With what the boys call murder: The best of Liz Phair

Many things outraged us in 2003: the war in Iraq, the confluence of crony capitalism and a presidential administration, and Liz Phair working with The Matrix. Thirteen years later it’s hard to see what the fuss was about, except the last half decade has seen colleagues go gaga over Bon Iver-Kanye, James Blake-Beyonce, and Taylor Swift-everybody as if white artists on the fringes didn’t want, to use Phair’s phrase, shitloads of money, and black artists weren’t as curious about other kinds of music as white artists. It’s not my favorite Phair: Whitechocolatespaceegg‘s lacquered production, Jennifer Anniston hair on the sleeve, and rueful, punchy songs amounted to the best album of Sheryl Crow’s life. And Exile in Guyville remains a top album for me. While the Stones analogies ran false, the sharpness of Phair’s scenarios didn’t. The Kmart production and dependence on electric rhythm guitar strumming — hers is one of my favorite albums on which this sound dominates — leads me to suspect she wrote wish lists and fantasies embellished after a few encounters, which doesn’t stop Guyville from piercing my heart.

1. Fuck and Run
2. 6’1″
3. Crater Lake
4. It’s Sweet
5. Uncle Alvarez
6. Divorce Song
7. Canary
8. Little Digger
9. Shitloads of Money
10. Johnny Feelgood
11. Explain It to Me
12. Girls! Girls! Girls!
13. Supernovea
14. Go On Ahead
15. Why I Lie
16. X-Ray Man
17. Canary
18. Rock Me
19. Big Tall Man
20. Mesmerizing

The decay of political reporting

Beyond The Washington Post (hi, David Fahrenthold!) and a few pieces, three or four, journalism in 2016 saw the nadir of its obsession with false objectivity and false equivalence. There wasn’t a Trump story during the election cycle that a newspaper didn’t mitigate with a story about Clinton’s emails. Rick Perlstein gasps. “The Trump transition has put in stark relief the very foundations of the profession of journalism in modern America—whose fundamental canon is that there are two legitimate sides to every story, occasionally more, but never less,” he writes. “In a political campaign, they are structured on an iron axis. The Democratic side. The Republican side. Any critical attempt to weigh the utterances of one as more dangerous than the other is, by definition, the worst conceivable professional sin.” Except when Hillary Clinton’s emails are a story, or, indeed, any Hillary Clinton story:

The elite gatekeepers of our public discourse never bothered with context: that every Secretary of State since the invention of the internet had done the same thing, because the State Department’s computer systems have always been awful; that at the end of the administration of the nation’s 41st president a corrupt national archivist appointed by Ronald Reagan upon the recommendation of Dick Cheney signed a secret document giving George H.W. Bush personal, physical custody of the White House’s email backup tapes so they would never enter the public record. (A federal judge voided the document as “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law.”) The White House of his son George W. Bush erased 22 million of its official emails, including those under subpoena from Congress. Newspapers archived by the Lexis-Nexis database mentioned Hillary R. Clinton’s 33,000 erased private emails 785 times in 2016. I found six references to George W. Bush’s 22 million erased public ones: four in letters to the editor, one in a London Independent op-ed, another in a guide to the U.S. election for Australians, and one a quotation from a citizen in the Springfield (Ohio) News-Sun.

And now we have Donald Trump, elected in part because of his alleged tender concern for the secure handling of intelligence, making calls to world leaders from Trump Tower’s unsecured telephones.

On NBC Nightly News last night, the program, to my surprise, aired a segment about Michael Flynn Jr., son of the incoming national security adviser, and his history of posting and endorsing anti-Muslim drivel. Thanks to unexpected and welcome press resistance, the darling child will no longer work on the transition.

A few hours ago, “Morning” Joe and “Mika” Bryzinski, kneeling before a portrait of David Broder, hoped Robert Gates was under serious consideration for secretary of state. He would be seen, they suggested, as a stabilizing force. Should the overrated scion of American foreign policy work for an ignorant white supremacist, he’d do more normalizing than was dreamt of in Scarborough’s philosophy.

Anticipation is a stimulation: the best of Pet Shop Boys

To try a different kind of list, let me annotate twenty of my favorite Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe tracks as the mood strikes me.

1. Why Don’t We Live Together (Please)

Its genius revealed itself to me on my twenty-ninth birthday — the age at which Tennant-Lowe recoded. What sounds like precosity at twenty-nine sounds like life at forty: compromise, making do, accepting what can’t be changed. The rhythm lets us know these are not bad things. The racket of the last forty seconds is the most euphoric moemnt of their career — and it had just begun.

2. Paninaro (b/w “Suburbia”)

Armani Armani A-ah-ah-Armani. Another list song. This one has a soccer chant, big drums, and an octave-skipping synth line. If you don’t dance to this, you’re Neil Tennant.

3. Young Offender (Very)

This still applies.

4. What Have I Done to Deserve This? (Actually)

5. Two Divided by Zero (Please)

What cruising (down) your city’s main drag sounds like. The sleaziness is so wanton it’s endearing, like a nerd trying to impress the cool kids with how well he can hold his liquor. Sometimes I think this is the only Pet Shop Boys song you need own, so well does it encapsulate their approach.

6. Being Boring (Behaviour)

7. You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk (Nightlife)

The Merle Haggard of “Footlights” and “How Did You Find Me Here” could have covered this: drop the g’s and it’s Nashville.

8. The End of the World (Behaviour)

This deep Behaviour track epitomized “sophistication” as a high school junior: regarding high school coupledom with the detachment of an older man who understands its silliness but missed out on all of it at the time. For reasons unsaid. The sequencer line is among their deepest. Also note: Tennant’s electric guitar picking.

9. I Get Excited (You Get Excited Too) (b/w “Heart”)

Truth in advertising!

10. Suburbia (New version)

11. Shopping (Actually)

As responsible as “Opportunities” for solidifying the Pet’s reputation as what AllMusic calls with all sincerity “post-modern ironists,” it indicts and it celebrates. Imagine the loser in “Two Divided By Zero” as a wealthy arriviste.

12. Always On My Mind (single)

What struck me most about Willie Nelson’s version, which I heard years after the PSB’s, was its guilelessness, humility. Nelson’s courtly delivery evoked the parable of the prodigal son — a rake who’d wandered the word from sin to sin and returned chastened, ready for the rest of his life. I hear little humility in Tennant and Lowe’s version; the hi-NRG beats and orchestral synths thrust Tennant’s thoughtlessness in listeners’ faces. It’s the character in “It’s a Sin” months later, having decided that decadence was awesome. But he wants it all: he wants his partner to forgive him when he (inevitably) wanders off the reservation again. Tennant’s vocal is extraordinary considering that anyone else would have gotten swamped by the arrangement. First he’s going nyah-nyah-nyah in his partner’s ear by switching from ascending to descending flat notes on the verses (“Maybe I-I-I-I didn’t treat y-o-u-u-u/Quite as G-O-O-D as I sh-ou-ou-ould…), then he rises to the challenge of those celestial synths on the chorus. He’s going to keep trying to become worthy of the attention lavished on him.

13. Se a Vida E (Bilingual)

14. Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money) (Please)

Of course I prefer this to “West End Girls.”

15. Rent (Actually)

Greil Marcus’ question remains: did Tennant-Lowe write a melody for those lyrics or lyrics for that melody?

16. This Must Be The Place I Waited Years to Leave (Behaviour)

The marvel of Behaviour is how Tennant hovers in and out of his characters’ dramas. The intermingling of elements here — the orchestral synths, Johnny Marr’s echoing guitar, the nervous percussive loop, Tennant’s gingerly vocal — produces a narrative rich in suggestion.

17. I’m Not Scared (Introspective or Eighth Wonder)

Pick which one you prefer: Eighth Wonder’s perky version, voiced by a kittenish Patsy Kensit, singing the French parts like a James Bond diva; or the epic one on the Boys’ own Introspective. Tennant, crooning over the rising and falling sequencer line, sounds plenty scared.

18. A Man Could Get Arrested (b/w of “West End Girls”)

I mentioned upthread that Alternative presented, well, an alternative history of the Boys’ career. The seven-inch version, recorded with a full band (“real bass and drums,” avers Chris Lowe), is as close as they got to sounding like 1985, but with a lyric so bizarre and a chord change so unexpected that the Boys could only have triumphed as a Scritti Politti-esque fluke.

19. Can You Forgive Her? (Very)

An indictment of the closet, and it needed a horn section and the most ebullient arrangement of the Boys’ career to register. Perhaps an instance of the Boys’ purported sense of irony is that Tennant sounds mildly envious off the closet.

20. Do I Have To? (b/w “Always On My Mind”)

Immersive romantic melancholy, in which Tennant turns the title question into a mantra.

21. Thursday (Electric)

Good art reminds us of what we overlook, often staring us in the face. Of course Thursday is better than Friday or the weekend: the anticipation, to quote an early song, is a stimulation.

22. You Choose (Release)

Another example of adult dance-inflected pop, “You Choose” lands with a soft thud at the end of Tennant-Lowe’s dullest studio album to date. But Johnny Marr’s guitar line hugs Tennant close as he sings, in a whisper faint with embarrassment, about making decisions that he knows will cost him.

23. Kings Cross (Actually)

One of their best early album tracks limns dread without getting concrete: our protagonist wanders the London station looking at dead and wounded, worried that AIDS will get him next.

24. It’s Alright (Introspective)

“I’m a lousy optimist. I’m not sure it’s gonna be alright, and it certainly isn’t alright now. I turn to music to experience the divine, but I also turn to it to escape, and although my heart’s fixed on the tragedies of my beloved former city, I know my soul wants to flee and find refuge in little things, like the soothing, soft, North England way Tennant sings Afghanistan. It’s so beautiful” — Barry Walters in 2001. A cavil: for me music isn’t an escape, it’s an immersion, often unwelcome.

25. Burn (Super)

The Boys have recorded disco infernos (think 1996’s wan “Saturday Night Forever”); “Burn” is the first time when something feels at stake. The revival of all things ’80s sequencers and synth pads gives this 2016 number its poignancy. Thirty years after “West End Girls,” how remarkable that Tennant can still hit those high notes..

Enervation is the craze: Nocturnal Animals

In Nocturnal Animals, Jake Gyllenhaal demonstrates how much he’s learned about acting: he turns “bastard” into a three-syllable word. Playing a Texan whose first novel lands on ex-wife Amy Adams’ California doorstep, Gyllenhaal is himself an objet d’art, a triumph of genetics; Diane Arbus might have dreamed of a creature with comically huge eyeballs, parody of a mouth, thick shoulders, gangly frame, and a horse shit cornporn accent. Nocturnal Animals might’ve been better off exhibiting him on a dais for comic effect. Tom Ford’s adaptation of Austin Wright’s Tony & Susan, about the owner of a gallery whose dead marriage and empty life get a jolt while reading her ex’s book, is what you might expect from a director who knows about glamour and nothing about art. Based on Jena Malone and Adams’ costumes, I have my doubts about the former too.

The opening credits give the game away: obese women doing cheerleader routines as glitter rains. The camera ogles them like carnival freaks, freezing their breasts and thighs in terrifying closeup – welcome to life for Los Angeles art world cognoscenti, I guess. Although husband Hutton (Armie Hammer, typecast forever) earns enough money, she wants to follow her passion or something; besides, with his constant business trips to New York he shows no interest in her anyway (maybe he doesn’t like her taste either). Then Nocturnal Animals, written by Edward (Gyllenhaal), arrives on her doorstep. Ford’s movie becomes a story within a story, showing how a man named Tony (Gyllenhaal too) teams up with Sheriff Carlos Holt (Michael Shannon) to find the men who raped and brutally killed wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and his daughter in West Texas.

The trick of Ford’s movie is to cut from the developments in the novel to Susan’s “real” life, but as the horror in the former accumulates the L.A. strand looks increasingly antiseptic; the violence is supposed to excite her, vicariously. I’m not sure what Ford wants the audience to think about Edward’s novel. Before Susan has gotten herself comfortable to read it we know the novel will be one of those faintly autobiographical things conceived by people who’ve never read a novel. Ford gives himself an out in a flashback nineteen years earlier during which Susan in essence wipes her nose with one of Edward’s earlier pieces of fiction. Or maybe it’s the same novel; if so, he ignored her advice. So did Ford, who writes the clumsiest exposition I’ve seen in recent years: the kind that has to cram vital information (HUTTON: “Who’s Edward?” SUSAN: “My first husband”) and the kind that explains what we’ve just seen. One particular clunker happens early: after a glimpse of a man kissing another man at a party, a friend of Susan’s explains, “It’s not so bad having a gay husband,” and explains it brightly too, as if Ford wanted to shock the suburbanites who’ll never watch this film.

Nocturnal Animals might have had insights into the tired binary about following one’s dreams versus waking up and living in the real world, and I suppose Ford want to argue that, having chosen The Real World, Susan is as miserable as Tony. Surrounded by awful art and phony conversations, married to the guy who played J. Edgar Hoover’s quasi-lover, Susan spends hours with Edward’s equally terrible novel when cocaine and public libraries are accessible; how can I feel sorry for her? Amy Adams, distracted and wan, as if haunted by Julianne Moore’s similar work in 1995’s Safe or any number of Monica Vitti characters in Antonioni films, doesn’t give a performance – she presents a series of theatrical gestures, like gaping at theoretical perversities or falling into exquisite chairs as if they were beanbags. Gyllenhaal, who’s been doing fine, adventurous work for a few years, is reduced to looking bug-eyed and stricken; who wouldn’t look stricken when saddled with TV dialogue like “Two things I love about West Texas: no phones, no people”? Overwrought, over-lit, hysterically composed, those Texas scenes get drawn out for no purpose but kinks. I counted one exchange I liked: Edward, who had been childhood friends with Susan’s younger brother, learns that the kid had been in love with him. Gyllenhaal’s reaction – he’s flattered – is a glimpse of humanity.

In his determination to get off on soul rot and moneyed decadence while condemning it and being modish and affectless about it, Nocturnal Animals reminds me of last summer’s howler The Neon Demon. Ford demands a range of responses but is cool – the operative word – with your committing to none of them. Whatever else, Showgirls exists. Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 release, which has gotten major reevaluation in the last few years, is no classic but has humor, energy, and no pretension to art; it’s smart enough to understand the difference between the chic and tawdry and the women who want both. By contrast, watching Nocturnal Animals is a crushing experience, akin to Susan’s quiet death-in-life. What a feat – a movie that wants audiences detached from their own responses. Enervation is the craze.

You think I’m fake-up : The best of Tricky

If you were a young unpublished critic before getting your hands on a 3.5 floppy disk containing America Online, you accepted the shibboleths bequeathed you, the worst of which concerns “sexy music.” I don’t understand the concept of fucking to music. When spontaneous groping happens at home or someone’s place, the TV and music playback mechanism of choice may or may not be on. I had a friend over a month after the release of Lemonade, and I put it on so he could see I was hip to the zeitgeist. To me sex is an escape from art. Sex is venal — no more than choosing music to impress a trick.

I write this preface to explain how Tricky is as erotic as halitosis. In the mid nineties his dank hocus pocus and promise of sodomy conjured VIP rooms I would yet visit but Argento films I had seen, which explains the attraction: wish fulfillment until I actually experienced the wish. He still sounds good, despite my cocking an eyebrow at how silly the enthusiasm for him, often by men, looks a generation later. Martine deserves the credit for the success of his re-imagining of one of Public Enemy’s most scabrous jams; her expert non-singing is the prism through which the outrages of the prison industrial establishment register. My second favorite track is the opening track on 1999’s minor Juxtapose, on which Tricky Kid, over sitars and acoustic guitars, warns takers not to fuck with his record deal. I didn’t get to 2001’s multi-artist would-be crossover until I joined Spotify — the Ed Kowalczyk track ain’t bad! (I prefer the opener, as usual); 1996’s Nearly God project, where collaborations with Alison Moyet, Neneh Cherry, and Terry Hall not only dusted them off but pointed towards where their own albums would go. But 1998’s Angels with Dirty Faces, at the time a travesty, I return to most, in part because Tricky as producer subsumes the sex jive into a relentless forward motion that I can almost call a groove were it not for the gunk and barnacles.

1. Black Steel
2. For Real
3. Tricky Kid
4. Poems
5. Makes Me Wanna Die
6. Overcome
7. Angels with Dirty Faces
8. Christiansands
9. Hell is Around the Corner
10. Contradictive
11. Brand New You’re Retro
12. Make a Change (ft. Alison Moyet)
13. Bubbles
12. Excess
13. Vent
14. Singin’ the Blues
15. Lyrics of Fury
16. Diss Never (Dig Up We History)
17. Together Now (w/Neneh Cherry)
18. Nothing’s Changed
19. Pumpkin
20. Ponderosa

‘It’s not obstruction, it’s not partisan’

I guess Senate staff has been listening to my messages and emails:

enate Democrats are preparing to put Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks through a grinding confirmation process, weighing delay tactics that could eat up weeks of the Senate calendar and hamper his first 100 days in office.

Multiple Democratic senators told POLITICO in interviews last week that after watching Republicans sit on Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court for nearly a year, they’re in no mood to fast-track Trump’s selections.

But it’s not just about exacting revenge.

Democrats argue that some of the president-elect’s more controversial Cabinet picks — such as Jeff Sessions for attorney general and Steven Mnuchin for treasury secretary — demand a thorough public airing.

“They’ve been rewarded for stealing a Supreme Court justice. We’re going to help them confirm their nominees, many of whom are disqualified?” fumed Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “It’s not obstruction, it’s not partisan, it’s just a duty to find out what they’d do in these jobs.”

Senate Democrats can’t block Trump’s appointments, which in all but one case need only 51 votes for confirmation. But they can turn the confirmation process into a slog.

Any individual senator can force Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to hold procedural votes on nominees. Senior Democrats said a series of such votes are likely for many of Trump’s picks.

I wasn’t as offended as many Dems and leftists were when then Minority Leader Blobfish vowed to make Barack Obama a one term president: I wish Bush II and Reagan had been one term presidents. What offends me is this phantom notion of comity that has hobbled Senate business since the threats to filibuster any civil rights bill. The president-elect is a man without grace, intellect, or curiosity. He ran the most grotesque campaign in American history. The country has already endured much. To regard Betty De Vos, Jeff Sessions, and Tom Price as normal nominees during a normal time requires accepting that fragments of melting icebergs should fall on our heads. Maybe that’s preferable.

I could give you a mirror: The best of Eurythmics

Not much chatter about Eurythmics these days — a pity, for at their prime they were among the more consistent singles artists of their decade. Annie Lennox’s infatuation with her vocal prowess and David Stewart’s guitar noodling and light bag of psychedelic tricks made them insufferable, I’ll admit; for a while he was the aging boomer rocker’s favorite producer. These days I admire their chillier early work. When I wrote about this exemplary comp I didn’t own Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), a record of jagged synthesizer tracks in which Lennox flits between playing feminine subject and object as if she regarded Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging” video as ur text. As visual stylist only Madonna approached her wit and shipped platinum. Lennox’s roots in early seventies singer-songwriter piano rock made her realer than I wanted her to be, at least after 1992’s Diva.

Yet! Until I read Tom Ewing a few years ago I had no idea Britishers held their noses in the presence of Be Yourself Tonight, but I get it: the era of Paul Young and Motown nostalgia triggered revulsion for atrophied pop-soul. If I forget “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” exists (the tackiest waka-waka guitar ever recorded?), “I Love You Like a Ball and Chain,” “Adrian,” and “Would I Lie to You” ably substitute. The only album from Eurythmics’ run that’s almost without merit is Revenge, a gross and loud ancestor of Steel Wheels — an album recorded for the excuse to sell out Wembley and grow mullets. “Missionary Man” has its merits, but its video is Lennox-Stewart and their band proud to live trudging through the slimes of 1986. My loathing for the title track aside, I’d slot Sweet Dreams as the best of the duo’s albums, with the retread Touch in third place. Squeezed between them is an odd out of time thing that did little business in England and none in America called Savage: a return to wigs and preening using the old technology but with four years’ accumulated craft. Sophie Muller’s videos show Lennox as an MTV Meryl Streep, imitating imitations of human beings.

1. Here Comes the Rain Again
2. You Have Placed a Chill in My Heart
3. I Need a Man
4. Would I Lie to You?
5. I Could Give You (A Mirror)
6. Who’s That Girl?
7. Missionary Man
8. The Walk
9. Sexcrime (Ninety Eighty-Four)
10. I Need You
11. Don’t Ask Me Why
12. The First Cut
13. I Love You Like a Ball and Chain
14. No Fear, No Hate, No Pain (No Broken Hearts)
15. Here Comes That Sinking Feeling
16. Julia
17. Belinda
18. Savage
19. Let’s Go!
20. Wrap It Up

It is now my duty to completely drain you: Nirvana

I have a vivid memory of driving home from the record store on my birthday in November ’91 with my best friend, jamming to the Nirvana album he’d just purchased. I’m pretty sure I made some comment like, “This sounds like some Slayer shit.” I hadn’t heard Slayer.

Looking for referents that explained the sheen given to noise, I stumbled. Rolling Stone awarded Nevermind three stars that season — in a review by Ira Robbins no less. Because we didn’t have MTV, I’ve no idea how ubiquitous the video was. Spring and summer ’92 were pretty great radio seasons, to which Nirvana contributed. By late spring “Come As You Are” was blasting out of cars in the parking lot next to Kriss Kross and “I Love Your Smile” and Joe Public’s “Live and Learn” and “I’m Too Sexy.” In this context Nirvana didn’t sound revolutionary; they sounded like a damn fine rock band, no more no less (and I loved Vanessa Williams’ “Save the Best For Last” too). The myth machine didn’t start, in my experience, until the months leading up to the release of In Utero.

I don’t hold it against Nirvana that the rock press licked their asses as soon as Kurt Cobain got cold, but I also haven’t listened much in the last twenty years. Hole speaks more to me: Courtney Love is a consistently fascinating singer and lyricist, bibulous private life notwithstanding. But there isn’t a month when I don’t sing “I love myself better than you,” one of the aptest taunts to appear in a pop punk tune. A few days ago, after several years’ distance, I re-listened and dug In Utero. Even with Scott Litt remixes this album conceded nothing to popular taste; at the time it was the most abrasive album to hit the top twenty since David Bowie’s Low sailed to #11 in 1977.

Finally, about the documentary: honoring the side of Cobain that put talent into his notebook doodles and his art into songwriting, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is twenty minutes too long and the interviews at times are inconclusive, slackening the film’s rhythm. But I hadn’t seen his early life conjured with this detail, his parents and stepmom given the chance to be people instead of caricatures, their motives as complex and mysterious as Cobain’s best material.


1. On a Plain
2. Drain You
3. Verse Chorus Verse
4. Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle
5. Breed
6. Lounge Act
7. Sliver
8. Something in the Way
9. The Man Who Sold the World
10. Rape Me
11. Dive
12. Aneurysm
13. Pennyroyal Tea
14. In The Pines
15. Molly’s Lips
16. Floyd the Barber
17. Heart-Shaped Box
18. Very Ape
19. I Hate Myself…
20. Even In His Youth
21. You Know You’re Right
22. Smells Like Teen Spirit
23. About a Girl
24. Lithium
25. Territorial Pissings

Here come the fear

Three weeks after losing sleep to tatichardia and denial, I’m no closer to accepting what the pundit class regards as a normal election cycle. My instinct is to reject allusions to Weimar Germany as canned and lacking in imagination, like all hyperbole. Remembering the degeneracy of the Bill Clinton opposition and the way in which it fed the bombing of the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City, Rick Perlstein wonders if it the so-called opposition party is up to the task of, well, opposing. The first step is recognizing the existential nature of the problem, and, according to Perlstein, the Democrats have already failed. Perlstein remembers the growing threat of violence in 1993 and 1994 precipitating the bombing:

I saw the word “terrorism” only once, in a self-congratulatory text about how initial suspicions of “Muslim terrorists” were overcome, fair-minded Americans turning their rage on a corn-fed American boy instead: another blessing, this opportunity to prove that America was not racist. There was no mention of right-wing talk-radio host G. Gordon Liddy advising his listeners the previous year to confront agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Fireams: “Go for a head shot; they’re going to be wearing bulletproof vests.” Or Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolutionaries taking over Congress via rhetoric depicting the federal government as an alien occupying army. Or Jesse Helms informing President Bill Clinton that if he visited North Carolina, he should bring bodyguards.

Or Bob Dole declaring on the floor of the Senate that he had to represent the 57 percent of the population that didn’t vote for Clinton; he made it clear that William Jefferson Clinton may have been president but not his president. Bill Clinton the GOP remembers now as a gentlemanly moderate oasis.

Meanwhile Trump’s nominee to run the Department of Education, whose brother is Blackwater founder Eric Prince, once said in public that changing school systems is a battle as fierce as the Israelites fighting the Philistines:

The Devos family has a long history of supporting anti-gay causes — including donating hundreds of thousands to “Focus on the Family”, a conservative Christian organization that supports so-called conversion therapy aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation.

During the DeVos interview, the couple talks about a trip to Israel where they learned about a geographical region, called the Shephelah, where battles were fought between the Israelites and Philistines. Betsy DeVos then links this topic to education.

“It goes back to what I mentioned, the concept of really being active in the Shephelah of our culture — to impact our culture in ways that are not the traditional funding-the-Christian-organization route, but that really may have greater Kingdom gain in the long run by changing the way we approach things — in this case, the system of education in the country,” she says.

Only in the last week has a sewer like National Review awakened to the realization that it’s going to get eighty percent of what it wants from a Trump presidency; its writers put influence over policy during the election season, and not for the first time.

On November 6, I looked forward to retiring the Donald Trump hashtag.

Best films of 1957

Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander MacKendrick)
Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick)
Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa)
Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur)
Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini)
Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray)
Men in War (Anthony Mann)
Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman)
What’s Opera, Doc? (Chuck Jones)
The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean)

What these cryptic signals mean: The best of the Mountain Goats

It’s a pleasure to compile a song list as vast as the Mountain Goats’. An admirer of Joni Mitchell and Boz Scaggs, John Darnielle has shown how narrative and sophisticated rhythms can generate a marvelous frisson when strumming an acoustic guitar. I became a fan with 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed enough to use it as the pivot for a year end essay. 2005’s The Sunset Tree is one of the most compassionate song cycles I’ve ever heard: Darnielle examines a childhood lived in fear as a result of a parent whose three dimensions don’t palliate his viciousness. Drummer, horn charts, H.P. Lovecraft, Bible verses, wrestlers — these are decisions and influences his songs keep assimilating. His curiosity and appetites astonish me.

Full disclosure: I consider John Darnielle a friend.

1. Against Pollution
2. This Year
3. No Children
4. Love Love Love
5. Estate Sale Sign
6. Autoclave
7. Foreign Object
8. Sax Rohmer 1
9. Home Again Garden Grove
10. Pale Green Things
11. The Young Thousands
12. Beautiful Gas Mask
13. Tallahassee
14. Lovecraft in Brooklyn
15. How to Embrace a Swamp Creature
16. The Diaz Brothers
17. Liza Forever Minnelli
18. You or Your Memory
19. The House That Dripped Blood
20. Dilaudid
21. Sourdoire Valley Song
22. The Legend of Chavo Guerrero
23. Letter from Belgium
24. Psalms 40:2
25. The Autopsy Garland
26. International Small Arms Traffic Blues
27. First Few Desperate Hours
28. Dance Music
29. San Bernardino
30. The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton

‘Manchester by the Sea’ understands grief, avoids therapy

I knew I was going to like Manchester by the Sea after the triumph of an early scene. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) rushes from Quincy to a hospital in Manchester too late to say goodbye to his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), dead of a cardiac arrest due to congestive heart failure. In the waiting area Joe’s partner collapses in tears. “Would you like a Kleenex?” the nurse asks. “I’m sorry,” the partner blubbers. “Oh, please,” she says too quickly, with a hint of sourness. I knew Manchester by the Sea was going to be a wonderful movie when a flashback reveals the source of Lee’s penchant for bar fights and losing his patience with tenants of the buildings for which he’s janitor. It would probably qualify as a spoiler to mention it. Suffice to say that its placement — without making a melodramatic point — almost an hour into its running time is a promise fulfilled: the film has confidence in its audience’s willingness to absorb horrors.

Six years after the limbo into which the lumpen and often great Margaret was condemned, Kenneth Lonergan returns with one of 2016’s best pictures. Manchester by the Sea is a rarity: an ebullient film about misery. Lonergan, one of Hollywood’s most prized script doctors and for whom grief is a muse, puts everything he has learned about building scenes since 2000’s You Can Count on Me. Minute to minute I didn’t know what the characters are going to do. Even when it threatens to turn into What What’s Happening to Casey Affleck Now> the film is the closest American example to date of what Mike Leigh achieves every couple of years in England: lived-in pictures with people acting in contradictory, infuriating ways, like the rest of us.

The immediate problem facing Lee is observing the terms of Joe’s will. Appointed the guardian of nephew Patrick, Lee wants him to pull up stakes and move to Quincy, a chilling prospect to Patrick. He’s a popular high school senior with a band and, to Lee’s fascination, a couple of girlfriends, with only one of whom is he sexually active, he assures his uncle (“Strictly basement business”). As played by Lucas Hedges, Patrick is casual, almost complacent about his good fortune; for Lee, like for many teens mourning is an obstacle, an inconvenience. His father’s death means changing a life that’s been so far good to him. Sometimes he plays for small stakes, like the insistence on keeping his father’s decrepit fishing boat. Although he’s reestablished ties over emails with the alcoholic mother whom Joe divorced, he’s more excited about being the reconciler than in the actual reconciliation, shown in a tense, brittle lunch scene in which Elise (Gretchen Mol) pretend they’re cool when it’s obvious that new husband Rodney (Matthew Broderick), a Christian too aware of what sobriety has cost him and Elise, thinks it’s not.

In every good drama the ghost of Jean Renoir flickers, a link to a cinema reminding audiences of what we already know: the truly terrible thing in life is that everybody has their reasons. Attuned to the decidedly un-tragic thoughts of its fully realized human beings, Manchester by the Sea shows men and women making do, muddling through. Boasting a silken Alan Arkin-esque timbre, Affleck has been a weird, ropey presence onscreen; he was compelling in Gerry and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford but gave the impression that he’s watching himself act while fixing a turkey sandwich. Further, pressure cooker performances like Affleck’s as Lee often register as exercises in restraint and not much else (Mark Wahlberg has given a couple of these in James Gray’s early films set in a working class milieu, and Joel Egerton in the recent Loving verges on the necrotic). Lonergan, however, writes Lee not as a stolid man who thanks to a dead brother and wily nephew Learns to Love Again but a seething guy of corrosive temperament who loves and has loved. Affleck is the perfect actor to deliver lines like the following, on Lee describing the condition of Joel’s corpse to Patrick: “He looks like he’s dead. He doesn’t look like he’s sleeping or anything. He doesn’t look gross, either.” In a small role as Lee’s estranged wife, Michelle Williams is a scythe, cutting through conventional notions of grief and that dreadful word “closure.”

To single them out strikes me as ungenerous. From the old tenant on the phone bemoaning a niece’s Bat Mitzvah (“I could slit my throat”) while in the background Lee inspects fixtures and Hedges’ unfussy depiction of normality to Ruibo Qian as the doctor who in flashback explains to Joe’s terrifying family how heart conditions work, the cast operates at an unimpeachable level. Lonergan no longer directs like a writer who has to direct. The whiteness of winter in Manchester, its church towers, and the clapboards of insurance agencies, isn’t used symbolically; it’s the scenery and topography of which Lee and the others form a part. Lonergan has a mind of winter, able, in Wallace Stevens’ words, not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind. When Manchester by the Sea ended, I wanted a sequel.