This one’s a good one. It’s real fun, this one, it’s roulette-inspired. If you put it on shuffle, odds are you won’t have your heart ripped out…
but the chances are never zero…
FAMILY | Björk She’s too powerful. As I alleged last week, Björk’s Vespertine is love made music with cosmic accuracy; a recreation so immaculate, it could have been syphoned straight from her heart. But like all superpowers, such deft empathetic expression is a double-edged sword, carving treacherous valleys between every peak of tender triumph. Vulnicura, in my eyes the equal and opposite reaction to Vespertine, proves with tidal force that sensitivity can be a blessing and a curse—a curse that, to Björk’s credit, is rendered in beautifully terrifying detail for all her listeners to behold. To be clear, much as I’m prone to it, I work not to stray into hyperbole here—when I say a song is terrifying, I mean it, feel it in my bones, just as I did when we discussed The Doors‘ “Horse Latitudes.” Where “Horse Latitudes” tied into survival anxiety and sound design that poked at primal responses, though, “Family” is far more agonizing, and not just because of the eight-minute runtime. Written in the wake of her divorce with Matthew Barney, Vulnicura is arguably Björk’s most vulnerable work; an open wound, pink and raw, unfettered by metaphor or euphemism. While I found myself morbidly fascinated by the naked grief of Vulnicura, after only one listen to “Family,” I’m not sure I’m strong enough to finish the whole record.
From its skin-crawling start, “Family” is abuzz with sharply clashing strings, evoking a carcass, or, more accurately, the echoes of dread in some accelerating cascade after realizing the worst has indeed come to pass. It’s a dread that’s decisively confirmed when Björk’s first words scrape in, sore and strained: “Is there a place / where I can pay respects / to the death of my family?” Only thirty seconds in, and these words feel like a gut punch, only made more haunting contained within this atmosphere of self-sustaining discord. It’s a song concerned a lot with scorned respect, a “triangle of love” between mother, father, and child torn asunder by what would appear from the outside to be Barney’s cheating (though there are no official sources that confirm this). I’m thankful to have been raised by two parents still very much in love, and though I understand that oftentimes divorce can be the most healthy option for children of head-butting parents, the sort of decisive, nuclear betrayal displayed so heartrendingly here no doubt left absolute ruin in its wake. In the ashen aftermath of a blow like this, so often muted in casual conversation, this song’s plea of “how could you” is more devastatedly incredulous than an attempt to mend anything—what’s done is done, and all that’s left is to “mourn [their] miraculous triangle.” While some say they’re swept away by some sense of recovery in the swelling, still-discordant crescendo that ends this song, it still leaves me the way I left Ari Aster’s Hereditary or Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried—still abuzz with dread, on the precipice of numbness, left to stare blankly at the wall for ten minutes. Those swelling strings, awash with fresh rips and bloody streaks, still grieve, still keen, and I feel it pretty hard. Lost love may not be a taken life, but if it’s religiously fed by partners for years or decades, it might as well be murder to tear this gilded growth away. Like few other songs are, “Family” is an eight-minute dose of concentrated despair, and while it vectors the miraculous and necessary intensity that art was always meant for, if you’re as sensitive as I am, this one’s a potential day-ruiner. It is breathtakingly beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but my god, I would not wish this pain on anyone.
Like the album cover on today’s graphic, though, it could not be more discordant with the rest of today’s picks, so start, um, start like, hittin’ the harmonica or whatever, because we’re getting happy time now!!!!!! Yay!!!!!!!!!! 🤪🤪🤪🤪🤪🤪🤪🤪🤪🤪🤪
Pairs Well With: Therapy
PI | Kate Bush Oh, actually, I didn’t think this through super well. Good news or bad news first? Well, since this is not a democracy, we’ll just get the bad news out of the way, so hold onto your hats, this is big: I did not like Kate Bush’s Aerial. At all. After my shocking disappointment from The Red Shoes, I figured Bush’s twelve-year hiatus to raise her son Bertie might have given her some much-needed breathing room. With twelve years not dedicatedly creating, I imagined she’d unveil some artistic masterpiece that had been marinating to perfection, a decade’s worth of repressed whimsy and spirit ready to burst forth in vibrato technicolor. I wasn’t expecting The Dreaming 2 or anything, but after starting Aerial with the slow-burn maelstrom of “King of the Mountain” (which I have only grown to love even more since I last talked about it… the wind definitely blows some sand in my eye from time to time, or maybe every single time, and that’s just what happens to manly men like me, okay?), I certainly expected anything other than a directly downward slope. And, look, I feel almost viscerally opposed to criticizing one of my biggest artistic heroes, but somewhere over the course of those twelve years, it seems that the smooth jazz shadow Kate Bush can slip into may have completely overtaken her. Frankly, she’s fought an uphill battle (not gonna say it, not gonna say it, not gonna say it) to be respected as an experimental songwriter for so long that she’s earned the right to doing whatever she wants with her music, but doubly frankly, this album gets a little too “lilting Englishmen” for me, like Genesis without all of the fun parts. Despite how unbearably bardic most of Aerial can be (for me, at least—if that’s your thing, respect, and maybe distance), it has its moments of the masterful imagination that I love Kate Bush for so much in the first place.
“Pi,” today’s pick, is the second song on the album, and unfortunately, my second favorite. Oddly, it’s a song that’s evocative of They Might Be Giants’s eccentric takes on educational music in that it adds an imaginative element of pathos to a sterile number. I suppose, more than anything, that’s just in character for Bush, but it surprised me that this song starts with a story, ushered in by the hypnotically ribbiting base. The tale here isn’t over-spun or contrived—it simply introduces the all-too-human hubris of attempting to calculate the infinite. Though I’d say this song sounds harmlessly fun, it’s an existential, almost Sisyphean touch that adds a strange aftertaste to “Pi”—a string to pull for the curious or foolish, or to be left alone if listeners just want to experience it. When it comes to reciting pi itself, the song doesn’t disappoint (unless you’re expecting to stick around for a much longer time), and while it would be impossible to repeat a rhyming chorus exactly with an infinite number such as this, I thought it was especially clever that the first two verses of pi itself begin with three, mirroring the first word of the song, “sweet.” While I wish Aerial had more treats like these sprinkled into its runtime, I’m seriously glad we have the first two songs, at least—both will be on my usual Kate Bush rotation well past when I should be tired of them.
Pairs Well With: “King of the Mountain” (Kate Bush), “Squonk” (Genesis), “Three is a Magic Number” (Blind Melon covering Schoolhouse Rocks!)
I PUT A SPELL ON YOU | Screamin’ Jay Hawkins Some might argue this directly contradicts my promise of a mostly-happy songs list, but I’m not sure what else I’d call the feeling this song gives me—that same, spooky giddiness of hammer horror or a good haunted house. It’s a halloween happiness I was first exposed to by, unfortunately, Marilyn Manson’s incredible cover on the Lost Highway soundtrack, with its slithering, seething build that explodes into a sheering, screaming headbanger. Though I really don’t care for the man himself, he undeniably captures the same, demonic, shock-rock provocation that put the original “I Put a Spell on You” in the Rock-‘n’-Roll Hall of Fame. Though its spooky, looped backbeat falls surprisingly close to the conventional jazz instrumentation of the 50s, its subtler shift towards darkness contrasts starkly with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s at the time unprecedented vocals. Certainly, I’d argue there’s a clear lineage between this and Cab Calloway’s whimsical hooting, hollering, and neologistic wordsmithing some thirty years earlier, but Hawkins decisively earns his name by twisting the past with foaming fervency. Against the gentle, uptight, jazz, he wails, bellows, and snorts like a karaoke bar warthog. Fittingly, Hawkins and his band were rumored to have been piss drunk when they first recorded this now-legendary track, which may well have washed away in the saccharine sea of tender fifties earworms from copycat crooners were it not for one shot too many. Look, I’ll never romanticize or endorse alcohol—it’s scarred many people close to me in one way or another—but I suppose I have to begrudgingly thank it for letting loose the musical beast somewhere in the shallows of Hawkins’s unconscious. Still, like with the Beatles and their drugs, I choose to believe this spooky soul was always somewhere inside him—it’s just a question of what else could have brought it to the surface if not substance abuse. Either way, I’m glad it emerged, because much as I love Manson’s cover, I’m not sure the original’s feral innovation could ever be beat.
Pairs Well With: “Hi De Ho Man” (Cab Calloway), “Insane Asylum” (Koko Taylor & Willie Dixon), “I Put a Spell on You” (Marilyn Manson covering Screamin’ Jay Hawkins)
POWERBOAT | Muthi & Mcbaise I’m new to both Muthi and Mcbaise, but already, I’ve found some alt familiarity in the songs they sing. From “Powerboat”‘s opening chords like a wavering mirage, there’s a certain lazy language spoken here from the outset, slurring stories of new-adult, indie-rock ennui like sad surfers. Just because “Powerboat” coasts across well-traveled waters doesn’t mean it isn’t worth examining in-depth, however—aside from clever millennial lyricism like “Where’d the summer go from pre-production / straight to credits, nothing in-between / A missing scene / When they say ‘keep your head above the water’ / That is not exactly what they mean,” there’s also this strange, perhaps even satirical element with the titular image of the power boat, which may be a play on words. With allusions to queens and favors, this song floats through a slurry of pollutant power dynamics that, if my metaphor brain wasn’t currently mush, I’d like to explore a little more. Luckily, even if lyrics aren’t your jam, the warmth of this song’s seaside synth is enough to carry it on its own. As of now, 2021’s Visions is Muthi’s only album out, so keep an ear out for more—if my New Year’s resolutions are anything to go by, then I know I will. Thanks once again to my friend Michael for finding this one.
Pairs Well With: “Swervin” (Harlem), “Bleed” (George Clanton), “Feel it All Around” (Washed Out)
IT’S IN THE WAY YOU MOVE | Alan O’Day and Janis Liebhart Listen, I love National Geographic’s Really Wild Animals just as much as the next guy, but we have to draw the line somewhere. Funk songs like this used to straight up embarrass me to my snobby little core as a kid. Like, get over yourself. “Yow?” “Take a walk on the wet side?” Give me a break, dude. And that whale shark, just existing, getting chopped up in the editing room like it’s in some dated youth pastor rap video? There’s enough anti-science sentiment in these streets, don’t give the mob more bricks.
…okay, so maybe it’s a little fun. Hey, just a little!
Pairs Well With: “Walk on the Wild Side” (Lou Reed)
This week’s art might seem a little anachronistic for February, but nothing defines pastel oranges, yellows, and pinks for me like Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. Luckily for me, every frame of that movie is a visual masterpiece, so I’ve got a lot of Songs of the Week material to work with in the future, though I felt a bit heretical plastering my safety scissors and Elmer’s glue graphic design over the top of this nigh-untouchable art. A meticulously-crafted stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book of the same name, Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of the most eccentric, intelligent, artful, and witty all-ages movies I’ve seen put to screen. Cards on the table, it’s also been amongst the twenty or so contenders for my top ten all-time favorite movies since I saw it in the theater at nine years old. Though thematically it’s focused on mid-life crises, with a sobering meditation on death lurking just behind the sparse autumn scrub, I promise there’s something here for all ages, from its awkwardly exuberant acceptance of outcasts to its seriously hilarious dialogue. It’s a dry sort of humor that many adults automatically assume their kids can’t handle, but from the perspective of a day-one fan, this movie strongly influenced my sense of humor, which… actually might be an insult, so I’m gonna roll that one back. Either way, this one’s a must-watch in my book, and with fall just around the corner, now’s a perfect time to get excited about Fantastic Mr. Fox! I don’t know about you guys, but the leaves are practically already changing over here. They’ll be yellow next week, mark my words.
I was not expecting to get grabbed by the shirt collar and chucked back to sitting on the old carpet in front of the TV watching Spin but y’know what life is full of surprises
Oh man. She discussed this song on the podcast and described barely being able to sing from the sheer grief and how she would crumble and sob in the studio during the process of recording the album. It’s so admirable to put yourself out there so wholly and just be raw and naked like that and to use your self expression to heal.
Yea, I really can’t imagine what it took to put that song out. It’s a masterpiece but that sort of grief seems so consuming that I wouldn’t be able to, like, move for a while.
Oh, come on! Toddler Max was secretly jammin’ to It’s in the Way You Move.
I’m like deeply embarrassed by how mesmerized I was by the ocean creatures video, I almost missed the “yow”
I mean, understandable. Like, all of those creatures living in the sea have an individuality