A Place That Has to Be Believed to Be Seen
304 · 23 November 00
U2: All That You Can't Leave Behind
Conversations about "good" and "bad" popular music generally have two productive aspects, at most. One is that, as in any conversation which contains the names of bands, some of them may be new to you, so somebody's indefensible pro or con assertion might lead you to discover music that changes your life. The other is that people in the conversation, about whom you haven't made up your mind, may prove themselves to be smug jackasses, which is a better thing to discover in a casual debate about Radiohead than it is in a screaming argument about whether your first child ought to be named Spartacus. Art is a highly abstracted and concentrated form of communication, and communication has no quality independent of the experiences of the communicants. Nonetheless, even those of us who think these conversations are meaningless are often drawn back towards them. We learned the word "relativism" late enough in life that it's still a little frightening, whereas the implacable exchange of question and officially endorsed answer was chiseled into our synapses when we were very small. Not being able to assign a song a letter grade, and consider the issue resolved, preys on us. What if we later discover that all the music we used to love is actually terrible? So some of the time we could have been happily listening, we, or at least I, waste trying to delineate phantom distinctions. Can we separate technique from its employment? Can we borrow tools from literature to assess lyrics? Is production a facet of creation, or distribution? And aren't there any records we can say are good or bad with confidence?
It doesn't help that the other art forms do seem to offer at least partial absolutes. Opinions may be bitterly divided on Dhalgren, but there appears to be a general consensus that A Tale of Two Cities is decent. I've never seen anybody frown at a Vermeer the same way I've seen them frown at Rothkos. Maybe we can't say that Dickens and Vermeer are better than Delany and Rothko, but surely we can say that Dickens and Vermeer are Good. So I try, as I make my way through our music, to decide what records we ought to agree on in this way. The list is intrinsically non-exclusive, as it omits all the music I ought to appreciate but don't know, as well, frankly, as all the music I appreciate but don't enjoy (so no Revolver, no Exile on Main Street, no Songs in the Key of Life), but here, in alphabetical order, are ten nominations I'm prepared to defend: Fleetwood Mac, Rumours; Emmylou Harris, Wrecking Ball; Joe Jackson, Night and Day; Sarah McLachlan, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy; Midnight Oil, Diesel and Dust; Joni Mitchell, Blue; Paul Simon, Graceland; Richard & Linda Thompson, Shoot Out the Lights; U2, The Joshua Tree; The Who, Who's Next. These aren't my favorite albums, they're not necessarily the ten I think are the most important, and they're not records I think you have to like. But if you say they're bad, and don't have an extremely fascinating justification for doing so, I will probably assume that I don't care about your opinions.
It's been more than a decade, and three-and-a-half U2 studio albums, since The Joshua Tree. During this time U2 have achieved cultural near-ubiquity (when I saw Bounce this weekend, just to pick a random example, three of the four trailers shown before it used U2 songs), so obviously not everybody has been as disgusted with their mylar reinvention as I've been, but I heard the phrase "It's supposedly like old U2" spoken with enough frequency and reverence, leading up to the release of All That You Can't Leave Behind, to realize I'm not alone, either. The album title suggests a re-embracing of their past, the black and white cover art evokes a simpler aesthetic than the brash colors of Achtung Baby, Zooropa or Pop, and most tellingly, Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno are back at the controls, and Flood (whose adventurous, gadgety production work I've liked in several other contexts, but had started to think was a big part of the trouble with U2) is absent. Either U2 are returning to their roots, or else they want us to think they're returning to their roots.
I am basically eager to comply, but I think it's only about half true. Certainly these songs hark back no further than The Joshua Tree, so if you were hoping for a dozen new "Sunday Bloody Sunday"s you'll be disappointed. "Beautiful Day" opens with sweeping synthesizers and stiff drum-machines, and although the choruses are passionately sung, it's a more intimate, quieter, more knowing passion than the unguarded howls of "Gloria" or "New Year's Day". "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" is composed and elegant, a silky pop song strung over chiming piano and a diffident hi-hat patter, but it belongs to the tradition of Elton John and the Bee Gees, not the agitpop heritage of the Alarm and the Waterboys. The grinding, quasi-industrial underpinnings of "Elevation" are straight out of the Flood era, and Bono's co-opting of the reggae mannerism "I and I" is exactly the kind of casual imperiousness that alienated me for a decade. "Walk On" shies away from the measured grace of "With or Without You", but the slashing guitars and Bono's fraying vocal delivery are the things most of the bands who borrowed from U2 borrowed, and the twinkling piano suggests an attempt to connect what came after to what came before. The unhurried, spiraling "Kite" could be a retroactive tutorial for Live and Travis. Much of "In a Little While", on the other hand, strikes me as a fairly blatant Robbie Robertson rip-off, the kind of thing they'd have relegated to a b-side when they were younger. The warm, jangly "Wild Honey", with its acoustic guitars, springy bass, shuffling drums and deliberately simplified structure, could be an artist's conception of an even older U2 covering an early Beatles song. I wish Bono had chosen less obtrusively somber lyrics for "Peace on Earth", but the music dictated a benedictory closing-credits ambience, so I guess I shouldn't be too surprised. I wish the words to "When I Look at the World" weren't as generic, too, but the music is like an apologetic reprimand to Garbage for thinking that so much manipulation was necessary to make nervous energy pulse. "New York" can't quite decide, it seems to me, whether to be an insider's requiem, à la Lou Reed, or an outsider's notebook, like Black 47's, and I'm left wondering whether they meant to get it out as a single before the Subway Series. "Grace", though, ends the album in a familiarly reverent calm, the Edge's guitars pinging into the distance, Bono close to his microphone, Eno's synth textures swirling around them.
And then it's over. Eleven songs, forty-nine minutes; it's not short or incomplete, exactly, but neither is it an epic with designs on the zeitgeist, nor a sudden atonement for a decade spent as semi-ironic cartoon figures. Even more so than Kid A, it's just an album. A good album? Yes, maybe. There are enough things I like to win me back provisionally. I love the methodical electronic-kick-drum heartbeat under "Beautiful Day", and the unselfconscious way the choruses splay out. "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" sacrifices some of U2's identity, but in return gets back an admirably timeless pop song, and to me "I'm just trying to find a decent melody, / A song that I can sing in my own company" is one of the relatively rare examples of Bono's erratic poetry landing lightly within range of a small, poignant insight, and having the sense not to scare it away. The break in the middle of "Elevation" where the drums seem to come back in as if approaching underwater might supplant the two bangs in the middle of Garbage's "When I Grow Up" as my single favorite isolated percussion effect. "Walk On" is stirring, and the cycling "All that you..."s in the coda are one of the exit figures rock is best at. The brittle, bluesy "In a Little While" begs so obviously to be cut up and reassembled as hip-hop that I wonder if they meant it as a dare. The torn-speaker-cone guitars in "When I Look at the World" make me think, briefly, that U2 has learned a return lesson from what Maria McKee made of their lead. In the end, though, this album isn't the recapitulation that brings me back to U2 for good, so much as it is the context in which I become receptive to the prospect. Maybe I should worry that I use a five-and-a-half-year-old scene from a canceled TV show to explain to myself what a thirteen-year-old album still does for me, that this one doesn't, but here it is: Jordan, after screwing up his chances with Angela, gets Brian to effectively ghost his apology to her. Brian loves Angela more than Jordan does, and understands her much better, so of course the apology is far more effective than it has a right to be. "OK", Angela says. "OK, what?", Jordan asks. "OK," she explains, "now we can have a serious talk." And Jordan, who doesn't know much about conversations and thus confuses their beginnings with their ends, dashes off in a panic. The letter comes later, and then later still she gets into his car and they drive away, leaving Brian standing in the street. The twentieth episode of My So-Called Life was never made, so we don't know how the serious talk went. Did Brian humanize Jordan just enough to give him a chance with Angela, or did she give up on him five minutes later and come back? Hopefully in U2 and my version of this story I'll get to find out.
Emmylou Harris: Red Dirt Girl
Daniel Lanois has two entries in my list, as he also produced Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball, which still seems to me like the proper successor to The Joshua Tree. A part of me is sad that Wrecking Ball didn't make Emmylou as famous as The Joshua Tree made U2, as I suspect she would have carried off global notoriety with a memorable panache, but it did wonders for her side-career as a backing vocalist, with the result that five years slip by before this, her following studio album, makes it out. Lanois isn't around for this one, but Wrecking Ball engineer Malcolm Burn, a long-time Lanois collaborator, takes over, and he doesn't try to invent a new atmosphere, so Red Dirt Girl sounds like the next step in a natural progression. The one major logistical difference is that where most of Emmylou's albums have only one or two of her own songs (and even 1985's The Ballad of Sally Rose, for which she had co-writing credit on all songs, had only one song attributed solely to her), this one has eight she wrote by herself, three more co-written, and only one cover. For all the favors that must be owed her by now, she calls in surprisingly few people to help her play them. Burn contributes bass, programming, guitars and some miscellany. Emmylou herself plays guitar on most songs. Ethan Johns plays electric guitar on most, mando cello on a couple, and drums on three. Daryl Johnson plays bass on many, and sings backup on two. Buddy Miller plays guitar on five, and his wife Julie sings on three. Kate McGarrigle plays accordion on "J'Ai Fait Tout", and piano on "Boy From Tupelo". The only overt star turns are harmony vocals from Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa on "Tragedy", Patty Griffin on "My Baby Needs a Shepherd" and "Hour of Gold" (but not, oddly, her own "One Big Love"), and Dave Matthews on "My Antonia", and the one other notable payback from Emmylou's studio travels is Luscious Jackson's Jill Cunniff co-writing one song and playing on two others.
The resulting album is, if anything, even more consistently ethereal and elegiac than Wrecking Ball. The distinctly "Biko"-like "The Pearl" uses guitars only as backdrop, letting Burn and Johnson's basses and Johnson's drumming drive the arrangement, Emmylou's eerie lead wafting overhead. "Michelangelo" sounds like a cross between "Where the Streets Have No Name" and some old Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie folk song. "I Don't Wanna Talk About It Now" is tense and clacking, in the vein of Wrecking Ball's "Deeper Well". A muscly Burn drum-loop girds "Tragedy", but a Christmas-ish Fender Rhodes heads off any industrial angst, and by the time Bruce and Patti get through adding their harmonies it sounds more like a requiem. The packed cadences of "Red Dirt Girl" remind me of the McGarrigles, even though it isn't one that Kate plays on. "My Baby Needs a Shepherd" is a gospel lullaby flawed only in that parents who can't harmonize as fluently as Emmylou and Patty might now be reluctant to sing it to their children. Emmylou and Guy Clark's "Bang the Drum Slowly" starts clumsily, with an ill-advised sing-song rhyme in "I meant to ask you how to fix that car, / I always meant to ask you about the war / And what you saw across a bridge too far, / Did it leave a scar?", but Emmylou then rescues it by ditching the "Is war bad, Grampa?" naïveté and implicating herself: "I meant to ask you ... / If you ever really were deceived / By the likes of me", and "I meant to bring you water from the well, / And be the one beside you when you fell, / Could you tell?" "J'Ai Fait Tout", with both Jill Cunniff and Kate McGarrigle, turns out to be an intriguingly amiable battle between their New York street-folk and French-Canadian traditionalist influences. The cover of Patty Griffin's "One Big Love" is paced by an stolidly metronomic kick/hi-hat/snare pattern, but airy harmony rounds from Cunniff and Julie Miller keep it from bogging down. "Hour of Gold" has half a dozen instruments on it, but sounds practically a cappella. "My Antonia", the duet with Dave Matthews, is a sad storyteller's folk anthem in the mold of Guthrie's "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)". And "Boy From Tupelo", on the way out, says a thanks-giving goodbye with what might be nods to the Carter Family, Nanci Griffith and "Sweetheart of the Rodeo", before settling into a wordlessly hummed exit carol.
And it's only as the album ends that I notice how much it feels to me like it's always been ending. All the instruments that usually carry the melodies (and thus the personalities) of country and rock songs, primarily guitars and pianos, are here pushed so far back into the texture of the arrangements that they virtually disappear. In conventional production this is usually only done during fadeouts, and thus even the portentous openings of these songs feel like muted epilogues. The 1998 live album Spyboy was an explicit reprise of Wrecking Ball in the formal sense, but Red Dirt Girl is an echo in a more roundabout way, as if Emmylou is making up new words to go with a blurring memory of what Wrecking Ball felt like when it was new. A whole album of exit music is a strange impulse, arguably, and it means that this record depends on Wrecking Ball, which I imagine for some will constitute a criticism. But it's one of music's most important and unique powers, I think, to capture and preserve otherwise evanescent emotions long enough that they can be savored and examined. Wrecking Ball will remain the album I want to hear when I want to think about Wrecking Ball, but Red Dirt Girl is now the one for thinking about why I care, or how the world adjusts itself to permit beauty, or the difference between calm and resignation, or how smoke curls and waves as it escapes, and how we sometimes forget to.
Joe Jackson: Night and Day II
I don't think I'm courting any controversy by considering All That You Can't Leave Behind and Red Dirt Girl as sequels to The Joshua Tree and Wrecking Ball, but music is curiously averse to the idea of acknowledged sequels. The only other two I can think of (although I have the nagging sensation that I'm missing one) are Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell II and Neil Young's Harvest Moon. In Meat Loaf's case, there seemed to be obvious commercial motivations, but since Joe Jackson has never shown any sign of caring what his existing fans expect from him (and, even if he felt like placating them, the live album Summer in the City just came out earlier this year), it's hard to imagine that he picked this title opportunistically. All I assumed, and all I hoped, was that it meant he was going to do a whole album of pop songs, instead of half of one (like Heaven & Hell) or none of one (like Symphony No. 1). And if they were to resemble Night and Day in some stylistic way, then since it was my favorite of his old albums, so much the better.
And they do, basically, but Night and Day II still isn't really a sequel, at least not the way we mean when we talk about movies or books. It is a New York record, as was the first one, but it's eighteen years and a lot of records later, and II doesn't resume the story so much as it simply starts over. That was the New York Joe saw in 1982, this is the one he sees in 2000. You can't quite say that this is what Night and Day would have sounded like if he'd made it now, since the existence of Night and Day is an inextricable component of how "now" feels, but as blurby one-sentence abstracts go it's close. I don't know what's become of Night and Day drummer Larry Tolfree, but original bassist Graham Maby helps out with three of these new songs, and percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos with four of the others. Joe sings six, reserving one each for Sussan Deyhim, Dale De Vere and Marianne Faithful. There are a handful of allusions to the older record in the lyrics of the new songs, and the sort of blocky, high-register jazz-piano chords the first album relied on are here frequently re-used as motifs.
Wisdom and perspective don't always make for improved art, of course, so I'm startled to find myself thinking, after living with this album for only three weeks, not only that its claim on my list of Good Albums may be as strong as Night and Day's, but that it may well be better, and even might, although I don't start making top-ten drafts until December and this has been a very good year, be my choice for the album of the year. If it holds off the other challengers it will probably be due to the combined effect of five variously trivial elements. The first is Joe's production of the bass parts. On some of these songs it's his own bounding synth-bass (as in the unapologetically artificial run in the stop/start "Stranger Than You" and the liquid booms in "Dear Mom"), on some it's Maby (whose sturdy rumble undercuts the Pet-Shop-Boys-ish sequencer twitter on "Glamour and Pain", and anchors the 3/4 drift of "Love Got Lost"), and on some it's the string quartet Ethel's cellist Dorothy Lawson, but in all three cases Joe gives them room on the soundstage to maneuver. There are also no guitars and very few conventional kick/snare drum parts, so on many of these songs the bass is the rhythm section, which lends the music a strikingly sinuous, open, resonant structure, unexpected in something like the way Gaudí's Barcelona apartment facades undulate in the space between their rectilinear neighbors.
The second element is Joe himself. He's matured as a singer, predictably, and he's become one of only two piano players I feel confident I can recognize from a few bars (Tori is the other), but the most impressive thing, to me, is how he has adapted his compositional style. He's not the only pop musician to have tried writing "serious" music, but he's one of the only ones who seems to me to have returned from his classical adventures with senses not of retreat and relief, but of renewed excitement and relevance. String quartets on pop records usually play transposed keyboard parts, but Joe gives this one things to do that uniquely suit a string quartet, from the sedate "Prelude" to the sawing Kronos-esque new-classical jam in the throbbing "Just Because". Many of the keyboard runs and sequences, notably the two-note oscillation in the verses of "Dear Mom" that turns out to be an extended segue to the fluttering chorus, adopt classical music's expanded time horizon, rather than settling for short repeated hooks, which makes me painfully aware of how often forty-five-minute pop albums are constructed by plugging repeat symbols into ten or fifteen minutes of musical thought. "Happyland" is like a Bruce Cockburn song that's been hiding inside Barry Manilow's "Copacabana" all this time. Night and Day was a jazz-pop album; this is something else, something that David Byrne, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Beth Orton and David Gray have all been working towards, something with a subtler understanding of subversion than punk squall, maybe city music for people who like cities for the people in them, where Moby and Fatboy Slim's wing of jittery, DJ-centric electronica is city music for people who like having fast pizza delivery and more cable channels.
The third element is Joe's use of his guest vocalists. They each appear only once here, and when Stephin Merritt tries to dole out one song per guest he always loses me, but Joe manages to weave them together so they feel like ensemble players, not dilettantes. Deyhim, looking baffled and belligerent in a brilliant liner photo that has her standing in a Times-Square-crosswalk traffic blur, wearing an ornate jacket and some sort of crown, with a hopelessly inadequate suitcase by her right foot, sings her operatic part in "Why" as if she's nominally a singer but actually a hybrid string instrument. De Vere, whose photo looks so much like a black-and-white movie star's promotional shot that I'm forced to assume he's a man in drag, sings "Glamour and Pain" in a falsetto I can easily imagine is Joe's. And Marianne Faithful sounds like Marianne Faithful, but Joe sings some backing vocals for her and Alexandra Montano adds a ghostly soprano, and the whole production comes off like New York is so full of unjustly neglected icons that the city's songwriters have conscientiously agreed to donate one song per album to their upkeep.
The fourth thing is the lyrics. Bono and Emmylou are limited lyricists who can sometimes elevate their words by performing them, and with the possible exception of "Real Men", the lyrics on Night and Day aren't very remarkable either. "Just Because..." repeats Meat Loaf's artistic cop-out of basing a song's chorus on a whole phrase he didn't invent (although Joe at least gets his cliché, "Just because you're paranoid / Don't mean they're not out to get ya", right), and "Hell of a Town" and "Why" are lyrical throwaways, but the other six are all worth attention. The slyly affectionate, gender-ambiguous "Stranger Than You" is a rare pop song with the courage to put the set-up in the verses and the punch-line in the choruses (although Meat Loaf did that, too, and then had to endure years of being asked about it by people too lazy to parse a simple sentence). "Glamour and Pain" is an unflinching anti-"I Will Survive", either about a prostitute struggling against servile anonymity, or a normal person recognizing the component of anonymous prostitute in themselves. "Dear Mom" is the travel diary of a dutiful son sent to the city to retrieve his errant younger sister, only to decide that he'd rather not go home either. "Love Got Lost" is a memoir of how the desperately lonely barely function ("Saturday night, went to see La Bohème, / Used the spare ticket just for my coat", "I'd like a new body and face / But I'd settle for a friend with a space / On their calendar"). The clattering "Happyland" turns a 1990 Bronx night-club fire into a half-defiant, half-helpless survivor's anthem when one of the witnesses goes back after it reopens, because where else can she dance? And "Stay", the finale, is a slow city salute that asks "Give me one reason to stay", gets no answer, and then stays anyway.
And the last, smallest and potentially most profound thing is the ticking hi-hat track. It is the first thing we hear at the beginning of the album, and it is present in one form or another in every song. Skip through the tracks listening to only the first few seconds of each, and it's like flipping through the finalists of a Sunday-paper coloring contest. Tracks one through eight use exactly the same loop, nine modifies it slightly, and only in "Stay" does it begin to unravel. In context, though, it's tactile continuity, and it stands, I assume, for the ever-present ticking of the city itself, which makes this an album that not only argues for the city's potential, but one that itself demonstrates how much variety and truth can be articulated over an arbitrary grid. Night and Day was chaotic and scared, and exhilarated by those things, a non-argument for the city based on random danger and the feeling of immortality that comes from brushes with it. By Night and Day II it's a different city, in reality, but more importantly it's also a different city in allegory. The strangers who might knife you, after all, aren't half as dangerous or interesting as the people you think you know, who won't, and the longer you stay, anywhere, the more of the former become the latter, and the more you realize that you define yourself not by how you stare down death, but by how clearly you see the living. It's a New York album, but I hate New York, so I generalize. In the liner pictures, after all, the people turn into wind and leave the spaces bright, busy and empty, and we have bright, busy, empty spaces in Boston, too. You don't need a city for that, you just need a lamp, and a room, and somebody to not be in it. We stay, or we go. We leave home, which ought to be self-contradiction. And we come back, periodically, to somewhere we've been all along, to see what's left of it, or, more likely, to see what's left of us.