You’ve got to hand it to Paul Simon. Just, hand it to him. On every level. He’s pretty amazing for an old guy. Which might sound glib, but he’s one of a very few artists whose late-life work has entered the play rotation, with no caveats, right alongside the early stuff. In fact, I’ve been listening to his post-2000’s material more than the 70’s albums. Graceland will remain an undisputed masterpiece, but I’ve always felt that the post-Garfunkel years kind of sagged a little. Sure, there were hits, a lot of hits, really great hits. But it felt like Simon needed time to really find a strong voice as a solo artist. And he’s found it as an old geezer, which suits him just fine. Someone needs to meditate on age and mortality, and Paul Simon’s the guy to do it. This song may not be about Paul Simon facing the idea of death, but it’s totally about facing the idea of death. It’s about passing peacefully and with grace to a better state of being. Maybe it’s not meant to literally evoke Christian heaven, though Christian-heaven-believers will surely find it evocative, but it’s certainly about finding peace and grace, if only in the sense of leaving petty concerns to the young and learning not to worry so damn much. I imagine that somebody, somewhere has already asked for this to be played at their funeral.
And here we pause to briefly wax nostalgic about early 2000’s indie rock. I have to do this sometimes because I’m in my 30’s. Wow, I remember really liking the first New Amsterdams album. For, like, a few months in 2006. (Never You Mind was released in 2000, but never you mind.) I didn’t realize that 1) The New Amsterdams aren’t really a real band, they’re a side project of The Get Up Kids, who are ok but not a personal favorite; 2) I would rarely ever listen to The New Amsterdams again, except in isolated moments when I’m remembering the summer of 2006; and 3) I don’t even particularly care for this particular style of indie rock in the first place. I was actually encouraged to buy this record by someone who thought I would like it because I like Built to Spill. They were on point with their suggestion. If you like unpretentious regular-dude indie rock, this is a record you will enjoy. I also really like their album Story Like a Scar, which actually came out in 2005 and was also in heavy rotation in the summer of ’06. It’s good chill driving music, which I know because I took a lot of long road trips during that phase of my life. Let me get a few more birthdays under my belt and I’ll start compiling decades-of-my-life playlists, and this will be on one of them.
One of the greatest musical artists in the German speaking world pays homage to one of the worst. The question is, why? Cultural solidarity of some sort, I presume. Nina Hagen and Falco couldn’t have been more different. She tore apart the fabric of musical convention as part of the underground punk scene; he was known for a handful of novelty rap songs. I’m sure you’re familiar with the famous hit Rock Me Amadeus. If not, just know that it is a song of such excruciating badness you can’t help but love it. Really though, Falco’s music was so, so, so, sosososo sooooo sooooooooooooo objectively bad. I mean, this guy was the German Vanilla Ice. He was also the most successful musician to come out of Austria since Amadeus himself. Inexplicably enough, the world really wanted to hear what europop would sound like with more rapping. Why does Nina Hagen, one of the godmothers of punk, see this man as a kindred spirit? We’ll never truly know, because Falco is dead and Nina Hagen is insane. No really, Prima Nina is batshit insane, which is, of course, a large part of her brilliance. Hagen is one of those people for whom aggressive weirdness is not an affectation but a way of life. She has to be weird because otherwise she would explode. It doesn’t help her harness her immense talents towards anything approaching marketable appeal, but it’s made her a cult icon to fans whose alienation is too deep to be salved with what’s readily available. Nina Hagen will probably never follow former fellow outsiders like The Smiths and David Bowie from well-kept secret to Hot Topic sales rack, and that’s ok. She doesn’t want that, and her fans don’t want that. Let the weirdness remain undiluted. So what if a lot of what she writes about makes no sense. She writes from the heart, no doubts about it. If she wants to write a send-off for the soul of a shitty half-forgotten pop-rapper who drove into the side of a bus while high on cocaine, that’s her grace. If Nina Hagen thinks Falco’s soul is worth blessing, that doesn’t elevate his legacy, but maybe we should consider that being an artist is in itself elevating, even if the art is dreck.
Paul Simon is in the middle of a late in life revival. He’s enjoying a string of acclaimed and well selling albums, ever since You’re the One marked his comeback in 2000. He’s proof than when your career isn’t based on cockstrutting, the perspective of well earned wisdom can be one hell of a lot more interesting than than of growing pains. It’s also worth noting that Paul Simon, unlike nearly every single one of his contemporaries, never really had a low point. His career low was one flopped musical in the 90’s. He had his partnership with Garfunkel in the 60’s, established himself as a solo artist in the 70’s, and he did some of his most successful and important work in the 80’s. The failure of his Capeman project was a rare humiliation, but he bounced back from it quickly enough. Simon has been as consistent throughout the decades as any artist, which is remarkable, given that most artists have been granted a full decade or two of sucking to balance out their highs.
And now, your daily Three Minutes of Alienation, courtesy of Modest Mouse. Alienation can then slide into petulance. I don’t give a damn about you or this town, either, so there. It’s not something we ever grow out of, either, though petulant angst is most often associated with adolescence. I mean, I’m a lot more mature than I was when I first listened to this record, but I still feel the same things about it. Namely, at last here is a voice I can relate to as a brainy person with a lot of words who thrives on being frustrated with the alien landscape around me. Here, at last, is a record that’s not about the usual dumb shit. That was, let me remind you, nearly 17 years ago, but the usual dumb shit is still the norm, and Modest Mouse still provides that rare reprieve from it. Of course, a great many great people have been content to write boy-meets-girl songs for year after year, and what’s wrong with that? But it’s also nice to put on a record where the singer’s love life isn’t the topic of conversation, but his intellectual life very much is.
“Laugh hard, it’s a long ways to the bank.” – the words of a man making his first major label record. Sounds like Isaac Brock had some ambivalent feelings about impending success, but that didn’t stop Modest Mouse making the journey from indie-darling to almost-mainstream. According to my non-scientific field research, The Moon & Antarctica is very nearly everyone’s favorite Modest Mouse record, or certainly one of everyone’s favorites, however you want to parse the data. For a lot of us who didn’t have easy access to the independent-music scene, it was our first Modest Mouse record, so you see, the financial/promotional muscle of a major label still has its uses in this world. That was 16 years ago – if you wanna suddenly feel very old – and the beginning of a run of really great albums that defined the decade.
In the year 2000, Daft Punk predicted that robots would be the new pop stars. And it has come to pass. Today, everybody’s a robot. Well, not exactly, but close. Daft Punk were far from being the first musicians to play with the concept of the mensch-machine (Wie gehts, Kraftwerk?!) but they and their robot heads came along just when that conversation was becoming increasingly relevant. The question of authenticity in popular music never really goes away, but it’s usually centered on matters of street cred and emotional sincerity. Daft Punk half-jokingly asked the question, are humans even necessary? At the time, they got some critical backlash for their heavy handed use of Auto-Tune, their unabashed existence on the digital plane, their anonymous posturing. Now, of course, Auto-Tune is de rigueur, everything is digital, personality is optional, and the role of human skills in the production of hit pop music seems to be phasing out. Or, that’s the cynical answer. Just because many pop stars appear to be made of latex and silicone doesn’t mean humans are obsolete. Daft Punk”s answer to their own question has always been, no, humans are not obsolete, they’re just more enhanced now. Music and art are made possible by human emotions. Auto-Tune is just another tool in the artist’s bag, no more controversial that the synthesizer, the mixing board, the microphone, or banging two rocks together.