Never By Our Hearts
291 · 24 August 00
Sarah Dougher: The Walls Ablaze
As scientists, we are tormented by the things we observe in reality, but cannot find correlates for in our understanding; as romantics, we are tormented by the things that stubbornly fail to exist, no matter how passionately our belief systems demand them. If you learn to combine the two, you can be miserable pretty much constantly. But if nothing makes you miserable (goes the defense of this obtuse tension) then over what can you ever triumph? The secret of serenity is contextlessness. (Or as Del Amitri put it, "At least a house when it's empty stays clean.") So I guess I'm against serenity. I know I'm against contextlessness. Some nights I think I care more about the relationships between things than the things themselves. In fact, I don't know how you can be seriously devoted to art without feeling this way. If you believe that works of art are independent, and should only be appreciated without reference to each other, then once you've found a dozen albums that seem flawless to you (or one, for that matter), why would you ever need more? If revelation is a function of relation, though, then there is always an excuse for more, always another connection to discover, always a real possibility that the next song you hear will change the meaning of something you heard long ago, or tear a hole in what you thought you knew, or mend a wound you'd stopped even feeling.
And so, although it deserves to be assessed on its own terms, or in relation to her own first album, Sarah Dougher's The Walls Ablaze, her second, has unceremoniously inserted itself into my life based almost entirely on its relationship to three records she had nothing to do with. The first is Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville, publicly notorious for Liz's music's alternately insistent and meandering low-fi naïveté and her unsentimental sexuality (which is either defiant or regressive, depending on whether you think removing sentiment from sex is more like cleansing or Olestra), but more important to me, personally, for its role in the covert sustenance of understated American guitar-pop. The second is Liz's whitechocolatespaceegg, publicly notorious for not as much, but to me her inspired contribution to the fitful resurgence of overstated American guitar-pop. And the third is Liz's Whip-Smart. Whip-Smart was her second record, of course, but it's always third on my list because I dislike it intensely. Or, to be more precise, I dislike it mildly, on its own terms, but dislike it intensely for what it implied about the distribution of intent and circumstance in Exile in Guyville, and for what it has come to imply about the progression from Exile in Guyville to whitechocolatespaceegg. If your central mental model for drama is overcoming adversity, you might be happy to believe a favorite artist put out a great album, then a disaster, then a stirring recovery, but I think our stories rely disproportionately on adversity. We force biography into the rags-riches-rags-carpools Behind the Music formula, mounting a parade of penitent survivors that glamorizes, routinizes and ultimately condones idiocy. The truth is, facing adversity is easy; the more bad things happen, the more allowable it becomes for us to abandon any pretense at independent initiative and simply react. We invite disasters, because in between them we don't know what to do with ourselves. Far harder, and far more common, is the mundane and wearying process of continually learning what's wrong with what we've been up until now. So those are the stories I try to find in these records, resonant narratives of evolving self-awareness. And for Liz's story to fit my mold (not that she ever meant it to), the middle album has to be very different. It has to reassure me that she has learned something, between albums one and two, about which of the tendencies on Exile in Guyville represented refreshing ignorance and which represented embryonic insight. It has to suggest that some of the things she said, she said without knowing who was listening, and would now be inclined to clarify. And it has to link albums one and three, triangulating album one's aesthetic so it's possible to base a new course on it. Whip-Smart, for me, failed decisively on all counts. I hated the songwriting enough to wonder whether Exile was an accident, I distrusted the lyrics enough to think I had given Exile the benefit of too much moral doubt, and the three albums, taken as a complete triptych, are so unsatisfying to me that I'm forced to conclude that my enjoyment of one and three is a product of coincidence, not significant shared philosophy, and so, by extension, might be my enjoyment of any number of other things. The story, the way Liz's records tell it, is a victory for chaos, and an example of the definitive American fallacy that a happy ending redeems a tragedy.
But take Whip-Smart out and put The Walls Ablaze in its place, and everything changes. The amount of suspension of disbelief required is small. Sarah and Liz have extremely similar singing styles, level, affectless and slightly unsteady, and if Sarah sings with a little more confidence and dynamic range, it's well within the plausible bounds of album-to-album personal growth. The guitars are similarly unadorned, sinewy and anxious with little or no trace of exaggerated rock bombast. The pianos are reticent and elegiac, and Sarah's drummers (Hannah Blilie and Sleater-Kinney's Janet Weiss) are as deferential as Liz's (Brad Wood). Both records borrow hooks, with a scavenger's nonchalance, from folk music, playground anthems and CCR. Gone, though, are the echoey, becalmed interludes from Exile, the attention-seeking lyrical explicitness and the overarching sense of bored, irritable youth. The Walls Ablaze is the record Liz would have made, I want to believe, if she had looked back at Exile in Guyville and decided that every moment of it served a purpose, but it had made its points, and the way forward required her to grow up a little. Look forward to whitechocolatespaceegg, and attendant motherhood, and growing up becomes all the more urgent; for the third record to accept a new life-stage as a proscenium of new potential, the second one had to begin the process of qualifying old tenets.
And so The Walls Ablaze begins, stranded between the standard adversity of aimless youth and the standard adversity of adult responsibility, in what I readily admit probably only seems like the most trying span of existence to me because it's the one I'm currently experiencing. Spindly guitar lines circle each other, warily, through the title track, Janet Weiss's booming drums joining in for the chorus, and Sarah looks around at fire and loss and asks the correct opening question, not "Why?", or "Which way is escape?", but "Show me a sign of things that you can change / Or keep the same". After a day of bug triage, at work, it's especially clear to me that the primary difference between "mature" and "immature" decision-making is that adults work backwards a little, first, to get an idea of approximately which direction forwards needs to point. The sparkling "No-Handed", with a wheezy harmonica intro/outro echoed in the middle by the guitar, is an adult's break-up anthem, embracing the end of a relationship as a chance to demonstrate self-containment. "Now I'll try no-handed", Sarah vows, like solitude is a carnival ride. The cantering, wiry "The Scales", the relationship's epilogue, repeats "You know I couldn't help it" like an apologetic mantra, at once suggesting (to the other person) that the end was unavoidable, and (to the narrator herself) that it is a correct result of her being true to her own nature. But another part of "mature" decision making is the compulsion to revisit the same questions over and over again, and so the lulling, jazzy "The New Carissa" more or less recapitulates the story so far, trying a different metaphor for what happened. Perhaps the relationship was a boat, and its fate was due to its own structural flaws. But this is artificial adversity again, an attempt to evade responsibility; "Sink it now and let it end".
The album's musical range expands for "What She'd Trade", square, ringing piano merging the functions of the drums and the second guitar, the effect somewhere between Michael Nyman and Joe Jackson (with the composite guitar/piano timbre, oddly, of Supertramp's "The Logical Song"). This one is a break-up song, too, I think, but it's not a negotiation about fault or blame, so much as an attempt to resolve what each person is going to lose. She offers a camera, film, money, their apartment, food and the remote control, and in turn demands a slide projector, a computer, and the story of their lives, both together and subsequently apart. It sounds like a bad bargain, to me, but she explains her rationale: "The selfish life of the activist can only be understood / By the selfishness of the artist." I wish I knew what this means, and why it's relevant. I suppose activists try to seal fissures that artists try to measure, so from either perspective the other is destructive or negligent, both of which can be thought of as forms of selfishness, but since the objects under contention in the song are all either artistic or domestic, I don't see what activism has to do with it. Perhaps there's some explanation lurking in there for Exile in Guyville's apoliticality. As an apolitical romantic myself, though, the Exile facade I wanted to see crack starts coming apart on the springy "The Ground Below". This one could easily have been a break-up tableau, too, but Sarah holds it together, and it turns out to be a love song. "Frozen rest-stop and the pay-phone line / Twist us close into the night, / Keep me warm / And hold your heart in mine." "You are every word I know, / And the ground below." Exile in Guyville had the courage to say ugly, secret truths, but it takes more courage still to say beautiful, predictable ones. Liz's jaded narrator watching TV during sex was denying vulnerability by disavowing intimacy, but you'll find few vulnerabilities more terrifying than answering someone honestly when they ask you how much you care. And fittingly, just as it becomes clear that this song is going to trust its romantic instincts, the music turns, for in a way the first time on the album, into rock. The drums splash, a rare bass joins in, one of the picked guitars switches to choppy bar-chords, and Sarah drops her own guard. Suddenly I can see a path from "Fuck and Run" to "What Makes You Happy", from understatement to overstatement via, as seems inevitable when you say it that way, statement.
The Walls Ablaze couldn't follow up Exile in Guyville without some punk stridency, and it arrives for the jagged, faintly Sleater-Kinney-ish "Mirror/Shield". Oddly, this is one of the songs Blilie drums on, not Weiss, but Dougher also plays in Cadallaca with Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker, and both Carrie Brownstein and the Butchies' Kaia Wilson are thanked in the credits, so presumably Sarah knows enough about riot-grrl history to decide for herself how much of it she wants to employ. She picks keening, stabbing guitars and a jerky tempo asserted by concussive drums, and grafts them to a venomous diatribe whose real subject it feels like I'm supposed to be able to deduce, but I can't. (Courtney Love is my guess, but that's just my default assumption about any rant against a female musician. For all I know, this is about Lucinda Williams, or even Liz.) A sequel to Exile also needs some nervous, jangly pop, and the most Phair-like song of that sort, I think, is the crisp, quick "She Stood Up", with a warbling calliope organ adding substance to the thin, trebly guitar. "You force love on a body that you can't understand", it begins, and it would be fitting if the most lighthearted song here, musically, was about rape, but after some study I've concluded that it's actually about gender identity. In fact, it holds up surprisingly well under the theory that "you" and "she", in the song, are Teena Brandon and Lana Tisdel (on whose story the movie Boys Don't Cry was based), in which case the misunderstood body on which the subject is trying to force love might be her own. The spiky "What's Good Is Better Than Gone", written and sung by guitarist Jon Reuter, is a odd, however democratic, non sequitur, but the short survey of Exile styles resumes with the slow, blurry "The Old Way", in which the faint flutter of a Leslie rotor (or maybe just a cheap spring-reverb) serves as the evolution of the murky recesses in some of Liz's abstract collages. The wistful "The Flag", with Dougher essaying a strange two-part harmony, is the one song here totally without rhythm, but "The Match", the somber piano-ballad finale, although it's leagues away from "Uncle Alvarez" or "Headache", is the one that supplies the final element I need to understand the transition from Exile to whitechocolatespaceegg. What Liz most lacked on Exile, I think, was the presence necessary to carry a song by herself. A large part of Exile's charm is precisely the fact that it is so plainly an album made by somebody who wasn't convinced she could make an album, but that can only work once. For Liz to make more albums, she had to admit that she was capable of it, and accept the burden of consciously deciding what each record would be like, rather than finding out afterwards. In everybody else's world, Whip-Smart was her first deliberate decision, and to me it was banal and bad. In my world, then, as of tonight, it never happened. The Walls Ablaze is now the middle record, and the series finally ascends from being merely milestones in my subjective history of pop to meaning something. Like: Before you can learn not to take yourself seriously, you have to learn why that's an option to begin with. Detaching emotional involvement from sex is only a way to defer relationship problems, not to solve them. Cleverness is intelligence without a sense of purpose. Science is collaborative, history more so, romance more still. Figuring out where you are and then going somewhere else is navigation; heading into the nearest lights is just moth suicide. The mistakes we make are our opportunities to become part of something bigger than ourselves. If you look hard enough, you can see a romantic in everybody. And if, occasionally, you have to look so hard that you see straight through one person to another, then we simply all must learn to be lenses, or try to keep track of what eyes we're standing between, that we might duck at just the right moment for them to meet.