19 November 2011

It Was 20 Years Ago Today...

“It’s no secret ambition bites the nails of success.” That’s Bono, halfway between a whisper and a scream, on “The Fly,” the seventh and greatest song from U2’s seventh and greatest album, Achtung Baby, which turns 20 today. I turned 13 in 1991, and this has been a year fraught with musical anniversaries from one of the watershed years of both my life and the rock era. Lest you think I’m merely conflating the two, it’s worth noting that I didn’t catch up with many of that year’s classics—such as Loveless, Laughing Stock, Blue Lines, and The Low End Theory—until years later. But then again there was also Out of Time, Nevermind, and of course, Achtung Baby.

Not that I thought it was a masterpiece right away. When I first picked up the album (on cassette, at a grocery store) shortly after its release, I was only sure of two things: I didn’t like it, and I couldn’t stop listening to it. It’s hard to communicate in today’s era of cross-pollination and porous genre boundaries how radical the album’s sound was back then, at least by the standards of mainstream pop. Hip-hop was ascendant, with the likes of Public Enemy, NWA, KRS-One and many others having made inroads into the mainstream, but it would be another year before Dre and Snoop completely blew the lid off. Bands like Talking Heads and New Order had successfully brought the sonic innovations of funk and disco into the rock world, but a few hits notwithstanding, they remained a bit outré, fine for the hipsters but not quite fully accepted into the rock mainstream, at least in America. U2 on the other hand had broken all the way through with The Joshua Tree (1987), a megahit album that spawned a pair of No. 1 singles. Some of the stodgier classic-rock types still scoffed at the band’s heavy use of digital delay pedals and other electronic gimmickry, but U2 was indisputably the biggest band in the world and had largely cemented a reputation as heirs to the classic-rock legacy. Which they then proceeded to shred to pieces.

The first hints that something was afoot came on New Year’s Eve, 1989, the last night of the ’80s, when a rambling Bono told the crowd in the band’s hometown of Dublin that U2 needed to “go away for awhile” to “dream it all up again.” Many fans took it as a hint that the band was breaking up. As it turned out, they were just getting started. U2 soon decamped to Berlin, a city just emerging from the schism of the Cold War, with the goal of reworking their sound in the same studio used by David Bowie and Brian Eno for the Low/Heroes/Lodger trilogy of the late ’70s. The ensuing sessions with producer Daniel Lanois nearly did break up the band, but the album got done, thanks in no small part to a well-timed visit from Eno (not officially a producer on Achtung Baby, but absolutely essential to bridging the gap between Bono and Edge’s progressivism and the more traditional inclinations of Lanois and drummer Larry Mullen).

Aggressively postmodernist and self-consciously cool, Achtung Baby culls elements from 20 years of hipster music—everything from the fractured pop of Eno’s ’70s albums and the jagged rhythms of the Heads to industrial rock, Manchester-style acid house, and the otherworldly din of the Bomb Squad. What emerges from the stew is too eclectic to be called rock—it’s still basically guitar-bass-drums, but suspiciously danceable and dangerously unmoored. On tracks like the opening “Zoo Station,” Bono’s voice emerges from under heavy distortion and you can hear Lanois and engineer Flood twisting the knobs. The effect is simultaneously mystifying and demystifying, emotionally indirect, yet giving the listener a peek at the men behind the curtain.

But as radical and influential as the album’s sound was, it was the change in the band’s attitude, indicated by the cheeky title, that really threw people. U2’s political and spiritual commitments largely survived the transition, but were now fused to a wicked satirical bent and a radical embrace of uncertainty. On the follow-up album, 1993’s post-apocalyptic Zooropa, very much a companion piece to Achtung Baby, Bono sang, “And I have no compass and I have no map/And I have no reason, no reason to get back,” words that registered as both a mission statement and a battle cry for the moment when modern rock went postmodern, the most thorough reinvention of a world-famous rock band’s image since…well, you know. Bono in particular was utterly transformed, from a painfully earnest liberal do-gooder railing about IRA terrorism or Martin Luther King into a glib, sunglasses-sporting shyster capable of deadpanning a couplet like “Every artist is a cannibal/Every poet is a thief/All kill their inspiration/And sing about their grief” on “The Fly,” a song described by the singer as “a phone call from hell” stuffed with lyrical “untruisms.” Another song, “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” used a Coca-Cola slogan as a jumping off point. Clearly, we were a long way from “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and there was no going back. And needless to say, not everyone agreed that this was progress.

The ensuing Zoo TV tour pushed things even further, radically deconstructing the arena rock experience in ways never seen before or since. Giant video screens simulated the sensory bombardment of satellite television with rapid-fire video montages drawing from sources ranging from Nazi propaganda films to contemporary news footage. The clips were intercut with Godardian bits of text-as-graphics, including more anti-truisms like “Contradiction is balance” and “Everything you know is wrong.” Of course 1991 was also the year of the first Gulf War, a mere footnote in the history of modern warfare but, as the first war to be covered extensively by satellite and cable news networks, a watershed in the history of media spectacle. The ensuing displacement of the reality of the conflict by its mediated representation had been anticipated in the writings of Jean Baudrillard. In “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,” (1995) an essay as widely misunderstood as Zoo TV itself, Baudrillard would write of the “exile of the virtual” supplanting the “catastrophe of the real.” Yes, television reflected the reality of the Gulf War, but that wasn’t the half of it. In an almost literal sense, it became the reality.

Zoo TV functioned on the same principle. Critics complained that the visual bombast overwhelmed the band and the music, as if that weren’t the point; that it was superficial, as if it could have been anything else. Again, Baudrillard: “One cannot help thinking that in the West we still have a hypocritical vision of television and information, to the extent that, despite all the evidence, we hope for their proper use.” Like much of Godard’s work, the spectacle was intended to be overwhelming and resistant to interpretation. In between songs, Bono, dressed up in full Fly regalia—dark shades, black leather jacket and pants—would literally flip channels, offering wry commentary on whatever happened to pop up. There were also the nightly phone calls to then-president George H.W. Bush during the American leg of the tour in 1992, and of course, the night Bono ordered 10,000 pizzas for a crowd in Detroit. The European leg featured another character, MacPhisto, a vain rock star dressed in a red devil suit complete with horns, although the band decided, perhaps wisely, to keep him offstage for the American shows (Americans, satire, etc.).

The devil suit was telling, as Achtung Baby had been noted by some U2-ologists for its relative absence of overtly religious content, atypical for this most Christian of secular rock bands (or is it the other way around?). One major exception is “Until the End of the World,” a casual retelling of the betrayal of Jesus told from the perspective of Judas, looking back regretfully on that fateful Thursday and awaiting final judgment. The song effectively locates the whole album on that ultimate dark night of the soul, evoking The Divine Comedy as much as the Gospel of John. God is present in his absence, a theme the band would deal with more directly on Pop (1997).

Most of the other tracks deal with romantic love, a ubiquitous topic of pop music that U2 had mostly eschewed during the ’80s. The epic “One” and slinky “So Cruel” detail troubled relationships, a theme that seemingly crests with “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World,” in which the wandering male protagonist apparently conquers temptation and returns home. The song ends on the uplifting, redemptive note of previous U2 closers like “40” and “MLK.” Except that there are still three more tracks to go.

Those last three songs hit a different register entirely, plumbing a darkness that U2 had only hinted at on previous albums. “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)” is another celebration of monogamy, but one tinged with desperation (“I remember when we could sleep on stones/But now we lie together in whispers and moans/When I was all messed up and I heard opera in my head/Your love was a light bulb hanging over my bed”). The mood darkens further with “Acrobat,” a portrait of full-on existential crisis, in which Bono’s anxiety about his shifting public persona bubbles to the surface (“And I must be an acrobat/To talk like this and act like that”). Belying his history of religious and political identifications, he sings, “And I’d join the movement/If there was one I could believe in/I’d break bread and wine/If there was a church I could receive in.” But not tonight. It’s still Maundy Thursday, the Last Supper is history, and there’s no redemption in sight, not for three more days—or three more albums anyway.

Instead of a benediction, the band leaves us with “Love Is Blindness” (cf. “God is love”), perhaps the bleakest song in the U2 catalog, even if, 20 years later, I’m still not sure what it’s about. Over a ghostly midtempo shuffle, Bono’s lyrics evoke suicide, terrorism, prostitution, divorce, I don't know what. It climaxes with perhaps the most wrenching solo of Edge’s career. Squeeze the handle, blow out the candle, love is blindness. And it was night.

24 September 2011

Feeling Gravity’s Pull

So now that I’m back in grad school and once again hanging out with 24-year-olds on a regular basis, I’ve been contemplating my advancing age a bit more than usual lately. Not necessarily in a bad way, but I’m just saying. I’ve already got one backward-looking music post on tap for November and remain ever wary of nostalgia, but the passing of R.E.M. this week after 31 years deserves some comment. If you’re looking for a definitive obit, I’d recommend this terrific Grantland piece from Jon Dolan. I’m more interested in the timing of the band’s decision, which most fans seem to think came none too soon.

In the movie Trainspotting (1996), coincidentally released the same year as New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the final R.E.M. album to feature the band’s classic lineup with original drummer Bill Berry, one of the characters expounds on his theory of life—“At one point you’ve got it, then you lose it, and it’s gone forever”—before reeling off a damning list of musicians and other cultural figures who’d achieved greatness and been unable to recapture it (Elvis, Bowie, Lou Reed, etc.). It’s hardly an unfair way of looking at R.E.M.’s post-Berry output, which came on the heels of 15-plus years of uninterrupted greatness: ten albums, including two indisputable masterpieces, Murmur (1983) and Automatic for the People (1992), as well as several other excellent-to-classic works, and nary a dud in the bunch.

So we’re left with a problematic late period, five more albums including a mostly failed experiment (1998’s Up), a better-than-you-think last gasp (2001’s Reveal), an outright disaster (2004’s Around the Sun), and a pair of solid-but-unexciting workmanlike efforts (2008’s Accelerate and this year’s Collapse Into Now). I might be tempted to rank Reveal ahead of Green, the weakest of the Berry-era albums, but in general I’ll stipulate that the late work was categorically worse than the band’s pre-1998 output. It’s easy to blame Berry’s departure for the subsequent decline of this most democratic of rock bands, and it was certainly a crucial factor, but the real problem, to these ears at least, was the creeping self-consciousness of singer Michael Stipe’s lyrics and vocals as he became increasingly aware of himself as a mega-celebrity. This was beginning to become a problem as early as 1994’s Monster—unfortunately, Stipe wasn’t completely kidding when he said in an interview that he liked the album’s noisy sound because it meant the lyrics didn’t need to be as good. By the time of Around the Sun, his vocals resembled the efforts of a struggling ESL speaker reciting lyrics that he sounded like he’d never even read before, let alone written. You’ve got it, you lose it, and it’s gone forever.

All right, so that was a bit harsh. But it speaks to the heart of the problem for fans who become emotionally invested in favorite performers. Inevitably there’s a point where they become like aging relatives and we’re mainly hoping they won’t do anything to injure or embarrass themselves. I remember thinking that R.E.M. should have broken up after Around the Sun. In retrospect, I’m glad they didn’t. It would’ve been a sorry way to go out, and even though I’ve been unable to get all the way through Accelerate or Collapse Into Now more than a dozen or so times, at least it feels like the band’s leaving on its own terms now, rather than being quietly whisked out the door. But I have to admit that I greeted the release of both albums less with anticipation than trepidation and was mostly just relieved that they didn’t suck. So I’m not disappointed that there (probably) won’t be any more.

So when should a band call it quits? Setting aside the obvious fact that it’s not our choice to make, there’s the more objective tradeoff between the odd diamond in the rough on otherwise mediocre late albums and the toll that said mediocre albums take on a band’s legacy. Even the prototype for this argument, the Rolling Stones, who have now been mediocre for far longer than they were great, have had a vintage song or two on most of their late albums. I’m not unsympathetic to the view that R.E.M. should have broken up when Berry left, but what of those scattered late gems? Speaking only for myself, while I have a much easier time imagining a world without “The Lifting,” “Imitation of Life,” or “Uberlin” than one without, say, “Shaking Through,” “Driver 8,” or “Find the River,” it’s hard to see how it would be a better world. I’d rather just try to forget that “The Outsiders” ever existed. Maybe it’s better to fade away after all.

26 August 2011

Medicare Madness

It’s been even longer than usual since my last post. In addition to my usual slothfulness, I’ve recently moved out of New York and back to the Midwest for another round of graduate school (just in case you care, which you shouldn’t). The upshot is that I’m feeling more energized these days and will hopefully be posting more often, particularly on economics-related issues.

I’m now going to put my newfound sanity to the test by dipping a toe back into the world of politics. I’d rather not rehash the whole ridiculous debt ceiling episode, but let’s just say that the whole debate, along with the subsequent S&P downgrade, had me thinking a lot about Baudrillard. More than usual, even.

Still, the devil is in the details, and it’s now emerged, at least if you believe what you read on Politico, that President Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner had agreed, as part of a possible grand bargain, to gradually raise the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67.

This is a terrible, terrible idea. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that it’s the single worst idea for reducing the deficit that has any chance of being enacted anytime soon. And the fact that Obama would agree to such a thing less than 18 months after pushing an ambitious (albeit flawed) health care reform bill through Congress raises serious questions about the coherence of his policy agenda and/or the strength of his political character.

Why is raising the Medicare eligibility age such a bad idea? Clearly, many people (myself included) would find the idea of shifting more of the health care cost burden onto 65- and 66-year-olds, many of whom are already retired or otherwise ineligible for employment-based insurance, reprehensible in and of itself, but even if you don’t share this view, there are plenty of reasons to be opposed to this proposal. Chief among them from a fiscal point of view is that throwing 65- and 66-year-olds off Medicare would actually increase overall health care costs, as illustrated in this study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Money saved by the federal government would be dwarfed by a combination of increased out-of-pocket costs, increased costs for employers, increased premiums for other Medicare beneficiaries (remember that 65- and 66-year-olds are, on average, the healthiest Medicare beneficiaries, so removing them from the pool necessarily increases costs for everyone else), and increased Medicaid costs for state governments.

This issue illustrates the myopia inherent in Washington’s current fixation on the national debt. Contrary to what you may have heard, we do not have a debt crisis in this country. We are not “broke,” and the current debt load is easily manageable with a few relatively minor policy changes, such as full repeal of the Bush tax cuts. We do, however, have a significant issue with escalating health care costs. Our health care system needs to become more efficient, regardless of what proportion of its costs are borne by individuals, employers, states, or the federal government. Any reform that saves the federal government money by increasing overall health care costs is a step in the wrong direction. The fact is that Medicare is the most efficient provider of health insurance that we have, and we should be expanding eligibility to everyone, rather than further restricting it.

10 March 2011

Black Paintings

Back in the dark days of late 2002/early 2003, the period of the foredoomed protests leading up to the Iraq war, I often pondered the essentially nostalgic nature of the whole enterprise for many, if not most, of its participants. Nobody who thought about it for longer than five seconds could have believed we had any chance of stopping the invasion, but we had to go out and march anyway because we’d missed the ’60s and the Vietnam War and all that. But the protests were still based on 1960s models that no longer had any political valence in the age of contemporary mass media and right-wing backlash. It was now a simulation, pure and simple, a pathetic token of resistance that could be shown on CNN to reassure viewers that democracy was still just fine, thank you. This wasn’t political action; it was a manifestation of nostalgia for political action. We wanted to protest, but we also wanted to be home in time for dinner. (For an example of real protest with achievable political goals, I would refer you to ongoing events in Wisconsin.) What was lacking was any more rigorous notion of what does and does not constitute political action.

The same could be said for music. Every once in a while, even at this stage in the late-capitalist endgame, we’re subjected to some self-righteous jeremiad about how musicians never write any political songs these days. Such complaints usually come from the left-liberal end of the political spectrum; thus the lack of political content in pop music is usually ascribed to artists’ being self-serving corporate whores, or, if the complainer is a bit smarter, to the consolidation of the music industry into the hands of a tiny number of large, risk-averse conglomerates. I don’t mean to suggest that such claims are without merit, but there is another factor as well. That is, the fact that no one wants to hear it. As a culture, we’ve grown much more sophisticated/cynical (it’s a fine line) about listening to musicians or other celebrities opine on issues about which they don’t necessarily know any more than you or I do. (Of course, they don’t necessarily know any less either.) Obviously, much of this sentiment has been driven by mindless right-wing backlash, but all in all, I don’t think a little skepticism about pop-cultural sloganeering is such a bad thing.

But whither the political artist? Perhaps what we need is a more expansive notion of what that means, one that goes beyond gooey sentiment or propagandistic posturing, one that goes beyond 1960s-era models. So let us consider Polly Jean Harvey, a mercurial genius who’s been many things over the course of her 20-year career—wry feminist, mad blueswoman, sad goth girl—but could never be anything as unbearable as a protest singer, and her new album Let England Shake, a carefully crafted set of songs about World War I and its effects on England’s national culture and sense of identity. I should note here that Harvey has been something of a white whale for me in that I’ve attempted to write about her in the past but never succeeded, which speaks to how difficult she is to pin down as either a musician or an artist. Harvey emerged in the early ’90s as a raw postpunk-blues rocker on a series of noisy albums that culminated with a (mostly) quiet one, 1995’s To Bring You My Love, still Harvey’s masterpiece and one of the only modern blues albums, in the sense of being both truly blues-based (letting out Nirvana, etc.) and truly modern (excusing Jack White and his ilk). But her work since then has been much more diffuse—and controversial—defined less by what it is that what it isn’t: dark, blues-based guitar rock about sex, longing, passion, and womanhood. In other words, defined by its difference from Harvey’s early work. Even Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (2000), until now Harvey’s only universally acclaimed later work, largely dispensed with her customary angst in favor of upbeat melodic rock. (The disjointed, wheel-spinning Uh Huh Her [2004] is a partial throwback both musically and lyrically.)

Back in 2007, I thought I’d conceived a good idea for a piece centered on Harvey's guitar playing and how she’d upended the traditional gender hierarchy of rock and roll by essentially beating the guys at their own game (“You oughta hear my long snake moan” etc.). I’d planned to peg the piece to the release of her then-forthcoming album White Chalk—which turned out to be a cycle of somber piano-based songs with nary an electric guitar or gesture of masculine bravado in sight. Lesson learned. Given my esteem for Harvey as an artist, it was foolish to think that I could anticipate where she was going next.

Apparently, I’m in good company. Sasha-Frere Jones, in an atypically lazy dismissal of Let England Shake for The New Yorker, does an inordinate amount of complaining about the direction her artistic path has taken. Praising the “visceral” Harvey of the early-to-mid ’90s, Jones decries the lyrical, outward-looking Harvey of recent years, which included a two-year hiatus dedicated to studying and writing poetry. While Jones allows that “Harvey is allowed to change, and to chase any muse she wants,” he seems to be trying to talk himself into it. He then goes on to spend the remainder of the piece talking about how much he hates England, the English, and poetry (just kidding!).

The question is one of authenticity. For Jones, the visceral Harvey is somehow “real” in a way that the lyrical one is not. And of course, authenticity is also key to the ethos of the political popular musician as it’s commonly understood, with political art arising exclusively from the personal convictions of the artist. Although, historically speaking, this is hardly the only way to make political art—let alone art about politically interested subjects. And more generally, the whole notion of authenticity in pop music is under assault right now. It’s no coincidence that the best album of the past few years, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, explicitly rejects the ethos of authenticity, which has dominated hip-hop for more than 20 years, in favor of fantasy.

Harvey takes a different approach on Let England Shake. The songs have a painterly sensibility that's drawn comparisons to Goya's. The album has less in common with White Chalk than with 2009’s A Woman a Man Walked By, the second of two albums credited jointly to Harvey and John Parish, which also dealt with the subject of war and seems to have been an artistic turning point for Harvey. The overriding tone of Let England Shake is that of a lament. Harvey takes both war’s intrinsic evil and basic inevitability as givens, but the stirring, mournful tone of songs like “On Battleship Hill” is neither resigned nor complacent.

Throughout the ’90s, Harvey’s records suffered from overly intrusive producers. Steve Albini’s egotistical stifling of Rid of Me still has its defenders, but Flood’s work on Is This Desire? (1998) often loses the plot, leaving the songs feeling unmoored (although he mostly gets the balance right on To Bring You My Love). Let England Shake appears to have been a more collaborative affair, “made” by PJ Harvey, Mick Harvey (of The Birthday Party), Parish, and Flood, and mixed by Flood. The resulting arrangements, mostly guitar-and-drum-based with other instruments—saxophone, autoharp, organ, bass harmonica—worked in as needed, are nuanced without being delicate, providing ideal settings for Harvey’s eloquent lyrics. The sound feels full but never cluttered. With the possible exception of the hard-charging “Bitter Branches” this music is both too eclectic and too gentle to qualify as rock per se, its beautiful textures belying some gruesome subject matter.

Harvey’s recent poetry sabbatical pays off in the often imagistic lyrics of Let England Shake. The song titles give a sense of the elevated language and contemplative, at times somber, mood of the songs: “The Glorious Land,” “The Last Living Rose,” “The Words That Maketh Murder.” Songs like “On Battleship Hill” employ a battery of literary devices, its grand thematic statement emerging from a tangle of metaphor and concrete detail:

The land returns to how it has always been
The scent of Thyme carried on the wind
Jagged mountains, jutting out
Cracked like teeth in a rotten mouth
On Battleship Hill I hear the wind
Say, “Cruel nature has won again”

The music has a gorgeous sense of dynamics, with an early verse in which Harvey explores the higher end of her register, her voice rendered weightless by Parish’s guitar strumming, then moving easily into a light guitar-piano-drums backdrop, the last two verses bridged by a descending piano figure. Like the land, the music is ultimately undisturbed by the death and carnage to which it plays host.

“All and Everyone,” a somber ballad depicting the 1915 battle at Gallipoli, an eight-month campaign fought under brutal conditions that saw some 400,000 casualties, gazes long and hard at the battlefield and beholds the face of Death itself:

Death hung in the smoke and clung
To 400 acres of useless beachfront
A bank of red earth, dripping down death
Now, and now, and now

And later:

Death was in the staring sun
Fixing its eyes on everyone
It rattled the bones of the Light Horsemen
Still lying out there in the open
As we, advancing in the sun
Sing, “Death to all and everyone”

The stately rhythm and the lyrical emphasis on the aftereffects of combat, rather than the act itself, provide some formal distance between Harvey and her material without allowing the listener to escape the, yes, visceral horror of corpses left on the beach to rot and stink. Indeed, the sights, sounds, and smells of combat are all over Let England Shake (“Flies swarming everywhere/Death lingering, stunk/Over the whole summit peak/Flesh quivering in the heat”). Even the more upbeat songs, like the jangly title track, which recalls the They Might Be Giants classic “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” (Gallipoli again?), are imbued with forebodings of national decline (“Weighted down with silent dead/I fear our blood won’t rise again”). “The Words That Maketh Murder” tells of soldiers who “fell like lumps of meat/Blown and shot out beyond belief/Arms and legs were in the trees”), before abruptly pivoting into a twangy sing-along, as Harvey and Parish (following Eddie Cochran) faux-naively ask, “Why don’t I take my problem to the United Nations?” several times. It’s the album’s most sardonic moment.

All right, yes, you say, it’s clever, but is it political? Well, if your idea of “political” stops at “Give Peace a Chance,” then no. But beyond the occasional topical reference—the quavering refrain “Oh America, oh England” from “This Glorious Land” can’t help but evoke the war in Iraq—burns a cosmic anger at the devastation and human suffering endemic to war. Gallipoli was a horrible slaughter that need not have happened, but there’s not much point in shouting about such an obvious fact. Sometimes it’s enough, like Goya, to show—and then look away.

So to summarize: Let England Shake is visceral, but not personal. It’s political, but in a disinterested way not predicated on conventional notions of authenticity. It doesn’t sound much like any of Harvey’s other records. And I have no idea what she’ll do next.

26 February 2011

The Critic's Speech

How quickly things change. As recently as the Golden Globes six weeks ago it looked like The Social Network, David Fincher’s fast-talking flick about the founding of Facebook, would be this year’s big winner, continuing a recent Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences trend of honoring slightly more adventurous fare, including The Hurt Locker (Best Picture, 2009), No Country for Old Men (2007), and more arguably The Departed (2006). But now that the various industry guilds have weighed in, it looks like a virtual lock that Best Picture will go to The King’s Speech, a far more conventional drama about the relationship between Britain’s King George VI and his speech therapist, played, respectively, by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush.

The dramatic mid-January turn in the race set some Oscar talking heads yapping about an unprecedented split between critics’ groups and the industry. But it’s actually quite precedented. I’ll admit to having been sold on The Social Network as the inevitable Best Picture winner before The King’s Speech starting winning nearly every guild award in sight, but I should have reserved judgment. Nothing's ever set in stone until the guilds begin to weigh in. After all, we’ve seen this sort of dichotomy before—consider 1990 (GoodFellas sweeps the critics’ awards; Dances With Wolves takes the Globe and the Oscar) or 1997 (same deal for L.A. Confidential and Titanic). The difference today is that there are now a bazillion redundant critics’ groups, making their influence on the process appear greater than it actually is. The only real oddity here is The Social Network’s victory at the Globes, but that could be just another sign of their declining influence as an Oscar precursor.

The King’s Speech is by no means a bad film. Firth and especially Rush are quite good, and director Tom Hooper clearly put some thought into his camera placements. I can only assume that most AMPAS voters will be willing to look past (a) the predicatable way the film puts you through the paces of its story and (b) the fact that the whole movie is about a freakin' speech impediment. So it goes. But my favorites never win (although at least they get nominated more often now). Caring too much about the winners is a fool’s game and always has been—I mean, they gave Best Picture to Crash a few years ago for goodness’ sake.

But having said that, this year’s group of Best Picture nominees is a solid overall bunch, with Black Swan and Winter’s Bone joining The Social Network as contenders for my oft-postponed Top 10 list. (I’ll have more to say about these three when I finally get around to posting my Top 10 sometime next month.) The Fighter, directed by David O. Russell, was a well-acted and heartfelt, if highly conventional, boxing drama. Others would make the case for the Coen brothers’ dull remake of True Grit or Christopher Nolan’s "deep" Inception, a movie utterly devoid of serious formal ideas or intellectual content. (Compare the overall feel of the movie with that of any of David Lynch’s better films, and you’ll see what I mean.) I hadn't endured so much expository dialogue in one place since Attack of the Clones. Joining Inception among the presumed also-rans that failed to land a Best Director nomination (I’m officially ready to go back to five BP nominees, by the way) are the look-how-normal-we-are lesbian-family comedy The Kids Are All Right and the taut Ozarks drama Winter’s Bone, featuring a breakout performance from Jennifer Lawrence, as well as Toy Story 3 and 127 Hours, both unseen by me.

Predictions and preferences (where applicable) below. I should note that, in the 10-or-so years I've been doing this, I've never been less confident in my predictions than I am this year, so if you’re putting any money on this, please take my picks with a bigger grain of salt than usual.

Best Picture

One of the few locks on the board in what looks to be a very tough predictions year.

Will win: The King’s Speech
Should win: The Social Network

Best Director

For some reason, Hooper beating Fincher seems much harder to take than The King's Speech winning Best Picture (Aaron Sorkin’s excellent script for The Social Network could easily have come off as a series of glib one-liners if not for Fincher’s crisp pacing and mastery of tone). Perhaps for this reason, many prognosticators are predicting a split decision from the Academy, but with Hooper having taken the Director’s Guild award it’s hard to see a different result here.

W: Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech
S: David Fincher, The Social Network

Best Actor

Colin Firth seems destined to win this for the second-best performance in The King’s Speech. I preferred Jesse Eisenberg’s steely, implosive take on Mark Zuckerberg, but I don’t see any chance of an upset here. And I'd like to give a shout-out here to the unnominated Edgar Ramírez, who gave the performance of the year in the title role of Olivier Assayas’ satirical terrorism epic, Carlos.

W: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
S: Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network

Best Actress

This one will almost surely go to Natalie Portman, whose naturalistic turn in Black Swan effectively anchors the deliberately cartoonish performances of the film’s supporting cast. Some are predicting an upset from Annette Bening, but this feels like one of those inevitable Best Actress coronations to me.

W: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
S: Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone

Best Supporting Actress

Anyone could win this one.

W: Melissa Leo, The Fighter
S: Amy Adams, The Fighter

Best Supporting Actor

Four terrific perfomances in this category, as well as a pretty good one from Mark Ruffalo. Bale triumphs over Rush, but just barely.

W: Christian Bale, The Fighter
S: Christian Bale, The Fighter

Screenplay, Original
W: The King’s Speech
S: Another Year

Screenplay, Adapted
W: The Social Network
S: The Social Network

Animated Feature
W: Toy Story 3

Documentary Feature
W: Inside Job

Foreign Language Film
W: In a Better World

W: True Grit
S: The Social Network

Art Direction
W: Inception
S: Inception

W: The Social Network
S: The Social Network

Visual Effects
W: Inception
S: Inception

Costume Design
W: The King’s Speech
S: Alice in Wonderland

W: The Wolfman

Sound Mixing
W: Inception
S: The Social Network

Sound Editing
W: Inception
S: Unstoppable

Original Score
W: The King’s Speech
S: The Social Network

Original Song:
W: “We Belong Together,” Toy Story 3

Animated Short
W: Day & Night

Live Action Short
W: Na Wewe

Documentary Short
W: Strangers No More

06 January 2011

Best Music of 2010

I didn’t have the time to see a ton of movies this year, so I didn’t vote in any end-of-year film polls and probably won’t be posting a Top 10 list until at least March. However, my music list is ready a bit earlier than usual. For the first time in a while, I don't need to spend January scrounging for albums to fill out the bottom of my list. By my reckoning, this was the best year for new music since at least 2005; any of the first six below would have been top-three in an average year.

1. Kanye West—My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The word narcissist gets thrown around a lot these days, yet it remains a rare privilege to watch a true narcissist at work. Kanye gets his defensiveness about the tabloid stuff out of the way on a pair of early tracks (reminding us of his black balls on “Gorgeous”; declaring his independence on the majestic “Power”), but only to ultimately pull us deeper into his self-obsession. The whole album is strong, but beginning with the thumping tagteam of “Monster” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy begins living up to its title, taking off on the most mind-blowing half-hour in the recent history of pop music. The key track for me is “So Appalled.” Kanye, of course, is not a moralist, but he wants you to know he’s concerned: “Niggas is goin’ through real shit man, they outta work/That’s why another goddamn dance track gotta hurt/That’s why I rather spit somethin’ that gotta purp.” Only trouble is that his verse is already up and he never makes it back to the mic except to repeat a couple lines, presumably spending the rest of the song stumbling around in a haze of champagne and dirty white bitches while his supporting cast spits meaningless bon mots like “If God had an iPod, I’d be on his playlist.” It’s like that sometimes.

Kanye’s point-guard precision as a producer strikes again with his brilliant deployment of the Teflon Don himself, Rick Ross, who keeps the sleazy vibe going on “Devil in a New Dress,” a drifter built on a Smokey Robinson vocal sample. By the time we get to the assorted douchebags, assholes, and jerkoffs of “Runaway” and the pornstar fantasies of “Hell of a Life,” it’s hard to describe the tone exactly. The nearest antecedent to this music’s uneasy relationship with the freewheeling decadence of the lyrics is probably Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, but Kanye hardly sounds like he’s on the verge of burnout. A more apt comparison might be U2’s Achtung Baby, another confessional mid-career work by a classic narcissist hitting his thirties and seeking to escape the trap of earnestness (irony taking the place of fantasy). Like Bono, Kanye reaches for the heavens and crawls in the muck, often at the same time. Sublime or ridiculous, he’s never indifferent.

Also included: Chris Rock’s funniest bit since Bigger and Blacker and what will almost certainly be the last-ever reference to former USC Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart in a hip-hop song. Or any kind of song.
(“So Appalled” “Runaway”)

2. Flying Lotus—Cosmogramm

The spirit of Coltrane—more immediately, Alice, the late great-aunt of Steven Ellison (aka Flying Lotus) who inspired the album’s title, but also John—hovers over the fractured rhythms, horn samples, skittering bass lines, and dense arrangements of the year’s most innovative electronic album. Drawing from sources as disparate as free jazz, krautrock, IDM, and two-step/grime, Cosmogramm achieves a remarkable fusion of textures. As with Madlib’s best work, it’s all about the flow, with even Thom Yorke blending perfectly into the mix. (“Nose Art” “Arkestry”)

3. Deerhunter—Halcyon Digest

“Hey little boy, I am your friend/And I understand the pain you’re in,” sings Bradford Cox, evoking the siren song of rock music and its appeal to art-damaged adolescent boys (among others), one of the key themes of this remarkably unified album, a not unpredictable yet highly satisfying breakthrough for the Atlanta group. Halcyon Digest continues Cox’s career-long reworking of the music of his own halcyon days, also sprinkling in elements of late-’60s pop. The more delicate tracks, like the stoner-nostalgic “Memory Boy” and the depressive “Sailing,” are well complemented by a pair of rockers from guitarist Lockett Pundt, particularly the extended centerpiece jam, “Desire Lines.” (“He Would Have Laughed” “Revival”)

4. Four Tet—There Is Love in You

The latest album from the indispensable Kieran Hebden may sound like a retreat at first, eschewing the eclectic rhythmic excursions of 2005’s Everything Ecstatic, but it’s really a retrenchment, a deliberate paring down to essentials, a bid for musical and spiritual purity. I wouldn’t call this music minimalist, exactly, but it’s certainly efficient—in the warmest possible sense of the word—mining tremendous depth of feeling from the most basic materials: gentle electronic tones, simple melodies, and looped vocal samples. (“Love Cry” “Circling”)

5. Beach House—Teen Dream

The pop album of the year. This sounds so West Coast to me that it’s hard to believe they’re from Baltimore. Definitely not to be confused with Teenage Dream by Katy Perry, who might be the worst person on earth. Just kidding, of course. Sort of. Not really. (“Norway” “Walk in the Park”)

6. Joanna Newsom—Have One on Me

Clocking in at over 120 minutes, Have One on Me might be both the most musically conventional and artistically radical work to date from Newsom. As befits the woman who once sang about the difference between the sprout and the bean, the subject here is growing up and dealing with—no, embracing—the challenges of adulthood. “Do you think you can just stop when you’re ready for a change?” she asks on “Go Long,” one of many songs apparently centered on a dying relationship, and one of several that suggest the ways in which the choices we make in life eventually come to define us—whether we like it or not. Taken seriously, this album’s a real kick in the teeth to its presumed audience of self-involved hipsters, many of whom no doubt preferred the comforting nostalgia of The Suburbs. I’m impressed with her command of English folk idioms or whatever. But I’m more impressed with her maturity and her quiet self-confidence in putting out an album full of long songs and allusive, oblique lyrics, one that both demands and rewards close attention—in short, an album that's not easy. I’ve never seen Joanna Newsom live, but I bet she could command a room without ever raising her voice. (“In California” “Good Intentions Paving Co.”)

7. Big Boi—Sir Lucious Left Foot…The Son of Chico Dusty
I’ll never be able to look at David Blaine in quite the same way. (“Tangerine” “The Train Pt. 2”)

8. Women—Public Strain
These combative Calgary garage rockers tap some classic indie influences (The Velvet Underground, ’80s Sonic Youth, Slint, etc.) but find an original sound rooted in an ominous bass-heavy drone. Like Halcyon Digest and Have One on Me, this is a carefully constructed album, showing there’s some life in the longform yet. (“Locust Valley” “Narrow With the Hall”)

9. Pantha du Prince—Black Noise

German techno being possibly the chilliest of the major technos, it took me a long time to get into this early-year release, and I kept expecting it to fade away—but it never did. The third album from German DJ/producer Pantha du Prince (né Hendrik Weber) could just as easily have been called Negative Space—it’s all about what’s not there, the infinite silences between the sounds. (“Es Schneit” “Welt am Draht”)

10. Crystal Castles—Crystal Castles [II]
I yield the floor to my E&F colleague David Nelson Pollock.
(“Baptism” “Celestica”)

I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing, but it was such a rich year that I’m also going to list five runners-up. I wouldn’t call these #11-15 per se, but at least a couple of them would have made the Top 10 in an average year. These are in alphabetical order; Caribou was the closest to making the final cut.

The latest from the ever unpredictable Dan Snaith is more dancefloor-oriented than anything else in the Manitoba/Caribou catalogue, while retaining some of the psychedelic/shoegazer elements of previous albums like Up in Flames. This one was truly Top 10-worthy. (“Kaili” “Bowls”)

Brian Eno—Small Craft on a Milk Sea
Solid work from one of the all-time greats. The more beat-oriented tracks here make me wish he’d attempt a full-on techno album. (“2 Forms of Anger” “Written, Forgotten”)

Gorillaz—Plastic Beach
Some interesting guest shots on this one, with several gravelly-voiced singers providing a nice counterpoint to Damon Albarn & Co.’s sci-fi settings. (“Some Kind of Nature” “On Melancholy Hill”)

Janelle Monáe—The ArchAndroid
Overlong and more than a little pretentious, but she’s still young enough to grow into her ambitions. The lyrics need work, though. (“Tightrope” “Neon Valley Street”)


These indie-rock masters are so consistent that they risk being taken for granted. This disjointed, uneasy outing tries on various rock styles but lacks a knockout song and never quite rises to the soulful heights of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007). Still, it’s good enough to make five winners in a row for the band. (“The Mystery Zone” “Got Nuffin’”)

Top 5 songs not on those albums

1. M.I.A.—“Born Free”

In retrospect, it feels like a bait-and-switch, but still.

2. James Blake—“CMYK”

3. Arcade Fire—“We Used to Wait”

Sometimes they never came.

4. The Chemical Brothers—“Escape Velocity”

5. Bilal—“Restart”

Post-Prince neo-soul (I think that was redundant) from yet another major-label casualty.