Friday, February 27, 2015

Where I Was From

Flew back from SFO last night, a lemon in my pocket, blue bottle coffee beans tucked in my bag, reading Didion's Where I Was From (picked up at Books, Inc. - where I got a 10% discount for recommending - strongly - Adam Johnson's Orphan Master's Son to another customer).  Spending today in a coffee shop in Shaw, grading papers...  over-caffeinated.  But rolling..

Oh California.  Everything is warmer there, Joni.  There was a lemon tree on the property in Alameda - an incredible sight in late-February for a non-Californian.  

And what to say about SF?  There's an energy there, an attitude, that I find quite compelling (and a bit surreal).  A real city.  Incredible contrasts block to block.  Post-hearing, JS took me on a tour of his favorite spots.  Cocktail bars where I had variations on rye, savoring the zest..  huge overstuffed burritos and Negro Modelo.  Conversation stretching back 10 years..  the world of audio-visual archives still largely the same.

It was just a taste.  A slice.  And a thin one at that.  But I caught views of the hills.  The bay.  Cormorants drying their wings...

Didion's take on Cali is fascinating.  I read the White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem long ago and have always loved her voice.  Her direct, unflinching approach.  And that great liminal novel Play it as it Lays.  Where I Was From fits neatly into Stegner, interestingly enough..    and after reading the discussion in WIWF, I now want to read Norris' The Octopus...

Monday, February 16, 2015

Inherent Vice

This space has been quiet for a while.  Perhaps too long.  Another trip to St. Louis squeezed in there somewhere.  And off to sweet Alameda next week for a hearing.  Motion due tomorrow.  I measure my days in coffee spoons.

At a seminar last week Bryan Garner suggested we write more letters.  Sound advice.  And what he said is also true - if you can write a good letter, you can write anything.

I got out Sgt. Pepper's tonight for no particular reason (other than I tried to sing "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" earlier and couldn't remember the words)..  And it's amazing how much comes back.  Those afternoons as a kid in front of the speakers, tucked behind the La-Z-Boy in the living room.  Sifting the stacks of my dad's vinyl.  Now that same copy in my hand here.  On a snowy DC night...

So I finished Inherent Vice the other day.  And it was much better than the film (which I also liked).  My first Pynchon and full of these levels of paranoia.  It's easy to disappear down the rabbit holes - the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, ARPAnet, the Golden Fang.   Nothing is real, as the Beatles might say.  Or rather, it all is - and you soak in what you can.  As though by pushing the hyperbole to the edge he arrives at something you don't get to by playing it safe.  That said, it wasn't particularly easy to read.  Or follow..  but c'est la vie say the old folks.

Now reading Rivka Galchen's story collection and I stumbled across this story ("The Entire Northern Side Was Covered With Fire") on the X2 this morning.  I remember reading it in the New Yorker back in that 20 under 40 issue in 2010 - and loving it.  But somehow it struck me today.  Fresh.  There's a richness, a tautness, to every word - and she manages to pull it all off without it seeming writerly:
“Men like me,” I said, hand on the belly that housed a being of unknown gender. “They really do. Just yesterday a man stopped me on the sidewalk to ask me if I was Italian.” 
“Who was talking about not liking you? You’re just in pain.” 
“Maybe I’m not in pain.” 
“I’d put my money on pain. It’s the Kantian sublime, what you’re experiencing. There’s your life, and then you get a glimpse of the vastness of the unknown all around that little itty-bitty island of the known.” 
A silence ate at the air in the room. Sublime. I thought of it as a flavor. Maybe related to Key lime. I didn’t know what the Kantian sublime was.
And yeah.  When I was in London last summer I asked for Galchen's (then-new) short story collection at W.H. Smith and the clerk was flummoxed.  I referenced her novel (the great, but somewhat surreal, Atmospheric Disturbances) and she told me, after searching the computer, that they had once had one copy - but they'd returned it unsold.

It goes to show you never can tell.

Dylan in Baltimore in April.  And there should be so much more, not of orange, of words..   More later.  Including thoughts on Wild and NW and Rhiannon Giddens and Shadows in the Night.  And so much more.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Three Become One - Yeezus in Pieces

This has been in draft for about a year, if not longer.  I finally polished it up a bit and feel like I should post it before a new album comes out.. 
But the balance of a meal is that when people walk in, they want water first. People definitely weren't getting water first on Yeezus.  - Kanye

So, perhaps from an objective perspective, I listen to Yeezus far too often.  It came out in the summer of 2013, when I first arrived in drizzly early-summer Paris.  And something about it resonated deeply with me at that moment.  Walking and riding my Velib along those rain-slicked streets in a gauzy bubble of language-displacement. 

First off, Lou Reed is exactly right.  It's an album that's thrilling sonically.  The lyrics are thrown-off and unpolished at times and often juvenile.  Though he'll catch you at times both with his humor and his intelligence.  The biblical references ("After all these long ass verses / you're tired / I'm tired / Jesus wept.").  The sharp insights into human nature.  The anatomy of a failing relationship ("How you gonna lie to the lawyers / are you trying to destroy us?").  Of a man flailing in a world just inside, and out of, his control.  Not that he's the next Joni Mitchell (who tackles all of the above in mystifying depth, from all sides).  But he's soaked a lot in - and puts it back out, recontextualized and raw and startlingly beautifully at times.

And second, Yeezus is, in many ways, a continuation of My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy.  The protagonist on MDBTF's most revealing songs (All of the Lights, Runaway, Blame Game, Lost in the World) is quite similar to the protagonist in Part II of Yeezus.  A man floating between worlds.  Liminal.  Lost.  Frustrated.  Exhilarated. Angry.  Sad.   Shattered and rebuilding.  

But Yeezus strips away some of the narrative protections on the MDBTF songs.  The man who loses custody of kids in All of the Lights ("Restraining order / can't see my daughter / Her mother, brother, grandmother hate me in that order / Public visitation / we met at Borders") is part of a narrative that's several steps away from Kanye's own person(a) (though I've always loved how he turns Borders into an actual border).  It's a Fantasy (albeit one that's Beautiful and Twisted and Dark).  Yeezus is not.  It's viscerally real like a Bolano novel. 

The more I listen to Yeezus, the more I get.  The more I want.  The more I hear.  And I've come to think that the album makes the most sense when seen as three loosely-related clusters of songs, each carrying a separate emotional coherence (more than a pure narrative one) and a distinct statement. 

Part I - "As soon as they like you, make 'em unlike you.."

On Sight
Black Skinhead
I am a God
New Slaves

The first third of the trilogy is an assault - musically, lyrically, thematically.  It's a call to revolution.  A fuck-you.  That opening sound, a synth-buzz is deliberately grating but resolves musically into a rhythmic distorted staccato through-line that breaks disjointedly.  The first words - aggressive, swaggering, boisterous, tossed-off.  But then, after the first verse and refrain he asks "How much do I not give a fuck?" and everything stops.  Silence. Beat. Then a chorus comes in over a warm, lush, sampled old-school beat - "He gives us what we need.  It may not be what we want."  Worlds opened sonically.  But as soon as the sky opens, it closes.  He's playing with texture.  With sound.  Collage.  And he'll do it over and over again for the next 40 minutes.

Then on to Black Skinhead (with that Gary Glitter beat) and breathless, gasping, shouted lyrics.  There's something manic here - driving.  Angry.  It's a revolutionary song.  The references to the "black kids in Chiraq," the fears of middle-class America  With his "leather black jeans on / [his] by-any-means on."   .And while he's always been political, he used to do it with a dash of humor ("I'm like the fly Malcom X / buy any jeans necessary" - Good Morning (Graduation, 2007)).  Here, it's on.  He's not holding back.  And he no longer cares what you think.  Which makes him both fearless and frightening.   The song ends with Kanye repeating "God" in exasperation, frustration, then resignation which fades perfectly into..

I am a God is the closest there is to a Part II song in Part I.  A brag so far over the top that it falls into (intentional) moments of self-parody of entitlement ("In a French-ass restaurant / hurry up with my damn croissants").  But what matters is the sound.  It opens with a reggae sample underneath a heartbeat with flashes of staccato.  It's as if On Sight came back, slowed down.  Then the intensity picks up - "as soon as they like you / make 'em unlike you."  The struggle of pushing forward creatively, but trying to do so inside a bubble of privilege and entitlement.  Another verse, then the screams.  Visceral, unhinged, but, at this point somewhat restrained.  Pointing forward to Part II.  Then Justin Vernon's voice floating on the outro...

The opening beat of New Slaves is simple, a descending base-line.  Seductive yet aggressive.  Then stripped down to its most essential elements.  References to "Blood on the Leaves" point forward to Part II, but the overall theme here is political again - references to private prisons ("the DEA teamed up with the CCA") and he's ready to tear shit down.  It's revolution.  It's aggression.  Ending with the ultimate mic-drop: "What the fuck you gonna do now?"  But then it breaks wide open at the end with Frank Ocean's falsetto soaring, we're back in wide-open space, floating over a sample from a 70's Hungarian rock band..  which pulls us right into Part II. 

Part II - "I can't handle no liquor"

Hold My Liquor
I'm in It
Blood on the Leaves
Guilt Trip

Coming out of the end of New Slaves, Justin Vernon's voice floats, hesitant - "I can handle my liquor" - but you know he can't.  And then tough-guy Chief Keef slides in, confirming your suspicions, sounding vulnerable - "I can't handle no liquor" - then going further, deeper - "You say you know me... / but you really just know the old me."  He's losing control.  Just barely, it's slipping.  A fast-heart beat synth..  then Kanye jumps in, telling a story in one quick verse.  He's waking up out of a coma.  But this isn't the monster coming alive again.  This time he's aware of the damage caused.  He's sorry.  He's confused.  He's lost.  Hung over.  With cravings.  And his girlfriend is getting advice to end it ('he's just a late night organ donor").  But at least he's out of his coma.   And then the song just floats.  A swirling mix of sounds, synths rising, pulsing- that fast heart-beat underneath it all.


And then we land hard.  I'm in It is straight seduction (if you can call it that).  Raw, vulgar.  But there's Justin Vernon's voice floating underneath it.  And Assassin jumps in with his dancehall Jamaican flow, and then Kanye and Vernon take the middle of the song and we're back in lushness punctuated by intensity. 

But the heart of the whole album is Blood on the Leaves.  Opening with just a piano and it's Nina Simone's plaintive voice - "Strange fruit hanging, from the poplar trees..."  Not Billie Holiday's version - but there's still a quaver in her voice.  It's arresting.  A beat and Kanye's in.  He needs to clear his mind.  A slight auto-tune warble, mirroring the Simone sample punctuating the background.  It's falling apart - his relationship.  His marriage.  "We could have been somebody."  He goes back - "to the first party."  Playing it all over.  "You were screaming that you loved me" / "remember we were so young."  But something strange is happening.  And he's trying to understand it.  Then the killer lines:

Before you call all the lawyers
Before you try to destroy us
How you gonna lie to the lawyers?
Are you trying to destroy us?

Then a shift.  He's angry now - lashing out.  Slightly funny lines about alimony - the same themes from Gold Digger ("win the superbowl / drive off in a Hyundai) - but it's darker now.  Real. 

And it shifts again.  The outro.  He's resigned.  You "live and learn."  Living.  Lonely..   an entire relationship, an entire life, charted out in a beautiful arc.  This feels real.  And it takes me straight back to walking the cobblestones on the quay next to the Seine.  Floating.

Part III - "Rock Forever 21 but just turned thir-ty"

Send it Up
Bound 2

Remember how you liked the old Kanye's jokes?  The intelligence?  The references?  Well here they are.  But he's not going to make it easy.. 

Send it Up as Lou Reed notes, has the great Beenie Man at the beginning asking that incredible question and answer - "Relivin the past?  Your loss!"  He's moving on.  Classic Kanye quips - the club, rising again.  Clever and funny, but taut and aggressive.  That hard-synth beat fades to Beenie singing the rest of "Memories" - they don't live like people do..   hung over a bit from the emotions of Blood on the Leaves.

And what to say about Bound 2?  It's a great sample.  But somehow feels unfinished to me.  People latched onto this song as a throwback to the old Kanye - and it is and it isn't.  Some generally funny lines.  A love song, of sorts.  And that video?  It feels like misdirection after the soul baring.  Starting over, pushing forward.  "I know you're tired of loving / with nobody to love."  The tentativeness of something new ("we made it to Thanksgiving / maybe we'll make it to Christmas").  And the last real couplet - "After all these long-ass verses / I'm tired / You're tired / Jesus wept."  That's the closest you'll get to seeing Kanye cry.