The Watchmen Bestiary 29 – Lonely Planet

Attention, people of Earth! This article contains spoilers for Watchmen. In addition, there are spoilers for the novel and movie This Island Earth, and very minor spoilers for the HBO Watchmen series.

In Chapter 3 of Watchmen, Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk walk over to Hollis Mason’s apartment together. As so often happens in the book, Moore and Gibbons intercut this scene with another scene, in this case Dr. Manhattan preparing for his TV interview with Benny Anger. Juxtaposition abounds — on the top of page 11, panel one shows a receptionist overcome with existential nausea at Dr. Manhattan’s sudden materialization. “They’re not paying me enough for this…” she says. Then panel two:

Watchmen chapter 3, page 11, panel 2. Dan and Laurie walk towards the camera in the rain. To their right is a poster (mounted on something freestanding) reading "PIA CINEMA" at the top, showing a mutant with an exposed, oversized brain and hollow eyes, with the title "IS ISLAND EARTH" showing. To their left is a fragment of the same poster, showing "UTO" at the top and "THI" as the title. Behind them is the Institute for Extraspatial Studies. Superimposed over the image is a caption reading They're not paying me enough to handle monsters from outta space

Watchmen, up to its usual tricks, superimposes the dialogue from the previous panel onto this one and emphasizes two parts of the image to tie it to that dialogue: the Institute for Extraspatial Studies and the movie posters for This Island Earth. Both parts evoke “monsters from outta space” in a different way. The Institute for Extraspatial Studies operates more as foreshadowing for the final chapter (as well as an explicit reference to “outta space”), but the movie poster on the left serves up a great big monster on its face. The posters advertise a movie playing at the Utopia Cinema — we can tell that’s the name because the left-hand poster gives us the “PIA” while the right-hand poster has the “UTO”. This theater is apparently some kind of sci-fi revival house — as the web annotations helpfully point out:

The Utopia Cinema, which is showing “This Island Earth,” reappears later.

Indeed, we find it in Chapter 5 playing the movie Things To Come, and from Chapter 8 onwards playing The Day The Earth Stood Still (at least until the epilogue, in which it has become the “New Utopia” and shows a Russian cinema double feature.) Subjects for future posts, no doubt. For now, though, let’s focus on This Island Earth.

Universal Appeal

By 1955, Universal Pictures (named Universal-International at the time) was finding its successes in some odd places — Ma and Pa Kettle, Abbott and Costello, Francis the Talking Mule… and science fiction. The studio already had a stable of classic and beloved horror icons — Lugosi’s Dracula, Karloff’s Frankenstein, Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man — and was working to capitalize on a new sci-fi/monster craze kicked off in 1950 by Destination Moon.

Producer William Alland and director Jack Arnold had turned in a couple of big black-and-white hits: It Came From Outer Space and The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Arnold had also directed Revenge Of The Creature (a Black Lagoon sequel) and Tarantula, both of which did reasonably well. The studio felt it was time to make a “prestige” science fiction picture, and saw its chance in the novel This Island Earth by Raymond F. Jones, the rights to which had been purchased by director Joseph M. Newman. Newman had commissioned Edward G. O’Callaghan to write a shooting script from the novel, but had failed to raise the necessary money to make his movie independently. Nevertheless, when Universal-International decided to buy the rights and engage Alland as the producer, those rights came attached to Newman as director and O’Callaghan as screenwriter.

U-I made some big investments in this movie. For one thing, they decided to shoot it in Technicolor, which was significantly more expensive than black-and-white stock but brought with it a “wow” factor, especially for sci-fi spectacle. They also brought in Franklin Coen to rewrite O’Callaghan’s script. Coen was not a science fiction writer, but knew how to focus on character and theme. His revisions brought some weight and depth to O’Callaghan’s original treatment. U-I may have also recruited Arnold to reshoot some of Newman’s work in the last act, though sources differ as to the extent of Arnold’s involvement, or indeed whether he was truly involved at all. Finally, the studio devoted quite a budget to visual effects, creating elaborate miniatures, matte paintings, fire, explosions, and (to Coen’s chagrin) a monster.

Prestige picture or no, This Island Earth was science fiction, and in Universal-International’s eyes, they’d never hook the teen and preteen audience they needed for it without a creature. As actor Jeff Morrow, who played the sympathetic alien Exeter in the film, later recalled, “the Studio felt that a Sci-Fi film had to have a monster”. (Universal Filmscripts Classic Science Fiction, Volume 1, pg. 15)

This monster from outer space was the Metaluna mutant, whose image we see on the Utopia Cinema’s poster in Watchmen. The mutant was invented wholly for the film — it doesn’t exist in the novel at all. And even in the movie, it feels pretty tacked-on. Nevertheless, the mutant is today the most famous and enduring aspect of This Island Earth (well, aside from the fact that this movie was somewhat unfairly chosen as the object of ridicule in the theatrical version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but that hadn’t happened yet in 1985) and it may be the primary reason why Moore and/or Gibbons chose the film to feature in the “monsters from outta space” panel. Certainly the mutant is one of the all-time iconic 1950s Hollywood space creatures.

A still frame from This Island Earth, showing the Metaluna Mutant

Reassembling The Components

There’s more resonance here than appears in that panel, though, and to understand it we need to explore This Island Earth a little further. The book and the movie share a premise, but diverge radically about halfway through their stories. At the beginning of both, though, is Cal Meacham. He’s the kind of omnicompetent man common to 1950s sci-fi, a Scientist who does Science but who is also no stranger to action and fighting, plus he’s pretty good with the ladies. He receives a mysterious replacement part from a supply warehouse: a capacitor much smaller than he was expecting and with much greater capacity.

This leads to a catalog full of these mysterious parts, from which he orders the pieces for something called an “interociter.” Using his Science smarts, he builds the interociter, which turns out to have been his unsolicited audition for a mysterious outfit whose stated goal is to “put an end to war.” They fly him in a pilotless plane to their remote compound, where they’ve gathered other scientists like him, including PhD Ruth Adams (psychiatrist in the book, physicist in the movie), and entice him into working for them.

Something doesn’t feel quite right, though, and the same curiosity that drove Cal to build the interociter spurs him to investigate his benefactors. Before long, he discovers the truth: they’re aliens! Their purpose on Earth is to recruit humans to help them build tools and weapons for a war they’re waging against an implacable enemy.

From this point, the book and the movie diverge completely. In the book, the interociter turns out to facilitate telepathy, and it allows Meacham first to read his alien mentor’s mind, then to absorb the full context of a war between an affiliation of planets called the Llannan Council (i.e. the good guys) and another affiliation called the Guarra (bad guys.) Intrigue ensues, including a scary encounter with lizardlike Guarra agents.

Earth is destined to become a battleground between the Llannans and the Guarra, and the Llannas have decided to let it be overrun, until Cal goes before the council and argues that they’ve been executing the same plans (determined by a computer) for decades, and that their predictability has been their undoing. He persuades the Llannans to defend Earth, and ends the book looking forward to returning home with Ruth (to whom he’s become engaged in the course of the story.)

The movie, on the other hand, follows Cal’s discovery with an action sequence in which he and Ruth flee the compound with another scientist, played by Russell Johnson of Gilligan’s Island fame. Johnson’s character gets vaporized by some kind of space ray, and Meacham and Adams try to escape via plane, only to have their plane sucked into a flying saucer commanded by Exeter, leader of the alien compound. Exeter and company turn out to be from a planet called Metaluna, which is under relentless assault by another race called the Zahgons, whom we never see apart from their ships.

Exeter wants to bring Meacham and Adams to Metaluna to help create machines to power its defenses, and in the process of bringing them there we get to see a lot of those fancy visual effects that Universal-International paid for, including one in which Meacham and Adams step into tubes that put them through a mysterious process meant to help their bodies cope with the greater atmospheric pressure on Metaluna. What this looks like is some crazy lighting, and then the consecutive appearance of various anatomical systems — nervous, circulatory, skeletal, muscular.

Scene from This Island Earth: Cal Meacham and Ruth Adams in tubes being prepared for travel to Metaluna -- their bodies show a nervous system, then skeleton, then musculature.

For readers of Watchmen, it’s a familiar set of images:

Watchmen chapter 4, page 9, panels 4-7. Panel 4: two frightened men's faces in the foreground. One is looking back, screaming, at a brain and nervous system suspended in the air. Panel 5: caption "It's November 10th now. There is a circulatory system walking through the kitchen." The art illustrates this. Panel 6: caption "November 14th: A partially muscled skeleton stands at the perimeter fence and screams for thirty seconds before vanishing." Again the art is a straightforward illustration of the caption. Panel 7: caption "Really, it's just a question of reassembling the components in the correct sequence." Art is wristwatch pieces laid out on a black cloth. Young Osterman's hand is picking one up with tweezers.

Given that This Island Earth gets name-checked in chapter 3 of Watchmen and Dr. Manhattan’s system-by-system reconstruction of himself appears in chapter 4, it’s not beyond reason to wonder if the movie’s visuals influenced Moore and Gibbons’ portrayal of Osterman’s process. Certainly both sequences suggest bodies deconstructed and then reconstructed into something greater than they were before.

In any case, by the time Exeter and the humans reach Metaluna, they find they are too late to save it. They encounter the mutant, who inadvertently and unsuccessfully impedes their escape a couple of times, and then they are back on Earth — Cal and Ruth in their airplane, and the mortally wounded Exeter plunging his saucer into the sea.

We Have Met The Enemy

The plots of these stories differ — largely because the latter half of Jones’s book wasn’t visual enough for the movie producers, and introduced too much complexity to fit into a film. But they do have a metaphorical underpinning in common. In each of them, the people of Earth find themselves part of a greater galactic context than they’d imagined, and are exploited by extraterrestrials who are themselves at war.

1955 was a mere decade past the end of World War II, a war in which the Allied and Axis forces battled on many fronts, including islands in the Pacific whose indigenous people had no idea of the greater context of war around them. Those indigenous people were often recruited to build airstrips or help in the manufacture of military supplies. The novel’s version of Exeter calls out this parallel explicitly, in a line of reasoning that explains the title:

These primitive peoples… had no comprehension of the vast purpose to which they were contributing a meager part, but they helped in a conflict which was ultimately resolved in their favor.

(This Island Earth, pg. 93)

“Earth is an island,” he says, “which can be by-passed completely, or temporarily occupied if need be.” (pg. 98) Similarly, film historian Robert Skotak, in the DVD commentary for the movie version, explains Joseph Newman’s intention with the film:

One of the themes that the director had in mind was to show the love of our planet and how valuable our planet is and how it is just a mere island in the vast infinity of space. And, if we aren’t careful, we could destroy ourselves — using Metaluna as… a metaphor for what could be us. This was made not too many years after the bombing of Hiroshima, the detonation of the hydrogen bomb, the Soviets getting the hydrogen bomb, the Cold War. So fears of the end of the world were on the minds of many artists, many people, and that was one of Joe Newman’s main themes.

Now, these readings are a little bit different from each other — one emphasizes Earth’s unawareness of the larger universe, and the other emphasizes its fragility and irreplacability. But in both of them, the story’s aliens stand in for humans. At the metaphorical level, we are both the exploitative aliens and the humans they exploit, two groups separated by facts of geography, culture, and technology.

Watchmen literalizes this metaphor further, by having a seeming alien invasion that is in fact a front for one human exploiting other humans for what he sees as the greater good. That’s the thread that ties This Island Earth to the Institute for Extraspatial Studies, more than just “monsters from outta space”. Here’s Joseph Newman one more time, explaining his first impressions upon reading the novel:

I think the overwhelming thing that came into my mind when I purchased Jones’ novel was to illustrate, as the title of the book suggests, that this planet is in reality a small island in an extremely vast and unknown universe, and that it is to the welfare of all the inhabitants of this island, Earth, to eliminate and submerge their petty hatreds of any of the many groups of human dwellers on this tiny island of matter. Our concerns might be, in the not-too-distant future, I thought, forces and elements beyond the present-known universe…

(Universal Filmscripts, pg. 19)

This is exactly the point that Adrian Veidt hopes to make as well, submerging the mutual hatred of the USA and USSR in the face of forces and elements beyond their present knowledge. It’s just that where Jones and Newman make their point through art alone, Adrian writes his fiction into the world as an enormous alien invasion hoax. As I mentioned in the Revelation post, Veidt authors his own apocalypse to resolve the unbearable tension between what he sees and what he desires. In doing so, he reframes Earth as an island subject to occupation, hoping that this new perspective brings all the natives into line.

Book cover for This Island Earth, showing the title, author, and a drawing of an alien against a field of stars.

Stories, Masks, and Trauma

Just as Veidt’s hoax is a kind of authorship, so I would argue are the masks and identities of Watchmen‘s costumed adventurers. In HBO’s excellent Watchmen series, Laurie Juspeczyk says this:

People who wear masks are driven by trauma. They’re obsessed with justice because of some injustice they suffered, usually when they were kids. Ergo, the mask. It hides the pain.

But hiding the pain isn’t all that masks do. They also tell a story, a new story, about the traumatized people behind them — rearranging their faces and giving them all other names. In this new story, the masked people aren’t powerless, but powerful. They exist to carry out their own agendas, rather than having their agency taken away from them. The new story told by the mask exists as an attempt to help mask-wearers process and relieve their trauma.

Well, isn’t this the function of art? Through the things that we create, we seek to understand our world and its inhabitants. At an individual level, it’s well-documented that the creation of art can channel grief, trauma, and heartbreak into some new form, transforming it via creative alchemy into something that briefly assuages those emotions both for the artist and the audience. That’s the catharsis that Aristotle describes in his Poetics.

But grief, trauma, and heartbreak don’t just exist at the individual level. There are larger versions of trauma that transcend the personal. Granted, using the term “trauma” becomes more metaphorical beyond the individual level, but I believe that a family can be traumatized, a school or workplace can be traumatized, a town can be traumatized, and a culture can be traumatized. And if we accept that trauma can exist at a cultural level, I think it becomes very clear that the art it produces functions in part to help process that cultural trauma.

This Island Earth, and 1950s science fiction movies in general, are an example of this. World War II, and in particular the enormity of the atomic bomb, was a massive cultural trauma. The rapid escalation of both calamitous bomb technology and tensions between the superpowers quickly brought us face to face with our ability to destroy ourselves. Hitler’s concentration camps made plain humanity’s capacity for barbarism. Not only that, the process of the war itself and its aftermath changed America radically — women had new roles after stepping into professions vacated by men, racial politics mutated after Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948, and the 1944 G.I. Bill introduced a tremendous amount of new class mobility into society.

75 years on, we can see these changes as unalloyed benefits, but at the time they were just as frightening to some as the bomb and the Nazis. 50s B movies told stories of invasions, of incomprehensible malevolence, of science and technology run amok, of venturing into the unknown, of humanity’s warlike nature, and so forth. It’s not hard to see cultural anxieties projected onto those aliens, giant insects, and monsters from the deep. It’s a genre obsessed with unexpected consequences.

So if 1950s sci-fi movies were processing the cultural trauma of World War II, what set of cultural traumas does Watchmen meet? Well, some of this isn’t really subtext. 1985 was peak Nuclear Anxiety time, and Watchmen obviously means to grapple with that. In this way, it’s a direct descendant of stories like This Island Earth.

Watchmen chapter 3, page 17, panel 2. Dreiberg walks down the street alone at night. Behind him is a large poster advertisement for The New Frontiersman. Some of the letters are cut off but we can infer that it says "In your hearts, you know it's right." Underneath "right" a graffiti artist has scrawled "wing".

But there are other, more festering wounds at work in Watchmen too. The clash of political Left and Right, so strident and polarized now, had been climbing since the days of Goldwater vs. the counterculture, but hit a new level during the Reagan years, and found its Watchmen expression via Nova Express vs. The New Frontiersman. Even more than those two competing media sources, the superheroes themselves in Watchmen interrogate the competing values of individual action vs. social action. American culture reveres the lone principled individual, but in Watchmen the two individuals who best fit that description are Rorschach and Ozymandias. Though politically they are opposites, temperamentally they embody the same extremist impulses, and Watchmen shows both as deeply problematic.

This isn’t the Cold War. It’s closer to the Civil War — an ongoing series of battles in an America deeply divided against itself, with good and bad actors on both sides, plus a whole lot of grey in between. It’s part of why Watchmen remains relevant and powerful today, powerful enough to inspire the whole new story that appeared on HBO last fall.

I’ve called Before Watchmen and Doomsday Clock “fan fiction” — meant gently — and in a way Damon Lindelof’s HBO Watchmen is no different. It’s an extension of intellectual property that has been taken rather than granted. The only ones who could really “officially” continue Moore and Gibbons’ story are Moore and Gibbons, or successors anointed by them, regardless of what corporation owns the rights. But what made Lindelof’s work so compelling, so true to the spirit of Watchmen, was its singular vision and its engagement with the cultural trauma of our time. In the HBO series’ case, that trauma is race in America rather than the Cold War, but its medicine is just as strong.

Previous Entry: Mutiny, I Promise You

Album Assignments: WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?

Okay, since I will apparently be spending at least part of this review in “cranky old man” mode, let’s just jump right in: What is up with the freaky typography on this album? The album title, at least on any streaming service, is in ALL CAPS LIKE IT’S SHOUTING AT YOU. But the songs are totally bereft of any capitalization at all, like teeny tiny whispers.

I guess it’s fitting, though, because Billie Eilish herself never actually seems to put her lungs behind her singing voice. The vast majority of the album is whispered, spoken, mumbled, or sung in the quietest itty bitty tones. It’s like she recorded the entirety of the vocals late at night in her house, trying not to wake anybody. On the occasion her vocals have any power at all, it’s because they were multi-tracked or layered in with instruments. Most of the time, though, she just sounds heavily tranquilized, or maybe just resigned and indifferent. Or possibly super depressed. Hell, on “listen before i go” she seriously sounds like she’s in the middle of suicide via barbiturate overdose.

I have to say, this vocal style really did not work for me. I mostly found it frustrating where I didn’t find it annoying. In the most irritating moment on the album, the beginning of “8” takes the usual Eilish whisper, pitch-shifts it higher (I guess so she’ll sound like she’s actually 8?), and accompanies it with a frickin’ ukulele. I can only speculate that it is a sinister experiment to find out if people can actually die from an overdose of twee. I’m no enemy of spoken vocals — I’m a huge Lou Reed fan, for example — and the occasional whisper or sotto voce moment in a song can be very powerful, but stretched out to the length of an entire album, to the total exclusion of any full-throated singing, it feels to me like both a pretentious affectation and an intentional retreat from power.

Album cover for WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?

And yet, I am apparently out of step, because the world has gone bananas for Billie Eilish. This album went platinum, debuted at #1, topped the Billboard year-end chart for 2019, and spawned six top 40 singles. It won the Album of the Year Grammy, “bad guy” got both Song and Record of the Year, and Eilish herself won Best New Artist. “bad guy” was a #1 song, dethroning the record-breaking “Old Town Road”. Eilish herself has broken tons of records — the youngest artist to do a whole bunch of things, the first artist born in the 2000s to have a #1 album, 15 billion (not a made-up number) streams on Spotify. Et cetera.

So while I find that her performance on this album is mostly not my cup of tea, I can definitely applaud Eilish for some things. First, I love that she defies the sex-kitten mold for young female pop stars. I look at some other big female artists from 2019 — Halsey, Ariana Grande, Cardi B — and have to laugh imagining them in Eilish’s baggy wardrobe, sans makeup. Even Taylor Swift and Lizzo, both of whom manage a subversive approach to their sexualization, aren’t avoiding it entirely. Eilish takes the focus off her body and puts it on her music.

Second, she writes her own songs — well, in collaboration with her brother, Finneas O’Connell. (Eilish’s last name is technically also O’Connell, but for clarity I’m calling her Eilish and him O’Connell, or Finneas.) That’s not just a rarity for current female pop stars, it’s a rarity for all current pop stars. Most of the biggest songs of 2019 were written by songwriting teams. Even when the artist is included in the team, they’re usually buttressed by a squad of professional writers behind the scenes. Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” (#9 overall for 2019) has no less than thirty credited songwriters. In contrast, every song but two on WHEN WE ALL credits the O’Connell siblings as songwriters, and the remaining two were written by just Finneas.

In addition, Finneas does the production, which is the best part of this album. As I said above, sometimes the production steps in to buttress Eilish’s vocal performance, which helps a lot. Consistently, O’Connell provides slinky beats, clean synths, and a powerful bottom end that compensates for Eilish’s feather-light vocals, and can even sometimes make them sound menacing. In the record’s best moments, they even manage to leaven the teen angst with some humor, as in the goofy “!!!!!!!” or the Office sound clips interspersed through “my strange addiction.” Of course, there are some missteps too — how many times can Eilish’s voice be processed to make it sound like she’s singing through a box fan? (Answer: way more than one, and even one is verging on too many.) Overall, though, I don’t think I’m a Billie Eilish fan, but this record may have made me a Finneas O’Connell fan.

It’s not exactly novel to make it big in the music business as a teenager. There’s a tradition going back to Elvis, winding its way through Stevie Wonder, Kate Bush, Fiona Apple, Taylor Swift, Lorde, and lots of others. (I’m deliberately omitting teeny-bopper fare like boy bands, Tiffany, etc. — Eilish isn’t part of that trend-line.) To my ears, Billie Eilish mostly suffers by comparison to these other artists. But like them, she has plenty of time in front of her to grow, and I hope she grows into an artist who lets herself use her full vocal range. Still, after listening to WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, I confess I find myself more interested in what Finneas O’Connell is going to do next.

Deluge In A Paper Cup

Happy New Year, and welcome to another year-end music list. Just to review, this is a year-end mix I make for some friends — full explanation on the first one I posted in 2010. It’s not all music from 2019 (in fact, my backlog of music to listen to pretty much guarantees that nothing on here is timely.) It’s just songs I listened to this year that meant something to me.

Cover image for Deluge In A Paper Cup - a cup of water with an ocean wave cresting at the top

1. Elvis Costello & The Attractions – (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?
My Elvis Costello/Watchmen project of a couple years ago, combined with my long listening queue, meant that some Elvis Costello albums were still kicking around in that queue this year. This song felt like a great burst of energy to kick off a mix, and also pretty appropriate to the current moment. Its currency has never gone away, really, but there’s another layer available now, when our world keeps evaluating its news in the frame of entertainment. Impeachment hearings started recently, and some of the coverage has focused on whether they have enough “pizzazz.” I keep seeing headlines like “Adam Schiff’s ‘Trump Show’: Was it a hit with the undecideds?” Because what’s real doesn’t matter anymore nearly so much as how it looks and feels on TV. We’re not just a nation of pundits, we’re a nation of drama and comedy critics — just not very good ones. Which is how we got an insult comic reality TV president whose decisions are driven more by ratings (on a few different levels) than reason. What’s so funny, indeed?

2. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – Badlands
Darkness On The Edge Of Town was one of my album assignments this year, and “Badlands” was a standout from that listen. It’s got a similar energy to “What’s So Funny”, but with more hope. This song is about pushing through darkness, finding the faith to keep going, and recognizing that no matter how shitty things feel, “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” I can always use a little of that.

3. The Hooters – And We Danced
This song always made me feel glad to be alive. I was a big fan of the Hooters’ first two albums, and I gave their debut a re-listen this year. It didn’t hold up as well as I’d hoped — some of those lyrics seem REALLY dopey to me now — but musically there’s still a lot of magic there, and this song has the most of it.

4. Vampire Weekend – Unbelievers
Vampire Weekend’s third album was another assignment this year, and I really wanted to include a track from it. I tried “Ya Hey” first, but although I like the song plenty it just wasn’t meshing with the mix. This one, on the other hand, dropped perfectly into its slot. It feels like it continues the spark from “And We Danced”, but transforms the sentiment from simple romantic lust to a kind of bubbly ambivalence. We’re all unbelievers over here, though we have our ways of reaching outside empiricism. I relate to the feeling of wanting just a drop of holy water.

5. Frightened Rabbit – Head Rolls Off
Frightened Rabbit picks up on this theme at the beginning of “Head Rolls Off”, affirming that “Jesus is just a Spanish boy’s name”. But despite his disconnection from traditional religion, he finds a way to see himself as part of something larger, looking beyond death — “when it’s all gone, something carries on” — but not in the self. It’s in the others we leave behind, and the “tiny changes to earth” we make while we’re here. Frightened Rabbit was a huge find for me this year, and I love the whole Midnight Organ Fight album, but this song is the absolute top for me. As I wrote in the Vampire Weekend post, I’m a long way from feeling any peace about mortality, but I find a lot of comfort in the thought of someone else’s blood flowing forward after I’m gone, in an earth that’s changed just a tiny bit for my having been here.

6. Richard and Linda Thompson – Wall Of Death
Richard Thompson has been on my “to-listen” list for a while. I know his stuff on a basic level — in fact, I saw him open for Joan Armatrading years ago, and enjoyed his set a lot — but I always felt like it would be rewarding to go deeper. Julie Covington’s “(I Want To See The) Bright Lights” pushed me even further in that direction. So this year I listened to Shoot Out The Lights, and I was right: it’s good stuff. This song particularly appealed to me, because I already knew it a bit from R.E.M.’s cover for a Thompson tribute album. Its defiant embrace (in metaphor) of joy in the face of mortality felt like a good companion for “Head Rolls Off”.

7. Roxy Music – Take A Chance With Me
I got to see Bryan Ferry in concert this year. I’d seen him once before (front row at CU’s Macky Auditorium, in fact), and I liked that a lot, but it was a tour for his album of standards, and that’s pretty much all he sang, aside from some deep DEEP Roxy Music cuts rendered in crooner style. This year his tour was focused on Avalon and Boys And Girls, which made it the perfect tour for me, since those are the albums I imprinted upon as a Ferry/Roxy fan. This song in particular is a fond memory for me, because I put it on the first mixtape I ever made for Laura. I was absolutely thrilled to hear it live at last.

8. Bryan Ferry – Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (live in London 2007)
This song was another great standout from that concert. I knew Ferry had covered a lot of Dylan over the years, going so far as to release a full album of Dylan covers in 2007, but I’d never heard his version of this song before. Seeing him wail on the harmonica was a wonderful surprise, and I highly recommend the video I pulled this song from. [And because it came from that video, it doesn’t appear on the Spotify playlist for this mix. I substituted the studio version.] I absolutely love his vocals, through his whole career, and their breathy quality has let him age gracefully into performances like this one, and the one I saw. Also, Highway 61 Revisited was an assigned album for me this year, so this was a great way to work it in.

9. World Party – You’re A Hurricane, I’m A Caravan
There are times when Karl Wallinger just nails a lyric, and this is one of them. I’m a huge fan of oblique, metaphor-laden poetry — that’s a major part of what draws me to Stevie Nicks and Emily Dickinson — and this song is right in that wheelhouse. For me, it powerfully evokes a theme I’ve been wrestling with lately: abdication of personal power. My default is to be a peacemaker, and that has allowed me to get victimized by people who have no compunction about wielding their own power. I don’t want to fight, I don’t like to fight, but there is a lot of fight in me, and more bubbles up every time I decide not to fight back, or feel unable to. So when Karl sings: “You don’t own me / but I see you do / You don’t own me / I, I think you do”, I know exactly what he means.

10. Aimee Mann – Good For Me
Here’s another great poet, but there’s a funny story attached to this one. I saw Aimee in concert a couple of years ago, with Jonathan Coulton opening. She was touring on the album this song comes from, Mental Illness, and Coulton has a co-writing credit on some of those songs, so he performed a few of them with her. Before she sang this one, she told us that lots of critics had singled out the first lines of this song — “What a waste of a smoke machine / Took the taste of the dopamine / And left me high and dry” — as quintessential Mann. The problem is, Coulton wrote them. So she was a little comically miffed at his writing getting the biggest praise of the album. Then when she sang it, those opening lines got big applause, and she stopped the song, deadpanning, “How dare you applaud those lines?!”

11. Neko Case – The Next Time You Say Forever
I assigned Middle Cyclone this year because it is my favorite Neko Case album, and I wanted to write about her hypnotic hold on me. This song is a typical example of her spellbinding voice, set off by a wonderful arrangement, singing poetry that hits me at the gut level. (Not the face, though.) Plus, it’s under two minutes, which really helped it fit on the CD.

12. The Call – I Don’t Wanna
Okay, in my writeup of Into The Woods, I spent like 6 paragraphs breaking this song down, and quoted its lyrics in their entirety, so I don’t have much more to say here. There was no way this song wasn’t going to appear on this end-of-year collection — it’s one of my favorite songs of all time, and this was the year I took the time to write about why.

13. Janis Joplin – Buried Alive In The Blues
Another album assignment, and possibly a weird choice to include a Janis Joplin song that doesn’t actually include any Janis Joplin vocals. But when I was writing about Pearl, this song felt so emblematic to me of that album’s whole story. There’s a hole in the middle of it, left empty by Joplin’s death. She died the night before she was to record her vocals for this track, and the band left it on the album as a symbol of a life unfinished. The title sums up her life’s end, and the emptiness inside it speaks eloquently of what we lost.

14. Pretenders – The English Roses
This album assignment track is about a different kind of loss. Really, I could have picked pretty much any song from Pretenders II, an album I absolutely adore, but this one felt like it fit the mood for this part of the mix. Hynde’s portrait of the character in this song is both sympathetic and unsparing, and the music is a wonderful blend of gritty and lyrical.

15. Joe Jackson – Rain (live in New York 2019)
I always see Joe when he tours, and this was one of those years. He was touring on his album Fool, but decided to highlight four other albums in his set, each representing a decade: Look Sharp (70s), Night and Day (80s), Laughter and Lust (90s), and Rain (00s). Rain, has he explained, doesn’t have a title track, so he decided to borrow one “from an impeccable source”, albeit with the chords changed around a bit. [This one also didn’t make the Spotify playlist, as there is no version of it on Spotify. I pulled it from a fantastic video of his full 2019 concert in NYC.]

16. Fleetwood Mac – Hold Me
Fleetwood Mac also visited this year (a couple of times), and without Lindsey in the mix there was room for Stevie and Christine to open up some of the songs that don’t get played EVERY SINGLE TIME. This was one of those, and I was so happy to hear it. I got a wonderful remaster of the Mirage album for my birthday, with lots of fun extra tracks (that will likely show up in a future mix), but for now it’s just a sonically great way to revisit this Christine song, to which I’ve always been partial.

17. Crowded House – Don’t Dream It’s Over
Also in those Fleetwood Mac concerts, Lindsey’s parts were played by Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers (mostly the guitar) and Neil Finn (mostly the vocals). That meant we got to hear tunes from their careers as well — “Free Fallin'” (sung by Stevie) for Campbell, and “Don’t Dream It’s Over” from Finn. I’ve always enjoyed this song, but I found a new appreciation for it in those performances. It also feels pretty appropriate to the current moment, the hopeful flip side of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?”

18. Janelle Monáe – I Like That
Dante belongs to a school club called SAGA — Sexuality And Gender Alliance — and at the beginning of this school year he created some lists of books and games that are inclusive of LGBTQ+ identities. Because his taste in music tends to focus on classical tunes and instrumental game soundtracks, I offered to make him a playlist of music that fit this theme. I made it, and had a wonderful time doing so. Having recently delved into Monáe’s album Dirty Computer, I knew this song had to be on that mix. “I’m always left of center / And that’s right where I belong / I’m the random minor note you hear in major songs / And I like that / I don’t really give a fuck if I’m the only one who likes that” is a brilliant way to evoke her theme, and the rap at the end is so affirming, in a way that feels like it perfectly fits that group.

19. Emily Saliers – Long Haul
Emily came out with a good solo album in 2017, and my listening queue being what it is, I listened to it this year. She took a lot of musical risks on that album, with many songs emerging much more beat-driven and electronic than most Indigo Girls stuff. But it was this song that captivated me the most, and it’s the most Indigo-esque tune on the whole record, albeit with Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland singing the Amy parts. Guess I know what I like. It’s also a great theme for anybody in a long-term committed relationship. That’s also relevant to my interests.

20. Dan Wilson – Love Without Fear
This song felt like it paired well with “Long Haul”, making love the central goal of life. Wilson is one of those artists who just speaks to me, even though he’s much better known as a songwriter than as a performer. This song is the title track of an album I listened to this year, and of all the good songs on that album, this is the one that belongs at this point in the mix.

21. Cameron McGill and What Army – My Demons Are Organized
You can probably tell from reading these notes that I put a lot of thought into what goes with what on these mixes, grouping songs and artists together so that they feel like they flow smoothly into each other and carve out a journey. So this felt like the right way to close the set, ackowledging that while these mixes are meant as gifts, and try to bring together something of what I listened to and loved each year, they are also a bit of an exercise in organizing personal demons (and angels.) This song came to me in an odd, roundabout way. I watched a documentary called Old Man, because its subject was Andy Schneidkraut, a friend from the trivia world and the owner of a record store in Boulder called Albums On The Hill. His son is a filmmaker, and made that documentary. I found it a moving experience, and this was the song that played over the credits. I sought it out, and I’m glad I did — it’s a good way to close the door on 2019. I’ll be over here again next year, organizing my demons.

Album Assignments: In The Wee Small Hours

When In The Wee Small Hours was released in 1955, 12-inch LPs had only been around for a few years. Frank Sinatra, a restless innovator, had the notion of creating an LP whose songs had a thematic unity — songs of loneliness, heartbreak, and lovelorn disappointment. This theme was no doubt abetted by Sinatra’s own recent heartbreak, the dissolution of his relationship with Ava Gardner. In fact, Sinatra called this collection his “Ava songs,” and in collecting them he’s credited with creating one of the first concept albums.

It’s a little different, though, from what the words “concept album” evoke today. That term now brings up thoughts of, say, The Wall, or American Idiot, or Tommy — a collection of songs that tells a story and expresses the singular vision of a songwriter. But Sinatra wasn’t a songwriter — he was an interpreter. He gets a rare co-writing credit on “This Love Of Mine” (with two other people), but the rest of the songs on Small Hours come from the Great American Songbook produced by writers such as Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Rogers and Hart, and Duke Ellington. Sinatra deserves an innovator’s credit, but I’d say this album is closer to the angst-filled mixtapes I referenced in my previous post.

As a mix, Sinatra’s chosen songs reflect his theme from a variety of angles. “Can’t We Be Friends?” finds him cursing his own naiveté, as the girl he thought would be “The One” relegates him to the friend zone. He takes full responsibility for fooling himself though — compare his “I can’t excuse it on the grounds of youth / I was no babe in the wild, wild wood” to Sinéad O’Connor’s “How could I possibly know what I want when I was only 21?” On the other side of that, “Last Night When We Were Young” portrays a lover left behind after a night of passion, feeling impossibly aged by the disappointment, prefiguring Adele’s “When We Were Young” by 60 years.

Album cover for In The Wee Small Hours

Some of the songs are drenched in irony, like “I Get Along Without You Very Well”, which finds its narrator boasting of how just fine and dandy he is after the breakup… except when it rains, or when he hears her name, or a laugh that reminds him of her, or “perhaps in Spring / But I should never think of Spring / For that would surely break my heart in two.” Similarly, in “Dancing On The Ceiling”, the lyrics proclaim that “the world is lyrical / because a miracle / has brought my lover to me”. But it turns out that “miracle” is just the narrator lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, imagining his departed lover is dancing there.

This juxtaposition of tough and hurt gives many of Sinatra’s songs a kind of wounded bravado, which would have felt familiar to fans of Humphrey Bogart, Raymond Chandler, and noir stories in general. But gathering all these songs together, only a few of which have a tough-guy veneer, paints a picture that’s much more wounded than brave. Sinatra’s choice to do this arguably expanded the emotional palette of 1950s masculinity, allowing men a model within which they could fall deeply into hurt feelings without having to accompany them with anger, violence, or externalization. Many of the songs on Wee Small Hours find Sinatra’s narrators ruefully acknowledging their culpability in their own heartbreak, such as “Can’t We Be Friends?” and the “you told me so” of “It Never Entered My Mind.”

However, a downside of this concentrated collection is that it can get a little samey. Sinatra’s style has a few different modes, but he only displays one on this album: melancholy. As I said, he’s an interpreter, and puts himself in service to the song. Because all the songs come from pretty much the same place emotionally, so does he — over and over. The concept on this album is strong, but it can get a little oppressive too.

It’s telling that none of the songs in this collection were hits for Sinatra. The same year as this album, he had three Top Ten hits: “Learnin’ The Blues”, “Love And Marriage”, and “(Love Is) The Tender Trap”, all of which were sung more in Sinatra’s sprightly mode than his melancholy one. That’s partly down to the era — there was a pretty strong distinction between singles and albums at this time, and unlike most of the albums I’ve discussed, this one wasn’t recorded to be a platform for hit songs. But unlike songs from later concept albums, such as “You Make Me Feel So Young” from Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! and “One For My Baby (and One More For The Road)” from Only The Lonely, you won’t find many Wee Small Hours tunes on contemporary hit collections either.

The exception to this is the title track, which distinguishes itself from the rest of the album despite (or perhaps because of) its status as the thesis statement for the entire thing.

In the wee small hours of the morning
When the whole wide world is fast asleep
You lie awake and think about the girl
And never ever think of counting sheep

That verse encapsulates the mood of the whole album. Similarly, the cover does an amazing job of conveying mood, showing Sinatra all alone in an abstracted city, smoking a lonely cigarette in the blue, blue streetlight glow.

But of course, it’s Sinatra’s voice that does the greatest and best work of communicating loneliness and pain. Just three minutes of “I’ll Never Be The Same” gives us long, fading, vulnerable notes; surging dynamics at powerful moments; quiet syllables of regret; and repeating motifs in escalating notes, ascending higher even as they reach deeper. Nobody could touch him in this style, then or now, and In The Wee Small Hours finds him at the peak of his powers.

Three Games By Steph Cherrywell

In 2019, Steph Cherrywell became only the second person in the 25-year history of the Interactive Fiction (IF) Competition to win it twice. The other person to have done so is writing this post. So I was inspired to check out Cherrywell’s work, and managed to find some time over the holiday break to revisit my old IF-reviewing ways.

Now, I should make clear that I’m no longer keeping up with the IF world overall, so I haven’t been reading other reviews of her work, or of anybody’s work for that matter. I’ve played very few games from the last 15 years, so something that seems new and exciting to me might be old hat to people who’ve kept up. My perspective is basically that of a former expert who’s done little more than toe-dipping since 2005. With those disclaimers out of the way, let’s jump in!

Cover art for Brain Guzzlers From Beyond

Brain Guzzlers From Beyond

Brain Guzzlers was Cherrywell’s first comp winner, from 2015, so it seemed like a reasonable place to start. Plus, for my next Watchmen essay I’m researching a bunch of background on 1950s sci-fi movies, and Brain Guzzlers looked like an affectionate parody of ’50s sci-fi, so I was predisposed to dig it.

And dig it I did, though I quickly learned that the game wasn’t exactly parodying ’50s sci-fi movies, which generally involve earnest scientists and square-jawed military types grappling with monsters, aliens, giant bugs, or giant alien bug monsters. This game’s tone is closer to Firesign Theater’s “High School Madness” sketch — a broad exaggeration of ’50s teenage tropes as seen in Leave It To Beaver and Archie comics. (Malt Shop Archie, that is. Not Sex Archie.) Cherrywell crashes the ’50s teen universe into the ’50s sci-fi universe, and comedy ensues, with a subversive edge provided by details like mixed-race NPCs, homoerotic undertones, and the ’50s-defying female action lead.

That comedic tone is Brain Guzzlers From Beyond‘s greatest strength — you can’t go three sentences without running into some delightful turn of phrase, well-crafted joke, or witty perspective. Take, for example, this description of a “Modernist Living Room”: “This circular room is ultramodern, like something from twenty years in the future. The sleek, smart-looking furniture is a symphony in avocado, orange, and mustard-yellow.” Or this description of the Drive-In: “You’re standing in the drive-in on the edge of town, where all the coolest teens come to ignore movies. To the north is Make-Out Mountain, and flanking it are a number of less controversial mountains.” Those mountains? “There’s Propriety Peak, and Constance Crag, and Mount Homework.”

The whole thing is a great deal of fun to read, and pretty fun to play too, thanks in part to Cherrywell’s smooth fusion of parser and choice structures. The game follows a familiar pattern of using the parser for exploration and multiple choice for conversations, and that works well, especially with Cherrywell’s charming illustrations of each character to flavor the dialogue. But she takes the structure a little further by rendering the action scenes via choices too.

Action scenes, though they can be done quite well, are rather difficult in parser IF, because there’s always the chance that some confused response or failure to understand input will deflate the pace and tension. Cherrywell makes sure this doesn’t happen by flipping her action sequences into a structure where input is limited and can’t be misunderstood, but still preserves a sensation of choice with options like:

1) Swing around and punch that monster square in the snoot!
2) Scream for help and try to pull away.

Another ingenious use of choice comes right at the outset of the game, in which the player is asked a series of questions. The game’s conceit is that you’re taking a quiz from a teen magazine, but in fact what you’re doing is defining the PC. Those choices affect gameplay in both superficial and substantial ways — everything from altering the “X ME” description to bypassing a puzzle entirely.

The tone and writing were my favorite parts of playing Brain Guzzlers From Beyond, but they weren’t flawless. There were a surprising number of typos right in the beginning, which gave me an uneasy feeling: “corresponding your choice” rather than “corresponding to your choice”; “absense of stars”; “your were practically almost sort of his girlfriend”. But either the game got better as it went along, or I just stopped noticing because the experience was so absorbing. Either way, it’s laudable, and in fact may have even been more fun for exceeding my wary expectations.

Brain Guzzlers combines fun writing with clever structures, but I can’t leave out its puzzles. Time after time, this game made me feel smart by presenting puzzles with just the right amount of clueing and lateral thinking, always perfectly in tune with the light and breezy feel of the story and setting. It rewards thorough exploration and leads players right up to the gap that they need to jump across, without building a paved bridge there.

My favorite puzzle of the game was the RPS cannon, and I was pleased to see that it also won the 2015 Best Individual Puzzle XYZZY Award. I confess that I didn’t solve this puzzle on my own, but seeing the solution made me wish I had. All the clues were there, I just didn’t put them together.

All in all, playing Brain Guzzlers From Beyond made it easy to see why the game won the 2015 IF Competition, and made me eager to play the follow-up. So that’s what I did.

Cover art for Zozzled

Zozzled

Zozzled was Cherrywell’s 2019 IF Comp winner, and where Brain Guzzlers was a funny pastiche of 1950s tropes, Zozzled is a hilarious pastiche of 1920s tropes. It becomes clear when playing these two games consecutively that Cherrywell is in fact a master of pastiche. She scoops up a whole bunch of slang, stereotypes, and style, stringing them together in rat-a-tat fashion for a wonderfully enjoyable ride. The best comparison I can make for Zozzled‘s style is to Alan Moore’s pieces in the voice of Hildy Johnson at the end of some of the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen books. In other words, excellent.

Sure, she hits a bum note once in a while — using the term “sheba” for a woman is great once, cloying many times in a row — but overall, at pretty much every level, the writing in Zozzled is sharper than that of Brain Guzzlers, which is high praise. It’s quite a bit funnier, for one thing. Where Guzzlers frequently made me smile or chuckle, Zozzled had me laughing out loud. Some of my favorite examples:

The response to EXAMINE GLAD RAGS (because this game would never call a dress a dress if it could instead call the dress “glad rags.”):

If the right dress makes you feel like a million bucks, this little black number makes you feel like Rockefeller’s bank account. And much like Rockefeller’s bank account, it generates plenty of interest.

This description of a refrigerator:

This refrigerator, much like the old lady that time she chaperoned your senior year homecoming dance, is sitting in the corner, humming quietly and radiating bitter cold.

And finally, a great easter egg for Zork fans, in the description of some locked-away valuables:

Just a few odds and ends that guests have deposited – brass baubles, golden eggs, platinum bars, ivory torches, sapphire bracelets, that sort of thing.

It’s not just turns of phrase either — there’s a character who is described as “constitutionally incapable of telling the truth”, which the game then plays out literally to great comic effect. Not only is the wit superb, the story is more sophisticated too. Where Brain Guzzlers was pretty much “fight the sudden arbitrary menace by solving puzzles”, Zozzled sets up story beats in the beginning that pay off in the end, giving the puzzles a reason to exist that transcends “something bad and inexplicable happened here”, replacing it with an unexpected love story to which the PC is a witness.

So, if Cherrywell upped her writing game in Zozzled, how about her… game game? I’m sorry to say that the game aspects of Zozzled were a little weaker than those of Brain Guzzlers. Now, that doesn’t mean it was a weak game overall. I’m about to dive into criticizing a couple of its flaws, so I want to make clear that generally speaking, Zozzled is well-crafted — solid implementation, intriguing design, and reasonable puzzles. It takes the same approach as Brain Guzzlers, which is to say “breezy puzzle romp fusing parser and choice mechanics”, albeit without the illustrations. Its concept is equally solid, maybe even a little less checklisty, but it does stumble in a couple of places mechanically.

The first of these is the transition from introducing the ghost conceit to turning the player loose on the puzzly middle game. In a long choice-based sequence, Zozzled stages a conversation between the PC and an elevator operator named Kipper Fanucci (another Zorky reference, methinks.) That conversation does a lot of expository work, explaining that the hotel setting is haunted, and that Hazel the PC has the rare ability to see ghosts, at least once she’s wearing a pair of magical “cheaters”. Then it transitions from a conversation to a choice-based action sequence, except unlike in Brain Guzzlers, where the possible actions were rendered in prose, Zozzled phrases them in parserese, like so:

1) >ASK KIPPER ABOUT GHOST.
2) >KILL GHOST.
3) >TALK TO GHOST.

Eventually, this sequence reveals the way in which Hazel can exorcise ghostly presences, a command which nicely ties together her carefree flapper persona with her ghostbusting abilities. Moreover, once you exit the Kipper sequence, wearing the cheaters allows you to see ghostly presences in various places, with the spectral stuff rendered in bold, a cool and effective choice.

Except… now that you can see the ghosts, you can’t interact with them anymore! Try to EXAMINE GHOST and you’ll get tersely rebuffed: “(That’s not something you need to fiddle with.)” The entire ghost concept gets introduced via specific IF commands allowing the PC to interact with and contain a ghost. Then, immediately afterwards, there are a bunch of ghostly encounters in which the ghosts aren’t even implemented as game objects. Pretty unsatisfying.

Eventually, I figured out that you have to first solve the puzzle with which the ghost is associated before you can interact with it, which makes perfect sense but could be much better explained. If the answer to X GHOST had given a description indicating that the ghost was deeply embedded in its container and would have to be driven out before I could deal with it, that would have felt much less jarring and buggy.

Similarly, some solution-adjacent feedback would have also helped with the game’s most frustrating puzzle, the fruit bowl. Without spoiling anything, this puzzle has a solution which is logically sound and emotionally satisfying, but which requires quite an intuitive leap. Moreover, the solution requires the destruction of game objects, which goes pretty heavily against the grain of experienced IF players. As with the RPS cannon in Brain Guzzlers, I found myself turning to the hints, but unlike with the RPS cannon, I didn’t feel dumb for failing to solve it myself.

On the contrary, I saw that I came extremely close in a couple of different ways, but the game didn’t give me the feedback I needed to make that final leap. In fact, I would argue that the puzzle should be more tolerant of solutions that fit the spirit if not the letter of the intended answer. Luckily, this puzzle was an outlier. Others, such as the seance and the oyster, brought together actions that made perfect sense in context and worked beautifully with the tone.

Playing Zozzled right after Brain Guzzlers made it impossible not to compare the two, and what I found was that each game was very strong on its own, but each also had its strengths over the other — Zozzled its (even more) masterful writing, and Guzzlers its silky-smooth structure and puzzles. It turns out that Cherrywell has written one other Inform 7 game besides those two, so it was my third choice for this survey.

Cover art for Chlorophyll

Chlorophyll

Chlorophyll came out in 2015, the same year (amazingly) as Brain Guzzlers. Where Brain Guzzlers was Cherrywell’s entry into the main IFComp, Chlorophyll was for a Spring competition called ParserComp, a themed long-form game jam focused on traditional text adventure format, i.e. excluding choice-based mechanics. Consequently, Chlorophyll is pure parser, unlike Zozzled and Guzzlers.

And you know what? It turns out Cherrywell is still a hell of a writer, even when she’s not penning snappy dialogue for branching-path conversations. Chlorophyll really has no conversations — it hews closer to old-school IF by ensuring that the PC is on her own, navigating through a seemingly abandoned outpost, albeit one that bears unsettling evidence of violent disruption. Until the third act, her only encounters are with minimal-personality robots. Structurally, the game is deeply reminiscent of Planetfall, albeit without Floyd.

Except, instead of Planetfall, a more apt title might be… (I’m so sorry, I can’t seem to stop myself) Plantfall? See, in Chlorophyll, the PC is a sentient, walking plant, a la Groot, but with a better vocabulary. (Or, in the specific case of the PC, Teen Groot I guess.) She and her species depend on sunlight to produce nutrients (hence the title), and without it they slip quickly into unconscious torpor. In the first act of the game, this works out to a tight hunger timer, keeping the PC tethered closely to sunny areas and requiring her to find ways to light up more and more of the outpost with artificial sunlight. In these explorations, she also figures out that her goal is to power up the outpost so that it can restore sunlight to the whole planet — which happens to align perfectly with the 2015 ParserComp’s theme of “sunrise”.

Now normally, hunger timers are one of my major pet peeves in IF, but the one in Chlorophyll worked, for two reasons. First, rather than being an arbitrary limit imposed in the name of “realism”, this game’s hunger timer was a crucial character detail, one that drives the PC’s initial problem and that lends lots of tension to the first several sequences. Second, about a third of the way into the game the PC finds an object which obviates the timer altogether, so that it goes away permanently. Not only that, the mechanism that eliminates the hunger timer also has strong emotional resonance, lent further weight by the player’s relief at removing the constraint. More about that a bit later.

Unlike Zozzled and Guzzlers, there’s very little humor in Chlorophyll. Instead, Cherrywell creates a strong atmosphere of eeriness and foreboding. After playing those first two games, I was all the more impressed that Cherrywell has a whole other register, and is equally great at it. The SF concept was intriguing and logical, the setting evocatively described and sensibly constructed, and the mood of the whole game was just terrific, all the more so for not being another wacky pastiche of a bygone era.

The story was well-structured too, with sudden action at the beginning leading to a series of increasingly compelling discoveries. There are powerful, stomach-dropping moments as the PC discovers more and more effects of the antagonist’s presence, and a sensational climax and denouement.

The puzzles for the most part are solid, with a particularly expansive middle game, in which two entirely different different chains of puzzles (one for good behavior, one for bad) can be pursued, either of which unlocks the climax. I quibble a bit with one solution on the “good” track, as it involves the breaking of an object described as “unbreakable”, with no clear rationale that I can see for how that breaking makes sense. But no matter — that’s a pretty minor objection to what is overall an accomplished piece of craftsmanship.

I think my favorite part of Chlorophyll is its strong emotional core. Neither Zozzled nor Brain Guzzlers prepared me for this. While there’s a love story in Zozzled, Hazel (the PC) is just a bystander to it, really, with no particular emotional investment in anything. Bonnie, from Brain Guzzlers, witnesses a close friendship but is herself mainly either a cipher or a punchline. But Zo, the PC of Chlorophyll, begins the game enmeshed in an instantly familiar and warm mother-daughter relationship, so when her mother gets incapacitated, I found myself drawn in immediately.

Zo is an adolescent, who feels like she’s grown out of childish things but that her mother doesn’t recognize her abilities. Then she’s thrown into the adult role without that mother’s support, and must become the caretaker herself. That makes it all the more moving when Zo discovers evidence that her mother really does recognize Zo’s growth, emblematized in the new solar vest that deactivates the light-hunger timer. This is a wonderful example of using IF constructs to serve and strengthen the story — as we remove a game constraint, we also remove a mental constraint from the PC, allowing both more access to the world and more understanding of her place in it.

Similarly, when Zo finds her unconscious mother, and realizes the jeopardy that they are in from the antagonist, the moment lands harder than anything in Zozzled or Brain Guzzlers. Granted, nothing in those other two games was meant to land that hard, as a sudden emotional jolt would have really wrecked the mood, but having played those two games first, I was all the more surprised and transported by the weightiness of this one.

With these three games, Cherrywell has become one of my all-time favorite IF authors. I’m grateful to have spent my time on them, and I greatly look forward to whatever she releases next.

Album Assignments: I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got

In my circle, this was pretty much the album of the year for 1990. There were some dissenters, but for the most part, we listened to it a lot and we loved it a lot. I was interning at a local radio station at the time, and I remember how blown away everybody was by O’Connor’s wrenching vocal on “Nothing Compares 2 U.” If you went through a breakup in that year — and I did — several tracks from this were sure to end up on an angst-filled mixtape or two. At the time, it seemed like the absolute perfect divorce album.

Listening to it again, nearly 30 years later, I find that it hasn’t lost much of its luster as a chronicle of heartbreak. But it’s gained some new dimensions for me. Maybe it’s just me projecting what I know of O’Connor’s subsequent public life, and what I’ve learned from my own subsequent experience, but I no longer hear just the voice of somebody going through a terrible breakup — I hear the voice of somebody going through a terrible breakup while mentally ill.

“Mentally ill” isn’t a negative judgment in my sight, and in fact I strongly support efforts to decrease the stigma of that label. It’s just a description of the reality that some people have to live with, and I think at least at the time of this album, O’Connor was one of them.

Album cover for I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got

Think about the image at the beginning of the album’s most staggeringly powerful song, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”:

It seems years since you held the baby
While I wrecked the bedroom

When I heard that at 20 years old, I just thought, “Wow, intense.” Now, maybe it’s because I’m a parent, but I picture that scene — you’ve had a child with someone, and you find yourself holding that tiny child, watching while she, possessed by an overwhelming rage and absolutely no impulse control, physically tears apart the house you share.

At that moment, watching it happen, your future spills out before you. Your partner, your child’s mother, is a violent danger to you both, and herself. It’s a fucking terrifying image. “You said it was dangerous after Sunday,” the next line goes, and no wonder. Someone with that level of anger, who will actually wreck the bedroom, is somebody you have to get away from, and protect your child from, until she can get that shit under control.

Now, O’Connor points to a lot of places to explain herself. She gestures at youth — “How could I possibly know what I want when I was only 21?” She blames hormones — “You know how it is and how a pregnancy can change you.” She lines up behind Honesty — “You asked for the truth, and I told you.” She places her fear in the context of an equally scary dependency — “I would return to nothing without you, if I’m your girlfriend or not.” And yeah, it’s certainly true that there’s overlap between the symptoms of mental illness and the symptoms of youth, pregnancy, and romantic extremes, but as somebody who has been through or next to all three, I can vouch for the fact that they don’t reliably cause violent outbursts of fury.

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” isn’t the only song that finds O’Connor seeming genuinely disturbed. How about this expression: “If you said jump in the river I would / Because it would probably be a good idea”? Or this image, referencing babies: “In my soul / my blood and my bones / I have wrapped your cold bodies around me”? Even the covers she chooses are pretty unsettling. “Nothing Compares 2 U” opens with the starkly obsessed, “It’s been seven hours and fifteen days / Since you took your love away.” And “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” pretty much speaks for itself.

And yet, god damn does she make it sound good. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is an absolutely riveting track, just as inspiring and hypnotic the 500th time through as it was the first. When she declares, “Whatever it may bring / I will live by my own policies / I will sleep with a clear conscience / I will sleep in peace”, I find myself thinking “HELL YEAH.” That’s been a central quote in my life for years, and I can’t see that changing anytime soon. And when I put “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” on a heartbroken mixtape, I related deeply to its imagery, not to mention its haunting backbeat. Like I said, there’s overlap.

Also, I realize that many of the album’s songs are heavily figurative. I know she’s not literally haunted in “You Cause As Much Sorrow,” nor actually clutching dead infants in “Three Babies,” nor actually turning into birds in “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.” In fact, in several places I really have no idea what she’s on about, and a cursory online search hasn’t turned up much information except for the fact that she was still grieving her mother’s death from five years earlier.

I still love this album. O’Connor’s voice is a natural wonder, and her production showcases it immaculately. Her songwriting (aside from “Jump In The River,” which is a notch below everything else) is first rate, and several of the songs on this album are as good as she ever got. And it’s been an awfully long time (thank god) since I’ve been through the kind of relationship angst that infuses I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, so perhaps I have a distance from it now that I lacked when it came out. I just see it now as an artifact of someone baring a tortured soul, and I hope she’s gotten the help she needed to find peace since then.

Album Assignments: Middle Cyclone

I don’t fully understand the effect that Neko Case’s voice has on me. It is mystical and potent, a controlled substance made of sound. All I know is that when I hear it, I feel it down to my cells. That effect reaches its zenith on Middle Cyclone, her sensational 2009 album. The album doesn’t rest on her voice alone, though. That voice stands atop a foundation of incredible songwriting, nervy production, and excellent musicianship.

I’ll get to all that, but first I want to talk about the voice some more. It’s an extraordinary instrument, capable of ramping from a hesitant tenderness to a thrilling clarion call in moments. Listen to “Red Tide” — she starts out narrating, with just a bit of suspense as she trails her tone at the end of lines, and then stretches out the word “line.” The “ah-ah-ah-ah”s amp up the tension, and she delivers the second verse with just a bit more intensity than the first. Then the instruments build to another verse where she declaims the words with vibrant authority, reaching an emotional peak on “remember.”

But it turns out that’s not the peak after all! She ascends the bridge, hitting the highest notes of the song so far, then sliding down before stabbing up to another high note and finishing on “sinister”, which sounds not only sinister but outright threatening.

By the final lines of the song, she is at her full-throated best, investing the words with such power and passion that I cannot doubt she really is singing of life and death, of thrusting a defiant life in the face of death. She saves the highest note for the final line of the song, and then returns to “ah-ah-ah-ah”s whose tone says, “just try and argue with that, I dare you.”

Album cover for Middle Cyclone

I’m isolating her voice here, which isn’t quite fair, as the song gains plenty of its power from its marvelous arrangement and its chilling poetry. When all those things come together, the alchemy of Neko Case music reaches its ultimate heights. It’s just that the voice itself is so powerful to me — it pulls up feelings from inside me like threads, stretching them out and leaving me changed.

The voice works beautifully when it’s barely adorned, as in “Middle Cyclone”, but the album has much more instrumental creativity on offer. Famously, Case had turned her Vermont barn into a home for wayward pianos. A couple of tuners got six of them into playable shape, and the resulting “piano orchestra” appears on several tracks, most affectingly on “Don’t Forget Me”, a gentle Harry Nilsson cover.

Elsewhere we find Neko accompanied by custom music boxes, such as the one that chimes off-kilter into “The Next Time You Say Forever”, setting the song askew, setting up prickles at the back of the neck that the droning cellos do nothing to assuage, and lending an uneasy authenticity to Case’s promise in the lyrics: “The next time you say forever / I will punch you in your face / Just because you don’t believe it / Doesn’t mean I didn’t mean it.”

There are plenty of genuinely avant-garde moments on this album, even setting aside the thirty minutes of cricket chirps that comprise its final track. But even when her vocal gems are set in traditional filigree, like the Simon and Garfunkel-style guitar of “Vengeance Is Sleeping”, spine-tingling estrangement still abounds, thanks to the lyrics.

So let’s talk about those lyrics. Here are some from “Vengeance”:

I didn’t know what a brute I was
I dipped my cigarette and rode the bus
Vengeance built me hastily
And I dragged a clanging notion I was nobody, nobody
Nobody

All I had was my invention
And my love invented all of you
Oh, look what thoughts can do
What thoughts can do

If you’re not by now dead and buried
You’re most certifiably married
Oh, married

My god. I kept trying to trim that quote down, and then kept restoring it. “Nope,” I would say. “I need more of it.” There’s an Emily Dickinson quote that I love, and it applies here:

If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?

Neko Case’s lyrics take the top of my head off. They’re enhanced, too, by the stories she told on her episode of The Hilarious World Of Depression podcast. She left a home of alcoholism, drug abuse, physical abuse, and neglect at 15 years old. She’d get loaded on whatever drugs she could find and ride the city bus around town all day. Later, after dialing down the drugs, she’d tour relentlessly to keep herself too busy to feel what she was feeling.

When asked what she was tamping down, she replies, “Anxiety, restlessness. Needing to be loved, and seeing that as a weakness.”

And here again, her poetry crystallizes that experience, this time a lyric from “Middle Cyclone”:

I can’t give up acting tough
It’s all that I’m made of
Can’t scrape together quite enough
To ride the bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love

She goes on, later in that same quote: “I wanna be loved, and like, held on to. You know what I mean? And part of that is being young and part of that is being an actual… human being, who is also an animal species. There are things we cannot live without.”

From “I’m An Animal”:

You could say it’s my instinct
Yes, I still have one
There’s no time to second-guess it
Yes, there are things that I’m still so afraid of
But my courage is roaring like the sound of the sun
‘Cause it’s vain about its mane and will reveal them to no one

I’m an animal
You’re an animal, too

Here’s the thing, though. In the podcast, she talks about being faced with these realizations in 2010. This album came out the year before. These songs are the parts of Neko Case that she wasn’t quite yet ready to hear, expressing themselves through her music to speak truths that hadn’t quite reached the left side of her brain.

They have the force of prophecy, and the profound mythical resonance of dreams. They gather strength when set into Case’s melodies and the arrangements she co-crafts with Paul Rigby. And then, when she channels them through that phenomenal instrument in her throat, they become that loving tornado, that killer whale, that magpie to the morning whose warning cannot be denied. They speak with the voices of goddesses.