Raymond Carver – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

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How do short stories work? How does any story work? Stories are a series of events connected by a theme, time and circumstances. They lead into one another and eventually conclude. Every ending is a beginning, of course. The end of a relationship is the beginning of a life as a single. Still, we live with these beginnings and endings – we draw lines between childhood and adulthood, day and night and Mondays and Sundays.

If you want to aim for realism, you need to remember this bias when writing stories. Beginnings and endings are what give stories meaning and we tell a story because it means something. It can be funny, it can show something about love but you never tell a story just to tell a story. Carver’s stories have some kind of a beginning, but no real endings. Sometimes they end with a punch, sometimes with the implication something terrible is about to happen. Concrete endings are rare, yet these stories still work.

Is this poetry, or is this literature? What’s the boundry between them?

Carver’s stories work because he puts the purpose way ahead of structure. His purpose isn’t clear-cut, which makes it all the more impressive when his stories work. There is no specific situation Carver wants to explore, no guideline that connects the stories. A lot of drinking happens and love is a big deal, but that’s because love is a big deal in general.

He tries to tap into life’s energy. If this sounds overly-sentimental, it’s because it’s hard to talk about the stories in any other way. How he achieves such emotional resonance is still unclear. Characters might as well not exist and stories rarely end or begin. It must be because of the unique structure of the book.

Few stories here stand on their own. Even the best one requires prior experience with his style before enjoying them. In fact, even as an experienced reader in minimalism and in Carver (I actually read this a long time ago in its original version – Beginners) it took me time to get into it. The style is so minimalist, so sparse that it’s shocking at first. We’re used to maximalist literature. Every beginner writer who gave me their stories to review has overflowing language.

We look for the grandness. We look for the symbol or the sentence that repeats itself, or characers talking about who they are. Carver creates Everymen by letting the situation speak for itself. In one story, everyone lives in Alburquerque but are all from somewhere else. In another, a man puts his whole house – couch and TV and kitchen – outside. In another, a couple fights violently over a baby.

Each of these small tidbits are rife to analyze. Just by telling you what happens I imitated a whole story, and do we really need more of it? A couple fighting violently over a baby is a great illustration of a fallen relationship. The baby is a product of both parents, yet the two parties want it for themselves. The baby couldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the other. Relationships need room for selflessness, for caring about the other. One of the last line feels like Carver summing up every fallen relationship:

“He felt the baby slipping out of his ands and he pulled back very hard.”

Is this how we should react when love comes down? Should we pull back towards ourselves stronger and stronger at something that can only exists thanks to co-operation?

Self-insert characters are often criticized as lazy. That’s true, but there is a time and place for them. Sometimes the situation is the main character. The objects moving carry the meaning, not the personality. It’s true this has been used for escapsim – Harem anime create a situation many guys would like to escape to. Carver doesn’t create comfortable situations.

His situations are soaked in pain, but more than anything confusion. It’s as if by expressing the events in the most blunt way possible, he hopes he could make sense of the human condition. As evidenced by the last two stories (who gain a lot of their power by their position), Carver didn’t even come close to a solution.

These stories are a journey through a land that’s not really barren. People exaggerate when they describe Carver’s stories as ‘people drinking and talking’. He’s more concerned with the absurdity of life. That’s why a lot of these stories involve weird situations that feel odd in this collection. When was the last time a person with no hands asked to photograph your house? Life is strange – any attempt to capture realism by removing odd events results in bland monotony. Since strange events are confusing, many authors write about them with colorful language and your dull feel-good ending. “Viewfinder”, in different hands, would’ve been distorted into how ‘it all depends on your perspective! snap out of your depression!’. In Carver’s hands, he lets the interaction stand on their own. The loneliness is obviously there, and that makes their connection all the more engrossing and life-affirming.

‘Empathy’ is another word that suits Carver’s style. His style is so warm, so intimate. You can pop this book in the middle and it wouldn’t feel any different than starting from the beginning. The stories like a collection of aimless anecdotes friends tell each other into the night, just to have something to talk to. Like your friends’ anecdotes, the stories ramble and swerve into unnecessary territories before snapping back to the main topic. This isn’t sloppy writing but a deliberate attempt to capture the warmth of sharing stories.

Although Carver has been hailed as a master of minimalism, it didn’t actually come from him. Gordon Lish, the editor. The original manuscript wasn’t as minimalistic, although Lish clearly saw the potential there. The attraction to these stories is in the how intimate they feel. Even when Carver starts writing in bigger paragraphs, this would remain the defining feature of his work.

It’s as sparse as a Joy Division record, but don’t read Carver for the minimalist macho bullshit. This isn’t about covering up an iceberg like Hemingway. He does the opposite. By writing about the stories just as they are, he mines them for every sip of emotion there is. A lot of great authors gave us insight into the human mind/condition/experience, but none feel so intimate as Carver.

4 talking about love out of 5

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(hed) pe – Broke

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There isn’t much left to do, or anywhere to go after (hed) pe’s self-titled debut. It was an explosion of Nu Metal – mixing angst and partying, Hip-Hop and sludge, melody, rapping and screaming without a care. They didn’t enjoy the success of their peers for a good reason. The album went in all direction and drowned in its own idea. It had no hit, no immediate hook. Only those who are used to such genre-jumping could’ve gotten into it.

One thing it did lack was hooks. They were catchy, but the songs didn’t revolve around them. That’s one direction the band takes in Broke. Another is fill a hole in the genre. Nu Metal is silly and exists for partying. Metalcore couldn’t replace the genre because it was too serious. Yet, no band exploited the genre’s potential as great party music. You occasionally got a “Got the Life”, but not many realized how fun all this jumping around from genre to genre can be.

Broke‘s main selling point is in its demeanor. It’s roaring guitar music about drinking, fucking and not giving a fuck. If it sounds ‘more mainstream’ than their debut, that’s because the concept needs hooks and catchiness. A progressive song like “Darky” is a lot of fun, but not something you’d play in a party. It’s too atmospheric and complex.

The band hasn’t lost any of their focus. Their executions are simpler, not reaching as wide but they don’t need to. The first five songs are all brilliant. “Waiting to Die” has growling and rapping at the same time, macho and self-pitying lyrics at the same. It’s literally the Nu Metal genre condensed into one song. “Feel Good” has the pseudo-socially conscious lyrics. “Bartender” has Boom Bap, a ridiculously catchy and feel-good chorus and an aggressive part. It was the band’s biggest hit, but it should’ve been bigger. With the Boom Bap beat and the joyous melody, it should’ve been a hit among those who liked Limp Bizkit but found the rest too grim. As for “Crazy Legs”, it’s one of the cockiest and obnoxious rock songs you’ll ever hear. It’s brillaint. When Jahred repeats over and over “You wanna slow me down?” the band sounds unstoppable, as if the later part of their career wasn’t going to happen.

The production is cleaner this time around, which helps showcase how versatile Jahred’s voice is. Critics occasionally paid attention to Nu Metal, so how hasn’t he gained acclaim as the genre’s best voice? Occasional misogyny aside (Which doesn’t rear its head here too much), he out-Patton Mike Patton here. More than any band, he mixes all vocal styles in the same song – “I Got You” features both singing, screaming and rapping. In rare instances, he does them all in the same time like in the aforementioned “Waiting to Die”.

There are two other candidates for Nu Metal’s biggest albums – the band’s own self-titled and Lostprophets’ debut. Since the former is too complex for outsiders and the latter was created by a notorious sex criminal, Broke may be the genre’s defining moment. There’s a little bit of anger, a little bit of gloom and a lot of venting frustrations with bullshit macho lyrics and genre-hopping. In general, it has everything you should want from a soundtrack to rock parties and frustration.

3.5 bartenders out of 5

The Doors – The Doors

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I wonder if people who think ‘music isn’t as good as it used to be’ are taking the same drugs the Doors were into. You don’t have to go too far into modern times for this to sound dated. A year after this came out Iron Butterfly dropped “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”. It was the same year the famous version of “Just Dropped In” was released. How did this stick in people’s consciousness?

I can understand why, but it’s not a flattering reason. The Doors sound like the protoypical ‘classic rock’ album. It’s a little loud, it has sex in it and some psychedelia to give it an edge. It has some long songs and it sounds very important. That’s the difference between “Light My Fire” and that Iron Butterfly song. Iron Butterfly just got a banging bassline and rode for 17 minutes. The Doors were sure they discovered new frontiers.

Maybe they did back then. The record has some charm in how big it is and how much it thinks of itself. Every song is deliberate, revolving a clear idea. The sequencing makes perfect sense. The first is a fast-paced rocker. The second is a macho pick-up-women song. The third is a weirder psychedelic ballad. The band wisely chooses these songs to introduce people to basics. “Light My Fire” comes later, after you’re used to the band to show you they can be weird.

Of course, ‘weird’ back then meant long songs and free improvisation. “Light My Fire” just sounds like an ordinary rock song with a jamming session. It works there because finally the band lets out all the energy they have. Add an extra minute or so to that section and the song wouldn’t be any worse.

The difference between that song and everything else is that it’s less caught up in making a statement. Compare it to “The End” (which sounded way better when I saw Apocalypse Now). “The End” doesn’t justify its length. The band tries hard to let you know this is the climatic ending with drum rolls, a serious atmosphere and Jim Morrison telling you it’s the end. The result is just showing off, but no energy or fun or substance. On “Light My Fire”, they just bang their instruments.

The album is part of the era before Rock was divorced from its rock influence. It’s no wonder artists were so confused. Only later artists like Black Sabbath and Five Horse Johnson knew how Blues worked and combined it with loud guitars. The band thinks being theatrical equals to being bluesy. The cultural appropriation debate is pretty stupid, but not as “Back Door Man”. It’s better than Led Zeppelin’s attempts, but it sounds the guys heard some Blues on the radio and made a song based on a few parts.

Even at their best, it’s just serviceable classic rock to play in bars so no one would get offended. There’s nothing really annoying about “Soul Kitchen” or “Break On Through”. They’re pretty catchy and fun, but they don’t have that attitude that made “Just Dropped In” so successful.

Psychedelic Rock can work in two ways. Either the band sounds like they’re off in another dimension, or that they make a melodic, pleasant song with weird sounds. The Doors only try the former on “The End” and “End of the Night”. Neither of them are weird enough, but the latter is good enough to make it the blueprint for the next album. When they try the other method, they make some pleasant music but nothing like the Zombies or Monster Magnet or “Planet Caravan”. The worst are the songs where their sense of self-importance comes through. “Take It As It Comes” is the sort of Classic Rock crap that ignorant listeners think is ‘meaningful’.

I heard that Morrison’s lyrics are supposed to be a big deal. I hear nothing attention-grabbing. No lyrics are bad or good. What exactly is a soul kitchen? I don’t know, but the song doesn’t make me care to find out. It’s easy to assume Morrison just wants to have sex with that woman. Weird lyrics that don’t make sense are a lot of fun. Even if the lyrics were moronic, I would’ve enjoyed them. Morrison’s lyrics are just various ways to tell a woman he wants sex without the vulgarity. It’s less impressive on record.

There are some fun songs here, but what’s the point? The psychedelic parts are rudimentary and you’re better off with their next album, or any of Monster Magnet’s psychedelic works. If you enjoyed the bluesy stuff here, check their own L.A. Woman or Black Sabbath. The Doors sound excited here. It does make these ideas sound new, but everyone – including the band – improved on this.

2 doors out of 5

Melanie Martinez – Cry Baby

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Melanie is late to the game. There has been a wave of Pop singers who sound like a response to the abundance of empowerment anthems. You know this style has been bled dry when Sia tries to write a vulnerable song about alcoholism and ends up ripping off “Titanium”.

Lana Del Rey was about the darker side of hedonism and hot bad guys. Tove Lo sang about the loneliness that finds even the sexiest women. Although they made great albums, Martinez feels like the true beating this genre needs. Tove Lo and Lana still sang like beautiful people. Melanie is the voice of the outcast.

Thematically, the album has more in common with Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails. Its structure is similar to the famous album by these two. The songs don’t tell a story as much as they show a psychological journey of a character, who starts off as Cry Baby and ends up as Mad Hatter.

This is not the trouble of a beautiful girl who just needs to choose a different environment. Melanie’s protagonist is an outcast who finds rejection wherever she goes. On “Dollhouse”, she finds no warmth in a family that’s fine only on the surface. On “Carousel” and “Soap”, she’s rejected romantically. The former deserves special mention. It’s one of the few songs where the hopelessness of love is considered.

The rejection climaxes in “Pity Party” and “Tag, You’re It”. In the former, Cry Baby realizes she has nobody. On the latter, someone finally notices her and it’s a sexual predator. Eventually, she uses the same innocence and tenderness she had in the title track for rebellion. Poisoned “Milk and Cookies” get rid of the asshole. The ending is optimistic – she rejects society and its superficiality on “Mrs. Potato Head” and finds joy in “Mad Hatter”.

Superficiality is a big deal here, and in Pop music. How we look, in fact, is a plague that still infects women. Female musicians will still get praised more for their looks than men, as if it has any bearings on the quality. On Little Mix’s “Black Magic” music video, a change of clothes suddenly makes the guy interested.

Melanie is obsessed with how we use fancy covers to hide things. Almost every song here involves bad things having a nice cover, from the dollhouse that hides a dysfunctional family to the poisoned milk and cookies. That’s where Melanie’s childish aesthetic comes into play.

The whole album uses childish aesthetic to express dark themes. The music is the same. The melodies have a nursery rhyme-like quality. Nothing is actually aggressive or loud. “Worth It” is more abrasive musically, but then comes the chorus of “Milk and Cookies”.

While this aesthetic is often brilliant and Melanie sounds like a visionary, it also highlights how inexperienced she is. There’s a reason The Downward Spiral wasn’t Reznor’s first album. Melanie swings between being obvious and delivering just the right line. On “Dollhouse”, you get lines like “Pose with your brother, won’t you be a good sister?”. It’s brilliant in the way it creepily hints at sexual harassment. Then she bluntly states her Dad is having an affair.

She doesn’t stray from the concept, and that’s good. Only two songs feel slightly out-of-place. “Training Wheels” is a love song that’s great on its own but lacks the darkness that will connect it to the rest. “Pacify Her” is the sort of thing I’d expect from Lana Del Rey and Tove Lo. For a brief moment Cry Baby is an attractive girl that can steal others’ boyfriends?

“Mrs. Potato Head” has been already highlighted by many as the best song on the album. It should’ve spread like wildfire through Tumblr and become a meme. It’s an even better anti-beauty anthem than that Manson track. It has no subtly, it doesn’t need any. Someone need to sing “No one will love you if you’re unattractive”. It’s not about plastic surgery, but about our worship of beauty. We wouldn’t need plastic surgeries if we wouldn’t worship beauty like this. It’s also one of the softest songs on the album, and that only makes it cut deeper.

There will be weirder Pop albums, but Cry Baby is the one we need now the most. Its musical backdrop is unique, but not very attention grabbing. It exists to go along with Melanie’s ideas, but she doesn’t expand on them. The most attention-grabbing thing musically is the bass drop in “Soap”, which uses bubbling sounds. The album doesn’t need an overblown sound. Its smallness fits with the childish atmosphere.

The rough edges prevent it from being a classic, but it’s still a brilliant Pop album. It doesn’t even come close to being a “singles with filler” album. The singles are actually some of the weaker tracks. Melanie manages to create a persona of her own and not just create a collection of great songs, but a sequencing that works. It’s also another step forward from the bland empowerment we’ve been plagued with. I wonder what will replace Melanie’s brand of depressed Pop.

4 dollhouses out of 5