The Hearsay blog » Review of the Year 2012

| Back to Blog Written on 01-Jan-2013 by neil_p

Funny old year, 2012; a mandala of changes, endings and beginnings. I know that's essentially just life, but isn't it convenient to map ups and downs and ring-fence them by the calendar? While everyone else was distracted by the Olympics, I said goodbye to a beloved 21-year-old cat. Several weeks later, I said hello to a beloved baby daughter. The exigencies of an ever-expanding full-time job, coupled with a fundamental shift in technology (people just don't access websites outside of the Facebook perimeters any more, but more on that later), I have let both sites I sometimes look after, this one and the superior RandomCatProject, languish in obscurity. The only update to the Hearsay site at present is this annual list of random stuff. I hadn't even noticed that our contact email address was hopelessly out of date, so if anyone in the last year or three has written to hello [@], I'm afraid it got forwarded to an obsolete address until about January 2013. Should be fixed now tho. Drop me a line and find out!

This year, instead of trotting out a list of favourite things, I've picked a couple of cultural exemplars and a theme to explore.

The electro-magnetism of Ane Brun

It's hard to feel anything other than a deep flush of pride when an artist you've always sort of liked suddenly pours accelerant on their talent. I've followed Norway's Ane Brun for a few years and found much to enjoy on her earlier records, but it took me a while to pick up her latest, It All Starts With One (actually from 2011). It hadn't felt an essential purchase on release, just something to add to an ever-increasing wish-list of new-albums-by-people-I-already-have-a-lot-of-albums-by, but I still booked to see her tour in April, on a whim, and having never caught her live before. Once the tickets were pinned to my fridge, I made a mental note to pick up the album sooner. This became more pressing when I suddenly noticed a succession of five-star reviews clustering around my Facebook news feed (sigh), so I especially sought out the double-disc version with outtakes and covers. Within seconds of putting it on, I knew it was great, as the heart-fluttering percussion of These Days tumbled out of the speakers. Having now lived with it for a year now, I can safely say I haven't heard a record that has become so entrenched in the brain, so webbed to the nervous system for many years, perhaps because I don't buy very many new albums any more, but perhaps that's because there aren't very many new albums that sound like this. It is magnificent. It conjures a world entire, dark yet brimming with heart, with magnetic and propulsive forces at its core. Immaculately arranged throughout, it has lots of the hallmarks of the beautiful music that has been transmitted from Scandinavia in the last couple of decades - it's profound and entire like an element; intricate and complex like a compound.

The Dark Knight Risible

Given that The Dark Knight (2008) is as perfect a Batman film as I had ever thought I would see (I speak as a Batman fan since the age of 4), I was braced for the inevitable conclusion to Nolan's Bat-trilogy to be disappointing. I was expecting Bane to be a faintly ludicrous, unthreatening nemesis, for the portrayal of Catwoman to be psychologically threadbare, incongruous yet over-familiar. I was prepared for bloated set-pieces and cod mythology, far removed from the murky psychodrama and battle of wills of its predecessor. I got all these things I was dreading, but at least I was prepared for them. What I could never have been prepared for, however, was quite how utterly stupid and unnecessary The Dark Knight Rises was. I spent two years avoiding potential spoilers online, only to find the film itself has spoiled the rest of the series. 

I'm not sure TDKR contains a single moment to rival any of the sporadic, throwaway chills of The Dark Knight (when the corpse of a vigilante hits the office window, or when the Joker card surfaces casually among the judge's notes, to name two of many). Does TDKR have a single exciting moment beyond the physics-defying opening scene? The demolition of an entire sports field looked breathtaking in the trailer but in the midst of the film's narrative it barely registers, because there is nothing plausible and nothing human at stake. Every set piece stalls, its drama simultaneously flat footed and gauche like online fanfic. In TDK, by contrast, the increasingly muddy morals heighten events like Jacobean tragedy (apologies: I realise the trope of likening grim blockbuster films to Jacobean drama is now as cliched as likening alt-country to Raymond Carver was in the 90s). It too has its plot holes and continuity problems, but they don't matter as much because the film's heavily enunciated theme is the fluidity of good and evil, the inadequacy of moral codes (my favourite moment is still the interrogation scheme, where the Joker cackles: 'You have nothing to threaten me with', a chilling phrase it's all too easy to recall when observing the new-monied super-rich harpies of west London, screaming at a hapless shop assistant over a supposedly faulty product). The Dark Knight Rises has none of its predecessor's guts. On leaving the cinema, my wife commented: 'What a pity the two big secrets kept at the end of the last one had to be revealed so clumsily.' What a pity they had to be revealed at all. And I can't help thinking how deftly a writer like Steven Moffatt (or even Joss Whedon) would have handled the resolutions of the final twenty minutes, which, in the Nolans' hands, were an echo-chamber of clunking. And what about the much-vaunted increased use of IMAX? In TDK, every time the screen switched to full height, the fight-or-flight narrative and cinematography scaled up to match. In TDKR, the switches are arbitrary and distracting, like someone fiddling with the aspect button on their TV remote control. It's a mystery that it had a relatively easy ride from critics and fanboys, even (especially?) from the vocal minority who despised The Dark Knight. Perhaps the average cynical critic more effortlessly enjoyed the fact it was closer to standard superhero fare. But I don't want clunky, goofy dialogue, ludicrous plot holes, characters whose motivation is as arbitrary as the plot mechanics dictate, implausible flying machines, and scenes of skyscrapers being hit by missiles. That's what Marvel Studios is for. The Dark Knight Rises is so tonally inept, confused and half-hearted in parts when it should be confident, while strident and self-important in moments when it should be nuanced, that it's impossible to make any serious artistic claims for it. This only matters because it makes it everything its predecessor, by a largely identical creative team, managed to transcend. The genius and courage of The Dark Knight now looks like a happy accident, but I could sit down and watch it again right now. I don't think I ever want to see The Dark Knight Rises again.

But don't just take my word for it. Read/watch these hilarious and/or painfully accurate summaries from How it Should Have Ended, UltraCulture,, and, my favourite, Cracked

In the end there was The Word, and The Word was really good

After Hearsay ended in 2000, Ewen and I had a brief surge of enthusiasm to try to do something similar with a broader remit, and to interview writers and artists alongside musicians. We wanted to take the one aspect of Hearsay we'd especially enjoyed - the sense of it being a forum of like-minded people, offering fragments of wisdom and conjecture, to give a sense of a conversation on the page that would bear re-visiting outside the narrow time-scale of someone talking about their latest work. This never took off, but a couple of years later, Mark Ellen and David Hepworth launched Word magazine, which was roughly similar but infinitely better. Just as I had lost all interest in reading about music, this was a way back in: some writing about music by writing around music, and filling in the blanks with the musings of satirists and skeptics. It wasn't always successful (it lost its way for quite a while after a change in name and format a few years ago), but month after month it told me about things I didn't know i was interested in. And then, suddenly, in July 2012, it was all over. The magazine ended with indecent haste (I wonder what the full story is there?), with a blanket announcement on Twitter and much sadness expressed through that same, flighty, frivolous channel. Only a few weeks before, I had been going through back issues to make space, tearing out exceptional articles and recycling the rest. There were so many things to tear out, I half wondered why I was even bothering to edit them down. Now I wish I had kept a complete run. But what was especially disappointing was the manner of its demise - an overnight pulling of the plug, a scrambling to honour existing subscriptions by switching (god help us) to The Week magazine. (To paraphrase Will Self on Stephen Fry, The Week is a stupid person's idea of what a smart magazine should be.) There was no attempt to wind down, to celebrate its unique coverage of the last few years, just an advert for a subscription offer changed to add the strapline 'Now tragically cancelled!' across the details. It was hard not to feel cheated by what resembled a casual dismissal of the readership in the face of the economic forces we'd helped resist for so long. 

But what really irks me about its demise is how, in the current age of proliferation of choice, it is more and more difficult for niche material to thrive when it should be the opposite. One of the last vestiges of the BBC's amazing GLR radio station of the 90s, Danny Baker's afternoon BBC London show, was also axed last year, despite being the only remaining distinctive show across its wretched, cabbie-chasing schedules. There is lots of choice out there if you don't mind fragments, with a Facebook/Twitter wrapper. I feel immeasurably enriched to be a click away from incredible writing by, say, Bryan Appleyard, Tim Parks, Andrew O'Hagan, Steven Poole and Charlie Lyne, but more choice seems to mean less content - the curated, catholic, thoughtful selection process seems redundant now, more so than ever in 20th-century media such as print and radio, and that is a terrible shame. (I realise, btw, that all those examples above are male, but I am struggling to find links to the pieces by Helen Lewis and Kate Mossman I wanted to highlight. Will add them in as and when.)

Some other cultural highlights

David Lowery's counter-blast against the 'content wants to be free' nonsense

TV: Wonderland (especially Walking with Dogs, and A Dad is Born); all the Shakespeare stuff

Film: I loved Damsels in Distress and hated Moonrise Kingdom, but for everyone else it was the other way round.

Books: Dial 'M' for Murdoch by Tom Watson & Martin Hickman - I cannot get enough of this story for so many reasons. And I continue to love Rupert Everett's memoirs.

Live: Ane Brun (Shepherd's Bush Empire, April 2012); Amanda Applewood (supporting Emmy the Great, QEH, March); Rosanne Cash & John Leventhal (Union Chapel, March); Scritti Politti (Bush Hall, April); Elvis Costello's Spinning Songbook (Royal Albert Hall, May)

Exhibitions: Bronze (Royal Academy); Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist (Queen's Gallery)

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