Further Listening

Kicking the Canon (One More Time): Bob Dylan, ‘John Wesley Harding’

jwhThe Kicking the Canon project ends today, but not before allowing me one final opportunity to talk about Bob Dylan: My take on the wonderfully weird, alluringly mysterious John Wesley Harding is available for your reading pleasure.

I should say that, when I heard this project was ending, I was midway through another Dylan retrospective, this one of Time Out of Mind. I may one day complete the thing, because why not, but until then, here’s my opening salvo: “Who says Bob Dylan left his Born Again days behind? Here is his Book of Psalms, his Lamentations– his resurrection from the dead.”

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Kicking the Canon: The Roots, ‘Things Fall Apart’

thingsIt is with much sadness that I report the demise of the Kicking the Canon project, which I’ve quite enjoyed both as a reader and as a proud contributor. Sam Mac and the gang have done excellent work and I’m sorry to see it come to an end so prematurely. The silver lining is that I do have one final review to share with you, this one of the seminal Roots joint Things Fall Apart. Get hip.

Kicking the Canon: Prince, “Purple Rain”

purple rainI’ve got another capsule review up at Kicking the Canon this week, and, for once, it’s not a Bob Dylan one! This week I look back at Prince’s Purple Rain, not just the greatest pop record of all time but one of my personal top ten albums. Speaking of which, a couple of you have inquired about a 2015 edition of my personal Top 100 list, and I’m happy to say that I do plan on posting an updated list some time within the next week or so.

But until then: Purple Rain.

Kicking the Canon: Bob Dylan, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”

freewheelinI’ve got another Dylan retrospective up at Kicking the Canon this week, this one of the landmark Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan record, which is plenty freewheelin’ indeed. There was a season in my life when I would have called this my favorite Dylan, and it’s probably still one of my top 25 or 30 records of all time, and as good as any ever made.

Incidentally, I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to say about future Kicking the Canon assignments, but rest assured that I do have a few more pending publication– not all of them Dylan-related!

Further Listening: Sufjan Stevens, “Carrie & Lowell”

sufjanSufjan Stevens records always teeter along a thin line between artifice and authenticity: His winding, punctuation-laden song titles, alt-rap ambitions, and geography-bee showmanship all draw attention to the calculated nature of his act, yet none of that necessarily proves that what he’s doing is in any way inauthentic to him.

Stevens is not the first to shimmy down this swaying high wire; Dylan has been doing an act since day one, every bit of it theater and every bit of it (I believe) true to who he is: Just because it’s a show doesn’t mean it isn’t deeply felt. With Sufjan, though, I’m not always seduced into believing his particular narrative. I like him when the wire sways closer to the confessional side—the Seven Swans material generally wins me over, as do things like the hushed character study in “John Wayne Gacy Jr.,” which turns the touristy nature of the 50 States project on its head and flips it into a moment of real introspection. When he’s got the full orchestra and the cheerleaders and the bevy of cultural and geographic allusions, though, I tend to find his albums to resemble Rube Goldberg rigs. They may get the job done but I can see all the pieces moving, and even though I might admire the assembly I never forget that what I’m witnessing is machinery.

Carrie & Lowell is billed as his most personal album, which it may be, though it’s worth noting that this assertion is both unproveable and also uninteresting. It’s a song cycle about familial estrangement and death and processing complicated forms of grief, and I have no reason to doubt the songs paint a real picture of Sufjan’s life and his conflicted relationship with his late mom, but the whole thing could be a crock of shit and it wouldn’t mean anything to the ultimate efficacy of the album.

And it is an effective, most moving album—for me, easily the most seductive and believable work he has made, and lovely to boot. What makes it work is its synthesis: Many critics are referring to the album as simple, and in terms of arrangement and composition maybe it is, but the way the acoustic instruments and the synthesizers play off one another so symbiotically, always tasteful but also warm and superbly melodic, is no small or simple thing at all. The album sounds restrained, thoughtful but never fussy; it betrays real musicianship but doesn’t flaunt it or allow it to get in the way of the songs.

Other things that I normally dislike about Stevens work here. His lyrics can seem self-conscious and awkward when he’s shoehorning references to the State of Illinois into each piece, but here his rather precise way with words illuminates the awkward and conflicted feelings in the songs. And his voice, which has always been a little too thin and brittle for my tastes, sounds appealingly vulnerable in this context—always on the edge of breaking, just like the songs themselves.

I do not doubt that there is much to absorb from the lyrics—I have seen think pieces about how this is a profound work of religious art, about how boldly is confronts death, about how it is basically Sufjan’s “coming out” record, etc.—but for me, right now, I find the album to be gripping as it washes over me, the overall impression of the music and words being one of adolescence’s trembling awkwardness, and about the pain of growing up quicker than you might like to. It is an arresting piece of work, which is not something I tend to say about Sufjan Stevens albums, so on that level, anyway, it surely deserves applause.

Kicking the Canon: Bob Dylan, “Bob Dylan”

bobdylanBob Dylan’s self-titled debut album turned 53 this week; it is an often underappreciated album, but one that I return to pretty regularly and find to be bountiful in revelation. (It is better than many of his all-originals albums, including all of the albums he released in the 1980s.) So when the brass at Kicking the Canon asked me to write it up, I was, of course, more than happy to oblige.

Run the Jewels and the Narrative Possibilities of Hip-Hop

rtj2-300x300Not a record review per se, but I wrote an essay about last year’s highly-touted Run the Jewels 2 over at Cahoots. I initially found the album to be a little off-putting, and it is indeed an abrasive, at times exhausting listen, but I’ve grown to be pretty impressed with its raw power. It’s not nearly as precise or as well-argued at a great Public Enemy record, but it does offer some unique narrative possibilities of its own, which is what my essay is about.

Kicking the Canon: Rod Stewart, “Every Picture Tells a Story”

everypictureLate last year, I was invited by my friend Sam C. Mac to join in a project called Kicking the Canon— an ambitious new exercise in rock journalism, sponsored by the good people at In Review Online. The project promises an expansive, revisionist take on the accepted album canon, and will include a number of writers reconsidering some storied LPs. My own first contribution– a look back at Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story, which happens to be one of my top five albums of all time– is posted now.