Here is a surreal spectacle; it’s not all the time that you see a string quartet play by strobe lights. But this is Bjork, and in her world there’s no reason for strings and pulsing drums not to come together. In Bjork’s world the avant-garde plays with the punk rock. Why should those worlds be at odds? Nobody pulls together disparate cultural highs, lows, and obscurities like Bjork does. She’s created an insane number of iconic images and sounds, and even though she’s one of the definitive artists of the decade, she’s somehow managed to escape being a figure of 90’s nostalgia. Maybe because her work may have made waves in its time, but its not a product of its time. What Bjork does is a product of Bjork’s brain, and she can and will be just as singular in any given decade.
Many a singer has played the miserable wench Pirate Jenny, the prostitute who fantasizes bloody revenge upon her clientele. She’s been a figure in the public imagination since the early 1700’s, so she’s been around. The original, real-life Jenny Diver was well known gang leader and thief whose exploits included picking pockets at parties whilst wearing a false set of arms, being twice deported to America and bribing her way back to London, and, eventually, execution at the age of 41. She was still very much alive and active when John Gay made her a character in The Beggar’s Opera in 1728. That early template of musical theater proved surprisingly enduring, and Jenny’s immortality was assured. In 1928 Kurt Weill rewrote the play as The Threepenny Opera, composing brand new songs but keeping the story and characters. Weill’s songs have become popular standards, with Pirate Jenny being a particular favorite of singers with a taste for tragic glamour. It’s a song that every self-respecting interpretive singer tries their hand at, with various degrees of success. Judy Collins and Maddy Prior have tried, but it’s not a song for pretty-voiced singers. Lotte Lenya and Nina Simone’s versions are among the best known and the best, but for me, Marianne Faithfull’s is the ultimate. Nobody else has a comparable voice, rasping and angry and weary from a lifetime of abuse. Because it takes a real lifetime of hard living to bring to life a woman whose lot hasn’t changed much in 300 years.
Yes, I think it’s well understood. But you can always turn to Nick Cave for reminders of just how deeply no good people can be. Shockingly enough, this one is merely an ode to a marriage that failed to weather the passing of the years. Cave usually depicts humanity’s lack of goodness in swathes of blood, but no murder here. People, even the decent, just ain’t no good despite their best intentions, just because goodness is too much to expect. It’s out of reach, beyond our capacity, though we may try and even come close sometimes. Which is, when you think of it, even more depressing. The occasional bloodthirsty maniac may frighten us from afar, but most people never experience mayhem. Every person experiences everyday insufficient goodness, though; the disappointment that builds up over the years, the love that turns out to be as transient as the seasons, the good intentions that never really connect, our own dark hearts.
Boy, I haven’t listened to or thought about Built to Spill in a while. Like, not in years. I guess they’re not very active anymore, though I know there was a low key new album last year and a tour. It’s hard to maintain a profile for a 90’s band that was never popular enough to come back on the nostalgia circuit, I suppose. It still boggles my mind that there would be a nostalgia circuit for 90’s bands, but I guess I’d better get used to thinking about the music of my lifetime in a broader historical context (and face getting old.) Anyhow, in a broader historical context, Built to Spill made three moderately essential albums between 1997 and 2001, putting them at the forefront of the indie rock movement that dominated the 2000’s. So give these guys credit for doing their part in making popular music not suck in the new millennium.
Duran Duran won’t be around forever, but in the meantime, they’re still around and they haven’t changed much. 1987, 1997, 2017 probably. Honestly, if you’re not a die hard, you can skip pretty much skip the 90’s; the 90’s were for 80’s music what the 80’s were for 60’s music. That is, everyone was left scrambling to stay relevant, experimenting with ill-advised trends and wondering where the hordes of screaming teens disappeared to. (Blockheads, they grew up!) So it was that Duran Duran experienced poor sales, bad reviews, lineup changes, record label drama, the indignity of trying to find more with-it hairstyles. I still enjoy their work from the time, though, obviously, not as much as their classic work or their most recent. Frankly, my main thing to point to with this track is the video; it’s very very intensely 1997 high-fashion. Clearly someone was paying close attention to the runways (that someone was Simon Le Bon, husband of Yasmin) and saturated themselves in the heady post-new-romantic-new-romantic aesthetics of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. I also think that it’s a great aesthetic for Duran Duran and it suits them really well and it’s really too bad that they were at their least relevant at that point and nobody rewarded them for looking so good. Late 90’s fashion is dear to my heart! Bear with me.
In the mixed bag of late career Rolling Stones, this is a highlight. It has a sexy midtempo groove, great vocals and harmonica from Mick Jagger, and just the right amount of sleaze. The Stones have worn the grooves of their cock rock anthems into ruts, as critics are fond of reminding us. But between those ruts has been an undercurrent of existential angst. Mick Jagger isn’t entirely without self-awareness, though he may wear his persona like armour most of the time. Sometimes he does grapple with not being what he used to be. He’ll never be on the skids, but imagines himself – sometimes – as a faded, sleazy old man. It’s been a big theme in the later years, and maybe if he wasn’t yoked into this economically rewarding marriage of convenience, he would explore it more deeply.
These guys, who have not been heard from in forever. Disappeared forever back into the cornfields from whence they came? Or just resumed normal life under their real names? Either way, I’ll always love Ween for being the musical bastion of weirdness for the entire bleak 90’s. I didn’t actually discover them until well past their heyday, but it’s nice to know they kept the freak flag up for more plugged in members of my generation. Who else could have made a psychedelic maritime concept album? In 1997, just when the world needed it most, too. They really filled a need that didn’t have a name.