Outside Reading — Red and White and Black and Blue edition

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Americans Are Sad About Politics. Who Could Blame Them? by Clare Malone

Writing for FiveThirtyEight, Clare Malone explores the exhausting nature of the current culture for politically attuned citizens, defined by a cascade of norm-shredding outrages and out-and-out criminal actions by the marauders presiding over the executive branch of the United States government. This is hardly a new topic, but Malone goes a little deeper than most, directly addressing the growing challenge in making a distinction between a “moral issue” and a “political issue,” a problem compounded by the widespread habit (indulged in more often by Republicans than Democrats, it must be typed) of basing policy judgments on party alliance rather a consistent worldview. The extrajudicial confinement of human beings in dictionary-definition concentration camps should lead to conversations shaped by morality and ethics, and raising concerns need not be seen as a political act. If there’s no movement towards freeing public discourse from the mere side-taking fo cable-news chattering, we’re doomed to pervasive and shameful moral failing as a society.

 

Notice Me!: How Fandom Endangers Female Musicians by Caitlin Wolper

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Drawing on interviews with an array of female musicians (including the fab-and-a-half singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus, pictured to the right), largely operating on the “indie” side of the business, Caitlin Wolper details the ways in which toxic fan behavior regularly creates unpleasant, sometimes downright dangerous environments for performers trying to do their jobs. It’s mostly men who are invading the spaces and threatening the safety of these musicians, though it is occasionally other women behaving with entitled impropriety. Wolper lists reported infractions with measured thoroughness, providing a strong sense of the sheer inability of the performers to ever completely let their guards down. More important, she expends the words to explore why this problem is happening, perhaps with greater intensity than before. In creating effective and compelling art, the musicians develop a sense of intimacy with their listeners that can be spun into a certainty of deep connection felt by the fans. In turn, the nebulous relationship can turn ugly when the bonding doesn’t happen both ways, because of course it doesn’t. Usually, misplaced convictions of personal ownership among a fanbase are simply embarrassing. It is equal parts infuriating and heartbreaking that it can instead turn frightening for some talented women plying their trade.

 

The Last Thing He Wanted (1996) by Joan Didion

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Joan Didion’s novel reaches back to a time ten years before its publication, crafting fiction out of the very real geopolitical manipulations the U.S. government perpetrated in Central America. The book is written in crisp, terse language, as if Didion, the consummate essayist, is trying to give every chapter the zing of a strong kicker to a magazine feature. It makes for a quick read, but also keeps the characters and the scenarios feeling a little distant. The Last Thing He Wanted turns into the inverse of a John le Carré novel. Where the British novelist specializes in eternally sinking plunges into the details of espionage, Didion takes the furtive tinkering of shadowy figures and renders in the abstract. In truth, I might need an approach that lies somewhere in between the two.

This Week’s Model — Michael Kiwanuka, “You Ain’t The Problem”

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I’m supposed to be too cynical to enjoy a rock song that espouses uplift. Reared on the slashing defeatism of college rock heroes who wielded buzzing guitars like impenetrable shields, I am meant to feel my strongest kinship with songs that wallow. And I do. Given the right blast of tuneful moroseness, I can put myself safely back in my bygone mode of melancholic disaffection. As I’ve noted in this space, though, I’ve grown far more appreciative of the tracks that swirl a finger longingly in a more positive body of water. I’ ready to hear that things get better.

Michael Kiwanuka’s third album, the somewhat self-titled Kiwanuka, arrives in late October. “You Ain’t the Problem” is the lead single. It moves with a bounding rhythm and intricate instrumentation, recalling those bright, beautiful nineteen-seventies albums that sat gracefully at the intersection of soul and funk. The lyrics hint at past darkness, a testing of the soul, but ultimately determines there’s freeing power in constantly moving forward: “Don’t hesitate/ Time heals the pain/ You ain’t the problem.”

Finding catharsis in a solidarity of misery is still a fine motivation for dropping the needle on a record, literally or metaphorically. But there’s a pleasure in nodding in recognition to a song that offers absolution from punishing self-judgment, especially if that song makes it all but impossible to resist shimmying along in time.

 

The Unwatchables — Savages

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There are many lamentable choices strewn about the history of the Academy Awards, especially when subsequent career choices of individual winners cast a dank shadow on their trophies. Although I’m loathe to offer it as a definitive conclusion, it’s possible there is no more perplexing truth generated by the ceremonies staged in my lifetime than the status of Oliver Stone as a two-time recipient of the Oscar for directing, putting him in the company of Elia Kazan, David Lean, and Billy Wilder. It’s not that he wasn’t reasonably deserving of those two competitive wins, for Platoon and Born of the Fourth of July (though, out of the nominated filmmakers, I would have opted for Woody Allen and Jim Sheridan for the years in question). But his artistic sensibility has degenerated into such an ungodly mass of frothing lunacy in the decades sense that it’s grown difficult to remember a time when he could be taken seriously at all.

Stone’s 2012 film Savages is a proper showcase for all of his worst creative tics. The pointless over-editing, the ludicrous dialogue built on smugly incoherent adoption of film noir styling, and the performances sharpened to inadvertent farce are all in place. The usual hyper-aggressive masculine posturing is also woven through the film, distributed generously to both male and female characters, which I’d wager Stone thinks is progressively minded. Stone also seems to believe that he’s offering criticism of the grotesque behaviors he depicts, but the relevant scenes and moments are executed with a lurid attentiveness that instead suggests that he gets off on the carnage.

Based on a novel by thriller machine Don Winslow, Savages is about a pair of brash young entrepreneurs in the marijuana racket who run afoul of a ruthless Mexican drug cartel. One of the partners is Chon (Taylor Kitsch), an ex-Navy Seal whose quick temper is further aggravated by flare-ups of post-traumatic stress stemming from his service in Afghanistan. Hippie botanist Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is the cooling agent in the team, pushing for more restrained, pragmatic solutions to their woes, at least until the situation goes fully sideways with the abduction of their shared girlfriend, O (Blake Lively). It’s just one of those rough work weeks.

The performances in the film are uniformly bad, though I’m not sure how much of the blame can be laid on the actors. Early in the film, Lively is required, in voiceover, to describe sex with Kitsch’s character by speaking the line “I have orgasms. He has wargasms.” A genetically enhanced super-being with the combined talent of Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Marlon Brando couldn’t make that dialogue work. That line is no aberration. The entire film is filled with faux cool dialogue, all clipped and tough and painfully inane, like what Elmore Leonard might have tapped out immediately after sustaining a nasty head injury. (And then surely thrown in the trash after regaining his senses.) Stone runs roughshod over logic and proves far too impatient to find any depth in the characters or meaning in the scenarios. Even in his best work, Stone often mistook freneticism for intensity, but Savages reaches new levels of narrative-imploding haste. Not a single element works, and the worst components rot further as the film scrambles forward.

I made it approximately halfway through Savages.

Previously in The Unwatchables

— Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, directed by Michael Bay
— Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton
— Due Date, directed by Todd Phillips
— Sucker Punch, directed by Zack Snyder
— Cowboys & Aliens, directed by Jon Favreau
— After Earth, directed by M. Night Shyamalan
— The Beaver, directed by Jodie Foster
— Now You See Me 2, directed by Jon M. Chu
— The Mummy, directed by Alex Kurtzman
— The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott
Vice, directed by Adam McKay

Playing Catch-Up — The Uninvited; The Last Black Man in San Francisco; Tickled

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The Uninvited (Lewis Allen, 1944). Based on a Dorothy Macardle novel, director Lewis Allen’s feature directorial debut is widely cited as the first movie to depict ghosts as spectral entities that might actually exist in the world, moving amidst living beings because of some elusive unfinished business in the world. To at least some degree, every subsequent film that treats ghosts seriously can be traced back to this effort. In the film, siblings Roderick and Pamela (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) impulsively purchase an abandoned manor on the coast of Cornwall, seeing it as a welcome refuge from the hustling stresses of the city. They soon find the house comes with a chilling added presence and launch efforts to determine how the troubled history of the previous owners might help explain the haunting. Allen achieves a nice gloomy atmosphere with the house, and the script — co-credited to Frank Partos and The Hundred and One Dalmatians novelist Dodie Smith — properly balances rapidly eroding incredulity with mildly exasperated wit. The leads are fine — both Milland and Hussey opt for a bland, capable approach fairly common in the nineteen-forties — but the supporting cast is peppered with wonderful, idiosyncratic turns, led by Alan Napier as a local physician roped into the supernatural sleuthing and Cornelia Otis Skinner as a menacing sanitarium operator.

 

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The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot, 2019). Scraping by the in the money-draining city of San Francisco, Jimmie (Jimmie Falls) is obsessed with the upkeep of a large Victorian house, causing him to sneak onto the property to tend the garden and touch up the paint when its residents are away. In this strange endeavor, he’s usually joined by his friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), a soft-spoken man always surveying his environs and then scribbling in his notebook, engaged in a seemingly permanent creative process. That’s the set-up of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the feature directorial debut of Joe Talbot. Drawn from the real experiences of Falls, the film is elegant and insightful, calling back to independent films of the nineteen-eighties and -nineties that delved deeply into characters existing in a distinct place and time. Talbot displays a talent for image construction that’s almost startling in its ability to find beauty in the mundane, and every bit of the film’s mechanics — Adam Newport-Berra’s cinematography, Emile Mosseri’s music, David Marks’s editing — is utterly superb. Both main actors are vibrant in their roles, with Majors proving especially inventive in keeping the humanity prominent in a character that could have easily been reduced to an actorly stunt. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is absolutely extraordinary.

 

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Tickled (David Farrier and Dylan Reeve, 2016). In this documentary, New Zealand reporter David Farrier, who specializes in offbeat stories, is tipped off to the presence of tickling videos online featuring young adult men bound and subjected to skittering fingertips against sensitive areas likely to provoke giggle fits. Branded as if they’re part of a loopy sports league, the videos raises suspicions in the Farrier, and he quickly determines there might be more insidious motivations behind the fetishistic clips. He partners with producer Dylan Reeve for his onscreen detective work, including the occasional ambush interview, taken straight from Michael Moore’s now dog-eared playbook. Tickled is constructed with practiced looseness and unconvincingly feigned jolts of surprise reminiscent of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Catfish. The basics might be true, but the presentation is overly reliant on cinematic hucksterism. There are callous opportunists to be found here, well worth exposing. But Tickled is wobbly in terms of its own creative ethics. The film undercuts itself.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #672 to #669

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672. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, The Pacific Age (1986)

“There are a lot of people out there who may now consider OMD to just be ‘If You Leave,'” bassist Andy McCluskey told Billboard upon the release of The Pacific Age, the seventh studio album by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. “Obviously, it helped us get exposure in America, but we want people to know we are capable of a lot more than just that particular type of song.”

After years of significant success at home in the U.K. and only the slightest headway on the U.S. charts (they’d landed in the Top 40 with the 1985 single “Crush”), OMD were gifted prime placement on the 1986 teen romantic comedy Pretty in Pink, written and produced by John Hughes. Anyone expecting the title song, the Psychedelic Furs’ freshly recorded, spruced up take on their own 1981 single, to become the soundtrack’s breakout hit hadn’t been paying close enough attention. As Simple Minds proved, it was the yearning, preemptively nostalgic ballads that ruled the day. All those proms need theme songs, you know. According to lore, OMD wrote “If You Leave” in less than twenty-four hours, responding to an emergency call from the filmmakers, declaring poor test screenings mandate the shooting of a new ending for Pretty in Pink, and the band’s original submission for a closing song no longer made sense. Despite the haste in which “If You Leave” was written (or perhaps, in part, because of it), the song become a smash.

Seven months after the Pretty in Pink soundtrack hit record stores, OMD released The Pacific Age. The timing was right to exploit the band’s newfound prominence. The music on the record, however, pushed back against that opportunity. McCluskey’s insistence that the band had versatility beyond the swooning power ballad that made their fame was evidenced by an album that strayed from not only that sound, but the sound of most prior OMD records.

McCluskey and his chief partner in the band, keyboardist Paul Humphreys, deliberately brought a different approach to the development of their songs for The Pacific Age, supposedly in an attempt to capture the energy of their live shows. The contradictory result of the expansive creative process is an album full of songs deadened by a lack of focus. “Stay (The Black Rose and the Universal Reel)” is like a tepid version of Tonight-era David Bowie (which isn’t that great to begin with), and “The Dead Girls” is OMD’s usual sound thickened with molasses. At times, the material is widely misguided. “Southern” is a weird meshing of cheerily empty disco with the passionate Civil Rights rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr. “Goddess of Love,” the original Pretty in Pink soundtrack contribution, is reclaimed for The Pacific Age, proving the last-minute change was deeply fortuitous. It’s difficult to image this clomping, inane cut (“She can’t afford dreams/ And her clothes are old/ She can’t afford hope/ Wouldn’t be so bold/ But she’s holding his heart/ And she won’t let go again”) becoming a similar commercial breakthrough.

There are a few glints of inspiration among the tangle. The easygoing romantic pop of lead single “(Forever) Live and Die,” which became OMD’s third Top 40 hit in the U.S., forecasts the glistening perfection of Ian Broudie’s the Lightning Seeds. And it’s a testament to the quality of “We Love You” that a straight line can be drawn from it to the retro dance floor gems released by Cut Copy and similar acts a couple decades later. These are exceptions, though. Most of The Pacific Age is muddled and sluggish. And the band seemed to feel it, too. Shortly after the tour to support the album, OMD basically fell apart. Only McCluskey remained, essentially borrowing the established band name as a commercially helpful costume for his solo work over the course of the next several years.

 

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671. John Cougar Mellencamp, Scarecrow (1985)

One album after first asserting his own identity enough to put his real last name on the cover, John Mellencamp made it completely plain who he was and what he believed in with Scarecrow. His eighth studio album overall, it was the first Mellencamp recorded in the studio he built in Belmont, Indiana. More important, Scarecrow found Mellencamp pushing himself beyond the simple, tied-tested rock ‘n’ roll songwriting topics of love, heartbreak, and the relentless pursuit of good times. The album leads off with “Rain on the Scarecrow,” a pained, angry lament for family farms set to a fierce beat provided by the one true ringer in Mellencamp’s backing band, drummer Kenny Aronoff. The performer who was once crammed into the cheap rock persona Johnny Cougar now had something important to say.

The politically enlivened songs are spread all across Scarecrow. To different degrees, the percolating “The Face of the Nation,” boisterous “Justice and Independence ’85,” and name-dropping “You’ve Got to Stand for Somethin'” (“I’ve seen the Rolling Stones/ Forgot about Johnny Rotten/ Saw the Who back in ’69”) all weigh in on the fraying of the social fabric, offering commentary on the need to fight back against corrupting forces holding back less-powerful citizens from achieving even a modest version of the American Dream. Even Mellencamp’s more familiar songs are tinged with a melancholy outlook that suggests a populace adrift. On the surface, “Lonely Ol’ Night” is standard lovelorn rock ‘n’ roll, but, in the context of the political outlook of the album, the lyrics “And it’s a sad sad sad sad feeling/ When you’re living on those in betweens” cut a little differently.

“Rain on the Scarecrow” might lend the album its title, but “Small Town” is the true thesis statement. Romantic and appreciative of the charms of living within a sparsely populated community, Mellencamp is also honest enough to acknowledge the shortcomings (“My job is so small town/ Provides little opportunity”). He comes down firmly in favor of sticking with the small town, but an awareness of the potential for improvement provides impetus to call out for more support, more respect, more understanding. Keeping his eyes wide open gives Mellencamp reason to sing.

 

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670. Daryl Hall and John Oates, Private Eyes (1981)

Daryl Hall and John Oates were determined they weren’t going to let opportunity pass them by again. The duo enjoyed a flare of major success in the middle of the nineteen-seventies, when the hit “Sara Smile” set off a run of five straight Top 40 hits, including the chart-topper “Rich Girl.” Then the broader mainstream enthusiasm for their music dissipated. Hall and Oates remained prolific, releasing an album per year through the late seventies, but the singles from Beauty on a Back Street, Along the Red Ledge, and X-Static made few to no ripples.  The 1980 album Voices seemed to following that course when a cover of the Righteous Brothers’ classic “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” made significant headway on the charts. The next single, “Kiss on My List,” spent three weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, and, just like that, Hall and Oates were back to being a force in pop music.

The duo were in the studio working when “Kiss on My List” broke, and they quickly made adjustments designed to help them build on their revived profile. They tightened up their songwriting methodology and took greater care in the recording process, logging over one hundred separate sessions at Electric Lady Studios, in New York City. The resulting album, Private Eyes, cemented Hall and Oates as dependable hitmakers. The record’s first two singles — the title cut and “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” — both went all the way to #1. For the rest of the decade, Hall and Oates were mainstays in the Billboard Top 40.

While it’s genuinely difficult to deny the appeal of the duo’s hits, digging deeper into a Hall and Oates album unearths no long-lost treasures. On Private Eyes“Looking for a Good Sign” is like a discard from an especially toothless version of J. Geils Band, and “Your Imagination” is a big, cumbersome glob of pop-rock. The slight power pop vibe on “Tell Me What You Want” invites speculation on how the act could have pursued slightly more daring music, but it’s an aberration. The chintzy synths and numbing redundancy of “Did It in a Minute” is the more accurate barometer reading on their artistic outlook. Private Eyes is a reminder of why greatest hits collections exist.

 

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669. The Romantics, In Heat (1983)

The Romantics were nearly done with their fourth album, but they needed one more song. As they were brainstorming, producer Peter Solley suggested bassist Mike Skill revive a riff he’d been noodling with earlier. His bandmates joined in, jamming and exploring until they’d built a solid musical foundation. The song kept developing, and the Romantics completed the album In Heat by laying down a new composition entitled “Talking in Your Sleep.” Released as a single, the cut became a major hit, making it all the way up to #3 on the Billboard chart.

If nothing else on In Heat is as strong as the hit, the material is all reasonably solid. The Romantics consistently deliver retro rock dressed up with a far more modern production sensibility, the songs built on slick hooks and forgettable lyrics, mostly finishing off with an amusing repetitiveness that makes it seem as if they considered every track a candidate for the runout groove. The only flirtations with complexity come in the odd, likely inadvertent passages where the band sometimes seems to be engaged in a dialogue of standard-issue rock sentiments, as when “Do Me Anyway You Wanna” is answered within a couple turntable rotations by “Got Me Where You Want Me.”

The norm on In Heat is the straightforward and agreeably dopey “Rock You Up” (“You want to do a little dancing/ Well music never let you down/ But if you’re ready for romancing/ Honey, better hang around”). Even the occasional flutters of stylistic variance — the sweet power pop of “One in a Million,” the pogoing energy on “I’m Hip” — don’t stray all that far from the model. Emphasizing the backward glance inherent to their approach, the Romantics close the album with a limp cover of “Shake a Tail Feather.”

Having a hit single to their name afforded the Romantics many things, the most fruitful of which was a cause for skepticism when the bankbooks of the band members didn’t seem to reflect their success. According to Skill, he and his cohorts analyzed their finances and determined the band’s management was skimming from them. The business relationship was broken off, and the Romantics took their former managers to court, eventually winning back ownership of their songs, one of the most lucrative commodities a music act can hold.

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

 

Outside Reading — Recoil edition

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“All Three Spoke Spanish. All Three Were Americans”: A Pediatrician Describes Treating El Paso’s Shooting Victims by Charles Bethea

In the course of the past few years, I spent some time editing a trade publication that served the health care community, particularly those who work in the operating room. In part because of that, I think, I’ve paid especially close attention to the commentary offered by medical professionals as the gun violence epidemic has surged. The constant comparisons to war zone medicine after each mass shooting — in both the quantity of victims and, importantly, the severity of the wounds and the complications to the emergency treatment  — helps put in perspective for me what is truly happening in these tragedies. Charles Bethea is the credited author on this piece, published by The New Yorker, but the words mostly belong to Jorge Sainz, MD. I understand the reluctance to share actual images of physical brutality caused by these guns. Even so, a vital public understanding of the consequences is getting lost. Having physicians report their experiences might be the best substitute we have.

 

Opinion: Our Mass Shooting Culture Makes Me Constantly Worry When I’m In A Public Space by Geraldine DeRuiter

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Writing for Buzzfeed News, Geraldine DeRuiter explores the ways in which the unchecked pervasiveness of guns have impacted the simple experience of venturing out into the world. I’ve had the exact welling anxiety she describes. Especially in the immediate aftermath of another tallying of casualties, I also find myself gauging escape routes in public places and sizing up the likelihood that one of the strangers around me is a NRA-empowered monster waiting to pounce. I am heartbroken — and furious — that children are now growing up in a version of this country in which active shooter training is a necessary part of their schooling. It didn’t used to be like this. It doesn’t have to be now. To appease a deranged few — and mostly an industry that decided forty years ago to shore up dwindling peacetime sales by mounting a warped legal offensive to alter the two-century understanding of the U.S. Constitution’s second amendment — a state of perpetual fear has been invited on an entire society. It’s sick.

 

A Relentless Jailhouse Lawyer Propels a Case to the Supreme Court by Adam Litpak

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Even the one somewhat inspiring story I share today comes with a heaping helping of good old American injustice. Calvin Duncan was incarcerated for over two decades in Louisiana, using his time behind bars to school himself in the legal system. His learning was not only leveraged in his own behalf. He helped countless others, even serving as an information resource for actual attorneys who marveled at Duncan’s command of the law. At the core of Duncan’s work is a fight against the Southern state’s abominable practice of allowing criminal convictions with non-unanimous jury decisions, a practice that was adopted to oppress black people. The motivation is not an interpretation. As reporter Adam Litpak notes, the chair of the judiciary committee that cemented the practice into Louisiana’s state Constitution in the late eighteen-hundreds declared the motivating purpose was “to establish the supremacy of the white race in this state to the extent to which it could be legally and constitutionally done.” That the methodology is still on the books in appalling and exposes the lie of the racism apologists who are given spotlight placement in too much of the current public discourse, including the entirety of the Fox News primetime lineup. Duncan’s story should be made into an inspiration movie, sooner rather than later. The article was published by The New York Times.

 

This Week’s Model — Lana Del Rey, “Looking for America”

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Achingly lovely and heart-rending in its poignancy, “Looking for America,” the new single from Lana Del Rey, is a perfectly timed reminder that pop music can be about important topics. Engaging with the monumental challenges of the day is one of the critical tasks of any artist, even those who specialize in dreamy soundscapes and cooing vocals. Del Rey has written and performed songs about disappointing boys and other similarly frivolous concerns, but that doesn’t bar her from peering around her society broadly harmed by pervasive gun violence and creatively wrestling with the circumstances using the same intimacy she might bring to a tender love ballad.

“Looking for America” recounts traveling, as the title implies. Mostly, it is concerned with the unwilling existential journey U.S. citizens have been forced to take because a legion of cowards and bullies have willfully warped the second inalienable right laid down in the nation’s foundational legal document. Del Rey sings of watching children play, reflecting, “We used to only worry for them after dark.” And she admits fears for her own safety have mounted, noting that wide public spaces that she once entered into without a care are now continually, instinctively sussed out as venues of potential mortal catastrophe, the place news vans will be stationed the next day so journalists can recite a body count.

I am grateful that Del Rey sings her truth in this way, at this time.