No Two Universes Are Ever Entirely Congruent
374 · 28 March 02
The Mountain Goats: All Hail West Texas
If last week's question revolved around the extent to which our tools for art make their own decisions (or contain decisions made by others), then this week's is in a way a converse. How much technical intervention does art require? Or, put another way, what is the aesthetic role of production technology in artistic expression? Depending on your level of philosophical geekiness, this is either a fundamental question to which any work of art almost inherently supplies a partial answer, implicitly if not (more often) explicitly, or else it's a distant second to "What does Britney mean she isn't in an 'intense' relationship right now?! Are she and Justin squabbling over tour-schedule logistics, or are they done? If she's single, I need to know by the time I have to decide what I'm wearing tomorrow."
It's tempting to say that at the level of theory we have already answered this question. If Keith Haring can use spray paint on public surfaces, Yvonne Rainer can stage plain-clothes ballets in undecorated gymnasiums, and Stan Brakhage can hand-paint the surface of a roll of film, then surely technology has been obviated as decisively as technique. But these are abstruse arts with obscure audiences, and we could probably pass a resolution that all discussion of human virtues and failings must be conducted in Sanskrit and Esperanto, respectively, and the vast majority of people would neither notice nor care. In popular arts, the situation is rather less clear. I remember people complaining about the camera-work in The Blair Witch Project with exactly the same worried outrage as the kids at my high school who were pretty sure a poem was poor if it didn't rhyme. I presume nobody believes A Beautiful Mind would still have won its Oscars if it had been shot according to Dogma rules. It was Nevermind that broke Nirvana, not Bleach, and I believe people mention the humble origins of Nebraska and The Trinity Session not because they transcend their technical inadequacies, but because no such inadequacies are particularly apparent.
Of course, "can a work of art be popular without adhering to prevailing production standards" is not an aesthetic question in itself, but step outside of those standards and you take on the burden of your defiance. The ostensible intent of the Dogma rules is to strip filmmaking of artifice, but the effect is largely the opposite: most people used to non-Dogma cinema will have hard time watching a Dogma film without being hyper-aware of the artifice involved. Taking photographs in black-and-white is now a much more blatant affectation than airbrushing them. The absence of a laugh-track in a sitcom is glaring. Bee Thousand and Pieces of You are much more about their production for most people than Garbage or Britney Spears.
But for tonight, you and I, we will be sophisticates. We will pretend that production is transparent to us. We will imagine that we are people who react to Clerks and Titanic as storytelling exercises subject to the exact same metrics of success. We are still left with a difficult question. Even if we don't care how much an artwork has been polished, we have to confront the possibility that the artist does. Comparing Clerks and Titanic is silly, but what about Clerks and Mallrats? Slacker and Before Sunrise? Bee Thousand and Do the Collapse? The Kick Inside and Hounds of Love? These aren't quite the right tests either, though, because they all introduce time as another variable. We have lots of chances to compare early demos to later studio recordings, but the effects of revision pollute the effects of resources. The experiment we really want to run is the one from Sliding Doors, one actor subjected to parallel time-lines, which is not only physically impossible as stated, but almost never even approximated. We need one artist to make a low-fi album and hi-fi album at the same time, but who ever does?
All Hail West Texas and Martial Arts Weekend aren't such a pair of albums either, really. They were recorded during the same period, but the songs on All Hail West Texas were done in Iowa, the ones on Martial Arts Weekend in San Francisco. They appear under different band names because The Mountain Goats are (at this point) just John Darnielle, and The Extra Glenns are John and Nothing Painted Blue's Franklin Bruno. But my experience of music almost always starts from the singing, and Darnielle's is thus the soul of both efforts, for me, which makes it fairly easy for me to line them up and compare.
Technically speaking, Mountain Goats recordings are as low as low-fi goes. All Hail West Texas was mostly captured by an aged Panasonic boom box, and sounds, if anything, even worse than that. (Darnielle's liner notes explain, in endearing detail, the source of the omnipresent grinding noise that makes all these songs seem as if he has remained inexplicably oblivious to three or four growling Daleks standing right behind him, or as if they are being sung into the cool night air from a cabin under an electric tower.) Except for one track performed on the cheesiest vintage home-keyboard available, these pieces all consist simply of Darnielle and his acoustic guitar. We're used to guitars sounding however, but we instantly know when a voice has been recorded through anything but current technology. All the Mountain Goats albums (and there are many) sound something like this, and I'll admit that I've never seen an artistic reason for it. On Bee Thousand or Water Cuts My Hands, I not only feel like the production complements the compositions, but also that it's necessary, that even more than those records sounding like they should sound, they sound the only way they could sound. Clean them up and you'd destroy them as surely as you'd wreck Monet's cathedrals by focusing them. But I think Darnielle's songs would clean up fine. His singing is a little nasal, and his accompaniments a bit repetitive, but on neither account is he particularly less accessible than, say, Ellis Paul, or Jules Shear doing his own songs, so I'm left wondering about the potentially dubious motives for what I think of as an arbitrary sonic imposition. Darnielle could get a bottom-of-the-line Tascam and an SM58 for about two hundred dollars, or less used, and his songs would sound "real", so why doesn't he? Stubbornness? Fear? And old promise to a now-dead relative? Small-pond cowardice? A reluctance to associate with the people who would become his peers? But these are questions Darnielle is not obliged to answer. If he's willing to take the risk that you won't be able to listen to this album, then you have to be willing to decide what you're going to do. And since we're being sophisticated and freethinking this week, we will stay.
And if we are like me, we will be very, very glad we did. I like the other Mountain Goats records, but I am a belated Mountain Goats convert, so as is often the case I bought them all more or less at once, and thus have a hard time distinguishing between them, and haven't subjected any one of the old ones to intense scrutiny. All Hail West Texas is the first new Mountain Goats record during my Mountain Goats experience, and this time I'm ready to concentrate. Not only is Darnielle basically a folk-singer by performance idiom, but he is unmistakably a storyteller by temperament. At the bottom of the plain white cover of this album's digipack there is this explanatory subtitle: "fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys." If we think about it for a moment, we will realize that a) pretty much any folk album could have a similar declaration on the front and probably most of them could boast a better rate than one person per two songs, and b) this list suggests that three of these songs have no subject worth mentioning. But it is a very rare rock album that feels most moved to point out, on its cover, what its songs are about.
And these songs are quite vividly about what they're about. You will find few more empathetic and cogent portraits of frustrated youth and the way condescension begets sociopathy than "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton" (which culminates with what may well be the most affirmative use of the injunction "Hail Satan" in all of Christianity-shadowed moral discourse). "Fall of the Star High School Running Back" follows its subject all the way to prison and the old country. "Color in Your Cheeks" is about a party, or maybe America itself, and backtracks to Taipei and Mexicali to see where the guests and immigrants came from. "Jenny" is the one with the motorcycle, but it's really about reduced expectations and small victories, and the goofy "God damn, the pirate's life for me!" chorus is counterbalanced for me by the remarkable couplet "And you pointed your headlamp toward the horizon; / We were the one thing in the galaxy God didn't have his eyes on." "Fault Lines" is a scathing litany of shared weaknesses, but shared weaknesses are strengths. "Balance" seems adrift to me, but "Pink and Blue" is a poetic infant lullaby of which I think Townes Van Zandt would be proud. "Riches and Wonders", sung with declarative candor, is an old-fashioned campfire sing-along in the mold of Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger. "The Mess Inside" is a heartbreaking autopsy of two people's useless attempts to salvage a relationship by distracting themselves from it. "Jeff Davis County Blues" is an even more plaintive chronicle of a parolee's drive back home to he knows not what reception. "Distant Stations" is like a confused corruption of Lucinda Williams' "Essence", a terrified lover hiding on somebody else's steps. "Blues in Dallas", the Casiotone one, is a hushed mock-spiritual. I don't think the choruses of "Source Decay" are sufficiently connected to the verses, but then we reach the finale, and it stops really mattering what "Absolute Lithops Effect" is about, because the music is breaking up in the Panasonic's death rattle. Something about tender mercies, he says, one channel dropping out for a second. The grinding fades in one last time, and then out. The album doesn't so much conclude as collapse.
Surely that's the wrong way. These songs never relinquish their hopes one by one, so why should they give them up in aggregate? Darnielle's anti-technology has betrayed him, I fear, and I don't understand why he lets it. These songs are fine. His singing is fine, his lyrics are great. This is the raw material for a year's-best record, but he's deliberately couched it in praise-defying noise. A subtle memento mori in the corner of the picture is one thing; this is like soaking the finished portrait in coffee and then dragging it behind your truck for three miles. Darnielle deserves more, the characters in these songs deserve more, we deserve more. Couldn't I love these songs more if I could hear them better?
The Extra Glenns: Martial Arts Weekend
And here, therefore, is the test. Martial Arts Weekend is hardly Building the Perfect Beast, but it's a clean recording, and there are overdubs and backing vocals, and Bruno's musical ambitions are a little grander than Darnielle's. The record is prettier, and the songs would be prettier even if you took the grinding noise off of the other ones. There are no drums, and Darnielle still careens through the lyrics in his usual headlong manner, so it's hardly an aspiring mainstream cross-over, but then again, smaller albums have been hits. There isn't a stated lyrical theme, but there weren't on most of the other Mountain Goats albums, either. Individually, the songs are just as carefully specific, filled with places and things and infrastructure and arguments about music and loves that you can't kill just because you think you want to. There's a Leonard Cohen cover they mostly pull off (although it ends up sounding more like Brian Dewan). There are three more installments of Darnielle's long-running "Going to..." series. There should be everything we need. I don't know what battles took place in the studio between impulse and discipline, but the resulting album is not afraid of itself. It is spare but not self-destructive, reserved but not evasive. It is what I asked for. I smile, and relax some tension I hadn't noticed building. Hundreds of Mountain Goats songs later, here's twelve versions of what they could have sounded like.
But the album ends, and somehow the rapture I was anticipating never arrived. I must have zoned out. I play it a second time. No, I missed it again. A third try, and a fourth, and then I start getting suspicious. A fifth and sixth, watching closely, and then I know. I haven't not enjoyed this, but after it's over all I want to do is play the other one again. The music is better on this one, but I think the art is worse. Why? I fear that all my theories are retrofits. With Bruno as an audience, maybe Darnielle isn't as unguarded. Maybe collaborative energy isn't conducive to channeling profound personal tragedy. Maybe these arrangements take only a half-step toward rock, and I either want them to take the other half or none. This album seems like it ought to be exactly what Darnielle needs, Bruno lending him the courage to make a record that doesn't sabotage itself, but in making a record I could recommend to a wider audience they've somehow made one I don't know why I would. I wondered why Darnielle insisted on his scratchy, off-putting recording style, but sometimes Why is the wrong question. Wanting to take things apart and find out how they work is curiosity, but wanting to put them back together some other way is small-mindedness. The way to sophistication is not learning to ignore the artifice, it's learning to see the artifice and the content at once. I go back to All Hail West Texas again, and this time, as the grinding fades away for good, it finally seems metaphoric to me, machines barely holding together long enough to record a few moments from a similarly precarious human existence. The Panasonic may not have many more days, but it does get through the album. The final fade-out is executed under control. It is not a collapse, it is a wave goodbye, and all farewells whisper the possibility of reunion. Arguably art's permanence is a dangerous illusion, one misleading enough that in recording stories we corrupt them, all the more when we think we're doing so most accurately. So maybe the boom box is necessary after all, a proscenium to remind us where the story stops and we, listening, begin. But what about all these records I love that weren't recorded on boom boxes? How do I reconcile the contradictory implications of "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton", Bob Mould's "Soundonsound" and Alanis Morissette's "Precious Illusions"?
As usual, it's hard to answer the question, but surprising easy to deduce what the answer has to be. We don't reconcile them. Art is not one system, with one body of logic. These songs need noise, Richard Shindell's need resonance, Roxette's need sparkle. Production value is relative, after all. Every truth is ultimately the seed of a new universe. No two universes are ever entirely congruent, and we move among them by modulating our beliefs. Darnielle has reasons of his own for the way he works, and although you can track down interviews in which he explains them, if you think that will help, it's not actually essential that we understand them, and it's certainly not necessary that we agree with them or apply his rules to anybody else. We just have to suspend, temporarily, whichever of our own convictions are incompatible with them. Yes, the grinding noise is kind of nasty. But so too, operas are long, it's harder to follow a movie if you have to read subtitles, there's definitely something unnerving about the idea of eating raw fish, and friends are just the people who now know what hurts you. These are truths, and universes, and the fact that they exist doesn't mean you have to inhabit them. In the end all worthwhile pieces of art ask some concessions of you, otherwise you're just filling time. You can demand that they change into something you already know, or you can risk learning a new thing that might be wrong. You can know exactly what you want, and spiral inwards until that's all you have. You can be right, and lost. You can be immune, or you can be alive.