This album is uselessly cool. Presented to me as “something you should listen to” by my piano-virtuoso roommate, it engendered an instantaneous and awestruck love that was without context in my music-listening life. The blue water on the cover of the Nonesuch version that I had helped it fit right alongside Beaucoup Fish and Polydistortion and Tidal and In Sides and Pre-Millennium Tension and all the other cool blue music I was listening to at the time, but if I were ever to so much as namedrop this composer or this composition, a simple “Oh yeah? What else do you like by him?” would undo me. Truth be told, my experience with the minimalist tradition begins and ends here. I love it too much to try to move beyond it.
Which is liberating. So much of the construction of my persona as done through music has been a process of addition and accretion. I like this thing, so I’ll also like this thing, and I’ll like more and more of each thing, and onward and outward like a spiderweb growing from the center. But this? This just is what it is. I can lose myself in the shimmering pulses that make my eyes itch, I can nod my head to the insistent rhythm, I can move my hand around like I’m calling out the sung or struck high notes by tapping them out of the air, I can listen to the album on repeat for a day and transform my cubicle into a sonic hotbox dreamworld, and that’s all there is to it, that’s all there will ever be to it. No knowledge to acquire, no audience to impress. A tree falls and falls and falls and falls and falls and falls and falls and falls and falls and falls and falls and falls and falls and falls in the forest and I’m the only one there to hear the sound.
I’ve mentioned early-’80s robot pop in these parts before, I know, so here’s a piece I wrote about one of my favorite examples of it, “Automatic” by the Pointer Sisters, for the Science Fiction Book Club’s tumblr, Vorpalizer.
Roots and Beginnings: The Pointer Sisters - “Automatic”
Achieving sentience in the early ’80s: Has anything come as close to a guarantee of interest in science fiction since dawn of the Atomic Age? The post-Star Wars saturation of genre entertainment with robots and lasers and aliens, plus the democratization of the synthesizer as the weapon of choice for forward-thinking makers of pop, R&B, funk, industrial, and new wave/alternative music meant The Future lay thick on the ground. All I knew as a five year old was that I loved songs that sounded like they were sung by droids.
Hence my lingering love of “Automatic,” a razor-tight yet ecstatic song about how desire can make you short-circuit. There’s some vocal manipulation going on here, sure, of the same sort that would also make me fall in love with “Funky Town” and “Jam On It.” But in the main, you’re just hearing the remarkably low voice of Ruth Pointer; sounding neither male or female, it scans as “artificial” in a deeply engrossing and mysterious way. Throw in the motorik beat, the laser-bright synths, and that computer-processor tinkling sound that pops up every now and then, and this song sounds like you’re listening to some android’s internal monologue. The climactic harmonies of all three sisters in the chorus and hook are some real robot-comes-alive shit, the kind of thing Daft Punk’s built a whole career out of. They make it sound like a total, transcendent delight to be utterly at someone’s whim. If science fiction is the literature of ideas, well, there’s an idea for you.
The Venus in Furs (Bernard Butler, David Gray, Jonny Greenwood, Andy Mackay, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Thom Yorke) - “Baby’s On Fire” (dir. Todd Haynes)
Cinemax After Dark ranks pretty low on the list of places you’d expect to have life-changing art-experiences. That I’ve had not one but two is not, I hope you’ll trust me when I say it, a reflection in any way of the frequency of my viewing of that channel at that time of the day during my teens and early twenties. Mostly there were just some late nights when I sat in the easy chair in the den in my parents house, where I lived in high school and again upon graduating college, and flipped aimlessly through the channels until something that justified my reluctance to trek upstairs to sleep came on.
The first time that what I found rewired my brain in some profound and unalterable way, I had stumbled across the opening credits of Nightbreed, Clive Barker’s grand-guignol monsters-movie metaphor for coming out and moving to the Castro or Boystown or the West Village. I knew, from more adventurous friends and from the memorably nightmarish creatures that peopled the movie’s VHS cassette box in the horror section of every video store I’d ever been to, that this was a real horror movie. Not a horror-comedy like The Lost Boys, not something you could slot into the “great director” category like The Shining, but a movie that was Rated R because you were going to see awful, awful things, consistently. It felt like I was making the decision not to change the channel actively, over and over again, every minute I continued to watch the thing. The power and panic I experienced during that initial viewing, the sense that something important and true was accessible only by art unafraid to cut things open, shaped my interests as a maker and consumer of art to this day. What can I say? You never forget your first time.
The second and even more pivotal instance a late-night pay-cable flip-through changed my life came when I landed on the film you see above: Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes’s elaborate David Bowie/Iggy Pop slashfic in arthouse drag. I’d actually seen the thing during its initial theatrical run at the arthouse theater at college, rabid as I was at the time to discover more about the Bowie I’d first encountered through the Trainspotting soundtrack (via his Iggy collabs), his cosigning by Trent Reznor, and especially his stylish, loud drum and bass record Earthling. I came away loving the soundtrack, which I bought on CD, but disappointed by almost everything else. It seemed to me that a rock movie’s primary responsibility was to rock, and aside from the sequence reproduced above, Velvet Goldmine never did.
I don’t know what it was that caused me to so drastically consider the movie the second time around, in such a relatively inauspicious venue. I can’t even remember at what point in the movie I tuned in, or at what point I started thinking “Wow, this is really good,” let alone “I…I think I need to totally reevaluate how I process music and art all my life.” Whatever it was, suddenly I saw that Haynes’s ostentatiously artifice-ial approach to the material — layering reference upon reference from every art form near to hand, structuring it as a series of flashbacks within flashbacks within newsreels within fairy tales like Citizen Kane gone glam — wasn’t a way of neutering its rock and roll energy, but a way to refract it into a million rays blazing in all directions. You could follow those rays wherever they pointed.
I remember laughing when the “Baby’s On Fire” sequence started in the theater. I’d never heard the Brian Eno-Robert Fripp original before, so that lyric 100% read like “babies on fire” the first time around, and the image was so over-the-top that I cracked up. The sequence and the song ended up grabbing me for some pretty obvious musical ones: the creeping drum and bass of the intro, the squealing tension of the verse, the explosive Bernard Butler guitar solo (I actually prefer it to Fripp’s), actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s entirely convincing Eno-esque sneer, the Bowie/Ronson guitar fellatio simulation, the contemptuous fury of the lyrics (“They said you were hot stuff / Now that’s what baby’s been reduced to,” goddamn). But they were joined by the emotional centerpiece of the film, in which everyone who cares about anyone else in the cast is made to experience intense, and intensely sexual, emotions about them in the space of a single scene, for better and for worse. It’s not a montage, it’s a crucible.
Whatever it was, I did not emerge from it unscathed. I was so wowed by the movie’s melancholy one-brief-shining-moment-that-was-known-as-camelot story the second time around that I simply had to have more — more Bowie, more Iggy, more Roxy, more Eno, more Bolan, more Lou, more Velvets, more Queen, more Stooges, more Sweet and Slade and Steve Harley and Suzi Quatro and Gary Glitter :( and Mott the Hoople and the New York Dolls and on and on. Within weeks, or maybe even days, I focused with laserlike intensity on David Bowie, who by then I was more familiar with thanks to some exquisitely designed best-of packages arranged by era that came out in the late ’90s, but whose absolutely compunctionless process of discovering, embracing, implementing, and abandoning new influences, new personae, to suit the needs and desires of the moment rewrote my entire attitude about what it meant to have an authentic self. Après ça, le déluge.
David Bowie’s been looking back at himself in his music for at least 16 years, but this is the first time he’s doing it as an artist who’s actually, legitimately, honest-to-god old. At a dashing-looking 66, he’s hardly ready for the record books as World’s Most Decrepit Rocker, but in the past you’d get the impression that to Bowie, being “old” simply meant wrestling with the reality of no longer being the sexual provocateur he was in the early ’70s, the art-rock innovator he was in the late ’70s, or the world-bestriding megastar he became in the early ’80s with Let’s Dance. Now, on his new album, The Next Day, it sounds like “old” means “Jesus, I could have died on an operating table.”
Psychic TV (feat. William S. Burroughs) - “Pirate Tape” (dir. Derek Jarman)
History is written by the victors; let me tell you about a battle I lost.
I went to an all-boys Catholic high school beginning in 1992, putting me about two grade-years ahead of the cutoff point after which “alternative music” ceased to be anything but the sonic sea in which kids had swum since their adolescent selves really learned to listen. In this environment, even slightly like-minded souls had to stick together for sheer psychic survival.
But while there were always commonalities — generally the big alt-rock superstars were okay by all of us — the further you got to the fringes, the more considerably tastes within this elect group could diverge. The divide which split my close-knit quartet of the four freaks found in our alphabetically arranged homeroom (we were the late Cs through the early Ds, so it was me, Conklin, Corey, and D’Angelo) right down the middle was the great sound clash between industrial on one side and indie rock on the other. We just said no to Sebadoh; their response to KMFDM was F.U. I came to call this the Pavement/Pigface Paradigm, and I was firmly on the Pigface side, and hey why are you laughing? Yeah, the names tell the whole story: As time and tide and taste rolled on and goddamn “Range Life” became the cornerstone of a decade and a half of music and culture, me and my black-clad brethren found ourselves tossed on the proverbial ash heap.
But there was one brief shining moment when we warriors of Wax Trax reigned supreme: That time when we insisted on playing “Pirate Tape” in its entirety the night of our junior prom.
If you had my basic set of interests during your teenage years — industrial music, William S. Burroughs, occultism and conspiracy theory, scaring the squares, the number 23 — Genesis P-Orridge of Psychic TV was a figure you could worm your way to through multiple directions at once. In my case, one of the most memorable and direct routes was catching a glimpse through the schoolbus window of the two farthest-out kids I even semi-knew, one boy and one girl, in full cyberpunk-modern-primitive-god-knows-what regalia, holding up big posterboard signs reading “GENESIS P-ORRIDGE” and “PSYCHIC TV” outside my school one afternoon. That’s a fanmaker, is what that is. (I’d later attempt to freak out my freaked-out family by making conversation with the girl, a friend of a friend, in Barnes & Noble one day; she knew what was up and gave me the cold shoulder. A few years later, in a lost-weekend sojourn to a friend’s upstate cabin during which I abandoned years of pseudo-straightedge opposition to drug use by smoking as much weed as humanly possible, she and I would end up in a small motorboat together, miserably trying to get a fishing pole to work properly and giving rise to my oft-repeated maxim: People who own Throbbing Gristle albums shouldn’t fish.)
By the time I graduated high school I’d amassed a real hodgepodge of P-Orridge products, if I recall correctly: his collaborations with Martin Atkins and a galaxy of industrial weirdos in Pigface (all those ’90s albums have two or three rock-solid songs; Notes From Thee Underground is front-to-back awesome), his appearances in the Wax Trax! 13th anniversary box set, Throbbing Gristle Bring You 20 Jazz Funk Greats, and three PTV CDs, none of which sounded anything at all like any of the others. There was the acid-house record Toward Thee Infinite Beat, the ominous and delicate Dreams Less Sweet, and a singles comp put out by Cleopatra Records with stuff like “Godstar” and the VW-ad-soundtracking “Roman P.” on it. (When that commercial came out I took it as a sign that the Illuminati were toying with us.)
I’m not sure how my friend came into possession of an audio-only version of “Pirate Tape,” a short experimental film by Derek Jarman, soundtracked by Psychic TV with music that prominently features a looped vocal sample from the film’s star, Burroughs. The sample? “Boys, school showers and swimming pools full of them.” Laced atop a preposterously creepy industrial hum. Over, and over, and over, and over, and over.
When we decided to irritate the Pavement fans (and, of course, all of our prom dates), this is how we rolled—with Old Bull Lee’s sepulchral voice croaking out a wet dream of gay teen lust, echoing up and down the shore at my friend’s Hamptons beach house.
We triumphed, that night, because it worked as a prank, as a “this is the song that doesn’t end” weapon of irritation. But I remember feeling a genuine thrill of pride that the song didn’t irritate me. Like when I read explicit gay sex and body horror in Burroughs or Barker, or like a few years earlier in middle school, when I watched The Rocky Horror Picture Show after it came out on VHS at last, I realized with excitement that something that freaked a lot of other people out didn’t freak me out in the slightest. I didn’t then, nor do I now, take any kind of “credit” for that, any more than I can take credit for liking strawberry ice cream better than chocolate. It’s just one of those things. (In this case it’s a privilege thing, too, since as a straight man these are costumes I can put on and take off at will. I’m a tourist.)
But not only did it mark me as different, which was very very important to me — I also realized, probably without actually realizing it, that it opened up areas of exploration and enjoyment from which others were walled off. I got a genuine charge out of the spectacle of that repeated phrase, the way hearing it over and over again like that took it beyond a pervy joke and escalated it into the realm of the sublime, which is no doubt how Burroughs would have experienced it. I liked the energy you could derive from the taboo and verboten. I loved knowing that strange artists like Burroughs and P-Orridge could find each other from across the decades and wring new meaning out of one another. And of course I loved how a piece of music could transform a setting like the beach after your junior prom into a grim industrial open-air sex temple. Pavement would win in the end, but that night belonged to the wild boys.
A few days ago I decided to bust the chops of a buddy who was bragging about how little he missed watching Girls since he stopped doing so, and by way of doth-protest-too-muching him I tweeted him a link to this video. Before very long I realized that here was a song that I’d liked, consistently, since it came out in the summer of 1984 when I was six years old. Not that it was a prominent part of my inner aural landscape or anything — like a lot of ’80s music it got a big bump in the early ’00s when I dropped my anti-pop snobbery for good and, not coincidentally, the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City soundtracks came out — but it was always lovely to encounter in the wild.
“Missing You” soundtracked summer visits to my Aunt and Uncle in Delaware, who would watch us for a week during the dog days every year while my mom and dad vacationed in the Caribbean somewhere. We would drive a couple hours to Rehoboth Beach in my uncle’s unairconditioned car and listen to the soft rock stations on which this song was a staple. I was very young, and this song felt cool to me in a truly primordial way, because in a very primordial way I was still learning how to be a human being. I was little enough that the simple act of hearing adults use adult vocabulary and phrasing was both fascinating and a vector for growth. In some cases this meant nothing more than literally not understanding the lyrics and trying to patch in my own—I thought “heartbreak overload” was “heartbreak hot balloon,” and I could never quite figure out how that metaphor made sense. But beyond that, I remember being compelled by the images conjured by “I hear your name in certain circles, and it always makes me smile.” What circles? What on earth could that mean? He sounds sad, so why is he smiling? I was also such a goody-goody about speaking without slang that I genuinely did not understand how to use the word “ain’t,” so the entire thrust of the song was a bit opaque to me. I think I wound up taking his denial of missing her as sincere and convincing. It all felt mysterious, a mystery only a grown-up could solve. I wanted in.
[originally posted 1/29/2009 - this is my favorite thing I’ve ever written about music and I hope you like it.]
It always blew my mind a bit that Gus Gus, the Icelandic film and music collective responsible for perhaps my favorite record from my imaginary “Straight ‘98” electronic music genre, Polydistortion, so quickly abandoned the sweeping, glacial tone of that album for earthy, sexy bangers like this one. It hails from their third bonafide album, Attention, a 2002 release that featured only four bandmembers instead of the previous (I believe) nine, and a brand new singer named, appropriately enough, Earth. It’s a much more techno-centric record than its two predecessors, Polydistortion and This Is Normal; I saw at least one of its songs on an electroclash compilation. So yeah, it’s fairly far removed in several different ways from the Gus Gus that made its first impression on me.
But it’s also a fabulous song. Early Gus Gus certainly did “celebratory” — cf. “Barry,” “Purple” — but never in such a directly sexy way. Obviously the killer element to this song, even more so than the buoyant beat or the big hands-in-the-air keyboard riff that functions as the chorus, is the lyric: “I still have last night in my body. I wish you were with me.” I think the sign of a great lyric is tackling a familiar concept from an unexpected direction—like a Looney Tunes character who sidesteps an oncoming freight train only to get hit by a falling anvil—and that opening line does exactly that. We’ve all thought “man, I had a great time last night!”, but phrasing it as “I still have last night in my body” makes that connection not just mental but physical, not just a leisurely reminiscence but an immediate, palpable link, indeed one that’s not quite within our control to sever. Better still, she could be using the phrase purely metaphorically, but the literal interpretation—involving any number of substances imbibed through any number of orifices, bless her heart—is just as plausible and far more tantalizing.
Now, a couple paragraphs ago I mentioned that Gus Gus’s shift to sexy was a rapid one. “David” came out five years and several major cultural and musical shifts after Polydistortion, so it doesn’t exactly make my case for me. “Starlovers,” from 1999’s This Is Normal, on the other hand…
This right here is straight-up Straight ‘98, and sexy as hell. In the album’s context, the song follows an even more explicitly raunchy number called “Teenage Sensation,” which is about exactly what you think it’s about. So here, when Daniel Ágúst sings “Love, God, and affection—you know exactly what it means, still you’re only in your teens,” we know exactly what it means too. The notion of sex as revival-tent spiritual revelation, a gateway to an eroticized relationship with creation itself—“You are in love with God, you are in love with stars, you are in love with something that will tell you who you are”—well, this is a wonderful, wonderful idea to explore when you’re 20 years old! Yet Gus Gus cleverly include a bit of old-time religion in their message: “They need love, they need God, they need guidance from above.” You may know exactly what it means, but someone has to teach you a bit about it. And that, too, is sexy, in a hot-for-teacher (Rabbi?) kinda way, and in an implicit youth-gone-wild way as well. Nowadays it makes me think of Gossip Girl.
Why bring all this up? Well, coincidentally, even as I’ve been revisiting music from this period over the past few days, I’ve also been talking and thinking a lot about Grant Morrison comics, and different critical approaches to them — positive ones, this time, rather than negative — and different critical approaches to art in general. One such approach seemingly shared by both many Morrison defenders and Morrison himself is a poptimism-inflected belief in the future as a locus of potentially unlimited positivity, and the consequent importance of valuing art to the degree that it supports that belief. As Morrison put it:
For me, Final Crisis is about the type of guilt-ridden, self-loathing stories we insist on telling ourselves and, especially, our children—about the damage those stories do and about the good they could do if we took more responsibility for the power and influence of our words….
People like superheroes, particularly in stressful times, because there are very few fictions left which offer up a utopian view of human nature and future possibility. I suspect that’s some part of the appeal. The superhero is a crude attempt to imagine what we all might become if we allowed our better natures to overcome our base instincts. If we are not a race of predatory monsters intent on murdering ourselves with toxins and famine and war, then the superhero is the last, best shot at imagining where we might be headed as a species. The superhero occupies a space in our imaginations where goodness and hope cannot be conquered and as such, seems to fill what I can only describe as a spiritual hole in secular times.
As I was reading things like this, I was listening to a kind of music that even at the time I thought of as “the music of the future,” the music that near-future science fiction of the late 20th century said we’d be listening to, digital music, soundscape music.
Suddenly, I realized that the time in my life during which this music emerged and took precedence for me was the time in my life that most closely resembled a Grant Morrison comic.
I attended Yale University from 1996-2000, after emerging from an all-boys Catholic high school. I was suddenly surrounded by many of the smartest, richest, best-looking people I’d ever met. My only responsibility was to find out what I was really interested in and learn as much about it as I could. At varying times my homework assignments included reading The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, analyzing the use of Tarot symbolism in Vertigo, watching Cries and Whispers, and creating a performance piece based on the duel between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader in Star Wars. My sex life was intense, even creative. I would get very, very stoned and watch Barton Fink or Little Big Man or listen to Sex Style or The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions. I used Yahoo! Search and Persian Kitty. I hosted a radio show, wrote a screenplay, performed sketch comedy at midnight to a packed house of inebriates. One night I watched David Cronenberg’s The Fly and David Lynch’s Eraserhead for the first time, back to back, starting at 2am; another night I listened to Pulp’s “Seductive Barry” on my discman while walking to a naked party. I was in love. Intellectualized glamour soundtracked by Massive Attack remixes permeated my every waking moment. It was a wonderful time.
But of course it was also an awful time, rife with emotional turmoil that rose almost to the point of abuse, of which I was both on the giving and receiving end. I drank Bud Light out of kegs and grain’n’grape out of pilfered punch dispensers. I thought and wrote some truly embarrassing things. (This has not changed.) I encountered/experienced/perpetrated snobbery, pretension, classism, intellectual coasting, moral turpitude, and soul-crushing loneliness. My house was so filthy that there’s a decent chance I literally caught a disease from it. (The doctors were never quite sure.) I realized that maybe I’d always feel unbelievably miserable and angry from time to time with no innate ability to stop myself from feeling that way, maybe that wasn’t just something that happened when you’re in ninth grade listening to Alice in Chains. And you know how I’m always talking about my fear of making mistakes that can never be fixed, of hurting people in ways you can never make up to them? Where do you think I got that fear, middle school?
My point, besides the fact that I am a beautiful and unique snowflake and no college student has ever loved and lost like I have, is that for four years I lived in the future, and it was both awesome and awful—just like the past, just like the present. That’s fine. That’s as it should be. Well, no it’s not, but it’s definitely as it is. And to me, that’s the most beautiful about Straight ‘98 music. You have your “David”s, yeah. But you also have your “Is Jesus Your Pal?“s.
5-10-15-20 is a regular feature on Pitchfork where we ask musicians about the music from their lives in 5-year intervals; I’ve done fun interviews with Johnny Marr and John Cale. If you wanted to do one I’d love to read it. I’ll add mine at some point. You could give the year for each age.
5 (1983): Lipps Inc. - “Funky Town” In 1983 my family moved from my original home town of Franklin Square to the snobbier nearby town of Garden City. I don’t have any musical memories associated with this per se, but I do recall that this was something of a golden age for pop songs involving voices that sounded like robots. Since I loved Star Wars and He-Man, this was music to my ears. I know I had a 45 of “Funky Town” that I’d listen to on my Fisher-Price turntable, which I remember dancing to in the years before we moved; slightly after the move I remember digging “Automatic” by the Pointer Sisters and “Jam On It” by Newcleus for this same reason. These were big, big songs at Laces, the roller rink that kids my age went to for birthday parties.
10 (1988): Guns n’ Roses - “Paradise City” I got this album for Easter from my grandmother, despite a cover consisting of a cross, a bunch of skulls, the words “Appetite for Destruction,” and an enormous parental advisory sticker. Maybe it’s because I was the oldest grandchild and a woman of my grandma’s generation hadn’t yet learned to pick up stuff like that, or maybe she just didn’t GAF, I don’t know. It had to have been Easter of 1988 since the record came out in summer of ‘87. I remember G’n’R being ridiculously, omnipresently huge among kids my age, and the subject of intense speculation and rumor — what Axl’s real name was, what Slash looked like, just generally marveling at the idea that you could put curse words in a song. I think “Paradise City” was the biggest song for me because it sounded the biggest, most open-hearted, and most exciting; a lot of those other songs, as much fun as they were to listen to, radiated a squalid and unpleasant set of emotions that I wasn’t really ready for in the fifth grade.
15 (1993): Smashing Pumpkins - “Cherub Rock” At this point, post-Nirvana (and post-Jane’s Addiction, don’t let’s erase them from history), it was all alternative all the time for me. That change became a permanent one, I think, when I got Ministry’s Psalm 69 for Christmas ‘92. Unwrapping that black angel on the cover under the tree strikes me in retrospect as something of a commitment. This was also the year that I got into what came to be My Favorite Band, nine inch nails — I think I got broken for my birthday. Another record I became hugely attached to this year was “Love U More” by Sunscreem, which is odd because I listened to absolutely nothing else like this at the time; I have such vivid memories of coming home from one of the cast parties from my first high school musical and listening to it through my headphones on my boombox, late at night, no one else awake, feeling like I was truly in another world. But I picked this song as representative because I sang it as my audition for the lead singer slot in what became my band for the next couple years, Special Agent Gumby; I got the gig and we ended up performing this more often than Billy Corgan probably did. You can shred so hard on the higher notes in this thing — “WHO IS RIGHTEOUS, WHAT IS BOLD,” “TELL ME ALL of your secrets,” “LET ME OUUUUUUUUUT!!!” You just knock people out if you do this song right.
20 (1998): Archive - “Londinium” One of my friends from high school wound up at the University of Edinburgh, learned how to DJ, and would send us these four-volume continuously mixed mixtapes featuring all sorts of “electronica” shit otherwise available to us only on absurdly expensive import CD singles. I repaid him by buying him a copy of Liquid Swords for his birthday but keeping it for myself instead of actually mailing it to him. I was a shithead in many respects, which is why my four years in college remain my psychological Chinatown to this day. Anyway, one of my favorite discoveries in these massive mixtapes was some trip-hop outfit called Archive. Imagine my delight when I saw a copy of the CD from whence the tracks that graced my buddy’s mixes had come sitting unplayed in the CD library of the college radio station where I DJ’d, before some careerist asshole kids who were the officers of the station literally fired all of us and replaced us with a commercial format to burnish their planned radio careers. Since no one had played it I had no compunction in, well, let’s say liberating it from the library and adding it to my collection. To me it’s this perfect little jewel that exists only for me and the friends close enough for me to play it for them. I still listen to it from start to finish probably once a month; it’s one of my all-time favorite albums by anyone. Just a perfect encapsulation of the “cinematic” electronic music and hip-hop I loved so much, soundtracking walks in the dark across campus, living as glamorous and decadent a life as I could muster.
25 (2003): The Postal Service - “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” I might not have picked this song but for the recent Coachella-provoked music-critic roundelay on Twitter about this band (“band”)’s quality/popularity/influence, but it triggered a memory of one of the strongest and strangest associations of an album with a period of time in my life that I’ve ever had. I first listened to this record while driving with my wife and her best friend on a road trip from Long Island to Chicago on a working vacation to the Wizard World Chicago comic con, where I was headed to photograph shock-jock-style Scottish superhero writer Mark Millar (you know him as the co-creator of Kick-Ass) for the publication for which I worked, Abercrombie & Fitch’s magazine/catalog/Bruce Weber soft-porn hybrid A&F Quarterly. This road trip was designed to be a last hurrah of freedom for my wife, who was very very ill with anorexia at the time, and who’d just been convinced via an intervention by me, her therapist, and my therapist to check into a residential treatment facility for eating disorders the following week. We listened to the album there and back again; while we were there we met cartoonists Jeffrey Brown and Craig Thompson, who became our friends and whose not topically or emotionally dissimilar comics we also associate with this record. Just a few days after our return, the night before were were supposed to drive down to Philadelphia to check Amy into Renfrew, the power went out across the Eastern seaboard, so Amy had to drive in the dark into Brooklyn to pick me up at the coworker’s apartment we’d fled to from our West Village office, drive back home to sleep in the sweltering heat for five hours, get up and head down to Philly, hoping that the power would come back on in time for us to gas up the car in New Jersey before we ran out. I’d listen to “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” and its lyrics about being a visitor and wearing a nametag with big black letters on it while visiting Amy wearing just such a nametag. She would call me up and leave messages singing “Such Great Heights” when she was allowed to use the phone. So yeah, the Postal Service are alright in my book. If it weren’t for that Coachella thing I might have picked Fischerspooner or the Rapture or LCD Soundsystem or Yeah Yeah Yeahs — big big year to be a young music person in New York, that was for sure — or Azure Ray, which maybe pinned our emotions to the wall even harder than this, or Beyoncé, which I fell in love with in a convenience store parking lot down the road from the treatment facility, the first time I really admitted to myself I loved a genuinely popular American pop act. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to write all that shit down.
30 (2008): Portishead - “Machine Gun” 2008 was an optimistic year and yet my favorite song was maybe its most pessimistic one. More than that, it was a return by one of my old favorite bands, only on a record with no beats, with really very little at all in common with its trip-hop heyday, and with Beth Gibbons sounding even more crippled by agony than before. But to this day i just get such a charge out of that BOOM POP POPPOPPOPPOPPOPPOPPOPPOP BOOM POP BUDDABUDDABUDDABUDDA, and the John Carpenter/Brad Fiedel ’80s sci-fi dystopian-future synthesizer figure at the end of the song. I just nod my head along relentlessly. It’s a visceral experience that opens up the rest of the album. It’s a lame and stupid and dishonest thing to say that the song sounds like they saw something coming the rest of us were missing, but, well.
35 (2013): A$AP Rocky - “Long Live A$AP” I don’t turn 35 until the end of April, but don’t let’s stand on ceremony. I’ve listened to this song in the neighborhood of 75 times in the week since I bought the record — I think there have been whole working days when I didn’t listen to anything else. You could put it back to back with “Machine Gun” and not really see any emotional or tonal daylight between the two of them other than how happy or unhappy the vocalist sounds about the world constructed by the sinister music he/she is vocalizing over. Writing this out just now I find myself a little alarmed about that, like my arc has plateaued, in a valley.
Deep Dish/Everything But the Girl - “The Future of the Future (Stay Gold)”
This song is really a perfect example of a vaguely defined genre of music I mentally refer to as “Straight ’98.” Burbly, ice-blue but warm British dance music, trip-hop, moody actual hip-hop from the States–this is the stuff that soundtracked my life during college. The funny thing about this particular example is that even though the feelings engendered in me by listening to this music today are so tied to nostalgia (that’s not all it is, not by a longshot, but that’s a big part of it), the song itself is resolutely anti-nostalgic: “You say, ‘Think of the old days–we could have them back again.’ Well, I thought about the old days–they’d go bad like they did then.”
And yet the song is equally chilly on the prospects of the future: “The future of the future will still repeat today. Time goes fast and fades away…I’m not going home again. Tomorrow will never come.” This in particular is interesting to me because the promise of “the future” always seemed to me to be implicit in the technological wizardry of this kind of music.
So what’s left? The present. “It’s so bright tonight!” I think this could be seen as a message of live-for-the-moment clubland hedonism, but I rarely saw this kind of thing that way before and I definitely don’t see it that way now. To me, it’s resigned celebration of, or maybe celebratory resignation to, the idea that right now is all we really have, so we must take what pleasure comfort from it we can. “Do you see those cars, those lights? Do you see those roads, these sights?” We’re traveling, our points of departure and destination are perpetually out of reach, and all we can do is admire what’s outside our window right this moment. “Whatcha gonna do about me now?”