My ten favorite new-ish books I read in 2021 (unranked; in alphabetical order by author’s last name):
Hanif Abdurraqib, A Little Devil In America: Notes In Praise of Black Performance
Abdurraqib’s latest essay collection is unified by its focus on 20th century black artists: from Josephine Baker and Ben Vereen to Merry Clayton and Michael Jackson, he approaches each subject with a modern, personal angle that often comes off as if this is the first thing you’ve ever read about the person.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, When Women Invented Television
Armstrong’s written books about Seinfeld, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Sex and The City; this one jumps back to the very early days of television, profiling four women whom as content creators, producers and personalities (one of them Betty White, R.I.P.) laid the groundwork to make such later shows possible.
Emm Gryner, The Healing Power of Singing
Longtime indie Canadian singer/songwriter Gryner blends the process and encouragement of a self-help guide (in this case, becoming a better singer) with anecdotes and recollections from her own life (often delving deep into how to make a living as a musician) to the point where it reads more like a philosophy than just a mere instructional guide.
Mark Harris, Mike Nichols: A Life
Harris’ long-awaited Nichols biography does not disappoint: highly readable, it masterfully weaves together all the strands of its subject’s extraordinary life and accomplishments yet also retains a critical eye that Nichols himself might’ve appreciated. Most filmmakers should be so lucky to receive such a thorough, entertaining and incisive overview.
Patricia Lockwood, No One Is Talking About This
I picked this up not long after reading Lockwood’s hilarious memoir Priestdaddy, whose intricate, sly wordplay carries over to this, her first novel. Few authors capture the feeling, the serotonin rush of infinite scrolling through social media as well as Lockwood but the kicker is how her narrator gradually disentangles herself away from it and back into the real world.
Elizabeth McCracken, The Souvenir Museum: Stories
Her ambitious 2019 novel Bowlaway went over my head a bit, but McCracken’s latest short story collection sustains her predilection towards charming oddballs in more digestible installments. Five of the twelve stories revolve around the same two characters (Jack and Sadie), but each one approaches them from different angles and time periods so that they all individually feel complete.
Tom Scharpling, It Never Ends
Veteran comedic radio host/podcasting pioneer Scharpling often comes off as a likable smartass over the air; while his persona successfully translates into print, what’s more notable about this memoir is in how candidly he opens up about his mental health issues, rendering them in the same urgent, crackling language as such anecdotes as his failed audition for the cast of The New Monkees.
Barry Sonnenfeld, Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother
Cinematographer-turned-director Sonnenfeld is either secretly a humorist at heart or just a very funny person. This might be the most loving, damning and self-deprecating book written about neuroses passed down from one’s parents since Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure—rendered so vividly at times that one can imagine the hilarious feature film (or streaming series) Sonnenfeld could easily adapt it into.
Tracey Thorn, My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend
Her most candid and searing book since her first, 2013’s Bedsit Disco Queen, Thorn’s fourth memoir focuses nearly entirely on Lindy Morrison, former drummer for the Australian cult band The Go-Betweens. As someone often written out of that band’s story, Morrison is reclaimed by Thorn as a musician, a feminist and most importantly, an artist while she also charts their decades-long friendship within a male-dominated industry.
Stanley Tucci, Taste: My Life Through Food
Tucci’s 1996 film Big Night, a celebration of food as a design for living manifests itself in this memoir, which, like Ruth Reichl’s books combines reminiscences with recipes, the latter spanning from the Perfect Martini to the intricate, days long preparation of a Timpano (as seen in Big Night.) The son of Italian immigrants, Tucci also relays with wit and grace his family’s story by way of the food they cooked and cherished.
I had ample time to read this year but I didn’t break any personal records: 55 books, same as in 2019. Granted, I spent much of 2021 gradually consuming two 1,000+ page tomes: the final, supersized-compared-to-the-others volume of Knausgard’s six-part magnum opus, and Don Quixote, which I’ve always wanted to tackle despite having long since given away my used paperback copy acquired in my 20s. I feel like I never need to re-read either again but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy them. Both exemplified the notion “the journey outweighs the destination” that Infinite Jest and 1Q84 had for me previously.
My complete 2021 Booklist, with titles in chronological order of when I finished reading them (starred entries are books I’ve re-read):
Michaelangelo Matos, Can’t Slow Down
Jennifer Lewis, The Mother Of Black Hollywood: A Memoir
Merrill Markoe, We Saw Scenery: The Early Diaries Of…
Emma Cline, Daddy: Stories
Mo Rocca, Mobituaries
Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman
Rachel Bloom, I Want To Be Where The Normal People Are
Mark Harris, Mike Nichols: A Life
Patricia Lockwood, Priestdaddy
Hanif Abdurraqib, A Little Devil In America: Notes In Praise of Black Performance
Karl Ove Knausgard, My Struggle, Book Six
Jonathan Lethem, The Arrest
Lockwood, No One Is Talking About This
Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday*
Bill Cunningham, Fashion Climbing
Ann Patchett, The Magician’s Assistant
Jenny Lawson, Broken (In the Best Possible Way)
Christopher Finch, Jim Henson: The Works
Dave Holmes, Party Of One: A Memoir In 21 Songs*
Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights
Alison Bechdel, The Secret To Superhuman Strength
Dale Peck, What Burns: Stories
Dylan Jones (ed.), Sweet Dreams: From Club Culture to Club Style
Donna Tartt, A Secret History
Haruki Murakami, First Person Singular
Kate Atkinson, Transcription
Tom Scharpling, It Never Ends
Barry Sonnenfeld, Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother
Karen Tongson, Why Karen Carpenter Matters
Ian Bourland, 33 1/3: Blue Lines
Joseph Lanza, Elevator Music
Greil Marcus, Real Life Rock
Rob Sheffield, Dreaming The Beatles*
Francine Prose, The Vixen
Michelle Zauner, Crying In H Mart: A Memoir
Jennifer Finney Boylan, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders*
Marilynne Robinson, Lila
Jonathan Ames, A Man Named Doll
Douglas Coupland, The Gum Thief
Rachel Kushner, The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020
Richard Russo, Chances Are
John Dos Passos, The 42nd Parallel
Dana Spiotta, Wayward
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, When Women Invented Television
Emm Gryner, The Healing Power of Singing
Tracey Thorn, My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend
Peter Heller, The Guide
Elizabeth McCracken, The Souvenir Museum: Stories
George Saunders, Tenth of December
Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz*
Michael Cunningham, The Hours*
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
Stanley Tucci, Taste: My Life Through Food
Susan Orlean, On Animals
David Sedaris, A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries 2003-2020
You could be forgiven for thinking of 2021, already labelled a year of “languishing” by the New York Times as also one of stasis where music is concerned. We took comfort in artists making unexpected returns: most miraculously ABBA with their first album in forty years, the patchy but true-to-form Voyage (with its legitimately great single “Don’t Shut Me Down”) but also long-awaited new stuff from Kings of Convenience (after an absence of 12 years), Arab Strap (15), Liz Phair (11), Jose Gonzalez (6) and other acts adhering to the usual 3-4 year cycle between releases, from Aimee Mann and Kacey Musgraves to Tori Amos and Twin Shadow.
Fortunately, many of my favorite tracks came from out of the blue: Mia Doi Todd’s loving yet sharp boho paean to the “Music Life”, The Felice Brothers keeping in check with the gallows humor of the times on “Jazz On The Autobahn”, Emm Gryner going giddy EDM-pop with “All Love All The Time”, Rufus Wainwright taking to the dancefloor with his Ampersounds collaboration “Technopera”, Yard Act invoking the spirit of Art Brut with “Dark Days”, both Wolf Alice and Colleen Green recreating 90s alt-rock in their own images (“Smile” and “I Wanna Be A Dog”, respectively), The War on Drugs perfecting their anthemic retro-isms on “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” and Middle Kids offering up their own anthem for the ages with the bighearted “Stacking Chairs”. So many great tracks this year that I couldn’t even limit myself to usual forty, easily expanding my playlist to fifty.
I want to single out two more songs. When I first heard “Chaise Longue”, I immediately pictured Wet Leg as Brit versions of the disaffected teens played by Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke in the 2017 film Thoroughbreds. Thankfully, Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers are far droller than that, their mostly spoken post-punk a prospect both familiar and, in this climate, totally refreshing. Strung together with quotable, cheeky lyrics (“I went to school, and I got the big D”), their debut single is a gas and a tonic to all of this year’s troubles.
However, “Like I Used To” is my best-loved song of 2021 by a wide margin. In the past, I’ve casually admired both Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen but never could’ve guessed how sinuously their voices would blend together. In this standalone duet released in May, against a Springsteen/Spector-like wall of sound, they sing of a will to survive and a hope for renewal that many of us can relate to following a year-plus of crisis, heartbreak and uncertainty. The title serves as a mantra of sorts in the majestic chorus, repeated with modifiers like “Sleepin’ in late”, “Avoiding big crowds”, “Dancing all alone” and “Taking what’s mine”. “Like I Used To” is both a lament and a promise, the yearning and resilience in Van Etten’s and Olsen’s voices deeply resonant as we look to the future.
I felt a sense of impending doom as Steve drove me to Logan early on a Friday morning, three days before Christmas. I had an 8 AM flight to visit my parents in Iowa. Since no direct connections between Boston and Des Moines exist, I would have a layover at O’Hare in Chicago. Not that I’ve tested any scientific data to back this up, but I believe O’Hare to be the most hated airport in the country. Due to its central location on the continent, it serves a large volume of flights which only increases the probability for delays, cancellations and other travel hijinks. I’ve rarely had a smooth experience flying at O’Hare: this particular travel hub seemed cursed all the way back to my first airplane trip ever when an arrival there from then-President Clinton delayed my flight to Boston (to look at apartments for my upcoming move) by over six hours.
Five years after 9/11, I’d grown accustomed to such air travel hassles as luggage checks, taking off my shoes and putting small liquid containers in sealed plastic bags. The idea of transferring at O’Hare, however, conjured up recent memories of sitting on the floor there against a bay of windows at a congested boarding gate, removing my headphones every five minutes to check if there were any updates as to when my puddle jumper to Des Moines was now scheduled for takeoff. As Steve pulled into United’s departure area, we hugged, somewhat sad not to be spending our first Christmas as a couple together (though we had celebrated and exchanged gifts the previous evening.) I grabbed my suitcase and backpack and proceeded into the terminal, ready to begin a long-ass day of likely aggravations.
The flight from Boston to Chicago was smooth: everything on time, with no delays for wind, snow, late return of aircraft or engine problems. I anticipated not being so lucky once at O’Hare. After all, this was the same place where, seven years before, I sat in a stagnant plane on the runaway for nearly four hours before takeoff. Eventually, the flight attendant informed us on the intercom system, “We’re delayed because we can’t find the pilot.” We can’t find the pilot are words you never expect nor wish to hear on a plane, along with “Is there a doctor on board?” and “The second engine just failed.”
Sure enough, upon arriving at O’Hare I spotted the Departures board and saw a big red X next to my Des Moines connection. The reason for its cancellation? Yesterday’s massive blizzard in Denver (another travel hub) had a chain-reaction of an effect on screwing up scheduled flights across the entire continent. A cancelled flight is unfortunate but usually easily rectified by replacing it with another one, even if one has to switch airlines. However, given the high quantity of cancellations and also that it was already one of the busiest travel days of the year, no more available flights were to be had until Sunday. The day after tomorrow. Christmas Friggin’ Eve. My only option was to wait on standby for a slew of other Des Moines flights throughout the day.
My name was not called for the first flight. I remained calm and hopeful.
My name was not called for the second flight. This is when I began to panic. I may or may not have actually screamed out loud at while walking away from the boarding area. I did not want to be stuck at O’Hare for potentially two whole days, let alone ten or twelve hours. Three more Des Moines flights were scheduled for the evening; all I could do was wait.
With hours to kill, I walked from one terminal to the next in an effort to hang on to as much of my sanity as I reasonably could. O’Hare is one of the more sprawling airports I’ve ever flown in or out of. United alone takes up so much space that there’s a long underground pedestrian tunnel connecting terminals B and C. It’s decked out in structural curves and neon light wall panels that continually morph into a rainbow of colors. Completed in 1988, the tunnel is a trippy throwback to that era: a version of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” (United’s theme song at the time) plays overhead, synchronized with the neon’s changing colors. Given the design, one would expect to hear something more 80s-adjacent such as “Take On Me”.
I must have shlepped that tunnel’s moving walkways at least ten or twelve times during the course of that day stranded at O’Hare.
After dinner at what was then known as the “Jazz Food Court”, presumably named to celebrate Chicago’s musical heritage (though the city’s arguably more famous for the Blues), I mentally prepped myself for those three remaining flights. I was hopeful but also cautious: “Forget it, Jake, it’s O’Hare!”, I thought to myself, paraphrasing that killer last line of dialogue from Chinatown.
Fortunately, I had a backup plan. Ag, a good friend from high school, lived nearby as she was serving her medical residency at the University of Chicago. I could stay with her if she hadn’t yet gone home to Milwaukee to see her parents for the holidays. I called and she was still at her apartment! I had somewhere to stay overnight if it came to that.
I phoned my dad next. We’d been in contact all day. He and my mom offered to drive the six hours from Des Moines to Chicago to pick me up the next morning if necessary. No way was my mother going to let me spend one minute on Christmas Eve in another state.
My name was not called for the third Des Moines flight, nor for the fourth. I had one chance left and a few hours to kill, as the final flight didn’t depart until 11:30 PM. I found an empty boarding gate to zone out in, reading chapters of Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (from which most of perennial holiday movie A Christmas Story was adapted) and Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers. Oddly enough, Ag had gifted me both of those books.
Many standby names were called for that last Des Moines flight of the night, but not mine. All day long I kept thinking I was near the end of my rope but now I had truly grasped it. Us remaining, rejected passengers were instructed to head down to baggage claim and remain there overnight; I opted to take a cab to Ag’s high-rise studio apartment in Downtown Chicago. At her tiny but modern 33rd-floor unit overlooking the Playboy headquarters, she welcomed me with open arms, an apple and some almonds to snack on; she also mixed me an exceptionally stiff (and much appreciated) Cape Codder.
My parents arrived at her building at 10:30 the next morning. After saying our goodbyes and my mom gifting Ag a box of her homemade Christmas cookies, we set off westward. We soon stopped at an outlet mall just outside the city, in Aurora, for an early, quick lunch at a Panera. As we left the parking lot to continue our journey back to Des Moines, a white Hyundai pulled up next to us. The driver, a balding, middle-aged man cloaked in a sweatsuit, rolled down his window and pointed out to us that we had a flat rear left tire.
Supremely flummoxed, we ambled over to the nearest gas station, a just-built self-service Shell with a half dozen grinning employees, none of whom seemed to speak much English. A random guy coming out of the McDonald’s next door offered to help change our tire for us—we did have a full-sized spare in the trunk. However, my dad could not find the key to unlock the tire’s lug nuts (much worse than not being able to find the pilot, in this case.) Our vehicle, a tan Audi sedan, was a newly acquired company car.
The three of us sat in the Audi for an interminable period of time, snacking on another red-and-green Tupperware container of my mom’s sugar cookies, pinwheels and pecan fingers. This was still the pre-smartphone era, so my dad had to call a 1-800 number in order to find the closest Audi dealership, which happened to be in nearby Naperville. Their maintenance department was closed for the day, but a customer service associate got my dad in touch with a local towing service.
About forty minutes later, a flatbed tow truck arrived to take us and our car to a Goodyear store a few miles away. To safely accomplish this, the three of us had to cram ourselves into the truck’s passenger seat, which was built ideally for one person or two at the very most. I wish someone had taken a photo of me and my parents literally squished together along with the truck’s driver as they dragged our new but unusable Audi through western Chicago suburbia.
It was only early afternoon, but Goodyear was already closed. Luckily, Chihuahua Motors, a local service garage on the other side of Aurora was still open. After we plied ourselves from the truck’s passenger seat (and each other), the mechanics successfully hacked off the locked lug nuts with a foreboding implement resembling a giant ice pick. They removed the flat tire and put a new one on. Nearly 28 hours after my arrival in the Land of Lincoln, the three of us were finally back on the road to Iowa.
We reached Des Moines a little after 7 PM. Thankfully, the airport there had my checked luggage, albeit with the wrong name on the claim ticket. After wearily but determinably settling this with United (an airline I then vowed never to fly on again, although I have a few times since), my parents and I went to their apartment, had martinis and broiled lobster tails for dinner and all promptly passed out from the day’s (or in my case, days’) travel. I’d made it to Des Moines before Christmas Eve.
I also made it clear to my parents that we would not be spending Christmas together in Des Moines again, at least for the following year. Instead, they came out to Boston to celebrate two weeks early. I don’t recall if they were required to transfer planes in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit or (god forbid) O’Hare, but they made it without having to spend the night in their connecting city. Along with Steve (now my spouse), I still occasionally travel for the holidays (though not in COVID times.) I return to the Midwest less often now that my parents have relocated to South Carolina. When I do, however, I’m secretly thankful if I can at all possibly avoid O’Hare and its endless neon pedestrian tunnel, its montage of shifting color mocking its passengers as they flail from one terminal to the next, lost in the temporary limbo of moving towards, however slowly, their final destination.
If a first album’s an introduction by default, a second album can be a continuation, a refinement, an advance, even a departure. Stand For Myself is all of these things, with this British-born, Nashville-based artist once again defying categorization. She draws freely from rock, folk, R&B and country, expanding her palette to include Al Green-like soul (“Dancing Away In Tears”), Dolly Parton-worthy protest song (“9 to 5” update “Diamond Studded Shoes”) and honky-tonk stomp (“Whatever You Want”). Her voice stronger and more confident than ever, she even reaches a turning point/place of grand catharsis on the closing title track, a thunderous, self-worth anthem/epiphany that bodes well for however she’ll next enhance or expand her sound.
2. Cassandra Jenkins, An Overview On Phenomenal Nature
The title comes from “Hard Drive”, which I nearly predicted would be my most listened-to track of the year upon first hearing it in early March. Resembling Jane Siberry speaking/singing over Kaputt-era Destroyer, it conveys renewal and resilience following a period of turbulence and loss. Arriving at a time I most needed it, the song’s merely the centerpiece of a short (31 minutes) but complete album. Jenkins’ second, it continues this year’s theme of finding beauty in stillness and presence even as it delves into the sorrow of a friend’s passing (“Ambiguous Norway”, a tribute to David Berman) or the sharpness of a self-critique (“Michelangelo”). And the ambient, seven-minute “The Ramble” emerges at the end as a sustained grace note.
Aimee Mann’s first threesoloalbums are among my all-time favorites; her subsequent work ranges from pleasant rehashes (The Forgotten Arm) to uneven experiments (Charmer) to just plain meh (Lost In Space). Her latest consists of songs written for a stage musical adaptation of Susanna Kaysen’s memoir Girl, Interrupted that was put on hold due to COVID. Pre-release singles like “Suicide Is Murder” and “Burn It Out” seemed pleasant enough in isolation, so imagine my surprise when the whole album proved her most cohesive work in decades. Drawing primarily from Mann’s acoustic, baroque, chamber-pop side (think “Mr. Harris”, “Satellite”, “Ballantines”), these lovingly crafted, piano-heavy miniatures find her at a new melodic peak. Although she’s tried on a variety of musical settings since her ‘Til Tuesday days, this might be her best fit yet. Suddenly, her long-gestating plan to turn The Forgotten Arm into its own musical makes sense.
Lately, I’ve been into quieter, calmer sounds than usual; cue my age or maybe just a craving for serenity in these volatile times. González doesn’t record all that often, so his first studio album in six years is indeed a balm. He occasionally refreshes his acoustic palette, inserting a polite, thumping beat into “Swing” and veering closer than ever to jam-band territory on “Tjomme”. However, I’m still enamored with how much presence and feeling of divine inspiration he attains from the spare, guitar-and-voice settings dominating this lovely set, especially in the back-to-back awe of “The Void” and “Horizons” which glisten like mirror images of each other.
6. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra, Promises
The year’s least likely event album is an instrumental suite composed by a young British electronic musician, augmented by the London Symphony Orchestra and made transcendent by 80-year-old jazz saxophonist Sanders—the first major release with his name on it in two decades. Built mostly around a recurring melodic flourish and divided into nine “movements”, it’s most powerful when heard in its 46-minute entirety. Like the two halves of In A Silent Way or four parts of A Love Supreme, play it on an endless loop and listen for new motifs and hidden treasures to reveal themselves each cycle through.
Renowned for their pop acumen (any of their singles collections are wall-to-wall bops), there’s always been another side to this British trio—an experimental streak that occasionally surfaces in instrumental album tracks, B-sides and fan club releases. Their tenth studio album is the first to give itself entirely over to this side, eschewing hooks for sample-heavy tone poems built out of cuts from such fin de siècle UK artists as Samantha Mumba, Lighthouse Family and The Lightning Seeds. Although it could use more Sarah Cracknell (anything could, really), whose sighs and spoken-word interludes serve as a spectral presence, this is the most forward-looking music they’ve recorded in some time.
Previously unfamiliar with Tamara Lindeman’s long-running music project, Spotify kept recommending various tracks from this, her breakthrough LP until I broke down and listened to the entire thing on a warm, early Autumn afternoon walk. While the streamer’s suggestions don’t always hit the mark, this one did, bringing to mind many female singer/songwriters I love while remaining its own thing (vocally, Lindeman’s closest to Vienna Teng, who has had little output as of late.) Ecology-minded without the preachiness (titles include “Tried To Tell You”, “Parking Lot” and “Subdivisions”), catchy without ever seeming obvious, it’s both full of simple pleasures and quietly (that word again!) revelatory.
The year’s least likely reunion (more so than Kings of Convenience.) Once immortalized in a Belle and Sebastian song, this Scottish duo always sounded much older than they were (thanks to Aidan Moffat’s thick, mucky brogue); it so follows that, now middle-aged and together again after 15 years, their sly observations and spoken-word reveries snugly fit into their eclectic folk-rock like an old brown shoe, albeit one still dodging the occasional spikes of memory, aging and such newfound wonders as being moved to tears when watching The Muppet Movie with your kid.
Having recalibrated her approach a few albums back—i.e., dispensing with the hour-plus running times and overarching concepts, Amos is on a minor late-career streak like 1990s Joni Mitchell. Though her latest isn’t as incendiary or innovative as her own 90s work, it’s suffused with emotion inspired by current events (like her post-9/11 travelogue Scarlet’s Walk), only on a more intimate scale. When she strips back down to just piano and voice (“Flowers Burn To Gold”), it’s so effective and startling one regrets having ever doubting her continued relevancy.
The fourth album from this roots-rock quartet emanates from the speakers like an unearthed, vintage radio broadcast: brief, spoken interludes weave together country ballads (“I Lied”), rockabilly raves (“Not Dead Yet”) and Technicolor retro-pop (“Mine Forever”) full of sweeping strings, Duane Eddy-style guitar, lots of reverb and a fair amount of extra space to move around and explore within. Not all that dissimilar from the three albums preceding it, but even with its concluding 15-minute ambient drone, it feels more complete.
Following last year’s Making A New World, an ambitious concept album about the after-effects of World War I that felt a little overcooked, the Brewis Brothers present its near-antithesis—song-oriented, ultra-melodic and stacked with hooks. Truthfully, it could use a few more strange detours like 2018’s Open Here (still their best) but I won’t argue with the likes of “Do Me A Favour” and “No Pressure”, the latter an irresistible, insistent single that also serves as a clever rebuke to a certain Queen/David Bowie tune (not to mention another by Billy Joel.)
This 21-year-old British singer/songwriter’s debut LP is already the recipient of the kind of hype few young artists can claim, including this year’s Mercury Prize. Although far from the first to attempt an indie folk/R&B with poetry leanings (hello, Corinne Bailey Rae), her beautifully languid voice and reflective tone remain constants, complementing a dozen songs that resemble handcrafted, well-worn vignettes. Best opening couplet: “I’d lick the grief right off your lips / You do your eyes like Robert Smith.”
A dozen years after their last album and this Norwegian duo haven’t changed one iota—thankfully so, for the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach serves them well. Whether continuing to put their singular harmonies and nylon-string guitars at the forefront or welcoming guest appearances from Feist as if it were still 2004, KON remains a timeless proposition. Not as essential as those earlier albums, mind you, but after six months of spins, almost as durable.
An LP written from the point-of-view of a volcano on the China/North Korea border does not seem nearly as outlandish coming from this enduring Welsh weirdo as opposed to anyone else. The real surprise is how hooky and accessible the music is, some of Rhys’ most accomplished since his band Super Furry Animals recorded their last LP over a decade ago. On that note, leadoff track “Mausoleum of My Former Self” is the year’s most hummable song with the least likely title.
When an artist puts out a self-titled album decades into their career, it’s usually a statement, and this might be LB’s most cohesive collection since Out of the Cradle (if not Tusk.) It kicks off with three instant classics (“I love it when you scream,” he sings on the opener), but it’s a near-perfect ten track album, folding in such unlikely flourishes as trap beats and synth-bass on some tracks and a return to his folk-rock roots on others.
Moving to Boston for graduate school coincided with my coming out as gay. I didn’t plan it that way, or perhaps I did so subconsciously, seizing on a physical move to make another big change. It wasn’t an easy or swift process. Until then, I’d been deep in the closet to the point where, just a year before, I seriously considered asking out a young woman who, like me, was also pursuing a Film minor at Marquette. I never worked up the courage, although I did fall into a misguided straight relationship with someone else for a few months before facing up to my true self, breaking it off weeks before I left my hometown behind.
I expected I’d easily attain a new identity as an out gay man freshly arrived in Boston, but it didn’t happen like that. Not necessarily wanting to be defined by my sexuality, I didn’t tell anyone about it. At least I no longer tried presenting as straight or thinking it a viable option. Those first few weeks in a new city, I’d often play a private game where I’d consider all the strangers I saw in a restaurant or on the T and ask myself of each one, “Honestly, do I find this person attractive?” Every single time I spotted someone I liked, it was a guy. I could no longer deny who I was.
My classes and work-study employment provided decent excuses for not actively pursuing much of an exterior social life. I was so preoccupied with film and writing about it that I simply did not have the time to go to gay bars and clubs or check out the campus’ LGBT organization (the primary letters then considered for that since-expanding acronym), or at least that’s what I told myself. Looking back, I admit I just wasn’t ready to pursue such activities, even though I wanted to partake in them. Being over 1,000 miles away from home was enough of a tremendous adjustment to navigate.
I eventually began dating and socializing with other gay men to the point where I couldn’t imagine it not being elemental to my identity. However, that would mostly happen after completing my degree. As a Film Studies student, I explored my freshly acknowledged sexuality through films. I cannot undervalue seeing other queer people depicted onscreen in an era where Ellen DeGeneres had just come out but with few other celebs quick to follow. Even though Boston University did not offer a course specifically on queer cinema, I was exposed to the work of such directors as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Chantal Akerman, Andy Warhol and Todd Haynes. Even more significant was Raymond Murray’s Images In The Dark: An Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Film On Video. Its second edition published the previous year, it proved a vital resource, cataloging the work of the filmmakers above in addition to many others. Accessing Murray’s tome was like entering another door, one leading me to artists as dissimilar as Pedro Almodovar and Terence Davies, Jean Cocteau and Piers Paolo Pasolini, Barbara Hammer and Ulrike Ottinger.
Given my age and the period, New Queer Cinema had the strongest impact on my worldview. A term coined by critic B. Ruby Rich in 1992, it encompassed recent work from gay and lesbian independent filmmakers, most of which dealt with transgressive themes and situations that offered alternatives to heterosexual culture. In other words, New Queer Cinema was proudly, unapologetically gay, fixated on such subjects as hustlers (My Own Private Idaho), AIDS (The Living End) and ballroom drag culture (Paris Is Burning). It could propose unconventional depictions of historical figures (Swoon, a take on the Leopold and Loeb murders) and serve as a medium for autobiography (essayists like Marlon Riggs and Su Friedrich.)
Murray’s book also introduced me to Derek Jarman, a British painter-turned-filmmaker whose cinema alternated between revisionist histories and experimental memoir. On a June Saturday afternoon, instead of checking out my first Pride Parade in the South End (which ended up postponed due to flooding rains), I watched Jarman’s 1987 feature The Last of England, rented from the Hollywood Express in Cambridge’s Central Square where one could get five films for five nights for ten bucks. After the closing credits rolled following a young Tilda Swinton cutting herself free from a wedding dress against the maelstrom of Diamanda Galas’ otherworldly siren song, I suspected I’d found a subject for my master’s thesis. I was just astonished by this perplexing, sensory-overload barrage of cross-cutting, dystopian landscapes, queer imagery (an early scene where a male hustler humps a Renaissance painting certainly imprinted itself on me) and the director’s own childhood home movies, all of it cohering into a savage indictment of Thatcherism, nationalism and a decaying empire.
Jarman had died from AIDS a few years before at the age of 52; The Last of England was the first film he completed after receiving his diagnosis and it’s a turning point in his oeuvre. Up until then, he oscillated between arty home movies and larger-scale features like Caravaggio and a gloss on Shakespeare’s The Tempest that ended with veteran chanteuse Elisabeth Welch serenading a chorus of sailors with the 1933 torch song “Stormy Weather”. The Last of England synthesized these motifs into something bolder, angrier, more political yet intensely personal. From there, knowing he was living on borrowed time, Jarman worked at a furious pace, completing five features in as many years comprising some of his most urgent and innovative work.
I thought of making The Last of England this essay’s focal point, but I already covered it in exhaustive detail for my master’s thesis, which considered it, along with The Garden (1990) and his final film Blue (1993) as an informal trilogy where fiction and memoir intersect, blurring the notions of one’s art and life until they appear inseparable. Rather than go back to that well, I’ll consider Edward II (1991), fittingly the second Jarman film I watched and one I have not previously written about in any great detail. If The Last of England was an introduction to an entire filmography I immediately wanted to devour, Edward II vindicated this desire with its unusual, inventive approach to literary adaptation.
One of 16th century English playwright Christopher Marlowe’s major and final works, Edward II focuses on the relationship between the titular King and his favorite nobleman, Piers Gaveston and how it led to both of their murders at the arrangement of military head Roger Mortimer. It had endured as a stage production up through the present, but Jarman was the first (and to date, only person) to attempt a feature film of it. While Marlowe’s prose subtly acknowledged the intimacy between Edward and Gaveston, Jarman’s adaptation places it at the forefront—gleefully, defiantly homoerotic, his Edward II is a story of a King (Steven Waddington) and his male lover, Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan), the threat it poses to the straight establishment headed by Mortimer (Nigel Terry) and Queen Isabella (Swinton) and the ensuing seizure of the throne by said establishment, whose murders of Edward and Gaveston are equated to hate crimes.
The notion of lending an explicitly queer slant to Marlowe’s prose is expected coming from an openly gay filmmaker/activist in 1991. From his casting of hunky actors to play his two queer leads to the inclusion of such imagery as two naked men engaged in sexual intercourse in the background of one scene for no reason germane to the plot, Jarman holds nothing back in this regard; in an era where the sight of two men lying in bed together on the TV series Thirtysomething provoked mass indignation, being so out, loud and proud felt more daring and radical than it might now.
Where Jarman goes beyond the shock of queerness is in his fearless deployment of anachronism. Present in his work all the way back to “Stormy Weather” and the contemporary dress in Caravaggio (to mirror that artist’s use of anachronism in depicting biblical figures), Jarman is not a slave to period or text. Purists and traditionists likely decried Edward II for sheathing its characters in white muscle T’s, pajamas, leather jackets and World War II-era fatigues. In one scene, Edward and Gaveston appear to be dressed for the set of Reservoir Dogs (sans sunglasses) one year early; in another, Edward and his brother Kent (Jerome Flynn) return from a game of tennis, rackets in hand, decked out in white polo shirts with matching towels around their necks.
Edward II’s production design (from longtime Jarman associate Christopher Hobbs) favors a minimalist approach: spare sets consisting of stone walls and dirt floors, its characters bathed in light and shadow. These spaces are strewn with such unexpected contemporaneous objects as a Christmas tree surrounded by presents, an electric hanging lamp, a board meeting table complete with water pitcher and drinking glasses and a battery-powered robot and portable Walkman for young Edward III (Jody Graber) to play with (not to mention a Coke can, its placement intentional unlike the Starbucks cup in Game of Thrones.) Isabella sits in bed with a cold cream mask over her face while Mortimer lies next to her, reading Unholy Babylon: The Secret History of Saddam’s War. The latter is telling, along with the proclamation Edward is coerced into signing to send Gaveston into exile: a quick shot reveals the date on it as 1991 rather than 1311.
Why would Jarman retain Marlowe’s prose and historical figures but essentially set it in the present? Granted, the uproar over Edward and Gaveston’s relationship is all too applicable for 1991. Despite some recently acquired cultural inroads, relatively little had changed since then in terms of public perception of homosexual attraction and companionship. When adapting a historical work, often the most illuminating route one can take is to explore and accentuate its relevance for modern audiences and what they can learn from it. In Edward II, Jarman spotted themes, situations and behaviors with a clear analogue to his own life and his treatment by the press as a homosexual and person with AIDS. Much of his later work is a rebuke to Thatcher and policies born out of that period like Section 28, a legislative designation prohibiting “the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities” that was in effect in the UK from 1988-2000.
Jarman’s reaction to such oppression and censorship becomes Edward II’s most memorable anachronism. After Mortimer arranges Gaveston’s murder, Edward and his cohorts clash against the nobility in the guise of a gay rights demonstration. The protestors are portrayed by actual members of OutRage!, a UK gay rights group “committed to radical, non-violent direct action and civil disobedience”, fighting for “sexual freedom, choice and self-determination” for all queer people. They are depicted standing up to a riot-gear wearing police force, chanting in solidarity and carrying a big white banner reading “Stop Violence Against Lesbians and Gay Men.” It’s a relatively brief scene but a pivotal one: it bluntly but effectively drives home the close parallels drawn between the present and the past.
Such a big swing could come off as pretentious or dour. Fortunately, Jarman’s predilection towards camp leavens the film’s weightier stuff—see Gaveston and Edward celebrating their reunion by dancing a ramshackle tango or Edward III reclaiming the throne near the film’s end, tromping around to Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” on top of a giant cage holding a decomposing Mortimer and Isabella. Even darker moments, such as Isabella murdering Kent by literally biting into his neck and sucking his blood, vampire-style (Swinton’s decades-early audition for Only Lovers Left Alive?), while shocking, retain a gallows humor in their absurdity.
Occasionally, they also prove rather moving. Before Gaveston’s exile, he and Edward meet up. We hear the opening minor piano chords of Annie Lennox’s version of “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”, recorded the year before for the great Cole Porter tribute/AIDS charity album Red Hot + Blue. In time, Lennox herself appears in person, off to the side, serenading the lovers. Hair close-cropped in a pixie cut almost as pale as her skin, she resembles a wraith as the couple embrace and bid each other bittersweet farewells. It’s a scene of pure fantasy but gender-bending icon Lennox’s plaintive appearance complements the song’s spare, piano-and-accordion arrangement, while the occasional tremor in her tone, along the melody and lyrics of Cole’s composition render the proceedings exceedingly poignant.
Jarman’s Edward II concludes by rewriting Marlowe’s ending: instead of death by hot poker from the executioner Lightborn (Keith Collins), whose time guarding Edward is a framing device throughout, he tosses the poker into a pool and gives Edward a tender kiss. We see both scenarios, in that order, with the second a revisionist history akin to Quentin Tarantino’s later work (albeit on a much smaller scale.) However, Edward II’s final shot is a pan across the OutRage! protestors, now silent, frozen in time as Edward’s voiceover reads Marlowe’s prose: “Come, death / and with thy fingers close my eyes / or if I live / let me forget myself.” During the film’s production, Jarman’s health was deteriorating to the point where it was uncertain whether this would be his last feature (he lived to complete two more.) As a potential goodbye to his art and his audience, it drives home the notion that Edward’s fight against homophobia and fear is as relevant and urgent as Jarman’s own and that of his friends and fellow queer people.
No matter who or what we are, we tend to look for representation in popular art, to see people onscreen who are recognizable, even similar to us, finding someone we can relate to and that the rest of the culture can also see. In this phase of my coming out (and coming of age in general), I looked to the work of queer filmmakers as a text and a guide, a way to feel less isolated or alone. Jarman, in particular, was fearless in putting and revealing himself onscreen; he also made a continual effort to show how queer people had been around for centuries, telling stories about their presence and importance, using his “cinema of small gestures” to bring these figures out of the shadows and into the light. While I took a film course the previous year called Ways of Seeing, watching Edward II (and the rest of Jarman’s filmography) for the first time felt to me like being seen.
As this current year is its semicentennial, I’dplanned on crafting this playlist long before the Apple TV miniseries 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything dropped. While one could make a similar argument for any single year (indeed, I’ve read a book about 1966 and have seen others for nearly every year in-between), this series made a solid enough case, from Sly Stone to The Rolling Stones and unexpected deep dives into Gil Scott-Heron, The Staple Singers and Bill Withers, not to mention ample coverage of Tapestry, Bowie, Joni, Elton, Marvin, etc.
Even over eight hours, a few things are bound to fall through the cracks. Thus, my inclusion of lesser-revered ’71 gems such as the epic opener of Serge Gainsbourg’s masterful concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson, the climactic, penultimate track of British folkie Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter, novelty hits from Redbone and James Brown and the best song from Leonard Cohen’s Songs Of Love and Hate, a proverbial “difficult third album” I’m just beginning to appreciate years after first struggling with it.
All that, plus three out of four ex-Beatles (sorry George, “Bangla Desh” isn’t up to snuff) and AM radio gold from The Fortunes (a fake Four Seasons sounding better than the real thing at this point) and the Carpenters (Karen’s slipping-into-darkness reverie was made for something like “Superstar”.) I could’ve spotlighted Al Green’s strangely jubilant “Tired of Being Alone” or Cat Stevens’ “Don’t Be Shy” (from the indelible opening credits of Harold and Maude), but, even if you’ve heard it (or seen Goodfellas) a million times, Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” retains its one-of-a-kind spark: with a groove as insistent as the one in “Hot Pants”, it’s a frenzied declaration of lust/love from a madman wailing “WE CAN MAKE EACH OTHER HAPPY!!!” repeatedly into the void. I still love that this was his follow-up single to number-one ballad “Without You”.