Go Home, 2019… You're Drunk

Dani's boyfriend had an interesting experience in a bear at the end of Midsommar...
Dani’s boyfriend had an interesting experience in a bear at the end of Midsommar…

Some years I do a year end list or two (Here’s 2016, 2015, and 2011). Why not? I mean, 95% of the lists out there are lame, so why not throw my 2 cents in to the hopper?

Top Songs of 2019 (which may or may not have been released in 2019)

Timebends by Deerhunter cover artwork
Timebends by Deerhunter cover artwork

Here are the songs that have dominated my Spotify listening the last year… If you’d like to take a listen, click on the Spotify Playlist Link here.

  1. Timebends by Deerhunter from the album Timebends (2019)
    • A sprawling, rambling, operatic jam, this track is a phenomenal breath of fresh air. At nearly 13 minutes it has enough room to breathe and transform as it goes. It is a joy to take in.
  2. Cop Killer by John Maus from the album We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of ourselves (2011)
    • I discovered this ethereal, weird song while watching Russian Doll this year. The oddly (and almost cliched) vampiric delivery of the transgressive lyrics force a detached, otherworldly vibe.
  3. Doin’ Time by Lana Del Rey from the album Norman Fucking Rockwell! (2019)
    • Lana Del Rey is phenomenal mood-maker and NFR! is a great effort. I’m drawn to many songs on the record, but this is quintessential LDR. Bartender is also a standout track. My only real low for this album is the horrible cover art; get a graphic designer, Lana.
  4. Tiberius by The Smashing Pumpkins from the album Monuments To An Elegy (2014)
    • Tiberius signaled a real return to form as the lead track on William Corgan’s reconstituted Pumpkins lineup in 2014… though I didn’t experience this album until 2019. It might as well have been recorded in 1996 for all the melodic bombast and lyrical melodrama it contains.
  5. True Dreams of Wichita by Soul Coughing from the album Ruby Vroom (1994)
    • Mike Doughty‘s Soul Coughing made some of the most unique and catchy tunes of the 90s. True Dreams of Wichita – like many of the songs Doughty has written – is loaded with imagery and visual/linguistic puns. The phrase turning paired with a sharp evocation of location and emotion is just good poetry.
  6. Pitch Or Honey by Neko Case from the album Hell On (2018)
    • Neko Case is nothing short of a national treasure. Outspoken (follow her on twitter [@NekoCase] for some serious fire) and totally aware of her power, Case brings intensity from the first note to the last on the Hell On album. Pitch Or Honey is the perfect song for an artist like me; the refrain “am I making pitch or honey?” is a question all creatives – indeed, all people – have to ask ourselves. I want to make sweet sustenance, not just crap to gum up the works. Neko knows.
  7. I Only Play 4 Money by The Frogs from the album Starjob (1994)
    • I was introduced to this legendary shock/lo-fi/weirdo-rock band from Milwaukee, WI in 2001 while ensconced in the woods between the town of Saugatuck, MI and Lake Michigan. It was a strange time. Recently I’ve been obsessed with this song and the number of versions where the likes of Eddie Vedder and Billy Corgan sing and play on the song. Go to YouTube and just search for the track to discover these funny, chaotic iterations.

Best Shows of 2019 (that I watched in 2019, at least)

Regina King as Sister Night from HBO's Watchmen
Regina King as Sister Night from HBO’s Watchmen
  1. Watchmen – HBO (2019)*****
  2. Russian Doll – Netflix (2019)*****
  3. Schitt’s Creek – POP (2015-2019)****
  4. Dark – Netflix (2017-2019)****
  5. True Detective Season 3 – HBO (2019)****
  6. Better Call Saul – AMC (2015-2019)****
  7. Black Mirror – Channel 4 and Netflix (2011-2019)***

Watchmen is an incredible thing to see exist as art in today’s America. It’s everything you want art to be – challenging, genre-breaking, character-driven but not subservient to tropes and minor concerns. While many producers of American culture believe that they can fulfill the representation of people of color or tell formerly-non-centered stories with token characters and shallow arcs (I’m looking at you, Disney) Watchmen doubles down on history, context, and powerful performances with developed characters. The ensemble cast is top notch, but Regina King (Sister Night) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Dr. Manhattan) absolutely dominate as the main characters. Jeremy Irons, Jean Smart, and an amazing Louis Gossett Jr. anchor a group of actors – both veteran and very young – who really buy into the deep magic of the Watchmen universe in ways that give keen insights to what is happening with racism, rising nationalism, and the frayed edges of our political establishment right now… wow. All that and an alien squid shower.


Best Movies of 2019 (well, watched in 2019)

Florence Pugh as Dani in Midsommar
  1. Midsommar – Directed by Ari Aster (2019)
  2. The Lighthouse – Directed by Robert Eggers (2019)
  3. Mandy – Directed by Panos Cosmatos (2018)
  4. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – Directed by the Coen Brothers (2018)

Midsommar is a powerful film about family, death, belonging, and the social construction of meaning. The tension created between how death visits Dani’s typical American family and how it visits the cloistered, alien, cult-like community she visits in Sweden calls us to reconsider how we understand the trajectory and significance of our lives. Are these very different notions of human dignity, purpose, and value truly at odds? Might the strange, pagan ritual of Midsommar offer something altogether deeper for those who believe? Excellent, challenging film making.

Dani simultaneously experiencing existential brokenness and the assurance of communal emotional support in Midsommar.
Dani simultaneously experiencing existential brokenness and the assurance of communal emotional support in Midsommar.

Nunc Perpetuus – For Chris

Below is a bit of writing I have been banging around for the last number of years. This section is actually much less than half, but the rest of it isn’t ready. Today being my cousin’s birthday, and this text being about my time spent with him, I’m dedicating this post to him and sharing this present with everyone. – Matt Ballou, 12/15/2019

Nunc Perpetuus: Making Now Eternal

“One instant is eternity; eternity is the now.” – Wumen Huikai (1)

“Time past and time future

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.” – T.S. Eliot (2)

On a brisk Sunday afternoon in April 1998 my cousin Christopher Metott and I ventured out onto the rocks atop Salmon River Falls near Altmar, NY.  The photographs resulting from that excursion reflect – our differing aesthetics notwithstanding – the great affinity we share regarding time and experience. While our focus was often different, it is certain that we were often held in an otherworldly grip as we spent time out in the hills, fields, and woods we once called home. We went looking for landmarks, not of space on the land, but of life in the landscape of time. We wanted to set up those touchstones as a means of hope for what was to come and as a remembrance of what was gone behind us. In a way that seems, in hindsight, dramatically lucid and reasonable, we established these places to make sense of our past and to justify our future. We formed those experiences together, and it bound us as two journeying souls.

Chris at the Salmon River Falls, 2002. Photo by me.

Of course, that Sunday afternoon wasn’t the first time we’d worked this way. This had been our method for years. We’d built cabins in the woods, fortresses to stand in for us when we couldn’t be out there. They were tributes to our work, to our belief in God, our desire for a relationship with nature, and the ethic we shared of contemplating what was beyond us.

We had spent long, cold winter nights ensconced in nothing but our nylon tent and a bit of hope, almost daring the circulatory disorder that Chris had to take us on. We took the longer, back way up mountains just to say we’d done it – and paid the price. We fished tinkling little streams few people knew about, happily releasing our delicately armored catch. We took many expansive road trips out into the quiet upstate New York night to catch the wind off Lake Ontario, to bask in the deep stillness of Route 3 (The Star Road) at 3 in the morning, and to wander with the colonial ghosts lingering to the south. We witnessed those slumbering Adirondack giants – ancient and rounded – blacking out the starry canopy as we wove between their couched numbers. Then there were those northern light nights, which seemed like mystical initiations into A Great Mystery. We saw them for the first time in the deep cool of the earliest morning hours, streaking over us as we lay on our backs in our sleeping bags, gazing up into the glowing pinprick host above. Then again, years later, on the small island we’d gone to on an impulse, we witnessed the green and blue flaming curtains exploding over the low hills to the north, reflecting off the water and our eyes.

Salmon River Falls. Photo by me. 2002.
Ontario Shoreline. Photo by Christopher Metott. 2002.

Yet there was always the backyard simplicity of the town where we’d grown up. Hiking out into the forests of tamarack and pine, through fields of corn and hay to find that perfect spot. The trees, paths, hills, stone fences, rocky streams, and rippling fields conjured our transition – like an incantation – from the daily concerns of siblings and chores to deeper, more satisfying meditations. We tried to maintain it. We stayed at Winter’s Night, stacking up those old field stones from the corner of the fence for our fireplace. Or maybe View would be our destination, with its mild overlook of the languid valley in which our hometown was situated. Sometimes we’d just sit in Whispering Pines, poking at our fire and laughing at those who’d never understand us.

Salmon River Falls. Photo by me, 2002.
Salmon River Falls Bank. Photo by Christopher Metott. 2002.

There was always the ritual, the ceremony, of naming our places. They were our blameless sacred groves. Some names come to mind, some are lost in the mist for now, yet each can summon memories that speak not just about events and people, but also about feelings and our sense of the world. We’ve never stopped our efforts to be available to the creation of these sorts of signposts in the fabric of our time. We want them to catch us up when, lost in some future, we need to go back and forward in the same moment. To remember how it was and how it ought to be… and how it might be again. When we need to recall innocence and reinforce our will to be good and honest and kind in the world, such as it is. This is how we discovered morality for ourselves.

It was a morality mitigated by music as much as by place and time. We favored plaintive, earnest, digressive compositions that lent themselves to mythic application – everything from 70’s progressive art rock to weird new age kitsch to contemporary British hipster fare. It was always about mood, about ushering in wanderlust amid a sense of place. We wanted music that would work in tandem with the winter winds, the midnight sound of water on ancient shores, and dusky skies flecked with fiery clouds and a sweet breeze. In the end, we wanted to palpate the very feeling of being, the dearest knowing of our own experiences.

Salmon River Falls. Photo by me. 2002.
Upstate New York Snow and Shadows. Photo by Christopher Metott. 2002.

Through all of those experiences lay a thread of earnest documentation, a yearning to hold it fast, to remember it, to know it. Half the time we didn’t really know what the it was. We knew that it was what happened when the two of us where together, experiencing something with each other and with the world. We knew that it was a feeling of rightness, of sensing something beyond mere perception; something we only knew was there by sighting its position through each other in a mystical triangulation. It was a spiritual hope, a burning desire to be in life. To experience a fulfillment in the moment – a moment that could expand to fill eternity with its promise and light and perfection – was our aim.

A key component of our desire to hold fast to our experiences was to revisit our sacred places over and over again. This consistent returning – a physical, mental, and spiritual act – infused them with more memories, more mystery, and more access to that joyful transport of sensory perception we so earnestly sought. Sometimes we got it and sometimes we didn’t feel it so strongly, only to – upon remembering – find that it was still there. Thus a special mimetic fact was discovered: remembrance is often more powerful than the experience itself. Our shared remembering sometimes held the deepest connections to the timelessness we pursued.

What does any of the above have to do with a Sunday in April of 1998? Well, pretty much everything. Our different forms of expression (I am a painter and Chris is a photographer) have been informed by this lifelong urge to document, to earmark, to source those moments of insight that impact all the moments before and after. These are moments that become eternal in their influence and necessity; they make us who we are. We’ve tried to live in such a way that maintains those glittering glimpses of eternity.

“But even the unknown past is present in us, its silence as persistent as a ringing in the ears. And nothing is here that we are beyond the reach of merely because we do not know about it. It is always the first morning of Creation and always the last day, always the now that is time and the Now that is not, that has filled time with reminders of Itself.”

-Wendell Berry (3)

  1. Wumen Huikai (1183-1260), translated by Stephen Mitchell from The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, (Harper and Row, 1989).
  2. T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), from Four Quartets, (Faber and Faber, 1959 edition).
  3. Wendell Berry (1934-), from Fidelity: Five Stories, (Pantheon, 1993 edition).