wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: reviews

Lately books briefly books.

I read books, and then that morning or the next I write about them. This exercise has become important to me (much like biking, actually), and since 2014 I’ve managed to keep up even when I’ve been unable to focus on ‘proper’ writing.

Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino)

Is it possible that this book, by some unfathomable reverse causality, inspired both Amisare and Allworlds after the fact? No matter. I was surprised, in the banally chronological event, by how little I cared about Invisible Cities. Reading Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller in college was one of my peak bookwise experiences — I’d ride the Blue Line to Logan Airport and read in the terminal, back when you could do that sort of thing; Nicole has my copy, which I guess is her copy now — and of course Cosmicomics burrowed into my brain in high school (I borrowed/stole Jeremy Ward’s copy). But I found Invisible Cities cute, which is to say off-putting. My private metric: if I start reading something before bed, but feel the need to bring it into my daylight reading, it’s got something going on. Cities never made it across the gap. Perhaps there’s a mirror-Wally in a mirror-Cambridge superposed on this one, who only reads mirror-Calvino at night, and blah blah blah you see? Calvino has been so thoroughly taken up into all my other reading and writing that I had no need to read Cities, except to prove to myself that (a certain other project of mine) should exist, which I knew already.

The Power of Myth (Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers)

Uncle Joe in guru mode. Inspirational mind-candy. Moyers’s questions are somewhat repetitiously New-Agey, not a term I use lightly; Campbell shows off an admirably wide-ranging intellect. A uniquely flavourful dish served with a large-ish quantity of syrup.

Exercises in Style (Raymond Queneau, tr. Barbara Wright)

Mini-fictions in that vaguely academic midcentury French mode, beloved of a certain kind of intellectual male: the same scene repeated 99 times in different styles, toward a mix of literary and philosophical ends. Not exactly Calvino-esque — he was a fabulist, this is a philosophical/narratological (vs narrative) experiment — but reading this hard on the heels of Invisible Cities was a stark reminder of what/how I used to read twenty years ago, and for the most part no longer do. And my biases aside, the Exercises are genuinely funny and even educational. Certainly they’re a demonstration of the flexibility of written language. Kudos to translator Barbara Wright for doing the impossible with wit and (obvsly) style.

Proof (David Auburn)

It’s nice to see naturalistic contemporary dialogue in the mouths of smart young characters, and the structure is impressive, but if you’re going to do math in drama, you have to get it right and avoid mystefaction and vague abstraction. The math in Proof is generic, like the swordfighting in a bad action picture: auburn dramatizes the central amaaaaaazing achievement by having a character talk at length about how amaaaaaazing it is. (We know one character has ‘a touch of mathematical genius’ because she knows a random mathematical fact. In terms of the math, it’s that kind of play.)

The ‘human drama’ is artfully handled. It’s a clever play. But as it seemed to me to be neither beautiful nor strange — rather, a conventional play that I instantly felt I’d read/seen before — I must say I was disappointed, and am now irritated. Your mileage, as ever, may vary. (My wife liked it.)

SAGA, Book 2 (BKV and Fiona Staples)

Devoured this long-awaited hardcover just before bedtime, hours after it arrived in the mail. Eighteen issues of the same trick as Book 1: in broad terms, Vaughan is telling a small, complicatedly progressive story about a child reckoning with the complicated marriage of her two young parents, with Big Themes (some awfully familiar to readers of the otherwise very different Y: The Last Man) rendered in bold strokes. Staples is painting a psychedelic kitchen-sink space-fantasy with that small story at the center of it. There’s nothing else quite like it in American comics, as far as I know. I love it, I want to know what happens next, it’s obvious BKV likes being a father, and you have to take it for what it is: a madly tragic picaresque and not a contemporary serial drama like Y.

(Pia Guerra contributes two drawings to the hardcover, one depicting an auto-fellating dragon, and I’m reminded that she’s one of my favourite comics artists ever, maybe the best in the business at subtle facial expression. I do miss her work.)

SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT (tr. Merwin), briefly responded to.

You must read the classics.

I expected the pagan wildness of it to stick with me — this is a Christian tale set in the bizarre hybrid mythosphere of Arthur’s Round Table — but was taken aback by its strange proportions. The Green Knight’s physical description takes dozens of lines, and the longest descriptive setpiece in the book is an account of a boar hunt and subsequent skinning and dismemberment. (A later foxhunt takes only slightly less space, and refers to the fox directly as ‘Reynard,’ adding to the atmosphere of feral primitivism.) Because courtly knighthood was a form of insanity, and because the bedroom scenes are skillfully intercut(!) with the frenzy of the hunt, the simple virtue-testing story is tinged with an unexpected weirdness. Merwin’s translation is unadorned, which is the right approach: our distance from the story is part of the point, now.

Reading Gawain felt a bit like my long trip with Graves’s Greek Myths, a more self-conscious ‘literary’ experience in terms of presentation but generating that same feeling of enormous distance and mystery. I know that ‘deep time’ refers to the geologic, specifically as distinct from the historic, but the term feels appropriate all the same: the old mythoi fill me with a particular ‘adventurous expectancy’ which has to do with the unbridgeable distance between ways of seeing the world. I think of Mark Booth’s silly Secret History of the World, all about a lost mythic mode of seeing; I think of Julian Jaynes, of (getting less silly as we go) Eliade, Couliano, Aegypt, Star Wars, the new Westworld, Gilliam’s Munchausen, of storytelling and drama as incarnation of gods/myths rather than remembrance. The idea of story as a transmission vector for a way of apprehending the world which is in a sense a lost world unto itself, a hologram, invisible interference pattern left by light now past which when properly illuminated brings the old forms and colours back into being — that’s why I turn to the mythic and the mythological.

Distance and time. Terrible distance and murderous time.

SHATTERED (Allen and Parnes, 2017).

Attention conservation notice: I wrote this a while back, after devouring the first 2/3 of the book (on Clinton vs Sanders) and choking down the rest. This 2,400-word ‘review’ started as a personal exercise in summary and reasoning-through, so don’t expect cogent argument or lofty rhetoric. The book is useful but not good, which is the best we can hope for this blogpost too. N.B. Subsequent events have changed my sense of Comey’s role in the election; I’m no longer sure that ‘sinister’ is at all the right word to describe his catastrophic intervention. –wa.

Terrifying, a little heartbreaking, but not a good book — the authors should be embarrassed. Shattered is essentially a less elegant Game Change.

It’s totally myopic in the same way as that earlier book: nothing matters but the campaign process, no one matters but the campaigners, every staff squabble is a nuclear war, every personality flaw is a great plague, and everyone is a hungry young assassin or a wizened old hand plus everyone (we’d never say this aloud) is a vicious sociopath. There is no world in Shattered except the campaign, and because the authors had no access to the Trump campaign (and almost none to the Sanders campaign), there are two kinds of events in the world of Shattered: what HRC’s campaign does, usually incompetently, and the inexplicable and unpredictable and above all totally unfair acts of God which happen to them.

This myopia means the book is worthless as an analysis of American politics in 2016, but in compensation Allen and Parnes happily deliver page after page of the court intrigue which again plagued the Clinton campaign. As a kind of implicit sequel to Game Change, Shattered delivers a genuine shock to those of us who took her competence for granted: Clinton and her team overreacted to the 2008 race without actually learning from it, and ran a totally incompetent trainwreck of a campaign.

Obligatory pitch and synopsis

The book is an inside-baseball account of Clinton’s 2014-2016 official/active run for president. (Surprising no one, Allen & Parnes make it clear that HRC’s work at the State Department was always intended as prelude to a 2016 run.) The central drama of the book is the generational fight within the Clinton campaign between the ‘data’-driven folks, led by millennial campaign manager Robby Mook, and an ‘intuitive’/retail-politics cohort which included John Podesta and ex-President Clinton himself.

(Scare quotes around ‘data’ because it’s not at all clear from Shattered alone that Mook has any actual expertise w/r/t his precious Numbers, just an abiding faith in what the analytics team put up in lieu of ‘old-fashioned polling.’ If there’s a villain in Shattered, it’s Trump, but Mook comes off worst relative to his reputation. If there’s justice, he’ll never work in Washington again, but I’m willing to bet he’s already making $200K+/yr somewhere.)

The authors conducted ‘scores’ of interviews entirely on background, with promises not to publish a word until after the election. As a result, they had a running commentary from inside the campaign, and the ambivalent and critical tone of the early interviews is telling. A&P write in the introduction that Trump’s victory finally ‘made sense of’ their reporting — they knew the Clinton campaign was an omnishambles and that the mainstream press was missing the deep electoral stories, but they couldn’t quite believe their eyes until election night.

Clinton not only never shared but apparently never actually possessed a clear vision of why she should run the country, only that she would (by dint of her mastery of policy, intense work ethic, extensive Washington experience, and enormous Rolodex) be good at it. Repeating one of the key mistakes of her 2008 race, she built a campaign organization characterized by the same sorts of warring cliques, and followed her campaign manager Robby Mook’s strategy of spending as little as possible, completely avoiding ‘retail’ politics, literally hiding from voters in ‘swing’ states, and making no attempt to convince undecided voters or those weakly supporting Trump (beyond pointing out what they already knew, i.e. that he’s a vile imbecile). Within her organization no one had permission to criticize her; the contrast with Obama’s ‘team of rivals,’ a purpose-driven organization built on ex-Professor Obama’s respect for competence, is striking.

This is difficult but important to understand: Clinton and company never saw Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump coming. They were tragically mistreated by the press and (sinisterly) by FBI head James Comey, whose reputation for unimpeachable nonpartisanship was badly wounded by his repeated political interventions in the race; not to mention more than a decade of coordinated voter disenfranchisement efforts by every level the Republican Party (no mention of this in the book, of course), but Clinton still could and should have won — Shattered makes clear that a competent campaign, never mind a competent and bold one, could have handled these external forces. The tide of history is against candidates like Clinton right now, but she and her team ran a bad campaign from beginning to end. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but Clinton’s team bears much of it, as must Clinton herself.

Obligatory recommendation

Shattered is likely to remain the #1 source for telling anecdotes about Clinton’s miserable campaign, but hitting the high (low) points should suffice for normal people. Like the less ‘juicy’ but more skillful Game Change, it ends up an accidental portrait of the absolute hollowness of these wanting days of neoliberal empire, directly appealing to fans of a debased media-electoral process but indirectly (yet more importantly) throwing light on deeper problems with the republic.

Why did Hillary Clinton lose?

Allen and Parnes don’t know. They’d have you believe that it was mostly (1) the incompetence of Clinton’s campaign, which stemmed from (2) her catastrophic lack of any kind of vision for governing this country, which was only a problem because of (3) HRC’s combination of greed/cynicism/lust for power and her obsession with ‘wonkish’ policy details, all of which ran up against (4) Trump abstractly rendered and (5) the extraordinary intervention of Comey.

But that’s not an explanation, and it’s certainly not an analysis. Clinton had every imaginable institutional advantage and the best possible general-election opponent; if elections were sporting events 2016 couldn’t possibly have been anything but a blowout for Clinton. But elections are about voters, not candidates, and only D.C. myopes (is that a word?) and those addicted to/duped by the ‘horserace’ believe otherwise. Moreover, this revelation of incompetence isn’t even news: everyone knew Clinton’s campaign was a leaden disaster — even Obama got a big laugh at her expense all the way back in April, joking that her campaign slogan ‘Trudge Up the Hill’ had proven less than inspirational. Her inability to ‘crush’ Sanders was evidence of her campaign’s incompetence.

The news, which won’t reach the apologists who need to hear it most, is that the implausible ineffectiveness of HRC’s campaign trickled down from the candidate herself, who was unable (for a variety of reasons, not entirely her fault) to serve as a backstop, a guiding light, a strong and trustworthy chief executive. This is an ancient pattern with the Clintons: they can never fail, they can only be failed. (It was forbidden, inside the campaign, to criticize Clinton to her face — can you imagine? At points they had to bring in outside ‘friends of Hillary’ to point out her shortcomings.) Shattered reveals that Hillary doesn’t actually possess certain essential skills for executive leadership. Trump certainly doesn’t, and neither does Sanders, but then Clinton’s (not actually) (cf. Bush Sr, Nixon) the ‘most qualified candidate ever for this office’ etc., etc., etc. Her campaign was always a bid for meritocratic and technocratic ascendancy, which is why ‘inevitable’ really did strike the insiders as a plausible rationale: the correctness of her nomination and election could be logically deduced, and anyone who ‘disagreed’ — i.e. who failed to see the truth — was himself incompetent. Deplorably so.

And so anyone who says she should have reached out to white working class voters is a racist or a reactionary or a misogynist(?), even though the funny thing about Rust Belt working-class whites is that they were actually ‘undecided’ this time around, i.e. the exact people a candidate should be going after. They went for Sanders and then Trump in a big way because Clinton didn’t (couldn’t) talk to them on their terms. We’ll never know whether they would have been open to a Clinton campaign pitch, because as far as they knew Clinton didn’t actually make one. (‘But her policy papers are on the website!’ Sure, I’ll print them out and mail them to grandpa out in Little Valley.)

Maddeningly, Shattered doesn’t concern itself for even a single paragraph with why so many voters were furiously angry this electoral cycle. This is the authors’ greatest failing, and whatever their personal politics (betcha a dollar they’re 100% conventional Democrats), it’s enough to say that they come from the D.C. bubble, which is cut off from actual citizens’ concerns by design. (How can you get real work done if you have to listen to that braying and snorting all day?) Bill Clinton is derided repeatedly in Shattered for talking about Brexit, seemingly without context or provocation — which is to say his political instincts were still right on, but he didn’t know how to act on them, and his minders thought him a babbling old fool (because they’re deeply, deeply stupid). The idea that populist anger might be justified, that there might be anything questionable about the neoliberal consensus that Bill and his DLC fellow-travelers sold the post-Reagan Democratic Party a quarter-century ago, never crosses the authors’ minds, nor does it occur to even a single one of the alleged human beings in Shattered. Poverty and despair are ‘millennial’ concerns, you see, they’re not real.

In other words, Shattered both (cattily) renders and naively embodies the limitations of the D.C. consensus. The few moving moments in the book tend to involve mentions of the ‘eighteen million cracks in the glass ceiling,’ reminding readers that Clinton’s appeal has always been her combination of bloodless technocratic competence and symbolism. She desperately wanted to be a candidate of destiny like Obama, but never found a way to make that case — opinion polls showed that 2016 voters didn’t care much about her sex, though on the other hand never forget that states which have never elected a female governor cut hard against her, i.e. culture is complicated and ugly, time to read (a synopsis of) Albion’s Seed.

I think the reason Hillary’s moments of humanity — maternal, teacherly — are so compelling in Shattered is that they make such a startling contrast, not only with Clinton’s alternately feckless and scolding managerial persona, but with the overall gossipy-melodramatic tone of the prose. In the midst of such a grim parade, the reminder that Hillary is a human being comes as a relief (rewatch the scene on Veep where Selina finds out she’ll be president, and hides in the bathroom) (Shattered confirms that Veep, along with The Wire, is the best-ever show about American politics). But oddly enough, her command of policy does not function the same way in the story — we learn in the first few chapter or two that the happiest time of the campaign for Hillary was the intial period of four-hour meetings with her policy director, hashing out the fine details of her plan for running the country. For someone like me, this is a genuinely heartwarming scene; I know how she feels, and in those moments I ‘connect’ with her ‘as a person.’ But the flipside of this portrait is the revelation that Clinton didn’t want to run, delayed entering the race partly for that reason, and admitted to aides over and over throughout the campaign that she had no idea what was going on in the country or why she wasn’t breaking through to voters.

The cost of running a ‘modest midwestern Methodist’ candidate, a ‘wonk in both the positive and negative sense,’ is just that: she had, and has always had, no idea how to reach people outside of her circle. This is a personal flaw, but a private citizen can make a life which mitigates it. For a lifelong politician and would-be chief executive, this is a crippling professional liability — though less so in the Senate than we might wish, since that august chamber is in the main a club for wealthy corporate-friendly compromisers (Clinton was, by all accounts, undistinguished but effective there).

So: is Hillary Clinton to blame for Donald Trump’s presidency? It’s an ill-posed question, sorry. ‘Monocausal’ is a bad word! And Trump’s margin of victory was miniscule, as my wife has repeatedly pointed out to me. But Shattered takes us back to 2008, to an odd and telling moment: desperate to figure out what went wrong against Obama, and wanting to root out leakers and disloyal courtiers, Hillary got administrator access to the campaign’s internal email server, and read all of her aides’ emails. (She and Bill then made up ‘loyalty cards’ indicating which ones should be purged from the party.) This is paranoid, yeah, but it’s also a contemptible violation of her employees’ privacy. And from her own action she drew an iiiinteresting (and sensible!) lesson: you have to control your email, because otherwise someone — someone like Hillary Clinton, perhaps — will come along and uncover your deepest secrets.

It’s an ugly and telling moment, the kind of on-the-nose foreshadowing a novelist would be embarrassed to invent. It made me pity and dislike her all over again.


OK, I’ve burnt out on this book despite having said only part of what needs saying. Let us summarize: Shattered suggests that Clinton’s 2016 campaign was a hollow, soulless disaster, which seems fair; it suggests that she and Robby Mook bear a big portion of the blame for the disastrous outcome, which also seems fair — they were in charge, after all. But Shattered has no interest in the historical forces which made a Trump candidacy possible (led to Brexit, brought Marine Le Pen closer than ever to running France, etc.), none whatsoever, nor do its authors evince any empathy with the tens of millions who got up on Election Day, waited in line to vote, and pulled the lever for one of the worst candidates (and now presidents) in history; its overemphasis on day-to-day campaign blunders is symptomatic of the same D.C.-insider cynicism that made Clinton’s candidacy ‘inevitable’ in the first place. Shattered suggests, but can’t quite admit, that regardless of the dangerous extremism and (at times hilarious) dysfunction of the Republicans, the Democratic Party is a shambling disaster — this isn’t a ‘big picture’ book. It’s an indictment, not a work of history. Clinton and her staffers should read it. I’m not sure anyone else should, but everyone should know what it says. It says: it didn’t, and hopefully doesn’t, need to be this way.

‘The Force Awakens’ in light of ‘Rogue One’ and vice versa.

(Spoilers ahead, rubes.)

I find myself thinking that The Force Awakens is an extraordinarily well executed piece of fanservice — and in boring conventional ‘is this good art’ terms, an embarrassment. Its dialogue is snappy, the performances range from good to great, the clumsy ‘power creep’ of Rey’s story is nearly erased by Daisy Ridley’s charisma (which outstrips her perfectly reasonable acting skills), and the creators’ commitment to expanding the Star Wars universe is admirable. Walter Chaw is right: The Force Awakens fulfills one promise of the original trilogy by offering a vision of the galaxy that seems, at moments, almost galaxy-sized.

Well, almost.

By the end, The Force Awakens has collapsed into a series of by-the-numbers repetitions and blood feuds and familial agony, and I’m left attending to the good bits: the lead performances (especially Adam Driver’s) and the maybe-brilliant subtext. To wit: A new generation of kids have inherited a Star Wars legacy that’s too big for them, they shrink from their duty, they fool around with the old toys, and in the end the people they love — the stars of the old movies — start dying. This is JJ Abrams’s schtick, I think; I don’t think he has any real value as an artist but he does seem productively and even admirably aware of his lateness, so to speak. To my eye he’s made derivativeness itself the center of his aesthetic, such as it is. The subtext of The Force Awakens (which I’m happy to credit to its creators and not my own overcompensatory urge) elevates the material.

It’d better! Because near as I can tell, nothing is at stake in Abrams’s film. Finn isn’t going to die, Rey isn’t going to kill Li’l Ben, and the Starkiller Base is gonna blow up good. The Plot Points are ticked off.

The Force Awakens is like a midseason episode of a long-running TV series. It can’t take risks. Kathleen Kennedy did the right thing, then, by hiring a writer/director who won’t take them either.

Which brings us to Rogue One, Gareth Edwards’s equally well executed bit of fanservice, which in boring conventional ‘is this good art’ terms is the best Star Wars film since Reagan was elected. It takes a question that millions of misprising adolescents have pointlessly asked — ‘Why does the Death Star have such a stupid fatal flaw?’ — and wraps a wonderful Dirty Dozen-ish war story around the appropriately ridiculous answer (‘Because the heroine’s terminally noble father put it there’).

Rogue One is the first movie in the saga since Return of the Jedi to offer meaningful stakes — its position as ‘infix prequel’ lets Edwards introduce an entirely new cast of characters whose fates the audience can’t easily guess, and he and his writers have the audacity to do the one thing no Star Wars fan would expect in that situation: they kill every single new character they introduce, heroes and villains and droids and aliens. In doing so they subtly alter the original film, recasting the Rebellion in more visceral and active terms than the first movie managed to suggest. (The sparseness of most pre-CGI science fiction film and early video games was an enormously consequential economic phenomenon about which, as they say, we will say more.) And unlike Abrams’s film (but much like the prequels), Rogue One makes the Star Wars galaxy feel bigger, more crowded. To my mind that’s the best thing about it.

OK, the nervewracking third act suicide mission/epic battle is the best thing about it. And Alan Tudyk’s droid is also the best thing about it.

The cast is pretty swell, Giacchino’s score is largely on point (though the (studio orchestra’s?) performance of the end credits is a little embarrassing), the funny bits are funny, and it’s the first film in the series that concedes nothing to its young viewers. In that respect it differs not only from the prequels, which foreshortened and dumbed down Lucas’s genuinely interesting political story, but from The Force Awakens, with its two cringeworthy uses of the word ‘boyfriend.’ (They’re both funny! And slightly discordant, in a Thoroughly Modern way.) Rogue One isn’t a tale of deeply complicated crosshatching moral codes and weary cynicisms, not quite, but it’s the first Star Wars film to successfully combine the operatic omnisignificance of the core generational narrative with something like ‘realistic’ grownup characterization — not to mention ‘worldbuilding’ of any seriousness.

The Force Awakens is, as usual for Abrams, absolutely risible in this area. The final act of the film kicks off with a bit of offhand planetary genocide — billions of people wiped out in the blink of an eye solely to advance the paper-thin plot. The only lives that matter in that film are the protagonists’, which is part of what I mean when I say ‘no stakes.’ (Did Han’s death actually surprise you? Have you seen a film before?) Nothing but Plot is ever in play for Abrams, except of course Nostalgia — but Rogue One gobbles up every character who appears onscreen and you feel every death; by the end you feel as if the heroes of the original trilogy were lucky to’ve made it that far.

Rewatching part of it today, I was surprised by my own feeling of…resentment? at the fact that the story didn’t end with that stunning image of the two heroes dying on the beach. ‘Oh, we need some Darth Vader of course,’ was my thought. But when the credits rolled I had to admit that handing the baton to Leia and Vader/Anakin was the perfect ending. The work never ends, is the point, or one point, or part of the point. Jyn and Cassian die in service of something that the writers and director and actors and — I suspect — the audience understand to be greater than the narrative: an idea too complex to fit neatly into the ‘Character Motivation’ slot in the script. Which is only to say that I believed in Rogue One in a way I’ve never, after four or five viewings, managed to believe in The Force Awakens.

Anyhow, this isn’t supposed to matter, because these aren’t movies, they’re Star Wars popstuff thingies. But pretending for a second that we’re allowed to judge nostalgia-objects as if they were actual existing artworks has been, I hope, a useful exercise, even as our culture-sized canoe heads for the waterfall.

John Le Carré, THE HONOURABLE SCHOOLBOY.

The third Le Carré I’ve read and the most impressive, the most ambitious. I look forward to finishing the ‘Karla trilogy’ soon — though not right away, and not only because I’m reading Blood Meridian and Graves’s Greek myths…

Schoolboy‘s not quite as warmhearted as Tinker, Tailor for several reasons, not least the change of primary venue from beloved England to Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War, centering on Hong Kong. Le Carré deftly handles the intricate politics of his setting, letting the American humiliation in Saigon serve as backdrop to a more complex and far-reaching story of ’round-eyes’ integrating into a society which (for all its strangeness) is as wearily, complexly human as Le Carré’s Europe. But for all its effortless evocation of time and place, and Le Carré’s usual eerily precise characterization, Schoolboy‘s plot is a touch more diffuse than Tinker‘s. It breathes, its rhythms make sense in retrospect, but it’s a damned long and complicated book — and Le Carré’s deftly employed narratorial touches (proleptic insertions and retrospective commentary, unexpected almost gossipy asides) pull focus, somewhat, from the ‘Russian gold seam’ premise to enact a kind of ‘literary’ meta-level mystefaction: Schoolboy‘s narration suggests not only that it may end with a surprise but that the kind of ending it will deliver will come as a surprise.

In other words, you always get the rug pulled out from under you with the master’s books — deception as such is a deep thematic interest of Le Carré’s — but Schoolboy goes further than the previous ‘Karla’ novel in unsettling the reader, upsetting not just the world-frame but the narrative frame. Of the three I’ve read so far, it’s the first Le Carré novel I’d identify as making a consciously ‘modernist’ commitment, engaging in the kind of epistemological games which litcrit types enjoy in lieu of actual fun.

Which isn’t to say Schoolboy isn’t conventionally satisfying! It’s a grandly cynical romance, an Englishmen-abroad potboiler, a great ‘jungle novel’ — the long setpiece in which Westerby and his charming young driver cross into Thailand is an extraordinarily vivid and exciting piece of adventure writing, reminding me so strongly of Norman Rush’s canonical Mortals that I wondered whether the latter novel was intended partly as an homage — and it ends not only with an extended bang-up climax but with a perfectly judged coda in which the ashes of concepts like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and ‘win’ and ‘lose’ are scattered unceremoniously in the Thames.

It’s just that Le Carré seems to be trying here for a level beyond what his previous ‘spy novels’ had attained. Tinker, Tailor is about (among other things) the madly, ruinously circular clash of two declining empires, but plotwise focuses tightly on the Circus, its gorgeous boys’-school interludes working thematically off to the side a bit; Schoolboy attains both greater intimacy with its fully human protagonist Jerry Westerby and painfully harrowing distance, Greek-tragedy distance you might say, by carefully rendering what feels like a vast civilizational unraveling all around him. Awe-inspiring wide shots of a world at its end…and then inescapable, claustrophobic closeups. And again. And again.

I didn’t love Westerby’s story as I loved Tinker, Tailor — honestly I wanted to spend more time with Smiley, because I’m a sap, and Westerby’s great Error is the one element of the novel I had trouble subscribing to, and there are a lot of hateful bastards harrying the Better Guys in this story. But while the previous novel inspired admiration and love, Schoolboy inspires awe. Days after finishing, I can’t believe what I’ve just read.

Girl note

Well, there’s one other shortcoming to talk about. The three Le Carré novels I’ve read have spent little time on the inner lives of women, and not one that I can recall has passed the ‘Bechdel Test.’ Yes, he writes about a largely male world; yes, he peppers these stories with interesting female characters with serious expertise and complex private views facing grave moral choices. Yes, he was a ‘man of his time.’ And Lizzie Worthington, the great test of our schoolboy’s honour, is a self-created protagonist of her own story, wearily trading on sex and perceived shallowness to make her way. She’s an Interesting Female Character. But her viewpoint doesn’t enter into the book’s narrative calculus — the book’s ‘third act’ would be something very different if Worthington’s view of Westerby and the Circus were made explicit, but for Le Carré it’s enough for us to watch her watch the plot.

That didn’t strike me as any sort of great problem while reading — Westerby’s emotions are laid bare throughout the book, and any vividly rendered inner life is a gift; plus the book is brilliant (did I mention?) — but the pattern’s there, and it matters. Only in our idiot century could it be said to matter more than the stories themselves, and to me it doesn’t. But a true account of this extraordinary book, and its extraordinary author, demands honesty on this score.

Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The summary enthusiastic recommendation first: This is the best ‘children’s show’ I’ve ever seen, and will move adults (as it moved me) in surprising ways.

At first it looks like yet another cheaply produced genre pastiche on the order of Ninjago. (See below.) Certainly the premise is familiar enough: magical boy-of-destiny returns to the world to master the four elements and defeat evil, aided by a couple of plucky kids. And the pan-Asian kung fu pastiche is dangerous ground for a predominantly white cast of voice actors to tread, and…

…but then the show’s first scene sees the competent polar-tribal female lead (Katara) scold her competent brother (Sokka) for sexism in as many words, and while ‘progressive’ means something more than box-checking if it means anything at all, that’s a hell of a way to announce your intentions as storytellers. But that’s only politics. This is what matters: the jokes are funny, and the characters look and talk like people, and there’s a magical boy in an iceberg who talks like a boy, plus he’s got a flying six-legged platypus-bison of some kind (‘pretty cool’ as they say) to which he has a touchingly intense relationship, and when they travel to the siblings’ village the old woman looks and talks like an old woman rather than The Old Woman, and then the Fire Nation arrives looking like Nazi Samurai…

And there’s the magic, the ‘bending’: the ‘waterbenders’ practice a recognizable magical martial art, the ‘firebenders’ a distinctive art of their own, and the last ‘airbender’ a kinetic language unique to him — each tribe’s fighting/magic style a loving tribute to an existing martial arts tradition, each embodying in form and movement the character-as-destiny which is the standard premise of this sort of story. Because ‘bending’ is central to the story, it needs to be more than four-colour kickpunching, and it is — the most surprising and impressive thing about the show, from the beginning, is the subtle transformation of its bog-standard four-way elemental schema from storytelling convenience to philosophical argument.

In other words, notwithstanding the overacted teenage villain Prince Zuko (who (thank Christ) gets interesting pretty quickly), Avatar‘s two-part opener immediately dispels any worry that it’s just a checklist wuxia pastiche, and projects an unusually thoughtful and humane spirit, which marks it as both psychologically and politically sophisticated. I’d say ‘…for a kid’s show’ but I don’t think it’s necessary — Avatar refers time and again not only to Star Wars and The Matrix, as expected, but also (more tellingly) to Miyazaki’s elegiac fantasies; and the writing shows a subtle sensitivity to Avatar‘s pan-Asian source mythologies and folktales. At times it seems intentionally to court comparisons to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which went off the air less than two years before Avatar‘s premiere — there’s a clear homage to the canonical Buffy episode ‘The Zeppo’ that warmed my heart. Its creators clearly didn’t think of their show as proscriptively ‘for children,’ nor did they make a corporate ‘all-ages’ entertainment in the disappointing Shrek/Lego Movie/Minions mould; instead of following the constrictive rules of corporate youth-marketed products, Avatar‘s creators obeyed principles which generated both kid-friendly scenarios and believable group dynamics without sacrificing narrative momentum.

Indeed, the 90+ minute final episode, ‘Sozin’s Comet,’ is that rarest of series finales, the ideal end to both deep story and plot-mechanics. My only major complaint about the final season is its focus on romantic pairings at the expense of the dynamic, persnickety relationships which formed throughout the first two years — and my wife, who loved the show and shares this complaint, was particularly irritated by the creators’ choice of final scene and image. (I also disliked the inexplicable repeated use of the word ‘confused’ to mean ‘ambivalent’ and ‘conflicted’ and ‘frustrated’ and ‘preoccupied’; that seemed like the writers’ only obvious lapse of faith in the audience’s intelligence, or else a failure of nerve.) But ‘Sozin’s Comet’ is still an absolute triumph, and it would be even if it only brought three long-simmering conflicts to genuinely suspenseful climaxes, paid off a bit of deep ‘mythology,’ and delivered an extended knock-down, drag-out magical kung fu fight between two of the storyworld’s most powerful beings. Its real achievement is greater than that: it pays off the show’s central storyline by introducing new ‘worldbuilding’ information in a way that seems perfectly natural, inevitable, instead of convenient — the final battle echoes every conflict of the preceding three seasons, and its resolution reveals something new about the world of Avatar without violating the art/artist/audience contract.

(The finale also includes a magical island that deliberately conjures (and I think spoofs) the memory of Lost, an overpraised and derivative show whose fatal abstraction and ultimate failure of taste and sense stand as warnings to TV-serial creators. Kudos to my wife for pointing out the Lost resonance.)

Avatar‘s rare coherence and genre-defying sophistication — not to mention its bone-deep commitment to a (let’s say) progressive vision of family and community — are all the more impressive given the show’s occasional formal experiments. One episode makes the non-speaking flying bison its POV character; another is a series of impressionistic vignettes set on the eve of battle; a third uses multiple animation styles to tell a good ol’ Rashomon story. The penultimate episode has the kids watching a play about themselves, performed by a troupe of Fire Nation actors, which takes an eerie turn in its final scenes. But this isn’t cleverness or ostentation: every story about children adventuring in a grownup world draws on the same fundamental dynamic tension, whereby the kids’ clarifying (naive) vision carries a kind of moral force weighing against their discovery that the world is fiendishly complicated, and adulthood itself is no sin; indeed the idea of sin (of ultimate good and bad) seems less and less believable the more of the world you take into account (cf. recent YA examples: Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, the Star Wars prequels). As the world of Avatar deepens and variegates, the range of the heroes’ experiences is reflected stylistically, formally, on top of the actual ‘content’ of those adventures — assuming that distinction has meaning in the first place.

I really can’t say enough about Avatar. It came into our lives at just the right moment. Every day I wake up in a country whose hugely unpopular president is a bellicose semiliterate imbecile afraid of his own shadow; Avatar has allowed me to escape to a story that isn’t simple or safe or free from evil, but is filled with humanity and love, truthfully — that is to say, beautifully — told. Above all, I’m grateful to have been able to share it with my six-year-old son.

He loved it, by the way.


Ninjago note

Ninjago was the biggest casualty of our Avatar experience. I quite liked it at the time, as a light entertainment aimed at kids and their interested/hovering parents. But I’m now convinced it’s a somewhat cynical knockoff of Avatar, with none of the earlier show’s depth or grace. The upcoming Ninjago film looks miserable — more ‘meta’ comedy in the vein of The Lego Movie, ugh — and the central figure of Lloyd Garmadon the Green Ninja, once just an underwritten plot-necessity, now feels to me like the worst sort of storytelling laziness. (Aang the Avatar is Hamlet in comparison.) If they make another season of the show we’ll presumably watch it, and I’ll presumably enjoy the zany antics and genre spoofs, but now I’ve seen firsthand how much more could have been done with the same raw materials. It’s lost its lustre. Blessed are they who do not see, but still believe, etc., etc.; on the other hand, better late than never.

One-line reviews/summaries.

Literary Theory (Terry Eagleton)

The whole history of literary theory has led inexorably to the literary theory of Terry Eagleton. –Terry Eagleton, convincingly

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter Thompson)

Mustn’t slow down or the Seventies will catch you.

Seinfeld (Larry David et al.)

Apparently in the 80s and 90s everyone was inexplicably wealthy and Jewish and everyone was terrible, and the reason your idiot friends hate the final episode isn’t so much that it isn’t funny as that it was the first moment when David et al. refused to cut away from the severed heads and gouts of blood.

Logan (James Mangold et al.)

A perfectly fine latter-day Western is accidentally marketed as a superhero film; hijinks ensue.

Deadpool

Only in our era of absolute myopic cowardice could this intermittently funny movie for scared 20something boys be called ‘risky’ or ‘adult.’

Sidenote re: Deadpool

The joke about International Women’s Day (pegging) was, in my mind, the moment it went from ‘forgettable’ to ‘contemptible’; YMMV.

Logan.

  1. I suspect Hugh Jackman is the last screen Wolverine; I hope so. You can only ring changes on that character so many times, within the confines of the ‘tentpole actioner’ as they say. Jackman grew into the role, doing solid work even in terrible films, and created — pardon me — an iconic screen character; he deserves the chance to bring the curtain down. The fact that whoever’s making those alternate-timeline X-Men movies won’t cast anyone else in the role is a real compliment to him. (That said, I wondered a couple of times what Mel Gibson could’ve done as old Logan — it was the beard that set me off, but Jackman’s fellow Aussie is still, I think, better at communicating Logan‘s mix of pain, confusion, resignation, misanthrophy, and (lest we forget) feral rage.)
  2. Patrick Stewart deserves an Oscar, not only because he’ll make an excellent speech. He takes a risk here and delivers a flawless performance that owes nothing to the standard language of ‘superhero films’; Jackman does a lot of fighting, as you’d expect of Wolverine, but Stewart is playing a low-key drama about aging ungracefully. I’m reminded of Gielgud’s frail Prospero, and wish I’d seen Stewart’s…
  3. Dafne Keen provides a feral take on Stranger Things‘s ‘Eleven.’ She’s every inch as good as her costars, especially in the film’s many intensely quiet moments. So’s Stephen Merchant as a run-down Caliban, who must’ve loved playing scenes with the naughty Mr Grant. And though Boyd Holbrook’s role is a bit of a clunker, he does his best to run off with the film. Everyone onscreen is in top form. As someone else points out: a lot of excellent screen actors pop up in cape’n’cowl films with nothing to do, and Logan shows how deep you can go once you’ve established the characters and ensemble and are no longer beholden to the almighty ‘mythology.’ (By all accounts Logan diverges completely from its ostensible source material, profitably cynical hack writer Mark Millar’s Old Man Logan.)
  4. Logan is a Western (no points for figuring that out), and makes heartbreaking use of footage and dialogue from Shane. Yes there’s much talk — predictable, since film critics are almost all hacks, even the ‘names’ — of Logan ‘transcending’ the comic-book film and ‘defying genre conventions,’ etc., but for God’s sake ignore all that chatter. It’s squarely within the conventions of a different sort of story that’s fallen out of favour with (young) film audiences, and it will be overrated by critics as a result. This is an important thing to understand about critics and tastemakers: when a media text that appears, or is expected, to belong to one genre is revealed to belong to another, they flip out, because in that case they have something to do. Sci-fi story that’s actually a domestic melodrama? Gush. Fight movie doubles as anticapitalist protest? Gush. Surprisingly gory superhero film is really about old people? Gush. (Star Wars meets The Dirty Dozen? Gush of relief.) It would be a very good (if somewhat old-fashioned) Western if it didn’t have superheroes in it, its iconography smartly utilized by James Mangold et al., but once those adamantium claws go snikt there’s no stopping the fanthusiasm, and critical perspective collapses.
  5. As ‘awesome’ violence is to comixxx fanboys, schematic genre-crossing is to film critics.
  6. I cried at the end, during the eulogy (it doesn’t spoil anything, really, to suggest that there’ll be a eulogy, though I won’t say whose). I had an intense feeling of having come through something, and I can’t tell whether I mourned the character or the franchise, which is a little disgusting. Jackman’s been Wolverine for, what, twenty years? That’s a long time to live with an idea. But during the other obvious tearjerker moment, not only didn’t I cry, I didn’t feel much of anything — it felt like a necessary step in the narrative progression of a dark Western film. ‘But this is a big deal in a superhero movie!’ went my inner nerd, and I began to wonder whether that voice, too, needed to die in order that everyone else might glimpse transcendence.
  7. The idea that every aesthetic judgment about a superhero film must be conducted in terms only of other superhero films is cowardice. If they’re good films, they’re good even with masked vigilantes in them, and we shouldn’t use the words ‘guilty pleasure’ to mask our interest. If they can’t hold up to that standard — if, for instance, your connection to Logan and Logan is nostalgia for a line of commercial products, and you’re just better off watching Mangold’s riveting 3:10 to Yuma — then why do we bother? Because they’re popular? Logan‘s quite a good film on its own terms, and that’s enough to justify the price of your matinee ticket, but the gushing has to do with its status as a ‘genre-defying’ popcorn flick, which shows how deep the rot has gone. One critic approvingly points out that the heroes fail, at one crucial juncture, to drive over a chicken-wire fence; they get snarled in it instead, and have to back out. Funny, no? Clever, no? Honest, no? And so we must deduce that no superhero film has ever been honest before, because we’re goldfish forgetting the other side of our tank.
  8. Lemme put it this way: I saw the movie yesterday and can vividly remember much or most of it now, nearly twenty-four hours later — but only because I’m trying. Honestly, until I sat down to write about it, it had slipped from my mind, like so many other good movies.

Quick hits, October 2016.

Phish, BIG BOAT (2016)

Better than I initially thought (my initial review in its entirety: ‘Go see a Phish show’), but still an unevenly written, overproduced affair. I say all this with love, which has only deepened as they’ve aged into their nigh-miraculous midlife renaissance: Phish’s studio albums are a dicey proposition. Big Boat has the highest ‘dad rock’ ratio of the bunch — after the opening comic-rock number ‘Friends,’ you get four straight tracks suitable for shaking your cellulite on the grass while drinking thin American beer, and there’s two or three more waiting on the backstretch — but as always there’s a handful of interesting tunes mixed in: Mike Gordon’s ‘Waking Up Dead’ is less conventionally satisfying than ‘555’ off Fuego, but the perversity of building a song around the triumphant four-syllable wail ‘Vac-u-um-ing!’ appeals to me; Page McConnell’s ‘I Always Wanted It This Way’ goes to an enveloping indie-electropop place; and Trey Anastasio’s 13-minute closer ‘Petrichor’ is more smoothly integrated and richly textured than ‘Time Turns Elastic,’ which fans deride as jamless but which seems to me one of the best things Trey’s ever written. And honestly, a couple of Trey’s dad-rock tunes are pretty good: though ‘No Men in No Man’s Land’ is as disappointing as its unfunny titular joke (it’s a little better live), ‘Tide Turns,’ ‘Blaze On,’ and ‘Breath and Burning’ capture the unaffected sweetness and generosity of spirit which have characterized post-reunion Phish. Still, while Big Boat may well be a personal achievement for the band (though recent interviews have suggested some tension with producer Bob Ezrin), it’s just not a terribly compelling album.

Still, you can’t be disappointed. This thing they do onstage, no one’s ever done it better; we shouldn’t hold it against them that their albums aren’t their best work.

Steve Kuhn, TRANCE (1974)

If you’re a jazz fan, you probably have feelings about the use of the Rhodes keyboard: either you dig its mellow electro vibe and potential for signal processing, or you think it’s too diffuse and sonically inflexible for the job. In my experience, few listeners are truly neutral about the device — not least because its arrival correlated with the onset of jazz/rock ‘fusion,’ still a source of controversy in this maddeningly conservative discursive community. I love the Rhodes sound, but there’s a limit to its expressive capacity, and I recognize that the emotions it triggers in me have a lot to do with its cultural moment. And lately I’m starting to notice its…thinness.

Steve Kuhn’s Trance is very, very, very much a mid-70s electric/acoustic piano trio+percussion record. Ambient texture and largely static groove are the key objectives; New Agey drones and extended modal vamps never quite build a real head of steam (or more positively: they never interfere with the slow-moving sonic cloudwork). That said, it’s dreamy — not sleepy. Kuhn’s keyboard solos are fleet, the acoustic piano gets some heavy reverb, Jack DeJohnette’s drumming is Jack DeJohnette’s drumming, and the proceedings never get too wild or indeed too ‘interesting.’ As a progenitor electronic work, it’s very much bound to the norms of jaaaazzzzzzz; as a post-fusion jazz album, it’s spaced out in an appealing but not quite distinctive way. Its value, then, is in the subtlety and continuity of the playing: the way its pensive-meditations-amongst-the-fjords coolness and hypnagogic mood find expression through both the drifts of Rhodes and the percussive workouts (not to mention the brief Free breakdown on ‘Squirt’).

I found out only when I sat down to write this that Trance is a beloved ‘lost classic,’ a ‘hidden gem’ which didn’t make waves upon initial release. I don’t quite share this feeling — it feels to me like one more enjoyable Rhodes-touched album of the (ugh) ‘kozmigroov’ era of spiritual/psych/soul/funk/jazz fusion, that golden age from roughly A Love Supreme through disco. But I don’t begrudge anyone thinking this is uniquely or unusually fine music. The mid-70s were a killer time for jazz. Everyone has to learn sometime.

Radiohead, HAIL TO THE THIEF (2003)

Because they’ve been around for 20 years, and their last few albums have been ‘retrenchments’ and reflected their ‘maturation’ and so forth, the scale of Radiohead’s achievement is now easy to overlook — you can forget, or petulantly ignore, the fact that for several years around the turn of the millennium, Radiohead were one of the most interesting bands in and around ‘rock & roll.’ From The Bends through Amnesiac they were both unimpeachable pop songwriters and sonic experimenters and creators of increasingly dense avant abstractions, and when Hail to the Thief arrived in 2003, everyone I knew wanted to know what they’d come up with. Had they rediscovered guitars? Would it be pure electronic noise? Was George Bush the thief? It mattered, somehow.

And when the album was neither as dark/creepy/maniacal/foreboding as Kid A nor as majestically guitar-drenched as OK Computer nor as hermetically intimate as Amnesiac — when Thief was ‘merely’ an hour of effortlessly integrated proggish guitar-rock and electronic immersions and almost-not-quite dance beats and emotionally concrete but emphatically un-literal lyrics, merely a Radiohead album instead of the Radiohead album, it was marked down by the tastemakers as a bit of a disappointment, and that was it for Radiohead’s cultural moment. Four years later In Rainbows was a thinkpiece-ready media sensation for its pay-what-you-want delivery, but no one talked much about its music; nothing since then has made much of a dent outside of the music blogs.

But Hail to the Thief is about as fine a mid-second-act rock album as you could hope for. The Lovely Guitar Tunes (‘Go to Sleep,’ ‘Scatterbrain,’ ‘I Will,’ ‘Sail to the Moon,’ ‘Wolf at the Door’) are among Yorke’s loveliest, the opening two uptempo headbangers(?!) are pure adrenaline, and the group’s experiments in computerized pop theatricality (‘The Gloaming,’ ‘Backdrifts,’ ‘Myxomatosis’) argue for the continuity of the band’s pre- and post-millennium styles. Ignore the morons who think of Radiohead as ‘pretentious’: they’re just serious, and you should be too. While you’re at it, ignore anyone who dismisses Thief as a disappointment simply because it’s a distillation and consolidation rather than a year-in-the-lab-at-night experiment like Kid A. The whiggish rock/pop historical outlook that hypocritically insists both on the guilt-free pleasure principle (good!) yet clings to the idea that a great should do something new — getting bizarrely angry at artists content to do something(s) well — is the most poisonous result of early rockcrits’ desperate status-seeking. If pleasure is enough, it’s enough.

Hail to the Thief turns a few new tricks, but in retrospect they don’t really matter, nor does the album’s ‘incoherence’ when compared to Radiohead’s brilliant run from The Bends through Amnesiac. What matters is: the work gets you someplace it alone knows about.

(Sidebar proposal: The last four tracks of The Bends would be the peak of any lesser band’s career, never mind the rest of the album, and the key change and final chorus of ‘Sulk’ are — for me, of course ‘for me’ — one of the most rapturously sad moments on record. Only the cheapness of the contrast effect in ‘My Iron Lung’ mars what is, to my mind, an otherwise perfect rock album. Still, not their ‘greatest’ work, right? It’s ‘only a near-perfect collection of songs,’ unlike OK Computer and Kid A, which ‘add up.’ Man, I used to spend hours talking this kind of shit.)

Revisits: The Slip, Dave Matthews, Grimes, Radiohead.

Listening again to some discs I’d put aside, trying to hear something new in somethings old.

Grimes, Visions (2012)

An immersive piece of intoxicated tinkerer’s psychedelia which I dismissed too quickly in favour of the immediately accessible Art Angels. It still feels a bit like student work, which is to say there are moments of obvious Technique and an abashed quality throughout — if you’re willing to write the words, why not take the next step and sing so’s we can actually make them out? — and this is very obviously a Somewhat Muddled but Affecting Drug Album where Art Angels (the (minor) breakout pop hit) is an enthusiastic celebration of clarity, and perhaps sobriety. Yet the best songs (visions?), like ‘Genesis’ (my favourite and my wife’s), bring gal-pop narrativity to spacey electronica in a lushly trippy style, engaging the senses instead of making sense or settling for sensation. A strong argument for making the dancefloor and the chillout room all one big space, or maybe one very small one. And though the bespoke knob-twiddling of EDM still strikes me as the midpoint of a slippery slope down to shared-isolation consumerist hell, there’d be a place for Grimes in a world that still valued accident and the unfamiliar. For her sake I’m glad she’s off speed, though it’s a very small but real letdown that her next album won’t be a trip like this one.

The Slip at High Sierra Music Festival, 9/6/98

In their early incaranation, one of the small handful of worthwhile ‘jam bands’ — they combined schmind-schmexpanding hippie wandering with proper jazz language, and in the late 90s their considered engagement with electronic tools opened up new vistas. (Afterward they took a turn to electronica-touched indie pop, which brought them more attention; by that point I’d fallen off the radar somewhat.) They were astonishing live, passionate and spiritually intense but with actual existing chops. All three members are superb players, and Boston was their adopted hometown, so catching them at an all-night MIT basement show or burning up the Paradise was always a special experience. In those days drummer Andrew Barr took off for a few months of apprentice drumming in Mali, and came back with new old knowledge, playing with devotional fervor. I don’t know whether that was before or after this feelgood festival set, which is bound to be more affecting if you’re already up on the band. Excellent ‘Yellow Medicine’ here after a bunch of festival jams, but the career highlight is ‘Honey Melon,’ a gorgeous tune off From the Gecko that’s lifted by fiddle and didgeridoo into unself-conscious exultation. The set overall is less essential than I used to think, but the final two tunes, more than a half-hour in total, are the truth. I miss this band so much.

Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)

  1. These are the best strings I’ve heard on a rock album. I don’t love all of Jonny Greenwood’s film work, which at times has seemed to me to be more ‘interesting’ than beautiful, but there’s no denying his ambition — or, at this point, his mastery. Remember how folks gave Beck props for hiring his dad to do (gorgeous) string arrangements on Sea Change? This isn’t an additive process like that: Greenwood’s textures, acoustic and electronic, are essential to the structure of each piece. The second verse of ‘Burn the Witch’ — a statement of intent and show of force — features string backing of extraordinary subtlety and beauty, even while the rest of the arrangement cruelly weaponizes the string section. Subtlety isn’t exactly a rock’n’roll virtue, but listen closely to the way heavily processed samples of Thom Yorke’s moaning/humming turn out to be models for — or fore-echoes of? — the avant string part that poisons the back half of the song.
  2. Yorke has always done a brisk side business in haunting solo acoustic ballads: ‘Desert Island Disk’ continues a line running back through ‘Give Up the Ghost,’ ‘Faust Arp,’ ‘Go to Sleep,’ ‘Exit Music (for a film),’ and ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ — songs which have sometimes grown in performance to include full-band accompaniment, but which at heart are guy-with-guitar songs. Indeed, Yorke & Greenwood’s two-guys-with-two-guitars shows are perfect showcases for the songs they’ve crafted together, just as Dave Matthews’s duo shows with Tim Reynolds are an ideal showcase for his own underpraised songwriting work. ‘Desert Island Disk’ features spare synth backing and hushed work from the whole band in its final minute, but it’s a reminder that Yorke, all by himself, is a major talent. So’s the next track, which sees Yorke singing in unplaceable character as supplement to an extended uptempo not-exactly-dance tune. You can’t say Yorke’s never been better — go listen again to ‘Sulk,’ a song he refused to sing after its release partly because of The Big Feelings, though I suspect the demands it placed on his tenor were too great anyway — but he’s never gone further in, lyrically or vocally.
  3. Some American rock critics hate it when a British band puts out a masterpiece. Not just Christgau; his resentments are just easy to see. (Go read the Dartmouth grad’s U2 and Radiohead reviews if you don’t believe me — the best of our record reviewers is more chip than shoulder, there.) Americans are often suspicious of subsequent British invasions. And Radiohead, especially on this album, are very British (English, duh) indeed, trafficking in a pastoral unease that a nation needs 2,000 years of continuous local anxiety to work up to. As I tried to get at in a review I wrote of Adam Roberts’s superb SF novel Bête, I think the essential thing about American imaginary landscape is that our monumental geography predates Euro colonization — America was ancient before whites arrived, and it stretches so far in both time and space that its chief function is to make people feel small and/or (falsely) humble. But Britain itself is ancient — older than Christianity — and British fantastika seems to me to treat the mysteries of the land as understandable in terms of permanent residence rather than latecomer settlement — America has mountains and rivers and resentful natives, Britain has stone circles and fairy rings and ley lines and resentful Britons. The video for ‘Burn the Witch’ drives home this difference: when Americans go on about witch trials, they do so in tiresome moralizing tones, to tell a just-so story about {$intolerance_du_jour}. But the Wicker Man? Guy Fawkes? Spring-Heeled Jack? Now we’re into something else, free now of childish didacticism. The nightmarish somber-cheeriness of the ‘Burn the Witch’ video has no precise analogue in American culture. Or so it seems to me.
  4. Moon Shaped Pool came out two weeks after Beyoncé’s Lemonade, but without Lemonade‘s built-in pressure to have the correct opinion about it (Beyoncé is now the Significant musician, about whom Opinions must be had and shared; Radiohead’s just a band). Of the two albums Lemonade certainly goes further beyond everyone’s previous sense of the artist’s capabilities, or at any rate her interests — we all knew Beyoncé was a tremendously talented singer, and it’s not as if she wrote the music or (underwhelming except to autobiographically interested fans) lyrics. Moon Shaped Pool sounds like Radiohead moving further down a path they’d opened several albums ago, making more-than-ever complex and subtle use of familiar elements like aforementioned strings, disquieting electronics, Yorke’s alien voice, etc.; it’s the most emotionally mature thing they’ve ever put out. ‘Band gets better at the things they’re uniquely good at’ is a nice story, but younger cultural critics don’t have time for it. There’s no hook, no novelty. Radiohead are old news. Well, if we’re only giving credit for achievement and not potential or indeed Significance, then the old news is still news: Radiohead are the more musically and indeed lyrically ambitious than Beyoncé (and just about everyone else in pop or rock), and while Yorke’s vocals occupy a much narrower emotional envelope, he relies less on cliché and formula.
  5. Not for the first time, I find myself privileged to grow old/young alongside artists who were once said (dismissively, sensationally) to speak for their time, but who were always and only (it turns out) speaking for themselves.
  6. It’s beautiful.

Dave Matthews Band, Before These Crowded Streets (1998)

DMB’s best album, so f’ing what, but also a good album on its own terms — so good that even the terrible early Matthews tune ‘Halloween’ can’t ruin the vibe. It helps that ‘Halloween’ is sandwiched between ‘Stay,’ a perfect gospel-tinged bit of danceable pillowtalk pop, and ‘The Stone,’ an extraordinarily tense rhythmic experiment which makes the case for Carter Beauford’s hi-hat as pop music’s 1998 MVP. The antic/rustic/pastoral interludes help the album cohere, as do the beyond-the-call Kronos Quartet and producer Steve Lillywhite. The inclusion of pianist Butch Taylor (who joined the band full-time around this time) seems inevitable — rounding off the percussive guitar/bass/drum texures and varying the sax/fiddle atmospherics. Matthews writes great little songs without strong melodic identities, which suits his improvisatory dude-with-guitar style but means his Band needs to deliver a lot more than background. Thankfully they do: Crowded Streets is both a topologically varied and a sonically unified album, democratic in spirit but with a coherent shared sensibility.

You’re under no obligation to take Matthews and his Band seriously; despite their early popularity and surprising staying power they’re not exactly essential artists, and Matthews’s songwriting tends toward diffuseness. In my 33-1/3 book on Phish I called him an ‘intuitive savant,’ and I stand by that — his stripped-down acoustic duo shows with soulmate Tim Reynolds showcase his oddball folk-pop experiments, and he’s written a handful of unassailable tunes in that mode (‘So Damn Lucky,’ ‘Bartender,’ ‘Jimi Thing,’ and ‘Warehouse’ come to mind, and I have a soft spot for ‘Christmas Song’). But his batting average isn’t high enough for the canon, c’mon. I take issue with Robert Christgau’s tired ‘bland as a tofu sandwich’ snobbery, not least because some well-made tofu sandwiches have kicked this carnivore’s ass all over the place (and I find DMB’s integrated-in-every-sense funk/folk/jazzgrassish pop sound pretty interesting), but there’s no denying that Matthews has never made ‘dangerous’ music, whatever you take that to mean.

And his lyrics are, worryingly often, just terrible.

Still, Crowded Streets shows how much room there is for experimentation within DMB’s radio-friendly mid-90s hedonism template. The songs move, the singer digs deep, the band passes the energy ball with casual expertise, and the sound belongs to them alone. Overlook them if you like, no one cares. Dismiss them if you like — but listen first. Listen, if you have a minute, for what so many of us heard back then.