Stilted, ridiculous, predictable, perfect: the genius of Breaking Bad

Pop Lifer, in an almost spoiler free attempt, tries to explain why Breaking Bad is just so good.


Jesse & Walt. In the desert looking daft and not saying much meanwhile perfecting the art of crystal meth mass production and less is more perfect TV. Image courtesy of AMCTV.

Pop Lifer has tried to write a blog on Breaking Bad for sometime, and in the last few weeks this effort has been redoubled as the last few episodes have been uploaded onto Netflix every Monday. And yet every time we settle on a neat point or a decent theory to wrap up the five series of ever escalating tension and moral decline, an hour sat around the laptop on a Monday ends up laughing in the face of any conclusion recently reached.

Breaking Bad is one slippery fucker.

Breaking Bad has now slotted itself into the binge watching consciousness of those other great modern TV classics –The West Wing, The Wire, Mad Men and The Sopranos to name a few.  With all of these there is a discernible and noble reason to come into existence – a political ideal, a searing sense of injustice, a retelling of history, gender politics, a debunking of masculine and cultural cliché. Try as you might to find one, there isn’t a conspicuous intellectual, political or social reason for Breaking Bad to exist.

Breaking Bad is not Trojan Horse drama in any Dickensian tradition. It is a about man breaking bad for a reason which isn’t good enough (a resolution we settle on very early). It is not therefore a scathing attack on the US health care system. The writing is working nothing out nor making a point. This is not, like The Wire, a perfect alignment of commentary and narrative.

So Pop Lifer has given up trying to provide a clever wraparound theory to answer the question ‘what is Breaking Bad?’ Instead Pop Lifer has settled on a very simple answer to this question. Breaking Bad is simply very good. No, really. It’s the bomb.

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Can ‘Les Revenants’ pull off the pay-off?

We’ve re-uped in B’more, cooked blue meth in New Mexico, corridor walked in DC and arrested half the population of Copenhagen in a surprisingly flattering woolly jumper. Now, we have mixed feelings for a band of Alpine zombies competing for attention with a Mogwai soundtrack. Oh, yeah. TV has struck gold again but as we approach ‘Les Revenants’ finale, is it going to go all bat shit crazy like Homeland, frustratingly elusive like Lost, or actually carry off the pay-off like The Wire? Cross les fingers mes amies.

the returnedNice candles. Lovely bespoke bookshelf. Cracking lamp. Stunning views. Must have zombie in a foetal cuddle second from the left. (Furniture courtesy of IKEA; Picture courtesy of Canal Plus)

“Les Revenants” is beautifully shot, wonderfully told and has two episodes before series 1 concludes on Channel 4. It is set in a modern alpine French town of fresh tarmac, neat gardens and gated communities. Its look and feel is surprisingly reassuring to an English audience who didn’t think the French dealt in that English speciality of burby bland, but no fear, they do. (Except bland happens to be in the Alps and the characters speak French, which just sounds, like, way better and always will. Oui, c’est vrai.)

Cultural references are all very ‘Anglo’. Mod jackets, the ‘Lake Pub’, American diners – all tequila, no vin rouge. And of course, there is the little matter of The Returned themselves. The walking, talking, breathing, never sleeping, always eating, often horny, living dead – so obviously real in their depiction but so fantastical in their mere existence – producing screeching false notes in every cold, modern room they occupy.

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Only connect – Frank Ocean brings hope to the Brixton Academy (review)


Frank's Emotion, Frank Ocean at Brixton Academy, by Jaime GIll

Frank Emotion, Brixton Academy, by Jaime GIll

There’s a moment tonight which may be the most hopeful, beautiful thing I’ve seen in 20 years of gig-going at the Brixton Academy. Frank Ocean stands on the stage, almost nakedly vulnerable in a fierce red spotlight, singing the heartbroken words to the lush, trembling “Bad Religion”. And he’s joined on every bruised note by almost 5,000 people, audibly aching with him as he describes the pain of trying and failing to make a man a love him back.

Big deal, you might say, particularly if you’re in your late teens or early twenties, like the vast majority of tonight’s fervent audience. But let’s just take a moment to record what a big deal it really is, how far we have come. Practically the first gig I went to was Suede in 1992, when the dissipated glam rockers were rowdily taunted by the crowd for their homoerotic flirting (which the band soon abandoned, chastened). 12 years later, I found myself in a furious argument with three drunk Northerners at Leeds Festival after they spent most of Franz Ferdinand’s set jeering anti-gay idioicies at the band, who’d made the mistake of addressing one lusty song to “Michael”.

So watching Frank Ocean being not just accepted but adored by tonight’s crowd – which is so young and so eclectic, drawn from every race and background – feels like nothing less than utter vindication. Maybe The Beatles were right, after all. Love is all you need. Well, that and remarkable courage. Long time Pop Lifer readers will know that it was Ocean’s love letter to his first, male love that first inspired this blog, so tonight felt particularly special to us, seeing his courage rewarded with love and success, not the hate and failure he must have feared.

Having taken a moment to celebrate this beautiful victory, let’s move on. Because another part of Frank Ocean’s triumph is that he has managed to make a public stand over his sexuality without letting it define him. The radiance of his all-conquering album “Channel Orange”, with its extraordinary emotional and musical range, has won him a devoted fanbase which reaches out into every permutation of sexual and racial identity imaginable. Given the fact he’s yet to score a proper hit single, the hysteria which greets him tonight is startling: the foot-stomping chants of “we want Frank!” before he takes the stage, the shrill Beatlemania screaming between songs, the warm swells of love when he shines his shy smile down from the stage.

Frank Ocean, Brixton, by Jaime Gill

Frank Ocean, Brixton, by Jaime Gill

His ability to connect with so many people, to topple walls with such quiet grace, is clearly connected to his most extraordinary gift as a songwriter, his empathy. He can be a confessional singer when he wants – as on “Bad Religion” or the stunning suicide daydream of “Swim Good”, which he sings accappella joined by the whole crowd. But he’s just as emotionally powerful when singing from within other people’s lives. On the stoned stroll of “Super Rich Kids” he sings about aimless existences cushioned by money and numbed by drugs, while on “Crack Rock” he turns to the opposite end of the social spectrum, singing of crack addicts living gutter lives with real anguish and understanding.

Tonight is not a perfect performance. Ocean is not a natural stage performer, and spends as much time staring at his feet as looking out at his audience, although his occasional awkwardness is part of his charm. When this unshowiness is coupled with less sharp songs, like the meandering “Sierra Leone”, the early part of the show drags. But a stunning closing half – which takes in the lovely lope of “Forrest Gump”, the piercingly beautiful “Wise Man” and a rapturous, adventurous “Pyramid” – more than compensates.

In one of the few moments when Ocean talks in between songs, he talks of a Church he once went into New Orleans, where people were encouraged to tap their neighbours shoulders and tell them they love them. He encourages us to do the same right here. There is a moment of acute hesitation and awkwardness – this is London, after all, not New Orleans – and then people tentatively do it. A tall, blonde, young-Daryl-Hannah-lookalike next to me taps me and says “I love you, man”, and I grin, then pass it on to the dark haired older woman next to me. It’s a measure of trust and belief in Ocean that everyone braves the embarrassment and for the second time that night, I feel awash in hope.

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Boy interrupted: Frankmusik’s return to peak pop fitness with “Between”

Out on a limb - Vincent Turner by Danny Land

Out on a limb – Vincent Turner by Danny Land

Pop records are like babies: no matter how quick and magical the moment of conception might be, the birth is usually a long and messy process, and you never quite know what’s going to come out of the other end.

This is the kind of observation Pop Lifer would once have confidently made based on exactly zero first hand knowledge, but in the case of “Between” – the third record from the stubborn, stupidly gifted Vince Turner (AKA Frankmusik) – we actually know what we are talking about for once.

We were halfway through a long and intense interview with Vince late last year when he made one of his characteristically impulsive decisions and scrapped his planned third record in front of us. Instead of the mellow, mid-tempo suite of piano ballads he’d already written in LA, Vince had a new twinkle in his eye. Inspired by a new track he’d just written called “Captain”, he conceived of a more jittery, European and electronic record – one rather more like Vince himself and rather less like his false step of a second record.

We half expected him to change his mind again before we got on the bus back home, but he didn’t and now, nearly six months later, “Between” has finally popped out into the world. In between Vince has stayed in regular contact, sharing his bottomless enthusiasm at finally making a record which is entirely his own, with every blip and note created, sung or played himself. He was like an expectant mother sharing all the miracles of pregnancy, except interesting.

The process proved two things to us. First, that modern music technology is little less than miraculous (the fact that Vince made such a lavish, sumptuous record in his tiny Croydon studio with little more than a Mac and a mic staggers us). Second, that Vince’s talent has never been so obvious, so boundless as it is right now.

Over the first three months of the year it became a regular thrill to wake up and find an email with a new Frankmusik song attached. We remember the first time we heard a slice of “Cake!”, which was even more delirious and ditzy than it is now, and the first time we heard a nascent, dreamy demo of a song called “Chasing Shadows”, which we realised was not only unlike anything he’d done before, but probably his greatest song yet.

So, no, we aren’t unbiased about “Between”. You can consider all of the above as our full disclosure. But we wouldn’t have been objective about this record even if we’d never met its maker – this is exactly the kind of eccentric, original, restless pop record that we always lose our head over. We loved Frankmusik with a partisan passion from the moment we heard his patchy but brilliant debut, “Complete Me”, but we think “Between” is better, bolder and brighter. Or, as BML on the popjustice forum said within hours of its release “quite the triumph, this album.” Or, as iRyan put it, “wow, this album sounds fucking incredible”.

There are eleven reasons why “Between” may be the pop album of the year.

1. Chasing Shadows

As unexpected an opening salvo as you could expect from an electro pop star like Frankmusik, Chasing Shadows is a slow burning epic. Floating from the speakers on a melancholy sea of rippling synth, Vince’s frail, heartbroken vocal takes flight slowly, then soars higher, then higher, then higher still. The sad, suggestive lyrics – about losing faith, about finally seizing the thing you thought you wanted and then watching it turn to dust in your hands – announce an underlying sadness that never entirely leaves “Between”, though the sheer beauty of the melody makes the song life affirming in spite of itself.

2. Map

Any fears after Chasing Shadows that Frankmusik is abandoning pop are stomped on by Map. Though building from the same mournful synths as its predecessor, a brilliantly deployed vocal hook (like a ghostly echo of Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love), an irresistible momentum and a small thermonuclear of a chorus make Map Vince’s most swaggering pop song yet. Little wonder Perez Hilton proceeded to wet himself all over the Internet over it. So should you…

3. Cake!

If Map was the sound of Frankmusik revving up, Cake! is the sound of him hurtling at 100mph down the pop highway, barely in control of his vehicle. An utterly irresistible concoction of J-pop fizz, demented beats and an overdose of manic melodies, its proof that Vince is one of a handful of pop singers who has a sound that is entirely and distinctively his own. In a more right thinking, right listening universe, you would hear songs like this on the radio all the time and say “oh, that sounds very Frankmusik”.

4. Captain

The pop thrills keep coming with Captain, a pivotal song for the record. This is the song Vince wrote when he first arrived back in London from his tricky LA years, and it’s a masterclass in what makes his music so addictive: jittery electronica, scampering beats and more solid gold hooks than Girls Aloud managed to scrounge together for the whole of their last record. 2013 will be lucky if it’s treated to a more exhilarating pop moment than the “oh-oh-ah-woh-oh-oh” ad libbing at the 3 minute mark.

5. Pins & Needles

After the delirium, the deep breath. Opening with a gospel-tinged sigh, Pins & Needles slowly reveals itself as a swirling electronic melodrama. Over the song’s description of relationship claustrophobia and control, synths shudder, pianos plunge and strings scream, but it’s Vince’s tour de force vocal that really pins the listener down. So much has been made of Vince’s past as a piano prodigy that not many people have noticed him turn into one of the best, most assured and versatile pop vocalists we have.

6. Fast As I Can

Another dizzying switch in tempo, to the swaggering electro groove of Fast As I Can. First released in 2012, it’s been sprinkled with pop fairy dust for the album version and sounds brighter, crunchier and sleeker. Melodically and emotionally, Fast As I Can isn’t the most substantial song on “Between”, but it is one of the sharpest sonically. Not one of these songs sounds like any of the others, unlike most modern pop albums, which often sound like very minor variations on a single formula. “Between” is like a bright, glitzy, day glo fairground, with every ride designed to thrill in a different way.

7. Life (Is My Revenge)

In which metaphor, this one is the waltzer. The last song written for the album, Life (Is My Revenge) is what we used to call a banger back in the day. Anchored by a relentless synth riff, the verses are mournful and uncertain, before Vince delivers a huge slamdunk of a chorus. A song about triumph and vindication, which manages to sound like triumph and vindication

8. How Do We Know

Another abrupt shift in tempo, this stark piano duet with Cara Salimando pulls the listener down onto a velvety bed. Vince surrenders much of the song to Salimando’s off-kilter ache of a voice, but his tender croon and plaintive piano anchors the song. One of those duets where the creative chemistry is audible, and perhaps the album’s simplest and most simply gorgeous moment.

9. Stronger

Sustaining the sweetness and simplicity for a moment, Stronger is Vince’s most intimate performance of the album, just the pop singer and his piano and a plaintively pretty song. At this point the listener should be realising that “Between” is that incredibly old fashioned creation: a proper, consistent pop album with no filler.

10. Did Love

After the moody introspection of the previous songs, Did Love is like sunshine breaking through clouds, and is the album’s peak of pure poppiness. The verse skips along like Gene Kelly in Singin’ In The Rain, courtesy of a brilliantly catchy piano riff, while the chorus is like an explosion of pure sunshine. We can also testify that unlike most dementedly catchy songs, Did Love doesn’t wear out its welcome after a lot of repeat plays.

11. Final Song

Vince returns one last time to the heartbreak that fuels “Between” and gives it its emotional weight, and transforms it into a musical tour de force. Sonically, Final Song is absolutely gorgeous, and melodically it sounds like the kind of song Justin Timberlake used to sing before he got mired in marijuana and movies. A riveting climax to a riveting record, one which finally delivers on all the hype that surrounded Frankmusik when he first emerged. Vince once told us that he would make music no matter whether it was successful or not, but it will be pop’s loss if “Between” doesn’t find the audience it deserves.

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Football, Friendship, Family and other F-bombs

We miss. They score. The rest is noise. Anthony Knockheart lies defeated, seconds after missing Leicester's penalty (picture courtesy of the Leicester Mercury).

We miss. They score. The rest is noise. Anthony Knockheart lies defeated, seconds after missing Leicester’s penalty (picture courtesy of the Leicester Mercury).

The referee points to the spot in the 6th minute of injury time. Our most talented player, who had just won the penalty, steps up to take it.

If we score, we are through, to Wembley and, maybe maybe, the Premiership.

The pub falls silent. Fear and pessimism –  the usual companions to a penalty –  sweep over everyone. ‘He’s gonna miss. He’s gonna bloody well miss. I know it.’

He does.

To add insult to injury, he misses the rebound too.

The ball breaks, they attack, we panic and within seconds they’ve scored and we are beaten. Scarves are scattered, tears break the surface, f-bombs echo over a stunned disbelief. Doors slam.

The most dramatic and traumatic defeat has been inflicted. The prospect of a Wembley final and promotion to the Premier League, the culmination of nine months and 48 games, all gone in the space of twenty seconds. But of course, hearts can break in less seconds than that.

I should probably take a moment to explain. ‘We’ are Leicester City. ‘They’ are Watford. Though in truth, ‘they’ could have been anyone. ‘They’ often beat us like that. Painfully.

It is arguably the most traumatic defeat I had ever experienced in the 30 plus years I have supported Leicester City. It wasn’t, however, as traumatic as the death of my close friend weeks before. A friend with whom, man and boy, I had spent most of those 30 years of football, sharing this regular dose of pain and the occasional actual triumph.

Though, of course, both traumas were inextricably linked, indivisible really. Because, you see, a football club is not 11 overpaid players and a middle aged man in a tracksuit armed with a post-match cliché, no matter what cynics might think. It is not a three year business plan, a TV deal or a marketing strategy. At its heart, football is simply where the games are played and who watches them. Our games are played in Leicester and I watch them with my friends and family. And one of them is now gone. Continue reading

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“It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” Roger Ebert 1942-2013


“Life always has an unhappy ending, but you can have a lot of fun along the way, and everything doesn’t have to be dripping in deep significance.” He produced many of these fine quotes. Sometimes about movies as well. Image courtesy of

Roger Ebert applied his joy and his scorn without prejudice as the most revered film critic of his generation. He was as ready to scathe a vanity piece of art house as he was to enthuse about an apparently throwaway teen comedy. He followed the example set by Pauline Kael, disregarding the distinction between high and low art, the movies and cinema, entertainment and meaning. Good or bad was what mattered – a creed Pop Lifer slavishly follows.  

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