Poll 31: My list

Not actually black metal.

All my life, I’ve been an enthusiastic book-reader.  I’ve covered most of the classic kids’ stuff and plenty of the longer (but certainly no better) novels designed for grown-ups. While there are some famous movies I’ve missed, I think I’ve watched most of the celebrated ones. I never got into superhero comics, but I’ve been attentive to most of the other exercises in sequential art that have penetrated mass consciousness.

Yet the stories I remember best are always from records.  The ones that are right there for me, the ones that I keep, perpetually, at the forefront of my mind, are the tales that have been told to me through the medium of the 45+ minute album. I don’t have to rummage through the mental stacks to retrieve The Final Cut; that’s part of my bloodstream now. De La Soul Is Dead, Arthur, Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, Whip-Smart, Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood and Clutching At Straws, Scarlet’s Walk: these are the tales I know best. If you want me to remember something – details and themes, colors and character voices – the surest way to make an impression is by singing it at me.

Maybe this seems wrong to you.  Instinctively, it seems wrong to me. Randy Newman’s Land Of Dreams contains only a tiny fraction of the words, voices, and characters in Gravitys Rainbow. Why is Randy’s story so much more present to my thoughts?  Why did it penetrate my consciousness and become part of the frame through which I see the world?  Shouldn’t it be the other way around?  Why can I “see” the characters and scenarios elaborated on the first Rickie Lee Jones album so much clearer than those in The Deer Hunter, especially given that I never saw them at all?   

After more than four decades of this, I’m forced to conclude that this is simply how my noggin works. There are millions of music listeners – including many who live for the rock – who aren’t particularly concerned about the relationship between Randy’s side-one observations of New Orleans and his side-two examination of Los Angeles. If they want a tale of two cities, they’ll break out the Dickens. The fate of Rael Imperial Aerosol Kid and the Prince Among Thieves doesn’t trouble them.  Music is to dance to, to sing along to, to feel inspired by; pop, with its strict formal rules, its metered verses repetitive choruses, might seem like an awkward carrier of plot and setting.  

Yet it does occur to me that the man who broke the ground we all stand on – I mean the master, progenitor, and universal teacher Chuck Berry – was also pop’s greatest storyteller. Chuck brought his narrative imagination to life in fast, gutsy, broad-stroke sketches that, in their execution, evoked the roar of the internal combustion engine and acceleration of the automobile on the open road. He introduced figures in two-minute songs that remain as vivid to listeners now as they were when he wrote them. The mythology with which he invested his 45s is our heritage – our folklore, as a certain descendent might say. Storytelling may not be the point of the pop-rock project, but it was there at the inception, and it has always been its animating spirit.

Many of the best albums of 2019 told coherent, single-perspective stories: the second Aaron West set, Tyler, the Creator’s Igor and its punk doppleganger Oliver Appropriate, Julia Jacklin’s searing Crushing, Mike Posner’s two projects, the Pedro The Lion comeback, Richard Dawson’s prophetic 2020. Others, like the Paranoid Style set, Drake’s Care Package, and the Billy Woods/Kenny Segal collaboration, were the sort of short story collections where the themes and tone are so consistent throughout that they reward holistic engagement. 2020 was not quite as writerly as ’19 was, but we did get quite a few more projects like those: Punisher, certainly, but also Lupe Fiasco’s provocative House, the underappreciated Dark Lane Demo Tapes, Homeboy Sandman’s brutal Don’t Feed The Monster, and Maria McKee’s lovelorn La Vita Nuova. Then there were those with legitimate through-stories, including the Weeknd’s formulaic but entertaining After Hours, Andy Shauf’s dispiriting bar-crawl, complete with illustrative flashbacks and recurring characters, on The Neon Skyline, and Anime, Trauma And Divorce, the tale of a very bad year in the life of Open Mike Eagle.    

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But three acts of visionary storytelling stood out for me. The first one I’ll mention isn’t on the list below, and that’s because even though it was made by a pop star, it isn’t a pop record.  Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass was marketed (and just barely that) as an anthology of Lana Del Rey’s poetry, and if that’s all it was, it would likely have been every bit as dreadful as you’ve heard it is. But that’s not what it is. She calls it poetry because Lana Del Rey is the sort of person who refers to her writing as “my poetry”, and Elizabeth Grant never breaks character. Violet is actually a collection of interrelated short stories set in a specific place at a dangerous time: Southern California, during the worst of the wildfires, Since it’s all narrated by Lana Del Rey, it’s mystical, absurdly sincere, busy with name-drops, and obsessive about romantic autonomy and artistic integrity. Yet as airy as the protagonist makes it seem, Lana Del Rey is as determined as a detective to get the details right. She sticks pins into the map and reads local landmarks into the record, and she’s always careful to contextualize her personal struggles within the larger story of a “paradise” (greater L.A.) that’s in genuine peril. When she tells herself to “check date” about a photograph of Jim Morrison, you know she will. The specifics matter; names are important; the flames threaten to wipe out the capital of the dream industry, and with it, the most creative, compassionate part of the American mind. There’s a reason why Violet plays like a whisper in your ear. Lana Del Rey knows you’re dreaming. She wants you to wake up, gently, and remember.

The rigorousness of Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass – so easy to miss on first listen! – is worth celebrating. But what impresses me most about the album is the way in which Elizabeth Grant uses an established character to explore ideas and feelings that don’t always fit comfortably in her pop songwriting. In order to tell the story of Violet, Elizabeth has to detach Lana from her defining device: melody. Although I learned long ago never to underestimate this writer, I’m astonished by the skill with which she performed this extraction. The application of a character who was originally dismissed as two-dimensional to subject matter as deep as this reminds me of the development of Philip Marlowe, who began as an archetypical tough guy, and who, by the time of The Long Goodbye, had become a vehicle for the author’s reflections about Los Angeles and American Dream-making. Lana Del Rey, another archetype, has some not-dissimilar observations to make about the state of Californian consciousness and the steady worsening of the national predicament. Raymond Chandler had the luxury to retreat to a private life once the writing day was done. We don’t afford our contemporary pop stars the same sort of detachment. Lana Del Rey is who Elizabeth Grant must be, 24/7, or we’ll stop hearing the voice on her records as authentic. She’s responded by making Lana’s face, and voice, a conduit to a different kind of story. The more you concentrate on Violet, the more it all coalesces – the more you feel the heat and hear the crackle of the flames as they consume the houses in the Malibu hills.

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Serengeti uses spoken-word elements on Ajai, too: there are moments when the rap cadences stops, and the emcee begins talking to you like a sportscaster, giving play-by-play accounts of the characters’ actions. Luckily, he’s matched throughout with music from producer Kenny Segal, who provides moment-to-moment reinforcement of the storytelling with every beat he can manipulate and every sample he can pull out of the crate. That makes Ajai an underground hip-hop instaclassic in spite of itself – one with dazzling rapping by Serengeti, no matter what guise he’s wearing at any given moment, and vibrant, ever-shifting soundscaping by Segal, who somehow improves on the astonishing work he did on Hiding Places, his collaboration with Billy Woods. Segal provides the punctuation that Serengeti, who is famous for run-on sentences, has never quite had on his prior releases. His intimate understanding of the story, and his acute sensitivity to its emotional resonance, means that there’s never a moment that this complicated story lacks a sonic motor.

On prior sets, Serengeti has rapped as Kenny Dennis, a washed-up, working-class, bratwurst-and-onion-loving Midwestern emcee who missed his shot at the big time, but still harbors dreams of participation in the hip-hop conversation. Kenny narrates the back half of Ajai, which follows a slight uptick in his fortunes prompted by the accidental receipt and resale of an expensive set of designer sneakers. Those shoes were originally bought by the title character, an Indian immigrant and “super-fly guy” obsessed with product drops, and delivered to the wrong address. Ajai is married to an upwardly-mobile medical professional (Serengeti raps, convincingly, in her voice, too) whose exasperation with her husband’s fixations ultimately dooms the relationship. Much of what Ajai does is embarrassing – he messes up the company softball game, he tries to get an epidemiologist interested in a shoe lottery, he leaves his wife at a bistro and searches Paris for a stain remover – but it is all completely, utterly purpose-driven, and Serengeti’s rendering of a mind defined by fashion, exclusivity, social-media verification, and outward appearances is airtight. The story flies by with such dizzying velocity that it’s not immediately clear how deep it goes, or how tightly constructed it is.  Once the narrative clicks into place, the Herculean storytelling becomes apparent, and you’re able to fully appreciate this portrait of an entire society going over the cliff in a landslide of collaborations, drops, Balenciaga frames, and other expensive junk.  

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In any other year, Ajai would be my example of outstanding story art and storytelling innovation. But 2020 was the year of Folklore, and Folklore is the best application of intertextuality I’ve ever encountered on a pop album. That’s a big claim, but I don’t believe it’s a particularly controversial one. At the risk of boring Swifties, to whom all of this will be old hat, I want to take a few moments to explain how Folklore works to those who, for some reason or another, still can’t see Taylor Swift as a master storyteller.

The storytelling on Folklore has three components:

  1. There’s a narrative frame.  This is narrated by “Taylor Swift”, a woman in love who is, nonetheless, having trouble opening herself up fully to her boyfriend, and wants to understand her own hesitation, and maybe melt some of the autumnal frost around her heart.
  2. There’s a narrative spine.  This is the “teen love triangle”, a series of old-fashioned, Costello-worthy cheatin’ songs sung by the three characters involved: James, who has a summer affair with an unnamed girl who we’ll call August, and then asks his old girlfriend Betty for forgiveness.  The song “August” is sung by August, “Betty” is sung by James, and then there’s “Cardigan”, which is Betty looking back, ruefully, on the whole sorry thing.
  3. There are side-stories — snapshots and vignettes meant to resonate with the themes of the album and, through the writer’s steady use of motif and recurring imagery, deepen and sometimes complicate our understanding of the four main characters. For instance, early in the album, Taylor Swift tells the story of her summer mansion its prior owner, on “The Last Great American Dynasty”. Rebekah Harkness is described as a mad woman, unruly and presumptuous, and insulated from consequences (but not male disapproval) by her assumed class position. Taylor Swift identifies herself, and her frame-narrator, with Rebekah, and also calls forward to “Mad Woman”, a song designed to underscore the frustration of the two female characters in the teen love triangle.  

A particularly cool thing about the design of Folklore: each subsequent listen blurs the line further between categories two and three. Recurring symbols in the side-stories — the closed door atop the doorway, the movie reel, the parked car inviting the cheater to get in for a ride — links the vignettes with the story of betrayal at the heart of the record. Is that James in “This Is Me Trying”, still on Betty’s front step, still begging for absolution? Is this a glimpse into his mind, or are we just meant to understand how common this gesture is? What about “Illicit Affairs” — is that August repeating a self-destructive dynamic with another man who’ll never be hers? Or is this just the story of a hundred thousand Augusts, in a hundred thousand relationships, each one banging their heart against a stone wall, each one rendered abject by our collective assumptions about the motivations of “other women”, each man’s bad habits forgiven?

I’m a male human, as far as I can tell (more on that in a subsequent essay); I’ve heard Folklore and, alas, I do feel seen. There have certainly been times when I’ve acted like James does: jealous of Betty’s innate sexual power, acting out stupidly in order to remind myself that I might be have some power of my own, on my knees, begging for another chance, eager to separate my lover from all her “stupid friends” in order to better control the circumstances of our relationship. One of the strengths of Folklore is that Taylor Swift manages to make James sympathetic and identifiable, even as she’s raking him over the coals, and making it clear, once you’ve put the story together, that there are terrible and destructive consequences to his casual actions. August, too, is given some of the record’s most rapturous moments, and we’re invited to understand that her desire, however illicit, is worthy of respect and maybe even celebration. 

But insofar as Betty is a proxy for the frame narrator, this is her story, and it turns on the central question of the set: does she relent and open the door? Does she let James back in?  Stopped at a streetlight, do they kiss in the car again? Or is Betty left with the stupid sweater and a reputation for iciness?  Diabolically, Taylor Swift renders “Betty” in the style of her early records: James is meant to sound humble and ingratiating, and all the world loves a love story. But innocence, she’s implying, is just another strategy. James tells her he’s only seventeen and doesn’t know anything; Betty replies that when you’re young, it’s assumed that you know nothing. Betty knows better, and so do you. By the end of the record, when the frame narrator lets her boyfriend through the door, it’s neither a moment of triumph nor surrender. It’s a small victory, but a significant one, won over corrosive forces, with implications for everybody who’d like to fall, and stay, in love.

This is not an idiosyncratic reading of the text. The artist, you may have noticed, has a few fans, and they put all of this together with impressive speed. Those who mourn the death of close reading have never been to a Taylor Swift concert. Her words matter deeply to her listeners, and that should give hope to all fans of all writing, across all disciplines. Great players make great plays, the sage Jeff Van Gundy once said, and what he meant by that was that the viewer should never be surprised when Michael Jordan wins the game with a miracle shot. Taylor Swift, I hope we can all see by now, is one for the ages, and would have been a Hall of Famer even if she hadn’t pivoted back to linear storytelling on Lover and completed that pivot with her pair of titanic folk-rock albums in 2020. There are those who’ll tell you that Evermore is the better set, and I’m not going to fight them, because Evermore is fantastic, and it contains plenty of great narrative tricks of its own. It doesn’t have the fearsome coherence of Folklore, though. Given a choice, I’m always going to ask for the bedtime story — even when the bedtime story was written, explicitly, to give me some restless sleep.

Unless you’re a Nashville country fanatic, Taylor Swift introduced herself to you with a song about an older woman remembering what it was like to be a teenager. This act of imaginative exertion was made when she was, herself, a teen: she voiced an older woman giving love advice to someone not unlike the girl she then was. Even then, it was apparent that she was interested in playing with time, looking through telescopes and mirrors and making up characters, examining how romance might persist in a dangerous world. She set out to write love stories, and if her latest ones can’t be resolved as easily as Juliet just saying yes, she’s no less compelled by the prospect of romantic attraction now than she ever was. She’s now twice times fifteen, but the proposition is still the same: when someone tells you they love you, you’re gonna believe them. What you do with that belief is up to you. And what matters most is whatever happens next.

Album of the Year:

More tomorrow: singles, categories, another essay, I’m sure. For Poll results, click here. For singles results, click here. For miscellaneous categories and commentary, click here.