One More Light, by Linkin Park

Released May 19, 2017

35 min, 19 sec

It’s July 20, 2017.

I’m at work, alternating between actually doing work and scrolling through Reddit on my phone to pass the time because the work doesn’t actually fill the day from end to end. I open r/all to see what’s happening, and notice that the top post is from r/music. Now, if you’re a regular on reddit (and you shouldn’t be), you probably know that r/music only makes it to the top of r/all when someone dies. Knowing this, I look at the post, and it takes a few seconds for me to register what I’m seeing.

Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington passes away aged 41.

I almost drop my phone in shock. What? Huh? Chester Bennington? Dead? How?

I need to confirm what I’m seeing. I open Rolling Stone – nothing yet, though it would only be a few minutes before their initial article is up. I go on Twitter – tons of talk, but nothing concrete, just RIP over and over. I need to go to the sources I know will be on the up and up – LPLive and LPAssociation, the top two Linkin Park fansites.

Both are down. Servers absolutely cooked. Now I know it’s true, and now I’m starting to feel empty.

I turn off my music and grind through the rest of the workday. I go home, having seen Mike Shinoda’s horrifying confirmation tweet. I sit down, still utterly unable to process the news. By now, the word is coming out – Chester committed suicide at home that morning. No one knows why, and no one ever will – not publicly, anyway. I put on Linkin Park, and I write this post.

My relationship with Linkin Park fundamentally changed that day, the way that it likely changed for every fan, diehard, lapsed, casual. By 2017, I was long past the phase of my life where Linkin Park was the #1 undisputed king in my heart, and I paid attention to what they were doing mostly in passing. One More Light – we’ll get to it, promise – had been out for about two months. I’d listened to it once, and was unimpressed. The hard pivot into pop music – true pop, radio pop – was jarring and bizarre, especially following 2014’s The Hunting Party, an album best described as “fucking heavy.” Especially when you consider that Mike spent the entirety of The Hunting Party’s press cycle decrying the state of rock music, how there were no real rock bands any more (uhm, ackshually Mike, we’ve established that Foo Fighters still exist and are the only real rock band, checkmate), and how Linkin Park was gonna bring the heavy back. And they did! The Hunting Party is fucking awesome. One More Light was something different, and prior to July 20, I thought it was, as the kids say, mid.

I don’t know why I’d transitioned to this lapsed fan state. I was elbow-deep in the shit for years – as I’ve chronicled before, the height of my fandom stretched from Minutes to Midnight through Living Things, an easy six years. But I think as my music taste continued to diversify, and I morphed as a person through college, I felt that I could move on from Linkin Park. That time was over – I listened to Frank Ocean now, I’m an evolving member of the species. It’s dumb, in retrospect, to act like you can ever really outgrow an artist so formative in your life, that you even need to do that. When you’re a music fan, when music is as important to you as it is to me, every single era of your musical life stays with you forever, whether you like it or not. That Kanye phase, for instance, is still in me, and I can never get rid of it. Yeezus still slaps, even as Kanye continues to do…whatever the fuck he’s been doing since 2016. You can’t outrun the past, and you shouldn’t have to.

So that’s July 20, and that’s the time immediately preceding it. After that? One More Light hit different, to say the least.

The album has a significant, substantial weight to it with the context of Chester’s death added to it. It’s a context that, in fairness, shouldn’t apply to an album that was released prior to it, but it simply does. Linkin Park has obviously always been a band about dark emotions and feelings, and finding ways to reconcile and manage those feelings. Oftentimes, that consisted of simply feeling those things to the max, and seeing where it takes you. One More Light’s exploration of death is both fascinating and haunting in retrospect. The album wades through these concepts with a maturity that you could probably say was previously unseen – the outbursts are controlled, softer, more articulate. The pop song structure is a major contributor for this, to be sure, but it also represents an evolution in the lyrical work of Mike and (to a lesser extent given his smaller writing contributions) Chester. They’ve grown up in this band, 17 years removed from Hybrid Theory, and while it’s shown before, it feels to me that One More Light is the epitomizing statement, the ultimate indicator of that growth.

The growth and evolution of the band’s sound is further reflected in the way the workload is split between Mike and Chester vocally – Mike has two full showcases of his massively improved singing voice in “Invisible” and “Sorry for Now,” two of the strongest songs on the album. Never has he sung as cleanly and confidently as he has on One More Light, and it further emphasizes the ways in which Mike’s musical palate has grown and diversified during his time in Linkin Park. In fact, his original calling card – his rap verses – is dealt exactly once across the entirety of One More Light, as the opening verse of “Good Goodbye.” It’s the least he’s rapped on any Linkin Park album by far, and it’s something that put me off significantly on that first listen-through. But it makes sense, given the nature of these songs – One More Light is a cohesive, focused pop album, and there’s basically no room in it for more hip-hop oriented tracks, leaving Mike’s verses on the cutting room floor. You could quibble with the features of Pusha T and Stormzy, both of whom certainly take up slots that would’ve gone to Mike instead, but, for one, it’s fucking Pusha T, and for two, it’s elevating a young new artist in Stormzy (something that’s done again later on the album with Kiiara duet “Heavy”). If we’re losing Mike verses for this, that’s fine by me.

The album’s brisk length and track list – the shortest album both by number of tracks and raw length in Linkin Park’s catalogue – feels like a mission statement. There are no segues – every song stands alone from the rest, each an individual statement within a thematically cohesive whole. I’d say there’s not really a bad song in the bunch – probably the weakest for me personally are “Talking to Myself” and “Halfway Right,” but neither one is an instant skip, either. It’s curated sharply, and I think that was the right decision. If nothing else, even on that very first listen, I could tell that there was a goal in mind when putting together this track list, this album, a clear through line in both the style and the lyrical content. What’s that through line?

Grief, and coping. How fitting.

The album, in my view, has three heavy hitters that hit that much harder in a post-Chester context – “Nobody Can Save Me,” “Sharp Edges,” and the centerpiece of the album, the title track “One More Light.” These three songs are what this album’s about, to me, though as I said before, pretty much every song on the album feeds into its core concepts. “Nobody Can Save Me” sets the tone, distorted vocal samples forming the backbone of the song’s rhythm, Chester’s breathy, airy vocals hovering, then soaring, over the instrumental, as he declares that only one person can figure things out for him – himself. He has demons, demons that are hard to face, that threaten to pull him under – but he can’t take that helping hand reaching out, because there’s only one way to snuff out those demons, and it’s for him to do it himself. A haunting message in a gorgeous opening song, one that doesn’t fuck around, that gets straight to the album’s thesis statement.

Bookending the album is “Sharp Edges,” a song that’s straightforwardly about the need to experience things on your own, in order to understand the consequences. The acoustic guitar lines throughout this song are gorgeous, giving the song a comforting, bouncy air to it that dovetails beautifully with Chester’s vocals. It’s an uplifting note to end the album on, encouraging you to take chances, even when those chances could result in you getting hurt, because that’s what life is really about – you do things, and sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn’t. But you learn, every time, and you get something out of it.

Then there’s “One More Light.”

It’s straightforward, too – a lament for lives lost, for the loved ones who aren’t with you any more. You carry the torch for them, you keep their memory alive, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else says or does, because you’re doing it. The song’s origin stems from an executive at Warner Records that the band was close to, who died of cancer a couple of years before the album was released. It’s a gorgeous elegy, universal in its subject matter, expertly crafted. The instrumental is so delicate, so quiet, and you can feel anguish in every note, both of the instrumental and Chester’s strained, haunting vocals. It’s one of Linkin Park’s crowning achievements, a song that can be applied to anyone, by anyone. The band themselves saw that in the wake of Chris Cornell’s tragic death, where the band performed the song on Jimmy Kimmel, a performance that was clearly difficult for Chester to manage, though he insisted upon performing it for the show in tribute. It’s eerie how fitting a eulogy the song is, given what would happen just two months after its release, and the weight of that can be a lot, to say the least.

These three songs were the ones that stuck with me the most when I first revisited this album, and they’re the ones that still get me to this day whenever I give it a listen. It’s safe to say that I did a complete 180 on One More Light after Chester’s death, and I think that’s a relatively common sentiment. The album was easily the most polarizing one within the fanbase, with one side committed to the idea that Linkin Park could – and should – branch out to whatever genre they felt like, that they owed nothing to the fans with regards to making albums within their original wheelhouse, while the other side felt that – regardless of the quality of this album, itself a fiery talking point – diving over to the pop realm was antithetical to what Linkin Park was about, what fans had come to expect from their music. The divide was stark, and occasionally heated, as I observed from a distance. I felt that it was fine for Linkin Park to move in whatever direction they pleased, that it was something they’d earned over the 17 years since their initial breakout, but at the time of release, One More Light just wasn’t for me.

Critics, predictably, were split along the usual lines. Linkin Park has never been a critical darling, and their move to conventional pop did nothing to assuage that notion. This was nothing new – what was new, however, was the way Chester reacted to the critical reception for the album, which could be charitably characterized as “extreme.” The way the core fanbase reacted seemed to be a particular pressure point for him, and the way he conducted himself in interviews around the time of release felt uncharacteristically aggressive. I’m not out here to psychoanalyze a musician, especially given the circumstances here, but it struck me and a lot of other people as very odd. Chester’s reactions were so drastic that Corey Taylor of Slipknot – not the most level-headed man himself – took it upon himself to try and publicly cool Chester down, imploring him to appreciate the fact that Linkin Park was still prominent and important enough to garner such negative reception, and that Chester needed to give it “more time” for the climate and discussion around the album to improve, to which Chester agreed and rolled back his previous anger. People didn’t forget, though, and Cornell’s death the same month as the album’s release seemed to simply amplify everything, Chester publicly grieving a man he described as a mentor to him. Even so, no one anticipated what would happen on July 20, and the shockwaves ripped through the fanbase, leaving us all to figure things out ourselves, the same way the band now had to.

To date, One More Light is the most recent Linkin Park material to be formally released. The band held a memorial concert the October following Chester’s death, where Mike premiered a song he’d written immediately prior to the show, “Looking for An Answer,” that put to words the feelings he struggled with in the wake of Chester’s death. The band officially went on hiatus afterwards, and remain in that hiatus as of July 2022. Mike has done his own thing, touring behind an excellent solo album in 2018, jumping into the streaming space in 2020 during the early stages of the pandemic, and, unfortunately, morphing into a crypto bro. The rest of the band remained mostly out of the spotlight, their lives no longer under the microscope of the Linkin Park fanbase. Hybrid Theory received a substantial, extensive 20th anniversary reissue in 2020, cracking open the vault for high-quality versions of demos both circulating and rumored, unearthing additional songs and versions that even this insane fanbase had no knowledge of. I haven’t reviewed it here because I’m a coward and I didn’t feel like it.

Mike asserted, throughout the first couple of years following Chester’s death, that Linkin Park was not over, that the band needed time to figure out the right way to continue on without him. I believed, in the immediate wake of Chester’s death, that this was simply not going to happen, and I continue to believe that. I trust Mike’s word that the band has thought about and talked about what to do, but I have never seen a way forward, and I think that, ultimately, the band will come to that conclusion, as well. Chester Bennington was a singular force in rock music, with a unique voice, incredible range, and a talent and fire that simply cannot be replaced or replicated, especially not in the context of Linkin Park. There is not a single singer in rock that I could see carrying the torch for Chester’s vocals, and anyone who tries would be eviscerated for it, simply put. By contrast, a Linkin Park led by Mike and Mike alone isn’t enough. Mike is an incredible musician and has become a lovely singer since he first tried it out on Minutes to Midnight, but his voice is nothing like Chester’s, and he cannot carry the load himself. The math doesn’t work out, and I, personally, think the band knows that. Though Phoenix said that, around the start of the pandemic, the band had been working on new music, Mike in 2022 emphasized that there was no tour, no album, no music on the horizon. I anticipate that this will be the case forever. It’s not what I want – like I said in that post in 2017, I expected Linkin Park to simply go on forever, until everyone in the band dropped dead at 85 or something. That’s what I wanted. I didn’t want this. No one did. But this is the timeline we’re in, and I think it’s a timeline where Linkin Park ended in 2017, One More Light standing as their final creative statement.

I came back hard to Linkin Park after July 20, and I’m still there. I’ve recontextualized what this band means to me – the band of my childhood, the first fixture of my musical awakening, the one that started it all for me. I loved Linkin Park, I love Linkin Park, and I always will love Linkin Park. Losing Chester made it clear just how important this band is to me, and I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to reconnect with the music that drove me through middle and high school, that fostered a community that I’ve flitted in and out of over the years, and still always have felt welcome in. It’s sad that tragedy is what it took for me to really see Linkin Park for what it is to me, but there are times when an external catalyst is needed for you to look inside and understand what’s been there all along for you.

I guess that I had to find out for myself.

More Linkin Park: “Demos” | Chris Williams Rate-a-Record Sampler | Reanimation | Collision Course | Minutes to Midnight | July 20, 2017 | Post Traumatic EP

Wasting Light, by Foo Fighters

Released April 12, 2011

52 min, 6 sec

Never have I really been a Foo Fighters guy.

I don’t mean that in any smug contrarian way – “I just don’t get Foo Fighters, you know, I really just don’t get it” – I just mean that I’ve never been a hardcore, dedicated fan, the way I might have expected to be, given the way I was introduced to popular music. I’ve tried, honestly – there was a time in college where I was trying very hard to be a Foo Fighters guy, but for some reason, it just never fully locked in. That said, I’ve got some leftovers from that era, namely Sonic Highways on vinyl (Washington Monument cover), and Wasting Light, fresh off the shelf at Target back in the old days of 2011.

As a result of not being a Foo Fighters guy, this isn’t going to be a eulogy for Taylor Hawkins, though his passing is obviously the reason I thought about doing this post. Nowadays, it seems like I only come back here when I’m either angry or sad, but sometimes, man, it’s just nice to reflect on an album I’ve been listening to for a very long time, you know? Sue me.

If I were to be a Foo Fighters guy, I think Wasting Light would be the album I carry water for day in and day out. The way I read popular opinion of the band, it seems like the consensus is that either The Colour and the Shape or There is Nothing Left to Lose is the band’s best album, with Wasting Light or maybe In Your Honor as dark horses in that race. Me, though? Wasting Light is the one. It’s a remarkable summation of the essentials of Foo Fighters – in my view, it’s the Foo Fighters album, the one you hand someone when they ask you “what’s the deal with this band, anyway?” The Platonic ideal of a Foo Fighters album. The Born to Run of Foo – you get the picture. I’ll stop.

Okay, one more – when you think of Foo Fighters, when the average person thinks of Foo Fighters, what song do they think of? That’s right, “Everlong.” But what about when you ask them again, and then a third time, and then maybe a couple times after that? Once you escape Colour and the Shape, it’s probably “Walk,” right? It’s up there, at least. And it’s because “Walk” is a quintessential Foo Fighters song, the most prominent and recognizable of an album full of them. It’s the album where Foo Fighters reached their final form, basically – Pat Smear was fully back in the fold to create the band’s three-guitar assault, and later-official member Rami Jaffee is on several songs, too. If you ask Dave Grohl which album encompasses the form of Foo Fighters he’d been looking for for years and years prior to this, he’d say Wasting Light. Probably. Maybe. I don’t want to put words in the dude’s mouth.

This album is just rock, straight-up. Rock as a genre means basically nothing now, and it meant very little in 2011 still, but for some reason, whenever I think to myself “what band could you simply call “rock” and be relatively correct?”, I think of Foo Fighters, and I think of this album. From “Bridge Burning” all the way through that Japanese bonus track “Better Off,” this album does very, very little wandering off the straightforward “rock” path, and the little wandering it does is pretty much in direct service to the album’s mission statement of being a hard-hitting, no-frills rock record. And, of course, that extends to the way it was recorded.

You know the deal if you know anything about this band and this album, but in case you don’t, this was the first album where Dave Grohl began to wander into the territory of “what if digital recording is evil actually,” and he responded by having this entire album recorded on analog tape, like it was being recorded in 1990 instead of 2010. That tape was cut up when the album was finished, and each first-run CD copy has a snippet of tape included – probably less than a second of music, but very cool nonetheless. (I’ve always wondered what my snippet is from, if it’s from one of my favorite songs, or if I got stuck with part of “Back & Forth.”) The band was committed to not doing any sort of digital editing until the very end of the process, from recording all the way through to mastering. He did approximately fourteen million interviews about this during my “Foo phase,” as we’ll call it, lamenting the state of modern music recording and how it allowed musicians to cut out even the tiniest imperfection, encouraging them to fix errors digitally rather than locking down and getting the songs right, living with whatever slipped through rehearsal, deliberately allowing human error to enter the picture. The end result sounds pretty damn good, and – though this might cut against the intent – feels indistinguishable, quality-wise, from their previous albums.

I’m not a musician – that’s self-evident – so I’m not necessarily qualified to weigh in on Dave treading the line of boomerism with his complaints about modern recording methods. It did always feel a little bit performative, though, and though the band really did just go ahead and record on tape with this album, since the entire recording process was pretty meticulously documented in the contemporaneous documentary Back and Forth, it felt – and still feels – like a gimmick, the same way that Sonic Highways had the gimmick of every song being written and recorded in a different city. Gimmicks are fine, of course, but it struck me as a little weird to take the gimmick and make it, like, the whole point of the album. I don’t know.

But the songs are incredible. It really is just bangers from start to finish – “Bridge Burning” is a breakneck opener, a fiery, defiant tone-setter for the rest of the album, and the pace is kept up admirably by first single “Rope,” the triple-guitar arrangement front and center all throughout. “Dear Rosemary” is a fantastic collaboration with rock legend Bob Mould, written with his vocals in mind, bringing an almost operatic contrast to Dave’s high-pitched, scratchy vocals, occupying opposite ends of the pitch spectrum. The album reaches its peak heaviness with the blistering, chaotic “White Limo,” which feels like it was written based solely on the challenge of “how fucking fast can we go?”, and the album settles more firmly into alternative territory from that point on, all the way through “Walk.” “Arlandria” has a steady, consistent pace as it seems to relate both to Virginia, the place, where Grohl spent several years in the middle years of Foo Fighters, as well as a theoretical person, while “Back and Forth” and “Matter of Time” are higher up on the alternative scale, lighter in tone and subject matter while still being satisfying rock tracks. “Miss the Misery,” by contrast, brings the pitch back down, skirting the edge of grungy guitar tones as it leads into the emotional climax of the album

Foo Fighters albums, in my view, tend to not necessarily have central themes, but Wasting Light does, and that central theme is death, and concepts adjacent to death – what it means to live, what to live for, what to do when a life is extinguished. “Bridge Burning” even opens with the line “these are my famous last words.” Grohl, of course, is intimately tied to these concepts in popular culture, given that he was the (last) drummer for Nirvana, and, well, you know the deal with Kurt. Thirty years on, he still gets asked about the impact of that on his life and career, and every single time, you can still see and feel the impact when he answers that tired question. Wasting Light feels like it has several direct contemplations of that question, of the questions that surround death and life, and while “I Should Have Known” is the most explicit musing on that subject, the question seeps into “Dear Rosemary,” “These Days,” and “Walk,” creating a through-line of perseverance and making the most of the time you have on this planet.

“These Days” is a declaration that pain is pain, and each person’s pain is their own, not meant to be presumed or trivialized. It’s a song with a back and forth structure, and in some ways, it feels like a response to the idea that death’s inevitability is meant to be a comfort to those who are left behind. Despite the dour subject matter, it’s absolutely anthemic, the kind of stadium rock that you can picture tens of thousands of people screaming along to as the song bursts into its fierce, aggressive chorus of “easy for you to say.”

“I Should Have Known” is a notable, landmark track for Foo Fighters in a couple of different ways, a song about loss, about feeling like there were signs you missed about a loved one’s impending demise, that there were things you could have done differently to prevent their fate. Grohl states that the song is about everyone he’s ever lost in his life, and I believe that, because he was 42 by this point in his life, he’d certainly lost his fair share of people. But it’s inescapable that, in the mind of the public, the song would be about Kurt Cobain, and that thematic connection is made explicit by the presence of Krist Novoselic on the song, contributing the opening accordion chords and an absolutely filthy, muddy-ass bass line over the bridge, a bona fide bass solo that continues into the final chorus, Novoselic’s plucking as prominent as the song’s other guitar lines all the way to the end.

“I Should Have Known” was one of the first – and easily the most prominent – public collaborations between Novoselic and Grohl since their final work as Nirvana. Novoselic deliberately stayed away from Foo Fighters, he and Grohl agreeing that his presence would have been outsized due to the Nirvana connection, embarking on a weird political career instead. Okay! Sure. You do you, dude. But what this song did seem to do was break the dam of collaboration between the former members of Nirvana, including late-era second guitarist Pat Smear, who did make the leap to Foo Fighters back in 1995. Two years later, for the excellent Sound City documentary soundtrack, Grohl, Novoselic, and Smear teamed up with fucking Paul McCartney, who will just do literally whatever’s put in front of him, on a new song, “Cut Me Some Slack,” which led to several more performances as a three-piece with guest vocalists throughout 2014, surrounding Nirvana’s induction into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Though Novoselic and Grohl clearly remained friends and had no qualms about collaborating, it does feel to me like “I Should Have Known” was a watershed moment of sorts, a tacit admission that the remnants of Nirvana could freely collaborate and honor the band and Kurt.

Album closer “Walk” feels like a follow-up to “I Should Have Known,” documenting the next steps after a loss, figuring out how to get back into the things that used to bring you joy, learning how to do those things again without them feeling alien or foreign. In a lot of ways, it feels like a Foo Fighters origin story, a record of how Dave picked up the pieces of his young career and found a way to fit them together in a new shape. It’s a triumph in an album full of them, one final reinforcement that continuing to live after tragedy is something you can and need to do, to live life to the fullest and not be chained down by the weight of past pain. I never wanna die, I never wanna die, forever, whenever, forever, whenever.

Even though I am, once again, not a Foo Fighters guy, Wasting Light feels like a cornerstone album for me. It came out right before my nightmarish first year of college, when I was going through a great deal of change in my own life, and it was on repeat pretty much constantly. Hell, I even learned a bunch of Nate Mendel (is he still a nutty AIDS denialist? Don’t think for a second I didn’t know or forgot about that) bass lines so I could play along – only the easy ones, though, because I’m not a musician and bass is hard. Maybe that colors my perception of this album, maybe it makes it bigger in my head than it should be, but it feels like the peak of Foo Fighters, the culmination of everything the band had espoused and worked towards. The ideal lineup, the ideal sound. Quintessential Foo Fighters.

They’ve done more since this album, obviously – the aforementioned Sonic Highways, the weird tease of an indefinite hiatus that turned out to be maybe six months at best, Concrete & Gold, Medicine at Midnight, Dee Gees, Studio 666. The calculus of the band was permanently altered last week when Taylor died, and I really don’t know if we’ll see Foo Fighters again, in any configuration. Grohl and Taylor were about as close publicly as two musicians could be – they projected forward an authentic brotherhood, as the two primary representatives of the band, brothers in arms and drums. Grohl has said before that when Taylor overdosed in 2001, it nearly caused him to quit music altogether, and I can’t imagine that 20 additional years of friendship would dull that feeling. But music is in Dave’s veins, inextricable from him. For his public persona, so is tragedy, as dark as it sounds. Whatever he and the band do next, it’s going to be great. But that void behind them may always be there.

Learning to walk again.

The Rising, by Bruce Springsteen

Released July 30, 2002

1 hr, 12 min, 52 sec

I’ve always wondered about the level of truth to that Springsteen 9/11 story.

Bruce Springsteen is not the kind of performer that regularly comes up with myth-making bullshit. All along the road of an artist’s history, there are parts that are smoothed out for the narrative, like how Rush, the quintessential power trio, featured several randos cycling in and out of their lineup in their first year, at one point even expanding to four members, before settling on their self-titled album lineup on the way to the Lifeson-Lee-Peart trio that went the rest of the way. Springsteen himself acknowledges the contradictions in his music and his persona, summing it up as his “magic trick” during the opening of his one-man Broadway show. He’s a man who last did anything but music as a job when he was an early teenager, who has sung the song of the working man from a position of extraordinary wealth at least since the Born in the U.S.A. tour. His songs are not, and never have been, about him – they’re about his family, the people he grew up around, the regular American. There are exceptions to this, like how the subject matter of Tunnel of Love alludes to the relationship troubles brewing up in his life, or the whimsy of the first two albums only a little bit removed from his own experience, but for the most part, Springsteen puts on his persona and tries to keep open the eyes of those at the top of the food chain, forcing them to see what’s going on in regular America. And he doesn’t really just…make up shit.

But that 9/11 anecdote. The story goes like this – Bruce is in Asbury Park, shortly after September 11, 2001, on his way to the beach. In the car next to him, a passenger recognized him, rolled down his window, and shouted “we need you now.” He says, in that moment, he was inspired – called upon, really – to put together The Rising, an album widely recognized as a triumph of his career, his grand return to the mainstream consciousness after a decade of swimming around in legacy territory. That’s superhero origin story stuff. It’s the kind of thing that, if anyone else told you it happened, you’d just be like “yeah okay buddy, have another drink.” And I’m tempted to do that here, too, because it’s just – it’s too poetic. It’s the exact kind of thing that is completely unverifiable, and yet, if you’re out here questioning it, you’re a cynical asshole. And that’s fair! If you question that anecdote, in the wake of one of the greatest tragedies in American history, you probably are a cynical asshole.

So I’ll just keep wondering about it, but quieter. I don’t think it matters how true it is, or not. What matters is that, ten months later, Springsteen came out firing. He’d had enough, he’d seen enough. Three years after being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – usually a pretty good signifier that the end is near – he went out and made one of the best albums of his career, an album that stands as a time capsule of the post-9/11 energy in America, with nuance and depth to it.

The Rising wasn’t crafted from whole cloth entirely in the wake of 9/11 – potentially up to half of the album was written in various years preceding 2001, and it’s not all that difficult to spot them, because their subject matter is so much more vague in terms of relating to the terrorist attacks – “Nothing Man,” “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day,” “Further On (Up the Road).” A song that generally feels quintessentially 9/11-responsive, “My City of Ruins,” was, in fact, written about Asbury Park in 2000, because the city was basically falling apart, and Springsteen premiered it that December, long before it took on the additional meaning it has now. Other songs have vaguer timelines, but relate more clearly to 9/11 either way, like “Lonesome Day.” But the core of the album – its emotional core, and the actual core set of songs that make up The Rising’s track list, were all written in direct response, and it’s extremely evident. “Into the Fire” and “The Rising” are about the perspective of the firefighters that climbed the towers trying to rescue whoever they could, the former from the perspective of loved ones and the latter directly from the firefighters’ perspective. “Empty Sky” captures the feeling of waking up in New York in the days after, where the twin towers no longer stood.

Like the rest of Springsteen’s catalogue, the album focuses on the people on the ground, the ordinary citizens watching things unfold on television, staring up into the sky in Manhattan, wondering what was coming next. There’s no room for rage on this album, no room for vitriol – Springsteen isn’t angry, looking for revenge. He’s somber, worn down, shaken, like the typical working man would have been. Rarely had his voice ever lined up as cleanly with his listeners as it did on this album.

And then, on top of that, he tried to see the other side. “Worlds Apart” features Qawwali singers throughout, a form of Islamic devotional singing primarily practiced in India, though the intention here is obvious – Muslim-Americans would suffer just as much, if not more (given the rampant racism that would unfold in the wake of 9/11 towards anyone who ‘looked Arabic,’ with no nuance nor any real critical thinking applied by the kind of person who would engage in this) than their compatriots in this country, to speak nothing of the long tail of aftermath for numerous Middle Eastern countries, as the American war machine went straight into overdrive for the next twenty years, waging campaigns fueled primarily by smoke, mirrors, and jingoism. “Paradise” has a lot of perspectives in it, but you could argue that at least one or two stanzas of it could apply to the perpetrators of the attacks, attempting to perceive their mindset, take a step towards understanding. These two songs have always felt like they cut to the album’s other core – while the dominating theme is, of course, mourning, and the steps towards healing, there’s another message there, one of attempting to defuse the rage, the pain, and try to simply understand an incomprehensible act.

Because Springsteen is a patriot, in a more classic sense – he loves this country and all that it has given its people, but he remains keenly aware of our flaws, both collective across the entire population, and those concentrated at the top of our political power structure. He’s an old Democrat, not one for much in the way of truly radical, far-left thinking, but it’s always seemed clear to me that if he grew up in modern times rather than the 60s, he would absolutely be a socialist. It’s hard to lean that far left when you’re a rich old man, but he goes as far as he can, and that’s worth appreciating. Springsteen took a while to grow into understanding the power of his position and his music when it comes to political matters, but Ronald Reagan showed him the ways in which he could be wielded as a sinister weapon in the hearts of otherwise-ignorant Americans, and he’s spent the last thirty-plus years doing everything he can to ensure that people understand that going blue is the right way, whether that’s been successful or not. The way he approached his “9/11 album” – the biggest chance he would have in the later stages of his career to put a powerful message into the world – exemplifies this. Springsteen chose mourning and understanding, not rage. Not war.

Musically, The Rising is a strong evolution of the “E Street sound,” modernizing it and deploying its idiosyncrasies in ways that elevated the band’s unique aspects. It’s a very modern-sounding album overall, with a sharp drum sound, a somewhat surprising amount of samples and looped beats complementing the bedrock laid by Max Weinberg, Garry Tallent, and Roy Bittan. Newcomer Soozie Tyrell steps into a featured role, with her violin suddenly becoming part of the band’s core sound. Clarence Clemons, by contrast, takes on more of a “special guest” role, elevated into a spot where the saxophone doesn’t hit very often, but when it does, it hits you. The result is an album that feels, in 2021, like it really hasn’t aged all that much, exemplifying how it deserves to be talked about in the upper echelon of Springsteen’s extensive canon. A 70s classic it is not, certainly – if nothing else, the accumulated inertia of those albums means that nothing Springsteen can make now will ever come close. But in that second tier? The Rising leads the pack, easily.

I brought into question that 9/11 anecdote earlier, and how it supposedly catalyzed the form this album took. But I do think there are elements of truth to that. Springsteen had last released a studio album in 1995, the mostly-acoustic Ghost of Tom Joad. That’s a dour album, one that engages with America in a significantly different, much more cynical manner. It feels underrated, trapped as it is in the mire of Springsteen’s strange 90s era, where the E Street Band was split up, reformed for a Greatest Hits album of all things, and then sent packing again so that Springsteen could kind of just putter around, doing a long, drawn-out solo and acoustic tour across three calendar years, appearing ready to settle into the home stretch of his career. The 1999 Reunion Tour re-energized the Springsteen faithful, and people expected an album in the immediate wake of that tour, the big E Street return that The Rising ended up being. But that wasn’t in the cards, originally – Springsteen conducted solo sessions in late 2000, and then in early 2001 he did record with the E Street Band, but essentially nothing is known of these sessions, if they would have led to a new album or just another small collection of tracks, like the Greatest Hits sessions in 1995. Instead, it seems like it truly took a national tragedy to really jump-start the E Street engine.

National tragedy. If you’re here on the day of publication, you know what this is about. It’s September 11, 2021. I’m 28 years old. Here’s my 9/11 story: I’m in Florida, I’m in school. A month into third grade. We’re sitting in class, just vibing, when some kid from another class bursts into the room. “A building in New York got hit by a plane!” he shouted. The teacher, a no-nonsense woman, shooed him out, but she was unsettled. She turned on the TV, where we could get the local news, and as we all took in whatever the fuck was going on on the screen, the principal hops on the intercom, announcing that everyone was being sent home. Living down the street, I walked home by myself. (Can’t imagine letting a kid do this today, but it was 2001.) I opened the door, and my mom is staring at the TV in absolute disbelief, watching the chaos unfold. I started to get freaked out at this point – we had family in New York, and I couldn’t perceive the fact that they were all in western New York, in the Buffalo area, while the twin towers were in New York City, basically another state. My dad came to pick me up that night so I could hang out with him, and we continued to just sort of absorb the news coverage.

And that’s that. I remember ribbons, tributes, constant news reports. I didn’t understand any of it. I was eight, dude! Eight year olds can’t conceive of the magnitude of shit like that. I didn’t know that America had just fundamentally been altered, that we would be thrown down a path of no return. Of course, as I’ve gotten older, the nonsense has simply continued – escalated, really. 9/11 feels like a flashpoint to me, where the collective lives of Americans took a turn for the worse, but I don’t know how true that is. All I’ve got is my own personal experience.

What I do have perspective on, however, is how this country seems so determined to bastardize this day, and what it symbolizes. Military fetishism has been a huge problem in America for basically forever, but it never feels worse to me than when it’s deployed on September 11th. Jingoism, and blind patriotism, get tangled into that, too. We’re implored at every turn to “Never Forget,” and the secret message underneath that is “Never Recover, Never Move On, Never Forgive.” It encourages people to stay mad, to continue feeding into our “leaders” and their desire for endless war. It was the banner that these ghouls rode to twin wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, used to justify tearing the Middle East to shreds for two decades for…what, exactly? Certainly not weapons of mass destruction. Not retribution. Nothing we do will bring back those 2,977 innocent lives. Nothing will bring back the 340 firefighters, 72 police officers.

Even more infuriating is when these three parties are conflated together. You cannot put together a proper tribute for all of them at once, because they occupy fundamentally different roles in this. We call them all heroes, but the people on those planes, in the towers, in the Pentagon, they didn’t ask to be “heroes.” They didn’t ask for anything. They’re victims. They need to be treated that way, mourned properly, not propped up as avatars of American resilience. Not even those on Flight 93 that fought back against the hijackers – heroic actions, yes, but they should never have had to be in that position. They were burdened with it, and they died anyway. It’s horrible.

You can treat the police officers and firefighters as heroes. They did their jobs, they stepped up, they did what they could. But don’t go around acting like 9/11 is anything more than one of the worst tragedies in American history. It shouldn’t be a rallying point, it shouldn’t be fodder for filthy bastards in politics to pander to the constituents, it shouldn’t be the subject of a red, white, and blue ribbon in the fucking Dunkin’ Donuts Twitter profile picture. Anyone who evokes 9/11 in any context besides a historical one, a personal one, or “this was a really awful thing that happened” is an asshole. Pandering to jingoists who want us to live in perpetual fear of the brown man overseas in order to continue justifying a rapidly-ballooning defense budget is how we fucking got here, the sad state of this country and the political landscape in 2021.

On the radio yesterday, a sports executive that had just received a contract extension paid his mandatory lip service, honoring the victims of 9/11 who made the “ultimate sacrifice.” Are you out of your fucking mind? Are you kidding me? Jesus Christ. Those 2,977 didn’t make the ultimate sacrifice, they were fucking murdered, every last one of them.

You might be wondering why this post stopped being about The Rising. It’s because I’m angry. It’s because I know that all weekend, we’re going to see tons of people – always politicians or pundits – spewing out toxic waste about the “resilience of America” and how “the terrorists will never win,” conflating the innocent victims and the public servants who did actually sacrifice their lives in the recovery efforts, invoking the imagery of American military completely inappropriately, and probably trying to relate the current state of the country to the way we responded to 9/11, as asinine as that is. It’s because these people have lost all perspective – they’ve taken a tragic event and twisted it into an unrecognizable shape, fetishizing fear and confusion and using it to justify whatever idiotic bullshit they want to peddle. The NFL will be one of the worst offenders in this regard, because sports always do it The Worst when it comes to patriotic masturbation.

I feel for the families of the victims, because while plenty of them undoubtedly appreciate the attention given to 9/11 and the victims on the anniversaries (and that is 100% their prerogative, we’re not here to go after anyone personally affected, let me make that crystal clear), I’m certain many of them hate it. Absolutely hate it. Their lives were changed, ruined in many cases, by a tragedy they had no control over, and their reward was witnessing this country politicize all 2,977 of those victims pretty much instantly. I don’t know how you wouldn’t simply be angry all the time. I think I would be.

This went off the rails a little, but here’s the thesis, the TL;DR you weren’t looking for: The Rising was the right album for a scary, uncertain time in American history. It’s a shame, then, that the people in power, the Bushes, the Cheneys, the Rumsfelds, the Powells, every last one of those motherfuckers, didn’t take a single lesson from Springsteen’s measured, somber response, and instead made today about American exceptionalism, yet again.

Try and do it a little differently, today. Do some quiet reflection. Don’t buy into the politics, the brands and their performative patriotism. Think about what 9/11 means to you, and hold onto that. Maybe, someday, the people at the top will learn to have a little more class about it all. But don’t hold your breath.

More Springsteen: Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. | Born to Run | Darkness on the Edge of Town | The River | Born in the U.S.A. | Live/1975-85 | Chimes of Freedom | Columbia Records Radio Hour | Blood Brothers EP | Devils & Dust | American Beauty

Reprint Special – Reflecting on (ten) years without the Big Man

Ten years is a long time for anything. I was a very different person ten years ago – fresh out of high school, anxious and excited for a next chapter of my life that I was desperately hoping would be better than the first. When I first wrote this post, nine years ago, I was again a different person, having struggled through a first year of college that was far more challenging, and far less fun, than I’d anticipated. I did a lot of growing up (sorry) that year, and much of it was soundtracked by Bruce, and, therefore, by Clarence. I’d like to think that I’m a better person than I was then – a better writer, a better friend, a better appreciator of Bruce’s music. The first point, at least, is objectively true – reading this original post back is, as always, a horrendous experience. The focus on Gaga in the last paragraph is so 2012 me – the man worked with her for a total of one week, on two songs, and she gets a whole paragraph. If this post made it into the hands of anyone who gave a shit, they’d be like “what are you doing?”

But ten years is a big, round number, and it’s a good time for reflection. Bruce has done far more than anyone probably anticipated in the decade since Clarence’s passing, releasing four studio albums, conducting three E Street tours, writing an autobiography, performing in a one-man (“CRITICALLY-ACCLAIMED!”) Broadway show. Clarence remains in everyone’s memory, immortalized at every single one of Bruce’s performances, whether it’s on the road with E Street or on that big Broadway stage. “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” is an elegy and a celebration at once, the centerpiece of Clarence’s lasting legacy. Ten years down the road, the hole he left is still there, but the edges have been patched up and reinforced, and all around it are tributes, reflections, and the next chapter.

Spin up Jungleland tonight. Sit back and take in the solo.

Rest in peace, Big Man.

iTunes, A to Z

I wrote this four years ago today, which feels like a lifetime ago. Today marks five years since the death of Clarence Clemons, one of the most iconic pieces of Bruce Springsteen’s 1970s and 80s output, the cornerstone of the E Street Band. Raise a glass and give Jungleland a spin before it hits midnight.

So, as of today, June 18, 2011, the E Street Band has been without Clarence Clemons for one entire year.

Now, I’ve only been a serious fan of Bruce for about a year and a half now.  But the one thing I learned upon immersing myself in his music and everything that surrounds it was that there are only two people that are immortal in the eyes of the E Street Nation: Clarence, and Bruce himself.  Sure, Steve’s probably hovering right below there, and the rest of the core band a bit…

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Apple Music Special – The Black Parade, by My Chemical Romance

Back from the dead, huh…

iTunes, A to Z

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Released October 23, 2006

51 min, 53 sec

I have a month of Apple Music because of Frank Ocean (thanks asshole), so I figure that I should go ahead and make it useful for the rest of the month. Spotify will be back whenever. Who cares?

Man, remember emo music?

In the mid-2000s, as we established in the last article, I was a young, impressionable middle schooler, finally discovering a world of music outside of Hillary Duff and Aly & AJ. By 2006, I was soliciting music recommendations from everyone I knew, and it frequently led to choices that I look back on and question.

This one both is and isn’t one of them.

My Chemical Romance had a fascinating arc as a band. Forming in 2001, in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, by the release of their second album Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge in 2004…

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2019

Yeah, this format again.

Felt strange to write a new post, considering it’s been almost an entire year since the last one. There’s a lot that goes into that – the Insta is rolling, for the most part, and that partially accounts for the absence, but the biggest reason this blog has been inactive is that, frankly, I don’t think I need it any more.

Let me explain. When this blog began, it was a school project: one post a day, for at least a week, which I managed to parlay into four months of daily posts. When that schedule finally gave out, I still had a great interest in maintaining the blog, so I gave it a shot, posting irregularly throughout the rest of the year. After that is when the wheels really fell off – I had a lot of personal stuff to handle, and I just didn’t have the time or mental energy for this blog. I kept coming back, though, and over the past six months, deep into the unintentional hiatus for this blog, I finally realized what was driving me: creativity.

What I mean by that is that I kept this blog going because I just wanted to write something, anything, and in 2016 and 2017, all I could muster the energy for was writing about music. I was completely burnt out on creative writing, slogging through a years-long bout of writer’s block that crippled my ability to do anything that required abstract thought. So I leaned on this blog and did my best to keep it going, even as my posting habits dwindled down to three or four posts a year. The horrific, deeply upsetting deaths of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington in 2017 didn’t help matters, either, as I couldn’t muster up the desire to write about music for a long time after that.

Instagram has helped, substantially. Writing in short bursts removed most of the mental barrier I’d developed against writing and posting regularly, and I managed to keep a pretty hefty schedule for most of the year, at least twice a week. I let it slide towards the end of the year, and had to take a couple months off from it, but the Insta is back in action this year, and this time maybe I’ll make it over the finish line with a consistent schedule.

More importantly than the Insta, however, is the fact that, this year, I finally conquered the writer’s block that had been smashing my kneecaps over and over since 2014. I did NaNoWriMo, made it over the 50k word mark in 28 days, and am currently doing a second pass on the novel that resulted. That’s sucking up nearly all of my creative energy, but that energy has been stronger and more consistent than it’s been maybe ever, resulting in daily work on a schedule I never imagined I’d be able to keep. It’s been a wonderful feeling the past several months, and I’m doing all I can to hold onto it as long as possible.

Unfortunately, that means I have pretty much no room for anything besides the Insta, and that includes this blog. The Chris Cornell compilation caught my eye and shook me until I wrote about it, but other than that, I can feel that this blog has run its course in my heart. I’ve done more with it than I ever figured I would when I first started it so long ago, and I’m extremely proud of how my writing and criticism has developed as a direct consequence of hammering away at this blog. But I think it’s time to stop promising posts, stop trying to adhere to a schedule that I know will never work. It’s time, basically, to say goodbye.

Now, that doesn’t mean I’m closing the doors for good. “Never say never” is a common refrain among members of a broken-up band when they want to string their fans along a bit, and don’t want their comments in the media to bite them in the ass in the future, but it serves the purpose I need it to in this case. I’m sure I’ll be motivated to write a post once in a while, and I’ll want an outlet for that. But don’t expect it any time soon, because there’s no schedule. There shouldn’t be any expectations, either.

We took the long way around, to be sure. And I’m not particularly sure where we ended up.

But here we are.

Chris Cornell

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Released November 16, 2018

4 hrs, 59 min, 19 sec

Chris Cornell’s tragic death in early 2017 inspired a wide array of tributes and memorials, and had a cascading effect across the remnants of his professional and personal lives. A sustained Audioslave reunion never materialized, Soundgarden went into a hiatus for months while the remaining members figured out how best to end the band, and Cornell’s wife spent several months in the public eye attempting to reconcile the events that led to Cornell’s death. Once the dust began to settle, those in charge of Cornell’s legacy turned an eye towards memorializing him via his deep library of music, spread across Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, Audioslave, and his solo career. The first product of that memorialization is the self-titled best-of compilation Chris Cornell.

As a compilation, Chris Cornell is straightforward and doesn’t overthink things, mostly sticking to a greatest hits-type format, emphasizing singles while occasionally tossing in a deep cut or curveball track. What I like about the way this is formatted is that the album doesn’t segregate Cornell’s various projects; instead, the track list for the first three discs goes in strictly chronological order, weaving solo tracks in with band projects, split by the three “eras” of Cornell’s career – Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog on disc 1, Audioslave and 2000s solo tracks on disc 2, and Soundgarden revived and late-era solo tracks on disc 3. Each major album Cornell was involved with is represented here, even if only with one song. And yes, that means Scream is accounted for here, with not just one but two tracks, probably more than what that album deserves.

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I’m not especially familiar with Soundgarden, admittedly, so disc 1 was the most interesting listen for me at first glance, given that I’d only listened to most of the songs on it once or twice. Of course, there are the heavy hitters like “Black Hole Sun,” “Outshined,” “Spoonman,” etc. But though this early section of Cornell’s career is obviously dominated by Soundgarden, two songs stand out in the track list – the solo track “Seasons,” Cornell’s first solo release, originally from the soundtrack to Singles, and the Jimi Hendrix cover “Hey Baby (Land of the New Rising Sun)”, recorded with three other former members of Temple of the Dog, forming a pseudo-reunion that was never repeated. These two songs are an example of the drawbacks of the album’s strict chronological sequencing, breaking up the grunge-fest and feeling a little incongruous as a result. Both of them, however, represent early examples of Cornell’s flexibility, and hint towards what was to come in his career.

Disc 2 is pretty straightforward, representing Euphoria Mourning, Carry On, Scream, and all of Audioslave, with a random featured track thrown in at the end to account for Disc 3’s length. The selection sticks mostly to singles for each album, though “Sunshower” and “Sweet Euphoria” are inspired choices from Cornell’s debut solo album in lieu of “Preaching the End of the World,” and Carry On is done a disservice by only including Cornell’s dour, unpleasant cover of “Billie Jean” as opposed to, say, literally any other track from the album (“Arms Around Your Love”? “Scar on the Sky”? Did Cornell say at some point that he hates this album?), remarkably losing out to Scream in terms of sheer numerical representation. Naturally, however, Scream’s representation is hedged by using the rock version of “Long Gone” (vastly superior) and the bizarre choice of the Steve Aoki remix of “Part of Me.” The remix, simply put, is bad, and doesn’t warrant a place on this compilation. The best I can say about it is that including it is a brave decision, exploring exactly what this era of Cornell’s career entailed.

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I’ve already talked at length of my love of Audioslave, as mediocre as the music may be in retrospect (and it continues to age pretty poorly). The selection is self-evident, all singles, though “Shape of Things to Come” being thrown in over “Original Fire” or “Wide Awake” is a choice I would love to hear the reasoning behind, given that it’s the only non-single given any due in this section of the album. Taken together, the album casts the Audioslave era as a curious blip in Cornell’s career, three albums and six years sandwiched between eras of Soundgarden and solo releases, a marriage that seemed arranged from the start, that took too long to grow into its own and disappeared before it could truly explore the ramifications of that new, merged sound that began to emerge on Out of Exile and Revelations.

Disc 3 is all late-era Cornell, kicked off with a couple of interesting (but inessential) features, and then diving headfirst into Songbook, the utterly fantastic live album that heralded Cornell’s return to the acoustic rock sound his solo career never should have foregone. From there, we get a couple of reunion-Soundgarden tracks, and some well-deserved due for the wonderfully folky Higher Truth, before entering the period where Cornell became a bit of a hired gun, producing single after single for movies and television series, all the way through to the last track released in his lifetime, “The Promise.” If nothing else, this album represents a good way to grab all these tracks and bundle them together, giving them a proper home in Cornell’s discography. I always appreciate that, because I hate having single tracks from random soundtracks in my iTunes library. It looks ugly and stupid. Yes, I know that’s petty. I don’t care.

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Before moving onto the rarities disc, the career retrospective ends with an unreleased new song, “When Bad Does Good.” I wish I could say that this song is essential, a window into Cornell’s psyche, a beautiful farewell to the artist, but to me, it just feels like another song in the vein of the soundtrack songs immediately preceding it. But that’s fine – Cornell’s catalogue is so deep, and so full of meaning already, that one slight miss at the end is more than alright.

Disc 4 is sort of like a compressed version of the preceding three discs, timeline-wise. It contains a selection of live tracks from across Cornell’s career, spanning Soundgarden in 1992 all the way down to solo shows in 2016. The selection avoids the hits, instead covering blind spots from the previous three discs – live renditions of songs like “Jesus Christ Pose,” “Wide Awake,” and “All Night Thing” – and providing high-profile covers Cornell favored throughout his career, like “Redemption Song” and “Thank You.” The selection is eclectic and engaging – a Black Sabbath cover and two deep cuts represent early Soundgarden, Audioslave gets its due with a single from “Live in Cuba,” Temple of the Dog’s iconic “Reach Down” appears in live form alongside a beautiful Mother Love Bone cover, and Cornell’s solo career covers some really wild outliers, like the Beatles cover “A Day in the Life” and the wonderfully left-field “Wild World” with Yusuf/Cat Stevens. (Keep an ear out for Cornell’s expression of admiration for Stevens at the start of that one – such a wonderfully human moment.)

There’s plenty to unpack in this selection, which, almost by itself, makes the entire collection worthwhile. Something that immediately stood out to me was that the album pulls three songs from a solo acoustic performance in Sweden in 2006, a concert that has been circulating as a bootleg for over a decade. I was pleasantly surprised to see this, and to get selections from this concert in high quality, as I’ve been listening to it since long before the Songbook concert tours, a relatively early indicator of the power Cornell’s voice held even with backing as sparse as a single acoustic guitar. The rendition of “Redemption Song” is a touching, if slightly off-kilter, duet with Cornell’s daughter, and the joy in his voice is evident from the start. “One” is an interesting mash-up of the U2 and Metallica songs of the same name, a musical trick Cornell was excited to trot out during his 2015 solo shows. Overall, disc 4 provides a sampling of what made Cornell such a great and deeply revered artist – his versatility and ability to adapt his voice to any situation, either live or in the studio. He sounds just as at home next to Cat Stevens as he does when backed by the grunge tones of Soundgarden, able to carry an eleven-minute odyssey just as effectively as a song a third of the length. Closing out the album with “Thank You” is an interesting choice, one that I don’t fully agree with, given that it’s a cover, but the idea of closing out with a song beloved and frequently played by Cornell, in an arrangement that puts his gorgeous voice to the forefront, is one that I can at least get behind.

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Chris Cornell left behind a long, diverse legacy in death. He had his highs and lows, peaks and valleys that highlighted his commitment to making music the way he wanted, no matter if it was commercially viable or even that good of an idea at the time. He rose out of the Seattle grunge scene to become a world-renowned voice, and the middle period of his career helped to exorcise demons that had accumulated during his Soundgarden tenure, ensuring that he remained healthy for a while longer, even if it wasn’t enough in the end. And he redefined himself as a well-respected solo artist towards the unfortunate end of his life, juggling Soundgarden, solo work, and reunions with Temple of the Dog and Audioslave effortlessly, an ever-spinning carousel of work that any artist would kill to have even a fraction of.

This compilation only scratches the surface of Cornell’s catalogue. And that’s fine – that’s what it’s meant to do. Give it to a friend, a colleague, someone unfamiliar with Cornell’s work. Show them the artistry, the brilliance, the heart of this artist, one of the greatest rock musicians of our time. Show them what the world has lost.

And I’m lost / behind

The words I’ll never find

And I’m left / behind

As seasons roll on by

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Box Set Special – The River, by Bruce Springsteen

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Released October 17, 1980

83 min, 47 sec

Coming from the musical triumphs of Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town back to back, Bruce Springsteen had established that he could do whatever he wanted for a little while. Born to Run marked the beginning of Springsteen’s turn from excitable hippie to representative of the working man; Darkness captured the raw essence of how the working man truly felt. As I noted when talking about Darkness a few years ago, Springsteen was in a dark, dark place when writing that album, and upon emerging from it with the supporting tour, Springsteen decided that he wanted to try and recapture his lighter, more fun-loving side.

The early recording of The River certainly reflects this pivot in Springsteen’s mindset. He wrote and recorded quickly, hammering away at new songs as well as songs that had first appeared during the Darkness sessions, songs like “The Ties That Bind,” “Independence Day,” and “Sherry Darling,” many of which premiered during the Darkness tour. The sessions through August 1979 yielded twenty-four songs; Springsteen, with a single album in mind at this point, pulled together ten for a tentative track list:

1. The Ties That Bind

2. The Price You Pay

3. Be True

4. Ricky Wants a Man of Her Own

5. Stolen Car

6. I Wanna Marry You

7. Loose Ends

8. Hungry Heart

9. The Man Who Got Away

10. Ramrod

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Already, at this point, darkness began to creep into The River, mainly through the appearance of “Stolen Car” as the Side 1 closer. But this track list clearly demonstrates Springsteen’s desire to release a lighter album, keeping himself above the shadowy corners of Darkness.

But Springsteen was dissatisfied and restless, and he continued recording through the next two months. At this point, the album’s emotional core began to emerge, particularly with the recording of “The River,” though Springsteen still pushed against the dichotomy of light-heartedness and heavy reality that he had yet to truly understand.

This struggle personifies The River, and Springsteen’s desire to illustrate all sides of rock as a genre was the primary motivating factor behind the album’s expansion into a twenty-track behemoth. At this point in time, however, Springsteen was still thinking and formatting the album in the mold of a single LP, determined to make his vision fit within its ten-track confines. He felt comfortable enough with the format that he submitted a single-LP album to Columbia Records in October 1979, with the title The Ties That Bind:

1. The Ties That Bind

2. Cindy

3. Hungry Heart

4. Stolen Car

5. Be True

6. The River

7. You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)

8. The Price You Pay

9. I Wanna Marry You

10. Loose Ends

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This was closer, but Springsteen felt that it wasn’t drastic enough, wasn’t big enough, just was not enough. The label began working on the album artwork and promotion, intending to have the album out before the end of the year. But after submitting it, Springsteen, ever the perfectionist, pulled the album back and began hammering away again.

The dichotomy between joy and sorrow, he felt, needed to be more explicit, needed to be more detailed. The framework of that split can be seen in The Ties That Bind, with “Hungry Heart” and “Stolen Car” in sequence one after the other, and with “The River” opening Side 2 immediately before the frankly inessential “You Can Look.”

It’s a little remarkable to see what didn’t make the cut at this stage of the album’s recording process – no “Ramrod,” no “Independence Day,” no “Point Blank.” The sheer depth of Springsteen’s songbook at this point of his career is astounding. He would just write and write and write, to the point that he would give away bona fide hits like “Because the Night” and “Fire” simply because he wasn’t interested in fitting them on one of his own albums. Springsteen’s signature prolific nature, combined with his dissatisfaction with the picture The Ties That Bind was painting, would eventually burst the dam of the single album format, spilling out into a double album in early 1980 as Springsteen continued to write and hone in on the sound and themes he was hoping to convey.

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Springsteen stated after the album’s release that he’d realized, during the production of The River, that contradiction and paradox are core tenets of rock music – the “frivolous next to the solemn,” as Wikipedia puts it. Rock music is about joy and partying and enjoyment of life, but it also illustrates hardship and despair. Springsteen’s goal with The River was to illustrate that dichotomy, to show both the party and what happens when all the guests leave, and the host only has himself for company. It was this desire that led to the emotional whiplash of “Two Hearts” leading into “Independence Day,” and the way Side 2 crashes down from “Crush on You” to title track “The River,” a song Springsteen wrote about his sister. “Crush on You” is inessential and tacky, but its mere presence causes “The River,” a song about accidental pregnancy forcing a couple to grow up too quickly and too soon, to resonate even more with its listeners than it would have if it stood alone.

The balance is delicate at times, and doesn’t always land right. Side 3 is a pretty good example of this – I’ve never really enjoyed the sequencing of “I’m a Rocker” into “Fade Away” into “Stolen Car.” It feels a little bit thrown together, as if Springsteen wasn’t really sure where these songs should sit on the record, just that they needed to make the cut. And a lot of the songs meant to illustrate the lighter side of the rock and roll life come off as inessential and filler-y, as if Springsteen had committed to a double album and needed to justify it. I understand their purpose, and in terms of serving the album’s core theme, they work, but as standalone songs, I’ve never enjoyed them, and it takes a lot of effort to not simply skip over them when listening to the album. It’s a little funny to me that Springsteen described some of them as his desire to capture the feel of his live shows, when the songs that really cemented him as a master of the live show were epics like “Backstreets” and “Jungleland,” with Springsteen giving his audience a tour through the heart of America, warts and all.

I’ve got a hearty list of favorites, though. “Independence Day” details Springsteen’s relationship with his father and the town they grew up in, vividly illustrating the inherent sadness his father fought with, enduring a changing of the times in the late 70s that carried over into the 80s. “The Ties That Bind,” “Sherry Darling,” and “Out in the Street” all convey a feeling of freedom, fleeting as it may be, that was so hard to grasp for the blue-collar worker in America in the 70s. “The River” is a classic, of course, but so is “Fade Away,” a powerfully melancholy song illustrating the loss of a love, who has moved on to someone better for her. But perhaps the strongest one-two punch of the entire album is “Drive All Night” into “Wreck on the Highway,” closing the album on the opposite note of the opening – once again embodying the two sides of rock music that Springsteen strove so hard to convey.  “Drive All Night” is dripping with despair, the protagonist fighting against a loss that feels inevitable from the start to the end, pierced through the middle by a haunting, wailing Clarence Clemons solo. “Wreck on the Highway” is the come-down, the quiet coda to the long journey of The River, focusing once more on a couple in the middle of America, contemplating the cruelty and callousness of the world around them.

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Perhaps The River’s sprawling nature is why it doesn’t feel as essential, as vital, to me. But it was massively successful, propelling Springsteen further and further into the American consciousness. The album produced standards like “Ramrod,” “Cadillac Ranch,” “Two Hearts,” and of course, the monstrously successful “Hungry Heart” – Springsteen’s only top-ten Billboard pop hit, which, like so many other songs, Springsteen hadn’t even written for himself. Manager Jon Landau convinced Springsteen to retain it, and after a remix that sped up the song and pitched Springsteen’s voice up, the song became The River’s breakout pop hit, and one of his biggest live show hits.

Funnily enough, the tour in support of The River was just as large and sprawling as its root album, with Springsteen returning to Europe for the first time since his ill-fated trip during the Born to Run tours. This tour also featured, until 2014, the longest show of Springsteen’s career, on New Year’s Eve 1980 (and leaking into the start of 1981), 38 songs over four hours. The River’s tour was, like Darkness and Born to Run before it, an escalation of the same tour structure that came before, with longer shows and a more grandiose presentation by Springsteen. Like its corresponding album, the tour isn’t talked about in the same reverent terms as Darkness, but, like pretty much every tour Springsteen has ever embarked on, it had more than enough iconic moments, including one of the first instances of political speech Springsteen had ever exhibited, at the November 5, 1980 show, the day after Ronald Reagan was elected President. Springsteen stated of the election, “I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it’s pretty frightening,” and followed that with a powerful, hectic rendition of “Badlands, a surprisingly strong political statement at the time.

Now then, what’s in the box?

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The River, like Born to Run and Darkness before it, received a deluxe reissue collection in an anniversary year, this time the 35th anniversary in 2015. The Ties That Bind: The River Collection uses The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story as its base, containing a remaster of The River in packaging that emulates the original vinyl release (though not as closely as previous reissues), a live show from the era, a documentary chronicling the making of the album, and a set of outtakes. Uniquely, The Ties That Bind separately packages the original Ties That Bind single album, providing fans a glimpse at what could have been.

The packaging is predictably gorgeous, held in a simply massive slipcase featuring an expanded version of The River’s album cover, the text left off to focus on the stark profile of Springsteen. The CDs and Blu-rays are packaged in a facsimile of a tour crate, alongside a reproduction of Springsteen’s River-era notebook (with lyrics to the outtakes printed and faux-stapled in), and a beautiful coffee-table style photo book filled to the brim with photos from the recording and subsequent tour.

Despite the expansive nature of The Ties That Bind – that’s becoming a pretty common theme here – I found it to be somewhat more lacking than The Promise. Part of this is the sheer level of mysticism and lore centered around Darkness and its enormous amount of outtakes that Springsteen saw fit to dish out as sparingly as he possibly could. Another part is that Springsteen apparently deemed a decent swath of River outtakes to be unfit for release, which, combined with the sizable amount of River outtakes previously released on Tracks in 1998, meant that Springsteen had to recycle a batch of “greatest hits” outtakes from the River era to fill out the outtakes CD. And it was a significant amount, amounting to the entire second half of the outtakes CD.

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Though it made sense why Springsteen filled it out in this manner – there was a standard of content quantity established by The Promise, and The River had already used nearly half of the songs written on the original album itself – it still felt like a bit of a letdown. But hey, we got a studio recording of “Paradise by the “C””, while I believe is the only instrumental track Springsteen has ever released, as well as highlights like “Meet Me in the City” and “Stray Bullet.”

The professional mix of the single album is also a curious listen, even if it had been available for decades as a bootleg in the exact sequence released in this box set. It’s a nice, unique nod to the evolution of The River’s recording process, and an interesting batch of tracks for the less obsessive fan.

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The River accomplished what it set out to do – it’s a sprawling collection of songs written at the height of Springsteen’s raw productivity, and provides a fascinating look into how Springsteen thought about the genre he worked in. At times it feels overly long, it drags for nearly an entire side, and the box set doesn’t quite match the heights set by The Promise, but The River is still easily an essential piece of the Springsteen canon, his first step forward as a true rock star, setting the stage for the rest of his career.

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More Springsteen: Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. | Born to Run | Darkness on the Edge of Town | Born in the U.S.A. | Live/1975-85 | Chimes of Freedom | Columbia Records Radio Hour | Blood Brothers EP | Devils & Dust | American Beauty

Post Traumatic EP, by Mike Shinoda

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Released January 25, 2018

9 minutes, 35 seconds

Chester Bennington died on July 20, 2017.

Linkin Park released a formal statement five days later, alongside the launch of a tribute on their website. They redirected future donations to Music for Relief to a fund set up in memory of Chester. They announced a tribute concert, with dozens of guest musicians, which turned out to be the most memorable concert Linkin Park had ever performed.

Through it all, the five members of Linkin Park did what they could to cope. And as it turned out, Mike Shinoda, as he always had, turned to music to do that coping.

Post Traumatic is the first, and certainly not the last, result of that process.

This EP is grief in sonic form. All three tracks take on a different facet, centering on Shinoda’s attempts to process how he’s feeling, and what comes next when the walls come down and life is reduced to chaos.

In that regard, “Place to Start” is a soft, appropriate opener for the EP. Over a sparse, hazy beat, Shinoda laments how quickly everything he thought was safe could fall apart in an instant, distraught over the total lack of control he suddenly had over his life and livelihood. The corresponding video provides a strong visual aid, the song comprising of a single shot of Shinoda, the camera (his phone, most likely) pointing up from his chest, a bright sunbeam shining through the window. Shinoda is slouched over, barely able to get the words out.

The song concludes with a collage of voicemail messages, expressing condolences and statements from the callers that they were there if Shinoda needed anything. The video overlays this with lingering shots of his childrens’ rooms in Shinoda’s house – a bunk bed, bookshelves, bins of toys. The final shot is of two lanyards from the memorial show, an artistic rendering of Chester mid-song on them. The message of the song and video are clear – Chester is gone, and Shinoda has no idea how to move forward.

“Over Again” is the clear centerpiece of the EP, showing Shinoda’s transition from despondence to anger as he tries to put things back together and figure out the first step forward for himself and for Linkin Park. Though Bennington had been the (primary) voice of Linkin Park, and, as stated by many related to the band, the heart, Shinoda has always been the core of the band, providing the musical background and taking on the role of head decision-maker, particularly when Bennington was devoting time to his numerous side-projects (the most high-profile being his two years with Stone Temple Pilots, which coincided with the recording and release of The Hunting Party). At the point in time the song was written, Shinoda had been navigating the logistics of the memorial show for months, and the first verse is set just before the show is set to be played. Shinoda is fearful and unsure whether or not he can get through it, overwhelmed by the very prospect of playing another show.

The video, much like the song itself, is the clearest and strongest expression of Shinoda’s goal with this EP. The video is chaotic, filmed on Shinoda’s phone, and the first verse features an extreme close-up shot of Shinoda’s face as he raps through the first verse, his eyes manic, wearing the outfit he wore for the memorial show. The video feels like a stream of consciousness expression of Shinoda’s emotions, grainy, shaky. Shinoda stated that everything for the EP was done entirely by him, and it shows in the unrefined, raw nature of the videos.

The second verse, written and set just after the memorial concert, turns Shinoda’s rage outwards, lashing out at people questioning his grief and its authenticity, swinging back at the people prodding him for some sort of reaction, to express precisely how he was feeling. He mocks the attempts to sympathize with something that few people could understand, the feeling of losing a beloved friend and jeopardizing a career in one stroke. The video escalates alongside the song, the colors starting to blow out as the song progresses, Shinoda’s face covered in shadow and the grain of the footage, the camera growing shakier and shakier. Finally, as the final chorus starts, the colors invert, the camera shaking wildly, blurring and distorting the picture as the song builds to its conclusion, only settling once the outro concludes.

From this peak, the EP concludes with “Watching As I Fall,” as Shinoda moves past anger to exasperated frustration, continuing to grapple with how people perceive he should act. He’s fed up, but he doesn’t have the energy to lash out with anger any more. He doesn’t know what he can or should say or do; he only knows what he is saying, or is doing. That’s all he can offer, and that should be more than enough.

The video contains a lot of rapid cuts and random footage, much of it blurred and difficult to parse. It provides an interesting contrast considering how clearly structured the song itself is, providing another window into Shinoda’s psyche, transitioning from a straightforward delivery of the lyrics from Shinoda to him walking around his house, the camera shaking, as numerous cut-ins of other footage show Shinoda’s attempts to keep himself busy. The video concludes with animation over the final chorus and outro, drawn by Shinoda himself, a mix of shapes and art in his usual style, exploding back into vague, blown-out footage as the song closes out.

The video for “Watching As I Fall” contains a postscript, a short update video from Shinoda, filmed in December, discussing some of his recent thoughts and activities. The video, to me, seems to be a way to reassure fans, showing that, though Shinoda was still coping and dealing with the pain of loss, he was still okay, still functioning, still working, still enjoying life. As sad as the surrounding circumstances are, it’s good to see that Shinoda is still the same man he always has been.

This EP, frankly, is amazing to me. It’s such a powerful illustration of grief and the pain of loss, coming from a musician who somehow still seems to be underrated and underappreciated despite the incredible versatility he’s always demonstrated as an artist. Perhaps the best news to come out of this EP is the knowledge that Shinoda has much more music in his pocket, ready to be released essentially at any time. He stated in a Twitter Q&A on the day of the release that he wanted to gauge the response to the EP before committing to releasing more.

I worried about what Linkin Park would end up doing for a long time after the news of Chester’s death came. Would they break up? Continue as a five-piece, with Shinoda as the lead singer? Bring in guests, or, even, bring in someone new as a permanent replacement?

This EP doesn’t give any hints as to Linkin Park’s future. Shinoda has said that the band is still figuring out what their next step will be, but hinted that a breakup was not in the cards. And that’s fine by me – given what we know Shinoda is capable of as a solo artist, we’ll still have plenty of music from him while Linkin Park determines their future direction. It will take time, and they have plenty of it.

People handle loss in all kinds of different ways. There are endless coping mechanisms for grief, and everyone processes it in a different manner. As terrible as the circumstances are, we should be grateful that Mike Shinoda chose to continue making music in order to push his way through tragedy, because the end result is gorgeous, and a fantastic sign of things to come.

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Instagram, A to Z

I made an Instagram.

The idea behind it is to show off my colored vinyl collection, but I’ll probably alternate between those and regular vinyl to pad out the posts. There’ll probably be one every couple of days until I get tired of it. There’ll generally also be a blurb about the album on each post, so it’s like a miniature iTunes, A to Z post each time because god knows I can’t handle posting here regularly.

I’ll have a 2018 goals post up once I actually feel the motivation to do it. Apologies for the sudden silence this past year after promising more – my creativity and desire to write ebbs and flows pretty strongly, even after I did a hard reset of my brain to try and loosen up, and not think of everything I write in terms of what I can get out of it. That didn’t really extend to this blog, however, and I got pretty demotivated after writing two obituaries in a row of two childhood hero musicians.

But I’m definitely thinking about this blog, and figuring out some sort of thing to do with it. Maybe even just once a month could be enough. I’ll figure it out.

In the meantime, enjoy aesthetic posts on Instagram.