Watching Trudeau weep for Gord Downie, cynically, I imagined how the comments sections would be quick to make meat of his tears. Tears, that at this point, we are used to seeing. “Bleeding heart,” “sentimental,” “overly-dramatic,” “this again,” etcetera will be featured you can be sure. But in watching Trudeau weep, something clicked in me about “me too:” that, as many are saying, the focus on the victim is misplaced; that it should instead be on the perpetrators of these acts. Men. But before. When they were boys.
A very direct, real way to lessen systematic harassment and assault is to systematically let little boys have feelings. It’s as simply done as “let’s stop polluting.” Virtually impossible. Because if you are a male over, say, 2, you have been indoctrinated into some version of male training. It is hard-wired into you from the moment you are encouraged to choose guns over dolls or blue over pink. But it doesn’t have to be a radical idea. It could be very simple.
Let boys cry. For the love of all that is good in the world, for the love of your girls and for the love of your boys, let boys cry. Encourage them to cry if they feel sad. Talk to them about it. Hold them while they cry. Or don’t. Let them sit there and cry. But normalize crying. Also, let them be angry. Also, let them not know how they feel. Encourage them to attempt to express themselves even though it’s hard. Help them understand that feelings are okay, and should be let out, not bottled. Don’t use terms like “man up” or “faggy” in any context, anywhere, ever. Don’t make them wear certain colours or clothes. Don’t make them play sports. Make it okay to be “weak.” Make it okay that “weak” exists. Dance. Make it okay to dance with your whole body. Make it okay for straight men to kiss (on the lips Iike Gord!). Help them understand that men can act or be anything they want and it doesn’t make them less of a man, whatever the hell that means, nor does being that way or acting that way, any way, serve as an indicator of sexuality. Make it okay that sexuality and gender are a huge spectrum of amazing strange colours, all of which he possesses. Encourage them to open to sexuality in general, but most of all, theirs. Allow their hearts to live large. Let their feelings have lives.
The noun that’s often used is “empathy,” the idea that you stop assault by promoting empathy in boys. But I don’t think that’s the whole truth. It’s not about boys being empathetic to others, it’s about boys being empathetic towards themselves. If they are okay with themselves being a multi-faceted emotional sexual being, they will not be threatened when others are that way. It is this fear of female emotional superiority that forces repressed emotions out of males in the form of anger and the need to control. Feelings are power. And women, generally, are more comfortable with their feelings than men, and so possess a great power that men do not. That’s scary. Unless it’s not. Young men need to learn to respect a wide emotional field.
Society to society, culture to culture, everywhere, assault and rape, all forms of misogyny and discrimination come as the result of fear, of course. Men’s fear. The focus, for instance, should not be on if women should be forced/allowed to cover their faces or not, it should be on educating boys to understand women as equals... and then watch as men respect a woman’s right to choose what they wear where and when. Watch as the fear of women dies.
The fact is, girls are emotionally superior to boys, but only because we’ve bred them to be so. Boys are soft too, and can just as easily be bred to be just as in touch with how they feel. It threatens nothing. Masculinity will still exist, and better and bigger than before. Now with added tears. Tears bring release, and boys need release from their idea of ‘what a man is.’
They need a new one. Provide it for them by crying in front of them. But do more than that. Be emotionally complex in front of them. Doubt. Be scared. Talk about these fears. Show affection to others in front of them. Show, yes, empathy in front of them, not just to women but to those less fortunate, to the rest of humanity, to the earth. Most of all, hug them, kiss them, hold them. Create a soft place for boys and they will take that into the world with them as men.
Make boys comfortable with their emotions and they will meet girls on the level. They won’t need to dominate them. They will talk with them. They will talk with each other. They will commune. Imagine the sex! While there is great sense and healing in men coming forward to admit misdeeds and pledge a new way, a deeper approach might lie in getting to those men before the behaviour is learned, when they are searching for a “kind of man” to later inhabit.
The evolution of masculinity needs a jumpstart. It’s happening, we see it in younger and younger generations, but it needs to become an active movement. That movement, I think, lies in the hands of parents of boys. Only parents of boys can help stop assault.
There’s lots of reasons not to like Trudeau and I won’t defend his politics. But don’t lessen him because he cries. Don’t groan because he cried again. Because when you do that, you promote an archaic image of what a man should be. Your mockery is the mockery of men revealing their feelings and other men will see that and choose instead to keep their feelings hidden, because you just reminded them that vulnerability is dangerous. You just perpetuated the system of harassment. Even if you’re sure Trudeau’s putting it on for the cameras, so what, let’s let him. He’s showing an image to the world that it’s okay for boys to cry. It is. They do. All of them. And it’d be better for the world if they cried more.
He loved it. It didn’t matter if it was good. He loved it. More than that, he loved the intention of it. He loved what we were all attempting to do. He loved all of it. He loved being a part of it. And I’ll say again. He didn’t care if it was good or bad. Not really. Even though that was his job. He just wanted to be there. And you felt it in his writing. He loved being part of the process.
When I was younger, he made me think I was good. Sometimes I even was, but it meant so much if Jon thought so. But even when I wasn’t, he never wrote about me as if I wasn’t trying my best. As if any of us weren’t trying our very best to do something great. He understood that shows that weren’t worth 4 Ns were still worthy of intelligent discussion.
Jon didn’t draw a line between critics and artists, and while many would debate that stance, in a landscape of criticism often fraught with ‘us vs. them,’ Jon’s reviews were something different. He gave a shit. “Yeah but what did NOW say?” That’s the one we cared about. “Besides, people actually read NOW.” Was he as objective as some? No. Thank god. How pleasant to understand that critics love the thing as much as we do. I think he believed that we were all working towards the same end, that we were working on making theatre better, together. We were, too.
Jon was as active in furthering our community as any artist. Someone should name a theatre after him. He was part of every production. I attribute an early sense of “maybe I can keep doing this” to Jon, not because of what he wrote, but because he came and talked to me after the show. He wanted to know me. Hell, he invited me to parties. And they were good! Jon believed in me. He believed in believing, and that’s what the thing is about. I can’t thank him enough.
There were nights we’d hear that Ouzounian was out there but if Kaplan was out there too, we’d know there was at least someone there wanting us to do well. I never cared what he was going to write. I just liked knowing he was there.
When it happened, I kept quiet. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t toss in my two cents. I couldn’t. At the same time I wanted everyone to know that I loved him too. That he was, actually, my rock star. Bowie fans do more than love him: they claim him, and I found myself no different. And when I looked around at the people also claiming their rock star, I saw people I understood. And that’s how he collected us. He didn’t look to the mainstream, he looked to the outskirts, the kids standing at the side, and that was his great gift: the ability to say to the outsiders: “You’re not alone,” and make us believe it. He knew that the cool kids aren’t the ones in the centre of the room, they’re the ones more at home in outer space.
I happened to be down in L.A. days after he died and went out with a friend to a Bowie night at a bar I like. A Bowie night. I hate even saying it. It seemed the right thing to do but it wasn’t. They played the songs, the popular ones anyhow, but it wasn’t my Bowie. Everyone danced with smiles of “remember this one?” I tried to fake it but I couldn’t be nostalgic for David Bowie; I have an actual relationship with this person. I’d never mourned a rock star before. Besides, he hated L.A.
The mourning goes on still. It wasn’t until just the other week that I finally bought “Blackstar,” let alone been able to sit and listen to it. He died last year on the night of January 10th but I awoke to the news on the 11th, which, unfortunately for my wife, is her birthday, which got eclipsed by the death of her husband’s idol. I recorded my day.
“Woke. Text-laiden. Lay back in bed. Stunned. Fuck no. Fuck everything. “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.” All you need to know about rock n’ roll. Coffee. Stunned. Thoughts. Apologize to wife for being so sad on her birthday. “Hunky Dory.” Top to tail. “Diamond Dogs” through lunch. Favourites: “Heroes,” (original, then with Glass and Eno, then Aphex Twin remix, then Magnetic Fields cover...), “The Man Who Sold the World,” “All the Young Dudes,” and the newer “Conversation Piece”. Out in the car, stuff to do, “Space Oddity” on the radio. Later, finally at bar, finally acknowledging that I’m mourning something big here, headphones and “Low.” “Valentine’s Day.” Realize I had stopped listening to Bowie at some points. Many points. Why not? He didn’t care what I thought. I hated “Modern Love.” How had I forgotten “God Only Knows”? Walking to “Sound and Vision,” “TVC-15,” “Sorrow.” Take off headphones to hear someone playing “Absolute Beginners.” “Outside” walks me home, head down, hands in pockets. “Little Wonder,” and then “Let’s Dance” to change the mood. In bed, hear “Under Pressure” in apartment above. Now, darkness, headphones again, and “Blackstar,” “Lazarus” on repeat into the again and again. This is going to take time.”
It has and it is. Bowie is more than an artist; he is the artistic process. He is the point we strive for, always present, never repeating and not interested to. Next. Next. Next. Changes. What is now like? Let’s describe right now. Modern throughout, he chewed up zeitgeist like nobody else.
Every day I am sad he is gone. Every day. He was an extremely intimate voice in my life. He did more than speak my truth as an outsider, he nudged me on to embrace it. To me, he is the pinnacle of rock n’ roll. It was all a lead up to him, and after him is a dreary come down. There will never be another Bowie because there never can be. The world wouldn’t want it. In the last year I’ve also come to realize that he is not only the most important rock star I’ll share time on earth with, but also the most important artist, though that's a topic for another time. I'll get to it. In the next years.
My hero is dead.
It’s a year later and I’m sure I should be over this. I know my wife would like me to be. I will stop writing this now so that this year her birthday is about her. Seems fair to side with the living. But I won’t end with a song quote. He’d hate that.
I don’t care if you did drugs.
It’s quite normal to have a hard time due to any number of things. Perhaps you were born more sensitive to others and feel things too much. Perhaps that’s why you’re a great musician / actor / artist. Perhaps that’s why you knew you couldn’t do anything else except sing / play / act. Thank you for doing that. It’s amazing what you do. I love your music. I love your movies. Or maybe I don’t. Maybe I hate it. It doesn’t really matter. You’ve inspired me in ways you don’t know. In ways I don’t know. Thank you for doing it. You’re partly responsible for me being who I am, and for most of the people I surround myself with being who they are as well. I like them. I bet you would too.
I struggle too. Every day. To get through it. To express myself. To feel part of it. So please understand that I for one really don’t care how you choose to live. I don’t care if it kills you. It’s none of my business. I don’t care what you do with your days just like I don’t what colour / gender / sexuality / species you are, or care to identify with. I don’t care if you sit in the bath all day long or drink nothing but root beer. I don’t care if you’re selfish. I don’t care if you’ve been an asshole all your days. Well I kinda care about that. But not much. Not really. I’ve been an asshole too. I care much more about what you’ve made, about what you’ve left us with, about what impression you’ve made on this world and its people to come, and I want you to know that most probably, that’s what you’ll be remembered for in the long run.
If you linger on a bit after you die (do you? I don’t know. tell me?), please ignore the headlines. You already know what they’ll be. They have no impact on anything and will be forgotten as fast as the journalists that write those things about you. None of that matters. All that matters is that you found a way to make whatever it is you make.
So I’m not going to blame the year, I’m just going to thank you and celebrate you. I’m not going to judge you. I will be a little jealous of you. As I listen to your music. And watch your movies. Or your paintings. I’ll continue to be inspired by the life you lived. The honest life you lived. The artist’s life you lived.
I guess what I really want you to know is that you’re understood. I get it. We get it.
And by the way, if you feel more than other people, you’re bound to be an asshole sometimes. Don’t sweat it.
You were amazing.
At the end of April, Radiohead disappeared online. Their website, facebook and twitter accounts, everything was gone. It was amazingly theatrical. It was a snap to black. The world was in darkness. And then out of the darkness came a blissfully good album. Destruction, followed by creation.
While The King of Limbs felt a bit like more of the same, A Moon Shaped Pool treads new ground, using new sounds and new methods. It’s a fresh start, creating a new world as they leave an old one behind. Beyond that, I don’t see any point in comparing this album to previous ones. One argument non-fans make is that it all sounds the same. They’re right. It does. It’s the same thing done better each time, as they refine their sound a little more with each outing.
(It will take me some months to figure out what Thom Yorke is actually saying in any of these songs so my review is not of the content of their songs so much as it is their music mixed with the sound Thom Yorke’s voice makes).
BURN THE WITCH
Oh. So it’ll be a light album. Lights up on a spaceship hurtling into orbit. Another orbit on another planet. We start the album in the middle of the action. Radiohead goes boom with the angst, throttling out of the darkness like a comet. It’s an action sequence. I love it. The tension is tight throughout, a hard entry into the atmosphere of this strange new Radiohead planet. We are more angry here, and more intense, with gut-ripping strings like a slasher film. Great song. I walk around sort of “humming” it and my wife looks at me patiently, but in my head I am in a spaceship inside a crescendoing angst ball hurtling at some jungle planet’s surface. Hugely cinematic and saucy. Can’t have it loud enough in my cans. Yes. ‘Cans.’
K. Wanna just, for a moment, discuss track release order. Used to be important, less so now. But really rarely does a band release track one as their opening bid. Super rarely do they follow it with track two. With videos to accompany. Radiohead is telling a story. I have no idea what it yet but I will one day. The song wanders like its title, not committing to much and happy to do just that. And while accurate to its title, it stands alone on the album as having not much build or interesting diversion to it. But Matt, the song itself is daydreaming. Guys you are so helpful. Oh there. Don’t get me wrong. I like it. But I think it’s one of the weaker tracks on the album.
We look under the trees. They fold up like paper. The whole world becomes paper. Still angsty and angry but not the world we thought we were on. There are choral elements, and then Thom starts his whining and it’s all lovely Radiohead again. Yes. We do know this place. We like this place. We can breathe here. Familiar Radiohead.
DESERT ISLAND DISK
It’s better than breathable. There is a society here. There’s understanding. While Decks Dark had mixed new elements with familiar, this track takes us into another new place entirely. Guitar strums reminiscent of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The peace movement. If I were a teenager and could play guitar, I would play this around a fire for a girl and she would love me. A simple, great riff. And while this track reaches back to find it’s sound, the next one reaches forwards.
I love this track. My fave preserve is sweet sweet minimal techno, and this track here opens up like the best of the German ones. So angry. So driving. So minor. And... orchestral? They funnel the tension from Burn the Witch and which they haven’t let go of throughout the last three tracks and it here it ferments into a hard techno drive that turns a corner and slams into orchestral beauty. A handful of minutes in and Thom is wailing. This song is swirling, kicking up all that came before. We destroy the last world. At the end, the dust leaves the sky, and all is quiet again. I know this track has been played live for years but the studio sound of this is too delicious to not want more of it. I’d love future Radiohead to look more like this. But why “ful” stop? Why do they have to do that? I hate that stuff. It’s like “full” but not as. Regardless, kicking track, and surely a song of destruction, and, as we know, there is always beauty in the horror. And following destruction...
Early morning. Sun is shining. Coffee and a paper and hot damn who doesn’t love a 2nd person ballad? This is a very pretty song and currently my favourite. When you make a mix for your girlfriend after the festival, you put this song on it to remind her of when Radiohead played it during their second encore.
Give Radiohead a saucy little riff and watch them go. It’s a better, more varied Daydreaming and an older track that I figure they’ve been trying to whittle down until they accepted it for what it was. This is their genius: their complete and utter trust of progressions. Radiohead may not know where they’re going, but they know that wherever it is, they will arrive. Love it.
Piano. And, finally, it’s been hinted at throughout, that familiar sound takes over and the album’s sound completes itself in The Numbers. Led Zeppelin in full colour. A gotta-be- intentional lift of Zeppelin’s sound, and it’s tremendous! I’m not the first to compare those bands but nowhere, at least in my memory, has Radiohead embodied Zeppelin so directly as with this track and while we’re at it, this whole album. A Moon Shaped Pool not only sounds like Zeppelin, but also takes us on a world creating/destroying journey through the ‘darkest depths of Mordor,’ unafraid, like Zeppelin, to get lost along the way. This song is a direct line between the bands and one that makes me very happy. The Numbers lulls us into a softer place and then we are ripped, again by angsty cellos, back to our theme. This is the one I want to hear live. Radiohead, in all it’s stuffy fandom and (what gets construed as) hokey bleep bloppery, is a fucking stadium act. These guys build songs for big spaces. If I was a teenager at a festival with a girl with the whole audience nodding along, I know I would be half-focussed on pretending that my face was not on fire because I forgot to bring sunscreen again. And all that about Zeppelin? Forget it. The song ends on the closing note of A Day in the Life. Love this song. Classy.
This is a sweet familiar little song. Another wanderer, but here it changes course enough to keep me focussed on the journey. And that lovely brush on the drum, like a soft afternoon sunlight shining in on Thom Yorke making toast cuz I’m sure that’s fascinating too.
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SAILOR RICH MAN POOR MAN BEGGAR MAN THIEF
Well supercalifragilisticexpialidocious to you too, Radiohead! If you could invent the perfect mock name for a Radiohead song, this would be it. I mean you can’t write that shit. I accept Ful Stop eventually, but this is stupid and unnecessary. I will never actually say that title out loud. I simply don’t have the time. That aside, Tinker Tailor is cool. This is the one that’s dying to be remixed and is, in its culmination, a far better submission for a Bond theme than their Spectre.
TRUE LOVE WAITS
We end on a sweet song and fan favourite that Radiohead has played for years but couldn’t find a home on a previous album. So here it is, an epilogue after all the horror and beauty to say hey, we’re still your friends. It’s a beautiful and sad song, again, built for stadiums and mixed tapes. As we came in like a lion, we go out like a lamb. Creation and destruction. And just as Burn the Witch started us off with a brutal creation, here, at the end, the destruction is soft. A quiet little exit out the door. We were never here.
My favourite Radiohead album is always the most recent, since they are essentially doing the same thing again in a different way. With A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead doesn’t just entertain a new sound, they stride confidently into a new universe. More instrumentation, more soul and more bald anger. More time travel too, bowing to the past as well as to the future. It is an equally angry and beautiful album; they seem so pissed off with the world that they’ve been driven deeper into themselves, but what they found in there was beauty.
There are two types of people in this world: those who like Radiohead and those who don’t. Fans get accused of being pretentious, annoying, intellectual whiners, and we are, lord, look at the pretention of the last line of the previous paragraph; while Radiohead fans accuse those that don’t like the band of being, well, stupid, which, lord, they are. But what I try to impress upon those lucky angst-free beings is that they are not required to like Radiohead. They are, however, required to understand that Radiohead is the most important band in current music. The opposite is true as well: that Radiohead is the most current band in important music.
Despite 2016’s heart-wrenching saga of high profile rock deaths, the year is also rolling out some of recent years’ greatest releases. Black Star may be one of Bowie’s best, Beyonce dropped a sprawling feminist tome, Drake farted out some major GIFS, and now we get a seminal album from Radiohead. God knows what’s coming in June, but for now I feel satisfaction. The deaths of our greatest rock heroes place us in a strange world that feels suddenly emptying itself of genius; Radiohead reminds us, thankfully, that there are some that remain among us, and that life is, as ever, about both creation and destruction.
“More and More Ant and Bee.”
Rating: ZZZZZ (out of 10)
Right out of the gate, why the italics on “more and more”? Calm down.
Anyhow, Ant and Bee go to some girl’s house and first thing they do is get her playing with a bow and arrow in the backyard, with an entire page given to the word “arrow” along with a picture as if I don’t know what an arrow is. I do. I also know it could easily kill a little girl in the hands of some idiot insect. But after reading and re-reading “More and More Ant Bee,” apparently the nth in the Ant and Bee series (no doubt quick on the heels of “More Ant and Bee” and the original, the granddaddy of ‘em all: “Ant and Bee”), I realize that looking for good sense in this godawful book is fruitless and frankly I wish the girl would turn the arrow on those bugs and their saccharine bullshit. I mean Kind Dog is one thing. He seems like a decent guy, rocks that Tyrolean, arrives just in time - every time - I mean the guy seems worth his weight. But Ant and Bee are really just a couple of poncy Londoners crashing other people’s parties. Like hell you “just fell” in that buttered bread. Later, after surviving the arrow episode, Ant and Bee, along with a Nurse, convince the girl not to play with a knife, because apparently knives are dangerous but arrows are no biggie. They remind the girl that knives are only for big people and “the nurse said she was a BIG person.” Like, how big? Cuz those caps are making me picture a massively overweight nurse. On and on it blithely goes, the Girl confessing she prefers the plate with the Queen on it to the one with the King. No shit. At this point I’m waiting for an amazingly racist picture of THE HELP. Admittedly my edition is a British family heirloom, the copyright dated 1961, so the social positioning of the book is hardly to be surprised at and can be contextualized, but the fact remains that Ant and Bee are dicks. To be missed.
With a ridiculous amount of coverage about U2 partnering with Apple and giving away their new album for “free,” it’s hard for anyone not to have a ridiculous opinion about it. It’s an embarassing moment of perfect confluence: technology, music, choice, privacy, age, and relevancy all come together into a terrible event that was coming, somehow, anyhow, and we were armed and ready to bitch about it lightly and ineffectually, our point seeming to be: the corporations are powerful, and we are fucking idiots. It’s an event that, unfortunately, gets more twitter time than Emma Watson’s articulate speech about an important issue.
We live in a society that wants it’s things now. “I don’t have time to care, I have to get back to my job. I didn’t ask for U2!” No, but you got it. And so you are angry. Because you are a ridiculous brat living in a state of such privilege that you have lost your fucking mind. Seriously. Shut up, civilization. You may go so far as to sign an online petition or tweet, like you also didn’t with the far more invasive Facebook messenger app. But, I hear you saying: this is music! This album is not cool! Correct, nor is its method of its dissemination, but, really, who the fuck do we think we are? Why is this discussion worthy of us? Is this all we are now?
When “I don’t want this free thing!” becomes a Twitter rallying cry, I am just about ready to check out. And not because it’s entitled cry, which it is, but because that’s the extent of the emotion. It’s not an emotion that compels anyone to change the system to suit them better. “They” (meaning U2 and the other evil overlords) know, in three days we’ll either delete the album, listen to it, or forget about it, but the complaining will stop. We might even pick up The Joshua Tree remastered along the way. Either way is fine. They still win. It’s the way Harper wins, every time: make your move, don’t listen, wait, win, repeat. All we’re gonna do is send a bitch into the atmosphere: fuck U2, whoever they are. And then it’s gone and has done nothing. But effecting anything is not the aim of the privileged. The privileged take a sip and demand the bottle get taken back. This will not do; I want something relevant, so fuck U2.
It’s an easy cry to make, given U2’s penchant for being hated. This album release lubes the rocks to allow Bono-haters to crawl out heavily armed, joining forces with the masses to change their online status to reflect their new found power in numbers. Music on my phone without my asking, especially U2, is these days tantamount to assualt, but that is clearly not U2’s aim. Their aim is to continue to make millions of dollars and they will, relevant or not. Yes, Songs of Innocence is one of the great failures of the last two weeks, and adds numbers to the Bono-haters seeing sunshine - but U2 still wins - they are capitalists, and you are whiners.
It’s obvious this is only the first of this sort of thing, and to that end, explains why the big backlash. Yes, after this, they’ll be a pause for thought, out of respect for the corporate merge that failed (it didn’t) but then very soon, you will get more. Wait, win, repeat. Free music. In your library. Without you asking. And U2 did it first. Are they innovators or just greedy bastards? Well, everyone is a greedy bastard these days. And while Metallica was against Napster, U2 remains, again, like it or not, on top of trends, and, like Radiohead’s In Rainbows, adapts to, uses and accepts the reality of today’s technology in order to release their music. It makes sense. In the arena of “old guy rock bands” it is only really Metallica that proves themselves completely irrelevant. But I digress.
Admittedly, I’m a huge U2 fan, but an even bigger fan of privacy and of maintaining a society not completely bonkers, so this release has been a tricky one for me to figure out how I feel about it. I want to believe that U2 is still in there somewhere, and there are moments on the album where that’s clear, but mostly this release sees the next chapter shift in music and money swallowing each others’ tails.
So here I am with an incredibly privileged and boring problem: how do I deal with this? How do I add my voice to the chorus of idiots bitching about music appearing on my phone, rather than worrying about, say, melting ice caps. It is because I, like the vast majority, don’t care about most problems and choose instead to spend too much time waxing on the merits and failings of two brands, U2 and Apple getting it on and producing a skinny child that we’d all prefer stayed upstairs while we have guests over.
Artistically speaking, with Songs, U2 have finally, at last for me too, jumped the shark. In fact, they’ve bought the shark. Bono is riding it like a cowboy in a Popmart-style Seaworld extravaganza, not realizing no one is watching and those that are are demanding their money back at the gate, seeing through the flashy production to see a shark imprisoned and recognizing it as cruel business, devoid of beauty. This move is not irrelevant though, it is, in fact, incredibly relevant. This move is unfortunate, and seems evidence of U2’s blind faith in its own purity of intention. This era sees them unhinged in a way we haven’t seen before, perhaps due to this being their first release post manager Paul McGuiness, and I feel it’s safe to say we’re feeling his lack of influence.
I realize that, for most, U2 jumped the shark years ago. I am one of those strange post-Joshua Tree fans that feels they did their best work after The Unforgettable Fire. Boy, War, mean little to me, except as practice leading to Achtung Baby and Zooropa (in which lineage No Line on the Horizon follows). I’m a Wim Wenders U2 fan, a Passengers U2 fan, a Million Dollar Hotel U2 fan. I am a fan of U2’s experimental, produced stuff, often with Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and Flood. Without them, U2 is just a stadium rock band. With them, there’s something clever going on. I mention this to explain that, as a fan of U2’s modern stuff, I should like this current album, as well as admire their way of shoving it on us. I don’t. Not because of the method, but because of the content.
Songs of Innocence is bad. U2 has taken its worst album in, well, maybe ever, and given it the biggest album release ever. Which, again, is not irrelevant. The Shmoo is irrelevant. This car crash of companies attempting to bridge the final gap between art and commerce is hugely relevant, and especially since it’s bad. It marks a failure at some level of its creation, and proves (again), that creation cannot, and should not be monetized, that art cannot be produced for the masses for production’s sake, and the rest of this thought is a massive topic for someone else to write about.
But you know what I mean. It’s a failure at the highest level of the business of tech and rock. You can’t make art for money. Not really. Art must be made for art. It largely comes from passion, and hard work, and belief. Which is what younger people know, and older people forget. Or spend far too much time trying to grasp like they did when they were younger. 20-somethings know about art. What 20-somethings don’t know about is relevancy, and they are the ones leading the chorus of “what is this doing on my phone?”
“Relevancy,” for the sake of this bit of writing, is a too much used word in today’s pop vernacular, pertaining more to what 20-somethings want than to actual relevancy. The two have become confused, either by marketing campaigns or by 20-somethings talking too much. Either way, 20-somethings have no business discussing relevancy. Relevancy, as a thing, demands distance in order to see the context of the thing being analyzed. But 20-somethings are embedded in the thing itself, unable to discern the thing’s outlines yet. The striving for relevancy, so seen in a youth culture working so hard to look the same, is a dangerous goal, and a sad hallmark of our current culture. It is the same as a child dreaming of being famous for famous sake, without any wish for learning or hard knocks along the way: you can’t just be relevant, you can only be relevant in the context of the bigger picture. There’s the old adage that it’s not for the artist to determine relevancy, but for the art to do so outside of the artist. U2, here, is attempting the former. Attempting relevance for rock stars is akin to comedians donning drag to do their “dressed as a woman” movie: it’s obvious, and far as far can be from a funny, artistic, or certainly a relevant, sensibility. It’s shitty art.
Many would argue that U2 have been putting out bad albums for years. Fine, this comes down to taste, though I’ve found, even in their weaker work, that there’s always been, at least, an element of risk, a small amount of experimentation involved. Even the Grammy-winning / hugely disappointing How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb - with name and cover art joining in the awful - was at least an effort to return to loud stadium rock after the intimacy (and amazingness) of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. While there are moments of experimentation on Songs, this is an album attempting to be a pop music concept album and unfortunately, there is no such thing as “concept pop:” there is only bad pop music. Which is what this album is. It’s very clear that Songs is an album attempting to bring U2 to the youth, but, as Blake explained, there is no return to innocence once you have entered experience; any attempts are in vain.
In fact, the whole album is mired in attempts at returning to youth, most of all by the work of bubblegum producers. U2 comes with it’s own set of strengths and weaknesses and demands a seasoned producer to wrestle them down. But here, Danger Mouse comes in, lets U2 do what they want, throws in some beeps and tone, takes the cheque and gets their name on the album. Never, and I mean never, let U2 do what they want. In previous outings, one got the sense that Daniel Lanois had the agility needed to temper U2’s predilection for pretention, holding them at bay, an essential member of the extended band. Often, you could almost hear Brian Eno leaning into the mike: “A little less “Yahweh” this time, Bono” sort of thing. But on Songs, there is no tempering. You can smell the bubblegum in the studio. You check under your shoe to make sure you haven’t stepped in it. You haven’t. They have.
So why am I surprised when a populist band makes a more populist album than they’ve ever made before? Because they didn’t do it well, and even when U2 fails they are committed to it. This doesn’t even feel like they mean it. The Miracle Joey Ramone opens the album, and unlike the openings of Vertigo or Beautiful Day, this one announces, MEH, here’s our plodding album. This might sound good live, but I really ain’t sure. Next comes Every Breaking Wave. This is Kite. And it’s a pretty catchy tune. If any of the tracks from this album make it onto the radio for a bit, it’ll be this one. It has that annoying ‘cling cling cling’ thing of City of Blinding Lights but here they do it better. This is the classic U2 track that sticks in your head after a few listens. It’s so old school U2 I’d hazard they wrote it years ago and it didn’t find a home until here, where it actually seems out of place. Track three, California, is so bad I think they stole it from Katy Perry who knows very well the only thing that’s required in pop genius is to insert the word “California” and you’ll be played at wet t-shirt contests on spring break for summers to come. Or so thinks Danger Mouse. I hope there are 12 year olds coming out from under rocks to bitch about that guy. Next is Song For Someone. Here’s your Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own slow creeper and the second ballad as usual coming in at track 5. Even the lesser of U2’s ballads have some deep emotion in it. Not here. Iris fares better. Again, classic U2. Every word and the chorus (and bracketed) “Hold me close” rolls off Bono’s tongue like he’s been singing it forever. Finally, Edge’s guitar comes to life and that’s good cuz it’s been dead ’til now. Then finally, Volcano. The best song on the album, and what they wanted Get On Your Boots to be. Volcano is also where they succeed in a modern sound and I’m not sure why critics are overlooking this one. It’s the only one that’s catchy, original, and nobody could do this but U2. Next is Raised by Wolves, the classic U2 bridge song that comes between chapters on a U2 album and I like it. It’s odd and it’s new. It doesn’t really go anywhere, but, like Acrobat, that’s okay here. It’s an interesting enough diversion and gives one hope that we’re finally on a hot streak. This is immediately dashed by the next three tracks, all of which are skippable. NEVER have I consistently skipped through three tracks in a row on a U2 album but nothing good or interesting here. Lastly we come to The Troubles. I like Lykke Li and she’s a haunting way to end this album. If Songs of Innocence ends with The Troubles, maybe they really are doing William Blake because innocence contains experience, and ending here leads us to believe we’re heading somewhere else and please Bono, let me be right that the album ends with a sniff of something clever going on. Please.
You can’t go back to the past, and you shouldn’t. The hardship in life is realizing and living the reality that the present is where you exist now. Nothing wrong with an album about reflecting on where we came from, but adding a producer of pop music to ensure the sound is now is not going to achieve that. It’s only going to create a gap between generations and a muddy attempt at artistic relevance that isolates the band from their past and their present and prevents their future. They seem lost in time, neither willing to accept who they are, nor accurately depicting where they came from. Songs of Innocence is indeed innocent, but only in that it’s under thought out, perhaps rushed, which makes sense of much of the confusion over release dates with this one. Maybe it’s still not ready. No Line was great because they were firmly who they are now, today. Early U2 is popular because it’s raw, as only youth can be. At 50, the only thing raw about U2 is the Edge’s vegan diet flown in from L.A. And that’s okay. There is nothing wrong with age; but there is something wrong with denying it.
Songs of Innocence, if nothing else, heralds a new, unfortunate era for U2. The Stones are doing quite well at it, and I suspect U2 will as well. They will continue to release more albums and, fingers crossed, a few better ones. But with this release, I will belong firmly to the middle chapter of their careers, post-Sort of Homecoming, pre-Songs of Innocence. No Line on the Horizon got me excited. It sounded like the beginning of something massive. It was, instead, a grand finale. An era I will miss in the way others miss the younger, innocent U2.
In a final word I’d like to admit that this article, along with all the other noise wrought about this U2/Apple release is, itself, irrelevant. Hell, this article’s way more than 140 characters, and the album came out over a week ago (insert ironic emoticon here). But what is relevant, though it sounds like cliche in this cynical age, is trying. And yes, U2 wants to be more rich than God, but they are trying. You may not like them, and I understand if you don’t, but they are working hard. Failing. And they’ll be back again. With another, here’s that word again, relevant way to promote themselves.
Songs of Innocence makes U2 more relevant than ever, like it or not. They are, again, pioneers, far more than entitled beard kids whining about free music over a pork belly taco. I realize I’m being hard on the youths. I guess I just wish they’d relax a bit. It all seems so uptight to complain from up there on their youth thrones. Come down. Relax a bit. It’s just music. You’re entitled to it, and you’re entitled to judge it. But you don’t say what’s relevant. Context does.