Odilon Redon, Everywhere Eyeballs Are Aflame, 1888

I’m attempting to read Gustav Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony, his 1874 depiction of the saint’s struggle with vice and distraction while searching for salvation in the Egyptian desert two thousand years ago.

Flaubert’s account inspired one of my favorite artists, Odilon Redon, whose eerie etchings sought to capture the “unfettered, immaterial world of the psyche.” The titles alone conjure worlds reminiscent of a Godspeed You! Black Emperor album: Then There Appears a Singular Being, Having the Head of a Man on the Body of a Fish, Everywhere Eyeballs Are Aflame, and Different Peoples Inhabit the Countries of the Ocean. (And now you can buy a Temptation of Saint Anthony face mask because we’ve built ourselves a fine little hell.)

I wrote a few more notes on my decayed attention, berserkers, and my father’s spiral notepads in my January letter.

Agnes Marting, Wind, 1961

On the first day of the year, I stood before the humming pencil grids of an Agnes Martin canvas at the Columbus Museum of Art. The ancient Greeks believed God was a geometer, but I think she was closer to the mark: “Geometry has nothing to do with it,” said Martin. “It’s all about finding perfection, and perfection can’t be found in something as rigid as geometry. You have to find it elsewhere, in between the lines.”

This seems like a good philosophy for an extreme season.


Black Swan – The Space Between

Repetition Hymns | Past Inside the Present, 2021 | Bandcamp

An early favorite for the year: eighty minutes of gorgeous fuzz and drone. Perfect winter music.

On the first day of this year, I sat in the pews of a medieval cathedral in Turku, Finland, and tried to pray, which is alien to me. I tried to pray because my thoughts were gummed up with so much chatter and junk, the outrage and opinions of digital living, the residue of too much time spent behind screens. I wanted to know if it was possible to develop any type of faith these days. And underneath this desire, I had buried too many memories of grief. I had also stalled in my writing. I found myself trapped in an idiotic loop of procrastination and perfectionism, stuck with a mind that deleted each word before the first keystroke. So I decided to dust off this station and commit to writing something each night for one year. Perhaps a few ideas about art, faith, and loss. Maybe some notes about each day’s events for my future self.

And now, on the last day of this year, the memory of sitting in a church in a different country feels as though it belongs to some lost golden age, like telling your kids about the days when airports did not have x-ray machines or you could smoke in supermarkets. The end of the year leaves me feeling as if I’m supposed to be reflective; I find myself hunting for insights and revelations that never arrive. And as this nightly journal ends, I feel compelled to make sense of it. My first thoughts are: 1) I do not recommend such a needlessly compulsive approach, and 2) I wish I’d picked any other year. (From February 26: “New infections are being reported. How far will this thing go? Will history record this as a blip, or is this the start of something bigger?”)

But this practice helped me develop a steady writing routine. No matter what was happening, I managed to carve out an hour around midnight to write, and I’m eager to point this habit towards books and stories. Posting something each night also helped me reckon with my precious bullshit. I often found myself wrestling with some murky idea or failing to make a sentence behave the way I wanted—then I’d see it was two o’clock in the morning. Good enough. There would be something new to write tomorrow.

Most of all, I appreciated the need for people I do not know. I’ve always preferred writing in museums, hotel lobbies, and train stations because these places remind me that I am a stranger. At home, I become too familiar, and my perspective narrows. In a year without the babble, mess, and wonder of people on sidewalks and subway cars, or the small adventures and chance encounters that come with simply moving through the world, I found myself plumbing my memories and dreams and revisiting moments of loss. So in the end, this exercise felt like walking away from something, a way of clearing the decks before trying something new. Which I hope is how this year feels for all of us one day when we look back in the rearview.

Thank you for reading, and here’s to a more sensible year.


Autechre – All End

NTS Session 4 | Warp, 2018 | Bandcamp

It’s like a new form of weather, this atmosphere of everyone waiting for this wretched year to end. Although we know conditions won’t be much different on the first of January, we wait and hope nonetheless. Even though time is just a concept and clocks only measure other clocks, the psychology of a new year is heavy. The logic of a new day is stretched out, blown up to worldwide scale, and reflects a collective need for a fresh start.

Last night I dreamt that god appeared on the internet, issuing demands and revealing answers before stunned eyes in lonely rooms and rapt faces on street corners. I experienced the type of revelation that only appears in dreams, some urgent message or a new way of connecting the dots that I almost grasped. But now I can only remember angry colors pulsing beneath pixellated text. Perhaps it was a subconscious reminder to stop looking at my phone. There’s a resolution: keep it switched off until noon or maybe April.

The other day I found a sentence I’d scrawled in my notebook that I cannot place. A sense of vertigo comes, a slight internal slippage whenever I recognize my handwriting but not the words or their intention. I keep staring at it: Here comes an old man in a three-piece suit the color of sand, and he’s telling children not to grow up, it’s a goddamned trap, and he leaves everyone shaken in his wake. I don’t remember if this was a fragment of a dream, an idea for a story, or something I witnessed, maybe in New Orleans.

It’s snowing again tonight in Ohio, and I cheered when I saw the first flakes falling through the streetlights. I’ve been watching it for an hour with my breath fogging the window, and I’m grateful there’s still some childlike wonder there.


Leyland Kirby – The Arrow of Time

Eager to Tear Apart the Stars | History Always Favours the Winners, 2011 | Bandcamp

I remember the hope I felt this time last year, my naive faith that a foolish and scary decade was drawing to a close and something better must be on the way. I try to imagine my reaction if someone showed me some scenes from the year to come.

Wildfires tinting the skies a Blade Runner shade of red. Thousands of cars queued outside a stadium for virus testing. Shuttered restaurants, silent streets, and an empty Times Square. Americans tear-gassed and sometimes killed by their public servants. Candidates delivering speeches before parking lots of honking cars. A president who discussed invoking martial law to overturn an election. And on Christmas morning, a man played Petula Clarke’s “Downtown” on a loudspeaker and detonated a bomb. All of this seems poorly scripted, as if the tropes from every dystopian movie had escaped the screen to mock our definition of entertainment. Yet even these devastatingly real events are swiftly packaged and glossed into stories, becoming grist for punditry while the death counts are tallied across our devices. From gunfire to overdoses and now pandemic casualties, I wonder if America is particularly adept at making needless suffering seem like the natural course of things.

On the morning of September 11, C. shook me awake and told me to look at the television. After glancing at the live footage, I wriggled deeper into the bed. “I don’t want to watch a movie,” I said, thinking it was one of those 1980s thrillers where the hero would leap from the burning building in the nick of time. I could not shake this idea, not even when we climbed to the rooftop to watch the towers that were falling several blocks away. This is the closest reference point I have for the sensation of living through this year.

I’m fumbling here. But as this journal draws to a close, I want to record this feedback loop that is felt rather than understood, of fiction bleeding into reality and back again without the time required to comprehend, let alone collectively mourn. There’s also the question of how to mentally brace for the unthinkable, or whether this requires the kind of cynicism that I’ve been hoping to shed.

Somewhere in Wyoming, 2009

Without new faces or scenes to cement memories, a rubbery sense of time has defined most of 2020. These final days of the year especially tend to drift and blur, as if they belong to some shadow calendar. The holiday buzz begins to fade and my thoughts nervously peek around the corner, wondering what changes and plans I should make.

I used to be a big believer in resolutions, in the mirage of a sparkling new James now under new management. But my black-and-white thinking has mellowed with time (aside from my weird commitment to posting something each night this year). It might be a function of age, this acceptance that I’ll likely drag my flaws into the grave, and the best I can do in the meantime is forge some kind of Cold War détente with my more ornery and self-sabotaging traits. There will be no flash of light or burning bush.

Or maybe I’ve become infected by the chipper language of our culture. People keep talking about “becoming a better version” of themselves, a phrase that drives me nuts, the way it reduces us to software. But perhaps it’s natural to equate our minds with the technology of our time: unplugging, recharging, feeling overloaded, etc. “Blowing off steam” originated with the steam engine, and being caught between a rock and a hard place might be prehistoric.

I’ll still attempt a few resolutions, although now I have more faith in fiddling and tuning rather than the myth of the tabula rasa or thinking of myself as something that can be easily upgraded. It’s always a moving target, this process of establishing some measure of discipline and structure without creating pointless or even painful little boxes.


Rhythm & Sound – King Version

The Versions | Burial Mix, 2003 | Boomkat
Somewhere in Ohio

Two years ago tonight in New York City, a strange blue light filled the sky. We stood at our windows spellbound by an eerie neon glow that looked like something from science fiction. It was the fallout from an explosion at a power plant in Queens. But for three or four minutes, something otherworldly seemed possible. (And now I know that when the rapture comes or aliens descend, I’ll pace the room for a few minutes, finish my coffee, and check the internet.)

I often think about the hum in my nerves that night, the flush of excitement when it looked like something unthinkable was happening, that the world might change completely. Be careful of what you wish for. Now I’m in Ohio, sheltering-in-place aside from trips to the grocery store. Tonight at the supermarket, I watched two shoppers get into an argument in front of the deli meat because one of them was wearing her mask below her nose.


Pale Cocoon – Laboratory Under the Blue Sky

繭 | Incidental Music, 1984 | Bandcamp

Each year I debate whether I should make an inventory of my favorite albums because it’s such an arbitrary exercise. Then I revisit my lists from the past, and I reappreciate how this process generates a unique portrait, a sense-memory of a lost season. But Christ, who wants to remember this year, let alone provide the soundtrack? And yet music felt more necessary than ever, carrying me through long nights of uncertainty and heavy bouts of cabin fever, and I’m grateful for these new sounds that provided some much-needed perspective and restored my faith in the human enterprise.

Alessandro Cortini – Ritmo / Memorie

Bandcamp

Introspective late-night synthetics so polished they seem to gleam in the dark. These songs start off murky, all bass and shadow, but they slowly gather steam, conjuring the optimistic tones of early 1990s electronics, back when there was still a little faith left in better living through technology. Driving down the highway late at night with these tracks on my dashboard, sometimes the synthesizers squiggle or veer a certain way, and I can’t help but let out a little cheer.

Autechre – Sign

Warp | Bandcamp

In this era of algorithmic playlists designed to satisfy our immediate moods, Signs is an increasingly rare phenomenon: music that teaches us to meet it on its terms. I’m not sure if I like this album, yet I find myself returning to it, almost compulsively. After a decade of increasingly brittle and cloistered records, Autechre has rebooted their software and returned to more poignant terrain. And like many things this year, the emotions here are alien and new. The result is stately and occasionally melancholy, with the residue of melodies flickering within patterns that never stabilize, and it sounds very much like a ghost in a machine.

Bohren & Der Club of Gore – Patchouli Blue

Play It Again Sam | Boomkat

A soundtrack for these long isolated nights. This is distilled rainy noir with faint neon on the horizon, a companion for a lone car drifting down the street. Bohren & Der Club of Gore’s slow-motion gloom is the music I play most often, usually around midnight. Their Midnight Radio album from 1995 is a masterpiece, and this new installment proved to be a logical score for these elastic nights.

Cindy Lee – What’s Tonight to Eternity

W.25TH / Superior Viaduct | Bandcamp

A demented version of the Ronettes in the best possible way, like an otherworldly transmission of those mid-century bands named after jewels, their voices reverberated and haunted.

Jonnine – Blue Hills

Boomkat Editions | Boomkat

These songs capture a sensation that lives a few clicks beyond words, something listless and unsettled. Maybe it’s the sense of suspension that defines this season of distancing and isolating, or a childhood memory of killing time in a room while a voice bleeds through the walls. Drowsy guitars and drums blend with the rustling weather of someone pacing and waiting, perhaps sighing for time lost.

KMRU – Peel

Editions Mego | Bandcamp

Elegant longform ambience that patiently begins at the periphery. Atmospheric hiss and cavernous tones hover at the edge of attention before they slowly, almost imperceptibly bloom into hypnotic loops. This is music that sounds like a shift in the light.

Olan Monk – Love/Dead

C.A.N.V.A.S. | Bandcamp

Midnight vapor and pop songs for dead cyborgs. Lurching across a bottomless low end, Love/Dead delivers a nervy Joy Division or Suicide aesthetic that’s been ground into matte black sludge. It’s an almost poignant flavor of future dread.

Oliver Blank – Fin

Bandcamp

Orchestral drift that finds the territory between sorrow and hope. The centerpiece of this record is a magnificently restrained twenty-three minute meditation that gives every element space to breathe, including the listener.

Ralph Kinsella – Lessening

8D Industries | Bandcamp

This album entered my life as reliable background music while I puttered around the room. Then it quietly moved to the foreground and became one of my favorite records this year. Gathering the soft-focus residue of an old shoegaze song, these ever-evolving compositions are equally comfortable with moments of abrupt silence as with gestures that soar.

Tomas Jirku – Touching the Sublime

Silent Season | Bandcamp

A deeply strange and panoramic record that merges the frigid elements of dub techno with moments of unexpected warmth: the half-heat of voices at the margins, a hushed guitar, a sudden flash of brass. These songs roll in like a fog, and the word “sublime” is well-earned in the way this album transfixes you, holding you in its gaze. A perfect soundtrack for reading about failed arctic expeditions and contemplating the allure of such forbidding terrain.

William Basinski – Lamentations

Temporary Residence | Bandcamp

Dignified heartache that bleeds through the grain of decaying tape loops. “Our world is in a bad feedback loop right now,” Basinski said a few years ago. “We’re at a point right now where we need to get rid of some bad feedback loops and it’s happening. It’s not gonna be pretty, but eventually things will resolve.” Listening to this album, it’s almost possible to imagine a moment when the loop finally and truly breaks.

Vatican Shadow – Persian Pillars of the Gasoline Era

20 Buck Spin | Bandcamp

Vatican Shadow appears on my list of favorite albums every year. So be it. These are dark and conspiratorial times fueled by suspicious energies, and this project has nailed the gestalt.

See also 2019 Rotation and 2018 Rotation.

C. and I spent the evening assembling a jigsaw puzzle of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, one of the most vexing images humanity has produced. The left panel depicts an idyllic scene where God introduces Adam to Eve and perhaps describes the joy of virtuous living. In the center panel, however, humanity is left to its own devices. The result is a literal clusterfuck as people frolic, feast, and copulate with one another—and with enormous strawberries. (Theories abound as to the fruit’s symbolism, ranging from their seeds to their sweetness; perhaps they are the devil’s candy.) The last panel introduces us to hell, and there is no devil here, only nightmares made from the material of our world. A city smolders on a hill while a bird-man feeds upon bodies, expelling them into a void. A pair of ears clutches a knife. A pig dressed as a nun encourages a man to sign a legal document. And so on.

Slowly piecing this image together left me with no better understanding of Bosch’s vision; it’s too overwhelming. Some have argued it’s a subversive commentary on the doctrine of original sin, that we might find delight in this world if we could live without shame. But Bosch was a devout Christian, so it’s more likely a warning about the perils of forsaking religion in favor of a frivolous life. Desire as heaven, desire as hell. But I marvel that arguing for a disciplined life of the spirit can be this delirious and fun.

The idea of developing a new visual grammar to speak to a fallen world brings to mind the painter Barnett Newman‘s rationale for minimalism and abstraction. “We felt the moral crisis of a world in shambles,” he said, “a world destroyed by a great depression and a fierce World War, and it was impossible at that time to paint the kind of paintings that we were doing—flowers, reclining nudes, and people playing the cello.”

Thinking about these things while doing a jigsaw puzzle feels connected: the inherent pleasure in putting together something that’s been broken, the clarity and sense of presence that comes with moving a piece from point A to B, and the fleeting sense of control it brings.


Kali Malone – Dungeon Canon

Studies for Organ | Rehearsal Demo, 2020 | Boomkat | Bandcamp

I woke before dawn on Christmas like a little kid, pop-eyed with excitement because C. and I were exchanging presents, something we haven’t done in years. But first, I spent an hour in silence watching the fresh snow whip below the streetlights. I sat before the glow of our artificial tree with its fake pine perfume and savored this peculiar ritual of wrapping up packages of socks and tea. It was a moment of grace and cheer in a year that has felt like living in somebody’s bad dream, and I know I’m damned lucky to have it. Remember this, I thought, because it won’t always be this way. And it’s an odd sensation to get caught between wanting to be entirely present for a rare moment while also trying to commit every detail to memory. I heard C. padding down the hallway. “I can hear you waiting,” she said.


Arvo Pärt – Memento

Ode VII from Kanon Pokajanen, 1994 | More

My first concept of god came from It’s a Wonderful Life. I was four or maybe five years old, and I remember sitting on an orange-rust shag carpet with my parents’ knees behind me, all of us watching the pulsing globs of light that functioned as angels. Even today, it’s an unnerving sequence for me, far too existential for a Capra film. But I’m grateful that my first image of the supernatural was so abstract, rather than someone’s punishing god. And perhaps it’s fitting that it came from television.

This year’s holiday soundtrack is a collection of hymns and carols from the Welsh mines recorded in the village of Rhosllannerchrugog in 1959. These slightly haunted voices sound like my smudgy childhood memories of old black-and-white specials.

It’s snowing tonight.


Rhos Male Voice Choir – Holy Night

Music from the Welsh Mines & Songs of Goodwill | 1957 | Bandcamp
Houston, 2016

My memories tend to pile up around the holidays, fogging my thoughts with the textures of Christmas seasons from the past. Today I’m in a kitchen somewhere in Ohio, teaching myself to make crepes while I think about last year in Finland, where I remembered thinking about a sunny Christmas in New Orleans, where I was thinking about a strange holiday in Vegas when I watched a cowboy behind the sliding doors of the Sahara, eating an ice cream cone like he wanted to kill somebody.

That cowboy still shows up in my dreams. Salvador Dali described his paintings as “hand-painted dream photographs,” and I often think about that phrase. Last night I dreamt I was walking down a corridor of rooms with the names of the people I’ve lost on the doors. A woman stood before a door with my father’s name, her hand on the handle. “The objects inside this room are this person’s true identity,” she said. “Do you really want to open the door?”

My attention span feels like gripping a snake these days, wriggling and squirming in all directions. Tonight it wanders through the living rooms and dim sum parlors of past holidays, mostly happy scenes that are slightly shaded by the melancholy of time and people lost, the regret that I didn’t savor the moment when I was there. I remember a drowsy version of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ playing to an empty banquet hall at midnight, which seems to capture the holiday gestalt in this year of isolation. And I’m going to do my best to remember every detail.


Horrid Red – Marble Staircase I & II

Banquet in Blue | Burundi Cloud, 2012 | Bandcamp