Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Stinging Fly

There are many good literary magazines out there, but Dublin's The Stinging Fly is a particularly admirable project: since its inception in 1998, it has strived not only to provide a much-needed platform for the short story, but dedicates itself to providing space for work by new and emergent writers, alongside poems and fiction by established writers as varied as Simon Armitage, Fiona Sampson and Bernard O'Donoghue.

It's also a handsomely produced publication, with a glossy cover showcasing the work of a new photographer each issue, and the magazine combines this professional look and feel with quality new fiction, poetry and reviews, as well as unique features such as 'First Passions', where a writer, publisher or literary agent describes their first encounters with, and their beginnings of love for, language and literature.

The current issue, then (pictured above), includes song lyrics by Paul Muldoon, exciting new poetry and short stories, and reviews of poetry by Thomas Kinsella, Dave Lordan, and my own review of Nick Laird's second collection, On Purpose, published earlier this year by Faber. Why not take a trip to The Stinging Fly's comprehensive website, then, and consider buying an issue or taking out a subscription? After all, it's not often that a magazine from humble beginnings becomes such a successful and essential publication, but can also lay claim to a press that publishes a collection of short stories (Kevin Barry's There Are Little Kingdoms) that has won the revered Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Review of Radiohead's In Rainbows

So it’s finally arrived, ready to download at the price of your choosing, and I’ve left the ‘publication’ of my views on the new Radiohead album a bit later than most bloggers (and indeed, newspapers). You might see this as an accidental act of defiance against The Daily Telegraph’s seemingly anonymous writer, who, as a self-proclaimed champion of paid reviewers for paper publications (shame he blogs too; quite the moral conundrum), states that: ‘One advantage of being paid for your opinion is that you can take some time to work out what it is.’

I wouldn’t say that was necessarily the case, however, as a glance at The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis’s review of the album, a mere two days after its release (bearing in mind no promo editions of the album were mailed out to music journos), reveals. ‘A five star review’, asserts the headline, followed by Petridis stating that the album ‘may represent the strongest collection of songs Radiohead have assembled for a decade’, in just the sort of absurd soundbyte that will no doubt appear on the cover of the CD version.

Why absurd? Because even if Petridis isn’t including the band’s seminal 1997 release, OK Computer, within his stated decade, he’s still suggesting that In Rainbows is a more accomplished and impressive album than both Kid A (2000) and Hail to the Thief (2003) respectively. Which, despite his attempts to defend such a statement, just isn’t true. Kid A, for all of its initial press as the Marmite album that divided fans, is now recognised by and large as a huge and, for the most part, successful experimental leap; Radiohead chucking in the guitars in favour of weird electronics and synthesised sounds. And Hail to the Thief was a masterful attempt to blend the experiments of Kid A and Amnesiac with the raw energy and heavy, distorted riffage of The Bends and OK Computer; an admirable project that produced some wonderful moments (take ‘Go to Sleep’ or eerie album opener ‘2 + 2 = 5’ for example). ‘In Rainbows’, on the other hand, is nothing as experimental, nor indeed, thrilling.

What In Rainbows is, however, is Radiohead. The album still sounds like no other band on earth, and despite lacking the impressive, layered complexity and musical diversity of almost every earlier release, In Rainbows possesses a subtle power and melodic beauty which unfolds listen after listen. Opener ’15 Steps’ doesn’t much embody this, scuttling along with a haphazard beat and the rolling, half-chanted lyrics of Yorke, reminiscent of Hail to the Thief’s surprise highlight, ‘Wolf at the Door (It Girl. Rag doll)’. Neither does ‘Bodysnatchers’, a song that will please fans who miss Johnny Greenwood’s wild, screaming, strings-pushed-to-breaking-point guitars (which so defined 1995’s The Bends and much of OK Computer), but does little else. Where In Rainbows realises itself, then, is from here on in: third track ‘Nude’ balances the eerily chilling with more relaxed vibes to impressive effect, while ‘Weird Fishes / Arpeggi’ is lush and, for once in the typical rather than odd or disturbing sense, genuinely beautiful. ‘Faust Arp’ is Radiohead at the peak of their gentle powers, too: the meandering folk undertones of a song that, like the stronger elements of Radiohead’s back catalogue, develops with rewarding repeated listens.

But then the album wouldn’t be complete without some sense of impending doom, social alienation or destruction, despite the minimalist calmness of the album overall and the (whisper it) love song that ‘House of Cards’ mysteriously and elegantly unfolds into. What Radiohead have done, however, is to package said staple content in such a way that it doesn’t hit you with the imploding guitars or layered explosiveness of earlier material. In Rainbows, for the most part, works a delicate magic instead, delivering fans what they’ve come to expect, and crucially, enjoyed in the past, but showing the band to be in possession of more unassuming and inconspicuous powers. Penultimate track and album highlight ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’ showcases this perfectly: gentle drums leading into Yorke’s fast-paced lyrics as the song builds into a sinister tale of sudden realisation, while closing number ‘Videotape’ features unobtrusive piano that lends the lyrics added resonance and depth, culminating in a quivering and wonderfully unsettling drumbeat.

While In Rainbows doesn’t feature anything comparable to the intergalactic, mind-blowing crescendo of ‘Paranoid Android’ or the pulsating, danceable club beats of ‘Idioteque’, then, it is an album which not only shows Radiohead to have resolved their problems with melody post-OK Computer, but to have conquered subject matters and sounds that, to a considerable extent, go beyond previous efforts (namely, songs that feature a sense of hope, and indeed, happiness). What’s more, and against all the odds, Radiohead have done that which comes (in the minds of other bands) so frustratingly naturally to them: produced an album that delivers something new whilst remaining reassuringly familiar. While it won’t change the musical landscape in the way that The Bends, OK Computer or, to some extent, Kid A did, then, In Rainbows is nonetheless a worthy enough addition to Radiohead’s oeuvre.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

As Bad as a Mile

It's been a long time since I posted on Deconstructive Wasteland, and it's largely (if not entirely) to do with my complete lack of internet connection. But now I've started studying on the Writing MA at Sheffield Hallam I have access to their ample IT facilities, so I can do more than check emails while perched on a stool in a charging internet cafe. Hence this brief post.

If you're reading this, then, thanks for returning after a month of complete inactivity. This week, two things I've written have appeared online: first, a review of Tim Turnbull's collection, Stranded in Sub-Atomica, is up on Todd Swift's blog Eyewear, and second, my choice for poem of the month at the Philip Larkin Society's site is up, 'As Bad as a Mile'. Aside from that, I'm loving being back in Sheffield, and amid sorting out everything in my new place I've started writing critical perspectives of contemporary authors for the British Council, the first of which will be on Nick Laird, at their indispensible and comprehensive site, Contemporary Writers. Do check it out, as well as the stuff I mentioned above, if you get the chance. That way, if I've said anything that you find completely disagreeable, you can post a comment here and put me in my place. If you're the guy who sent that nonsense about Calvin Harris being a talented musician when I posted to the contrary a few months back, however, you might not want to bother.

In the meantime, I hope to post again soon. And catch up with what's happening on the other blogs I regularly read, most of which can be found in the sidebar. Happy writing.