This Year's Words
361 · 27 December 01
Tugboat: All Day
Just a few days more, and we'll be done with this misbegotten year. We got kind of smug about having made it through the millennium switch-over more or less without incident, but it turns out incident was just waiting for the last petty arguments about when the millennium ended to die down, and in 2001 it exacted its patient revenge. Usually I look forward to New Year's because it's an artificial excuse for stock-taking, and a chance to declare new beginnings, however subtle or arbitrary. This year, maybe for the first time, I'm just relieved to be able to draw a line, step across it, and start working on making the year on one side different from the one on the other. Our world changed in September, in a way that precludes our simply taking the old one back by acclaim, intact, and we are thus left with both the responsibility and the opportunity to build a new and better one. 2001 was a year of pain, but done mindfully, with conscious attention to founding principles and to both direct and unintended consequences (not that that's what retributive inertia's own tendencies would supply), 2002 could be a year that demonstrates vividly (conclusively?) what a Pyrrhic exercise it is to attack "freedom".
At least, that's what I'm inclined to feel, and maybe the attitude we're all being encouraged to adopt. Maybe I'm even part of the implied "they" encouraging us. I want the world's pain to have been productive, but for a world that has changed profoundly, permanently and irreversibly, this one bears an awfully close resemblance to the one it supposedly supplanted. Maybe your life is different now, radically and personally. Mine could be, in the way that all of ours could be, starting any moment we decide to declare the beginning of a new future. But most days go by without declarations at all, and auspicious ones are as suspect as they are rare. For a few days in September I did wonder if I was fundamentally misconducting my life. In a manifest crisis, there was astonishingly little I could do to help. But then, that was already often true. Cataloguing the tragedies you could neither prevent nor materially alleviate is a warm-up exercise for suicide, and a tedious one at that. But start in January and pay attention: hundreds of people killed and hundreds of thousands of homes destroyed by earthquakes in El Salvador; almost twenty thousand dead and more than half a million homeless after earthquakes in India two weeks later; tens of thousands left homeless by floods in Mozambique in February, hundreds of thousands in Bangladesh in June; a few thousand killed by suicide hijackings in the US in September, thousands more by bombing in Afghanistan the rest of the year and continued bombing and reprisals in Israel and Palestine throughout. Train wrecks, boat wrecks, bridge collapses, oil rig collapses, routine stadium panics, hotel fires, dormitory fires, club fires, tunnel fires, oil spills, smaller weather catastrophes and stray maniacs; five airliner crashes without apparent malicious intent. But walk through the numbers in 2000, and they're about the same. 1999? About the same. Does anybody remember 1994? More than half a million people killed in Rwanda, without airplanes or skyscrapers or any such economies of scale, and when did you ever see Tutsi tribal colors flying off the radio antennae of American pickup trucks? By far the most dramatic thing about 2001 was not the supply of pain, it was merely its distribution to unaccustomed recipients.
So the more I think about it, and the more I look around at a nation still grimly congratulating itself for fortitude during what would usually be its glibbest, crassest season, the more I understand both the incoherent rage that made the most extreme attention-getting gestures seem justified, and our ultimate oblique response. We may rise to the occasion when we are attacked right in front of our home cameras, but our unconscionable obliviousness to anything less, and our arrogant target's repose, are inextricable factors in our suffering over which we could have taken control at any time. We didn't, and after months of nominal reappraisal we still won't. This is a trivial nation. That is, in fact, I think, our greatest strength and virtue. Our most profound responses to being attacked are all the mundane things we have slowly gone back to. We are still the vanguard of the grand crusade for a trivial world. Look for throngs of tearful but resilient New Yorkers exchanging the phrase "devastating tragedy" in the news in the three weeks prior to 11 September. You'll find them. They were lined up along the funeral route of a twenty-two-year-old r&b singer who died with her entourage in a small-plane crash on the way back from filming a video in the Bahamas. I believe it is the implicit moral contention of the existence of the United States that that is the proper scale of human tragedy, complete with the proper admonitory undercurrent of conferred privilege just overreaching itself. It is a better civilization that invests its emotions in pretty girls with fluttery voices, instead of demagogues invoking divine wrath. I believe it is the correct implicit moral contention of the existence of the United States that the willingness to kill other humans and vulnerability to disasters are two of the most prominent characteristics of primitive cultures, and we reach the next stage of humanity only by somehow transcending them. There can be no moral war, not even this one, because the only grammar in which institutionalized murder can be expressed at all is intrinsically immoral. We fight, if we have convinced ourselves we must, as a partially primitive culture trying to disassemble its stockpile of primitive tools. We drop each bomb, or we should, hoping that what it will destroy is the last willingness to bomb. And we wonder, at night, how many more bombs it will take.
And thus the closer I get to the end of 2001, the less willing I am to cede it to mourning, not of martyrs or heroes or Aaliyah or Stuart Adamson, not of anybody or anything. If we allow 2001 to stand as a year of pain, we must grant that all years are years of pain, and I don't see how that can be the way forward. I propose this alternate standing epitaph for every troubled year of our age: "Nothing necessary died this year, nothing beautiful's survival became assured. Evolution is invisible at mortal scales, but alive in our dreams of what we could become. For another precious year, we did not give up." And as I start into my end-of-the-year rituals, I'm surprised to find each of them stubbornly reminding me how much not-giving-up there was before September. Almanacs will log the deaths, but we may remember other things. This year my mother survived a health scare. This year the small software company I work for not only weathered a horrible market for small software companies, but even made some small progress towards tangible success. This year I did two things of which I'd long been apprehensive (wilderness camping, and visiting a country whose language I don't speak), and enjoyed both well enough to want to do them again. This year I got to spend at least a few hours, and in many cases a few days, with almost all my scattered friends, including finally meeting some of their children. This year I found a new favorite movie, and discovered that I like three whole musical subgenres I thought I knew I didn't. This year I grew a little, in ways I can feel even if I can't clearly explain them. And yes, I am ready for 2001 to be over, but I am also ready for 2002 to begin.
As I ride out these last few days, then, my exit musics have little to do with terror and epic courage, and much to do with personal struggles and self-contained triumphs, and with newly found rules for familiar forms of rapture. Logistically, 2001 was the year I completed my Sarah Records collection (thank you, eBay, for finally coughing up a copy of "Anorak City"), which is useful symbolism for the year, more practically, in which the vein of quiet indie pop Sarah Records led me to finished morphing from something novel I was still discovering to something loved and familiar I was keeping up with. This is the great secret you only learn through promiscuous obsession: the things you study are most valuable not for themselves, but for what they prepare you to discover by accident later. The long effort of retroactively assembling a Sarah Records catalog prompted me to adopt anticipatory buy-everything policies for a few newer small labels, without which I wouldn't have found the first three-song single by the hushed Australian trio Tugboat, without which I would almost certainly have missed All Day, their debut, also released by Library to customarily little fanfare. And listening to this album, after several of what I'd hoped were my favorite quiet Australian bands have disappointed me one by one, I forgive them all. All Day is, for me, the dividend for everything I've invested in the Cannanes, Sleepy Township, Huon, Driving Past, the Cat's Miaow, Hydroplane, and perhaps Galaxie 500 and some of what I've poured into Low, too. This is an album of luminous reverence and exquisitely miniature catharses, set against a year of roiling flame and deafening cacophony.
Three complementary elements layer over each other to construct this album. First, at least according to my vocal-centric approach to most music, are the haunting, breathtaking, artlessly resonant harmonies between guitarist James Dean and drummer Bek Varcoe, something like Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low sped up to Lucksmiths tempo and recentered on a folkier background with perhaps a faint trace of John Doe and Exene Cervenka. Sometimes one takes an identifiable lead and the other sings backup, but the most magical moments, for me, are the ones when they sing as equals in a two-part melody, often with such touching tentativeness that it seems briefly like the idea of two people singing different notes at once is a notion they've invented for themselves in isolation, and only barely learned to do with enough consistency to build a whole pop song on it.
The second layer holds the band's intimate, humming, atmospheric arrangements. Most of these songs are built around rumpled drum/bass/acoustic-guitar cores, but trumpets, cellos, subdued keyboards and muted electric-guitar noise fill in various spaces around them. The intensely humane composite effect is a compromise of sorts between Low's somber grace, 69 Love Songs' affectionate eclecticism and early Papas Fritas' impishness, and I want to think that even Steve Albini would nod approvingly at a few of the bits of unaffected honesty they've meticulously exposed. The third layer is a calm, cheerful confidence that lets them rise out of their constraints in a way that Low and Merritt almost never allow (and that in my opinion Papas Fritas botched). None of these songs are anthems, precisely, but a few are ramshackle pop of the most redemptive sort all the same.
The album starts with one of these, actually, the bounding "Next Year's Words", reminiscent of the Feelies in both pace and percussiveness. Varcoe's voice swirls around Dean's like stray harmonics, her drums thump amiably, and the eventual keening guitar solo spins out like meditative pipe smoke contorting into dragons for its own amusement. The elusive lyrics (not printed in the booklet nor on their web site, and not always the focus of the production) have something to do with deferred confessions, and in the absence of better documentation I've construed this set to be about delaying the inevitable as a way of cherishing it better. It's much easier to follow what they're saying on the meditative "Self-same": "You never asked me if I was right or if I even knew" leads to "Most of the time I thought I was wrong but it was you" on the way to an unanswered "I didn't want to believe that all you cared about was you", as mournful trumpet and cello flank the cycling guitar and softly pulsing bass. Dean and Varcoe's duet has the strength, scale and precariousness of old trees still temporarily holding off new highways. The janglier "Northern Spiral Arm" skips along more like the Lucksmiths doing a Violent Femmes song, but it's done long before the two-minute mark, giving way to the rhythmic exuberance and deliberate vocal gauziness of the galloping tour-van ode "Don't Care, Really". The triptych concludes with the jangliest of the three, the marginally slower "Pause and Effect", the trumpet this time doubling Dean and Varcoe's wordless post-chorus chirps. "I'll never be eighteen again," they complain, sounding at least thirty-seven, and I don't believe for a second that they mean "And that hurts more than anything else" seriously.
Cellist Kirsty Stegwazi returns for "The Sky Is Falling (Travelling Song)", which slows down again and thus begins what feels to me like the album's second chapter. Varcoe takes this one by herself, a conflicted farewell that mixes a list of ways the narrator might have participated in her lover's life with a doleful "You say we're not going anywhere, / But that's not true, / I'll be leaving soon". And although the title coyly pretends the song is about the travelling, the chorus betrays the truth: "When will you notice I am gone?" This could be the answer song for Lloyd Cole's "I'm Gone", a road song that understands how often travel is only the absence of anywhere to stand still. The second chapter builds slowly, too, "So Cold Inside"'s vocals so dream-muted and indistinct that much of the song amounts to a dense, trance-like instrumental, on the order of Low's Christmas music. This mainly serves, for me, to frame the next song, "Just Like That", one of the points at which the album threatens to paralyze me completely. One set of guitar arpeggios forms most of the music, joined eventually by a heartbeat kick-drum, quiet shaker hiss and some sighing relative of an accordion. Dean sings this one without Varcoe, but something in the careful way he steps from note to note, as if expecting her to appear at any moment, demonstrates her presence just as vividly. "Who would have ever thought you were behind your own downfall?", he asks, trapped in awe. "I tried to keep it in mind," he explains, and as he sings "but I forgot", hanging onto the first syllable for a couple extra beats, I could swear he's about to say "fucked up" but changes it to "forgot" at the last minute, in a brave victory of truth over style. The second chapter doesn't actually have an upbeat triptych to match the first's, but it does feint at one with the bouncy "Getting Tied Up in Knots". Even the song's own chorus undermines it, though, a heartrendingly plaintive "Nothing's changed, I've just given up being sweet to you; there's no point, I've just given up being sweet to you", sung over blearily distorted guitar. When this dies, it's replaced by the undulating reverie "If I Have My Way", easily the closest I've ever heard anybody other than This Mortal Coil come to the harrowing ethereality of their Big Star covers. The churning "She Doesn't Come Around" sounds to me like an homage to the great short-lived New Wave band The Lucy Show, although I realize it's pretty unlikely that's what Tugboat had in mind.
But then, right where the album might have ended, or where a throw-away cover might have extended it one more track just for fun, Tugboat turn in one of the rare covers that transforms an amusement into a epiphany. "Love Goes Home to Paris in the Spring" was a crinkly, disconsolate Magnetic Fields song on the The House of Tomorrow EP. Stephin Merritt sang it himself in a disgusted moan, and it became a mean little self-portrait of a man for whom even running out of patience would be too much exercise. Tugboat flesh the music out into an engaging clatter, to give themselves space to work, and then have the inspired idea to sing it as a duet. As Dean and Varcoe work through the song's petulant litany together it becomes less a list of gripes than an anatomy of failures they both regret, and when they finally sing "I've had enough, you never give me anything; / Don't you know love goes home to Paris in the spring?", together, it feels to me like they are agreeing on the problem, and promising each other to find a solution. Merritt's chorus was a pretentious kiss-off, and a glib no-heroics clause for the relationship; Tugboat's is an acknowledgement that the relationship will not sustain itself, and the beginning of the rescue they know it's worth. Even the nominal complaints, about broken drug habits and severed acquaintances, thus take on a totally different character, and might be gifts after all. In the end Tugboat's version seems as breathtakingly romantic to me as Merritt's seemed cynical, an open-hearted story of two people where Merritt's version was miserly and solipsistic, and resolute exactly where his was resigned, that the hardest part of the relationship will be the moment not of its dissolution but of its elevation.
After this, the album concludes in a radiant blur. "So Much Fun to Be Had" is the one track reprised from the single, swirling and allusive, like a lullaby that doesn't try to lie about the future. "Friday Afternoon" is a plaintive, open-ended farewell, Dean and Varcoe suggesting, liltingly, repeatedly, "Maybe it's time you thought about something more". And the year ends, and surely they're exactly right.