The Resource That Explosions Waste
279 · 1 June 00
Park Ave.: When Jamie Went to London...We Broke Up
Outside, what do they know about art? They know monuments and classics, national anthems and anything they had to squirm through as children and so now associate with an assumed adulthood. They are speechless before it, thoughtless and proud, impressed because bewildered. They believe all human achievement aspires to the Statue of Liberty, to tower over a harbor and offer the simplest possible hope, and they don't notice that it's a hundred times betrayed within the circuit of her shadow. They let time and engineering stand in for taste, and so allow their experience of all art to be reduced to restatements of "we are great", and themselves, as audience, to Nuremberg ralliers. They love fireworks, and Disney, and awards shows, and mistrust anything that can't fill a stadium tightly enough to sustain a wave. They don't like people, don't know people, don't know what could make them themselves and so don't become. They move, if they can be moved at all, out of remnant inertia from when they were young enough that they shouldn't have known the difference between needing and wanting. They settle over the earth like ashes, and everywhere they live ends up gray and quiet, and indistinguishable from anywhere else. We could reach them, I suppose, with bombs and flags, but what's the use of getting their attention if we are reduced to a grammar insufficient for expressing anything they don't already believe? So we give up. We pray that every night's television becomes Must See, and we wait for it to lull them to sleep, that the streets will be emptied of soullessness and left for us, for a few hours, to transform. We colonize abandoned spaces, and stage evanescent operas into dead ends. We shape the difference between awareness and merely living into luminous sketches that by morning have faded into the brickwork of walls, and as the sun comes back up we watch the first wave of the dying hurry past them, oblivious to the difference between billboards and poetry, between buildings and architecture, between catharsis and sneezing. We return their world to them, for the duration of the day, because we're outnumbered, and we hide, waiting patiently for their inexorable routines to carry them away again.
Inside, where we hide, where we try to do better, we formulate thousands of meticulous ordinances to oppose thousands of casual mistakes, but maybe these are all variations on two basic rules: human vitality is measured by the circulation of ideas, not oxygen and truth is a function of clarity and fearlessness, not scale and technique. Or, it is not enough to simply exist and the clues may not be labeled. Or, listen to yourself and listen to each other. One rule for how to assess your time here, one for how to share it. And so, when we confront art, we are both less tolerant than they are, and more. Fireworks don't count, for example, because they don't say anything, because explosions are the penultimate triumph of spectacular mindlessness (second only, by virtue of a trace element of human intent, to sunsets). Disney is a deformed caricature of dreams, Hollywood awards-shows a parody of achievement, the wave a searing demonstration of how the highest order of life, en masse, can resemble the lowest. It's not that meaningful epic art is impossible (there is the Sagrada Familia, after all, and the last movement of the Ninth, and the films Peter Greenaway did before he discovered digital video), it's that it's incredibly difficult, and beyond most of our artistic means. When you realize this, when you understand what it implies for the relationship between inspiration and production, you step through the door between the outside and the inside. The difference between a humane, wholehearted love of art and a reflexive, opportunistic one lies in internalizing the idea that great art, whether by great you refer to how it touches you or how it explains our shared experience, is not always particularly well made. You must go from cataloguing flaws, as if they were supposed to be concealed and pointing them out constitutes criticism, to understanding that more often than not flaws and virtues are equal participants in what an artwork accomplishes. Yes, Chasing Amy is in many ways inept filmmaking, dubious politics and overwrought storytelling, but I walked out of it as changed as I've ever been by a movie, and if you didn't, you're the one that lost out. Sure, The Gold Bug Variations could have been shorter, but I didn't want it to ever end. Maybe Gaudí's undulating rooms don't function that well as residences, too reluctant to defer to the identity of the occupant, but I don't have to live in them. And this is, too, how I can say that a twenty-three minute album left behind by a defunct band from Omaha, Nebraska that neither you nor I ever heard of can be at once patently incompetent, dumbfoundingly poignant, barely half-formed and terrifyingly profound, with a glimmer of potential to become as indispensable a component of my worldview as My So-Called Life or Franny and Zooey or a painting by a man named Chuck McCarter that has hung in my homes for the last twenty years because my parents brought it back from a white elephant party when I was a kid and were going to throw it away.
The front cover says only the first half of the title, "when jamie went to london...", as if the record is going to be a travelogue, a momentary impression reinforced by the map on the back cover and the listing of track times as "arrive" and "depart". Only on the back of the lyric booklet is "...we broke up" added, and although I already knew the whole title from having ordered the thing, coming across the second clause hidden inside still felt like a blow. I don't even know these characters yet, can't even see Jamie's face in the cover picture, and yet between eight words, a little typography, and whatever the choice of this particular photograph implies about the texture of memory, I've somehow already become convinced that the breakup is heartrending. The record begins (after a fifteen-second "theme song") with a clanking, half-out-of-tune and three-quarters-out-of-sync song called "All Boy Band", predictably about being in a band. One of the girls sings lead, unsteadily, and one of the boys joins in with a frayed, yelping counterpoint. But Park Ave didn't really understand how to be in a band, and so their song about it is about much more than that. A sequence in the middle floors me: "I guess it's true I look for it / A tragedy that is going to fit / The chorus that I need / More than anything // Is it 'Happiness is so impossible that you can't touch it even when it's close you'? / Or is it 'Emptiness is still so probable that you're too scared to even reach for it'? // 'You can't pretend'? / Is that was this is about? / The feeling's gone but the album just came out / And even though there is no meaning now / I can't stop singing". I'm not sure this few words have ever invoked this many of my theories about how art and identity operate. We don't often admit that we don sadnesses in part as ornament, and we even more rarely admit that when we do, we choose them so carefully that we're probably only pretending they're disguises. The two choruses they try out would be interesting enough on their own, but the meta-chorus in which they reject them, despite having no better candidates, to me explains something most art only demonstrates, which is that art searches for truth far more often than it finds it, and with far more interesting results. And one of the most daunting things about committing yourself to an artwork is that it will outlive your impulse, and the more of yourself you put into it, the more tenaciously people may end up clinging to something you have ceased to believe. "No regrets", you hear people claim, like it's a victory, but the only way you avoid having regrets is by taking no risks. If you fear regrets, you fear life. "I can say with confidence / There are a hundred bands that sound like us / But that's not important and it never was", they add later. "It is the feeling that creeps in when it is late / As you pull the van to the side of the interstate / And you lay on the roof and the stars hang above / And you wonder what they would look like if you were in love". Let us never forget that that's what astronomy is trying, however obliquely, to discover.
One of the boys takes over vocals for "She's an Actress?", one of the girls adding some bubbly keyboards to the murky guitar framework, and although it's easy to imagine that these arrangement details were unpremeditated, that they were just taking turns singing, in fact this song would be completely different if it wasn't sung by a male voice. The story is nominally about the narrator watching his actress girlfriend forget her lines, but by the end I'm convinced it's metaphor, and it's her life she's spacing out of, whose lines she's forgetting, in which case his stubborn supportiveness is both more impressive and probably more unwise. The drums on the slow "December Snapshots" sound like they're being played by somebody who's never actually sat at a drum kit before, the girl singing sounds like a microphone has been placed in front of her over strenuous objections, and the words tumble out like whoever wrote the lyrics hadn't finished putting them in order, but all this is precisely what heartbreak feels like, so what do we accomplish by making it sound more coherent? "She Teaches Art?" sounds like a less-nasal Wolfie song, bouncy and awkward, but I think it's the first pop song I've heard about the dawning suspicion that you don't want to be a school teacher, and the conclusion, "Four whole years and still no career", is plaintive for the time lost, and twice as plaintive because the narrator is obviously too young to know that four years isn't that long, and that "wasting" college is exactly what you should do with it, because it's your last chance to squander opportunities with, although it seems otherwise at the time, no important consequences. "My Sick Complainant" is a confused relationship triangle as bungled prom anthem, and "I lack conviction / With these drunk decisions" is sung with so little conviction that it amounts to double-negation (I yearn to sing along, but another voice would ruin it). I'm only sad that the final line is "beyond this dull divide" and not, as I thought until I read the lyrics, "beyond this Olduvai", as if the party he's sitting in, which she just left, is a ravine cluttered with the fossil record of their relationship's evolution. Intensity takes a short break for the scratchy pop-punk froth of "It's a Life", which seems to be about a couple who live on a movie set at the back of a bowling alley, a tableau whose vast allegorical potential is left unrealized. "Invitation to a Closet" is an endearingly roundabout love song of the sort you can probably only write in your teens, about the kind of love you can only have in your teens, and although it might be the worst-recorded song on the album (it's a duet between the two boys, only one of whom seems to have a microphone near him), I'm completely enveloped by the crescendo.
Nothing prepares me, however, for the last song. I guess it's fairly inept, too, with wavering singing and some rattly percussion noises in the background that have no apparent relation to the main rhythm. It's a little better produced than the other eight, though, and the band play like they want to prove, just once before the end, that they've learned something. Glassy synthesizers and muted guitars on the verses blossom into a shameless rock gallop on the choruses, something like Heavenly covering a Nancy Sinatra song they'd only ever heard done by the B-52's. The title, "Lachrymose Obsequious Vehement Elated", is not, mercifully, a lyric, and in fact this break-up meditation dispenses with cleverness and instead follows the contours of simple despair ("In this aching bed we are lying on / You get your forced confession / I'm fucking lonely"). "All the lines you drew for me to walk / Well I walked them well, didn't I?" they take turns asking, as if the entire course of the relationship has led to this, and I empathize, but that's the impulse you have to fight against the hardest. This is the flip-side of not being afraid of regrets: you have to be able to compartmentalize them, so they don't poison everything that they resolve. The song leaves out all the joy, but it's easy to infer from the release of the breakup that it must have been there. Yes, your lover's worst expectations and your involuntary propensity for living up to them will eventually destroy love, but it's irresponsible revisionist history to forget that relationships are most productive when you live up to each other's great expectations. This is why teenage relationships don't count, and why they last or fall apart at random; it's only when you're older that your potential becomes constrained, without which talking about "expectations" is as pointless as trying to second-guess a second-grader who says he wants to be a fireman. "What are you hurting each other for?", I want to scream at these two. How can they give up on each other when they're still so unformed? They think they don't like what they've turned into, but this isn't what they've turned into, it's an arbitrary snapshot from the middle of a transformation that won't be complete for years. But who the hell wants to take a thirty-three-year-old's advice when you're seventeen? It's not even useful; they've got to live through those sixteen years at one year per year whether they believe me about how their understanding of them will change or not. I'm only slightly more receptive, now, to what forty-nine-year-olds want to tell me, and maybe that's only proportion, so their story might as well be mine, too. Or at least, as I listen to this song on repeat, falling helplessly, it's not making me sadder or angrier, so either I'm ignoring the words or I'm learning something useful it could mean for me to echo them, and I seem to have memorized them without noticing, so I guess I'm not ignoring them. "Maybe I would be better off if I just end this quickly", they admit, but they haven't yet. A moment after the song ends, maybe she'll get up and leave the room forever, but the song isn't about that, it's about this last lingering moment when either one of them could still, maybe, do something to keep them together, and so too it's about all last lingering moments, about how we savor decisions for a few heartbeats before we either turn them into actions or change our minds. They haven't broken up yet because the truth is that walking out is never as dramatic and transformational as deciding you're going to, and in fact sometimes the decision renders the action superfluous. Forming an objection correctly can dispel it, and thus breakup songs can keep us together. This song is the sound of a relationship tearing itself apart, but it's also the sound of two people confronting each other with what they've become (or perhaps one of them figuring out what she's going to say, which is motion in the right direction), which may be how they heal it. For one deranged second I even find myself thinking it could be a hit, thinking that anybody who can excuse the Foo Fighters for not sounding like Britney Spears ought to be able to make this leap, too, but rationality returns quickly. If I blared this out of my car windows, I'd make no converts. Some obscurity is situational, but a lot of it is justified. Letters to Cleo covering Cheap Trick from the roof of a gothic Seattle high school, that's about the limit of most people's musical openness, and they don't give a shit that Kay Hanley used to look like a person before the diet. Park Ave don't sound like a professional rock band, they sound like five kids who half-wrote a handful of songs before hurrying on with the rest of their lives (the two boys are now in other bands, the girls are not), and unless you're they're parents, why would you care? Outside, they've been trained to expect more, and so get less. They've been taught that explosions are entertainment, so art this small doesn't even register. Play this song for them, and all you'll find out is whether they can think of a polite way to say "But it's bad." Tell them I think it might be the song of the year, and all you'll find out is whether they're charitable enough to think that I'm only obtuse, not deliberately patronizing them. Whether you argue depends on how much you care about them (or, I guess, me). But I tell you, as I suspect a part of you already believes, that if you can get them to come inside, if you can convince them that meaningful lives exist suspended between insights and imperfection, you will fundamentally alter their relationships with the world and with themselves. You will make them less happy, probably, but better prepared for empathy and revelation, which are far more elusive and exquisite. Explosions may be entertainment, but they're not art. "What a waste of gunpowder and sky", Aimee Mann said, but she missed an important point: gunpowder and sky are worthless to begin with. The resource that explosions waste is us.