Dickens: Dombey and Son

February 4, 2016

Dombey and Son
Charles Dickens
(Oxford, 1988) [1848]
960 p.

I came to Dombey and Son knowing nothing about it, but with the reasonable presumption that it would be about Dombey and his son — and this was wrong. Since I’d heard very little about it I assumed that it was probably not all that good and might be a chore to get through — and this was wrong too. It was for me a story full of surprises. I am happy to say that I enjoyed it thoroughly.

In the introductory notes he wrote for the novel, Chesterton points out that Dombey and Son occupies an important place in Dickens’ authorship. It was preceded by Martin Chuzzlewit and succeeded by David Copperfield, two very different books. In his early books, of which Pickwick is the immortal exemplar, Dickens was really an episodist and caricaturist, not a novelist; his ‘story’ was a long string of mostly disconnected stories, tied together by amusing and endearing characters. In Nicholas Nickleby he took some steps in the direction of novel-writing, though there too the story was mostly episodic, and he continued largely in this vein up through Martin Chuzzlewit. Yet David Copperfield is unquestionably a novel in the full sense, so we might expect Dombey and Son to be a transitional work between the early, episodic Dickens and the late, novelistic Dickens. And we would be right.

In fact, it’s a good deal closer to Copperfield than Chuzzlewit. There are character arcs — especially for young Florence Dombey, whom I would defend as one of Dickens’ greatest and most affecting heroines — and, to a lesser degree, for Edith and for Mr Dombey himself, though his ‘arc’ is a rather abrupt one. The story as a whole has clearly been carefully planned on the large scale, and it holds together nicely, even if the most important of the long-range developments were rather obvious and, in a sense, necessary.

But Dickens the novelist is still Dickens, and Dombey and Son has its fair share of delightful Dickensian comic characters, the sorts of figures for whom one would happily clear the deck to let them hold forth for chapter after chapter. (Chesterton: “One good character by Dickens requires all eternity to stretch its legs in.”) Of these my favourites were Captain Cuttle, whose good heart and penchant for speaking in impenetrable naval metaphors endeared him greatly to me, and Mr Toots, whom Chesterton praises in lavish terms that are worth quoting:

Lastly, there is the admirable study of Toots, who may be considered as being in some ways the masterpiece of Dickens. Nowhere else did Dickens express with such astonishing insight and truth his main contention, which is that to be good and idiotic is not a poor fate, but, on the contrary, an experience of primeval innocence, which wonders at all things. Dickens did not know, anymore than any great man ever knows, what was the particular thing that he had to preach. He did not know it; he only preached it. But the particular thing that he had to preach was this: That humility is the only possible basis of enjoyment; that if one has no other way of being humble except being poor, then it is better to be poor, and to enjoy; that if one has no other way of being humble except being imbecile, then it is better to be imbecile, and to enjoy. That is the deep unconscious truth in the character of Toots — that all his externals are flashy and false; all his internals unconscious, obscure, and true. He wears loud clothes, and he is silent inside them. His shirts and waistcoats are covered with bright spots of pink and purple, while his soul is always covered with the sacred shame. He always gets all the outside things of life wrong, and all the inside things right. He always admires the right Christian people, and gives them the wrong Christian names… He forgets who they are, but he remembers what they are. With the clear eyes of humility he perceives the whole world as it is.

Surely any book of which such things can be said of even a minor character must be very much worth reading, and that is certainly true of Dombey and Son, a book that surpassed my expectations in virtually every respect.


René Girard in conversation

January 28, 2016

When René Girard passed away in November of last year, I neglected to mark the occasion. He was a leading Catholic intellectual, and his thoughts on culture, literature, and the place of Christianity in the West have been influential. (Here, for instance, is an appreciation by Fr Robert Barron.)

I’ve actually not read any of Girard’s books, but years ago I heard a fantastic long-form interview with him on the CBC radio programme Ideas, and I’ve never forgotten it. I’ve discovered that this same interview is available on YouTube. If you’ve 4-1/2 hours to spare, it is well worth your time and attention.

Here is the first part:

And here are parts II, III, IV, and V.


Academic frustrations

January 26, 2016

From time to time I am asked why, following my doctoral work, I decided not to pursue an academic career in elementary particle physics. Part of the reason is that I didn’t want to end up like this fellow:

(Caveat spectator: some vulgar language in the subtitles. And it won’t be as funny if you speak German.)

The clip comes from Downfall, a rather good film.


Dickens: David Copperfield

January 24, 2016

I recently finished reading Dickens’ Dombey and Son, and while writing up some thoughts I was surprised to realize that my brief notes on David Copperfield never made the transition from my old web log to this one. So, for no very good reason, here they are. These were written ten years ago, when I was just getting to know Dickens. (David Copperfield was the second of his books I had read.) They sound a little naive to me now, but they are a faithful record of what I thought at the time.

**

David Copperfield
Charles Dickens
(Duckworth & Co., 2005) [1850]

871 p.

I am always charmed by the Victorian habit of granting long, flowery names to books. A novel that is known to us only as David Copperfield was published then under the elaborate title The Personal History, Adventures, Experience & Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He never meant to be Published on any Account). This title, both in its length, and in its poised but unhurried manner, is a remarkably faithful model of the novel itself. But to profess admiration of Victorian eloquence in a book’s title is very different from professing enthusiasm for an entire book in the same style. Some beauties are best enjoyed at a distance. And it is this wariness, I think, that had led me to avoid the novels of Charles Dickens in the past. I knew too that Dickens published his books serially, and I suspected that a certain pecuniary interest must have inflated his books beyond an appropriate size. And, in a sense, I was right: David Copperfield is long, much too long, meanders, strolls with hands in pockets, whistling, quite unconcerned about getting to the point. Yet it is a splendid book.

Written as an autobiography — and apparently sections are based rather closely on Dickens’ own life — the novel recounts the life of David Copperfield, beginning just prior to his birth, and finishing in his old age. David is a wonderful narrator. He’s a sensitive man, generous with others, and even in recounting his own follies he brings a warm, compassionate understanding to bear. He is not drawn as sharply as other characters in the novel, and we never see him as clearly delineated as we do them, but the entire story is suffused with and filtered through his gentle, perceptive sensibility.

Dickens seems to have excelled at creating memorable personalities out of just a few light touches: his mother, so kind and loving, but tragically timid; his aunt, imposing and proper, but leavened by an enduring rage at trespassing donkeys; Mr. Dick, a happy simpleton whose mind is continually in danger of tending to that of Charles I; the magnificent Mr. Micawber, an eloquent giant of a man whose constant financial desperation finds voice only in his hilarious valedictory letters; Mrs. Micawber, his tenacious and argumentative wife; Mr. Peggotty, a weathered, poor, and good man who wanders the world to find and forgive little Em’ly, his lost sheep; Dora, David’s ‘child-wife’, whom he loves in her silly simplicity; Agnes, his second wife, whom he loves with all of his mind and heart; the wicked Uriah Heep, who masks his cunning and malice behind false humility; and others. I admired the way Dickens was able to plausibly reverse our understanding of some characters simply by re-presenting them from another perspective. This happens, for instance, with David’s aunt, whom he desperately fears in his childhood, but whom he later discovers to be a truly loving, motherly figure to him. Another example is his school friend Steerforth, a dashing, brave boy, but a reckless, foolish man.

There were a few things that surprised me about this book. I was certainly not expecting it to be as funny as it was. Having read The Pickwick Papers, I should have known that Dickens had a ready wit, but I admit the comedy took me very pleasantly by surprise. And I was also impressed by the sheer craft of his writing. I expected to encounter serviceable but unremarkable prose — something like a 19th century John Grisham — but I was badly mistaken. He’s an excellent writer, very articulate, conveying complex scenes and feelings with economy. And on the large scale, too, despite its length and serial production, the story exhibits a pleasing shape and structure.

The copy I bought was produced by Duckworth & Co., and it is a beauty. It is a facsimile edition of The Nonesuch Dickens, a limited edition originally published in 1937. The book is large, hardback, illustrated, includes Dickens’ own marginal notes, has quality pages, a ribbon, and a classy spine. Duckworth is planning to issue a twenty-three volume set of Dickens’ works in this same handsome format. It looks like I’ll be reading Dickens from now to eternity.


2016 has 52 weeks as well

January 18, 2016

I have mentioned a few times in this space the 52 Authors project which Maclin Horton and his regular readers undertook last year at Light on Dark Water, publishing a brief essay on one author each week.

This year two follow-on projects are underway: 52 Movies, also at Light on Dark Water, and 52 Saints, at The Three Prayers. Both projects are now well underway, and I invite you to follow them if you have an interest. I plan to contribute to both as time permits.


Weaver: Ideas Have Consequences

January 14, 2016

weaver-consequencesIdeas Have Consequences
Richard M. Weaver
(University of Chicago, 1948)
175 p.

“This is another book about the dissolution of the West.”

Such is the desultory opening sentence of a book that has, I think it is fair to say, achieved the status of a minor classic of contemporary conservatism. It is a curious book in some respects, rather uneven, but at its best it’s very good indeed. The title serves as an apt reference point for the book as a whole: ideas do have consequences, and Weaver takes us on a tour of the generally bad consequences that have followed from the generally bad ideas that animate the contemporary West.

The structure of the book is fairly loose. The chapters are arranged thematically: one about the modern aversion to hierarchy, another about the fragmentation of culture, one about modern media, another about political entitlements, and so forth. To the extent that there is an over-arching argument, it proceeds roughly as follows: key intellectual developments in late medieval Europe gave birth to a set of ideas that have animated the West for the past half-millenium, and those same ideas are progressively destroying the culture to which they gave rise. At the end, he speculates on what we ought to do about it.

The book is better on the small scale than on the large. Weaver must have been a world-class grouch, and he has a deliciously acerbic wit. His writing is often pungent, and cries out to be quoted. I’ll append a string of my favourite quotations to the bottom of this post.

Weaver famously identified the canker at the heart of Western culture with the nominalism of William of Ockham in the 14th century. Nominalism denied that things have real natures apart from the human mind, or at least denied that we can know them. This made possible the belief, at the heart of modernity from the beginning, that “man could realize himself more fully if he would only abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals”. Weaver sees following in its train a host of distinctly modern ideas: a new theory of nature as a self-operating mechanism, the rise of empiricism, materialism, dialectical materialism in economics and politics, behaviorism, and on down the line.

Weaver is particularly good when he plucks at our culture’s aversion to social hierarchy and the making of distinctions: “The most portentous general event of our time is the steady obliteration of those distinctions which create society.” The problem has only gotten worse since he wrote, so this is prescient. Conservatives have long argued that when equality is taken as the highest good, the result, intended or not, is likely to be strife and conflict, for expectations of equality give rise to envy in the face of even natural and spontaneous degrees of distinction. Moreover, if all desires are held as equally worthy then the clash of conflicting desires can only be understood as a contest of wills, a struggle for power, rather than something judicable by a higher authority or standard. Weaver cites Shakespeare to this effect:

O, when degree is shak’d
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick!…
Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself. [Troilus and Cressida, I.III.]

And he is himself quite good on the relative value of equality and fraternity as social ideals:

The comity of peoples in groups large or small rests not upon this chimerical notion of equality, but upon fraternity, a concept which long antedates it (equality) in history because it (fraternity) goes immeasurably deeper in human sentiment. The ancient feeling of brotherhood carries obligations of which equality knows nothing. It calls for respect and protection, for brotherhood is status in family, and family is by nature hierarchical. It demands patience with little brother, and it may sternly exact duty of big brother. It places people in a network of sentiment, not of rights — that hortus siccus of modern vainglory.

In any case, the emancipators attack social hierarchy but tend to then replace it with bureaucratic hierarchy. This we have in abundance.

Some of Weaver’s other points, such as his observation that specialization cuts against the ideal of the well-integrated mind and contributes to the fragmentation of a common culture, or that we lose perspective when immersed in a clamouring media environment, are quite obvious and have by now become commonplace. There are times when his disdain for modernity gets the better of him, as when he describes jazz as “the clearest of all signs of our age’s deep-seated predilection for barbarism.” Far be it from me to give a positive defence of jazz, but this does seem excessively grouchy. But even this comment takes place in the context of an overview of the trajectory of serious music since 1900 which is, on the whole, astute and defensible.

Toward the end of the book he considers resources for renewal. He stresses the importance of private property rights, which he, rather surprisingly to me, describes as “the last metaphysical right”. He explains: “We say the right of private property is metaphysical because it does not depend on any test of social usefulness.” It is interesting that he sees private property in this light, rather than simply as a buttress against governmental power.

But even more than this Weaver recommends a revival of piety, which he defines as “a discipline of the will through respect”, arguing that piety is necessary on three fronts: toward nature, toward others, and toward the past. Modernity, conceived of from the beginning as a means to power through knowledge and of emancipation from the past, has always had intrinsic difficulty with the first and third. Piety toward nature would include a sincere concern for the integrity and health of our natural environment (and thus a corrective to the political right, broadly speaking) as well as, for instance, respect for the human body and the legitimate differences between the sexes (and thus a corrective to the political left, broadly speaking). Hostility toward the past is practically a defining feature of modernity: “I would maintain that modern man is a parricide. He has taken up arms against, and he has effectually slain, what former men have regarded with filial veneration. He has not been conscious of crime but has, on the contrary… regarded his actions as a proof of virtue.” This pride that modernity feels in its destructive actions is a real phenomenon, and it makes the case for recovery seem hopeless. But for those of us who must live our lives in this particular time and place, we must salvage the fragments we have shored against our ruin, and Weaver’s counsel, though limited, does seem very much on point.

***

Now let me gather up some of the juicier quotations that I gleaned while reading:

“The final degradation of the Baconian philosophy is that knowledge becomes power in the service of appetite.”

“Comfort becomes a goal when distinctions of rank are abolished and privileges destroyed.” (De Tocqueville)

“The very notion of eternal verities is repugnant to the modern temper.”

“Fanaticism has been properly described as redoubling one’s effort after one’s aim has been forgotten.”

[Lost perspective]
Our most serious obstacle is that people traveling this downward path develop an insensibility which increases with their degradation. Loss is perceived most clearly at the beginning; after habit becomes implanted, one beholds the anomalous situation of apathy mounting as the moral crisis deepens. It is when the first faint warnings come that one has the best chance to save himself; and this, I suspect, explains why medieval thinkers were extremely agitated over questions which seem to us today without point or relevance… We approach a condition in which we shall be amoral without the capacity to perceive it and degraded without means to measure our descent.

[Importance of sentiment to reason]
When we affirm that philosophy begins with wonder, we are affirming in effect that sentiment is anterior to reason. We do not undertake to reason about anything until we have been drawn to it by an affective interest. In the cultural life of man, therefore, the fact of paramount importance about anyone is his attitude toward the world. How frequently it is brought to our attention that nothing good can be done if the will is wrong! Reason alone fails to justify itself. Not without cause has the devil been called the prince of lawyers, and not by accident are Shakespeare’s villains good reasoners. If the disposition is wrong, reason increases maleficence; if it is right, reason orders and furthers the good.

[Conservatism as respect for existing forms]
We invariably find in the man of true culture a deep respect for forms. He approaches even those he does not understand with awareness that a deep thought lies in an old observance. Such respect distinguishes him from the barbarian, on the one hand, and the degenerate, on the other. The truth can be expressed in another way by saying that the man of culture has a sense of style. Style requires measure, whether in space or time, for measure imparts structure, and it is structure which is essential to intellectual apprehension.

[Psychology of progressivism]
Every group regarding itself as emancipated is convinced that its predecessors were fearful of reality. It looks upon euphemisms and all the veils of decency with which things were previously draped as obstructions which it, with superior wisdom and praiseworthy courage, will now strip away. Imagination and indirection it identifies with obscurantism; the mediate is an enemy to freedom.

[Majority rule]
The Federalist authors especially were aware that simple majority rule cannot suffice because it does everything without reference; it expression of feeling about the moment at the moment, restrained neither by abstract idea nor by precedent.

[Metaphysics and sentimentality]
our conception of metaphysical reality finally governs our conception of everything else, and, if we feel that creation does not express purpose, it is impossible to find an authorization for purpose in our lives. Indeed, the assertion of purpose in a world we felt to be purposeless would be a form of sentimentality.

[Specialization]
It is just as if Plato’s philosopher had left the city to look at the trees and then had abandoned speculative wisdom for dendrology. The people who would urge just this course are legion among us today. The facts on the periphery, they feel, are somehow more certain.

[A man of understanding]
The man who understands has reason to be sure of himself; he has the repose of mastery. He is the sane man, who carries his center of gravity in himself; he has not succumbed to obsession which binds him to a fragment of reality. People tend to trust the judgments of an integrated personality and will prefer them even to the official opinions of experts. They rightly suspect that expertise conceals some abnormality of viewpoint.

[Modern provincials]
Many modern people to whom the word “provincial” is anathema are themselves provincials in time to an extreme degree. Indeed, modernism is in essence a provincialism, since it declines to look beyond the horizon of the moment, just as a countryman may view with suspicion whatever lies beyond his country.

[Rights and obligations]
Since under conditions of modern freedom the individual thinks only of his rights, he does not refer his actions to the external frame of obligation. His wish is enough. He cannot be disciplined on the theoretical level, and on the practical level he is disciplined only by some hypostatized social whole whose methods become brutal as its authority turns out to be, on investigation, merely human.

[Medieval ego]
Under the world view possessed by medieval scholars, the path of learning was a path of self-deprecation, and the philosophiae doctor was one who had at length seen a rational ground for humilitas. Study and meditation led him to a proper perspective on self, which then, instead of caricaturing the world with the urgency of its existence and the vehemence of its desires, found a place in the hierarchy of reality. Dante’s “In la sua voluntade e nostra pace” is the final discovery. Thus knowledge for the medieval idealist prepared the way for self-effacement.

[Modern media]
In our listening, voluntary or not, we are made to grow accustomed to the weirdest of juxtapositions: the serious and the trivial, the comic and the tragic, follow one another in mechanical sequence without real transition… Here, it would seem, is the apothesis; here is the final collapsing of values, a fantasia of effects, suggesting in its wild disorder the debris left by a storm. Here is the daily mechanical wrecking of hierarchy.

[A mental habit]
The habit of judging all things by their departure from the things of yesterday is reflected in most journalistic interpretation… The touchstone of progress simply schools the millions in shallow evaluation.

[Reflection and judgement]
The absence of reflection keeps the individual from being aware of his former selves, and it is highly questionable whether anyone can be a member of a metaphysical community who does not preserve such memory. Upon the presence of the past in the present depends all conduct directed by knowledge.

[Mind and religion]
The Greeks identified God with mind, and it will be found that every attack upon religion, or upon characteristic ideas inherited from religion, when its assumptions are laid bare, turns out to be an attack upon mind. Moral certitude gives the prior assurance of right sentiment. Intellectual integrity gives clarity to practice. There is some ultimate identification of goodness and truth, so that he who ignores or loses faith in the former can by no possible means save the latter.

 


Musical anniversaries in 2016

January 12, 2016

I usually like to start the year by reviewing which composers will have significant anniversaries over the next 12 months. Here are notable birthdays and memorials coming up in 2016:

Birthdays

450 years

  • Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613) [30 March]

150 years

  • Erik Satie (1866-1925) [17 May]
  • Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) [1 April]

100 years

  • Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) [22 January]

Memorials

100 years

  • George Butterworth (1885-1916) [5 August]
  • Max Reger (1873-1916) [11 May]

10 years

  • György Ligeti (1923-2006) [12 June]

It’s a rather weak year, all things considered, with no ‘A-list’ composers. As such, we have a nice opportunity to explore the music of some lesser-known figures. Speaking for myself, I am planning ‘listening projects’ around the music of Satie, Gesualdo, Butterworth, and Dutilleux.

Related:

  • Read David Bentley Hart’s appreciation of George Butterworth, who died in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme.
  • Learn a little about Henri Dutilleux at The Music Salon (here and here).
  • Whatever you do, don’t waste your time with Werner Herzog’s film Gesualdo. Instead, buy this and listen over and over and over…
  • Let your soundtrack of 2016 include Satie’s Vexations, all 9+ hours of which can be heard right here: 

***

Of course, there are many other, even less well-known composers marking anniversaries this year, including Giovanni Paisello, Malcolm Arnold, Manuel Cardoso, and — if we stretch the definition of “composer” to the breaking point — Milton Babbitt. A full list can be found here (Thanks, Osbert.).

Happy listening!


Favourites of 2015: Film

December 31, 2015

This year I continued the effort to acquaint myself with admired films and directors. I may have watched a relatively small number of new films, but I did see films by Hitchcock, Ozu, Allen, Bergman, Chaplin, and Kurosawa, to name a few. Unfortunately for me, as I survey the films I have assembled for discussion today, I see that my preferences still veer toward contemporary cinema.

Here’s a surprise: the best film I saw this year was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). I am beginning to sound like a broken record. I’ve seen it a half-dozen times now, I think, and it was just as good, or better, this time around. It’s the best film I know.

***

hara_kiri_miike_capitoni_poster_hiOf the films I saw for the first time this year, I think my favourite was a rather unconventional choice: Takashi Miike’s Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011). This is Miike’s re-make of Kobayashi’s 1962 classic Harakiri (which I also saw this year). I am not generally an enthusiast for martial arts films, and I am aware that re-makes are rarely superior to their originals, but nonetheless I found Miike’s film got under my skin in a way that Kobayashi’s did not. It is a slow film with only a few action sequences; the focus is on the tragic plight of the central characters. When violence does make its way onto the screen — and there are two principal places where it does — it is invested with so much pathos that it is nearly unbearable. This is my kind of samurai film.

***

Southwest_(film)_film_posterAnother very compelling, and verrrrry slow, film is Southwest (2012), an independent film from Brazil directed by first-time filmmaker Eduardo Nunes. (Hat-tip: Tim Brayson) It is almost unbelievable that this could be a debut, for the directorial hand is so patient and so elegant. Filmed in gorgeous black and white, it tells the story of a young girl, born under mysterious circumstances, who ages rapidly and lives her whole life over the course of just a few days. Best understood, I think, as a folk-tale or fairy tale, it is mysterious through and through. But I found it mesmerizing. I don’t think it received very wide distribution, and it may be difficult to find, but it’s worth the effort. (Actually, the whole film is available on YouTube, if you speak Portuguese.)

***

My favourites of the older films I saw this year were Swing Time (1936) and Rear Window (1954). The former was a star vehicle for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and they are dynamite together. The story is a sweet one, but one watches the movie for the dance sequences, which are unadulterated delights. Music by Jerome Kern too. When the credits rolled I threw my hat in the air. And I’d seen Rear Window a few times previously, but since I don’t anticipate that I’ll ever tire of seeing Grace Kelly on screen, I doubt I’ll ever tire of seeing Rear Window.

***

deux-joursI caught up this year with the latest Dardenne brothers film, Two Days, One Night (2014). The premise is a novel one: a woman will lose her job unless she can convince her co-workers to give up their raises, and so, over the course of the film, she approaches each of them, one by one, to make her case. Given that setup, the film more or less writes itself, and in the hands of lesser filmmakers it could have easily become tedious and schematic. But the Dardennes, and Marion Cotillard in the leading role, invest each of those encounters with genuine feeling and fresh ideas. The film turns into a quite probing meditation on justice and charity, on power and humility, and on what it means to love one’s neighbour. Just thinking about it makes me want to see it again.

***

the-hollow-crownCheating a bit, and before I get to some genre picks, let me say a quick word about the best television that I saw this year. Actually, I think this was the only television I saw this year, but it was still good enough to warrant inclusion in this post. It was a BBC mini-series called The Hollow Crown, a four-part, roughly 8-hour dramatization of Shakespeare’s Greater Henriad, beginning with Richard II, continuing with Henry IV, Parts I and II, and concluding with Henry V. Naturally, a project this ambitious is bound to have a few weak spots, but by and large I thought the adaptations were excellent. Richard II was a play that I didn’t know at all prior to watching it, and as far as I know this is the only screen adaptation available.

In these productions, no attempt has been made to update the historical setting, and the sets throughout are sumptuous. The acting is top notch too, with Ben Whishaw playing Richard II, Jeremy Irons as Henry IV, Tom Hiddleston as Henry V, and Simon Russell Beale a superb Falstaff.

A highlight of the series for me was the portrayal of Falstaff. Somehow Falstaff on the page has always been for me something less than the Falstaff of my imagination: the Falstaff of wit and outsized merriment. Simon Russell Beale’s Falstaff also differs from the Falstaff of my imagination, but in a fruitful way. His Falstaff is rather sad, his wit always with a touch of weariness. He is a coward, of course, and a cheat, and we know that, but I had thought that his irrepressible spirit was supposed somehow to outshine those faults. Here they do not. Here Falstaff seems to know his faults and feel them, and it makes him vulnerable, most especially to his dearest friend. This vulnerability lends a real poignancy to the acting scene in the tavern, when he pleads the case of “old Jack”. Beale’s performance isn’t the last word on Falstaff, but it has enlarged my conception of who Falstaff is, or could be, and for that I am grateful.

***

And now for a few of my favourite genre films from this year:

Literary adaptation: Apart from The Hollow Crown, my favourite adaptation of a literary classic was Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995), which I had seen many years ago but watched again. Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet are wonderful as Elinor and Marianne, and Hugh Grant, looking well and truly discomfited by his period costume, is a suitably comic Mr Ferrars. Any film that can crackle with excitement as all the actors sit silently in their chairs has my admiration, and this realization of Austen’s novel has a few such delicious encounters.

Family films: I was completely charmed by Kenneth Branagh’s recent Cinderella (2015). Blessedly free of self-consciousness, irony, and grrrl power, it simply lets the story unfold according to its own internal logic, and what a wonderful story it is. The CGI “transformation” scenes are splendidly done — the kids love them — and that final scene in which the shoe slips onto the foot is luminous through and through. Delightful.

secret-kellsI also want to praise The Secret of Kells (2009), a wonderful animated film from Ireland, directed by Tomm Moore (another first-time director, I note). It tells the story of Brendan, a young boy living at Kells monastery while the famous Book of Kells is being made in the scriptorium. The film is set at a time when Christianity was still relatively new in the Celtic world, and it includes encounters not only with monks but with fairies and deities of the Celtic religions. (Steven Greydanus has written from a Catholic perspective about the portrayal of religion in the film.) The animation style is distinctive, with a strong preference for geometric designs and symmetries, and, as is fitting for this story, a proliferation of Celtic weaves and curling tendrils. It’s a unique film that most people have probably not seen, or even heard of, but which I expect most would appreciate. My only real complaint about it is that it never tells us what is in the Book of Kells! It’s a book of the Gospels, of course. Why so coy? It’s an unfortunate omission that mars an otherwise highly recommendable film.

I’ll also mention briefly that Tomm Moore followed The Secret of Kells with Song of the Sea in 2014. It’s also terrific — maybe even more visually stunning than its predecessor, but the story didn’t capture me in quite the same way. Nonetheless, both films are superior to most animated fare.

It_Follows_(poster)Horror: I usually steer clear of horror films, but this year I saw a few worth remarking on. At the top of the heap (of corpses?) is It Follows, which premiered at the 2014 Cannes festival and, following much critical acclaim, got a wide release in 2015. The premise is that a vicious entity pursues a target, slowly but relentlessly, until that person has sexual relations with someone, at which point the entity begins pursuing the sexual partner instead. It sounds silly, but it works wonderfully both on its own terms and on a metaphorical level. Much of the credit is owed to director David Robert Mitchell’s patient camera. When was the last time you saw a film in which a long, static, wide shot had you squirming in your seat and shouting urgently at the screen? It happens. The fact that the mortal danger is transmitted sexually, that the characters in the story are tempted to instrumentalize sexual partners, and that almost the entire film is populated by teenagers, without an adult in sight, has led more than one person to interpret It Follows as a commentary on the sexual revolution, and personally I think it works quiet well from that perspective. Naturally the analogies are imperfect, but this is one of the more thought-provoking films I saw this year.

A superior monster movie was Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host (2006), in which a giant, mutated beast emerges from the river in a major urban center and terrorizes the city. It’s very well constructed, takes the time to invest in its principal characters, and has a few surprises up its sleeve. The monster is great, and Bong Joon-Ho, one of the leading Korean auteurs, elevates the material with his subtle stylistic touch. It’s awfully good.

coherenceScience fiction: I saw a few very good science fiction films this year, good enough to write about here, but also notably imperfect in interesting ways. The first was Coherence (2013), a low-budget independent film by first-time director James Ward Byrkit. It’s an ensemble film that takes place entirely at an evening dinner party among friends, during the course of which strange events begin to occur in the neighbourhood (the nature of which, for fear of giving too much away, I shall not reveal). The film works quite well on its own terms — the largely improvised dialogue is lively, the sense of atmosphere is warm and charming, and the bizarre phenomena that slowly unfold are fascinating — but unfortunately the film tries to connect these mysteries to real science, most notably to quantum mechanics. It can’t be done convincingly, and the script falters in consequence. But if you can overlook that bit of flummery, it’s a cracking good puzzle picture.

exmachinaEx Machina is also a directorial debut, this time from Alex Garland (previously known to me as the screenwriter of Never Let Me Go, one of my favourite sci-fi films of the decade). The film introduces us to the efforts of an eccentric genius (a superb Oscar Isaac) to build an android intelligent enough to pass the Turing Test. He invites a bright young student (Domhnall Gleeson) to his remote home to help evaluate the robot’s performance, and the film follows the Test as it unfolds over a number of sessions. There are many things to like about Ex Machina: the android, played by Alicia Vikander, is a triumphant blend of strong acting and subtle special effects; the house in which the film takes place is used effectively to heighten tension; the screenplay has a lot on its mind and grows increasingly tense and troubled; and it has an ending that, although I didn’t particularly like it, is interesting enough to argue about. But like many popular accounts of AI the film is confused about the distinction between intelligence and consciousness, and about the meaning of the Turing Test. At least, it seems to be. There remains a tantalizing possibility that the filmmakers intend us to see that confusion as another element obscuring the characters’ view of their own situation. But that might be granting the filmmakers the benefit of too much doubt. Mixed feelings, then, but I liked it enough to consider seeing it again some day. Not recommended to those who dislike android nudity, of which there is an abundance.

71-posterWar: I don’t know if it’s quite right to describe the Troubles in Northern Ireland as a war, but that is the setting for ’71, an excellent little film from 2014. It follows a British soldier through one harrowing night after he is accidentally abandoned by his unit in a volatile neighbourhood of Belfast. I particularly admire the film for a scene early on in which the soldier and his unit confront a crowd of angry protestors in the street. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a film that better conveys how frightening such a situation can be, how chaotic, and how quickly it can explode into violence. Once he is stranded, the film becomes a survival tale as he tries to make his way back to safety. It’s full of twists and turns, some of them harder to follow than others — the political alliances are convoluted, and the presence of undercover agents doesn’t help the clarity — but the film is tightly written and quite engaging.

Tim's Vermeer (click to enlarge)

Tim’s Vermeer (click to enlarge)

Documentary: I’d like to heartily recommend the odd but fascinating Tim’s Vermeer (2013). Tim is Tim Jenison, a tech wizard with a bountiful fortune, time on his hands, and a love for the paintings of Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer’s photorealistic paintings have dazzled viewers for centuries, and Jenison, an expert in lighting and optics, simply could not understand how he accomplished it. So he set out to paint one himself, and the film tells the story of how he did so. In the process, he uses an optical technique that he argues, quite convincingly in my opinion, was used by Vermeer in order to achieve the fine gradations of light and colour that characterize his work. If Jenison is correct, it casts Vermeer’s technical virtuosity in a rather new, less impressive, light, though of course it takes nothing away from his sense of composition and his craftsmanship. All in all, it’s a lovely little documentary, highly recommended.

***

Longest films: Greed (1924) [4h06]; At Berkeley (2014) [4h04]; The Human Condition I: No Greater Love (1959) [3h26].

Shortest films: Everything Will Be OK (2006) [0h17]; I Am So Proud Of You (2008) [0h22]; And Then Came The Evening And The Morning (1990) [1h01].

Oldest films: The Kid (1921), Greed (1924), The Gold Rush (1925).

Newest films: Inside Out (June), Mad Max: Fury Road (May), Cinderella (March).

Most worthy of a shoe thrown at the screen as the credits rolled: Les Diaboliques (1955).

Started, but not finished: Léon: The Professional (1994), Hard To Be A God (2013).

Disappointments: The Conversation (1974), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Inherent Vice (2014).

Other films I would recommend if I hadn’t already gone on too long: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), Cat People (1942), Late Spring (1949), Wild Strawberries (1957), Le Samouraï (1967), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Upstream Color (2013), Interstellar (2014).

Films I saw but don’t remember seeing: Trouble in Paradise (1932), L’Atalante (1934), It Happened One Night (1934), The Red Shoes (1948), Chungking Express (1994), Talk to Her (2002), A Most Violent Year (2014).


Favourites of 2015: Classical music

December 30, 2015

Today the theme is classical music. Quite a few good records came my way, and I’d like to share a few words about my favourites.

levit-variationsI had occasion last year to praise Igor Levit’s recording of Bach’s Partitas, and this year he was back with another outstanding piano recital. I have a special affection for “theme and variations” compositions, and Levit tackles three of the most important: from the 18th-century, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, from the 19th-century, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and, from the 20th-century, Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated!.

Obviously it’s the last of these that is the least well-known. The theme of the work, and its title too, are taken from a rather catchy revolutionary Chilean song, and Rzewski puts it through a series of 36 virtuosic variations — from what I understand, this is much the most technically challenging of the pieces on this recording. I have heard only one other recording (of the mere handful available), by Marc-Andre Hamelin, and I’m not sure I’d want to choose between him and Levit. Nor, to be honest, will I return to Rzewski all that often.

The Diabelli Variations is an unqualified masterpiece, on the testimony of those who should know, but I confess that I’ve never been very enamoured of it. All that banging, Ludwig! Part of the problem is the theme: Beethoven was famously asked to contribute a single variation on a rather non-descript waltz, and replied instead with 32 variations of permanent musical importance, but I’ve always found them somehow too cold, too rigid, too downright Teutonic, boots high and elbows swinging, for my tastes. I’ve got a dozen or so recordings of the work in my collection, so I haven’t written it off easily, nor, to be clear, have I written it off yet. We’re still wrestling. With that in mind, I was keen to hear what Levit would do with it, and I must concede that his playing is marvellous. His careful dynamic control goes a long way to alleviating the overzealous banging that has marred other recordings for me, and there’s a certain rhythmic suppleness to his playing that is attractive.

But the principal reason why I want to praise this recording is for Levit’s Goldberg Variations. This is the summit of keyboard music for me, and Levit plays it beautifully. The contrapuntal lines are brought out with great clarity, the tempi are well-chosen, and the whole has a pristine quality, like clear water. One of the things I most appreciate about Levit is the sense of concentration he brings to his playing, a feeling that he is right inside the music: everything flows nicely, transitions are handled deftly, each note falls where it seems it should — everything just makes sense, musically. Those qualities are very much in evidence in Levit’s performance here. It doesn’t dislodge my favourite recording of this piece (by Murray Perahia), but it is undoubtedly a superb interpretation of inexhaustible music.

***

part-tallisThis year was a special year for Arvo Pärt, who celebrated his 80th birthday in September. There were a number of fine recordings of his music issued over the course of the year, but to my mind the finest of them came from an unexpected source: the Tallis Scholars! They are one of the world’s most admired choral ensembles, but over their 40 year history I believe this is the first time they have recorded music not by medieval or Renaissance composers. It’s a very pleasant surprise, and it makes sense too: Part’s music owes a great debt to the music the Tallis Scholars usually sing, so why wouldn’t they sing his music beautifully too? They’ve chosen a nice program: the seven Magnificat antiphons, the Magnificat itself, the jaunty Which Was The Son Of…, then Nunc Dimittis, two of Part’s gospel narrations (The Woman With the Alabaster Box and Tribute to Caesar), his beautiful setting of I Am The True Vine, and they close with the inward-looking Triodion. The voices throughout are crystal clear, tuning impeccable, pacing well-judged, and, most importantly with Pärt’s music but hard to articulate and harder to achieve, they let the sound of the music be in a kind of dialogue with the silence that surrounds it. Not every choir can pull that off.

***

macmillan-luke-passionJames MacMillan — or, I suppose, Sir James MacMillan — is one of the most consistently rewarding contemporary composers, and this year saw the release of the first recording of his St Luke Passion. MacMillan has written a fair amount of music for Holy Week, including a St John Passion and a scintillating Seven Last Words from the Cross. His St Luke Passion is a work for orchestra and chorus, lasting about 70 minutes in performance, and is divided into three parts: a short prelude on the Annunciation that is addressed to Our Lady, then a long central section in which he sets, word by word, chapters 23 and 24 of St Luke’s Gospel, and finally a postlude which draws on texts associated with the Resurrection and Ascension. MacMillan makes the unusual decision to set the words of Jesus in the higher registers (children’s voices) and the words of characters in the story, including Pilate, in the lower registers; this is the opposite of the usual pattern in Passion settings. The part of the Evangelist is sung by a male choir. The word setting is largely homophonic, except for the sayings of Jesus, on which he lavishes some lovely choral writing. There are a few problems on this recording with intelligibility of the texts; the words are familiar to me but even so I sometimes had trouble following if I simply listened. But the whole work is outstanding: vigorous, passionate, confident, and devout; and well worth hearing.

***

vox-silentii-memento-meiI listen to a fair bit of chant, and I have had occasion to recommend particularly good chant recordings in the past. This year is no exception, for this year I discovered the ensemble Vox Silentii, which hails from Finland. Vox Silentii is Hilkka-Liisa Vuori and Johanna Korhonen. They take an approach to chant that I think I have not encountered before: chant is, by its nature, a public music, meant to be sung during the sacred liturgy, and it is typically performed with sizable ensembles adhering to a fairly regular rhythmic plan, but Vox Silentii treat this music as a kind of personal disclosure, an intimate offering that might be arising directly from the heart in prayerful silence. That’s paradoxical, but I’m not sure how to say it more aptly. The singing is quiet and still, gently arising from silence and returning to it, the two voices wonderfully responsive to one another. The two discs which I heard, both of which I can recommend wholeheartedly, are Nox Lucis, a disc of Christmas chants, and Memento Mei, a disc of Easter chants. Mesmerizing.

***

hildegard-vox-cosmicaAn unexpected delight this year was a superb disc devoted to the music of the most recently-named Doctor of the Church: Hildegard von Bingen. Over the past few decades Hildegard’s music has become quite well known, and the catalogue now contains a substantial number of recordings, but this new disc, titled Vox Cosmica, stands out as something special. For one thing, it is sung principally by Arianna Savall (daughter of early music royals Jordi Savall and Montserrat Figueras), whose clear, radiant soprano is perfectly suited to these soaring vocal lines, lending them a gentle ecstatic quality. She is supported by an ensemble called Hirundo Maris, who play a curio-shop of unusual instruments: hardingfele, monochord, tromba marina, nyckelharpa, Roman bells, and lyra, not to mention the usual fiddles, flutes, and harps. Hildegard didn’t write musical accompaniments for her songs, so these are presumably improvised, and they provide a quietly shifting background on which the voice floats. “Inauthentic”, perhaps, but I have no objections to re-creations of old music when done as sensitively and imaginatively as this. The disc features five of Hildegard’s songs, plus a performance of Peter Abelard’s Planctus David, sung by Petter Udland Johansen. Between the medieval compositions are a set of original instrumental “meditations” by Johansen. These are not strictly in the medieval manner, for the creative exchange between past and present is part of the appeal of this project, but neither are they stylistically jarring. I thought they worked quite effectively as interludes. Taken together, this makes for a rewarding hour of listening.

***

haydn-early-londonMy favourite orchestral music of the year comes from an old recording first issued in the late 1960s: George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra’s performances of Haydn’s early London symphonies (Nos.93-98). Haydn’s symphonies are often overlooked, being overshadowed in the popular imagination by Mozart’s and Beethoven’s, but they are delightful and worth getting to know. Haydn’s musical imagination was always active, and his symphonies, though very numerous, are full of fresh ideas. In his London symphonies he’s as good as he ever was. The Cleveland Orchestra is a full-bodied modern orchestra (this recording was made before the period-instrument movement really got off the ground), and they lend Haydn’s music plenty of weight and presence, but without sacrifice of clarity. These recordings have been beloved for decades, and I understand why.

***

christian-gerhaher-2014-nachtviolen-compact-discThis Schubert recital is something of a souvenir for me this year. Back in February I was able to attend a concert in which Christian Gerhaher, accompanied from the piano by Gerold Huber, sang Schubert’s Winterreise. I had been looking for a good opportunity to hear this song-cycle in live performance for a long time, and I was not disappointed. Gerhaher has enjoyed critical plaudits across the board, with good reason. It was the best concert I went to this year. True, it was also the only concert I went to this year.

Nachtviolen is a collection of Schubert’s songs, none of which are taken from Winterreise, but all of which are worth hearing in Gerhaher’s hands. They range from the early An die Nachtigall, written when Schubert was a teenager, to the late Herbst, written sometime during the last year of his life. The singing throughout is immune to criticism, and the sound quality is excellent. There was another Schubert recital I greatly enjoyed this year, a live recording of Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake, and I went back and forth about which of them to prefer for this list. In the end I chose Nachtviolen on the strength of its superior recorded sound.

***

aquilonisThe title of this disc, Aquilonis, means “north wind”, and it is a fitting title for this collection of cool and crisp music from the Scandinavian women of Trio Mediaeval. Glancing over the program, it would seem unlikely to cohere: we have Italian sacred songs from the 12th century, English carols of the 15th century, a handful of pieces by contemporary composers, Norwegian folk songs, and self-composed instrumental interludes, all structured around the 14th-century Icelandic Office of St Thorlak, the patron of Iceland. The miracle is that it does sound like a unified program, and a gorgeous one too. Those who know Trio Mediaeval’s earlier recordings know that they sing with perfect precision and a slightly chilly tone, making the music sounds as though carved from ice. It’s very appealing. Perhaps the most interesting music on this disc are the new compositions, written specifically for Trio Mediaeval by Anders Jormin, Andrew Smith, and William Brooks. Smith, especially, is a composer who impresses me: he writes modest but superbly well-crafted miniatures, and seems (based on there and other pieces I have in my collection) to be drawn to sacred texts. (On this recording he sets Ave maris stella, Ave regina caelorum, and Ioseph fili David). I’d like to know more about him. If I have one complaint about Aquilonis it is that while it coheres musically, it is hard to see the thematic connections between Christmas songs, St Thorlak, fragments of Virgil, Marian hymns, and Norwegian folk. It feels like a jumble. As was the case with their mentors, The Hilliard Ensemble, Trio Mediaeval often seems to treat the pieces they sing as objet d’art, without reference to what the songs are about. That detracts a little from my enjoyment, but I’m willing to forgive such defects when they sing like this. [Hear excerpts]

***

sokolov-fugueThis year I discovered the Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov. (Hat-tip: Bryan Townsend) Sokolov has made only a few recordings over the course of his long career, all of them live recordings, I believe, and so he has not been well-known to record collectors, including myself. But he is a magnificent pianist. He cites both Rubinstein and Gould as important influences, and I think that helps to convey the qualities of his playing: rhythms are sprightly, counterpoint is clear, but the tone remains warm. This year he had his first major-label release, The Salzburg Recital, with a nice program principally of Mozart and Chopin. I enjoyed it, but I also acquired a few of his earlier recordings, and it has been hard for me to decide between his Chopin, his Schubert sonatas, or his Art of Fugue as my favourite. I’m going to go with Art of Fugue. In any case, I’m so pleased to have discovered him.

***

cantigasThe Cantigas de Santa Maria are a collection of vernacular songs compiled in the thirteenth century under the Castilian king Alfonso X el Sabio. It is the largest such collection in existence, consisting of over 400 songs, most of them narrating miracles of the Blessed Virgin. Selections from the collection have been recorded by many different ensembles over the years. I have 8 or 10 such in my collection, but I have never enjoyed one as much as I have enjoyed this one from Hana Blazikova and companions. The early music ‘movement’ is now several generations old, and the best of the young musicians evince a suppleness and gracefulness in their performances borne of familiarity with the musical idiom that was largely absent in the playing of the early music pioneers. This ensemble has that sense of familiarity and comfort in spades. This sounds like natural music-making, not a self-conscious revival of old music. They use authentic instruments of course — gothic and renaissance harps, percussion, and something called a dulcis melos — but they play them as if to the manner born. I can’t resist noting that the recording was made in the wonderfully-named Church of Our Lady under Chain at the End of the Bridge, in Prague. I’m sure they didn’t choose that venue for the name, but for the sound, which is excellent. This is an outstanding disc on every count, and worth hearing.

***

togni-responsioI would also like to praise two very interesting new records that engage with the music of the great medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut. The first is Responsio, by the Canadian composer Peter Togni, in which he has entered into a kind of dialogue with Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame. The foundation for Togni’s music is Machaut’s own four-part polyphony, into which Togni has woven a musical line for a bass clarinet (played on this recording by Jeff Reilly). The clarinet part, which is at least partly improvised, disrupts the smooth course that the voices would otherwise follow: modern dissonances and rhythmic aberrations crop up, diverting Machaut’s music into unexpected eddies and alternate courses before it finds its way again. Togni has also written original music for the Introit and a series of “responses” between the movements of the Mass. It’s a fascinating exercise, ably executed by a cast of four wonderful singers, and recommended to listeners who know Machaut’s Messe well. If I were ever to venture into composition (which, for lack of talent, I shall never do) a project like this is what I would want to try.

machaut-holligerThe second recording presents a selection of Machaut’s music alongside “transcriptions” by Heinz Holliger. I have to use the scare quotes because these are far from straightforward transcriptions. The distance between Machaut’s originals and Holliger’s reinventions is sometimes so great as to be inaudible, at least to this listener. Yet, even so, there is again something fascinating about the exercise, which one feels has been a labour of love; and anyone who loves Machaut is a friend of mine. The disc pairs performances of Machaut, ravishingly sung by the Hilliard Ensemble, with Holliger’s creative interpretations, scored for voices and violas. Spiky dissonances and all, this is a treat.

***

Other outstanding recordings:

Schnittke_PsalmsSchnittke: Penitential Psalms
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart
Marcus Creed
(Hanssler)

I have long treasured an old ECM recording of these choral pieces sung by the intrepid Swedish Radio Choir; its only real flaw is that the recorded sound is somewhat distant. On this new record the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart grapples manfully with the serious technical challenges of this music, and though I don’t think they quite match the fluency and ease of the Swedes, they do have the benefit of superior sound. I listened side by side to the two recordings to try to choose a favourite, and I couldn’t quite decide. Both are very good indeed.

weinberg-symphony10Weinberg: Symphony No.10
Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio
Ewelina Nowicka
(CPO)

Over the past few years I’ve fallen in love with the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg. This year saw the release of a number of discs of his music — including a first recording of his opera The Idiot — but I kept returning to this fine collection of orchestral music, which includes his Symphony No.10, the very engaging Concertino for violin and string orchestra, and the winsome Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes. It’s a nice collection that shows off Weinberg’s orchestral writing to good effect.

puccini-kaufmannPuccini: Nessun Dorma
Jonas Kaufmann
Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Antonio Pappano
(Sony)

A couple of years ago in my year-end review I praised Jonas Kaufmann’s Wagner recital; this year he returned with a fantastic collection of arias by Puccini. The programming is interesting: rather than focus just on the big hits, Kaufmann sings at least one aria from each of Puccini’s operas, so that while we do get the big numbers from Turandot and La boheme, we also get to hear some rarely heard arias from Edgar andLa Rondine. Kaufmann is in wonderful voice. Antonio Pappano directs the orchestra, so you know this is top shelf from start to finish.

contrapunctus-midstIn the Midst of Life
Contrapunctus
Owen Rees
(Signum)

It was also two years ago that I praised a previous recording by the choral ensemble Contrapunctus. On this new disc they sing music from the Baldwin Partbooks, one of the relatively few surviving sources for English (though Latin-texted) polyphony of the sixteenth century. All of the pieces selected for this disc are on the theme of mortality in one way or another, concluding with John Sheppard’s massive Media vita. This music is mostly quite familiar to enthusiasts, but Contrapunctus sing it so beautifully, with a clear, clean blend, that it seems new again. Gorgeous.


Favourites of 2015: Popular music

December 29, 2015

This year almost all of my popular music listening was devoted to that on-going pop music odyssey, and I didn’t go out of my way to listen to a lot of new records. In other words, to the extent that there was any good popular music this year, I probably don’t know about it. As such, you might wish to stop reading now.

***

dylan-shadowsIt was a good year to be a Bob Dylan fan. Early in the year he released Shadows in the Night, a disc devoted to covering songs associated with Frank Sinatra. If that seems like an intriguing combination to you, and if you’re keen to transmute a voice of gold into a voice of lead, you’re not alone: it received good reviews. I confess it is not really my thing. Sinatra’s music is a big blind spot for me, and Shadows in the Night hasn’t convinced me to rush to change that. I think of this record as a minor side-project, rather like (though not nearly so loveable as) his Christmas album.

dylan-cuttingNo, the really exciting Dylan record this year was The Bootleg Series, Vol.12: The Cutting Edge, 1965-66, a set of studio outtakes from the recording sessions for Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Popular music doesn’t get any better than those three records, and exploring these alternate versions and previously unreleased songs has been a thrill. The Cutting Edge has been issued in a 2-disc sampler version, a 6-disc “deluxe” edition (which is the one I have), and, if you can believe it, an 18-disc collector’s edition. Included in the set are a long-rumoured but heretofore unreleased electric version of “Desolation Row”, a full-band version of “Mr Tambourine Man”, a superb acoustic “She Belongs To Me” taken as a gentle andante, and many other delights. One disc is devoted entirely to outtakes of “Like A Rolling Stone”. There are even a few songs (some fragmentary) in this set that I’d never heard before: “Jet Pilot”, “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”, “California”, “Medicine Sunday”, and “Lunatic Princess”. One of Dylan’s most famous unreleased songs — and, I am tempted to say, one of his best — is “She’s Your Lover Now”, a version of which appeared on the very first Bootleg Series issue back in the 1990s, but on this set we get a handful of other takes, some of them quite different. For years it has been an entertaining parlour game to try to complete the stanza in which the previously-released recording faltered and broke down:

Your mouth used to be so naked,
Your eyes used to be so blue,
Your hurts used to be so nameless,
And your tears used to be so few.
Now your mouth cries wolf
While…

While what?! On The Cutting Edge we finally find out how it ends. And if you’ve ever dreamed about what it would have been like to eavesdrop on Dylan as he first strummed out one of his masterpieces, the very last track in this set, a quarter-hour long, tentative first airing of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, will be a dream come true, as it was for me.

To move from Dylan circa 1966 to anything else is inevitably to make a precipitous decline, but let’s look around and see what else came my way this year.

sufjan-carrie-lowellSufjan Stevens returned with Carrie & Lowell. After pulling out all the musical stops on his previous record, The Age of Adz, here he retreats to a quiet, dark corner to pluck out a collection of intimate songs about memory, family, and death — the record was written, I believe, following the death of his mother. It is a difficult record, thematically, though sprinkled with moments of grace here and there, and all that pain is transmuted into a quiet beauty by the simple arrangements and gentle melodies. When I first heard the record I did find it disappointing, not because of the spare sound (which I generally prefer to something more ambitious), but because the songs sounded too much alike. On further acquaintance, however, I withdraw this objection, and the record has been growing on me. And if I want to cleanse my pallet at record’s end with something more jovial, I can always take a ride on the “Christmas Unicorn”.

**

fullbright-songsIt is fitting that John Fullbright’s sophomore record (from 2014) is called, simply, Songs; he is a young songwriter of considerable gifts. Blessed with a nicely-rounded baritone, an instinct for good melodies, and enough heartbreak and melancholy to satisfy even the most exacting critic, he comes across as a genuine artistic force to be reckoned with. Most of these songs, influenced variously by the blues and the classic American songbook, are on the quiet side, with acoustic guitars and pianos in the foreground, though a few tracks do get the full band treatment. There is an intensity and a modesty — nothing too flashy — about his songwriting that I admire, and I’m going to be keeping an eye on him in the future.

**

The biggest disappointment of my year was unquestionably Mumford & Sons’ Wilder Mind. The first disappointment was that there was to be a third Mumford & Sons record at all; as much as I’d enjoyed their previous work — and I had — it was, and is, my view that Mumford would do better if he disinherited his Sons. Nonetheless, if there must be a third record, I was keen to hear it. I bought it. I listened to it, once, and couldn’t bring myself to listen to it again for the next six months. Nearly all that had made them distinctive and interesting was thrown overboard in favour of amped-up stadium rock of the kind you can hear any hour of any day on your local Bland FM station. I could hardly believe my ears. What possessed them to do this, I don’t know — though I $uppo$e I can think of $ome po$$ible rea$on$. Late in the year I have returned to Wilder Mind to give it another chance, and I will say that it’s not quite as bad as I had initially thought. There are some catchy tunes, and a couple of the songs I rather like (“The Wolf” and “Only Love”, principally). But there’s no denying that it’s still a big disappointment.

**

adams-1989Perhaps the oddest release of the year was Ryan Adams’ 1989, a track-for-track cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989. He says he became interested in what it would sound like if Nebraska-era Springsteen were to sing Swift’s songs, and so he decided to find out himself — and a very creditable imitation he does too. Now, I am one of those who think that Nebraska-era Springsteen could sing any old dreck and it would sound pretty terrific, and Adams’ 1989 vindicates me to a considerable extent. Some of the songs succeed better than others, naturally. In any case, Adams is one of those singers whom you can’t help but respect: he’s been toiling away in the indie rock world for years now, famously prolific, but never hitting the big time. I can only imagine that this little project, in addition to being an interesting experiment, will do wonders for his bottom line, and I hope so.

**

Children’s Music: Let me put in a good word for Justin Roberts, who has a respectable stack of children’s records under his belt, but whom we just discovered this year. It was his Pop Fly record that we found first, after I heard it described as “the Sgt Pepper of children’s albums”. We all enjoyed it tremendously. From there we got Jungle Gym, and then Meltdown!, and with each new record my appreciation of his talents has grown. roberts-pop-flyHe writes songs that the kids can relate to: songs about field trips, having a broken arm, getting lost in a store, playing in a treehouse, playing baseball, crossing the street, having an imaginary friend, going to bed, liking trucks, riding a bike, getting a new baby sister, having a birthday, and that sort of thing. He has a wonderful way with words too; if your typical pop music songsmith was half as witty the world would be a better place. What really sets him apart, however, is the quality of his music: the melodies are catchy and the arrangements are often impressively intricate. It’s rare to hear this level of craftsmanship from a children’s entertainer. So: Justin Roberts, thank you for a good year; our van singing would not be the same without you.

**

Other good records I heard: Josh Garrels, Home; Josh Ritter, Sermon on the Rocks; Andrew Peterson, The Burning Edge of Dawn; David Ramirez, Fables; The Innocence Mission, Hello, I Feel The Same; Robby Hecht, Robby Hecht.

Songs, Both Ear-Worms and Things More Substantial: Sinead O’Connor: “Take Me To Church”; Tim McGraw: “Losin’ You”; John Fullbright: “All That You Know”; Lee Ann Womack: “Chances Are”; Justin Roberts, “Fruit Jar”; Robby Hecht, “The Sea and the Shore”; The Collection, “Scala Naturae”; Ashley Monroe, “Has Anybody Ever Told You”; Jason Isbell, “Flagship”, Josh Garrels, “At The Table”.


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