Hoo boy, here we are. The day after Trump left the White House. What a disaster this whole thing was. The work continues, clearly, but Jesus Christ, dudes, thank god that’s over.
To celebrate/close this door, I’ve made a farewell playlist of 33 songs from the Trump campaign/presidency that mean a lot to me as we move on from this disaster. I really like how it came out and I hope you do, too!
Anyway, I’m wrapping up the show. As I’ve talked about in the past, the show was primarily a way for me to express a lot of the stress and anxieties I was having under 45 and it really helped me so much and I’m immensely grateful for everyone who came along with me. I had the idea for the column after my wedding, where our ceremony was pretty much the first episode of the show. Instead of readings from religious texts, we pulled lyrics from songs that meant the most to us and interwove them through stories of what made us fall in love. That day also re-opened my love of performance and was the first step for me getting back into writing and playing out again for the first time in a few years.
One of the main reasons I want to wrap up the show is that now that Premium Heart is writing our follow up to “Kosciuszko,” I want to really be able to focus on writing music and lyrics again and I’ve felt like a lot of the things I want to say were easier to write here instead of there and I don’t want to split my writing anymore. So make sure you stay in touch through Premium Heart or my twitter or whatever! And just like… be cool and nice all the time.
Learn to leap, leap from ledges high and wild Learn to speak, speak with wisdom like a child Directly to the heart Crown yourself the king of clowns or stand way back apart But never give your love, my friend Unto a foolish heart
We’ve been staying home for over a hundred days. How about that? And guess what? Everything’s still terrible! But hopefully, everyone’s developed some habits that help keep them going. For me, I’ve been playing a lot of Breath Of The Wild, the Zelda game, and really just losing myself in a lot of different music.
For the first couple months of quarantine, I spent a lot of time with the Grateful Dead. I’ve been a Deadhead for years and spent much of my adolescence with them, both as a fan and as part of the extended Dead crew family. They’ve always been a safe place for me to just sink into and turn off all the bad in the world, and hoo boy, did I need it more than ever this time around. I dove deep into every nook and cranny of their catalog this time, from the nasty, explosive psychadelica of ’68 through the jazzy, exploratory 70s, but ended up landing time and time again in the Spring ’90 tour. I’ve always gravitated towards this era of the band, with no small part of the credit going to their keyboardist from 1979-1990, Brent Mydland. Often with lyricist John Perry Barlow, Brent added a level of deep pathos and personal songwriting that’s a real high point for me in the Dead’s massive catalog. From an unreleased demo from Built To Last:
When the police come, you better let ’em in, Gentleman, start your engines Don’t forget to tell ’em what a sport I’ve been, Gentleman, start your engines I got a head full of vintage TNT, They’re gonna blow me up ‘stead of burying me If you don’t like trouble, better leave me be Gentleman, start your engines
Like the Devil’s Mustangs, I’ve been riding hell for leather Put away angry, angry in the dark Let me tell you, honey, There’s some mighty stormy weather Rolling ’round the caverns of my heart
As an aside, because the Dead’s pretty much exclusively a live band, I’m using the last studio Dead album released in 1989, Built To Last, as an outline. All of the songs here are from the Spring ’90 tour, but are still tracks from that album.
The Brent-era is often maligned by Deadheads. He was the new guy, coming off of one of the most celebrated eras of live music for the band and a lot of the studio material suffered from cheesy production and overly catchy songs. It was the 80s, after all. But for me, by the Spring of 1990, I think the band was the best they ever were and this tour was really something special. I love their whole career, but this is the top of the top for me. And Brent was, for the first time, really elevated within the band. He writes and sings four of the nine songs on Built To Last and his songs started popping up more and more throughout the set. And with that, you can feel the pain and heart in every single one of his songs that helped make this tour the best of the best. And helped make me feel a little less isolated in this dark, terrible time.
Well, there ain’t nobody safer than someone who doesn’t care And it isn’t even lonely, when no one’s ever there I had a lot of dreams once, but some of them came true The honey’s sometimes bitter when fortune falls on you
And you know I’ve been a soldier in the armies of the night And I’ll find a fatal error in what’s otherwise alright Something shines around you and it seems to my delight To give you just a little sweetness… Just a little light
I have always heard that virtue oughta be its own reward, But it never comes so easy when you’re living by the sword It’s even harder to be heartless when you look at me that way You’re as mighty as the flower that will grow the stones away
Even though I’ve been a stranger, full of irony and spite Holding little but contempt for all things beautiful and bright, Something shines around you and it seems to my delight To give me just a little sweetness… Just a little light
A lot Brent’s (And Barlow’s) songs are pretty introspective and self-loathing, but Built To Last also features one of my favorite political Dead songs, “We Can Run.” The Dead were very rarely political after the 60s, as Jerry Garcia was pretty adamantly against working with a system he found repulsive, but by the late 80s, Brent and Bob Weir (again, both with Barlow), penned a few more explicit stances, which sadly, don’t feel all that dated.
I’m dumping my trash in your backyard Makin’ certain you don’t notice really isn’t so hard You’re so busy with your guns and all of your excuses to use them Well it’s oil for the rich and babies for the poor They got everyone believin’ that more is more If a reckoning comes, maybe we’ll know what to do then
We can run, but we can’t hide from it Of all possible worlds, we only got one, we gotta ride on it Whatever we’ve done, We’ll never get far from what we leave behind Baby, we can run, run, run, but we can’t hide Oh no, we can’t hide
All these possibilities seem to leave no choice I heard the tongues of billions speak with just one voice Saying “Just leave all the rest to me. I need it worse than you, you see.” And then I heard… The sound of one child crying.
The album’s not all Brent, obviously. Jerry and Bobby still have some great songs on it that really resonated with me this time around, too. As much as I felt like the whole world was falling apart and there was no hope for any of us, Jerry (and his lyricist, Robert Hunter) explain that the only things that are Built To Last are the things that arebuilt to try. If we give up, we’re definitely fucked. If we try, at least we have a shot, albeit a long one.
When I was really at my lowest, this tour helped me get lost in a better time. Like the wide open spaces of Breath Of The Wild, having a Dead show to close my eyes and go to helped ground me. The songs from Built To Last don’t ignore the anxieties raging inside us all, but they embrace them and turn them into something beautiful. Tragically, this was the last full scale tour before Brent died in July that year, a heartbreaking reminder that when the show’s over, and it always ends eventually, you still have to learn to better yourself and the world we all share. But until that last song ends, you can close your eyes and let the music take you home.
The original column was published on January 15th, 2020 and can be found below.
Read all the pamphlets and watch the tapes. You turn 25 and now you’re all out of escapes. Hey, the rock writer told me to tell you: “though you’re great and you’re brave You still lack that which makes you a star.” Read all the pamphlets and watch the tapes
I can’t stop thinking about creative growth and how much it ties in to our intellectual curiosity. As I get older, I’m more and more disheartened to see people just… stop learning things. Obviously, you can read a whole slew of political commentary into that concept; people refusing to grow past the status quo they’re most comfortable with or learn to accept people that previously made them feel “weird” about how different their lives and experiences are. But we’re in the Trump era and Biden’s the national frontrunner in the Democratic primary, so there’s a billion think-pieces on that. So let’s talk about music. Let’s talk about punk music.
Since I started listening to music, I’ve listened to punk. Pop-punk, ’77, and some early hardcore are my specialties. But around the end of high school, I started to kind of fall out of thecontemporary punk scene. At least in the scene I was in, heavier punk and metal merged a little too much for my tastes and got too… macho, the same thing that turns me off from a lot of 80s hardcore. Pop punk got too overproduced and started to drift away from the “my friends in their garage writing songs about girls” sound that I fell in love with of the late 90s/early 00s. So I fell out of it and started listening to a lot more indie and alternative.
But recently, I’ve started to fall pretty hard into post-punk. I’m new to it, so forgive me if I’m wrong about any of the details, but it seems like post-punk (and no-wave) seem to embody the DIY, relatable punk ethos, but without the cliché, trappings, and narrow genre focus of punk. I’ve been all about bands like Siouxsie And The Banshees, Sonic Youth, and Joy Division for the last few weeks after my guitarist gave me a path to delve in to. And man, it rules. It’s got that “garage band with friends” sense of freedom, but with a much bolder and unexpected musical direction. It really opened my eyes up to the idea that I don’t have to “leave behind punk” when I get bored of it, but I can just make different punk music. The punk ethos isn’t just about fast and loud guitars, but it’s just that, an ethos. The punks grew up and I had missed the whole thing for decades. This is the exact kind of music I want, no, need to be playing right now. Being an artist in 2020 has to be about inclusivity instead of gatekeeping. It’s all about making art for the right reasons, your reasons, not about following the structures set by the generations before us. Punk was punk because nobody had done it before, not because somebody did the exact same thing 40 years ago. And that brings me to LCD Soundsystem and their second album, Sound Of Silver.
LCD Soundsystem had been recommended to me a few times over the years, but I never really gave them a shot until this week. The aforementioned guitarist showed me a few songs and I wasn’t really wowed at first. But then I listened to this record and I was immediately won over. It really captured the exact feelings I’ve been having about making music today. So many songwriters just try to capture the sound they listen to instead of trying to do something new, something risky. I try to approach any creative project by first answering the question, what can I offer that no one else can? If this was just a straight album review, there are a million people way better than I am at talking about or analyzing music, so I try to focus on my reaction to music instead. Why would I want to make music that just sounds like a watered down version of someone I loved? Someone who I loved because of how groundbreaking and new their sound was when it came out? We have all unique voices, experiences, lives, why waste them?
If you aren’t familiar with LCD, they’re a bit hard to describe. They’re… dance-punk, I guess? A lot of the instrumentation is electronic and synth-driven, but James Murphy clearly comes from the New York punk scene. It sounds like a fun dance album, but lyrically, a whole lot of the record, probably because it is, seems like a punk record of the Bloomberg-era (Your mild billionaire mayor’s now convinced he’s a king). I’ve never heard a band that sounds like LCD Soundsystem. And that’s the point. It sounds strange at first, but doesn’t everything that leaves a mark? Everyone should have something to say no matter how hard to describe their voice is. If they think they don’t have anything important to say, maybe they should start to really think about why they feel like their voice doesn’t matter and who made them feel that way.
New York, I Love You, But you’re bringing me down. Like a death of the heart. Jesus, where do I start? But you’re still the one pool. Where I’d happily drown And oh… Take me off your mailing list. For kids who think it still exists Yes, for those who think it still exists Maybe I’m wrong and maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m wrong and maybe you’re right. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m wrong and just maybe you’re right And oh.. Maybe mother told you true and there’ll always be somebody there for you And you’ll never be alone But maybe she’s wrong and maybe I’m right and just maybe she’s wrong Maybe she’s wrong and maybe I’m right and if so, is there?
I’ve written a lot about legacy and nostalgia in these columns, too, and I’m not disregarding those! There’s nothing wrong with showing your influences or writing a throwback. But we should always strive to keep our art honest and personal. You can write about and with nostalgia and still have something new to say. Keeping your influences clear as a bibliography to fully understand the artistic curiosity that led you to create this piece in the first place is great! But there’s a big difference between continuing the collective narrative of our society’s artistic story and just being derivative. We should always remember where we came from, but never at the expense of where we need to go, no matter how untraveled that path forward seems.
The original column was published on November 15th, 2019 and can be found below.
Should we talk about the weather? (Hi, hi, hi) Should we talk about the government? (Hi, hi, hi, hi)
Currently, I’m in the final stages of a new music project that I’m so excited to release and it’s a great new direction for my writing. I’ve dabbled in political songwriting in the past, but I usually fell short and started feeling that when you make a political message the main focus, the song too often becomes more about sending the intended message over writing a great song. Sacrificing catchiness for importance. Placing relevancy over memorability. But this time, helped by the fact that someone else is writing most of the music, we’ve really crafted a record that I think is about some really important things, but never at the expense of making a great record that people will (hopefully!) want to listen to. And nobody balanced those two things half as well as R.E.M. did, especially on their 1988 album, Green.
Sometimes I feel like I can’t even sing (Say, say, the light) I’m very scared for this world, I’m very scared for me (Say, say, the light) Eviscerate your memory, here’s a scene You’re in the back seat laying down (Say, say, the light) The windows wrap around to the sound of the travel and the engine
Green was released on November 7th, 1988, the day before the 1988 American Presidential election. R.E.M. was very outspoken at the time against then-candidate George H. W. Bush and supported the Democrat, Michael Dukakis. Using their first major label release to raise their platform, it was clear that this album was going to be even more political than they’d been in the past.
Green is an interesting album in R.E.M.’s catalog. They’d been primarily playing in minor keys with more traditional instrumentation, but with Green they somehow managed to be more mainstream, while also becoming more experimental. Their songwriting became more major key and accessible, but their instrumentation was becoming much more diverse. This album features a lot of mandolin and pedal steel guitar, played by Peter Buck, and it layers the record in an eerie, but deeply, beautiful way. The higher string instruments interweave perfectly under Michael Stipe’s voice, which was reaching new highs with each new album, of which Green is no exception.
This is my world and I am the World Leader Pretend This is my life and this is my time I have been given the freedom to do as I see fit It’s high time I raised the walls that I’ve constructed
It’s amazing what devices you can sympathize (Empathize) This is my mistake, let me make it good I raised the wall and I will be the one to knock it down
You fill in the mortar, you fill in the harmony You fill in the mortar, I raised the wall And I’m the only one, I will be the one to knock it down
Just about every single song on Green deals with some sort of bigger picture. They all certainly resonate with me, but the diversity in the messages, alongside the diversity in the musical directions the album pushes into, help make Green a truly iconic album. I never really hear anyone talk about R.E.M.’s influence on music and pop culture, but they’re a real benchmark of the transition from the punk-focused Reagan-era of political music, back into a more mainstream level of politics in popular music. The most famous song on the record, “Orange Crush” doesn’t shy away from the explicitly political message at the heart of Green.Everybody knows “Orange Crush,” but I don’t know how many casual listeners realize what it’s about. It’s not soda, that’s for sure. Right underneath the endlessly catchy hooks is a story about Vietnam, specifically the chemical weapon, Agent Orange.
High on the roof Thin the blood Another one came on the waves tonight Coming in, you’re home
“We would circle and we’d circle and we’d circle To stop and consider and centered on the pavement Stacked up all the trucks jacked up and our wheels In slush and orange crush in pocket and all This here county, hell, any county, it’s just like heaven here And I was remembering and I was just in a different county and all Then this whirlybird that I headed for I had my goggles pulled off; I knew it all, I knew every back road and every truck stop”
(Follow me, don’t follow me) I’ve got my spine, I’ve got my orange crush (Collar me, don’t collar me) I’ve got my spine, I’ve got my orange crush (We are agents of the free) I’ve had my fun and now it’s time To serve your conscience overseas (Over me, not over me) Coming in fast, over me
This record really captures the dichotomy that I struggle with every time I put my creative voice into a project. I always want to be fun, optimistic, and inspiring, but I, more often than not, end up just wanting to unload all my anger and angst. I just want to shake people and yell at them to give a shit about whatever issues are really stuck in my brain at the time. To just berate them with rhetoric until they finally feel what I feel. But too often, it just comes off callous and angry. Maybe it’s better to give a more empathetic message, giving the audience the opportunity and the agency to come to some insightful conclusions on their own. And if you can put it all in a super catchy single, that definitely won’t hurt. You catch more flies with honey and all that.
More than anything else, R.E.M. is pure honesty. Green was the very first album I listened to when I got my own car and I’ll never forget the rush of hearing the album blaring (through a Discman, powered by two piggybacked AC adapters and a cassette converter) as I slammed the clutch, shifted into third, and merged onto the expressway for the first time. It was a relatively new album for me at the time, but I just couldn’t bring myself to listen to anything else. It was such a perfect blend of angst and optimism. Relevance and memorability. Catchiness and importance. It so perfectly encapsulates my constant struggle between trying to bring everyone up and to make sure everyone knows how important it is to get up and stand for something. The world makes me want to scream every single day. But those screams are not uniform. Screams of joy, screams of pain, screams of love, screams of hate. And that’s ok.
The original column was published on October 15th, 2019 and can be found below.
Do you hear me out there? I can hear you. I got you, I can hear you alright. This is so strange, I want to wish for something new. This is the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Who do we think we are?
It’s always been really hard for me to feel like I truly belong. I always get close, but I always feel like I’m just outside the core people who deserve their place in the inner circle. Lately, I’ve really been trying to take that big jump into the deep end and stop feeling like an awkward observer but own my role as a central figure in my own passions. And one of the things that really helped me re-focus my efforts is one of my favorite albums from the mid 2000s, Angels And Airwaves’ 2006 debut, We Don’t Need To Whisper.
Leave your pain on the bedroom floor again, bring a smile to survive And do you think that you have that in you? If you’re here and you’re all alone tonight, then I’ll give you a free ride. Take a chance ’cause I know you want to.
blink-182 was the first band I ever really loved. The first CD I ever bought, the reason I bought a bass, the first songs I ever taught myself, the reason I started my first band. There are plenty of pictures, videos, and recordings of me at 14 playing blink songs with my friends. Plenty of people fell in love with blink in the 90s and 00s, so this isn’t all that rare of a sentiment. But even among blink fans, there’s a lot of camps you can fall into. Those who consider them a punk band, those who call them pop, and the in-betweens. Scott or Travis? Is the Skiba stuff really blink? +44 or Angels? It goes on and on. But none are more pressing than the debate I hear more than any other. Mark or Tom?
For those who don’t know, Mark Hoppus is the bass player and one of the singers, and Tom Delonge is the guitarist and other singer. Tom’s the one with the voice. Where are you and I’m so sorry and all that. I will always love them both, but despite citing Mark as the reason I play bass (and for what it’s worth, I do crib a lot of his fifth-based melodies and chord structures), I’ve pretty much always been firmly in camp Tom… and boy, oh boy, have I gotten a lot of shit for it. How much that contributed to my feelings that I was always just a little bit of an outsider, I don’t know, but it certainly didn’t help.
In 2005, when blink broke up, everyone blamed Tom. And then when Angels And Airwaves debuted, it was pretty divisive. It sounds nothing like blink, even with Tom’s voice fronting the record. It’s got these long, atmosphere-building songs, U2-inspired guitar sounds, lofty lyrics on war and grandiose takes on love. Tom took a whole lot of chances when he reinvented himself this way, and not everyone liked it. But man, I ate that shit up. At 15, We Don’t Need To Whisper was a permanent fixture in my stereo and quite a few of the songs made it into my band’s setlist. That June, I saw them with Taking Back Sunday and hearing Tom play the verses of “Down” by himself was the first time I ever cried at a concert. It was truly a defining moment for my teenage years.
But even then, I still had this… tinge of outsider. After the Angels set, people in our section, as well as the whole coliseum, stormed the floor to hop the wall and get on the floor. And I couldn’t. I just kept thinking, “wow, those people are so cool, I could never do anything like that. Those are real punks. If I did that, they would just think I’m some poser.” And this was a pretty common feeling for me, and to be honest, still is. Fast forward a little over a decade and I’m married to a girl who was also at that show and actually did jump over that guardrail! And she even had the same poster in her bedroom that I did, a very dramatic Angels poster from the liner notes of Whisper.
But my struggles with this kind of thing needed more than just the coolest girl I ever met to tell me I wasn’t a loser (though that helped). Recently, I’ve had a lot of small moments really stand out as validating that the less uniformly popular things I liked and chances I took were the right ones. When a lot of my friends were full on mocking Tom’s new “super-serious” band, I was hyping up the record and burning copies for everyone. Just last month, an old friend I haven’t spoken to in years reached out, thanking me for all the music I gave him after school and how much that shaped who he became. What I thought was just me doubling down because I’m defensive about Tom Delonge ended up meaning a lot to both of us. We even saw Angels together on their second tour in 2008! As a defensive aside, Tom still gets a whole lot of flack for his weird alien stuff, but hey, he actually got the government to admit some weird Navy stuff was a UFO, so jokes on all of you. He was right and I was right to believe in him.
The ash set in then blew away. It’s getting lost into the sea. I grew so close to all the thoughts I had to leave forever I left the chill and voice of screams and kids and ran for shelter. You know, I won’t say sorry. You know, I won’t say sorry. The pain has a bad reaction, a blend of fear and passion. You know what it’s like to believe? It makes me wanna scream.
But even more than that, I’ve had a lot of my creative outlets feel a lot more real than they used to. I recently re-started an old collaborative relationship with one of my most beloved artistic partners. And even though our new material is very different than what we used to make, that familiarity has put our old work on my mind again. I used to feel like my ideas weren’t good enough to mention or push and that I was always part of some B-tier. But this time, I’ve really made an effort to express myself more openly and honestly and I’d like to think the work is better for it. And right at the same time, I have had several people come up to me lately and tell me how important our old work was for them and it shaped the types of songwriters and musicians they’ve become; adding how excited they are to hear what we do next. Something I never once expected and still don’t quite know how to internalize.
I should have turned back, I should have known better Than to walk away defeated I’ll say it tonight, I’ll say it forever And this time I really swear I mean it I think I like today, I think it’s good It’s something I can’t get my head around.
When Angels And Airwaves released their first record, We Don’t Need To Whisper, no one knew what to expect and the hype was all over the place. Tom Delonge took a huge chance with it and I think it paid off. Angels showed he was much more capable and talented than anyone ever gave him credit for. I think there’s a lot we can take from that. As long as you’re willing to take that jump and do what you think is important to express yourself, who gives a shit if no one thinks you belong there? Fuck ’em. Take the chance. Who knows? Maybe you’ll meet some aliens. And maybe in the future, your work will have meant a lot more to people than you ever realized, even if the only person that feels that way is you. And as long as you think you belong there, you do.
The original column was published on September 15th, 2019 and can be found below.
Content Warning: this column deals with trauma, September 11th, 2001, and similar topics. All the heavy stuff is prologue to the column, so feel free to skip to the actual album review, starting with the fourth paragraph.
God is on top of it all That’s all We are we are we are
What’s the difference between a timeless legacy and a dated representation of the times? How do we decide what’s worth focusing on when we look back? It sure seems like a random and arbitrarily decided distinction. Sure, some are clearer than others. It’s easy to give credit for era-defining albums or days that live in infamy. Less noteworthy things, like one-hit wonders, are usually revisited as a nostalgia trip, not because they’re still relevant, whatever that means. Relevancy is such a nebulous concept and one that varies so much from person to person. Because of that, this column is going to be a little more divided than usual, focusing first on what’s on my mind leading up to putting this month’s album on repeat before diving into the album itself.
Just a few days ago, we passed the 18th anniversary of the September 11th attacks in New York City. I’m not going to get into my personal connections and memories with the event here, as I think they’re much too complicated to have as a backdrop to a music column. But this year felt… different for me than it usually does. Yeah, every year I see a lot of “Never Forget” posts alongside edgy jokes belittling it, the usual internet discourse ranging from deeply personal to the shallowest callousness and every level of no/half/full-hearted messaging in between. I was surprised, though, to see a lot of people talking about how it’s been so long, why do we still make such a big deal out of it, that it’s no longer relevant enough to justify all this attention. And this year, I saw an elevated level of animosity, which is, frankly, what I’ve come to expect in 2019. Some using it as an example of true American sacrifice, the day we were shown just how at risk the life we had taken for granted was. Others using it as the starting point of the modern American imperial era kicked into effect by the Authorization For Use Of Military Force Against Terrorists bill and the Bush Doctrine. Projecting it as the event that jingoists and fascists use to justify their politics. And while I don’t disagree with any of that, per se, I think there’s something deeply personal missing from that dichotomy, a focus on what parts of the event are still relevant and necessary to include in our thoughts on that horrible day.
I’m sure it’s because I’m a New Yorker, but I don’t think enough people give space for the trauma that it caused in so many of us. Yes, it is more important than ever to discuss the politics of the weeks, months, and years after that, especially now that people born after that day are now old enough to go fight in the wars that spun out of it. I was extremely lucky not to lose anyone that day, but knew plenty of people that did. When we look at such a catastrophic event as that day, we too often forget that the people affected are still affected and walk around with that weight every single day. First responders dealing with the mental (and physical) damage from being a part of it. People who were harassed, abused, and worse just because they looked like the people who did this. Children who were forced to confront so many things about the world, prematurely, that Tuesday morning. So many people lost something that day, and even though it’s been 18 years, not everyone’s found it yet. We all need to remember the real people that these macroscopic events touch, the micro reasons why 18 years isn’t nearly enough for these events to no longer be considered… relevant.
So what does that have to do with David Bowie? Aside from him playing “Heroes” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” at the Concert For New York benefit, not much on it’s face, actually. I was stuck thinking about the kinds of legacies that are left behind and how much weight we should give facets of more complex legacies. Whenever I’m stuck in a loop in my own head, thinking about some complicated or challenging feelings, there’s almost always a Bowie record that helps me focus. I think it’s because he reinvented himself so many times. Bowie is always relevant because he was always relevant. In the late 80s and early 90s, he was in a critical slump and a lot of people counted him out after he was unable to match his success of his early and mid 80s albums. But with 1993’s Black Tie, White Noise, he reintroduced himself and kickstarted one of my favorite eras of his career, his electronic house/industrial phase. Fresh off of his tenure in the band Tin Machine and beginning a marriage, this album serves as not only a revamp of what a David Bowie record sounded like, but a goodbye to the Bowie everyone already knew. From “You’ve Been Around:”
The album has way more than just the lyrics to show the bridge between Bowie’s past and future. He considered it a blend of 60s pop melodies with 90s house music. Bowie brought back Nile Rodgers, his producer from Let’s Dance a decade prior, but made a conscious effort to distance himself from that sound. Bowie picks a few covers to include on this album, too, and those choices are very telling. He covers Morrisey’s 1992 track “You’re Gonna Need Someone On Your Side,” which itself was heavily influenced by Bowie’s glam rock era, not least of all because it featured Mick Ronson, Bowie’s guitarist from 1970 to 1973, most famously on Ziggy Stardust. Bowie covers the contemporary song inspired by his classic style, once again merging the past and the present. There’s a very 1993 version of Cream’s 1966 single “I Feel Free,” featuring Mick himself. This was their first collaboration in 20 years, but tragically, Ronson passed away from cancer only 24 days after the album’s release. The inevitability of moving forward is clear on the record, no matter how familiar it may seem on paper. From “Miracle Goodnight:”
Bowie, more so than any artist I listen to, always managed to stay relevant while staying familiar. He always sounded like Bowie, even when what that means is so hard to describe. His catalog serves as a long narrative, with twists, turns, and losses that I find really inspiring. Every few months I do a full listen of his discography, chronologically, and I have different takeaways every time. Sometimes I love the Berlin era most of all, sometimes his early work, this time his 90s stuff. It always helps me to get clarity on complex issues I have, knowing that it’s possible to consider the multitudes and learn more as you revisit the complexities. You don’t have to completely understand every phase and growth right away, whether it be from an artist’s work or your own traumas. Someone like Bowie, someone beautifully expressive and honest, helps to shed light on my darkest thoughts and keep me company in my loneliest memories.
It’s hard for me to imagine a time when people thought Bowie’s career was over. But like all timeless art, his time came again, and he was able to reinvent himself and cement his legacy as someone with countless aspects. As we look back through the art we love, the people we idolize, and the events that shaped us, it’s important to try to look at them with the nuance they deserve. It’s always more complicated than it seems on the surface and bullet points rarely capture the whole picture.
The original column was published on August 15th, 2019 and can be found below.
Just a content note, I’ll be talking about genocide, fascism, and political generalizations based on demographic trends, so you don’t have to yell at me if you’re “one of the good ones.”
Mother, did it need to be so high?
I spend a lot of time doing deep dives on music and I try to break open as much of what the songwriters are trying to say as I can, whether it be about themselves or the world around them. But it’s becoming more and more obvious that a lot of people don’t do that, even when they’ve been listening to these songs for decades and especially when they’re really popular. The more these songs are played out and diluted, the less real meaning they seem to have, like an album everyone seems to know, Pink Floyd’s 1979 album, The Wall.
I’ve been thinking about this in the context of older generations lately, after starting to really delve into the solo career of Roger Waters, the bass player and main songwriter for Pink Floyd, primarily Is This The Life We Really Want?, his newest record. I was searching through some reviews for it and came across this one:
If you know anything about Roger Waters, you already know more than “Steve S,” but if you don’t, he’s pretty consistently written political lyrics. Even before the Pink Floyd album I picked for this month’s column, you can clearly see his politics shine through in most of his post-Dark Side Of The Moon work, both solo and with Floyd. Here’s “Sheep” from their 1977 record, Animals.
What do you get for pretending the danger’s not real Meek and obedient, you follow the leader down well-trodden corridors Into the valley of steel What a surprise, a look of terminal shock in your eyes Now things are really what they seem No, this is no bad dream
The entire album is politically driven, from attacking capitalism, media censorship and “traditional values,” to blindly obeying a leader until you realize how far you’ve fallen. The issue we’re seeing today, though, is that so many people, especially when they’re privileged enough to be less affected by day-to-day policy fights, don’t realize they’ve fallen from their ideals at all. They think they’re on the right side of history, but if you were to supplant their opinions now relative to the oppressive power structures back just a few decades, they would almost certainly be the people calling Martin Luther King Jr. a dangerous radical and contributing to the almost two thirds disapproval rating that he had in 1966. They’d much rather just “keep politics out of it” and “talk about something else” instead of standing up for what’s right. King talked extensively about the dangers of these (white) moderates who sit on the sidelines in his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail.”
First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride towards freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Klu Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.
Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
I’m bewildered by the present-day rejection of societal optimism and justice from the generations that viewed their elders as the evil traditionalists standing in the way of integration, civil rights, ending the imperialism of the cold war, alongside so many societal ills that have by no means disappeared. The hippies of the late 60s and the punks of the late 70s grew up and stopped caring about making the world a better place, choosing instead to stay complacent in favor of the status quo that now benefited them. Instead of internalizing the messages of their heroes and inspirations, they became the villains of their favorite stories. They act like children who don’t know better, whether it be by naïveté or ignorance, but refuse to honestly engage with the things that inspired them when they were young, learning all the wrong lessons, just like the generations they fought against.
It’s a rock opera, and like most narrative albums, the plot’s a bit murky, so I’m not going to get into the inspirations on which characters are based on what or the deep cuts behind it. But the main bullet points of the plot are:
A young boy’s father dies in a war.
Daddy’s flown across the ocean, leaving just a memory A snapshot in the family album, Daddy what else did you leave for me? Daddy, what’d you leave behind for me? All in all, it was just a brick in the wall
The boy is left with his overprotective mother, who pushes him to isolate himself from the world around him.
Hush now baby, don’t you cry Mama’s gonna make all of your nightmares come true Mama’s gonna put all of her fears into you Mama’s gonna keep you right here, under her wing She won’t let you fly, but she might let you sing Mama will keep baby, cozy and warm Ooh babe, Of course mama’s help build the wall
His school teachers’ harassments and cruelties add to his anxiety; they, too, are stuck in cycles of abuse
When we grew up and went to school, there were certain teachers Who would hurt the children anyway they could By pouring their derision upon anything we did And exposing every weakness however carefully hidden by the kid But in the town it was well known, when they got home at night Their fat and psychopathic wives would thrash them within inches of their lives
As he grows older, after a back and forth of infidelities, a divorce pushes him even further into emotional isolation.
Day after day, love turns grey like the skin of a dying man Night after night, we pretend it’s alright But I have grown older, and you have grown colder And nothing is very much fun anymore
Despite that, he becomes a rock star, has to medicate to even function through his anxieties, and imagines a world where he’s a fascist leader, who scapegoats minorities with extermination.
Realizing the monster that lurks inside him, he puts himself on trial within his own psyche and confronts the characters that pushed him to build up his walls.
Good morning, worm, your honor, the crown will plainly show The prisoner who now stands before you was caught red handed Showing feelings, showing feelings of an almost human nature
But in the end he is “sentenced” to let himself feel real emotions again, and tears down his defenses, exposing his vulnerabilities to the cruel world around him, while the album hints at the cycle starting all over again when it ends with a loop that connects it to the opening track.
Since my friend, you have revealed your deepest fear I sentence you to be exposed before your peers Tear down the wall!
The politics of the album aren’t explicitly clear until the latter half, but Waters is saying a lot throughout. Our protagonist, Pink, is constantly blaming everyone around him for his flaws. His father, his mother, his teacher, his wife, eventually blaming anyone “impure.” But throughout all of his projection, empty sadness, and blind rage, he only finds actual growth and solace when he does some, albeit dramatic, self-reflection. He puts himself on trial, not because he’s forced to, but because it’s the only way he can exorcise his demons. It’s not anyone’s fault but his. Sure, he had external struggles, but at the end of the day, he was just an asshole who was turning his daddy issues, mommy issues, issues with women, etc, but most of all his fears into a force to hurt people. Honest self reflection and confronting the internalized trauma, usually ingrained from childhood, are the only real ways we can grow and develop into the people we thought we’d grow into when we were kids.
The people that always look for blame around them, especially when directing it at the most vulnerable, instead of the systems that enable the real villains, should remember what it was like to be that scared kid watching the world change around them, whether it was in the 50s and 60s, or just yesterday. To imagine how the people that inspired them would look down at them now, with disgust, as they’ve gone from the victim of the trauma to the perpetrator. Maybe as an absent father, or an overprotective mother, or a cruel teacher, or maybe simply as a person who’s adding just another brick to the wall. But it’s a much better story if we tear down the walls in the end instead of building even taller ones for tomorrow’s children to have to smash through.
The original column was published on July 16th, 2019 and can be found below.
This album was selected by Will.
Spirit of my silence, I can hear you. But I’m afraid to be near you. And I don’t know where to begin And I don’t know where to begin
Folk music can be a real bummer. Indie folk? Forget about it. Sufjan Stevens? Well, I might as well grab some ice cream because I’ve been listening to his 2015 album, Carrie & Lowell, and it’s a doozy. I’ve only heard Sufjan’s earlier indie-folk stylings in passing, and years ago at that, so I had no idea what to expect when this album was picked for my first requested record. I’d heard he got really experimental with electronica music? Well, definitely not here because this is a real mellow acoustic album and, even with that, it has a lot of weight to it.
I should have known better, to see what I could see. My black shroud, holding down my feelings A pillar for my enemies I should have wrote a letter, and grieve what I happen to grieve My black shroud, I never trust my feelings I waited for the remedy
When I was three, maybe four, she left us at the video store Be my rest, be my fantasy
The album deals with some more complex looks at death than I was prepared for. Sufjan’s mother had just passed away and this record deals a lot with the difficulties he’s feeling, as she was not exactly the most… present kind of parent. But still, when someone’s gone, it has a sense of finality, regardless of whether we’re able to make our peace with them before they go.
When I was three, and free to explore I saw her face on the back of the door Be my vest, be my fantasy
I should have known better, nothing can be changed The past is still the past, the bridge to nowhere I should’ve wrote a letter, explaining what I feel, that empty feeling
This album really made me think about my relationships with people and what it would be like if the current status quo was permanently set as the finale. The album is full of the kinds of solemn regrets that accompany them, but that in and of itself is not all that rare in folk music. The tone is really what sets Carrie & Lowell apart. Sufjan has this atmospheric and airy quality that draws you in and just kinda floats around your head for a while. Even when I wasn’t initially picking up the themes, the intent was clear. I generally gravitate towards much more full and upbeat folk, like The Decemberists, but I still found myself getting lost in the world he was painting, even when the song itself was deeply somber.
For my prayer has always been love, what did I do to deserve this? With blood on my sleeve, Delilah, avenge my grief How? God of Elijah
As fire to the sun, tell me what I have done. How? Heart of a dragon?
One of the things that really stood out to me on this record was how specifically anecdotal Sufjan’s lyrics could be. A lot of folk comes across as “everyman” stories and universal truths, but here, Sufjan doesn’t steer away from specific locales and stories that help build his story as more personal, less universal and help build an irresistible ethos around his narrative.
Emerald Park, wonders never cease The man who taught me to swim, he couldn’t quite say my first name Like a father, he led community water on my head And he called me “Subaru,” and now I want to be near you
Since I was old enough to speak, I’ve said it with alarm Some part of me was lost in your sleeve where you hid your cigarettes No, I’ll never forget. I just want to be near you.
Carrie & Lowell isn’t my usual style and I found myself drawn in a lot more to the lyrics than the more stripped down and slower musical stylings of the record. But sitting with them as I wrote really helped me internalize just how personal and poetic a lot of these songs are. After the first few listens, I didn’t expect to be so moved by the honesty that Sufjan shows about his relationship with not only his mother, but his stepfather who remains a very positive and important part of Sufjan’s life. The difficulties he went through, grieving someone who was not there for him, while still being supported by someone who’s life his mother chose to be a more active part of make Carrie & Lowell an album as complex as it is beautiful and one that’s definitely worth following along with as you get lost in the music.
So can we be friends sweetly, before the mystery ends? I love you more than the world can contain in its lonely and ramshackle head There’s only a shadow of me; in a manner of speaking I’m dead
I’m holding my breath, my tongue on your chest, what can be said of the heart? If history speaks, the kiss on my cheek, where there remains but a mark Beloved my John, so I’ll carry on, counting my cards down to one And when I am dead, come visit my bed, my fossil is bright in the sun
So can we contend peacefully before my history ends? Jesus, I need you, be near, come shield me from fossils that fall on my head There’s only a shadow of me; in a manner of speaking, I’m dead
The original column was published on April 15th, 2019 and can be found below.
Love say “Take my hand, it’ll be alright. C’mon, save your soul tonight.”
I had a really hard time picking what album to cover this month and kept putting it off. But then I fell down an unexpected rabbit hole and ended up deep in early 90s Prince, which is a pretty great place to find yourself. It all started because our stupid president released his first campaign ad for 2020 and used some music from his favorite (probably) Christoper Nolan movie, Batman:The Dark Knight Rises and had it almost immediately taken down by Warner Bros. for unauthorized use. He has a long history of using music for campaign things without permission, but that’s neither here nor there. So I ended up dipping back into the only Batman soundtrack that actually matters, Prince’s soundtrack for Batman (1989), and decided to just continue on through from there.
Since I last wrote about Prince, I’ve gone through his entire catalog, and can sincerely say there’s not a single album with his name (or symbol) on it that I don’t love. But a run of albums that really stand out to me are the early-mid 90s, specifically 1991’s Diamonds And Pearls. It kicks off with this huge vocal-driven gospel track, “Thunder,” that immediately lets you know that you’re in Prince’s church now. Even though this record isn’t one of his universally beloved or top 5 albums, it’s a really fascinating era for Prince. It’s his first with a full band lineup since The Revolution disbanded five years earlier. This time, The New Power Generation brings a real 90s party vibe with them. Every song on the record shines with the quirky production, hip hop beats, and rap verses that immediately take you back to the early 90s. And the album itself perfectly captures that tone. Diamonds And Pearls is a whole lot of fun, but hidden under the party are some deeper undertones. Even with that, though, the vast majority of the album is just about sex and dancing. And there’s a whole lot of real 90s slang. You know I eat that kinda thing up. Who couldn’t love deep metaphors like “Mack Daddy In The House” and “clocking a freak in the low pro?” Plus, the cover (up top) has one of those sick holograms!
But even moreso than the new music styles Prince was embracing, this era is interesting because Prince was kicking his feud with his label, Warner Bros, into high gear to get out of his contract. (For more on that: I highly recommend his 1996 triple album Emancipation, his first release after he finally succeeded.) This album explicitly lays out the struggle Prince is having after the dopey dance track, “Jughead,” in a perfect example of the dichotomy of this record.
“What you need is a manager” “For what? Money minders are like parasites. They pose as wheelers and dealers for your rights. And most companies say that you need em! Not me! But I’ve kicked back, observed, and watched ’em bleed ’em. Artists young and old. Where’d this unwritten law come from anyway? That years after the contract, you should still be getting paid? Boy, I go broke and hit the skids before I take care of a rich sucker’s kids. Hell, A contract ain’t got no pension plan. Years after this, my kids are still gonna make the grand.”
Moments like this really stuck out to me when I realized I only initially grabbed Diamonds And Pearls because of some jackass trying to steal someone else’s music to fearmonger in a propaganda video. There’s a lot more here than just catchy songs like the title track, “Diamonds and Pearls,” or singles like “Cream,” and “Gett Off.” It’s more than Prince fully embracing the 90s sound. It really is a time capsule for 1991, both for Prince and for the world around him. Immediately after “Jughead,” comes “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night,” which seems like a sexy 90s slow jam, until…
Hey now, maybe we can find a good reason to send a child off to war. So what if we’re controllin’ all the oil, is it worth the child dying for? If long life is what we all live for, then long life will come to pass. Anything is better than the picture of a child, in a cloud of gas. And you think you got it bad.
It got me thinking about the context of the world in 1991. This album came out in between what I would consider the two defining moments of George H. W. Bush’s presidency. The first Iraq war had been over for just over 7 months and that imagery was obviously still very present in the public’s eye. And just over the horizon, about a year later, the first President Bush was about to pardon most of the people involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, to finalize the cover up of one of the biggest presidential scandals in American history. And who was the Attorney General who pushed this gross misstep of justice? William Barr, of course! The man who wrote the “synopsis” of the Mueller report. So maybe this fun trip to the early 90s was a bit less of an escape than I thought it would be. Nostalgia can be a great tool to dip into and get away from it all for a bit, but I’ve been trying to remember that a lot of the bad parts about the times I fondly look back on are still here and have only gotten worse. But like everything, it’s more important than ever to contextualize the whole picture. We still found reasons to dance and fall in love in the 90s and we sure as hell will now, too. Don’t let the bastards get you down.
The original column was published on March 15th, 2019 and can be found below.
I’m not anything at all
I’ve been leaning into some major escapism this month. Sometimes we all just need a break, you know? Mostly this means I’m reading a lot of sci-fi novels, but I almost always keep music on while I read, to really tune out the distractions and get lost in a world that’s got a better sense of morality than the one currently on the other side of my headphones. This time, it’s been a lot of St. Vincent, the musical identity of Annie Clark.
St. Vincent’s an artist I’ve only very recently gotten into, specifically with her 2017 record, Masseduction, after I was given it for a network Secret Santa from Falling In Love Montage‘s Helen. After going backwards through her whole catalog, Masseduction is still my favorite, but recently I’ve been gravitating towards her debut, 2007’s Marry Me. It doesn’t have the bombastic and explosive melodies of her latter work, or the complexity of some of her collaborations, like Love This Giant (with David Byrne) does, but Marry Me has really resonated with me beyond an album hiding in the background of my solitary reading sessions. Now, I don’t mean the album is best listened to passively, as it’s very strong on it’s own and certainly deserves your full attention. What I mean is that, unlike the rest of Annie’s catalog, Marry Me has a simplicity to the structure of the record that lets you forget just how brilliant it is.
The album has a lot of themes of the naive idealism of love from someone new to it, something I’m always a big sucker for. The overwhelming feelings you’re controlled by. The agency you give up to the other person, as you lie awake wishing more than anything that they feel the same way. Thinking, no, knowing, that this is the most important thing in the world, until you come up for air and realize it… wasn’t. Until it is again.
But you, you’re a rock with a heart like a socket I can plug into at will And will you guess, when I come around next, I hope your open sign is blinking still So marry me, John, I’ll be so good to you You won’t realize I’m gone, you won’t realize I’m gone As for me, I would have to agree, I’m as fickle as a paper doll being kicked by the wind When I touch down again, I’ll be in someone else’s arms Oh, John, C’mon
But albums about young love are not exactly the hardest thing to find. This album stands out above and beyond for a few reasons. Most importantly, the melodies and instrumentation are very good. It’s the kind of album where I struggle to pick what should’ve been the single. There’s a lot of really great production, a lot in really unexpected places. There are 17 different musicians present on the record and it shows. Lots of strings, brass, and more help to layer the album, but the real shining star is Annie’s voice. I really love her guitar playing, too, but her voice ranges from choir backups (alongside the additional singers present) to some raw and straight-from-the-heart solo vocals over a simple piano. The record jumps from full string arrangements to the barest melody and back again without ever feeling jarring or out of place. The highs and lows of love are clear, not only in the lyrics, but in every aspect of the record. Her voice, alongside her writing, is so versatile that listening to her debut, you can clearly see why her records went on to be so unique. The dichotomy is here, bouncing between the simplest and most complex aspects of young love, embracing the overwhelming beauty of it all without ever ignoring the darker sides of it.
It’s these deeper and darker sections, like in “Paris Is Burning” or “The Apocalypse Song” that forced my ears to perk up and focus more on the music, even if it meant reading the same page over and over again. St. Vincent lures you in with simple melodies and catchy hooks, but her lyrics and delivery keep you coming back when the record’s over. Her other albums, specifically Actor, St. Vincent, and Masseduction, stood out as great records immediately, but Marry Me is more subtle and has been exactly what I’ve been looking for this month. The slow burn kind of record that you find yourself starting over more often than you realize, even if it’s just on in the background… at first. But it won’t be for long.