Album Assignments: More Adventurous

The first time I heard Rilo Kiley, it started with a gentle arpeggio on electric guitar, joined quickly by a power chord and drums. An urgent lead guitar cascade overlaid a compelling chord progression, with another guitar playing the notes from the initial arpeggio, this time thicker and a little distorted. Then five rapid strums on dead strings, and slamming back down into the power chord. And when Jenny Lewis’s vocal finally arrived, thirty-five seconds in, it was with one of the best lines she’s ever written: “There’s blood in my mouth ’cause I’ve been biting my tongue all week.”

I was hooked. Lucky for me, the rest of the verse delivered on the promise of that first line:

I keep on talkin’ trash but I never say anything
And the talking leads to touching
And the touching leads to sex
And then there is no mystery left

And again those five rapid strums, and SLAM! So begins “Portions For Foxes”, a breathtaking rock song about the struggle for true companionship. Lewis insists that she’s bad news, that her lover is bad news, and yet their togetherness offers her “another form of relief.” Her vocal is nothing short of astonishing in places, especially when she growls a fierce “C’MERE!”

Album cover from More Adventurous

The title calls back to Psalms 63:9-10, “But those that seek my soul, to destroy it, shall go into the lower parts of the earth. / They shall fall by the sword: they shall be a portion for foxes.” The implication in the psalm is of God’s benevolent protection, but Lewis has something more sinister in mind. In this song, “we’ll all be portions for foxes.” She and her lover seek each other’s soul, but each is already a “walking corpse”, and whatever their intentions, destruction ensues in the guise of damage control. These foxes may partake of the biblical symbol, but their inclusion in a dark love song is no accident — foxes in our world, in a romantic context, are the attractive and the dangerous, the bad news that we like anyway.

The song comes from their 2004 album More Adventurous, which I knew I needed once I’d fallen in love with the single. I was delighted to find that it is more adventurous indeed than your average rock album. There are several rock and roll songs in the “Portions For Foxes” vein, with similarly intense moments to that “C’MERE!” “Love and War (11/11/46)” tells the story of a girl whose grandfather fought in World War II, whose pain, trauma, and struggle she sees reflected in her broken relationship. At the end of every verse, Lewis escalates to a crescendo — not a scream, but a note that tips into distortion with its fervor.

Another stunner is “Does He Love You?”, narrated by a woman who we come to discover is betraying her friend, having an affair with her friend’s husband. The tune starts out with sweet woodwinds (well, mostly synths programmed to sound like woodwinds) and a plaintive vocal, but by the time it’s built to its revelation, Lewis’s voice is heavily processed and the guitars scream bitter recrimination around her.

Yet Rilo Kiley isn’t content to fill their album with their rock and roll prowess. Instead, the record is by turns rock, folk, country, and even soul. The title track rings with pedal steel and glockenspiel, and Lewis channels her best Emmylou Harris, no fuzz or grunge anywhere. She even breaks into a silver-toned harmonica solo before and after the final verse. “The Absence Of God” reworks the riff from Jim Croce’s “Operator” into a lovely folk tune whose lyrics offer wisdom from various corners of the narrator’s life, resolving sadly into her propensity for self-destruction despite it all. “I Never” is a heartfelt blue-eyed soul serenade, whose earnest and repetitive declarations of love would tip over into self-parody if it wasn’t sung with such total commitment.

It’s not just musical diversity on display here either — Lewis’s songwriting can be structurally daring too. At one point “I Never” repeats the word “never” 27 times in a row before finally resolving into “loved somebody the way that I love you.” “Accidntel Deth” tells an extended story in each of its long verses before returning to the chorus. Boldest of all is “A Man/Me/Then Jim”, which true to its title switches viewpoints after every chorus. The first speaker is at a funeral for what turns out to be the third speaker, and the second speaker ends up eliciting a story from yet another viewpoint, that of a sad telephone solicitor. They’re all luminously tied together by what the song calls “the slow fade of love.”

Finally, two songs meditate on the then-recent death of Elliott Smith. “Ripchord”, the only song without vocals or lyrics by Lewis, hearkens to Smith’s style with Blake Sennett’s thin vocal delivery and tinny acoustic guitar. “It Just Is” closes the album with a resigned tone — Lewis refuses to grant Smith’s violent demise “sorrow or inspiration”, calling it instead a loss that “just is”.

Death haunts much of this album — suicide shows up in “A Man/Me/Then Jim”, an executioner stalks through the multiple meanings of “It’s A Hit”, and of course “Accidntel Deth” is an extended meditation on the topic. In its totality, More Adventurous is beautiful, sad, and independent. As its narrators discover, “living is the problem”, and while there may be no solution, music like this is about as close as it comes.

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Album Assignments: Hotel California

Hotel California was a turning point for the Eagles. Gone was the countrifying influence of Bernie Leadon, replaced instead with the funky guitar virtuosity of Joe Walsh. Walsh proved to be a fantastic musical contributor, as was everyone else in the band, but the bottom line on this album is that it is the lyrical, vocal, and songwriting peak for Don Henley. I’ve busted on Henley in the past about his recent dismaying tendency towards super-smugness, but in the Hotel California era the guy could do no wrong. Not that he wasn’t a little on the sanctimonious side even then, but his venom a) felt completely justified, and b) included his own complicity, which makes a huge difference.

Every single song on this album with lead vocals by Henley is a stone classic. And then there are the other three. “New Kid In Town” was a huge hit for the band, and it’s certainly an infectious tune — I always find myself singing along to it — but at the same time it has a whiny feel that always gets under my skin, especially Glenn Frey’s “I don’t wanna hear it”s at the end. Walsh’s “Pretty Maids All In A Row” and Randy Meisner’s “Try And Love Again” are both adequate, middle-of-the-road tracks, pleasant enough but pretty forgettable overall.

So let’s talk about that Henley stuff. In the days of my youth, Denver’s KAZY-FM had a Memorial Day weekend tradition of compiling and playing through its “Top 500 Rock Songs Of All Time,” and the top of the list was always inhabited by the same handful of songs. “Stairway to Heaven.” “Freebird.” “A Day In The Life.” “Layla.” “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” And… “Hotel California.” What all these songs have in common is an epic scope, both musically and lyrically. “Layla” and “Freebird” are love songs, albeit Cinemascope love songs. The rest go well beyond. They’re rock and roll’s version of War and Peace or The Grapes Of Wrath or, pretty explicitly in Zeppelin’s case, The Lord Of The Rings. “Hotel California” is kind of the American “Stairway to Heaven”, less steeped in hedgerows and forests, more concerned with dark deserts, mission bells, and mirrors on the ceiling. But certainly equally alive with mystic allegory.

Album cover for Hotel California

Henley doesn’t get all the credit for this grandeur. Apparently Don Felder wrote most of the music, and Frey came up with the central concept of a guy on a lonely road pulling into a mysterious haven. Walsh and Felder duel their way through a magnificent guitar solo at the bridge. It was Henley, though, who wrote the lyrics and sang the tune, and I would argue that it’s Henley’s persona which holds the whole thing together. The above-it-all quality he often manifests vocally works to great advantage, creating a dramatic dynamic against the narrative that keeps placing his character in further peril. And what lyrics! “Some dance to remember / Some dance to forget.” “She got the Mercedes bends.” And of course, “You can check out anytime you like / But you can never leave.”

Those lyrics are oblique enough that plenty of interpretations are available, but what’s clear is that the character has been sucked into a fantasy world that looks pretty enough on the outside, but inside is bristling with steely knives and immortal beasts. The nature of those beasts is what concerns the rest of the Henley tunes on this album. “Life In The Fast Lane” is a counterweight to “Hotel California”‘s loftiness, portraying both the glamour and the danger of life as the Eagles knew it, a literal and metaphorical freeway fueled by money, success, and cocaine. Henley contributes more brilliant images, like “terminally pretty” and “blinded by thirst”, culminating in “There were lines on the mirror / lines on her face.” Walsh provides not only a great solo but the arresting central riff of the song.

“Victim Of Love” has just as powerful a punch, and this time the beasts are illusion and delusion. Henley gets to be the whip-smart interrogator of a woman who’s trying to fool others by trying to fool herself. Thirst makes another appearance, this time as the symptom of her unhealthy craving for “dangerous boys.” Felder provides the music once again, a swinging stomp far removed from the ethereal fingerpicking of “Hotel California.”

For all the disdain he shows in “Victim Of Love”, Henley displays an equal amount of compassion in “Wasted Time.” The two songs are yin and yang to each other — both address a woman who’s been disappointed in love, but in “Victim” she’s just playing the part (according to Henley), while in “Wasted” she’s genuinely crushed. And while “Victim” ends in scornful repetition (with the occasional “I could be wrong, but I’m not”), “Wasted Time” closes on a genuinely hopeful note.

That hope is nowhere to be found in the album’s final towering masterpiece, “The Last Resort.” The title track is still the standout on Hotel California, but on most any other album (including any other Eagles album), “The Last Resort” would be the best song by far. It’s a summation of the entire album leading up to it, encompassing hubris, delusion, naivete, and humanity’s heedless consumption and self-destruction.

The lyrics paint a definitive portrait of the Eagles’ California. It’s a lure of pure beauty that brings people flocking from everywhere, heedless that the flocking itself will inevitably destroy that beauty. It’s an object of lust and greed, filled with objects of lust and greed. It’s the logical conclusion of America’s westward reach, a land cleared out by genocide, whose conquerors can safely romanticize the people they exterminated. It’s a resort town filled with pretty people who extol its marvelousness even as they systematically dismantle it. As Liz Phair would say much later: “Check out America — you’re looking at it, babe.”

After this thorough damnation and condemnation, the song pulls back into an elegiac mood. Henley’s final note on “goodbye” spirals up into the California sun, gliding higher and higher until it’s caught by the strings and carried ever onward. As the stately melody fades out, we’re left haunted by this vision, looking at paradise even as we kiss it goodbye, and realizing… It’s not just California. It’s not just America. It’s the world, and you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.

Love Is A Serious Business

Even more than in previous years, 2017’s music mix was strongly influenced by the ongoing Album Assignments project that’s happening between me and my friend Robby. Most of the songs on here come from assigned albums in one direction or another, though there are some exceptions thrown in, mostly to do with a few concerts I saw. So what that means is I’ve already written pretty extensively about most of this music. Nevertheless, a mix is a new context, so I’ve got a little bit to say about the songs as they come together here.

1. Pink FloydWish You Were Here
These mixes are an annual Christmas gift to our friends Sian and Kelly, who live in Wales. We haven’t seen them for seven years now — it’s easy to mark the time since they last visited right as we moved into our house. And we miss them terribly. So this song is pretty straightforward in that context. Not that we wish they lived here, necessarily — we know they’re happy where they are, and so are we — but I sure would love to be able to have that Star Trek transporter so that the ocean in between us didn’t have to be such an obstacle. It feels like such an awfully long time, especially as we’ve watched Dante go from 5 to 12. I hope we can come back together soon, whether that’s taking the 3 of us to Wales or them finding themselves in Colorado.

2. Indigo GirlsFugitive
The main factor driving the inclusion of this song is the fact that Laura and I saw the Indigo Girls this April. They played on the CU campus, with the CU student orchestra, which was a unique and wonderful context for an Indigo Girls concert. They said at the time that they were recording a live album during that session, so maybe we’ll get an official document of it someday. In the meantime, we have our memories, and I remember this song in particular as being transcendent, between Amy’s impassioned vocal and the excellent orchestra arrangement. But I also associate this song with Sian and Kelly, due to our shared love of Amy and Emily.

3. AdeleRiver Lea
As I said when I wrote about 25, this is a fascinating song to me — such a different character than the one Adele usually takes on. Also, like the rest of her songs, it’s so well-produced. It just sounds great. And the UK connection makes me think of our friends, though I realize they’re not exactly in London.

4. Death Cab For CutieWe Looked Like Giants
The home-rootedness of “River Lea” leads into the nostalgic tone of this song, and there’s a connection in the bitterness too, although where Adele is resigned to how she’ll hurt people, Ben Gibbard still seems angry when he sings “I’ve become what I always hated.” But even more than the lyrics, the music in this song sweeps me away. I absolutely love when the riff kicks in right after the 30-second mark, and then crashes back like raging waves throughout the song. The rhythm section in the verses is so propulsive, and then that crash comes again… transcendent.

5. The Airbone Toxic EventGasoline
Another great rock song reminiscing about a fiery early love. It’s not as emotionally or musically complex as “We Looked Like Giants”, and its imagery is all heat where the Death Cab song is frosty, but they feel closely linked to me. I guess part of it is the relief of knowing that there’s lots of music to love from the 21st century as well as the stuff I grew up with.

6. The SmithereensYesterday Girl
Speaking of songs I grew up with, okay, yes, it is another nostalgic rock song about a bygone relationship. I’m not doing a bunch of middle-aged mooning over old lovers, I promise — it’s just that for whatever reason I kept assigning or getting assigned albums that partook of the theme, and the songs themselves just stood out like gems. As I said in the review I wrote of 11, I think this is the best version of the Smithereens’ rock voice, and that is a high peak. I read this morning that Pat DiNizio died, which makes me even gladder to have spent time with this album and included this song in the year’s mix. RIP Pat — you were a true rock and roll disciple.

7. World PartyWay Down Now
This is the opener to an album that I absolutely adore, Goodbye Jumbo. Not an assignment, but just a record I revisited because I needed to hear it a bunch of times in a row. I love the entire thing, but this song really spoke to me this year, especially as I watched one disaster and disgrace after another unfold in the news. “Come on and show me anything but this.”

8. Pink FloydUs And Them
Robby assigned me The Dark Side Of The Moon to listen to during the week of the eclipse, which was so absolutely perfect. That record is actually perfect at a whole lot of times, and this song in particular resonated with me, embodying as it does the idea of tribal division as a deeply ingrained human trait. The gulf between me and my people versus the seemingly rock-steady 37 percent or so of people who remain Trump supporters feels enormous to me. I know there’s that othering mechanism in my brain, and I do not want to be controlled by it, but the anger and disgust that his behavior produces in me is visceral, and boy is it not interested in counterpoints.

9. Public EnemyFight The Power (soundtrack version)
Which brings us to this anthem, an amazing vehicle for outrage against the system. Fear Of A Black Planet was an album assignment, but the version of “Fight The Power” on that album is really disappointing, with some of the strongest lyrics censored and some of the best music — including Wynton Marsalis’s trumpet — edited out. For the definitive track, there is absolutely no alternative to the Do The Right Thing soundtrack.

10. Hirway and MirandaWhat’s Next?
2017 was the year of The West Wing for me. My friends Trish and Art watched the show when it aired, and regularly rhapsodized about it, but I just wasn’t up for adopting another TV show back then. But last Christmas I was home for a while, and had some unaccustomed time to take on a little project. Trish was all excited because there was a new podcast called The West Wing Weekly, which analyzed one episode at a time in depth. So I decided to get on board, and watched the whole series between December and March. I absolutely loved it, and this was the perfect time to watch it. Visiting a world where the president is a compassionate intellectual, and his staff spent their days in genuine efforts to make the world a better place for the less powerful, was a wonderful tonic.

Then I started listening to the podcast, which is co-hosted by Josh Malina (an actor who was in the show’s cast from seasons 4-7) and Hrishikesh Hirway (a veteran podcaster). They also regularly bring in guests — people who worked on the show both in front of the camera and behind it, as well as various government officials and experts to speak about the issues the show raises. This podcast is utterly delightful — the dynamic between Hrishi and Josh is hilarious, and their insights are excellent. Spending time with it feels like hanging out with really smart, funny friends. They always sign off the show with phrases that became West Wing motifs: “Ok. Ok. What’s next?”

It turns out another huge fan of The West Wing is Lin-Manuel Miranda — you know, the Hamilton guy. In fact, for his final performance as Hamilton, he took his final curtain call to The West Wing’s theme song. It seems he is also a fan of the podcast, because in January of this year, he recorded this awesome rap, stuffed full of West Wing references, to a version of the podcast’s theme remixed by Hrishi. “The flentl” is Josh’s coined term for sound that plays after the screen has gone to black and is showing end credits. You can see how it’s a flentl in the song’s video:

11. Fountains Of WayneNo Better Place
I got to revisit the phenomenal Welcome Interstate Managers via an assignment this year, and this time “No Better Place” was the song that jumped out at me. I already wrote about how musically fantastic it is, but did I mention the comedy? “Is that supposed to be your poker face / or was someone run over by a train?” Actually, in that line and in the others, it’s really comedy mixed with poignancy, which is wheelhouse territory for FoW, and part of the reason I love them so much. “You’re awake and trying not to be / Wrapped around your pillow like a prawn.”

12. Jonathan CoultonI Crush Everything
Hey, did I mention that I love comedy mixed with poignancy? I saw Coulton open up for Aimee Mann this year, and as much as I loved her, I may have loved him just a little more. The two of them together were the most delightful of all, and I’m thrilled I got to be there. They both talked a lot between the songs, which is one of my favorite things at live shows. (Well, as long as the performer has something interesting and non-canned to say, which they did.) He introduced this one by saying, “Here’s a song about a giant squid who hates himself.” How many artists can uncork that leadoff line?

13. Phil CollinsIt Don’t Matter To Me
Poor Phil has taken on a poignancy all his own, especially apparent in the retaken photos for the covers of his reissued solo albums — same face, different value. But how great he was in his day, and this song is from his zenith period. The contrast between the bright horns and the dark lyrics works so well for me — it’s a great recipe for a denial song.

14. Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVieGame Of Pretend
I liked this album fine, but I so wanted it to be better than it was. For that to happen, though, it would need to be balanced, meaning more McVie and a lot less Buckingham. That’s just not much of a possibility when an ego like Lindsey’s is in the mix. This song came the closest — Lindsey is still all over the place, but at least we get to hear Christine’s piano, and her best lyrics of the collection.

15. Dire StraitsHand In Hand
Piano is the connection to this one. Dire Straits is canonically a guitar band, thanks to the artistry of Mark Knopfler, but when I assigned Making Movies what I found was that a huge part of the magic comes from Roy Bittan’s piano. It features prominently in this song, which lands in the bittersweet place that the mood from “Game Of Pretend” sometimes leads to.

16. Diana KrallSimple Twist of Fate
Nobody does bittersweet places like Bob Dylan, especially Blood On The Tracks-era Dylan. One of the later breakers from last year’s big wave o’ Dylan was an Amnesty International collection I listened to, three discs of Dylan covers. As always in a situation like that, it’s a mixed bag, but there are some gems inside it, and this is one of them. Again, the piano is central, Krall’s gentle playing replacing the melancholy guitar strums of the original. Her voice, too, has a hushed and intimate quality that pulls out the sweet over the bitter, the reverse of Dylan’s plaintive timbre. For one of my Watchmen articles this year, I listened to an awful lot of Elvis Costello, and my rotation was full of Dylan albums. Costello’s wife covering Dylan brings them together beautifully.

17. Aretha FranklinDr. Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business)
The keyboards are up to something entirely different in this song. There’s the organ in the background, sounding like it came straight from the Baptist church. A preacher ought to step out and start sermonizing the gospel, but instead we get this syncopated, swaying piano from the juke joint, an earthy sound to counterpoint the airy organ. And finally there is Aretha’s voice, the true preacher, evangelizing a love in which the sacred meets the profane, the sensual meets the spiritual. In “doctor” and “feelgood” the mind joins to the body, and the music provides the spirit. The subtitle fits perfectly — this is not frivolous love, but a profound, life-changing force. It felt fitting for a title to this collection, a prayer and wish for the love that has power to change hearts, minds, and spirits.

18. Tom Petty and the HeartbreakersEven The Losers
The day Tom Petty died was one of the worst days of the year for me, on lots of levels. It bad enough that I was struggling through a difficult go-live for a critical portal feature. It was awful enough that some lunatic had opened fire on a concert, killing dozens of people. But to lose one of the guiding voices from my life so suddenly, so unexpectedly, that same day… I couldn’t even listen to his music for the first couple of days, and after that for a while I could listen to nothing else. In the midst of one of those long listening jags, this song jumped out. I’d always loved it, but the words that took me by the throat were: “You made me feel like every word you said was meant to be.” That’s exactly what I wanted to say to him.

And that’s all. 2017 was a year of one shock after another, though perhaps not as painfully as 2016 was. I was learning how to get grounded, find clarity, and keep the flame of hope burning. For me, listening to music and thinking about music was one way of doing that.

Album Assignments: I Love Rock ‘N Roll

In 1990, Joan Jett released a covers album called The Hit List, in which she recorded songs by such artists as ZZ Top, The Doors, AC/DC, and The Kinks. But in its way, her most commercially successful album I Love Rock ‘N Roll is nearly a covers album too, and a much more interesting one. Notably, both the big singles from the album — the title track and “Crimson And Clover” — are cover songs that Jett electrifies with her unique style.

When I wrote about Aretha Franklin, I mentioned how she changes the words around on some of the songs she covers, which fundamentally changes their meaning. Jett’s lyrical alterations, though powerful, were far less drastic. Her cover versions changed the meaning of the songs based much more on her style and simply who she is. She wasn’t the first female badass in rock, but she was certainly the first one to top the charts — the song “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” was #1 for no less than seven weeks in 1982.

Thus “Crimson And Clover”, which was a hippy-trippy bit of psychedelic fluff when performed by Tommy James and The Shondells in 1968, becomes in Jett’s hands a confident and muscular seduction ballad. Moreover, she doesn’t change the words, which means that this throbbing come-on is sung by a woman about a woman — pretty transgressive for a Top 10 song in 1982. Jett claims that she didn’t change the words in order to preserve the rhyme, which certainly makes sense, but doesn’t alter the fact that she didn’t have to cover the song at all — she chose to do so and therefore sang this siren call of lust about another woman. There’s an additional bit of mischief in there, as Jett blurs her pronunciation enough to turn the line “My mind’s such a sweet thing / I wanna do everything” into “I’m not such a sweet thing / I wanna do everything.” The song’s video locks in that meaning as Jett shakes her head and widens her expressive eyes at just the right times.

Album cover for I Love Rock 'N Roll

As breathtaking as “Crimson And Clover” is, the real juggernaut on the album is the title track. Unlike “Crimson”, Jett’s cover doesn’t change very much from the original, a UK non-hit by a group called The Arrows, which Jett stumbled across on British TV while on tour with her first band The Runaways. The dirty glam-rock vibe gets polished just a little bit, but the handclaps and the giddily impudent attitude survive totally intact in Jett’s version. The difference, again, is that in her version, it’s a tough and nervy woman telling the story. Unlike in “Crimson” she does change the pronouns to make it a heterosexual expression, but the song still flips the script on gender roles by putting Jett’s character firmly in the role of the sexual aggressor. “I could tell it wouldn’t be long / ‘Til he was with me, YEAH ME” — that “YEAH ME” takes on a totally different light when sung by a woman. Also, where The Arrows fill a crucial space in the riff with a guitar effect, Jett fills it with a scream, one of the most compelling screams in rock.

“I Love Rock ‘N Roll” is a thesis statement for the album, and the rest of the covers go on to prove it. Where Tommy James and the Shondells represent the late 1960s, she reaches out to a much earlier era with her cover of a doo-wop song called “Nag” by one-hit wonders The Halos. But that original feels leaden and silly next to Jett’s version, which is sped up and spiked with adrenaline attitude. She also rearranges the vocal parts so that she takes most of the lead, but one of the Blackhearts pipes in with the actual nagging comments (“Run down to the butcher shop and buy me a roast!”), in the style of “Summertime Blues” — which was also covered for this album and released as a b-side. These interjections underline the new gender politics that inhabit her cover, highlighting the fact that this female leader of an otherwise-male band will brook no domineering behavior from any man. “Hey you, get outta here!” she shouts in an ominous tone.

To hit the era between “Nag” and “Crimson”, Jett covers “Bits And Pieces”, a hard-driving stomp by the Dave Clark Five. The original has a party vibe thanks to a trilling saxophone in the background, but Jett’s cover is, again, faster and spikier, replacing the original’s resigned frustration with a fierce, punky anger. Finally, she brings in the 1970s by covering her own song from the Runaways era, “You’re Too Possessive.” The difference between these versions serves as a statement of Jett’s changing identity from the 70s to the 80s. Where the Runaways sounded about halfway between Humble Pie and the Sex Pistols, Jett’s version with the Blackhearts is slicker, more melodic, more mature, and once again, faster. It’s the difference between a girl’s song and a woman’s song, and when she sings “I ain’t your wife!” this time it packs a bigger punch.

I don’t mean to give short shrift to the original songs on this album — they’re great, but for me on this listen they mostly felt like they were spackling the gaps and cracks between the towering covers. In fact, songs like “(I’m Gonna) Run Away” feel like ironic meta-commentary on Jett’s own career as a former Runaway and current rock and roll disciple, further underpinning her covers project.

There’s a theme here. She’s taking her childhood and young-adulthood, pushing its limits, finding new space to own the power she possesses in such abundance. She is out to kick ass on this album, and she succeeds magnificently. She turned in great performances and great songs before and after this album, but even if this was the only thing she’d ever done, she’d still have earned her place in the rock pantheon.

Album Assignments: Aquemini

By coincidence, I listened to Aquemini during the same period that I was rereading Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet for the first time since high school. This is a strange combination, but I was struck by how they resonated with each other. I’m reading a version of R + J annotated by Burton Raffel, a linguist and translator whose notes emphasize Shakespeare’s musicality and wordplay. Take for example these lines from Act 1, Scene 1, in which Romeo’s friend Benvolio accuses Romeo of being in love, and Romeo confesses that it’s true:

Benvolio: I aimed so near when I supposed you loved.
Romeo: A right good markman, and she’s fair I love.
Benvolio: A right fair mark, fair coz, is soonest hit.

As Raffel glosses this passage, the first “fair” means “beautiful.” The second “fair”, as in “right fair”, means “proper/upright fine/pleasing”, and the third “fair” is a term of respect and courtesy. Thus, as Raffel points out, Shakespeare uses the word “fair” three ways in the space of eight words. Now check out André 3000’s opening words in OutKast’s “Return of the ‘G'”:

Like uh, niggas always be hollering “peace”
You know what I’m saying, “peace my brother”
Peace this, peace that, you know what I’m saying but
Every time I uh try to get a peace of mind
Niggas try to get a piece of mine
So I gotta grab my piece

With the first use of “peace”, in the first three lines, André means “lack of violence/fighting”, but goes on to point out that the word itself has become an empty marker for many of the same people in his community who utter it constantly. In line 4 he attaches “peace” to the regular colloquialism “peace of mind”, meaning inner contentedness or serenity, but then immediately observes how that tranquility is shattered by the acquisitiveness of those same people declaring “peace” — they grasp for a portion of what belongs to André, turning “peace of mind” into “piece of mine.” And in the final line André finds yet another meaning of “piece” — “I gotta grab my piece” uses “piece” as slang for a firearm. Take that, Shakespeare.

Album cover of Aquemini

Another commonality between OutKast and Shakespeare, at least for me, is that in both cases, I’d be pretty lost without a good set of annotations. Despite the fact that they’re my contemporaries, it turns out that OutKast’s version of inner city Atlanta is really no less a foreign culture to me than Shakespeare’s version of Renaissance Verona. For the play, Raffel provides the annotations, but for the album I turned to the absolutely invaluable Genius.

It’s because of that site that I was able to understand what Big Boi and André mean when they talk about “the trap”. Turns out that’s the place where drug deals happen. (I actually gleaned this from context when I watched Moonlight, but the Genius annotations helped confirm and clarify it.) That understanding illuminated lines on this album where OutKast calls out the double meaning explicitly, such as Big Boi in “SpottieOttieDopaliscious”, who paints the picture of a new father who wants a reliable income for his baby but fails a drug test:

The United Parcel Service and the people at the Post Office
Didn’t call you back because you had cloudy piss
So now you back in the trap just that, trapped
Go on and marinate on that for a minute

Similarly, André sketches a character who smoked away his teenage years:

Now he’s twenty-one and wants to know where the time went
Hey hey hey what’s the haps? Well see your time elapsed
Have you ever thought of the meaning of the word trap?

Without Genius, I’d have a much more superficial understanding of these lyrics, not to mention the zillion unfamiliar references peppered throughout every song.

In the plays, Shakespeare wrote to be performed, not read, and the same is true of OutKast. Their lyrics are worth attention in written form, but they only truly come alive when performed with OutKast’s music. Even in cases where the lyrics don’t amount to much (in fact often especially in those cases), the music can carry a song.

OutKast’s biggest hit from this album, “Rosa Parks”, is the perfect example. Lyrically it’s pretty much your standard “We’re awesome, let’s party” hip-hop song, and if you don’t believe me, you can ask the real Rosa Parks’ lawyers, who sued the group for misappropriating her name. Their (hilarious) summary of the chorus: “[b]e quiet and stop the commotion. OutKast is coming back out [with new music] so all other MCs [mic checkers, rappers, Master of Ceremonies] step aside. Do you want to ride and hang out with us? OutKast is the type of group to make the clubs get hyped-up/excited.” What they didn’t capture was the fabulous beat, and the funky vocal and guitar part. That’s what made the song such a hit, far more so than the words or any association with Parks herself.

Unlike, say, Public Enemy, OutKast tends to privilege live instruments over samples in this album, and the results unsurprisingly feel more organic and natural than most of the super synth-heavy hip-hop on the charts. In fact, the song “Synthesizer” addresses this directly — not unkindly (“If you wanna synthesize, I empathize”), but definitely linking high-tech music to other technological artificiality: cosmetic surgery, cybersex, and virtual reality (“virtual bullshit!”).

Still, the synthesizer and distortion in “Chonkyfire” sounds amazing — it’s probably my favorite song musically on the album. Awesome bottom end, fantastic guitar and piano overlaid on a thick, thick synthesized string part. A close second would be the fascinating rhythm of the horn part in “SpottieOttieDopaliscious”, a gorgeous and complex jazz figure that’s as compelling as the storytelling lyrics, which contrast a love story against a gritty background.

And I guess that brings us back to Romeo and Juliet. There’s theater baked into some of the hip-hop templates, like the skits between songs and the guest artists coming on like cameo characters. OutKast embraces those forms on Aquemini, and adds touches of their own, such as the track “Nathaniel”, phoned in from prison like a little soliloquy.

In fact, for as much as I enjoy language, theater, and a good beat, you’d think I’d listen to a lot more hip-hop. I think part of what deflects me is the fact that so much of it seems so repetitive – gangstas, drugs, braggadocio, and exploitative sex, seemingly on an endless loop. I get that it often comes from people’s real lives, out of an American reality from which I’m shielded by white privilege, but it just seems so narrow, and often wrongly glamorized. And OutKast is by no means exempt from this, especially Big Boi, who tends to be more street-focused than André. But what I appreciate is that they are constantly complicating the picture. Their “Return of the ‘G'” [gangsta] is a reluctant return, each of them pulled back into gangster stories and life when he’d rather “kick back with my gators off / And watch my lil’ girl blow bubbles.” In that song, they sound just as trapped as the characters they talk about. But they were getting ready to blow that trap wide open.

Album Assignments: Songs and Music from “She’s The One”

This may not be anybody else’s favorite Tom Petty album. Petty himself was totally dismissive of it — in a 2015 article he said about it, “I hated that record –- the whole idea of it offended me. I only did it because I didn’t have anything else to do.” And you can forget about the movie it’s attached to. That’s easy to do, because it’s a completely forgettable movie.

But this is my favorite Tom Petty album, and has been ever since it was released. Don’t get me wrong — I love his whole catalog dearly, from evergreens like Damn The Torpedoes! and Full Moon Fever to brilliant dark horses like Long After Dark and The Last DJ. It’s this album, though, that brings out the deepest feelings in me, and I think that’s because it came from a deep dark place in Petty.

She’s The One was released in 1996, the same year Petty’s 22-year marriage finally fell apart for good, and relationship pain pervades many of the album’s best songs. The refrain of “Grew Up Fast” is:

Well you know who I am
So don’t treat me like I’m someone else
Well you know what I am
So don’t act like I’m something else
You never act like that with no one else

To anybody who’s been in a seriously troubled relationship, that sentiment should sound very familiar. But even more powerful is Petty’s vocal — the seeming bemusement of the verses doesn’t quite cover a deeply bitter tone, which bursts into tortured frustration on the chorus. After the bridge, the Heartbreakers build intensity through a spiral staircase of ascending chords undergirded with powerful drumbeats, exploding back into the chorus, which Petty snarls through before finally sinking into resignation. And then he exclaims, “Oh!” as Benmont Tench starts a skittering organ solo. We can hear a “Yeah!” from Petty in the background as Mike Campbell skates through a complementary guitar solo. The emotion behind those two exclamations encapsulates the song — frustrated, pissed off, profoundly sad.

Album cover of She's The One

Even more poignant are the opening lines of “Supernatural Radio”:

If there’s gonna be trouble tonight
You can meet me at the usual place
If there’s gonna be a fight tonight
Remember what you said to my face
Oh and darlin’, too many words have been spoken
I don’t wanna get my heart broken
Like lovers do

Oh, the way Petty sings these. It’s the definition of heartbreak. It’s the sound of someone acutely alone and lonely inside his relationship, whose love is so lost that he’s always ready for trouble and fights, but who is so weary of them that he’d rather just go to bed. But he knows he won’t be able to. When too many words have been spoken, the heart is already broken, but there’s a place far beyond that, one so outside of love that love feels like a foreign concept. And then, so tenderly, he sings, “I can hear you singin’ on my supernatural radio.” What is that? I think it’s the piece of his heart that’s still in love. When the relationship is ashes and the love is dead, its ghost can still sing to you, a haunting reminder of past happiness that can never be yours again.

There are two cover songs on the album, both following this anguished vein. Beck’s song “Asshole” has a straightforward enough sentiment: “She’ll do anything to make you feel like an asshole.” It’s a bit morose, a bit resigned. “Change The Locks” is a whole other story. This Lucinda Williams song is all about taking action, getting away. It’s brilliantly constructed, telling a story that escalates in rage and intensity. Every verse is a new step in escaping an ex-lover, building with an inexorable logic and explaining each action. Changing the locks is just the beginning — soon he’s changing his phone number, his car, his clothes, and by the end he’s changing the name of his town. All so she can’t find him anymore.

Every couple of steps, the Heartbreakers slam down with power chords, and after a few steps Petty lets out another one of those “Oh!” exclamations that say so much with so little. The final verse recapitulates all the others, every step boiled into one piece, finally reaching “I changed the name of this town”, repeated twice. And then, Petty screams as the chords crash down once more. It’s a magnificent, spine-tingling moment of pure emotion.

Amid all this suffering, Petty finds a way to bring hope on board, with two songs that each appear twice (in different versions) on the record. “Walls” was the album’s first single, specifically the more produced version of it, “Walls (Circus).” Lindsey Buckingham sings backup on the track, a dazzling reminder of how great he can sound when he’s blending in rather than taking over. The lyrics are some of Petty’s simplest, most direct, and best:

All around your island
There’s a barricade
It keeps out the danger
It holds in the pain
Sometimes you’re happy
And sometimes you cry
Half of me is ocean
Half of me is sky

And then there’s “Angel Dream”. Aside from Full Moon Fever‘s “Alright For Now”, I think this is Petty’s most beautiful ballad, shining a golden beam of light through the darkness of the album. The connection Petty describes, “caught my lifeline”, is a rescue from ultimate darkness, and his gratitude runs to the bone when he sings, “I can only thank God it was not too late.” It’s enough to make you believe in love again. I miss Tom Petty terribly, but I can only thank God he left us gems like this.

The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 22 – Costumed Cut-Ups

As is the case with every post in this series, massive plot spoilers for Watchmen will be contained herein. Our topic today is the 1960s texts of William S. Burroughs, but I don’t think a spoiler warning will be necessary for those. In order for there to be plot spoilers, there must first be a plot, and these texts find Burroughs in open rebellion against the very idea of a plot, not to mention language and coherency itself.

Why Burroughs? Well, it’s because of this panel:

Chapter 2, Page 1, Panel 2 of Watchmen. Medium shot of Laurie holding flowers, with Sally's arms extending into the panel in the right foreground. Magazines are visible on Sally's bed, including Nova Express and an ad for Nostalgia.

Still not clear? Take it away, annotations for chapter 2:

Page 1, Panel 2: Note the “Nostalgia” perfume ad and the issue of Nova Express. (The title comes from a novel by William Burroughs of the same name.)

And indeed it does. Nova Express has a somewhat convoluted publishing history, but based on its original publication date it is considered the third in Burroughs’ “cut-up” trilogy, the other two being The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded. Of course, calling these a trilogy is a bit of a misnomer. For that matter, so is calling them novels. Not only are they not one long story, none of the books is a story in itself, and in fact the entire enterprise rejects the notion of narrative continuity upon which the concept of “story” relies. What brings them together is their radical method of prose experimentation, which is why they’re called the “cut-up” trilogy rather than some reference to the characters or setting.1 But what is a cut-up? The best answer to that requires a little background.

Remixed Beats

Literary historians categorize William S. Burroughs as part of the Beat Generation. That means he hung out with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and the rest — a group interested in breaking through the censorious cultural monotone of the 1950s with radical art and taboo subjects. Burroughs was certainly no stranger to taboo — his first two novels were largely autobiographical accounts of two core aspects of his persona: Junky and Queer. Queer: he was not only a gay man but an outright misogynist (“Women are trouble,” he was known to say), whose fixation on men and male erotic images persisted throughout his career. Junky: Burroughs lived for much of his life as a heroin addict, or more accurately an addict to opium in a wide variety of forms. In his words:

When I say addict I mean an addict to junk (generic term for opium and/or derivatives including all synthetics from Demerol to Palfium). I have used junk in many forms: morphine, heroin, Dilaudid, Eukodal, Pantopon, Diocodid, Diosane, opium, Demerol, Dolophine, Palfium. I have smoked junk, eaten it, sniffed it, injected it in vein-skin-muscle, inserted it in rectal suppositories. The needle is not important. Whether you sniff it smoke it eat it or shove it up your ass the result is the same: addiction. (Naked Lunch, pg. 200)

That’s from “Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness”, which appeared in the 1962 edition of his best-known work, Naked Lunch. That book, claims Burroughs, consists of “detailed notes on sickness and delirium” that he experienced during his addiction. Not that you could necessarily divine this by reading it. Naked Lunch is a kaleidoscopic panoply of disturbing images and vignettes, little snippets of narratives that Burroughs called “routines”. Nevertheless, each of these routines has an internal coherency more or less, though it may be quite elliptical in its reliance on external referents to which the reader has no access. For his next set of works, Burroughs would venture much further into the murky zones beyond narrative.

For part of his time with the Beats, Burroughs lived at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur in Paris, in one room of a hotel also occupied by Ginsberg, Corso, Sinclair Belles, and various others. This building came to be known as the Beat Hotel for the company it held, and the most important member of that company for Burroughs was a painter by the name of Brion Gysin. Burroughs found a kindred spirit in Gysin, and the two of them would stay up talking into the night about things like how painting techniques might be incorporated into literature.

One day, so the story goes, Gysin was cutting some materials with a utility knife. To protect the table he was working on, he’d laid down newspapers as a foundation. Once his work was through, he noticed how the slicing of the newspapers seemed to liberate the text they contained. Recalling his conversations with Burroughs (who was away in rehab at the time, though of course it wasn’t called rehab back then), he imagined how he might make a collage of words. He rearranged the newspapers and published the resulting new text as “First Cut-Ups” in a book called Minutes To Go. That book saw Burroughs, Corso, Gysin, and Belles experimenting with what they were now calling “the cut-up technique”.

The revelation came at a perfect time for Burroughs. He was looking to break new ground after Naked Lunch, and cut-ups fascinated him. He’d cut up his own pages, shuffle them at random, and splice them into each other, but also would intermix newspaper stories, song lyrics, and various pieces of literature written by others, be they books, plays, or poems. Thus was born the “cut-up” trilogy, which blended straight narrative with cut-up passages in which you might catch a glimpse of future or past stories, or of Shakespeare, Eliot, Cole Porter, or really almost anything. He also pioneered a variant called the fold-in — fold one page of a manuscript in half and superimpose it on another, then read the text straight across as if it were a single page. Here’s just a small taste, from the “A Bad Move” routine of Nova Express:

Could give no other information than wind walking in a rubbish heap to the sky — Solid shadow turned off the white film of noon heat — Exploded deep in the alley tortured metal Oz — Look anywhere, Dead hand — Phosphorescent bones — Cold Spring afterbirth of that hospital — Twinges of amputation — Bread knife in the heart paid taxi boys — If I knew I’d be glad to look anyplace — No good myself (Nova Express, pg. 80-81)

It goes on and on like that, sometimes for many pages in a row. The mere effort of making the barest sense of it has the poetic imagination putting in for overtime pay almost immediately.

Burroughs would claim, “When you cut into the present, the future leaks out.” Ozymandias thought the same thing might be true of his own habitual behavior, sitting in front of a bank of TV screens, all tuned to different channels, changing at random every hundred seconds:

Chapter 11, page 1, panel 2 of Watchmen. A white foreground with a multicolored smudge, revealing a butterfly and some foliage. Ozymandias in voiceover: "Multi-screen viewing is seemingly anticipated by Burroughs' cut-up technique. He suggested re-arranging words and images to evade rational analysis, allowing subliminal hints of the future to leak through. An impending world of exotica, glimpsed only peripherally."

Let’s dig into this a bit. First, as William Kuskin has observed, Adrian Veidt’s grid of televisions is “clearly a parallel to our own view of the multi-paneled page.” (pg. 58) However, there’s a key difference between them. In the Love & Rockets post, I outlined the way that while panel-to-panel relations imply time passing, the page also exists all at once. Thus in comics, there’s a tension between the simultaneous nature of the page and the sequential nature of the panels, but Veidt’s bank of televisions has no such tension — they are all simply simultaneous. It’s only on the comics page that the future really leaks out, and the past as well — with the exception of splash pages, all three times are present at once on each page.

There’s more going on in that panel, though. As usual, Moore’s relentless cleverness in juxtaposition is at work, the result being that several flavors of time travel are available in this one image. Many of these give most of their power to the re-reader, who has already seen the future and come back to this piece of the past. For one thing, the image below the words about the future leaking through, the “impending world of exotica”, is a smudge in an otherwise white and snowy foreground. Through the smudge, we see the impending world of a few pages later, the interior of Adrian’s exotic domed Antarctic vivarium. Moreover, Veidt’s disembodied voice superimposed on the image portends a different reveal — in the near future, in fact on the very next page, we’ll see his sound track reunited with his image track as he sits and gazes at the televisions. And one of those televisions will finally move forward in time, by being the focus of three successive panels.

It’s not just the future that’s present in the smudge panel, though. The shape of that smudge is a familiar one. It’s the same shape as the bloody smear on The Comedian’s smiley badge. The general stain-on-face pattern of that badge echoes throughout the book — for example, the reflection of Archie’s “face” in Dreiberg’s goggles on the cover of Chapter 7 is dusty, except at a position over the left eye where Laurie has run a finger, recalling the bloodstained badge by creating a pattern of clarity like the one through which we see the vivarium.

The very specific shape of the blood-spatter repeats too, though not as much — take a look at the last image of the Bernies on the final page of Chapter 11. While the stain-on-face pattern repeats many places, the specific blood-spatter shape remains associated only with Ozymandias’ actions until the final page of the book, in which that same spatter appears on Seymour’s shirt. The shape’s appearance at that time seems like a strong hint that Ozymandias’ actions will once again become a focus, with the New Frontiersman publishing Rorschach’s journal.

The Laws of Juxtaposition and Association

Association is the engine of this time machine, and juxtaposition its fuel. Moore and Gibbons string images and words together, folding them into each other, and the associations they form send the mind careening around the story, as well as into external locations specific to each reader.

This is the same action precipitated by the cut-up and fold-in methods, though their paths are much more challenging to follow. In fact, “The Mayan Caper” routine of The Soft Machine ascribes actual time travel power to these methods. In this section, one of the longest pure-narrative parts of the book, the first-person narrator describes how he travels backwards in time. He starts by folding today’s newspaper in with yesterday’s, eight hours a day for three months, then doing the same thing with other works, then running films backwards, learning to talk and think backwards. Finally he transfers his consciousness to the body of a young Mayan boy, who is described as “what mediums call a ‘sensitive'” — the very term that Adrian Veidt uses to describe Robert Deschaines. Through the mystical actions of a “broker” the narrator then travels back in time in the Mayan boy’s body.

Cut-ups and fold-ins, as well as their audio and video equivalents, appear as fictional devices of power elsewhere in the trilogy. “The Death Dwarf In The Street” routine of Nova Express goes into great detail about how a photomontage or series of photomontages can help humans think in “association blocks” rather than language, blocks which can be “manipulated according to the laws of association and juxtaposition”:

The basic law of association and conditioning is known to college students even in America: Any object, feeling, odor, word, image in juxtaposition with any other object, feeling, odor, word or image will be associated with it — Our technicians learn to read newspapers and magazines for juxtaposition statements rather than alleged content — We express these statements in Juxtaposition Formulae — The Formulae of course control populations of the world (Nova Express, pg. 88-89)

Photo of William S. Burroughs

Mechanisms of control are one of two overriding Burroughs obsessions, the other being gay male erotica. Again, it comes down to the portrait painted by those first two novels — where the erotica comes from his Queer side, the mania about control comes from the Junky side. And it makes sense — the experience of addiction is the experience of being controlled. Someone who struggles with that would legitimately be sensitized to how humans can be controlled, either by other humans or by external agencies.

Burroughs takes it farther than most, though, claiming that language itself is an alien virus that controls humans, operating as an invisible addiction. Cut-ups and fold-ins were claimed as the antidote to this virus, the element of chance breaking through the Juxtaposition Formulae to create new associations outside the control of whoever shaped the original string of words. Burroughs attacks the notion of authorship by deliberately disrupting textual intention, and by mixing different texts together entirely without attribution. If the cut-up trilogy can be said to be about anything, it is about resisting linguistic control by disrupting sequences of words and images.

This concept of disrupted sequence works itself not only through each book, but through the history of the books themselves. In his introduction to the current editions of each book, Burroughs historian Oliver Harris painstakingly sets out their publication history, and provides pages and pages of notes at the back of each one explaining his choices of what to keep and what to leave out. While it’s true that The Soft Machine was published first, Burroughs also went back and revised it, then republished it, twice. He did the same thing once for The Ticket That Exploded. Unlike most trilogies, this one has no canonical order, and there are cases to be made for a variety of different sequences.

As I said at the outset, it’s not as though these books tell one long story, so in a way it hardly matters what order they’re in. That’s part of Burroughs’ point — we create associations based on how words are ordered, and by removing certainty of sequence, he cedes control back to us. Being a writer who is anti-language is a rather precarious position, akin to Charlton’s Peacemaker, who “loves peace… so much so, that he is willing to fight for it!!” Nevertheless, Burroughs is very clear on the point that evil aliens are controlling us with their word lines.

Consequently, what unity the books have isn’t achieved via linear progression, but rather by repetition and echoes. We may see phrases in cut-ups that return from previous chapters, or even previous books. Likewise, we may encounter an image in a narrative section that we glimpsed in a previous cut-up, only now we have the context to understand it better. And just as how in Watchmen we keep seeing new variations on the stained face and other images, the trilogy books have images and phrases that become incantatory in their repetition, sometimes varying and sometimes not. These repetitions often serve a didactic purpose, instructing us over and over again from a variety of angles that words and images are “junk” whose hold over us must be broken.

Word Falling — Photo Falling

Moore and Gibbons might very well dispute the idea that they are aliens who mean to control us with words and images, but I can say with certainty that they are very, very skilled at the Juxtaposition Formulae. They ought to be — it’s a key skill in creating an excellent comic. As Scott McCloud informs us in Understanding Comics, juxtaposition is fundamental to the definition of the medium. The fact that comic words and images are placed next to each other is what makes comics different from animation, which is sequential art in which each new image rapidly replaces the last.

Page 8, panel 2 of Understanding Comics. McCloud's avatar holding up a sign reading "Juxtaposed sequential visual art"As we’ve learned, juxtaposition leads to association, and Watchmen exploits those associations to create a number of effects, like the time travel I discussed above, the musical interweaving of different layers of story, the thoughtful alteration of previously established characters, and so forth. It’s all done by association.

In fact, association is such a meta-theme in Watchmen that one of its characters is named for a test which purports to reveal a subject’s personality and emotions based upon the associations made by that subject. And then, because Moore and Gibbons never miss a trick, Rorschach himself is given a Rorschach test. And indeed, his associations do reveal his personality and emotions… eventually.

But before he chooses to share his true associations with Malcolm Long, he reports false ones. “A pretty butterfly.” “Some nice flowers.” Now those of us who have read through Watchmen at least once may be able to make some associations of our own — these two images, as it happens, are exactly what we see through the bloodstain-shaped smudge on the cover of Chapter 11. I don’t think that the story is somehow trying to position Rorschach as precognitive, but I also doubt very much that the association is accidental, because did I mention they never miss a trick?

Rorschach, echoing Burroughs, tells us that meaning is not inherent in what we see, what we read, and what we experience. It is consciousness itself that assembles meaning. Burroughs calls this the laws of juxtaposition and association, whereas Rorschach simply states that existence “has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long.” Like an ink blot.

But if this is true, if our own constructed meanings are our only reality, what happens when that meaning is constructed by a being so godlike as to be able to create a new reality for everyone? Doctor Manhattan claims to see the “whole design” of time simultaneously, and yet can have experiences like surprise, which would seem to depend on linear sequence. This is a paradox I’ve never been able to unravel, and I wonder what role the Burroughs references might play in it. Do Moore’s repeated references to Burroughs ask us to examine the notion of narrative continuity itself, and what it means when there’s a god in the story who’s aware of the story?

I’ve read Watchmen many times now, and thought about it quite extensively, and yet it can still surprise me. Even in the process of writing this post, I was startled to realize that the false images Rorschach reports to Malcolm Long, which seemed like throwaways, return quite forcefully 5 chapters later. But there’s an important distinction here. Those moments of surprise are realizations, new associative connections. They happen within me, not as events in the story. The plot of Watchmen can no longer surprise me — it lost that power after my first read-through.

And yet Doctor Manhattan can be surprised by events, as if they suddenly impinge on his consciousness where they hadn’t existed before. In fact, he can announce that he’s going to be surprised in a few minutes, and what information is going to surprise him, and then a few minutes later be surprised by the information he’d already announced. Yes, he can also have realizations, such as when he changes his mind about going to Earth in Chapter 9, but the fact that he can be surprised by the plot after seeing the whole book remains mystifying to me.

Could it be that he is creating reality to conform to his expectations? If he exists outside time, and controls existence at a molecular level, what powers would his subconscious have? His insecurities, his fears? Could he be the one imposing meaning on the world after staring at it for too long?

Moore links Doctor Manhattan to one of Burroughs’ most persistent refrains: “Word Falling — Photo Falling”. That phrase appears throughout the trilogy, frequently paired with “Break Through in Grey Room”, as an emblem of resistance against the word/image virus. As Kuskin observes (pg. 64), these phrases correspond closely to moments in Watchmen featuring Doctor Manhattan. In the first pages of Chapter 4, he holds a photograph, looking at it and experiencing multiple times simultaneously. Then he lets it fall, experiencing the moment of holding it, the moment of it resting in the sand, and the moment of it falling, all at once and in varying orders. Photo falling.

Multiple panels from page 1 and 2 of Watchmen chapter 4. First panel: A photograph lying in red sand. Caption: "In twelve seconds time I drop the photograph to the sand at my feet, walking away. It's already lying there, twelve seconds into the future. Ten seconds now." Panel 2: The photo dropping from Doctor Manhattan's hand. Caption: "Two hours into my future, I observe meteorites from a glass balcony, thinking about my father. Twelve seconds into my past, I open my fingers. The photograph is falling." Panel 3: Doctor Manhattan's hand holding the photo. Caption: "The photograph lies at my feet, falls from my fingers, is in my hand. I am watching the stars, admiring their complex trajectories, through space, through time."

Then in Chapter 9, he looks on as Laurie showers the Martian Valles Marineris with letters and newspaper clippings from her mother’s scrapbook. More fly out as she waves the book at him after they’ve landed, as her memories are beginning to cascade in on her and her own realization hits. Word falling.2

Watchmen, chapter 9, page 21, panels 7 and 8, combined with page 23 panel 9. Panel 1: Laurie and Jon standing on the balcony of Jon's Martian structure. Laurie is tossing clippings into the air. Laurie: "But, I mean, why bother telling you all this? It just confirms things, right? All these wretched, grubby little human encounters: better off without 'em! None of it ever meant a damn thing anyway. Panel 2: Long shot of the clippings falling from the flying structure. Laurie: "I mean, these, my mother's clippings; her whole life, right there! What's it mean? In your terms, next to a... a neutrino, next to something you can't even see, for Christ's sake? It means nothing!" Jon: "Laurie..." Panel 3: Laurie waving the scrapbook, clippings falling out. Superimposed captions: "What do you think I am?" "...friend's daughter?" "...his, y'know, his..." "only once." "...y'know, his old friend's dau..." Laurie: "I-I mean look, here, my life, my mom's life, there's nothing there worth avoiding, it's all just meaningless..." Laurie, word balloon with lots of white space around the word: "No."

Not only do both pieces of Burroughs’ incantation map clearly to pieces of Watchmen, both of the places they map to are clearly cutting up the narrative. In Chapter 4, panels appear out of chronological sequence, and narration very explicitly jumps around in time. In Chapter 9, as Laurie realizes who her father is, each panel’s image is superimposed with words from different parts of her previously narrated memories: “Only once.” — “What do you think I am?” — “…old friend’s daughter?” — “What do you think…” — “…his, y’know, his…”

In the latter case, the cut-up undeniably leads to a breakthrough. Jon tells Laurie that she should “relax enough to see the whole continuum, life’s pattern or lack of one.” Like Rorschach looking at the blot, she disassembles the pieces of her memories, putting them back together in a way that creates new associations, shining light where she’d been afraid to look. “Can’t a guy talk to his, y’know, his…” — “…daughter?”

Does she break out of control? Hard to say. You could make the case that her mother controlled her by withholding information, but that would seem to be the opposite of the kind of control that concerns Burroughs. Chapter 4, on the other hand, may represent a clearer break from control. In response to the revelation that cancer struck many of his associates, Doctor Manhattan has more of a breakdown than a breakthrough, banishing his tormentors to another location before disappearing himself to Arizona then Mars. In doing so, he breaks out of the situation that was creating his suffering. On the other hand, he does exactly what Veidt planned for him to do — despite his cut-up existence, he still seems subject to a higher form of control. Even in his descriptions of his actions, he casts himself as absent of free will — “a puppet who can see the strings.”

Nova Express

And who is Adrian Veidt’s catspaw in banishing Doctor Manhattan? Why it’s Doug Roth, a writer for the magazine Nova Express. Just why is there a magazine called Nova Express in the Watchmen world, and how can we interpret its role in the story in light of what we know about Burroughs?

It might be helpful at this point to explore some of the things that the phrase “nova express” can mean. In the context of the books, the clearest connection is to a recurring motif about the “nova mob” and the “nova police” who oppose it. In “The Nova Police” routine of The Ticket That Exploded, Burroughs introduces “Inspector J. Lee of the nova police”3, who explains how nova criminals operate:

“The basic nova technique is very simple: Always create as many insoluble conflicts as possible and always aggravate existing conflicts — This is done by dumping on the same planet life forms with incompatible conditions of existence — There is of course nothing ‘wrong’ about any given life form since ‘wrong’ only has reference to conflicts with other life forms — The point is these life forms should not be on the same planet — Their conditions of life are basically incompatible in present time form and it is precisely the work of the nova mob to see that they remain in present time form, to create and aggravate the conflicts that lead to the explosion of a planet, that is to nova” (The Ticket That Exploded, pg. 62)

In this case, “nova” means explosion, and if we take “express” with its meaning of “specially direct or fast”, then “nova express” is the aim of the nova mob — hastening the planet’s demise. “Express” can also mean articulation via language, which Burroughs views as one of the conditions leading to destruction. But the etymology of the explosion meaning of “nova” reaches back to the Latin “novus”, meaning new — the same root that’s behind words like “novelty” and “novice”. And among the many other meanings of “express” is the concept of manifestation, or putting into form. So another way of seeing “nova express” is the manifestation of something new, which Watchmen certainly was in the comics world.

Finally, there’s one more meaning of “express” which would be particularly available to a British writer: “a messenger or a message specially sent.”4 We see this reflected in the name of Britain’s Daily Express newspaper, a paper which as of Moore’s day (and since) seems fervently dedicated to the same aims as the nova mob itself.

Two panels from Watchmen: Chapter 3, page 18, panel 1, and Chapter 8, page 23, panel 1. Panel 1: a stack of Nova Express magazines being passed from one set of hands to another. The cover reads "Manhattan cancer link new evidence. Inside: Janey Slater speaks", with a picture of Dr. Manhattan. Voice balloon from off-panel: "Ha! I knew it! Willya lookit that!" Second voice balloon from off-panel: "Sorry they're late. They wanted to wait 'til the T.V. show was on the air before they played the grand slam." Caption in pirate-comic style: "The freighter's murderous onslaught had surprised us." Panel two: Medium shot of Laurie, with Jon's hands in the foreground holding an issue of Nova Express. The cover reads "Super-heroes in the news." Laurie: "Jon? Oh Jesus, I... I, I mean they said you'd gone. They said you were on Mars..."

With these definitions in hand, let’s have a look at the role of Nova Express the magazine. In its interrogation of Doctor Manhattan, resulting in his exile, it certainly aggravates existing conflicts. With Doctor Manhattan out of the picture, the Soviets are emboldened to step up their aggressive maneuvers, knowing that the United States’ countermeasure has been removed. Ironically, unlike the nova mob, Nova Express accelerates conflicts by removing an incompatible life form from the planet, convincing Doctor Manhattan that he is “incapable of cohabiting safely either emotionally or physically” with other humans.

In its role as a magazine, it obviously takes part in linguistic expression, exercising control through the word virus as Burroughs saw it. This covers the messenger/newspaper meanings as well. So what about the notion of manifesting something new? Does Nova Express do that in the Watchmen world? Well, its place in that world is to stand in progressive opposition to the right-wing New Frontiersman. In the sense that progressive positions tend to welcome novelty while conservative positions tend to reject it, I suppose we could say that it brings on the new, but on the other hand it doesn’t seem to do so with much wisdom.

Despite his clearly leftist sympathies, Moore does not make Nova Express into any kind of journalistic paragon in the Watchmen world. Instead, the magazine seems to be more or less an extension of Adrian Veidt’s will, doing his bidding to manipulate his fellow costumed adventurers and running the occasional hagiographic interview with him. It is Veidt, ultimately, who plays the nova mob role in Watchmen, hastening the planet’s destruction so that he can heroically step in and (attempt to) save it.

Listen to My Last Words Anywhere

Nova Express (the novel) opens with an elegiac yet clarion excoriation, in a routine called “Last Words”:

Listen to my last words anywhere. Listen to my last words any world. Listen all you boards syndicates and governments of the earth. And you powers behind what filth deals consummated in what lavatory to take what is not yours. To sell the ground from unborn feet forever — (Nova Express, pg. 1)

If you’ve read past page 1 of Watchmen, you’re likely to associate the bitter tone of this declaration with what we read of Rorschach’s journal as the story opens. Similarly, the irony of beginning a book with a section called “Last Words” carries right over into Watchmen, in which Rorschach’s journal serves as the alpha and the omega of the series. Later in the routine, Burroughs calls for truth and revelation:

Listen: I call you all. Show your cards all players. Pay it all pay it all pay it all back. Play it all play it all play it all back. For all to see. In Times Square. In Piccadilly. (Nova Express, pg. 2)

Just so, Rorschach’s last words, the diary dropped in a mail slot, are intended to show the cards of all players, most particularly Adrian Veidt, who has been dealing secretly throughout the book. And the vehicle for these words of truth? Watchmen‘s antithesis to Nova Express, The New Frontiersman.

I hesitate to extract from this some definitive argument about which side Moore favors. Like an ink blot, Watchmen can tend to evoke the already extant politics, value system, and alignments of its readers, and Moore plays the story evenhandedly enough that there are legitimate claims on both sides.

However, I will argue that in their painstaking creation of the jewel-like structure of Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons refute the aleatory element of Burroughs’ cut-up technique. Because “juxtaposed sequential visual art” is not a sufficient definition of comics. Otherwise you could take a bunch of images, throw them in the air, paste them down in the sequence they fell, and call it a comic. While it would indeed be sequential, and while it indeed might create associations in its reader, it would be too random and arbitrary to be of value. As McCloud finds when refining his definition of comics, “deliberate sequence” is key to the medium.

Panels 1 and 5 from page 9 of Understanding Comics. Panel one: McCloud's avatar holding up a sign reading "Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence." Panel 2: A dictionary definition of comics: "Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer."

It turns out that Moore and Gibbons are deeply interested in juxtaposition, but not at all interested in randomness.5 It is Ozymandias who thinks that random inputs provide him with greater insight, and it is also Ozymandias whose methods mirror those of the nova mob. If anyone in the story is associated with the kind of control that Burroughs spends the books resisting, it is Ozymandias. And it is Ozymandias who is most closely affiliated with the entity called Nova Express in Watchmen.

There is absolutely nothing random about any of Moore and Gibbons’ juxtapositions. Each one (and there are hundreds) is quite deliberate, “intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” The effectiveness of these juxtapositions repudiates Burroughs-style cut-ups as a structure for fiction, and their strong authorial presence stands in opposition to Burroughs’ desire to undermine the notion of authorship. However, in both the book’s structure and the experiences of the characters, Watchmen affirms the value of disrupted sequence as a means of achieving breakthroughs or breaking control. As we’ve seen, Doctor Manhattan’s entire existence is a cut-up, and the book clearly associates it with moments of realization and interrupted control. Rorschach himself, in his last words, attempts to cut Ozymandias’s control lines with weapons of truth strung together in text.

There’s also the fact that Burroughs cut-up or folded-in a number of other sources into his text besides his own — Fitzgerald, Shakespeare, Eliot, Wordsworth, Porter, Newsweek, etc. Burroughs didn’t choose these sources at random, and sometimes they are thematically aligned with whatever seems to be going on nearby. But Moore is much more intentional about his inclusions, as this entire project continues to explore. Sometimes, though, both with the annotations and my annotations of the annotations, we have to ask whether we’re creating associations from the juxtapositions that may never have been there for Moore to begin with. I suspect that to be true, for example, with Diva, and even The Comedians, which Moore himself acknowledges as a source, seems to have very little bearing on the material.

Burroughs would answer, and I suspect Moore might agree, that it doesn’t matter — associations that exist within us are valid, and perhaps even as valid or more valid than whatever might fall under the umbrella of authorial control. But by the same token, I find as a reader that Moore’s intentional juxtapositions are far, far more valuable to me than Burroughs’ accidental ones. For me, Burroughs’ cut-up texts are mostly incoherent, with a few flashes of serendipitous meaning. Compare that to Watchmen, which is highly coherent and still contains those flashes of serendipity. Moore himself attests to these, in the New Comics interview:

The thing was that with Watchmen if you read that original synopsis it’s the bare skeleton. There’s the plot there, but it’s what’s happened since then that’s the real surprise because there’s all this other stuff that’s crept into it, all this deep stuff, the intellectual stuff. [laughs] That wasn’t planned. The thing seems to have taken on an identity of its own since we kicked it off, which is always nice. (The New Comics, pg. 98)

Watchmen demonstrates that randomness isn’t necessary to serendipitous associations, and that in fact an excess of randomness may be inimical to them. It may be that when you cut into the present, the future leaks out, but what’s even more powerful is arranging the present so that it becomes the future.

Previous entry: The Last To Know Who’s Fooling Who

Endnotes

1Granted, they are sometimes called the Nova Trilogy, but that’s kind of a misnomer too — the Nova Mob/Nova Police concepts barely appear in The Soft Machine, and can hardly be said to dominate any of the books. [Back to post]

2And what about “Break Through in Grey Room”? Well, it doesn’t involve Doctor Manhattan, but arguably the book’s biggest breakthrough is when Nite Owl realizes that Adrian Veidt has been the prime mover behind all the book’s events. He cracks the case in Adrian’s penthouse office, which is lit only by the ambient glow of the city. John Higgins colors the room grey, as well as both Rorschach and Nite Owl. Break through in grey room.
Chapter 10, page 21, panel 4 of Watchmen. Two-shot of Nite Owl and Rorschach, colored grey, in a room also colored grey. Nite Owl: "I know it's crazy, and I don't want to believe it, but perhaps we should find Adrian fast. 'Karnak'... Rameses built a gigantic hall there; a monument. Karnak must be Veidt's Antarctic retreat. Better grab those papers from his desk..."
[Back to post]

3“Lee” was Burroughs’ mother’s maiden name, and a frequent pen name/alter ego of his. [Back to post]

4Some definitions of “express” taken from the Random House College Dictionary 1988 edition, which has been with me, not coincidentally, since my high school graduation. [Back to post]

5It should be said that Burroughs himself didn’t uncritically accept the results of every cut-up. He claims to have edited carefully to keep the gold and remove the dross, and his changing mind about which was which is part of what led to the multiple editions of various books in the cut-up trilogy. However, having slogged through the many cut-up passages in those three books, I would contend that his standards for what to retain were far, far too low. [Back to post]

Album Assignments: 11

The Smithereens never made it to the top of the pops, but lots of Gen X-ers like me have fond memories of their late-Eighties run, and 11 was their peak. Of course, their peak was a little difficult to distinguish from the rest of their arc, because consistency is one of the band’s defining characteristics. “Blood And Roses” and “Behind The Wall Of Sleep” hit alternative radio in 1986, and colleges were rocking out to “A Girl Like You” three years later, but they might as well have come from the same album.

For that matter, “A Girl Like You”, “Blues Before And After”, “Baby Be Good”, and “Yesterday Girl” are so similar to each other that when one of them is running through my head it tends to seamlessly blend into one of the others, Beatles Love style. This isn’t a slam — it may be kinda like one long song, but it’s a great song! And it’s not like that’s the Smithereens’ only mood. “Blue Period” exudes a matter-of-fact melancholy, and “Kiss Your Tears Away” is a lovely, loving goodnight.

Still, the rockers are the band’s strength and it’s no accident that they were the first three singles from this album. “A Girl Like You” is a fine pop song, but I think “Yesterday Girl” is the best version of Smithereens rock on 11. The riff and the melody counterpoint each other marvelously, and the lyrics cleverly play with time and meaning, switching from “that was yesterday, girl” to “you’re my yesterday girl” to show how the narrator has moved on without bitterness. “When I think about religion, well, there’s no one to blame” was a line that resonated strongly with me in the song’s heyday.

Album cover for 11

I also have a special fondness for “The Blues Before And After”, because I used it as the title for a huge independent study project I wrote in college, tracing lyrical themes from blues artists like Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters through the rock and roll of Chuck Berry and The Beatles. And who do I have to thank for that inspired title? The guy who assigned this album to me, Robby Herd.

The title was apt because just as my project traced influence through a chain, so do the Smithereens wear their influences on their sleeves. Their riff-y rockers are stamped straight from the template created by The Who and The Kinks. The harpsichord solo in “Blue Period” is a direct homage to the one in The Beatles’ “In My Life” (though, granted, the Beatles didn’t use a harpsichord but rather a piano played back at double speed.) And when Pat DiNizio sings “I believe in true love ways” for “Maria Elena”, he’s declaring allegiance to Buddy Holly.

How interesting, then, that the band who so deftly apes their heroes and whose songs so often strongly echo each other should nod on this album to the classic Edgar Allan Poe doppelgänger story “William Wilson.” In Poe’s story, the narrator tells a story of his childhood and young adulthood, during which he was haunted by another boy with the same name, the same birthday, and (it’s hinted) the same face. As his double ruins scheme after scheme, the narrator finally stabs him in frustration, at which time it’s revealed that the other William Wilson was something like the narrator’s conscience.

In The Smithereens’ song, by contrast, the narrator “tell[s] no stories” and “sleep[s] good at night.” But still he’s haunted by a William Wilson, a source of heartache who could only be abolished with music, and even then not always successfully. The narrator wants to be like him, wants to talk to him, and he lies in bed wondering about the life he’s led. Finally, the narrator understands that “we’re both just the same” and declares that his own name is William Wilson.

What I hear in this song is two kinds of doubling — first, the idea of an alternate self who made different choices, hence “wondering about the life you led.” Second, there’s the alter ego along the lines of the Poe story, an internal voice who wrecks our desire for a simple life with complicated thoughts, which can’t always be dispelled no matter how loud we turn up the speakers. When the narrator hears “there’s no one to blame but William Wilson,” it’s the voice of his conscience talking about himself. There’s also one slight other possibility, if we speculate that there’s more than one “you” addressed in the song — the notion of William Wilson as the man an ex ends up with. In that case, she’s the one who says that no one’s to blame but William Wilson, and “let him run wild” is the narrator’s desire to see his ex ditch the other William.

It’s an intellectually satisfying song on a musically satisfying album, one that beautifully reflects the Smithereens’ own strongest tendencies. As underground peaks go, that’s pretty rich.

Album Assignments: 25

Adele is young, but she doesn’t feel that way. I know for sure how young she is, because she does us the favor of naming her albums after her age at the time of their recording. At 19, she was a prodigy who sang about dreams and heartbreak. At 21, she was a genuine phenomenon who sang about heartbreak, heartbreak, heartbreak, and a couple other things, and in the process released the best-selling album of the 21st century, moving over 35 million copies worldwide. These albums were openly confessional, chronicles of relationships gone sour and the multitude of emotions they left in their wake.

23 was not forthcoming. She instead took a break from the music business and had a baby. Come 2015, though, she released another chapter in the story of Adele, called 25. 21 had cemented her image as The One Left Hurting in relationship wreckage, and the first couple of songs on 25 continue in that vein. “Hello” in fact sounds like it may as well have come from 21, and not coincidentally it was the new album’s first single.

It was as if no time had passed. The song went to Number One everywhere, sticking around for 10 weeks at the top spot in the U.S. Adele’s musical persona was just as hurt as ever, and she tells us up front that she “ain’t done much healing.” She also introduces a motif of nostalgia, with an image of herself “in California dreaming about who we used to be / When we were younger and free.”

Album cover from 25

That theme got amplified further in her next single, “When We Were Young,” in which she openly reminisces about those bygone days of youth, during which she and her lover were “sad of getting old.” Now she’s old, and “mad of getting old.”

Right about now is when I start shaking my head and saying, “Adele… you’re twenty-five. You seriously think you’re old?” She sure seems to, as other songs on the album underline that same theme. In fact, one song seriously ups the ante by hyperbolizing the time dilation: “I miss it when life was a party to be thrown / But that was a million years ago.” This amount of nostalgia from somebody in her mid-twenties strikes me as almost comical.

Now, in fairness, Adele has done a lot of living in her years. I certainly wouldn’t know what it’s like to record one of the top-selling albums of all time at 21 years old, and for that matter neither would anybody else in the world this side of Alanis Morissette. There’s an Elton John/Leon Russell documentary in which we hear that fame is like cancer, and Adele certainly has survived an intense dose over the six years between her debut album and this one.

Still, what exactly is she pining for? Flipping back through the first couple of chapters, it sure doesn’t seem like Adele’s life was a party to be thrown. Her way-back-when seems like it was mostly full of pain and yearning, unless perhaps she’s hearkening back to the time before she started recording albums?

In any case, 25 shows us a deepening and broadening of Adele’s experience. Yes, there are plenty of relationship heartbreak songs, along with relationship insecurity songs, and relationship regret songs. But tucked in there are a couple of songs that are directly about her own identity.

The first of these is the aforementioned “Million Years Ago”, whose disappointment and longing for bygone days I find a little puzzling, but the other one fascinates me. It’s called “River Lea”, and from the first lyric it displays a different kind of self-awareness: “Everybody tells me it’s ’bout time that I moved on / That I need to learn to lighten up and learn how to be young.” That sounds a lot like my reaction to “When We Were Young”, though maybe a bit more harsh.

Where it goes from there is even more surprising: “But my heart is a valley, it’s so shallow and man-made / I’m scared to death if I let you in that you’ll see I’m just a fake.” Is this Adele revealing us to us how much performance and amplification is involved in the presentation of her image? Now, before I go further, I need to emphasize that if Adele’s heart is shallow and her emotions are fake, she sure as hell does a magnificent job of performing otherwise. Her songs give me chills, and quite honestly I don’t care if they’re strictly autobiographical or not, though it provides an interesting platform for discussion.

That said, there is a level of melodrama in her work that I think can’t help but be either an exaggeration or an out-of-context set of snapshots from her most extreme emotional moments. In “River Lea”, she goes even further than that, portraying herself as a user of others and an inevitable source of pain. The chorus refers to “every heart I use to heal the pain”, and one verse forecasts the suffering she knows she’ll cause:

I should probably tell you now before it’s way too late
That I never meant to hurt you or to lie straight to your face
Consider this my apology, I know it’s years in advance
But I would rather say it now in case I never get the chance

This is an Adele that is quite separate from the one best known by the world. Instead of the victim, she is the victimizer, and what’s more she knows she’s going to do it. I’m not sure what to make of the river metaphor — perhaps it’s lost on me as an American — but I found this easily the most compelling song on the album, both for its starkly different point of view and for its gorgeous production and instrumentation.

In fact, the production all over this album is fantastic, just as it was on 21. Despite the fact that there are no fewer than eleven credited producers on this album, the consistent thread throughout is that Adele’s dazzling voice remains at the center of every track, and accompaniment for the most part remains simple and subservient. That’s an excellent choice, as vocals should be the star of the show on any Adele album.

Along with the identity songs, 25 gives us a couple of other sides of Adele we hadn’t seen before. “Love In The Dark” shows her as the breaker of a relationship rather than the one left behind. She does it with regret and shame, but with no less clarity for that: “I can’t stay this time ’cause I don’t love you anymore.”

Even more groundbreaking is the final song on the album, “Sweetest Devotion”. Amid a thicket of painful songs, this one is an unabashed expression of joy in love, portrayed as a complete surprise. When she sings, “the sweetest devotion / hit me like an explosion”, it feels like an explosion, and it works just as beautifully as any of the agonized songs that precede it.

Like Melissa Etheridge before her, Adele has made love’s pain the foundation of her career, and we may well wonder whether she has more to give us. If “Sweetest Devotion” is any indication, we need not worry. The growth and exploration on display in 25 makes me eager for the next chapter, wherever it may lead.

Album Assignments: The Dark Side Of The Moon

There’s a rhythm we start with, well before we’re born. A heartbeat. As soon as birth arrives, there’s a new rhythm — the breath. As life continues, more rhythms are introduced. Work has its rhythm, of hours, of days. The relentless ticking of clocks follows us through every minute. Patterns recur, both on the personal level and on larger scales. History repeats itself, like clockwork, and we can feel the heartbeats of economies, of political systems, of ecosystems. Often, we get to see the painful repetitions, the swinging pendulums of human cruelties and human stupidities, human tribalism and self-destruction. Rhythms follow us all the way to the grave, into which we’re lowered accompanied by the tolling of bells. In the meantime, it’s a wonder we don’t go mad. Sometimes we do.

The Dark Side Of The Moon opens with a heartbeat. It’s a syncopated rhythm — thumpTHUMP, thumpTHUMP, thumpTHUMP. As the heartbeat gets louder, new rhythms fade in, a kind of micro-overture for what’s to come — clocks, cash registers, jackhammers. There are voices muttering darkly, unsettling laughter. And finally, screaming.

That’s when the music starts. The palette is electric guitar, bass, drum, and organ. Like everything on this album, they are mixed exquisitely with each other, and they sound perfect. And then come the words, which begin with, “Breathe.”

The Dark Side Of The Moon album cover

Pink Floyd obviously has the big topics on its mind — life, the universe, and everything. The Dark Side Of The Moon might be the grandest Grand Statement in all of rock. Can you think of a grander one? I mean, it starts out with the fundamentals of living — heartbeat, breath — and then systematically steps through the fundamentals of life, starting from the individual and personal, then expanding to cover humanity itself.

That cycle of big life topics starts with work. At the end of “Breathe”, David Gilmour sings:

Run, rabbit, run
Dig that hole, forget the sun
And when at last the work is done
Don’t sit down it’s time to dig another one
For long you’ll live and high you’ll fly
But only if you ride the tide
And balanced on the biggest wave
You race towards an early grave.

These lyrics are clearly setting the stage for a song about work, ambitition, and the ways that they can throw a life out of balance. And indeed, “On The Run” is such a song, but it makes that statement entirely without the use of lyrics. Something extraordinary about The Dark Side Of The Moon is its facility for conveying concepts with pure music. Well, it’s extraordinary for me, anyway. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I struggle with instrumental music — it very easily fades into the background for me. Such is not the case with “On The Run”, nor any of the instrumental parts of this album.

The most prominent part of the song is the intense, fast, merciless rhythm of it. Every note and instrumental effect lays on top of a repeated pattern of very quick notes (hemidemisemiquavers, perhaps?) that convey a feeling of intense pressure and onrushing deadlines — certainly a feeling I’m familiar with in my own work. Desperate running footsteps in the background underline this feeling, and chaos builds and builds throughout the song until it all ends in a massive explosion — the “early grave” we heard about earlier.

But we’re not ready to think about death yet. Instead, as the debris settles from the big boom, we hear a new rhythm: ticking. (Usually the ticking comes before the boom — not this time.) The clock sounds increase until every alarm rings at once, waking us from the nightmare of high-stakes career-induced implosion. Instead, the lyrics talk about the very opposite — “ticking away the moments that make up a dull day / You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.” “Time” is all about wasted time, a lifetime squandered until even the song itself gives up in frustration, its coda returning to the tune of “Breathe.”

The narrator of this section is more like the running rabbit from that song — home only occasionally, cold and tired. “Far away across the fields,” he hears “the tolling of the iron bell.” What bell could that be? Well, in the English countryside, it’s most likely to be a church bell, isn’t it? Those bells ring for a variety of reasons, but a bell tolling is more specific. When the bell tolls, it tolls for death.

This is the rhythm that leads us into “The Great Gig In The Sky”, its gentle slow piano echoing those tolling bells. The rhythm of that piano emphasizes the first and third beat, inscribing the opposite of the opening heartbeat. TONEtone, TONEtone, TONEtone. There are some words at the beginning — a spoken clip of Abbey Road doorman Gerry O’Driscoll declaring he’s not afraid to die. Those words aside, this song is the pinnacle of the album’s ability to portray concepts clearly without the use of lyrics. Clare Torry’s vocals aren’t just technically incredible (though they are that, too) — they inhabit both the terror of death and the peace of it, so completely that it feels like she’s been through it. It’s criminal that she was only paid 30 pounds for that contribution, and quite right that she reached a settlement with EMI and the band giving her co-writing credit with Richard Wright.

Thus ends side one, a full one-act play, the complete journey from birth to death. It feels like a self-contained album on its own, and it’s hard to imagine what more there is to say. Side two answers with the ring of a cash register, opening what I think of as Act Two. “Money” is a companion piece to “Time”, appropriately, and like “Time” it opens with practical sound effects before launching into a brilliant loping bass line from Roger Waters. Like “Time”, it personalizes the big concept with a specific point of view, in this case greed.

“Money” is the song that moves the album from a personal journey to a view of humanity at large. We’ve already been from birth to death, but there’s a bigger picture to see than one person’s life and experience. Money only works as a social construct — there’s nothing to it unless there’s someone else with whom to exchange it, so it’s the fabric of a society, not of a life.

That sets the stage for “Us And Them”, the broadest statement on the album. I keep wanting to say it’s the high point, but I’m not sure there is a high point on this album. It’s a sustained high. In any case, Waters’ dazzling lyrics take in the sum of human folly, incorporating all the ways we separate from each other — race, class, religion, views, anything we can do to declare another human the “other” — and the consequences such alienation brings, in war, in death, in suffering. The general who watched as “the lines on the map moved from side to side” is the, well, general view of a critique that Waters will make very specific in works like The Final Cut and “When The Tigers Broke Free.” It’s a stark portrait of human madness, which opens the door for the album’s final act.

To get there, though, we have one more instrumental passage to traverse, this one without any clear thematic hints like those in “On The Run” and “Great Gig In The Sky.” “Any Colour You Like” is a synth and guitar odyssey that serves a couple of purposes. First, it bridges the gap between Act Two and Act Three, the social commentary and the exploration of madness. Second, it invites the imagination to fill in the blank for whatever we may think was missing from the first two acts. Birth, life, work, time, death, money, alienation, war — what’s missing? You may think it’s love. You may think it’s power. You may think it’s a lot of things, and this song lets you fill in any color you think is missing from the full rainbow of the album.

SACD album cover for The Dark Side Of The Moon

And when it ends we get what Waters saw as the missing piece: madness. This was a topic much on the band’s mind, as they lived an insane 1970s rock star lifestyle and had already seen mental illness claim their former bandmate Syd Barrett. “Brain Damage” is about both personal madness (the lunatic in my head) and societal madness (the lunatics in the newspaper.) It’s about the futility of trying to excise that madness, and the odd comfort of knowing that we’re all in it together — that there is no dark side of the moon, really, because as a matter of fact it’s all dark.

All of it. With a transcendent drum intro from Nick Mason, “Eclipse” brings all the grand statements to a shattering peak by encompassing everything in our experience — a long series of statements that include the full totality of that experience, a totality embodied by its title and final image: the sun eclipsed by the moon. Whoever we are, whatever happens to us, the darkness will find us.

And then, finally, we return to that heartbeat, the sign of life, and perhaps the sign of hope. Even when the sun is hidden, there is still life.

Robby assigned me this album in honor of the eclipse, and I have to say it was pretty amazing to be listening to it on the day that totality crossed the United States. With the folded faces of more and more lunatics appearing in my hall every day, with “Us And Them” at a greater intensity in my country than I’ve ever seen, with work frenetic and time slipping by, and with madness afoot in the land, this album resonated profoundly for me, and I’m clinging to that heartbeat at the end, as the rhythms of life continue undiminished by it all.