Bob Dylan pays tribute to his dearly departed friend John. Lennon, that is. It’s a moving ode, and an honor, one legend to another. Why Dylan felt compelled to light this particular candle in 2012, as opposed to, like, 1981 is unclear. Maybe the pain was too great. Maybe thirty-odd years is just how long he needed to be able to articulate something. Maybe to have written a song any closer to the fact would have felt wrong, trashy, opportunistic. Maybe it’s not helpful or kind to react to a friend’s tragedy by going all ‘great American songwriter’ about it right away. John Lennon, of all people, never needed to have “Eulogized by Bob Dylan” added to the end of his obituary. It certainly wouldn’t have burnished his star any brighter. So maybe it’s just out of respect that Dylan held back his eulogy a few decades. Either way, it’s a touching gesture. Why he chose to sing it in extra-emphysemic mode is another question, especially since he’s been on a standards-album kick lately and he can still croon like it’s Lay Lady Lay all over again. Oh, well, Bob Dylan moves in gnomic ways.
Now it’s time to revisit one of my favorite one-off supergroups. I haven’t listened to Superheavy in a while, but it’s a record I’m always happy to pull out. Yeah, I actually went and ordered the LP, I liked it so much. I know you’re thinking “she’ll just pay for anything Mick Jagger does, even when it’s crap” and that’s definitely true. I also think that Superheavy is probably the best think Jagger has done in years, and almost certainly the best thing he’s done outside of his day job. But also, this record fills a need besides the need to be a Rolling Stones completist. There really aren’t that many albums that incorporate so much musical diversity all in one place. This is really one supergroup where each member brought their best stuff to the forefront and you can hear and feel each of their contributions. It’s not just “The Mick Jagger and a bunch of other people Show.” It’s five very different musicians working together as equals.
This Decemberists songs isn’t referencing Greek mythology or English literature or 1970’s folk music. It isn’t referencing any cultural artifacts at all. Its inspiration is much closer to home than all that. Colin Meloy wrote the song for his son Henry, who was about five years old at the time and diagnosed with autism. Meloy is hardly the first person to write about the fears and struggles of raising a child, but the difficulty of raising one whose brain works so differently lends it added pathos. Parenting can be a source of existential angst, I’ve been told, unique from the usual day to day angst of just living. Which could also be a source of creative inspiration, if children weren’t so damn labor-intensive and distracting. That’s probably not why the pool of pop songs inspired by children is relatively small (writers of pop songs can afford childcare, usually.) It’s just that nobody wants to hear a pop song about being responsible and sleep-deprived from constant worry; those things are most people’s daily reality. We want our pop stars to be sleep-deprived from cocaine binges and consequence-free sex.
Here’s a beautiful Irish folk song by Irish folk revival band Clannad, sung in Irish Gaelic. I literally have not an inkling what it’s about. Gaelic is interesting because it’s almost completely unrelated to English, despite being right next door geographically. It’s not even in the wheelhouse of Germanic languages. For a non-speaker, there’s no shared roots or common vocabulary that would allow them to understand at least a basic gist. English speakers can’t even grasp the phonetics. Which explains a lot about why the English were so eager to wipe out Irish language and culture; it’s much harder to colonize your neighbors when you can’t eavesdrop on their conversations. They failed, of course.
What reggae music really needed in 1982 was more vocoder. So thought the members of Black Uhuru, and it turned out they were right. Black Uhuru really took roots reggae into the 80’s and kept it relevant and stayed abreast of new technology, pretty much singlehandedly. They dabbled with synthesizers and electronic effects and studio trickery, vocoders included – just enough to sound timely, but not so much as to lose their sense of rootedness. It sounds like island music, and it recognizably like 80’s music. That’s a tough balance to strike, but Black Uhuru had an amazing run of classic albums throughout the decade and all the way into the 90’s.
Rihanna, EDM queen. Frankly, it’s a pretty generic EDM song; with any other vocalist on duty, you couldn’t pick it out of a playlist. But it’s Rihanna, and when she says we’d better live up while we still have time, she sounds like she means it. That’s a generic-as-fuck platitude, designed to get you bellied-up to the bar for shots, all primed and ready to get out there and make some bad decisions. But, again, it’s Rihanna, and she makes bad-decision-making behavior look like good-decision-making. And face it, you’re never gonna be this young again, so get the fuck out there and do something stupid.
“We’re all backseat drivers, and there’s nobody at the wheel”
Yeah, that a pretty good summation of the religious experience. (And a good example of Pat MacDonald’s observational songwriting.) Religion continues being an opiate for the masses because large numbers of people really need stringent rules for how to live their lives, but it’s just people telling people what to do, and that opens up the door for all kinds of abuse of power. When you’re in the business of telling people how to live, it’s awfully easy to benefit yourself. That happens on every level, of course, but it’s particularly sleazy when it happens with some street preacher in an Elvis suit who insists that Jesus wants you to write out a check. And people do, because people are fucking sad and gullible.