Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Return of Things I Love

Sequels are tough.
I say this as someone who has written a few of them.  Sometimes, if you’re very skilled (or the original product was flawed in some manner) you can improve on what you did before.
But more often than not, the best you can hope for is that you come within spitting distance of being as good as the first go-round.
Early this year, two of my favorite recent things got follow-ups, and I have to admit I was sweating them both.
One of them was music.  The other was a book.
We’ll go ahead and do the book first.
My favorite book last year was, hands-down, a tie-in novel.  Which is stupid.  A tie-in novel is generally the most unfulfilling follow-up there is.  More often than not, the original creator doesn’t have a hand in their existence.  The story must reset all things back to how they were at the start of the novel, in order to avoid conflicting with anything that came before and might come after.
And even then, they’ll often contain details that are immediately rendered moot by any future stories, rendering a lovely moment into something that Never Happened.
And then, along came Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line.
Frankly, this novel took all my comments from the last few paragraphs and rendered them moot.  The novel was co-written by series creator Rob Thomas, and assuming I understand correctly, it was based on the script for the “original” Veronica Mars movie, which he didn’t have the money to make.
It tied directly into the events from the new Veronica Mars film, essentially making it a second film in text form.  It kept he same balls in the air, the mystery was solid, and more importantly Rob stated that if it was in the novel, it counted moving forward.
It was a tiny miracle, really, like getting a second Mars movie only a few weeks after the first (really enjoyable) one came out.
I had read that the second novel would be out in a few months, but the months passed and things went to radio silence.  Rob Thomas had turned his Veronica Mars Kickstarter into a Veronica Mars mailing list, and so I figured I’d see an email the minute the second book was available for purchase.
Only that didn’t happen.  I literally found out the new book (Mr. Kiss and Tell) was already on shelves when I randomly decided to Google it one night.
Should I have taken it as a warning?  Maybe.  But I got my hands on the book a short while later, and the next thing I knew I was neck-deep in the story.  And all was great again.  It had the characters, it had the dialogue, it had the twists and the turns.
Fifty pages from the end, I was already feeling sad that I’d be losing Veronica for another full year.
Thirty pages from the end, I realized that I might actually be losing Veronica forever – the Mars contract was a two-book deal, and I couldn’t find any references to a contract for additional books.
And by the end of the book… I didn’t know what to feel.  Not at first.
There are a lot of storylines in the Mars books, which is surprising considering how quickly they fly by.  With thirty pages to go there was a lot of story up in the air.
At the end of the book, everything is tied up.
Is that too fast?  It’s hard to say, but it felt like it.
I’ll try to be vague, but there’s a strong chance you’ll work out some of the ending if you keep reading – you have been warned.
There’s a sheriff storyline that ties up quickly and neatly with the addition of another character who never quite integrates into the story as a whole.
There’s a mystery that’s solved simply by shoving some violence into the mix.  A concept that doesn’t quite sit right with what we know of Veronica.
And there are a couple other subplots that are resolved… I would say fairly, but in a ways that seem to exist more to add drama than they do to serve the overall story.
My friend Harry also read the book, and treated it rather harshly.  And I get that.  Those last 30 pages take three seasons of TV, a great movie, and a really enjoyable book, and they offer up tidy resolutions that should be messy, and messy resolutions that should be more tidy.
Perhaps with another 50 pages, things could have been fixed.  The violent resolution could have been a clever one.  The odd side character could have been better integrated into the story as a whole.  Or maybe it would have just made the book longer.
And maybe some of it was just my expectation, as it took a thing I really loved and brought me back a thing I only liked.
With that, let’s move on the music.
I learned recently that Prince released Around the World in a Day a scant TEN MONTHS after putting out the soundtrack to Purple Rain.  In effect, he fired off the follow-up to an absolute classic less than a year later.
I’m guessing it’s because he wanted to get the comparisons out of the way.  After all, Around was never going to be as good as Purple, whether they came out ten months or ten years apart.
I don’t know that I’d call the Imagine Dragons record Night Visions a classic, but even though it was released in 2012, it was probably my favorite record of 2013.
I’ve tried to figure out a way to explain why, and it’s tough.  It’s not a record with amazing flow.  It doesn’t tell a story.  Their lyrics are often obtuse, and their sound is probably best described as, “that record that has that really loud bass drum on it a lot.”
And yet…
And yet I put it in my car, and it rarely came out of the player for something like six months.  After it came out of my car, it was back in my house for perhaps six or eight weeks, and then it went back in the car and back in the player for another handful of months.
I never got tired of it. 
And I only recently put my finger on the why of it.  It’s because every track was so different, I could always find a song I wanted to hear.
Want a bizarre, post-apocalypse song?  Try Radioactive.  Want the oddball keyboard sound I always hear in Ethiopian music?   Put on Underdog.  Want a slow-drip of melancholy?  Amsterdam, all the way.
It won out over other records not by being cohesive, but my being whatever I needed it to be on any particular day.
After nearly two years of waiting, I heard that Dragons was finally putting out some more music, and I was just a little terrified.
I don’t know who said it first, or their exact wording, but there’s a saying that goes like this: You get five years to make your first record, and five weeks to make your second.
I could see that happening.  After years of touring, the group comes off the road with a handful of half-finished tunes, and old songs that weren’t good enough for record number one, and then here’s a new album and we’re going back on tour.
It’s happened before, to better bands.
On the day it came out, I hit the store and bought Smoke + Mirrors.  I unwrapped it, and put it in the player, and waited for the “new, more rock-based” sound the Dragons guys had talked about to come out of my speakers.
Instead, I got Shots, a song that, yeah, probably could have been a deep cut on a U2 record.  And then after it comes Gold, which amps up the bass.  A few songs later, there’s I Bet My Life, which sounds like a more fun Mumford and Sons song.
And it goes on, each song different from the last.  Once again, there’s not much in the way of cohesion.  Random style follows random style.  The lyrics are still frequently inscrutable.
And once again, I kind of love it.
It’s a different time now.  I have a bunch of other recordings I’d been waiting to get released, and so Dragons is in and out of the player.  And I haven’t lived with the record long enough to know if I love it as much as Night Visions.
But even as I type this, I can think of a half dozen songs I’d be happy to listen to at this very second.
It’s not the greatest record of all time.  In fact, I suspect there are a lot of folks who simply won’t care for large parts of it.
But for me, I suspect it will be a highlight of the year.  I’ll let you know if it ever escapes my motor vehicle.

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