Before you read to the end and wonder, I might as well point it out: there’s no books section in this month’s newsletter. Part of my aim with this newsletter was to hold myself to regular reading, and giving myself something to talk about it is the kind of psychological trickery that works well on me. I have a fraught relationship with conventional methods of tracking my reading: like most weird nerds, I once had a Goodreads account, and like many luddites, I deleted it and moved to LibraryThing to avoid just one of the many avenues that Amazon uses to dig its greasy claws into online citizenry. (Though I will note that Amazon owns shares in LibraryThing. C’est la vie — the other main alternative, the StoryGraph, is not quite what I’m looking for.)
But I had another, more cultural gripe with Goodreads. The reading challenges. I’m sorry, but am I really supposed to believe there are people who read upwards of fifty books a year? And still have the time to post about it on Twitter and Instagram and — Booktok, or whatever? I find the concept of a reading challenge not only alien but alienating. I’m never going to be that person. I suspect that I would not enjoy picking out books simply to reach a quota, nor keeping a close account of how quickly I read, in order to work out how many I still have to go, and how long I should optimally spend on each book… that’s a rabbit hole I could fall down with ease, and equally, one that I know would rake my brain over the coals of intractable psychological damage.
Now I’ve found a new personal incompatibility with the reading challenge: I struggle to not finish a book, to the point of procrastination. I wrote about this last month when I gave up on Malibu Rising, and how I struggled to make that call, even though I found the book to be egregiously uninspiring. April brought an even bigger challenge: I knew, in my heart, that I had to give up on a book that I was enjoying. How is that even possible? I feel as though I’ve unlocked a new emotion, one I’d certainly never experienced before. The book was These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever. The writing is gorgeous. The narrative is compelling, if a little pastiche-y. There are Jews! (A drawcard for me with any book.) But my god, it was overwhelming. Just so consistently heavy, emotionally speaking: I had to take a breather after each chapter — and the chapters are short — because my chest hurt. I could barely read more than a chapter or two a day. And yet, I persevered for more days than I’d care to admit, because of this imagined obligation to finish a book.
Here’s one thing the reading challenge people have right: if you’re not enjoying something, put that bad boy to one side and mark it “DNF.” It’s easier to get your numbers up if you spend less time on each book overall. But for the structure-averse of us, or those who avoid rigidity because it’s too easy a trap to fall into (me), it’s simply that life is short. We shouldn’t waste it on books we aren’t enjoying. I’ll probably come back to These Violent Delights when I’m in the right mindset for bludgeoning myself with tragedy. Look, it happens. Everyone needs catharsis now and again. For now, though, I’m pressing on with something new. And hopefully, once I finish it, yours truly the completionist will get better at picking books I actually want to complete.
If you’re only going to see one film in a month, you want it to be a good one. Thankfully, the one film I saw this month was Everything Everywhere All At Once, which is not only good, but possibly one of the best films I will ever see. If this seems like a grand proclamation, consider again the difference between “best” and “most enjoyable.” No doubt there is much more fun to be had in the cinema, and I won’t close myself off to possibility. But, in many ways, the art form peaks with Everything Everywhere All At Once, a film which stretches the limits of the medium and tells a story that can only be told in film, which calls back to multiple cinematic genres while bridging multiple universes and having actors play multiple versions of themselves.
I’m not in the business of delivering plot summaries, but it’s hard to talk about this film without explaining it at least a little. The problem lies in the fact that the title is descriptive: there’s so much going on in this film that to talk about some of it, you almost need to talk about all of it. This extreme interconnectedness is both this film’s major triumph and just another facet of it. Ultimately, Everything Everywhere All At Once is so sweeping and ambitious and all-encompassing that it becomes explicitly about the mundane. About embracing the small joys in life. Just — being.
The philosophy behind this is absurdism, which also happens to be my personal philosophy of choice. The Absurd is a reminder that life is meaningless; and, knowing this, we create our own meaning. It was both surprising and refreshing to see this philosophy rendered so plainly on the screen: other people have spoken more eloquently than I can about when telling is more powerful than showing, so I will only say that this is an exemplary use of unsubtlety. It was refreshing to see a piece of art that aims to convince but not manipulate; to state its beliefs as plainly as revealing a narrative truth.
Fittingly, this also happens to be the first film I have ever gone to a cinema to see see on my own. I’m sure this sounds insane to most people, but I wasn’t a huge movie person until the plague began, so it would never really have occurred to me. I went to see this one alone because my friend Ben pestered me until I bought a ticket. He said I needed to see it, and he was right. I would go as far as to say I needed to see it in the circumstances that I did: tangibly aware of my own oneness in a new and electrifying way. I sat alone in a crowd with a pre-plague feeling to it, shifting seat by seat from the one I booked because tall people kept sitting in front of me. Those are the sorts of small decisions that are supposed to cause a branching new universe, if you believe in multiverse theory. Which I don’t. But I do have a newfound faith in it as an extraordinary vehicle for storytelling, and for perfectly conveying the concept of the Absurd.
To finish this month’s newsletter, a new section. I’ve been trying to write about music for years now. It’s one of those things where I start a review, find that I absolutely hate what I’ve written, and give up on it for the next sixth months — usually that’s how long it takes me to forget that I’m bad at music writing. But I think the trick is not so much inherent skill, but an element of recency. In the past, I’ve only written about the beloved and familiar. Songs and albums that have been with me for so long that I no longer have anything interesting to say about them: they’re just part of my fabric. The difference, this time, is that I’m writing about new music. And I think it’s working.
Because I value my sanity, I saved the new albums by Orville Peck and Father John Misty for when I wasn’t trying to concentrate on anything else and could give the music my full attention — or at least preempt the way I knew these albums would inevitably derail my day. But because I don’t value my sanity that much, I listened to them both on the same day. In many ways, the albums are a perfect pair: both are heavy with heartbreak; both have tracks that make me want to dance alongside tracks that make me want to lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling. Both are very, very good.
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that Orville Peck single-handedly got me into country music. As a recovering pretentious indie kid, I went through the requisite phase where it was cool to say I hated country music — a fad opinion influenced as much by the classism of the indie scene as by ignorance. The fact is, I was raised on the folk music of my parents’ youth that’s only a hop, skip, and a jump away from country and its roots. And many of the songs I’ve always loved — from “Island of Dreams” to “This Kiss” — are country. I got over my bad attitude many years ago, but it was Peck’s music that really made me want to listen to more country, to understand the sound that influenced him. (A few wonderful friends with playlists full of recommendations helped, too.)
Bronco, the new album, feels like a love letter to country music as much as it’s a farewell to love. Not just in the sound, but in the lyrical content too. Many of the stories told in Bronco are about, or otherwise deeply connected to, specific places. Much country music is tethered to the land, and by extension the idea of home — Bronco is a parade of hometowns, of places with links to lost love. Places that are personified, like in “Hexie Mountains” and “Daytona Sand” — and “Lafayette,” though I still can’t say for sure if that one is about a person or a place. Maybe that’s the point. That’s why, to me, Bronco’s view of heartbreak is ultimately an optimistic one: every memory carries forward momentum, vitality and meaning, even if it has and will continue to hurt. I don’t know enough about country music to say for certain that this is also part of the genre’s fabric, but I’m excited to find out.
Father John Misty, on the other hand, is not afraid of wallowing in his misery. Chloë and the Next 20th Century is, lyrically, just as preoccupied with the little apocalypses of everyday life as Misty’s previous offerings. The apex of this comes in “Kiss Me (I Loved You)”, which is my personal standout track (and one where the past tense does a lot of heavy lifting.) The lyrics directly contrast breaking up with death in a line calling all the way back to Greek mythology: “the ferryman’s been stranded / stay with me tonight instead.” It gives me the chills every time. It’s the music that really gets under my skin though, Misty’s plaintive vocals over a melody so tragic it becomes a dirge.
The sound of this record is the real departure from form for Misty. It’s a sound influenced by the crooners of the 20th century, one that could be crudely branded adult contemporary, or even schlocky. But the masterstroke of Chloë and the Next 20th Century is that Misty explores the genre and pushes it beyond its logical conclusion, uses the form to such an extent that the album itself becomes a concept, a commentary on an entire genre. In the final track, “The Next 20th Century,” he sings: “I’ll take the love songs / if this century’s here to stay.” The song is extraordinary, steeped in the lyricism and auditory landscape of Leonard Cohen, and like nothing else on the album. This tinge of acceptance at the very end ties the concept together, but doesn’t typify it. Misty’s commentary is not glowing and familiar, the way Peck’s music is in its dialogue with country. It’s unforgiving; at times even mocking. For me, that’s always been the joy of Father John Misty. He hates everything. Even the music he makes. And I love him for it.
My final album for April couldn’t be more different to the other two. Wet Leg’s eponymous debut is upbeat and fun, and there is nothing particularly deep to be written about it. That said, I’m going to do it anyway. Wet Leg, the album, had me moving from the very first note. I was having a bad day until I put it on, and it was almost cartoonish the way I suddenly felt like the sun was shining through parted clouds. The opening track, “Being In Love,” remains my favourite on the album, even with standouts like “Wet Dream.” And you might notice a theme already — all the titles are about feelings, dating, youthful folly. Some of the more Gen Z lyrical content is a little alienating for this hag, but the sound has a timeless quality to it.
Of course, if you’re online enough, you might also have noticed a thorn in Wet Leg’s side: they’ve been accused of being an industry plant. While the accusations aren’t exactly baseless — the band became Spotify streaming royalty basically overnight — it does make me think about what exactly people mean by levelling that against a band. When pop music is plainly manufactured, such as groups that formed on shows like The X-Factor or singers from The Voice, we recognise them as popularity juggernauts, even though the involvement of the industry is just as rooted in the band’s success. Hiding the extent of that manufactured success is a bigger crime in the public’s eye. I don’t have a definitive statement to make here — I think there’s certainly critique to be had of an industry that papers over its foundational mechanics. Less because of the duplicity itself, but because of what that duplicity covers up, how it obfuscates abuse and nepotism.
On a case-by-case basis, though, there is no ethical consumption on Spotify, and I’m all in on Wet Leg. If their sound and genre remind me of anything, it’s the music I listened to back in ‘08 and ‘09: British pop that nodded at Britpop, post-punk, jangle pop, and whatever other genres were required to make it charming. I remember reading an article in NME on the phenomenon, referring to it as “landfill indie.” That stung — a lot of the groups listed were ones I loved. But the descriptor has stayed with me, and over time I’ve developed a real fondness for the term. Wet Leg, like the bands I loved as a teen, make generic indie pop that draws on the landfill: skimming shallowly for hints of genre like their music is mineral water, less cloying when flavoured minimally. But I love that stuff — everyone needs music to turn off their mind, and this is mine. I hope to god it’s finally coming back in fashion.