Soldiering on

“Soldier of Love” is Sade’s best single since “No Ordinary Love,” and boasts the same virtue: it develops a metaphor musically. In the case of the latter, with an elongated guitar lick, at once raunchy and poised, that sliced through Sade Adu’s vocal and the oddly mixed drums (they’re all high end); the former sports a stop-start martial rhythm and an intermittent, harsh power chord strum that’s arranged like a sample, allowing Adu to get away scot-free with the florid lyric about the “hinterland” of her emotions. Its immersion in ugliness for the sake of mitigating what’s essentially a sentimental notion of romance reminds me of trip-hop, particularly the commercial iterations created by Sneaker Pimps and Garbage, in whose grooves and positioning of the female vocalist I can hear shoegaze and goth too. For devotees of these genres the temptation to equate ugliness with reality is a strong one; it satisfies their thirst for complexity with a facile dialectic trope.

Like a lot of thirtysomething music fans, I’ve found consistent pleasure from the music of my parents as I approach the age of parenthood: Anita Baker’s Rapture, Boz Scaggs’ 1980 comp, George Benson’s Breezin‘, none of which, Scaggs excepted, earn much critical support. I grew up with “The Sweetest Taboo” and “Smooth Operator” playing in the car. Although it took several years, I hear the craft in Sade’s music, yet trying to avoid getting seduced by their meticulousness. They don’t record (as opposed to “write,” a distinction which counts with this band) particularly erotic music; it signifies eros, or aspires to create an erotic frisson. At the risk of redundancy, I’d argue that Sade and late eighties Bryan Ferry share a commitment to what Scott Woods in our long chat about him called drilling a hole into a wall with such concentration that you have to admire the smoothness of the hole’s contours and the concentration itself. I can’t ever imagine owning a Sade album, but when I feel like listening The Best of Sade satisfies the craving (I’d add “By Your Side” and life is beautiful).

Boasting flatlined percussion and monochromatic tunes (an afterthought, as if the band decided they had to record something while hanging out), Soldier of Love won’t convince anyone that Sade’s been underappreciated. But a couple of trinkets reward our devotion. “Skin” is genuinely erotic; the smooth operator Adu celebrated in 1984 has evolved into a dirty bugger who probably does unspeakable things to her with candle wax and aromatic lotions. And the band’s previous efforts at demonstrating a social conscience pale before “Babyfather,” the first Sade song in which she acknowledges the consequences of so much noble suffering in boudoirs. A loping quasi-reggae beat cushions the funny-sad story of a love child whom Adu notices because, of course, he’s a reminder of the father/lover who abandoned them. “Your daddy knows” the background vocals chant, to which Adu answers “your flame.” It’s almost as devastating as the chorus fillip “Your daddy don’t come with a lifetime guarantee.” To listeners unaccustomed to anything but chic melancholy from Adu, this approach opens possibilities: counterpoint, irony, black humor. As the sales for Soldier of Love have shown, Sade can claim an audience willing to follow every perfectionist caprice. There’s always a next time — when we’re old enough to be baby grampas.

Don’t worry about the government

In which the editors of Newsweek expose themselves as cretins. Apparently you’re a “terrorist” only if you’re Muslim or come from a country with which we’re at war, or, as the managing editor (!) avers without irony:

Here is my handy guide:

Lone wolfish American attacker who sees gov’t as threat to personal freedom: bomber, tax protester, survivalist, separatist

Group of Americans bombing/kidnapping to protest U.S. policies on war/poverty/personal freedom/ – radical left-wing movement, right-wing separatists.

All foreign groups or foreign individuals bombing/shooting to protest American gov’t: terrorists.

Then there are people on cable and Sunday morning talk shows who think liberals run media.

(h/t Glenn Greenwald)

Singles 2/22

After a slow week, we return. A week later I’m prepared to say I overrated Angie Stone’s single, but am still very high on “Shine Blockas” and might have spoken too soon on Adam Lambert now that I’ve heard it on Top 40 radio.

The hyperlinks go to my reviews.

Lil Wayne – On Fire (5 out of 10).

Jay Sean ft. Lil Jon and Sean Paul – Do You Remember? (6)

Angie Stone – I Ain’t Hearing U (7)

Big Boi ft. Gucci Mane – Shine Blockas (8)

Adam Lambert – Whataya Want From Me (4)

The Raveonettes – Bang (5)

The Knife – Colouring of Pigeons (5)

Hurts – Blood, Tears, and Gold (5)

Heartburn: eighties film and its discontents

A.O. Scott’s essay on Meryl Streep inspires two questions: why did mainstream film in the eighties suck, and when did Streep suddenly get fun? As far as the latter goes, I don’t know; it’s one of the mysteries of acting. Streep still chooses prestige crap like Doubt for which she’s assured an Oscar nomination; and during the eighties when she got them just for sneezing she tried to market herself as a star in genre pics (remember Still of the Night?) and in comedies like She-Devil that are as as condescending and awful as It’s Complicated. The only explanation is that Streep, like Katherine Hepburn in her last two decades, has kicked around long enough to make people nostalgic for the time when they didn’t watch Streep films. Back in the day she chose projects because they added to her reputation as a Great Actress; she turned choosing Great Parts into a fetish. If Cary Grant’s roles projected urbanity, polish, and self-mocking superiority to the rest of mankind, Streep’s projected her yearning to be thought of as a thespian for the ages. I don’t begrudge Streep’s new “bankability”; it’s clear something alchemical is taking place between her and the public whereby she channels her new effervescence into a project worthier but less frenetic than Mamma Mia like Julie and Julia. Besides, it’s true: I’d rather watch her in The Devil Wears Prada and Angels in America than The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Silkwood.

The question about mainstream film in the eighties is fascinating. The middle of the decade was notable for its dearth of stars. Think about it: before Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts began their streaks in the late Reagan and Bush I eras, Eddie Murphy and maybe Schwarzenegger were the only consistent box office attractions. Robert Redford? Out of Africa aside, Legal Eagles was the best he could do. Jack Nicholson? After Terms of Endearment, he drifted, as is his wont; no line connects Prizzi’s Honor, Heartburn (with Meryl Streep and her black dye job!), and Ironweed (with Streep again). I picked a random year and, while the surplus of sequels shows how little things change, the rest of the hits (Witness, Cocoon, Jagged Edge) have an across-the-board appeal that we’re unlikely to see again. Back to the Future deserves its own post: its synthesis of TV actor blandness, the “virtues” of an earlier decade, anxieties about dark-skinned terrorism, and post-Star Wars razzle-dazzle reified youthful rebellion as a Darwinian dog-eat-dog struggle whose reward was a home in a functional suburban nowheresville and gloating at a childhood enemy reduced to a smiling prole (anyone else find Biff the most sympathetic character?). The viewing habits of teens became the obsession of movie execs, but they still wanted to lure Granny. Hence Cocoon and its phalanx of old farts, led by a breakdancing Don Ameche.

So Scott is correct when he halfheartedly praises eighties film as “the last gasp of a noble middlebrow ideal,” and less so when he notes that they were “intended for the entertainment and edification of grown-up audiences, neither self-consciously provocative nor timidly inoffensive.” I find Cocoon‘s message  — youth is the only thing worth holding on to — more offensive than Rocky IV, honestly, especially the way in which the movie exploits the second-string Hollywood has-beens (Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, whatever their talents, were never stars) to signify a maturity they haven’t earned (the better to lose it as the film progresses). Tootsie and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial were as good as middlebrow entertainment got, and I can’t help but regard them as throwbacks: to the all-hands-on-deck studio comedy and seventies auteurist cinema, respectively. The rest? Risky Business, Top Gun, and Crocodile Dundee beckoned. If you wanted a touch of class, you settled for Out of Africa.

Of martyrdom and legerdemain

A lot of reviews have compared Hunger to The Passion of Joan of Arc. It’s closer to Bresson’s A Man Escaped, as remade by a drama queen who lingers too long on shit smeared on prison walls so the audience can appreciate the Genet-esque poetry-in-squalor. Although surely no accident that Bobby Sand’s (Michael Fassbender) cheekbones and saucer eyes are as pretty as Falconetti’s in the Dreyer film, I’m not coming down too hard on director Steve McQueen. Hunger is as ruthless and single-minded as The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Ken Loach’s 2006 film about IRA entrapment at the hands of British soldiers who get (barely) humanized because polemics are so unfashionable in the age of bipartisanship. Hunger‘s justly acclaimed set piece — a very, very long colloquy between a cynical priest (Liam Cunningham) and Sands — relies as much on throwaway gestures like greedily sucked cigarettes and snarled banalities as the non-negotiable political positions exchanged, noted, and, finally, dismissed.

Still, I’m uncomfortable with some of the posturing. The always entertaining Armond White said that Hunger “merely rewards one’s artsnobbery and can only be excused as a series of art postures,” and he has a point: Fassbender’s killer half grins as he gets his beatin’, reminding me why martyrdom makes for compelling storytelling only if, like me, the lives of the Catholic saints fascinated you as a child. As a former “visual” artist, McQueen has more than a few potholes to avoid, like the way in which his ilk (think Derek Jarman or Julian Schnabel) use montage legerdemain to cover up an absence of ideas. From Caravaggio onwards, martyrdom with homoerotic undertones has proven irresistable. Unless I’m remembering it incorrectly, The Wind That Shakes the Barley didn’t emphasize the masochism and self-sacrifice of the IRA (they were rather oafish, actually). A polemic needn’t use martyrdom for effect.

Ebert: “The Essential Man”

While I knew cancer cost Roger Ebert the ability to speak or eat properly, I’d no idea he looked so terrible. For all that, though, I applaud his bravery; let people see the ravages of cancer. But he still loves movies, and may love writing more.

From Chris Jones’ Esquire profile:

But now everything he says must be written, either first on his laptop and funneled through speakers or, as he usually prefers, on some kind of paper. His new life is lived through Times New Roman and chicken scratch. So many words, so much writing — it’s like a kind of explosion is taking place on the second floor of his brownstone. It’s not the food or the drink he worries about anymore — I went thru a period when I obsessed about root beer + Steak + Shake malts, he writes on a blue Post-it note — but how many more words he can get out in the time he has left. In this living room, lined with thousands more books, words are the single most valuable thing in the world. They are gold bricks. Here idle chatter doesn’t exist; that would be like lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills. Here there are only sentences and paragraphs divided by section breaks. Every word has meaning.

Even the simplest expressions take on higher power here. Now his thumbs have become more than a trademark; they’re an essential means for Ebert to communicate. He falls into a coughing fit, but he gives his thumbs-up, meaning he’s okay. Thumbs-down would have meant he needed someone to call his full-time nurse, Millie, a spectral presence in the house.