Pleasure Symbols Create Alluring Goth Pop on “Closer and Closer Apart”

One of the more tantalizing releases in the last few years was a brief four-song EP from an Australian band called Pleasure Symbols released in 2016. I knew nothing about the band except for what was on the record, which was this hazy, goth/shoegaze-influenced darkwave that was stylish and intriguing. Three years later, they’ve surfaced again with their first full-length, Closer and Closer Apart, after some lineup and sound changes. But despite the overhauls, that core of the band’s style is still there, and this will end up being one of the year’s best albums in this shoegaze and dream pop realm.

The sound on Closer and Closer Apart is more clear, with Jasmine Dunn’s vocals actually being decipherable instead of buried in the sound and mumbled like on that first EP. That change removes a bit of the alluring mystery they had initially, but it’s probably a worthwhile tradeoff in terms of appealing to a slightly wider audience and making more traditionally expressive music. They’ve also moved from the creepier darkwave style into a more familiar goth-dream-pop sound that is inspired by about half the bands that existed in the 1980s.

Despite the move into very well-worn territory, Pleasure Symbols maintain a clear sense of identity on this album by zeroing in on a very specific aesthetic and executing it on song after song with total confidence. The shimmering guitar, the rumbling bass and Dunn’s dreamy-yet-forceful lyrics are exactly what I like about this style of music, especially when it’s combined with this kind of strong pop songwriting. The best songs like “Image Reflected,” “Dissociation,” and “Heavy Breathing” combine major hooks with inward-looking lyrics that touch on the themes you’d expect from any self-respecting goth band: love, control, darkness, suffering, etc. None of the concepts here are new, but it’s been awhile since they’ve been done with this level of thought and craft.

Weyes Blood Tries to Find Meaning in Impending Disaster on “Titanic Rising”

Natalie Mering, aka Weyes Blood, loves the movies. I know this because her latest album, Titanic Rising, has a song called “Movies” on it where she sings “I love the movies.” I also know this because the album’s sound has that high-definition, cinematic quality with opulent string arrangements and lyrics that portray her as a character looking for meaning in life in these heightened, unreal times. At the end of the song, she declares she wants to be her own movie, capturing how the weirdness of our current existence has caused people to experience it almost out-of-body, as the hero in the story of their life that is playing concurrently with everyone else’s.

In 2019, the movie we’re all starring in is a disaster movie like (wait for it) Titanic, except the script isn’t nearly as tight as James Cameron’s masterpiece. Also, the characters in this movie all know the ship is going to sink but can’t actually do anything about it. So instead of being a massively dramatic, entertaining spectacle, it’s often just boring (like the pre-iceberg parts), and Mering gets that, too. “Something to Believe” portrays the relatable desire to get out of her own head and experience an escape from the reality none of us have any control over: “Give me something I can see; something bigger and louder than the voices in me.”

Titanic Rising feels like an attempt at crafting that escape herself, and it’s in a similar space as some other albums I’ve loved in the past couple years like Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s The Kid, Björk’s Utopia and Julia Holter’s Aviary, which all responded to the current climate of senseless ugliness with thoughtful, sometimes excessive beauty. The sound on this album is gorgeous throughout with psychedelic synths and strings along with smooth production. It’s bolstered even more by Mering’s voice, which has a rich throwback quality that is reminiscent of Judy Garland and Patsy Cline, with a bit of Joni Mitchell and Aimee Mann tossed in. It’s easy on the ears, but the themes she is grappling with are complex and difficult.

Before I even listened to this album, I knew it was dealing with climate change and was worried it was going to be a bunch of on-the-nose songs about glaciers melting. Instead, outside of the occasional lyrical reference, it’s a subject that looms over the music, much like it does in our day-to-day lives where we go about our mundane business and then occasionally remember “oh yeah, we’re all gonna die.” Mering captures a lot of relatable anxieties and stresses in this album, showing she has that rare gift of making her own observations feel universal. And despite occasionally gloomy material, the sound of Titanic Rising on songs like the jaunty “Everything” and theatrical opener “A Lot’s Gonna Change” conveys a sense of warmth and optimism, even with disaster hanging overhead. I guess the one upside of the planet being destroyed is that it’s inspiring albums that sound like this.

“Fleabag” Might Be a Perfect TV Show

The only bad part of the second season of Fleabag, the comedy written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is how inept it made me feel as a writer. I try my best not to compare myself to others and at this point I don’t even have grand artistic ambitions, especially in the realm of fiction. But when the screen went black on this season, which I devoured in a couple of days, I just sat on my couch and let it sink in for a few minutes, keenly aware of how impossible it would be for me to ever come close to producing something this good. Fleabag might be the best comedy I’ve ever seen.

What makes it so great? I guess it makes sense to start with Waller-Bridge herself, who is intimidatingly talented, not just as a writer of dialogue and characters, but as an actress with precise comedic timing who can make you laugh just with a quick look at the camera. Her titular character (real name unknown) breaks the fourth wall constantly, which is Fleabag‘s most distinctive narrative device, but it’s used differently than a show like The Office. Rather than purporting to be a documentary, this feels more like the character perceiving the audience as her friend that she can always confide in. Without giving away too much, her looks and quips at the camera end up tying into the season two plot in a piece of writing that is almost impossibly smart and perceptive.

The character of Fleabag is a great tragicomic creation; she uses jokes and sex as a way to mask her inner pain that comes from feeling responsible for the death of her best friend and the loss of her mother. She is essentially the black sheep of her family, who all mostly treat her like crap, particularly her insufferable godmother played by Oscar winner Olivia Colman. Her sister, Claire, is a fascinating character in her own right. She’s tightly wound, passive-aggressive and a workaholic, which is in direct contrast to Fleabag’s impulsive lifestyle that avoids responsibility. What the two characters share is that each has built up these different kinds of walls to avoid letting others see their true feelings, and their sisterhood is one of the more unique relationships on TV.

Fleabag faces a conflict with Claire’s husband this season, but her biggest turmoil comes when she becomes attracted to the young, cool priest who is working on her father’s wedding. This leads to an obvious clash of belief systems between the optimistic, religious priest and the atheist Fleabag, who has been through enough that the whole God thing is a tough sell. Again, without giving away too much, the relationship that forms here is fascinating and feels real despite its comedic origins, and the will-they-or-won’t-they tension had me about as nervous as I was at the end of Game of Thrones.

I’m always a fan of comedies that come with a healthy dose of sadness and bitterness, and this show might walk that line better than any other. It has all kinds of jokes: raunchy sex jokes, quiet observational jokes, character-based jokes — there’s even a pretty good fart joke. But its best moments are when the characters let their guards down and reveal their true feelings, and the show has moments that rival the pathos of any drama. Like the main character herself, the humor in Fleabag is what draws you in, but the impression it leaves is ultimately much more impactful than just a laugh.

The Metal Band of my Dreams Just Broke Up

The day after Game of Thrones ended, one of my favorite bands, SubRosa, announced they were calling it quits (for now) on Facebook. I doubt the decision by the band had anything to do with the show, but I find it fitting because SubRosa were the closest thing music had to Game of Thrones. Their songs were epic in scope and had a sound that was both brutal and beautiful, which always took me to a medieval fantasy-type setting similar to the HBO series. Also like Thrones, I thought SubRosa’s music, while foreboding and dark on the surface, contained a lot of empathy and humanity, which is part of what made me like it so much compared to other metal.

One of my earliest posts on the blog came after I discovered SubRosa and declared them “the metal band of my dreams.” When I first heard “Borrowed Time, Borrowed Eyes,” it practically blew my mind. It was heavy and intense, but it also had those feminine vocals and the two electric violins which created the otherworldly sound that was their signature. It made me interested in metal for the first time and I began looking deeper into the genre, trying to discover other bands that sounded like SubRosa and could scratch that itch. I never found them.

Over their next two albums, More Constant Than the Gods and For This We Fought the Battle of Ages, the band expanded their sound even more, creating 10-15 minute epic songs that showed just how much potential metal has and how rarely it lives up to it. I thought (and wrote) a lot about what distinguished SubRosa, why they appealed to me so much when I couldn’t really get into other metal. Of course, part of it was the sound, which had that crushing beauty dynamic that I love, almost like My Bloody Valentine and other shoegaze. But I think it went deeper than that: this band played with a purpose. They weren’t interested in clobbering the listener with noise just to be edgy or shocking. I think they were very attuned to the idea of earning emotion and catharsis, and their songs often built drama through the dynamics, which went from lovely whispers to bone-crushing doom metal. Even their longest songs never for a moment felt self-indulgent.

SubRosa also fixed the other issue I have had with metal, which is how the lyrical content usually is incomprehensible or focused on darkness to the point of cheesy self-parody. The massiveness of their sound and the length of their songs allowed them a lot of room for almost novella-like storytelling, and they explored themes of suffering, power, and love in a way that was much more nuanced and sophisticated than typical music. A song like “Wound of the Warden” tells an entire story about surveillance, power and free will.

When I first started writing, I just made posts about old albums I liked and wasn’t going too deep into new music. SubRosa was one of the first bands I found where I had the feeling of wanting to champion something new that wasn’t necessarily being heard or talked about by many people. When I looked on their website and saw that they had actually quoted my first post about them, it made me feel like maybe writing about these obscure bands wasn’t such a waste of time and energy after all. I liked that I had given the band something, no matter how small, and that it was genuine and not some paid review where I was just giving it a high score or trying to craft the most flattering pull quote for them.

Because of their genre, SubRosa was rarely the subject of much discussion in the music circles I’m kind of in and isn’t going to be appearing on any of those best of the decades lists that people read. But I don’t think there was a better rock band in the last ten years. In a genre that often seems to embrace homogeneity by delivering its fans the same grunting vocals, “shocking” lyrics and constant noise, they dared to sound different and explored real themes in their work. But I don’t want this to sound too much like a eulogy: in the Facebook post, they explain that the members are all working on new projects that will be heard soon. Maybe then, there will finally be some other music that sounds like SubRosa.

Spellling’s “Mazy Fly” is One of the Year’s Most Original Albums

Mazy Fly, the second album by Spellling, feels like a throwback to a sound that never actually existed. Its vintage, sometimes cheesy-sounding electronics bring to mind the 80s while Chrystia Cabral’s soulful voice is reminiscent of classic funk or disco singers. It’s an odd mix of traits that doesn’t feel like it should work, and it took me a couple listens to get used to the album’s sound and its weird internal logic. A few listens later, I’m somewhat awed that an album can be this listenable while having such a unique sound.

Cabral is a really good singer in a conventional sense — she can hit notes and emote in a way that is similar to a lot of much more popular artists who are on the radio. But rather than let that gift be used in generic pop songs, she has her own vision that is haunting, spacey and alien. The mix of the conventional and the uncanny makes everything on the album feel a little off in a way that distinguishes it from other music in this space. On the opener, “Red” she twists her voice into something more grotesque, reminding me of someone like Fever Ray. Other songs like “Haunted Water” have more of a darkwave influence, with creepy strings and a more macabre vibe. The album’s centerpiece, “Under the Sun,” is probably the best showcase of all of her traits, with its long cinematic intro, celestial lyrics, and retro-futuristic sound.

The mysterious, out of place sound of Mazy Fly fits with its themes, which are similarly hard to pin down. The album’s Bandcamp page has its own press release explanation of what’s going on, but I think it’s more effective as a vague, ambiguous journey, and the variety of sounds gives the listener a lot of freedom to put it together themselves. More than anything, the joy of this album is hearing such a talented artist maximize her abilities and go down her own path instead of taking the easier road traveled by so many others.

The Bells and the Mirror

The most famous scene in Game of Thrones is undoubtedly the Red Wedding at the end of season three. With one scene, the writers of the show completely upended what viewers were conditioned to think the story was about as the group of characters assumed to be heroes were slaughtered. In its latest episode, “The Bells,” they pulled off an even bigger long con, revealing the true nature of one of the main protagonists of the series in one of the most daring and confrontational episodes in TV history. Understandably, people are a little upset: it hurts to have the mirror turned on you, to have your own biases and assumptions exposed for what they really are.

Daenerys Targaryen was a character who had many redeeming qualities, and she was often positioned opposite of loathsome characters like Cersei Lannister, which added to her likability. But despite all her proclamations of breaking chains and wheels, something was always a little off: she demanded people bow to her or she’d burn them alive, she killed people for nothing but vengeance, and she was always being kept in line by her advisors, whether it was Tyrion, Missandei, Jorah, or Varys. With all but one of them out of the picture, in “The Bells” she snaps and lays waste to King’s Landing, even after the enemy has surrendered.

People didn’t see all of the cracks in Daenerys because the show convinced them she was the best leader and deserving of the Iron Throne, even though she never led very impressively and was later revealed to not even be the true heir. Fans named kids after her, put “breaker of chains” in their Twitter bios, and celebrated her as a badass woman here to overthrow the world of terrible men. They waived away her other murders and poor decisions as actions that needed to be taken to “break the wheel.” They watched the show eagerly anticipating the moment she would finally take what was rightfully hers, but seemingly none of them thought about what it would actually look like.

“The Bells” shows you, in gruesome detail. It is directed from the perspective of the common people along with Arya Stark, who flee for their lives amidst falling rubble and ash, all in broad daylight, forming a stark contrast with the show’s previous epic battle against the undead in “The Long Night.” As scary as those zombies were, this episode shows that what humans do to each other out in the open in search of power is even more terrifying.

Faced with Daenerys’ “heel turn,” the viewers who worshipped her are now engaging in cognitive dissonance, criticizing the writing and calling it misogynistic because there’s no way they could have been duped. Let’s just say all those memes comparing her to Hillary Clinton are more than a little ironic now. This is also the same group of people who subscribe to the “only good things should happen to women characters and they should never do anything bad” mentality, which is put forth as a feminist idea even though it limits the diversity and agency of women characters. If you didn’t want to watch characters who have flaws make bad decisions that ruin lives, you shouldn’t have still been watching Game of Thrones. And if you think any of this is unrealistic other than the dragon, then you probably don’t know much about history or reality.

Comparing Game of Thrones to contemporary politics is a cliché at this point, but I don’t know how you could watch that episode and not think of so many years of misguided U.S. foreign policy. Many people buy into the idea that what our military does abroad is for the greater good, it’s necessary, and it’s worth celebrating. More than any piece of entertainment I can think of, “The Bells” shows what war really is: it’s horrible, it’s brutal, and there are no heroes, only victims. This show with a massive audience aired an episode that is a strong leftist argument in favor of pacifism and non-intervention. Unfortunately, its audience has become too bloodthirsty and entitled to understand it.

A revealing comment I’ve seen from many was a complaint that Cersei Lannister’s death in the episode wasn’t satisfying enough, as she ended up buried in rubble while embracing her brother/lover, Jaime. Many viewers were like Arya Stark, craving vengeance and blood, even though, as Sandor Clegane points out, it leads to a life of misery. So it’s fitting that Cersei’s death, like her son Joffrey’s, showed her in a more sympathetic light, as a woman who was raised in a horrible environment and has lost everything. She was a piece of shit, but she was also human, and it’s pretty messed up to wish death on anyone, even a TV character. Once again, the show holds a mirror: it confronts the audience and shows them that what they thought they wanted wasn’t actually a victory. It’s not unlike how Daenerys felt, sitting on that dragon, having won what she wanted her whole life and realizing that it wasn’t enough.

Give Me What I Want

A few weeks ago, I was watching WWE, and there was a promo segment between Batista and Triple H. Batista had just returned to wrestling after embarking on a successful Hollywood acting career in movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and was setting up a feud with his former mentor for WrestleMania. His rustiness from the business might be why he seemingly forgot all of his lines when he went on stage, which resulted in one of the most awkward verbal exchanges I’ve seen in my years of watching wrestling. For multiple minutes, all he did was yell “GIVE ME WHAT I WANT” at Triple H in his most intense wrestler delivery that sent spit all over the place. The absurdity of the promo helped it reach instant meme status.

Beyond the comical nature of the promo, what I think resonated about it was how Batista unwittingly captured the tone and tenor of fanbases in 2019, especially WWE’s, which is notorious for spending most of its time grumbling about the company’s booking decisions rather than enjoying the show. But while hardcore wrestling fans have long been known for being jaded and miserable, the “give me what I want” ethos has now spread to almost all circles of fandom via the internet. Unlimited viewing, listening, playing, and reading options have cultivated a sense of entitlement in audiences, who increasingly want their entertainment to only reflect their own personal tastes, values, and desires. A popular TV show like Game of Thrones comes with weekly episodic recaps on 240 different websites which all tediously pick apart the storytelling choices, character beats, directorial decisions, possible plot and logic holes, etc. Like wrestling, a lot of TV now is watched by groups of “smart” fans who are less invested in the story itself than in the making of the story and whether it fits their own vision for how things should go.

Thrones has been the most frustrating in this regard. This is an incredible show, with a scope and scale never before seen on TV and a roster of morally ambiguous, well-drawn characters with compelling backstories. It’s delivering spectacle with huge battles and dragons, but also is examining dark, adult subject matter like rape, abuse, suffering and redemption in a way that is far deeper than ever attempted on TV. Yet if you look to find analysis of these artistic qualities of the show, you mostly will come up empty outside of the work of a couple of dedicated writers (my favorites are Sean T. Collins and Gretchen Felker-Martin). Instead, what you get is every random writer on every website complaining about what the writers should have done instead, bemoaning choices made by characters, complaining about “problematic” elements of the script, etc. Rather than take the show for what it is and appreciate its obvious strengths (while still pointing out areas where it could be improved), I get the sense that many are going out of their way to be dissatisfied with it as it reaches its final episodes.

I’m always in favor of thinking critically about art, but this strain of fandom feels jaded, myopic, and unproductive. I don’t think most people doing this are seriously engaging with the show and what it is trying to say; they’re viewing it with an ironic detachment, snarking about minute details and completely missing the bigger picture. Everyone spends more time wondering how the characters traveled from Winterfell to King’s Landing so quickly instead of thinking about the actual overarching themes of the work. No one is obligated to enjoy Game of Thrones or all of the creative decisions of the show, but there is rarely even an attempt to engage with it in a reasonable way. So we’re in this weird situation where this show is massively popular, it’s amazing, and yet it feels almost underrated as a work of art, because so few people are even making a good faith effort to engage with and appreciate the greatness that is right in front of them.

But far from just cultivating a blasé attitude towards art, this “give me what I want” mentality also causes art to be more safe and less impactful when it’s taken seriously by creators. A few weeks ago, the creator of Bojack Horseman retweeted someone saying that shows shouldn’t depict rape for the same reason they don’t depict someone having diarrhea — because audiences don’t want to see it. It concerned me because Bojack is one of my favorite shows in part because it has made such an effort to show its audience what it doesn’t want to see. As a viewer invested in the characters, I didn’t want to see Bojack and Diane self-destruct and struggle with depression and alcoholism. But because they have, the show was able to explore mature themes about overcoming personal demons in a way that resonated and was cathartic. The version of Bojack that avoids uncomfortable topics would basically be a kid’s cartoon.

That tweeter’s hot take was almost certainly aimed somewhat at Game of Thrones, which has been notorious for its portrayals of rape and abuse towards women. A certain segment of liberal types have hounded the show with accusations of sexism for years, assuming that the on-screen depictions of violence against women are endorsements of that behavior from the makers of the show — an extremely ungenerous reading of the material that doesn’t really hold up to any reasonable interpretation. The prevailing belief seems to be that these sorts of taboo, sensitive topics should simply never be portrayed in media due to their unpleasantness. Actress Jessica Chastain recently tweeted as such, saying “Rape is not a tool to make a character stronger. A woman doesn’t need to be victimized in order to become a butterfly.” This was in response to the Sansa Stark character acknowledging the abuse she’d faced, how she still lived with it, and how it had shaped who she was. In Chastain’s desired version of the show, Sansa never would have faced suffering, and there would be no insight into the very real abuse women face at the hands of men, both in Westeros and the real world.

This is where the “give me what I want” mindset goes past simply being about lame crowd-pleasing stuff and crosses over into something resembling censorship. Of course, any time the subject of rape is brought into entertainment, it needs to be taken seriously and portrayed in a thoughtful, humane way. I don’t think the Thrones writers have always gotten it right (the infamous Jaime/Cersei scene from a few years ago being the predominant example), but for the most part the show has made an effort to portray the realities and effects of abuse on its victims. Characters like Sansa, Theon, and others have endured abuse and lived with the consequences in a way that has rarely been depicted on TV. If your argument is that rape should never be in entertainment, then that is diminishing a major part of art’s function, which is how it can express feelings of personal traumatic experiences in a shared way that makes people understand it better.

A lot of these arguments strike me as the same types you see from people who want to ban classic novels for being too “dangerous.” What these people really want is for art to be a sanctuary, and for all entertainment to be blandly inoffensive, shiny and flawless. Those who nitpick every barely relevant detail of the logic and character choices often think of themselves as being smarter than the rest of the audience and the writers, when really they have this same childlike mindset towards art. For them, a show like Game of Thrones only exists to be joylessly ripped apart as a means of validating their own perceived intelligence. They don’t want to think about the actual themes or the storytelling.

As we stare down the barrel of another eight million superhero movie sequels and live action Disney remakes, it’s hard not to be a little concerned about the future of art that actually attempts to provoke and challenge audiences. Part of my frustration with the response to this season of Game of Thrones is that we’re really witnessing an end of an era — I doubt another show will capture the public imagination quite like this one, much less one with this much depth and artistry. And yet the response to it by many seems to be a collective shrug, a snarky comment or two while glancing at their phone. That’s why the present and future of entertainment is Marvel movies and other audience-pleasing franchises that don’t require too much thinking or attentiveness. Of course, there will still be real artists making powerful, important work outside of the mainstream — but good luck trying to discuss it with anybody.