Things are Getting Scary
Creeping Out with the Flaming Lips and the Knife

So. What a shitty couple of weeks.

As many of you know, I’m from Massachusetts. I grew up in a town just south of Boston, and I know a lot of people who live there. So you can imagine how quickly my heart leapt into my throat when I heard about the attacks on the Boston Marathon on Monday. It took a couple hours to track down the people I thought most likely to have been caught in the chaos, and to determine that they were all right.

They were. No one I know was hurt in Monday’s attacks. Now I’m just like the rest of you, waiting to hear more. It seems unlikely to me that they’ll find the people responsible, but I hope I’m wrong. Meanwhile, Boston has been showing the resilience that has characterized it for more than 200 years. I’m immensely proud to be from there, even though I pronounce the letter R whenever I encounter it, and at times like these, I wouldn’t choose to be from anywhere else.

So, what else happened? Oh yeah, Roger Ebert died. He was one of my most important influences as a reviewer – not so much his writing style as his approach and philosophy. Ebert was the one who taught me that it’s OK to say “I” in a review, and to make it at least partially about your own reaction to art. When Ebert loved a movie, he was eloquent, but when he hated one, he was unmatchable. There are so many great examples, but this one about 1998’s Armageddon is sort of the Platonic ideal of a negative review. Every sentence is like a precise cut with a scalpel. And it’s amazingly funny. I’ll miss reading Roger’s work, and I’ll miss hearing tales of his life and his indomitable spirit.

We lost a bunch of other people, too, like Jonathan Winters and Carmine Infantino. I would have written more about them last week, but I spent two days in bed, felled by some horrific virus. I sneezed and shivered through most of last week, and now I’m better, just in time for my entire state to be flooded. I’ve never owned a basement before, so I have no experience with pumping water out of one. I hope it’s not necessary, but with even more rain on the way, I’m worried.

And on top of all that, my cat died.

Her name was Kitty. My father rescued her from a shelter 19 years ago, and she lived with him for years before coming to live with me. In all that time, she never told us her name – you know how cats sometimes do that? – so we just called her Kitty. She was a marvelously affectionate cat, if you were me. If you weren’t me, she was difficult. As she got older, she grew less trusting of other people, which wasn’t a lot of fun for my friends who fed her while I was out of town. But every time I returned, she’d be waiting at the top of the stairs, and she’d purr and rub against my leg, so happy to see me.

Kitty suffered from hypothyroidism, and took pills for it every day for about six years. It wasn’t enough, though. I found her gasping for breath two Thursdays ago, splayed out on my couch. I brought her into the emergency room of our local animal hospital, and they removed a cup of liquid from around her lungs. Do you know how much a cup of liquid is? It’s a hell of a lot. The doctor told me that Kitty was suffering from a particular form of heart failure common in cats with hypothyroidism, and that her long-term prognosis, even with treatment, wasn’t good. Months, at best.

Rather than subject her to strenuous tests and treatments, we opted to make her as comfortable as we could. She stopped eating the next day, and refused any attempts to get food down her throat. She knew the end was near, and I think she wanted to face it on her terms. I don’t think she was in pain – that is, until Sunday, when she could barely move. She still refused to eat, but she would lap up water whenever I would bring it to her. I brought her up onto my bed on Sunday night, where she loved to sleep, and she padded over and draped herself across me, purring.

I fell asleep like that, and she must have clambered off during the night. I found her body the next morning, on the floor close to my bed. She was still warm, but she was gone. It’s been almost two weeks, and I still imagine she’s waiting for me at the top of the stairs when I arrive home, and I still wait for her to jump up onto my bed at night. Pets become like family members, and losing one is more painful than you’d think.

She was a great cat, and I’ll miss her.

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So after all that, I wasn’t quite in the mood to write a silly music column last week. I hope you’ll forgive me for taking a week off. Every year, I swear I’m going to skip a week for my birthday, and I never do. By my count, I’m owed about 11 weeks off. But I still feel bad for taking one.

My plan last week was to write about the new Strokes and Depeche Mode albums, linked solely by the fact that both use the word “machine” in their titles. Yes, that was the remarkably tenuous connection I’d drawn. I don’t think that’s worth pursuing, but let me say a little about each record. I’ve never really liked the Strokes, and their choice to “expand” their sound to include ‘80s-inspired synthesizers on Comedown Machine doesn’t make me like them any more. There are a couple of interesting song ideas on here, but not much, and the synth thing feels like an affectation rather than an honest evolution.

Depeche Mode, however, have made a terrific new record with Delta Machine. I think the title is meant to connote blues played with electronics, and the album truly follows through on that. It’s slow and creepy and vicious and vibrant, Dave Gahan’s voice ringing out in fine form. This is the band’s 13th album, and they haven’t shaken up their template very much. But they’ve proven that it doesn’t need to be shaken up. They’re in a class of one, making the best Depeche Mode music they’ve made in some time.

If I’d followed through with my original plan, the last two paragraphs probably would have taken about 2,000 words, and ended up saying the same thing. You’re welcome. Let’s see if I can keep the trend toward brevity going with this week’s selections.

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Some people believe that music should have only one purpose, and that is to entertain.

While I love music that only wants to get your heart pumping and your toes tapping, I disagree with that notion completely. I find it reductive and limiting. Quite a lot of music is intended to do other things – rouse you, stoke your political flames, convey perspective, confuse and bewilder, set your synapses reeling. And some music is specifically intended to disturb you, to make you uncomfortable and upset. This is not a failing. The more creeped out you are, the more successful this music is.

At their bizarre best, the Flaming Lips are masters of that sort of thing. Yes, Wayne Coyne and his merry band are better known for their joyous anthems, like “Race for the Prize” and “Do You Realize,” but scratch that surface, and they’re an immensely weird band with a penchant for shiver-inducing atmosphere. This isn’t news – just check out anything and everything they’ve done since their last album, 2009’s intense Embryonic. Eschewing the very notion of albums altogether, the Lips have collaborated with a host of strange partners, released songs on thumb drives in gummy skulls and gummy fetuses, created a six-hour song, and then topped it with a 24-hour song, which was astoundingly unnerving.

The band seemed to be enjoying the freedom of releasing music in whatever form they chose, so their decision to return to the album format for their 13th effort, The Terror, seems odd. Whatever else The Terror accomplished, it had to explain why these nine songs were released together and in this format. And to its credit, it certainly does that. The Lips have made a cohesive suite of moods, perhaps their most consistent recording ever. It’s entirely of a piece.

I’d be hard-pressed to say there are songs on here, but it almost doesn’t matter. The Lips maintain a pervasive buzzing, unsettling atmosphere, even when there are soaring melodies, as on “Try to Explain.” It is not, strictly speaking, terrifying, but it is akin to someone whispering into the back of your neck for 55 minutes. There’s a darkness to this, one that is exemplified by the steam room pulse of the 13-minute “You Lust,” a song that brings the more disturbing Pink Floyd numbers to mind. The mood continues through the near-formless title track, with its oddly oscillating waves of bass, and the creepy “You Are Alone,” which sounds like being in the airlock as the oxygen escapes.

Things get more percussive in the album’s final stretches, but the gloomy mood prevails. “Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die” was released alongside that six-hour song two years ago, but finds a much more fitting home here as the most propulsive song of the lot. The album ends with a reprise of its opening number, and though both the first and last tracks have optimistic titles (“Look…The Sun is Rising” and “Always There, In Our Hearts”), the rattling doom remains until the end.

Put simply, if you’re looking for another “She Don’t Use Jelly” or “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” you’re going to be disappointed. This is the furthest the Flaming Lips have gone in committing to a singular sound, one that prizes squirmy atmosphere over everything else. It’s hard to imagine this music being created by people, actually. True to its title, The Terror is a remarkable fulfillment of a particular vision, and that vision is to creep you the fuck out. It’s certainly not the band’s finest work, but it is possibly their most physically disturbing, and that counts for something.

Swedish synth duo The Knife has pretty much done away with songs, in the traditional sense, on their new album too. Shaking the Habitual is the follow-up to the glorious and concise Silent Shout, and is everything that record was not. Where Silent Shout was icy and carefully constructed, this new one is a sprawling 96 minutes long, contains songs that spiral out to ridiculous lengths, and seems ungodly random. The intention here seems to be to create music so abrasive and unnerving that it’s like a dare. Can you make it all the way through this thing?

I have, a few times, but only because I forced myself to. Where siblings Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer once reveled in their ability to subvert pop music, they’ve now decided that any trace of pop is the enemy. I cannot emphasize enough just how intentionally off-putting this record is. The opening tracks, “A Tooth for an Eye” and the nine-minute “Full of Fire,” are meandering collections of fierce beats and screams, with only occasional nods to melody. Same with “Raging Lung” and “Stay Out Here,” each hovering around 10 minutes, and the seven-minute instrumental “Networking.”

And those are probably my favorites here. Smack in the middle of this album is the 19-minute drone “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized,” and though I definitely like a good drone, this one kills the album stone dead. It is, however, almost inhumanly disturbing. “A Cherry On Top” is similar, though it only drags on for nine minutes, and “Fracking Fluid Injection” is the ultimate patience tester, 10 minutes of squeaks and squiggles sequenced near the end of this monstrosity.

Yes, there are more concise pieces here. Closing track “Ready to Lose” is four minutes of almost pretty keyboards and Karin’s distinctive voice, here shorn of its more abrasive characteristics. Two tracks on the first disc constrain their beat-heavy meanders to around five minutes. And there are squonking interludes named after Margaret Atwood characters. As you can probably tell, this is the anti-Terror – it lurches from one mood to another throughout its running time. It takes a lot of work to absorb it all, and it’s never quite clear if all that effort is worthwhile.

I can’t say I outright dislike Shaking the Habitual. On the contrary, I admire the spirit it took to create something like this, something so upfront about its own unlikable nature. It’s definitely designed to shock and unsettle, and it does its job well. But unlike The Terror, it’s not something that I’ll be reaching for anytime soon. It’s possible to create something that is truly disturbing and yet strangely compelling. The Flaming Lips have done both, while the Knife could have used some time to work on the second part.

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There, that wasn’t so hard. I’m back in the saddle. Thanks for being patient with me.

Next week, some artists who have revisited the past, including Michael Roe, Quiet Company and Marillion. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow me on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date.

See you in line Tuesday morning.