Does it always look so gray, before the fall?
It’s been a record year for a lot of things, none of them good. Some of us are making peace with saying goodbye to the world as we know it. We may be witnessing the fall of an empire, not from a safe distance – because there is no such thing – but in the front and center of the world’s arena. And yet, as people are wont to do, we go about our lives amidst catastrophes and insist that our lives are meaningful and our feelings are the most important thing at stake at any given time. It is a wonder, maybe a miracle of some sort, that people in a dying world still believe that their love is not like any other love, or even that they still take the time to love at all. (Don’t get me started on people who still think that passing on their genetic material is somehow a good idea.) The world may still end with a bang, which might just be the best we can hope for, but for most of us, it’s going to end with a mournful song. We may be neck deep in record rainfall but we still want to be told that our feelings amount to a hill of beans in this world. And that’s why we have art, ladies and gentlemen.
Lucinda Williams again, this time in a very different mood. After decades of defining herself as a master of sad songs, she finally had a reason to write something happy. Part of Williams’ persona has always been playing the part of the unlucky-in-love woman who always falls for bad men; she has a long roster of friends and lovers who lived hard lives and died young. In 2008, when Little Honey was being recorded, she had finally found someone who was a keeper. In 2009 she married her record producer live on stage during a show. Her music has been noticeably less bleak ever since. After all that, you really want to root for her – she’s someone who’s paid her dues and earned her success through years of hard work and obscurity. It’s heartwarming to hear her sing something so full of real joy.
CSS is definitely one of the groups of the decade, or even the past two. (I feel so old typing those words!) They never became a household name, which is alright, and they’re past being indie darlings, which is alright too. The best artists don’t aim to sell to millions, and they don’t aim to please fickleness of It-hunters. The best artists aim to please themselves and their fans, and there’s no better legacy than a body of work that people actually go on enjoying. I enjoy CSS as much as I did when I first discovered them. Someday I may have to admit that there’s an element of nostalgia to that, but I’m not that old yet. We’re together through life, the artist and the fan.
If you haven’t heard of or don’t remember Cat Power, just note that today’s music scene owes her a lot. Seventeen years ago she pretty much singlehandedly started the trend of feminizing manly rock songs, thus paving the way for acts like Nouvelle Vague and everybody and their dog’s covers album. In 2000 a girl with a breathy voice covering (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction – without the chorus! Sacrebleu! – was both a novelty and a sacrilege. Now every cock rock anthem is ripe to be reinterpreted as a female lament. Personally, I love this trend. This is one trend I can get behind. Obviously, that’s partly because I love unexpected covers. Every sacred cow needs to be seen with fresh eyes (so to speak) every once in a while, even if the results aren’t necessarily spectacular. I also love that women’s perspectives have come to the forefront in pop music, and co-opting classic male tropes is a particularly cheeky aspect of that movement. Cat Power isn’t about to make me set aside my feelings for The Rolling Stones, and she isn’t going to make anyone forget Hank Williams either. That isn’t the point. The point of these covers is twofold. First of all, these tropes are as old as time; Hank Williams didn’t invent the idea of the rambling man, the rambling man has been a character in the popular imagination for centuries before Hank Williams came along. These tropes are tired because they’ve been repeated over and over by same kinds of people – men in cowboy hats, men with electric guitars, men with mandolins, angry young men with long hair – turning themselves and their stories into cliches. But the second part of what makes a smart cover relevant is the reminder that these tropes that we’re so used to are bigger than the artists that perform them. Underneath the cliches are stories and ideas that have hung on because they’re universal. They don’t have to be told by men in cowboy hats, they can be told by anyone. Is the cover as good or as important as the original? No, and it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes removing the specificity of expected context is necessary to make a piece of art fresh again, to remind us why it’s art and why we cared about it in the first place.
You turn to the Decemberists, like you turn to a midcentury novel, for reminders of the near-forgotten; words and concepts like ‘spinster’, ‘always the bridesmaid’, even ‘raincoat’. Literature and music have always been better at recording history than history itself, in the biased hands of historians, ever has. We look back at the last stretch of living memory, and its memorabilia, and witness society steadily lurching itself out of the dark ages. Here it stands, a bit battered, unsteady on its feet, still coated with the filth of history, but at we’re slouching forward, at least. Nobody says spinster anymore, but unmarried women are still treated like apples rotting under the tree. We can toss our raincoats aside and blithely not own an umbrella, because we’re children of science who don’t remember that a sniffle and a cough used to foreshadow a visit from the grim reaper. Sometimes it seems that the only reason we remember history at all is because it still clings to our language.
Mmmm, talk about sorely missed. Watch Amie Duffy get her Roxie Hart on. So glamorous, so retro! Well, apparently, Duffy is not one of those people who enjoy strutting around with no pants on, and getting sucked into the fame machine just about gave her a nervous breakdown. Which is why she isn’t recording anymore. Getting the short end in comparisons to Amy Winehouse hurts an artist, and getting groomed to look like somebody’s retrograde idea of a sex kitten hurts a woman. Those were not things that Duffy wanted for herself, and I hope that someday she’ll find the motivation to come back with an image more to her own liking. Even if not, she made enough of an impact with what she did do. If I had to compare her to anyone, it would be Nancy Sinatra, who looked doe-eyed as a baby doll and sang about vindictive self-empowerment.
This sounds like a ramshackle bar band drunkenly signing off an hour after last call. Complete with a ‘goodnight’ at the end. That’s exactly the point of The Raconteurs, and all part of Jack White’s vision of highly contrived authenticity. That’s not a knock; few people follow their vision as wholeheartedly as Jack White does. But bending the world to your vision is, of course, a contrivance, and Jack White is not an old troubadour crossing county lines in a painted wagon. He’s facing, like many before him, the conundrum of how authentic an artist he can be now that he’s a millionaire entrepreneur. Nine years ago that wasn’t as much of a pressing question, though. Nine years ago it was all “Let’s throw together a band and dress like we deserted the Confederate army and play a bunch of shows until we make our fingers bleed and/or get bored and move on to the next fun project!”