“Stranger in Paradise” (Tony Bennett)

This track, from Kismet, amounts to a study in anti-utopianism: ultimate achievement of paradise is said to have nothing to do with “wonder” or being a “stranger” (these are merely unpleasant and transitory states). So, really, utopia is just like everyplace else: turning the “rare” unceasingly into the “commonplace” and reducing unprecedented “danger” to everyday reality through traditional forms of facial recognition.


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“Dark Was the Night—Cold Was the Ground” (Blind Willie Johnson)

On September 12, 2013, Voyager 1 became the first Earth-made object to enter interstellar space. Perhaps more importantly, the “Golden Record,” curated by a Carl Sagan-led group, is affixed on its outside, offering what has been deemed a “global anthology” of Earth life as conceived in the early 1970s. Containing images, sounds, music, and “spoken greetings” in fifty-five languages, the LP was also meant to serve as a document of our shared “cosmic loneliness.” And the contents of the disc (folk-ed trax, especially) parallel the problem the record was to solve: how to bring people together by transcending difference that redeploys difference in order to communicate our “diversity.” Along with “Melancholy Blues” by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven, Blind Willie Johnson’s piece represents the blues on the disc. Marked by forlorn humming and at the edge of speech, Johnson’s trax resists what Jeffrey Carroll deems the “directly expressive [and ‘wordless’] . . . rhetoric of the interjection” (When Your Way Gets Dark: A Rhetoric of the Blues). If one invests in the “emotion” of sound, what’s abandoned is the articulation of abandonment that emerges from a homeless wanderer. And this isn’t Simmel’s “stranger,” who serves as a marker of and diagnostic for group belonging, but a manifestation of isolation articulated toward the other. “Meaning” isn’t present as such. What is: the disturbance of being at home in this world. Or: the alien-ness that comes from (punishing) relation.


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“Killing an Arab” (The Cure)

Robert Smith says: a condensed moment from Camus. It works this way: singer is the political “stranger,” and the man at his feet is “Arab.” Singer “alive” and “dead” at same time, at a moment of decision which turns the whole world and decisionism itself into “absolutely nothing.” Eliminating the other decimates the self because, in the realm of identities, there are two (at least), or there are none at all.


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“Turtle Song” (Hugo Largo)

Two-bass attacks are uncommon, what with the risks of a muddy low end or bottom line. Plying the upper (chordal) registers, a combination of four- and eight string basses wend along, sometimes meeting for unison voicings. Our pitiable narrator is the murky base. Sequestered in a “well” (or shell), her head pops up and out every now and again, but only in projection. Professing whiteness (“Indians . . . [are] so smart”) and desiring animality (“that excites me”), it wouldn’t be wrong to assume that she’s merely sheltered and listening to the “echo” of the small world around her. But don’t forget the power of a “wish”: beginning to imagine “someone else’s thoughts” and inviting strangers into one’s life. Sonically and politically committed to mingling without overdetermination and difference with spite for location. An excitation.


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“Home Security” (Trans Am)

Though the perimeter can be secured safe enough, it’s on the edge/fringe where intrusions happen regardless of the setup/theorization. Synth-bass double-time sections intensify, with shifting snare timbre emphasizing more maniacal attempts at a total lockdown of the home. Half-time outro (with whole note bass accompanying riffing, drums at home in the security state) never repulses the synth hum: the outside lives with/in the borders and the nation.


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“The Hungry Intruder” (The Small Faces)

Stan, who’s on a quest to discover the meaning of life (or, at least, the missing part of an evening’s half-moon), explores the outermost limits of hospitality. During his travels, a fly alights on his shepherd’s pie, and asks for a bite: without it, “I could die.” The fly is an “intruder,” and in his hungry haste has overstepped the boundary marking the limit of the stranger. And, of course, flies are often considered pests, as well as carriers of parasites, bacterial disease, and viruses. Stan might be tempted to swat it quick, since the meal may be tainted. But his rejoinder is surprisingly open to the other: “Take your fill, take nothing less.” (Mind you: the fly can’t have it all, because Stan needs to eat, too.) Stan’s reward is a flight on its back to visit Mad John, who may know the world’s secrets. But one already has been revealed: “living” alongside others involves taking your chances. A plague of flies is no fun, but worse would be an ecology without them.


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“Dolores” (Eddie Noack)

Country music has turned up its fair share of specialists in criminal psychology, such as Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck, and Porter Wagoner. No matter how vile the material, what unites such trax in an overarching economy of life involving God and guns, sinning and supplicating. Even prospective prisoners are full of sorrow, or at least polite (see “Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone to Kill”). Perpetrators of violence narrate their fall with respect to the seven deadly sins, admit their guilt, and accept the logic of the death penalty. Perhaps some of these criminal singers already have been subjected to a social worker or a minister, shaping their narratives toward identity coherence and narrative closure. Then comes Eddie Noack, a no-chancer who forever altered such stories of closure via a pair of nearly forgotten trax: “Psycho” (1968) and “Dolores” (1969). In the latter, the singer tells his girl that a “berserk” serial slayer is on the loose, and she needs to stay home tonight. She doesn’t, of course, and soon he’s at the morgue, identifying her body. But wait! It turns out the singer is also the killer, and the police don’t have a clue. The singer therefore finds himself split between two identities, and the trax broadly belongs to the tradition of the recursive detective (Oedipus, for instance, or Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me [1952], or Philip K. Dick’s The Man Who Japed [1956]). “How could I know that it was you?” he asks, shuttling between the man who knew her well, and the one to whom she was a stranger. He’s broken into pieces that never were and never can be knit together, and all signs point back toward his original monstrosity.


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