Songs of 2014

In 2014, I have been out of the loop on music. So much has been going on in my life that I simply haven’t been keeping my finger half as firmly on the pulse as is usual for me. And that’s fine, because I’ll still discover the good stuff sooner or later. In the meantime, however, one result of my lack of attention is that for the first time in many many years, I honestly have no idea what songs are going to show up on the critics’ “Best of 2014” lists. The album lists I can predict, because even when you’re out of the loop it’s hard to miss the year’s big albums. But the songs I cannot say. I don’t expect I’ll even have heard of most of them. I find this quite exciting: I get to consult the songs-of-the-year countdowns from the critics I respect and be genuinely surprised at what I encounter. Continue reading

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The Nolanisation of Hollywood

When the late Roger Ebert, film critic without peer, reviewed Batman Begins upon its release in 2005, he neatly captured the essence of what made it different. “The movie is not realistic, because how could it be,” he said; “but it acts as if it is.” And he gave it the full four stars. As time has gone by, the prescience of Ebert’s assessment has only become clearer. Nearly a decade since that first installment in director Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films, his ethos has come to permeate mainstream American film-making. At a stroke, he made redundant the self-referential cheesiness, the glossy, flashy sheen of slick production values, and the extravagant sensationalism that had hitherto been the norm in Hollywood action movies. The new norm is the style made fashionable by Nolan: ultra-serious, pseudo-realistic, and both thematically and visually dark. Continue reading

Caribou – Our Love

10_700_700_488_caribou_ourlove_900Canadian auteur Dan Snaith, who now records as Caribou, is nothing if not meticulous. His elegant, peculiar electronic creations are among the most intricately designed pieces of music in contemporary dance, precisely arranged and fine-tuned to the point of obsession. His latest album, Our Love, is something of an apotheosis: warm, intimate, and melodic, it nonetheless impresses overwhelmingly as a triumph of craftsmanship, a perfect system of pulsing bass, flickering percussion, and gleaming synths. It’s an engaging and sometimes engrossing record. Unfortunately, the album rarely manages to completely transcend its obvious constructedness. It has become a cliché to observe that Snaith took a PhD in pure mathematics at Imperial College, London, and that his music sounds exactly like what you’d expect a man with that background to produce. But Our Love genuinely does feel a little sterile in its careful, consistent detail, and by the time it finishes, you’re impatient to listen to something looser, more organic, more spontaneous. Continue reading

Sharks and Wires: The Importance of Unsolved Mysteries in European Cinema

For the past fifteen years or more, the European art cinema scene has increasingly come to be dominated by one outstanding and frequently controversial director: the Austrian Michael Haneke. Other directors have produced films just as distinctive and just as widely praised – Lars von Trier and Béla Tarr spring easily to mind – but nobody else has such a consistent record of rich, original, and provocative critical successes. Haneke’s films are precise, suspenseful, and explicitly and disturbingly violent. Yet the classic hallmark recurring through his half-dozen major films is not the way they very shockingly observe and confront human evil, but something seemingly much less significant: the fact that they frequently rest on unresolvable or open-ended storylines. Many viewers feel that Haneke teases them by refusing to answer the narrative riddles that he poses, and so his fame and his notoriety have come to rest not so much on his moral boldness as on the manner of his storytelling. Even some of his admirers claim that he ought not to play such games of befuddling the viewer, as this distracts attention from the intellectual and ethical points that form the centres of his films. Continue reading

The Piano

Rarely can any actor have managed to convey so much with so seemingly little as does Holly Hunter in The Piano. Her character, Ada, has been mute since early childhood, and not once in this intense, almost melodramatic film does she utter a single word. Yet without ever overstating herself by a single twitch of her face, or a single gesture, Hunter manages to give us access – startlingly intimate access – to Ada’s thoughts, reactions, and beliefs. She allows us to care deeply for this austere, severe woman. It is the central frustration of The Piano that Hunter is nonetheless contained by a screenplay that denies her, and us, the chance to maintain that intimacy through the film’s arbitrary and muddled final act. Ada finds closure, of some mysterious kind, but we by that time have been alienated from her by the perverseness of the narrative, and so we cannot join her in feeling satisfied with how this strange film ends. Continue reading

“What do you do to try and think more positive about life?”

Last week I received a text from a friend of mine. She said simply this: “What do you do to try and think more positive about life?” She then said I should take my time to answer, and my answer could be as short and simple, or as long and convoluted, as I liked. There was no context, and no indication of what was prompting her to ask for this advice. There was just the question.

I reproduce here the response that I wrote for her and emailed to her the next day. Besides removing one reference to her by name, I’ve left it exactly as I sent it to my friend. She tells me it was a helpful response. I hope other people will find it helpful too. Continue reading

Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde

Blonde on BlondeNobody pays much attention to “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”. It goes unnoticed, an obscure blues piece from the era when Bob Dylan was creating so much excellent music so rapidly that a great deal seems to be just lost in the flood. Yet it bears the distinction of being perhaps the most genuinely funny song in his catalogue. Dylan’s earlier albums are intermittently scattered with comic social satires – “I Shall be Free,” “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” and so forth – but most of them are just not very funny. You need look no further than “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” for an example of the same approach executed much more successfully – largely because Dylan no longer seems to be trying to see how many human vanities he can expose in a single four-minute recording. His focus here has narrowed, and the result is an infectiously bonkers serenade to a single lady of his acquaintance who is sporting the titular fashion item. It “balances on your head just like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine!” Continue reading

Sigur Rós – Valtari

ValtariWriting about Sigur Rós is an exercise all but guaranteed to bring out the element of futility in trying to write about music at all. To experience Sigur Rós for the length of an album, and then to lift yourself out of your reverie in order that you might struggle to translate those slow, massive, fragile washes of sound into some kind of literal synopsis, is to be prompted for a moment to wonder why you ever felt the need to put music into words in the first place. This band remains alone in contemporary music, as they always have done, in asking their listeners to do nothing more than lie back and surrendur themselves to celestial, unapologetic beauty. They are completely uninterested in ideas, and they give the impression of bearing exactly zero relation to anything else in the musical landscape around them, so that it is pointless to try to situate them in relation to other artists. Besides acknowledging their loveliness, there would seem, at first glance, to be very little for a critic to do with them. Continue reading

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

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