Friday

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart


01. "Say You Will"

JOSH: As an opener, this is a good indicator that Kanye's up to something different this time out. There's no hook--or the whole thing's one lean, cold hook. Technically speaking, Kanye's not a good singer, granted (even going it T-Pain style), but neither are Joanna Newsom or Tom Waits; he really gets the most out of his artificially adjusted falsetto's idiosyncratic appeal. [8]

TERESA: You don't have to have studied psychology to see, from lyrics to public appearances/outbursts, that Kanye West does not deal well with rejection. Though he's usually throwing a tantrum or trying to convince us he's too good for this girl or that award. On "Say You Will," he's longing for someone, he's vulnerable, and it sets the tone for the entire outing. You realize that, wow, he really is gonna pull this off. He's voluntarily peeling away every coat of Louis Vuitton-emblazoned armor and exposing himself in a very audibly pleasing healing process. By the end of the CD, I'll be completely won over, and this great song won't even be in the top 5. [8]

02. "Welcome to Heartbreak"

JOSH: This is where 'Ye unambiguously establishes the theme of his latest opus. Where his first three proper records centered loosely around the idea of education, 808s focuses on the discontents of the working world, or a multi-millionaire professional entertainer's experience of it anyway. Musicially, it's largely unlike anything he's released before--a comment that rings true for much of what's to follow. (It's worth noting that the leaked version is a much more forceful and grandiose production, where the final cut is more melancholy and spare. I initially preferred the former, but as I type this, the latter is nosing steadily ahead.) [9]

TERESA: Though the leaked version is superior--the foreboding synth left raw and not layered with piano--this may still be the best track on 808s. The heartbreaks he laments here don't sound all that bad (so you had to leave your Godsister's wedding early, boo hoo), but they're given tangible emotion by Kanye's delivery and the fact that we all know he's suffered real tragedies this year, and we can hear them in every syllable. [leak: 10; album: 9]

03. "Heartless"

JOSH: This might be the only track on the new album that wouldn't sound at least a little out of place on his previous releases, and as such, it might be his best shot from the new batch at a "Golddigger"/"Stronger"-level radio hit. The best part's when 'Ye goes "and we just gon' be en-e-mies." [8]

TERESA: Now to lighten things up a bit! Or, wait...no. Despite the misleading beat, Kanye is still astonishingly sad and angry. He's just being considerate and giving us something to bob our heads to and chuckle at ("how could you be so Dr. Evil?") while we dry our eyes. Listen a little closer though, and the tears might come welling back up. [9]

04. "Amazing"

JOSH:808s could be the first hip-hop record (a classification I'm applying pretty liberally, natch) that's grounded almost entirely in existential anxiety; it's certainly among the most pervasively pessimistic albums of any stripe released in recent memory, and not from Thom Yorke or Trent Reznor but from the man responsible for freaking "Touch the Sky." He's clearly, desperately reaching--for meaning, for love, for memories made in the coldest winter--and maybe the high-performance automobiles and closets full of designer swag just aren't cutting it anymore. To be sure, the specter of his mother's sudden death looms large over his first recorded statement since. "Amazing" is one of the new album's high (or perhaps low, given the spirit of the thing) points--meditative and menacing, ambivalent about the cultural and financial status he's achieved yet backed by a beat that's absolutely insistent on drone-like forward movement. Jeezy, for his part, sounds, in this unusual aural context, like a growling, rapping incarnation of that demon atop Bad Mountain in Fantasia [10]

TERESA: I seem to recall Jeezy having a verse that ended up being cut out somewhere on Graduation. I suppose this makes up for it, with a dramatic music drop-out and everything before he kicks in. When Kanye refers to himself as a "maven" immediately after a "monster," it's defensive in place of his usual stance of cocky. I remember seeing him on Ellen, and he was saying something about how he used Patrick Bateman of American Psycho as inspiration for 808s. That was quite awhile ago, and I would have to guess that most of that fell away as the tracks were mastered and changed, and more Kanye came out. "Amazing" is probably the closest thing to that vision that remains. [8]

05. "Love Lockdown"

JOSH: Hmm,...what's really left to say about this one? [10]

TERESA: I still feel that this studio version doesn't come close to the jaw-dropping passion on display when Kanye debuted this at the MVA's. However, it's still a serviceable version when one doesn't want to bother Youtubing the other. The jungle sounds, also featured on "Amazing," are appropriately eerie and unhinged, and the "you lose...you lose" is among the more haunting moments on the album. [7.5]

06. "Paranoid"

JOSH: 808s is arguably the best Prince record since Sign 'o' the Times--or at least since Basement Jaxx's Rooty--as ambitious as its pleasurable, and all the more indelible for its imperfections and limitations. Kanye's latest is too across-the-board inspired to use the word "filler," so let's just say this is his "Housequake" or something, happily minor but no less enjoyable for it. [7]

TERESA: "Paranoid," a playful jaunt nestled between tracks ranging from mournful to seething, would be a disposable piece of fluffy fun on any other album of his; here it's a triumphant demonstration of strength and humanity. If that sounds a bit hyperbolic, take for example the contrast of something like Beck's Sea Change (a good album in its own right, don't get me wrong) and countless other white dude break-up discs. There's no room for a shake-it-off moment and they're all gloom all the time. Kanye, on the other hand, isn't gonna mope around forever. You know, he's like that Daft Punk song he sampled. [7]

07. "Robocop"

JOSH: The leaked version of this sounded like a Robyn B-side (which is a compliment). The Herbie Hancock-tweaked album cut is something significantly richer. Lyrically, it's a pretty standard issue "no-good dame" dis track (the sort of territory Kanye's worked more wittily numerous times before), but enveloped by Hancock's lush, soaring symphonics, it's an ebullient contradiction. The final minute and a half here is the loveliest such stretch I've heard all year. [10]

TERESA: I'm starting to sound like a whiny elitist hipster mp3 blogger snob, but I also prefer the previously leaked version of this. The finalized offering is a handful of loops too messy. That being said, it's still admittedly loads of fun, and along with "Paranoid," provides a refreshing, if brief, hiatus from...well, heartbreak. It's kinda like taking a smoke break and checking your text messages at the intermission for King Lear. [leak: 8.5; album: 8]

08. "Street Lights"

JOSH: This is as intimate, and as vulnerable, as anything Kanye's put to record to date--a promising possibility suggested by his heartrending "Hey Mama" at last year's Grammys ceremony. It's probably still early to start tossing around the 'm'-word--his next effort could very well be a concept album devoted to Louis Vuitton 's new luggage line--but some vague Rubicon feels crossed here. [8]

TERESA: West has always been ace at incorporating female vocals into his songs ingeniously (the computerized cold snap chant of "Flashing Lights," or the ethereal "ooh oooh oooh ooh" of "Good Morning") and the simple inclusion of one helps "Street Lights" immeasurably. He more or less repeats the sentiment of "Welcome to Heartbreak," but it's also just a common thread of the album, and thus forgivable. This one, however, as we near closer to the end of the album, shimmers with some hope. [8.5]

09. "Bad News"

JOSH: Upon repeat listens, this is a grower, but I haven't quite reached a final verdict yet since the leaked version of this was unlistenable. It's probably not a highlight, but it holds its own on the album of the year, which should count for something. [7]

TERESA: "Bad News" is simple and straightforward enough that it could have been an interlude, and still kind of is. The sparse piano/squelch combination bobs along as Kanye croons as if he's in a cozy jazz bar from the future. Then said crooning stops entirely and gives way into a crescendo of strings and ivories. Nothing I'd go back and listen to as often as some of the others, but it fleshes out the whole piece quite nicely. [8]

10. "See You in My Nightmares"

JOSH: This is some Les Mis shit--overproduced, for sure, yet irresistibly baroque, and better, at any rate, than the surprisingly so-so "Barry Bonds," Graduation's 'Ye/Weezy teaming. Here, Kanye is the noble outlaw Jean Valjean, while Wayne plays the sinister Inspector Javert (with a liberal dose of Freddy Krueger thrown in for good measure). [8]

TERESA: Okay. I'm not going to complain about Lil Wayne here. I know I do that too much, and it ends up detracting from whatever else a song has to offer. Even though that song could be great in production, composition, execution and idea and Lil Wayne's presence could still ruin it...I won't mention that. Or the way his insufferable voice could probably remove paint from walls and his idiotic "rhymes" could numb one's brain enough that they wouldn't need anesthetic to have a lobotomy. Nope, not gonna. [6]

11. "Coldest Winter"

JOSH: Not as stunning as "Gone" so far as Kanye closers go, but plenty poignant nevertheless. Kanye the Autotune Soul Man triumphs! (Totally off-topic, the drums on this remind me of Hole's "Northern Star," one of my favoritest songs in the whole wide world.) [9]

TERESA: And any hope built up on "Street Lights" is dashed with the absolutely defeated exhale of "Coldest Winter." Few songs so short and minimalistic can wring out this kind of aching regret--and certainly not in pop or hip hop. Kanye, can I give you a hug? [10]

12. "Pinocchio Story" [live freestyle bonus track]

JOSH: Chapter V: Kanye as Bob Marley for the Obama Era? Bring it on. [9]

TERESA: If the state our (anti)hero is in, or the intention of his masterpiece wasn't clear enough to you by now, he's included this live freestyle that spells it out in a heartfelt, if clumsy fairy tale metaphor. Or maybe he included it because it's really freaking good, and it really makes you want to catch him on his next tour stop near you. I already checked for possible future Vancouver appearances. [7.5]
A Woman in Trouble


Connecting the dots between Renee Maria Falconetti and Angelina Jolie may seem like a fool's quest or, at best, a strictly theoretical academic exercise, but if there's any active filmmaker up to plumbing real meaning from such a task, it's Clint Eastwood. Where in the past, Jolie had always struck me as a fairly limited actress, good at what she does but seemingly incapable of doing much else well besides, under Eastwood's direction, she offers the performance of a lifetime, and of the year.

Certainly, Eastwood's compositions (some of them among the most extraordinarily beautiful in American cinema) and DP Tom Stern's infatuated camera lend Jolie's proto-feminist Changeling protagonist, Christine Collins, an iconic weight that's closer to Falconetti's Joan of Arc than, say, Sally Field's Norma Rae. Particularly in the film's more austere and ostensibly single-minded first half, the points of comparison with Dreyer's 1928 (coincidentally, the year Changeling's mind-boggling true story opens) masterpiece are down-right eerie. In lieu of monstrous clergymen interrogating Dreyer's suffering saint is a rabidly corrupt Los Angeles Police Department and various medical and media professionals under their influence. When a police captain orders Christine to be "escorted" to a city mental hospital for questioning his department's official report, the sinister white walls of the asylum instantly call to mind the intimidatingly labyrinthine church facility where Dreyer's Joan was imprisoned.

Or, if you prefer, consider Changeling as an opposite-coast take on The House of Mirth transplanted ahead by a quarter-century or so. In the decades between Lily Bart and Christine Collins, American women were granted the right to vote, yet their voices were often still stifled, ignored entirely, or subjected to misogynistic double-standards. Jolie's central performance is every bit as heartbreaking and exquisitely nuanced as Gillian Anderson's much-lauded turn in Terence Davies' Wharton filmization. Remarkably, her finest scenes aren't the uber-dramatic, plate-smashing Oscar-ready clips. They're instead the more restrained moments, where Christine seems to be mustering every ounce of effort to try and remain sane, and especially several series of devastating reaction shots: one while being condescended to and dressed down with loaded questions by a bought-off doctor at the mental hospital; another in response to dirty looks from the officer who had her committed, during his day in court; and, finally, being told by a helpful pastor that Christine and her missing son would meet again--in Heaven--a thought that appears to provide her little comfort or reassurance.

This is also, to be sure, classic Clint territory. At this point in his career, Eastwood is such a sure-handed master that the considerable structural complexity of Changeling registers as rich, old-fashioned storytelling, engrossing genre moviemaking in the best Hollywood tradition. Along with The Bridges of Madison County and Million Dollar Baby, it's further evidence that he's as sensitive a director of women as of men. The parallel narrative track, involving the kidnapping and murder of young boys, is reminiscent of his very underrated A Perfect World, yet when the disturbed man ruled responsible for those crimes is hanged, the impact of his execution is as empty and wholly unsatisfying (for Christine, whose son he may have killed, and for us as an audience) as the vigilante misjustice of Mystic River. Unlike that film's Shakespearen-level tragedy, however, Changeling is marked more by its mournful tone and by a sustained sense of loss, even as its latter half expands the story's scope and accommodates significant triumphs.

My dear wife--with whom I tend to more or less agree roughly 90% of the time (at least regarding movies)--didn't much care for this one. Teresa complained that the film was "cheesy" and too melodramatic. Again, I turn to Dreyer, cinema's patron saint of full-throttle, irony-free personal/spiritual drama. Like The Passion of Joan of Arc, Changeling is a work about a true believer for true believers (in Clint Eastwood, if not some higher power), absolutely riveting for those willing or able of full investment. Even without the happy ending that Old Hollywood (as opposed to Real Life, the film's source versus its stylized form) would seemingly dictate, it's a tribute to--to borrow a much more recent cultural catch-phrase--the audacity of hope.

And it's the best film of the year.

Thursday

Gave Proof Through the Night


Barack Hussein Obama will be the 44th President of the United States of America.

Take it all in. Celebrate it. Savor it. Exhale. (Grin like you're crazy.) Inhale.

This fact alone feels like something close to a miracle, and through the sheer adrenaline and joy of this wonderful historical moment, it's almost enough to make one temporarily forget both how awful the past eight years have been and how staggering the problems facing the next commander-in-chief will be.

It's a fact, and a moment, that makes me tremendously proud to be an American (even though I now reside in Canada) and more specifically an Illinoisan (even though I'm now an adopted British Columbian)--and on so many different, significant levels.

It's the promise of a fresh start after nearly a decade of domestic and international disasters; the hope that America may once again represent a positive, ethical force in the world, admired and looked to for leadership and integrity by the global community; and, of course, it's a powerful rebuke to--though by no means an end to--centuries of repugnant prejudices and institutional glass ceilings.

And yet...and yet, this is, naturally, just the beginning--or January 20th will be anyway. As ridiculous as it sounds, overcoming such daunting obstacles and giving real, palpable hope to hundreds of millions of people (not just in the United States, mind you, but indeed around the world) in decidedly grey times, was actually the easy part. Which is to say, there's clearly plenty of history yet to be made.

If anyone is capable of righting this sinking ship and fulfilling these greatest of expectations, it's Barack Obama, the--go ahead, say it again out loud, keep the party going through the end of the year!--next Preisident of the United States. As he takes this time to profusely thank his supporters and campaign workers, he, in turn, deserves nothing less than our most sincere gratitude and our staunchest confidence.

Hail to the new chief!
The Bush Doctrine


The Man Who Wasn't There: Wrestling with Oliver Stone's W. and the Enigma of George W. Bush

Saturday

Stay Tuned


Top Five Reasons to Watch TV:

05. SNL The last two episodes have been close to classic--and not just for Tina Fey's much-ballyhooed Sarah Palin impression or McCain's campaign-spoofing cameo. The sketch with Josh Brolin about "fall foliage" was some kind of comic genius. And Ben Affleck's Keith Olbermann riff had me pretty well in stitches. But yeah: election year, Tina Fey, election year, etc. (Which reminds me: I should try and get around to actually watching 30 Rock sometime, huh?)

04. The Late Show with David Letterman Like good wine and very few other things in life, Dave's getting even better with age. His edge is actually more pronounced and acidic, and yet he's sort of inadvertently endearing the way smart-ass, grumpy old men can occasionally be. Ditto Paul Shaffer. They're still funnier than Colbert and Stewart, not to mention their major network time-slot competition.

03. Dexter It's the anti-CSI, if you will, treading somewhat similar territory but with the focus on fascinating, multi-faceted characters and engrossing, breathlessly sustained season-long arcs. Michael C. Hall is the best actor on TV right now, period--good enough, in fact, to suspend rolled eyeballs at another popcult portrait of a charming, articulate serial killer.

02. Friday Night Lights Sure, the second season was a tad dramatically uneven and, at times, tended regrettably toward soap opera histrionics. This is still television's most uniformly superb cast, and after two seasons, any individual performer retains the ability to completely surprise you on any given night (kinda like football). The writing feels wholly genuine, even when certain plot twists seem dubious, making for a deeply affectionate (yet sharply critical, when necessary) look at a very specific American milieu.

01. Mad Men Yup, it's that good. To call former Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner's flawlessly realized brainchild the best show to hit the air since David Chase's masterwork isn't hyperbole. Like The Sopranos, Mad Men not only towers over its tube competition--it's markedly superior to any big screen drama Hollywood's produced in recent memory. Let's cross our fingers and hope that AMC follows HBO's admirable lead and gives this one the long, expansive life it so richly deserves.