My Favorite Books as Taylor Swift’s New Album

Recently Taylor Swift’s new album Midnights snagged all top ten spots on the US Billboard charts, a major and unprecedented coup. On a more personal note, I’ve had at least one of the songs from the album stuck in my head on and off since I first listened to the album — and you probably have too, if you’ve listened to it. So I decided to make lemonade from lemons and tell you how my English major brain has associated songs from Midnights with different books. All the books (and very soon the album) are available for checkout from our library, so you can double-check my findings for yourself.

“So real, I’m damned if I do give a damn what people say / No deal, the 1950s shit they want for me / I just wanna stay in that lavender haze”

When I listen to Lavender Haze I hear love that pushes against expectations and conventions for what a relationship should look like, and therefore think immediately of The Love Study by Kris Ripper, which is only the first of a trilogy all about relationships outside of conventional norms, and about customizing your relationship to what works for you.

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“The burgundy on my t-shirt when you splashed your wine onto me / And how the blood rushed into my cheeks, so scarlet, it was / The mark you saw on my collarbone, the rust that grew between telephones / The lips I used to call home, so scarlet, it was maroon”

Maroon to me is about a vivid, passionate love that ended, and is remembered, as vividly as it lived. For sheer emotional power, and the strength of love and memory, this song has to be The King of Infinite Space by Lyndsay FayeThis book is an unforgettable Hamlet retelling with a powerful (and, spoilers, doomed) love at its core.

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“It’s me / Hi! / I’m the problem, it’s me / At teatime / Everybody agrees / I’ll stare directly at the sun but never in the mirror / It must be exhausting always rooting for the anti-hero”

Antihero is the song I (and many others) can’t get out of our heads — it’s catchy, self-aware, self-destructive, and self-deprecating, with paranoid fear of losing relationships and (for me anyway) a hint of glamour. What it made me think of is my favorite romance book of all time, Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall (the sequel, Husband Material, works as well) because of its self-deprecating humor, self-destructive tendencies, and an unforgettableness not unlike an earworm.

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“Are we falling like / Snow at the beach / Weird but it was beautiful / Flying in a dream / Stars by the pocketful / You wanting me / Tonight / Feels impossible / But it’s comin’ down, no sound, it’s all around”

Snow on the Beach is all dreamlike, surreal vibes, with a star-crossed type romance running through it, which for me echoes the magical realism in One Last Stop by Casey McQuistonOur lovable leads in that book find themselves in a similarly bizarre situation which they end up embracing.

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“What’s a girl gonna do? A diamond’s gotta shine / Best believe I’m still bejeweled when I walk in the room / I can still make the whole place shimmer”

Now, I fully believe you’ll have a better pick for this one, but Bejeweled‘s theme of claiming your power from a repressive relationship made me think of In Deeper Waters by FT Lukens, because among other things this book is about the main character embracing his power and identity and breaking free from fear and repression, and I just love to see it.

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“Sweet like honey, karma is a cat / Purring in my lap ’cause it loves me / Flexing like a goddamn acrobat / Me and karma vibe like that”

Okay, another unconventional pick, but the smugness of Karma, waiting for the other shoe to drop, reminded me of An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good by Helene Tursten. Our elderly protagonist is similarly convinced of the justice of her actions – to very entertaining effect.

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“Everyone’s up to somethin’ / I find myself runnin’ home to your sweet nothings / Outside, they’re push and shovin’ / You’re in the kitchen hummin’ / All that you ever wanted from me was sweet nothin'”

Sweet Nothing is about finding a haven and home in someone who doesn’t burdern you with the expectations and pressure you receive everywhere else, which for me had to be The Bookseller’s Boyfriend by Heidi CullinanAlso a cautionary tale about celebrity and social media, the romance in this book is all about an overworked, overwhelmed person finding rest in another’s company.

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“So I told you none of it was accidental / And the first night that you saw me, nothing was gonna stop me / I laid the groundwork and then saw a wide smirk / On your face, you knew the entire time / You knew that I’m a mastermind / And now you’re mine”

Not exactly the same vibe, but Mastermind‘s ending, when the singer realizes that though they thought they were being subtle, they were actually transparent to their partner, reminded me of Love is for Losers by Wibke Brueggemann, in which another scheming narrator discovers the joy of being known and accepted for all your faults.

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Let us know, do you agree with my associations? Which books would you pick?

Silver Lining Suite by Hiromi

The Silver Lining Suite by Hiromi is a fascinating set of original pieces by a rising Japanese star of piano and jazz composition, which come together in a suite that defies categorization. Here’s how a publisher describes it:

Hiromi’s latest album pairs her virtuosic and emotive piano with a string quartet assembled by violinist Tatsuo Nishie, concertmaster of the New Japan Philharmonic. Devised for a series of live-streamed concerts at the Blue Note Tokyo during the Covid pandemic, the results blur the lines between classical music and jazz, crafting a vibrant hybrid possessed of the fervent, rock-inspired energy and cinematic beauty that Hiromi has always instilled in her music.”

I found this an engaging album with appealing and melodic instrumentals, executed with energy and thoughtfulness. The quintet was well-balanced, giving enough focus to the piano but not skimping on the strings. Best of all it really is a genre-blender, both dignified and playful, classical and jazzy, but all-around an original.

You can experience this CD as a discovery of a skillful modern jazz and classical composer, or use it as an interesting background to your everyday activities (not recommended for car trips, because road noise makes it a challenge to fully experience the nuances).

Don’t miss this clever and relaxing jazz fusion album!

Closer Than Together by the Avett Brothers

guest post by Laura V

The Avett Brothers have always had energetic folk rock infused with some banjos and, occasionally, progressive themes. Closer Than Together, released in October 2019, surprised me with some very political songs intermixed with some new sounds as well as the old familiar Avett sound on other songs. It took a few listens to wrap my head around this album.

Here are the tracks:

  1. “Bleeding White”
  2. “Tell the Truth”
  3. “We Americans”
  4. “Long Story Short”
  5. “C Sections and Railway Trestles”
  6. “High Steppin’”
  7. “When You Learn”
  8. “Bang Bang”
  9. “Better Here”
  10. “New Woman’s World”
  11. “Who Will I Hold”
  12. “Locked Up”
  13. “It’s Raining Today”

My first impression was of the musical group The Black Keys to be honest when I heard Bleeding White. After listening a second time I could hear the Avett brand shine through so this song is a keeper on my playlist. I could dig a whole album of this edgier sound. Tell the Truth is more in line with a typical ballad from previous albums but it feels interrupted by the monologue in the middle.

We Americans is more like an essay than a song. It vaguely reminds me of a long political poem I wrote some 20 years ago. I’m not sure I like this one even though I agree 100% with the sentiments. It’s difficult to condense the immense complexity behind the problems in our country into catchy phrases and choruses so it doesn’t. In their mission statement for this album, they say, “We didn’t make a record that was meant to comment on the sociopolitical landscape that we live in. We did, however, make an album that is obviously informed by what is happening now on a grander scale all around us…because we are a part of it and it is a part of us.”

Long Story Short makes use of the literary device of multiple narrators. It’s a glimpse at the inner lives of several people loosely connected and works really well. C Sections and Railway Trestles is a jaunty tune celebrating recent parenthood. High Steppin’ is the icing on the 10th studio album cake that is Closer than Together. It is pure foot-stompin’ Avettness. (Go watch the video on YouTube, I’ll wait.) It is also split in half by a monologue but it sounds right in this song, not jarring.

When You Learn is more reminiscent of typical earlier Avett songs sure to please long-term fans. Bang Bang is a song that probably won’t go over well with the Avett’s gun-toting neighbors. Awkward. I, myself, have had similar musings about our culture’s predilection for violent movies and intense love of guns. I take the opposite opinion of theirs, however, I think people’s desire for violent books and movies is the reason they’re written, not media inciting violence.

Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.

When fans say Kendrick Lamar is the Tupac of our time, it’s an understatement that his music has already made a profound socio-political and aesthetic impact. Let’s not forgot that “Alright,” a song from his 2015 masterpiece album To Pimp A Butterfly (TPAB) became a rallying cry for unity within the Black Lives Matter Movement and acknowledges the epidemic of police shootings that disproportionately targets  Black Americans.   TPAB fuses multiple-genres and voices while the finely-crafted DAMN, by contrast, is am exercise in minimalism. Repetition and reverse instrumentation perfectly reinforce the cyclical  format of the album and the album’s themes after which the songs are named (BLOOD, DNA, FEAR, LOVE, GOD, HUMBLE, LOYALTY, etc).  Where some artists overcomplicate and muddy their waters, Lamar expertly tells stories that perfectly accentuate the cerebral/mundane & sacred/profane dichotomies present in his lyricism. And he often does so with painful self-awareness and contradiction (good & evil, dark and light). Check out some of the reviews of Lamar’s 2017 masterpiece, easily my favorite album of 2017.

The process of listening to DAMN.  has been both discursive and linear, which is to say I’ve listened from beginning to end, end to beginning, and most points in between . The rewards of mindful listening –keener insights into social and cultural references, for example–inspired me to look further into the literary references in Lamar’s work. As an album, DAMN. is particularly circular as well, which is to say the album doesn’t have a definitive beginning or end.   DAMN. is a departure from the ventriloquism of TPAB,  but it nonetheless features what could be construed as Lamar’s conscious and subconscious “voices”. For example, “FEAR”–easily one of my top 3 favorite tracks on the album– is an examination of life told from a few different standpoints. Charles Edward Sydney Isom Jr’s voice can be heard early on in the song asking: “Why God, why God do I gotta suffer? / Pain in my heart carry burdens full of struggle/ Why God, why God do I gotta bleed? / Every stone thrown at you restin’ at my feet.” One fan noted that this particular stanza could function to represent Lamar’s subconscious inner dialogue. But there is a second movement in the tune in which Lamar shape-shifts into the persona of (his) mother: “I beat yo’ ass, keep talkin’ back/I beat yo’ ass, who bought you that?/You stole it, I beat yo’ ass if you say that game is broken/I beat yo’ ass if you jump on my couch/I beat yo’ ass if you walk in this house with tears in your eyes”. This movement in the song continues for 23 more stanzas before transitioning into another “movement” wherein Lamar lays bare his anxieties about how he might die: “I’ll prolly die from one of these bats and blue badges / Body slammed on black and white paint, my bones snappin’ /Or maybe die from panic or die from bein’ too lax / Or die from waitin’ on it, die ’cause I’m movin’ too fast.”

I’m astounded by how Lamar crafts songs that build great intensity and ferocity through the sheer volume of lyrical stanzas alone: strip away all of the layered instrumentation and the lyricism–poetry–would stand independently of its own accord. “FEEL” is another standout song on this album because Lamar utilizes a “stream-of-consciousness” approach set against a dreamy, synth-n-bass backdrop. Lamar is righteously vulnerable in this song and lays bare his anxieties, summons his heroes, and appears to turn his anger inward for a moment. On a really simple level, “FEEL” is a song about anxieties: “Look, I feel like I can’t breathe
Look, I feel like I can’t sleep/Look, I feel heartless, often off this/Feelin’ of fallin’, of fallin’ apart with/Darkest hours, lost it/Fillin’ the void of bein’ employed with ballin’/Streets is talkin’, fill in the blanks with coffins/Fill up the banks with dollars/Fill up the graves with fathers/Fill up the babies with bullshit/Internet blogs and pulpit, fill ’em with gossip/I feel like this gotta be the feelin’ what ‘Pac was
The feelin’ of an apocalypse happenin’…I feel like the whole world want me to pray for ’em / But who the fuck prayin’ for me?”  Something that is conceptually remarkable about DAMN. is that it is an honest exploration of what it means to be human. It is considerably difficult for an artist to not only tap into but to give voice to the wide spectrum of emotion without censoring oneself.  Lamar goes into the depths of his soul in this album, which is an act of bravery unto itself. When asked what he would do differently the second time around?: “I’d go deeper”,  he tells Rick Rueben in a fantastic interview.

“DNA” is my favorite song on the album because of it’s unapologetic boldness in which Lamar attacks the microphone and takes no prisoners. For the reason that hip -hop allows the artist to re-fashion him or herself into the larger-than-life master of her own destiny, I am perpetually drawn back into its magic again and again. Unlike other musical genres, the best hip-hop acts as a springboard not only for reflection but for personal (and thus social) revolution and transformation not lost on Lamar: “I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA/ I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA.”  If you watch the official music video for “DNA”, you’ll see an incredible performance between Don Cheadle and Lamar that features Lamar administering a lie detector test to Cheadle. A sample of a Fox news brief features two news pundits mocking Lamar’s massive hit song “Alright” that calls out police brutality. I personally love how Lamar takes these two news pundits to task and challenges their snap-judgements and assumptions.  Like Nina Simone said, it is an artist’s job to “reflect the times.” Lamar does just that.

DAMN. becomes more revolutionary the more you listen and allow yourself to be awash in the poetry, politics, and existential philosophy. Having listened to DAMN. at least twenty-five times, I am amazed by Lamar’s “fast and furious” lyricism. A Pitchfork reviewer who gave the album a heavy-weight champion score of 9.2 opines that  “Lamar’s recitation is so effortless you wonder where he breathes, or if he does at all.”     Indeed, I also wondered when, exactly, he would find the space to take a breath during the recitation of his lyrics. If you haven’t heard this album yet, just listen with an open mind, which is to say with a neuroplastic mind, since we now know that the brain is not fixed but rather capable of change and charting new territory.