426 · And Undo What Heredity's Done to You
27 March 03
The world does not exist. Or it exists, but only through our consent, and so it can be banished if that's what we truly want. Or there are an infinite profusion of worlds, and we're simply stuck in a bad one. Or, possibly, we have mistaken surfaces for morality, or vice versa. Whichever it is, the larger the world seems to me, the closer I want to scrutinize the smallest details. The more distant importance, the more I care about what I can touch. The more incomprehensible the manifest logic of cultural incompatibility, the more devoted I am to the internal order of mercifully isolated realities.
These are not songs so much as they are the fragments
of shattered catharses, fallen onto the space where songs might have been. The arrangements are mathematical landscapes, pixelated not in contour but in expression, as if ideas cannot be connected, only juxtaposed. Where there are words, at all, they are muttered or howled, like notes for work that will be done later.
The titles are complicated, but the moments when this album is most radiantly itself are the silences, I think, or the standing waves where patterns cross, or the places where there seems to be the least left. This is Low's lesson in reductive beauty taken back past its origin, back to a reverse-extrapolated common ancestor for Low and Fugazi, a trilobite at once of cacophonous noise and breathless instants' pauses.
And I want to say that it's important. More: I want to feel that it's important. I want to believe that our definitions of meaning mandate personal relevance, and so we can't really hate each other from thousands of miles apart. As events claim to exceed the scope of art, I want to counter by ceding melody and storytelling and charm, and redefining Art as the study not of what is made or done, but of what then happens to it.
I yearn to believe so, more desperately the more vividly I see how hopeless it is. I want to believe that this oblique, halting, evasive record, with all its deliberately void aphorisms and failures of inertia, is as beautiful as Spirit of Eden in the same way that cement can be as intractable as air. "I've got this hope", says Sean at the last, and although nothing has really led to this, I want to turn around and trace his hope back through every other disconnected thought. I want exactly that. I want to stipulate hope, however unlikely, and then recalculate anything that doesn't imply it.
And if I didn't know what to do with this album all winter, and if I kept playing it and then wondering how much time had elapsed and whether I'd brushed the iPod's skip buttons without realizing, and if it took global atavism to re-remind me of my ambient alienation, then I grant you that this is denial, not an answer. Except that when you answer a question, you validate its grammar, and I want no part of these questions. I stand nowhere in the world where the choices are blood or oil, and where taking sides necessitates mislabeling half the idiots as liars and vice versa. So this is my protest album, and I will play it into the spaces where I refuse to stand.
And if our walls and colors will not fight without us, maybe we have overstayed our time. I have forgotten, anew, how to reconcile our ability to manufacture tranquility with our apparent inability to avoid destroying it again. Maybe I have let the artistry of patterns become separated from the authorship of patterns. Are we ultimately the same artists when we are builders and when we are soldiers?
But is abstraction then vital or imaginary? Truths are
simplified out of the complexes of fear and dogmatic self-identity. Can
love be based on anything but faith? And if not, since
not, can I countenance faith without ratifying every barbarism built
out of it?
So I walk around the city, listening to the sound of melancholy with its skin flayed off, looking for geometry that can replace too-gnarled bones. There must be a way to recalibrate the parameters of moral belief such that every two people don't get antipathetic results out of the same equations.
There must be a way to see Mondrian as our witness instead of Kevin Carter, or to embed our reporters where they already live in order to find out what we are when we're not playing roles. If McCarthy is my protest record, then A Promise is my war journal, ruthless and undistracted by storms or pretense. This is the record of the only thing you really need to know: we fall apart. No matter how noble our selves are, we can't sustain them all of every day. So the fragility of the world is metered not by our principles, but by whatever is left when they are lost or stolen from us.
And it's seductive to believe that anything we understand is safe, or that what we can paint can't undo us.
But when has that ever been true? Every flawed reality we have transcended was built in earnest. Permanence is an illusion of impatience.
Our materials know us inately.
Whereas our arts only really learn to know us after we release them to their own lives.
Near the end of this record, Xiu Xiu cover Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car". Or somebody plays the three-chord-pair rhythm riff over and over again, at least, the chorus reduced to just single diffident strums, the narrative whispered like a haunted prayer before chloroforming. "We can make a decision", Tracy insisted. Xiu Xiu are the avatars of the part of us that never believed we had that power. A Promise is the sound of emo decaying into Calvinism.
I've said before that beauty ought to be a matter of human construct by definition. I wrote down, a long time ago, that I thought the setting sun was hideous. I wrote it into the catalog of what I wanted to believe, and so it is there now, in what has become the diary of my misplaced and oversimplified idealisms. I thought that the setting sun couldn't (or shouldn't, anyway) be beautiful to us because we had no hand in making it, no hand in setting the planet to spin at the right speed and angle to produce the scene. And were beauty a census or a calculus of hands, I would have been right. But what I should have realized, no later than the first time I picked up a camera with the idea that it too was an instrument, is that of course beauty is an act of observation, not an act of creation, and the sun sets beautifully because (and if) we close our eyes and feel it slide across our eyelids. I know that art can be beautiful, but I have fallen into the trap of thinking that beauty is an exclusive function of art, rather than a potential characteristic of it. Arguably, it finally dawns on me (and "finally" is almost certainly the profoundly wrong word), art is mostly a curriculum for learning to see, and if you can only find beauty where it has been seeded in the interest of pedagogy, you haven't learned much of value yet.
There is beauty in movement, and also in movement arrested.
I didn't always remember that what I meant by saying that music is the thing humans do best is that music is an astonishing trick we do by listening, not by playing. I have defined art in terms of human intention, and as a communicative process. And it is, but there are so many others. And even art, for that matter, is not essentially communicative, it is essentially (and tautologically) artificial. People are essentially communicative. Make art, if you have something to paint or sing. Or just walk around, where you live, as a season surrenders to the inevitable. Tell somebody about it, if you wish. Or wait until you have something else to tell them, and say it as whomever you've become.
And remember, when art seems empty, or assembled out of other people's discarded parts, or transparent, that superficiality is a description of your decision to focus on the surface.
The Postal Service is a muted cut-and-paste-electronica side-project of two guys who are in other bands, and it's not particularly significant which ones. Theirs may be a slightly lower-key, less-glib version of this throwaway meme than the Future Bible Heroes' or Freezepop's, but if it's different in quality for you, not just magnitude, it's because you've found a way onto or through or against it. You've figured out how to hear it as David Gray modulating Polara, or a version of Massive Attack that is neither massive nor attacking, or a Radiohead that remembers how we could think the radio was magic when it was only playing the Pet Shop Boys.
And maybe Give Up is ultimately little more than a stick-figure cartoon rendered cheatingly with airbrushes. But if that's a way to see something, it counts.
It doesn't always have to be hard.
Atom and His Package: Attention! Blah Blah Blah.
Eventually, though, I always come back to people, and to songs.
When I got to Harvard Square, I found that the Salvation Army Band had taken up residence for an afternoon. The Salvation Army Band needed Atom and His Package like the Oscars needed Michael Moore. If you have disliked Atom before, this album is not going to waste any of its or your valuable time trying to change your mind. If you have liked him before, he still sounds like that. If you have not heard him yet, he sounds like a one-man version of They Might Be Giants who dreams of being the world's most confrontationally self-abasing heavy-metal rhythm guitarist instead of the world's smartest children's band. If you've just been putting off investigation, this album reprises my favorite song from last year's EP.
If the Salvation Army Band generates one solo career, it's going to be this guy, who I believe is just a Package short of obscure stardom. "Possession (Not the One by Danzig)", the opening track on Attention! Blah Blah Blah., is basically Wall of Voodoo's "Mexican Radio" re-imagined as a Faith No More stomp. And after three albums, this week, that I appreciate through levels of abstraction, and as filters against states of the world I'm trying not to engage, suddenly everything comes flooding back. I know how comprehensively we fail and flounder, but for the moment I can't hold it against us no matter how much easier it would make things.
The saddest truth is that I understand. I understand this preacher's confused insistence that the deist overtones of Harvard's 1636 charter ought to be reflected in a religious component to the modern university's curriculum. I understand the petrifying fear that somebody will find a way to express their resentment of American cultural imperialism and pervasive spiritual bankruptcy using the same weapons that were supposed to keep the peace. I understand hating the oblivious sugar-water arrogance with which American corporations impose themselves and their useless products onto any authenticity that stands still for ten seconds. I understand the appeal of turning yourself into a heavy metal hero in your own bedroom.
This man had about five minutes in which to tell what was thus inevitably a formulaic life-story involving a worryingly standard-issue set of short-sighted life decisions and a brief but energetic disquisition on the transformational power of subsequently discovering Jesus Christ. I would rather have heard Atom blasting through "The Palestinians Are Not the Same Thing as the Rebel Alliance, Jackass", which has the considerable virtue of not sounding like it was written before the part was cast.
But I suspect that neither subject was likely to make a deep impression on these kids. The bouncy "Does Anyone Else in This Room Want to Marry His or Her Own Grandmother?" might fare no better with them, but at least it has a fake-xylophone solo.
This man is not sure a fake-xylophone solo is a good idea, and probably won't like Atom's careening "I, Professional Gambler" much, either.
But I am a cynical asshole, and some of these people are here to actually listen. Atom's "Out to Everyone" is out of tune, and who does it benefit if I snipe at the terms of somebody else's search for their own place?
And maybe I'm underestimating how many people would enjoy Atom, too. "Friend, Please Stop Smoking" sounds like a cross between Paul Simon's "Cecilia", "Come On Eileen", Run DMC's "Walk This Way" cover and the Police's "Don't Stand So Close to Me", and if you try to imagine the Beastie Boys singing an anti-smoking song you are on the way to understanding why I never thought they were funny.
"Head With Arms" is a one-joke song about octopi, but "I'm Downright Amazed at What I Can Destroy With Just a Hammer" still sounds just as fabulous and human to me as when it made my top-ten list last year. Atom lurks in these songs, half shy and half crouched in wait. The haphazard Radon cover "Lying to You" sounds like Green Day doing the FAO Schwarz theme. The blustery "Dear Atom, You Do Not Want children. Love, Atom." is actually a reverse letter back to his younger, more frightened self. The brash "For Aliza, Whenever She May Sleep", for a friend doing a medical residency, is probably going to wake her up again. Hopefully she'll hit Stop before Atom squanders the final track on the sound of one of his friends being moronic.
Back in Harvard Square, a wearyingly cheerful woman has just told us four times that she gave up a Vice Presidency at an International Consulting Firm in order to devote herself to the proposition that your life is meaningful because and only because Jesus loves you. I might have raised my hand and asked why Jesus doesn't love the Vice Presidents of International Consulting Firms, which sounds like a simpler solution to me, but I am too busy trying to decide whether this man with white pants actually has any explosives taped to his body. But this is wrong again. I am supposed to have come to the Square to be with people, not to use my camera like I'm playing a fairgrounds target-game in which I win a stuffed elk if I can pass summary judgment on more than two dozen strangers in less than a minute.
Atom is as happily mundane as Helms are abstruse, as engaging as Xiu Xiu are harrowing, as charged as the Postal Service are restrained. And he still may drive you crazy. They all may. For all I know, you'd be calmer if you spent the time watching CNN.
Do what you need to do to protect yourself.
We slip away into dreams and music, into surface and shadow, into each other's arms. We slip into ourselves and leave the world to thrash without us.