A Monologue for Pressing Ears and Poisoned Skulls
285 · 13 July 00
a-ha: Minor Earth | Major Sky
I owe this expansive mood, for however many moments it lasts, to three things happening in a fortuitous sequence. Order is important, as the first was very depressing. Flipping channels during a commercial in something I meant to see, last week, I came across a random game show with a team of high-school-age kids (at least, I hope they were no older) attempting to collaboratively solve trivial multiple-choice questions, à la (where by "à la" I mean "slavishly ripped off from") Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? I watched long enough to see exactly one question fielded, which was this: "In the US, how many millions make a billion?" The way the show apparently worked, one of the kids had to answer this question, and then the team captain could either ratify their answer or reject it and substitute her own. The first player, seemingly unfazed by having to take a random guess for lack of any applicable knowledge, selected "100". The captain dismissed this theory, with manifest reluctance, in favor of "10,000". "Who knew that?", the host inquired, after revealing the correct answer, and the camera panned around the team members. One kid raised his hand, the same look of profound nausea on his face as on mine, ashamed on his species' behalf that he was being forced to take "credit" for something so mundane. This was just one question on one game show, obviously, and maybe those same kids had already aced a hundred questions I couldn't answer, but I fear that if anything, they got off easy. How many of them, without four sample answers as guard-rails, would have known that the answer was in powers of ten, or that a billion is more than a million? Am I overestimating how fundamental a comprehension of quantity is? Yes, at their age I got through the math section of the SAT without error, en route to becoming a thirty-three-year-old Harvard-educated professional in a field that breathes powers of ten, but I'm pretty sure my understanding of basic magnitude comfortably predates any of that. The ambient media environment is full of numbers, full of populations and fortunes and statistics, and these kids must assume that reporters choose between "million", "billion", "jillion" and "zillion" according entirely to whimsy. No wonder they have no sense of scale: they have no sense of scale. Asking them to explain what the phrase "in the US" was doing in the question, which is the only interesting detail about it (although to be fair, I don't recall why I know that there are a thousand US billions in a UK billion), would be like asking a basset hound to dunk a basketball with its left paw.
But with this disheartening tableau in my mind, I went to a late movie at the Harvard Square Theater on Friday, emerging about midnight. The theater is a block from the children's annex of Wordsworth, my favorite bookstore, which was re-opening at 12:01am in order to begin selling copies of the fourth Harry Potter book at the first allowed minute, and while I had little personal need for haste, since books two and three are still waiting on my shelves, I was impressed that anybody cared enough about any book to merit opening a children's bookstore at midnight, when one would expect its intended audience to be asleep, so I figured I should wander over and do my part to reward the staff's late night. The narrow street behind the theater leads straight to the door of the annex, and I was pleasantly surprised, as soon as I stepped outside, to spot a little cluster of people already waiting there. A few steps closer, the aperture formed by the surrounding buildings expanding, I could see that the little cluster was actually part of a rather larger cluster. Reaching the cross-street, I discovered that the larger cluster was merely the first segment of a legitimate line, whose length I could not immediately assess, as at the end of the block it disappeared around a corner. Later estimates supposed that eight hundred people showed up, which doesn't include me, since my concern for the store's feelings quickly transmogrified from a reason to participate to a reason to come back and get my copy later. I did at least walk the length of the line. There were kids in costume, kids sitting on the sidewalk racing to finish book three, kids asleep on parents' shoulders, parents without their kids, people who appeared to be neither kids nor their parents. I've never seen a book do this. I thought the first book was fun, but lighter-weight than its acclaim suggested, but this crowd converted me into a devoted fan. OK, maybe these kids don't know a million from a billion yet, either, but if they're standing on a sidewalk in Cambridge at one in the morning in order to get their copy of a 734-page novel seven hours earlier than they otherwise could, then I think it's reasonable to assume they're going to learn a lot of things between now and when it starts mattering. My faith, which is disintegrated and reconstituted regularly, by incidents exactly this random, patched itself together again, and I went home happy and hopeful.
The ideal ending to this story, of course, would be that I got home, took down my copies of books two and three, read them straight through, and then, dawn having reasserted itself, returned to the bookstore for number four. In the movie version, I think I meet a girl there, too. In reality, I went home, read about a hundred pages in the non-Harry-Potter-related book I was already in the middle of, and then flicked off the light and went to sleep. But this is the third detail, all the same, because the fact that I'm back to reading a hundred pages on a Friday night is a function of a very conscious priority shift. My reading rate has declined steadily over the last few years, as my day jobs have become more draining, and I've accumulated more assorted responsibilities and interests with which to fill my own hours. I disliked that, but there never seemed to be any large blocks of wasted time. My schedule wasn't so packed, however, that when I discovered a site that runs an online variant of Boggle, my favorite game, recently, I couldn't squeeze in a few rounds before bed, or in between soccer games on the weekend, or while listening to records. Boggle is somewhat addictive, and after a while my player rating started going up, which was also somewhat addictive. The "few" in "a few rounds" soon began losing semantic significance. The more I played, the more familiar the patterns of the boards became, and the better I got, but the harder it was to ignore the repetitive nature of the game. "Renter, renters, rented, dented, enters", I'd type, for the ninth time in one night. Slowly I began to wonder whether I was really still enjoying the game enough to justify the time I spent playing it. Well, I didn't spend that much time playing it, right? Surely not. Actually, the site keeps track of your stats for you, so I didn't have to speculate. Each round is two minutes long, or three minutes in elapsed time counting the minute-long pauses between them, so just multiply the number of games I've played by three, divide by sixty to get hours, divide by how many weeks I've been playing, and you get hours per week, which is: yikes, that can't be right. (Let me try it again on a calculator. No, the good news and the bad news is that I can still multiply.) I'm not going to tell you how many hours it was. Less than I spend at work, less than I spend asleep, less than I spend listening to music, but more than I was spending on any other single activity. More time, most glaringly, than I was spending reading, especially on nights when I stayed up late enough playing that I got to bed and never even turned on the reading light. This, once I had to confront it in numbers, was plainly unconscionable. Playing Boggle proved that I had time, so I've quit Boggle and reclaimed it for reading. More reading, and Harry Potter, and beautiful summer days combine to remind me of coming home from the library with two dozen books every week of summer vacations (except the ones when my family took our yearly trips to Colorado, which are even more vivid memories because for those weeks I got to buy books). The excitement of always being in the grip of a story is surprisingly and thrillingly easy to reawaken, and Boggle is no substitute. I feel better, now. My ankle is better, my side is better, my life is improved. I'd allowed some wonder to drain away, but it's back now.
And apparently, with renewed wonder and a renewed sense of continuity comes a renewed weakness for neglected musical forms, as well, for big, expansive songs that are neither too self-conscious to ask for our allegiance, nor too cynical to reward it. No other theory presents itself to explain why I bought the new Kansas album. Sadly, it is awful. Similarly nostalgic, but much less awful, is Minor Earth | Major Sky, the first new a-ha album in many years. Treating a-ha as an extension of my childhood is technically ahistorical, since at the time I thought "Take On Me" was unacceptably effeminate, but after becoming extremely attached to 1993's Memorial Beach, which struck me as the album Robbie Robertson, U2 and the Call never got around to making together, I went back and filled in the rest of the catalog, and the things I remember disliking about a-ha circa Hunting High and Low, but now enjoy, seem instructively evocative of the inevitably large number of other things that I wasn't ready to accept at that age, either. Minor Earth | Major Sky doesn't sound like Hunting High and Low, but then, a few children's books notwithstanding, I don't want to relive my or anybody else's childhood, I just want to remember some of the ways it made me feel, and some of the ways it didn't but should have. a-ha have grown up gracefully. The pensive drum loops, rumbling synth-bass and swirling textures of "Minor Earth Major Sky" remind me more of Seal than any of a-ha's old New Wave peers. "Little Black Heart" is slow and soaring, somewhere between Yaz and Roxette, or Midnight Oil and OMD. "Velvet" oscillates between Morten Harket's understated narration and D'Sound singer Simone's airy backing sighs with some of the same wide-eyed serenity as the Primitive Radio Gods' "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand". The sequencer runs on "Summer Moved On" remind me of Seal's "Crazy" again, but the frequent falsetto twists in the vocals trace their roots back to Spandau Ballet and the Blue Nile. The bouncy "The Sun Never Shone That Day" misses an opportunity to rebut a-ha's old "The Sun Always Shines on T.V.", but "To Let You Win", with its chiming synth-bells and gruff vocals, offers a striking impression of a cross between Bryan Ferry and Midge Ure. "The Company Man" is slinky, but reserved. "Thought That It Was You" starts out brittle and spare, but swells into a grand, vocoder-laced chorus worthy of Anything Box. "I Wish I Cared" is cinematic and measured, murmuring verses sliding in and out of fluttering falsetto choruses. "Barely Hanging On" see-saws from verses that sound like Supertramp rearranged by Pierre Marchand to anguished Thom Yorke-esque refrains. "You'll Never Get Over Me" is unhurried, and mirrored nicely by the rumbling, George Michael-ish "I Won't Forget Her". The biggest ambitions, however, are saved for the finale, "Mary Ellen Makes the Moment Count", which lashes together whirring organ, muted acoustic guitar, resonant electric piano, a hushed chorus, keening violins, spiky mock-harpsichord and clattering timpani, and ends up as an epic amalgam of the Doors, the late Beatles, Gerry Rafferty, Marillion, Tears for Fears and the Verve. There are deeper, more significant bands than a-ha, just as there are more sophisticated children's books than Harry Potter, but art is a collective project, and not every piece has to alter history. Some of them play their parts by sustaining awe, or by reminding us how much power even the simple forms hold, or by leaving us breathless and awake, not only unwilling to put this one down until we're done with it, but unwilling to surrender to darkness until we find out what the next one is like.
Camden: Reel Time Canvas
The next one, in my case, is Reel Time Canvas, the debut album by Camden, who claim to be from Milwaukee, but who sound to me uncannily like a cross between Puressence and Cody, or between drum-and-bass nervousness, Radiohead's elegiac stasis and the various surging clamors of Gang of Four, the Chameleons and My Bloody Valentine. Occasionally, for just a moment, I can convince myself that I hear a trace of the ragged emo/punk roars of Braid and Sarge, but if Camden weren't on an Urbana label (Grand Theft Autumn, producers of two Braid singles and a Sarge split), I'm not sure the connection would ever have occurred to me. They are as British as Del Amitri are American. Guitars crash in dense, textural waves, and then suddenly resolve into sparkling acoustic chords. Drums rattle and pound, half the time pushing the tempo and half the time swept up in it. The bass throbs implacably, tracing restless counterpoints instead of following the chord changes. The vocals sound like an angel on the brink of hysteria, frantic and becalmed. Songs are structured architecturally, sharply, austerely, like living-room furniture made of out sheet-metal, or overexposed photographs of distracted machines. Where Puressence and Geneva mix these angular assemblies with rousing anthems, though, Camden maintain a strict geometric discipline, and except for the frayed, Penguin Cafe Orchestra-ish instrumental "Just Like a Moscow Winter" and one kitschy dialog sample, these songs could easily be treated as variations on a single theme, as much parallel explorations of a resolutely coherent aesthetic as MBV's Loveless or Whipping Boy's Heartworm. Camden belong to the same school of oblique song-titling as the Chameleons and Trans Am, but in Camden's case the lyrics are so elliptical and stark, succinct to a cummings-like extreme, that the few whose titles actually appear in their text are the ones that feel unnatural. "Mike, Who Is Diary?" seems snipped from the middle of a long private conversation whose context would take too long to explain. "He reminds us of ourselves, / We'll settle for anything", accuses "Is Our Face Red", wondering where to assign blame. "You Seem Capable" fractures like a relationship song scrutinized through an electron kaleidoscope. "Of Course I'd Try to Save You" never bothers to explain from what. "How to Make America Proud" is exhausted but defiant, and I'm absolutely sure that "I'd rather take a liar than a lie" is defensible, even though I can't think how. "Not Without Your Blessing" is either tender or helpless. The inane title of "A C OK, But a D?" hides an SOS smuggled out of an abusive relationship. And when the album's title finally makes its appearance, as the last three words of the final song, even that isn't as simple as it seems. "Curtains down, / We expose onto / Reel, time, canvas." How do we perform when our audiences are taken from us? We can document ourselves (reel), or we can make symbols to represent us (canvas), or we can defy Schrödinger and insist that our actions collapse their own probability waves (time). Or: In private, we still treat each other like audiences, performing when we ought to simply talk, unable to stop being the authors of ourselves, and start being ourselves. Or: We diligently memorialize failures we might have prevented, and thus allow ourselves to be dragged into our own histories. I realize these readings are incompatible. Once, in college, I contracted a debilitating crush on a girl who was writing a thesis about John Ashbery, and bought one of his collections to try to keep up with her, but I couldn't follow his poems at all, and her explanations seemed as arbitrary and inconsistent to me as overlapping constellation diagrams. In retrospect, I think she couldn't explain the verses any better than I could, but what she saw, and I didn't, were the patterns that indicate where, not what, meaning is. Her explications of the poems were placeholders, expressions of her certainty that the poems meant something. Not understanding this, at the time, I eventually concluded that she was crazy (which may have been correct, but only by coincidence). But I think, listening to these songs, devising an endless series of flawed keys for decrypting them, I'm finally having the experience she had reading Ashbery. And although writing about a song you can't explain is arguably inane, listening to it is not.
Geneva: Weather Underground
If musical geography complied with my subjective views of it, Camden would be setting off on a tour with Geneva about now, the two bands joint defenders of the belief that Oasis and Radiohead both represent perversions of the fundamental atmospheric-Brit-pop precepts. Weather Underground, Geneva's follow-up to their 1997 debut Further, opens with the glorious "Dollars in the Heavens", my fifth favorite song of 1999, but ironically this comes close to ruining the album for me. I had nearly four months alone with the single before the album came out, during which time I became increasingly eager to hear an entire record of songs just like it, which Weather Underground isn't. In the meantime, luckily, Travis have more or less taken over the role I once expected Geneva to fill in my life, and Geneva, in turn, have become the heirs to Ultrasound's pricklier, less accessible version of the style. "If You Have to Go" is elegant and drifting, the music matching Andrew Montgomery's swooping falsetto instead of contrasting with it. "Killing Stars" lurches and simmers, a groaning, half-dub bass line shedding shards of guitar and keyboards as it moves. "Museum Mile" is dissipated, albino-reggae Radiohead. "Amnesia Valley" gradually coalesces into a seething dirge, only to collapse again. Eastern wailing and stabs of synth noise punctuate the lumbering instrumental "Morricone". Parts of "Guidance System" are chiming and invitingly mid-tempo, but periodically the rhythm section drops out, leaving the song to survive on inertia. "Cassie" might have been a sweet pop song, but a gloomy kick-drum thump and a layer of feedback obscure the melody, while the reverent backing vocals ruin any hope it might have had of crossing over into industrial churn. "Rockets Over California" is a weary, apocalyptic waltz. "A Place in the Sun" is theme music for a decaying orbit. And the mutilated, buoyant "Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?", the final track, tries to imagine what U2 might have sounded like if they'd made Achtung Baby as an evolution of The Joshua Tree instead of a break from it. "Dollars in the Heavens" augured a cynical album, and about half of this record delivers, but the other half can't keep up the facade. As the last song asks, over and over, whether you've seen the horizon lately, the obvious implication is that they know you haven't, but you're still there to be admonished, so there must be hope. If a-ha is Harry Potter, then Camden is less fanciful but more complex, perhaps The Dark Is Rising (Ashbery, as far as I know, didn't write a fantasy series), and Geneva is Thomas Covenant, torn between epic and anti-epic, trying to find a way for profound magic and brutal truth to coexist. All three have their roles to play. We didn't dress up as bitter lepers the night The Power That Preserves came out, perhaps to our discredit, but summers are long, and books are short (even long ones), and Harry Potter unleashes forces nobody can control. What the kids in capes don't realize, but hopefully their parents do, is that once you allow yourself to be inhabited by one book, or one record, or one love, you consign yourself to a lifetime of references and resonances, nostalgia and disappointments, rediscoveries and relapses and realization. And the pages go by, whether you can count them or not.