472 · 12 February 04
"The old boys are leaving one by one", Bruce Guthro sings to open Proterra. Donnie Munro sang this song the first time, on Recovery, before he became one of the old boys who have left. There's a soldiers' story behind the lyrics to this song, but it doesn't entirely enter into them, and half-abandoned words half-belong to whoever finds them. The old truths slip away. Certainties, refusals and impossibilities have their eras, and then one day realize that they are done here. One night they still surround and protect and direct us, and one morning we realize that they have begun to depart.
The defining modern masterpiece of the departure of old truths from this age, despite seeming from some angles like something rather different, might be The Lord of the Rings. The series is set up like an underdog adventure, and a war of humanity (in both the moral and phylogenic senses) against pure evil, but the world-event whose eve the story recounts is the departure of the High Elves from Middle Earth, and the correlate end of the previous Age and beginning of a new one. Most of Tolkien's primary cast are selected from among the creatures who will remain, but his heart is not really with them. "Literature stops in 1100," he once complained. Middle Earth is his attempt to cast himself back before the death of culture. This doesn't work at all in the movies, where we can't help but witness events we can see as if they are taking place in an allegorical present. It basically doesn't work in The Hobbit, either, as the storytelling skims across the surface of the invented history that underlies it. And it barely works in the trilogy itself, even, where the history still largely lurks as context for the present. But The Hobbit exists to introduce the trilogy, and the trilogy exists to justify the appendices and then The Silmarillion and beyond. In publishing terms, Christopher's posthumous packaging of his father's notes and fragments seems opportunistic and maybe tedious, but in a very real sense the history is this work. A storyteller goes forward, asking what happens next. A historian goes backward looking for causes and the lost. J.R.R.'s conflation of the two sent him sideways, I guess, into an imaginary past in search of the origins of his longing.
Runrig's music is an art of this same orientation and demeanor, an art of sideways tradition. Electronic ethno-collagist Paul Mounsey actually gets cover co-credit for Proterra, and his influence is easily enough identified in the arrangements and production, but if anything this album is even more deliberately meditative and rooted than its recent predecessors. Celtic themes reel these songs as always, and if the drums and electric guitars were a naively subversive idiom when two brothers' dance-band on Skye took up instruments thirty years ago, by now drums and guitars, and even Mounsey's samplers, count as folk instruments as surely as violins and bagpipes, and maybe in populist terms more so. And if the characters in Runrig's songs once gazed across the oceans, over the years they have mostly come home again from their studies and escapes. There's a bridge now where the ferries from Kyle and Kyleakin once danced their places back and forth, so maybe that helps the island-born understand what the mainland can't teach or reveal.
And these are my people, and we are all island-born, and maybe that's why slow songs about ancient hills always sound spiritual to me when I'm patient, and why open-hearted anthems, no matter how secular, tend to brush across redemption. Zen serenity and artificeless sunrises and old ways and folk melodies are interludes of selfless awe. "Over land and sea I'll come fighting for you, / Over land and sea a dawn is breaking before us", Runrig sing in "Proterra", combining a clan motto and a personal promise and a revolution of the Earth. Mounsey's loops pace them; if the cities will not return to the soil, then the soil will find its own way back into the streets and wires. "Desire and pride and anger fade away", they say as guitars chop restlessly through "Day of Days", waiting for the hook. "Where have they gone, where have they gone?", Runrig ask in the biting "Empty Glens", missing not the old boys this time but the young ones, like New Model Army once counted the kids getting on buses to leave their valleys, but Justin couldn't find the words to call them home, and Runrig can. "From the North" and "An Toll Dubh" pulse with the mantras of their tribes. The surging "There's a Need" is a simple rosary of compassion. "Heading to Acadia" feels what all coasts share. "All the Miles" could be a "Dimming of the Day" we wouldn't need to hide from. "A Reiteach" is woven from the same threads as Juluka and Rawhide. If Runrig are slipping away, they are calling us to come along. Maybe we're all too old, or old enough, or ready for an ancient age to come again after all.
You could call this wisdom, if you felt like ennobling it, and finding a little more wisdom and nobility in rock music seems like a perfectly worthwhile pursuit. You could call it weariness or obsolescence, if you still want every record to sound unprecedented, as Runrig are certainly deeply and dedicatedly precedented. But maybe these are the wrong terms, or this is the wrong system in which to try to value or devalue these records. Runrig's presence was never a function of what they comprehended or defied, but of what they trusted and expected. Tolkien's passing of Ages was no kind of trust at all; neither he nor the elves thought men had earned the privilege of governing themselves, they merely had the obligation forfeited to them by the ultimate internal failure of a much nobler race. Thus Tolkien's awe is ultimately petulant, or at least sad: he believes in virtues, but not our ability to embody them. Runrig's is the music of the idea that this is a meaningless distinction. Virtues are, by definition, attainable human states, otherwise discussing them is merely frustrating, and religion does an adequate job of providing this frustration without any additional help from art. When Runrig watches the old boys depart, their song of farewell is wrapped in three kinds of grace. They know the old boys have accepted the ends of their own time, they know that we will be different without them but not inherently poorer or richer, and they know that we live (when we live well) in the inexorable creeping awareness of our own glorious irrelevance.
And so maybe the resonant moral of these fables, Runrig's insular anthems from eternal highlands and Tolkien's luminous ships leaving Grey Havens, is that survival inevitably necessitates disengagement. In a sense they are synonymous. Or maybe the moral of my listening is that that's what I'm ready to hear. At some point, I think, we must cede the stewardship of the terms of progress, and let someone else come next. Perhaps we already have. If our awareness were perfect, we would have passed on the gift the moment we first touched it. All the Rings were burdens. Runrig aren't exactly participating in the development of rock and roll anymore, but they don't need to. They sound the way they sound. The "development" of a popular form is almost always the domain of fashion, not of art. We don't have to care. We are released from caring. The good songs sing what it sounds like when we are freed.
The elves, of course, are only gone from our stories, not their own. Runrig are the old boys, and they're still making these records. Tolkien's epic is a tragedy even if you put the Scouring of the Shire back in, a morbid compendium of what it believes to be irretrievable treasures. The great wonder isn't that Evil loses this battle, it's that Evil, in Tolkien's cosmology, is capable of such cogent power to begin with. If he trusted Good more than Evil, then why didn't he follow his elves across their sea? A world-builder with faith does not simply excuse his divine race from the fate of his creation and theirs. They are saved by a footnote. They exist to generate footnotes. Tolkien lets them go because their final decisive absence is the point of their invention in the first place. His entire grand labor, I fear tonight, exists to explain one self-image in which he himself stands on the dock and watches the last ship leave him behind alone. This is self-pitying, self-hating. The saga's nominal triumphant climax is the death of pure Good as well as pure Evil, the demise of the potential for purity itself and the beginning of the age of irredeemable mortal squalor, and I don't think Tolkien or Runrig believe that the vitality of humanity justifies frailty and incompetence. But where Tolkien drew his line in 1100, and so could never hope to transcend his imprisoning Age, I think Runrig believe, and I know I do, that we draw our own lines around us, by how we live, and so can only fall outside of ourselves by the most egregious inattention. We fight Evil only when we've created it. Legends pool in valleys and fetch up against hills, but valleys and hills themselves, if we walk them awake, are legends enough. Traits don't "justify" failings; traits and failings are not a calculus. There are things we do in awe, and there are mistakes we live with. Runrig's moral grammar is poetic, not reductive; celebratory, not syllogistic. Their art is not industrious, it is wonderful, so naturally the impatient young, of any age, won't know what it's good for. But leave them, they'll come when they're ready. We aren't sailing out of the story, we're just going home.