Slow week for media consumption. This is partially because I’ve been busy, partially because I’ve been listening to fragments of albums rather that full ones or podcasts, and partially because I’ve been playing a fair bit of Sunless Sea, which I think has gotten pretty close to enough words expended on it on this blog. For now.
Last Week Tonight: October 30, 2015 — I’ve observed that I’m always more involved in Oliver’s long segments when they’re about stories that I’m not especially familiar with. And I was sort of familiar with the state of school segregation in modern America, thanks to This American Life’s staggeringly good two-parter “The Problem We All Live With.” So, my thoughts on this generally were that I knew most of what was discussed, and having just watched it, I can’t remember any of the jokes. This would seem to lend credence to the idea that Oliver is a better pundit than a comedian. Still, that clip of Joe Biden’s reaction to hearing about the Anthony Weiner emails is amazing.
Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: “President Obama” — The Obama segment isn’t the highlight of this, though watching the president laugh at Samantha Bee’s millennial impression is curiously satisfying. It’s the segment where Bee interviews Russia’s government-employed professional trolls that really steals the show. Also, I’m always happy to watch funny people getting angry about the Alt-Right.
A Nightmare on Elm Street — I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to. I’ve generally steered clear of the classic slasher movies because they’re neither scary nor smart. But, firstly, this is the perfect thing for a Halloween movie night because it’s campy and full of incredible overacting (Nancy’s mom is amazing in every scene). And secondly, the premise of a killer who stalks people in their dreams to kill them in reality is truly, genuinely creepy — even if the execution doesn’t live up to the concept. Worthwhile.
Buggles: The Age of Plastic — I was getting a haircut last weekend, and “Video Killed the Radio Star” came on the radio. Not being much of a haircut conversationalist, I actually listened to the song — for the first time, really. There’s a difference between “hearing” and “listening.” And I had it stuck in my head for several days. That’s not a thing that normally happens to me, but “Video Killed the Radio Star” is a different kind of infectious once you really listen to it. Because, it’s got so many moving parts in it, and every one of its dozen-or-so musical motives is a hook. It’s an enormously complex and fussy pop song, befitting an album called The Age of Plastic. And the lyric conjures a classic and still-relevant anxiety: what happens when the machines take over the things we care about? It’s a staggeringly good pop single. The rest of the album, which I figured it was about time I checked out (knowing the Buggles not just from this single but also from their befuddling tenure as members of Yes, during which they made an album I actually love) is less excellent, though “Living in the Plastic Age” is impressively detailed. Its dated production even manages not to chafe, given the obvious campness of the Buggles’ devotion to synths. After those two opening tracks, things go downhill, though not so far that I’m unlikely to listen again. The Buggles make a truly attractive sound. Trevor Horn is a really fantastic singer, and Geoff Downes’ keyboard-playing is like nobody else. The combination of his staccato attack on the electric piano with his symphonic approach to synths is instantly recognizable. This is a band that’s due for a widespread rediscovery, given that modern life has given credence to their obsessive anxieties about technological innovation.
Yes: Drama — I couldn’t not follow up The Age of Plastic with this. It’s an extremely unusual entry in Yes’s discography, of course, but for my money it’s the creative equal of Going for the One. Having heard a Buggles album, it’s especially remarkable how much Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes’ sensibility comes out, here — and how compatible that sensibility is with the musical direction of Chris Squire, Steve Howe and Alan White during this period. Aside from “White Car,” which is literally just a Buggles song (only Horn and Downes play on it) the tracks that the Buggles brought to the table (“Run Through the Light” and “Into the Lens”) are essentially Buggles tracks where the bits that would be symphonic synth parts are instead performed by the most proficient band in rock music. That is self-evidently something worth hearing. The other tracks benefit from Horn’s straightforward lyrics (what Jon Anderson would have done with these songs is extremely hard to imagine) and Downes’ symphonic approach to synths, as opposed to Rick Wakeman’s soloistic approach. This lineup was clearly unsustainable, but the one album we have from them is one of progressive rock’s (and, I suppose, new wave’s) most treasurable anomalies.
Opeth: Blackwater Park — I gave up on Opeth after Heritage. Not because they quit metal, but because they abandoned a distinctive (I just about dare say unique) musical idiom in favour of bland throwbacks. There are plenty of bands out there who do ‘70s prog nostalgia, and that’s all well and good. But once you’ve established yourself as that rare band who can infuse an entirely different sort of music with the spirit of prog as opposed to its actual aesthetic and tropes, I feel like it’s almost a betrayal to start aping King Crimson. I haven’t heard Sorceress, and it’s possible that I’ll never listen to a new Opeth album again. But I’m no longer so disappointed by them that it’s painful to listen to them in their prime. And Blackwater Park is Opeth in their prime. It’s probably my favourite album of theirs, for the way that its songs effortlessly weave together the band’s two extremes: pastoral folk and growling death metal. It’s an album less interested in the middle ground than many of their others, and yet it coheres better than any of them. “The Drapery Falls” is the most obvious illustration of this, with the lighter side coming through in the details of even the track’s heaviest moments. (Think of the acoustic frills in the background of the song’s first heavy bit.) But it’s the driving aesthetic of each of the album’s main pieces (“Harvest” and “Patterns in the Ivy” being lovely in themselves, but less substantial), and that’s what makes it really work. “Dirge for November” has always left me a bit unmoved — more repetitious than the other tracks, and with less inspired material to repeat — but it’s the weak link among a staggeringly strong group of compositions. I didn’t get far in my exploration of metal. It took me a while to warm to it, and once I did I quickly found myself more interested in other things, like Mahler and Kanye. But Blackwater Park is objectively a masterpiece, and I imagine I’ll return to it periodically for the whole foreseeable future.
Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker — I’ve been listening to heavy metal lately. And yet the most gothic music I’ve heard in recent weeks is a gospel record by an 82-year-old poet. You Want It Darker finds Cohen sounding more vampyric than ever, and offering recitations that blur the line between talking to a lover with whom things are complicated and talking to a god with whom things are complicated. The title track is the clear highlight, both musically and lyrically. The instrumental track sets the tone immediately: it’s anchored by a choir, recorded distantly and with plenty of room noise. If you haven’t come to this record to pray, you may be in the wrong discography. Gospel organ and murky bass guitar complete the picture, and when you feel (yes, feel) the opening words of Cohen’s lyric, it’s clear that we’re in ritual territory. “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game,” Cohen intones, and he continues in that vein for the next 35 minutes. It’s an album about fruitlessly seeking attention from personages who’d rather you left them alone. It’s an album about giving up on connecting with God and your fellow man. And the irony of all this is that any reasonable music fan would not want Leonard Cohen to disengage. His god may have abandoned him, but music geeks emphatically have not. It’d be good luck for us if he does in fact turn out to be a vampire. Pick of the week.
Adam Gopnik: “Why Trump Is Different — And Must Be Repelled” — A fabulous analysis of Trump’s apparently not-yet-dead campaign, which is most notable for rigorously denying the condescending narrative that Trump supporters are to be pitied for they know not what they do. It’s part and parcel of the veneration of the “white working class,” a group that Gopnik is careful to point out is not at all monolithic: “The white working class built unions and raised children and fought wars—and lynched black people and supported Joe McCarthy. Sometimes those attitudes could be held together in a single personality. No group is invulnerable to bad causes. We should have no hesitation in calling deplorable attitudes deplorable—without imagining that those who hold them are deplorable people. They can be wrong without being bad. And, in any case, it would be good to balance the endless hand-wringing about the pathos of the Trump voter with some countervailing sense of the pathos, still larger, of the Clinton voter: the Latina motel cleaner in Nevada or the single mother in Brooklyn. No category of voters in a democracy is especially virtuous, none immune from evil.” That is a staggeringly good articulation of a thing that’s extremely easy to forget.
All Songs Considered: “EL VY’s Song Against Trump, New Conor Oberst, Kristin Hersh, More” — Great show. The Conor Oberst and Kristin Hersh tracks are particularly fantastic. I even went back and listened to that chunk of the show a second time. Hersh’s new double album is now on my list of stuff to check out, but it unfortunately also means I have another book to read this year, because they’re packaged together. Where will I find the time.
WTF with Marc Maron: “Roger Waters” — I could listen to Roger Waters talk all day. He’s that rare thing: an aging baby boomer rock star with a social conscious that hasn’t become an affectation. None of the requisite blandness or platitudes here. He’s passionate; he has wit. He knows the power of rhetoric and employs it advisedly. He’s earned his place as an intellectual among rock stars in a way that I’m not always convinced that people like Pete Townshend or Neil Young really have. He’s really earnest, but you can forgive him because he’s got a whole career’s worth of consequential activism behind him. There are a few moments that chafe, sure. Like his slightly condescending attitude towards the underprivileged children he brings onstage during “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2.” His heart’s in the right place, but it’s hard to avoid the sense that he’s using poor kids as props. On the other hand, his blatant refusal to allow the children of arena-owning executives onstage with him is quite charming. You can picture him flying off the handle: “They get everything! They don’t get to have this!” Naturally, it’s fascinating to hear Waters talk about his evolving thoughts on the dark times in Pink Floyd’s tenure. Interesting that he felt condescended to by David Gilmour and Rick Wright. I find that hard to picture, somehow, and I do wonder how much of it was insecurity on Waters’ part. Because, there’s no denying that for all his brilliance as a songwriter, builder of musical structures and concept artist, he was the least sophisticated musician in Pink Floyd by a fair margin. (Nick Mason wasn’t a great drummer, but he was a more distinctive drummer than Waters was a distinctive bassist.) And while he’s right to claim that writing an opera is a real challenge and a badge of honour, it’s super weird than anybody ever asked him to write music to a pre-existing opera libretto. It’s the exact opposite to the appropriate task. I think he’d probably be a great librettist. He’s the most sophisticated dramatist in rock music. Also, Maron is right to point out that this podcast is the appropriate venue for old rockers to read long poems. The one Waters brings out near the end of the episode is cringeworthy in places — Waters himself makes it clear that it’s “doggerel,” but he values it because it’s heartfelt — but it’s nice to have it out there. He clearly doesn’t want to talk much about the past. But Maron dances around his unwillingness with more grace than he can usually conjure. This isn’t as good an episode as the one with Margo Price, but Waters is a compelling guest.
Imaginary Worlds: “Caps Lock Harry” — This mini-season about Harry Potter is proving to be the best thing Eric Molinsky has done aside from his Cthulhu story. So far, he’s isolated two of the most fascinating things about the series: first the implications of the Sorting Hat’s logic on educational philosophy, and now the way that J.K. Rowling depicts Harry’s PTSD. I wasn’t one of the kids who got annoyed with Harry’s moodiness and anger in Order of the Phoenix, but I do recall wishing that the literal use of caps lock would go away. But it’s obviously much more meaningful to people who have experienced similar traumas to Harry. One of Molinsky’s guests has an absolutely heartwrenching personal analogy to the Mirror of Erised, which has always been one of the richest, saddest elements of the Harry Potter canon. But the whole episode is full of marvellous, moving stuff. Really outstanding. Pick of the week.
Science Vs: “DNA and the Smell of Death” — Think it’s time to relegate this to sometimes-listen status. While this is notable for really making Dr. Arpad Vass look horrible — this is a scientist who claims not to understand the importance of replicability in studies — I confess to finally being sick of the tone of this show. I’ll listen to the season finale, and probably just drop in occasionally from there.
On the Media: “The System is Rigged” — One of the best episodes of On the Media this year. And it has been a great year. For On the Media. It brings together the two best elements of the year’s coverage: Bob Garfield’s critiques of how the media covered Trump during the primaries, and Brooke Gladstone’s series on poverty myths. Gladstone’s piece is the clear highlight here, including such great writing as the line where she characterizes the story of the modern American safety net as “the narrative equivalent of ‘boom-SPLAT.’” Brilliant, sad, upsetting stuff.
Reply All: “In the Tall Grass” — I guess everything has to be about the election now. I’m not being spiteful, it just appears to be true. In keeping with that, Reply All highlights a useless app that promises to bring the country together, and a cartoonist’s efforts to reclaim his cartoon frog from hateful trolls. As election-related journalism goes, it’s admirably non-exhausting.