My Month In Sound: October 2023

A monthly roundup of discoveries, oddities, songs, and sounds.

Stop Making Sense vs. Sphere
Sphere is here–not the Sphere, just Sphere (“we just say ‘Manager’”) [except the URL has the” in its name?]. It is a large, spherical structure built to the east of the Las Vegas strip aimed at “immersive experiences.” U2 opened the Sphere this month with a series of thirty-six shows.

The images from the shows depict an IMAX-like space with a spherical screen arching high over the space, which can seat about 18,000 people. And on these screens, dazzling videos and images. They’re truly astounding. But what’s not astounding is how small and sad U2 seem in the background. They’re quite literally upstaged by a large movie screen.

Immersion” is the PR word du jour in live events right now, as if being physically in a space isn’t immersive” enough. But how immersive can the Sphere experience” be if nearly everyone in the crowd seems to be watching it through raised phones? Isn’t the point of “immersion” to fully melt into the experience, not stand at arm’s length, taking a photo or video for later? To live now, not later.

It depresses me that a band that’s so intent on human connection, whose concerts are spoken of in almost religious-like tones, would mistake spectacle for substance. Yet U2 has always had a flair for the ridiculous and the ego-centric. Perhaps they belong in Vegas now.

Steven Hyden wrote an excellent article on the Sphere, its oily history (it came from a billionaire’s misreading of a Bradbury short story–you can’t make this stuff up), and what it means for the music industry. I’m struck by a far simpler and quainter vision. Earlier this month, Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s 1984 concert film on the Talking Heads, was re-released into theaters. Somehow, I’d never seen it before, despite being a Talking Heads fan and lover of well-made concert films. And this is a well-made concert film: it’s strange, silly, simple, and remarkably captivating. It’s the one with David Byrne’s big suit, yes, but that’s only for a few songs towards the end. For most of the film, we’re treated to vision: the unfolding narrative of connection. Byrne enters alone, playing Psycho Killer” to a backing track. Each band member then joins him one-by-one, song-by-song, mounting platforms or sharing the stage with him. Soon, it’s a nine-piece band, and they’re killing it. The mass of sound and well-oiled machinery of the thing reminded me of jazz’s Big Band era, where the individual players turn into this extraordinary organism all pulling in the same direction.

Demme doesn’t show the crowd’s reaction until the very end, but he doesn’t need to. We, the viewers, are also the audience, and at my screening, people whooped and some parents stood up and danced with their kids in the aisle. They’re reacting to the music, as well as the sheer joy emanating from the band: Alex Weir’s high kicks, Steve Scales’ infectious cheerleading, Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt’s backup” singing (they practically steal the show with their electric grins). We could feel the space that Talking Heads and the live audience are co-creating, even transmitted across the intervening four decades.

As for spectacle, David Byrne’s dance with a $30 floor lamp is more compelling than anything the Sphere could ever hope to achieve. It’s compelling because it’s funny and odd in that Byrne-sian way of his, but also because it gets at the irrational side of music. Music makes you do some funny things. It makes you feel the unspeakable, the unshowable, until you have to dance with a lamp to express it all.

The Sphere does not have space for this. The crowd must sit and consume the spectacle placed before them, like a Vegas buffet, and in return they get the experience of being at the Sphere. But no one will be moved, because that’s not the Sphere’s business. The Sphere is the entertainment. The music is secondary.

Nick Cave & Seán O’Hagan // Faith, Hope & Carnage
Really loved this book of conversations between the musician Nick Cave and the journalist Seán O’Hagan. Cave points out how interviews are one-way, extraction-based, whereas conversations can be nuanced, deep, and wandering. The latter form allows Cave to be astoundingly vulnerable about the death of his son Arthur, his immense grief, and how it’s transformed him.

Cave also talks openly about the spiritual dimensions of his art-making. For him, inspiration and the craft of songwriting is akin to Mary waiting at the tomb”–an act of faith. I’m not of Cave’s religious persuasion, but I find that image to be very moving, and pretty true to my own experience. For years, I used to beat myself up anytime a creative project was taking longer than expected. I felt like it was my fault: if only I worked harder, or faster, or more efficiently, inspiration would spill out of my fingertips. I’d scream at myself internally like some asshole drill sergeant. And when good ideas wouldn’t magically appear under all this stress, I’d collapse and think it was all over for me, like my creativity had failed.”

With therapy and time, this intense self-hatred loosened. I realized how that bile was leaking out into my daily life–even the hard-edged distinction between real” life and my artistic life had to go away. They had to work together, or die together.

It’s disturbing–though not surprising–how much a business-like mentality has warped creative practice these days. Self-help is full of disgusting words like optimization” and crushing,” words that turn creativity into a masculinized, industrialized fetish object. Making art is a lot more of an act of faith. It’s making surrender into a craft. It’s an active form of waiting by that tomb for something to emerge.

I think spirituality and creativity are a lot more intertwined than we’re willing to admit in the secular West. They can still teach each other something. Frankly, I’m envious of Cave’s ecstatic spirituality, how it swirls within his art. It’s what makes his art so undeniable. “Music can be a form of active atonement,” he says in the book. It can be a way of redressing the balance somehow by explicitly putting good into the world, the best of ourselves. And, of course, that requires the participation of the world.”

Chuck Berry // Deep Feeling”
Looking up Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross,” I didn’t know of the song’s (possible) connections to this Chuck Berry instrumental. I’ve never heard him play slide before–it’s probably a lap steel guitar–and I love how raw he sounds. British slide players like Peter Green or George Harrison have a smoothness. On this, you can still hear the metal touching the strings.

R.I.P. Dwight Twilley
Dwight Twilley died a few weeks ago. About a decade ago his music meant the absolute world to me. I was a power pop obsessive, just learning how to write songs, and I wanted so badly to have written Twilley’s Looking For The Magic.” It’s such a perfect song, that power pop formula of mixing the achingly sad with the sweetest melody. Michael Chabon once called it tragic magic.”

Twilley performed” the song on some Tulsa TV show–it’s that 70s era when performances were just self-aware experiments in mime. Freaking Tom Petty is the bassist in the band that day, and Twilley’s mix of rockabilly echo and piano cool accidentally invented Spoon a few decades too early. Such a gem.

Weird synths // Northern soul resurgence
Some articles I enjoyed this month: this one on some truly weird/creepy/funny synthesizers, and a look at a resurgence of Northern soul among connection-hungry Gen Zers. There are always old ideas worth rescuing.

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Spotify’s scarf season” playlist recommendation
Recommended to me on an October day of 97 degrees with 90% humidity. You’d think with all of Spotify’s data surveillance, they’d be able to sync it to a damn weather app before they recommend things to you.

November 1, 2023