Sufjan Stevens, “Seven Swans”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #79 – released March 16, 2004)

Track listing: All The Trees Of The Field Will Clap Their Hands / The Dress Looks Nice On You / In The Devil’s Territory / To Be Alone With You / Abraham / Sister / Size Too Small / We Won’t Need Legs To Stand / A Good Man Is Hard To Find / He Woke Me Up Again / Seven Swans / The Transfiguration

When he took the stage at the Academy Awards last week, Sufjan Stevens was likely unknown to a good chunk of the worldwide viewing audience. I can only imagine what kind of impression he made on them with his gentle, fragile voice and equally delicate/intricate music (not to mention his outré pink-and-white vertical striped jacket.) Joined by a typically eccentric band of indie-leaning musicians including St. Vincent and Chris Thile, Stevens performed his nominated song “Mystery of Love”, one of two compositions he wrote for the film Call Me By Your Name. A shimmering tapestry of acoustic guitar, mandolin and other pizzicato, bell-like sounds topped off by his yearning vocals, it’s quintessential Sufjan in that it’s accessible, almost impossibly lovely and sounds like little else.

This notion of discovering Stevens on as immense and unlikely a platform as the Oscars takes me back to the first time I heard him, fourteen years ago when I was assigned to review Seven Swans for a music website (more about that in the next entry.) I recall lying on my bed as (take a breath) “All The Trees of The Field Will Clap Their Hands” began with a lone banjo playing a four-chord arpeggio, soon joined by a hushed, choirboy vocal falling somewhere between Elliot Smith and Badly Drawn Boy’s Damon Gough. One by one, other layers (acoustic piano, female “da, da, da’s”) appeared over those same chords, the entire thing building and gradually solidifying into a gorgeous whole. It immediately left me beguiled—I hadn’t heard anything quite like it before. Yes, it was folkish, singer-songwriter stuff, but it emanated awe at a level both intense and slightly unsettling (more so than comforting.)

His fourth album in as many years, Seven Swans arrived just eight months after his previous release (and the first to receive any college radio airplay), Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State, a song cycle exactly about what it says it is. The latter was the first in a planned series of LPs, one for each of the fifty states. This absurdly ambitious undertaking (which to date has not gone beyond two albums) was my first inkling that Stevens was not only a major talent, but perhaps also a little nuts. The press release I received for Seven Swans positioned it as a break from that project, made up of recent songs falling outside those parameters. Recorded in producer Daniel Smith’s rec room, it stood in direct contrast to most of Michigan’s more extroverted menagerie of horns, polyrhythms, weird keyboards and epic-length narratives. As I would later find out, it was also absolutely nothing like the all-over-the-map indie rock of his debut, A Sun Came! (2000) or the instrumental, impenetrable electronic experimentation of Enjoy Your Rabbit (2001).

Multiple Seven Swans songs follow the lead of “All The Trees…”, building an arrangement one piece at a time, repeating the melody with minor variations until the whole takes on a hypnotic, zen-like quality. “The Dress Looks Like On You” does so gently, mostly limiting its scope to banjo and acoustic guitar, only thinking to throw in something unexpected like a brief, cereal-box organ solo when the melody shifts in the bridge; conversely, “In The Devil’s Territory” swells to a mighty, Steve Reich-ian roar, its Theremin solo ably mimicking a boiling tea kettle ready to explode. Stevens isn’t shy about pushing this trope to its breaking point—witness “Sister”, which spends four minutes repeating the same instrumental melody, with “da, da, da’s” eventually accompanying it, growing louder and louder until it almost feels satirical, like a backing track from another Stevens, Cat, turned into a game show theme song. Then, abruptly, everything drops out, the song shifting to just acoustic guitar-and-voice for its last two minutes, retaining the same melody, only with proper lyrics.

Striking as Stevens’ approach to sound and song structure is throughout Seven Swans, his lyrical content more radically sets the record apart from scores of likeminded acoustic folkies. Stevens is a devout Christian, and while he shies away from labeling himself as a Christian artist, maintaining in multiple interviews that his intent is to separate his beliefs from his music, themes of faith in a higher power liberally flow throughout his work—rarely more explicitly than on this particular album. The title itself refers to a passage in the Bible’s Book of Revelations, while there are also songs about “Abraham” and “The Transfiguration”. And yet, while his faith and devotion feels pure, he never moralizes and rarely proselytizes—the closest he comes to doing so is his refrain of “He is the Lord!” in the title track, and even there he sounds a bit fearful and overwhelmed about what he’s exclaiming.

At times, his exploration of faith falls much closer to Sam Phillips‘ (although she’s far more skeptical than he’ll ever be), in that he acknowledges the complexity of such mysteries. “To Be Alone With You”, with its captivating melody and spare, acoustic guitar-and-voice setting, initially comes off like a straightforward love song, with Stevens offering, “I’d swim across Lake Michigan” in order to fulfill the titular goal. However, by the second verse, the subject shifts from first to second person: “You gave up a wife and a family / You gave your ghost / To be alone with me.” When this song was new to me, I puzzled over exactly whom Stevens was directing these words to. A lover? A friend or relative? Most likely, it’s a higher power, especially after he sings, “To be alone with me / You went up on a tree,” possibly referencing the Crucifixion. But then, the final line is, “I’ve never met a man who loved me.” Is Stevens singing about Jesus or God or a literal man of the flesh? My inclination leans towards the former, yet his careful, specific use of language here is fascinatingly steeped in ambiguity.

Similarly, “Size Too Small” ostensibly concerns being the best man at a best friend’s wedding, the title referring to an ill-fitting suit. At face value, that’s exactly what it’s about, the quiet, reverent-sounding organ coming in on the second verse serving the nuptials theme nicely. But in that second verse, Stevens sings, “Everything rises, going at it all / All the surprises in a size too small,” before asking, “Would you surprise us / in a size for all of me?” No longer merely tangible, “size” becomes a concept that could encompass any number of things, from persona to friendship to even faith. “I still know you, the best man,” he notes, before concluding, “I still owe you,” and you’re left uncertain as to whom exactly “you” is, only that it’s someone or something close to his heart. The same goes for the “He” in “He Woke Me Up Again” or the subject of “The Dress Looks Nice On You”, which seems to be a celebration of spiritual rather than physical beauty with repeated admonitions of “I can see a lot of life in you.”

Even when Stevens largely forgoes abstractions, his music still retains an aura of wonderment. “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” rewrites the Flannery O’ Connor short story of that title from the point of view of its villain, known only as “The Misfit”. It’s a clever, followable conceit further made flesh by a hummable melody and the awesome way it opens up at the wordless, carousel twirl of a chorus, complete with a guitar riff that could’ve come from a Simon and Garfunkel chestnut. And yet, when his narrator switches from second to first person in the last verse, singing of Hell and his own grief, you can’t help but draw parallels to themes running through the bulk of the album. Stevens’ ability to incorporate both character and self until the line separating them blurs is a rare talent, one that further distinguishes him from your average singer-songwriter.

On subsequent albums, he’d continue honing that skill while hardly ever repeating himself. 2005’s Illinois picked up where Michigan left off but further expanded his aesthetic, often crossing Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown music with homespun theatrical drama. It ended up a breakthrough beyond college radio confines, thanks to its typically moving, catchy-but-still-singular anthem “Chicago”. Five years later, he returned with The Age of Adz, a flummoxing, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink attempt at almost a pop version of Enjoy Your Rabbit, getting lost in excess electronic effluvia and songs that pushed pass the six-minute-mark (or in one case, twenty-five!) Five years after that, Carrie and Lowell seemed like a full-circle, course-corrective return to an airier, more reverb-drenched take on Seven Swans’ acoustic folk, but with a new wrinkle: centering on his estranged mother’s death, Stevens dove feet-first into purely confessional songwriting, teeming with grief and inconsolable pain as deeply felt and nuanced as his earlier admissions of faith.

“Mystery of Love” didn’t win an Oscar, which is neither here nor there (losing to Phil Collins in this category back in 1999 didn’t have an adverse effect on Aimee Mann’s career.) Still, along with the stark “Visions of Gideon” (and its devastating placement at the end of Call Me By Your Name), it suggests that no matter which path Stevens takes next, he remains a wholly original and essential voice.

Up next: Obscurity Knocks.

“To Be Alone With You”:

“A Good Man Is Hard To Find”:


Film Journal: February 2018


I’m making an effort to write about every movie I see – an average of 100 words per title, sometimes more, often less. Reviews will appear on Letterboxd as I write them, and then get posted here monthly with starred ratings. Titles with a star next to them are movies I’ve re-watched.

There Will Be Blood*
Still one of my favorite films of the previous decade—revisiting it for the first time in over six years was like returning to a beloved novel, anticipating certain passages, but also feeling the brisk rush of joy in rediscovering others I’d totally forgotten, like the second restaurant scene with Plainview’s exquisite sourpuss expression at first sight of his rivals, or when he discloses more of his soul to Henry than he ever will to anyone else, or even “drrraiiinage!” Paul Thomas Anderson has made three features since—at least two are brilliant, but neither of ‘em sweeps up the viewer’s consciousness and embeds it within a fully realized world as seamlessly this one does. Rating: *****

Into The Inferno
The first Werner Herzog documentary I’ve seen since Cave Of Forgotten Dreams (2010) (which left me cold, perhaps because I didn’t see it in the intended 3-D format.) Naturally, you get all the opera-and chorale-accompanied staring-into-a-volcano’s-fiery-maw you’d expect, which Herzog renders as both startling and meditative. Even more startling is his undiminished knack for finding and showcasing odd, intriguing personalities, from a positively Owen Wilson-esque paleoanthropologist to volcanologist and co-director Clive Oppenheimer, who is more friend than foil. Encompassing Indonesia to Iceland, Ethiopia to North Korea, it’s a mirror-image, globe-trotting companion to his great Antarctica film from a decade before in which he just happened to visit a volcano. ****

Much as I’d prefer a Dee Rees film to receive a theatrical release, who knows how buried it could have ended up if it did? Along with Okja, it’s a key title in getting cineastes (myself included) used to the idea that essential cinema isn’t solely available in one. For a narrative about neighboring Mississippi families (one black, one white), after years of post-Civil War settings, the 1940s feels refreshing, particularly in how in sets in motion a change in perception for one black character. The cast, from Garrett Hedlund and Carey Mulligan to a near-unrecognizable Mary J. Blige is excellent, and the multiple narrator device is deftly employed. Rees’ trickiest feat, however, is in her graceful depiction of an unlikely but authentic friendship that develops between two men, which sounds commonplace until you remember how rarely you actually see it onscreen. ****1/2

I, Tonya
I admit to being entertained—how could I dislike an ideally-cast Alison Janney with those ginormous eyeglass frames and live-bird-on-shoulder? And Margot Robbie with her nails-on-chalkboard voice is everything you’d want from a Tonya (even if she’s a tad old for the teen years). And yet, as much as this strives to and at times succeeds in making Harding sympathetic, that it does so at the expense of doing pretty much the same for her abusers is just a bit problematic. The overbearing soundtrack choices and unbecoming pacing (this could’ve easily been 90 minutes long) do the film few favors, either. **1/2

The Insult
As a primer on the decades-long clash between Lebanese Christian nationalists and that country’s Palestinian refugees, this is great, and given the current worldwide refugee crisis, exceedingly timely. As drama, however, despite all good intentions, it comes off a little hackneyed. It believably constructs the initial conflicts that snowball into national turmoil, but the subsequent legal stuff (which includes a twist best kept secret here) sacrifices the film’s realism for soap opera. Still, the idea that words carry consequences is most pertinent right now—has any recent American film explored such a topic with this much depth? ***1/2

Beach Rats
Much has been made of Eliza Hittman’s second feature being directed by a woman, even though the protagonist is a Brooklyn male teen who, when not hanging out at Coney Island with his loutish buddies, visits gay chat sites in private, meeting men he has sex with. Also, he’s trying to date a girl, and his father is in home hospice care for terminal cancer. It’s a lot to unpack, but the beauty of Beach Rats is in Hittman’s direction—she approaches the tale with enough care and generosity as if it were her own, even if it’s obviously not. Her feel for lived-in intimacy and everyday (but potentially transcendent) poetry reminds me a little of Andrew Haigh (Weekend, 45 Years); also, she coaxes a stirring lead performance from British (!) actor Harris Dickinson. ****

No denying that the late Harry Dean Stanton was a rare breed of actor or that few nonagenarians are as deserving of an end-of-life vehicle than him. And this is full of unforgettable images and moments, from Stanton’s around-the-house wardrobe to his impromptu and utterly moving performance at a child’s birthday party. David Lynch, Beth Grant, Tom Skerritt and Ron Livingston are all also in this movie, and despite limited screen time, they each leave just as much an impression. John Carroll Lynch (Marge’s husband in Fargo) directs like an actor, which is to say, not all of the story scans as well as it could, nor does it cohere as much as you wish it would. But most actors would be so fortunate to receive such a fine, if a tad romantic farewell. ***1/2

Grizzly Man*
Genuine oddball Timothy Treadwell was the type of figure who could all too easily be made sport of, or, worse, cast in a sentimental light. And though you can’t help but both laugh at and feel for him, Herzog immediately sets the right balance of tone, knowing he has no use for reducing his found subject to cartoon or saint. His narration plays like the most incisive DVD (this is 2005, after all) commentary you’ll ever hear, and his selection from over 100 hours of found footage constructs a sharp but fair critical portrait containing multitudes—the most anyone really deserves, oddballs included. *****

Nellie McKay, “Get Away From Me”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #78 – released February 10, 2004)

Track listing: David / Manhattan Avenue / Sari / Ding Dong / Baby Watch Your Back / The Dog Song / Waiter / I Wanna Get Married / Change The World / It’s A Pose / Toto Dies / Won’t U Please B Nice / Inner Peace / Suitcase Song / Work Song / Clonie / Respectable / Really

“The debut of the year, possibly the decade,” is what I wrote about Get Away From Me when it placed #4 on my 2004 year-end albums list. I stand by those words today, even if Nellie McKay’s subsequent career hasn’t lived up to those expectations. Despite the considerable media attention accompanying Columbia’s release of her debut, this 22-year-old singer-songwriter was never going to pose anything resembling a commercial threat to the likes of Norah Jones (the title parodies Jones’ own massive 2002 debut Come Away With Me.) Still, so dazzling and fully-formed was McKay’s talent right from the start, I did not expect her to sink into relative obscurity so quickly.

Perhaps this exchange I had with a record store clerk (at the late, lamented Disc Diggers in Somerville) anticipated her fate. As I picked up a copy of the album weeks after its release, he asked me, “Have you heard this? She’s talented but man, she is precocious.” He wasn’t exaggerating, for much of McKay’s initial appeal stemmed from her audacity to mix and match genres at the drop of a hat and do so with an impeccable confidence (and considerable profanity.) Early on, she received comparisons to both Doris Day and Eminem; although only “Sari” and maybe “Work Song” come close to such a mashup, the tag stuck in part because it aptly summarized what made McKay so unique. Young, blonde and wholesome-looking, she’s physically a dead ringer for Day and her obvious affection for jazz and torch balladry syncs up well (so much that her fourth album would be a Day tribute.) But don’t be fooled, for she can be nearly as much of an irreverent, confrontational wiseass as Marshall Mathers (minus the misogyny and homophobia, of course.)

Still, enough of Get Away From Me falls so completely outside even that spectrum, leaving one ill-advised to reduce McKay to a descriptive soundbite. “Ding Dong”, for instance, really has no precedent: it’s like a jazzy novelty song on the order of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross’ “Twisted”, only sui generis—she expertly uses the “show, don’t tell” narrative rule here, expressing her burgeoning lunacy not only via a peculiar point of view (“My cat died / so I quickly poured myself some gin / Did he die of old age / or was it for my sins?”) but also in her idiosyncratic, often legato or drunken delivery (“died” becomes “di-i-ied”, “lighter” rendered as “LIE-ter”) with ample help from an arrangement crisp with staccato piano and whimsical chimes.

After I placed the song on a mix for my friend Bruce, he amiably referred to McKay as a “delightful nutjob”, two words that capture her appeal more fully than any artist comparison could. Only someone of that exact description would ever insist on releasing her hour-long major label debut that could easily fit onto one disc as a double CD (and really, a half hour of McKay at a time is easier to digest), or rhyme “God, I’m so German” with “Ethel Merman”, or kick things off with catchy, scat-and-sound-effect-enhanced reggae-pop (“David”) and immediately follow with a smoky jazz ballad (“Manhattan Avenue”), a wonky, ultra-modern rap seething with spat-out, rapid-fire phrases (“Sari”) and, well, “Ding Dong”!

Before one accuses McKay of showing off, however, note that she’s neither a dilettante nor an opportunist (you think she thought these tunes would ever crack top 40 radio?) Get Away From Me still endures and excites not only for showcasing the unfurling of a considerable talent but also for seemingly not imposing any boundaries on it. More often than not, you come away from these peculiar little songs, their nagging melodies and detail-rich arrangements lodged in your brain, wondering where they came from and how you ever lived without them and why the rest of the world has next-to-no knowledge that they exist.

If unconvinced, start with the most traditional jazz ballad stuff. Sure, “Manhattan Avenue” and its musical cousins “Really” and “I Wanna Get Married” could pass for Doris Day with flying colors in a blind test from a musical standpoint. Of course, Day in her day would never sing a lyric such as “What strange a vice / that a mugger and a child / should share the same paradise,” much less get across the irony of wanting to “pack lunches for my Brady Bunches”—as a young woman in 2004, you expect, nay, demand McKay to do both. But she takes the knowing charade a couple steps further. Sure, when she sings “that’s why I was born” as the inevitable punch line to “I Wanna Get Married”, it’s all good postmodern fun, but what about when she unexpectedly, if sweetly discloses, “I’m such a shiiiiiiitttt,” in “Really” (remarkably similar to how Rufus Wainwright claimed he didn’t want to be “John Llllithgow” in “Want”)? Is she playing a part, having a laugh, or actually revealing something deeper about herself? Her poker-faced conviction is solid enough to leave one guessing and intrigued.

Next, consider songs where she’s a little more upfront about where she stands. “It’s a Pose” rousingly opens the second disc in upbeat, boogie-woogie swing mode (another thing she shares with Wainwright—nearly every track here is, to quote Nina Simone, a “show tune for a show that hasn’t been written yet”), but it’s just a heaping spoonful of sugar to help the medicine of calling out faux male feminists smoothly go down. “Sari” (just another word for “sorry”, which, she emphatically, repeatedly claims, she’s not) might rush by in a blur of swagger and tongue-twisting wordplay (“When you’re female and you’re fenced in and / Phen-phened to no end”) but overall, you’re left with more than a glimpse of the singer’s motivations and ideology, even as she argues, “You can hear what’s on my lips but you don’t know what’s in my mind!”

As a manifesto, “Respectable” is more clear-cut. After a melodic up-and-down carousel of an intro (like “The Windmills of Your Mind” at warp speed), the music briefly, almost entirely drops out for McKay to deliver a cautionary tale of “a rich boy” who “wants to do right” but “has to subscribe to the rules of the tribe.” The arrangement gradually builds back up, reaching full flower in the brilliant chorus of “You’re the respectable member of society / but you don’t have nothin’ on me.” From there, McKay never wavers, nimbly shifting to a flamenco bridge (complete with castanets!) without breaking a sweat, embedding a message within a catchy melody without being preachy.

Still, the less McKay dilutes her oddness or relinquishes her ambiguity, the better. By the time “Waiter” arrives, the last thing any listener expects from her is a stab at Eurodisco, but that’s exactly what it is, and it’s spectacular. Instantly, you recognize both the genre tropes (an insistent drum machine rhythm, sighing strings, drawn out, Bee Gees-worthy “ahhh’s”) and how well they mesh with McKay’s by-now-familiar vocal affectations. Also, that crescendo she builds from the bridge to the chorus packs a mighty wallop, actually sending this ditty about dining out amidst hearing about the “end” of the Iraq War into euphoric overdrive (and that’s before her sudden, equally ridiculous and sublime quoting of the Tin Pan Alley standard “Carolina In The Morning” surfaces over the song’s outro.)

On that note, would another singer-songwriter dare risk resembling the funkier, more frenzied music Joe Raposo composed for vintage Sesame Street (“Baby Watch Your Back”) or ever think to alternate martial beats with a pea-soup, pea-soup shuffle, sing “Okay, Dr. Phil, / Ready, for my pill,” and call the whole thing “Change The World” (as in, “Does it really matter if I…”)? Who else could credibly survive the shift from “That’s what it’s all about,” to “bow-wow-wou-out,” in “The Dog Song” or inject the iconic “OH-WEEE-OH” from The Wizard Of Oz into a driving mélange of tango rhythms, pizzicato piano and strings and call it “Toto Dies”? Or come off like a goofier (and still scarier) younger sister to Fiona Apple on “Inner Peace”? Or further sweeten the altogether daft bubblegum of “Clonie” with flutes and plonking xylophones and conclude on that most stereotypical of “Chinese” melodic cues?

McKay threads a fine line—rarely more precariously or marvelously than on “Won’t U Please B Nice” (note the Prince-inspired spelling.) Another jazzy throwback a la “I Wanna Get Married”, the music could’ve been recorded anytime since 1955. Although McKay sings coquettishly like Blossom Dearie or, better yet, Marilyn Monroe, what comes out of her mouth is an entirely different matter. She begins by beckoning her fella to sit close to her, only to warn him on descendant notes, “If you don’t / I’ll slit your throat,” before kindly asking the titular question. As she continues, her threats grow more… severe (“If you go / I’ll get your dough,” “Give me head / or you’ll be dead.”) And yet, she plays it all straight enough that, if you had no knowledge of her or her other music, the song could convincingly scan as either satire or the subversive musings of a damaged mind. That she goes out by quoting Chopin’s Funeral March (over which she lets out a gleeful “whee!”) is just the cherry on top.

Delightful Nutjobs, however, tend to become problematic whenever they seem less than charming and thus, merely nuts. Any career momentum McKay established with Get Away From Me was derailed a year later after her label delayed her second album, Pretty Little Head, because they wanted its 23 tracks over two discs pared down to a single. It was eventually released independently, uncut, in 2006; although it’s occasionally great (complete with kd lang and Cyndi Lauper duets), in this case the label was right—the 16-track version currently available for streaming is a much tighter, more rewarding listen.

Regardless, it pushed McKay back to the margins, where she’s since put out records both inspired (2007’s confounding, near-brilliant, and unusually concise political song cycle Obligatory Villagers) and indifferent (2010’s Home Sweet Mobile Home drones on by in a Lithium haze.) As of late, she’s mostly eschewed songwriting for interpretation with cover albums of 1960s pop (2015’s My Weekly Reader) and 3:00 AM torch ballads (the upcoming Sister Orchid.) Even though she never became a household name, you actually can hear her influence in everything from your finer YouTube song parodies to the lovably demented musical comedy TV series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (if co-creator/star Rachel Bloom, herself a likely precocious teen when Get Away From Me dropped, is unfamiliar with McKay, I’ll eat my CDs.) But forget about being ahead of (or behind) her time—McKay’s sensibility is decidedly outside time, forever, and all the better for it.

Up next: Mysteries of Love.

“Ding Dong”:


Favorite Films of 2017

Indifferent to much of what I saw this year, this film’s late December arrival felt like a small miracle. Reining in the excesses that sometimes cheapened his earlier work while retaining his passion and drive, director Luca Guadagnino crafts almost an embarrassment of riches: Armie Hammer and his alternately swooning and dorky physicality… a monologue for the ages for the great character actor Michael Stuhlbarg… the exquisite modern classical/Sufjan Stevens score… and most of all, Timothée Chalamet, whose breakthrough may prove as iconic as, if nothing at all like Dustin Hoffman’s in The Graduate. No piece of art is absolutely flawless, but I’d not change a single thing about this beautiful, devastating love story—my favorite new film in at least a decade.

We’re just lucky at all to get one more major work from the 89-year-old Agnès Varda, but there’s a twist in the form of her co-director: 34-year-old performance artist JR, whose giant portraits plastered onto buildings drive this essay film’s narrative. As the duo travel around France, we see them for the kindred spirits they actually are. Varda charts her friendship with this younger co-conspirator while ruminating on her illustrious past and contemplating her own mortality. It’s this last facet that provides an elegiac undercurrent in step with her affection for both art and the human spirit, and it makes for a fond farewell.

Jim Jarmusch appears to have entered his twilight renaissance phase, first with the surprisingly sturdy Only Lovers Left Alive and now with this endearing, understated character study of a bus driver/poet with the same last name as the titular New Jersey city he lives in. Adam Driver has never been more attuned to a director’s sensibilities than Jarmusch’s but don’t overlook the film’s supporting cast: everyone from real find Golshifteh Farahani (as his wife) to William Jackson Harper (Chidi from The Good Place!) leaves deep traces that fortify an honest-to-god community. This late-January-in-Boston release proved a touch too quiet for last year’s Oscars, so call it an ideal future cult classic.

With director Terence Davies, you’d expect an unconventional biopic, and with Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson, you sure as hell get one—bet you never thought you’d see ol’ Emily impulsively smashing a dinner plate. Still, as he did with Wharton’s prose in his razor sharp adaptation of The House of Mirth, Davies does his subject proud while, with considerable help from Nixon, also humanizing her. They allow this venerated artist to be something of a mess, but an intriguing one, illuminating both her professional and personal struggles, most eloquently in conversations with her sister (a stunning Jennifer Ehle) and Nixon’s daringly agile, all-out performance.

Yes, the retiring (we’ll see) Daniel Day-Lewis is predictably great (as is Mike Leigh-ster Lesley Manville), Jonny Greenwood may be only second to Mica Levi in innovative modern film scoring and the attention-to-detail, from costuming to period breakfast food is impeccable. And yet, it’s two other unexpected things that launch this into the upper echelon of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. First, the odd confluence of tones he absolutely masters, particularly from the midpoint on. Second, the arresting Vicky Krieps, who is every bit DDL’s equal, her Alma shrewder and smarter than a Hitchcock heroine—expect more great things to come from her.

Alain Guiraudie’s enigmatic follow-up to Stranger By The Lake follows a drifter (Damien Bonnard, hypnotic in his laconic befuddlement) who stumbles into a variety of not-so-pithy (and sometimes life-altering) situations, among them cruising, fatherhood, screenwriting and holistic medicine. Destitution, sheepherding and loud, vintage progressive rock also play into it, along with a birth, a death and a whole lot of sex (after those three things, what more could one want?) It occasionally feels like an Antonioni film scripted by Hal Hartley, but for all its quirks and unusual left turns, it builds towards a conclusion that’s powerful in its sobriety.

Wipes away any doubts you ever had about Robert Pattinson as a good actor—in accent, haircut and overall demeanor here, he’s scarcely the Edward he once was, and good on him. But the Safdie Brothers, whose work I’ve admired since their not-mumblecore debut The Pleasure of Being Robbed, have also evolved in sensibility and scope, drawing as much from Scorsese as they do from Cassavettes, only making it all their own thing (with ample help from Oneohtrix Point Never’s dense, thrilling score.) A slice of life far more nuanced than the somewhat overrated The Florida Project.

I get that whether you find the fish-man arresting or disgusting is a possible make-or-break in enjoying Guillermo Del Toro’s ambitious spectacle; still, I immediately surrendered myself to all of it—the mid-century period design, the subversion of and alliance to classic Hollywood tropes, the great Richard Jenkins in his finest role since The Visitor, Michael Shannon’s most intense (and that’s saying a lot) villain ever and of course, Sally Hawkins, whom in a less competitive and politically charged year would win all the awards for her lovely turn as a mute cleaning lady consumed and redeemed by love.

As Todd Haynes films go, I’d rate this below most others, but second-tier Todd is still pretty great, especially in how flawlessly he utilizes the dual structure narrative. Both the 1927 sequences, which pay close-but-not-fawning tribute to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, and the 1977 stuff, which nails that particular New York minute far better than Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam ever did could each make a compelling film on their own. Still, it takes a master like Haynes to convincingly thread them together and an actress like the young Millicent Simmonds to push through all the conceptual stuff to express this tale’s heart.

I can’t resist squeezing this curious little indie into my top ten. Falling somewhere between Todd Solondz and Quentin Dupieux, director Janicza Bravo’s aesthetic is certainly not for everyone (if anything, Michael Cera’s more deliberately mannered here than he was in Twin Peaks: The Return!) But, you couldn’t ask for a better showcase for Bravo’s husband Brett Gelman, who infuses his schmuck-everyman with a fearless, vanity-deficient gusto. Although it often plays like a series of absurd sketches (family sing-along “A Million Matzo Balls!” is my fave), his continued presence lets it coalesce into something more.


After The Storm
Get Out
I Am Not Your Negro
Lady Bird
Little Boxes
Strange Weather
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin

I don’t really need to say anything more about the four titles Oscar-nominated for Best Picture (or I Am Not Your Negro, a Documentary-nominated holdover from last year that opened theatrically in February here.) Strange Weather and Little Boxes (pictured above) are indie festival titles now streaming on Netflix, featuring great performances from Holly Hunter and the late Nelsan Ellis, respectively. Hirokazu Koreeda’s After The Storm is nearly up there with Our Little Sister (if not Still Walking); I hope that Jennifer Kroot’s delightful Maupin doc hits a streaming platform near you in 2018.


Abacus: Small Enough To Jail, Baby Driver, The Big Sick, A Ghost Story, God’s Own Country, Handsome Devil, The Hero, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, Kedi, Nocturama, Okja, The Red Turtle, The Salesman, T2: Trainspotting, Tom of Finland, Wind River, Your Name

2003: My Office Glows All Night Long

I’ve already referenced in my essay on Want One just how much music I was listening to in 2003—truly the era of Peak CD for me. Between a major move across town (from Watertown to Jamaica Plain) and other new endeavors, it was a busy time, with music remaining one of my few constants (the other being movies.)

The three dozen tracks below are but the very best of a bounty of songs that received many spins on my dark blue Sony Discman back then (I’ve could’ve easily included another dozen.) Thumbing through this list, there’s only a few I didn’t hear until more than a year later, most notably The Radio Dept. when “Pulling Our Weight” resurfaced on the Marie Antoinette soundtrack in 2006. The most obscure tracks here (A Northern Chorus’ Smiths-worthy instrumental, Troll’s demented, inexplicable noir rock) are from records I was assigned to review; most of the rest represent the very best of that era’s indie pop, from veterans like the Nick Rhodes-produced Dandy Warhols and Arab Strap (whom fellow Scots Belle and Sebastian (also included) name-dropped a few LPs back) to next-big-things TV On The Radio and Regina Spektor.

2003 also happens to have two songs I’d take to a desert island with me: The Shins’ Nilsson-esque chamber pop wonder “Saint Simon” and Canadian band Stars’ immortal, resplendent “Elevator Love Letter”, which saved my life more than The Shins or even The Smiths ever did.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2003 on Spotify:

  1. The New Pornographers, “The Laws Have Changed”
  2. The Radio Dept., “Pulling Our Weight”
  3. Calexico, “Quattro (World Drifts In)”
  4. Rosie Thomas, “I Play Music”
  5. Basement Jaxx, “Good Luck”
  6. Arab Strap, “The Shy Retirer”
  7. Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3, “The Ambassador of Soul”
  8. The Postal Service, “Such Great Heights”
  9. Nelly Furtado, “Explode”
  10. Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man, “Tom The Model”
  11. Natacha Atlas, “Eye of the Duck”
  12. Black Box Recorder, “The New Diana”
  13. Paul Brill, “Westering”
  14. The Hidden Cameras, “A Miracle”
  15. Ted Leo and The Pharmacists, “I’m A Ghost”
  16. Thea Gilmore, “Pirate Moon”
  17. Fountains of Wayne, “Mexican Wine”
  18. A Northern Chorus, “Red Carpet Blues”
  19. Regina Spektor, “Chemo Limo”
  20. Sufjan Stevens, “Romulus”
  21. Pernice Brothers, “The Weakest Shade Of Blue”
  22. The Shins, “Saint Simon”
  23. Stars, “Elevator Love Letter”
  24. The Dandy Warhols, “The Last High”
  25. The Weakerthans, “One Great City!”
  26. The Wrens, “This Boy Is Exhausted”
  27. Death Cab For Cutie, “Transatlanticism”
  28. Moloko, “Forever More”
  29. Oranger, “Bluest Glass Eye Sea”
  30. Stew, “LA Arteest Café”
  31. TV On The Radio, “Young Liars”
  32. Troll, “Western”
  33. Junior Senior, “Chicks and Dicks”
  34. Belle and Sebastian, “Stay Loose”
  35. Rufus Wainwright, “11:11”
  36. Super Furry Animals, “Slow Life”

Rufus Wainwright, “Want One”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #77 – released September 23, 2003)

Track listing: Oh What A World / I Don’t Know What It Is / Vicious World / Movies of Myself / Pretty Things / Go or Go Ahead / My Phone’s On Vibrate For You / 14th Street / Natasha / Harvester of Hearts / Beautiful Child / Want / 11:11 / Dinner at Eight

We tend to associate particular albums and songs with times in our lives when we first heard them, and they imprint on us memories we recall as we hear them again. From my early childhood, it’s the soft rock chestnuts that played incessantly on my parents’ car radio: “Baker Street”, “Sailing”, “Eye in the Sky” and the like. From my teens, it’s the somewhat bent modern rock hits that crossed over to top 40, among them “Love Shack”, “Chains of Love”, “Enjoy the Silence” and “Losing My Religion”, the latter leading to Automatic for the People, which I forever link with my senior year of high school. The golden age of commercial alt-rock radio summarizes my college years, while an unlikely but thrilling fusion of turn-of-the-millennium dance-pop and indie rock represents that most hectic of ages, my mid-20s, all too well.

By my late 20’s, having long since cultivated my own voracious taste (like a spider web forever expanding off in different directions), I listened to more music than ever. I consumed discs I was assigned to review for a music website (more on that in a few entries), endless discoveries made via libraries and used CD stores and of course, anticipated new releases from artists I already loved. Whenever I look back on that era and in particular, late 2003, it’s one of the latter that’s still definitive for me: Rufus Wainwright’s third album Want One. Even then, I knew well enough to place it at number one on my year-end list (the only other entry that made it to 100 Albums is Phantom Power (down at #10), which goes to show how much one’s taste changes and mutates over time.)

When his self-titled debut dropped and generated considerable buzz five years before, I didn’t really know anything about this singer/songwriter just three years my senior. Had only faint awareness of his famous musician parents (Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle), had no clue that he was openly gay (until I saw an MTV interview where he was so flamboyant I can’t fathom staying in the closet was ever an option for him), a rarity among young aspiring pop stars. Still, his debut single, “April Fools” was an instant earworm, and, with its gently baroque Jon Brion production, right up my alley. Rufus Wainwright did indeed herald a new, original talent, but little of its piano-heavy chamber pop was as memorable as the single. Second album Poses (2001) was more promising and idiosyncratic, bursting with hooks (“California”, “Grey Gardens”) and also growing confidence to experiment with various styles, even attempting an audacious, re-contextualized cover of his dad’s song “One Man Guy”.

He resurfaced more than two years later with his third album, and 9/11 wasn’t the only major change reflected within. An infamous New York Times article weeks before its release found Wainwright speaking frankly of going to “gay hell” and back in the interim, his descent into rampant drug use and promiscuous sex followed by a stint in rehab and eventual recovery. He had written and recorded enough songs for a double album originally called Want, but decided to split it into two separate releases cheekily titled Want One and Want Two (the latter arriving some 14 months later.) If you listen to the two back-to-back, it’s a no-brainer as to why he split them apart. With each one clocking in at nearly an hour, even one disc at a time is a lot to take in; the two together would’ve been overkill for all but his most ardent fans.

One immediately notices how much bigger and bolder Want One feels than its predecessors. “Oh What A World” opens not with the lone piano-and-voice of the debut’s “Foolish Love” or Poses’ “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” but a coliseum of multi-tracked humming Rufuses, followed by gargantuan, lone notes from what appears to be a synthesized tuba. “Men reading fashion magazines,” he inimitably brays, kicking off a state-of-affairs preamble that grows increasingly thick and loud until, near the 2:45 mark it borrows nothing less than the brass fanfare from Ravel’s “Bolero”! In producer Marius de Vries, whose prior credits include albums for Massive Attack and Madonna (with partner Nellie Hooper), he’s found a kindred spirit fully attuned to providing an aural canvas large enough for all of his operatic and melodramatic pretensions.

If anything, the next song sports even more layers upon layers. “I Don’t Know What It Is” has a jaunty piano-pounding rhythm and a sanguine melody that wouldn’t feel out of place on Wainwright’s earlier work; however, like “Oh What A World”, it just keeps building and expanding, piling on vocals and instrumental parts and orchestral flourishes, not to mention such characteristically playful touches as a lyric or two borrowed from the Three’s Company theme song. The average listener might find it all a bit too much, but to Wainwright’s credit, the song never falters or collapses—it even elegantly simmers down to a close as its layers gracefully float away against a descendant melody, softly ending on a question mark of an augmented chord.

Having established such a luxuriant soundscape in two tracks flat, Wainwright spends the rest of Want One sustaining its tone over a variety of other arrangements. He makes room for Lindsey Buckingham-like power pop (“Movies of Myself”), a gentle, shuffling jazz ballad complete with a Bacharach-ian trumpet solo (“Harvester of Hearts”), plucky, Noel Coward-esque social commentary (“My Phone’s On Vibrate For You”), more grand symphonic fanfare (“Beautiful Child”) and yes, even some tried-and-true, stripped-down piano-and-voice stuff (“Pretty Things”). What unifies them all is Wainwright’s rare blend of confessional songwriter, literary mettle and boundless theatricality. To paraphrase Nina Simone, as she once noted to her audience in her famous live recording of “Mississippi Goddam”, these are show tunes, but the show for them hasn’t been written yet.

Of course, one could say the same thing for just about any Wainwright composition. Still, Want One is his best album not only for its stylistic advances but also for the newfound candor and introspection in his lyrics and indeed, his overall demeanor. Perhaps fearlessness is a more precise signifier—having gone through addiction and recovery, and having also turned thirty, he predictably sounds wiser and more world weary than before, but also as if he’s reached a turning point where former vices like “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” no longer provide ample satisfaction. Desire is still omnipresent (the word “want” is in the title, after all), but he shows more caution and contemplation in his pursuit of it—you could even argue he’s become an adult, even if he can’t resist musing on how he’d rather not be John Lennon or Leonard Cohen in one verse of the title track, only to replace those names with John Lithgow and Jane Curtin (outing himself as a Third Rock From the Sun fan) in the next verse.

Still, maturity alone does not make for great art—it also needs inspiration and ambition, both of which Want One has plenty of. Coming right after those first two tracks, “Vicious World” seems slight and subdued in comparison, but its treated, almost circular electric piano (in an odd time signature, no less) and nimble melody leave an impression. “14th Street” initially screams throwback with its slowly swinging, vintage rock-and-roll beat and chord changes, yet other things such as backing vocals from his mom and sister Martha, occasional blasts of brass on top and the lone banjo on the outro defy such easy categorization. “Movies of Myself” replaces its opening electronic feedback loop with what resembles an insistent Motown beat turned sideways but scans neither like electronica nor Motown thanks to all of its acoustic and electric guitar interplay. And somber closer “Dinner at Eight” tempers its rather traditional orchestral balladry with remarkably cutting words detailing a fracas between him and his father, complete with confrontational phrases like, “So put up your fists / and I’ll put up mine.”

Wainwright’s lyrical prowess and expertise at constructing a song to be an all-encompassing experience most fully coalesces on “Go or Go Ahead”. It begins with softly strummed guitar, soon joined by barely audible vocals—you almost have to strain to hear them at first. Over three verses, the volume and intensity both gradually build as new elements appear, like a slowly skittering electric guitar melody or a brief burst of “do-do-do-do-do” backing vocals. As the third verse ends, everything including the now ascendant melody thrillingly ramps up to full volume for the chorus, which he sings as if his life depends on it: “Go or go ahead / and surprise me,” he wails, followed by a majestic, piercing guitar solo and iterations of a repeated lyric from the verses, “What has happened to love.”

What happens next is a tried-and-true pop music trope, but one Wainwright uses most effectively. Everything quiets back down for another brief verse before it all startlingly swerves back to full volume with a spine-tingling, multi-tracked cry of “AHHHHHHHH!” that leads into the bridge (“Look in her eyes, look in her eyes / forget about the one who’s crying”), itself punctuated by more of those exquisite cries. You can practically feel the entire song swelling and sighing as it carefully spools out over its six-minute duration. “Go or Go Ahead” appealed to me so effusively at 28 (and continues to do so at 42) because it’s exactly the type of song that would’ve been in sync with my hormonal, sensory overloaded teenage self, but with an eloquence and refinement that only an adult who has lived, loved and had their heart broken could adeptly express.

Such lucidity rematerializes on Want One’s penultimate track, “11:11”. One of many obligatory 9/11 songs artists composed in the immediate years after, it finds Wainwright applying his personal account of the day as the basis for an epiphany. “Woke up this morning at 11:11 / Wasn’t in Portland and I wasn’t in heaven / Could have been either by the way I was feeling, / but I was alive, I was alive,” he sings, and it’s his emphasis on those last three words that resonate so deeply over crisply strummed guitars and august but not overpowering timpani drum fills. Rufus being Rufus, he also flashes a little ironic gallows humor (“Realized that everything really does happen in Manhattan”) before offering a way forward, vowing to make up for “precious time we’ve wasted.” Sure, it’s a simple sentiment, but an attainable, meaningful one given its context.

Want One arrived in my life at a time when I myself was searching for a way forward, having come out the other side of a few tumultuous years of essentially learning how to be an adult. Want Two didn’t make nearly the same impact—good as its numerous highlights were, its further-down-the-rabbit-hole dive into its creator’s psyche proved far less cohesive. By then, I was on the cusp of turning thirty and headed towards epiphanies of my own. Wainwright would cultivate a discography touching upon opera, Shakespeare, Judy Garland, Neil Tennant and even a live album recorded in my hometown. 2012’s Out Of The Game, perhaps his warmest, most accessible effort remains my favorite of his post-Want career, but I know which record to put on if I ever want to remember the joy and chaos of this now-distant, ultra-specific glimpse in time.

Up next: What to do about a Delightful Nutjob.

“Go Or Go Ahead”:



The Weakerthans, “Reconstruction Site”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #76 – released August 26, 2003)

Track listing: (Manifest) / The Reasons / Reconstruction Site / Psalm For The Elks Lodge Last Call / Plea From A Cat Named Virtute / Our Retired Explorer (Dines With Michel Foucault In Paris, 1961) / Time’s Arrow / (Hospital Vespers) / Uncorrected Proofs / A New Name For Everything / One Great City! / Benediction / The Prescience of Dawn / (Past Due)

The Weakerthans are a band as defined by and emblematic of where they come from as Calexico. Granted, Winnipeg, Manitoba is by nature a far less exotic locale than Southern Arizona; the difference immediately surfaces in the former band’s sound, which is your basic guitar-bass-drums (and very occasional keyboards) rock quartet setup—a far cry from Feast of Wire’s melange of mariachi horns, pedal steel, accordion and likeminded regional elements. Still, in terms of subject matter and sensibility, The Weakerthans are unquestionably Winnipeg-ian to the core, which may explain why they only ever generated a cult following south of the border.

Formed in 1997, the band’s breakthrough beyond Canada occurred six years later with their third album Reconstruction Site. I’d like to think this happened simply because it was so damn good, although signing to notable American indie punk record label Epitaph surely had something to do with expanding the band’s reach. While no one would ever in their right mind call The Weakerthans “punk” (although a majority of this album’s songs clock in at under three minutes), at least three of their four members had roots in Winnipeg’s punk scene, with vocalist/lyricist John K. Samson playing bass in the long-running punk band Propagandhi in the early-mid ’90s. A few of this album’s more uptempo numbers, like “Plea From A Cat Named Virtute” and “The Reasons” could even almost be punk if they weren’t so polished and, well, pop.

Still, Samson conceived the band as an outlet for more introspective songwriting than punk as a genre could ever allow. Keeping this in mind, Reconstruction Site discloses its ambition from its very first track, “(Manifest)”, a brief preamble that opens on the couplet, “I want to call requests through heating vents / and hear them answered with a whisper, ‘No.’” It turns out those words are the first two lines of a sonnet, a poem of strict rhyme scheme and specific structure popularized by Dante and Shakespeare but not widely found in Rock music. Later, at the album’s exact midpoint and end, two other tracks, “(Hospital Vespers)” and “(Past Due)” repeat the same melody and sonnet structure, forming a trilogy with “(Manifest)”. The only variable between the segments (apart from different lyrics) is the music, which changes from a martial thrum-and-strum complete with a concluding trumpet fanfare (“(Manifest)”) to a rhythm-less crawl through backwards tape loops and other fancy production effects (“(Hospital Vespers)”) to, finally, clanging percussion enveloped in synths, closing out with a bit of electronic effluvia (“(Past-Due)”).

Just as ambitious is Samson’s literary/intellectual bent. On one song, he imagines an inebriated conversation between an eminent French philosopher and a fellow traveler of Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctica expedition (with the wordy title “Our Retired Explorer (Dines With Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961)”); on another, he sings from the point of view of a disgruntled pet (“Plea From A Cat Named Virtute”.) And yet, the former never feels obscure or impenetrable thanks to its brisk pace and sing-along worthy cries of “Oh, Antarctica!” Likewise, the latter never turns overly twee, greatly enhanced by a monster of a guitar riff, but also such first-person feline observations as “So, we should open up the house / invite the tabby two doors down. / You could ask your sister, if / she doesn’t bring her Basset Hound.”

Virtute” also reveals perhaps the most vital component of Samson’s persona—a mile-wide empathy streak befitting of someone from an underdog metropolis like Winnipeg. The song’s titular narrator may pity its depressed owner for holding on to such ephemera as “tape-hiss” and “Card Catalogues” and even lash out, threatening, “I swear I’m going to bite you hard and taste your tinny blood.” The music comes to as dramatic pause at this moment, before Samson concludes the thought, “…if you don’t stop the self-defeating lies you’ve been repeating since the day you brought me home.” Samson concludes on the phrase, “I know you’re strong,” and his vulnerable, near-wobbly reading of it reveals everything you need to know about his capacity for and belief in human nature.

Empathy bleeds out of the edges of a majority of The Weakerthans’ tunes, and Reconstruction Site features some of their most intricately observed and deeply felt expressions of it. “Psalm For The Elks Lodge Last Call” depicts its milieu as an object not to be satirized or sainted, but as a collection of ultra-specific details—the crackling “Golden Oldies station”, the “secret handshake” that needs safeguarding, how small talk about “the ballgame and the weather” conveys its own respect for the social contract. And the repeated phrase, “Before we say goodnight,” resoundingly renders it all a pop song, not only for the Elks members to sing with each other, but as something any listener can partake in and relate to.

Psalm” is but one of many examples here. The title track is itself kind of a “Card Catalogue” of precise recollections such as “I’m afloat. A float in a summer parade, / up the street in the town you were born in,” and “I broke like a bad joke / somebody’s uncle told at a wedding reception in 1972.” “Time’s Arrow” similarly depicts “a mirror you will find at your parents’ house in 1989” as a place to keep promises to yourself. Rather than lapse into solipsism, Samson remains congenial and approachable, his words enhanced by a poignant melody and a gorgeous guitar riff that resembles something close to a less-corporate Gin Blossoms. “A New Name For Everything” admirably resists the urge to make light of both gentrification and redundancy—while not humorless (“So put on the clothes you never grew into / and smile like you mean it for once”), it thoughtfully considers such common problems as “When you can’t save cash or conviction,” or when “the threads of your fear are unfurled with the tiniest pull.”

The album’s anthemic single “The Reasons” finds Samson at his most direct and immediate. It kicks off with him confessing, “I don’t know how to sing. / I can barely play this thing.” The unnamed person he’s addressing doesn’t mind, but he or she tells him to “fuck off” whenever he needs someone to say it to him. He sings of “how the time is never now / and we know who we should love / but we’re never certain how,” conveying sentiments most of us have had at one time or another, while the song’s opening melodic guitar riff returns in the bridge to a chorus as simple and heartfelt and perfect as anything ever written: “I know, you might roll your eyes at this / but I’m so glad that you exist.”

However, another song on the album’s second half even more fully encapsulates why anyone should be glad The Weakerthans exist. “One Great City!” is a standout alone for its spare, acoustic guitar-and-voice arrangement, but that’s not what makes it special. Over three verses, Samson depicts a most particular and vivid portrait of his hometown, a place where “Another day is nearly done / A darker grey is breaking through a lighter one.” It’s a city full of Dollar Stores, “that hallowed, hurried sound of feet on polished floor,” and such dubious homegrown celebrities such as The Guess Who (bluntly, they “suck”.) Each verse ends with him singing, “I Hate Winnipeg.” The first two times, it comes off almost sardonically, as if Samson’s taunting the town and its euphemistically optimistic tourism slogan (which provides the song’s title.) And yet, there’s a crucial tonal shift in the truncated third verse: “Our Golden Business Boy will watch the North End die, / and sing, ‘I love this town,’ / and let his arcing wrecking ball proclaim, ‘I… Hate… Winnipeg.’” On those last three words, Samson sounds utterly remorseful and almost defeated. What previously edged towards mocking celebration is now an elegy, quietly devastating in its plainspokenness.

The Weakerthans would release one more album, 2007’s nearly-as-good Reunion Tour, before officially splitting in 2015. “One Great City!” would find new life in 2008 as a theme song for a Canadian TV series, Less Than Kind. Samson eventually forged a solo career with Provincial (2012) and Winter Wheat (2016); the latter features extensive contributions from two of the three other Weakerthans and works as an older-and-wiser, predominantly acoustic brother to Reconstruction Site, with Samson’s enduring empathy fully intact (one lyric from “PostDoc Blues” goes, “I believe in you and your PowerPoints.”) As for myself, I probably won’t ever visit Winnipeg, but between this band’s greatest songs and the films of fellow denizen Guy Maddin, I feel like I already know it well.

Up next: I’m An Adult Now.

“One Great City!”:

“The Reasons”: