Thursday, November 03, 2005

They condescend to fix upon me a frown

Contrasts 2
Originally uploaded by Theorris.
As I think I've mentioned before, I get obsessed with songs and sometimes albums and have the tendency to listen to them over and over (and over and over) and over and over and over. And over and over. If I didn't have headphones, you can only imagine how insane this would make anyone around me or how insane it would make me appear. It is lucky for me that our modern age has invented for me several pairs of headphones with which I can indulge in my analytic obsession. Analysis is generally what it boils down to. I hear something that is really appealing to me or baffles me (or whatever) and I generally want to understand why it is so appealing (aside from the initial aesthetic appeal of well-played, well-constructed music).

Lately I've been obsessing over The Decemberists' album Picaresque. I recall hearing it a while ago, but it didn't stick. Yet all of a sudden a few weeks ago Housemate Jeff brought it home and it hasn't left the CD player or my regular iTunes rotation the entire time.

"So then what is gives with this particular CD, Oh Orris?" I hear you ask, mighty reader. Well to be blunt, the album itself is perfectly baffling. While it has all the elements of Beck(Uncle Tupelo)-like alt (country) rock and a singer who has an engaging, energetic voice with lyrics balladically tell a story, they sing songs that seem entirely un-modern--indeed one might call them traditional British Folk songs (mostly). And why is a band that should be whipping out top 40 rock dealing with such folky themes in a quasi-folky way when they are obviously not at all folky? What is going on, Decemberists?

Well, gentle reader (don't worry, you're still mighty to--mighty and gentle), I'll tell you what is going on. The Decemberists are a fine of example of post modern artistry: they have assumed the very musical and lyrical tropes that make up folk or traditional music but have turned them ever so slightly around by throwing them in a very modern musical setting and given these simple melodramatic themes modern significance and modern appeal. No longer is the melodrama they exploit in a song like "We both go down together" sappy--it is now somehow intelligent and worth feeling skewered with postmodern sensibilities.

No longer is a simple stupid little high school football game nothing important to sing about ("Sporting Life"), but now it is the whole world (as it is, indeed for me when I was a kid). (Something about that song reminds me of Max Fischer from Rushmore). The Decemberists strangely get what it is to be human in our times and present it in their song--no matter how weirdly eclectic they seem. And they do all this by addressing the mundane melodramatic things that seem to concern us all: love, revenge, los--whatever.

"But hold on, dear Orris!" I hear you exclaim, "Those things are the regular subject of schlock modern culture." Indeed, dear and mighty and gentle reader. Indeed. (Read on, gently if you must, but I presume your mightiness, so be prepared to comment boldly.)

The Decemberists take cliche subjects and put some sort mondo, nova-folk minimalist post-rockalistic shape to them. (I won't even go into their moments when they make musical references to postmodern composers like Adams or Glass and make their minimalist repetition work quite well in the songs.) They do all this, indeed, never mocking the subjects that they have taken on. In fact I think that is what makes their songs so appealing. They've got an honest eclectic enough edge to them with some pretty decent musicianship that somehow they make sense. At the same time it is postmodernly relevant to all of us. Put it this way: it is like bowling. While at the same time one might be mocking the idea of bowling one is also enjoying bowling too. Damn I love being postmodern.

Take, for example, the song "We both go down together":
We both go down together

Here on these cliffs of Dover
So high you can't see over
And while your head is spinning
Hold tight, it's just beginning

You come from parents wanton
A childhood rough and rotten
I come from wealth and beauty
Untouched by work or duty

And oh! My love! My love!
And oh! My love! My love!
We both go down together.

I found you a tattooed tramp
A dirty daughter from the labor camps
I laid you down in the grass of a clearing
You wept but your soul was willing


And my parents will never consent to this love
That I hold your hand

Meet me on my vast veranda
My sweet untouched Miranda
And while the seagulls are crying
We fall but our souls are flying

(chorus repeated twice)
Why this melodramatic folk song that really isn't a folk song? I mean yes, folk songs do have elements like the rich boy and the poor girl, and the language of the lyric is decidedly anachronistic (wanton, duty, vast veranda) and the chorus acts a simple apostrophe in the classic sense (an Ai! In Classical drama, for example or an "Oh!" of the folk song), but usually the such folk songs the poor girl ends up being victimized by the rich boy (by having his illegitimate child) and the language is tweaked enough to be modern to rub against its supposed historical setting (when is it supposed to be? 19th century? 2005?) and the plaintive "Oh my love!" is remarkably like any modern love song (think any plaintive love song). In folk music, it is usually only in the opposite sort of songs where poor boys run away with rich girls of position that they get to live happily ever after (since everyone knows that rich boys are stuck-up twats and poor boys are basically good, at heart if not just a bit rascally enough to make them appealing to said rich girls.) But this song has none of that implying that through falling off the cliffs of Dover the ill-matched pair will find flight. (And I'm not even going to comment on the off-putting rape reference in the song, but suffice it to say I think it throws the whole thing into the problematic postmodernism that I think the song and the entire album represents.)

See this is where it is going: when is the historical setting for this son? Why the hell does it sound so familiar? Even in our times do ill-matched young lovers throw themselves off cliffs for love?

What I am getting at is that The Decemberists are successful simply because this weird little song and all the other weird little songs on the album work precisely because they understand that people still kill themselves out of love; people still have relationships their parents will never approve of; people still fail; people still have parents who have rotten relationships; people still want revenge. It is only our modern fakery that hides traditional cultural/personal behaviors.

All this comes to a head in the song "16 Military Wives" which is a dismantling of war and patriotism (think Charles Ives setting e.e. cummings to music) as well as the reaction to all of that by the received, so-called liberal community. This enthusiastic, upbeat tune has somehow caught everything in its net, and despite its seeming happiness, it is about the darkest song I've ever heard.

So, reader (still great, mighty, and dear), you might ask, am I talking about some sort of "universal themes" that the half-assed structuralist New Critics tried to throw at us as a theory for everything in literature? Hell no! What I am talking about is the conceit that modernity has freed us from our cultural histories and the behaviors that caused them; that somehow we are so radically different now that we share nothing with a simple little folktale or folk son--or, for that matter all literature from the past. The conceit is that like small pox, we've somehow been freed of all that. Bullshit.

What Picaresque gets at is our seeming inability to escape our pasts, despite all the work that writers have done particularly in the twentieth century. Young people still kill themselves out of love; the poor and the rich are still not allowed to mix; there is still racism and sexism; we still seek revenge; we still fight in wars that have purposefully unstable and oft-switched causes. All the while we write and sing about the injustices of life, and we sing on and on and on:
And I am a writer, writer of fictions
I am the heart that you call home
And I've written pages upon pages
Trying to rid you from my bones
I am a writer. I am all that you have hoped (on)
And I've written pages upon pages
Trying to rid you from my bones
And if you don't love me let me go
And if you don't love me let me go
(The Engine Driver)
Man these folks are smart.

It all makes me want to work some more on Tales of a Basque Grandmother (and no, that is not all my work there gentile and mighty and dear and kind reader.) Kendra Koo?



    Is that a toy Wookie on the suitcase?

  2. I hear some Billy Bragg influence in there.

    After hearing songs like these, wouldn't you love to sit in on the creative process, how do they put the words together, where does the music come from?

  3. Dr. Write and I need new music. We will get this. We need more advice on music. You should have a weekly or bi-weekly music review.

  4. Anonymous9:00 PM

    its pastiche trash. at least they have a clear view of the nothing outside to seek... I love them.

    and. at least somebody had a cool fucking halloween party!

  5. Anonymous9:01 PM

    oops, the last comment was from chak, not anonymous.