March’s Bestest Songs

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Spring has sprung! Daylight has been saved! Beef has been corned! Something about basketball! Hey gang. March 2019 sure was fun, and it was a heck of a time for new music. Here are the tracks that came in like a lion for me.


1. Angel Du$t – “Big Ass Love”

This supergroup of moonlighting hardcore screamers happens to be incredibly good at writing catchy power-pop love songs.

2. 2 Chainz (feat. Lil Wayne & E-40) – “2 Dollar Bill”

It doesn’t matter how many times the youngsters shame online braggarts with their uncool-now-that-I’m-referencing-it meme, “Weird flex but okay.” They cannot stop 2 Chainz – a walking, talking weird flex who might be the most purely entertaining rapper working. To wit: “I’m rare / Like Mr. Clean with hair.”

3. Vampire Weekend (feat. Steve Lacy) – “Sunflower”

This riff just isn’t fair.

4. Solange – “Way to the Show”

Solange has followed up her 2016 masterpiece A Seat at the Table with an even looser R&B hang-sesh, full of tracks that pulse with authenticity. Like this homage to Houston night life, heavy with the syrupy air of a perfect summer Saturday.

5. Partner – “Tell You Off”

Remember when people yelled at each other in person?

6. The Comet Is Coming – “Summon the Fire”

The latest twist on the post-Stranger Things horror synth revival comes from these Londoners, who pepper their ominous atmosphere with distorted sax leads, like Kamasi Washington being chased by Michael Myers.

7. Little Simz – “Boss”

We stay in the UK for this blast of raw, Neptunes-inspired swagger. Take a goddamn seat, Bruce Springsteen.

8. Helado Negro – “Imagining What To Do”

Calypso Nick Drake.

9. Mykele Deville – “Free Soul”

Beginning with a shoutout to Digable Planets’s Blowout Comb (the 59th best album of the 1990s), this Chicago emcee delivers a mix of jazz loops and positive vibes that lights up my nostalgia centers like a Christmas tree.

10. Quelle Chris – “Obamacare”

Over a swirling cold front of scary-ass piano loops, Quelle Chris raps about how his music is for everybody.

11. Honey Oat – “A Stranger Spring”

Electric piano vamps and jazz drums should be the recipe for a Holiday Inn lounge set, but Honey Oat uses them as the base ingredients of an effervescent, experimental stew.

12. Brutus – “War”

The lead single from this Belgian post-metal trio’s forthcoming LP has a lot in common with Metallica’s “One” – a simple title; martial lyrics; an extended dramatic intro; a thrilling, headbanging flashpoint. But Stefanie Mannaerts is a better singer than James Hetfield, and a better drummer than Lars Ulrich. “One” was a ground battle. This is an airstrike.

 

 

The Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (20-16)

Whoa, we’ve hit the top 20! I’ve been writing this column since 2011, because like a good Gen X-er, I didn’t care that much about following through. Alas, here we are. Five more ’90s classics in ya ear. (You can check out the whole list here.)

91pBFF64j-L._SL1400_20. Beastie Boys – Check Your Head (1992)

That cover image you’re looking at right now, with the Beastie Boys sitting on a curb next to their instrument cases? It wasn’t a joke. Even though Mike D, MCA and Ad-Rock had just reinvented themselves, against all odds, on the triumphant samplepalooza Paul’s Boutique, they took an even bigger risk on the follow-up – ditching their old producers and proven formulas so they could play their own loose concoction of funk, rap and hardcore punk. Like the Monkees, novelty-act status had masked the fact that the Beastie Boys had legitimate musical chops. Check Your Head is stuffed with monumental riffs and meditative instrumentals, lovingly sequenced into 20 tracks that resist the shuffle button. The rapping reflects this anything-goes, jam-session mentality, summed up by Mike D on track one: “All I ever really wanna do is get nice / Get loose and goof a little slice of life.” Only six years after “Brass Monkey” squawked its way onto the charts, this deeply musical, effortlessly electrifying LP entered the world. It was irrefutable proof of one of popular music’s greatest evolutions.

220px-IllmaticNas19. Nas – Illmatic (1994)

There’s a moment, before Nasir Jones raps a word of his debut album, that underlines how incredibly fresh his artistry was. As the ominous, subway-rattling bass line of “NY State of Mind” ramps up underneath, the 20-year-old MC confesses into the mic, “I don’t know how to start this.” And then, even though the ink is still drying, he jumps in, telling stories about life in New York’s Queensbridge projects that are so detailed, you can hear the dice hitting the walls: “On the corner bettin’ Grants with the cee-lo champs / Laughin’ at base-heads tryin to sell some broken amps.” Illmatic is a masterpiece of scene-setting, a clinic of internal rhymes, and an emotional watershed from a composition-book-scrawling kid who grew up surrounded by violence and nourished by poetry. And the beats – crafted by top producers of the ’90s – dramatically soundtrack these vivid scenes, from the clave-clacking quiet-storm R&B of “Life’s a Bitch” to the mournful organ loop of “Memory Lane.” He may have had no clue how to begin, but once Nas took that leap, it would be 38 minutes before he touched the ground.

CarWheelson_aGravelRoad18. Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998)

Lucinda Williams wanted her fourth album to sound a particular way. Warmer, punchier, more like the Pretenders or Steve Earle – “His vocals were more outfront, and it was a bigger sound,” she said about the latter. And thankfully, she stuck to her guns, through six years of label flameouts and disagreements with stubborn male producers (Earle included). Because Car Wheels on a Gravel Road sounds big in the most authentic possible way, a deeply rooted Louisiana oak that we can lean up against for an afternoon. It opens with “Right In Time,” an achingly physical love song that pairs visceral yearning (“Think about you and that long ride / I bite my nails, I get weak inside”) with a chiming guitar riff that’s as fulfilling as the sound of your lover pulling into the driveway. As Williams goes on to explore the nooks and crannies of Southern music, from jukebox country to jailbird folk and dobro-happy roots-rock, the connective tissue is her voice – defiantly front and center, singing about wandering spirits seeking meaning, making it seem like the journey itself could be enough.

Things_Fall_Apart_4117217. The Roots – Things Fall Apart (1999)

With the millennium coming to an end, the Clinton crime bill wreaking havoc on black communities, and an extended era of anti-Muslim fear-mongering right around the corner, The Roots released an album called Things Fall Apart. It was, quite ironically, the moment where everything came together for them. There’s a feeling of unrest throughout, an understanding that now it’s time to spark shit. Beats fade away in the middle of verses, the rappers left alone to soldier on. Its lead single, a love song about trust, prominently features the line “sometimes relationships get ill.” Its bookends are an argument between musicians from Mo’ Better Blues and a spoken word screed about the cycle of abuse. But even with the pull of these serious undercurrents, Things Fall Apart is a delight to listen to, a telepathic group at its peak, lovingly laid to tape. The crisp crack of Questlove’s snare; Kamal Gray’s nourishing Fender Rhodes vamps; Black Thought’s sweat-on-the-mic intensity – it gels in that next-level Revolver way. Resulting in a record that makes you feel grateful for its artistry, and wary of what’s to come.

https___images.genius.com_f251dcf3649ff26ca4be1d103d3a9173.1000x1000x116. Smog – Knock Knock (1999)

“Let’s go to the country / just you and me,” goes the opening lines of singer/songwriter Bill Callahan’s seventh LP. But that invitation wasn’t as casual as it sounded. Knock Knock found Callahan expanding his palette, both lyrically and instrumentally, the obscure lo-fi vision of his early albums making way for richly rendered, naturalistic tone-poems about empathetic prison guards, bone-chilling childhood traumas, and restorative balms of affection. “I lay back in the tall grass / And let the ants cover me,” he sings in his rumbling basso, describing a moment of psychological healing like Leonard Cohen on a Thoreau kick. The music is equally exploratory, using bouncing cellos and children’s choirs to buoy Callahan’s lush, searching guitar. It’s a formula he’d take to even more panoramic heights later on in his career, a smirking cowboy wading through amber waves of pain, coming out the other side humbled and smitten. Making Knock Knock even more meaningful in context. This isn’t just some invitation to a three-day weekend on the lake. It’s an artist taking the first steps into the underbrush of his soul.

February’s Bestest Songs

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Here are my favorite tracks from the February that was. It was so cold, it should work at Friendly’s.


1. Lizzo – “Cuz I Love You”

Lizzo reminds us that love is the best kind of devastating, singing with real, visceral, mascara-streaked joy. An instant classic.

2. Benjamin Earl Turner – “Ja Rule”

If Mega Millions branded their winnings as “I don’t give a fuck money,” I’d buy a ticket every day.

3. Jessica Pratt – “Poly Blue”

My wife perfectly described this gentle folk song as music to put on while taking a nap with someone you love. She was totally talking about me, right???

4. Ex Hex – “Rainbow Shiner”

Mary Timony’s shit-hot band is back after five years, writing riffs that make me search for used El Caminos on Craigslist.

5. Serengeti – “Dust”

Over a playful Wurlitzer loop that would make MF Doom jealous, this Chicago MC shows off his knack for describing professional failures: “Wanted to be a food stylist / Ended up at Little Caesar’s.”

6. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – “For Real”

A previously unreleased gem about artistic authenticity, from one of rock’s most authentic voices.

7. Tierra Whack – “Only Child”

Current lyric of the year: “You done turn my heart so cold / I should work at Friendly’s.”

8. Kero Kero Bonito – “The Open Road”

If you didn’t believe this delightful British trio had hooks to spare, remember that this is a fricking B-side.

9. Maxo Kream – “Meet Again”

This gifted Houston rapper pairs heartbreaking rhymes about an imprisoned friend with a beat that’s as smooth as a summer cocktail. This dissonance is brilliance.

10. Spellling – “Haunted Water”

Vintage horror movie synths, torch song vocals, and a shout out to “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” = a formula we didn’t know we needed.

11. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – “Cyboogie”

If our robot overlords could groove like this, John Connor would be out of a job.

12. Mountain Men – “Take Me Home, Country Roads”

One of the purest songs ever written, sung with reverence and warmth? It doesn’t make me cry at all. It’s just getting a little dusty in here, what with all the country road travel and such.

 

 

 

My Best Pictures

Here we are again, dear reader. Another Oscars is upon us. And you know what that means – I’m gonna nominate my own best pictures. Even though I’m a music critic. And even though I own the expanded editions of the Hobbit trilogy on Blu-Ray (there are two really good movies hidden in there!). Why? Because these eight films got to me in 2018, and I would like to share those feelings. What, you’re against SHARING now?

The envelope, please…

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Coen Brothers had been off their game this decade, mythologizing subjects that had already been beaten to death on film – e.g. white guys with guitars; the golden age of Hollywood. So the first time somebody is literally beaten to death in their existential Western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, it’s like welcoming home a nihilistic, hilarious old friend. 22 years after Fargo, these brothers are still unbelievably good at wringing poignancy from the casual depravity of human beings. Staring into the void like a grizzled old prospector, searching for gold.

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Blindspotting

Within the boundaries of a small narrative window – the last three days of an Oakland man’s probation – Carlos López Estrada’s debut feature tackles issues of racism, police brutality, gentrification, corporate branding, gun control, and cultural appropriation. And it does so with a mixture of humor and high theater that underlines how little things have changed since the 1989 release of one of its clear inspirations, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Daveed Diggs plays the mild-mannered Collin, a black man who works for a moving company with his white, hot-headed friend Miles (Rafael Casal). Their interplay, written by Diggs and Casal themselves, undulates between tension and release, hard-won bonds and deep-seated divisions. In other words, it’s American.

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Can You Ever Forgive Me?

In the most prominent antihero narratives of this century, we were given permission to cheer on the acts of violent men, thanks to contrived character devices – they need therapy; they have a disease; they only hurt bad people. Marielle Heller’s film Can You Ever Forgive Me? lets us root for a rule-breaker too, but this time it’s a real person, with nuanced motives, who isn’t hurting anyone but themselves. Melissa McCarthy gives a brilliantly layered performance as Lee Israel, the down-on-her-luck biographer who got busted for selling forged letters from literary greats in the early 1990s. As Heller shows how much the cards were stacked against a middle-aged lesbian writing about what interested her, McCarthy lets us feel the depth of Lee’s frustration, as much through humor as anything – her wit is so sharp, it hurts.

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The Endless

With The Endless, filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead prove it’s possible to make a low-budget, high-concept sci-fi original that’s way better than a SyFy Original. And they do so by turning their limitations into assets. Because it was cheaper, they cast themselves as the leads – two brothers who decide to go back and visit the bizarre sky-worshipping cult where they were raised. They’re convincing as people trapped in an impossible situation, probably because they really felt that way. They successfully build a compelling, creepy atmosphere, using little more than intimations and clues –getting more scares from a scene with a rope than 1,000 CGI zombies. And the unexpectedly moving moral they lay on us, about the value of communicating with the ones you love? Priceless.

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The Favourite

Films about British monarchs are always Oscar favorites. But Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest makes The King’s Speech look like a box of stale crisps. It’s 1708, and Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, who should win everything) is in ill health, relying more and more on her friend, political advisor and lover, Sarah the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz, not fucking around). When Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone, convincingly conniving) arrives at court looking for work, the film becomes a no-holds-barred power struggle between the three women. Full of blood and dirt and shit-talk and hilarious parodies of cotillion dances, The Favourite almost feels like a spoof of prestige palace intrigue dramas. But the acting is too damn good for that. When we see the ache in Colman’s eyes as she explains why she owns 17 rabbits, we see human need. And the understanding that there will always be people lining up outside her chambers, waiting for their chance to exploit it.

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Hereditary

When I reviewed The Shining as part of my ongoing series about Stephen King, I was struck by something the novel did better than the movie – explore how horrifying the idea of heredity can be. In 2018, first-time director Ari Aster came along and picked up those threads that Stanley Kubrick ignored. Hereditary is an intense, visionary horror story about a family with inescapable darkness in its DNA. Anchored by a riveting performance from Toni Collette, who plays a mother torn apart by grief and haunted by ancestral evil, Aster is free to absolutely drench his movie in dread. Small things like candy bars, doormats and clucking noises become unforgettably corrupted. Even scenes that happen in broad daylight are not reprieves. And why would they be, when the call is coming from inside your genes?

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Mandy

As a fan of Clive Barker, Ash Williams, and the most committed actor on the planet – Nicolas Cage – I probably would have enjoyed Mandy even if it was directed by some hack. But filmmaker Panos Cosmatos has made a psychedelic horror revenge spectacle, alive with mesmerizing, satanic-Lisa-Frank energy. In just one early scene where Red (Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) are lying in bed, talking about their favorite planets, Cosmatos wholeheartedly establishes their deep, quiet love. So when disaster strikes at the hands of a druggy, demon-summoning cult, the stakes are real. The ensuing long take of Cage crying in his underwear is probably what Mandy is most famous for – but it’s not a moment to rubberneck at weird ol’ Nic. It’s genuinely heartbreaking. As Red sets out for revenge on humans and hellspawn alike, we get a full hour of the best kind of B-movie thrills, elevated by A+ artistry.

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Support the Girls

Support the Girls may be officially categorized as a workplace comedy, but make no mistake – this is a superhero movie. Over the course of one workday as the manager of Double Whammies, a locally owned “breastaurant” mired in a thicket of Texas highways, we follow the unflinchingly optimistic Lisa Conroy (Regina Hall, nominated for Best Actress in an alternate dimension more just than our own), as she deals with one shitty situation after another – an attempted robbery, a cable outage, a racist boss, an alienated husband, a staff under constant threat of harassment. Writer/director Andrew Bujalski establishes a heartbreaking pattern: Lisa puts love out into the world, then the world throws it back in her face with onion-ring-slurping indifference. Each time, Hall’s smile slips just a little bit more. Until eventually, it’s Lisa’s turn to be supported. In the final scene, women that Lisa loved and protected help her process her outrage. Standing side by side, on a roof, as forces for good.

Honorable Mentions: Apostle, Black Panther, Breaking In, Chappaquiddick, Crazy Rich Asians, Eighth Grade, Ghost Stories, Halloween, Minding the Gap, Mom and Dad, Proud Mary, A Quiet Place, Shirkers, Sorry to Bother You, Suspiria, Unsane

January’s Bestest Songs

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During the first month of 2019, I was happiest when these tracks were spinning in my Discman.


1. Chaka Khan – “Hello Happiness”

Having trouble feeling optimistic about 2019? Ms. Khan would like four minutes of your time.

2. Steve Gunn – “Vagabond”

This swirling acoustic ramble feels like it could go on forever. It’s almost disappointing when it doesn’t.

3. CupcakKe – “Squidward Nose”

Parental advisory: explicit, hilarious, empowering, compulsively joyful lyrics.

4. Moon Tooth – “Trust”

Prog-metal candy.

5. Weyes Blood – “Andromeda”

What if Karen Carpenter fronted Pink Floyd?

6. Aesop Rock & Tobacco – “Tuesday”

Hearing the epically verbose Aesop Rock break down his personal hygiene fails is like going to a Garbage Pail Kids retrospective at the Met.

7. Sofi Tukker & Zhu – “Mi Rumba”

I used to think I had no need for Right Said Fred-inspired sex bops in my life. Wrong Said Me.

8. Daniel Knox – “Leftovers”

A bitter satire of male entitlement, “Leftovers” marks Daniel Knox as a Randy Newman fan – a surefire way to make this list.

9. Big K.R.I.T. – “Energy”

A silky smooth call to action from the last man standing in the Dirty South.

10. Sharon Van Etten – “Comeback Kid”

Sharon goes Siouxie.

11. James Blake – “I’ll Come Too”

“I wouldn’t do this on my own / But I’m not on my own tonight.” Swoon.

What I Learned from “A Star Is Born”

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As a part of my yearly compulsion to watch as many Oscar-nominated movies as possible, my Januaries and Februaries are jam-packed with biopics, melodramas, and movies about how magical movies are. As part of this year’s neurotic box-checking, I held my breath and pressed play on A Star Is Born, a straightforward story about a woman getting famous and dealing with a jealous-ass dude. If it sounds familiar, that’s probably because this version is the third reboot of the 1937 original. Why did director and star Bradley Cooper feel compelled to revisit this well-tread ground? Because Oscar voters adore well-tread ground. (And because he’s into Eddie Vedder cosplay.) Here’s what else this perfectly mediocre prestige picture has taught me:

1. Women can’t succeed until a man tells them they look pretty.

Our movie begins with Bradley Cooper’s booze-soaked rock star character, Jackson Maine (ugh), telling his driver to drop him off at the nearest bar, which happens to be a drag club. The drag queens give some precious stage time to their friend Ally (Gaga), who does a spirited sendup of “La Vie En Rose” that showcases her obvious talent. Maine invites Ally out for a drink after. And over the course of their rambling first date, she reveals that she’s never believed in herself because of insecurities about her looks. She’s resigned to a life working as a caterer with her Gay Best Friend™ and living with her dad. But then, Maine tells her she’s pretty. A few months later, she’s a star.

2. Male mumbling = Oscar gold

It seems weird at first when we hear Maine speak – Cooper gives him a deep, mushmouthed drawl, whether he’s drunk or sober. But Oscar voters love men who can’t enunciate! Jeff Bridges won Best Actor for playing a muttering country singer in the forgettable Crazy Heart. Billy Bob Thornton (deservedly) won Best Adapted Screenplay for his iconic caption-needer Sling Blade. Matthew McConaughey’s entire existence is one long mumble, and he won Best Actor for the pretty damn offensive Dallas Buyers Club. If Cooper wins this year, expect even more serious actors to start delivering lines like a sleepy hobo.

3. “If you don’t dig deep into your soul, you won’t have legs.”

I don’t know if I can claim to have learned this, because I have no idea what it means.

4. Southern rock is “real music.”

One of the most fantastical parts of this sweeping Hollywood romance is that a passable Southern rock performer would be not only a massive, universally recognized star, but a star-maker to boot, in 2018. I can suspend disbelief on this – he’s got great hair, and Blake Shelton does exist. But I can’t abide the movie’s weird obsession with romanticizing Maine’s musty genre. When Ally starts making pop music, it’s portrayed as a betrayal of Jackson’s gritty artistic ethos. As if music with guitars is somehow more meaningful. As if the actor playing Ally isn’t living proof that dance music inspires millions. Jackson Maine is an old crank muttering “disco sucks,” and the movie doesn’t have the decency to mock him for it.

5. Plot holes? Paper-thin characters? La-la-la I can’t hear you!!!

Way too much of A Star Is Born’s running time is devoted to Jackson & Ally performing. And that’s by design – much like fellow Best Picture nominee Bohemian Rhapsody, this glut of concert/studio/rehearsal footage works to distract us from the underdeveloped main characters. Jackson & Ally’s relationship is pretty much a tire fire from the beginning, her love being no match for his alcoholism, unresolved anger toward his father, and out-of-control jealousy. But we only get an occasional glance at this dynamic, in between extended music videos of the film’s sturdy-enough original songs. So when the movie (82-year-old spoilers ahead) takes a dark final turn, it feels completely unearned. Not that I’m complaining – I needed those musical distractions to get me through. In fact, let’s insert Lady Gaga and Freddie Mercury performances into every misguided modern drama! Just imagine if Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri spent less time trying to get us to empathize with a racist cop, and cut to a vintage performance of “Somebody to Love” instead.

 

 

 

 

 

Catching Up with Stephen King: Misery

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I ignored all the other cockadoodie books on my shelf and got hopelessly addicted to Misery.

misery7Drugs get too much credit for great works of art. Sgt. Pepper’s is widely considered to be The Beatles’ “LSD album,” despite the fact they quit touring right before they recorded it, allowing them to focus 100% on studio innovations. Salvador Dali’s surrealist visions led people to assume that drugs must be the cause, but all signs point to him being clean: “I don’t do drugs,” he claimed. “I am drugs.” It’s not as romantic, or inclusive, of a narrative, but imaginative art doesn’t come from substances. It comes from people who are really, really imaginative.

Which leads us to our old friend Stephen King. It’s now pretty much common knowledge  that at his popular peak, from the late ’70s to the late ’80s, the author was churning out novel after novel under the influence of cocaine. In his memoir/manual On Writing, he admits to barely remembering writing 1981’s rabid dog thriller Cujo. From 1982-1987, he published twelve novels. The easy takeaway would be to say that coke adversely affected his art, goosing his already healthy ego to make it impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff. But coke didn’t prevent Pet Sematary from being a patiently plotted masterpiece of parental paranoia. And sobriety didn’t prevent him from thinking that a bloated misfire like Bag of Bones was worth putting his name on in the ’90s.

I’m laying out all of this context because the book we’re talking about today is very much about drug addiction. It was written at the tail end of King’s strung-out decade, and features all sorts of compelling meta parallels between bingeable content and bingeable substances. Aptly titled Misery, it’s a battle royale between an artist and his addictions – and an achievement in dramatic tension that left me trembling, even though Rob Reiner’s movie adaptation spoiled the ending for me 29 years ago. Cocaine is undoubtedly an influence on this story’s monster. But it’s the author who’s dealing.

Misery begins inside the head of its protagonist, as a scene takes shape amidst the haze of his thoughts – a tide receding to reveal old, rotting pylons. He’s thinking in metaphors because he’s a famous drugstore novelist named Paul Sheldon. He’s thinking about pylons because there’s something very wrong with his legs. He’s in a mental fog because he’s been drugged. “He wished he was dead, but through the pain-soaked haze that filled his mind like a summer storm-cloud, he did not know he wished it,” King explains on page one.

stephen_king_misery_coverSo, before we know anything else about Sheldon, we know he’s an addict in a bind. And, as King was sure to know first hand, this ebb and flow of pain and bliss would make it excruciatingly difficult for his character to think critically. It would take forever for him to fully understand how he had leapt from the frying pan into the hellfire. Every time the drugs start to wear off, it’s a race between Paul’s wits and his nerve endings. He’s an addled bomb squad captain, running out of time.

The bomb Paul needs to defuse is Annie Wilkes – the author’s “number one fan” – who just happened to stumble across the wreck of his car after he lost control while leadfooting it to California. After dragging his unconscious form to her remote Colorado farmhouse, Annie locked Paul in her guest room, and began administering doses of Novril, a powerful opiate that not just anyone would have lying around.

The genius of the tide-like narrative flow is that we, along with Paul, get to slowly realize what a terrifying psychopath Annie Wilkes truly is. One of King’s great villains, Annie is part church lady, part Spanish Inquisitor, refusing to swear while she wields instruments of torture. She says things like “cockadoodie,” collects Hummel-like figurines, gossips about her neighbors, and loves Sheldon’s schlocky Victorian romance novels with a passion. But when she breaks, her eyes get glassy and she engages in acts of self-harm that were harder for me to read than the book’s goriest moments. Annie is a way more interesting and nuanced character than selfish old Paul. If she wasn’t an “angel of death”-style serial killer, I’d absolutely root for her.

10614The more Paul gets his wits together, the more intense Misery becomes. Despite his shattered legs and debilitating addiction, he figures out how to pick the lock on his bedroom door while Annie is running errands. We’re right there with him as he wheels through the house, weighing the odds of escape. The more we rack our brains, the more we realize that the only way out is to discover if the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. The book then reaches a new level of poignancy as King lets his meta flag fly. Paul decides to bring his beloved main character, Misery Chastain, back to life in a brand new novel. Because as long as he’s writing, Annie can’t kill him. She needs to find out what happens. She, too, is addicted. Here she is, talking about how much she loved cliffhanger-heavy film serials when she was a kid:

“‘What I really looked forward to was the next installment of the chapter-play. I’d find myself thinking about it at odd moments all week long. If a class was boring, or if I had to babysit Mrs. Kremnitz’s four brats downstairs. I used to hate those little brats.’ Annie lapsed into a moody silence, staring into the corner. She had become unplugged.'”

As King details the warring emotions of Paul Sheldon, who begins to care as much about his corny, mildly racist new Misery novel as Annie does, we get an unfiltered view of the author at his most vulnerable. In 1987, Stephen King was one of the most famous writers on earth, with the giant ego necessary to achieve such a feat. But he was not taken seriously by the literary establishment. And taken too seriously by his fanatical following, a prospect that’s as frightening as it is flattering. He reacted to all of it by doing the only thing he knew. Writing, to find out what happens next.

The closer Paul gets to finishing Misery’s Return, the more antsy (and stabby) Annie gets, to the point where she starts kindly asking for spoilers. He eventually has to admit something he had denied forever – writing hacky melodramas is his calling. And he needed the help of Annie Wilkes to reach this moment of clarity. In her basement, alone with his thoughts, Paul and Stephen blur into one:

“Had he hated Misery? Had he really? … misery-9781501156748_hrPerhaps all he had hated was the fact that her face on the dust jackets had overshadowed his in his author photographs, not allowing the critics to see that they were dealing with a young Mailer or Cheever here – they were dealing with a heavyweight here.”

By the time we get to the final, heart-stopping showdown between Paul and Annie, involving molasses-slow police and a heavy, broken typewriter, Misery has become so much more than a top-notch bottle-episode thriller. King uncovers the potential horror undergirding any symbiotic relationship – writer and reader, patient and caretaker, farmer and livestock. And he does it without overwhelming the basics of the plot. That raw, trapped feeling is ever-present, making us feel like the other Misery in this story – Annie’s pig, squealing into the darkness, entirely, horrifyingly dependent.

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. Misery

3. Carrie

4. The Shining

5. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

6. 11/22/63

7. The Stand

8. The Gunslinger

9. Bag of Bones