Posts Tagged ‘Bob Dylan’

Odyssey notes: The 1960s

June 17, 2014

My pop music odyssey, structured, you may recall, around the discography of Bob Dylan, has been making slow but steady progress over the past few months. It began in 1962 with Dylan’s self-titled debut record, and, as time goes on, is widening to include the discographies of the Beatles, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits, along with a few other things thrown in from time to time.

I recently reached the end of the 1960s, which seems a good time to pause and offer a few thoughts. This leg of the odyssey has included 15 records by Bob Dylan (including a number of live and bootlegged recordings in addition to his studio albums), 12 by the Beatles (leaving only Let It Be, from 1970, still to come in their discography), 3 each by Neil Young and Van Morrison, and 2 by Leonard Cohen.

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Of these, it is of course Bob Dylan who reigns supreme: listening to those records from the middle years of the decade again — from Freewheelin’ in 1963 up through John Wesley Harding in 1967 — it is amazing to consider his achievement. His debut album hardly prepared us for the supple, evocative, and often hilarious songwriting that showed up on Freewheelin’, and he only went from strength to strength. Sometime in 1962 he wrote “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a song whose ambition outstripped everything else he’d done, but in the years that followed it was outstripped in turn. He seemed to spiral upward, shedding one persona after another, his music changing along with him, as in a whirlwind. It is hard to imagine where he might have gone after Blonde on Blonde had a motorcycle accident not laid him low, out of sight, for an extended period in 1966-7. When he came back, he had jumped tracks again, singing with a simplicity and straightforwardness that was belied by the enigmatic songs he had written. It is a period of artistic creativity that I, at any rate, find endlessly fascinating and absorbing, and it has been a great pleasure to revisit it.

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What can it have been like to hear Astral Weeks for the first time? Van Morrison was not entirely unknown at the time: he had been the frontman for Them, and in the months leading up to Astral Weeks his record company had, without his consent, released a couple of records of solo material. But, even so, listeners could hardly have been ready for the ecstatic flights and spiritual longing of this, his official debut album. It is a kind of miracle, a one-off in a career by no means devoid of admirable achievements. Its whole spirit seems to have descended from on high, an exultation in song burst from the heart of the singer, who was, astoundingly, then just 23 years old. Despite the absence of anything resembling a single, and though it has long lingered in the shadow of the more accessible (and justly beloved) Moondance, there are few pieces of popular art that affect me more deeply and delight me more thoroughly than it does. Give me Astral Weeks, a steady rain, and the open road, and I’ll be the happiest man on earth.

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A few years ago, on a bit of a whim, I sat down and listened to the first four or five albums by Pink Floyd; Pink Floyd was a famous band whose work I did not know well, and I thought it would be instructive. I was surprised — flabbergasted, really — to find those albums almost unlistenable: the dull sonic experiments, the aimless meandering, the pretentious tedium…

Well, I had a similar sort of experience — though admittedly to a lesser degree — with Neil Young’s self-titled debut record. Though I am an admirer of Neil Young, this was an album that I had never heard, and it turns out I wasn’t missing much. My purpose right now is not to critique it, but simply to ask: how did a lacklustre record like that lead to anything else? How did it become a stepping stone to a great career, rather than a torpedo to it? What did people hear in it that they liked? Maybe I’m just spoiled by knowing the Young of the 1970s before knowing the Young of the 1960s.

Now that I think of it, I suppose much the same line of comment could be applied to Dylan’s debut record too. It barely hinted at what was to come, and that only in retrospect.

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This leg of my journey may well eventually prove to have been the most rewarding. In Rolling Stone’s list of the “Top 500 albums,” for instance, fully seven of the Top 10 are from the 1960s (and, of those, six have been part of my odyssey). Perhaps it’s all downhill from here. But I hope not.

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Meantime, here is a list of my ten favourite odyssey-albums from the 1960s, more or less in descending order:

Van Morrison — Astral Weeks (1968)
Bob Dylan — Blonde on Blonde (1966)
Bob Dylan — Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
Bob Dylan — Freewheelin’ (1963)
Bob Dylan — Live 1964 (1964)
Bob Dylan — John Wesley Harding (1967)
Beatles — Abbey Road (1969)
Bob Dylan — Another Side (1964)
Leonard Cohen — Songs (1967)
Beatles — Help! (1965)

Making a list of favourite odyssey-songs from the same period seems slightly pointless: it more or less amounts to making a list of favourite Dylan songs. But why not? It’s a cruel exercise, there being so many fine candidates, but I’ll give it a shot.

“Desolation Row” (Highway 61 Revisited)
“To Ramona” (Another Side)
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (Bringing It All Back Home)
“Visions of Johanna” (Blonde on Blonde)
“All Along the Watchtower” (John Wesley Harding)
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” (Freewheelin’)
“I Want You” (Blonde on Blonde)
“One Too Many Mornings” (The Times They Are A-Changin’)
“Love Minus Zero / No Limit” (Bringing It All Back Home)
“Suzanne” — Leonard Cohen

Looking at that list, I realize it probably doesn’t overlap much with a standard list of Dylan’s “best songs”: no “Blowin’ in the Wind”, no “Like a Rolling Stone”, no “Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”. But there are not meant to be his best songs, by some indeterminate measure, but only my favourite songs, tried and true over many years of listening. And look! one non-Dylan song snuck onto the list in spite of all.

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And now, turning to face forward, and putting on my bell-bottoms, I see in the distance Dylan painting a Self-Portrait, Neil Young reaping a Harvest, Van Morrison breakfasting on Tupelo Honey, Leonard Cohen donning New Skin for an Old Ceremony, and Tom Waits, who until now has been warming up his crooning voice in the wings, I see serenading Nighthawks at the Diner. It’s the 1970s, and I’m cautious but resolute.

Last piece of gum, Jamaican rum, etc.

March 22, 2014

The comment thread to a recent post brought to my attention Rolling Stone‘s list of greatest rock albums. In the Top 10 one finds both the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and (much the better of the two!) Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Reading through the blurbs about each album, I was surprised to learn that there is a connection between John Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood” and Dylan’s “Fourth Time Around” (which appear, respectively, on the two records in question). Since one of the aims of my pop music odyssey is to explore influences between the singers and songwriters I am following, this seems a good case study.

There are contradictory reports about the direction of influence. Some say that Dylan wrote “Fourth Time Around,” played it for the Beatles, and that Lennon subsequently wrote “Norwegian Wood” as a kind of homage, trying to incorporate aspects of Dylan’s songwriting style. Others say that Lennon wrote “Norwegian Wood” first and that Dylan, hearing it as attempt to ape his style — nobody denies that Lennon wrote it with Dylan very much in mind — wrote “Fourth Time Around” as a rejoinder and, possibly, as a rebuke. Lennon was allegedly left shaken by the final lines of the song (“I never asked for your crutch / Now don’t ask for mine”), which he took, rightly or wrongly, as directed at him.

Although I don’t know that I’ve had made the connection between these two songs without reading about the background, there are similarities. One of the striking things about “Norwegian Wood,” for instance, is that its meaning is unusually opaque — unusually for the Beatles, that is, who had made their fame on straightforward love songs. Dylan, on the other hand, was the master of opacity at this point in his career, and “Fourth Time Around” is a fine example of his craft. In both songs, despite the occluding surrealism and the missing details, I think we can descry a lovers’ quarrel — much milder in the case of “Norwegian Wood,” but still hinted at (“this bird has flown”). The melodies are even similar, each with a lilting motif that turns back on itself. Dylan’s melody actually seems to move in a circle, fittingly given the title of the song.

Anyway, let’s listen to both songs. Which do you prefer?

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Dylan’s studio recordings are hard to find on YouTube; this version of “Fourth Time Around” is from a 1966 concert in London.

Favourites of 2012: Film

December 27, 2012

I didn’t go often to the cinema in 2012, but I did manage to see quite a few films at home. I’ve divided the films below into those which were new — either in theater or on DVD — in 2012, and those which were older but which I saw for the first time this year.

I have said before that I am a film-going dullard, with little innate feel for the medium and a poor acquaintance with its history. This year I made a concerted effort to overcome some of this ignorance by watching a number of “classics”. I saw films by great directors like Jean Renoir (The Rules of the Game), Orsen Welles (The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil), Yasujirō Ozu (Tokyo Story), Werner Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God), and even Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown). I watched classic film noir (Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep), classic western (The Searchers), classic romance (Roman Holiday), classic musical (Singin’ in the Rain), and classic horror (The Uninvited, The Innocents, The Haunting). I watched adaptations of Shakespeare spanning nearly 80 years of cinema, from the 1935 A Midsummer Night’s Dream up through Laurence Olivier’s 1955 Richard III to Roman Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth and Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 Coriolanus. I staged for myself a Woody Allen mini-festival, watching in sequence a sampling of his more highly-regarded films (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanours, Match Point, and Midnight in Paris). I saw quirky little films by auteurs (Brian Linklater’s Bernie and Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress) and massive blockbusters by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises) and whoever-the-perpetrator-was (The Avengers).

Sad to say, my affinity for films with broadly classic status continued to have low valence. With a few exceptions, noted below, the famous pictures in the list above mostly failed to resonate strongly with me. Naturally I am willing to accept that this is due to my own insensibility. (Although I will say that how anyone could think The Searchers one of the greatest films is beyond my powers of imagination to grasp.)

Unquestionably my favourite film of the year was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which I saw again on DVD. Since this was also my favourite film of 2011, I will not belabour the point, but simply direct interested readers to last year’s list. Next to that magnificent achievement (the film, not my list) the films I am about to discuss appear wan and pale. But if one can forget about Malick for a while, colour begins to seep back into them and they can be enjoyed on their own terms.

To the business at hand!

Recent Films

Midnight_in_Paris_PosterMidnight in Paris
(Woody Allen, 2011)

I did not have any clear idea of what to expect from Woody Allen’s film about Paris in the 1920s. I knew that it starred Owen Wilson in a lead role, which would normally have led me to give it a wide berth, but the reviews were strong and the film sounded appealing. I had seen only one other of Allen’s films prior to this one — it was Annie Hall — and that many years ago, so even my sense of what a Woody Allen picture is like was hazy. In some sense, that may have been an advantage, for I now see that Midnight in Paris is a fairly atypical Allen film, and in a good way.

It is atypical in that it is genuinely light-hearted, and willing to risk a sense of nostalgic wonder without letting Allen’s besetting vice — hair-trigger self-consciousness — get in the way. It is true that the film eventually comes around to seeing itself as a kind of psychoanalytic-therapy-by-fantasy, but even this is done in such a winsome manner — thanks, in so small degree, to a surprisingly endearing performance by Wilson — that it does not spoil the fun.

The basic premise of the story is that Wilson, a struggling writer on a visit to Paris with his fiancée and her family, is magically transported back to the Paris of the 1920s, a time and place that he has always considered “golden”, and where he meets many of his cultural idols, such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. (The Wikipedia page gives a nice run-down of the famous real-life figures who are portrayed on screen. I had hoped for a glimpse of Stravinsky, but I was disappointed. Probably they were unable to find anyone ugly enough to play him convincingly.) He is so enraptured by this experience that he is tempted to remain in the past, but reflection on this temptation leads to his learning a Very Valuable Lesson.

I suppose one could see the film as a kind of progressive’s catechism about the evils of “living in the past”, but it did not play that way to me. The nostalgia, ostensibly denounced in the end, was too sincerely conveyed to be entirely effaced, and even the denunciation was handled with a winking ineptitude that softened the blow. I came away from the film with a spring in my step.

Take_Shelter_posterTake Shelter
(Jeff Nichols, 2011)

This is a quiet and spare little film that plays like a realistic domestic drama but turns out to be a fable, or something. The story charts the struggles of a young family in rural America as their husband/father descends slowly into madness, prey to delusions and paranoia and troubled by ominous dreams. It is played unsensationally, and is all the more frightening for it. How would you manage if the one you loved began making poor judgements that gradually imperiled the family’s livelihood and safety? At what point would you realize that something was seriously wrong? How would you broach the subject with him or her? How would this behaviour, and these fears, affect relationships within the family? These questions are all raised by the script, and made compelling by superb performances from Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. The third main presence in the film, uncredited, is the sky above the family farm. The film’s range is admittedly limited, more or less striking a sustained note of brooding tension, but it is remarkably effective given its slim means. See it with friends and family and you will be arguing about the film’s ending until well into the night.

The official trailer for the film gives too much away, so here is another, made by a YouTuber named Peter Gergis:

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Older Films

double-indemnityDouble Indemnity
(Billy Wilder, 1944)

After many more or less failed attempts to learn to appreciate older films (“older” here meaning, say, more than fifty years old), I decided this year to try a different tack: genre films. I hoped that the familiar conventional elements of such films might pave the way for me to some extent. I believe this strategy has worked; at least, I thoroughly enjoyed this film.

Double Indemnity is considered a classic example of film noir, and with good reason. Based on the novel by James M. Cain, the screenplay was co-written by Billy Wilder and none other than Raymond Chandler. The dialogue is as hard-bitten as one could hope for, and the cinematography, rendered (obviously) in atmospheric black and white, is a perfect match for the story.

It is a crime drama, but the drama derives not from suspense as to who committed the crime — we are told this in the opening scene — nor even as to how the crime was carried out — though it is true that much of the plot is involved with unfolding the (rather implausible) details. As Roger Ebert points out in his review of the film for his “Great Movies” series, in the end the film’s fascination turns on the character and motives of the two central figures (played by Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck). What do they see in one another? Are they in love, or is one using the other? Why is each willing to trust the other? (Does each trust the other?) What do they really want? And are we, as the audience, expected to sympathize with them, or is the film a dark comedy in which we watch, with a certain satisfaction, as the foolish pave their own path to destruction? You tell me.

This was not the only Billy Wilder film I watched this year. The Marilyn Monroe comedy Some Like it Hot has a strong reputation, but I much preferred Double Indemnity.

roman-holiday-posterRoman Holiday
(William Wyler, 1953)

What a wonderful surprise! Here we have a charming romance with a winsome lead couple (in Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck), a spectacular backdrop (Rome, of course, and gloriously so), an intriguing premise, and a bittersweet finish that wrings the heart. Hepburn plays a modern-day princess who, fed up with endless days of official protocols and rigorous scheduling, escapes from her handlers to enjoy an incognito day of adventure in Rome. It is impossible to imagine a modern film observing the decorum and achieving the dignity of this romantic fantasy. The film floats on an air of sweet fun, pointing up at every turn the blessings of the simple life, and it avoids a conventional “Hollywood ending” in favour of a tough-minded, but very right, example of love and sacrifice. Hepburn is marvellous; I hadn’t seen her on screen before, but I am now compiling a list of her other films for future viewing. Would I have liked Roman Holiday as much if it had been filmed in another city? I don’t have to answer that.

the-innocentsThe Innocents
(Jack Clayton, 1961)

It was Martin Scorcese’s praise of this film that attracted me. I have no liking for graphic horror, but this promised to be a quiet, oblique affair with an undercurrent of supernatural tension. The story is about two children who return home from boarding school to take up their studies under a new governess on a large, remote English estate. The children are strange, eerie, and the governess is slowly drawn into a frightening mystery. The film is unusually unsettling, not for anything explicit, for for subtle touches that accumulate. The young girl, in particular, made my hair stand on end: something about her eyes and her voice. To be honest, I had reached a point in the film where, too frightened to continue, I was going to turn it off, when one of the characters spoke a name that I recognized: “Peter Quint”. Relief washed over me: I realized I was watching an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Fortified with new courage — not because James’ story is not scary, but because I knew I was on terrain I had trodden before without lasting damage — I was able to see it through. It’s a good film, with an uncanny atmosphere, recommended to those with a taste for such things.

match-pointMatch Point
(Woody Allen, 2005)

One doesn’t expect a thriller from Woody Allen, and this film, about which I knew nothing prior to watching apart from the general acclaim it had garnered, took me by surprise. It is about a middle-class tennis instructor in London who, by a series of fortunate events, marries into a wealthy family. He then commits an act that imperils both his marriage and his new social status, and to protect himself he goes on to commit even worse acts, desperately trying to keep the consequences at bay. The general set-up is similar in many respects to Allen’s earlier Crimes and Misdemeanors (which I watched later), but in my opinion Match Point is much the better of the two.

I admire the film’s ability to make gripping drama out of very ordinary materials. Early in the film four characters meet together for coffee, a meeting such as might happen thousands of times on any given day in a large city. Yet it is from the dynamics of those relationships, and nothing more, that the whole drama of the story unfolds. I also admire the film’s portrayal of the snowball effect of decisions and actions; one evil act contains within it the seed of all that follows, and the effort to cut off that growth only makes things worse and worse. Finally, the plotting of Match Point is superb: the structure, with all of its considerable intricacies and cunning diversions, fits together like clockwork. Allen deserved his Academy Award nomination for the screenplay.

Many commentators on the film have remarked on its cynical ending, and, it is true, one could read it as deeply pessimistic. It is probably intended to be read that way. Nonetheless I think it leaves enough unspoken to permit a more ambiguous interpretation. It is the sort of film for which one’s final interpretation rests to a great extent on how one interprets a facial expression in the closing frames. Quite apart from anything else, I cannot help but admire the craftsmanship of any film that can bring things to such a fine point.

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Other films I enjoyed, but not so much as to write about them here:
  • Recent: Argo (2012), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Damsels in Distress (2011), Drive (2011), Moneyball (2011), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
  • Older: The Way (2010), Ponyo (2008), The Ninth Day (2004), The Thin Red Line (1998), Annie Hall (1977), The Song of Bernadette (1943)

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Finally, I’d like to say a few words about two excellent music-related “movies” that I saw this year.

ballet-russesStravinsky and the Ballets Russes records live performances of two of Stravinsky’s early ballets, The Firebird, which premiered in 1910, and The Rite of Spring, from 1913. In this modern production from the St. Petersburg Mariisnky Theatre, they have tried to reproduce the choreography and costumes of the famous original productions in Paris. Now, I am not one to sit contentedly through a ballet, but I found these productions fascinating from start to finish. The Firebird, Stravinsky’s first major commission, comes across as a startlingly beautiful work; it is far easier to appreciate the music’s frequent changes in texture and tempi when one sees the accompanying dances, which (and I can hardly believe I am saying this) are really splendid. The Rite of Spring is another beast altogether. One of the surprising things Richard Taruskin said in his discussion of this piece and its famous premiere in the Oxford History of Western Music is that the riot which accompanied the first performance may well have been in response to the choreography rather than (as is usually supposed) the music. Seeing this performance convinced me that he may well be right: the dancing is crude, formless, chaotic, replacing elegance for violence at every opportunity. It is easy to see why lovers of ballet, which until then had been a genre nearly entirely insulated from the incursions of modernism, would have taken offense. I won’t say that I liked it, but it was very interesting to see, and if you love Stravinsky I would say this is probably essential viewing.

Bob Dylan - The Other Side Of The Mirror  [2007]-frontSecond is The Other Side of the Mirror, which documents Bob Dylan’s famous Newport Folk Festival concerts in 1963, 1964, and 1965. The footage is offered largely without commentary, so this is simply an opportunity to hear and see Dylan during what was perhaps the most artistically fertile period of his life. It is frankly astounding to consider how much he changed in those few years, morphing from the earnest strummer of folk tunes in 1963 to the enigmatic bard of 1965. We also see more of the infamous 1965 electric set than was shown in Scorcese’s No Direction Home (if memory serves). Warmly recommended to those who love Bob Dylan.

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Anything I missed? As always, comments are welcome.

Favourites of 2012: Popular music

December 19, 2012

Truth be told, I heard relatively little popular music this year. I therefore cannot claim that my selections are anything like a “best of the year”. But these are the records that occupied my attention more than any others.

(Note: Several of the videos in this post are prefaced by short advertisements. I apologize for this. If I could get around them, I would.)

CohenOldIdeasOld Ideas
Leonard Cohen

He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tune
(“Going Home”)

I do not know if we shall have another record from Leonard Cohen, who is now nearly 80 years old, but if it should happen that we do not then Old Ideas will stand as a fitting leave-taking. The songs seem to come to us from one perched at the boundary between life and death, looking first at one, then at the other, calmly but not complacently, and trying to say something fitting to the occasion.

Given the way these songs circle ceaselessly around loss and death, it is perhaps surprising to find them also enlivened by sly humour, stately grace, and a steady hope. For Cohen, it seems, the prospect of death provokes serious reflection but not despair, and he approaches us, his audience, not as one sliding into oblivion but as a prophet — albeit a reluctant one (which is the only true kind) — who can speak with confidence because he speaks the truth.

To say that he “speaks” is closer to the truth than you might expect, for some of the songs are indeed close to being simple readings of his poetry rather than songs sung. The music, which is never of very great interest on its own merits, sometimes settles into the merest background accompaniment. That is fine with me. And though I will not claim that Old Ideas is an unqualified success — the first half is notably stronger than the second, and that ought not to be true of a bona fide masterpiece — it is a record that I believe ranks with Leonard Cohen’s best, and that is no small matter. It is my favourite record of the year. [Music Note]

O see the darkness yielding
That tore the light apart.
Come, healing of the reason.
Come, healing of the heart.
(“Come Healing”)

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mumford-and-sons-album-babelBabel
Mumford & Sons

When Marcus Mumford first came to my attention a few years ago, following the release of his band’s debut record, I was surprised that he was possible. His songs, dressed up in attractive if fairly nondescript roots music, revealed a mind and heart of rare qualities. Here was a young man, still in his early 20s, writing songs about purity of heart, about grace, and about his desire to live in the truth. It was as though he had somehow gone around the moral and spiritual squalor of contemporary life by another route, emerging onto the stage holding a candle in the darkness, ready to sing about hope and a happy ending.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the songs struck a chord with young audiences, and in the several years since that first record became a surprise hit, Mumford & Sons have been on a wild ride, thrust into the limelight, playing to sold out stadiums, and lionized by taste-makers. They have been rubbing elbows with people who matter. Mumford himself went and married an edgy Hollywood actress. My great fear in advance of hearing Babel was that this success, and this new social status, and the scrutiny that goes with them, would have quenched that good and courageous spirit that had attracted me in the beginning.

These worries were not entirely in vain. If I am interpreting the record well, it is fairly clear that the success of Sigh No More was destabilizing in much the way I had feared. “I’m a cad, but I’m not a fraud,” he sings in “Whispers in the Dark”, “I set out to serve the Lord.” So the memory is there, but this new record is notably darker than the last, the songs populated by ghosts and wanderers making their way through trackless wastes, out of balance, lost and labouring under a confusion of tongues. Hope is not absent, but the traveller’s song is no longer a confident “I will hold on hope”, but a plaintive “Give me hope”.

The good news is that Mumford himself seems aware that something precious is under threat, and he is not content. The record’s lead single, “I Will Wait”, shows us a man broken-down and exhausted by “days of dust” who falls in a heap with this prayer on his lips: “Tame my flesh, and fix my eyes”, and who asks for something that only seems contradictory: “a tethered mind freed from the lies”. At several points on the record we encounter a similar wish, for an anchor, a secure foothold in a storm. In “Hopeless Wanderer” the wayward pilgrim is encouraged by these words: “Don’t hold a glass over the flame / Don’t let your heart grow cold / I will call you by name / I will share your road”. And there is reason to hope that this encouragement has been taken to heart, and that all shall yet be well. “Raise my hands,” they sing, “Paint my spirit gold, and bow my head. Keep my heart slow.” Keep my heart slow. It is the prayer of a man who has not lost sight of the most important things.

Musically, Babel ploughs much the same field as did Sigh No More; call it folk-rock, or call it pop music in acoustic garb. I’ll not quarrel. There are, in my judgement, no songs on Babel as immediately memorable as “The Cave” or “Little Lion Man” from their first record, but, taking the record as a whole, the quality of the songwriting has in general improved; fewer peaks, but also fewer valleys.

At the same time, some apparent limitations to their range are becoming apparent. The music has a tendency to bounce between two poles: adagio and piano, on one hand, and allegro and forte, on the other, with not much in between. It becomes predictable, and I’d like to hear something more supple from them on subsequent records. It also feels increasingly clear that the name of the group is all too apt: Marcus Mumford is the man among boys, and without him there would be little reason to pay attention. (Admittedly, I say this without any knowledge of how their songwriting happens; I give my impressions as a listener.) The musicianship, too, is not all that it might be; I cannot play the piano, but I expect that in two or three days I could learn to play the keyboard bits on these songs. Taken together, these considerations point to a lack of depth, and I am not altogether sure that his Sons are going to help Mumford reach his full potential. Nonetheless, for a sophomore record — often a major hurdle for any band that meets with great success their first time out — Babel is promising, and I’ll keep listening.

Here is a live performance of “Ghosts that we Knew”:

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taylor-swift-red-album-1350575305Red
Taylor Swift

This is getting complicated. Ms. Swift’s previous record was — whatever the musical cognoscenti may say — some kind of middle-brow masterpiece that bounced from strength to tweeny-bopper strength, but which continued her gradual migration away from her country sweetheart roots. Not that she ceased to be a sweetheart, of course, but the music was definitely shedding whatever perfunctory twang and drawl it once had. For some of us this was an unhappy trend, though it was hard to be too anxious when sated on such irresistible confections. Then last year she appeared on the Hunger Games soundtrack alongside The Civil Wars singing “Safe and Sound”, a pleasantly creaky little song co-written with T Bone Burnett (!); in even my fondest imaginings I’d not dared to hope for such a thing, and it raised a question that suddenly seemed a genuine question: what would she do next?

Red answers the question, but not in a simple way. She’s doing this, that, and the other: the record, which clocks in at over an hour (even without the [not-to-be-missed] bonus tracks), sounds like two or three records thrown together. Songs that would have been at home on her previous few records, like the jaunty “Stay Stay Stay” or the smiling-through-the-tears ballad “Begin Again”, are placed cheek-by-jowl with material that stretches hard toward a trendy pop sound (“State of Grace”, “Treacherous”). After Speak Now, for which she wrote all the songs alone, Red is a real “Swift & Friends” affair: there are several flat-footed duets with male partners hopelessly overmatched by her sparkle, a half-dozen co-writers, and a similar number of producers lending a hand.

Which brings us to the nefarious handiwork of two vandals named Martin & Shellback, enlisted by Ms. Swift to produce a handful of songs (“I Knew you Were Trouble”, “22”, and the monster hit “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”). These songs are cause for concern, for in them Swift’s country roots are not only entirely effaced but actually defaced by pop-monster studio gee-whizzery, and in them the neighbourhood girl for whom we felt such wholesome affection struts forth bearing a disturbing resemblance to those dime-a-dozen robo-divas one hears too loudly in shoe stores. “I Knew You Were Trouble” is by far the worst example of this; it makes me ill. I will confess a grudging affection for the groove of “We Are Never Ever…”, which retains a sense of fun (and the cheerful one-take music video will, I predict, have a long life as a favourite of dancing-animal-loving children), but I cannot finally approve of any song sung in a valley girl dialect.

Despite those reservations, there is much on the record to admire. The quality of the songwriting, which has improved markedly with each of her new albums, continues to trend upward. Not that she is (or ever will be) Karen Peris, but within the parameters typical of mainstream pop Taylor Swift is a songwriter to reckon with. Her strength has always been in her expansive melodies, and though to my ear that element is less dazzling on Red than it was previously, she has stepped up in other areas. She is, for instance, at the age of 22, taking strides to shed her teenager-oriented reputation; if her principal audience until now has been teenaged girls and their mothers, Red seems directed more at the moms than the girls. Seeing this, I am inclined to relax my complaints about aspects of this record: growing up is hard to do, and who among us wasn’t a wee bit awkward as we made the transition?

dylan-tempestTempest
Bob Dylan

Dylan’s latest is an ambitious and lively record that I really want to love, but somehow cannot. It is his best record since Modern Times and maybe earlier (pre-modern times?), with generally fine songwriting, superb musicianship, and loads of phlegm. He cannot here be said to be resting on laurels; the record is by turns funny, jaunty, haunting, and disturbing — it is certainly not boring. Yet I find that I do not much enjoy it, and for me I think the principal reason is the dominance, in the music, of the blues. The blues are not my thing, especially in long form. (Quite a few of the songs on Tempest are longer than 7 minutes, which is too long to be sustained by a blues riff.) Also, the title song, about the sinking of the Titanic and weighing in at nearly a quarter-hour in duration, is off-putting; the words are disturbing, but Dylan sings them in a casual, even jovial, manner that makes him sound like a tubercular Bad Santa. To my regret I cannot enjoy it.

dement-singSing the Delta
Iris Dement

It had been over fifteen years since Iris Dement’s last record of original material. She hadn’t been entirely quiet during that time — she sang some celebrated duets with John Prine and she issued an enjoyable hymn-sing — but some of us had been wondering if we’d ever hear new songs from her again. The mere existence of this record, therefore, is cause for some celebration. The chief reason to hear it is the same as it has ever been with her: that voice, which is one of the wonders of American music. It is not conventionally pretty, but it is unforgettable; call her the Callas of country.

The songs themselves are a mixed bag, but with a singer of this stature you take the good (“Before the Colors Fade”) with the bad (“The Night I Learned How Not to Pray”) and count your blessings. Sing the Delta certainly doesn’t replace 1993’s My Life as the first Iris Dement record everyone should own and give to their friends, but it is something to be thankful for in any case.

I note from her Wikipedia page that since her last record she was divorced from her first husband and re-married to Greg Brown. Obviously no mere aesthetic consideration could cast a divorce in a happy light, but I will say that I’d give my left kidney to hear those two singing together.

***

Songs That Meant Something To Me This Year: Loudon Wainwright III & Ramblin’ Jack Elliot: “Double Lifetime”; Josh Garrels: “Farther Along”; Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson: “The Quiet Life”; Dan Bern: “I Need You”; The Avett Brothers, “Winter in my Heart”.

Mama, You Been On My Mind

March 2, 2012

I was all set to write a little something about Dylan’s “Mama, You Been On My Mind”, a song he first recorded during the Another Side of Bob Dylan sessions in 1964, but which wasn’t released until the first volume of the Bootleg Series came out in the 1990s. I have no idea why he left it off the record in the first place — he had a sly way of doing that even with songs that rank with his finest work (think “Blind Willie McTell”). It’s a song that didn’t much impress me at first, but my admiration has increased over the years. Today, I would actually take it over almost any of the songs that he did put on that record; “To Ramona” is the exception. It’s a wonderfully complex song about a failed romance, one of those miracles of compression in which Dylan managed to put a world of thought and feeling into a few minutes of popular song.

So anyway, the point of this post was going to be to say that this is a great song, much underrated, and deserving of wider exposure. Then I started looking for a performance of the song on YouTube, and I discovered that it has been covered by luminaries like Joan Baez, George Harrison, Johnny Cash, Rod Stewart, Jack Johnson, and Jeff Buckley, to name just a few. In other words, it’s not all that neglected after all. I’m happy, I really am.

Moreover, Dylan’s own version of the song is not available online, so far as I can tell. (His lawyers have eagle eyes.) But I can’t get away without playing at least one version, so here is my favourite of the covers that I have heard: Jack Johnson’s laid back but groovy account, which comes from the I’m Not There soundtrack. He does something nice with the song toward the end, having it blend into a recitation of a portion of Dylan’s poem “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie”; unfortunately this clip doesn’t include that part. Nonetheless, the strength of the song comes through pretty well here.

Septagenarian Bob

May 24, 2011

Mr. Bob Dylan celebrates his seventieth birthday today. In some respects this is hard to believe — we all remember that young man singing about his girl from the north country, and it comes as a shock to think what time, all of a sudden, has done to him — but in another sense Dylan is coming into his own as he ages, for he has always been an old man in his music, as old as the hills.

Happy birthday, Mr. Bob. May you have many more years.

Original versions of Dylan’s songs are hard to find on sites like YouTube, but here is John Doe covering “Pressing On”, which is from the Saved record.

Favourites of 2010: Popular music

December 29, 2010

Mumford & Sons: Sigh No More
My palm this year goes to the debut album from Mumford & Sons, a folk-rock outfit from the UK. I liked it the first time I heard it, and it has continued to grow on me throughout the year. In Marcus Mumford they have a wonderful singer. What really sets the record apart from the competition, however, is the songwriting. It is rare to hear a rock album in which themes of truth, hope, grace, and purity of heart recur, and that fact alone makes Sigh No More rather surprising and special. There is something about the spiritual vitality of this record that reminds me, ever so gently, of a certain Irish band that still hasn’t found what it’s looking for. In the beginning I turned to Sigh No More simply for good music; now I find I go to it for sobriety and refreshment of spirit. No-one is more surprised than I am. [Listen to samples]

Here they are performing “Roll Away Your Stone”. This song starts rather quietly but gathers steam as it goes.

Bob Dylan: Bootleg Series, Volume 9 –
The Witmark Demos: 1962-64

A long time ago, when the world was still young, a collection of Bob Dylan’s early, unpublished songs was issued on a disc called The Bootleg Series, Volume 1. That disc was bread and butter to me. You can imagine my excitement, therefore, when I learned that Volume 9 in the now encyclopedic Bootleg Series was going to revisit those songs again, and the sessions in which they were recorded, issuing two new discs of previously unreleased material. When you love something, the prospect of having “more of the same” is tantalizing indeed.

As it turned out, I found Volume 9 not quite as revelatory as I had hoped: most of the very best material, it seems, had been judiciously chosen for inclusion on Volume 1, so that what remained for Volume 9 has the character of something like musical flotsam and jetsam. Quite a few of the songs here are actually the same as on Volume 1, though in slightly different, and somewhat inferior, versions. In some cases the songs break off in mid-stream, Dylan remarking that he can’t remember the rest. Some of his famous songs are given here in early versions, in a few cases with piano accompaniment: ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’, ‘Don’t Think Twice’, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin” among them.

I will say this: if you have not heard the Volume 1 recordings, I do believe that this collection will blow your mind. Even in those early days, Dylan’s songwriting was terrific, and that voice was like a force of nature. In these songs we hear him sending exploratory roots down into the bedrock of American song, and from those roots, as we all know, a mighty oak would grow. Even if I judge that these Volume 9 recordings take second place to Volume 1, this is still an altogether remarkable collection, and one of the best things I heard this year. [Listen to samples]

Sufjan Stevens: All Delighted People EP
It seems that the Fifty States Project is dead, and that is a disappointment to me. Sufjan Stevens, after writing two records on Michigan and Illinois, respectively, promised that his life’s work would be to bring each and every state in the union under his musical wing. Such promises must now, I suppose, be attributed to the rashness of youth, for after a five-year hiatus he issued two new records in the closing months of 2010 — the All Delighted People EP in August and The Age of Adz in October — and neither has anything to do with the Fifty States.

Of the two new albums, The Age of Adz is undoubtedly the more ambitious and sweeping. Unfortunately — and I say this with real regret — it is a horrid, beastly thing. He has taken the songs, which for all I know were perfectly good songs, and thrown every kind of cacophonic device into the mix: computer bleeps, static blips, electrical feedback, old-school synthesizers, and, worst of all, drum machines programmed to peck out the herkiest, jerkiest rhythms you ever tried to lay ears on. The result is distressing, and I struggled to listen through to the end.

All Delighted People is another matter, thank goodness. As usual with Stevens the arrangements are elaborate and detailed, but at least here it sounds like music: there are recognizable instruments, and rhythms to which one can tap. There is a celebratory, and even ecstatic, feeling to the record, and he is painting on a larger canvas than before, not only because the songs are long, but conceptually, too, they are moving in a larger space than we have heard from him before. It is hugely ambitious, and he unbuttons a little, which is nice to hear. The guitar freak-out that opens the 17-minute closing song is something we would not have found (and did not find) on his last few records. All in all, it’s a fascinating record that shows that this talented musician still hasn’t reached the end of his tether. The Age of Adz obviously raises the troubling question of what we might expect from him in the future, but I’ll not look a gift-horse in the mouth: All Delighted People is delightful. [Listen to samples]

Taylor Swift: Speak Now
Say what you want about Ms. Swift and the legions of adolescent girls who propelled her, once again, to the top of the chart. The simple truth is that her songs have more hooks than a box of fishing tackle. From the first listen I found Speak Now pretty irresistible.

There is something very likable about Taylor Swift: a girlish charm, an impish sense of humour, a good-natured lack of self-regard, and, without wishing to be overly moralistic, there is something wholesome about her too; she believes in true love, and hers are romances in which marriage and children are the natural telos. It is enough to annoy the heck out of the grey lady feminists, which is great, and it is also something that young girls ought to hear. If it takes an earful of sugar to help that medicine go down, well, I have no objections. It is true that she loses her temper once or twice on this new record (“There is nothing I do better than revenge”), but this is balanced off by moments of moral counsel (“Why ya gotta be so mean?”).

I’m having fun. Well, it’s a fun record. For the first time she wrote all the songs herself, which is itself a noteworthy achievement since every Nashville mother’s son is clamouring to get a song onto one of her records. And, to give Ms. Swift her due, the songwriting on Speak Now is considerably stronger and more consistent than on her previous records. A song like ‘Long Live’, a lively reflection on fame and friendship, would have overreached her ability before; not this time. [Listen to samples]

Honourable mention: Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone [Listen to samples]; Innocence Mission, My Room in the Trees [Listen to samples]

Music about music

November 22, 2010

Today is the feast of St. Cecilia, the patroness of music and musicians. To celebrate the day, I thought to put together an ‘audio gallery’ of music about music — that is, music that in one way or another celebrates musicians, music-making, or music itself. I drew up a preliminary list of 12 or 15 pieces, but I ran out of time before I could prepare them all. It is probably just as well.

I will proceed in chronological order, more or less, starting with something medieval. Here is Musicalis scientia / Scientia laudabili, a witty two-part motet that is a dialogue between Music and Rhetoric. Music, singing the upper part, begins by listing the names of a long string of music theorists, and then addresses Rhetoric as follows:

I wish to greet them, and observe
Their rules, entrusted to you
To use as you please
So your rhythms may not be contrary
To the rhetorical model
Or to the grammatical form.

Meanwhile (for this dialogue is really a double monologue, with both parts sung simultaneously), Rhetoric begins in this way:

To that praiseworthy science,
Venerable music,
The science of rhetoric sends greetings
With every reverence.

and then goes on to complain about music that is written for too many voices, which results in “simple things being divided”, and asks that Music provide a remedy. And Music does: the two voices of this piece come together periodically in a complex rhythmic interplay called “hocketing”, in which the voices alternate notes in a single melodic line. It is a nice example of a divided thing being made simple. As I said, it’s very witty, and it has a nice swing to it too:

Henry Purcell’s Music for a While is perhaps my personal favourite of all the pieces gathered in this post. It’s a beautiful, melancholy song about the enchanting power of music, written as incidental music for a play.  My favourite performance of the song is this one, by Alfred Deller.

Music for a while
Shall all your cares beguile.
Wond’ring how your pains were eas’d
And disdaining to be pleas’d
Till Alecto free the dead
From their eternal bands,
Till the snakes drop from her head,
And the whip from out her hands.

Schubert’s song An die Musik is another favourite, a lovely tribute to the consolation music brings.  Here it is sung by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, with Gerald Moore at the piano, from a 1961 broadcast. A translation of the text is as follows:

To Music

Oh lovely Art, in how many grey hours,
When life’s fierce orbit ensnared me,
Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Carried me away into a better world!

How often has a sigh escaping from your harp,
A sweet, sacred chord of yours
Opened up for me the heaven of better times,
Oh lovely Art, for that I thank you!

Vaughan Williams wrote several pieces about music.  His Serenade to Music, written for a group of 16 soloists, sets the passage about music from Act V of The Merchant of Venice.

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb that thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
WW Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear,
And draw her home with music.
I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
The reason is, your spirits are attentive
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Music! hark!
It is your music of the house.
Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day.
Silence bestows that virtue on it
How many things by season season’d are
To their right praise and true perfection!
Peace, ho! the moon sleeps with Endymion
And would not be awak’d. Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

Here is the closing section, beginning at “Music! hark!”, in a performance led by Sir Adrian Boult.  This video very helpfully includes subtitles:

(The earlier part of the piece can be heard here.)

Benjamin Britten (whose birthday is today, incidentally) also wrote a number of pieces that could have qualified for inclusion in this post. I am selecting a portion of his Rejoice in the Lamb, a setting of the strange and wonderful poetry of Christopher Smart. In this section a group of musical instruments are summoned to the praise of God, and then we hear of the “magnitude and melody” of God’s own harp, which brings peace to the living and the dead.

For the instruments are by their rhimes,
For the shawm rhimes are lawn fawn and the like.
For the shawm rhimes are moon boon and the like.
For the harp rhimes are sing ring and the like.
For the harp rhimes are ring string and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are bell well and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are toll soul and the like.
For the flute rhimes are tooth youth and the like.
For the flute rhimes are suit mute and the like.
For the bassoon rhimes are pass class and the like.
For the dulcimer rhimes are grace place and the like.
For the clarinet rhimes are clean seen and the like.
For the trumpet rhimes are sound bound and the like.

For the trumpet of God is a blessed intelligence
And so are all the instruments in Heav’n.
For God the Father Almighty plays upon the harp
Of stupendous magnitude and melody.
For at that time malignity ceases
And the devils themselves are at peace.
For this time is perceptible to man
By a remarkable stillness and serenity of soul.

**

I wanted to include some popular music in this post as well, but I have had a very difficult time coming up with anything. My wife, whose tastes in music are almost orthogonal to my own, thought of this song by Natasha Bedingfield, which is about how hard it is to write a song. That’s witty enough for me to overlook the drum loops:

The only other popular song I could think of is Bob Dylan’s “Lay Down Your Weary Tune”. I love this song. In each stanza a different part of nature — the wind, the rain, the river — serenades the weary traveller with a music that surpasses all art. Come to think of it, this song would make a decent lullaby:

Lay down your weary tune
Lay down the song you strum
And rest yourself ‘neath the strength of strings
No voice can hope to hum

If you can think of anything else that could have been included in this post (I can), please leave a comment.

Around and about: video edition

November 10, 2010

Time has been short of late, but here are some interesting things I’ve come across:

  • Another volume in Dylan’s Bootleg Series was released late in October.  This one, Volume 9: The Witmark Demos, is a 2-disc set of early recordings. Some of the 47 songs are familiar from Dylan’s early records, though they are given here in different versions, and a fair number were previously heard, also in slightly different versions, on the Bootleg Series, Volume 1. Even so, this is a wonderful collection. Dylan was in his early 20s when he wrote the songs, and we can hear him trying his hand at the various genres of American roots music. Not all of the songs are of the highest quality, but many are very good, and that voice.
  • Speaking of Dylan, the bad boys at Korrektiv have dug up a project from a few years back called Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan, in which gospel music luminaries tackled Dylan’s overtly Christian songs.  It sounds terrific. 
  • Speaking of gospel, I have been listening a lot lately to Mavis Staples’ recent record You Are Not Alone, and I am loving it. Here is the title track in a spare arrangement.  Jeff Tweedy is on guitar, but it’s the voice and the song that are the real attractions: 
  • Speaking of attractions, the teenaged girls of the world and I were anticipating Taylor Swift’s latest record, which dropped a week or two ago, and has since sold gazillions of copies. There’s nothing on it quite as beguiling as “Love Story”, but it’s a good record that, on balance, I think I like better than its predecessors. The critics, too, have generally seen fit to praise rather than pan.
  • Speaking of pan, I came across an interesting panel discussion on the theme “The Imagination of C.S. Lewis”. The participants are Douglas Wilson (who recently co-published a book with Christopher Hitchens), N.D. Wilson (who is currently writing a screenplay for The Great Divorce), and Alan Jacobs (author of The Narnian). It’s a wide-ranging conversation, touching on Narnia, the Space Trilogy, Planet Narnia, the film adaptations, Tolkien, and other topics, from people who know what they’re talking about. I found it worth my time. [Unembeddable, but viewable here.]
  • Speaking of Narnian film adaptations, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader will be released in just a few weeks. This will be the first film in the series not directed by Andrew Adamson, so there are perhaps some grounds for hope that it will capture the Narnian magic better than its predecessors did. We’ll see.
  • Speaking of magic, David Bentley Hart, who surprised me some months ago by recommending a book called The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, follows up with a short philosophical essay inspired by garden fairies.

Best of the Decade: Film

December 28, 2009

Resuming the “Best of the Decade” theme, here are my Top 10 favourite films released between 2000-2009 (or nearly so).  Although I am not much of a cinephile, putting these lists together has been so much fun that I could not resist doing one for films.

This list is in rough order of preference, from most favourite to only-slightly-less favourite.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy [Peter Jackson; 2001-3]: I know that some have complained that these films are, to a non-negligible degree, unfaithful to the spirit of Tolkien’s story, and while I can see the force of that objection I still think that this trilogy is an astounding cinematic achievement. I have seen the entire thing three times (in the extended version, no less), which is highly unusual for me.  Here is the opening of the first film:

Остров (The Island) [Pavel Lungin; 2006]: Остров (transliterated: Ostrov) is a Russian film about a saintly Orthodox monk with a history.  I have praised this film before, and I will continue to do so.  It is extraordinarily good, in many senses of the word.  If you have not seen it, I urge you to do so.  In this short clip we see Fr. Anatoly, working in his makeshift hermitage, receiving a visit from a fellow monk.  The subtitles are in Arabic, but you’ll get the idea:

Die Große Stille (Into Great Silence) [Philip Gröning; 2005]: This documentary film takes us inside the great Carthusian monastery of Grand Chartreuse to witness the lives of the men who live there.  The film is a pool of silence into which one falls, and it gives us a taste, however small, of the beauty of the monastic life.  A treasure.

Magnolia [Paul Thomas Anderson; 1999]:  Magnolia was released in the last week of 1999, so I feel justified in including it on this list.  I hesitate to actually recommend this film to anyone, saturated as it is with extremely vulgar and profane language, and every kind of vice.  But the truth is that, if you can stomach it, it is an amazing film, a truly cinematic film, with profound themes running through it.  All the wickedness has a point, for one cannot make a film that takes grace seriously without also taking sin seriously.  The first time I saw Magnolia I did not understand it (and in fact quite disliked it), but it opens up on repeat viewings.

Adaptation [Spike Jonze; 2002]: Charlie Kaufmann is certainly one of the best screenwriters working today.  Many critics have been putting his Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on their “Best of Decade” lists, but I think that Adaptation is even better.  It is a wild, thrilling, puzzling film about, of all things, orchids — or, better, about the difficulty of writing a film about orchids, or maybe it is about the difficulty of writing a film about the difficulty of writing a film about orchids.  Anyway, whatever it is about, it is hilarious.  Like Magnolia, though not to the same degree, this is a truly cinematic film, one which I could not imagine being told in another medium.  Nicholas Cage, playing twin brothers, is superb.  Say what you want about those National Treasure films; Cage is one of our best actors.  Here is the film’s trailer:

O Brother, Where Art Thou? [Coen Brothers; 2000]: Not only is this the best musical comedy of the decade, I would even say that it is the best Coen Brothers film of the decade.  The idea to set Homer’s Odyssey in the American south was an inspired one, and the movie sparkles with hilarious and wholesome cornball humour.  The music is good too.

The Departed [Martin Scorcese; 2006]: Despite his reputation as The Great American Director, I have been mostly underwhelmed by the Scorcese films that I have seen.  But I loved The Departed.  I have now seen it several times, and the story stands up well on repeat viewings.  (Indeed, I had to watch it again just to make sure I understood the many complexities of the plot.)  It is the most intelligent thriller that I saw this decade.  The clip below shows my favourite scene from the film, in which the two main characters have a phone conversation — sort of.  Wrenched out of context I can see that this clip doesn’t make much sense; in context, one’s mind is racing at the many implications of what is happening.  That he can invest such a simple scene with so much meaning is, I suppose, part of what they mean when they say Scorcese is a great filmmaker.

Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In) [Tomas Alfredson; 2008]: I do not often watch horror films, but good reviews across the board convinced me to watch this Swedish vampire movie.  It is bleak, cold, and dark, just like the Swedish winter in which it is set.  The story, about a friendship between two children, is told quietly and unsensationally, but it builds an eerie tension and is genuinely disquieting.  Like the best horror movies, Let the Right One In understands that fear is a psychological state, and it can be cultivated without anything scary jumping into the frame.  Here is a trailer for the movie:

Once [John Carney; 2007]: This is my favourite romantic film of the decade, and my second favourite film about artistic creation.  (For my favourite in the latter category, see the next entry.)  Once is an Irish production about a pair of street musicians who, through their music, are trying to break through the surface of life to touch something real, something golden, and to their surprise they find one another, and friendship.  For me, the film is notable for the way it evokes Sehnsucht, that indefinable longing for something good.  The ending is sweetly melancholy.  Here is a montage of scenes; the music is one of the songs featured in the film.

I’m Not There [Todd Haynes; 2007]: A strange but intriguing meditation on the life and music of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There is meat and drink for Dylanites.  Director Todd Haynes is obviously deeply interested in what makes Dylan tick, and his movie is an imaginative exploration of various aspects of Dylan’s creativity.  Six different actors (including, most unexpectedly, Cate Blanchett) play Dylan, sometimes fairly realistically, sometimes almost allegorically.  I recommend it to fans, of course, but also to those who don’t really understand what all the fuss is about Dylan.  You will at least come away knowing that the fuss is about something.

***

Runners-up: Memento [2000]; The Others [2001]; Kill Bill [2003-4]; The Incredibles [2004]; Walk the Line [2005]; Letters from Iwo Jima [2006]; Zodiac [2007]; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [2007].

**

I’d love to hear what your favourite films of the decade were.

Die Grosse Stille (Into Great Silence)

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