Monday, February 28, 2022

Why U2's War Makes a Good Listen in 2022

In recent years no musical artist has been knocked off their pedestal harder than U2. It began with the backlash against their album being added by Apple to people's iTunes libraries, and then just spilled over into general hatred. Slagging U2 has now become a way for too-online people to show how cool they are. The whole thing has reached truly annoying proportions. And while I will acknowledge U2's output since 2000 has been pretty lame, their prime stuff still holds up, in my opinion.

39 years ago today the band put out their first great album, War. It came out in 1983, at the height of Cold War tensions, a year when Soviet air defense shot down a Korean airliner and NATO's Able Arch 83 exercises prompted the Soviets to ready their nuclear arsenal. It was the closest we came to nuclear war in my lifetime, at least until this week. Beyond the Cold War, the Troubles raged in Northern Ireland, civil war and invasion ravaged Lebanon, and the dust had just settled from the misbegotten Falkand Islands conflict. Central America too was aflame. 

In our current unsettled times this album could not be more relevant. If you are ready to put down the smug hipster bashing of U2 and enjoy them again, here is the place to start.

The cover itself let's you know what's up. The boy from the cover of their first album Boy now has a split lip and a fierce look on his face. It's a startling image of lost innocence, how conflict makes too many people grow up too soon. 

U2's first two albums are good but in a more spiritual, and less topical mode. This one begins with "Sunday Bloody Sunday," an unmistakable reference to the Troubles. Larry Mullen's drums strike a martial beat, the first words are "I can't believe the news today/ I can't close my eyes and make it go away." How many times have you had that sensation in recent years? Bono coming out and waving a white flag chanting "no war!" when performing this song in concert back then might strike us as cheesy nowadays, but it meant something profound to me in that moment. Reagan's America was full of Cold War nationalist propaganda, talk of the "evil empire" and revenge fantasies about Vietnam from Rambo to Missing in Action to Uncommon Valor. His was one of the few voices with a big platform in that pre-internet age to say it was all inhuman bullshit. 

After that comes the haunting "Seconds," one of my all time favorite U2 deep cuts. Again, Mullen's drums are insistent and martial. (This album might be his most dominant.) "It takes seconds to say goodbye" references the nuclear button. The bass and vocals make it sound like a lost track from Remain in Light. Despite the themes the song is a bit of an interlude between "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day," the first U2 song I remember hearing on the radio. The latter song blends political concerns (evidently about Poland's Solidarity movement) with what sounds like a love song. The lyrics might be indistinct, but the sound is amazing still today. This is the The Edge's song, his searing guitar solo among his very best. His guitar really came alive on the last album, October, but here it's finally wedded to a superior song. The echoey piano paired with Clayton's overdriving bass give it a perfectly ominous sound.

"Like a Song..." follows, another stellar deep cut, at least from a musical standpoint. Lyrically we start getting the taste of the kind of overwrought Bono preaching that would get him mocked mercilessly in the Rattle and Hum era as well as the present day. If you can overlook that it has the rest of U2's strengths on full display. Mullen's drumming has never sounded better, driving the song forward with true urgency. As usual Clayton's bass adds to the drive while Edge's reverb washes over everything. 

Side one ends with "Drowning Man." Like all well-sequenced LPs the listener gets a come down before needing to flip the record over. "Like a Song..." is so driving that it's impossible to keep that pace up, anyway. We also get a break from politics to a song about longing for one's love when separated by distance. The sound is still gorgeously haunting, a reminder that U2 got its start in the post-punk world. Those post-punk elements would be scrubbed out pretty soon.

Side two starts with the more up tempo "The Refugee" to kick things off. It doesn't quite sound like anything else on the record, either. It sounds more like an outtake from Bowie's Let's Dance, something for the clubs instead of protest marches. Like a lot of U2 records over the years side one is for the hits and side two is for the experiments. (Just listen to The Joshua Tree). Although the next song "Two Hearts Beat as One" would be a single, it still has the post-punk sound instead of the nouveau arena rock sound of "New Year's Day." Like early New Order, the bass is carrying the melody.

Like a lot of classic albums, the penultimate tracks are not standouts. "Red Light" is hardly bad, but doesn't distinguish itself that much. It does rock hard, at least. "Surrender" has the haunting sound of "Drowning Man" at the start but heads to poppier territory. Again, not bad but not great.

Everything ends with ""40"" (a reference to Psalm 40.) My longstanding theory about U2 is that they are the greatest Christian rock band of all time. The last album, October, overflows with religiosity. Heck, one song is even called "Gloria"! Politics with a religious tint of prophecy replace outright religion on War, but here God makes a comeback. This is a beautiful, languid track recorded at the end of the sessions when Clayton had already split. You can definitely tell this is a band that is about to mesh well with Brian Eno on their forthcoming albums. Edge's bass has a more melodic cast than Clayton's galloping horse, and Bono croons more than shouts for a change. It's a perfect ending to a great record.

It might not be cool to like U2 these days, but their own response to a world gone wrong in the early 80s sure makes a lot of sense today. 

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Americans See in Ukrainians What They Wish They Saw In Themselves

Russia's invasion of Ukraine this week has set off a wave of interest and sympathy in the United States. It has been a very long time since I have seen Americans so invested in a conflict where American troops were not fighting. Some of this has to do with Eurocentrism, some of it has to do with pre-existing dislike of Putin, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that an unprovoked invasion makes it harder to see moral gray areas. The Irish Troubles and the Syrian civil war, for example, did not present such a clear black and white scenario for most Americans. It's harder to choose a side in an internal conflict, easier when the man who helped get Trump elected invades another country after giving an unhinged speech denying the right of former Soviet republics to exist. 

In the past few days my students have not only been following the conflict, but have been discussing stories of Ukrainian bravery, like the defenders of Snake Island. My social media is on fire with stories like the Ukrainian woman telling a Russian soldier to put a sunflower seed in his pocket so that his corpse would provide fertilizer for the national flower. President Zelensky has received more praise than I have seen for a foreign leader since the days of Gorbachev. Images of anti-war protests in Russia have circulated too, adding more evidence to the idea that Ukraine is without doubt or reservation on the side of righteousness. 

I feel like there is also something deeper at play here. The election of 2016 and the pandemic have blatantly exposed America's deep problems for all to see. Even in the face of an unprecedented threat to everyone in society the United States was unable to find a shred of unity. As the pandemic dawned and people here in Jersey were dying in droves red state conservatives openly showed a lack of sympathy. Trump made my governor grovel in order to get aid. We have been fighting non stop over even the most basic mitigation policies. The vaccines miraculously developed to put a stop to this have been politicized to the point that the anti-vaccination movement has actually gained strength from the pandemic. After our last election a fascist mob took over the Capitol and tried to overturn the results to keep a deranged despot in power. Since that election any hopes for positive political change and escape from dysfunction have been smothered. 

Americans are sharing stories of Ukrainian bravery because so they desperately want to be capable of laying claim to such glory. Putin manipulated the 2016 election but conservative broadcasters like Tucker Carlson openly kiss his ass on national television. We can't even get people to wear a mask and ordinary Ukrainians are grabbing rifles and making Molotov cocktails and putting their lives on the line. Our leaders seem to only care about themselves and maintaining power, President Zelensky has stayed in harm's way and seems prepared to die if he has to. The past few years have proven the United States to be an ungovernable mess, a polity so broken that any notion of collective sacrifice is impossible, even in the worst emergency. The Ukrainian response to invasion puts this country to shame.

Seeing this dynamic play out I am also concerned about Americans, safe here from falling bombs and flying bullets, treating Ukrainians as their mascots. The bravery of the Snake Island defenders was tremendous, but their story mostly just makes me sad. Thirteen lives lost because of a cruel tyrant's whim. Instead of cheering from the sidelines, we need to think about what we can materially do to help. Not just sanctions, but taking in refugees. Not just shouting encouragement to Ukrainians fighting for their lives, but also doing the hard work of fixing this broken democracy. 

Monday, February 21, 2022

Putin and the New Age of Nationalism

Today brought the alarming news of Vladimir Putin's moves towards Ukraine. He is recognizing and occupying the two breakaway republics essentially established by Russian invasion. He justified this aggression with a speech laying out a historical narrative essentially claiming that Russia has a right to reconstitute its empire no matter what the people in former Soviet republics think about it. Hopefully, anyone stupid enough to think this was merely about NATO has been thoroughly disabused of that notion. Putin in so many words said that Ukraine has no right to exist. 

The older I get the more I stress the continuities of history over the changes. The Tsars, General Secretaries and now Putin might wild diverge in ideology but all of them sought to preserve a sprawling Russian empire.

I am feeling similar in regards to other continuities. When I was in grad school back in the oughts many people -especially in British Empire studies- found it fashionable to say that nations did not matter anymore. This conceit coincided with the so-called "end of history" and growth of globalization in the 1990s. While global capitalism has been drawing the world together, the result has been to bolster rather than eat away at nationalism. It is the continuous thread that refuses to go away.

Putin's nationalism has been particularly imperialistic, but it is but one manifestation of a larger phenomenon. From "make American great again" to Xi's appeals to Chinese nationalism to Modi's attacks on Muslims to Boris Johnson and Brexit we are living in the new dawn of nationalism. 

While Putin is not alone, his brand of nationalism points to that ideology's most dangerous manifestations: expansionism and war. For the first time since World War II Europe is under threat of general conflict. Lives hang in the balance. Ukranians are being threatened both with death and with imperial subjugation. The international systems built to keep this at bay are faltering in the face of nationalist strongmen. I fear a new age not only of nationalism, but of wars fought over borders and refugees trapped when no one offers them asylum. 

History did not end thirty years ago, and what history is to come certainly looks grim. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

The Lemonheads, "It's a Shame About Ray" (Track of the Week)

I've had the 1990s on my brain as of late. This is partially because I am reading Chuck Klosterman's book about the era, but mostly because I am finally able to listen to music of that era again without being emotionally overwhelmed. It's the decade where I truly came of age, going from 14 to 24, from child to adult. Every song contains a memory, which can make for unbearable listening. The thing is, I was a complete schmuck from the age of 14 to 24, and I don't like to be reminded of it. The traumas of the past six years have been so intense that those memories don't sting so much anymore. One silver lining of the river of shit we are currently wading through.

The Lemonheads were one of the minor bands of the 90s alt-rock explosion, one that did not get their full due because they were established before grunge and did not just ape the Seattle sound. I've been revisiting them, especially "It's a Shame About Ray." The album cover made me think it was a song about someone being run over by a car, but the song itself is more ambiguous than that. It certainly seems to be about a dead acquaintance (rather than a friend.) This is someone you might know but not intensely grieve over the way one does with close friends and family. Those of us still living and breathing can be a little callous in these situations, only capable of sighing and saying "that's a shame" before moving on with our fleeting lives. This is the arrogance of us the living, so disinclined to contemplate our mortality or for whom the bell truly tolls.

For that reason this has become one of my favorite songs to listen to when I brood about COVID. Two thousand people a day still die in a pandemic so many are anxious to declare "over." There doesn't seem to be anything I can do to stop the onslaught. New days bring new stories, like someone I know losing his cousin to the virus last week. Our society seems to have learned nothing from this experience. It's a shame. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

That New Album Smell

 Music streaming services really are one of the wonders of the 21st century. At any time I can access 70s prog, 80s house music, or old sea shanties if I want to. It has allowed me to explore all kinds of new musical horizons without having to worry about blowing money on an album I might end up not liking.

At the same time, streaming has robbed me of certain musical listening practices that I miss. One of the biggest is that feeling of brining home a new, hotly anticipated album from the record store. I used to love that moment when I finally freed such CDs from their cellophane fetters, pealed off that stupid sticker on top, and could finally hear what I had been waiting months to listen to. 

Last week I saw that Big Thief was putting out a new album, and while I streamed it, I listened to it front to back in one sitting, absorbing the music with intention. It was a reminder that even doing this over streaming is a worthwhile endeavor. In honor of that experience, here's five times I got taken in by the new album smell.

REM, Automatic for the People

Out of Time
was my first REM album, and I listened to it incessantly back in '91. I then spent the next year buying up the band's entire back catalog. When Automatic came out I bought it on CD as fast as I could. "Drive" had already been released as a single, and its dark tone intrigued me. This was not "Shiny Happy People." "Drive" started the album off, so that was familiar enough. After that came "Try Not To Breathe," and I knew at that very moment that this would be a great album. (It's still one of my fave REM deep cuts.) I had been skeptical that the band could follow up their hit record only a year later, and finding out they could surpass it was one of the great surprises of my life.

Nirvana, In Utero

Like a lot of people my age, Nirvana's Nevermind had been a touchstone. Not only a great record, it was a symbol of a changing world where the fatuous jock bullshit of hair metal would be destroyed in favor of edgy music by the ugly people. My people. The recording of In Utero got all kinds of press, so I was not sure what to expect. Like REM, it ended up being better in my eyes than what came before. Right from the beginning "Serve the Servants" just blasted things off. Nevermind had been produced in a way that made it glossy, this album would be gritty and I loved it for that. 

U2, Pop

I know it's super uncool to admit this these days, but back in the 90s I adored U2. It didn't hurt that a woman I was in love with in college did too. In 1997 they put out their first album in four years, so anticipated that record stores had midnight sales of it. I was one of those people who queued up in the dead of night to buy it on CD. This instantly became an album disliked by U2 fans. Within a year you'd see it in the racks at all the used CD stores. This is a record I will actually defend to my dying day. It uses the au courrant electronica sounds of the day (which I was digging) while mining deep emotional themes. It's also the last time Edge really got wild on the guitar. Don't believe me? Listen to "Gone."

Radiohead, Kid A

OK Computer
dominated my life for a year after its release. I began every day with the somber sounds of "Airbag." There just didn't seem to be any other album capable of articulating what Tricky called the "pre-millennial tension." I was in grad school by the time of Kid A, and on the day of release marched into the sadly departed Record Service in Champaign, Illinois, to buy it. The title and cover puzzled me, but when the first organ notes of "Everything in its Right Place" hit I realized I was heading somewhere special. My love of OK Computer instantly evaporated. Something new and far more unsettling had been created. 

Wilco, A Ghost Is Born

You think you outgrow the idea of a band mattering to your identity, but that didn't happen to me. As a man in my late twenties I was still capable of wrapping up my personality with my favorite musicians. Back then the only band that mattered to me was Wilco. Living in Champaign-Urbana I got many chances to see them live. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had blown me away and I did not know if the band could top it. A Ghost is Born doesn't, really, but it had plenty of songs that felt completely valid to me. 

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Thinking About March 11

In a month it will be March 11th, the second anniversary of the day that the COVID-19 pandemic became "real" to a majority of Americans. President Trump declared a travel ban from Europe, the WHO pronounced we were in a global pandemic, and the NBA called off games. Oh yeah, and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced they had COVID. For that reason I think March 11th should have special meaning going forward in the United States, especially this year.

It appears that we are nearing a spiritual end of the pandemic, with the Omicron wave's crash marking a convenient time for politicians in an election year to lift mask mandates. Another variant could certainly come around, but it's likely we won't see an uptick in cases for several months. Pandemics don't end because of stats, they end when people have spiritually moved on. I think we are getting close to that point, even if the death toll will remain persistently high. Other pandemics point to this dynamic.

It's imperative that in the desire to "move on" we do not forget to learn some lessons. The pandemic has shown the woeful performance of so many people in authority. For instance, Donald Trump's malevolence gave cover to the CDC's incompetence. Now that he's not actively shitting the national bed it's easy to see how badly the CDC failed. Our federal system of government looks like a disaster too, preventing any kind of unified response to a national pandemic. Protocols and rules varied so much they got confusing. Red state troglodyte governors and wingnut judges basically torpedoed any chance at universal or near universal vaccination. The widespread opposition to mitigating the virus and the way that it became a partisan issue rather than an issue of life and death ought to give us pause.

Beyond remembering the dead and ruminating on our failures, I think March 11th would be a good time to do a reset on some things. After two years maybe the CDC and the national government can orient themselves around clarity and consistency. Now that vaccination is lagging but crucial to the death toll not getting out of hand more effort can be made to get people vaxxed. That can be with a stick (mandates) or with a carrot (going into communities and proactively vaxxing and boosting people.) The whacko courts have limited national mandates but having schools add COVID vaccines to their current requirements would probably go a long way. 

In general we need days like March 11th to remind us that we are all in this together, whether we like it or not. We don't really have a choice! With the news dominated by anti-vaxxer truckers shutting down Canada it's time for the silent majority of people who want to make necessary sacrifices to hold the virus at bay to stand up and be counted. Our meakness in the face of anti-vax insanity has been one our biggest failures, and one we would do well to reflect on. 

Saturday, February 5, 2022

Dying Empire Blues

"You're all the just pissin' in the wind"

There's little that depresses me more than thinking back to a year ago. I got my first COVID shot the night before Biden's inauguration. Back then you had to show credentials to get a vaccination and the lines were staggering. At the end of it I was sitting in the auditorium of a public school in uptown Manhattan waiting to be released, crying tears of happiness. The next day, when I was teaching remotely (I was on a hybrid schedule), I cried much harder during the inauguration. Despite Trump, despite the insurrection, the republic had survived. The new president was pushing an ambitiously progressive agenda, and the Republican antagonism towards democracy was so toxic that baseball players (not the most radical bunch) forced the All-Star Game to be moved from Georgia over voter suppression. 

So where are we a year later?

The Republican Party yesterday basically declared their approval of the January 6 insurrection, and attacked their party members who have pushed to bring the perpetrators to justice. Trump is able to speak publicly and threaten his opponents and promise pardons for those who smeared their shit on the walls of the Capitol. Biden's agenda has floundered. Not only have the courts blocked needed vaccination mandates, red states have done everything they can to thwart mitigation of the virus. Hundreds of thousands of people died of COVID last year AFTER the vaccines were available, leaving the US with the highest death rate among its peer nations. Needed legislation has been torpedoed by the filibuster as well as conservative Democrats like Manchin and Sinema. The Trump years demanded a new birth of freedom to set the nation right, we aren't getting that, and we never will.

Worse that that, the Right has been emboldened. They are burning and banning books. They are putting bounties on the heads of teachers who dare to tell their students about this nation's racial history. They are firing local health officials who want to stop the virus via masking and vaccination. The media still, after all this, treats the Republicans like a normal political party, not as a vehicle for an extremist movement that will toss democracy aside to maintain power. The average dipshit swing voter will follow suit and vote against the incumbent party like they always do in off year elections. 

In the early weeks after January 6, we had an opportunity to put things on the right track. We missed it, and that opportunity is never going to come back. The United States has settled back into its familiar rut of imperial collapse, where it's been for most of my life. Our system's overweaning legalism and neoliberal orientation mean there's little to no collective action on COVID, and any that has been attempted has been destroyed by our asymmetric polarization. Conservatives have proven the literal truth of an old adage of mine, which is that a conservative is someone who would rather die than admit a liberal was right about something. 

Others have contributed to this as well. The feckless and aged Democratic party leadership still thinks it's 1988 or something and have completely failed to get their shit together. The Biden administration completely lacks the energy and urgency required right now. The centrist punditocracy has spent far more time attacking Biden's ending of our foreverwar in Afghanistan than in sounding the alarm about rising fascism. Leftists just ineffectually light their hair on fire on Twitter without bothering to do any organizing. Nobody in power who needs to stand up to the fascist wave is capable of rising to this moment. Everyone just wants to go back to their comfortable ruts and not have to bother with fighting anymore. I spent so much time getting involved in elections over the past five years and all that effort seems to have been wasted on people incapable of doing their jobs.

This is a dying empire, and the final blow may come sooner than we expect. In 1988 people living in the USSR and Yugoslavia never would have thought that their countries would cease to exist in four years' time. I was thinking about this watching the Olympic opening ceremonies last night. It was quite a display of China's power, and even though I know it's just propaganda, I did not fail to be impressed. It is also a sign of the confidence of the authoritarians. If the United States is the supposed lighthouse of democracy then democracy looks pretty undesirable in the eyes of the world. Putin and Xi can rattle their sabres because they know if this version of the US is challenged to a war we are so divided it would probably bring about our collapse. 

At this point it's not a matter of if, but when. And when it happens the Right will easily smash their divided, feckless opposition, despite the fact that the Right represent a minority of Americans. The problem is, not enough people believe in the foundational ideology of this country to defend it. Much like the people of the Soviet Union stopped believing in the promises of Marxism well before that empire ceased to exist. All I can think is that I am too old to emigrate but too young to spend the rest of my life trapped in the horror the American Right wants us to live in.