The Fifth Best Album of the 1990s

Well lookie here. There are only five entries left in my Top 100 Albums of the ’90s countdown. I’m gonna spend a little bit more time on each of our remaining classics, starting with #5 – the album that transformed Atlanta, Georgia, into a hip hop mecca.

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5. Outkast – Aquemini

There’s something inherently captivating about duos. Two people whose chemistry is inevitably intertwined with their creations, who push one another to heights they could never achieve individually. It’s why Simon was never as good without Garfunkel. Jack is lost without Meg. And Tip sounds incomplete without Phife.

In 1998, the rap duo Outkast released an album that was about this specific dynamic. They called it Aquemini, a portmanteau of the rapper/producers’ zodiac signs (Big Boi is an Aquarius; Andre 3000 is a Gemini), and proceeded to write songs about the intensity of their friendship and the magic of their chemistry, while exhibiting a zen-like acceptance of its eventual demise.

And all of this held water, because musically, these guys were at their absolute peak. They invited live musicians to their Atlanta studio to stretch, deepen and distort their sound, slow-roasting it until any resemblance to East or West Coast rap had sloughed off onto the coals. Aquemini absorbed the sprawling, earthy aesthetic of Parliament-Funkadelic more organically than Dr. Dre’s samples ever could. It set a bar for Dirty South hip hop that has arguably never been cleared. It’s one of the boldest, most self-aware recordings in rap history.

“Stickin’ together like flour and water to make that slow dough / We worked for everything we have and gon’ stick up for / Each other,” proclaims Big Boi on his first verse of the album. The song, ironically titled “Return of the ‘G’,” is a spleen-vent against anybody who was weirded out by Outkast’s 1996 LP, ATLiens (#83 on this list). They’d left the “harder” gangsta rap of their hit debut in the dust, in favor of longer, spacier, more overtly Southern funk experiments. They weren’t pimps anymore. They were aliens. And that was alienating to people who don’t take kindly to change.

“Some of my fashion choices people didn’t accept at the time. I started getting flak from some people, so they were like, ‘Either he’s gay or on drugs,’” Andre shared in an interview. It’s the kind of situation that regularly destroys artistic partnerships – blowback from fans largely directed to one artist, who ends up getting an inordinate amount of attention. Outkast responded by closing ranks.

Aquemini’s lyrical scope is as wide as its sonic palette, including stories about how poverty can strangle hope, detailed deconstructions of failed relationships, and a myriad of ways to let us know why Big Boi and Dre are the type of people that make the club get crunk. But that sense of brotherhood is the common thread, the unifying vision that makes this ambitious, 75-minute album feel not only coherent, but full of exhilarating urgency right up until the last wailing guitar note of “Chonkyfire.” Even the few skippable moments – a pair of skits set in a record store where Outkast haters can’t wait to hear the new “Pimp Trick Gangsta Clique” album – are rooted in the adversity that tempered their bond.

Aptly, it’s on the horoscope-melding title track where everything comes together, and the core ethos of this record is laid bare. Over a syrupy R&B groove where glittering guitar chords can seemingly ring out forever, Andre whispers a chorus about impermanence:

Nothing is for sure
Nothing is for certain
Nothing lasts forever
But until they close the curtain
It’s him and I, Aquemini

Some people use the inevitable end of things as a good reason to give up. This pair of 23 year olds took it as irrefutable evidence that they needed to work even harder. Because the energy created by their duality was special. And thanks to the miracle of recording technology, they had the ability to trap that energy in amber.

Eight years after Aquemini ruled the world, Outkast dropped their clunky film project Idlewild. It was the duo’s first true misstep, and Big Boi and Andre 3000 went their separate ways soon after. They could’ve stayed together and made expertly crafted rap music for years to come. But they could feel that curtain closing. Even when they broke up, they were absolutely on the same page. Today, with popular music an ever-growing cult of personality, there are very few duos making noise. But we can still press play on Aquemini and sit in wonder of what can happen when two driven, talented individuals find inspiration in one another.

 

October’s Bestest Songs

CLean Oct.jpegHere are my favorite tracks from October 2019. I will not be trading these pieces of sonic candy for ANYTHING. Nope, not even Junior Mints.


1. Gang Starr – “Bad Name”

I don’t understand how Gang Starr is releasing new music, and not just because 50% of the group was lost forever when Guru succumbed to cancer in 2010. Rap has evolved and splintered in so many ways since the duo’s mid-’90s peak. Yet when the serpentine rasp of an unearthed Guru verse finds the pocket of DJ Premier’s rumbling, trumpet-flecked beat, “Bad Name” feels impossibly, thrillingly alive.

2. Caribou – “Home”

You know you’re doing something right in life when the return of a daily routine is cause for celebration.

3. Neil Young & Crazy Horse – “Eternity”

On Neil Young’s new LP, which seethes with environmental outrage, this sweet, ramshackle love song is the eye of the storm – an effective reminder of all we have to lose.

4. Pusha T – “Succession (Remix)”

Pusha T sounds completely at ease rapping over the theme to HBO’s white-collar depravity drama Succession. And of course he does – he’s our poet laureate of dirty deals.

5. Kim Petras – “Close Your Eyes”

EDM Elvira realness.

6. Sudan Archives – “Glorious”

Violin-fueled R&B is not something I knew I needed.

7. Danny Brown – “Combat”

Danny Brown might be the most versatile rapper working. He’s got a voice that could drown out a marching band, but here he is, gently cracking wise over a muted trumpet loop: “I don’t give a fuck / I could talk a cat off the back of a fish truck.”

8. Coldplay – “Arabesque”

Based on this advance track from its impending double album, Coldplay is getting back to doing what they do best – writing catchy, atmospheric songs that shamelessly, earnestly embrace us. Don’t we all need a hug these days?

9. Ghetto Sage – “Haagen Dazs”

A memo to Chance & Kanye: Chicago has left you behind. Ghetto Sage is the second dynamic Windy City rap crew to make this list in 2019, and they’ve got the heady slam poetry of Noname to anchor this ice cream-metaphor-laden jam: “Looking at Ben and Jerry / Hope one of my n—-s coming through.”

10. Wiki – “Fee Fi Fo Fum”

As sitars burble under the surface, this self-proclaimed New York giant casually raps about sipping Arnold Palmer. Damn, does it go down easy.

11. Bask – “Three White Feet”

Celebrate the early darkness of late fall by cranking this – a beautiful, billowing cold front of progressive Southern metal.

September’s Bestest Songs

September.jpegHere are my favorite tracks from September 2019, the month in which the temps started dipping, it got easier to sleep at night, and it became socially acceptable to make chili again. I am going to make pounds of chili, and it will be just for my wife and me. STEP AWAY FROM THE LADLE. BAD!


1. Hannah Diamond & Danny L. Harle – “Part of Me”

A luminously sad banger from two of the PC Music collective’s fiercest talents. As Diamond sings about the imprints we make on one another, Harle’s dreamy xylophone leaves its own indelible mark.

2. slowthai (feat. Denzel Curry) – “Psycho”

This intense British emcee invites one of America’s finest to shred syllables over a diabolical, Bernard Hermann-sampling beat.

3. Sturgill Simpson – “Best Clockmaker On Mars”

Of all the compelling ways this country visionary has bucked the Nashville establishment over the years, this ZZ Top Eliminator cosplay is the most fun.

4. Begonia – “Fear”

Over a stripped, claps-and-bass groove, this Manitoba singer/songwriter laundry lists her fears. Taking musical risks is not one of them.

5. Danny Brown – “Dirty Laundry”

Danny Brown is one of the best rappers alive, and his new Q-Tip-produced LP is imminent. If it’s as loosely confident as this track, we might have to lose “one of.”

6. Van Morrison – “Dark Night of the Soul”

It’s extremely reassuring to learn that, at 74, Van still sounds like Van. Buoyant, just a little bit restless, and hopeful as the morning sky after a rainstorm.

7. Mariah Carey – “In the Mix”

On the theme song to the new Black-ish prequel, Mariah Carey also takes a look back – to that carefree, roller-blading-in-the-sunshine, “Fantasy”-era sound.

8. Red Death – “Face the Pain”

I’ve never met a chugging Motorhead riff I didn’t like.

9. Charli XCX – “White Mercedes”

Charli XCX’s brand of delirium-inducing club-pop often sounds best at full volume. On this majestic synthed-out ballad, the artist confesses why: “I hate the silence / That’s why the music’s always loud.”

10. Bull – “Love Goo”

Long live the Kinks.

11. Angel Olsen – “Lark”

Sometimes an artist releases a song so epic, so overwhelmingly emotional, so technically awe-inspiring, that it can’t go anywhere but at the end of a mix. Like “Lark,” which rises from folk murmurs to orchestral eruptions, like the ocean engulfing a volcano.

The Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (10-6)

So here we are, gang. Ten albums left. Can you believe it? It’s only taken me eight years to get here! EFFICIENCY. These next five LPs certainly meant a lot to me as a mumbling high school and college student who smelled weird because he’d never learned to wash properly.

ATribeCalledQuestTheLowEndtheory10. A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory (1991)

In 1991, it was getting harder to disregard rap music as a fad. A year earlier, “Ice Ice Baby” and “U Can’t Touch This” gave the world a preview of the genre’s inevitable crossover dominance. (On the day I’m writing this, 9 of the top 20 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 come from rappers.) A Tribe Called Quest was decidedly not celebrating this. “Rap is not pop / If you call it that, then stop,” scolded rapper/producer Q-Tip on the Queens trio’s second LP. Here were young artists on the cusp of stardom, who had already landed a hit by sampling “Walk On the Wild Side,” abandoning that path and consciously pursuing a different type of hook – anchored in the syncopations of jazz and the pentameters of poetry. “Don’t you know that things move in cycles?” Q-Tip asks his father on his iconic opening verse, openly acknowledging that this new and exciting genre was indebted to the record and book collections of generations past. And with this bold, anthropological mission driving them, Tribe recorded some of the wisest, funkiest, most sweepingly joyful rap songs in history. Tip and the forever-underrated Phife Dawg trade bars about everything from growing up together to dealing with psychotic A&R guys, giving other artists a blueprint for their own careers. They were never pop stars as a result. They’ll just have to settle for being legends.

220px-Pnyc9. Portishead – Live from Roseland, NYC (1998)

Of the handful of James Bond movies I’ve seen, my favorite parts are the songs. A talented vocalist belts their guts out, their voice trembling with emotion, the minor-key arrangement inevitably boiling over with a scalding spray of brass. Then the director credit fades, along with that feeling. Because James Bond is about as passionate as a cold shower. The Terminator feels more. A love of Bond themes was central to the aesthetic of Portishead, the Bristol trip-hop pioneers who combined throwback ’60s horn and string charts with blasts of synthetic noise and head-spinning displays of record scratching.  But it was singer Beth Gibbons that made the trio so much more than a formula. She approached these songs like a self-aware Shirley Bassey, who knows that these intense feelings are unrequited, marveling at the energy she can muster for one so undeserving. And Live from Roseland, NYC is the ultimate document of her achievement. Backed by a full orchestra, which gives Portishead’s ambitiously cinematic sound the dynamic scope it deserves – from whispering strings to trammeling trombones – Gibbons sings with the concentrated energy of a spirit trying to move something corporeal. “I can’t hold this day / Anymore,” she bemoans on “Over,” as a lone guitar delivers a two-note eulogy. By the end of that song, its singer is wailing; the orchestra is at triple fortissimo; the DJ is scratching like there’s bugs in the vinyl. And we are both shaken, and stirred.

Magnolia_album8. Aimee Mann – Magnolia: Music from the Motion Picture (1999)

The soundtrack album for the film Magnolia – Paul Thomas Anderson’s indulgent masterpiece about the intersecting lives of despairing Californians – contains tracks from four different artists. Yet it’s credited, right there on the cover, to Aimee Mann. This is entirely appropriate, because Anderson has admitted that Mann’s lyrics heavily influenced these stories. At one point, Melora Walters’s character delivers the first line of “Deathly” in conversation: “Now that I’ve met you / Would you object to / Never seeing each other again?” That line is peak Mann, untangling the complicated internal lives of the victimized in a handful of syllables. Like the movie, she makes sure to let pinpricks of hope shine through over the course of nine tracks, making the sadness ring even truer. The richly layered folk arrangements have the color palette of a sunset – nuances of warmth form a halo around Mann’s steady, reassuring voice. And songs like the Oscar-nominated “Save Me” express a stubborn, foundational belief in romantic alchemy – broken hearts can find understanding souls. And when they do, they fuse together to create something new, and strong, and good. The balance of the Magnolia soundtrack is also spot-on – a pair of Supertramp classics about self-actualization and its aftermath; the cheerful self-help R&B of Gabrielle’s “Dreams”; the fairy-tale malaise of Jon Brion’s theme. But this soundtrack belongs to one person, who suspects they could never love anyone, singing songs that will immediately appeal to anyone who ever has.

https___images.genius.com_0e92782dd80e4fc1b0ea056705fba60b.1000x1000x17. Erykah Badu – Baduizm (1997)

When Motown label head Kedar Massenburg introduced the term “neosoul” to describe artists like D’Angelo and Erykah Badu, it was marketing at its emptiest. And most successful. “Neosoul” records, of which Baduizm remains the gold standard, were actually “retrosoul” records – summoning the organic warmth of ’70s Motown while supposedly slighting the slick, rap-influenced R&B that was ruling the charts. It was a white lie to make traditionalists feel like they weren’t out of touch. Lulled by Badu’s nightclub jazz arrangements and laconic, Billie Holiday drawl, they probably never picked up on just how much this Dallas singer, songwriter and iconically headwrapped Soulquarian loved hip hop. “You rush into destruction cause you don’t have nothing left / The mothership can’t save you so your ass is gon’ get left,” Badu sings with the swaggering syncopation of a rapper, on Baduizm‘s first single, “On & On.” This quiet confidence propels her performance throughout, as she dismisses those who dismiss her intelligence, confronts a guy who tries to roofie her, and wrestles with the risks of loving a drug dealer. Her songs and the way she sings them elevate the midtempo jazz vamps that are Baduizm‘s stock in trade. Also like a rapper, she turns to bass lines for guidance, wrapping her syllables around them until they become indelible earworms. In the process, Badu made an intergenerational soul album that reassured her elders, inspired countless rappers, poets and R&B singers, and wove a spell that holds to this day. It was something new, after all.

220px-Radiohead.okcomputer.albumart6. Radiohead – OK Computer (1997)

Countless rock bands have written songs about life on the road. Because touring is what bands do, and you write about what you know. But no artist has used their experience on tour to communicate larger metaphors as effectively as Radiohead did on its third album. Singer/songwriter Thom Yorke mined some terrifying and disorienting travel experiences for material, resulting in songs about car and plane crashes, insane thoughts in tight spaces, and grabbing your bags before dawn in a panic. “Transport, motorways and tramlines / Starting and then stopping / Taking off and landing / The emptiest of feelings,” he observes. But this is not an album about airports. By taking that odd sense of disconnection we feel while traveling and applying it to our relationships with our bosses, political representatives, and inner selves, OK Computer tapped into a creeping cultural malaise that would eventually overtake us. Listening today, its themes resonate as strongly as ever, pulled from the brink of fatalism time and again by the music, which is as towering and tender as the band has ever sounded. The six-minute anti-capitalist epoch “Paranoid Android” shifts from buzzsaw guitar screaming to a spine-tingling choral breakdown, giving Gen X its own “Stairway to Heaven” moment in the process. On “Let Down” and “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” Jonny Greenwood’s clean guitar sounds wash over Yorke’s dour observations like cleansing foam. And the arrangement on “No Surprises,” featuring a major-scale glockenspiel loop that could just as easily have been whistled, sounds like brainwashing feels – just a little too perfect. As a result, Radiohead made an album about hopelessness that achieved unforeseen levels of melodic uplift. Like a plane that’s just left the ground, it’s a miracle. One that doesn’t give us much room to breathe.

August’s Bestest Songs

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Here are my favorite tracks from August 2019, during which I spent a glorious week in Western Newfoundland, listening to Bill Callahan sing about romantic contentment with the person I love, creating a feedback loop of bliss that has carried me to this very moment. September, you’ve got your work cut out for you.


1. Donny Benét – “Second Dinner”

Over an irresistible midnight snack of a post-disco groove, this Aussie sings about his preferred pathway to pleasure these days – overeating.

2. BROCKHAMPTON – “Boy Bye”

Confessional millennial lounge-rap realness.

3. Sheer Mag – “Blood from a Stone”

This Philly quartet doesn’t just re-create 1970s working-man hard-rock like some novelty act. Singer Tina Halladay gives the supposedly tired sound an adrenaline shot to the heart, to the point where you can almost smell the spilled Miller on your Dickies.

4. Rosalía (feat. Ozuna) – “Yo x Ti, Tu x Mi”

Steel drums and iron-clad devotion were meant to be paired.

5. Esther Rose – “Only Loving You”

Some things never lose their power. Like starry-eyed country songs that rhyme “I love you” with “It’s true.”

6. Young Thug (feat. Lil Baby) – “Bad Bad Bad”

When Young Thug is at his best, every syllable is a hook. When he raps about rose gold helicopter seats on “Bad Bad Bad,” it’s not just an insanely evocative depiction of wealth – it’s a goddamn singalong.

7. Normani – “Motivation”

If an early-’00s R&B revival is upon us, I am here for it.

8. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – “Planet B”

These Aussie psych-rock weirdos just released their seventh LP in three years. But instead of jumping the shark, they’ve become a shark jumping at us, screaming about our dying planet over ’80s-throwback thrash-metal riffs.

9. Rapsody (feat.a Leikeli47) – “Oprah”

These bars about circulating your wealth through the world, paired with that boom-bap stand-up bass loop? It’s the thrill of winning a car, in sonic form.

10. Miranda Lambert – “Bluebird”

Miranda Lambert singing about resilience will always be a good thing: “Don’t like where I’m at, 34 was bad / So I just turn to 35.”

11. Missy Elliott – “Throw It Back”

The world is less vibrant when Missy Elliott isn’t dropping singles. And wouldn’t you know it, the sky just got bluer.

12. Lana Del Rey – “The Greatest”

This just in: Lana Del Rey’s writing has officially caught up with her persona. Over a weepy classic rock chord progression that Martin Scorsese will be tempted to use over an extended montage, Del Rey sings about a failed relationship with poetic authenticity.  That would be enough. But then she goes on to capture the devastating ennui of the present, more concisely than any songwriter I’ve heard this year: “LA’s in flames, it’s getting hot / Kanye West is blond and gone / ‘Life On Mars’ ain’t just a song.”

July’s Bestest Songs

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Here are my favorite tracks from July 2019, a month in which it got so hot that I would’ve killed to have a fever of 103º. (Foreigner, you had no idea.)

1. Purple Mountains – “Maybe I’m the Only One for Me”

This delightfully suicidal sad-sack country jaunt from ex-Silver Jews frontman David Berman will have you LOLAL-ing (laughing out loud about loneliness): “If no one’s fond of fucking me / Maybe no one’s fucking fond of me.”

2. YBN Cordae (feat. Anderson .Paak) – “RNP”

This optimistic Chicago newcomer is full of the kind of easy charisma that Chance the Rapper gave up for lent back in 2016. This track pairs him with Anderson .Paak in full guest-spot assassin mode, over a beat that sounds like The Neptunes producing “If I Ruled the World.”

3. Bleached – “Heartbeat Away”

Sober people deserve fist-pumping, scream-along Camaro rock too.

4. Charli XCX (feat. Christine and the Queens) – “Gone”

“It feels so cold in here / I am just now realizing they don’t care,” belts Charli XCX on this triumphant dance-pop duet, using her social anxiety to fuel a flight to incandescent heights.

5. Maxo Kream – “Pray 2 the Dope”

Nobody’s telling stories like Maxo these days. On this one, he raps about working at Panera Bread. It’s riveting.

6. Bat for Lashes – “Feel for You”

Over an undulating swirl of ’80s synths and drum machines, Natasha Khan repeats the same two lines – “I love you / I feel for you.” Sometimes honesty trumps poetry.

7. Ty Segall – “Ice Plant”

The prolific garage rocker leaves the guitar in its case on this a cappella ballad, his unpolished harmonies trembling like emotions laid bare.

8. ShooterGang Kony – “Charlie”

It’s been awhile since rappers leaned on straightforward funk loops to further embolden their swagger. Here’s proof they should do it more.

9. Angel Olsen – “All Mirrors”

One of our most dynamic singer/songwriters seems to be going full, mid-’80s, peak-era Kate Bush, and I’m here for it.

10. High on Fire – “Into the Crypts of Rays”

Is there anything more metal than starting a song with 22 seconds of screaming? Sludge legends High On Fire have done this, and the effect is like one of those Benedictine Monk CDs from the ’90s. At around the :15 mark, the screams start to sound more like a chorus, beckoning us to a higher plane. And then the universe explodes.

11. Lil Nas X (feat. Billy Ray Cyrus, Young Thug and Mason Ramsey) – “Old Town Road (Remix)”

“Old Town Road,” a country track recorded by a gay black man, is not just the longest-running #1 song in pop history. It’s a miracle of sonic science, mutating into different forms at all times, beginning with Billy Ray Cyrus’s savvy remix and moving on to inspire artists like Cupcakke, RM from the Korean boy band BTS, Young Thug, and possibly Dolly Parton. LNX’s song has more than a catchy Trent Reznor banjo loop going for it – its positivity and disregard for labels is even more of hook. How else could Thugga and the yodeling Walmart kid sound so damn good together? I hope it’s #1 forever.

Catching Up with King: The Talisman

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 locked myself in a toolshed and waited for a werewolf to bring me a copy of The Talisman.

Screen Shot 2019-07-04 at 10.56.29 AMStephen King is not synonymous with fantasy quest narratives – the kind of stories that rely on meticulous world-building, magical elements, and traditional constructions of good and evil. But it’s not for a lack of trying. Although its scope included every random thought in the author’s brain, the spine of The Stand was a fellowship of survivors trekking across a wasted American landscape. His Dark Tower series melded the rules of Hollywood westerns into the formula. The Eyes of the Dragon went full Arthurian legend. And The Talisman was the most overt homage to Professor Tolkien, pitting an undersized hero and his loyal friends against forces of darkness powerful enough to threaten multiple universes at once.

King co-wrote the tale – fleshed out from a rough idea he had in college – with his friend and fellow horror scribe Peter Straub (best known for his 1979 novel Ghost Story, about a group of old men haunted by a past misdeed). In an interview, Straub described the writing process as “each of us firing off hundred-page, hundred-and-fifty-page segments at intervals of a month or so.” To the credit of these authors, this seemingly ill-advised relay race approach does not come off stilted at all. The Talisman has its faults, but it’s told in a seamless voice, one that gleefully attempts to make the fantastical feel tangible.

It’s the story of Jack Sawyer, a 12-year-old boy whose ailing mother brings him to an off-season New Hampshire resort town for reasons neither of them truly understand. While wandering the empty carnival grounds he meets Speedy, a black janitor/blues singer  who introduces Jack to “The Territories,” an alternate universe that’s like a Medieval Times version of America, where every person has a mirror entity called a “twinner.” (I’d bet a tidy sum that the introduction of Speedy was written by King, whose incessant treatment of black people as exotic, magical beings is the aspect of his fiction that has aged the worst.) 2a0998dee205d607c699b07d8ef02e23

Jack recognizes The Territories as a place he used to daydream about, and feels the tug of destiny. And thus his quest is laid out for him – in order to cure his mother, he must walk to the west coast of The Territories and find “The Talisman,” an object that only he can claim. There are several mysteries to be unraveled during his journey – why does Jack have a connection to this place? How did his father die? Why is his mother on the run from his father’s old business partner, the deliciously named Morgan Sloat? What the hell is The Talisman?

King and Straub deliver the answers to most of these questions in a steady IV drip, as Jack makes his way, on foot, across America/The Territories. This first half of Jack’s quest is horror-fantasy at its best – a triptych of subplots that finds Jack trailed by monsters and trapped by a sadistic bar owner, a charismatic cult leader, and a cadre of zombified prep-school students. The more comfortable he becomes with flipping, the more intense the story becomes, as the authors can now drop Jack from a frying pan into an interdimensional fire.

One of my favorite sequences of any King book is Jack’s friendship with Wolf, a lycanthropic shepherd from The Territories. After flipping to America together, Jack and his gentle-giant werewolf buddy end up arrested and shipped to the Sunlight Home for Boys, a nightmarish prison disguised as a Christian reformatory school. It’s all too much for Wolf, who hates tight spaces almost as much as the chemical smell of this tainted world. They need to find a way out before the full moon hits. As a critique of evangelical Christians, a tension-ratcheting set piece, and a showcase for the power of friendship, it succeeds wildly. Unfortunately, it’s the toughest spot that Jack finds himself in for the rest of the book.

images.jpgThe closer Jack gets to his goal, the more rushed and sloppy the narrative becomes. After picking up his best friend Richard (Morgan’s traumatized son) on his way west, Jack flips with him, and then steals Sloat’s battery-powered train to ride through the “Blasted Lands.” In an unforgivable bout of laziness, the authors fill the back of Sloat’s train with assault weapons, minimizing the threat while expecting us to believe that two 12-year-olds would know how to use them. (Picture Frodo and Sam finding a pair of bazookas on the road to Mordor.)

It just gets more anti-climactic from there, as that IV drip becomes a flood, and Jack’s final battle with Sloat doesn’t feel remotely as dangerous as the Sunlight Home. But this is a nearly 1,000-page King epic, and I’ve yet to see one of those end with a bang. And to judge it too much by its destination would be missing the point.

Because King and Straub have written a fantasy about the power of fantasy. It’s not a coincidence that the word they choose to describe jumping between worlds also applies to the pages of a book. The Talisman is a grand argument against the common critique of the genre – that it’s escapist, irrelevant, a way to avoid thinking about the problems of the real world. 9781451697216

This goal is laid bare for all to see when the authors describe Richard Sloat’s reading habits, framing his reliance on non-fiction as a symptom of a trauma victim’s fear of losing control:

“It explained Richard’s iron, no-compromise insistence on reality, the whole reality, and nothing but the reality. It explained his rejection of any sort of fantasy, even science fiction … It became a challenge to Jack to find a story – any story – which would please Richard.”

In King and Straub’s opinion, it’s the inability to be transported that’s the problem. Escape isn’t to be avoided, it’s to be sought. Because while we’re living amongst these characters, and rushing alongside them into battle, we learn things about ourselves that no textbook can teach. Would we trust Wolf to remain loyal in werewolf form? Would we have the strength and empathy to spare Gollum? Are we fans of the journey or do we skip ahead to the destination?

As a lover of the journey, and one of the millions whose life has been shaped by J.R.R. Tolkien, you can count me as a fan of this overlong ode to magic, myth, and the kind of love that inspires elves to sing.

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. Misery

3. Carrie

4. The Shining

5. The Talisman

6. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

7. 11/22/63

8. On Writing

9. The Stand

10. The Gunslinger

11. Bag of Bones