The Magnetic Fields: 50 Song Memoir (2017) – Album Review

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69 Love Songs. The Charm of the Highway Strip. Distortion. The Magnetic Fields’ albums tell you straight-up what their concept is, and 50 Song Memoir sure delivers on its title’s promise. 50 songs. 5 CDs. 10 songs per CD. Each song representing a year in bonkers genius Stephin Merritt’s life, and not a single one of them over 4 minutes. Boom. As tidy as we’ve come to expect from this mad formalist.

At 2 hours and 30 mins this will demand a heavy chunk of your lifespan in order to play, replay, and let it sink in as it deserves. But it will reward your attention, with some of Merritt’s best quips, character sketches, and general musings on offer.

The twist this time around is the added ‘memoir’ element to the lyrics, a first for the notoriously aloof writer. In Merritt’s words these are: ‘a mix of autobiography (bedbugs, Buddhism, buggery) and documentary (hippies, Hollywood, hyperacusis)’. All set to his accustomed musical style of thickly laid on synthesizers, randomly assorted instruments (100+, most played by him) and of course ukuleles. If you’re not grinning several times throughout then maybe this whole ‘pop music’ thing isn’t for you.

Disc One: The most philosophical segment, the main topics here being religion, spirituality, and a wide variety of superstitions, all of which were instilled in the young Merritt by a mum who believes in everything… ‘Except crystal healing.’ Starting off agnostic by wondering where he comes from at just 1 year old, and winding up an atheist as he realises that the answer to most spiritual questions is plain old ‘No’, the coming-of-age transformation here is a repudiation of his single mother’s eccentric hippie values. The Magnetic Fields’ always childlike music, full of nursery rhyme singalongs and silly synthesizers, are just perfect for this formative decade’s subject matter, making this the best disc of the collection. Highlights: ’66: Wonder Where I’m From, ’68: A Cat Called Dionysus, ’70: They’re Killing Children Over There, ’74: No. Lowlights: ’72: Eye Contact. Rating: 4.5/5

Disc Two: The best disc is quickly followed by the worst. Born myself in ’92, too late to understand the supposed ‘romanticism’ of the New Romantics, I struggle to admire their influence on the music here and Merritt’s teenage years. He may have loved John Foxx, Neu!, and Japan whilst growing up, fine, but his music has always been far wittier and, in sharp contrast, ‘infinitely terse’. So even on the duller 80s-derived moments here there is a pithy line to keep you amused: ‘Let’s arrange our hair like Rorshach blots!’, say, or ‘It sounds like you’re torturing little metal elves/This is how to play the synthesizer’. And on this worst disc may just be the collection’s best track, a fuck you to one of his mother’s many jerk-off boyfriends that goes ‘Na na na na na na na/You’re dead now/Na na na na na na na/So I sing/Na na na na na na na na/Life ain’t all bad.’ Highlights: ’77: Life Ain’t All Bad, ’79: Rock’n’Roll Will Ruin Your Life, ’85: Why I Am Not a Teenager. Lowlights: ’81: How to Play the Synthesizer, ’84: Danceteria! Rating: 3/5

Disc Three: We’ve reached the college years. Which means intellectual discussions on morality in ethics and the works of Ethan Frome. But more importantly it means drinking, dancing, and sexual exploration – from the beautiful blonde man Merritt spots on a dancefloor and never sees again to Fred and Dave and Ted with whom he shacks up in a one-bedroom flat and shares more than just the limited space. Sadly this is the 90s, which means alongside the singer’s gay blossoming there is the ravaging despair of AIDs to contend with. Merritt survives to make music, but many of his friends don’t. This is their legacy. An excellent one, even if none of the songs are truly outstanding. Highlights: ’86: How I Failed Ethics, ’87: At the Pyramid, ’88: Ethan Frome, ’93: Me and Fred and Dave and Ted. Lowlights: ’89: The 1989 Musical Marching Zoo, ’91: The Day I Finally… Rating: 3.5/5

Disc Four: Here is classic Magnetic Fields territory – most of the songs on this disc are related to a pining for lost love. Merritt’s deep and laconic vocals never allow the grandiosity of his self-pity to become too much to bear, and they work just as well here at illuminating romantic isolation as on 69 Love Songs. Wandering around New York in the snow (track 6) is the central metaphor, a place of beauty and loneliness in equal measure, much like the bars he inhabits in the next song because he prefers beer to tea. Pianos and background choirs are more prominently placed, in a maudlin display counteracted by Merritt’s unsentimental voice and his extensive grasp of pop history from Bertolt Brecht to Tom Waits to the Stones, who in some way all inhabit the bawdy ‘XXX ex sex’ extravaganza. Highlights: ’01: Have You Seen it in the Snow?, ’02: Be True to Your Bar, ’03: The Ex and I, ’04: Cold-Blooded Man. Lowlights: ’00: Ghosts of the Marathon Dancers. Rating: 4/5 

Disc Five: Finally we arrive at the Merritt of his 40s, cranky and irritable yet still wryly amusing. He gets his kicks early on by bitching about the press, surfing, and an ex-boyfriend’s new lover: ‘Who has been sniffing around your back door?’ But then a strange and uplifting thing happens, first to the music which gains some bounce and pizzazz after the melancholy of the last disc (see especially ‘You Can Never Go Back to New York’), and then to the lyrics which round the album off with some beautiful, heartfelt love songs that suggest Merritt has finally found contentment. Of sorts. You never can tell for sure with this tricksy fella. Highlights: ’10: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, ’12: You Can Never Go Back to New York, ’13: Big Enough for Both of Us, ’14: I Wish I Had Pictures, ’15: Somebody’s Fetish. Lowlights: ’07: In the Snow White Cottages. Rating: 4.5/5

I must concur with my fave critic Robert Christgau that, overall, the album’s Achilles heel is the fact that Stephin Merritt takes on all the vocals, a rare feature on Magnetic Fields albums because it’s such a darn one-note voice. But really that’s nitpicking. The brilliance on display here is all his, all in the writing, leaving his reputation as one of the quirkiest and most admirable songwriters around still intact. ‘Everybody is somebody’s fetish’ he points out, and Merritt has enough wide-ranging appeal to please many people’s musical fetishes. So get going and begin exploring this rich 50 song set, in order to find those magical moments where his pleasures will joltingly align with yours.

Happy hunting.



The Salesman (2016) – Film Review


We all know the Best Foreign Film win at this year’s Oscars was a middle finger up to Trump’s Muslim Ban rather than a genuine award based on merit. Director Asghar Farhadi’s refusal to attend the ceremony was the real statement being applauded as The Salesman was crowned – we all knew it, and the audience of celebs all knew it as they gave their obligatory standing ovation. How many of them had seen the film, I wondered?

I reserved my ovation until after I had seen it, and an ovation it deserves – if a muted one. Asghar Farhadi is one of the very best writer/directors working in film: a troubled humanist, a keen and subtle political commentator, a generous and wise handler of actors. Yet The Salesman is a minor effort when measured against his high points – certainly not a patch on the great A Separation, and not even close to the lesser The Past (absolute must-sees if you haven’t already). Still, and this is a testament to his brilliance, it deserves to be seen.

The film follows a young married couple who, in a familiar Farhadi motif, seem content on the surface, but deep down there lies another story. Cracks are forming, quite literally in the film’s opening sequence where an entire apartment block’s foundation is shown to be collapsing and the camera homes in on a splintering window. The symbolism is heavy-handed here, some would say pretentious. But I would argue that it’s potent, visually showing us in a few frames what the words between this couple will manage to evade, namely that their marriage is built on an unstable foundation. The events of the film will serve to expose this fragile bond between them.

The pair are performing the lead roles in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at a local theatre (just as they’re performing in their own marriage). The choice of play is important because it’s another drama about a married couple whose relationship involves skirting around the truth.

Similarly to Miller’s classic, The Salesman has a lot more interest in the male role, with the female largely a passive observer of the man’s deceitful self-destructiveness. It’s a disappointing flaw in both, yet less forgivable in Farhadi’s film, because unlike Miller’s play the action pivots around a terrible event happening to the wife. Farhadi seems more concerned with the effect on the husband. For a humanist, that’s an unfortunate lapse.

Still, if you can accept the androcentrism, there is meat enough on The Salesman for it to be worth a nibble. As with his past films, Farhadi’s focus on the divisions within a relationship can be read as a commentary upon the divisions – religious, moral, political, and other – in modern Iranian society, which has fascinating implications. Never does he come down firmly on one side of the traditional/modernising divide, seeking instead to demonstrate Renoir’s famous adage that ‘everyone has their reasons’, which is why I repeatedly call him a humanist. The ‘villain’ in The Salesman, the wife’s attacker, is shown to be so pathetic and weak that you can’t help but sympathise with him, even as you shudder at his representing an old order of misogyny. Meanwhile, the avenging husband appears increasingly sinister despite the most honourable of intentions, defending his wife, which gives the film an intriguing spin on the revenge thriller.

So The Salesman is a tough moral puzzle, like all of the best Farhadi films, and what’s more it has a genuinely riveting final half an hour in which husband and attacker finally confront each other. The intensity of the probing handheld camerawork, nevertheless always restrained by the director’s cool touch, lets the tension builds in a genuinely unpredictable manner. What will win out, we wonder, hysteria or rationality?

This is a minor yet worthwhile work by a major director, then. Have you seen Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man or Spielberg’s A.I.? That’s the sort of level we’re talking about here – flashes of genius, but no masterwork.


Elle (2016) – Film Review


Agent provocateur Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers, Basic Instinct, Showgirls – to name just a few of his films to have pissed people off) was forced out of Hollywood to make this film in France. Why? Because it was, inevitably, a risky project that required a fearless leading lady, and Hollywood so rarely produces such women.

Verhoeven initially flirted with the idea of casting Nicole Kidman as the central rape victim with a dark past of her own, and the prospect is intriguing – Kidman did choose extremely daring material once upon a time (To Die For, Dogville, Birth) but has increasingly opted for safe fare like Paddington and Lion, so a return to danger could easily have electrified the screen. Alas, it was not to be. Other actresses to be touted include Sharon Stone, Julianne Moore, Charlize Theron, and Marion Cotillard. All wonderful, but there was really only ever one woman with the guts to take this on, and her employment precipitated the entire production’s move to France.

Isabelle Huppert. Probably the finest actress in the world right now, an utterly fearless performer with some of the late 20th and early 21st century’s most demanding roles under her belt (The Piano Teacher, Amour, Louder Than Bombs, Things to Come etc. etc.). Waspish and cynical and unloving at times, amusing and generous and warm at others, there is little space on the human spectrum that she is unable to manoeuvre into with the quickest of glances or facial tics. This works a treat with Elle, a film that careens wildly from horror to comedy to miniaturist character study in a moment’s notice. It leans heavily on Huppert’s supreme ability as the centrifugal force preventing it from taking off into Showgirls-like lunacy.

The film begins with a cat calmly observing the rape of Michèle Leblanc (Huppert), who once her attacker has gone sweeps up the broken window glass on the floor, has a bath and carries on with life as normal. Why doesn’t she call the police? There is a reason, and it has to do with a controversy from her childhood – a shady, violent, appalling secret that helps to explain much of her bizarre future behaviour, if perhaps in too trite a pop-psychological way.

We discover that she is the head of a PS4 games company which specialises in allowing players to live out misogynistic fantasies, including a graphic orc rape scene that Michèle declares is not realistic enough – needs more orgasmic convulsions from the woman, she says. Already we are in troubling and murky moral waters: if Michèle is complicit in a culture that glorifies aggressive sexual behaviour then can it be said that she is somewhat responsible for her attack? Does she really believe that women, deep down, can enjoy the experience of being raped? And, whisper it… perhaps did she enjoy being raped?

As the film pans out we are given a new reason to be disturbed in every scene. Without giving the game away, it might be best to warn readers that there are many more rape scenes to come, some of them real and some of them not, on the way to a, well, quasi-revenge. We become more and more convinced that Michèle is a sadomasochistic deviant who seeks out abuse in all aspects of life, not just in the bedroom and her private fantasies, but also in relationships with friends and family.

Peter Bradshaw questioned in The Guardian if this film was ‘post-feminist? Pre-feminist? Non-feminist?’ I think the answer is in the title: it’s called Elle and not Elles. It’s a look at how one woman reacts to a heinous crime and should not be extrapolated to represent all women’s reactions to misogyny and rape culture. Try and make a reading of this film in relation to feminist studies and you will inevitably fall into Verhoeven’s vicious trap – what kind of modern, enlightened woman actually seeks out sexual abuse? You’re guaranteed to be pissed off. That title is a way out, claiming this film as a contained character study rather than any kind of political commentary.

Still, Verhoeven’s deliberate shock tactics are what ultimately hold the film back from greatness. Cold, ever so cold, his gallows humour is not enough to cover up an unnerving misanthropy. All of his characters are stupid and/or violent with little to redeem them; it can be seen as an arty version of Game of Thrones in that respect. I’ve always been wary of aggressive cynicism, which can make for compelling viewing in the moment but all too easily cops out from examining the real complexities of human beings, so I don’t thrill to Elle in the way so many critics have done.

Of course Elle is subtler than Game of Thrones, and it is saved by some wonderful social satire: a central dinner party scene has a delicious disdain for bourgeois convention and contains several laugh-out-loud moments. We need Verhoevian-style provocations in filmmaking because it keeps the medium alive – art should be challenging, I believe that completely, and Elle continues in the richly sarcastic and shocking vein of Buñuel, Cronenberg, Lynch, and many others. But art should also be moving, transformative, and alert to the balance of good and evil in this world (I think of a masterpiece like The Night of the Hunter).

Elle is too flat and delighted to wallow in the squalid horrors of being alive to be truly challenging: it works nicely as horror-comedy, but not well enough as human drama.


Sunny Sweeney: Trophy (2017) – Album Review


Sunny Sweeney is a whip-smart Texan blonde whose last album, Provoked (2014), wittily outlined her ‘Bad Girl Phase’, which included sleeping with other gal’s husbands and ordering the non-working class to kiss her ass. But it also had too many unimaginative ballads to be as outrageous as it thought, and compared to the work of that other whip-smart Texan blonde, Miranda Lambert, it sounded positively tame.

Three years later we have Trophy, which has chosen to tack into much darker territory, with choppy waters guaranteed. Suicide, miscarriage, and substance abuse are just some of the themes at hand. They are treated with sincerity by Sweeney and her team of co-writers, whilst that voice, a beautiful timbre which has a newfound maturity, sails confidently through the songs and guides them to safety.

The centrepiece of the album is ‘Bottle By My Bed’, a trick title in that the desired bottle is one filled with baby’s milk. It’s a painful cry of maternal longing rooted in Sweeney’s thus far fruitless efforts to conceive with her husband. Written with Lori McKenna, a mother of five and yet an extremely empathetic voice, some of the language hits incredibly quick and deep, such as: ‘I only call my husband “baby” cause I love the word/Never wanted something so bad that it hurts’ or ‘Spend a lot of afternoons daydreaming ’bout you/Right now our mortgage is the only thing that’s due’. The classic country backdrop of steel guitars, wailing like mourners, and the constant, affectionate strum of the acoustic guitar ratchet up the poignancy to near unbearable levels – the thing’s an instant classic, simple as.

Other highlights on an album of near-constant interest are ‘Grow Old With Me’, another McKenna co-write that insists ‘love don’t give a damn about time’ and makes a youngster like me believe it, and ‘Nothing Wrong With Texas’, which uses a nostalgic, achingly gorgeous fiddle to demonstrate her pride in a home state that has a lousy reputation abroad. Then the album finishes on another emotional wrench, ‘Unsaid’, which chastises a friend for having committed suicide and left so many people, including two kids, behind, and with so many words unsaid.

But it’s not all doom and gloom y’all, and the jokes that propped up Provoked are in ample supply here (if less brilliantly perverse). Having stolen someone’s ex on the title track, she declares herself the man’s ‘trophy’, which only leads you to wonder who or what the other woman might have been. And ‘Better Bad Idea’ contains the unforgettable come-on ‘Let’s wash our dirty minds with a bottle of white wine/And do some things that we can’t take back’. Fiery at these moments and fiercely in control of her sexuality, we must wither in the heat of Sunny Sweeney’s charisma, whilst acknowledging that she will never reach the true danger of Miranda Lambert’s ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’.

Trophy is the usual mess of diverse topics and ballads/hoedowns, as with most country albums, but hell life is messy and these smartass Nashville women sure know it. So of course there are troughs – this is barnyard music, didn’t ya know? But there are also peaks aplenty, and the excitement of listening to a woman who is bold and brave, who has done enough to have earned life’s trophies. Including, I very much hope, in the near future a little Sweeney who might mark the contours of her next album.


Syd: Fin (2017) – Album Review


A.k.a Sydney Bennett, 24 year old member of L.A.’s Odd Future hip-hop collective (other members include Earl Sweatshirt, Mike G, and most famously Frank Ocean), and lead singer for neo-soul group The Internet, whose 2015 album Ego Death’s success enabled her to strike out on her own here. Gal’s a shooting star of talent and I pray she doesn’t burn up too fast.

Those brought up on Whitney Houston/Mariah Carey/Celine Dion-type histrionics might struggle at first with Syd, whose down-to-earth mannerisms and limited vocal range don’t beg you to bust a lung singing along. Anyone who’s attuned to modern R&B and its subtler characteristics will find it easier though, and anyone who isn’t then keep on listening, because she’s worth it.

The easiest way into Fin is on the lesbian sex jams (her sexual identity is not stated but evident), of which there are several. Syd’s eroticism comes on slow, but it keeps on growing because of what she holds back in her vocal approach, never quite putting out. Delayed gratification is the name of the game, her restraint giving the longest tracks ‘Smile More’ and ‘Body’ the slowly building intensity of foreplay. Then the tension is unleashed in short bursts like ‘Drown in It’, a 1-minute cunnilingus odyssey that would surely have Weezy’s lick of approval, and ‘Dollar Bills’, where she attends a strip club with her equally libidinous mate Steve Lacy, their male and female gazes intertwining.

Less interesting are the posse cuts, not witty enough by half and where Syd trots out such hoary clichés as ‘all of my niggas are do or die’ and ‘if I go to hell hope my bitches get to visit’. True, these sound almost radically new when being mouthed off by a female voice. Almost.

Overall though I’m tickled by Syd’s humble approach. She knows that the gangsta schtick is nonsense and merely an excuse to lay down some trap beats to get you moving, and her modest sense of funk will get you moving every time. In fact, well aware of her limited thematic intentions, she told NPR in a press release:

This album is not that deep… For me, this is like an in-between thing – maybe get a song on the radio, maybe make some money, have some new shit to perform.

Compared to the overambitious reach of her homeboy Frank Ocean’s Blonde, the way Syd aims lowbrow and hits every time on Fin seems to me the greater achievement. She may well shoot for a ‘great’ album next time, either with The Internet or on her own, and I hope she has the stuff to pull it off.

In the meantime this slinky, quietly soulful album will do just fine.


Mini-Review, Logan (2017)


I don’t feel qualified to write a full review of this, not having seen any of the other X-Men films. But I can happily report that I enjoyed my 2 hours in its company, and therefore owe this brief recommendation. Director James Mangold (I Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) has a keen eye for rural Americana and Logan successfully transfers some of the heavy mythos of the Western into the Marvel universe. Wizened and fading, Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart neatly imply their mutant parallel America is no country for old men, whilst a young Hispanic girl thrown into the mix gives the codgers a rude and much-needed kick up the rear end. All of the usual superhero-flick irritants apply: clunky dialogue, villains with baffling motives, tongue not firmly enough lodged in cheek. But the bloodier-than-usual action scenes raise the stakes so that you can believe real damage might be inflicted on any of its heroes at any moment. So it has a tense uncertainty that is rare in any form of blockbuster these days. Until you start to wonder whether any of its monsters and/or humans feel any sort of pain at all as they gush the red stuff…


Album Review: Old 97’s: Graveyard Whistling (2017)


‘I believe in love, but it don’t believe in me.’

I’ve loved the Old 97’s ever since those simple words, and the crazy catchy hook beneath them, etched their way into my consciousness. They seem to sum up the entire history of pop music: a clash between unashamed romanticism and the disappointments of a reality where it’s so often thwarted.

The line comes from ‘Rollerskate Skinny’ on Satellite Rides, which along with Fight Songs and Most Messed Up are the essential purchases of this killer band, who are often labelled as alt-country (thanks to their Texas origin no doubt) but could more accurately be described as pop-rock-n-rollers with an occasional slight country twang.

These fellas have been going ‘longer than you been alive’ as they memorably boasted on their last album, which in my case (24 years and counting) is certainly true. So where does Graveyard Whistling fit into their lasting legacy?

For the most part it’s a continuation of age-old themes for them, with lead singer and terrific songwriter Rhett Miller playing the Lothario and ‘most messed up motherfucker in town’. No prizes for guessing what he’s celebrating in ‘Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls’ and ‘Drinkin’ Song’, and he celebrates them convincingly enough for a married 46 year old.

The band rocks hard as ever to complement all of this bad behaviour. Yet for every ‘Drinkin’ Song’ or ‘I Don’t Wanna Die in this Town’ thrashing speedily along there is a ‘Nobody’ or ‘All Who Wander’ dragging the pace down a tad, so the terrain that this album traverses feels a little uneven. Powered momentum has always been the Old 97’s greatest pleasure, fittingly enough for a band named after a train, and so the urge to skip these less pacey tracks comes as a letdown after Most Messed Up’s freakish consistency.

That said, typically excellent songwriting helps to surmount these weaker moments. ‘She Hates Everybody’ is ingenious, a love song whose subject is a misanthrope, but, Miller insists, she’s ‘my misanthrope’. And best of all are a pair of religious-themed tracks where our troublemaker squares up to Jesus (‘He’s got the whole world in his hands/I’ve got a Lone Star in cans’) and God, who, ladies and gents, turns out not just to be a woman but a damn feisty one called Brandi Carlile (‘I made you up and I’ll break you down/I’ll do it slow, how does that sound?’).

So buy this album if you haven’t heard of the Old 97’s and then work backwards, because hell they’re worth it. Punk, country, pop, and classic rock all collide in a satisfying cocktail and the words are always well thought through. Here we witness a group sauntering into middle age and just starting to think about their own mortality and the possibility of an afterlife, but still walking through a graveyard whistling and singing ‘doo doo doo’s’ until the end.