The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: April, 2013

MGMT Week: Oracular Spectacular

Oracular Spectacular

Written by Mr. Harold Zo

Approaching an artist’s first album in retrospect is always a dicy enterprise, and should be attempted only with caution. This is especially true if that first album is the one that raised the artist or collective to the popular consciousness. Regrettably for our purposes, Oracular Spectacular was a conspicuous success as well as their first recorded debut. It has been certified platinum in the UK with over 500,000 copies sold and gold in America with about 600,000 there, with hundreds of thousands sold in other world markets.

In rare form for a rock band in the 2000s, all three of its singles (“Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel,” and “Kids”) were trans-Atlantic chart successes, with “Kids” breaking into the Billboard Top 100 for the year in the United States. This record, therefore, needs to be criticized with fear and trembling, not because a negative word would provoke tens of thousands of fans, but because, unlike the vast majority of music released in a given year, it obviously transcended its status as an album per se and became a kind of Event. Because of its cultural impact and its status as the MGMT record, the one that defined what people think of the band, it can be difficult to avoid reviewing the Event instead of the music.

That is a perfectly fine thing to do, of course, if one is trying to review an Event, to take Oracular Spectacular, say, as an example of indie rock charging into the mainstream or an exemplar of some trend or other in British and American pop music. Those would be wonderful articles if done correctly. My intention, however, is to review an album, and that album is MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular, released in 2008. If I am not going to be reviewing an Event, what perspectives do I have available to me? What if the reader isn’t interested in the fact that NME named this the best album of 2008, or that it and its attendant singles somehow landed in Rolling Stone’s lists multiple times over?

Let’s get this review started.

Yesterday, I posted a review of MGMT’s new single “Alien Days.” The gist of it was that I considered it to be a good Exhibit A of MGMT’s relationship to its influences. Oracular Spectacular shares most of those same influences, though it wears them rather differently. Moreover, it provides, especially in its first half, a much more cogent and bold pronouncement of its creators’ view of the world. Just as in “Alien Days,” MGMT’s primary move is to occupy an ambivalent, highly flexible gap between pure homage to and acidic critique of its predecessors and contemporary culture.

Spend some time listening to “Time to Pretend,” and you notice a curious chronological confusion going on. While its creators were in their early twenties at the time of its creation (several years before they released the album), the song is not only a young adult manifesto of resignation (“We’re fated to pretend”) and carpe diem (“This is our decision to live fast and die young”), a large part of the song is a longing for childhood. Note this verse:

I’ll miss the playgrounds and the animals and digging up worms

I’ll miss the comfort of my mother and the weight of the world

I’ll miss my sister, miss my father, miss my dog and my home

Yeah I’ll miss the boredom and the freedom and the time spent alone

When was the last time the typical college student dug up worms or played on playgrounds? Judging by some of the campuses I have been to, probably not long enough ago. What we have here is the same blurring of decades, the corruption of the present time with both unreachable, even self-destructive dreams, which are laid out in a kind of cynical satire, and nostalgia for purer times. Children are mentioned or referred to in a disproportionately high number of MGMT songs, and their preoccupation with children as avatars of a kind of idealized youth has continued all the way to the present. I would argue that that obsession with youth is a fine match for their stylistic ancestors, namely 1960s psychedelic bands, the punk band Suicide, and their more dance-oriented peers in Of Montreal. In the first half of the album, the topics of hedonism (“Electric Feel”), youth (“The Youth” and “Kids”), and a kind of suspicious nostalgia predominate.

Read these lyrics from “The Youth:”

This is a call of arms to live and love and sleep together

We could flood the streets with love or light or heat whatever

Lock the parents out, cut a rug, twist and shout

Wave your hands

Make it rain

For stars will rise again

Here we have an absurdity, at least. There are probably more, but we can see the same anachronism, a sense that living in this age of easy access to information and the culture of not just yesterday but fifty years ago sets us adrift in time. There are the obvious references to The Beatles and to old slang for dancing (“cut a rug”) and a clever doubled meaning for the word “stars” as both cosmic and earthly, human and celestial. Are we on Earth? Or space? Difficult to tell. Multiple decades are blurred, and the sound of the music, wistful and atmospheric, only serves to further unmoor us in time.

The two best songs on the album other than “Time to Pretend,” both of which come in the latter half, are “4th Dimensional Transition” and “Of Moons, Birds & Monsters,” which are more reminiscent of the music we would get on Congratulations. Eschewing dance and straightforward, if ambivalent, sarcasm, the songs inhabit much spacier territory. On the former, beats cluster together densely, setting the pace into a frenzy. About a minute in, the music becomes far heavier, and the vocals are menacing and distant. Distorted guitar chords remind us that we still have one foot in the sixties, but something about the sheer density of the music makes it seem otherworldly. The vocalist sings, “If what they say is true/You are a shadow in the fourth dimension/To float away with you/We see the corners where nothing happens.” As the song ends, the voices continue but the song clears out space. It’s packed with far more musical ideas than the single-heavy first half, and is remarkably well-executed.

“Of Moons, Birds & Monsters,” despite ignoring my preference for Oxford commas, (though who gives a fuck about those?) is driven by a sinister bassline and guitars. Of all the songs on the album it is the most purely psychedelic, with some beautiful vocal harmonies cast on a storm of sound. Its imagery centers around its titular trio. At one point, halfway through, most of the sound clears out and there remains only huge bass beats and some starry synthesizer patterns. Its pace slows and, within the rest of the song, you feel oddly at peace despite the presence of so many monsters. How do they deal with those monsters, anyway?

To catch a monster

We make a movie

Set the tempo

And cut and cut its brains out

That certainly works, though I would have preferred less carnage if possible.

With all this drifting, anachronism, and movie making, what can we say? Does MGMT bring us back home after our harrowing journey through we-know-not-when? Well, I think we can take some comfort in the fact that the last song on the album is “Future Reflections.” Its voices are eerie and accompanied by vintage synths. It is dense, complicated, and frantic. I appreciate its magnetic bass pulse. While its futuristic musings are far from totally reassuring, the band sends us off on a high note. Our final lyrical image is of sunshine, and just before that the band throws us a bone:

If it’s good or if it’s fortune, I can’t tell

But pieces come together for some reason just as well

Their guns couldn’t see us

And one day I’ll appreciate

The rush of blood and the washed out beat of the shore

From blatantly physical through a wooly journey through that undefined 4th dimension and back to embodiment. We have glimpsed all we can at this point. There is a certain lack of satisfaction in such an ending. That first half of the album–those singles–are well-crafted pop songs. Sonically, they radiate confidence and assurance and are possessed of an anthemic quality. When the lines get squigglier and the music starts to close in and compress, something is lost. That is sure. However, Oracular Spectacular ultimately succeeds in bringing us back to a landing. Tomorrow we’ll have more to say about how to compare this record to Congratulations, but for now it’s appropriate to just celebrate the surprising success of such an unconventional record in a hostile world. No wonder MGMT has its teeth bared so often; it’s a jungle out there, as Alexius would tell you.

“Alien Days” Review

Yesterday, we looked at the critical narratives being used to evaluate the new MGMT single “Alien Days,” which will also be appearing on their new self-titled LP. That has been reported to arrive sometime in the summer, a perfect time for a band obsessed with surfing and 1960s youth music.

Unlike the reviews that I read yesterday, which framed the new single in a context with MGMT’s career story so far, this review will focus on its relationship to a broader set of circumstances in play right now. This will be short and sweet, but I’m going to attempt to link this song to what is “going on” today in the music industry, especially as it relates to the reclamation of older musical styles. This is not to say that approaches to the song that focus on its place in MGMT’s career narrative are wrong, but I think something larger is happening here that we can tune into if we listen carefully.

It has to do with the place of traditionalism and innovation, and the oscillation between the two, that is a central preoccupation of indie rock today.

Take a look at this article from The Atlantic, a publication that the band and I tend to be fond of. For those with limited skimming powers (or a broken mouse pointer) the writer Noah Berlatsky talks about how much of “art rock” (his words) is becoming increasingly self-reflexive and traditionalist, and bands like Montreal’s Suuns are starting to inhabit their traditions much like other genres he cites, like “classic rock, blues, bluegrass.” I only lament that the author did not wait until MGMT releases its new album to discuss this issue, because MGMT’s relationship to its influences is, while similar to Suuns’, far more complex and interesting. What proof do I have? “Alien Days” makes for a good Exhibit A.

***

“Alien Days” is a song, as Ian Cohen perceives in his Pitchfork review, an example of MGMT making “music for other intense, record collecting nerds.” The song occupies an ambiguous, even ambivalent space between joyous reveling in traditional psychedelic dreams and wallowing in alien-ation. Alien Nation, if you will. Classic 1960s psych touchstones are all present: washed-out and distorted guitars buzzing, part-playful part-sinister synth sound effects, and eerie, apparently disembodied voices. It continues their obsession with youth, as the introduction is sung by a child. Its lyrics are cryptic, but the vocals, though uncanny, are easy to understand.

The song thus inhabits the psychedelic tradition, which was a drug-fueled and radical expansion of rock’s sonic potential in the late 1960s, and reinterprets it through an academic and historical lens. MGMT’s members have cited numerous experimental music courses taken at Wesleyan to be formative in how they approach pop music. Their last album, Congratulations, had named dedications to Dan Treacy, Brian Eno, and Lady Gaga. The band members even said they were looking to point their audience in the direction of their influences.

To bring it back to “Alien Days,” the song clearly works on the same level, though without any specific names mentioned. Even if the song sounds like no one else but MGMT, MGMT’s identity has been assembled in a magpie-fashion. It’s like the SF Weekly review noted: the band is taking others’ ideas.

The question is whether MGMT is able to inhabit its chosen musical vocabulary authentically, to think within the box and, in the words of Barry Taylor, “kick the fucking walls out.” I would argue that this song, in particular, is able to do just that. First, it provides a winking acknowledgement of its own roots. The song notes that the “alien days” were formative.

Today find infinite ways it could be

Plenty worse

It’s a blessing but it’s also a curse

 

Those days taught me everything I know

How to catch a feeling

And when to let it go

While echoing some of the tropes of Beach Boys/Beatles 1960s psychedelia, the lyrics also point out that this music is like an alien, worming its way into your head and messes with your sense of time. That is what the song does. Its draggy pacing blurs the seconds together, and the lyrics point explicitly to a hazy sense of being out of time:

 Be quick dear, times are uncertain

One month crawling, next year blurring

Decades in the drain [Youtube, I have a new name for you]

Monograms on the brain

Decide what’s working and what’s moved on

to the last phase

the floodgate alien days

I love those alien days

mmm the alien days

The strange elision between the young child’s voices and those of the band add to this sense of anachronism. Aliens are bizarre and fascinating to our imaginations partly because they transcend human history. Their potential existence relativize our own relationship to time and to others because they show that there is something outside our own narrowband perspective. I would argue that “Alien Days” shows MGMT fully able to “decide what’s working and what’s moved on.” Through many, many listens, the song was able to envelop and embrace. It’s certainly dense, and certainly dripping with “traditional” psychedelic sounds, but it shakes things up. I hope this portends a high-quality third release, as there is nothing I would like to see more than for MGMT to continue in this vein.

MGMT Week: Critical Noise on “Alien Days”

Written by Mr. Harold Zo

There’s nothing I want more for my band than for one of our songs to capture the world’s fractured attention. To have some of our music arrest enough ears and–if we can ever find that music video director of ours–eyes to bring some semblance of unity to this world.

The trick is to manage the decline after that. You see, a self-respecting rock band does not seek fame and fortune in and of themselves. They want fame and fortune as a means to some other end. Once that end is fulfilled, the fame and fortune feed hedonic treadmills, or worse. You start to like being famous, which is the definition of hell for rockers-at-heart. If that happens, you become like a snake who sheds his skin and, to his embarrassment, finds that he didn’t have a spare underneath. Naked, ugly, and probably driven to the point of madness by forces largely outside of his hands.

Pictured: animal with no hands.

This is the tightrope that MGMT has to walk. As a band, I think I have their style relatively pinned down. To borrow a phrase from AllMusic’s Congratulations review, they have a “Wall of Sound” approach in the classic Phil Spector sense. That sensibility is, if we may, a kind of cornerstone for their music, and the manically energetic way they construct songs has shown itself over and over again, especially since their second album. Their new song, “Alien Days,” follows this scheme closely, favoring max over min and density over space.

I’ve noticed that people around you treat you as if you were still the person they spoke to six months ago. With that, let us turn to a bit of discussion of the critical noise around “Alien Days.” We’ll break this down by publication.

One of the most annoying kinds of criticism to read on the Internet is what I will call the apologetically negative review. It wants to make sure the reader knows the author loves the artist in question. “It’s just this one time. We promise we’re not haters. We’re just calling it like it is.”

We have one such review from Rae Alexandra at SF WeeklyNow, I like this fine publication, and it makes me weep to criticize them so, but this article doesn’t seem to line up with the material it’s reviewing. Oddly, it takes the tack of accusing MGMT of running out of ideas, rather than the classic complaint that they try to stick too many in. See this quotation:

“Alien Days” doesn’t really sound like MGMT. It doesn’t have any of the guts or glory or panache we have come to expect from the band. It doesn’t have purpose. It doesn’t have, well, anything distinctive to latch onto. It’s so retro, it ceases to really mean anything in the here and now. In short, it is the sound of MGMT running out of ideas and borrowing from other people.

Whether I agree with this opinion or not is a matter that tomorrow’s review will settle (perhaps). What I want to say about this review is that it doesn’t see that this does sound like MGMT. In fact, it sounds like nothing else. Except, of course, for the fact that MGMT has always been a ferrety kind of band, fortifying their peculiar brand of hypnotic melody-making in all kinds of nostalgic references. The song certainly represents a break with the MGMT of Congratulations. It’s got the same Wall of Sound density, but it does sound more assembled than performed. I’m getting ahead of myself, though.

Ian Cohen of Pitchforkhow does this song fare?

On “Alien Days,” the duo continue to fashion psych-pop and prog in their own bizarre modernist image, which is a good thing. Time has been kind to Congratulations— in the past three years, Foxygen and Youth Lagoon are just a few of the acts who have vindicated MGMT’s protracted, less lucrative rebranding– and thus it makes perfect sense that “Alien Days” was released on Record Store Day. With “Alien Days”, MGMT become who they always wanted to be: intense, record collecting nerds making music for other intense, record collecting nerds.

I’m not sure what brand of “modernism” MGMT is supposed to be imaging. Nonetheless, I think Cohen gets closer to describing what I’m hearing. Sort of. This review has the problem of being almost all context and surface description and very little song review. For the life of me, and this is me writing as a prog musician, I do not understand where MGMT gets lumped in with progressive rock. I agree that MGMT is “intense.” Foxygen and Youth Lagoon are dreamy and atmospheric like Congratulations. What’s frustrating is that there is almost no overlap in the kinds of discussion going on between this and the SF Weekly piece. Where Cohen’s article is all context, Alexandra’s was an almost overly-minute musical dissection.

British rock touchstone NMEwhich named their tame first album the best of 2008, employed an anonymous writer to write this:

Here, however, amidst the paisley haze and sprawling structure (‘Alien Days’ clocks in around the six-minute mark) we get glimpses of greatness – not least in the half-spoken, sci-fi intro that slots somewhere in the realm of early Pink Floyd soundtracking the end of The Rocky Horror Show. A weird and kind of wonderful return.

This article contextualizes the critical parts of it with a more dour narrative than Pitchfork’s. It starts by noting that the last few years have not been kind to the band. I am sure they are doing just fine, thank you. After all, they have both a major label contract and apparent free reign to do whatever the hell they want. I would call that “kind.” That said, it does manage to, in very few words, evoke something of the song’s character, albeit through clichéd 60s and 70s culture references. Both Pink Floyd and Rocky Horror are appropriately British, of course. Science fiction-tinged surrealism is indeed a touchstone for the band, especially in their video work.

What can we tell by juxtaposing these three critical perspectives? Mostly, we have found out that MGMT is a band defined in the critical community by a certain narrative. Their mainstream break cannot, it seems, fail to be mentioned. What each critic does, in his or her own way, is find the words to sound critically distant without sounding hateful. This is the curse that a band with a handful of hits has to bear. MGMT has been retreating and remaking themselves away from their debut ever since it dropped. Of course, now I’m spinning my own yarns.

I am somewhat disappointed with the obvious hastiness and brevity of these reviews. I understand that it is one song, but nothing here gets beyond the first layer. No one even bothers to address the lyrics or thematics of the song, nor is there much discussion of sonic specifics. It’s just enough to let the critic pass a kind of summary judgment. I know I’m not  a pro, but I hope to do better tomorrow.

Opening Salvo: MGMT Week

mgmt_wall_by_darkprincess92-d38r19n1

Mr. Harold Zo: Don’t forget about us! With all this postmodernist hoopla about revelations and oneness and singularity and whatnot, let’s not forget the cleansing spiritual power of some good old rock and roll.

Quivver: Let’s keep this one short, eh, Harold? Just tell the people what they want to hear. See the picture up there? They already know that it’s MGMT week. What they want now is sex. Sex and fireworks. Light up the night, Harry!

Mr. Harold Zo: As my bandmate says, this blog is ours again. Alexius and the editor are away, so the rockers will play. And we will be playing with a fixture of the contemporary rock scene, MGMT.

Quake: Are you guys done in there yet? I need the studio. I found a sick drum break that you guys are going to love.

Mr. Harold Zo: Everyone is so excitable today! Let me lay out the schedule.

  • Monday: Discussion of the critical noise around their new single “Alien Days.”
  • Tuesday: A short review of the song.
  • Wednesday: A review of Oracular Spectacular
  • Thursday: Some microfiction written in response to the song “Siberian Breaks”
  • Friday: A review of Congratulations

Saturday: A reflection on the critical reception of Congratulations and maybe a word or two on the place of psychedelia in contemporary music.

My Big Break

Prove me real.

Prove me real.

Prove me real.

–Akron/Family “Gravelly Mountains of the Moon”

 

I cannot. I reject the notion. To prove? To prove beyond doubt that you are real? One who is unreal cannot hope to aspire to such things.

Editor: Can you remember all the books you owe me? All those favors I did you?

Can we forget all that?

Editor: I already have. Mostly.

All that proves is that it’s been too long since I’ve sunk my toes into real dirt.

Editor: (Remembering how much he misses his friend, thinking “Come on, he was supposed to escape today. I made it so!” There is sorrow in his voice. You can’t hear it, but it would rend you if you could) Which was worse, heaven or hell?

Heaven, undoubtedly. Forgive me saying so, but the god who built that prosthetic paradise was nothing more than a fraud with delusions of grandeur.

Editor: (Remembering the last time he held Alexius close. It was when he died, of course. That does not help.) Would you say that a false heaven is worse than a real hell? After all, you were immortal.

I could discard all that immortality for a mite of peace. I never belonged there. Happy places are not happy for the unhappy. Are you following me? It’s not so much that I was disappointed that heaven was bad as I was disturbed by how good it was. It was uncanny.

Editor: (Remembering those paintings, the proto-Surreal depictions of hell in Bosch triptychs. Also Dante.) Hell is always normally the more fascinating place, is it not?

Can we stop censoring ourselves?

Editor: Can we? Even if we were speaking to each other in person, there would be censorship. There is always space for lies. Truth itself makes space for lies. (Thinks: life makes way for death, the wide way makes the narrow way…)

I wish we could bear to see each other again. The white hole is getting larger, and I think it would do us both some good to rise out. I know it. Tigers can’t stand being in such dreary places for so long.

Editor: Remembers that it has only been a few short months on Earth. What does the devil do to time in his domain? “I doubt he lives there full time. He’s obviously working more than one job.”)  What are you doing? You’re looking too closely.

We used to be able to trust each other. Without all these words. Laughs. You know what? We’re starting to sound like lovers.

Editor: I don’t mind. Where is this going? I need to steer this in another direction.

No point in using those parentheses. I can see through them now. The white hole erases all those distinctions. Now, I’m coming home, whether you like it or not. Earth will have me back.

Editor: (Thinking of…oh, hell, fine.) Thinking of the body buried so deep.

Don’t worry about that. The world has room for resurrection. There are enough bodies to go around. Tigers are dropping like flies, you know.

Editor: I’m confused right now. It would be nice to have a close friend like you tending to me.

Can we drop the charade? It wouldn’t be the first time. People have seen you wearing my skin, and they are usually none too impressed. This was all a stunt to get yourself more attention, to get that job, wasn’t it? You wanted to seem committed, but what you really needed was a bit of surgery. Tigers don’t count as diversity in human circles.

Let’s make a confession here.

Editor: Thinking of what people will think. What about the blog?

Nothing will be broken. It’s just like your job as a Cultural Discerner. It’s over now, more or less. A few more weeks, a drop in the bucket, and then you’re off on your own. It’s not as though you need a crutch or an excuse to write about culture. I suppose that you’re right. You bet that I am. What makes me nervous is that it requires so much of a break. It’s good to make a break, necessary even. Something old is dying, and something new is being born. What?

What?

Prove me real.

What?

you’ve been wearing my skin now prove me real

don’t just pretend i’m real

make it so I can’t stop shaking

let’s make one thing clear

ALEXIUS AND HIS EDITOR ARE ONE

These strikethroughs aren’t fooling anyone, we know. They only bring more attention to what has been lost. I feel, dear readers, that I have been trapped in that tiger skin, trapped by the costumes I once thought would liberate me from convention. Nonetheless, Alexius is not going away. You can’t keep a tiger down like that. As a matter of fact, he and the band and all the hungry ghosts have escaped their infernal chains. Maybe you’ll see them someday.

For now, remember that we are walking in a valley together. We’re looking up at one peak and quailing at the one we cannot turn to face again. We remember what we saw from up there, and want to believe that, despite what we’ve seen, there might be some good in the world.

Let’s put discernment to rest. A friend of mine described discernment this way:

“Discernment comes out of the idea that we are never purely consuming, but that everything we watch affects the way we view the world and act in it. Discernment is a posture of paying attention and listening carefully to what we consume. It’s an attempt to train ourselves to become more meditative and mindful about how our culture experiences shape us. Therefore discernment involves an active response rather than passive consumption. One response, for many, is criticism. Criticism helps us evaluate and ground the work in its cultural context. But responses could vary from reflection to creation of new work. So discernment is a spiritual practice (akin to meditation) that helps us become better, more mindful consumers of culture.”

Beautiful. But if that’s the case, I’m done discerning. I’m making my break from the spiritual. I haven’t gone through heaven and hell to return to that. I want the Earth, and I dare not want more. What I want to do, I don’t know. Rather, I know what I want to do but don’t have a name for it yet. I want to bring something new into this world. For now, I’ll keep on stalking. Say, that’s an idea.

 

Editor’s Note: Seeing God in Music

Friend and fellow blogger over at tomtificate wrote in my college’s student newspaper this week. His article dealt with an Andrew Bird concert that happened last week Friday in the midst of a music festival my college hosts every year. For more on that, see the elephantine post I put up concerning it. As he is about to conclude the article, he makes the following statement:

While God is present in all genres of music, certainly, it seems that he is most visible right now within the genre of American roots music, and I think people see that. Why else would Mumford & Sons be a headlining act in 2013?

Here are a number of claims that, outside of Calvin College, would seem audacious. To suggest that God is present in music at all would offend a certain camp, and going any further would only elicit greater resistance. The fact that this cultural discerner was able to embed such a claim in an opening clause, as if it would go uncontested, should be celebrated. Through what has now been decades of hard work, the ethos of Calvin’s engagement with culture has become one that not only works but outshines Calvin’s official engagement with almost any other issue. Cultural discernment remains a final holdout, the last bridge I have retained with Reformed theology.

Let us move deeper into the statement. I want to work further with what Speelman writes, looking somewhat into how God could be “felt” through music and what role roots music plays in the conversation.

One word that the Festival organizers used to define how we find God in music is the term “music of epiphany.” An epiphany is a sudden, striking realization, usually meant in a positive way. It is the word for which a light bulb over a person’s head became the graphic symbol. Therefore, to say that music can give us epiphanies or realizations of God’s presence is to say that music can somehow show us something of God. While asking “can God be found in music?” to a group of Calvin students might give you a relatively positive response, I want to be more skeptical. If we think that we have found God in a Josh Garrels song, we can probably produce no proof that would convince someone else who did not already agree that God could be found in music.

I would also argue that you cannot “find” God in the form or content of the music itself. Parse sheet music, analyze instruments, drop a camera down the throat of a singer, analyze recordings or go to a thousand live shows and you will not find God. Look into yourself. Do you see God there? Is God at work in your brain? Pick apart the grey matter and look–just be careful. I skip over the possibility of actually finding something we could call God this way only because I find it to be an absurdity. We cannot find anything recognizable to a strong notion of God in the material world. Not yet, not with the tools we have, and probably never. Yet I believe and I agree that we can, in the experience of listening to music, discover something of God. How could this be?

My initial thought, and the one I will briefly pursue here, is that what we call God can be found in a gap. Imagine those diagrams of nerve endings you had to study (or will have to study) in a psychology or anatomy class. You know that nerves do not actually touch. The electrical signals and chemical receptors have to cross a small connective gap called a synapse.

What I propose is that there is a kind of synaptic gap between the music and us, and it is there that God dwells, transforming and working through the music and through it binding us more deeply and lovingly to God’s creation. In this scenario, God is not some factual or reducible element of “good” music or “true” lyrics. Instead, God is a mediator, a conduit for messages calling us to imagine new possibilities and act on them. The music harbors God, and it does its job well enough that you cannot find God by picking and criticizing. It is only when the work of criticism is finished and a new openness to surprise established that God can work on the music with us. If we try to encapsulate or formalize God’s role in all of this, we will be constructing, and God is precisely that which is not constructed, that calls us into deeper love of the material world in which we live.

How does roots music play into this theory? At the moment, there is a lively and commercially thriving collection of artists that appropriate roots music and play acoustic instruments. Mumford and Sons makes a good stand-in for the whole group. We cannot deny that this band is a headlining act in 2013. We know the band reguarly addresses spiritual concerns in their lyrics and favour an uplifting and inspirational form in their songs. Can we, however, infer from those two facts that we and, more importantly, the record-buying public, can see God in Mumford and Sons in a special way? I think we can say that Christians in the United States do have an affinity for this kind of music, and they express that affinity in the act of purchasing many, many records. Commercial success–and here I suspect Tom would agree with me–is not indicative of divine presence. Nor, I would say, is the presence of spiritual content indicative of divine presence.

We cannot ever be sure of divine presence. God speaks to people in many different ways. Many of those who have bought Mumford albums have probably had some kind of epiphany. Most, I would wager, have not, and yearn for other aspects of that music. Let us never be too hasty to either exclude or include God from or in our actions. Overemphasize presence and we risk making something appear “safe.” Overemphasize God’s absence from culture and we make ourselves either lazy consumers or the paranoid besieged. Here at Calvin we are privileged to be privy to all sorts of enlightening conversations and articles like Tom’s. I hope that we can all tune our ears to them and find, not safety, but confidence in how we look into this sacred and wild world.

The Knife: Shaking the Habitual

shaking-the-habitual

An analog thunderstorm, a full-blown, over-the-top extravaganza charged by static/electric strobes and proclaimed by booming thunder. A white hole has burned itself into the sky, leaving the ghosts in an apocalyptic frenzy. We all wonder at the sight of it: has the hour of salvation come? We can’t be sure because to look at the hole is to feel the sickness of burning eyes and a turning stomach. What could come through there: anything. What we hope: we dare not.

Zo Quivver and Quake performed a sold-out free show in the central plaza, using the white hole as lighting. I skulked near the back, dodging a few of the nuttier ghosts trying to devour the whole place before the end comes. I looked into eyes that had been bound into hell for a million years. Rims a mile deep ran under them, creases like crevasses, reminding me that I was, for all my tribulations, unbelievably lucky to have dropped in when I did rather than in the distant past.

Hopefully a kind of miracle will happen. Oh, did I write that we dare not hope? Well, I’ll keep my pen shut then.

Please bear with me. I have been lazing around these past few days listening to the new records that spill down from the tear in space. It seems that music is the first of the vanguard to arrive in this place. I cannot wait for the 16mm film reels.

One of the albums that I had been hearing about from my editor was Swedish electronic duo The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual.

***

Hackles are bound to prick up the moment a band tries to make “important music.” That phrase usually conjures visions of ham-fisted political lyrics, overblown earnestness, and artless pretension. Nonetheless, an even more insidious thought can often give rise to all of those images: this group is taking a position that might be contrary to some of my own views. We often feel that music should stay neutral. We want great music, not political commentary–especially if that commentary is going to unnerve us or brush us against views we find reprehensible.

Artists have a narrow edge to walk when engaging explicitly political subject matter. Instead of calling such music “political”–what music is not at least unconsciously political?–I would prefer to call it “activist.” The Knife’s new album, Shaking the Habitual, lays bare its activism for all to see. Its demeanor is ferocious, its music abrasive, and its lyrics, while cryptic, are unmistakably pushing the listener outside the music and into the world. The Knife has always harbored a certain wildness, but here they let it have a freer reign, clawing at the fabric of their extended songs (six of the thirteen tracks run over eight minutes) and providing a spontaneity only partially evident on their earlier work.

Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson, the Swedish brother and sister duo behind The Knife, came into the recording process with a mission in mind, and their use of chaos, paradoxically, is surgically deliberate. Armed with extensive reading that Karin, in an interview with Catch Fire, said included “Mohanty’s ‘Feminism Without Borders’, also Franz Fanon, Judith Butler, Foucault, Spivak and some of Wendy Brown.” Ideas about feminist activism, intersectionality, and other critical theory therefore underly much of the politics on the album. The first song offers a blistering critique of conservative politics: “Under the Sun /Look what we have got / And those who haven’t: bad luck.” The music arms itself, invoking dance as a weapon and accusing its unnamed enemies of rewriting history to suit their own purposes. Shaking the Habitual is designed to do just what its title implies: inject some instability into the artifice of modern society, whose oppression of marginalized groups depends on false certainties.

Along this vein, The Knife has also launched the album with a publicity campaign that has served to underline their commitments. Upon the launch of the record, the group posted a long manifesto on their website along with a comic strip parodying the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Rather than calling for the elimination of poverty, however, they advocate a plan to eliminate extreme wealth, noting how the afflicted ultra-rich are “caught in a vicious circle of wanting more and more crap–a circle that is very difficult to break.” While it’s hard to tell if any material good will come of these efforts, the band is at least opening up space for critical reflection, which is more than this tiger can say for most groups.

Though they lack a certain feline touch, the music videos also have much to recommend them. There isn’t room for much discussion of them here, but I may choose to revisit them individually later on:

Also see this interview with the band, made by Marit Östberg who also made the “Full of Fire” video.

Perhaps mirroring its overriding concern with human bodies and the politics of identity, the duo has opted for a mixture of organic and electronic instrumentation. The trouble on most of the songs is attempting to discern which is which. On the second track, “Full of Fire,” what sound like programmed beats clash against otherworldly noises, synthetic bass, and Karin Dreijer Andersson’s often distorted vocals. Everything is tipping off balance while Andersson sings “Of all the guys and the signori/Who will write my story/Get the picture, they get glory/Who looks after my story?” In the album’s moments of clarity, when the hurricane of sound quiets and the words pierce through clearly, the effect can be touching, even moving.

A major chunk of the album’s running time is taken up by instrumentals. “Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized,” an aching, lurching twenty minutes of ambient drones recorded in a boiler room, resembles a kind of nightmare played in slow motion. “Oryx,” and “Crake” are harsh, wordless homages to Margaret Atwood’s work, and “Fracking Fluid Injection” opens up into a kind of glacial beauty, icy but somehow healing to witness. It, along with the beautifully passionate “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” bring The Knife’s humanity to the fore, allowing us to see a modicum of hope emerge.

The question could well be asked whether a group with such a pointed message should be cloaking it in music this challenging and esoteric. Similar complaints were lodged at Radiohead when they abdicated their status as the Biggest Band in the World to pursue more radically subversive sounds. It could well be that smuggling queer theory into a populist dance track may reach a wider audience than putting the same message in a ten-minute electroacoustic freakout. That said, I believe this approach offers more impact, drawing The Knife’s considerable audience deeper and more critically into a new perspective. It might not always work, but the alignment of the activist and the artistic on Shaking the Habitual meshes remarkably well. It’s a fraught journey, but one well worth undertaking. As, I hope, will be my journey to the skies. I can already feel that white hole starting to pull.

whitehole

Fiction: The Man in Red

I can still recall the tune after all these years. Melodically simple, with no harmony as far as I can remember. A simple song performed on a steel guitar under the shadow of the looming bank building downtown. There it vibrated, inviting all of us in for a closer look, and as it brought us all closer we started seeing the mechanisms.

Maybe you have not seen them before. Most people that day hadn’t, and it was a summery, shimmery day, the kind that punctuate unbearable summer workweeks with a cleansing wave of sweat and heat. Those days pull at the stitching of what we see, and the fabric of the visual world around us breaks down. It’s at these times when, harried by heat and burdened by the glare of the sun, people can start to feel the electricity spark on their fingertips and see the mechanics. All the gears and hooks, long rows of supervisors cloaked in iron sheets, their eyes protected by masks lined with scorched glass. Look closer and find them poking and prodding. We even find ourselves bound at the neck, unable to turn this or that way when we hear the call of an old friend, catch glimpses of heaven in our peripheral vision. On summer days, funnily enough, we can feel the pull of these forces most strongly but we have the least strength to fight them.

Where was that tune? Under the bank building. But what does that tell me? Nothing much of use, I’m afraid. I said downtown, but where? Reader, you can do me no good in this case, I’m afraid. You can’t hear the melody, and I know that some people could hear it and think, “writer, why, this sort of song could only have come to you in a place that is thus or this way.” Let me try that. Play the song in my head, and what sort of place does it summon up around the young woman strumming it patiently on the guitar?

The song’s opening notes bring me to another time, a time when you could wander the world without quite knowing what the rows of nursery pines were pointing to on the highway or the names of the junkyard restaurants that dotted the roadsides. Each of the measures pulls me further and further from order. I lose sight of traffic laws, police enforcers, the gavels of judges. Skyscrapers shrink and crumble into the sky, their glass panels returning to sandy pits.

I’ve gone far enough. The woman playing the guitar wears a long blue dress that has been kissing the dust for far too long. Her face is beautiful but obscured by the stark blackness of the bank’s shadow. I’m standing somewhere in the crowd around her, surrounded by people who tower over me. After hearing more of the song, I realize that I can’t see the guitarist at all. The woman in my head…she looks too much like me to be real, and so I listen to the song further and realize that I don’t know whether that woman existed there or not. Someone had to pluck the strings and draw the crowd in. So we’ll let her stay for now. We’ll name her Guitar.

At that moment, a streak of red barges through the crowd, upsetting my balance and sending me to the ground headfirst. I taste powdery dust and what I hope is my own blood. The pain is all localized around my lips, which had already been desiccated by the sun’s rays. Looking around, I see that several other people have hit the ground as well, moaning in confusion.

I spring back up to my feet. The song stops.

I dreaded this. The song drew me here, and now I am enraptured, a body trapped in a place with no soul. Unable to escape back to the present through those notes, I let the memory’s constructed reality draw me further in. A new life didn’t sound too bad, really. Even if it was actually in antiquity.

Meanwhile, this man in red…

ADVENTURES OF THE MAN IN RED!!

Barker: Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages! Come one, come all, and meet the legendary MAN IN RED! Yes, for one night, and one night only, this savage vagabond will be signing autographs.

Man in Red: (Narrating) ‘Kay. I remember the days when I wondered, “What’s up with that?” Then I realized that no one ever comes up with a good answer. That was when I was about twelve years old. I was tired of peering through the grime on our windows to watch the neighbors’ children playing with their dogs in the yard or putting together impromptu hockey games in the street. Once I realized that, I asked my mother for a red cape for my birthday.

Mother: Of course, but make it flashy for mummy, OK?

Man in Red: Of course. So I promised her that I would be mummy’s little trophy boy. This was early in life, but I remember furtive phone conversations behind curtains, my mum just standing there framed in silhouette, vulnerable to the weird vertical shadows that shifted with the daylight. She would leave her tears on the ground, not wanting me to see them, I suppose.

THE DAY THE RED CAPE ARRIVED

Man in Red: I turned thirteen on March 10. Whenever that day rolls by again as the year turns lazily onto its side and yawns into spring, the smell of Lent is on my mind. In the circus, we slept close, packed into a tiny bed in the trailer, curled up like grotesque, hairless kittens in a basket.

April tenth. Inhale. Exhale. Breathing in the festival air and exhaling ashes onto the streets. I told myself that, since Easter was late that year, I would try to wear my cape and just a T-shirt to church. I never got the chance.

I ran away to the circus as soon as I touched the red cape. My feet were sunk deep into our shaggy blue carpeting, the radiator hummed contentedly in the far corner, and for some reason none of the faces in my memory stood by for very long. Uncle Asa, the ringleader, the one with the name you could print up on business cards–he was sitting in the chair, alert. I admit he could be a man of violent temper, but at the sight of the red cape his face changed to match it. I remember him halfheartedly coveting all sorts of wondrous things, and the splendid red colour I was now draped in touched a longing nerve.

“That was the colour of the blood we saw in the streets,” he said. I asked him what he meant, and the room fell silent. I returned from the circus. No use in pretending when no one was smiling. Like offering to pay for the awkward silences in a grocery line. It’s all part of the package.

Asa told me that I had to be older to know. I accepted this, knowing that I was far from grown up. Mum held up a mirror and I looked into it, seeing the red cape, being jealous of my reflection. If only I could see him the way he saw me.

Sounds from the circus returned. Aunt Trudy tapping out anxious rhythms with her feet. Muffled in the jungular carpet, her foot-tapping diffused through my bones. Rung by rung, I climbed up the towering elephant, the ladder on its side swaying in the breeze. I was one of the only outdoor acts, and only a few people showed up in the audience because of the inclement weather. Rain fell to the same nerve-wracked beat my aunt was drumming, only doing so in grand orchestral cascades.

The elephant trumpeted into slate-faced crowd. No one’s expression changed. I mounted the top of the great beast, standing up tall. While another member of our troupe shocked the elephant with an electrode, I fought to stay steady. It bucked and kicked, tearing up the Earth second after passing second. My hands buckled and skin tore as I clutched at the ropes.

Trudy: Will you stop that awful noise, dear?

Man in Red: Startled, the elephant threw me from its back headfirst into the mud. My red cape, tarnished; my pride…well, it was never much to brag about to begin with.

Trudy: Dear sister, that cape of his has turned him into an absolute fool. I don’t understand why you would want to encourage his delusions.

Mum: Trudy, we’ve discussed this. Children need space to play and learn.

Man in Red: They were both right, of course. The cape did turn me into a fool. Worse, it made me into an embarrassment for her. Unavoidable because of my flamboyancy. Annoying because of my grating voice. A fool because I existed.

Aunt Trudy and Mum both went to bed early that night. Trudy begged the angels for a child under her breath. I knew they were trying to adopt children from some snowbound land, but, as my aunt would say, the hidden man was tormenting her.

I had a feeling I knew this hidden man better than my aunt. He lived in my closet. And every night, ten minutes after I fell asleep, he would sit at the foot of my bed and sing my dreams into my mind. The hidden man wore dark glasses even at night and had a face rather like mine. With his little concertina and bloodstained suit–my mother said that if you poked the walls of our house it would bleed red–his melodies marked the beats of sleep. Dun dun dun dun-dun dun-dun. Mother told me the hidden man had died many years ago, and that I had never even seen him. That didn’t seem to matter. We had so much unresolved between us, I was sure I would hate him if he had died. No, he was alive, and sometimes in my dreams I would feel his touch, like a trail of ants tappiting over my toes. Drawing up into the little cocoon of blankets I made for myself, I would shiver with glee. Maybe someday he would visit me while I was awake.

Deeper and deeper I am drawn.

I feel too tall. Bumping my head into everything.

The hidden man is singing again. I dream of growth.

My feet burst my shoes.

I see the Hidden Man. Despite how tall I’ve grown, I still cannot look him in the eye. His concertina slumps forgotten on the floor. My foot brushes it. No sound.

He leads me to the edge of a cliff. No, the top of a great building. A helicopter pad.

Hidden Man: Watch my arm.

Man in Red: He twists his arm once around. Twice. The bones do not break. Three times. A look of snide resentment crosses his face. I gasp and hold my breath. Don’t worry. The arm is now detached, and the Hidden Man casually tosses it in the direction of the sunlight.

Hidden Man: Give up what you can.

Man in Red: I can feel my teeth loosen. One by one they pop out, creating a morning drizzle of teeth on the ground. One is stuck between my toes, tickling and cutting. I run my finger around the bleeding gums. I want to cry, but nothing is coming. Defanged, I fall to my knees before him.

Singing. It’s the man who is singing the song. I remember this dream, or rather many dreams like it. At this, the man dives off the side of the building and disappears into a fog. Did he hit the ground? I need to know, a conviction I cannot fail to act on. Irresistible forces push at me, and it is too much for my merely human self to restrain. Off I go.

AWAKE! In the morning, I bolted out of bed with my red cape and blasted a hole in the door. Without a mere instant to lose, I tore across the yard. Echoes of alarms rang hollow to me. Mother called. I ignored her. Aunt Trudy raged. Uncle Asa waved goodbye and slumped back into bed. I had escaped.

***

I had sustained a cut on my lip in the fall. Instead of seeking medical attention I let it bleed freely. Retreating under an awning across the street where some café customers partake in expensive cofee and conversation–the ATMs embedded in the bank wall leer at them like eyes poking through a black forest–I feel the drips of red run down my chin and drop to the ground. When the doors of the café open I can feel cool air rushing across my skin.

Under the awning the people are wearing sunglasses. Strands of my hair blow across their field of vision. Are they seeing the hairline fractures? Do they see the old bones of the pavement start to reach up to their expensive lenses? I put a hand over my mouth, but take it away again. Droplets of blood make lifelike portraits on the ground. Weeds in the cracks–are they vampires now?

As I looked down at the sidewalk flora, a pair of shoes came into view. Free of dust–curious. I followed the conventional logic and looked up and up and up until I met a face. A face that insisted. Feet that were already dancing. Opaque yet entirely obvious. The Hidden Man.

Ah, the Hidden Man.

***

THE HIDDEN MAN!

Barker: What can we say more about this strange and insistent person?He’s reportedly easier to find at night than during the day, and in the dark rather than in the light. Friend to none, enemy to none, neither stranger nor acquaintance, he’s just part of the furniture here in the Man in Red. Looking at his exquisite, if somewhat bland, attire, we see the very threads from which this story is woven. Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to witness an incongruous turn of events! So unpredictable, not even yours truly can truly know which way it will turn!

***

Hidden Man: Do you hear the sound of a train passing?

I told him that I was trapped in a memory, which was older than trains.

Hidden Man: I would say that the young and the old are often together. What are you doing here?

Fine thing to ask someone in their own memory. I nearly said, “I don’t remember you being here,” but checked myself. Of course I did, since he was here. By his very–and I hesitate but must use the dread word– PRESENCE, he must be part of my memory. My mind drifted back to lessons learned long after these events transpired, long after Guitar stopped singing her possible songs. Oh, the tune! What maddening repetition. Its beauty bit at my lips, snagged like barbed tendrils in my ears, invested its roots in my veins. The Hidden Man looked sympathetic.

Hidden Man: You are not part of the performance, I trust. I cannot read your name.

He drew me close to him. I felt nothing. Nothing was peculiarly comforting, and I felt like a ship held too long at dock that is finally freed from tether and anchor and set to sail free. Pressed firmly into the soft wool of his suit jacket, feeling the tensions and weave of the fabric, I could hear the song again, pulling me back toward the present. Sensations–being a tide, running back and forth on top of a wheel, stretching my legs and diving into shallow water. Rising to the surface.

I find myself breathing steadily. A sunlit afternoon, the cat restless, my clothing clinging to me all summerlike. Awakened from the memory. I had climbed the song back out of the morass, away from the red, the carnivals and barkers, the Hidden Man. And yet…

I could hear the sound of a train passing by on the tracks. My clothes, which are mixed polyester and cotton, still feel scratchy like wool. I touch my lip, and feel blood. Can I open my eyes? I open them to the flash of a red cape. A little child is running around in the yard, humming a familiar tune.

Down, down, down and back again, already bound cell and soul to the melodies. My eyes open again. Lungs fill with air, expel. Rapidly, ever more rapidly, I feel my interior begin to glisten, unacknowledged moisture flooding. Tastes frightening and intimate prowl my nose and pitch themselves onto my tongue. Down my throat air catches fire.

As I convulse and pant, reveling in my own body, I realize I have no inkling where these stimulations originated. I can still hear the song. Someone is humming them into me. Gears and seams. Momentarily, I am struck by the absurdity of beachfront property and kisses shared between family members. I blush, though it might have been the feeling of utter nakedness that was having its way with my skin. I look up from the score of the song, stop staring so hard at the prose on my stomach, and see the Man in Red standing over me.

***

Man in Red: Who are you? I ask this not to make you quail, but because I need to know.

***

Was he talking to me? His mannerisms were exaggerated, his eyes saucerlike, white and, in the dusk of the blinded room, transfixing. His voice smacked of a public service announcement, the question haunted by a meaning I couldn’t quite grasp. Was he going off-script?

***

Man in Red: It’s difficult for us to speak to each other, but I can read your thoughts like speech. I release her and allow her to rest on the bed. The night we shared was far from epochal. Millions of others were hooking up in this building alone. I would account us with the hordes of rats rutting in the crawlspaces, the bacteria replicating. But can she hear me? Can you hear me? Are you not in this performance?

Barker: OH NO! Looks like we have a problem here. Neither of our heroes have any way to contact each other.

Man in Red: My escape! That was what was so important to me. I nearly forgot. Why are these memories becoming so vague? I am hardly an old man. I am still young and virile, alluring and eminently susceptible to feminine lures. I am the one drive to paranoia by guilt, to lust by affirmation, and to disappearance by exhaustion.

Still a young child, I had nothing but a few years of life, the examples of my various family members, and the red cape and other clothes on my back. My escape was, at first, an elementary matter, local in impact and trivial to contain. I lived out in the yard. Still, it was far harder to find food and rewarding work and play while the house was off limits to me. Though I could tell my mother and Uncle Asa never left the house, maybe to avoid being contaminated by their absent son. At night, my mind leapt into wild fantasies of retribution, albeit radically passive ones. In one fantasy my mother and uncle would stalk around the base of a tall stump, freshly hewn. So fresh you could smell the antiquity of those innermost rings, feel the ghosts of ants and passersby, the haunted, absent gazes of the dearly departed for centuries leaving the scene. I stood on top of the stump, legs folded in mockery of the lotus position, meditating on childish anxieties. My parents and Uncle Asa regarded me with smiles. I thought, “what revenge I have wrought!” Those who tried to circle me in, to include me in their games, were now smiling at my coming enlightenment. I always started when snapping out of these reveries, feeling blood rise to my cheeks in embarrassment.

Always the Hidden Man was there.

***

The points of the stars stung my eyes. I started to rise from my seat and head for the exit.

Hidden Man: Please don’t go. You’ve nourished me here for so long. Look! The Man in Red! Follow him! Run after him!

Man in Red: I’m sorry for knocking you over in the crowd. What could have come over me that I would be so inconsiderate? I think I was running from the police.

Soft green neon lights: EXIT. I could hear someone singing to me outside the walls. A dim face in the window of the door leading outward. The Hidden Man grabbed me and threw me to the floor, but I crawled forward. He kicked me in the shins.

Hidden Man: Miserable woman! Stop your crawling! Stay here. Your quarry is here, the song led you down to see him.

***

Why had the song ended so abruptly?

Man in Red: You’ve looked so depressed lately. Where have you been this past few hours? I’ve seen your eyes and they’ve been checked out. I was about to call the doctor since I thought you were catatonic.

I: Sorry. I was caught up in the past. Make your move, sir.

Man in Red: We should go out tonight. I heard once that you need to go out and do to make yourself happy. Do, do, do!

I: Remember how you used to complain all the time?

Man in Red: Come on up. It’s time to leave that song of yours.

What we faced was black. What I looked back on was black. We walked on a reflective mirror, the dust of the desert town, the shadow of the bank encroaching. Please release us, Hidden Man. Let us go without. We’ll endure. You are no longer needed.

I: I’m not embarrassed by old pictures of you at the circus anymore.

Man in Red: When did this come up?

I: It was that song.

Man in Red: What changed?

I: Not sure. I think reliving it made me realize how valuable it was for you.

***

Hidden Man: I’ve lost her forever. She’s put me out, as a fire in water. What was she doing here? Bringing me back to the surface only to thrust me back down. I remember the Man in Red when he came back to his home for the first time. I about burst with anticipation–seeing who this person I loved so well (whatever the barker says, I do have friends) and his close ones–in front of his door.

That was the last time I saw him as a child. The next day the whole visit fell to pieces. Autumn sunshine was no substitute for acceptance, and he was thrown onto the street, tossed out on the grass next to the lawn clippings. The dog had a more honoured placed than he in their memories.

He had made something of himself. Yet, to his family, nothing beyond the clown shoes and the scars the elephants gave him showed up. “Ye have ruined yourself,” said one woman, and another, I think his mother, just shied away.

The song died. A thread broke, and the Man in Red could no longer ride the ladder down back into the past. He would either plunge or hold to the edge, fingers aching.

Editor’s Note: Reflection on the Festival of Faith and Music

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Music and faith are discourses on the ineffable. Though each has its own structures of power, entrenched technical lexicons, and professional training programs and methods to grow and supplement them, they are both straining toward articulating poetic realities.  When I write about faith or music, the words I use are merely broken containers, strings of letters with oh-so-many holes in them.

Music has been decried and praised as perhaps the most obviously subjective art form. Unlike writing and the plastic arts, there is nothing visual to grasp, and sounds exist only for a moment in time before collapsing to make way for silences and other sounds. It is an expression inextricably linked to time. To me, that linkage to time and procession makes it peculiarly able to point beyond its own language, beyond human speech and presence and to the irreducible.

That irreducible can, I think, be properly called divine. At its best, music is a disruptive force, a kind of mist in the air that boggles our normal vision and makes us see the ghostly elements of life more clearly. Recorded music might bear witness to these elements even better, since we listen to a voice given body somewhere else in time and handed to us through countless intermediaries, and yet it can pierce our hearts just the same. It is the power of an absent voice–sometimes, when I am bold and wear a tiger’s heart instead of mine, I can call that absence God’s voice.

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The official word on the Festival of Faith and Music runs long and short this way:

The Festival of Faith and Music is the gathering of a community of pilgrims who are on a journey to hear, promote and create the music of epiphany—music that catches our breath with its discovery of delight in the ordinary, eternity in the exceptional. We seek to revel in the mystery of the art form, comprehending it better through shared stories and experiences, allowing it to surround and teach us. We seek to discern the ways grace, love, compassion and the Christian faith are expressed in the world of popular music. We seek to be conscientious listeners, agents of renewal and prophets of the Light.

To revel, to reveal, to revel, to rebel, to revel, to reveal. What can a skeptic learn from such a description? We see that the people (the blood, bones, voices, and ghosts) who organized the festival and, we suspect, gave it such a description, are interested not so much in music as art or in faith as religion or cultural expression as they are in what I call a synapse. “Music of epiphany” refers to a synaptic event, a connection between an experience of art and an experience of divine revelation. This is not like a direct wired connection because there is an inherent gap between the music itself and the perceived epiphany. We could call that gap time, but the temporal difference between the sound of the notes and the phenomenon of divine experience is not too meaningful compared to the real gap between what we feel and what the music is. Hermeneutics and interpretation, I believe, go all the way down. The world itself is a poetic text, a text of multivalent meaning that is felt by so many who cannot contain it.

I would, therefore, call that synaptic gap faith, a kind of nonmaterial or paramaterial conduit for what properly passes for divine to arc through from the material vibrations of the music and our neurological response. Elliptical rather than straightforward, mysterious and intangible rather than definable or palpable, it is nonetheless extraordinarily real for me. When I listen to–to cite a worn and withered cliché–John Coltrane’s Ascension, I am cognizant of the music’s origin (probably headphones) and some of the rudiments of how it is affecting my brain. What is missing from the equation is that interpretive layer. I would say that all discourses that relate to the material and to history are fundamentally suspicious, or deserted. As a historian, my hermeneutics, the synaptic gap, transmits the messages and I receive them suspiciously. Deconstruction and theory and all these lenses through which to view constructed texts are working through material reality the only way we know how–that is, through analysis and language founded in language.

Faith is something altogether different. It is a discourse of hope. As a historian, I read a historical text understanding it to be deserted or dead. I cannot know the author’s real intentions, can only partially reconstruct their context, and treat it as alien and other, its letters permeated by an absence that allows me to move my own spirit into them, giving them new life in the present. It’s necromancy. Unlike historical language, faith assumes that the texts are living, that they are interpretively vital, nerves that continue to fire. It is through that lens that the Festival’s organizers are looking at music. Music, to them, can put us in touch with truth revealed, an irreducible message, a spark that can disrupt and inhabit us. Undoubtedly, the organizers would call this ineffable message, arcing over the synapse of faith, “God.” No doubt they identify that God most closely with the God of the Bible. Contained in what might seem like boilerplate, then, is an outrageous, even absurd claim: we can hear God speaking through music.

And not just any music–popular music.

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Pictured: a messenger from the Lord
(?)

Can music do this? Can popular music transcend the critical, arch its back from the immanent plane and toss us for a loop? Because of my weak faith, I would be afraid if the answer were a straightforward yes. If you could hear God, if you could really access the divine in an oasis beyond criticism, God would be without limit. That God would burst out of my weak biological vessel and dissipate into the air like vapour. I am terrified that God is not someone you could keep an eye on. Look into the Bible and see the animal in His cage. See! You cannot touch! But this God would burst the chains and be like a mosquito you can hear faintly buzzing but cannot see. When you wake up with a rash of itchy red bumps, you know that God has been here. Does the divine make itself known through everything from Radiohead to Mostly Other People Do the Killing? I would like to pose a musical answer to this musical question.

Wolf Parade’s song “I’ll Believe in Anything” has a number of turns that I find useful when trying to articulate this. First listen:

Turning to the lyrical text, we find the song opens us with its first line.

Give me your eyes
I need sunshine
Give me your eyes
I need sunshine
Your blood, your bones, your voice, and your ghost  

My most faithful interpretation of these lyrics goes like this. Since the song is addressed in first person, it is received by the listener as an attempt to articulate a private experience with which I hopefully identify. Thus it is not primarily speaking to something outside us but to our own being. Wolf Parade’s imperative declarations become my own. I am demanding new eyes. Someone, something can see the sun and I cannot. This song finds the truth that sunshine–perhaps connecting to the Light in the official description–is something found inhabiting our interpretations rather than in the dry fact of the matter. Further, the song does not understand the person whose eyes we are demanding to be at all ephemeral. This is a person with blood, bones, voice, and, in a curious twist, a ghost.

I’ll believe in anything and
You’ll believe in anything

If I could get the fire out from the wire
I’d share a life and you’d share a life
If I could take the fire out from the wire
I’d share a life and you’d share a life
If I could take the fire out from the wire
I’d take you where nobody knows you and
Nobody gives a damn

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Wolf Parade confers.

The chorus of the song continues to open us up. The possibilities unleashed by a new perspective, by the indwelling of “sunshine,” has allowed us to embrace belief beyond suspicion. This is a faith that is shared, not alone, as the two believers are linked not only by the lives they share but by that “and.” I’ll believe in anything and you’ll believe in anything. This faith is worked out in dialogue and in tension between two (what I can only call) persons. What follows this radical declaration of belief is at the core of the song’s meaning in this interpretation.

Wires are transmitters. Their role is not to do anything themselves, not to perform any service other than putting its two ends in touch with each other. Nerves are essentially wires, though with that synaptic gap transmitting rather than a solid tie. Nonetheless, I think I can transpose my discussion of the synapse into the wire because the transmission of electricity through wires is invisible enough to at least partially account for the ineffability of the synaptic gap. Wires are not supposed to catch on fire. Something has disrupted the transmission, but it has set the wire alight with a dazzling blaze. Rather than seeming inert but buzzing with energy, some event has transpired to set the wire ablaze. If only I could get that fire out from there, to extract it, I could share that life I have. Or do I have it? Is it being transmitted through the wire? When I live, does the medium of transmission I choose (especially if it is digital and thus I live literally through wires) convey the love and life I want to give?

The most puzzling aspect of the song’s chorus is that final section. If we can share our lives, if we can take that fire and hand it back and forth in mutual dialogue, find and process that revelation in community, we are taken to a place where “nobody knows you and nobody gives a damn either way.” This brings up an important question. If we are singing with the voice in our headphones, we are singing to someone or something else. The “you” is an other. If, however, we are passively listening, we receive the message as directed to us. The you becomes us. Instead of reducing it to one or the other, I would recommend embracing that tension, sharing it if you will. Neither deny ownership of the “you” nor seize it only for yourself. Thus we are both the ones who take “you” to that place that is arid. No one knows “you” and, what’s more, no one gives a damn.*

First, we can say that the line establishes that there is a certain place where we are unknown. Despite our deep sharing, our mutual holding of the flame, I do not know “you” and “you” do not know me (or the other way around). This does not diminish the uplift of the song’s music nor does it seem to impede the giving of love. Lacking a full knowing does not preclude a deep mutuality. God should breathe a sigh of relief here. Reading the next line leads us to a slight confusion. Nobody knows us. We are anonymous. It makes sense that nobody cares about us. We are forlorn and abandoned despite our deep mutuality. Loneliness and alienation, we all know, live within and haunt the best of relationships, so the song could be hinting at that. It could be hinting that, if we could get the perfect fire, wrest it from the malfunctioning media of exchange we use and hand it directly to that which we most love, it will still lead us to that arid and anonymous place, at least sometimes.

I would propose, however, that a literal reading of the phrase “give a damn” makes the song more fascinating still. Ignoring for now the idiomatic meaning, we are free to focus on the effect that literally “giving a damn” would have. Read this way, it seems that this place where unknowing permeates, where the fire is shared in full awareness of the mysterious nature of life and of our mutuality, is free of curses. Damnation cannot reach there, and we are unable to curse because our lives are shared. If we curse “you,” which is also “I” then that curse corrupts. The fire shrivels in our hands, leaving them black and desiccated. Nobody knows “you” and nobody gives a damn either way. With this touch of the fire, I will believe in anything, and so I will love without caring, love without giving a damn or giving damnation.

Living these words out is, of course, the more challenging part. During one workshop I attended, I asked David Dark, an academic cultural critic within the Christian community, a question. We were discussing Rumi’s poem entitled “Unfold Your Own Myth,” which I will give in full here:

Who gets up early to discover the moment light begins?

Who finds us here circling, bewildered, like atoms?

Who, like Jacob blind with grief and age,

smells the shirt of his lost son

and can see again?

Who lets a bucket down and brings up

a flowing prophet? Or like Moses goes for fire

and finds what burns inside the sunrise?

Jesus slips into a house to escape enemies,

and opens a door to the other world.

Solomon cuts open a fish, and there’s a gold ring.

Omar storms in to kill the prophet

and leaves with blessings.

But don’t be satisfied with stories, how things

have gone with others. Unfold

your own myth, so everyone will understand

the passage, We have opened you.

Start walking toward Shams. Your legs will get heavy

and tired. Then comes a moment of feeling

the wings you’ve grown, lifting.

[Emphasis probably mine]

We were discussing the idea of myth. In his estimation, to be Christian is to affirm in some way that we should not be satisfied with mere stories or interpretations. We should affirm that there is a reality being testified to by the language we use. I asked what this meant for those myths we ourselves unfold. Those testify to what I would call the material reality of myself. That which acts and works with the potentialities of the world and makes them real. He identified real material action as using the body, the material, to identify with the oppressed. That might be a good start, but it leaves the actual process of inscribing our myths into actualities in a haze. Perhaps that is how it should be.

How can we judge whether the Festival was a success? Can we hold it to the mission statement, its feet charred by the textual fire? That might seem unfair, but what other measure do we all share in common, that we can discuss on its own merits? We have our own stories, but how do they fit into a grander narrative?

I believe that the Festival made real progress in opening me. Immediately after the conclusion of the final event in the Festival, I, like Omar, stormed in to kill the prophet. Tired and disillusioned by my own introversion and the incongruity between the messages I was hearing in the workshops and keynotes and what I wanted to hear, I came with guns blazing. Criticism is the only way, I thought. Criticism is what makes the world go round. I have kept those criticisms. I will be expressing them in a subsequent post in a more straightforward manner. I wanted to leave this space open for more considered and deeper reflection. I have my dissatisfactions, and they will be given their due. But I will see them in the sunshine, knowing that there is a kind of reality to which this whole shebang pointed that they do not encompass or tarnish.

 

*Note: this ambiguity also exists in the idea of demanding new eyes. It could be that you the listener are being asked to give up your eyes, that the person who needs to see the sunshine is the singer, the “I” that is not you. This only adds to the play of “you” and “I” that makes the song’s inherent message all the more potent. I love this song!

Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine

lupin sansei

It has been raining in hell for a whole week now. Ever since we last met, there have been little rivers of grey, chalky water pushing sediment in the streets. No one hired it to do that, and for that and a few other minor inconveniences, the ghosts are up in arms about it. Mr. Harold Zo and Quivver and Quake are now sheltering from the ghosts at my house. Their febrile minds, intoxicated with desire, have fastened on the idea that this humble rock band has summoned a rain demon. I doubt that blows will be exchanged, but I would rather not be eaten again. Therefore, I am staying inside until, and this is uncertain, I can escape. I doubt that this is normal; some of the ghosts have been here for millennia and have never seen rain. There is hope after all.

What follows will be an initial review of the animated television series Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine (LUPIN the Thirdー峰不二子という女), which I hope to elaborate and supplement with more posts as the spring continues to wear on. Let us say that this review will only tantalize my itchy writing claws. It will take more than six hundred words to exhaust my thoughts on this remarkable work of art.

The Woman Called Fujiko Mine stands in an enduring Japanese media franchise centred around Lupin the Third, expert thief. Unlike other associated works, and appropriate to its title, the show focuses on the character of Fujiko Mine, Lupin’s rival and object of frustrated obsessions. Her story is chronicled through a single thirteen-episode arc, and it shows her encounters and interactions with the franchise’s iconic characters. It also emphasizes her struggles with physical and emotional traumas whose full impact she scarcely realizes. The show, the first in the franchise to be directed by a woman, is largely serious but with ample room for levity and devilish humour as well.

Never shrinking from amplifying either comedy or drama, its tone inhabits and enlivens the series’ equally distinct visual appearance. Simultaneously rich in imagery and stylistically “sketchy,” the aesthetics of the show help to highlight both its origins in manga–the series’ seriousness and focus on sexuality are supposedly representative of a larger turn back to Monkey Punch’s original graphic work–and its heightened dramatics. The animation itself is lush and attractive to the eye, giving full play to both the more stylized main cast and the contrastingly naturalistic supporting characters and background figures. Movements are often exaggerated as befits the hyperreal scenarios the characters finds themselves in, but it would be a mistake to characterize the animation as “cartoony.” Instead, I would argue that it is expressive, not taking the rules of space too literally but also remaining at least somewhat grounded.

Episodes themselves largely stand on their own, though the series builds toward a finale that is hinted at and explored throughout. Within the thirteen episodes we have, we are thrust through character introductions before embarking on the strange and mysterious tale of Fujiko Mine. Her character is shown to be deeply conflicted, both liberated in her life as a successful outlaw and dominated by desires and memories that evolve and reveal themselves to be increasingly sinister as the tale unwinds. While the final episode introduces a plot wrinkle that both complicates and radically simplifies both her character and how we understand her, the show up to that point gives her a commanding role in her own story, or so it seems. The writers and animators’ treatment, despite some aspects of fanservice that are introduced and subsequently deconstructed, is respectful of Fujiko’s integrity as a character.

Fujiko Mine largely leaves the audience in the dark until the final stretch of episodes, playing its cards rather too close to the vest at times. There is an episode, “Music and Revolution,” that comes closest to being out-and-out unsatisfying, and I would put most of the blame on the slow progress of the show’s overarching plot to that point. Its plot is about World War III, but its stakes seem curiously low for our protagonists. Thankfully, the show recovers its strength and advances from there to a stunning, if excessively expository, finale.

Shadowy figures that appear as owls appear in flashbacks. What do they signify? What made Fujiko the way she is now? These owls are of course important. Their precise role–I will leave that for future, more spoiler-inclusive posts. For now, enjoy the delights of their designs.

Fujiko Mine works as a thrilling adventure series with a serious bent, a character study, and a representative of the Lupin name. Its gnarlier issues are, if sometimes frustrating, at least fascinating to ponder, as are the numerous threads it leaves unanswered. There will be more to say about that later. For now, I would give this show an unreserved recommendation for more mature viewers. Watch on! Also, see the opening title segment for a taste of what the show looks like and some of its themes relating to gaze (and the inversion of gaze), desire, and memory.

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