(2016 &) 2017: My Year in Music

This is my rain-soaked death-haunted year, in forty A-to-Z (that is, X) songs or albums I loved.

As usual, my year-in-music post includes stuff released last year. In the cultural-critical rhythms of music writing/list-making, I learn about what I missed the year before (in 2016: Elza Soares, French Montana, lots of other things on this list) only at the end of that year, so I give myself the following year to wade.

So here, first, is a playlist…

…and here’s my year.

*

When they mirror back their (and my) sexual subjectivity, not many male singer-songwriters show me something I want to see. But in the last few years, I’ve grown to love the AFGHAN WHIGS, for Greg Dulli’s soul-derived ardor and his very indie-guy fury and self-loathing. I love too the bigness and swing of the music that goes with it: there’s no bullshit in the Whigs’ rhythm and blues and no ego in their monster-size tunes. This year’s In Spades has gotten more attention than the 2014 reunion record, Do to the Beast, that I’ll always like better. I come back to Spades mostly for “I Got Lost,” its broken-down quality, a man feeling at his own torn edges. Honorable mention to “Toy Automatic.”

AMY O, Elastic. Oh oh oh does this record make me happy. I was skeptical for the first few songs but the marvel is in the swift accumulation— less than 2 1/2 minutes per, with just about a breath between each; hook after hook, lyrical wit matched by musical, feminist space-staking and tension building to little bursts of relief or fury— and then (bang!!) the whole thing’s done in less than a half hour. In frying eggs and riding buses and drinking coffee with sad friends, I listened to lots of great homemade indie pop this year that I’m sure will stick with me into future years— Soccer Mommy, Karima Walker, Caroline Says— but Elastic was my over-the-moon, tap-my-toes fave. You have to be more skeptical than I’ll ever be to resist it. Song sibling: SOCCER MOMMY’s “Allison”: a song by someone wounded but undeterred, someone keeping a door open.

It seems to me that if you believe in magic— in a real and communicative spiritual world and in a spiritual dimension to the natural world, a dimension we can approach subject-to-subject— you must feel a lot of fucking pain at what bell hooks calls “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” the wounding monster ideology that, in objectifying both nature and person, plunders the material and human resources of this planet. I thought a lot about magic as I listened to ANOHNI’s Hopelessness this year and last. Hopelessness is a ritual that seeks to instantiate this very pain: the pain we inflict and the pain we (especially women, queers, the people of the Global South) endure. Some people feel this pain so acutely– the pain of the wronged earth; the violations of the state against the dignity, bodies, and freedom of oppressed persons– that you wonder: why do they make art? Do they create these hour-long ceremonial spaces for the redemption of all our damned doomed selves? For the crying ghosts of everything we’ve left murdered or degraded in the world? For their own spiritual survival? Is there even a distinction?

Since the seismic cultural shift of the Weeknd’s first album, with its late-night transactional sex and icy coked-out ego, there’s been much less room for tenderness in male R&B. Most of BELL BIV DEVOE‘s comeback album felt silly to me, but “Finally” (with SWV) is an uncomplicatedly tender song of discovery and (in the same breath) devotion. You’ll press this one to your heart too. Song sibling: KENDRICK LAMAR’s “LOVE.” (ft. Zacari), a beautifully gentle song, the clearest throwback on DAMN. and my favorite on there.

JULIE BYRNE, “Natural Blue.” One of my favorite pieces of poetry writing advice I ever got from my first mentor Rick is: conceal your strengths. Be sly about what comes easiest to you and your work as a whole will have more structural integrity, less top-heaviness. So I find I often like my music with a little more tension between elements, a little more self-imposed challenge, than there is on Julie Byrne’s Not Even Happiness. Byrne has a wonderful instrument in her voice, but it’s just the kind of voice you’d expect to sing, say, “I’ve been finding God within” amid a hushed, spacious production, so when it does it affects you less. But a few of the songs (just to demonstrate that I’m a huge ingrate) are still overwhelmingly beautiful: the calling-forth and homecoming of “Natural Blue,” especially, and the twingey regretful “Sleepwalker.”

Sometimes you can eat the whole bag without feeling sick. Scattering bright sugar-hard crumbs all over like Weezer and a zillion other “alternative” 90s bands, CHARLY BLISS’s Guppy was cooked up by a singer-songwriter/lead-superfan, Eva Grace Hendricks, whose vocal style is deliberate throwback (to Anna Waronker especially) but whose off-handedly fantastic lyrics— “I smoked the last of the bad pot,” “I bite my hair,” “all I eat is bread and cheese”– are better than 95% of the lost-entitlement raging and sentimental generalities of the music that inspires her and that soundtracked by 7th-grade life. Have spent a lot of drives punching the upholstered ceiling of car along to this one. Song sibling: PARAMORE’s “Hard Times.” I guess I don’t quite trust the professionalism of their After Laughter, but its nostalgia for spacious bright funky 80s pop I’m very sweet on, too. Maybe I’ve just aged to the point of being touched by pretty much any nostalgia.

As a wounded, secretive, wide-eyed child myself, I’ve come to love Martin Phillips’s music with THE CHILLS, compiled here on this expanded reissue of their 80s singles and EPs, Kaleidoscope World. Phillips, like Skip Spence or Brian Wilson, wrote in the grip of strong contradictory emotions. The geographical and creative isolation of Phillips’s native New Zealand, and the tension and idealism of early punk, both informed his music, too, in ways these earlier boy-men didn’t have access to. But he’s shared in some of their struggles: the depression and addiction that would consume decades of Phillips’s later life stalks the dreams of “Great Escape” and “This Is the Way,” and lurks in the nightmare/meditation of “Pink Frost.” Last month, feeling hope like a first ray after weeks of sinking dark grief, I made myself a cup of coffee and listened through all twenty-four songs on this reissue, held tight between my own contradictory emotions. The low winter sun shone right on me; I felt myself loving how Phillips’s child-like seriousness elevates the slight ones (“Smile from a Dead Dead Face”) and keeps the ambitious ones (“Dream by Dream”) approachable.  

When LEONARD COHEN died, it was heartbreaking— the second-worst news of November 9, 2016— but now it seems hard to believe he was alive so recently at all. This was the prematurely ancient poet of eroticism, heartbreak, and death, born before Elvis, born before Buddy Holly, and, until November 2016, he was still here. The first of his albums I ever heard was, at nineteen, the new one, Ten New Songs, and I loved it. I hated its followup, Dear Heather, and checked out on the subsequent albums, but I really fell for You Want It Darker. (Finn did too, which helped.) Amid strings-piano-drums settings whose warmth send me all the way back to Recent Songs, Cohen whispers to us: whispers from the doorway to a God and love he’s contended with, disappointed, and adores: and now he’s gone, into the arms of that God and love.

SHENANDOAH DAVIS, Souvenirs. Elaborately produced, and much more beautifully recorded than her first record, Souvenirs is a record of passion, ironic flair, and attention to detail that deserves to be bought by every woeful art student, musicals fan, and vest-wearing queerdo in blue-state America. When I listen to it, I hold tight to my own heartache keepsakes. Davis is classically trained as a pianist and vocalist and it shows, in her impeccable playing and the expert’s glee she brings to her singing of endless disappointments, bad choices, and foolish lovers. Got to be there in the warm whiskey-smelling little studio space for this record’s release party, so I know which four consecutive songs are about “terrible things that happened to me in New York” and which is about a “fatal bike crash… fatal to a relationship.”

In the decade since Oliver gifted it to us, DEAR NORA’s Mountain Rock has remained maybe the wife’s favorite record, favorite indie record at least, in constant rotation: from her high-desert living room, Katy Davidson spins little lonesome moments of crossing and distance and warmth with some guitar scribbled in between into twenty-five minutes of music. My Spotify playlist aside, Mountain Rock is impossible to excerpt, because the spell of it is the whole thing. It’s back in print this year and on vinyl now thank God, with a few added living-room-jam bonus goofs, by a label that’s put out some other really beautiful shit.

FEVER RAY, “To the Moon and Back.” Sometimes one’s desire is incendiary and sacramental at once! Sometimes the non-constructive, uncaptureable energy of sex feels like one’s only hope!

G PERICO, the twelve best songs spread across Shit Don’t Stop, All Blue and 2 Tha LeftI feel a little helpless in my love of G Perico (emphasis second syllable): his moral and geographic world is damn narrow, his confidence is always being gnawed at by paranoia, how did I ever find my way in? But I still found a whole universe on these three records (all from the last eighteen months), from his consciously old-school beats to that amazing yap of a voice. You can get Shit Don’t Stop here.

GUCCI MANE, “Make Love” (ft. Nicki Minaj). My brother and sister-in-law put me on to this one. Gucci’s sobriety seems now just another aspect of the good life– “I just left out the gym, I’m bout to take a swim and meditate”– and his relaxed flow is as far as could be here from Nicki Minaj’s score-settling, cartoonish rip at (as far as I can tell?) Remy Ma and Azealia Banks. The backing track is unresolved– barely even in tune– and is great. Song sibling: FRENCH MONTANA, “Lockjaw” (ft. Kodak Black), a couple of tight-lipped drawls over another spooky slow beat.

HUERCO S., from the “Quiet Time” series. A warm, intimate, slowly voice-shifting 30-minute chord, sometimes like the foot pedals on an organ, other times like wind, other times like voices way off. None of the insistently theoretical exercises of his albums here, just a movement that’s soothing and inhumanly big and slow. No music so formally static has ever moved me as much as this, and no new ambient music has filled up the crevices and softened the tensions of so many moments as this has. It’s not on Spotify, not in physical print anywhere. iTunes play count: 35 times since last November.

HÜSKER DÜ, Savage Young Dü. My first-ever post on this blog was about how much I loved this band: they were my Beach Boys: the group that gave me language to understand my adolescent self. They brought intensely personal, pained, and sweet stuff into indie, songs you’d sing yourself on an acoustic guitar. And, by playing psychedelic rock and ringing Byrds-y pop with the intensity of punk, Hüsker Dü invented the sound that, along with REM’s echoing chime, refigured the sound of guitar-based rock ‘n roll in the 1980s. This Numero Group reissue captures just their early recordings, teenagers on speed just going for it— the trio eager to blow away the bands they shared the stage with, singer-songwriters Bob Mould and Grant Hart eager to one-up each other— trying out garage rock and more classic punk before taking the challenge of Black Flag’s first two EPs to play harder faster and louder than any other band in the world. Their hardcore was hard, a rockslide, an electrocution: when I go back to it, I feel the explosive adolescent need, the desperation for a sense that art and life matters. The reissue stops at Metal Circus, the 1983 EP that began their time in creative Valhalla, but (as a bonus download) it includes five outtakes from those sessions that, along with the excerpts from the slow (“slow”) set that followed Land Speed Record‘s fast set, are my favorite discoveries on here. Favorite re-discovery: the incredibly brightened remaster of Everything Falls Apart.

ISHAWNA, “Equal Rights.” Feeling dancehall finally wind its way into my loves. I heard this one with Emily at Night Crush when Stas the Boss was DJing: a joyful and (even for someone who listens to a lot of rap) startlingly frank demand for equal treatment in pleasure. Not on Spotify.

KEITH JARRETT, Handel: Harpsichord Suites. This is the first music since my dad’s death that my heart has ached to share with him. These suites, played here thank God on piano, feel a little more emotive and musically simpler than Bach’s, but they still feel of a piece with the sort of cerebral joy he so loved in Bach: the music (the viola da gamba sonatas, the Brandenburg concertos, the two- and three-part inventions) that he’d play as he quietly worked at his desk and I sat up next to him in a big stupid Ikea lounger, under his shelves of books of Marxism ecology and astronomy, with a science fiction paperback or history homework. I’ve loved every classical piano album I’ve ever heard from Keith Jarrett— his recording of Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues is one of my favorite pieces of music ever— and this beautiful twenty-year-old album is finally reissued in print and available digitally thanks to ECM surrendering to Spotify. This will remain one of my offerings to my dad’s ghost.

JLIN, Black Origami. It takes listening close to find what’s organic here and what’s synthesized, because of the physicality of the mix— the bass drums hit me right on the chest and the snapping tambourines and cymbals make rings around my skull— and because of the variety of sounds. I love the conviction (that I vaguely recall from the drum’n’bass I had a phase with) that percussion can do the work of melody, and I love the belief in dance music as a ritual space, one inextricably bound up with the legacy of African sounds and culture.

CARLY RAE JEPSEN, “Cut to the Feeling.” Listening to this song on the train home from seeing Cait’s folks, it occurred to me that I love Carly Rae Jepsen for the same reason I love the Go-Betweens: like those brainy, gifted Australians, Carly Rae Jepsen feels like an architect, an investigator of pop songs. Maybe her professionalism keeps potential fans at a distance and will keep her from being the world’s biggest pop star, but that very quality is why I love her: her craft is her joy.

On SweetSexySavage, KEHLANI does ballads and put-downs, conscious throwbacks to 90s girl groups (“Piece of Mind”) and straightforwardly modern pop (“Get Like”); she’s indifferent, pragmatic, caustic, apologetic, greedy; she sounds inexhaustibly full of ideas. Like most major-label albums in the paid-per-track-streamed era, SweetSexySavage is three or four songs too long– the string of sweet ones near the end feels formally and emotionally obligatory– but this is still my favorite R&B record I’ve heard all year.

KELELA, “LMK.” Kelela’s got poise and a great consistent vision for the producers she chooses, but this one was the only tune that stuck with me from Take Me Apart. A night-drive song, blurring neon city rain. Song sibling: JESSIE WARE’s “Midnight,” a stomping soaring sweeping song I run out of limbs to move along with, the only song on Glasshouse that draws me in to a drama like those of “Champagne Kisses” or “Tough Love.”

ALICIA KEYS, “In Common.” I love the feel of this one, driven by an exciting, odd, Caribbean-indebted rhythm that refuses a climactic “Girl on Fire”-type build, and I love too her frank, rueful, self-aware lyric. Song sibling: J BALVIN’s “Mi Gente” (ft. Beyonce), because of course she can also rap in Spanish and this song sounds like it could be 500 million people’s favorite of the year.

Like with Drake, I don’t really understand how MIGOS has tapped into whatever they’ve tapped into— I’m not really a fan though I acknowledge the effects of what must be genius— but I see that they’re generating a massive amount of culture without seeming to do more than carry stacks of money and prescription bottles into their new cars. Without any love from radio, they’re everywhere, and everyone is soaking up that high-hat-led production and strong-double/strong-triple accent style of theirs. Of all their songs I’ve heard this year– blasting from car stereos and cookouts, requested by students for music-writealongs– I’ve loved “Motorsport” best. I met it when Stas the Boss played it on KEXP on the last warm evening this year, driving down to the lake to jump in after my family and it made our borrowed Corolla feel like a Bugatti. Internet burrowing question: has there been another male-led rap song than “Motorsport” to feature two female MC’s as guests? Besides Outkast’s “I’ll Call before I Come” I mean? Zkrt-zkrt!

MAREN MORRIS, Hero. This big blocky crossover hit is, like Charly Bliss, pretty much perfect freeway music. Morris spins out a whole album of songs that have the instant hookiness and conceptual durability of very good pop, with the cultural signifiers of Americana worked in throughout: on “Rich” she phrases like Lorde, on “My Church” she fries the edges of each line like a country girl. The compressed, heavy production doesn’t suit the intimacy of “How It’s Done” but works everywhere else. After the sense-of-self adjustment required for me to do so, I’ve found that I like every single damn song on this record.

MOUNT EERIE, A Crow Looked at Me. A grief document, unguarded as a journal entry, haunted by particulars and torn up by loss and frightened of the spiritual vacancy that had been sublime, on snowy mountaintops, to conceptualize, but agonizing, in your emptied home, to face.

NAO’s “In the Morning” and SZA’s “Prom” have felt like twins since I first heard them, charged with an unguarded anguish that feels more relatable to me than the miracle-for-a-night dreams of most pop (or, for that matter, the tougher talk of their “Inhale Exhale” or “The Weekend”). NAO’s vocal is set against an anonymously loud and tense production that heightens the self-doubt of the performance: there’s no comfort in the music. SZA’s has chiming guitars and a shuffling synthesized percussion that calls up a nostalgia the singer reaches back for.

NONAME, Telefone. Finn’s favorite rapper. Clipped keen nifty poetry, love notes, sunny day memory vibrations, a pervasive sense of egalitarianism and friendship, the beats sometimes Native Tongues-y and other times closer to just jazz. Name your price for it here.

FRANK OCEAN, “Chanel.” Never seeming to break a sweat, always seeming to get better. This piano floats along and he seems, impossibly, to feel even more serene than it does.

PARQUET COURTS, Human Performance. Going back to the Velvet Underground this year, I’ve found I love their flair-less-ness: the matter-of-fact repetitive chug of the fast ones, the austerity of the slow ones. No bursts of passion or rhythm-and-blues delight or look-at-me dazzle, just a steady and very big-city cyclical energy: a musical quality that looks ahead to New York punk, to which the wonderful nervous Parquet Courts look back. Their music is bare, lean, offhanded. The short songs feel like epigrams, the long ones like walking home late stoned.

As a rapper, RICK ROSS gets over less on verbal acuity, bravado, storytelling, or technical intricacy than on simple presence. On the songs of his I like best, he holds court, as confident and gratified (listen to his “uh–yeah”s) as a king on his throne draped in two layers of ermine. Never has a rapper been readier to be an “elder stateman.” My favorites on the retro-ish Rather You than Me evoke the good life in sumptuous production and relaxed tone better than in their (often interchangeable and received-feeling) lyrical particulars; “Powers That Be” sounds as beautiful as Tango in the Night and, speaking of lyrical particulars, benefits immensely from a verse by “eighty-fiver enlightener” Nas.

ELZA SOARES, The Woman at the End of the World. A singer who seems to have spent her career restless on the edges of samba and bossa nova here collaborates with some young avant-garde dudes, on a set of songs that’s some of the most busted, ghoulish, energizing music I’ve ever heard. At 79, Soares has a rough voice that, here, she’s deliberately uglified. She gargles and snarls as if beauty were always an illusion– a trap– and only in ugliness is there a vitality worth trusting. Her pipes find their equivalent in the black-and-white racket of the bass synths and overdriven guitars, but, too, there are these horns, strings, flutes, and that effortlessly complex percussion I associate with Brazilian pop. The only album I know enough to compare it to is Caetano Veloso’s plugged-in AbraçaçoWoman shares with Veloso’s record a sense of defiant libidinous vitality, but it finds a uniquely liberatory female freedom in its harshness and vigorous ugliness. Soares’s young dudes wrote Woman’s material; but she arranges them, when they sing, in a strictly decorative, smoothing role. As Leonard Cohen used his girly soul choirs alongside his rough male one, here Soares uses the sweet male voice alongside her blasted female one: the evocation of an opposite principle in pursuit of spiritual balance. But of course, the only spirituality I get from Woman is ferocious life: the lyrics I can make out go, roughly, “my body, oh my body,” “it kills, it kills,” and “to fuck, to fuck, tofucktofuckfuck.”

This fall and winter, JAY SOM’s Everybody Works has been a consistent kitchen and living-room companion. Melina Duterte is a craftsperson at the beginning of her huge gift: she plays everything on Everybody Works, which gives the album an endearing and characteristically indie-pop-ish stiffness. It also means that the performances aren’t always quite up to a musical imagination that spins through R&B, punk, and 60s-style guitar pop. But “Bus Song” is my song of the year: 12-string guitar, chiming piano, harmonies all mixed right on top of each other and all lifting off at once when the harmonies arrive in the wordless chorus. I can’t wait for her next record!!

SYD’s “Know” reminds me that it’s hard to beat a bragging secrecy (see James Carr’s “The Dark End of the Street”) if you want to put over a song.

THE XX, “Lips.” The bigger and more rainbowy Jamie XX’s production gets, the harder time I have clearing it away to feel the musical chemistry between Romy and Oliver— regal flamey feminine and lonely laconic masculine. Like “LMK,”  “Lips” exists in a nocturnal blur, the guitar spreading out to a wide-open, dimly-lit space of desire.

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Oh and, as a catalogue against the darkness, here too is the pre-2016 music that I first heard (or first came attentively to) this year that stretched my soul and lightened my heart: 18 King Sized Rhythm & Blues Hits, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play the Blues, Bonnie Raitt’s Luck of the Draw, Fleetwood Mac’s Mirage, Van Morrison’s Beautiful Vision and Into the Music, Roxy Music’s Avalon, Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, Dylan’s World Gone Wrong and Live 1964, Bunny Wailer, Frank Sinatra’s recordings with that bully Tommy Dorsey, Eric Dolphy, Stan Getz Plays, my great-uncle’s Duke Ellington records, Bill Laswell’s remixes of Miles Davis, the Red House Painters’ rollercoaster album, the Velvet Underground’s V.U. as well as the Complete Matrix Tapes and the bonus stuff on Rhino’s now-deleted Loaded reissue, the Raincoats, Robert Wyatt’s Shleep, Tiger Trap and Lois and the Softies and Helium and Barbara Manning, the Go-Betweens, A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Bach’s partitas for solo violin, Street Music of Central Java, Erik Marchand and Thierry Robin’s Chants Centre-Bretagne, and Youssou N’Dour’s Rokku Mi Rokka.

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Review of Quenton Baker’s “This Glittering Republic” at Full Stop

Hi friends, a review I wrote of Quenton Baker’s rich, dark, polyvocal first collection of poems, This Glittering Republic, is up now at Full Stop.

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Readings

It’s easy for me to devour news analysis and critical writing online, respond to it with a strong emotional flare (“Yes!” “How awful!”), then forget about it. Trying to check that consumerist impulse by taking time here to share notes on things I’ve read online that affected or struck me, whether or not I agreed with the author’s arguments.

Philip Blond reviews John Milbank and Adrian Pabst’s The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future. Blond is a conservative Catholic; his review favorably examines Milbank and Pabst’s assertion that liberalism is responsible for both dissolving social ties and duties on an individual level and creating a market authoritarianism on the social level. The authors argue that social liberalism, asserting that the most important freedoms are negative (“freedom from“), and economic liberalism, giving every realm of social life over to the market, are inextricably linked. But how to imagine a post-liberal politics that not just, say, reactionary populism or proto-fascism? These particular conservative authors are stumped. Too bad the review doesn’t meaningfully engage liberalism’s critics on the left.

Charisse Burden-Stelly, “Why Claudia Jones Will Always Be More Relevant than Ta-Nehisi Coates.” Burden-Stelly critiques what she sees in Coates’s writing on whiteness as a metaphysics– an unbreakable magic spell, intrinsic to America– rather than as one instrument of an oppressive social and economic order. “[A]ntiblackness is inextricable from the suppression of labor, the deportation of ‘alien’ progressives, the incarceration of anti-capitalists, the indictment of communists and ‘fellow travellers,’ the censure of demands for fundamental redistribution, and the overall repression of the left.” If racism is primarily an innate American wound instantiated in individual racist behaviors, there is no room for a structural analysis of inequality or the development of counterpower. Burden-Stelly paraphrases Claudia Jones, a 50s intellectual, that “white supremacy was not a matter of attitude or morals, but rather of property rights, access to resources, and the hierarchical organization of American society.”

Robert Cottrell reviews Masha Gessen’s The Future Is History, a study of Russian society under Putin seen through the lives of seven contemporary Russians. Gessen claims that Russia’s society has retained an orientation toward totalitarianism, which persists even in the absence of a totalitarian leader; Putin’s government is instead closer to a “Mafia state.” And in modern Russia the persecution of gays serves a similar purpose to Russia’s persecution of Jews: destroying an “enemy within” to strengthen state control of the social order.

Ross Douthat, “Is There an Evangelical Crisis?” Douthat looks at the white evangelicals who elected Trump even though he was a Godless bully and sexual predator. Won’t Trump drive away young evangelicals who care deeply about character and orthodoxy, and fissure white conservative political power? Douthat has his doubts. Many seem to be sticking with white Christian tribalism, no matter how partisan and anti-intellectual its results. And perhaps, in fact, it’s in this ghastly tribalism that evangelicalism had its strength all along.

Henry Louis Gates, “Let Them Talk: Why Civil Liberties Pose No Threat to Civil Rights.” From (of all places) The New Republic, originally published in the late ’90s. This is the most thorough and detailed argument against the idea of criminalizing/censoring “hate speech” I’ve ever read by an intellectual conversant in critical race theory.

Kenan Malik, “In Search of the Common Good.” Malik examines the notion of the “common good” and the role it plays in underpinning the possibility of solidarity. He notes that the common good has traditionally been defined by who it otherizes and excludes; and he also notes how liberalism has both weakened and widened this concept. “[L]iberal individualism has helped both undermine the idea of community, and hence of the common good, and expand our conception of the moral community which defines the common good.” In the US and England, both the left and right are currently deeply critical of the concept of the common good. We live in a very socially fragmented society, which makes solidarity across lines of ethnicity, culture, and faith (and meaningful engagement with one’s opponents) increasingly difficult. Where do we go from here?

Steven Mithen reviews James C. Scott’s Against the Grain. Humans’ transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture was messy, often disastrous: it increased the spread of disease among animals and humans; it wore down laborers’ bodies; and it promoted centralized hierarchy (made possible by taxation of grain), slavery, and war. By contrast, many centers of hunter-gatherer activity (Scott discusses Hongzhou Bay and Mesopotamia) had abundant resources, sometimes enough to permit a sedentary lifestyle. So why switch? Mithen’s review doesn’t mention Marvin Harris’s thesis in Cannibals and Kings, that most hunter-gatherer societies intensified their resource extraction until non-farmable resources were exhausted; they were thus forced to adopt agriculture. Mithen and Scott focus instead mostly on massive sites of worship as a justification for a transition to cereal-based agriculture. One aside from the article I loved: the term “Dark Age” is an elite invention. Before around 400 years ago— when there were still non-city-state areas left for outcasts and rebels to flee to— democracy, culture, and overall human health flourished precisely when city-states collapsed.

Charles Mudede, “Vancouver Study Shows Why Seattle’s HALA Is Doomed to Fail.” HALA– the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda– is a Band-Aid on a huge problem: that Seattle’s bonkers housing boom is fueled, not by supply and demand, but by debt-driven finance. New condos are a speculative commodity making developers tons of money, and mandating that 10% of them be “affordable” will do nothing to slow an upcycling of all of Seattle’s new housing stock. The only realistic way to dampen this would be a high tax on speculation, something Seattle doesn’t have the power to enact.

Keeange-Yamahtta Taylor, “No More Charlottesvilles.” As the racist right enjoys unprecedented sympathy and moral support from federal government, anti-racist resistance needs to turn up, without the belief that the state will play any role in dampening reactionary violence.

Michael Wear, “Pro-Life Voters and Pro-Choice Politicians.” Wear’s political background is obviously not mine, but he makes a point about voting that has stuck with me. It’s tempting, and common, to think of voting as primarily a personal expression, a statement about our identity (as in “voting one’s conscience”). But if we really believe that our engagement with politics can be a form of loving one’s neighbor, our voting should reflect not primarily what we believe about ourselves, but about how we want peace, well-being, and empowerment to come to our communities.

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Sanford Thompson, 1946-2017

Hi friends: Had the personal grief and cosmic honor of being present and holding my dad’s hand as, after a six-year journey with prostate cancer, he died at home.

I’m feeling, still, the terrible intimacy of final illness and death— a second infancy out of which, if we’re lucky, we can be midwifed by our loved ones and caregivers.

My dad was my first teacher, someone who was thrilled to learn anything new about the world. One of my first memories is of him passing me his tinted sunglasses on a drive so I could really appreciate the mountainous pileup of the cumulus clouds out the window; in the last month of his life, he couldn’t wait to ask my brother what he’d learned in lab about how a mess spectrometer works. He loved being a parent; he also believed that learning is moral work. He largely turned away from the privileges his Ivy League diploma offered him to instead provide legal aid and safe spaces to GI’s seeking conscientous-objector status; to work for free clinics; to organize medical supplies for victims of our Latin American guerrilla wars; to do mental health work with poor and struggling kids; and to devote thousands of hours to supporting community media. And he took notes on every damn book he read after turning 25, so if– as he urged me ever since I committed myself to liberatory politics– I ever read Marx’s Capital (“especially chapters 24 and 25”) and Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, I’ll have his voice as my teacher.

I’m feeling so much love and gratitude for Kathy, his companion and wife for his last decade and more, who was devoted, imaginative, and tender as a caregiver in the months of 24-7 labor needed as my dad became less and less able. Love too for Charlotte, the caregiver and CNA who was here to give him his last bath and diaper change and sponge of water, and who called us over, as his breathing slowed and thickened, to hold his hands and tell him it was OK, tell him he could go.

After eighteen months and seven days, I’m again mourning a parent, feeling like an adult, feeling like there’s nothing now between myself and the sky.

(My dad’s obituary ran in his hometown paper on November 26; here it is.)

Photos: My dad in his last week; my dad with scowling newborn me; my dad politely enduring the 1940s.

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Reflection on the Parable of the Tenants

Here is the reflection I gave at St. Mary’s about a month ago, on the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, on Christ’s Parable of the Tenants (Matthew 21:33-46).

I almost didn’t have the heart to complete this reflection. After a 6-year journey with prostate cancer, my dad, Sanford, moved to hospice care in June and is near the end of his long goodbye with his wife Kathy, his family, his years of reading and thinking, and the birds that come to the feeder in his garden. A sudden death is a painful shock, but a slow death grinds us down: this loss erodes my strength, drains my hope, and isolates me from my usual gifts and comforts. My grief has more often felt crushing than illuminating. But, in praying on this gospel and writing this reflection, I re-learned a lesson that I’ve gotten over and over as a parent: it is comforting to give comfort. Seeking the soul-nourishing meaning I could uncover and share here in Christ’s parable nourished my own soul.

I re-read this week’s gospel on a sunny early morning in our neighborhood’s P-Patch: a community garden full of squash, greens, tomatoes, huckleberries, a beehive with a few last bees circling, and a sweet hanging smell of jasmine. It was easy, in that garden, to feel close to the love and labor of the prophet’s friend in Isaiah, or of the landowner in Christ’s parable: the P-Patch was busy but quiet, charged with its own inner life and eager for the care of its gardeners.

In one of my favorite books, Kathleen’s Norris’s memoir The Cloister Walk, a Benedictine nun tells the author that the “enemies” spoken of in the Psalms and the parables—the unbelievers and mockers and military foes who humiliate or overpower the psalmist; the “wretched men” in today’s parable—are best understood not as external enemies to vanquish, but as aspects of ourselves we must overcome. Hearing this relieved the troubled feeling I’ve often had at the harsh, and final, punishments the psalmist asks God for. The psalmist is speaking of an inner struggle.

This reframing also gave me a clearer understanding of today’s parable. In the beauty of the morning garden, I had no problem understanding the vineyard in Christ’s parable as our magnificent creation. This world is a free gift of God, and we’re called to be grateful stewards of this gift. But I see now that Christ is also speaking to us of our inner garden. Our humanity is also a free gift. As Father Armando said last week, we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having, for the duration of our lives, a human experience. How might we tend these spirits of ours if we believed this?—If we felt the incredible good fortune of receiving this magnificent inner garden to tend?

I don’t know about you, but I can identify with the “wretched men” of this parable. I’m often painfully aware of the wretched, possessive, fearful, jealous sides of my spirit: my love hesitates, my courage falters, my faith flows out under me like sand, my sense of solidarity shrivels.

I’m also wretchedly aware of all the ways I participate in what St. John Paul II called “structural sin”: how, by my silence and inaction, I too often consent to a society that pulls apart families based on immigration status; sells bombs to the world’s warlords; degrades and excludes women; robs the dignity of LGBTQ people for how they express their love, their gender, and their sexuality; riddles poor communities with opioid addiction, joblessness, and despair; and consigns young men of color to police violence and mass incarceration.

To work for justice in our relationships and in our society is to labor in the vineyard of God’s creation. But to do so is also to tend our inner vineyard. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a natural thing you find beautiful: a bed of jasmine, a field of undisturbed snow, a great blue heron, a sleeping cat, a clear forest stream. Now imagine that, in God’s eyes, each of our small acts of courage, tenderness, or solidarity are that beautiful. These are the fruits and blossoms of our inner garden, and God sees them and loves them and loves us for them. To cultivate these qualities in ourselves is to lead a more beautiful life. But it is also to say thank you to the first gardener, of whose work we are the stewards.

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The Largest Named Thing in the Universe

is Laniakea, measureless heaven in Hawaiian: the 500-million-light-year-wide fibrous structure which contains the Milky Way and 100,000 other galaxies in clusters like knots in a spilled skein of yarn.

It’s a structure so vast that no one thought to look for it—to look past the Virgo supercluster which contains the Milky Way for any sort of larger shape or order governing the movement of our galaxy—until 2014, when astronomers in Hawaii and Lyon announced their discovery. Its name, chosen to honor the Polynesian navigators whose astronomical knowledge guided them across the Pacific, was suggested by Nawa’a Napoleon, a community college professor of the Hawaiian language.

(Speaking of Hawaii and astronomy: a word about the struggle of indigenous Hawaiian people against the construction of a giant telescope atop Mauna Kea, the most sacred mountain to indigenous practitioners of pre-conquest Hawaiian religion. Arrests, public actions, court conflicts, and the experience of years of repression of indigenous spirituality are at work here. For now, a judge has ruled that construction can go ahead, with “mandatory cultural and natural resources training” for the telescope’s employees. This is small comfort for communities who have seen their sacred lands despoiled and occupied for centuries, and certainly not the challenge activists were hoping for to the colonialist presumptions of many American scientific institutions.)

One of my favorite categories of discovery is the one which changes our sense of cosmic scale. Edwin Hubble discovering that the Milky Way wasn’t alone in the dark but was one of at-the-time-uncountable galaxies; the 1964 hypothesis and then discovery of quarks; the 1998 discovery that the universe’s expansion is accelerating over time. We feel a change like this in our body, a tug at the fibers that constitute our sense of self and place. The feeling is awe. One of my favorite Jesuits, astronomer (and former chair of the Pontifical Sciences Council) George Coyne, was asked, “When you pray, does it make any difference that the universe has 10,000 billion billion stars?” Coyne replied:

Absolutely. When I pray to God, it’s a totally different God than I prayed to as a kid. The God that I pray to now is a God who not only made me but brought me to be in a universe that is dynamic and creative. The universe is not itself a living being, but it is a universe that has thus far given birth to human beings who can pray to God.
I pray to a God that, from my scientific knowledge, has made a universe in which people have come to be and are still coming to be, even from a scientific perspective. The universe is continuing to expand. Just in the past 50 years, look at what the human being has come to be.

The awe of these sorts of discoveries is sublime, but it’s not exactly comforting, especially considering the mounting scientific evidence that worlds like Earth, congenial to life, are not common as once thought, but are probably very rare in the Milky Way, in Laniakea, and in the universe as a whole.

Why are Earth-like planets rare? (I sponged up much of this information is from two popular-science books I adore, Peter Ward and Don Brownlee’s beautiful downer Rare Earth and John Hand’s breathtaking summary-of-everything Cosmosapiens. Hurry up and read them both.)

First, our sun is in perfect galactic real estate—far from the crowded, explosive environment of the galactic core and the sterilizing lashes of radiation that emanate from the black hole at the Milky Way’s center; far too from the obscuring clouds of unaggregated cosmic dust at the Milky Way’s edge—and it’s stayed in this sweet spot for its full lifespan. The Sun is a G2 star, not too big or small, and stable (few flares, no surprise expansion) over its multi-billion-year life. Both of these factors mean that life has has 4 billion relatively undisturbed years to flourish on Earth.

Earth also had a lucky collision early in its existence: fewer than a billion years after it was formed from loose rock and dust, our young hot planet was struck by a meteor the size of Mars.

This meteor’s iron core sank and was absorbed into Earth’s, enlarging and strengthening our magnetic field, which protects our planet’s surface from the scouring, cancerous effects of solar radiation. The rubble blown off from this collision also collected into one satellite: the Moon. The Moon’s mass considerably slowed Earth’s rotation (its day), so our nightside surface can shed heat that could otherwise collect into a planet-wide greenhouse effect. The Moon also stabilized Earth’s axial tilt: this means our planet is spared what would otherwise be a violently wobbling axis periodically turning the Arctic tropical and vice versa. Tilted now at 23.4 degrees, our planet instead enjoys steady, regular seasonal change: great for life.

Earth is also blessed with a helpful big brother, Jupiter. The immense mass of Jupiter draws in most meteors and comets that come charging through our solar system. Instead of crashing into Earth, these meteors and comets collide with Jupiter. It’d be much harder for life to flourish on Earth if our planet was struck every few million years by a dinosaur-killing-sized meteor.

Our earliest ancestors likewise got lucky with where and how life first appeared. (First learned about this from, of all places, the appendix of a wonderful Natural Geographic book my dad got for Finn.) As simple proto-algae creatures spread throughout the ocean, they absorbed CO2 (which further limited the greenhouse effect), and breathed out oxygen. This oxygen rose from the ocean and was fused into ozone, creating an additional buffer against the Sun’s radiation for the life that did eventually creep onto land. If life had appeared on land first, solar radiation through Earth’s early ozone-less atmosphere would have introduced mutations so severe that evolution over time may never have taken off.

No one knows exactly how life itself first appeared, but it now seems likely that there are billions of near-miss planets in the universe: nice, temperate worlds with liquid water that never got a chance for life (or where life could never spread) because of galactic or solar radiation, a too-short or too-long day, a veering axis, or meteor bombardment. We now have strong enough telescopes that we can find evidence of planets around other stars. We can detect their mass and movement by how their gravity causes stars to wobble, and by how their transits slightly dim the stars they circle. The vast majority of the planets we’ve found are not even near-misses: they’re just no good for life. They’re “hot Jupiters,” gas giants squeezed up closer to their stars than Mercury is to the Sun, or they’re rocky but tidally locked, with the same side facing their star (and cooking into lava).

As a kid who read a lot of science fiction, I drew comfort from the idea of a universe as busy and amicable as a beehive with intelligent life. This dream now seems unlikely. Some scientists argue that any civilization that develops sufficiently may not choose to explore and populate the planets of other stars; but, in any case, our galaxy seems quieter than my kid self had hoped, and less congenial to life than we’d thought.

So, is Laniakea still beautiful in a universe full of stone and fire, radiation and rainbow dust, but largely empty of life? Yes, but it’s a beauty more like a thundering waterfall than like a garden: a beauty that doesn’t comfort us, but one that, for now, “serenely disdains to annihilate us.”

How does it change your perspective and life to find yourself at home in Laniakea? Or, put in terms closer to me, what prayer is appropriate to this scientific knowledge? The king-and-parent language of my own tradition feels impoverished before these discoveries, but I feel myself drawn toward the simple root prayer of the Orthodox: kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy! Or the open-palmed confession of human smallness and contingency in Islam: allahu akbar, God is greater. Or the recognition, central to Hinduism, that our being and will themselves are grounded in God: “What cannot be thought with the mind, but that whereby the mind can think: Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore… What cannot be indrawn with breath, but that whereby breath is indrawn: Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore” (Kena Upanishad). This prayer says that God–whatever that bare, wonderful word means to you–is the condition, the ground, for our questioning, smallness, curiosity, and fear. Our planet’s cosmic improbability and fragility might provoke the same questions as we face when we think about our own mortality: If it’s so delicate, so brief, what was ever the point? Did it matter that we ever lived if our planet will be boiled by its dying Sun and our universe stretches the fabric of itself into a fizzle of loose, dead particles? Questions like this resist an answer, but demand a response. How do you live, having absorbed knowledge like this into your body?

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Zbigniew Herbert, “From Mythology”

First there was a god of night and tempest, a black idol without eyes, before whom they leaped, naked and smeared with blood. Later on, in the times of the republic, there were many gods with wives, children, creaking beds, and harmlessly exploding thunderbolts. At the end only superstitious neurotics carried in their pockets little statues of salt, representing the god of irony. There was no greater god at that time.

Then came the barbarians. They too valued highly the little god of irony. They would crush it under their heels and add it to their dishes.

Translated by Czeslaw Milosz. From Postwar Polish Poetry: New Edition, one of my very favorite poetry anthologies.

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