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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

George Harrison: Electronic Sound


1) Under The Mersey Wall; 2) No Time Or Space.

General verdict: Where the boundary between testing equipment and making art moogically disappears.

Well, one thing is for certain: nobody in his right mind will dare call George Harrison «The Quiet Beatle» upon listening to this album. Only the second and already the last record to be produced on Apple's eccentricity-oriented side label, Zapple, Electronic Sound is a bold, challenging, pioneering exploration of the universe's sonic capacities that not only puts to shame everything The Beatles, collectively or individually, had come up with to that date, but should also hold its own against such pioneers of electronic music as Pierre Schaeffer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and the entire Krautrock scene.

Actually, the major difference that makes all the difference is that George Harrison himself — the quiet Beatle curse strikes whether we like it or not — never called it «art», or wrote any self-important manifestos on the subject, or made it the aural part of a Yoko Ono installation, or, in fact, did anything about it except slap an example of his own childlike painting on the front sleeve. Other than that, I actually struggle to understand why, for instance, some of the earliest Kraftwerk albums should be (as they typically do) branded as «avantgarde art», whereas Elec­tronic Sound is usually hushed up as, at best, irrelevant, and at worst, embarrassing.

Ultimately, it is a matter of knowledge. We know that George Harrison was deeply intrigued and fascinated by new sounds, and that he went out and bought a brand new Moog synth from Moog himself. We know that one of the pieces was edited from a demonstration of the Moog that Bernie Krause gave to George in California. We know that the other one was recorded entirely by George himself at his own home in Surrey (poor, poor Surrey inhabitants of 1968 and 1969 that had to endure both George and Yoko-John). We know that George never, ever did anything even remotely reminiscent of this again — but we also know that he did use the Moog in the sessions for Abbey Road, professionally and melodically, having tested it beforehand in a variety of ways. In light of all this knowledge, we have the right to say that Electronic Sound is not an artistic statement, but simply forty minutes of knob-twiddling in order to get accustomed to this brand new Leviathan of Sound.

If we did not know any of that, what could be our reaction? Well, a lot of this obviously sounds very psychedelic. Some bits could be described as «ambient», some as «industrial», some as «proto-glitch», some as «noise» (in the Art sense of the word), and some could even be sneaked onto an Aphex Twin album and you'd hardly notice. Most could be sneaked onto a Hawkwind album and you'd definitely not notice. If your knowledge of old and modern electronic music is sufficiently advanced, you'd never once feel bothered here — after all, George had the tact not to invite Yoko Ono into the studio for company, and outside of that, a tortured Moog still sounds much better than, say, a tortured violin. But, as it happens, we are told that this is not art: this is merely a technical demonstration of the possibility of the Moog to sound like everything from the Northern wind to a malfunctioning nuclear reactor to an inebriated space alien passing out in your bathroom. And, as any technical demonstration of anything technically produced in 1969, the album has long since passed its date of expiration.

Also, just to confirm that I have, in fact, listened to this album in its entirety, I must state that its second side (ʽNo Time Or Spaceʼ) sounds more adventurous and generally «far-out-there» than the first one, ʽUnder The Mersey Wallʼ. The latter is mostly hushing, hissing, and bleeping; the former occasionally evolves into a full-blown space battle, and the sound, overall, is fuller and more three-dimensional. I guess, after all, that Krause's demonstration was not nearly as instruc­tive for his pupil as it could have been — there was probably no danger of George Harrison evolving into Vangelis or Klaus Schulze at any given point in time. On the other hand, could Vangelis or Klaus Schulze have come up with that insanely catchy, yet also transcendental-soun­ding little Moog countermelody on ʽHere Comes The Sunʼ? Even if you think "yes", I'd rather you not say it out loud — out of simple courtesy.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Marvin Gaye: When I'm Alone I Cry


1) You've Changed; 2) I Was Telling Her About You; 3) I Wonder; 4) I'll Be Around; 5) Because Of You; 6) I Don't Know Why; 7) I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face; 8) When Your Lover Has Gone; 9) When I'm Alone I Cry; 10) If My Heart Could Sing.

General verdict: Marvin Gaye + show tunes = John Lennon + Yoko Ono. Happy together, but why should WE suffer?

«...and when the boss is not looking, I keep trying to push another oldies album under his nose.» It is odd just how many tries it took to convince Marvin to stop doing this, but yes, this is another in a series of thoroughly useless records. This time, he was allegedly inspired by Billie Holiday's Lady In Satin and the luxurious orchestration by Ray Ellis, so you will see two songs from that album covered here, and, of course, strings, strings, strings a-plenty — the record is best enjoyed with tuxedos, champagne, and an upper class prom date.

No irony is enough to conceal the smooth beauty of Marvin Gaye's voice, of course, but this odd idea of «I want to be Billie Holiday for a while» does it a great disservice: Billie was a one-of-a-kind singer who could imbue classy, mesmerizing melancholy and subtle tragedy into even the sappiest material, turning it upside down and completely usurping the original message of the songs. Marvin, as good as he is, is a sentimental sweetheart, and all of this time he is simply dripping large globs all over the place. I mean, if Professor Higgins ever sang ʽI've Grown Ac­customed To Her Faceʼ like that... well, he'd probably be better off marrying Eliza Doolittle right on the spot and forfeiting all his bets for eternity.

Perhaps if he at least thought about interspersing balladry with a few more up-tempo numbers, the final result would have been less dreary — as it is, it is even slower and more relaxed than Soulful Moods. Strangest of all is the inclusion of two new numbers, specially written by Motown residents (Mickey Stevenson and Morris Broadnax) — the title track and ʽIf My Heart Could Singʼ — explicitly in the same style of old musicals; such must have been their love and adoration for Marvin that they did not use this chance to pack him with at least a couple last minute save-face R&B numbers, but instead adapted their writing to pre-war aesthetics and came out with even more quickly forgettable garbage.

My stance on old popular songs is short and simple — it always takes a uniquely powerful or gifted vocalist to bring them to life, and Marvin Gaye, with all due respect, was never a uniquely powerful or gifted vocalist. Consequently, this album was doomed to suck, and guess what? It sucks. Incidentally, that same year, Ella Fitzgerald recorded her last «songbook» album (Sings The Johnny Mercer Songbook), and this is what you should be listening to, rather than Marvin Gaye auditioning for My Fair Lady.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sufjan Stevens: Greetings From Michigan...


1) Flint (For The Unemployed And Underpaid); 2) All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!; 3) For The Widows In Paradise, For The Fatherless In Ypsi­lanti; 4) Say Yes! To M!ch!gan!; 5) The Upper Peninsula; 6) Tahquamenon Falls; 7) Holland; 8) Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!); 9) Romulus; 10) Alanson, Crooked River; 11) Sleeping Bear, Sault Saint Marie; 12) They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black (For The Homeless In Muskegon); 13) Oh God, Where Are You Now? (In Pickeral Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?); 14) Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou); 15) Vito's Ordination Song.

General verdict: Candy-wrapped sympathy for the working man: complex, cute, and colorfully colorless.

This, I believe, was the album that firmly put Stevens on the map, garnering a plethora of reviews and endearing the man to all the hotspots in the indie community — although still far away from the degree of commercial success he'd achieve in the next decade. The accompanying PR move was that the album was going to be Sufjan's first in a series of fifty, as he promised to paint musical portraits of each of the not-so-well-united States of Sufjan Stevens. And who knows? the promise might even have been a rashly sincere one; but as time went by, he probably began to realize that it is one thing to write music about a place where you were born and raised and where you know every nook and corner — it's quite another thing to write music about, uhm... Wyoming, for instance, because you'd be faced with the choice of squandering all your hard-earned cash on plane and train tickets or talking trash about locations you know nothing of. Con­sequently, the project was scrapped, but not before it had gained Sufjan plenty of recognition with two of his most acclaimed albums to date.

This is where Sufjan as his loving fans truly know him emerges in all his buttery might, and it is certainly nice that this had to be a lengthy love poem to his homeland. There is plenty to love about Michigan, I guess, and plenty to feel sorry about, and I do not dare to doubt, even for one moment, the sincerity of Sufjan's feelings: the two chief themes that run through the album are admiration for the natural beauty of the place (largely reflected in the instrumentals) and sorrow for the tough fates of its inhabitants, inevitably mixed with optimistic hopes for the future. At the same time, even if you are one of those «death to America!» types, the music that Stevens writes has no obligatory connections to any specific time or place — you are perfectly free to use the state of Michigan as an allegory for humanity in general; good or bad, this whole record is about vibes, and vibes, like radiowaves, transcend their places of origin.

These, however, are easy compliments to give away. It would be much harder to explain why this album does absolutely nothing for me, a big fan of so many of Sufjan's biggest influences, from Paul McCartney to Brian Wilson to old folkies and bluesmen and jazzmen and all sorts of psychedelic pop gurus. Let us give it a crude try, striking the first flint with, well, ʽFlint (For The Unemployed And Underpaid)ʼ that opens the album — theoretically, on a good note, with a modestly arranged intimate ballad that puts Sufjan and his piano square in the center, and also lets us know that the man's first and foremost concern is about the people: his love ode to Michigan begins not with a happy outpouring of amazement at the scenery, but with an impersonated com­plaint from an unnamed resident of one of Michigan's biggest shitholes.

The song might be poised at greatness, and yet I sense no magic in it. Thankfully, it is not mani­pulatively bad, like a lot of those stripped-down, melancholically-programmed tear-jerkers that indie musicians like to syndicate out to cheap arthouse movies. No, Stevens is better than that: his own melancholy is kind, subtle, and never irritatingly intrusive. But he has a different problem — make this stuff poignant and remarkable. The quiet piano chords play a McCartney-esque pop melody without any signs of a striking McCartney-esque resolution. The quiet vocals sing along to the same melody without being overtly happy or overtly sad. Perhaps Sufjan's very point here is to write a song whose emotional impact would be triggered by lack of any explicit emotionality, a song that would shake up the listener by having the chorus line "even if I died alone" repeatedly pronounced as if he were already dead. Perhaps he even makes that point for many listeners: to my ears, the effect is pleasant and soothing, but bland.

One aspect where the album fails rather miserably is social message — of which there is plenty. Michigan is a troubled state, and in many ways, the album shows Sufjan's empathy towards its inhabitants — and at least on one track, the aptly titled ʽDetroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!ʼ even tries to cheer them up by glorifying its history. But most, if not all, of Sufjan's music is «doll­house music» — it really sounds like an ensemble / orchestra of fluffy teddy bears and china ladies and Barbies and tin soldiers — and while this is definitely a novel way to present your social message, especially when compared with the likes of, say, Bruce Springsteen, I wouldn't necessarily call it a more efficient way. Not only do the eight minutes of ʽDetroitʼ consist of largely just one endless, albeit jazzily complex and polyphonic, groove, but the instrumentation and arrangement of the groove, heavy on chimes, soft brass and gossamer vocals, makes it into a playful pixie dance: unfortunately, a dance that is way too quiet and even to excite me senses, and also a dance that few of the genuinely affected citizens of Michigan would probably deem a suitable reflection of their troubles — although I certainly cannot speak on behalf of unemployed Michi­ganders, most of whom could not afford to buy a copy of the album anyway.

Honestly, I much prefer the instrumentals. ʽTahquamenon Fallsʼ is a pretty ambient-ish represen­tation of falling water with several layers of pretty chimes — and later, the same chimes come back in a different pattern for ʽAlanson, Crooked Riverʼ. The piano melody of ʽRedfordʼ should probably be defined as «incidental music», but the main simple theme is soothing and never tries to say more than it is meant to. But the vocal numbers? I do not really even know where to start. Too many of them, to my ears, sound like smooth jazz merged with generic folk, with complexity emerging due to multiple sonic layers rather than interesting melodies — listen to ʽAll Good Naysayersʼ and tell me that its base melody is better than the most average piano theme to the most average soft jazz album you've ever heard and watch me not believing you. The only reason why these things occasionally turn into quasi-psychedelic experiences is because he is obsessed with overdubs, so there will be backup vocals a-plenty, brass passages, chimes, guitars, and each of these parts will be equally cuddly, and the gritty world of Michigan will be all wrapped up in pink ribbons, and the little teddy bears will plink-plonk on their drums and the tiny pixies will coo and whee and whoopee, and all the homeless in Muskegon will be happy as fuck.

For the sake of accuracy, there are a few moments of would-be classic Americana on the album, especially when Sufjan picks up his first love, the banjo: ʽThe Upper Peninsulaʼ starts out like a fairly bona fide neo-country number, with the banjo, the tired electric guitar, and the opening lines ("I live in America / with a pair of Payless shoes") announcing the arrival of the world-weary, ragged prota­gonist. But this style requires a certain degree of rawness that is unattainable from Stevens, a sonic perfectionist wrapping everything in pristine production cellophane — and when he sings "I lost my mind, I lost my life, I lost my job, I lost my wife", I believe him about as much as I'd believe Al Capone giving a speech at a charity ball. Perhaps there is some sort of understanding that sweetness and smoothness are the new pain, now that the 21st century is here, that I have totally missed, but if so, I'm not sure if I really want to catch up.

Wrapping this whole shit up in a simple way, I cannot remember even a single song from this ordeal — nothing but this overall feel of sickly sweetness and wound-up teddy bears prancing around mulberry trees, which, honestly, is not the kind of feel I'd like to associate with the state of Michigan, even if I've never been there and this guy spent most of his life there. It is probably true that many fans of colorful, inventive, challenging lush pop music à la Beach Boys will call this attitude narrow-minded; but as far as I am concerned, at the heart of the Beach Boys lay a musical genius producing endless series of emotional jolts — Sufjan Stevens, in comparison, is a technical craftsman and nothing more. Of course, this is only the beginning of the journey, and it is still somewhat fascinating to watch the level of that craft go up and up and up over the next decade, but the level of emotional depth displayed on Michigan would consistently stay the same, because lack of genius is not something that you remedy with an extra pack of overdubs — or, for that matter, an extra ten words in the title of your next song.

Sufjan Stevens: Enjoy Your Rabbit


1) Year Of The Asthmatic Cat; 2) Year Of The Monkey; 3) Year Of The Rat; 4) Year Of The Ox; 5) Year Of The Boar; 6) Year Of The Tiger; 7) Year Of The Snake; 8) Year Of The Sheep; 9) Year Of The Rooster; 10) Year Of The Dragon; 11) Enjoy Your Rabbit; 12) Year Of The Dog; 13) Year Of The Horse; 14) Year Of Our Lord.

General verdict: Complex, pointless, repetitive, and overcooked electronic art from Sisyphus Stevens.

This is how Sufjan Stevens himself describes the creative process behind this record: "I put together argumentative essays, stanzas of free verse poetry, persuasive dissertations and asser­tions, using algorithms and geometric proofs and anthropomorphic relationships between animals, to prove the existence of God based on the 12-year lunar calendar". Of course, this is a statement loaded with self-irony, so do not take it too seriously. Take more seriously the following state­ment from the same interview: "Many people say the same thing: that they inevitably end up visualizing a place or a picture when listening (carefully) to the album".

Personally, I love the process of visualization. The best kind of music is the one that pulls your heart strings, but the second best kind of music is the one that is easily converted to pictures in your mind — like the Giant Serpent hiding in the opening riff of Black Sabbath's ʽInto The Voidʼ, or the treacherous asteroid fields threatening to destroy your spaceship in Pink Floyd's ʽInter­stellar Overdriveʼ. And I totally respect the ambitiousness and earnestness of Sufjan Stevens when he set about creating a large, sprawling, complex electronic album about the twelve animals that constitute the calendar cycle. I mean, if Saint-Saëns himself reasonably got away with an idea like that once, why not Sufjan Stevens? He also comes with two big "S".

Most people are familiar with Stevens' electronic art through the much later Age Of Adz, but, as this record clearly points out, his fascination with electronics began almost at the same time as his fascination with everything else. The album is not purely electronic: Stevens uses plenty of guitars and keyboards as well — but he still ends up processing and sampling them so that, in the end, everything lies strictly within digital territory. And, as usual, there are no time limits — compositions can range from 3-4 minutes and up to 8-9, with ʽYear Of The Horseʼ triumphantly ending the main set with 13 minutes of non-stop electronic bombast.

The main problem with the album — as it is, frankly, with most Sufjan Stevens albums — is that it never seems to properly understand what it is that it wants to be. In several of the man's brief commentaries on the record he tends to stress how much time and effort it took to prepare all the samples, how personal the experience had become to him over that time, and how he tried to make it all as symbolic as possible. That's all fine and dandy, but it is also clear that Enjoy Your Rabbit is going to be viewed in the context of all the other electronic music out there, and while I am no huge expert on the genre, I know enough to insist that Sufjan's experiment pretty much falls through every available crack there is in the electronic foundation.

If you think of electronic music as a continuum where you find, say, Aphex Twin on one end  (strictly and steadily beat-based dance music for robots and aliens) and Animal Collective on the other end (chaotic, far-out-there, hysterical soundscapes to blow your mind), Enjoy Your Rabbit does not compare favorably with either of these. Most of its tracks are too slow, too conventional on the rhythmic side to be club-danceable; but they are also much too quiet, repetitive, and restrained to attract your attention in an Animal Collective kind of way. The results are moderate­ly weird, for sure, but this hardly qualifies as «music for the body», and even less so as «music for the heart». Its only saving grace is to be found in the alleged symbolism, and this is where things get really complicated and controversial.

Thus, ʽYear Of The Monkeyʼ begins our cycle (for some reason, Stevens has mixed up the standard running order) with what sounds like a mash-up between an avantgarde jazz track (with atonal brass passages all over) and glitch, moving through several different sections and probably trying to reflect the fussiness and chaos associated with monkeys. Rationally thinking, it is a clever idea, yes it is, but do glitch and free-form jazz truly form a natural, inspired, and inspiring combination? My own process of visualization seems to be blocked by this combo — at best I can come up with something like «a bunch of drunk New Orleanian musicians in a funeral pro­cession being attacked by little nanite insects», and this (a) has nothing to do with monkeys and (b) might seem much more awesome from this description than it is in reality. Yes, Sufjan Stevens is an obsessive combobulator, synthesizer, and musical architect — it's just that his combos, syntheses, and completed edifices consistently strike me as pointless monstrosities, and every single track here is consistent with that consistency.

Above everything else, this record has no sonic depth to it. All the tracks sound exactly the way that electronic stuff sounds when it is created in homebrewn conditions. With a good producer, ʽYear Of The Ratʼ might have ended up sounding like a true psychedelic carnival; as it is, it ends up sounding almost chipmunked, and I cannot for the life of me take it seriously — unless we remember that chipmunks are somewhat similar to rats, but even then, it still sounds like some stupid soundtrack to a magic show for kids, and, honestly, I do not give a damn about how many different layers of sound there are here. In reality, the track is static, boring, lacks a sense of pur­pose, and buries a few nice melodic ideas (like the little xylophone passage at the beginning) in a sea of messy polyphonic repetition.

Finally, another significant beef is that the goddamn tracks simply sound too much alike. In a conceptual album dedicated to twelve different animals with twelve obviously different charac­ters, you'd expect a lot of emotional diversity — in reality, you get pretty much the same feel of a fussy, by-the-book magic show in every single occasion. Yes, some of the tracks are glitchier than others; some have choral harmonies, others are purely instrumental; but when your ʽYear Of The Tigerʼ sets precisely the same mood as your ʽYear Of The Roosterʼ, you really begin to wonder if the effort was worth anything in the first place. I was marginally amused that ʽYear Of The Boarʼ was the one track to feature an insane gallop tempo (because few things are as terri­fying, apparently, as the light speed charge of a mature boar with zodiacal significance), but out­side of that, all that was left to do was pick up the associations — thus, the title track sounds like an homage to King Crimson, all jagged and crooked riffs and tricky time signatures; only it is stiff and robotic, compared to the real thing. And nothing to do with rabbits.

On a serious note, if you listen hard enough, you will discern many of the same folk motives that Sufjan had already showed a passion for on his first record — at the heart of this electronic mish­mash lies a very traditionalist approach to music-making, and many of these tracks could be played on, say, acoustic guitar and flute. But this would not make them more interesting: the very point of the record is to merge the old stuff with electronics, and I am sorry to say that I see no point in that point, as the opposite ends burn each other up rather than bring out the perfection in each other. Needless to say, this is just my own aesthetic opinion. You are free to enjoy your rabbit — I'd rather go for duck soup.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Radiohead: OK Computer


1) Airbag; 2) Paranoid Android; 3) Subterranean Homesick Alien; 4) Exit Music (For A Film); 5) Let Down; 6) Karma Police; 7) Fitter Happier; 8) Electioneering; 9) Climbing Up The Walls; 10) No Surprises; 11) Lucky; 12) The Tourist.

General verdict: Like, NOT the greatest album of all time. What other general verdict might there be?

With the release of The Bends, Radiohead began to acquire a solid critical reputation as a more heavily intellectual, ambitious, experimental alternative to the dominant Britpop scene — however, their popularity outside of the UK (or Europe, at least) remained limited, and after the success of ʽCreepʼ they had not yet been able to return to the big commercial league in the US. Nevertheless, with grunge and Britpop clearing the path and setting the stage for potential new breakthroughs in the art-rockish department, by the second half of the Nineties the world was finally ready to fall under the spell of some new reincarnation of Shakespearian tragedy in a pop album format, something it hadn't probably done in, what, more than two decades?..

Now, although OK Computer is nearly always spoken of as a concept album, with «survival in the modern world» as a basic theme, it was not specifically intended as such; the songs were written over a long time stretch (thus, ʽLuckyʼ dates back to 1995, when they recorded it for a special charity album at Brian Eno's request), cover a whole variety of issues and display so many different influences that the only objectively conceptual thing about it all is the band's burning desire to experiment and innovate. Said influences stretch all the way from DJ Shadow to Krzysztof Penderecki, making OK Computer a true connoisseur's delight — inevitably, its twisted arrangements and overdubs, unusual chords, and lyrical cross-references have all been analysed in countless reviews and musicological analyses. Any conceptuality beyond that probably remains unintentional — including Yorke's lyrics, which continue to explore topics of alienation, isolation, desperation, frustration, and other negatively tinged -ations (because that is Thom Yorke for you), in the face of a large, hard-to-understand, ridiculously insecure and complicated universe. But this simply reflects how he was feeling at the time, and is a rather natural lyrical pathway for anybody who wishes to override the limitations of songs about personal relationships (limitations that were still very much active with The Bends, although even there it was already obvious that Yorke was simply setting up his imaginary female partners to take out his global misanthropic frustration on them).

It is interesting that the first wave of critical praise often employed the term «progressive», even going as far as to state that Radiohead had done the impossible by reinstating the honor of «progressive rock», buried twenty years before under the rubble of the punk/New Wave explosion. From one point of view, this is a ridiculous misstatement: OK Computer has very little in common with Yes or Genesis, since its songs are relatively short (only ʽParanoid Androidʼ goes over six minutes and consists of several different sections), relatively free of true instrumental virtuosity, do not take after Bach or Stravinsky, and essentially agree with the modern pop formula. Johnny Greenwood, the musical backbone of the band, inherits his art from Lou Reed and Michael Karoli rather than Robert Fripp; and as dazzlingly complex as the band's arrangements may be, they hardly outmatch The Cure in their ability to harmonize a miriad of sound channels. But on the other hand, it is curious that the notion actually managed to spring up:  it indicates that OK Computer was perceived by many as a record that successfully re-elevated contemporary pop music to impressive artistic heights, such as it had never been able to properly recapture since the days of The Beatles and Pink Floyd. Unfortunately, it also set the predicament: from that time onwards, Radiohead themselves were elevated to such a lofty position that anything they would be doing from then on had to match the admiration and respect for OK Computer — a killer chore even for a truly great band.

Upon release, the album was a strong, but not exceptional, seller (admit it, for a record that is routinely mentioned as the Greatest Album Of All Time, 5–6 million copies is not that much), with critical acceptance vastly overriding commercial performance; however, time has not dulled its impact in the slightest, so, like it or not, OK Computer is going to stay emblematic of the late Nineties for quite some time. The expanded 2-CD reissue, released in 2009 largely without the band's knowledge, collects all the B-sides, some outtakes, remixes, and live performances, and will be of interest to the serious latecoming collector (because early coming collectors probably already owned all those tracks).

What exactly has the album introduced to us? Well, first and foremost, OK Computer is a delight for the audiophile. Lo-fi tolerance and alt-rock noise are going to hell — from the opening notes of ʽAirbagʼ, the entire record is a perfect sonic trip that makes the very best of existing production technologies: a major jump in quality here from The Bends, no doubt, directly related to the promotion of Nigel Godrich, formerly the band's recording engineer, to the official status of producer. Listen to the first thirty seconds of ʽSubterranean Homesick Alienʼ and then try to believe that the entire record was actually recorded in a converted shed: the way these guitars swoosh and swish around the rhythm section like falling stars and gaseous clouds, you get the impression that all of that must have been captured and bottled in outer space. The unbelievable level of attention to detail on this and other tracks immediately set OK Computer apart from most, if not all, competition at the time.

And it is not just about alien-style sonic techniques, either: truly and verily, good guitar music had lived in the underground for so long that I have a hard time remembering when last (prior to 1997) I was able to hear an electric guitar ping with such delicacy as it does during the first seconds of ʽNo Surprisesʼ (a few seconds later, it is intelligently supported by an equally delicate glockenspiel part). And it is not just a matter of prettiness: guitars, keyboards, and vocals are consistently laid over each other in a way that gives the illusion of multiple dimensions. The best songs on OK Computer suck you into a sonic vortex where your spirit is ruthlessly shuttled from one level to another, until you find yourself as helpless, lost, and floating in space as its protagonist. Only The Cure, perhaps, could compete on this front, but Robert Smith's goals were different — he would use his walls and waves of sound to crush you into the blackest desperation. Radiohead are not that cruel. They feed you fear along with a sense of beauty and, occasionally, a thread of optimism.

The sound of OK Computer may be defined as cluttered, but all the parts always fall together organically. So, ʽAirbagʼ begins with a powerful guitar riff that almost seems influenced by some classical solo cello suite, then transitions into a looped rhythm section with stop-and-start bass said to be inspired by the style of DJ Shadow (which they allegedly tried to copy but «failed»), while Yorke's singing style here inherits the old quasi-free-form expressivity of Tim Buckley, and it all somehow fits in: lyrically, the song celebrates life ("In the next world war... I am born again") while at the same time being frighteningly conscious of its incidental nature ("I'm amazed that I survived / An airbag saved my life"), and the deep dark bassline and the quasi-cello guitar riff are here to feed the fear, while the spaced-out high-pitched guitar trills dissipate it in favor of the unexplainable wonder of life. ʽParanoid Androidʼ alternates between one of the most expressive «weepfests» ever recorded (where vocals, guitars, and keyboards all join together in a light-hearted lamentation) and the loudest, angriest melody on the entire album — when Jonny hits hard at 2:42 into the song, this is the album's strongest link to Radiohead's past as an alt-rock band, but it is also a logical transition from one negative psychological state into another. And the gradual build-up on ʽExit Music (For A Film)ʼ (where the «Shakespearian tragedy heights» are taken literally, since the song was written as a musical representation of the Romeo and Juliet finale) is handled with meticulous psychological perfection — acoustic guitar first, back vocals next, then the special effects, then the rhythm section, then the screaming climax.

Those who (like myself) have issues with a certain perceived limpness and lifelessness of the Radiohead sound in the Kid A and posterior eras need not worry: with all its psychologism and pretension, OK Computer can still rock pretty hard, too, be it the crushing funky riff of ʽParanoid Androidʼ, or the droney, choppy, «trashy» playing on ʽElectioneeringʼ. Most of the time they don't want to rock pretty hard, but even then there is a strong rhythmic base that commands your attention — for instance, the metallic percussion sound on ʽClimbing Up The Wallsʼ which, together with the industrial synthesizers and Thom's lying-down-and-dying nasal falsetto, gives the song a sense of impending inescapable doom (Peter Gabriel used to like this shit, too). ʽKarma Policeʼ also has a strong, decisive stomp to it that somehow supports the idea of "this is what you get when you mess with us" (which, per se, is probably not the most convincing line to have ever left Yorke's lips). In short, each song has a strong personality, one way or another, and unless you have a strong aversion towards world-weary, depressed music as a whole, «boredom» as a basic reaction is probably excluded.

If I had to single out one favorite track, though, it would be ʽLuckyʼ — yes, ironically, the very first song written for the project when it was not even a project yet (perhaps not a coincidence, though, what with its being written in the Bends period); and for one single, haunting reason — probably the single most haunting moment in Thom Yorke's entire career, as he pronounces the line "we are standing on the edge". Just listen to him doing it — have you noticed that the final consonant is left hanging in the air, as if they were really standing on the edge, abruptly cutting off into the abyss? Technically, the song was inspired either by the Bosnian conflict, or by the idea of surviving in an aircrash, or by both, but to me, it just sounds like the perfect ending to end all endings. I mean, "We are standing on the edge" — you could take this to mean literally anything. You could even think of OK Computer as the final dot, the culmination, the last breath after which there is really nothing left (and the critics agree — what other album after 1997 has managed to earn a similar reputation?). Or you could take it as a musical symbol of some political / economical / cultural apocalypse. The ferocious guitar solos are certainly quite apocalyptic, and the way they segue into the last of the "we are standing on the edge" bits... It might be a good thing that they preferred to end the record with the relatively harmless, sleepy, creepy-crawly ʽTouristʼ instead, a song about slowing down and catching your breath in a mad, mad, mad world, or else somebody would have accused them of propagating suicidal tendencies.

A personal confession, however, is now in order: on the whole, I am not in love with OK Computer I have never been in love with OK Computer — and at this point, there is reasonably little hope that I ever will. More than that: I consider this album seriously overrated on the whole, and can think of at least several worthy contenders (such as Dummy by Portishead or Björk's Post and Homogenic) that deserve equal praise, but rarely get it. I disagree with people who vote for it as «the best album of all-time», whatever they really mean by it, and I think that it put Radiohead on a logical and inescapable path into artistic decline (which, by itself, is admit­tedly not an argument against the album as such: sometimes there are chains of sequences that infallibly lead from the highest peak into the deepest ravine, which hardly makes the highest peak less worthy of admiration).

Naturally, we are all entitled to feel or not to feel a spiritual connection to any work of art, and I usually feel a bit sad when finding myself unable to feel a particularly strong one for something that is so highly revered. At the very least, though, it deserves an attempt at an explanation. Why? What's wrong with OK Computer, Mr. Cranky Reviewer?

Well, first and simplest, a big problem is Thom Yorke himself. By the time of Radiohead's third album, he had pretty much completed his transition from a «normal» singing style to a highly theatrical, unnatural one, consistently singing in a much higher range than he should be. This makes it seem, on a sheer physiological level, as if the poor guy were stuck in a constant state of histrionic whining — and my senses cannot abide that. I am certainly no enemy to idiosyncratic crazy singing styles, but they all have their redeeming qualities. Like, David Byrne is just as hysterical, but he is outbalancing this by being all humorous and tongue-in-cheek about it. Beth Gibbons sounds like she is ready to die from a broken heart at any minute, but dying from a broken heart is a noble cause and she totally, convincingly sounds like it. Björk has her half-fairytale, half-childlike attitude that can be as irritating as it can be endearing, because she sort of makes you believe that she is such a natural pixie. Yorke, on the other hand — every time he raises his voice above a certain pitch, he automatically becomes a naggin' whiner to me, and I instinctively reach out for my big stick to drive the filthy beggar away from the house, maybe set the dogs on the sucker, too. (Crude figure of speech, dammit). Had he stayed more frequently in the quiet "we are standing on the edge..." mode, that would, perhaps, be a different story; as it is, this is one singing style that I can theoretically respect — after all, he did polish it to perfection, and it is unmistakably his and nobody else's — but instinctively find alienating.

What is even more frustrating, though, is that I do not find nearly as many strong melodies on OK Computer as I do on The Bends. The sound is fabulously great, but the actual musical themes... not so much. A song like ʽLet Downʼ, for instance, simply has no discernible melody beyond all the pretty jangle, as far as I am concerned (unsurprisingly, the instrumental track sounds like a lost outtake from some Byrds session — another group with which I sometimes have similar problems). ʽKarma Policeʼ with its Neapolitan chord sounds like... well, any basic song with a Neapolitan chord, this one only redeemable through its vocal melody. ʽThe Touristʼ, as Greenwood later confessed, was a song specially written in a «lazy» mode, where something "doesn't have to happen every 3 seconds", but I'd be perfectly happy if something happened there at all, because other than Yorke's frantic invocation for us to slow down (and the gorgeous-as-usual production), its melodic base is a fairly common piece of blues-waltz. Even for such a beauty as ʽSubterranean Homesick Alienʼ, all I usually remember is how those stars, clouds, and planets were all busy whistling past each other — I never ever remember how its vocals went, and vocal melodies are usually among the stronger hooks on this album.

I will not go as far as to say that OK Computer is a proverbial example of «style over substance». In a way, its style is its substance. The experimentation, the large bag of influences, the mixed atmosphere of fear, confusion, beauty, and awe, it's all there, and it is enough to make for an excellent listening experience. And critics, musicologists, cultural philosophers all over the world will doubtlessly go on having their field days, dissecting every second of the album as if it were the very embodiment of all the basic and advanced features of the human spirit. But if, just for one moment, we agree to switch to cut-the-crap mode, then I would say that «the greatest album of the Nineties», not to mention «one of the greatest albums of all times», in my opinion, would need a little more meat over its bones before you start covering them up with skin. And a lead singer who would not find it too boring to sound, a little bit more often, like a normal human being. Yes, everything is subjective, but believe me, with the album's overall tone and message, and my own preference for them, I should have been among the first people to fall madly in dark love with OK Computer — the fact that it still has not happened after multiple listens over the course of two decades just might mean that there is something not quite right here, and that the «something» is not necessarily limited to just my peculiar perception of it.

Oh well. Whatever my reservations about it may be, OK Computer does satisfy one major requirement that is usually implied when talking about «the greatest albums of all time»: it may be directly related to the meaning of life (or lack of one), and it does not sound particularly embarrassing when it is being so related. From that point of view, it is, indeed, as much a symbol of the Nineties as Arcade Fire's Funeral would later be for the 2000s: it sounds important, and when you probe it and pick at it, its importance does not immediately crumble into pieces like a dried-out skeleton. But at the same time, to me it also represents the symbolic inability of the 1990s to fully capture the «primal» impact of stylistically similar universalist musical statements of the 1960s and the 1970s. Perhaps it is just too obtuse and obscure, a record that is much too happy to wallow in the impenetrable symbolism of its lyrics and the complex interweavings of its musical influences to be able to hit you (okay, me) right in the guts. Perhaps it could not be any other way — with the days of starry-eyed naiveté and/or straightforwardly expressed frustration passing for great art long behind us and all. It is certainly a modern record, and it continues to be modern almost 20 years after its creation — no wonder that it got permanently stuck in «#1 album of all times» position at RateYourMusic, since it is the first (last?) mega-impressive album for the RYM generation that happened to grow up on it rather than the Beatles or Pink Floyd. However, this review is simply unlucky enough to be written by a not very modern reviewer — who also, for that matter, prefers Mozart to Penderecki, and may therefore be incapable of thoroughly assessing the genius of OK Computer.

I honestly wish — honestly! — that this record were not as universally revered as it is. To me at least, the hype hurts it without helping it — and it certainly hurts the band, who, from then on, could hardly count upon an honest critical review in the official press, since most critics would just be kissing their asses, no matter how progressively weaker the actual records would become. In a last effort, I will distance myself from all the accolades and state that OK Computer is a thrilling, moody, adventurous ride on a musically downbound train that may be fairly intense for the artistically sensitive mind, and even psychologically uncomfortable for the easily vulnerable mind. It is not the greatest album of the Nineties (but what is?), not the greatest album ever (but what is?), but it does not need to be the greatest in order to be heard and appreciated for what it is. Let us just intriguingly agree that it is a record made by subterranean homesick aliens for subter­ranean homesick aliens, and leave it at that. OK, computer?

Radiohead: The Bends


1) Planet Telex; 2) The Bends; 3) High And Dry; 4) Fake Plastic Trees; 5) Bones; 6) (Nice Dream); 7) Just; 8) My Iron Lung; 9) Bullet Proof... I Wish I Was; 10) Black Star; 11) Sulk; 12) Street Spirit.

General verdict: The best mix of crunch, beauty, and tragedy in Radiohead history.

The tragedy of The Bends is that it is a rock album. As we are all supposed to know, Radiohead's greatest achievement before humanity was to transcend the boundaries of a stale and uninspired musical genre and take all those who agreed to buy tickets on a magical journey into allegedly uncharted territories. That achievement was unveiled with OK Computer, was generally com­pleted with Kid A, and continued to be embroidered with various extra ornaments in the 21st century. In light of this, The Bends gets critical respect as «that one album where Radiohead began to carve out their own territory», and people generally like it, but usually still treat it as a formative record, because... well, you know, it's just rock. At least it's not «only rock'n'roll», but, overall, isn't it boring and close-minded to let yourself be too infatuated with a rock album from one of history's greatest trans-rock bands? («Trans-rock» sounds a bit off, but I cannot write «post-rock» because that term has been ordered to apply to GY!BE and Sigur Rós, and Radio­head, apparently, are neither one nor the other).

Assuming, however, that you are allowed to doubt that Radiohead have genuinely and completely rewritten musical history as you know it, and to think of Radiohead as merely an artistic unit with noble artistic purposes, there is no other album in the Radiohead catalog that would strike me as being more sincere, adequate, hard-hitting, and pretty much flawless on all fronts than The Bends. The technical and melodic means with which they were achieving their goals, at this point, were clearly more limited than even two years later, let alone five: yet somehow, with those limited means, they were able to create a memorable emotional roller coaster — accessible, tasteful, deeply humanistic, each and every note of which rings true.

Sure, the primary subject of Radiohead's art has always stayed the same: a deeply felt Welt­schmerz, a mix of sorrow, pity, and tenderness that would be most appropriate in a post-nuclear world, but can be put to good use even before we start blowing each other to bits. In that respect, there is not a lot of difference between Pablo Honey and In Rainbows, not to mention anything that lies in between. The Bends are, however, different in that the album reflects Radiohead at their most unspoiled — they were not trying to jump over their own heads yet, as they would be doing two years later, and they were not «Radiohead The Great», owing it to the world to deliver a new musical direction with each new album. But, on the other hand, they had clearly progressed since Pablo Honey, in each and every respect possible, from lyrics to production to formal stylistic diversity. The result, in my opinion, is a perfect balance between style and substance that only really lasted for this one album.

Yes, The Bends consists of songs, rather than small, autonomous, enigmatic sonic universes. But each of these songs is at least efficient, and at best, stunningly efficient. Vulnerability, suffering, inability to cope in a complex and largely irrational world, fear of personal relationships, and other nice things like that that rise high above, say, Donald Trump's level of understanding, form the basis for all twelve cuts, and in the hands of a creative entity that would be only slightly less talented than Radiohead, this could spell disaster — few things are more awful than having some talentless, but sensitive whiner whine his way through 50 minutes of music, instead of doing the right thing and joining the army or applying for a degree in plumbing. (Not naming any names here, but, on a totally unrelated note, give my regards to Conor Oberst when you see him).

Fortunately, the first thirty seconds of ʽPlanet Telexʼ are enough to show us that this here will be whining done with class and power. Space noises for the opening, psycho-echoey Rhodes piano, big trip-hoppy drums, and Colin Greenwood's deep funky bass provide crunch even before the electric guitars kick in. As Thom comes in with the line about how "you can force it but it will not come", you can almost literally hear him grunting and groaning, as if pushing against a brick wall. The entire song is one big ball of unreleasable tension, with each new "everything is bro­ken!" higher and higher than it was, yet the song never gets proper release — at the end, the singer simply gives up, with a few tired "why can't you forget"s conveying the overall futility of the effort. It is one of the best songs ever written about fighting against insurmountable odds, so whenever you find yourself in a rut, remember that Radiohead circa 1995 fully understands your plight. Some people might concentrate too much on the walls of guitar noise and call this little masterpiece «just another grunge song», but it isn't! It's closer to R&B, really — just follow that bassline. With a few space rock trimmings to boot.

I am not going to dissect every single song here — that would take up way too much space — but rather limit myself to a few general points, illustrated by specific material. First and foremost, I do believe that The Bends captures Thom Yorke at the peak of his vocal talents: at this point, he knows how to get the best out of his voice without wasting it on risky experiments that do not always pay off. Case in point #1: ʽFake Plastic Treesʼ, possibly the single best song Radiohead ever wrote (though ʽLuckyʼ comes close). Across the verses, Thom sounds subtly sneery and sarcastic, using a nasal, haughty, a little condescending tone — in the chorus, it abruptly changes to one of pity and sympathy — then, as the subject surreptitiously changes from social critique à la Kinks (remember ʽPlastic Manʼ?) to the protagonist himself (here be a Great Modernist Lyrical Expansive Shift), he concludes the song with the tenderest of falsetto ambiguities: "if I could be who you wanted... all the time" is smoother than Paul McCartney, but you can never understand if he is trying to serenade his "fake plastic love" with this conclusion or to mournfully confess that true happiness with the "fake plastic love" is unattainable... anyway, I might be spewing nonsense here, so let us just hold on to the main point: Thom's verse / chorus contrast, gaining in intensity with each new verse, is a tour de force, and one of the best mixtures of sarcasm and sympathy in the history of vocal pop music.

Another point: sure enough, the «loud vs. quiet» dynamics is a trademark of the grunge genre, but Radiohead know how to exploit that dynamics in a completely different way. So yes, perhaps a song like ʽJustʼ is technically built on the ʽSmell Like Teens Spiritʼ formula: a few suspenseful acoustic chords, a crash-boom-banging loud-as-heck instrumental preview of the chorus, quiet verse, loud chorus, quiet verse, loud chorus... but the loud parts are not just about venting your frustration, they are about taking off and escaping into open space — this is what Greenwood's guitar with its spiralling trills is trying to do from the fifth second on, before, ultimately, trium­phantly, it is able to do just that at 3:10 into the song, with that single extended ultrasonic note. Or take ʽ(Nice Dream)ʼ — its quiet part is melancholic dream-pop, and its loud part is an inter­ruptive nightmare, with the whole ensemble more reminiscent of a Miyazaki movie than a teen hormonal explosion. As for the chaotic ruckus on ʽMy Iron Lungʼ, that part almost feels parodic to me (in the vein of Blur's ʽSong 2ʼ) — together with lyrics like "suck, suck your teenage thumb, toilet-trained and dumb", this is an ironic piece, which seems to agree with the general notion that the song was really a reflection on the popularity of ʽCreepʼ.

Finally, there are simply way too many great Greenwood guitar moments on this album for me not to count it as his finest hour, too (well, again, closely matched by OK Computer). The simple, short, but indie-beautiful solo on ʽHigh And Dryʼ. The banshee howls in the nightmare part of ʽ(Nice Dream)ʼ. The space launch in ʽJustʼ. The climactic multi-layered solo on ʽSulkʼ. The haunting, mournful arpeggiated picking on ʽStreet Spiritʼ, allegedly inspired by R.E.M. but sadder in spirit than any Peter Buck melody I am familiar with. Even when formally staying in grunge / alt-rock territory, Greenwood somehow manages to stay consistently interesting (unless I am actually ascribing some of his virtues to Ed O'Brien, but in the end, this really does not matter). Thus, ʽBlack Starʼ might be one of the lesser numbers on here, but I like how there's at least four completely different guitar parts here — the folksy jangle in the intro, the tremolo dream-pop guitar ambience in the verse, the grungy goo in the chorus, and the little Sixties-style pop flourishes that link the verse to the chorus. Might not seem like much, but the average alt-rock band would never even begin to bother with all this coloring.

And when you look back on it all, really, I am not sure that emotionally The Bends does not exhaust the full spectrum that Radiohead are capable of. Sure, a lot of the lyrics deal with personal relation­ships rather than human society as a whole, but has anybody ever truly been interested in what Thom Yorke has to say about human society as opposed to how he is saying it?... so there is nothing that makes, say, ʽParanoid Androidʼ or ʽKarma Policeʼ or ʽIdiothequeʼ inherently superior to ʽFake Plastic Treesʼ, other than additional layers of complexity and formal innovation. Anyway, this review is not here to put blemish on future works by this band: it is here to stress that The Bends has twelve songs, and each of them rules, with its own hooks, sub-moods, and production / arrangement peculiarities, so that it is only on a purely conjectural and theoretical level that I could build a case for The Bends not representing Radiohead at their finest. And personally, I have no need for any such conjectures or theories.

Fans will naturally want to expand their collection with the 2-CD deluxe edition, one that dili­gently collects most of the B-sides and EP-only tracks from that period: I honestly have not listened to them long enough to form much of an opinion, but on the whole, they strike me as (unsurprisingly) somewhat inferior — still closer to Pablo Honey level, and not even nearly as memo­rable as the best stuff on that album. Stuff like ʽPunchdrunk Lovesick Singalongʼ goes for the same sorrowful-tender effect as ʽHigh And Dryʼ and ʽFake Plastic Treesʼ, but is not provided with an equally catchy or tear-jerking chorus. On the other hand, ʽMaquiladoraʼ fully confirms to the above­mentioned standards of guitar greatness.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Joy Division: Still


1) Exercise One; 2) Ice Age; 3) The Sound Of Music; 4) Glass; 5) The Only Mistake; 6) Walked In Line; 7) The Kill; 8) Something Must Break; 9) Dead Souls; 10) Sister Ray; 11) Ceremony; 12) Shadow Play; 13) Means To An End; 14) Passover; 15) New Dawn Fades; 16) Transmission; 17) Disorder; 18) Isolation; 19) Decades; 20) Digital.

General verdict: Somewhat mediocre outtakes, but hey, it's Joy Division! It's treasurable by default!

This somewhat sprawling coda to Joy Division's short career may be called the last «proper» JD album, largely because all of its first disc consists of previously unreleased outtakes, but it is also the first in a lengthy series of posthumous releases that, frankly, do a better job of confirming the enormity of the legend than of enriching the legend with truly valuable content. Joy Division were not a collective Bob Dylan, their productivity even in peak years was rather modest, and when they left something behind, there was usually a good reason for this.

The nine original songs on the first disc (the tenth is a live cover of The Velvet Underground's ʽSister Rayʼ) date from October '78 to January '80, but the majority of them date from the Unknown Pleasures period, so what you would expect to find is a bunch of mid- to fast-tempo rockers, not very heavy on atmospheric subtleties and, since they are outtakes, not too polished production-wise. The briefest assessment of them all that can be made is: they add nothing to what we already know, think, or feel about Joy Division. And why should they? They represent shelved, abandoned, or temporarily frozen ideas that would later be reworked and perfected into the shape of those Joy Division songs that we already know and love. But if you state it clearly and openly that you are here for subtle nuances — that you simply cherish that sound and that mood too much to deny yourself the pleasure of reliving the same dream on a new pillowsheet — then welcome to the club.

Proceeding in chronological order, the earliest inclusion is ʽGlassʼ, the only track here that had been previously released — on an early Factory Records sampler EP, originally released in late 1978 and featuring tracks from Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, and some minor acts. It still has very little of classic JD gloom and plays more like a regular post-punk rocker, all choppy chords and pulsating energy and an industrial-sounding distorted bassline that commands most of the attention. Ian sounds angry and pissed, with a bark in his voice that would rarely be heard again, but the song does not work well as a whole, because it is not dark enough to be spooky and not angry enough to make your blood boil.

The four April '79 outtakes from the Unknown Pleasures sessions are interesting, but I can feel pity only for ʽExercise Oneʼ — its sonic structure, with siren-like and tornado-like guitars swirling around a monotonous bassline, rather reminds me of Closer, and with better production the song might have occupied a respectable position on that album, bypassing the still-too-pop values of Unknown Pleasures. ʽWalked In Lineʼ and ʽThe Killʼ are frantic rockers, and both seem inspired by the likes of Brian Eno's ʽThird Uncleʼ — but, once again, lacking the depth and occasional scariness of the fast-paced material that did make it onto the album. And ʽThe Only Mistakeʼ is curious because of its waltzing tempo, but the song's chorus ("strain, take the strain, these days we love") sounds a bit silly, and whatever they wanted to say with the song, it does not look like they managed to say it distinctly.

As time went by and dark clouds became ever darker, the song titles began to reflect that, as well: the two outtakes from late '79 are named ʽIce Ageʼ and ʽDead Soulsʼ, respectively. The former has a beat so lively it would rather fit New Order than Joy Division, and the level of energy is so surprisingly high that I am tempted to regard Ian's prophetic exclamations of "living in an ice age, living in an ice age!" as more fit for Bad Religion. ʽDead Soulsʼ, having more to do with the cult of ancestors than Gogol's novel, is slower and more stately and might have fit better on Closer, but the heavy guitars are just... too heavy for this band. Plus, they sort of rip off the bridge section of ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ without knowing it.

Chronologically the last song to be included here is ʽThe Sound Of Musicʼ, recorded during the same session as ʽLove Will Tear Us Apartʼ — some lovely scratch guitar sounds here, every now and then breaking off into tortured melodic howls, but no proper vocal hook to speak of... all in all, listening to all these outtakes really makes you respect the band all the more, because lesser outfits (like the abovementioned Cabaret Voltaire, for instance) would have absolutely no problem populating their numerous records with this mediocre production. Joy Division, on the other hand, made sure that only those songs make it to the final line that actually tell a gripping story — these ones mostly don't.

Leaving aside the cover of ʽSister Rayʼ, which is mostly interesting just for the very fact of its existence, we should briefly cover the second disc — of tremendous historical importance, since that was the very last live show the band ever played, at Birmingham University on May 2, 1980. It is notable for containing a rare live version of the soon-to-be New Order song ʽCeremonyʼ, and for closing the concert with ʽDigitalʼ, an old song from the same EP that also contained ʽGlassʼ. It is also notable for featuring highly out-of-tune synths (particularly audible on ʽDecadesʼ), but otherwise the sound quality is tolerable — and, oh joy, they do ʽShadow Playʼ, with Sumner playing all the guitar solos... well, not perfectly, but as close to live perfection as possible. Other than that, well, it was just your average Joy Division live show; if you are interested in whether Ian Curtis gives any signs of sounding like a goner, then no, he does not. It's not like he'd been planning his suicide for months, anyway.

Overall, I would only recommend the album for very serious fans. Sometimes a collection of outtakes such as this, when arranged in chronological order, can very explicitly trace the creative evolution of a band and take you on a journey whose individual moments might not be very exciting, but whose overall arc drops you off at a point from which you can hardly see the begin­ning of the trip. This is not the case here, and not because Joy Division did not develop (on the contrary, their evolution from 1977 to 1980 was almost phenomenal by contemporary standards), but because, as it turns out, «mediocre Joy Division» tend to have a far more monotonous sound than «outstanding Joy Division». You are going to get a lot of inferior relatives of ʽInterzoneʼ and ʽShe's Lost Controlʼ, but you are not going to get any relatives of ʽDecadesʼ or ʽThe Eternalʼ or even ʽDay Of The Lordsʼ. But you are going to get some nifty bass grooves and a few nice guitar chords, and spend an additional 40 minutes (or 80, if you throw in the live album) in the company of the world's most sympathetic 23-year old martyr.

Joy Division: Closer


1) Atrocity Exhibition; 2) Isolation; 3) Passover; 4) Colony; 5) A Means To An End; 6) Heart And Soul; 7) Twenty Four Hours; 8) The Eternal; 9) Decades.

General verdict: Ian Curtis' Personal Inferno, all nine circles provided.

It may be observed that, unlike the somewhat fanatical adepts of the «hardcore» approach, those bands that started out under the regular punk banners (around 1976-78), unless they simply imploded (like the Sex Pistols), tended to reach their «maturity stage» fairly soon — sometimes very soon, so that you really have to go all the way back to the earliest singles of The Police or The Cure, for instance, to understand where they were coming from. For all these people, the punk revolution ultimately served as a formal pretext, an initial floating lifesaver that helped them get used to the waters. By 1980, punk à la Clash was pretty much as dead as the Kennedys, and in its place we simply had a whole new generation of art-rockers, with new horizons to explore. Some of these original punkers were cautious optimists and dedicated progressives, which led them to experimenting with world music and avantgarde. Others were pessimists and painted their waters squid black, worshipping at the shrine of Jim Morrison but also updating his vision for the contemporary era with its intellectual demand for less clichéd lyrical imagery.

In this context, Joy Division's Closer could be regarded as belonging to the same class as early records by Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Cure, Bauhaus, and numerous lesser acts commonly classified as «doom rock», «Goth», etc., and, in fact, Closer is frequently listed in the higher ranks of lists like «top 20 greatest Goth rock albums». However, as it often happens with trend-setting, genre-defining albums, the intentions behind its release never included setting any trends or defining any genres — everything simply revolved around the songwriting talents of the band members and the inner demons of Ian Curtis, overfed and ready to tear their host body to pieces by early 1980. If anything ever drove the band forward, it was a desire to overstep the boundaries of the formula developed on their previous album. Unknown Pleasures was already a masterpiece behind their belt, but it was really «dark pop», a record on which the songs were still too short, too much influenced by their punkish past, too reliant on classic structure — and so, in the good tradition of art rock, the next record had to focus on the elements that made Joy Dvision what it was, untying all the birthcords. There was no intention to release anything specifically flashy or theatrical, anything image-centered: just a little something that would help them completely stand out from all the rest. They had the experience, and the talent, and the means of production, so why not? They did not even realise at the time that they were all lending Ian Curtis a hand in writing his own musical testament.

With the exact same classic lineup, the exact same producer (Martin Hannett), the exact same record label, and the exact same city of London (only the studio was different), it is amazing just how much textural and melodic difference the band managed to introduce, especially considering that, according to most common sources, they arrived at the studio in March 1980 with no new material whatsoever, and had to work most of the stuff from scratch. Hannett's production values do remain largely the same, with Sumner's guitar having an «industrial» sheen to it and Curtis' vocals retaining a cavernous echo most of the time; not all of the band members were pleased with this, but that is the way the Joy Division sound has gone down in history anyway.

It may seem curious that the album, obviously much less accessible than Unknown Pleasures, ended up selling far better and going as high as #6 on the UK charts (as compared to a ridiculous #71 for Unknown Pleasures). However, there were two external factors that must have predicted the success. First, obviously, was the suicide of Ian Curtis on May 18, which made the reclusive and deranged frontman one of the most talked about people in Britain for a brief while. Second was the release of ʻLove Will Tear Us Apartʼ as a single in June: the song, a bouncy and quite romantic-sounding (never mind the dark thoughts at the core) piece of New Wave pop, became a smash hit, and certified both the ensuing success of Closer (although I do wonder how many people who went out and bought it due to admiration of ʻLove Will Tear Us Apartʼ got themselves quite a nasty shock upon seeing themselves locked in a sonic crypt with Ian's ghost) and, for that matter, the future of the Ian-less Joy Division as New Order. Without these two factors driving up sales, Closer would hardly stand a commercial chance, although critical reception would probably have been rapturous all the same.

Unlike Unknown Pleasures, Closer can take some time to set in properly. The songs are slower, longer, more repetitive, less flashy, and even more dependent on atmosphere — not a comfortable kind of atmosphere, either. A kind of atmosphere created by a 24-year old man with the mind of an 80-year old Dr. Faust, fed up with and let down by all of earthly pleasures, Closer is an album about the end of The World — where The World is understood from a purely personal perspective, and the distinction between The World outside and The World inside the protagonist is completely irrelevant (and, as existentialist philosophers like to tell you anyway, there can be no difference established between «the end of me» and «the end of the universe»). This is the kind of musical album that Schopenhauer might have produced, were he a musician in the rock era, and not everybody wants to feel like Schopenhauer. In a way, I guess, you'd have to put yourself into an Ian Curtis frame of mind in order to completely «get» and «savor» the record, and that might not end well.

Although the record did not originate as an intentionally conceptional suite, common thematic threads run through all of it, and the overall flow is near perfect. The first song tells us that "this is the way, step inside", and there is little doubt as to the location of the place to which we are invited: Sumner's guitar lines, consisting mostly of frantical industrial scraping, suggest incessant suffering and torture, while Morris plays a complex, but fully robotic percussive pattern that suggests some merciless cog grind — this is Hell, either literally so, or just the private Hell in Ian's own mind (remember, there's really no difference). There is a formalistic explanation of ʻAtrocity Exhibitionʼ — about how it was influenced by the works of J. G. Ballard, and how Ian's lyrics summarize his «condensed novel» approach — but it would hardly make sense if Ian was just writing about J. G. Ballard and not himself. Maybe Sumner, who, as he himself would confess later, often missed the point of Curtis' words, did take the inspiration for those grating avantgarde guitar parts from J. G. Ballard, but in any case, they fully agree with — at least, they are extremely symbolic of — Ian's state of mind at the time, and the track is a perfect intro to whatever follows, even if it is hardly among my favorites (for lack of subtlety).

What follows is a huge tract of emotional wasteland, formally divided into separate tracks but setting more or less the same mood. If Joy Division were merely a backing band for Curtis, things would have been difficult: Curtis was more of a poet than a songwriter, and probably even more of a poet than a singer (despite the eerie similarities of his low voice with Jim Morrison's, he could do fewer things with it, and could never have as much power or precision as Jim at his best). Fortunately, though, the band members were interested in setting Ian's poetry to inventive music, and after a while, when you have had your big fill of Curtis and your attention begins drifting away towards the instruments, you will probably see how different the songs are from each other. Melodic ideas and cool combinations of ideas are everywhere — look at the awesome contrast between the heavy, doom-laden bass line and the Kraftwerk-ian synthesizer lead line of ʻIsolationʼ; revel in the menacing snap of the bass melody of ʻPassoverʼ (the little swoop at the end of the main four-note riff seems like a helldog biting at the protagonist's trousers); acknowledge the jagged angular roughness of the post-punk guitar/bass duet of ʻColonyʼ; feel the thrilling suspense of the soft, but inescapably dangerous bass pattern of ʻHeart And Soulʼ, around which the synthesizers quietly moan and groan in a ghostly fashion... I could go on, but the fact is, despite setting similar moods, all these tracks have their individual voices as well. And it's not that easy — in the case of The Cure, for instance, it took them almost a decade to make each song on a given album ring out with its own voice (Joy Division took less than two).

With all this melodic brilliance in sight — and I do mean brilliance: Hook's bass work, in particular, should rank among the world's finest exercises in meaningful minimalistic melodicity — it is almost reluctantly that we turn again to Curtis and his demons, but they do complete the picture, and the best tracks on the album are still the ones where he manages to give a particularly memorable performance. On ʻColonyʼ, for instance, a song about the slashing cruelty of loneliness, the climactic part arrives with Ian's screams of "God in his wisdom took you by the hand, God in his wisdom made you understand!..." — that's when he realizes that it is the will of God that he endure that cruelty, and makes it felt with all the desperation that he can muster (again, Jim Morrison, with his overall stronger physique, could have made that sound even more powerful, but give the kid a break). On ʻHeart And Soulʼ, on the contrary, he quiets down his voice to match the equally quiet menace of the music, and the chorus mantra of "heart and soul, one will burn" becomes one of the most chilling moments in Joy Division history. The song never really rises above the volume of eerie whisper, but you can easily sense that fire and brimstone are just around the corner, all the time. (I particularly like how this is hinted at by the sudden increase in volume of Morris' drumming at 5:06 — just as the song begins to fade out... it's like they're sparing you the actual meeting with the rapidly approaching Doom, so in the end you can only fantasize about how that one would have looked).

For all of the atmospherics, though, Closer is actually a much more energetic and rocking record than it emerges out of all the verbal descriptions — the first seven tracks are all based on loud drum patterns, fast-rolling bass grooves, distorted riffage, or, in the case of ʻIsolationʼ, synth-pop hooks, so it is largely the sameness of mood and the relatively slow tempos that are responsible for its dirgey reputation. And, of course, the last two songs. ʻThe Eternalʼ stands out as the band's most ambitious dig into The Transcendental: the song moves on slowly and gravely, like a silent funerary procession in the days of The Black Plague, to the electronic instrumental hum that imitates medievalistic choir singing, over which we superimpose the Dark Angel piano melody — and Curtis' quietest, softest, and scariest singing ever: there are but two verses, one of which describes the "procession", and the second of which turns to the narrator itself ("cry like a child, though these years make me older...") — meaning that the "procession" is really an allegory, as the hero is witnessing his own funeral in his head. This solemn atmosphere (created by the most minimal means) is only matched by ʻDecadesʼ, where the band goes for a bit of a crescendo effect to create a grand finale — after all, here Ian is trying to speak up for his entire generation ("here are the young men, well where have they been?"), implying that his own troubles are, perhaps, everybody's troubles. There's no particular bombast, merely a few minor key keyboard overdubs that collectively create and gradually amplify the ultimate feel of desolation and hopelessness and complete the album's journey from initial pictures of cruelty and brutality to final sentiments of coldness and death-in-life.

In short, this is Ian's personal journey through his own version of the Nine Circles of Hell, and you could probably attach a special name to each one — just off the top of my head, here's a try: Cruelty (ʻAtrocity Exhibitionʼ), Loneliness (ʻIsolationʼ), Madness (ʻPassoverʼ), Seclusion (ʻColo­nyʼ), Disillusionment (ʻA Means To An Endʼ), Fatalism (ʻHeart And Soulʼ), Agony (ʻTwenty Four Hoursʼ), Mourning (ʻThe Eternalʼ), and, finally, Cosmic Grief (ʻDecadesʼ). In other words, a fairly jolly party record, this one — do not forget to bring it to all the birthdays and weddings you are invited to, just to remind people of, you know, that other side of the coin.

On the critical side — like most of the «grand statement» albums made by young, barely experienced, artists with limited musical training, Closer inevitably suffers from the «grasp exceeding the grip» factor. Where Unknown Pleasures, for all its individuality and innovation, was still very much a pop album, firmly grounded in punk aesthetics, and did not require a lot of musical experience, Closer moves into the ambitious fields of art rock, where the technical limitations of the players and the singer become felt much more acutely. Thus, the songs tend to be long, but the groove never changes, and unless you manage to fall under its hypnotic spell really quickly, the probability of getting bored soon begins to grow exponentially. I remember it well myself, how Unknown Pleasures used to feel entertaining, whereas Closer just had too many yawn-inducing moments, and, indeed, even now I think that at least some of these tracks are better appreciated on a symbolic / intellectual level than on gut feeling level (ʻAtrocity Exhibitionʼ is amazingly well constructed, but I still believe it makes you think of torture chambers rather than feel yourself inside one). And while Ian's singing in general clearly comes from the heart and is well compatible with the sonic textures of the album, I do admit that it is all on a one-way street, and I would certainly have welcomed more tracks on which he deviates from the «Prophet Ezekiel» formula (like ʻThe Eternalʼ).

Not everybody is a fan of Martin Hannett's production, either (even Sumner himself used to grumble that he'd committed the same mistakes here that he did on Unknown Pleasures). On the whole, the claustrophobic, echo-laden sound, where you seem to be trapped in some underground bunker and the voice of Ian comes to you from the cracks of the concrete ceiling above, seems to be the right kind of sound for Joy Division in general and Closer in particular. But ever so often, it gives the album a lo-fi, homebrewn feel that does not ideally agree with the personal apocalypse grandiosity of the design, and I can't help wondering whether ʻAtrocity Exhibitionʼ or ʻColonyʼ would not have sounded even more impressive and devastating in the hands of some other producer (like Daniel Lanois, for instance). Not that it does not have a unique sound — in a way, it is one of the sounds that pretty much defined the post-punk era — but I am not completely sure that it is the kind of sound that would ideally reflect whatever was going on in the mind of the band's frontman. Though it did come... closer.

In light of a recent relisten to Nirvana's Nevermind, it makes sense to compare the «living death fantasies» of Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain — different tempers, different musical preferences, but ultimately similar goals and purposes. Of course, Joy Division's take on the issue of emotional necrosis is much more subtle than Nirvana's — far more symbolist and complex lyrics, subtler sonic techniques, lack of direct gut appeal to a mass teen audience — and this is why appreciating Closer requires a much more refined taste (fortunately for me, my own understanding of how to appreciate it has not in any way decreased my fondness for the more «populist» approach of Nirvana), and, on the whole, probably goes better with a small volume of Kierkegaard or Nietzsche than the collected works of William S. Burroughs. But on the other hand, there might be a much easier way to enjoy it without any formal academic preparation. The only thing you really have to do is to purge your mind (for a while) of all positive thoughts, shut out the sunlight, and stare at that album cover for a few minutes, all the while asking yourself the question: «How would it feel to be buried alive in something like that?». And then you just press play... and the next morning, nothing really looks the same any more.

Sidenote / post-scriptum: The 2007 special edition of the album adds an entire bonus disc of a live show recorded on February 8, 1980, at the University of London Union, where the band was already debuting a large chunk of titles from Closer, mixed with various oddities (curiously, only one song from Unknown Pleasures) and played to dedicated and highly supportive fans (which you can tell not merely by the fact of continuous applause, but also by shouts of people requesting ʻLove Will Tear Us Apartʼ from the front rows — a song that had not yet even been released officially). The sound quality is fairly awful (clearly not a soundboard recording), and on the whole, material from Closer does not easily lend itself to live performance by a small band (ʻThe Eternalʼ suffers worst of all, primarily due to the lack of piano), but the show still remains a priceless historical artifact.