With Nina Hagen, it’s sometimes necessary to suspend critical thinking, and it’s nearly always necessary to suspend expectations. Doing the first can be difficult, because the singer is so frequently full of shit. Ideologically, she’s basically the worst kind of New Age; full of appropriated spiritual bromides, half-understood cosmology, and misdirected tirades against “the Man”; the kind of science-denying, Krishna-will-make-it-better crackpot who makes drinking chamomile look bad. On the other hand, though, she’s a visionary musician, author of a bizarre aesthetic so far ahead of its time that she still hasn’t fully gotten her due. The things she does with her voice! Nina Hagen has a vocal range so broad it defies the usual definition of range. She has the voice of a cartoon character, and an image to match, except there’s nothing cute or approachable about her at all. She’s terrifying, though she claims that she’s full of nothing but cosmic love. She really occupies her own universe, and has to be appreciated on her own terms, because coming at her any other way just doesn’t work.
To retox is when you wake up in the morning and immediately start drinking to ward off a hangover. I just made that up. We already have a word for when you do that. I think what we have here is a kind of a spiritual retoxification, as in when you get pumped up to go party. It’s strange to think that the world is so old that we actually have classic EDM now, just as it used to be weird when ‘classic rock’ became a thing. This is like, your dad’s EDM, from the old days. Fatboy Slim is a grandee now, he’s middle aged and all awash in laurels. I’m waiting for some wit to make a Bob Seeger-sampling remix of Give Me That Old Time EDM. No, really, I want to hear that. Anyway, this here is some primo classic big beat music, coming out of the year 2000, which puts it on the downward side of the big beat trend, when electronica ceded ground back to guitar rock for a short period of time. If you’re the type who favors guitar music, all those words sound like gibberish, and they kind of are; electronic music subgenres all sound the same, as is the nature of all hyperspecific subgenres. This is what trendy electronic music sounded like in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, and it doesn’t even sound that dated. I mean you can definitely timestamp it for what it is, if you’re familiar with what the trends have been, but not so much that it makes you groan. I honestly have no idea how I came to know so much about ED subgenres; I sure as hell wasn’t listening to this stuff when it first came out. I guess it’s kind of an acquired taste.
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.