I hate criticism most when it comes to pop music. It feels like opportunism. I know this is hypocritical, but what if I’m not a critic? What if I’m just another opinionated pop culture obsessive who’s been grandfathered in on a site that sometimes approaches its subjects in an objective, exhaustive, erudite fashion? All I can do is flex what writerly gifts I might innately possess and solipsistically enthuse. But pop music is simply about making people feel good, right? It always has and always will be. That’s why it makes so much money, why it’s called what it is. But it seems only uplifting in private. In public, it’s mostly accompanied by crying babies, obnoxious conversations, vomiting, depressing clearance racks, echosome, smelly bathrooms… Any number of drab settings turn those bright, exultant crescendos into a sick joke. “Weird Al” nodding to himself in the kitchen in Ghost World is sad too, but I get that. The more that life narrows your eyes, the more you just wanna “Shake It Off” and move into the music with abandon.
For a month or so, off and on, “Mad About You” has been on my mind. My reinvigorated love of this song is what finally made me pull the trigger and let 1989 rip. I would’ve loved 1989 in 1986, when I was seven and into Madonna and NKOTB. I like it now, because I still like that feckless, dreamy kid, ineffectual though he was. It was a few years before I turned on Marky Mark and his Funky Bunch in favor of the hard, macho pop variation of hair metal. That kid sang to himself and dreamed big dreams of living the loveswell (part budding sexuality, part achy longing for shared happiness) exemplified in “Mad About You.” I wanted, like so many others, to be the “You” in Belinda’s song. I swooned at the video. A pretty girl in love, only making her prettier.
The formula still resonates, even if it’s not appropriate for most of the people who read and write on this site. I am an adult, ostensibly, but when I listen in earnest to this music, I can forget that. Because being an adult is garbage. It’s utterly dreadful. We’re supposed to continue the population of the earth and put away childish things. That’s OK, though. Because there’s purpose in there. A job. Collegiate existential malaise only leads to more of the same. Function is fine, even if it is “soul crushing.” How many times have I used “soul” and don’t even believe in it? Mayhap attending church is just pop music to better keep breeders in line…
Specious musings aside, there is something magic to the innocence of the former Go-Go’s first single. Its plonky percussion, guitar peals that’re so tame and canned-sounding that it’s like Ted Nugent in a tin can in the middle of the ocean (not a bad idea), and lyrics so insipid and repetitive as to render themselves nearly meaningless. Yet it’s magic, because it makes the overwhelming feelings of love seem digestible, something you can get by on. It’s an illusion, like all magic, and it’s bad for us. It’s candy, which we are also supposed to grow out of (or at least graduate to more refined, expensive deserts). Then again, it’s not a total illusion. The guy playing her mad love interest in the video remains Carlisle’s husband (and they have a child) to this day. Any dispiriting cold-light-of-day juxtapositions with their pop romance must’ve been shaken off.
Perhaps self-indulgence is so pervasive that we should look at it as a function of living, not a dysfunction. Plus, if we were gonna give in, why not give in to something that feels good rather than judgmental cynicism? I see so many more people coming together over cynicism and derision rather than passion. Passion is ungainly, immature, gauche. That attitude (and I have it too sometimes) seems more dysfunctional than giving in to Taylor Swift or anything like it. I don’t wanna take these bonbons apart. I’ll get shit all over my fingers and will have wasted an opportunity to pop and enjoy, tummy ache be damned.
January 17, 2015: Sia - “Chandelier” (Live on SNL)
I began watching Saturday Night Live (SNL) musical guest performances when Drake did his LAWLZ a bit back, and then I retell the story about physically body-checking his ass in front of the Intercontinental Hotel some May Sunday running for a reservation on 48th, with my mom to the left clearing a path through the Canadian rapper’s two bodyguards, stoutly. Eh, I continue to continue. Continuing: a few weekends back, I caught an episode featuring mini-Pincher Kevin Hart, Adelaide, and Australian-born vocalist (all facts about) Sia (in this sentence are Wiki approved); Kevin Hart was employed as a host to introduce Sia and a mime for her performance of the March 2014 (you have a) radio (??) hit, “Chandelier.”
What first compelled me to Sia’s guest musical performance on SNL was how she always covered her eyes and nose with a veil. Maybe it was because Lana Del Ray previouslybecame the IRL emoji of O_O as a musical act, but this veil made for an appropriate effect for Sia’s singing, vaguely focusing on her mouth and performance (which is very infrequently enhanced on SNL). Actually, BOTH acts of hers suffered from visual performances; her physical stature was accentuated by dreadfully awkward performers; OMG — Kevin Hart’s sweaters in this is a chocolate drop; it’s winter. I enjoy mystique in performance, and when it comes down to it, I’m NOT interested in watching performance, but Sia performing “Chandelier” at an AA event would be ULTIMATE, amirite? Okay, and even though I’ve heard this song thousands of times since its March 2014 release, I’m finally recognizing it on VERY public television a year later. Materialism got me (vis-à-vis a veil) to watch Sia perform on SNL.
Typically something like this would be considered “old news,” and yes, it is old news. Fuck, the Super Bowl just happened for the 40th ti— wait, what’s XLIX? On the topic of materialism and (generally) making money, I was asking this dude at a bar about how much of football is based on getting a certain amount of PR to popularize and earn some fucking capital. He was like, “All of it.” As for Sia, how much do you think she’s paid for PR since she began her career in 2001? Like, PR got me to notice her vocal gift of expertly imitating a smattering of excellent female vocalists who came recently and anciently before her. But the most compelling part of Sia’s “Chandelier” performance — initially the veil followed by uncomfortable miming — is how impeccable her voice naturally exists compared to how experimentally she could use it on a platform like SNL (ULTRA-PUBLIC-TELEVISION) but would 100% never be allowed to. Like, if Joanna Newsom were to try out for American Idol or getting no votes on The Voice — like, BUMMER. It’s crushing to think how nice it’d be to see genuine talent match artistic implementation/measure. I’m willing to bet Sia could do some weird shit.
Actually, watching this SNL “Chandelier” Sia performance for the XLIXth time, I don’t believe Sia is singing. This veil is just an elaborately charming rouse to shadow her lips for fuck ups; they zoom in on the cellist during the first high note of the chorus in “Chandelier” and then birds-eye the view immediately upon the second time she high-notes the chorus. But who knows — maybe all the musicians on stage are pretending to play really well alongside her, providing audio-engineered-quality music LIVE. After the show, they’re all like “Burgers?” And at the pub, that mime is like “I can’t booze” and flashes his two-year badge, so then Sia hugs him, people photograph the gesture like MAD, it’s on Humans of New York’s Facebook page, my fiancée shows it to me, and I’m like OUROBOROS? (Yes, I spelled ouroboros correct on my first try, woop!)
So, to make a focused point out of this entire what-have-you: Do I believe Sia’s musical performance of “Chandelier” live on SNL? Lemme get a glass of water; WTF, YouTube commercials. No, I don’t believe her performance, because I don’t like going out and doing what she’s singing about, nor do I want to publicly pay for that amount of booze at a bar. And also because this song is about her — she’s trying to connect with people, just not all people (myself, the beholder of this song within my mind/body/ears) on a personal level. Either way, how GEEKED do you think mime’s reaction looked when he landed this SNL gig? Wait, is he even in the “Chandelier” video? Nope!
For a hot minute in my mid-20s, I taught 6th grade at a private elementary school in the Chicago suburbs. While I found the work incredibly fulfilling, it didn’t change the fact that four separate preps (five, counting a double-period for English) made 60+ hours a week my new normal. I was working constantly but never felt like I was getting ahead, never felt like I was able to give my students the classroom experience they deserved. At the time, I was living with my sister, her husband, and their five kids. She had offered to put me up through grad school, but three years later, she was expecting her sixth child and I was still living in their spare bedroom. On top of all of this, I had been seeing the woman who’d eventually become my wife for some time, and my living arrangement was starting to wear thin on everyone concerned. But with my generous salary of $26 grand a year, I wasn’t sure how to change it. My life felt like a noose tightening around my neck: there was no one in my life who I did not feel like I was letting down, and the five-to-six hours of sleep I was getting each night only served to magnifying every difficulty I encountered into an insurmountable obstacle.
Through all of this, Rilo Kiley’s “A Better Son/Daughter” emerged as a personal ward against constantly encroaching despair. I do not suffer from clinical depression, but there were days when I felt like I could see it from where I was standing. That moment when the alarm went off at a quarter to seven was the worst, when the lids would peel back from my eyes like the skin from a fresh wound, and all the anxiety from the waking world would come flooding back on me. When Jenny Lewis said, in her gentle sing-song voice, “Sometimes in the morning I am petrified and can’t move,” it was a position I recognized all too well.
I would play the song incessantly as I went through my morning ritual — buttoning up my shirt, fixing my tie, gathering all the books and binders and lesson materials I’d need for the day. I would play it when I was alone in my car, the volume cranked up to the max while I shouted along with the words (that first line when all the instruments kick in — “And sometimes when you’re on, you’re really fucking on” — contains one of the best-placed and most cathartic “fucks” in the entire history of songwriting in the English language). The shift from first person in the song’s opening lines to second person created a sense of universality, like Lewis was singing not just about herself, but about me and by extension everyone like us. On days when I didn’t know how to prepare a face to meet the faces that I’d meet, I’d steel myself with her assertion that “You’ll fight and you’ll make it through/ You’ll fake it if you have to/ And you’ll show up for work with a smile.” I would run through her litany of all the things that I could be, and then I’d surrender myself to Blake Sennet’s arena rock mini-solo.
“A Better Son/Daughter” is a unique entry in Rilo Kiley’s discography (nothing else from the band ever hit me quite the same way). It’s not just some crowd-pleaser to be trotted out for an encore. It’s a desperate yawp of defiance torn from the most broken part of you and thrown back into the face of everything in your life that makes you feel small and stupid and inadequate. It’s a celebration of the herculean effort that is sometimes required just to walk out your front door and face the day, a reminder that, even when you feel the odds are hopelessly against you, there’s a dignity to be found in going down swinging.
In her brilliant and incisive review of Her, fellow TMTer/drinking buddy Lorian Long takes Spike Jonze to task for dressing up a technocratic nightmare as some kind of futuristic Annie Hall. While most critics and viewers (myself included) were taken in by the peculiar dilemma facing Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly and his OS paramour voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Lorian saw beneath its surface “corridors of menacing and horrifying truths about our capitalistic ennui.” While we were busy rooting for Twombly and Samantha to make their relationship work, we were ignoring the unsettling implications that make such a relationship possible: total corporate control, total loss of privacy, and perhaps most frightening, the total complacency of everyone in the film in the face of these things. Where Jonze saw a love story, Lorian saw dystopia.
“The Temptation of Adam,” from singer-songwriter Josh Ritter’s fifth album The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, is a work that trades equally in the romantic and the dystopian. The most delicate cut off an otherwise raucous release, “Temptation” follows a soldier manning a secret nuclear missile silo who falls in love with his only companion, a maintenance staffer named Marie. The temporal setting of the song is ambiguous. There’s a quaintness to the language and imagery suggestive of the Cold War 1950s, but we could just as easily be glimpsing some near or far-flung future where America has once again helped drag the world to the the brink of nuclear annihilation.
The story starts, as is fitting for a romance, with the two lovers at odds with one another. Our narrator makes a boorish pass on their first meeting, which rankles Marie, who might be a bit of a cold fish. The turning point comes when Marie, working out a crossword, asks, “What five letters spell apocalypse?” and her companion shoots back “W-W-I-I-I.” There’s a romcom cadence to their banter, but underneath is something infinitely dark — a wry, grim acceptance of the threat of apocalyptic conflict that has become inseparable from our protagonists’ lives.
From there, time begins to distort. We don’t know how long our lovers spend locked in their isolated, connubial bliss, but we do know that it’s all drawing to an end. Marie is going away, either discharged or reassigned, and the narrator knows that when that happens, the spell they’ve woven in that dimly lit subterranean bunker will be broken. In the song’s final verse, wherein the narrator fantasizes about the life he and Marie could have if only she could stay, Ritter hauls out some of his most haunting and poetic lines:
Oh we could hold each other close and stay up every night
Looking up into the dark like it’s the night sky
And pretend this giant missile was an old oak tree instead
And carve our name in hearts into the warhead.
That passage conjures up a powerful storm of feelings. There’s a seductive quality to that image; we can feel ourselves drawn into the lovers’ subjective space and through their eyes experience beauty in their cold, utilitarian surroundings. Yet, taking a step back from the scene, we can perceive a sadness here, and we mourn the courtship this young couple should have had on the surface. And slithering through this garden of beauty and melancholy is a serpent with a grin like death, a cruel absurdity to this affair that no amount of poetry can fully disguise or erase.
And in case you find your sympathies hopelessly entwined with Ritter’s protagonists, then consider this: In the song’s concluding lines, the narrator contemplates his present happiness, his lover’s impending departure, and the impossibility of their love affair; he considers whether they would be better off if the world went Defcon 1. “If you hold me here forever, like you’re holding me tonight,” he muses, “I think about that great big button and I’m tempted.” If we can bring ourselves to see through the doe-eyed romanticism of the moment, we will come face to face with something truly chilling: a love so all-consuming and monomaniacal that billions of lives and all of human civilization seem a small price to pay for its continuance.
With Her, Spike Jonze gave us a dystopian hellscape disguised as a tender tale of boy-meets-girl. With “The Temptation of Adam,” Josh Ritter shows us that the two need not be mutually exclusive.
While potentially about her THEN husband Tommy Mottola (a.k.a. Little Gino), Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” — co-written by São Paulo, Brazilian Vladimir Nikitich Afanasieff — was initially acclaimed for its flagrant holiday and gospel-backed cheer, but then fluttered itself religiously apart from the rest of the album Merry Christmas, as Butterfly don’t need nothing but her man. This proves that (1) Michael Jackson was right when he was quoted as saying “Tommy Mottola is a Devil,” and (2) Mariah Carey is p-much like all of us, but NOT, and with a Glitter of swag (e.g., setting “All I Want For Christmas Is You” in the people’s key of G, while spanning a vocal range of G3 to A5). When the song was released in 1994, Brian Wilson immediately tried to sue her for harmony infringement, but Pope John Paul II caught this wave, conducted Holy Research between Mariah and Beach Boys vocals on born-deaf people, and Carey miraculously cured 15 out of 20 in the study, and was — on-the-low — appointed modern sainthood. Why do you think this is the seventh time you’ve heard about “All I Want For Christmas Is You” within the hour? You don’t really think those 254+ million views on the Carey-directed music video YouTube page are of all-time, right? ANSWER: also all within the last hour.
But let’s cut to the chase: LORE. Fuck all the heavy bits of reality regurgitated in the paragraph above, and let’s get to the mystique. For one, its been proven with the use of a thousand vibrating champagne glasses (excluding the one being held by Mariah) that “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is the clearest Carey vocals in any of her recorded performances. During one of the initial press conferences for 2014’s Interstellar, director Christopher Nolan listed off influences that led to the intentional lack of CGI in the film, including the kaleidoscopic parts from the “All I Want For Christmas Is You” video, followed by dimensional shifting gasps of relief. There were also eight dog actors in the video, three of which were put down by Columbia Records (against Carey’s wishes, leading to her Columbia to Virgin to Def Jam buyouts, rly) for biting the talent more than 100 times. Five lived thereafter in [a country only rich people know about], and all of these dogs were stuffed and sold at private auctions, the last most recently seen via the Black Market rivaling Nazi art in “most Bitcoins spent on an item.” However, the bunny featured in “All I Want For Christmas Is You” was a solo act and has since vanished from public view after being cloned during the filming.
Furthermore, the electronic sounds in “All I Want For Christmas Is You” has been highly and heatedly debated between FKA twigs and James Ferraro (a.k.a. James Ferraro) as the most influential piece of music on all modern synthetically-driven R&B, both claiming Rraro’s 2013 EP God of London as the end of this argument moving forward. In fact, “All I Want For Christmas Is You” remains Carey’s #1 single in Japan, and after a release party thrown in honor of it becoming the theme song for 29才のクリスマス, Mariah took a private jet to an island where she broke her peace with the world to human-hunt that Santa who drops her in the video (obviously not Little Gino, mebbe). But the half-human-sized dancers were legit flown in from the North Pole, as they live there in a tribe but can’t spell the name out of fear. The dove and reindeer are witchcraft, honestly. I’m familiar with all these details because Mariah Carey is a telepath. For example, this Santa hunt situation occurred after my Grams’s mind was hacked by Carey, witnessing the first date my grandfather took her on, ending in being dropped in the snow as a joke, and following their next conversation a year later; Mariah bare-witnessed true love y’all and just couldn’t let this “Santa” perpetrator stand between her and her artistic measure.
Mariah is telling me right now to start wrapping this up because Mottola ain’t a clone rn, no.
I have a cellphone (again). I’d rather ship it to someone outside this country who actually needs this piece of technology. However, I settled on this “first-world problem” by setting up a constant loop of Mariah Carey videos on YouTube and typing this post on it. And now I’m down in Florida, soaking up sun on Xmas, but without my fiancée. Talking about Mariah with nobody but my phone. Shout out to Max Power for unknowingly instigating me to write this up. Mottola isn’t a clone, nor is the original dead because of Mariah Carey. Merry Christmas!
I read a review of this box by another writer and the dude got stuck in the question of WHY? Why is this box set being released, who is it for, and what is the ultimate goal for its release? And normally I’d find those to be cogent questions, but in this case I found myself shifting from my initial thought upon receiving this, which was, “Hey, I fucking love The Turtles and haven’t spun that antique-shop LP in years, and now I won’t have to,” to, “Hey, he’s right, why the fuck are they releasing this?”
But isn’t that just another sign that reviewing has changed? I mean why the hell would I care who this box set is FOR? I’m not trying to ‘move units’ or encourage you to buy one thing and ignore another in my reviews. I write about music because I love it, and I’ve always had a soft spot for The Turtles, and… So what else the-fuck is there? And yes, there are no liner notes or little extras to help contextualize the ‘importance’ of this release; it’s pretty much a gaggle of 7-inches, made to order and ready to play. And you know what? That’s totally fuckin’ fine with me!
You might think Mrs. Rigby was the only famous rock n roll ‘Eleanor,’ but tweak the spelling a bit and you have one of my favorite anti-nuggets (as in not obscure enough to make it on the psych comps, yet not huge enough to show up on a lot of the ‘Best of the 60s’ bone-ups) of all-time, so sweet and affecting you forget the chords are so simple a baby could swipe through them. Then you have “Happy Together,” which soundtrack’d a Golden Grahams commercial at one point in the sad 80s but never even quite made The Turtles bona fide stars; from what I’ve been able to gather they were above The Mindbenders on the stardom scale but well below acts like The Hollies, which is a goddamn travesty (or at least a mini-tragedy) because I’ll put that tune up against just about anything hitting the charts around that time.
THOSE ARE THE SONGS YOU KNOW (plus that middling cover of “It Ain’t Me Babe” and the delightful “Guide for the Married Man,” perhaps?), but there’s a lot more to dive into here, particularly if you have an appetite for slightly sweet, un-psychedelic 60s rock with a twist of the sort of awkward lack of surety many of us experienced in our twenties. The Turtles’ stilted nature didn’t show up in their ‘hits,’ but it was exposed for all to see on a lot of these tunes, in particular “Sound Asleep,” a cut that features samples of a saw cutting wood, woodblock, and there are tips of the cap to “Tomorrow Never Knows” in the drums and the Indian instruments. Don’t get me started on the extended instrumental version…
From there I prefer to skip around a bit, as is my eternal wont in life in general. “You Showed Me” is the first Turtles song to chart and a lot of you will recognize its retro (even at the time), ‘safe’ feel, and almost shamefully innocent, Everly Brothers-esque harmonies from the radio if you have a decent oldies station in your town. “You Baby” rings of compromise with commercial gains in mind, and almost certainly influenced The Miracles’ “Love Machine.” One of my personal favorites despite its inherent corniness, “You Know What I Mean” is a fun, Association-style jaunt that puts forth a pleasant vibe without investing much in its drab aftertaste. “Love in the City,” for its total lack of chart love at its time of release, holds up just fine and is another example of how The Turtles managed to sound great without ever adhering to a specific ‘sound,’ jumping around wildly from track to track.
As occurs so often in life, the deeper you dig the more you get your hands dirty. “Grim Reaper of Love” pushes more of that young-guy confusion up front in the form of pained choruses and a strangely swinging constitution. This is about as trippy as the Turtles got, and it’s a rather dazzling side of the band I hadn’t experienced. “The Story of Rock and Roll,” on the other hand, despite being penned by Harry Nilsson, is just flat-out bad, in case you couldn’t tell from the title (and that’s a real thing; if you can’t tell a song sucks from its title you have no business discussing music in any public forum), one step below the rung of “Cover of the Rolling Stone” on the ladder of empty, self-congratulatory rock bluster.
And so on and so forth; by the second paragraph you knew if you wanted this or not so why do I rant so? Then again, I’ve only covered about half of the tracks on this set, so there’s a lot more nosing around to do. It’s like an everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-The-Turtles-but-were-afraid-to-ask kind of thing, except you were never truly afraid of asking, just overwhelmed by the thrust of today’s fast-moving music machine. I say, take the time to disconnect from the streams, premieres, and glamor-shot publicity photos and dive into some more of the rock n roll that birthed this ridiculous culture in the first place.
1988: Fugazi - First Demo
“People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy… As a band, we’re flesh and blood. We can be ignored, we can be destroyed, but as a symbol? As a symbol we could be incorruptible. We can be everlasting.”
– Fugazi (or Batman, we forget which)
The legacy of Fugazi rests on so much more than the sum total of their six albums and sundry EPs and comps. Without minimizing the importance of their discography (which earns every iota of praise lavished on it by fans and critics alike), Fugazi’s greatest function within the realm of independent music is a symbolic one: They are the Band That Did It Right. Adhering to their own strict professional code, they took control of every aspect of their craft — releasing their albums through co-frontman Ian MacKaye’s own label, booking shows at venues where they could set their own ticket prices at reasonable rates, refusing to do press with publications that ran ads contrary to their values. Fugazi entered the music industry on their own terms and somehow enjoyed a long, successful career in it.
It’s fitting, then, that like that other stalwart symbol of justice, Fugazi should finally get its own Christopher Nolan origin-story treatment. Recorded at D.C.’s Inner Ear in 1988, First Demo was originally committed to cassette and given away free at early Fugazi shows, with only a single track, “In Defense of Humans,” seeing release on Dischord’s 1989 State of the Union comp. As a window into the developmental days of one of the most titanic figures in punk rock, First Demo gives us some valuable insights. Since Guy Picciotto had only joined the band a few months prior to recording, most of the 11 songs that make up the demo were all written for a single guitar. Yet despite his newcomer status, he’d already established himself as a critical presence, lending his voice to the likes of “The Waiting Room” and “Song #1” in arrangements that would very closely resemble their final recorded versions, and even taking the lead on “Break-In.” The band’s preoccupation with reggae during this period is also prominent, with Joe Lally’s rubbery bass lines bringing the cool ranch to offset MacKaye’s flamin’ hot guitar.
Fans will no doubt notice that many of the tracks that appear on First Demo were given a second life on the band’s official releases, and the versions that appear here are not, for the most part, dramatically different from their final recorded forms, but some of them provide interesting snapshots of songs still in the process of becoming. The demo version of “And the Same” is a little undercooked compared to the one that appears on Margin Walker, sporting a more leisurely pace, a rather Spartan intro, and an entirely different lyric during the outro. By contrast, longtime fan-favorite “Furniture” packs a little more slow-burn menace in its raw, mono-guitar form than the official studio version recorded decades later. A natal version of a rarity like “The Word” and the never-before-released “Turn off Your Guns” help to sweeten the pot a little, even if neither one is likely to totally rock your world.
So, as far as revisionist origins go, maybe First Demo isn’t quite Batman Begins. Like most demo releases, it showcases some subtle variations on the old familiar favorites and offers a few fleeting glimpses into the musicians who make up the band (the false start on “Waiting Room,” the brief intrusions of studio banter between songs). If nothing else, it will go a little way toward plugging that Fugazi-shaped hole that you’ve felt in your heart ever since they peaced-out back in aught-three. For a little while, at least.
1993: U2 - Zooropa
As the rest of the music world chooses to heave a collective middle finger at U2 over the release of their latest record, Songs of Innocence, I decided to engage with a record of theirs that I really care about and to also, in some ways, come to terms with the fact that a band I really like pretty much sucks now. 1993’s Zooropa is worth revisiting because it serves as the last time U2 delivered a consistently good record before they devolved into the earnest, boring stadium rockers they’ve become over the course of the 2000s.
Released after the game-changing Achtung Baby, Zooropa finds U2 further embracing electronics, hip-hop, and industrial music. It’s arguably much more daring than its predecessor, because when listened to today, Achtung Baby sounds a lot like your standard U2 album, albeit with programmed beats and spacey guitar textures. Where that album and the resulting ZooTV tour took on media overload mixed with post-Wall European culture, Zooropa encapsulates the feelings of hope and anxiety that accompanied the reunification of Germany and the beginnings of the Internet Age. “And I have no religion, and I don’t know what’s what, and I don’t know the limit, the limit of what we’ve got,” Bono sings on the title track, echoing the theme of identity and place present throughout this album and a good portion of their work. The way it’s expressed here feels more in-the-moment and intimate than the wide-reaching, give-me-a-hug vibe present in so many of their hits (“Beautiful Day,” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” etc.). That feeling carries over into “Babyface,” and by the time you reach “Numb” (where the Edge gets the chance to “rap”), you start to absorb that information-overload theme that permeated so much of their work in the 90s.
The highlight of the album — and in my opinion, one of U2’s best songs — is “Lemon,” a low-key, synth-driven tune that features one of Bono’s strongest vocal performances. Apparently inspired by seeing old home movies of his mother, the song tackles our reliance on technology to relive and hold on to the past. “Man makes a picture,” the Edge sings in the closest thing to a chorus, “man captures color, man likes to stare, and turns his money into light to look for her.” This track always gives me goosebumps, even after hearing it dozens of times.
The rest of the album balances personal lyrics (drugs, love, death, and faith) and broader themes (politics, our relationship to technology). If you listen to the whole album (which you can do here), there’s a coherence to the many styles they draw from (techno, Krautrock, blue-eyed soul) that makes this one of their last enjoyable records from start to finish. Lyrically, they were way ahead of their time, as it took about 20 years for information overload and impersonal digital communication to become common talking points.
While 1997’s Pop and 2001’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind had their moments, Zooropa was the last time that U2 justified their status as ostensibly the most popular band in the world. From then on, it became more about U2 the brand rather than U2 the band. It’s ironic, then, that an album all about technology’s ability to dissociate us from the real world has become their final great statement.
All the Wu like to bask in gansta rap’s infatuation with urban machismo, but Ghostface Killah embraces it with a rare gusto. Borrowing an alter ego from one of the Marvel Universe’s wealthiest denizens, Ghost often depicts himself as a powerful, ruthless drug kingpin and, most recently, has upped the ante by affording himself a comic book backstory and supernatural powers, to boot. But if the majority of Ghost’s street-hardened tales exist primarily in the realm of wish-fulfillment, “Walk Around,” from Big Doe Rehab is something else entirely.
In the song, Ghost plays the part of a would-be gangster who finds his entire life turned upside-down after he kills a man over an altercation with Ghost’s girlfriend. The body count of a GFK album often rivals that of a latter-day Tarantino film; enemies are dispatched ruthlessly and often with devilish creativity. Yet this time, after shooting his adversary three times at close range — two in the stomach and a coup de grace to the dome — Ghostface says “Everything got real slow, I ain’t hear shit, my word/ At least 40 seconds I stay dead stiff.” It’s entirely possible that the cops could have found him frozen in that grisly tableaux, but a friend takes the gun out of his hand and whisks him away in a car. In subsequent verses, the consequences of this rash and bloody deed will begin to seek him out, but seemingly more than anything else, it’s the sheer enormity of his actions that haunt Ghostface. He pukes in his friend’s car and later tries fruitlessly to wash the blood out of his clothing, all the while the memory of what he’s done plays over and over in his mind.
Slowly, Ghost’s world closes in around him. The police start raiding his spots, making life a living hell for his family. He’s pursued by his own connects who, sensing weakness, try to shake him down for more money. Ghost is bounced from safehouse to safehouse; his friends try to convince him to flee to Tennessee, but he clings to his increasingly transparent gangster facade, saying “No, I got these two snow-bunnies in Venice Beach.” By the end of the song, Ghost is a caged animal, asphyxiating from his cloistered existence and raving about his intentions to go out in a violent standoff with the police.
Ghostface is famous for his frenetic delivery, and there’s no more perfect vehicle to showcase it than “Walk Around.” It features a tense, claustrophobic narrative, and Ghost invests it with kilowatts of paranoid energy, his lyrics practically tripping over one another. The jitteryness of Ghost’s verses strikes a sharp contrast to Anthony Acid’s smooth soul beat, sampled liberally from Little Milton’s “Packed up and Took my Mind.” Severed from its original context, the song’s opening lines evoke Ghost’s sense of dislocation and help to complete the picture of a man who has suddenly and unexpectedly reached the end of his tether. This is one of Ghost’s most vivid tracks, the work of a master storyteller operating at the top of his game.
When Southern Records announced their reissue of Nomeansno’s Dance of the Headless Bourgeoisie earlier this year, they made no secret of how divisive the record was upon its release in 1998. Between the ballooning song lengths and the band’s increasingly melodic sensibilities, maybe a lot of longtime listeners were feeling left out in the cold, with even the album’s supporters dubbing it “inaccessible.” In the rosy glare of critical hindsight, though, it’s harder to see what got everyone’s knickers all bunchy. While the Victoria prog punks’ 10th album captures the Wright brothers at their most expansive, it sacrifices nothing in the way of immediacy, and the snicker-snack shifts in rhythm and tempo all fit naturally into the songs’ natural trajectory.
Besides, expansiveness really seems to agree with them; the two best songs are the longest ones. The title track might clock in at eight minutes, but it’s as pure an example of Nomeansno’s particular brand of damage as you could ask for. A nice spare arrangement puts the Wrights’ sinister rhythm front and center, with Tom Holliston’s guitar adding accents to the verses and a righteous sense of fury to the thrashy post-chorus instrumental passages. Each verse is framed as a ransom note written to a rich man whose wife, son, and daughter have been kidnapped, one after another, and bound with “ten sticks of dynamite/stuck together with duct tape” around their heads. It all culminates with the kidnappers coming after the rich man himself, admitting:
“We have no political beliefs.
We don’t want your fucking money.
There’s just one thing that motivates us.
We hate your fucking guts.”
The menace of Tom Wright’s delivery elevates these pronouncements to a level of genuine hilarity while maintaining a sense of paranoia and danger.
On the other side of the coin sits “The World Wasn’t Built in a Day.” While “Dance” resonates with the black-hearted comedy of their college radio hit “Dad,” “World” reminds us that, on his best days, Tom Wright could be one hell of a lyricist. The sprawling, surreal narrative follows a man who dreams that everyone he ever knew died simultaneously in a series of random accidents. The prospect initially fills him with elation that soon cools into a lonely desperation, only to end with an oblique moment of epiphany. There’s an almost hardboiled quality to the language, with the protagonist driving down darkened streets where “Streetlamps cast their mockery of light” and enjoying a chance encounter with a woman who lets her hand fall on his leg and “there she let it stray.” All this is set against a portentous bass line that remains constant and almost completely unchanging throughout the song’s nine and a half minutes.
Other songs explore themes of mental illness (“I Can’t Stop Talking”), boorish behavior (“I’m an Asshole”), and sexual abuse, one in the form of horror-story reversal (“The Story Must Be Told”) and the other in a far more unsettling look inside the mind of a violent misogynist (“The Rape”). The album snaps back and forth between moments of silliness and introspection as easily as it switches gears in time signatures. If you’re not willing to keep up, the radical shifts in tone might put you off, but for those who revel equally in the gallows humor of Big Black and the introspection of Richard Hell, Dance of the Headless Bourgeoisie should provide plenty to love.