Some Oscar Predictions

I’ve seen most of the Best Picture nominees this year (no Nightmare Alley, Drive My Car or West Side Story) and wanted to drop a quick post on who I think should win this Sunday.

Best Picture

Power of the Dog

There’s a point early in the movie, where Montana simply swallows you as a viewer, and I thought how much I had missed Jane Campion’s directorial eye. Add in the great performances from Benedict Cumberbatch and Kodi Smit-McPhee (Kirsten Dunst is fine, Jess Plemmons is a placeholder) and the patience of the second half of the film, and its understated conclusion, and it was very satisfying. I get those kidding about Power of the Nap, but in pandemic times, I had time to savor the unfolding. To that point, I saw this in my family room, but this would have worked so much better in a movie theater, where it would have been projected 50 feet across and I would have given it uninterrupted time. It felt like a movie movie, whereas many of the others felt like TV movies, if that makes sense.

As there’s ranked choice voting, my ballot would go:

  1. Power of the Dog
  2. West Side Story – Spielberg still has it. (I didn’t see it all, but saw enough when Virginia was watching to think it fits here.)
  3. King Richard – Will Smith was great. One disconnect was the movie portrayed the sisters as just regular ol’ girls who somehow won tennis matches when they were like Marvel characters. Serena (power) and Venus (power plus her long-limbed, rangy speed) were obvious superheroes from the first time we saw them. That isn’t to say they didn’t put in the work — obviously, they did. But the movie really downplays their physical gifts. And as executive producers, they made sure the movie took it very easy on their dad.
  4. Dune – So ambitious, really well-done, but it was one of those movies where every important utterance is done in a hushed voice with a sandstorm of noise rising around it. The point of movies is not to hide the point of the movie. And it took nearly three hours to get through half of the book.
  5. Licorice Pizza – More of a collection of scenes than a plot, and Gary was, hands-down, the most annoying character of 2021. His charm had largely dried up and blown away about 20 minutes into the movie. Bradley Cooper had a great turn. We’ll be seeing more of Alana Haim. This may sound nuts, but I think she deserves a better movie.
  6. Belfast – The movie did its best to rehabilitate Van Morrison. The little boy (Jude Hill) was a treasure, as were Judy Dench and Ciaran Hinds.
  7. Coda – I get folks loved this movie, but it felt very Lifetime-esque in how it resolved. That said, what parent could watch the last third without a lump in their throat? Troy Kotsur (Ruby’s dad) is a serious runner-up in Supporting Actor. I see sentimentally how he might win, but Smit-McPhee was better, in a better movie.
  8. Don’t Look Up – Funny opener, but it mostly lost me when it shifted into serious territory — or maybe I’m just in denial on some of its most dire implications. On the great side, Cate Blanchette did a dead-on Mika Brzezinski. Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice) has done this kinda movie better before.

Didn’t see:

  1. Drive My Car
  2. Nightmare Alley

I understand that Drive My Car is a sleeper. I hope to see it soon.

Some other categories:

Best Actor

Will Smith has to win, right? He was great as Richard Williams, and he’s due a lifetime achievement award. Cumberbatch has an argument for the Oscar, too.

Best Actress

I saw everyone but Penelope Cruz, and I’m hearing that Jessica Chastain might squeak in for Eyes of Tammy Fay, but I think Olivia Colman deserves it for The Lost Daughter, which I didn’t like much. She’s simply at the top of her game and shouldn’t be penalized because she has been there for a while. Shades of Giannis Antetokounmpo …

A final note on Best Actor/Actress. Being the Ricardos wasn’t a bad movie, but Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem actually held it back. Kidman was not funny even once in 2 hours, while playing the funniest woman on TV, and Bardem very much felt like a throw-away performance.

Supporting Actor

Kodi Smit-McPhee, see above.

Supporting Actress

Judy Dench. Belfast has to get something.

Director

Jane Campion. She has such a great eye and trusts the audience. The first third of Dog had me wanting to go re-watch The Piano.

Some last thoughts

Dune should get all the technical awards. Campion should win best adapted screenplay for Dog and Zach Baylin should win original screenplay for King Richard. I could see Paul Thomas Anderson winning for Licorice Pizza, because some of the scenes are wonderful, but it barely holds together as a movie.

6 Thoughts on Jerry Maguire, 26 Years Later

Virginia and I continued on a torrid pace of movie-watching, this time watching Jerry Maguire with friends on New Year’s Night. One couple had never seen it. I hadn’t seen it in more than a decade, maybe closer to two. Anyway, I reacted to it a little differently than I did back in 1996. Some thoughts — and, spoiler alert, I’m giving it all away. The movie is 26 gosh-darn years old …

1. Let’s start with the biggest one. Jerry never changes. The movie’s big emotional payoff comes at the end, after this NFL agent’s only player/client provides a miraculous performance that forces the ownership’s hand and results in a new, big, deserved contract. Jerry comes home from a road trip he didn’t need to make, and then gets credit for returning. He interrupts the divorced women’s support group held at the home Dorothy (Renee Zellweger) shares with her sister to let her know he’d thought of her during this professional success and that “you complete me.” It’s presented as a seismic (and lasting) shift, but I’m not so sure.

  1. Dorothy gave him the line
  2. He had nowhere else to go, and
  3. Jerry never acknowledged, thanked or appeared to learn anything from the people around him.

At best, Jerry is a glib cad with a killer smile, well versed in a caffeinated, bro version of commitment. He’ll kill for you, as he and every one of his competitors claims, but will he listen to you? Even when he has nothing else to do but listen?

At worst, he’s a relational black hole. Late in the movie, when he and Dorothy are struggling to communicate, her son Ray shows up in their bedroom, jumps into bed, and Jerry places Ray between them and pulls the boy toward him. It registers on Dorothy’s face, and in my head, as “drop that kid. He’s not yours.”

Zellweger and Cruise. Did they learn anything?

2. Cuba Gooding and Regina King are prophets. Or Cassandras. Rod Tidwell is a talented football player looking to be compensated fairly for his efforts. The movie keeps making the point that somehow he has an attitude problem. However, we spend a fair amount of time with Rod on the field and around the locker room, and we never see him do anything that could put off his coaches or teammates. He challenges Jerry, but nobody else. It’s as if a black man demanding a modicum of respect is problematic. Marcee and Rod are a couple we’ve seen plenty in the past quarter-century, people of color supporting each other when nobody else will. Jerry’s climactic scene, the one that I think we’re supposed to see as transformative (for Rod), is when he levels with Rod and tells him to stop complaining and perform. But when hasn’t Rod delivered?!? There’s zero evidence in the film for why he shouldn’t deck Jerry for the comment. But he takes it. 

3. The movie punches down on the women’s support group in a pretty awful way. The group is portrayed as a brood of spinster harpies.  Surely they must be ready to poison the water for Dorothy and Jerry at the first opportunity. But quite the contrary — the women never say a bad thing about Jerry, despite the fact that any observant human beings (including the movie audience) are aware he is not living up to his end of his professed commitment. They would be completely justified to murder him behind his back — and to his face. But they never do. Instead, they’re wholly supportive of Dorothy. Also, why in the world are they present in the final scene? They are framed in the scene as if a jury, there to adjudicate the romantic life of Dolores and Jerry. But they know their place, and they stay the heck out of what they probably see as another drama king move by Jerry. They say nothing, they don’t clap, they don’t boo, they just look awkward — until Jerry moves along and  they can get back to their true business of supporting own another. And the woman who speaks up next is right! It is the best women’s support group they’ve ever been a part of.  

4. The gravity of a child. One thing the movie gets right is that a child can birth a family. Ray certainly does in this movie, providing the relational gravity to keep everything together until the adults can create a sustainable ecosystem. This isn’t just a movie thing. I’ve seen it in real life. That said, again, Jerry is pretty creepy in the way he leans into Ray’s affections. Jerry doesn’t seem to get that Ray loves EVERYBODY. The kid makes friends in the baggage claim at the airport, for Christ’s sake. But Jerry, who mistakes attention for affection, immediately takes a shine to him. And like I said about that scene late in the movie, there is certainly a threatening sense that Jerry might try to win Ray over from his mom if push comes to shove.

5. The precarious perch of professional athletes. The movie comes along after North Dallas Forty and Brian’s Song and other films, but one thing the movie adds to the discussion of the vulnerability of pro athletes is that it’s very clear-headed that the point of doing this is more about generational wealth (the life-changing contract) and less about love of the game. That Rod’s hold-your-breath moment is a head injury, given all we’ve learned in the past decade about concussions and CTE, was prescient, as was the hockey-player’s son who gives Jerry the bird for not looking our for his dad. 

6. One question I’m left with is, if the movie didn’t end where it did, how would things be two months later? Did Rod’s loyalty win Jerry new clients? Is he now flying hither and yon because business is booming? Is Ray asking why he hasn’t seen Jerry in three weeks? Has Bonnie Hunt hired somebody to break Jerry’s legs, or worse?

Maybe I’m too cynical or pessimistic. Maybe Jerry has learned his lesson, THE lesson, and has made his young wife a true partner in their life together. But I’m not sure.

What I am sure is that Dorothy is right when she tells Jerry “you had me at hello.” The movie plays that as a good thing. And it’s right — for Jerry. For everyone else, we could use a sequel, or maybe just a YouTube short.

And another movie … ‘Don’t Look Up’

We continued our movie-watching last night and caught Don’t Look Up, directed by Adam McKay. It is ostensibly about what happens when two scientists (Leo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence) discover a comet heading straight at earth. The movie starts out playing it for laughs, then downshifts into an increasingly frustrated, incredulous satire and pretty dispiriting critique of media, politics and humanity. Which isn’t hard these days, right? (After this and Power of the Dog in the past few days, I’m ready for a hah-hah or romantic comedy. Do these get made anymore?)

That said, neither take seems exactly right for this movie. It is high-strung throughout, and its first hour IS funny, but it’s really working hard for the laughs, and the focus on the media world obscures the film’s ability to hone in on  our common failure to address climate change, which I think is what the movie is really about. The media/political critique calls out all the pertinent bugaboos: our inability to agree on a common set of facts, the politicization of and profiting from everything, our inexhaustible talent for putting off any worthy thing. Eventually, there comes a time in Don’t Look Up when the piper plays and bills must be paid, relationships repaired, etc. But by then, it’s pretty late. I’ll say this: at least the film has the courage of its (lack of) convictions.

A few other things:

  • It has an amazing cast — DiCaprio, Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Mark Rylance, Timothee Chalamet, Jonah Hill, Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett, even Ariana Grande shows up … and a lot of ridiculous hair.  
  • Between this movie and Apple’s Morning Show, I have never missed not watching morning TV any less. Is The Daily Rip supposed to be Morning Joe, or is it a mashup of all morning TV? If the former, how good was Blanchett’s Mika Brezwhatshername imitation? Can someone compare it to Kate McKinnon’s SNL version? (And kudos to Blanchett, who is a real chameleon. Took me an hour to realize that was her. And I knew she was in the movie.)
  • McKay directed Vice and The Big Short, so he knows how to make these movies. No doubt BS is the best of the bunch. He really nailed the tone in that one (as M.G. Siegler points out here). Not so much Don’t Look Up, which I think could have used one of those Xanax’s Lawrence keeps stealing from DiCaprio.
  • Too, too long. Easily could have lost half of the movie’s second half.

‘Dog’ Days of Winter

Virginia and I kicked off our quarantine (a nephew we saw over the Christmas weekend tested positive Sunday for covid, so we’re sitting and waiting to see what arises, like so many others) by watching an actual movie, The Power of the Dog, on Netflix. It’s set in mid-1920s Montana, where two brothers (Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons) share a prosperous ranch.

Shortest version of the plot is, on a cattle drive, George Burbank (Plemons) meets a woman, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and falls for her, provoking the ire of brother Phil (Cumberbatch), for reasons (choose any) familial, nostalgic, economic, erotic … it’s complicated. Or it isn’t. And something needs to give. Until it doesn’t. It’s a good watch.

Cumberbatch is getting a lot of buzz as the year ends, and he is good here, but I thought Kodi Smit-McPhee, as Dunst’s son Peter, is even better. It’s a fun game trying to figure out what Peter’s up to. And director Jane Campion churns out a beautifully filmed, patient, and palpably menacing movie that saves a nice little twist for the end — one subtle and ambiguous enough that it gives you something to chew on and discuss afterward.

(To that end, the movie’s title comes from Psalm 22, ostensibly spoken by King David. Worth a read after seeing the movie, if not before.)

One last thing on the ending: It brought to mind Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, I guess because they are both western as a genre and a lot goes unsaid as both close. That said, BM goes all in on all the violence that Dog only threatens, and has one of the greatest ambiguous endings ever in American literature. It’s also proven impervious to attempts to film it.

The Greatest Albums of All-Time, 2021 Edition

Our local public radio station, WXPN, is a treasure, and their reader poll to determine the greatest albums of all time was a lot of fun. In the end, it became a bit of a Classic Rock Fest and a little hard to listen to, as the Top 10 albums were played in their entirety. Until then, though, it was just about perfect as the first 1,900 or so albums were one-song-and-done, which gave the whole thing a rollicking speed and serendipity. For this Gen X’er who appreciates Classic Rock but cut my teeth on the music of the ’80s and ’90s before taking a twangy turn in later years, it was a lot of fun.

Take this run from a recent morning (you have to read bottom-to-top to get the sequencing):

#220 – SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR by TEARS FOR FEARS

#221 – VAMPIRE WEEKEND by VAMPIRE WEEKEND

#222 – KATY LIED by STEELY DAN

#223 – LADIES OF THE CANYON by JONI MITCHELL

#224 – ILLMATIC by NAS

#225 – KICK by INXS

#226 – MORRISON HOTEL by THE DOORS

#227 – EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY by ROD STEWART

#228 – VAN HALEN by VAN HALEN

#229 – LIEGE & LIEF by FAIRPORT CONVENTION

#230 – FEAR OF MUSIC by TALKING HEADS

#231 – PETER GABRIEL by PETER GABRIEL

#232 – TALKING BOOK by STEVIE WONDER

#233 – BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME by BOB DYLAN

#234 – MIDNIGHT MARAUDERS by A TRIBE CALLED QUEST

#235 – BLOND by FRANK OCEAN

#236 – INDIGO GIRLS by INDIGO GIRLS

#237 – TURNSTILES by BILLY JOEL

#238 – BEFORE THESE CROWDED STREETS by DAVE MATTHEWS BAND

#239 – DESIRE by BOB DYLAN

#240 – TIME (THE REVELATOR) by GILLIAN WELCH

#241 – SURREALISTIC PILLOW by JEFFERSON AIRPLANE

#242 – MEDDLE by PINK FLOYD

#243 – THE CRANE WIFE by THE DECEMBERISTS

#244 – BOXER by THE NATIONAL

#245 – COME AWAY WITH ME by NORAH JONES

#246 – GOLDEN HOUR by KACEY MUSGRAVES

Twenty-seven songs, over 2-plus hours, that had you singing along, enjoying memories, and marveling at the different ways to make music.

The top of the survey is a bit of a Classic Rockfest — the Beatles will be at #1, Bruce will be #2 or #3 with Born to Run, and the Stones will fill the other spot (editor’s note: I wrote this before the countdown ended and was mostly correct, but it was Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon, not the Stones, at #2), but it’s still been a great week to listen and enjoy our public radio station, even with the fan’s frustrations. (Isbell’s top-ranked album, Southeastern, checked in at #128, between the Pixies’ Doolittle and Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy. I’m OK with that, but kinda pissed that John Hyatt’s Bring the Family ended up at #431. A travesty!)

And just because all this talk has got me thinking, here are the favorite albums of my adult life, in no particular order:

Bring the Family, John Hyatt

Living with Ghosts, Patty Griffin

Making Movies, Dire Straits

The Rising, Bruce Springsteen

I and Love and You, The Avett Brothers

Southeastern, Jason Isbell

American Band, Drive-By Truckers

Indigo Girls, Indigo Girls

Nevermind, Nirvana

Traveller, Chris Stapleton

Ten, Pearl Jam

Come Away with Me, Norah Jones

Some ‘Mountain-Climbing’ Advice from Writer George Saunders

Listened to George Saunders’ first collection of short stories, Civilwarland in Bad Decline, this summer and all the things I enjoy about Saunders’ writing were there. But the real treat was his writer’s note at the end, where he shared his experience as a not-so-young writer who pursued writing as he pursued a middle class existence with his wife and two precious daughters.

One of the things he writes about is how, as he matured as a person and a writer, he stopped trying to be the writers he revered and started to do the things that were unequivocally and uniquely him—the dark humor, the glints of meanness, the unrelenting pacing. Being himself made writing less burdensome, and the more he enjoyed writing, the more others enjoyed it, too. Lessons for everything we do, especially the creative stuff.

One way he described this was that initially he thought the task was to summit the mountains that were his idols—Mount Hemingway, Mount Didion, et al. But he realized he needed to reverse course, climb back down and stake out his own plot of land, knowing it would be meager but also that it would be his. And then to keep working it and working it. Saunders might not be Mount Hemingway, but he warrants a scenic overlook or two.

If you’re looking for some good places to start with Saunders, the above is a good start, as it is the start. Also you could try:

A First Novel About Love, Loss and Redemption

Can a couple’s marriage survive a life-changing loss when one of them is responsible for the tragedy?

That’s the question off the back cover of Peter Friedrichs’ first novel, And The Stars Kept Watch. Friedrichs, a former lawyer and longtime minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County, delivers a deeply empathetic story about Nathan and Catherine, a young couple with a growing family and idyllic life — until one of them makes a choice with terrible consequences. It’s a rough opening that had me wondering if I wanted to see the story through. I’m glad I did. The book — a meditation, of sorts, on the limits and possibilities of resilience, forgiveness and hope — rewarded me for sticking with it.

One of the strengths of the book is its patience. The story doesn’t lack for twists and turns, but it doesn’t rush, it hews to reality, and it saves some of its best moments till the end.

Peter and a friend, a therapist whose namesake is a therapist in the book, engaged in a short discussion of the book and its themes earlier this evening at Swarthmore College (the two did something similar online recently). We spent part of our time considering the nature of hope:

  • Where does it come from?
  • Are we born with it or do we generate it over our lifetimes?
  • Do some families, either naturally or intentionally, instill hope as a foundational orientation in their members?
  • Can you hope to hope even if your family is not so hopeful?

My answers are pretty hopeful, but I grew up in a family that, I think, overindexes for hope formation, so hopefulness is rarely a heavy lift for me.

The discussion also turned to how, as COVID continues to impact and disconnect our lives as we head into a third calendar year, all couples are grieving couples, in some ways. One of the joys of relationship is the parting and coming together, bringing back what we’ve seen and learned. In a world where nobody goes much anywhere, stagnation (and a bit of interpersonal chafing) is built into the equation. And it can get much worse than that. My favorite songwriter, Jason Isbell, has a song, Flagship, where he sings:

And there’s a couple in the corner of the bar
Who traveled light and clearly traveled far
And she’s got nothing left to learn about his heart
And they’re sitting there a thousand miles apart

Sounds like a common trap in month 20 of covid times.

Anyway, I heartily recommend the book if you’re looking for a serious but nourishing gift for the right friend or family member this holiday season — someone willing to read about tragedy, and what comes after.

Peter’s a friend, but I’d feel the same way about the book if I only met him tonight. And I look forward to whatever he writes next. He brings his intelligence and humanity to everything he does. You can find out more about his writing here.

Down-and-Outers, Global Edition

There’s a lot going on in the world and it has me wanting to get back to writing for other people.

So let’s start with the thing I didn’t expect to resonate with me this week: Nanci Griffith.

Griffith, a Texas singer-songwriter who enjoyed her greatest success in the late ‘80s/early ’90s, passed away Friday at age 68. I haven’t listened much lately, but she was an absolute staple as my tastes grew twangier in the years after leaving school. (She and John Hiatt were staples on the Portland, Maine radio station I listened to while working up there.) She has this high, delicate voice and is a very powerful poet — think Tift Merritt, crossed with a Texas bar room. Her albums, especially Late Night Grande Hotel and Other Voices, Other Rooms (which was all covers delivered through her musical prism) opened up a whole world of music to me.

On Late Night Grande Hotel is a song, The Down-and-Outer, about a person who just can’t cross over to the American Dream. The second verse gets right to it:

I won’t hurt your family

I don’t want a house there on your street

And I know you think that I’m

As lazy as a hobo’s sigh

Now, you call me down ’n’ outer

If there’s a way out

I’ve not found ‘er

I only want to earn my piece of America

As lazy as a hobo’s sigh …

Like I said, the lady could write a line. And she gets at the essential truth. Nobody chooses to be down ’n’ out. Nobody chooses to be born in Port au Prince or Kabul or Shreveport … all people want is to be known and valued.

Anyway, I’ve been listening to Nanci Griffith this weekend when it seems like every down-and-out country (Haiti, Afghanistan) is buckling under bad fortune or worse intentions, mixed with a hefty dose of incompetence or inattention. Or all of the above. And there’s plenty going on here in America, with our own Down-and-Outers. It’s enough to make my eyes roll back in my head and my brain to beg, look away. Yet I keep remembering my experience in Haiti, which tells me, These are real people, with real lives. They laugh, they cry, they dream, they despair, they die, they hustle, they rest, they grieve, they remember. They persevere. And I wonder what can I do to honor and help these very real people from this position of privilege? (I ended up donating to the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which has connections to groups on the ground in the country.)

No larger answers this weekend, but I’m thinking about what is not earned but owed to these people, and feeling sad that this world’s answer is awfully little. And about another song from Late Night, San Diego Serenade (written by Tom Waits), and the line that closes it’s chorus:

I never heard the melody till I needed the song

Desperately needing that melody about now.

If you want to dive into Nancy Griffith, Late Night Grande Hotel is a good start.

==

Some things to consider …

If you haven’t read George Packer’s Four America in The Atlantic, I heartily recommend you do. It won’t solve anything, but it allowed me to think about how I map against his four countries (Free, Smart, Real, Just) in one.

My favorite music act these days, Jason Isbell, is insisting that concert-goers provide proof vaccination or get tested before attending his concerts on the current tour. In fact, he canceled a show when the venue wouldn’t meet that test. Here he is explaining his stance. My favorite line:

I’m all for freedoms, but if you’re dead, you don’t have freedoms at all … It’s life and then it’s liberty, and then it’s the pursuit of happiness, those are in order of priority.

Apple has been making some very interesting decisions about how it will keep tabs on your iPhone, regarding child sexual abuse material (CSAM). While it currently concerns this most abhorrent of “content”, the ability to scan one’s phone opens up many possibilities. I recently returned to the iPhone for security, among a short list of reasons (iMessage, Photos, and the weather app Dark Sky were the others), and I’m now wondering if perhaps I overvalued Apple’s approach vs. Android. Also, my Pixel 4a simply worked better. My iPhone 12 is kinda dumb and clunky in comparison. This might be considered heresy, but there it is.

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic, the Closer

I missed a day for the first time in two weeks on this, so I’m going to accept that I’ve got some blockers the rest of this week and close out my commentary on my pandemic anniversary playlist.

Starting Over, Chris Stapleton

Already a favorite. Stapleton starts off with this neo-country, “Tennessee Whiskey” persona and has proven himself to be one helluva songwriter. This song feels fresh and honest and I love that he partners with his partner, Morgane, as the backing singer. As we move closer to the re-start, this is my theme song.

All in It Together, Mavis Staples

Mavis is foundational music and the fact she just keeps doing it, and preaching it, and singing it, is inspiring. I love that she’s collaborated with Jeff Tweedy, it’s good for both of them, and I saw her at Shoalsfest two Octobers back, and it was apparent how much affection there was between her and Jason Isbell. They get it. We all get it. Mavis is a treasure.

Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance, Patterson Hood

The Drive-By Truckers frontman and co-founder brought together Southern rock and blues and punk with this reverence and reckoning of the South in a way that has been potent for two decades now. The Truckers’ 2017 album American Band was The Rising of the Trump era, a howl and a callout for everything going on that allowed it. This song is from a solo album, following his move from Alabama to Oregon, and I enjoy how grounded it is.

Keep On Smilin’, Wet Willie

Hood, Isbell and Mike Cooley do a great cover of this song to close out a reunion concert at the Shoals Theater in Florence, Ala., in 2016, so I went and found it afterward. I probably should have ended the playlist right here, with this chorus …

Keep on smilin’ through the rain, laughin’ at the pain
Rollin with the changes til the sun comes out again
Keep on smilin’ through the rain, laughin’ at the pain
Rollin with the changes, singin’ this refrain

But I didn’t.

Everybody Wants to Rule the World, Tears for Fears

I can’t really explain it. It seemed like a way to end. The huge rolling chorus sounds like an ending. So it is.

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic, #14, Ruby Falls

To be honest, I don’t know if this one gets you through, or if it pulls you down. It’s the remembrance of Katie Crutchfield, who records as Waxahatchee, of a friend who died of a heroin overdose. She calls this “my song for all people who struggle with that kind of thing.” It’s a beautiful song, and aren’t we all struggling with grief and loss this past year? If we’re lucky, it’s a wanting for purpose, the disconnection from those we love, the desire to make new connections, the realizations and the hopelessness. If we’re unlucky, it’s a person we’re missing. This song hits me right there, and deeper—and because it helps me to name this feeling and this time, it’s a blessing.

A friend posted a pandemic-themed playlist today titled To Make Some Sense of What You’ve Seen, we have a sizable shared space in the Venn diagram of our musical interests (though his is far larger) and the only song shared between his list and mine is this one. That seems unlikely and inevitable.

The gutting turn in Ruby Falls for me is when Crutchfield sings:

Real love don’t follow a straight line
It breaks your neck, it builds you a delicate shrine

Earlier this weekend a friend shared her reflections on everything that had happened in the past year—she lost her mom, she became a grandma, she read 60 books and watched Tiger King, turned 60 and headed into a fourth decade of marriage. At the end she said she drew strength from this from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

What lies before us and behind us is nothing compared to what lies within us.

I’m a Unitarian Universalist and Emerson is one of our north stars. And yet, I don’t think Emerson offers us much in this moment. (I’ve felt like this before.) I wrote back:

Not to argue with Emerson, but the most important thing for me is what lies BETWEEN us. It’s also the thing that has been hardest living in distanced times. Life doesn’t stop, just our ability to connect about it. It’s why it’s been worth it to me to take some modest risks to grab lunch with [her husband/my friend]. Hoping that as the days get longer, and the vaccine gets into more people’s arms, that we all start the Great Re-Connecting. I’m looking forward to it beyond words.

Because I don’t think we can survive this alone. We need each other. And I so appreciated my minister Rev. Lee Paczulla’s message this morning that as we begin to move beyond this awful moment, we forget it at our peril. If you have 20 minutes, scroll 17:30 into the recording of the service.

The clear-eyed world we step into next. The aching friendship that Crutchfield writes about in Ruby Falls. The resilience of return. These are why I hope. These are why I persevere. May we turn toward this new life remembering the imprint of these past 12 months. May we once again reconnect with our loved ones and make new friends, who charm us, love us, and break our hearts.

Full lyrics

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic #13, I’d Die for You

Margo Price has the kind of voice and taste that gets you crowned as country music’s next big thing, so it’s a bit of a surprise to see her third album, That’s How Rumors Get Started, is a rock album (with Sturgill Simpson, of all people, as producer). And this is the snarliest song, and one of her best yet.

Here’s what Margo told The Ringer about the song when asked who it was for.

I’m singing it to my husband and my children. There’s just a whirlwind of chaos going on right now, and it feels apocalyptic at times, even before we entered the Upside-Down or whatever this bad episode of Black Mirror is. But it’s like us holding on to each other in a dystopian world that we’re living in. It’s absolutely crazy just to think about what’s changed since I wrote that song, yet everything was all still there with the corruption and the greed and the hate. All of that was still there, but now it just feels like everybody had a chance to pause and digest what was going on.

Full lyrics

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic #12, When I Get to Heaven

John Prine’s passing due to COVID-19 is one of the many tragedies of the past year, but Prine had the last laugh with this song, which as an artist was about as charming an F-you to the pandemic as one could imagine. And yet, at the same time, he talks to love and family and all the things that live on with us and beyond us. Here, he talks about what he’ll do in heaven.

And then I’m gonna go find my mom and dad
And good old brother Doug
Well I bet him and cousin Jackie are still cuttin’ up a rug

I wanna see all my mama’s sisters
’Cause that’s where all the love starts
I miss ’em all like crazy
Bless their little hearts

Prine has his limits. A lot of his songs sound a lot like his other songs and his voice is his voice, especially after throat cancer stole some range. (My wife has never been able to warm to him.) He wrings about all you can out of three chords. But my god, the guy could write a song and tell a story in a couple minutes (Lake Marie, anyone? Hello in There? ). And I’m glad that Brandi Carlile will honor him at Sunday’s Grammys. His last song, I Remember Everything, is about being the one still here and thinking that in real life, it went the other way, really makes you think. Rest in peace, John. Enjoy the cocktail and that cigarette.

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic #11, Tell Me When It’s Over

Back in October, 2019, which seems like a decade ago, Virginia and I went with our friends Majid and Mary to Nashville, then headed south to Florence, Ala., for Shoalsfest, a concert pulled together by Jason Isbell.

Even though it was October, it was 95 degrees and we watched Mavis Staples basically melt in the late afternoon sun. After 45 minutes, she sang herself off stage. As night came, Sheryl Crow took the stage — and she proceeded to remind us that Sheryl Crow is a huge f’ing deal. She blew through a killer set, with somewhere between 6and 10 songs that damn near everyone in the Western Hemisphere can identify immediately.

It’s a long way from 1993, when Virginia and I went to the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., to see John Hiatt, who was supporting Slow Turning, and the opening act was this funky act from California we’d never heard of, until six months later, when we started to recognize these songs on the radio from that night on the Jersey Shore. We’d seen Sheryl Crow before she was Sheryl Crow. She didn’t just blow up after that. For close to a decade, she was HUGE.

Which makes some of her recent decisions so interesting: after some fallow time, to go to Nashville, to do something more rootsy. She did an album, Threads, with lots of folks I like. This song, with Chris Stapleton, is one of my favorites from the album. And after a full year of COVID-19, I am literally ready for someone to tell me that it’s over. That, being this. Enjoy!

The full playlist

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic #10, Morning Song

A lot of folks became aware of The Avett Brothers with their almost-perfect album, I and Love and You in … oh my god, 2009. So many great songs. But here’s the thing. Since then, they have created a bunch of spunky and heartbreaking songs, in equal measure. This is one of the latter, with a performance on New Year’s Eve, from a concert that Virginia and I really enjoyed. If you are looking for another tender, beautiful one, try No Hard Feelings.

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic #9: Red Wing, Blue Wing

I liked this song, but had never heard of Dead Man Winter and never bothered to learn more. When I decided to include it here, I did some checking in. DMW is actually Trampled by Turtles frontman Dave Simonett, who apparently retreated to a little town in Minnesota to recover from a marriage that didn’t last.

“ ‘Red Wing Blue Wing’ is a small, incomplete snapshot of a year spent living in a small town in southern Minnesota,” he says. “It’s kind of a look at the romanticism of small town life versus the reality of inserting oneself into a fairly settled-in community that isn’t really used to outsiders, so to speak. It has a happy ending, though. By the end of my time there, I genuinely felt like a citizen and had grown to enjoy the place.”

That’s it. I can loll around in the closing organ swell indefinitely. Sometimes I will replay it a time or two in the car for no particular reason than to hear it end again. Go ahead, try it.

The lyrics

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic #8: The Chain

It shouldn’t have taken TikTok user Dogg Face to remind everyone that Fleetwood Mac created some of the purest pop-rock ever, and this song is one of their most propulsive. That it got a twangy second life in 2019 from The Highwomen, who have their fingerprints all over this list so far, is a welcome thing, and it’s the 8th song in my playlist Songs to Get Through a Pandemic.

While I like the version recorded for the soundtrack to the movie The Kitchen (no idea if it was good or not), the best take I’ve heard came when the group paid a visit to Howard Stern’s radio show, back when people did such things in person and not via Zoom.

And here’s the studio-recorded version:

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic, #7, Hope the High Road

(Photo: Jason Isbell, Feb. 26, 2016, at Beacon Theater, New York City)

We’re a week in to Songs to Get You Through a Pandemic and I’m going to pull in this rocker from my favorite musical act of the past seven years, Jason Isbell. This song is a go-to, not just for the past year, but since it came out in 2017. And all you really need to know is encapsulated here:

Last year was a son of a bitch
For nearly everyone we know
But I ain’t fighting with you down in the ditch
I’ll meet you up here on the road

So what is the high road?

The short version is this: I am bone tired of political posturing and culture wars. I am exhausted with people looking for a fight. I wish to extend grace and have it extended not just to me, but to everyone. What would that look like? I don’t know, but it starts with people wanting to.

And after this murderous pandemic, all I want is solutions. The previous Administration fundamentally did not believe that government should solve problems. It endlessly politicked; it rarely governed. In a crisis, that cost tens and maybe hundreds of thousands of lives. Its economic and immigration priorities can be debated; its basic unseriousness about governing is simply fact.

Yesterday, the new Folks in Charge reported that a record 2.9 million covid vaccine doses were put in peoples’ arms, 20% more than the previous best day. It continued the hard legislative work of getting help to the most vulnerable people in our country. That’s all I want—vaccines in arms, money in vulnerable people’s pockets. If that process ends up spreading the dollars more generously than is needed, I could care less. Money is often thrown around in ways that avoids those who actually need it. For me, this is the high road—solutions that benefit people who need help, which, in the middle of a pandemic that has stretched on for nearly a year, is a whole hell of a lot of us. I am endlessly thankfully that I am not one of those people now, but I’m not that far from having been unemployed. If we can provide some stability in a hard time, let’s do it. Overdo it, even, for a while.

If you want to contribute to figuring out the solution, I’d love to meet you up here on the high road. If you want to thwart aid for fellow humans, argue for arguments’ sake or engage in a political calculus that frustrating substantive action is to your benefit, I don’t have the time for that.

That’s not to say that there can’t be legitimate disagreement over how to help or that government intervention is always best. We can try to optimize the allocation and find the best approaches. But help is needed, and has been too long delayed.

I want to thank Joe Biden for doing what the moment demands—work to end this pandemic and ignore those unserious actors who live in the funhouse of fake discourse. I remain convinced there are more of us—the solutions-minded—than those who want to prove that the Commons can accomplish nothing. But it’s closer than I would have thought, and there are people who are anxious and uncertain where to turn. The high road is calling.

The lyrics:

I used to think that this was my town
What a stupid thing to think
I hear you’re fighting off a breakdown
I myself am on the brink
I used to want to be a real man
I don’t know what that even means
Now I just want you in my arms again
And we can search each other’s dreams

I know you’re tired
And you ain’t sleeping well
Uninspired
And likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again

I’ve heard enough of the white man’s blues
I’ve sang enough about myself
So if you’re looking for some bad news
You can find it somewhere else
Last year was a son of a bitch
For nearly everyone we know
But I ain’t fighting with you down in the ditch
I’ll meet you up here on the road

I know you’re tired
And you ain’t sleeping well
Uninspired
And likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again
To a world you want to live in

We’ll ride the ship down
Dumping buckets overboard
There can’t be more of them than us
There can’t be more

I know you’re tired
And you ain’t sleeping well
Uninspired
And likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again
To a world you want to live in
To a world you want to live in

The full playlist:

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic #6, You Ain’t the Problem

Michael Kiwanuka is a 33-year-old singer from England, and this song is a simple affirmation in a time when isolation can make feeling like you’re failing or faking it hard to shake.

Here’s what he said to the New York Times in 2019, when asked if the song was a pep talk for those who feel rejected.

It was a little, yeah. I was thinking about being an artist and, specifically, how I used to get really self-conscious at festivals. I would see my favorite artists, or people who I thought were really cool and had these things that I aspired to have, and I’d be like “Man, I don’t know how to do that”; or “My songs are like this, but if only they were like that.” I just got really tired of that negative, beat-yourself-up mentality. I started to think, “Screw this, man: There’s nothing wrong with me. Of course I can work on myself and grow, but enough of this self-deprecating attitude. Let me just enjoy this amazing experience of being an artist, and believe in myself, and keep going.”

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic, #5, Our Problem

Amanda Shires is a Texas-born singer/songwriter/fiddle player extraordinaire and powerhouse collaborator. Her husband is Americana powerhouse Jason Isbell, who credits her with saving his life (see his song Cover Me Up), and one of her musical lives is as a member of Isbell’s band, the 400 Unit.

But that is selling her very, very short. She has a rich career on her own, with a series of well-received albums. Even more, she was the organizing force behind the alt-country, all-female supergroup The Highwomen (including Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby), mentioned in my Day 2 post. And she has put her values (and herself) out front on several projects, including this song, which gives voice to a woman considering an abortion and the compassion she finds in her friends. It’s apparently drawn from her own experience and cuts to the humanity and heartbreak in the situation. It doesn’t lift me up, but it does ground me, as I am aware that all these everyday struggles that appeared to have been disrupted by the pandemic—oh shit, surprise!—were merely harder to see. Back and as bad as ever.

True to her A-plus networking chops, she’s joined on the song by Cyndi Lauper, Angie Stone, Linda Perry, Nona Hendryx and Peaches, as well as indie hip-hop artist K. Flay and Tennessee-based artists Lilly Hiatt, Morgane Stapleton and Valerie June. Isbell plays guitar on this version of the song, with Sheryl Crow helping out on bass.

If you want to check out Shires on her own, give a listen to When You Need a Train It Never Comes, Eve’s Daughter, Ghost Bird, and My Love (The Storm).

Oh, and it’s her birthday.

The lyrics:

Remember Katie White, she jumped the fence that night
She ran away in tears, your sister drank her beer
We were just eighteen, the older girls could be so mean
I was talking just to talk, you were still in shock

And all I could think to say
Is everything’s gonna be okay
It’s gonna be alright
I’m on your side
I’m on your side

Are you feeling well?
Are you gonna tell?
How long have you known?
Did you tell him? Does he know?
You knew there was something wrong
Just a few weeks along
You told him, and he broke it off
And the money won’t cover the cost

And all I could think to say
Is everything’s gonna be okay
It’s gonna be alright
I’m on your side
I’m on your side

No one has to know
The scars won’t even show
At least that’s what I’ve heard
No bigger than a baby bird (no bigger than a baby bird)
No bigger than a baby bird (no bigger than a baby bird)

Do you think God still sees me?
Coming out of this twilight sleep
I’m not sure who I am
Staring into my empty hands

And all I could think to say
Is everything’s gonna be okay
It’s gonna be alright
I’m on your side
I’m on your side

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic, #4, The Wayfarer

I know not everyone is all that excited by Bruce’s late career arc, but I love it. There’s a grace he has brought to his later music; I thought Western Skies was brilliant, a new chapter in his American songbook and this song is sly, wise and fun. Not new themes, necessarily, but a mature take on the things that have always preoccupied him. My brother makes a face when I say this, and a friend calls it his “Glen Campbell album.” To which I say, I like (a little) Glen Campbell, and I like people trying new things. I got a kick out of Barry Gibbs’ neo-country re-take on his Bee Gees’ standards, Greenfields, released last year. I’d encourage Bruce to do more of that and less rehashing old songs with the E Street Band. Letter to You isn’t bad, and I’d LOVE to hear him play Ghosts and some of those songs to a jacked-up stadium. It’s just that, as a studio album, I’ve heard him do that before, better.

It’s the same sad story, love and glory goin’ ‘round and ‘round

It’s the same old cliché, a wanderer on his way, slippin’ from town to town

Some find peace here on the sweet streets, the sweet streets of home

Where kindness falls and your heart calls for a permanent place of your own

I’m a wayfarer, baby, I drift from town to town

When everyone’s asleep and the midnight bells sound

My wheels are hissin’ up the highway, spinning ‘round and ‘round

You start out slow in a sweet little bungalow, something two can call home

Then rain comes fallin’, the blues come calling, and you’re left with a heart of stone

Some folks are inspired sitting by the fire, slippers tucked under the bed

But when I go to sleep I can’t count sheep for the white lines in my head

I’m a wayfarer, baby, I roam from town to town

When everyone’s asleep and the midnight bells sound

My wheels are hissin’ up the highway, spinning ‘round and ‘round

Where are you now, where are you now?

Where are you now?

I’m a wayfarer, baby, I roam from town to town

When everyone’s asleep and the midnight bells sound

My wheels are hissin’ up the highway, spinning ‘round and ‘round

I’m a wayfarer, baby

I’m a wayfarer, baby

I’m a wayfarer, baby (Wayfarer, baby)

I’m a wayfarer, baby (Wayfarer, baby)

I’m a wayfarer, baby (Wayfarer, baby)

I’m a wayfarer, baby (Wayfarer, baby)

I’m a wayfarer, baby (Wayfarer, baby)

I’m a wayfarer, baby (Wayfarer, baby)

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic, #3, Texas Sun

This is a road song in a world without road trips, where our collective experience is reflected in words like homebound, locked down and socially distanced. I’ve been on exactly two road trips (definition: a multiday jaunt at least 3 hours away from home by car) in the past year, one last spring to pick up my son when he hiked off the Appalachian Trail near Roanoke, Va., and the other to Maine for a September vacation. I drove fewer than 10,000 miles in 2020, the fewest since I was in college, probably. When I bought a used car in November 2019, one consideration was that it would be fun to drive on the highway. Haha. Nice thought. It has done a great job of sitting in a garage. Even worse, when out of the garage, I think I’ve regressed as a driver. I am a mess in parking lots — skittish and bad at estimating distance behind and around me. I don’t hit anyone. It’s the opposite. I don’t come near anyone if I can help it.

I do wonder if one consequence of this pandemic year is a lessening of the impact of cars in general — culturally, transportationally, environmentally. That’s great news for the planet and I do appreciate that young people are generally much cooler on cars than their parents and grandparents, and the pandemic took many people off the road. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report for the first half of 2020 showed a 17% decrease in miles driven. While numbers increased in the second half of the year, it looks like there was at least a 10% decrease for the year in total. One sad non-consequence: less driving equals fewer accidents, you’d hope, but accidents per driving mile increased about 18% for the year. Apparently, there was more impaired driving, more speeding and less use of seat belts, resulting in more-serious accidents.

That said, I miss traveling, I miss the road. More than flying, I want to go on a serious road trip when that becomes a thing again.

Oh yeah, the song …

Texas musicians Khruangbin & neo-soul singer Leon Bridges really got the vibe on this one. I could listen to Bridges sing all day. I first heard him about 7 years back when he had a song Better Man on his debut album. At Men’s Health, we had a book called The Better Man Project that came out about the same time, and there was some talk about seeing if we could somehow do something to bring together the two. Sadly, didn’t happen. Bridges hasn’t recorded as much as I’d like and I’m hopeful he’ll release something soon. For now, this suffices.

This is what Bridges had to say about the song:

“I feel like this song is the perfect marriage of country, soul, and R&B. And historically, artists have incorporated elements of country music — like Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and Joe Tex — so it was important to keep the spirit of that. This song really captures the mood of cruising Texas highways and taking it all in while the sun sets.”