Car Seat Headrest ‘Twin Fantasy’ – Review

11 Mar

‘Twin Fantasy’ is Will Toledo and Car Seat Headrest’s ode to longing and remembering: it encapsulates the reality of young, unrequited love and the fantasy of breathing life to those memories. This is Car Seat Headrest’s eleventh release (third proper studio album put out by Matador) and its a full band remake of his/their sixth record, first put out in 2011 through bandcamp. Still following? Both versions are presented here on a double disc set, which asks you to draw wobbly lines between the past and present. Toledo writes about his first real love, an older man who didn’t fully return his feelings. Here recreated and reanimated from the safe vantage point of time, Toledo makes a temple out of both that initial mystery man, and also the teenage boy who fell for him. It’s a temple at which he devoutly worships. ‘Twin Fantasy’ is both about, and embodies, the teenage attributes of precociousness, forthrightness, personal inadequacy, spontaneity, desperate want and a crushing inability to see past the end of your own nose. But there is now an added sense of retrospective perspective that gives a compelling layer of intrigue.

It’s the embodiment of these traits that makes ‘Twin Fantasy’ so tantalising and, at times, frustrating. Songs (apparently inspired by the narrative ambition of Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’ and Pink Floyd’s expansive opus ‘Dark Side of the Moon’) think nothing of stretching out in to multi-part, mood flipping, tempo switching epics – often to the detriment of logic, melody and the listener’s tolerance. The 12 minute Beach Life in Death is glorious for most of its running time but collapses in to repetition and noise in its final couple of minutes (he does amazingly well to keep you hooked for even ten minutes, let’s be fair). The sixteen minute ‘Famous Prophets’ becomes tedious sooner, probably about 2/3rds of the way through, which reduces some of its impact. ‘High to Death’ and ‘Bodys’ also become indulgent rambles – too neurotic to be called jams and too thoughtful to be freak outs, these extended instrumentals occupy a tiresome space. All of these above are better in their slightly shorter, and certainly more intense, original incarnations. But this all serves a larger purpose and may even add to the appeal; after all this is an album about being a teenager, it would be a sham if everything was smooth, tolerable and refined. Also, Toledo wants ‘Twin Fantasy’ to be so much more than indie music, he’s said as much. He sees ‘Teen Fantasy’ taking up a similar position to Frank Ocean’s Blonde or Kanye’s ‘Life as Pablo’. And that means being indulgent, erratic and ambitious to a fault. Very few artists generally, let alone in the codified jungle of rock music, are making music as daring as as this. If he goes too far from time to time it’s only as a result of pushing at the boundaries.

Above all else, Toledo’s personality makes this a unique album (I genuinely can’t think of another young artist with a similar perspective and style). It seeps in to an album that adds up to far more than the sum of its parts. The brilliantly paranoid ‘Beach Life in Death’ finds the narrator driving from mundane place to mundane place, trying to forget someone, but seeing reminders of his plight in every symbolic stop sign, train, rain cloud and sharp left turn in the road. The song becomes a personal list of flaws and anxieties that culminates with ‘I don’t want to go insane, I don’t want to have schizophrenia!’ A line which is indicative of Toledo’s dark humour. The hook to ‘Sober to Death’, the album’s catchiest number, goes ‘you can call me when punching mattresses gets old’. These bleakly comic asides punctuate a narrative that could have easily turned in to one long, narcissistic diary entry if left to a less incisive writer.

The songs are layered with symbols and motifs, many of which hark back to past lyrics, song titles and artworks. It’s like Car Seat Headrest have created their own universe, which can perhaps explain why they’ve collected a rabid (and by all accounts somewhat unsavoury) online following, who love to draw lines and make connections. A couple of tracks feature spoken word interludes, samples of conversations, and in one case a recording of an artist talking about his portfolio (prints of that particular artist’s paintings are featured in he booklet). These interludes are interesting, and integral to the album’s structure but become a bit boring after a while. The album hits hardest when it punches more directly. ‘Body’s’ acknowledges as much when Toledo sings ‘That’s not what I meant to say at all, I mean, I’m sick of meaning, I just want to hold you’. The immediacy of that song recalls ‘Teens of Denial’, this album’s more straight-lined and satisfying (but perhaps less significant) predecessor.

Things draw to a close on ‘High to Death’ and the epic ‘Famous Prophets’ where the protagonist gets drunk to forget, contemplates death and watches bruises on his shins (caused in an act of spontaneous passion) fade along with his lover’s interest. ‘These teenage hands will never touch yours again’. He wonders if this is a temporary set back or the start ‘of the great silence. Is this the start of every day?’ It sounds very sentimental when worded like this but the album never really strikes a particularly emotive tone; the closest Toledo really comes to romantic outpouring is when he sings ‘you know I love your art’. Toledo is too self aware and knowing to let his truest, most inner feelings have unrestricted voice. That could be perceived as a slight but it’s this same self-awareness and restraint that makes Car Seat Headrest stand out from the crowd of young, emo songwriters. It’s the final song ‘Twin Fantasy (Those Boys)’ written in distant third person, which strikes the most touching note. Toledo eulogises the couple whilst enthusing that, thanks to the music, they have found a place where they will be remembered. From reality, to the realm of fantasy – this is the fate of most adolescent relationships. On ‘Twin Fantasy’ Toledo takes ownership of this fact and finds a safe distance, and vantage point, at which to romanticise and remember his young, doomed love. ‘When I come back you’ll still be here.’ Twin Fantasy is a eulogy we can all return to.




Franz Ferdinand ‘Always Ascending’ – Review

25 Feb

15 years ago(!) four sharply dressed men with sharper cheek bones and even sharper hooks graced the cover of NME with the headline ‘We want to make music that girls can dance to’. That might seem like a quant proclamation in our current climate but back in 2004 it seemed vitally and necessarily unpretentious. It followed a string of heady declarations from groups wanting to be ‘your new favourite band’ (The Hives), ‘the biggest band in the world’ (Coldplay) or ‘change your life forever!’ (The Strokes). Actually, a similar headline to the latter also graced another, later cover of NME also featuring Franz Ferdinand, by which point such a statement felt less like hyperbole and more like a statement of fact. Franz Ferdinand delivered on all their promises. Their debut was a dance record made with guitars that became one of the biggest selling albums of 2004. As well as the floor beats, slinky bass lines and deep grooves, the album lingered for its abundance of witticisms and the memorable choruses to songs like ‘Matinee’, ‘Michael’ and most famously ‘Take Me Out’ – possibly three of the most literary songs to reach the top ten of the singles chart.

Franz followed that album up quickly with the emphatic ‘You Could Have It So Much Better’, a record that inflated the hooks, ramped up the tempos (whilst occasionally pausing to catch breath with some folky ballads) and straightened out the rhythms a little. ‘Tonight’, which followed a couple of years later, reinstated the dance beats and added more synthetic instrumentation. Both of these albums expanded the Franz Ferdinand sound whilst keeping a recognisable aesthetic. The gap between ‘Tonight’ and eventual follow up ‘Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action’ was a long one. Too long. The momentum felt broken, interest waned and although that record contained a handful of fan favourites, the band were clearly revisiting the original formula with diminishing returns. Compared to the ambitious trajectory that 90s indie bands such as Blur, Manic Street Preachers and Suede took it couldn’t help but feel like Franz Ferdinand had peaked too soon and were happy to fade as a popular and respected cult band. ‘Right Thoughts…’ was a good album but it was a safe one – and they sold it as such.

New album ‘Always Ascending’ on the other hand, is a safe album masquerading as something new. It’s been five years since ‘Right Thoughts…’ (a couple of years ago they also put out a disappointing collaboration with Sparks as FFS) and in that time they lost founding member and lead guitarist Nick, and recruited two new members with an electronic music background. Over ten songs on ‘Always Ascending’, Franz play around with pedals, dusty synths, drum machines and time signatures to disorientate the listener in to a state of unfamiliarity. But once you get your bearings you realise that though the wallpaper may be different, the structure is exactly the same. For all it’s pretensions as an ambitious, inventive new direction, ‘Always Ascending’ actually feels disappointingly like what we’ve heard before – only far less energised and engaging. Less sparkly. Less fun. It is what it is; the sound of a middle aged band writing middle aged songs.

Befitting a middle aged band, Always Ascending’ is relentlessly capable; it knows what it likes and it gets it done. It may be dour, dreary and world weary (as many of us perhaps feel at such an age) but there is a level of proficiency in these licks and grooves that not many bands would be capable of. Once you get used to the somber mood, and it does take a few listens, some songs even become quite enjoyable. ‘Let the Love Go’ is the biggest dance number on here and whilst it’s no ‘Do You Want to’ you can imagine it going over quite well in an indie disco. ‘Paper Cages’ and ‘Huck and Jim’ sounds more rough and ragged than the dance lite numbers either side of them in the tracklisting, and they benefit as a result. More of this energy, wide eyed wonder and righteous anger would have been welcome elsewhere on the album, where the tone is generally apathetic.

More often than not, ‘Always Ascending’ says nothing. How much have the stakes been lowered? The hook on comeback single ‘Always Ascending’ goes ‘wake me up, come on wake me up.’ If the message wasn’t clear enough, second single ‘Lazy Boy’ opens with ‘I’m a lazy boy, I’m a lazy boy, never getting up in time’. Franz Ferdinand use to write poetry rich in allusion and metaphor, now they simply can’t be bothered. When they try, as on ‘The Academy Award’ , their allusions are cliched and metaphors thin (‘the academy award for good times goes to you!’). Perhaps the most telling moment comes on ‘Lois Lane’: ‘It’s bleak, it’s bleak, it’s bleak’ Alex barks. The album is indeed bleak. A downcast mod, set in minor key, prevails from start to finish with extraordinarily little of the pop instinct that made the band a feature of the top 10 back in the mid 00s.

Franz Ferdinand recently appeared on late night TV to perform the title track, an electronically charged dance number that builds and builds but ultimately doesn’t explode. Both Alex and Paul grew their hair out long in unflattering styles, Alex going so far as to dye it a kind of grey blond. He was wearing a loose bowling shirt that wasn’t tucked in, and had all the joy in his expression of someone having their teeth pulled. This is in stark contrast to their breakthrough appearance on Jools Holland back in 2003, where, dressed in near matching skinny suits and brightly coloured ties, they danced and grinned their way through ‘Take Me Out’, every bit the gang. That song was masterly constructed and artfully knowing. It might be unkind to compare ‘Always Ascending’ to something as inspired as ‘Take Me Out’ but the band invite such comparisons by the artificial similarities built in to the new song – the patient build, the Niles Rodgers riffing, the call and response chant. Similar but far, far less accomplished.

There is an equally uncanny quality to much of ‘Always Ascending’, as it’s so superficially similar to what has come before, yet on close inspection so peculiarly off point. Take for example the front cover; it’s black – Same as all their other albums – with the album’s title centred in a colourful font – again, very similar to their other albums. Yet look a little closer and you will see that the Domino logo isn’t in the bottom corner, as it’s always been in the past. The title’s futurist font also clashes with the band’s older, modernist European sensibilities. Put it on a shelf with their other records and you may not notice but it’s one of the many the slight missteps that make this such a clumsy, unsuccessful record. You have to still believe in Franz Ferdinand; they have done so much for guitar music, and there are hints of their old magic here. But generally, ‘Always’ Ascending is a depressingly deflated release from a band who once told us ‘you can have it so much better’.



Justin Timberlake ‘Man of the Woods’ – Review

9 Feb

The knives are out for Justin Timberlake, and have been for a while. 2015’s inescapable ‘Can’t stop the feeling ‘ was generally treated with scorn by mean spirited critics, despite being statistically the year’s most popular song. And even before a note of ‘Man of the Woods’ was heard, The Outline published a scathing takedown of the album’s concept, based largely on the presumption that Timberlake was ditching Hip Hop and r&b sounds in favour of more traditionally white ones. Such a simplification, and misreading, of the artistic thought process patronises Timberlake, his collaborators and his achievements. Yet such criticism makes headlines and appeals all too easily to a right on readership ready to shoot down easy targets. It’s not Timberlake’s fault that in the years following the mostly well received ’20/20 Experience’ he’s walked in to a world where concepts like white privilege, ‘me too’ and cultural appropriation can straight jacket someone of his standing before he even opens his mouth to sing. To many, Timberlake’s sin is merely existing and thriving.

But Timberlake isn’t interested in joining in a political conversation. ‘Man of the Woods’ is an insular, personal record about family and nature and contentment that shuns politics and the wider world in general. And as much as I’d like to offer this review as a defence of his right to make exactly the kind of art he feels justified (excuse the pun) in making, I’m afraid this is where I have to change tact. You see i actually agree that ‘Man of the Woods’ is a pretty bad album – just not for the presumptuous reasons outlined above.

Of course ‘Man of the Woods’ is as polished as you’d expect from anything involving Pharel Williams and Timbaland but it sounds more amateurish than any project they’ve been involved in before. Who knows the factors at play behind that – perhaps, and this may be a patronising ‘perhaps’ – they ceded more responsibility to Timberlake himself. Or perhaps after years at the forefront of innovation, they have simply lost the magic touch. It happens to the best of us. Regardless, the consensus is in and very few people are happy. Aside from the divisive themes and cliched production choices, it disappoints for more traditional reasons: Melodies that strain rather than glide. Lyrics that scan as pretentious rather than empathetic. Hooks that don’t hook. Busy arrangements that do all the heavy lifting. Songs that feel, and often sound, disjointed and badly fused. Songs have been missing the mark for these reasons since the beginning of time.

‘MOTW’ is thematically cohesive but backtracks on the daring ambition of ‘The 20/20 Experience’, arguably the most inventive pop record of the last decade. The 20 songs on that mammoth album stretched out to encompass many moods, tempos and styles with extended running times that allowed for both playful frolicking and serious reflection. He still tries to cram all that in to ‘Man of the Woods’ but everything feels shrunken in comparison. ‘Midnight Summer Jam’, easily the grooviest song on her, feels restricted just as it’s getting in to the swing of things. Likewise, mid album momentum is crippled by a handful of snoozy half-ballads. Ironically, it is a case of too much and not enough.

Sometimes in pop music, the sharpest hooks can dig out the biggest holes. That’s what happened on Timberlake’s ‘Justified’ where the insane brilliance of the four singles showed up the album tracks in comparison (a lesson he learnt on the hook extravaganzas ‘Future Sex/Love Sound’ and ’20/20 experience’ where there was very little driftwood). ‘Man of the Woods’ in comparison is full of holes, but these ones weren’t carved out by hooks. In fact the album is oddly short of them. First single ‘Filthy’ was forgettable, and best understood as an experimental palette cleanser. But then came ‘Supplies’, the most embarrassingly inept major pop single I can remember this side of the last Katy Perry album. The song’s cringeworthy extended metaphor highlights all of Timberlake’s most notorious shortcomings as a lyricist, and unlike, say, ‘Sexy Back’ or ‘Pusher Love Girl’, he doesn’t use humour or cheekiness to get away with it. The album’s lyrics are often trite, banal, silly, corny and even creepy. His pretentious performances determine the listener’s response, and these lyrics are treated too seriously by Timberlake to be dismissed as careless pop cheese.

You certainly can’t accuse him of burying the lede. Song titles are as ‘duh’ obvious as ‘Flannel Shirt’, ‘Montana’, ‘Livin off the Land’, ‘Breeze on the Pond’ ‘Man of the Woods’ etc but sadly this isn’t a particularly rootsy or raw album. Highlights from past records indicate that Timberlake could benefit from a more natural, instinctual approach; but with one or two exceptions the songs on ‘MOTW’ feel stilted by over-production. Stacked harmonies, glitchy effects, convulsing beats, layered synth-lines – they’ve always been a part of Timberlake’s sound but here they feel like the safe retreat of a heavy hand. The simple, soulful approach of ‘Higher, Higher’, the country tinged ‘Say Something’ and the funky ‘Midnight Summer Jam’ suggest a more natural, less manipulated sound would work well for the more mature pop star.

And despite all its flaws, there is the strong sense that there is a fine album in here desperate to be released. His concept, as badly realised as it is, isn’t necessarily a bad one. A through line between country, funk and r&b certainly exists, with an under appreciated history, and Timberlake has the talent to draw eyes and ears to it. But ‘country with 808s’, as he described it, is too reductive a rendering of that genre melding concept. In the end, despite intentions, ‘MOTW’ is sonically indistinguishable from what he’s put out before. And that’s the disappointment. He’s coasting. Making bold statements and claims but without doing the hard work to back them up. He lacks the style, subtlety and sophistication of his old guise but the back to nature aesthetic is equally unconvincing. The end result is a disappointing mess.



The Shins ‘The Worm’s Heart’ – Review

6 Feb

‘The Worms Heart’ finds The Shins reimagining, reworking and re-releasing last year’s brilliantly life affirming ‘Heartworms’. You don’t need any excuse to listen to that great album again but ‘The Worm’s Heart’ gives you one anyway. It’s being presented as a sort of stripping back, and for all it’s inspired melodies and typically beguiling lyrics, ‘Heartworms’ did feel a little busy and overly complicated at points, as if James Mercer had spent too long at the stove faffing about with seasoning when the basic ingredients were tasty enough to begin with. It’s a point he conceded in a recent interview where he said ‘Me, sitting there tinkering forever and getting too deep into the details of things — I think that ended up with having some of the Heartworms mixes being overwrought. ‘The Heart’s Worm’ then, in theory, works as an antidote, and its highlights succeed for exactly that reason.

‘Cherry Hearts’, the most spazzy and distracting moment on ‘Heartworms’ is here more simply rendered as a straightforward power pop song. The melody, always engaging, now has the space to truly stretch its legs. ‘Fantasy Island’ works for similar reasons. The 80s influenced song has been stripped of its shoulder pads, double denim and wayfarers and given a more laid back indie pop make over.

But as on ‘Heartworms’, Mercer wasn’t able to suppress his overactive imagination or controlling tendencies for long – despite the best of intentions ‘The Worms Heart’ is actually considerably more dizzying and ‘overwrought’ than the original album. It skits uncomfortably from genre to genre, tempo to tempo, mood to mood, so that the effect is akin to being on the most unpredictable rollercoaster in existence (a simile that makes the album sound considerably more exciting than it actually is).

The original album’s track listing has been flipped so that it now opens with a slouchy version of ‘The Fear’, a gorgeous meditation on an ageing relationship that still feels like a closing statement rather than an opening gambit. ‘Name For You’, therefore becomes the big finale, and likewise it doesn’t really suit its new fixture, nor does the funeral march tempo enhance the song’s naturally bouncy melody or sprightly lyrics. ‘Painting a Hole’, already the weakest song on ‘Heartworms’ from a songwriting stand point doesn’t benefit from a bare bones stripping of the psychedelic sound effects and original, effervescent arrangement. These new versions are so misguided it makes you wonder how a songwriter as gifted as James Mercer could have so little understanding of how best to render his own material. Before ‘Heartworms’ the only time he’d self-produced was on the band’s debut, a muddy sounding collection of endearing but hardly demanding indie rock songs. That record was recorded quickly out of necessity whereas Mercer sat in his home studio recording ‘Heartworms’ and ‘The Worm’s Heart’ for literally years. The difference will be obvious to even the most casual listener.

But all things said, those songs were some of the most engaging indie rock tracks of the past twelve months, and even dressed in odd new clothes that still remains true. All in all ‘The Worm’s Heart’ may be a misguided album, but it’s an enjoyable on . At times in fact, it’s an absolute blast. ‘Heartworms’ slinky disco makeover is elastic and ridiculously catchy (but then the song was already pretty fab in the first place). The reggae-lite lilt of ‘Half a Million’ and the garage rock stomp of ‘Mildenhall’ offer fresh flavours even if they don’t best their original incarnations. ‘Dead Alive’ now has a haunting arrangement to support its eerie lyrics though its melody is stretched and slowed like a record being played at the wrong speed.

This kind of track by track breakdown and comparison is kind of pedantic and nerdy, which perhaps tells you all that you need to know about ‘The Worm’s Heart’ – it’s an exercise in production targeted mainly at The Shins hardcore fans. The kind of people who have spun ‘Heartworms’ to death and are interested in something new to dig their teeth in to. I’m here for that – just not massively impressed with most of the new versions. Which makes me wonder what an unencumbered listener would make of it, in the unusual circumstance that they would hear it before ‘Heartworms’. I can’t see anyone picking this up over the original, and nor should they, but if they did what would they make of it? My main question though, is what could James Mercer have achieved if he’d spent the past twelve months writing new songs instead of pouring over old ones?



Star Wars ‘The Last Jedi’ – Review

13 Jan

(I don’t write film reviews often but I felt compelled to note down some thoughts on the new Star Wars film)

There are a couple of moments in ‘The Last Jedi’ where super villain Kylo Ren gleefully advises ‘let the past die, kill it if you have to’. Despite coming out of the mouth of the film’s chief antagonist, director/writer Rian Johnson seems to have embraced the instruction with almost perverse glee. This is a complex film that takes a fizzing red lightsaber to the past, and does more than chop its hand off. In doing so Johnson has made the most divisive and controversial episode in the Star Wars Saga. He takes many risks, some of which work and many of which don’t. Some of which are devastatingly emotional and some of which are just plain devastating. It moves the franchise forward by breaking it apart from what came before. It’s failures are many and varied but it’s achievements are perhaps more significant if Star Wars is to have life in to a new decade.

The primary criticism of ‘The Force Awakens’ (a fantastic if flawed episode in the series) was that it was TOO nostalgic. But the things it was nostalgic for – classic storytelling, charm and charisma, admirable heroics, practical effects, a sense of magic, optimism – weren’t things tied to any one time period, let alone a single film. Lucas was heavily influenced by his art school colleagues, Kurosawa, Flash Gorden, War films and most importantly Jung’s theories on archetypes and Joseph Campbell’s study of myths, ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’. Lucas was a student of storytelling. Johnson on the other hand seems to enjoy hacking away at these established modes of expression that influenced Lucas. This is symbolised early on in the film when Luke tosses away his father’s lightsaber. It’s played for cheap laughs but the scene symbolises, either intentionally or not, the seeming disregard Johnson has for legends, trophies and conventions. Johnson is in search of something less tied to mythology and expectation, something more contemporary and complex. That means working against a legacy that George Lucas carefully created.

The whole ‘medichlorean’ philosophy that Lucas designed, and the entire concept of a ‘chosen one’ are purposefully disregarded. Rey is revealed to be a nobody. Her parents were nobody’s. Yet she can, and will, lead the revolution. And here we have just one manifestation of the politics of Johnson’s vision: the democratisation of the force, where you too could one day be a Jedi knight. Any inherited authority, either by sense of personal entitlement or through destiny or a single family dynasty, is thoroughly decried and dismissed. Of course there has always been a political undercurrent to Star Wars – it swelled to the surface in The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith – but The Last Jedi explicitly toys with a grab bag of modern political anxieties – absent parents, multi ethic alliances, feminist leaders usurping man-child upstarts, mutant dictators exploiting the weak and vulnerable, and the flaws of capitalism. To some this will seem welcome, overdue, necessary even, to other it will seem like unfortunate pandering and misplaced, self righteous posturing.

It’s not just the politics that will be divisive. On a purely cinematic level, The Last Jedi is more underwhelming than its predecessors. I’d always had Johnson pegged as something of a stylist, yet one or two memorable shots aside, nothing really strikes a note of individualism. The psychedelic scene where Rey looks down a hall of mirrors and sees… herself, is a perfect example of where a visionary director could have left a mark. Instead the scene is laboured and uninspired, as much of the movie is for its often tiresome two and a half hours. Scenes involving space dog fights and grand explosions have the potential to dazzle but the effect is numbed by sheer repetition. The most stirring of these scenes is right there at the beginning when an unarmed resistance fighter sacrifices herself to release futuristic grenades on to the enemy ship. Every other space battle after this feels emotionally empty and redundant in comparison.

Where Lucas wisely used classical structures and proven character archetypes, Johnson anarchically undercuts and undermines the same tropes. The story is deliberately sprawling and convoluted to the extreme; it dovetails in to several unnecessary subplots that ultimately fizzle out. At the end you’re left wondering – what has actually happened? What did Luke and Rey ACTUALLY do on that Island? What was the POINT of having Poe and Rose go to that casino planet? Did we REALLY need so many space battles? It makes you yearn for the relatively linear plot lines of the original trilogy.

And in that sense, The Last Jedi has less in common with The Empire Strikes Back (the film it was initially compared to) and more in common with the episodic adventure format of ‘Attack of the Clones’. But whilst that film (up until now the most flawed and disliked episode in the Star Wars series) had the zany flavour of a Saturday morning cartoon serial, ‘The Last Jedi’, feels much darker and less generous both stylistically and tonally. For example; the intrigue of the Canto Bight casino planet is only briefly utilised. Before you know it the characters have escaped, and a dimly lit, unambitiously framed chase sequence is underway. Similarly, the visually distinctive planet of Crait feels under-used; compare it to the rich and rewarding landscapes of Attack of the Clones – the water planet of Kamino, the futuristic cityscape of coruscant and the deserty Tatoine. But the prequels sleek modernism is seemingly too earnest to be of any kind of influence on this director. A shame, as their undervalued innovations were more ambitious than anything seen visually in The Last Jedi.

So the film is technically sloppy, superficially unambitious, structurally laboured, politically divisive and tonally off balance. It’s also got plot holes that will disturb the anoraks (you could argue that every Star Wars film since Empire has) but more significantly there are things about it that will alienate the film’s target audience – children. The film easily drags past two hours, and because it opens in fifth gear (with one of several space shot outs), it struggles to build any sort of momentum. It rattles from one overheated set piece to the next until they all just blur in to one frazzled mess. Children will get bored quickly and often. The emotional intensity of several key scenes, adult themes and even, at one point, swearing, may also impede a young audience’s viewing. The dialogue is also far too knowing to sound like it genuinely belongs in the Star Wars universe. The wide eyed, stumbling sincerity of George Lucas’ intergalactic vocabulary is replaced by irony, sarcasm and detachment. The jokes frequently fall flat and even his attempt at cuteness, with the porgs, feels cliched.

Snoke, the one character from Force Awakens who perhaps should have set alarm bells ringing, is a hollow cliche of a 21st century Marvel villain, and he’s mercifully, if Ludicrously, offed about half way through the film. This scene leads to one of the film’s unadulterated moments of ingenuity, when Kylo Ren and Rey team up to defeat a group of rebel guards, in front of a dramatic, blood red back drop. The choreography is slightly stilted but the drama is real, and in that brief scene the ambiguity over Kylo Ren’s future is genuinely intriguing. But by this point Johnson has blurred the lines between morals to such an extent that any kind of decisive choice would feel hollow.

But for all it’s flaws, the actors in The Last Jedi do a tremendous job, almost without exception (Domnhall Gleason hams it up a little too much as Admiral Hux and Kelly Tran has a remarkably blunted impact as new character Rose). Carrie Fischer seemed out of her depth and flustered in the Force Awakens, but she found her feet and gave a brilliant final performance as Leila (we can just ignore the whole flying in space bit). Oscar Isaac is typically charismatic as ‘fly boy’ Poe, Daisy Ridley delivers a moving performance as Rey, and Adam Driver is truly exceptional at expressing Kylo Ren’s inner conflict.

The true star though is undoubtedly Mark Hamil. For all his dogged enthusiasm, he never really impressed with his acting ability in the original trilogy but here he is more than convincing as a reclusive, weary Luke Skywalker. Hamil should be praised even more considering he was essentially asked to butcher his own character’s moral code and optimistic outlook. The Star Wars saga, fundamentally, has always been the personal story of the Skywalker family, and so every scene involving Luke (except at points involving awkward, winking gags) feels like the convincing and necessary continuation of an old journey. The emotional push and pull feels real and moving. After all, Luke has been through a whole world of pain borne out by a constant cycle of loss. The despair he feels in the Last Jedi is a logical end point for a life of disappointment.

The final shot featuring Luke, looking out at, then collapsing under, the twin sunset, poetically mirrors a classic early scene from Episode IV. That initial shot was an expression of optimism, desire and hope. Here it’s used as a sigh of exasperation. I don’t think many fans would have wanted such a sorrowful end for one of the most beloved characters in cinematic history. Yes he’s being heroic and brave but he dies deflated, if not totally defeated, his belief system shattered, with a former pupil bringing the galaxy in to chaos. Essentially all the good work Luke and the rebels did in defeating Vader is undone. It’s convincing but there is the obvious argument that Star Wars has never been about realism, and Luke, the archetypal hero, was meant to be above all that. In fact, the whole world, or Galaxy, of The Last Jedi feels more human and relatable, which is one of the reasons it’s winning plaudits from the critics and perhaps one of the reasons proper fans feel so conflicted. Is it too trivial to say that The Last Jedi doesn’t feel like a George Lucas film? That sometimes it doesn’t even feel like it belongs in the same universe? These characters are relatable, their choices understandable, and their depictions believable but the shades in which they are drawn are perhaps too realistic, and therefore undesirable. In the trailer, Luke warned the audience ‘this is not going to go the way you think’. He was right.

But there is one more scene after Luke’s demise, one that restores some of the mystique. Two slave children, glimpsed earlier in Canto Bright, are staring at the stars, playing at being Jedi. Specifically, playing at being the legendary Luke Skywalker. By sacrificing himself, Luke has secured his future as a mythic hero; someone who didn’t bring balance to the force but whose hope, optimism and sacrifices influenced future generations who perhaps could. By putting this scene at the conclusion, Johnson shows that he does have an affinity for the same myths and legends as Lucas after all. He is a dreamer as well. For all its unnecessary moral, political and narrative complexity there is a pretty simple idea at the heart of this story; with persistence and a little belief, good will triumph over bad. In that respect it isn’t so different from A New Hope after all.


My favourite albums of 2017

24 Dec

1. Lorde ‘Melodrama’
2. Mount Eerie ‘A Crow Looked at Me’
3. The War on Drugs ‘A Deeper Understanding’
4. Fleet Foxes ‘Crack Up’
5. Sheer Mag ‘Need to Feel Your Love’
6. Kendrick Lamar ‘Damn’
7. The Drums ‘Abysmal Thoughts’
8. Cigarettes After Sex ‘Cigerettes After Sex’
9. Ryan Adams ‘Prisoner’
10. Bjork ‘Utopia’
11. Loyle Carner ‘Yesterday’s Gone’
12. The Shins ‘Heartworms’
13. Alvvays ‘Anti-socialites’
14. Hodera ‘First things First’
15. Jens Leckman ‘Life Will See You Now’
16. Julien baker ‘Turn Out the Lights’
17. Paramore ‘After Laughter’
18. Moses Sumney ‘Afromanticism’
19. Phoebe Bridgers Stranger in the Alps’
20. Big Thief ‘Capacity’
21. Taylor Swift ‘Reputation’
22. Calvin Harris ‘Funk Wav Bounces Vol 1’
23. Wild Pink ‘Wild Pink’
24. Cloud Nothings ‘Life Without Sound’
25. Harry Styles ‘Harry Styles’
26. Run the Jewels ‘Run the Jewels 3’
27. Thundercat ‘Drunk’
28. Slaughter Beach Dog ‘Birdie’
29. Life ‘Popular Music’
30. Childhood ‘Universal High’
31. Wolf Alice ‘Visions of a Life’
32. SZA ‘CTRL’
33. Brand New ‘Science Fiction’
34. Charlie Bliss ‘Guppy’
35. Slowdive ‘Slowdive’
36. Perfume Genius ‘No Shape’
37. Kasabian ‘For Crying out Loud’
38. The National ‘Sleep Well Beast’
39. Princess Nokia ‘1992’
40. Haim ‘Something to Tell You’
41. The Killers ‘Wonderful Wonderful’
42. A Savage ‘Thawing Dawn’
43. Surfer Blood ‘Showdonia’
44. The Menzigers ‘After the Party’
45. Forest Swords ‘Compassion
46. Sorority Noise ‘You’re Not as _ as you think you are’
47. Oso Oso ‘The Ynahon Mixtape’
48. Midland ‘On the Rocks’
49. Kolsch 1989
50. Rose Elinor Dougall ‘Stellular’

My Favourite Singles of 2017

24 Dec

1. Everything Now by Arcade Fire
2. Thinking of a Place by War on Drugs
3. Just Can’t Get Enough by Sheer Mag
4. Why Didn’t You Say That by Lemon Twigs
5. Blinded by Your Grace (part 2) by Stormzy
6. Perfect by Ed Sheeran
7. Slide by Calvin Harris and Frank Ocean
8. Sign of the Times by Harry Styles
9. Ain’t Nothing Changed by Loyle Carner
10. On My Mind by Jorja Smith
11. Are you leaving by Sassy 009
12. Green Light by Lorde
13. Your Love by Magic Gang
14. Third of May by Fleet Foxes
15. Without You by Ryan Adams
16. Popular Music by Life
17. Boys by Charli XCX
18. No one knows me like the piano by Sampha
19. Blood Under My Belt’ by The Drums
20. DNA by Kendrick Lamar
21. Hard Times by Paramore
22. Something to Remember me By by The Horrors
23. The Man by The Killers
24. Vampires by Jason Isabell
25. Near to the wild Heart of Life by Japandroids
26. Mystery of Love by Sufjan Stevens
27. Wendy’s Trash Can by Rozwell Kid
28. Despecito by Louis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee
29. Little of Your Love by Haim
30. Television Romance by Pale Waves
31. Love by Lana Del Rey
32. Bad Bohemian by British Sea Power
33. Bike Dream by Rostam
34. God bless this Acid House by Kasabian
35. In Undertow by Alvvays
36. Too good at goodbyes by Sam smith
37. On Hold by The XX
38. Your Cat by Slaughter Beach Dog
39. Feel the same by Bully
40. Follow the Leader by Foxygen
41. Young Dumb and Broke by Khalid
42. Bobby by Sandy Alex G
43. Emotion by Curls
44. Wall of glass by Liam Gallagher
45. Ascension by DJ Sports
46. Country by Porches
47. Ran by Future Islands
48. All Night by Big Boi
49. Victoria Falls by Flyte
50. You weren’t there anymore by Negative Gemini