The Knife’s music is a distant relation to the electronic music you hear at clubs and bars, in the same way that the frozen ‘breakfast pizza’ you were served in middle school is related to what people eat in Sicily. (Obviously, The Knife’s music is the authentic Sicilian cuisine in this equation.) The Knife evokes a frosty and surreal atmosphere, using such dangerous gimmicks as voice distortion and tinkling reindeer bells. It is, through and through, very Scandinavian, and like Scandinavia itself, not to everyone’s taste. Alienating music is by rights the most interesting music, and by alienating people in swaths artists gain cult-like followings from true believers. With The Knife, Fever Ray and solo projects, Karin Dreijer is definitely one of those artists who serves freshly-chilled weirdness to a small cabal of true believer-type fans. She is not about to become a household name or headline a major festival, but I’m guessing that she has more freedom and satisfaction in her idiosyncratic career than major pop stars may do in theirs.
Guess what day it is? It’s this blog’s 10 year anniversary! If you’ll excuse me I’ll be right over here grappling with a howling space-void of existential dread. But seriously, folks, ten years is a long time to spend writing a blog that nobody reads. It is, simply, an ongoing writing exercise for myself, a daily mental calisthenics practice. It gives my life structure, ok? I think I should come up with something to commemorate, get nostalgic a little bit. I may or may not think of something. In the meantime, here’s some ska music by Tom Tom Club.
Neil Young is notorious – and admired – for doing just exactly what he wants with little concern for how it may land. He’s done some weird and unviable things on his quest to follow his muse no questions asked. There was the string of contract-breaker experimental records he made in the early 80’s, the feedback-heavy hard rock albums with Crazy Horse, and lately, the increasingly all-consuming paranoid railing about Monsanto and other environmental evils. Let’s just say that he’s taken his fans on a bumpy journey over the years. But it’s jams like this one that keep people climbing on board and coming back again; the fluid, versatile musicianship, the plaintive romanticism, the poetic phrasing, the granola idealism. This music is full of soul, the work of a man who loves what he does and writes about what he loves and what he believes. Neil Young really believes in everything he does, even when other people don’t, and that’s what has kept him popular and beloved all through his creative ups and downs.
One thing I didn’t know was that Tom Tom Club was still active in the 2000’s. Of course, why wouldn’t they remain sporadically active over the span of decades? They’re more of an evolving collective than a solid unit, so they can reform and reconvene at will. They’ve been pretty consistent with their nerdy brand of funk, and no matter the decade, there’s still something of an 80’s feeling about it. Not in a contrived nostalgic way. Their music just reminds me of the enthusiasm and free spirit of the 80’s, when world music was exotic and unheard of, hip-hop was brand new and uncommercialized, and electronic beats hadn’t yet calcified into every middle eight of every pop song. It was a more innocent time, I guess.
If you were to predict which rock superstar would make a concept album inspired by the writings of Michel Houellebecq, Iggy Pop would probably not even cross your mind. You also probably were not expecting Iggy Pop to make a jazz-inflected record on which he sings in French. But yet he did just that, and yes, it was one of his weirder moments. You may think that old Iggy has gone soft and pretentious in his sunset years, but his explanation was characteristic; he was “sick of listening to idiot thugs with guitars banging out crappy music”. With his perennial shirtlessness and his habit of rolling around in broken glass, Pop’s hardcore punk credentials are unassailable, but even he has to look askance at the influence he has wrought. For every acolyte who grew up to be David Bowie, there were thousands who grew up to be mindless jerks who think that feedback and nudity are all that it takes to be edgy. But being naked, loud and stupid does not make you an edgy rebel, it just makes you naked, loud and stupid. And Iggy Pop, for his part, was the son of an English teacher and developed his intellectual side from there. Being the godfather of one of the less intellectually rigorous musical genres, he may have kept his interest in French literature to himself, but rest assured he knows more about French literature than most of you numskulls.
What does David Bowie know about the disappointments and frustrations of a mundane life? Probably not much, having escaped from it long ago, but he can empathize. This may a standout from Reality, which I’ve always thought was a very strong album overall. It’s a return to the plastic soul sound he perfected so well in his Young Americans days. It certainly tunnel-visions it back to the days of station wagons with faux-wood paneling on the outside and Soul Train on television. And it imagines the nagging resentment of a life lived on the wrong side of the Hudson River, a life of suburban dreams grown shabby and the paths to escape growing fewer over the years and the repetition of daily life becoming the only experience. That’s a life we all either end up living, or narrowly escape from.
It’s a fair bet that if someone passes by Nick Cave’s window in the first verse, they’ll be dead by the final chorus. In this case nobody dies, though the fruits of summer do wither in the cold of winter, which is a metaphor for the transient and fragile nature of life itself. The lady is fortunate indeed that Nick Cave failed to fall in love with her. She can pick up her dropped glove and go on living. I very much like the imagery in this song, and I notice that although it’s less verbose than Nick Cave usually likes to be, it tells a very full story that’s clearly set in time. The glove dropping etiquette is all that it needs to place it in the Romantic era, when flirtations started and thwarted with the keenest discretion. It was not unreasonably for the Romantic poet to liken a young woman to a withering spring fruit, for her lifespan would likely be far shorter than that of an plum tree. Why love at all, the poet asks, when youth and beauty and life itself is so speedily destroyed?