Articles on this Page
- 09/11/16--19:05: _YG: Still Brazy (ta...
- 09/27/16--19:20: _Hamilton Leithauser...
- 11/01/16--15:45: _Torn Clean
- 11/16/16--20:00: _Write Better Songs:...
- 12/08/16--05:42: _Only the Family
- 12/08/16--19:15: _Lil Durk: They Forgot
- 04/15/17--05:39: _Mining Light
- 04/19/17--01:07: _Groundswell: An Int...
- 04/19/17--15:35: _52Hz
- 04/25/17--19:15: _Colin Stetson: All ...
- 09/20/17--19:20: _Metz: Strange Peace
- 09/22/17--03:30: _'Top of the Lake': ...
- 09/29/17--01:00: _Me, Myself, and I: ...
- 12/12/17--08:30: _'Curb Your Enthusia...
- 03/01/18--02:00: _E Ruscha V's 'Who A...
- 08/09/18--05:36: _Tirzah Sound Like T...
- 09/11/16--19:05: YG: Still Brazy (take 2)
- 09/27/16--19:20: Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam: I Had a Dream That You Were Mine
- 11/01/16--15:45: Torn Clean
- 11/16/16--20:00: Write Better Songs: An Interview with Sleigh Bells' Derek Miller
- 12/08/16--05:42: Only the Family
- 12/08/16--19:15: Lil Durk: They Forgot
- 04/15/17--05:39: Mining Light
- 04/19/17--01:07: Groundswell: An Interview With Angaleena Presley
- 04/19/17--15:35: 52Hz
- 04/25/17--19:15: Colin Stetson: All This I Do For Glory
- 09/20/17--19:20: Metz: Strange Peace
- 12/12/17--08:30: 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' S9 Couldn't Find Its Rhythm
- 08/09/18--05:36: Tirzah Sound Like They're Drifting Apart on 'Devotion'
There is tension everywhere in YG’s second studio album, Still Brazy . It is the fundamental tension of gangster rap—between lyrics that are shaped by violence, misogyny, fatalism, and emotional numbness, and music that makes these things sound desirable.
This tension is not new, but it is becoming rare in modern hip-hop, which, is generally more interested in exploring vulnerability than hiding or justifying it, and it runs right through the center of YG’s music.
Two years ago, YG released his debut album, My Krazy Life , after dropping mixtapes at a steady clip for the previous five years. Much of the album was produced by DJ Mustard, who specializes in a sort of minimalist bounce, driven by sounds with a distinctly physical character. It’s not texture so much as mass, the feeling of a dense, weighted presence.
YG used these sounds to simulate the adrenalized rush of a life lived on the edge, and his voice mirrored Mustard’s bounce, expanding and contracting syllables in rapid bursts. His lyrics are heavy on impulse and light on reflection; they are charged by the heat of the moment.
Two things happened after My Krazy Life : first, YG became famous. The album reached number two on the Billboard 200 album chart, and its lead single, re-titled for radio airplay as “My Hitta,” cracked the top-20 of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Second, YG was shot three times at a Los Angeles recording studio in the summer of 2015. He has been candid about his gang affiliation (with the Compton Piru Bloods), and it’s not much of a reach to speculate that the two are connected.
In the wake of the shooting, YG was defiant. “I’m hard to kill”, he proclaimed in his first interview after the attack.
But Still Brazy tells a different story.
The pressures of celebrity and the threat of violence created a conflict within him. On one hand, he is paranoid, unable to trust even his friends or family. On the other, he is enamored by the social hierarchies celebrity and gang culture create, and his elevated positions within them. This is not a unique conflict, but it is notable here for the way it consumes everything around it.
The percussive popping and bubbling remain in the beats, which echo DJ Mustard’s but were created without his involvement. (YG and Mustard had a temporary feud over compensation for work on My Krazy Life during the recording of Still Brazy .) But what they signify has shifted. Here, the percussive sounds imply power and control in response to oppression. I will not be quiet. I will not be scared. I will let you know I am here , they say.
But the melodic sounds are unstable, colored by fear and uncertainty. YG may have escaped economic hardship, but the physical and emotional threats have amplified in the wake of his success. He has trouble finding solid ground.
He is at his most frantic on the title track, struggling to untangle the knots in his head—and stomach—without losing his breath. He installs cameras in his home, wears a bulletproof vest when he ventures outside, and is unable to distinguish friends from the vultures circling his fortune. At times, his voice slides to the back of his throat and cracks, matching the quivering, melodic tone behind him. The whole thing is a little queasy, tightening with each verse.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the three tracks that follow “Still Brazy” and close the album—“FDT”, “Blacks & Browns”, and “Police Get Away wit Murder”—move outside YG’s head to address politics, racism, social stratification, and police brutality. It’s hard to dig much further into your mind without losing your sanity. There’s comfort in community, even under the worst circumstances.
“Still Brazy,” finds a counterpoint in “Twist My Fingaz”, the album’s lead single and an act of provocation. Here, YG sounds sly, confident, and sharp at the edges. He addresses his shooting directly and concisely (“I tried to pop first, got popped back / Got hit in the hip, couldn’t pop back”) and brushes off those who wish to harm him. The song is built on a more stable foundation than “Still Brazy”, the wobbling melodies pushed further to the side.
Fittingly, the album resists resolution, instead ending on an ellipsis. In its final seconds, after the music cuts out, YG says—to no one in particular—“And they wonder why I live life lookin’ over my shoulder”.
We listen to music for many reasons, but one of the most mysterious is the pursuit of feelings we don’t like to experience -- heartbreak, loneliness, regret. We listen to songs that remind us of how it feels to hurt, even when pain is the last thing we need.
This sounds strange out of context, but what we’re doing is not quite creating a feeling, but looking at it from the outside, seeing its shape and the force of its impact without bearing its weight. Sure, this is a form emotional voyeurism, but there’s something else going on. We seek understanding and communion, and by experiencing simulated emotion, we’re better able to brace for the real thing when it arrives; we learn that we’re not alone.
Hamilton Leithauser made a career singing songs that sound like fading memories with his former band, the Walkmen . Rostam Batmanglij, who uses his first name as his stage name, pushed Vampire Weekend , the band for which he served as a songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist for almost ten years, in a similar direction. Together with lead singer Ezra Koenig, Rostam moved the band from the wry, winking sensibility of its self-titled debut album to the existential ruminating that colored its most recent, 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City .
So when Rostam and Leithauser teamed up for two songs on Leithauser’s first solo album, 2014’s Black Hours , the collaboration made an intuitive sense. Neither has much interest in the postures of disaffected cool that came to be synonymous with a certain kind of indie rock band in the first decade of the millennium. They’re serious about matters of the heart and soul, and each performs -- or in Rostam’s case, arranges -- without irony. They mean what they say.
Their first collaborative album, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine , fixates upon lost or unrequited love. In aggregate, you get the sense Leithauser’s narrators are the kinds of people who are most comfortable longing for an idealized version of love that exists only in its absence. They don’t seem like they can handle the work a serious relationship requires. This is not an admirable trait, and it proves that Leithauser is a great vocalist, because his characters only seem like emotionally-stunted romantics when his lyrics are detached from his interpretations. When sung, his characters attain a tragic dignity. They are not fighting for themselves, but for everyone who’s ever wanted something he can’t have. They are spokesmen, martyrs.
On “1000 Times", the album’s opening track, he takes a flimsy premise -- dreaming of unreturned love -- and gives it stakes. This happens when Leithauser’s tenor reaches toward its upper register, tightening and revealing its coarse texture. Obsessive longing is an intensely private experience, but through Leithauser, it is exploded and filtered through unexamined self-pity. It is ugly to look at, but comforting to know it exists outside yourself. Leithauser sings most of the album from this place, and he creates a magnetic pull toward his perspective. His former bandmates in the Walkmen seemed to recognize this, and built their arrangements around his voice. Their movements tended to converge on his, concentrating a song’s emotional content on a fixed point.
Rostam works from a different space. In his compositions, you hear a little curiosity, a little chaos. His music arrives in discrete pieces, more interested in contrast than overtones. It is sculpted, not found. Sometimes, this is too much. A singer with as much elemental force as Leithauser demands a larger share of the spotlight. He is the sort of artist who pulls a song into his orbit and cuts away the frills. In Rostam, there is a desire to test sounds against each other, to find just the right frequency to change a song’s center of gravity.
There are moments on I Had a Dream when their perspectives lock together and strike you in the gut. One of these moments comes during “When the Truth Is…” as the chorus arrives and Leithauser clashes against the squall of a saxophone and processed drums. In this collision, there is the sound of self-doubt, the rush of embarrassment and regret that comes with the return of a humiliating memory. There is a pang of recognition, a moment of analysis, and relief that it is not your burden to bear. Not yet, at least.
Most artists who experience early success set their sights on expansion as they move past the initial waves of excitement into a stable fanbase and signature style. They take in more sounds -- different sounds -- than they have before. On his fourth album, 808s & Heartbreak , Kanye West created a frigid and paranoid variant of R&B; The Clash surveyed global music on their fourth album, Sandinista! .
Sleigh Bells, the duo of producer and guitarist Derek Miller and singer and songwriter Alexis Krauss, carry the opposite impulse. On their fourth album, Jessica Rabbit , they sought to narrow their focus. It wasn't minimalism, but an intense focus and intentionality.
"If you're a rock band, you make rock records. If you make pop records, that has a different set of rules and parameters, in a way," Miller said in a phone interview. "And I've struggled with trying to create parameters for us so that we don't spread ourselves too thin or genre-hop because I really dislike records that genre-hop and artists that genre-hop. I think it's hack, and I'd like to avoid that."
This is a surprising perspective, because he and Krauss shot to minor fame in 2010 due to a style that took in elements of metal, pop, hip-hop, and abrasive electronic music. Their first album, Treats , is a useful synecdoche for the broad cultural appetites encouraged by the internet. The record is dense and combustible, setting off bursts of noise like land mines. Its broad sonic palette was not incidental to the duo's enthusiastic fandom; it was the core of their appeal.
"Every song on this album merges a noisy kick in the head with a pop enticement, as blasts of low-fi drums and loud guitar bracket girlish vocals. Each whipsaw only whets the appetite for more," New York Times music critic Jon Pareles wrote about Treats , identifying the bold contradictions that created a buzz around Miller and Krauss when they had only a few MySpace demos to their name.
Miller is still proud of Treats , but he has set about narrowing the band's scope since. He has done this by funneling the unifying quality of his and Krauss' work -- noise -- into more melodic and guitar-oriented contexts. The band's second and third records, Reign of Terror , which Miller described as a "cartoonish fake metal record," and Bitter Rivals , on which Krauss took a larger role in writing vocal melodies, were less sprawling in concept and violent in execution. If Treats was a series of pipe bombs, Reign of Terror and Bitter Rivals were controlled blasts.
While working on Jessica Rabbit , Miller worried about the danger of letting concept overwhelm execution. He responded by focusing on the fundamentals of songwriting and production. "We were anxious to try out new things and to move forward, but more than anything, to write better songs," Miller said. "That's always the goal for me is to try to write a great song: the right lyric, the right chords, the right production. You can't beat it when everything comes together, when every moment arrives just when it's supposed to, and three-and-a-half minutes feel like thirty seconds."
Recording the album was a quest for simplicity, to pull order from the chaos of inspiration. The album took on many shapes during the nearly three years it was under production, shifting and expanding as Miller and Krauss took to new ideas.
There was a point, in late 2014, when the record appeared to be complete. Miller and Krauss played that version for Tom Whalley, founder of the record label Loma Vista Recordings. Whalley sensed potential in their work but saw it as a blueprint rather than a finished product. Miller, who would have bristled at that feedback in previous years, found he was able to view it as an opportunity, rather than an insult.
"I've been much more present and taking much better care of myself the past two years. I'm much more even tempered, so when I played the record for Tom...my head was clear and I was calm and I was ready to hear feedback and criticism and not react to it like a child. And it was great. It was intimidating but I think it was healthy."
So Miller and Krauss returned to the studio and worked, struggling to direct their ideas toward a single, coherent expression. Rather than feeling "hemmed in" by their body of work, Miller felt the opposite, "Instead of feeling like we were walled in sonically and aesthetically, I felt like it was almost too wide open -- there are too many options," he said. Miller and Krauss struggled to sort through those options, but they eventually had to put limits on their restlessness.
"It was frustrating" Miller said, "because a song like 'Loyal For' is just basically a loop of delayed cellos and then a song like 'I Can Only Stare' coexists with a song like 'Throw Me Down the Stairs,' which 'Throw Me Down the Stairs' is borderline brutal in terms of heaviness and 'I Can Only Stare' has sort of a melancholy, glassy texture to it, and can those two songs live under the same roof together and get along? Maybe, maybe not. It was a question that was driving me crazy. And that's part of the reason the record took so long. But I had to call it.
"At the end of the day ... the records are three years apart. It's okay, but you don't want to wait any longer than that. I certainly didn't. I wanted to play shows again and I needed to just take even a month off from writing because I had not taken a month off and it was really unhealthy, turning me into a psychopath."
The end result is, from moment to moment, the duo's most restive effort, executing frequent pivots in melody, timbre, and tempo. It is the sort of album, like The Avalanches' Since I Left You or Frank Ocean's Endless , which preserves the energy of inspiration, approximating a tangled rush of ideas and sensations, rather than forcing them into conventional shapes. Where Reign of Terror and Bitter Rivals strived toward concision and order, Jessica Rabbit allows for a certain wildness of spirit.
But, in talking to Miller, it becomes clear he had something else in mind, something tidier and more consistent. You get the sense that, like many artists, he would have continued to revise it had he been free from the biological and economic limitations inherent in any creative project.
"I feel like that's one of the weaknesses of this record, to be perfectly honest," Miller admitted. "I feel like it's a little bit uneven, and I drove myself crazy trying to put the tracklisting together and sequence it."
"Still, I'm glad we took the time we did, and I think it's a better record for it," he adds.
While Miller and Krauss were grappling with their musical identity, they were also defending it. On November 2, 2015, Miller tweeted, ".@ddlovato Demi Lovato flattered you guys sampled Infinity Guitars & Riot Rhythm for 'Stars' but we were not contacted. Gotta clear those."
. @ddlovato Demi Lovato flattered you guys sampled Infinity Guitars & Riot Rhythm for "Stars" but we were not contacted. Gotta clear those.— SLEIGH BELLS (@sleighbells) November 2, 2015
The samples in question were two percussive tracks on Lovato's "Stars", one of which appears at the beginning of the song, the other at the end of the first chorus. Miller was alerted to them by fans on Twitter, who thought he had produced the song. Miller listened to it and recognized the beat.
"This is a master usage. It's not a replay, it's our exact beat," he said. "That beat is so specific the second I heard it I knew it was the master. Especially the clap, I mean the whole thing, but there's a clap between the one and the backbeat which is the main snare -- it's the two and the four. And myself and our manager, Will Hubbard, recorded that in his apartment. That's just us sitting on his couch clapping, and his apartment sounds so specific. And it's not a clap that's in a sample pack; we created that ourselves. I was really surprised how blatant it was.
"So they just snatched them, and I was truly flattered, but we've sampled artists before in the past just once with Funkadelic, and we went through the proper channels and cleared it and they get some of the publishing and whatnot, and that's how those things work."
Though Miller and Krauss decided to sue Lovato for copyright infringement, Miller harbors no bitterness toward Lovato. The legal action was a statement of principle, and a protective effort to fend off uncleared samples in the future. "If you let somebody steal your lunch money once when you're a kid, they're gonna get you every day," Miller said.
He and Krauss held to another principle when deciding how to release Jessica Rabbit : the requirement that they have complete control over the album's final form. After working with the independent label Mom + Pop for their first three albums, the two looked elsewhere this time around. The decision was not a reaction to Mom + Pop -- who Miller was quick to clarify provided them with the creative support and freedom they required -- but to a feeling that change, for its own sake, was necessary.
Yet many of the labels he and Krauss spoke with were not willing to grant them the autonomy they needed. "Most of the labels that we spoke to over the past two years when we were trying to figure out who we were going to put this record out with, all of the work relationships would have been conditional," Miller said.
"So that was the main thing that changed, which I understand because that's the music industry in 2016 and just about every number is getting smaller across the board for everybody, so people are uptight and I respect that. But I can't let that affect the way in which we work."
Miller and Krauss decided to start their own label, Torn Clean, to ensure they would not have to bend their art to the shaky economics of the modern music industry. For now, the label will function as an outlet for Sleigh Bells albums and videos. But, in the future, they may use it to create space for artists to operate with the same freedom they've been granted.
"If an artist opens for us and they're badass, and we feel like we could help them by signing them and getting some ears on their music, then we would. But we didn't start the label with the intention of doing anything right off the bat but putting out our own records. But we'll see where it goes. I really have no idea, to be perfectly honest."
The options, you might say, are endless.
There is more to the way we process music than sound. There is also mythology, the images we affix to sounds: Brian Wilson leading session players in pursuit of a great pop symphony; Prince in the studio, alone, recording each instrumental and vocal part with perfect virtuosity.
One of the most powerful mythologies in American popular music is the image of the artist devising and executing an idea simultaneously -- creation through extended improvisation. That is the mythology of the jam band, the punk band, and, in recent history, the rap mixtape, which grew in stature and renown as artists like Lil Wayne, Clipse, 50 Cent, and Future made releases that sounded as if they were created in fits of divine inspiration. The best mixtapes made tedious work look easy.
On his most recent mixtape, They Forgot , Lil Durk plays into this mythology. Four years ago, he rose to regional fame with a group of young Chicago rappers -- including Chief Keef, King Louie, Fredo Santana, and Lil Reese -- who formed a subgenre, “drill", in which they concentrated the ideas and ideals promoted by gangster rap into a received value system. There is a reverent, almost evangelical bent to the way they talk about sex, violence, and drugs, and they create a tension between content and its presentation. The content is vivid, concerned with matters of life and death and the most fundamental ways to experience pleasure. The presentation is often aggressive but disaffected, shaped by the desire to present oneself as invulnerable.
The most effective drill rappers make music with a grave weight, urgency, and force, like Chief Keef, the subgenre’s most famous export. Keef, who was 17 when he released his debut album, Finally Rich , has a knack for expressing masculine ideals of toughness into concise and memorable forms. On his breakout single, “I Don’t Like,” Keef distils his enmity toward cowards and snitches into a simple declaration: “That’s that shit I don’t like.” Keef raps the first four syllables in a monotone staccato, dips and expands the fifth syllable, then snaps into the sixth, creating an exclamation without conveying excitement.
Durk doesn’t have this kind of vocal dexterity or, indeed, a distinctive approach to rhythm, melody, or diction. What he does have is a gift for creating momentum. In the past, Durk has not always used this gift. He is an awkward fit for the big, lumbering beats favored by drill rappers which are built for declaration, not speed.
You get the sense, through Durk’s liberal use of Auto-Tune on his breakout mixtape, 2012's Life Ain’t No Joke , and debut album, 2015's Remember My Name , that he has ambitions beyond the sonic tendencies favored by other drill rappers, but he has yet to find a collaborator who can find the right shape for these aspirations. There have been hints of an evolution on Remember Me and his most recent studio album, 2016’s Lil Durk 2X -- through collaborations with Jeremih, Dej Loaf, Ty Dolla $ign, Yo Gotti, Future, and Young Thug --- of Durk as a master of ceremonies, able to create room for a broad range of vocal styles. There are curatorial streaks on these releases that suggest Durk’s ultimate gift may be the ability to arrange the space around him.
Hints of this impulse appear on They Forgot , where the unifying strategy is speed, to move quickly and not look back. The beats use short, repeated melodic phrases to drive songs forward, and, as on 2X , Durk hosts a variety of guests, acting as a grayscale against which they can project color. Meek Mill’s tense and breathless phrasing comes into high relief on “Young Niggas", as does 21 Savage’s croaked diction on “Shooter2x". But if there is a breakout star on this mixtape, it is Hypno Carlito, a member of Durk’s label, Only the Family. On “Back 2 Back", Carlito raps in a strained, congested cadence that disrupts Durk’s quest for efficiency in favor of texture. It is a rare moment that privileges sound for its own sake.
One of the keys to executing Durk’s strategy is concision; the listener needs to be left feeling dazed and energized. Though the mixtape runs just 43 minutes, signs of fatigue appear on its final songs. The closer, “Street Life,” is a conceptual misstep and an indication that Durk’s curatorial instincts need refining. The song features BJ the Chicago Kid, a soul singer who contributes a hook about aching for redemption from vicious cycles of violence, and the gesture rings false because it has no precedent. But it is a sign that Durk continues to search for new avenues of expression, and that he has yet to find the collaborator who will take him there.
"I mean, I don't want to get run out of town and everyone not like me anymore. I just ... want to tell the truth and be honest about things."
This is the tension that animates Angaleena Presley, between candor and its consequences. The country artist wrote her first album, American Middle Class , about her hometown of Beauty, Kentucky, delivering narratives of personal tragedy, redemption, and the searching that comes in between. Songs like "Pain Pills", which describes an ongoing crisis of misdiagnosed pain medication, and "Grocery Store", which crafts short sketches of working-class discontent, leave her nervous when performing in Kentucky.
"Those are my people," Presley said in a phone interview with PopMatters, "and I don't ever want to hurt anyone's feelings. I don't want to patronize them, because I think that they are one of the most amazing cultures that exist today. They're survivors, they're wicked smart, they're strong, they're resourceful. But I do tell it like it is, so I do get really nervous when I play in my hometown, but they're always supportive and they understand that this is a talent that I've been given, and if they are the fodder for my art, then so be it."
This year, Presley released Wrangled , her second solo album. Like American Middle Class , it is written as a series of personal narratives, but the album's cover art -- which features Presley bound in ropes with a bandana tied around her mouth -- and promotional materials address the country music industry's exclusion of women from major labels and radio stations. (Women were featured on just 23% of the 2016 year-end Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.)
"In my opinion, it's discrimination, and we have laws that are supposed to protect us from that," Presley said. "In any other corporate entity, women are protected, but it just doesn't seem to apply in this business."
The album's songs hint at this imbalance ("Dreams don't come true/They'll make a mess out of you," she sings on "Dreams Don't Come True"), but Presley is clear to note that she does not want to position herself against the music industry as an institution; she simply wants it to allow the same opportunities for women that it does for men. Hers is a mission of advocacy rather than dissent.
"It's not that I'm against anything," she said, "I know a lot of the guys who are having some success right now, and they're great people. I wouldn't ever want to take their music away. It's just that I want to start conversations about how can we give more females the same opportunities?"
Yet criticizing the industry which controls your livelihood can result in a backlash. Country radio can be unforgiving toward those who step out of line (the Dixie Chicks saw multiple singles fall out of radio airplay after they criticized George W. Bush for his impending invasion of Iraq in 2003), and while Presley does hold some fear of retribution, she was emboldened by her relationship with the late country and folk artist Guy Clark. A series of weekly writing appointments over the course of two years yielded one song ("Cheer Up Little Darling"), but it was the close friendship formed between the two that inspired the album's tone and direction. Where Presley could navigate Clark's unpredictable moods, the cantankerous Clark served as a model of artistic conviction.
"Guy was smarter than everyone and he was a better songwriter than everyone and he was not afraid to tell you so," Presley said, "and it was really inspiring to be around. I don't know if I hadn't had that relationship with him ... if I would have found the courage to make the record I made."
In Clark's final months, Presley assumed an active role in caring for him, taking him to doctors' appointments and moving him into his nursing home. The album that grew from this intimacy is, in part, a literal and spiritual reflection on her time in the music industry, which accelerated quickly before coming to an abrupt halt.
Presley moved to Nashville in 2000 and, like many aspiring country stars, wrote songs for more established artists. Her first breakthrough came in 2008 with the release of Heidi Newfield's "Knocked Up", which she wrote with Mark D. Sanders and eventually recorded herself for American Middle Class . She later landed songs on albums by Ashton Shepard and Miranda Lambert, the latter of whom invited Presley to form a band, Pistol Annies, with her and Ashley Monroe. The band leveraged Lambert's celebrity into an arena tour, allowing Presley to experience stardom before developing a fan base of her own.
Presley assumed her time spent touring with Lambert and Monroe would lay a foundation for her solo career -- but it did not, as she would soon learn. "There were a lot of dues that I hadn't paid and I didn't realize that the due-paying never seems to stop," she said. "When I started doing my solo career, I thought, 'I'll have all these fans. They've seen me in all these places.' And I didn't have all those fans. I realized I have to get in a van now and do my hair in broom closets and stand at merch tables just praying that someone will come and buy something and want me to sign it ... by doing Pistol Annies, I got to skip a step, and that is the ridiculously hard work of starting a groundswell and finding a fan base and touring."
The first album Presley recorded never found a home in Nashville and remains unreleased ("Music Row was just so scared of it," she said.). A few songs from the album, "Pain Pills" and her recording of "Knocked Up," ended up on American Middle Class , but the experience introduced Presley to the harsh realities of the music industry. American Middle Class found a home on an independent label, the Texas-based Slate Creek Records, and the wave of critical acclaim it received propelled Presley to her first solo tour, which spanned the United States and Europe.
Still, her career was fragile, and a middle-class upbringing prepared Presley for the persistence it required. Though she now feels a measure of stability, watching her parents live paycheck-to-paycheck created a permanent anxiety in her. "I'm from the working class," she said, "my answer to every problem is, well, I need to work harder. I need to roll my sleeves up and get in there and do more. I don't think I'll ever escape that, and I hope I don't, because I think a lot of who I am, my character, and a lot of my art is founded on that. I want lots of money, but I think I'll always have a tin can with a lot of cash in it buried in my yard."
If her work ethic is deliberate, her songs are anything but. They derive not from fixed concepts, but rather from dreams, pop culture, and the poetry of everyday life -- the themes follow. "People are so poetic and I don't even know if they realize that they're doing it," she said. For Presley, that poetry is built from honesty and vulnerability; she is drawn to phrases which allude to the fullness of human experience in as few words as possible.
"Bless Your Heart", which exposes what Presley deems "fake empathy," took inspiration from the book The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. The book addresses the mechanics of condescension disguised as concern, specifically the phrase, "bless your heart," which connotes empathy but often implies superiority. Presley builds a character around the phrase, "You'd knock a girl down/So you could feel tall/You'd burn Cinderella's dress/So you could feel like the hottest girl at the ball," she sings, culminating in a chorus that quotes directly from Brown, "If you bless my heart, I'll slap your face."
It is this ability to understand the full extent of what a short phrase can imply, to realize its emotional and narrative potential, that is Presley's great gift. She is a disciplined and precise storyteller, able to suggest intricate personal histories through metaphors or allusions. The discipline is intentional. "I'm a vicious editor," she said, "you can ask any person I've written with. When I am in co-writes, it usually winds up with people throwing out ideas and me saying, 'No, we can say that with less words.''' Concision, she says, "makes more of an impact ... it forces you to find better words."
You feel the weight of that impact in a song like "Only Blood", which charts a relationship between a woman seeking salvation and a preacher from marriage to domestic abuse and, ultimately, vengeance. Each turn hinges on the phrase, "only blood can set you free," its meaning shifting with each repetition, until the narrator shoots her abusive husband. "I've talked to Jesus/And he's been telling me/Only blood can set me free," Presley sings before the song's final chorus. If you look at the song from the right angle, you may see a loose metaphor for Presley's experience in the music industry: from infatuation to disillusionment toward acceptance and an assertion of independence by writing songs rooted in her perspective.
"I write the best when I write what I know and what I've seen," Presley said, and even when her songs aren't literal transcriptions of her life, they extend from her emotional experience. "I think my albums come about because of what I'm going through in my life," she said. " American Middle Class was, 'This is my background, this is where I'm from, this is how I grew up, these are my people, and this album is: This is what I've done for the last ten years, this is my experience in the music business.'"
The pained intimacy that follows this approach mirrors many of the artists Presley considers her peers, both in their aesthetic and lyrical decisions and the ways they've sidestepped country's insular, fraternal gatekeepers through social media and streaming. She cites Jason Isbell ("The king of this model"), Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, and Chris Stapleton as sources of inspiration. Like Presley, each favors working-class narratives of loss, disappointment, and redemption over the escapism promoted by many major label artists. While not a formula for significant commercial success, it has found an audience in those who seek a balance against radio singles that tend to focus more on the ecstasy of new romance and hedonism than its consequences.
At this point, Presley has no illusions about following her idol, Loretta Lynn, into stardom, "I think there was a lot of frustration for me earlier in my career, because it was a dream that I had, it was a goal that I had," she said. "Now, the frustration has turned into, 'I don't really give a shit anymore,' now I'm just gonna sing about it and talk about it, using song as therapy to get past it ... I think that this record is really just venting and me shedding my skin of that and being okay with that not being my reality, because there are other ways to be heard." But if there is one quality she does still hope to share with Lynn, it is the ability to inspire young artists.
"When I was a little girl, I wanted to grow up to be Loretta Lynn and I really believed that I could, and I don't know if that's the case anymore. I want little girls to be able to dream like that and currently, if you look exclusively at country radio and how many females are signed to major labels, it's not really a reality. It's three slots -- for every girl. That's not enough slots."
Presley hopes the space for women in country's mainstream will expand, but even if that expansion takes longer than she may hope, she can take solace in helping to create a new kind of dream, one with fewer gatekeepers and more room to be vulnerable.
The first thing you notice when you watch Colin Stetson perform with a bass saxophone is the size of the thing. Unwieldy is not the word for it. Massive is closer, and it has a sound to match. But the sheer fact of its size cannot prepare you for that sound.
I first witnessed the spectacle in a performance Stetson recorded in 2011 for the French website La Blogotheque , which films musicians performing in intimate spaces. Here, Stetson is in his home, and the performance begins in earnest with a drone that produces such force, you imagine it must threaten the building’s structural integrity.
As the performance progresses, the camera begins to pay extra attention to Stetson’s face, which turns red and tense from the exertion required to operate his instrument. You wonder how he can breathe while playing uninterrupted, and how he can produce melodic and percussive notes at the same time. (The former is due to a technique called circular breathing, in which a musician breathes in through his nose while exhaling air stored in his cheeks, thus producing a continuous tone. The latter is achieved by forcefully clapping keys with his bottom hand against the instrument.) This is the first part of his virtuosity -- the physical part.
There are two kinds of virtuosity. The first makes you marvel at technique -- the labor the sound implies rather than the sound itself. This is sometimes found in metal bands like DragonForce, whose 2006 song “Through the Fire and Flames” features a pair of guitar melodies which have become the signature modern examples of instrumental athleticism. During the song’s introduction and instrumental passages, guitarists Herman Li and Sam Totman produce flurries of notes with such speed that the space between them seems to evaporate. The song gained notoriety through the video game Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock , in which, even on a plastic guitar that featured five buttons in place of a fretboard, it proved nearly impossible to master.
This kind of virtuosity is a part of Stetson’s music, but it is mostly a visual phenomenon. You are not cued to it unless watching him perform from a close distance. The second kind is more important to Stetson’s work. It is about the sound the artist produces, and often results from an artistry that is impossible to replicate. It’s not that a given sequence of notes is necessarily difficult to play; it’s that the instrument sounds like an extension of the artist’s subconscious. You feel that the artist is giving something of himself to you, offering secrets in code. This is what you hear in the heaving moan of Stetson’s saxophone. There are echoes of the human voice in it, as well as those of much larger animals -- an elephant comes to mind. But what it really sounds like is pain and anguish, any feeling that sinks into your stomach.
Stetson first drew notice from the kinds of people who read the credits on albums by trendy indie bands. (He has worked with Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio, and Bon Iver, among others.) Certainly, those artists must have heard that sound and wanted it for themselves. Perhaps they realized they could not bottle it or use it as an accent; it would either be absent from the song or consume it. So they did the next best thing: They used Stetson’s versatility. While the bass saxophone is his best instrument, he can play many others, including a clarinet, cornet, flute, and accordion. But none of those records could contain his full sound; for that, he needs more space.
Stetson has made eleven albums as a featured artist, either with collaborators or by himself. On his most recent, All This I Do For Glory , he is alone and produces some of the most intense expressions of his virtuosity. The most notable, “In the Clinches", is also the shortest. There is that groan again -- violent, aggrieved -- but the percussion is louder than usual. It exerts pressure on the melodies, and the melodies push back. Yet it is not the melody’s shape that matters, but the force of impact, the physical sensation of an instrument dueling with itself. It’s over in under three minutes, but its reverberations linger throughout the album.
Structure is important too. As on past albums, the sound is rooted in phrases that repeat and progress through minor variations. The songs move like spirals, circling a fixed point -- usually a percussive beat. This new, increased emphasis on percussion was inspired by experimental electronic artists like Autechre and Aphex Twin, according to Stetson. Unlike those artists, Stetson prefers to keep a song close to its center. You will not hear him make an abrupt shift in the middle of a song. He is after a different kind of exploration. He wants to dig into a sound and see everything that’s inside of it. His music is a meditation, not a sampling.
In this way, his songs resemble ritual music, the kind that is used by cultures to remind themselves of their history, and how that history can connect to the present and future. It often involves frequent repetition to assert a lineage, to reassure listeners that their traditions will not be displaced. This is a steady labor, rather than a frenetic one, and it is suited to an instrument of the size and strength Stetson uses.
You can get a sense of this labor in the first music video Stetson released to promote All This I Do For Glory . The video depicts Stetson playing the song “Spindrift", and, as in the La Blogotheque video, Stetson is alone, lost in his music. But this time, the focus is not on the magnitude of his exertion, but rather its frequency. The camera is placed inches from Stetson, and alternates between shots from the inside of his saxophone, close-ups of his fingers, and his torso swaying in time.
His eyes are closed throughout the performance, and his face reveals a focused serenity common in musical rituals. As the video fades out, so does the music, implying not an endpoint, but a continuation, a reckoning with something larger than himself. Something that rattles in the back of his mind, seeking release.
There is a brilliant and brutal simplicity to the music the Canadian punk band Metz makes: loud, cynical, severe, sharp around the edges. The group is composed of three members -- guitarist and vocalist Alex Edkins, bassist Chris Slorach, and drummer Hayden Menzies -- who seem to share the same goal: to create maximum friction between their instruments and to do so at the highest possible volume. As a result, the music has almost no concern for melody. It has more in common with the sounds of factories, of hard and dangerous work that requires large machines and hot materials. Some punk bands will give you a great tune. Metz is not one of them. Their songs resemble panic attacks, convulsions, violent spasms. In the act's harsh asceticism, you feel a retrenchment toward punk’s original values and a way forward.
The general intention of early punk bands was to remove the high-concept, high-order cognition of the most ornate forms of rock and pop music. They wanted to take the spiritual and structural skeleton of early rock 'n' roll and amplify it, make it noisier and more rebellious. To revise history and use those revisions as a template for the future. The bands who don’t understand both sides of this equation -- tradition and progress -- tend to conceive of punk music as a mere act of nostalgia. They often use lo-fidelity recording techniques as a badge of authenticity, framing a strict allegiance to the past as the highest creative virtue. This is music made through influence rather than impulse, and it's not terribly useful or interesting.
Metz, mercifully, is not that kind of band. Metz is loud and abrasive in a way that is distinctly physical -- you respond to the music as a series of vibrations in your torso and skull -- and possible only with the clarity, fidelity, and volume of modern recording technology.
The band’s third album, Strange Peace , is very much like its first two, and that is a good thing. Each is single-minded in its purpose and methods. There are no ballads, no songs that are quiet or long or contemplative. Instead, there is a constant search for a frequency that is thrilling and a commitment to it.
“Lost in the Blank City” arrives near the album’s midpoint and wastes little time announcing itself. Eleven seconds in, a kick drum enters, with a bass guitar matching it in rhythm and tempo, as well as a harmonized vocal and riff. This lasts for ten seconds and is repeated as a kind of chorus. There are variations on this structure as the song progresses, but the feeling is the same: a convergence of tension and agony. The sense something might implode.
That frequency is no accident. It's a result of each musician attacking his instrument with as much intensity and force as possible. The guitar riffs are strained, panicked, serrated. The drumming is calibrated for impact, rather than rhythm. And Edkins’ vocals are caustic, barked or sneered as often as they are sung.
The ultimate effect is a paradox: musical harmony which simulates mental and emotional disharmony. A strange peace, contentment found through discord.
There are times, during Top of the Lake ’s first and second seasons, when I've felt like I’m watching a different show than the one depicted in its trailers and reviews. It's been sold as part of the tradition of grim, crime-based prestige television, but the show has more to offer than that. Top of the Lake is best when it defies the edicts of prestige television, when it's messy and volatile and doesn't seem so self-conscious about how it will be perceived.
It was not always this way. In its first season, Top of the Lake needed a few episodes to find its footing. The central mystery involved a young girl who had been raped and become pregnant, and a detective, Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), drawn to the case for personal and professional reasons. Set in a small town in New Zealand populated by violent, abusive men, dense forestry, and generous quantities of fog, the show seemed intent on defining itself in unambiguous terms. Expository dialogue, muted colors, and scenic establishing shots were offered in service of one idea: a town full of secrets. For three of its seven episodes (the show was split into seven 50-minute episodes on SundanceTV and six 60-minute episodes on the BBC), the show was procedural in the most literal sense: each piece was calibrated in the interest of plot or mood.
The series found its identity, however, when it burrowed into its wounded and dysfunctional characters and allowed them to act in ways that reflected the distorting effects of trauma. By the end of the first season, the show was a penetrating, psychological drama.
Top of the Lake ’s second season, subtitled "China Girl", not only picks up where the first left off, it improves upon it. The show has moved to Sydney and begins with Cinnamon, a dead prostitute zipped into a suitcase and thrown into the sea, before expanding to include an illegal surrogacy market, a police department corrupted by misogyny, and a family whose bonds have become strained. Robin's stature has increased after her discovery of a child sex ring facilitated by her former supervisor, but she's haunted by the aftermath of her decision to shoot him, the sudden collapse of her engagement to an unfaithful fiancée, and a series of miscarriages. Broken-hearted by her unsuccessful attempts to start a family, she now seeks out her daughter, Mary (Alice Englert), who was the product of a rape 17 years prior, and whom Robin gave up for adoption. Mary is dating a narcissist more than two decades her senior, nicknamed "Puss" (David Dencik), who lives above a brothel and teaches fragments of English to Cinnamon's companions, but mostly amuses himself by giving impromptu lectures informed by his twisted sense of morality. Mary's adoptive parents, Pyke (Ewen Leslie) and Julia (Nicole Kidman), are worried about Puss' predatory instincts while in the midst of a bitter divorce.
It this all sounds a little convenient -- Robin reconnecting with a daughter whose boyfriend is tangled up in a potential murder -- it is. Then again, if you're here for a tidy, symmetrical plot, you're in the wrong place. Top of the Lake is best when taken scene by scene, because its considerable strengths lie in acting and directing -- this season was directed by Jane Campion and Ariel Kleiman -- rather than writing. It's the rare television show not so much concerned with how its pieces fit as a whole, but with how they interact on a moment-by-moment basis.
For this philosophy to work, you need a lead actor who can give each scene consistent, emotional stakes. She must be able to make incidental gestures or lines of dialogue resonate on a plane above the mechanics of plot. Moss does so with remarkable frequency. Playing the lead in a genre show -- comedy, crime, sci-fi -- is difficult work, because you're set up to be overshadowed by supporting characters who need only to develop a single rhythm and pitch. The lead needs to do more. She needs to listen, react, and respond in such a way to give herself and her supporting characters depth. Supporting characters often get to dictate a scene's orbit (think Kramer from Seinfeld or Crazy Eyes from Orange is the New Black ). The lead has to be compelling as both the center of attention and an accessory.
Moss is brilliant because she can do both at once: She can draw your attention when listening and reacting non-verbally. There are countless examples of this in each episode of China Girl , but one stands out: Robin at an in vitro fertilization clinic, seeking the names of couples who may have turned to illegal surrogacy out of desperation. Like many film and television detectives, Robin prefers the clarity of purpose provided by a criminal investigation to the delicate, emotionally fraught work of personal relationships and self-care. The two are combined, unexpectedly, when Robin is left to question one of the clinic's doctors.
The doctor, Ian (Kevin MacIsaac), asks Robin her age and presents a 20-sided die to illustrate the long odds some couples face when attempting to conceive. Robin, having experienced three miscarriages and the dissolution of two engagements, is compelled and vulnerable, her private and professional lives colliding in the kind of way she's taken care to avoid. Flustered, she picks a number while pretending to make notes, but can't keep her eye off of the die for more than a few seconds as Ian rolls it three times, never landing on her number.
The scene serves two functions: to provide insight into Robin's investigation and deepen the sense that, despite her reticence toward social and romantic contact, she can't shake her desire to build a family of her own. None of this is spoken; rather, Moss conveys it through gesture and tone: a brow furrowed beyond indications of professional interest, the nervous edge that creeps into her voice, and the magnetic pull the die -- and its metaphorical implications -- has on her gaze. She conveys years of frustration and emotional trauma through slight adjustments in her facial expression and the movement of her head and eyes. This is what the show was missing in the first half of its first season; the extra dimension to make a scene resonate beyond a mere transfer of information.
It helps that Moss is joined by a strong supporting cast, many of whom are excellent in varied and vivid ways. There are Mary's adoptive parents, played by Kidman and Leslie, who are temperamental opposites, with Leslie's as the rare minimalist performance that's transparent rather than opaque. Everything -- the pain and confusion of his daughter's rebellion, his wife's affair with a new lover -- is absorbed and indicated as slightly and simply as possible. Kidman, on the other hand, is an agitated, exposed nerve. Each emotion and impulse finds its way to the surface, projected toward the nearest available target. Watching the two attempt to operate as a family unit, even a broken one, has the consistency of oil interacting with water.
Then there's Gwendoline Christie, who plays Miranda, a new detective assigned to Robin as partner and apprentice. If any person embodies the show's improvements, its rejection of the stern, self-serious codes of prestige crime drama, it's Christie. There's much she does well, but she has an incredible way of moving, as if her body were frozen in the middle of puberty. Her arms and hips swing in the wide, imprecise way of teenagers who've yet to adjust to their grown limbs, and her disposition is stuck in a sunny, pre-adolescent climate. Miranda is written primarily as comic relief, but Christie gives her pathos. Even her most child-like moments -- laughing during an interrogation, pausing to excitedly pet a dog while on the job -- are pitched to emphasize her innocence as much as her incompetence. She's a rare romantic in a profession of weary cynics.
Campion and Kleiman have found a style that can sustain and accentuate these performances. The procedural stiffness of the show's first episodes has loosened into a more improvisatory rhythm, which resembles jazz in its tendency to shift from passages of harmony to unexpected dissonances and punctuations. The emotional center of a scene can turn in an instant, from mortal seriousness to comic absurdity, from distress and chaos to comfort and reconciliation. All of which is shot, staged, and scored so as to almost vibrate with feeling and texture. It's a liberation for the show, which, after leaning on scenery and lighting in a thin approximation of style in its first episodes, has now adopted a wider range of expressive technique: longer takes, expanded gradients of color and light, a score that's sensuous and suggestive. Campion and Kleiman manage to align the show's primary concerns with their methods of expression.
Of course, for a show that prioritizes individual scenes and moments over structural coherence, it's bound to make mistakes. There are times when Top of the Lake feels as if it's acting on impulse, fulfilling and creating tensions that amount to little more than sensationalism. A similar indelicacy occasionally seizes on the show’s themes. In each of its seasons, Top of the Lake has been forceful in examining and condemning the process by which insecurity leads to systematic oppression, misogyny in particular. The truth and nobility in that pursuit is clear, but in its second season, the show’s depictions of misogyny approach caricature. (By the season's midpoint, just about every male with a pulse who works adjacent to Robin has made an inappropriate romantic advance.)
The show's sins, however, are those of artists with perspective and energy: sins of ambition rather than conformity. You'll find more disciplined shows, but few that examine dysfunction with such bold, insistent style. You'll find few shows that can pivot from a season of emotional injury and miscommunication into a coda that points toward redemption without seeming insincere. Such is the skill behind Top of the Lake , a show that does what it feels rather than what it's told. I hope its spirit is contagious.
In an interview with David Remnick at the New Yorker Festival in 2014, Larry David described an epiphany which led to one of the central jokes in the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, “The Survivor". The joke consists of a misunderstanding Larry has when planning a dinner party at his home. One of the attendees, a rabbi, tells Larry that he wants to bring a “survivor" to the party. The rabbi is referring to Colby, a former contestant on the reality show Survivor , but Larry believes the rabbi is referring to a Holocaust survivor. As a result, Larry tells his father to invite his friend, Solly, who spent time in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. This being Curb Your Enthusiasm , Colby and Solly argue over who survived the worse ordeal.
I've always found that anecdote amusing because I don't think anyone else was in a rush to write or film that joke, and I suspect it wasn't quite as obvious as David thought. But this joke, and the impulse behind it, says a lot about the peculiar appeal of Curb Your Enthusiasm , one of the most strange and compelling expressions of a comedic perspective ever put on television.
As one of the co-creators of Seinfeld , David helped start a revolution in the tone of American screen comedy. His idea was this: Everyone is just as selfish as you are and, absent financial desperation or the capacity for shame, the world would devolve into a series of petty arguments over minor inconveniences. It was the inverse of empathy; rather than attempting to understand other peoples' perspectives and becoming more sensitive to them, the show insisted that we're all pretty much the same, that we're all insufferable. The cliché holds that Seinfeld and, by extension, Curb Your Enthusiasm , are shows about nothing, but I think the opposite is true: They're shows about everything . They're shows about people who cannot have a thought without vocalizing it, regardless of the social or emotional consequences.
Jerry Seinfeld, a brilliant observational comic of the hyper-specific and mundane, was a good fit as a writing partner for David, but he's always seemed less cynical than David and more interested in the mechanics of observation as an end in itself. There's something darker and more mischievous lurking in David's ideas: What if I could tell everyone whatever I thought? What would that look like? Curb Your Enthusiasm , which premiered on HBO two years after Seinfeld 's final episode, was David's coming-out party, an opportunity for him to explore and develop his comedic sensibility without the tempering influence of a co-creator or a major broadcast network regulated by the FCC.
Curb Your Enthusiasm is built around Larry, a fictionalized version of David whom David has said is a representation of his id. Larry is a narcissist and a sociopath obsessed with the rules of social conduct but completely insensitive to anyone's feelings but his own. He will confront someone who tries too many samples at an ice cream shop; he will also steal flowers from a memorial for a friend's dead mother. You could argue that Larry is one of the most sadistic characters in television history because he has no excuses. He is aware of his moral failings, makes no effort to change them and, unlike a Don Draper or Walter White, has no emotional traumas or existential threats to explain his behavior. Larry's life is one of exceptional comfort and privilege, and he uses it as an opportunity to become his worst self.
Curb Your Enthusiasm is a show about stasis and moral decay, but it uses each as an aesthetic and comedic device, rather than a thematic or philosophical one. Over its first eight seasons and 80 episodes, very little changes. Any attempts to deal earnestly with the big things in life — death, disease, relationships — are sidetracked by the little things. It usually goes something like this: Larry notices what he perceives to be a violation of proper social conduct and becomes obsessed by it, describing the violation in excruciating detail to each person he encounters. Then, he notices another transgression, and the cycle repeats until Larry's pettiness comes back to bite him, often because he ends up violating the very rules he attempted to enforce.
In the first episode of the show's seventh season, Larry's girlfriend, Loretta, is awaiting a cancer diagnosis. Larry wants to break up with Loretta, in part because of the responsibilities he will assume if her test results come back positive, and he is worried that he will ruin his chance of removing himself from his role as a caretaker if he doesn't end their relationship before the diagnosis is confirmed. He has other concerns throughout the episode, but none involves Loretta's well-being. He chastises Loretta's doctor for taking a lemonade from his refrigerator without asking, complains that the host of a dinner party he's been invited to won't reveal the other guests, and takes food from a friend's refrigerator—without asking. Each sets off a chain of events that prevents Larry from breaking up with Loretta before her doctor reveals she has cancer, which causes Larry to faint, then ask the doctor if he'll have time to play golf while caring for her.
Typically, characters respond to fictional events in the same way their audience would. If a character falls ill, she will become an object of empathy and compassion to those around her, and the show will focus more on the consequences of the disease than the minor annoyances which exist in its shadow. Even characters in science fiction and fantasy stories often possess a kind of psychological realism. Their circumstances may be exotic, but their feelings and actions are not.
On Curb Your Enthusiasm , the opposite is true. The show looks and feels like reality—handheld cameras, naturalistic lighting, improvised scenes which reflect the rhythms and inflections of natural speech—but is made surreal by the way its characters relate to the world around them. This is the show's genius, and, perhaps, the reason why so many are made uncomfortable while watching it. The show's surface is familiar, but its insides are skewed and distorted.
One episode features a longtime friend of Larry's, the comedian Richard Lewis, who is experiencing kidney failure and needs a transplant. While having lunch one day, Richard reveals to Larry that he will likely need a friend to donate a kidney to survive. Larry hedges and complains to his friend and manager, Jeff, who is also Richard's manager, and wife, Cheryl, about how unfair the situation is toward him. Why should he have to give up his kidney? Larry and Jeff decide who will donate through a game of eenie, meenie, miney, moe, moderated by their friend, Marty. Larry believes he has rigged the game in his favor, but he's wrong, and he argues that Marty does not understand its rules. For Larry, donating a kidney to a dying friend is not an act of heroism, but a grave injustice. The episode is not about Richard's illness or an act of selfless compassion, but rather, the furthest extent to which Larry will go to avoid making a sacrifice.
The dissonance between style and content extends to David's performance, which conveys a uniquely modern cynicism through the methods of old-school, slapstick comedy, echoing mimes, clowns, and silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. It's as if Woody Allen modeled himself after the Three Stooges. David's performance rejects naturalism for exaggerated, frozen expressions; manic hand gestures; the lanky gait of someone whose clothes are too big. He has a way of both escalating and defusing tension at the same time, like when he believes someone is lying to him. This happens often throughout the series, and it always ends the same way. Larry leans toward his subject, squints, tilts his head up, moves it from side-to-side, and after a moment, mutters, “Okay...," barely hiding his skepticism. It's meant as a threat, but no one could take such a threat seriously.
Physical comedy usually connotes innocence, characters who cause harm to themselves because they lack the coordination to avoid injury, because they don't know any better. Their pain is self-inflicted. This is not the case with Larry. His cruelty is directed outward, only returning to him after the damage has been done. Even then, the pain never sticks, his conscience is never bothered. David's performance has never quite aligned with the rest of the show, but that's part of its brilliance. He often seems as if he is engaging with an alternate reality or a lucid dream, as if the world is an extension of his consciousness.
As with any beloved show that returns after a long hiatus, there are many questions that surround the ninth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm : How will the show acknowledge America's political climate? How many more seasons will there be? How will the final episode end?
I don't think the show will be interested in most of those questions, and the final scene of its initial run may be prophetic. It finds Larry in Paris, having spontaneously decided to move to a different country for two months as an alibi to prove his inability to attend a charity event, where he is presented with the opportunity for growth, change, or, at least, novelty. But he becomes annoyed when he observes a driver park poorly. Larry does not have a car or any intent to drive one, but his absurd and arbitrary sense of justice takes hold of him, and he confronts the driver. Larry has flown across the sea to one of the most beautiful cities in the world to lecture a man he does not know about parking etiquette.
The episode ends in the middle of a shouting match, a promise that Larry will never change, that his life will continue as a series of petty, indefinite arguments. When the show returns for its ninth season, I can't imagine they'll end.
In an era of reboots and revivals, we've invented a new form of entertainment: speculation. It sometimes seems as if we enjoy begging for television shows to return more than watching them when they're on the air. And why wouldn't we? We can't be disappointed by our imaginations. Only the realities of art and commerce get in the way.
Which is why we feel anxious when our prayers are answered and one of our favorite shows returns from an extended absence. Like planning to see an old friend for the first time in many years, our speculation shifts to the ways in which the reunion might disappoint us. Will the show resemble its original self? Will its return create memories I'd rather not have? Was its initial success a product of timing and circumstance, or the eternal genius of its creators?
Curb Your Enthusiasm seemed to be immune from these concerns. The show is about a fictionalized version of Larry David and his wealthy, Los Angeles friends, nearly all of whom could be described as sociopaths. Though they have staggering levels of wealth and comfort, Larry and his friends structure their lives around minor inconveniences, becoming miserable from them and trying their hardest to spread that misery.
Through its first eight seasons, the show proved it could imagine an endless number of ways to respond to that basic premise in a style that was caustic, insistent, and visually modest. As it became more popular, Curb Your Enthusiasm showed little interest in reaching for spectacle, instead clinging to its roots and becoming funnier for its stubbornness. When its initial run ended with Larry, living in Paris due to his refusal to perform a minor act of charity, arguing with a stranger over the way his car was parked, it felt right. The implication was that the show's characters would never change, that they would continue to make themselves and others unhappy for as long as they lived.
But something did change when the show resumed, after a six-year hiatus, in October. Not its characters or disposition, but its style. The ninth season's primary arc follows Larry's attempt to produce a Broadway musical based on the 1989 fatwa calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie after the publication of his controversial book, The Satanic Verses , and a similar order calling for Larry's murder. If that sounds a little broad for Curb Your Enthusiasm , you're right. Much of the season feels like someone trying to remember a great joke he used to tell, approximating its content but forgetting the delivery. There's still pleasure to be found in the show's obsession with the granular details of social interaction, but in its time off the air, David and the rest of the cast lost the rhythms and inflections that once made the show so consistently, diabolically funny.
Instead, they seem to be reacting to their former selves, rather than inhabiting or reinventing them. Where prior seasons trusted their banality, this new season inflates its situations and how the characters react to them until the show resembles a caricature, like when Larry appeals a ticket he received for honking at an officer and gives an exaggerated, grating performance in the courtroom, committing a series of legal and social faux pas—standing too close to the judge, offering him a cough drop and taking it back, interrupting his note-taking—so quickly, there's no opportunity for a sustained rhythm or comedic foil to emerge. In its broadest outline, the scene is consistent with Curb Your Enthusiasm 's comedic philosophy, but the style is wrong, as David rushes through too many ideas in too little time, turning each into a shrill exclamation. David has said he kept a notebook full of ideas for the show during its hiatus. Too often, it seems as if he is emptying that notebook onto the screen.
There are other miscalculations, including a revamped visual strategy that disrupts the source of the show's comedy, which is in words, gestures, and the structures of arguments. Curb Your Enthusiasm 's characters have never needed the camera to speak for them, because they spoke so well themselves. But like much of modern television, the show has given in to the temptation to look more expensive—to have sharper edges, more elaborate camera movements, more restrictive framings. This is part of what people mean when they say television has become more "cinematic", but there's a difference between spending money and spending it well, a distinction that becomes clear in the season's opening seconds.
They begin with the camera at a bird's-eye view above Los Angeles and, a few cuts later, the camera moves across a street while suspended in the air toward one of the exterior windows on the second floor of Larry's home. This early sequence of shots is disorienting and indulgent, existing for no other reason, it seems, than to remind you of all the expensive things a big budget can buy. This sensation recurs throughout the season, drawing your attention toward a camera that has nothing to add to the show's comedy.
But for all that Curb Your Enthusiasm lost this season, Larry's central friendships—with his manager, Jeff (Jeff Garlin), and permanent houseguest, Leon (J.B. Smoove)—blossomed, their rapport deepening into the almost subconscious level of longtime friends who speak in shorthand, anticipating the other's responses before they happen. This was an opportunity the show only occasionally seized upon but when it did, its jokes became less conceptual and more personal, the sort of thing that must be seen, rather than explained.
This is true of almost everything Leon does. Played by J.B. Smoove, Leon is a minor miracle, the show's lone, regular non-white character and one who could have easily been forced into the stereotype of the brash black man (one thing that has not changed is Curb Your Enthusiasm 's regressive understanding of race, gender, and sexuality), the kind of eccentric supporting player a lesser show and actor would assume could earn laughs by simply being more outlandish than everyone else.
But Smoove has always been better than that. He can surprise you with his extraordinary sense of rhythm and timing, by knowing when to speed up and overwhelm a conversation, and when to come to an abrupt halt, leaving another character grasping for a response. He has always had more than one note to play and while this season didn't represent his best work, he found new ways to make me laugh in less time than ever before. Some of his best moments pass by in an instant and cannot be done justice through description, like when he piggybacks on another character's request for Hamilton tickets, hoping he can extract a favor through sheer momentum. Or when he describes the conditions that have led him to avoid Burger King as if recounting the death of a beloved pet. In each instance, he creates surprising ways to punctuate a scene, changing its direction for a moment.
It's a shame, but not a coincidence, that these kinds of inspired performative flourishes are rare, because this new, blustering version of Curb Your Enthusiasm bears only a passing resemblance to its former self. The show's return, then, is bittersweet. It's hard to turn away an old friend, but sometimes, it's best to preserve your memories.
Anyone who's picked up an instrument or fiddled with GarageBand can understand the difference between playing music for yourself and composing it for an audience. It's similar to the difference between the voice you hear when you sing and the one you hear when listening to a recording of yourself. The pleasure you derive from the physical sensations of singing has little to do with how your voice sounds.
I'm not sure if Eddie Ruscha, who is best known for making experimental dance music under the name Secret Circuit, understands that distinction. Seven of the nine songs on Who Are You , Ruscha's first album made under the alias E Ruscha V, feel like rough drafts, as if Ruscha went straight from the brainstorming phase to finished product, making sounds without considering how they work together. His emphasis is on mood rather than melody or rhythm, and his intention appears to be evoking feelings rather than ideas, to make it appear as if a song's parts are moving without outside assistance.
But, often, the songs don't feel like they're moving at all. "Roots and Branches" seems conflicted with itself, as a spare and elliptical guitar melody becomes overwhelmed by countermelodies and a variety of tones that appear, move between stereo channels, disappear, then reappear again. The sounds are mixed in a way that makes nearly all of them perceptible, and the effect is confusing. Sustained tones and reverb effects suggest open space, but the number of sounds and the way they are arranged creates density and chaos.
Ruscha's problem is articulation. Many of his songs have a half-defined sense of atmosphere, melody, and texture; they're less than the sum of their parts. He seems to test sounds against each other without removing the ones that don't fit, and the result isn't subversive or bracing — the sounds and rhythms are too calm for that — just muddled. The good ideas are stuck to the bad.
The question, then, is: So what? Why listen to an artist who can't distinguish between form and function? Ruscha answers that question on the album's two best songs, "The Hostess" and "Who Are You", and reveals what a more patient and rigorous approach might have produced.
"The Hostess" opens the album with a few good ideas and doesn't clutter them. The first is a series of melodic phrases that have the warm, curious tones of a marimba. They vary slightly as they progress, shifting the song's foundation and keeping it a little unstable. Then, plucked guitar chords enter and slowly overtake the song, their volume increasing and suggesting a climax that never comes. Lacking clear percussion, the song feels weightless, remaining just out of reach until it slips away. But this liminal quality creates a sense of coherence. You understand what the song's pieces are working toward.
"Who Are You" produces a similar, fleeting sensation, as sounds seem to enter by chance, coming and going as they please. Once again, your attention alternates between a few melodies that rotate, converge, and separate. It's easy to imagine the song has not been composed, but, rather, is a chance meeting of elements that have arrived in the right place at the right time.
More often than not, Ruscha can't recapture that feeling of spontaneity, and the line between insouciance and sloppiness is small but important. If you're on the right side, it looks easy. If you're not, you look careless.
Tirzah's Devotion is a collection of love songs, but in an obligatory way, as if "love" were chosen from a hat filled with possible subjects. If you listen to the lyrics on the first full-length album by the duo of Tirzah Mastin and Mica Levi, you will hear familiar themes and refrains.
"All I want is you."
"I can see through you."
"Will you let me hold you?"
As sung by Mastin, the duo's lyricist and vocalist, those and other lyrics don't offer anything that approaches personal insight. They feel like diagrams of love songs, performed with a sort of tired resignation.
It's okay to be vague. There are plenty of great songs that don't make a whole lot of sense when you put them on paper. But no matter how specific your lyrics are, there must be something else — melody, harmony, tone, timbre, rhythm — that creates or reinforces a sense of perspective.
Mastin doesn't have that something else, but the arrangements from Levi do. Levi started the band Micachu and the Shapes, and, more recently, has won praise for the incisive, sometimes disorienting scores she wrote for the films Under the Skin and Jackie. She's a smart, precise, and restrained composer who chooses sounds carefully to maximize their impact. In her work, you can sense attention to space — how to fill it and how much of it to leave empty.
With Mastin, Levi's arrangements are spare and repetitive, mostly comprised of acoustic and synthetic pianos and drum loops. But there is a lot to hear in them — melodies that ring with uncertainty, distortions, and echoes that convey ambivalence — evidence of her attention to all the ways she can manipulate sound to create emotional resonance.
Some of her arrangements have surprising amounts of depth and expressive shading, like in "Basic Need", where disembodied voices and echoing tones evoke romantic feelings that haven't quite settled. Or in "Say When", where a simple, ascending piano melody is manipulated to sound like it's being played underwater with a weight holding it down.
Levi's contributions are dulled by Mastin, who sings in a drowsy, affectless manner. Her lyrics could be addressed to anyone or no one at all. When she sings, "I come to you with an open heart" on "Say When", it sounds like an abstraction. She disrupts the careful balance achieved by Levi, and the effect is not dissonance — which can be exciting — but dilution. The songs amount to less than the sums of their parts.
Mastin and Levi's collaborations have not always been like this. They released an excellent series of dance songs between 2013 and 2015 that had a clarity missing on Devotion. On those songs, Levi was the driving force, with Mastin taking an effective supporting role. Her casual, offhand tone worked better as a rhythmic and tonal element than a narrative one, acting as a counterbalance to Levi's propulsive beats.
Those songs didn't orient themselves around the kinds of narratives that require emotive singing. The feelings they produced were tactile, registering as sensations rather than stories. There, Mastin and Levi's divergent styles created the impression of unity, with each giving the other something she was missing. On Devotion, you can hear them drifting apart.