation. Don’t picture a group of people you’re talking to. Picture one person.

Fine, but I prefer to picture zero people. I am not cognizant of any hypothetical audience at all when I tape the narration for Ghost Echoes. (Which may have something to do with why Ghost Echoes does not, in fact, have a very large audience, but that’s neither here nor there.) The narration in Ghost Echoes isn’t the same as a campfire story. It isn’t me talking to you. It’s just me talking. I’ve always considered my voice in this podcast to be just one component in an audio collage. The fact that it resembles conventional nonfiction podcast narration is almost a coincidence. 

I suppose what I’m describing isn’t exactly new–it’s something like Brechtian alienation. But that’s a hard thing to do in a medium that so many listeners turn to specifically to form parasocial relationships with the hosts

Anyway: back to that question of ambiguity. If you accept my admittedly bold premise that in the narration I am not actually talking *to* anybody, that should theoretically free me up to do some of the stuff you’re not supposed to do at the pub, i.e. going on long tangents and refusing to explain yourself. And it should therefore allow me to incorporate some element of ambiguity into the story: it should allow me to bypass the listener’s perception that I am talking to them directly, and thus their assumption that I owe them a complete explanation. 

(There is one precedent for this that I’m aware of, namely the quasi-documentary F for Fake by Orson Welles, which is the single greatest and most confounding use of narration in the history of audiovisual media. But don’t take my word for it.)

This third episode (see, we got there) was my first attempt to pull this off. As per the secret rules, it was always going to have something to do with Little Red Record, and its chief architect Robert Wyatt. But I figured I’d throw our old friend Cornelius Cardew back into the pot as well, because I saw some resonances there. I thought it might be fun to just put the two of them beside each other, interleaving their stories, and leave it to the audience’s discretion to determine why I’d done it. 

But I just couldn’t make that work in a way I felt good about. I got some feedback that the first cut of this episode didn’t make a lot of sense and felt sort of unmotivated. And for all the big ideas I just outlined about ambiguity in radio, I actually agreed. 

I think in the end, pulling something like this off takes more trust from the listener than I’ve earned. It takes more sure-handedness as a storyteller than I possess. So instead, I preface. I disclaim. I announce my intentions. And I replace all of this episode’s tasty ambiguity with tedious journalistic affirmations of What You Are About To Hear And Why It Matters. Kill me!

Anyway, this is one of the episodes I’m least proud of. I think it’s objectively better than the Roxy Music episode, mainly because of the Cardew material. But it’s the one that disappointed me most compared to my initial mind movie. It is somehow my mom’s favourite, and I have no idea why.  

No. 4 – For Your Pleasure

After episode three and its attendant frustrations, I quit making Ghost Echoes for two years. I had some rough sketches for this fourth script. I knew what the premise would be. But I didn’t finish and record the script until late 2019, once I’d found a network. The upside of this is that I got a lot better at making radio over those two years. Modestly, I think episodes four and five of Ghost Echoes are the two best pieces of radio I’ve made so far. That’s mainly because I made them in a beautiful golden sliver of time where I had the advantage of two extra years of radio experience, and I also didn’t have the pressure of looming deadlines. (We started dropping episodes once I was halfway done making the season, thinking that would give me a comfortable amount of runway. It did not.) So I’m really sorry if this next bit seems like gloating. I’ll get back to dragging myself soon enough. Promise. 

I’d wanted to make something about the Pygmalion myth for ages, because I just kept seeing it everywhere. Aside from the examples I cited in the episode there’s The Stepford Wives, which I tried to incorporate into the robot sex montage at the end of the episode, but it didn’t work tonally. There’s the marvellous indie game Kentucky Route Zero, which reflects on the legacy of Joseph Wiezenbaum’s ELIZA and relationships with simulations. It also subtly undercuts the whole Pygmalion dynamic by featuring a couple who are, refreshingly, both robots. There’s the Yes song “Turn of the Century.” There’s the real-life story of Davecat and his relationships with two hyperrealistic Japanese sex dolls, as told by Love + Radio

Indeed, the one scene I cut from this episode because it was just a little too gross was about the origins of the Japanese term “Datch waifu,” used to refer to modern sex dolls. They say that Dutch sailors in centuries past pioneered the practice of using rag dolls as sex surrogates when they were away at sea. Ergo, Datch waifu. Dutch wives. Cutting this segment deprived me of the opportunity to reference yet another Wagner opera (The Flying Dutchman) and it also meant I lost my favourite line in the entire draft script: “Remember, there is no such thing as the Dutch Hygiene Museum.” 

Anyway, the whole premise is very Feminism 101–teetering on the precipice of mansplaining. (At least, I hope it only teetered.) But I had never seen a whole bunch of these stories all lined up in a row. And it seemed like an opportunity to do something that connected to the album in question, Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure, without focussing on it specifically. So I decided to go for it. It solved the problem of how to deal with a very famous album in a novel way. For Your Pleasure is probably the most revered record I covered this season, and I ignored almost all of it. Worked fine. 

I don’t have much else to say about this, except to point out one of my favourite moments of original music in the whole season. The music in the Ovid section, almost at the start of the episode, is made up entirely of mandolin samples lasting an absolute maximum of three seconds apiece. The Philharmonia Orchestra, god bless them, have made a massive sample library available of single notes at multiple dynamic levels from every instrument in the orchestra, plus a few auxiliary players like mandolin. But even the most sustained long notes on offer are of such teensy weensy lengths that if you want held notes, your mix ends up looking like this: 

It was worth it, I think. The moment where this mandolin music comes back for a second appearance in the Bernard Shaw segment, to mark the moment when Eliza breaks free of the story as told by Ovid, is probably the closest I’ve ever come to being Jad Abumrad.

No. 5 – The Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays the Popular Classics

At first I didn’t want to admit that this was the best episode of Ghost Echoes, because it was so easy to make. There’s no question: it was straightforwardly the simplest episode to write and produce. And after all the work I’d put into episode four–all those crossfades–I couldn’t bear to think this one was better. But it is. 

To go back even further in my personal history than this episode does, I was on my high school improv team. There’s a famous improv format called the Armando, where the improv team’s scenes are broken up by monologues from a designated speaker. Each monologue inspires the next scene. I remember learning that there was a format similar to the Armando called, maybe, the Miranda? The Melinda? I can’t find any reference to either online. The main difference is that in the Miranda (let’s call it that) the monologist is expected to deliver a final monologue at the end of the performance that gracefully ties together everything that’s gone before. After forty minutes of improv, this is nearly impossible. But when you see it happen, it’s magic. 

The human brain craves connections, and it’s really good at drawing them. So a big part of my storytelling practice, in Ghost Echoes and elsewhere, is just to take things that don’t seem like they should fit together, put them together anyway, and draw lines between them. That was the case with Emma Cons and Cornelius Cardew, and with Robert Wyatt and Cornelius Cardew, and it’ll come up again in episode six with Robert Calvert and the German military, and in episode ten with Nico and the end of the world. 

The uncharitable word for this is “contrivance.” And in a sense, contrivance is baked into this show’s DNA. To me, it doesn’t matter whether the stories naturally connect or not. The value comes in witnessing the attempt to make a connection anyway. 

But this episode, the best one, contains no contrivance at all. The pieces fit together naturally because they all revolve around a central idea: failure. I first encountered the Portsmouth Sinfonia in a YouTube video called “Orchestra Fail.” I have my own personally scarring experience of musical failure to draw on. And then there’s Tom Johnson’s “Failing.” Those are the three main narrative elements of this episode, and once I’d decided on them, everything else fell into place easily.

I will always have time for stories that attempt to connect a large number of distant dots. But to paraphrase LaMonte Young, there is something to be said for simply drawing a straight line and following it. 

No. 6 – Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters

A note on the marching band rendition of the theme song at the start: I mainly constructed this note by note from that same Philharmonia Orchestra sample pack I used in episode four. But after episode five, I decided that this one needed to have at least a snippet of my trumpet playing in it. So, in the melody line of that theme, and the smoky jazz rendition that comes right after, you’re hearing my first attempts to play the trumpet in more than seven years. It is what it is. 

I had to find a way to record my trumpet playing in my quarantine studio (i.e. closet), so I improvised a mic stand out of a desk lamp, a washcloth, some electrical tape and a loop of kitchen twine to secure it to the hanging rack above and keep it from drooping. I am honestly prouder of that mic stand than I am of this episode. 

I don’t have much to say about the episode itself except that the same phenomenon I complained about with episode three applies here as well. The same as in that episode, I tacked on a preface and an epilogue to try and tie the different story threads together thematically, and it didn’t work. Framing the stories of Robert Calvert and the Lockheed scandal as “two typical post-war stories” is a connection so broad that it’s meaningless. 

There’s a difference between this and episode three, though. This time the two stories I’m telling, Robert Calvert’s biography and the story of the Lockheed bribery scandal, actually are related to each other in a demonstrable, material way: they both directly factor into the album I’m discussing, Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters. But I couldn’t allow that to be the full extent of their connection, because then I’d be veering into territory where I’m just making an episode about an album, without it having any larger significance or interest. So, I resorted to our old friend contrivance. I tried to bring the threads together like you do in that improv game, the Miranda. (The Mariah?) And the result is faintly disappointing. 

This is the moment where I started struggling to maintain the sense that Ghost Echoes isn’t just about storytelling, but also about ideas. There’s a reason I didn’t start the show with an anecdote, but with a detailed explanation of how a piece of music by Cornelius Cardew actually works under the hood. Unfortunately, at this point I didn’t have any ideas for the show to be about. Which, to my great dismay, leads us to… 

No. 7 – Fear


You know, it’s kind of a miracle that only one episode turned out this badly. 

I’ve actually known John Cale’s Fear longer than any other album I covered this season. I still have my two-CD set of Cale’s complete recordings for Island Records, which I remember buying in my hometown’s one tiny, indifferent music store. You picked up what treasures you could find. But even having listened to this album for fifteen years or more, I could not find the premise for this episode. There was no obvious detail to hone in on, like with For Your Pleasure. There didn’t seem to be any clear opportunities for interleaving narratives like with The Great Learning or Little Red Record. And I’d already done one big pop art collage episode. 

I realized I didn’t have much of a choice but to do what I’d come perilously close to already in the Captain Lockheed episode: I’d have to just discuss the album straightforwardly. I Do Not Like This. It’s not what Ghost Echoes is for. So, in the absence of a premise that would determine the episode’s story content, I decided to impose a purely formal premise instead. 

That premise was inspired by the trailer that I made for the show’s announcement. The trailer was based on the pitch deck I sent around to potential publishers, which was phrased in a mildly snarky Q&A format. So, when I needed to translate it to radio, I figured why not have the questions voiced by a robot, with no explanation. That’ll show people what kind of podcast it is! (One might speculate about this robot’s relationship to the quippy male robot voice that occasionally appears in the right stereo channel, but I’ll leave that as fodder for headcanon.)

A few weeks later, having reached an impasse with Fear, I figured why not extend that idea out for the length of a whole episode. To be clear, I don’t think that was implicitly a bad idea. Listening back to my narration, I admire my commitment to the bit. And I’m glad it offered a chance to tease the secret rules a little more. I’d been neglecting that side of the show for a while. But it still all strikes me as a vaguely amusing way to say absolutely nothing original about music or history. 

Moreover, I can’t help but notice that the robot character’s whole function is to ask me questions and not to offer any perspective or personality of her own. She is a Galatea. I wandered haplessly into the wrong side of my own feminist parable from three episodes prior. I am a jackass, and this episode is one of the worst things I’ve ever made. 

No. 8 – Hallelujah

The situation at this point was that I’d just put out two episodes in a row that I wasn’t especially proud of, I had a pair of good ideas for episodes nine and ten that I knew were going to be incredibly labour intensive, and I was running out of time. I needed episode eight to be good, and also simple to make. Enter the Collection Of Fun Anecdotes: a story format I can do in my sleep. 

I think it worked fine. A lot of crazy things have happened at the Royal Albert Hall, so there was plenty to choose from. I did cut one scene, about Rudolph Dunbar, the first black conductor to appear at the Albert Hall. He’s a fascinating figure, but there are too many lingering questions about his life that are more the business of a biographer than a podcaster looking to put together a four-minute anecdote. So we got the Kray twins instead, and their boxing grandfathers who were both named Jimmy. What a gift. 

All of this did make me feel a little bit like a guy making lists on the internet, but it was perfectly straightforward and it bought me some of the time I needed. There are some bits I’d smooth over if I had my time back. Certainly I’d correct my pronunciation of the poet Simon Vinkenoog’s name. I have no idea where “Vinkenoov” came from. I don’t think any language works that way. 

I guess it’s nice that there’s one episode of Ghost Echoes where my reach didn’t exceed my grasp, because my reach was only about a foot in front of me. I don’t have strong feelings on it one way or the other. 

A couple notes on the music: the synth soundtrack to the scene with Arthur Conan Doyle’s seance is my extremely simplified rendition of “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, a classic of British memorial services that I am very happy I worked in. Also, this is the first episode where I didn’t use my splainin’ music. Generally, whenever I launch into a more abstract section of the script, where there’s no real need for mood setting, I immediately reach for the arpeggiator track of the theme song from episode one. (E.g.: timecode 9:29 in episode five.) It works really well for splainin’. That arpeggiator does not appear anywhere between this episode and the final credits of episode ten, which I assume was a relief for some. 

No. 9 – Lady June’s Linguistic Leprosy

I knew that this whole episode would take place at a house party since episode three, which has a scene at this same house party. (Not a thing you think you’ll get to say as a music history podcaster.) But the significance of that choice had obviously changed by the time I’d started making it. Nobody was hosting parties anymore. On the surface, this episode is about the wonderful June Campbell Cramer. But really, it’s an elegy for all the 2020 chilli nights I never got to have. 

Here’s something else that’s been weird for me throughout the pandemic: normally I like to listen to podcasts something like this one. I like immersive, story-driven, crafted podcasts with lots of music and sound. But this year, I suddenly developed a nearly exclusive taste for roundtable chat shows. Over the past few months, I have listened to so many hours of podcasts from the McElroy family that I had no ethical choice but to finally become a MaxFun member. All I want to do is listen to those good good boys play Dungeons & Dragons with their dad

Obviously, Ghost Echoes is never going to be the kind of show that can offer that sort of casual companionship. It is precisely the sort of thing I disavowed earlier, in my reflection on episode three. But just this once, I thought it might be nice to talk to the listener as if both they and I are actually people. So there’s our premise: you and me, at a party we couldn’t possibly have been invited to–even in the before times. 

It took a bit more imagination than other episodes. I don’t know what the interior of that flat looked like, whether it actually had a paisley sofa, or whether Robert Graves was on the bookshelf. Call it historical fiction. Someday, on another podcast with different aims, I’ll track down somebody who was actually there and see how close I came. 

It is the only episode where all of the sound is diegetic, owing to the goof where I give my guest wireless earbuds. It’s a bit, sure, but it’s also a way to integrate a music mix without breaking the premise. The other music you hear throughout the episode, the background music at the party, is just some junk I made on my iPad and digital piano. Both pieces of mood music are shameless Caravan rips: “Nine Feet Underground” at the start, “Winter Wine” a bit later. Caravan was a band that fluttered at the edges of Lady June’s scene. But they’re a heck of a lot easier to impersonate than Soft Machine. The music is just low enough in the mix that you don’t hear my terrible organ soloing.

This turned out to be one of the season’s simpler episodes, but I actually like it a lot. Plus, I feel like the bit about the balloon floating all the way over Europe is my first successful Nate DiMeo impression, so perhaps I’ve atoned for the misfires in episode two. 

No. 10 – The End

So, listen. I started making this show in 2015. Back then, the claim that “people are generally smart, open-minded and curious” wasn’t quite as hard a sell as it is these days. But honestly, most of the time I still believe that. I think it’s probably best to conduct oneself as if it’s true, even if it’s not. But I don’t blame anybody who thinks I’m full of shit.

Anyway, I made my bed, and I found myself tasked with producing an inherently idealistic series during the Year Of Our Lord Two Thousand And Twenty: a year when it makes a lot more sense to be cynical. Still, I wanted the season to end where it started. Specifically, I wanted it to end as far away from cynicism as possible. I wanted to express, if only through force of rhetoric, and even though it is a shameless platitude, that people are still worth believing in: even if there are no indications that this is true, and even if we have absolutely no cosmic importance. I cannot defend this idea. I refuse to even try. It’s a matter of faith. 

So the question was: how do I get to that from Nico? Well, the album’s called The End. The title song is a cover of a Doors track famously used in Apocalypse Now. And in Ghost Echoes, we are perpetually a maximum of two degrees of separation away from Wagner, apocalyptic storyteller par excellence. So I figured the end of the world was the best way in. One of humanity’s most adorable traits is the way our apocalypse stories don’t even show the world ending, just changing in some much-needed way. Surely a species with that habit is worth rooting for, in spite of *gestures broadly.* The last few lines of the script were the first part I wrote: “Make me something. Play me a song,” etc. Everything else had to lead up to that.

From there, the structure fell into place: a hybrid of the whole bunch o’ stories approach of episodes four and eight with the interleaving narratives structure of episodes three and six. Nico’s story would proceed chronologically. And in between the bits, there’ll be apocalypse stories where the world conspicuously does not end. Making this episode, I got to leverage everything I learned by making the first nine.

But the thing I’m proudest of about this one is that, finally, in the last episode of the season, I had the guts to not try and explicitly connect the two sides of the story. There really isn’t any specific connection between Nico and the apocalypse, so why force it? AMBIGUITY UNLOCKED. 

There is, however, a figure that appears in both strands of the story. Naturally, it’s Wagner. So I thought I could lend some cohesion to the whole deal by making Wagner’s music the connective tissue of the episode. All of the original scoring is made up of excerpts from the Ring, arranged for a combination of my old Alesis Micron analog synth and a janky-ass Lowrey Micro Genie that’s older than me. (The exception is the Halley’s comet section, which is a corny acapella “Ride of the Valkyries,” referencing all the way back to the Roxy Music episode.) The Chen Tao scene has the forest murmurs from Siegfried. The last few minutes have a combination of music from Siegfried’s funeral march and Brünnhilde’s immolation from Götterdämmerung. And at the beginning, what you hear is a mashup of the prelude from Das Rheingold with Nico’s cover of the Doors, and with the chords from the Ghost Echoes theme song. That one wasn’t easy. I learned pretty fast why Wagner kept that whole prelude rooted firmly in E-flat major. Start throwing around more chords and everything stops lining up. 

I think this finale turned out to be one of the highlights of the season. If I never make another episode of Ghost Echoes, which is a distinct possibility, I’d be happy to end with this. 


If you do the math, you’ll find that my claim to have been working on Ghost Echoes for five years is a little dubious. The first two years were basically planning. And there was another two-year span in there between episodes three and four where I wasn’t actually working on it. Nevertheless, I definitely feel like I’ve been working on it for five straight years. Even when I set it aside, I still thought about it every day.

Since the finale dropped, friends have been congratulating me on finishing the season. Usually I find it very difficult to accept congratulations or praise with any grace at all because I am almost never proud of myself or my work. I’ve had absolutely no problem graciously accepting congratulations about Ghost Echoes. That’s in spite of the fact that I don’t think this season was a straightforward success–certainly not in terms of metrics. And as I’ve just outlined in tiresome detail, I have serious misgivings about nearly half of the episodes from a creative point of view. 

But let me again reiterate a brief passage that became something of a refrain for Ghost Echoes: a repeated quote that I consider the single most important thought expressed in the whole season. It is, of course, a remark by Cornelius Cardew: 

“Everyone is failing. Our entire experience is this side of perfection. Failure exists in relation to goals. Nature has no goals and so can’t fail. Humans have goals and so they have to fail. Often the wonderful configurations produced by failure reveal the pettiness of the goals.”

 I confess, I do find the configurations produced by my own failures quite wonderful. I am not proud of all the individual parts that comprise Ghost Echoes season one—that would be too high a bar to clear. But I am proud of the whole. And that is such an unexpected and novel feeling that I needed to write seven thousand words to process it. 

I hope you’ve enjoyed it as well. 

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. 


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.


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 imagine 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.


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-discursive 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.


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 demurs. 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 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.


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


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


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.)


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 defense 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.


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 defense of the whaling industry is more a debate club exercise 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. That’s what this has been. Take it or leave it.

Chapter 25: Postscript


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 call Stubb an idiot outright.

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.


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 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 slightly condescending tone as he does all people of colour. Still, he’s trying. He makes a point of mentioning that in whaling, while officers are almost always American (he means white), the industry’s workforce is truly 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 pro-multicultural 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.


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 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 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.

First comes 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. Then, 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.”

Foolishness, elevated to sublimity: further evidence that Melville knew his Shakespeare.

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


“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 whack-a-doo conspiracy theories. 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.

These are the 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.


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 may never 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 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:


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.