end of year prep

It’s mid-November, which means that, whether I want to or not, I need to start thinking about my end-of-year lists.  I used to be way more excited about this; the idea of spending hours and hours recapping my entire year’s progress through various forms of media was a fun and informative way for me to revisit the year, to revive long-lost memories, to rejoice and revel in a year’s worth of extravagant impulse purchases.

It has become harder and harder for me to go through this process in recent years.  I’m not even sure I bothered with one last year.  Having a kid means I consume media with a completely different and re-wired brain; having a day job whose busy season is November/December means I have little-to-no opportunity to carve out the necessary time.  (These things used to be thousands and thousands of words long.) 

More than anything else, of course, it’s become very difficult to feel celebratory when the world is on fire.  Does it matter that I can’t decide if Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is better than Red Dead Redemption 2, when I haven’t finished either of them and also that our President is completely fucking insane?  Could I really rank Spider-Man below Yoku’s Island Express if only because Yoku filled me with a sense of calm and tranquility that not even the finest Ativan could provide?  

And what of books and music?  I could potentially come up with a few thousand words for BOTH of those lists, because I devoured far more on both fronts than usual.  As noted above, it turns out that having an insane shithead with access to nuclear weapons be the POTUS means that I end up really craving distraction. 

I used to be afraid of flying, and one of the ways I got over that fear was to do crossword puzzles while the plane was getting ready for takeoff.  Now, I’m afraid that climate change is irreversible and that there very well might be a civil war, and so I buy books and games by the truckload.  (Ordinarily I’d feel guilty about not buying music and instead only relying on Spotify, but I need to pay the mortgage somehow and I don’t want my wife to divorce me.)   

Therefore, it looks like I will be doing some sort of year-end thing here.  It doesn’t matter if anybody reads it, or disagrees with it, or whatever – I just need to do it because, above all else, I need something to do.  

Weekend Recap: Beatles / Murakami / RDR2

Re: the new 2018 stereo remix of The White Album

It’s never been my favorite Beatles album.  Lots of great songs on it – especially from Lennon, which I’ll get to later on – but there’s also a fair amount of stuff I tend to skip over.  Even though my first exposure to the White Album was at summer camp at least 30 years ago, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve listened to “Good Night” all the way through, and that’s because I also can’t physically sit through Revolution 9 without getting anxious.

I feel compelled to back up for a second and give some context here.  Feel free to skip this little mini-bio, though it’ll hopefully explain where I’m coming from.

I am a Beatles nerd, though I would never in a million years consider myself an expert.  (At some point I need to get my hands on one of those coffee-table books that detail every single recording session, because there’s tons of fun trivia in there that I still don’t know about.)  I am a devoted fan of everything from Rubber Soul onward, and my favorite album at any given moment is either Revolver or Abbey Road.  When the stereo (and mono) CDs came out on 9/9/09, I took the following day off from work and binged.  (Also played a fair amount of Beatles Rock Band, I believe.)  I took a deep dive into those new releases with my kick-ass headphones and suddenly heard a ton of stuff I’d never noticed before.  And while my ultimate ranking of albums didn’t end up changing all that much, I did gain new appreciation for pretty much everything.   (Also, for whatever it’s worth, I found that the mono remixes were far better than the stereo remixes, if only because the stereo remixes were still very much hard-panned, making them distracting to listen to over headphones.)

I’m a nerd also in the sense that I tend to approach their albums with this weird sense of reverence, as if the albums were sacred texts meant to be studied, as if they were caverns of knowledge in which I have to entomb myself inside.  I never just pop on a Beatles album; I isolate myself from the rest of the world, put on serious headphones, and dive very, very deep.

Anyway, these new 5.1 surround-sound stereo mixes are something else entirely, and I adore them because they sound like what my memory of Beatles songs sound like – they are suddenly and quite vividly three-dimensional.  In the same way that “Getting Better” on the new “Sgt Pepper” suddenly sounded extraordinary, I have to give props to the new mix of “Birthday”, which is a song that I normally skip over at every opportunity, because it is dumb as hell.  In this new mix, however, it fucking rocks the fuck out.  Do yourself a favor and listen to what happens after the drum break following the first verse:  the gigantic E chord that comes in after that break sounds absolutely enormous.   (Hell, go back and A/B the old stereo mix with this new one, too:  it’s still a completely different animal.)  It’s the sort of jaw-dropping sound where you can just tell that the engineers went “holy shit, that sounds AMAZING” when they played it back.  And the whole album sounds like that.

My favorite Beatle has always been Paul, even though – or perhaps because – he is a cheeseball who writes extraordinarily beautiful melodies.  The Beatle that I feel the closest kinship with is George, because he – like me, when I was in bands in college – was the youngest, and while he was an incredible songwriter in his own right, it’s awfully hard to fight for album space when you’re competing with Lennon/McCartney (and this is also how I felt trying to write songs for those bands back in the day).  This being said, I’d also have to say that the White Album contains the best overall collection of Lennon-penned songs.  I mean, yes, “I Am The Walrus” is probably my favorite John song in the whole catalog, followed very closely by “Come Together”, but it’s hard to beat “Dear Prudence”, “Sexy Sadie”, “Cry Baby Cry”, “Yer Blues”, “I’m So Tired”, “Julia”, “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide…” in terms of sheer consistency.

I have not yet given the bonus material enough passes to offer any definitive statement on them, beyond that they sound fantastic and they’re super-fun for someone like me, who likes to hear how these “sacred texts” originally formed and evolved.  (As an example, they include Paul noodling around and then finding that little “Can You Take Me Back Where I Came From” thing that follows “Cry Baby Cry”.)

I can only hope that they go back and give this deluxe stereo treatment to everything else.  Especially Revolver, because holy shit I can only imagine what “Tomorrow Never Knows” will sound like.

Re: Killing Commendatore, by Haruki Murakami

I used to be a huge Murakami fan, and then “1Q84” came out and disappointed me so much that I started to reconsider if I actually liked the stuff I used to like.  I didn’t know if it was the translation that was off, or if it was the actual text, but it felt like a thousand pages of nonsense, interspersed with surprisingly and shockingly juvenile attempts at erotic writing.  I have continued to buy his stuff but I very rarely feel motivated to give it a proper go.  That said, I have this enormous backlog and I feel obligated to get through it, and I’d heard enough positive things about KC that I figured it was finally time to give it a shot.  And, well, I’m not yet finished with it, but what I’ve read thus far has been excellent.  I’ve come to realize that part of what annoys me about Murakami is how utterly passive his main characters are; everything happens to them, they never go out and make any decisions on their own.  That still happens here, to a certain extent, but at least it’s justified by what’s happened to the main character before the book begins; without spoiling anything, his passivity makes a bit more sense.  I don’t know if it will stick the landing, but then again, in a book this surreal it’s hard to say what the ending should be.  To put it another way, I’m still invested in what’s happening and I’m willing to see it through the end.

Re: Red Dead Redemption 2

I have some complicated feelings about RDR2, the long-awaited sequel to one of my favorite games of all time.  On the one hand, quite a lot of it is incredibly tedious, and when compared to other open-world games that the original inspired (i.e. The Witcher 3, Assassin’s Creed Origins / Odyssey), it feels almost antiquated in terms of quality-of-life stuff.  On the other hand, it is staggeringly beautiful and almost begs you to play it while “in character”; the slow pace and tedium is a deliberate choice by the designers to make you feel like you are inhabiting the actual persona of Arthur Morgan.

And, of course, on the third hand is the knowledge that this game was built under extreme crunch conditions for quite a lot of its staff, and there’s a guilt that accompanies my purchase, because my purchase equals acceptance of harsh working conditions.  It also doesn’t help that all that extra work is absolutely shown on screen.  The attention to detail in this game is simply extraordinary.

I’m still somewhere in Chapter 3, which means I’ve got at least another 40 hours left to go.  I’m sure there’ll be a few quality-of-life patches between now and then, too, which may address some of the weird bugs and glitches (not that there’s been a lot, mind you, but there’s certainly a fair share).  So I’m not quite ready to get into how I’m feeling about it, especially since I’m still figuring that part out.

But I will say that it’s engrossing and beautiful and overwhelming, and in these troubled times we’re living in, it is very much what I need right now.

overwhelmed

I’ve been trying to post here all week, and I just haven’t been able to get more than a few thoughts together before everything falls apart.  (Probably a good sign that I should stay away from NaNoWriMo this year.)

I’d wanted to write about my anticipation for Red Dead Redemption 2, and how it very well may be the last big AAA game that I get that excited for.  The original RDR is one of my favorite games of all time, and I’m almost always inclined to give Rockstar the benefit of the doubt.  And then, of course, the story came out that the making of RDR2 involved several weeks of 100-hour/week crunches, and my heart broke a little bit, and it became very difficult to approach the game with a clean slate.

There is crunch in every industry and discipline – the lawyers I work for routinely work 60-70 hour weeks; when I was in bands, we’d work for 20 hours straight in order to finish a 5 song EP.  When I was in high school, working on a play, our dress/tech rehearsals would routinely go until the wee hours, and that meant I had little time for homework, or sleep, or anything.  The point being – crunch happens.  But when it’s exploited, and pressured, and there’s no compensation, then we enter a grey area of outright cruelty, and that’s a difficult thing to reconcile when it comes to enjoying a leisure activity.

Still, I never got around to writing that thing, and then the game came out, and… well, if I were to present my first impressions, I’m not really sure what I’d say.

Because the thing is, I’d already sunk at least 35 hours into Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which I also haven’t written much about, and the change of pace between ACO and RDR2 couldn’t be more different.  Even though they’re both gigantic and utterly gorgeous open-world games about exploration, they are so diametrically opposed in just about every other respect that it gives me whiplash just thinking about them.

Side note:  within the last 2 months, I’ve played Spider-ManTomb Raider, ACO and now RDR2.  These are all third-person action adventure games, but the control schemes for each of them are just different enough that it usually takes me a good 20 minutes to remember what the hell I’m supposed to be doing.  I don’t know if this means I’m getting too old, or if I should just stick with one game at a time, or what, but it’s awfully confusing.

In any event!  Here’s the thing.  I never thought I’d say this, but I’m saying it:  I think I’m going to put RDR2 to the side while I finish ACO.  They are equally deserving of my full attention, and it’s just too confusing to switch between them, and as it happens I’m probably past the halfway mark in ACO anyway, so I might as well keep going.

It also doesn’t hurt that ACO is remarkably friendly and approachable in all the ways that RDR2 is not.  RDR2 is almost antagonistic in terms of how it requires you to approach it compared to ACO; it’s much slower, and there’s a great deal of minutiae you have to deal with (i.e., feeding and grooming your horse, doing chores for your camp) – and while I respect that, and while I appreciate that what Rockstar seems to be saying is that if you’re going to get the most out of your RDR2 experience you need to play it “in character”, so to speak, it can also be a huge pain in the ass.

In ACO, it doesn’t matter where I am – I whistle and my indestructible horse shows up.  Combat is fluid and intuitive.  I can climb over anything without worrying about stamina; I can jump from the highest peak without taking fall damage.  If I’m in a dust-up with some bad guys I can set my fucking swords on fire and crowd control becomes a minor inconvenience.  Meanwhile, I’ve only played maybe 6-8 hours of RDR2 and quite a lot of that time has been me slowly ambling over to where I think I left my horse.  Or (slowly) running away from the law because I meant to greet someone and instead I shot them in the face.  Or just pressing A for minutes at a time because there’s no auto-horse function.

I am willing to meet RDR2 on its own terms, but right now there’s just something about how instantly gratifying ACO is and given how crazy the world is right now I kinda just want to lean into that feeling.  I see a question mark on the map and I head towards it without a care in the world.