Category Archives: Republic of Letters

The Psychedelic Furs are Back!!

Until roughly 24 hours ago, I had no idea that The Psychedelic Furs even existed any longer.  After all, the last official TPF album, the outstanding World Outside, came out in 1991.  That was twenty-nine years ago!  

After that, Richard Butler formed the extraordinary pop outfit, Love Spit Love.  Then, he more or less disappeared.  Well, it turns out—a huge thanks to Bill Huber for letting me know—The PF released a new album, Made of Rain, on the last day of July.  So, the album is just at a month old now.

I’ve listened to almost nothing else since downloading a copy from amazon.

Let me be blunt.  While this is no rehash of previous work, Made of Rain is everything a TPF album should be: odd; mysterious; cacophonous; fetching; catchy; deep; quirky; soulful; angry; melancholic; joyous; driven; clever; seeking; achingly beautiful; guttural; punctuated; jazzy; playful; and convicted.

I don’t have the lyrics in front of me, but Richard Butler sounds as good as ever.  Indeed, if there’s a difference in his vocal quality from 2020 to 1991, I can’t hear it.

Twelve tracks make up the album, and each one of them is a gem.  While some songs are immediately more striking than others, there’s not a dud track on the album.  All of the music is smart pop, intricate and compelling.  As with all TPF, there’s great guitar, bass, drums, and sax.

Made of Rain is a extraordinary achievement, and I’m so very glad to have Butler and Co. back in the music world.

Profoundly Tangible: Nick D’Virgilio’s Invisible

Being a fundamentally HUGE (yes, it’s that large!) fan of Big Big Train, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Nick D’Virgilio’s solo album, Invisible.  I proudly own his first album, Karma, his first EP, Pieces, every Spock’s Beard album, and Rewiring Genesis.  To be sure, I presumed I would like Invisible, as I consider NDV our greatest living drummer, armed not only with rhythm (Holy Moses–that drum kit!) but with vocal prowess as well. And, from what I can tell from social media, he seems like a truly good and genuine person.  

All of this adds up to high expectations for Invisible.

Well, it is even better than I expected. And, I expected a lot.

If you asked me to sum it up in a few words or even analyze it track by track, I couldn’t do it.  This is a whole work of art—something to be digested in one sitting. Relentlessly captivating, it mixes progressive rock with classical with (ok, I was surprised by this one) with 1960’s style R&B with some mid-1970’s Styx with some punk-tinted Rush with broadway musicals with electronica with funk with straightforward rock and pop.  Frankly, Invisible has it all. In this sense, it fits Andy Tillison’s definition of progressive—basically, “whatever I damn well want to throw in, I throw in” (my words, not Andy’s).

What most captures my imagination with the album, though, is NDV’s lyrics—so utterly earnest and so uplifting.  In every song, NDV calls us to be our best. That NDV loves life is a certainty as certain that the sun will rise tomorrow, and his joy comes through every song.

If you’re looking for a new BBT or Spock’s Beard album, this isn’t it. And, that’s perfectly fine.  Frankly, it doesn’t even really seem like a simple evolution from NDV’s previous solo efforts.

Invisible is . . . beyond all of this in ways that are very difficult to put into words.  

But, if you’re looking for something gorgeous, something meaningful, something real, something inspiring. . . look no further.  If anything, NDV has proven that real life is quite the opposite of being invisible. Rather, NDV calls us to be our best, to be tangible, and, frankly, to be the incarnate souls we’re meant to be.

To find out everything about NDV, click here:

Passion Incarnate: IZZ’s Half-Life (2020)

Well, let me admit, immediately and without hesitation, I’ve been a huge fan of IZZ since I first heard them a little over a decade ago. In everything they do, they combine passion, taste, and elegance.  One might even describe their music as an earnest intensity.  Lyrically, the band never dumbs itself down, but offers words of majestic inspiration and serious contemplation. 

Their latest release is an EP, appropriately and rather cleverly entitled Half-Life, itself comprised of three new tracks and one live track.  The three new tracks—entitled, in order, “The Soul of Music,” “Into the Sun,” and “Half Life”—offer grand progressive visions, reflecting, respectively, IZZ’s deep appreciation and love of Kate Bush and Chris Squire and Yes;  Rick Wakeman and Big Big Train and ELP; and, perhaps most interestingly of all, Stranger Things(the Netflix series) and Kansas and Glass Hammer.  

None of IZZ’s appreciation of other progressive rock acts gets in the way of that uniquely beautiful IZZ voice.  Indeed, such appreciation on the part of IZZ of other bands only makes IZZ all the more interesting, honed, and glorious. And, just in case it might seem like the music overwhelms the listener, the lyrics simply soar, especially on “Half Life,” bringing the listener to the verge of tears in the last several second of the track.

The final track is a rather stunning live rendition “The Weight of It All” from the band’s Ampersand, Vol. 1, album.

In this current whirligig of viruses, protests, injustices, and anxious unrest, do yourself a grand, grand favor—treat yourself to the humane, cultivated, and class act that is IZZ.  Your soul will thank you.

[To support IZZ (and for a mere $5), click here:]

Heartfelt and Intelligent: Auto Reconnaissance by The Tangent

In the not so distant past, I had the opportunity (and, perhaps, the gall) to label Andy Tillison the “G.K. Chesterton of progressive rock.” As I listen to the latest release by Tillison’s band, The Tangent, I can only nod in approval at my earlier assessment.  He has always been a master of story, but, on Auto Reconnaissance, he reveals himself as a master of story telling. Light your pipe, sip from your pint, and pull yourself up next to the fire. Tillison has several tales to tell, and he does so in the best way, as a friend rather than a teacher.

Auto Reconnaissance begins with the discovery of radio—not just its function, but it’s essence—on “Life on Hold.”  It’s a short piece, by The Tangent standards, but it offers the perfect introduction to an album that demonstrates the wonder of life.

The second track, the second longest on the album, “Jinxed in Jersey,” tells the story—quite convoluted at times—of Tillison’s journey to the Statue of Liberty. Naturally, the story can be understood at many different levels, the literal but also the symbolic. If, on track one, the boy Tillison discovered the workings of radio, on track two, the adult Tillison discovers the realities and complexities of America.  The renaissance—or was that reconnaissance?—continues.

The third song, “Under Your Spell,” has a Tears for Fears feel, akin to “Working Hour” on Songs from the Big Chair.  Melancholic in theme, the song is tasteful to the extreme.

“The Tower of Babel,” track four, is the shortest on the album, but it’s intense and unrelenting with its disco-esque beat. A clever look at the techno-babble of the modern world, as the song’s title indicates, Tillison wonders just how we manage to speak to one another with so many types of technologies (where is that simple radio of track one!?!?) and so much noise in our modern whirligig of a very human (and very flawed) world.  “The system is human, too!”

At nearly one-half of an hour long, “Lie Back and Think of England,”—a jazzy, pastoral meditation—provides the brilliant backbone to the album.  Where are those hills and those dales?  On this track, especially, Tillison proves his title as the Chesterton of the prog world.  The song’s structure harkens back to the first two albums of The Tangent, and it is a gorgeous harkening, filled with passionate solos and musical lingerings and wild segues.

The final track of the album, “The Midas Touch,” provides the proper conclusion to such a complex album, offering a jazz-fusion odyssey.

The previous two The Tangent albums were deeply (and, at times, distractingly) political, but this album is appreciatively cultural. Indeed, it is Tillison and the band at its absolute best.  Heartfelt, clever, tasteful (yes, I know I’ve used this word already in this review) and, most of all, intelligent, Auto Reconnaissance is a true work of art, taken as a whole and even analyzed in parts.  Tillison proves that he remains England’s red-headed mischievous genius.

The Sacrificial Love of Saint Maximilian Kolbe – The Imaginative Conservative

As the man pleaded his case, Father Maximilian Kolbe came forward and offered his life for the one pleading. The German commandant of Auschwitz—probably rather shocked—agreed, and Kolbe, with nine others, stripped naked and entered the 3-foot high concrete bunker… (essay by Bradley J. Birzer)
— Read on

The Pilgrim’s Regress by C.S. Lewis

During the thirty-one years that Lewis practiced Christianity, he offered three stories—or variations on a single story, depending on the angle one wishes to take—regarding the reason for his conversation. Critically, too, the three stories overlapped and played off one another. The first, the fulfillment of his paganism and paganism, in general. The second, his regress from modernity. And, third, the persistence of joy.

One may find the second version of Lewis’s conversion in his fascinating but somewhat erratic allegory, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), the book that really began Lewis’s career as recognizably “the C.S. Lewis” who would soon become so famous as the world’s foremost Christian apologist. In it, Lewis fictionally traces his own autobiographical intellectual and faith journey. “On the intellectual side my own progress had been from ‘popular realism’ to Philosophical Idealism; from Idealism to Pantheism; from Pantheism to Theism; and from Theism to Christianity.”[1] Stunningly, he wrote the entire work in two weeks while staying with Arthur Greeves in August 1932. It’s original title was: The Pilgrim’s Regress, or Pseudo-Bunyan’s Periplus: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism.[2]

Though drastically uneven in its ability to convey Lewis’s successes (and failures), The Pilgrim’s Regress possesses not a dull moment, though, in parts, it is viciously scathing toward opponents of Christianity and those Lewis dislikes. Upon writing it originally, he claimed to be mocking “Anglo Catholicism, Materialism, Sitwellism, Psychoanalysis, and T.S. Eliot.”[3] At times, the book is gentle, and, at times, brutal, especially in its descriptions of immorality and its attacks upon ideas and persons Lewis disliked. “The sole merit I claim for this book is that it is written by one who has proved them [his opponents] all to be wrong,” he explained in 1943. “There is no room for vanity in the claim: I know them to be wrong not by intelligence but by experience, such experience as would not have come my way if my youth had been wiser, more virtuous, and less self-centered than it was.” [4] Lewis believed, in the interwar period, that while all of the various schools of thought hated one another, they set aside their personal dislikes for their general hatred of anything that seemed, however slight, romantic, dismissing romanticism as mere “nostalgia.”[5]  

The Pilgrim’s Regress also possesses all the strengths and weaknesses of an allegory. Some allegorical elements are obvious to the reader, while others are frustratingly obscure. Given that Lewis’s rightful claim to fame came from his ability to explain complex ideas in a way understandable by all, The Pilgrim’s Regressis a failure, though a heady one. “In fact all good allegory exists not to hide but to reveal: to make the inner world more palpable by giving it an (imagined) concrete embodiment,” Lewis wrote ten years after the book’s first publication, admitting his own failure to create a convincing allegory.[6]

The story begins in Puritania, a thinly-veiled Ulster, in which the protagonist is given a list of rules. Should he not follow the rules—assuming the Landlord discovers such breaches—he will spend eternity in a “black hole full of snakes and scorpions as large as lobster.”[7] Everyone in Puritania wears masks when performing religious ceremonies, masks that allow them to be something they are not, and to give them courage to enforce the seemingly draconian rules of the Landlord. As the protagonist, John, flees from Puritania, he meets Mr. Enlightenment (there are several claiming the title), the Clevers (the in-crowd Lewis despised in prep school), Reason, Vertue (the Stoic), Mother Kirk (the Christian Church), Mr. Neo-Angular (Wydham Lewis or T.E. Hulme?), Mr. Neo-Classical (T.S. Eliot and his authors who wrote for his journal, The Criterion), Mr. Humanist (Irving Babbitt), The Guide, and a myriad of others. In his seemingly ceaseless journeys, he visits not just Puritania (his origin), but also Claptrap, Luxuria, Thrill, Hunch, Wisdom, the Grand Canyon, Superbia, and Ignorantia. Whether the story ends on a happy or disastrous note is up to the reader, and it is equally up to the reader to decide if the entire story was real or merely a dream.[8]

At first, the book sold poorly, and its publisher, J.M. Dent and Sons, sold the publication rights to Frank Sheed, the whirlwind behind the Catholic publishing house, Sheed and Ward. Sheed and Ward published the second and third editions of the book, but Lewis was furious at having to work with a Catholic publisher.

My other bit of literary news is that Sheed and Ward have bought the Regress from Dent. I didn’t much like having a book of mine, and especially a religious book, brought out by a Papist publisher: but as they seemed to think they could sell it, and Dents clearly couldn’t, I gave in. I have been well punished: for Sheed, without any authority from me, has put a. blurb on the inside of the jacket which says ‘This story begins in Puritania (Mr Lewis was brought up in Ulster)’—thus implying that the book is an attack on my own country and my own religion. If you ever come across any one who might be interested, explain as loudly as you can that I was not consulted and that the blurb is a damnable lie told to try to make Dublin riff-raff buy the book.[9]

Of course, if Puritania is not Ulster, the allegory completely falls apart, and, if nothing else, Lewis’s bias against Catholics just proved Frank Sheed’s blurb to be quite true.  One of Lewis’s students remembered his frustration as well: “Then Sheed and Ward took it over, and I’m not sure he was entirely happy that Sheed and Ward took it over, because Sheed and Ward were a Roman Catholic publisher, and I think Lewis, who of course came from Northern Ireland—at that time, probably would have thought it was not best to have his book put out by a Roman Catholic firm.”[10]

Reviews, though, offered a rather nuanced view of the book.  The Time Literary Supplement, for example, reported the poetry found within The Pilgrim’s Regress a grand success, evoking a holy joy. Yet, the review cautioned, “though Mr. Lewis’s parable claims to reassert romanticism, it is the romanticism of homesickness for the past not of adventure towards the future.”[11]  Jane Spence Southron, reviewing the second (Sheed and Ward) edition for The New York Times, found the book a delight, “a fresh wind blowing across arid wastes.”[12]

[1] CSL, Afterword to Third Edition, Pilgrim’s Regress, 200.

[2] Sayer, Jack, 136.

[3] CSL to Guy Pocock, January 17, 1933, in CSL Collected Letters, Vol. 2: 94.

[4] CSL, Afterword to Third Edition, Pilgrim’s Regress, 203.

[5] CSL, Afterword to Third Edition, Pilgrim’s Regress, 205.

[6] CSL, Afterword to Third Edition, Pilgrim’s Regress, 208.

[7] CSL, The Pilgrim’s Regress, 5.

[8] One of CSL’s greatest friends and students, George Sayer, claims The Pilgrim’s Regress ends in great joy. He might very well be right. See Sayer, Jack, 137.

[9] CSL to Greeves, December 7, 1935, in CSL Collected Letters 2: 170.

[10] Interview with Harry Blamires [student of CSL’s], WCWC.  Interviewer: Lyle W. Dorsett.  Date: October 23, 1983.  Location: Wade Center, Wheaton College.

[11] “Pilgrim’s Regress,” Times Literary Supplement (July 6, 1933), 456.

[12] Jane Spence Southron, “The Pilgrim’s Regress and Other Works of Fiction,” New York Times(December 8, 1935), pg. BR7.

Hillsdale College Had Graduation During Coronavirus

Many high schools and colleges across America canceled in-person graduations during the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, but Hillsdale College decided to host an in-person ceremony a few months late. The college approached state and local authorities, worked with the local health department and four epidemiologists, and hosted a crowd of roughly 2,000 people on July 18. More than two weeks later, no new coronavirus cases have been traced to the ceremony.
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