Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Review of 2020: Part 2 – Films

This is the most excited I’ve felt about cinema in a long while. Not in terms of new releases – though I fell wildly in love with the films of Céline Sciamma – but just my new areas of exploration. I mentioned last year that sometimes it can feel like you’ve seen all the good films. But in 2020 I stayed up late watching Indian melodrama, discovered that war films aren’t all cardboard jingoism, and became briefly preoccupied with ‘70s schlock, as well as excavating new nooks and crannies in my true home – Golden Age Hollywood.

At heart, I am just a shameful sentimentalist, and wherever they originate, my favourite films are always those that make me feel. You’ll find the list of best ‘discoveries’ (movies I saw for the first time this year) slanted severely in that direction. I’m going to pick out 20 of those, chat about a handful of cinematic obsessions that dominated 2020 for me, and then share a few snippets of the best film writing I’ve done this year.

DISCOVERIES

1. Broadcast News (James L. Brooks, 1987)

I’ll just be thinking about Holly Hunter’s performance for the foreseeable. It’s the best I’ve seen in years. Words hit her with physical force, and she reminds me of nothing so much as ‘50s Brando, in that every choice she makes is unexpected and inspired, and every scene she plays is underscored by something odd and intriguing. With Brando, that often meant plastering tough-guy theatrics over a soft, wounded femininity; Hunter is sweetness slapped on top of rage and sadness. In her performance are at least 20 of those small moments that, each on their own, would be worth seeing a film for. Full review.

2. Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2015)
One of the loveliest films I’ve ever seen, an intensely moving and yet spare, understated movie on Kore-eda’s favourite theme of surrogate families (or perhaps, in this case, just families. It's a movie about many things: family, heritage, unexpected human connections, what we bequeath to our children, what we leave behind for our future selves and for others – plum wine or emotional wreckage – and our capacity to appreciate beauty. The blocking in the final scene is a tender ballet that traces these characters’ personas, their relationships and their unbreakable solidarity. Full review.

3. Céline Sciamma films (2011-19)

Sciamma has alighted on an essential truth in her work, which is that we should stop putting men in films. Her five features (if we include My Life as a Courgette, which she wrote), form the Sciamma Cinematic Universe – a place of cruelty, longing and occasional catharsis, of gender fluidity, of blessed tactility. Each of the films is marked by her vast capacity for compassionate non-judgement, and shot in a way that mirrors her material. My favourite, Tomboy, is almost scrappy at times; Girlhood oscillates between stylisation and social realism; Portrait of a Lady on Fire is touched with an elegant grace headily infused with flaming eroticism. I find her films both profoundly painful and utterly beguiling. Reviews.

4. Little Women (Greta Gerwig, 2019)
This has passages about as good as anything I’ve ever seen on screen, with Ronan a mesmerising, indelible and definitive Jo. It isn't a perfect film, but – beneath Desplat's overly conventional score, away from those performances that dwell in the shadow of past triumphs, those early lines uttered unnaturally to oneself – there are passages of extraordinary intelligence, sincerity and sensitivity that happily confirm Gerwig-Ronan as the most exciting actor-director partnership in aeons. I just kept crying. Full review (which also discusses the 1933, ’49 and ’94 versions).

5. After Life (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 1998)

Kore-eda’s answer to A Matter of Life and Death: the Technicolor fantasy of life (or at least reminiscence), the drab bureaucracy of death, as the newly deceased spend a week at a residential centre, deciding which memory to take with them for the rest of time. Their counsellors, meanwhile, have secrets and torments of their own. This contemporary masterpiece has more to say – quietly, painfully, sometimes obliquely – about life’s compromises, disappointments and beauties than almost any other film I’ve seen. I haven’t been this broken by a man sitting on a bench since Ikiru.

6. Blue Collar (Paul Schrader, 1978)
A breathtaking film about class and race, so entertaining that you scarcely realise what it’s up to. Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto are blue collar workers in a Detroit car factory who decide to steal from their corrupt union. In other hands, that could mean a conventional heist film or a reactionary polemic, but for Schrader it’s some wild fusion of laugh-out-loud comedy, counter-intuitive politics and rich character drama, like The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists filtered through the ‘70s malaise. Full review.

7. Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata, 1991)

An exquisitely beautiful Ghibli film about memory, which both understands that you can be impossibly nostalgic for your childhood whilst in your 20s, and that what we remember isn’t what is obviously significant – but it is significant. It's full of the most beguiling small moments. Like a little league baseball player standing on a quiet street in the sunset, a moment that threatens not to end. Full review.

8. A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (Marielle Heller, 2019)
Matthew Rhys is a hardbitten feature writer, fucking up his life one malicious long read at a time. Then he’s sent to profile beloved children’s TV personality, Mr Rogers (Tom Hanks). The cover plug for the eventual feature is “Mr Rogers – Especially Now”, and that’s how I feel about this film. It’s so deftly done, toying meta-ly with the iconography of the milieu in a way that reminded me of Life on Mars, expertly using Rhys as a surrogate for its audience’s own cynicism, and drawing from Hanks a performance of multi-layered complexity that somehow plays out entirely on the surface. Full review.

9. A Girl in Every Port (Howard Hawks, 1928)

A wonderful Hawks comedy about sailors (and shaggers) Victor McLaglen and Robert Armstrong who have, well, a girl in every port. The opening scene promises so little, but then the film catches light: it’s so charming and disarmingly funny, balanced by moments of romance and rich emotion. That sequence in the apartment block – where McLaglen and Armstrong go in search of dates, then discover their latent compassion – may be the most tender and lovely thing in the whole Hawks canon. Then just when you think the film can’t get any better, Louise Brooks turns up and takes over. Full review here, and there’s more about both Hawks and Brooks in the Obsessions section below.

10. Deadline at Dawn (Harold Clurman, 1946)
There’s a purposefully offbeat scene in this brilliant humanist noir from the typewriter of Clifford Odets, in which a sailor trying to solve a murder sees a nervy man dash from a building next to the crime scene. He tails the man… right to the door of a vet’s, where the suspect breaks down in tears. It’s closed, and he was too late anyway. His cat is dead. There are other stories, you see. And this film intersects with those. In the irritating vernacular of 2020, it is “noir adjacent”. The cat vignette seems the sort of thing that would happen during the night, in the New York of noir, but usually it happens just around the corner. And this film is just around the corner from noir. Full review.

11. The Secret of Convict Lake (Michael Gordon, 1951)

Most films that have a secret have just that – one secret – and so we sit around amiably waiting for it to be revealed. But almost everyone in The Secret of Convict Lake is covering something up: at least four of the characters are powder kegs just waiting to go off, and you have no idea where the explosion is coming from. Full review.

12. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, 2016)
An intoxicating, strange, erotic Korean lesbian period-drama heist-romance, though it cares as much about genre as I care about horror films. I’ve tried to distil its essence – The Favourite if it was sincere, shot through with genius and spliced with The Sting; a warmer, feminist Rashômon shot like A Very Long Engagement, Lubitsch’s early role-play films with the songs and Maurice Chevalier replaced by sapphic love, East Asian geopolitics and graphic prose about vaginas – but it’s not really like those films, or indeed like any other films at all. It’s sad eyes and wet mouths, love that feels like betrayal, betrayal that feels like love. It’s imperialism’s dominance glimpsed through misogny’s dominance. It’s bodies so entwined they lose all parameters, all meaning. It’s twists that accentuate emotion, that find new depths to the characters, that renew, rather than erase.

13. The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg, 2019)

A riveting autobiographical drama about a film school student and her relationship with a darkly fascinating older man. The first half is tight and intriguing, the second open and exhausting, and though the odd line falls flat, for the most part it’s acted, written and filmed with a striking nuance, originality and truth. It feels like a spiritual cousin of Erick Zonca’s The Dreamlife of Angels, sharing that movie’s freshness of vision, its bleak acceptance of destructive relationships, and female characters who are complex and real, but also readable and specific. Not everything is revealed – neither here, nor there – but by the end you have a complete picture of these people, and of the chilly world they inhabit. Full review.

14. The Past (Asghar Farhadi, 2013)
A bleak moral thriller, in Farhadi’s distinctive style, about an Iranian man, Ahmad (Tahar Ramin), returning to France to divorce his wife (Bérénice Bejo), and being drawn into the lives of her boyfriend, his wife, and Bejo’s troubled daughter. It’s long but never feels it, dealing in complex characterisation, purposefully spacing out its revelations – even the premise itself is kept from us for 10 minutes – and wallowing in ambiguity, with shades of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. To the end, it all remains brilliantly unresolved – Ahmad doesn’t even get the climactic speech he asks for, because people want to move on; there is no ‘closure’ beyond the desire to close the book now. Full review.

15. The Bigamist (Ida Lupino, 1953)

This remarkably compassionate and sensitive film belies its opening, its periodic speechifying, and a credit that screams, “… and Edmond O’Brien as The Bigamist”. It has a patsy, a heavy, a good girl and a fatale, but the good girl unwittingly lures the anti-hero into adultery, the fatale is the wife who drags him back from the life he wants, and the heavy is just trying to make up for the time he let something happen to an adopted child. And Robert Towne thought he was being clever with Chinatown. (To be fair, he was.) Full review.

16. Housekeeping (Bill Forsyth, 1987)
A melancholy gem from Bill Forsyth, about two young sisters in an icy, isolated ‘50s town, and their relationship with their non-conformist aunt, who isn’t the free and liberating spirit of cliché, but a loving woman whose eccentricities (and mental illness) become an embarrassment. It’s an astonishingly uncommercial film: sad, quiet and almost devoid of incident, but incredibly well-observed, and even profound. Full review.

17. Battleground (William A. Wellman, 1949)

This film from producer Dore Schary and director William Wellman is miles away from the cardboard stereotypes and plastic heroics of most ‘40s war movies. It had the advantage, of course, of being made four years after the conflict, without the strictures that come with shooting propaganda. But while flagwaving, speeches and gung-ho clichés may have been hard to avoid during World War Two, there was never a reason why those earlier filmmakers had to people their pictures with one-dimensional characters, skimp on atmosphere, or attempt to squeeze the genre into the established mould of a Western. Full review.

18. Dragon Inn (King Hu, 1967)
This was just SO MUCH FUN, a Taiwanese martial arts Rio Bravo with what I can only describe as brilliantly deadpan cartoon ultra-violence. You also get a nice minimalist score, a raft of cool performances, and a neat mix of studio claustrophobia and lovely exterior shots (from sumptuous vistas to the titular inn pockmarked with flaming arrows). It takes 15 minutes to get going (and, in my case, to be able to work out what’s going on), but after that it’s a whole carnival of leaping, slicing people in the belly, and laughing at a man for having no balls – when honestly there are other things you could have a go at him for; the psychopathy, for a start.

19. Quiz Show (Robert Redford, 1994)
This dramatisation of the ‘50s quiz show scandals is conspicuously great on America, anti-semitism, TV, and the pass that comes with privilege. I particularly love the gay cat-and-mouse chemistry between Fiennes – doing a sort of cinematic-shorthand performance – and Rob Morrow, bringing method energy to Dick Goodwin. Full review. The film was based on Dick Goodwin's memoir, Remembering America, reviewed here.

20. Why Be Good? (William A. Seiter, 1929)
A captivating silent rom-com, with Colleen Moore irresistible as a Charleston-ing flapper in love with millionaire’s son, Neil Hamilton. She’s a good girl – but his dad won’t believe it. It’s fun as a snapshot of the time – with slangy dialogue and deceptively interesting mores – and it’s also neatly filmed, but this material could well have felt slight. It has to be carried by Moore’s talent and charm, and both are absolutely off the charts. Her comic timing is perfect, and she’s so appealing when playing it smitten, but it’s those moments of pain that stay with you, played with such subtlety and purity.

***

OBSESSIONS

1. Brian De Palma


De Palma was the first ‘great’ filmmaker I ever identified as someone whose work I couldn’t stand, but with age I have come to appreciate that the inherent stupidity and wildly erratic direction of his work is part of its appeal. It is, in fact, the main part. Sisters (pictured) was my way in: it’s trivial and trashy, even by his standards, but it is very directed, in the best sense of that word. After that, it was crane shots and voyeurism all the way, as I gorged on such debatable fare as Dressed to Kill, Femme Fatale and Passion, as well as the derivative but dazzling Blow Out, in which his warped oeuvre reaches some kind of apogee.

2. Louise Brooks

It took me a while to embrace the cult of Brooks, who wasn't a big star during the silent era and whose reputation rests on just a handful of irregularly-sized roles. It seemed unfair that being absolutely smoking hot, in a conspicuously modern way, made her recognisable to modern audiences in a way that, say, Clara Bow wasn't. But having finally 'got' it, thanks in large part to the evangelising of historian Pamela Hutchinson, a chance encounter with Diary of a Lost Girl and a Damascene conversion at seeing Pandora's Box on the big screen, I've since made up for lost time. This year I watched six, a real mixed bag, from the glory of Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port (see Discoveries, above) to the hopelessly compromised fragmentation of The Canary Murder Case – Brooks was dubbed, and her performance sliced and diced, after refusing to return for retakes – and the abject humiliation of Windy Riles Goes Hollywood. At her best, she has a cold, quicksilver magnetism entirely unique in cinema. And great hair.

3. Howard Hawks

Tough and soppy, the archetypal Hawks film is recognisable from a mile away: a hangout movie in which people are put to the test. I revisited Rio Bravo, Red River (a hangout movie on the move!) and – best of all – the staggering Only Angels Have Wings in 2020, as well as exposing myself to his puzzling ‘60s Nascar variation, Red Line 7000, which is faintly embarrassing but with those effective moments of Hawksian sentiment that always make his work worthwhile. And then there’s Ball of Fire, by far the best of his screwball comedies, with the incomparable Barbara Stanwyck at her absolute zenith.

4. Glenda Farrell

I just really like Glenda Farrell. No-one ever spat rat-a-tat dialogue like she did, and she was a constant companion during Lockdown 1.

5. Zachary Scott

Scott (pictured, right) – a sort of faintly upmarket Lee van Cleef, with the same widow’s peak, overbite and aquiline nose – was a Warner contract player who never quite made it, though endures in the pages of various Hollywood memoirs as the noted antagonist of the studio’s ‘Irish Mafia’ (Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Frank McHugh). Somehow he became the hero of this year’s Socially-Distanced Film Club, in which my friend Andrew and I watch a film together every Saturday night. Our first exposure was via Guilty Bystander, we enjoyed him in The Secret of Convict Lake, then actively sought him out, via The Southerner, Ruthless and The Young One. I’m not sure if he’s actually that good, but like Toby Wing or Donald Meek, it’s always nice to see him.

***

BEST WRITING

For your consideration, a pile of stuff I wrote on film.

1. On Mank, and how Old Hollywood learned to hate itself, for the Independent. Featuring Billy Wilder, Dorothy Parker, Clifford Odets and many more.

2. Malevolence and mansplaining in The Little Foxes, for the Guardian.

3. Bigging up the blistering Pre-Code masterpiece, Blessed Event, in Sight & Sound:



4. Extended thoughts on Elia Kazan’s troubling and inspired Wild River.

5. The Pre-Code era and sex, in They Call It Sin.

6. Showgirls

7. Googie Withers in Pink String and Sealing Wax

8. Ten Cents a Dance (part of Socially-Distanced Film Club; the full list of mini-essays is here)

9. Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil

10. It’s a Wonderful Life and other Christmas behemoths, for the Guardian

***

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, 12 December 2020

Review of 2020: Part 1 – Books

Pre-amble/bragging

If you'd told me at the start of year that I'd hardly leave the house for nine months, barely see a friend during that time, and get to read whenever I wanted, I'd have said, "OK cool, do we start now, or...?"

My attention span actually evaporated for the first two months of lockdown, a period I spent either working obsessively on the Royal Albert Hall's livestream programme (70 sets, including shows from Emilie Nicolas, Lucy Dacus and Richard Thompson) or watching only disposable Glenda Farrell vehicles. But since May I've been reading a lot and also writing a lot, firstly for the Guardian, and then for places like Sight & Sound, NME and the Independent. Freelancing had taken a back seat for a few years as I worked obsessively on fiction, and untangled some mental knots that were getting in the way, so it's been so nice to be read again, to reach a big audience, and to respond almost in real-time to art and politics and the enduring and shifting strangeness of 2020. Thanks so much to everyone who's supported my writing this year. Doing something creative has made me really happy.

Though I also have three full-time jobs – going on Twitter, managing the Albert Hall press office, and managing Derby County on Championship Manager 2000-01 – I've kept up with the reading, which for me is many things: a way to calm my brain, an education an escape. Mine is the kind of brain that likes a goal, and so the goal is always the same: a book a week across the year. And despite it taking me most of the first lockdown to read Dick Goodwin's interminable memoir, Remembering America, we got there in the end. So here's a meander through everything I read in 2020. Regular readers will notice some old favourites, including Penelope Fitzgerald, Robert Caro's biographies of LBJ, and books about football in the 1990s. I told you my brain liked goals.

BOOKS

Fiction

My favourite novel of the year was...



Penelope Fitzgerald is just about my favourite writer nowadays and this small, short, quiet book is just about perfect. Based on her own wilderness years, Offshore (1979) is a ‘tragi-farce’ about outsiders living on barges off Battersea in the ‘60s, caught in the eddies of life, troubled by an undertow of regret or squandered promise. These are characters living between land and water, half one thing and half another: half-respectable, half-free, half-grown, half-content. She is a wonderfully non-judgemental, inquisitive and precise writer, who understands the different ways that people think, and act, and negotiate the world and one another. And she is fantastically funny, whether building a set-piece or resting on a brilliant turn of phrase. Who else would mire you in such intimate tragedy, then end on a comic cliffhanger? This is a book with a latent power, written in perfect sentences – a model of effective economy and restrained beauty – located in a strict time and place, but sending ripples in all directions.

I've never been the best timekeeper, but even by my standards I'm embarrassingly late to the Sarah Perry party. The Essex Serpent (2016) is such a wonderful novel, seeming to promise Gothic horrors but opting for something altogether darker: the pain, compromise and complexity of real life. Amidst mounting atmosphere, its salt on your tongue, the characterisation is impossibly rich. Though Perry is preoccupied primarily with the question of faith vs reason, one thing seeps into the other, her creations working one upon the next, and her characters are not manifestations of viewpoints, but living, breathing, bleeding beings. Her style is like no-one else’s: she tends to use simple words – aside from the specificities of the natural and Victorian worlds – but in juxtapositions as fresh as first frost. Her storytelling is swaggeringly-assured, full of life’s capricious abruptness, but this isn't merely a book of ruptures, it’s one of renewal, dealing with the way we heal, though then are never quite the same as we were before. I found it incredibly moving.



Another huge favourite this year was Eliza Clark's Boy Parts (2020), a fantastically malevolent book blessed with an indelible protagonist: a narrator-fatale whose misanthropy and violence is forever excused on the grounds of her beauty. She is the caustic, unapologetic Irina, a fetish photographer brutally reversing society’s gender power dynamics with the aid of some handcuffs, a wine bottle and a letter opener. It is swaggering and smooth, with incredibly clean and quick writing that immerses you in a world of coke bumps and dubious consent, then pierces the unease with shards of sudden black humour. It's a novel that puts two hands around your throat.

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (2015), meanwhile, is your standard spiky, absurdist prose-poem told from the points of view of a grieving father, two bereaved kids and a foul-mouthed crow. My favourite writing is often that which turns in an instant, shifting suddenly and seamlessly into a different emotional sphere; twisting your mouth all ways, as it slips into comedy, segues into sadness. Vonnegut does it, and George Saunders. Max Porter refines that gift, taking your breath away, and the floor out from under you.



It's a talent that's also in Lucy Prebble's skills wallet, though she does it for the stage. Because we haven't been allowed to go to the theatre since that man ate that bat, I've been going in my head. The Effect is my favourite of Prebble's plays, radiating something suspiciously like genius, but everything she does is great, like her earlier one, ENRON. Few people writing today are able to engender emotion with such sudden intensity, at least in me, and I'm not sure any have her facility for an unforgettable line. Arthur Miller's After the Fall felt like quite a comedown after that: an amazingly self-indulgent torrent of talk, if interesting principally for that reason. And also if you're obsessed with the communist witchhunt of the 1940s and '50s (am I or have I ever been obsessed with it? Yes).

I loved my first exposure to Wodehouse (yes, aged 35!), via The World of Jeeves (1967). You can find reasons to dislike him – his work has no real resonance beyond itself, he (sort of) collaborated with the Nazis, Julian Fellowes likes him – and he truly is to middle-aged Tories what Harry Potter is to millennials (by which I mean: ffs, read another book). But this compendium of mostly early Jeeves stories – airy, stylish, often brilliantly funny – is escapism of the highest order. I took to reading one before bed most evenings, and it just became a lovely thing to look forward to. Every story is basically the same, but then it’s a good story, and one illuminated by varying – and often dazzling – degrees of inspiration. Sample line: “Lay out some raiment suitable for travel, and leave the rest to me. Where is this waterpipe of which you speak so highly?” After that, the first novel in the series felt like a head wound. Thank You, Jeeves (1933) is extremely funny in places, largely due to Wodehouse's unique prose style, but the plot isnt terribly compelling, and Bertie spends the whole second half of the book in fucking blackface.



I will, of course, read anything that Lissa Evans ever cares to write. V for Victory (2020), the third in her Crooked Heart series, opens up the familiar world of her Crooked Heart series in such deft and affecting ways. It is so witty and good-hearted, with characters ennobled by their vulnerabilities. If it doesn’t make you cry, you should have to go to prison. It reminded me a little of London Belongs to Me, telling a wartime story largely through the lives of several residents of the same building. In fact, it’s what I imagined that earlier (and lesser) novel would be: humane, subtle and funny.

Perhaps the flat-out funniest book I read this year was Paul McVeigh's The Good Son (2015), about a smart but soft Belfast kid trying to navigate family life and the world of the Troubles. It's dark and rude, with a tender centre, and a dazzling, outsized comic voice. Though it does sag a little between a sensational opening and a warped fairy story of a finish, its sense of time and place is superb, and I loved the specificity of the central character, who adores his mam and his little sister, wants to live in America, and will never fit in at home – though he tries to, and sometimes almost manages. Falling Leaves (2018) by Stefan Mohamed is from the same publisher, Salt, and it's similarly glorious: moving, empathetic and also heading somewhere; written in a loose, informal style that turns out to be the best way to tell this story. The story is of 23-year-old Vanessa, whose life is rudely interrupted by the re-appearance of a missing school friend, who hasn't aged a day in seven years. It's cryptic, gripping, and funny when it wants to be, before erupting into metaphysical phantasmagoria in its mindbending final chapter.



I Love Dick (2016) by Chris Kraus is the best kind of contemporary book: one that reveals as much about its reader as its writer – and it reveals almost everything about her. It isn’t always easy, or easy to like, and it doesn’t follow any of the rules of book-writing, if indeed it’s ever heard what they are, but it makes you question so much, achieving a kind of universality in its hyper-specificity. Billionaires' Banquet (2017) by Ron Butlin, meanwhile, seemed to belong to a slightly earlier age, immune from the nervous self-questioning of the past decade. It's a sort of spiritually violent One Day, looking at how the passing of time affects a gaggle of Edinburgh students. The marketing bumf pegs it as a novel about Thatcherism, which it isn't quite, though it does deal with political, moral sacrifice and mental health. Crucially it's principally about its well-drawn characters, who are clever, sharp and real, saturated in philosophy, religion or maths. Butlin has some linguistic tics that lead to repetition, but there are also some wonderfully-wrought phrases, and his dark comedy just works: take-no-prisoners satire and impeccably constructed farce, all done with a light touch. It's sharp, pungent and surprising, with a latent layer of unsentimental compassion.

Jane Gardam's Old Filth (2004) was largely great: a lawyer’s life as it was, not as it appeared to be; some kind of constant tragedy, in which he is forever left by loved ones. Or is that just life? It is so unsentimental and splintered that it feels mannered, but in the best way, appearing to set up one type of book before refusing to deliver it – or indeed offer anything like emotional release. Another fine book about ageing – in this case, about growing old but having more to give – was Jonathan Coe's Mr Wilder and Me (2020), which also dwells on the subjects of family, the purpose of cinema and the delights of brie. The sequence in which it changes gear, and form, to deal with Wilder and the Holocaust is just virtuosic.



I don't read much crime, but I got a huge amount from Emma Flint's Little Deaths (2016), a gripping novel about missing children that's blessed with rich characterisation, a remarkable evocation of Queens in the 1960s, and vast amounts of empathy for its central character – the kids' mother, in a growing shadow of suspicion. It towered above this year's other crime book, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (2018) by Stuart Turton, which wasn't really my thing: death by simile, with a lot of recounted plot points and stabbings. Despite a morally ambitious climax, it all felt more like an elaborate game – a body-hop Groundhog Day ‘30s country house murder-mystery – than a satisfying emotional experience.

I had mixed feelings about Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), which was more experimental than I was expecting, more indebted to Faulkner, and more of its time: a bit rapey, a bit racist, and narrated by a Native American, which isn’t really How We Do Things Now. But this uneven, despairing howl of non-conformity still has the power to compel – and to move you, especially in its closing pages. The book centres on the escalating tug-of-war between the porcelain, plastic-smiled, big-titted Nurse Ratched – commandant of the Combine, which in the mind of Chief Bromden runs the world – and the hulking red-headed Irish gambler, R. P. McMurphy, who blasts into her asylum one day, figuring that it beats a stretch on a work farm. Milos Forman’s film ironed out some of its misogny (as well as adding one terrific, very Hollywood sequence in which McMurphy feigns being brain-dead) but also removed its more fantastical elements, particularly Bromden’s imaginings, both asleep and awake, as inmates are cut apart in the night, their cogs spilling out, and by day Nurse Ratchet pumps vast fields of fog into the ward.



How to Be a Kosovan Bride (2017) is most effective as a portal into a culture: a distinctive, sometimes harrowing, mostly solemn book elevated by the fact that author Naomi Hamill really cares. Written in the second person (you are one character's older brother, another's confidante), it's drenched in the details of daily life and fixated on the mores, desires and clashes of culture that define modern Kosovo, a place haunted by war. That culture clash means city vs country, English vs Kosovan, and also the female sense of self vs restrictive gender roles – there's a curious dichotomy here that recurs on the left and hasn't come close to being resolved: a complicated pride in a culture that seems to subjugate women.

Almost as traumatic as the ghosts of war are the scenes of former Fun House host Pat Sharp becoming addicted to hair conditioner in Darren Richman and Luke Catterson's terrific Re-run the Fun (2020). It's a very clever book masquerading as a very silly one, and one of the funniest things I've read in ages, a brilliantly precise spoof of celebrity memoirs, which re-imagines Sharp as a Zelig figure at the heart of modern popular culture. Across a couple of hundred pages, he reveals the sources of his particular genius, then confronts his rivalries, addictions and growing obsolescence. Not many books make me laugh out loud, but this did repeatedly; the scene in which Pat writes the voiceover for the opening credits of Fun House was a particular favourite. Kudos to Sharp for having the sense of humour to front the book, as one of the (terrific) running gags is that he has done nothing but sit at home for the past 20 years.



Its sense of irony, and fondness for a '90s cultural reference is shared by Scott Innes' lovely Galactic Keegan (2020), surely the definitive Kevin-Keegan-in-Space novel of the past decade. It has some truly fantastic jokes, and a breakout star in the shape of monotonous-voiced robot Barrington12, though my favourite thing about the book is how it dares to go for the big soppy moments – and hits them every time.

By contrast, I found Xan Brooks' The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times (2017) almost wilfully offputting: a book about crippled war veterans having sex with underage girls in a forest. Its story develops in interesting ways, its characters are colourful (a special mention for Fred, a 14-year-old prostitute with a riotous sense of humour) and its view is often panoramic, but it can seem like a pastiche of a modern serious novel, with a purely mechanical use of language that drains the life from the page. I also struggled a little with J.G. Ballard's celebrated High Rise (1975), a purposefully impersonal book that charts the descent of a tower block full of urban professionals into violence, dissolution and primordial savagery. It’s a great concept, and the author's phrasemaking – especially in the opening chapters – is wonderfully clean and precise, augmented by deft little flashes forward that reminded me unexpectedly of Muriel Spark. But while it’s unusual and memorable, it becomes increasingly repetitive, especially in terms of its language, and Ballard makes some of his allegories – to a prison, to a hospital, to the world as a whole – inexplicably overt.



Joe Dunthorne's The Adulterants was one of my favourite books of last year, so I read his debut, Submarine (2008), which was turned into an excellent film by Richard Ayoade. It's decidedly erratic: smugly unpleasant and even irritating, with an oddball protagonist who doesn’t seem real, and broad comic set pieces that vary wildly in quality (nadirs include a shower of piss at a funfair, and a sex scene set against a Holocaust play). It's funny in places, the deluge of imagery contains flashes of imagination hinting at Dunthorne’s double-life as a poet, and there’s some off-kilter pathos amid its gleeful adolescent nastiness, but it’s also shapeless and unsatisfying, juggling its storylines and media with something less than control, and lacking the balance of sad sentiment and dry humour that made The Adulterants such a melancholy pleasure.

It was a similar story with Sayaka Murata's Earthlings (2018), the follow-up to her brilliant debut, Convenience Store Woman, and the worst novel I read this year (though not the worst book – keep reading!). You can see what Murata is trying to do – her heroine resigning from the human race as a response to child sexual abuse – and yet it’s an almost total misfire. There are moments of amusingly detached weirdness, particularly in an intriguing mid-section, but the alien concept is poorly defined and the translated text clunky, on the way to a shallow and pretentious climax that relies entirely on tiresome shock value. Convenience Store Woman was such a distinctive and impressive book; this feels like what happens when you trust that someone will repeat a phenomenon, even if what they’ve delivered appears to be largely dreadful. Goodreads is absolutely adamant that I have read this book twice – on Kindle and in hardback – please don't believe them, they are liars.

YA/Middle-grade



Just three this year. By far my favourite was The Hate U Give (2017), a gripping YA novel with a BLM theme, about a black teenager who’s the only witness to her friend’s murder by a cop. Already trapped between two worlds – her rough inner-city black neighbourhood and a mostly white, mostly affluent school – she feels the weight of the world coming down on her: guilt, grief, responsibility, fear. Written in the present tense, and in simple, direct language, it’s a page-turner that drops you into another world, where there’s humanity and a taut, desperate feeling of community, but also crack, gangs, and tanks on the street. You could work away at slight inconsistencies in its viewpoint (especially on gang violence and the police), at clunky synonyms or convenient plot developments, but it’s forthright and affecting and persuasive, and what’s more it’s right.

The returns of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series continued to diminish with the disappointing 2019 entry, The Secret Commonwealth, but Spy School Revolution (2020) was a reliable eighth instalment in Stuart Gibbs' likeable middle-grade series.

NON-FICTION

History/politics



My favourite book of 2019 was volume one of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. And my favourite book of 2020 is... volume two of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. Followed in quick succession by volumes three and four. It is truly the greatest biography I have ever read in my life. In volume five, Caro is going to get properly into Johnson's presidency, so that'll be the best book of whichever year it comes out.

If The Path to Power was Wolf Hall – sprawling and labyrinthine, fashioning rules that redefined its genre – then Volume 2: Means of Ascent (1990) is Bring Up the Bodies: a bracing, pulsating thriller that fastens your jaw to the floor, even as you know how it’s going to end. The first third of the book is about LBJ in exile from political influence – fabricating his war record, sulking in Congress – while the remainder deals with the 1948 Senate race, an election that Johnson tried to buy; when that failed, he stole it instead. Caro’s second instalment of this epic biography lacks the extraordinary scope of the first, and takes a while to get going, as he recaps the story so far and deals with some less promising raw material, but by any reasonable standards it’s a classic: assured in its tone, clear-sighted in its judgements, and revelatory in its forensic detail, an exhilarating combination of beautiful writing and utterly staggering research.

The third volume of Caro’s epic biography – weighing in at 1,167 pages and 3.6 lbs – is Master of the Senate (2002), a vast, panoramic book that tells an extraordinary story: the story of a bad man who did great things. In fact, Caro’s reading of his subject is the flipside of how Evan Thomas paints Robert Kennedy: Johnson had an instinctive compassion that was usually overridden by pragmatism –overridden by pragmatism until suddenly the compassionate route became the expedient one – whereas Kennedy was instinctively pragmatic, but on reflection, after that first burst of anger, his principles would win out. That’s perhaps why, although Kennedy was a good campaigner, a vital figurehead and a better man, LBJ got more done. That and Johnson’s drive, his unscrupulousness, his instinctive genius as a legislator. (And the fact that Robert Kennedy got shot.) I wrote about the book more here.

Volume 4: The Passage of Power (2012) covers the heroic portion of Johnson’s story: his unconquerable fear of failure sees him delay a presidential bid until it’s much too late, and after that follow the years of failure: the public humiliation he’d feared since his father’s bankruptcy turned the family into a laughing stock, only now Lyndon himself is the joke, derided by the witty, debonair New Frontier intellectuals as ‘Rufus Cornpone’, the southern master of the senate who traded his power for the vice-presidency and lost everything. “Whatever happened to Lyndon Johnson” ask the editorials, and then in an instant, a heartbeat, a gunshot, he is catapulted to the height of ambition, of power, the book tracing his first seven weeks as president, in which he sows the seeds of his own destruction and yet guides the country towards greatness, stabilising an America that is drowning in paranoia, debilitated by paralysing grief, while finding the lever that will force through civil rights – and beginning to lean on it...



Another non-fic epic was Eric Bentley's Thirty Years of Treason (1971), which offers extended excerpts from the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings (1938-68), augmented by other valuable primary sources: articles, speeches, bits from plays. That may well sound like the most boring thing on earth, but I find the communist witchhunt enduringly fascinating, and if you do too, you'll find the book absolutely astonishing. The transcripts are, in turn, absurd, thrilling and chilling.

It took me an age to get through Dick Goodwin's Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties (1988), which I picked up because I was interested in the author's role in revealing the quiz show scandals of the late '50s, but which turned out to deal extensively with LBJ and RFK, two of my main five interests (the others are, of course, test cricket, Lillian Gish and HUAC). The book is a curious jumble of elements: at times deeply self-involved, at others as impersonal as a textbook, and only occasionally calling for a return to the values of American postwar liberalism – which Goodwin claims to be its raison d’être. But the period dealt with is enduringly fascinating, and there are more than enough insights into seismic events and totemic figures to make it worthwhile, provided you don’t mind being slightly bored along the way.



Briefer and breezier was Andy Beckett's Promised You a Miracle (2015), a hugely entertaining work of popular social history that essentially provides a succession of loosely-connected long reads about all aspects of Britain in 1980-82, when the country rediscovered its sense of pride and direction – but at what cost? Beckett's book was hugely evocative and enjoyable, without always making connections in the way you wanted, while The United States of Paranoia (2012) by Jesse Walker was almost the opposite. This history of American conspiracy theories makes endless connections, and gives you a broad but workable framework for understanding America’s particular brand of paranoia – but it doesn’t necessarily do anything else. By contrast, Sarah Churchwell's dazzling Behold, America (2018) works as both a polemic in favour of social democracy, and a dual history of American fascism and the shifting nature of the American Dream – before the latter became about materialism and the free market, before it atrophied. Drawing primarily on primary sources (especially regional newspaper, but also novels and national columnists), it's vivid, angry and witty, with remarkable insights and an extraordinary sense of immediacy.



Charles Lindbergh looms large in any discussion of the American far right, and the celebrated aviator had an extraordinary life, though you'd never know it from A. Scott Berg's unbelievably dry biography, which somehow won the Pulitzer. There are sections of Lindbergh (1998) that grip – particularly the investigation and prosecution of his son's murderer – and some interesting details here and there (two years before his legendary New York to Paris flight, Lindbergh’s activities in the air included carrying a judge to a sky wedding, claiming to cure deafness by spinning the hard of hearing repeatedly in the air, and allowing a man to urinate on his hometown). But it’s a compromised, turgid and stolid book, with its most moving story, in which an aged Lindbergh quietly alludes to his defining 1927 flight, relegated to an end note on p607.

I was also disappointed by Richard Herring's The Problem with Men (2020), which felt like a waffly cash-in. There are a handful of good jokes (though my favourite, about World Toilet Day, turned out to have been a misunderstanding by the reader), and it's well-meaning in its arguments, but it felt stretched, incoherent and perhaps in the wrong medium: you think that it might work better as a stand-up show, where its points could sneak through beneath the gags. I'd suggest either reading Bridget Christie's A Book for You, or Herring's touching and wistful 2010 memoir, How Not to Grow Up, a book that has really stayed with me. On the plus side, his new one does include a tweet I once sent him, so I am essentially the co-author.



By far the worst book I read this year were the putrid diaries of old racist-with-the-horn, Alan Clark. Into Politics (1979-82) is truly one of the most joyless and repulsive things I've ever had the misfortune to be assailed by. Seeing modern history through Clark's eyes is an almost unrelentingly depressing experience. He’s a lech, a misogynist and an unrepentant racist. In a way there’s a parallel with Errol Flynn’s performative wickedness, in that Clark is undoubtedly playing up to an image and we’re asked to weigh up how much of his Nazi sympathising is merely attention-seeking, but that’s honestly not something you should have to say about an MP. More here if you're so inclined.

Sport



Oliver Kay's Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football's Lost Genius (2016) is perhaps the best sporting biography I've read, and yet it's about a man who played just a month of professional football, and that in Ireland, years after the injury that wrecked his career. But whereas the tragedy of fellow United youngster Ben Thornley is that he had so little in his life except football, the tragedy of this one is that Doherty had so much, and yet died so young. Kay's book is sensitive, nuanced, tragic but – in the midst of that – uplifting. It's about a man who lived his life by defying every cliche, not through genius (though he was certainly talented), but through honesty, and the author does a superb job of articulating Doherty's complexities and contradictions, while swerving the pitfalls and temptations of this genre, from synthetic sentimentalism to pat theories. Kay writes exhilaratingly about football and superbly about character, only occasionally misordering his discoveries, or leaning on alliteration in place of truth. I really loved this, and it moved me very deeply.

With World in Motion: The Inside Story of Italia '90 (2018), I was looking for nostalgia but got something trickier – and better. The nicest thing about the book is how author Simon Hart delves into untold stories of countries like Yugoslavia, the UAE, Czechslovakia and the US – though even when he’s recounting the more familiar tales of Cameroon and Italy, his wealth of retrospective interviews offer new insights. If his writing isn’t of the same quality as his research, and now and then the focus and pacing seems determined by who he has managed to get time with, the amount of knowledge that lies behind the text is staggering. Every scandal or rumour you’ve heard about, from spiked drinks to match-fixing, is astutely appraised, just as every nation’s campaign is contextualised in terms of both its football and the wider socio-political picture. Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket (2019) seemed to skate along the surface of its subject, attempting to be numerous things – a dual biography, a social history, a sporting history – and ultimately not doing any of them very well. At times it’s more a collection of annotated transcripts and articles than it is an important new work, and it’s only in the final two chapters that the book becomes truly personal – and genuinely touching. I loved the cover, though.

Film, music and TV



The best film book I read this year was Louise Brooks (1989) by Barry Paris, one of the finest four or five film biographies I’ve read (up there with Lee Server’s on Mitchum, John Kobler's on John Barrymore, David Stenn’s Clara Bow book, and Searching for John Ford by Joseph McBride). It has such a feel for its various worlds, strikes such a perfect balance between subject and context, and offers such a convincing – if contested – psychological reading of its heroine: a maddening, dazzling, difficult figure. Brooks was a dancer turned sex symbol, actor, call girl and finally writer, who torpedoed her various careers and most of her relationships through neurotic capriciousness, alcoholism or wilful neglect. But at her best – as an actor whose naturalness sliced through artifice, as a writer whose pared-down prose eviscerated her old nemeses – she was simply like no-one else. Paris wrestles with this enigma for 600 pages, nailing her singularity as an artist, and providing a credible reading of the woman, broken by child sexual abuse and never quite put back together again.

I think I've probably read more about Orson Welles than I have any other subject, but I'd never got around to his autobiography (of sorts), This Is Orson Welles (1992), co-created with Peter Bogdanovich. Like Citizen Kane, this book tells a life story in an experimental, fragmented way – eight discursive chats in eight different locations – and just as Welles inserted Kane into history through the March of Time sequence, so he repeatedly inserts himself and his family into improbable scenarios. The Welles who emerges from this book is far more likeable and generous than the one depicted by Simon Callow in his multi-volume biography. Absent too is the vague sage of countless interviews, who speaks in counter-intuitive aphorisms that on closer inspection mean nothing. Here he is fantastically astute and specific on the subject of cinema, shorn of pretension, and often forcing you to look at the form in a completely new way. That you have to sit through him pretending that he used to fight bulls is a concession I was ultimately happy to make.



The other towering figure of American auteurist cinema is of, course, Steven Seagal, so it was a delight to be forced to read Vern's Seagology (2007/12) – I've offered a full explanation of my actions here. One of Vern’s gifts is his ability to contextualise: you don’t need to know much about DTV action films, you don’t need to have seen most of these films, he’ll give you all the info you need to get the references – and the jokes. And fuck me, the jokes are brilliant. I laughed out loud quite a few times. My favourite punchline is the one where he describes the hopeless honeytrap operation in True Justice as being like if “instead of putting a worm on a fishhook they just threw the worm in the water”.

For a quid, you can read Truman Capote's famous feature interview with Marlon Brando, The Duke in His Domain (1957). This New Yorker profile is, of course, as much about himself as his subject – but then he was just as interesting. It finds Brando lost and aimless in a Japan hotel room, a talent without a cause, self-obsessed and meandering, a would-be philosopher king whose quest for understanding is more admirable than what he’s found. And then – near the death – the death of his mother intrudes, and Capote is off out into the wet street to think pretentious thoughts. My love of Capote (who seems so overlooked and underpraised nowadays) can clash with my lack of interest in interminable descriptions of everything – for which he had a weakness, especially early on – and his ruminations here on Japan are perhaps a distraction, but it’s a fantastically astute portrait, studded with supporting interviews and beautifully-rendered insights, and perceptively foreshadowing the slide into irrelevance and gluttony that would come to define Brando’s public image. FOR A QUID.



Another quick read was Ayoade on Top (2019), a mock-intellectual critical appreciation of the 2003 Gwyneth-Paltrow-as-air-hostess flick, A View from the Top, executed with some style. It’s erudite, funny in its purposefully pedantic way, and distinctively expressed, the main business augmented by brief flashes of autobiography and comic fantasy, but it does sometimes tip over into smugness and nastiness (I could have lived without the bulimia gags, tbh). As indeed does Craig Brown's One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (2020). To be honest, it's exactly what you would expect a book by Craig Brown about The Beatles to be like: gurningly self-satisfied, endlessly punching down and afflicted with a critical lack of empathy, but also amusing, and armed with both a viewpoint and an abundance of interesting connections. I disassembled and examined its moving parts here.

I was also left a little unsatisfied by Sam Wasson's The Big Goodbye (2020), about the making of Polanski's Chinatown, a book that has attracted widespread raves and is now being adapted for the screen itself. It’s a little pretentious in the writing, and stretches at times to draw parallels between the world of the film and its makers (who are mostly wankers), thought it is also well-contextualised – at one point a history of Los Angeles, at others an elegy for a period of movie-making – conjuring the atmosphere of Hollywood in the '70s, and painting vivid portraits of its protagonists that lie somewhere between history and gossip. Where the book falls down, though, is in failing to properly address the film's greatest virtue: the singularity of its dialogue, which goes one better than the best of classic noir, providing some of the most beautiful, satisfying and sickening sentences on the American screen.



A cheerier book about easier films was Wild and Crazy Guys (2019) by Nick de Semlyen, a fast-moving history of the Hollywood comedy boom of the '80s (though we start a little earlier and stay a little later). I don't love these movies like he does – or quite get why these loud, rude, often broad films are considered so groundbreaking – but his enthusiasm is incredibly appealing, and there's so much to enjoy, with some amazing detail about how close we often were to not getting these movies, and vibrant sketches of the protagonists. I came out of it wanting to hug John Candy and live with Rick Moranis.

And, finally, I finally got a copy of former child actor Dick Moore's book about Hollywood child actors: Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star: But Don't Have Sex or Take the Car (1984). That copy turned out to be signed, and to have been given as a gift by Pat Carroll. In it, the '80s Moore searches for a Rosebud – or several – as he meets around 30 of his fellow former child stars, from Baby Peggy to Natalie Wood, trying to work out how their early years in Hollywood have affected their lives. It’s quite bleak, to be honest: only Mickey Rooney seems to have enjoyed his time as a star, and only Bonita Granville and the very together, polished Shirley Temple seem to be relatively well-adjusted now. For the others, it’s been poverty, failed marriages, feelings of guilt and oppressive responsibility, and an inability to reconcile a desire for anonymity with a need to emulate former glories. Bear in mind too that these are the ones who survived – Scotty Beckett, Bobby Driscoll and Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer didn’t, and weirdly don’t get a mention. A bit more here if you're interested.

***

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Big Thief on tour



BIG THIEF at
Hammersmith Apollo, London (27 Feb)
Rock City, Nottingham (29 Feb)
Albert Hall, Manchester (1 Mar)
Ancienne Belgique, Brussels (5 Mar)
Paradiso, Amsterdam (6 Mar)


Every time you see Adrianne Lenker, she’s three different people. This month I’ve seen her five times.

It started like this. Last year I watched her enchant Union Chapel, picking at an outsized acoustic guitar, tooth missing, hiding behind a thatched fringe, whispering whimsical self-penned songs that seemed to be about potatoes but were suddenly about the cosmos. Four months later (two of which I’d spent in hospital), she played the Roundhouse with her band Big Thief, four disparate, perfectly and weirdly simpatico Brooklyn alt-folk scenesters.

She’d shaved her head and she was just screaming. Swaggering and screaming, guitar like a machine gun.

Later in 2019, her band played Bush Hall in one of those small miracles that London serves up now and again: announcement on Thursday, on sale Friday, gig on Monday, previewing their second album of the year, Two Hands, doing it in full for the-first-and-only-time, figuring out how to play these songs live, before our eyes, something between a workshop and a front seat to history. Since then they’ve been lauded by Pitchfork, the Guardian, and Barack Obama(‘s PR consultants), but it was how the shows made me feel. After Suede and the Manics gave way to The Strokes and The White Stripes, I thought I was through with bands – that really bands were the kind of thing you grow out of, like Ricicles or the Socialist Workers’ Party. Then The National came along and asked if that was in any way a tenable position. Big Thief set fire to it.

I had tickets to the London show, had the flyer magnet-pinned to my fringe for close to a year, but Big Thief aren’t a one-evening proposition. They’re mercurial and explosive, allergic to convention and setlists – to having a set list for more than one night in a row, even to sticking to the one drummer James Krivchenia has written – and seeing them just once suddenly seemed perverse. Like listening to Mahler’s Ninth once, enjoying it and then smashing the vinyl on the sideboard. Instead I could spend all my money going to Nottingham. And Manchester. And Brussels. And Amsterdam. Anywhere there were sympathetic Burins with fold-out sofas and an accepting attitude to turning up two hours early for gigs.

OK, I missed Glasgow and Paris somewhere in there, but the five shows were like a suite, or a Gus Van Sant film from back when he was great, and I’m left with this: a series of impressions, a juggling of snapshots, a succession of reinventions: the same but different, different but the same.



Hammersmith is first and it’s your erratic epic – their biggest gig ever, perhaps their longest. Big Thief are the only band whose singer’s hair is a continuing psychodrama of its own, and she turns up looking like Henry V. “He that outlives this day, and comes safe home/Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named/And rouse him at the name of Crispian,” says the grown Hal, and Lenker is a soul obsessed with home: the “good home” of ‘Parallels’, the home that everyone deserves in ‘Forgotten Eyes’, the home confused for a refuge in ‘Rock and Sing’. And this few, this happy few, this band of brothers so fierce in their gentle, sporadic, lolloping way: three men and this androgynous tour-de-force, Lenker unshaven and muscular and suited, spinning tortured love songs that are, upon inspection, not love songs at all but explorations of the male selves that at times flicker to her forefront. “Oh, the last time I saw Paul,” she breathes in one of their debut album’s heartstopping moments, “I was horrible and almost let him in.”



There are concessions to commercialism, or at least pragmatism, in London, but Big Thief are still just so irregular and counter-intuitive, and weird, and heavy, and fey. Which other band would kick off a landmark show with a new song called ‘Zombie Girl’, played acoustic and solo? Which band would meet every ovation with a wistfully abstruse deep cut? Or consent to an encore (by no means a given) from a pissed-up crowd of 5,000, do only a subdued ‘Rock and Sing’ and then leave. They quietly reinvent the Spotify Top Songs stuff – angular guitars, drum-and-vocal bridges, rolling rhythms – but at that stage I’m just getting attuned to it. I leave muttering something about Lenker being the only New Dylan since Dylan. You know in ‘Love Minus Zero’ when he sings, “My love, she speaks like silence”, or ‘Visions of Johanna – “The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face” – well no-one writes like that. But Lenker does. Not like Dylan, exactly –because what’s special about that? – but prolifically singular, with his perfect abstract specificity. “Your eyes were like machinery,” she sings in ‘Mary’. “Your hands were making artefacts in the corner of my mind.”



At Nottingham’s Rock City, bathed in blue, they manufacture atmosphere, then feed off it, swelling to twice their size (I’m on the front row now), pressing inexorably forward. “I love you, Adriana,” yells a male voice from the back of the room. Lenker scowls, says nothing. He says it once, twice, half-a-dozen times. She looks at her feet. It’s when two teenage girls begin to speak, freaking out at being in the same room with her that she engages. “I just love these songs so much,” says one, pushing her way forward, beginning to cry. Lenker, who’s crouching down over her guitar to fiddle with the amps, smiles, contorts her fingers into a thin and sturdy heart.

The show is intense, and in its intensity the tour’s themes start to reveal and congeal. You realise what a political record Two Hands is, with a directness that can only be communicated in person. ‘Not’ is an explosion of cathartic anguish, with something of Sleep Well Beast’s state-of-the-nation remit, a list song that exalts through endless negation, like Cole Porter just went fucking mental. Seen through the squall are Bible-old traumas and rampaging ills: climate emergency, consumerism, mortality, listlessness, loneliness. And at some point words are no longer enough, no matter how perfect the words, like when the harmonica comes in at the end of Dylan’s Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, and then ‘Not’ spirals into horror, madness, purposeful fury, and finally release; a howl, a blast of noise, a guitar solo that’s half-rehearsed, half-improvised, and by Amsterdam will be refined, Lenker no longer on her haunches, twiddling amp dials, but trading sonic perfection for picturesque rage, because the display, the physicality is part of the thing, if not the whole thing.



‘Forgotten Eyes’ is empathetic: a big hug, a socialist manifesto viewed through a hippy aesthetic. But ‘Shoulders’? That’s merely harrowing: domestic violence in primary colours, the sins of the father as anthem; at one point I turn half-around to see the whole crowd chanting in unison; it’s a definite moment, but it isn’t comfortable. In Manchester, Lenker will turn ‘The Toy’ into a stylised pantomime, her right hand a gun firing skywards as childhood play turns into misadventure, love transmogrifies into murder, and the horror of sudden, eyes-wide realisation twists America into an apocalyptic hellscape. But that’s not yet: here it’s just fraught and ugly. As these new songs flex their muscles, others are dragged into the present: the political present; the musical now – dragged upwards as the band degenerate into grunge. And then when it’s over, there’s just ‘Magic Dealer’, gentle as a sparrow in the dawn.

Manchester, though, is about those gestures. Lenker stretches out a hand towards the child by her side, before ‘Capacity’ turns introspective. She tracks a tear down her cheek. She fires the finger-gun. Birds fly away. And in ‘Masterpiece’s new, stompy segue, she clomps across the stage in black boots, facing away, the song as funky as it can ever get and still stab you in the heart. Because when she’s stopped playing at being the rockabilly George Clinton, she’s still got to go back to the mic, got to tell us that there’s only so much letting go you can ask someone to do.



She is avian. High cheekbones and a hooked nose. The wild, ethereal twitter of her head voice. And when she nods to a fast, burgeoning riff, ‘Shark Smile’ coming to life, her heads bobs and juts like a pigeon’s. Yes, she’s birdlike. Almost brittle. But her middle-range is powerful and her lower-range is brutal, and there’s such strength in this band. They’re pastoral and sensitive, but if you pollute that lake, they are going to fucking kill you. She handles her guitar like a feminist manifesto, and though it’s hard to find a new way of playing guitar live, rock clichés sit lightly on you when you’re a genius. Lenker moshes with a Beatle cut, backpedals as she thrashes out chords, delicately stamps her feet and shakes her head as ‘Forgotten Eyes’ takes shape, and screams as ‘Contact’ is made: the long, slow prelude, then skin touches skin, or metal touches brain, or a mind lurches awake, or somewhere in that vast empty blackness, something responds.



So often, her eyes are closed, and they flicker open to gaze into yours or just into the middle distance. She breaks sparingly but completely into a smile, into nervous laughter. There are thank yous, at times that feeling of being quietly overwhelmed that a band get when they’re suddenly big, but that comes only when they speak, and the spell of impetus slackens. In Brussels there’s a soliloquy about Europe. The cobbled streets… the beauty… wanting to go there, but feeling afraid. It’s not scary, though, it’s people, says Lenker – and stone. In Minnesota, everything was thin, but… no… there’s beauty there too, and she’s into ‘Cattails’, which rocks, but like a hand on a cradle, a part-cryptic bucolic lullaby, a deceptive 12-string dance track about the natural world, full-to-choking with beauty, in its imagery, its sounds, its meter. “And the clusters fell, like an empty bell,” sings Lenker, the rhythm so infectious that she’s proto-rapping. “Meteor shower at the motel.” It makes my throat swell.



She plays around with those rhythms, always. In ‘Mary’, her hypnotic, lulling fast-talking can either speed or drag, make the song lost and dreamlike, or else relentless and pretty; she injects urgency, uncertainty, certainty into ‘Not’. The freakout jams are different every night.

The setlist changes every night too, but there are runs of songs, and you get to know them. ‘Masterpiece’ into ‘Capacity’ – sad and sensual, spinning the heartbroken lover trope into bisexual erotica – then ‘Shark Smile’ and sometimes ‘Real Love’, that exquisitely painful smash-and-grab that takes one look at songs that glorify abusive relationships and decides that actually I’ll probably be alright, thanks – and suddenly you’re the kid watching his alcoholic mum get the shit beaten out of her by its dad. In Brussels, the poignancy almost drowns you, the “hummingbird” passage offbeat, strange and haunting, like it’s broken out of The Innocents: a quiet, haunting new song, the child’s song, suddenly growing out of this old one. In Amsterdam that’s gone forever, but the song is a monster, stretched out and violent. That show is the heaviest of the lot, ‘Shark Smile’ sped up, aggressive but still insouciant, its lust barely dampened by its auto-wreck tragedy.



Then there’s the acoustic stretch: for some of it the band take a back seat and, in bassist Max Oleartchik’s case, a literal one. ‘Orange’ is one of the loveliest, most straightforward songs Lenker has ever written – that’s played in London, then comes back for the Benelux gigs. There are new tracks: the conventionally attractive ‘Zombie Girl’; ‘Dried Roses’, premiered in Nottingham, which takes Lenker’s whimsical-metaphysical thing near to the point of parody but damn-near breaks you anyway; and ‘Time Escaping’, which eludes me still; I don’t remember it, nor how it goes. Maybe one day. She’s backed by the band for ‘Happiness’ – another list song, Lenker-style – for the rocky ‘Bruiser’, for the gorgeous ‘Two Rivers’, which meanders through familiar territory with an iridescent beauty. She picks a repetitive pattern over Krivchenia’s brushwork, voice scaling mountains of arpeggios, checking out the scenery, until finally she gets to the crux of it, words trembling: “Is it a crime to do what you ask me to?”

Krivchenia is a superb drummer, and his languorous expression – leaning forward, mouth lolling open – sets some sort of tone. He cracks one smile in five nights. Oleartchik – feet bare, clad in a pink onesie or a dress, often-times perched on a stack of amps – is unaffected, unobtrusive and unfussy, as if he’s scarcely realised he’s playing bass. And Buck Meek, extreme left of the stage, as Lenker is centre-right, has his knee eternally bent, slim shoes that feel like they should be winkle pickers, leaning towards her, towards Krivchenia, looming almost, lurching with those thin legs as he issues spare notes and shimmering soundscapes, but his talent sublimated to his group, with just the odd lead guitar part. And sometimes he’s scarcely playing at all, but fuck me those vocal harmonies, lifting ‘Mary’ and ‘Masterpiece’ still higher – and it’s only when he comes in, adding to Lenker’s voice, to Krivchenia’s, to Oleartchik’s, that you realise those sharply uptilted Texan vowels were what was missing. High forehead, hair like corn drifting back in a stack at the back of his head; guileless, polite, deceptively brilliant; when Lenker goes off, and yes she goes off, he instinctively complements her crackling invention, their chemistry absolute, and you think of that photo of them in front of the camper van on the front of ‘A Sides’, when they were a couple, perhaps halfway to getting married. In Amsterdam there’s even a rare concession to practicality, as he gets a solo spot, because he’s back later in the month as a solo supporting act, and he has tickets to sell.



So yes it’s a band, and if they ever split up, I will cry, but for all that it’s Lenker’s band. Walking on stage with wet hair, in high-waisted trousers, stripping off her suit jacket to unmask a sleeveless top – white or blue or khaki – after a frenetic guitar solo, an illegible tattoo snaking down her arm, she holds you for 90, 100 minutes in her thrall. She comes face-on to the audience just once, as ‘Masterpiece’ reaches its zenith; otherwise she’s off to one side, one of four points, but the driving force, content in her endless capacity. With three people, and three people herself.

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