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.

Advertisements

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.

Album Assignments: I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You

Aretha Franklin has always been a greatest hits artist for me. I love her, but I’ve never sought out one of her albums, relying instead on various hits collections and her 1992 box set. So I wondered if listening to an album instead would recontextualize Franklin’s songs in a different way.

Here’s what I found out, though, at least when it comes to this album: it might as well be a greatest hits collection! Of the album’s 11 songs, fully nine of them appear on the box set. The only ones not included are “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream” and, for some reason, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” This last one is a bit inexplicable — it’s a marvelously powerful interpretation of a song already written and made into a classic by Sam Cooke, a far better song than, say, “Drown In My Tears.” (Not that the latter is bad — Aretha could prety much do no wrong in this period — but if you’re only going to leave two songs off the box set, why would you keep “Drown” to lose “A Change”?)

Album cover for I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You

Something fascinating about Franklin’s version of “A Change Is Gonna Come” is the way it covers the song but creates a distance between Franklin and Cooke, with Franklin standing aside from Cooke’s story. For instance, the Cooke version begins, “I was born by the river, in a little tent.” Franklin’s version starts like this:

There’s an old friend that
I once heard say
Something that touched my heart
And it began this way:
I was born by the river, in a little tent

If she had begun with the river line, she would be telling the story as her own, but instead, she leaves the story to Cooke, telling it as an extended quotation. In fact, there are times she diverges from it specifically to disagree with its ambiguity. Where Cooke sings, “It’s been too hard livin’ / But I’m afraid to die / ‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there / Beyond the sky”, Franklin sings, “He said it’s been too hard livin’ / But I’m afraid to die / I might not be if I knew what was up there / Beyond the sky.” Where Cooke expresses fear and doubt, Franklin replaces it with faith, albeit a faith that still is undogmatic enough to say, “I might not be.”

And then the story truly does become her own. In Cooke’s third verse, he goes to a “brother” and asks for help, but that brother “winds up knockin’ me back down on my knees.” Franklin’s version frames the encounter differently:

I went, I went to my brother
And I asked him, brother could you help me please?
He said, good sister, I’d like to but I’m not able
And when I, when I looked around, I was right back down
Down on my bended knees, yes I was

It’s in this verse that Franklin clearly identifies herself as a woman dealing with a man. Whereas in Cooke’s song the “brother” might have been seemingly sympathetic white people, engaged in a dialectic that is strictly about race, in Franklin’s version gender has entered the picture, and the object of supplication identifies himself as powerless — probably not a white man, but rather a black man whose own subjugation has rendered him unable to help black women. Through her own identity, Franklin is able to add a layer of meaning to Cooke’s masterpiece, and her own hope that a change will one day arrive for her, both as an African-American and as a woman.

Aretha’s womanhood matters in this song, just as it matters in the album’s other bookend, her cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect.” This song has become so iconic, so ubiquitous, such a signature for Franklin, that it’s quite difficult to hear it as it must have sounded in 1967. But let’s try. Redding’s version emerged in 1965, becoming a top five hit on the Black Singles Chart, and crossing over to reach number 35 on the Billboard Hot 100. In Redding’s song, he’s a breadwinner who says, “You can do me wrong while I’m gone,” but pleads for respect when he comes home with money.

Franklin tells a different story. In it, she is the breadwinner, and a loyal one at that who says, “I ain’t gonna do you wrong while you’re gone / Ain’t gonna do you wrong, ’cause I don’t wanna.” In this song, she is asking for his respect when he comes home, and makes it clear that this respect is the condition upon which she’ll give him her money. She makes the stakes clear in the end: “Stop, when you come home / Or you might walk in and find out I’m gone.”

This had to be a fairly stunning reversal when it was first released. Casting a woman as a breadwinner was unusual for the times, but even more unusual was her confident demand for respect. Where Redding begged for just one thing, respect from his woman, and was willing to allow infidelity in order to get it, Franklin brooks no alternative from her man. Not just as a woman, but as a black woman, “Respect” was her declaration of her own rights, and it’s delivered with such passion that it’s no wonder it has inspired civil rights activists of all stripes for years.

Not that I Never Loved A Man is such a political album. Aside from those two songs, most of it deals with matters of the heart, or in the case of “Dr. Feelgood,” matters of the body. Over gospel instrumentation of piano, organ, horns, and soft drums, Franklin delivers a stirring testimony to attraction and lust. A soulful beat underscores her impatience to be alone with her man, and the lengths to which she’s willing to go to get “my mother, my brother, or my sister” out of the house so that she can be alone with him.

Franklin’s vocals throughout this album are astonishing, but for me nowhere more so than on this song, which takes the blues AAB lyric structure and makes it sound like she can’t help but repeat herself, just from the strength of her own feelings. The windup of the song, the “oh!”s and “yeah!”s, and most especially the final “good”, are quite simply the heady, overwhelming passion of new love turned into sound.

Look at this, I’ve gone on for ages and only touched three songs on this album. I’m going to stop before I fill up my night and this blog with exultation. Suffice it to say that there’s a reason why this album is so massively represented in her hits collections: I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You is Aretha Franklin at her absolute best, and considering what a legend she is, that peak reaches above pretty much every singer, ever.

Album Assignments: The Nightfly

The physical media of Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly has long since passed out of my life. I first taped it from vinyl back in the mid-Eighties, complete with a scratch on the title track that jumped over about 3 seconds’ worth of music. (Another reason I’ve never been on board the vinyl nostalgia train.) Some time later, I bought a more pristine copy, but in mp3 form only. However, all this time I’ve remembered a key fact from the liner notes, one that Wikipedia has been kind enough to reproduce for me, saving me the trouble of paraphrasing. Quoth Fagen himself:

Note: The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.

In other words, this is a prime specimen of that fantastic beast, the concept album. Each song on The Nightfly represents in one way or another the teen dreams of Fagen himself, albeit written now from the distance of adulthood. Those childhood imaginings mixed romantic notions of hard-boiled heartbreak with giddily optimistic visions of the future, both for the world and for himself.

Album cover for The Nightfly

Nowhere is that optimism more obvious than in “I.G.Y.”. The International Geophysical Year was a project undertaken by 67 nations from July 1957 through December 1958. Satellites were launched, undersea ridges were mapped, the Van Allen belt was explored, Antarctic research bases were built, and more. In young Fagen’s eyes, all this scientific advancement and international cooperation meant that “a beautiful world” was just around the corner — by 1976 we’d have cities powered by the sun, leisure time for artists everywhere, eternal youth and freedom.

But of course, this album came out in 1982, and despite its wide-eyed lyrics, Fagen’s voice can’t help but lend a sardonic edge to every song. Thus, unlike Howard Jones’ version of this leadoff track, Fagen’s original maintains some ironic distance from its narrator, whose glorious ideals had already been disproven.

Nevertheless, youthful hope pervades many of the songs on this album. “Walk Between The Raindrops” envisions our hero in an idealized relationship, in an idyllic Miami setting. The title image evokes an untouchability, divine providence to see the lovers unscathed through every adversity. Similarly, “Maxine” paints the future of a high-school romance as a whirlwind of exotic travel, sophisticated living, and morning lovemaking. The album’s sole cover, a version of Dion’s “Ruby Baby”, fits into this sunny daydream world too — within its story of unrequited love is the firm belief that “I’m gonna steal you away from all those guys.”

“New Frontier” sits apart from these other songs. Like “Maxine”, it’s spoken by the high-school boy, but unlike “Maxine”, its visions of the future are in service of making things happen in the present. Young Fagen (or in any case a narrator who might as well be young Fagen) is throwing a “wingding”, presumably in his parents’ absence, inviting friends to explore “a dugout that my dad built / In case the Reds decide to push the button down” — in other words, a fallout shelter. That shelter is fortified with “lots of beer”, which the boy hopes will help him score with a blonde girl who’s “got a touch of Tuesday Weld.”

For this girl, he spins a fantasy which manages to combine an “I.G.Y.”-ish enthusiasm for a perfect future, a “Maxine”-ish idea of his dazzling path into manhood, and an entirely improbable excitement about a post-nuclear world in which “we’ll open up the doors and climb into the dawn.” All of it, though, is to get this girl alone in the shelter. He asks if she’s single, chats her up about jazz, and urges her to “pretend that it’s the real thing” so that they can “stay together all night long.” Forget about the streamlined world, this “New Frontier” is much more personal and sexual than global and scientific.

There’s another side to this album, though, albeit no less sentimental in its way. “Green Flower Street” is our first hint. In this tune, the narrator is a pulp hero, who woos an Asian woman (“my mandarin plum”) in a dangerous milieu, where “it’s murder out in the street” and “there’s trouble most every night.” Despite her brother’s rage at the interracial affair, the hero’s “joy is complete” when he’s with his lover.

The equally pulpy hero of “The Goodbye Look” doesn’t fare quite as well. The title is a bit anachronistic for the “late fifties and early sixties” concept — the line “I read the book” directs us pretty clearly to a literary predecessor, which I thought for sure would have been a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett yarn, but instead turns out to be from a 1969 novel by Ross MacDonald, the spiritual successor to those innovators of the hard-boiled detective story.

The song’s plot has nothing to do with MacDonald’s book, though — it’s more akin to Graham Greene’s “The Comedians”, if anything — a westerner caught in the machinations of a corrupt Caribbean island government. His tone, though, nails those hard-boiled hallmarks of understatement (“a small reception just for me” is redolent with menace) and regret (in the dream of an old lover, and the title kiss-off image.) That tough-tender combination, reminiscent of Elvis Costello’s “Watching The Detectives”, is the teenage boy’s masculine ideal, fed by a hundred Chandlers, Hammetts, and MacDonalds too.

That leaves us with the title track, whose title character finds the apogee of the heartbroken hero. Lester the Nightfly brims with sarcasm, a tone Fagen can play to a T. From his citadel at the foot of Mt. Belzoni, he beams “jazz and conversation” into the world, sucking down “java and Chesterfield Kings”, and berating his callers for their wacky views or their inattention to preventing echo by leaving their radio playing during a call. He shills for “that little blue jar / Patton’s Kiss And Tell”, and revels in sweet music. And yet, he says, “I feel like crying,” and wishes for a heart of ice. The bridge brings us the rest of the story, a long-ago love who he still pines for to this day.

In the context of “Green Flower Street” and “The Goodbye Look”, it’s easy to see how this image might have appealed to young Fagen. He’s kind of a spiritual cousin to the title character in Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues”, who manages to make car crashes and alcohol poisoning sound like the perfect expression of artistic freedom. The dissolute loser, who gambled at life and lost, is a romantic archetype all its own, and a young man who feels unlucky in love can at least dream of nursing heartbreak while devoting himself to music.

With the exception of the album’s nod to Dion, that music is jazz. Brubeck gets name-checked specifically, but the sound of the whole album wouldn’t feel entirely out of place on WJAZ. True, he covers Dion (or The Drifters, I suppose), but on The Nightfly Donald Fagen shows us who he was, and why he’d go on to bring jazz and rock together so memorably.

Album Assignments: The Airborne Toxic Event

Way back near the beginning of this Album Assignments thing, I heard The Airborne Toxic Event for the first time. They were featured on a Paul McCartney tribute album, covering one of Sir Paul’s lower lights, “No More Lonely Nights.”

That this was my first exposure to the band probably fulfills some stereotype about parents in their 40s. If the shoe fits, I suppose. In any case, I was quite impressed with the cover — it took a pretty hokey McCartney song and infused it with a tenderness, a loveliness even. Combined with a strong recommendation from a friend whose wife happened to be schoolmates with the lead singer (Mikel Jollett), and another fine tribute album cover (of Dylan’s “Boots Of Spanish Leather”), I put them on my “dig deeper” list, and now here we are.

What becomes clear after listening to TATE’s 2008 debut album is that their softhearted covers aren’t much of an advertisement for their original music, which is fierce and angsty. The album kicks off with a terrific track called “Wishing Well”, which starts as a slow burn and drops into rock propulsion about 75 seconds in, at the lyric “you wanna run away”, throwing in a well-placed f-bomb just to let you know it means business. The song tells a story of somebody tossed by the winds of fate, tumbling off an emotional cliffside, screaming and crying but somehow hoping for the best.

Album cover for The Airborne Toxic Event

Wikipedia informs me that Jollett started writing songs when a confluence of horrible events hit — a breakup, mother diagnosed with cancer, and Jollett himself diagnosed with an an autoimmune disease. That certainly fits with the mood of “Wishing Well”, which has the mood of someone pushed to the extreme by events beyond his control.

Still, it seems like the breakup is the overriding source of anguish, or perhaps it’s just the one that’s easiest to write songs about. Almost every song on The Airborne Toxic Event has some connection with a broken relationship, from the trauma flashbacks of “Something New” to the epic mourning of “Innocence” to the self-explanatory devastation of “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?”

Each of these songs does a marvelous job at conveying the shattered feelings that lie in the wake of love’s dissolution, and if they didn’t speak to me quite as much as they would have 25 years ago, chalk that up to being a parent in my 40s.

Youthful romantic crisis is the name of the game throughout most of this album, but one standout exception is “Gasoline.” The beat is no less fervent and the riff no less urgent than in any of the other songs, but this time the narrator is older, and the subject is nostalgia. This time he’s in a relationship, but reminiscing about the passion of his young love:

And she’ll step away
For a second or two
And I close my eyes
And I think of you

We were only seventeen
We were holding in our screams
Like we’d torn it from the pages
Of some lipstick magazine
And you scratch and turn
And say, “Let’s burn ourselves up ’til we scream”
Like gasoline

Jollett does an amazing job on this vocal, pitching his tone with near-hysteria on the memory choruses but tossing off the last line almost like an afterthought, caught immediately by staccato guitar and Noah Harmon’s bass. The whole thing is a fantastic gestalt — I think it’s my favorite song on the album. But that’s just because it’s an awesome song. Definitely nothing to do with being a parent in my 40s.

Album Assignments: Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie

I’m a Fleetwood Mac fan, so it’s been said. But while that’s accurate, it isn’t 100% true. What I really am is a Stevie Nicks fan. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the Stevie-less versions of Fleetwood Mac, but they don’t inspire the passion and allegiance that I have for the band when she’s in it. Obviously, there was about 8 years of Fleetwood Mac before they’d even heard of Buckingham or Nicks, the group having gone through a half-dozen or so lineup changes as various members drifted into drug-induced withdrawal, religion-induced disappearance, alcoholism, sleeping with the drummer’s wife, and so forth.

That band, in its various lineups, put out plenty of great music, but I think it’s generally agreed (except perhaps by strident blues purists) that the peak lineup of Fleetwood Mac was the one that coalesced in 1975: Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Christine McVie, John McVie, Stevie Nicks. Not that they haven’t had plenty of contortions since then. There was the no-Lindsey version. There was the no-Lindsey and no-Stevie version. Then after a brief Clinton-induced classic lineup reunion, there was about 17 years of the no-Christine version. That version did a lot of touring, but not a lot of recording. Aside from the 2003 album Say You Will (which, at 18 songs, is like a double album at least), the only other studio work from that incarnation was the 2013 EP Extended Play, which called itself a Fleetwood Mac album but in my opinion should have been billed more like “Lindsey Buckingham and Friends”. Buckingham wrote 3 of the EP’s 4 songs, and that fourth one was a re-recording of a 1973 Buckingham Nicks demo — more like half a Stevie song, since although she wrote it, she shared lead vocals with Lindsey.

Then, in 2014, Christine shockingly rejoined the band, and toured extensively with them, multiple legs of an “On With The Show” tour. It seemed like the classic Mac was finally back, but… Stevie had put her solo career on hold for ages for that tour, and was itching to promote her own work. So while four-fifths of Fleetwood Mac was eager to record fresh material, Stevie was not up for it.

Album cover of Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie

The result is Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie. Given all of the band’s lineup changes, this group has just as much right to call itself Fleetwood Mac as the Say You Will incarnation. The fact that they didn’t is quite telling of how important Stevie Nicks has become to the Fleetwood Mac brand. Instead, although Mick and John play on every track of this collection, it’s billed as a duet album, rather like a bookend to the phenomenal 1973 pre-Mac Buckingham Nicks record.

Knowing this up front, I was quite excited for this album. Stevie is on a level by herself for me, but I absolutely love Christine, and some of her past vocal collaborations with Lindsey (“World Turning”, “Don’t Stop”) have been stellar. I appreciate Lindsey as a fine songwriter, an exceptional guitarist, and a gifted producer. Mind you, I also know him to be egomaniacal, controlling, and (if multiple biographical accounts as well as his own oblique admissions are to be believed) occasionally abusive. That tempers my appreciation of his work, but all the same I loved Buckingham Nicks, and I liked Say You Will quite a bit, so a melding of the two with Christine in Stevie’s place is sure to be a winner with me, right?

Well, sort of. It’s an enjoyable album, there’s no doubt about it. There’s said to be some effect from being in a group, that the members challenge each other and pull each other out of comfort zones to everyone’s benefit. You’ve got your Lennon/McCartney, your Jagger/Richards, and your Buckingham/McVie/Nicks. Some of the benefit of that triad lingers even with Stevie removed — compared to their most recent solo work, Christine sounds more energized and exciting here, and Lindsey sounds more grounded, spending more energy on putting his songs over than on wowing us with his virtuosic picking skills.

But while the album is called Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie, that billing is accurate but not quite true. The overall impression, for me, is of Lindsey overwhelming the album and stifling any sense of group dynamic. Certainly on his five songs, I don’t hear Christine at all. They could pass for solo album tracks, and for all I know that’s what they are, just repurposed for this project. It wouldn’t be the first time — in fact most studio Fleetwood Mac albums since 1987 have that pedigree, at least the ones produced by Lindsey.

Christine’s songs, on the other hand, have Lindsey all over them. In fact, several of them sound like they’re going to be Lindsey songs until her voice kicks in. What’s more, a few actually recapitulate old material of Lindsey’s. “Red Sun” begins with a drumbeat identical to that from Say You Will‘s “What’s The World Coming To?”. The “Too Far Gone” riff is a slightly scrambled and sped-up version of the one from “Wrong”, a Lindsey solo track from 1992. And “Carnival Begin” starts out sounding like it’s going to echo “I’m So Afraid” from the 1975 self-titled Fleetwood Mac album, and when the solo starts it veers back in that direction again.

What they all have in common is that they are guitar songs. The sound of Christine’s piano and keyboards is a fundamental part of the magic from the first four “classic lineup” Fleetwood Mac albums — Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk, and Mirage — but it’s very hard to find here. That’s what makes “Game Of Pretend” such a breath of fresh air. It’s the only song with a prominent piano sound, and it’s beautiful. Even in this song, Lindsey eventually shows up with a choir of himself — multitracked processed layers of his own vocals accompanying Christine on the chorus — but nevertheless it’s the one song on the album that feels like it really belongs to Christine, and probably as a result, it’s my favorite.

There’s a song on this album called “On With The Show”, and probably intentionally, its guitar part calls back quite clearly to a song called “You And I, Part II” from the 1987 Fleetwood Mac album Tango In The Night. Looking back, I can see how that album marked a turning point for Fleetwood Mac aurally. Buckingham had produced the previous albums, but his production tended to bring out and enhance the other players. Tango is different — it ensconces the others in a full-on Lindsey show, fantastic ear candy but much more about the production than the singers, the songs, or the playing (except of course for the guitar playing.) The subsequent Buckingham-produced Mac studio albums have followed suit.

For the longest time, I ascribed Tango‘s sound to the 80s, and explained away the subsequent albums as due to the absence of Christine. But with this album I can see the stranglehold that Lindsey Buckingham has on the sound of this band for the past three decades. The only one who’s been able to successfully escape it is Stevie Nicks, and only then by completely removing herself from the band and recording with other producers like John Shanks, Sheryl Crow, and Dave Stewart.

“On With The Show” sounds like it intends to be a statement of solidarity from Lindsey. “As long as I stand / I will take your hand / I will stand with my band”, he says. But after listening to this album on repeat, I couldn’t stop wishing that he spent more time standing with the band and less time standing on them.