In Which There Were One Or More Ways To Be Free

Hard to Say is This Recording’s weekly advice column. It will appear every Wednesday until the Earth perishes in a fiery blaze, or until North West turns 40. Get no-nonsense answers to all of your most pressing questions by writing to or by dropping us a note at our tumblr.


I recently took a new job, and for various reasons at my old workplace, I have been telling people that I have a boyfriend just because it makes things easier for me not having other people speculate about my love life. Despite that, I have gotten close to someone who knows I have a boyfriend, sorry, that I “have” “a” “boyfriend”, and yet still seems to be interested. Is the expectation that I will just break up with my boyfriend at some point or I am just mistaking his interest?

Helen T.

Dear Helen,

Saying you have a boyfriend is simply one of those that will come true simply by speaking into existence. (Phrases that operate on a similar level are, “I wish there was a Whole Foods around here” and “I wonder if Jimmy Kimmel cried tonight.”) Most men find women with boyfriend more attractive, since things are impossible until they aren’t. Plus, lots of people cheat. Since your boyfriend is not technically real, he will either never ask about him at all or want to know more.

I’m guessing he is the first kind of person, which means he probably just wants to keep you on the backburner, plus it probably takes off a lot of pressure knowing you are a taken individual.

I respect your lie, but I don’t understand how you are going to transition out of it if you really like this guy. And if you don’t, the boyfriend will probably have to exist indefinitely.

Screen Shot 2017-08-23 at 8.14.22 AM


I was reading one of my boyfriend’s books and I found a letter that an old girlfriend (I think) had written him. It was very sexual and nothing like the way that we would write or even talk to each other. (We do have a great sex life, but it just is not a verbal thing.) It was in fact rather graphic, not that I have a problem with that, but my boyfriend has never particularly expressed that was the sort of thing he enjoyed. Should this worry me less than it does?

Annie B.

Dear Annie,

In a relationship, say the one between Vice President Pence and his wife Karen, there is a specific erotic rapport that exists for the just the two of you. If you have a great sex life, that is more than enough. Verbal pitter-patter works for some people, and it is fun every once in awhile, but on some level it becomes more forced than authentic.

Whatever relationship he had with someone else is in the past, I mean probably, might not hurt to check the date on that letter.

You want to be authentic, don’t you? Don’t you?

llustrations by Mia Nguyen. Access This Recording’s mobile site at



In Which We Reject The Fatal Gift

Dig Another Hole


Choir of the Mind
Emily Haines & the Soft Skeleton
Emily Haines and James Shaw
producers Emily Haines and James Shaw
September 15th on Last Gang

It has been eleven years since Metric lead singer Emily Haines released Knives Don’t Have Your Back, her best ever album in any form, and one of the best eulogies ever preserved in pop music. Haines had lost her father, the poet Paul Haines, in 2003. He lived again on Knives Don’t Have Your Back, in a tightly wound cry of sorrow in which the piano was used as a hammer to flatten Emily’s most depressing personal moments.

Admittedly, I have never been a fan of Emily’s day job, Metric, which usually just seems loud for the sake of being loud.  Watching Emily perform live in support of Knives, I never understood why she didn’t focus on the piano driven ballads that make up every song she has done as part of The Soft Skeleton. Haines is a tremendous live performer, with a voice that reverberates through space and a massive stage presence that belies her short form. Her command of the piano is stunning.

Lyrically, Haines has also been on another level when writing for her side project. She has the fatal gift of giving the most banal metaphor the slight twist required to succeed on the merits. “Like oil in the ocean, I couldn’t keep to myself,” she sings on the devastating “Statuette”.  For the most part, Haines seems a lot happier, so in order to keep Choir of the Mind sufficiently dark, she imagines her earlier, more despondent self: “How can you resent love? Can you prevent any love at all? I meant what I said back then,” she offers on “Nihilist Abyss”.

Sonically, Knives featured a texture so completely lush that the nuance of the production seemed somewhat lost. At times her vocals were buried beneath the soundscape, but on Choir of the Mind writing partner James Shaw has pared back the choir to allow the intricacies of Haines’ ethereal voice to stand out more prominently. “Minefield of Memory” has Haines’ piano telling the entire story in a vaguely hypnotic fashion. This trend continues on the album’s title track, where Haines uses spoken word to great effect, resulting in what feels like the equivalent of syncopated call and response to the 1850 piano she plays through the album.

On the album’s standout track, “Wounded”, Haines explains what she means by a fatal gift. Choir of the Mind deals with what happens after you achieve what wanted, and the album finds Haines questioning whether material things are even worthwhile at all.  Later she is more honest with herself: “I only want what I can’t reach.”

Emily’s best writing comes on Choir of the Mind‘s haunting final track, where she seems to bring the people she has lost back into view. Shaw’s arrangement is note perfect as Haines sings, “Dial down the overdrive. Otherwise top yourself off in time. To sail on in toward what?” Hopefully she trashes Metric and focuses on the Soft Skeleton full time.

Janice Levens is the music editor of This Recording. She is the pseudonym of a writer and poet living in Los Angeles. You can find an archive of her music reviews on This Recording here.


In Which We Can’t Give What We Don’t Have

A Bit of Sport

His lengthy time in prison no doubt made the bisexual playwright, poet and memoirist Brendan Behan more inclined to alcohol once he left confinement in a juvenile British prison called a borstal. His influential and gripping narrative of his time in jail after he was arrested for an IRA plot he was almost sure not to carry out, 1958’s Borstal Boy, rendered him a household name in his native Ireland and Europe as a whole. He was not the finest writer to ever come out of that proud and beautiful land, but he was the one who spoke for those who could not speak for themselves. His letters were few and far between; most mention his wife Beatrice Behan, who suffered through his losing battle with alcoholism, and to whom he never wrote very much. Then again, one of the major themes of his work was that how much you talked about something did not equate to how important or wonderful that thing was. Here is some of his private writing.

Dublin, May 1951

Some months ago, I wrote you that I had started a book. I am calling it Borstal Boy.

Here is a bit of it.

I might see you in the summer if you are still there. I was in Dieppe last month but only on a jump with an Irish boat. Got drunk on the North Wall and — off with them. Had no papers and so could not go up to Paris. Came home, armed with bottles of Pernod, 200 fr. ex-bond, which was what I principally came for.

Dublin, June 1951

You must excuse the terrible typing. It was not my fault. I had to do it myself. No typist in Dublin would look at it.

A woman that used to do a bit for me I fell out with.

I have no copy of that mss. I wonder would it be a terrible big thing to ask you do whatever excising you would think necessary?

For the … and so forth, could you manage an initial and a dash?

It is an extract from a novel. Why shouldn’t it read like that?

Poems of mine in Gaelic are being broadcast from Radio Eireann but apart from not understanding Irish, Radio Eireann is but barely audible in the pub next door.

Sometime I will explain to you the feeling of isolation one suffers writing in a Corporation housing scheme. The literary pubs are not much good to me. I prefer to drink over the north side where the people are not so strange to me. Cultural activity in present day Dublin is largely agricultural. They write mostly about their hungry bogs and great scarcity of crumpet. I am a city rat. Joyce is dead and O’Casey is in Devon. The people writing here now have as much interest for me as an epic poet in Finnish or a Lapland novelist.

Dublin, June 1952

I decided to go to work as a freelance hack writer to get enough money to finish my novel in peace. That’s an easier trade than house painting, that is…

I made a packet, and very nearly lost my sanity in the process. I was drunk night, noon and morning. Now, outside of reform school and Borstal, I have been a steady drinker from from the age of fifteen, but this wasn’t that sort of drinking.

And I finally said, to hell with it, I’ll go down and do my own which is what I’m doing now, and am broke, and it is a matter of some scoff for next week. The mountains are lovely. I wish I had a snap, and this is an old hideout of the I.R.A., there was a man shot dead by the Free State Army at the very window I’m writing this. And for all I run down the I.R.A. in my writing they were the only damn ones, when I had no place to write in peace, to say, “That’s all right Brendan, you go down there and use it, it’s no good to us now, it’s too well known.” So here I am and very happy and I’ll have the novel finished in its entirety before Christmas, and I’ll submit to you a few thousand words.

Dublin, October 1952

I got a Penguin Plato’s Symposium. With difficulty: the Censorship can hardly get after him at this time of day, but as one bookman (saving your presence) said to me, “We saw a slight run on it, and the same sort of people looking for it, so we just took it out of circulation ourselves. After all, we don’t have to be made decent minded by Act of the Dail. We have our own way of detecting smut, no matter how ancient.” In common with most of my babu countrymen, he had the sort of English accent which would make you laugh, and pronounced your man’s name “Plate-o,” rather as if it were something you put in soup.

About the novel. I have about fifty thousand words done. I haven’t done much to it lately, because I’m writing a play for the Abbey and have had to do some jobs for the radio and various journals to live. As it turned out, the strain of meeting the sort of people who have to do with journalism was so great that, for the first time in my life, I drank from pure nervous strain. I have a feeling I told you ail this before. (So have you, more than likely, by the time you get this far.)

I can get over to Paris easily, but I’m getting too old for just landing in a city on my arse, flat broke.

Dublin, July 1956


If I had a one act play there is no one would get it sooner than yourself after your nice letter.

But alas! I have no such thing and therefore can’t give you what I haven’t got.

When I do write one you shall have it with a heart and a half, if Senator McCarthy doesn’t get us all in the meantime and love B. Russell from B. Behan & B. Behan.

Brendan Behan

P.S. The weather over here just now is so bad it’s driving me to drink.

Dublin, November 1956

Dear Nuala,

Did you know that Nuala means the fair shouldered one?

I need not tell you how delighted we were to get your letter this morning.

We walked one day round Poulaphouca and we nearly wept for our exiled Harrises, with whom we had last done this walk to Kilbride before — I mean you and Beatrice had.

The play is in its fifth week at the Abbey and we continue to get a hell of a lot of money out of it.

I am in the American edition of Harper’s Bazaar in a month or two. I don’t know when. I only only they paid me $150 for it — or for the right to reprint it from the English Vogue — which I gave to Beatrice for a non-birthday gift, so look out for it, the Harper’s Bazaar I mean.

Dublin, April 1957

I was leaving my father-in-law’s house, 43, Morehampton Road, Dublin at 1:30 a.m. on the morning of Wednesday the 17th, when I was accosted by two Civic Guards who came from a squad car, and very truculently asked my identity.

This I refused to give until they have me some valid reason for demanding it.

They dragged me to Donnybrook Guards barracks, and released me, and on the way down to the station, both of them addressed me by my name, which shows that they knew my identity.

I would not have attempted to bring this matter before you, were it not for the fact that I was in the company of my wife. We were going home and she was wheeling a bicycle.

I can tell you that my father was in Gormanstown with you, and my uncle Michael Slater, of Annadale Avenue, off Philibsburgh Avenue, is an old worker in the cause of your election to the Dail.

I do not claim that these things give me the right to break the law, but I do claim your consideration in this matter, when I have been illegally dragged along Morehampton Road for no reason whatsoever.

Except that the Guards who drove us home, remarked that it was “only a bit of sport.”

I do not regard it as a bit of sport, and if all else fails, and I cannot live in Ireland, without the dangers of this experience being repeated, well I shall make very certain, at the International Drama Festival in a fortnight’s time, that publicists outside this country know the way I was treated.

My wife can bear witness to the truth of all that I have stated here.

Dublin, June 1957

My own writing habit is that I write when absolutely sober.

I have written for love, (political writing) and for money, radio, newspaper work, in English and Irish, and poetry.

I swim a great deal in the summer (in the water I mean) and am very fond of race meetings — particularly a point-to-point. I spend most of my time with non-literary fellows that I have known from youth — mostly fellows that are mixed up in the greyhound business. I myself like the company and am of course always very well informed as to the form of dogs at any track in England or Ireland, but don’t like racing myself, because the track racing is too dull, and the coursing is too cruel. I like city people, in Dublin or from the East End.

I was excommunicated from the Catholic Church when I was arrested and refused to disavow the Irish Republican Army in prison, and I think the book tells of my loneliness in exile from the only church I had ever known, or taken seriously, the church of my people, of my ancestors hunted in the mountains, and of my bitterness about this.

with his wife in Tijuana

Dublin, December 1958

I enjoyed reading about myself and my wife in Time, and indeed it was very generous of you, but the nicest thing of all happened when a foreign citizen turned around from looking at my picture and said, “I did not realize you were Jewish.” “I am not,” I said, “but Our Blessed Lord is — I hope I’ve caught a little of the contagion.”

New York, May 1960

This is a great town. We all should have come here years ago.

Los Angeles, May 1961

New York is a real city. Los Angeles has no navel — no Broadway — and nothing to recommend it except the sunshine swimming pools.

You will be glad to hear that Fred Astaire got an award here recently and still looks a lean forty. Great city for a quiet piss-up.

Dublin, December 1962

I was swimming at the Y.M.H.A. on Lexington Avenue and was having a shower when a little Negro employee came in.

He surveyed our naked forms and said “Mr. Behan — there is a message for you on the phone.”

“O.K. son,” said I, “come down the locker room till I put some clothes on.” I was giving him a half-dollar and a thought struck me.

“Did you see my picture on the newspaper?”

“No, sir.”

“Well,” I said, “how did you know me?”

“You had no clothes on, sir, and the other men were all Jewish, sir.”

I gave him another half a buck.

Shalom – Slainte

Brendan Behan


In Which We Risk The Middle Class



creators Alexandra Cunningham and Kem Nunn

chance-season-2-poster-key-artKem Nunn is the kind of person who just looks wrong in clothing. As therapist Dr. Elden Chance, Hugh Laurie attempts to replicate that basic mien. Hunched over in front of a patient, he resembles a man constrained by a Pullmanesque daemon, being tugged at by all sorts of sources larger than himself. The main inertia acting on him is his massive bald spot, which the second season of Chance draws considerable attention to at every juncture. The point is that while Dr. Chance is steadily, progressively losing his hair, his precisely violent friend ‘D’ (Ethan Suplee) is completely bald, but full of hair in a variety of other places.

Nunn does not exactly admire therapists. On some level you have to wonder why he has made a show about one. Dr. Chance is completely helpless to affect his patients’ lives, and this second season of Chance hammers this home whenever possible. Dr. Chance is a neuropsychiatrist, one of those terms that in the future will be described retrospectively the way we currently reference shock treatment. Dr. Chance is deeply afraid of the men who torment his patients, and so once he convicts them in his own mind, he allows Darius to threaten or disable their flaccid bodies.


It does not take very long to realize why this is not much of an idea, and having taken this project on with an open mind, it is only the matter of a few afternoons before Dr. Chance realizes it is not the best idea. His evil deeds begin to consciously and subconsciously rub off on the daughter (Stefania Owen) he shares with his ex–wife. In Chance’s stillborn first season, we watched the good doctor risk everything in his life for Gretchen Mol. This was implausible until she began acting actively freaky, at which point his attraction to her (1) made logical sense and (2) revealed his complete lack of personal integrity.


The novel Chance has this fantastic ending where the possessory nature of the universe took over. Man, or woman, could not be held responsible for their acts when the world was so awry. The general environment of San Francisco informs on this quite broadly. No one can live in this place, Nunn seems to be arguing, without the various economic inequalities of the locale driving you insane or worse. A civilization without a middle class is therefore doomed.

Dressed in sweaters or a jacket and jeans, Nunn has never wanted to be anything like an elite. His modest but brilliant collection of novels, including his magnificent debut Tapping the Source, mines the momentary but exciting genre of surf detective fiction, that which was first gainfully developed by Florida’s finest writer John D. MacDonald. Like MacDonald’s lackadaisical but purposeful protagonist Travis McGee, Dr. Chance runs moral circles around his basic compassion for women who have been abused by men.

San Francisco, then, is the playpen for all morality. Whatever happens there will affect how we deal with the issue of the effect of random chance on every citizen. Other places in the world and in our country reward a certain psychological aspect, but San Francisco can no longer be said to endorse this view. In this abandoned metropolis, a savage immorality is the only healthy way of all-around living.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan.



In Which We Make The Right Choice After All

American Buffalo


Mr. Robot
creator Sam Esmail

mr-robot-season-3-angela.jpgAbout two-thirds into the third season premiere of Mr. Robot, an elaborate proof that even a revenge fantasy can be made dull through its own generic willpower, Sam Esmail begins laying into Donald Trump. For people like Sam who thrive on words, and the general, reductive meaning they are able to apply to ideas, moments and opinions, the president is impossible to understand.

To their credit, artists, doctors, lawyers and citizens all educated, have been taught to live and die by their words. For those of this tortured mindset, any other approach could make no sense of their lives. Verbal articulation is how they define themselves and their relationship to others. Well, the president is not great with words, so he does what anyone might do who can’t speak or write very well: he shows how little power speech has.


Eliot (Rami Malek) is a similar creature. When he does speak, a manifesto comes out, but it is not really of his own doing. His truer, more authentic self is beneath the turgid recitation of the ills of society. Beneath this veneer, his shyness tells a more nuanced story. More than anything, what drives him is wanting to be liked and respected. Such personages – I can think of many who share this ultimately useless view – intimately understand what others most want to hear. This, they believe, is the best purpose of speech.

Screen Shot 2017-10-12 at 12.00.24 AM.jpg

Eliot’s sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin) recoils from all this. When someone starts talking to her, she either responds profanely, runs away, screams, or has a panic attack. At other times, she represses her introverted calling, and dominates others through an otherworldly combination of presence and enthusiasm. Once she feels she has lost her cause, however, she returns to a state of grace.

Eliot’s friend Angela (Portia Doubleday, easily the best actor on the entire show) watched her mother die from the bad actions of a large corporation. She allows this singular tragedy to corrupt every other moment of her life. Angela pushes love away at every intersection, and when she cares for those like Eliot, people who cannot care for themselves, she wields a silent combination of pity and hate. I said Mr. Robot was dull, and it is, but the men and women standing in front of computer terminals throughout the show are all fairly alive.

Quite possibly a word, or a series of words, might serve as a guide to some future act. But the words would fairly fade with time. Irving (Bobby Cannavale) strongly believes words mean something very important. When he is promised a free milkshake after his tenth hamburger, he is intent on collecting. In short, he is like you and all your innocent, naive friends. They believe it is right to judge people by what they say. (“Action talks,” someone said, “and bullshit walks.”). Philanthropy, someone said, is the way that brands will win. We have prized speech over content, and this is actually how Rome fell, if I’m not mistaken.

Mr. Robot suffers from a similar fate. Nothing much really goes on in it. Every once in awhile, someone will suddenly and unexpectedly receive exactly what they deserve.

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.


In Which We Take A Lesson Out To Dinner

Hard to Say is This Recording’s weekly advice column. It will appear every Wednesday until the Earth perishes in a fiery blaze, or until North West turns 40. Get no-nonsense answers to all of your most pressing questions by writing to or by dropping us a note at our tumblr.


I have been friends with a guy I will call Alan for a few years. We both play music but never play together (different styles); still we have kept up with each other over the years.

We have good chemistry when hanging out one-on-one, and I’ve always enjoyed it whenever that happens. Alan’s made it clear that he would be open to something more, but I am concerned that things might get competitive with both of us sharing similar goals. The few times that it has come up, arguments have tended to ensue. Am I right to be wary of conflict?

Bess M.

Dear Bess,

No happy relationship was ever described by the words, “we fight a lot about about melodies.” With that said, ground rules for a relationship can accomplish a lot, just as the security of a prenup can assuage the mind of the more financially sucessful party.

Here are some ground rules to keep in mind considering your situation:

1) What kind of music does he play? House? Cool.

2) What are his thoughts on Savage Garden? Neutral. Cool.

3) How well does he know the lyrics to “Girlfriend in a Coma”?

4) Did he seem really low-key and collected when he found out that Thom Yorke unexpectedly released an album? Great.

That should do it. Tread carefully.



I go out with a group of friends who always order wine at every meal. At first I didn’t mind not being the only one drinking, but our dinnertime conversations are becoming progressively sloppier and it makes the evening something of an ordeal. 

Is there any way to improve these circumstances without coming off as a killjoy?

Maureen A.

Dear Maureen,

Wine, or sad juice as it is called through the greater Pennsylvania area, was created for Europeans who have less problems and anxieties than Americans. Wine is highly addictive: some experts believe it is even more compulsive than cocaine.

Your friends are therefore ensconced in the saucy, grapey grip that won’t let go. The only way to free them from their urges is to take things even more thoroughly in the messed up direction, until the entire group can barely wake up the next morning. Next time y’all meet up at dinner, you can meekly ask for a dry evening. It will be that day that each of your liquored-up friends will understand one of life’s most important lessons: sobriety can, at times, be as exciting as chardonnay.

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen. Access This Recording’s mobile site at



In Which We Black Out The Capitol Lights

Today we welcome our new music editor, Janice Levens. Ms. Levens is a poet and musician living in Los Angeles. She is writing under a pseudonym for reasons that will become clear as soon as 2018. Her reviews will appear every Tuesday until she is suspended from This Recording for social media-related reasons.

Screen Shot 2017-10-09 at 9.00.29 PM

photograph by Shane McCauley

Flyover State


Screen Shot 2017-10-09 at 8.59.19 PMCry, Cry, Cry
Wolf Parade
Dan Boeckner, Spencer Krug, Dante DeCaro & Arlen Thompson
producer John Goodmanson
October 6th on Sub Pop

The voices of Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug sound a lot alike. When we last left Wolf Parade they were fresh off 2010’s astonishing Expo 86, a sterling return to form after 2008’s half-hearted At Mount Zoomer. The best tracks on Expo 86, like “In the Direction of the Moon” and “What Did My Lover Say? (It Always Had to Go This Way)” were written by Krug, and this trend continues on Cry Cry Cry, a tightly woven studio album by this four-piece of artists who still struggle to reach a cohesive compromise in sound.

Much of Cry Cry Cry was written on Vancouver Island, the warmest part of Canada. Fittingly then, much previous angst has been wrung out of Krug and Boeckner. The man who wrote and performed “I’ll Believe in Anything” on Apologies to the Queen Mary only peeks out from behind the gauze in tracks like the echoing ballad “Am I An Alien Here”, when Krug pretends at being depressed: “Happiness is easy, it’s a story that you tell.” You know he is lying because only a few stanzas later he is complaining about David Bowie being dead.

Screen Shot 2017-10-09 at 9.00.53 PM

photograph by Shane McCauley

Boeckner is somewhat depressed about the U.S. president, but for the most part he seems a lot happier with his first marriage in the rear view mirror. His other project is Operators, and the tracks he produced with Devojka, Sam Brown, and Dustin Hawthorne – free of Krug’s trademark inflections and orchestral effects – seemed a fresh and exciting on 2016’s eclectic Blue Wave.

In Wolf Parade, it is Boeckner who adapts to Krug’s style, and while it is a decent echo of Spencer’s darker use of synthesizers and guitar, his compositions never approach the highs of “Baby Blue.” Still, he gets close on “Flies on the Sun”, because any credible reflection of Spencer Krug is pretty much like looking at God in a puddle. And to be completely fair, he is a far better live singer than Krug and his voice is substantially improved from when Wolf Parade originally formed.

Despite his experimentation with his solo-ish project Moonface, Krug’s songwriting retains a morbid core, like apples that differ only in color and taste. Even Krug’s more frivolous songs like “Valley Boy” still touch on the vague sadness that is the inevitable consequence of interacting with people he does not respect. As usual, Krug’s lyrics manage to come across as devastating and sincere even when they approach the absurd, as they do on “Lazarus Online” when he suggests, “Let’s rage against the light.” It is meant to be hokey – “like getting punched in the heart” – but it is still weaker than anything you would find on 2005’s Apologies to the Queen Mary, a masterpiece that included the best selections of Krug’s early work.

On “You’re Dreaming” Krug sings, “Never mind the time/I’m up all night with the century ghosts/They don’t have a mind/They would never think of leaving/And we’re dreaming.” You see, once you achieve your dream, as Krug has with his considerable, deserved success, all you can actually do from then on out is imagine what it would be like if that dream had never come true. Krug explains it would be “just like life,” except not. “Scenes of shattered glass, all your systems in collapse.” Krug, we can infer, is waiting for some future tragedy to arrive so that he can become beautiful again. Cry Cry Cry, then, is like a self-contained snow globe of potential sorrow, one that can only come true by being shattered in retrospect.


Janice Levens is the music editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles.

Screen Shot 2017-10-09 at 9.21.39 PM.jpg