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August 3, 2018

Andrew Martin's Playlist for His Novel "Early Work"

Early Work

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Andrew Martin's novel Early Work is a compelling, smart, and funny debut.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"Marvelous . . . Read [Early Work] on a beach for the refreshment of a classic boy-meets-girl plot, or turn the pages more slowly to soak in some truly salty koans and morally insolvent characters . . . It’s an accomplished and delightful book, but there’s no hashtag for that."

In his own words, here is Andrew Martin's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Early Work:

My novel Early Work is about a burgeoning, ill-advised relationship between two writers, Peter and Leslie. It’s also about the ways that they and their milieu (call them artistic old millenials) define themselves, perhaps at their peril, through the books and music (and prodigious amounts of booze) that they consume. The novel takes place for the most part during the summer of 2015, during which the novel’s protagonists, like their author, mainline a steady stream of contemporary rap and classic country music, along with some forays into pop and soul. Most of the artists I included are name-checked at some point in the book. (Some of them were name-checked, then lost to cuts—it’ll happen when you get rid of 30,000 words. It’s nice to restore them in this ghostly way.) I set it up to be coherent as a front to back listen, but I also included a twelve-minute Temptations song so… enjoy!

1. Poor Poor Pitiful Me—Linda Ronstadt

I imagine Leslie, one of the book’s writer protagonists, bopping along to this gender-swapped cover of one of my favorite Warren Zevon songs, admiring the reclamation of Zevon’s brazen, haplessly promiscuous narrator by a no-bullshit female singer. “He put me through some changes, Lord/Just like a Waring blender” could be her own sardonic take on most of her not-quite-enough boyfriends.

2. The Devil’s Right Hand—Steve Earle

With all due respect to Steve Goodman, this might be the perfect Country and Western song (though the overblown edge-of-the-nineties production does a bit to disguise that.) Earle is one of the spirit animals of the novel—I can’t think of my time in Charlottesville without hearing the triumphant chiming chords of “Guitar Town,” which my friend Lee blasted in his truck while speeding down back roads in search of Sissy Spacek’s horse.

3. Feelin’ Single, Seein’ Double—Emmylou Harris

Another female-sung tune originally performed by a male artist, in this case the king of masculine self-pity George Jones. Emmylou makes getting drunk and flirting with strangers sound like just about the most fun a person can have, and doesn’t sound like she feels all that bad about it. The album this is on, Elite Hotel, was on almost constant rotation in our house in Virginia, its mix of old country tunes and Gram Parsons covers pretty well capturing our theatrical idea of Southern melancholy.

4. We Better Talk This Over—Bob Dylan

This slick little pop tune, buried near the end of the criminally underrated Street Legal, reminds me of a mid-sixties Beatles song, with the rhymes and structure seemingly dictating the content as much as the underlying feeling expressed. It’s also the Dylan song that sounds the most like a Fleetwood Mac song.

5. Pretty Good—John Prine

Like Leslie in the novel, I too had some friends with a John Prine cover band, which, by the time I made it to Missoula, mostly consisted of its three members drunkenly playing this song for an indefinite amount of time at the end of parties. It’s not my favorite song of his—I’ve never quite assimilated that disturbing second verse—but it’s certainly the song of his I’ve heard the most times.

6. Back to the Future (Part I)—D’Angelo

One of the best songs on Black Messiah, which is probably the best album of the 21st century. (D’Angelo is also in a tight battle with the Clipse brothers for greatest musical artist that Virginia has yet produced.) His show in Norfolk in the summer of 2015 was life-changing; I’d say it’s not a coincidence that I started writing this novel a week later.

7. Get MuNNY—Erykah Badu

Badu’s New Amerykah albums are grand, weird statements, direct successors to Funkadelic’s chaotic masterpieces, but she’s sometimes at her best when it sounds like she’s just messing around. This song is an extended riff on both Junior MAFIA’s “Get Money” and the original Sylvia Stripling song it samples. Badu’s good-natured groupie playacting (“Can’t lie to you honey/I just want your money”) descends into blissful weirdness (“I’ll be your robot girl”) as the song proceeds. I imagine this might be a favorite of Molly Chang, the funniest and most self-aware character in the novel.

8. You Ain’t Gotta Lie—Kendrick Lamar

2015 was, above all else, the year of Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which everyone I knew played over and over again to pick up the ridiculously dense information contained in almost every track. This might be the most straightforward groove on the album, an oasis of relative simplicity in a symphony of argument and anxiety. The song is playing in Peter’s car as he and Leslie drive home from their fateful first night out together.

9. Lemme Know—Vince Staples

Staples is one of the few contemporary rappers, along with Earl Sweatshirt and Danny Brown (on a really good day), who can hold his own with Kendrick in terms of thematic ambition and lyrical dexterity. This track isn’t a major show of virtuosity, but I like the back and forth between Staples and Jhené Aiko, her verses moving smoothly from solicitude to threat. It’s unsettling AND danceable!

10. Bound 2—Kanye West

The final song on Kanye’s last absolutely great album, and probably the most romantic (in his cheerfully gross way) track in his catalog. Early in the novel Leslie and Peter discuss the discomfort inherent in loving Yeezus, an album that combines dissonant, next-level production with some of the most aggressively regressive lyrics recorded this century. Little did they know what they would have to put up with from Ye only a couple of years later…

11. Wanna be Startin’ Somethin’—Michael Jackson

One of the pivotal scenes in the novel involves the book’s main characters gathered together, stoned, to watch the posthumously released Michael Jackson movie This Is It. The narrator reflects on the way that, in the days and weeks after Jackson’s death, songs like “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” could be heard playing out of every other passing car, the later, tabloid monster version of the singer replaced almost instantaneously by memories of his beatific earlier work. It’s hard to call the first song on one of the most popular albums of all-time underrated, but I still don’t think its greatness gets enough credit.

12. Into the Groovey—Ciccone Youth

Sonic Youth’s alter-egos covering/overwriting one of the great Madonna songs. I always thought this had to remain in semi-legal obscurity since they’re essentially sampling the entirety of the original song, but maybe now Madonna is getting not-paid for it through Spotify.

13. Lucky Star—Madonna

I came very, very late to early Madonna, and now I don’t know how I ever lived without her first album. I bet this would have played eventually at the depressing New Wave dance party that Peter and Leslie attended if they’d stuck around a little longer.

14. Vacation—The Go-Go’s

Another perfect pop song. I imagine this soundtracking the glowing, melancholy early days of Katie and Leslie’s obviously doomed relationship.

15. I Know I’m Not Wrong—Fleetwood Mac

Any playlist for a novel about drugs and infidelity has to include a manic Lindsay Buckingham song from Tusk. That’s a rule.

16. I’m A Strong Lion—Robert Pollard

The GBV leader at his brief, catchy best. I have it on good information that he is Peter’s favorite songwriter of all time.

17. Son of a Preacher Man—Aretha Franklin

I love Aretha’s rendition of this, with all of the drama inherent in her role as a preacher’s daughter. Jack Hamilton’s book Just Around Midnight has a great section about the dueling Springfield and Franklin versions of the song.

18. Smiling Faces Sometimes—The Temptations

I heard this for the first on WTJU, Charlottesville’s legendary free-form radio station. Who else would play a 12-minute epic soul song over the airwaves, complete with a solid minute of sinister laughter on the fadeout? This song contains lessons for all of us.

19. One Love—Nas

Late in the novel, Julia, a poet, barricades herself in her office listening to Illmatic on repeat. Rumor has it that her favorite track on the album is “Halftime,” but I think this one’s a little better. Poets love Nas.

20. Where Ya At—Future and Drake

We currently live in the world that Future and Drake built. I spent September 2015 at a residency in Wyoming listening almost exclusively to Future, Drake, and the Weeknd while drafting the first half of the novel. This probably influenced the book, but apart from a reference to Dirty Sprite 2, I can’t quite be sure how. Well, I guess maybe all the sex and drugs.

21. You Don’t Have to Mean It—The Rolling Stones

Keith Richards in his louche late-period glory. “Sit on my shoulder like a little bird” is either the best or the worst pickup line of all time.

22. The Best of Jill Hives—Guided by Voices

A rare Pollard song that seems to be about simple quotidian sadness. (Well, actually, on closer examination, it’s mostly word salad.) “But do we really need to see/all her punchdrunk history?” might be what readers of the novel are asking around the 10th scene of Leslie getting drunk and making a bad decision. The answer is yes.

23. So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)—The Everly Brothers

When a character is feeling sad about a breakup at one point in the novel, Kenny tells him he’ll turn off the Everly Brothers song playing in the other room. “Bet you can guess which one,” he says. In my mind it was “Bye-Bye Love,” but it could really be almost any of them.

24. Three Days—Willie Nelson

These early demos are my favorite Willie Nelson recordings, capturing his fragile voice at its most naked and tragic. The brevity of the song only makes it more devastating.

25. George Jones—The Battle

The best of Jones’s operatic mixed metaphor ballads (just barely beating out “The Grand Tour” and “The Door.”) The line “Oh, she’s such a little thing/and there’s no doubt about it I can win” has got to be one of the most chilling lines ever sung, especially as delivered in Jones’s smooth baritone. By the end of the song, “the enemies are lovers once again,” but it’s not at all clear that this is a positive development.

26. Gram Parsons—In My Hour of Darkness (Alternate Version)

There’s an important scene in the book in which Peter tries to convince Leslie that a demo of Parsons’ “$1000 Wedding” is a masterpiece; he fails. The version he likes is not on Spotify, but I imagine Leslie would be just as skeptical of this early version of the similarly melodramatic “In My Hour of Darkness,” complete with (full circle!!) backup vocals by Linda Ronstadt. But I think “Oh Lord, grant me vision/oh Lord grant me speed” is an appropriate parting benediction for this playlist, and for these characters who will, one hopes, gain some hard-won clarity, someday.

Andrew Martin and Early Work links:

excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Booklist review
Chicago Review of Books review
Kirkus review
New York Times review
New Yorker review
Publishers Weekly review

The Millions interview with the author
Paris Review interview with the author

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