The joys of commuting at Christmas. Someone just got on the train, puked up everywhere, and now we’re delayed in leaving while the poor cleaners sort the mess out. Windows are open, but I’m currently sitting downwind and am boxed in to my seat. 🤮

The best album I’ve heard this year

Warning: The songs in this blog post contain a significant amount of swearing and other adult material. It’s best not to play them out loud if there are little ears around.

I first heard Marika Hackman in early 2019 through my Spotify Discover Weekly playlist. I tend to stick Discover Weekly on in the background as I commute to and from work on the train. The playlist has been consistently excellent at introducing me to new music. As my brain is unfamiliar with the songs, it stops me from getting distracted — if I don’t know what comes next I find I can concentrate more. Occasionally, a song will break through into the foreground of my consciousness for a bit; I tend to ‘like’ them to explore them later, and then carry on with my work.

Marika Hackman’s Time’s Been Reckless was a different beast. It demanded to be listened to and made me completely stop what I was doing in order to pay attention. After a couple of plays of the album that this song came from, 2017’s I’m Not Your Man, I found myself becoming obsessed. It’s very rare for me to go back and start an album again as soon as it finished, but for weeks I just didn’t want to listen to anything else.

When I heard that Marika had new music coming out in 2019 I felt as though I had found her at just the right time. But how could the new album be anywhere near as good as I’m Not Your Man? The first single, I’m Not Where You Are, was very catchy but more electronic and poppy than what I had fallen in love with. I played it a few times, enjoyed it, but was worried that I wasn’t going to like the new stuff as much.

A little while later, The One came out. I was worried. I liked the music even less than the previous single. It was even more poppy and further away from the downbeat masterpieces on I’m Not Your Man, with amusing lyrics, a fancy video and some weirdness that I just couldn’t get my head around. It seemed gimmicky.

But when it was released in August, hearing the album changed everything. It all made sense. Any Human Friend is a masterpiece.

With 11 tracks spread over just 41 minutes, the album is a perfectly-sized thing that is much greater than the sum of its parts. It starts off with Wanderlust, a strange, folksy, delicate lo-fi song, somewhere between something off of Marika’s first album and an early song by Kathryn Williams. As it peters out, the start of The One is in perfect juxtaposition, ramping things up to its modern sound. It really works, and repeated listens reveal a depth to the song that I didn’t realise was there at first. Marika has even put out a couple of acoustic versions of the song which offer completely different perspectives, showing how good the song is.

All Night then brings things down again, with effortless vocals and a simple guitar riff quickly turning into a song that is lyrically shocking, but delicate and dreamy in its delivery. It quickly became my favourite on the album at first. It’s been difficult to stop myself from singing this as I go about my day, but given the lyrics it is one to whisper in your head as opposed to sharing it with everyone around you.

Blow has a wonderful eighties-sounding synth beat to it, and a release when the chorus comes around that you didn’t realise you needed until it arrives. There are echoes of The One, particularly in the backing sounds which are like the ‘human’ instrument on the old organs from the 1980s. I’m Not Where You Are follows, which again sounds so much better now that it is in the context of the album as a whole.

Send My Love is probably the highlight of the album for me after repeated listens. Forlorn and full of melancholy with a layered complexity that quickly creeps its way in from a simple start. When the song’s main lyrical content is over, it has built to a grand instrumental soundscape which makes me feel that I am at the top of a hill looking at the land all around, before being stripped back to leave nothing but the strange robotic vocal chant at the end. Cleverly, the same repeated lyric that finishes the song is actually the hook of the next one, Hand Solo. I don’t think I noticed it at first, and I imagine that if you have the vinyl this would be even more subtle as a flip of the record stands in between the two tracks.

Hand Solo is the third single from the album and at first I thought it was going to be gimmicky (with that title) but it’s actually a fantastic tune — bass-driven and thumping, again with the layers that reward repeated listens. There’s an excellent live version on YouTube that highlights just how good this song is1. Once again, it’s over as quickly as it starts.

The echoey sound effects at the end of Hand Solo turn into the the complex opening beats of Conventional Ride, which despite its strange timing turns into a relatively straightforward song. It’s good, but like all of the songs on the album it doesn’t outstay its welcome before getting into a Beatle-y dreamscape finish.

Come Undone has a swagger about it which you can’t help but love, with a bass riff that makes your feet want to dance. All of the elements from earlier in the album come together here, with very loud, almost grating FX-heavy guitar which gets better every time you hear it. The chorus is a real earworm; this is the other song that I found myself singing in my head.

Hold On brings something different again. It puts the brakes on, with a simple downtempo metronomic beat — at some points that is literally all you hear for a few bars — and eerie echoey vocals that are almost impossible to make out. Magnificent and beautiful.

Despite being the title track, Any Human Friend is probably the least memorable of all the songs. It has a fresh feel to it, almost like the sound of a clear new spring day after everything that has gone before, with minimal effects and Japanese-sounding strings. It’s a satisfying end.

The lyrics throughout the album are amazing. They are extremely explicit in parts without feeling like they are there just to shock; there is always a point. I haven’t yet bought a vinyl copy as it would be a rare occasion when I would be able to play it out loud; it’s definitely one to enjoy with headphones on your own.

I love this album. I’ve played it so much, but still enjoyed listening to it as I wrote this post. Marika Hackman is an incredible artist. I’m fortunate enough to be going to see her live in March next year, and I can’t wait to hear what she’ll do next.

  1. From the 4:31 mark onwards. 

Weeknotes #52 — Another naan bites the dust

A week in which I…

  • Felt like I spent most of my time in videoconferences and conference calls, picking up tasks, and not having a lot of time to get them done.
  • Helped my client with a separate project to refit their London office. Reviewed the bill of materials for the audio/visual equipment and raised a lot of questions, many of which come from me being new to the work. There’s an intersection with my programme which is deploying new technology to each of the offices. There’s massive pressure to hit a hard deadline, which means it is even more imperative than usual to keep a cool head and not be pushed into going down the wrong technology route.
  • Worked from home on Monday so that I could attend our final school Full Governing Board meeting of the year straight after work. I’m still carrying forward too many tasks and not getting as much done as I would like to each term. I am hoping that I can use some of the time at Christmas to catch up a little. We had two new governors in the meeting, and one of them came out with us for our annual curry-based social night. We get so little time as a team to talk about anything that isn’t on our meeting agendas, and it was lovely to get to know each other better and to build our relationships for a change.
  • Made progress with our equipment orders in Dubai and New York, and continued to wait for feedback on our chosen vendor in São Paulo. We’ve made some key decisions around our telephony and Internet service provider in Dubai and I now need to plan the detail on how we get the main changes done in all three locations in January.
  • Had a Wi-Fi survey completed in the New York office. We’ll use the results to determine specifically what wireless access points we should install and where they should be placed. I’m not sure how reliable or specific it will be given that the Wi-Fi is likely to be doing battle with an ever-changing landscape of other networks in all directions in midtown Manhattan, but we’ll see.
  • Completed a review of the ‘level two’ support contract with our vendor to clarify some elements of what we expect from them, given that we have now been live for almost half a year and have the benefit of experience. It’s good to work with a pragmatic supplier who sees mutual benefit on getting something like this right, and doesn’t just insist on ‘working to rule’ on what has been signed off.
  • Had a rare evening out with my wife and a whole bunch of our friends for a bizarre ‘curry and Freddie Mercury tribute act’ night. The whole curry house had been booked out for the event, so there was one sitting of food followed by an evening with Luke Antony singing Queen songs, and getting everyone up and joining in.
  • Felt dismay when the night out was sadly punctuated by the release of the general election exit polls. If I could have voted for a hung parliament, I would have; a gigantic Conservative majority wasn’t what I was expecting at all. The news quickly spread around the room and it took the shine off of things for a lot of people. When the morning came, we found out that it was as bad as we had feared. It’s going to take time to get used to the thought of having Boris Johnson and his band of rogues in power for the next five years. I don’t know what happens next, but I do know that there are a lot of motivated people out there who will want the electoral system to be reformed. I’ve always said that if I was one of the nearly 4 million people — 12.6% of the total — to have voted for UKIP in 2015 and found that I was represented by only 1 MP out of 650 I would have been outraged. Again, this time we have the Green Party pushing nearly 1 million votes for the first time and only having 1 MP. Given the focus and protests on climate change this must be a gross under-representation of the issues people care about. I have no idea how we could move from a first-past-the-post system to one of proportional representation, given that the governments in power have zero motivation to change it.
  • Enjoyed the 1992 version of Of Mice And Men with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. I’d seen it a long time ago and though that the rest of my family would enjoy it, and they really did. My 10 year-old was really touched by Malkovich’s acting as Lennie, and we were all taken aback by the emotional ending. I was surprised how much of an impact it had on me, especially given that I had recently read the book and watched the 1939 film version, so the ending wasn’t exactly a surprise. There are some really interesting differences between the book and the two films, which I may write up if I can prioritise the time.
  • Spent Saturday with my parents, my brothers and their families for a ‘mock’ Christmas Day. Everyone had a lovely time together and it felt more relaxed and less rushed than usual, probably as a consequence of the children all getting older. Christmas dinner was lovely. I had my first Christmas pudding of the year (definitely my favourite festive food) and rolled home with that ‘I can’t possibly eat anything for tea’ feeling. We’re all going on holiday together next year which should be a lot of fun; I’m looking forward to getting to know my niece and nephews as we really don’t see them enough.
  • Watched the latest instalment of His Dark Materials with the family, and sadly found myself getting bored. The series started well and had us all gripped at the beginning, but something about it is not sticking for me. We may skip it this week in favour of watching BBC Sports Personality Of The Year together for the first time.
  • Cleaned out our big envelope of vouchers that people have gifted to us and have come to the conclusion that we are really, really awful at remembering to spend any of them. The good news is that we have some money towards a meal at The Waterside Inn in Bray (given to us as a Christmas gift in 2008) and some Theatre Tokens from our wedding in 2004 that were to be used after our honeymoon, both of which are still valid. The envelope is no more, and I am hoping that leaving the vouchers in an annoying place on the kitchen table will push us into finally using them.

Just like last year, I’m planning to work over the New Year period whilst most of the team are off so that I can get prepped ready to hit the ground running in 2020. It has felt like I have been treading water over the past couple of weeks, doing just enough to keep any catastrophes at bay, and I am really looking forward to having some days with no meetings in place so that I can get some focused work done.

Next week: The last week of work before a week’s holiday for Christmas.

Weeknotes #51 — Power steering

A week in which I…

  • Focused on working from the list I already have, trying to ignore distractions that turned up in my inbox.
  • Met with the CEO of my client’s Brazil office to review progress on the main programme, and to draw a rough sketch of a timeline for the rollout in São Paulo early next year.
  • Made good progress with equipment orders and deliveries for the New York office. I’m still waiting on some pivotal installation dates which prevent me from planning the work in more detail.
  • Had a kick-off call for a Wi-Fi survey in New York, and took receipt of a ‘predictive survey’. I’m not sure how much value there is in a paper-based exercise when the office is in the middle of a tall office block in a densely-occupied area of Manhattan, presumably with other wireless networks firing signals in all directions.
  • Started to wrestle with telecoms and data discussions with our vendors for the Dubai office. I have had to to plan my days around calling in-country vendors as early as possible to get the most out of each day. Major public holidays in the UAE meant I couldn’t start the work until everyone was back at work on Wednesday.
  • Put to bed a discussion on whether my client should implement a remote access solution. It doesn’t represent value for money to do it right now for the odd occasion where it might be needed; the organisation isn’t big enough to justify the fixed cost initial investment.
  • Provided some input into a project on how to manage an organisation’s unstructured data. There are so many tools to do the jobs these days. The trick is understanding the business, picking the right tools for the right reasons, and producing some simple rules that people can follow on ‘how we organise work here’.
  • Met with our architect and builder for our small home extension planned for next year.
  • Took a day off from paid client work to attend the TBD Conference. I’m still processing my thoughts from the event and need to turn this into a write-up all of its own. It was good to have a day thinking about, and being exposed to, something completely different. However, I am not sure I was really part of the ‘core audience’.
  • Rode my bike out to Cowley near Oxford to see my eldest boy compete in the Inter Counties Cross Country Championships. I hadn’t been out on my bike in many weeks, and the last-minute prep meant I set out late and had to push to get there on time. I made it just as they were lined up and ready to go. He had a great run but was so muddy by the end of it.

    Ready to run

    Ready to run

  • Bought our Christmas tree and put the decorations up. Somehow every year we seem to always need new lights for the tree and nobody remembers why. Emergency lights have been purchased (again) and we are now fully illuminated.

    The traditional Christmas tree picture. With me looking ridiculous, with added shorts to make me slightly less embarrassing in non-bike riding situations.

    The traditional Christmas tree picture. With me looking ridiculous, with added shorts to make me slightly less embarrassing in non-bike riding situations.

  • Went for a pre-Christmas lunch with our close friends at The Fox and Hounds in Englefield Green. We’ve been there loads over the past few years, including for a friend’s wedding, and it has been consistently good up until now. Lovely food, cosy atmosphere, and a great location with easy access to Windsor Great Park for a post-food stroll. Sadly the food and service weren’t great this time so we may need a new venue.
  • Got taken home from the same lunch on a flatbed truck when the power steering failed on our car. The lack of being able to change direction was accompanied by a burning smell, so it didn’t seem a good idea to drive home. It’s only been two weeks since we had a new clutch fitted. This may be the tipping point where things start to go wrong on a regular basis and it doesn’t make sense to keep spending money to fix them.

Next week: Trying to lock down delivery dates for Dubai, New York and São Paulo. More car repairs, a governor meeting, and a curry with Freddie Mercury.