Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Aging, Reversed

Aging, Reversed
Jim Stuntz

Begin old. Grow young.
Have your wrinkles at the start.
Manifest smooth skin without effort,
as if acquiring a tan.
Discover dimples, but begin old.
Drift out of watching and remembering
as you fall into firsts.
Find when and how nostalgia took the past;
move beyond it and before it.
Stand up suddenly
for the first time. It will be normal.
Grow young.
Leave your large car behind,
break your glasses, miss your nap.
Let your head grow heavy and dark with hair,
feel it without surprise.
You will not wish you could look back.
Your prodigal teeth return;
they cement as you suck them in.
(Chunks of silver fly from your mouth,
caught by a masked, gloved man.)
As for loved ones, grave-side tears
call the long-lost from the ground.
They walk beside you, found.
One day you introduce yourself and they are gone;
all partings are painless
as you grow young.
Release routine; you will not miss it.
Likewise leave behind companion love,
the worn furnishings of marriage,
slide your quickening way toward lust. 
In the mechanics of sex you find
forgotten pleasures turn familiar, turn exotic,
turn to burning gasping brilliance,
turn to groping, bumping:
a machine you suddenly find you cannot operate.
Now lose your virginity for the first time,
again. Grow younger.
Then put on ravaging excitement,
a thousand hopes that feel like home. 
Put a hand to your cheek:
feel it soften and swell
the way a fallen peach, thrown by the earth 
back into its tree, would reattach,
hydrate, surge to its rejuvenated form.
Now shrink, compact, shift,
sink out of thought
into the waters of this first heaven
that knows your shape alone
and welcomes by surrounding.
Wrap yourself up in loose placental ribbon
and as it grows dark, fear nothing.
You end as you began:
fathomless, wet, ready.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

A Eulogy for Our Jim

I met Our Jim at karaoke a little over a decade ago. I’d just come back from two weeks of training in Chicago for my first adult job. My friend Lonnie introduced us. I shook Our Jim’s hand and mentioned my recent career development. He asked what exactly I do and I launched into a convoluted explanation of technology consulting, one that I probably didn’t fully grasp myself. After listening for a couple minutes, he raised a finger and stopped me mid-sentence. With an arched eyebrow, he said, “This isn’t a job interview, you know.” 

When the mild shock of his interruption wore off, I turned and walked away without a word. 

He found me in the crowd a little bit later and apologized for being rude. I confessed that it was a good jibe. So, we began talking. Two things struck me instantly. First, his ridiculous good looks. Piercing blue eyes. Angular facial features. That killer smile. A swimmer’s frame. Second, and more importantly, his astonishing intellect. He spoke in complete, seemingly pre-written sentences. He recalled, verbatim, lines of dialogue from films he’d only seen once, many years earlier. He casually lobbed his signature, barbed wit in my direction and I struggled to keep up. 

As the night wore on, I probed, asking about his interests, and discovered that our cultural loves overlapped. He too revered the Coen brothers, R.E.M., Bob Dylan, and the TV show Lost, just to name a few. It was a back-and-forth whirlwind of passions we shared fiercely. When the conversation turned to books, I mentioned wanting to read the latest novel by Denis Johnson. “Hold on,” he said. Our Jim then opened his bag and handed me a copy of Tree of Smoke, that very novel, which he’d, naturally, just finished. “It’s yours,” he said.

Hours later, the lights came on and we were kicked out. Standing with him on the sidewalk, I reeled from the encounter. “OK, it was nice meeting you,” he said offhandedly after we traded phone numbers. He turned to walk away. “Wait, is that it?” I asked with noticeable irritation. Then I pulled him in for our first kiss. 

It wasn’t it, of course. It wasn’t it in the near term: He called me a few minutes later to keep talking as we walked to our respective homes, a conversation that lasted two more hours. And it certainly wasn’t it in the long term. Our Jim quickly became my first love and dearest friend, with all the ups and downs such a love brings, a love that didn’t end when he passed like sand through our fingers last week. Such a love never truly passes away.

Our Jim had a tough life. Despite his wealth of brains, kindness, and verve, he got the short end of the physiological stick. His body betrayed him. Severe migraines dominated his twenties, denying him of many possible careers for which he was a natural. He could’ve been a superlative English teacher, with his love of kids and a fierce passion for literature. He could’ve been a whip-smart medical professional, one who schools a doctor with the results of an obscure scientific study. He was a talented writer, as his recent blog showed, and could’ve turned his personal experiences into a brilliant memoir. His brain, that extraordinary machine, hindered him further in life. Depression, what Winston Churchill once called “the Black Dog,” always nipped at his heels.

But Our Jim was a sprinter, outrunning that Black Dog until the end. He always sought to live and flourish. He researched therapeutic options with the diligence of an A-plus student and the persistence of a Fury. No matter how hard those treatments were on his body and mind, with his family’s help, he made them happen. A tragic accident took Our Jim from us. But before that, he was back on his feet, on the road to recovery. He’d been a full-time dog walker for the last few months. He adored those creatures and, in typical fashion, often left his clients quirky notes and bags of his homemade cookies. Unsurprisingly, Our Jim’s clients loved him. 

Really, who couldn’t but?

I’m angry that Our Jim is gone. I’m angry that he’ll never see the new Incredibles movie with me. I’m angry that he’ll never know how Game of Thrones ends. I’m angry that he never had the chance to read Denis Johnson’s final short-story collection. These are just a few things he was looking forward to recently, small examples in the grand cosmic scheme, but the particulars of everyday life that have been taken away from him. 

He, likewise, has been taken away from us. From Dave and Ann. From Rebekah and Josh. From Mark and Sabrina. From his beloved nephew Dean and niece Riley. From the extended family and close friends who are here to celebrate this amazing man. And I add, to be selfish, from me. I’m angry that Our Jim is gone, because the hole in our collective hearts is shaped the same.

Early in our relationship, Our Jim wanted to bring me here, to this beautiful lake house, where we all now stand and he’ll forever rest. It was his favorite place. I don’t know why I hesitated for as long as I did. Dumb. We eventually visited often with our dog Chloe. I became an immediate convert. If life had turned out differently, the two of us would’ve arrived here this very afternoon, pooch in tow. We planned on one last, weeklong hurrah at Lake Norman before the house is sold. Our Jim is here, and so am I, but not with Chloe. Instead we’re surrounded by family and friends for an unexpected reason.

From the start, Our Jim recounted how much he cherished Lake Norman. His pitch was perfect, and convincing: He told me, “At night I like to float in the lake, with a vodka tonic, looking at the stars.” This is how I’ll always remember him. Here, in these calm waters, atop an inner tube, drink in hand, peering upward, serene, at peace, and pondering the universe above.

Our Jim was a softy, but he was also a cynic. He never knew how much he was beloved. This great gathering in his honor, to him, would’ve seemed inconceivable. I can hear My Jim now, paraphrasing The Princess Bride: “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” 

Jimbo, this time you’d be wrong. “Inconceivable” means “not capable of being imagined or grasped mentally; unbelievable.” Love is all around you right now. I hope you can see that, wherever you are. 

Rest in peace, baby.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Review: Tennis *Cape Dory*

[Originally written for Pretty Much Amazing.]

Cape Dory arrives amidst the most brilliant bit of self-marketing by a new band since a pair of “siblings” named Jack and Meg White emerged from Detroit wearing red, white, and black. The story behind the band’s genesis, which you probably already know (Tennis is your new favorite band, right?), is so novel that its veracity is beside the point. It goes something like this: Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore, a now-married couple from Denver, scrounged for six years, bought a sailboat (the titular Cape Dory), and escaped their landlocked lives for adventure on the Atlantic. Early into the couple’s trip along the Eastern Seaboard, they discovered they had both played music in the past and had a passion to do it again. One night in a Florida Keys bar, while a Shirelles song played overhead, they decided to give songwriting a shot. After their trip was cut short (and after they were wedded on the deck of the Cape Dory), Riley and Moore returned to their old lives and wrote songs about their seven-month journey. Those songs became the musical travelogue known as Cape Dory. Tennis was born.

The story, which has gained the band instant indie interest, threatens to overshadow the music itself. The Myth of Tennis would be nothing more than cheap fodder for music journalists if Cape Dory weren’t so stunning. This is music that shimmers, sparkles, and swoons. Cape Dory is packed from stern to bow with lovely melodies, often delivered in the form of “oooohs,” “aaaaaaahs,” and “sha-na-nas.” Thin verses, driven by simple guitar hooks, give way to woozy, exuberant choruses. Toward the end of “Long Boat Pass,” arguably the album’s finest track, Moore sings with such joy and longing at once that I catch my breath every time I hear it. No origin story, however charming, can touch a moment like that.

Some early write-ups of the band have compared Tennis to Surfer Blood and Best Coast. Notwithstanding a mutual interest in beach imagery, Cape Dory’s slinky economy more closely recalls an album like Is This It than the reverb-heavy dullness of Crazy for You, or the enthusiastic, multi-tracked wackiness of Astro Coast. Riley and Moore are obviously inspired by the girl group sound, but their music is more of an extension of Blondie’s forays into the genre than, say, a slavish rehash of the Shangri-Las.

Though every song on the album references some part of the couple’s journey, either specifically (“South Carolina,” “Bimini Bay,” “Marathon,” and “Baltimore”) or indirectly (“Seafarer,” Waterbirds,” and “Take Me Somewhere”), these references are merely a means to an end. Cape Dory isn’t a maritime concept record, but an album of love songs as earnest and pure and innocent in sentiment as anything in Celine Dion’s oeuvre, songs that exist in the same universe a saucer-eyed Ronnie Spector sang about in “Be My Baby.” Cape Dory’s ten songs are devoid of any hint of edge or irony. We’re talking devotion, served straight up and often in the second person. Needless to say, many will find all of this a little too precious, saccharine even.

To be sure, Cape Dory is not a perfect record. It’s somewhat slight, not just in length, but in sophistication. A few songs anonymously blend into the next. The production can be muddy at times. But if Cape Dory doesn’t live up to the overblown hype that has built up around Tennis in the last six months, the problem isn’t Tennis, or Cape Dory, but the expectations surrounding both. Taken for what it is – a terrific collection of breezy pop and slow dance doo-wop – Cape Dory is undoubtedly a success.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Review: Robyn *Body Talk*

[Originally written for Pretty Much Amazing.]

No genre of music, not even pop, is more associated with frivolity than dance music. Dance artists are often seen as anonymous and their output disposable. Their purview, the club, is a hedonistic temple of drinking, drugs, and (ultimately) sex. Yet nothing damns the genre more than the fact that its purpose is first and foremost utilitarian – to move the human body.

Robyn Carlsson’s brand of dance music is not an exception that proves the rule, but a one-woman validation of the genre, of how great it can be (and sometimes is) when treated seriously. Her music demands that you dance, but also think, to feel the beat and your emotions, too. Robyn’s integrity, mastery, and playfulness make her devoid of any need for qualification. She doesn't make great dance music: she makes great music.

Her latest album, Body Talk, is the culmination of an almost year-long project. Eager to get her new material out to her starving fans (it has been five years since her last album, Robyn) she released two short albums, Body Talk Pt 1 and Pt 2, soon after they were recorded. Body Talk Pt 3, which will be released concurrently with the full-length Body Talk in many regions (including North America), completes the series with five new tracks. Body Talk, on the other hand, is a 15-track summation of this flurry of material. It features five songs off each of the three short Body Talk albums, resequenced into a new whole. It’s one-stop shopping for those sorry souls who have not yet gotten on board, as well as the official record of the Body Talk project.

There are two questions a review of Body Talk must answer: how good is the new material, and how well do all these songs fit together? The answer to the first question is – they are as consistently terrific as Pt 1’s first half, the high-point thus far. “Indestructible” get’s the full electro treatment, and while I prefer the acoustic version off of Pt 2, the song remains a gem. Its instrumentation cleverly augments the lyric. Robyn’s vocal melody is swallowed by the mix, while tracks and tracks of synths envelop her like a sonic armor. Indestructible, indeed. The sunny pop of “Call Your Girlfriend” hides a darker lyric. Robyn offers a new lover advice for how to ditch his girlfriend: “You tell her that the only way her heart will mend is when she learns to love again. And it won’t make sense right now but you’re still her friend. And then you let her down easy.” Even when she’s a homewrecker, Robyn has a heart of gold. On the delirious Max Martin produced “Time Machine,” she fires up the flux capacitor and speeds back in time at 88 mph to rectify her bad behavior. The best of the five is “Get Myself Together,” with a melody that rivals the album’s first two singles, “Dancing On My Own” and “Hang With Me.”

So how do these songs fit together? Surprisingly well, considering the somewhat disparate sound of each Body Talk album. Most of these tracks are anthemic, sing-a-long dance pop, with some more beat-oriented tunes thrown in for variety. However, none of the ballads from Pt 1 or 2 have made the cut, which means the album never gives you a breather. Body Talk has one major flaw: where the hell is “Cry When You Get Older?” The song is so far superior to most of the others that its exclusion is baffling. I also have some minor gripes about the sequencing of the album. “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do” sounds odd as anything other than an opening track, as it was on Pt 1. On Body Talk, it comes after the early high of “Fembot,” and ends up slowing the otherwise breathless onward rush of its first eight tracks. Also, the album sags about three-quarters of the way in, with its two weakest songs, “None of Dem” and “We Dance to the Beat,” placed back-to-back.

Still, Body Talk is an embarrassment of riches. I prefer listening to the short albums, especially for “Cry When You Get Older” and the ballads. But no matter how you consume it, Body Talk matches Robyn's brilliance, and further shows that no one puts music to a beat as marvelously as Robyn Carlsson.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Review: Rihanna *LOUD*

[Originally written for Pretty Much Amazing.]

What hath Madonna wrought? Over 25 years after her iconic VMA performance of “Like a Virgin,” we’ve finally reached the climax of the oversexed pop starlet. You can’t swing a bottle of Jack without hitting a female recording artist whose primary goal is to get laid. Even Rihanna, the Barbadian pop dynamo, got in on the act. On her last two albums, Good Girl Gone Bad and Rated R, she transformed from girl next door into an expletive-dropping nympho vixen. The often tuneful Rated R, with its guitar-laden mid-tempo jams, tried too hard to add menace and edge to Rihanna’s sound and persona. It was right there on its cover, Rihanna made up like the fifth member of the Misfits from the Jem cartoon, hand over eye and pissed off beyond belief.

What a difference a year makes. Yeah, Rihanna is still exploding f-bombs and purring about wanting to see you just in your skin, but she’s also relaxed a bit. LOUD, her competent fifth LP, is a halfway return to form. Take the album’s opening track “S&M,” an overt rebound back to the forward thrust of singles like “Don’t Stop the Music” and “SOS.” Even with its silly, shopworn lyrics (“I may be bad, but I’m perfectly good at it”), “S&M” is a fizzy joy. (A note to pop hitmakers: sadomasochism may have been titillating when Lou Reed sang about shiny boots of leather back in 1967, but today it’s about as tame as a stolen kiss.) In fact, “S&M” represents LOUD’s central flaw: moments of greatness are marred by egregious errors, and these songs vacillate between the two depending on your mood and generosity.

LOUD is best when Rihanna takes pop to less-travelled realms, particularly when her island influences show. “Man Down,” a reggae-infused mea culpa, is the album’s highlight. Rihanna pulls out a gun and shoots a man down with a wonderful “rum pap pap pum,” killing us softly with an effortless roll of the tongue. It’s a rare instance of enunciation elevated to art. “Cheers (Drink To That),” a celebration of imbibing complete with a (surprisingly killer) Avril Lavigne sample, wins this year’s award for Song Least Likely to Be Heard at an A.A. Mixer. The sequel to Eminem’s megahit “Love the Way You Lie” focuses on Rihanna’s portion and is all the better for it, giving up the goods straight-up and unadulterated.

If only the rest of LOUD were so assured. “What’s My Name” features a terrific hook in its verse, but is hindered by the inclusion of sad-sack rapper Drake (“the square root of 69 is eight something”). The generic Top 40 R&B tracks “Skin” and “Fading” are adequate filler, but filler nonetheless. “California King Bed” manages to best Liz Phair’s “My Favorite Underwear” with a central metaphor so bizarre that you almost forget its overblown melodic schmaltz. Almost.

It’s only been three years since Rihanna released the incredible pop anthem “Umbrella,” but the artistic distance between then and now seems vast. Though nothing on LOUD approaches that particular triumph, Rihanna still delivers some modest highs. To quote one of the album’s better tracks: I’ll drink to that.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Review: Taylor Swift *Speak Now*

[Originally written for Pretty Much Amazing.]

The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. It was only a few days ago when I first discovered mine. I found myself bewildered, ashamed, and more than a bit unsettled. This kind of thing happens to regular people. Philistines, actually. I, however, am sophisticated, erudite, a Man of Good Taste. But, denial is futile. (As is resistance, it turns out.) So, in the spirit of the truth setting me free, I’ll say it: I love the new Taylor Swift album.

I’m being facetious, of course. Not about my high admiration for Speak Nowthat’s very real – but about the implied notion that there should be at least a dash of shame added to the enjoyment of twangy pop songs about boys whose names end with the letter “Y.” If you need the modifier “indie” slathered over the word “pop” to make it palatable, stop reading now. If layers of irony, distortion, and/or electronic beats are required to swallow a catchy melody, this review, and this album, is not for you. The rest of us will be perfectly happy to feast on Speak Now’s bounty of pleasures without you.

In 2006, while her 16-year-old peers were spending their free time trying to get laid, high, or, at the very least, a perfect GPA, Taylor Swift was busy crafting a brilliant country-pop tune called “Tim McGraw.” Using the eponymous country star as a totem for nostalgia was a masterstoke, a winking, postmodern novelty that instantly distinguished Swift from the chaff regularly spat out by the mechanized Harvester of Pop also known as Nashville. The rest of Swift’s self-titled debut had a few songs that matched “Tim McGraw” – the banjo-driven, middle-finger flip of “Picture to Burn,” the searing “Should’ve Said No,” and the spirited hillbilly anthem “Our Song” – but as a whole, it was more endearing than it was accomplished. On her excellent 2008 follow-up, Fearless, Swift delivered a record-shattering pop behemoth, albeit one with a country accent. It redefined her as a precocious geek, an outsider hero looking in. “You Belong With Me” exemplified Swift’s new persona, and its accompanying video earned her the award that prompted Kanye West’s ridiculously ballyhooed VMA stunt. (Which is nonsensically “addressed” in the otherwise great Speak Now track “Innocent.”)

Too much has been written about Speak Now’s supposed tell-all confessions, particularly the details of Swift’s failed celebrity relationships. Though her record company, Big Machine, is mostly to blame, the music media haven’t exactly turned away from such an obvious marketing ploy. Sensationalism will sell records, but it distracts from the fact that Speak Now is, song for song, Swift’s strongest album. What difference does it make if “Dear John” is about John Mayer or some fictional John Doe? Or that “Back to December” may or may not be about that Teen Wolf who shares a first name with Swift? I know, Speak Now is just a pop album, which means it will get more attention from US Weekly than it will from Pitchfork, but Swift deserves better.

Speak Now is a career-defining album. It not only lacks a dud, but it also reminds you that a radio hit can be held to a higher standard and still exceed expectations. The album’s first single and opening track, “Mine,” firmly plants Swift in the fertile ground between Shania Twain and Kelly Clarkson, though closer to the latter. Swift’s marriage of pop and rock, with just a bit of country, is effortless and thrilling. Lean verses lead to explosive and exuberant choruses, with one impeccably crafted melody following another. “Sparks Fly” may be your absolute favorite song right now, but “Mean” or “Better Than Revenge” will surely replace it in a couple of days.

The album suffers from a couple of flaws common to most pop albums. It’s exactly two tracks too long: “Enchanted” and “Last Kiss,” fine songs both, slow down the pace of the record. The far-superior acoustic versions of “Back to December” and “Haunted,” found on the deluxe edition of the album, underscore the fact that most of these songs are heavy with too many tracks of instrumentation. Still, griping about a pop album’s overproduction is like complaining that rap music is too misogynistic or that experimental music is too weird. Well, duh.

Speak Now was solely written by Taylor Swift, which seems completely insane. The impressive popcraft of these fourteen songs could have been created by a small army of career songwriters. Well done, Ms. Swift. Speak Now is a well-earned tiara atop of Taylor Swift’s blonde tresses, an album that deserves to sell zillions of records. As it no doubt will.