All the Modern Things Have Always Existed
79 · 1 August 96
Patty Griffin: Living With Ghosts
So today, in the other part of my life, whose traumas and metaphors leak insidiously into this one, I quit my job. It's not as dramatic as it might sound, since I did simultaneously take a new job with a different company doing the same general sort of thing (I think that even the people I know who don't read this column realized that my threat to take up sprout farming in Manitoba was largely idle), but I've been working for this last one for more than four years, through three owners and at least five different names, and so leaving it, no matter how sensible the move is, carries a certain gravity of event. Weigh that span of time this way: when I started working there I'd never heard of the World Wide Web, and neither had you, and yet tonight we're yelling the words to Patty Griffin's "Poor Man's House" at each other across it. It will take a few weeks for the change to really sink in, I'm sure. How could I internalize, so soon, that I will never again knock push pins off of cubicle walls as I walk down aisles misaligned over tightrope lines in the carpet? How could I truly accept, so quickly, that I never again have to stand in the middle of the food court of the mall across the street, trying to devise some rationale for distinguishing between "Chinese" and "Cajun", the flavors of their chicken variants being insufficiently distinct for this purpose? How fast will I learn again to ride glass-walled parking-garage elevators without expecting the view to be obscured by enough pigeon crap to bury the idiot architect who decided to give the miserable creatures so many adjacent ledges to defecate off of?
My list of fatal moral flaws that developed in this company over the course of the last year or two is long, but the most deadly and most telling, or at least the one that segues into an album review with the least further ado, is that it went from being a company that did things to being a company that merely wanted to own them. From a company of painters, canvas stretchers, brush cleaners and museum guards it turned into a company that just wanted to stand at the end of a conveyor belt rubber-stamping its fake-handwritten signature onto a steady stream of anonymous Norman Rockwell knockoffs. From a company that set out to build a new platform for taking the traditional values of publishing into the electronic realm, it turned into a company that no longer clearly remembered what those values ever were. One day, in a meeting to discuss "possible content sources" (a phrase that, had my wits been about me, should have been indication enough), one of the executives mentioned, approvingly, a trade publication for drive-time disk jockeys that publishes daily news summaries with jokes about the news bits already pre-supplied, to be inserted by the DJs in faux-ad-libbed fashion. If this thought doesn't provoke the same profound moral revulsion in you that it does in me, then I'm not sure I can adequately explain it. Talking is communication. If you talk when you have nothing to communicate, then you are abusing speech. I can't decide whether the person writing jokes they will never tell or the person reading jokes they couldn't be bothered to invent is doing more violence to the concept of language. Recently I've noticed signs that someone may have extended this DJ cottage industry to cover information about the music itself, as well. New albums now seem to travel with a nugget of incidental information attached to each of them, so that every description in the media begins the same way, as if channeling the fixations of some sinister hive mind: when Jewel got her record contract she was living in her car; Tori Amos was thrown out of Peabody for sight reading; Robert Pollard used to teach kindergarten; Dave Pirner dumped his lifelong sweetheart to date Winona Ryder; Joan Osborne was discovered at an Open Mic Night.
Everywhere I've heard or read about Patty Griffin, then, mention of her album has been accompanied by this little fable: she sent her guitar-and-voice demo tape to A&M, they put her in the studio with a cadre of session musicians to make the real version of the album, and at the end everybody realized that the demo had been much better, after all, so that's what they released. And now I too have related it, shielded only by a flimsy layer of indirection. But let me be clear: I have no idea if it's true. Maybe they just thought about remaking these songs. Maybe they never did, but they wanted to pre-empt any suggestion that they should have. Maybe they spent millions meticulously redoing the album, and then somebody sent Bob Ludwig the wrong master and they had to invent a story that made the slip appear intentional. If the fable is false, it's symptomatic of our culture's willingness to uncritically repeat unverified assertions. And frankly, if it's true that's barely better news. The idea that an album of singing and guitar playing needs to be redone at all strikes me as the music industry's manifestation of content-is-sludge disdain, the belief that creation is merely fodder for production. Folk music is suffering from a gruesome incursion of this idea's zombie acolytes at the moment, as record labels try to manufacture cross-over using the only tools they understand.
And the crowning irony, to me, is that if there's one singer-with-guitar album that should have had the ability to repel the undead through sheer purity of presence, this is it. In my world, bragging about rejecting a studio version of this album in favor of the original demo is like an art-school dean bragging that he bought the Mona Lisa after rejecting the applicant whose portfolio it arrived in. I haven't made any preposterous claims of folk immortality since I said last year that Jewel's debut was the most important folk album since Blue, so I must be due for another by now. Here, then: this is the most important bare acoustic album since Luka Bloom's Turf, and the best album of pure folk songwriting made during my lifetime. This record embodies the triumph of individual creative will over mass-produced mediocrity and calculated eccentricity. In a very real psychological sense, I quit my job today because listening to this album made me realize that its spirit was anathema to my employer's worldview, and the knowledge that any human still holds its values made it insupportable for me to continue working for a company that didn't.
It's such an unassuming little album to have my life crisis imposed on it. It really is just Patty playing acoustic guitar and singing. (Actually, according to the credits, on one song it's Adam Steinberg playing, not Patty, and on another Ty Tyler is playing a second guitar, but these exceptions have no perceptible effect.) There's no multi-tracking, no harmony vocals, no percussion other than fingers and strings, no strings, no keyboards, no drum machines, no sample loops, no harmonica, no stand-up bass, no guest vocalists, no prepared piano, no celebrity endorsements, no profanity and no screaming. The guitar playing is fluent and expressive, but it's accompaniment, not soloing, closer to Nanci Griffith than to Patty Larkin, if you're deconstructing Patty Griffin's name. The songs take small, familiar emotions, and wrap them in evocative images, rarely more than one per song. "Moses" cries out of a loneliness that feels so deep it must be parted like an ocean. "Let Him Fly" accepts the impossibility of holding a relationship together with the sigh, "It would take an acrobat, and I already tried all that". "Every Little Bit" paints that moment when your ability to believe your own fictions fails. "Time Will Do the Talking" is serene faith in perseverance. "Mad Mission" is a blithely defiant endorsement of the hazardous quest for happiness. "Poor Man's House" turns social-class fatalism into a cathartic blues lullaby. "Forgiveness" finds absolution only in the end of the world, but then finds little ends of the worlds in hurricanes, nights, bridges and airplanes overhead. "You Never Get What You Want" turns a lover's own condescension back on him. "Sweet Lorraine" is a grim family portrait transformed by the narrator's single unglossed use of "us". And "Not Alone", in which a dead woman sings her grieving mate to sleep, is I think the first song to make me cry since the little girl in Sally Fingerett's "Home Is Where the Heart Is" asks her mother who will take care of their neighbor with AIDS, with no thought in her voice that there might not be an answer. The observations, however accurate, are all so unpretentious and uncluttered with artifice. There are no extraneous details, no complicated narrative devices, no names or places, and aside from the one line "We were drinking like the Irish but we were drinking Scotch", not even any wordplay. It's like everything decorative and precious has been sanded off of these songs, carried away a grain at a time by millennia of ocean-warmed breezes. There's so little left.
But oh, my scattered disembodied friends, bathed in VGA rays or surreptitiously removing a printout of this column from the network Laserjet during lunch, the Grand Canyon is just rock, worn away by water. Patty Griffin's singing is no more of a kind with Pete Seeger's anyone-can-do-this storytelling than Smilla's Sense of Snow belongs on the shelf with A Time to Kill. If Living With Ghosts represents a cross-over from folk to anything else, it is because folk has traditionally been a genre in which the written song, not the recorded performance, is preeminent, and this album courts the modern fascination with the image, not the object. It's hard for to me to imagine, even, that these songs were just written. Their melodies are so elegant and instinctive that it feels like they must have formed over centuries. Patty dodges around her tunes with so much subtle invention and implied counterpoint that she seems to be drawing on deep cultural memories of what the lines really are to anchor her carefully elaborated variations. Her belief in them is so evident that it seems like she couldn't possibly have written them herself, for then she would know that they are mortal. How many years has she been cultivating them? How many thousands of times must she have sung these things to herself for them to become so familiar to her that she forgets they could have ever had vulnerabilities or self-consciousness? How many times until the versions in her head drown out the versions she's singing so thoroughly that she's no longer aware of the risk that they'll be different? The songs carry her and she them, whirling so fluidly in flight that you can no longer tell whether it's Clark or Lois doing the flying. And the night lasts until you're ready for the dream to end. If it is weather that has aged these songs, then it is weather, too, that has stripped the paint off of David, and perhaps erosion is also an artist's brush, and there are messages in what it leaves. A few curves, an angle, the proportions of a life.
But if the new job I've taken is indeed designing software, not sprout farming -- and it is, though that's all I'm allowed to say about it -- then there must be a return from this descent into agrarian-aesthetic process-of-nature rapture. The contrast between Post and Living With Ghosts, on the surface, could hardly be greater. Holding the covers up next to each other, in fact, both head-and-shoulders pictures of the singer, you can almost imagine that they are alternate-universe renditions of the same trans-instantial entity, every detail individually inverted along an invention/evolution axis. Patty's picture is all browns, battered like a photograph out of somebody's worn scrapbook, with her looking down, her hair unruly and her shoulders bare. Björk's cover is a riot of vibrant colors, bristling with sharp edges and indecipherable polygons, with her looking right at you in icy Icelandic concentration. The contents continue this opposition, as Post is as bizarre, erratic and demanding as Living With Ghosts is natural, consistent and intuitive. If listening to Patty's songs thirty times makes me think I've heard them a million, then listening to Björk's songs thirty times leaves me still not totally convinced that I've heard them before. I can learn them, with effort, but if my concentration falters for even a moment, the next song's next unexpected contortion will take me completely by surprise.
The tricky thing about this, and the reason why I'm only now getting around to buying this album, is that it's very hard to appreciate how strange and varied this album is by listening to any one song by itself. And so while you might have heard "Army of Me", "Isobel" or "It's Oh So Quiet" on the radio, in between "Personal Jesus" and "Sick of Myself", or "Zombie" and "Live Forever", it's impossible to generalize on that isolated experience to deduce what hearing a whole album of this is like. Taken out of context, Björk is merely weird, with her squeaky voice, strange diction and inability to decide whether she's doing techno or big-band jazz. It's so easy to recognize how different she is from just about whomever she's juxtaposed with that it's hard to get beyond that cursory assessment. For me, at least, this album only began to make sense when I put it in my changer all by itself, and let it play without anything else for company.
By "make sense" here, I don't mean what I usually would. As with Scott Walker's Tilt, in a much different argot, a large part of this album's appeal to me is that on some level I really can't fathom it. I don't understand why Björk starts screaming in the middle of "It's Oh So Quiet". I don't understand how the horns in "I Miss You" manage to segue into drum machine splatter and then into tribal hand-drums. I can't tell you why "Headphones" is so quiet, but "Hyper-Ballad" is so jittery. What are those record-skip noises doing at the end of "Modern Things"? Why doesn't "You've Been Flirting Again" ever seem to kick in? I follow the texts of the early morning rituals in "Hyper-Ballad", the anthropomorphic machine-conspiracy theory in "The Modern Things", the message-bearing moth in "Isobel", the post-breakup reversion to cosmetics in "Possibly Maybe", the impatient reversal of causality in "I Miss You", and the deliverance through music in "Headphones", but with the possible exception of the last, I can't begin to explain their significances. And yet, in all these things, I sense that there is a logic. There is a system, I am convinced, in Björk's mind, and the fact that I can discern this, and still not diagram it, makes this album as thrilling to me as a sprawling British hedge maze that I haven't solved yet, and don't really want to. Being lost is an important feeling, and a culturally neglected one, since it's hard to productize (spot the word I learned at my old job), and when you send advertising people into hedge mazes to put up placards, that's usually the last you see of them. Too much of life is too simple, its challenge too soon exhausted. As much as we need the parts that uncritically enfold and welcome us, so too we need the parts that mark the borders, and give us something to push against.
And yet, for all their superficial differences, Post and Living With Ghosts are akin in two ways that I find particularly heartening as I regroup, mentally, to begin a new project. Björk's songs lend themselves to remixing, as the arbitrary nature of their construction admits naturally of other possible formulations, and while subjecting Patty Griffin to dance remixing would be abominable, her songs lend themselves to infinite variation of performance, and so both albums are the exact way they are not out of necessity, but out of choice. Theirs are worlds with many solutions, and as this is also true of the real world, it's a very useful design lesson. Software design isn't the SAT; finding two answers to a question shouldn't paralyze you. Pick one, and move on.
The other shared characteristic is simply that, as diametrically opposed as the women's methodologies are, Patty with her guitar and a microphone and Björk with an arsenal of studio gadgets and a corps of gadgeteers, both approaches produce music that I find powerfully inspiring. That may well sound mundane, but I continually feel myself on the verge of some extreme reductionism or other, and it's very useful to be forcibly reminded that if you go West long enough you end up East. Out of the increasingly Luddite curmudgeonliness that my attitude toward my old job devolved into, of which Patty Griffin's style could be taken as an endorsement, Björk helps me to believe that I can extract a renewal of faith in the idea that machines can, if we concentrate hard enough on the task, be built as our tools and our servants, rather than as idols to which we ache to submit. Post is, to me, a testament to the imposition of human will onto mechanical forms, and the expression of it through them, and to the essential human character of abstracted expression. And so, in its own way, this album, too, is why I quit my job today. The fact that my old boss is the person who recommended it to me is an irony with, I hope, no legal repercussions.