Strange How the Ears Ring
420 · 13 February 03
The Delgados: Hate
I hang here on the brink. If even one finger gives way, I will fall. I know what it feels like to lose faith in a song, to decide that we don't share a worldview. I know the glib twitch in a singer's voice, the stolen guitar tone I'm supposed to think is homage, the way a stick hits a snare drum differently when the drummer is only playing a costume-party part. I have a hair-trigger intolerance for irony as a substitute for commitment. Given a choice between rank incompetence fired by the tiniest spark of genuine feeling, and blinding proficiency yoked to vacant cleverness, I will take Chasing Amy over Pulp Fiction every single time. (And if you want to disagree with me about which of those is which, get in line.) One false move, one momentary failure of emotional muscle-control, and I will fall from this song's embrace, or it from mine. In art, gravity points in every direction at once; we will fall away from each other. Infinite distances will swallow us from each other's ken, never to be reunited (barring shopping-mall-grade commercial success or somebody putting it on a mix CD without a track sheet).
The song I am clinging to, here, is the title track, more or less, to the new Delgados album, Hate. It is called, in full, "All You Need Is Hate", which is already perilously close to high-concept in a genre paradoxically prone to such things (perhaps by way of asserting that indie rock writers write songs with topics, to begin with). A less blatant rip-off modernization of late-grandeur Simon and Garfunkel (with a trace of "I Am a Rock" innocence) is fairly difficult to envision. Strings sigh and pluck like breath and footfalls, wood-block wind-chimes ping like broken shutters blown through cast-iron fences. Alun Woodward somehow sings like Paul and Art's combined harmony stripped of the top half of Art's frequencies and then flattened back into one voice. Kettle drums roll in like the circus. The rock arrangement, when it finally starts, booms and crashes like a half-drunk marching band with one demented one-string guitar soloist and a shy railroad-crossing sign. The lyrics would make perfect sense if you replaced every occurrence of "hate" with "love", and may well actually have been devised that way. And not only is there no other song on the album quite like this, but there aren't any others that even feel to me like they would know what to do with these impulses if they suffered them involuntarily. All these claws pry at my fingers. I hang so ready to fall.
And yet, for at least one more precious minute, I am suspended in air. I won't let go, or I can't, and I refuse to say which. Or I have let go, already, and gravity has waived its rights. We float, this song and I, defying the physics that compels us apart. If the song were seven seconds longer, it would hit three minutes, and maybe this fragile state would finally collapse. Or I am listening to it over and over, trying to find the secret of how I don't hate it yet, but each time I don't find it and become more sure that it's there. Maybe this grand sweep was supposed to be a mocking invocation of glorious open-heartedness, but it keeps just sounding magnificent to me. Scraggly indie-isms poke through a couple times, and a part of me knows I should despise this exactly as ardently as I detested the Lemonheads' "Mrs. Robinson". The lyrical conceit is at once shallow and easy, either of which ought to be enough, and yet I'm reaching for the box in which I keep my benefits of the doubt, and asking how many you want. If the other seven seconds had had a punch line, some throwaway payoff to the word-substitution, it might still have lost me, but when it ends without one, and the album ends without allusions to any other lost pop eras, I make the insane leap to concluding that the Delgados have managed to write a song that advocates ironic appreciation of ironic appreciation, and so comes full-circle back to exactly the love it nominally denies. Hate, I have persuaded myself they are saying, becomes love at precisely the point where it becomes ubiquitous. Or, put another way, hate and love are dynamic poles such that any time hate exceeds love, they simply flip, and it's as impossible to fill a whole world or whole heart with hate as it is to have a hole taller than a hill. This is what I think they're saying, in this song I think they only pretend to pretend to believe. This is what I think they're singing, in this intoxicating anthem of calm sobriety. This is what I am clinging to, hard enough that maybe the contours I still feel are my own fingernails. If I tried one frown harder, I know I could find the way to turn against it. And I play it again, and do not.
The other effect of my obsessive, incredulous scrutiny of "All You Need Is Hate", though, is that I've realized that I don't care about the rest of the album. I don't mean I dislike it, I mean that I have no emotional feelings about it at all. "All You Need Is Hate" is song two. The one before it, "The Light Before We Land", is boomy but aimless. "Woke From Dreaming" is stark and geometrical. "The Drowning Years" slumps along like everything I didn't understand about the Verve. "Coming In From the Cold" ruins what might have been a Buffalo Tom-like composure with dopey synth-drums and watery fake-piano. "Child Killers" sounds like Randy Newman sedated into a near coma. "Favours" is like a no-fun Lush, and "All Rise" is Elliot Smith without the plaintiveness or urgency. Tanya Donelly could have done something with "Never Look at the Sun"; anybody who wasn't afraid of putting two Simon pastiches on one album could have completed "If This Is a Plan". "Coalman" is killing time until somebody thinks of a way for it to be song. "Mad Drums" tries to compensate with production. I'm not saying there's no way to like the rest of this record, as there's almost always a way to like anything, and this isn't even especially tricky material. I don't dislike it, myself. But you can't like it the way you like "All You Need Is Hate", or at least I can't. Part of me resents the rest of the album for not living up to it, but the rational part knows that the sanest thing to do would have been to take out the one song that doesn't fit. It's not that "All You Need Is Hate" is better than the others, it's that it suggests a grammar in which the other songs have nothing to express. But then, if that means they can't concur, neither can they disagree. They are powerless, and I am transfixed.
Rainer Maria: Long Knives Drawn
And this is the exact opposite, an album in which, for me, every song refines the grammar used by the other ones, so that every time I listen to it every song is more profound. I liked A Better Version of Me, the previous Rainer Maria album, and loved "Ears Ring" when it came out as a single in advance of this, their fourth record, but I'm still taken aback by how strongly I respond to Long Knives Drawn as a whole. Once, Rainer Maria were an emo band. Now they are something else. Now they are a resolute solution to the sadnesses posed by Sleeper and K's Choice, and the band I wish Mecca Normal were more like, and the one other people must hear in Sleater-Kinney, and the one Belly could have become after King. The central flaw in my appreciation of emo, I fear, is that screaming is not my own form of emotional release, and this turns me into a detached spectator at moments when I am supposed to empathize furiously. With Fugazi and Braid, however I internalize the components of their rages, I am ultimately still a tourist. But this, the way Rainer Maria channel their anxieties and pain, comes straight out of my heart. These are love songs, every one of them, wrapped in our frailties and our limitations and our abilities to hurt each other (twice as much when it isn't what we meant to do). Individually, they are scenes from self-aware relationships with the strength to defend themselves; combined, they are a composite portrait of what you face when you face each other. This is a modern masterpiece of jagged guitar blur, and a symphony for crash cymbal and chastened courage, and an epic poem of doubt. This is what people should really aspire to feel like while they peer quizzically at advertisements that try to make them feel stupid and inadequate. This is an album of the unshakable conviction that happiness is possible, no matter how elusive, and that it's most palpable precisely when it seems momentarily most lost.
Whatever stylistic schizophrenia Rainer Maria once suffered, they have outlived. William Kuehn's drums are less a rhythm line than a storm layer, swelling and breaking. Kyle Fischer's guitars peal and squall, a constant redemptive cacophony despite there rarely being more than one of them. And Caithlin De Marrais, now essentially the only singer, holds them together with a charged voice that knows exactly what freedoms the instruments' cover allows. "Mystery and Misery" sails into the moment when you realize how much you don't understand, but suddenly know it can't stop you. "Is your rage a good indication?" "From the beginning I made it clear what I expected, but now I might regret that." "Mystery and misery can sometimes be a call to action." Is it totally coincidental that the word "misrepresented" lingers like Belly's "super-connected"? Yes, probably so, but they are alternate characterizations of the same moment of clarity. "Say I'm the one you like all the time." The keening "Long Knives" itself wonders how to restructure a relationship on internal logic. "Let's get over each other so that we can fall in love again." Forever is a long time between restarts, and of course we cause most of our problems ourselves. "Am I mistaken / When I woke up this morning / Without you there / I'm shaken to the very foundation", Caithlin pleads, juggling past and future, question and confession. The weapons you sharpen against the world, you can so easily turn on each other, and the fact that you don't is more the source of their power than any sharpness of steel. And "Ears Ring" howled "And you already love her" at a moment when that sounded to me like the rush of my own blood.
None of these are pop songs, in any usual sense, but neither are they all insurmountable. De Marrais' burbling bass centers the ticking "The Double Life", and I can't decide whether the schism she means is the one between the person you hope to be and the person you fear to be, or the one between your own self and the new self the two of you will form together. "The Awful Truth of Loving", becalmed and jangly, wonders how to fight second-guessing. "First it feels right, then you write a novel worrying." Of course we do, the fear means we might give this one a chance. The sleight of subject in "I wanted to be sweet so you won't disappoint me" is terrifyingly perfect, hope and self-criticism tearing at each other. "All that we were thinking", insists the last line, "is about individuality", and of course we fear for exactly the thing that love can most powerfully sustain. "The Imperatives" tries to disentangle desire, and the surging "Floors" tries to wait love out. Neither tactic stands a chance.
And if you have time for only two songs, this album folds itself back into the final pair. "CT Catholic" is cathartic and roaring, cycling repeatedly over nostalgic memories on the way to admitting what story they still tell. ("Not tonight, not ever again will I take you for granted.") And "Situation: Relation" is just Kyle and Caithlin, lullaby over quiet guitar. "If indeed this was like a first marriage, / Then you and I together can be like divorcees." And if hate can turn into love, then surely failure can turn into new hope, too. I really don't know what they're talking about here, since marriage and divorce are a strange metaphor for an adult relationship, but after listening to the song a few dozen times without having any better theories, I've reverted to thinking that, as in "All You Need Is Hate", they're saying exactly what it seems too obvious that they're hiding. Faced with eternity turning suddenly mortal, you have to find a way to part and recombine as a thing you do together. This is an album of what ever after is really like. Forever will constantly devolve into brittle hours and days, and you must learn to die and begin again, moment after moment, without losing each other. And that sounds hard, but there's only one thing you need.