Last Responder

I was going to write some depressing remembrance about 9/11 for the 10th anniversary, but here’s the best thing I wrote about 9/11, a post from 2009’s anniversary. I don’t think I can improve on it, so much as riff. (Here’s something else I wrote about the towers, from 2005.)

I’ve been thinking of getting my “9.11.01 Never Forget” tattoo removed or covered over. I think I’m ready to forget.

I read today’s installment of Cul de Sac and laughed for a while. Thanks, Mr. Thompson:

Cul de Sac

Do something good today.

Man Out Of Time: Music

Introduction | Music | Movies | Comics | Sports | Books

I think music is the one field where “the decade” really is a delineator. I try not to extrapolate broader trends from my own experience, but this is one case where I think I’m just part of the new shape of things.

Which is to say, my music-listening habits were flat-out transformed over the course of this decade. The changeover to digital began in the 1990’s, but went bananas in the past 10 years. My iTunes library contains around 45,000 songs, incorporating my and my wife’s CD libraries, the songs I stole back when that was cool, and other friends’ libraries, copied in toto. In fact, that’s why I didn’t get an iPod for the first 18 months or so after their introduction; I was waiting for one with large enough storage capacity to handle my library. (Okay, I was also on a PC and hadn’t yet drunk the Apple Kool-Aid.)

Sure, my music library today is filled with songs I’ll never listen to — such as my IT manager’s collection of German industrial aggro-something (rock?) or my pal Fink’s collection of, um, every single thing that Robyn Hitchcock ever recorded — but with storage space plummeting in price, why not keep it all?

I tend to just set iTunes and my iPod to shuffle, so I can discover unfamiliar music or recontextualize music I’m familiar with, but that carries the downside of missing out on albums qua albums. Add to that the fact that I rarely sit still long enough to listen to a 40- or 50-minute collection of music, and I’m left in a position where I can barely think of ten albums that I’d put on a “faves of the decade” list. We can download everything, so why listen to a single collection of songs by an artist?

On top of this, I have to make the embarrassing admission that I really don’t know much contemporary pop music. I don’t listen to the radio, don’t go to a gym, and don’t have, um, friends. My only experiences with Kanye West were his two awesome ad libs: blowing up Taylor Swift (who?) at that awards show and The Greatest Live TV Moment Of All Time, when he declared, “George Bush hates black people” during a Katrina benefit broadcast.

Similarly, I’d heard OF Lady Gaga for a while, but I never heard a song of hers until an episode of Parks & Recreation a month or two back. (It was fine, but I’m putting her in the same boat where I keep John Waters and Andy Warhol, the S.S. Love It In Theory, Not So Much In Practice.) Of course, the snob in me would reply would be that contemporary music sucks and I’m not missing anything, but that attitude’s gotten me in trouble in the past.

On my trip to Los Angeles in November, I decided to turn off my 120gb iPod’s shuffle setting and listen to albums in their entirety. I’ve stuck with that since my return, doing my best to go through entire records over the course of my commute and on drives out to the train station to pick up my wife. I’m so used to randomization, to the infinite jukebox, that it’s a real test for me to just let an album go to the end. Maybe it’ll help me to slow down.

Favorite Albums of the Decade

Time (The Revelator) (2001) – Gillian Welch – I wrote about this (finally!) for this year’s 9/11 post, so go back there and check out what I had to say. This is my favorite record of the decade, hands down. Nothing else comes close. The 9/11 context is a big factor for my attachment this album, the same way other people find Kid A or Is This It to be The Album of the Decade. (I’ve never made it through either of those records, so hey.)

Boxer (2007) – The National – I stumbled across a song from this in my iTunes library in 2008 (not sure who I got it from), tried out the album, and fell in love with it. I’m no good at describing genres, so you’re outta luck. I tried telling someone it’s “this sorta mellow modern rock sound,” and that’s about all I can do for you. This album, with its not-quite-sensical lyrics, unobtrusive orchestral additions, and Bowie-esque baritone, has become a key piece of my traveling soundtrack. I tried some of The National’s earlier music but didn’t dig them: things were a little too harsh, too fuzzy, too hip rock-‘n’-roll.

Simple Things / When It Falls / The Garden (2001 / 2004 / 2006) – Zero 7 – My go-to for chillout. I first heard their breakout single, Destiny, on the radio near the end of a 400-mile driving day in 2002. I was still 45 minutes from home, so I kept repeating the band and the song to myself. I stole the single the next day, fell in love with it, and bought the CD. I don’t love any of Zero 7’s first three albums on their own enough to put them on this list, but the combo of all of them has meant a lot to me this decade. I find their soul-chillout sound a lot more engaging than records by Moby, Blue 6, Photek, etc. Their sound evolved over the course of the first three records, with vocalists coming and going. Sia Furler is the mainstay/anchor for those albums. The fourth record, from which she’s absent, is a disaster.

Everything, Everything (2000) – Underworld – My affinity for Underworld’s pounding techno beats and chopped-up lyrics boggles my wife’s mind (as does their music), because of my utter lack of drug-taking and club-hopping. Still, something about their work utterly possesses me. Maybe it’s just a “this is who I could’ve been” if I had taken drugs and went to clubs. Everything, Everything is a live album and most of the songs are actually better than their album versions, bursting with a vital force that I didn’t even realize was lacking on their studio releases. Only one — Pearl’s Girl — fails to live up to the studio, for reasons that are too technical for me to get into.

Sea Change (2002) – Beck – One of my favorite contemporary writers told me he listened to this album incessantly to get over a heartbreak, just like I did. I later discovered that we may both have been getting over the same girl. Beck apparently recorded the songs to get over a breakup, too, but not with the same girl (as far as I know). This album is a change of pace for him: the sound is more acoustic, the lyrics are less non-sequitur-ing, and the overall result has a lot more heart than Beck’s other music.

Honorable mention

Give Up (2003) – The Postal Service – A friend of mine played me this record when I was traveling, so I picked up the CD before going home. When I tried to import it into iTunes, I discovered that I already owned the whole album, courtesy of a cloned library. That’s the only time this has happened; I swear. It’s a twee album, but what can I tell you? If you’ve made it this far in my blog, you know I’m a big geek.

Speakerboxxx / The Love Below (2003) – Outkast – Embarrassing admission: I’d never heard Outkast until this 2003 double-album. Then I heard Hey Ya!, was blown away, declared it the best pop single I’d heard in a bazillion years, and started checking out their stuff. I had no idea music like this was being made, and was flabbergasted by the stylistic leaps the duo was making. In part, this was due to my sad-ass racist stereotyping of hip-hop. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent post about Outkast’s album-to-album growth left me comparing it with the Beatles’ progression throughout the ’60’s. Outkast really made some remarkable music. Of course, I showed up just when the party was ending.

St. Elsewhere (2006) – Gnarls BarkleyCrazy was one of the greatest singles of the decade, matched only by the aforementioned Hey Ya! The rest of this album is awfully good, but I don’t find myself listening to it too often.

A Friend of a Friend (2009) – Dave Rawlings Machine – This was released in November 2009, so perhaps it’s too new for me to consider it a fave. But it’s the closest thing I’ll have to a new Gillian Welch album, it’s been on heavy rotation since I bought it, and a couple of songs will likely make their way onto my next Mad Mix CDs (yeah, I still make mix-CDs for people), so it’s at least an Honorable Mention.

I Was Only Just a Chorus Girl (2002) – Ari Scott – We dated for a while, and I still enjoy listening to her first record. It’s (generally) bouncy, catchy, piano-driven singer-songwriter sorta stuff.

Introduction | Music | Movies | Comics | Sports | Books

Revelation

If it turns out that the world continues to exist after my death — I can have my hopes/doubts, right? — then I need you to do something for me: put Gillian Welch’s album Time (The Revelator) on repeat at my memorial service.

There are albums — forgive the old-school parlance — that I love more, but none that I’d rather have guide me into the next world.

I first encountered Gillian Welch in December 2000, when I saw the Coen Bros. movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? at the multiplex below Union Square. I didn’t like the movie much, but was floored by the soundtrack. In particular, I was entranced by a couple of tunes by Alison Krauss. I picked up the soundtrack a few days later, and listened to the “roots” music over and over. (This didn’t bother my girlfriend as much as when I discovered Ted Hawkins’ Songs from Venice Beach a few years earlier, an event that nearly burned out the motor of my CD player.)

I found the Krauss songs — Down to the River to Pray and I’ll Fly Away — utterly mesmerizing, even if their southern Baptist sentiment didn’t exactly jibe with my first-gen, northeastern Jewish background. I noticed that the latter song was a duet with someone named Gillian Welch, but wasn’t able to get a taste of her voice from the song. Welch was also the voice of one of the sirens in the song Nobody but the Baby, but I again couldn’t pare her sound out from Krauss and Emmylou Harris.

One Friday, several months later, Slate ran a review of a new album by Welch and her partner David Rawlings. Written by Daniel Menaker, it was subtitled, “The oldest young people in country music.” Curiosity piqued, I gave it a read. It sounded like it was right up my alley:

In this album, it’s time that reveals its own meanings and purposes. Using compositions that range from a ditty to a slow romantic waltz to a slurry blues moan to a hypnotic 15-minute-plus Philip Glassy imagistic tour de force, the album assembles an alt-country “Waste Land,” with quotes from and references to and nods toward scores of events and songs and people in the nation’s and the singers’ lives.

I decided I would pick up the album next week. That was September 7, 2001.

Four days later, we had a new edition of The Waste Land. The Burial of the Dead, A Game of Chess, The Fire Sermon, What the Thunder Said — all the parts were there, with Death by Air standing in for Death by Water.

I forget why we went out the night of 9/11, but my girlfriend and I stopped in a Border’s bookstore in Paramus, NJ that evening. I recall wandering among the shelves, trying to summon that feeling of solace I get among books. It wasn’t happening. We were, like the rest of the populace, shocked out of our gourds.

I surrendered and got ready to leave. On the way out, I passed a CD listening station, and noticed that Time (The Revelator) was one of the six disks it offered. Without a pause I donned the clunky headphones and put on track 1.

I heard the title song’s opening lonely guitar notes, then Welch’s lamenting voice, and six-and-a-half minutes later, I took the headphones off, picked up a copy of the CD, and numbly walked to the cashier.

In his Slate review, Menaker describe it as a concept album, and wrote:

So, what’s the concept? The losses inevitably incurred by the passage of time — personal losses, musical losses, cultural losses, losses of innocence, losses of heroes, losses of dreams. Taken together, the songs here seem to want to redeem these losses in two ways: by weaving the tattered remains of the past into new whole cloth — the cloth of art — and by finding the hidden meaning in them that the passage of time reveals. The dictionary says that in the theological sense, “revelator,” a word first used at the beginning of the 19th century, means someone who knows and can articulate the will of God — St. John is often called “John the Revelator” in Baptist hymns and sermons.

That night, at the end of the world, I felt like I’d heard the voice.

My words will continue to fail, so why don’t you take a 6-minute break and watch/listen?

Rather than summon me back to 9/11, Time (The Revelator) seems to grow along with me. Sure, those first notes always evoke a world-weary sigh, as if I’m preparing to confront the great loneliness I felt on that day and its aftermath. (If my ex-girlfriend is reading this, please note: It was me, not you. But now, as the Beatles put it, my life has changed in oh so many ways.) But it keeps revealing new heights and depths over the course of the album, with Casey Jones and the whiskey pope, the Great Emancipator and the staggers and the jags, Elvis Presley Blues and five-band bills. It’s like discovering an America.

Menaker’s review cites a passel of lyrical and musical references in the album, but he misses the central one. He finds Gene Autry, Elvis, the Delmore Brothers, Bill Justis, James Brown, and folk and gospel traditions. His blind spot is the music of Blind Willie Johnson. It’s not to knock him; I only discovered Johnson a few years ago, but now that I have, the roots of Time (The Revelator) are much more apparent to me. That’s not to say that Welch and her partner David Rawlings made a derivative album; I’m just saying that the most direct lyrical precursor of its themes of apocalypticism and resurrection can be found in Johnson’s music.

As I grew older and allegedly wiser, as I found love and overcame my wheels-within-wheels paranoia, as my American experience deepened, this album seems to be waiting for me, like signs on a highway. The mysteries were all there, waiting to be discovered in its somnolent vocals and the stripped down sound of two guitars.

Time (The Revelator) builds up to a 15-minute coda, I Dream a Highway. The song takes up lyrical threads from the rest of the record and weaves them into a greater tapestry. It’s a regeneration, a highway ouroborous, a love that lasts through winters and decay, always returning to you, whoever you are.

One of my exes, a songwriter, told me she cried when she heard that song, because she knew she’d never be able to write something so beautiful. I can’t begin to do it justice. I’ve been trying for five years now, but this is the post you get.

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