I’m writing this because my brother called me out. I said that Three Cheers for Disappointment was not only the best indie album of the past 10 years, but the best rock album of the same time period. He mentioned a couple of albums that might be better, but I told him they were all worse. He said if I thought so strongly I should write a review of the album to defend myself. So here I am.
These are Colton’s first impressions of Speak in Code. Read Dan’s here.
Alright Eve 6 fans, get your worn albums out and let’s have a talk. Oh, look at you, you’ve got the old Eleventeen record? That’s good, that’s good. You’ll be the most disappointed of all.
These guys have rounded the bases before, and that 2004 show under the arch was a walk-off home run for the ages. But don’t come into Speak in Code expecting another dinger. Or even a ground rule double. In fact, we should probably get off baseball metaphors altogether before I find a way to use “interleague play.”
I’m talking around the fact that this album sounds different because I’m nervous about how you’ll react. And as I do, I’m making it sound worse than it is. So let’s rip off the band-aid:
Eve 6′s sound hasn’t evolved, it’s gotten older.
There is less anger, less violence, less bitterness. It’s All in Your Head in its sweeter moments was still defiant. Here, the lyrical passivity of “Situation Infatuation” and “Moon,” though mild, is emphasized in context by the incomplete vigor of “Lion’s Den” and the friendly chords and gentle choruses across the album. And by whatever general-store toolbag is talking to us in “Trust Me.” Seriously, it’s like the “Sunset Strip Bitch” himself wrote a song for their album.
That throwback angle keeps working: “B.F.G.F.” might as well be the flipside of the “Think Twice” coin, except (again) this time they play the A-hole they used to cuss out. “Tongue Tied” and “Small Town Trap” introduced us to a kid who’s gonna get a job someday and start singing “Downtown.” Now for homework, compare and contrast the dream dates of “Everything” and “Superhero Girl.”
Let’s think about the timeline here. After a seven-year break, Jon Siebels only rejoined the trio in March of 2011, yet is credited as co-writer on most of the tracks. How fast did these get written? There were two- and three-year gaps respectively between earlier releases. It’s not like they haven’t toured recently, either: they’re on the road right now. (By the by, Matt Bair—who filled in for FOUR YEARS until Siebels signed back on—has no credits on the album and no shout-outs on the Thanks page of the liner.)
I should’ve put all that truth on the rocks instead of giving you my feelings straight. Look, there’s good here, it’s just not where my mind states. I love “B.F.G.F.” (or, as it streams on Billboard, “BFDG”), which is a half-step in a different direction and would be an excellent song for any band; it just happens to be Eve 6 adding their stylistic touches. They made a good choice releasing “Lost & Found” to fans before the lead-off single “Victoria,” because while both rock, the former is one of my favorites here. My number one overall goes to the Sugi Tap adaptation “Pick Up the Pieces,” which I remember hearing live in 2008.
Truth is, Speak in Code does seem destined to grow on me. The alt-sick beats and spry wordplay that won me over are still here, with a bass that carries tunes better than most, even though most bassists don’t sing. I flinched pretty hard when I heard a subtext of “life’s not so bad” in the lyrics and felt the melodies undercut by easy spirits, because that’s a change. But Eve 6 will stay in heavy rotation for the next few weeks, and I’ll probably be fully on board by mid-May when we get into interleague play. Count it!
These are Dan’s first impressions of Speak in Code. Read Colton’s here.
Is it bad that I don’t really like Speak in Code right now?
Yes and no.
Yes – I walk away from my first full listen feeling a little bit let down. Speak in Code – the first Eve 6 album in nine years — has as many forgettable songs as Eve 6′s first three albums combined. This is not really saying too much because Eve 6′s first three albums were each very good and very consistent, almost filler-free. Speak in Code is certainly not filler free, and likely the worst Eve 6 album yet.
Speak in Code also has some really horrendous moments. A few of these lines made me cringe. The worst offender is the chorus of “Everything”: “She’s everything, everything / She’s pulling on my heartstrings / She’s shattering illusions…” etc. This lyric, and a handful of others on the album, are more trite and sugary than literally any preceding line in Eve 6′s history.
Sorry for the harsh words, Max Collins (lead singer and songwriter for the band). I don’t want to accuse your muse of disappearing during the past nine years. But this is how I imagine your writing process going:
You: I want to say that this girl is overwhelming me. How can I describe her? *puts pen to paper*
1998 You: “Your erotic, wet, atomic eyes / Keep reoccurring in my mind”
2012 You: “She’s everything”
Age has mellowed you. I get it. You’re wiser, more content. But, I don’t think that gives you free pass to sing that you have “One life to live / Many paths to take.” That’s a lame lyric whether you’re the horny 18-year-old that wrote your debut album, or you’re the Buddha.
I didn’t want to I cherry-pick the worst lines on the album during my first listen of the album. But I had no choice. They just stuck out so painfully, and they piled up by the end of the album.
Speak in Code also feels a bridge too far from the core sound that made Eve 6 appealing in the first place. I’m all for a band evolving and trying new sounds. Before the hiatus, Eve 6 was quite good at evolving. Each album integrated more texture, more sonic variety, more experimentation than the last.
Instead of expanding their sound, Eve 6 has homogenized it, and focused it around something that feels removed from the group’s strengths. The polished, synthy timbre is not inherently a problem (even if I personally find it less appealing than I do their guitar-bass-drums glory days), but I didn’t detect sonic depth and complexity that made Eve 6′s earlier albums so appealing.
And now that I’ve spewed all of that bile, I do want to clarify that I have some reasons to a) like the album, and b) assume that I may one day like the album more than I do right now.
First is that some of the songs are very good. “Victoria” sounds like a long lost track from It’s All In Your Head. “Lost and Found” shows that good execution of a grown-up Eve 6 song that still retains the band’s original appeal is possible. There are a few gems here, or at least some flashes of competency.
I also should clarify that this review represents my impressions from a single run-through of the tracks, plus bouncing around as I write this. Even when you include the several times I listened to the pre-released singles, it adds up to an opinion that has had very little time to ferment.
I wouldn’t say Eve 6 uses a particularly complicated sound or structure, but they do have a distinct personality as a band. Collins has (or, possibly, had) a way of writing hooks that are big and memorable, but take a few listens to sink in. In short, Eve 6 songs are growers. Maybe (probably) my evaluation of the album will be more generous in time, just as my overall opinion of Eve 6 rose steadily from the first time I heard the band through the ensuing months and years.
Another important point: I formed these opinions by listening to the album from start to finish, which automatically builds some biases into my observation. I am likely weighing the later, weaker tracks more than I should.
There’s also the question of expectations. Eve 6 is one of my favorite bands. I’ve been waiting since 2006, when I bought all three of their albums in one purchase as a college student, to hear something new from them. There was a lot of time for me to raise my expectations to astronomical, unfair levels.
It’s All In Your Head, the last album they released before their hiatus, came out three years after its predecessor. Speak in Code came out nine years after its predecessor.
Does that mean Speak in Code should be 3× as great as It’s All in Your Head? Of course not. I would’ve been ecstatic if it had been 1× as great, or even 0.75× as great. Hell, maybe it is 0.75× as great and I’m just overrating It’s All in Your Head and underrating Speak in Code.
Plus, even if it’s just enjoyable filler, isn’t that better than nothing? There are traces of classic Eve 6 here, a few songs that live up to the very high standard I have for the band. Isn’t that enough?
Yes and no.
Around the time that I graduated college and moved back home, I decided I wanted to be a Reader.
Sure, I’d read in the past. Loved Harry Potter. Devoured pop culture and sports books. I’d even read the occasional novel just for the heck of it.
But I knew I was missing out on the most intellectually stimulating form of culture: Literature. I love breaking down complexities of TV shows and movies and music. I love thinking about plots and characters and the way stories are told, and trying to decode the meaning and impetus behind a narrative. So why not immerse myself in the most historically proven, open-ended, intrinsically complex medium for narrative art?
And yet… I’d been telling myself this for years. Logically, I’ve known for a long time that I should be a Reader. But I’ve never really followed up on it. I could have a book in front of me for months and never read a page of it.
So, after I graduated, I started taking the endeavor seriously. I did everything I could to become a Reader short of actually reading. I scoured book review sites. I bought new bookshelves, started taking out books from the library, found hundreds of books on wholesale (see the picture above). I got a GoodReads account. I found plenty of books that I could tell from the cover and description and great Amazon reviews that I would just love.
But it didn’t happen. Every now and then, I would read a book, like it, pat myself on the back, and reward myself by playing some video games or watching Simpsons reruns. A month later, I’d do it again.
Why? Everything was in place. I’m smart enough. I have discretionary income and time. What was holding me back? Why didn’t I become a Reader?
I’m not entirely sure. Part of it is the lack of visceral immediacy of books compared to the other media I love. Sure, some books hook you by the end of the first page. But I couldn’t even always make it to the end of page one.
Another part of it is that I don’t really like the physical act of reading. I can’t really get comfortable and I get tired of holding the book and sitting in one position all the time (though it doesn’t bother me when I’m the computer, for some reason).
Fast forward to two or so months ago. I again decide I’m going to be a Reader.
I find the audiobook for Storm of Swords on my laptop, and listen to it every day on the morning to and from work. And… holy cow. That’s a story, with characters and layers and twists, with love and heartbreak and comeuppance, with passion and power and an air of mystery. I didn’t just love it, I adored it. If there was a six-star option on GoodReads, that’s what I would have given it.
And — here’s the crazy and important part — that book was so unusually good that I started reading another book. And I finished that book. And it, too, was unusually good. So I started yet another book. That one was, aside from a central character and philosophy that bothered me, also unusually good. Now I’m reading another book. It, too, is unusually good.
And I’ve come to the realization that one of two things is true: Either I’ve gotten really lucky with my book choices a bunch of times in a row, or books are good. Like, really good. Better than I’ve been giving them credit for. They allow for more complex and satisfying narratives than other media.
The truth is probably somewhere in between those two possibilities. Still, I can’t help but think that my frame of reference for what is unusually good is actually just plain good for books. This raised expectation is a pretty big revelation. It gives me even more incentive to read, because the expected payoff is even higher.
I wouldn’t yet say that I’m a Reader. I do feel like I’m getting there, though this could just be an extended high point for the cycle I described earlier of “read for a short bit, don’t read for a long bit.”
But I want to get there. I want to be smarter and better-read than I am. I want to keep getting the thrill I have the past few months from great books by great writers. I want to some day understand these great stories enough to make my own.
So here it is, my proclamation with this post (which premiers the “Books” post category):
I, Dan S., will become a Reader, and I will continue to keep the readers of Earn This posted on my attempt to fill the biggest hole in my narrative art life (besides not having watched all of The Wire of course).
Rating: ★★★★★ (out of 5)
With Turnstiles, Billy Joel experienced a creative breakthrough. One album later, with The Stranger, he experienced a commercial breakthrough to match it. Peaking at #2 and ultimately going 10× platinum, his 1977 smash catapulted him to stardom he’s maintained for 35 years.
From the first listen, it’s not hard to see why. Teamed with mega-producer Phil Ramone and backed by the same band that made Turnstiles a rousing success, Joel assembled some of his most accessible and memorable hits, as well as fantastic non-singles.
Yet the brilliant melodies and pristine production couldn’t hide that Joel still ached. The album explores his various identities and reflects on his terror of growing old and irrelevant and impotent. Even his most irreverently funny moments (Only the Good Die Young) mask his discomfort of aging.
Joel’s obsession with aging, with making sense of an uncertain future, is obvious from the first lines of the album (“…saving his pennies for some day”). Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song), the opening number, was one of the album’s big hits. It’s one of Joel’s great songs. The protagonist of the song sees the broken people around him and wonders if he’s any different, before rejecting it all and leaving for something different (if not better). Movin’ Out also features a fantastic melody and some inspired musical moments, like the infamous “ack-ack-ack-ack-ack” that sounds as much like a sputtering engine as a song refrain.
The song is autobiographical, and Joel projects heroism onto himself for refusing to live a conventional lifestyle. Yet the cracks in his confidence shine clear throughout the album: In the closing tracks, Joel expresses impatience at not breaking through (Get it Right the First Team) and a weariness in his rogue journey (the beautiful Everybody Has a Dream).
Elsewhere, Joel tracks his aging process and wonders where it all leads. Vienna and Scenes From an Italian Restaurant are the two best songs on the album — and perhaps the two best songs he ever wrote. The pair are Yin and Yang — one is a minimalist ballad, the other a busy showstopper; one is a concise reflection, the other a panorama; one is about gracefully fading into old age, the other about squandering. What they have in common are tremendous melodies, provocative lyrics, cultish fan adoration, and a notable absence from Billboard.
Scenes From an Italian Restaurant is particularly notable, musically. The ambitious suite is composed of incomplete songs of half-ideas. All together, they tell a complete story. The song shows three different ways of looking at lost adolescence. Joel asks a lot of his band here, and they deliver; the sound of the song is colorful and sweeping.
But as much as I love Scenes, the song I keep coming back to is Vienna. It’s a simple song with one fantastic line after another. Joel wrote it after visiting Vienna, Austria and seeing an old man sweeping the street. It got Joel thinking about growing old, and he found something beautiful in the way the old man still had value to the world. In the song, Joel chides an over-anxious, ambitious youth — pretty clearly himself — for not recognizing that a long and peaceful future awaits him. It will come, Joel says, whether or not he accomplishes every last dream in his head.
Though tinged with sadness, Vienna is ultimately an optimistic song, something rare in Joel’s discography. That’s just one reason of many I consider it my favorite song of all time.
Nearly as great as those two gems are the most famous singles on the album: Just the Way You Are, Only the Good Die Young, and She’s Always a Woman.
She’s Always a Woman and Just the Way You Are both address anonymous women. The former is openly scornful, almost misogynistic, in spite of the narrator’s obvious attraction to the woman. It’s a biting and funny song with an all-time great opening line that serves as a good summary for the rest of the lyrics: “She can kill with a smile, she can wound with her eyes.”
Just the Way You Are, on the other hand, is very romantic on the surface. (Full disclosure: It was my parents’ wedding reception first dance.) Many of the lines are very sweet: “I said I love you, and that’s forever” — “What will it take ’til you believe in me the way that I believe in you” — etc.
But I would argue that the central premise of the song — Joel begging his lover to stay exactly the same, to love him the same way she does right now forever — is a very sad and desperate one, misogynistic in its own little way.
Both are great ballads, but She’s Always a Woman has aged a bit better because Just the Way You Are’s texture is too saccharine. The lush background strings and synths eventually grate in spite of the song’s killer melodies and heart-tugging lyrics.
I can’t deny the song’s greatness, though. The way the Joel pulls back just a bit before singing “…the way that I believe in you” makes even this straight male swoon.
The album’s most notorious song is Only the Good Die Young. Joel woos an innocent Catholic schoolgirl — brilliantly given the name Virginia (look at the first six letters) — and tempts her to join his “dangerous crowd” and stop “waiting” to “start.” It took me until high school to realize exactly what it was he wanted her to start doing.
Joel courted plenty of controversy for the song. There’s a sexual thrust to the song, but it’s hard not to think the whole mess is because he put the word “Catholic” in the first line. There are plentyof “pro-lust” songs out there (to cop Joel’s description of the song), but directly denouncing Catholicism’s sexual politics was a sure way to make headlines. I have no doubt that was his exact intention.
Thirty-five years later, the controversy has largely faded. The song is now discovered and remembered for its unstoppable melody, fantastic production, and memorable one-liners: “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints” and “That stained glass curtain you’re hiding behind never lets in the sun” are my favorites.
Much like the rest of the songs on the album, Only the Good Die Young is driven by Joel’s reflection on his growing age and his place in the world respective to that; if Joel wasn’t approaching 30, his thrill at soiling an innocent flower wouldn’t be so creepy (or even possible).
Only the Good Die Young receives a spiritual partner of sorts in the title track, where Joel acknowledges the dark, insatiable beast that lurks behind his suave exterior and drives his lust. The Stranger is a fan favorite song, rich and poetic. But Joel’s lofty abstractions and metaphors rarely work as well as his specific, biting stories. It’s true here, too, that Joel reach surpasses his grasp. The title track provides a nice change of pace but doesn’t quite match the peaks of the rest of the album.
There’s a general critical consensus that The Stranger is Joel’s best studio album. Glass Houses has gained some steam after prominent praise by writers like Chuck Klosterman and Stephen Thomas Erlewine. I’m not going to dispute either one; I love them both whole-heartedly, and my preference varies with my mood.
Whether it’s his best album or not, The Stranger is an incredible success on virtually every level. It improved Joel’s fortune and found him at a creative peak, able to depict his complex inner monologue in numerous ways, each as effective as the last. The melodies and production are almost entirely first-rate. It put Joel on the map — changed his career — changed his music — changed his life. Every album he’d ever release afterwards would be colored in some way by The Stranger, and that’s what makes it the definitive Billy Joel record.
I bought High Fidelity about a year ago on the recommendation of fellow Earn This writer Grant. Earlier this week, my computer crashed. I was too lazy to fix it that night, so I grabbed the first book I saw on my bookshelf and started reading. It happened to be Fidelity.
I was hooked right off the bat: Hornby displays a remarkable, conversational tone that compels you to keep reading. It didn’t bother me that not too much happens in the plot, which covers a pretty unremarkable span of about two weeks. The novel is a brisk 323 pages, chronicling the protagonist Rob’s break-up blues.
What did bother me, though, was the mopey attitude of the central character. The book details the protagonist’s thoughts to the point that High Fidelity feels almost as much like a manifesto as it does a novel. And I couldn’t stand Rob’s mindset. He’s self-centered, whiny, spoiled — and no fun to read about.
What are enjoyable are the well-rounded supporting characters, pop-cultural specificity, and — most of all — distinct London vernacular. This was the first book that Hornby published, and it’s comfortably unconventional. The writing style and pacing feels unique but polished.
If only Rob wasn’t such a misanthrope. He’s so caught up in the breakup that drives the narrative — along with his “top 5″ breakups ever — that it comes to define him, and it becomes almost dreadful to read at the lowest points. I almost had to stop reading during one section: Rob’s ex-longtime girlfriend, who just moved out, loses her father to a terminal illness. When it comes time for Rob to comfort her, all he can think about and talk about is whether the new guy she’s dating is invited to the funeral.
I can see how this situation could be funny. I don’t oppose the juxtaposition of the dark and the petty. In fact, one of my favorite scenes from The Fault In Our Stars, which I loved, makes a similar joke: A teenager with cancer has his eyes removed in surgery to save his life, making him blind, but when he wakes up, the first thing he does is complain about a recent breakup. It’s a hilarious scene that captures the brain’s ability to feel the wrong thing at the wrong time.
But the scene in High Fidelity just plays as miserable, and Rob is equally insufferable throughout the book. One big supposed turning point for him comes when he makes the downright extraordinary realization that part of his fear of commitment is because he’s afraid of losing someone once he’s fully invested in the relationship. No shit, Hornby — your character only implied as much every other page. Thanks for spelling it out, though.
And when Rob finally does turn the corner and make a commitment? Here is his stunning insight:
“If you got married to someone you know you love, and you sort yourself out, it frees you up for other things.”
That’s the powerful undercurrent of this book: Familiarity and practical laziness. It’s hardly inspiring, hardly thought-provoking.
Again, I don’t want to give the impression that I hated this book. I quite liked much of it. The characters are well-drawn, it’s funny, and it has a great voice. It effectively captures a specific psychology. And maybe that’s what depressed me so much as I read the book: Its voice was so clear, so internally consistent, that I saw a depressing bizarro version of myself in it.
It’s like: this is what I might have been if a few things hadn’t gone my way. If I hadn’t escaped with my college degree (and it was up in the air for quite awhile), if I hadn’t gotten lucky meeting the right girl at the right time, if my family was just a little bit less supportive — maybe this would be me. I can see little nuggets of myself in the character, from the obsession with lists and ranking, to the reading too much into someone’s personality based on the music/movies/etc. that they like. It’s almost disturbing how much of myself is in this miserable character.
And so I’m stuck between admiring the author’s method and disliking his content. I suppose the fact that the character’s behavior bothered me enough to remove me from the story is a mark against the writer, or maybe it’s the point entirely. It could just be there’s another layer that I failed to connect with. The book is British and a dark comedy, so maybe the stuff I found depressing is actually funnier than I give it credit for. (On the other hand, I loved the UK Office.)
I walked away from the book feeling worse about myself and more confused, rather than enlightened — even as I admired and enjoyed much of it. So I’ll settle with some cognitive dissonance and give it two and half stars.
Dutch post-rock crew All Shall Be Well has announced the winner of the Storytellers contest I told you about. I hope some of you submitted! This is an exciting project, and I encourage all of you to follow along at the band’s website, where they will be posting updates over time to “make the songwriting process very transparent” as they work towards their next album. Fans of music with heart (as opposed to mass-produced pop) and fans of artistic pursuits of all kinds should take advantage of this chance to get insight into the process of writing a soundtrack song based on a short story. Since the band will be detailing their own progress, the next update you’ll see on this page will probably be a review when the new album is released late this year.
See the announcement at All Shall Be Well dot NL and follow the band via your favorite social network. Don’t forget to name your price for their first release, ROODBLAUW, on bandcamp, or stream and download 30-second compositions at soundcloud!
The Fault In Our Stars is far Greater than it really has any right being. And I do mean Great with a capital-G. As soon as I tell you that this is a teen romance about characters who have cancer, you’ll think that I’m nuts calling it Great. I just finished reading a sad book, you’ll reason. I’m emotional and overreacting with gushing praise. It can’t possibly be a four star book. It’s in the Nicholas Sparks genre, the most saccharine and manipulative of styles, and I fell for it.
And that may be true. Maybe in a week or a month or a year, after its immediate impact has worn off, I’ll decide that Green’s novel isn’t Great or even great. Maybe it’s no better than very good.
But I don’t think so. As Todd VanDerWerff noted – as I’m sure have many that have tried to sell others on the book — Green skillfully navigates a minefield premise, avoiding the explosion of cloying sob story. To be sure, it’s sad at times. But it’s not normal “cancer story” sad. Or maybe it is normal “cancer story” sad, and that’s part of the point of the book.
Regardless, The Fault In Our Stars is less about the central romance, and more about life cut short, uncertainty, death, the point of love, and leaving a mark on the world. It’s really quite well-written, too. It makes its reflections on those ideas abundantly accessible without smacking you across the head. If you just want an emotional love story, you can get that. But if you’re more concerned with having literature change the way you look at and think about the world, even in the slightest, you should be pleasantly surprised — Even if you’re hardened to sappy romances, as I (mostly) am.
I wouldn’t say the book is perfect. The central protagonists are a bit too perfect and smart-alecky, far too literate and articulate for teenagers. Once or twice, their over-quippiness removed me from the story. But their attitude ends up being pretty essential to the book working. Their awareness of “cancer story” tropes is amusing and also makes their suffering feel more real and honest.
Green has a way of writing individual lines that floor you, and exploring clever little ideas that turn out to be wonderfully poignant. One of my favorites: we meet two secondary characters at the beginning of the story who always whisper the word “forever” to each other as a testament to their undying love. They, of course, break up in the first fifty pages.
In response to “forever,” the protagonists come up with their own little lie that they repeat to each other over and over: “okay.” Just like the “forever” romance did not last forever, not even close, so nothing is really “okay” for the main characters.
What’s Great about The Fault In Our Stars is that it doesn’t try to convince you that this world is “okay” or that anything nice will last “forever.” Isn’t that the point of most cancer love stories? To tell us that, even though we die, we endure by remaining in the hearts of others for all time?
In that way, this book is the opposite of a typical cancer story. Even though its narrative ends up pretty predictable for the genre, its lessons are relatively radical, at once terrifying and calming.
HP Lovecraft once wrote: “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” The Fault In Our Stars allows us to dip our toes in that water, and I would recommend it to anyone.
Last week, I found the script for the pilot of Aaron Sorkin’s upcoming new HBO show The Newsroom; the day after I finished reading it, Dan sent me the new series’ trailer. Unfortunately, the show’s genesis has twisted my mind into a cognitively-dissonant pretzel that’s harder to untangle than recent Gossip Girl plotlines. The freight train that is my belief in Sorkin’s unmatched reign atop the screenwriting mountaintop may finally face a massive roadblock in its path. Let’s break down why.
1) One of my first thoughts while reading the pilot was that this isn’t a particularly interesting idea for a TV show. I start here because that’s where most discussions of shows should start. Once more, Sorkin seems to be attempting to hide his biggest weakness-and, no, I don’t mean the ego, or the proselytizing, or weak female characters; I mean plot.
Quite often, he gets around that, much as LeBron James makes people overlook that he can’t dribble particularly well. However, struggles with plot will naturally rear their ugly heads more in a TV series than a one-off movie. I don’t know if Sorkin always does the behind-the-scenes thing because that easily affords storylines, but I wonder. But is anyone really concerned about what happens behind the scenes of a CNN-type network?
While Sorkin doesn’t thrive on his plots, his best work does typically have a strong hook or sense of irony. The Social Network’s great irony was a friendless guy creating our generation’s social network (and the secondary irony of an unhappy billionaire). The American President has a great premise that immediately sounds like a movie; A Few Good Men’s is close enough behind. (The West Wing at least had the irony of public servants who were actually decent and committed; but, frankly, I think WW is a non-replicable aberration that really shouldn’t have worked except for the fact that Sorkin’s fingers were laced with gold for those four years.)
Studio 60 and Sports Night didn’t really have hooks commensurate with the aforementioned, and they suffered. Conflicts and storylines are naturally embedded in good hooks; without them, those two shows wandered. (I should note that I’m perhaps the only person on the planet who appreciates those two shows about equally; I’m higher on Studio 60 than most and lower on Sports Night. Sports Night was decent, but it’s no undiscovered gem; S60 had about 6-7 great episodes, including the first four, and a great cast, but then Sorkin didn’t know what to do next.)
2) As an extension of that point: what are the stakes in The Newsroom? The trailer says that ‘the most trusted name in news is about to lose his audience.’ My question: does anyone care? Do I? I’m not sure.
Stakes are usually essential for a movie, at least a drama. And Sorkin’s usually great at making you feel as though what’s going on in his stories is the most important thing in the world; A Few Good Men and Social Network possessed this quality in spades.
Stakes may be less important for television, but that holds true more for comedies (so Sports Night can get a relative pass). That’s where The Newsroom makes me worried about a repeat of the vitriol that Studio 60 endured. Studio 60 didn’t have sufficient stakes, but Sorkin—in what most people viewed as a colossal misstep—tried to force them. He made the characters act as though they were changing the world with their TV show, and no one bought it. The same thing seems to be happening here. When there are legitimate stakes, Sorkin can ratchet up the intensity to bone-chilling levels. But if he picks the wrong subject, it’s more dicey.
3) The dialogue. On one hand, I get annoyed when people claim that Sorkin’s only good at dialogue. Dialogue does not make a movie, and his strengths extend far beyond that. However, I obviously can’t deny that gift.
But in The Newsroom? If I had read this script from an anonymous writer, I probably wouldn’t have finished it, for two reasons. One is the aforementioned lack of interest in the subject matter; the second, shockingly, is the dialogue. I wanted to put it down when someone says to the protagonist, “You’re smarted and talented, but not a very nice guy,” which is just awful, awful, telling-not-showing writing. That’s…that’s just not how you write. Did anyone need to say that to Eisenberg in Social? NO, because we SAW what he was like. You don’t get to define your characters that way, you just don’t. I desperately hope that line has since been cut. And on that, I need to stop talking about this.
Pretty much the same feeling applies to this line from the trailer: “He’s trying to do good, and he’s risking a lot to do it.” When I saw that quote referenced in a review of the show, I assumed the author was mocking Sorkin, was putting fictional words in a theoretical character’s mouth. I couldn’t believe it was actually drawn from the story. You don’t get to explain situations like that to us. If you don’t believe me, imagine a character in American President saying, “He would really like to date a nice lady, but the challenge of his job is making that difficult.” Arg.
Other small bits: “I’m fighting the good fight…progress is slow, but I’m in it for the long haul.” Am I wrong, or isn’t that three clichés (or at least three bland near-clichés) back-to-back-to-back? Is that the point? I can’t tell.
4) The villains. If Sorkin has the right villain—which, for him, usually means someone comedically stupid or misguided—there are few people who write better put-downs. (See Bartlet vs. the religious woman, Andrew Shepherd vs. Bob Rumson, Zuckerberg vs. the twins, Toby Ziegler vs. nearly anyone.) But, analogously to the stakes, if there isn’t a legitimate villain, he tries to force one. The attacks on technology that peppered the script just make Sorkin sound like he’s 95 years old; likewise, the “sorority girl” comment is dumb.
Sigh. I’ll still watch every single episode in which he’s involved. That’s because when he’s on, he is so good that you wish your daily interactions went the way he wrote, because your life would be that exhilarating. He’s so much more than the few lines with which people associate him. Jack Nicholson’s best moment is Men is actually, “Deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall! You need me on that wall!” The best line of American President comes not in Michael Douglas’s climactic speech, but rather when Martin Sheen says “If I hadn’t, you’d be the most popular history professor at the University of Wisconsin.” Likewise, in its context, Sports Night‘s “You’re wearing my shirt” is one of the greatest lines I’ve ever heard.
In my study of screenwriting, I’ve learned something that I think people overlook–if you’re a writer, regardless of your individual strength, then you can write, period. For example, the scene descriptions and ‘unfilmables’ in the scripts of Shane Black–the creator of the Lethal Weapon series and one of the most famous writers in the business–evince a ferociously compelling and original style.
Sorkin is no exception. He gets credit for his dialogue, but his structural choice to intercut everything in The Social Network with the depositions was pure genius. (Also, read his character descriptions in that script to educate yourself.) Likewise, a lesser writer would have clued us into the president’s loneliness in American President via some awful shot of him staring longingly at a photo of his dead wife; Sorkin, however, incorporates that information into a fast-paced scene so seamlessly that you barely notice it.
So, yes, Sorkin–regardless of how the blogosphere may criticize him (fairly) for his scripts being un-cinematic and (unfairly) for them being arrogant and pretentious–has enhanced all our lives. If you’re like me, you think his ceiling is best writer alive; but either way, you can’t deny his skill. Most screenwriters out there are still trying to imitate West Wing exchanges; if you don’t believe me, re-watch the show with someone who has a brain and observe him/her marvelling at its intelligence. His skill is evident in, say, the way you feel after Toby Ziegler’s brush with a homeless veteran, or Josh Lyman’s therapy session. It’s the realness and conviction and emotion. And we’re all much better for it.
Post-script: Several episodes of The Newsroom have aired, and critics have pretty much universally trashed them, but ratings have been good enough for HBO to order a second season. And, yes, much to my dismay, I have to admit that much of the episodes have been pretty mediocre. There’s no doubt that some of my bitterness stems from my wish that Sorkin focus more of his attention on movies, where his batting average is higher. For Christ’s sake, he and Steve Zaillian (probably #2 on that screenwriting mountaintop) just made freaking MONEYBALL, with an un-cinematic book and a horrible draft of a script, into something stirring. But, even if he doesn’t, I hope he doesn’t get buried by sanctimonious bloggers who want nothing more than to marginalize his incredible talent.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever officially commented on “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” by Bruce Springsteen on this site, so let me do that right now: It’s one of my favorite songs of all time, if not my favorite.
I also think that the studio version is more or less perfect, unassailable. There’s so much going on in each of the exciting, perfectly balanced performances. Bruce sings with infectious energy, but also a slyness that adds a compelling layer to the song. He can waver between ironic and sincere in a single syllable.
So that raises a question: What about the live version? I love the song, and it’s known as one of his concert staples and a live fan favorite. So surely I’ll love it, right?
Actually, there’s a lot missing from every live version of the song I’ve listened to. The ambiguous intents of the narrator have more or less disappeared, completely overpowered by the surface layer of the song. The emotional complexity and narrative tension of the lyrics have been drowned in high-energy, boy-meets-girl passion and jamming bliss. Nothing subtle about the live version.
Not that this is all bad. I love a fist-pumping crowd-pleaser as much as the next guy. It’s just not the song I fell in love with, and it sounds like Bruce doesn’t really care about the words he’s singing.
But, in spite of my pretensious loyalty to the original recording, there is a live version that sweeps me away every time. It’s the version off of Live 1975-85, the definitive, official concert album for the most important part of Bruce Springsteen’s career. ”Rosalita” is the eleventh of twelve tracks on the first disc of the three-disc compilation. You can listen to it below.
So, how does this live version of Rosie win me over?
Let me count the ways.
- If you couldn’t tell from the title of the post and the title I gave the MP3 link, I love the way he opens the track and shouts “Rosie, come out tonight!” and the crowd goes a little bit nuts. (0:00)
- I love the way that he shouts “You’re the one!” at the end of the first verse and the drums pick up. (1:03)
- I love the way he says “So what’s the big deal?” before the first refrain and then unleashes one of the great aural assaults you’ll hear. (1:49)
- I love the way he holds off saying “…use the door!” even though every one in the audience knows that’s exactly what winners do. I get the chills every time. (2:57)
- I love the riff that precedes the band introductions. You can practically hear the people dancing in the audience. (3:30)
- I don’t think I’ve ever said this before, but I love the band introductions. They might actually be my favorite part of the song. I never skip over them. The best part is the crazy nicknames he has for everyone. I think my favorite nickname is “now you see him now you don’t,” the organ player. (4:01)
- I especially love the way Bruce introduces Clarence. I know it’s stupid because it’s not even part of the music. It’s like the credits to a movie. Who enjoys watching the credits? The whole point of credits is so that the stuff before it is possible. But Bruce’s love for his sax player is obvious, and it transmits. This is important. I love it all: the fan reaction, the pause after Bruce says “last but not least…”, the way nobody is sure whether to respond with “yes” or “no” to the question “Do I have to say his name?”, the many superlatives and specs Bruce shares (“master of the universe”), the way you can practically see in your head the whole thing transpire on stage as Big Man gets the spotlight. It’s all fantastic, and for some reason I feel like it’s a window into what’s so special and mystical about Bruce Springsteen’s best music. Nobody else can introduce a sax player and make you feel something. I actually choked up the first few times I listened to this song after Clarence died, which is weird and stupid because I never met him. But it moved me, and I feel like that’s important in some way. (4:35)
- I love the way the song leaves the band introductions and crescendos and builds for about a minute before climaxing for another minute of musical eupohoria. (5:10)
- I love the chant of “Papa says he knows that I don’t have any money.” It sounds more like a pep cheer than a chain gang song (which was the point of the original, and actually makes thematic sense), but it’s fun to listen to regardless. (7:23)
- I love the lyrics change from “big advance” – which rhymes and, again, makes thematic sense – to “big bucks,” which is probably more accurate. (7:38)
- I love the way Bruce holds back during the second-last stanza. (“There’s a little cafe…”) It’s like the last big breath before the explosion to come. (8:10)
- If Clarence’s intro is my favorite part of the song, the way the band’s shouting leading into the final refrain lasts about ten seconds longer than I should is a close runner-up. You just keep waiting for it to release, and it keeps getting more and more awesome when it doesn’t. (8:27)
- The highly concentrated doses of rocking out during the “hey hey” chant doesn’t really carry much sonically. You have to imagine that you could just feel the reverberations of those drums all across whatever stadium he performed at. (9:09)
- And THAT, folks, is how you end a song. (9:15)
So it may not have the layers that studio original does, but, suffice to say, the live version of “Rosalita” sweeps me away with its sheer force nonetheless.