Janelle Monáe: Dirty Computer (2018) – Album Review


She’s done all the right things – got rid of the orchestral suites and 20 minutes of filler that bogged down her last two albums, written brighter and catchier songs, and relegated most of the sci-fi silliness to the accompanying “emotion picture”. So ignore all the guff about this being a portrait of our times etc.; I count only one line that has real contemporary relevance (“if you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy bite you back”). The rest is the same generalised dystopian territory about The Other (in her case an android) being victimised and brutalised by a futuristic society that she’s been mining since the beginning of her career. So generalised are the thematics that it could be applied to just about any era, where certain groups of people have always been subjugated – which is, I’m sure, the intention, to make this shit seem universal.

But though she’s no Margaret Atwood, George Orwell or Fritz Lang, I of course fully endorse and get behind the “love in queer spaces” schtick that she celebrates as an alternative to societal (usually white, male, heterosexual) oppression – now or in the vague future. I love that she’s had the confidence to come out as pansexual recently, and I love the reclamation of the colour “Pynk” from cock-rockers Aerosmith with such crafty lines as: “Pynk like the tongue that goes down, maybe… Pynk like the folds of your brain, crazy”. The video builds on that great idea of female self-identification as both lustful and intellectual, taking equal pride in both, with witty fashion choices that need to be seen to be believed. And when her vagina takes a monologue in the confidently rapped “Django Jane”, you know that this album is feminism done right – funny, bold, outrageous, and with just the right level of defiance to patriarchal norms (a high level of defiance).

So it’s easy to be in awe of this album – yet, unfortunately, it’s not as consistently brilliant as I’d expect a great one to be. There are some dud moments towards the end, particularly the 6-minute slog “Don’t Judge Me”, which kills the jubilant vibes of the previous 5 tracks with a slow march to nowhere, and the subpar “So Afraid”, which is only redeemed by the “Let’s Go Crazy”-inspired mission statement of the final track that follows it, “Americans”.

Yep, as has been widely reported Prince is all over this album, which makes sense as he was reportedly working on it with Monáe before he died. He’s there thematically in the “party like it’s the end of the world” track “Crazy, Classic, Life”, and he’s musically everywhere. From the stylistic voraciousness to the pop-funk-rock fusion at its heart, his influence is clearly felt, but particularly and most unavoidably on the “Kiss” ripoff “Make Me Feel”.

I say “ripoff” in the kindest possible way – I adore “Make Me Feel”, it’s easily my favourite song of the year so far, and it’s been in my head for days. Yet, ironically given the theme of the album, it’s a virtual clone of that Prince classic, from its stop-start syncopation right down to the bare bones of its spare funk. I like to see it as a homage, and a great one – Prince is my second favourite artist of all time (after The Beatles) and I sincerely wish more singers would follow his superb blueprint. And it’s an added bonus that my favourite song of the year also contains my favourite line: “powerful with a little bit of tender” is a phrase that has also been in my head for days, a perfect description of falling in love. Just perfect.

There are enough pop hooks and exciting rhythmic touches to keep the rest of the album close to that high level of artistry, although after multiple replays the infectiousness of “Take a Byte” and “Screwed” has faded for this listener. I think Monáe has some work to do to match the consistency of her greatest idol, The Purple One. But this is definitely a significant step in the right direction.



Ashley Monroe: Sparrow (2018) – Album Review


The artistic dominance of country gals continues. As Ashley Monroe’s vocals flutter above the strings and piano that adorn this album, I’m reminded that hers is perhaps the prettiest voice of all the great country women to emerge this century.

And perhaps that’s why, of all the Pistol Annies, she means the least to me. I’ve always preferred grit and character to prettiness, which is why I’ll always prefer Angaleena Presley and particularly Miranda Lambert to Monroe.

Yet, luckily, just like all of the other Pistol Annies, she’s got a hell of a way with words, which rescues her from floating away into the realm of mildly pleasant background music (like Kacey Musgraves’ overpraised Golden Hour). “Orphan” starts the album off with a touching question: “How does a sparrow know more than I?/When its mother is gone, it learns how to fly/With no direction, its wings in the wind/How does a bird know more than I?” It conjures up an orphaned child’s experience of hopelessness with an innocence that is made all the more poignant with the chorus’ “How do I make it alone?” Monroe lost her father to cancer at the age of 13, so it’s hard not to read this as autobiography. Not all of the other songs can be categorised so neatly.

But then, in a conceptual coup, she later on talks directly to her father, as a successful young woman who, like the sparrow she observed as a child, has learnt to fly: “Daddy I told you I was gonna fly/I’d get out of that town alive” she coos to him on the gorgeous “Daddy I Told You”. And then she flies even further in his direction on the last track, “Keys to the Kingdom”, where she joins him in heaven, and they are reunited as Elvis sings them a country tune or two.

And indeed, Elvis was partly the inspiration for the musical concept of this album, with his latter-period strings-dominated country phase all over Sparrow. Monroe decided to ditch long-time producer Vince Gill to work with Nashville’s eminent Dave Cobb, and together they create a mostly successful hybrid of country and classical embellishments. Sometimes it slips over into mawkishness and becomes a kind of ersatz muzak as opposed to country, which bothers me. But mostly the restraint of the musical touches makes it work. The strings rarely overpower Monroe, which is crucial because the lyrics are so important.

Intense therapy sessions apparently resulted in this album’s creation. It was worth it.



Cardi B: Invasion of Privacy (2018) – Album Review


Bronx stripper to Instagram celebrity to reality TV star to (the only one I care about) rap star – ain’t the usual route. But then, what is? I admire Cardi B’s guts, strength, and perseverance in this mean old world, what she calls her rags-to-riches “Binderella” story, even if she was once Bloods-affiliated. And I admire her music even more. Cardi has a dramatic, forceful, and resilient flow reminiscent of Nicki Minaj, if not quite as inventive, and her rhyming skills are impressive and inherently musical in the way they bend vowels and consonants to meet her huge, ego-driven will. “Bodak Yellow” became a number one smash last year off the back of her delivery alone, and deserved it. But it’s just one of many such highlights on Invasion of Privacy, which is fun pretty much top to bottom, with the only exceptions being a couple of slower ones that fail to generate interest in her “vulnerable” side (CupcakKe had the same problem this year as well). Cardi transcends the trap production elements that her music is inevitably tied to, trap being a commercial boon at the moment, with some great sample choices and guest stars who turn the party up. The Obvious Sample Brigade might be offended by “I Like It” and its generous helping of the boogaloo classic “I Like it Like That”, but I think it shows off her Latin roots (her first language is Spanish) with a pride that is massively endearing. The Obvious Guest Star Brigade might be offended by Chance the Rapper turning up for an extended spot on “Best Life”, but I’m certain that it’s one of the album’s highlights, and his trademark positivity definitively buoys up the mood on an already celebratory track. But really, overall, this is undoubtedly Cardi’s show, as she swaggers and struts and guns down real and imaginary enemies all across the album with irresistible panache. It’s the first album to really make me laugh out loud this year, several times, but particularly when she declares on “I Do”: “pussy so good I said my own name during sex”. Now that’s good. A new rap star who’s funny, charismatic, exciting, and musically adventurous? You better believe that everything about her’s the real thing – except her boobs, that is.



Mount Eerie: Now Only (2018) – Album Review

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I’ve found it hard to write anything about Mount Eerie’s two latest albums because they’re so unbelievably harrowing. It takes courage to listen, let alone write about them. Written and recorded after the death of his wife, Geneviève, from pancreatic cancer, Phil Elverum writes so directly about his trauma, about the carnage left behind by death for him and his daughter, that sitting through them can be tough work. Not only does he confront you with the inevitability of death for all of us and our loved ones, but he does so with a bullshit-free approach that rejects any easy, trite path to a silver lining. There are no silver linings in death; only black, stormy clouds.

Morbid details linger – taking out the bathroom trash which contains the last, bloody bodily remnants of his wife, for instance, or her bones surfacing from the garden’s soil in Now Only‘s “Earth”. These details approach being uncomfortably voyeuristic. But they also have a point: to show that death is not a metaphor, not a thing to write about poetically (although he does try that out on occasion), but a real, biological, and inevitably messy process. And because he conveys the horror of death better than just about anyone I’ve ever heard, read or seen, I find myself returning to these albums, unable to avert my ears, on a regular basis.

Now Only seems to me even more powerful than A Crow Looked at Me, because Elverum’s emerged from the stupor of his wife’s death enough to attach some telling musical details to his writing that help to convey his frightening lyrical ideas even more clearly. So the 10-minute “Distortion” contains, yep, feedback distortion that builds to a climax under his description of a pregnancy scare following a one-night-stand in his youth, tying the thoughts of birth to the chaotic thoughts of death that permeate the rest of the album. Then, when the scare turns out to be a false alarm, the distortion recedes again, into the sea of everyday life that’s represented here by Elverum’s ever-tunelessly-strumming acoustic guitar.

He’s unafraid to multitrack his own voice on occasion to create a palimpsest of horror, perhaps inspired by John Lennon’s similar technique on Plastic Ono Band, the cornerstone of all frank, bleak, and unremittingly personal records.

And most disturbingly of all, there’s the title track, with its catchy chorus that you may find yourself, incredibly and awfully, singing along to several days later: “People get cancer and die/People get hit by trucks and die/People just living their lives/Get erased for no reason/With the rest of us watching from the side”.

The effect of the whole album is horrible, moving, and should not be missed by any honest person who wants to square up to where we’re all heading. Because Elverum is unflinchingly honest; he sings on the last track, “Crow Pt. 2”, in his quietly desolate tone of voice: “Every day that comes, the echo of you living here gets quieter/Obscured by the loud wind of us now”.

He’s reached a point following his wife’s death where their past together is beginning to fade, despite his best efforts to preserve her memory. And his future with their daughter is uncertain, as life always is with human beings – what if he dies in a plane crash, or gets cancer and dies, or gets hit by a truck and dies?

So where does that leave Elverum, and all human beings for that matter?

With just two words, really: Now Only.




Young Fathers: Cocoa Sugar (2018) – Album Review

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Who would’ve guessed that the first ace hip-hop album of the year would come from Edinburgh? Anyone who’s followed this group, I guess. Comprised of two rapper-singers of Liberian and Nigerian descent, as well as a Caucasian beatmaker, this Scottish trio came to music lovers’ attentions and surprised everyone by winning the Mercury Prize in 2014 for their cheerfully titled debut Dead. Eccentric, eclectic, clever, and beatwise, they deserved it. Yet they’ve always made too much of a virtue out of being weird, and Cocoa Sugar is no exception. So, for example, a strikingly pretty gospel song like “Lord” is intercut with loud electronic buzzing, or the vocals in the catchy “Turn” are distorted to the point of irritation. These are examples of the band’s uncompromising nature, some might argue. Or perhaps they’re just a case of trying too hard not to fit in with pop culture norms, in the classic hipster mould? I’m not sure, but overall Cocoa Sugar is an enjoyable ride, weird-ass warts and all. Graham “G” Hastings’ beats scuttle across the album like insects, occasionally annoying yet always catching your attention and usually for good reasons, as on the rapid-fire “Wire” or curious bongo-ballad “In My View”. And the rappers deliver some neat lines in charismatic tones – they’re the second band this year to lay down the sarcastic phrase “what a time to be alive” (on “Wow”), and they sound just as bitter as Superchunk about the state of the world as they utter it, especially as they follow it up with another scabrous dose of irony: “I’m going to put myself first”. And then, at the end, they put forward a great defence of their musical and general strangeness: “Good men are strange, bad men are obvious”. Fair enough, lads. You almost convince me.


Black Panther (2018) – Film Review


I’m not one to give films bonus credit for being “woke” – I thought Wonder Woman was awful, for instance, despite the importance of its female lead role. What can I say? I want a film to impress me on its own merits, not based on the racial/sexual identity of its cast.

That said, the majority black casting of Black Panther really is a radical step forwards, and don’t let any troll tell you otherwise. Marvel has been shy with black characters before – I can recall only a smattering across their so-called “universe” (oh the irony of that all-encompassing word). So to see an entire superhero movie that focuses on a history, culture, and skin colour other than Caucasian is refreshing. Its nearly all-black cast is undeniably a statement, a political one, that my African-American friends and colleagues have responded to with elation: one friend has seen the film 4 times and plans to go again, something that they’ve never done before, because of their feeling that this film is history, a turning point in representations of minorities in American cinema. And that means something.

Make no mistake that Black Panther only exists because of decades of committed activism from the African-American community, certainly one of the most successful minority groups in the world at expressing their fury at the social injustices perpetrated against them. If you don’t believe so, just try to imagine a Marvel film being released tomorrow with an all-Latino cast, or all-Asian, for instance. I can’t see it happening. These two large minority groups in America don’t have the same history of protest, at least not to the same extent, and so their representation in mainstream American cinema has been woeful – just think of all the Chinese guys with “funny accents” all over American comedies.

So yes, Black Panther appearing onscreen is a culmination of years of political agitation from African-Americans, you better believe it. As such, as a cultural totem in the future, it will likely be compared to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Is Black Panther as good as that remarkable album? No. And not just because Kendrick’s contributions to the film’s soundtrack are fairly disappointing by his standards.

Black Panther is lumbered with all of the baggage attached to Marvel productions. It needs to tie into the wider universe: which it does, rather clumsily, with Andy Serkis reprising a villainous role that should really have been excised. It needs to have a bland, tedious romantic interest: which it does, this time sadly wasted on the luminous Lupita Nyong’o. It needs to have several patience-testing actions scenes: which it does, although the twist this time around is that they’re sometimes shot engagingly.

I know, complaining about action scenes in a Marvel film is like complaining about cheese on a pizza. But you can have too much cheese. And they really do make the movies a chore for me, because they’re shot through with such little tension. I don’t care about who would win in a fight between X and Y, but I do want to care about the consequences of their fighting, the psychological implications. The way so often in which Marvel characters walk away from epic fights completely unaltered in any way, physically or mentally, makes me really not give a damn about seeing those fight scenes in the first place. It’s lazy, cynical storytelling.

Black Panther is less guilty of that than most, which is why I like it better. The action scenes tend to propel the plot forward rather than drag it down. When King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), a.k.a. Black Panther, is challenged to ritual combat for the throne not once but twice in his native Wakanda, each time the stakes feel high, and that feeling’s exaggerated by the literal height of the setting – they fight on top of a waterfall, with dramatic cliffs and tense tribes encircling them. We know that Black Panther won’t die, of course, but the dizzying effects and swirling photography make our eyes dart across the screen, worrying for him, all the same.

A car chase scene in South Korea is played for laughs and is less effective – the otherwise impressive cast can’t really do comedy, not like Robert Downey Jr. or Ryan Reynolds – and the finale is about 5 minutes too long.

But still, this is by far the most enjoyable Marvel entry for a while. I count 3 good reasons for this:

  1. Writer/director Ryan Coogler. At only 31 years old he’s one of the freshest talents in Hollywood – Creed and especially Fruitvale Station were powerfully made, gripping yarns. I have no doubt that Black Panther’s aura of genuine radicalism and its respect for African cultural traditions come largely from him. Not to mention its visual imagination.
  2. The cast. This really is the most watchable group ever assembled for Marvel. Only token white guy Martin Freeman fails to do the best with what he/she’s given. Various supporting turns threaten to steal the show: Michael B. Jordan, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, and particularly Winston Duke (the only one who can do comedy).
  3. Afro-futurism. The script looks to a future in which Africans and all of their diasporas will change the world through technology. This future is one in which they will manage to bring about an equality between all the races (because white folks sure won’t do it), but bring it about through intellect and science and not through violence. Yeah, this might be utopian dreaming, I hear all you cynics saying – are we ever really going to all “live as one”? But then isn’t the point of film for dreaming?

The figures speak for themselves: the film’s grossed a staggering $1 billion worldwide since its release, $242.1 million of that in its opening weekend alone. The excitement is there, the appetite for change. You can feel it in the air. You can feel it coursing through every frame of the film, like vibranium.

And I for one am relieved that the future it envisions is one of hope.


Superchunk: What a Time to Be Alive (2018) – Album Review


Sure, we all hate Trump. Right? But Superchunk hate all of his supporters too, and hate them hard: “All these old men won’t die too soon/Flesh balloons still waving their arms around”. Ouch.

Because they’re getting on a bit themselves, they’ve been around since 1990 the old codgers, Superchunk get away with this blatant ageism, although perhaps not their oversimplifying of why white people voted for Trump in the first place: “Darkness was all you wanted”. Hell, there were legitimate reasons to be frustrated with Obama’s America. And I’m sure many people saw hope in Trump for genuine change, as absurd as that may seem. Yet there’s no denying that everyone who voted for him was well aware of his sickening misogyny and racist attitudes, and in choosing to ignore that they deserve the world’s contempt. Superchunk certainly think so: “There’s a crooked line that runs/Through every crease in this map/And you want to take us all the way back” they spit at everyone who voted for him.

Perhaps a little more empathy would’ve made this a great rock album. But as it stands, it’s a terrific, waspish punk album with a driving purpose. Most tracks tackle Trump and his supporters head-on, as so little music has thus far. “How has it come to this?” the album gasps in horror, gazing at the moral abyss that is the Donald. “What a time to be alive!” it exclaims, with several lifetime’s worth of sarcastic resentment built up; the combined age of the four band members is close to 200 (and you can sense that weariness in “Erasure”).

Middle-aged they may be, but Superchunk have put out their most cohesive, youthful-sounding, and invigorating blast of rage so far. Since their renaissance in 2010 with Majesty Shredding they’ve been getting steadily better, more confident and dynamic with each release. What a Time to Be Alive zips by in just over half an hour, but it brims with great ideas, such as getting Stephin Merritt and Katie Crutchfield amongst others to join them on choruses to create a sense of community that counteracts the sense of alienation with their country. The overall feeling is uplifting not depressing, with “Break the Glass”, “Erasure”, and “Reagan Youth” perhaps their catchiest and most involving songs ever written. The music is welcoming rather than hostile; fun rather than abrasive. Song after song hits home, sometimes in less than two minutes. It’s all over so fast, like many of the best punk albums, but it’s catchy enough to merit the many replays its length allows for.

For a band that sounds so excited by music, Superchunk were brave enough to declare that they actually hated music in 2013, and in 2018 they still don’t think it’s good enough. Here’s lead singer and guitarist Mac McCaughan promoting the album: “I didn’t buy the silver lining some were promoting that ‘well, at least art and music will be great now!’ Obviously, any sane person would gladly trade four to eight years of terrible music for not having our country dismantled to satisfy the whims of a vengeful child and his enablers.”

Right on. I’d do anything for this album to not have to exist. But we’re here now; and Trump’s still in the White House; so hey, let’s make the most of it and play this one fucking loud.


Lady Bird (2017) – Film Review


I was first attracted to this film because it has three of the world’s most talented young actors in its cast: Saoirse Ronan, Lucas Hedges, and Timothée Chalamet. Truth be told, the latter two aren’t serviced too well by this film, which is really the film’s only flaw – look to Manchester by the Sea for Hedges’ best performance and Call Me By Your Name for Chalamet’s. They are somewhat wasted here, but perhaps it isn’t their fault. Because aglow and stealing this film’s spotlight at every opportunity is Saoirse Ronan; she seizes the moment and delights with every second that she’s onscreen, charming even during her character’s frequent tantrums.

She plays Christine McPherson, a senior student at a Catholic high school in Sacramento (“basically the mid-west of California,” she complains) who insists on being called “Lady Bird”, much to everyone’s bemusement and/or irritation. This is typical of her attitude to authority; she is rebellious, but rarely in a cruel or mean-spirited way. She longs to escape the confines of Sacramento and her Catholic upbringing, so she applies to various arts colleges on the east coast, despite generally poor grades (an advisor laughs in her face when she suggests Yale). It’s 2002, and she hopes that “terrorism” will help reduce entries and get her a place in New York.

We get treated to many delightful scenes of Lady Bird with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and their rapport seems unforced. They are clearly outsiders, with Lady Bird an oddball personality and Julie suffering from a weight problem, yet they don’t make a big deal out of it. They just get on with the simple business of enjoying life, which each other’s company allows for – stealing sacramental bread, lusting after their maths teacher, you know, all the usual stuff.

Yet this is a coming-of-age film, so of course sex gets in the way of their friendship, and we get the requisite learning experience about the untrustworthiness of men. First up there’s Danny (Lucas Hedges), a nice chap who won’t touch Lady Bird’s breasts because he “respects” her too much, though quick-witted audiences might be able to think of another reason. Secondly there’s Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), a handsome goon who thinks the world of himself and brandishes his weighty copy of A People’s History of the United States like he wants to bash lesser beings over the head with it. Neither of them are quite right for Lady Bird; but that doesn’t stop her from fooling herself that they are in order to have someone to dance with at the prom.

Where this film really strikes its emotional chord, though, is in the scenes between Lady Bird and her mother, Marion (a brilliant Laurie Metcalf), who is the very definition of that oxymoron “tough love”. She starts off the film by calling Lady Bird “ungrateful”, and things descend from there. In one particularly hurtful scene Lady Bird asks straight-up: “do you actually like me?” Her mother responds with a platitude that makes it clear she doesn’t quite know how to answer. The film deftly shows how they are so similar, such strong-willed characters, that they actually get on each other’s nerves rather than get along. Luckily, Lady Bird’s father is a great mediator between the two, as mild-mannered as Santa Claus, despite being laid off his job and suffering from depression.

There is so much more to like in this film than the above description can convey, so many well-sketched characters and devilishly clever turns of phrase in the dialogue. In her debut as writer and director, Greta Gerwig does an outstanding job, cutting the story down to its essentials (it’s a lean 93 minutes) and breezing through comedy and tragedy without a moment of excess or sentimentality.

This is so much smarter than the usual token indie film nominated at the Oscars, and so much smarter than any of the other films nominated this year. Three Billboards looks like the offensive mess that it really is in comparison; Get Out looks like the OK horror film it really is; The Shape of Water has much less to say about life and love; I feel embarrassed to even mention Darkest Hour and The Post; and even Call Me By Your Name and Phantom Thread, which I like a great deal, don’t quite consistently match its freshness. Yes, Lady Bird would be my choice for film of the year (out of the nominated batch).

Naturally, it won’t win. But watch it and try telling me that the final scenes between Lady Bird and her mother, a reconciliation of sorts in which they don’t talk to each other at all, isn’t the finest piece of writing of the year.

And when you watch it, remember this old song and how it eventually captures the spirit of Lady Bird’s character: “Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home.”




Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet: Landfall (2018) – Album Review


In which two of America’s finest experimental artists team up to create a modern classical suite about Hurricane Sandy, the deadliest hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, which caused approximately $68.7 billion of damage (the fourth largest amount in American history). The damage happened to include Laurie Anderson’s house in New York, which had to be evacuated during the storm. That understandably traumatic experience provides the narrative drive of this album.

Kronos Quartet, fresh off their excellent collaboration with Malian collective Trio Da Kali last year, here create a frightening impression of the hurricane, with their traditional lineup swirling around each other in frenzies that sound bigger than the four instruments that are playing, simply because of the forcefulness and technical skill they evince. The way each player scrapes and drives the sound out from their respective strings can be frightening in intensity, particularly on “Dawn of the World” and “It Twisted the Street Signs”, which really do sound like their titles. They convey a fierce natural world, one that has no need for human interference and can easily eradicate mankind’s achievements with just the barest of warnings.

Laurie Anderson drives the apocalyptic vision of these pieces even further with glitchy electronic beats, distortions, and samples that rumble ominously beneath the acoustic instrumentation and occasionally erupt above them, as on “Never What You Think it Will Be”, which suddenly disrupts the somnolent flow of the previous track “Galaxies II” with its almost dubstep-like heavy introduction.

Yet I’m disappointed with the lack of Laurie Anderson’s distinctive narration on this album; she appears on only 6 out of the 30 tracks. To some of us, her spoken-word performances are as iconic as any of those by modern music’s great vocalists: so far as I’m concerned, she can proudly stand alongside Elvis Presley, Bryan Ferry, Morrissey, and of course her late husband Lou Reed. She’s every bit as distinctive, weird, tender, and frightening; her enunciation and timing is to die for. She should be considered the gold standard by any other spoken word performance artists. So the fact that Landfall is a mostly instrumental album at first limited my good impressions of it. Had she finally run out of verbal ideas?

But then I realised that the lack of spoken word performances was on purpose. Because Landfall is not just a concept album about Hurricane Sandy, it’s also a concept album about the failure of language to either describe or protect us from cataclysmic events.

Indeed, Anderson’s only attempt to describe the hurricane itself goes like this: “From above, Sandy was a huge swirl/That looked like the galaxies/Whose names I didn’t know”. She ends the description with a shrug, an acceptance of the limitations of her knowledge, and suggests how language can’t quite adequately describe the storm – she hasn’t got the words for it, she can’t offer up the names of those galaxies that it looks like. Then on the album’s centrepiece, “Nothing Left But Their Names”, Anderson contemplates how extinct animals eventually become nothing but their names in a book. Some people might think that this existence in a book grants the animals immortality, but Anderson knows better; in a later song called “Everything is Floating” (everything), she sees all of her books and all of her life’s work floating around in the basement after Hurricane Sandy, dissolving in the water, and she realises that nothing is permanent. Nothing lasts forever, not even the written word. Language is transient and inadequate; it cannot save us.

So it’s suitable that Laurie Anderson’s voice is lost in the storm on Landfall. Her musings float around the album’s wreckage, so ably conveyed by Kronos Quartet, like everything does in her basement following the storm, signifying so much, and yet signifying most of all human being’s insignificance in the face of the universe’s frighteningly unstoppable natural forces.

So it’s a work about our mortality, much like her previous masterpiece, 2015’s Heart of a Dog. And it’s a work about the frustrating limitations of language and technology, about the difficulties of human interaction in the modern age, much like her magnum opus, 1984’s United States Live.

It returns to all of her favourite themes then, but most of all, unspokenly, to her Buddhist faith. Because how does she react to the realisation of the pointless existence of mankind, and particularly of all the material possessions that we’ve accumulated, as she surveys the wreckage in her basement? With these words, in her inimitable voice:

“How beautiful/How magic/And how… catastrophic.”


Phantom Thread (2017) – Film Review


It’s suitable that Phantom Thread is dedicated, at the very end, to the late Jonathan Demme. Much like The Silence of the Lambs, it’s a psychodrama concerned with the manipulative games that sinister people can play on each other.

Those two people are Reynolds Woodcock (played by Daniel Day-Lewis in apparently his last leading role), a middle-aged couturier who works in London’s unswinging 1950s world of fashion, and Alma Elson (played by Vicky Krieps in her first major leading role), the latest in a long line of beaus (a.k.a. sexual objects) to come and go from Woodcock’s fashion house.

Woodcock spots Alma working as a waitress in a countryside cafe; she is humble, and she stumbles, and he is charmed. He asks her out on a date, and we believe that we are in the familiar fictional territory of a middle-aged man seducing a much younger woman. Yawn; we don’t need to see that strain of male director’s fantasy onscreen again, surely. But then Alma produces a note with her name already on it and gives it to Woodcock. It turns out that she was prepared for his asking her out, and didn’t need to be seduced. We are being primed for later developments in the film – maybe, just maybe, she’s the one in control of their relationship. And maybe that’s what Woodcock wants.

Woodcock takes her back home and… they don’t have sex. He wants to dress her up, not undress her. Taking her measurements, he comments on her lack of breasts, to which she apologises, and he responds: ‘No, they’re perfect.’ Why? Because it’s the dress’s job to give her breasts, of course. His dress will change her body; this power is what turns him on, not her exposed flesh. The scene reminded me of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in which James Stewart dresses up Kim Novak to fit his fantasy. And similarly to that great film, Phantom Thread explores what shifting power dynamics can mean in a dysfunctional romantic/sexual relationship.

It recalls many other Hitchcock classics as well: Woodcock’s sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who manages the fashion house and Reynolds’ conquests, is clearly modelled on Mrs Danvers from Rebecca, so frosty and omniscient is she. Plus allusions to voyeurism/exhibitionism (Reynolds watches Alma at a fashion parade through a peephole; Alma is fully aware and enjoys it) and incest/necrophilia (Woodcock’s dead mother appears to him in a wedding dress at a key moment – in bed) echo some of the themes that run across Hitch’s oeuvre.

If Phantom Thread doesn’t come close to matching the heights of Vertigo, Notorious or Psycho, well, those are high benchmarks indeed. I admire Paul Thomas Anderson’s chutzpah, as both writer and director, for trying. This is a poised, elegant, and venomous film. It has the icy cool and sudden kick of a martini (watch out for the ending), and I think it’s his best film of the decade so far. Admittedly there are no likeable characters, which is a common problem for PTA’s films outside of Magnolia. But if you accept the cold exterior, there is much pleasure to be had underneath.

Most of all there are the performances. Watching Daniel Day-Lewis is never a chore, and the way he modulates his body language and facial inflections to convey the minute details of Woodcock’s character in this film is mesmerising. I’ve read critiques of his acting style that describe it as ‘hammy’, which I think confuses naturalism for good acting. Day-Lewis may not appear ‘natural’ in any of his roles, but his ability to inhabit strikingly different larger-than-life characters, and to drag them all down into the messy cesspool of contradictions that is human behaviour (including the venerated Abraham Lincoln), never ceases to impress me. As Woodcock, he captures with ease a man who prefers fabric to human beings, a misanthrope who seethes with rage at the mere noise with which a woman dares to eat her breakfast. The intensity of Day-Lewis’ presence burns through the screen, which makes Woodcock’s sudden outbursts of anger ignite easily, like gunpowder.

In fact, Vicky Krieps has talked openly about the intensity of his presence on set, and how she would avoid him. You can detect some of that nervousness in her performance; the way she responds to his incredibly specific breakfast orders in their first scene together has a genuine fragility to it. You can feel how Krieps might be overawed by Day-Lewis’ presence just as Alma might be over-awed by Woodcock; it works on both levels, and PTA plays on that knowledge. But he does so in order to upend our expectations later on. Alma will prove more than a match for Woodcock, and so will Krieps for Day-Lewis. The soft, charming Luxembourg accent in her voice that contrasts against the steely resolve in her eyes, as the film motors towards its climactic confrontation between the two, will remain my most powerful memory from the film.

Supporting performances are all outstanding, with the grotesque series of rich women who come to Woodcock for dresses each leaving an impression. Yet I was left wanting more from Lesley Manville as Cecil Woodcock; her character arc is left frustratingly incomplete, subsumed by Reynolds’ and Alma’s domination of the narrative. Whereas, for instance, Mrs Danvers was far from forgotten about in the ending of Rebecca, a comparison which lessens Phantom Thread‘s impact.

So it isn’t a top-tier PTA film (see Magnolia, Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood), but it’s a solid second-tier one for sure (alongside Punch Drunk Love and Hard Eight, I would argue). If you are a creature of film, willing to accept its surreal atmosphere and occasionally freakish dialogue (‘kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick!’) you will be transported. If not, well, why are you reading this?