This isn’t the music post I’d planned on writing today. I was going to tell you all about the time a certain British guitar legend from the 60s shouted at me and a friend (yes, at us – specifically at us) across a packed hall in Greenwich Village eleven years ago. I was all set to tell you about that. But that’ll have to wait. Another time.You see, I’ve been sidelined by a contemporary album. This almost never happens. But on Friday I bought Grace/Wastelands, the new solo album from Pete Doherty. I popped it into the CD player when I got home, strapped headphones onto my unsuspecting head, and within seconds I knew I was done for.I’d always had an appreciation for Pete Doherty. Despite all his personal problems and addictions, the few tracks I’d heard from The Libertines and, later, from Babyshambles, I’d liked. I found his writing to be sharp, engaging. But I still wasn’t prepared for this. Grace/Wastelands is a masterful album from start to finish. Thoughtful, evocative, musically textured and, above all, beautifully written and sung.It’s been about 55 hours since I first put the CD into the player, and virtually every waking hour has been spent listening to it. Even when I was physically elsewhere – with friends or family – I had it going through my head. I was pretty much useless as a friend or son for the last couple of days. I was mentally trying to redirect every conversation toward contemporary music. I wanted to talk about this record, but without getting sidetracked by a discussion about Tabloid Doherty.I wanted to express to people just exactly why their lives were incomplete if they hadn’t experienced the sweeping organ in the final minute of “Lady, Don’t Fall Backwards,” or the way the vocal melody of that song floats down and then up and then down again. I wanted them to experience the opening acoustic strum on “Arcady”, the lovely, lilting harmonies that belie the sadness of “Sheepskin Tearaway” and to hear the catch in his voice when he sings the word “scars” near the end of the song. They needed to hear the ragtime piano on “The Sweet By and By”. They needed to both hear and feel the rhythmic pulse of “Last of the English Roses” and the way one is left hanging before hearing the final consonant in the phrase “…her Winstons from her Enochs.” And, especially, the evocative “Salome” – perhaps the finest song on the album – with great guitar-playing by Doherty and Graham Coxon from Blur who share guitar duties on almost every song on the album. This is an album full of melancholy – sometimes wistful, sometimes painful. Always gently poetic.This level of musical obsession happened frequently when I was younger. In school and in early university I would breathe Beatles and Rolling Stones albums. Then a bit later I would inhale albums by The Kinks and Bob Dylan. In the years that followed, the occasional album would turn into an obsession – but it, too, was generally something from an earlier era. Rarely something contemporary. In the past decade, I can clearly recall the few cases of me obsessing over something current: In The Belly of the Whale by Canadian songwriter Danny Michel, Blur’s 13, Michael Penn’s Resigned and, especially, each successive release from The Walkmen who hit a new peak last fall with their stunning You and Me (about which – more [much more] in a future post). So it’s a pretty limited list. There’s nothing fleeting here. Every one of these albums is part of me, even after the initial obsession subsides. And I can add Pete Doherty’s Grace/Wastelands to the list.
Hamilton Leithauser is the lead singer for the rock band The Walkmen. They released their fourth record You & Me this fall. He lives in Manhattan.A few books that I really enjoyed this year were:Roger’s Version by John Updike. The novel follows a weathered, sour divinity professor (Roger) who surprises even himself with some over-compensating good will toward two youngsters who energetically barge in on his life. He gets in pretty deep, and even stomachs an affair between the young squirt (Dale) and his own wife. Roger’s monotonous social life (cocktail parties, fantasizing about neighbors’ happiness) is funny the whole time. This was a fantastic book.The Transparent Man by Anthony Hecht. It’s so hard to write about why I like these poems. It’s just incredible how much he can cover in so little space, and how effortless it all seems when everything has such a formal structure. I would also recommend his Flight Among the Tombs and The Venetian Vespers.American Pastoral by Philip Roth. I was surprised at how much I didn’t like Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, but I figured I should give him another shot so I picked up American Pastoral and enjoyed it. The main action centers around a guy named Swede – a high school sports superhero who eventually married Miss New Jersey and ran a very successful glove manufacturing business in Newark. The first half of the book paints them as an entirely boring family, but after Swede’s daughter sets off a bomb in a nearby convenience store things take a nasty turn for the family. The narrator then dissects the family’s history to uncover what may not have been such a boring story.The Comedians by Graham Greene. Three men meet aboard a ship to Haiti. They’re all traveling for different reasons and you definitely begin to wonder immediately who’s telling the truth about anything. After they arrive, they’re all assaulted by Papa Doc’s corrupt and violent regime, and each man’s character and intentions reveal themselves. This was one hell of a story. I loved it.More from A Year in Reading 2008