2005: With What The Majestic Cannot Find

Irresistible to begin one of these best-of-year mixes with a song declaring, “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.” Those words resonated deeply for me in 2005—my love life was in seemingly perpetual flux and I also had a doozy of a move to a new apartment that September. I was required to haul out much furniture left behind by ex-roommates and schlep the rest two blocks away over to the new place (which I’d end up staying in for a scant six months.)

Anyway, just as I went to more movies in 2005 than any previous year (including my first trip to the Toronto International Film Festival), I probably listened to more new music as well. My first draft of this mix was up near the 50-song mark, so I whittled it down to 33 (the same amount as 2004.) Given that this year generated three of my all-time favorite albums, the other tracks and one-offs I’ve kept are decidedly choice. There are unusual cameos (Cindy and Kate from The B-52s on “Take My Time”! An opera singer on the Calexico/Iron and Wine collaboration!), triumphant returns-to-form (Depeche Mode, Erasure, Aimee Mann and New Order), and defining singles such as Sufjan Stevens’ now-iconic ode to the Windy City, Fiona Apple’s Disney-meets-David Lynch title track from her troubled third album and The New Pornographers’ breathless, towering mini-epic—the centerpiece of an LP I nearly gave its own entry to.

If you asked me what some of the big hits of 2005 were, I’d answer “Hollaback Girl”, “Gold Digger”, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and… that’s all I can name. But this mix is packed with songs that received many plays at the time on my just-purchased first iPod: Andrew Bird’s catchy, soaring, indecipherable wordplay; Metric’s Blondie-worthy disco-rock; My Morning Jacket’s incredible fusion of Lynyrd Skynyrd and XTC; Pernice Brothers’ blissful instrumental; Amy Rigby’s disarming meet-the-new-wife tale; glorious, meticulous power-pop from Stars, The Magic Numbers and Oranger; Doves’ alternately spiky and swaying Motown pastiche; and the now mostly-forgotten Shivaree’s dreamy, undulating ballad, its unresolved melancholy and regret just hanging there, affecting and unshakable.

Click here to listen to my 2005 playlist on Spotify

  1. The Mountain Goats, “This Year”
  2. The Go-Betweens, “Finding You”
  3. Calexico/Iron and Wine “He Lays In The Reins”
  4. Junior Senior, “Take My Time”
  5. The Decemberists, “The Sporting Life”
  6. Depeche Mode, “Precious”
  7. The New Pornographers, “The Bleeding Heart Show”
  8. Amy Rigby, “The Trouble With Jeanie”
  9. Bettye LaVette, “Joy”
  10. Doves, “Almost Forgot Myself”
  11. Metric, “Poster Of A Girl”
  12. Sufjan Stevens, “Chicago”
  13. Keren Ann, “Greatest You Can Find”
  14. Aimee Mann, “Video”
  15. Kate Bush, “A Coral Room”
  16. Roisin Murphy, “Through Time”
  17. Fiona Apple, “Extraordinary Machine”
  18. Erasure, “Here I Go Impossible Again”
  19. Goldfrapp, “Ride A White Horse”
  20. My Morning Jacket, “Off The Record”
  21. Pernice Brothers, “Discover A Lovelier You”
  22. Shivaree, “Mexican Boyfriend”
  23. Antony and the Johnsons, “Fistful of Love”
  24. Martha Wainwright, “When The Day Is Short”
  25. The Magic Numbers, “Love Me Like You”
  26. Andrew Bird, “Fake Palindromes”
  27. Stars, “Aging Beauty”
  28. New Order, “Waiting For The Siren’s Call”
  29. Spoon, “The Beast and Dragon, Adored”
  30. Oranger, “Sukiyaki”
  31. Ivy, “Ocean City Girl”
  32. Saint Etienne, “Stars Above Us”
  33. Ben Folds, “Landed”
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Kate Bush, “Aerial”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #84 – released November 8, 2005)

Track listing: A SEA OF HONEY: King of the Mountain / Pi / Bertie / Mrs. Bartolozzi / How To Be Invisible / Joanni / A Coral Room // A SKY OF HONEY: Prelude / Prologue / An Architect’s Dream / The Painter’s Link / Sunset / Aerial Tal / Somewhere In Between / Nocturn / Aerial

A dozen years is an eternity in pop music—you could stuff the Beatles’ entire recorded output (save those two Anthology zombie tracks) within that frame and still have a few years left over. Look at Kate Bush’s trajectory over her first five albums, from The Kick Inside to Hounds of Love in just seven years. Even considering the particular twelve-year period between her seventh and eighth albums, you can detect sea changes: for instance, compare Radiohead’s 1993 debut Pablo Honey to their most recent album as of 2005 (Hail To The Thief) and everything in between (including OK Computer and Kid A.)

After Hounds of Love, Bush returned four years later with The Sensual World (1989): a departure, it largely eschewed the amped-up phantasmagoria of her back catalogue for more mature, subdued tones, such as the world music-accented title track or the orchestrated piano balladry of “This Woman’s Work”. Her next album, The Red Shoes, arrived another four years after that, mixing state-of-the-art, neo-new wave pop (“The Rubberband Girl”) with typically more thematically adventurous conceits (“Song of Solomon”, the Powell/Pressburger film-quoting title track) and an excess of high profile cameos, from Eric Clapton to Prince. Both albums were good enough at the time, but neither felt anywhere near as innovative or game-changing as The Dreaming or Hounds of Love.

And then, not a peep from Bush for over a decade. She partially attributed this extended hiatus to her mother’s passing prior to The Red Shoes and also to the birth of her son Albert in 1998—right after those of us were hoping for a new album after another four-year interval. A February 2003 MOJO cover story celebrating her career and legacy ensured readers that Bush was working on new material (as when to expect it, she responded via her business manager, “How long is a piece of string?”) After Aerial was finally announced over two-and-a-half years later, I understandably anticipated it like few other albums before. Actually, I honestly couldn’t imagine what new Kate Bush music in 2005 could possibly be: a rehash of or a logical follow-up to The Red Shoes? A record incorporating new, potentially up-to-the-minute sounds and trends? Or perhaps something entirely different from all that came before?

Further goading expectations, Aerial turned out to be a double album, with each disc sporting a subtitle. The first, “A Sea of Honey” contained seven songs, including the lead-off single “King Of The Mountain”, while the second, “A Sky of Honey”, was a nine-track, album-length suite. The sequencing resembled no less than a supersized equivalent to Hounds of Love, whose first five unrelated tracks were followed by “The Ninth Wave”, a seven-track suite about drowning. One had to question if Bush, after such a long absence was actually making an attempt to top her most acclaimed and best-selling album.

The internet was such that by November 2005, I was easily able to listen to “King of the Mountain” online before Aerial’s release. I remember initially feeling tentative towards it. Rather than an obvious-sounding first single like “The Rubberband Girl”, it was mysterious and open-ended, slowly taking its time to get where it wanted to go. It’s built on a three-note synth hook, just like Hounds of Love opener (and her lone US top 40 hit) “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)”, but gentler, airier. The lyrics seem to reference Elvis, the King of Rock and Roll himself; while her deepened-with-time vocals on the verses halfway pay tribute to him, the music sounds not a whit like his, even more so after a reggae guitar hook surfaces from the second verse on. Wind is a constant presence here, both lyrically (“The wind is whistling through the house”) and sonically, with simulated wind noise eventually accompanied by Bush herself emulating it: she emits, “Whoa, Whooahh, WHOAAAAHHHHHH,” at 3:45, reassuring longtime fans just when they might’ve begun to fear she was no longer the glorious kook they knew and love.

“King Of The Mountain” takes a few spins to fully resonate, but it’s a good choice for first track and single, for it establishes a tone the remaining songs on “A Sea of Honey” mostly sustain. Apart from “Joanni” with its trip-hop indebted electrobeats and Bush’s inimitable gravelly humming at the end (still a weirdo, god bless her), these are subdued, curious little song-puzzles. This might disappoint those looking for another “Sat In Your Lap” from her, but she’s already been there, done that—at 24, no less. Now nearly twice that age, it’s only fitting that her obsessions have shifted. Naturally, motherhood is a glaring one, reflected in a gushing but sincere tribute to her son, the chamber-pop fugue “Bertie”, but an entire disc of musings upon her decade-plus domestic sabbatical this is not.

Throughout Aerial’s first half, Bush maintains her reputation as an eccentric often via subject matter alone. “Pi” is a six-minute-long, casually unfolding paean to “a man with an obsessive nature and deep fascination for numbers”—in particular, “a complete infatuation with the calculation” of the mathematical constant that is the song’s title. Over a primarily acoustic arrangement accentuated by an oscillating synth, she delicately trills the calculation’s digits, “Threee… point one four one / five nine two…” one by one up to the thirtieth digit, and that’s the chorus. “Oh, he love, he love, he love, he does love his numbers,” she adds, rendering this the most playful tune about such a subject since Tom Lehrer’s ode to “New Math” four decades before—and possibly the most lustful one, ever.

“How To Be Invisible” scans like a wiser, weathered update on Bush’s old fixations with magic and witchcraft: she lays out peculiar instructions (“You take a pinch of keyhole / and fold yourself up / You cut along the dotted lines / and think inside out”) on how to literally (or is that figuratively?) disappear. That she further combines a slightly sinister, minor-key melody to a lush bed of warm, electric guitars, Fender Rhodes piano and occasional electronic curlicues makes it feel less foreign than oddly familiar. “Joanni” is even more recognizable, almost a direct callback to such earlier real-life tributes as “Houdini”. In this case, it’s about Joan of Arc. “Who’s that girl?,” Bush repeatedly asks, sidestepping most of her subject’s religious and political implications to celebrate her mere presence, noting “how beautiful she looks in her armor.” Meanwhile, the music continually swells and sighs, a perfect complement to Bush’s ever-present romanticism.

“A Sea of Honey’s” two most remarkable tracks have skeletal, piano-and-voice arrangements like little else she’s done since The Kick Inside, only with the added heft of her aged, deepened tone. The first, “Mrs. Bartolozzi”, has an intro providing dramatic contrast to the closing, orchestral notes of preceding song “Bertie” (it also faintly resembles the opening of Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds”, of all things.) Then, she sings about doing the laundry for nearly six minutes. The title suggests it’s a character sketch rather than a peek into Bush’s own retreat into domestic life (I assume she’s flush enough to hire a maid—perhaps this is about her?); as always, she appears so invested in her creation you can still picture Bush sorting whites from darks, measuring the detergent and so on. Over a vaguely ominous but captivating melody, she sings the words “washing machine” over and over, hitting a chilling high note on the last “ma-chiiiiine” before equating something so mundane as washing clothes with an act of transcendence like wading in the ocean. “Oh and the waves are coming in / Oh and the waves are going out,” she mesmerizingly repeats—it’s Pure, Unfiltered Kate, as is a latter interlude where she whimsically sings in a wraith-like voice, “Slooshy, sloshy, slooshy, sloshy / get that dirtee shirtee cleeaan.”

The second piano-and-voice number, “A Coral Room”, starts off like a tone poem, all jazzy diminished chords separated by long pauses as she constructs an extended metaphor of “a city, draped in net… covered in webs, moving and glistening and rocking,” those last three modifiers stretched out to umpteen syllables, their liquidity suffused with delicate sorrow. “The spider of time is climbing / over the ruins,” she notes, before a chorus that mentions crashing planes and drowned pilots. The latter ends with a question: “Put your hand over the side of the boat / What do you feel?”

Not until the second verse does she reveals what the song is really about: “My mother / and her little brown jug,” she sings, “It held her milk / and now it holds our memories.” Although Bush included her mother among all the deceased friends and relatives that populated “Moments of Pleasure”, The Red Shoes’ vivid, elegiac tribute to them, “A Coral Room” penetrates deeper and more directly into Bush’s profound loss and grief. “I can hear her singing, ‘Little brown jug don’t I love thee,” Bush recalls, with male vocalist Michael Wood somberly repeating those words.

She goes on, “I can her hear laughing / she is standing in the kitchen / as we come in the back door,” before softly concluding, “See it fall.” After those three words come a series of descending piano notes that are just devastating in their simplicity. “See it fall,” she mournfully repeats over those sinking notes, before singing of “a spider climbing out of a broken jug” and “a room filled with coral”, eventually ending the song and “A Sea of Honey” on that same question: “Put your hand over the side of the boat / What do you feel?” It’s a composition bathed in poetic language and more than a trace of mystery, but Bush ensures that you can’t possibly miss its emotional intent.

***

On some later editions of Aerial (including the one currently on Spotify), the second disc is formatted as a single, nearly 42-minute-long track called “An Endless Sky of Honey”. It makes sense to view it this way, as it’s arguably more seamless and complete a song suite than even “The Ninth Wave”. Still, I’ll refer to it as just “A Sky of Honey”, for that was its original title and it’s obviously easier to write about it as a series of tracks, no matter how connected they may be.

Chronologically spanning the course of a mid-summer’s day and night at an Italian artist’s colony, “A Sky of Honey” increasingly looks more and more like Bush’s masterwork. A subtle, ambitious, carefully unfolding extended piece, it fulfills any hope I had for Aerial as a triumphant return while also recalibrating my perception of what she could accomplish. I wouldn’t recommend it as a starting point for those new to her—Hounds of Love or even The Whole Story provide a fuller, more direct sense of her as pop music provocateur. What’s most intriguing and somewhat challenging about “A Sky of Honey” is how expertly it builds momentum, little by little, slowly accumulating details until it reaches a sublime, almost euphoric release.

“Prelude” features her son Bertie saying, “Mummy, Daddy, the day is full of birds; sounds like they’re saying words,” over an atmospheric wash of synth, piano chords and avian noises, some of them sampled, others curiously sounding like Bush herself. From there, “Prologue” leisurely unfurls like a late-period Talk Talk song. “It’s gonna be so good, now,” Bush sings, unmistakably in a cadence you could not attribute to anyone else, her voice rich and sweet like honey. About three minutes in, Michael Kamen-arranged strings appear like a rising sun. There’s a verse in Italian, followed by a repeated chorus of, “What a lovely afternoon!” It’s as if we’ve oh-so-slowly awakened, taking nearly six minutes to arrive at this destination.

“An Architect’s Dream” proceeds at the same unhurried tempo but feels more voluminous with its bongo-like percussion and bright electric guitar filigrees. It’s specifically an ode to a painter (voiced by longtime Bush collaborator Rolf Harris) used as a means to comment on the creative process. When an “accident” occurs in crafting a painting, it’s no detriment: “It’s the best mistake / he could make / And it’s my favourite piece / it’s just great,” she sings, lending a palpable emphasis to those last three words that just melts my heart every time I hear them. She describes the act of creation as, “Curving and sweeping, / rising and reaching,” languorously stretching out the syllables of each word; as if in tandem, the song itself also emulates these motions while maintaining a steady pace.

“The Painter’s Link”, a brief orchestral fanfare, follows with Harris lamenting, “It’s raining / what has become of my painting,” a reminder that art is fleeting and often temporary. The music then swells and a multi-tracked chorus of Bushes respond, “So all the colors run! / See what they have become / A wonderful sunset.” The next song begins immediately after that last word, which provides its title. “A sea of honey, / a sky of honey,” she coos, stretching out “sea” and “sky” to well past fifteen syllables, over a melody that briefly appeared in the opening notes of “A Coral Room”. This is not the first callback to the first disc, as “Prologue” also featured vocal cadences and an omnipresent tremolo synth similar if not identical to those heard back on “Pi”—easter eggs, if you will, hinting that the two discs are more connected than they initially appear.

At this point, casual listeners might find “A Sky of Honey” a touch monochrome, its understated serenity offering little variation or conflict. “Sunset” seems to continue down this path, relying heavily on a predominantly acoustic palette. Still, you can’t deny how effortlessly it glides along on its soft, latin-jazz rhythms, or its ample, melodic sturdiness, most evident in the verses ending with the lyrics, “Then climb into bed and turn to dust.” When, near the four-minute mark Bush sings this line a final time, the beat briefly drops out, consumed by a much faster, Balearic-style rhythm. At this crucial moment, both “Sunset” and “A Sky of Honey” utterly transform, as if everything has joyously shifted. Briskly strummed flamenco guitar, castanets and a call-and-response chorus seem to add drama and tension into the mix, but really, those elements have been gradually building up to these final two minutes of the song, and they crucially serve as the suite’s first hint toward some sort of oncoming release.

“Sunset” closes by briefly returning to the more relaxed pace of its first half, followed by another recurrence—the birdsong originally heard on “Prelude”. “Aerial Tal” is a short link consisting of Bush singing along to the sound-waves of birdsong alluded to on the album cover while an electronic four-note loop plays underneath. By the time we reach “Somewhere In Between”, the sun has set and the world sounds darker (certainly bass-heavier) and fuller. Orchestral strings wash over an arrangement lush with drum machines, acoustic guitars, synths and some soulful organ. Whereas “Sunset” glided, this one shimmers, as does Bush when she sings, “It was just / so / beau-ti-full,” her vocal wrapped around the instrumentation like Sarah Cracknell’s. Both slightly foreboding and catchy like “How To Be Invisible”, it concludes with Bush’s choral declarations of “Good / night / sun”, followed by Bertie placidly saying, “Goodnight, Mum.”

As night falls, “Nocturn” slowly rises. After an extended, almost ambient intro that could’ve come from Brian Eno or maybe even Pink Floyd, a mildly funky beat appears and the song proper begins. Over a dreamy, enthralling chord sequence, Bush sings, “We stand in the Atlantic / We become panoramic,” and it’s a premonition of where this eight-plus-minute song will eventually go. These same chords repeat over multiple verses—like the suite as a whole, the song’s impact heightens as it takes its time. You may be increasingly aware that it’s building towards something, even if its groove never wavers, almost coming off like an extended vamp.

There’s a “ting” noise (either a triangle or a simulation of one) during an instrumental break after the six-minute mark. I don’t remember noticing it the first few times I listened to “Nocturn”; once I did, it felt like a rare discovery, a hidden gem of a detail surfacing from the collective din. It sets the stage for the song’s mesmerizing final third, where Bush’s vocals gradually appear louder, more forceful and passionate. So wrapped up in the deliberate procession of it all, you might find yourself caught unaware of intense it now sounds. “It came up / on the horizon… / rising / and rising,” she sings, elongating each “rising” as far as she can while still holding our attention.

Loving declarations of “a sea of honey” and “a sky of honey” return until, at 7:53, she and her now-massed choir startlingly exclaim, “LOOK AT THE LIGHT! CLIMBING UP THE AER-I-AL!!!” Something’s happening: the sun is about to rise. “BRIGHT / WHITE / COMING ALIVE / JUMPING UP OFF THE AERIAL!” they fervently shout, the music hitting a crescendo as they conclude “ALL THE TIME IT’S A-CHANGING! AND ALL THE DREAMERS ARE WAKING!”

And yet, just when you expect that moment of release, she holds back a little further. Aerial’s title track begins with a sole, fluttering instrumental hook—it’s the song’s foundation, but it just repeats itself in ¾ time in perpetual motion as Bush quietly sings the first verse (“The dawn has come…”). Then, 48 seconds in, a loud guitar slash and a stomping techno beat: “I FEEL I WANT TO BE UP ON THE ROOF!,” she sings, over and over, letting go of all tension and inhibition.

The rest of the song vacillates between the tentative verses, the barnstorming choruses and plenty of birdsong (and Bush’s infectious, unrestrained laughter.) “All the birds are laughing / come on let’s all join in,” she implores before a return to glorious exhalations of “UP, UP ON THE ROOF! IN THE SUNNNNNNNN!!! On that last word begins an extended, furious guitar solo, followed by electronic manipulations of those last lyrics where Bush’s words seem all jumbled together, pointing towards the absolute, transcendent bliss of release. A chorus of laughter (AH-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!”) repeats, and repeats until it hits a final, massive “HAH!!!” The music stops, the new day begins, and birdsong just hangs loosely in the air during the minute-long fadeout.

Apart from spanning the entire cycle of one day, “A Sky of Honey” doesn’t necessarily relay a cohesive narrative; then again, for the most part, neither did “The Ninth Wave”, really. The emotional trajectory is what matters, both here and, to a lesser extent, on the seven unrelated but complementary tracks of “A Sea of Honey”. Bush would resurface with two(!) albums in 2011: 50 Words For Snow and Director’s Cut, the latter consisting of re-recording of songs from The Sensual World and The Red Shoes; neither is essential like Aerial, but Before The Dawn, a triple album recorded at her limited run of live concerts in London in 2014 is a must-hear. It includes both “The Ninth Wave” and “A Sky of Honey” in full, with extended arrangements and even a brand new song for the former: “Tawny Moon”, inserted between “Somewhere In Between” and “Nocturn” and featuring vocals by a then-teenaged Albert Bush. Given her sporadic recording history, Bush may or may not make another record as great as Aerial (or another record, period.) However, given that she came up with Aerial after being away for so long, I’d like to think she could do it again.

Up next: Emerging from a(n) (in)famous father’s shadow.

“Sunset”:

“A Coral Room”:

Film Journal: June 2018

Movies seen in June; starred titles are re-watches.

MULTIPLE MANIACS
Easier to admire than unabashedly love—Waters would greatly refine and perfect his trash cinema aesthetic with his next two features (right now, it plays more like wacko Warhol.) Thanks to finally being available to watch in the privacy of your own home, it’s more effective in bite-sized pieces, esp. the rape-by-crustacean and most gleefully profane use of a rosary I can imagine. B

DUCK SOUP*
The multiple Grouchos gag is peak onscreen physical comedy only matched by Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle performing “Puttin’ On The Ritz.”

“Don’t look now, but there’s one man too many in this room, and I think it’s you.” A

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?
It’s impossible for me to be too objective about Fred Rogers—like much of my generation, his was not only my favorite TV show as a toddler, but my first favorite show, period. Still, Rogers’ considerable genius came from the vast, previously unrealized potential he saw in educational TV (a far different path than SESAME STREET took)—and how *not* to talk down to his susceptible audience. While director Morgan Neville doesn’t utilize especially innovative techniques (the tiger animation seems a way of filling out time), he does probe deep into Rogers’ successes, but also his failures, anxieties, disappointments, etc., assembling a well-rounded portrait of a legendary figure whom most would be quick to call a saint and leave it at that. A-

MILDRED PIERCE (1945)
I’ve never wanted to slap a movie character more than Veda Pierce. Ida Corwin, on the other hand, I’d love to go bar-hopping with. A-

HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES
Whoa nelly, a *lot* going on here, much of it agreeable in theory: young punks in Croydon during the Queen’s 1977 Silver Jubilee, an alien cult into groovy vinyl costumes and freaky sexual positions, a near-glowing Elle Fanning as a girl-next-door variation on Scarlett Johansson’s extraterrestrial in UNDER THE SKIN, even a severely made-up Nicole Kidman as a beguiling cross between Debbie Harry and Patsy Stone. Unfortunately, it’s often an incoherent mess, which is not something you’d say about director John Cameron Mitchell’s other three features (as for Neil Gaiman, whose short story this is adapted from, I’m not familiar enough with his oeuvre to judge.) One can catch glimpses of what could have been in some of the punk stuff, and you can’t fault Mitchell for a lack of ambition; maybe Sci-Fi’s just not his forte. C

GENERATION WEALTH
What made photographer/filmmaker Lauren Greenfield’s THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES portrait of obscene wealth pre and post-recession so thrilling was its surgical focus on one couple’s hubris; here, as one piece of a multimedia project a decade in the making, she widens her canvas to explore how status symbol greed is far from an isolated phenomenon—more like an epidemic, really. While making ample points through a variety of subjects, it often feels like she’s hitting the same note repeatedly, which becomes problematic at a somewhat bloated-even-at-106-minutes duration. Unexpectedly, she’s most insightful when she turns the camera on herself, dissecting her own work-driven lifestyle and how it parallels the film’s other obsessives. B-

MAPPLETHORPE
Slightly above average biopic—Matt Smith is solid (and at times, transformative), although John Benjamin Hickey’s more soulful as his older lover/benefactor Sam Wagstaff. Director of one of the best music docs ever (DiG!), Ondi Timoner’s well-suited to this material and her use of Super 16 film feels just right. Could’ve delved deeper into why Mapplethorpe found such inspiration in sexual taboo and transgression, but it ably celebrates the innovation and compositional beauty of his best work. Can only hope the eventual adaptation of Patti Smith’s JUST KIDS fleshes out the encouraging sketch begun here. B

SCOTTY AND THE SECRET HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD
Never a movie star but definitely a character, Scotty Bowers’ life was inadvertently custom-built for a documentary. He ran a brothel inside a Hollywood Blvd. gas station in the years following World War II, one that infamously catered to same-sex shtuppings for closeted stars, as detailed in his scandalous 2012 memoir FULL SERVICE. Matt Tyrnauer’s film finds him still feisty at 94 and decidedly unapologetic about what many would perceive as a sordid past, but that’s exactly what’s refreshing and fascinating about the guy. His tenacity seemingly knows no bounds, from his obsessiveness (he’s a hoarder, with at least five or six homes/garages overflowing with memorabilia and assorted random junk) to an almost crippling need to do everything himself, much to the chagrin of Lois, his long-suffering second wife. Essential viewing for Hollywood Golden Age devotees and, in the end, kind of a weird but celebratory companion piece to THE CELLULOID CLOSET. A-

REAR WINDOW*
First viewing in over 15 years, this time at an outdoor screening (Coolidge At The Greenway.) The meant-to-resemble-ambient sound design proved both a blessing and a curse here: neat happy accidents came about from interactions with the urban environment but it was also difficult at times to pick up on the film’s subtleties, which are crucial to getting caught up in its suspense mechanisms. Still a top ten Hitchcock for me—might’ve been top five if it had more Thelma, less Grace.  A-

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY*
The score, the light show, that jump cut—all of it arguably unmatched fifty years on. However, what really struck me this time (my fourth viewing at the Coolidge, and first in 70MM since 2002) was the use of silence and isolated sound (think heavy breathing) and how chilling that repeated, stationary close-up of HAL 9000’s orange “nipple” is—talk about effective contrasts in composing such an immersive experience only cinema allows. A+

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ANDRE
Fairly pedestrian for a profile documentary—more worthy of CNN than a theatrical release, really. But Andre Leon Talley’s personality is welcome in almost any setting. Just as he nearly stole the show from no less than Anna Wintour in THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE, his (increasingly) larger-than life presence always entertains and intrigues—the capes and caftans are a sight to behold, but so is his trajectory from rather humble origins to renowned cultural critic. B-

WILD AT HEART
I think I skipped this one back in the day because I heard it was excessively violent; apart from that whopper of an opening scene, it’s not like a Nicolas Winding Refn film by any means. Certainly Lynch’s loopiest and possibly broadest feature (haven’t seen DUNE and LOST HIGHWAY) but neither as convincing nor as whole as BLUE VELVET or MULHOLLAND DR. Cage and Dern, however, are for the ages—archetypes as seen through that ever-idiosyncratic Lynch filter. It blows my mind to compare Ladd and Dern here to ENLIGHTENED, where they were a decidedly different mother/daughter combo. B+

HEARTS BEAT LOUD
I’m always a sucker for films about creating your own art—even this film’s “dad rock”. Not as affecting as Brett Haley’s last film THE HERO, in part because Nick Offerman as actor and character is no Sam Elliott, but at least his affable, shyly goofy presence is put to good use; his onscreen daughter Kiersey Clemons also has a terrific voice. Did not recognize Sasha Lane from AMERICAN HONEY as her girlfriend, and was simply delighted that she had one. B

PARIS IS BURNING*
Rewatched due to POSE, which already rivals THE AMERICANS as my favorite TV show this year (yes, really.) Essential, of course and also invaluable—although still very much a cult documentary, can you imagine how different drag culture and its impact would be without it? A

Halfway Through 2018

At the year’s mid-point, here are my favorites seen and heard so far.

MOVIES:

The Death of Stalin
Eighth Grade
First Reformed
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami
Isle of Dogs
Let The Sunshine In
Loveless
The Rider
Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

ALBUMS:

Amen Dunes, Freedom
Amy Rigby, The Old Guys
Calexico, The Thread That Keeps Us
Field Music, Open Here
Gruff Rhys, Babelsberg
Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer
Natalie Prass, The Future and The Past
Neko Case, Hell-On
Tracey Thorn, Record
Twin Shadow, Caer

Saint Etienne, “Tales From Turnpike House”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #83 – released June 13, 2005)

Track listing: Sun In My Morning / Milk Bottle Symphony / Lightning Strikes Twice / Slow Down At The Castle / A Good Thing / Side Streets / Last Orders For Gary Stead / Stars Above Us / Relocate / The Birdman of EC1 / Teenage Winter / Goodnight

To paraphrase a classic title of one by Rod Stewart, every album tells a story: it could revolve around hastily assembled contractual obligation or inspired artistic reinvention, announce a new talent to the world or remind a long-uninterested audience what that talent is still capable of. Occasionally, it can even tell a literal story—a concept album, if you will. I’ve written about a few on this blog, from a concise suite about sexual infatuation to a conflation of the cycle of life with the four seasons. Some are predominantly defined by structure or sequencing; there’s also a number that forgo linear narratives for sustained themes such as childhood and parenting, impending mortality or a failed love affair (perhaps the most popular album concept of all.)

None of the three discs I’ve previously covered by British pop trio Saint Etienne were strict concept albums, but they each told at the very least figurative stories. So Tough (1993) served as a collage of early ’90s London sights and sounds, Tiger Bay (1994) combined electronic dance and acoustic folk into a shimmering whole and Good Humor (1998) recreated the 1970s AM radio gold its members Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell grew up with. Their subsequent albums would also hinge upon a common aesthetic or theme: Sound of Water (2000) mostly eschewed the band’s typical pop hooks for atmosphere and texture, while Finisterre (2002) set out to capture London at the crossroads of a new century, linking together a dozen aurally disparate tracks with Michael Jayston’s authoritative spoken word narration. Neither album was necessarily subpar, but something about them felt less immediate and a little tentative, as if in a quest to continually explore new avenues, the band lost some of the luster that those three prior albums emanated effortlessly.

Fortunately, their next record, Tales From Turnpike House pushes their sound to new heights, but with none of that hesitation—it’s assured and complete as anything they’ve ever done. Not coincidentally, it’s their first album to sport an overarching narrative: a day in the life of various residents of a London tower block (for non-Brits, roughly, a high-rise apartment building.) It’s such an ideal concept for this particular band, whose back catalog’s not only undeniably London-centric but also steeped in humanism with a rare ability to find exceptional beauty in day-to-day life. Building upon such a strong, likeminded focal point brings out the best in them as lyricists.

However, Tales is even more special for the distinct backing vocals and harmonies on nearly all of the album’s songs, which were arranged and performed by Tony Rivers and his son, Anthony. It’s typical Saint Etienne for their members to reach out to a relatively obscure and forgotten-by-the-public-at-large figure like Rivers, a former member of late ’60s sunshine pop group Harmony Grass and a ’70s and ’80s session background vocalist. And yet, the familial, choirboy harmonies by him and his son are arguably the album’s secret weapon. On first listen, they seem more than a little retro and heavily reminiscent of The Beach Boys (a fitting touchstone, since St. Et. swiped the titles So Tough and Good Humor from them.) Over the course of an album, they become a wordless Greek chorus, musically binding everything together, their omnipresence gradually more resonant and profound.

“Sun In My Morning” opens Tales with a quiet but insistent ting-ting-ting percussive sound—possibly a triangle or a chime. Here, it acts as sort of an alarm clock, only softer and kinder (this is a decidedly slow, sweet wake-up call.) Over an acoustic guitar, Cracknell’s inimitable vocal follows, elongating words and phrases to their breaking point: “Made… a list of things to do… today / what a shame… the morning breeze just blew… it all away.” Then, just over thirty seconds in, the song’s title announces the chorus. On that chord change, everything brilliantly comes alive: some soulful organ, a skittering flute, and most prominently, the Rivers’ intricate, overlapping harmonies.

Having had ample time to wipe the sleep from our eyes, “Milk Bottle Symphony” vaults forward, upping the tempo and introducing us to various Turnpike House residents—among them, “Number twelve, there’s Amy Chan / Writing down a line for the candy man,” and “Emily Roe’s at Thirty-One / Twenty minutes left to get her homework done.” Gifted as the band is at pinpointing such minute details (Emily “leaves her cornflakes on the sofa / says goodbye to mum”), they also excel at painting a bigger picture: note the dramatic pause at mid-song, silence ceased by a sweet clang-clang-clang that could be a literal interpretation of the song’s title, or how effective the staccato string section sounds over the track’s driving electronic beat on the instrumental coda.

“Lightning Strikes Twice” is the first of many Tales tracks where Saint Etienne reclaim their status as purveyors of alternate-world number-one hits. Resembling a more earnest, if no less slinky version of synth-pop duo Goldfrapp, the song kicks off with Cracknell in her lowest register, modulating her vocal up a few notches with each line until it reaches the euphoric chorus of “Everyone should have a reason to believe / so I still believe that / lightning will strike twice for me,” dramatically stretching out that first word to “Evvv – ryyyy – one.” An irresistible paean to sustained optimism as a life-force, “Lightning Strikes Twice” goes out on a limitless high, reprising the song’s key-changing middle-eight with the Rivers’ harmonies guiding all into the stratosphere.

The contrast between it and “Slow Down At The Castle” could not be more striking: after a mournful folk guitar intro, it shifts into a minor-key suburban gothic that’s almost a warmer, kinder cousin to So Tough’s similarly-toned epic “Avenue”. Its childlike melody gels splendidly with Cracknell’s phrasing but its complexity comes from a few rather baroque but well-employed touches: a harpsichord break, impossibly lovely backing “bong-bong-bong” Rivers harmonies, even a surprise Theremin solo! The piano melody on the outro mirrors the guitar intro almost identically, adding an exquisite grace note at the end.

“A Good Thing” brings Saint Etienne back to masterful dance pop mode with a vengeance. This album’s second single and a close cousin to their biggest UK hit “He’s On The Phone”, it dutifully sounds ultra-contemporary, downplaying the idiosyncrasies of Tales’ preceding songs (almost nary a Rivers to be heard here.) Happily, even at their most accessible, Bob, Pete and Sarah rarely settle for anonymity. As in many a St. Et. composition, Cracknell remains pragmatic but urgent, droll but serious in advising and furthermore reminding a former lover just what’s he lost. Still, what sounds gloomy on the page is transformed by the music’s continual uplift, so much that Pedro Almodovar, a fan, placed the song in his film Volver and it fit beautifully without receding into the background.

An endearingly fragile bossa-nova practically gliding by on vibes, bongos, spare electro-beats and a whole lot of “ba, ba, ba’s” from Cracknell and the Rivers, “Side Streets” was an unconventional choice for the album’s first single, if only for all the surefire big pop productions surrounding it. The lyrics, about a single woman on her daily commute are also far more complex than your average top 40 fluff. Cracknell sings of taking the long way home, acknowledging but not altogether fearful about dangers lurking within an urban center’s corners. She’s at once defiant (“I’ve got features I quite like and don’t mind keeping”) and matter-of-fact (“I’ll probably get it tomorrow”) but the warmth of the arrangement and her vocal (try not to melt at the way she pronounces the word “bubble”) tempers what in less nuanced hands could come off as merely chilling.

After a somewhat deceptive, slow piano intro, “Last Orders For Gary Stead” suddenly locks into a two-chord glam rock groove, complete with electric guitar, pounding piano and Cracknell sounding like the love child of David Bowie and Dusty Springfield. The first St. Et. Tune that absolutely swaggers, it should be an anomalous fit but it works, especially when it reaches its heavenly, Rivers-assisted multi-tracked chorus. Having briefly met the title figure back in “Milk Bottle Symphony”, Gary serves as a through line for the album’s overarching narrative. Here, he’s at his preferred environment of the local pub, and a figure of amusement to some (listen to how tartly Cracknell sings, “He just cools it down / they should knight him for it.”) Still, he’s potentially a tragic figure as well. “She’s in two minds, maybe she’ll board up her door,” the chorus explains, before resolving itself in a neat bit of wordplay: “He sinks two pints / and that’s how it goes.”

As the band’s dance anthems go, “Stars Above Us” not only bests “A Good Thing” but on some days might even top “He’s On The Phone”. “Stars above us, cars below us / Out on the rooftop, baby,” is its glorious chorus, riding high on a shamelessly disco groove (nearly nicked from Kylie Minogue’s “Love At First Sight”) and Niles Rodgers-like rhythm guitar. Musically, it’s far from their most forward-looking song, but none of that matters when the beat kicks in after that dreamy intro and the chorus comes on full force. “Stars Above Us” is positively transformative, taking one to the best place imaginable; in a nod to their greatest early single, Cracknell sings, “Nothing can touch us, baby,” and it’s awfully hard to disagree with her.

Amazingly, “Stars Above Us” was not a UK single, but Savoy Jazz, Saint Etienne’s then-US record label had the foresight to promote the song and a series of remixes—it became the band’s first top ten club play hit in over a decade. Unfortunately, the label ended up seriously botching Tales’ US release seven months after the original edition came out: not only did they rearrange the track listing, placing the two UK singles at the beginning and thus doing away with the day-in-the-life-of-a-tower-block chronology, they cut out the two tracks following “Stars Above Us” and inserted two new replacements (“Dream Lover”, “Oh My”) randomly into the album’s sequence.

Granted, the two nixed tracks are arguably Tales’ least essential. “Relocate”, a duet between Cracknell and David Essex (sounding far more weathered here than on his ‘70s hits like “Rock On”) reads like a distaff Brit take on the old Green Acres theme (wife wants to move to the country, husband wants to stay put in the city.) It’s charming (love the pointed, irritated way she asks him, “You call this life?”) and fits in with the overall concept, but it’s also slight, its merry-go-round melody a touch too music hall for these sophisticates. Meanwhile, “The Birdman of EC1”, the album’s sole instrumental, is a melancholy organ, mandolin and Mellotron-accented breath of fresh air and little else. However, Tales needs both songs for they provide necessary texture; without them (as on the US edition), the transition from “Stars Above Us” to the album’s two final crucial songs feels jarring and rushed.

Tales enters its most powerful stretch with the startling fanfare of harmonies and chiming notes that announces “Teenage Winter”, one of the most unabashedly heartbreaking songs in a catalog with no shortage of them. In its verses, Cracknell delivers a spoken word monologue, reuniting us with such figures as Gary Stead and other various building residents. If “Milk Bottle Symphony” depicted them with an air of promise and hope, now they’re more wistful, almost melancholic, really. Their world is continually in flux: a chain tanning salon replaces a mom-and-pop bakery, and the internet’s daunting presence lessens the nifty stock for record collectors scouring the local thrift shop. Each person is inevitably getting older, “holding on to something / without knowing / exactly what you’re looking for.” Over melodic triplet notes resembling softly falling snow, Cracknell sings in the chorus:

Teenage Winter’s coming down
Teenage Winter floats a gown
Over every place I’ve been
And every little dream
Forever.

That last word just hangs there, gorgeously resounding through the song’s lush guitar, organ and woodwind arrangement (which also includes a sneakily affecting melodic bassline.) “Teenage Winter” is an incredibly poignant lament, made even more so by the fact that Bob and Pete had just entered their 40s when they recorded it (with Sarah not too far off)—for the first time, one can detect a real sense of mortality in Saint Etienne’s world. Rather than rally at time’s arrow with nostalgia and self-pity, they confront it the kindness, wisdom and acceptance that only comes with age.

It seems inconceivable that anything could top “Teenage Winter”, but closing track “Goodnight” comes perilously close. A simple lullaby, it brings Tales full circle from “Sun In My Morning”. Stripping away all instrumentation, we’re left with Sarah, Tony and Anthony. Hearing just these voices at this point in the album’s sequence and the extraordinarily haunting sound they make together (like a delicate tapestry of onomatopoeia) is almost too much to bear. So is Sarah pleading, “Please sing me to sleep and stroke my hair / I’ll close my eyes and pretend that you’re there.” That little couplet really gets at what Tales as a whole is all about: one can always uncover specks of brilliance in everyday, ordinary things, but real transcendence often comes in dreams, in imagining possibilities and processing pain, and using this learned experience to move forward. These threads run deep through Saint Etienne’s entire oeuvre, but on Tales they push furthest, expressed so eloquently they’re impossible to miss or shake.

In a cruel twist of fate, Tales ended up the band’s worst selling album to date in the UK (as with what happened to Tiger Bay, the botched US version didn’t help matters much.) Perhaps “Stars Above Us” or even “Lightning Strikes Twice” should’ve been the lead single, or maybe, just maybe, Tales was so ambitiously out-of-time with what constituted a hit in 2005. One could argue that’s always been the case with this cult-adored trio; for me, Tales had a larger impact than anything else I heard that year (possibly that entire decade.) It was like I’d been wishing, hoping, waiting for one of my favorite bands to create their masterpiece (despite them already having put out at least three great albums.) And then, they did. What’s more, while Tales was originally to be their final appearance in 100 Albums, as of this writing, I’m confident that’s no longer the case.

Up next: We become Panoramic.

“Teenage Winter”:

“Stars Above Us”:

 

Film Journal, May 2018

Movies seen in May; starred titles are re-watches.

RBG
Extraordinary subject, average execution but at least in this case average doesn’t mean boring or even fawning, exactly. The only real misstep is that opening voice-over litany of dissent against Justice Bader-Ginsburg, rattled off as if to get it out of the way. Once you get past the expected stuff about her being a meme and pop culture icon, there’s considerable substance about what she actually accomplished and the lengthy, painstaking process she went through to get there. And let’s face it, political sympathies aside, a film called SCALIA! would never have been as much fun as this. Grade: B

God’s Own Country
An impressive feature debut for writer/director Francis Lee, who has a real feel for depicting physical intimacy, both sexually and in terms of relation to one’s own environment. The shame-free gay love story he constructs almost feels revolutionary in a film that’s otherwise about the ins and outs of carrying on a traditional way of life that’s increasingly challenging in the modern world. A-

Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown*
One of Almodovar’s best, and easily his most realized screwball comedy. There’s nothing gazpacho can’t fix (if you mix it right.) A

The Meyerwitz Stories (New and Selected)
A great ensemble cast (yes, even Adam Sandler) with the lesser-known Elizabeth Marvel the MVP, however sparingly she’s used. As Noah Baumbach films go, not quite up there with FRANCES HA (which was just as much Greta Gerwig’s, particularly in light of LADY BIRD), but I’d much rather sit through it again than anything else he’s put out since. B+

Let The Sunshine In
Leave it to Claire Denis to open her latest by saddling Juliette Binoche with one heck of a blowhard beau and close it on an extended conversation between Binoche and Gerard Depardieu, decidedly *not* her beau (his actual role’s too good to disclose here.) In between, Denis’ seemingly ageless lead, playing a divorced, middle-aged artist continually pivots from one man to another in search of The One, only for it to slowly dawn on her maybe, (to paraphrase Rachel Bloom) the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that? Simultaneously confusing and enthralling like any good Denis, but also not quite like any of her other films (also typical for Denis.) B+

Strike A Pose
A profile of the male backup dancers on Madonna’s 1990 Blonde Ambition tour, notable not only for the where-are-they-now contrasts but also for the exposure afforded them via the infamous tour doc TRUTH OR DARE, which proved a double-edged sword. There’s an excess of great footage here, but it lacks focus scene-to-scene (all the disparate modern-day stuff doesn’t help) which is crucial in order for the overarching chronology to work. Still, the participants’ reunion near the end is lovelier than most of that trope. B-

The Misfits
The objectification of Monroe here hasn’t aged well (especially when you consider her husband wrote it!); otherwise, fascinating for what it represents about a dimming Hollywood, as it was the last film for two of its stars, and two of the other three principals would also be dead within a decade. If you have any qualms about Monroe’s acting, just watch her transformation from coquettish, adoring girlfriend to a raw maelstrom of devastation in the horse-wrangling sequence. B

First Reformed
I believe any work of art has the potential to be both ridiculous and sublime, however rarely one achieves such a tricky balance. To its credit, FIRST REFORMED is often firmly the latter—the austere opening credits sequence with its extended zoom-in; the simple, profound economy of the editing; tonally, how the dread keeps building, almost becoming constrictive but not altogether suffocating; and of course, Ethan Hawke, perennially underrated as he ages but arguably never better in a role he nearly disappears into.

The ridiculous stuff comes at the hysterical finale, but it’s to be taken seriously because it’s not silly and not played for camp or irony (just as the last fifteen minutes of TAXI DRIVER were outrageous and totally plausible.) The score gets to be a little much in the last third, but the straight-faced hymn accompanying those final minutes is perfect. Themes of climate control and corporate influence place the film firmly in the here and now, but otherwise, it feels as timeless as the work of director Paul Schrader’s old hero Carl Dreyer. A-

Flirting With Disaster*
Maybe not the best screwball comedy of its era as I once thought, but pretty damn close.
“We love you very much. If you were Jeffrey Dahmer, we would still love you.” A-

Back To The Future*
What I wrote upon my previous viewing on October 21, 2015: Influence of childhood nostalgia aside, it’s still the best blockbuster of its era, and now looks like one of the more audacious ones, too—would the oedipal stuff between Marty and his mother even be thinkable in a studio film today? A

Liquid Sky
Loved the striking visuals, time-capsule fashions and Anne Carlisle (more so as Jimmy than Margaret); didn’t much care for the rampant misogyny and numbingly awful score. Not nearly as essential a cult film of its time as REPO MAN or EATING RAOUL, but I’d happily watch Paula E. Sheppard spitting out “Me and My Rhythm Box” on a ninety-minute loop. B

The Go-Betweens, “Oceans Apart”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #82 – released May 3, 2005)

Track listing: Here Comes A City / Finding You / Born To A Family / No Reason To Cry / Boundary Rider / Darlinghurst Nights / Lavender / The Statue / This Night’s For You / The Mountains Near Dellray

Band reunions are tricky, for they come with staggering expectations: Is the old chemistry present? Can they still hit all the right notes? And, what of new material—how does it stack up against the old stuff? From Van Halen to the Violent Femmes, you see previously defunct or on-hiatus bands getting back together all the time with all-over-the-map results. But, for every five or ten shadows-of-their-former-selves or devolutions into nostalgia acts, there’s the occasional reunited band that, against all odds, manages to not embarrass itself and even add something artistically vital to its discography. Sleater-Kinney, My Bloody Valentine and The Dream Syndicate are among those who have accomplished the latter in recent years.

One of the least likely and most satisfying reunions of this young century was the return of The Go-Betweens. When this Australian band, with their core singer-songwriter duo of Robert Forster and Grant McLennan last appeared in this tale, they were coming off an enviable decade-long, six-album run culminating in their 1988 pop masterwork, 16 Lovers Lane. Like all their previous records, it received glowing reviews but failed to score radio hits or break beyond their miniscule audience. As noted in Forster’s superb 2016 memoir Grant and I, a series of misunderstandings led to an acrimonious split in 1990. Forster and McLennan would each spend the next decade cultivating solo careers, but little either of them did separately approached the majesty of their past work together (McLennan’s 1994 double-album Horsebreaker Star, which I briefly considered for this project, came closest.)

As the 90’s wore on, the two men reconciled and started playing live together again. Recorded with a new rhythm section (including Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss on percussion), The Friends of Rachel Worth was the first new Go-Betweens album in a dozen years. Far more stripped-down than the elaborately produced 16 Lovers Lane, it was defiantly a new chapter for the band, although on opener “Magic In Here” one could immediately sense some of Forster and McLennan’s rare, sparkling chemistry again. Another album, Bright Yellow Bright Orange followed three years later, and while it added nothing exceptionally new to the band’s catalogue, it was another solid set of predominantly acoustic jangle-pop.

If anything, these two albums sometimes felt as if Forster and McLennan were gently easing themselves back into being a band again with tentative, if encouraging results. For their third album of this second phase, they brought 16 Lovers Lane producer Mark Wallis back into the fold. Once again fortifying their guitar pop with a layered, Technicolor assortment of keyboards and a few horns, Oceans Apart miraculously ended up more a step forward than a look back, even if a couple of its songs lyrically, at times elegiacally reflected upon past lives and places. Moreover, it just gelled like anything from the band’s first phase and its ten songs were among Forster and McLennan’s strongest and sharpest.

From the count-off that announces Forster’s “Here Comes A City”, you can tell this is a fully-energized Go-Betweens firing on all cylinders. Spitting out clipped phrases over just two chords (but what glorious two chords!), lyrically, Forster is at his most observational: “Just pulled out of / a train station / we’re moving sideways,” he sings, “Passing churches / passing stations / a bustling complex.” Meanwhile, the music fervently chugs along, the guitar solo melodic enough but also hinting at an ever-so-slightly out of control bedlam that seems increasingly present all the way to the boiling teakettle noise accompanying repeated chants of the song’s title near the end. But it feels lithe and wry rather than heavy or foreboding, with such typically literate (and quirky) Forster asides as, “Why do people / who read Dostoevsky / look like… Dostoevsky?”

McLennan’s “Finding You” is just as striking and assured, but entirely different. Beginning with a chiming guitar fanfare worthy of all his best ones on 16 Lovers Lane, it opens with lyrics so romantic and incisive you feel Grant has been building towards them his whole career: “What would you do if you turned around / And saw me beside you / Not in a dream but in a song?” It’s pure heart-on-sleeve declaration, along with the chorus of, “Don’t know where I’m going / Don’t know where it’s flowing / But I know it’s finding you.” Because it’s expressed from such a heartfelt place and wedded to such a perfectly formed melody (and lush arrangement), “Finding You” is not easily dismissed as a silly love song. Its extended instrumental coda even provides time for contemplation of what it means to build and sustain a growing love.

“Born To A Family” finds Forster not for the first time on Oceans Apart dissecting his past. With an even lusher guitar palette than “Finding You” (including a 12-string and mandolins), it moves along on an irresistible folkish bounce as he sings about being “the square into the hole” of a working-class family. Even as a young boy, he recalls longing for art, literature and music. “What could I do / but follow the calling,” he repeats, slightly melancholy but mostly confident that he chose the right path; his breathy, “Uh huh’s” and “yeah, yeah’s” casually further confirm it on the fadeout.

By fiat of its initial resplendent waves of synths, McLennan’s “No Reason To Cry” is another step away from the more austere settings of the band’s previous two albums. Dreamily strummed major-seventh chords solidify into the title chorus (where Forster lovingly echoes his bandmate’s vocals), nearly orchestral in its numerous layers of sound. When he sings, “Been fifteen years since we last spoke,” you wonder whom the song is about—former band member and romantic partner Amanda Brown, or perhaps Forster himself.

McLennan follows the song with another of his compositions, “Boundary Rider”. As much of a confirmation of self as “Born To A Family”, it’s similarly crisp and concise, with guitar arpeggios so immediate and absorbing they seem like they’ve been there since the beginning of time. Still, there’s considerably more conflict and resignation in his voice. “So you reach for things / you’ve never satisfied / you’re running down the years” he sings, amiably but decidedly unsentimental, “And to know yourself / is to be yourself / keeps you walking through these tears.” It sounds like hard-earned wisdom, and it will be important to remember those words later.

Forster’s second song about his past, “Darlinghurst Nights”, kicks off the album’s second half. Epic like nothing else on Oceans Apart (it’s over six minutes long), it’s a vast but focused canvas for Forster to reminisce on a specific place and time via a talisman in the form of an old, unearthed notebook: “I didn’t have to read it / it all came back,” he remarks, soon reeling off long-forgotten names (“Frank Brunetti”, “Susie, who we never saw again”) and wishes (“I’m going write a movie / and then I’m going to star in a play”—he and McLennan did try their hand at screenwriting, although they never got a film made.) Although the same four chords repeat (except in the brief, heavenly middle-eight), the momentum never flags thanks to abundant instrumental and vocal hooks imbedded within. The phrase, “Always the traffic, always the lights” is the song’s North Star, appearing throughout and repeating over the extended coda, later accompanied by a chorus of rousing horns.

“Lavender” is the closest thing to love song for Forster here. Over a slinky reggae groove (rest assured, it sounds nothing like UB40), he describes a woman in a series of near-enigmatic phrases like, “She’s got a pair or black boots that kick stones / She’s got black moods she calls her own,” and also rhymes “good in bed” with “well-read.” The title is not her name, but her favorite scent and the song is not really as arch as it sounds, but rather sweet, with clarinet and flugelhorn providing elegance and an unexpected grace notes near the close.

McLennan’s “The Statue” shimmers into focus, its reverberating electronics like a sun rising over the water, its electric guitar hook practically euphoric, leading the way towards a sea of swaying romantic gestures. The lyrics build a metaphor around the titular figure with multiple uses of the word “touch” in different contexts, but it’s the melody that pushes everything forward, perhaps right towards McLennan’s next song, “This Night’s For You”. The previous track’s brightness lingers here but at a breezier, poppy tempo (dig those “ba, ba, ba’s!”.) A genuinely silly but blissful and transformative love song, it cleverly pairs descending verses with an ascendant chorus whose best moment is a call-and-response slash of guitar chords that bespeaks its author’s proficiency in stacking hooks upon hooks while allowing all of them to shine profusely.

“The Mountains Near Dellray” closes Oceans Apart with slow, dramatic grandeur: gradually fading in with guitars, keyboards and a massive sense of space, it’s half majestic ballad, half meditative tone poem. As Forster sings the song’s simple melody and plainspoken lyrics (“And when you make a wish / and you get the wish”), he exudes calm and acceptance that’s in extraordinary contrast to the hubbub and encroaching chaos of “Here Comes A City”. “Never let it go, it’s no struggle,” he concludes, and those words could apply to a myriad of things—what they actually are is less significant than the notion itself. A design for life, if you will, enigmatically inserted within a pop song.

A perfect ending to the album, “The Mountains Near Dellray” would unintentionally serve as a wistful finale to The Go-Betweens themselves when, almost exactly one year after the album’s release, McLennan died suddenly from a heart attack at age 48. While I’ll always long for all the music he and Forster might’ve put out on the momentum and goodwill Oceans Apart generated (a few songs they had begun working on would surface on Forster’s 2008 solo release The Evangelist), I’m grateful they ended up going out on such a high. “And to know yourself / is to be yourself,” is as modest and profound an epitaph as McLennan could ever have written for himself; a decade-plus later, as I edge closer to 48, they are words I increasingly take to heart as well.

Up next: Everyday People.

“This Night’s For You”: