Justified in Your Arms
356 · 22 November 01
Lloyd Cole: The Negatives
Two weekends ago I finally bought a DVD player. I see all the movies I can in theaters, so my home video technology tends to lag behind. My TV is ten years old, and the amp I'm using to power a couple small speakers is at least eighteen. I don't have a current video-rental membership, and my VCR is primarily used for time-shifting soccer games. But I have bought tapes of the few movies I feel like I need to be able to watch on a moment's notice, and prerecorded tapes are now clearly a dead format, so my eventual DVD conversion was just waiting on the next movie I felt I had to own. That movie was Yi Yi, the DVD of which I'd been idly picking up and putting down on my weekly (Tuesday) trips to Newbury Comics for a couple months. One week the single copy they'd had wasn't in the XYZ bin when I went to look, and the horrible idea that it might have been a small run and I'd miss my chance, however unlikely, galvanized me into action. I snapped up a copy on my weekly (Friday) trip to the other Newbury Comics, and bought a player for it the next day. (Amusingly, I later discovered that the Tuesday Newbury Comics still had their copy, they'd just moved it to the "Foreign" bin. Merchandising.)
I'm not replacing all the tapes immediately (in several cases there aren't DVDs for them yet, which makes me feel a little less silly about having waited this long), but there were clearly several DVDs I needed to buy to establish a presence, mainly ones for which the DVD format claimed unique virtues. So now I have a few. The vast majority, in shelf-space, are Monty Python or relations: the TV-series box, The Holy Grail, Life of Brian, Time Bandits, the Fawlty Towers set. I got all the Kevin Smith movies except Clerks, which still hasn't grown on me. And This Is Spinal Tap, of course, and the other recent movie that could have prompted this upgrade itself if I'd been paying closer attention, The City of Lost Children.
Yi Yi was the first one I watched. This is a three-hour Taiwanese movie I already saw three times in the theater, but not since February, and seeing it again for the fourth time, I was just as mesmerized, to the extent that I'm now willing to say it is one of my two favorite films of all time (Drowning by Numbers, the other one, doesn't appear to be available on DVD in this region yet). My fifth viewing directly followed my fourth, this time with director Edward Yang's audio commentary turned on. Concurrent commentary is a new medium for me, and it is painfully clear that it was a new medium for Yang, too. Obviously recorded in one real-time take, and then not even listened to to see if it made sense, his narration is by turns stammering, repetitive, redundant and inane, and not always one at a time. There are a few interesting details scattered in with the rest, but they mostly concern the logistics of making the movie, in which I have far less interest than I do the lives of its characters and their environment. I don't know what I wanted instead, exactly. Something that reflects the film's magnificence, or elaborates on its poetics of space, or follows its characters off the screen more often. A quiet requiem for a dream Taipei, or one of the young characters looking back with later wisdom. Probably nothing I could reasonably expect, and maybe, given how content I already was to just keep replaying the film as it is, nothing at all. I've only gone through four other commentaries so far (Mallrats, Chasing Amy and the two separate tracks on The Holy Grail; I tried to watch the director's notes to Fawlty Towers, as well, but they seem to have been recorded by clipping a label mic to the inside of the poor old man's left nostril, rendering the listening experience fairly untenable), but based on this extremely small sample I'm provisionally concluding that concurrent commentary is not yet a realized art form. The Holy Grail commentaries are sporadically informative (the Gilliam/Jones track) and/or amusing (bits of the Cleese/Idle/Palin track), but emanate from an entirely different universe than the original film. The Smith commentaries, performed gang-style, are far better matched to their films, and hugely more spirited (I'm pretty sure Cleese, Idle and Palin did not even record their parts together), and maybe even funny enough to listen to more than once. But, and this probably calls into question the dominance of comedies in my initial DVD haul, Chasing Amy and Yi Yi strike me as similarly missed opportunities. Neither Joey Lauren Adams nor Jason Lee show up for the Chasing Amy commentary session, which mostly leaves Kevin Smith and Ben Affleck to snipe playfully at each other about whether scene excisions were necessitated by bad scripts or bad performances. The serious parts of the movie stymie them. The most revealing potential commentary, Smith and Adams discussing the real-life relationship and break-up from which the movie was derived, might simply be too personal and invasive to humanely demand, but that doesn't change the fact that what Yi Yi and Chasing Amy leave me aching for is not the dismantling of their artifice, it's more time in their worlds.
Put more generally, I think this may be the detail that most persistently separates "serious" art from "popular" art in our culture: we do not know how to dwell in pop. The bulk of academic analysis of classical music or literature often isn't appreciably better at this, but at least in academia there exists a model for considering the content of an art work. I just started reading Intimate Commerce, the book form of a classics Ph.D. dissertation by a friend of mine from college, about the exchange of women in the Greek plays Trachiniae, Agamemnon and Alcestis, and although I strongly suspect, glancing ahead at the prevalence of footnote symbols and block-quotes of original Greek in the body of the book, that the twenty-five page introduction will be sufficient for my purposes, I envy the plays for this attention, and vice versa. In pop, analysis is almost invariably limited to form. Arguably in most cases the reception of pop is limited to form. Kevin Smith is lucky, frankly, that a few people followed the text of Chasing Amy closely enough to denounce it as a misrepresentation of the lesbian community, but it isn't even a representation of the lesbian community. It is a story about three people, and all of its major themes are intensely personal. It is insane, of course, to ask it to have initiated a national dialogue about methods of determining personal behavior codes, the interpersonal implications of sexual mores and experience, the ethics of romantic disclosure, the communicative function of obscenity, allegiance tensions or anything else. Maybe one American studio movie a year succeeds in raising a real issue into public awareness; offhand I can't think of an example more recent than Traffic.
And music's position is qualitatively more hopeless than cinema's. It takes the most exaggerated and deliberate provocation to call attention to a song's content in the first place, and so the rare snippets of public dialogue surrounding songs ("Cop Killer", various Eminem rants) are unsurprisingly superficial and unrewarding. This produces no particular incentive to put meaning into pop songs, and thus is established a merrily humming feedback loop of vapidity. There's a lot more to music than lyrical content, of course, and some of my own favorite music doesn't bear a lot of textual analysis. But it is possible to create characters and tell stories in pop songs, and some people do. It's even possible to create characters and tell stories in ways that are not available to other art forms. My part is to try to take the rare examples seriously when I find them.
Thus last week's piece about Lloyd Cole's album The Negatives, which I fully expect you to have found inexplicable. A few readers observed that it was the closest I've yet come to getting through an entire "review" without mentioning music at all, and this is actually even truer than it appears, as the one short passage about music, which you might have construed as an extremely cursory analysis of the album, is in fact diagetic. It is the only issue of this column, so far, to involve no explicit meta-commentary about the work in question. I assume you assumed it was tangential, autobiographical, impressionistic and/or possibly an invented creation myth, but it wasn't. There is, it seems to me, a running narrative in the songs on The Negatives, with a consistent main character and a coherent set of attitudes towards romance and relationships, and last week's issue was my attempt to work out, within what I take to be the constraints of the story, some of the implications of those attitudes for the narrator's life, by way of imagining what a woman who tried to step into his world through the available portals would be subjecting herself to. Unless you were already intimately familiar with the album, probably including having looked up the lyrics on his web site (they aren't printed in the booklet), there was hardly any chance at all that you'd guess this. I could have explained, but I didn't feel like it, and in a format that interposes no period of reflection between writing and publishing, what I feel like is what you get. I apologize if you were confused, and I apologize if I have ruined your enjoyment of being confused by explaining.
I would not have developed this peculiar fascination with the subject matter of The Negatives, though, if I hadn't first been so obsessed with it musically. I've known of Lloyd Cole his whole career, and heard the occasional single, but somehow a malfunctioning area of my brain had clung to the random notion that his music was interchangeable with that of Nick Lowe and Nick Cave (neither of which, an operational brain would point out, are interchangeable with each other, anyway). But Tori covered "Rattlesnakes" on Strange Little Girls, and I liked it, so I bought the album of which it is the title track, Cole's 1984 debut. I liked that a lot, so I went back out and bought whatever else I could find of Cole's catalog. As is often the result of binge-buying, my opinions of the older albums are now rather entangled, but The Negatives, the most recent one, made an immediate individual impression on me. It is Cole's first album since 1995, and features an entirely new backing band (including Dambuilders/Brilliantine bassist Dave Derby, and extra guitars by Jill Sobule and ex-Eve's Plum guitarist Michael Kotch), but if you can factor out seventeen years of changes in recording equipment and technique (progress we may oversimplify as "less reverb") and factor in a roughly equivalent amount of songwriting maturity and some minor improvements in vocal ability, it's not far at all from Rattlesnakes to The Negatives. But The Negatives is how Lloyd Cole sounds in 2001, and it's 2001 when I finally encounter him, so here we are.
Did you have to come to music in the mid-Eighties, though, to believe that this is exactly the natural state of pop songs? Perhaps. Guitars ping, circle and occasionally dive past in a muted, winking roar. The rhythm section is clean and unhurried. There are subtle keyboards, scattered strings. Cole's voice is warm and slightly gruff. I'm not sure I've heard a pop record this elemental since Del Amitri's Waking Hours and the Connells' One Simple Word. This is how we might have dreamed, listening to Songs From the Film, Cypress, The World Won't Listen and Two Wheels Good, our heroes would sound when they grew up, and with these songs sparkling around me, it's heartbreaking that any of them don't, or that we've stopped wanting them to. This is how Jules Shear might have sounded if he'd stayed with Aimee Mann, or how Crowded House might have compensated if they couldn't sing harmony, or how the Clientele might have turned out without the time machine. "Past Imperfect" is shimmery and unselfish, like Eno/Lanois/U2 craftsmanship stripped of The Joshua Tree's ostentation. "Impossible Girl", with spindly acoustic guitars and a bounding verse melody, edges towards Robyn Hitchcock, but "No Move Love Songs" reins the arrangement back in to muted acoustic-guitar chords and whispery keyboard ambience, and reminds me more than a little of Whipping Boy. The band returns for the chiming "What's Wrong With This Picture?", expansive melancholia on the order of Darden Smith's "Little Victories". "Man on the Verge" opens with ticking drums and muttery guitar, but blooms into sighing, glassy elegance. "Negative Attitude" bears down on the overdrive and twang, but "Vin Ordinaire" is becalmed and meditative. The short "Too Much E" is incongruously clipped and stomping, and "Tried to Rock" veers into mock-country, but "That Boy" morphs a guitar hook halfway between "Every Breath You Take" and "Missing You", conjures up an angelic Anne Dudley string choir as sail-wind, and sweeps away towards the nearest horizon. "I'm Gone", the finale, judiciously elaborated around a voice-and-acoustic-guitar core, is a brief, wistful epilogue.
But the more I listened to this album, enchanted by the music, the harder it became to ignore the lyrics. Unusually, I'm pretty sure we're not supposed to. "Past Imperfect" is about half-lost memories, most of them about girls. "Impossible Girl" is a warning hymn for a line of fragile, earnest boys drawn to dazzling, unreliable girls that goes back all the way to "My eyes go out in vain" in "Perfect Skin", the first song on Cole's first album. The title phrase in "No More Love Songs" is the girl's resolution, not the narrator's, her disillusionment the unbreachable wall between them. The verses of "What Wrong With This Picture?" are a caustic break-up kiss-off ("You can go back to your Five Leaves Left / And you can call me when you get over yourself"), but the chorus answers the title's question with a deadpan, borderline-redemptive "Nothing at all". The verge the man is on, in "Man on a Verge", is taking out a personal ad to find a blonde-haired girl he saw one morning on a subway train (the morning is "9/11", unnervingly, and although Cole is British he's been in the US long enough that I can't convince myself he meant 9 November). "Negative Attitude" might be a vision of their life together, but "I want to try to relate to your colourful hair" doesn't sound like the basis for much of a relationship. "Vin Ordinaire" takes the hypothetical scenario one step further, a scene from a love triangle with the girl taking off her clothes in the narrator's bedroom, and although she's what he wants, he knows he isn't the one she wants, and it horrifies him that she's willing to settle. "Too Much E" is time-biding formalism (like an Alanis Morissette pattern-song without the personality) and "Tried to Rock" is exactly the kind of glib romp I wish Ian McNabb would stop writing, but "That Boy" is hauntingly plaintive, a last-chance reconciliation plea thinly disguised behind third-person pronouns. The music rarely serves any literal narrative purpose, but it evokes emotional states, and tells us some of the things we would have deduced from facial expressions in the movie, and my impression of these characters probably comes as much from the way these lines sit in their songs as it does from the words in them. Set these texts to hair-metal and I bet they'd seem leering or meaningless. Set them in arrangements suspended between surrender and epiphany, though, and they become a story of characters I suddenly care desperately about. "I'm Gone", the album's moral, finds the narrator walking out of somebody's house with a single suitcase and no apparent regrets, except the last lines are "How could it be so wrong / When it was so right?", and I'm left juggling interpretations. Is is the relationship he's asking about, or the leaving? Is the "be" supposed to be "seem", or the "was" "seemed"?
And without any way to resolve the questions without projecting, naturally I project. I oscillate between two wishes, depending on whether I look for an answer to the narrator's questions or my own. For him, I want the resolution in "What's Wrong With This Picture?" and "I'm Gone" to be the his realization that he gets nothing from his relationships because he doesn't demand anything from them. I want "That Boy", in particular, to be a sign that he's finally noticed the "man"/"girl" dilemma in so many of his stories (and not just on this album), and although it's still too much to ask him to turn "girl" into "woman", at least he can admit that he's no more mature himself. I want him to understand that he's so close, that the difference between another trap to escape from and a home isn't the girl, or the way he finds her, it's finally learning to pick some open doors not to walk through. I want this album to be a meticulous anthem of salvation through raised expectations.
But finding a way to keep them together, because that's what the storytelling logic calls for, doesn't mean I think it's actually the right solution. The Negatives is a tragedy, however beautiful, just as surely as is Chasing Amy. Those Greek plays in my friend's book about women as objects are more than two millennia old, but for all the progress we've nominally made in women's social roles, give ten boys guitars and lyric paper and nine of them will still end up effectively confessing to soul-mate search-algorithms with all the emotional depth of panning for pyrite. I can write the story of how she rolls over and calls him back, but the place to break out of his cycle is at the beginning, not the end. If he keeps picking girls based on their hair, raising expectations later will be an exercise in well-intentioned futility. Asking more from these girls won't help, he needs to ask more from different girls, or to think of something to ask of women, or even more importantly, of himself. I want the company. So much said, so much settling for less. So many dizzy love songs about falling, together or apart; so few about that moment lost somewhere in between, less spectacular and more, when the planet stops spinning for ten seconds and you make the only decision that matters.