Saturday, November 12, 2016

Leonard Cohen, "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" (Columbia Records, 1974)

I first paid close attention to Leonard Cohen’s song “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” in the summer of 2012, at an outdoor concert by Rufus Wainwright at the harbor-side pavilion here in Boston. I’d heard Cohen’s own version of the song before then, as well as Lloyd Cole’s upbeat guitar-pop rendition, with the Dylanesque cadences of its delivery, on 1991’s Leonard Cohen tribute CD I’m Your Fan. Rufus performed the song (which is also included on his album Want Two) as a duet with Cohen’s son Adam, the show’s opening act.

Hearing the lyrics sung by an unabashedly gay performer like Wainwright, who also happens to be the biological father of one of Leonard Cohen’s grandchildren, is probably what made me take notice. The song fits Rufus’s persona perfectly and bends to suit a different context while always retaining its original shape. That’s probably one quality that makes a song truly great; it lends its flexibility to a wide variety of performers who cover it, without sacrificing the integrity of the initial creation. Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” is another song that does this always, and I’ve never heard a bad interpretation of it.

“Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” of course, is lodged deep in rock mythology, a memory of Cohen’s overnight liaison with Janis Joplin. Like many of his best songs, it’s steeped in an intense yet also casual longing. The song’s setting, grand yet bohemian, old-school yet contemporary, arranges its manifold legendary associations around the opening lyric: “I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel.” Our memories are contained by the ghosts of the spaces in which the remembered experiences first occurred, and when we return to those spaces, which continue to change over time, we bring the memories back to those spaces with us. Cohen’s memory of Joplin is a snapshot (or short film) of their time together in the Chelsea Hotel, and any subsequent visit, or even a photograph of the place, might revive the memory of her again. The lyrics are like a Cavafy poem that a straight man would write. Cohen certainly knew Cavafy’s writing because a song on his 2001 album Ten New Songs is based on one of Cavafy’s poems. Cohen himself published almost as many books of poetry as the number of albums he recorded.

The lyrics of “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” are constructed on the shifting surfaces of desire: “You were talking so brave and so sweet, / Giving me head on the unmade bed / While the limousines wait in the street.” Romantic, sexual, disarrayed, and glamorous, the images clash and complement each other in a way that’s both timeless and timelessly cool. The present-tense verb “wait” in the line about the limousines idling in the street clearly plays with this idea, suspending the desire and the memory itself eternally in time, even though Cohen is singing about the distant past.

“Those were the reasons and that was New York.” The music business had brought them there and brought them together (“We were running for the money and the flesh”), for better or worse. It was the late 1960s. The years between then and the song’s release in 1974 would be years of tremendous loss, fallout from a war escalated beyond all control and a long litany of drug-related deaths, facts that further fixate the erotic memory. “And that was called love for the workers in song, / Probably still is for those of them left.” A night of great sex is what a musician would expect, but it’s still a kind of love, then and today, but especially then, at the height of the sexual revolution. Joplin was just one of many famous musicians who died young at age 27, Cohen was among the survivors, and the phrase “those of them left” takes on a whole new meaning now, with the majority of musical artists struggling harder to stay afloat and keep creating in our digital era.

Joplin’s departure in the song is a relaxed shrug and a heartbreaking refusal. We know the story, and it doesn’t need to be said outright, so it’s sublimated instead:

“Ah but you got away, didn’t you babe,
You just turned your back on the crowd.
You got away, I never once heard you say,
I need you, I don’t need you,
I need you, I don’t need you,
And all of that jiving around.”

I’ve always wondered if the repetition of “I need you, I don’t need you” is more than just an example of the lovers’ bickering and wavering that they never got around to, but rather a kind of conversational response, with the singer’s “I don’t need you” as a counterpoint, a forlorn way of addressing the memory itself. It’s as though he’s saying, just like we didn’t need the emotional games that we never had a chance to play, I don’t need to remember you this way. It’s also as if Joplin is saying that she never needed what the world could never really give her.

Then in the next verse, Cohen’s memory again overtakes the singer’s distant stance like a gentle wave washing back over him: “You told me again you preferred handsome men, / But for me you would make an exception.” It’s such an interesting turn, this unusual point of bonding; they don’t fit in with the image-conscious rock stars surrounding them, and that difference is one thing that attracted them to each other. “And clenching your fist for the ones like us / Who are oppressed by the figures of beauty” suggests another layer of meaning as well, in that beauty is one of the most enduring themes of popular music and art, yet physical beauty itself is never fairly distributed and doesn’t even last for those to whom it’s granted. In the end, however, art prevails anyway, with a sly inward smile: “You fixed yourself and said, ‘Well, never mind, / We are ugly, but we have the music.’”

The song’s denouement covers more ground in four lines than some songwriters’ entire catalogs, as the singer connects cultural history with his own relationships and memories:

“I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best,
I can’t keep track of each fallen robin.
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
That’s all, I don’t even think of you that often.”

At first the image of those “fallen robins” might seem a little sexist, drawing on the tradition of comparing women to birds, until remembering the orange color of Janis Joplin’s hair. And again, the early disappearance of so many young musicians in that era was tragically persistent enough that one could conceivably lose count, a notion that Cohen seems willing to let go of, whereas the cultural fixation on celebrities who died young would only become more fervent, nostalgic, and exploitative as generations passed. Nevertheless, the song’s closing line, “I don’t even think of you that often,” registers as quietly true, yet at the same time isn’t true at all. The entire song is a detailed resurrection of an unforgettable memory. Permanently cast in the mold of popular music, that memory is continually repeated, continually relived, both as a poem and a song, a private reverie and a public statement, revived and consumed, revived and consuming.

Despite this willful repetition — lift and move the needle back to replay the track, click refresh on the YouTube video — the song’s rich internal signifiers are also half-empty now. Janis Joplin is long gone, Leonard Cohen is just recently gone, and the old Chelsea Hotel is gone now, too, closed for renovations, soon to be upscaled and gentrified, no longer an infamous bohemian enclave but your typical downtown luxury establishment. The only figures left in the song’s insular hotel room will be us, just as Leonard Cohen intended for it to be someday.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Music of Scritti Politti

My favorite album of all time is Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85, and my favorite band of all time is Scritti Politti. Because of that, I’ve wanted to write about Scritti Politti’s music (and the man behind the band, Green Gartside) for a very long time now, but for some reason, I found that I could never quite bring myself to do so. It’s like my love for Scritti Politti’s music runs so deep that my mind was unwilling or unable to process that admiration in writing, or to make my affection for their music a more public declaration. So rather than writing the kind of detailed post that I usually write, I figured I’ll try instead to write about finding myself unable to write about Scritti Politti, which will really end up being a meditation on how I came to love the kind of music that I do, along with a few of the reasons why I love it.

I first heard Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85 thirty years ago now in 1986, at the age of thirteen, when I was on vacation with my family at a hotel in Florida, on a beach somewhere near St. Petersburg. Also staying at our hotel were two long-haired sisters, about three or four years older than I was, who kept Cupid & Psyche 85 and one other album on constant rotation while sunning themselves beside the hotel swimming pool. (The other album was Robbie Nevil’s 1986 self-titled debut, another record that I still love today.)

From that very first listen — I think the first track I heard on Cupid & Psyche 85 was either “Perfect Way” or “Hypnotize” — I was totally mesmerized by the songs, by their deft beats, sophisticated lyrics, and a sonic sweetness that lingered somewhere between musical generations. I’d been raised on late ’70s and early ’80s pop radio in Cincinnati, Ohio, but the songs I heard those two sisters playing poolside on their boombox changed everything for me. The world in that sunlit Florida air tilted and shimmered a bit, then shifted gradually back into focus.

This happened at a very particular moment in the history of popular music. The playful sounds of synthesizers had recently begun to liberate the idea of who could make music professionally and how. The same young people who’d discovered that loophole then mastered what exactly they could do with those sounds and ventured to see just how far they could carry them. Also, the technological innovation of digitizing music and distributing it widely on compact discs had started to completely revolutionize the music industry and change its game rules for good.

It helped that Green Gartside, the founding force (and voice) of Scritti Politti, was quietly taking stock of all this from across the Atlantic. Sure, the ’80s pop music scene in central London was already off and running, but Green was in love with the innovations of American R&B, a love that explains the reggae-influenced slinkiness of “The Word Girl,” the laidback propulsion of “Absolute,” and the blazing danceclub-on-fire velocity of “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin).” By the time he arrived at 1988’s equally fantastic album Provision, both Miles Davis and Roger Troutman would also be in the mix on a pair of unforgettable collaborations.

I don’t want to dwell on Green’s go-rounds with the major-label music business or his ensuing semi-reclusiveness, because he’s stayed around, as smart as ever, and made five albums the way that he wanted to make them. (I have a good feeling that a sixth album might be on the way soon, too.) I do want to dwell for just a moment, however, on one of my favorite live concert memories ever, when I got to see Scritti Politti perform here in Boston ten years ago, in November of 2006. I never thought that would happen, especially not after two decades of loving a band who’d remained so low profile. But when a shy Welsh white guy can have a dance floor full of black women over 50 getting down to the bass beats of “Wood Beez,” you know that he’s doing something right.

Monday, June 20, 2016

18th Annual Provincetown International Film Festival (June 15th - 19th, 2016)

Before a film screening halfway through this year’s Provincetown International Film Festival, one of the festival’s programmers who was introducing the film was happy to let the audience know that it would be a light movie, and she also mentioned that filmgoers at the festival sometimes ask why so many movies in the festival feel sad or dark. I thought it was great to hear this acknowledged, and I’m also someone who’s quite glad that the films in the festival are often sad and dark because the world itself is often sad and dark. While escapism at the cinema clearly has its advantages, good films tend to reflect our culture and society directly, facing difficult truths head-on and bravely exploring the more intractable or mysterious aspects of human experience. Almost all of the seventeen films that I saw in this year’s festival fit that description, and I’m grateful for it.

I was fortunate to have already seen my favorite film from this year’s festival, Aaron Brookner’s moving documentary Uncle Howard, at the Wicked Queer film festival in Boston just a few months ago. I absolutely loved the movie then, and it definitely rewarded me further on a second viewing, giving me a chance to notice lots of clever interconnections that hadn’t been apparent to me during my first viewing. Last summer here on my blog, I reviewed Smash Cut, Brad Gooch’s terrific memoir about the same subject, the late filmmaker Howard Brookner, Gooch’s boyfriend of ten years who died of AIDS in 1989, just before his 35th birthday. This documentary about Howard’s life and times was produced by Jim Jarmusch, a film school classmate of Howard’s at NYU and the sound man on Brookner’s first film, a mid-’80s documentary about William Burroughs. But what makes Uncle Howard so special is the personal perspective bestowed upon the film’s subject by its director, Howard Brookner’s nephew Aaron.

We see plenty of footage of Aaron as a little boy in the film, growing up with his uncle Howard and beginning to idolize him over time. Howard’s early death made him enigmatic to Aaron, understandably, a huge loss to be pursued and a kind of puzzle to be solved. One striking image late in the film shows the adult Aaron pacing around a large circle of all of the archival artifacts that he’s collected from his uncle’s life: photographs, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, reels of film. The movie’s ultimate message is that memory is the only thing that really makes our stories, along with someone’s willingness either to preserve the memories or piece them back together again. Uncle Howard is pretty much the most gorgeous re-assemblage imaginable, and its closing scene, composed of perfectly selected and placed found footage, is my favorite ending of any movie so far this year.

The documentary that I’d been anticipating most in the festival, David Farrier’s and Dylan Reeve’s Tickled, certainly did not disappoint. Farrier, a bisexual journalist in New Zealand, has made a career of finding offbeat slice-of-life and human interest stories, and Tickled began when he came across “competitive endurance tickling” fetish videos online, which feature cute athletic guys tickling each other fully or partially clothed. Of course, these videos have a massive following among tickling enthusiasts as a kind of very soft-core pornography. Though it seems like those videos will be the focus of the movie, the tickle torture turns out to be just a lure into a much deeper exploration of power, money, and control, all via harassment and humiliation of the videos’ participants at the distant hands of a manipulative quasi-genius whose identity remains a secret until nearly the end of the film. Farrier’s masterful shift of tone into truly suspenseful territory is what makes this film so watchable.

Farrier himself quickly becomes the target of homophobic taunting and harassment just after he discovers and contacts the makers of the tickling videos, produced by a nebulous entity called Jane O’Brien Media. The documentary’s filmmakers gradually learn that Jane herself doesn’t exist at all but is merely an avatar in a long line of assumed identities for a mastermind with an addiction to hot (and financially vulnerable) young guys tickling each other, as well as a relentlessly vindictive streak whenever he’s even slightly crossed by anyone in his path. The psychological motivations behind these behaviors surface briefly late in the movie, and its one weakness might be that Farrier gives us only a sad glimpse into our antagonist’s childhood, yet isn’t really able to explore it further. Nevertheless, the rest of the film gathers its suspenseful energy from delving as deep as it does into the darker side of human (or inhuman) nature. Farrier’s courage and tenacity in pursuing the story to its twisted end are highly commendable.

Another film that I was quite excited to see in the festival was Tim Kirkman’s Lazy Eye, my favorite narrative feature in this year’s festival. I reviewed Kirkman’s earlier film Loggerheads here on my blog several years ago, and that film remains one of my favorite movies of all time. Like Loggerheads, Lazy Eye also quietly follows a gay storyline, this time in a finely crafted two-hander that’s solidly built from its resonant screenplay and dialogue. Dean, an artist turned graphic designer, lives in Los Angeles and owns a weekend home in the desert near Joshua Tree. One night he receives an out-of-the-blue email from Alex, with whom he was romantically involved 15 years earlier when both men were living in New York City, until Alex disappeared from Dean’s life without a single word of explanation.

Reluctantly (and not so reluctantly from a sexual standpoint), Dean invites Alex to join him for a reunion weekend out in the desert. The tension escalates and wanes in ways that I won’t divulge here, though I can say that I related to the two men’s situation on an immediate and sometimes heartbreaking level. I think most gay men have lived through the kind of relationship and loss of a relationship that Dean and Alex share; Kirkman’s ear and eye are attuned to every small detail, in a way that’s reminiscent of Andrew Haigh’s wonderful film Weekend from a few years ago. I think Lazy Eye speaks to my own generation of gay men just as well as Weekend did, perhaps even more fittingly in our current era of gay marriage. What do we lose if we opt out of that new social privilege? Will our memories of former boyfriends and potential husbands transform over time into a long line of regrets, and if so, then what should we do with those regrets?

Long Way North, an animated feature film by Rémi Chayé, was just as emotionally affecting as Lazy Eye, but in completely different ways. The movie, voiced in English, has the look of beautifully hand-drawn Japanese anime in the tradition of Studio Ghibli. Set in the late 19th-century, the story follows a 15-year-old Russian girl, Sasha, whose grandfather is an Arctic explorer who doesn’t return home from his latest expedition. His great ambition was to plant the first Russian flag at the North Pole, so Sasha is able to figure out by studying Arctic maps that he left behind what her grandfather’s approximate location might have been when he went missing.

The rest of the film is a gripping adventure tale, one that could convincingly be told only through the medium of animation. The climate of the Arctic is too inhospitable and treacherous for a live-action film crew to take on, and since CGI is basically animation anyway, why not just go with a full-on animated feature? The film’s payoff is in its extended action sequences: the Russian ship breaking its way through Arctic ice, nearly running aground, the sailors digging and blasting through the entrapping sheets of the frozen sea with dynamite, triggering an avalanche that even further endangers their ship. These scenes and images escalate the genre of animated film to a new and different level. I found myself anxiously shouting “No!” aloud at least twice during that segment of the movie, something I’m certain that I’ve never done before while viewing a cartoon. It’s best to leave the film’s ending undescribed here; I will say, however, that the movie’s climax and resolution are elegantly conveyed, while also remaining understated and Zen-like, despite Sasha’s intensely dramatic circumstances.

One of the documentaries that tied for the HBO Audience Award at this year’s festival, Jonah Markowitz’s and Tracy Wares’ Political Animals, is also well-worth mentioning. The film traces the careers of four lesbian legislators in the state of California: Sheila Kuehl, Carole Midgen, Christine Kehoe, and Jackie Goldberg. Collectively, these women were on the vanguard of gay rights and totally ahead of their time, boldly and tirelessly advocating for legal protections for LGBTQ students in public schools, as well as passing early domestic partnership bills. It addition to compiling compelling footage of their impassioned and movingly personal arguments presented before often homophobic and pro-religion fellow legislators, the film is also an informative vehicle for demonstrating how the legislative process actually works. We watch as bills fail to pass by being as little as one vote short of a majority, and then we see how these women change their uncooperative colleagues’ minds by presenting skillful logic in the context of our evolving culture, just as leaders of the civil rights movement courageously did in previous decades. I teach a course called Sexuality and Social Change at the university where I work, and I will definitely plan to show this film in class when I offer the course in future semesters.

Finally, I really enjoyed one short film in the festival, which screened alongside Uncle Howard, Brandon Cordeiro’s poignantly nostalgic ribbons. Cordeiro is a young filmmaker who was raised in Provincetown, so watching his 8-minute short at this particular film festival, in a town that I’ve visited frequently for many years, made it even more special. Based on one of Brandon’s own memories of his mother taking him to an oceanside AIDS memorial at the beach in Provincetown back in 1997, the short sweetly recreates a young boy’s (and future gay man’s) entirely innocent response to the social tragedy of the AIDS crisis, while also providing a snapshot of the LGBTQ community’s wide-ranging strength at a particularly painful and devastating point in our history. The title image of long, colorful ribbons streaming in the wind on the beach, inscribed with handwritten tributes to loved ones lost to AIDS, has been a feature of the annual Swim for Life fundraising event in Provincetown since its inception; just as memorable is Cordeiro’s luminous rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game” at the end of the film, sung by the director himself.

At the ceremony for honorees, Excellence in Acting Award recipient (and lesbian icon) Cynthia Nixon gave a heartfelt acceptance speech, in which she spoke of how much she’d loved her first visit to Provincetown to attend this year’s festival. She also mentioned what a relief it was to be in such a peaceful, accepting place after last week’s tragic shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, and lamented that such a catastrophe could still befall us now. Her closing words about Provincetown and this pivotal moment in LGBTQ history will be my closing words, too, because they’re abundantly evident in the films that I’ve chosen to review: “How good it is to be here, and to see how far we’ve come.”

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Music of Prince and Paisley Park (Warner Bros. Records, 1985 - 1993)

Like many other pop music fans worldwide, I’ve been listening to the songs of Prince a lot since his sudden death earlier this month. From some of my earliest childhood memories onward, I have so many strong associations with the music that he tirelessly recorded and produced throughout the 1980s. Among my first memories of having fun on my own as a kid are my totally vivid recollections of skating to “1999,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Raspberry Beret,” and “When Doves Cry” at a roller rink in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, the same roller rink where I’d later land my first job as a DJ at age 16. The DJ booth at the far corner of the skating rink was completely covered in royal blue shag carpet. Because I was younger than the other DJs, I worked just the Saturday afternoon shift, and I always included Prince’s hits in my mix, while projecting his music videos on the opposite wall. Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” remains one of my favorite songs of all time to this day, the only song that I ever sing at karaoke.

Prince’s own albums, an awesome trove of music that people will be studying for many decades to come, are easiest to focus on, but I’ve long been more interested in his side projects and the more obscure songs that he wrote and produced for other artists on his Paisley Park label over roughly eight years, beginning in 1985 and continuing through 1993, just prior to the label’s closure due to disputes with Warner Bros. Records. Although some of the songs recorded by those other Paisley Park artists were second-tier numbers that Prince had recorded as rough demos himself in his younger years (or failed to shop out to big-name acts like Michael Jackson and Madonna), they provide an important key to understanding his overall aesthetic, both from a musical and business standpoint.

The self-titled album by The Family, one of the first releases on Paisley Park in 1985, was Prince’s early experiment in jazz/funk fusion, the musical style to which he’d return in earnest on the Madhouse 8 and Madhouse 16 albums a couple of years later. The Family was led by Paul Peterson, who closely approximated Prince’s vocals and later released solo albums as St. Paul, and Susannah Melvoin, the twin sister of Wendy Melvoin of the duo Wendy & Lisa, Prince’s longtime backup singers. Other members of The Family included frequent Prince collaborators Jellybean Johnson on drums and Eric Leeds on saxophone and flute. With the exception of the fantastically moody track “River Run Dry,” which was written by drummer Bobby Z of Prince’s band The Revolution, Prince composed all of the other songs on the album.

The Family’s biggest claim to fame, “Nothing Compares 2 U,” would go on to become an international phenomenon for Sinéad O’Connor in 1990. As sung by St. Paul Peterson, the song is a soulful New Wave-influenced ballad, a synthpop hymn to independence in the wake of heartbreak. Several other cuts on The Family are equally notable, especially the outstandingly funky opener “High Fashion” and the pulsating ode to eroticism “Screams of Passion.” The album and its two singles failed to attract much commercial attention at the time of their release, but The Family is now a highly sought-after rarity for collectors of Prince’s catalog.

Another highly sought-after Paisley Park rarity is Jill Jones’ self-titled 1987 debut album, which Prince wrote and produced nearly in its entirety. Jones got her start in the music business as a backup vocalist for the late Teena Marie, who was her cousin, and whose career also happened to be managed by Jones’ mother. Jones later appeared in the music videos for “1999” and “Little Red Corvette,” as well as Prince’s feature-length films Purple Rain and Graffiti Bridge. Her debut album is endowed with a spiky funk edge that’s as convincing as anything else Prince recorded, with lyrics and a vocal delivery as sensual as later Prince hits like “Diamonds and Pearls” and “Pink Cashmere.”

None of the three singles released from Jill Jones, the driving “Mia Bocca,” clever “G-Spot,” or jazzy “For Love,” gained any sort of foothold on the charts, the kind of expenditure without profit that began to cause a rift to develop in Warner Bros. Records’ relationship with Prince and Paisley Park. Tellingly, the songs all still sound amazing today, regardless of their lack of mainstream success in the late 1980s, when the volume of records being released worldwide was far too high for anybody to keep up with. Interestingly, the songwriting on two of the album’s best tracks — the pensive “Violet Blue” (dedicated to Elizabeth Taylor and titled for the color of her eyes) and the uptempo “My Man,” both intended to be sung from a woman’s perspective — is credited solely to Jill Jones in the liner notes, although Prince wrote all eight of the album’s songs himself.

Prince contributed only two songs to Taja Sevelle’s self-titled 1987 debut album on Paisley Park, which was distributed by Warner Bros. imprint Reprise Records. A more pop-oriented affair than much of Prince’s other output for Paisley Park, Taja Sevelle was also a departure commercially, competing with the likes of Madonna and Stacey Q during the year of its release. The singer whom Taja Sevelle (born Nancy Richardson) most resembled and carved out a path for was Mariah Carey, perhaps, though without the towering vocal prowess that Carey displayed on her first two albums.

The two tracks that Prince offered to Taja’s debut project (otherwise produced by Chico Bennett) were “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” and “If I Could Get Your Attention,” both of which he’d recorded earlier versions of himself; each Prince demo is easy enough to find with a quick search online. If Taja Sevelle and its four singles yet again failed to find a widespread audience either on radio or on dance floors of the era, the album nonetheless meshes well with the rest of Paisley Park’s diverse roster, striking an appealing balance between R&B, funk, and mainstream crossover pop.

For a fairly radical departure in 1988, Paisley Park released Los Angeles-based band The Three O’Clock’s Vermillion, featuring just one song penned by Prince, the whimsically catchy “Neon Telephone.” No doubt, Prince had caught wind of the band because of their pivotal role in founding L.A.’s punk-lite music scene that was known as the Paisley Underground. This similar naming was only a coincidence, but I can imagine that Prince didn’t want anybody else infringing on his trademark, so he sent his entourage out to investigate. Fortunately, he liked what he heard and then signed the band for one album. I would also guess that another Paisley Underground-related act, The Bangles, scored their massive hit “Manic Monday” due to this coincidence; Prince wrote that song for The Bangles under the pseudonym Christopher. (His birth name was Prince Rogers Nelson.)

Fronted by singer Michael Quercio and guitarist Jason Falkner, The Three O’Clock made for an unusual but not entirely unexpected fit in the Paisley Park oeuvre. The songs’ instrumentation is playful and grandiose at once, suggesting an alternative to most of the plinking ’80s keyboard fare that was on heavy rotation back in those days. The album’s diverse styles traverse all eras of music in which Prince himself was interested. “When She Becomes My Girl” harkens back to ’50s doo-wop groups; “Love Explosion” sounds like an updated version of a ’60s surfing beach bash; “Through the Sleepy Town” floats through a ’70s hallucination-induced haze; and “Ways of Magic” is still waiting to be the soundtrack centerpiece of an ’80s John Hughes movie revival.

Prince decided on a perfectly sensible return to R&B form in 1989 when he wrote and produced the majority of the songs on gospel legend Mavis Staples’ Paisley Park debut, Time Waits for No One, as well as on her 1993 Paisley Park follow-up, The Voice. Staples’ vocal texture and range gave Prince an entirely different palette to work with, and her inspirational reputation also liberated him to write about subject matter that was noticeably distinct from his previous records. Time Waits for No One maintains a clear sonic through-line from his earlier work, with songs crafted from electronically derived funk and sly dance-club beats. The themes are alternately dark (as on the title track and “20th Century Express”) and light (“Interesting,” “Jaguar,” and “The Old Songs”); there's a contemporaneous quiet-storm groove bestowed on the album’s ballads. The Voice, while more gospel-inflected overall, also integrates elements of New Jack Swing, a style popular on R&B songs in the early ’90s, notably on a cut like the upbeat “Melody Cool.”

The most astonishing aspect of all this: the albums that I’ve written about here represent only a small fraction of the total amount of music that Prince created for Paisley Park, and he created all of it within the span of a single decade. That must mean his life was nothing but wall-to-wall music, all day long, every single day, for the whole duration of that period in time, the same way that the most highly revered classical musicians like Mozart must have lived.

Prince’s prolific body of work for Paisley Park also doesn’t include the many songs that he wrote for artists on other labels during the same timeframe. One particular Prince song that comes poignantly to mind at this sad point in time is “With This Tear,” a moving ballad that Celine Dion recorded for her self-titled 1992 sophomore album, with a passionate vocal crescendo that’s ripped straight out of the stratosphere.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Garth Greenwell, What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)

What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell’s powerful and heart-rending debut novel, often seems to inhabit an earlier era. Take out the cell phones and laptop Skype sessions, and this story of an American expatriate teacher and his ongoing, tumultuous encounters with a Bulgarian hustler named Mitko would feel like something that Rimbaud and Verlaine might have experienced in their own place and time. While there’s plenty of redemption to be found in the book, it’s also relentlessly and unapologetically austere in stretches, both in its intentionally spare narrative movement and its explorations of the cities and landscapes of Bulgaria.

But overall, What Belongs to You is far more dedicated to exploring the inner lives of its characters, which is to say that it’s a novel about human relationships, about our troubling, visceral connections and inevitable disconnections. So much of the book depends on Mitko’s magnetism — for the novel to succeed, we have to feel as compelled by him as the narrator is — and Greenwell draws him as an enticing and ultimately unforgettable personality. This is not an easy task for any writer to accomplish. The author honed the first of the novel’s three sections from his 2011 novella that focused on the same two characters; from the moment Mitko first appears, cruising alongside the narrator in the basement bathroom of Sofia’s National Palace of Culture, his aura is equally riveting in this longer book.

Greenwell’s prose is long-limbed and ambitious. His paragraphs span two or three pages at times, and the novel’s experimental second section is a single paragraph that unwinds for over forty pages. It’s not only a way of immersing the reader in the narrator’s thoughts and descriptions, but also of leveling down the high-risk subject matter. As long as we’re caught up in the writing itself, then there’s no chance to judge or second-guess the action. We’re implicated in what’s happening as much as the narrator is himself, as the sporadic storms of Mitko’s attention drift (or jolt) in and out of the narrator’s daily world.

Part of what makes Mitko’s mystery lodge in the reader’s mind is how little of his past we’re shown. Early in the novel, when the narrator invites Mitko back to his apartment, Mitko scrolls through photographs of his younger self on a website. Although the pictures were taken only a couple of years earlier, “I was shocked by the difference in their faces, the man in the image and the man beside me,” the narrator thinks; “he looked like a nice kid, a kid I might have had in class at the prestigious school where I teach.” How far Mitko had fallen after turning to a life of drinking, prostitution, and homelessness pulls the narrator closer to his dangerous orbit, deepening the desire to possess and understand him, and creating a divide that will become impossible for Mitko to cross. After tagging along with the narrator and one of his friends for dinner, Mitko says, “I want to live a normal life,” before holding out his hand for money as they part ways.

What exactly makes a normal life? For most people, it’s money and routine work, which Mitko never has and seemed destined not to have. Love is a key ingredient, too, for those who are lucky enough to find it, or have it bestowed upon them by their families. “Normal” might also mean “moral” in this instance. Yet one of the great strengths of Greenwell’s book is its lack of judgment where morality is concerned. In the universe of his novel, it’s more important to document whatever occurs, to show the way the world is, which grants his writing a kind of lapidary realism as well as psychological intensity.

The best and most realistic moments in Greenwell’s novel are those when lives and relationships suddenly pivot and change irreversibly: a violent backhand across the narrator’s face, an innocent boyhood erection deeply unwanted by the person who prompted it, a father’s blunt homophobic rejection of his son. These moments of cruelty arise in the narrative like punches or shocks, fittingly, with a language of precision that re-creates exactly what it feels like to live through such experiences.

Although I’ll avoid giving away any plot details, I will say that the final fifty pages of the book, which I’d saved until I was ready to read them, are pure art, a feat made possible by the careful intricacy of everything that’s come before. I read them straight through to the end. The words were often blurred with tears, and I was grateful to be moved.