Psalm

March 24, 2015

There are certain passages of Scripture that have become permanently associated with a particular piece of music. I cannot hear the phrase “For unto us a child is born” without hearing Handel’s music dancing beneath it.

The Psalm at today’s Mass is another example. Psalm 102: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my crying come unto thee”. I can never hear it without hearing Purcell’s poignant 8-part setting:


Pop music odyssey: the 1980s

March 15, 2015

***

Alright, enough of that.

I have completed another decade of my pop music odyssey, and I’m here to offer a few thoughts. The 1980s are, in my imagination, a kind of desolation for popular music, when the airwaves were ruled by — well, by nobody in this odyssey. Quite a few of the albums I listened to since my last report were new to me, so I have taken my time, listening to many of them numerous times in an effort to get a good sense of them.

This leg of the journey has been composed of 13 albums by Van Morrison (where, as usual, I count bootlegs and live recordings too), 12 by Dylan, 10 by Neil Young, 6 by Tom Waits, 5 by Mark Heard (about whom more below), and a pair each by Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen.

**

In my notes on the 1970s I deftly skirted the matter of Dylan’s gospel records, but I suppose I should say something here. The gospel period began with 1978’s Slow Train Coming and continued up through … well, it’s not entirely clear. There is no doubt that Saved and Shot of Love belong in this group, and I think it is pretty clear that 1983’s Infidels also belongs, but things get a little hazier when we come to Empire Burlesque a year later. A case could even be made for Oh Mercy — indeed, a case could be made for every album he’s made since.

If we stick just with the least ambiguous cases, it is fair to say that I don’t greatly care for Dylan’s gospel records. Too often angry, too often hectoring, too often downright paranoid — I find little to like. I want to honour the sincerity of Dylan’s religious convictions, which burned up in short order the goodwill he had storehoused with critics and the left-leaning social elites who had cherished him in the 1960s. Songs like “I Believe in You” and “Pressing On” are obviously the work of a man who has turned to God with his whole heart. But I cannot help thinking it a pity that the Christianity into which he converted was in the Hal-Lindsay-laced apocalyptic style, suspicious and rather shallow. Perhaps it was fitting that this most iconic of American talents should adopt a characteristically American branch of religion, I don’t know. But I wonder sometimes, late at night, what might have come if that seed had fallen into richer, more balanced, more nourishing soil. We’ll never know.

**

Dylan has never been scrupulous about putting his best music onto his records, but the 1980s were an especially unscrupulous period for him. You can count on the fingers of one hand the truly great songs he put on his records during these years: “Every Grain of Sand”, “I and I”, and a few from Oh Mercy. One could make a case for a few others: “Sweetheart Like You”, “Brownsville Girl”, depending on how generous one feels.

But then consider the songs he wrote and left off his records: “Angelina”, “Caribbean Wind”, “Blind Willie McTell”, “Born in Time”, “Dignity”, “Series of Dreams”, “Foot of Pride” — all of them pure gold. That, in a nutshell, is what makes Dylan in the 1980s such a frustrating listen.

**

Favourite anecdote:

Dylan: “How long did it take you to write “Hallelujah”?

Cohen: “About two years. How long did it take you to write “Isis”?”

Dylan: “About fifteen minutes.”

**

The plan all along was for this odyssey to focus on a core group of artists, but to pull in others as my fancy led. Thus a few Nick Cave records were included during this leg of the journey, but I also decided to fold in the music — more or less all of it — of Mark Heard. Heard was a songwriter and singer who toiled without much recognition in the “contemporary Christian music” world until his early and unexpected death in 1992. I wanted to include him because most of his early work (beginning in 1975) was unknown to me, and because in the early 1990s he made three truly outstanding records that can stand toe-to-toe with anything else in this odyssey. Maybe I just wanted to hear those records again, in context.

Anyway, I did backtrack to 1975 and listened all the way up through Mosaics, from 1985. (I wasn’t able to find his side-project record, Ideola, from 1987.) I admit I was disappointed. Heard started out as a kind of James Taylor character, plucking his guitar and singing in a sweet tenor. Production values on those early records are poor — the sound is generally thin and flat — and, what surprised me more, the songwriting is pedestrian. In his last years Heard became one of the most incisive and personal songwriters that I’ve ever encountered, but in the beginning he was, it seems, not that. Those early songs are mostly one-dimensional, overtly and rather carefully pious, sometimes hokey, and generally forgettable. But there were signs here and there of things to come: an evocative little song called “All the Sleepless Dreamers” popped up on Fingerprint (1980), and as the years passed his sound became rougher around the edges, the voice more ragged, and the songwriting more thoughtful and probing, until I could hear the whole Mosaics (1985) record as a bridge to his first masterpiece, Dry Bones Dance (1990). It was an interesting and rewarding side-journey, even if it didn’t turn up as much gold as I’d hoped it would.

**

Most With Least Award: Van Morrison, “Daring Night” (from Avalon Sunset). There can’t be more than 3 or 4 lines in this song, but Van spins from them a pretty terrific 6 minutes of music.

**

Neil Young in the 1970s was great; Neil Young in the 1980s was the opposite. Was he ever. Starting with 1980’s Hawks and Doves and continuing up through 1988’s This Note’s for You he released a string of 8 albums that could only be described as mediocre by an unusually generous listener. He seems to have temporarily mislaid his artistic identity, experimenting with whole records devoted to computer music (the execrable Trans (1983)), rockabilly (the likable but weird Everybody’s Rockin’ (1984)), and flipping from country to jazz to ill-judged synth-pop. A mess. And the songs were no good either, for the most part.

Now, it seems that at least part of the reason his music suffered so badly in this period was because, though he had a contractual obligation to release one record each year, his time and energy were absorbed in caring for his son, who had been born with a disability. In this sense his artistic declension was an honourable one, and I do not hesitate to praise his priorities, but honour and praise do not make the declension any less real.

He rallied, however, at the end of the decade, with Freedom, which saw him return to an even-more-crazed-than-usual Crazy-Horse style of fuzz-drenched rock. I’m not enamoured of the songs for the most part, but the sound of that record is outstanding: once again he is vital and passionate and really, really loud, and it suits him. “Rockin’ in the Free World” became a hit, making it perhaps the bitterest, most ironic stadium anthem ever written.

**

Literary figures named in Van Morrison’s songs of the 1980s: Blake, Wordsworth, Rimbaud, Lawrence, Eliot, Whitman, Yeats, Donne, Coleridge, Gibran. That’s off the top of my head. Does Gibran count as a literary figure?

**

The 1980s were an exciting time for Tom Waits. It was, arguably, the decade in which he did his best work, and in which he reinvented his sound. The down-and-out lounge poet was replaced by some kind of maniac wielding a monkey wrench and milk bucket and gargling razor blades. The transition was especially sharp between 1982’s Night on Earth soundtrack, with its orchestral score and gravelly love duets, and 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, with its bagpipes, bang-on-a-can percussion, and phalanx of (yes) trombones. It was a tremendously good move for Waits; it opened up a whole new world of sound and songwriting that he has explored for the rest of his career. And yet, as I listened through the records, the sharp lines between this and that began to blur a little. Swordfishtrombones was indeed a radical record, but Rain Dogs, from 1985, seemed to backpeddle a little and it is not too hard to hear continuity with 1980’s Heartattack and Vine, especially on the more “conventional” numbers like “Hang Down Your Head” and “Downtown Train”. Rain Dogs set a template for his future work, in which hallucinogenic croakings often sit comfortably cheek-by-jowel with endearingly downtrodden sentimental numbers. It’s a winning combination, and one unique to Waits.

**

I am convinced that three songs on Dylan’s Oh Mercy are masterpieces, but which three varies day to day.

**

As much as I count myself an admirer of Van Morrison, his records from the 1980s I have tended to neglect. Part of the fun of this odyssey is that I have opportunity to revisit and revise my thoughts, and I have been favourably impressed by these records.

I think it is fair to say that his mid-decade albums — from 1982’s Beautiful Vision up through 1987’s Poetic Champions Compose — suffer, if that is the right word, from a certain homogeneity. It is not always quite evident where one record ends and the next begins. Roughly speaking, the production values are slightly gauzy and there is a proliferation of mid-tempo musings. But if you can get past that the truth is that there are quite a few excellent songs to be discovered, and, more than that, there is a compelling through-line that makes of these records a unity greater than that afforded by mere musical similarities. He is stalking the holy. He is a dweller on the threshold of the transcendent. So many of these songs are about trying to grasp the ineffable, to behold a primordial beauty, to put himself in the way of ecstatic delight. “I’m a soul in wonder!” In these records — and it is a unifying thread through his whole catalogue, not just here — he is on an inner odyssey. And while it is true that he seems to be at heart beholden to the Romantic tradition of seeking a non-dogmatic transcendence (mediated most intensely through literature and art and nature), in his murky wanderings he does occasionally butt up against the solidity of religion. It’s a fascinating body of work, and I am thoroughly enjoying the time I am spending exploring it.

**

I’ll close with some lists. First, my favourite odyssey-albums from the 1980s, in rough descending order:

Tom Waits — Rain Dogs (1985)
Bob Dylan — Oh Mercy (1989)
Tom Waits — Swordfishtrombones (1983)
Van Morrison — Avalon Sunset (1989)
Bob Dylan — Infidels (1983)
Van Morrison — No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986)
Leonard Cohen — I’m Your Man (1988)
Van Morrison — Beautiful Vision (1982)
Neil Young — Freedom (1989)
Van Morrison — Common One (1980)

The first four I consider essential. Not perfect, and not as masterful masterpieces as the same singers produced at other times, but they are records that I can, and do, listen to again and again, and they bear the scrutiny.

**

Choosing a list of just ten favourite songs is tough, but since I am forced to do so by arbitrary convention, here I go:

Leonard Cohen — “If It Be Your Will” (Various Positions)
Bob Dylan — “Blind Willie McTell” (Infidels sessions)
Tom Waits — “Johnsburg, IL” (Swordfishtrombones)
Bob Dylan — “Foot of Pride” (Infidels sessions)
Bob Dylan — “Shooting Star” (Oh Mercy)
Bob Dylan — “I and I” (Infidels)
Van Morrison — “Summertime in England” (Common One)
Van Morrison — “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God?” (AS)
Tom Waits — “Jersey Girl” (Heartattack and Vine)
Van Morrison — “In the Garden” (No Guru)

**

What was the worst album in this leg of the odyssey? Going in I expected it to be Dylan & The Dead, the concert album that Dylan recorded with the Grateful Dead in 1987. I’d never heard it, but its noxious reputation has achieved canonical status. To my surprise, I found it not all that bad! Bad, yes, but not greatly worse than many of his other live albums, and — more to the point — nowhere near as bad as Neil Young’s Trans, as ill-conceived and unlistenable a record as I have ever heard. It takes the broken palm.

As for worst song, I’m going to stick with Neil Young again. So many candidates! How about “T-Bone”, from Re-ac-tor (1981)? There is just one line in the song: “Got mashed potatoes, ain’t got no T-bone”, repeated ad nauseum. The song is over nine minutes long.

**

Next time: the 1990s.


Jean Vanier

March 12, 2015

I am delighted to learn that Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, has been awarded the Templeton Prize this year. The Templeton Prize is awarded annually to a person “who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension”.

Vanier is a Canadian, the son of a distinguished Canadian family, who has devoted his life to living with and caring for those with severe disabilities. I have had the privilege to hear him speak on two occasions, both of them unforgettable. It is hard to put into words the effect his presence had on me. The man is luminous. There is a simplicity and gentleness about him that is very attractive. If I had to wager on anyone I have met being a saint, I would wager on him.

Previous winners of the Templeton Prize have included the Dalai Lama, Charles Taylor, Freeman Dyson, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Billy Graham, but one would have to reach all the way back to the very first award, which went to Mother Teresa, to find a more deserving recipient. Just thinking of Jean Vanier affirms life’s spiritual dimension.

(Hat-tip: Rod Dreher)


Lenten reading: “the sharp dart”

March 6, 2015

He may well be loved, but not thought. By love He can be caught and held, but by thinking never. Therefore, though it may be good sometimes to think particularly about God’s kindness and worth, and though it may be enlightening too, and a part of contemplation, yet in the work now before us it must be put down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you are to step over it resolutely and eagerly, with a devout and kindling love, and try to penetrate that darkness above you. Strike that thick cloud of unknowing with the sharp dart of longing love, and on no account whatever think of giving up.

The Cloud of Unknowing.


Visual tintinnabulation

March 5, 2015

The Tallis Scholars, in a rare foray outside of their usual Renaissance repertoire, have just issued a disc of Arvo Pärt’s music. Here is the group’s long-time leader, Peter Phillips, describing some of it. The video has a nice way of visualizing the music by showing which singers are singing at any one time. It’s entrancing.


Odds and ends

February 26, 2015
  • Roger Scruton has had his ups and downs, but has learned something along the way, about love, about parenting, about education, and many other things that are part of becoming a family. This old essay is well worth reading:

What we have discovered through marriage is not the first love that induced it but the second love that follows, as the vow weaves life and life together. Western romanticism has fostered the illusion that first love is the truest love, and what need has first love of marriage? But an older and wiser tradition recognizes that the best of love comes after marriage, not before.

  • The Academy Awards came and went. I note that Ida, one of my favourite films from last year, won in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Well done, Academy.
  • That film about Alan Turing was nominated for Best Picture, and lost. In much the same spirit, Ed Feser took a close look at the Turing Test and gave it a failing grade.
  • I did not see any of the films nominated in the Best Animated Feature category, but, just based on the trailer, I’m pretty sure I know which should have won. Check this out:

Medieval philosophy, without any gaps

February 19, 2015

Over the past few months I’ve been listening in on a very interesting long-term podcast series: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, by Peter Adamson. After covering Greek, Roman, and Islamic philosophy the series has recently reached its 200th episode and has begun to explore medieval philosophy. The podcast is very well done; each episode is about 20 minutes long, with a new episode every week or so.

The “without any gaps” modifier is part of the appeal. For instance, a typical survey of philosophy makes a fairly cursory mention of St. Anselm and his ontological argument for God’s existence; Peter Adamson devoted three or four episodes to exploring various aspects of Anselm’s thought. He also gave a few episodes to the 9th century metaphysician John Scotus Eriugena, who is often skipped entirely. Yet despite this level of detail the podcast is clearly pitched at non-specialists. The discussion is generally clear and often enlivened by an endearingly corny wit. I find it very enjoyable.

I can’t help wondering how far Adamson has charted his course into the future; he makes occasional jokes about the series never actually coming to an end, but the joke has a point. If Anselm gets four episodes, how many will Aquinas get? And Kant?! Well, with a podcast this interesting I can hardly complain.


Chesterton: The Ball and the Cross

February 13, 2015

The Ball and the Cross
G.K. Chesterton
Introduction by Martin Gardner
(Dover) [1906]
190 p.

In this, one of his earliest novels, Chesterton tells the story of two Scotsmen, MacIan and Turnbull, the former a Catholic and the latter an atheist, trying to settle their differences not through argument but rather by that time-honoured tradition: the duel. But each time they find a quiet place to conduct their business, they are interrupted at the last moment. The characters who wander between them roughly represent different philosophies and views of life, and so the book is a sequence of scenes in which the Catholic and the atheist argue with a wide spectrum of opponents, all the while wanting only to fight one another. In the end the two find that, despite their differences, they can indeed fight side by side, for they share one conviction not shared by the others: devotion to truth.

It is not one of Chesterton’s best books; he himself claimed later in life that he did not like it, even penning a little verse on the subject:

This is a book I do not like,
Take it away to Heckmondwike,
A lurid exile, lost and sad
To punish it for being bad.
You need not take it from the shelf
(I tried to read it once myself:
The speeches jerk, the chapters sprawl,
The story makes no sense at all)
Hide it your Yorkshire moors among
Where no man speaks the English tongue.

His judgement is basically sound: little effort is made to disguise the fact that the minor characters exist only as an occasion to critique one worldview or another. It has some structural problems, too; one gets the impression that he didn’t know from one chapter to the next what would happen; his attempts at probing the deep significance of the conflict between MacIan and Turnbull through their dreams are failures. Yet, even so, I would not be as hard on the book as Chesterton was.  There are some good things in it. The premise that a metaphysical dispute can and should be settled by a brawl or duel is itself a Chestertonian joke. Like all of Chesterton’s work, the book is full of good humour and that joie de vivre with which he was so generously endowed.

Chesterton frequently defended the merit of fighting for religious ideas.  Here is a passage in which MacIan, the Catholic, recalls the reason for the duel and defends it to a judge:

If he had said of my mother what he said of the Mother of God, there is not a club of clean men in Europe that would deny my right to call him out.  If he had said it of my wife, you English would yourselves have pardoned me for beating him like a dog in the market place.  Your worship, I have no mother; I have no wife.  I have only that which the poor have equally with the rich; which the lonely have equally with the man of many friends.  To me this whole strange world is homely, because in the heart of it there is a home; to me this cruel world is kindly, because higher than the heavens there is something more human than humanity.  If a man must not fight for this, may he fight for anything?

Chesterton made his living in journalism, and here he makes some amusing remarks about that profession:

…there exists in the modern world, perhaps for the first time in history, a class of people whose interest is not that things should happen well or happen badly, should happen successfully or unsuccessfully, should happen to the advantage of this party or the advantage of that party, but whose interest simply is that things should happen.

It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding.

The two would-be duelers meet a character – a `Tolstoian’ – who advocates non-violence, mutual understanding, and love. MacIan responds with memorable vehemence:

Sir, talk about the principle of love as much as you like. You seem to me colder than a lump of stone; but I am willing to believe that you may at some time have loved a cat, or a dog, or a child. When you were a baby, I suppose you loved your mother. Talk about love, then, till the world is sick of the word. But don’t talk about Christianity. Don’t you dare say one word, white or black, about it. Christianity is, as far as you are concerned, a horrible mystery. Keep clear of it, keep silent upon it, as you would an abomination. It is a thing that has made men slay and torture each other; and you will never know why. It is a thing that has made men do evil that good might come; and you will never understand the evil, let alone the good. Christianity is a thing that will only make you vomit, until you are other than you are. I would not justify it to you, even if I could. Hate it, in God’s name…It is a monstrous thing for which men die.

Which, to put it mildly, is not usually the way one thinks about it.

One of Chesterton’s favourite themes — even here, a full 15 years before his conversion — was the continuity and endurance of Catholicism contrasted with the ephemeral careers of all those doctrines attacking her. Thus, MacIan says to his opponent, James Turnbull:

I begin to understand one or two of your dogmas…and every one that I understand I deny.  Take any one of them you would like.  You hold that your heretics and sceptics have helped the world forward and handed on a lamp of progress.  I deny it.  Nothing is plainer from real history than that each of your heretics invented a complete cosmos of his own which the next heretic smashed entirely to pieces.  Who knows now exactly what Nestorius taught?  Who cares?  There are only two things that we know for certain about it.  The first is that Nestorius, as a heretic, taught something quite opposite to the teaching of Arius, the heretic who came before him, and something quite useless to James Turnbull, the heretic who comes after.  I defy you to go back to the freethinkers of the past and find any habitation for yourself at all.  I defy you to read Godwin or Shelley or the deists of the eighteenth century or the nature-worshipping humanists of the Renaissance, without discovering that you differ twice as much from them as you differ from the Pope.  You are a nineteenth century skeptic, and you are always telling me that I ignore the cruelty of nature.  If you had been an eighteenth century skeptic you would have told me that I ignore the kindness and benevolence of nature.  You are an atheist, and you praise the deists of the eighteenth century.  Read them instead of praising them, and you will find that their whole universe stands or falls with the deity.  You are a materialist and you think Bruno a scientific hero.  See what he said and you will think him an insane mystic.  No, the great freethinker, with his genuine ability and honesty, does not in practice destroy Christianity.  What he does destroy is the freethinker who went before.  Free-thought may be suggestive, it may be inspiriting, it may have as much as you please of the merits that come from vivacity and variety.  But here is one thing free-thought can never be by any possibility – free-thought can never be progressive.  It can never be progressive because it will never accept anything from the past; it begins every time from the beginning, and it goes every time in a different direction.  All the rational philosophers have gone along different roads, so it is impossible to say who has gone the furthest.  Who can discuss whether Emerson was a better optimist than Schopenhauer a pessimist?  It is like asking whether the corn is as yellow as the hill is steep.  No; there are only two things that really progress; and they both accept accumulations of authority.  They may be progressing uphill or down; they may be growing steadily better or steadily worse; but they have steadily increased in certain definable matters; they have steadily advanced in a certain definable direction; they are the only two things, it seems, that ever can progress. The first is strictly physical science. The second is the Catholic Church.

Do I hear an Amen?


Malick’s knight(s)

February 9, 2015

It’s the moment some have been waiting for: Terrence Malick’s latest film, Knight of Cups, had its premiere this weekend at the Berlin Film Festival. Here is the trailer:

Reactions to the film have started to come in from critics, and Jeffrey Overstreet is doing a good service by collecting and excerpting them. So far the reviews have been all over the map, from

With vacant eyes and mouth agape, man continues his seemingly irrevocable fall from innocence, in Terrence Malick’s eternally juvenile seventh feature Knight of Cups. (Michael Pattison)

to

The most anticipated film of Berlinale 2015 looks set to be the best one. It’s hard to imagine equivalent notes of grace and meaning being struck in this competition or indeed in this world. (Sophie Monks Kaufman)

I’m not all that surprised. Malick is such an unusual filmmaker — both technically and thematically — that not everyone appreciates him. This was even true of his greatest masterpiece (to date), The Tree of Life, which I know some people, unaccountably, judge to be something less than the greatest film ever made.

I don’t know when the rest of us will get to see Knight of Cups, but I’m hoping that it will be sometime this year. So far as I know there’s no distribution deal yet. In the meantime, we can watch the trailer again.

Speaking of Malick and knights: did you know that some years ago he was tossing around the idea of doing a film of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? Can you imagine! Apparently the project has now gone cold. I do believe I’m going to be sad for the rest of the day.


52 authors

February 2, 2015

Over at Light On Dark Water Maclin Horton has organized a year-long blogging project called 52 Authors. It’s a community effort: each week either Maclin or one of his regular readers will contribute a short appreciation or overview of the work of a favourite author. I might even contribute myself if I can find some time.

The project started at the New Year, and so far we’ve had posts on Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Howard, Salman Rushdie, Mark Helprin, and, today, Henri de Lubac. If you’re a reader — and if you’re not, what the heck are you doing here? — I recommend taking a look. Oh, and it might be time to invest in some new bookshelves.


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