No other contemporary band has been as intellectually satisfying as the Decemberists, and so consistently over so many years. The satisfaction, of course, stems from the feeling so rare of being exactly the target audience. Nothing wrong with being a lowest-common-denominator pop fan, but have you ever experienced a mind-meld of esoteric interest with a complete stranger? Colin Meloy writes for people who want listening to a record to feel similar to submerging into a good book. The Crane Wife, out of all of the albums (Decemberists or otherwise) really provides the satisfaction of a series of well-told stories.
Stardom and success has made many a creative get all meta about the how, the why, and the who for of their work. Where does the successful artist stand, in the world, when they no longer have to define themselves by their struggle to be seen? What kind of symbiosis does the artist develop with the fans who consume his artwork? It is all too, too existential. This kind of self-deprecating angst is exactly Father John Misty’s bread and butter, and he may be a slight bit ironic as he ponders these questions, but also he’ll have you know that these questions do weigh heavy upon his brow. He knows it’s what his fans expect. He’s carved out a place for himself as one of the now-rare ‘serious songwriter’ types whose work invites heavy pondering. He knows, too, that ‘take me seriously’ poetic posturing by rock singers is kind of absurd and just really can’t be taken seriously. Thus, pondering about who is he to be in his place and who we are to have put him there. And so on in an indefinite loop.
It’s been 11 years of writing this blog, and in that time I’ve covered a lot of things. My first post, on November 5th 2008, was a Zap Mama song, followed the next day by Nick Cave’s Abattoir Blues, and Barack Obama’s Presidential acceptance speech. Obviously, it was a very mixed bag right out of the gate. Inevitably, a lot of things have changed; my writing format for the better, the rest of the world for… not so much. If anything has been a running throughline that hasn’t changed, it’s the regular appearance of nearly identical fawning blog posts about Bryan Ferry. It seems that I always have the same damn thoughts when Ferry comes up: he is so dreamy, his hair is beautiful, he is the apex of all men, he makes me want to wander the moors in non-weather-appropriate evening wear, smoking is sexy, tuxedos are sexy, being sad in a castle is sexy, more men should wear tuxedos on a daily basis, why don’t real people make me feel like this? etc. etc. Ferry himself is an artist who found a format he likes and sticks with it like lipstick on a tuxedo lapel. So it’s not like there’s anything new to add. The formula is the formula and it elicits the effects it’s designed to elicit. Bryan Ferry makes me swoon, and I’m never – not in 11 years and not in 1,100 – going to come up with a more perceptive insight than that.
I love how Cat Power reinvented – or rediscovered – the covers album in the mid-2000’s. This is the thing that everybody does now, like a musical version of the trend for vintage fashion. But it seemed very subversive and anti-pop in 2006~2008 era, just as it had when Bowie, Nilsson and Ferry shook the songwriter-as-demigod cult in the early 1970’s. Doing covers is really all about imprinting other people’s material with your own persona. Having said all that, the song that’s making me wax poetic is actually an original composition by Chan Marshall herself, eased in among classics by Dylan and Holiday. What’s great is how well it eases in. It’s the right intimate mood, the right contemplative thoughts. Who is Bobby, in this context, I wonder. Is it Bobby D himself? Or just some vague Bobby who serves as a songwriter’s casual muse? There’s no right answer, of course, but it’s nice to ask the question. Jukebox, in short, is the kind of record that makes one muse about muses.
You’ll either find this epic or exhausting, depending on how much you enjoy the mixological stylings of Fatboy Slim. I think it’s eleven and a half minutes of pure epic. The kind of throw-everything-at-it epic with ambitions of deep import that psychedelic rock bands used to produce because the acid told them they needed to turn the people on, man! It may not sound much like what you’d recognize from your late 60’s “experimental phase” but it’s in the same spiritual wheelhouse. Fatboy Slim wants to uplift you, send you off with a feeling of wellbeing, tune your vibes up, etc. etc. It’s the perfect song for that slow afterglow as you leave that basement acid rave, and the drugs are wearing off and you come out and see the sun rising.
If you’ve read Myla Goldberg’s acclaimed novel Bee Season, you’ll be able to grasp the allusions here. I have not, myself, nor have I seen the movie. So the allusions, for now, escape me. It makes great sense, though, that Colin Meloy, a musician who dabbles in literature, and Goldberg, a novelist who dabbles in music, have a mutual-admiration friendship thing going on. It’s honestly heartwarming. Like a power summit of the most outstanding young-ish intellectuals.
Marianne Faithfull really knows how to find cool people to hang out with her in the studio. Old and young, they all line up for a chance to guest star on one of her records. Everyone wants a touch of that louche glamour. On her cover album Easy Come Easy Go, Faithfull had a neon-name guest on nearly every track. Some of them were trusty old sidekicks like Nick Cave and Keith Richards, some – like Cat Power and Anohni – are spiritual offspring. She’s had a particularly fruitful friendship with Jarvis Cocker over the years. They’ve written some great songs together, and he’s exactly the kind of soulful dandy she would have been in the arms of in her younger days. One thing they share is their conviction that being sad in a cloud of smoke is a high art form. I love hearing the old queen trade mournful sighs with the young acolyte. They chose an old chestnut from West Side Story that’s been handled by everyone from Aretha Franklin to The Pet Shop Boys, and it’s exactly the kind of song that generations of sad sacks have been drawn to for its mix of mournfulness and hope.