Picnic at Hanging Rock is an classic in Australian psychological horror. It’s a genuinely disturbing book. Thinking about it makes me feel queasy and cold. It’s also Australia’s Blair Witch: a literary stunt that left its own provenance unclear. Many thought that the book told a true story, and even now you’ll meet folk who talk about the events of Hanging Rock as if they really happened.
It was written in 1967 and is set over half a century earlier, at a girls’ boarding school in Victoria, Australia. A group of four people (three students and teacher), leave a picnic to explore the nearby Hanging Rock formation. Three are never seen again. The fourth is discovered days later, nearly dead from sunstroke. When she recovers, she has no memory of what happened to the others.
The rest of the book is the community coming to terms with the mystery. A bloodhound fails to find the missing women, as does a local “black tracker”. An army of well-meaning volunteer searchers soon blanket Hanging Rock in footprints and trail-marks, destroying whatever evidence might have existed. The final people to see the party report some odd things: the three students were in a trancelike state, with staid mathematics teacher Greta McShaw literally undressed to her underwear. The reader actually follows the girls until the final moment, and knows some additional facts that the other characters don’t. But ultimately, we don’t know what happened, either. Isolated facts are grains of sand, and we need hard stone.
Whatever happened at Hanging Rock (and there are signs that certain characters know more than they are telling), the lack of resolution is like a thorn embedded in flesh, driving the community to frustration and then madness and then further tragedy.
The events of the story bear an odd resemblance to Finland’s Lake Bodom murders, where three backpackers were slaughtered, with the sole survivor possessing no memory of the night’s events. Bodom happened in 1960, but I doubt Joan Lindsay was aware of it. Finland is far from Australia, and in 1967 was even further. And unlike the United States (where a Bodom-style murder would have led to sixteen made-for-TV movies, a Netflix series by Jordan Peele, and teenage girls on Tumblr obsessed with finding and marrying the killer), Finland isn’t culturally fascinated by violent crimes, nor does it possess the regency to spread them all over the world.
Like Lake Bodom, Hanging Rock exists in the real world. I learned some interesting things about it on Wikipedia. It’s more properly called Mount Diogenes, after the Greek philosopher who held that civilisation is corrupt and nature is moral. Geologically, Hanging Rock is a mamelon, after the French word for nipple (is it important that all the main characters are female?)
Joan Lindsay does a good job of making Hanging Rock sound old-fashioned. Like any turn-of-the-century novelist, she almost puts on a pair of white gloves and chaperones you through the pages. This is the sort of book where you read sentences like “All this was nearly six years before this chronicle begins”. Only a few anachronistic words reveal the book’s modernity – such as “deadbeat”, an American slang word that entered common usage in the 1940s.
When you climb Hanging Rock, you ascend a to a sharp point and then descend down gently rolling hills. The book’s structure is a little like that: the climax arrives in the first three chapters. The rest of the book is a gradual come-down. Some readers find this anticlimactic, but to me it adds to the book’s sense of unease. As you read on, you realise you are wandering further from solving the mystery. It’s as if the answer to the puzzle is a solid island, and the book is an ocean dragging you ever further away. It’s agonizing, and compelling.
So, do we ever learn what happened? Do we even get a look through a crack in the door? Make up your own mind, but there’s a reason they call it mystery fiction as opposed to solution fiction.
Terry Gilliam’s Brazil explores the often-overlooked fact that George Orwell’s 1984 could be rewritten as a comedy with little effort.
In Room 101, Winston is tortured with his worst fear (rats). Why do this? Do they give everyone in Room 101 a personalized torture? What if my worst fear is something expensive, like having diamonds rubbed on my nipples? Why go to the trouble – wouldn’t a generic but still fearsome torture be equally effective? Why not just shoot Winston? (etc)
Brazil takes this latent absurdity, and focuses on it, enlarging it. As with 1984, absurdity doesn’t damage the film’s integrity at all. The movie’s seriously ridiculous and ridiculously serious.
It is a satire about bureaucracy grown so rampant that it throttles humanity like creeper vines. Paperwork. Chains of command. Spelling mistakes that lead to deaths. Blood-red tape. In Gilliam’s world, the future is a man filling out triplicate government forms, forever.
In real life, bureaucracy serves a valid purpose: it’s a cultural shock absorber. If I have poor impulse control, maybe I’ll think a $30,000 exhaust mod kit for my car is a good purchase. If I have to fill out 20 forms and wait a month, maybe I’ll decide I don’t need it after all. But there’s a dark side to bureaucracy: complex and multilayered systems allow responsibility to be diffused into vapor.
Brazil takes place at the furthest, blackest point of this dark side. A fly jams up a printer, turns a “T” into a “B” on an arrest warrant, and the wrong man dies. It’s not clear who’s to blame. The fly?
Sam Lowry is a low-level drone in a monstrous system. He is unhappy, and dreams of soaring above the world on perfect, tesselated wings. These dreams are the closest he comes to experiencing any sort of power, in a life boxed in and mangled both by a suffocating society and neurotic social set. All of the actors are good, but their main purpose is to stare obliviously at the huge, scary environment that rears up around them like prison bars.
As well he might, because the film gives you a lot to stare at. In fact, the true reason to see Brazil might be to sample Gilliam’s terrifying but strangely wondrous world.
There’s a Perry Bible Fellowship comic depicting far-future cinema-goers watching a film about World War II – full of sailing ships and medieval knights riding zebras into battle, and various other things. It’s a vivid image: all the strata of history collapsed into one because the future no longer cares about their distinction.
Brazil is a like that: it’s as if people from the year 3000 made a documentary about the 20th century. It’s both futuristic and laughably out of date. It’s chic and chintzy and garish and austere. It’s ten decades and several hundred fashions and movements mashed up together. But even this ignores Gilliam’s countless weird, inspired touches, such as the ropey, maggotlike tangles of air ducting inside Sam’s apartment. Everything looks great, with detailed sets and puppetry worthy of the Henson studio.
People in Brazil live weird, pampered lives, catered on by perpertually misfiring machines – we see one pouring orange juice on Sam Lowry’s toast. Everything always happens in the most inefficient way possible: for example, cars can only be exited by lifting up the entire roof. The one person who does his job properly is an unlicensed repairman, on the run from the law.
Brazil‘s ending is more pragmatic than 1984‘s but no less grim. In a world where all your (mis)judgement is done by the cancerous edifice of the state, there is no need to have a brain anymore. Certainly no need to use it.
An album full of tracks that weren’t deemed good enough for Load: it’s much better than that one was, needless to say. “Fuel” has nice energy and propulsion, although the guitars sound badly intonated. “The Memory Remains” has a solid set of melodic hooks. “Devil’s Dance” is actually a heavy metal song, although drawn from the Black Sabbath model rather than Slayer or Diamond Head. Every band at some point rips off the massive crawling bass riff from “Heaven and Hell”, and here’s Metallica’s turn. “The Unforgiven II” is very long but is ultimately the album standout, developing nicely and containing a good vocal performance (for once).
Although the first half of ReLoad would be a good album if it came from a different band (I can’t disentangle it from the superior early Metallica), the rest of the album’s just filler. Seek ye not good music in this wasteland. The band themselves have probably forgotten that “Slither”, “Crappy Diem Baby”, “Prince Charming”, etc exist.
“Low Man’s Lyric” is a folk/country experiment that’s memorable in all sorts of wrong ways. It runs seven and a half minutes, contains one of the most annoying choruses ever raped into plastic, and features a hurdy-gurdy: an instrument I was happily unaware of until now. Stephen King’s book Hearts in Atlantis contains a digression on the traits of “low men” – they wear hats with feathers in them, whistle at women from across the street, and so on. A trait he forgot to mention: they write songs with a hurdy-gurdy part. “Fixxxer” is another long one about Hetfield’s parental issues that isn’t particularly worth listening to.
The good: combine the good songs from Load and ReLoad, and you’d have an alright Spin Doctors album. The bad: re-read the past sentence.
In 1996, Metallica cut off something very important, a cosmetic feature that shouldn’t affect their music yet clearly did. Even now, they’re still recovering from this disastrous shearing.
I refer to the pointy ends of their logo. The self-titled album had them. This one doesn’t. As every heavy metal fan knows, this minor change is actually a musical circumcision of the worst sort, clipping the band of its masculine power.
Anthrax did it in 1995, and the made their worst album in 10 years. Iron Maiden did it in 1998, and made their worst album ever. Ten years later Judas Priest tried the same thing on Nostradamus, a 102-minute long conceptual yawner could be likened to the end of the universe: scientists think Nostradamus must someday end, but nobody’s listened for long enough to be sure. Can you think of a band that removed pointy bits from their logo and remained good? I can’t.
Load is the result of a huge amount of touring (the band played somewhere north of 350 shows in support of the self-titled), which apparently killed their interest in heavy metal altogether. Any semblance of thrash is gone, and so is most of the downtempo Ozzy Osbourne worship on the S/T. The best thing you can say about it is that it’s not a sellout. Maybe the public mistook its bluesy, Jimi Hendrix ripoffs for alternative rock and played it on college rock stations for a while, but it’s a throwback to 1976 from side to side.
“Ain’t My Bitch” rocks hard and showcases all the album’s flaws. Ulrich’s drums have a dull, popping quality with no body or sustain. Hetfield needs a vocal coach for his numerous speech impediments (bitch-AARRRGHH). Hammett’s wah pedal addiction is now at crippling proportions. The performance and production are both flat. The tremolo-picked riff in the chorus is the heaviest thing on the record, which is just sad.
“2 X 4” hardly seems to exist. I keep having to look at the tracklisting to remind myself it’s on there. A lot of the songs are like that – they’re extremely hard to talk about because they have no memorable features. Remember when a Metallica album had like, eight near-perfect songs that were each landmarks in their own way? That was good, but wouldn’t you rather have FOURTEEN really crappy ones?
Album highlights…I don’t know. “The Outlaw Torn”, probably. “Mama Said” would be a good ballad except for the loud slide-guitar lick – this is the song that probably inspired Manowar bassist Joey DeMaio’s infamous quip “I don’t listen to country music” when asked if he enjoyed Metallica.
The lowlight is the revolting “Hero of the Day”. Maudlin, noisy, and annoying, this song isn’t the hero of the next five minutes. “Ronnie” wants to have an Aerosmith-type swagger, but all it makes you want to do is listen to the actual Aerosmith.
The cover is blood and semen pressed between two slides of glass. This is fitting: Load is a tale of things out of their correct place. Blood belongs in our veins, semen belongs in our epididymis, and 95% of this record belongs in a bin marked FOR RECYCLING. Recommended for people who want to hear bad retro-style 70s rock half-assedly played by your dad. Metal fell very hard and very far in the 90s, and sadly, one of the very deepest troughs is marked by a band with Metal in its name.
A long book with a short description: “Gross Stuff(tm) happens to kids.” This, more than any other Stephen King book, is just a cavalcade of youngsters having traumatic experiences. Lest I be misunderstood, I fully endorse youngsters having traumatic experiences, but it does make for a book punctuated with lots of “what the fuck?” and “what am I reading?” and “why is this in the story?” and “do we need forensic-level analysis of all the boys’ penises?”
It is the archetypal Stephen King “big secret in a small town” story. There’s a lurking horror in the sewers, and ever twenty-seven years it emerges (usually in the guise of a clown) to kill children.
It feeds and gains power through fear, and in fictional Derry, there’s a lot to be afraid of. Even without the clown, it sounds like a miserable place to grow up. Daily life involves dodging switchblade-wielding bullies, gay-bashing homophobes, dog-murdering Klansmen (not kidding), pedophile lepers (still not kidding), and adults that, as always, are so jaw-droppingly stupid that it’s amazing that they can tie their shoelaces.
The spotlight is on a group of middle-school children, who dub themselves “The Losers”. Their casting is familiar to any reader of 80s-90s young adult fiction: the Fat Kid (Ben Hanscom), the Asthma Kid (Eddie Kaspbrak), the Speech Impediment Kid (Bill Denbrough), the Screwball (Richie Tozier), the Jewish Kid (Stan Uris), the Black Kid (Mike Hanlon), and, of course, the Girl (Beverly Marsh). Denbrough has the most obvious connection to the monster – his younger brother was murdered by it – but in time, it will intricate itself in all their lives.
I enjoyed the quiet moments at the beginning, where the kids just hang out together. It isn’t all about pedophile lepers, and there are warm, funny, and nostalgic scenes that don’t contain any horror at all.
But all too soon, they are drawn into a battle against the monster in the sewers. They think they kill it, but twenty seven years, the murders begin again. The children (who aren’t children any more, and it’s hinted that whatever protective magic they once held may have ended), decide to return to Derry to destroy the monster for good. I sympathize with their cause, but honestly, is their hometown worth saving? Freeing Derry from It would be like exorcising a ghost from Camden, New Jersey. Even if you succeed, it’s not like that place will be anyone’s next holiday destination.
The exact nature of the monster becomes muddled in It‘s 1100-page length. At various points it’s suggested to be a projection of the town’s negative energy, a tulpa emerging from the fears and imaginations of children, a crashed UFO (?!?), a Lovecraftian abomination from the “multiverse”, a Manichean embodiment of the dark side (the light side is represented by a turtle), etc.
The clown is the monster’s iconic form, but it has many others, including a werewolf, a mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, and a disembodied eye. Stephen King seems to be paying homage to the Universal horror films, and trying to make them scary again.
He only “seems” to be, because like a lot of his 1980s work, he’s trying so many contradictory things that any central authorial vision gets lost. The Lovecraftian elements sit oddly with the Monster Mash stuff, and the “xTrEmE hOrRoR” Ed Lee pastiches don’t seem of a piece with the nostalgic Wonder Years scenes. It’s the definition of a mixed book, filled with ideas that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. An idea that works: the clown. An idea that doesn’t: the underaged gangbang.
It was adapted at least twice, once as a miniseries starring Tim Curry, and again, more recently, as a pair of horror movies heavily derived from Stranger Things (which itself was heavily derived from It). Neither had the courage to film It‘s most infamous scene, which takes place in the sewers and would have earned either movie an NC-17 if filmed verbatim.
Anyone making any sort of It movie has chosen a hard row to hoe. The book is gigantic, and confusing, and sprawling. The clown Pennywise is one of the most marketable villains ever, but the rest of the book is kind of a mess. It’s the product of the relentless, manic energy King had the 80s – an accurate cover would list “Cocaine” as the book’s co-writer, and to be honest, I’m not sure that King’s name wouldn’t get second billing
(This, foremost among King’s work, must have been hard to look up on early search engines, which tended to reject searches for pronouns. As far as unfortunate titles go, It is even less searchable than The Who.)
While walking in a desert, in the river of shade flowing between two dunes, you find a shape in the sand: a long stroke, capped at both ends by a much shorter stroke. What is it? Hard to say. It could be many things.
Then you find a second shape, a circle with a short, right-leaning stroke bisecting the lower right edge. It’s obviously the letter Q. Remarkably, you now recognise the first shape: the letter I. One shape is meaningless: two causes meaning to flood into your head.
The Harry Potter books were like that. Written by a single mother drawing a £70 a week welfare cheque, they weren’t an overnight success. You probably only heard of them after Book 3 came out, by which point it was impossible to not have heard of them.
Even after it became a global phenomenon, Harry Potter confused a lot of people, particularly your parents, teacher, and youth pastor. What sort of book lurked between the covers? The premise was easily understandable – boy discovers that he’s a wizard – but were they children’s books? Young adult adventures? Fantasy stories? Gateway drugs into black magick and the occult? Did you file Harry Potter next to Roald Dahl, The Saddle Club, or Aleister Crowley?
The first book’s marketing reveals this confusion. Would children buy books written by a woman? Better initialise her name, just to be safe (Harry Potter fans used to lord over the rubes by saying “Joanne Kathleen” as loudly as possible). Her American publisher thought that Philosopher’s Stone was dry and static, and released it as Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. They probably expected a turkey: the book was of near-unpublishable length (kids don’t read books that are 300 pages long) and it was also too British (American children won’t understand arcane Limeyland terminology like “ice lolly”, et cetera).
By Book 4, Harry Potter made a lot more sense. It was a heroic coming-of-age epic with elements of the fantastical. Being a new Harry Potter fan at this point was like tuning in to a song partway through the chorus – you tried to enjoy the moment while hastily backfilling your knowledge about the first three books. But for most of us, it was entertaining backfilling. Virtually everyone who reads the Harry Potter books all the way enjoys them greatly.
But to break butterflies under the wheel…what’s good about them, exactly?
JK Rowling has weaknesses as a writer: virtually every “he/she said” has an adverb clinging to it like a parasitic tick (“she said sharply”, “he said heavily,” “Harry said desperately”). When she describes something she provides cliche: eyes like dark tunnels, legs as thick as tree trunks. Her books (including this one) are often plotted around some piece of secret information that, once revealed, isn’t as interesting or important as its place in the story would suggest. Her worldbuilding is fun but unserious – nobody in a world of magic would need to wear glasses, for example, nor would they use flaming torches for light.
But she has strengths, too.
She has Evelyn Waugh’s ability to make anything funny or interesting: even if a character is sitting alone in a room, we get a wry observation about the room. Some passages are hilarious: I enjoyed rediscovering all my favorite lines in a recent re-reading. “Scars can come in handy. I have one myself above my left knee that is a perfect map of the London Underground.”
She also possesses Waugh’s talent for effortlessly establishing character. Sometimes it takes her a single sentence – “Mr. Dursley hummed as he picked out his most boring tie for work” – while sometimes she takes a little longer, like a boxer wearing down an opponent. The headmaster Dumbledore is a good case. When we first meet him, he seems like God, all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-benevolent. But in later books (and even a little in this one), his benignity is tempered with slight dishonesty. He is a man who might tell a lie, if he decides the truth is not in your best interests.
Much of Philosopher’s Stone takes place in a classroom, which enables JK Rowling to kill two birds with one stone (we get exposition and worldbuilding from a teacher, while whispered conversations among students advance the plot). The classroom scenes are the workhorses of the Harry Potter books, a delight to read, and it’s always a shame when one ends. Harry’s first encounter with Severus Snape, the sinister Master of Potions, is a masterclass in character dynamics: we clearly see his resentment of Harry, his desire to publicly humiliate him, and a shuttered past that Harry can’t possibly know about but has to bear the brunt of anyway.
“We clearly see” applies to most things in Harry Potter, because JK Rowling writes some of the clearest prose I’ve ever seen. Despite the convoluted plots, you always know what’s happening in Harry Potter. Granted, it might be “something mysterious” or “something Harry doesn’t understand”, but we always, always, always understand the action described on the page. George Orwell compared prose to glass: stained glass windows are pretty, but you can’t see through them. Good writing is like transparent glass, providing a clear window into the action. JK Rowling’s prose is 99% transmittance 9H tempered glass.
The first book is the roughest, and tonally the most unique. There’s more whimsy than the later ones, more surreality, and less adherence to logic (certain elements, like ghosts and paintings that talk to you, would hang uneasily in dramatic stories were death is supposed to be final). You can see all the roads the Harry Potter books could have gone down, from Dahl to Amis to Milne. Perhaps JK Rowling herself was still uncertain about what Harry Potter was, but it was very clearly something.
Have you ever read a book or watched a movie that was edited by a machine?
I don’t mean “edited by a human using a machine”. I mean the technology itself decided which parts to excise, which parts to keep, which parts to change and how.
I once backed up an old hard drive which had begun to demagnetize. The photos are still viewable, but many are corrupt. Lines of pixels rip my face to pieces. Family photos are half-submerged in a fluorescent vomit sea.
The music files are worse. Many mp3s cannot be opened. The handful I can still play are filled with crackles, pops, squalls, and static. Sometimes I get halfway through, and then VLC Media Player crashes.
It’s a reminder of just how much is possible in the universe, and how little of it makes sense to the human mind. A couple of random edits on my hard drive transformed the familiar into the alien. We have used machines to reshape the world and make it comfortable…but what happens at the margins, when machines obey chaos and entropy instead of us? Will we survive, with our fragility? Will we want to?
Machines don’t just alter pictures, they also alter bodies. Car crashes sever limbs, blunt-force trauma breaks bones, bullets spin red helices through flesh. Tetsuo – The Iron Man is an intense Japanese experimental film, directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, about a man whose body seems to be turning into metal. It is often called “cyberpunk”, but that evokes images of neon-lit bars and chrome-hipped razorgirls. Instead, it’s more about the fragile, brief period where humans still rule and machines still don’t…yet.
Tetsuo is overtaken by a sense of fatalistic doom. The man’s fate is hopeless. He’s transforming, turning to metal like a junkyard Midas, and so’s the world around him. Tokyo used to have buildings made of cypress. Now, skyscrapers stand everywhere like tombstones. There’s no going back.
Even the human scenes have a lingering impression of the mechanical. The protagonist receives a phone call that consists of him and a woman saying “Hello?” meaninglessly at each other, like two modems failing to connect. As he does so, he awkwardly “reads” a newspaper by holding it an inch from his face, like a robot over-literally following instructions on how humans read. These are dramatizations of the 21st century, where we are so entwined with our tools that they hardly feel like tools. Soon, the tail might be wagging the dog.
Like David Lynch’s Eraserhead (probably a big influence), it’s shot in black and white, filling the frame with a chiaroscuro of palpitating metal. The editing is kinetic and violent, ratcheting from cut to cut. The soundtrack sounds like a set of Ginsu blades spinning inside a tumble dryer. There’s liberal use of stop-motion animation, which gives the special effects shots an epileptic jerkiness.
Tsukamoto directed two films before and two films after – all variations on the same theme – but Tetsuo: The Iron Man seems to have stuck around the longest. Its filming was a bad experience for him, marked by many production difficulties and most of his crew walking out. Maybe he wants to forget he made it. I won’t forget seeing it. You do not watch this film. It rams itself through your head with the force of a diamond-tipped drill, flinging corkscrews of brain matter out of the exit wound. The ultimate machine edit.
“Commencing countdown, engines on (five, four, three)
Check ignition and may God’s love be with you (two, one, liftoff)”
There are no American flags on the moon.
The crew of Apollo 11 placed six on the lunar soil. They were symbols of hope. They meant things to people. But in the end, they were just cheap flags bought at Sears. After fifty years, harsh ultraviolet rays have bleached them entirely white. All the vexillological meaning they once possessed is gone, blasted away by the hateful sun.
David Bowie was like those flags. He seemed to transcend humanity, but he didn’t. He was made of flesh, and in 2016 he died. Four years later, the phrase Dead David Bowie still seems fundamentally and grammatically wrong, like a modern age Paradox of Zeno. He cannot be dead.
Blackstar entered the world two days before Bowie left it. He surely suffered through its recordings, but this can’t be heard in his vocal performances, which are powerful and strong, or his arrangements, which haven’t been this detailed since the Brian Eno years.
The most noticeable thing is the musical approach, which is different to anything he’s tried before. Station to Station might seem like an obvious comparison. There’s a long song at the beginning, and some pop songs at the end. But musically it represents a clean severance with the past. He’s gone more epic than the title track, denser and more literary than “Sue (or in a Season of Crime), catchier than “I Can’t Give Anything Away”, but there never was a Blackstar before.
It has no nearly rock influences whatsoever: when electric guitars are heard, they exist as pure tones – a vaccuum cleaner or AC unit could have served the same function. I only place hear distorted guitars is on “Lazarus”, where dirty chords smoulder like hot coals on grass that’s slightly too damp to catch fire.
Instead, Blackstar is an album of jazz, electronica, pop, and perhaps three or four genres that only exist in New York. This ambitious approach is seen most clearly on the nearly 10 minute long “Blackstar”, which is propelled by shuffling snare beats and strings, and sounds both final and uneasy, like a monument built on a crumbling cliff. “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” has a deranged energy not unlike the Manic Street Preachers, although without as many layers of guitars. But there’s an element of quasi-improvisational looseness that’s missing from past Bowie classics like Low, which are the result of perfectionism. “Whore” and some of the others sound recorded quickly (I have no idea whether this is actually the case), as though there was a spontaneous energy that Bowie wanted or needed to capture.
The album trails off in quality a little towards the end, and at times Bowie seems a distant presence among the instrumentation. But the great songs truly are great, both for their music and what they portend. Despite his passing, Bowie was a blessed man: he got to write his own legacy. Few encomiums have Blackstar‘s directness and connection to the source.
Earlier, I described the sun as hateful for destroying the flags. But is it really? The flags got there because men put them there. Men who traveled by a rocket powered by compacted algae. Algae that fed upon photosynthesis provided by…the sun. Everything exists as transformation of the sun’s energy. You can’t curse the sun for erasing the past, because it also creates the present. Bowie understood this. He knew that someday he’d be a long dead icon, his humanness erased and forgotten as new days come and new legends get to walk in the light. This was fine. All he could do was try to have the final word.
The Elton John song “Candle in the Wind”, which (after a dead princess and a meretricious rewrite) became the biggest selling single in history, purports to be a memorial of Marilyn Monroe. I always found it disingenuous and creepy. Norma Jeane Mortenson inhabited roles created for her by men all her life, and now here were two more men, asserting their right to write the definitive story of who she really was. Maybe Elton John and Bernie Taupin meant well, but the song makes my skin crawl. Shouldn’t Marilyn Monroe herself be the one writing this song?
Blackstar is exactly that: a self-describing legend who doesn’t need interpretation or reification. Not that people like me don’t try, but we do so at our peril. Bowie has told us exactly who he is here: and if it’s a confusing picture, maybe that was the truth all along. Musically, Blackstar is good and debatably great. But as a final album, it virtually couldn’t have been better. He may have wanted to write more songs, but at least he got to write the last one.
An old story: an art professor split his class in two, and assigned each a task. The first group was to make a piece of pottery each day until the end of the year. The second group was to spend the entire year making a single perfect pot. At the end of the year he compared their work: the first group’s daily pot looked much better.
Bowie became distant from public life after his heart attack in 2004. He never formally announced his retirement, but sometimes people don’t. In 2013, with no warning or notice, he released an album: his first in 10 years. All of the eleven classic Bowie albums (TMWSTW to Scary Monsters) came out in a similar block of time.
It was called The Next Day, and it had an aura of artistic disrespect, from the “vandalised” cover to the lack of pre-release publicity. This approach was becoming trendy in 2013 (just a year ago, Death Grips released an album with the drummer’s penis on the cover). Albums like Ziggy Stardust sometimes seem to creak under the weight of their own heraldry: clearly Bowie’s approach was to release music free from all that. A few years later and TND would have been dropped straight to Soundcloud, along with a fire emoji.
But it’s casual release barely disguises an album that’s fraught with labour. This statue bears its chisel marks: these songs were written and produced over long periods of time, and sometimes sweat with indecision and self-doubt. The Next Day is never more compelling than in the moments when you realise that Bowie must have come close to scrapping the entire thing.
It’s produced by Visconti, and features an impressive lineup of Bowie Band Members from Christmases Past. Gail Ann Dorsey, Sterling Campbell, saxophonist Steve Elson, Gerry Leonard, and David Torn. Perhaps most plangent is the presence of Earl Slick, who provides a crushing single-coil riff on “(You Will) Set the World On Fire” as well as a link back to the glory days of Station to Station. I really enjoy Slick. He might not be as technically capable as Mick Ronson, or as colourful as Carlos Alomar, but he outlasted both of them.
The Next Day it offers music drawn from one of two wells. The first is heavy rock, the second is vaguely U2-ish light rock with ambient and jazz influences. The title track is the most bombastic and magniloquent of the rockers, containing abrasive riffs and lines like “they know God exists for the Devil told them so”. It’s followed by “Dirty Boys”, which is slower but equally savage, its disembowelling stabs of brass pierce the listener like rusty switchblades.
On “The Stars are Out Tonight”, Bowie offers his most coherent thoughts yet on artifice and illusion. The public’s obsession with celebrities seems vapid and awful, but not having celebrities at all might be even worse. His vocals sound querulous and thin, but powerful when they need to be. This is classic Bowie: he sounds weak, but then casts weakness aside like an ill-fitting cloak.
Other tracks are musically indistinct and lyrically indecipherable. On “I’d Rather Be High”, “How Does the Grass Grow”, and “(You Will) Set the World On Fire” he mixes apocalyptic fervour with introspection and perhaps autobiography. Ever since “The Bewlay Brothers”, Bowie’s listeners have known not to take him too seriously (or too lightly), and TND contains reams of lyrics in that vein.
I don’t think it’s a great album. Despite its lengthy gestation it sounds like it could have come out in 2003: as with Reality most of the songs go in one ear and out the other. There’s no spark. “Valentine’s Day” is just mush, “I’d Rather Be High”, “Where Are We Now?” is a ballad so weak it sounds like it could be extinguished by the draft of a shut door, and “If You Can See Me” is a triage squad of musicians furiously overplaying to compensate for the deadness of the music.
It’s over fifty minutes long, and has forty minutes of hooks. The material soon overstays the listener’s patience: even the furious title track just sounds toneless and dumb after a while, like we’re listening to Tin Machine again. TND has many great moments, and even a few great songs, but as a whole it’s exhausting and overlong. It’s like what they said about Wagner: sixty great minutes and a poor hour.
Can it be called a return to form? What form? Bowie has many. There’s vague echoes of the a better past, but also lots of modernistic touches. This is a latter day Bowie album, with influences from some of the worst parts of his catalog. If it’s interesting, it’s for the truly terrified moments, with Bowie just not sure of what comes next. He is a man not prepared for the future, but nevertheless having it bear down on top of him.
For over eleven years, Reality wore a title it was never meant to bear: that of Last David Bowie Album.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Bowie had every intention of continuing recording and touring. But in 2004 (near the end of the grueling 112-date Reality World Tour) he collapsed on stage in Germany, evidently from a heart attack. The beautiful statue that had worn countless layers of paint had suffered an interior crack.
There were no more tours, no more albums. For over ten years, Reality was the end. It never felt like one: it was a small, transitory album, trivial at times, and lacked an identity. It wasn’t a grand, towering tombstone, with HERE LIES DAVID BOWIE etched in stone.
Maybe its battlefield promotion helped it, giving threadbare songs like “She’ll Drive the Big Car” and “Looking for Water” more attention than they deserved. But after The Next Day came out in 2013, Reality fell into its correct place. It’s in the lower half of Bowie’s albums, which is no demerit. It’s also in the lower half of Bowie’s post-70s work, which probably is.
It has good songs, as they all do. “Pablo Picasso” takes the Modern Lovers’ one-chord pony on new and surprising adventures. “The Loneliest Guy” is very unsettling, like a taut and humming spiderweb of Mike Garson’s reverb-soaked piano and Gerry Leonard’s vibrato-drenched guitar. Bowie seems to be drawing from Scott Walker’s approach to songwriting here, turning the soundscape into a huge blank space that crashes sea-shell-like with the sound of its own emptiness.
“Fall Dog Bombs the Moon” is like the last Tin Machine song, very dry and underproduced. The lyrics are both cryptic and heavy-handed, clearly exculpatory of George Bush while not really naming him. I sort of like it.
“Try Some, Buy Some” was originally produced by Phil Spector, and sounds like Regina Spektor. I’ve only listened to it once or twice – a little of this stuff goes a long way.
“Reality” is noisy and quickly becomes unwelcome: it’s like a jam session that nobody has the courage to end. But closing track “Bring Me the Disco King” is another album highlight. It’s another powerful minimalistic song, consisting of Bowie’s voice, Garson’s jazz-influenced piano playing, and Matt Chamberlain’s drum loops. The result is enchanting: it has some of the same magic that “Lady Grinning Soul” had, all those years ago. But then Garson starts vamping all sorts of neo-tonal stuff over the outro (as if trying to recapture “Aladdin Sane”), and a lot of the magic leaves.
And then Reality ends. It was supposed to be yet another stone in a road with no clear end or destination: the road of life. The trouble with such a road is that it can just stop at any moment, without warning, and you have to accept that the final moment has come. For a while, Bowie fans had to accept that this album was his Abbey Road. But eleven years later, a new stone appeared.