Saturday, January 09, 2016

Just the Bowie album I needed - David Bowie's Blackstar

The question I've been asked more than any other about this blog since starting it five and a half years ago is what my obsession is with David Bowie as, clearly, I must have one to want to name a blog after him.

The honest answer is that I'm not, actually, obsessed. But that's not the point. As cultural references go, the suggestion "What would David Bowie do?" (a phrase that surfaced a long time ago in a conversation, and didn't even have anything to do with music) connects to one of the most intriguing cultural icons of the last 50 years.

Bowie's appeal has always been spread across different interests. The music, obviously, but also the characters he has adopted as theatrical manifestations of that music, and then the side projects - the acting, the art, poetry.

Much of this hasn't been the result of restlesness, but his enduring curiosity for finding artistic expression in different forms. Music has clearly been the main outlet, triggered as a teenager - like many other contemporaries - by Elvis Presley (with whom he shares a birthday - yesterday, January 8) - and evolving as a performer through his early obsession with Jacques Brel, Anthony Newley poetry and beat art, to his flirtations with glam rock, American soul, Berlin gloom, drum and bass...the list goes on.

People forever talk about Bowie's reinventions, with journalists lazily describing him as "chameleonlike", but none of his guises have ever been about rebirth or renewal, and certainly not about blending in. In fact the chameleon is probably the last creature you could compare Bowie to. I mean, what kind of background could Ziggy Stardust blend into?

If anything, Bowie has been more of a magpie, collecting scraps of influence from wherever they fall. As a suburban teenager, hanging out in the mod scene of London's Soho with his bestie Marc Bolan, Bowie would indulge the fashions, the institutions and the freedom with which the young and socially liberated of the time could explore without judgement.

Bowie is still acquiring influences from any quarter that appeals to him. And that is where we start with Blackstar (or, simply, ★, to willingly perpetuate the marketing meme), his 26th studio album, released yesterday on his 69th birthday.

That there is a 26th album (28 if you include the Tin Machine records) is still something to contemplate, seeing as we never expected to see a 25th. And yet, here he is, still not quite dead, three years to the day since the world was awoken to a tweet from his filmmaker son, Duncan Jones, alerting us to news that there was something new to listen to (I've lost count of the number of times I listened to Where Are We Now? that day, not only revelling in the joy of a beautiful piece of music, but also getting wrapped up in the questions everyone else had: Why now? Is he back for good? Is this just a one-off? Will there be an album? Will he tour again?).

After a decade's recording hiatus, some would have listened to an album of Bowie opening beer cans, but what we got in The Next Day, the album that followed in March 2013, was confirmation that Bowie was indeed properly back, that dystopian themes were on his mind, and that to ease him back into recording, he was staffed (in utter secret) by stalwarts such as Gerry Leonard, Gail Ann Dorsey, Tony Levin, Earl Slick and producer Tony Visconti. The Next Day was as reassuring as it was brilliant.

But if there's one thing we know about Bowie, he has never done albums - or indeed anything - by numbers, ticking boxes according to audience approval. This is a brief that ★ fits perfectly. It's elevator pitch (I'm assuming) of a "41-minute collection of seven songs born from a New York jazz workshop" might throw arms up in horror, as if someone has finally followed through with Spinal Tap's plan to do Jazz Odyssey, but here, be careful.

It wasn't long after The Next Day came out that Visconti dropped the hint that the ink was continuing to flow. But it wasn't until the Nothing Has Changed compilation in 2014, containing the wonderfully eccentric jazz/drum'n'bass mashup Sue (Or in a Season of Crime), that suggested he was already taking yet another direction. But with Bowie, you can never tell what direction he is going to actually take, and whether he is led there or goes of his own volition.

Sue might have suggested jazz, but Bowie has always been a consumate magpie, acquiring influences as he goes. "We were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar," Tony Visconti told Rolling Stone recently."We wound up with nothing like that, but we loved the fact Kendrick was so open-minded and he didn't do a straight-up hip-hop record. He threw everything on there, and that's exactly what we wanted to do. The goal, in many, many ways, was to avoid rock & roll."

★ is, then, the result of a series of "workshops" in New York, not far from Bowie's SoHo home, in which he worked with a quintet of local jazz musicians: acclaimed saxophonist and flautist Donny McCaslin, guitarist Ben Monder, pianist Jason Lindner, Mark Guiliana on drums, and bassist Tim Lefebvre, who also tours in the exceptional Tedeschi-Trucks Band. Notably, none (apart from McCaslin, who'd also played on the orginal version of Sue) had been part of a Bowie album before. And yet, in a short space of time, with Bowie turning up at The Magic Shop studio at 10am and going home at 4, recording a couple of tracks a day, the collective would soon have a complete new David Bowie album.

Tracks were honed, recorded and re-recorded, but this was no torturous, over-rotating Born To Run saga. Running, indeed, at just over 40 minutes, it feels like a project. But, then, Bowie has previous here - the Berlin trilogy all ran to similar lengths (Low - 38 minutes, Heroes - 40, Lodger 35) and Station To Station clocked in at 41 - proof that you can certainly do more with less.

★ certainly maintains that maxim. The choice of musicicans notwithstanding, ★ is not, though, a jazz album per se. Blackstar, the lead-in single released in November, flits eccentrically through a topography of many styles throughout its near-10 minutes, an erratic concept in principle, but in execution, recalls and condenses the multi-part epics in the prog rock era.

Like a washing line of mixed socks, Blackstar gaffer tapes together free-form jazz, Middle Eastern influences and even an intersection of crooning mixed with dad dancing soul. Separated from the baffling narrative of the video and its story of fallen angels (yep, that man who fell to Earth again) and the possibility that Major Tom is still with us, just - Blackstar is confounding and absolutely brilliant at every turn. And, yes, it is almost a deliberate statement: "I'm doing things on my own terms. Still."

'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore - which appeared in demo form as a B-side to the original release of Sue - continues the experiment of its A-side, opening with a manic storm of drums, sax honks and piano that, to the casual ear, sound like a school band tuning up. But that's before Bowie comes out with the line "Man, she punched me like a dude", and the entire crazed fusion warms into a swinging cabaret of back-alley illicitness. McCaslin's sax work carries overtones of Bowie's soundtrack to Absolute Beginners, Julien Temple's underated interpretation of Colin MacInnes' coming-of-age-in-Soho novel, and in which The Dame put in a brilliant turn as the Don Draper-like Vendice Partners.

Little in Bowie's history has happened at random. Well, perhaps, the cardiovascular episode that brought about the hiatus in 2004. The secrecy surrounding The Next Day, and the spectacular reveal of Where Are We Now? underscored how Bowie has always been a master of the theatrical entrance. This has made the creation of a Broadway stage show, Lazarus, with Bowie's songs forming the backbone of a story based on The Man Who Fell To Earth, an indication of just how he is still "multimedia" in the strictest sense of that overused expression. The song, Lazarus, from that show, is a menacing space-jazz workout, but with a vocal melody very similar to Heathen's beautiful Slip Away, giving way to a somnolent fadeout featuring manic stabs of guitar and Lefebre reaching into the upper reaches of his bass.

And then we get to Sue (Or in a Season of Crime): somewhere between its original release two years ago, and its arrival on this album, Bowie has re-recorded it, removing the bonkers New York improv and replacing it with a jarring, mechanical anger, hooked by Monder's bouncing guitar, and one that reflects the song's somewhat bleak narrative of the death of a loved one. The drum'n'bass/funk mashup is still there, but further into the background, with Bowie's vocals - at their most Scott Walker-like - holding their own, almost as a completely different song to that being played by the band, with the mournful refrain "I kissed your face, I touched your face - Sue, good-bye".

Girl Loves Me will no doubt alienate some, but it is one of the strongest examples on ★ of that magpie tendency, drawing on Bowie's insatiable appetite for new music. If there was any outright influence of Kendrick Lamar on the album, this is the track that it appears on, marrying jazz, funk and hip-hop senisibilities into a recursive Anthony Burgess metre (and rhythmic repetition of the F-word) in lyrics that hardly seem to go anywhere. It will confound and even infuriate. But then a good Bowie song should do.

Over the seven tracks on ★, it is hard to pick out an absolute highlight, but that's simply because there is something enthralling in all of them. Dollar Days, however, might edge the other six. With its beautiful, smoky introduction, Bowie's acoustic guitar strumming and more terrific work by McCaslin, it has an elegant dolefulness that harks back to the Berlin albums, but with a warmth lacking in those cold recordings. The song itself suggests Bowie getting wistful for his the "English evergreens" of his homeland, but this is actually more of a rejection than pining, delivered via an intimate vocal and that rich Bowie voice that lends itself more to a Sinatra croon than anything else. It is magnificent.

The Next Day and, now, ★ shed light on David Bowie's current take on the world. In his private life, from what we can tell, he is wildly satisfied, enjoying the amazing near-anonymity of life in New York's Lower West Side, walking his daughter to school, and embracing to the full the cultural tapestry on offer in the condensed concrete village of Manhattan. But despite this, in his music, Bowie still expresses a gloomy view of societal decline, of a world under threat and an uncertain future.

On the closing track, I Can't Give Everything Away, Bowie perhaps guards against expectations of his own longevity: "I know something is very wrong," it opens with, "The pulse returns for prodigal sons", although this narrative may have more to do with self-reference to the world's fixation with Bowie's constant use of characters and whether they simply serve as a vessel, like an alien invading a host body, or whether they are actually all actor's masks, cleverly protecting the soul behind them. It is, though, another emotive performance from the entire ensemble, with each of the guns-for-hire adding delicate coats of paint to the song's enveloping warmth.

★is simply stunning. You might have expected me to say that but, trust me, I don't out of slavish sycophanticism. Because, creatively, conceptually and, most of all, musically, it has exceeded expectations. It is the Bowie album I wanted, and we needed.

While most of his contemporaries, if they're either still alive or still producing, are barely altering the canvass on which their careers were built, Bowie is still shape shifting. For a 69-year-old, he is still challenging conventions of what contemporary music should sound like. It's what he has always done, for almost 50 years, but the fact that he's not resting on his laurels and putting out more of what we're used to, is incredibly, wonderfully, brilliantly refreshing.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Over the top? We haven't yet started!

"Do not go over the top". A typically Dutch thing to say. They are a pragmatic people, immune to hyperbole and the superlative. Thus, Guus Hiddink's first words yesterday when pressed for comment on Chelsea's emphatic 3-0 win over Crystal Palace were predictably understated.

Under the veteran Dutchman, Chelsea have now played three matches. Two were draws, and not particularly convincing of an immediate return to good times. But, then, they were both Christmas fixtures, one against a feisty, high-flying Watford on Boxing Day, the second, a lethargic away game against a maudlin Manchester United 48 hours later.

However, Guus, forgive us for going a little nuts after Chelsea's performance at Selhurst Park. Because it was everything the last two weren't. Actually, it was everything the last four months haven't been.

This could have been another banana skin for Chelsea: Alan Pardew's Palace - and his credentials for possible greatness elsewhere - are not contending for a European place by fluke. And given that, on the morning of the fixture, this was seventh playing 16th, it would have been perfectly reasonable for Chelsea to have run into trouble at their south London rivals, a team which has given them plenty of resistance over the years in league and cup ties.

Instead, we had a Chelsea revived, restored even. Diego Costa and, for the most part, Cesc Fàbregas, were once again working as a machine, with the combustible forward applying the discipline to remain where he could (and did) score, while the ever-industrious Willian - easily the only consistent performer over the last four dark months - along with Oscar giving the leggy Palace defenders too much to contend with.

Defensively, Chelsea were back to their rock solid-best, the only notable weakness being Branislav Ivanovic's yard-short pace. Most surprising was John Obi Mikel. For the ten years he has been with the club, Mikel has been a frustration. Once bizarrely hailed as the 'new Makelele', he has scuffed and bruised his way through successive managers without fully justifying why he remained such a club fixture. But yesterday he was a different player, replacing Matic in the holding position with a solidity and class rarely demonstrated before. And only once coming close to a booking, a rarity for Mikel in itself.

This was the Chelsea of the first half last season - imperious in attack, resolute in defence. It is understandable, then, for Hiddink to call for modesty. One game does never a recovery make. But what has been noticeable over these last three games of the Dutchman's "interim" tenure is that Chelsea's players have applied themselves once more with confidence and swagger. Whatever it was under José Mourinho that inhibited their creative movement appears to have disappeared.

Strange, then, that so many commentators are talking about the players' mindset. Going back over consecutive posts since August 8, this blog had been saying that Chelsea's problems were psychological, not physical. Now, players that had looked out of ideas since pre-season have, in just 270 minutes of football done much to restore their professional reputations, reputations that had been battered by a combination of their own mental weakness and, clearly, the exulted regime they had laboured under.

It would be fair to say that Chelsea's malaise since the summer has been a case of six-of-one, half-dozen-of-the other. Mourinho can't be blamed for all that saw them plummet so far so quickly - the players and indeed the club itself must shoulder equal amounts of responsibility for that. But the spoonful of medicine that Hiddink's interim management is meant to apply, yet again, does look like it is working.

Positivity is Hiddink's key. Although it may not have worked for him in his most recent roles - since his last interim period in charge at Chelsea, he had a miserable time in charge of Russia and Turkey, and left the Dutch national side in the summer when it was clear they wouldn't qualify for Euro 2016 - it's clear how different his philosophy is to Mourinho's glowering and increasingly paranoid mood.

"I don’t like to see a team drop back very far and seek false security," Hiddink said yesterday, in stark contrast to the 'defend at all costs' approach of his predecessor. Tellingly, he added: "They should look forward and get the ball as soon as possible because when they do, they know how to play." That may sound a tad laissez-faire, but it perhaps indicates a belief that his players don't need a meticulous playbook methodology, but a guiding belief in themselves.

But, indeed as the avuncular Dutchman says, it would be wrong to get too carried away. Next weekend the Blues face Scunthorpe in the FA Cup, a third-round tie, but one with the still-fresh scars of their fourth-round exit last season to Bradford City, a result that left Mourinho "ashamed" and "embarassed". As it should have been for the whole team. After that, it will be a midweek Premier League visit from West Brom, followed by meetings with Everton, Arsenal, Watford and Manchester United. A relentlessly wet afternoon in Croydon may have provided Hiddink's players with a certain mental challenge - which they impressively overcame - but there are clearly many more hills to climb yet. But as starts go, yesterday's will do very nicely.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015: a year in music

​Let's start with some good news: there's a new Bowie album on the way. Let's improve on that with more good news: as it's not out until next week, I don't have to worry about it - as far as this review is concerned - for a whole 12 months.

For that I must thank the Jones family, once of Brixton, South London, who saw to it that the boy David was born on January 8, 1947, thus affording the latterday Dame the hook of his 66th birthday for the brilliant subterfuge of releasing Where Are We Now? without warning. Without anywhere near the same secrecy, his next - NEXT! - album, Blackstar, which will appear next Friday on the occasion of his 69th year mostly on this planet. And of what I've heard so far, I'm fairly confident that it will be a shoe-in for WWDBD?'s 2016 hall of fame. But that is, clearly, for another year.

And, so, 2015 - a year in which music, unwittingly, became a focal point for all the wrong reasons. It would, perhaps, be somewhat disproportionate to place the events of November 13 as the fulcrum of the last 12 months in music. After all, this has been a year, like many and in my case, most, in which gigs have been part of my normal routine.

In Paris, my adopted home for the past five years, it's part of everyone's social routine, which is what makes the attack on the Eagles Of Death Metal gig as well as the environs of Le Bataclan an act that continues to cast a pall over 2015's joie de vivre. Because as corny as it might sound to invoke "rock and roll forever" defiance, it had never been more correct.

But let's not overdwell. To do so only panders to the medieval deviants who made such defiance necessary to begin with. Instead, let's celebrate a year in which new music has come thick and fast. So thick and so fast that to do justice to a list of the year' best releases really should be more exhaustive than the 15 you see below. And while this list is more a representation of the new albums I've probably listened to more than any other, it inevitably lacks those which deserve an honorable mention - such as Keith Richards' Crosseyed Heart and Gary Clark Jr's long-awaited The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim.

But, a line must be drawn somewhere, and so, in Miss World order, here are What Would David Bowie Do?'s 2015 platters-that-matter.

I hope some, at least, have made your musical year as much as they have done mine.

15. Laura Marling - Short Movie: The minute someone is compared with John Martyn, I have a tendency to reel in my expectations. Because no one was and, I strongly suspect, will ever be anything like him. Laura Marling has, though, come pretty close, especially from a technical perspective. For this, her fifth album, she made the leap many folkies have done, by migrating from acoustic to electric. In so doing, she didn't look back, resulting in a superbly accomplished album, which ruminates on myriad themes with a varying topography of rock-pop styles.

14. The Church - Further Deeper: With a recent history of trouble and strife (band discord, drug abuse - usual rock'n'roll perils, TBH) the 80s Oz rockers returned with an album that both reflected their travails as well as reminded the world of what a brilliantly charismatic band they still are. Singer and principal songwriter Steve Kilbey's melifluous baritone may have lost some its rigidity, the result of well publicised demons, but it has taken on a Syd Barrett quality that fits perfectly with the band's trademark layers of chorused guitars. A comfortingly familiar album which manages to be far from predictable.

13. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit: Remaining in the southern hemisphere, we have 2015's debutant of the year. Strumming a Telecaster with the thumb of her left hand, the Sydney-born, Melbourne-based 28-year-old caught the eye and the ear with the stripped-down honesty of the EPs with which she made her recorded debut. With this first album, proper, Barnett drew together her gift for bedsit storytelling and festival-friendly grunge-lite, drawing valid comparisons to Lou Reed in the process.

12. Paul Weller - Saturns Pattern: It would be far too easy to compare Paul Weller and Bruce Springsteen through their shared blue collar backgrounds, but there is a stronger [solid] bond between them in terms of work ethic. Both seem incapable of slowing down. Weller, in particular, appears as restlessly creative as ever, finding yet another new direction to go down, with many more previously untapped influences from his youth to work into an album every bit as consistent as any in his impressive near-40 year recording career.

11. Blur - The Magic Whip: Partly written on tour and recorded on the fly in Hong Kong, Damon Albarn, OBE - another intensely restless creative force - together with Messrs Coxon, James and Roundtree delivered as their first collective effort in 13 years an album of subtle reflection on modern life, which still appears to be rubbish, and apparently dominated by technology. For those of us impartial to English melancholy, Blur gave us in The Magic Whip the sort of cold, autumnal evening of music we can't get enough of.

10. Tame Impala - Currents: While on a brief late-Spring trip to Devon I heard 6 Music's Radcliffe and Maconie play 'Cause I'm A Man and, much like Daft Punk's Get Lucky, I became hooked on a feel-good summer radio hit which made me impatient for the album it would appear on to be released. I wasn't disappointed. Kevin Parker's studio project had hitherto been more of a prog rock band in my view, and yet here was a gloriously bright piece of 80s pop, serving as a reminder that not all influences from that decade are necessarily bad, and in the right hands can actually be good. In Parker's hands, they're exceptional.

9. Foals - What Went Down: If, like me, you took up the guitar as a teenager, one of the first immensely gratifying experiences is playing your maiden power chord. So when your clumsy acoustic guitar gives way to your debut electric-and-amp combo, the power chord becomes the ultimate expression of teenage angst. Rock and roll is reborn. You become Paul Kossoff or Pete Townshend or Angus Young. Foals are hardly teenagers, and theirs is certainly not the music of a previous generation, but the thudding, rifftastic electricity of What Went Down took me back to the first time I heard the likes of Free and The Who. If I had a car, this would be the album I would have willingly spent 2015 driving to, with the volume up as high as it would go.

8. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Chasing Yesterday: Face facts, British pop stars, there are few amongst you who can hold a candle to Gallagher for being downright funny. Most pop stars are dour, self-regarding and so driven by angst that humour is unnecessary baggage. Not that Gallagher is merely the class clown: his second album with the High Flying Birds continued to hold him aloft as a supreme songwriter, naturally gifted in melodic ease and retaining just enough reverence for heritage to avoid being the tribute act so many detractors still moronically maintain he is.

7. Alabama Shakes - Sound And Colour: You all know that thing about second albums and difficulty, right? Well nobody informed the cavernously-voiced Brittany Howard and her bandmates, who followed up their truly remarkable debut Boys & Girls with an overwhelmingly good package of understated R&B. Live, they are a force of nature, and the combined material from their first and sophomore releases fuelled one of the gigs of, not only the year, but the decade when I saw them at July's Lucca Summer Festival in Tuscany, on a double-bill with Paolo Nutini.

6. Guy Garvey - Courting The Squall: Ask anyone - people who know him, people who've met him, and then everyone else - and no one has a bad thing to say about Guy Garvey. Not that we should have to find fault all the time, of course. But in any written or recorded interaction with the younger-than-he-looks Elbow frontman, two words crop up consistently: "loveable" and "bear". This does paint him as a hybrid of Phil Collins and Yogi, but if you reluctantly put Garvey's patent likeability to one side for a second, and consider the work he has put in with Elbow over, incredibly, the last 20 years, even the most cold-hearted cynic would have to concede, that theirs is a brand of intelligent pop that transcends festivals, bedsits and middle class dinner parties with delight and lack of offence in equal measure. On Courting The Squall, Garvey gathered up song ideas that had been gathering dust, brought in a few of his Salford muso mates and, with the application of a jazz sensibility, went experimental. And did so with wonderous effect.

5. Richard Hawley - Hollow Meadows: After the extravagant splurge of mesmerising psych-rock that was 2012's Standing On The Sky's Edge, Sheffield's bequiffed bard returned with something of a throwback to his earlier, loving recreation of '50s ballroom balladry. The result is a truly luscious collection of guitar-driven twang with a conscience, immediately accessible, but which draws you inexorably into Hawley's romantic take on the modern world, its ills and thrills included, and it does so more with honey than the vinegar of its predecessor.

4. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell: Going right back to when I first started buying the NME as a callow youth, I have both embraced what the music press has encouraged me to like and rejected it out of hand. Because that's how it should work. Music may be less of a subjective art as, say, comedy, but it can abruptly split opinion. Yes, I own early Coldplay albums, and I've even paid money to see Adele in concert, but nothing the former produces now interest me, and as for the latter, even my love of the gloomy won't stretch to joining the billions now in posession of 25. All of this is to say that Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell is an album the music press implored us to buy and, instead of repulsing it, on the stubborn grounds that I make my own taste, I took a punt. And I couldn't have been enamoured mor by the beauty Stevens created from apparent pain, charm from sadness, respect from raw honesty. An absolutely brilliant piece of work.

3. ​Steven Wilson - Hand Cannot Erase: It maddens me that with the consistent quality of songwriting and collective musicianship that the prolific, workaholic Wilson brings to his albums that he isn't a bigger star. Sure, it must be good to be regularly fêted by the prog world and his peers therein, but when the standard is as high as it was on this, his fourth solo album, it is bordering on the criminal that his reward wasn't more than the high chart placings and glowing reviews Hand Cannot Erase. And, as Wilson knows himself, he gets points from me just for the Dead Can Dance reference. A brilliant album combining a dark, somewhat macabre concept with 80s-influenced rock-pop sensibilities. His best yet.

2. Wilco - Star Wars: Just when you thought mainstream rock couldn't turn out something different and interesting, Wilco sneak out an album that makes you realise why you got into music to begin with. Here is the contrarianism that made me appreciate The Beatles'  white album, Bowie and prog rock as a teenager: convention and quirkiness combined in constant experimentation, pushing boundaries without busting them wide open. In a year in which the new Star Wars film seems to have been arriving forever, Wilco released its namesake by surprise online, stunningly underpinning its joyously capricious nature.


1. New Order - Music Complete: Rarely does a band return to whatever it was that made them great to begin with. That's life. Groups with the sort of history, longevity and endurance as New Order, not to mention the musical core that has sustained that reputation, will always end up, to varying degrees of severity, parodying the thing that heralded their arrival. Don't get me wrong - in many respects it's what we want, what we willingly hand over our hard-earned for. The Rolling Stones, I'll wager, are still the greatest rock and roll band in the world, and their latterday output - while obviously not to the same par as their heyday - is still as good, if not better, than most rivals. What made New Order's Music Complete so good, apart from a title that said it all, was how they had not forgotten, or tried to forget, their early essence, that careful balance of rock and dance that made them cool to frug to as cool to listen taking notes to. Here was some knowing reinvention. Actually, the word I'd use is "rejuvinated", reflecting the zest for the craft that they applied in an album that, with familiarity as only a foundation, set about reconnecting the audience with a band that is probably genuiney alone - and therefore unique - in doing what it does.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Special, but up to a point

The vaults of most news organisations contain the obituaries of public figures that are far from dead and, apart from all the normal odds about expiring through random bus/lightning/shark encounters, are unlikely to leave us any time soon.

Seeing as anyone of us could go at any time, these "obits" are written or recorded just in case, and updated as and when there is something notable. For the journalists preparing them for newspapers, television or radio, it is a fairly morbid task, countered by typical journalistic black humour (head over to YouTube and watch the entire episode of Drop The Dead Donkey devoted to GlobeLink updating their obituary library with inevitable calamity).

The reason I bring all this up is that it feels like I've been preparing for José Mourinho's second departure from Chelsea for months. Given the ease with which Roman Abramovich has dispensed with managerial staff for even looking at him the wrong way, Chelsea's relentless descent since the start of the season - from defending Premier League champions to relegation-threatened deadbeats - has carried an inevitability about Mourinho's firing that has gone almost frustratingly unfulfilled.

Amazingly, the Russian has shown restraint, and despite media gossip about how Abramovich couldn't afford to pay Mourinho off, or was too scared, the simple reality is that he has genuinely tried to give Mourinho every opportunity to turn it around. Monday's performance at Leicester City showed that it is beyond repair. If the dressing room relationship hadn't been broken before, it was now. If a moribund set of expensively compensated players were not going to reach deep and perform like they did in the first half of last season, and more pertinently, like they did against the most extraordinary of odds to win in Munich in May 2012, they weren't likely to do so anytime soon under Mourinho.

God knows who they will do it for now. Hiddink, Ramos, Ancelotti - all the usual suspects are being reeled off for an opening that seems all-too familiar: interim coach at Chelsea.

Journalists love a good car crash, and for all those pundits saying that Mourinho is good for business, with his soundbites and sometimes strangled-English quotes, Chelsea's season has been a 20-car pile-up in thick fog with the chief constable declaring it the worst he's ever seen in 30 years as a police officer.

Any motorway disaster needs its 'Patient Zero' - its initial moment of madness, the white van driver changing lanes without looking in his side mirror or the tailgating Belgian trucker behaving as if the rules of the local road don't apply to him. In the case of Chelsea's season, its hard to identify the trigger.

Was it the shattered bodies that returned from an all-too brief summer break? Was it the failure of the club to do any meaningful business in the summer transfer market? Was it the dismal pre-season tour? Was it Mourinho losing it unnecessarily over the medical staff on August 8, and then losing the dressing room with his treatment of Eva Carneiro, an event said to have weighed heavily on Eden Hazard, for one?

Perhaps it was all of these, with each calamity solidifying its predecessor, building up a toxic sediment around the club. It has been a disaster: the Carneiro incident should have been resolved on the spot and the pre-season lethargy should have been mitigated with a better use of the youth on offer (the under-18s beat Huddersfield 6-1 last night - don't tell me there is no hunger at Chelsea Football Club...!). These are things Mourinho himself could have fixed. But he didn't.

Earlier this week I wrote how managers carry the can too often for their players' failings. That is still true. But, as I've also written - ad nauseum - the malaise at Chelsea has been in the players' heads, not in their legs, even if those legs are still shattered from last season. If Chelsea's stars have been toiling, there has been no shortage of fresh young blood on the bench to relieve them with ambition. Mourinho, however, kept them on the bench, instead sticking with the failing Fàbregas, Hazard, Matic, Ivanovich and Costa, even adding to their woes by doing so.

Mourinho was a special one, and still is. He could, now, move to Manchester United and relieve them of that pompous clown van Gaal. We all wish José well. He was an extraordinary manager at Chelsea...when he was being extraordinary. When that expired, and his God complex kicked in, there was never a Plan B, just a rapidly unravelling Plan A. Which may not have been that special at all.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

It's beginning to look a lot like the nightmare before Christmas

Given the December temperatures, there was something decidedly incongruous about the three thousand or so visiting Chelsea supporters in the King Power Stadium last night invoking Bob Marley's Three Little Birds by singing "Baby, don't worry about a thing". The home crowd responded with "Championship, gonna be alright".

Leicester City's fans can more than afford to be cocky, and Chelsea fans should appreciate the gallows humour, if nothing else. Claudio Ranieri's team earned it: their unlikely reverse - relegation threatened at the end of last season - is every bit as remarkable as the position Chelsea now find themselves in. 16th place on the back of nine league defeats is relegation form, and from a team many pundits were expertly predicting back in August would retain the Barclays Premier League title as favourites.

Less than a week ago we were celebrating, sort of, Chelsea's comfortable win over Porto and their progression into the last 16 of the Champions League. Yesterday morning I was bemoaning the fact that UEFA's sticky balls had paired the Blues again with PSG. But, frankly, these are minor irritations.

The modest relief of being in the knockout stages of the Champions League - which, believe it or not, Chelsea's Jeckyll & Hyde act could go on to win - was severely undermined by not only the way they lost to Leicester (the remarkable Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez not withstanding) but by the abject, rancid mood that José Mourinho brought on his team in the aftermath, publicly berating Oscar, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa and talking of being "betrayed" that all his hard preparation had been ignored.

If Costa, in particular, had an issue with Mourinho, or if Hazard - whose early "injury" was another bizarre episode involving the Belgian (remember Swansea City on the first day of the season?) - is to be tempted to Paris or Madrid, then such managerial pychology will only add more risk to Mourinho's already precarious state.

I've now lost count of the times since August 8 that I've written how something in the minds of Chelsea's manager and players has to change. It still hasn't. When the fixture list came out in July, you would have put decent money on Chelsea winning at home to Norwich and Bournemouth, or away to Leicester. In fact, you should have put money on those being defeats - I shudder to think what odds you'd have received.

When a manager gets sacked, it's always too easy for the players to bleat about letting him down and "we should have done more". In Mourinho's case, I just wonder whether he's had the capability in that big, brilliant footballing brain of his to process his team's obvious physical and mental declines. Why hasn't he made more use of the youthful exuberence of players like Kenedy and Loftus-Cheek, along with the myriad others out on loan? Why has he laboured on with Fàbregas when anyone with resonable vision has been able to see that his passes don't connect anymore...and that was his main mission in life.

You could say that Leicester's win last night was simply in the script, that somehow the Gods of Football decreed that the team managed by the man Chelsea sacked in favour of the man Chelsea now have in charge again should win. Because that, like dodgy Champions League draws, makes for better headlines, better banter and better studio conversations.

The reality is that Ranieri has found the formula and the players. Mourinho has just lost it. It may be misfortune, or it maybe the result of poor choices made by the club, but despite my belief that managers often unfairly carry the blame, the only logical conclusion you can reach from Chelsea's inexplicable - and very real - drop into relegation danger is that it is down to one man, a man who last night said "all last season I did phenomenal work and brought them to a level more than they really are", who wanted to single out his defenders for their movement around Vardy, and even had the temerity to have a pop at Leicester's ball-boys as "a disgrace to the Premier League".

With the exception of notable efforts against Spurs away and Porto at home Chelsea have just not been good enough in almost every department. Asmir Begovic has made a fine stand-in for Thibaut Courtois in goal, but both have been let down by their defenders too many times; in the midfield, Matic has been half the holding player he was last season, and Fàbregas lacking in pace, passing and perserverence; up front, Costa has been out of position and often out of order, while Hazard and the permanently Bambi-like Oscar have clearly been wanting for confidence. Only Willian has at least shown, to quote Harold Shand, "a little bit more than an 'ot dog, know what I mean?".

Football today is too quick to point to the manager. Chelsea has, in its recent past, been too quick to fire theirs. José Mourinho, and his three-year plan, was intended to establish a "dynasty". Where is that now? After one season as "the little horse", the second as the front-runner, for the third Chelsea are now looking more like a lame donkey giving out-of-season rides on Blackpool beach.

Even I have been amazed by Roman Abramovich's restraint, and as much as I loathe football's propensity for sacking managers after only the slightest of dips, I don't see the Chelsea owner having any alternative now.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Yawn... Would it kill UEFA to have a bit of variety?

Barcelona meet Arsenal: round of 16 draw in full

So, midway through December and What Would David Bowie Do? has been abruptly woken from its pre-Crimbo slumber by, of all things, the draw for the last 16 of Champions League.

For, amongst the pairings - with Arsenal-v-Barcelona standing out as the tie of the round - Chelsea are once again matched with Paris Saint-Germain. Yup, couldn't make it up. Obviously there was always a one-in-eight chance of Chelsea drawing PSG, the team who knocked them out of last season's competition in a grumpy encounter at Stamford Bridge, in which PSG came from behind twice to win on away goals, one of them scored by former defender David Luiz.

Some suggest that Chelsea's malaise this season can be traced back to that match on March 11 - even though they went on to win the Premier League quite comprehensively two months later. Luiz had, of course, been part of the Chelsea team that had beaten PSG 2-0 at the Bridge in the quarter-final the season previously.

Playing PSG for a third consecutive season could, of course, be simply a mathematical inevitability when you're down to the last 16 and in Pot 1 of the draw. But at risk of 'doing a José', there's something suspicious about it, not helped by the stinking climate of mistrust that currently pervades football at its highest levels.

I've had a similar view of Chelsea's endless encounters with Liverpool in the Champions League over the last decade or so, especially in seasons where there have been FA Cup and League Cup ties, on top of the Premier League, pairing them like the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals (the Blues and the Reds met eight times in the 2004-2005 season alone).

No doubt elsewhere in the blogosphere there is now a similar post from an Arsenal fan complaining about being drawn against reigning European Cup holders, Barcelona, who are currently in imperious form and 5/2 favourites to win the trophy again, and who beat Arsenal in the 2006 Final and again in the 2010 quarter-final (6-3 on aggregate...).

Of course, both Chelsea and Arsenal should be grateful not to be continuing their European adventures this season in unpronouncable Nordic climes on Thursday nights, and Chelsea fans, in particular, should be grateful that it is 'only' PSG.

Privately, I'm sure the clubs are looking forward to repeat business, and the obvious spice hasn't been lost on the clubs' respective social media teams. But as a fan, I'm not. Tempting as it is to think the Champions League draw is rigged, I do think there should be a better method of ensuring that the odds don't work in favour of predictability.

Arsenal-Barca and Chelsea-PSG, not to mention Roma-Real Madrid, Juventus-Bayern Munich, and Dynamo Kiev-Manchester City amongst the other highlights, might be good for TV ratings and UEFA's sponsors, but I'm sure that many fans would have preferred to see the last 16 mixed up much better. Why couldn't Chelsea face Juve, who are currently rolling back into the Serie A title race after an indifferent start to their fourth consecutive defence of the Scudetto. Why couldn't Arsenal encounter Roma, last-season's domestic runners-up in Italy and who've been showing the Milan teams a thing or two in recent seasons?

Something truly suggests that the drawing process for the Champions League is quite literally a load of balls.

Monday, November 30, 2015

COP 21: the bear necessities of life

It's a sobering, eye-swiveling thought when you consider that, out of the 3.5 billion years there has been life on our planet, the human race - in its anatomically modern form - has only been around for 200,000 years.

More sobering is that mankind's industrial interaction with the planet has only taken place over the last 250 years or so. Even more sobering still, then, when you consider the damage it has done in that relative blink of the eye of Earth's 4.5 billion-year existence.

Remarkably, as many as 99% of all the lifeforms believed to have existed have become extinct, the consequence, I suppose of natural events and natural selection over the last 3.5 billion years. So, as one tiny percentage of the one percent that has survived, our responsibility is huge. Or perhaps we are destined for extinction too?

Human development can be directly blamed for the loss of habit of thousands of species of animals, forcing some into extinction, while others have been pushed closer to inevitable encounters with mankind that they weren't designed for - be it the poor brown bear who, fatally, found himself in a Russian shopping mall last month, or the mountain lions of the American West which invariably come off worse as urban sprawl continues.

And then there is the secondary effect of human development: climate change. Deniers and ardent contrarians like to believe that climate change is a natural phenomena, that it has happened before, and that global warming is a cyclical event. We are, they say, currently in "upcycle".

Tell that, then, to the polar bear. The bear family evolved out of other mammalian species 38 million years ago, with divisions between the black and the polar breeds occurring more than four million years ago. And yet recent, measurable climate change and the erosion of the Arctic ice pack polar bears rely on for food outside hibernation months, could see these magnificent animals - the planet's largest land mammals - disappear for good in a matter of decades.

I know this sounds like tree hugging, hair-shirted environmentalist (with the emphasis on mentalist...) dogma, but the facts and the truth speak for themselves. For example, an exhaustive, five-year study by the US Geological Survey found that Alaska's Arctic shoreline has eroded at average rate of 1.4 meters per year since the mid-20th century, with the thawing permafrost and gradually warming waters believed to be the likely cause...and both animal and human life the likely victim.

Sea ice is disappearing from Arctic waters at an unprecedented rate — more rapidly than predicted by the most extreme projections in the most recent assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Indeed, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, with the ice that reflects 60% of the sun's rays disappearing, a vicious circle of rising sea levels and even less sea ice, adding further to global warming. The thickness of the Arctic icecap halved in the 30 years between 1980 and 2010, as well as shrunk by 30% in terms of area. That is not a change over the course of millennia - that's a disappearance measurable in terms of a portion of my lifetime.

"Boo-hoo", snark the likes of Jeremy Clarkson, sarcastically, as they make throwaway japes about how brer ursidae is not in the least bit their concern when arguing the benefits of diesel over petrol, or how quickly the latest Ferrari will get from 0-60. However, the Clarkson school of cynicism - that's his media persona, and it sells newspapers, magazines and television shows - is not the issue. We are, collectively. Our behaviour, and our tolerance of our governments' behaviour.

It's the proprietary interests that prevent natural, renewable energy sources from being invested in; it's the refusal to see energy efficiency as a meaningful condition to reverse climate change; it's about politicians putting money where their often sizeable mouths are.

It's about the staggering arrogance that any human has to assume its warped interpretation of "survival of the fittest" superiority over a species that has been around for millions of years longer than our own. A species with every right to stay around longer without human ignorance and all the things climate change can be blamed on being the cause of its demise.

Apex predators are magnificent beasts. The Great White Shark looks like a fighter jet, the lion and tiger are some of nature's most beautiful creations, and bears are, well just brilliant animals. None of these I would want to encounter close up, of course, but that doesn't mean that they should be denied their right to exist because of the inability, or unwillingness, or just plain stupidity of the planet's most intelligent species to do something about it. When clearly we can.