A review of Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die, in the guise of an open letter to music bloggers

Dear hip music bloggers,

Fuck off and die.

I can just see all of you, sitting in your little rooms in the weeks since Lana Del Rey’s disastrous appearance on Saturday Night Live, coming up with the clever little bon mots you planned to sprinkle all throughout your review of Del Rey’s debut album, Born To Die, the day it dropped. How you giggled at your own oh-so-apt metaphors! How proud you were of your complex understanding of the nature of post-modernism and the Society of the Spectale as it related to Del Rey and her public persona! This, you thought, this is the review that’s finally going to make Pitchfork sit up and notice me!

You’re pathetic. You’re not clever. And none of you know a goddamn thing about music, because Born To Die is one of the best pop records I’ve heard in decades and perhaps in my entire life. If you don’t hear that, you don’t understand anything about what pop music is. Go back to masturbating every time some member of Animal Collective tries (and fails) to capture the syrupy, wretched exuberance of ELO’s playbook.

Fuck off and die.

We get so caught up now in the deconstruction of music and musicians that a lot of the time, we just forget entirely about what music is and how to judge it. It doesn’t matter one single fucking bit whether Lana Del Rey is really Lizzy Grant or Miley Cyrus or the ghost of Nina Simone. It doesn’t matter whether she’s rich or poor, whether she grew up in a New York penthouse or in a pig wallow in rural Alabama. It doesn’t matter if she writes her own songs, or arranges them. It doesn’t even really matter if she can perform them live or on TV, because pop music isn’t about live performance anyway, it’s about how you interact with the music in your car or your living room or the interior of your own head.

Pop music is about sex and intoxication and romance and beauty and sleaze and the ways we can transcend our own lives through these things, and by this standard, Born To Die is flawless. And make no mistake, not for a second: Lana Del Rey is a pop singer. She’s not an indie rocker, she’s not avant garde. She’s a pop singer like Britney Spears or, God help us, Ke$ha.

But unlike these lesser talents, Lana Del Rey obviously likes indie rock and alternative and avant garde music. She’s absorbed decades of Stereolab and Portishead and Cat Power and Fiona Apple and even Patti Smith, and taken bits and pieces of all of it and made it something that will appeal to the common denominator.

People say the same thing about Lady Gaga, but it’s not true, because Lady Gaga makes shitty fucking music. Look, you know it and I know it; the only reason anybody gives a shit about her is because she’s made her career selling faux controversy to people desperate for it. To paraphrase the film Se7en, just because Gaga rented The Cell on DVD once doesn’t make her Joel-Peter fucking Witkin. It’s still shite house music no matter how you spin it.

Lana Del Rey’s music is gorgeous. (And it doesn’t matter if we mean Lana Del Rey the girl, or Lana Del Rey the public face of a songwriting/production team, or anything else. Stop being boring and pay attention.) It’s a blend of Peggy Lee and Missy Elliot and Angelo Badalamenti, hip-hop beats filtered through the noir side of every bit of American pop since Pat Boone’s “Moody River”. It’s lush and intoxicating, like the smell of Chanel No. 5 and Marlboros. It’s drawing from everywhere, Bjork and Blue Velvet. The best thing about Lana Del Rey is that her influences are impeccable.

You know what? I was going to write a real review of this record, but I’m not going to, because I don’t want to convince you that it’s amazing. You’ll buy it or you won’t; you’ll like it or you won’t. In fact, I hope you don’t like it, because then it’ll still be my little secret, someone else’s music that belongs to me the way music used to belong to people before the relentless light of the Net was shined into every dark corner, before every useless snarky fuck with a Tumblr decided it was their personal job to either create or destroy artists, whilst never having the fucking guts or the soul to make art themselves.

Fuck you if you don’t like Born To Die, and fuck you if you do. Either way, it’s mine, and I love it, and that’s all that matters.


Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto

I have a problem with Coldplay.

It’s not that they suck; they really don’t suck. They’re clearly talented musicians, and Chris Martin — as he proved all those centuries ago with “Yellow” — is clearly a talented singer.

What bothers me is not that Coldplay sucks, but that their records suck. I don’t understand why or how this happens. They’ve clearly got the skills to make really good records, and they’ve got Brian Eno producing them on this new one Mylo Xyloto and the last one, which I think was called A Perfectly Lovely Dinner Party With Friends or something similar. Eno is not known for producing crappy music. In point of fact, he’s known for goading relatively uninteresting bands (or rather band, or rather U2) into creating really good work. (For a comparison, look at the records U2 put out without Eno, which — aside from Boy and War — have all the charisma of an accounting seminar.)

So why in the name of Hell’s garbage truck is Mylo Xyloto so goddamn dull?

I have Coldplay on my iPod. I do. I’m comfortable enough with my sexuality to admit that, despite a decade of “You know how I know you’re gay, etc.” jokes about the band. Yes, they’re big ol’ pussies. And that’s okay. I find it amusing that people will crack endless jokes about Coldplay and yet have an artist like Bon Iver in constant rotation. I mean, Bon Iver is a giant pussy. Bon Iver makes Dan Fogelberg look like G.G. Allin. It’s music for girls with asymmetric haircuts to cry to when their boyfriend Tyler leaves them for his coke dealer, who is a dude. Apparently it’s okay to be a big pussy if you’re an American with a Grizzly Adams beard who records your albums in, I dunno, a fucking cabin in the middle of the Michigan forest or whatever the hell these kids think is “authentic”. But it’s not okay, it seems, if you’re a metrosexual Englishman permanently wrapped in Ben Sherman high streetwear whose family consists of a decreasingly famous actress and a child named after a computer company.

The Coldplay I have on my iPod consists of their previous album, which is actually called Viva La Vida (Death And All His Friends) (which we’ll get to in a minute) and a track from their first album called “Don’t Panic“. I really like this song a lot. It’s not just the Douglas Adams reference in the title (which Martin has done a couple of times); it’s the combination of the echoing guitar line and the lyrics and the way Martin sings “And we live in a beautiful world / yeah, we do, yeah, we do” in the chorus, in a way that suggests that he might not be telling the truth. It’s short as hell and lovely and I’ll fight anybody who suggests it’s not at least as good as a Radiohead song.

I don’t have “Yellow”, the band’s first big single, on my iPod, because it was impossible to be anywhere in the Westernized world in the early 00s and not hear that song playing. But it’s still a great pop single. The lyrics are odd without being irritating, the hooks are solid, and Martin’s voice is perfect, with that little falsetto yelp that approximates an Irish séan nos hiccup without actually being one.

So I know — I know, goddamnit — that Coldplay are or at least were capable of producing good music. Their position as a sort of diet caffeine-free version of Radiohead has been a running joke for a decade now, but that’s fine. They didn’t have to be Radiohead. But they could have been a really good Coldplay.

The problem, I suspect, is that Chris Martin wants to be liked by everybody. And, as Paul Carr pointed out to me the other day, people who want everyone to like them end up being liked by nobody at all, except Gwyneth Paltrow. Coldplay strike me as the type of band who remix their work endlessly and by committee, trying to achieve some kind of sonic Arcadia, a blissful aural landscape of perfectly stadium-friendly bottom end and hopeful, soaring guitars.

The result is a sort of musical version of the decorational accents they sell at Ikea in between the Billy bookshelves and the improbably small platform beds. It’s fine and nice and goes well with your lifestyle…but it’s devoid of any personality. It’s free from criticism because it offers nothing of itself. It’s wallpaper.

I got Viva La Vida because Eno produced it, and Eno is worshipped as a god in my household (or at least in the part of it that’s actually my head). I expected a revelation; I hoped that Viva La Vida would be Coldplay’s The Unforgettable Fire, the moment when they stepped up their game and became really interesting.

This was not the case. In fact, aside from the title track, the music slid off my brain like it was made of Teflon. Aside from the title track, I literally cannot remember any of Viva La Vida, despite having listened to it at least ten times all the way through. (Usually while cooking, which seems to be the ideal Coldplay listening situation, because their music is actually improved by the sound of sizzling hot oil.) “Viva La Vida” the song is almost interesting; to my ears, what it’s really missing is a harder beat, a more driving bassline. Without it, it’s music for car commercials.

I’m not going to tell you about Mylo Xyloto, because I got about three songs into it and turned it off. Like all of their post-Parachutes work, it was unlistenable, because it was completely devoid of any corners or edges for the mind to hook in to. It reminded me of those lifestyle-porn spreads in magazines like Dwell and Metropolis where bourgeois bohemians show off their exquisitely designed minimalist living spaces. It’s pretty to look at, but you have to wonder what kind of madness creeps in after a few months of living in a stainless steel-and-MDF universe. I imagine these people find themselves fighting the near-uncontrollable urge to grab a Sharpie and start drawing giant cocks on the unbroken expanses of off-white paneling that surround them. The same is true for Coldplay; I suspect that Mylo Xyloto would be endlessly improved by running it through a Squarepusher-style glitch plugin that caused it to skip and stammer.

Also, Rihanna sings on it. I know a lot of you are convinced that Rihanna is good, and that makes me want to go live in the goddamn Michigan forest with Bon Iver and the ghost of Mark Linkous and hoard a stack of Nina Simone records until you all come to your senses. Or die off like the dinosaurs.

This speaks to one of Chris Martin’s more annoying behaviors: namely, his public flirtation with American hip-hop and his bromances with guys like 50 Cent and Jay-Z. I have no idea whether this is all sincere and legitimate on a personal level, or some kind of surreal attempt to establish “street cred”, which is a concept completely orthogonal to the very notion of Coldplay, like the idea of the European Union attempting to look sexy at a party. Certainly his attempts to integrate American urban music into Coldplay’s oeuvre are an act of absurdist theater that would be offensive if it wasn’t such a fucking non sequitur.

And maybe a Coldplay record produced by Jay-Z might be interesting. (It’s a long shot, but hey, stranger things have happened.) I think Eno’s considerable talents are wasted on this source material. What I’d really love to hear is a Coldplay record produced by Squarepusher, or Burial — someone who could strip away the polish, make it ugly, confrontational in spots, make it not appeal to everyone.

They could do it, they really could. I’m convinced that, deep down, Coldplay has the talent to be remarkable. After all, who could have extrapolated Kid A from Pablo Honey, or Achtung Baby from Rattle & Hum, or the Gorillaz from “Boys And Girls”? Despite the reputation of the UK music press as being jeering and suspicious when a musical artist tries to rise above their station, British bands seem to have a lot more ambition at reinventing themselves every so often. And like U2 and Radiohead before them, Coldplay’s in a position to get their freak on if they so desire, to not only change their own artistic statement (or simply make one in the first place) but change the whole conversation of music.

If you’re not old like me, you don’t remember how completely goddamn weird Achtung Baby sounded after the stadium anthems of The Joshua Tree and the pompousness of Rattle & Hum. And yet, it was one of U2’s bestselling records…and you can see the way that it changed the musical landscape. Ditto with Kid A, which was the number one Billboard album for at least a couple of weeks despite being a skittering bleepy piece of Krautrock madness.

When you’ve gotten to a certain point, you can afford to fuck around, try new things, become a new idea. And I wish Coldplay would do it, because as it stands they’re poised to become the musical equivalent of a boutique hotel: a tasteful, lovely environment in which no one actually lives.

If you’re thinking of buying Mylo Xyloto, do yourself a favor and go buy the last couple of albums by Elbow and Jamie Woon‘s self-titled debut instead, and wait in hopes — as I do — that Coldplay will eventually produce something of lasting value, because this ain’t it.


The Indelicates – David Koresh Superstar

I’ve given up trying to explain The Indelicates to people, but if you put me against a wall and put a gun in my mouth and told me to describe them, I’d say “Mrrgh mrrff wgggffh fggghh”. Then, when you took the gun out of my mouth, I’d tell you that The Indelicates are like Belle & Sebastian meet Gilbert & Sullivan meet Sacco and Vanzetti. And that’s the last I’ll say on the subject.

David Koresh Superstar is a concept album, which is normally one of the more loathsome excesses of pop music. Or perhaps it’s a cast recording of a stage musical that never happened (at least, not yet): the life of Vernon Howell, better known to you and I as David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidian Church of Waco, Texas, who collectively had a standoff with the federal government in 1993 that ended with Bradley tanks and machine guns and most of Koresh’s followers finding out firsthand if there really was a Heaven or not.

I grew up in Texas, not terribly far from Waco (though on the other side of Dallas), held in the bosom of that Old Time Religion; my great-grandfather was a minister — albeit a Methodist one, and Methodists are sort of like the caffeine-free diet Coke of Protestantism. We didn’t roll in the aisles or speak in tongues. (Though I did know a mentally challenged kid who became a snake-handling preacher after high school; he was once sodomized with a Golobulus G.I. Joe action figure by another kid while rummaging in a Dumpster, and I always wondered if that had anything to do with his later career choice. That’s a whole other story, though.) Texas Methodists are far more into Sunday potlucks and preachers in business casual playing acoustic guitar on the pulpit than any of the shit Koresh apparently got up to. But Texas is chock full of demented religious fervor, and I certainly knew and was exposed to a lot of people who fully believed that the Rapture was coming, possibly next week. You could tell who they were, because their big American cars all had bumper stickers warning of uncontrolled vehicles, were the Rapture to occur whilst they were driving.

Besides, Texas breeds lunatics. (I’m living proof.) In his brilliant and venomous routine about the Waco standoff, Bill Hicks said “Lemme see here: frustrated rock musician with delusions of grandeur, armed to the teeth and ready to fuck anything that moves. I don’t know how to tell you this…but that sounds like all of my friends in Austin.”

My point is that when Koresh went apeshit, it wasn’t actually all that surprising; and, as Hicks also pointed out, there’s a lot of evidence that the FBI and BATF’s handling of the standoff was a colossal clusterfuck, and that they basically slaughtered the Branch Davidians and Koresh…who were loopy, but not possibly actually breaking any laws; for foreigners and other aliens, it is not illegal to own a military-grade weapons cache in Texas. (Nor is it illegal to kill someone who comes onto your property without your permission; one of the funniest things to me, in the world, is that very little of what Leatherface does in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is actually against the law, since the teenage kids not only come onto his land without permission, but actually walk into his house without being given permission. As far as I know, the Texas law about defending your property from intruders doesn’t specify how you have to kill said intruders.)

It’s really interesting to hear the Indelicates’ take on all of this. I guessed, and Simon Indelicate confirmed, that he’s a fan of Garth Ennis’s remarkable, bloody, blasphemous and wholly incredible comic series Preacher, which — like David Koresh Superstar — deals with the trials and tribulations of a Texas preacher, albeit a very different one. Ennis is Irish and the Indelicates are British, and in both cases their Texas is a mythical landscape of gun-toting God-ridden white trash, a post-apocalyptic frontier landscape filtered through a thousand cowboy movies and the endless parade of embarrassing stories about the place in the global media. It’s strange to hear the voices of this passion play singing with English accents, the way it’s odd when an occasional Britishism comes out of the mouth of Preacher’s Jesse Custer, but of course these characters aren’t really Texan; they inhabit a notional Lone Star State.

The album follows Koresh’s life from his childhood to his ascension (if you can call it that) to cheap roadside messiah, and eventually to his sudden backhanded step into the global spotlight as a crazed cult leader who reportedly sport-fucked his way through the ranks of his female congregation and, of course, eventually led most of them to a horrible death at the hands of the Feds.

Both structurally and musically, it bears echoes of Luke Haines’s Baader-Meinhof record, which similarly narrated the history of the Red Army Faction. It has the same odd elements of 70s funk and acoustic folk; the similarity is most evident on opening track “Remember The Alamo”, first single “I Am Koresh”, and particularly “McVeigh”, an almost-disco track about Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh that’s reminiscent of “There’s Gonna Be An Accident” from Baader-Meinhof. It has always been apparent that The Indelicates are fans of Haines, his relentless acerbicism and his various musical products (The Auteurs, Black Box Recorder); it would seem like pastiche except for the fact that Simon Indelicate is at least as good a lyricist as Haines is, and certainly at least as clever. I would provide examples for you to pore over, but I don’t have a copy of the lyric sheet for DKS, so you’ll have to trust me.

The Indelicates aren’t playing this for cheap laughs, though the album is shot through with the darkest of black humor: it’s obvious that behind the absurdity and uniquely American excesses of Koresh’s tale, there’s a story about a frankly pathetic man whose delusions created a great deal of horror and terror for a group of people without the innate capacity to see through his cheap bullshit; brainwashed cultists or not, the Indelicates refuse to make them — or Koresh himself — the butt of the joke, and it turns what might have been a simplistic and cruel comedy record in less deft hands into a genuinely tragic musical story.

Not that they don’t use DKS to strike a few blows at the pomposity of musical theater and the notion of the “concept record” itself. “The Road From Houston To Waco”, Koresh’s first-person narrative of his life, sounds like a Broadway composer’s notion of country music (which sounds, to my ears, oddly like 70s-era Jimmy Buffett). “Something Goin’ Down In Waco” has a chorus of various voices that sounds like the unbearable moments in musical theater when spoken lines are shoehorned into sung lyrics. (If it’s not obvious, I labor under a lifelong hatred of musical theater.)

If DKS has an obvious flaw, it’s one that’s endemic to this genre of work: namely, a lack of subtlety. It’s very hard to write narrative non-fictional lyrics while still wrapping yourself in nuance and metaphor; a great example is Dylan’s “Hurricane”, which is maybe his least poetic work (while still being a kickass song). Doing an entire album means you’re sacrificing poetry for description; you stop asking questions and start making declarations. Simon balances this here as best he can, but you do lose a bit of the complexity that makes his work so interesting normally.

On the whole, though, I think David Koresh Superstar does precisely what it’s supposed to do, and does it perfectly well. The album’s story ends with “Superstar”, a melancholy ballad in which Julia Indelicate seemingly plays the part of an angel receiving Koresh into the afterlife, stripping him of his self-illusions and informing him of his precise place in history — which, according to many theologians and thinkers, would place him firmly in Hell. “The Texas sky is great and wide, the ashes drift away / Stutters and drifts away,” Julia sings in her Received Pronunciation accent, and a piercing violin rides Koresh to his judgment.

The album ends properly with a gospel-style reworking of the old blues song “John The Revelator”, complete with choir, which Simon spits out with his characteristic venom. It’s a folk apocalypse, absolutely apropos as a coda to the story of a man who believed himself to be the American Messiah, only to discover at the end that no one at all was going to pluck him from the flames and carry him aloft on the wings of angels — his final and perhaps most important revelation, you might say.

I’ll be honest: when The Indelicates (who, full disclosure, are Internet friends of mine) announced this project, I was a bit nonplussed. But David Koresh Superstar absolutely surpassed my expectations. The Indelicates manage to capture both the deranged eschatological fervor of the Branch Davidians and the bland suburbanism of their aspirations. It’s a challenging and fascinating work from a fascinating and challenging band, and well worth your time.

David Koresh Superstar is available via a pay-as-you-like model from The Indelicates’ record label, Corporate Records.