Thursday, September 28, 2017

Q3 2017 Pop Culture Update

This summer was one of the driest in history for our region, which made it really hard to keep a garden alive and growing. We still got some good produce and some good canning and freezing out of our garden, but there was just as much (if not more) that our garden was not able to produce as a result of the unrelenting heat. At the same time, it has also meant that we had to spend less time and effort than we are used to on maintaining and processing everything from our garden.

The metaphor applies to my experience of pop culture over the past quarter. Aside from a couple of new movies in early July and a bunch of new albums in September, it was also a fairly dry season in terms of new pop culture. I used a bit of that time to do some catching up - although, as usual, not as much as I would have liked - but it was really nice to not have to spend a lot more time and energy on keeping up with things, just like it was nice to have a bit of a break from the garden.

What I experienced

Baby Driver - In short, I really enjoyed it.

Black Mirror (Series 1-2) - I finished the first two series of this twisted technological contemporary Twilight Zone and loved them; now I just need to finish the third batch of episodes before the new episodes are released.

Doctor Who (Series 10, BBC) - Although I think that Peter Capaldi is my favourite Doctor, I think this was his worst season. There were a couple of great episodes - the two-parter featuring the Monks in particular - but mostly this season was a miss, which is unfortunate. I am, however, very excited about Jodie Whittaker as the thirteenth Doctor, even though I have to wait until 2019.

Dunkirk - One of the greatest theatre movie experiences I have had in a long time and one of Nolan's best films. Rewatchings and awards season will help to cement its legacy, but I think it will be regarded as one of the best films of the year.

New music - There was a lot of new music to hear, but the albums that I listened to the most were Stavesacre's MCMXCV, MuteMath's Play Dead, and the Foo Fighters' Concrete and Gold. More on them later, but suffice to say that I enjoyed them all - but not nearly as much as I loved listening to U2's new songs, of course.

Shauna Niequist - I read Bittersweet and Bread and Wine - both of which resonated significantly with me - so I look forward to reading her other books.

Revisionist History (Season 2) - Malcolm Gladwell's podcast returned for season 2 with a renewed focus on racial inequality, and it was better for being more personal. It's a must-listen for fans of Gladwell's, especially.

Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance) - I started with Annihilation in preparation of the upcoming film directed by Alex Garland, and I just kept on reading from there through one of the more interesting "weird fiction" series of recent memory.

Spider-Man: Homecoming - I probably enjoyed this more than I should have, but I really liked how it rebooted Spider-Man and made his story into a high school movie. Also, Michael Keaton was amazing.

Also: Chuck Klosterman - XSplit

What I missed

Broadchurch (Season 3, BBC) - I'm sure I'll catch it on Netflix sometime.

The Dark Tower - Ditto.

New music - As I mentioned, there was a lot of new music this last month, so I missed a few albums, such as The Lone Bellow's Walk Into A Storm, The Killers' Wonderful Wonderful, Macklemore's Gemini, and The National's Sleep Well Beast, among others.

The Stone Sky - I only became aware of N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy when The Obelisk Gate won the 2017 Hugo, but I am looking forward to reading the whole series, including this final book that was released this past quarter.

The Tick (Season 1, Amazon) - Peter Serafinowicz brings back the titular blue hero in another live-action adaptation. SPOOOOOOOOOOOONNNN!

Wind River - Taylor Sheridan's directorial debut received some strong reviews, so I'm looking forward to seeing it.

Also on my radar but missed: Top of the Lake: China Girl (Season 2, Sundance); Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets; War for the Planet of the Apes

What I skipped

The Deuce (Season 1, HBO) - Although David Simon is a draw, I just don't need to watch this particular show about porn in '70s New York.

Marvel's The Defenders (Season 1, Netflix) - I'm still holding to my decision to avoid Marvel's small screen projects.

New summer TV shows - Nothing new and exciting like Stranger Things in 2016 or Mr. Robot in 2015, despite some contenders: Ozark (Season 1, Netflix); Snowfall (Season 1, FX); Will (Season 1, TNT).

In the Queue

The ongoing list of the top items in my pop culture queue, which is updated every quarter (often from items that I have missed). An asterisk (*) indicates a new addition to the list.

Movies: Get Out; LoganManchester by the SeaMoonlightO.J.: Made in America; Wind River*

Television top five: Black Mirror (Series 3)*; The Handmaid's Tale (Season 1); Sherlock (Season 4); The Tick (Season 1)*; Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Season 3)

Television backlog: Broadchurch (Season 2-3); The Hour (Season 1-2); Master of None (Season 1-2); Morton and HayesTop of the Lake (Season 1)

Television projects*: Curb Your Enthusiasm; Parks and Recreation (Season 5-7); Star Trek: The Original Series; The West WingThe Wire

Television to investigate: BoJack Horseman (Season 1-4); Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (Season 1); GLOW (Season 1); Great News (Season 1); The Man in the High Castle (Season 1-2); The OA (Season 1); Superstore (Season 1-2); The Young Pope (Season 1)*

Video Games: Chrono Trigger (DS); Earthbound (SNES); The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D (3DS); Pikmin 3 (Wii U); Splatoon 2 (Switch)*

Non-Fiction Books: BrenĂ© Brown - Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection; Bruxy Cavey - (Re)union*; Shauna Niequest - Present Before Perfect*; Matthew Paul Turner - Provocative Faith; Ann Voskamp - The Broken Way and One Thousand Gifts

Fiction Books: N.K. Jemison - The Broken Earth trilogy*; Kim Stanley Robinson -Mars trilogy

Looking forward to Quarter 4

Andy Weir - Artemis (November 17) - Weir's new novel - his first since The Martian - has not been released yet, and it has already been optioned for a movie version by Lord and Miller.

Blade Runner 2049 (October 6) - Natch.

Downsizing (December 22) - Alexander Payne's new movie about shrinking people could be fun satire.

The Good Place (Season 2, NBC, September 28) - Season 1 was a delight, and I'm really looking forward to more philosophy

Molly's Game (November 22) - Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut.

Mr. Robot (Season 3, USA, October 11) - I caught up in the off season, so I'm looking forward to being part of the zeitgeist as it unfolds this time.

Phantom Thread (December 25) - The new Paul Thomas Anderson movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis in his final role.

Star Trek: Discovery (Season 1, CBS All-Access, September 24) - It has great reviews so far.

Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo Switch, October 27) - Now I just need to buy a Switch.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (December 15) - It's time for the Jedi to end.

Stranger Things (Season 2, Netflix, October 27) - I think I'm more excited about this than any other returning show this fall, so I guess that's that weekend shot.

Survivor: Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers (September 27) - I'm not sure I like the new theme, but I'm always in for an interesting cast, and I think this one will be very interesting.

Thor: Ragnarok (November 3) - [Goes to watch the first trailer again.]

John Green - Turtles All The Way Down (October 10) - It has been far too long since we had a new John Green novel to read, and I imagine this will send me on a Green binge.

U2 - Songs of Experience (December 1) - [Goes to watch the video for "You're the Best Thing About Me" again.]

Also: Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season 5, Fox, September 26); Curb Your Enthusiasm (Season 9, HBO, Oct. 1); Darkest Hour (November 24); The Death of Stalin (October 20); Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (Season 2, Netflix, October 14); The Disaster Artist (December 8); The Killing of a Sacred Deer (November 3); Pitch Perfect 3 (December 22); The Shape of Water (December 9); Suburbicon (November 3); Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (November 10); Tin Star (Season 1, Amazon, September 29)

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Top Ten Upcoming Movies (Fall 2017)

There's a certain lull that often occurs in the cineplex for two months of the year, between the release of the final summer blockbuster in early August and the onset of thrillers and Oscar hopefuls at the end of September. This year, that general lull was shattered by the somewhat unpredictable and definitely unprecedented success of It last weekend, though it still remains the case that my own sights shifted to the fall once I saw Dunkirk, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Baby Driver in the course of the last week of July.

There may, of course, be a few movies I catch later on Netflix - absolutely Wind River, definitely The Big Sick, probably The Dark Tower, and maybe War for the Planet of the Apes - but there was nothing else sufficient enough to draw my attention and attendance to the local screens in the meantime.

That will change, of course, when the fall movie season starts in October. The final three months of the year are often among the most fertile for me, what with their mix of thinky sci-fi, long-awaited passion projects, Oscar front-runners, and crowd-pleasing blockbusters. (Some movies, by the way, somehow find a way to fit into all four of those categories - namely Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and Arrival in the last four years, respectively.)

So I present my top ten movies I am currently looking forward to this fall, without the benefit of much awards buzz to infect my thinking - although the first Oscar Futures column went up earlier this week, so there is some minimal influence there already. Although, to be fair, I often find that I rarely end up watching "awards season" movies that were not already on my radar for some reason, and as a result, my "to watch" list is littered with movies that I felt I wanted to see because they were lauded during awards season but for which I had little intrinsic interest either before or since their time in the spotlight.

And now, with all that preamble out of the way, let's start with a movie that I have little desire to see at all, just because it would not feel right not to mention it, even if my only mention is disparaging.

(Dis)honourable mention

Justice League (November 17) - I could not go a whole post without mentioning this would-be world-beater, but neither could I muster the wherewithal to attempt to justify ranking it in my top ten (or at all, for that matter). I have little to no desire to see this movie, and I cannot imagine paying full price to see it in theatres after the incomprehensible Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the absymally adolescent Suicide Squad, and the somewhat pedestrian Wonder Woman (I know I am in the minority on that last one, but I stand by my dismissal of the movie on its own, as opposed to the cultural phenomenon it became).

Despite reports that Joss Whedon was brought in to fix up JL after Zack Snyder had to bow out for personal reasons, but it still seems to me that what Chris Ryan of The Ringer and The Watch podcast said about the movie upon the release of its first trailer will remain true: "it looks like Avengers, but a pile of..." Yup.

The Wild Cards

There were three movies that have intrigued me but that I just could not fit onto my list. They might be great - even Oscar bait - or they might not, but here are my three wild cards I'm keeping half an eye on over the next couple of months.

Darkest Hour (November 22) - Joe Wright (Atonement) has an interesting enough filmography to warrant some attention on his own name (Pan notwithstanding), but it's the transformation of Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill that makes Oldman the leading Best Actor candidate right now and may position this movie into a competition with Dunkirk for Best Picture.

The Disaster Artist (December 8) - I have not yet watched The Room, but it looks like this passion project from James Franco captures both the spirit of its source material as well as the zany kind of Ed Wood feel that it needs to have in order to work.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (November 3) - The Lobster was one of last year's most interesting movies, so I knew that I would be interested in the next effort from director/writer Yorgos Lanthimos. I really have no idea what this movie will be about, but it could be very fascinating.

10. Suburbicon (November 3) - It seemed like movie this would be a slam dunk - written by the Coens and directed by George Clooney - but as with other projects that the Coens have half-heartedly abandoned, it seems like it might not really work (at least from early critical reactions). It looks like there will be some interesting ideas here, and the lead cast - Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac - are definitely a pull for me, but I'll admit that my anticipation of this movie has dropped over the past few weeks.

9. The Shape of Water (December 8) - Guillermo del Toro returns to "prestige" film-making with a sci-fi romance with what looks to be some promising performances from Sally Hawkins and Michael Shannon in particular. This movie got a great reception at TIFF, and I'm certainly interested to see how it plays out and whether it can gain the kind of momentum it would need to put del Toro into the Best Picture conversation he belonged in over a decade ago for Pan's Labyrinth.

8. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (November 10) - I have not yet watched Martin McDonagh's In Bruges, even though it has often been recommended to me, but his attachment to this new film was enough to pique my interest despite that gap in my viewing history. I have now repeatedly watched this very hilarious NSFW Red Band trailer in which Frances McDormand repeatedly cusses out the entire police force of a small town, and I laugh more every time I watch it.

For the record, this is my early dark horse for a movie that might become a surprise Oscar contender and possibly even a Best Picture nominee if it is received well; I have a strong suspicion that McDormand will be nominated, and that Sam Rockwell might finally earn his first nomination for his role.

7. The Death of Stalin (September 8) - Armando Iannucci returns to the movies after his incredible stint on Veep (the show's first four seasons) with this slapstick satire set in post-Stalin Russia. It looks very funny, very historically inaccurate, and very profane, according to what is shown in this NSFW trailer.

6. Molly's Game (November 22) - Aaron Sorkin, one of my favourite screenwriters, makes his directorial debut in his version of the true story of Molly Bloom, a woman who ran a high-stakes poker game. Jessica Chastain is somehow still underrated despite her incredible performance in Zero Dark Thirty, and it looks like Idris Elba turns in some great work with that vaunted Sorkin dialogue.

5. Downsizing (December 22) - This quirky and timely comedy comes from Alexander Payne, so it has the pedigree for a strong run during awards season, as Payne's last three films - Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska - all received multiple key Oscar nominations including for Picture, Directing, Writing, and at least one for Acting, so the expectations are already high for this film. The trailer looks interesting enough without giving away much of the film, and Matt Damon looks quite winsome in his role. Also, the use of Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" would have been the best use of music in a trailer this year if not for one of the entries later in this list...

4. Phantom Thread (December 25) - This is the purported working title for Paul Thomas Anderson's latest project, about which we know very little other than a very generic setting and theme - a fashion designer in 1950s London - and a star: Daniel Day-Lewis in his final role before retirement (or so he claims). Anderson is one of my favorite directors, but even if he wasn't, the fact that the last partnership between him and Day-Lewis produced There Will Be Blood is more than reason enough to bump this near the top of the queue - although surprisingly low, all things considered. Then again, I have some serious fan-boy geekery coming up in the top three...

3. Thor: Ragnarok (November 3) - After Kenneth Branagh's faux-epic Thor in 2011 and the interminable and very forgettable follow-up Thor: The Dark World two years later, I was out on the god of lightning. Avengers: Age of Ultron did little to assuage my disinclination, and even the promise of Hulk in the upcoming Ragnarok barely moved the needle for me. But that all changed when I saw the first trailer.

It's completely kookoo bananas, and I loved it from the opening chords of "Immigrant Song" (that aforementioned best use of a song in a trailer). Cate Blanchett in true B.A. form destroying Thor's hammer in leather pants. Hulk and Thor in gladatorial combat. Loki hamming it up. Jeff Goldblum (!) and those retro title graphics. It looks like hiring New Zealander Taika Waititi was the right move, and I am so in.

2. Blade Runner 2049 (October 6) - There are so many ways this could have gone wrong, but it looks like everything is going right for this long-gestating sequel to one of the best sci-fi movies of all-time. They have a great director (Denis Villeneuve), an intriguing premise, a great star (Ryan Gosling), Jared Leto (which I'm counting as a plus for now), grizzled Harrison Ford (who, other than the next Indiana Jones movie, must almost be finished his IP rehashing tour by now, unless they dust Witness off), and even music that emulates the original Vangelis soundtrack. And best of all, Ridley Scott is not directing - after all, the last great movie he made was the original Blade Runner, and that was 35 years ago.

1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (December 15) - I will be honest: this is not ranked this highly because of The Force Awakens, or even because it's Star Wars, even though the success of TFA and Rogue One have provided the series with a much-needed confidence boost. The Last Jedi would have ranked in the top five of this list anyway - maybe even the top two - but what puts it on top is the presence of writer and director Rian Johnson.

Johnson is responsible for the time-consuming thriller Looper, the neo-noir Brick, and the surprisingly entertaining and underrated The Brothers Bloom, but it was his work on Breaking Bad that really sold me on his cred. First, he directed "Fly", one of the best single episodes of the series, particularly at its release in Season 3, but then he directed the third-to-final episode "Ozymandias", about which it is not a stretch to call the best episode of TV ever. And then came the incredible teaser that set the stage for The Last Jedi to become The Empire Strikes Back for the new generation of fans.

I know Star Wars has had a rough go over the past year, especially in terms of internal turmoil. Rogue One had reshoots and succeeded in spite of them (or at least in spite of the interference from Disney that they appeared to represent). Lord and Miller were booted from the Han Solo prequel and replaced with Ron Howard. And, most recently, Colin Trevorrow (who should not have been given the reins in the first place) was replaced by J.J. Abrams for the follow-up to The Last Jedi.

But all of those decisions point to one fact (other than the seemingly obvious truism that Disney should be uneasy about giving billion dollar movies to relatively unproven filmmakers like Trevorrow): they believe in Rian Johnson's vision for The Last Jedi. There has not been a peep about issues with his direction, and I think that's because there's a possibility that this might be the best Star Wars movie yet, period. And perhaps the best part is that we will have to sit with its inevitably uneasy conclusion for at least two years, not fully knowing how whatever cliffhangers Johnson sets up will be resolved by the capable Abrams. Johnson has the biggest stage possible in pop culture right now, and he will not disappoint us, which is why I am most excited to see The Last Jedi over the next few months. It's time for the Jedi to end.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The rhythms of writing

For the second week in a row, I found myself in the position of feeling an intrinsic need to write as Wednesday rolled over to Thursday. It certainly was not a conscious plan to sit down and write, nor was it an urge that originated from any external locus or impetus; just an internally-driven sense that I had something to say, and that even if I was not sure what that something was that I had to say something.

This push - which in part has produced this very post - made me think about the idea of writing and rhythm and creative outbursts. It is, particularly for those who have journeyed with me for much or even all of Life of Turner (a quick aside: kudos to you who have stuck around for over thirteen years of this blatherskite), a well-worn topic in these parts, though I tend to think that the constant changes in my daily circumstances more than justify my repeated self-indulgence into this topic.

Besides, even though the territory might seem familiar at first, I often find myself encountering something new in these reflective escapades, which in my mind more than justifies the amount of time I spend considering and composing them. (Not that I feel the need to justify myself in most situations anyway, but it's a comfort to think that there is a reason that I should subject my readers to such repeated ramblings. But I digress...)

Finding the beat

It seems that every time that something in my life circumstances changes that I need to find a new rhythm - and I have had no shortage of opportunities to explore this trend in my adult life, which now very slightly supersedes in length (by a few months) the amount of time I spent growing up and living at home.

In my adult years since starting university back in the fall of 2000, I have had only two calendar years in which either me and/or my wife have not experienced some kind of not-insignificant life shift - moving, changing jobs, a change in relationship status; that number lowers to one if you include starting on a church leadership team as a similarly major shift (which I do).

My life, such as it is, has been one of constant adjustment and finding the beat, as it were, only to have those processes often disrupted summarily by the conclusion of a contract or a move. I have had some success in establishing some broader patterns at times, but the goal of a constant beat has been elusive at best.

Perhaps life is actually better this way, but I suppose that I have no "control" to which to compare my experience. All I know is change and adjustment, so I cannot claim to know what it would be like to not be in such a state of flux. After all, the one year in which I did not change jobs or move was my first full year of unemployment in several years, so it was still a period of life marked by transition and instability.

And so, I have found myself again in the position of adjusting to new circumstances - in this case, a new job. It has been a great start, and I am very excited about the early progress I have made in just a few short weeks, although I have found myself surprised at how tired I have been. I find that I am having to constantly remind myself that starting all of these new relationships and initiatives and getting to know a new workplace is inherently exhausting, and that it is okay that I am crashing at the end of the day (though I feel the need to more effectively use my "useless" time on relatively passive activities like TV or video games, because of course I do).

The act of starting a new job makes every day in some way a new creative process, particularly as I am often entering the worlds of people who have things well-established by now, and I am constantly learning how to negotiate within those worlds - and even more so by the collaborative nature of my job position. It is a great challenge with a high reward factor, but it does end up taking a lot of energy as a result.

The man who would be Thursday

All of which brings me to how odd it is to have experienced not only this intrinsic need to write in two consecutive weeks in the first two weeks of September, which are two of the most intensive weeks of the school year in regard to the output required, but also to have actually been able to do it in the midst of this mentally busy season. Moreover, it is especially odd that I have felt the release to be able to incorporate writing as a functional part of my schedule without feeling as though I have had to make much of a sacrifice to do so.

Although my writing on this blog have been a consistent part of my life for most of the past thirteen years, I have rarely imposed any kind of externally derived rhythm on my process when I have blogged. My often erratically spaced method of posting new content has been subject to my desire and my availability, sometimes resulting in very creatively fertile times (like, say, October 2015 through March 2017 or so) and sometimes producing dry spells (like most summers). I wrote when I could and didn't write when I couldn't - either through circumstance or circumspection - but it always seemed as though I was subject to the whims of my writing, rather than the other way around.

But I strangely and suddenly find myself (by the way, I think I have used that phrase more often in this one post than in the past year of posts - but I digress) feeling like I can - and perhaps should and need to - attempt to adhere to some kind of publishing schedule, which is, judging by my nascently emerging circadian writing impulses, on Thursday.

Maybe it is an effective way to be able to channel my creative energy and divert enough time and focus from my other creative enterprises into my writing; or maybe it's just that I really like routine and I naturally gravitate toward it. Either way, there's a comfort in knowing that I have a week to compose my thoughts and to chip away at an idea before making it publishable, without, of course, any external expectation or pressure to do so. And even though it has only been a couple of weeks, Thursday just feels right, so my hope is to continue the trend, even if only to keep my writing chops up and to get some long-gestating ideas out into the world.

I have a backlog of half-baked, sometimes half-composed posts that I can bring forward in the queue to publish, and I think I am looking forward to trying to say something - no matter how trivial it may seem - on a weekly basis. It seems likely that I may have an even greater proportion of posts on inessential topics like pop culture as a product of my writing process and time becoming somewhat more of an entertaining diversion in life rather than a creative necessity, but I think I am okay with that, since that is the season of life in which I find myself (there's that phrase again). 

I do, of course, have other creative outlets beyond my job and this blog that I am attempting to pursue - namely my board game designs and my writing about learning about game design sporadically at Regina Game Forge - but I am hoping that standardizing this schedule may, in fact, free me up to be more creative with those other projects that I often neglect. Creativity begets creativity, as it seems.

If I am successful in this publishing endeavour, it would arguably be the first time in my history of blogging that my output would be consistent and reliable from an external perspective, so I think I am really rooting for myself to carry through with this initial momentum. I really do not know what will come of this season and where it may lead in the future, in much the same way I have had little foreknowledge of where my previous seasons of writing might lead, but I am excited to try to post more regularly and to see what comes of this season. 

For now, all I can do is do what I can for now to keep the momentum going, and I hope - without making any promises to anyone, especially me - that I have the ability to find something within myself to say and to publish each Thursday, no matter how menial or meaningful it might seem. There are definitely some rhythms to be found in this season, and I'm looking forward to just tapping (the keys) along with the beat.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

The uncool of U2

It has been a great week to be a fan of U2. The band has been working on Songs of Experience, their fifteenth (!) studio album, for years, and in the last week, the album has become much more of a reality, with two new songs released as well as a release date: December 1, to coincide with World AIDS Day (a cause the band has championed for close to two decades with their partnership with the (RED) campaign).

After the band debuted "The Little Things That Give You Away" in May as the final song of the set on the first night of The Joshua Tree Anniversary tour and later played a song entitled "I Love You" on that same tour, U2 released a video of another new song entitled "The Blackout" via Facebook Live last week after sending members of the U2 fan club an intriguing piece of mail about a week beforehand.

This week, they released the official first single from the new album, "You're The Best Thing About Me", which received immediate praise from various outlets: Rolling Stone called it "lustrous", "gleaming", and "a joyous earworm"; Billboard called it "rocking" and "classic"; and although Pitchfork did not include any similarly exuberant or adulatory adjectives in their write-up, their announcement was pleasantly bereft of any of their usual snark or sarcasm, which essentially amounts to the same thing as Billboard's and Rolling Stone's exultations, when you consider the source.

Aside from my own inability to help but be unironically and unrepentantly overexcited by any new music from my favourite band - not to mention my inability to stop repeatedly streaming the two new songs - I have been very interested by the general tone of the news articles about the new single and how that tone has even shifted over the past week between the release of the two songs.

The Blackout

When U2 released "The Blackout" last week, it seemed as though most outlets of music (or entertainment) journalism had been on a conference call to decide on the general tone for a reaction to new music from the Irish foursome, as almost every news article I read (and I read most of them out of interest, even though they contained mostly the same information) hit the same beats in almost the same pacing with a similar undertone that I would describe as "grudgingly optimistic".

Most pieces mentioned the roll out of "The Blackout" in comparison to the infamous simultaneous release of the band's 2014 Songs of Innocence album directly into every user of iTunes; of course, the cosmic irony for me was that I had just moved at that time and my internet was not connected at home, so I was one of the few people who did not get the album but who actually desperately wanted it. (I ultimately had to use my Android phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot to be able to get the album on my iTunes - it took some work and time, but it was worth the agonizingly slow process.)

Now, to be fair, U2 deserved the criticism for their hubris - Bono has since admitted that they were far too ambitious in their release - and their botched roll out of the album likely directly impacted its sales, which were disappointing. It also makes sense that most articles would make mention of that escapade, since this is the first music to be released since then other than the single "Ordinary Love" which was written for the movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (and which produced a great performance on the launch of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, on which the band again performed this week.)

But under the slight sense of sarcasm, there was also an undercurrent of a combination of respect, awe, and in some cases straight-up fanboying at both new songs. This is after all, a band that has been the "biggest band in the world" on at least three occasions, and who somehow continues to be creative and engaging well past the point that most artists' careers shift into greatest hits tours and albums of covers of other artists.

By the way, I refute the implication that this summer's 30th anniversary tour of The Joshua Tree descended to that level of nostalgia; rather, I think that the tour is evidence of the continuing creative impulse of the band and their internal drive to reinterpret and recontextualize their canon in a new political climate. Now, if they were to tour Rattle and Hum in two years, I might be open to reconsidering my position...

The general tone of the articles was not unlike the recent reaction to the current "biggest pop star in the world" - Taylor Swift - who similarly released two new singles in the past weeks to mixed thoughts and reviews, including some people who seem to feel the need to not like her singles even though deep down they actually kind of want to like them. It's like there's this need from music journalists to have to distance themselves from artists who are popular solely for that reason, which is something that has been happening to U2 for three decades since The Joshua Tree sold 25 million (!) copies.

The peaks and valleys of U2

It's almost like artists are not allowed to be popular and cool, unless they cross a certain threshhold, like Bowie or Bruce or Prince; then again, each of them had a period in their careers in which they were neglected or disregarded, only to have popular opinion reverse itself again and allow them to be considered "cool" again. Then again, U2 does not care if anyone thinks they're cool. It has, after all, always been kind of cool for true music fans to regard U2 with a certain detached snobbery, with two notable exceptions.

The first such exception was 1987, when The Joshua Tree made them the biggest band in the world and was so well-received that all but the hardiest critics praised it, and again in 1991, when they deconstructed their own sense of cool with Achtung Baby, which was lauded to the point that Rolling Stone named it their album of the year over Nirvana's Nevermind, which actually finished third behind R.E.M.'s vastly underappreciated Out of Time, which featured their biggest hit, "Losing My Religion". (Rolling Stone, of course, is regarded by many other musical journalistic outlets with the same kind of geriatric disregard and ironic appreciation with which they have regarded U2 for most of their career., but the point still stands that Achtung Baby was still well-regarded at the time.)

The reality is that Bono, The Edge, Adam, and Larry are lifelong rock stars in their late fifties who are still finding ways to create interesting music and spectacle after over four decades in the business. The only sign they have shown of slowing down is that their albums have been released far less frequently than they were in the 1980s, but their output and public presence is still surprisingly consistent and creative considering the trajectory of their colleagues, and U2 has almost always eschewed public perception and done their own thing.

It has, of course, not always gone well for them to do so. Aside from the mistake in the release of Songs of Innocence, which obscured what was otherwise one of their better albums (IMHO), there have been a few such nadirs in the band's career. Their sophomore album October came in the midst of a personal spiritual identity crisis for the band, who were being pressured to choose between their career and their faith, and it also suffered from weaker lyrics in part to the fact that the lyrics were stolen days before their recording sessions.

Rattle and Hum, their 1989 follow-up to The Joshua Tree, became an ill-fated and somewhat self-indulgent album and film that flopped at the box office. Pop was a critical flop in 1997, and the PopMart Tour, despite making millions, was considered a loss because it cost so much to keep it on the road; the album has itself not aged very well. And most recently (other than Innocence), How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was critically disregarded in 2004 thanks to an awkward title and a lackluster latter half of the album.

But even those albums that are considered to be weaker still were worthwhile entries into U2's history, as they produced songs that either were hits at the time, that have been lionized or canonized by the band in the years since, or both: "Gloria" on October; "Desire", "Angel of Harlem", and "All I Want Is You" on Rattle and Hum; "Discotheque", "Staring at the Sun", and "Gone" from Pop (an album in which, admittedly, neither the songs nor the album have aged very well); and "Vertigo", "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own", and "City of Blinding Lights" on Dismantle - not to mention the various deep cuts on each of those albums that remain favourites of fanatics like me (I, for one, love "Love and Peace or Else" from Dismantle, "Hawkmoon 269" from Rattle and Hum, and "Wake Up Dead Man" from Pop).

Here's the other thing to think about when evaluating those efforts: consider what albums followed up each of those "failures" (a term I use loosely and only because of external consideration rather than my own classification). October preceded War, which features "Sunday Bloody Sunday", "New Year's Day", and "40". Rattle and Hum was followed by their best album, Achtung Baby. Pop preceded the release of The Best Of 1980-1990, which featured "Sweetest Thing", as well as All That You Can't Leave Behind, which kicked off with "Beautiful Day". And even How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb was succeeded by No Line on the Horizon, which I think is still the lost masterpiece in U2's collection.

(I am not necessarily arguing that the ends of those albums justify the means of the previous efforts and the misses therein, but I do think that it bears noticing that times of artistic struggle have resulted in some of the best work of their career, and that bodes well for Songs of Experience, considering the backlash to Songs of Innocence. But I digress.)

The appeal of uncool

I think that part of the enduring appeal and success of U2 is that they have kept trying new things and that they have never gotten to consumed with their appearance. That's not to say that they have not been very self-aware about the way they present themselves and appear; it is not much of a stretch to think that U2 have probably been more conscious of that aspect of their career than almost any other rock artist, and it is a similarly effective argument to make that they have done more than almost any other artist to advance the technological aspects of a band's overall presentation.

The appeal is that U2 seems to do everything with a level of intentionality and vision that few artists - or politicians, for that matter - appear to possess, and that makes them seem uncool sometimes. But they've been that way their whole career, from when they were teens in Dublin until now, when they're almost in their sixties and still making meaningful music that resonates with a wide audience.

That earnestness is probably what initially drew me to their music more than almost anything else, and what continues to draw me in after two decades. The fact that the band had recorded most of Songs of Experience, but then felt the need to hold back its release after the shift in the political climate of the West in 2016 in order to make sure that the album fit the times into which it will be birthed is further evidence that they are still trying not to seem cool or relevant, but to say something of substance and significance and meaning on a personal and political level.

The lyric video for "You're The Best Thing About Me" concludes with a picture of a boy and a girl holding hands with the caption "A song of experience", and Bono has talked repeatedly about how this new album is not only drawn from the band's own experiences, but from the experiences that all of us have had over the past two years.

I believe, from what I have heard and seen so far, that, in the same way that Songs of Innocence drew on a sense of wonder and unpreparedness for the world in 2014, that Songs of Experience will reflect the ways in which the world has changed in just a few short years, and that it will not matter what anyone thinks, or whether the album is well received or not; what matters is that U2 have stayed true to themselves, and that's the coolest thing of all, no matter what Pitchfork might say.


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