Our Intentions Entwined
444 · 31 July 03
The Waterboys: Universal Hall
I remember the last time I wasn't overwhelmed. Or maybe "remember" is an exaggeration, but at least I know when it was. It was 1990. I had finished college the previous year, and a temp job answering tech-support calls at Lotus had evolved into an amiably untaxing spot on the late shift. I didn't own a television, and didn't have any form of computer connectivity at home. I slept late, ate grilled cheese sandwiches, rode my bike to work, and spent lazy evenings playing with computers and occasionally defusing midnight-desperate administrative assistants who had broken their print macros. I rode home again through pre-dawn-emptied factory streets, and lay awake for hours more reading books and listening to records. I didn't have a web site, or a camera. Sometimes I played my guitar or thumped along with Magnum songs on some drummers' practice pads. I was adrift between the college friends who had moved away and the post-college friends I hadn't made yet. There was no soccer to watch, and I wasn't playing again yet. I made just enough money to buy CDs for my new CD player, and start paying off college loans. I didn't go out very much. I had a girlfriend, but she was away in another country. I had time.
I'm not going to claim I was happier then. "Happy" is always weird to evaluate, and hopeless to assess in retrospect. I was probably bemused and becalmed, as much as anything. I knew that answering the phone wasn't my career ambition, but it had an internal logic I understood, so I set about excelling at it. And I knew the backwards schedule was temporary, so I just accepted the isolation it produced, and did what I felt like doing with the uninterruptible hours. They were easy to fill, but hard to overflow.
Thirteen years later, every hour strains under ten competing demands, and all closures are fractional and asterisked. Right this moment I want to be writing and reading and listening to records and kissing Belle and writing songs and taking pictures and getting a roof-replacement estimate and booking a Barcelona-to-Paris night-train and visiting friends and playing miniature golf and studying kanji and cooking dosas and learning to roll a kayak and sleeping by the ocean and conjuring elementals. I pick two, and the others wait. Belle and I have passed the six-month mark, and I've moved on to pondering eternity. I'm done losing weight, but lightness is not the same as fitness. I paid off my mortgage this week, but the stock market still holds the power to make me queasy. At work we just shipped a magnificent new version of our software, and before anybody has even used it yet we're already enmeshed in the constraints on our next steps. Goals accumulate; finish-lines evaporate on approach.
When you have barely enough time to do what you love, prioritization is essential. When you haven't the remotest prayer of doing it all, prioritization is hard to even start. How I have spent my time, over these years, has usually been as much a function of opportunity as of emotional calculus. The 1994 World Cup resurfaced my soccer passion, for example, which led to my playing again, and then to going to Revolution games, and then to two sets of season tickets, and then to one crazed month bearing witness to every single game of the 2002 World Cup. I've seen more soccer games than movies, this year, and seen more than twice as many soccer games as I've read books. Movies are more important to me than soccer games, and books are more important than both, but the soccer games stake out their places on my calendar more diligently. Was watching that whole Cup worth the time it took? No, not in any strict sense. I could have written a dozen songs in that time, and I'm fairly certain I'd rather be a person who has written a dozen more songs than a person who once watched a whole World Cup. But hours are not always a convertible currency. I knew that might be the last and only Cup I had a chance to watch that way. The next dozen songs are only deferred. I want to be a person who has written a dozen more songs and once watched a whole World Cup. I want to have done my part for soccer in this country, even if my part is weird. I want a lot of things, and sometimes they come in strange orders. I do what seems doable, and hope that I'll live long enough to get to everything.
But there's nothing like trying to share your practical world with another person to encourage a comprehensive reassessment of how it is constructed. Belle and I play through just about all of the timeless conversations, including the one about whether a person's nature is malleable or intransigent. My daily life is now radically different than it was seven months ago. Compare today to thirteen months ago, and I might as well be a different physical person, as well. But does this mean I have changed? I'm sure it doesn't prove I have, and I'm not sure it's even evidence that people can. Any aware and self-aware person will have a nature larger than they can manifest at any one time. Belle loves the ocean, and I am learning to kayak. I don't love the ocean the same way she does, but there are bridges I've been dreaming of floating under since the day I moved here. She isn't why I care, but she's why I'm doing something about this interest among all the possible ones. If she were different, I might now be learning contract bridge or kendo or autocross. Are these changes? My sleep schedule has shifted, and I'm spending much more time outdoors and outside of the city; with somebody else I might be awake at 3am writing poetry or analysis software, or at 5am opening a bakery.
The hard part, actually, is not changing in these small ways, it's knowing what a big change would be. If you're an intrinsically curious person, what does a personality boundary even look like? What would I never do, or never stop doing? I can barely start either list. I think I would never stop writing in some form, and never stop reading, and never stop listening to music. I don't think I will ever drink, smoke, believe in gods, or make a living from methodical cruelty. I'm not as sure about anything else. Belle and I have considered ideas as logistically radical has escaping to a faraway beach village to write novels for a year, and as socially conventional as getting married and having children, and although most ideas of this magnitude would alter basically all of my existing routines and habits, when I poke around in my personality for serious theoretical obstacles to them, I don't find much. I find a lot of things I've loved doing, and could keep doing indefinitely, but could also trade for other experiences tomorrow. Life is short, and many of the things I've been doing, I've already done for years. So maybe it's somebody else's turn now.
This might sound casual, but it feels profound. Some of the specific examples, admittedly, are crashingly trivial. I used to sit through the credits of movies, as a matter of policy; Belle hasn't the patience. I used to come home from attending a soccer game and watch the tapes of other soccer games that took place elsewhere at the same time; now I usually have better options. I knew there were many aspects of my single life that only made sense because I was single. I have frequently described myself as obsessive, but always wondered if it would have been more accurate to simply say I was lonely. Having Belle around doesn't help resolve this point, because she is not an obsessive person, herself, so I don't know whether she is directly counteracting my obsessive impulses or indirectly making me less lonely and thus less in need of obsessions for distraction. She writes and reads and loves music, too, so maybe we'll never find out for sure if I could live without those.
But my specific experience of music is changing. My study is still spiked with piles of CDs marooned in one kind of transit or another, but the ones that represent the current rotation are at a low unseen in a decade. I am down to less than two dozen records I think I might write about and haven't yet. It is now conceivable, for the first time since I began writing this column, that I might catch up. My buying has slowed measurably. I pick up albums in the store and then put them down again. I read about something, and go find samples of it instead of putting it right onto my list. I forego miscellany, and cut my losses on bands I might have given one more chance.
A part of me wonders, of course, whether this is exactly what I always feared would happen: I'd grow older, and at some point my tastes would stop evolving. IDM bores me, the new garage rock annoys me, I still reliably dislike anything anybody describes as anything-hop. I distrust all the new antiheroes and heroes alike. I've indignantly pointed out, when other people have complained that 1993 or 1997 or 2001 was an off year for new music, that this is a comment about the speaker. 2003 is an off year for new music, for me, and I happily concede that this is a comment about me. I think I might have told you that I needed a constant torrent of new music, but now I think that's wrong. New records are fun. I'm glad some people are still making them. I'm still buying some. But I'm not going about it with my old maniacally acquisitive zeal. My buying patterns were always too weird for me to be much use as a general observer of trends, but I did hold myself to a sort of oblique completeness imperative I couldn't describe but could definitely feel. Those towering piles on my desk pressed towards me and past me, urging impatience and judgment and constant turnover.
And now I realize I've given up. I don't care if this is what I feared or not. I still care about what I care about, including the things I will care about once I discover them, but all nagging sense of external urgency has disappeared. This is actually quite wonderful. Maybe I will sound completely stupid when I say this, but for all the countless times I imagined that music was informing and enriching how I might fall in love, I never once properly anticipated that falling in love could improve my experience of music by simplifying it. I would not have guessed, even halfway to where Belle and I are, that she was changing my experience of music. I'm not even sure it's right to say that she is. She's helping me understand myself, and maybe I'm changing my own experience of music as a result. Or perhaps it's both. Whichever the case, I'm becoming a different listener. I'm enjoying listening more. I'm enjoying having fewer new records. Fewer new records I care about means more time for listening to the thousands of records I already wish I knew better. Fewer new bands means more time for the ones that I know I could love better.
And maybe I wouldn't have noticed all of this, just yet, if it weren't for Universal Hall, the new Waterboys album. I played it, the first time, right after a still-vexing third pass through the New Pornographers' Electric Version, and there was a strikingly abrupt change in my mood. I was struggling with Electric Version. I could find ways to like a few of the songs, but I couldn't shake the icky overall sensation of being condescended towards. Reading new-hope press about the band just made me increasingly indignant, and inclined to go ahead and hate the band out of self-defense. And then Universal Hall came on, about which I'd read nobody's exclamations of anything, and I felt transfixed.
So maybe I haven't changed a bit, and Mike Scott has simply made one of the most unanticipatably expressive musical evocations of human spirituality. That's definitely what my instincts insist. The idea that it's about spirituality, at least, should be uncontroversial. "Christ in You", "Peace of Iona", "E.B.O.L." and "Universal Hall" all have explicitly religious language. "This Light Is for the World", "Silent Fellowship", "Ain't No Words for the Things I'm Feeling" and "Seek the Light" treat light and silence as mantras. "I've Lived Here Before" couches rediscovery as reincarnation, and both "Every Breath Is Yours" and "Always Dancing, Never Getting Tired" are textbook examples of how to ambiguously conflate romantic love and religious faith. "I sacrifice my power on the altar of your love", he says at the end of the record, "That it may be born again on another world."
But writing words about God is easy. Making music about human faith is much, much harder. The human part is far more difficult to portray than the faith itself, and Scott reaches towards it by making a deliberately erratic record whose inexplicability is integral to its flow. "This Light Is for the World", buoyant and pulsing, awed and awakening, opens like dawn light. Scott's piano rings, Steve Wickham's fiddles spin, Scott Gamble's percussion patters, and I imagine Dexy singing softly to Eileen the next morning, as sunlight plays up off the water, into their window, down off the white ceiling, and across the sheets in which she's tangled. Scott and Wickham's spare "The Christ In You", just three lines prayerfully repeated, is an anti-single, but "Silent Fellowship", woven around three even shorter lines and some woodenly rumbly drum loops, has a sort of engagingly methodical charm, like a "Biko" for serenity. "Every Breath Is Yours" is just Scott's piano and guitar and Gamble's hand-drum, but I can feel a church gathered intently around them. A little "Savage Earth Heart" fervor shows through briefly in a couple places in the incantatory "Peace of Iona", but the muttered narration holds the song together, and Scott's eerily nasal warbling towards the end sounds like borderline-incoherent religious transport.
But the first five songs turn out be an extended introduction, the album's most straightforward moments gathered at the beginning of it. The record's courageous frailty only begins to become clear on track six, "Ain't No Words for the Thing I'm Feeling". Doubled acoustic guitars seem to breathe back and forth between the speakers, and Scott sings one verse in the left speaker and the next one in the right before playing his own call-and-response dialog between the two. Richard Naiff's piano cascades airily, helping turn the song into a sort of reduction of Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles" towards something that could have been in Harold and Maude. "Seek the Light", however, is a buzzing, heavily processed dance drone, as if the noisy intensity that "Ain't No Words for the Thing I'm Feeling" lacks has been peeled off into a separate song. "I've Lived Here Before", given the chance to somehow reconcile the two, turns out to be nearly a cappella, Scott declaiming like an exasperated poet, idly accompanying himself with random piano tendrils. The synthesis arrives, one song late, in the form of the tensely simmering "Always Dancing, Never Getting Tired", which careens terrifyingly along the brink of epic catharsis, only to boom to a stop right when the breakthrough seems a beat away.
"The Dance at the Crossroads" is a short, rickety, neo-traditional Wickham instrumental, and "E.B.O.L." ("Eternal Being Of Love") is another reduced-instruction-set prayer (just two lines this time), and together they barely add up to three minutes. They are merely there to reset expectations before the finale. The Waterboys' grandest songs are as grand as anyone's, and "Universal Hall" itself is open-hearted on the scale of "A Pagan Place" and "The Whole of the Moon". Naiff's piano clangs, Wickham's fiddles saw and surge, and Scott fills in the rest of the space with heartbeat percussion loops, guitar whir, keyboard pings and his own hushed survey of holy books and human lands. And if I've learned to need less novelty, then too Mike Scott has learned that grandeur does not depend on volume. His old songs would have just kept crescendoing, constantly undermining themselves by recompressing their own ranges. But everything-louder-than-everything-else is more endearing in theory than effective in practice. By now Scott has learned how to whisper along arches, and when to retreat to pull you in.
And the album ends, and in truth nothing really spectacular has happened. Against the broad canvases of A Pagan Place or Fisherman's Blues, Universal Hall is a pencil sketch on vellum. Scott has made better preacher's albums, and louder rock albums, and albums that had more of anything and everything. I've had more auspicious days than this quiet one, enlivened by a good-morning kiss, a few short emails, an unhurried drive through the suburbs with the windows down, and a long, sleepy afternoon in a training class for a subject I don't actually need to know in detail. It feels a bit silly, on a day when very little is asked of me, to worry about whether I have changed or not. Who cares? What did anybody have invested in how I used to be? And how would we meaningfully extrapolate how I was going to be, to compare? These are spiritual questions, not psychological ones. "My beloved and I are one", Scott chants. If it's his god he's talking about, this is a statement of ultimate human power, assuming personal responsibility for divinity. If it's a lover he's talking about, it's ghastly selfishness, and a dangerous missing of the point of human conversation. This is a prayer album, and romance should never be confused with worship. But Scott used to try to shout down his anxieties and emptinesses, and he's finally realized that that never works. Doing more never got me much closer to completion. So if I try doing less, that's why. If Belle and I try to simplify, you can say we're changing or just allow that we waited for each other until we were ready. When I'm with her, I am more and more certain about less and less. So I do what seems doable, and hope I live long enough to prove exactly one thing.