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Boy is it hard to keep up a character in the music business. Lana del Ray had to fight the ghost of her former failed stage name Lizzy Grant. Meanwhile Father John Misty turned his back on 10 years of being plain old Josh Tillman. Both decided to exchange for a decadent sepia-toned 60’s version, where dry wit was held in high regard, and singing about sex was still a new thing. So how does it hold up 50 years later?

In his debut Fear Fun Misty managed to give fresh breath to old ballads. Audiences to his shows suddenly realised how much they’ve missed bandleaders who can wiggle their hips, lean on microphones seductively and give you a cheeky wink. The lyrics played with social commentary and debauchery in an amusing way (I’ve got my right hand stamped/In the concentration camps/Where my organs scream slow down man’). And above all Fear Fun bred hits: chorus, riffs, anthems.

Come his second foray into Father John Misty I Love You Honeybear, Misty goes conceptual- a scrapbook dedicated to his newly wedded wife Emma and also, as the press-release goes, a ‘concept album about some guy named Josh Tillman’.   So if Fear Fun as the title suggests was the “fun one”, Honeybear must be the album of reckoning, where you look past the playful asides and witty quips and Father John Misty bares his true self. Unfortunately, on closer inspection, it isn’t much.

It’s always admirable that Father John Misty tries to carve an overarching theme and even a plot into the album, putting the role of the album back on its pedestal where it belongs. Unfortunately this does also put the integrity of his “theme” on trial.   Throughout, we see Misty constantly striving for a different sound. He lets his songs grate to offset the listener towards the limits of their comfort zone, such as in the injection of ‘literally’s in ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.’, the coy evasion of chorus in ‘Chateau Lobby #4’, or the curveball electronic track ‘True Affection’.

However to me these supposedly admirable wrenches that Misty throws in his works suggest cowardice rather than fearlessness. Musically or personally he keeps evading the hollowness of his own musical core. ‘True Affection’ feels just like a Postal Service rip-off, rather than Misty’s personal version. His evasion of chorus, which he hit so well in Fear Fun, offers nothing in return but buzzwords like ‘challenging’ or ‘uncomfortable wriggle of an album’ as his acclaimers Allmusic and Stereogum lavish him with.

Through the smoke and mirrors of Father John Misty’s “Great Pretender” persona, what actually becomes most striking is how out-dated his musical smirks are. The sardonic superiority of the character from ‘The Night Josh Tillman’ “Of the few main things I hate about her, one’s her petty, vogue ideas’ comes straight from the Catcher in Rye-isms that were so popular in films a decade ago. The most compelling anachronism is from the title-track ‘Unless we’re naked getting high on the mattress/ While the global market crashes,’ which immediately took me back to the final scene of Fight Club.

See the issue with playing a character is like having a sex doll- it constantly requires re-inflation. Father John Misty has tried extending his character’s lifespan by raising the stakes, and unfortunately bit off more than he could chew. Maybe the most admirable thought is that he tried so hard at it, almost in the same way that he can admire a student who ends up spending four times harder at cheating on an exam rather than just revising for it.

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This is fourth year I’ve compiled a year-end list, and I’ve been unpleasantly surprised that retrospectively, I’ve got most of my favourite albums of the year wrong every time.  Perhaps it’s a curse that as soon as dub my favourite LPs, they get retired to the archives, and I don’t listen to them again. There’s definitely the fact that I of course haven’t been able to soak in all the music of the year until a few years later, for example I just had a first listen to the Freddie Gibbs & Madlib Piñata, which has blown me away.   I’ve also not yet listened to the new D’Angelo album either. There was also a case of maturity: that often I was putting in albums because I felt I should rather than because I wanted to, best example would be the Bon Iver album in 2011. Or conversely for the sake of trying to put in the obscurest albums, regardless of whether they were enjoyable or not.

So this year round I’ve applied a bit more structure to my selection. I’ve rationed myself to 10 albums to help filter out the ones that had a significant impact on me rather than one’s I sort of enjoyed. I’ve also put extra emphasis on the innovators: the ones who have brought a new unique style to the table. Anyway, hope you enjoy reading it as much as I compiled it.

 

10) Run the Jewels 2: Run the Jewels 2

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I was a late bloomer to these guys. I knew of El-P and Killer Mike, and I even listened to the first RTJ albums, and liked the humour and energy. In fact I probably clocked more minutes of Killer Mike’s interviews than his music. But the universal acclaim the album was getting gave me no choice. However, that’s the thing- it’s so easy to enjoy. The beats are abrasive in a nice way, the energy is contagious, the lyrics crisp and clever, and there’s a just a beautiful level of maturity and self-consciousness that only two mid-lifers can maintain.

 

9) Land Observations: The Grand Tour

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Kudos to the most forgettable band name ever. Even several months after going back to his Soundcloud, I’d often be googling ‘Land Control’ or ‘Observation Geography’, which almost made the prize almost sweeter when I finally cracked the code could sink into The Grand Tour. The uniqueness of Land Observation’s sound has blown me away. The sheer simplicity and constantly treading guitar inspired a new kind of solid emotion in me, devoid of worry or even euphoria, that I’m still trying to pin down.  Thanks especially to Hal Rhoades and Nick Carling for showing me this guy.

 

8) Mac Demarco: Salad Days

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After St Vincent, Mac Demarco has been the great forger of his own legend this year. His sophomore album Salad Days is just as autobiographical as it is mythologizing. The lyrics focus on directly on Demarco’s personal life such as his girlfriend’s struggle to get a Visa in ‘Let My Baby Stay’ to his musical reputation being at stake in ‘Passing out Pieces’. In contrast the music is a hazy counterpoint- harking back to Shuggie Otis and enveloping Mac’s legend in mystique. While toned down compared to his excellent debut, Salad Days shows a more patient Mac Demarco who spends more time on themes and concepts rather than making bangers.

 

7) The War on Drugs: Lost in Dream

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This would win my vote for epic of the year. Frontman Adam Granduciel has taken no shortcuts here, which shows in each song lasting around five minutes. Indeed most choruses land around halfway through as well. And if you think Salad Days is hazy- this would be the equivalent to Salad Decades. I’m not even sure where I am in the second half of the album; where the last traces of hits like ‘Red Eyes’ and ‘An Ocean In Between The Waves’ seem to have happened ages ago- and are instead replaced with a Marc Knopfler on a triple-dose of Valium. If David Foster Wallace said that real art leaves you heavier than when you came to it, then The War on Drugs have got it spot on. I’m left at the end of it rubbing my eyes and slowly coming back from a deep sleep.

 

6) Swans: To Be Kind

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To Be Kind must be one of the first albums where Michael Gira may have released something as close to a single as he ever will. And he’s done it twice! This probably requires qualification: both ‘Oxygen’ and ‘A Little God in My Hands’ are over seven minutes long. But they’re catchy! And even seem to have choruses! And like the rest of the album they show Gira’s relentless construction of sonic monoliths that tower over a horrific skyline. Maybe I’m imagining it, but To Be Kind does seem to appeal a tiny iota more to a broader audience. But heaven forbid it means Swans are making any compromises. There’s bone-chilling cackles on ‘Just a Little Boy,’ scathing slave driver calls in the 34 minute ‘Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture,’ and a bassline in ‘Oxygen’ that seems to chisel into your soul. It’s just that all this musical cruelty has been more accessible than anything Swans have ever done before.

 

5) Real Estate: Atlas

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I said in my intro that I had put extra emphasis on the innovators of 2014 for my list. Real Estate have done the opposite, and just carried on what they were doing before- their pleasant suburban surf-rock jingles- except this time better. What more, they don’t even have the strength of an obvious single like ‘It’s Real’ or ‘Beach Comber’ as before. Instead, as if it were possible, they’ve relaxed a bit, without getting too dozy as I found seemed to plague them on the later tracks of their earlier albums. Similar to Mac Demarco, Real Estate have got comfortable in their sound enough that they no longer need struggle to prove its merit. Instead they seem to be having the most fun here- with the nice hunky dory ‘How I Might Live’, the catchy riff nabbed from Slowdive in ‘Primitive’, and the suburban nostalgia pervading throughout all their music in ‘Talking Backwards’. Atlas maps out a pretty flawless 40-minute journey from beginning to end.

 

4) Vashti Bunyan: Heartleap

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Vashti Bunyan said this would be her last album she will make, and what better a send off. Bunyan has the unique ability to make a sonic space that you can get instantly cosy in. The songs don’t so much stand out as blend together into a beautiful medley of guitar, harp and piano- stamped with Bunyan’s fragile voice. Except this cosiness is counterpointed by a proximity to ‘The End’. Even the first song of the album seems like Bunyan’s swansong, where you are left waiting for the last note to be played and the silence to follow thereafter. Though this does not compare as well to Bunyan’s other two albums in potential, there is something unfathomably human about Heartleap that will help maintain its legacy. It is the blend of a farewell and inevitability that makes this the most telling albums about death, and how one can hopefully come to grips with it.

 

3) Sun Kil Moon: Benji

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In contrast to Heartleap Mark Kozolek uses death as a source of inspiration for his song-stories. Here we are given an entirely new style of songwriting, or at least a new chapter in the confessional genre. Kozolek’s urge to describe causes his lines to collapse into the next, while still maintaining their own natural rhythm. His brutal honesty, such as the family friend in ‘Jim Wise’ who mercy-killed his wife, is mingled with casual humour, such as turning his meal ‘blue crab cakes’ into an impromptu chorus in ‘Ben’s My Friend’. He discusses his childhood, his sexual awakening, his professional life in a bildungsroman as rich as a Tolstoy, and really goes to show how much one can fit into an LP. This year Sun Kil Moon has tremendously raised the bar for anyone else trying to challenge the role of the singer-songwriter- and I’m anxious to see how anyone would attempt to top it.

 

2) Iceage: Plowing into the Fields of Love

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This third album is not Iceage reinventing themselves, since that would assume that they had already settled on something before. These punk pioneers have kept to the fundamentals of punk by doing whatever they want to do. The key is to keep on moving and Plowing into the Fields of Love is the best testimonial of their mentality yet. We have country-punk in ‘Lord’s Favourite’ we have crooning in ‘Against the Moon’, we have Echo and the Bunnymen string and percussion accompaniments in ‘Forever’. The only consistency is Iceage’s style to keep it as loose as possible, that makes you wonder how they can even finish a song. And with this looseness you get an uncompromising energy that made them by far the best live show I’ve seen this year as well as a monumental album showcasing this Danish band’s staggering potential.

 

1) Lewis: L’Amour

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Yes I’m aware this is a reissue. But considering L’Amour probably only sold around a hundred records when it was first released in the 80’s merits it to have a proper welcome. And hasn’t it just? Not only was the mystery of that handsome romantic recluse given him an international following but it also enabled three of his ‘lost’ albums to be released this year. They even managed to find the guy in Canada, who apparently is still recording and, almost typically, would like no royalties from the reissues. Fortunately, Lewis lives up to all the hype. The first time I listened to his first and most impactful album L’Amour, I immediately had to play it again. He sucks you into a beautiful unthreatening dream world like Heartleap and Lost in Dream– but more than ever it feels so personal, that I’ve often felt hesitant to share it.

Lewis has injected a tenderness beyond cheesy, as expected with song titles like ‘I Thought the World of You’ and ‘Let’s Fall in Love Tonight’, and almost twists your arm to start loving the hotel lobby kind of music that you felt you were born to despise. And behind all these pillow-talk croons, there is a synth flowing behind, almost independent of the musical proceedings guiding us through Lewis’ gallery of love letters. Above all, there is nothing hollow about the music. Lewis does not mock what we have come to observe as the most saccharine kind of 80’s synth pop, but instead embraces it at a bridge directly to his soul, and I think we will need to wait a few more decades to feel such a pure achievement.

Dan Bejar of Destroyer is hyper-aware of being in the music tradition: that as much as he carves his own monument as the 21st century esoteric, we are always made of aware of his struggle to make his way in it- as he most tellingly croons in ‘The Bad Arts’ ‘Why did you spend the 90’s cowering?’.

And so in ostentatiously borrowing from the musical canon we see both the man and the myth.  The man in that he shows his debt to these musicians, but the myth that he can so wantonly scrape some of rock’s most sacred lines and graft them into his songs takes an assuredness that Destroyer’s monument will be just as large as his idols’.

A great conceptual example is the admitted influence Roxy Music’s Avalon had over Bejar while he was making Kaputt.  On one level it shows that Bejar would not have been able to make Kaputt without Roxy Music building the groundwork.  But on another level, Bejar uses Avalon’s as a springboard to create his own masterpiece, and I believe, to overshadow Roxy Music as the go-to for that genre.

Anyway, I thought it would be a fun exercise to pinpoint some of Destroyer’s most obvious lyrical tributes, how he takes such well-known and concrete lines and reimagines them through his Destroyer’s lens.

My personal favourite is the ‘Music Lovers’ Fleetwood Mac rip

‘Oh life, is bigger…’ 

from: ‘Watercolours into the Ocean’ (go to 0:58)

original: R.E.M ‘Losing My Religion

‘Until this Phoney Beatle-Mania has bitten the dust…’

from: ‘The Sublimation Hour’ (Go to 3:06)

original: The Clash ‘London Calling’

‘You can go your own way…’

from: ‘The Music Lovers’ (Go to 2:10)

original: Fleetwood Mac

‘You gotta have faith…’

from: ‘English Music’ (Go to 1:27)

original: George Michael

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Vashti Bunyan has carved herself a nice little nook in the alternative music canon. Over 40 years ago she released Just Another Diamond Day, a work of inimitable pastoral beauty. Her work passed by largely unrecognised until the 2000’s when she was anointed the godmother of the freak-folk movement- led by the likes of Animal Collective, Devendra Banhart, and Joanna Newsom. Since then Bunyan has resurfaced and not only collaborated with all the aforementioned artists (most notably in Prospect Hummer with Animal Collective), but has also recently released her third album.

What makes Vashti Bunyan’s music so interesting now is that instead of casting aside her original style for something barely recognisable, as we see with Scott Walker’s re-emergence, she has sought to preserve it. Yet now these songs about youth and joy are sung by a 69 year old. It is the framework that has changed, not the theme. Bunyan’s voice wavers in holding a note too long, her piano stutters to find a steady rhythm, and her guitar picking softens as they go on.

However we do not feel a process of decay. Or perhaps this decay isn’t felt as negative. For between these cracks and imperfections we see a new fragile beauty shine through. Bunyan sings ‘Gunpowder’ in near gasps, as she tries to catch then note and then hold it.   Or in ‘Holy Smoke’ she is half a beat too slow, as the voice tries to escape through the breath. It is almost as if the music is caught in constant tension between the songs’ natural grace and her near-overwhelming effort to express them.

Heartleap is not Bunyan’s comeback album, but more the follow-up to the comeback, which would be Lookaftering in 2005. And yes the albums are quite similar, not only sonically but also visually- with the ligatured album titles and corresponding covers of tapestry-style woodland animals. Lookaftering is a beautiful album, and very effectively established Bunyan’s new delicate style. And so in its likeness does Heartleap establish itself in Lookaftering’s shadow? Indeed the songs sound less adventurous and more faded- as if descending from sepia to grey.

Yet in this fading, we see a subtle refinement of Bunyan’s craft. In Lookaftering Bunyan’s songs are expansive with fugues and incremental use of instrumentation as heard in ‘Same but Different’. Meanwhile in Heartleap, Bunyan zones in on the specifics. In ‘Mother’ she recalls a moment as a child watching her mother dance. Bunyan only slightly adjusts the wording for the second verse, as if to even further refine the moment and the view from the ‘slightly opened door’.

The instrumentation is also much sparser on this album, which shows faith in the notes and the voice to carry the song, as exemplified in ‘Jellyfish’ and ‘Gunpowder’. This sparseness also allows more emphasis on the lyrics themselves, which before I had never really treated independently but more as factors of the Bunyan’s songs. However, for example in the opener ‘Across the Water’ the deep pastoral language glides unavoidably by: ‘Every day is every day/One foot in front of the other/ Learn to fall with the grace of it all/ As stones skip across the water’. Maybe the reason they are unavoidable is because they are noticeably bleak. The sadness seeps through idyllic scenes. In ‘Blue Shed’ Bunyan yearns for a ‘blue shed with nobody in it’, and in ‘Gunpowder‘ she notes with reluctant acceptance ‘It seems however hard I try/Those words that I let fly out of my mouth/ don’t ever say what I want them to say.’

By Heartleap, the stakes seem to have been raised from waking up into diamond days, to addressing the final sleep. Vashti Bunyan announced that this would be her final album, and listening to it can you see why. By the eponymous and closing track of the album you can hear the framework finally falling apart. At the end Bunyan can barely let out the word ‘heartleap’ before the piano and guitar start disassembling and fade away. Not since Big Star’s Third could I feel someone slipping away so vividly. The experience is harrowing but also one worth having, as predictably the sweetness always comes with the bitter.

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My extended journey with this wonderful album began in 2010. I was in Ecuador travelling with a beautiful girl from Montreal and she recommended them to me. I remember listening to ‘I’ll Believe in Anything’ and ‘Modern World’ and was blown away by both songs. The calculated hysteria on ‘I’ll Believe’ shook me so much, that I almost had to ration listening to it for my own self-preservation (a policy not enforced since a painful combo of teenage angst and the Pixies’ ‘Where is my Mind’ in the mid-2000s).

Then an iceberg hit before I could even board the Queen Mary proper. Two weeks later I listened to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!’s eponymous debut album for the first time and was immediately hooked. Unfortunately, to my mind, Wolf Parade became a faded version of Clap Your Hands. Alec Ounsworth’s vocals sounded more unhinged than Spencer Krug’s, the CYHSY guitar riffs seemed to run circles round Wolf Parade’s heavy-handed chords. Most of all they were much easier to like: while Wolf Parade seemed to moan about things in the style of out-dated ‘Born to Run-isms’, Clap Your Hands had songs with children’s xylophones and circus shanties. Then the final nail in the coffin was finding out that Wolf Parade’s album derives from a rowdy gig where they trashed a cruise ship called ‘The Queen Mary’- to me this smacked of ultimate indie douche-baggery.

Come 2014- the year of disinterment. I was arguing with my friend on the best indie-rock album of the 2000s, his was Wolf Parade’s Queen Mary, mine was still Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! Being an adult, I realised the only way I could wipe my friend’s wrongness in his face like a sour cream pie was to give Apologies to the Queen Mary a fair hearing. And very soon I realised that, like Pet Sounds and Power Corruption and Lies, I had managed to judge an album by only knowing its core hits- not an adult attitude worthy of wielding the sour cream pie of righteousness. And of course, inevitably after several re-listens I became a standard-bearer for the Wolf Parade.

The first thing that needs to be mentioned is how unlikely a classic the Apologies should be. To start, the majority of songs are re-hashed tunes from former projects. ‘Modern World’ was originally a sub-standard indietronica tune, ‘I’ll Believe in Anything’ was a sketch from Spencer Krug’s Sunset Rubdown project. In fact all the core songs of the album were already showcased as middling tunes that sounded tired before even leaving the starting post.

So it comes as a huge surprise that instead of seeming like patched-up jingles given one last canter round the course before being gunned in the stables, the songs come so full of second wind that you can almost see the veins pulsing. They are both tighter (see ‘Grounds For Divorce’ before/after) as well as more expansive (see ‘Dinner Bells’ before/after). Of course much of this comes from the superb production work done by Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock- but my version is that these demos and EPs were Wolf Parade’s way of seeing whether they could actually make this form of music work.  One could imagine that from the seasoned musicians as were Wolf Parade, it seemed almost down to chance of whether one band will work or the whether it will be buried in the archives of Canadian noughties indie collectors.  Fortunately these demos gave enough hope to apply flesh to them.

The second most obvious point to make is how unlikely a band Wolf Parade is. The band came into being after Spencer Krug was offered a spot for a gig in 2003, and had three weeks to find a band and create material before the appointed gig date. He contacted Dan Boeckner and obviously the rest is history.  But what is most confusing is how almost polarisingly different the two lead singers are. Krug’s arsenal is the synth, the voice of Bowie having his balls slowly twisted, and a taste for unorthodox songcraft with jagged beats (e.g.‘You are a Runner’) and a quest for spaciousness (‘Dinner Plates’). He has then gone on to collaborate with similar art-house mystics such as Destroyer and Frog Eyes, in the band Swan Lake.

Meanwhile Boeckner’s arsenal consists of power-chord guitar, the voice of a weedier Springsteen-acolyte, and a songcraft shining a new light on the traditional theme of existential angst in modern society. Post-Wolf Parade Boeckner has gone on to form Divine Fits with nasal-cool Spoon singer Britt Daniel. Now I don’t want to be pressing a point but, apart from their shared love for music, these guys would literally be sitting on opposite sides of the cafeteria at high school. And if this contrast was pronounced enough, take a look at the track list on Apologies. Apart from a Boeckner/Krug double-bill in the middle, every song is alternated between Boeckner and Krug, a feat even the more sonically similar lead duos Bell/Chilton, Mould/Hart, Avey Tare/Panda Bear didn’t attempt doing.

And yet, despite the musicians’ diversities and their songs’ shaky history the whole album flows so well together. ‘You Are a Runner And I Am My Father’s Son’ tees up the drum beats for ‘Modern World’, while the bleeding synth stabs of ‘I’ll Believe in Anything’ bleed into ‘Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts’. Meanwhile there’s beautiful mirroring throughout the album as Boeckner and Krug both offer their crooning ballads of ‘Same Ghost Every Night’ and ‘Dinner Plates’ in somewhat playful competition. But the songs work best when the performers bring their own outsider version to the other’s soundscape: Krug’s descending organ scale at the end of ‘It’s a Curse’, Boeckner’s backbone riff to ‘Grounds for Divorce’, Krug’s backing “Whoos” on both ‘Modern World’ and ‘Shine a Light’…I’ll stop the list now before it becomes too encyclopaedic- but the cross-pollination is seriously vast. Now the point I’m making is not to argue that Wolf Parade technically shouldn’t work. It is more that throughout the album they maintain a perfect balance between creating space for expansive collaboration while also fervently maintaining one’s own idiosyncratic style.

With this fervent idiosyncrasy I should also say that Apologies is certainly not a concept album.  Some of these songs seem hilariously misplaced: ‘Dinner Bells’ sounds like the building finale, only to be book-ended by ‘This Hearts on Fire’ which then makes ‘Hearts’ feel more like an epilogue than a conclusion. Likewise, the opener ‘You are a Runner’ gives little space for an introduction before Krug squeals ‘I’ve got a number on me!’ at the listener. This seeming incoherence most likely derives from the fact that each of these songs create such a powerful sense of their own worlds, that they refuse to work as padding between the stronger hits.

And with this, it is the energy that has kept me coming back to the album. An energy of brutal individuality, as well as willingness to share their emotion in order to climb the desperate ascent to some kind of higher meaning, as Krug screams: ‘I’ll believe in anything/if you’ll believe in anything’. Or perhaps, this final goal isn’t to find higher meaning, but, from a more nihilistic perspective, to find anything but meaningless-ness: ‘waiting for something that will never arrive’ as Boeckner portends in ‘Shine a Light’. The album depicts the construction (or maybe even the destruction) of a belief system- from family in ‘You Are a Runner’, to nostalgia in ‘Dinner Plates’, to love in ‘This Heart’s on Fire’- regardless of whether what is left in the end is of any worth at all. So maybe in retrospect I do wonder whether Apologies to the Queen Mary should’ve been more suitably titled as Absolutely No Regrets About that Fateful Night Aboard the Queen Mary instead.

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This was the first time I was strongly recommended to wear earplugs at a gig.  £2 later from the pharmacy I had a pair of standard yellow foam ones, and one spare for my comrade, who turns out already came prepared.  And it became a surreal experience as the five piece band that is currently Swans, stepped to their instruments to the gong-beat of their fierce Ewok representative Thor Harris- that you could see the crowd screwing in their bits of plastic into their ears. And looking at these terrible men approaching their instruments, like butchers to their fresh slabs of meat, it looked like some ears were not going to be leaving un-assaulted.

Then Michael Gira steps up.  The lumbering giant with hair that looked like threadbare vines, covering a monolothic face that looked carved into his head and hat not seen much light for several years.  He picks up his guitar, and I take out my earplugs.

They started with a new song called ‘Frankie M,’ which set a good landmark of where Swans’ new album To Be Kind had taken them- to a more funkier slightly homoerotic soundscape, but yet still retaining that brooding darkness of their established style.  Gira would slowly blurt the words ‘Frankie M’ and then let the musicians carry the song through in an abrasive wave. They then followed with their most obivous version of a ‘hit; from To Be Kind ‘A Little God in My Hands,’ led by the hammering pokes of Christopher Pravdica’s bass-lines. This seemed like the band’s warm-up song, even with Thor Harris having already taken his shirt off.  But the chorus was still one of the most scathing experiences, trumpets blaring and a piercing slide guitar courtesy of the terrifying Christoph Hahn.  Once this ‘hit’ was complete, the band settled into their more epic songs, each one almost a 20 minute odyssey, from their previous album’s centrepiece ‘The Apostate, and, my personal highlight, the mockingly beautiful ‘Just a Little Boy’,

The chemistry between the bandmates was incredible, if you see them in the interviews they are the nicest gentlemen you would ever meet.  Yet on stage they look like the kind of violent rag-tags the French foreign legion would hesitate at hiring.  Michael Gira would hover round like a manic drill sergeant, checking to see that his crew’s fingers were bleeding- then he’d throw his arms up in the air like two flailing eels, and grate his voice against the mic. Pravdica the bassist would look with at Gira with obvious pain in his grimaces, but with the determination of a child recklessly trying to impress his father.  Then Hahn and long-time guitarist Norm Westerberg would hover on the frontiers of the stage like perverted sentinels.

To conclude I’m not sure I even enjoyed the gig in a conventional sense, the sound was like feeling my body peeling from my ears down to my lower back.  The endless building repetition tired me to my bones bones, and I felt physically exhausted at the end of the gig.  But it was this sheer determination to reach some kind of goal that held the gig together, every song on the set had a climactic conclusion, with Gira kicking up a leg to finish them.  But then almost in Sisyphean resolve, they would then start constructing another sickening musical monolith.  Then with a theatrical bow, they concluded their set- and you are left wondering how they could do this absolutely disintegrating display a day later.  Surely something has to eventually break.

1) Don Quixote– Miguel Cervantes

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When: July-August, while volunteer farming in southeast Spain (coincidence??)

What: An old man convinces himself that he’s a knight and hires a shorter man to be his squire as they set out through Spain for quests and get into all kinds of muddles.

Review: What affected me the most about this staggering work was just how unique Cervantes’s objectives for the novel were.  It seemed that to him, being a mirror-to-reality or allegory-for-morality was just too shallow for the human condition.  Instead Cervantes chose the much more realistic direction of what Milan Kundera posed as ‘to comprehend the world as a question’.  And this questioning didn’t really seem to reach a similar level until the postmodernists really tried tearing up the tradition.  The humour is never simple, even when it’s incredibly crude (cue Sancho and Quixote vomiting on each other).  For example at the very start of the novel, Quixote tries the strength of his cardboard helmet with a sword and breaks it immediately.  He constructs another helmet but ‘sees no need to try it again’.  In these few words we can already see the multiple layers to Quixote’s delusion- that deep down, almost subconsciously, he knows that the helmet will break, but still convinces himself that it is sturdy enough in order to maintain his composure.  Just the sheer genius in such a snippet is baffling and it continues so for almost 900 pages.

 

2) Disgrace- JM Coetzee

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When: Early winter, part of university course.

What:  Ageing Professor David Laurie has dubiously consensual sex with a student at a university in post-apartheid South Africa and is forced to retire and move in with his daughter who has very dubiously consensual sex with several local men.  David is confused and nothing much gets resolved.

Review: Such harsh minimalism can never really be appreciated until you see it attempted in film, where there’s a whole scene of perhaps four lines by the end of which John Malkovich shouts ‘You’ve said enough!’ and sounds entirely absurd.  I’ve got a feeling this will also be the reason why the Cormac Mccarthy penned film The Counselor has not done too well.  Disgrace brings unforgiving up to a new level, and in the same way as Cervantes shows a more real but much less satisfying resolution.  It shows that life even when the examples and parallels are so clear, is never easily resolved.

 

3) Under Western Eyes– Joseph Conrad

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When: Holiday in Italy, early July

What: In late-czarist Russia, a weedy university student Razumov is forced to hide a fellow student and recent political-assassin Haldin.  Panic-stricken Razumov reports him to the establishment and then flees to Geneva.  He flees to Geneva and acts as Haldin’s bereaving friend to Haldin’s family and fellow revolutionaries

Review: Joseph Conrad is one of my favourite novelists of all time, and Under Western Eyes was his last major novel that I hadn’t read.  And because it didn’t seem to be rated in the same esteem as Conrad’s other more famous works such as Nostromo and The Secret Agent, I’d assumed the quality would not be the same.  I was fortunately mistaken.  This is one of the most gripping accounts of paranoia since Crime and Punishment.  Razumov’s decline into a stuttering, callous, but also pitiful wreck is disturbing- as is what eventually happens to him.  Likewise it is one of the most scathing satires of the revolutionary posers that Conrad had encountered.  But the novelist’s greatest move was, like in Heart of Darkness, employing an external narrator (in the form of an old languages teacher) to witness the store.  And you might miss it, but his suppressed love for his student Natalia Haldin is almost unbearable.

 

4) Gravity’s Rainbow– Thomas Pynchon

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When: October to December in transition to moving to London and starting work (probably worst time to start such a goliath of a novel)

What: Good question.  Very basic outline is that during and just after WW2 a myriad of characters are connected in a quest to find a mysterious version of the German V2 rocket.

Review: I approached this book in marathon-mode: knowing that I’d often hate reading it, but get really satisfied when I’ve finished and can appreciate the work from a distance without having to sweat for it.  I almost gave up 200 pages in when the chaotic mist showed no sign of clearing.  This was extra hard after seeing it seemed to neither have the engaging fluidity of Infinite Jest nor the literary playfulness of Ulysses, and was nowhere as near as easy as his earlier work The Crying of Lot 49.  Of course it did have these first two aspects, it just did not scream out to me as with the others.  Instead I developed a strange numbness to reading the novel, which I don’t think I’ve really felt before, where you are no longer surprised at anything thrown at you- you just want to hold on to the tailfin of Pynchon’s rocketing narrative- appreciating the brief respite of clarity and anecdotes (The infinite and socialist Byron the bulb is excellent)- before you get blasted somewhere else across the wastes of post-war Europe.  Trust me it’s worth holding on.

 

5) Life Studies– Robert Lowell

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When: Start of the year for course.

What: One of the cornerstones of confessional poetry, Lowell delves into his family’s history and into his own personal troubles with mental health and imprisonment.

Review: This is the first poetry collection that I’ve appreciated as a whole, normally I’d just skim through those in the selected collection, which really does dissolve any of the original collections shape and direction.  And it was with Life Studies that I really felt what I had been missing.  It starts with the rolling dreaminess of ‘Beyond the Alps’, then flows into the cold prosaic analysis of his childhood in ’91 Revere Street’ and through some of Lowell’s greatest works ‘Sailing Home from Rapallo’ and ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’ until the bone-chilling line ‘my mind’s not right’ of the closer ‘Skunk Hour’.  The chiaroscuro of cold and warmth throughout the collection gives the full silhouette of a poet: it shows Lowell a man who is fully and entirely footed in this world, but also seems to somehow be missing.