20 September 2010

Closer to "Closer"

I wrote this during summer 2007 for the alma mater's literary journal, but it was never published.

After I had purchased a copy of Joy Division’s Closer, I’d had it pegged as the most depressing record that I’d ever heard. It wasn’t just that the album represented the end of Ian Curtis. Beyond that context, the record still felt horribly distant and ghostly. Still, this was his last word as a proper Joy Division record. The white album sleeve hardly felt like the liberating light of heaven. It felt like oblivion. I had only been a Joy Division fan because they were exciting. I wasn’t into Joy Division for the suffering; I was there for the beauty. Different feelings came into play after listening to the album. Obviously, “Atrocity Exhibition” was no match for “Disorder”. The song was downbeat and strange; it was hardly the dark rush and exciting blast of energy that had begun Unknown Pleasures. I was disappointed. Ending a record with a song like “Decades” would make anyone think that they’ve heard the most depressing rock music ever. Feeling lost and confused, I had thought that there would be a song like “Atmosphere” to close the album. At the least, I’d expected Closer to be catchy yet haunting like “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. It didn’t hook me as the first album had done. I left the room minutes into “Atrocity Exhibition”. Returning later, I heard more of the same distance and defeat and soon left again. “Heart and Soul” came on and I was finished listening. I had to get away from that album. Letting the room clear, I didn’t return until “Decades” was playing. I sat down and stayed. When the song had finished, I was quite intrigued. I wanted to know why the whole album couldn’t be as good as that one song. I didn’t want to return to the album just yet, though. It was still too much to take again and still far too depressing for me so it sat alone, unheard for a few months.

Later one evening last month I decided that I needed some quiet music. I hadn’t heard Closer since that first attempt so I decided to listen to it again. Trying to keep the almost certain mood of depression to follow at arm’s length, I turned the volume down. Better safe than sorry. It’s not that the shadows of the instruments were the depressing parts of the album. It was just that voice which I feared. It called to me like the worst ghost from “Dead Souls”. However, I was able to ignore that sound and concentrate on the rhythms of the music. The sounds and patterns of Joy Division always hypnotized me and excited my mind. This was the key to appreciating the album. It turned out that the album wasn’t depressing at all. Instead, it was just moodier and more melancholy. Surprisingly, when I listened to it again more loudly, Curtis’ voice sounded fuller and more engaged. He sounded like a man trying to hold on rather than giving up and leaving. The voice was only scary because it sounded as if it’d transcended emotion. As Paul Morley has observed, it sounded as if Curtis was already dead. Uninflected and distant, it felt like a terrible haunting. Was it haunting anything? Was it just my imagination? It turned out that something was haunting Curtis. I soon realized something new. The record was an obsessive examination of psychic withdrawal and pained resignation.

Unlike Unknown Pleasures, there are no tortured cries on Closer. Actually, Unknown Pleasures is incredibly enjoyable until you get to the final song, “I Remember Nothing”. The preceding song “Interzone” is quite without warning raucous and enjoyable like an Iggy Pop song, but then unexpectedly “I Remember Nothing” comes along and cuts off those feelings. “I Remember Nothing” is depressing, uncomfortable, and nakedly autobiographical. That song paves the way for Closer. It reveals the personal struggles troubling Curtis at the time and also the later ones to be revealed in “Colony” and “Passover”.

When I listened to it again, and more closely, I found that Closer was not as distant and ghostly as I’d thought. If anything, the mix grounded it more realistically while the guitar playing was more muscular and efficient than I’d previously heard. (‘Colony’ and ‘Twenty Four Hours’ were particularly strong.) It felt very much like I was hearing the album again for the very first time – which in some manner I actually was. There were songs like “A Means To An End” and “Twenty Four Hours” that were magnificently enjoyable. Subsequent hearings made the album less depressing and intimidating. Instead, it became enjoyable and more approachable. I realized that the music lifted the lyrics from what otherwise could have sunk them into a psychic mire. Rather than gothic melodrama, the songs I heard were pure rock. Instead of drowning like a Cure song might, these songs soared. “Twenty Four Hours” was quite morbid and haunted, but the music hardly felt as such. The engaged bass and fierce drums dominate Curtis’ tortured musings. Instead, the songs rallied and fought. Uniformly great music and impassioned delivery made the album a triumph rather than an existential ordeal.

The irony of the band’s energetic, muscular music and Curtis’ defeated lyrics was what provided the tension that makes Closer a magnificent achievement. The album goes further and makes Curtis’ existential defeat rock out – much as “Disorder” and “She’s Lost Control” did but with an even more refined pain. The lyrics never feel bloatedly portentous or self-importantly gloomy. The passion that Ian Curtis was known for was actually a channel that gave his words so much life. This passion was borne of his rock ‘n roll idealism and showmanship, but its successful execution was all talent. The fact that these lyrics were simultaneously so confessional yet adaptable to the rock idiom made the achievement even more thrilling yet bittersweet. Closer is a double-edged sword precisely because it is so haunting and stark but also so enjoyable and beautiful. It conjures the same sensations one feels as one hears “Transmission”: hypnotic beauty, unavoidable excitement, and vague unease.

There is a lot to admire in Closer. The music is a primary one because it creates these different moods that stand apart yet cohere with the album as a whole. The sound design of Closer stands out, though. Through Hannett’s accomplished imagination and the band’s contributions, the mix has a clarity and smoothness that fully reveals the music to its best advantage. The sound design is a work of sonic sculpture. It is pure and solid like Houdon, but also vibrant and sweeping like Bernini. Drums are layered sensitively with the guitars and vox. Curtis is foregrounded, but the remaining instruments that surround are in perfect focus. Like ballet or flight, it has a satisfying symmetry and grace.

Additionally, the sequencing is impeccable. From “Atrocity Exhibition” to “Decades”, there is a clear progression akin to dramatic structure. The evolution of the psychological disarray in the songs very uncomfortably makes Curtis’ problems and dilemmas quite clear. “Passover” more than sufficiently spells out his dilemma. However, these songs are arranged so well that this is easily overlooked. The shock of the music makes an appropriate mask over the reality of the lyrics. The album goes from jarring weirdness to restrained beauty then to despair and resignation. The two most overtly rock numbers - “A Means To An End” and “Twenty Four Hours” - are each preceded by songs that are less so. This makes for an even listening experience, but the balance is pronounced: Curtis simultaneously fights and doubts. This balance could be an artistic conceit, but at least it’s a well-conceived one. The songs are each put in their right position to further the progression of the album. Each song is a different focus to Curtis’ despair. However beautiful that focus, it is also painful and troubling.

Closer is a debilitating psychic malaise. It would be the kitsch of suffering romanticism normally mocked in suburban goth that makes Joy Division stand out from most goth bands. (Just compare Bauhaus’ ‘The Passion of Lovers’ with ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ or ‘She’s Lost Control’ or even ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ with The Cure’s ‘Pictures of You’.) Instead, Joy Division became art because it took the existential concerns common to the twentieth century and made them more viable and exciting than the defeatism and paranoia of the later Cure opus Pornography. Smith wanted to be clean again, but Curtis strove to be alive again.

Ending Joy Division’s career with “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, it all makes sense. However, one feels incomplete leaving the final word to “Decades” or “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (even though the ghostly synths of both are there to argue). It is more appropriate to end with “Ceremony” instead. Curtis’ last song written with his band, it puts us the living at the perfect vantage point. Left alone now to listen, we are also left watching forever as Curtis fades from view in historical first-person perspective on that tree-lined avenue.

Closer is like a diamond: beautiful, multifaceted, clear, hard, destructive, and immortal. Closer could easily have been No One Cares for goths. Instead it belongs to that distant world where Scott Walker and Nico live. It will always be there, but it will be here, too. The fact that the album is still heard today is proof of its power and beauty. The greatness and beauty that lies beneath its surface is a source of joy and wonder for those who can look into it coolly. This was Joy Division’s last album, but its revelations still continue. One has only to listen….

24 July 2010

Absolute Death by Neil Gaiman: A Review

Late last year, I wrote this review for Pop Matters. They never ran it so I decided to bring it to light here.

Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans. – John Lennon

For a character named Death, she’s certainly no Bengt Ekerot. In Neil Gaiman’s conception, she’s a cheery, young goth. As these stories illustrate, she wants to get to know you, not kill you. It’s this angle that Gaiman pursues in detail in The High Cost of Living and The Time of Your Life.

Collected together for the first time since their original publication in 1993 and 1996, The High Cost of Living and The Time of Your Life constitute the major corpus of this volume. The rest of the book has two lengthy appearances from The Sandman – “The Sound of Her Wings” and “Facades” – as well as her story from Endless Nights and two never reprinted appearances (“A Winter’s Tale” – drawn by Jeff Jones – and “The Wheel” – drawn by Chris Bachalo). There is also a lengthy collection of visual miscellany. This section comprises different guest illustrations and merchandising items. Unfortunately, there is no appendix of all of Death’s appearances in Sandman. Rounding it out is Gaiman’s script for “The Sound of Her Wings” with included pencils from Mike Dringenberg. Having all of this in one oversized volume is wonderful. However, it is puzzling why the two stories from Sandman are included. It’s a helpful inclusion, but also a redundant one. The target audience for this book already has the two stories either in the trade paperback copies or the Absolute editions of Sandman. Buyers of this book need no introduction to her and the material is in Absolute Sandman anyway. They also need no introduction to her from Amanda Palmer. All in all, the volume is value for the money even if it is overpriced value.

In The High Cost of Living, Death is on Earth for one day out of every hundred years and on that day she meets a young man who wants to die. He is Sexton Furnival and he is miserable. Death, by contrast, is joie de vivre incarnate. It’s Kurt Cobain versus Mary Poppins here. In any case, the two make their way through the Big Apple and see the sights. Although they also get involved with a witch who’s looking for her heart and a man who wants Death’s secrets, the basic story is Death having an interesting day where she tries to cheer up Sexton.

In The Time of Your Life, the focus shifts to two women whom Death is trying to help. In this book, Death takes more of a supporting role while the story examines life and the sacrifices we make to live it. With Death in the background, Gaiman makes use of more characters so he can examine the bonds of friendship that his characters here hold dear. Whereas High Cost of Living felt like it had too few characters, this book has many good ones as a nice contrast. The basic story is about friendship and how far we go to treasure (and test) those bonds.

Aside from the joys of Gaiman’s characters and the lovely art from Chris Bachalo and Mark Buckingham, the miscellany section is a major source of delight in this book. Most of the guest drawings are excellent. The highlights include Bachalo’s iconic painting of Death as well as Moebius, Michael Zulli, and Paul Chadwick amongst other lovely work. Alas, one by Colleen Doran is in rather questionable taste as it shows Death standing at the mass grave of a concentration camp. There is also a section of Death-related merchandise – tee shirts, statues, action figures – with some beautiful artwork by Chris Bachalo. The miscellany section is a great boon for fans of the character.

At the end is Gaiman’s script for “The Sound of Her Wings” from Sandman #8. This was Death’s first appearance in Sandman so it’s nice to see the script that Gaiman wrote. It was particularly interesting to see his approach to writing the issue. Gaiman noted there that he’d been looking forward to writing the story since the series began and this inflects his work on Death as a whole. Quiet, intimate stories about people relating to the world are what Gaiman does best in this book. It’s thrilling to see his unique voice here in Sandman #8 develop and then grow stronger as The High Cost of Living and The Time of Your Life were written.

Absolute Death is a lovely collection of work and a nice testament to Gaiman’s career in comics as well as the talents of the artists. While the price makes this a fetish object (almost literally as the cloth of the cover attracts lint and demands careful handling) for the most hardcore fans, it’s assembled with care and sized to the art’s advantage.

06 March 2010

Two library blogs of note

Houghton Library Blog
The blog presents selections from the rare books collection held in the Houghton Library. It's a very lovely collection that spans centuries of European literary culture. The blog itself is a straightforward presentation of the collection highlights, but also a useful advocacy tool for the importance of book preservation. The entries are brief, but links to the exhibits of the collection or the bibliographic records of the preserved documents are provided.

The blog itself is simple and pleasing. The background is white and set with simple type and good pictures. It's not complicated or cluttered to scan or navigate. On the right side are the recent blog posts and the post categories. It looks good and makes the library look professional. If I had to make any recommendations, I'd say that the blog could have a more distinct visual presence and post more information on archival library matters.

UC Berkeley Art History News & Notes Blog (http://blogs.lib.berkeley.edu/arthistory.php)
The blog presents announcements for the Art History Library. Some of the announcements involve recent acquisitions for the Art History Library, but most of the announcements are informational in nature. These announcements are usually links to resources for studying art history, i.e. ArtStor, ArtBabble, CAA Reviews. These are helpful links and dovetail with the library mission of being an academic resource. Students can learn about how to use library resources. At the top of the blog are tabs for using the UC Berkeley library system. The blog has integrated itself into the library as a whole rather being separate from it.

The blog itself is rather stark and ugly. As a blog for an art library, it lacks artwork or any visual appeal at all. There is nothing to make this blog distinct from other blogs or even web pages. What it lacks makes it distinct in a bad way. I'd recommend that the blog dress itself up to look more appealing and less skeletal. It has good links to good content, but it's very lacklustre in appearance.

03 March 2010

Koerner and Friedrich are back/Abrams does Mary justice

I found two excellent books at the university library today. One is new to me and the other is an old favorite. Reaktion Books has brought back to print Joseph Koerner's book on Caspar Friedrich. I read this book in college a few years ago after finishing Koerner's other book on Durer. I was quite impressed with his writing on Friedrich and enjoyed his take on the paintings greatly. I was rather disappointed that I couldn't obtain a copy then, but now I can at last. It's a great book on Romanticism as well as Friedrich and the reproductions do his work great justice. Get it now and you'll never see painting in the same way. It'd be nice if he also wrote a book on French naturalism, but I guess I'll have to wait.

The second was a book from Abrams on Mary. Simply, it is a superb collection of art and a lovely little tour of religious painting and iconography. The selection of work is masterful and I found delights and revelations on every other page. It's organized well with sections on Mary and the saints, Mary and Jesus, Mary at the Crucifixion - amongst others - as well as sections of Marian prefigurations and Marian apparitions. It surveys Western art and provides helpful context and information for each painting. It is an excellent book and a helpful reference tool for religious art. The beauty of the paintings make this book quite enjoyable so even if religious art isn't an interest, the artists themselves make good recommendations for this text.

These are both new books from last fall and I've just learned of them. They're small books so they could easily serve as guides in museums. The Mary one is small and thick, but bound for easy use while the Koerner one is medium sized with good detail on the reproductions. I fell in love with them and I'm glad to see them in such excellent editions.

26 January 2010

The Top Ten Picks of 2009

Camera Obscura: My Maudlin Career
Unless my renewed crush on Traceyanne Campbell counts, My Maudlin Career is a horrible album for falling in love. Indeed, it’s even worse for fucking. So what do you do with an album that ruins sex lives and inspires erotic twee reverie? Well, Jimmy, you crack open the booklet and read the lyrics. The fact that Campbell has finally become confessional – never made it to the cathedral – is less a reason to herald the album than to make sure your ex-girlfriend never listens to it. (On the other hand, Campbell does every man on earth the favor of showing them what a real woman in love sounds like.) In what not quite gives Pinkerton a run for its money, she chronicles with disarming candor and lack of fake bluster the painful dissolution of a relationship. Those who’ve characterized the album as mature don’t seem to have listened to anything else by Camera Obscura or, worse, were fooled by the irony of “Hey Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken”. (It’s a sad commentary on romance today that people seem to have missed the fact that the very first song on My Maudlin Career indicates the album’s emotional trajectory and instead they focus on what a great single ‘French Navy’ is!) This is a good record not because it’s Let’s Get Out of This Country Part Two but more because the band finally dropped its usual British reserve (or irony as B&S hipsters would brand it here) and embraced the harsh reality that romance kills and you can learn from it or continue to listen to Feist (or the Smiths as 500 Days of Summer taught me). Instead of photocopying “Dory Previn” ten times or more, the album opted to take a risk and tell the truth. Jettisoning bitterness and hate for a ruefulness and slight melancholy, Campbell reflects on her mistakes through these songs and to her credit makes them compelling reminders rather than hysterical rants. Sure, she’s Scottish so it’s not like Courtney Love would be an inspiration anyway, but it’s refreshing to know that there’s a woman writing popular music like this that shows more intelligence than Liz Phair (or entire seasons of Sex and the City). Camera Obscura grows up here – for once, it’s the message not the medium – and their fans, teenagers or no, need to join them.

Sunset Rubdown: Dragonslayer
This is the best indie rock record of the year – at the very least even in that genre given its nebulous distinction of excellence. The greatness of this record was determined by a little game. The game I played is imagining how this album would fare against indie rock’s titan du jour to see how great the album was. In this case, I played a little game of Sunset Rubdown vs. the Arcade Fire. It turned out that Sun Rub totally owned them. The songs, the arrangements, the energy, the playing, and even the singing blew away the competition. They fucking rocked it. And that’s the thing: this album is so good it’s like a good fuck: powerful rhythm, amazing stamina, and great fun afterwards. (Did you see the photo of these guys in their hot tub?) I know I use that word a lot in this list, but 2009 has been a year of fucking. Obama and Bernanke? They’re bad fucks. Sun Rub, however… How does it feel that the leader of the free world got his balls handed to him by a bunch of Canadians? Well, I’d say it feels pretty good considering that these Canucks fulfilled the hope that they inspired in me and that’s a lot better than anyone in DC has done lately. Especially that bank puppet, his boss, and his brain trust staff who look about as virile as the week old expired bananas on my kitchen counter. This album rocks because it’s great – don’t get me wrong – but it rocked my 2009. After a year like that one, I’d say that Sun Rub gets the extra measure of praise just for being a bright spot in a terrible canvas of desolation. When will they get their Nobel Prize?

The Thermals: Now We Can See
It’s almost perfect. It’s got everything I want, but with heart. I generally don’t pay attention to how much heart is in a record, but after a horrible year the Thermals gave me back my hope. I believe that hope is at the heart of the record. You’re moved and comforted by this band. The songs here are loud and strong enough to make them battle calls any time you need them. It’s still a great rock album, but it’s got that extra element that makes an emotionally satisfying piece of music as well as an aesthetically satisfying one. The Thermals do so without fuss or fault and it’s to their credit that this is their best album yet.

Devo: Freedom of Choice
Wow, this was not as derivative of “Whip It” as I’d feared. Instead, it eclipses that song and steps up to the punk heritage with nerdy élan. I love old synthesizers so just imagine my delight to hear them teamed up with a wicked rhythm section. I feel like I owe free drinks to some friends for telling me how good this band was. As a reissue, I include it here as it was simply one of the most exciting sounds I’d heard all year. As a matter of fact, it’s so exciting that it feels as if it’s barely aged. It rocks the fuck out. I feel kinda weird even calling this punk music. If it is, they belong with the iconoclasts in Suicide. It doesn’t feel like New Wave either. In much the same way as the B-52s, they are and are not New Wave. It’s just Devo, I guess. Whatever, I loved it. Use your freedom of choice and buy this now!

Islands: Vapours
In a world where Vampire Weekend is considered art, I can’t say I’m surprised that Islands doesn’t get more attention. Then again, Islands takes the game more seriously than those fucks from Columbia. Hell, at least Islands makes an effort – which is more than can be said for the last three Weezer records – and stays to entertain. When your friends and heroes let you down then you find new friends and heroes. Or you do it yourself. Haters could say that Islands is to music what Scott Pilgrim is to comics. I disagree. Scott Pilgrim is Islands. As a matter of fact, I listen to Islands when I read Scott Pilgrim now. They go together like that. Vampire Weekend and Weezer are the dilettante slackers. Islands is better than that. They are forever. They are also even better here than on their last album. They’re lighter, sunnier, and happier here. I like dancing feet and I like a good beat so why complain?

Furture of the Left: Travels With Myself And Another
If only the future of the American left were as good as this band. What? It’s on. Sorry, guys. Anyway, I love Mclusky so it stands to reason that I’d love this album. Basically, it’s just like Mclusky, but louder and brasher. Somehow louder than the Thermals, it’s snotty punk rock with a rotten sense of humour (they’re British so come on here). Give this to your nearest teenager now.

The Big Pink: A Brief History of Love
Do not let these guys tour with Camera Obscura! They’ll either end up as bad influences or hospital patients. (I can see the melée now: two guys with a drum kit and a bank of keys are no match for five pissed-off Scots with a full band and equally large bank of keys – I hope Traceyanne’s insurance lets her smack people in the face with her powder blue guitar.) If men are best advised to keep Maudlin Career away from the ladies then the women are equally advised to keep A Brief History of Love away from the misters. “Dominoes” notwithstanding – the favorite song of rock stars and Colin Farrell alike – it’s a great post-shoegaze album. It’s another pop album – put this band on the bill with Pains of Being Pure at Heart – but one of a skuzzy, electronic sort.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: s/t
It’s almost tied with the Thermals in terms of fun, but instead as a pop album rather than punk. It’s got some of that JAMC fuzz (they even have a song about hard drugs and Jesus – wait, does this mean they also like Lou Reed?) and a little of that shoegaze hiss, but the real touchstones here are the Smiths and the Cure. It’s energetic, brief, and engaging. If there was a God, he’d give this to his kids and make Stephanie Meyer a fan of them. I hope these kids have a future where they kill everyone in Stars and cover entire Smashing Pumpkins albums. Hell, maybe they’ll show up on the Scott Pilgrim soundtrack with Islands. It’s a lovely album and I hope that this band goes far. It certainly rocked my summer and it still rocks now. Just throw this album on the bar-b with the shrimp and try to tell me it’s not as addictive as tequila. At the least, it’ll help wash the taste of Black Kids out of your mouth.

The Pink Mountaintops: Outside Love
If they were a real cult, they’d be on Drag City. Instead they get to be on an awesome label with Sun Rub. I was surprised that they had little to say about sex or religion on this album, but at least McBean and company kept it in the family and sang about their friends instead. And love. And vampires. And hope. It’s certainly their most heartfelt album as well as their least unhinged. Instead of the world going down in flames, Pink Mountaintops see a world around the campfire. With a more spacious production sound, they also open up from their usual claustrophobia and provide a few anthems. They kept the songs in focus here for a quieter musical affair. I had expected more Bible fondling, but maybe they’ll save that for the next one. As usual, Amber Webber is here along with special guest Jesse Sykes. I’d say that this is the band’s most mature record yet, but in truth it’s quieter and more assured. The lyrics certainly show a welcome thoughtfulness as well. All in all, it’s a refined effort and it steps beyond the side project shadows that it usually lurks in.

The Mountain Goats: The Life of the World to Come
Do not get scared off by the Bible verses. Darnielle takes these stories and makes them his own tales of second chances. There’s hope and redemption in Darnielle’s world. It’s almost a joke on modern Christian fundamentalism that Darnielle is able to pull this off, but he does. Like any Mountain Goats album, it’s simple, heartfelt, and challenging. Darnielle may not ask you to write his words on your heart, but it can’t hurt either.

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