Elton John has delivered decades’ worth of moving and dramatic performances, but this has to be the most moving. It is also, of course, one of the most personal. It recounts a particularly low point in John’s life, when he contemplated giving up his struggling music career for a sham marriage to a wealthy young lady, and felt so trapped and hopeless in his situation that he attempted suicide. The thwarted suicide may have been more of a cry for attention than a serious attempt to end his life – he turned on the gas oven and opened the kitchen window – but the angst was surely real. It would be many more years before Elton John finally fully freed himself from the half-assed pretense of straightness, but at least he realized that a life of phony bourgeoisie would never be his path. He listened to his friends, did the right thing, ended the engagement, kept on playing music and no doubt felt a lot better about himself. The memories of those low days, however, yielded some of his very best work.
Political commentary was never David Bowie’s wheelhouse, and when he goes there it tends to feel half-baked. Here, he’s into some loose concept of the manifest destiny of charismatic leaders, who are not dissimilar from rock stars in their larger-than-life appearance. It was a theme he was about to get into more deeply, having read a few too many books about the rise of fascism, before realizing that it’s not a fun or a healthy fascination, especially for a mentally unstable person. I’ve always thought that, lyrically at least, this was the weakest track from Young Americans. On the other hand, though, it’s the one that comes closest to capturing some real soul, as opposed to the plastic kind. That’s thanks, of course, to the vocal support of the then-obscure Luther Vandross, who completely oversteps his position as a backup singer to outshine his boss.
A lot of weird things flourished in the 70’s: communes, fondue, key parties, Queen. It was like a brief window when society decided that rules didn’t matter anymore and anybody could just wig out and do whatever they wanted. Out of all the things that got popular despite being bizarre, Queen was probably among the most weird. I mean, what even were they? They were a guitar band who sang like a barbershop quartet and liked the opera. I think now we just take it for granted that Queen is a cultural treasure and everybody knows their music, and now that they have a movie about them, it’s easy to see them as a tidy Hollywood narrative arc of inevitable and well-deserved success. But really, what a weird fluke that these weird guys became rock stars. It was hardly an inevitable triumph that they caught the breaks they did, and that audiences sparked to it. And I can hardly imagine any cultural moment besides the narrow window of glam rock’s popularity that would allow a man like Freddie Mercury to rise up and become a sensation. It was his luck and all of ours that he didn’t end up being a weird and lonely old man running a tea house somewhere in India like he could have.
Morrissey has finally released a covers album, long awaited by no one but me. In typical aggravating fashion the controversy overshadowed the music. Did he or didn’t he surreptitiously show his support for a right-wing political candidate on late night TV? I don’t know anything about the nuances of British politics and I don’t particularly care; lots of celebrities have supported shitty candidates and/or blurted out ignorant opinions and it doesn’t stop them selling records. Morrissey’s record probably would have earned better reviews without the reminder that he’s a twat in real life, but it sold well anyway. And frankly, I loved it. Morrissey may be a twat but he’s still one of our most inimitable vocal talents, and it’s great to hear him apply himself to something besides his own writing. The problem with Morrissey’s writing is that it hasn’t changed much since the 80’s and he still fundamentally sees himself as a set-upon loser with an achy-breaky heart, which was endearing in a frail youth but less so coming from a successful older man. There’s only so much you can feel sorry for yourself when you’ve been at the top of your profession for decades. One thing he does still have going for him, which I think is an underrated aspect of the Morrissey persona, is his knack for high camp. Morrissey has the camp instincts of a cabaret queen. It’s always been a part of his work, but it’s become more pronounced with age. You could say that his recent string of albums have been leaning into self-parody, and sometimes it’s unclear if that’s intentional. Here, with the writing clearly removed from the man, it’s very much intentional. I think this might be Morrissey’s gayest album yet.
Brian Eno’s mid-70’s pop albums – before he went off into ambient noodle land – rank high in the roster of records that serve any mood. The atmospheric tone of his song-songs offers of glimpse of the path he would later explore with his non-song compositions. But there’s also a diversity of moods and tempos that keep those records from becoming too snoozy. Of course, Eno became interested in exploring the concept of snooziness itself, which is what led him to compose all those albums for looking up at the moon or floating in a boat or airports or whatever. I like the records with songs and vocals, and I also like it when music enhances the ambiance of my environment (as opposed to overwhelming it.)
“Because we couldn’t remember their bloody names” Keith Richards famously joked about the title of the record, and if the double-down of sordid groupie cliches in the lyrics felt somewhat like a desperate attempt by the Stones to be demonized as rock’s worst bad boys once again, well, it worked. They pissed off the women and they pissed off Jesse Jackson. Then they pulled the old “but it’s satire!” card. In 1978, apparently, you could still confidently claim that the freedom to be racist and sexist – purely as an artistic statement, of course – was an act of sticking-it-to-the-man nonconformity. You can’t take that position anymore, of course, but the mindset persisted right up until, oh, about yesterday, it feels like. It’s exhausting, and not necessarily helpful, to go on debating whether or not some piece of art is qualified satire, a cry for attention, or the unexamined product of a sick mind. I would say that if anything, it’s a work of cultural anthropology by somebody who’s done their due diligence and their research, plowing women from all walks of life all over the world. If Mick Jagger says that black girls just wanna get fucked all night, he would know.
Brian Eno remains the undisputed master of ambient and cinematic soundscapes, despite many people’s attempts to compete with him. Eno’s genius was to bring a pop sensibility to instrumental music; and to write pop with a composer’s ear. Obviously, it was pioneering and unusual for a member of a rock band – even one as strange and unusual as Roxy Music – to cross party lines and dabble in long-form composition. It was the pop songwriter’s insight that fully realized instrumental compositions could, like pop songs, be very short. So it turns out that one of Eno’s best known works is also one of the shortest: The Windows ’95 startup sound.