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Monday, November 28, 2005
  What kind of language is this?

It's probably time I weighed in with my thoughts on Aerial, though 'weigh' seems like an inappropriate word in the context of this incredibly fleet album. The source of this overwhelming sensation of lightness is not easily located; it pervades the entire record, from its elemental title, to the gusting harmonies that close 'King of the Mountain', to the swift twittering birds that bring the album to an end.

Bush's voice has obviously aged, without obtaining the richness that occasionally finds its way into vocals as the decades accumulate. This is not a weakness though on an album written quite deliberately from the perspective of an older woman - a family woman, concerned both with the everyday banalities of new children and laundry, but also a sinister understanding, evoked so painfully in Church of Me's review.

One of the album's most remarkable achievements is to balance joy and grief - the matching pair of 'Bertie' and 'A Coral Room' spring most obviously to mind - the former a Viol-led hymn to a loved child, the latter a piano led lament for a departed mother. The occasional harshness at the back of her throat serves only to remind us of the years that have passed since her debut, and of the various moments, tragic and happy, to which we have not been privy. The once smooth surface of her voice unexpectedly catches on a splinter or rough patch, and is all the more expressive for it.

'King of the Mountain' with it's title taken from folklore, demands double vision: seeing both the winter-swept halls of the Erl-King of northern legend, but also the fan-swept home/tomb of the other King, Elvis. The video of a spritely Kate Bush, leaning forward as if against the blowing wind, unravelling the loneliness and hubris of the various Kings - Presely, Kane, the Myth - she appears puckish in the midst of the minor-key, minor-orchestrated music, smiling with the knowledge that only something higher than a King can comment on the life and loss of royalty. It's certainly one of the most arresting and unusual singles I've heard for years, and retains that shocking lack of recognition still with each listen.

In contrast to the domestic modulation of the first disc, even after several listens I find 'A Sky of Honey' difficult to pick apart (something it seems from interviews, Bush was hoping to achieve). There's no separation of tone, just a gradual wash of colour and mood that's as slow and implacable as the movement of shadow on the ground. K-Punk's expression of the painterly composition of the second disc is spot on; the songs develop in increments both internally, and as part of the nine-part cycle. The moments between songs mingle and become inseparable, as pigments curl around each other in water to create fresh unseen hues, until finally, on 'Nocturn', with the steady bass and tinkling treble of guitars calling to mind the kind of summer storm that first mixes everything together, and then washes everything clean, we're asked to "look at the light". There's no colour, just light, a sudden end to the song; lightning hitting the ground with such force that sound is left flagging behind.

I don't think anyone could have expected Kate Bush to return with an album as revelatory as this, too many other talents have returned to the fold after much less extensive sabbaticals to dispiriting effect. Instead of losing her way and following blind alleys of 'relevance' or retreading past glories, the compounded experiences of those twelve years are vivid in the songs; unafraid and unstinting in facing down loss, unashamed in celebrating life new and matured. Few albums are as enveloping as this, or as nervelessly open.

Look at the light, all the time it's a changing
Look at the light, climbing up the aerial
Bright, white coming alive jumping off the aerial
All the time it's a changing, like now…
All the time it's a changing, like then again…
All the time it's a changing
And all the dreamers are waking.
Saturday, November 26, 2005
  Who's Best?

A day or so after someone's death seems like a pretty bad time to start assessing their legacy, but the need for column inches beyond the statement of death makes it inevitable that already people have started compiling the subtle equations necessary to decide whether George Best was the greatest footballer of all time.

In the past I've tended to dismiss calls for Best's supremacy as being inspired by an Anglo-centric view of football that has blighted our development of talented players and hampered our performance in countless tournaments. The view that Best was an accident, an unrepeatable prodigy, has contributed both to his elevation as the greatest there has been, but also to the view held by all the home nations that skill is a luxury you can't count on (either in terms of the performances of your mercurial star, or in the likely makeup of any national squad). The perception of Best as an inexplicable talent, an unquantifiable variable, has gone on to haunt players such as Waddle and Le Tissier who while perhaps not as talented, still suffered under the maverick label.

By all accounts though, Best was a solid team player, and not a lazy liability. It is tempting to see the description of him as the founding hell-raiser of several generations of brilliant but difficult players as the conflation of his off-pitch excesses with his on-pitch style. However, I prefer to see it in terms of an essential British suspicion of flair. Now I happily confess that this is purely my own prejudice, built upon years of football commentary, journalism and match watching, so there are going to be people out there who interpret this completely differently, but while other nations seem to have reveled in the inexplicable origins of the skills of their most sublime players, we treat them as if there is an inverse relationship between talent and moral value. The protestant work ethic has no time for free roles.

Best's celebrity is now regarded with a certain prurient fascination, as if no one quite believes that an athlete can have debauched to that extent while still performing on the pitch. We now expect more commitment from our footballers (as do the shareholders contributing to their enormous wages) and yet the glamour of Best with his huge sideburns and even bigger appetite for ditzy models is undiminished. What has changed is the association of those vices with his style of play. Every virtuoso talent that has emerged since has been tainted with the image of pink-shirted George cascading champagne down a tower of glasses. It is now impossible to impress on the pitch with your unpredictability without someone asking the question off it whether that unpredictability is really just unreliability in disguise.

Therefore, it is easy to understand why Best occupies an uncontested seat at the top of the pantheon of players in the English league. He established the pattern that generations of players have followed or been forced into (even minor talents such as Jermaine Pennant seem unable to avoid the temptation of being the flashy winger). It's probably time to own up though. Of the three players most often mentioned as the greatest of all time, Maradona is the only one I've seen play several times. Best and Pele live only in often repeated clips of their finest moments, always attempting an audacious shot from half way that still fails to go in; body-swerving the keeper and still managing to keep balance after all this time. What always seems obvious to me though is that none of it looks very special anymore.

It's in the nature of sport to be nostalgic. Today's achievements are always measured against yesterday's failures or successes, and this is the same in assessing the performances of teams as well as players. This decade's Liverpool team is compared with last decade's, as both a collective entity, and position by position. Most of the time either for reasons of diminishing returns or romantic attachments, the comparison is unfavorable. This habit is played out on a national scale too. Who are the heroes of today, and how do they compare to the fallen and departed? But misty eyes often cause poor focus. Football worldwide has improved beyond measure, with each generation producing players more outrageously gifted than the last. Can anyone honestly tell me that they believe the Ronaldinho of today anything other than the utter superior of anyone who has gone before him?

The moist-eyed reverence English football has for the heroes of its past says a lot to me about the sport's idea of itself. We are more comfortable with the idea that legions of hard working players emerge from a conveyor belt on which occasionally there gleams an unexpected gem, than we are that those gems could be one day produced in the right environment. The failure of Simon Clifford, a man with a genuine philosophy for developing skill in young players, to establish a place at the table at a lowly club like Southampton (run by old-school dinosaurs like Redknapp and Bassett) speaks loudly and clearly about the attitude English football has to producing flair rather than resolve.

George Best may well have been the greatest player to play in the English league; there's no doubting his grace, vision and finishing. He may even warrant inclusion with the likes of Pele and Maradona in the nostalgic pantheon; but the failure of English football to produce a talent that we are comfortable comparing with his should be a warning to anyone who would like to see football played with skill and daring return to this country. Putting George to rest will not be easy. 
Thursday, November 24, 2005
  Easy, Tyger

I accidentally got into a very interesting conversation today about the qualities and etymology of the phrase 'easy, tiger' after expressing admiration at its concise encapsulation of a certain level of sordid flirtation.

I've done a little digging, and from internet sources can't discover any details about the etymology of the word. The period it seems most associated with in my mind is the sixties, the words tripping along with a raised eyebrow and a faked concern that rampant passions be reined in. That need not be the case though. The tiger ceased to be a creature of special fokloric weight for us long before the sixties, when its territory stopped being a place where you might aspire to go and live for the advancement of your career.

Do children today still have nightmares about tigers the way they once did? Is the scale of the beast still something that amazes the young, or have they moved on to others in the menagerie? I'd imagine that Spielberg has done more than anyone to oust the tiger as man's most feared enemy - the Jungle is a distant dream for most, but as the BBC recently reminded us, you're never further than around 70 miles from the sea in England. Sure the waters off the British coast are too cold to harbor a Great White, but you can never really know what's patrolling beneath the turbulent grey surface.

Perhaps it's the experience of seeing them immobile in palatial expanses of tended zoo enclosure that has robbed them of a bit of their mystery. On the few occasions I've seen a tiger, it's been a few stripes of fur glimpsed between fans of undergrowth; a huge paw resting on a log, the rest of the giant head and coiled body totally hidden. They've become pretty lazy. The stars of the show. What was once a creature so awe inspiring that Blake could only blame and congratulate God, is now a cause of mild disappointment for visitors to Marwell hoping to find out what a nightmare looks like. Or perhaps too many appearances bounding through river-spray in Athena posters have turned them noble and cuddly where once they were feared

What though, makes the tiger an appropriate subject for the innuendo? Is it a hangover from a time when anyone could have appreciated the droll futility of trying to calm a tiger? The conjuring of animal urges is obvious enough, but if they fuck as slowly as they do everything else, the tiger is hardly a candidate for pest of the animal kingdom, though the gentle purring undulation of the word is appealing, breaking as it does from that initial gasp of a consonant.

Then, the question of the comma.

Easy tiger...
Easy, tiger...

I favour the latter. It would be wrong to underestimate the effect of that elliptical 'easy'... not a demand for a pause, just difference. The punctuation gives the sentiment room, forces you to consider exactly what easiness must entail. Easy. Tiger.

Down, boy. 
Sunday, November 20, 2005

What force drives modern celebrities to measure themselves against Elvis Presley? Robbie Williams is the latest victim of this curse, with a predictably slow-motion elegiac video portraying himself as Elvis-through-the-ages, with some lyrics I barely caught about Marlon Brando and 'advertising space'. The popular image of Presley as a tragic figure, epitomised by Peter Guralnick's lengthy biography endures still, with Williams in full sad-face mode, profound tattoos and all. However, the Presleyan short-cut to meaningful meditation on celebrity can't be the only reason for his imaged to be invoked so frequently.

There seem two possible reasons for the continuation of the cult. Williams makes an interesting case-study of the possibilities. Is he so in love with the trajectory of his own career that he sees himself ascending to iconic heights, or is he so insecure in his talent and status that he has to include a reverential commentary on his own limitations in the form of a worshipful paean to Presley, the ultimate manifestation of tender, troubled, talented masculinity? Hubris or fear, the choice is yours.

Morrissey makes another surprising acolyte. The performances accompanying the last album release were all given before a huge red "MORRISSEY" sign in the fashion of the '68 comeback special illuminated "ELVIS". The early Morrissey, inhabiting a different musical landscape than we see today, harked back to rockabilly and the now alien 50s in a way that was unexpected, at a time when historical reverence was being sacrificed on a now-tedious bonfire of modernity. However, now all we have is respect - there's nothing so note-worthy as calling on the name of a fallen icon, and in thanking them for all your talent, all your success, craftily swiping the remains of their rank and popularity to bolster your own. To kneel before Elvis now, what must we be saying about our own achievements? Even if Morrissey wanted to replace Elvis, he still had to welcome him onto the stage before he could mount his coup.

To descend to the more mundane for a moment, on a recent episode of The X Factor the defeated contestant was ejected after a bland knee-shake-athon performance of 'Johnny Be Good', with the unintentionally hilarious pay off of '... with the greatest respect, you're never going to be Elvis Presley'. Did it even need to be said?

No one is ever going to be Elvis Presley, not now. That so many continue to try is a genuine surprise, especially in a world of such rampant self-regard. Whoever said that the young had no respect? 
Friday, November 18, 2005
  Man of Steel

Until now I haven't been all that excited by the forthcoming Superman Returns for a couple of reasons. The immigrant fantasy symbolism of Superman never seemed compelling compared to Batman or Spiderman, or even the uber-geeky X-Men, and with a string of non-Spiderman related block busting turds over recent years, the portents have not been good.

The teaser trailer that's just been released here gives me hope though. Sure, some of the effect comes from the old-testament prophetic voice-over from a beyond the grave Brando. And I'd forgotten how excited and nostalgic the John Williams' fanfare could make me feel with it's slowly accumulating layers, but there are a couple of genuinely beautiful images in here.

The first sees a slowly ascending Superman silhouetted against the sun, a visual used so often that you wouldn't imagine it could achieve anything more than cliche. However, the strange orange and grey nuclear sky, and the tiny rising shadow in the absolute distance behind a foreground of black cloud make this a wonderful shot.

Even better is the scene of Superman hanging still but for his cloak, high above the earth, eyes closed, seemingly listening to the whole planet, before rushing down towards a huge bright city through the clouds. I love how dark the planet looks, as if Metropolis is the only inhabited place on earth, and I love the warm electric blue haze on the edge of the atmosphere as the camera pulls back to reveal the curve of the globe.

It's early days, and many a crap film has been preceded by a great trailer, but this is probably the most exciting teaser I've seen in a long time. 
Monday, November 14, 2005
  By common consent, the Amazon behaves a lot like a vast green hand, closing over civilisations too tired to machete their streets clear on a weekly basis, and hiding countless crashed planes, war criminals and lost sons of the Aristocracy. A recent New Yorker article about the search for the remains of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, the early 20th century explorer and theorist of the City of Z, also mentioned some of the many curious or arrogant safari-hatted types who had given their lives to the bugs, the river and the sneaky violent tribes. I'm not sure if an exhaustive account exists of every expedition that ever entered the Amazon and never came out, but if it doesn't, it certainly should.

There are so many ways to be lost in the rainforest: starve, drown, be murdered by suspicious tribesmen, poisoned, or have a Candiru block up your urethra. Almost every retelling of a brave wagon train of explorers entering the forest with clean clothes and the latest equipment ends with stories of campfire smoke that disappears after a few days, and a handful of ragged and torn men that emerge sometimes years later, forever defeated. The only way to take the trees on and win is with an axe, or chainsaw, or better, the tools of industrial deforestation. In a clean fight, the anarchic and the fecund have won time and time again.

The relentlessness with which the forest erases the failed and the fallen is quite startling. Within a handful of years an entire town could be indistinguishable from the bordering forest unless you knew it was there. When entire European countrys'-worth of rainforest can be removed without much of the world noticing, we have moved beyond the human scale of things, even beyond the national scale. However, I have never been to South America, and the mysteries of its cities, its beaches and its religions are just as impenetrable to me as the mystery of it's great forests. The distant green spaces of other continents are not the only places where people, histories and cities are lost.

I seem to get lost in London almost daily, even though I rarely deviate from an established route to work and back. That route has changed somewhat, so I'm now more familiar with the ugly 80s shopping centres and office building of Victoria than the chipboard shrouded Hawksmoor church in Holborn and the cute brutalism of CentrePoint. After seven months of exploring, the city still feels as alien as the rainforest, and as quick to consume and regenerate.

A Saturday afternoon in Wood Green, walking against the human tide and I can't see anyone dressed like me. Probably the fault of my imagination, but I can't imagine anyone sharing my sense of awe as I push my way through to Sainsbury's either. There are so many scowling kids, so many people shoving their way into Foot Locker, so many people struggling in-arm locks, ejected from Foot Locker 30 seconds later with bile on their tongues and promises of retribution once reinforcements are gathered. And so much litter. When the wind picks up great waves of it race along the pavement, gathering to circle dustbins, bus stops and lamp-posts until the gusts die down.

I don't recognise any of the shops. They all look like one-offs, selling mobile phone covers and fresh cuts of meat from the same storefront. Twice-distant along the street is the shopping centre, with it's sticky floors and its ethnic fast food chains. Inside is the cinema, which my girlfriend, with American squeamishness, claims has the nastiest toilets she has ever seen. Constantly moving from morning until long after night has fallen there are strangers refusing to make eye-contact - bodies colliding by accident and design, and the odd explosion.

I pick my way through from time to time.

So far I have made it home every time.

Between the Amazon and my local High Street, it's the sheer volume of life that threatens to pick you up and not let you go. So many vines to tangle your feet, so many unintended slights. I have yet to make up my mind whether I feel elated or merely scared of the city outside my front door - of its rhythms, its many ways to lose yourself, and its few paths to the forest's edge. 


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