Tomorrow Is Another Day
399 · 19 September 02
Patty Griffin: Silver Bell
If you agree with me that art is most essentially an act of communication between an identifiable human author and a real (however scattered or numerous) human audience, then artists and their facilitators share the moral responsibility for seeing that this act of communication is not fundamentally distorted in the space between its transmission and its reception. Or, put more simply, in my understanding of art it's the job of the artist to say something to someone, and it's the job of every other person involved in the process to help them do so. Even this much can be extremely complicated in a form, like film, where there are multiple participants with degrees of authorship, but in the case of a book, or a record with a single person's name on the cover, the lines ought to be relatively simple to draw. Or they would be, if not for the fact that the author's understanding of what they've communicated is not necessarily accurate, at which point the facilitators have to (or we have to, evaluating their actions) try to tell the subtle difference between helping an artist refine their work to communicate its message more clearly, and corrupting that message into something it wasn't meant to be. And in the commercial world, where some of the "facilitators" also (or even mainly) have fiscal responsibilities to the providers of an artwork's funding, the subject becomes muddier still. One of the definitive modern texts, I think, on these tensions and how they can pull a project apart, is the three-DVD Criterion edition of Terry Gilliam's movie Brazil. The first disc is Gilliam's 142-minute director's cut (complete with a manic commentary track that, like the film, crams in every obscure detail and deranged cackle it can somehow fit); the second disc is dominated by an hour-long recap of the fight between Gilliam and the studio executives at Universal, the film's American distributor; and the third disc has the butchered "Love Conquers All" re-edit that the studio wanted, and eventually got for TV broadcast. My intuitive loyalties are clear: Brazil was Gilliam's movie, and the studio had no business trying to change its tone. A couple of the executives made a token attempt to rationalize their meddling as efforts on the film's behalf, trying to help what they saw as a good film extricate itself from the confusion in which Gilliam had mired it, and if Gilliam had been an unknown artist making his first film, I might have been willing to give them a tiny bit of credit. But to anybody who had seen Time Bandits and Gilliam's Monty Python work, and thus had some vague familiarity with his style, it's patently obvious that Brazil is an expression of it as is, and I am willing to stipulate as fact that wanting to turn it into a concise love-story cannot be justified as an intelligent act in the interest of the author's conception.
But there was money involved, and money always complicates things. Universal had invested a few million dollars, and got back a film that their executives felt, from their business expertise, would not recoup its expenses, but might with some changes. I have a hard time begrudging them this mundane concern as a general principle. The continued existence of the studio, and its ability to put out other people's movies, is predicated on it not going broke. It is reasonable for its business managers to have this as one of their concerns, and reasonable even, I think, for them to bring their specific related observations to the artist's attention. It was pigheaded of Universal to insist that a 2:22 movie cannot be shown twice a night in a single theater, while a 2:05 movie could (and the 2:11 cut they eventually accepted was), but it was also pigheaded of Gilliam to have delivered a cut that exceeded the length limit he'd contractually agreed to. Both sides wielded their cudgels brutishly. Backing up a level, we could argue that Universal should have spent more energy understanding what they were investing in; how anybody could watch Time Bandits and then claim to be expecting its author to deliver them an E.T., I can't imagine. Similarly, we could fault Gilliam for accepting and spending fifteen million dollars on a film he did not in any way intend to have that scale of mainstream revenue potential. Turn this around, and you get two rather simple rules: an artist must not accept assistance that imposes unmanageable constraints on the work, and a facilitator must not proffer assistance that requires them.
And since it is far, far easier to adjust one artist's course than that of a corporate behemoth, I fear that for practical purposes the primary responsibility must fall to the artist. You must retain control of your work. You must retain control of your work, you must retain control of your work. Simple to say, and even simpler (however frustrating) to do. You must be willing to say no. And yes, that means you may have to turn down what look like opportunities to do projects on otherwise impossible scales. If you cannot retain control of an epic (and Gilliam had final cut, but he also had the length limit), you must make something smaller. Of course I want to sympathize with Prince and Aimee Mann and the Comsat Angels, but they did sign those contracts. The technical means to produce professional-grade recordings have been available to individual artists for a long time, and over the course of the last twenty years, at least, the standards of "professional-grade" have risen just as steadily as the costs have fallen. I have enough gadgets in my spare room to make music with. I don't have Bob Rock and Pino Palladino in my spare room to make it sound good for me, but I do what I can. Expense-wise, two-thirds of my toys are there to help compensate for my shortcomings as a performer, so if we assume an actual musician already has instruments and can play them, they are about a thousand dollars away from being able to encode their work into perfectly presentable demos using tools no more than one or two removes from the state of the art, and thus, as far as I'm concerned, if you chose to sign a major-label recording contract, as opposed to a distribution contract for a recording you've already made, then you are trading control for what probably amount to commercial ambitions, and this is an irresponsible gamble with unacceptable stakes.
Patty Griffin took that gamble, and has paid for it by, at least in the current public form of the story, making five albums and seeing only three of them released. One of the two "missing" records, mind you, is the band-and-studio re-recording of the demos that they eventually reverted to for her debut, which I don't count because I'm overwhelmingly confident without ever having heard it that it was a mistake from its inception and not releasing it was the next best thing to not having wasted time doing it to begin with. The other missing record is a different story. It was called Silver Bell, it was finished and turned in to A&M in 2000, and it was to be her third album. A&M declined to release it, Patty got out of her A&M contract only by leaving the record behind in the trap, and what we got instead was the weary, malformed mess of 1000 Kisses.
I have now heard Silver Bell. I'm not going to say how, and although I'm not totally sure what my moral stance is on the distribution of authorially-complete artistic work its facilitators have squelched, it would be logistically impractical for me to produce copies of it for any or all of you whether I am physically able to or not, so don't ask. It's a big internet, and if you feel like making the effort, you can probably find a way to hear this record, too. As far as I'm concerned, it is every bit as ringing a condemnation of the major-label business process, and both sides' participation in it, as Brazil or anything else. It is a powerful, nuanced, engaging artwork any sane label should have been humbled by the chance to release, and it is a simple-enough creation that Patty should never have ceded anybody decision rights in order to make it. And more than either of those things, to me, Silver Bell is a repeated and indelible confirmation that my disappointment with 1000 Kisses was right on every count. I said 1000 Kisses was leaden and demoralizing, and Silver Bell is alive and inspiring in exactly the ways I meant 1000 Kisses was not.
And for once, there's actually a good reason for me to describe it to you. It opens with "What You Are", a becalmed and haunting introduction that immediately suggests you should consider slowing your metabolism down and paying receptive attention. A quiet kick-drum at the front of the mix and a muffled timpanic snare at the back of it pace a sighing arrangement over which Patty's vocal flutters breathily. "All the ladies on the lake, they start to dance", Patty begins, elliptically. "What do you wish you were? Do you wish you were the silence on the moon?" Aimee Mann could take lessons on melancholy, and Mitchell Froom on drum production.
Patty ratchets up the intensity stepwise, by following "What You Are" with a bit of Living With Ghosts-throwback acoustic blues called "Truth #2", which is significantly simpler in implementation (just Patty's guitar and voice, both of them recorded fuzzily), but distinctly more demonstrative emotionally. In the passages she howls most stridently, though, she pulls her head back from the microphone, and there thus seems, at least to me, to still be a thin layer of reticence that wasn't present on Living With Ghosts. And then, as if taken aback by the sound of her own heart, she promptly inverts the elements again for the quietly breathtaking "Top of the World": tip-toeing bass, shuffling drums, pinging piano, spectral guitar figures and Patty sounding almost out of breath. "Wished I was smarter, I wished I was stronger, I wished I'd loved Jesus the way my wife does. I wished it had been easier instead of any longer." I am reminded, more vividly than I have been by anything since Living With Ghosts, what a great lyricist I think Patty can be, stepping into her characters lives as selflessly as Richard Shindell. Lanois-ish guitar-echoes swirl in the background, and little mandolin sparkles flare and fade like infant fireworks. Towards the end everything but the atmosphere drops out, some eerie samples wander through, and then the other elements crescendo back in in a quiet catharsis. There hasn't even been a fast song yet, and I'm already an order of magnitude happier with this album's balance of moods than 1000 Kisses'.
And maybe Patty realizes this, too, as she puts off the pace-shift even further by seguing next into a swaying, nearly-inertialess gospel set-piece called "Standing". My feeling about this genre exercise, however, is exactly opposite to my reaction to "Mil Besos". This one still sounds distinctly like Patty to me, and I take it less as a demonstration of Patty's protean ability to perform in other styles than as a demonstration of how readily another style can accommodate Patty's unmistakable presence without her needing to somehow conform to it. I'm caught still pondering that when the album's first rock song, "Sorry and Sad", snaps into motion. It's still not fast, per se, but the drums are firm and unmistakably rock, the bass grumbles happily, the piano clangs and the guitars chop and snarl. Backing vocals well up in the choruses, there are hooks and even a guitar solo, and although Patty doesn't betray the lyrics' emotional premise by letting the energy slip into rave-up, to me this is a gesture of resiliency in the same way 1000 Kisses' version of "Making Pies" was a shrug of resignation.
And I think I could do without the jazz-blues mannerisms of "Sooner or Later", taken in isolation, but there needs to be something there, because "Silver Bell" itself, which comes after it, finally delivers the album's first whole-hearted rock blast, and nailing it directly to the end of the mid-tempo "Sorry and Sad" would reduce the jarring effect. A gnashing guitar enters in the left channel only, a borderline-out-of-tune bass rumbles in in the middle, and then the whole thing cuts loose in frayed punk-by-way-of-Neil-Young glory that I can't believe a record company sincerely thought they couldn't market. But where the rock outings on Flaming Red just made me miss Living With Ghosts, the carefully unglossed production here, particularly on Patty's singing (and extra-particularly on the song's final word, where the band suddenly leaves Patty hanging in empty space), succeeds for me in translating the urgency and intimacy of her acoustic recordings into a louder idiom, rather than sublimating them into rock's constraints the way I thought Flaming Red did.
I could do without the distracted growl of "Perfect White Girls", too, and this one I don't see the pacing case for, as the song after it feels like a fine come-down to me, a clompingly folky interlude of self-deprecation called "One More Girl", which turns on the pathos of "I'm one more girl on a stage, just one more ass that got stuffed in some jeans". The feeling that 1000 Kisses' air of defeat is leaking anticipatorily backwards through time is compounded by the appearance, next, of the first draft of "Makin' Pies". But I said that the songs on 1000 Kisses would have been just fine mixed in with a few livelier ones, and this is exactly what I meant. Here where less depends on it, "Makin' Pies" is free to just have storytelling qualities, and this arrangement, without the accordion added to the later version, is less immersive and thus allows Patty to keep more narrative distance, so I feel less like she has started to identify with the character's surrender.
The approach to the album's conclusion begins with an odd, boomy thing called "Little God", laced with sinewy Alanis Morissette-ish Easternisms, and gets stranger with the chirpy drum machine and spy-music asides in the first half of "Driving", but by the end "Driving" has settled into a sturdy rock groove worthy and faintly reminiscent of Building the Perfect Beast. And if 1000 Kisses was a textbook example of how to sabotage an album by ending it wrong, I'm three times as mystified by it now that I've heard Silver Bell end, perfectly, with its single most redemptive rock song (and another tailor-made single), the simultaneously crashing and soaring hometown celebration/kiss-off "Boston". "Some things try and try, and they never fly, and they never fly. You reach up from the waves and find that you're only waving goodbye." Separated from their music, these words are just as sad and beaten-down as 1000 Kisses' "You could cry or die". But here on this record that doesn't exist, they're not separated from their music, they take flight on it, and instead of a drowning, I take this final sentence to be the realization that although most people never manage to fly, you can, but when you do you'll discover the grand irony that all flight gives you is the ability to leave your home. If 1000 Kisses echoes with the impossibility of escape, then Silver Bell rings with the unnecessariness of it.
And I realize the unnecessariness of escape is not exactly a Pepsi-commercial theme, so if A&M decided it wasn't the kind of thing they wanted to work with, I grant that that's their business and right. They could hardly have sold Silver Bell to the same demographics they'd cultivated for Queens of the Stone Age or Eve, and as Terry Gilliam realized, too (and in fact A&M now belongs to Universal), the last thing into which LA media companies with blockbuster ambitions want to pour their expensive energies is the arduous and thankless task of digging discriminating audiences out of their carefully reinforced anti-media-conglomerate bunkers in order to expose them to a rare exception whose qualities the suits aren't really prepared to comprehend or explain anyway. This doesn't seem like it ought to have been an intractably difficult album, to me, especially if there's anybody left at A&M (and probably there isn't) who remembers how much the label owes to Herb Alpert, Cat Stevens, Joe Jackson and Sting, but if they weren't up to it, so be it.
If functioning human beings had made that decision, though, they would flown Patty out to LA, taken her to a really nice dinner, explained the situation politely and apologetically, thanked her for her efforts, and then handed her back her masters and wished her luck with them. There is nothing complicated or subtle about this point. Whatever commerce this record is or isn't suited for, it is still art, and the product of a human being's heart and labor, and no moral calculus excuses silencing it. Patty should never have agreed to let record-company weasels determine its fate, but human society is founded on people making untenable compromises and other people having the sense and grace not to obtusely exercise every ill-won concession over them. Human beings would have let her have it. Hell, real human beings would have spent a couple days making calls to the next tier of labels to help Patty find this record a more appropriate home. The accountants who decided it belonged in a sound-proof vault, instead, are subhuman, and deserve nothing better than slow asphyxiation amidst the fetid stench of the last five years of rotted disposable thong songs.
And if Patty had retained control, none of this would have happened, but I think she has paid for her error. 1000 Kisses is the record of what Silver Bell cost her, and now that I've heard what she lost, I don't blame her any more. It's a long way back from making something this good and having it taken away from you. Grieving is natural, however ugly. But we survive far worse. Silver Bell was very good, but far from irreplaceable. Living With Ghosts was better, and it's worth remembering, while we're trying to work up a good self-righteous rage about evil labels and victimized artists, that Living With Ghosts was A&M's doing, against Patty's wishes, so perhaps losing Silver Bell was the price she paid for having fought against herself before. But enough with costs and prices, that's accountant logic. Artist logic is iterative and self-repairing. In the long run, it shouldn't matter whether you ever hear this record or not; if there is any sense left in the future, Patty will make four records as good as this, and six more that are better. You haven't heard it, but she has, and she's the one that has to learn from it. She will. I know she will, because she's got no better choice. You cry, or die, or start again.
[A postscriptural bonus irony: Within hours of my having posted the above, readers with better information had written to point out the hilarious detail that the running order I heard and liked was actually the result of a lazy nameless bootlegger burning the tracks in reverse alphabetical order, not Patty's intent. When you lose control of your work, you subject it to your rescuers and persecutors alike. The order she apparently wanted has some interesting juxtapositions, but in my opinion it begins ("Little God") and ends ("Standing") badly, perhaps badly enough to partially undo what I thought the version I heard accomplished. But if Patty's decisions about her own work are once again suspect, that's still how it should be. You keep your mistakes, and thus the chance to fix them the next time, or the next, or the next, or never.]