Empire State Of Mind / falsetto prophecies

It takes a certain state of mind to never settle, never accept; to always move onwards, deconstructing the past to make something never seen before. A certain kind of ruthlessness. To be new all the time is a fierce position to take. Constantly remaking your world is not an easy thing. Writers, painters, musicians, TV execs, all face the challenge of reinvention; sustaining relevance. Take Californication’s third season: it’s darker and more complicated, rougher than before. Its beautiful soul, in the form of Natasha McElhone, has drifted to the periphery of the show, at least for now. Without its soul it is lost somehow but still has its wayward charm, despite the rawness, the darkness. You fear for it, like you would fear for a charming alcoholic with a bottle of whiskey in hand. The intelligence and wit are there, but with more of an edge, a presence of rage beneath the surface. It’s like a Kris Kristofferson blues, a Warren Zevon comedown lament. Like days ending. The sky darkens, the night brings rain, whispering on the surface of our minds. Massive Attack’s new EP is that whisper. It’s a remixed promo for a forthcoming album – remixing the future this time – a pensive set of tracks. Beauty and loneliness in peripheral vision, half-dreaming. It’s a quiet yearning, an aching that never seems to stop. Much less quiet, disrupting the night with sound and fury, is Jay-Z, whose Blueprint 3 was recently released to a roar of critical approval, and the #1 spot – his 11th. It’s a monument to the relentless pursuit of being the best, the newest, the one and only contender; the Ali of rap, the Beyonce of pop. The album is like a triple-triple-espresso in every beat, like the sentences in James Ellroy’s latest opus, Blood’s A Rover; brutal, condensed violence, densely packed yet overarching, epic – it has much in common with Blueprint 3. This Jay-Z of novelists went so deep into the darkness of his characters to feel them truthfully that he lost himself in a breakdown. It’s the ongoing theme – the danger of journeying into the dark for art. Fortunately Ellroy made it back; truly a giant of American fiction, of any fiction – looming over the literary landscape. The U2 of fiction, towering like the Alien Claw set on U2’s current tour. The monstrous structure rising out of Giants Stadium like a mothership about to lift off, past the intense line of the Manhattan night skyline ripping the night alive, heading away from NYC into a shimmering oceanic density of thousands of glittering lights. The entire structure rippling thousands of times a second with light roaring majestically into space. It’s philosophically astute, this Spaceship set. It shocks you out of your usual ways of experiencing and your perceptual expectations like Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project, opening your mind to the pure, unmediated experience; what you “know” set aside in favor of what is. Exhilaration, over the top, like the skyline, too beautiful to be real; an empire state of mind. All writers need this state of mind over their own literary kingdoms. We need to build our spaceships and not be afraid to take off. Vision. Vertigo. The two often go hand in hand. Creating the blueprints for the future to rise alongside the skylines we’ve already made. Always hustling, looking for the greatest line, the most perfect four minute song, or riff, or story, or novel. Each one must be the best, better than the last, better than the rest. “I move onward, the only direction, can’t be scared to fail in the search of perfection,” raps Jay-Z in On To The Next One. What joins them all is the bold vision that deconstructs what went before and refashions the future according to their creativity, their souls. Like Lady GaGa deconstructing pop to build the mezzo architecture of Paparazzi, then deconstructing Poker Face into a metallic heliosphere and her own unprocessed voice, dizzyingly, exhilaratingly pure, her naked voice the most beautiful it has ever sounded, as though through the metal and light she’s revealing her soul to us with eerie intensity. Like the Weather Project, like U2’s mothership, the lights and fury and sheer unexpectedness of it all shock our perceptual framework sideways and then we experience unmediated exactly what the artist wants us to. With Lady GaGa, it’s her lonely, lovely voice that strips back the meaning of the song and rebuilds it again. U2 do it with I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight, utterly dismantling the song and retrofitting it into a pusling techno behemoth that could only exist beneath the Claw. Ellroy does it in Blood’s A Rover, attacking and restacking his narrative style. This might be the mark of the truest artist; they can fragment what came before into something new and beautiful, then deconstruct and remix their own creations into futuristic, stripped back yet magnificent new versions. Striving for the new, finding a new visual, verbal or musical language, a new language of movement in choreography; new ways of moving us and touching our souls. Like Michael Chabon’s Trickster In A Suit Of Lights, the exuberantly talented mischief-maker who exists in the spaces between the things we know. Bono embodies this literally during Ultraviolet towards the end of the show, in his suit covered with red laser-like lights, hundreds of red lines piercing the blue otherworldy glow around him with chaotic geometry. The Trickster looks for the action in the borders between things, the places where new directions take form; this is where U2 dwell, more experimental and progressive than many give them credit for. After two straight-up rock albums, they returned with a quietly ruminative piece, from which they launched one of the biggest rock tours of all time, journeying around the planet in their Spaceship/Alien Claw creation, bringing out of the hushed quiet of No Line on The Horizon the behemoth of the 360 tour. True tricksters (in the best sense) of hearts and minds.
“I’m going in for the kill, I’m doing it for the thrill…” La Roux
This played before the U2 show, as the sun set beyond Giants Stadium, a cool breeze flowed around the massive set and 84,000 people slowly appeared, the crowd intensifying as the sky grew dark and Muse unleashed their stadium-sized post-apocalyptic bombast via screaming, squalling brutal guitar riffing, Matt Bellamy’s falsetto prophecies ringing out loud and clear as the band roared out from beneath. Then the lights went out, U2 lit up, and for 2 hours and 15 minutes, the future came back through a massive rift in the time-space music continuum, spinning and flashing wildly, a close encounter with a future state of mind, an empire state of mind.

you don’t love me yet / the only truth

You Don’t Love Me Yet, Jonathan Lethem’s smooth, spacious exploration of an LA band’s potential moment of glory, is a precise and lovely book. As his latest, Chronic City, is about to hit bookstores, it’s worth revisiting Lethem’s charmingly motley collective: singer Matthew, guitarist Bedwin, drummer Denise, and lynchpin bassist Lucinda, whose personal journey forms the bedrock of the novel, grounding its more raw and experimental tendencies, just as her controlled basslines anchor the band’s chaotic musical explorations.
The band is an elusive concept, to themselves and to the world: their name flickers and changes throughout; they cannot be defined and therefore never fully achieve cultural reality, or perhaps are the only truth in the city of make-believe. Lethem’s finesse in evoking music is rare: the depictions of the band’s rehearsals have the quiet assurance of authenticity; they read like Anthony Kiedis’ descriptions of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ jams in his autobiography Scar Tissue, which, like You Don’t Love Me Yet, feels like a hymn to LA as much as anything (“…sometimes I feel like my only friend is the city I live in, the city of angels…”). In particular, Kiedis’ recounting of a chaotic Saturday Night Live performance in the early nineties recalls Lethem’s band’s first radio moment, when all their possibilities coalesce, and anything could happen. In the early nineties, musically, anything could have happened: Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Chili Peppers, U2’s Achtung Baby and Zooropa albums, their Zoo TV tour, all of it an exhilarating collision and evolution of everything that had gone before. Lethem’s novel is not so wild or chaotic: it’s smooth, gleaming with a quiet glow from within, like listening to an iPod in bed, deep into the night. He shows us LA hipsters in the light of their own helpless gleaming. The city is smooth, measured. They exist in its contemporary spaces, its lofts and clubs, its radio stations, the static and sound waves that contain souls. Their life is music, they breathe chord changes and talk melodies. It’s a world of legendary DJs, doomed art installations, ephemeral connections, and a misplaced kangaroo. It’s also about sex, complaining, being a rock star, the last of the rock gods or the first of the new stars, living in the glass and steel of Los Angeles in what could be the nineties or the future. Lethem nails the desperate intensity of human couplings: the speed of the emotional vertical take-off, the slow spiral back to earth from the sexual cosmos, the pain of re-entry, the brutality of the hard landing. He handles all of this with grace, elegance, streamlined writing, the literary equivalent of gleaming, molded architecture, all reflective surfaces and hidden structures. The words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters change with digital smoothness, the barely perceptible transitions of an iPod moving from one song to the next. It’s a world of smooth lines and clear light. It’s the golden light over the Pacific as the world sinks into a clear dusk. It’s deft. Even the kangaroo has an emotional clarity.
“Too many times I have wanted to turn around and walk away… you can’t provide what I need from you anyway.” The Ahn Trio.
Like dancer Kayla Radomski’s anguished, strenuous yet light-on-her-feet interpretation of the Ahn Trio’s All I Want, Lethem communicates the desperation and pain of wanting someone on their way to being, or already, out of reach. You Don’t Love Me Yet communicates it with beautiful lines, sensual movements, and a deep appreciation and powerful understanding of love, music, souls and humanity.

"the worst of us are a long, drawn-out confession; the best of us are geniuses of compression…"

Words from U2’s latest album No Line On The Horizon, released this week; a quiet, hypnotic set that yet thrums with the hidden but sensed force and latent danger of distant power lines. Occasionally thunder breaks and a storm races through, but the insistently meditative rhythms soon resume to carry us to the album’s Sopranos-like sudden conclusion. In the lines quoted above, Bono is writing in the character of a war correspondent, but those words could apply to all writing, that character could be any writer: “I’m here because I don’t want to go home,” he sings at one point. Writers take the long journey away from themselves, like actors, even as what they write or perform reinforces who they are; who we are. Throughout the album, Bono, perhaps the only rock star to truly channel the kinetic, elusive spirit of the Beats, attains sharp, brutal poetic heights: he has never been such a genius of compression as he is in these songs. “I’m running down the road like loose electricity,” like Kerouac in his original scroll for On The Road, full of restless, shifting energy, the need to escape, to move, to be alive. U2 channel the Beats, the rawness of punk, the immediacy of Japanese poetry, and even Ezra Pound, for they always follow his command to “make it new.” Take everything you know and remake it. That’s what Shakespeare did by turning established stories into new plays; that’s what Baz Luhrmann did when he adapted Romeo & Juliet into an utterly contemporary, furiously edited masterpiece of kinesis. That’s what U2 always do, to varying degrees. Achtung Baby was likely the biggest leap they have ever taken, from the traditional sincerity of The Joshua Tree to the new, heavily disguised, digitized, synthesized sincerity of Zoo Station and The Fly. The Zoo TV live show, while on the hand being utterly of the moment and groundbreaking and new, still carried echoes of Ezra Pound’s Blast magazine, published in 1916, with its one-word-per-page slogans, its cutting up and fragmenting of the cultural norms of the time, its exploding of conventions. The form was deconstructed and technologically rebuilt; this is what U2 have been doing ever since The Fly‘s distorted sonic reinventions. By the time of their Pop album, Bono was openly referencing William Burrough’s philosophy of cutting up the past and re-forming it. True invention and innovation demands the highest level of sincerity and dedication, to the soul of the piece, to the craft of realizing it. No Line On The Horizon is a beautiful, almost silent meditation on a long journey with no end in sight; it’s also sonically, musically and lyrically inventive. Unlike Achtung Baby, that invention is here absorbed by a minimalist soundscape. It takes many listens; all of U2’s layers are compressed into a smoothly digital rendering of loss and hope. It’s a writer’s showcase in many ways; whether you write poetry, music, lyrics, stories, screenplays or novels, at some level the same needs and demands will eventually apply.