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An Emotional Farewell to the Tragically Hip and the End of an Era in Canadian Nationalism

August 21, 2016 Leave a comment

For nearly three hours on the night of Saturday, August 20, 2016, Canada paused and gathered for the collective wake of their favourite musical sons, the Tragically Hip. Broadcast live across the country by national public broadcaster CBC from an arena in the enduringly popular rock band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario, the final concert of the Hip’s Man Machine Poem tour, though never explicitly advertised as definitely their last, was understood to be the emotional farewell of a band that defined Canadian nationalism (or a certain strain of contextual thought and sentiment disseminated as such, as I will discuss in a moment) for nearly 30 years. The lead singer and lyricist of the Tragically Hip, Gord Downie, has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and faces an indeterminate death sentence. Although couched as a national celebration and frequently infused with a positive vibe, a cloud of sadness and mourning was cast over the proceedings as well, and Canadian social media vibrated with those feelings throughout the extended set.

Taking to the in-the-round stage, the Hip’s instrumentalists – drummer Johnny Fay, bass player Gord Sinclair, guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker – clustered close to Downie in the show’s first section, as if they were a phalanx of plains bison protecting a wounded comrade from threatening predatory forces. The show proceeded in album-specific mini-sets, covering three or four successive favourites from classic Hiphipkingston1 records like Fully Completely, Up To Here, Road Apples, Day For Night, Phantom Power, Music@Work, and even the new Man Machine Poem. It reached numerous emotional high points, particular with adored, complex, Canadiana-drenched ballads like “Wheat Kings”, “Fiddler’s Green”, “Toronto #4”, “Bobcaygeon”, and “Scared”.

Uniformly strong though it was, the concert was, to this seasoned attendee of Tragically Hip gigs at least, highly familiar. The band performed as they have for decades, tightly, impressively, but reliant on the dynamic Downie to raise the proceedings to something more special. The trying physical circumstances that he faced must be considered, but it should be noted that although Downie mustered a Herculean effort to perform a hockey-game-length rock and roll show despite debilitating brain cancer, he often fell heartbreakingly short of his customary high standards. Though in relatively strong voice (he joked about his neck scarf made from two socks for this very purpose), Downie’s iconic kooky-uncle dancing and unpredictable stage movement were both badly curtailed. He frequently glanced down in consultation to his monitor at his feet, which hid a teleprompter with each song’s lyrics, to remind him of the many words he poured forth to the world. This arrangement, though doubtlessly necessary in allowing a man with brain cancer to perform at all, did lead to occasional, uncharacteristic missed or flubbed lines, most noticeably and tragically in the glorious bridge of “Bobcaygeon” (“That night in Toronto…”), which he missed entirely. Again, the context of his illness cannot be lost sight of, and Downie’s fight against its constraints was moving and impressive in its own right. If anything, the flubs made the show more affecting, not less.

But do not let it be said that Gord Downie did not rise to what had become a momentous national occasion in other ways. He was keenly aware that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in attendance, donning the “Canadian tuxedo” of jeans, jean jacket and band shirt for the occasion; indeed, they shared a hug prior to showtime, a photo of which quickly went viral online. On two occasions between songs, Downie cannily expressed support and fondness for the young Trudeau (“we’re in good hands”), but in terms couched primarily in a pressuring mandate to correct the continuing social and economic and political wrongs done to Canada’s First Nations peoples by an enduring white colonial majority. To take his perhaps final moment in the national spotlight to divert that spotlight on to the tragic, unacceptable suffering of Canada’s least privileged is one thing. To hold a sitting PM’s feet to the fire in terms of meaningful action to correct historical damage before a captive nation is quite another.

If the concert had one truly indelible, transcendent moment, however, it was during the closing song of the second encore, “Grace, Too”. The swirling, mysterious opening track of 1994’s swirling, mysterious Day For Night, the lyrics depict a tense, ambiguous negotiation (possibly between prostitute and wealthy john) but the song closes, as many Hip tunes do, with an impressive jam. From its recorded release through two decades of live versions, Downie has punctuated the instrumental outro with haunting, visceral, rending cries (“Here / Now / Nah!”). As the band leaned into the groove and the moment for the customary cries approached, Downie began crying.

Weakened by terminal brain cancer, Downie had performed for over two hours with as much of his usual passion and peculiarity as he could muster. With the eyes of a nation on him, he was overcome with a brew of emotions we could observe and imagine but never fully comprehend. The truth about Gord Downie is the truth of all human beings: we will never known what is really in his head and in his heart. Downie, however, has been telling us and showing us the contents of his head and his heart for three decades. Those contents have quite famously not always been entirely intelligible, but like all great art they contain multitudes, activating meanings in each person who experiences it that its creator might never have intended or conceived of. The experience has been a rare privilege of insight for us, and a rare privilege of openness and expressiveness for him.

Whatever Downie was feeling – pain and exhaustion both physical and psychological, peace and humility in the face of a crowd’s adoration, regret and sadness at the prospect of performing for perhaps the final time – this unquestionably strong but sensitive man (he would embrace and kiss his bandmates at the end of each set, expressions of a male tenderness too often disavowed and hidden) allowed the swelling emotion to conquer his resistance, and he wept.

He could have simply stood onstage with his tears amidst his bandmates and best friends for 30 years and it would have been the highlight of the night, its most potent spike of sentiment. But Downie interrupted his tears to let out the screams, transmuting all of the joy and agony and nostalgia and love and hurt and hope into wrenching, primal cries against the dying of the light. It was profoundly affecting, indelible. It was, without hyperbole, the most powerful moment of raw artistic expression I have ever witnessed. This memorable moment has been repeated at this point in the set throughout the tour, so it was a stage-managed and choreographed emotional display to some extent. But its cathartic potency was unquestionable nonetheless. Like all art, its impact was as universally intangible as it was inherently unexplainable. And once it was hipkingston2over, Downie collected himself, politely returned the microphone he dropped to its home on the stand, and walked away.

This was not the end, as the band returned for a third encore, putatively ending their legendary live career with one of their most widely-beloved anthems, “Ahead By A Century”. Basking in the applause and cheers of a crowd and a country one last time, the Tragically Hip stood together, passing from the complicated internecine implications of an active popular culture to the gilded annals of artistic and public legacy. They stood for a final time as Canada’s band, but which Canada?

The discourse around the Tragically Hip in the Canadian media and public in the weeks leading up to last night’s show was stubbornly focused on the band’s role as purveyors of a complicated and not-entirely patriotic strain of post-boomer nationalism. It’s worth acknowledging that the collective meaning of the Tragically Hip is difficult to disentangle from the white Ontario-centric Anglo-Canadian nationalistic narratives that have dominated the discourse of national cultural identity for decades, and are still prevalent in the under-diversified Canadian media and pop culture elite.

It’s been very noticeable in the popular culture that those most moved and captivated by this event, those most invested in its national import, are predominantly white and anglophone in a country whose demographics are moving in a much more multi-ethnic and multilingual direction. What do the Tragically Hip’s cottage country anthems mean to Canadians who cannot afford a cottage? How does their meat-and-potatoes rock music, and this celebratory farewell moment, resonate with Sikhs from Surrey, or Caribbean-Canadians from north Toronto, or Somali immigrants in a city out west, or First Nations in a depressed community like Attawapiskat? Probably not as deeply, possibly in ways not hitherto imagined, but in any case those stories have gone glaringly untold.

It would be churlish and unfair to pin the narrow channels of accepted mainstream Canadian identity on the Tragically Hip. Downie has never been a flag-waving nationalist, and has often emphasized nuanced, complex, and not altogether positive elements of Canadian history, society, and politics. His work with and beyond the Hip has striven to expand the boundaries of Canadian cultural discourse, to erase unjust firewalls between sectors of Canadian society, to welcome more people in. This is an ideal of Canadian identity that is often trumpeted proudly and publicly but not as often lived up to in practice.

White Anglo-Canadian nationalism has not always been a force for good, but Downie and the Hip have always worked hard to encapsulate, express, and embody those forces at their best. This “national celebration” in Kingston, this collective moment of delight and grief that the Tragically Hip have given us (at least some of us, but they are always aiming for all of us), might well be the sunset glow of white Anglo-Canadian nationalism as we know it. If the Tragically Hip give us one last true expression of the best intentions and results of those sentiments before they are laid to eternal rest, they will have done a deep service to their country in their closing act.

Categories: Culture, Music, Politics, Reviews

Anything That Systematic Would Get You Hated: Ranking the Discography of the Tragically Hip

Following Canadian rock veterans the Tragically Hip’s announcement last month that lead singer and lyricist Gord Downie had contracted terminal brain cancer and that their tour this summer would be their last, the band’s new album Man Machine Poem (also presumed to be their last) was released on Friday, June 17th. Assuming that their recording career will end in step with their live performance career, this album release will complete a musical oeuvre that is among the most impressive in the history of Canadian popular music. This makes Man Machine Poem’s release an apt moment to engage in a critical evaluation and definitive (in one longtime listener’s view, at least) ranking of each album in the Tragically Hip’s 30-year career.

1. Phantom Power (1998)

Phantom PowerThe timing of this album’s release may bias me in its favour: it was the first new studio record by the band to come out after I joined the ranks of their devotees. But Phantom Power (the title is a bit of stage lingo referring to a lingering electric charge after unplugging equipment, but describes the album’s feel and spectral thematic thrust beautifully as well) is also tremendous, lyrically complex, touched by massive melodies and rich textures. Its tone modulates and builds up to its two affecting closers, “Escape is at Hand for the Travellin’ Man” and “Emperor Penguin”, but its early stretch includes two of the band’s greatest anthems of ambivalent national seeking, the Cold War/hockey/marriage history micro-novel “Fireworks” and the ethereal “Bobcaygeon”, which captivated a wider audience beyond their usual core. An earlier generation of Hip fans swear by Fully Completely, but for me, it is Phantom Power above all.

Firework: “Bobcaygeon”. Everyone’s Favourite Tragically Hip Song.

Unplucked Gem: “Save the Planet”. Enervating and unnerving rock distillation of millennial social and political malaise, with flute solo.

2. Day For Night (1994)

Day For NightA serious and purposely uncommercial shift in style and subject matter at the height of their popularity, Day For Night demonstrated that the Tragically Hip would not be your run-of-the-mill stadium rock band. A shadowy statement of dark intent, the record is haunted by the creeping penumbra of totalitarianism, infused with suggestions of human cruelty and death. Downie’s lyrics are fixated on shipwrecks, blood, film noir, Nazi art looting, and tense, intimate negotiations. Densely allusive, the lyrics encompass art, philosophy and history, as well as exquisite tableaux of the mundane sparkling with black humour. Day For Night set the model for the subsequent twenty years of Hip albums, but few of its ancestors can approach its powerful, textured darkness.

Firework: “Nautical Disaster”. A vivid nightmarescape of soul-shaking seaborne trauma without chorus or rhyming scheme. One of Downie’s most blazing vocal performances. And who’s this Susan?

Unplucked Gem: “Titanic Terrarium”. A collection of Downie’s best wry jokes (“Growing up in a biosphere / With no respect for bad weather”) over a subtly magnificent soundscape.

3. Music@Work (2000)

Music @ WorkIt may only be my opinion that Phantom Power was the band’s creative peak, but it was unquestionably their commercial height. It’s wrong, however, to see its 2000 follow-up Music@Work as the commencement of any species of decline. It is, without a doubt, their most sonically textured work, the clearest evidence of the influence of the then-exploding Canadian (specifically Toronto-based) indie rock scene on Downie’s writing and the band’s still-evolving sound, of a piece with the singer’s first two solo records. It has more moments of roughly polished beauty than anything else the Hip have done, and its impact has only grown with acquaintance over the years.

Firework: “Lake Fever”. Deeply Ontarian but rousingly universal, this slow-waxing magic-hour anthem of cottage country tranquility and shaken assumptions, complete with Paul Langlois’ usual froggish backing vocals straining into mightiness, must have a place in the Hip’s top ten singles.

Unplucked Gem: “Toronto #4”. Elegant poetic expression of family loss. Possibly the Hip’s most ravishing, affecting three minutes.

4. Road Apples (1991)

Road ApplesThe apogee of the band’s initial blues-rock phase, Road Apples was always preferable for me to its much more successful follow-up. It’s little wonder that the Hip expanded the boundaries of their music from this point on, as the record makes it clear that they had exploited the form for more than all it was worth. From the killer opener “Little Bones” on, this is a relentless rock record dipped in Shakespeare and Canadiana, with slow-burn interludes like “Long Time Running” and the wrenching “Fiddler’s Green”. They branched out and got better, but Road Apples is pure, raw, nearly flawless rock n’ roll.

Firework: “Cordelia”. So many of Road Apples’ rockers spit hot fire, but it’s hard to top this one, with its loud-quiet transitions and central King Lear metaphor. Cracks your spine like a whip.

Unplucked Gems: “The Last of the Unplucked Gems”. A bit of an obvious choice, but a great bassline from Gord Sinclair and zen simplicity from Gord Downie: “I’m kind of dumb / But so are you”.

5. Fully Completely (1992)

Fully CompletelyThe seminal Tragically Hip album, with multiple hit singles establishing the loyalty of a generation of Canadian rock fans. It’s certainly quite good (I love the sound of Johnny Fay’s drums in particular) but just below the upper echelon of the band’s work, to my mind. There’s some filler but there’s also some greatness, namely “Courage” (Downie’s tribute to hard-drinking, bar-fighting writers and the pitfalls of masculine identity), “Locked in the Trunk of a Car” (cruising, paranoid northern rural noir), “Fifty Mission Cap” (hockey death mystery and cultural commodification) and “Wheat Kings” (an acoustic ballad on prairie society and the David Milgaard case). If the Tragically Hip are to be remembered by posterity for one album only, it’s difficult to argue for any candidate other than Fully Completely.

Firework: “Courage (For Hugh Maclennan)”. Whiplash tick-tock riffing rhythm and Downie’s canny instinct for the mot juste and the anthemic melody make this not just an album but a full discographic highlight. Wonderful, profound lyrics in the bridge as well.

Unplucked Gem: “Wheat Kings”. Far from hidden, but a late-album cut with a complexity of cultural imagery and detail that far outstrips anything they had done prior to it.

6. In Between Evolution (2004)

In Between EvolutionAlthough the Tragically Hip’s recordings from the second half of their thirty-year run always have something worthwhile to offer, you’ll notice them crowding towards the bottom of this list. The mid-2000s were a relatively solid period for the band, however, and this album in particular included some sharp meathooks. It blows through the doors with the breathless opening salvo of “Heaven is a Better Place Today” (another dead hockey player song, this one about Dan Snyder, and the twinned euphemisms common to both sports and death) and “Summer’s Killing Us” before acquiring a more strident political dimension redolent of the midpoint of the George W. Bush Administration: “Gus the Polar Bear from Central Park” figures a depressed zoo-bound super-predator as a stealth metaphor for belligerent American interventionist power, “It Can’t Be Nashville Every Night” obliquely criticizes flag-waving warmongering musicians like country star Toby Keith, and “If New Orleans is Beat” anticipates the denuding of the great historic city on the Mississippi (with which the band shared a long history) in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Another record that has only grown in my estimation over time.

Firework: “Summer’s Killing Us”. Maintains such a breathless see-saw riff-rhythm that Downie’s emphatic “whoo!” comes out as an exhausted “whew!”

Unplucked Gem: “Goodnight Josephine”. An album without ballads ends with this lovely tune about paintings and teenage daughters with one of lead guitarist Rob Baker’s most nicely-attuned run-off solos.

7. Up to Here (1989)

Up To HereThe reputation and importance in terms of breaking the Tragically Hip gives this smart, skilled but fundamentally basic blues-rock album a bit of a boost in this list. There are some superb examples of the genre on Up to Here, the singles “Blow at High Dough” and “New Orleans is Sinking” obviously but also the woody stomper “Boots or Hearts” and “38 Years Old”, a storytelling ballad that approximates later, greater such narrative songs like “Wheat Kings” in embryonic form. Up to Here is hypercompetent at the gutpunching bluesy modern rock that made the band’s name (indeed, this is the album that made that name) but it suffers just a bit compared to the exploratory ambition of their later work.

Firework: “New Orleans is Sinking”. The Tragically Hip’s “She Loves You” breakthrough, and an indelible, serpentine Southern gothic kick-up. SWIM!

Unplucked Gem: “Boots or Hearts”. You can’t dance to much Hip, but you can dance to this. Shuffle and handclaps perfection.

8. World Container (2006)

World ContainerProduced by mainstream shiny-rock maven Bob Rock, World Container was a modest commercial comeback for the Hip, who had faded from their position of prominence in the changing youth music market in Canada since the end of the 1990s. It’s certainly the Hip album most at ease with the stadium-rock milieu that was always their dominant métier, and purpose-builds big, broad songs like “In View”, “Yer Not the Ocean”, and the title track for that setting. Enjoyable as it can be for the band to embrace their concert identity on a studio album (“Family Band” is a hugely likable literalization of this identity), this embrace comes with a cost to their art. Bob Rock encouraged Downie to move away from the renowned literary obscurity of his lyrics into more intelligible expressions. This results in some of Downie’s most direct and personal songs (“The Lonely End of the Rink” reminisces on his youth as a top hockey goalie prospect and his memories of a distant father) but doesn’t so much open his creative possibilities as narrowly channel them. In opposition to many other efforts from the 2000s, World Container struck me as strong at first and then faded in my estimation with the passage of time.

Firework: “The Lonely End of the Rink”. A bit too direct? Sure. But the core metaphor of the natural solitude and isolation of the goaltender on the ice reflecting a similar cold distance with his father is beyond solid. Some great guitar work from Baker, too.

Unplucked Gem: “Family Band”. The embrace of old-fashioned riff rock bears juicy fruit late in the album. It repeats the stop-and-powerfully-restart trick from “Little Bones” to maximum effect, and Fay’s timekeeping is merciless. Plus: “One day I’ll make some honest rock n’ roll / Full of handclaps and gang vocals”. A worthy goal.

9. Man Machine Poem (2016)

Man Machine PoemLoose, adventurous, and wonderfully unfamiliar, Man Machine Poem doesn’t pummel the listener with stadium anthems but beguiles them with melodic surprises. The influence of producer and Broken Social Scene supremo Kevin Drew is writ large on what is likely to be the Tragically Hip’s last record (and confirms the reverse influence of the Canadian rock giants on the Pitchfork-approved indie collective’s music which was always a matter of no small suspicion on my part). Like many an indie rock record, and like much of the Hip’s better post-millenial output as well, Man Machine Poem feels like a musical work that will reveal itself more fully and truly only over time. How painful it will be not to receive more gifts like this from the band, but how glad we are to be given one more.

Firework: “In Sarnia”. Canadian place-name in the title. Check. Low-end noodling exploding into moving grandeur. This is a song I’ll love for years, that much is clear.

Unplucked Gem: “Here, In the Dark”. The most Hipesque track on an album that often seems to purposely eschew anything overly Hipesque, with a great arhythmic chorus with Downie wordspilling compellingly. Complex, menacing final minute as well.

10. Trouble at the Henhouse (1996)

Trouble At The HenhouseSharing Day For Night’s dusky textures, Trouble at the Henhouse is hardly as distinguished a release, a valley between the late ‘90s peaks that top this list. It does, however, feature two dynamite anthemic singles, the grand “Gift Shop” and the sublime “Ahead by a Century”, as well as the excellent “Springtime in Vienna” and the spookily epic “Don’t Wake Daddy”. It’s the rare Hip record that peters out into relative insignificance, however; usually the band sequence in a strong deep cut or two in their albums’ latter halves, and certainly nearly always end on an up note. But not here, where the murky dirge “Put It Off” plods off into the distance.

Firework: “Ahead by a Century”. One of the eternals, this coming-of-age ballad could be made the new Canadian national anthem without facing serious opposition.

Unplucked Gem: “Flamenco”. Doggedly down-tempo, this is nonetheless a sneaky melodic charmer, with one of Downie’s sharpest digs: “Maybe a prostitute / Could teach you / How to take a compliment”.

11. In Violet Light (2002)

In Violet LightFor some time my personal selection as the weakest Tragically Hip release since their debut, the Purple Heron Album has revealed its peculiar delights over time and risen in the rankings as mixed-bag late-period releases piled up behind it. “’It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken’” is a good, if not all-time great, single, although “Silver Jet” might be the worst thing the band ever put out to radio and Hugh Padgham’s production is weirdly thin, tinny, and generally unworthy of the artistry on display (the dull commercial font on the cover is the visual match to those sonics). The sheer quality of Downie’s writing and the increasing adventurousness of his vocals reveal themselves with deeper acquaintance, and the top-notch pair of “Dark” songs are both for the annals. Even this far removed from their best, the Hip are still very good.

Firework: “The Darkest One”. A breezy cruiser with a slick riff, it’s the best of the record’s three singles. Plus the music video is a Canadiana classic, featuring the two Gords helping the Trailer Park Boys steal an engine out of a pickup truck, who then tussle with Don Cherry when he shows up to deliver fried chicken.

Unplucked Gem: “The Dark Canuck”. A six-minute-long, beats-to-the-floor modest rock epic in three movements, this is among the Hip’s most arresting album-closers.

12. We Are the Same (2009)

We Are The SameThe band’s second collaboration with Bob Rock also represented the end of the creative relationship. Although it’s more likely that this had more to do with the Hip’s desire for continued variety in collaborators, perhaps they saw that Rock’s emphasis on straight-ahead clarity in music and words wasn’t doing their output as many favours as they might have thought. We Are the Same is hardly a failure. There are several fine songs, at least one classic tableau of detailed empathy (“Coffee Girl”), and some ambitious turns. But this band has honestly been much better than this, and not only earlier in their career, either. Half-assed album cover, too.

Firework: “Coffee Girl”. There’s a touch of creepy middle-aged man watching young women in public to this, but it’s an infectious and beautifully observed portrait of a type outside of Downie’s personal experience, with Beck and Cat Power shout-outs.

Unplucked Gem: “The Depression Suite”. Bob Rock may have over-polished the Hip’s sound, but he did oversee this spectacular, rambling, rousing, ambitious, strings-assisted suite. Downie pulls disparate strands from Farley Mowat’s books, the isolation of urban capitalism, and the corporatized transformation of New Orleans for tourist profit into one of his most comprehensive pictures of modern malaise and the vital comfort of fellow-feeling. A great musical moment, and maybe their last on record.

13. Now For Plan A (2012)

Now For Plan AMade with prominent Canadian rock producer Gavin Brown, Now For Plan A makes very little impression of any kind, it pains me to say. Maybe it will grow with long-term acquaintance, and some of it is kind of nice (“About This Map” and the title track are low-key efforts with unsounded depths, I feel). But with this album coming after the similarly middling (by the band’s high standards) We Are the Same, a long-running loyalty to the Tragically Hip’s continued release of new material was tested. Cheeky album cover, mind you.

Firework: “Man Machine Poem”. A title track for the album that follows this one (how eccentric!), it’s lyrically minimalist but massively sung by Downie and full of productive tension.

Unplucked Gem: “Goodnight Attawapiskat”. That reliable Hip standby, the killer album closer. Also a classic slice of Hip Canadiana, with Downie delighting in squeezing the remote northern indigenous community’s mouthful of a name into a rock lyric, although just mentioning the place, with its crippling and largely disavowed social problems, is a laudable act of social justice.

14. The Tragically Hip (EP) (1987)

The Tragically HipThis EP debut really barely represents the Tragically Hip as we came to know them at all. Downie is listed as co-writer on only half of the songs, with Sinclair and Baker sharing credit in a three-composer triumvurate. Canada’s future rock poet is vocalist only on both of the EP’s singles, including its best song, “Last American Exit”. Sinclair’s misbegotten “Evelyn” may be the biggest mistake they every committed to tape, and the EP concludes with a couple of jokey semi-novelty songs. Only the unremarkable “Highway Girl” made it onto the fan-voted 2005 Yer Favourites compilation from this EP, and even that was only due to the legendary “Double Suicide” live version. It’s generally unaccomplished, but then they were pretty young at the time. Only hints of what is to come can be discerned here, but it can be safely enough dismissed as simple juvenilia.

Firework: “Last American Exit”. Road trip blues-rock with a soaring chorus and an undercurrent of classically Canadian knee-jerk anti-Americanism. Nicely done, Other Gord.

Unplucked Gem: “I’m A Werewolf, Baby”. A silly tune, fairly terrible but still a definite oddity in the band’s oeuvre. Pretty fun, even if it’s an extended joke, and you’ve got to love Downie’s improv reply to Langlois’ repetition of the title phrase: “Not you too!”

Side releases worthy of mention: Live Between Us, the much-bootlegged band’s only official live album, recorded on the Trouble at the Henhouse tour in Detroit; Gord Downie’s brilliant, pure indie solo records, especially Coke Machine Glow and his energetic collaboration with the Sadies, And the Conquering Sun; “The New Maybe”, one of their most achingly gorgeous songs ever, from the Yer Favourites best-of album.

Categories: Music, Reviews

Endure the Wonder of Survival: A Legacy of Gord Downie

May 24, 2016 1 comment

It feels wrong, ghoulish even, to eulogize a man while he is still alive. Still, the painful news that Gord Downie, the singer and lyricist of venerable Canadian rock veterans the Tragically Hip, has been diagnosed with terminal, incurable brain cancer is already being greeted in the Canadian media and across the country’s internet social platforms in much the same way as the recent deaths of much more famous and internationally successful musical figures such as David Bowie and Prince. Although the band announced a final tour this summer and has a new (perhaps final?) album, the rhythmic, ruminative Kevin Drew-produced Man Machine Poem, due out on June 17, the announcement of Downie’s cancer has struck a defined segment of a generation of Canadians with the heavy blow of a final passing.

For these Canadians, and most definitely for me, Gordon Edgar Downie was our Bowie, our Prince. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to speak to what Downie’s words and the Hip’s music means to its fans, devoted and casual alike, although swellings of emotion at expressions of national sentiment and the poetic language of his lyrics certainly recur (check out The Tragically Hip in Bobcaygeon for the best official documenting of fan sentiment). It’s less difficult, though still far from simple, to summarize what Downie’s words and the Hip’s music means to me. But, to quote Downie, there’s no simple explanation for anything important any of us do.

Like a lot of Canadians coming of age in smaller communities in the 1990s, the Tragically Hip were a notable cultural force where I grew up, an inescapable part of the musical landscape whether or not you liked them. I did like them, though, their muscular but melodically surprising bluesy rock melding with Downie’s enigmatic, sophisticated lyrical imagery woven around national touchstones. The Hip were an important shared interest in my group of friends, and a common reference point for most young people that I grew up with. Albums new and old (the brilliant Phantom Power was and remains a particular favourite), videos and appearances on MuchMusic, and gorddownieconcerts built up a collective mythos around the band, and Downie, as singer, primary songwriter, unpredictable onstage live-wire, and utterer of gnomic observations, was the focal point of that mythos.

The meaning of the art that Downie produced shifted for me over time, taking on different associations at different points in my life. But on balance, Downie’s songs with the Tragically Hip (and to a lesser extent his solo records) are, alongside the golden years of The Simpsons, the single most important artistic influence on my perspective, my writing, and the way I understand the world around me. This is what I mean by saying that he was my David Bowie: just as Bowie represented a unique, offbeat, edgy, or ambiguous ideal for many shaggy outcasts from square society, Downie arose out of and commanded the admiration and fondness of Canada’s earthbound, essentially conservative rural and suburban middle class but also transcends it and sees the best in it, injecting erudition, empathy, and inclusive fellow-feeling into a subculture that could bend towards illiberal tendencies. But he also respects the salt-of-the-earth commitment and care of this class, and does not sneer or talk down to it, even while rubbing elbows with the urban indie elite of the Canadian music scene.

Beyond matters of class and subculture, that interminable shell game of identity formation and position-taking known as “being cool”, Downie was a preternaturally skilled and frequently astounding user of words. It was in this way that he was most inspiring, in his poetic turns of phrase, his indelible imagery, and in the resonant stories he told. The incredible breadth and scope that he could evoke in the space of a 4 or 5-minute rock song could be breathtaking, but he could also move you with intimate snapshots (“You can leave your jewellery in a bowl beside the bed”) and deploy a killer joke with expert timing. He could not only write remarkable words, but sing them, give them to us, with just the right inflection, the tenderly balanced delivery. When his wordcraft combined with his passion for performance, the result could be very special indeed.

Eulogizing Gord Downie now, when he may have years left to leave a mark on the world outside of the rock n’ roll stage, might not feel so incongruous considering how often and how curiously he probed the frightening, tantalizing mysteries of death. Not just in, say, “The Inevitability of Death” (a title chosen, by Downie’s half-ironic admission, to confound the forced cheer of radio DJs) or “Nautical Disaster” (which is more about the haunting spectres of past trauma), but personally, painfully, honestly in ballads like “Fiddler’s Green” (about the death of Downie’s young nephew from a heart ailment) and, a vastly underappreciated favourite of mine, “Toronto #4”. An aching poem written as a tribute to Downie’s dying grandmother set to a drum machine beat, elegiac guitar, and tinkling piano, it’s a song about the sensations and rituals of death, the quiet enormity of our finite lives, and the comfort that the mortal end robs of those left behind. Gord Downie will be with us for some time yet, but he has left us with many stirring epitaphs, none so perfectly poised as this.

Care for the People on the Edge of the Night: David Bowie – 1947-2016

January 11, 2016 1 comment
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David Bowie, a few days before his death (Photo by Jimmy King)

This thinkpiece on the death of David Bowie will undoubtedly be lesser than most of the plethora of eulogistic tributes that haved budded across the Internet like a fresh, sad spring today. Unlike millions who glimpsed even some fleeting, twinkling reflection of their own quotidian struggles in the music, words, performance, and public image of David Robert Jones, who passed from life late yesterday at the age of 69, Bowie’s art did not uplift me at critical or vulnerable times in my development. It did not save me from despair, inject me with a timely elixir of hope, or steel my spine against the homogenizing imperatives of conformist society and culture. It is not a failing of Bowie’s work that it did not touch me somewhere deep and true when it mattered most. It very much could have, but vagaries of context and circumstance kept David Bowie at a certain remove in my not-insubstantial music fandom as a younger man, and only tentative forays into his voluminous and intimidatingly varied ouevre have followed since.

One doesn’t require intense personal investment to acknowledge and appreciate the breadth and depth of influence of a cultural giant, of course. I could consider David Bowie’s artistic variation, career longevity and image reinventions, his seemingly boundless creative curiosity and tremendously open and insightful intelligence. I can muse over the legitimacy that his embrace of countercultural difference in the midst of an era of encroaching hegemonic conformity of consumer capitalism gave to all those who felt likewise different, who conceived themselves in resistance to centralized forces somehow. I could boldly state that David Bowie created what we now know as “indie” music and culture, for good or ill, and I wouldn’t be wrong.

I won’t do any of these things, but I will briefly consider, in two very famous and definitional musical examples, how David Bowie tapped into the fundamental anxieties of modern life in the 20th Century and molded those fears and uncertainties into grand and moving artistic statements.

The first example, without much doubt, has to be the immortal title track from Bowie’s 1977 album “Heroes”. The song was a hit at its edited three-minute version, with the ubiquity of that single edit such that, as a non-specialist in Bowie’s work, I wasn’t even aware that a more patient, grand, complicated, and magnificent six-minute version had featured on the album.

The story behind “‘Heroes'” has passed into cultural legend: its subject is a tragic pair of lovers locked in an embrace in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, their doomed romanticism and messy, fragile humanity fêted and magnified by a triumphal anthem of great magnitude. Composed and recorded by Bowie and collaborator Brian Eno within a literal stone’s throw of the Wall, the dark penumbra of authoritarian oppression haunts its aural footsteps, invoking the ominous converted into the transcendent with the most strenuous and inspired effort.

On certain level, it is classical Romanticism, reifying sentiment and gilding love as the most vital bulwark against the dead-eyed conformity of central-state control. A flower growing up from a persistent crack in the grey concrete barrier between freedom and tyranny. But Bowie reproduces Romanticism in order to deconstruct it, to render it as more difficult and less rote, and to suggest that politics, too, is not so cut and dry. Those quotation marks around “Heroes” are so often forgotten by a culture thirsty for easy glorification, the ironic distance they were designed to impart (and that is fully apparent in Bowie’s remarkable vocal performance) far too frequently trampled by platitudes that buttress status quos no less oppressive and limiting to some world citizens as the Wall was to East Berliners.

Bowie grounds social, cultural, and political nuance in the relatable messiness of romance, and contrasts it with chivalric fantasies: “I will be king / And you will be queen” alternates with “You would be mean / And I’ll drink all the time”, dreams and faults get equal time. By symbolically associating doomed lovers with the harsh consequences of the seemingly intractable ideological differences of the Cold War, Bowie elevates his musical tableau to the plateau of myth. By refusing to conceive of this tragic love in the glow of fantasy and returning it to recognizable complexity and difficulty, he likewise demystifies the epic black-and-white, good-and-evil dichotomy of the Cold War, suggesting that it too cannot be painted with too broad a brush.

The underlying socioeconomic and political struggles (which were always already personal in his work) behind “‘Heroes'” are revisited and recalibrated in Bowie’s closing verse in “Under Pressure”, his lightning strike of a hit collaboration with Queen in 1981. In a song best known for Freddie Mercury’s trademarked vocal calisthenics and John Deacon’s iconic bassline (later sampled by Vanilla Ice), Bowie’s contribution is often overlooked, but his verse building into the song’s coda (“But love’s such an old-fashioned word…”) is a thesis statement for better collective living. Perhaps the most succinct and powerful paean to the platonic ideal of the robust, empathetic welfare state ever committed to a recording device (all apologies to LBJ), Bowie manages to do what artists so seldom do when faced with interminable, impossible struggle: reach out for a practical solution, a solid lifeline.

What did the life and art of David Bowie mean to me? Not as much as it might have meant to many, many others, and I bow to their thoughts on the matter of his passing. But writing and singing, with his singular mastery of modulation of emotiveness and implication, words like “Love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night”? That will never not mean a great deal as we pass through a hard, open world of pain and wonders.

Categories: Culture, Current Affairs, Music

Ryan Adams’ Covers of Taylor Swift’s 1989 Album and Pop’s Distrust of Vulnerability

September 24, 2015 Leave a comment

Indie-roots-rock critical darling Ryan Adams released his latest album recently. It consists not of original compositions of his own but entirely of covers, indeed of covers of one album in its entirety: Taylor Swift’s megaselling powerhouse 1989. This is no mere gimmick (it’s more like flattery, if both Adams’s and Swift’s statements about the record’s sincere intent are any indication), though the album does clinch Swift’s ascendancy in indie music circle as music geeks’ superstar pop princess of choice.

I haven’t a particularly distinct or developed critical view of Adams’s 1989 to offer, seeing as such a perspective would require a closer familiarity with Swift’s original work than I can admit to having, despite previous musings on her oeuvre. I know that it’s worth a listen, and that generally speaking I prefer the Neil Young-ish dichotomy of “wooden music” ache and ragged glory rock anthems practiced by Ryan Adams to Taylor Swift’s polished pop production on every day of the week as a matter of personal inclination and taste. There may be deeper factors undergirding this aesthetic judgement, and I hope to untangle these a bit more below.

One particular contrasting feature of the Ryan Adams 1989 compared to the Taylor Swift 1989 that is impossible to miss is the more openly, nakedly emotional nature of these covers. Listeners with a good grounding in Adams’s songs know that he can muster exquisite, soulful heartache with prodigious and moving skill, and he wrings every ounce of available pain from Swift’s compositions, known more for their peppy radio-friendly joyousness. At Vox, Todd VanDerWerff considers this effect of the album, or rather considers how the reception of the Adams album emphasizes the sadness that he “finds” in Swift’s songs without recognizing that these notes of melancholy and vulnerability were always already present and evident from the original album’s release. VanDerWerff argues that the poppy and the darker elements of Swift’s songs create an “emotional tension” on 1989, and Adams’s cover versions eliminate that tension and go full-on sad, with occasional irruptions of anger.

There’s something to this, but I’m not sure it’s quite right. Many of pop music’s pinnacles are products of the tension of light and dark, hooks of delight connected to depths of doubt and despair: Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, Outkast’s “Hey Ya”, and Fastball’s “The Way” come to mind, supremely catchy hits respectively about a thorny paternity controversy, the fragility of romance, and dead old people. You can see a definitely vulnerability in Taylor Swift’s lyrics, but Ryan Adams, with his traditionalist rock approach as the still barely-ascendant shorthand for authenticity (which VanDerWerff is right to be dubious about), is able to pull that vulnerable nature out more readily and evidently than Swift can in her glossier arrangements.

Look at “Shake It Off”, for example, the megahit lead single from Swift’s 1989. With the boppy sheen of the goofy video and the glare of cultural appropriations to distract and direct our attention, Swift’s original emphasizes her beefs with tabloid media speculation about her personal life and emphasizes her overwhelming sense of positivity, her ability to “shake off” the jibes and keep dancing. As it is presented for a mass audience, there’s nothing complicated or (it should be said) particular interesting about the tune (“Blank Space”, as I have discussed, is much more fascinating to think about).

But listen to Adams’s low-key cover of “Shake It Off” and different tones and meanings emerge from Swift’s words. When Swift repeats the criticisms of her intelligence and her worthiness as a romantic partner over the best state-of-the-art electronic beat that money can buy, it comes off as defiant and mocking, a confident kiss-off to the “haters” who are, after all, “gonna hate”. Adams draws out the hurt and sting in those epithets, though, as well as the low simmer of self-doubt that they create. Swift brushes off the hurtful words hurled at her, but Adams worries that they might just be true.

There are deep-rooted factors that condition this reading, that presage the transmission of these meanings. I mentioned, as VanDerWerff does, the lingering claim to authority of expression that rock claims over pop. One can also point, as VanDerWerff does, to the privilege of Adams as a male artist as opposed to Swift as a female artist, and how the underlying sexist norms of the still-patriarchal circle of music criticism construct the soulful, profound male singer-songwriter as superior to the frivolous, superficial pop queen. It is only through the prism of our prejudices that Adams’s versions are seen as deeper or truer or sadder than Swift’s, and any preference for the former over the latter is a sort of discrimination; the prism is a glass ceiling.

This is not exactly VanDerWerff’s point, but the thrust of the observation gets at the point that I wish to make about the duelling 1989s. Regardless of the web of preconditioned perspectives that make us understand the Ryan Adams 1989 as more emotional open and raw than the Taylor Swift 1989, it unquestionably presents that way. This element is not, as VanDerWerff has it, something that listeners of Swift’s songs have somehow “missed”. There’s a melancholy in the bones of Swift’s music, but how her music is composed, arranged, and especially presented betrays a lack of trust in the value of that melancholy.

We might interrogate whether this distrust is Swift’s own or that of the corporate entertainment machine arrayed behind her. Most likely it’s both, with Swift’s uncertainty about expressing the sort of vulnerability that a close reading of her lyrics betrays predetermined by marketing imperatives and focus-group research. Much of this effect has roots in assumptions about gender norms, as well, about how much vulnerability a female artist can safely display. The mainstream feminism attached to a figure like Taylor Swift privileges strength and agency and positivity in a progressive and liberated woman of the modern world. Vulnerability and emotional openness can be considered signs of weakness, and pop-feminism has not often displayed the subtlety and nuance to reconcile these characteristics with its valorization of “Girl Power”. The glossy pop of Swift’s music is an aesthetic (and commercial) choice, but it also serves to distance her pop star persona from the hurtful emotional consequences that underscore her basically happy songs. It can operate as a mask to hide the tears.

It’s instructive to recall that Swift began her recording career in country music, a genre that has annexed much of rock’s sphere of influence with white audiences when it comes to mediated expressions of emotional authenticity. Her early songs, naive high-school fantasies about princesses yearning from their imagined castles though they may be, carried a melancholy about them too, but you could say that it was a melancholy about the limits of their expressive breadth and depth. Pop star Taylor Swift has expanded and sharpened her emotional expressiveness while girding that precious expressiveness in layers of Top 40 sparkle to protect it from exposure. Ryan Adams removes that armour in his cover album of 1989 and lays bare wounded hearts, not only his own but that of the songs’ composer. The record tells us quite a bit about Ryan Adams, but it might just tell us even more about Taylor Swift and the culture that helped to shape her.

Categories: Culture, Music

Film Review: Whiplash

July 26, 2015 2 comments

Whiplash (2014; Directed by Damien Chazelle)

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) sits at his drum skit in a practice room at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music. A first-year jazz drummer at the (fictional) best music school in the United States, Andrew is solitary, friendless, and driven to succeed by overwhelming effort and dedication to his chosen craft. His solitude is marked visually by his fellow freshman, director Damien Chazelle: he strikes the skins and strokes the cymbals inside the frame of an open door Whiplash+drummeras the camera creeps towards him along a moodily-lit corridor. But the camera is not an omniscient observer, nor is it the voyeuristic audience. It is revealed to be Shaffer instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), stalking unannounced into the rehearsal room to assess Andrew’s potential.

There’s a horror-suspense element to this initial scene of Chazelle’s electric Whiplash that he will often return to in colouring the tone of his film. Simmons as Fletcher is indeed like a villain out of a slasher flick transplanted onto the body of an eminent Manhattan music academy conductor. He wields his powerful personality like a machete and hurls the abusive verbal volleys of an army drill sergeant at his band if they dare to waver in their performances. Working his expressive brow below a cruelly bald skull, his head is a furrowed, rocky field in which nothing will grow. The skin of Simmons’ neck and bulky arms stretches into black turtlenecks like that of a snake about to shed, and Fletcher is a kind of jazz cobra, slinking elegantly to a beat all his own before rearing back for the deadly strike.

Fletcher is already striking in his first meeting with Andrew, and doesn’t let up even as he recognizes the young drummer’s talent and invites him into his prestigious and highly competitive studio band. He asks the young man about his family (disappointing high-school teacher father, abandoned by his mother) and chats jazz influences with him (the famous, tumultuous drummer Buddy Rich is a major touchstone), then gives him some initial praise in the rehearsal space. But it’s all a psychological trap, the nectar to draw the naive Andrew into the man-eating jaws of his searing anger. Fletcher unloads on Andrew when his timekeeping does not conform to a standard so minutely exacting as to be possibly arbitrary, screaming, insulting, throwing a chair at, and even slapping his new drummer until the boy is reduced to tears.

Andrew is not broken by the fiery crucible of this intense tutelage, which Fletcher believes, with the zealous certainty of the niche culture fanatic, to be absolutely necessary to maximizing talent and potential in jazz. Instead, the capable but soft Andrew is reforged into a harder iron instrument; Neiman is a new man, and Teller ably embodies both ends of this spectrum. He shrugs aside the laddish bonding with his father (Paul Reiser), clashes with his football-star family rivals at a holiday dinner about the nature and cost of success, and breaks it off with his pretty but modest and unambitious girlfriend (Melissa Benoist), telling her with cold, prickish rationality that she will hold him back and they will resent each other bitterly for staying together.

The lengths to which he will go to excel under Fletcher’s eye become ever more extreme and more physically and psychologically taxing. His overworked hands become bloodied with regularity, the plasma dripping from his sticks, splattering his skins, and beading alongside the condensation on his cymbals. Chazelle visualizes Andrew’s blood-oath with Fletcher’s absolutist philosophy of excellence with a striking shot of the drummer’s hand plunging into an ice-water pitcher in slow motion. The transparency of the liquid element is gradually overcome by bloody crimson, just as Andrew’s more clear and casual personality is conquered by his bloody-minded pursuit of Fletcher’s approval.

Whiplash is reminiscent in many ways of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, another artistically uncompromising film about a young, cloistered performer in New York City driven by an emotionally unhealthy mentorship with a highly demanding teacher to greater aesthetic heights than they might have thought possible or prudent, regardless of the moral consequences or psychological toil. Both films focus on the corporeal viscera that underscores erstwhile tasteful high cultural forms and present climactic performance triumphs as carrying more ambivalent personal costs (or worse). But Black Swan‘s nightmarish, destabilizing fantasies (inheritances of Stanley Kubrick), which transform the simultaneous ascent and descent of Natalie Portman’s ballerina into a more baroque metaphor for the intersection of genius and madness, could not be supported in Whiplash. Chazelle’s film has Fletcher’s intensity and unwavering obstinance, and doesn’t require flights of fantasy; its version of reality is nightmarish enough.

If Whiplash is a nightmare, then it’s a darkly appealing one. The film’s spectacular closing sequence, in which Andrew takes over a Carnegie Hall performance contrived by Fletcher to humiliate him with furious, virtuoso drumming, is a bravado showcase, tense and stunning. Editor Tom Cross’ quick, off-beat rhythmic cutting of the band’s performance sequences in general is an intentional alignment with the syncopated pulse of jazz that is self-evident but not unsuccessful. Indeed, especially in the finale, it lends an urgency and excitement to the scenes of performance that this particular jazz non-believer did not consider possible in this particular musical genre.

But in the Carnegie performance in particular, Chazelle never lets the dazzling nature of the filmmaking bury the philosophical ambivalence of Andrew’s metamorphosis into an embryonic jazz great (even if the jazz in the film is, according to the New Yorker, not so great and underscored by a non-jazz-like solitary competitive aggression). If Whiplash is more of a horror movie than a music movie, then Andrew Neiman can only defeat the monster that is Terence Fletcher by becoming a greater monster himself. And since this was Fletcher’s mission all along, it is no victory at all.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Film Review: Frank

December 30, 2014 3 comments

Frank (2014; Directed by Lenny Abrahamson)

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is not terribly special, but he wants to be. Living with his parents as a young adult in a non-descript English town, he strolls by the seaside on his way home from his cubicle job, looking for musical inspiration and composing song snippets in his head (“Hey, lady in the red coat, whatcha doing with that bag?”). Inevitably, though, despite his passionate love of music, his dreams of songwriting, and all the instruments and composition technology that he owns, Jon’s songs are either pathetically bad or rip-offs of other artists. He tweets hopefully about one day finding his muse, but his miniscule Twitter follower count (14) also appears onscreen as a pitiless rebuke.

One day on the beach, Jon witnesses a man ranting and raving in the surf before being carted off in an ambulance. He’s the keyboard player in an indie rock band with the unpronouncable name of the Soronprfbs who are playing a local bar that night, and a half-friendly member of the group named Don (Scoot McNairy) asks Jon to play with them when the latter tells him that he plays the same instrument. The gig dissolves into disaster almost immediately, but not before Jon has attracted the notice of the group’s frontman Frank (Michael Fassbender).frank_movie_poster

Frank is the enigmatic left-field genius who keeps the marginal, penniless group together, despite a laundry list of idiosyncratic quirks, habits, and practices that is most definitely topped by the oversized papiermâché head that he wears over his own skull at all times (he doesn’t even take it off in the shower, as Jon discovers at one point). So when Frank tells his band that they ought to invite the unassuming guy who played keyboards for them for half a song to join them on an isolated Irish farm to make an album, their objections are moot.

The enthusiastic Jon very quickly discovers that living his musician’s dream with Frank and the Soronprfbs is not the romantic fantasy of creativity and fame that he imagined. For one, every member of the band has a past (and often a present) of mental illness: Don, who met Frank in a mental institution, can only be sexually satisfied by mannequins, Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is implacably hostile (“Don’t touch my fucking theremin!”), and the rhythm section either speaks French (François Civil) or not at all (Carla Azar). Compared to this rogue’s gallery of misfits, their leader in the big inscrutable head-mask seems relatively well-adjusted.

The recording session stretches bizarrely on, exhausting the band’s meager funds and Jon’s contribution of his inherited nest egg. The cornucopia of oddball details is dizzying, as they record wilderness sounds and bendy straws, drill themselves with invented exercises, craft new instruments, and rehearse and jam endlessly, sometimes while Frank exhorts them to pretend to be birds (“Clara, the owl. Night hunter, silent killer”). Jon documents the process on social media, and his blog hits, Twitter followers, and YouTube counts grow gradually, convincing him that their eventual album could become popular. He arranges a showcase set at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas that will either make Frank and his band or, more likely, break them all entirely.

Frank was directed by Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson from a screenplay by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan. Ronson based it on his experiences in Northern English comedian Chris Sievey’s band in the late 1980s and early 1990s, at the height of the popularity of Sievey’s cult Frank Sidebottom character, the basis for the design of this Frank’s head if not for much else of his personality or backstory. Sievey’s mask was the hook of a comedy act, but the one that Fassbender wears (and somehow manages to act brilliantly behind) is a metaphor for the performing artist’s simultaneous projection and protection of identity. The artist must reveal much of what is purportedly in their soul while remaining at a healthy distance from their art’s psychological implications; he must appear to give nearly all he has to the world while holding back enough to suggest unsounded depths and wellsprings of tantalizing mystery. The mask is Frank’s stage persona, but he is almost never onstage and yet never drops the persona.

Abrahamson’s film, a sort of outsider riff on This is Spinal Tap for the millenial hipster subculture, is a sharply absurdist and frequently hilarious satire of indie culture’s indulgent meta-embrace of creative expression for its own sake, as well as a dismantling of the bohemian ideal of artistic genesis as an outlet for transference of suffering and turmoil. Jon endures the flowering madness of the quixotic recording session because he believes that the deprivation, the frustration, the encroaching penury, and the hostility from Clara (who threatens to stab him pretty regularly) will release his inner songwriter as such circumstances have, apparently, inspired Frank.

The irony is that Frank is inspired by everything (including fingertips flicking toothbrushes, which captivate him as the band records their sounds) and yet nothing. His genius is innate, ineffable, unknowable; it is not the product of circumstances (Frank hails from a stable all-American home in the symbolically-charged town of Bluff City, Kansas that is not unlike Jon’s suburban “box”) but of a particular and sometimes distressing mental state. Frank does not dispel the long-standing and unshakeable myth of the intimate connection between mental disquiet and artistic genius, but it contextualizes that myth, making it seem less accessible or romantic.

Frank’s mask does finally come off, and he’s physically and emotionally scarred by it, but his musical ability does not desert him. If anything, it proves to have been a hindrance to his ability to connect with an audience, as Fassbender’s tremendous performance in a concluding band reunion demonstrates. Frank tells Jon at one point that directness and honesty is best, that no one should hide anything from one another. That he says so from behind his fake head, his ever-present artifice, is an irony not lost on Abrahamson, nor on his quirky, funny, subversively brilliant comedy film. It is, in its own peculiar way, quite special.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and the Gender Politics of Celebrity Melodrama

November 11, 2014 1 comment

American pop megastar Taylor Swift released the second single off of her latest album 1989 last week, entitled “Blank Space”. More importantly, she released a music video to go along with it, a self-proclaimed “film” directed by Joseph Kahn. It’s a nutty slice of aristocratic opulence and purposely overwrought hysterics that is either slyly brilliant, deeply problematic, or quite likely both. Either way, it has to be seen to quite be believed.

Swift inspires unswerving devotion from a young generation and everything from chin-stroking benefit of the doubt to hostile dismissiveness from a slightly older one. She’s clearly come a long way from the country-tinged castles-in-the-sky idealized romances of her early releases, now properly classed as mass-selling juvenalia. Her turn to Top 40 synth-pop on 2012’s Red gained her the regard and qualified support of the indie music intelligentsia, with her lyrics increasingly focused on her public image, relationships, rumours, and personal identity. As a young female artist and songwriter, Swift is far from unintelligent and is not self-unaware; her lyrics scratch fitfully at gender roles and romantic tropes now in a way they did not in her more innocent days. But her perspective is so predetermined by her own specific experiences and perceptions that she has a tendency to miss the forest of social politics for the trees of her personal feelings.

Taylor Swift is getting a bit wiser as she ages, though, and with 1989‘s singles is cultivating the image of a goofy, down-to-earth girl cheekily undermining the celebrity machine of monolithic glitz that has made her a star but also threatens to swallow her identity at every moment. This was certainly the impression generated by “Shake It Off”, which cast a wacky Swift as embodied tropes of fragile femininity such as the ballerina and the cheerleader while also gussying her up as a twerking hip-hop queen and a contemporary performance-art pop star like Lady Gaga. The concept is that she dances to her own beat in terms of both traditional and more current conceptions of a young woman’s identity, a square peg that does not fit into any of these round holes of entertainment-media convention.

The video for “Blank Space”, meanwhile, is an overblown but fascinating assumption of the character of a hysterical, practically psychotic jealous woman by Taylor Swift. Her fledgling acting career looms large; this is an ambitious audition for screen roles, of sorts. That the stock character Swift plays is hugely troubling and problematic from a feminist point of view only seems to dimly register with the young woman playing it. But it does register, it seems; indeed, “Blank Space” contains suggestions of satiric intent, if one looks hard enough.

The entire clip proceeds visually from a striking, quasi-poetic early couplet in the troubled-romance lyrics: “I could show you incredible things / Magic, madness, heaven, sin”. Set in and around a palatial country estate (it’s nearly something out of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby), Swift and the male object of her affection (and hostility, played by Sean O’Pry) carry on a tumultuous romance, beginning as idyllic, opulent scenes of privileged love before degenerating into over-the-top melodrama. Before she knifes paintings and lays into a tremendously expensive sports car with a golf club in rage over her dude’s insensitive texting at a picnic, Swift stars in Kahn’s nigh-on surrealistic tableau of emotional hyper-drama: weeping mascara tears, singing passionately, fist pounding at a well-appointed fireplace, an impassive deer behind her. Later, Swift is clad in riding gear on a hedge-framed path in the house’s gardens, standing on the saddle of a horse. It’s an image out of a lost Magritte painting.

But what does all of this mean? Can we give Taylor Swift enough credit to claim that she or her collaborators are saying anything with the “Blank Space” video? Is it a subtextual critique of the public appetite for moody, dramatic celebrity relationship antics, pantomimed with convincing loopiness by Swift? Is it a reinscription of discriminatory constructions of irrational, emotion-driven women or an explosive blow-out of those pernicious discursive stereotypes? Is its setting of aristocratic wealth a subtle reference to the neo-Gilded Age elite who utilize the media discourse to dazzle the voyeuristic masses with images of privilege and riches and compel their compliance via aspiration? Or is it serendipitously tapping into deep veins of gender politics, celebrity fascination, and class distinction in an unambitious effort to make a memorable video for a relatively unmemorable pop song? Maybe the title is a clue: this text may be construed a “blank space” to be filled in with our own understandings or with the lack thereof.

Categories: Culture, Music, Politics

“Songs of Innocence”, Fruits of Experience: U2, Apple, and the Atrophy of Neoliberalism

September 14, 2014 1 comment

U2 and Apple always seemed like a corporate partnership that was meant to be. With the exception of the Irish megaband’s collaboration with Apple’s smartphone competitors Blackberry on their ultra-grossing 360 tour from 2009-11, their late-period releases have frequently been marked by promotional crossover with the technology megacorporation that has charged a premium to package and sell post-Sixties counterculture notions of liberty to the mass consumer market. The 2004 Apple commercial featuring “Vertigo”, U2’s last kick at the youth market can (to which they were relevant for 25 years, no small feat at all), was the pinnacle piece of the company’s distinct and iconic iPod ads. Bono and Steve Jobs, like the corporate entities they each headed, were very clearly cocktail-party buddies, united in their shared mission of crafting populist secular experiences as proxies for the church-bound spirituality that modern citizens found increasingly unsatisfying. Both U2 albums/concerts and Apple Stores aim to replicate the sensation of ecstatic worship in consumable portions, to package the sublime, and to make a pretty penny at it, too.

U2’s surprise decision to release their new album Songs of Innocence for free to all iTunes Store users (controversially, whether those users want it or not) a mere week after completing it makes sense not only in terms of the players’ previously-established relationship but also in terms of each player’s current position and the music retail market as it (barely) stands. Apple’s retail buzz has been distinctly muted since its fêted founder’s death three and a half years ago; they’ve carved out a healthy share of the device market but hardly dominate it, and iTunes feels increasingly like a bit of a dinosaur system in a digital music milieu advancing much faster than anyone might have reasonably expected. Apple will always have its devotees and its detractors, but unchallenged in hegemony it most certainly is not.

If Apple has stumbled from its lofty pedestal, then U2 is clinging onto the edge of its own pedestal by their collective fingertips. No Line on the Horizon was the least artistically accomplished release of a decade of unadventurous legacy efforts from the four men who forever embalmed the concept of the Biggest Band in the World. Even worse, it did not sell very well by the band’s (admittedly outlandish) standards. Giving away a new album for free seems to make a lot of sense at this point in U2’s career: they certainly don’t need the money, can play it off as a “gift” to loyal fans (and have), and are about the point in their career at which new music they produce is only barely worth paying for anyway (consumers are increasingly dubious about whether any music is worth paying for, but that’s a separate discussion).

The narrative arc of U2’s career is marked by the headrush rises and swooning faints that likewise characterize their best musical output. It’s a fine drama, when you take it all together. The brash, ambitious New Wave punks out of Dublin with an earnest political edge rising on the backs of anthemic appeals to togetherness in a fragmented, anxious culture. They hit dual peaks evoking quasi-biblical desert vision quests as therapy for modern dislocation (The Joshua Tree) and riding the cresting wave of living history in a post-modern repurposing of David Bowie’s Berlin-period shadows (Achtung Baby). At the peak of their success, they fiddled in sonically-innovative ephemera (Zooropa, still a massively underrated piece of excellence) and grandiose, self-effacing Pop Art kitsch (Pop, never a great album but also tragically underappreciated). When a sizable portion of their massive fanbase proved unreceptive to the band pushing their creative boundaries in this way, they retreated to familiar idioms and have since maintained an easy truce with their varied aesthetic legacy and rendered it for mass consumption in bevilled-down, inoffensive form, to decreasing returns.

Songs of Innocence is, of course, a William Blake reference, and the invocation of ecstatic aesthetic spirituality must surely appeal to Bono’s understanding of faith and its relationship to creativity. That said, the “Songs of Experience” half of Blake’s titular dichotomy would seem to apply more snugly to a band pushing towards four decades together. But U2’s music in general and Bono’s lyrics (The Edge writes them too, but I prefer to blame the singer) in particular have paradoxically accrued a refreshed bloom of innocent naiveté as they have advanced in years. Bono’s aggressive sincerity has always carried with it a certain guilelessness: he did place Martin Luther King’s assassination in the “early morning” of April 4th, 1968 in “Pride (In The Name of Love)” rather than when it actually happened, in the early evening. But what many saw as the irruption of irony in the band’s 1990s work, I read as a knowing world-weariness, something approaching (god forbid!) wisdom.

Songs of Innocence is yet another conscious attempt to banish doubtful knowing wisdom from the U2 project, which has gone “back to basics” so many times that even the basics seem ornate and elaborate at this point in time. Bono was quoted an album or two back self-praising the lyrics he was writing as sounding like t-shirt slogans, as if that was a good thing. This continues to be his aim, and the band behind him aims for the alternation between anthemic rockers and skyreaching hymnal epic ballads that has characterized their post-millenial phase. Producer Danger Mouse grants a certain stripped-down feel, as if what U2 required at this point in their careers is more stripping down. The resulting record, like No Line on the Horizon, has some nice moments, even some borderline-memorable ones, but none that approach the great, the grandiose, those elusive, U2-esque moments where “God walks through the room”, as Bono typically put it.

“Song For Someone” is lovely, vintage stuff if wholly unsurprising: passionately-sung Irish-folk-ish melodies along The Edge’s trademarked clear, rising riffs. “Iris (Hold Me Close)” and “Volcano” U2 it up right behind this mild highlight, but it’s hard to grasp onto much else. Opener and single “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” is a bit fun but summons only a fraction of the titularly-invoked rock n’ roll saint’s no-bullshit vitality. Even a teasing reference to “The Troubles” that once granted U2 a distinct political frisson on the free-floating closing cut doesn’t ever dig in. The experienced U2 listener will yearn for more, and will have to go back into the catalogue to get it, unfortunately.

U2’s vaunted longevity has now begun to define them more so than their audacious artistic reinventions. They could use another one of those sharp aesthetic left turns, but Songs of Innocence is not it. This is one more way that U2 is closely aligned with Apple. Both are institutions predicated on versions of enlightened neoliberal capitalist hope that rolled with the punches of social and political changes to remain relevant and profitable for longer than many would have thought possible. But both have settled into lucrative but diminishing cycles of repetitious atrophy. That their partnership is not meeting with a positive reception should be a worrisome sign for both U2 and Apple going forward.

Categories: Culture, Internet, Music, Reviews

Film Review: Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007; Directed by Jake Kasdan)

I laughed… hard. An especially rewarding parody of musical biopics for music geeks with a sharp eye, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story hits all the major cliches of the usually sappy genre with force and even wit (although sometimes, admittedly, with excessive broadness and all-American sophomoric crudeness).

John C. Reilly, indispensible indie-film character actor turned short-lived Hollywood dude-comedy lead, wins a lot of laughs right off the bat with his complete lack of matinee-idol looks and his consistently dumbstruck mock-innocence as the titular Cox, an admixture of multiple American musical icons including Ray Charles and Johnny Cash (the then-fresh Oscar-winners Ray and Walk The Line were only the most recent examples of the lampooned genre upon this film’s release, and provide the lion’s share of the satiric fodder here).

Jenna Fischer (of the American version of The Office) is great in her early scenes of trumped-up sexual tension with Reilly’s Cox (referencing the relationship of Cash and June Carter, especially as Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon played it in Walk the Line), but is then reduced to looking good and having nothing to do but play straight and serve the gradual self-actualization process of the male protagonist. This is the common prision of the female leads in Judd Apatow comedies (Bridesmaids being the most obvious exception). The feature comedy king co-writes with director Jake Kasdan, son of ’70s drama auteur Lawrence, and exec produces as welland there’s little doubt that Walk Hard is made in his house style, which at this point either hits your comedy sweet spot or it doesn’t.

The best scenes of Walk Hard, however, are the brief cameos of various famous recognizable types from the comedy film realm playing other famous recognizable types from the music history realm. All of these moments are hilarious, but the appearances by Elvis and the Beatles are the clear high points and will have you on the floor if you’ve spent a bit too much time learning about music history (as I have). Of course, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling them by revealing who plays the rock legends; that’s one trigger warning I choose to respect. Additionally, as usual, the homosocial atmosphere of slapdash semi-improvised fun around such Apatow productions bleeds into the work, and even when it isn’t working, you smile at how hard everyone is trying to make it work. But generally it does work. And it does, indeed, walk hard.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews