Reviewing 2018

You want lists, motherfuckers…? I’ll give you lists.

But here’s the thing…

I’m not a critic anymore. Not a professional one, anyway. Not that I really ever was. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m not trying to be a professional critic, anymore. I’m not even interested in trying to be. So here’s what this list isn’t: A Best of 2018. Some of the stuff on my list isn’t even from 2018. I don’t think ANY of the books on this list were published in 2018 (though I will get to FEEL FREE and CERTAIN AMERICAN STATES, eventually…), and film…? I think I’ve seen a grand total of 7 or 8 films this year, and my favorite among them was shot decades ago, so I don’t feel especially qualified to sound off on what was “Best.”

No, this list is more, How I Spent My 2018: Aesthetic High Points Edition. Me babbling about any art and entertainment related encounters I had this year that made an impact or left a significant impression on me. Obviously, I see a lot of value in the below-mentioned efforts, but I wouldn’t necessarily take them as recommendations. You’re not me, after all. Nor is there any implicit suggestion herein that they belong in any sort of pantheon other than my own personal one. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m not so much writing about movies, or television, or music, as I am writing about myself. Maybe that’s what I’ve always done…

Here’s the other thing…

You asked for it.

We’ll start with TELEVISION…

And what is it about British TV writers named Steven…? Did the UK pass some obscure parliamentary motion several years ago demanding that, heretofore, a certain percentage of all high-quality television scribes are required to bear that name (in the same vein as the law passed by Congress in the mid-to-late 90’s declaring that the majority of postmodern American authors should be named Jonathan)…? Does the BBC have a “Steven” quota…?

In any case, though no new episodes were broadcast in 2018, this year will go down in my personal history as the year I discovered Steven Knight’s PEAKY fucking BLINDERS. Imagine THE GODFATHER meshed with MILLER’S CROSSING, set in 1920’s Birmingham, with a haunting, harrowing modern soundtrack (more on that later…) and you’ll come pretty close to the mark. Cillian Murphy’s mastermind middle child, Tommy Shelby, leads the titular gang, a sharply dressed family of Irish gypsy émigrés carving (sometimes literally) a place for themselves in the English criminal underworld. Epic and intimate, seedy and beautiful, sophisticated and savage, it gets better and better with each season (four, with another on the way…). Knight has a gift for balancing gritty, realistic drama with sometimes absurd humor and a bewitching undercurrent of something dark, ethereal, and fatalistic. New favorite show…

PEAKY BLINDERS, by the way, also features the reliably brilliant (except in FURY ROAD) Tom Hardy in the scene-stealing role of mad genius Jewish gangster Alfie Solomons. Despite his not-as-frequent-as-you-want-them-to-be appearances, he nearly succeeds in upstaging the rest of the cast (who are exceptional) every time he appears on screen. Hardy and Knight had worked together previously in 2013’s LOCKE (which made my Best of… List that year), so I was excited to discover that they co-created a TV series together last year: TABOO. The dark, ethereal undercurrents of PEAKY BLINDERS rise to the surface in this down and dirty tale of dark secrets, pagan religions, crime, incest, international intrigue, corporate corruption, and the slave trade, as Hardy’s long lost/presumed dead James Delaney returns home to early 1800’s England following the death of his father. Though slow-moving, Knight and the cast give the characters the charisma and vitality to win you over for the duration of the show’s slow burn, while its bleaker, blacker elements bring it, at times, to the edge of horror.

Which brings me to SHARP OBJECTS and THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE. Both released this year, no two shows left me so shaken and unsettled (in a good way). HBO’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s debut novel, about small-town secrets, family dysfunction, and murder, slowly burrowed its way into my flesh and stayed there, thanks in large part to Jean-Marc Vallee’s sinister directing and editing, and Amy Adams’ layered, damaged performance. Though initially irked by the almost rimshot-style ending, I can’t deny that its final images have haunted me in the months since…

And speaking of haunted…

Mike Flanagan’s HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is not an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel, but a Frankenstein-esque creature stitched seamlessly together from various elements and tropes found therein. I expected something like Flanagan’s OCULUS: some good, scary fun, but nothing especially profound. And yet as I watched episode after episode, I found myself in the clutch of a creeping, cathartic despair. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is actually about child abuse, addiction, or mental illness, but in his tale of the damage wrought on the Crane family by their experiences in Hill House, Flanagan makes dramatic and affecting use of those recognizable patterns, channeling them into larger, existential musings about fear and loss.

Chan-wook Park’s adaptation of John Le Carre’s LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL is one of those 70’s nostalgia trips that leaves me wondering if it was “brilliantly directed” or just “directed in a particular style that I happen to like” (see also: SICARIO, DRIVE, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY), but regardless, it’s less a 70’s style politically-minded spy thriller than a 70’s style meditation on the psychological toll of intelligence stagecraft, featuring top-notch performances from Florence Pugh, Alexander Skarsgard, and Michael Shannon.

DAREDEVIL’s third season may have been its best, featuring the full-fledged return of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin, and the introduction of Wilson Bethel’s troubled, sympathetic Bullseye. So, of course, Netflix cancelled it.

THE AFFAIR got back on track, for the most part, with its fourth season, and, really, any initial unsteadiness or not-entirely-earned dramatic reversals one could complain about matter very little when there’s Maura Tierney.

And I finally got around to watching THE CROWN, which was really pretty good, and not the glamorous commercial for monarchy I expected it to be… I should have known better when I saw it was Peter Morgan… I still stand by THE QUEEN as a great film… Very much in that vein…

Lastly, one of the great things about having children is that you get hip to a lot of shows you otherwise wouldn’t (though, with me, it’s hard to say, but…). One of the best discoveries I’ve made through my children this year has been STAR VS. THE FORCES OF EVIL. What starts out as an aggressively quirky fish-out-of-water fantasy evolves over its three seasons (so far) into the story of a generations-old epic battle, investigating the nature of good and evil and all the grey areas in between, tribalism, love, loyalty, the lengths we’re willing to go to when we’re certain we’re right, and the deals we’re willing to make when we’re desperate, and all without ever losing its manic sense of humor. Hands down, the best children’s show I’ve seen since PHINEAS & FERB (which wasn’t all that long ago, but still…).

All of that was more than enough to counterbalance the mild letdowns of WESTWORLD’s anti-dramatic data dump of a second season and the flat, cloying, Spielberg-y saintliness of Chris Chibnall’s DOCTOR WHO, which was enough to sap my enjoyment of Jodie Whittaker’s delightful take on the character…

I was going to do BOOKS last, since it’s section least likely to be read, anyway. But then, I thought, why not do books second since it’s the section least likely to be read…?

Not that I’m impugning anyone’s level of literacy. Books are just more of a time commitment than movies, TV, or music, and most people already know what they like, or what they’re looking to like, so they’re not as much in the market for recommendations, especially from someone with tastes like mine. (As a result, this section will also probably be the most unapologetically self-indulgent…)

But speaking of knowing what you like and tastes like mine…

Like most people, I made most of my formative literary discoveries in my teens and early twenties. But in the last several years, probably as a result of shifting my personal artistic focus to literary prose, I’ve found myself experiencing – if it’s not too pretentious a thing to say – a literary renaissance, of sorts. And I’ve made a number of discoveries and rediscoveries that have proven no less influential to me in my middle age.

So, maybe, less a literary renaissance than a literary reformation… Haha…

Not that I’ve rejected or renounced any of those early inspirations. (Sorry, Kinder Gentler Reader: Nietzsche and Henry Miller are still cornerstones. But they’re also still keeping company with Dostoevksy, Ralph Ellison, and Douglas Adams…) My foundations are still my foundations. It’s just that, these days, much to my surprise, I seem to be adding a second story. (So to speak… Haha…)

Some have been first-time encounters with writers, like Thomas Bernhard or Roberto Bolano, whose work swept me off my feet and took up immediate residence in my soul. Others have been revisitations with authors, like Borges or Melville, whose work I first encountered years or decades ago, but whose work has now opened itself up to me in new, astonishing ways. (Or, I guess, more accurately, time has opened me up to it…)

For the longest time, HEART OF DARKNESS was all I knew of JOSEPH CONRAD. I had read it in high school, and being both a cinephile and a philistine, I didn’t look upon it as much more than the literary inspiration for APOCALYPSE NOW. But one of the advantages of having your entire library (which, if you’re a reader worth your salt, contains a number of books you’ve not yet cracked) boxed up in a storage locker thousands of miles away, is that you find yourself looking to see what books Amazon offers as free downloads for your newly acquired Kindle. (Hint: They’re usually agreed upon classics…) So, back in 2013, having fully shaken off the shackles of cinematic ambition, I decided, on a whim, to return to HEART OF DARKNESS and give Conrad’s slim volume a chance to sink or swim on its own merits.

And Holy Shit.

One of my favorite books as a kid was William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES (still is one of my favorites, actually), and how I had been so blind to it before I don’t know, but HEART OF DARKNESS is basically LORD OF THE FLIES for grown-ups, digging deeper into many of the same themes, but with more subtlety and complexity. Conrad renders Marlowe’s journey in lush, evocative prose, giving it the impact of both a nightmare and an epic journey in just a few, short chapters. As an artistic accomplishment, it not only equals but surpasses APOCALYPSE NOW (and also has the edge in coming first). The point is, I made up my mind, then and there, to dive headlong into Conrad’s oeuvre.

Which I did. Starting this year.

(Yes, I am an erratic, unfaithful, deeply promiscuous reader…)

Having now completed THE SECRET AGENT and UNDER WESTERN EYES, with NOSTROMO and THE SHADOW LINE on deck, Conrad strikes me as nothing less than the English language (despite being Polish) heir to Dostoevsky. Which is somewhat ironic because Conrad hated Dostoevsky. But, like Dostoevsky, Conrad weaves the political, the philosophical, and the primal into grand, character-driven narratives, addressing the issues of his day by delving deep into the psychological frictions at their core. Both men were skeptical, if not condemnatory, of the revolutionary impulses taking hold in their homelands, but also gifted with a sympathetic authorial insight that prevented them from flattening their conflicts or their characters into something soothing or easily digestible. The people who inhabit their novels are vital, passionate, complex, and often tortured, yet utterly recognizable and relatable, despite their extremity. Everyone we encounter is unique and uniquely human.  Where Conrad differs from Dostoevsky (and, perhaps, this was the root of his dislike) is his rejection of easy resolutions. An emigrant by circumstance, and a seafarer by trade, Conrad, perhaps, had seen too much of the world to see much hope in it. Dostoevsky’s spirituality is nowhere in Conrad, replaced by a bottomless skepticism and a near-tragic melancholy. Where Dostoevsky’s protagonists always seem to find some strained salvation in the end (though, whatever precedes it is always powerful and profound enough to offset any dissatisfaction I might feel with his forced finales), Conrad refuses all but the faintest glimmer of redemption for his own. You can just make it out in Kurtz’s horror, Verloc’s confession, Razumov’s penance. But it’s never enough to deliver them from their fate. As the man, himself, said, “We live in the flicker.”

And speaking of skepticism and hopelessness…

EMIL CIORAN might be ALBERT CAMUS’ evil twin, his shadowy reflection and philosophical foil, the nihilistic Joker to his idealistic Batman. (Yeah… I stand by that…) If you know me at all, you know I’ve lived with my distant cousin Albert and his work since my teen years. For a variety of curiously disconnected reasons, I’ve also been revisiting a lot of it recently, rereading THE STRANGER, THE FALL, EXILE AND THE KINGDOM, and THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS. And this year, finally, for the first time, I’ve been making my way through THE REBEL (almost done with it, in fact). Simultaneously, I have been reading Cioran’s ANATHEMAS AND ADMIRATIONS (just finished with it, in fact), a collection of essays on some of the significant thinkers and artists in Cioran’s life, interspersed with chapters of his own wry, incisive, often pessimistic and misanthropic aphorisms. Camus and Cioran both possessed a vast and penetrating insight into human nature, human history, and the human condition, which they expressed with remarkable clarity and potency. Camus was a lapsed communist who came to see how quickly rebellion corrupted into despotism (it is, in fact, one of THE REBEL’S central themes). Cioran was a former fascist who grew to reject fascism’s narrowness and repent his involvement with it. But coming from opposite sides of the spectrum, both arrived at a shared understanding of the absurdity inherent in trying to improve the world. (Both books are, in fact, extremely relevant in the current political climate. Cioran’s near-novella length essay on Joseph de Maistre is essential to anyone seeking to understand right-wing extremism, and THE REBEL ought to be required reading for the current crop of SJW’s, though, of course, it’s just another book by another old, white male…) The difference between them was that Camus, ever the Sisyphean, never ceased pushing his philosopher’s stone up a moral mountain, searching for some form of honorable, humanist existence, while Cioran embraced an antic – almost gleeful – nihilism and misanthropy, living in near isolation in Paris, lobbing literary grenades at humanity’s false hopes and futile ideals. They now reside as fenceless neighbors on my bookshelf, across the quad from Dostoevsky and Conrad.

Cioran, incidentally, was good friends with SAMUEL BECKETT in his later years. Like any apostate of the dramatic arts, I already knew Beckett from WAITING FOR GODOT, ENDGAME, etc., but Cioran’s essay on Beckett in ANATHEMAS AND ADMIRATIONS sent me scurrying for his prose. In my typically backwards fashion, I started with a collection of his last novellas: COMPANY, ILL SEEN ILL SAID, WORSTWARD HO, STIRRINGS STILL and a few shorter pieces. Written in a spare, angular, minimalist style I found revolutionary and revelatory, Beckett slowly grows his stories from one word or phrase to the next. Context develops at an almost agonizing pace, as possible interpretations narrow, details emerging organically, out of absolute necessity. Reading them was like watching the gradual formation of a crystalline structure. Or, to put it another way, if one posits James Joyce as a literary Charlie Parker, Beckett can be seen as Thelonious Monk. As a writer, I found it tremendously liberating, having attempted similarly minimalistic styles in my own writing projects in the past. Too often, though, I would lose confidence in my own method, and begin freighting my narratives with enough extraneous explanation to crush them utterly. In that regard, Beckett’s stories were a welcome reminder to trust my own voice. Their impact, however, was more than stylistic. Or, more accurately, Beckett’s narratives reflect his style, relating the internal monologues of impoverished characters groping for some knowledge or comprehension of their situations and surroundings, often using language as a cipher, in the hopes of arriving at some measure of resolution or peace. While their stylistic brilliance is immediate and astounding, the stories also conceal a poignancy that sneaks up on you, transforming admiration into awe. Having finished the later works, I’ve backed up to the early middle, and am now knee-deep in MOLLOY… And I’m sure I’ll continue from there, but Beckett has already taken his place in my personal pantheon…

And speaking of Irish writers…

I finally got around to Eimear McBride’s sophomore offering, THE LESSER BOHEMIANS, this year. Though not as challenging, stylistically or emotionally, as her debut, A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING, it is nonetheless an impressive and affecting literary feat, proving she’s still one of the best writers currently out there. One could actually read LESSER BOHEMIANS as GIRL’S more approachable and optimistic sister novel, as both fearlessly depict a young girl’s sexual self-discovery opening a gateway to a deeper existential need. But where GIRL was grueling, grim, and grief-stricken, LESSER BOHEMIANS, for all its naked honesty and eccentricity, is, at heart, an old-fashioned love story. Though, let it be said, a thoughtful and thoroughly earned one…

An entirely different kind of love story – or perhaps, more accurately, detachment story – can be found in Catherine Lacey’s THE ANSWERS. An ill and isolated New Yorker auditions for a psychology experiment/celebrity reality show called “The Girlfriend Experiment,” and finds herself lost in a haze of uncertain feelings, attachments, and memories in this dreamy, diaphanous examination of the ways in which the personal is being increasingly stripped of its humanity in our increasingly impersonal world…

My recent, unofficial, and appropriately non-committal study of Taoism continued this year with THE BOOK OF CHUANG TZU (aka THE ZHUANGZI). Its thirty-three chapters provide a vivid cross-section of how inspired ideas corrupt into something prescribed and systemic. The first seven chapters, called the Inner Chapters, are believed to be genuinely authored by Chuang Tzu, and they overflow with unconventional wisdom, mischievous humor, and subversive insights. Intended as satires of Confucianism as much as meditations on the Tao, it’s amazing how modern and challenging to various norms they still seem. The Outer Chapters, 8 through 22, were probably written by Chuang Tzu’s followers, and, for the most part, do little more than flesh out or restate the ideas presented in the Inner Chapters, but with all the wit and flair you would expect from a committee of disciples. The Mixed Chapters, 23 to 33, are a mixed bag. Authored by who the fuck knows, some get close to the piercing parables of the first seven, but they still seem to be in service of an established set of ideas. Not that there’s anything especially doctrinaire about Taoism. It is, by definition, devoid of dogma. It’s just that parroted and paraphrased enlightenment can’t help but lose some of its lustre. Those first seven, though…

And speaking of challenging norms…

Sam Harris’ FREE WILL delivers a compact and concise demolition of its titular concept, while John Bargh’s BEFORE YOU KNOW IT entertainingly describes the scientific research and experimentation that support an embrace of neuropsychological determinism. Bargh’s not a determinist, himself, reserving a limited belief in human volition, but as he, himself, notes, if you refuse to acknowledge the ways in which your actions and decisions are influenced by external factors, you will forever be a slave to them. Or, to put it another way, maintaining a belief in free will might be the best way to ensure you don’t have any. In any case, if, after reading these, you don’t find yourself questioning your subjective experience of choice, you should probably, at the very least, question your intellectual integrity…

Lewis Hyde’s TRICKSTER MAKES THIS WORLD is a thorough and artful survey of the trickster archetype in all its various manifestations across human culture, past and present. Equal parts exploration and celebration, it’s essential for anyone who, like me, takes a particular interest in the topic. Hyde acts as anthropologist, historian, storyteller, critic, psychologist, and shaman, expounding eloquently on every facet of this complex and often troublesome trope. Some of his associations may occasionally seem to be stretches, but the patterns he observes and portraits he paints are, like the trickster archetype itself, indelible.

And, finally, Kenneth Burke’s PHILOSOPHY OF LITERARY FORM is a collection of essays that, taken as a whole, presage his conception of dramatism, which he would lay out fully in his following work, A GRAMMAR OF MOTIVES, but that are each equally mind-blowing taken on their own. More than just a linguist and literary critic, Burke was a philosopher, and he expounds enlighteningly on everything from aesthetics to warfare to Freudian psychology, dissecting the role played by language, and the shaping of it, in every facet of our lives.

MOVIES…

I used to care about MOVIES…

I was never one of those irritating cinemaniacs who “tries to see everything.” That way, madness lies. (Besides, I maintain that, once you’re fluent enough in the medium and its many movers and shakers, there are films you don’t need to see to know what you think of them…) But there used to be a large number of filmmakers whose work I would eagerly watch and wait for (or, perhaps, vice-versa). I’d keep my eyes on press and previews for anything new that looked potentially interesting or exciting. And I’d lap up the Year End Lists of various critics, on the lookout for anything that might have escaped my attention…

To a degree, my methods haven’t changed.

But the number of filmmakers whose work I’m eager to see has dwindled to a happy few. The new films described by today’s press and previews as, “interesting and exciting,” tend not to look that way to me. (And on those occasions when I have taken their word for it and made the effort to check something out, I have most often been met with, if not disappointment, then, at least, something that lived down to my expectations.) And when I consume the critics’ Year End Lists, these days, I’m usually desperately seeking something… ANYTHING… that sounds like it might rehabilitate my burnout or break my boredom with an art form that used to be endlessly fascinating to me…

No, it’s not the superhero movies. I actually really enjoy the Marvel Universe…

Anyway, it’s true that my standards for film have always been… OK, maybe not especially high, but… singular. Rustling up ten to twenty films that I thought merited inclusion on a Year End List was always something of a challenge. But, today, I’m lucky if I can come up with five… I’m lucky if, in a given year, I actually SEE five…

Makes you wonder why I’m bothering to do this, at all, doesn’t it…?

At the very least, I can say that 2018 brought one of the most exciting film releases of my life, from an all-time favorite filmmaker, one that I have been eagerly anticipating for, literally, decades. I’m talking, of course, about Orson Welles’ THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, which, thanks to the dedicated efforts of Welles’ family, friends, and fans, was finally completed and released this year. (Now if only someone could dig up that long, lost cut of AMBERSONS…) Even if the film were no fucking good, it would be a milestone cinematic event. But not only is it good, it is – as you might expect – genius. Glorying in cinematic craft, while choking on loathing for Hollywood, the film takes place over a single night, depicting the birthday party of renowned studio filmmaker Jake Hannaford (John Huston). Shot in mockumentary style on multiple cameras using different stocks, the approach allows Welles to incorporate (and even further innovate) the rough and gritty shooting/editing styles that had become the hallmark of the young 1970’s upstarts who were bursting onto the scene, while also maintaining many of his own signature flourishes (overlapping dialogue, whiplash pans, expertly choreographed staging, etc.). We’re also given glimpses of Hannaford’s latest film, in which Welles wickedly satirizes the pretentions of self-consciously arty filmmakers, deflating their hollow grandeur with typically Welles-ian grandiosity. It’s never short of dazzling to watch, and invigorating to keep up with. But its greatest impact is in its tonality, which appropriately mirrors the arc of a Hollywood party: Buzzing with energy and wit at the beginning, then slowing as Welles peels back the protective poses and postures of his characters, revealing the festering frustrations and resentments underneath, before finally leaving them, at the end of the night, alone and wasted in the sour puddles of their ruined egos. It’s an unforgiving indictment of a culture that makes monsters that, in turn, make monstrosities, and it left me feeling sick and sad for days. But, like any Welles film, it’s one of the finest you’ll ever see. The sort of film that’s simultaneously ahead of its time, but that no one makes anymore.

Almost…

Alfonso Cuaron has long been one of the aforementioned happy few, whose work I have followed avidly for some years, but the empty exercise of 2013’s GRAVITY, I confess, left my faith a little dented. Thankfully, he has more than redeemed himself with ROMA, which is not only one of the best films of the last year, but of the last decade (that I’ve seen, anyway… Haha…). The title refers to the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City where the film takes place, but given the film’s black and white photography, proletarian sympathies, and Cuaron’s masterful ability to capture the rough rhythms of daily life, it might be tempting to see it additionally as an homage to Italian neorealist classics like Rosselini’s ROMA CITTA APERTA or Pasolini’s MAMA ROMA. The read would be misguided, however (and the association may be a playful, misleading wink on Cuaron’s part), because ROMA is less concerned with realism than reminiscence. Taking as its focus Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the live-in maid and nanny to a wealthy local family, ROMA is a deeply personal act of reverence and remembrance, in which Cuaron’s camera, far from being an objective spectator, functions instead as his mind’s eye, moving intently through his characters’ lives, creating sensual, evocative, often breathtaking images that reveal his intimate, if temporally removed, involvement. But ROMA is also much more than mere nostalgia. Cuaron, in fact, sidesteps easy sentiment at every turn. Not content to create a simple character study or family drama, he has instead created a vital portrait of an entire neighborhood, a city – a world, in fact. One that continues to pulse and breathe, even when existing outside the frame. At times, small, personal events in Cleo’s life seem to ripple outward, echoing in the lives of others, or in the movements of the city, itself. Planes constantly fly overhead in the background of numerous scenes, reminding us that life is something larger than any single moment and that it is constantly in motion. And, conversely, that what seems small and simple from a distance can become weighty and significant when experienced up close. ROMA doesn’t make Cleo the most important person in the world. It just makes her a person in the world – an active participant, whose life affects and impacts other lives, and is affected and impacted by them – and that is enough to make her essential. Written, directed, shot, and edited by Cuaron, himself, and dedicated to “Libo,” (Cuaron’s own live-in maid and nanny from childhood), ROMA is a true labor of love. (It’s worth noting that the title is also “amor” backwards.) It’s the sort of film you can’t believe got made in today’s cinematic climate. And it may be Cuaron’s masterpiece.

Brad Bird always insisted he wouldn’t make sequel to THE INCREDIBLES unless he felt it was equal to, or better than, the original. And with INCREDIBLES 2, he made good on that promise. The film literally picks up where the first film left off, continuing to tweak superhero conventions, while further developing the Parr family dynamic in recognizable and relatable ways. As in the first film, the hero/villain conflict raises worthwhile questions (uncomfortable even for some adults), this time about our willingness to make ourselves reliant to the point of dependency on everything from technology, to corporations, to self-proclaimed heroes…

And speaking of superheroes…

I want to take a moment to commend the Russo Bros. and AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR for toying narratively and thematically with the notion of Thanos as the film’s protagonist, while also chastising them for lacking the courage of their conception and not following through on it. Also, for making an epic team-up that, thanks, in part, to their lack of resolve, was neither as epic, nor as entertaining as it should have been. (I’ll also just add, for those who are wondering, that, unlike everyone else, I found BLACK PANTHER to be a pretty average entry in the franchise, whose last real high-water mark remains last year’s THOR: RAGNAROK…)

But speaking of chastising…

Spike Lee and Paul Schrader are two more filmmakers I cherish among my happy few, so I was excited to see their two latest offerings – BLACKkKLANSMAN and FIRST REFORMED, respectively – roundly praised by critics and included on a significant number of year end lists. Imagine my disappointment…

(Because I know everyone’s favorite part of these Year End retrospectives is when I get all contrarian about widely celebrated films…)

It’s not that BLACKkKLANSMAN is a bad film. (Spike Lee has done far worse…) It’s just not especially good. (He’s also done far better…) My objections to it are not, like Boots Riley’s, political or historical, but aesthetic. (Though, in this case, the true story of Ron Stallworth may have had more dramatic potential than the – sorry about this – whitewash we’re presented with…) Its biggest problem is that it’s a flat, uninteresting film that can’t quite decide what it wants to be and, as a result, ends up being not much at all. Not funny enough to be a comedy, but not dramatic enough to be a drama, certainly not daring, provocative, or experimental enough to be a showcase for Lee’s singular talents, it’s almost impossible to engage with on any level. The performances are solid all around, but no one is really given much to work with. Possibilities for conflict or complexity are quickly glossed over, leaving a weak narrative about two earnest, capable cops infiltrating a racist secret society made up almost entirely of incompetent, monomaniacal buffoons. At one point, Adam Driver’s Flip questions whether the Klan poses enough of a threat to be worth their time. The way Lee presents them, it’s hard not to feel like he has a point…

FIRST REFORMED is basically a retread of TAXI DRIVER, in which, rather than a lonely, alienated war vet driven to the edge by the urban disease of vice and criminality he finds himself immersed in daily, we are given a lonely, alienated priest driven to the edge by an ecological anxiety that infects him in the aftermath of a parishioner’s suicide. (Oh… spoilers…) The film is not without its qualities. Ethan Hawke’s performance as the priest in question, Father Toller, is a career zenith, and there are aspects of emotional deterioration that no one captures quite as effectively as Schrader. The problem here is that Schrader is too close to the material and he lacks both the technique and the perspective that Scorsese brought to TAXI DRIVER, which kept it from descending into either self-parody or DEATH WISH-style hysteria (if, in fact, those are different things…). Scorsese allows us to identify with Travis Bickle, but also to laugh at him, and there are plenty of moments in the film when we find ourselves wanting to laugh and cry simultaneously. We feel his pain, while also recognizing the tragic absurdity of his situation. Schrader, by contrast, presents FIRST REFORMED with deadly seriousness, and the laughs – more than a few, I’m sorry to say – are entirely unintentional. The film’s final moments are enough to make you want to throw something at the screen…

So, why the widespread praise for these uneven mediocrities…? My theory is that Lee and Schrader, two filmmakers celebrated for their willingness to confront their audiences with uncomfortable and unpleasant truths, have finally delivered a pair of “feel good” movies.

“WHAT…!?!” I hear you saying, “Feel good movies…!?!”

OK. What they’ve really done is invented a new kind of “feel good” movie that is, perhaps, better described as a, “feel good about feeling bad,” movie. BLACKkKLANSMAN panders to the anti-Trump hysterics with its insinuation (if something so pedantic can be called an insinuation) that David Duke’s master plan was an unmitigated success, and he finally got one of his own into the White House. There are a ton of worthy (and even convincing) arguments asserting that, whatever formal history might say, the South was the true victor in the Civil War, and that the U.S. government is a white supremacist hothouse. But BLACKkKLANSMAN is not one of them. It’s just designed to reinforce the momentary self-righteous panic of its intended audience. Similarly, while climate change and environmentalism are not FIRST REFORMED’s focus, narratively or thematically, it does didactically rattle off a lot of relevant facts in an effort to sanctify its protagonist’s noble disintegration, sparing the audience any moral uncertainty. I’m not saying that the actual facts in the environmental case aren’t clear. I’m saying that moral Manichaeism makes for poor drama and shrill, self-serious melodrama. And that, rather than challenging or unsettling their audiences, as they so often have in the past, Lee and Schrader have contented themselves with comfortably affirming their trendy outrage and despair.

MUSIC is all we have left…

I love writing about music… Probably because I don’t know anything about it…

More than any other art form, music is my most consistent source of solace, catharsis, and inspiration, but, much to my dismay, I’ve never shown any aptitude for it. As a result, when I listen to something, I can give only superficial consideration to questions of craft or technique. Sometimes I kid myself that I can recognize talent or ability when I hear it, but years of trying (and failing) to play various instruments, write songs, etc. have proven to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that sometimes what sounds easy is actually extremely challenging and vice-versa. So, in the end, the only critical criteria I possess when it comes to evaluating music is what it sounds like and what it conjures up in me…

And some might say that’s the whole point. I don’t know…

But the whole point of this is just to say that this will probably the longest and least aesthetically literate section of this retrospective. (Did I say the BOOKS section would be the most self-indulgent…? Hmmm…)

Lucky you…

By far, the single record that has spent the most time on my turntable this year (or, it would be if I bought records and owned a turntable) – the album that I have gotten the most out of, let’s say – has been ZEAL & ARDOR’s “STRANGER FRUIT.” Manuel Gagneux conceived of ZEAL & ARDOR in 2014 in response to a flippant challenge he received on 4chan, and created the world’s first Black Metal/Negro Spiritual fusion outfit. ZEAL & ARDOR’s 2016 debut, “DEVIL IS FINE,” recorded entirely by Gagneux on his laptop, showed promise, but was really an EP in disguise: a handful of knockout songs counterweighted by unfocused instrumental filler. “STRANGER FRUIT” both makes good on the promise of its predecessor and corrects its errors, and the result is dynamite. Possessing all the infernal ferocity of any Black Metal band, but also driven by Gospel passions and Blues melodies, each song is, all at once, terrifying, infectious, cathartic, galvanizing, even – dare I say…? – soulful. (Added bonus: unlike MAYHEM, you can sing along!) Even the quieter instrumental tracks are imbued with purpose, adding to the, by turns, hellish and haunted ambiance. But it’s not just the music that’s irresistible. With “STRANGER FRUIT,” Gagneux has crafted an alt-universe narrative that asks a provocative question: What if African slaves had embraced Satanism rather than Christianity? The answer plays out in fire and blood over the course of the album’s 16 tracks (I can’t listen to “Ship on Fire” without thinking of the slave revolt spurred by Orlando Jones’ Anansi in the first season of AMERICAN GODS), but its implications – obvious to anyone familiar with the ways in which Christianity was used, for centuries, to justify slavery and repress revolt – are left hanging, unsettlingly, like strange fruit…

But speaking of liberation…

While the rest of world continues to have orgasms over Kamasi Washington (who is, let it be said, a damn fine sax player), I remain riveted to BINKER & MOSES and their unique brand of semi-free jazz. Where their 2015 debut “DEM ONES” was taut, tight, and spare, their 2017 follow-up, “JOURNEY TO THE MOUNTAIN OF FOREVER” saw them stretch out into near epic territory. And this year’s live recording, “ALIVE IN THE EAST?” captures the best of both worlds, keeping the expanded instrumentation (two saxes, two drum sets, trumpet, and harp(!)) and the elemental/mythic explorations of their sophomore effort, while delivering a focused, hypnotic set that, like their debut, pushes out to the free fringes while remaining rooted – thanks, in large part, to Boyd’s breathtaking rhythmic command – in searing, soulful grooves. If “DEM ONES,” in its sax-and-drums minimalism, recalled Coltrane’s “INTERSTELLAR SPACE,” here, the no-longer-really-a-duo’s ecstatic collaboration brings to mind nothing so much as a latter-day “ASCENSION.” The inventive interplay between the five musicians is never short of Promethean, which seems more than appropriate given that the track titles suggest “ALIVE IN THE EAST?” as a musical creation myth. If any jazz ensemble can conjure a universe from their sound, it’s these guys…

But speaking of Coltrane…

It’s been a good year for unearthing lost works of genius. (Two of my favorite geniuses, in fact…) In addition to getting Welles’ OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, 2018 also saw the release of two “new” albums from JOHN COLTRANE, each capturing him at a different point of creative transformation…

BOTH DIRECTIONS AT ONCE is assembled from sessions recorded by the classic Quartet (Coltrane, pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, and bassist Jimmy Garrison) in March of 1963. The title – likely chosen by Impulse! this year – is an apt one, as it finds the Quartet trying to balance the unbounded explorations of their live shows (best captured, perhaps, on THE COMPLETE 1961 VILLAGE VANGUARD RECORDINGS) with the more approachable sound urged by Impulse! on their studio recordings from that period. The Quartet were a little over a year away from the creative burst that would result in CRESCENT, and then A LOVE SUPREME, and while the music here never reaches that pitch of brilliance, it’s fascinating and rewarding to listen to four such incredibly gifted musicians search and struggle (the often underappreciated Garrison, in particular, gets a fine showing). The two untitled tracks (Untitled Originals 11383 and 11386, respectively… Try referencing those in cocktail party conversation…) probably come closest to the synthesis the Quartet was seeking, while the four different versions of “Impressions,” are a vital cross-section of, not just a single composition, but an entire musical approach in a state of flux.

The tracks on MILES DAVIS & JOHN COLTRANE: THE FINAL TOUR, BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 6 have been available for years in various combinations and permutations, but Columbia finally gave them an official release this year, and even though these live recordings date from 1960, they’re still as mind-blowing today as they must have been then. Documenting three live shows – in Paris, Copenhagen, and Stockholm – these dates, as their title indicates, would be the last time Miles and Trane would play together. Coltrane had already left the Miles Davis Quintet, having recorded the seminal GIANT STEPS the year before, and he had no desire to return. Davis pled and Coltrane reluctantly relented, but insisted he would not go backwards and would play as he was, not as he had been. The results, ranging from jarring to jaw-dropping, are a reminder that even the saintly Coltrane could be contentious when pushed, and that Davis, the uncompromising visionary, was always willing to allow his players their creative freedom. The Paris concert, in particular, shows Coltrane in shockingly aggressive form, challenging the audience and the Quintet, alike, with his wild excursions. The audience can even be heard arguing about him between numbers. By Copenhagen and Stockholm, the frictions seemed to have subsided somewhat. Coltrane is a little more relaxed, and the Quintet has found ways to accommodate him, but the entire box set makes for electrifying listening. There’s even a brief radio interview with Coltrane where he talks a little bit about where he’s at creatively and gives a shout out to fellow tenor genius Sonny Rollins…

But speaking of shockingly aggressive…

Every bit as brutal as “STRANGER FRUIT,” and no less accomplished, is DAUGHTERS’ triumphant don’t-call-it-a-comeback-because-we’re-all-going-to-die album, “YOU WON’T GET WHAT YOU WANT.” A harrowing, evocative record that sounds like nothing less than the soundtrack to the post-apocalypse, it’s not that it’s assaultively paced (though it has its moments) or features wall-to-wall shrieks and wails – DAUGHTERS long ago left any adherence to grindcore orthodoxy in the dust. But, while it could never be described as delicate, “YOU WON’T GET WHAT YOU WANT” is actually a remarkably textured and atmospheric record – almost ambient, at times – using its vivid builds and blasts to paint a desolate, damaged landscape. Percussive bursts echo like stray machine-gun fire, guitars cut through throbbing bass lines with siren-like urgency, and Alexis S.F. Marshall’s strained baritone suggests civilization’s final emergency radio broadcasts. There’s a prodigious amount of musicianship on display, but always in service of the album’s larger, bleaker vision, steering clear of self-indulgence, and becoming something much more – overwhelmingly, at times – than the sum of its parts.

Washington, D.C.’s RED HARE and Oakland’s SUPER UNISON keep the hardcore punk spirit alive without succumbing to the stagnancy that’s so often a by-product of the genres rigid strictures. The pugilistic power chords that punctuate RED HARE’s “LITTLE ACTS OF DESTRUCTION” are slashed through by guitarist Jason Farrell’s dissonant, angular riffs, mirroring the call-and-response vocal pattern of Shawn Brown’s grizzly wails and Farrell’s sardonic retorts. Brown and Farrell were founding members of the seminal (though underappreciated at the time) D.C. hardcore band SWIZ, but their efforts with RED HARE are no mere retread or nostalgia exercise. Their riffs and rhythms come colored by the musical careers they’ve enjoyed in the interim, injecting post-hardcore’s rhythmic and tonal innovations back into their roots. Similarly, on their second full-length, “STELLA,” SUPER UNISON’s Meghan O’Niel Pennie might shout and shriek with the best of her hardcore forbears, but churning and swirling beneath her howls are layered instrumental harmonies, shifting tempos, and melodic – sometimes, even delicate – guitar riffs reminiscent of nothing so much as 90’s alternative (in a good way). On “Comfort,” they even offer up what can only be described as a hardcore ballad, Pennie’s screams taking on the character of an impassioned plea. Both bands show that there’s still room to stretch within the confines of the genre, and rank alongside WESTERN ADDICTION and WHITE LUNG as the very best it has to offer.

And EMINEM dropped his surprise album “KAMIKAZE,” a dizzying dive-bomb aimed directly at the heart of our nation of scolds. It’s been interesting to note the fidgety response to the record, as critics and audiences have tied themselves in knots arguing that the album’s unapologetic offensiveness should be grounds for its dismissal, while barely touching on the fact that it’s Eminem’s fiercest and most focused effort since “THE MARSHALL MATHERS LP.” It’s not just his blistering feats of flow or whiplash wordplay, as he mercilessly lays waste, often at lightning speed, to anyone who’s recently had anything unkind to say about him. His production has also steadily improved over the years, and seems carefully calibrated here to provide sonic texture and stylistic variety to an album that is, on its surface, blindingly fast and furious. But, of course, there’s always more to Eminem than what’s apparent on the surface, and “KAMIKAZE” does possess moments of genuine introspection, however disguised. The misogynist finger-pointing in the blackly comic “Normal” is deliberately staged as a front for his own feelings of shame, confusion, and guilt about his relationship history. And “Stepping Stone,” far from being a mere nostalgia trip, contains a genuinely mournful apology at its core. Yes, the album’s overall attitude is puerile, arrogant, vulgar, and violent, but whether the politically correct gatekeepers of our society like it or not, that’s the mode in which Eminem’s remarkable talents have often found their most piercing expression. As any audit of art history will reveal, artists and their artistry have often been deemed socially unacceptable and even culturally corrosive, because truthful artistic expressions frequently demand that the artist embrace the value in what society considers offensive and objectionable. We often want to celebrate their talent, while simultaneously seeking to “tame” them, overlooking the fact that a wholesome, culturally conformed artist would be, like everyone else, too repressed to express anything genuinely truthful. To refuse to acknowledge that expressions of rage, ego, aggression and provocation can be powerful, inspiring, and even beautiful – to call a dramatic return to form like “KAMIKAZE” a “regression” – is not criticism, but a dishonest act of moral desperation.

And speaking of dark arts…

IHSAHN’S latest, “AMR,” might be described as the INLAND EMPIRE to the MULHOLLAND DRIVE of 2016’s exceptional “ARKTIS.” His focus on song craft is still in evidence, but as the album’s title indicates, the overall guiding vision is darker and less approachable. That’s not a bug (especially when discussing the work of a Black Metal icon), it’s a feature, as it’s never less than fascinating to hear mainstream musical elements deployed in service of something so uncompromisingly grim. On the Black Metal flipside, SIGH frontman, Mirai Kawashima, worried publicly that the band’s latest, “HEIR TO DESPAIR” would be too personal and idiosyncratic for fans to enjoy. Of course, anyone who knows the band knows that unpredictability is an essential part of their creative signature, and in that respect, “HEIR TO DESPAIR” fits perfectly within their catalogue. Though not as grandly theatrical as 2015’s “GRAVEWARD,” much of it sounds like the SIGH we know and love. The new twists and turns, such as the inclusion of traditional Japanese melodies and instrumentation, or the psychedelic synth-driven trilogy, “Heresies,” are not only welcome innovations, but serve to add a sense of intimacy (for SIGH) and make “HEIR TO DESPAIR” their most intriguing listen since “IMAGINARY SONICSCAPE.”

But speaking of unpredictable twists and turns…

Though the title of SONS OF KEMET’s Impulse! debut, “YOUR QUEEN IS A REPTILE,” makes it sound like a harsh indictment, the music contained within is nothing short of exultant. An irresistible synthesis of sounds, dual drummers Seb Rochford and Tom Skinner, along with Theon Cross on tuba, lay down a blend of Afro-Cuban and Brass Band grooves, while leader and reed player Shabaka Hutchings preaches and wails through his sax in a variety of styles, as the spirit moves him. There’s even some spoken word poems/raps on a handful of tracks, courtesy of Joshua Idehen and Congo Natty. What’s remarkable is how organic – and infectious – all these disparate elements become when brought together, unifying in what the track titles reveal are not a series of condemnations, but counter-celebrations, each an ode to an iconic black woman the ensemble has chosen to honor as their Queen.

A similar synthesis of disparate sounds, though more melancholic and avant-garde, can be found on AMBROSE AKINMUSIRE’s “ORIGAMI HARVEST.” Akinmusire teams with the classical Mivos String Quartet and rapper Kool AD to create a series of moody meditations on America and moving memorials to black lives unjustly lost. Throughout, Akinmusire is often content to step back and allow the Quartet to carry the major portion of the music, his trumpet less a lead instrument than a haunting presence, momentarily materializing, then fading away. Simultaneously caustic and delicate, those looking for anything resembling a traditional jazz album will be disconcerted initially, and “ORIGAMI HARVEST” can make for forbidding listening. But such daring explorations are not only the essence of jazz, as in this case, they often pack a powerful, poignant punch.

And speaking of poignancy…

EMMA RUTH RUNDLE made no secret of the fact that the writing and recording of 2016’s “MARKED FOR DEATH” was so physically and emotionally taxing, it nearly killed her. And as anyone who has heard that album knows, the anguish and the stakes were viscerally palpable. Few albums can boast its level of intensity or emotional impact. Her follow-up, “ON DARK HORSES,” finds her psyche and her songwriting on firmer ground, and as a result, has left me struggling with myself. Like all her work, “ON DARK HORSES” is a heavy, haunting, beautifully crafted album, more than worthy of praise. In many ways, it’s a more controlled and disciplined album than “MARKED FOR DEATH.” But, as such, would it be fair of me, as a fan or a critic, to suggest that there might be something missing…? It seems shortsighted and selfish to demand – or even request – that our beloved artists destroy themselves for their art. And when I read that Rundle had kindled a revitalizing romance with JAY JAYLE’s Evan Patterson (the pair duet on the tellingly titled “Light Song,” which is one of the album’s most beautiful tracks, reminiscent of Rundle’s best work with THE NOCTURNES), I was genuinely happy for her. (Or, you know, as genuinely happy as a person gets for someone they know only through their artistic output.) But as lush and brilliant as “ON DARK HORSES” is, it simply doesn’t punch me in the gut, crawl inside me, hollow me out, and leave me heaving the way “MARKED FOR DEATH” does. And, reading that back, I have to ask: Is that even a criticism…? And let’s say she HAD produced something as mercilessly cathartic as “MARKED FOR DEATH,” would doing so have somehow retroactively reduced its predecessor’s power and personal impact…? I don’t know. Perhaps we simply need to let an artist’s towering achievements stand, and not allow their long shadows to obscure that which might seem lesser only by comparison. To insist on anything more, even for an unforgiving critic like myself, would be… (sorry about this…) ruthless.

Finally, two different trios produced two very different, but equally exciting, instrumental albums this year. THE MESSTHETICS pairs Brendan Canty and Joe Lally, known primarily as Fugazi’s rocksteady backbone, with jazz/avant-garde guitarist Anthony Pirog, and the results, as documented on their self-titled debut, are as sensational as you’d expect. Canty and Lally haven’t lost a shred of their singular synergy in the years since Fugazi announced their hiatus, and given that their post-hardcore rhythmic stylings have always incorporated jazzy flights and flourishes, Pirog proves to be a perfect fit, seamlessly blending his own sound with theirs. Running the gamut from aggressive thrashers to angular, HOVERCRAFT-esque excursions, to quietly hypnotic meditations, some of the tracks might leave you pining for a Fugazi reunion (optimally with the new addition of Pirog on lead), but there’s no doubt that this trio is a force to be reckoned with on their own. And NIGHT VERSES, on their latest release, “FROM THE GALLERY OF SLEEP,” create such a thick, layered, spiraling sound, full of racing, snaky riffs and intricate percussion, it’s sometimes hard to believe there’s only three of them. Each distinctive track has its own ebb and flow, but there’s an oceanic fluidity to the album as a whole that carries you buoyantly over its tidal swells, as the trio gracefully flows in and out of numerous genres, from punk to prog to psychedelia, without ever sounding indulgent or unfocused. Though it’s tempting, at times, to try and untangle each track’s dense orchestrations, it’s best to just give yourself up to the journey.

Oh, did I say, “Finally…?”

Because, it’s true, that’s the music I found most interesting that was released THIS YEAR, but…

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the secret Facebook musical cosa nostra that I was inducted into last year… Or, I guess, year before last, now…

Normally, I don’t much like being a member of anything, but this is really sort of the musical equivalent of a book club (only with a lot of weird rites, rituals, and by-laws that it’s probably best I don’t get into), and while I don’t like book clubs, because I want to read what I want to read when I want to read it, and it usually takes me months, anyway, as I noted earlier, music is a little different because it’s not as much of a time commitment…

The point:

Thanks to this little group whose existence I’m not even supposed to speak of, I’ve made a couple of great discoveries this year…

The first is Australia’s KING GIZZARD AND THE LIZARD WIZARD. Now, I know what you’re thinking. But don’t let the name fool you: They’re EXACTLY what that name would lead you to believe. Namely, some unholy hybrid of FRANK ZAPPA, KING CRIMSON, and LED ZEPPELIN with a west coast punk rock fuel injector. If that doesn’t intrigue you, check out 2016’s “NONAGON INFINITY.” If that doesn’t do it for you, you’re probably hopeless, but you can also check out any of the five – that’s right, five – albums they released in 2017, including a sci-fi rock opera, a jazz collaboration, an album of microtonal explorations, and a more straightforward (for them) rock album released in the public domain. You might think five albums in a year would tax a band’s creativity. You’d be wrong. Every one of them is inventive, eccentric, and inspired. The only thing this band can’t do is stop…

But speaking of stopping…

This is the last bit. I swear.

But this one is also, far and away, the best and most important musical discovery I’ve made this year. And if you want to talk about coming late to the party…

I’ve always known ABOUT Nick Cave. I knew who he was. I had heard OF his band THE BAD SEEDS. Had I ever actually HEARD his band THE BAD SEEDS…? I don’t know. There’s a part of me that thinks, if I had, I would have climbed onboard a long time ago. But there’s also part of me that knows how erratically prejudicial I could be about music in my youth…

A few years ago, though, I read an article about a band called THE BIRTHDAY PARTY. This was apparently Nick Cave’s post-punk band before THE BAD SEEDS. And the terms the writer used to describe them were so incendiary – even apocalyptic – I figured I had to check them out. So, I picked up a couple of albums and they were… OK. I mean, I see what the guy was talking about, and they weren’t bad, but my overall feeling was, I’ll stick with THE GERMS…

Then I started watching PEAKY BLINDERS. (You might remember, I mentioned this a bit earlier…) The song used in the opening credits grabbed me immediately. A B-minor blues, with a vaguely Western edge that evoked – not the soundtrack, but the feel of – Eastwood’s darker cowboy movies, it was also spare and desolate, almost nihilistic, with threatening vocals, and a bell that rang like impending doom…

If you’ve seen the show, you’re more than familiar with “Red Right Hand”…

Over the course of the first season, it became clear that whoever did that song was all over the rest of the soundtrack like a bad rash, and I was really liking what I was hearing, so I looked it up. Lo, and behold…

By sheer coincidence, at this exact time, the top secret music group I’m a member of that I didn’t mention earlier was winding their way through Nick Cave’s entire discography. Now, according to the ancient bylaws, you’re supposed to go one album at a time, but who has time for that…? I put NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS’ three-decades-long catalogue on shuffle.

I listen to a lot of music. My taste is, if not catholic, at least eclectic. But you know how, every once in a while, a band or particular musical artist comes along who really hits you where you live…? Something in their music makes them seem like kindred spirits, or expresses things that feel very personal to you. You become obsessed, living for a time almost exclusively in their albums, learning as much about yourself as about them. You start carrying the music within you to such a degree you almost don’t need to listen to it anymore, but at the same time, it seems inexhaustible. Every time you put it on, you find something new…

A handful of artists have occupied – still occupy – that space in my life. But it very quickly became apparent that NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS would join their number.

It’s hard to sum up the musical style of such a feverishly creative band that has released 17 very different albums over more than thirty years. At root, NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS play a mix of Blues, Gospel, and Folk, but channeled through a chaotic, passionate, and poetic post-punk sensibility. Over the years, their sound has also picked up, as the inspiration strikes them, elements of pop, alternative, electronica, classical, and even – lyrically, at least – hip-hop (I’m fairly certain the violence and vulgarity found on some of the tracks on “MURDER BALLADS” is not only an homage to those real down and dirty blues songs from the past, but a deliberate response to the cultural and critical condemnations of gangster rap that were happening around the same time)…

Which brings us to Nick.

A baritone in the Jim Morrison tradition, but grittier and less polished, he can growl menacingly, croon beautifully, or howl at the moon like a lycanthropic Jerry Lee Lewis. As a front man, he’s a cross between a dark preacher and a punk poet. His lyrics often tell stories, in the folk tradition, frequently narrated from the perspectives of different characters. They can be wickedly witty and satirical, bleak and desolate, confrontational and provocative, or even delicate and romantic, depending on his mood, but there’s also always a mythic, sometimes even spiritual, undercurrent to them. In other words, he’s, all at once, the heir apparent to Jim Morrison, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Darby Crash…

To which, you all reply: “We know.”

Because it’s been thirty fucking years, and pretty much everybody was a fan before me, and I’m like the guy who shows up to his first day of film school going, “Hey, have you heard of this Scorsese guy…? I saw a couple of his films last night and…”

I get it.

But fuck you. NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS are mine now. In fact, I’m pretty sure they exist solely for me, at this point in my life, and the rest of you are just lucky hangers-on.

In any case, I’m done. Until next year, at least. Maybe forever. These things are always so exhausting… I’m gonna go listen to “DIG, LAZARUS, DIG!!!” again…

Here endeth…

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