Bernard Kliban is one of my favourite cartoonists. He was a master of compressing and distilling complex philosophical questions or uncomfortable truths or simple frustrations into a single-panel of absurd/surreal/grotesque/cute brilliance. He is incredibly underrated, but (I think) hugely influential. He is remembered mostly for his Cat cartoons, which paved the way for (the less edgy/ more mainstream) Garfield, and his one panel cartoons surely helped Gary Larson find his stride with The Far Side. His work continues to mean more and shed new light as I get older and more experienced (well, older, anyway), and whenever I return to his drawings I find new details and laugh (or just nod) at something that previously I’d failed to even ‘get’.
Kliban’s drawings are the visual equivalent of the sunglasses in John Carpenter’s film They Live. They reveal the truth that sits underneath the spectacle of appearances and sham and lies. They are like swallowing the red pill. Guy Debord would have loved him.
My favourite cartoon of his is titled The Only Show in Town, and it depicts a huge line of people queuing up around the corner of a large theatre to buy tickets to a show. In gigantic letters above them the show’s title reads: GO FUCK YOURSELF. It perfectly captures the commercial contempt of so much popular culture and the lemming-like gullibility of the eager masses.
If Kliban were around today, the cartoon could be amended to include the abusive title emblazoned on TV screens, magazine covers, glowing out of laptops and phones and tablets. This year we’ve been surrounded by a popular culture telling us to go fuck ourselves.
When Lady Gaga sings ‘I live for the applause, applause applause’, she is really singing ‘Go fuck yourself’. When she summoned the press to some warehouse in Brooklyn to unveil her latest PR gimmick, which was the anticlimactic two-foot flight of Volantis, a wobbly oversized (and I’m sure overpriced) AR drone, she said: ‘Hopefully, one day you’ll own a Volantis of your own.’ And, ‘Think about all we could do if we just thought about Volantis. Imagine the possibilities. We all have potential to be great, I hope today marks a change in pop. Not just for me.’ But what she really said was, ‘Go fuck yourself’.
When Miley Cyrus sticks her tongue out and shakes her arse at you, she is saying ‘Go fuck yourself’. (You don’t need They Live sunglasses on to know that when Sinead O’Connor wrote to Miley she was basically saying, Go fuck yourself. And you can guess what Miley said back.)
The ad copy for Justin Bieber’s new perfume The Key states: ‘The Key is an inspiring new fragrance that invites you to unlock the endless possibilities of believing in your dreams, bringing you closer to Justin than ever before’. His previous two perfumes were called Girlfriend and Someday. I assume the not-so-subtle message to his fans is: If you buy all three you may hold the key to someday being Justin’s girlfriend. Put on those John Carpenter sunglasses and you’ll read the label correctly. Go Fuck Yourself…the new fragrance from Justin Bieber.
Most people think Robin Thicke Has A Big Dick, but I watched that “Blurred Lines” clip with the sunglasses on to make sure. At first the balloons spelled out ‘Robin Thicke IS a Big Dick’, but I took ‘em off and rubbed my eyes, and just as I suspected: ‘Go Fuck Yourself’.
Surely artists don’t need to spend their time trying to convince you they’re artists, they simply go about making art. Gaga seems far too needy and/or desperate and/or insecure to be given this designation. Calling your album ARTPOP is a pretty undergraduate move. Fill it with as many art references as you want—real (Koons & Abramović) and/or imagined (Botticelli & Warhol)—you’re still writing corny, uninspired lyrics about fame, sex and dope (‘Pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture in me’).
(On the dope front: Toking a doobie is so passé now that flaunting it like it’s some dangerous badge of rebellion and non-conformity is just laughable. I would’ve thought even Gaga would understand this. Especially seeing the way Miley is trying to usurp her in the outrageous dept. Gaga releases a song called “Mary Jane Holland” [ARTPOP was released on November 6th 2013], then [on November 10th 2013] Miley sparks up a joint on stage at the MTV European Music Awards in Amsterdam. It’s a strange world. I bet Gaga watched that and muttered, ‘Go fuck yourself, Cyrus’).
Lady Gaga seems defensive on ARTPOP, (I’ve always found her ‘thing’ humourless, but this is different) as if the artifice of her image is weighing her down. The inescapable self-consciousness that must dog her every waking moment seems to be paralysing her. How do you keep upping the ante on your own gimmick? The Róisín Murphy outfits became the meat dress which became the flying dress that barely got off the ground. She takes herself far too seriously and seems to be jumping up and down demanding that we do the same.
At least Katy Perry seems to know who and what she is, which is bubblegum. She succeeds by owning it. She doesn’t fight it with too many pretensions or aspirations. She occasionally bumps up against her own fence-line when she pushes her limitations (ie: her voice), but that can be charming in a daggy kinda way. It’s pure disposable pop, and she embraces it. Plus, I actually think her tunes are stronger (a KP chorus [like “Roar”] will bounce around your head a lot longer than a Gaga song will) and she has a sense of humour too, there is a wink, which goes a long way in pop.
But I can’t help imagine some Bret Easton Ellis-like scene where popstars like Gaga and Miley are cast as the expendable pawns of brand names and power players in the fashion/publicity world, sitting around a table strewn with iPads and magazines and Cristal, cynically plotting their next move in the global game of HYPE.
– ‘You know who I think has potential?’
– ‘Miley Cyrus.’
– ‘We totally erase the white-trash Hannah Montana thing, and we install some edge.’
– ‘We cut that awful Shania thing off her head, I mean right off, and bleach it, something androgynous like Robyn or La Roux…it’ll suit her coz she looks like a boy anyway.’
– ‘True. But isn’t that Pink?’
– ‘Pink’s finished. She’s a Mom. Plus she was always trying to be edgy. We can do more with Miley. Look at that picture of her, she’s rigged for this…she’s totally blank…it’ll be the reverse Stepford Wife.’
– ‘Yeah, you’re right.’
– ‘She’ll lap it up too, Miley is crying out for the next level. Disney is finished for her. To be honest, it’s amazing that happened, thank fuck she has no real idea how much of a joke her father was.’
– ‘I know.’
– ‘He was a no-talent throwback with a mullet…thank god for irony, I mean, it’s amazing the world didn’t laugh Miley back to the sticks…she’s really just an entitled, affluent version of those kids on Buckwild…’
– ‘So, I’ll get her over to your place next week for a shoot. I’m thinking hallway white, in a singlet and underpants, with bright red lips…total attitude, real extreme.’
– ‘Yeah, I can see that. Craigslist-skank selfies with a professional camera.’
– ‘Exactly. Glossy skank. The Montana fans are all hitting the skank years, so we hit their sex, drugs and rock’n’roll button.’
– ‘So maybe smoking or drinking a can of something.’
– ‘Yeah, leering and gnashing, sticking her tongue out. Photos that say, Go Fuck Yourself!’
– ‘Gotchya. Our next monster.’
– ‘Most people will hate her, which is perfect, that’s what we want. We can mobilise an apathetic youth more if we make them feel like the oldies hate their idols. They need something to push against.’
– ‘Lets face it, today’s youth have never had it so easy. They expect everything for free, popular culture is just piped into their houses like water. They don’t see anything to fight against, so we have to manufacture the targets for them.’
– ‘Alright, I’ll get to it.’
Okay, the exposition is a bit obvious, and I’m sure things are less simplistic and more chaotic than that, but I suspect I’m not 100% wrong.
There were a lot of albums that zinged through the transom this year. I didn’t find the time to rent a room across the road and spy on them all. But there were a few cursory listens, and things sounded pretty good. There were new albums from Eleanor Friedberger, Low, Fuck Buttons, Yo La Tengo, Bonobo, Grouper, Arcade Fire, and I quite liked what I heard of HAIM and Rhye. I had planned on setting up further surveillance, but alas, time rolls on and more albums seem to spill out every second. You just can’t hear them all. Properly, that is. Time isn’t what it was. One 20th Century year = one 21st Century month. One 20th-C month = one 21st-C week, one week = a day, one day = an hour, an hour = a minute, a minute = a second, and I’m not sure what a 20th Century second equals in 21st Century time. Presumably the time it takes for Glee (or someone with a ukulele) to cover your song.
The clock ticks much faster now. We no longer chart the steady rise of a performer, so much as we track their downfall with YouTube and Twitter. When Miley Cyrus emerged from the belly of a giant teddybear (at the VMAs) and stuck her tongue out, it was over. No one will remember the few minutes of her own song “We Can’t Stop”, which was eclipsed by her duet with Robin Thicke. That twerking moment (which was barely over one minute) was her apex. Now we watch the fall. I’m sure we’ll see some monstrous flailing around in the media before rigor mortis sets in, but you can be sure the twerking will forever signal the time of death. The moment you make it is the moment you’re doomed. It’s instantaneous. She strutted out of the belly of a teddybear into the belly of the beast. That’s what everyone cheered for. That’s why Twitter erupted. We’d been thrown our new chew toy. Our eyes lit up, our mouths fell open, Gaga dropped to the ground like an old bone, and we pounced. Now we just keep ripping it apart until we lose the taste for Miley and/or we’re thrown another. (Miley will soon be having drinks with Psy at that downtown bar called Yesterday’s News. You’ll see them on the dance-floor together, he’ll be twerking while she kicks it Gangnam style, tears rolling down their cheeks.)
Amid the barrage, I managed to dig a few albums a little deeper. Most were old favourites with new releases and some were new kids on the block. As a record collector it’s been exciting to see the amount of reissues of old hard-to-find (on vinyl) albums, and I’ve included a couple of those too. So here, in no particular order, are my musical highlights of 2013.
Matt Berry – Kill the Wolf (2013)
Matt’s cool follow-up to 2009’s Witchazel, sees him channelling his folk/prog/pop influences into a mix that sounds like an alternative soundtrack to 1973’s The Wicker Man. It was a great year for Matt Berry fans, not only did we get this album, but also his new series Toast of London, which followed the hijinks of aging has-been actor Steven Toast (played by Berry). ‘Yes, I can hear you, Clem Fandango.’
Langley Parks – Desolate Planet (2013)
Atmospheric debut from Australian electronic musician patching together the past and present with a palette that echoes other dark digital operatives like Röyksopp, Solar Fields, Laurel Halo, or the ambient work of Aphex Twin. Song titles like, “Motherboard”, “So Long First Wave”, “Collapse”, “Parallax” and “Final Wave” seemed to portend invisible omens creeping close and silent, our eyes wide shut. A distant yet claustrophobic birds-eye soundtrack for the (ending or changing) times. It soothes as it unsettles, or perhaps it unsettles as it soothes.
Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady (2013)
The fourth and fifth suites of her epic Metropolis saga continued to keep me in thrall. There is even talk of an accompanying graphic novel that will illustrate the sci-fi adventure of Ms. Mayweather, aka 57821. I’ve written previously of my love of Janelle Monáe’s music, so I’ll keep it short by simply saying: More greatness. Get it. Dig it.
Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus Seven (2013)
First album since signing to the Warp label. My initial reaction driving home from Sydney’s Red Eye Records with the CD playing in the car was: OK, this is different. It must be tough in the electronic world to establish signature sounds and create an identity, then to move forward and evolve. You can still hear Daniel Lopatin within this album, but it requires time to process. Which is not a bad thing. Upon subsequent listens this album started to reveal moments of shifting artificial beauty that cut against my expectations.
Washed Out – Paracosm (2013)
If his previous album, Within and Without (2011) was a late night album, this is the album to play the next morning. A somewhat brighter or sunnier take on his beautifully sullied sound.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away (2013)
Perhaps the rueful soundtrack to the aftermath of Grinderman or perhaps just the calmer, widescreen expanse that follows sky obliteration. The Bad Seeds fill this new vista with a simple dark poetry of instruments, serenading a desolate tableau of streets and mermaids and spectres and pop-icons all floating into an atom smasher, seeking some unified theory of eternal inquiry and/or the will to create. How do you keep going? How do you maintain inspiration? What is yours now that we’re all connected? How do we reflect in this age of constant real-time Now? How do you make art now that irony has rendered everything cliché? If the sky really is the limit, you push it away, and begin.
Various Artists – Enjoy the Experience (2013)
Fascinating compilation that accompanied the equally fascinating publication, Enjoy the Experience: Homemade Records 1958-1992, which beautifully (and with a minimum of irony) presents the little-known/overlooked world of private pressings (or vanity pressings). The book (and album) contains many hidden gems from the fringes of recorded music and/or live performance of countless genres (including the genre-defying). Seek out “ESP Switch” by Michael Farneti, or “6.4 = Make Out” by Gary Wilson, or “Elton John Medley” by Silk & Silver and see if you don’t get charmed. Highly recommend grabbing both the book and album (in fact, the book comes with a download code for the album, but if you’re like me, you’ll seek out the vinyl release soon after).
Kat Epple & Bob Stohl – Sanctus Spiritus (2013)
Using flutes and synthesisers, husband & wife duo Kat Epple and Bob Stohl created ambient/ new age music (as Emerald Web) through the late 70s to the late 80s (before the death of Stohl in 1990). Kat Epple has continued working extensively, releasing numerous solo albums and collaborative projects, winning Emmys for her soundtrack work, and performing everywhere from the MoMA to Ground Zero. This compilation (put out on the Dead-Cert label) gathers music from private tapes made between 1980-1982, playing like some parallel Blade Runner soundtrack, full of ethereal synth pads, twinkling electronics and swirling winds. This has been on high rotation this year, majestically scoring both days and nights. The last track “Beyond the Towers” will bring any fan of Vangelis or Eno to their knees.
Autechre – Exai (2013)
Someday (when we finally catch up to it) in twenty or thirty or one hundred years time, this will be played in shops as you buy a new pair of jeans (or a Hazmat suit).
Smog – Dream River (2013)
‘I really am a lucky man flying this small plane.’ So sings Bill Callahan on the track “Small Plane”. That line could be a haiku-esque summation of Bill’s/Smog’s underrated presence in the music world. He quietly continues to release these poetic albums with a minimum of fuss, while the world tweets about twerks, and meanwhile I’m still snagged on songs from ten or twenty years ago. Amazing. He can still craft songs like no one else, and sing them with a voice that sounds like a continent, or a mountain…or at least a tree, or a log. (Another great album cover too, by Australian artist Paul Ryan.)
La Luz – It’s Alive (2013)
I came across La Luz earlier this year, with the song “Call Me in the Day”. I managed to track down a copy of the 7” soon after, and I played the hell out of those two tracks this year, while constantly checking to see if a full length would soon follow. By October, it did. These four pacific-northwest girls write catchy evocative songs and bring them to life with harmonies that have a deceptively simple and spooky charm. As if (The Go-Betweens drummer) Lindy Morrison was the music teacher at the high school in Twin Peaks and four of her students decided to form a doo-wop surf group.
Mark Snow – The X-Files: Volume 2 (2013)
In 2011 La-La Land Records released The X-Files: Volume 1, a limited edition (3000 copies) deluxe 4-CD set with a 40 page booklet and it sold out pretty quick. They were all gone by the time I heard about it and copies now go for big bucks. Bummer. Anyway, the ‘Volume 1’ in the title always implied there’d be a Volume 2, and it arrived late this year. Again, it’s limited to 3000 copies, 4 CDs, big booklet etc. If you’re an old file’o’phile like me, and/or a fan of dark moody ambient soundtracks, then get yourself a copy before they’re gone. Over five hours of atmospheric alien goodness.
Iasos – Celestial Soul Portrait (2013)
Collection that focuses on the first decade of musical output from another one of the unsung originators of New Age music, Iasos. By exploring improvisational modes of music, Iasos set out to manifest the sounds he was hearing within. Armed with an array of instruments, and facilitated by what he came to call Vista (believed by Iasos to be an inter-dimensional being or consciousness [it reminds me of Philip K. Dick’s 2-3-74 encounter with what he came to call Valis]), Iasos produced these cosmic otherworldly soundscapes.
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (2013)
This was so irresistibly cool, it’s hard not to pick this as album of the year. (I’m sure it will top many 2013 lists.) I don’t think this album needs much in the way of introduction or reiteration. That mysterious French cybernetic duo gave us one of the most seductive amalgams of old and new since the anticlimax of Y2K. More than anything they’ve done before, (and putting aside their immeasurable influence on music of the past decade) this album reminded us, first and foremost, what great songwriters they are.
Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest (2013)
For certain cultish music fans (like you), a new album from Boards of Canada is always an event. It’s been about, what, eight years, between drinks? Damn, getting old. It’s exciting news though. You start to get tunnel vision as the release day approaches, knowing you’ll soon be immersed in something special. You hear it’s called Tomorrow’s Harvest and think: Yeah, that seems fitting. You see the artwork and smile. Everything is intact. Their whole aesthetic.
You go out and buy the vinyl. You get it home and play it. For the next hour or so, there is no other music in the world. Nothing else has ever been created. It’ll take a while to get around to. You don’t even read the track names. It just plays. You just listen. You go and lie on the couch and close your eyes. You fall asleep at some point, but when you wake up you just go put the tone-arm down again. It’s getting dark outside. You make a cup of tea. You sit down and you start thinking about this. Things seem sad. You feel older. The world seems to echo it back at you. The world is no longer yours. It belongs to others now. The young. You’ve been making room for them. Setting things up for them as previous generations did for you. You don’t feel as old as you are, but that’s the way it goes. Walking out on the veranda, you stare up at the stars. It’s dead quiet. Boards of Canada sound great muffled through the walls as you stand outside in the dark. Dark, quiet nights with lots of stars suits their music. You wonder if Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin stand outside in the dark and road-test the final mix of their album through the walls. They should.
A fog is starting to drift in, exchanging the atmospheres: clear night for foggy night. As you breathe it in, you figure that twinge of pain between your shoulder blades must be where time’s arrow has struck. But the music has an analgesic effect. You need this music around. You go and buy the CD the next day.
Goldfrapp – Tales of Us (2013)
Of all the good stuff I listened to this year, this probably takes the cake for ‘most spins’. Goldfrapp have been a fave since their debut Felt Mountain (2000), which was a lush, dark, trip-hoppy saga. Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory went on to perfect other genres too, like the dance/beat-driven Black Cherry (2003) and Supernature (2005) albums (“Ride a White Horse” [and accompanying video] was killer [Alison Goldfrapp seemed to be another one that Gaga pilfered for ideas.].) As much as I dug those albums, my dancing days are behind me (never arrived to perfectly honest), and I was more excited by the next album Seventh Tree (2008) which was a slight return to the brooding atmospheres of the debut but mixed with an almost folky/chamber pop sensibility. The fifth album, Head First (2010) was an all out dance pop affair, and I must admit that after sampling a few tracks online, I didn’t buy that one. But they remain a band I will always pay attention to, because I think they’re great writers with a large, interesting array of influences in their DNA.
So after hearing that Tales of Us was far moodier and darker than previous albums, I knew it was something I had to hear. Well…I wasn’t disappointed. This is the album I’ve been waiting for them to make. There are traces of shadowy Angelo Badalamenti, swoony James Bond theme songs, Scott Walker 3 & 4, and it plays more like a soundtrack to some sad modern film noir. Ninety percent of the songs are given Christian names, so the track-listing seems to echo the album’s title, these are tales of people that are perhaps real and imagined, and in the end, you, us. (Given our current apparent roles as mere consumers and content providers via YouTube and Twitter and Instagram and other social media, Tales if Us seems like a very prescient title. One that will no doubt be hijacked in a year or two by a cultural theorist for a book called Tales of Us: The Convergence of Our Appropriated Lives in the Wake of Web 2.0.)
I looked at the lyrics briefly and, you know what, they’re pretty ordinary when written and read on the page, but when they’re sung and allowed to drift within the fog of these songs, they transform. It all simply becomes about Alison’s voice, and those delicate siren-like vocal melodies. I don’t care what she’s saying, those melodies will swim around you, haunting and hypnotic.
The songs seem constructed of memories and dreams, the instrumentation is so good it becomes invisible, seamless, everything melding into one tender maelstrom of sound. It’s the sound of your past. The streets and parks and bedrooms, filled with long gone friends and loves, their current whereabouts unknown outside of daydreams (or Facebook).
They are the choices we made and the paths not taken.
They are the things we said and the words held back, and the regret that follows both.
by Decoy Spoon