It’s finally Inauguration Day, folks. In this week’s issue: the last days of Donald Trump, critiques of Trump literature, and a spectacular Sylvan Esso project.
Shaking Out the Numb
Shaking Out the Numb is such a pleasant and unexpected surprise, though I’ll be frank in saying I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first picked up the podcast last week.
The project is pitched as an “experimental podcast” coming out of a collaboration between the band Sylvan Esso and Erica Heilman, a Vermont-based producer whom I know mostly from Rumble Strip, her state-specific collection of first-person narratives, which is broadly in the lineage of something like Radio Diaries. Shaking Out the Numb was released back in November and timed to the rollout of the band’s latest record, Free Love, which had dropped two months before. I guess I just assumed the podcast would be one of those curious but rote exercises in brand marketing meant to plug the album, which is something we’ve been seeing flow out of the TV and film business lately.
That initial assumption was wrong. Shaking Out the Numb works out to be a fascinating package that’s dense with ideas, conceptually and sonically. To be sure, it effectively fulfills the role of marketing: I was left with the compulsion to immediately buy the record once I was done with it. But the show equally lives up to its self-description as an experimental joint. Each of its five brief episodes, ranging between seven and 18 minutes, is structured around different thematic anchors that originate from tracks on Free Love. The end result is a tight collection of what feel like technical exercises unspooled in the service of what could be described as a more conventional function. If you shift the angle of approach a little bit, it may occur to you that Shaking Out the Numb may be a messy variation on a profile.
You’ll find a lot of conventions associated with experimental art: Scenes crash into each other, thoughts trail off, there are nature sounds aplenty. The really good stuff, though, rises from the large swaths of the show that involve scenes of sitting and talking — an unhurried Zoom call on a porch, a chat while someone’s cooking, and so on. The quotidian nature of the podcast is really soothing.
That said, it should be noted that its most compelling episode, “Party,” is the one that breaks the most from this tranquil sensibility. While much of the podcast revolves around chats about the creative process and the lives of Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, “Party” sticks out as a stand-alone adventure. This entry sees members from Meath’s sister act, Mountain Man, orally reconstructing a night out on the hunt for a good time. There’s a party, there’s an encounter, there’s a cigarette break that turns into an intimate romp. The narration drifts in and out, pulsing forward on the rails of “Ferris Wheel,” an upbeat track on the record. It’s a really fun sequence injected with just a little spark of danger, and it leaves a trace of electricity in its wake.
There’s nothing quite like it, and it’s just one of the many things that etch Shaking Out the Numb into your brain.
How It Happened
Donald Trump stops being president today, which is as good a reason as any to listen to How It Happened, Axios’s new short-run audio series about the last days of the Trump presidency, which launched just yesterday.
The show is climbing up the Apple Podcasts charts — to the extent that that means anything — and it recalls to my mind a recent podcast moment that has really stuck with me: NPR Politics’s recent book-club episode in which panelist Danielle Kurtzleben interviews Carlos Lozada, the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize–winning nonfiction-book critic.
Lozada has a new book out, What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era, a meta-analysis of all the Trump-era books published over the past four years. I haven’t read the book, but the interview gets into some of Lozada’s bigger findings and sentiments. One of them is to question the entire subgenre of Trump literature, which has principally been written by former insiders and well-sourced reporters who enthusiastically engage in the business of dishing out scenes of chaos, confusion, and fear from within the White House.
“It became this contest for who had the craziest ‘Oh my God’ anecdote about what Trump had said or done,” said Lozada of those books. “If you focus so much on that kind of story — which, yes, is important for the historical record — you may spend less time, relatively speaking, on [asking], What are the big consequences of what we’re seeing here?”
That critique came to mind while I was listening to the first episode of How It Happened, which can easily be sorted into the Trump Chaos canon. As a production, it’s effective enough: Should you pick up the podcast, you’ll hear Axios political correspondent Jonathan Swan narrating his reporting on what went down in the immediate Trump circle on the night of the 2020 election, his Australian accent taking us into the tumultuous weeks that would follow, interspersed with clips from various cable news channels that help propel Swan’s narrative forward.
What he unearths is largely what you’ve come to expect: more chaos, more confusion, more fear. Some of these scenes, Swan occasionally notes, are new and never before reported. It’s still riveting stuff, particularly if you, like me, can’t help but gaze at the car-crash spectacle. But it does leave me wondering if there was anything else truly new to be found in this Trump subgenre.
• Speaking of Trump narratives, a shout-out to the accomplished WNYC’s Trump, Inc., which releases its finale this week.
• This Day in Esoteric Political History has added a third co-host: Kellie Carter Jackson, an assistant professor of history at Hunter College, CUNY. She joins Jody Avirgan and the historian Nicole Hemmer in leading the show, and she made her debut yesterday with an Inauguration Day special.
• Given that Lost Notes: 1980 made my top three last year, I am of course excited that Hanif Abdurraqib is back with another podcast project: Object of Sound, which, interestingly enough, is being published by Sonos Radio.
And that’s a wrap for 1.5x Speed! Hope you enjoyed it. We’re back next week, but in the meantime: Send podcast recommendations, feedback, or just say hello at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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