A.S. King – Please Ignore Vera Dietz

 

verdietz__spanJust a while ago, I read a Young Adult novel that seems to be the positive mirror of this. It was Jennifer Brown’s Hate List. Both novels deal with a tragedy, specifically a girl losing a boy to death and how it affects their lives. The relationship was big. Both happen to be outcasts in a Nowheresville. Relationships with the family is rocky and there is a sexually-active, supposedly hot chick that’s evil involved.

The difference is in how Hate List is darker, but more sympathetic whereas King’s book has more shocking content on the surface but less of the empathy which is truly disturbing. Therefore, at the bottom there isn’t much horror or insight. King lays out at the beginning who are the good guys and who are the bad. Nowhere in the novel do they get a chance to prove otherwise and we don’t get any view of their inner world. Dad figure swings from bad to good, and it’s actually nice to see a parental figure being allowed to be flawed but not a complete asshole. Sadly, this is where the good characterization ends.

I’m all for novels like this. Teenagers need books like these which deal with drugs, sex and death. They experience these things at this age and sometimes what they need isn’t the perspective of an adult, but a lot of perspectives similar to theirs. Books like this mention the important subject, but they offer such a narrow perspective. Perhaps for those for whom death and alcoholism ring close, this book can be some kind of an emotional outlet. For the rest of us, though, it’s too close-minded.

My issue is not with the content and not even that it’s quite wacky, moving away from the gritty-realism authors like this try to imitate. I can take the octagonal treehouse and teenagers burning shit down. I can even take the enigmatic, hot outcast male. Where’s the life in them, though?

Charlie isn’t as bad as Green’s females, but we still get a character with zero personal issues that we’re supposed to adore. He’s a dream boy – wild, untamed, skinny, always doing things, putting a tough exterior but is actually romantic and with some emotional issues. Of course, the romantic side and the emotional baggage is never let out – because men with emotions aren’t sexy. For some reason, too, love interests in these novels are always skinny and this is passed off as if it’s against the beauty ideal.

Eventually he goes to the dark side to be with ‘cool people’. King’s version of the Evil Cool isn’t jocks and football junkies for a change, but a bunch of druggies and a rocker girl. As for her, she happens to have a lot of sex and is nasty to people. Why she’s nasty to people, we never understand. Her sexual nature is also often painted hostile and morally low, but I’m not sure why besides the fact it’s ‘conformist’ – unlike Charlie who is really cool and builds treehouses.

She’s so nasty that she ruins everyone’s lives. I’m sure there are people like this, but if only King gave us a little insight into why she does what she does. Jenny ends up being nothing more than a plot device and someone we could hate. Besides breaking up between the main character and her lover, she has no role.

Many characters in this novel fit a scary template in fiction – characters whose main purpose is that we’ll have something to hate. Such characters contain some qualities that nearly everyone will claim as bad – cruelty, sadism, lack of empathy. On top of that the authors will put something else to make them uncool, like being stupid or doing too many drugs or being too conserative, or maybe just racist. We’ll be expected to really detest this character and hope for their downfall.

The problem is, we often feel this way in real life towards people because it’s all we’ve been exposed to. Sometimes hating people is justified, but what’s wrong is hating them while denying their humanity. Once we draw a too distinct line between us and the evil, we override the purpose of morality. Morality then is not decided by deeds or virtues, but by people. ‘A is just because of X’ becomes ‘A is just because B is unjust’. That type of morality leaves no room for redemption, and so no room for admitting when we’re wrong (since we can’t be – the other side must be wrong!). Once we adopt such a morality, nothing prevents us from becoming what we hate.

Sadly this is what King has to offer us. Jenny and the others remain an enigma – assholes without character. If only King would’ve developed further, maybe she could’ve conjured something more horrifying, more haunting. Evil is at its scariest when we realize we can do it, too. That’s why pictures of serial killers are so frightening. We look at them and see flesh and blood just like us.

Plot doesn’t matter much in novels like these since the psychological development of the character is important. King is better than Brown in creating a main character. The writing is utilitarian and doesn’t add much, but there’s a toughness to the writing, an edge that lets Vera be more than an outcast. She’s a tough person who bottles it all until it comes back out. While King is not the peak of minimalism, she lets just enough edge to let this psyche be expressed in the prose.

It would’ve been better if she didn’t need a big event for the story to revolve on. Considering how Vera has enough depth to carry a story on her own – not much, but just enough – big explosions were unnecessary. All we needed was to see these characters go about their lives, how their worldviews and personalities – Vera’s detachment, will to be responsible and for escapism and Charlie’s adventurous spirit – collide, stray, collide again and eventually fall apart. She does it quite successfully throughout the novel. The relationship is convincing enough with how the characters relate and then go separate ways when puberty hits.

Scattered throughout the novels are other perspectives – the pagoda, the father. King doesn’t have the writing ability to give these a new tone. Don’t look at the heading and you’ll find the father and the daughter are speaking in the same internal voice. Still, it’s a refreshing addition that almost gets close to adding empathy to this story. Sadly, these are tidbits, not a choice of method that re-frames the whole novel. Most likely a young author will be inspired by this but will accidentally credit As I Lay Dying.

It’s quick and to the point, but mostly it’s an insulting collection of stereotypes. We all could use books, like music, that offer us catharsis but this is not a song that will carry on to future years. It’s more like your first local show, where the mere presence of sound and emotion is enough to inspire you to keep digging. You won’t remember precise details about that band, and the same goes for this book.

1.5 rocker girls out of 5

Tom Waits – Closing Time

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The sound of this album isn’t as surprising as how good it is, and what it actually is. You’ve heard it before. Before Waits was an ashtray given a singing voice, before he unleashed an Industrial-Blues masterpiece that was more horrifying than any Death Metal album cover he made Closing Time. In a way, this is the antithesis of his later career, with zero wild theatrics. Before Waits was the bizarro man reporting from the bizarro world, he was too ordinary to do anything but sing about heartbreak.

Even if Waits never made Bone Machine, this record would still be spectacular. I’m amazed this was even made and praised. As we know, males are supposed to be tough in society. No one goes out with a failure. The only time men are allowed to cry on stage is if they turn their wounds into theater of noise and anger. The whole rock’n’roll thing, especially in the depressed 90’s was about that.

So Reznor and that dude from Alice in Chains still sounded like tough males, somewhat. Nothing against them – Nine Inch Nails are my favorite band after all. It’s just that male vulnerability is so interesting, feels so hidden in real life yet here it is in music. The final song here lets go of words.

If the whole album is a concept album about singing in a bar hoping that it might attract that girl on the corner to like you, then the final instrumental is defeat. “Ol’ 55” opens with some happiness, the sound of you going to the bar hoping there’ll be a good show. “I Hope” comes right after when you spot the girl, and after that it’s constant swinging from one extreme to the next. On “Ice Cream Man”, you have confidence and you’re sure it’s going to work. “Lonely” is when it feels like a death sentence, you’ll never have the girl and nothing else ever. Eventually, there’s no point in singing – it’s closing time, the band plays a few more chords and melodies and you’re back home alone.

It’s such a lonely record. “Martha” is heartbreaking, a song I still find it difficult to hear. Although Waits mentions he got a lover, possibly a wife, it’s not convincing that he’s okay with it. Defeat is in his tone when he sings of poetry and prose, singing with the knowledge that no relationship will ever be that good. “Martha” is painful not because it’s about meeting with someone you used to be deeply in love with. All over it is the realization that nothing will ever be like this again, that all love afterwards is just an attempt to re-capture it. There’s a sense of doom there that’s just sad.

“I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You” is the second big highlight there. There are a lot of songs about love and heartbreak, but not enough about disliking being in love. Finally we have a song that admits it, falling in love is no fun and sometimes it’s just better not to experience the whole thing. This song sets the stage and gives everything here the context. On this album, Waits isn’t someone who goes through the pain and joy of heartbreak. Love is, overall, bad for Waits. Few songs here are actually about being in the relationship – perhaps only “Little Trip” and by the time it arrives it sounds more like fantasy. Remember that “Ice Cream Man” is courting, not love actually working out. Although “Lonely” isn’t the best song here, it eventually becomes its centerpiece. It’s an album of loneliness, of heartbreak with no way out. In this album heartbreak isn’t something you go through but a state you’re trapped in – either hoping it won’t happen, to clinging to a girl, to being stuck in your memories and eventually admitting to yourself how lonely you are.

“Martha” and “I Hope” are the highlights, with most things providing good transition to flesh out the concept idea. While everything here is pretty good, these songs are knock-outs and everything else mostly sounds good in context. It’s an album you reach out to when you’re in a specific mood, but when the night is dark, long and lonely everything here is great. Outside this context, these songs can lack personality. “Rosie” is pretty good, but I doubt anyone would remember it outside the album. Bring the aforementioned context again and the song becomes essential. This is an album to hear in one sitting when heartbreak makes it feel like nothing good will ever happen. I’m sure there are many albums like it, but Waits is so specific in how he captures this hopeless loneliness. It’s unique because of how well it understands its genre and that’s why it remains a shocking record. Even if Waits never became the morbid blues man, this record would remain just as great.

3.5 empty bottles out of 5

Fuck That Noise: Bruno Mars, The Weeknd and Ballads By Macho Men

Bruno Mars’ single, “24K Magic”, is badass. Mars doesn’t so much sing as he speaks throughout the song with every line meaning the same thing. He’s cool, he knows how to party and has women. The latter is especially important, because we live in a new feminist world where attractive guys are still allowed to flaunt their women like dollar bills. He’s so confident that, really, why attempt a chorus? The first spin of “24K Magic” makes it sound more like a spoken word track over a Synthfunk backing rather than an actual Pop song. It’s one of the year’s best songs.

It’s also a game-changer for Bruno Mars. From here on out, the only reaction to his ballads is ‘fuck that noise’.

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The Weeknd poses for his philosophy book

Music is acting. I don’t care who you are in real life. What’s important in music is that the character you play in your music is believable, and will somehow makes sense when we connect the songs. Eminem is unconvincing because he’s at one point mocking Pop music, whines about people not liking him and then makes a song with Sia. Ian Watkins is an all-around terrible person, but the sound of “Rooftops” didn’t change just because we discovered he’s a pedophile.

Balancing bragging tracks with ballads is tough. We all experienced the highs and lows of life, but you need to connect these two. If your character is sad, I need to believe this sadness is real and is relevant despite all the parties you had. It’s especially tough to come off as vulnerable or sensitive when a second ago you bragged how much sex you have and how all the women want you.

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I don’t think this is what you do with crosses

The Weeknd also released a song with a similar vibe, but “Starboy” is vastly different in demeanor and content. The Weekend also brags about having a lot of sex and a lot of money. He explicitly says he has a girlfriend and a mistress, both of which are out of your league. Along with bragging about cars, it’s obvious Weeknd’s life is overall quite kickin’.

What’s different is the context. Bruno Mars is carefree and happy in “24K Magic”, and only brags about how good his life is. You can understand nothing else about Mars, other than that he’s probably an inconsiderate asshole outside having fun. A line like “Bad bitches and ya ugly ass friends” promises great sex and treating you like dirt. Weeknd, however, is so dark that it’s obvious there’s something wrong with him despie how much he parties.

The Weeknd starts off his song with “I want to put you in the worst mood”. Already, this song is more than just bragging. He wants you to feel bad, he needs others’ jealousy so he could feel good about himself. Instead of the social butterfly who’s inconsiderate, Weeknd’s song is upfront about how pain exists in our world (and he wants to cause it). When he proceeeds in the verse to brag, it’s always about how his good things should make you feel bad. The line about using drugs to kill any pain makes it obvious that Weeknd does have a shitty day and needs to do things about him. The line “We don’t pray for love, we just pray for cars” is quite nihilistic, expressing a dark worldview of retreating to materialism.

Musically, “24K Magic” is a straight-up banger with funky backing, a great bassline and a synth that farts all the way. It only contains happiness. “Starboy”‘s drums are colder and jittery. It’s also more sparse, almost sounding like Joy Division tweeked for the dance floor. By the time drums kick in the chorus, they’re aggressive. You can party to it – it’s even recommended since it’s also brilliant – but it’s not happy-go-lucky and it’s more suitable to planning revenge than celebrating your anniversary with a significant other.

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Ain’t no fun if the guys don’t get naked too

These differences make me react so differently to the ballads. When Bruno Mars put out “Versace on the Floor”, I could think in terms of ‘fuck that noise’ and ‘are women still fooled by this?’. A little before, Mars was a social butterfly who didn’t care about anyone. He was the person you invited to the party, but once everyone had too much to drink and talk about life he gets kicked out. He’s the guy who never holds a conversation but only screams jokes If Mars will be accused of raping a 16-year-old, I wouldn’t be surprised. Okay, I wouldn’t be surprised over any musician, but Mars is definitely in the top of musicians who have the highest chances of doing it.

I can’t connect the two. If “24K Magic” was less aggressive, more akin to Radical Something’s anthems of summer then it’d be different. Mars’ cocky aggression is integral to why his ballads doesn’t work. The line “Bad bitches and ya ugly ass friends” paint a picture of a guy women love so much he can afford to treat them bad without realizing it. Just ask Dessa. Neve in “24K Magic” do we hear a person who’s fun to be around, but a person who has a lot fun. It’s the type of person who fucks women instead of having sex.

When the Weeknd shows up his vulnerable side, it’s believable. He takes the dark side of “Starboy” and expands it, or takes the small cracks and zooms into them. “All I Know” is believable because it’s a direct contrast to “Starboy” instead of being unrelated. It was what he tried to hide so hard by bragging about praying for cars. “Secrets” is the flipside, with Weeknd being the man pining after the woman who has all the guys.

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About as romantic as quoting Gamergate supporters.

They also sing their ballads differently. “Versace on the Floor” is full of vocal acrobatics. Vocal acrobatics are impressive and a great way to terminate your acting abilities. Since they point out you’re actually a singer, you forget about the mood and the content. “Versace” is less about having time with a girl and more about seducing a girl using the promise of romance just to ditch her (Ed Sheeran’s character does it all the time). Shifting singing styles so radically only serves to show you were acting all along. Weeknd always sings as Starboy and never tries to show off. Imagine “Belong to the World” if Weeknd sang it like Mars. Actually, it would probably still be good because of the lyrics.

Perhaps it has something to do with me being a guy, but then again I consider Lostprophets’ “Rooftops” to be a highlight in music history. That song was made by your worst nightmare, a guy so sexy he could do anything he want and have women supporting him. Watkins never did Mars’ vocal acrobatics there. When it explodes, he screams more than sings and that’s crucial. Of course, good actors are also the best at sexual abuse, so maybe Mars isn’t that in person after all. I don’t know. All I know is that, as an actor, he’s horrible. Give me songs like “24k Magic” any day, because, from him, songs like “Just the Way You Are” makes me worry what happens backstage. I shouldn’t, since there’s always a good reason to worry about things happening backstage.

If that’s not enough, listen to “Versace” while watching the video for “24K Magic”. Tell me how different he is from how Nice Guys(tm) describe your boyfriend.

High School DXD

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There’s an art to the ecchi genre. Sexual appeal may not require brains to react to, but it requires skill. Not everyone can be a stripper or a sexy dancer even if you have the right body. A good ecchi show would know symbolism and psychology aren’t part of the genre. It would know that it uses sexuality and energy to tell a fun, ridiculous story. High School DXD knows this, but doesn’t work on it.

The characters embodies the strengths and the weaknesses. Rias is worth all the hype and posters they made. You need more than big breasts to make a sexy character. Rias is sexy and not just because of her figure (which isn’t easy to design. See also: Divergence Eve). It’s also little touches like the hair, which is deliberately red. Red is both the color that attracts the most attention. Rias isn’t just meant to be pretty but she symbolizes sexuality.

Her posture, behavior and personality also help express this idea. She’s not a caricature nymphoniac who’ll be a sex slave for our main character. Rather, she’s comfortable in her sexuality. She doesn’t mind being seen naked. She’s in a position of authority that gives her a lot of power but she’s not drunk with it. Power is sexy, but being able to control it is harder and sexier.

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She’s a charismatic, powerful presence that holds the series despite the fact everyone around her is barely half as interesting. What’s weird is that all the failures are females. They’re supposed to be just as attractive as Rias, but they’re dull.

It’s hard to see something in them beyond archetypes. Rias was an embodiment of an idea. Everyone else is a dull archetype. Asia is the complete opposite of Rias, which is something. It’s not used to its advantage. The contrast between the two never appears. We know she’s a nice girl but we only know it. We rarely see it happen. Akeno has no personality whatsoever and Koneco is a quiet loli, which was always a terrible idea and doesn’t improve here.

The designers do have talent. Later in the series a rival group is introduced, and they all have more imaginative designs than the main characters’. It’s almost as if they had two different designers, and the less creative one punished the other. Things in the rivalry team include spiral twintails, X-shaped twintails, a bikini armor and a masked figure. Even at their worst, there’s more spark to their design. Why do the main characters get the generic long hair of Akeno?

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The male characters are actually more entertaining this time. They’re often mindless perverts or boring good guys in such shows. Issei is a combination of both, but it’s one that works. He has these attributes not because it’s convenient to the story but because they can create a personality out of it. Issei becomes both an overblown moral hero who’s just as selfish and horny as the person he goes against.

There’s irony there. It flips the story where two people beat up each other because they disagree and somehow their strength proves their idea right. I wish the irony was more developed though. Issei knows he’d like to be that asshole he’s fighting, the guy with the harem. The anime doesn’t take a step back to laugh at this, at least not enough.

The problem is that it’s not enough to just know you’re making an ecchi series. You still need direction, you need to aim somewhere. What prevents the series from becoming really enjoyable is its lack of direction. Is this about how stupid but kind of cute we are in high school when hormones drive us crazy? Or is this about a hero that’s going to push himself over the edge for a girl because he’s hungry for sex?

If the series would’ve chosen to alternate between the two, it would’ve been fine. Instead, it jumps back and forth between the two. It only gets focused at the end, where it sticks to the epic fight and nothing else. At least it’s victorious there. The fight is well-animated and has a pretty enough scenery to make it exciting. The exaggeration of the characters is also believable enough to make the final conflict feel epic enough.
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The fantasy element is one of the good parts. It’s a cute spin on the Devil/Angel dichotomy that doesn’t pretend to be profound. The idea of devils doing services for people is rife for potential comedy. They play around with it a little and then abandon it. The epic battle was fine, but it was more fun to see Issei trying to do things and being a loser. It’s an opportunity to create odd side-characters who can have their ideas summed up in one episode. There are more seasons and I hope they play around with this more.

Now comes the fatal part, where humiliation is passed off for sexiness. I don’t mind the camera finding its way to changing rooms or how clothes get ripped off during battles in sexy ways. What I don’t understand is, is it necessary to have the characters strip others naked against their will for our enjoyment? It’s not sexy and it’s not humorous.

High School DXD knows what it isn’t, but it also doesn’t know what it is. There is heart here. These people really wanted to make an anime that will capture the fun spirit Ecchi can have, but they didn’t know how. Maybe the next seasons have more focus. I hope so. Rias is too much of a fun character and Issei is a rare Harem protagonist who actually contributes to the story. It’s a fun show, but as crazy as it sounds I think we can do more with Ecchi.

2.5 devils out of 5

 

 

 

 

 

Adele – 25

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There are people who think Adele saves the music industry. Unlike othe singers, she has technical abiliy and can sing live. People like this are actually what is wrong with music, not Pop singers who don’t strain their voice. 25 has the tricks that can dazzle an ignorant person. Adele’s voice never remains still. She always pushes it. Building a shelf that can reach outer space is also impressive, but not meaningful or practical.

What’s the point of these vocal acrobatics, anyway? Vocal acrobatics are the anti-thesis of being expressive. A person who’s broken wouldn’t have thr strength to make sure they hit all the right notes. Of course, music is artificial and I’m not sure if Pulambo was as angry as he seemed to be on Glassjaw’s debut. You put an act, but it has to be convincing.

“Hello” is a really good song wrecked by horrible singing. Your average person can sing it better if they switched the style. When the chorus hits Adele hits such notes that makes you wonder whether she’s so broken. When SR-71 made “Hello Hello”, the singer never stretched his voice like this. He was restrained, the knowing the relationship is doomed but by showing some warmth maybe things will improve.

There’s no warmth in “Hello” because of how technically proficient Adele is. She cannot create an intimacy with the audience because she sounds like an American Idol contesntant trying to impress the judges.

The sparse arrangement doesn’t help at all. Instead of creating intimacy, it actually ruins it by pushing Adele’s voice forward. It only emphasizes how the focus should be on Adele’s vocal skills.

Things improve so much when Adele tones it down. “River Lea” is the best track and not just because it doesn’t drill into your head how technical Adele’s vocals are. Toned down, Adele sounds more sincere and soul-searching. The marching drums are also a break from the boring arrangement of piano and strings (which was redundant the first time, anyway).

The idea that technical ability equals good music is a common fallacy of the ignorant. It’s easier to judge it, it takes less thought and it’s not as challenging. The (beautiful) lyrics behind “Hello” or the melody don’t matter. You don’t have to go through much comparing-and-contrasting. If the singer hits the notes or the guitarist can shred for hours, then it’s good music.

Music is good because it’s good for something, and I’m not sure what 25 is good for. It’s supposed to be a heartbreak album, but you can’t sound heartbroken when your vocals are so perfect.

The uber-serious image of Adele also has something to do with the popularity, but it’s the type of seriousness artists have because they have nothing else. It’s like that anime, Texhnolyze, where everyone looks tough and don’t express emotions, which makes it more emotionally shallow than a Michael Bay film.

Don’t wear a serious cover unless you can back it up. Most artists aren’t good enough to do that, and even those who are don’t tend to try to be so important. Adele clearly thinks this is an important record. If she didn’t, then “Hello” wouldn’t have been a Michael Bay version of a ballad. But how is the set-up of just vocals and piano more artistically valid than electronics or guitars? There’s more loneliness in Skream’s “Where You Should Be” than in any other track here. That song has a cold feeling to it, like the detachment you feel. There’s a reason Drake’s vocals are always lower.

But all Adele has to tell us is trite things about heartbreak and love. In “When We Were Young” she recommends taking a photograph because youth doesn’t last. On “All I Ask”, she gives up on having any melody at all. That track is the worst offender. It’s just an obvious show-off, having nothing but a voice and a piano. It’s perhaps the most stripped-down song and the most pretentious.

Besides “River Lea”, the only deviation is “Send My Love”. It’s a bit of a fuck-you-I’m-over-it song and it’s another one where Adele doesn’t stretch her voice. Instead of sounding defiant though, she sounds bored and tired. Instead of throwing herself at a different type of song, she sounds out of confidence. It feels more like she put it on the album so it won’t be all ballads. I don’t see how a tired upbeat song is any better to a tired ballad.

25 was a big event and if you’re into Adele ballads you’ll love it. After listening to so much music though, I need more than just vocal acrobatics. YouTube is full of such acrobats, who can sing popular songs technically better but with much less personality. Adele isn’t any different from them besides the fact she writes her own songs. That’s not a good thing, considering only “Hello” sounds salavageable too. Melanie Martinez did an emotionally-wrecking album without showing off any technical ability. I wonder if Adele will ever learn.

1.5 hello’s out of 5 outside’s.

Coldplay – Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends

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Coldplay never sounded big. Every time they made something that sounded big and ambitious, it was a failure. When they stuck to simplicity, they were pretty good. They’re the biggest rock band currently, but they’re the antithesis of that. That difference is how “The Scientist” is brilliant and “Fix You” is atrocious, despite being both ballads.

What’s shocking about Viva La Vida is not that it’s experimental. There have been wilder mainstream albums. What’s shocking is how it works while being the opposite of what made Coldplay good. This isn’t a band that’s working on their strengths, but improving on their weaknesses.

You wouldn’t know it by the first title track. It’s awful. Using strings instead of guitars doesn’t hide an annoying melody. It feels like they couldn’t care less about whether the melody is nice to the ear. Everything about it tries to be big and friendly for sport stadiums. If it had guitars and drums it’d replace “We Are Champions”. A Cazy Frog remix is probably in the works.

This is why “Clocks” was awful, and any other big Coldplay song. They were only about size and never did anything else. Here, Coldplay are doing something other than sounding important. Even “42”, whose beginning is one of Coldplay’s worse moments (Trite lyrics and musical backing that sounds like a demo from X&Y), has a constantly-changing structure. The song is still a failure, but it’s an interesting one that adds more to the album than it takes from.

Other experiments are far more succesful. “Yes” is a sex song which further proves that Marin can be a great vocalist and when he puts the falsetto away. The falsetto was often what made the difference between good and bad Coldplay songs. Here, it’s thrown away most of the time.

Since there is a clearer emotional core to these songs, Martin chooses the correct singing more often than not. A sexually-charged, but still gloomy song about sex fits perfectly with the lower register. When Martin delivers pieces of wisdom we all know on “Lost!”, he remains calm. We all know that losing doesn’t mean you’re lost, and it’s good that Martin doesn’t pretend otherwise. The calm singing style gives an air of friendliness to the song. It makes it sound intimate like “Shiver” despite the the drums banging along.

The album’s apex is in the last three songs. They all justify Coldplay’s popularity. “Strawberry Swing”‘s flirting with psychedelia are forgettable compared to the pure bliss of it. The second title track is everything “Viva La Vida” wanted to be. It’s huge, hopeful but beautiful. It’s not just the progressive structure that helps, but that then knows how to handle every part. When the song goes loud Martin doesn’t sound like he’s singing in a huge stadium. He sounds like he’s re-discovering hope after the gloom of “Violet Hill”. As for that one, it’s Coldplay’s most aggressive song so far. Oddly, it works and it sounds heavy.

Some have pointed out how the album isn’t very experimental if you listen to something other than the Top 40 radio. It’s true. There are even mainstream artists who made weirder albums, like Linkin Park. Nothing here sounds like a new vision, nothing like “Sail” or “Radioactive”.

That’s okay, because the focus isn’t on pushing the sound further. Coldplay are dominated by their melodies. Everything they do exists to serve the melodies and drive them, never the opposite. The ideas here are only new for Coldplay, but they make better work of the melodies than if the band chose their ordinary set-up. The contrast between the soothing singing and drums of “Lost!” makes it work. The psychedelic vibe in “Strawberry Swing” are better to express its bliss rather than some pianos and guitars. This focus helps even the songs whose melodies are weak. “Lovers in Japan” would’ve been a B-Side if it wasn’t for its energetic instrumental.

It’s no wonder Coldplay took a more electronic route after this. It’s a great album, but the band sounds like they exhausted this style of Artsy Stadium Rock here. Then again, I thought the same when I listened to X&Y. Even if you don’t take into account that Coldplay never sounded capable of making this album, it’s still great. It’s full of great songs with great melodies and structures that go somewhere, rather than just repeat what came before. The skeptics have a few points, but here they’re wrong.

3.5 violet hills out of 5

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

Siri Hustvedt – The Summer Without Men

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Chick Lit is a dirty word. Reading other reviews of this novel, many expressed fear that this would be Chick Lit and therefore a waste of time. While I didn’t have the fortune of reading Chick Lit, I heard it’s full of romance and character drama. Why is that considered so bad while Game of Thrones is praised for being ‘surprising’ is unclear. Maybe it’s just our society’s fear of femininty.

Femininity is a big issue in The Summer Without Men. The novel does live up to its title. There’s a moment where, instead of a teenage boy meeting the teenage girl it’s just her friends trapping her. Even the best female singers sing about wrecked relationships, while Marilyn Manson writes about metaphysical rebellions. We could definitely use a story to show us women can have a life outside relationships with men.

It happens in real life, too. I met many ‘tomboys’, women who’d rather be one of the boys and only get along with fellow tomboys. The subtle bullying of Cat’s Eye makes an appearance. The whole premise of the novel is, what do you when the opposite gender rejects you?

There are two possible conclusions here. One is not convincing enough and the other isn’t explored. Mia looks at her rubble and builds a house. That’s nice and all, but we’re just told that it happens instead of seeing it.

Siri employs a style similar to Paul Auster. It’s an introspective style with more telling than showing. It creates a maze of thoughts that you’re supposed to swim through and come up with something of your own. The key to making the style works is to make the narrator unreliable and deeply flawed.

Narrators of such stories tend to have an emotional affliction they can’t get over. It clouds their judgment and so we get two different versions of reality. One is presented in the details. The other is in the langauge and sentence structure. These are often obsessive characters, going over certain details over and over.

By presenting these characters as flawed and often the opposite of heroic, we’re invited to try to find the reality beyond the character’s perception. Mia lacks such an internal struggle. She has a psychotic episode, but we’re told that instead of being shown. In Catcher in the Rye, we’re not told that Caulfield has PTSD but we’re shown it by seeing him going over and over his brother’s death. A maze of thoughts tells us how reality is while showing us who the character is by his choice of langauge.

I never got an idea of who Mia is. What is her complex? What are her priorities? What is her worldview? She’s supposed to have had a psychotic episode, but the prose is clean and precise. It makes it easy to read, but I’d expect someone in an emotional turmoil to not be very coherent. The rambling style was necessary in those aforementioned novels because a character with emotional problems would be too busy venting them then making sure his words make sense.

The closest she come to doing that is breaking up the structure. She moves from topic to topic, rather than follow the typical “this happened and then this happened”. This works because the novel has a few different storylines that stand on their own, but that’s not a way to express Mia’s character. It’s just a way to make us take each individual story on its own, rather than try to make sense of the chronological order.

The stories themselves, while good, don’t rely enough on the rambling narrator tool. Stories with rambling narrators aren’t eventful. It’s less important what happens and more how it affects the characters. The action in this novel doesn’t, if it’s psychological, with Mia’s psychology.

There are two main arcs. One has a group of old ladies slowly dying out, and the other a group of young girls who are just entering the teenage wasteland. At this point, the novel is less about Mia and more about these characters. We get Mia’s opinion of them, but we also get some showing.

Siri needed to decide whether Mia gives us only her point of view, or whether she’s an observer who just reports what she says. We get something in the middle, which means it’s teasing without the orgasm. The arc with the old ladies is well-meaning, but is doomed from the start. One of the old ladies’ secret is that she makes quilts with hidden, profane images.

Siri was, what, 55 when she wrote the novel? There is the perception that old people are all prudes, but making them be into profanity doesn’t add any more life to them. The cliche of the Dirty Old Man or the old woman who seeks a sugar daddy are boring. If the only proof we have that this old lady still has life in her is her interest in profanity, then I don’t think she has much life in her left. Profanity is attention seeking. True rebels don’t care.

Profanity is impressive when you’re young, but by the time high school started it lost its charm. You occasionally get people who know how to use it, like what Bring Me the Horizon did in “Happy Song”. Most people, including the character in this novel, use it for pathetic shock value. When Abigail showed Mia that she put naked women in hidden in the quilt, I did not see an old lady with life still in her. I saw an old lady whose horizons are now so limited she can’t imagine anything more exciting other than profanity. By the way, this novel was published before Bring Me the Horizon’s album.

The almost-teenagers work better, but they deserve a whole novel to themselves. They are forced to write about the incident of bullying from the perspective of everyone else. This is a brilliant idea. How a character writes about another can tell us about both, and if an author is going to tackle this idea head-on we can get some serious character development.

Siri doesn’t do it. All we get is some snippets. They’re interesting enough, but again it’s all just teasing without even foreplay to compensate. There’s an attempt to understand the bully just like the bullied. It’s an interesting take that recognizes the cruelty of bullying, how these little thing produces social retards. It also tries to understand why bullies start in the first place. Many of them are sure they’re in the right and that the bullied just has a superiority complex. Siri touches that, but not enough.

There are off-topic digressions which don’t contribute much and reinforce the feeling this is just a collection of notes for an incomplete novel. Siri at least puts effort into writing her notes. Her prose flows smoothly and whenever she sinks deep into Mia’s psyche it gets better. The beginning is powerful, throwing us right in the middle of heartbreak and all the self-pity and anger that accompanies it. If Siri would let her loose a little and let Mia ramble, this could’ve been a great novel.

The Summer Without Men is too written-well to be bad. Even if everything in it is left unexplored, everything is interesting enough to make you want to do something with it yourself. The prose is pretty good and it’s short enough so it doesn’t drag. A good choice if you want a light read that’s not stupid, but that’s it.

3 summers out of 5

Taylor Swift – 1989

1989

How brilliant is “Blank Space”?

When I was with my girlfriend, I couldn’t listen to it. It was a laughing warning sign, taunting me that all this happiness is bound to end. When she dumped me, I still couldn’t listen to it. It laughed harder and bragged how it told me so. It’s more than a take on Taylor’s ‘serial dating’. It’s a song that acknowledge the futility of the Pursuit of Love.

We all know that most relationships won’t last. Marriage is just a fancy ceremony. Yet we keep going, still trying to find that person. Taylor takes a look from above and laughs how repetitive it all is. There’s hope that it might be worth all the work (“You can tell me when it’s over/if the high was worth the pain”) but that’s it. Taylor doesn’t even consider the possibility that this time it might work.

You’d think that in the age when science and atheism are popular, people would be more cynical. I’m surrounded by people who have a strong faith in love and that we will all find The One. “Blank Space” is a rarity in a world whose view of romance is almost cult-ish.

That song is a towering achievement in an album where nothing tries to match it.

Taylor made a career out of singing about heartbreak. That’s not unique, but to her credit she always had some insight to add to that never-ending subject. On 1989, it sounds like the subject is no longer important to her.

There are a lot of songs about relationships that failed, but there is no sorrow here. The reason we sing about heartbreak and listen to those songs is because we can’t just get over it. Someone in the world has it worse, but heartbreak is a painful experience even when it’s boring. We’re afraid of taking chances because every hurt makes it worse.

Taylor sounds like she can afford to get hurt. It fell apart on about 5 songs here, but Swift just shrugs it off. These are not anthems of resilience. These are songs about heartbreak where the singer moves on after a week. It’s like Ed Sheeran, only less creepy.

Maybe this is how reality works now. I know 3 girls who exited relationships and immidiately found new suitors. Taylor is a beautiful and successful singer, so I’m sure she has plenty of hot guys at the door. When you can get so many hot and famous guys, does it really matter when it falls apart? A replacement is on the way. It’s better than Ed Sheerans’ attempt at having one night stands with girls dying for romance, but it still misses the point.

The hotness of the guys is important. Taylor discovers sexuality on 1989. When young Pop stars discover sexuality. it’s scary. Many try to use sex as a form of rebellion. They dress half-naked in the music videos and we’re supposed to think they’re unique for having sex (like everyone else does?).

Taylor’s sexuality is different. She’s closer to Tove Lo than Nicki Minaj. She doesn’t brag about how many guys stare at her ass. She’s simply enjoying being found attractive by attractive guys, and being attracted to them. There are no explicit songs about sex, but the delivary is very sensual. “Style” sounds like Kylie Minogue, only more tame. “Wildest Dreams” is all about sex. She doesn’t throw herself at the subject like Tove Lo or Minogue, but it’s her first steps towards it and they’re great. If Taylor made an album that’s all about sex, it will turn out great. The way she sings ‘a tight little skirt’ is sexier than anything Minaj or Lady Gaga will ever do.

Speaking of “Wildest Dreams”, it’s the song that symbolizes the main problem. Everyone said it sounds like Lana Del Rey. Why it’s not as good as Lana is what’s interesting. Lana Del Rey made songs about being attracted to Hot Bad Guys and about all the fun and tragedy it involved. She put the excitement right next to the fall and asked us if it was worth it.

There is danger in “Off to the Races”. There is tragedy in “Born to Die”. There’s nothing like that in Taylor’s song. The guy she’s into is tall, handsome and is good at being bad. She doesn’t address how it affects her. The relationship doesn’t last, obviously, but where’s the heartbreak and the pain? Where is the grieving? Taylor sounds invincible. She wishes that the guy would remember her and that’s it. That’s not the brave-face act that made Smiths’ “I Know It’s Over” so good. That one had cracks in the surface.

Taylor was never an outsider. She tried to paint herself as such in songs like “You Belong to Me”, but it’s hard to be a beautiful outcast in a society where female beauty is worshipped. 1989 is a step in admitting that she’s one of the Beautiful People. That’s why “Style” sounds so honest. That’s why on “Shake It Off” she doesn’t diss her haters or prove to us she’s strong but celebrates herself. Both of these are a lot of fun.

The rest of the songs sound like weird celebrations of being attracted to Hot Bad Guys who know how to get the girl. I’m happy for Taylor she can now afford to jump from relationship to relationship without suffering heartbreak, but it’s not good material for heartbreak music. At worst, she sounds smug and unpleasant, disconnected from How People Feel. El-P’s frustration over “Welcome to New York” makes sense. New York must seem great when you’re a beautiful successful singer, but all these underground rappers have a different perspective. Hot Bad Guys aren’t a problem when you’re attractive, but when suitors are less common then every one matters and every one hurts.

There are few songs that sound like leftover from a different era. “Out of the Woods” is Midwest Emo lyrics in a Pop song. It uses imagery over spelling out how the narrator feels, and Taylor sounds vulnerable and unsure in the chorus. Although she abandoned country completely, the narration of the song makes you wonder whether there’s a Bluegrass demo of it. “Clean” also helps conclude the album with the realization that Taylor is strong, she left the heartbreaks behind and she can move on. Does that mean we get her sex album now?

At least Taylor’s talent for hooks isn’t gone. 1989 doesn’t fail like most Pop albums do. There are no shortage of good hooks here. Despite Taylor’s detatchment, “I Wish You Would”, “Wildest Dreams” and “Bad Blood” all have poppin’ melodies. She also saved the melodies for the best lyrics, so the result is overall a pleasant, but disappointing album. At least Taylor doesn’t sound out of steam. She’s probably just not out of the woods yet.

3 blank spaces out of 5