13 Thoughts on Apple for 2015

Much like the mechanical watches with which its newest product will compete, Apple is an organization in perpetual motion.  The Apple Watch launches in April 2015 as the company’s first foray into the wearables market.  The just-announced new MacBook, with a retina display and only two ports, joins it as a spring release.  An enterprise iPad Pro is expected to debut in the fall, and a rebranded Beats music streaming service and updated Apple TV are also forecasted to drop this year.  And let’s not even get into the Apple Car that’s purportedly in the works.

Here are thirteen thoughts, broken into four broad topics, about Apple’s product pipeline after its “Spring Forward” event last Monday.

Wearables
1) The Apple Watch is already a success.
2) The Apple Watch Edition may have a minor Glasshole problem.
3) New Beats headphones will be important, and Jony Ive shouldn’t design them.

Devices
4) The Macbook is stunningly gorgeous and two years ahead of schedule.
5) Boost Mac sales by emphasizing Continuity with mobile platforms.
6) The entire iPad line should be consolidated and renamed.
7) What’s the future of the iPod?
8) HomeKit is the next big frontier, and Apple TV is the conduit.

Speculation and Hypotheticals
9) An Apple-Nintendo partnership won’t happen, but they would be a natural fit.
10) Could iTunes or Apple TV become a carte blanche media streaming service?
11) Tesla would be a synergistic feverdream, but CarPlay makes more sense.

The Big Picture
12) Diversity beyond the iPhone is critical.
13) Tim Cook is a better CEO than Steve Jobs.

***

Wearables

1) The Apple Watch is already a success.

Full stop.  Without sales data, professional reviews, or market feedback, the Apple Watch is already a success.

Its criticisms are real and important to take into consideration: a slightly bulky frame, comparatively poor battery life, and high starting price relative to other Apple devices.  But these criticisms don’t matter in the context of this product launch.

The goal of the first generation Apple Watch is innovation informed by heritage.  Whereas other smartwatches are focused on technology, the Apple Watch is as much about fashion as it is computing – perhaps even more so.  It’s an exercise in expanding the concept of what should be expected from a digital watch.

This essay by Ben Clymer is my favorite evaluation of what Apple got right and wrong with the Watch.  It is remarkably balanced in its evaluation, and Clymer pinpoints why the Watch is so important:

Apple products have a way of making someone not want to live without them, and while I wasn’t able to fully immerse myself in the OS yesterday, what I saw was impressive. So while certainly not direct competition for haute horology watchmaking right now, the Apple Watch is absolutely competition for the real estate of the wrist, and years down the road, it could spell trouble for traditional watches even at a high level.

The Apple Watch is about setting the stage.  It’s about building that connection with customers and improving upon the current offerings in the smartwatch and entry-level luxury watch market.  “The overall level of design in the Apple Watch simply blows away anything – digital or analog – in the watch space at $350,” Clymer says.  He’s right, thanks to the relationship between form and function that Apple’s competitors have yet to attain.

Analysts are predicting that Apple will sell 12-15 million units in 2015 and nab half of the smartwatch market share.  That might be a high forecast, but Apple’s profits from the device, especially the Edition, should be significant even if fewer than 10 million units are sold.  And it will sell.  Customers will look past things like battery life because of the novelty factor.  Come for the hype, stay for the quality of apps and services that the platform affords – a far more robust infrastructure than any other smartwatch company by far.

The Watch will be a flop only if Apple fails to convince customers outside of Apple aficionados and the smartwatch market that the Watch is a valuable device by its next iteration.   This first generation Watch, flaws and all, just needs to generate enough electricity to get that conversation off the ground.  And by that metric, it’s already succeeded.

2) The Apple Watch Edition may have a minor Glasshole problem.

“Glasshole Syndrome” might be defined as when a product’s design language becomes synonymous with people who want a visible token of their superiority.  “Glasshole,” of course, refers to the early adopters of Google Glass, which became infamous for its stealth video recording capabilities, $1000+ price point, and embarrassing design.

The Apple Watch will not suffer criticisms for privacy invasion or poor design.  It is a beautiful machine whose utility and app ecosystem makes it a more worthwhile product right out of the gate.  But the Watch Edition, which starts at $10,000 and reaches $17,000 in its most expensive iteration, is ripe to become an iconic emblem of conspicuous consumption.  I fear this may unfairly tarnish the rest of the Apple Watch line.

In September 2014, John Gruber wrote about the Watch Edition’s price and its likely reception among the tech community:

Apple Watch is not a product from a tech company, and it will not be understood, at all, by the tech world. Apple creates and uses technology in incredible ways. The Apple Watch may prove to be the most technologically advanced product they’ve ever built. But again: Apple is not a tech company, and Apple Watch is not a tech product.

When the prices of the steel and (especially) gold Apple Watches are announced, I expect the tech press to have the biggest collective shit-fit in the history of Apple-versus-the-standard-tech-industry shit-fits. The utilitarian mindset that asks “Why would anyone waste money on a gold watch?” isn’t going to be able to come to grips with what Apple is doing here. They’re going to say that Jony Ive and Tim Cook have lost their minds. They’re going to wear out their keyboards typing “This never would have happened if Steve Jobs were alive.” They’re going to predict utter and humiliating failure. In short, they’re going to mistake Apple for Vertu.

Utter and humiliating failure are simply not in the cards.  Sales of the Watch Edition are going to match maximum production capacity.  The profit margin on each device is likely astronomical, and Apple is going to make a significant profit while establishing itself as a serious player in the luxury fashion market.

The Watch Edition will sell.  The question is: who will buy one?

prording to Ben Clymer, no one should buy one.  Clymer argues that for $10,000, the Watch Edition is simply a poor choice given the field of alternative options:

In addition to perceived value, mechanical watches are also priced by human value: how much of the work is done by hand (in many cases using 200-year-old methods). For example, a watchmaker named Philippe Dufour makes just 12 watches per year, alone in his one-room atelier in the mountains of Switzerland. A simple, time-only piece can cost $100,000. Whether the case is gold or platinum, the price of a Philippe Dufour watch remains (roughly) static — you are not paying for materials, you are paying for Mr. Dufour’s time and touch. The Apple Watch has minimal human value, and that is the biggest difference between it and its mechanical counterparts.

From $10,000 to $20,000, you are into the realm of watchmaking where everything you see is original and interesting — or at least should be. Consider fully ceramic chronographs,stunning hand-wound dress watches, or modern legends all fall within this range — all featuring truly in-house movements with a moderate amount of hand-finishing to internal components. These watches will be assembled by hand, completely in Switzerland and offer the incredibly low tolerances and extreme quality for which this industry is known.

Leave aside the (very good) utilitarian question of how someone could ever justify spending $10,000 for a watch when there are people dying of hunger around the world.  Assuming you have $10K to blow on a timepiece, why would you ever choose the Apple Watch Edition?  You’re not purchasing a stunningly unique style that will last your entire lifetime.  You’re not funding a the exquisite craftsmanship of a master engineer to produce a mechanical wonder.  You’re buying a product with the exact same functionality and design as its $349 sibling.

And that’s the point.  The people who buy the Watch Edition are buying it because it’s $10,000 worth of gold.  They want their wealth to be evident.   It’s tough for a non-watch expert to identify a Rolex from afar, let alone guess its exact cost.  The Apple Watch is designed to be iconic, and the Watch Edition’s price is its crown achievement.  You buy the Watch Edition so everyone knows that you spent exactly $10,000 on a watch.

Tim Lee believes that Apple is following Tesla’s lead in this regard.  He argues the Watch Edition’s high price is a means of generating a halo product for the smartwatch market, making it an enviable good:

It’s hard to remember today, but a decade ago electric cars didn’t have a great reputation. Carmakers had experimented with a few electric vehicles, but these had not been a commercial success… Tesla’s solution to this problem was to focus on the very high end of the market. The first Tesla car, the Roadster, cost $109,000.

This strategy of defying stereotypes about electric cars helped Tesla become one of the most prestigious brands in the auto industry. And as it has moved downmarket (the company introduced a $57,400 Model S in 2012 and is working on a vehicle that will cost $30,000), it has been buoyed by the luxury reputation the Roadster helped to establish.

Apple faces a similar challenge with its Watch. Smartwatches have a reputation as impractical devices for nerds. Apple’s strategy is to defy this stereotype by creating luxury smartwatches that (Apple hopes) people will pay $10,000 for.

I actually fear that the opposite of this scenario will emerge.  Instead of boosting the reputation of smartwatches, it’s easy to imagine how the clientele of the Apple Watch Edition might come to be the entire line’s defining characteristic: a product for rich Silicon Valley bros who want to flaunt their wealth in the easiest way possible.  As Racked and The Verge noted, “it was Apple fanboys who lined up to view the watch at Colette (a recent fashion show), not the fashion cognoscenti.”  That is a deathly blow for a device with aspirations of the highest fashion circles.

The Edition is, by definition, for the 1%, but it matters which people in the 1% it attracts.  It would be a shame to see this “halo” infect the rest of the Apple Watch line and make it an object of derision.  Though its capabilities are still comparatively limited, I trust Apple more than any other technology company to fully leverage the Watch’s potential as a useful, integral part of our daily lives.  Apple has largely sidestepped criticisms of conspicuous consumption by selling products at higher prices whose design and utility largely, if not wholly, justify the extra cost.  Owning an iPad or an iPhone 6 is a status symbol of relative material comfort, but that ownership extends beyond demonstration of financial wealth because of the function afforded by the device.  The burgeoning app store and the truly beautiful design of the Watch and Watch Sport suggest a promising value proposition in the same vein.   The same cannot be said of the Watch Edition, and it’s queasily easy to see it as a sort of Google Glass in vogue.

I hope I’m wrong about the arguments listed above.  In a certain sense, I’m glad Apple is going so aggressively after a slice of the luxury timepiece market, because it can put the profits earned from the Watch Edition to use in service of other world-changing technology.  And, realistically, the Watch Sport is going to be the most popular model that Apple sells; it will earn the lion’s share of market attention, making it unlikely the Edition’s aura will extend beyond the diamond wrists of the elite.

I just hope the Edition price point, and its clientele, don’t come to define the full product line and overshadow the legitimately groundbreaking work that was accomplished in creating this device.

3) New Beats headphones will be important, and Jony Ive shouldn’t design them.

If you haven’t already done so, go read the New Yorker’s profile of Jony Ive.  It’s an incredible, exhaustive look at the man behind Apple’s iconic products and the work his team does to make them a reality.

The emphasis here is on “exhaustive” in more ways than one.  From the opening paragraphs, it’s clear that Jony Ive is dead tired.  He owned the entire Apple Watch product build and he’s also responsible for design across the iPhone, iPad, and iOS.  That is a massive amount of oversight and work.

Jony Ive is synonymous with Apple.  If he retires in the near future, there might be even greater panic and uncertainty surrounding the company than in the wake of Steve Jobs’ death.

It’s a little surprising, then, that Apple hasn’t elected to give other members of his design team more high-profile platforms to discuss their work and create their own personal mythologies.  Deference to Ive is obviously warranted and justified, especially since he has given no indication of retiring anytime soon, but contingency plans are wise.

I’d like to see a couple of key figures from Ive’s team take charge of the Beats hardware division and update the product line in accord with Apple’s design philosophy.  In that New Yorker profile, Tim Cook makes it clear that Beats are currently an outlier amongst Apple’s computers and phones:

Would Jony have designed some of the products?” he said. “Obviously, you can look at them and say no… I want Beats to be true to who they are. I don’t want to wave the wand over them in a day and say, ‘You are now Apple.’ Down the road, we’ll see what happens.

Modifying a well-established brand is risky, and given Beats’ 60+% share of the premium headphone market, immediate changes run the potential of alienating Beats customers.  Much of Beats’ market penetration has been thanks to overwhelming advertising and genius marketing deals with famous athletes and stars.  Apple’s cash hoard guarantees Beats will never lose the ability to make those cultural cache deals, suggesting future changes to the product line could be conducted with minimum risk.

Why not let some of Ive’s team members take the lead on rethinking what Beats can be?  Perhaps retain current model stalwarts like Beats Studio and PowerBeats, but completely redesign Beats Pro and Mixr in accord with Apple’s design philosophy.  Introduce a new line that doesn’t fall victim to the classic Beats criticisms of ear-bloodying bass and muddy, subpar audio quality.  On the hardware development side, hire engineers from companies like Sennheiser and Audeze.  Oppo just introduced a $400 pair of planar magnetic headphones; Apple could easily introduce this kind of highest-end quality to the Beats line, and its marketing leverage (prime placement in Apple stores!) is a guarantee of huge volume and high margins.

Apple reportedly purchased Beats primarily for the streaming infrastructure and contracts of its music service.  If Apple is serious about expanding into wearables, it should look to leverage Beats hardware as another fashion item with untapped market potential.

Devices

4) The new Macbook is stunningly gorgeous and two years ahead of schedule.

Forget the Apple Watch pricing.  The most incredible parts of the March 9 keynote were ResearchKit and the new Macbook, and the latter is breathtakingly beautiful.  I thought the Dell XPS 13 gave Apple a run for its money a couple of months ago, but Apple once again blew its PC competitors out of the water with this new machine.

In terms of style, that is.  Functionality- and price-wise, the Macbook is a solid entry into the laptop market, but it’s not transcendent.  Though the retina display and weigh of the machine are attractive, the $1300 base price and the single port (!) mean that it’s primarily a device for early adopters at this point instead of the broad laptop market.

Which is as it should be.  The original Macbook Air was similarly criticized for shearing off too much too soon, but it looks prophetic in hindsight, having eliminated the CD drive before most other PCs made the leap.  The same is true for this Macbook.  With cloud storage becoming the go-to means of sharing files and Wifi available in more places than ever, Apple is ahead of the game once again.  Cutting out those extraneous ports is going to look like a smart move two years from now.  (Though an additional USB 3.0 port might be welcome.)

I can’t wait for the second-gen Macbook to lower the price on this first model.  In the meantime, I’d love to see some limited-edition color variations to the three currently offered – anodized white, rose gold, sandstone, or evening sky blue, perhaps?

5) Boost Mac sales by emphasizing Continuity with mobile platforms.

Apple sold 160 million iPhones and around 55 million iPads in Q4 2014.  In contrast, its Mac division generated around 20 million unit sales.

In 2014, Apple introduced Continuity for Mac, which allows users to swipe and send documents and files from an iPhone or iPad to a Mac in real time.  Similar capabilities also exist for Windows computers, but Apple has the benefit of a unified software ecosystem to make these transfers completely hassle-free.

Microsoft’s unpopular Windows 8 and forthcoming launch of Windows 10 gives Apple an enormous window to converting former Microsoft customers into new users.  The close integration of iOS with OS X is no doubt going to be a lynchpin of that pitch.

6) Consolidate and rename the entire iPad line.

Apple’s current iPad offerings include five different base models, each with multiple colors, storage options, connection capabilities, and price points.  At a glance, it’s difficult to tell how exactly they differ from each other, or whether they’re actually different at all.

The rumored 12.9” iPad Pro offers Apple the opportunity to slim down their iPad line and refresh the distinctions between each device.  If the Pro is launched alongside the 2015 refreshes for the line, it would be great to see a new nomenclature adopted for each category.

7) What’s the future of the iPod?

Apple’s iPod revenues have plummeted due to the popularity of the iPhone and iPad.  The company expected this self-cannibalization and appears inclined to let the iPod slowly fade away.

That’s probably the wisest course of action since it doesn’t make sense to invest in a product line that has seen its profits fall off a cliff in the last five years.  But the iPod does still have a dedicated customer base that could be well served with some incremental updates, especially since its current iPod offerings are overdue for a refresh.

Among the potential iPod revamps the company could pursue:

  • A bigger iPod Touch that aligns with the iPhone 6’s internal specs and size.
  • An iPod Pro with significant storage (possibly a hard drive?), sold at a premium to customers with enormous music collections. Essentially a replacement for the workhorse iPod Classic which was retired a while back.
  • A revamped iPod Nano that emphasizes fitness and exercise capabilities. The Apple Watch will likely fulfill this niche in a future iteration, but the Nano could be a lower-cost option that essentially replaces the iPod Shuffle as the entry Apple device.  (Either way, the Nano desperately needs to be redesigned; it’s easily the most visually unappealing product in Apple’s repertoire, an ugly mash of metal, glass, and an inferior iOS clone that looks like it’s from 2008.)

8) HomeKit is the next big frontier, and Apple TV is the conduit.

Smart household devices will become ubiquitous in the next few years – connected refrigerators, lighting systems, garage doors, etc.  Current iterations of those products usually include device-specific standalone apps for remote user access and control.

Standalone apps will increasingly become unviable as the volume of connected household items increases, and Apple’s HomeKit is positioned to become the conduit for collecting device controls.  It’s easy to imagine a scenario where an Apple HomeKit app aggregates each smarthome input and allows the user to manipulate each device from a central dashboard.

One sticking point is ensuring all devices are regulated by the same network to ensure they’re all properly synced for local and remote control via Apple devices.   Christopher Breen notes the importance of having a dedicated, centralized network for this purpose:

Wouldn’t it be better if each home had a small, power-efficient, always-on, platform-agnostic, Wi-Fi-enabled computer that could talk to your devices both remotely and over a local network?

If you haven’t yet glanced over at your Apple TV, now’s the time.

Apple TV is rumored to be receiving a substantial update later this year, which may include a hardware redesign and new content such as HBO’s streaming service.  The product has only received incremental updates since its launch eight years ago and has been largely eclipsed by Chromecast, Roku, and other streaming devices.

An Apple TV relaunch featuring full HomeKit integration would easily make Apple’s TV offering the most logical option on the market.   Robust streaming options plus full iTunes integration are an attractive proposition for Apple’s 100 million+ iTunes users, and having a centralized home base for device control and additional security only sweetens the deal.

Speculation and Hypotheticals

9) An Apple-Nintendo partnership won’t happen, but they would be a natural fit.

If Apple really wanted to own the living room beyond a relaunched Apple TV + HomeKit, it might also consider trying to acquire Nintendo.  This theory has been floated before and a deal is not going to happen, even though Apple easily has the cash to cover Nintendo’s $18 billion market cap and a purchase premium.

But what a win it would be for both parties!  Apple acquires Nintendo’s treasure trove of licensed characters and games.  On the mobile front, it essentially starts printing money by offering Nintendo classics on the App Store and perhaps reinventing the iPod as a game console a la the 3DS.  On the console front, it could offer a more powerful Apple TV Pro that competes with Sony and Microsoft as a complete living room entertainment hub.

Nintendo wins by earning a fat return for its investors and by attaining greater creative freedom than it has now.  Though its first-party games are constantly lauded for their quality, Nintendo has fallen victim to a conservative and confusing development cycle, where sequels and character appropriation replace new franchises and experiences.  The shortfall of cash generated by App Store sales and the reduced hardware development costs associated with an Apple purchase would ensure Nintendo has the financial footing to redouble its efforts to make world-class games.

10) Could iTunes or Apple TV become a carte blanche media streaming service?

Apple will reportedly price the revamped Beats streaming service at $7.99 per month and apparently has the enthusiastic support of major music labels.  The service is said to be outside the purview of iTunes, which will continue to sell music on a track-by-track basis.

Given Apple’s massive customer base and the fact that it succeeded in getting music executives on board with this price point, is it possible Apple might try to introduce the first cross-media streaming service under the iTunes brand?  Would you pay $40 a month for unlimited music streaming, unlimited television streaming, two free movie rentals of your choice, and a limited library of free eBooks?  I would in a heartbeat.

Apple has long talked about rethinking how television works as part of an Apple TV upgrade, and this would certainly qualify, especially if this “base” subscription package could also include additional bundles like HBO streaming or extra movie rentals for an additional fee.  Being able to consolidate media subscription services into one payment (combining Netflix, Oyster, Spotify, and HBO, for example) would be worth it for the convenience alone.

Again, this is not on the horizon, but it would be an absolute coup for Apple if it comes to pass.

11) Tesla would be a synergistic feverdream, but CarPlay makes more sense.

If Apple gets into the automobile manufacturing game, as recent rumors have suggested, all the more power to them.  It would be thrilling to see how Apple’s designers and engineers could rethink how we travel and engage with our vehicles.

Tesla has been cited as a potential acquisition for a couple of years now as part of that entry into the car market.  Of late, that talk has been supplanted by suggestions that the two companies are competitors, poaching each other’s employees with fat bonuses.

It’s tempting to envision a scenario where the two companies come together: Elon Musk on Apple’s board, an iPad replacing Tesla’s center console, Jony Ive designing the Model 3, Apple leveraging Tesla’s battery production process for its other devices.  But all signs point to Tesla’s continued independence.  Apple probably won’t acquire Tesla given this status quo.

That’s fine.  In the short to medium term, Apple’s CarPlay dashboard technology is a more promising avenue for immediate profits and widespread adoption.  If Apple acquired Tesla in the next year or two it would almost certainly not license CarPlay to other car manufacturers.  That would be forsaking a gold mine, given the 16.5 million cars sold in fiscal year 2014.

Apple is smart to seed CarPlay now.  If Tesla continues to expand in market share, Apple will no doubt have the cash to purchase it in the future.  And if Tesla stumbles along the way, Apple can swoop in and acquire it at a discount.

The Big Picture

12) All of this is to say that diversity beyond the iPhone is critical.

Apple’s sales figures suggest it will live and die by the iPhone.  The enormous success of the iPhone 6 has guaranteed the company stability for the next few quarters, and the likely improvements to the iPhone 6S (Force Touch, better battery, etc.) suggest the iPhone line will be a rock-solid profit generator at least through 2016.

That said, the pressure to continually produce an expectations-exceeding iPhone is immense.  I don’t doubt Apple’s ability in the slightest to amaze customers with whatever it introduces in the iPhone 7.  But if even one new iPhone model is a flop, Apple would lose a significant revenue source that would probably wreak havoc with its stock price.  (Not that stock fluctuations should matter too much, since it has hundreds of billions of dollars in cash on hand.)

2015 will be remembered as the year when Apple consolidated its mobile phone dominance with the iPhone 6 and also took the first steps to significantly expand beyond the iPhone.  It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if the Apple Watch is only the tip of the iceberg for new products released under Tim Cook’s leadership.

13) Tim Cook is a better CEO than Steve Jobs.

This is an admittedly tough claim to defend; Steve Jobs’ legacy speaks for itself.  But Tim Cook has already presided over some of the most important moments in Apple history, including its most profitable quarter ever and the launch of an entirely new product category.  And he has done so with poise, remarkable foresight, and efficiency.

Profiles of Jobs all lead to the same conclusion: he was a genius, a leader with unparalleled foresight, and, quite often, a horrible person to work for and with.  Cook retains Jobs’ passion without the tempermentality.  He is an exceptionally hard worker with one of the best leadership teams in the industry.  He is a man who deserves respect.

The good news is that Cook’s tenure has not shown any signs of heightened internal discord leading to a stagnant product pipeline.  On the contrary; if anything, there has never been a more exciting time to wonder what Apple has in store as its purview expands to home automation, automobiles, fashion, and untold product areas.

More than hardware and software development, however, has been the moral facet of Cook’s guidance.  Environmental responsibility has been a hallmark of his tenure; “If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock,” he famously told a group of shareholders last year.  Product (RED) offerings have continued uninterrupted.  And, most significantly, Cook has emphasized the importance of overseeing an ethical supply chain through the publication of Apple’s progress report earlier this year.

At best, Apple is an amoral amalgamation of inputs and outputs.  It creates exceptional products while undoubtedly engaging in questionable business practices that affect workers and the environment, primarily in developing countries.  Cook will probably not change this by mandating, for example, that all Apple suppliers offer their employees a living wage.  But he seems more cognizant than both Jobs and most other tech CEOs of Apple’s ability to shape just labor policies and supply chains.  That his tenure has already seen pledges for improvement in these areas suggests he is serious about Apple’s commitment to ethical production and product creation.

I’d love to see Apple make a push at developing markets with a low-cost iPhone, essentially selling it at cost to seed those customer bases for future iDevices.  Much of Apple’s revenue comes from selling expensive products to comparatively wealthy clientele, with the Apple Watch Edition representing the peak of Apple’s pursuit of the luxury market.  It would be good for Tim Cook’s Apple to counterbalance this trend by advocating for productivity and growth in markets that can’t afford a $700 unlocked phone.

Apple’s market share and singular vision suggests it can have the most substantial impact for the good in most of the areas it chooses to enter.  Let’s hope this will be put to good use going forward.  The future certainly looks bright.

 

Killing Benji: Mark Kozelek and the Impact of a Creator’s Sins on Artistic Achievement

Note: This post contains strong language and references a graphic song title.

Under his Sun Kil Moon moniker, singer/songwriter Mark Kozelek released his latest studio album, Benji, last February. The album was met with rapturous praise for its brutal, poignant, and raw depiction of loss. In his review for Pitchfork, Ian Cohen wrote:

There are 11 songs on Sun Kil Moon’s astonishing sixth LP Benji, and in nearly all of them, somebody dies. And that’s not including the ones where someone’s on the verge of death or seriously headed towards it. Toddlers die, teenagers die, adults die, and the elderly die. They die of natural causes and in freak accidents. People die alone and people die by the dozens—handicapped children, single parents, grandmothers, serial killers. They die out of mercy and die long before they’re due. Rednecks die as respected men and white collar kids die in disgrace. But more importantly, Mark Kozelek wants us to know that they all lived, loved, fought, fucked up, and often did the best they could, before he sets out to “find some poetry to make some sense of this and give some deeper meaning” to their tragedies. Turns out he doesn’t have to dig very far. Here, Kozelek does away with the metaphor and verbal obfuscation often used to distract an audience from their own joy, sadness, crippling failures, and small triumphs. If listeners find themselves unable to make it through Benji in one piece, it’s because Kozelek all but forces us to recognize how the most emotionally moving art can be mapped directly on to our own lives.

Benji is a monumental exercise in empathy. We empathize with and mourn for the people Kozelek so brilliantly sketches – among them, a single-mother nurse working the late shift killed in a freak accident, a friend who suffers through a debilitating injury while playing guitar, and the children and teachers murdered in the massacre at Newtown:

So when Christmas comes and you’re out running around,
Take a moment to pause and think of the kids who died in Newtown.
They went so young, who gave their lives
To make us stop and think and try to get it right…
Were so young, a cloud so dark over them
And they left home, gave their mom and dad a kiss and a hug.

So when your birthday comes and you’re feeling pretty good,
Baking cakes and opening gifts and stuffing your mouth with food,
Take a moment for the children who lost their lives.
Think of their families and how they mourn and cry.

We empathize with Kozelek’s personal acquaintances who “map directly to our own lives,” particularly when Kozelek sings about his mother and father:

My mother is 75
One day she won’t be here to hear me cry.
When the day comes for her to let go,
I’ll die off like a lemon tree in the snow.
When the day comes for her to leave,
I won’t have the courage to sort through her things.
With my sisters and all our memories,
I cannot bear all the pain it will bring.

And we empathize with Kozelek himself, who frames these insights and tributes as reflections in the course of his life on the road, often juxtaposed with memories of his youth and fears of his own mortality.

Kozelek’s lyrics are the most important component of Benji’s resonance, and his unique verse structure contributes to their incisiveness. The intensity and deeply personal subject matter of the album is paired with a lyrical delivery that often comes across as Kozelek simply reading from a diary. His couplets often run a couple of beats too long beyond traditional verse rhythms, giving each song a spontaneous, informal, and intimate feeling. At first, this comes across as a curious technique that clashes with the serious subject matter; by the end of the album, it’s mesmerizing, showing just how confessional and raw Kozelek’s stories can be.

Benji’s power comes from a source that’s greater than the sum of its parts. To appreciate Benji is to place one’s faith in Kozelek- to develop a bond of solidarity, to rage and mourn and quietly reflect alongside him. Kozelek never characterizes himself as a perfect man in any of the songs on Benji; far from it, in a couple of cases. But he does position himself as a searcher of truth through so much chaos and pain and heartache, a man trying to make some sense and create order and meaning in a world of hurt. Benji’s resonance ultimately lies in the shared conviction that the listener develops with Kozelek over how music is a vehicle to preserve and make meaning out of things that will fade away.

It’s been odd, then, to read the news surrounding Mark Kozelek over the past month. Instead of being included on “album of the year” lists, Kozelek’s name has been floating around the pop music scene because of a bizarre, pointless fight he picked with The War on Drugs, an alternative rock band based out of Philadelphia led by Adam Granduciel. It’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t make the news and shouldn’t rise above the level of “forgettable beef.” Instead, Kozelek’s words and actions have begun to make critics reconsider the merits of Benji and spurred criticism about the use of language of male violence.

Which raises the ever-recurring question once again: to what extent should an artist’s personal views and actions impact how the audience views his/her work?

* * *

To briefly summarize what happened: Kozelek and The War on Drugs were playing concurrent sets at the Ottawa Folk Festival earlier this fall. Noise from The War on Drugs’ concert was bleeding into Kozelek’s venue, prompting Kozelek to make crass remarks about how the band was playing “beer commercial lead-guitar shit.” After that concert, Kozelek issued a “challenge” through the press for Granduciel to play with him onstage and continued to take shots at The War on Drugs. He then released a new seven-minute song for free called “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock.” After Granduciel criticized Kozelek in an October interview, Kozelek then recorded another new song (“Adam Granofsky Blues”) that featured him reading Granduciel’s interview comments… and laughing at them.

This entire sequence of events probably sounds intensely stupid and pointless. And it is! For reasons unknown, Kozelek decided to press on and parlay this pathetic war of words into actual songs for all to hear, sonic tokens for a PR spat that never should have happened in the first place.

And guess what? There are a lot of problems with both “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock” and “Adam Granofsky Blues.” Here’s Meredith Graves on how Kozelek is contributing to a culture that encourages male violence through language:

When Mark Kozelek chose to start and carry on a completely one-sided and extremely public feud with a band who genuinely did nothing wrong, who chose not to retaliate and even stated their position as fans of his work, who seem hurt and confused by Kozelek’s constant public attacks that persisted for weeks and how said attacks affected their year—that doesn’t seem like entertainment. It’s important to call it what it is: emotional abuse.

Which is why, in all likelihood, Kozelek chose to say “suck my cock” instead of “I think your band is bad.” “Suck my cock” is a command heard most often in two places: heterosexual porn, and schoolyard taunts between presumably straight boys. In no way does Mark Kozelek actually want his cock sucked by the members of the War on Drugs. What he wants is to make them feel violated, to make them feel submissive. “Suck my cock” is an order, not a request. “Suck my cock” is, when used by the wrong person, the language of physical force, the language of rape.

Graves notes in her piece that the initial press response to the song was actually quite positive, with some major outlets labeling it as “goofy” and a lighthearted “dis track.” But even if you disagree with Graves’ own analysis of the song and find the track to be a bit of harmless fun, it is difficult to think Kozelek is just “playing around” after listening to “Adam Granofsky Blues.” Hearing Kozelek laugh and laugh and laugh at Granduciel’s comments comes across as vicious, mean-spirited, and slightly sadistic, especially in light of the fact that Granduciel is only just recovering from intense anxiety and depression that made it difficult to even leave his apartment.

Maybe Kozelek is unaware of Granduciel’s depression. Regardless, the aggregate effort Kozelek has put into perpetuating this fight, especially given that Granduciel and his band did literally nothing to deserve this, paints a picture of him not as cranky and curmudgeonly, but cruel, pathetic, and deeply wrong.

* * *

The events of the past few weeks have made it seem as if there are two Mark Kozeleks. The first is the creator of Benji, an imperfect, admirable chronicler of things that will fade away; the second is a guy who thinks “all you rednecks, shut the fuck up” is a witty chorus lyric. The former is trying to testify to people working their way through pain; the latter is someone who actively perpetuates pain.

This has not gone unnoticed. As noted earlier, part of Benji’s allure was its authenticity, both in terms of the people Kozelek pays tribute to and the beauty of his work in doing so. The recent War on Drugs incidents have framed Kozelek in a decidedly more negative light and, as a consequence, are casting doubt on his conviction in Benji. More broadly, Kozelek’s senseless spat with Granduciel raises the recurring question once again: to what extent should an artist’s personal sins affect how viewers interpret his/her art? Should an artist’s character bear influence on how their work is consumed and remembered?

The general answer to this question is no. An artist’s indiscreet or harmful actions outside the context of their art should not be taken into consideration when weighing their art’s merit. That Roman Polanski molested a child and fled the United States should not affect how we view the thematic quality of his films, even though we might vehemently condemn his actions and consciously refuse to view his work to refrain from financially supporting him. Of course, there are exceptions, especially when malignant beliefs and perspectives affect the thematic core of a piece of art or body of work. The debate about how Heidegger’s philosophy should be judged given his support of Nazism in the 1930s immediately comes to mind.

Kozelek’s indiscretions are obviously far less weighty than extreme sexual impropriety or support for genocidal fascism. But his words and continual mocking engagement of Granduciel have already begun to detract from the successes of his earlier work as well as his new projects. Kozelek released an album of Christmas songs during the first week of November, and in his review for Pitchfork, Mark Richardson couldn’t help but discuss both this album and Benji in the context of the War on Drugs incidents:

Timing is everything. We’ve known for a while that Mark Kozelek was going to be releasing a Christmas album before the end of the year, but for much of that time Kozelek was riding a wave of goodwill following the release of (the still very good, even if I’ve stopped bringing it up at parties) Benji. Now Sings Christmas Carols finally comes out and it feels like an unwanted present from the obnoxious uncle you try and avoid at family gatherings… Kozelek is looking pretty sad, not to mention that he’s probably alienating new fans he may have acquired since Benji’s release. And now we’re supposed to allow him into our homes and into Mom and Dad’s 5xCD changer, slotting his CD next to Dolly Parton and Nat King Cole and A Charlie Brown Christmas? If nothing else, we can be thankful that Kozelek finished this album some time ago, so he didn’t alter his version of “The Christmas Song” to include the line “Although it’s been said, many times, many ways, War on Drugs can…

The musical composition of “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock” also detracts from Benji’s positive reception. Benji’s music is sparse, plaintive, and repetitive; nearly every track is based on a simple lush melody that’s looped again and again, usually with minimal development, build, or change in form. It was a relatively low-fi approach, but the elegant simplicity of each song suggested a good amount of thought went into the planning of each piece. “War on Drugs” features almost identical production value- and Kozelek banged it out in a matter of days. Maybe there wasn’t actually that much work put into Benji, after all. Maybe that unique lyrical structure is just a lazy songwriting construct instead of a conscious attempt at intimacy.

Maybe, though, these allegations are unfair. Despite the many criticisms listed in this piece, Benji is still a gorgeous, haunting, often beautiful album. It may lack a certain authenticity that came with identifying with Kozelek through the course of the album, but even if all of his characters are fictitious and his personal struggles false, his lyrics and themes ring true. Perhaps his misdeeds may make us more hesitant to praise his work, but that doesn’t mean his work inherently lacks value and grace.

Yet there is something undeniably different when listening to Benji in light of all of Mark Kozelek’s recent adventures. Benji is no longer simply a moving testament to friends gone, family lost, strangers who deserve to be remembered. It stands now as a possible aberration created by a man who is one of the aggressors causing the pain Benji so poignantly tried to transfigure. No one is perfect, but the sheer pointlessness of Kozelek’s actions makes his decisions all the more bitter and confusing, hypocritical and tarnishing.

One of the songs on Benji is titled “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same.” A Stereogum reader posted the following lyrics from that song as commentary on Kozelek’s actions:

Though I kept to myself and for the most part was pretty coy
I once got baited and had to clock some undeserving boy
Out on the elementary school playground
I threw a punch that caught him off-guard and knocked him down.

And when I walked away the kids were cheering
And though I grinned, deep inside I was hurting
But not nearly as much as I’d hurt him
He stood up, his glasses broken and his face was red.

And I was never a schoolyard bully
It was only one incident and it has always eaten at me.

I was never the young schoolyard bully
And wherever you are, that poor kid, I’m so sorry.

He’s not sorry. And both Benji and innocent people are still hurting as a result.

On Prayer in a Connected World

Let’s recap a few of the headline events from Summer 2014:

  • The Israel-Gaza conflict resulted in over 2,000 deaths, including a substantial number of child casualties.
  • ISIS’ continued rise in Iraq yielded claims of genocide, extensive religious persecution, and almost unimaginable suffering and brutal torture.
  • A genocide continues unabated in Syria. New conflicts arose in Libya.
  • Ebola killed thousands of people and continues to affect thousands more.
  • Over five hundred innocent people were killed in the crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 77, which was likely caused by errant pro-Russian separatists in ongoing Russo-Ukrainian skirmishes.
  • Hundreds of people were killed in natural disasters in China and elsewhere around the globe.
  • The murder of Michael Brown sparked protests that escalated dramatically due to near-militarized dispersal tactics in Ferguson, Missouri.

2014 was one of the coolest summers in recent memory on the East Coast, but it felt like the world was coming to a grief-stricken boil.

Of course, we live in one of the most peaceful eras that our planet has ever seen. But the ways in which we consume news and information have attuned us to pain, sorrow, and violence. It’s easier than ever to get constant story updates and to learn the gritty details of murders, disasters, and death. We have access to an almost bewildering scope of coverage; thousands of sources are seconds away at our fingertips. And we have an increasing penchant for constantly checking these sources for new updates. We are reading more about more on a more frequent basis.

How has our heightened consciousness to what’s going on in the world affected the way we pray and our belief in the efficacy of prayer?

It’s a question I continue to ask myself, particularly when reflecting on the events described above. Our relationship with each other, and our cognizance of the “other,” has been fundamentally altered by technology’s broadening of the borders of our consciousness. We can access more experiences and existences than at any other point in human history, along with detailed high-level context about events and trends. This is a fairly obvious paradigm shift on the surface, but in many ways, it’s been neglected with respect to how we conceive of experiences and relationships with each other in prayer.

For much of human history, prayer was a personal activity with a communal scope wherein supplications were primarily made for family members or local peers. I’d imagine this was true even as newspapers became more popular and gave lower- and middle-class people an understanding of what was befalling their brothers and sisters around the world. Now, we don’t just pray for our communities or families. The Catholic Church, with its globe-hopping Pope, is a network of connections that span continents, languages, and governments. Our religious communities are rooted in the local but have international scope.

Technology has facilitated and forged these connections through prayer. It’s easier than ever for believers to connect, pray, and learn more about their faiths – and to question and adjust their beliefs as they acquire new information and perspectives.

But technology’s role in shaping how we consume information might be having a counterbalancing effect to this ability to connect. It’s easy to see how this increased access to news, with its constant emphasis on death and destruction, could significantly weaken our belief in prayer’s ability to enact real change. At one point in history, prayers of petition were used to request cures for local maladies, but now they’re employed in the service of a wide array of world conflicts. And it’s somewhat disheartening to wonder how the prayers of a single person can possibly address all of these awful things. Once people stop believing prayer is efficacious, it’s likely their faith will start to wane too.

Of course, it’s all a matter of what you pray for and how you approach prayer. To pray for general resolution to global problems is important, but there are other, arguably more effective ways of approaching prayer. For example, using prayer as a time for focused reflection on particular individuals and cultures may be one avenue to active, agapic prayer. Perhaps instead of asking God for peace in the Middle East, we might learn and recite Yazidi prayers as an act of spiritual solidarity; donate money to charities working with refugees; and read about the amazing life and faith of James Foley and the other people ISIS has taken prisoner.

It is easy to look at the news and despair. It is equally easy (and sometimes justifiable) to view prayer as a ridiculous endeavor that has no tangible benefits or outcomes. In light of these temptations, we should be cognizant of how prayer need not be a fleeting plea in a sea of nightmares, but an invitation to support, empathize, and grow as individuals and communities. Our connected world taketh away; our connected world giveth, too.

 

 

Standing with Iraq’s Christians – And All of Its Persecuted Innocents

The militant group ISIS, which began seizing control of Iraqi cities several months back, has decreed that all Christians and religious minorities in the Iraqi city of Mosul will face the death penalty unless they convert to Islam or leave the territory.  The terror organization imposed Sharia law earlier this past June and recently prevented Christian services from being held for the first time 1600 years.  Last week, the city’s remaining Christian families fled – and were reportedly robbed at ISIS checkpoints as they left.

These actions have prompted many Christians around the world to adopt the Arabic character of “nun” on social media in a show of solidarity with the persecuted.  This symbol had been painted and posted on the homes of Christian families in Iraq, marking them as targets for their beliefs.

It is heartening to read the posts and essays by Christian writers who express concern for the welfare of their brothers and sisters suffering in Iraq.  Their work has been a moving testament to the pain fellow Christians are facing and an important reminder that this suffering must not be forgotten.

But there has been a slightly disturbing undercurrent in some of these tributes to Mosul’s Christians: an unspoken indifference to the plight of non-Christian Iraqis who are suffering with their Christian countrymen.  Given that most Christian denominations are defined by their concern for all people regardless of their faith, I fear this is creating a discrete, insular provincialism that does no favors to broader Christian outreach.

As an example, here’s Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry at Patheos:

The persecution of Christians happens under a great shroud of silence. Maybe, as John Allen has argued, persecuted Christians are too Christian for the Left to care, and too third-worldy for the Right to care (but, you know, there’s a War on Christmas on). And the worst thing for our governments would be to be seen in non-Christian lands as having any sort of special solidarity with Christians (yes, wouldn’t that be terrible), so better to err on the side of indifference. Right?

This blood is particularly on the hands of the American government, which has a special duty to help them and, I am sure, will do nothing of the sort.

Much credit should go to Gobry and his fellow bloggers for lifting this shroud of silence surrounding Christian persecution through their work – I certainly wouldn’t have learned as much about this crisis without their efforts.  But Gobry’s proposal for a governmental declaration of solidarity with Iraq’s Christians makes little sense.  What reason would the U.S. have for expressing any particular affinity for Christians over Muslims in Iraq, especially when ISIS’ extremism is affecting Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in different but equally disturbing ways?

For that matter, if the U.S. were to signal solidarity with a persecuted minority, why would it limit its symbolic gesture to only Christians?  Human Rights Watch reports that ethnic groups including Turkmen, Shabaks, and Yazidis have also been persecuted for their beliefs and subjected to decrees similar to Mosul’s Christians.  Turkmen are the third largest ethnic group in Iraq; 500,000 live in the Mosul area alone and 30,000 in the city proper.  Despite its Christian origins and its large Christian population, the U.S. government obviously has no explicit Christian affiliation, and to express “special solidarity” with Christians in Mosul, which Gobry sarcastically suggests would be no big deal, is actually a serious affront to the other religious groups suffering similar harm in Iraq.

Michael Brendan Dougherty at The Week falls into a similar trap as Gobry, suggesting that Christians are the primary group that deserves American attention:

The U.S. owes Christians and other persecuted Iraqi minorities assistance… Mosul was a home for Christians for as long as Christianity existed. Not anymore. Now, the U.S. cannot restore these people to their homes, or reverse the desecration of Christian shrines. But our diplomatic, financial, and moral energies should be used to protect them from any further harm.

To his credit, Dougherty references other “religious minorities” throughout the essay, but he never actually names any of them.  The piece’s title reinforces a decidedly narrow view of whom American aid should assist: “Why America is duty bound to help Iraqi Christians.”

Dougherty calls for the U.S. to withhold financial aid to Iraq until its government does more to protect only afflicted religious minorities.  To argue this point is to ignore the besieged members of Iraq’s religious majority.  While Islam constitutes 97% of the country’s religious population, Sunni Muslims account for around 35% of the total religious population and Shi’a Muslims account for around 60%.  There have been atrocities committed against both denominations and the Iraqi government is not blameless.  To suggest aid should be preconditioned solely on the welfare of minorities – and to ignore the hardship inflicted on innocent Sunni and Shi’a Muslims – seems tone-deaf at best, since civilians of all religious communities have been unjustly affected.

Rorate-Caeli similarly frames the atrocities in Iraq solely through their impact on Christians in the region:

For two thousand years, our dearest brethren saw it all from Mosul… For years, we have been warning that support for terrorists in neighboring Syria would surely end badly. But even we could not imagine that it would end so badly so fast and over such a vast area. And yet, the insane Empire-builders are still handing billions and billions, and hundreds of millions of dollars to “moderate” terrorists! Where’s the outrage? Have you contacted your congressman, senator, president, MP, prime-minister expressing your outrage, begging this madness to stop?…

After two thousand years, it is finished. It’s over. Who will pay for the lasting damage lying Western politicians created by starting a process that would lead to what not even the first Islamic rulers, thirteen centuries ago, ever did, the obliteration of Christian life and populations?…

In Mosul, genocide has been accomplished. Where’s the outrage?

There is something vaguely, quietly cruel in this call to contact government officials as a response, first and foremost, to Christian persecution in Iraq.  One million Iraqis have fled the country in 2014.  500,000 people in total have left Mosul.  Did the authors of this post think it unimportant to emphasize how a general diaspora of displaced Iraqis is equally unacceptable?  Are we to believe that Christian persecution is more important and worthy of collective action than the pain felt by those of other religions?

This is not to minimize the particularly brutal treatment of Christians by ISIS, but to emphasize that all forms of persecution to every religious group in Iraq are worthy of condemnation.  Christians should not simply stand in solidarity with their tribe, but with all believers of good will who are unjustly harmed or prevented from worshipping by ISIS’ extremism.  Action should not be a consequence of singular Christian oppression; voices should be raised because innocent people are prevented from exercising religious liberty and  fully practicing their beliefs.

I understand that, as Christians, Gobry and Dougherty feel a particular connection with those who share their conception of the world, and I do not mean to suggest that any omission of other religious groups is tantamount to dismissal of their well-being.  But to focus on Christians to the exclusion or marginalization of other religious minorities carries the whiff of a moral calculus wherein Christians effectively matter more.  We must not risk even the slightest chance of conveying this attitude in any dialogue about religious persecution in Mosul.  Framing the unjust conditions that Christians face within the broader context of Iraqi upheaval and violence is critically important as a testament to the hardship endured by all.

Muslims, Turkmen, and Iraq’s other religious minorities are as much our brothers and sisters as Christians in Iraq.  Christians around the world should not forget them as they pray and work for peace.

The Weight of Quiet Moments: On “Boyhood”

The critical consensus regarding Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which saw a limited release in theaters last weekend, has been universally, overwhelmingly positive.  “I’m not saying Boyhood is the greatest film I’ve ever seen, but I’m thinking there’s my life before I saw it and my life now,” New York Magazine’s David Edelstein wrote in his critique of the film.

High praise for a movie that has no ostensible plot.  Boyhood follows the life of a young child named Mason as he grows up in Texas with his divorced mother and father.  Linklater filmed Boyhood over the course of 12 years, spending a few days annually with the cast and crew to edit the script and shoot new scenes.  As a result, we see Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grow from a pudgy kid into a slim young man over the course of two and a half hours.

The film does not traffic in most Hollywood clichés or plot devices.  Individual scenes are, for the most part, composed of quiet moments and routine occurrences.  Mason plays video games, fights with his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), falls in love, and gets a job.  He’s forced to move and picked on by other kids at school.  He celebrates a birthday and graduates high school.  Photography begins to pique his interest.   At the end of the film, he leaves for college.

The focus on Mason’s maturation is juxtaposed with a close look at the choices his parents make and the consequences of their decisions and circumstances.   Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) is an absentee father as the film opens, chasing his misspent youth in Alaska.  His mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) endures a series of sour and occasionally violent marriages.  Olivia, Mason Jr., and Samantha spend good chunks of the movie just getting by.

Linklater complements these tribulations with momentous events and equal measures of happiness.  Mason Sr. returns to Texas and eventually settles down with a family of his own.  Olivia obtains her degree and becomes a successful college professor.  Genuinely hilarious scenes, such as Mason Sr.’s conscription of his children to post Obama 2008 signs around the community, are generously peppered throughout.

Coltrane’s portrayal of Mason is remarkable, but the film is arguably more reliant on Hawke and Arquette as the two major fulcrums that determine what Mason’s boyhood entails.  They are magnificent.  Both poignantly capture the difficulties and joys of becoming a responsible parent and adult.  Arquette, in particular, deserves Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress consideration for her work.  Hers is a stunning, forceful depiction of multitudes of strength: raising two children by herself, going back to school while working, triumphing over abusive relationships, and, ultimately, letting her children go.

This strong character development alone is enough to make Boyhood memorable, but ascribing it life-changing properties a la Edelstein might strike some as a stretch.  How could a film without any particular action or dramatic narrative arc create such resonance?

For me, the answer came in the cumulative wash of Boyhood’s individual moments of normalcy and routine.  Watching the film in real time focuses the viewer’s attention on small plot sketches and cosmetic changes that connect each period of Mason’s life: how will his new haircut be received?  What will become of his interest in photography?  It’s only when the end credits roll that the enormity and significance of the preceding scenes become apparent- it’s easy to forget you’re watching a decade of growth in the course of two and a half hours.  To fully grasp how those individual quiet moments come together to create a full life is achingly beautiful and almost overwhelming.

To that end, I left the theater with two distinct impressions: a keen sense of how my own body, mind, and spirit had changed since I was a boy, and an appreciation for other people (parents, in particular) that I’ve never really felt after consuming a piece of art.  Boyhood prompts the viewer to recognize that mundane and regular moments are a shared experience and that all people are in the middle of their own narrative of normalcy.  Seeing Mason and his family evolve and change is an exercise in immense empathy; you come to realize the commonalities of your own joys, sorrows, and appreciation of moments both large and inconsequential.  And after the film, it is almost shockingly clear how Mason Jr., Olivia, or Samantha could be any random person on the street.

It is a wonderful movie, filled with small joys, deeply resonant moments, and the gorgeous backdrop of warm Texas landscapes.  Highly recommended.

The Complete Reader’s Guide to David Mitchell

This post is an overview of the bibliography of author David Mitchell.  It includes links to interviews, reviews, and essays, as well as information about his forthcoming books.

Last updated July 2017.

Table of Contents
I. Collected Works
II. Book Review Compilations
III. Select Critical Analysis
IV. Select Essays, Interviews and Lists
V. Videos
VI. The Future and Forthcoming Books

***

Introduction

In its starred review of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, Publisher’s Weekly posed the following question: “Is [this] the most ambitious novel ever written, or just the most Mitchell-esque?”

High praise, indeed, and appropriately prescient; The Bone Clocks was ultimately longlisted for several end-of-year literary awards.  But Mitchell’s readers have long known that such critical praise is both justified and deserved.  David Mitchell, author of six novels and over a dozen short stories and librettos, is one of the most ambitious (and enjoyable) writers of the twenty-first century.

What makes Mitchell’s body of work so unique?  In brief, his use of lush language, kinetic storytelling, and an expansive vision of how his fiction fits together.  Mitchell is pioneering what might be deemed a “meta-novel,” in which all of his books and short stories are part of a larger universal narrative.  Thanks to his emotionally resonant characters and the thematic depth of his fiction, this has yielded an unparalleled micro- and macro-storytelling project unlike anything else in modern literature.

The varied structures and styles of Mitchell’s individual novels reflect this overarching scope.  They range from standard first-person Bildungsroman (Black Swan Green) to multi-narrator historical fiction (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) to symphonies of interconnected narrative strains.  Cloud Atlas, perhaps his most well-known work, features six linked stories-within-stories that span hundreds of years, authored in the styles of epistolary correspondence, judicial inquisition, 1970s political thriller, and more.  Ghostwritten, his debut novel, features nine independent stories that connect over the course of the book.  Mitchell’s first manuscript, which was roundly rejected by publishers, somehow puts its successors to shame in scope: it included 365 different chaptersmultiple subplots, and dozens of characters.

In many ways, Mitchell’s penchant for unique, interlocking narrative structures makes him a perfect author for contemporary fandom, in which the close-reading of small plot points and finishing touches is rewarded with new layers of thematic depth.  The interconnectedness of his books and stories yields a dizzying number of crossover character appearances and cameos from title to title, which in turn affect how the reader understands the drama and stakes of a given scene or plot.  Dr. Marinus, the wise, gruff botanist from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, appears in a different capacity in The Bone Clocks, despite the two books taking place nearly 200 years apart.  Knowing Marinus’ role in the latter book completely re-shapes how the reader could interpret the full narrative arc of the former.

Of course, such interplay between books only works when characters and plots are compelling, and Mitchell does not disappoint.  Tracking Jason Taylor’s maturation in Black Swan Green, Jacob de Zoet’s hopes and fears in Thousand Autumns, and Zachry’s attempts to make sense of post-apocalyptic society in Cloud Atlas are case studies in the pathos that Mitchell can draw from his protagonists. A recurring theme in his work is the dynamic of power structures and how benevolence can exist amid aggressive malevolence. Seeing his characters navigate their surroundings and these power structures is a joy, thanks to Mitchell’s ability to weave together action, humor, and quiet moments of reflection.

To help fans appreciate the scope of Mitchell’s expansive literary universe, we’ve compiled a host of links and resources that comprise a significant portion of his bibliography.  We hope this will serve both newcomers to his work and seasoned fans looking for hard-to-find stories and interviews.  Enjoy!

***

I. Collected Works

Every major piece of fiction and nonfiction in Mitchell’s bibliography. Book links lead to Amazon pages; short story links lead to online copies if available; libretto links lead to synopses and interviews.  Short story publishers and publication dates represent the earlier publication date between U.K. and American editions.

Credit to this site for compiling many of the short stories listed, and special thanks to Mr. Robert Borski for his kind help in adding additional stories and recommended links. 

Books

Unpublished Manuscripts

  • The Old Moon
  • From Me Flows What You Call Time (Future Library Novel)

Book Translations (Nonfiction)

Short Stories and Fiction

  • The January Man (2003. Printed in Granta 81. Early version of a chapter from Black Swan Green.)
  • What You Do Not Know You Want (2004. Included in McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories edited by Michael Chabon, published by Vintage.)
  • Acknowledgments (2005. Printed in Prospect.)
  • Hangman (2005. Included in New Writing 13, edited by Ali Smith and Toby Litt; published by Picador.  Early version of a chapter from Black Swan Green.)
  • All Souls Day (Pre-2006, 2016. First discussed in Sarah Dillon’s Critical Essays prior to the publication of Black Swan Green. Published in Jealous Saboteurs by artist Francis Uprichard in 2016. Early version of a chapter from Black Swan Green.
  • Preface (2006. Printed in the Daily Telegraph.)
  • Dénouement (2007. Printed in The Guardian.)
  • Judith Castle (2008. Reprinted in the New York Times; included in The Book of Other People edited by Zadie Smith, published by Penguin.)
  • The Massive Rat (2009. Printed in The Guardian.)
  • An Inside Job (2009. Included in Fighting Words, edited by Roddy Doyle, published by Stoney Road Press.)
  • Character Development (2009. Reprinted in The Guardian; included in Freedom: Short Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Amnesty International, published by Amnesty International.)
  • Muggins Here (2010. Printed in The Guardian.)
  • Earth Calling Taylor (2010. Printed in the Financial Times.)
  • The Gardener (2011. Reprinted in The Guardian; originally created for Kai & Sunny’s “The Flower Show” art exhibition.)
  • The Siphoners (2011. Included in I’m With the Bears: Short Stories from a Damaged Planet edited by Mark Martin, published by Verso Books.)
  • In the Bike Sheds (2012. Printed in We Love This Book.)
  • Lots of Bits of Star (2013. Originally created for Kai & Sunny’s “Caught by the Nest” art exhibition.)
  • Variations on a Theme by Mister Donut (2014. Printed in Granta Magazine 127.)
  • The Right Sort (2014. Published via Twitter. Early version of a chapter from Slade House.)
  • My Eye On You (2016. Originally created for Kai & Sunny’s “Whirlwind of Time” art exhibition.)
  • A Forgettable Story (2017. Printed in Silkroad Magazine.)

Short Story Translations

  • The Earthgod and the Fox (2012. By Kenji Miyazawa; translation printed in McSweeney’s Issue 42.)

Librettos

Other

II. Book Review Compilations

Collected links for reviews of three Mitchell titles.

III. Select Critical Analysis

Periodical Criticism

Academic Scholarship

IV. Select Author Essays, Print Interviews, and Reading Lists

Select Essays

Japan and My Writing – “This lack of belonging encourages me to write: I lack a sense of citizenship in the real world, and in some ways, commitment to it. To compensate, I stake out a life in the country called writing. I don’t mean the publishing world: I mean a mental state (mental is the word!), where characters and plots in the head achieve the solidity of people and lives outside the head.”

Two essays for BookBrowse – “Writers’ motives are as varied as criminals’, but I suspect that the historical novelist’s genetic code contains the geeky genes of the model-maker – there is pleasure to be had in the painstaking reconstruction of a lost world.”

Lost for Words (published in Prospect) – “Stammerers are furnaces of willpower, burning more of the stuff in making a single phonecall than our non-stammering accusers get through in a week. My first ever public event as a writer was in 1999, at the generous invitation of AS Byatt and Tibor Fischer. Tibor picked up on my nervousness and, meaning to reassure me, said: ‘This will be the scariest reading you’ll ever do.’ I’ve never told him how right he was.”

An essay for The Atlantic – “We have a hard time remaining in the present: Our monkey minds are continually jumping through the jungles of the past and the forests of the future. But Wright’s poem says: Stop! Just stop. Calm down, be quiet, and look around. It’s an homage to, and an exhortation of, the act of seeing.”

Imaginary City (published in GEIST) – “Closer up, my imaginary Vancouver is scoured by the cold Pacific (as much an oxymoron as ‘hot Atlantic,’ where I’m from) and in need of a fresh lick of paint, like any working port. Ferries lit like Christmas trees plow the harbour, and snow-carved mountains encircle a stained-glass-at-night sky.”

A Possibly True Ghost Story (published in Freeman’s) – “Being young, I felt that I owned an unlimited bank account of hours and days, so I’d often zone out and gaze at the river, its herons, and the steep flank of wooded mountain rising from its far bank. No great leap of the imagination was required to picture the irradiated human beings of all ages arriving 50 years earlier—right there, at the very same spot where I aired my futon, hung my laundry, and ate my granola.”

Select Interviews

Blurbs and Recommendations

V. Select Videos

Longer Conversation

Short Clips

(Also parts 2, 3, and 4)

(The first in a series of 10, linked from that video.)

VI. The Future and Forthcoming Books

Mitchell signed a three-book deal with Random House in 2014, which covers the publication of two new novels and another translation of Naoki Higashida’s work (the author of The Reason I Jump).  It appears that one of these novels is his most recent book, Slade House, which was published in October 2015. His translation of Naoki Higashida’s Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight was released in July 2017, which would suggest there is currently one book remaining on the Random House deal.

Next Novel

As part of the publicity tour for Slade House, Mitchell noted that he’ll be working on side-projects in advance of his next novel, which will take place in the 1960s:

I’m doing a couple of non-novel side-projects to ‘omnivorize’ myself a little, but I’ve promised not to discuss these for the time being. My next novel will be set in Soho London, Greenwich Village and Laurel Canyon in the late 1960s and will contain not a whiff of the supernatural. Probably.

Mitchell had discussed the themes of this next novel in a May 2015 interview:

Though most of Mitchell’s works can seem dark, they are ultimately also imbued with an inescapable sense of optimism. He believes in a future for humanity, and in the resilience of the human spirit, and it shines through.

Those ideals also colour the novel that Mitchell is currently working on, the book that may come after the novella in October. I won’t divulge too much, except to say that it’s set primarily in London in the 1960s and 1970s, and explores youth and creativity.

“What is idealism? What use is it? How ridiculous is it? But does anything change for the better without it?”

He also described the basic plot of the book in a 2014 interview with The Yale Herald:  

It’s going to be set in 1967, ‘68, ‘69. It’ll be a British act in the folk rock revival starting in Soho—which is like our Greenwich Village, London’s Greenwich Village—and then they’re agent will try to “break America,” so they’ll be performing in the Gas- light Bar, and in places like that. But there are drugs around, so you can then bend the laws of reality with that justification but stay within realism. There will be weird shit happening in the book.

Following Novel

In an August 2015 interview with The Guardian, Mitchell acknowledged how all of his work shares a common universe, and he briefly referenced the next book he’ll be working on after the Slade House follow-up is finished:

He added: “Everything I will do will be in this universe. Even if it’s the book after the next one I do, which will be set around the turn of the first millennium.”

Additional Forthcoming Books

Kathryn Schulz wrote about Mitchell’s next five novels in her Vulture piece on The Bone Clocks:

Over lunch at a café in Kinsale, Mitchell astounded me by describing, in extensive detail, his next five books. These include further adventures with soul-eating villains, a trio of linked novellas set in New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a return to historical fiction (different hemisphere this time), and a fictionalized biography of an 18th-century person you’ve probably heard of. The final installment of the Marinus trilogy will follow all that. Mitchell is also toying with an idea for what will by then be his 12th novel. It is set 250 million years in the future.

In his 2014 interview with The Millions, Mitchell described the Marinus title in greater detail, along with information about another book:

I’m going to do a book mostly about Marinus in the future, about what happens once she gets to Iceland, and to link that to Meronym, who’s a character at the center of Cloud Atlas. They call themselves the Prescients. That’s how she introduces herself when she arrives in a fusion-powered ship to the post-apocalyptic times and the think tank the surviving Horologists have set-up in Iceland. I’m going to do Hershey’s father as well, the filmmaker. I’m doing something short now, but my next major book, I’ll start that next year.

Mitchell seems to have referenced the Marinus title in an interview from 2015:

…he’s been recently very interested in Iceland and so something with Vikings, or Greenland, or the Sagas, is probably in the queue. Particularly, he’s interested in writing something set 30 years after the end of The Bone Clocks and set in Iceland.

In that same interview, he also appears to have dropped a hint about the protagonist of his book set in the 18th century:

He also admitted to being fascinated by the 18th century harpsichordist Domenico Scarlatti who was decidedly average until the final years of his life when he wrote 550 sonatas of brilliance. The inversion of the more familiar child-prodigy figure appeals to him and he wondered what might have triggered that sudden awakening of genius.

At Book Expo America 2014, Mitchell mentioned that he would like to write a novel about soccer but provided no additional details by way of plot or style.

Future Library Title

In May 2015, the Future Library project announced that David Mitchell would be its second participating author.  Future Library is a literary time capsule that will be collecting new, never-before-published work from 100 authors over the next 100 years, and it will lock those manuscripts away from public consumption until 2114.

In May 2016, Mitchell submitted his contribution, From Me Flows What You Call Time, at a ceremony held in Oslo.  Few details have been revealed about the manuscript, save that it’s a 90-page novella and that it shares its name with an orchestral composition by Toru Takemitsu.

Anything Else?

Not at the moment, but if you have any recommendations for additions to the list, send them our way- we’ll update this post as new features are published or uncovered.  This is not a exhaustive accounting of every interview, review, and conversation that David has been a part of, but we hope it’s a good introduction to his body of work.

Initial Impressions of Vox

Earlier this year, I wrote about the coming influx of new journalism sites and opined on their prospects against current media stalwarts.  All of the sites that I referenced at the time are now live and have been operating at full capacity for at least a couple of months.  Here’s what Vox, my pick for the most promising of the new ventures, has accomplished and what it should do differently going forward.

Vox’s Mission Statement

Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, and Melissa Bell launched Vox (originally codenamed Project X) in late March.  Their goal: to explain the news and to make complex stories both accessible and engaging.  From their soft-launch site explainer:

In journalism, you’ll sometimes hear articles about hard topics referred to as “vegetables” or “the spinach” — the idea being that readers don’t like those subjects but they should be reading about them anyway. Our view is that there’s no important topic that can’t be made interesting to the audience. If we’re writing about something important — something that matters in people’s lives — and we’ve made it boring then that failure is on us, not on our readers.

They also promised a unique, technology-rich feature set to accomplish this goal:

It’s our job to experiment with all kinds of preparations: Feature articles, traditional news articles, Q&As, FAQs, graphics, videos, visualizations, and even faux-conversations like this one. It means being willing to adopt a tone that isn’t intimidating and being honest that we’re also trying to figure this stuff out. It means developing some innovative new editorial products that let us deliver contextual information more cleanly, clearly, and regularly. Our only promise is that our goal in all cases will be to move people from curiosity to understanding.

Five-Card Stud: Vox’s Card Stack Model

The centerpiece of Vox’s media model has been what it calls “card stacks.”  Card stacks are pop-up interactive features that break down a given issue into topic-based cards, with each card representing a sub-issue or important piece of information related to the topic at hand.  Check out Timothy Lee’s card stack about net neutrality as an example.  The stack walks the reader through the basics of what net neutrality is, the history net neutrality, and the peripheral questions and debates in the news that involve it.

The card stack idea isn’t necessarily original; Bloomberg has been publishing similar “QuickTakes” of given issues for a while now.  But Vox has given primacy to card stacks within its editorial framework and sees them as the bedrock for future stories that pertain to the issue in question.  Most news pieces are relegated to the trash heap of history almost immediately after publication, but Vox’s cards are a promising case study of how certain stories can have continued value in the long run.

Successes

1. The writing is fantastic.  Vox’s journalists have been producing high-quality work from the get-go.  Sarah Kliff, Libby Nelson, Max Fisher, and Tim Lee, among others, have produced really excellent coverage of healthcare, education, foreign policy, and technology, respective.  Matt Yglesias’ review of Capital in the 21st Century is more or less my platonic ideal of the book review: it explains the book’s content and provides a succinct overview of why that content matters.  (I really hope additional book and film reviews like this will be published in the future.)  Dylan Matthews is still Dylan Matthews.  With a team this good, quality is basically a guarantee, which suggests readers will return to the site.

2. The features are innovative and varied.  I love the execution of the card stacks thus far, especially those that dig into the background of huge issues or topics like the Affordable Care Act.  The card stacks are easy to read and are arguably a better, more concise go-to source than Wikipedia or any other information portal, at least for general topic overviews.  Matt (Mazewski, not Yglesias) mentioned to me a little while back that he enjoys the video pieces for their succinctness and quality.  The Q&A breakdowns are a good change of pace and function as mini-card stacks for quick reads.  Vox’s format mix is the best example yet of the new course that innovative internet journalism can plot.

3. Inclusive, unobstructed design.  Credit Melissa Bell’s team for crafting a site that has avoided the design and technology pitfalls of so many other news organizations.  The design is clean yet bold.  Card stacks are simple and easy to navigate.  The mobile site functions flawlessly compared to the desktop site.  Ads are tastefully juxtaposed to pieces and don’t clutter the page.  There are no sponsored content links adorning the end of articles.  Comments are not currently accepted, which is a surprising (and not unwelcome) break from the model nearly every other news site employs.  All of these factors add up to a reading experience that puts the focus on the news and respects the reader by avoiding content gimmicks.  That could be a distinguishing factor as Vox’s reputation solidifies as a haven from the inescapable garbage of Buzzfeed, Forbes, etc.

Room for Improvement

Though Vox’s site design is quite good, the site’s organizational layout needs to be improved as its team begins to aggregate content.   Its current biggest weakness is the lack of a framework for browsing previous stories and posts.  For a site that’s designed to use older stories as a running basis for new events, that’s more than a small problem.  There isn’t even a search bar to locate old articles by topic.

Creating an archive would go a long way towards solving that problem and making Vox’s content more accessible.  But it wouldn’t solve the underlying issue of Vox’s content organization: it’s often unclear why a given story format was paired with a given story.   As Vox continues to grow, it would be helpful to establish consistency in what kinds of stories are posted in each format to better inform readers how each piece fits into the Vox ecosystem.

For example: it makes a lot of sense for Sarah Kliff’s primer on the Affordable Care Act to be published in a card stack, since the ACA is a huge topic and will likely be referenced in a substantial number of future posts.  Based on Vox’s mission statement, it seems like card stacks are the engine for repurposing basic story information for new events and updates.  So why was coverage of Jill Abramson’s firing also published as a card stack?  It was certainly an important event, but it’s highly unlikely this specific incident will be used a as a reference for more than one or two future posts.  If card stacks are most closely linked with recurring utility, why not publish this post as an FAQ or a faux conversation?

I’d take two broad measures to add clarity to Vox’s organizational framework:

1. Use card stacks for stories about institutions, histories, ongoing movements, and key historical events.  Use other features for everything else.

Or, basically, divide content into “things we will use again” and “posts with issue-specific longevity or scope.”  Designate card stacks as the medium for overarching issues that will have a probable chance for future re-use.  My crude measuring stick: imagine it’s December 2015 and we’re recounting key events from 2014 that will probably be relevant going into 2016.  Anything that’s deemed as relevant should be in a card stack; anything that’s deemed less important should be published via a different feature.

So the ACA, the violence in Ukraine, and the coup in Thailand all make sense as card stacks since they’re important issues that will likely have recurring relevance in the medium-term.  The Jill Abramson case and the Bryan Singer allegations would probably have more of a short-term lifespan and should be published as something else, though overarching topics like pay discrimination by gender certainly warrant card stacks.  Of course, any events that magnify in importance could be upgraded to a card stack accordingly.

This might not seem like a significant issue, but as Vox’s published material continues to increase in quantity, it’s important for readers to get a sense of what each story format represents.  I’m also a firm believer that a repository of quality card stacks would be a distinctly monetizable product, an asset collection that could be billed as a friendlier Wikipedia.  It’s important to ensure this product would be of consistently high-level quality rather than a mix of lasting issues and ephemera.  A card stack about the new X-Men film, for example, would have only detracted from the product’s holistic value as it pertains to schools, libraries, and other possible third-party vendors.

2. Create an archive and divide it into four sections: card stacks, non-video features, videos, and opinion pieces.

This would be simple.  Create four product pages that aggregate content for easy navigability.  Card stacks would have their own separate page for the reasons described above.  All other features would be collected elsewhere.  Vox’s video series has been very, very good so far and it would make sense to distinguish video material from all other content, both for easier viewing and the unique ad revenue opportunities associated with the medium.  An opinion page wouldn’t be necessary, but some analysts have bemoaned the loss of Matt and Ezra’s non-“Voxsplaining” musings, and creating an opinion page would ensure Vox has great and clearly delineated takes on both the news and commentary.

Why This Matters

Yglesias recently responded to a critique of Vox from Facebook Content Director Mike Hudack, who argues that Vox’s content decisions betray the team’s original goal of publishing serious journalism:

Personally I hoped that we would find a new home for serious journalism in a format that felt Internet-native and natural to people who grew up interacting with screens instead of interacting with screens from couches with bags of popcorn and a beer to keep their hands busy.

And instead they write stupid stories about how you should wash your jeans instead of freezing them. To be fair their top headline right now is “How a bill made it through the worst Congress ever.” Which is better than “you can’t clean your jeans by freezing them.”

The jeans story is their most read story today. Followed by “What microsoft doesn’t get about tablets” and “Is ’17 People’ really the best West Wing episode?”

It’s hard to tell who’s to blame. But someone should fix this shit.

In response, Yglesias argued that social media sites like Facebook are the reason that this kind of content receives more attention than serious journalism:

As of writing, the jeans story has been shared 1,062 times on Facebook while the DATA Act story has been shared just 242 times. That’s why the jeans story has been read by more people. We featured the DATA Act story much more prominently on our home page, but these days the bulk of web traffic is driven by social media and the bulk of social traffic is driven by Facebook.

Yglesias is correct insofar as social media sites are quickly becoming the go-to source for news and peer-recommended stories.  But even though Vox might give greater homepage weight to stories like the DATA Act article, there is no such primacy given to these lengthier pieces in Vox’s own story history OR on its Facebook and Twitter streams.  Content is publicized with equal weight and filed away with equal weight.

If Vox wants to change this perception, preserving content like card stacks and videos becomes a critical tool in showing which assets and stories have real centrality in Vox’s content bank.  No one should fault Vox for pushing stories on frozen jeans and what “basic” means, since these kinds of traffic-boosters are easy to read and attract eyeballs and revenue.  But Vox should be faulted for not doing enough to distinguish the content it wants to prioritize after publication, especially when so much of it is really damn good.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that Vox was my pick for the most promising of the new internet sites.  To my mind, Vox’s talent and broad story variety, coupled with its focus on long-term storytelling and backing of the powerful Vox Media brand, will ensure its continued expansion and innovation going forward.  Taking these steps to streamline its content will go a long way in buttressing its mission statement and most effectively leveraging its assets.