Soon summer will be over. The college kids will return to their campuses, after PAX and Bumbershoot we won’t have big events to worry about, the children will spend their days in schools. Oh, and it will stop being hot and sunny. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Join us this week on Pitching Tents as we celebrate the fact that a lot of people’s lives are changing right now, but our’s sure as hell aren’t.
I need rock music to matter. I also have to assume that Patrick Stickles, the lead singer and songwriter for Titus Andronicus, needs rock music to matter. Because over the course of four albums now, this still pretty young frontman has created some of the most sprawling, bombastic, heart-on-its-sleeve rock and roll in recent memory, and this band absolutely never feels like it’s holding back. Ok, maybe it felt a little like it was holding back on it’s last album, the more economical Local Business, which came in the wake of the hour-plus Civil War concept album from 2010, The Monitor, whose combination of scope and scrappy honesty made it an absolute mind-blower when I first heard it, and still remains one of the more thrilling rock albums of this decade. So it’s come as a relief hearing Titus Andronicus bite off more than anyone else could possibly attempt to chew with this latest album, a self-proclaimed rock opera in five parts that runs about 90 minutes in length.
Like most great rock operas, whatever The Most Lamentable Tragedy‘s story is supposed to be is a little foggy, but a lot of it seems to center around a character, who much like Stickles (who has struggled with bipolar disorder), is dealing with his own mental health issues. It’s the kind of subject that’s relatable to an extent, since we all go a little crazy sometimes, but at the same time it’s not something everyone has as much empathy for as they probably should, and thus fuels much of the album’s underlying alienation. It also fuels a kind of messiness that you would expect from an album with this much unbridled ambition, but there’s something about its emotional chaos that feels very focused and controlled, which I think may have something to do with the fact that Titus Andronicus had been playing a lot of these songs live before molding them into this overarching narrative. And sure, this approach can be a little cumbersome in spots, but at the same time evokes those big rock moments that I’m looking for. The most impactful of these happens early on in the album’s second disc, where the lurching “Funny Feeling” builds and builds in it’s dread and frustration as Stickles shouts “I’ve always had something in side of me!” before launching into the triumphant sing-along of “Fatal Flaw”. It’s one of my favorite moments on any album this year, and a reminder that yes, rock music can still be incredibly cathartic when you need it to be.
So basically, I do think that The Most Lamentable Tragedy is another ragged masterstroke on par with The Monitor. However, there’s so much here that I still feel a little weird writing this review, even though I bought it on its opening weekend (it’s fun that we get to say that for albums now, right?) and have been listening to it pretty consistently for about the past month. Yet I still feel like I haven’t spent enough time with it, and it’s that kind of commitment that will probably drive away anyone who hasn’t already committed to Titus Andronicus, which I can understand. They belong to a certain strata of impassioned, lyrics-heavy bands like The Hold Steady or The Mountain Goats where there’s a whole kind of mythology that runs throughout the entire discography, and simply cannot be summed up in a mere song or two. In a word, they’re the kind of band where you’re either all in, or you’re not. I, apparently seem to be into these kinds of artists, I suppose because I like to have a lot to latch onto with my rock bands, and I suppose I respond to these kinds of songwriters because much like any great author, they have a capacity to lend enough of themselves to their songs that it makes you feel just a little less alone when you’re listening to them. It’s a sensation I have to assume an outsider like Patrick Stickles feels when he’s listening to someone like Bruce Springsteen or Paul Westerberg, and it’s more than a little affecting hearing him pay that sensation forward on The Most Lamentable Tragedy.
Favorite Tracks: “I Lost My Mind”, “Fatal Flaw”, “Come On, Siobhan”
Hot damn! I can’t believe we are already the amount of days into August we are when this was posted! It’s basically back-to-school time already. But don’t fret, old buddy, there’s still some summer left. Let’s not treat it like one long Sunday and instead try to have some actual fun. Yeah! And you know what’s fun, don’t you? Talking about mostly old music and then trying to put it into a ranked list as if it really means something. That’s right, it may be summer but we certainly aren’t on break here at Top Ten Thursdays!
My relationship with the work of the late (and I think we can safely say great) writer David Foster Wallace, has been a recent development and one that seems to still be in bloom. And yeah, I’ll just admit that I hadn’t gone to the trouble of reading any of his stuff until I’d heard they were making a movie about him, which led me to read his collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again as a bit of a primer. But after finishing it, about a month or so ago, I can say I am all on board with David Foster Wallace. He was clearly a phenomenally gifted and astute talent, and I have already committed to the idea that I am going to spend the Fall (and possibly Winter) months reading his 1,000 page opus Infinite Jest — a novel which serves as the focal point of the film The End Of The Tour, which has managed to even further fan the flames of my desire to spend that many hours and pages getting inside the head of just one guy.
David Lipsky, the real-life writer who was dispatched by Rolling Stone in 1996 to do a piece on the already reclusive Wallace and the newly released Infinite Jest, also clearly had this same desire to get inside Wallace’s head, because that’s pretty much all the film is. It’s more or less a series of conversations between Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) and Wallace (Jason Siegel) driving around in cars and having conversations about life and writing and the American consciousness, while Lipsky follows Wallace on the last leg of this book tour. Granted, the film is given a little more narrative heft than the actual conversations between Lipsky and Wallace, which supposedly served as the basis for a lot of the dialogue, though I don’t know how much of their conversations were used verbatim. But however much dialogue is actual transcribed conversation or something cooked up by screenwriter Donald Margulies, the back-and-forth’s between these two characters have a refreshing quality of being incredibly verbose and articulate, but never feel phony since they have this added resonance of being things that these two very smart guys actually said.
Still, even with the richness of these conversations and the film’s novel adherence to them, you still must have a certain caliber of actor that can ground this source material, and though I’ll admit I’ve had borderline man-crushes on both Siegel and Eisenberg for a while, they both managed to surprise and delight me with their work here. There are few actors that are capable of making neurotic introverts seem like oppourtunistic extroverts like Jesse Eisenberg, and that’s kind of what he’s doing here. Though we do get the sense of his Lipsky over the course of the film trying to, as Siegel’s Wallace at one point puts it “just be a good guy”, and naturally struggling with that since he is after all a Jesse Eisenberg character. And even though The End Of The Tour is on the surface about Lipsky hoping to paint some sort of portrait of this more acclaimed contemporary, the movie becomes just as much about Lipsky’s own insecurities as a failed novelist and how he measures his lack of success in contrast with Wallace’s actual success.
Siegel, on the other hand is admittedly more of a revelation, though it may have more to do with him taking so many safe, already forgotten comedies lately (like Sex Tape, and you know, that other one…) than whether he ever had it in him. Also, having watched/heard a few interviews with David Foster Wallace that are floating around online, I think Siegel does a nice job of intently capturing the man’s soft-spoken intelligence, but without overdoing any sort of mannerisms. To the point where one of the mannerisms Siegel actually did use was so specific and yet was employed at such a late point in the film, that I was actually impressed. It’s a facial tick I noticed Wallace use in his Charlie Rose interview a few times whenever he’d answer a question with a pretty well-informed and tactful answer, and yet because he’s talking instead of writing, you can tell he’s not entirely satisfied with the way he’d articulated the words. Which might be tied in to what makes Wallace such an interesting figure and even an interesting character in a movie — that he seemed like a guy who had it all figured out, or had at least figured out a very American-type of human emptiness, and yet was afraid to share it with anyone but his readers.
From what I can tell, another thing that also made David Foster Wallace a compelling figure, perhaps more so than a lot of his contemporaries in modern literature, is that in addition to his mastery of language and storytelling, was that there was a beating heart underneath. And if there’s any issues I have with the movie, it probably has to do with its second half, where director James Ponsoldt maybe lingers a little too much on the heartfelt bromance between Wallace and Lipsky, which at times feels a little more similar to the teenagers in Ponsoldt’s last film, The Spectacular Now, than a couple of writers in their 30s. But at the same time, I can tell you as well as anyone that writers are not typically very exciting protagonists, and I think the film does a nice job of blowing up both characters’ inherent flaws and fears and desires, but while also making it feel apiece with the ideas that Wallace was trying to convey in his work. Or at least, from what I can tell. Again, I’m still a David Foster Novice at this point.
There’s a sentiment my colleague John Otteni has pointed out before about certain movies or music, and it’s that it can sometimes be hardest to talk/write about the things you like the most. This review has been a hard one to write, not only because I like this movie a lot, but also because it’s one that feels like it falls so comfortably into the sweet spot of things I like to see in movies. I mean sure, as I’ve stated, it’s not like I’ve been obsessed with David Foster Wallace until recently, but this is a movie about writers wrestling with shit, is wall-to-wall dialogue, takes place mostly in Minnesota, and stars two actors whom I’d gladly watch read the phonebook. And maybe this skepticism is all intertwined with our modern niche-driven culture (which by the way was basically predicted by DFW in his 1990 essay E Unibus Pluram), where we’re basically becoming more and more comfortable with only liking things that are tailored towards us. But that’s just the way we humans are. We have these particular set of tastes, and though you can try to run from them, to quote David Foster Wallace just one last time, no matter what, of course you end up becoming yourself.
It’s been a little over 24 hours since Jon Stewart gave his final send-off as host of The Daily Show, the comedy/news institution that he served as the host of for 16 years, and it’s hard to say if he’s already a distant nuicance in the rear-view mirror of the fast-paced 24-hour news networks he’d been skewering, or if the man truly left an impact on these lie-mongerers. I also can’t say I’ve quite been feeling a distinct welling of emptiness in lieu of Thursday night’s farewell episode, but maybe that’s how I should feel. After all, Jon Stewart isn’t dead. Hell, The Daily Show itself isn’t even dead, as Trevor Noah will be taking the reigns in late September. Also, Stewart stated in one of the segments from Thursday night that what he hoped to start with The Daily Show was an ongoing conversation about news and politics and the America we live in, and that conversation isn’t dead either. Still, for me, and I imagine a lot of likeminded people my age, Stewart and The Daily Show have always been a vital and hilarious respite from this grim world, and I imagine his absence is one that will be felt as a slow burn, as the months go by and we have that feeling of disappointment every time some insane, unjust thing is happening in the world, and we realize we won’t have Stewart to help us simultaneously laugh at and make sense of it. Continue reading
First Pixels, now the Fantastic Four… Man, it’s been a bad few weeks for movies that sound like a bad idea. Hey, speaking of Pixels, that was a movie about video games. You know who likes video games? We do, to varying degrees. You know what would be fun is if we did a podcast about video games that are like super old. Like, our dads played them in college old. That would be fun and a good idea and not totally out of our depth. So check out our top 2600-era Atari games right now!