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Real Life Rock Top Ten – September 2010

by Greil Marcus
Illustration by Charles Burns

Real Life Rock Top Ten – September 2010

Greil Marcus
14 Snaps

(1) Laurie Anderson: Homeland (Nonesuch).  “Only an Expert” is not anything anyone could have expected from Laurie Anderson: a pop song.  It moves quickly on a stuttering but unpredictable beat.  The verses are like a stand-up comedy act where the comic is constantly winking at the audience, but not exactly to indicate everyone in the privileged room is in on the joke.  You can’t tell what the wink is saying, and it exerts its own pull of fascination.  The chorus is is pure pop, the singer taking pleasure in the momentum of a few words that quickly cease to mean anything—they could be doo-wops.  The music is that cool, that unafraid of itself.  The bits of Lou Reed’s feedback running in the deep background of the piece as it moves on, each fragment curling in on itself like a paper in fire, suggest that there’s a lot to this song that isn’t being said, even though it has over 900 words.

Like a lot of this album, with its Department of Security title—the Nazi word Homeland saying that everywhere else is Empire—“Only an Expert” moves quickly into the traducing of the Constitution and the morals of American history by George W. Bush and his administration.  But as such it’s a novelty song, which I once heard defined as a song that was funny and not about love.  This song is very funny for more than seven and a half minutes, and it gets funnier the more you listen to it.  Its currency is disbelief: everything it describes is presented with an expression of well-what-did-you-expect acceptance, which in every other moment turns into you must be kidding, which, as you listen, over and over, can change into nightmare, hate, fear, self-loathing, and fantasies of murderous revenge.

Except perhaps on The Ugly One with the Jewels and Other Stories, from 1995, Anderson’s best album until this one, her voice has been a raised eyebrow: arch, knowing, sometimes sneering, even smug.  It’s no different here.  What is radically different is that here Anderson has built a context—on an expanding, old-fashioned zeitgeist album that means to translate everything into its own language, to replace a diffuse and fugitive frame of reference with one the singer has built herself—in which everything she says, her every tone of voice, is suffused with such regret and pain over what has happened to the country the singer has to describe that the arch, the knowing, the sneering, and the smug are revealed as hopeless, worthless masks.  Song by song, through play, surprise, tunes that drift like dreams in and out of the words and textures of “O Superman,” that soft-spoken Jeremiad that across nearly three decades has lost none of its prophetic gravity, Anderson heads toward the center of her story, a more than eleven-minute spoken piece—with movie-like music behind it, maybe calling up Lost Horizon, a better title than Anderson’s “Another Day in America,” music suggesting that you’ve been here before, even if here has never been more than a figment of someone else’s imagination—performed, by means of a filter, in a male voice.

Out of his slow, heavy, I-used-to-be-disgusted-now-I-try-to-be-amused growl, it’s impossible not to picture the man speaking.  I seem him as tall, heavy-set, a one-time prep school Ivy Leaguer who’s worked in the State Department for 40 years.  He’s seen it all.  He’s seen presidents, senators, secretaries of State come and go, and now he’s seen too much.  He tells jokes as if they’re parables; he offers parables as if he can tell them as jokes, but they fall flat, a whole country falling flat on its face.  As he goes on, with Antony Hegarty coming in behind him, floating around his dead like the ghost of his dead, younger self, he gives up even trying to be amused; every word he says turns sour in his mouth.  We come to far, he’s saying; nothing is going to change back to what it was, or what we thought it was, or what we hoped it could be.  When the song ends—and it doesn’t fade out; it stops with a last, self-silencing note—it’s horrible.  You feel the story, the country, has outlived itself.

Homeland has received a lot of attention, and a lot of praise.  Nothing I’ve read or heard has come close to plumbing the richness of this work, which ought to be making people smile and troubling their sleep for a long, long time to come.

(2) Jay-Z & Mr Hudson: “Young Forever” (Roc Nation).  In a small drama where the land of eternal youth sounds a lot like the Islamist martyrs’ paradise, what makes the performance so gripping is the way Jay Z plays against the British R&B singer Mr Hudson’s gorgeous recreation of Alphaville’s 1984 “Forever Young.”  He’s testifying off to the side, then going silent for Mr Hudson as if listening to what he’s saying, waiting in the alley of his own song for that moment when he’ll dash out and jump the train of the old one, then running his own train of words straight through the melody, jumping off with perfect timing when Mr Hudson takes the music back.

(3) Hockey: “Song Away” (Capitol).  The Portland band is dynamite on the air, when you’re not expecting it, when you tune right into the middle.  Despite the fast pace, the speechifying vocals, there’s a hint of the languor of Sheryl Crow’s “Santa Monica Boulevard.”  The muscle in the guitar-bass-drums rhythms is so arresting that on the radio it can erase the video from you mind, and the video, by Skinny—kin to Samuel Bayer’s for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” with the ordinary horror of being a nerd at a gym dance replacing the Prom Night menace of Nirvana’s pep rally—is one of the funniest, warmest, and most socially accurate (the way the geeky kid looks at a row of the coolest girls in school as if they’re from another planet) high-school movies ever made. 

(4) Flotilla Choir: “We Con the World (Turkish ‘Aid to Gaza’ Song with Captain Stabbing & Friends)” (YouTube).  Contrived almost overnight after the May 31 attempt of the Mavi Marmara to break the blockade of Gaza, this Israelis-in-Arab-drag video is the most outrageous parody of “We Are the World” every devised.  And, except for “We Are the World: 25 for Haiti,” recorded in February by Justin Bieber et al.—in the very same studio where Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie, and so many more once checked their egos at the door!—the most effective.

(5 & 6) Matt Diehl: “Joni Mitchell brands Bob Dylan a ‘fake’” (Los Angeles Times, April 22).  “’Bob is not authentic at all,’ she said. ‘He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.’”  Charles Taylor: “In protest, Chelsea Clinton changes her name to Hibbing.”

(7) KFOG (San Francisco, May 14): A deep, sonorous voice: “Back in the stone age, this song was used to repel dinosaurs.”  Then they played Dramarama’s “Anything, Anything,” which sounded as if it would have worked.

(8) Tom Jones: “Praise and Blame” (Lost Highway).  The 70-year-old one-time Welsh R&B stomper goes back to his blues and gospel roots, digs them up, tosses them in the fireplace, and with John Lee Hooker’s 1959 “Burning Hell,” burns down house.

(9) Crooked Still: “Love Henry” from Some Strange Country (Signature Sounds).  A carefulness, a flinching hesitation, has boxed in Aoife O’Donovan and everyone else in this sensual old-timey band since their Shaken by a Low Sound four years ago.  But on this ancient, mystical murder ballad, they make a labyrinth, and don’t even try to get out.

(10) Brett Easton Ellis: Imperial Bedrooms (Knopf).  His second book named after an Elvis Costello song: a sequel to Less Than Zero.  “Our reunion tour,” says E. C.

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