October 13, 2014 by Wayne.
Culture Club supersedes the previous Album Club episodes, and will (hopefully) cover a larger variety of topics.
Jennifer Egan – The Invisible Circus
Surely a debut novel shouldn’t be allowed to be this good? An intensely sad, wise, and beautiful tale about loss: both in the sense of losing loved ones, as well as the larger backdrop of the counter-culture aftermath and the resulting lost generation. Wasn’t a big fan of the first half’s pacing, but once it finally sorts that out, it hurtles onwards with a ferocious intensity – and with the foreboding sense of dread of its inevitable conclusion. Which isn’t to say the initial half is particularly dull, of course. There’s plenty to keep you hooked while you wait for things to happen. Egan writes some truly elegant prose and some of her descriptive narration left me shaking my head in jealous disbelief.
Freedom by Franzen (will be featured in an upcoming Culture Club episode btw!) is seen by some as the culmination of his disillusioned retort to postmodernism (see: Franzen at the End of Postmodernism). If Freedom illustrates our current world then, The Invisible Circus feels like a coming-of-age novel that explains how we got to this state.
It’s very good. It’s very sad.
Neil Gaiman – The Ocean at the End of the Lane
NYT says it best – and, believe it or not, this isn’t actually hyperbole: “His mind is a dark fathomless ocean, and every time I sink into it, this world fades, replaced by one far more terrible and beautiful in which I will happily drown.”
This is Gaiman at the peak of his imperious powers, gradually escalating a slice-of-life story into a haunting opera of magical conflict and bittersweet nostalgia. Like The Graveyard Book, it draws heavily from the experience of childhood through the lens of a (mild) existential crisis, but they’re very different books aside from that (both excellent). There are very loud echoes of his Troll Bridge short story here, which is great because I absolutely loved that tale.
In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the narrator’s passive credulity may be exasperating to some but this interaction between an accepting narrator and a magic fantasy world is a repeated motif in Gaiman’s works. And it somehow doesn’t come across as grating and annoying as Murakami’s pseudo-magic-realism or whatever the Tumblr-correct term to call it is.
Anyway, this is a short book, but it’s one packed with deep themes simmering under the quick-paced, exhilarating narrative. Much like American Gods, it draws very liberally from myriad mythologies and subsequently interweaves everything into an allegory of…well, a human life. Of how we perceive our past, of our fears and childhood helplessness, of the idea of reincarnation and sacrifice embedded deeply in all mythologies/religions, of pretty much everything.
I definitely need to re-read this one. And you definitely need to read it if you haven’t already.
Also, I think I lost my copy. Probably lent it out to some prick who didn’t return it.
Guns N’ Roses – Chinese Democracy
Admittedly an odd entry in my Essential Albums list, but I’ve never really stopped liking this album since its (legendarily delayed) release. Does it have its flaws? Oh, good Lord, plenty. More overproduced than polished, it goes the same route with much of the songwriting and throws in a shitload of kitchen sinks in nearly every track. There’s absolutely nothing subtle about it, other than perhaps the brief respite that is This I Love – but more on that song later.
First though, I’d just like to say that I watched them live in Edmonton, in a closed stadium, and they synced some of the guitar strums in Chinese Democracy (the song) with fucking fireworks. My eardrums would have exploded if not for my plugs (always go prepared, lads). The craziest thing is, the whole fireworks shtick makes perfect sense in the context of this album. It’s an insane album.
Take, for instance, There Was A Time. It bears more than a passing resemblance with the glam-garage singles of GN’R’s past (well, maybe not as much as Better), but the shtick has been replaced here with a snarling earnestness and gorgeous breakdowns. And yes, the guitar solos more than hold their own with Slash’s best too. Finck and Buckethead (and others!) both pull off incredible solos throughout the album, most memorably in There Was A Time and This I Love. The guitarwork in Catcher in the Rye is also quite underrated/overshadowed.
This I Love, though, features what may well be one of the best (if not the best) solos in GN’R’s discography. DJ Ashba does a slightly sloppier version live with more slides and wider vibrato, but it’s still heartbreaking even then. Incredible stuff. Nothing particularly technically brilliant about it, but it was hilarious to find out that Finck did that particular solo. Robin Finck! From NIN! What a lad.
Anyway, I liked the album, which is why it made it to the list.
Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
Listening to the first track in isolation, it’s hard to tell why people were abuzz about this effort being a stark departure from Stevens’ usual output. Futile Devices is a delicate, sparse, and short track that doesn’t feature much more than the usual acoustic guitar and Sufjan’s crooned whispers.
Then Too Much plays, and it’s an explosive mess of bleep-based noodling against the familiar, comfortable backdrop of swelling strings. Or synths? Or – oh, and here come the phasers, stuttering and swirling around the soundstage as chopped vocals pop in and out. It’s a dizzying experience, made all the more so by the fact that this is Sufjan fucking Stevens.
In hindsight, of course, there were signs in his previous albums. There always are – after all, not even Letur-Lefr popped up without warning. In fact, when such an aesthetically radical shift occurs, it’s always great fun to dig through the prior discography and look for the seeds that led to the said shift.
More to the point though: is The Age of Adz any good? Or at least, for those who consider me to be a decent arbiter of taste, did I enjoy it?
Well…yeah. I honestly didn’t care much for some of the tracks (I Walked, Get Real Get Right etc), but some managed to be still be genuinely beautiful even while tiptoeing into slightly experimental electronica. The closer, Impossible Soul, is an absolute beast of a track, sprawling like a Waste Land of musical ideas – some good, some great, some mediocre. The great hit some incredible highs though. In particular, some of the bits in the opening and closing parts of Impossible Soul match the stark gorgeousness of Stevens’ best works (John Wayne Gacy Jr. and the like), while gleefully dancing in idiosyncratic swells and crackles.
Which, again, is much like the album at large.
Please, please just trust me and watch this fucking show. Channel 4 has discontinued it, so the story has most likely ended at season 2. 2 seasons, and it’s the best TV show I’ve ever watched. This includes other excellent dramas like Breaking Bad, Fargo, and True Detective, so it’s a pretty fucking good achievement, that.
HBO’s doing a US remake under David Fincher, but fuck that – WATCH THIS FIRST.
The piercing oversaturation juxtaposed with the brutal violence, the ridiculously beautiful cinematography, the sensational soundtrack, everything comes together in a breathtaking parcel of excellence. This, ladies and gentlemen, is perfection. Well, season 1 at least. Season 2 is a step below, but still very very very good nonetheless.
Watch Utopia, please. Or I fuck your life #russianaccent