I was on holiday last week, which gave me an opportunity to enjoy what had long promised to be two of the great cultural highlights of 2017: new work from, respectively, Father John Misty and George Saunders.
The former’s “Pure Comedy” has, I gather, been discussed elsewhere passim. I think most Afterworders are now reasonably well acquainted with Master Tillman’s schtick, and have probably already gone some way towards determining where their regard for said schtick most comfortably resides along the tremulous and sometimes illusory line that stretches all the way from love to hate and back again.
Saunders is probably more of an unknown quantity in these parts. He is the author of numerous books of short stories, including the quite superb “Civilwarland in Bad Decline” and “Pastoralia”, and has this month debuted his first full length novel; “Lincoln In The Bardo”. Saunders was recommended to me by an astute bookshop clerk three years ago (“the Twain of the 21st Century”, breathlessly expounded said clerk), and I have subsequently devoured his full output. If you’re in the market for tales of experimental drugs that make theme park workers actually believe they’re living in medieval times, trafficked women from the developing world being used as suburban lawn ornaments and border disputes between nations so small that only one person at a time can fit inside them, then George is yer man.
Father John Misty
These two talents have long been linked in my mind, because they share both a certain world-weary cynicism, a pitch black sense of humour and the means to give full expression to their misanthropy in vivid and exciting ways. I feel that they are mining the same seam, moving along parallel trajectories and jumbling similar metaphors. Each has a fine eye for character, a solid ear for dialogue and an innate sense of the absurdity of our shared future. They also both have beards. This is probably cosmologically significant.
So much of FJM’s work could easily be lifted from that of Saunders. The Ladiesman, from “Only Son Of The Ladiesman” might be the basis of a solid 20 page yarn about the corrosive effect of technology on classic masculinity. The narrator of “Bored In The USA” need only be transplanted into a gigantic theme park attraction in which he is forced to live in close quartered confinement with the co-habitee of his dead marriage for the amusement of a paying public. The long sanctified human spirit is routinely given the up and down and then ground soundly underfoot in the texts and lyrics of our heroes.
A word on style. I am aware that FJM is an acquired taste. That his louche righteousness and apparent perma-sneer are not conducive to universal approval, and that his grotesque hipsterism may be either anathema or anaesthesia, depending on your mileage. This doesn’t necessarily trouble me. I think a lot of what he’s doing is front, and that in an age of social media, blogsite pseudonyms and information fatigue, his ironic distancing of his inner core from his audience is an intrinsic part of the act, albeit a part he will eventually need to move beyond. Plus, he’s also a quite sensational showman with a pair of truly golden pipes, as I have previously essayed elsewhere (oh, okay then – here: https://theafterword.co.uk/father-john-misty-sheperds-bush-empire/).
Saunders, I feel, is rather like a particularly rich meal. Some of the very best writing of the last twenty years, but you wouldn’t necessarily want it on the menu every night – a kind of fatigue sometimes sets in, so bleak is the vision, so darkthe humour, and I have long wondered whether this aspect might prove problematic in the longer form. More on that later.
So then, two artists, each at a crossroads. Saunders moving from the short story to the full length novel for the first time, and having to abandon a template that has served him extremely well these last few years, if in danger of running a trifle formulaic. Tillman following up the success of 2015’s “I Love You Honeybear”, the album that made him a bona fide indie superstar/sex symbol/pan-generational seer.
But perhaps there’s also a shared aspect to the challenge ahead, with each artist attempting to engineer a means to transcend the ennui which underpins their respective work. It’s relatively easy to be a clever cynic and to draw applause for tearing down the world around you: sixth form common rooms across the land, together with the ongoing popularity of Radiohead, are clear testament to that.
To do so with real wit, as in the case of each of Tillman and Saunders, is, of course, another matter, but still imposes its own limitation; yes, yes the world is shit and people are shit. What next then?
What I found interesting these few days just gone, as I tore through “Lincoln In the Bardo” with “Pure Comedy” on heavy repeat all the while, is how each work responds to this challenge. One does so by simply doubling down on existing misanthropic impulses while settling on a familiar and uniform style; the other by jagging in an almost entirely unfamiliar and unexpected direction. It made me think about the way we all (even artists!) grow up, the way we eventually have to reach some sort of permanent accommodation with what Misty memorably describes as “this godless rock that refuses to die” (don’t we?), the imperative to drop the act, get off the sidelines and pitch in.
Listening to “Pure Comedy”, you become acutely aware of the constituent parts that made “… Honeybear”, so much fun, not all of which remain present. The voice, the persona, the lyrics – of course. But also the sheer variety of style available therein, from the twisted torch song of “Bored In The USA” to the machinima of “True Affection” to the head-down bar rock of “Ideal Husband” and, most of all, to the warmth and grace of “Chateau Lobby #4”. It’s clear to me, in retrospect, that the latter Tune made that album – in amongst all that cynicism, a little three minute pop gem in which Tillman recounts falling in love with his soon to be wife. “Chateau Lobby…” was the necessary glint of humanity in amongst all the irony and superiority that gave a bit of ballast to the whole, and prevented it from overturning completely.
For “Pure Comedy”, the variety and the humanity have almost entirely been dispensed with. The album is far more uniform in sound, and sounds like a lot less fun. Gone are the hip thrusting horns and lusty crescendos, and in their place is something far more of a piece, built around a template that is, essentially, Elton John takes Laurel Canyon (and doesn’t much care for what he finds there).
The smarts are still present and correct in spades and the whole thing sounds a lot more varnished and ready for the masses: FJM is no longer trying on outfits, as previously: his persona is locked down and ready for mass production. Perhaps as a consequence, there’s a good deal less to thrill to this time out, and I suspect the live shows will prove slightly less intoxicating/intoxicated. To be perfectly frank, there’s a seam of horrendous tastefulness that runs through the record, followed closely behind, perhaps inevitably, by an essence of gentle boredom. Where there was rage, there is now resignation. Maybe this is progress, maybe not, but it all feels a little “less” somehow. There isn’t a tune here to match “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment”, a moment of bombast to sit alongside “I Love You, Honeybear”, a biting lyric to make you wince like “well, it’s literally not that”, a song concept as clever as “Bored…” or a track title to make you laugh at its sheer brazenness like “When I’m Smiling And Astride You”.
I’m loathe to be too critical here, as “… Honeybear” was nothing if not a grower, and “Pure Comedy” remains a fine, fine album that should give pause to all those who cling to that dreadful article of faith that “they don’t make ’em like that anymore”. Indeed, I’m still listening to and enjoying it even as I write this – it’s quite lovely sounding and full of wit. But it remains a relative disappointment (thus far) because it lacks the variance and pizzazz of its predecessor, and because it just sort of sounds like its creator is having a lot less fun than previously. Moreover, it fails because the drawbridge is pulled up – it reveals nothing of its author, beyond his ongoing disgust for the rest of the human race and the bloody awful choices they make. Perhaps that makes it a perfect “now” album for the first few months of 2017, but it makes for a much less arresting listen, and it doesn’t leave much scope for actual growth.
The nearest we get to any hope of an emotional connection with the music is (probably not coincidentally) the album’s standout track; “So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain”. Loosely based on the classic Thomas Mann tale of a man who (ahem) grows old on a magic mountain, it has a lovely, woozy yearning quality to it (“I drank some of farmer’s potion, we were moving in slow motion, slower, better, the slower the better”), and all the nostalgic grace of a summer evening’s dream. And yet…. it builds on an existing work, providing a few subtle tweaks and a soundtrack to Mann’s story without really offering true innovation or taking too many risks. It confirms Tillman as a man of great taste, but then we already knew that. It’s the closest the album comes to soul, and the soul belongs to someone else.
In retrospect, I think it’s a great shame he chose to leave off the album “Real Love Baby”, the single he snuck out to little fanfare during the course of 2016. It’s probably a less sophisticated song than much of what’s offered up on “Pure Comedy”, but it would have brought a nice change of pace to have a relatively sunny tune about actual human love, and that. It takes all sorts to make the world go round.
LINCOLN IN THE BARDO
Where Tillman has distilled his sound, offering us much the same thing at greater concentration, stripped of bells and whistles, Saunders has taken an entirely different approach. Probably mindful that what worked so well in short form will not work over the course of a novel, he appears to have ripped up the blueprint and started over with an entirely blank sheet of paper. Gone are the caustic wit, the scathing appraisals of modern life and the cast iron certainty that any hint of human warmth will simply be the pretext to an even larger hammer descending from on high to make mockery of all hope.
Instead, we get a tale rooted in actual historical events, then rendered utterly fantastical by the author’s hand. It is 1862, and Willie Lincoln, son of Abraham, is succumbing to typhoid. In death, he passes to a form of Buddhist purgatory, the titular “Bardo”, where he is joined by a cast of spirits, each of whom is navigating final passage to the next life. Over the course of a single stormy night, the boy’s father, wracked by restless grief, a year into overseeing the Civil War, visits the cemetery twice to hold and speak to his dead son. Meanwhile, in the Bardo, a battle erupts to save Willie Lincoln’s soul, and prevent him suffering the gruesome fate of those children who tarry too long.
The tale is told in a style which is certainly an enormous departure for Saunders, and one which I’m not sure I’ve seen elsewhere previously. Descriptions of events in the real world are rendered in the form of extracts from eyewitness accounts and subsequent biography. The Bardo, meanwhile, is essayed solely via dialogue attributed to the resident spirits. The overall effect is somewhere between reading a play and a music magazine account of the making of a great album, and it is surprisingly effective.
Impressive as the new style is, it is not the greatest innovation of the work in the context of Saunders’ broader milieu. That distinction goes to the presence of actual, honest-to god-pathos. I’ve read a lot of Saunders work, and he’s certainly made me feel: disgust, discomfort, admiration, amusement, all that good stuff. The passage during which Lincoln first visits his departed son, removes him from his “sick bed” and whispers into his ear, coupled with the impression this leaves on the assembled spirits, evoked a new set of sensations entirely. Thereafter, virtually every section of the book that gives insight into Lincoln’s torrential grief builds progressively on those foundations.
I must admit to having found myself fairly disarmed by this aspect. I had expected that the novel would be clever, full of wit and astute observation about the human condition. I had not, however, anticipated pathos, let alone pathos in this sort of volume. It’s a bit like if I’d cued up “Pure Comedy” and found myself confronted four tracks in by “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman”. Seriously: who knew Saunders had this in his locker? Brilliantly, it’s also still funny: Saunders is on record as refuting the notion that a bit of humour somehow denigrates the value of a work, that all true art must be relentlessly po-faced. Here
For me, “Lincoln In The Bardo” is a watershed moment. It’s the precise point at which Saunders moves from being an author who might one day write something truly great, to one who almost certainly will do so, and indeed may even have already done so. It marks a new maturity, a bold step into fresh terrain, both in terms of its style and its subject, and the first real evidence in support of that over-bold “21st Century Twain” salesmanship to which I was subjected three years ago. I found it clever and thought provoking, but I also found it truly, truly moving, in the best possible way. Frankly, I’m loathe to say too much more here in case I spoil it – it’s the sort of thing best discovered in relative intimacy.
AND SO WHAT DID WE LEARN?
My week with “Pure Comedy” and “Lincoln In The Bardo” ultimately left me with a couple of stray thoughts driftin’ through my transom. It made me think what a dead end cynicism can prove to be, artistically speaking. It made me appreciate anew that the only viable route through dealing with the world’s various numbing horrors is through our shared humanity, and that, ultimately, writing damning songs about social media contributes just as little, and is probably just as narcissistic, as social media itself.
It made me wonder where Saunders might go next. This novel really does feel like it opens up a vast new vista for him to explore, full of range and possibilities. Likewise, it made me think about Father John Misty, and what his future albums might sound like. He has every gift you could hope to bestow upon a musician, and if he can find a way to deploy them all in concert, and pointed in the right direction, then the sky is truly the limit.
Most of all, it made me appreciate the sheer joy of being on holiday with a great new book and a pretty good new record. So long as those things remain available, the world can’t be such a bad old place, can it?