Category Archives: Comedy

25 things I loved in 2017

Each year, I compile my own personal, inevitably idiosyncratic list of my favourite things from that year. This year, congratulations are owed to me for actually getting it out in the actual calendar year I’m writing about. So what if I haven’t seen all the movies I meant to see and barely read any of this year’s acclaimed books? In the end, a year is what it is. This is the best art and entertainment I personally experienced in my version of 2017.

The list is ranked. That means I’m comparing the relative virtues of music and stand-up comedy, movies and podcasts, novels and video games. It’s not so much that it’s like comparing apples to oranges; it’s more that it’s like comparing apples to oranges to avocados to pork tenderloins to fine china to used hatchbacks to racoons to sand. Therein lies the fun.

Let’s skip the tired remarks on what a trying year it’s been and get straight to the honourable mentions, shall we?

In podcasting: my perennial favourites Reply All and Theory of Everything stayed the course and made some of the year’s best individual podcast episodes. Two shows whose first seasons I liked but didn’t love, More Perfect and Homecoming, returned with far stronger second seasons that made me certain I’ll be back for the third. Jesse Thorn’s limited series of interviews with interviewers, The Turnaround, entertained me far more than a show with that premise ought to. The Museum of Modern Art and WNYC had the extremely good idea to cut Abbi Jacobson loose in the MoMA with a microphone in A Piece of Work. And The Daily arrived to show us how to cover the news on a podcast. It is frankly the most significant innovation in the form since the first season of Serial, and it would surely be in the upper echelons of this list if I’d actually had the wherewithal to listen to it more than a handful of times. The news is stressful.

In games: my most neglected medium of 2017, Detention scared the bejesus out of me while also illustrating what it’s like to live under the yoke of totalitarianism. And the sixth and final chapter of The Dream Machine brought that story to a deeply ambiguous conclusion, but not before sending the player through a wild, rhapsodical odyssey through the deepest realms of the collective human unconscious.

In comedy: Mike Birbiglia, Patton Oswalt, and Marc Maron all delivered intermittently brilliant specials that proved (by both positive and negative example) that the way forward for stand-up comedy in a bewildering political age is to get personal.

In film: two drastically different Marvel movies proved that solid storytelling can transcend the doldrums of the increasingly exhausting superhero genre: Spider-Man: Homecoming and Logan

In television: two of Netflix’s most acclaimed juggernauts lived up to high expectations: BoJack Horseman and Stranger Things. And Game of Thrones, freed from the expectation to conform to George R.R. Martin’s plotting and pace, delivered far and away its strongest season yet.

In comics: The Wicked and the Divine remains the coolest, smartest thing in the world. And Bitch Planet’s long-awaited second trade collection amped up the action and intrigue while remaining awesomely blatant about feminism.

In books: I deeply regret the non-inclusion of Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage on this list. It is a worthy expansion of a fictional world that was very dear to me as a child. If I were more than halfway through it by my self-imposed drop deadline, it would surely be here.

In music: “classical” and “experimental” won the day for me this year. Highlights included Brian Eno’s Reflection, William Basinski’s A Shadow in Time, Marc-Andre Hamelin’s recording of For Bunita Marcus by Morton Feldman, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s brilliantly straightforward recordings of the complete Mendelssohn symphonies. In popular music, two things that don’t quite count as “music from 2017” bear mentioning: Neil Young’s long-unreleased 1976 recording Hitchhiker and Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell Live: a concert film that I nearly awarded a very high spot on the list before deciding it wasn’t really eligible.

Finally, in stuff that doesn’t fall under any of the above categories, Bill Wurtz’s history of the entire world i guess is one of those things that occasionally manages to make me not hate the internet.

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And now the list. An observation: there are only three honourees here who have been on one of my previous lists. This wasn’t by design. I suppose I was just in the mood for new things this year. Onwards.

No. 25: Blade Runner 2049

We didn’t need a new Blade Runner. And the one we got has its problems. But like its predecessor, one of my ten or twelve all-time favourite movies, Denis Villeneuve’s sequel operates at the very highest level of cinematic spectacle. The way Roger Deakins’ camera hangs and drifts across the film’s incredible sets makes the world feel grandiose in a way that many other CGI extravaganzas fail at. The shockingly aggressive, kickass score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch helps. They respect the legacy of Vangelis’s marvellous, rhapsodical score for the original movie, but aren’t afraid to get a hell of a lot louder.

Although Blade Runner 2049 is not as good a film as Blade Runner, it is one of the best examples of respecting the source without replicating it in this era of endless rehashes. It would have been simple to remake the original film beat for beat, like in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which I like). But Blade Runner is a different kind of film from Star Wars and calls for a different kind of sequel. Blade Runner is slow, thinky, painterly, and not culturally ubiquitous. In keeping with that, Blade Runner 2049 is a slow, thinky, painterly film that relies as much on its director’s unique vision as on the canon it inherits from the nostalgia object that begat it. If there is anybody who can make Dune into a movie that’s actually good, it’s probably Villeneuve. I’m on tenterhooks.

No. 24: Code Switch

codeswitch_itunes2_sq-cc90dbc5dcdff7b93734f2a1a29864cb77742948-s300-c85Code Switch became NPR’s best podcast awfully fast. 2017 found the Code Switch team reflecting at length on the legacy of Barack Obama, exploring racial identity in the Puerto Rican diaspora, and exploring the increasingly pressing questions surrounding hate, police violence, and deportation in year one of the Trump era. They’ve also put out some of the best pop culture journalism of the year.

But the show’s crown jewel is the four-part series “Raising Kings,” based on a full year of reporting on a new school where a faculty made up mostly of black men teaches a student body made up mostly of black young men. It’s a sensitive, insightful, and frequently challenging piece of documentary radio that everybody should hear. Code Switch is a show you shouldn’t ever skip an episode of. It’ll help you get through life in a more practical way than just about any other show.

No. 23: Barbara Hannigan & Ludwig Orchestra: Crazy Girl Crazy

There are several levels of “why bother being this good” at play here. Barbara Hannigan could easily have settled for being merely one of the great sopranos of our time. But no: she has to also be a trailblazer for contemporary music, daring to learn the heretofore unlearned scores of composers who write vocal challenges few but her could rise to. (This is the version of Hannigan that brought us last year’s best classical recording: let me tell you by Hans Abrahamsen.) But even that isn’t enough for her. She’s also got to be a brilliant conductor. And since she can both conduct and sing, she clearly has to do them both at the same time. In music that’s crazy hard to begin with.

Crazy Girl Crazy is Hannigan’s first disc as a conductor, and indeed her first disc as a conductor/singer. It contains a selection of music from the 20th century that all feels like it’s at the core of Hannigan. At the centre of it all is a lush, romantic reading of Alban Berg’s beautiful Lulu Suite. Hannigan has been the soprano of choice for the role of Lulu for years now. Hearing her take on the orchestral music from that opera just confirms that she owns that piece as thoroughly as any musician owns any piece of music. The Ludwig Orchestra, a young ensemble that makes its recording debut here, plays skillfully, and with all of the intensity of an orchestra that’s not sick of making music yet. And Hannigan proves again that she’s one of the most multifaceted artists working in classical music today.

No. 22: Chris Gethard: Career Suicide

I got a lot out of Chris Gethard’s various projects this year. Whether he’s being exceptionally silly on The Chris Gethard Show, turning listening into a high art on Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People, or telling the story of his own struggle with suicidal depression in this comedy special/one-man show, Gethard’s objective is simple: he just wants you to feel a bit better.

He’s a useful fellow to have around, even if your low points are a heck of a lot less dire than his. Gethard’s comedy and storytelling is something close to a public service. He’s working to normalize talking about mental illness, and he’s working against the stigmas surrounding medication for mental illnesses. But he’s also super funny, and this 90-minute HBO special is the best distillation of everything he’s been working towards. Where other comedians tend to address their own traumas with a facade of glibness or with the aid of characters, Gethard is not afraid to simply put punchlines aside for lengthy stretches and tell a story. And it’s a really good story with amazing characters including Morrissey and a therapist called Barb who thinks that the human brain was manufactured by aliens. 

No. 21: Mogul

I feel like I’ve been waiting for this podcast. I didn’t know it would come from Gimlet and I didn’t know it would be about the life and death of a hip hop businessperson. But I knew that at some point, somebody would make a rich sounding, story-driven music documentary that would prove there’s a hunger for music-focussed radio that doesn’t play full tracks. Mogul is the future.

It is also a second breakthrough for Reggie Ossé, AKA Combat Jack of The Combat Jack Show. Ossé’s approach to hosting this show isn’t quite like anything I’ve heard before. He comes to the story of Chris Lighty with a nearly complete knowledge of the musical culture that he sprang from and helped to shape. But that knowledge is secondary to the warmth and sensitivity with which he handles the story. Mogul is, among other things, a story about mental illness and domestic violence in the hip hop culture. It’s clear that, apart from the music, this is what compelled Ossé to tell the story in the first place. There is a second season forthcoming, and with the allegations against Russell Simmons that have come to light since season one wrapped, there are still plenty of thorny questions for Ossé and company to address. (Edit: I was unaware when I wrote this that Reggie Ossé passed away recently. It’s a terrible loss for podcasting. Mogul will stand as the high-water mark for music-related audio storytelling for a while to come.) 

No. 20: Tacoma

The Fullbright Company’s second game stands in a very long shadow for me. Their debut, Gone Home, was the game that re-introduced me to games after a decade’s absence. It demonstrated to me that the medium had grown and changed. Now, there were games specifically for those of us who appreciate the exploratory and narrative elements of games, but would rather not have to demonstrate sophisticated hand-eye coordination or work through complicated puzzles to get to the next bit of story.

When footage from Tacoma surfaced, two things were clear. First, this would be a more directly interactive experience than Gone Home, with more to actually do. Secondly, it was going to take place in that most “video games” of video game settings: a space station. Both of these concerned me. You may well conclude from my concerns that I essentially don’t like video games. And you may be right. But I liked Gone Home, and I held up hope for Tacoma. My hope was not misplaced. Tacoma’s approach to story is a cut above Gone Home, thanks to an innovative system of interactive cutscenes you can actually move around in. I still prefer the ambience of Gone Home’s creepy, empty mansion to the cramped quarters of the Tacoma space station. But my faith in the storytelling of the team at Fullbright is even stronger now.

No. 19: Lady Bird

I always love a movie with a good sense of place. Often, that place is New York City. Hollywood has provided a huge variety of takes on what it’s like to live in New York, from West Side Story to Rosemary’s Baby. It’s a setting that has been so well developed in movies that a) it no longer lives up to itself, and b) it’s almost shocking to see another American city painted with the same detail on the screen. With the release of Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s Sacramento joins Vince Gilligan’s Albuquerque and the Coens’ Fargo/Brainerd among the great cinematic depictions of Places People Don’t Ever Think About.

There are plenty of reasons why Lady Bird is one of the year’s best movies, including two of the year’s best performances by Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, and a screenplay that handles even the smallest characters with finesse and warmth. It’s a lovely depiction of a relationship between a mother and a daughter. It’s admirably aware of the realities of class in America and the ways it plays into raising a family. But my favourite reason to love Lady Bird is that it paints a portrait of an unloved place, lovingly.

No. 18: Kendrick Lamar: DAMN.

I slept on To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015. I missed the whole conversation. It’s not a mistake I ever intend to repeat.

I suspect that in the future, we’ll still think of Butterfly as Lamar’s breakthrough moment — his Are You Experienced. (Lamar once said he’d like to be talked about like Dylan, Hendrix and the Beatles. Happy to oblige.) But DAMN. feels like the sort of record you make when you’re out to prove you’re not interested in replicating past successes and following formulas — Lamar’s Band of Gypsies, maybe. It’s the kind of album that, if you pull it off, makes you not just accomplished but vital: an artist who is brilliant regardless of the idiom in which they choose to work. Kendrick Lamar is vital.

No. 17: The Beguiled

This coiled snake is the year’s most underrated movie. The subject of The Beguiled is propriety — particularly Southern propriety — and how it’s just one tool in the patriarchy’s huge, indulgent workshop. But like all good storytellers, Sofia Coppola doesn’t start from the theme and build outward. In fact, it starts from a source that has different themes entirely: the 1971 Clint Eastwood vehicle of the same name. (Or, perhaps more accurately, the novel that it’s based on. But it was the original film’s liabilities that prompted Coppola to remake it.)

The premise of both films is the same: a seminary school full of women loyal to the south is shaken by the arrival of a rather dashing but grievously injured Union soldier at their doorstep. Coppola’s masterstrokes are all in the telling of the story, rather than the story itself. Her film is as mannered and meticulously composed as the Southern ladies who inhabit it. And as the story’s potential for violence rises steadily, the tension comes from the discrepancy between the increasingly ugly atmosphere at the seminary and the film’s continuing insistence on pretty-as-a-picture decorum in its visual style. I haven’t seen filmmaking simultaneously so beautiful and savage since Hannibal got cancelled.

No. 16: Everything

I have a friend who likes to joke that my problem with video games is that I want them to be books. Fair enough. But that’s only half the story. What I really want is for a video game to be either a book or a theme park. In either case, I should ideally not have to shoot or jump over anything. The point is, I don’t need games to expect skill from me. I don’t need them to be things I can win or lose. I just want them to be experiences. For me, a great game is like Disneyland (but without the creepy half-reality that keeps you from fully suspending your disbelief). It’s a constructed reality for you to explore at your leisure. You can’t win or lose Disneyland. And yet it is still (ostensibly) fun. This is what I want from a game.

Enter Everything, my favourite game of 2017. Everything has no goals or trials to overcome. It has no traditional story. It is simply an interactive exploration of a single idea: that everything is connected. This runs the risk of getting cod-philosophical, and indeed it includes narration by the proto-hippie philosopher Alan Watts that can be hard to take seriously. But developer David OReilly undercuts his game’s potential for ham-fistedness by making everything else about it absolutely raving crazy. This is a game that offers the opportunity to be everything in it: to move around as anything from a bighorn sheep to a tiny elementary particle to a sentient hovering tea kettle the size of the sun. Everything is a fully-realized pocket universe full of planet-sized cows and trombones that travel in herds. I have never seen anything like it.

No. 15: Dunkirk

Seeing Christopher Nolan’s latest, best film in an IMAX screening sits very near the top of my list of great moviegoing experiences. Take note that this list is distinct from my list of favourite movies, and even from my list of favourite movies I’ve seen in theatres. A movie need not be a masterpiece to be an incredible experience in a theatre. Dunkirk is a truly great film, but my opinion of it is entirely contingent on the experience of seeing it in film projection, on an IMAX screen.

The beauty of IMAX is that it nearly fills your field of vision, encouraging you to forget everything that lies beyond the edges of the screen. So, when Nolan puts his camera in the galley of a ship, and it gets hit by a torpedo and fills instantly with water, you feel like you’re going to die. That, in a nutshell, is why Dunkirk is a great film: Nolan understands that cinema is an experience as much as a narrative art form, and he uses his mastery of the craft to put the audience inside of one of the most traumatic and unprecedented chapters in the history of warfare. And at the end, maybe we understand it a bit better.

14: Twin Peaks: The Return

While I was watching Twin Peaks: The Return on a week-by-week basis, I was uncertain whether I felt it was rising to the level of Twin Peaks’ original two seasons. Now that I’m not watching it week by week, I am quite certain that it altogether surpassed them. The Return was frustrating for its relative lack of familiar characters and story beats — particularly the almost complete lack of participation by the original protagonist, agent Dale Cooper, in any recognizable form. But now that the thing is complete, we can see that this series wasn’t supposed to be about Coop, and in fact that it wasn’t supposed to be about very many of the same things the original series was at all. If you can accept that and watch the show on its own terms, it reveals itself to be maybe the strangest and most ambitious season of television ever transmitted.

The eighth episode is a case in point. Much of its duration consists of abstract, non-figurative images in the vein of Stan Brakhage. Nonetheless, it does tell a recognizable story — an origin story, in fact. An origin story for the totemic evil that has haunted this show’s characters since its first episode. This could have turned out like Hannibal Rising: an unnecessary and disappointing wad of backstory that cheapens the previous instalments in the narrative. But by telling the story through lyrical, abstract, largely wordless filmmaking, David Lynch short circuits our rational brains and manages instead to convey a feeling of profound wrongness, and to convey it at length. This is how the whole of Twin Peaks: The Return worked, to a certain extent: by bypassing rationality entirely and speaking to something more primal in us. This is not something you’re supposed to be able to do on television. But it happened. There are seasons of television in higher slots on this list. But I doubt I’ll rewatch any of them. I will rewatch this.

No. 13: Offa Rex: The Queen of Hearts

I fell down a Decemberists hole in April. That’s when I bought my ticket for their show at the Orpheum in August. I have never been so excited for a show. But by the time the concert actually rolled around, I was more psyched for the opening act. Olivia Chaney is one of my favourite discoveries of the year. Her solo record The Longest River has now soundtracked many a walk home in the Vancouver rain. And I owe that discovery to this record, a collaboration between Chaney and the Decemberists that rises to the standard of Chaney’s solo work and far surpasses the most recent music by the Decemberists.

The Queen of Hearts is a revival of a revival. It consists of English folk songs arranged in the style of electrified British revivalists like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. This is a legacy that both halves of the collaboration have dealt with before. Chaney draws the folk component of her repertoire from the same pool as these bands, and the Decemberists’ trilogy of masterpieces — Picaresque, The Crane Wife, and The Hazards of Love — all crib liberally from the sound of the British folk revival. Together, they prove not only that the songs still have power, but that the style does. And Chaney’s solo rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” will melt you.

No. 12: mother!

About three seconds after the house lights came up at the end of mother!, the friend I saw it with burst out into hysterical laughter and couldn’t stop for several minutes. That is the most appropriate review I can imagine for this aggressively fucked up, semi-trolling movie by Darren Aronofsky: one of modern Hollywood’s strangest auteurs. The only reaction to mother! that I may treasure more is from the New York Times commenter who wrote: “It’s been a long time since I overheard Ma and Pa Kettle talking about a film on the way out of the theater. Art above all else should be misunderstood loudly.”

From the moment that the exclamation point appears in the title card, mother! is arch and theatrical. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem give completely committed and sincere performances, but nothing else in the movie is sincere in the slightest. There are those who feel mother! can only be dealt with as a Biblical allegory — and they’ve certainly got Aronofsky’s distressingly specific remarks in interviews to back them up. He seems to be doing everything he can to reduce his creation, which offers a whole world of abstract possibility, into one tidy interpretation. But Aronofsky’s movie is too big to be held to a fixed meaning. I’m increasingly convinced that Aronofsky’s insistence on explaining away the movie’s contradictions is part of the performance: he’s casting himself as an extension of Bardem’s theological poet character, demanding dogmatic devotion to a specific meaning of his holy text. Perhaps only a critic as myopic as myself could possibly see this movie as a critique of the slipperiness of interpretation. But I do see it that way. Anyway, the real truth is just that I enjoyed the hell out of this movie, and I want it to be more than a banal Biblical allegory. Mother! is completely bonkers crazy and you’ll probably feel a little cracked at the end. Good enough for me.

No. 11: George Saunders: Lincoln in the Bardo (audiobook)

Lincoln in the Bardo isn’t even really about Lincoln. It’s about the processes of death and grieving that affect us all, presidents or not. Abraham Lincoln and his son Willie, who died at the age of 11, are in this story only to give it the profound specificity that all very moving stories require. They set the story in a time and a place, and give it the context of a particular personal tragedy with which we are all familiar. But the emotional heft of Lincoln in the Bardo actually stems from characters that George Saunders made up out of whole cloth: a kind old fool who died moments before consummating his marriage, and an effusive young man who regrets his suicide. These two reside in an uneasy state of quasi-friendship in a not-quite-afterlife like no other fantasy realm in fiction. Every line they speak is enthralling.

And speaking of speaking, Lincoln in the Bardo also represents the moment when the audiobook really came into its own. The cover art brags of 166 narrators, but the ones you really need to know about are Nick Offerman and David Sedaris, who play the two central characters. They are brilliant, and even Sedaris, who is not an actor, inhabits the text like a good coat. Offerman audibly delights in his character’s tendency to coin phrases that allow himself to remain in denial of his own passing: phrases like “sick box” in lieu of coffin, or “sick form” in lieu of corpse. And both are heartbreaking in their final scene together. I can’t say whether the audiobook is the definitive format, having not read the printed book. But try it. The performances measure up to the material.

No. 10: Margo Price: All American Made

Sometimes you have a year when you just feel like you’ve accomplished nothing. Like you’ve gone backwards. Everybody has those years. It can’t be helped. And if 2017 was a year like that for you, I’d like to suggest you listen to some country music. Margo Price’s second album cements her as the queen of modern Nashville. Lots of it is rollicking fun country music with a band that sounds like it comes straight from a Jerry Lee Lewis record. (Indeed, it was recorded at the Sam C. Phillips Recording Studio, where many a country and early rock and roll icon cut acetates.) “A Little Pain” is probably the pump-up jam you need. But it’s the ballads that keep me coming back, and particularly “Learning to Lose,” Price’s duet with the great Willie Nelson. “I’m so far away from where I started,” Price sings in the opening verse, “but no closer to where I belong.” Oof.

It’s important to have songs like “Learning to Lose” in your life. Songs about the moments when life disappoints us, and humanity disappoints us and we disappoint ourselves. Because songs like this reassure us that disappointment, loss, rejection, loneliness, failure, acrimony, and strife are normal facets of the human experience that everybody goes through. And we now live in a world where everybody has their whole life on display on Facebook and Instagram, except that all of that stuff gets airbrushed out. So where do you turn for a quick hit of catharsis when it seems like everybody else is busy following their bliss? Turn to country music. Turn to Margo Price. And hope that next year, we’ll learn to win.

No. 9: Baby Driver

I have a friend who tells a story about how Brian Eno saved his life. “I suffer from tinnitus,” he wrote. “These days I’m mostly able to ignore it, but when I first noticed it, it was terrifying. I couldn’t sleep through the night without having this track (“Music for Airports 1/1”) on repeat in the background, just loud enough to distract me from the buzzing in my own head, just quiet enough to allow me to sleep.” He went on to coin a phrase I like: “societal tinnitus”: the terrifying sensation that the world is inescapably noisy. Music for Airports can drown out this kind of tinnitus, too. So can essentially any other sound recording. Music can offer a near-complete respite from the obligation to be present in the world. When you put in earbuds, you are doing two things in equal measure: connecting yourself to an imaginary reality that exists in a recording, and disconnecting yourself from the auditory portion of the empirical reality around you. It’s wrong to view the latter phenomenon as a byproduct of the former. Your inability to connect with the world around you when you’re wearing earbuds is a feature, not a bug. The world is so loud. To escape, simply superimpose a louder one. Disengage.

Baby Driver is a movie about a person suffering from tinnituses both literal and symbolic. (Well really, Baby’s literal tinnitus is a symbol in itself, for his emotional trauma.) It is a movie about music’s ability to subsume the empirical reality around you and replace it with a different reality that you can cope with, until you’re ready to cope with the real one. The movie’s relationship with music is different from that of lesser films like Garden State or even High Fidelity, both of which are about how a person’s relationship with specific genres, songs and artists help to inform that person’s identity. Baby Driver isn’t about any music in particular. It is about the act of listening itself. For Baby, music is neither indulgence nor signifier, but a basic necessity to drown out the constant ringing in his ears, to function in his job, to empathize with the girl he loves, and to drown out the noise of a dysfunctional household. (So this is what the volume knob’s for…) Baby Driver is not a music nerd movie. It is not a movie about listening to music. It’s a movie about not having to listen to the rest of the world, which is loud and confusing and stressful. It also has the best chase scenes ever. It is large. It contains multitudes.

No. 8: Better Call Saul

This scene, which you should not watch if you’re not caught up on the show, is everything I love about Better Call Saul in a nutshell. This show’s most dramatic moments take place in ordinary rooms and draw their strength from well-established relationships. When we think back to its esteemed predecessor Breaking Bad, it’s easy to recall it as a show full of train robberies and shootouts. But think of how many earthshaking moments in that show were actually really quiet. Hank finding Leaves of Grass. Walt lying to his doctor about his fugue state by telling the truth. Even “I am the one who knocks” is a quiet moment in the most literal sense. Better Call Saul is any one of those moments stretched out into a whole show. It’s a show where nearly every episode has a scene that feels like a set piece, but those set pieces seldom involve action. Jimmy’s trick with the phone battery in the scene above is a case in point. It’s not easy to write stories about con men, because you’ve got to be able to come up with cons. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have proven themselves equal to the task.

The third season of Better Call Saul is its best by miles. By reintroducing yet another beloved character from Breaking Bad, Gus Fring, the writers risked treading needlessly far into that show’s shadow. Instead, they doubled down on the relationships that have always been at the core of this show. The constant risk to Jimmy’s romantic-ish relationship with the intensely sympathetic workaholic Kim Wexler is one of the season’s key tension generators. And his relationship with his cruel, doctrinaire brother Chuck finally deteriorates past the point of no return. Better Call Saul is the best character drama on television. Every year, I seem to forget how much I love it until the new season starts. Not this time.

No. 7: Jon Bois: 17776

The greatest literary masterpiece I read this year was published on the sports news website SB Nation and it’s about three sentient space probes in the massively distant future watching humans play increasingly Dadaist games of football because they stopped dying and aging in the 21st century. I slightly regret that I have now spoiled the surprise of the story’s very opening. But if there were no more to 17776 than its bonkers premise, it would hardly be a literary masterpiece, would it? Come for the gonzo, unclassifiable, mixed media craziness. Stay for the beautiful prose about humanity’s place in the universe and the dialogue that elevates the game of football to a form of sublime performance art.

I can immediately think of at least four moments in 17776 when I got choked up — this in spite of the fact that it is a silly story rendered in Web 1.0 style, and that I have no grasp of how football works. It moves me because it forces me to consider, as Jon Bois has evidently considered at length, the actual importance of my particular passions. The humans of 17776 have unlimited time to spend on football and presumably other sports and pastimes. I do not. And yet I write a blog where I regularly review more than 20 things I watched, read and listened to during the course of a single week. No wonder 17776’s take on human ambition and the purpose of play resonated with me. I think a lot about something Bois wrote in a sort of afterword to the piece: “I think 17776 might get one thing right about the future: we’re never gonna leave the solar system… Too much distance, too much radiation, and too little incentive. If that ends up being the case, we’ll have nothing to do but solve our problems on Earth. I’m being really optimistic when I guess that we might someday. After we do that, we’re gonna want our games, our art, and each other. One day, we might see those as the only reasons we’re here.” Is it wrong that I feel a little better because of that statement?

No. 6: American Gods

Bryan Fuller’s last show, Hannibal, was one of the greatest screen adaptations of a familiar property ever made. American Gods is maybe better. The Neil Gaiman novel from which it is adapted is a grand old romp through various mythologies, with deeply affecting narratives of the American immigrant experience woven throughout. But that novel was written before 9/11, let alone before Trump. Let alone before Facebook. The show is a substantially different thing for a bogglingly different America.

American Gods rethinks Gaiman’s take on Anansi, the kindly African spider god of storytelling, as a ruthless pragmatist who finds his way to America on the remains of a slave ship he entreated the captives to burn. It suggests that our protagonist’s wife may be the reincarnation of an Irish immigrant who brought the leprechaun Mad Sweeney to the new world, where he wastes away from lack of belief. (“A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” is my favourite episode of the year, save possibly for Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return.) And it gives us a terrifying contingent of “new gods.” Media, a shapeshifting Gillian Anderson, distorts and distracts in equal measure. The Technical Boy is no longer a truculent fat kid surrounded by wires as he was in the novel, but a sleek, hollow Instagram star of a villain. Television’s American Gods enacts a battle for the life of an America with a more immediately threatening kind of cancer than the slow-acting one Gaiman detected in the late 90s. It is the best show I watched this year.

No. 5: Maria Bamford: Old Baby

Maria Bamford is my favourite comedian. She’s a better writer than anybody else doing comedy right now. See: her husband’s column in her “emotional sudoku” bit: “Your great-grandfather was a violent alcoholic in the army who beat his son, who was a violent alcoholic in the army who beat his son, who was a violent alcoholic in the marines who beat you. You’re not in the armed services at all. You don’t drink. But you have PTSD so bad that you think you can clench your buttocks and fly the plane.” All written out like that it almost seems like something Joseph Heller would write.

She’s also a better performer than anybody else doing comedy right now. She can flip from character to character as cleanly as Robin Williams. (“Hello! Is the beef fresh? … This is so powerful if you act it out… Is the beef fresh?”) Her material still lives in dark places: her experience and her family’s experiences with mental illness are at the centre of everything. But she is such a skillful comic that laughing never feels uncomfortable. Bamford has the rare gift of being able to make you realize that the same event can be both intensely traumatic and hysterically funny — that there’s no contradiction there. “Anybody been in a psych ward?” Bamford once said in another context. “It’s really funny in retrospect.” That’s a perfect joke. The humour comes from both the darkness and the construction. That’s why Maria Bamford is so funny: she insists on applying an extremely rigorous sort of structure to completely chaotic subject matter. Bamford proves that comedy about mental illness doesn’t need to be a sort of public therapy. I have not laughed harder at anything in recent memory.

No. 4: The Heart

The Heart is over. At least, for now. I’m as choked about this, if not more, than I was when Gimlet cancelled Mystery Show. This show has been in a league of its own since it rebranded from the earlier Audio Smut and joined up with the Radiotopia network. No other podcast discusses sexuality with the same combination of frankness, diversity, and beauty. This last quality is especially crucial. It’s possible to talk about The Heart as if it is merely noble: a sex-positive, intersectional feminist institution that Gets Important Conversations Started. But that is a drastically inadequate characterization of this show. It is also consistently the most beautiful sounding, atmospheric and subtle show in the podcast space. More than Radiolab. More than Love and Radio. The Heart is a show about the most intimate relationships between humans. In keeping with this, it uses its sound art aesthetic to forge an intimacy with the listener that is stronger than anything else I’ve ever heard.

2017 found The Heart offering two mini-seasons and a smattering of one-off episodes. It’s the second of the two mini-seasons, “No,” that makes this The Heart’s strongest year. It is a complicated, fair, and fearless sexual memoir by Kaitlin Prest, the show’s host. She interrogates her own past, from childhood through to the present day, and charts her own sexual boundaries over that time. Her story becomes a springboard for a nuanced discussion of consent that I can imagine being useful for every listener in a different way. The series also finds Prest at her best as a sound designer, going so far as to apply filters to tape of her own sexual experiences so she can assess the tone of her voice without hearing the words she’s saying. There is nothing else like The Heart. Whatever the team behind this show are planning next, its end is a tremendous loss.

No. 3: Ted Hearne/The Crossing: Sound from the Bench

Sometimes I like to just type out a sentence that describes a thing. It’s only fun when the thing you’re describing has lots of unexpected moving parts. I’m going to do that now. Here, look: My favourite music of the year is a cantata for mixed chorus, drums and two electric guitars with words drawn from ventriloquism textbooks and the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case. See? Wasn’t that fun?

Ted Hearne is one of the great contemporary composers for the human voice. I first discovered him through his oratorio The Source, which features an auto-tuned chorus called “We Called for Illumination at 1630” that floored me — it is the sound of humans trying to escape from a digital hellscape. This is what Hearne does with the voice: he uses it as a sympathetic force to latch onto in a world controlled by bewildering and absurd systems. Sound from the Bench is a semi-comedic piece that gets a lot of mileage out of the perversity of hearing a brilliant choir sing lines like “these corporations have a lot of money” and “you are not talking about the railroad barons and the rapacious trusts.” But the actual comedy of Sound from the Bench is a sad comedy. Citizens United, you may recall, is the Supreme Court decision that ruled that money is speech because corporations are people: two of the most patently absurd things that body has ever asserted. Sound from the Bench is a comedy about people doing their best to laugh at the absurdity of a world whose crazy rules they have to live with in spite of the fact that it makes their lives worse. It’s Twelfth Night as a contemporary cantata. It is unaccountably moving, hysterical, and vibrant. It is brilliantly performed by the Crossing, a magnificent choir based in Philadelphia. It is everything I want out of music.

No. 2: S-Town

“I did nothing good today,” reads an inscription on a sundial in S-Town. “I have lost a day.” Depending on your mood, it’s a sentiment that can reflect a profound resignation to the brevity of life, or a desperate mania to accomplish something in spite of it. S-Town’s hero, John B. McLemore, embodies both facets. He is a man alternately consumed by depression and ablaze with fascination for whatever project he’s putting his time into now: repairing antique clocks, growing a hedge maze in his yard, building a swing set for his adult protegé’s edification — or, most crucially, living his life as a story worthy of attention from an acclaimed This American Life producer.

S-Town is a story so full of pat, obvious metaphors that it would be insufferable if it were fiction. But producer and host Brian Reed didn’t actually devise any of these metaphors himself. His main character, McLemore, deliberately surrounded himself in metaphors. He’s a man who lived his life as a story, and then actually found somebody to tell the story. He is Hamlet, exerting a pull on the narrative that exceeds that of the storyteller. There are those in the blogosphere who disapprove of elements in Reed’s telling of the story. But as I listened to S-Town, I couldn’t help feeling McLemore’s hands on the strings of the story, even when it would have been impossible for him to affect it in real time. Woodstock, Alabama is a stranger-than-fiction town with implicit metaphors baked in. John B. McLemore is a stranger-than-fiction man who saw the metaphors, and cast himself as the tragic protagonist amidst them. Brian Reed knew to hit record, and made the best radio of the year.

No. 1: Get Out

One thing I discovered about myself in 2017 is that I am a bottomless fountain of slightly facile theories about the horror genre. Here is one of my facile theories: horror and comedy are the two most intimately related genres of fiction. This is because laughter and fear, at their root, are both ways of responding to the absurd. If you encounter something absurd, something that challenges your sense of what’s “normal,” you’re likely to either laugh or feel fear, depending on the framing of the event. The genius of Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out is that the comedy and the horror are derived from the same central absurdity: a black man’s sense that there is racism all around him, even though he is being constantly told there is not.

This movie is the most brilliant social commentary that’s been in movie theatres for years, but this is me writing here, so let’s think about from it a structural, movie nerd perspective. There are plenty of comedy-horror movies out there. Scream comes to mind. If you squint a bit, Scary Movie fits. It’s a long tradition, dating back at least to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Probably earlier. But these movies are parodies. The jokes are at the expense of horror movie tropes. Get Out is a horror comedy that is not a parody. It is a comedy-horror movie in which both the comedy and the horror arise from the same source, and neither undermines the other. It is a new approach to this particular fusion of genres that walks a delicate balance without ever putting a foot wrong. And in finding a way to negotiate this balance, Jordan Peele has devised a new mode of social critique — one that works particularly well in a world where every single thing that happens is both hysterical and terrifying. Smile into the void, children. Smile into the void.

***

And that’s the list! When I started writing this, I confess I was a bit on the fence about it. Looking back through my list from last year, I couldn’t help thinking that 2016 was a way better year for pop culture. I still think I may be right about that. But writing this took me way longer than I expected because I kept going back to these things, remembering what I loved about them, and spending more time with each of them than I could afford. (I am looking specifically at you, Jon Bois and Maria Bamford.)

This stuff matters to me. It helps me understand the world and the people around me. I apply the lessons from each entry on this list to my life, every day. It has been a good year.

I’m going to go outside.

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Omnibus (week of Nov. 19, 2017)

A short instalment this week, because it includes a whole season of television. Also, I’m back into the audiobook of It, which continues to be awesome, but I won’t have anything much to say about it until I’m done, and that’s still going to be a while. Only one pick of the week, because two seems extravagant. 

9 reviews.

Music

Vulfpeck: Mr. Finish Line — I confess, Vulfpeck’s schtick is beginning to wear thin for me. But this third album is a lot better than the second. There’s nothing on it with the immediate appeal of something like “Animal Spirits,” or even some of the first album’s instrumentals like “Welcome to Vulf Records.” But “Running Away” is maybe their best ballad, and “Tee Time” is exactly what I want from Vulfpeck: a track so totally built around its electric piano riff that it is essentially a high concept song. This is fine. But I feel like Vulf is a band with one great album in them and they made it the first time.

Television

Stranger Things 2 — I absolutely loved this and have next to nothing to say about it. I think it’s about as good as the first season, with a few minor problems — namely Eleven’s dodgy standalone episode and the fact that they didn’t know what to do with Mike in her absence. But overall, this is charming and immersive in the same ways as the first season: it’s Stephen King-style horror with Steven Spielberg-style relationships and character arcs. I have no further insight into it than this, because I’m not sure there’s much insight to be had. It continues to be a great execution of a solid premise. That’s all. Also, I’m still making my way through the audiobook of It, and realizing gradually what a debt this show owes to that book specifically. But Stranger Things’ cadre of misfit children is a bit more convincing than King’s, maybe mostly because of the acting, but also because of the lessons learned from Spielberg. Like I said: it’s a solid premise, done well. Pick of the week.

Comedy

Andy Kaufman: HBO Young Comedians special — I’ve been told to watch the new documentary about Jim Carrey’s performance as Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon. That will require me to watch Man on the Moon. Also, I feel I should at least make myself passingly familiar with Kaufman’s comedy. This is pretty good, I guess. I do tend to prefer jokes to whatever the hell this is. But Kaufman’s a good enough performer that he can sustain a bit for a while, even when the novelty of the premise has worn off. Actually, the way he stretches premises long past their breaking point is probably the point. But I kind of can’t help thinking “I get it” partway through and wishing he’d stop. Also, the version of Tony Clifton here is not quite the one that I presume became famous later, with the pink suit and sweater vest. This version is quite obviously Andy Kaufman, and therefore only amounts to half the joke. I admire Kaufman, but I don’t think I like him.

Movies

Man on the Moon — Well, it’s a ‘90s biopic, isn’t it. The writing is utilitarian, the structure is a highlights reel, and the whole thing feels like a vessel for a virtuoso performance by the lead actor. Jim Carrey’s performance as Andy Kaufman is very committed, but he still plays the role with a sort of manic energy that I think is much more a part of his comedic persona than Kaufman’s. The morose version of Kaufman that turns up at the beginning of the HBO Young Comedians special, or on Letterman in October of 1980, is simply not encompassed within Carrey’s characterization. Odd, since any devoted student of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind should know he’s quite capable of being morose. Carrey’s performance of the “real” Kaufman, offstage, is either a bug-eyed naïf or a person who is nearly always performing the role of a bug-eyed naïf, even when he’s alone. This latter interpretation is the more interesting one, and the more redemptive reading of Carrey’s acting. And while I can’t quite accept that Kaufman could possibly have been like that in his private life, this fact that Kaufman is portrayed here as constantly performing makes Man on the Moon a more interesting movie, because it plainly indicates that the film is more interested in the myth of the man than the man himself. And that’s fine — especially if, like Bob Zmuda and Michael Stipe, you maintain that Kaufman’s performance is ongoing to this day in some hat shop in Hoboken. It’s satisfying somehow to think that with Man on the Moon, Hollywood itself is implicated in the fakery. It’s always engaged in fakery of some type, of course. But it’s hard to say whether anybody involved with Man on the Moon quite understood to what extent that was true in this case.

Literature

Jorge Luis Borges: “The End” — Mercifully, translator Andrew Hurley provides one of his relatively rare endnotes in this story to familiarize the English-speaking reader with the famous Argentine epic of Martín Fierro. This story is entirely contingent on knowledge of that story, at least in passing. Having read this without any prior knowledge of the story it’s inspired by, I feel like I understand it in concept, but I couldn’t really have the full experience of it because I have no prior investment in the characters. It’s like asking somebody who’s never seen Star Wars to read stories from the new anthology where various writers fill in its gaps from the perspective of minor characters. (I mean to read that, by the way.) Anyhow, this is good, but I regret that I can’t get the full effect of it.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Cult of the Phoenix” — The best of the three stories appended to the Artifices later on. It posits an international cult of people united only by a ritual, which may or may not be sex. OR, it might be specifically homosexual sex. Anyway, it’s probably about fucking. And even if it’s not, it’s still a fun little speculation about what a completely benign international cult might look like.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The South” — This is yet another Borges story you can read two ways: either the main character hurts himself in a stupid way and dies while imagining a better death, or he hurts himself in a stupid way, recovers, and goes on to die in a noble way. It’s a formula that’s been done many times since, and so it can be difficult to see the novelty. But the details make it: particularly the fact that the stupid death Borges came up was braining yourself on a beam because you were too eager to get upstairs to read the Arabian Nights. That is the most Borges thing I’ve ever seen. This is the last story in the Ficciones which I have now read in their entirety. In spite of my recent, slightly lukewarm responses to some of the later stories in the volume, I can safely say that in total it is one of the most astonishing books I’ve ever read. At least a dozen of its 17 stories are flat-out masterpieces that bent my brain into hitherto unseen shapes. I can see myself revisiting these stories for years to come. But I still have The Aleph, Dreamtigers and all the rest of his stories to get through first. And I will. Oh, I will.

Podcasts

Imaginary Worlds: “Fan Fiction (Don’t Judge)” & “On The Front Lines of Fantasy” — I like this podcast a lot, but I sometimes think I’m too nerdy for it. Only a little bit too nerdy, mind. An example: in the fanfic episode, Molinsky finds it difficult to accept that fan fiction can be good. I don’t find this difficult to accept at all, because I read blogs about fantasy that take fanfic seriously. But that’s not to say I’ve ever actually read any fanfic. See? Just slightly too nerdy. The other episode, about military SF, though, is quite enlightening.

You Must Remember This: “Boris and Roger Corman” — I now really want to watch some Boris Karloff movies. In this season, Karina Longworth has pitted Karloff against Bela Lugosi, the latter of whom comes off as the more interesting character. But her admiration for Karloff is clear, and contagious. I hope her hiatus isn’t too long.

Omnibus (week of Sept. 3, 2017)

Okay, this media detox thing is for the birds. This week I watched six of Wes Anderson’s eight movies and some other stuff to boot. This also means that I’ve now seen every Wes Anderson movie and can therefore rank them, because this is the purpose for watching movies. Here is where I stand on it right now:

The Grand Budapest Hotel > The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou > Moonrise Kingdom > Rushmore > Bottle Rocket > The Royal Tenenbaums > The Fantastic Mr. Fox > The Darjeeling Limited

I reviewed The Fantastic Mr. Fox last week and The Darjeeling Limited earlier this year. Search them out if you want my opinions on them, which have not changed. Basically, I don’t think this guy has ever made an outright bad movie. And the ones I’ve ranked as the top four are all masterpieces, as far as I’m concerned. So let’s get into this. Anderson first, everything else after.

19 reviews.

Movies

Bottle Rocket — I’d never seen either of Anderson’s first two movies before this week, so these are first impressions. Bottle Rocket, his debut feature, is surprisingly fantastic, but definitely a first movie. There are elements that feel like they could have been pulled from any later Wes Anderson movie, especially near the beginning: a coil-bound notebook outlining a 75-year life plan, a hysterically precocious child, a slightly crooked toy soldier being minutely adjusted. But for the most part, Bottle Rocket is a visually straightforward and almost plain film by Anderson’s standards. (The fact that several scenes were shot in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright puts that in perspective.) But for all of the distance that Anderson still has to travel in his visual style, Bottle Rocket’s dialogue and performances are already pretty close to what they’d be in his best movies. In fact, I’m tempted to say this movie’s MVP is not Anderson but his star and co-writer Owen Wilson. Wilson’s performance as Dignan, the more delusional of two very flawed protagonists, is one of his best — impressive, given that this is his first feature as well. There’s a bit of early Coen brothers in the mix here, and it’s felt most when Wilson’s onscreen. He’s that fun kind of character whose behavior and way of talking is massively out of step with his circumstances: a Coen standby. It’s always fun to be reminded that you like an actor, in spite of not liking the bulk of their movies. I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to. It’s one of those movies you watch more out of historical interest than actual enthusiasm, but that ends up delighting you regardless.

Rushmore — I was momentarily concerned that I’d end up liking the somewhat anomalous Bottle Rocket better than this, the film that made Wes Anderson’s reputation and established the aesthetic that I love him for. But as soon as Jason Schwartzman folded up his newspaper and said “I’m sorry, did someone say my name?” I banished all such thoughts. This is where Anderson’s ability to tell heartfelt stories in a deliberately arch style really flowers. Our 15-year-old protagonist Max Fischer is the first of a particular kind of Wes Anderson hero: the effusive can-do guy whose outward displays of spirit mask deep turmoil. This puts him in a category with the likes of Mr. Fox and Gustave H. And while I doubt any Anderson character will ever seriously rival Gustave H. for me, Max is a masterful creation. He acts according to his own idiosyncratic code, but as the movie progresses, we start to see glimmers of awareness that there are certain conventions he probably shouldn’t breach. This may be the Wes Anderson film with the most interesting character relationships. It’s built primarily around a deeply implausible love triangle, but all three relationships in that triangle are fascinating in their way. Max’s infatuation with the age-inappropriate teacher Rosemary Cross is a one-way street, but it’s clear that Ms. Cross sees elements of her late husband in this strange kid. His relationship with the wealthy industrialist Herman Blume isn’t quite a father/son dynamic. Clearly Blume sees it that way, and would that he could make it so simple, because he sees nothing of himself in his own children. But one of Max’s foibles is that he sees himself as a peer to the adults in his life, so Blume can’t quite make the father/son thing stick. And, of course there’s Blume and Ms. Cross’s relationship, which is the least plausible thing in the movie, but it reshapes the movie’s tensions into something strangely Oedipal, considering that there aren’t any actual family ties at play. How Anderson (and Owen Wilson, who co-wrote the screenplay) manage to resolve all of this into a “have it all” sort of ending and not make it seem cheap is a miracle. One of my first thoughts when I finished this was that I’d probably have been more impressed by it if I’d seen it before Brick, Rian Johnson’s later film about precocious high schoolers that adds a layer of film noir and has even more stylized dialogue. That’s as dazzling a film as this one, but the more I think about it the more I think it’s a ludicrous comparison. Taking Rushmore on its own terms, it’s a beautiful film, and the first real demonstration of Anderson’s brilliance.

The Royal Tenenbaums — You’ll note the rather low placement of Wes Anderson’s most acclaimed (probably) movie in the ranking above. I promise I am not being wilfully perverse. I really like this movie. But it clearly doesn’t hit me as hard as it does a lot of people. It certainly doesn’t hit me as hard as some of Anderson’s other movies. Like Rushmore, its drama is based around relationships, which distinguishes these movies from pretty much all six of the other Wes Anderson movies, which are at least partially adventure stories. Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums are Anderson’s only movies where the characters don’t really go anywhere or try to accomplish anything especially unusual. (Even Max Fischer’s prodigious accomplishments all happen within the walls of high school.) I imagine that’s what people like about these movies. But between the two, Rushmore is enormously more effective to me. Where Rushmore focusses on the relationships between three main characters, and delves pretty deeply into those relationships, Tenenbaums offers sketches of the relationships between a far vaster cast of weirdos. To Anderson’s credit (and Owen Wilson’s, who returns as co-writer and co-star), these sketches are marvellous in their efficiency. The pairings of Margo and Richie (Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson) and Royal and Chas (Gene Hackman and Ben Stiller) are especially effective. But other characters who start the movie looking promising end up in shaggy dog stories, especially Owen Wilson and Bill Murray’s characters. Eventually, Anderson will master the art of the huge ensemble cast by not pretending that every character is especially important. But here, he isn’t so graceful, and the depth of his characters’ relationships suffers. In a movie like this, that dulls the impact more than it would in a more knockabout film like Moonrise Kingdom or even Bottle Rocket. But there are still parts of this that kill me — the culmination of the Royal/Chas plotline in particular. And the opening is one of Anderson’s best. And this guy knows how to start a movie. So basically, it’s a movie I wish I connected with more than I do. But I do still like it.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou — I suppose for a time it would have been considered a minor heresy to prefer The Life Aquatic to The Royal Tenenbaums, but I get the sense that’s changing and I’m very glad. The Life Aquatic is the most diorama-like of Wes Anderson’s movies thus far and it has more cartoonish characterizations than any of his previous films. But that lightness only serves to cast the movie’s story of grief, loss and failure in even more shadow. Steve Zissou is a more dominant protagonist than appears in any other Wes Anderson film, including Rushmore. The story of this movie is very much the story of a trying time in one man’s life. As excellent as Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston and especially Cate Blanchett are in this, they’re all basically just other people who are present at Steve’s turning point. This is Bill Murray’s second-best film performance after Lost in Translation. His hangdog expression cracks just frequently enough to imply that there’s more than just a general malaise plaguing this character. I really like that Anderson has made one movie like this, with a distinct protagonist whose struggle we sympathize with. It’s not his usual M.O., but it really works here. Also, I just love how much stuff there is in this movie: stuff like Seu Jorge’s unmotivated but delightful constant David Bowie covers, the fake animals, and the ludicrous diorama that is the set of the Belafonte. It’s more than just sugar that helps the medicine go down: it’s a deliberate distancing tactic that makes it necessary to extend yourself that bit further into the film to find the humanity. The Life Aquatic requires a significant investment of empathy throughout most of its running time if you’re going to be on Steve’s side. But if you succeed in this, it pays off with one of the most sublime and openly emotive endings in Wes Anderson’s catalogue. I should say: I’ve ranked this higher than Moonrise Kingdom basically only because of the submarine scene. They’re pretty much neck-and-neck in my view, but the ending of Life Aquatic hits me straight in the gut every time. I love this movie. I haven’t even been able to get to everything I love about it. I love that this is Anderson’s movie about moviemaking: he went for theatrical in Rushmore and literary in Tenenbaums, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom and Grand Budapest, but he’s got one movie that’s straightforwardly about doing what he does and I love that. In keeping with that, I love how fake everything looks, especially the obviously-filmed-in-a-tank deep sea dive scene. I love this movie.

Moonrise Kingdom — Ah, the first Wes Anderson movie I saw, and the one I hadn’t seen for longest. This is really glorious. It might be Anderson’s most whimsical movie, partially because its protagonists are children, but also because of how seamlessly the adults in the story fit into their bizarre little lives — especially the scout masters played by Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman and Harvey Keitel. It might also be Anderson’s most beautifully shot movie, with the ropey diorama of Steve Zissou’s boat having been refined into a beautiful sort of doll’s house set for the opening titles. And it’s almost certainly Anderson’s most uplifting movie. Most other Wes Anderson movies, even those with basically happy endings (I’m thinking particularly of Rushmore) end with people learning sad lessons. The two children at the centre of this movie have had their fill of sad lessons already when the movie begins. They end the movie having realized that life can be good. Plus, it’s fun to see what happens when Anderson puts aside his British Invasion fetish in favour of Benjamin Britten. Stick around through the credits of this one. It features a Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra-inspired tour through Alexandre Desplat’s original score. (Or is it Tubular Bells-inspired?)

The Grand Budapest Hotel — Upon a third viewing of this, I think I need to make space for it in my all-time top ten. The Grand Budapest Hotel is more than Wes Anderson’s frothiest, rompiest contrivance, though it is that. It is also a story about the pain of being displaced by historical forces beyond your control. Consider why, for a moment, this movie takes place in a hotel rather than another sort of institution or locale. Hotels are places that aren’t home. They may be novel and extraordinarily pleasant, but they are elsewhere. They are temporary places for people who aren’t in their main place. And yet this movie doesn’t make a lot of time for the Grand Budapest’s guests. Normally, you’d think that a movie about a hotel would take advantage of the fact that so many colourful people may come and go from it. Yet, aside from the narrator, we only really meet one and she dies almost immediately. This is a movie about people who live and work at a hotel — people who are in a transitory place on a permanent basis. That is the heart of this movie’s sadness. Zero the lobby boy, we learn, is a refugee whose family was killed in the war. That’s why he’s at the Grand Budapest. And our hero, the concierge Gustave H., is as displaced in time as Zero is displaced in space. He’s a man of extreme elegance and refinement, in spite of his modest circumstances, and he’s found himself in an era defined by fascist brutality and simple mindedness. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the story of two people who, for different reasons, no longer recognize the world around them. And the only thing that softens the blow is the magnificence of the transitory place in which they’ve found themselves. The relationship between Zero and Monsieur Gustave is the most beautiful of many beautiful relationships in Wes Anderson’s catalogue, because each of them intuitively understands the other’s suffering. And through his mentor, Zero learns the value of pageantry as a coping mechanism. This is the purest expression of something Wes Anderson has been doing in his movies since Bottle Rocket: he makes his characters do ridiculous things and adhere to ridiculous codes, because if they aren’t occupied they’ll be consumed by their own sadness. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a sublime film. It is sublime not in spite of its ridiculousness, but because of it. Pick of the week.

The Wes Anderson Collection — I complimented my survey of Anderson’s movies with these video essays by Matt Zoller Seitz, one of the great film and television critics. It’s a lovely series, with the instalment on The Grand Budapest Hotel being especially fantastic. Seitz dives into the influence of the writer Stefan Zweig on the movie, which only makes it more poignant, considering Zweig’s own wartime displacement. He shares a great deal with Monsieur Gustave.

Music

Sigur Rós: Ágætis byrjun — Yeah, The Life Aquatic made me want to revisit this. It’s rainy as I write this but when I listened to it, it felt like the peak of summer in Vancouver. So, an odd time to listen to a work that nobody seems able to listen to without envisioning glaciers. But whatever. It’s always Iceland in my heart. Ahem. This is exactly what I remember it being: occasionally very moving, with tracks in between that feel like biding time. “Starálfur” is justly overexposed: that chorus will just eat you alive. And I’m a big fan of “Olsen Olsen,” with its big, drunk sounding chorus. The one I loved that I didn’t remember loving is the title track, which indicates to me that after several years with this album, I may not yet be done with the growing process. That’s nice.

Sigur Rós: () — I know I heard Ágætis byrjun and Takk… in high school, because a) I have them on CD, and b) I remember them clearly. But I’m not sure I’d ever actually heard this, which is a shame, because I would have adored it then. To be clear, I adore it now as well. On first listen, I think it has the potential to become my favourite Sigur Rós album. It’s starker and more minimalistic than the albums on either side of it, but it also has more range in terms of how loud it’s willing to get. That makes it really effective. I’ve got to listen to Takk… again. I used to love that. Wonder how it holds up.

Television

Twin Peaks: The Return: Parts 17 & 18 — I have never needed to watch something a second time more than I need to watch Twin Peaks: The Return a second time. Watching this show on a week-by-week basis has provoked the illusion that it is a television show that you can watch like other television shows: expecting effects to result from things that look like causes, and expecting to discover the causes of certain unexplained effects. But Twin Peaks has never worked like that, this most recent season least of all. There’s a moment I love in the first season of Twin Peaks, in the episode that immediately follows the introduction of the Red Room and the Man From Another Place. It’s a scene where Cooper and his colleagues sit around a table and try to make sense of his weird dream. The reason I love this scene has nothing to do with its actual content, and everything to do with what it says about the production of Twin Peaks. The Red Room scene comes from the brilliant episode “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer,” which shares its writer/director credits with all 18 episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return: written by David Lynch and Mark Frost, directed by David Lynch. Neither Lynch nor Frost receive either credit on the following episode. It seems to me that the fact that we got an attempt to make sense of the show’s freakiest sequence in the very next episode is the direct result of Twin Peaks having been made with a rotating crew of directors and writers who are, meaning no disrespect, mostly not surrealist auteurs. They are in the same position as the rest of us when presented with something like the Red Room: i.e. “what the hell do we make of this?!?” And then, like us, they devise possible solutions. It helps that they had access to a character like Cooper who, in his hyperverbalism and supernatural competence, can generally find a compelling explanation for anything. Twin Peaks: The Return has nobody writing or directing save Frost and Lynch, and it has virtually no Dale Cooper. The upshot of this is that as an audience trying to interpret Twin Peaks, we no longer have allies on the inside. Gordon Cole is the closest we get in this season, and it’s foolish to expect David Lynch to put all of the answers in his own character’s mouth. Let me try and express this another way: in the original run of Twin Peaks, there were inexplicable things that happened within the text, but the inexplicability of those things was the primary plot driver. The characters in the show were trying to explain the same stuff that the audience wanted to know. Twin Peaks: The Return is doing something fundamentally different and much more similar to other David Lynch projects like Eraserhead and Inland Empire: the text itself is the mystery. A central question the viewer is forced to pose while watching is simply “why am I being shown this?” Why do we hear lovelorn stories from roadhouse patrons who are irrelevant to the central plotline? Why are we seeing these scenes with Audrey, which don’t seem to connect with anything. What was the purpose of that one random scene with Ben Horne’s secretary’s sick husband? Between seasons two and three of Twin Peaks, the central mystery changed from “what happened” to “why is this show like this.” That’s why I need to watch this all again: because that’s a question that no character in this show — not even a 100 percent awake Agent Cooper — could possibly be equipped to answer. That’s on us.

Comedy

Marc Maron: Too Real — Watched this the day it came out. I really like Marc Maron, by which I mean, I enjoy him as a person. And that’s really what’ll make or break your response to this, because he doesn’t really do a lot of “jokes” in this. Well, he does, but there are long bits where he doesn’t. Maron seems happy, these days. True to form, he doesn’t really know what to do with that happiness, or how to respond to it. But there’s a contentedness about him this time around that’s sort of new. And it’s nice to see. It certainly doesn’t make him less funny. I’ve always appreciated Maron’s willingness to risk his audience not having the same cultural signifiers as him. A joke like “Ronnie’s a problem” won’t work for a crowd that isn’t moderately well versed in Rolling Stones lore, but that doesn’t stop him. The one thing in this that outright does not work is when he does a whole extended bit twice: once as a comedy bit and once as a narrated children’s book, the joke being that his earlier bit basically has the structure of a children’s book. But all he had to do was say that and we’d get it. He doesn’t have to demonstrate. Still, it’s hard to begrudge him because the fact he’s doing it at all is part of the joke. It’s a good special. I laughed a bunch.

Literature, etc.

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale (audiobook) — Well this is depressing. I let my Audible subscription go on for a while and accumulated credits I didn’t need, so I cancelled the subscription and nabbed this and Stephen King’s It to get my money’s worth. Claire Danes reads this, and rather well, too. The text itself is certainly not a fun time, but it is an ingenious and affecting story so far. I’ll get into it more next week, at which point I’ll probably be done it.

Podcasts

Radio Diaries: “The Working Tapes of Studs Terkel (Hour Special)” — This was a good Labour Day listen. It’s just the great Studs Terkel, interviewing people about their jobs, in the 70s. It’s fascinating. There’s nothing like archival tape. This really feels like time travel. It’s worth it for the story of the private detective who was hired to catch a butter thief. There’s plenty more than that, but that’s really something.

The Memory Palace: “Two Small Sculptures” — These Metropolitan Museum residency episodes have been a lot of fun, and they really make me want to go to that museum and listen to them all again.

99% Invisible: “The Age of the Algorithm” — Oh nice, 99pi tackled algorithms. This is a really good episode about where the line is between good and troubling algorithms. It’s one of the ones you should hear even if you’re not really a fan of this.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Mother-Daughter Directors Nancy Meyers and Hallie Meyers-Shyer” — A nice interview about a movie I probably won’t watch.

The Heart: “Bodies: Itch” — This is a story about an itchy butthole.

Code Switch: “An Advertising Revolution: “Black People Are Not Dark-Skinned White People” — A Planet Money crossover about the first powerful black ad man. It’s fascinating to hear about the specific ways that an all-white advertising industry was failing to appeal to people of colour. I mean, you obviously know that’s a thing. But this dives into it.

Reply All: “The Case of the Phantom Caller” — Ah, they’re back. This is a real winner. It’s the story of a mysterious series of phone calls that play music, or modem sounds, or the ambience from a basketball game, or a person reading a text or… It’s really unsettling, and the journey to hunt down the answers is fascinating. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of May 7, 2017)

23 reviews. My most frequently-occurring number of reviews, I’d wager. I don’t know why that is. I just seem to do 23 reviews a lot.

Television, etc.

American Gods: “The Secret of Spoons” — Wow, it got better. This episode is, on balance, less flashy than the first. Though it has its moments of visual splendor, such as the way Chicago’s dot on the map of America crossfades to Zorya’s padlock, the tumblers of which are then juxtaposed with a slot machine (foreshadowing of the coming fateful checkers game). But by and large, this is a less cinematic, more theatrical episode of television than “The Bone Orchard.” They always used to say television was a writers’ medium, but in a post-Breaking Bad — and indeed, post-Hannibal — world, that’s becoming a more dubious claim. David Slade has directed both of those shows, and his style is abundantly evident here. Still, the measure of this second episode comes from the writing and acting, much more so than the first. And that starts in the opening scene, which introduces a radically different, much more interesting version of Anansi than the one readers will know from the novel. (I loved the version of Anansi in the novel, but he’s too nice for 2017. Better by far to have him be angry, sardonic and powerful.) Orlando Jones may be my favourite thing about this show so far, which is not nothing when the show also has Ian McShane in it. Everything about this scene is perfect, from the writing for Anansi to the prayer that his supplicant speaks to summon him, to THE SUIT OH GOD THE SUIT. What’s amazing about this scene is that Anansi, without saying a single untrue thing, tricks his followers. He tricks them into sacrificing themselves so that he could find his way ashore to America. (And how great is that shot of the spider — whose colouring is as flamboyant as its human form’s wardrobe — creeping off of the floating plank and onto the shore?) But he’s also not wrong that the sacrifice is potentially more meaningful than what many of the captives on the boat had ahead of them. This is not only a better version of Anansi than in the book, it’s also more thoughtful and up-to-date take on the Middle Passage than the one in the book. This scene would be an effective short film in itself, with absolutely no other context from American Gods. And it basically functions as one in this episode, since Anansi doesn’t enter the main story until later. Still, its themes resonate with the aftermath of Shadow’s lynching (an unexpected valence to add to the image of Odin hanging from the world tree; yet another addition on the part of the show) and the extremely uncomfortable conversations he has with Czernobog. Oh, yes, can we talk about Czernobog? Peter Stormare is third of three perfect casting choices for this show’s main trio of Old Gods. Given that I am primarily familiar with him from his famously taciturn performance opposite the famously verbose Steve Buscemi in Fargo, it’s nice to hear him get some dialogue to wrap his mouth around. And they’ve really made him look disgusting. His grubby, blood-soaked wife-beater is as brilliant a costume choice as Anansi’s suit (OH GOD THE SUIT). I am very much looking forward to the part of the story where we get to see Czernobog, Anansi and Wednesday together, because these actors are everything I love about television. I’m also extremely fond of Cloris Leachman’s performance as Zorya, and I hope the show contrives to give her more to do than in the book. And as if this isn’t enough, we’ve got Gillian Anderson doing “sinister Lucille Ball,” which is the role she was born to play. What I’m trying to get at here is that sure, American Gods is proving itself to be a televisual feast worthy of the creator of Hannibal. But this episode proves that the basics are so solid you could just take these actors and this script and play it out on a stage and it would still work. Easily my favourite episode of TV I’ve seen so far this year. Pick of the week.  

Better Call Saul: “Chicanery” — My wish for the Jimmy/Chuck/Kim plotline to move forward was granted. This is the side of the show that I’m usually close to 100% confident in. Jimmy’s transformation into Saul was always the impetus for this show’s existence, story-wise. I sometimes feel as though the presence of Mike, and now Gus, is only to maintain Better Call Saul’s connection to the violent, shocking world of Breaking Bad, where crime is right in front of you and not a matter of courtroom litigation. But this show has always been good at making a comparatively everyday story into something with equal dramatic weight to the sordid tale of Walter White. This week’s episode is maybe the best the show has ever done, and it’s basically a straightforward courtroom drama. What’s most satisfying here is seeing the two drastically different legal strategies of Jimmy and Kim employed in tandem. Kim’s meticulous and strategic in her cross-examination and Jimmy employs a pickpocket. (Huell!!!) The moment when Chuck realizes that he’s genuinely betrayed himself at the end of the episode is one of his best character beats in the show so far. Like courtroom dramas often do, this offers an opportunity to put this story’s conflict in the starkest relief it’ll probably ever get. Jimmy: the compassionate grifter. Chuck: the ruthless champion of justice. Outstanding stuff.

Doctor Who: “Oxygen” — Not bad. I always like the feel of Doctor Who episodes that take place on a spaceship/station with plenty of emphasis on the void of space. (“Kill the Moon” comes to mind in particular.) I dunno what I find intrinsically compelling about the void of space, but I to tend to like stories that take place there. I also like critiques of capitalism. And I love the note tacked onto the end of this that indicates the events of this episode were the impetus for some sort of space communist revolution. But I can’t help the feeling that the monster-based horror of this episode is awfully familiar from last season’s (awful) “Before the Flood.” This show is contriving more and more ways to do zombies without doing zombies these days. Fun to have Nardole actually on a TARDIS trip. I like him in limited doses. I’m curious about how the Doctor’s blindness will factor into the series’ main plot arc, which I”m hoping will start in earnest next week. But that final line, “I’m still blind!” was a bit much, wasn’t it? May as well have been followed by a huge DUN DUN DUUUUUUHHH. This was alright. Better than “Knock Knock.” Much better, in fact. But not a destined classic.

Bill Wurtz: history of the entire world i guess — I guess there is a point to YouTube. The cosmic stuff at the beginning of this is the highlight. Wurtz is funny, obviously. But he also manages to convey the inconceivable weirdness and complexity of the universe having at some point been empty and timeless. The closer we get to society, the easier a job he has. But he doesn’t hue too closely to the usual narratives and makes sure to not just do European history. I already feel like I’m taking this too seriously. I’m going to stop now.

Movies

The Darjeeling Limited — Hmm. Well, it’s got some really good stuff in it. Adrian Brody, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson are three actors who are wont to give excellent Wes Anderson performances. This is a very particular kind of performance. You have to be really good at listlessly staying in the same place. You can’t move your face too much. All three leads do this very well. Also, the movie is very distinctly not in these characters’ camp. Not entirely, anyway. The film is set in India, and is a Western portrayal of India, but doesn’t convey India as a fountain of exoticism for its white protagonists to dip into. The protagonists themselves certainly see it that way, which is the source of much of the movie’s humour. Still, I retain some suspicions about whether the more sincere moments in the movie (especially the young boy’s funeral) are accurate. If not, then I think this film is making some assumptions about its audience that it probably shouldn’t. Still, I don’t have the information to make the final judgement. Dramatically, I liked this as much as The Royal Tenenbaums (which I very much wanted to enjoy more than I did), but not quite as much as The Life Aquatic, and certainly not as much as my two favourite Anderson movies: Moonrise Kingdom and the spectacular masterpiece that is The Grand Budapest Hotel. But I’m a sucker for Anderson’s brand of intensely mannered filmmaking and this fits that bill.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — Basically, I enjoyed this. I like these actors, these characters, and the general tone of these movies. But this isn’t quite as fleet-footed as its predecessor. The issue isn’t just repetition; it’s that this movie doesn’t execute its jokes as thoughtfully as the first Guardians did. There’s nothing here that rivals that movie’s most iconic shot: the slow-motion corridor walk where instead of stoically staring ahead, they’re yawning and crotch-scratching and whatever. The joke being, they’re doing a thing that people only do in movies, except they’re all acting like they’re not in a movie. This has ideas that come close to that, but it doesn’t really follow through on them. The opening credits have a similarly promising premise: the Guardians fight a giant space monster, out of focus in the background while Baby Groot dances adorably in the foreground. But that’s the whole of the joke, basically. There aren’t really any beats to the scene except for the other characters getting thrown towards the camera one at a time. If we could actually follow the battle and watch it get progressively more disastrous as Groot dances, that would have been funny throughout its duration, instead of just at the start. The monster should be dead by the end of the credits. Then we should see the Guardians up close for the first time, exhausted and covered in goo. And somebody should snark about how Groot used to be helpful. Or something. I’m not a screenwriter. I’m just saying, that’s the definitive way that scene should have worked. The rest of the action-comedy in the movie is often fun, but I couldn’t shake the feeling after a while that in its action sequences, this movie only has one joke, and it’s basically “terrible violence is wrought upon villains to a sunny, 80s soundtrack.” Contrast with the master, who has scores of specific, bespoke jokes in every fight. Other problems! Chris Pratt can’t do feelings! Chris Pratt can do banter. That’s what you’re supposed to hire Chris Pratt to do. The story makes no sense! Why did Kurt Russell give Chris Pratt’s mom brain cancer? He didn’t have to do that! And at what point was it explained that Chris Pratt would lose his short-lived god powers if he killed his dad? How does that even work?!? Also, the characters are all split up so we don’t get to see any of the relationships between them! This is an observation I semi-nicked from Pop Culture Happy Hour, but the panelists there are definitely right about it. We don’t really get to see the dynamic between the members of the team we got to know in the first movie, because every one of them gets paired with a minor character instead. This hurts Zoe Saldana the most, because she gets lumped in with the not-reliably-brilliant Karen Gillan. But it doesn’t really do Pratt any favours either because he gets stuck in an emotional arc with a Kurt Russell character who does not crack wise, thank you very much. Rocket and Drax fare better with Yondu and Mantis, respectively. (Evidently, the less humanoid you look, the more likely I am to refer to you by your character’s name.) But I miss the Rocket/Pratt dynamic from the first movie a lot. Also! There are platitudes o’plenty in the screenplay, and not all of them get comedically undercut by Drax! They should. “I control the arrow with my heart” is one of the most unforgivably shitty sentiments ever to be allowed into a Marvel shooting script. And if I see one more genre film where the entire resolution rests on the intrinsic nobility of humanity I will lose my mind! Ahem. But it’s not all bad! Dave Bautista is consistently hilarious as Drax, and steals this movie to a much larger extent than he did the first one. Baby Groot is adorable! But they would do well to retire that version of the character now (as it appears they will), since his entire characterization is based on a single gag in the first movie’s post-credits scene. That cannot hold for long. There are a number of very funny jokes! That is much appreciated. There is a spaceship with lasers that roll around its exterior on tracks! It’s hard to describe, but it’s a lovely bit of design that spices up the huge space battles substantially. There is a certified dank special effect where their faces go weird from doing too many hyperspace jumps! I love that. There is Cat Stevens! I love Cat Stevens. So basically, there are many problems with this. But the Guardians of the Galaxy remain a pretty solid second place among my favourite properties in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (next to Captain America). I’ll watch Vol. 3, and I won’t even complain about it, probably.

Comedy

Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special — This is distinctly less excellent than her more recent special that I watched last week, but I think I’m pretty much always on board for Maria Bamford at this point. This is the special that she shot for an audience of only her parents. I confess that while I appreciate this choice as a joke in itself (and I certainly appreciate Bamford’s ability to talk openly about the darkest elements of her inner life right in front of her parents) I’m not sure it shows her material in its best light. I do generally prefer comedy specials to be as verité and sketch-light as possible — incursions of surreal sketch comedy mar specials that I otherwise love by Chelsea Peretti and Zach Galifianakis, for example. And to a certain extent, this entire special is a sketch with standup in it. Old Baby also has elements of this, but for the bulk of its running time, Bamford is at least telling jokes to a crowd large enough to have a homogenous reaction to those jokes. No such luck with the ‘rents. The material’s still awesome, though. The bits about Paula Deen and the double standard that applies to mental vs. physical illnesses are both perfect demonstrations of what’s great about Maria Bamford. But on balance, I think she stepped it up for this year’s special. It’s actually nice to find that an artist you’ve recently discovered is on an upwards trajectory rather than a downwards one. It doesn’t usually work that way for me because I’m wilfully late to every pop culture party. But yeah, this cements Maria Bamford among my top three or four comics, probably.

Chris Gethard: Career Suicide — I really like listening to somebody just tell a story. That’s ultimately why I like Mike Birbiglia so much, even though I generally think his jokes don’t rise to the level of some of my other favourite comics. Neither do Chris Gethard’s. But that doesn’t stop this from being wildly compelling viewing. This is a 90-minute (!) account of Gethard’s lifelong journey through intense mental illness. Gethard’s gift is that he can see how the following two things can both be true: depression is awful and has taken him to some truly dark places, and the experience of being depressed has provided him with some objectively funny stories. This is also a really excellent corrective to certain specious narratives about mental illness, especially the one about antidepressants taking your creativity away. I’ve watched three new comedy specials so far in 2017. It speaks to the caliber of the first two that I would rank them as follows: Maria Bamford, Chris Gethard, Louis C.K.

Literature, etc.

China Miéville: October — China Miéville’s self-admittedly partisan history of the Russian Revolution is off to a good start. That said, as a fan of his fiction, it is almost offputtingly straightforward. Aside from a few words necessitating a quick Google (ogee?) Miéville has basically put aside his most obscurantist tendencies here. And I confess, I always kind of loved him for those. I’ve read the first chapter of this book, and so far, Miéville’s introductory portraits of Lenin and Trotsky are the most promising elements. Though, the best single moment in this opening chapter is Miéville’s marvellous, withering depiction of Nicholas Romanov: “Absence defines him: absence of expression, imagination, intelligence, insight, drive, determination, élan. Description after bemused description turns on the ‘otherworldliness’ of a man adrift in history. He is a well-educated vacuity stuffed with the prejudices of his milieu — including pro-pogramist antisemitism, aimed particularly at revolutionary zhidy, ‘yids’. Averse to change of any kind at all, he is wholeheartedly wedded to autocracy. Uttering the word ‘intelligentsia’, he makes the same disgusted face as when he says ‘syphilis’.” So, yeah. He doesn’t hold back. And even in a comparatively simple idiom, Miéville’s use of English is still impressive. This bodes well.

Games

Fallen London — With last week’s encomium to Sunless Sea, I inspired myself to go back to the original. I found Fallen London a few years ago when I was really into interactive fiction in general — Twine, parser-based stuff, the whole works. Fallen London stuck out to me for all of the reasons I’ve already praised Sunless Sea, i.e. the prose is incredible. But it’s been a while. I can’t remember where I was at in the game and it’s taking me awhile to figure it out. But that’s fine! Because everything you do in Fallen London is a delight. It’s clear to me that a huge amount of the mythology that underlies Fallen London is still a mystery to me. (What the hell even is the Bazaar???) At first, I thought that the aura of mystery was the whole of the game and that you’re never really meant to get past the protective coating that sits on top of all of the lore. Certainly, most of the characters walking around seem to have just as incomplete an understanding of what the hell is going on as I do as a player. But playing a bunch of Sunless Sea made me realize that there are answers to the questions. Some of them, anyway. I’m looking forward to learning them. Also! There’s an app now! And it’s really pretty. Way prettier than the browser game. Now this feels like a bespoke product the same way Sunless Sea does. It’s a cosmetic thing, but cosmetics are important.

Music

Buffalo Springfield: Buffalo Springfield — Ah, fuck it. If I’m doing a Neil Young binge, I’m going to do it properly. From here on out, we’re going for completion. I’m defining that as “everything that’s been officially released by Neil Young or an act he was a member of.” This includes official and archival lives, and rarities on odds and sods collections. This is going to be taxing, but I’m experiencing a severe compulsion that I don’t think I’m going to best. Buffalo Springfield is not a bad album by any means, but it is first and foremost a period piece. It is interesting primarily for being an early work by Neil Young and Stephen Stills, both of whom would go on to do work that has aged much better than this. (The former in particular, obviously.) But I am always in favour of listening to things that are of primarily historical interest. In general, Neil’s songs are more adventurous and interesting than Stephen Stills’, but Stills penned the obvious standout, “For What it’s Worth.” It was tacked on in the second pressing after it became a hit. It would be a far poorer album without it, honestly. That’s how much better and more iconic it is than anything else on here. And the track it replaced, “Baby Don’t Scold Me,” is about as good as its title promises it will be. Neil’s songs don’t quite sound like Neil Young songs except for when he sings them. (Everything sounds like a Neil Young song if he’s singing it. Even if it’s a Beatles song.) And he only sings two of his own songs here. “Burned” is the stronger of the two, but I know from the Decade compilation that Neil’s best contributions to the Buffalo Springfield oeuvre will come later. Strangely, this record’s most notable “oh, Neil Young’s here!” moment isn’t on a track that he wrote. His guitar playing on “Leave” is remarkably similar to the way it’ll sound four years later in the outro of “Woodstock” with CSNY, or on “Southern Man.” A really interesting and intermittently good album.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and W. Kamau Bell” — Sounds like Guardians 2 is basically what everybody expected it to be. (He says, having written this before he saw the movie, which he reviewed above.) I’m in. (He says, not knowing he’d see the movie within the same week as this review, and that this would later read really weirdly because of my structural choice to always put podcasts last.) W. Kamau Bell is very funny.

Reply All: “The Silence in the Sky” — Nice to hear something where P.J. Vogt did the reporting. Seems to me that’s rarer than Alex Goldman-reported segments, but I don’t have the stats in front of me. I agree with Vogt that “Across the Universe” is not the best Beatles song.

The Media Show: “Secrecy and whistleblowing, Times Literary Supplement editor Stig Abell, Radio style guides” — Ah, good, there’s an excellent media-focussed show on BBC Radio 4. I love BBC Radio 4. I got linked to this from I can’t remember where and listened to it to hear the segment on the Times Literary Supplement. Maybe I’ll subscribe to a literary magazine. I could see myself doing something like that.

WTF with Marc Maron: “John Michael Higgins / Maria Bamford” — Too bad the Maria Bamford spot is so short. I need to go back into the archives and listen to previous Maron/Bamford conversations. These two understand each other. John Michael Higgins is not a person I know (the only Christopher Guest movie I’ve seen is, wait for it… Waiting for Guffman) but he’s super interesting and Maron’s good at getting him to tell the story of his crazy road through showbiz. Fine listening.

Every Little Thing: “Rapture Chasers” — Not bad, but not as substantially different from Surprisingly Awesome as I’d hoped it would be. If your premise is basically “things are great when you look into them,” you’d better have some serious personality in your show. Because that is essentially the premise of all journalism that isn’t hard news. This is the sort of show that I think will likely produce a lot of great episodes, but I’m having the same sort of hard time figuring out why it exists as I had with Undone, and we all remember how that worked out.

Beef and Dairy Network: “A Tribute to Paul Kitesworthy” — A segment based around a slightly predictable joke: the dead guy isn’t really dead; he just owes everybody money. Still funny and well-made. If I wasn’t so behind on my subscriptions, I’m sure I would have gulped this whole thing down.

Code Switch catch-up — Wow, I just listened to six episodes of Code Switch. (The most recent six.) I am sad and confused! Highlights include a segment in the mailbag episode where the problems with the Native American hunting rights episode get addressed (thank god), Audie Cornish talking about writer/comic John Leguizamo, and the entire episode about the L.A. unrest (as relevant a topic as ever). But the real standout episode is the most recent one, co-hosted by Shereen Marisol Meraji and Kat Chow, about Miss Saigon. This is the musical where, the first time around, a bunch of the characters were played in yellowface makeup, but now they’re not, but it’s still an intrinsically problematic piece because of “fragile Asian woman” stereotypes, etc. Maybe this is only the standout to me because this comes up frequently in the opera world (Miss Saigon is based on the same text as Madame Butterfly) except it’s even worse in the opera world. Yellowface is still considered acceptable at many (most?) opera houses and the drama of Madame Butterfly is so wrapped up in shitty racism of the century-old variety that it is actually not a good opera anymore. (Well, I mean, it never was. But I can understand why an early 20th-century audience in Italy might have thought it was.) I’m not sure if this applies to Miss Saigon or not, but Madame Butterfly has a protagonist that we’re expected to sympathize with and feel bad for in spite of the fact that she has absolutely no strength of character. We’re expected to feel gutted at her fate because she can’t help being the sort of person she is, because of her race. If Butterfly had been a white character and acted the same way, nobody in the opera’s original audience would have believed it. And yet, here we are today, still believing it. I really hate Madam Butterfly. And I think I hate Miss Saigon by extension now.

The Memory Palace: “Met Residency #5: Temple” — Fun to hear Nate DiMeo do one of these Met episodes that’s a little bit critical of the Met. Basically he follows a timeline posted in the Met’s reconstruction of an Egyptian temple and points out the interesting bits (and the boring bits). Not one of my favourites of these stories, certainly. The one about Prince Demah Barnes is still the best one, followed closely by the one about John Vanderlyn’s panorama. But this is probably number three.

The Memory Palace: “Notes on a Plaque, Still Imagined” — This was one of the first Memory Palace episodes I heard, back before I was completely sold on it. Listening again, I don’t know what I was thinking. This is a beautifully written proposal to affix a big, gaudy plaque to a statue commemorating the military record of a racist. And not just any racist: the first Grand Wizard of the KKK. Nate DiMeo muses about how the plaque should be designed and what it should say to convey the message that this statue of this man is a product of its time, and of a morally inexcusable value system. Beautiful stuff.

The Memory Palace: “The Year Hank Greenberg Hit 58 Home Runs” — Outstanding. This is that rare thing: a story about American Nazism in the years prior to Pearl Harbour. Which was very much a thing and quite a popular one, though it’s been conveniently scrubbed from American history. Nate DiMeo finds his way in through two sports figures: the Jewish baseball virtuoso Hank Greenberg and the Jewish strongman Joseph Greenstein (“The Mighty Atom”). Most satisfyingly, it features said strongman beating up some Nazis with a baseball bat. What kind of baseball bat? Listen to the episode. It’s a more satisfying revel than you might think. Also, on the show’s website, DiMeo tagged this episode “Richard Spencer sucks,” just in case the subtext wasn’t clear. Pick of the week.

99% Invisible: “Sounds Natural” — Way to be buzzkills, 99pi staff. Honestly, I’ve always wondered how nature documentaries get such clear sound. But I never looked into it because I feared that the answer would be “it’s all fake,” which it is. I don’t really mind, but I’m going to be conscious of it now.

99% Invisible: “Reversing the Grid” — A strangely compelling policy story about how governments should deal with the phenomenon that power meters are reversible: i.e. they go backwards when you put power back into the grid. Like with solar panels.

Omnireviewer (week of April 30, 2017)

Hey, remember last week when my post only had seven reviews in it and was super short? Prepare yourself. This one’s 6000 words. Also, I decided to allocate my two picks of the week to non-podcasts, because podcasts aren’t making up such a staggering preponderance of these reviews, these days. Never fear, this will likely be a temporary state of affairs. Incidentally, this was another week when I would gladly have given out more than two picks of the week, but I failed to exercise restraint last week and I’m not making it a trend. No sir.

29 reviews.

Games

Sunless Sea — It is with intense satisfaction that I would like to report that after 130 hours of playing this over the course of two years (and seven dead captains, to boot) I have completed the main story of Sunless Sea! By “main story,” I mean the ambition called “Your Father’s Bones,” which you can choose at the start of a game. (This ambition has a narrative hook: you’re looking for the final resting place of your departed father. Whereas the other starting ambitions are essentially opportunities to explore freely while amassing fictional money or items that will eventually allow you to end your game with a win if you choose. So, the Father’s Bones option seems like a “main story” to me.) I confess that playing through this ambition was very much a “journey not the destination” sort of experience. The ending of the story is entirely fine, and beautifully written. But the true appeal of this storyline is in the subplots you have to follow while collecting a series of rare items. True, a fair chunk of the quest falls under the category of that hoary old video game trope “find X things.” But seldom does a quest to find things result in such rich storytelling. I got to know my ship’s gunnery officer a bit, and realized he’d built munitions for some truly shady people. I aided in my chef’s training and watched as he prepared a meal for a retinue of the living drowned. I hunted a ship crewed entirely by spiders. And it was all expressed through, bar none, the best written prose in the industry. I say this every time I write about this game, but Sunless Sea and its sister title Fallen London are the only games I’ve played with a distinctive and sure-handed approach to language that rivals literature. The humour, terror, characterization and poignancy of the various stories contained within this game all arise from the writers’ ingenious and idiosyncratic use of English. It’s a thing to behold. I will likely put aside Sunless Sea for a while now (and perhaps take up Fallen London in a more serious way), but I’m sure I’ll return to it at some point. I still feel as though I’ve only made a cursory survey of many of its moving parts. I don’t understand the full significance of the island of mute exiles in the north. I don’t understand why the locals at Mutton Island, just off the coast of London, suddenly started acting so weird. And I definitely don’t understand where the terrifying artificial sun in the corner of the map came from. Plus, I haven’t really dove into (excuse the pun) the excellent Zubmariner expansion, which has a starting ambition of its own. I think I’ll make it my goal to finish at least one more ambition in Sunless Sea before the sequel, Sunless Skies comes out. I never tire of this game, and I increasingly love the parts of it that annoyed me at first — namely the long, slow trips from port to port — best of all. While these moments can become extremely stressful under certain circumstances, they are usually fairly placid. This lends a contemplative element to a game that otherwise serves up plot pretty swiftly. Like baseball, I suppose. For a game that is so concerned with (and so effective at simulating the experience of) abject terror, it can feel curiously therapeutic to play. Sunless Sea is for me the most magnificent escape into an alternate universe that gaming has ever offered. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Pick of the week.

Television

Bill Nye Saves the World: Season 1, episodes 1-3 — It was Bill Nye who first made me want to be a scientist. It is crucial to note at this juncture that I am not a scientist, and in fact have a tenuous understanding at best of many very basic scientific concepts. However, when I was about eight or nine, when Bill Nye the Science Guy was nearing the end of its run, I wanted nothing more than to be a madly gesticulating, eccentric, bowtied fellow in a lab full of Tesla coils and beakers of colourful fluid. It was only partially the whimsical aesthetic of the show that pulled me in: it was just as much the spirit of joyful curiosity about the way the world works. The Nye Labs point-and-click adventure Stop the Rock! likely had an even more formative influence. That game let you actually explore Nye Labs. The wonder! The part of me that got sucked into early Radiolab is a part that was probably put there by Bill Nye. So I feel a tremendous amount of goodwill towards this guy. And basically, I think his new show is good. Certainly it’s noble. But by focussing specifically on the controversial global issues that require us all to have a better understanding of science that we do, he gives up something really crucial about the science communication work he’s done in the past: he loses sight of the sheer mad joy of understanding as an end in itself. Yes, it’s true that science is crucial to helping us navigate the biggest challenges we face. But that’s only one side of it, as far as I’m concerned. The other is that it’s just better by definition to know more about the world than you do. And that experience of joy in knowledge is essential to winning people over onto the side of science. I’d like to see Nye do a show that is similarly aimed at adults, but which balances topics of substantial-to-massive contemporary importance (alternative medicine, climate change) with scientific topics that are complex but maybe not quite so tied into the nightly news. When I was a kid, Bill Nye taught me about things I’d never heard of before, from underwater life to plate tectonics. I kind of still want him to do that. And also talk about climate change! We should never shut up about climate change. But… also fun new science facts. And the celebrity guest appearances can go. The not-famously-charismatic Steve Aoki’s guest spot is so arbitrary I kind of enjoyed it in spite of myself. But why Zach Braff is in the first episode, I’ll never understand.

American Gods: “The Bone Orchard” — Hugely, enormously promising. Like, “maybe this will be better than the book” promising. There are so many blazingly good sequences in this first episode that it almost seems ostentatious. The casting is flawless, with Ian McShane being a particularly obvious but magnificent choice for Mr. Wednesday and Ricky Whittle offering a harder, colder Shadow than the one in the book. A good choice, since it gives him a direction to move in. The look of the show is much more similar to Hannibal than I’d expected. Clearly Bryan Fuller is in the habit of bringing his own aesthetic to stories originated by others. Shadow’s dreamworld is rich and hallucinatory. I’m particularly fond of the way the ceiling of his cell breaks open to reveal Laura. And the entire ending sequence with the Technical Boy is brilliantly creepy in a way that only tech-based horror can be. The way that the Technical Boy forms out of weird claymation is the sort of bizarre, entrancing choice that is making me feel like this might actually kick the book up a notch. It’s really trying to be its own thing. But there are standout segments straight from the book as well. Shadow’s first conversation with Wednesday on the plane is a delight, and gives McShane the opportunity to be as gruff as we Deadwood fans are used to seeing him, but with an unfamiliar note of whimsy. Likewise, the bar fight with Mad Sweeney plays out almost exactly as in the book, and the gradual escalation from coin tricks to full-on brawling is as satisfying in this medium as that one. But the appeal of this so far is definitely not the basic joy of seeing a familiar work of fiction play out onscreen. It’s the much more complicated thing of seeing a familiar work of fiction get filtered through another auteur’s sensibility. I didn’t expect so much stylized gore, nor so many scenes with the dialogue almost entirely re-written. These are indications that Bryan Fuller (and, I suppose Michael Green, who is ostensibly an equal partner in this) will be making this his own. This is going to be so great.

Doctor Who: “Knock Knock” — Again, the best thing about this episode is the riffing on Doctor Who as a cultural force. “Oh, you’re the Doctor?” “Yes.” “Cool!” So, that’s a theme that’s continuing. But man, this was pretty blah. I enjoyed it in the sense that it was good performers filmed well while saying witty lines. But as horror stories rooted in the confused dynamic between a parent and child go, it’s sure not “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.” I like seeing Bill just go about her life outside the TARDIS, but we don’t get much of that before the generic haunted house story starts up. Competent. Not great. The weakest of the season so far, by a substantial distance.

Better Call Saul: “Sabrosito” — I should have mentioned last week how satisfying it is to see Patrick Fabian’s Howard Hamlin gradually transition into a really wonderful comic performance. His fence-climbing antics last time around were a highlight, but this week all he has to do to get a laugh is say “well that is a shame” in the most transparently ingratiating tone of voice possible. I really like this character. Fring’s plotline in this is notable mostly for his final speech to his employees at Los Pollos, which is a terrible speech. Intentionally so, obviously. It really drives home the point that Fring is intensely cynical: he knows he can anticipate a certain amount of critical thinking on the part of the people he associates with in the drug business. And certainly on the part of the cops. But employees at a fast food restaurant? Nah, they’ll buy anything. I’m not sure we’ve seen this from him before. It’s the only time he’s been less than completely convincing in his cover, but he knows he only has to be convincing enough. And he is. Jimmy’s plotline only surfaces halfway through the episode, once we’re through with Fring and Hector Salamanca. (Mark Margolis is continuing to add depth to this character, which both makes him fun to watch in this show, and deepens the tragedy of his barnstorming mute, wheelchair-bound performance in Breaking Bad.) I do wish that this story would move a little faster. I’m enjoying the Mike/Gus side of this season, but I feel as though the emphasis on that is slowing down progress on the story that has always fascinated me the most, which is anything involving Jimmy and Kim. Still, this is great.

Comedy

Maria Bamford: Old Baby — This is the best comedy special I’ve seen since about three Louis C.K. specials ago. I will repeat none of the bits, because the trailer for this proves that they are not funny out of context. I will say that Bamford has the perfect mix of three characteristics I like in a comic: jokes that frame the familiar in a new way, a delivery that complicates and deepens the writing itself, and uncommon life experiences to draw on. Regarding the second-last one of those, Bamford’s characters are hilarious, particularly when they’re her parents. And regarding the last, Bamford’s experience with mental illness is (silver linings) a fruitful source of material for her. I’m underselling this by making it tediously abstract. But I’m not about to explain comedy, here. This is on Netflix. Go watch it now. Pick of the week.

Movies

The Road Forward — The opening film of this year’s DOXA festival, this is a musical semi-documentary by Marie Clements, one of our local visionaries. It uses a gigantic storytelling toolbox including songwriting, music video, interviewing, visual symbolism and archival footage to tell a vast, nuanced story. The story is about the untold history of First Nations activism on the West coast of Canada. And it would be a hell of a story, even told straightforwardly. There are stories here, like the origins of the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood and the Indian Constitution Express movement, that are the sorts of incredible tales that inevitably prompt white people such as myself to say things like “how was I never taught this?” (Which is a sentiment that the film pokes fun at once or twice.) It’s moving, important and enormously ambitious. Its flaws are flaws it shares with virtually all movie musicals and some music videos: a certain ostentatious theatricality keeps it slightly at arm’s length (this started life as a theatre piece). But it’s still something I think every Canadian should see, not out of a sense of duty, but because it features contributions from a huge number of really great artists, with Clements at the top of the pile.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in his Labyrinth” — I’ve decided not to read this Borges collection in order, but rather to skim through and read the ones whose titles or first sentences jump out at me. The first sentence of this story is as follows: “‘This,’ said Dunraven with a vast gesture that did not blench at the cloudy stars, and that took in the black moors, the sea, and a majestic, tumbledown edifice that looked much like a stable fallen upon hard times, ‘is my ancestral land.’” I’m in. This is a fairly restrained application of Borges’s genius, but it’s definitely Borges. (One thing I recall from my long-ago reading of “The Garden of Forking Paths” is that it’s about a labyrinth. Sounds like this will be a theme.) Again I’m curiously reminded of Neil Gaiman. A cursory Google (and the slightest bit of common sense) reveals that Gaiman is a fan of Borges. And this story about stories feels like the sort of thing that wouldn’t be out of place in Sandman. Basically, one man tells a friend a story about a man who hid away in a labyrinth. And another man ponders the story, finds it insufficient and tells another version that’s more convincing based on the same facts. Simple, direct, ingenious. And also fable-like. Borges’s recurring motifs of labyrinths and libraries appeal to me on an aesthetic level as well as a thematic one. This is going well.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Borges and I” — An extremely short, vaguely troubling autobiographical sketch that finds Borges negotiating the difference between his public and private personas. This is part of The Maker (AKA Dreamtigers), and I think I’ll probably hold off on reading any more of that until I get a copy of the complete text. (My complete fictions collection dogmatically refuses to include the poems in The Maker, which are apparently crucial to its flow.) But this is a lovely little observation. If it’s any indication of what The Maker is like in general, it seems like the sort of thing I’ll enjoy more once I’ve got a better sense of what made Borges into the public figure he describes here. Perhaps I’ll focus on the earlier stories.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Garden of Forking Paths” — You know, it’s possible that I hadn’t actually read this like I’ve been saying I have this whole time. Having read it now, it’s clear to me that the reason I was familiar with it is primarily because of the extraordinary way that Borges poses a thought experiment that prefigures hypertext literature decades before its actual invention. This is definitely something I’d read about this story. But the story itself seems unfamiliar to me. Maybe I just read it in a different translation? I dunno. I can’t imagine it would have made such a weak impression. This is deservedly a classic. Not as mindbending as “The Library of Babel,” but it’s also spinning more plates. It’s got a narrator with a motivation, a framing device, and an espionage plot all surrounding the main event, which is clearly the conversation about the labyrinthine novel that is effectively hypertext. One of the things I love most about the Borges stories I’ve read so far is they’re very short, and thus make rereading a completely non-daunting proposition. Future rereads of this will likely find me trying to decide why Borges decided to place this idea in this particular story. What difference does it make that the narrator learned the secret of his ancestor’s novel during the course of an act of espionage? How does the detective story connect with the metafiction? I’m sure somebody could explain this to me, but I’m just as happy to figure it out at my own damn pace.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Circular Ruins” — This is the one Neil Gaiman cited as a favourite. It’s a good one, with a fantastic premise and a twist ending that renders this much better upon re-reading, or at least re-considering. The premise is that there’s a place with gods who will allow you to imagine a person into existence. The detail with which Borges describes this process makes this a good read on the first time through. But really it’s about the ending.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” — This is second only to “The Library of Babel” in my survey of Borges thus far. This is ingenious for so many reasons: 1) Its form, which is a sort of academic memorandum complete with all of the resentfulness and spite for one’s rivals that those can often contain. 2) Its premise, which is that a 20th-century author made it his life’s goal to write Don Quixote (i.e. writing the exact same novel as Cervantes, word for word, but arriving at it independently and centuries after Cervantes already wrote it). This is wonderfully absurd and highlights a side of Borges that I don’t hear talked about that much, namely that he’s really funny. 3) The way that Borges chases this premise down several compelling rabbit holes. (This is a similar approach to the one he takes in “The Library of Babel,” which is perhaps why I like it so much.) Borges’s narrator analyses the content of Menard’s Quixote alongside the content of Cervantes’ original (which, remember, is exactly the same) and finds them to be entirely different works by virtue of their authors’ differing contexts and intents. Borges manages to be both instructive on how context is crucial to criticism (and the nature of criticism is explicitly discussed in the text) and he also satirizes this very same approach by way of reductio ad absurdum. This is outstanding. So far, reading Borges has felt like coming home.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Deutsches Requiem” — A slightly less effective Borges story, though that might be an unfair judgement on my part, because it just doesn’t have the specific things I’ve loved about the few Borges stories I’ve read so far. It’s not a premise-driven story, it’s a character-driven story. And the character is, apparently, the ultimate Nazi. I’m not going to lie, I picked this one out because I love the Brahms piece it’s named after. Not a highlight of my Borges reading thus far. But here’s a miscellaneous note I haven’t been able to work into any of my previous Borges reviews: I’m really reminded of China Miéville in a few of these stories. Neil Gaiman has been the modern reference point I’ve gone back to again and again when discussing Borges, but Miéville shares Borges’s gift for the mindblowing premise. Some of the stories from Three Moments of an Explosion could practically be Borges stories. I’m thinking particularly of “A Second Slice Manifesto,” in which Miéville describes an art movement that exposes new sides to classic works of representational painting by imagining a “slice” down a certain point in the image, revealing cross-sections of people and buildings that were whole in the original picture. That’s damn close to Borges in “Pierre Menard” mode.

Farhad Manjoo: “Can Facebook Fix Its Own Worst Bug?” — This piece about how Facebook is handling its post-election flail is not encouraging. A couple of choice excerpts: “For the typical user, Cox explained when I met him on a morning in October at MPK20, News Feed is computing the relative merits of about 2,000 potential posts in your network every time you open the app. In sorting these posts, Facebook does not optimize for any single metric: not clicks or reading time or likes. Instead, he said, ‘what you really want to get to is whether somebody, at the end of the day, would say, ‘Hey, my experience today was meaningful.’’” This is notable because I have never once felt this way on Facebook. The lack of meaningful interactions with people or content is the basis of my entire objection to the news feed. It promotes (and thus encourages the production of) the content equivalent of marshmallows: you consume them because they’re there and they have a sort of outward appeal. But you never actually enjoy yourself and eventually you start feeling shitty and resenting all the marshmallows you ate and the source where you got them. (This is Facebook’s shit to take responsibility for, but it’s also on every news organization and producer of web content to not fall into the trap and reject what value they have.) The piece then goes on to detail Facebook’s moderately successful efforts to combat clickbait — efforts that were predicated on a logic that I cannot imagine applying universally: “Facebook’s entire project, when it comes to news, rests on the assumption that people’s individual preferences ultimately coincide with the public good, and that if it doesn’t appear that way at first, you’re not delving deeply enough into the data.” Evidently, Facebook’s internal method for fixing problems is as pig-headedly metrics-focussed as it has forced the entire rest of the world to be. This piece is fascinating, and leaves me with more of a sense of Mark Zuckerberg’s good intentions than I had before, but absolutely zero faith in his (and his company’s) ability to fix the problems they’ve caused, let alone the ones they set out to remedy from the beginning.

Music

Neil Young: Neil Young — So I thought to myself, how deep should this deep dive go? Shall I make a detailed survey of the early material from Neil’s time in Buffalo Springfield — or rarer still, the Squires? Shall I finally listen to those other two CSNY albums? No, I decided. This will be a survey of Neil’s solo career, with that defined as any album that has his first and last name on it as a principal artist. Crazy Horse albums count, as does anything he released with ad-hoc bands like the Stray Gators and the Shocking Pinks. And Pearl Jam. I won’t obligate myself to listen to every live and archival release, though I’ll likely check out some, because the ones I’ve heard are among Neil’s best work, and albums like Rust Never Sleeps and Time Fades Away make the secondary designation normally afforded to live albums sort of inapplicable in Neil’s case. By my count, these guidelines will still find me listening to at least forty albums. So, we begin a fair ways from the beginning, actually, with the self-titled album. At this point, he’s already written and recorded classics like “I Am A Child” and “Mr. Soul.” He was five years past his earliest recordings. But this marks the start of Neil Young as “Neil Young” as opposed to “guy in band.” And it’s… well, it’s an anomaly, but it’s a compelling one. This is one of those albums like Jethro Tull’s This Was that feels like the start of an alternate history that forked a different way in our reality. (Maybe I’ve been reading too much Borges.) It’s the album that finds the now-anointed godfather of grunge sounding like a well-heeled young folkie with aspirations towards glossy marketability. The arrangements on this have a similar feel to the ones on Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter in the way that they never just leave the singer alone. This isn’t bad by definition. Far be it from me to criticize polish while being a huge prog fan. But Neil is an artist who feels more radical by far when he’s being noisy and sloppy and spontaneous. With this much fuss applied, he sounds a bit MOR. (To use his own nomenclature, I prefer Neil in the ditch.) “The Old Laughing Lady” suffers particularly from its arrangement, which almost works — until the midsection with the wordless backing vocals comes around. I could live with the little electric piano riff in 5/4 that breaks up the verses, but I don’t understand what that wordless midsection has to do with the rest of the song. It’s empty bloat, and it would be profitably excised on the Unplugged album years later. “The Loner” fares better, if only because it’s familiar enough that it seems unfathomable without its arrangement. The less familiar tracks range from hidden gems (“Here We Are in the Years”) to unmemorable instrumentals (“The Emperor of Wyoming”) to “The Last Trip to Tulsa,” which is the one truly unvarnished performance on the album but isn’t necessarily one of Neil’s best lyrics. Neil Young has its undeniable pleasures, but it’s best heard as a piece of Neil’s history. This polished side of him wouldn’t vanish outright after this: it would continue to marvellous effect in his work with CSNY and to blockbuster effect on Harvest. But immediately afterwards, the radically unvarnished side of Neil would come to the fore and mark the point where it’s clear that he’s a real creative force.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere — If Neil’s self-titled debut represented his introduction to us as something other than “guy in band,” Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is where Neil Young arrives as a legend. This is a hell of an album, and though I’d heard the majority of it before (because more than half of it is on the Decade compilation), this was my first time through the whole thing. Crazy Horse is the kind of band I ought to hate, being who I am. But their committed sloppiness feels less like the result of laziness than like a progressive musical experiment. This is the point where noise becomes a major part of Neil Young’s sound. This is the album that starts the thread of Neil’s career that will climax on Rust Never Sleeps and go gloriously over the top on Weld. “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” both feature sprawling jams where Neil strains at the very edges of his extremely limited technique as a lead guitarist and they set the template for all great Crazy Horse jams to come. The shorter songs are all excellent, especially “Cinnamon Girl,” obviously. And the title track is maybe the most Canadian song ever recorded. This is also the album that makes it clear we can never know what to expect from Neil Young. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is as unlike the debut as it is possible to be. And within a year of this album, Neil would join CSNY and go back to making radically structured music, albeit of an entirely different persuasion from on his first solo record. This is already an exciting ride. But Neil’s next solo album is his first proper masterpiece.

The Mountain Goats: The Sunset Tree — We interrupt this Neil Young binge for yet more erudite early-2000s indie rock. (Because the full Decemberists catalogue wasn’t enough.) I’ve meant to properly get into the Mountain Goats since I heard “Heel Turn 2” on Welcome to Night Vale. (I understand they’re working on a podcast together now? I’m curious.) This was apparently something of a breakthrough for them, though they have more acclaimed albums that predate this than postdate it. Still, The Sunset Tree served its purpose. I’m hooked. “This Year,” which I’m told is a very famous song in certain circles, is exactly what I needed right now. “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me” is one of those lyrics that seems obvious in retrospect, except that nobody wrote it before. Other highlights include “Dance Music,” which belongs to a niche subgenre I’m particularly fond of, namely songs with really chipper music and really dark lyrics. I’m also a big fan of “Dilaudid,” with its string arrangement and escalating vocal performance from John Darnielle. I need a few more listens for this to sink in, but this is definitely a band I’m going to listen to now.

Shugo Tokumaru: Toss — I’ve gotta say, it doesn’t live up to the promise of “Lita Ruta,” which is still my favourite song of the year so far. (Provided we don’t count cantatas based on Supreme Court decisions as “songs.”) Unlike In Focus? which is the other full Tokumaru album I’ve heard, this is really uneven. It is also sparser and simpler on balance than In Focus? is, and I’m not sure simplicity suits Tokumaru. Naturally, the best parts of the album are almost dizzyingly complex, with “Lita Ruta” being the clear winner but the first track, “Lift,” is glorious as well, as is the magnificently-titled “Cheese Eye.” This album is apparently the first time Tokumaru has gone out of his way to work with a variety of other instrumentalists, which makes for an album which is at times extremely timbrally diverse, but I would have preferred if it stayed that way for its whole duration. If I’m going to listen to this guy, I want total sensory overload. Honestly, there’s still enough great stuff on it that I’m confident in calling it one of my favourite albums of the year so far, but I suspect that has more to do with how badly I’ve fallen off the music discovery wagon than anything.

Podcasts

Crimetown: Episodes 16 & 17 — Good episodes. The problem with this season has just been lack of focus. If they’d just found a way to really hone in on two narrative threads: Buddy Cianci and the Patriarca crime family, this would have been great. And I suppose everything does tie back to that to a certain extent, but this feels like it’s really gone everywhere. But this focusses on Cianci, which makes it feel of a piece with the season’s arc as I’d originally perceived it. Still, I have other problems. In their promo for the big party they’re holding to celebrate the end of the season, the hosts of this say something to the effect of “by the end you won’t be sure who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.” Except yes I will. The ones who committed or were implicated in murders for business reasons are the bad guys. That’s pretty clear to me. I wish it were clearer to the people who make this show. (To be fair, cops and government officials are often also the bad guys. But my point is that Crimetown sometimes can’t resist saying “look how great these criminals are!” And I wish they wouldn’t.)

All Songs Considered: “Todd Rundgren On Technology, Creativity And His New Song With Trent Reznor” — Rundgren’s a good interview. You can tell somebody’s a good interview when they’re even interesting on All Songs Considered. Can’t say the song does anything for me. But I’ve always meant to check out Rundgren’s catalogue, especially A Wizard, A True Star. So maybe it’s time.

StartUp: Season 5, episodes 1-3 — I wish they’d stick to serialized seasons. The Dov Charney season was one of the undersung wonders of last year’s podcasts, and probably journalism in general. The first episode of this is a story of one businessman’s foray through “the surprisingly cutthroat world of toys.” I’m honestly kind of sick of journalism that starts from the premise of “look how interesting this seemingly mundane thing is!” So that didn’t work for me. But the two-parter on Friendster is really solid. What a catastrophe. It concludes with a comparison of the way Friendster was managed with the way Facebook was managed, and that really drives home the point that Friendster was the biggest idea of the early millennium, deployed by the wrong people.

You Must Remember This: “Barbara Loden (Dead Blondes Part 12)” — I’m starting to feel similarly about this as I am to Crimetown, though to a much lesser degree. The beginning of this season promised a point would be made about “blondeness” in Hollywood, and it hasn’t really come to that. This is still a good story about a compelling historical person, and how she was misrepresented by her powerful husband, Elia Kazan. But I’m hoping that Karina Longworth finds a way to tie everything together in the last episode of this series the way she almost did in the Barbara Payton episode several weeks ago.

Judge John Hodgman: “Live From the London Podcast Festival” — Nice stuff, but the highlight by far is a moment where the hosts of No Such Thing As A Fish argue over whether the existence of a conspiracy theory counts as a fact. The conspiracy theory in question? That the Titanic was sunk by time travellers who all wanted to see the last moments of the Titanic and thus all arrived at the same time, causing it to sink. This is bonkers in itself, but I won’t spoil the best moment of this exchange. I’ll just say that somebody definitely doesn’t understand the concept of a bootstrap paradox.

All Songs Considered: “The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy & Olivia Chaney Talk About New Collaboration, Reimagining British Folk” — ALERT ALERT NEW DECEMBERISTS sort of. Offa Rex is a side project where the Decemberists cover old British folk tunes (the sort of ones that inspired the band’s trilogy of bona fide classics: Picaresque, The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love) with the brilliant Olivia Chaney on vocals. God, can she ever sing. And the arrangements are so ‘60s I can barely contain myself. I will be listening to this album in full as soon as I can, and I am overjoyed to see that Chaney will be joining the Decemberists at the August tour date I’m seeing here in Van. Also, I feel like I’ve been a right dickwad about Bob Boilen’s interviewing, lately. This is a really fun conversation and Bob really keeps it frothy, pointing out Meloy’s mispronunciations of things and everything. Nice stuff.

Reply All: “The Secret Life of Alex Goldman” — The payoff to the “P.J. hacks Alex’s phone” arc. This is actually really fantastic in spite of Alex Goldman having a really boring life, because 1) Goldman and Vogt have a compelling enough dynamic that they can talk about nothing and still be fun and 2) there turn out to be broader implications. Reply All can spin gold out of very thin material.

Imaginary Worlds: “Healing Through Horror” — I’d like to hear more episodes of this show that deal with horror, especially modern horror, but this isn’t really a highlight. This features two people who have both used horror as a means of escaping trauma, but their reasoning for why this is helpful to them is more obvious and less compelling than the episode that deals with this same thing with respect to Harry Potter. Seriously, that Harry Potter series was really great.

On The Media: “Rewriting the Right” — Nice to see OTM explaining the American right. Because god knows I would never understand it otherwise. I’m only half snarking. This trip through the horrible odyssey of right-wing think tanks and their campaigns to influence academia and policy is truly horrifying and I feel bad now.

Imaginary Worlds: “Designing BoJack’s World” — This features an interview with the cartoonist who was hand-picked (with no animation experience) by the creator of BoJack Horseman to design the show’s aesthetic. Given that this show’s host is a former animator himself, this is really interesting. BoJack is the adult cartoon that I feel gets the most out of its choice of idiom. All of the character drama would play out fine in a live-action dramedy, but the animation allows not only for great sight gags, but also for the sense that this is a bizarre and alienating world — a great mood to strike in a narrative about show business.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Summer Movie Preview 2017” — I, too, am looking forward to Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 2, 2017)

I’m going to see the Decemberists! In August. Which is ages away. Still, the ticket purchase has me spiralling back through the years to high school, when they were one of the few currently-relevant bands I was interested in. Still, my affection for them throughout my mid to late teens was based on the then-contemporary albums Picaresque, The Crane Wife and Hazards of Love. I’m not sure I ever checked out the four full lengths that bookend that trilogy, and I certainly hadn’t heard any of the EPs or miscellaneous singles. So, this week, I ran the discography. Normally, I’d lump all of these into one gigantic review. But given my aversion to paragraph breaks, I think that wall of text would stretch on a bit. So, to start the week’s reviews, here are my thoughts on every studio album, EP (excluding lives) and single that the Decemberists have released. In chronological order.

14 Decemberists-related reviews and 12 others, for a total of 26 reviews.

Music

The Decemberists: 5 Songs — By no means is this essential. It’s evidence that Colin Meloy has been Colin Meloy since the beginning of his career, but for the most part, the Decemberists’ debut EP is an expression of promise that’s not yet fulfilled. The songs I’m most likely to return to are “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist,” whose lyric is a vintage Meloy first-person narrative, and “Apology Song,” which was clearly intended as a bit of ephemera (it’s literally just Meloy apologizing to his friend for losing his bicycle) but turned out to be ome of the more skillful and witty early Decemberists songs. They’re very much a folk band at this point. The arrangements are simple. There are no bad songs here, but the first full-length represents a giant leap forward from this EP.

The Decemberists: Castaways and Cutouts — How typical of this band to give their debut full-length a title that sounds like an outtakes collection. Part of this band’s charm is the way that their songs focus on people who are in some way on the margins, sometimes for reasons beyond their control, but just as often because they’ve engaged (with relish) in some sort of shady deal or dubious practice. Castaways and Cutouts is where that really starts. It’s fitting that the key line in the album’s final song is “Calling all bedwetters and ambulance chasers.” Because they clearly all showed up, and they’ve been populating Decemberists albums ever since. The music on here is more ambitious by far than on the debut EP, but they’re yet to go all Fairport Convention/Jethro Tull. Still, even in this more subdued setting (relative to later albums), it’s obvious how awesome Jenny Conlee is. The accordion on this is just great.

The Decemberists: Her Majesty the Decemberists — I can tell this is going to be the Decemberists album that my opinion will be the most subject to change about. My initial impression is that it’s something like Beatles for Sale or Time and a Word: an album where the band has clearly honed their craft since the last one, but which is nonetheless not as consistent as what came before. However, I can’t honestly say that there are any particular songs on this that I’m especially ambivalent about. “Shanty for the Arethusa” has some lines that made me raise an eyebrow, but it’s also got some fantastic melodies. “Billy Liar” is a bit pat in the verses, but the chorus is glorious. And then there’s the fact that this album has “I Was Meant for the Stage” on it, which is a classic. I know it’s meant to be ironic, but it’s hard for me not to take it a bit seriously, given that it was my theatre kid friends who first introduced me to this band. I think Castaways and Cutouts is a bit better than this, but not by much.

The Decemberists: The Tain — Nobody could have known at the time, but this now seems like the moment when the Decemberists’ imperial phase started. (Retrospectively, it’s also the one reason why Hazards of Love shouldn’t have come as a surprise.) Not coincidentally, it is also the start of their fixation on the music of the English folk revival and its folk rock cousins. This turned out to be good look for the Decemberists, and one that they could mine a surprising variety of approaches from. Here, they veer towards the Jethro Tull side of the folk revival equation: the side that isn’t fully engaged in “revivalism,” and would just as soon adopt elements of the proto-metal that was floating about at the time. I’ve always loved music that contrasts heavy elements with acoustic elements, see also: Tull, Led Zeppelin, Opeth. Having access to both ends of the spectrum strikes me as a more likely way to capture a panoramic image of the human experience. Basically, The Tain marks the point where the Decemberists decided that regardless of their folky origins, they would be making massively ambitious music from here on out. I’m reminded of a couple lines from the album that precedes this “I was meant for applause/I was meant for derision.” The fact that the Decemberists followed Her Majesty with something as potentially divisive as this strikes me as another reason to doubt the ironic intent of that song.

The Decemberists: Picaresque — This is the one. The classic. The period album, where the period is the one that former indie kids associate with the Decemberists. The one you’d anthologize if that was a thing you did with albums. The masterpiece. To be fair, it’s also the album with nostalgia on its side. It was certainly the first Decemberists album I heard, and possibly the only one I heard for several years after. (I think I may have sat The Crane Wife out until after Hazards of Love came out.) I will forever associate it with my days as a weird theatre kid. It was one of relatively few albums that were current at the time that I could appreciate with the same intensity that my peers did. In retrospect, it seems like a gift of coincidence that this deliberately theatrical album came out at the very time when I was hanging out with the community theatre folk that this seems directly intended for. The slapped-together costumes and cardboard sets of the album cover and CD booklet were the world I was living in at the time. And I still love the Decemberists for glorifying the naïve overreach of small-time theatre. The whole album is infused with “let’s put on a show!” bonhomie. I remember my experience of that: it was always more about satisfying my own need for an expressive outlet — and for a community — than it was about satisfying the audience. Nothing teaches you the appeal of self-indulgence like community theatre. Except for Picaresque. Listening back to it now, it’s that rare thing that a) arrived in my life at the right time and b) is just as good or better now. There are songs on this, like “On the Bus Mall” and “The Bagman’s Gambit” that I don’t recall being nearly so enamoured with when I was 15. That’s reassuring. It convinces me that my love for this album and this band isn’t just a matter of nostalgia. For evidence of Colin Meloy’s undeniable virtuosity, you need look no farther than the opening track. “The Infanta” is probably peak Meloy, insofar as his defining characteristic is his huge vocabulary. I particularly love “Within sight of the baroness/Seething spite for this live largesse/By her side sits the baron, her barrenness barbs her.” It was the theatricality of the Decemberists that captured my attention when I first heard them. These days, it’s their literary quality. Meloy clearly just loves words. He loves big words, old words and rare words. But he doesn’t use them for obfuscation — just the opposite: Meloy’s vocabulary allows him to tell unfamiliar stories about unusual characters with incredible clarity. It’s impossible to listen to a song from Picaresque and come away from it without knowing what it was about. Google may come in handy in a few places, but you can ascertain everything you really need to from context. That’s about all I’ve got for generalities. If I were to take this review any farther, I’d need to start diving into specific songs. I’ll resist that, save to say that “16 Military Wives” is the definitive protest song of the George W. Bush era, and that “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is not just one of my favourite songs but also one of my favourite stories in any context. This is a classic of its time. Pick of the week.

The Decemberists: Picaresqueties — I hadn’t heard this collection of outtakes before, and while it’s a slight thing compared to the band’s previous EP, it’s worth hearing. “The Bandit Queen” is especially good. (Man, we’re already a fair way into this and I haven’t heard a bad song yet.)

The Decemberists: The Crane Wife — This reminds me a bit of Selling England by the Pound, not just because it’s a poignant album full of elaborate, beautiful story songs, but also because it’s the first time that the band’s playing is captured in an ideal light. Meloy’s songwriting excellence was always obvious, and the band’s arrangements were always a highlight of their albums. But The Crane Wife is the first album where it becomes clear that this band has chops. Like, serious chops. It’s a clear demonstration that the resources of a major label can actually make a difference to the product. This album’s popularity surprises me a little, given that it’s the proggiest thing in their catalogue up to this point (save for The Tain). “The Island” in particular is practically a Jethro Tull song. Its second section, with the Hammond organ and guitar picking, is a dead ringer for Thick as a Brick. Shortly after, Jenny Conlee uses a synth sound that’s almost identical to the one on A Passion Play and War Child. So there are signifiers here that appeal to me. But “The Island” isn’t the album’s highlight: that would be the title suite, which is neck-and-neck with “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” for my favourite thing this band has ever done. Lyrically, it’s restrained by Meloy’s standards. No dictionary words, here. But the storytelling is absolutely heartbreaking, and benefits enormously from its first-person perspective (like “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”). It was a canny decision to place the suite’s third part at the beginning of the album, because it adds poignancy to part one. Once we know how the story ends, the beginning becomes bittersweet. The smaller, standalone songs on this album don’t preoccupy me the way that the shorter tracks on Picaresque do, but it always surprises me how much I like them when I listen to the album start to finish. “When the War Came” and “Sons and Daughters” are particular favourites. The latter is good evidence that Meloy can write a good song with economy in mind, rather than his usual effusiveness. I love The Crane Wife. It’s very much the sound of a band at their peak.

The Decemberists: Always the Bridesmaid — I’m treating this like an EP, even though it’s a collection of three singles. Given that I’ve listened to a lot of Decemberists music in a short period of time, this was a welcome respite between two of their meatiest works, The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love. As Decemberists EPs go, it strikes me as the opposite of The Tain. Where that was a huge proggy epic, this is a collection of Decemberists songs working on the smallest scale they operate at. The Velvet Underground cover is inessential, but aside from that this is all gold. Musically, I’m particularly enamoured of the super catchy “Days of Elaine,” but the best lyrics are in “A Record Year for Rainfall.” That song joins “Sixteen Military Wives” in the ranks of Decemberists songs that seem more relevant now than ever. “In the annals of the empire/did it look this grey before the fall?”

The Decemberists: The Hazards of Love — This may be my second-favourite Decemberists album. I can’t quite tell whether my affection for it is a bit puffed up due to its unfairly mixed reception relative to The Crane Wife, but I really do think this belongs alongside the band’s very best works. Mind you, I’m always going to step up to defend an overreaching concept album. This is just another example of the spirit of theatricality and indulgence that the band celebrated in the album art of Picaresque. Storywise, it only makes as much sense as the average opera. But like the best operas, it trades more on the inner lives and relationships of its characters than on narrative cohesion. And while the characters are effectively cardboard cutout (and castaway) fairytale characters, their plights and scenarios are relatable enough for any receptive listener to graft their own inner life onto. More crucially, the music is outstanding. For a few years, The Tain must have seemed like a first step down a road ultimately not taken. But The Crane Wife cracked the door back open to some of the proggier tendencies on that EP. And Hazards represents a proper maturation of that side of the band’s sound. It’s the fullest flowering of their Anglophilia, with folk, prog and proto-metal all accounted for — plus a story that pulls from the same well as Narnia or Harry Potter: what happens when a normal human stumbles into a world of fantasy? For my money, parts one and four of the title suite, “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid,” “The Rake’s Song” and “Annan Water” are all among the best songs in the catalogue. Again, it owes a lot to Jethro Tull. But it isn’t a pastiche. More than anything, it feels like the band arrived independently at the formula for Thick as a Brick or A Passion Play, by way of some of the same sources. For my tastes, it doesn’t get much better than that.

The Decemberists: The King is Dead — I implied earlier that the Decemberists’ imperial phase was coextensive with their obsession with the British folk revival. That turns out to be a bit unfair. This is a sharp left from Hazards of Love, and whether that has anything to do with its lukewarm reception is a fool’s game to try and suss out. But the band is definitely not relying on British models, here. It’s Americana all the way through. But this isn’t entirely outside of the band’s wheelhouse: the early albums had a whiff of American folk about them. Just, with a bigger vocabulary. And besides, this is just another folk tradition that foregrounds story and character, which has always been what Colin Meloy is most interested in. True, the characters on The King is Dead are undefined everypeople, rather than children of the Spanish monarchy or infanticidal rakes. But this album strikes me as having essentially the same goals and modes of connection as all of the ones that came before. It’s just doing it with a drastically different sonic palette and set of reference points. Taken in context of the discography, it has the feel of a “wings of wax” album, in the sense that they may have flown too close to the sun on Hazards of Love and this finds them once again on the ground. (See Let it Be following the White Album and Beggars Banquet following Satanic Majesties for archetypal examples.) But listening to it, I got the sense that Meloy is successfully having his cake and eating it too: he’s still doing what he’s always done, but differently enough to appease those who felt that Hazards was a bit much. This is certainly my favourite new discovery I’ve made through the course of this survey. For my money, it’s superior to the two early albums and belongs in the same category as the three that directly precede it. I find “January Hymn” especially poignant, but then I would.

The Decemberists: Long Live the King — The first set of non-album tracks since Picaresqueties to actually feel like outtakes. Always the Bridesmaid is awesome and Crane Wife has a bunch of fantastic outtakes (more on which shortly). But this EP is definitely a bunch of songs that weren’t good enough for The King is Dead. No shame in that, and I’d certainly classify it as inessential rather than bad. It’s a curiosity. Worth a go if you like The King is Dead, which I sure do.

The Decemberists: What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World — Ah, well, we had to come to it eventually. After such prolonged ebullience on my part, I’m hesitant to actually say it outright: this is disappointing. Not shatteringly disappointing, or anything, but it’s certainly the only Decemberists full-length I discovered this week that I’m not super excited to return to. It seems I’m not alone in my muted response. Still, does anybody else feel like critics are generally more inclined to chastise an artist for overambition than underambition? Because I was paying attention to that sort of thing when Hazards of Love came out, and it seemed clear to me that it was an unpopular album among those sorts of people. And having read up on the critical appraisal of this one (also not an enormously popular album), the backlash seems substantially less vitriolic. I wish this were the sort of album that bands got chastised for. Because to me, there is very little here that catches the ear, lyrically or musically, in the way that basically every song from the previous four (five? six?) albums did. There are exceptions. Musically, “Make You Better” is a brilliant, hooky pop song with the unexpected development of an Adrian Belew impression from guitarist Chris Funk. Lyrically, “The Singer Addresses His Audience” is as wonderfully arch as Colin Meloy gets, and it’s the one song on the album whose lyrics I immediately felt compelled to listen to. And, by the way, I take Meloy’s point. The song is basically a preemptive (and might I add, slightly defensive) retort to reviews like this one. And I agree with Meloy that it’s only right for his band to change. I was happy to hear them transition into full-on prog on Hazards of Love. I was delighted by how naturally they sunk into the groove of Americana on The King is Dead. But I’m only happy with changes that expand and refocus the band’s ambition, which is what I love them for. Terrible/Beautiful pares it back. I hope their next album is, I dunno, a movie.

The Decemberists: Florasongs — Not much to say that I didn’t already say about What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. These songs are outtakes from that album, and sound like it. This is the least essential Decemberists studio release.

The Decemberists: Miscellaneous singles, B-sides and outtakes — I did make a real effort for true completion here. I’m defining that as “every finished studio recording by the Decemberists, plus one or two unfinished ones.” There are songs that fall into that box but don’t appear on any of the previously discussed releases. As far as I can tell, this is a complete list of them: the John Denver cover “Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk this Christmas),” the Her Majesty-era B-sides “Everything I Try to Do, Nothing Seems to Turn Out Right” and “Sunshine,” the Crane Wife bonus tracks “Culling of the Fold,” “After the Bombs,” “The Perfect Crime #1/The Day I Knew You’d Not Come Back,” “The Capp Street Girls” and “Hurdles Even Here,” “One Engine” from the Hunger Games soundtrack, and “Sleepless” from the charity compilation Dark Was the Night. If anybody reading this knows of tracks I’ve missed, I’d be much obliged to know. This is an album’s worth of additional material from this band, most of it worthwhile. The Crane Wife outtakes are the most essential, and I do mean essential. “After the Bombs,” “Culling of the Fold” and “Hurdles Even Here” are all as good as some of the tracks that made the album. “After the Bombs” also serves well as a postscript to the album, given that “Sons & Daughters” ends with a lyric about bombs. “The Perfect Crime #1/The Day I Knew You’d Not Come Back” has some wanky horns that do it no favours, but it’s still the sound of a band in their prime, having a good time in the studio. That’s not nothing. The rest of this is ephemera, but it’s good ephemera, particularly the Hunger Games track, weirdly. As a final note on this topic, I feel as though I plunged rather suddenly into negativity towards the end of this. But to be clear, I definitely don’t think that it’s over for this band. One rough album does not a career ruin. But even if this body of work was all we’ll get, it’s pretty damn impressive. Of everything I listened to this week, let me list what I consider essential: Castaways and Cutouts, Her Majesty the Decemberists, The Tain, Picaresque, The Crane Wife and its outtakes, Always the Bridesmaid, The Hazards of Love, The King is Dead, “One Engine,” “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” and “Make You Better.” That’s a staggering batting average, and I’m in no way sick of this band, even after listening to their entire output in the space of a week. (As I post this, I’m listening to The King is Dead again.)

Comedy

Louis C.K.: 2017 — I have a theory about this special. My theory is that it is Louis C.K.’s challenge to himself to see how brilliantly he can perform sub-par-to-average material. He’s got a bunch of jokes that aren’t as good as in his previous specials, and he wants to see if he has the chops to elevate them by being more performative than he ever has before. There are characters, pantomime and silly voices in this special and it feels like C.K. is honing a very specific part of his toolkit in a controlled environment, i.e. on mediocre jokes, to see what happens. It’s possible that I’m being overly charitable. But this is a guy who is constantly working to move himself forward. So I wouldn’t be surprised if, say, Todd Barry mentions in an interview that Louis told him about a concept for a show where he only does his weakest material and tries not to bomb. This is the worst Louis C.K. special. That’s why I’m working so hard to justify it. But the fact that there’s something in there to help me do that is evidence that it still isn’t all bad.

Podcasts

Judge John Hodgman: “DNA NDA” — One twin wants to know for sure whether they’re identical. The other does not. This is great because it walks a fine line between remaining lighthearted and exploring the somewhat troubled relationship between these two brothers. It also features a sleep-deprived but rather amusing bailiff Jesse Thorn, whose presence on this show is invaluable. He’s almost a psychopomp: guiding us into the unfamiliar and oddly-reasoned world of Judge Hodgman. Very nice.

Criminal: “Wildin” — A sad story of a kid who spent six months in a federal detention centre after having crossed the border into America and made a life there. The saddest part of the story is an interview where a teacher mentions how after Wildin’s arrest, a huge chunk of her class stopped coming to school for fear that ICE was out to get them.

Science Vs: “Acne” — God, I don’t know why I came back to this show. The premise is gold, but the jokes are beyond insufferable: they’re almost not jokes. I know they’re not supposed to be good, but that’s no excuse. I see the next one’s about climate change, so I’ll probably listen to that. But I’m going to be selective from here on out.

Strangers: “Claire Obscure” — This is one of the hardest podcast episodes to listen to that I’ve ever encountered. It’s a story about a woman who was sexually abused by her father as a child, and it only gets more extreme from there. Lea Thau is one of relatively few people who could tell this story. She’s empathetic and feels no need to make the story her own, or to make it mean something larger. It’s simply a story about a person’s intense trauma, delivered with no purpose except to acknowledge that these things happen. People like Claire’s father exist. This is appalling, and I don’t know if I can straightforwardly recommend it. But it is definitely a good thing that should have been made. Pick of the week.

Science Vs: “Climate Change… the Apocalypse?” — And just as I suspected I might never listen to this show again, it does this really great episode. This isn’t asking the question “is climate change real?” Because if you have one-third of a brain you know it is and you’re sick of the conversation. This is basically a history of the evolving consensus on climate change. It goes into details like the debate over whether rising temperatures and increasing carbon content in the air are related. And it puzzles over how the future might turn out, given that we can’t predict how humans will respond to the crisis. Great stuff.

Arts and Ideas: “Monks, Models and Medieval Time” — I wish I’d heard this before I listened to S-Town. It’s a talk by Seb Falk about astrolabes and other medieval timepieces, and how their existence is counterevidence to the claim that the medieval ages were a time of dogma and darkness. Or, at least, that they were entirely that. I mean, Falk also goes into how these timepieces were used to determine the time of the month when the planets were in the proper alignment for effective bloodletting. So, you know.

Longform: “Hrishikesh Hirway” — I don’t listen to Song Exploder regularly, but I admire Hirway’s accomplishment very much. And this interview reveals that he’s a deeply self-aware sort of person, with a certain ambivalence towards his own success as a podcaster. He’s also a tireless workaholic. I hope he’s actually as bad at time management as he claims to be, because that means there’s hope for me. Also, the idea that Marc Maron was a major inspiration for Song Exploder is something I never would have thought of.

Code Switch: “Changing Colors In Comics” — This is a fascinating look at a deeply frustrating industry. Given that the only recent superhero comic I’ve read (and disliked, but that’s beside the point) is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther, it’s easy to forget that the industry is a morass of whiteness. Glen Weldon (who sounds soooo happy to be here) does a great job of contextualizing those fuckheaded remarks from Marvel’s VP sales about people not wanting diversity. The interviews here are fantastic, and I really want to go to Amalgam Comics in Philly. Though, I don’t see myself going to Philly anytime in the near future.

The Moth: “Facing The Dark” — It’s been ages since I listened to The Moth. This episode contains some of what often turns me off about it, namely a compulsive need to have perfectly self-sufficient stories conclude with a homily. The second story here is the best one, precisely because it doesn’t do this. It’s told by a neurologist who tries to understand her father’s trauma from the Holocaust through her study. You wouldn’t think it would be a funny story, but it is. John Turturro shows up after to tell a really remarkable story about his family, but it suffers from concluding homily syndrome, which ends the episode on a sour note. I’m happy I listened to this, because I’ve been meaning to revisit some shows I’ve put aside. But, this show remains difficult to recommend to the majority of my deeply unsentimental friends.

Longform: “Brian Reed” — The host who interviews Reed (entirely about S-Town, obviously) here knows him a bit, and has some insights to share about him. He is apparently a person with a remarkable ability to “meet you where you’re at.” That’s why S-Town is as good as it is. The best that can be said of Reed’s involvement in that story is that he didn’t fuck it up. And appearing to be at cross-purposes with the people around you is a surefire way to fuck it up. This is a fascinating interview, and I highly recommend it as a piece of post-S-Town listening.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “S-Town and Chewing Gum” — I’m with Glen Weldon on S-Town, obviously. I do see the ethical concerns levelled by Margaret Willison (and others), but I’m sticking to my concept of the show as being fundamentally John B. McLemore’s attempt to have his life novelized. This is idiosyncratic, I understand. But to the extent that he was aware of his own charisma and the extent that he gives good tape (and the Longform interview with Brian Reed indicates that he was), I feel like he really did know that he’d be the central character of this narrative. That goes a fair ways towards assuaging what doubts I might have momentarily had. Which, to be fair, weren’t many.

Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 5, 2017)

Remember how last week I told you about how I was writing about Jethro Tull for a week? That got a bit out of hand. I was up until 3 a.m. three nights in a row. On the other hand, I learned I can write 22,000 words in a week and a half. No joke. Before we get to our 15 reviews (it’s a miracle I got through that much, considering), lemme just… here’s the link to the whole week of posts. There are 30 of them. If you’d rather the Reader’s Digest version, here are the posts that I think make up the spine of the whole thing:

This introductory post
This analysis of their two biggest radio hits
This interpretation of Thick as a Brick/personal manifesto
This exploration of empathy in Minstrel in the Gallery
This account of the response to A Passion Play
And finally, this last essay about Stormwatch

There we go. Now. To business.

Comedy

Mike Birbiglia: Thank God for Jokes — Birbiglia is for sure one of my favourite comics. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some things I’d change. He seems unable to do a special without a framing device now, which is fine given the extent to which he’s as much a storyteller as a comedian. But after this and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, I feel like I can anticipate the beats to an uncomfortable degree. At this point it would be nice to hear him just tell jokes and stories in a linear fashion without constantly flashing back to his A-story. And I could do without the moments of earnestness he peppers throughout. I get that he’s trying for something bigger than just getting laughs, but it doesn’t really work here. That thread of the story is about the Charlie Hebdo shooting, and the line that’s supposed to carry the most weight is “I just love jokes.” It’s weird that he made it personal. I dunno, watch this and see if you agree. Because that is the full extent of my criticism. The material is really, really good and he’s becoming a better performer with every subsequent special. There’s even some top flight crowdwork in here with an audience member who feels like just a gift to a comedian, but of course you make your own luck.

Hannibal Buress: Comedy Camisado — I like Hannibal Buress a lot, but I think I like his delivery better than his material. I’ve seen one other special of his, Live from Chicago I think? I remember that material being a bit better than this, though his characterization of the media response to his Cosby bit is spot on.

Television

Last Week Tonight: “March 5, 2017” — I had decided not to watch this anymore and just to check out the YouTube segments from time to time, but a whole episode ended up flitting past my eye on the YouTube homepage and I figured, ah sure. As ever, it is more interesting than funny. A pandering Moonlight bit especially got on my nerves. And Oliver’s interview with the Dalai Lama is cute, but he didn’t get to the key point: what is actually going to happen, politically, to Tibet if he dies and the Chinese government appoints a new Dalai Lama who is loyal to them? I understand not wanting to break the mood of a fun interview with an adorable, lovely and really powerful world leader — but he travelled to India. Couldn’t he have pressed him just a little more???

Ways of Seeing: Episodes 1 & 2 — I’ve always meant to watch this, but left it until now because I had absolutely no idea how engrossing it would be. John Berger has what would now be considered No Television Presence, but it doesn’t matter at all because he’s interesting and lucid. That’s the standard by which worthiness should be judged in public broadcasting. The first episode of this is mostly remarkable for how obvious all of it is to a contemporary viewer. (Or maybe I’ve just read the Walter Benjamin essay that it’s based on. I know it’s his most famous, but I honestly can’t remember.) Berger’s argument about what happens when a painting becomes infinitely reproducible is in no way surprising, since we interact with reproduced images on a minute-by-minute basis, and anybody who’s paying attention should be able to determine the way in which its reproduction is manipulating its meaning. But that’s the thing, isn’t it — it’s only those who are paying attention. And that’s more the point of the first episode than actually explaining anything complex or surprising: it’s about increasing your cognisance of the presentation of images. The second episode is where things really pick up. This is the episode that argues that the traditional European nude exists not to show women being themselves, but rather women in the state of being seen. This is extremely penetrating, and Berger really makes his point by offering up a few selected exceptions to the rule, which are completely, electrifyingly different from the other images in a way I would absolutely not have detected without guidance. Or rather — without Berger’s ability to strip away the usual art criticism line about nudes being “a celebration of women” and allowing me to see the images as they are. However, Ways of Seeing shows its age in the second half of the episode, where Berger talks through these issues with, and I quote: “five women.” Wait, what? Who are these women? He seriously doesn’t even say who they are! Clearly they’re very smart and articulate, but but… who are they and why did you choose them for this program? “Five women.” Anyway. Also, why are there more glasses of wine on the table than people sitting around it? And why are you even drinking wine? Isn’t this the BBC?? What is going on!?!?! Is this the Twilight Zone?? What is happening? Berger! I don’t understnadddrkjf,namflkjfio^%&*()Mbkhjb

Movies

Get Out — The first great movie of the year. Here is what strikes me as particularly interesting about this: I think it’s the only comedic horror movie I’ve ever seen that isn’t primarily a parody. None of the comedy in the movie is derived from subverting horror movie tropes. Rather, the comedy and the horror actually come from the same place. Jordan Peele’s script (and crucially, the way he directs it) takes the experience of being a black person surrounded by white people and gets both comedy and horror out of it. This is because comedy and horror are both genres that stem from our natural responses to the absurd. When confronted with something that doesn’t make sense or seems wrong, we tend to either laugh or feel afraid. That’s the connection that Peele exploits to make this movie both scary and funny — and also to make a satirical (not parodic) point about microaggressions etc. It’s the same line traversed by Welcome to Night Vale, which is also not primarily a parody (though I suspect that stems as much from production ineptitude as from intentionality, but that’s a different review). Get Out is pitch perfect. Every shot, every beat in the editing, every performance is perfectly calibrated to ride that line between the horrifying and the (literally) hilarious. Calling it a horror movie is an oversimplification. But if we do lump it in with that category, it’s the best one I’ve seen in years. Yes, including It Follows. (Also, don’t watch the trailer. The trailer is full of spoilers. In this instance, spoilers are bad.) Pick of the week.

Games

Half-Life — So yeah. Still playing this. Didn’t switch to Source, because I heard it was buggier than the original. I’m progressing slowly because a) I’ve been writing about Jethro Tull all week and b) I’m terrible at video games, but I’m starting to enjoy this. I’ve read up a little on the ways it differs from previous shooters, and that does actually enhance the modern-day playing experience. You kind of have to take it as a bit of a relic. But I’m impressed by the verisimilitude of it all. It’s 100% first person so far, and at no point has my control over the character been halted to progress the story. The story happens incrementally around you as you proceed and is as much a matter of mood and atmosphere as actual writing. And yes, there isn’t a lot of story to speak of, but it’s still impressively unobtrusive. Plus, running around and shooting things (often the same things over and over, because I die constantly, even on easy mode) has therapeutic value for its almost Zen repetitiveness.

Literature, etc.

Philip Sandifer: “Haunt the Future” — This is a relatively brief and witty account of the way the “alt-right” repurposes Situationist tactics towards their own ends. It also contains very brief introductions to the neoreactionaries Mencius Moldbug and Nick Land who are horrifying, but oddly compelling.

Podcasts

Code Switch: “The Horror, The Horror: ‘Get Out’ and the Place of Race in Scary Movies” — This contains an extremely disquieting take on why the black character always dies first in a horror movie, and many other troubling things. On the other hand, Get Out sounds great.

Code Switch: “Ten Thousand Writers… and Two Intrepid Podcast Hosts” — I just remembered I listened to this a while back. It was good, I think? I seem to remember an interesting conversation with a guy who always gets invited to speak on the same writers’ panel about race. Mostly I’m disappointed in my recall.

Reply All: “Worldstar” — A complicated story of a complicated person. Q’s story strikes me as just another tale of the cheapening effect that the present-day iteration of the internet has on culture. But I’m inclined to see that narrative in basically everything.

Theory of Everything: “The Rainbows of Inevitability” — A dark look inside what Facebook knows about you and how it thinks it can use that information. Basically this is a bunch more reasons why Mark Zuckerberg is wrong about the world.

Radiolab: “Update: CRISPR” — CRISPR is terrifying. It’s official. It’s going to be used for evil. I feel like a ninny saying that, because obviously a cure for cancer would be nice, but holy shit the consent issues surrounding this are bewildering.

This American Life: “Vague and Confused” — The first story, with Sean Cole, about an island of private property off the coast of Honolulu, is super. It’s a source of constant amazement that TAL can do stuff like this on a weekly basis. More than I could ever keep up with. Pick of the week.

Crimetown: “The Ghost” — This story features a gangster killing another gangster’s pet wolf. That’s a real-life thing that happened. This show is so good.

All Songs Considered: “Alt-J, Elliott Smith, The New Pornographers, Girlpool, More” — The Alt-J song is great. The Magnetic Fields song is spectacular. Unmoved by the rest.