Here’s what happened in my life in 2014: I decided to write myself a present.
This was a crazy thing to do. Here’s what my schedule looked like for pretty much the entire time I was writing this:
Monday: teaching improv class.
Tuesday: improv player workshop.
Wednesday: sketch comedy rehearsal.
Thursday: sketch comedy rehearsal.
Friday or Saturday: improv shows.
Sunday: sketch comedy rehearsal.
I had a little time on the weekend when I wasn’t either working or doing something comedy-related but otherwise I’ve been staying up late to finish these essays. I’m not sorry I did it. It’s given me the chance to see what I remember from my life so far (not really that much, it turns out, which is fine), to reminisce about the music I love (there’s a lot of it, mostly from the 80s and 90s), to share both of these things with a few friends (some of whom have commented quite a bit, for which I’m very grateful) and to tweet links to some of the musicians I follow (a couple of whom have responded, for which I’m very very grateful), and to remind myself how glad I am that I don’t force myself to write 1000 words every day on a regular basis. That said, I do have a writing project lined up next that I’ve been looking forward to working on, and not only will it not have a daily deadline (which should ease the pain considerably) but it may even make me a penny or two if I do it right.
So thanks to everyone who liked Facebook posts, commented, or even just read the entries without saying anything and hopefully found someone new to listen to in the process.
And now: St. Vincent.
It’s amazing how unnerving a simple stark gray album cover with a person’s face staring at you can be:
Then there’s the album title: Marry Me. And the song title “Jesus Saves, I Spend.” And the name: St. Vincent. Was this Christian rock? In hindsight it’s a truly weird conclusion to jump to, but at the time it seemed perfectly natural. A simple Wikipedia search reveals that the album title is an Arrested Development reference and that “St. Vincent” is a Nick Cave/Dylan Thomas reference. Why I used to do so much reading about all the bands I loved and now can’t even be bothered to Google the simplest stuff — I guess avoiding spoilers? what does that even mean? — I have no idea. But the point is, Marry Me turned out to be great. It’s full of unexpected textures and turns, varied styles, and gorgeous vocals. For some reason, “Paris is Burning” is the song that sticks in my head, but there’s also “The Apocalypse Song,” “Now Now,” and the utterly lovely “What Me Worry?” (not, to the best of my knowledge, from the point of view of Alfred E. Neuman).
She properly hooked me with the second album, though. Actor starts off with one of my favorite songs of hers, “The Strangers,” and for a while after I got it I just played that song on repeat. Eventually I did keep going, and a good thing too — “Save Me From What I Want,” “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood,” “Marrow,” “Actor Out of Work,” “Just the Same But Brand New,” “Black Rainbow,” all absolutely incredible. After a record like this, the odds were against Strange Mercy, and indeed it’s still the only album of hers I haven’t quite warmed to. “Cruel” is stunning, but the rest of the tracks felt a little off-balance to me when I first heard them, less driven by beauty and exploration than pain and withdrawal. From what I am only now reading online, this may be exactly what happened. Here again is that “third album syndrome,” where even though critics rightly praised her first two albums they fell over themselves to love the third. I get the impression that she may feel about it as I do: it’s a strong piece of work that, due to the emotions driving it, is difficult to want to revisit. It’s not a bad record — her formidable intelligence is very much in play, and the music is as nuanced and beautiful as always. It’s just not for me.
Her fourth album, St. Vincent, is for me. Oh my god is it for me. I saw the cover in iTunes, of all places, and right away I knew something special was going on. Just look at it.
Here again I had that Actor experience, but with the first five songs rather than just the first one. “Rattlesnake,” “Birth in Reverse,” “Prince Johnny,” “Huey Newton,” and “Digital Witness” are an extraordinary run of songs, and yes, I played them on repeat as well, not wanting to get to the end of the record, just bathing in their weird, wonderful electricity.
I did, of course, eventually go on, was blindsided by the stark emotion of “I Prefer Your Love,” the churning energy of “Every Tear Disappears,” the pain and power of “Severed Crossed Fingers.” It’s always a slightly weird move, I think, to release your self-titled album anytime after your first, but it makes absolute sense here, the way she combines the stylistic range of Marry Me, the vivid melodies of Actor, and the emotional depth of Strange Mercy with something entirely new and rich and strange.
I’ve seen her live twice: once at Bimbo’s 365 for Actor, once at the Fox for St. Vincent. Both were extraordinary shows. The first was much more casual, a woman and her band playing fabulous songs with consummate skill. The second was theatrical; that shock of white hair, plus the throne, plus the strange mechanical dancing, plus of course some beyond amazing guitar work. I do lean toward the theatrical albums, but the truth is I like both sides of her, and if the next album swings the pendulum the other way again, I’ll be right there for it.
I was going to start this out with comparisons — people say she’s like David Bowie, or Kate Bush — but really, she’s incomparable. No one is doing what she’s doing and no one ever has. And maybe it’s in this that she’s like David Bowie or Kate Bush or so many of the artists I’ve written about over these 40something posts: she has a unique sound and vision. She’s a genre of one. If there’s one thing I respond to in music, one link between all the records I’ve really loved the most, it’s that they’re all so different from everything else around them. If nothing else, they give me the courage to be that way too.
Dum Dum Girls, Too True
“Are You Okay?” is a simple song, like everything Dum Dum Girls do, and when it’s on, I never want it to end. It has to, though, if I’m going to hear the rest of the songs on this terrific album. “Rimbaud Eyes” is fun if a little repetitive; “Too True to be Good” is, in fact, quite good; “In the Wake of You” is splendid; and “Trouble Is My Name” is fantastic. If you liked early 80s post-punk, you should give this album a listen; better yet, you should see them live.
Robyn Hitchcock, The Man Upstairs
Even as I see the future of my favorite music stretching out before me with acts like Metric, Janelle Monáe, and St. Vincent, I’m heartened that my old favorites like Robyn Hitchcock are still recording. Granted, not everyone can be as prolific as he is, and the truth is the strongest tracks here are covers: “The Crystal Ship” is solid, “Don’t Look Down” and “To Turn You On” are gorgeous, and his version of the Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost In You” is out of this world.
All the bands I love, didn’t write a full essay for, but wish I could have:
- The 70s: Blondie, Heart
- The 80s: a-Ha, Laurie Anderson, Cocteau Twins, Joan Jett, Men Without Hats, New Order, OMD, Pet Shop Boys, Prince, Scritti Politti, Tears for Fears
- The 90s: Blur, Charlatans UK, Echobelly, Gene, Placebo, They Might Be Giants
- The 10s: Tegan and Sara
and many, many more