Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures

joydivision

I am depressed.

Like many angry young men, I had a philosophy I stuck with. I thought that sticking to my principles was itself an admirable trait. Hypocrisy was defined as changing your mind. Since I wanted the moral high ground, among the reasons because I didn’t have much to boast about, hypocrisy was out of the question. The world was wrong. I was right. My opinion will defeat you all.

I was angry, but there was some sort of confidence. The path was clear. I thought I knew everything, which meant I knew where I was going. I also was, apperantly, as rational I bragged about. My ideas kept being challenged. They gradually changed. It didn’t happen over time, but I went from thinking sex is an evil force to it being something positive that we just can’t handle. I went from hating alcohol and all drugs to understand each drug should be judged on its own. I went from thinking you don’t need friends to thinking being social is a necessity.

The music I used to listen to back then was loud and angry. It also used to have something resembling confidence. I blasted Nu Metal, which was angry but had bravado. A little later I found myself blasting Nine Inch Nails, Local H Marilyn Manson. That’s when the self-doubt and self-loathing reared their heads. The anger at everyone was still there, but I started to admit I’m confused. There was even a brief period of listening to a lot of Glassjaw, which helped me through my toughest heartbreak.

After about eight years of exploring music, here I am finally listening to Unknown Pleasures. The album was always there. Its influence is everywhere on my favorite music. It took all these years, and all these changings of the mind for me to ‘get’ the album.

That’s not really a good thing.

That’s because I’m not that angry anymore. I don’t have the energy to hate the world, or women, or sex, or television. Everything just seems hopeless and meaningless. Everything is bad, but nothing specific and there’s no ideal to fight for. It’s an emptiness, which this album describes perfectly.

Sparse is the common description for Unknown Pleasures. You couldn’t find a better one. A band member said the producer made them sound like Pink Floyd, but Pink Floyd had space. The sparseness of Unknown Pleasures is not just a production technique but the way the songs work. Nothing takes the center. Nothing drives the songs, beyond the drums in “She’s Lost Control”. It’s no coincidence it’s the most accessible thing here.

“Candidate” and “Interzone” are the two defining tracks here. The first is the emptiest thing here. Its last seconds sound emptier than silence, and the guitars barely appear in it. “Interzone”, on the other hand, is an attempt to inject some energy. There’s even a guitar riff that could make for a nice single. Even that’s pushed to the back though. The song is a fast driving rocker, yet the guitar is distant and Ian Curtis sounds like he knows it won’t end well, but fuck it he’ll try anyway.

The sequencing is also great. Unknown Pleasures is not a concept album, but it flows like an exploration of a depressed mind. “Disorder” feels slightly brighter and rational, while “Day of the Lords” sink back into complete agony. On the aforementioned “Candidate”, the agony went for so long that there’s no longer will to express it. “Wilderness” and “Interzone” offer a glimmer of hope. The first speeds up things a little, as if the protagonist saw the light. “Interzone” has already been discussed. Then the album ends with “I Remember Nothing”, which sinks back into the emptiness.

It’s a wonder that the whole band didn’t kill themselves after this record. There is sadness, and there is emptiness. A strong feeling of sadness might still imply there could still be something out there, something worth feeling bad over. The emptiness of Unknown Pleasures says there’s nothing worth looking back at and nothing worth looking forward to. Doesn’t that sound like a suicidal mind?

Post script: This review was written a long time ago but I didn’t want to post it. I don’t know if things changed since I wrote it. My environment did, but the future still looks cloudy. I haven’t gotten over that emptiness. Things are better than before, but not by much.

3.5 days out of 5 lords

Ed Sheeran – X

X_cover

There is a brilliant message buried in X. It shouldn’t be too hard to unearth. All you have to do is listen to “Tenerife Sea” after remembering Sheeran brags about how girls ask him to fuck in “Don’t”. There are women who are certain all British men are hot guys in suits, that they’re very romantic, nice and will never break your heart. Ed Sheeran is that hot guy, only he’s aware that the image of a romantic man can be another way to have sex with as much women as possible.

Or maybe there is no message. Maybe Ed Sheeran believes his own bullshit.

Kid Rock also believes his own bullshit, but it took him some time to start. That’s also about the time he lost it. Before that, he tried really hard to convince himself he’s a brilliant musician. He did that by drawing from various American music styles – the loud guitars, the aggressive rapping, the country twang and figuring out why these tropes work. Kid Rock never sounded genuine on “Picture” but it didn’t sound like he tried. His inspiration for that ballad was not heartbreak but other ballads, but he listened to enough to make it work.

Ed Sheeran is like the British version of Kid Rock, with acoustic guitars instead of distortion and a Unthreatening Nice Guy image instead of redneck-ness. There must be a way to connect bragging tracks with acoustic ballads about love. The underrated Everlast made a career of this and Jason Mraz also had a brief time in the limelight.

Everlast and Mraz had a more focused image, though. Everlast’s ballads weren’t meant to sound like a Nice Guy. They were meant to sound like the chink in the macho man’s armor. Jason Mraz was always an average dude. Ed Sheeran, in one has a lot of sex and in the other is a hopeless romantic.

This isn’t the result of expressing a wide range of emotions. Sheeran sounds comfortable in “Sing” and “Don’t”. After all, he’s a famous singer so he must have first-hang accounts of girls asking him upstairs. The problem is that he brings this sexual confidence to his ballads.

Love songs that come from a place of sexual confidence sound either insincere, or pointless. If you’re so confident in your ability at wooing, why are aiming for catharsis? The best love songs are those where the singer sounds like he has to get it off his chest. On Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year”, the singer sounds like he’s exploding from happiness. On Cure’s “Lovesong”, Smith sounds like he will fall apart if the woman in question won’t marry him.

Sheeran doesn’t sound happy, sad, confused or any emotion that can lift a love song. He sounds like he’s trying to pick up girls. The songs sound no different than any song where a rapper waves his dollar bills and offers expensive drinks for sex. The difference between Sheeran and TI is that Sheeran sounds like he’s trying to have one night stands with girls who are dying for romance. TI knows his girls just want a sugar daddy.

This isn’t an image that exists outside of the record. Every artist creates an image inside the record that helps connect the songs and bring personality. Some play the same character on every album – Dave Wyndorf is a sexy nerd pretty much all the time. Some change – Marilyn Manson went from being Antichrist Superstar to an old man. If “One” and “I’m a Mess” were sincere enough, they could stand sitting next to “Sing”. “Picture” could stand next to a song about how we never meet a motherfucker quite like Kid Rock because Kid tried really, really hard to sound vulnerable.

It may be the set up of just guitar and vocals, which meant to sound intimate but isn’t. It can’t even count as a rip-off of Nick Drake, because any Nick Drake rip-off would sound a little more sincere. On “Photograph”, he rips off the lyrics of Incubus “Love Hurts” and doesn’t even bother to add anything. On “Thinking Out Loud”, he asks the woman if she will remember the taste of his love. Facebook news feeds moved on, but Sheeran is still stuck somewhere in time. I can’t even remember a time these lines meant something.

He’s a little better in the other tracks. There are good hooks in “Sing”, “Don’t” and “Runaway”. They would’ve worked much better in different hands. The toughness in “Don’t” would’ve added a lot to Jason Mraz. Everlast would’ve dealt with the alcoholism in “Runaway” much better.

Afire Love” is the track that best sums up the record, the good and the bad. Sheeran is at once convincing, but reveals how weak a songwriter he is. The subject of Alzheimer’s is pretty touching, and the melody is beautiful. The lyrics are so anticlimatic, though. The first verse is just a dull chronicle of how a person started losing his memory and that it made people feel bad, with a mentions of the devil and heaven which add nothing to the tone. Imagine how beautiful the song could be if Patterson Hood or Frank Turner – lyricists whose whole point is intimacy – handled them. Look at the song title. Such a serious subject deserves a song that’s not titled like another cheap love song.

Maroon 5 are another apt comparison, but they handled their fame better. They were into love songs for the sake of singing love songs, so even with their new sexual confidence their love songs weren’t obnoxious. Ed Sheeran never, for one moment, sound sincere. He’s full of confidence and arrogance but sings of weakness. Imagine if Snoop Dogg sang Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”. It’s not a clever contrast. Sheeran doesn’t play with these personalities, so they end up working against each other.At best, it’s decent pop but until he does something with his image it’ll be a glass ceiling. Even the best tracks sound weaker because they’re performed by him.

2 cups of ginger ales out of 5

The Prodigy – The Day Is My Enemy

The_Day_Is_My_Enemy_album_cover

If your main gripe with The Day Is My Enemy is the lack of new ideas, maybe you should reconsider your status as a Prodigy fan. Maybe, all these years, they just weren’t for you. You thought they were, because they were brilliant. They were just brilliant in a field that’s less important to you. If you want to hear how far Electronic Dance Music can be pushed and still be banging, maybe you should try MUST DIE!, Jack U or Chemical Brothers.

The Prodigy’s sound is not original and never was. People were simply too stupid to notice the common ground between Dance, Rock and Hip-Hop. No classic Prodigy song is great because of its uniqueness. The Prodigy’s music always had one aim. It wanted to bang. It’s no different than early Skrillex. They found some variety in their sound, but the heart never changed. Even when they went from the Rave of Experience and Jilted Generation to the Big Beat of Fat of the Land, the music function in the same way.

The closest thing to a new idea in The Day is My Enemy are the few very rock-based tracks, the drumless “Beyond the Deathray” and the House-influenced title-track. Only “Beyond the Deahtray” is actually new territory. It’s an instrumental that’d be much more at home in Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile. Their music already flirts with rock, so when they shift the focus to the guitars and the vocals in “Medicine” and “Wall of Death” it’s logical progression. As for the title-track, there’s something unique in its house-inspired rhythm and how it sounds like it was recorded from a battlefield.

All the rest sees Prodigy revisiting old ideas, with various degress of success. The few experiments they did in Invaders Must Die are chucked away. Everything here is driven by aggressive breakbeats, lots of noises and shouting. Every track can fit an old album. “Destroy” is from The Fat of the Land. “Roadblox” brings back the fast pace of Jilted Generation. “Rok-Weiler” is from Always Outnumbered. “Wild Frontier” with its melody (and some of the best sounding breakbeats ever) can fit in Invaders Must Die. Even Flux Pavilion can’t add anything new. On “Rhythm Bomb” he just adds some wobble noises to typical Prodigy rhythms.

You don’t even need to get over the feeling of Deja vu. Almost every track here is a winner. “Ibiza” is the only track that could be left off and the album won’t be worse off. I understand the guys are pissed at the modern EDM scene, but the track only has a decent break and someone ranting over it with a heavy accent. Everything else here explains why nobody else pursues that sound. It will be very hard to beat Prodigy in their own. We’ve heard tracks like “Medicine”, “Roadblox”, “Wild Frontier” and “Destroy” before, but these tracks are just as good as the old ones. Prodigy’s discography isn’t too big yet, so as long as they’ll keep revisiting the same ideas with the same brilliance I’ll keep listening. The old sound of The Day is My Enemy isn’t the sound of old people lagging behind the times. It’s old masters coming back to explain why the sound was so popular in the first place.

3.5 roadblox out of 5

Ian McEwan – Atonement

Atonement_(novel)

There are two competing novels here. One is driven by a character’s flaw and how it brought her to do a terrible thing. The other is a manipulative, Shawsank Redemption-like tale where the author takes a character who has it made and puts a lot of external troubles on it in order to make us sympathize. Surrounding these novels is some great writing that made you understand why so few authors try minimalism.

There’s no reason to sympethize with Robbie. He has no character. He has no flaw to struggle against. The trouble he faces is all external, and it doesn’t take any effort to just pile terrible events on the character. It’s especially easy to pile on these events, and leave the character almost unscarred to show us how strong and capable he is.

Maybe McEwan wants to inspire me to be good with Robbie’s character, but Robbie needs to have a character first. After being sent to the frontlines because of nothing, Robbie remains humanitarian and nice to everyone. He tries to save a woman and a child, and even a pencil pusher that’s almost being lynched.

Why should he want to save him, though? Robbie ate shit all the way. His only companions aren’t very pleasant. Why shouldn’t anger take the best of him? Soldiers are often angry at ‘pencil pushers’ and office workers. These people make a lot of decisions from behind their desks without seeing the bombings and the fighting. There’s no reason for Robbie to try to save anyone, let alone what soldiers especially despise. There is no depth to this ‘goodness’. It’s a hook to try to make us like Robbie, but that’s exactly what makes him so boring and unappealing.

Only at the end Robbie does something less than admirable, but McEwan doesn’t let all his events reach their logical conclusion. Robbie is barely scarred. All that needs to prevent him from hitting the bottom is some cliched crap about the power of love. Does McEwan thinks that after all Robbie went through, a women’s love is enough? That’s a recipe for cheap escapism.

By never letting Robbie succumb to the logical conclusion of going through hell, he paints a world of black and white. He doesn’t want to. He tries really hard to get to the emotional core of the characters. It’s espceially evident in the small characters and Briony, but all of them deserved so much more than being on a novel where Robbie stars.

Briony is, if not exactly complex, a real character. The deed she tries to atone for comes out of her personality. She does it not just to make the plot move because it’s the reasonable thing to do for a character who lives more inside her head than in the world. Everything else about her stems from this. All her other decisions and actions comes from her character. The end of her story is also consistent with her themes.

It’s almost misandrist how McEwan gives zero depth to the male character while writing Briony so real.

The post-modern Gotcha! at the end doesn’t really redeem this flaw. If anything, it just makes Briony far deeper and Robbie shallower. It’s a twist that serves the story, but it doesn’t excuse spending so many pages with someone with less character than a shovel. It doesn’t excuse the complete lack of even hinting at Robbie is not a saint. I recall how Atwood failed back in The Blind Assassin. Being sexually attractive is not enough to make a man a saint.

Between these two stories there is a lot of writing. It’s mostly descriptions, but if everyone described like McEwan then it’d make reading so much easier.

McEwan’s greatest prose is found in the middle, writing about the war effort. His attention to small details and every person who passes by is not because it makes it ‘more real’, or to pad the book in attempts to impress. He writes every passer-by like he’s the star of his own novel. Every one of them has his own little short story. They’re so good that you tend to forget Robbie is even there.

It’s so good that the bluntness can be forgiven. McEwan writes like a sledgehammer. He describes everything, and then writes a literary critique of it. This makes Atonement a funny novel. It’s both long and very easy to read. I’d normally attack an author for being that blunt, but it’s deceptive. The emotional insight he shows with the soldiers, both on the frontlines and the hospital contains much more than what he writes.

How an author can fail on what his story focuses and writes beautifully the sidelines is beyond me. Atonement is written by an author of great talent. There’s enough her to enjoy – Briony’s character, the various digressions and descriptions – that it’s easy to forget where McEwan fails. I’m really tired about reading about sexually attractive, righteous and perfect guys whose only troubles are external. It’s not a brilliant novel, but it has plenty of hints of brilliance.

3 nurses out of 5