Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Blake Morrison, Christos Tsiolkas and Laura Bush.

The Last Weekend by Blake Morrison

"Morrison has created far more than a sinister take on the country-house novel," writes Christian House in the Independent on Sunday. "All his signature themes are present: the intricate complications of family life, the psychological mechanics of crime, the crassness of class boundaries and, most of all, the hypocrisies of modern masculinity. This is a suspenseful thriller," House declares, "but more importantly it succeeds as an exceedingly clever investigation into the strangeness of lies."

For John O'Connell, writing in the Times, "Ian [the narrator] is an authentic, copper-bottomed monster. But Morrison is too subtle a writer to leave it at that. The most fascinating aspect of The Last Weekend is its suggestion that Ian's bitterness and paranoia are explicable, if not justified."

In the Telegraph, David Robson opines that "the plot is touch artificial . . . [revolving] around a silly bet struck 20 years before. But the human basis for the story has the ring of truth. Meanwhile, the Guardian's Stephanie Merritt writes that "Morrison handles the elements of his novel with impeccable control", creating "the slow-burning feeling that nothing is as it should be".

 

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

Stephen Amidon writes for the Times: "The destructive gesture that sets in motion Christos Tsiolkas's powerful new novel [first published in Australia in 2008 and winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize] is an open hand briskly applied to the face of a spoilt three-year-old . . . The reverberations of the incident soon affect the lives of at least a dozen people."

"Tsiolkas uses his premise as a guy-line to stabilise his larger structure," writes Jane Smiley for the Guardian, "but his real talent is for exploring the inner lives of his eight primary characters, four women and four men, ranging in age from 18 to 70. And each of these characters is a sharp observer of those around him or her, so many more lives are illuminated as well."

For Doug Johnstone, writing in the Independent, Tsiolkas's international success "is deserved . . . because this ingenious and passionate book is a wonderful dissection of suburban Australian living, tackling issues of race, class and gender, but doing so with a keen eye on the personal".

"Perhaps inevitably," claims Johnstone, "not all the narrative [voices] work quite as well -- the two teenagers seem a little clichéd, while Rosie's story fails to explain her almost pathologically cloying attitude toward Hugo." Even so, for him, "This is a beautifully structured and executed examination of the complexity of modern living."

 

Spoken from the Heart by Laura Bush

"Bush's account of her life before and after George W is cautious, pleasantly soporific, sweetly uncontroversial and untroubled by self-doubt," writes Elaine Showalter in the Telegraph. Painting a picture of a woman who is "pretty, motherly, modestly dressed [and] conscientious about her duties", the memoir, in Showalter's view, demonstrates "[Bush's] knack for seizing the inoffensive feminine middle ground". A "calculated and highly controlled autobiography", she concludes, the book is (in spite of its title) "written from the head".

For Sarah Baxter in the Times, although Mrs Bush evinces "a sly way of getting her own back on her detractors" and "can be a gossip at times too" -- offering a revealing insight into Prince Charles and Camilla's drinking habits, for instance -- when it comes to her husband she "confines herself to loyal expressions of confidence".

"The worst parts of her book cover her years in the White House," Baxter elaborates. "Ever in her husband's shadow, she has . . . nothing of interest to say about an era that began with 9/11, led to two wars, and ended with the election of the first African-American president."

The Observer's Carole Cadwalladr agrees that "the higher George Bush rises politically, the less interesting the book becomes", but writes, "[Laura Bush] is not simply a two-dimensional Republican version of a surrendered wife, and Spoken from the Heart is not simply a rousing appreciation of life by George's side." Rather, "what comes through is . . . that Laura Bush is a far more complex, interesting character than perhaps anyone had cause to guess".

"Spoken from the Heart" will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the New Statesman

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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.