Album Assignments: Splendor & Misery

[This review is indebted to the transcribers and annotators of Genius.]

It’s been a very good decade for exploring the African-American experience via genre metaphors. We’ve got Janelle Monáe and her stories of Cindi Mayweather the android. N.K. Jemisin won three consecutive Hugo awards for her extraordinary Broken Earth trilogy. In movies, Jordan Peele uses horror tropes to incredible effect in the brilliantly written Get Out and Us, while Black Panther proved that not only is there room in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for an Afrofuturistic superhero, there is an incredible hunger for it. In another corner of the superhero world, the HBO Watchmen series pulled off a succession of astonishing narrative feats by putting race at the center of the Watchmen universe and rebooting the ways we can think about it.

Then there’s clipping., the experimental hip-hop group from Los Angeles, with a period at the end of their name. They’re fronted by Daveed Diggs, who’s best known for playing Jefferson and Lafayette in the original cast of Hamilton. While not as high-profile as the examples above, they too have been twice nominated for Hugo awards, in a category usually reserved for television episodes and long-form music videos. This album, Splendor And Misery, was the first of those nominations, and it absolutely belongs in the conversation with every example from my first paragraph.

Album cover for Splendor & Misery

Splendor & Misery starts with a low, spacey drone and scattered static. (Static recurs throughout the album — more about that in a bit.) A distorted voice (guest vocalist Paul Outlaw) sings a thesis verse:

I’ll follow the stars when the sun goes to bed
Til everything I’ve ever known is long dead
I can’t go back home ’cause I want to be free
Someone tell the others what’s become of me

Then in comes Diggs, rapping at a furious pace in a calm voice. He’s a ship’s computer, narrating the fact that “a member of the cargo” has woken up. A member of the cargo? Yeah, this is a slave ship. Before a sedative can be pumped through the vents, the “cargo” has found an access panel and is taking control of the ship. (“Remember that these beings were selected for their strength”, chides the computer.)

That leads into the bedrock story song, “All Black”. It begins, “Warning: mothership reporting / Cargo number 2331 has commandeered the vessel / Warning: mothership reporting / Cargo number 2331 is armed and he is dangerous”. It goes on from there, still in the computer’s voice, to tell the story of that seizure, returning over and over to the phrase “all black everything”. Those three words are an incredibly rich centerpiece for the song. They hearken back to a verse on Jay-Z’s “Run This Town”, which was then expanded upon by Lupe Fiasco in an alternate history song that imagines a world where slavery never existed. In the Splendor & Misery context, they variously mean the emptiness of the ship, the defiant war cry of the rebelling slave, the endless reaches of space, the darkness of artificial night, and the consciousness of the ship itself.

Within that consciousness, a surprising turn happens in the course of the song. In watching the psychological torment of Cargo #2331, as it sees him experience “the gift of freedom wrapped in days of rapping to himself / until his vocal cords collapse”, the ship begins to fall in love with him. It sees his loneliness and recognizes its own, saying “If only he realized this ship is more than metal / There’s friendship in the wiring”. By the end, the ship has reversed its initial message:

Warning: mothership reporting
This will be the last report, turn back, everything is fine
Warning: mothership reporting
Cargo number 2331 is not a danger, let him be
Warning: mothership reporting
If you continue to pursue there will be no choice but to destroy you
Warning: mothership reporting
This love will be defended at all costs, do not fuck with it

Thus begins a strange relationship that lasts through the album. The story becomes a little harder to follow after this. 2331 (who never gets any other name) appears in several interludes, rapping freestyle behind heavy static. That static, a bit like the Black Keys’ distortion, creates distance. It’s an audio cue that the signal is far away, barely strong enough to reach us.

In “Wake”, 2331 seems to decide not to try to return home, opting instead for travel via hypersleep. That song ends with that same verse that opened the album, which leads immediately into “Long Way Away”, which adds another verse with that same melody, ending each with “It’s a long way away / It’s a long way away / And I’m all alone / Along, along a long way”.

So here we have the premise. The machinery of slavery uproots innocents from their lives, but when the slave rises up, the machinery becomes infatuated with him and what he produces. For the slave himself, the price of his freedom is total isolation, except for the complicated relationship he has with his (former?) oppressor. No matter what, he is forever severed from the home and life he knew, and rage, depression and violence must ensue. But there is hope at the end — “A Better Place” once again brings in the “long way away” melody and motif, but sees 2331 and the ship setting a course for that better place, with a spark of belief that they can find it.

There’s more going on here than a self-contained story. For one thing, the album very consciously engages with a science fiction literary tradition, and particularly a black SF tradition. In a freestyle rap, 2331 references Orwell’s 1984. In another, he says “got a pocket full of stars”, referencing Samuel Delaney’s Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand. “Air ‘Em Out” references Delaney, Octavia Butler, M. John Harrison, and Ursula K. LeGuin. “True Believer” name-checks a character from Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy. The title of the album itself appears in “A Better Place” as the computer muses that 2331 is “missing the splendor and misery / Of bodies, of cities, of being missed” — The Splendor And Misery Of Bodies, Of Cities is the planned but never finished sequel to Stars In My Pocket.

That intellectual engagement is wonderful and thrilling, but there are other, more mysterious levels at work here. Take “Story 5” for instance. This track seems totally out of place on the album, in multiple ways — not only does it seemingly have nothing to do with the 2331 story, it’s also a pure gospel tune. It tells the story of a woman named Grace who fought in a war, uncovered some shady information, and was subsequently run down by a taxi and killed. What? Also, “Story 5”? What happened to the other 4?

Well, it turns out that there’s a song called “story” on clipping.’s debut album midcity, which tells the story of the taxi crash from the viewpoint of an onlooker named Randy. “Story 2”, about a former criminal, appears on their next album. Story 3 is missing, but Story 4 appears, for some reason, on a remix album by alt-J, featuring different characters but images that echo the other Story songs.

So apparently “Story 5” is part of a thread running through various clipping. albums, more than an organic part of Splendor & Misery. But there are layers upon layers here, because in the middle of “True Believer”, the static comes in staccato sequence, which turns out to be Morse code. (Which code gets referenced in “Air ‘Em Out” as well.) The coded message says: GRACEISRANDYSSISTER. Grace is Randy’s sister.

Even more mysterious, the song “Interlude 02 (Numbers)” imitates the style of a numbers station with a long string of NATO alphabet letters: “Foxtrot, Uniform, Whiskey, Romeo, Whiskey, Charlie, Oscar, X-Ray”, and so on. Gibberish? Not on a clipping. album. As the incredibly dedicated Genius user TheRingshifter figured out, this is a code too, a Vigenère cipher which requires a keyword. “Air ‘Em Out” yields the secret in its verse:

Come up off your smooth talk, playa this raspy (ahem)
You stuck on Morse code, playa, this is ASCII
Your birthright make you scared to get nasty
The keyword is Kemmer, that’s what yo’ ass need

Plugging the keyword “kemmer” (itself a LeGuin reference) into the cipher yields the text “THETARGETISAMYCLARK”. The target is Amy Clark. Who is Amy Clark? We don’t know… yet. Though there is a “Doc Clark” referenced in “Story 2”. There’s a clipping. album subsequent to Splendor & Misery, and while its “Story 7” (again skipping the multiples of 3) tells us more about Randy and a character from “Story 4”, there’s no Amy Clark.

To unravel this puzzle, we’ll just have to wait for more clues. With clipping., the deeper you dive the more you find — there’s so much more to discover in this all black everything.

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.

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.

Album Assignments: Highway 61 Revisited

So here’s the thing with Highway 61 Revisited. It’s hard to find anything new to say about this album. Entire books have been written on the topic, and I’ve even read some of them. I also wrote extensively about “Desolation Row” since it was quoted in Watchmen. Not to mention the three different posts I’ve already written about Bob Dylan in this Album Assignments series. I don’t have a whole lot more to say about him.

So I’m taking a different approach with this post, a more personal approach. I write a lot about how music feels to me, and I often try to capture with words how a particular song or moment works, but while I will sometimes introduce that stuff with a little bit about my life, I tend to write about music a lot and life very little. But music is woven into my life, and among other things serves me as touchstones, allowing me to time travel back to specific moments that emblematize greater relationships or themes.

Take “Like A Rolling Stone”. Obviously it’s a rock classic, and a huge milestone in Dylan’s career, and your local library is full of explanations about that. But I listen to the first two lines of it, and more often than not, I have Bob Herd in my head. That story you won’t find in the library.

Album cover of Highway 61 Revisited

Robby and I cemented our friendship when I was about 15 years old. We spent a lot of time at each other’s houses in high school, and during summers and breaks in our college years. So that meant we got to spend a lot of time with each other’s parents. Robby’s dad Bob was a kindly giant to me, a big tall goofball with Texas roots who would always try to crack us up as he made his way through the house. He was always especially good to me — in fact one time we even hung out together without Robby around, as we both really wanted to see Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie and Robby had zero interest.

Bob loved classic rock in general, but specifically he was a huge Dylan fan. Robby tells me how on Sundays, his dad would sit down with him and play through some favorite record, pointing out great bits and telling stories as they’d listen. That’s where Robby’s appreciation of Dylan came from, or at least where it started. Bob and I would talk Dylan sometimes too, taking turns rhapsodizing about the musicians and especially the lyrics.

I have an image of Bob in my head. He’s coming down the stairs in Robby’s old house, while Robby and I are hanging out in the living room. His steps are heavy, and once he’s sure he has our attention, he drawls out: “Once upon a time you dressed so fine! Threw the bums a dime, in your prime!” A call, waiting for a response. We wouldn’t let him down, giving it our best nasal Dylan as we belted, “Didn’t youuuuuu!” We all three laughed at each other’s silliness, having a blast.

Bob passed away in 2007, much too young. When I hear “Like A Rolling Stone” now, I feel like he’s with me, just for a few moments, right at the same time as I wish that I could see him again.

There’s another touchstone for me at the beginning of the song “Highway 61 Revisited.” Dylan blows this wacky siren whistle a couple of times in the first five seconds of that song, a wild and silly sound that immediately sets the song apart from any other rock and roll tune before or since. Plenty of ink has been spilled about that creative choice, but none of it is about my friend Tashi.

Tashi and I worked together for many years at the University of Colorado, first for the central IT office that serves all the campuses, and then for the Boulder campus IT group. At various times I was his peer, his manager, and his colleague. He’s one of my favorite co-workers ever, and pretty much one of my favorite people in the world. Like me, he loves comedy and music, and he especially appreciates when they come together.

Tashi and I shared an office for a long time, which was the source of many a delightful conversation, sometimes trying to make each other think but usually trying to make each other laugh. At one point I was working and I suddenly heard, out of nowhere, those few notes of organ and — wOOOOOOooooo! — that siren whistle. Then it almost immediately stopped. I looked up, and the sound repeated. It was then I realized that Tashi had made that his ringtone. Hilarious.

Health issues eventually forced Tashi out of his job at CU, but we’re still friends. He comes over pretty regularly to help tutor Dante in math, not because math is a huge struggle for Dante but because Tashi absolutely loves it and gets immense pleasure from helping teach it. Much to Dante’s delight, Tashi always sticks around after the math work to play a board game or computer game or something. Our whole family loves having him around, because not only is he a wonderful mentor to Dante, he’s also super fun and incredibly funny. That siren whistle pretty much nails how I feel about him. wOOOOOOooooo!

I’ve got lots more memories attached to this stuff. Robby and I were counselors in the early 90s at a college-style camp for gifted middle and high school kids – they stayed in dorms at night, took awesome classes during the day, and participated in counselor-led activities in the afternoons and evenings. Some of the time was just “dorm time”, where the kids could hang out, play cards, and whatnot, while counselors stationed themselves at some central location. I remember clearly my little boombox in the center of a first floor dorm hallway, blasting out this album and some others (Freewheelin’, Another Side) to a small cadre of fascinated kids, getting intiated into the mysteries that had captured generations prior to theirs.

More recently, I had the pleasure of seeing Bryan Ferry in concert, and he played a cover of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” that gave me major goosebumps. And now that moment is with me too, even as I dig Dylan’s very different version. Like Pretenders II, this is an album I just never get tired of. I could listen to it over and over, and sometimes I do, because it brings back such happiness to me, and more great memories await.