Category Archives: Popular Music

Omnibus (week of May 6, 2018)

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17 reviews.

Live events

James Rolfe: The Overcoat (Vancouver Opera Festival) — It’s a new piece, and a thing of beauty. The piece itself is based on Gogol’s story of the same name, about a lowly clerk who is the butt of everybody’s jokes until he buys a stunning new coat that makes him the talk of the town. Subsequently, the coat is stolen, causing the clerk to spiral into madness. It’s all very Russian. Morris Panych’s libretto evokes Robert Wilson’s numerical preoccupations in Einstein on the Beach, except with a story. Rolfe’s music slingshots between quoting Beethoven and Bach and channeling Gershwin. And while the sophistication of the score — particularly some really great trio writing for a chorus of narrators — belongs in the opera tradition, the feel of the music belongs just as much to the tradition of Stephen Sondheim. But the music accounts for only a percentage of what makes The Overcoat so much fun. The production started life as movement theatre, with Rolfe’s score added later. And that lineage is entirely clear in the beautiful, imaginative, and never overbearing staging. It’s amazing how much life you can inject into a production simply by putting everything on wheels. Some of the standouts in the cast don’t sing at all, but simply marshall the set pieces and props across the stage in dancelike fashion. Dunno where it’ll end up next, but it’s worth seeing if you can.

Television

Atlanta: Season 1 — It’s about time I got around to this. Atlanta is one of those things that I absolutely love but cannot find anything to say about that hasn’t already been said. We are at the moment sitting in the wake of the “This is America” video and the season two finale, and Donald Glover is rightly the only thing anybody wants to talk about. So I’ll just do that thing where I list off bits that I love. I love the black Justin Bieber. I love the relationship between Earn and Van. I love every reaction shot involving Brian Tyree Henry. (Some actors have very specific skills. Brian Tyree Henry is particularly good at reacting to things.) I love every single second involving Darius, and particularly the bit where he takes a dog-shaped target to a gun range. I love the way the on-location approach of the show makes it look. I love the way the show zooms back and forth between realism and farce, e.g. the club with a false wall. I love the show’s understanding of social media as being fundamentally empty. I love the comedy of manners that ensues every time class becomes an issue on this show. And let me just go back and reiterate how much I love the relationship between Earn and Van. Much of what makes Earn tick isn’t quite clear, because this show eschews backstory to an almost unprecedented degree. (What the hell happened to Earn at Princeton???) But his relationship with Van makes perfect sense, right down to his refusal to stay the night with her at the end of the season, because he can’t bring himself to keep leeching off her. These two want to be together, but they both know Earn has to get his shit together before that can happen. Zazie Beetz is amazing, and her feature episode is one of the season’s highlights. The dinner scene at the top of that episode is maybe the best comedy of manners this show has conjured thus far. I love it. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

Rebecca Watts: “The Cult of the Noble Amateur” — First off, this polemic against the works of popular poets like Rupi Kaur and Hollie McNish is my first exposure to either of them. Part of me wonders if their work wouldn’t seem so stupid to me if I’d encountered it in a more positive context. But another part of me thinks, no, I’m an intelligent person who’s used to reading with a critical eye, so I should trust my instincts when they tell me that Watts is exactly right. There is nothing I hate more than mere simplicity masquerading as wisdom. And while these poets may not be up to any deliberate trickery — I’m entirely willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe that they are simply bad at writing poems — surely their publishers are aware that this is substandard work. Surely they’ve got dollar signs in their eyes. Watts compares Kaur, McNish and Kate Tempest (who I must admit I don’t mind, though I know her as a performing poet and not so much on the page) to Donald Trump, which will strike many as ludicrous. But the anti-intellectualism of their work is part of the same phenomenon that led to Trump’s rise: we live in a world that shuns complexity and nuance in favour of easily digestible narratives. Clearly these new poets’ narratives are not openly hateful and racist — seemingly the opposite. But the means of communication is troublingly similar. And neither phenomenon would exist if not for social media, with its constant appeals to our worst and dumbest instincts. I don’t agree with some of Watts’ premises. She quotes Ezra Pound’s aphorism that “literature is news which stays news,” an idea that eschews the value of timeliness in art — and I do think that is a value. I’ve never bought into the idea that a work of art is only good if it looks poised to stand the test of time. The only yardstick we have to measure that in the present is how much it resembles previous works of art that have managed to do that. And that’s useless, obviously, because things change. But this is a passing point in a larger argument about social media’s dumbing effect on culture, which I agree with. She moves from Pound’s quote directly onto one of the most powerful bits of her argument: “Of all the literary forms, we might have predicted that poetry had the best chance of escaping social media’s dumbing effect; its project, after all, has typically been to rid language of cliché. Yet in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened. The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords.” Do read this. More than any calculated attempt to rid poetry of its supposed “elitism,” this essay has made me want to go read good poems.

Music

The Flaming Lips: Clouds Taste Metallic — Another week, another acclaimed pair of Flaming Lips albums. We’ll begin with the later of the two, and more one album back in the discography after. Clouds Taste Metallic is a brilliant record in the way that Radiohead’s The Bends is a brilliant record. It works within a particular musical idiom, stretches the boundaries of that idiom in keeping with the specific aesthetic of the artist, but doesn’t actually venture outside of that idiom. That would happen for Radiohead on OK Computer and for the Flaming Lips on The Soft Bulletin (and presumably even more so on the intervening Zaireeka, which I haven’t heard). But here on Clouds, the Lips are totally in control of their increasingly bonkers brand of alt rock. Highlights for me include the opening pair: “The Abandoned Hospital Ship,” with its gorgeous piano line that transforms into a kickass guitar lead, and “Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus With Needles,” which sounds remarkably like a Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd bootleg. This is at least in part thanks to Ronald Jones, whose guitar playing is as inventive as Barrett’s but with actual technique to fall back on. If there’s a better comparison to be made, it’s with Adrian Belew. The other musical standout is Steven Drozd, one of the most elegant drummers ever to play really fucking loud. The other songs I can’t get enough of are “They Punctured My Yolk,” “Lightning Strikes the Postman,” “Christmas at the Zoo” and especially the finale, “Bad Days,” which sounds like something from the Stones’ Between the Buttons. Specifically “Something Happened to Me Yesterday.” Except this arrangement is better — the novelty song it begins as eventually finds its way into rock territory by way of a two-stage descent into heaviness: first Drozd’s drums come in, then come the heavy guitars. I love this. There are melodies here that quicken my pulse just to think about. It isn’t Soft Bulletin, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The Flaming Lips: Transmissions from the Satellite Heart — This seems like pretty standard alt rock compared with what came after — but only compared with what came after. Actually, Transmissions from the Satellite Heart is pretty consistently surprising in ways both subtle and blatant. On the subtler side, there are details like the quiet incursion of muted strings into the lo-fi country of “Plastic Jesus.” More obviously, there’s the consistent tendency for messy sludge rock to coagulate into euphoric Beatlesque melodies. “She Don’t Use Jelly” features the clearest Beatles influence — its vaguely suggestive nonsense lyrics, catchy chorus and offbeat riff would feel at home on Abbey Road. But my favourite is probably “Moth in the Incubator,” which doesn’t give away the plot right away, preferring to build up to a revelation. This will probably grow on me. My investigation into the Flaming Lips now constitutes two very different pairs of albums, separated by a weird anomaly. Next week: the weird anomaly.

Podcasts

On the Media: “Dark Twisted Fantasy” — Worth a listen specifically for the breakdown of the various ugly internet subcultures of the “manosphere.”

Caliphate: “The Arrival” & “Us vs. Them” — I like that they’re splitting up one interview over many episodes to give it the context it requires. I wonder if this will continue once the story from that interview ends, though? I’m learning a ton from this, but I wonder what its endgame is.

Lend Me Your Ears: “Julius Caesar” — There is a Shakespeare podcast called Lend Me Your Ears. That in itself is wonderful. But the approach is marvellous. Each episode of this mini-series will deal with a specific Shakespeare play and how it resonates with contemporary politics. Julius Caesar is maybe the most obvious one, simply because of the high-profile production that portrayed Caesar as an obvious Trump analogue. But more than that, the play has a lot to say about demagoguery. The one wrinkle I wish had been addressed is the fact that our modern demagogues tend not to succeed on the basis of eloquence the way that Shakespeare’s do. Shakespeare’s most eminent demagogue, Marc Antony, is intensely eloquent, and thus intensely seductive. Brutus is the plainspoken one — that’s where demagoguery registers, these days. We get the worst of both worlds: ineloquent and empty. So why does it work? I dunno, I’m busy reading Shakespeare and listening to podcasts. This is great. I can’t wait for the episode on Richard II. That’ll be an interesting contrast with Caesar, since it also features opposing figures with different approaches to language: Henry Bolingbroke, who is enormously effective in spite (or because) of his ploddingly prosaic speeches, and Richard II, who is too busy soliloquizing brilliantly to be a good king.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Beach House, Tank And The Bangas, Stevie Wolf, More” “At 70, Smithsonian Folkways Is An Antidote To Music Algorithms” & “New Mix: Childish Gambino, Mike Lindsay And Laura Marling As LUMP, More” — Couple good mixes, including a great track from the tiny desk contest winner, and a really fun retrospective on Smithsonian Folkways, which I need to explore further. Go back through the feed and check these all out.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — I cannot BELIEVE they liked A Quiet Place. They are WRONG. Ahem. I will watch Killing Eve and probably also Tully. Leslie Odom Jr. is a lovely man, but his book sounds corny.

The Daily: “The Breakdown of the Iran Nuclear Deal” — I am glad that The Daily is around to explain complicated things to me. It doesn’t take long for me to forget the whole context for things, so it’s good to have them conveniently reiterated.

Song by Song catch-up — I’m always a bit confused about why these guys choose not to like a song. “Blow Wind Blow” is clearly not a masterpiece on the level of “Innocent When You Dream,” but why complain? Just because it’s not a song you single out to listen to in isolation doesn’t mean it isn’t good in context. On the other hand, the episodes on “Innocent” and “Temptation” are reminding me exactly why I love Frank’s Wild Years so much, and particularly why I like it so much more than Rain Dogs: these songs have a sense of ostentatious theatricality that I love, and which I think is more prevalent in Waits’ post-Rain Dogs material.

The World According to Sound catch-up — This “Sound Audio” series is great. I’ve actually heard a couple of the pieces they’ve featured on here, including Tony Schwartz’s time-lapse recording of his niece growing up and the famous Hindenburg tape, which is actually impossible to listen to in public without having a small private breakdown. Still, I feel like this could serve as a crash course in the classic audio we’ve forgotten about in the podcast age. Also, there’s Sleep With Me, which is the weirdest shit ever.

In the Dark: Season 2, episodes 1-3 — I liked the first season of In the Dark once it got going with its larger implications, but I’m loving this one from the start. It’s the story of Curtis Flowers, who has been tried six times for the same crime in the town of Winona, Mississippi. There is so much going on here, and the writing is super sharp. The tape’s incredible too. Sometimes when investigative podcasts get into the weeds, I start to wonder whether they shouldn’t be shorter. But in this one, every blind alley they take leads them to another compelling individual with ties to the Flowers case: the witnesses who professed to have seen Flowers along the route the prosecution outlined at trial, the guy who owned the gun that’s ostensibly the murder weapon, the father of one of the victims, and even the expert ballistics sceptic who casts doubt on the study of the bullets. These are all really compelling people. And speaking of ballistics, the dude who did the initial ballistics report makes me so angry. He tries to shrug off scepticism about his work by saying crap like “it’s always been called an art.” No it hasn’t! It’s been called “forensic science!” And also, “a fact in somebody’s head might not be a fact in somebody else’s head.” Get outta here! That’s not how facts work! So many people in this story are so certain about things they clearly shouldn’t be certain about. That’s what’s making me mad about this: it’s not 100% clear that they got the wrong guy. By no means. But the cavalier attitude with which some people dismiss any doubt at all is completely enraging. Pick of the week.

Reply All: “No More Safe Harbour” & “INVCEL” — Two episodes of P.J. Vogt doing serious journalism. I like when that happens. He’s always a great sounding board for Alex Goldman, but it’s nice to hear him take the lead on stories like this. The episode about the surprisingly benign origins of the incel community is particularly worth hearing.

Fresh Air: “The Pope Who Would Be King” — When Terry Gross interviews a scholar who has written a book, it kind of listens like In Our Time, except that In Our Time doesn’t wait for somebody to have written a book. This is why I love In Our Time: it just does what’s interesting, contemporary hooks be damned. Anyway, that’s not relevant to what this episode actually is, which is a fascinating conversation about Pope Pius IX, a figure about whom I knew very little, but who factors into Italian reunification in some really interesting ways. I do wish Gross had touched more on the specific theological justifications for some of Pius’s more draconian proclamations, like the notion that free speech and Catholicism are mutually exclusive. But it’s a good listen.

Retronauts: “Tetris” — This is a weird show. They take so much of gaming history and experience as read, but they feel it necessary to explain things like the Beatles and the Cold War. Also, of course they’re Rush fans. Of COURSE. Anyway, Tetris has a fascinating history that is explored at length here, though I’m not convinced that roundtable discussion is the best way to approach historical storytelling. There you go.

Omnibus (week of April 1, 2018)

“Get it together, Parsons,” I said to myself. “Clean your damn apartment and get your 5K back under a non-embarrassing time.” That is why I listened to 34 podcast episodes this week. (That’s a conservative number — there are a few shows I don’t review, and I frankly can’t remember which of those I listened to this week.) Below, you’ll find them nicely compressed into a manageable 21 reviews, plus an additional three for the things I got through this week that aren’t podcasts.

Also, if you would like to hear me blindside Sheryl MacKay with a whack-a-doo theory that even I don’t completely subscribe to, you’ll find that at 1:21:58.

24 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Scott McCloud: Making Comics — I just turned in my final assignment in that comics class I’ve been taking, and I figured I may as well finish the course reading. Better late than never. We weren’t obliged to read Making Comics in its entirety, but I did because why the hell not. Scott McCloud is not only a good teacher and a perceptive analyst of the medium in which he works. He’s also one of the funnest media critics out there. In case you’re unfamiliar: this is a guy who makes works of serious, penetrating comics criticism — that are themselves comics. His ability to demonstrate concepts by example is unmatched, and his books of comics criticism are themselves among the most formally innovative comics I’ve encountered. Understanding Comics remains his masterpiece, because its focus is broad enough that it doesn’t really age. Making Comics contains some stuff about webcomics that feels ancient now. But when he sticks to the basics of the comics form, regardless of medium, McCloud is a fountain of practical advice here. If you’ve ever wondered what fundamentals you should keep in mind when working simultaneously with words and pictures, this is the book for you. Pick of the week.

Music

John Luther Adams/JACK Quartet: Everything That Rises — John Luther Adams either captivates me or leaves me cold. (No Alaska pun intended.) This did the latter. It is one of his more high-concept works, based on just intonation. It is also one of his more dissonant pieces, which isn’t something I look to him for. Don’t get me wrong, he can do what he wants: but I’ve always enjoyed the side of JLA that puts you in a trance, then takes you somewhere. This piece definitely takes you somewhere — up, in keeping with the title. But it foregoes the trance in favour of a calculating raised eyebrow. Not for me, I’m afraid.

Kyle Craft: Full Circle Nightmare — I loved Dolls of Highland. I had some concerns about its consistent portrayal of women as evil magic temptresses, but there was enough self-effacing humour throughout that I could give him the benefit of a doubt. It also helps that Kyle Craft’s music scratches a huge itch for me: huge sounding rock with bombastic vocals and a turn of phrase you can sink your teeth into. And that itch is almost equally scratched on this new record. But at this point I’m thinking he needs to find something new to sing about. This whole “women: can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em” thing is not sustainable. Still, when it’s good it’s good. I’m particularly fond of the new direction on the semi-psychedelic “Belmont (One Trick Pony).” This feels like one of those albums that may or may not be the second-last one by its artist that I ever hear. Stay tuned.

Podcasts

It’s Been A Minute: “Momofuku Chef David Chang’s ‘Ugly Delicious’ Food” & “Zach Braff and Alex Blumberg on ‘Alex, Inc.’” — I’m finding that I get a lot more out of this show’s Tuesday edition, where Sam Sanders talks with an interesting person, than I do out of its Friday wraps. Maybe it’s just that I don’t feel the need for any more “making sense of the news” in my life, because that is a thing that the entire media is trying to do now. But the Tuesday shows are really good, because Sanders is fun to listen to and seemingly fun to talk to as well. The David Chang interview is great fun, as they usually are. Sanders is good at talking about intersections of race and culture, and Chang is a thoughtful guy on that subject. The episode focussing on Alex, Inc. is really something — mostly because it’s great fun hearing Alex Blumberg pretend that he likes the milquetoast sitcom that ABC made out of his game-changing podcast. To Sanders’ credit, he manages to have an interesting conversation with Blumberg and Zach Braff that touches on both of their wheelhouses without the whole thing coming off the rails.  

Code Switch catch-up — Of the last four episodes, the two most recent are the most essential. “The Road to the Promised Land, 50 Years Later” is a bit jarring because it consists largely of news reports for actual NPR — like the radio. You don’t realize how different that tone is from NPR podcasts until you hear it on an NPR podcast. But the story of how Martin Luther King’s assassination reverberates half a century later is fascinating and well told here. For something a bit more podcast-native, the Amara La Negra interview is an energetic discussion of Afro-Latinx identity

Reply All: “A Pirate In Search of a Judge” — A lesser instalment of “Super Tech Support,” which nonetheless includes some amusing banter. Also: has anybody compiled the Breakmaster Cylinder bits into a supercut? Please somebody do that. I think there’s an argument to be made that whoever they are, they’re doing the most innovative audio storytelling in the podcast space — and they’re doing it in the last two minutes of somebody else’s show. (Unless, of course, P.J. Vogt is Breakmaster Cylinder, which I find quite plausible.)

In Our Time: “Augustine’s Confessions,” “Hildegard of Bingen” & Roman Slavery” — Melvyn Bragg is in his glory when he gets to talk about Christianity. The Augustine episode is accordingly excellent. The episode on Roman slavery is a good summation of a thing that you probably don’t think about very much. But it’s the repeat episode about Hildegard that’s the real standout in this run. Being a music person, I have always mostly thought of her as the composer of the most beautiful music from the Middle Ages. And I’ve always been passingly aware of her status as a great polymath, contributing to theology, literature, medical research and brewing techniques. (She penned the earliest surviving writings on the use of hops in beer. She didn’t like them. Fair enough.) But this episode focuses on her role in the church of her time: a woman who was respected not so much because she was a genius, though she clearly was, as because she claimed to receive visions from God. It’s tempting for us now to look at Hildegard as a woman who overcame the social stigmas of her time by being exceptional and working hard, but really even that wasn’t enough. She was allowed to give sermons not because she was a good sermonizer, but because the church saw her as a direct channel to God, so they made an exception. A sad thing. That’s a great episode. You should listen to it.

Fresh Air: “The Evolution of Artificial Intelligence” & “Madeleine Albright” — Two interviews about big important things, one of which features a big important person. Listen to the Madeleine Albright one. When she talks about the problems with Trump’s foreign policy, it’s probably worth considering what she has to say.

Radiolab: “Rippin’ the Rainbow an Even Newer One,” “Border Trilogy” parts 1 & 2 — The update to the mantis shrimp story is good for my sense of nostalgia about the old Radiolab, but the first two instalments of their series on the border are both challenging my general sense that this show’s best days are behind it. Every so often they pull out a classic, and so far this is one. Basically, it poses the question of how well-meaning policies can result in migrants dying in the desert, possibly by the thousands. It is the new Radiolab — the au current, political Radiolab — at its best.

The Gist: “Clinging to Guns Is Our Religion” — This is a gun control debate between a moderate liberal and a moderate conservative. It is as scintillating as that sounds.

Bullseye: “Andrew W.K. & Bill Hader” — Here are two people I’m not super interested in, having conversations I enormously enjoyed. Andrew W.K. in particular is a person who you just know will have a good chat with Jesse Thorn. And he did. Note that this is also the episode with Thorn’s review of It’s Too Late to Stop Now by Van Morrison, which led me to make one of the weirdest pieces of radio that I personally have ever made. (See top of page.)

Desert Island Discs: “David Byrne” — Wow, he’s in a good mood. Like, a suspiciously good mood. But as we all know, he’s got great taste in music and he’s an interesting guy. I really need to read his book. Good listening.

The Daily: “Wednesday, Apr. 4, 2018” & “Friday, Apr. 6, 2018” — Oddly, I find myself more inclined to listen to news shows when they are meta-stories about the media. These are two episodes of The Daily that examine TV news in different ways. One demonstrates how Fox News played a role in the revitalization of Trump’s anti-immigration policies, and the other examines how the takeover of local media by larger corporations leads to a lack of editorial freedom. Both are great, the latter is likely the one that will remain relevant by the time you read this. Damn, the world is cray.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Love, Simon” & “Roseanne and What’s Making Us Happy” — I will watch neither of these things, but I did enjoy the chats. Linda Holmes and Stephen Thompson had an interesting exchange about Roseanne. That is my review of this week’s Pop Culture Happy Hour episodes; I hope you have enjoyed it.

The World According to Sound: “Idea of North” — I intend to go back and hear this show’s full archives at some point, which shouldn’t be hard since the episodes are a minute and a half long. But for now I will follow their series on great radio they think I should hear. I have never heard Glenn Gould’s “The Idea of North,” which is a travesty because I work at CBC Radio and I am literally looking at a three-CD set of Gould’s radio work right now. It’s right there on my shelf. Maybe this is the week.

Song by Song: “Hang On St. Christopher” — I’m looking forward to hearing these two give their take on Frank’s Wild Years, because I know from previously that it isn’t either of their favourite. On the other hand, it has always been my favourite. I think it is a masterpiece that stands head and shoulders above its two immediate predecessors. It is simultaneously weirder and more polished than Rain Dogs, and it contains Waits’ most theatrical music. That’s the mode I like him best in. This episode gives a good summation of why it’s so theatrical and why it’s necessary nonetheless to consider it as an album rather than the soundtrack to a misbegotten live show.

Imaginary Worlds: “Visions of Philip K. Dick” — I actually didn’t know that Philip K. Dick spent his final years having either religious experiences or a form of paranoid psychosis. That is interesting. This is interesting. The audio of Dick talking in Paris during that time is captivating. Listen at least for that. It’s right at the start.

Constellations: “anna friz – air can break your heart” — Okay, time to get frank about this show. The thing that’s good about it is that it highlights audio makers who are working largely outside the confines of what’s considered “radio.” Much of what’s featured here falls more easily under the category of “sound art.” This is good. I want this sort of thing to find its way into my podcast feed, between all the NPR and roundtable chat shows. But the fact is that a lot of this material is fairly obscure and alienating, and in presenting it without comment at the start of the episode, and only offering a bare minimum of context from the artist afterwards (the audio equivalent of a brief “artist’s statement” on a website or brochure) doesn’t necessarily present it in its best light. As a listener, I want to hear work like this week’s piece — an abstract mix of ambient sound and muted speech — addressed in a way that’s slightly more playful. Because however much I enjoy it on its aesthetic merits, it still leaves me with questions like “what?” and “why?” And I’d like to hear those questions answered conversationally, with frankness and humour. I want to hear the hosts engage these artists on the level that their listeners are coming into this at: with respect and curiosity, but also occasional good-natured bewilderment. I want a proxy — somebody to step in and have a human conversation in this art world’s rarified air. The fact that this show doesn’t do this strikes me as a missed opportunity. TL;DR: Constellations is doing good work, but I wish it were less precious about the good work it’s doing.

99% Invisible: “Airships and the Future that Never Was” & “Making it Rain” — 99pi is 300 episodes old. (Well, 301, actually. But I’m only just getting to both of those episodes.) It seems appropriate to me that in spite of the show’s substantial growth in terms of both audience and staff, the 300th episode should be a return to the early days, when it was just Roman Mars making elegant, miniature stories about design. Even the subject matter, airships, is nostalgic. It’s a good episode. “Making it Rain” is good too, but less singular. While I have come to really enjoy all of the producers on this show, their presence has the effect of making 99pi sound more like public radio and less like the trailblazing independent podcast that it started off as. That’s how I’d summarize the trajectory of this show: as it’s gotten bigger, it has become less distinctive — even as its stories have become more ambitious. I’m not likely to stop listening anytime soon, not when this show pulls off stuff like the recent two-parter about the Bijlmer. But ultimately, I think Roman Mars’s greatest accomplishment hasn’t been 99pi itself, but leveraging its success into the formation of Radiotopia, which remains the most consistent, satisfying and surprising podcast collective out there. Quite a throne to maintain in these times. On that note, here are the rest of the Radiotopia shows I listened to this week. This next one is something I never would have heard if not for 99pi, which would be unconscionable.  

Theory of Everything: “This Is Not A Drill (False Alarm! part i)” — This new mini-season from Benjamen Walker is justly receiving heavy promotion across the Radiotopia stable of podcasts, and if you haven’t checked it out yet, you must. It begins with a straightforward account of what it was like to be in Hawaii during the cruise missile false alarm, then continues into a scrambled retelling of both “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Then it gets straight into the question at the heart of the series: how can Benjamen Walker continue making a show that’s neither fully fact nor fully fiction in the era of Fake News? I know people who have been vexed by this show’s blend of real and fake. I’ve never been one of them. I tend to think that the people who are the angriest about stuff like this, the Onion and so forth, are actually mostly angry at themselves for their own credulousness. For my part, I am delighted that podcasting’s most protean paranoiac is about to dive into the nature of reality itself in 2018. Hear this. Pick of the week.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti — Celebrating 99 Years” — This story about the great counterculture icon and champion of the Beat poets, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, seems like it’ll be a good warmup for the Kitchen Sisters’ “The Keepers” series about archivists. I’m really looking forward to that. This is nice, though I confess that Ferlinghetti’s own poetry doesn’t do much for me.

This is Love: “A Private Life” & “What Are We Going To Do” — This is Love is proving to be a lovely show, though rather cute. These have thus far been rather positive stories. Even when they flirt with heartbreak, each episode manages to spin the story into something uplifting. That’s fine, but I hope (he says, realizing what a sadist he sounds like) that this show finds its way to the darker side of its subject matter at some point as well.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Deadly Force” — This is a slighter but more direct exploration of a topic that Radiolab went in depth about a few months back. I think I prefer this version.

The Memory Palace: “Junk Room” — This feels like a throwback to the episodes Nate DiMeo made for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I really enjoyed in spite of not having been to any of those exhibits. This episode is about one of the weirdest collections of art in Washington D.C.: a room where the states all sent statues of two of their greatest figures. That’s subject matter that allows DiMeo to do what he’s great at: writing beautifully about figures who have been left out of popular history, and asking why Confederate leaders keep getting included instead.

Omnibus (week of March 25, 2018)

If you’re one of my six regular readers, you will likely already know that I got a job recently. This has resulted in a general sense of stability, clear headedness, and purposefulness that I haven’t had for a while. So, what does one do with one’s suddenly guilt-free spare time on an occasion such as this? One plays computer games.

I’ve been avoiding games for a while because they stretch out to fill the time. And when there’s too much time for them to stretch out into, they can take a toll on your self-worth. But I have plenty of that at the moment, so I played no fewer than three games this week. They’re all very short, to be fair. But it feels good to be back to this medium for at least a while, because all three of them were extremely interesting, and it was hard to pick just one to recommend. Read on to find out if I managed — and to find out which of the gaming podcasts I tried out was the best. When I get in a mood, I commit. 

Also, I had three pieces on the radio this weekend. Readers here will likely be most interested in this one

17 reviews.

Games

Kentucky Route Zero: “Un Pueblo De Nada” (and assorted miscellany) — Kentucky Route Zero’s final intermission minisode is an elegiac trip behind the scenes of a declining small-town public access station. I could have identified that as a KRZ premise even if you hadn’t told me it’s a video game. The minisode itself has less to offer than its two immediate predecessors: “The Entertainment,” which opens up the possibility that the entire game is a stage play being written by one of its supporting characters, and “Here and There Along the Echo,” which makes trawling through a touch-tone telephone menu fun. But when you take into account the fact that “Un Pueblo De Nada” has a slew of online videos associated with it, all of which are live-action renderings of broadcasts from the public access station we explore in the minisode, it rises to the level of prime KRZ. I watched the videos first (save for a couple of hour-long, out-of-universe media art pieces that may be edifying but don’t seem crucial), then played the actual game. I think I recommend doing the opposite. Or at least save the final, longest video until after you’ve played the game. I’ll say no more, except that if you intend to play KRZ at any point, you can’t skip the intermission features, because in spite of their brevity they are as enthralling as the actual chapters of the game. (A final note for obsessives: it looks like the airstrip from the first chapter, which initially seemed like little more than a haunting non-sequitur, is actually going to take on more significance. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I really liked it as an inexplicable, beautiful moment that’s basically unmoored from the rest of the story. But then, if there’s any developer we can trust not to make anything too tidy, it’s Cardboard Computer. So I still feel like the ambiguity won’t be explained away to the point where the airstrip vignette becomes banal.)

Subsurface Circular — This is a miniature, dialogue-driven story game that takes place on a single, continuous train ride. It observes the Aristotelian unities more aggressively than maybe any other game I’ve played: it takes place in real time, as far as I can tell, and your character does not (and cannot) move from their seat in the subway carriage. It is written by Mike Bithell, of Thomas Was Alone fame, and like that game it is about artificial intelligences. However, in Thomas Was Alone, that fact was basically only relevant to the plot: the character drama proceeds as if the characters are odd humans. Subsurface Circular has a little bit more fun with the fact that its characters are robots, encumbering some of them with really strange traits, like having their mood entirely determined by the mood of a separate robot. The story is a straightforward mystery that you investigate the only way you can: by talking to people on the train. The dialogue is choice-based, in the vein of Telltale, except that your choices don’t seem to have a great deal of impact on the actual story — or even the relationships between the characters. That’s not a flaw. It still presents a compelling story and offers you the opportunity to role-play within it. Still, to progress through the story you must hit on certain crucial bits of dialogue. Getting to them is less a matter of cleverness and more a matter of simply exhausting all of your options. Given my own propensity to try and see as much of the text as I can in one sitting, this can get a bit tedious. And it’s partially my fault. But the writing and the story are really, really fun. I highly recommend this to people who loved the writing in Thomas Was Alone, and to people who like text-based games in general.  

Virginia — I love this game. I can imagine what the key critiques of it are, even without reading anything about it. I can hear people’s objections about the lack of even the illusion of player choice, and the way in which you are driven through its spaces on tracks without any real opportunity to explore. (In that way, it is fundamentally different to some of the games it will inevitably be compared to, i.e. Gone Home, Tacoma.) But the way that Virginia tells its story is completely ingenious and wouldn’t be possible in another medium. The story itself is fairly simple to describe, at least until near the end. You’re an FBI agent, assigned to investigate a missing person with another FBI agent — and while you’re at it, you’re expected to carry out an internal investigation of your partner. Virginia’s FBI is a paranoid body where duplicity is par-for-the-course. It even invokes J. Edgar Hoover: a figure whose time would have been up long before this game takes place, but who looms large in the FBI’s institutional memory. You experience the story from a first person perspective, in which you walk down corridors, search for things in rooms, and frequently find yourself jump cutting to another location altogether. Those cuts are the game’s masterstroke — they convey a sensation of the unreliability of memory, perception and reality. The cuts are simple at first: you’re walking down a corridor, only to find yourself walking down a different corridor. The message is simple: we’ve elided part of the story, because it’s not important. But soon, you find yourself cutting from the present-day to a memory, from a dream to reality, and maybe even into the perspective of another character altogether. All of these are bog-standard techniques in film editing, but they make you disoriented and paranoid in this context. Also notable: nobody speaks in Virginia. It proceeds with visual storytelling akin to a Méliès film or a Pingu short, minus the grunting. That only adds to the vagueness. In fact, Virginia avoids words almost entirely, only deigning to put them on screen when there are especially crucial plot details that you can’t afford to miss. (After an hour of wordless gameplay, a key revelation is delivered via microfiche.) The point is this: Virginia is deliberately obscure because of its central themes. Virginia is a game about transgressing the boundaries of what’s true. It is about the levels of artifice that exist in relationships between people, the disconnect between what we perceive as real and what is empirically real outside of us, and how truth can be deliberately distorted for one’s own means. It is strange, unique, powerful, probably unknowable, and it has an original score performed by an honest-to-god symphony orchestra. I love it. I can’t wait to play it again. Pick of the week.

Movies

Isle of Dogs — Hmm. Look, it would be an excellent movie if it weren’t so culturally insensitive. I want to like it, believe me. Wes Anderson is one of my favourite directors, with The Grand Budapest Hotel standing particularly tall among my all-time favourites. And there’s much to love in this film. It contains some of the most objectively gorgeous stop-motion animation I’ve ever seen. And all of the stuff involving the dogs themselves is gold. Bryan Cranston gives a fabulous performance as the hardened stray that the other dogs both look up to and resent. Jeff Goldblum is hilarious as the town gossip. And Harvey Keitel puts in a curiously heartbreaking turn as a dog for whom desperate times called for desperate measures. But much of the remainder of the movie takes place in a Western fantasy of Japan: a Japan with only its aesthetics intact. A key element of the film is that the audience is not supposed to understand the human dialogue throughout much of it. But… presumably those members of the audience who speak Japanese will not get the benefit of that choice. Like Pop Culture Happy Hour’s Linda Holmes pointed out, Japan isn’t Narnia. It’s a real place that exists in the world. Much of Isle of Dogs constitutes textbook cultural appropriation. Shame, too: if this had been made to take place in an actual fantasy world, I think it might be a near masterpiece. As it is, I spent much of the movie’s duration squirming uncomfortably.

Literature, etc.

Brian Vickers: “Too too solid: On the Norton Shakespeare and the New Oxford Shakespeare” — I have been meaning to buy a proper complete Shakespeare for a while now. Reading Moby-Dick in the Norton Critical Edition has opened my eyes to the advantages of a solid critical edition, even for recreational reading. This opinionated, not to say catty, review of the two most recent editions of Shakespeare from perpetual rivals Oxford and Norton highlights the latter as a pretty clear winner. Even if you’re not in the market for one of these, this is worth a read simply to watch Vickers excoriate the Oxford for its misbegotten attempts at trendiness: referencing Hamilton, referring to Shakespeare as “the ghost with the most,” and eschewing critical introductions to the plays (probably the whole point of a critical edition for most readers) in favour of something they call “Shakespeare tapas,” in which they sample one or two lines from essays and interviews with notable Shakespeareans out of context. Norton it is.  

Music

The New Pornographers: Mass Romantic — Somebody mentioned them in conversation recently and I was reminded that I’d never heard a full album. I’m not sure I’d even listened to a song with any real intention. I began where one begins: with “Letter From an Occupant.” That song is a miracle. Neko Case’s voice is a laser, and it contains the lines “I cried five rivers on the way here, which one will you skate away on?” That’s a Joni Mitchell riff that improves on the original. There’s something you don’t see every day. Nothing on the rest of the album quite compares, except maybe the title track. After one full listen, my sense is that I’ll be compelled to revisit the Neko Case songs (I’ve listened to “Letter” probably a couple dozen times this week) immediately, and the A.C. Newman songs may yet grow on me. Good album.

Jack White: Boarding House Reach — It’s not all excellent, but it is so crazily heterogenous and energetic that it doesn’t matter. This is the album where Jack White finally embraces the digital, and it turns out not to actually affect his aesthetic all that much. This is as messy, weird and disjointed as any White Stripes album and also toes the same line between knowing ludicrousness and total sincerity. It’s a succinct demonstration that an artist is not defined by their chosen tools, but by their approach to them. Highlights include “Corporation,” which injects an unexpected dose of P-Funk into the record, “Ice Station Zebra,” which contains the much-complained-about rapping (as if we’ve forgotten that he did it on “Lazaretto” too and nobody minded), “Over and Over and Over,” which is the closest we come to a classic garage rock track, and “Respect Commander,” which does some intensely fun stuff with tempo adjustment, and “Get In the Mind Shaft,” which is probably the closest Jack White will ever get to making a Daft Punk song. His best work since Icky Thump. Freaky good fun.

J.S. Bach/John Eliot Gardiner, English Baroque Soloists et al: St. John Passion — It’s Easter. On Easter we listen to Bach. I’ve always preferred the St. John Passion to the St. Matthew, which I can never get all the way through. Where Matthew is mutedly passionate, John is explosive. The opening chorus is a particular favourite — one of the most openly dramatic things in Bach’s entire oeuvre. There’s nothing quite like a big, awesome choir making their first entrance with “HERR!! HERR!! HERR!!” Speaking of, the Monteverdi Choir are the true stars of this fantastic recording with Gardiner. Neither he nor they are afraid of “letting it rip,” as the kids are saying. The English Baroque Soloists play with a sense of individuality that befits their name. And the vocal soloists put in lovely performances, particularly Anthony Rolfe-Johnson in the often thankless role of the Evangelist. Have a listen. At least check out the choruses.

Podcasts

Retronauts: “Zork,” “EarthBound” & “Broderbund” — In my recently rediscovered enthusiasm for video games, I felt compelled to check out a couple things from the doubtless well-populated gaming podcast space. True to its name, Retronauts is a roundtable chat podcast that focuses on retrogaming. In general, I am a modern gaming person, but I played just enough games in my childhood that I can occasionally conjure some nostalgia for eras of gaming gone by. How surprised was I, then, to find that the most recent episode of Retronauts focussed on Broderbund, a company whose edutainment titles made up a big chunk of my early exposure to computers. This episode reminded me of the existence of Living Books, which I’d forgotten entirely, as well as The Print Shop and the Carmen Sandiego games, of which Where in Time is permanently imprinted on my DNA. The Zork episode is a fun exploration of that game, which I’ve put many hours into and never even really come close to beating. I do feel that the panel may have a limited experience of post-Infocom parser-based interactive fiction, in light of which Zork’s puzzles look counterintuitive and inexpert. The EarthBound episode is the one with the most difficult task, namely to say interesting things about a game about which there is little left to say. It’s probably the Super Nintendo equivalent of Bowie’s Low. Alas, much of the discussion focuses on the game’s music, which is deeply beside the point. Still, I’ll listen to more of this. They’ve got a rich back-catalogue with at least one thing I care about for every dozen that I don’t.

No Cartridge: “Desert of the Real Fictions” — The second gaming podcast I checked out this week is this loose conversation show hosted by a professor. A conversation between that professor, Trevor Strunk, and the developer of Night in the Woods, Scott Benson, is bound to be fun. This particularly focuses on the question raised by gamers who demand better endings from game developers — as if a game is something other than a thing made by a person, but rather a thing that exists whole in some other universe and has been dragged imperfectly into this one by a flawed human vessel. It shines a light on the ways in which a large swathe of the gaming hordes are substantially lacking in critical facility. A fun listen if you’re into that sort of thing.

On the Media: “Big, if True” — One of the best things about OTM is that it’s always there on the stories you need it for. The Cambridge Analytica story was one of those. This is as good an exploration of that as you could hope for.

Song by Song: “Bride of Rain Dog” & “Anywhere I Lay My Head” — I’ve enormously enjoyed this podcast’s breakdown of Rain Dogs. These final two episodes are the general summation you’d hope for. It’s all well that they chose to do that, since I’m really not sure there’s much to say about “Anywhere I Lay My Head” that it doesn’t say for itself. It is one of Tom Waits’s most poignant creations. I’ll be returning to this show for Frank’s Wild Years — my idiosyncratic favourite Tom Waits album, an opinion I know the panel does not share.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — It came to pass that I agreed with Linda Holmes (and not Chris Klimek) on Isle of Dogs, a very problemsy movie. In other news, High Maintenance sounds not for me, Ready Player One sounds intensely not for me, and the SXSW wrap was sort of repetitive after hearing All Songs Considered’s coverage in its entirety.

Theory of Everything: “Utopia” parts iv and v — This hasn’t been my favourite mini-season in ToE’s history. But there’s much to enjoy here, in particular Andrew Calloway’s trip to a pagan utopia in part iv.

Imaginary Worlds: “Remembering Ursula K. Le Guin” & “Stuck in the Uncanny Valley” — The Le Guin episode is a good primer that I’ll look back to when I am in search of an SF novel to read. The uncanny valley is one of the better Imaginary Worlds episodes in a while, in no small part because it draws on Eric Molinsky’s expertise as a former animator.

The Memory Palace: “Outliers” & “A quick update and a bonus episode” — “Outliers” is a brief thing about the reasons why a person might decide to take part in a freak show in the 19th century. It is as compassionate and broad minded as you expect this show to be. Oddly, though, the bonus episode that follows it is almost better. It transitions seamlessly from being a bland housekeeping episode to being a really lovely tribute to Lavinia Dock, whose suffrage slogan, “the young are at the gates” is now being repurposed movingly as a slogan for the Never Again movement. This show is an ongoing miracle. Pick of the week.  

The Nod: “Peak Reality” & “Sister, Sister” — It’s been awhile since I listened to this. I heard a preview for “Sister, Sister” on another Gimlet show and figured I had to hear it. But first I listened to a completely different episode by mistake that turned out to be even better. “Peak Reality” finds Eric Eddings arguing to Brittany Luse that 2016 was the best year for reality television. There’s nothing like smart people talking about dumb things. As for “Sister, Sister,” it’s an interesting bit of family drama in which a producer finds out her sister doesn’t identify as black and is upset by this. Alas, the actual conversations with the sister in question make it plain immediately that this sister’s issue is simply that she is in college, with all of the attendant confusion. It’s less compelling than it might be.

Omnibus (week of March 18, 2018)

Can I just say for a second how good it is to be busy? Honest to god, it is so much easier to get up in the morning when you have a million things on the go. Consequently, I am happy to say this was yet another week during which I consumed not much more media than I produced. HOWEVER, I have also started running again, after a too-long hiatus. So that probably means the podcast count will go up again in coming weeks. We’ll see.

Seven reviews.

Television

Broadchurch: Season 1, episode 1 — Not for me, I’m afraid. Given all its ties to Doctor Who both previous and forthcoming, I was hoping to enjoy it. But nothing in this really lept out and convinced me it’s significantly different from any other cop show — save for its beautiful cinematography. But in the absence of an unconventional story or characters more defined than “brooding cop with a troubled, mysterious past,” I think I’ll leave it at this.

Movies

Best of Enemies — Anybody with any interest in the media at all should watch this deeply engaging documentary about ABC’s televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley in 1968. But even if you don’t have any particular interest in that, you should watch it anyway because these two are among the most interesting characters of their milieu, and this is ultimately a character-driven film. The debates, it must be said, were character-driven debates. It probably speaks to the film’s quality that I changed my mind halfway through as to whether the debates were actually a good idea. At first, I marvelled at the notion that there was a time when a major network would devote a significant amount of time to lofty discussions of the issues by people with a decidedly academic grasp of language. How our discourse has been degraded since then, I thought! But then I realized that these debates weren’t about the issues at all — they were two-way character assassinations motivated more by mutual loathing than by any principles at all. By the time Buckley delivers his famous rejoinder in which he threatens to punch Vidal in the face, you realize that you’re watching the invention of modern political discourse on tape. Also, this film contains footage of Buckley playing Bach on the harpsichord, badly. As if we needed more reasons to find him noxious. (The filmmakers get bonus points for pairing that footage with Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach, which came out in the year of the debates.)

What We Do In The Shadows — Taika Waititi is one of the funniest people alive. This isn’t entirely his movie, of course. He co-stars and co-directs with Jemaine Clement. But he steals every scene he’s in, right from the sublime opening, in which he floats out of a coffin and immediately grins goofily. You understand his character before he says a word. What We Do In The Shadows is consistently funny from start to finish. Every joke is contingent on the character speaking it, and the characters are all brilliant, so there are very few jokes that don’t land. (“Werewolves, not swearwolves” is a personal favourite that would not be funny in another context.) And there’s even a bit of heart. There are few things sadder than a vampire watching a video of a sunrise on YouTube.

Music

The Decemberists: I’ll Be Your Girl — Let’s start with the single. “Severed” was the first track I heard from I’ll Be Your Girl. That was before I knew it was produced by John Congleton, so it didn’t make a lick of sense. Once you know that, everything slides into place. Suddenly it’s hard not to hear it as a John Congleton song feat. Colin Meloy. You can even imagine Congleton singing it: lyrics like “I alone am the answer/I alone will make wrongs right/But in order to root out the cancer/It’s got to be kept from the sunlight” wouldn’t be out of place on Until the Horror Goes. Realizing this made something click into place for me that might otherwise have caused me to hate this album: for three albums now, the Decemberists’ goal has been to push the limits of what it means to be the Decemberists. (The Hazards of Love was pushing something, but it’s still resolutely in their Anglophilic comfort zone. So is The Queen of Hearts, for that matter.) I have had mixed opinions of how well this has worked. I adore The King is Dead and listen to it as often as the period classics from my high school days. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World didn’t do much for me because I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly it was trying to be. So far, I’ll Be Your Girl sits somewhere between those two poles, but an awful lot closer to the good end. Like The King is Dead, it has a clear premise. The King is Dead was a migration of the band’s folk influences from England back home to America. It was a revitalizing switch-up. I’ll Be Your Girl is an earnest attempt to merge Colin Meloy’s archaisms and affectations with John Congleton’s deranged postmodernism. Part of that attempt involves paring back Meloy’s trademark long-windedness to an uncompromising opposite extreme: several of these songs revolve around one or two key lines repeated at length. This too is revitalizing. Like The King is Dead, this album is a reminder not to only expect one thing from a band. I’ll remark on a few key tracks. “Severed” isn’t the only song that could belong on a Congleton solo record: “We All Die Young” is even more deranged, with Congleton’s signature rough drum sound and a children’s chorus shout-singing the title line as a call-and-response in the chorus. That’s a Congletonian touch if ever I’ve heard one — and a particularly disturbing one in light of the recent school shootings and protests against gun violence. It steps right up to the line of being tasteless, but manages to land on haunting instead. Also: when I said that “Severed” was the first track from the album I heard, that’s not strictly true. It was the first recording from the album I heard. But I heard the Decemberists do “Everything is Awful” and “Sucker’s Prayer” in concert last year. Coming off the disappointment of Terrible/Beautiful, they were a ray of hope for the future. The former is an instant classic. Calling it plainspoken would be an understatement: it consists almost entirely of its title and a wordless singalong outro. Set to a chipper acoustic accompaniment that morphs into stadium rock over the course of three minutes, it is a perfect evocation of what it’s like to hate everything while trying to maintain your sense of humour. On that note: I’ll Be Your Girl is Colin Meloy’s most openly depressive album to date, and also the one where his debt to Morrissey is most pronounced. “For Once In My Life” is nearly a rewrite of “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want.” And like Morrissey, when Meloy writes about depression, he does so with the self-awareness of an elderly man and the overwrought drama of a teenager. “I wanna love somebody, but I don’t know how,” he sings on “Sucker’s Prayer,” before throwing all that self-knowledge away with the line “I wanna throw my body in the river and drown.” None of this is what you’d expect from the Colin Meloy of “The Infanta” or “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” And that’s fine. But there is one thing here for the Picaresque and Crane Wife crowd. “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes” is a prog folk epic in the vein of “The Bagman’s Gambit” or “The Island.” It’s nice that it’s there, but it’s frankly not one of the best tracks on the album. And that’s maybe the most encouraging thing: where Terrible/Beautiful made me long for the Decemberists of old (ye olde Decemberists), I’ll Be Your Girl makes me confident that while they can still do what they used to do, they’re now actually better at doing something else entirely. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Notes on Germany and the War” — Not everything in this collection of Borges’ writings against the Nazis has aged perfectly, but it’s worth reading for the general thrust of his arguments about the people who support fascism implicitly without realizing it. It also contains this peal of slightly petulant but sympathetic wisdom: “the true intellectual refuses to take part in contemporary debates: reality is always anachronous.”

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: SXSW Late Night Dispatches, recap, and New Music Friday: March 16 — I’m always a fan of All Songs’ SXSW coverage. Points out a bunch of stuff I need to check out. But frankly, there are too many recent and upcoming releases from artists I’m already invested in that I doubt I’ll get to any of it soon. The recap episode is the most useful for actually finding new music. But even without actual music, the late night dispatches are great radio featuring a group of people who are as overstimulated as it is possible to get while also being sober. Plus, this was the first New Music Friday episode I’ve heard, which is a fun feature. I’m glad I put this show back in my regular rotation. It is as useful as it is fun. Pick of the week.

99% Invisible catch-up — The most recent five episodes of 99pi is a pretty strong run — as is appropriate, given that they’re coming up to their 300th episode. Imagine. Specifically, the two-parter on the Bijlmer is outstanding. The Bijlmer was a neighborhood built by modernists that fell into disrepair almost immediately. It’s a great story. It was also nice to revisit episode 200, “Miss Manhattan.” I don’t remember it being a favourite the first time around, but maybe I was distracted. It’s lovely. Next week, the big three-oh-oh, and an appraisal of how the show’s been since the epoch-defining Kickstarter that allowed it to expand its team to the extent that it now has.

Omnibus (week of Mar. 4, 2018)

Sometimes on weeks when you feel like three different people are pulling your hair in six different directions, you’ve got to spend as much time as possible in a movie theatre for the sake of your own sanity. I’ve seen six movies in theatres in the past two weeks, plus the Rio’s live broadcast of the Oscars. It is the ultimate refuge. Netflix will never be able to compare, because Netflix does not force you to forego the rest of your life during the duration of the movie. That, more than the big screen or even the crowd of like-minded strangers, is the best thing about seeing movies in a theatre. You are at the mercy of the projectionist. Surrender or leave.

Here are this week’s 21 reviews, four of which are of things that took place in movie theatres.

Live events

Gentlemen Hecklers present: Twilight — The only way to watch Twilight is to watch it with three comics heckling it from the sidelines. I know two of the Gentlemen Hecklers from their role as ubiquitous Vancouver trivia hosts. They are funny people. But more than that, Twilight is really bad movie. The Hecklers’ best bit by far was also possibly their easiest: a drinking game where you drink whenever Edward Cullen does or says something that is a relationship red flag. It is perhaps apropos that Robert Pattinson has recently become such an interesting character actor, given that his breakout role was an abject failure to be anything resembling a leading man. Between him and Kristen Stewart, the human face is contorted into more inexplicable formations during the course of this movie than in Jack Nicholson’s entire career. This was a good time. Twilight is awful.

Movies

The Florida Project — I talk a big game about my propensity to cry during movies. I make myself out to be a right basket case: the champion of vulnerable masculinity. But the truth is that very few movies that are not directed by Wes Anderson have ever really opened the floodgates for me. But the final moments of The Florida Project put me in a right state. The tone of this movie is so nonchalant and whimsical in the face of truly bleak subject matter that its final dive into unalloyed tragedy is a knife to the heart. That’s as close to a spoiler as I’ll come. I love everything about The Florida Project. I love each and every glorious shot of a tacky Orlando novelty shop front. It is one of the five or six best new movies I’ve seen since I started writing this blog. A lot has been made of this movie’s nuanced portrayal of impoverished people, and with good reason. The film’s adult protagonist, Halley, faces impossible alternatives throughout. There’s no way to watch this movie without feeling the pressure she’s under — probably with a lot more sweat on your brow than she’s got. There’s a moment in a scene with Willem Dafoe and Caleb Landry Jones, the two recognizable actors in the film, that I suspect is meant to serve as a Rosetta Stone: Jones’ character Jack finds bedbugs in his father Bobby’s motel. Jack berates Bobby for blowing a bunch of money on purple paint to add an air of whimsy to the motel’s exterior when what he really needs is an exterminator. But think of this from Bobby’s perspective: if that coat of purple paint pulls in a few families of tourists per week, he’s that much closer to keeping the motel in business. It’s a counterintuitive decision that might make it seem like Bobby doesn’t have his priorities straight. But when you’re scraping by, priorities look different. It’s the same with Halley. Stealing a meal from a hotel buffet might not seem like a good idea from where you’re sitting. But when you’ve got no money and a daughter to feed, maybe it’s worth the risk. The Florida Project is perfect. It is toe-to-toe with Get Out in the 2017 sweepstakes that are now long over. Pick of the week.

Wild Strawberries — The Cinémathèque is doing a whole series to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ingmar Bergman’s birth. As a programmer explained before this screening, they couldn’t bring themselves to start the series with The Seventh Seal. It’s just too overexposed. Wild Strawberries, then: the best-known Bergman film that hasn’t been subjected to ruthless parody. I hadn’t seen it before. I hadn’t seen anything by Bergmann except The Seventh Seal, which pleasantly shocked me with its balance between thinky darkness and complete siliness. But Wild Strawberries is an altogether more successful integration of heavy, existential themes into a compelling narrative. I think it’s probably the better of the two movies. It’s a story about an old doctor named Isak Borg, and the impact he’s made on the world and the people around him. The key connection that we as an audience have to that impact is Marianne, Isak’s daughter-in-law. Marianne has had to spend her life in love with Isak’s son Evald: a man who, like his father, is constantly on the verge of giving up on life altogether. I daresay that for all of the film’s brilliant ideas — and for all the brilliance of Victor Sjöström’s performance as Isak — Marianne is the movie’s masterstroke. It is Marianne that prevents Wild Strawberries from being a movie primarily about depressive, brilliant men and their problems. Because in the one or two heartbreaking scenes where we really come to know something about her relationship with Evald, the film’s focus shifts definitively towards the way that those men affect the world around them, rather than the way the world around them affects those men. It’s a beautiful meditation on family. For all its darkness and occasional cynicism, Wild Strawberries is deeply cathartic. I liked it a whole lot.

A Wrinkle in Time — It’s a mixed bag. On one hand, it takes a powder on Madeleine L’Engle’s most ambitious ideas: the explanation of how a tesseract works; the segment on a two-dimensional planet. On the other, it’s a family-friendly blockbuster with a distinctive aesthetic and some compositions worthy of Oscar winner Roger Deakins. (I’m going to call him that from now on, every time I mention him. I’m just so happy for him.) For every stroke of brilliance (i.e. the casting of Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling and GIGANTIC SPACE OPRAH as the Mrs. Ws), there is a disappointment that feels like a betrayal of the source material (i.e. the casting of Levi Miller, The Most Boring Teen In The World, as Calvin). The movie’s primary theme is “love yourself,” which is a deeply valuable theme — especially considering that it is a film for children, starring a young black woman who comes to terms with herself over the course of the film. But what it gains over the book in heart, it loses in brains. L’Engle’s novel contains a borderline nonsensical but deeply compelling metaphysical matrix that is almost entirely glossed over here. That disappoints me. What it all comes down to is this: Ava DuVernay is a master of her craft, but she’s working from a flawed script on a project for a massive corporate juggernaut. It’s worth seeing, and I hope it makes a pile of money, because it’s great when taken on its own merits. But as an adaptation, it’s a bit wanting.

Moon — I don’t know why I wanted to watch this. Certainly it has nothing to do with Sam Rockwell’s recent Oscar win, which I am actually a bit miffed about. But it’s the kind of movie I wish we saw more of: a small, interesting science fiction movie, in the vein of Ex Machina, but six years before. Its actual story is less interesting than it might be: in a sense it reduces Blade Runner to a high concept story about human replication. But Rockwell’s performance as two different facets of the same person, and the excellent, understated screenplay lift it above its premise. I enjoyed this a lot. It’s on Canadian Netflix. Check it out.

Television

Lady Dynamite: “Pilot” — Wow, this is weird. I love Maria Bamford, but this is so completely bonkers that I didn’t laugh much. I’m told I should stick it out. I may. We’ll see.

Literature, etc.

Kris Straub: Broodhollow, Book 2 — Immeasurably better than the first book. Where the first arc of Broodhollow deals with the question of whether or not everything crazy going in is happening in the protagonist’s head, this book dives into the much less travelled idea of a whole town forgetting its traumas. It’s something that Stephen King dealt with in It, but Broodhollow has another take. The masterstroke here is the introduction of a second town society. Where the first was an all-male Eyes Wide Shut riff with absolutely no idea what’s going on in Broodhollow, the second is a ladies auxiliary that, in spite of its innocuous trappings, knows more about Broodhollow’s threats than anybody else. I really enjoyed this, and I’m appalled at the cliffhanger it finished in. I hope Kris Straub is hard at work on book three.

Jorge Luis Borges: “German Literature in the Age of Bach” — I wandered into The Paper Hound this week, a Vancouver bookshop that I particularly like. Just go in and browse, I said to myself. Maybe pick up something light, I said to myself. Six pounds of books later, I have begun reading the collected nonfiction of Jorge Luis Borges in this completely arbitrary location. I’m not sure what exactly precipitated Borges’ lecture on this topic, but I like to think that somebody asked him to speak about this topic, and he discovered for himself as a result of this that there was virtually no interesting literature to speak of in Germany while Bach was composing his masterpieces. Still, being Borges, he does his due diligence and reflects on the reasons for this, and also muses on the virtues of some of the literature from this period that has perhaps not aged especially well. Also, he passingly mentions an idea of Paul Valéry’s that it might be interesting to write a literary history without proper names. I share a birthday with Valéry. Maybe one of these days I should do something like that. A music history podcast, perhaps.

Music

Yes: Tales from Topographic Oceans — This was my favourite album from the ages of about 12 to 20. It has always pained me slightly to demote something that was an all-time favourite to a lower rung on the ladder. But these days, the top of my list is populated by albums I discovered a little later (e.g. Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love), albums that grew on me over the course of many years (e.g. Brian Eno’s Another Green World) and one album that has lost none of its lustre since I first heard it as an impressionable teenager (Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick). Even among albums by Yes, my first favourite band, I’m not sure that Topographic would come out on top these days. For all its flaws, Fragile has the moments that most define what I continue to love about the band: the drama; the casual virtuosity; the personalities of five individuals all emerging from ensemble compositions. But listening through Topographic again for the first time in years did genuinely some strengths that are immutable. Its second side, “The Remembering” was always, and remains my favourite. With its delicate Mellotron and jangly acoustic moments, it is a cosmic folk song in memory of childhood. It isn’t even one of the most popular songs on this album, but I still think it’s one of the crowning glories of progressive rock. Likewise for “Ritual,” the one track from Topographic to become a regular live favourite. Having learned and grown since I last heard this, I now have a bit of trouble with the line “we love when we play.” Throughout this album, and to some extent his entire career, Jon Anderson comes off as a child prophet. If you can’t accept him on his own terms he’ll alienate you right out of the genre. But I also feel like anybody who can’t accept him must be harbouring a particularly toxic kind of cynicism, because the man just has so much love for the world. So much love. I’ve always had a soft spot for “The Ancient,” probably the most difficult of the album’s four tracks. The acoustic outro is a flat-out classic moment in the Yes corpus, but the Steve Howe freakout that leads up to it is no mere virtuoso display: it is a masterclass in how to generate tension with instruments. The one track that disappointed me upon returning to this album was the one that has perhaps become the fan favourite: “The Revealing Science of God.” It is structurally the closest thing on this album to the long tracks on the albums that bookend Topographic. Where “The Ancient” is a showcase for Howe, “Ritual” features lengthy solo spots for the rhythm section, and “The Remembering” (not quite the Rick Wakeman feature the liner notes make it out to be) channels an atmospheric side that the band does not generally foreground, “Revealing” is an attempt at an integrated full-band feature with internal symmetry and a dramatic arc unto itself. And in that respect, it doesn’t rise to the level of “Close to the Edge” or “The Gates of Delirium.” Still, this was like rediscovering an old friend. A final note: Apple Music does not have the Rhino remaster of the album that I grew up with, so I now understand why so many people complained about the sound quality. The unremastered digital files are abominable.

Tom Rogerson & Brian Eno: Finding Shore — Eno’s latest project is as a sideman to an improvisational pianist who is willing to allow Eno to twist his music about into an electrified finished product. That sounds like a role where Eno will thrive. And he does. This album begins with a collection of electronic plinks that do not identifiably come from a piano. But about a minute and a half into the album, the origins of the sound make themselves obvious as the piano crashes in. This entire album is an absolutely gorgeous collaboration, and one of Eno’s most worthwhile projects in some time. Much of the credit must clearly go to Rogerson, who is the actual composer of this music. Listen to this. Do.

Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois & Roger Eno: Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks — I needed something more to listen to while I was writing up this week’s reviews, so I revisited another old favourite. This is one of Eno’s finest ambient albums, perhaps only behind Music for Airports and On Land. It’s certainly best known for “An Ending (Ascent),” which is lovely. But the best moments are the ones that most clearly feature Daniel Lanois’ appalachian-tinged pedal steel. Lanois’ “Silver Morning” may be my favourite on the album. Essential Eno.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up —  Their Oscars coverage is always the most fun in the business. Audie Cornish doing the Regrettable Television Pop Quiz is a sure bet. Their Wrinkle in Time take turned out to be about right, when you take the average of the whole panel. Will watch: Annihilation. Won’t watch: Queer Eye.

On the Media: “Face the Racist Nation” & “Everything You Love Will Burn” — These two episodes on the alt-right in collaboration with The Guardian are worth hearing, though I feel like I’ve heard these arguments advanced in a less consolidated fashion on a combination of previous episodes of OTM.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Memories of an Invented City” — This old story about Cuba’s most influential author in a generation is a lovely thing. It has plenty of his personality, interspersed with vital readings from his work and enough context to make sense of it all.

The Hilarious World of Depression: “Highlights From A Hilarious Night of Depression” — This is great. Come for the comedy, stay for the genuine insights into mental illness that come from doing a whole season of interviews with people who suffer from it.

Reply All: “Trust the Process” & “The World’s Most Expensive Free Watch” — Two perfectly fine episodes of a great show. One has Alex Blumberg explaining sports to the hosts, which is a pleasant switcheroo. And we get Gene Demby as a bonus, so that’s fun. The other is about how even internet scamming is a scam. So that’s really distressing. Nice stuff.

This is Love: Episodes 1-4 — I love Criminal, but I might love that team’s new show even more. The first episode of this has everything you need to know about it. The guest is nobody of particular note, but he’s got a love story that’s worth hearing. Subsequent guests have more unusual tales to tell, i.e. reuniting a grey whale with its mother and founding one of the most acclaimed restaurants in America to pay tribute to one’s parents. But all of these episodes are completely compelling. A new favourite. Pick of the week.

Criminal: “The Manual” & “Willie Bosket” — “The Manual” is appalling in a good way: a story of how the first amendment is sometimes considered more important than human life. “Willie Bosket” is fine: a story of a particularly rough juvenile case. Both of these stories have far-reaching legal implications. Listen for that alone.

It’s Been a Minute: “‘Black Panther’ with Glen Weldon and Evan Narcisse” — I’ve heard and read enough about Black Panther now. But hearing noted comics expert Glen Weldon and actual comics writer Evan Narcisse bounce ideas off of each other is great fun.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Jennifer Lawrence” — This is an awkward interview. Lawrence has become self-conscious about her guilelessness with the media, and Maron’s show is the worst place to find yourself if that is what you’re currently self-conscious about. But they seem to like each other in spite of it. I dunno, it’s okay.

Code Switch catch-up — Definitely check out the immigration status episode. Three members of the same family, with three different immigration statuses. Complications ensue.

Omnibus (week of Feb. 11, 2018)

This is both late and somewhat halfhearted. I apologize. Things have been pleasingly busy. Only one pick of the week, since it’s a small one.

Nine reviews.

Music

Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band: Live 1975-85 — This live set is a perfect capper to Springsteen’s golden age. Its 40 songs (!) represent all seven studio albums he’d released up to this point, plus an assortment of oddities and covers, like his classic rendition of Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl,” a song that sounds genuinely strange in Waits’ voice, but which works perfectly for the more romantic Springsteen. The only downside is that the set starts too strong and never quite rises to the level of its opening. The acoustic rendition of “Thunder Road” from 1975 is one of the greatest live reinventions you’ll ever hear. I can’t say it better than I did in my column on North by Northwest from a few weeks ago, so just scrub to 2:00:57 in this podcast and kindly ignore the fact that I said pathetic fallacy when I meant dramatic irony. Other highlights include Bruce’s top-shelf storytelling on “Growing Up” and “The River.” He’d be great on The Moth. Also, the slightly amped-up renditions of songs from Nebraska are satisfyingly different from the album versions, and work better than you’d think in a huge arena. I think I actually prefer this version of “Johnny 99,” just for Springsteen’s more dramatic vocal delivery. It’s a fabulous live album. It’ll live on my phone for a while, I’m sure.

Kanye West: 808s & Heartbreak — Like many people, I strongly disliked The Life of Pablo when it first came out. But it’s possible that I just wasn’t ready for it and I’ll revisit it in two years and think it’s a masterpiece. Because that’s how the entire world seems to have responded to this album. These days, auto-tuned, performatively vulnerable rappers are a dime a dozen. But Kanye did it first, and now that we’ve all realized the extent of this album’s impact, we can basically all agree that he did it best, right? Before this week, I had never heard 808s from start to finish. (I think there are still a couple Kanye albums I haven’t listened to straight through, which I will likely rectify in the coming weeks.) I’m not sure it isn’t my second-favourite Kanye album after My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. For all his occasional lapses of lyrical taste, Kanye West is one of the greatest musicians in modern hip hop. And this album gives him an opportunity to show off his musicianship in a different light than any of his other albums — because it contains more self-imposed restrictions than any of his other albums. Most obviously, of course, he does not rap on it. But it also builds on a very specific musical aesthetic, based around the sound of the TR-808 drum machine. The economy of this album points ahead to Yeezus at times, and at others the cinematic sweep of it points to Fantasy. Those two future approaches come close to converging in a single piano line on “Welcome to Heartbreak,” an economical thing that over the course of a very long four bars, only uses five notes. It looped and looped in my head for a whole day, earlier this week. For me the other highlight is “RoboCop,” which contains some of the most florid, melodic musical material on any of Kanye’s records, and lyrics that approach Morrissey levels of hangdog irony. I love it. I love every song on it. Pick of the week.

Television

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 3, episodes 9-13 — Let me paraphrase a joke that made me laugh and laugh. “I took a career aptitude test once. It said I should be either an unlicensed barber or a police informant. And now look at me: I’m both.” I don’t know how anybody can write this stuff. Honest to god, I cannot remember anything about the story of this season, and I just finished watching it. But I laughed and laughed like a maniac. It is good television.

Podcasts

99% Invisible: “Border Wall” & “Making a Mark: Visual Identity with Tom Geismar” — The border wall episode is a nice collection of mini-stories dealing with that topic. And the Tom Geismar episode is a good example of a “Roman Mars does an interview” episode of 99pi, which I do generally enjoy.

Song by Song catch-up — I dunno, I like “Blind Love.” It’s amazing how much of this I’ve listened to given that I didn’t even like it at first.

Code Switch catch-up — The Valentine’s Day episode is properly contentious. Seek ye out that one. It is here.  

In Our Time: “Cephalopods” & “Fungi” — So I just learned that some cephalopods can change colour but can’t see colour. Thank you, BBC, for making me sad. Also, the thing that links these two episodes together, aside from being interesting discussions of the natural world, is that neither of their panels can agree on a single pronunciation of their subject. KEFF-ah-lo-pod? SEFF-ah-lo-pod? FUN-jie?

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Winter Olympics” & “Black Panther and What’s Making Us Happy” — I have no television, and therefore will likely pass the Olympics by entirely. But Black Panther, whoo boy, am I ever in.

Desert Island Discs: “Christopher Nolan” — He does not have interesting taste in music, it turns out. His picks are all film scores, save for one Radiohead song he tried and failed to get the rights for when he was making Memento (“Paranoid Android”) and the blandest, weirdest pick for a song by his late, lamented former supporting actor David Bowie (“Loving the Alien”). But the interview is good: I always like hearing from artists who value order and discipline over chaos.

Omnibus (week of Feb. 4, 2018)

Happy Family Day. 13 reviews, one of which is basically just a link. But it’s a link you should click.

Literature, etc.

Herman Melville: Moby-Dick — Hey, look over here.

Stephen King: It (audiobook) — At last, I’ve gotten through all 45 hours of this behemoth. I’ll start by praising the audiobook. The TV actor Steven Weber does a bang-up job bringing the dozens of characters in King’s sprawling narrative to life: many of whom in both child and grown-up forms. He seems to particularly relish Richie Tozier, who obsessively does voices himself. Frankly, Richie’s variously-offensive stereotyped characters get really annoying after a while, but that’s King’s fault for writing it that way. Weber’s commitment is commendable. As for the book itself, I’m comfortable saying that it’s one of the most extraordinary works of popular fiction I’ve read in a long time. There are elements of it that are dated, offensive, or simply a bit dumb, but they’re drowned out the same way that “Rocky Raccoon” is drowned out on the White Album. It is so sprawling, ambitious and heterogenous that its most flawed moments can easily recede from your mind when you consider the whole. Except one. You may have heard about the controversial child orgy in It? It is just as icky as you think. King has responded to criticism of this scene by saying: “it’s fascinating to me that there has been so much comment about that single sex scene and so little about the multiple child murders.” That only serves to demonstrate that he doesn’t understand the problem. Child murders are terrible, but they are a thing that happens. Fiction is a perfectly good way to try and work through that fact. But that sex scene, which involves eleven-year-old children, is both explicit and completely arbitrary. The whole time it was happening, all I could think was “Man, you didn’t have to do this! Why did you do this?!?” I like Stephen King, and I think he is a decent person. But this one moment is really very bad. Since we’ve gone straight into the negatives, so is his general treatment of his one substantial female character. But all of this is a preface that will allow me to enthuse in more general terms about the rest of the book. In On Writing, King has some very convincing things to say about theme. Basically, he thinks you should write your story, and then figure out what it’s ‘about.’ Once you’ve figured that out, keep it in mind while you edit, and work to emphasize it. It is a strong book because King clearly knows what it is about. It is about memory: about the way we selectively recall our pasts, forgetting things for our own sanity. It’s about how the memories we choose to suppress can continue to subconsciously inform our lives, and how they can come back to hurt us suddenly and unexpectedly. Most of the time when horror is about something in this way, the metaphor is personified by the monster. (See Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s endless cavalcade of beasts, each reflecting an element of high school life.) It doesn’t work that way, though. The shapeshifting Pennywise is a marvellous, terrifying creation, but he is not materially a representation of memory or suppression. Instead of baking his theme into his monster, King bakes his theme into the book’s structure. Throughout the novel, we flash back and forth in time, learning about a group of children’s brave stand against Pennywise in 1958, and simultaneously about their adult selves’ return to Pennywise’s domain to finish what they started in 1985. And as we learn more about the events of 1958, we begin to become wiser than our protagonists’ adult selves, who remember none of this, and are thus walking blindly into a danger they can intuit but cannot understand. King’s metaphor of choice for their amnesia is the phenomenon where you forget your nightmares almost immediately, only recalling them in vague detail much later in the day when they can’t disturb you anymore. Pennywise is aware of all this, but he ties into a different theme in the book: belief. His power, like the power of many childhood story characters, comes from people believing in him and believing him powerful. Still, though: Pennywise knows the importance of memory to this story, and he ties the two key themes together in one of the book’s most powerful lines: “Come on back and we’ll see if you remember the simplest thing of all — how it is to be children, secure in belief and thus afraid of the dark.” Maybe it’s just me, but I feel that the book is most powerful in these moments: the moments where Stephen King indulges in a bit of autocritique. I particularly love one moment with the young Stan Uris: a skeptical, bullied, Jewish boy who later claims that he’s fine with being scared, but can’t abide being dirty. He can’t abide things that present an offense to how he thinks about the world. He can’t find the words to express it to his friends, but the thought crosses his mind: “It’s offense you maybe can’t live with because it opens up a crack inside your thinking, and if you look down into it you see there are evil things down there, and they have little yellow eyes that don’t blink, and there’s a stink down there in that dark and after a while you think maybe there’s a whole other universe where a square moon rises in the sky, and the stars laugh in cold voices, and some of the triangles have four sides, and some have five sides and some have five raised to the fifth power of sides. In this universe there might grow roses which sing. Everything leads to everything, he would have told them if he could. Go to your church and listen to your stories about Jesus walking on the water, but if I saw a guy doing that I’d scream and scream and scream. Because it wouldn’t look like a miracle to me. It would look like an offense.” This passage is what this book is capable of at its best. It sprawls because it goes deep: deep into the history of its setting and characters, deep into the moments that change people’s lives, deep into the parts of our communities and minds that we don’t want to think about. That we’d rather forget.

Alison Bechdel: Fun Home — I have always wanted to write a book like this: a book that approaches real life as a subject for literary criticism. But unlike mine, Alison Bechdel’s early life actually justifies that approach. Fun Home tells the story of her relationship with her distant father, a complicated aesthete living in a tiny Pennsylvania town, who died young in a probable suicide. This is a man who spent his free time obsessively remodelling a dilapidated old mansion to old world splendor: a mansion that served as the family home. Immediately, you know this guy has to be interesting. The other major story element is Bechdel’s coming-of-age story, leaving home and discovering her own sexuality. The two stories entwine with one another and prop each other up. But the real connective tissue in Fun Home is the mutual obsession that Bechdel and her father have with classic literature. Each chapter revolves around a different work of literature that resonates with Bechdel’s story: the myth of Icarus and Daedalus as told by Ovid in Metamorphoses, Camus’s A Happy Death, a side-by-side reading of The Great Gatsby and The Portrait of a Lady, In Search of Lost Time, The Wind in the Willows, The Importance of Being Earnest, and finally — because that’s not enough of a reading list — Ulysses. This is the perfect kind of story to tell as a graphic novel. Again and again, Bechdel allows her expressive, beautiful cartoons to tell the surface-level story of her life with her parents, and reflects on this literature in the text that runs parallel. Never has a book that muses at length about Joyce been so staggeringly moving. It’s easily in my top five comics. Maybe top three. Read it immediately. Pick of the week.

Theatre

The Old Trout Puppet Workshop: Jabberwocky — I’ve wanted to see a production by the Old Trout Puppet Workshop since way back in high school, when I was a marginal contributor to a puppetry company myself. I dunno why I never did. I now live even farther away from them than I did back then. But this show was a marvellous entrée into their weird world. Jabberwocky is a cheap and janky-looking production that was clearly engineered to show all of its seams, and that’s what makes it so compelling. From the very start, the four members of the on-stage company make you feel like you’re witnessing something that will barely hold together. And then, within the context of that aesthetic, they tell a story that just knocks you flat. It’s a reinterpretation of the famous Lewis Carroll poem — specifically just that poem, and none of the Alice-related material surrounding it. So, it really is working with a bare minimum of source material. Essentially, the story of “Jabberwocky” is: a father warns his young son to beware of a terrifying monster, that young son impetuously goes off to slay that monster, and he succeeds and makes his father happy and proud. The Old Trouts have rethought this elementally simple story as a parable on how we shunt off all of our hopes and dreams for ourselves onto our children. It is a multi-generational retelling of “Jabberwocky” in which nobody gets to slay the Jabberwock. It is brilliant storytelling, brilliant theatre, and a brilliant reinterpretation of a too-familiar story.

Television

The Chris Gethard Show: “Whatever Happens, Happens” & “Bring It Home” — I like this show because I like Chris Gethard, but I sometimes wish he’d spend less time talking about how he wants to break the format of a TV talk show and more time just getting on with it. Still, there are great moments in these episodes: Nick Kroll staring down the camera, a cameo appearance by a goat, and a recurring bit in which Ira Glass wanders around the studio, alone.

Doctor Who: “The Ribos Operation” — The first classic Doctor Who story that I’ve watched a second time. I think there’s an argument to be made that this is not only one of the most brilliant and non-dated episodes of the classic series, but that it is the best possible starting point for new viewers. The writing is solid, of course; this is Robert Holmes we’re talking about. But it’s also one of the most self-aware stories in the classic series, where the comedy lands most successfully. It introduces an awesome new companion who, in spite of the Doctor constantly being a dick to her, holds her own and is a boss. It takes place in a few easily-rendered locales, so the sets aren’t too embarrassing. And most crucially, the acting is great all around. Every actor in this serial knows exactly what kind of story they’re in, namely a silly quasi-medieval space caper with terrible monster puppets, and they seem to appreciate both its ridiculousness and its brilliance. That is everything you can hope for from classic Doctor Who. This is amazing, and if you haven’t ever seen the classic series, watch this. I’m not saying you’ll love it, but if you don’t, I doubt there’ll be anything much for you in the rest of the series.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 3, episodes 1-8 — I didn’t love the second season of this because the jokes weren’t landing for me. But they sure are in this season. I’m uncertain about some of the ongoing jokes, like the caricatures of campus leftism who are seemingly the sole denisons of Columbia University. But Maya Rudolph as Dionne Warwick is a thing to behold, and there are jokes in this that I can’t believe anybody could come up with. “You know what yuppies eat? Ice cream that tastes like lavender.” “No! That’s a smell!” Love it. I’ll probably finish it in a couple days.  

Music

The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Deluxe Edition) — The latest instalment in my increasingly tortured attempt to listen to every Stones album up to Tattoo You in order. I like Some Girls, but I feel like those who call it the best post-Exile Stones album undervalue Goats Head Soup. And the bonus material on this deluxe edition that I decided to check out for god knows what reason is fairly strong, but only by the standards of a band that was already on its downward slide.

Bruce Springsteen: Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. — This is maybe the clearest demonstration of “early promise” ever recorded. Compared to its successor, The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, which remains one of my favourite Springsteen albums, this is Wordy As Hell. And while Bruce’s best songs will always be a bit hyperverbal, this is a bit much. For the only time in his career, Bruce’s lyrics are more clever than they are meaningful. I still like it, and “Spirit in the Night” is particularly essential. It’ll probably grow on me.

Bruce Springsteen: Born in the U.S.A. — This marks the point where I’ve heard every studio album from the Boss’s heyday. This week, I listened to the records that are commonly thought to bookend that period: this and Asbury Park. I deliberately saved them for last because I had a feeling that they were going to be the ones I liked least, and I was right. That said, neither one of them are outright bad. I find Born in the U.S.A. a bit slick. The title track, regardless of its universal misinterpretation, is a cliché. So is “Glory Days.” But weirdly, I like “Dancing in the Dark.” That chorus has three iconic lines in a row “You can’t start a fire without a spark/this gun’s for hire/even if we’re just dancing in the dark.” That’s skill, right there. And the smaller songs on this are really great, especially “Darlington County” and “My Hometown.” Now I’ll just round this whole binge off with the live set, and commence repeat listening.

Podcasts

Slow Burn — This series from Slate about the weirdest, freakiest details of the Watergate scandal is a great binge listen, and it’s done now, so get to it. The main idea is that it took Watergate a long time to find its way into the public consciousness, no matter how shattering an event it seems now. The show is a reflection on a state of scandal that resembles the current political craziness, but in a pre-internet age. It’s a bit wonky — this is Slate, after all. But listen to the first episode, which is about a woman who was forcibly tranquilized to keep her from talking, and see if you’re not hooked.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — The Grammys will always disappoint Stephen, an Eagles victory will always delight Gene, and Roxane Gay will always be a fantastic chat. Darkest Hour sounds dire. Over and out.

More Perfect: “One Nation Under Money” — The second season finale keeps up the pace. This, as much as any other episode of More Perfect, made me understand a debate that I didn’t know was happening. Essentially, it is about the legal and ethical knots that America ties itself into when lawyers try to win cases by making everything about money. That is a vast oversimplification, but like all of the best things Jad Abumrad is involved with, it cannot be summarized easily. More Perfect is the best thing he’s done in a long time, and this is a great episode of it. Pick of the week.

Omnibus (week of Jan 14, 2018)

I’ve had a big week for wasting time, and also a big week for getting stuff done that allows me to also listen to stuff simultaneously. You may enjoy the fruits of my labours below.

25 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Chris Onstad: Achewood — It’s been ages, but I went back to Achewood this week and fell right back in. I got the the end of 2004 in the comics, which was also the year when Onstad started writing in-character blogs as all of the major characters. I’m making my way through the first year of those now, because what’s a rabbit hole if you only go halfway down? The blogs are interesting because they’re less explicitly comedic than the strips are. They’re basically sincere character studies where every single character seems unique and well-rounded. That makes them a bit of a mixed bag. Ray’s blog, for instance, is intermittently insufferable because Ray is a rich asshole whose life is a fantasy from a men’s magazine. Seen from a third-person perspective, this is always funny. But when it comes straight from him, it can be rough going because he’s less ridiculous when seen through his own eyes. But the blog never drifts out of character, which is a testament to what a fantastic writer Chris Onstad is. Other characters fare better. I’m particularly fond of Pat’s blog, because Pat is the least sympathetic character in the strip, and thus the most likely to have a completely insufferable blog. So the very existence of the thing is a joke in itself. Also, it features a plotline in which Pat attempts to place the mailman under citizen’s arrest because in Pat’s crazed worldview, junk mail constitutes litter. Achewood is a marvel. It’s a whole universe. I love it.

Movies

The Shape of Water — I’ve always loved Guillermo del Toro as a visual stylist, but the only movie of his that really stuck with me for some time after I watched it was Pan’s Labyrinth. I think what I liked about it was that it presents a very simple metaphor about childhood trauma and takes for granted that you’ll pick up on it. So, it just focuses on telling a story and, even more crucially, presenting a cavalcade of memorable and distressing images. The Shape of Water is much the same. It is not a subtle movie. It finds del Toro wielding Michael Shannon like a bludgeon. More troublingly, it also finds him casting Octavia Spencer as a walking trope, which, ugh. That makes the movie’s central civil rights metaphor a tad less resonant. But all of the stuff that del Toro packs around that metaphor is really marvellous. Maybe the best light to see the movie in is as a tribute to the romances of golden-age Hollywood. Del Toro has always been a film geek first, a storyteller second. And this movie finds him geeking out not only about monster movies, which is his perpetual obsession, but also with musicals and melodrama. And look: there are days when I’m a chilly aesthete, and there are days when I’m totally on board for a musical monster melodrama. This hit me on one of the latter kinds of days.

Coco — I don’t much like to cry in public, so there were some uncomfortable moments in this. *sniff* Coco has one of the most satisfying narrative switcheroos I’ve seen in a while. If you’ve seen it, you know the one. It’s a late-game reveal that I genuinely did not see coming, which is also the element the film’s emotional impact hangs on. Where Inside Out’s effect comes from a sustained melancholy, Coco’s comes from a single surprise gut punch. And what a gut punch it is. I don’t like this quite as much as Inside Out or WALL-E, which remain my two favourite Pixar movies. (Were they this good when I was an actual child??) But Coco goes beyond those movies in a couple of ways. First off, it takes place partially in a convincing (according to my Mexican friend) version of small-town Mexico. Its visual style is a pretty brilliant amalgam of Mexican art and architecture with Pixar’s usual fantastical whimsy. Once the movie finds its way to the land of the dead, it really turns into a visual marvel. And it’s not just the setting — it gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that most of its characters are skeletons and can thus be deconstructed and rearranged at will. There’s a character in this, Hector, who is maybe the closest any animator has gotten to the genie in Aladdin in the past ten years. Story-wise, the tension that drives Coco is the same as in Ratatouille: there’s a kid who wants to be an artist but his family forbids it. But where Ratatouille portrays its protagonist’s family as mere philistines, Coco manages to find a reason why they act like they do that makes them sort of sympathetic. I think that points to a way that children movies have matured since I was a kid: there doesn’t have to be an obvious villain anymore. Coco does have a villain, but for the bulk of the movie the key antagonists are the hero’s own family, who basically have some version of his best interest at heart. This is much more subtle than The Lion King. This is charming. And I’ll note one final detail: the town it takes place in is called Santa Cecilia. Cecilia is the patron saint of music in Catholicism, and thus a significant symbolic figure in this story. Nothing’s an accident in a Pixar movie.

Music

Gustav Mahler/Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic Orchestra et al.: Symphony No. 3 — Man, it’s probably been five years since I listened to this. Famously long, obviously. But when you’re sitting at home with a glass of Petite Sirah (I am a caricature of myself) and a few open browser tabs, it flies right by. The scherzo is one of my favourite movements in Mahler’s whole oeuvre. I remember learning the offstage trumpet parts back when that was a sort of thing I did, and for all of their endurance challenges, they are some of the most satisfying orchestral excerpts I ever had to practice. There’s a haunting delicacy to that section that’s the sort of thing only Mahler can muster. This isn’t altogether one of my favourite Mahler symphonies, but even his lesser works are essential, to me. And that scherzo. Man oh man.

Bruce Springsteen: The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle — I think I prefer this to Darkness on the Edge of Town. I definitely prefer it to The River. Elements of it feel in retrospect like a warm-up for Born to Run, but it has an unexpected soul element that Springsteen wouldn’t really revisit after this. And I like that facet of this record. Much of the credit should likely go to David Sancious, a marvellous keyboardist who makes his final E Street Band appearance here, to be replaced by the equally brilliant but totally different Roy Bittan. Sancious is all kinds of funky throughout. “The E Street Shuffle” is a truly rollicking opener, and it’s the sort of thing that just wouldn’t fly on either of Springsteen’s next two albums. It’s got the requisite keen observational poetry, but it’s just too… fun for Born to Run or Darkness. Pete Townshend once said “When Bruce Springsteen sings, that’s not ‘fun.’ That’s fucking triumph.” It’s presumably those two albums, and Born to Run in particular, that he was talking about. The element of that classic style that E Street Shuffle is missing on about half of its songs is the profound romance — the seriousness. And while that makes it a less effective album, it also makes it a fundamentally different one, which can serve a different purpose in your rotation. On the other hand, if you’re worn out on “Jungleland” and “Backstreets,” “Incident on 57th Street” and “New York City Serenade” can easily fill in for them.

Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska — I can see myself coming to like this Springsteen album best of all. The guts it takes to make a record like this at that point in a career, I tell you. He’d just had his first major hit with “Hungry Heart,” and he comes back with an album of what were meant to be demos of almost unrelentingly bleak songs. But even that doesn’t quite get to the gutsiness of this release: try and think of a solo artist whose sound is more dependent on their band than Bruce Springsteen. The E Street Band is a way bigger part of their particular equation than, say, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was of theirs. And yet this album happened. Thank god Columbia Records had the guts to let it happen, too. Because, different as it is from everything else in his imperial phase, Nebraska has a delicate beauty that makes it stand up alongside Born to Run in terms of its ability to connect. Its palate of mostly acoustic guitar with a few ornamentations and a generous dollop of reverb reminds me of the first Bon Iver album, except made in 1982. My personal highlights are “Highway Patrolman,” which has a gorgeous melody and lyrics that compel you to actively listen to the story, and “Reason to Believe,” which may only feel as strong as it does because it’s positioned at the end of the album. After so many stories of hardship and wrongdoing, it’s nice to hear Springsteen sing about people’s tendency to keep their chin up in spite of it. I’m still processing this. I can tell I’ll be listening to it a lot.

Television

The Good Place: Every episode thus far — Look, I had some spare time this week, and not a lot of willpower to be productive. It’s been a dog’s age since I had a good long binge, so I binged on this. I am a big fan of Michael Schur, primarily because of Parks and Rec: a show that was one of television’s greatest joke factories, and also had a cast of characters it’s almost dangerously easy to get invested in. The Good Place is an astonishing show, but for neither of those reasons. The Good Place is the first television comedy I’ve watched entirely out of interest in the story. I’m not sure I’ve watched a show whose fundamental rules change as often as this one’s. Maybe Lost. But I’d wager that the twists-per-minute ratio of this show is even higher. I’m going to leave it there. If you’re thinking about watching this, watch it. Don’t read anything more about it, just watch it. If you don’t find it funny, just keep watching it. You will eventually realize there’s a sort of virtuosic storytelling at work here that is incredibly rare in TV comedy. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

Love and Radio: “The Machine” & “The Secrets Hotline, Vol. II” — The secrets episode is much the same as the first one, which is to say it’s a bunch of secrets told anonymously on an answering machine. It’s great. “The Machine” is a really great story about a guy who bulldozed a bunch of his town before committing suicide, and managed to be remembered as some kind of hero. Being the show that this is, nothing is allowed to be that simple. It’s great.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Levee Stream Live from New Orleans” — A live episode consisting of interviews taking place in the seat of a sawed-in-half Cadillac, this is the sort of thing that could only come from a collaboration including the Kitchen Sisters. New Orleans is a super cool place I really want to visit, and this is a great evocation of its contemporary culture.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — The highlight of the slew of PCHH I listened to this week was their annual resolutions and predictions show, which I always love because they’re always so wrong except for Kat Chow. Good listening.

The Hilarious World of Depression: “Linda Holmes Leaves Law to Concentrate On Watching TV and It Works Out Great” — It’s always a shock when you learn about the difference between a person’s public-facing aspect and their private life. I’ve been following Linda Holmes’s work for NPR and as the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour for years, including during the period that she identifies during this interview as a mental health crisis. It was never less than amazing. I hadn’t listened to this show before, and I’m not sure it’s necessarily for me, but this is a really good conversation. Holmes’s story really demonstrates that there are gradations of depression and anxiety and that even the lower gradations need to be acknowledged and dealt with. Lovely stuff.

Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People: “The Puppet Master” — This starts off as a pretty ordinary episode of Beautiful/Anonymous with a guest of middling interest. Then he laughs. And as soon as Chris Gethard hears this guy’s laugh, we’re off to the races. I listened to this on a train at seven in the morning. I had to keep pausing it because I was losing my shit. There’s nothing like listening to people laughing. And he really does turn out to be interesting later. Everybody is. That’s the point of this show.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Darren Aronofsky,” “Marc’s Family” & “Ta-Nehisi Coates” — These are all great episodes. Aronofsky turns out to be quite funny and engaging. He was a fan of Maron’s from way back in his struggling stand-up days. Also, Maron hasn’t seen the end of mother! He’s actually interviewing Darren Aronofsky about that movie without having seen it all. I love that. The episode of conversations between Maron and members of his family feels like some much-needed catch-up on the years of the podcast that I missed. And the Ta-Nehisi Coates interview is completely scintillating. Maron is enraptured with this guy, and Coates just loves how good he is at listening. It’s fabulous. Listen to that one.

The Organist: “How to Be in Two Places at Once: The Firesign Theatre in the US and Vietnam” — I am so glad this show exists. We need more arts and culture podcasts that are about long-form storytelling rather than conversation and criticism. I love those shows too, but I feel like Studio 360’s American Icons series has been cornering the market for long enough. I actually found a record by the Firesign Theatre in the five dollar bin at my local record store while I was digging for a gag gift recently. I did not pick it up, but it left me wondering about what it was. Apparently, they were a group of avant-garde comedians and sound artists who made records that had a substantial countercultural impact in their day. This is a good introduction to Firesign because it focuses not on the members of the troupe themselves, but on the people who listened to and understood the records in various contexts. Too often arts journalists default to interviewing the artists. The artists are arguably the least important people involved in a work of art. I will listen to this show a lot, I think.

Trump Con Law catch-up — The episode about whether or not you can prosecute a president is maybe the archetypal example of this show: it opens up the possibility that a thing you want to happen could happen, then shuts it down and makes you realize that it might not actually be a good idea anyway. I’m getting into this now, even if it kind of makes me even more fearful.

On the Media: “The End Is the Beginning” — Come for the retrospective on early third-wave feminism, stay for the tribute to the late Joe Frank — a radio producer I didn’t know and now am in love with.

Uncivil: “Song” — Basically, “Dixie,” the song widely regarded as the anthem of the Confederacy, was written by a white Yankee. Except actually no, it wasn’t, because it was probably taught to him by a black man. It’s a complicated, compelling story and if you want it in detail, this episode is the place to be.

Longform: “Zoe Chace” — Chace is one of my favourite This American Life producers, but the story of how she got there is pretty familiar. You just get an internship to get your foot in the door and do everything you can to stay there forever. That’s the gist of this, though it’s a good conversation because she’s good at talking.

Theory of Everything: “Utopia (part ii)” & “False Flags” — The second utopia episode features an attempt at utopia that seems to be falling apart less than the attempts in the first episode. But that’s because nobody there regards it as a utopia. So that’s interesting. But it’s “False Flags” that really caught my attention. Benjamen Walker merges his argument about the increasing prevalence of conspiracy theories with an amusing fictional vignette about him getting yelled at in the airport. That’s what I come to this show for.

The Daily: “Special Episode: The Year in Sound” — This is largely Barbaro-less: a collage of mostly Trump-adjacent sound bites from a completely insane year. Remember Scaramucci? I had completely forgotten about that guy. What kind of a year lets you forget that Anthony Scaramucci was in the White House for, what was it, a week?

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Secrets,” episodes 1 & 2 — This new series from Radiotopia’s rotating exhibition space is not particularly experimental or innovative, but both of these episodes have told really compelling stories. The first is about an undercover cop, and the second is about a wildlife photographer who faked his photos. Start with either.

Home of the Brave: “Two More Stories About Mountains” — The first of these two guest stories is an interview with Scott Carrier, with added music. But it’s the second that knocked me flat. “The Ascent to K-2” is a story by Joe Frank, who was still alive when Carrier released this episode, but who died shortly after. I became aware of him thanks to On the Media, and heard my first full piece of his thanks to this. This is an intensely odd narrative about the strangest (totally made up) attempt to climb K-2 that has ever been undertaken. It is radio storytelling at its oddest and best. Pick of the week.

The Turnaround: “The Turnaround with Dick Cavett” — Ah, I forgot how much I enjoy hearing Jesse Thorn interview people about interviewing. Cavett is good fun, and he taught me a new word. I’m going to paraphrase my favourite part of this interview. Cavett says, I think the lack of a sense of humour is the ultimate lack. It is un-human and inhuman. Thorn says, I wonder if the president finds anything funny. I’ve never seen him laugh at something funny. Cavett says, oh no, he’s a born clodpate. CLODPATE! I love it. Great stuff.

99% Invisible: “Mini-Stories: Volume 4” & “Thermal Delight” — This might be my favourite batch of mini-stories yet, but “Thermal Delight” came and went from my brain. To be fair, I was in the heat of cooking at the time, and sometimes that happens. It’s nobody’s fault but mine.

Code Switch: “This Racism Is Killing Me Inside” — This is about weathering, which is one of the most unsettling effects of racism. If you want to know more, you should listen to this episode. This should be a show you listen to always.

Omnibus (week of Jan. 7, 2018)

I was recently in a room that contained nearly all of the people who read this blog. (Hey guys!) I sometimes reflect that it is an act of madness to continue writing thousands of words per week on a blog whose audience numbers in the low dozens. But here we are.

13 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage — Having re-read His Dark Materials in its entirety in anticipation for this, along with all of its supplemental novellas, Audible-exclusive short stories etc., I am happy to announce that I am by no means disappointed with La Belle Sauvage. However, I may have approached it with slightly too much enthusiasm, egged on by the good reviews. Surely, I thought, if the critics love it this much, I’ll love it more. But here’s the thing: La Belle Sauvage feels very much like the first book in a trilogy. Specifically, it feels like The Golden Compass. Pullman’s original trilogy of novels about Lyra and company gained steam as they went along. There’s little hint of the cosmic warfare and tragic romance of The Amber Spyglass in the Arctic adventure story of The Golden Compass. And what shreds of it exist in that first book aren’t obvious until you finish the last. It seems to me that Pullman might be pulling something similar in the trilogy that will make up The Book of Dust. This book is a fairly straightforward adventure story, and it takes place in a much smaller geographical space than The Golden Compass did. But there are hints and suggestions here, particularly near the end of the book, that the fantastical multiverse of the first trilogy may have even more facets and mechanics than we’d been led to believe. And there are also seeds being planted about the trilogy’s themes. Where His Dark Materials was about the virtue of human curiosity and progressive values, The Book of Dust looks like it’s going to tackle the nature of consciousness. But it’s not there yet. The closest that La Belle Sauvage comes to Pullman’s acclaimed critique of religion and authority in his previous work comes in a slightly heavy-handed plotline about a government organization that encourages children to narc on their parents and teachers for being inadequately pious. This is an early incarnation of the fearsome theocracy we see in His Dark Materials, which has yet to consolidate its power. All the same, Pullman paints it with a far thicker brush than in his other books and once or twice he comes off as didactic, which he never has before. Still, his powers of description are as sharp as ever, and he leads his characters through one setting after another that comes straight to life the same way that Bolvangar did in The Golden Compass or the land of the dead did in The Amber Spyglass. As a child, I was determined to go to university in large part because of the way Pullman described Oxford in his books. Fifteen years later, La Belle Sauvage made me wonder whether I might like to run a pub in my retirement. Its main characters can’t compete with Lyra and Will, but how could they. It’s a fantastic yarn, and I have no doubt that it’ll balloon outwards into something really special in the next two books. If The Subtle Knife is any indication of where Pullman’s going next, it’ll be terrifying.

Music

Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run — I grew up listening to music from my parents’ generation. I expect this had something to do with my own somewhat perverse interpretation of what it means to be rebellious, which was to act like an alien who arrived in Fort McMurray, Alberta from Jupiter, by way of Edwardian London and subsequently Haight-Ashbury circa 1967. All teenagers have their affectations. Mine were just really specific. As part of my effort to distance myself from my actual circumstances, which were that I came from an upwardly-mobile family in the nice part of a shabby little oil town, I consciously avoided all of the music that my peers enjoyed. After all, they all came from those same sorts of families. Strange, then, that it was the music of the authority figures in my life — parents, music teachers, etc. — that transported me farthest away: classical music, and rock from about 1965-80. Soon enough, I found myself exploring corners of those idioms that my elder gatekeepers hadn’t ever seen. Beethoven and Chopin at age 12 led to Stockhausen and Ligeti at 16. Pink Floyd and the Beatles in middle school led to Van Der Graaf Generator and Captain Beefheart by junior high. This music was the score to my teenage years, which were a long-term piece of bad performance art. (As is this blog. Some of our worst impulses follow us around forever.) It occurred to me at some point during my first full listen through Born to Run this week that Bruce Springsteen’s music is custom made for the purpose I used Stockhausen and Beefheart for back then. Born to Run is a hymnal of anthems about escape. It’s an outlet for youthful energy with nowhere to go. It’s a reasonably accurate portrait of me at age 17. (Only psychologically, though. Even today, I can barely drive. Wendy would not have got to Thunder Road with me behind the wheel.) It is also a record I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to at that age. If I had, I would have thrown it away in embarrassment if anybody found out. Why have I only come around to this a decade after it was actually relevant to me? I have a theory: the last thing that would have served my need for escape in my Fort Mac days is music about the need to escape. Back then, I didn’t choose music that I could identify with. I listened to music that had as little to do with me as possible: deliberately alienating music like John Cage and Jethro Tull, or music with seemingly cosmic significance like Mahler or Yes. I have only come to listen to music on the basis of its resonance with my own life within the last few years. (Therein lies the basis for my late 2017 obsession with Margo Price, my early 2016 obsession with John Congleton, and my perpetual need to listen to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports. Take from each of these what you will.) It took a long time for me to fully shake off my aversion to any music that reminded me of my own mundane circumstances. And in that time, those circumstances changed. Now, when I listen to Born to Run, I don’t especially sympathize with Springsteen’s characters and their youthful restlessness. But I remember feeling that way. The boundless romanticism of this music makes me realize that my former perversity, the impulse that would have led me to reject Springsteen at the time, was born of the very same romanticism that he’s expressing on this record. Sub out Springsteen’s chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected, velvet-rimmed suicide machines for a carpeted basement floor and a pair of headphones pumping out harpsichord music, and you’ve got a perfect image of me exactly ten years ago. I expect that a similar substitution exists for nearly everybody. Pick of the week.

Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town — Somewhere in the gap between the release of Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce Springsteen was the age I am now. Maybe that has something to do with why my initial thoughts on this album are so much less clear than my initial thoughts on Born to Run. Darkness is famously less optimistic than its predecessor, and those who connect with it really connect with it. That’s clear from a cursory look through remarks in various online fan communities. It’s also clear from some of the retrospective reviews in professional outlets. When this album was repackaged with a slew of bonus material as The Promise a few years back, Pitchfork gave it an 8.5 and an actually quite insightful review that characterizes it as an album “about grim acceptance and pressing on in the face of doubt.” That’s very accurate. If Born to Run is a dream of a far-off Utopia, Darkness on the Edge of Town is a diary about making the best of it after you’ve given up on that dream. It isn’t until one album later that Springsteen will ask “is a dream a lie if it don’t come true,” but the spirit of that inquiry is here in spades. I like most, if not all of the songs on this, but the one I find myself revisiting obsessively is the title track, which suggests that even after Utopia has faded from view, it doesn’t stop some of us from lingering in the liminal spaces where we used to catch a glimpse of it. Wanting is a key concept in Springsteen, and he’s never written a verse more eloquent about it than “Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost / I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost / For wanting things that can only be found / In the darkness on the edge of town.” This is going to be a grower.

Bruce Springsteen: The River — This is a hard album to pin down. In spite of their drastically different subject matter, Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town share a relatively consistent aesthetic, thanks to the amazing E Street Band. Their huge sound on those albums, with Clarence Clemons’ saxophone in the fore, and a mix of piano, organ and glockenspiel sitting alongside the guitars in the central texture, is an obvious forerunner of totally over-the-top artists like Meat Loaf and Arcade Fire. And that sound is present on The River, in tracks like “Hungry Heart” and some of the ballads — “I Wanna Marry You” in particular. But the overall impression is like a more polished Exile on Main St., where the band is willing to experiment in public. It’s a huge album, clearly, at nearly an hour and a half. And it contains a handful of songs that rival the emotional high points of the previous two albums for poignancy: “The River,” “Wreck on the Highway,” and especially “Drive All Night,” which feels a bit like “Darkness on the Edge of Town” stretched out to twice its length and with twice as much regret. But The River is too big of a thing to have even a shadow of a thesis statement about on one listen. I’ll figure it out next time. But first, let’s address the elephant in the room, namely “Cadillac Ranch.” This is a song that I did not know was by Bruce Springsteen. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s cover of this song was the score to an unpleasant episode in my youth wherein my classmates and I were taught, nay, forced to line dance by the physical education curriculum of the province of Alberta. Too bad, because Springsteen’s original would be an irresistibly energetic bit of country rock if it didn’t retraumatize me. What a fine pile of weird memories this Springsteen binge has dredged up.

Podcasts

Code Switch catch-up — I am nearly caught up on this now, after having been backed up by two months. One does not miss an episode of Code Switch, because to do so is to miss an opportunity to be a slightly better, or at least more knowledgeable, person. Their year-end wrap up really puts the final nail in the coffin of 2017 being remembered as anything but a dung heap. It’s great.

The Memory Palace: “On the Shores of Assawompset” & “John C. Calhoun from the Opposite Side of the Line that Divides the Living from the Dead” — Two good ones. “On the Shores of Assawompset” is one of Nate DiMeo’s periodic episodes that pokes holes in colonial narratives. These are always appreciated, and you should listen to this if you’d like some clarity on the truth of the relationship between the pilgrims and the natives of the land they came to. The John C. Calhoun episode is more lighthearted, but still manages to tie in with pre-Civil War slavery narratives. This show really isn’t like anything else.

Crimetown: Three bonus episodes — I remain mixed on this show and uncertain whether I’ll be back for season two. It depends on the city they choose to explore, I suppose. But these bonus episodes tell some good stories. The most eminently recommendable is also the one I’d be most cautious to recommend: “Courtney” is about a woman who fell into an abusive relationship with a powerful predator while she was a minor. It’s harrowing stuff, but she’s allowed to tell her own story and if you’re not concerned about the potential triggers it’s worth hearing. It also stands alone pretty well, so you don’t necessarily need to have heard the whole of season one. And I’m not sure I’d recommend that you do that unless you’re a pathological true crime consumer.

Imaginary Worlds catch-up — The biggest news in the three episodes of this I listened to is that Eric Molinsky will be opening the new year with a series on Doctor Who. I don’t know what to anticipate. I really liked his series on Star Wars and Harry Potter, but those are franchises I have limited engagement with, at least insofar as I have no idea what their respective fandoms are on about these days. But Doctor Who is a thing I love dearly — it’s probably the one franchise that falls under Molinsky’s aegis that I’d call myself obsessed with. I wonder if I’ll still get something out of this show when I’m deeply familiar with the subject matter. In any case, I’ll listen with interest. As for these episodes, two of the ones I listened to deal with The Expanse, which I’ve neither read nor seen and don’t have much interest. But that’s part of the appeal of this show: I can get a sense of what something like The Expanse is on about without spending more than an hour. The update of Molinsky’s episode on The Force Awakens that deals with The Last Jedi is interesting, but once again I’m baffled at why anybody feels it is such a radical departure from the previous films. It is a perfectly adequate, safe, blockbuster with some really great scenes with Luke and some really nonsense scenes with Benicio del Toro. It’s Star Wars. Get over yourselves. Sorry, I have to be a jerk sometimes.

Constellations catch-up — Again, not quite caught up. But there was some good stuff in there: Aleksandra Bragoszewska’s “Coarse and Janky” is a lovely portrait of outsider artists doing what they believe in. Craig Desson’s “06-30-24” is an elegant bit of dreamlike sound art about his MacBook. Apparently he’s a bit Adam Curtis fan. It shows, and that’s good.

More Perfect: “The Architect” & “Justice, Interrupted” — “The Architect” is an updated episode from the previous season and “Justice, Interrupted” is a mini-episode about a thing I’d read about before: the constant interruption of the female Supreme Court justices by the male ones. It’s a good episode, but it’s pretty straightforward by this show’d complicated standards. I can’t wait for the season finale, though.

StartUp: “StartupBus Part 1: Monday” — Insufferable. This show has been on the skids for some time, and while I have tentatively high hopes for the next season, which will be serialized in the vein of this show’s three best seasons, I will not be listening to the remaining four episodes of “StartupBus.” Serialized it may be, but I’ve seldom heard a podcast that reminds me more of the godawful contrivances of reality TV. Basically, one of the show’s producers gets on a bus with a bunch of random strangers who are all on that bus to start companies within the span of a weeklong trip. The StartupBus is a machine built to generate needless conflict, narrative and otherwise. It is full of buzzword spouting delusional people with no calling and no passion. I hate it. I wish it didn’t exist. Do not listen to this.

On the Media: “Outrage Machine” — Worth it for Bob Garfield’s interview with Michael Wolff, the author of Fire and Fury, who defends himself reasonably well against charges of having misled his sources. Also for Brooke Gladstone’s one-year-later follow up interview with Masha Gessen, who was on the show previously to talk about her rules for surviving autocracies. How are we doing at “believing the autocrat,” asks Gladstone? (Not well, but he doesn’t make it easy.)

In Our Time: “Moby-Dick,” “Beethoven” & “Hamlet” — Melvyn Bragg’s final run of the year includes three episodes on huge things. I listened to these one after the other and it’s definitely the most fun I had doing dishes this week. Bragg is clearly enjoying himself in all of these episodes, especially given that the topics at hand are relatively well understood by lots of his listeners, probably. So he can facilitate a discussion that basically asks, “we know how this thing is, but why is it like that?” I’m fondest of the Moby-Dick episode, probably because I’m least familiar with that topic. (I haven’t read Moby-Dick, but I’ve reread the first chapter at least a dozen times. It is one of my favourite things in all of literature. I dunno why I’ve never gotten any farther. Sheer intimidation, probably.) By the same token, the Beethoven episode is the weakest, simply because I can’t accept one of Bragg’s panelists’ take at face value. I’ve listened to Beethoven for hundreds and hundreds of hours. And while I find him deeply inspiring, I cannot accept that his music is fundamentally about overcoming adversity. The idea of instrumental music being about anything at all strikes me as wrong, as it did Leonard Bernstein. But that’s just me, and disagreeing with things is part of what makes this show fun. The Hamlet episode is great, particularly for some of the details about the play’s development from its early versions, which I’ve never read. (Nobody has.) I really love this show. Even when it’s about stuff that I know a little about, I never feel like it’s condescending to me. It is one of a precious handful of public radio shows that always proceeds under the assumption that its audience isn’t dumb. Pick of the week.

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.

***

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.