The non-stop torrent of good news that has kept this new year smelling fresh as a daisy continued to gush when a press release arrived announcing that the polymath David Duchovny (an actor, obviously, and now also singer/songwriter/recording artist, as well as a fiction writer) would be releasing his sophomore LP on February 9.
Every Third Thought will be the follow up to 2015's Hell or Highwater, which Rolling Stone magazine described as "likable" and "vaguely Wilco-ish." The new album is said to depart from the vague Wilco vibes and lean closer to a territory that can only be described (or at least is only described) as "more rock." It was recorded in Brooklyn just over a year ago. Duchovny says the album "presents a real growth lyrically and musically from the first."
The PR expresses surprise that Duchovny "only picked up a guitar a few years ago in a spell of free time, between projects." The initial plan, reportedly, was nothing more than self-amusement, but the inspiration to create his own material soon followed. Duchovny says he "grew up listening to classic late 60’s early 70’s rock: The Beatles, The Who, Rolling Stones, Yes [!!!] etc..." and that he aspires to play funk when he gets his chops together.
All of which is fine. But as I read this press release, I wondered when he was going to start talking about Shakespeare.
Though it may also invite jokes about certain, um, maladies, that certain stars may have faced in the past, Every Third Thought is clearly also a reference to the final act of Shakespeare's final play, The Tempest—
"Sir, I invite your highness and your train
To my poor cell, where you shall take your rest
For this one night, which—part of it—I’ll waste
With such discourse as, I not doubt, shall make it
Go quick away: the story of my life
And the particular accidents gone by
Since I came to this isle. And in the morn
I’ll bring you to your ship and so to Naples,
Where I have hope to see the nuptial
Of these our dear-belovèd solemnized,
And thence retire me to my Milan, where
Every third thought shall be my grave."
-Prospero (Act 5, scene 1)
It's a memorable phrase. I know because I remembered it from seeing it as an epigraph in my favorite Philip Roth novel (Sabbath's Theater), and also from the cover of a John Barth book I've never read (though even if I did, it could never replace Lost in the Funhouse as my favorite Barth).
Also, a medieval scholar named Robert McCrum uses it as the title of his book about death. (And at least one scholar interprets the line as a numerological clue that Marlowe, not Shakespeare, wrote the whole play to begin with.)
Artists love to reach for The Tempest, and with good reason. It's almost guaranteed to be better and smarter than whatever their thing is. To put it less cynically, the play is so resonant with massive, endlessly complex ideas that countless subsequent works owe it a massive debt, and are unafraid to pay it explicitly.
That's why it turns up in the works of authors from James Joyce to Stephen King to Nadine Gordimer. Brave New World takes its title from The Tempest—"How beauteous mankind is! Oh brave new world, that has such people in it." (Miranda, Act 5, scene 1 also, weirdly). So does Jackson Pollock's first significant "drip" painting, Full Fathom Five:
"Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell
Hark! Now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell."
(Ariel, Act 1, scene 2)
Sylvia Plath also used the line for the title of a poem. Shelley, Browning, and Auden went even further, dealing with the themes and characters of the play in major works.
The film Forbidden Planet was based on The Tempest, as was an episode of the original Star Trek. As was an issue of Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic. As was Peter Greenaway's 1991 film Prospero's Books. As was Paul Mazursky's 1983 film Tempest. As was Julie Taymor's film The Tempest.
But in addition to authors, painters, and filmmakers, pop musicians—particularly those striving for seriousness or inscrutability—have used The Tempest as a font of references for many years. Bob Dylan's 2012 album, Tempest—which many people speculated would be his final work (it wasn't)—may be the most glaring example. But Dylan is only a drop in the bucket.
That bucket also contains drops by Laurie Anderson, the Small Faces, Sting, the Stone Roses, Everything but the Girl, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, Beck (The Tempest is where the phrase "sea change" even comes from), Miranda Sex Garden, even the excellent, though largely forgotten Portland band from the '90s, 30.06, whose second album was called Hag Seed, which is a name that Prospero uses to mock his enemy, Caliban. And speaking of Portland:
“The Island: Come and See/The Landlord’s Daughter/You’ll Not Feel the Drowning,” by the Decemberists
There are songs in the play, as well. Marianne Faithfull and Pete Seeger have recorded them. Composers from Sibelius to Berlioz to Purcell to Arthur "Gilbert And" Sullivan have wrote music for productions of the play. Tchaikovsky wrote a "symphonic fantasia" called The Tempest. Beethoven is rumored to have been inspired by the play to write his Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2.
All of which is to say that David Duchovny is in excellent company. If you're going to make a Shakespeare reference, you could do a lot worse.
Is this because, as New Yorker critic John Lahr suggested, that the play, in which the characters seem to be conjured and manipulated into and out of existence by a master sorcerer, Prospero—a bit like the characters in the new season of Black Mirror, btw—represents, "a simulacrum of the brainstorm of creation," a model for the creative process itself, with Prospero standing in for Shakespeare, and by extension all authors, in much the same way songwriters like Jon Bon Jovi may want you to think they're singing about a cowboy on a steel horse when they're really talking about someone else...?
Though it's unclear whether JBJ ever did, many of these author surrogates are purpose-built as a means of reflecting on the futility, and in a way even the morality, of their creative endeavors.
Margaret Atwood—who "reimagined" The Tempest in 2016 as part of a 400th-anniversary project of Shakespeare "covers" that also included Jeannette Winterson (The Winter's Tale), Anne Tyler (Taming of the Shrew), Gillian Flynn (Hamlet), and Jo Nesbo (Macbeth) among others—offered the following observation about the play's meta level:
"Prospero uses his arts – magic arts, arts of illusion – not just for entertainment, though he does some of that as well, but for the purposes of moral and social improvement.
"That being said, it must also be said that Prospero plays God. If you don’t happen to agree with him – as Caliban doesn’t – you’d call him a tyrant, as Caliban does. With a slight twist, Prospero might be the Grand Inquisitor, torturing people for their own good. You might also call him a usurper – he’s stolen the island from Caliban, just as his own brother has stolen the dukedom from him; and you might call him a sorcerer, as Caliban also terms him.
"We – the audience – are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, and to see him as a benevolent despot. Or we are inclined most of the time. But Caliban is not without insight."
Will these themes—the dubious omnipotence of the master creator, and the price s/he/they pay for that power—be explored on David Duchovny's forthcoming sophomore album, Every Third Thought? I suppose we'll have to wait and see. But while we do, let's ask ourselves whether this image, from nearly 21 years ago, can be a coincidence?
"What's past is prologue."
(-Antonio, Act 2, scene 1)