Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.

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Playlist cover for The Steps - a staircase leading up into trees and light

The Steps

Happy New year, and happy new 2021 music mix. As always, this is a year-end mix I make for some friends — full explanation on the first one I posted in 2010. It’s not all music from 2021 (in fact, my backlog of music to listen to pretty much guarantees that very little on here is timely.) It’s just songs I listened to this year that meant something to me.

This is my first full year in quite a while with no album assignments — that project remains on semi-permanent hiatus while we continue to deal with what’s thrown at us. In its place, I really dove into Spotify this year, trying out random playlists from all over the place to find new songs to love. Several of those show up in this mix, along with stalwart favorites like Neko Case, Tori Amos, and Stevie Nicks. This was also the year my iPod finally gave up the ghost, and I kept my listening records in Spotify rather than iTunes, though I sometimes had to make notes about what was missing.

As usual, I tried to craft the mix with a bit of flow to it, an art that relies much more on the gut than the head. Sometimes songs would join up like puzzle pieces, based on a sound or a mood or a theme. Gradually those joined up pieces accumulated until they made bigger pieces, which eventually fit together like tectonic plates — not seamless but close enough. By the time the order was finalized, I felt like it told a story, which is the best I can hope for these mixes. Here are my stories behind the songs.

1. Muse – Apocalypse Please
On January 1, I posted the liner notes from last year’s mix, ending with the words, “Here’s to a brighter 2021.” Five days later, United States senators were dropping to the floor of the chamber, hiding under tables, and attempting to crawl to safety as a mob of armed lunatics stormed the Capitol building, beating the crap out of cops while waving “thin blue line” flags. To me, it felt pretty apocalyptic. I never thought I’d live through a coup attempt in my own country, especially one that felt more driven by nihilism and stupidity than any particular revolutionary philosophy. So much for a brighter 2021.

2. Pink Floyd – Goodbye Blue Sky
I love the gently sinister feeling of this song, the pretty voices mixing with the stark words. “The flames are all long gone, but the pain lingers on” really captures a 2021 feeling for me. During the Trump presidency, every day felt like it brought fresh horrors, and this year didn’t feel like that, thank god. But there’s still so much pain happening — the never-ending pandemic (thanks for that by the way, unvaccinated people), the economy struggling to deal with new realities, the ongoing partisan nastiness lurking around every corner, and a world that just seems to keep getting hotter. When Dante heard this mix, he asked me if this song was meant to refer to the way that all summer, wildfire smoke clouded the sky. I hadn’t thought of that connection, but it sure fits.

3. Simon & Garfunkel – The Times They Are A-Changin’
As I was putting this part of the mix together, a feeling of familiarity kept nagging at me. Finally I uncovered it — I used both this song and “Goodbye Blue Sky” in my 2016 mix. It feels fitting that they surfaced again for me, though with the cover/original relationships reversed (in 2016 I used Heart’s version of “Blue Sky” and Dylan’s original of “The Times”.) That year, I even framed “The Times” as hopeful, and this early Simon & Garfunkel rendition certainly feels full of freshness, youth, and enthusiasm. But I just can’t shake the way that “Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call / Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall / For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled / The battle outside ragin’ will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls” has a new and horrifying resonance.

4 and 5. Genesis – Fly on a Windshield/Broadway Melody of 1974
I don’t think I’d ever really given The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway a fair shake, or maybe there was a long time where I just wasn’t quite ready for it. This was Peter Gabriel’s last album with Genesis, and while I love them both, this album had never fully engaged me. For a long time I had a homemade cassette with songs plucked from it, labelled “Lamb Chops” (yes, thank you, it is awfully clever, isn’t it?), but looking back that was a pretty strange thing to do with a concept album. So this year I spent some time with it, or at least the first disc of it, and really enjoyed it back to front. It’s Peter Gabriel leveling up, before he was about to really level up.

Nevertheless, whether through familiarity or preference, it was the “Chops” songs I gravitated to even on this listen. The moment in “Fly on a Windshield” where the band kicks in still blows me away, and the image felt fitting in connection with the previous 3 songs. Then there’s the bizarre parade of cultural figures that floats through the “Broadway Melody.” I enjoy list songs, and this is a really off-the-wall one. For me, it brings to mind the way the pile-up of input that comes through all channels can start to feel grotesque, with even familiar and beloved figures beginning to take on a menacing cast.

6. Neko Case – Oracle of the Maritimes
I felt like the ending of “Broadway Melody” blended really nicely into the beginning of this one, taking us from the center of Times Square with everyone stepping on everyone else, to a lonely boat with a mysterious oarsman. This for me was the standout song from Neko’s 2018 album Hell-On, the one that felt most like her Middle Cyclone tracks — my favorite period of hers, and one that will appear later on this mix. I love the surreal, dreamlike lyrics (“ride a chest of drawers into the waves”), and of course I find her voice endlessly thrilling, especially as it rises above doubt, fear, and confusion to a crescendo of self-affirmation. It’s a song that never fails to elevate me. And oh man that cello — Dante’s playing has improved to the point that now I get to hear a lot of lovely cello in my house, and it really makes me appreciate when one shows up in a pop song.

7. HAIM – The Steps
Speaking of self-affirmation. It’s rare anymore that a song will grab me so hard that I have to listen to it on repeat for days, but that’s what happened as soon as I heard this one. I think it’s my favorite song on this mix, which is part of why I made it the “title track.” (The other part is because so many of the feelings in these songs make up the steps I went through this year, often over and over.) I was never really on the HAIM train (or the Haim train? I feel like I see conflicting versions of how they style their name) before this, but holy cow do I love this song, just everything about it. The California instrumentation, the frustrated/resigned lyrics, the swooping melody, the power harmonies, the emotion-drenched vocal… whew. This was one I ran across on Spotify, and I’m so glad I did.

8. IX Reflections – New Man’s Born
Here’s another Spotify discovery — this band came up on some playlist I stumbled across, and their sound immediately captivated me. I switched over from the playlist to their one full album, and by the time I’d finished listening to it once, it went on my “to buy” list. It turns out they are quite an obscure band, without even a Wikipedia page to their name. They’re on facebook, though, where I learned that they are a “Moscow darkwave band”. So… I guess I like Russian goth synth music? I sure do love this album, and in particular this song, which feels like the rebirth I needed.

9. Lizzo – Good as Hell
This is a whole different style, but a pretty similar message, I think. I spent some quality time with Lizzo this year, and really appreciated both her music and her persona. I have to say, though, this song has become primarily associated with Nimbus in our house. He’s got a bunch of fluff that looks just like pants, and when he’s on his way somewhere, the vibe is totally “walk your fine ass out the door.”

10. Baby Blue feat. Wretch32 – Run (TDH remix)
The “Spotify finds” section of this mix continues with this song, another one that I randomly ran across and decided I needed to buy. This time I didn’t so much dive into the artist, but I dig this song a lot. Lyrically it’s typical rap braggadocio, but I love her London accent, her “I’m so London / Scratch that, I’m so the world!”, and the beat, which always gets me moving.

11. The 1975 – The Ballad of Me and My Brain
I ran across The 1975 on Spotify, but via an even more sideways process than usual. In searching for Stevie Nicks stuff, I unearthed a podcast called The Face, in which Matty Healy (frontman for the band) interviewed Stevie for over an hour. The interview is super fun, and the two of them have a great rapport, in which it emerges that Stevie is a huge fan of The 1975. Well, that was certainly impetus enough for me to check them out, and sure enough, I loved them and bought their first two albums. This song jumped out because of its fantastic title, and stuck around because of its intriguing sound and playful words.

12. Kristin Kontrol – X-Communicate
This might look like another Spotify find, but I’ve actually known Kristin (whose real last name is Gundred) for a long time. I first ran across her when she was fronting a band called Grand Ole Party (ugh that name, but the band was wow) opening for Rilo Kiley in 2007. I wrote about it at the time and predicted that Kristin was going to be a big success. And as indie artists go, it kinda seems like she has been! GOP broke up a couple years after I saw them, and Gundred started the band Dum Dum Girls. That lasted for about 8 years, and then she reinvented herself into Kristin Kontrol, with a synthpop feel straight out of the 80s, like IX Reflections but with clearer vocals and the occasional New Order-ish guitar part. In other words, my kinda thing. I think this is my favorite version of Kristin yet.

13. Bruce Springsteen – Dancing In The Dark
Some songs are played so much that they need decades to recover, and this is certainly one of those for me. But I’ve been spending a fair amount of time with Bruce in recent years, not just as a singer but as a speaker and a writer. I listened to his autobiography as an audiobook a few years back (highly recommended), and this year I absolutely devoured Renegades, his podcast with Barack Obama. That brought me back to this song in particular, and I gained a deeper appreciation for it not just by hearing it fresh for the first time in a long time, but also because I emotionally connected with it in my ongoing pandemic loneliness. “I ain’t nothin’ but tired / Man I’m just tired and bored with myself” — I really feel that some days.

14. 10,000 Maniacs – These Days
Another melancholy song — Jackson Browne’s original is great, but there’s a special place in my heart for this 10,000 Maniacs version, which somehow feels even more wrenching to me. I wrote last year about how the isolation produced by my change in working habits (along with everybody else I work with) has had some personal downsides for me. Sure, it’s nice not to have to commute, but I find it much more challenging to maintain personal equilibrium when so much of my “social contact” outside of family is via a screen, and some of the cornerstone routines of human connection for me — biweekly D&D games, basement bowl trivia — have just gone away. Now, it’s not nearly as bad as it was in 2020 when everything was really really locked down, and I am grateful for the connections I do have, but there are still those days.

15. Neko Case – I’m An Animal
Here’s Neko again, this time from the classic Middle Cyclone album. This song to me is about the pure need for affection and connection. Typically when we talk about the “animal side” of humans, we’re referring to violence, domination, brutality, and so forth, but here it means the animal need for comfort, Mary Oliver’s “soft animal of your body” that just wants to love what it loves. That’s what this song is about for me, and it flows from the previous two.

16. The Waterboys – And a Bang on the Ear
This one is about affection too, but from a little different direction. I spent about a week with Fisherman’s Blues this year, and found that certain songs on it perfectly embody a mood. “Sweet Thing” is absolute ecstasy, “We Will Not Be Lovers” captures defiance… and this song is quintessentially wistful, or at least it is once you know that a “bang” is a kiss or affectionate pat. It’s not just about romances, either, at least not for me. I feel it as a tour of past selves, returning to memories both happy and painful with a settled affection and grace, a making peace. As I get older, this song moves me more and more. “Not surprisingly,” as Werner Herzog would say.

17. Stevie Nicks – Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You?
“You to me are treasure / You to me are dear” says the previous song, and for me this song will always be about my dear treasure of a spouse. 2021 was our 25th wedding anniversary, and we celebrated in a few ways, including ziplining across the Royal Gorge(!). My most precious memory of it, though, is the gift that Laura gave me on the day, a 45 of this song pressed into a frame with an image of the sheet music and quotes from the lyrics. A harpist played it at our wedding, and having it return this way was just profoundly lovely.

18. Tori Amos – Flying Dutchman
Just as the previous song is about Laura for me, this one (and the next) is about Dante, or at least what my imagination projects onto him. Or maybe it’s about me, as I imagine myself onto Dante. His social world is mostly closed to me, but it’s my perception that he doesn’t have many of his own tribe in his life, at least outside of us. I think that’s slowly changing, but it still feels to me like he’s an outlier among his peers, and that they can’t see what he’s born to be. But he’s got his own rocket ship, and I hope one day he finds the planet that’s home to him.

19. Brandi Carlile – The Joke
This is a song in that same vein, and was my entry into appreciating Brandi Carlile. Laura dove into Brandi’s catalog this year much more than I did, but when I heard this song on Spotify, I knew it would be part of this mix. I don’t know that Dante gets harassed in the way that this song implies, but I know that I’ve repeatedly experienced his exasperation with most of his peers and his conscious separation from their juvenile energy. I think that’s changing as he and they get older — as other kids settle down he’s able to find more common ground with them, but even so he’s often pretty well apart from what they find cool, what they find interesting, and what they find funny. But before long the joke will be on them.

20. Dan Wilson – Closing Time
Dan Wilson used to be the lead singer and songwriter of a band called Semisonic, best known for their song “Closing Time”. That band went on a long hiatus in 2001, and Wilson moved into a songwriting career. In that career he wrote or co-wrote some huge hits, including Adele’s “Someone Like You” and the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready To Make Nice.” This year I listened to his album Re-Covered, in which he sings his own versions of all those songs he helped create, and at the end he performs this absolutely gorgeous version of “Closing Time”, with just piano and a bit of subtle synth. I’ve always adored this song — it’s how I became a Wilson fan in the first place — and it felt like a perfect grace note for this collection. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, and I’m ready for another new beginning.

A Crack In The Shell cover image - a chick hatching among eggs

A Crack In The Shell

It’s January 1, and that means it’s time for another year-end music mix. As always, this is a year-end mix I make for some friends — full explanation on the first one I posted in 2010. It’s not all music from 2020 (in fact, my backlog of music to listen to pretty much guarantees that very little on here is timely.) It’s just songs I listened to this year that meant something to me.

As terrible a year as 2020 was, I spent much of it feeling pretty lucky. My job was able to smoothly transition into working safely at home, and I never felt the economic threat that hit so many people. (Laura’s job wasn’t quite so smooth, but she still has it at least.) I love the people I live with, and even after being in close proximity for much more time than usual, we still have a great time together. Our house has enough space for each of us to do our thing remotely if that’s needed.

Also, I’m so grateful that Dante is in high school, and therefore can pretty much self-manage everything he needs to do while we’re working. My colleagues and friends who have young children at home have it much rougher. For that matter, I’m grateful that school and work can even happen remotely. It’s hard to imagine how much more disruptive a pandemic like this would have been in pre-Internet days. I’m even able to virtually get together with friends for things like trivia, board games, and the occasional celebration, thanks to the Jetsons technology we all have now.

Still, god, what a year. As good as we have it, I defintely felt my share of disruptions, and one of those was in my life with music. The Album Assignments project went on pause, as Robby took on the daunting task of educating 5th graders remotely and I transitioned into a very different way of working. In the course of that transition, I found myself listening to music much less than I had before. My previous time with music was mostly spent on my commute, which evaporated after COVID-19 hit. I also worked a lot with music on, but that dried up too as I acclimated to working from home, with other people around.

Finally, sometime in June, it hit me that I was desperately missing music, and I made some changes. While I still listen to podcasts on my walks, I switched over to music while doing the dishes, cooking, and other household chores. I figured out ways to integrate it back into my work life, and I made it a part of the time I spent with Dante, including an awesome music trivia habit where we quiz each other on our favorite musical canons so that we can each learn from the other. (His are all instrumental videogame music, definitely not a strong genre for me.) We also found ourselves doing a lot of text adventures and board games (physical and virtual) together, activities which lend themselves to background music.

In any case, when it came time to make this mix, I was picking from a much shorter list than usual. Nevertheless, I’m very happy with how it came out. Here are some musical highlights from a pretty tough year.

1. Jonathan Coulton – Pictures Of Cats
How 2020 are these opening lines? “All at once, it fills up my feed / More bad news that I didn’t need / I can’t stop reading but I wish that I didn’t know.” I had that experience over and over this year, and definitely ended up doomscrolling through Twitter plenty of times when I should have just switched over to looking at pictures of cats. Strangely, I listened to this song before the full 2020 of it all hit the world, but when I reviewed the list, I knew there was no better song to kick off this mix.

2. Aimee Mann feat. James Mercer – Living A Lie
Like almost all of these tracks, this one was written prior to 2020, and in fact came out before the Trump era. And I don’t think it was ever intended politically — it’s about a relationship — but I felt like it perfectly captured a mood this year. When you’re stuck with a frantic liar, you have no choice but to live inside a lie. That was never more clear than in 2020, when the President’s relentless need for self-aggrandizement and seeking short-term advantage had him undermining and upending every single institution that any of the rest of us could trust. It got to the point where we couldn’t even be sure our own Centers For Disease Control were able to provide us reliable information. Often it felt like all we could do is wait for a crack in the shell. Thank god one came at the end of the year.

3. Richard Thompson – Keep Your Distance
I listened to a fair amount of Richard Thompson (and Linda too) toward the beginning of the year, so I wanted to include a song of his in this mix. When I looked over the list, the words “Keep Your Distance” jumped out at me. Once again, this is meant in the relationship sense, but “keep your distance” is so 2020! This was the year that simple trips to the grocery store felt like foraging expeditions into deadly territory, not helped by the wingnut contingent who wear their masks under their noses or not at all, because freedom or whatever. Keep your distance, wingnuts! (And sadly, everyone else too.)

4. Frank Sinatra – Mood Indigo
This was from one of the few 2020 album assignments, Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours. (Well, actually the tail end of 2019, but my listening year goes November-October, so it’s 2020 to me.) This was a concept album of sadness, and Sinatra’s smooth reading of this wonderful, melancholy Duke Ellington tune felt like a good summation of the story so far. Also, “Indigo” was particularly important this year, but more about that later.

5. Aretha Franklin – Chain Of Fools (unedited version)
And here’s the turn. I vividly remember waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store when this version of “Chain Of Fools” came into my ears. I’d never heard it before — it came up on Spotify or something. The slow, soulful intro — “the sound of pain” — suddenly bursting into “chain chain chain”… BLEW MY MIND. I’ve always loved the single version of this song, and having it set up like this made little fireworks of joy go off in my head. When I finally figured out in June that I needed to bring more music back in, Aretha’s Lady Soul was the album I started with, and it worked perfectly. I will never forget giddily dancing around the kitchen to these songs, like some kind of solo remake of The Big Chill, blissfully losing everything else in music and simple tasks.

6. Prince – Little Red Corvette
Lady Soul was the first album that brought music definitively back into my life. The Very Best Of Prince was the second. Prince hit big in the early ’80s, ages 12-14 for me, and I didn’t know how to process him. I think he scared me, honestly. I had friends who were fans, but all that sexuality, androgyny, and funk — I couldn’t deal with it. I pushed it away. This year, I invited it back in, and found that I love it now. Like a lot of parties, I’m very late to it, but having a great time now that I’m here.

7. Stevie Nicks – Stand Back
Anytime I hear “Little Red Corvette”, I’m pretty much always going to think of “Stand Back.” That’s because Stevie has a story she’s told many times, of driving on the highway towards her honeymoon of a short-lived, ill-advised marriage, pretty much the opposite of “a love that’s gonna last.” When “Little Red Corvette” came on the radio, she was inspired. She found a tape recorder, and composed her own song on top of Prince’s. Then, when recording “Stand Back”, she found the courage to call him and tell him this story, and in response he showed up and played the synth riff on it. “Stand Back” is the love child of ’80s chiffon royalty’s king and queen.

8. Stevie Nicks – Crying In The Night (live 2017)
You can hear that story, and many others, in Stevie’s concert film from her 24 Karat Gold tour. Despite the pandemic, I found my way to a movie theater twice this year. Once was for The New Mutants, a superhero movie that features my favorite Marvel character of all time, a Scottish mutant codenamed Wolfsbane. Having loved this character since I was 12, there was simply no way that I was going to miss seeing her played by Maisie Williams on the big screen. The movie had plenty of flaws, but it got Wolfsbane right, and for that I will always love it.

The other movie I showed up for was Stevie’s aforementioned concert film. It’s a filmed version of what I called “the Stevie Nicks show I’d been awaiting for 30 years.” In it, she told lots of stories like the one above — seriously, the movie is 2 hours and 15 minutes, and I think about 30 minutes of it is storytelling. She also sang songs she’d NEVER sung before in concert, including this one from the Buckingham Nicks album. That album isn’t even available on CD! What a thrill it was to hear her sing it in concert, and the movie brought back that thrill. Totally worth braving the virus.

9. Prince – Kiss
The next couple songs are just more sweet memories of my “soul kitchen” moments this year. “Kiss” is a super fun song on its own, and I can’t help hearing it in my mind juxtaposed with the version that The Art Of Noise recorded featuring Tom Jones. I thought about including that version in this mix, but after I went back and listened to it, I found that Prince outstripped it so dramatically that its inclusion could only feel disappointing after the real thing.

10. Aretha Franklin – (Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone
There’s not a lot to say about this one, except that it’s another standout moment from Lady Soul. My thick socks sliding around on our wooden kitchen floor, with this song playing in earbuds, led to great moments of happiness this year.

11. clipping. – All Black
Conversely, there is a lot to say about this one. First, some explanation of who this band is. The vocalist is Daveed Diggs, who has a bunch of credits, all of which are far overshadowed by the fact that he originated the roles of Jefferson and Lafayette in the Broadway production of Hamilton. clipping. is an experimental hip-hop trio in which Diggs joins producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes. Their album Splendor & Misery was the last album assignment I wrote, posted just a few days before everybody went home and stayed there. Listening to it now, the music feels shockingly prophetic of what was to come. First of all, most of the story on the album is about a guy who is alone in space, first captured and then in control, but exiled from the world he knew. There have been plenty of times this year where I felt like I was in a space capsule, well-furnished and supplied with plenty of entertainment, but orbiting Earth rather than on it.

Secondly, the album and in particular this song is centrally concerned with Blackness and oppression. As it turned out, so was the summer of 2020. I wrote about this in the album post, how “all black everything” partakes of many layers of meaning, including as an allusion to other hip-hop songs that take it as a declaration of pride and strength. Those two images together — all black everything but isolated from everywhere — bundled up a lot of 2020 for me.

12. Jonathan Coulton – All This Time
Here’s another sci-fi song, albeit one in a vastly different musical mode. “All This Time” is from Coulton’s album Solid State, which I listened to a lot early in the year. It’s a wonderful album of thoughtful power pop about surveillance, technology, and love, and this is one of the standout songs. However, my attachment to this song in this year was more about its video than the song itself. That video was in the form of a text adventure — it’s by far the best text-adventure-themed video ever made, no disrespect to MC Frontalot’s “It Is Pitch Dark”.

That fits this year perfectly, because this was the year I jumped back into my passion for interactive fiction. Part of that was creating a new blog to house the many IF reviews that live on my old web page, and another big part of it was revisiting many games from the Infocom canon, but this time with Dante guiding the play. Together we replayed (or in his case, played for the first time) all the Zork and Enchanter games, and had a fantastic time doing it. I may write about it in the new blog at some point, but even if I don’t, I’ll treasure that experience. This year, many things were taken away in exchange for all this newfound time, and sometimes we made the most of it.

13. Genesis – No Reply At All
Some of those losses, though, had a really negative effect on me. Here’s one that I didn’t expect, until I understood how much I counted on what I didn’t have anymore. I found myself dealing with a pretty shocking (for me) level of insecurity this year. Uncharacteristically, I found myself frequently fretting about my relationships with pretty much everybody who doesn’t live with me, especially co-workers. Absences of replies, or even delays, had me worrying I’d somehow done something to upset whoever my anxious mind chose to focus on. It turns out that I really depend on mundane social interactions at work to provide a normalizing effect that reassures my brain that everything is okay. Take those away, and throw in a round of really stressful and destabilizing layoffs, and suddenly I become Anxious Guy.

By the way, I absolutely adore the bridge to this song. (The part that starts “Maybe deep down inside…”) I find bridges fascinating in general, the way they’re like a miniature new and different song inside the bigger song, and this one just really grabs me.

14. Adele – Cold Shoulder
Continuing the insecurity theme, this felt like the right Adele song to pick for my 2020. It’s not even that people were giving me the cold shoulder. (I don’t THINK?!? :P) I just spent way too much time worried about it. I’m still working on coping with that one.

15. Buffalo Springfield – For What It’s Worth
What is all this anyway? It’s paranoia, that’s what. So here’s “For What It’s Worth”, the best song I know about paranoia. On the personal level, my paranoia strikes deep, but isn’t really justified. On the larger cultural level, I’m not so sure. There’s the erosion of trust I talked about in #2. There’s the general bone-chill about how much support there still is for the lying, bullshitting, racist, bullying Toddler-In-Chief and the party that bent its knee to his every whim. As Bruce Springsteen said in a recent interview, “Overall, as somebody who was a born populist, I’ve got a little less faith in my neighbors than I had four years ago.” And then, of course, there are the police.

The comparison that keeps coming to my mind, that I haven’t heard anyone else make yet, is to the Catholic church. Both the church and the police in America are these institutions that many of us (at least, the “us” at less danger of victimization) grow up seeing as helpful, honorable, and virtuous. In both cases, there are some fundamental problems with the concept and structure of the institution itself, but they also perform a great deal of good in the world. In both cases, becoming part of the priesthood or fraternity requires an amount of self-sacrifice that is reflexively seen as noble, but that carries within it seeds that can bloom into full-blown evil.

In the movie Spotlight, there’s a moment that has always stuck with me. The team of reporters is just figuring out the scope of the abuse that has happened in the Boston diocese, and they’re on the phone with a researcher (a former priest and current psychotherapist) who has spent years gathering data about it. The researcher says “Look, the church wants us to believe that it’s a few bad apples, but it’s a much bigger problem than that.” How much bigger? “Well, based on the research, I would classify it as a recognizable psychiatric phenomenon.”

That’s big. I think something similar is at work with cops, race, and violence. In both cases, the evil behavior (I don’t think there’s any reasonable way out of that descriptor) is so shocking and repugnant when it comes to light that it permanently cracks my ability to ever trust that institution again. But even worse than that, in both cases, the institution does absolutely everything it possibly can to ensure that the perpetrators of that evil escape detection and escape the consequences. Over, and over, and over again, to the tune of thousands of cases. Thousands of innocent victims raped, molested, traumatized, killed. How in the hell is anybody supposed to trust them after that? In both cases, for me, that combination taints the institution so thoroughly that I don’t think it can be redeemed. We have to demolish it and start over with something fundamentally different.

Now, I know there’s about as much chance of doing that with the police as there is with the church. But I believe that there’s a version of it that could be as much a godsend to the police as to marginalized communities. What if we had another kind of first responder, someone trained to deal with issues of mental illness and addiction? After all, we don’t send police to fires. We don’t send them to epileptic seizures. We don’t expect a single kind of responder to have to deal with everything. What if we saved the police for, y’know, CRIME, and created a new role to take over some of the stuff we’re currently asking armed, uniformed officers of the state to take on, despite the fact that they’re trained much more for situations that require force, and therefore tend to bring it to situations that don’t when they’re sent there?

Okay, that was a long digression, wasn’t it? Anyway, great song, right? Moving on.

16. Indigo Girls – Pendulum Swinger
Amy and Emily were crucial to Laura and I this year. For a while there, as Look Long was getting ready to come out, they were doing weekly or near-weekly livestreams, and for each one we would joyfully gather ’round the screen, find a way to turn up the music, and feel like we were hanging out with old friends. The one they did where they were “playing for tips” to raise money for their crew, was an utter high point for me. Hearing them play stuff I’d never heard them do before — Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”, Elton John’s “Love Song” and “Holiday Inn” — OMG it was so wonderful.

They featured this one in their “parking lot” concert in October, with Emily introducing it as just, “This is a song about change.” It felt like a little prayer, or a little wish that came true.

17. Amy Ray – Tear It Down
This was another special moment from that concert. I love how Amy here grapples with how she genuinely loves where she grew up and the traditions that shaped her, while still unshakably rejecting the racism and hate that is inextricably interwoven with that past. The studio version is a little sweeter and more subdued, but her solo acoustic live performance of it was just electrifying.

18. Mudcrutch – I Forgive It All
The Mudcrutch albums are hidden gems in Tom Petty’s catalog, and this one in particular is special, because it’s the last studio recording that Petty did before his death. For this mix, the Indigo Girls lift me out of fear and paranoia, into hope and resolution. Petty provides the final piece: forgiveness.

19. Stevie Nicks – Show Them The Way
Hope, resolution, and forgiveness all blend into Stevie’s 2020 song. Besides “All This Time”, this is the other song in this mix that I strongly associate with its video. That video, directed by Cameron Crowe, blends black and white footage from the 1960s into black and white footage from 2020 and points in between, drawing a clear line from the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Lives Matter movement. And over it all, Stevie prays for all of us to find our way to a better future. Invoking the icons of 60s dreams — JFK, RFK, MLK — she tries to dream us back to ourselves. And Crowe, piling powerful images on top of each other with increasing urgency, ends with a simple message: “Vote”. In October of 2020, it felt like exactly the magic we needed.

20. Prince – 1999
When it came out, this song was about an apocalyptic future. Listening to it now, it feels like Prince was only 20 years off with the “party over, oops, out of time” description, and 1999 sounds like a pretty good place to be. The mood of it is of jubilation even through devastation, and I think we could use a little of that. Here’s to a brighter 2021.

A radiation symbol in black on a yellow background. Underneath are stenciled words: DANGER QUARANTINE AREA. The stencil for "AREA" is held by two hands at the bottom of the frame. A dialogue balloon pointing off panel reads "Walkin' on... Walkin' on the moooooooon"

The Watchmen Bestiary 30 – Triangolo des Vigilantes

Ee yo, ee yo, ee yo, yo, yo, yo, YO, the following article contains spoilers for Watchmen.

I’m all reggatta de blanc today because of this panel, from page 19 of chapter 3:

A radiation symbol in black on a yellow background. Underneath are stenciled words: DANGER QUARANTINE AREA. The stencil for "AREA" is held by two hands at the bottom of the frame. A dialogue balloon pointing off panel reads "Walkin' on... Walkin' on the moooooooon"

The radiation symbol appears on the cover of chapter 3, and reverberates throughout the issue, including this panel and the one immediately preceding it on the previous page:

The radiation quarantine panel alongside the previous panel, which has the radiation symbol on a sign reading "FALLOUT SHELTER". Superimposed dialogue box, in the pirate scroll style: "...and in the terrible silence I understood the true breadth of the word "isolation". At the bottom of the panel, a dialogue balloon: "All alone. Inna final analysis."
However, where the preceding panel juxtaposes the symbol with the words from Tales Of The Black Freighter and the dubious sagacity of Bernard the news vendor, the quarantine panel brings in a different overlay. Web annotations, do your thing:

The symbol, this time being painted on their bedroom door. The singer’s rendition of “Walking on the Moon” by the Police foreshadows Dr. Manhattan’s trip to Mars.

Leslie S. Klinger, in Watchmen Annotated, takes the analysis a step further:

The song’s first line, “Giant steps are what you take,” is an ironic preview of Dr. Manhattan’s imminent departure, first from New York and then from Earth.

And yeah, that’s pretty much how this is working on the surface level. It’s a clever and mildly contemporary pop culture reference — “Walking On The Moon” came out in 1979, seven years prior to this issue of Watchmen. Its lyric about giant steps connects with Jon’s teleportation, and its lunar imagery resonates nicely with the iconic final image of this issue — Dr. Manhattan sitting alone in a cratered landscape against a backdrop of stars. That image also fits in well with the mention of quarantine. Talk about your social distancing.

But here’s the thing about references in Watchmen. Paying close attention to one is like closing your eyes and listening to a song on repeat, through really good headphones. Suddenly all this detail appears, little effects buried deep enough that you didn’t notice them before.

If you listen to “Walking On The Moon” like that, you’ll hear weird sci-fi sonics sliding by in the deep background — some kind of analog synth, or maybe a guitar note filtered through one of Andy Summers’ many effects pedals. And with the images of space, you’ll also hear lots of… space. Nigel Gray, the co-producer of this song, explains it thus:

“Walking On The Moon” has two guitar parts, but there are long gaps in it where you’d expect an extra guitar to fill in — and there’s nothing, just the groove. They get the backing track, add the vocals and one or two overdubs, then have the faith to leave it. If anyone else had recorded “Walking On The Moon” it wouldn’t have been a hit — it’s what the Police do to it that makes it special.

(L’Historia Bandido, pg. 61)

The first thing you’ll notice is that the song doesn’t start cleanly. There’s a stray bass note suggesting that things have already happened, a bit like the in medias res opening of Watchmen. Then the ticking drums, three notes of bass, and what Andy Summers calls “a big shining D minor eleventh chord that acts like fanfare to the subsequent get-under-your-skin melody.” (One Train Later, pg. 208).

Listen on repeat and certain parts will establish themselves as dominant, foremost of which is the groove. “Walking On The Moon” is loping, distant, spacey. Sting’s bass gives it an anchored and calm feeling, a confidence that takes us through the empty spaces. It’s the same few bass notes, over and over, for the first minute and a half of the song.

Behind the vocals, the bass, guitar, and drums begin to braid together. There are only three players in The Police, but they are more than the sum of their parts. They interweave to form a strong tripartite structure, like the three parts of this chapter. The news vendor’s story, Dr. Manhattan’s story, Dan and Laurie’s story. Sting, Stewart, Andy. A triangle.

Cover of the "Walking On The Moon" single

In his memoir Broken Music, Sting describes what he learned about working in a band with this configuration: “By playing as a trio I would learn the value of space and clarity between musical frequencies, which larger bands can’t help but fill.” (pg. 179) That’s that space we hear in “Walking On The Moon.” But there was a bigger triangle in Sting’s life.

Young Gordon Sumner’s mother Audrey was married to his father Ernest, but she was in love with another man, a man named Alan. Ernest owned a dairy, and Alan worked there for a time, enough time to entrance Audrey and himself into a bond that would last their lives. For decades, she would go out on Thursday nights, under the threadbare excuse of visiting Nancy, one of the assistants at the dairy. Ernest knew it was a lie, but couldn’t bear to leave her, and instead hurled sarcastic taunts as she left, then wept miserably while she was gone. The terrible tension of this triangle would thread all through Sting’s childhood, as his home life turned into “a series of squalid, ugly conflicts” (pg. 64).

Eventually, almost inevitably, he found himself repeating that tension in his own relationships, both as the victim and as the transgressor, his father’s role and his mother’s. It’s all over his music, too — for every giddy-in-love “Walking On The Moon”, there are plenty of “So Lonely”s and “Can’t Stand Losing You”s, lots of lonely messages in lots of bottles.

Triangles loom large in Watchmen too. As the symbol for Pyramid Deliveries, one appears on the very first page of the book, and they repeat themselves throughout. Adrian’s picture in Nova Express is credited to Triangle Inc. Joey badgers Bernard into hanging up a poster for the band Pink Triangle. There’s a triangle around the Buddha at the crime scene that detective Fine investigates in chapter 5. They are all over Adrian’s costume, and his fortress.

Watchmen chapter 10, page 7, panel 4. A long shot of Adrian and his assistants at the top of a staircase, descending beneath a floor whose boundaries are marked with dozens of interlocking triangles.

In fact, the very panel we’re examining today features triangles, albeit in a more subtle way. The top of the radiation symbol and its diagonally-jutting lower parts form a triangle, and the angled lines of each section leading toward the center suggest alternating black and yellow triangles. Those three black shapes around the central disc echo these trios. Sting, Stewart, Andy. Laurie, Jon, Dan.

The central romantic triangle of Watchmen began forming in issue #1, as Dan and Laurie dine together without Jon, but it takes shape much more clearly in this issue, as Laurie leaves Jon and shows up at Dan’s door. Like Sting’s mother Audrey, Laurie pushes away from her cold and distant provider to connect with someone more down-to-earth, setting up a tension that lasts all the way through to the final scenes, where Jon releases them both with another giant step away.

As I listened to “Walking On The Moon” over and over, seeking keys to its connections with Watchmen, my imagination began to superimpose the characters over the musical parts. The skittering, restless energy of the drums, trying to push the song open: Laurie. Spaced out bursts of guitar, perfectly timed, with quavering pulsar textures behind: Jon. Repetitive, broken-record bass, occasionally leaping into heartfelt melodicism: Dan.

And then there are the lyrics — powerful, vulnerable, joyous, detached, confident, nervous, all at once: all of them encompassed. The triangle itself. Giant steps are what Dr. Manhattan takes, but surely he’s not worried about broken legs. The vulnerable, human concern for injury belongs more to Dan and Laurie. Forever belongs to the godlike being, but together does not — he ends up alone, where it’s simpler, contemplating his own creations, while Dan and Laurie end up together, visiting Nepenthe Gardens.

Sting traces the inspiration for at least some of these lyrics back to his first love, Deborah. “[W]alking back from Deborah’s house in those early days would eventually become a song,” he writes, “for being in love is to be relieved of gravity” (pg. 96)

In Watchmen, only one character is ever relieved of gravity, the one to whom this panel refers. And even he keeps finding himself caught in the tangle of people’s lives, pulled back to Earth from his extraterrestrial retreat, until he finally leaves this galaxy for one less complicated.

Everyone else is resolutely Earthbound. Some, like Hollis Mason, Edward Blake, Walter Kovacs, and millions of New Yorkers on November 2nd, 1985, return to Earth in death. All the rest can do is hang on to each other, and try to keep it up.

Next Entry: Part Of The Legend
Previous Entry: Lonely Planet

Album cover for Splendor & Misery

Album Assignments: Splendor & Misery

[This review is indebted to the transcribers and annotators of Genius.]

It’s been a very good decade for exploring the African-American experience via genre metaphors. We’ve got Janelle Monáe and her stories of Cindi Mayweather the android. N.K. Jemisin won three consecutive Hugo awards for her extraordinary Broken Earth trilogy. In movies, Jordan Peele uses horror tropes to incredible effect in the brilliantly written Get Out and Us, while Black Panther proved that not only is there room in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for an Afrofuturistic superhero, there is an incredible hunger for it. In another corner of the superhero world, the HBO Watchmen series pulled off a succession of astonishing narrative feats by putting race at the center of the Watchmen universe and rebooting the ways we can think about it.

Then there’s clipping., the experimental hip-hop group from Los Angeles, with a period at the end of their name. They’re fronted by Daveed Diggs, who’s best known for playing Jefferson and Lafayette in the original cast of Hamilton. While not as high-profile as the examples above, they too have been twice nominated for Hugo awards, in a category usually reserved for television episodes and long-form music videos. This album, Splendor And Misery, was the first of those nominations, and it absolutely belongs in the conversation with every example from my first paragraph.

Splendor & Misery starts with a low, spacey drone and scattered static. (Static recurs throughout the album — more about that in a bit.) A distorted voice (guest vocalist Paul Outlaw) sings a thesis verse:

I’ll follow the stars when the sun goes to bed
Til everything I’ve ever known is long dead
I can’t go back home ’cause I want to be free
Someone tell the others what’s become of me

Then in comes Diggs, rapping at a furious pace in a calm voice. He’s a ship’s computer, narrating the fact that “a member of the cargo” has woken up. A member of the cargo? Yeah, this is a slave ship. Before a sedative can be pumped through the vents, the “cargo” has found an access panel and is taking control of the ship. (“Remember that these beings were selected for their strength”, chides the computer.)

That leads into the bedrock story song, “All Black”. It begins, “Warning: mothership reporting / Cargo number 2331 has commandeered the vessel / Warning: mothership reporting / Cargo number 2331 is armed and he is dangerous”. It goes on from there, still in the computer’s voice, to tell the story of that seizure, returning over and over to the phrase “all black everything”. Those three words are an incredibly rich centerpiece for the song. They hearken back to a verse on Jay-Z’s “Run This Town”, which was then expanded upon by Lupe Fiasco in an alternate history song that imagines a world where slavery never existed. In the Splendor & Misery context, they variously mean the emptiness of the ship, the defiant war cry of the rebelling slave, the endless reaches of space, the darkness of artificial night, and the consciousness of the ship itself.

Within that consciousness, a surprising turn happens in the course of the song. In watching the psychological torment of Cargo #2331, as it sees him experience “the gift of freedom wrapped in days of rapping to himself / until his vocal cords collapse”, the ship begins to fall in love with him. It sees his loneliness and recognizes its own, saying “If only he realized this ship is more than metal / There’s friendship in the wiring”. By the end, the ship has reversed its initial message:

Warning: mothership reporting
This will be the last report, turn back, everything is fine
Warning: mothership reporting
Cargo number 2331 is not a danger, let him be
Warning: mothership reporting
If you continue to pursue there will be no choice but to destroy you
Warning: mothership reporting
This love will be defended at all costs, do not fuck with it

Thus begins a strange relationship that lasts through the album. The story becomes a little harder to follow after this. 2331 (who never gets any other name) appears in several interludes, rapping freestyle behind heavy static. That static, a bit like the Black Keys’ distortion, creates distance. It’s an audio cue that the signal is far away, barely strong enough to reach us.

In “Wake”, 2331 seems to decide not to try to return home, opting instead for travel via hypersleep. That song ends with that same verse that opened the album, which leads immediately into “Long Way Away”, which adds another verse with that same melody, ending each with “It’s a long way away / It’s a long way away / And I’m all alone / Along, along a long way”.

So here we have the premise. The machinery of slavery uproots innocents from their lives, but when the slave rises up, the machinery becomes infatuated with him and what he produces. For the slave himself, the price of his freedom is total isolation, except for the complicated relationship he has with his (former?) oppressor. No matter what, he is forever severed from the home and life he knew, and rage, depression and violence must ensue. But there is hope at the end — “A Better Place” once again brings in the “long way away” melody and motif, but sees 2331 and the ship setting a course for that better place, with a spark of belief that they can find it.

There’s more going on here than a self-contained story. For one thing, the album very consciously engages with a science fiction literary tradition, and particularly a black SF tradition. In a freestyle rap, 2331 references Orwell’s 1984. In another, he says “got a pocket full of stars”, referencing Samuel Delaney’s Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand. “Air ‘Em Out” references Delaney, Octavia Butler, M. John Harrison, and Ursula K. LeGuin. “True Believer” name-checks a character from Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy. The title of the album itself appears in “A Better Place” as the computer muses that 2331 is “missing the splendor and misery / Of bodies, of cities, of being missed” — The Splendor And Misery Of Bodies, Of Cities is the planned but never finished sequel to Stars In My Pocket.

That intellectual engagement is wonderful and thrilling, but there are other, more mysterious levels at work here. Take “Story 5” for instance. This track seems totally out of place on the album, in multiple ways — not only does it seemingly have nothing to do with the 2331 story, it’s also a pure gospel tune. It tells the story of a woman named Grace who fought in a war, uncovered some shady information, and was subsequently run down by a taxi and killed. What? Also, “Story 5”? What happened to the other 4?

Well, it turns out that there’s a song called “story” on clipping.’s debut album midcity, which tells the story of the taxi crash from the viewpoint of an onlooker named Randy. “Story 2”, about a former criminal, appears on their next album. Story 3 is missing, but Story 4 appears, for some reason, on a remix album by alt-J, featuring different characters but images that echo the other Story songs.

So apparently “Story 5” is part of a thread running through various clipping. albums, more than an organic part of Splendor & Misery. But there are layers upon layers here, because in the middle of “True Believer”, the static comes in staccato sequence, which turns out to be Morse code. (Which code gets referenced in “Air ‘Em Out” as well.) The coded message says: GRACEISRANDYSSISTER. Grace is Randy’s sister.

Even more mysterious, the song “Interlude 02 (Numbers)” imitates the style of a numbers station with a long string of NATO alphabet letters: “Foxtrot, Uniform, Whiskey, Romeo, Whiskey, Charlie, Oscar, X-Ray”, and so on. Gibberish? Not on a clipping. album. As the incredibly dedicated Genius user TheRingshifter figured out, this is a code too, a Vigenère cipher which requires a keyword. “Air ‘Em Out” yields the secret in its verse:

Come up off your smooth talk, playa this raspy (ahem)
You stuck on Morse code, playa, this is ASCII
Your birthright make you scared to get nasty
The keyword is Kemmer, that’s what yo’ ass need

Plugging the keyword “kemmer” (itself a LeGuin reference) into the cipher yields the text “THETARGETISAMYCLARK”. The target is Amy Clark. Who is Amy Clark? We don’t know… yet. Though there is a “Doc Clark” referenced in “Story 2”. There’s a clipping. album subsequent to Splendor & Misery, and while its “Story 7” (again skipping the multiples of 3) tells us more about Randy and a character from “Story 4”, there’s no Amy Clark.

To unravel this puzzle, we’ll just have to wait for more clues. With clipping., the deeper you dive the more you find — there’s so much more to discover in this all black everything.

Album Assignments: WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?

Okay, since I will apparently be spending at least part of this review in “cranky old man” mode, let’s just jump right in: What is up with the freaky typography on this album? The album title, at least on any streaming service, is in ALL CAPS LIKE IT’S SHOUTING AT YOU. But the songs are totally bereft of any capitalization at all, like teeny tiny whispers.

I guess it’s fitting, though, because Billie Eilish herself never actually seems to put her lungs behind her singing voice. The vast majority of the album is whispered, spoken, mumbled, or sung in the quietest itty bitty tones. It’s like she recorded the entirety of the vocals late at night in her house, trying not to wake anybody. On the occasion her vocals have any power at all, it’s because they were multi-tracked or layered in with instruments. Most of the time, though, she just sounds heavily tranquilized, or maybe just resigned and indifferent. Or possibly super depressed. Hell, on “listen before i go” she seriously sounds like she’s in the middle of suicide via barbiturate overdose.

I have to say, this vocal style really did not work for me. I mostly found it frustrating where I didn’t find it annoying. In the most irritating moment on the album, the beginning of “8” takes the usual Eilish whisper, pitch-shifts it higher (I guess so she’ll sound like she’s actually 8?), and accompanies it with a frickin’ ukulele. I can only speculate that it is a sinister experiment to find out if people can actually die from an overdose of twee. I’m no enemy of spoken vocals — I’m a huge Lou Reed fan, for example — and the occasional whisper or sotto voce moment in a song can be very powerful, but stretched out to the length of an entire album, to the total exclusion of any full-throated singing, it feels to me like both a pretentious affectation and an intentional retreat from power.

Album cover for WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?

And yet, I am apparently out of step, because the world has gone bananas for Billie Eilish. This album went platinum, debuted at #1, topped the Billboard year-end chart for 2019, and spawned six top 40 singles. It won the Album of the Year Grammy, “bad guy” got both Song and Record of the Year, and Eilish herself won Best New Artist. “bad guy” was a #1 song, dethroning the record-breaking “Old Town Road”. Eilish herself has broken tons of records — the youngest artist to do a whole bunch of things, the first artist born in the 2000s to have a #1 album, 15 billion (not a made-up number) streams on Spotify. Et cetera.

So while I find that her performance on this album is mostly not my cup of tea, I can definitely applaud Eilish for some things. First, I love that she defies the sex-kitten mold for young female pop stars. I look at some other big female artists from 2019 — Halsey, Ariana Grande, Cardi B — and have to laugh imagining them in Eilish’s baggy wardrobe, sans makeup. Even Taylor Swift and Lizzo, both of whom manage a subversive approach to their sexualization, aren’t avoiding it entirely. Eilish takes the focus off her body and puts it on her music.

Second, she writes her own songs — well, in collaboration with her brother, Finneas O’Connell. (Eilish’s last name is technically also O’Connell, but for clarity I’m calling her Eilish and him O’Connell, or Finneas.) That’s not just a rarity for current female pop stars, it’s a rarity for all current pop stars. Most of the biggest songs of 2019 were written by songwriting teams. Even when the artist is included in the team, they’re usually buttressed by a squad of professional writers behind the scenes. Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” (#9 overall for 2019) has no less than thirty credited songwriters. In contrast, every song but two on WHEN WE ALL credits the O’Connell siblings as songwriters, and the remaining two were written by just Finneas.

In addition, Finneas does the production, which is the best part of this album. As I said above, sometimes the production steps in to buttress Eilish’s vocal performance, which helps a lot. Consistently, O’Connell provides slinky beats, clean synths, and a powerful bottom end that compensates for Eilish’s feather-light vocals, and can even sometimes make them sound menacing. In the record’s best moments, they even manage to leaven the teen angst with some humor, as in the goofy “!!!!!!!” or the Office sound clips interspersed through “my strange addiction.” Of course, there are some missteps too — how many times can Eilish’s voice be processed to make it sound like she’s singing through a box fan? (Answer: way more than one, and even one is verging on too many.) Overall, though, I don’t think I’m a Billie Eilish fan, but this record may have made me a Finneas O’Connell fan.

It’s not exactly novel to make it big in the music business as a teenager. There’s a tradition going back to Elvis, winding its way through Stevie Wonder, Kate Bush, Fiona Apple, Taylor Swift, Lorde, and lots of others. (I’m deliberately omitting teeny-bopper fare like boy bands, Tiffany, etc. — Eilish isn’t part of that trend-line.) To my ears, Billie Eilish mostly suffers by comparison to these other artists. But like them, she has plenty of time in front of her to grow, and I hope she grows into an artist who lets herself use her full vocal range. Still, after listening to WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, I confess I find myself more interested in what Finneas O’Connell is going to do next.

Deluge In A Paper Cup

Happy New Year, and welcome to another year-end music list. Just to review, this is a year-end mix I make for some friends — full explanation on the first one I posted in 2010. It’s not all music from 2019 (in fact, my backlog of music to listen to pretty much guarantees that nothing on here is timely.) It’s just songs I listened to this year that meant something to me.

Cover image for Deluge In A Paper Cup - a cup of water with an ocean wave cresting at the top

1. Elvis Costello & The Attractions – (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?
My Elvis Costello/Watchmen project of a couple years ago, combined with my long listening queue, meant that some Elvis Costello albums were still kicking around in that queue this year. This song felt like a great burst of energy to kick off a mix, and also pretty appropriate to the current moment. Its currency has never gone away, really, but there’s another layer available now, when our world keeps evaluating its news in the frame of entertainment. Impeachment hearings started recently, and some of the coverage has focused on whether they have enough “pizzazz.” I keep seeing headlines like “Adam Schiff’s ‘Trump Show’: Was it a hit with the undecideds?” Because what’s real doesn’t matter anymore nearly so much as how it looks and feels on TV. We’re not just a nation of pundits, we’re a nation of drama and comedy critics — just not very good ones. Which is how we got an insult comic reality TV president whose decisions are driven more by ratings (on a few different levels) than reason. What’s so funny, indeed?

2. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – Badlands
Darkness On The Edge Of Town was one of my album assignments this year, and “Badlands” was a standout from that listen. It’s got a similar energy to “What’s So Funny”, but with more hope. This song is about pushing through darkness, finding the faith to keep going, and recognizing that no matter how shitty things feel, “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” I can always use a little of that.

3. The Hooters – And We Danced
This song always made me feel glad to be alive. I was a big fan of the Hooters’ first two albums, and I gave their debut a re-listen this year. It didn’t hold up as well as I’d hoped — some of those lyrics seem REALLY dopey to me now — but musically there’s still a lot of magic there, and this song has the most of it.

4. Vampire Weekend – Unbelievers
Vampire Weekend’s third album was another assignment this year, and I really wanted to include a track from it. I tried “Ya Hey” first, but although I like the song plenty it just wasn’t meshing with the mix. This one, on the other hand, dropped perfectly into its slot. It feels like it continues the spark from “And We Danced”, but transforms the sentiment from simple romantic lust to a kind of bubbly ambivalence. We’re all unbelievers over here, though we have our ways of reaching outside empiricism. I relate to the feeling of wanting just a drop of holy water.

5. Frightened Rabbit – Head Rolls Off
Frightened Rabbit picks up on this theme at the beginning of “Head Rolls Off”, affirming that “Jesus is just a Spanish boy’s name”. But despite his disconnection from traditional religion, he finds a way to see himself as part of something larger, looking beyond death — “when it’s all gone, something carries on” — but not in the self. It’s in the others we leave behind, and the “tiny changes to earth” we make while we’re here. Frightened Rabbit was a huge find for me this year, and I love the whole Midnight Organ Fight album, but this song is the absolute top for me. As I wrote in the Vampire Weekend post, I’m a long way from feeling any peace about mortality, but I find a lot of comfort in the thought of someone else’s blood flowing forward after I’m gone, in an earth that’s changed just a tiny bit for my having been here.

6. Richard and Linda Thompson – Wall Of Death
Richard Thompson has been on my “to-listen” list for a while. I know his stuff on a basic level — in fact, I saw him open for Joan Armatrading years ago, and enjoyed his set a lot — but I always felt like it would be rewarding to go deeper. Julie Covington’s “(I Want To See The) Bright Lights” pushed me even further in that direction. So this year I listened to Shoot Out The Lights, and I was right: it’s good stuff. This song particularly appealed to me, because I already knew it a bit from R.E.M.’s cover for a Thompson tribute album. Its defiant embrace (in metaphor) of joy in the face of mortality felt like a good companion for “Head Rolls Off”.

7. Roxy Music – Take A Chance With Me
I got to see Bryan Ferry in concert this year. I’d seen him once before (front row at CU’s Macky Auditorium, in fact), and I liked that a lot, but it was a tour for his album of standards, and that’s pretty much all he sang, aside from some deep DEEP Roxy Music cuts rendered in crooner style. This year his tour was focused on Avalon and Boys And Girls, which made it the perfect tour for me, since those are the albums I imprinted upon as a Ferry/Roxy fan. This song in particular is a fond memory for me, because I put it on the first mixtape I ever made for Laura. I was absolutely thrilled to hear it live at last.

8. Bryan Ferry – Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (live in London 2007)
This song was another great standout from that concert. I knew Ferry had covered a lot of Dylan over the years, going so far as to release a full album of Dylan covers in 2007, but I’d never heard his version of this song before. Seeing him wail on the harmonica was a wonderful surprise, and I highly recommend the video I pulled this song from. [And because it came from that video, it doesn’t appear on the Spotify playlist for this mix. I substituted the studio version.] I absolutely love his vocals, through his whole career, and their breathy quality has let him age gracefully into performances like this one, and the one I saw. Also, Highway 61 Revisited was an assigned album for me this year, so this was a great way to work it in.

9. World Party – You’re A Hurricane, I’m A Caravan
There are times when Karl Wallinger just nails a lyric, and this is one of them. I’m a huge fan of oblique, metaphor-laden poetry — that’s a major part of what draws me to Stevie Nicks and Emily Dickinson — and this song is right in that wheelhouse. For me, it powerfully evokes a theme I’ve been wrestling with lately: abdication of personal power. My default is to be a peacemaker, and that has allowed me to get victimized by people who have no compunction about wielding their own power. I don’t want to fight, I don’t like to fight, but there is a lot of fight in me, and more bubbles up every time I decide not to fight back, or feel unable to. So when Karl sings: “You don’t own me / but I see you do / You don’t own me / I, I think you do”, I know exactly what he means.

10. Aimee Mann – Good For Me
Here’s another great poet, but there’s a funny story attached to this one. I saw Aimee in concert a couple of years ago, with Jonathan Coulton opening. She was touring on the album this song comes from, Mental Illness, and Coulton has a co-writing credit on some of those songs, so he performed a few of them with her. Before she sang this one, she told us that lots of critics had singled out the first lines of this song — “What a waste of a smoke machine / Took the taste of the dopamine / And left me high and dry” — as quintessential Mann. The problem is, Coulton wrote them. So she was a little comically miffed at his writing getting the biggest praise of the album. Then when she sang it, those opening lines got big applause, and she stopped the song, deadpanning, “How dare you applaud those lines?!”

11. Neko Case – The Next Time You Say Forever
I assigned Middle Cyclone this year because it is my favorite Neko Case album, and I wanted to write about her hypnotic hold on me. This song is a typical example of her spellbinding voice, set off by a wonderful arrangement, singing poetry that hits me at the gut level. (Not the face, though.) Plus, it’s under two minutes, which really helped it fit on the CD.

12. The Call – I Don’t Wanna
Okay, in my writeup of Into The Woods, I spent like 6 paragraphs breaking this song down, and quoted its lyrics in their entirety, so I don’t have much more to say here. There was no way this song wasn’t going to appear on this end-of-year collection — it’s one of my favorite songs of all time, and this was the year I took the time to write about why.

13. Janis Joplin – Buried Alive In The Blues
Another album assignment, and possibly a weird choice to include a Janis Joplin song that doesn’t actually include any Janis Joplin vocals. But when I was writing about Pearl, this song felt so emblematic to me of that album’s whole story. There’s a hole in the middle of it, left empty by Joplin’s death. She died the night before she was to record her vocals for this track, and the band left it on the album as a symbol of a life unfinished. The title sums up her life’s end, and the emptiness inside it speaks eloquently of what we lost.

14. Pretenders – The English Roses
This album assignment track is about a different kind of loss. Really, I could have picked pretty much any song from Pretenders II, an album I absolutely adore, but this one felt like it fit the mood for this part of the mix. Hynde’s portrait of the character in this song is both sympathetic and unsparing, and the music is a wonderful blend of gritty and lyrical.

15. Joe Jackson – Rain (live in New York 2019)
I always see Joe when he tours, and this was one of those years. He was touring on his album Fool, but decided to highlight four other albums in his set, each representing a decade: Look Sharp (70s), Night and Day (80s), Laughter and Lust (90s), and Rain (00s). Rain, has he explained, doesn’t have a title track, so he decided to borrow one “from an impeccable source”, albeit with the chords changed around a bit. [This one also didn’t make the Spotify playlist, as there is no version of it on Spotify. I pulled it from a fantastic video of his full 2019 concert in NYC.]

16. Fleetwood Mac – Hold Me
Fleetwood Mac also visited this year (a couple of times), and without Lindsey in the mix there was room for Stevie and Christine to open up some of the songs that don’t get played EVERY SINGLE TIME. This was one of those, and I was so happy to hear it. I got a wonderful remaster of the Mirage album for my birthday, with lots of fun extra tracks (that will likely show up in a future mix), but for now it’s just a sonically great way to revisit this Christine song, to which I’ve always been partial.

17. Crowded House – Don’t Dream It’s Over
Also in those Fleetwood Mac concerts, Lindsey’s parts were played by Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers (mostly the guitar) and Neil Finn (mostly the vocals). That meant we got to hear tunes from their careers as well — “Free Fallin'” (sung by Stevie) for Campbell, and “Don’t Dream It’s Over” from Finn. I’ve always enjoyed this song, but I found a new appreciation for it in those performances. It also feels pretty appropriate to the current moment, the hopeful flip side of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?”

18. Janelle Monáe – I Like That
Dante belongs to a school club called SAGA — Sexuality And Gender Alliance — and at the beginning of this school year he created some lists of books and games that are inclusive of LGBTQ+ identities. Because his taste in music tends to focus on classical tunes and instrumental game soundtracks, I offered to make him a playlist of music that fit this theme. I made it, and had a wonderful time doing so. Having recently delved into Monáe’s album Dirty Computer, I knew this song had to be on that mix. “I’m always left of center / And that’s right where I belong / I’m the random minor note you hear in major songs / And I like that / I don’t really give a fuck if I’m the only one who likes that” is a brilliant way to evoke her theme, and the rap at the end is so affirming, in a way that feels like it perfectly fits that group.

19. Emily Saliers – Long Haul
Emily came out with a good solo album in 2017, and my listening queue being what it is, I listened to it this year. She took a lot of musical risks on that album, with many songs emerging much more beat-driven and electronic than most Indigo Girls stuff. But it was this song that captivated me the most, and it’s the most Indigo-esque tune on the whole record, albeit with Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland singing the Amy parts. Guess I know what I like. It’s also a great theme for anybody in a long-term committed relationship. That’s also relevant to my interests.

20. Dan Wilson – Love Without Fear
This song felt like it paired well with “Long Haul”, making love the central goal of life. Wilson is one of those artists who just speaks to me, even though he’s much better known as a songwriter than as a performer. This song is the title track of an album I listened to this year, and of all the good songs on that album, this is the one that belongs at this point in the mix.

21. Cameron McGill and What Army – My Demons Are Organized
You can probably tell from reading these notes that I put a lot of thought into what goes with what on these mixes, grouping songs and artists together so that they feel like they flow smoothly into each other and carve out a journey. So this felt like the right way to close the set, ackowledging that while these mixes are meant as gifts, and try to bring together something of what I listened to and loved each year, they are also a bit of an exercise in organizing personal demons (and angels.) This song came to me in an odd, roundabout way. I watched a documentary called Old Man, because its subject was Andy Schneidkraut, a friend from the trivia world and the owner of a record store in Boulder called Albums On The Hill. His son is a filmmaker, and made that documentary. I found it a moving experience, and this was the song that played over the credits. I sought it out, and I’m glad I did — it’s a good way to close the door on 2019. I’ll be over here again next year, organizing my demons.

Album Assignments: In The Wee Small Hours

When In The Wee Small Hours was released in 1955, 12-inch LPs had only been around for a few years. Frank Sinatra, a restless innovator, had the notion of creating an LP whose songs had a thematic unity — songs of loneliness, heartbreak, and lovelorn disappointment. This theme was no doubt abetted by Sinatra’s own recent heartbreak, the dissolution of his relationship with Ava Gardner. In fact, Sinatra called this collection his “Ava songs,” and in collecting them he’s credited with creating one of the first concept albums.

It’s a little different, though, from what the words “concept album” evoke today. That term now brings up thoughts of, say, The Wall, or American Idiot, or Tommy — a collection of songs that tells a story and expresses the singular vision of a songwriter. But Sinatra wasn’t a songwriter — he was an interpreter. He gets a rare co-writing credit on “This Love Of Mine” (with two other people), but the rest of the songs on Small Hours come from the Great American Songbook produced by writers such as Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Rogers and Hart, and Duke Ellington. Sinatra deserves an innovator’s credit, but I’d say this album is closer to the angst-filled mixtapes I referenced in my previous post.

As a mix, Sinatra’s chosen songs reflect his theme from a variety of angles. “Can’t We Be Friends?” finds him cursing his own naiveté, as the girl he thought would be “The One” relegates him to the friend zone. He takes full responsibility for fooling himself though — compare his “I can’t excuse it on the grounds of youth / I was no babe in the wild, wild wood” to Sinéad O’Connor’s “How could I possibly know what I want when I was only 21?” On the other side of that, “Last Night When We Were Young” portrays a lover left behind after a night of passion, feeling impossibly aged by the disappointment, prefiguring Adele’s “When We Were Young” by 60 years.

Album cover for In The Wee Small Hours

Some of the songs are drenched in irony, like “I Get Along Without You Very Well”, which finds its narrator boasting of how just fine and dandy he is after the breakup… except when it rains, or when he hears her name, or a laugh that reminds him of her, or “perhaps in Spring / But I should never think of Spring / For that would surely break my heart in two.” Similarly, in “Dancing On The Ceiling”, the lyrics proclaim that “the world is lyrical / because a miracle / has brought my lover to me”. But it turns out that “miracle” is just the narrator lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, imagining his departed lover is dancing there.

This juxtaposition of tough and hurt gives many of Sinatra’s songs a kind of wounded bravado, which would have felt familiar to fans of Humphrey Bogart, Raymond Chandler, and noir stories in general. But gathering all these songs together, only a few of which have a tough-guy veneer, paints a picture that’s much more wounded than brave. Sinatra’s choice to do this arguably expanded the emotional palette of 1950s masculinity, allowing men a model within which they could fall deeply into hurt feelings without having to accompany them with anger, violence, or externalization. Many of the songs on Wee Small Hours find Sinatra’s narrators ruefully acknowledging their culpability in their own heartbreak, such as “Can’t We Be Friends?” and the “you told me so” of “It Never Entered My Mind.”

However, a downside of this concentrated collection is that it can get a little samey. Sinatra’s style has a few different modes, but he only displays one on this album: melancholy. As I said, he’s an interpreter, and puts himself in service to the song. Because all the songs come from pretty much the same place emotionally, so does he — over and over. The concept on this album is strong, but it can get a little oppressive too.

It’s telling that none of the songs in this collection were hits for Sinatra. The same year as this album, he had three Top Ten hits: “Learnin’ The Blues”, “Love And Marriage”, and “(Love Is) The Tender Trap”, all of which were sung more in Sinatra’s sprightly mode than his melancholy one. That’s partly down to the era — there was a pretty strong distinction between singles and albums at this time, and unlike most of the albums I’ve discussed, this one wasn’t recorded to be a platform for hit songs. But unlike songs from later concept albums, such as “You Make Me Feel So Young” from Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! and “One For My Baby (and One More For The Road)” from Only The Lonely, you won’t find many Wee Small Hours tunes on contemporary hit collections either.

The exception to this is the title track, which distinguishes itself from the rest of the album despite (or perhaps because of) its status as the thesis statement for the entire thing.

In the wee small hours of the morning
When the whole wide world is fast asleep
You lie awake and think about the girl
And never ever think of counting sheep

That verse encapsulates the mood of the whole album. Similarly, the cover does an amazing job of conveying mood, showing Sinatra all alone in an abstracted city, smoking a lonely cigarette in the blue, blue streetlight glow.

But of course, it’s Sinatra’s voice that does the greatest and best work of communicating loneliness and pain. Just three minutes of “I’ll Never Be The Same” gives us long, fading, vulnerable notes; surging dynamics at powerful moments; quiet syllables of regret; and repeating motifs in escalating notes, ascending higher even as they reach deeper. Nobody could touch him in this style, then or now, and In The Wee Small Hours finds him at the peak of his powers.

Album Assignments: I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got

In my circle, this was pretty much the album of the year for 1990. There were some dissenters, but for the most part, we listened to it a lot and we loved it a lot. I was interning at a local radio station at the time, and I remember how blown away everybody was by O’Connor’s wrenching vocal on “Nothing Compares 2 U.” If you went through a breakup in that year — and I did — several tracks from this were sure to end up on an angst-filled mixtape or two. At the time, it seemed like the absolute perfect divorce album.

Listening to it again, nearly 30 years later, I find that it hasn’t lost much of its luster as a chronicle of heartbreak. But it’s gained some new dimensions for me. Maybe it’s just me projecting what I know of O’Connor’s subsequent public life, and what I’ve learned from my own subsequent experience, but I no longer hear just the voice of somebody going through a terrible breakup — I hear the voice of somebody going through a terrible breakup while mentally ill.

“Mentally ill” isn’t a negative judgment in my sight, and in fact I strongly support efforts to decrease the stigma of that label. It’s just a description of the reality that some people have to live with, and I think at least at the time of this album, O’Connor was one of them.

Album cover for I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got

Think about the image at the beginning of the album’s most staggeringly powerful song, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”:

It seems years since you held the baby
While I wrecked the bedroom

When I heard that at 20 years old, I just thought, “Wow, intense.” Now, maybe it’s because I’m a parent, but I picture that scene — you’ve had a child with someone, and you find yourself holding that tiny child, watching while she, possessed by an overwhelming rage and absolutely no impulse control, physically tears apart the house you share.

At that moment, watching it happen, your future spills out before you. Your partner, your child’s mother, is a violent danger to you both, and herself. It’s a fucking terrifying image. “You said it was dangerous after Sunday,” the next line goes, and no wonder. Someone with that level of anger, who will actually wreck the bedroom, is somebody you have to get away from, and protect your child from, until she can get that shit under control.

Now, O’Connor points to a lot of places to explain herself. She gestures at youth — “How could I possibly know what I want when I was only 21?” She blames hormones — “You know how it is and how a pregnancy can change you.” She lines up behind Honesty — “You asked for the truth, and I told you.” She places her fear in the context of an equally scary dependency — “I would return to nothing without you, if I’m your girlfriend or not.” And yeah, it’s certainly true that there’s overlap between the symptoms of mental illness and the symptoms of youth, pregnancy, and romantic extremes, but as somebody who has been through or next to all three, I can vouch for the fact that they don’t reliably cause violent outbursts of fury.

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” isn’t the only song that finds O’Connor seeming genuinely disturbed. How about this expression: “If you said jump in the river I would / Because it would probably be a good idea”? Or this image, referencing babies: “In my soul / my blood and my bones / I have wrapped your cold bodies around me”? Even the covers she chooses are pretty unsettling. “Nothing Compares 2 U” opens with the starkly obsessed, “It’s been seven hours and fifteen days / Since you took your love away.” And “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” pretty much speaks for itself.

And yet, god damn does she make it sound good. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is an absolutely riveting track, just as inspiring and hypnotic the 500th time through as it was the first. When she declares, “Whatever it may bring / I will live by my own policies / I will sleep with a clear conscience / I will sleep in peace”, I find myself thinking “HELL YEAH.” That’s been a central quote in my life for years, and I can’t see that changing anytime soon. And when I put “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” on a heartbroken mixtape, I related deeply to its imagery, not to mention its haunting backbeat. Like I said, there’s overlap.

Also, I realize that many of the album’s songs are heavily figurative. I know she’s not literally haunted in “You Cause As Much Sorrow,” nor actually clutching dead infants in “Three Babies,” nor actually turning into birds in “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.” In fact, in several places I really have no idea what she’s on about, and a cursory online search hasn’t turned up much information except for the fact that she was still grieving her mother’s death from five years earlier.

I still love this album. O’Connor’s voice is a natural wonder, and her production showcases it immaculately. Her songwriting (aside from “Jump In The River,” which is a notch below everything else) is first rate, and several of the songs on this album are as good as she ever got. And it’s been an awfully long time (thank god) since I’ve been through the kind of relationship angst that infuses I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, so perhaps I have a distance from it now that I lacked when it came out. I just see it now as an artifact of someone baring a tortured soul, and I hope she’s gotten the help she needed to find peace since then.

Album Assignments: Middle Cyclone

I don’t fully understand the effect that Neko Case’s voice has on me. It is mystical and potent, a controlled substance made of sound. All I know is that when I hear it, I feel it down to my cells. That effect reaches its zenith on Middle Cyclone, her sensational 2009 album. The album doesn’t rest on her voice alone, though. That voice stands atop a foundation of incredible songwriting, nervy production, and excellent musicianship.

I’ll get to all that, but first I want to talk about the voice some more. It’s an extraordinary instrument, capable of ramping from a hesitant tenderness to a thrilling clarion call in moments. Listen to “Red Tide” — she starts out narrating, with just a bit of suspense as she trails her tone at the end of lines, and then stretches out the word “line.” The “ah-ah-ah-ah”s amp up the tension, and she delivers the second verse with just a bit more intensity than the first. Then the instruments build to another verse where she declaims the words with vibrant authority, reaching an emotional peak on “remember.”

But it turns out that’s not the peak after all! She ascends the bridge, hitting the highest notes of the song so far, then sliding down before stabbing up to another high note and finishing on “sinister”, which sounds not only sinister but outright threatening.

By the final lines of the song, she is at her full-throated best, investing the words with such power and passion that I cannot doubt she really is singing of life and death, of thrusting a defiant life in the face of death. She saves the highest note for the final line of the song, and then returns to “ah-ah-ah-ah”s whose tone says, “just try and argue with that, I dare you.”

Album cover for Middle Cyclone

I’m isolating her voice here, which isn’t quite fair, as the song gains plenty of its power from its marvelous arrangement and its chilling poetry. When all those things come together, the alchemy of Neko Case music reaches its ultimate heights. It’s just that the voice itself is so powerful to me — it pulls up feelings from inside me like threads, stretching them out and leaving me changed.

The voice works beautifully when it’s barely adorned, as in “Middle Cyclone”, but the album has much more instrumental creativity on offer. Famously, Case had turned her Vermont barn into a home for wayward pianos. A couple of tuners got six of them into playable shape, and the resulting “piano orchestra” appears on several tracks, most affectingly on “Don’t Forget Me”, a gentle Harry Nilsson cover.

Elsewhere we find Neko accompanied by custom music boxes, such as the one that chimes off-kilter into “The Next Time You Say Forever”, setting the song askew, setting up prickles at the back of the neck that the droning cellos do nothing to assuage, and lending an uneasy authenticity to Case’s promise in the lyrics: “The next time you say forever / I will punch you in your face / Just because you don’t believe it / Doesn’t mean I didn’t mean it.”

There are plenty of genuinely avant-garde moments on this album, even setting aside the thirty minutes of cricket chirps that comprise its final track. But even when her vocal gems are set in traditional filigree, like the Simon and Garfunkel-style guitar of “Vengeance Is Sleeping”, spine-tingling estrangement still abounds, thanks to the lyrics.

So let’s talk about those lyrics. Here are some from “Vengeance”:

I didn’t know what a brute I was
I dipped my cigarette and rode the bus
Vengeance built me hastily
And I dragged a clanging notion I was nobody, nobody
Nobody

All I had was my invention
And my love invented all of you
Oh, look what thoughts can do
What thoughts can do

If you’re not by now dead and buried
You’re most certifiably married
Oh, married

My god. I kept trying to trim that quote down, and then kept restoring it. “Nope,” I would say. “I need more of it.” There’s an Emily Dickinson quote that I love, and it applies here:

If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?

Neko Case’s lyrics take the top of my head off. They’re enhanced, too, by the stories she told on her episode of The Hilarious World Of Depression podcast. She left a home of alcoholism, drug abuse, physical abuse, and neglect at 15 years old. She’d get loaded on whatever drugs she could find and ride the city bus around town all day. Later, after dialing down the drugs, she’d tour relentlessly to keep herself too busy to feel what she was feeling.

When asked what she was tamping down, she replies, “Anxiety, restlessness. Needing to be loved, and seeing that as a weakness.”

And here again, her poetry crystallizes that experience, this time a lyric from “Middle Cyclone”:

I can’t give up acting tough
It’s all that I’m made of
Can’t scrape together quite enough
To ride the bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love

She goes on, later in that same quote: “I wanna be loved, and like, held on to. You know what I mean? And part of that is being young and part of that is being an actual… human being, who is also an animal species. There are things we cannot live without.”

From “I’m An Animal”:

You could say it’s my instinct
Yes, I still have one
There’s no time to second-guess it
Yes, there are things that I’m still so afraid of
But my courage is roaring like the sound of the sun
‘Cause it’s vain about its mane and will reveal them to no one

I’m an animal
You’re an animal, too

Here’s the thing, though. In the podcast, she talks about being faced with these realizations in 2010. This album came out the year before. These songs are the parts of Neko Case that she wasn’t quite yet ready to hear, expressing themselves through her music to speak truths that hadn’t quite reached the left side of her brain.

They have the force of prophecy, and the profound mythical resonance of dreams. They gather strength when set into Case’s melodies and the arrangements she co-crafts with Paul Rigby. And then, when she channels them through that phenomenal instrument in her throat, they become that loving tornado, that killer whale, that magpie to the morning whose warning cannot be denied. They speak with the voices of goddesses.

Album Assignments: Highway 61 Revisited

So here’s the thing with Highway 61 Revisited. It’s hard to find anything new to say about this album. Entire books have been written on the topic, and I’ve even read some of them. I also wrote extensively about “Desolation Row” since it was quoted in Watchmen. Not to mention the three different posts I’ve already written about Bob Dylan in this Album Assignments series. I don’t have a whole lot more to say about him.

So I’m taking a different approach with this post, a more personal approach. I write a lot about how music feels to me, and I often try to capture with words how a particular song or moment works, but while I will sometimes introduce that stuff with a little bit about my life, I tend to write about music a lot and life very little. But music is woven into my life, and among other things serves me as touchstones, allowing me to time travel back to specific moments that emblematize greater relationships or themes.

Take “Like A Rolling Stone”. Obviously it’s a rock classic, and a huge milestone in Dylan’s career, and your local library is full of explanations about that. But I listen to the first two lines of it, and more often than not, I have Bob Herd in my head. That story you won’t find in the library.

Album cover of Highway 61 Revisited

Robby and I cemented our friendship when I was about 15 years old. We spent a lot of time at each other’s houses in high school, and during summers and breaks in our college years. So that meant we got to spend a lot of time with each other’s parents. Robby’s dad Bob was a kindly giant to me, a big tall goofball with Texas roots who would always try to crack us up as he made his way through the house. He was always especially good to me — in fact one time we even hung out together without Robby around, as we both really wanted to see Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie and Robby had zero interest.

Bob loved classic rock in general, but specifically he was a huge Dylan fan. Robby tells me how on Sundays, his dad would sit down with him and play through some favorite record, pointing out great bits and telling stories as they’d listen. That’s where Robby’s appreciation of Dylan came from, or at least where it started. Bob and I would talk Dylan sometimes too, taking turns rhapsodizing about the musicians and especially the lyrics.

I have an image of Bob in my head. He’s coming down the stairs in Robby’s old house, while Robby and I are hanging out in the living room. His steps are heavy, and once he’s sure he has our attention, he drawls out: “Once upon a time you dressed so fine! Threw the bums a dime, in your prime!” A call, waiting for a response. We wouldn’t let him down, giving it our best nasal Dylan as we belted, “Didn’t youuuuuu!” We all three laughed at each other’s silliness, having a blast.

Bob passed away in 2007, much too young. When I hear “Like A Rolling Stone” now, I feel like he’s with me, just for a few moments, right at the same time as I wish that I could see him again.

There’s another touchstone for me at the beginning of the song “Highway 61 Revisited.” Dylan blows this wacky siren whistle a couple of times in the first five seconds of that song, a wild and silly sound that immediately sets the song apart from any other rock and roll tune before or since. Plenty of ink has been spilled about that creative choice, but none of it is about my friend Tashi.

Tashi and I worked together for many years at the University of Colorado, first for the central IT office that serves all the campuses, and then for the Boulder campus IT group. At various times I was his peer, his manager, and his colleague. He’s one of my favorite co-workers ever, and pretty much one of my favorite people in the world. Like me, he loves comedy and music, and he especially appreciates when they come together.

Tashi and I shared an office for a long time, which was the source of many a delightful conversation, sometimes trying to make each other think but usually trying to make each other laugh. At one point I was working and I suddenly heard, out of nowhere, those few notes of organ and — wOOOOOOooooo! — that siren whistle. Then it almost immediately stopped. I looked up, and the sound repeated. It was then I realized that Tashi had made that his ringtone. Hilarious.

Health issues eventually forced Tashi out of his job at CU, but we’re still friends. He comes over pretty regularly to help tutor Dante in math, not because math is a huge struggle for Dante but because Tashi absolutely loves it and gets immense pleasure from helping teach it. Much to Dante’s delight, Tashi always sticks around after the math work to play a board game or computer game or something. Our whole family loves having him around, because not only is he a wonderful mentor to Dante, he’s also super fun and incredibly funny. That siren whistle pretty much nails how I feel about him. wOOOOOOooooo!

I’ve got lots more memories attached to this stuff. Robby and I were counselors in the early 90s at a college-style camp for gifted middle and high school kids – they stayed in dorms at night, took awesome classes during the day, and participated in counselor-led activities in the afternoons and evenings. Some of the time was just “dorm time”, where the kids could hang out, play cards, and whatnot, while counselors stationed themselves at some central location. I remember clearly my little boombox in the center of a first floor dorm hallway, blasting out this album and some others (Freewheelin’, Another Side) to a small cadre of fascinated kids, getting intiated into the mysteries that had captured generations prior to theirs.

More recently, I had the pleasure of seeing Bryan Ferry in concert, and he played a cover of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” that gave me major goosebumps. And now that moment is with me too, even as I dig Dylan’s very different version. Like Pretenders II, this is an album I just never get tired of. I could listen to it over and over, and sometimes I do, because it brings back such happiness to me, and more great memories await.

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