Category Archives: Review

I started out by writing reviews, and I still write them compulsively. Whenever I can, I cover new films, new books, and new albums. But who doesn’t also enjoy spending time with a classic occasionally?

Paul Simon – Graceland

GracelandIt’s time I reviewed a classic album. They don’t come much more classic than Graceland, the phenomenal 1986 record from Paul Simon, who at that point was already a veteran musician. This is not only the finest album by one of America’s finest songwriters (it surpasses even the best of his work with Art Garfunkel), but a sterling example of pop music as complex, thoughtful, adult entertainment. Graceland is dateless, one of very few 20th-century albums that still justify the cliché of sounding like they could have been made yesterday. And that’s not just because Vampire Weekend have spent their career mining it for inspiration. It’s because Simon here manages that most unusual of feats for a charting, commercially successful pop musician: he transcends his time. Continue reading

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Lewis Carroll – Through the Looking-Glass

Ever since I was very young, I have adored Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I have read it innumerable times and have large passages of it by heart. And yet somehow, never before now have I bothered to pick up the sequel. Through the Looking-Glass was published in 1872, seven years after Wonderland, and turns on the same essential premise: charming little Alice accidentally finds herself in a magical nonsense-world populated by bizarre and fantastical characters, and she has adventures there. Reading this book now, against the backdrop of my familiarity with Alice’s previous adventure, I am struck both by the similarity and by the differences. Once again we follow Alice on a surreal, anarchic circus ride through a string of wild, illogical fantasies; once again we are thrilled by Carroll’s gloriously nonsensical wordplay and his marvellous comic imagination. But Looking-Glass is darker, more thoughtful, and less exuberant, and its tone is modulated with moments of melancholy. This book is less funny than the other, but its range is wider, and it takes us to places that the first left well alone. Continue reading

Deafheaven – Sunbather

SunbatherThis decade’s Loveless? Perhaps not quite, but the comparison is apt. It’s hard to imagine that San Francisco black metal band Deafheaven didn’t have Loveless in mind when they were composing and recording Sunbather. It may even be that Sunbather’s pink cover is a deliberate allusion to My Bloody Valentine’s shoegaze masterpiece. For a band who have set out to apply the shoegaze aesthetic to metal, there can be few more fitting touchstones. And with Sunbather, Deafheaven have accomplished something like what My Bloody Valentine accomplished with Loveless: a rock album loud and harsh and dense beyond measure, which nonetheless achieves a kind of fragile beauty. They cannot replicate the mysterious alchemy of an MBV record – no band can – but they can take something approximating the same screechy-yet-tranquil aesthetic, and pour it lovingly over a set of epic metal songs. The results are very striking indeed. Continue reading

Lawrence of Arabia

There is an image that recurs twice or thrice in Lawrence of Arabia. The screen shows a vast, blank, impossibly empty expanse of flat desert, filling the lower half of the screen, while the unforgiving sky stretches above. Both land and sky are featureless. It is a vision of unforgiving, infinite, primal absence. Absence of anything made by human hands, absence of thought, of feeling, of morality, of all things human. It is a blank canvas on which anything might be drawn. Then, on the exact centre of that flat line dividing land from sky, a tiny black dot appears. You have to search the screen for it, but it is there. A little black vertical line, standing out against the sky behind it. This tiny black line is a man, coming towards the camera. First there was only emptiness; now there is a man who by his coming has created something, something drawn on the canvas of nothing.  “Nothing is written,” declares Lawrence. Fate is a lie: a man may come, and a man may work change by the power of his will, and his will alone. Continue reading

Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Modern Vampires of the CityModern Vampires of the City is a treasure of a pop album. It’s one of the most thoughtful, tuneful, and moving records released thus far in this century. It came out in May and I still can’t stop listening to it. Since we are now in the thick of list-making season, and every music site on the net is laying out its top ten songs and albums of 2013, I’d like to take a moment to retroactively review what I am convinced is the finest record of the year. With this album, Vampire Weekend have become one of the most important American bands of their generation, and I will consider my time well spent if I can bring it to the attention of just a few more people. Continue reading

Arctic Monkeys – AM

AMWhen British music magazine NME reviewed this year’s Arctic Monkeys album, which is simply called AM, it enthused that this is not only the band’s best record yet, but it “might also be the greatest record of the last decade.” Which is, you know, typical NME. One day the British music press might learn to tone down the hysteria and stop declaring that they’ve discovered a new John Lennon with every year that goes by. Given certain qualifications, however, this particular statement is not as outlandish as it might seem. If you substitute “greatest record of the last decade” with “greatest British record of reasonably conventional rock music of the last decade” (these are, after all, the terms of greatness in which NME usually deals), and you still might not agree, but the claim does seem suddenly reasonable. For make no mistake: AM is a startling, seductive, and unmistakeably excellent record. Continue reading

Arcade Fire – Reflektor

In about ten years fromArcade Fire - Reflektor now, the world of popular music will probably be in the middle of the great backlash against Arcade Fire. Like U2 before them, they are a mighty, earnest, blazingly unsubtle stadium rock band who have inspired such awe and such exaltation that most of us have been willing to overlook their faults. And like U2 before them, they will eventually have to endure a wave of scepticism, even contempt, from a younger generation of music fans reacting against them in a spirit of self-righteous good taste. The band will be criticised both for their unyieldingly serious outlook (Neon Bible is surely the most self-consciously Important rock album since The Joshua Tree itself) and for their occasionally awkward or corny lyrics. For a time, Arcade Fire will become uncool. Continue reading