Though the System Stays in Place
494 · 15 July 04
Something big is happening to my experience of music.
By itself, this fact is fairly unsurprising. In the last couple years I've overhauled vast areas of my life. I'm about to get married, and we're already living together. I lost a third of my weight, and had to scrap and recreate my entire wardrobe except for hats, some of it twice. I eliminated nearly half of my music collection, and radically revised my strategies for adding to it. I have different technology, different needs, different contexts. Many of these things specifically alter my relationship to music, and since my relationship to music exists very close to the core of my awarenesses of the world and myself, almost any important change in my life will interact indirectly with it in one direction or another or both, almost by definition.
It's tempting, of course, to think that I'm self-aware enough that this process is at least largely under my conscious control. My relationship with music can inform my other decisions, and be informed by them. I made most of these changes in my life myself, or at least participated in instigating them. I am changing my relationship to music, in tangible and abstract ways. But if I'm making some changes myself, some others are also being made in ways I don't explicitly supervise, and can't always explain. I guess this shouldn't be surprising, either. A life is a complex system. We overestimate self-awareness, self-control, self-determinism and self-containment, for starters, and maybe also self-worth and self-doubt and how much change will hurt. Perhaps your soul is ultimately constant, perhaps not, but either way a lot of noise can get into the signal between your soul and your speakers, and it's possible that most of what we think of as music is precisely this distortion.
So I've simplified my canon, and my acquiring, and I wouldn't have if I didn't have ideas about what that would do to my listening. I figured it would help me focus, would help me spend more time loving what I love and less time sifting through superfluity. And maybe that is what's happening, but if so, I'm discovering that I didn't necessarily know what I love. When my experience of music pushed towards limitlessness, it was centered quite carefully on my handful of definitive standing favorites. Now that it is folding inwards, suddenly I don't appear to have any. For my entire life with music, I have been able to tell you, without a moment's hesitation, exactly who my Favorite artists are, and changes in the list have been both infrequent and almost pathologically ritual. But tonight I realize that I no longer have a list. I still care about many, many things, but somehow the exercise of designating them has drifted out of the center. Not only can I not tell you who my Favorite Artists are in anything other than the moment, I don't even remember why the fixedness of the List once mattered. It is more than enough to listen, and to be devoted to whatever moves me. Isn't it?
I realize that this may sound far too geeky to count as an psychological epiphany, but it is a geekiness I didn't ever anticipate outgrowing, which raises the same question about every other lingering geekiness I once assumed defined me. At this point I am being reminded almost daily that you never know the difference between identity and loneliness until you aren't lonely anymore.
I'd taken Marillion off my Favorites list before I stopped having one, but I still owe them a lot for past service, and I still think their effort at net-centric self-determinism is fascinating and admirable. Marbles is the second album in a row whose creation they have financed by soliciting advance orders from their fan base, and although I helped pay for Anoraknophobia and ended up disliking it, I willingly sent in my money towards the new one. I even managed to do it by the first deadline, this time, so there my name is, albeit capitalized, on page 84 of the remarkable 128-page book in which the pre-orderers' double-album edition is sumptuously housed.
There are a lot of names in the book. A lot of people pledged their faith in Marillion, and in return Marillion have made an epic work. Marbles spreads fifteen songs over more than an hour and a half, including three different songs longer than ten minutes each, and a title suite rendered in four acts. There is a frankly incredible amount of music on this record, by any conceivable measure, and if pre-ordering was an investment in future art, it has inarguably paid off in quantity, and I don't think you could reasonably fault it on any kind of instrumental discipline or inspiration. Not very many bands are capable of constructing a coherent set of music at this length or intricacy, let alone both at once. Marbles is the mature work of musical masters who in a sense have fulfilled one of the most obdurately elusive promises of the new technology and economy. Instead of asking for endorsement, or even permission, they asked for trust and freedom, and out of them they have made sublime music.
I only wish I could listen to it. Or I wish, at any rate, that I could listen to it the way they made it. I love pretty much any random ten-second section of this record, and can happily string ten-second excerpts together for at least the length of an album, maybe even this album, maybe even a longer one. Musically, these songs evolve like storms, growing with their own logic from idyllic calm to ominous tension to spectacular release. This kind of ambition is common only in progressive metal, and Marillion provide a rare alternative transcribed sideways into non-metal accessibility without lapsing into jam-band informality. The pop moments on Marbles are as cogent and self-assured as anything Runrig or U2 have distilled. Chopped up into overt textual incoherence, I would love this. Stripped to instrumentals, I would love this. And Steve Hogarth is a hauntingly beautiful singer.
But he's never been a fabulous lyricist, and when the scope of these compositions attempts to invest profound significance into his words, it absolutely wrecks this record for me. Hogarth's lyrics read inoffensively enough in the book, but in his delivery they sound, to me, exactly like improvised guide-vocals sketched over instrumental demos in idle search of useful melodies or themes. Refrains are inane and repeated, thoughts clunk rather than flow, cadences are inelegant, placeholders stand for insights. As a stage in the creative process, this all makes perfect sense. As a first stage, or at least an early one, this is just how I always imagined Hogarth works. But if I wanted to hear how these songs began, I'd wait for the inevitable making-of disc. Before I care how these songs began, I have to care how they sound perfected, and these simply haven't been. Worse, I can hear in Hogarth's impassioned voice that he doesn't realize anything is wrong. Maybe it never gets worse than an effetely impotent "When he's cruel to you" in "Invisible Man", a uselessly barricaded observer no longer seeing anything but the silhouettes of what he imagines the vulnerable suffer. But Hogarth sings it like he expects us to swoon. He sings like he understands the catharses this music could accompany, and knows we can imagine them too, but has forgotten that even if we both agree that they're possible, it's his job to actually write them. By not doing so, he hasn't just left this album as incompletely magnificent, I think he has destroyed it as thoroughly as a painter scrawling limericks across a sweeping landscape canvas and hoping that the question of literature comes down to the color of the words.
IQ: Dark Matter
But is it that I don't need favorites, or that I can't afford them? Am I disengaging as a defense? Personal and artistic loyalties shouldn't be mutually exclusive, but that's the kind of emotional overreaction I can easily imagine myself lapsing into. The music I used to love could become obsolete by association with other things I used to feel, in the same way that after losing weight I've emotionally attached certain foods to the period in my life during which I gained it. Marillion could be music I've attached to being single. Symbols can be powerful, and this wouldn't be the first thing Belle or I have abandoned symbolically in the process of figuring out how to be together. One whole dimension of relationships charts the nuances between compromise and sacrifice and absolution. It is easier to love flawed things wholeheartedly when you don't have anyone to whom to justify the internal tradeoffs you make to do so, and being in a sufficiently mutual and self-aware relationship means that you can always at least imagine answering to your beloved, even if that's almost never actually the dynamic.
But any fate Marillion suffers in my life because of forces inside of me, IQ should also suffer. I encountered the two bands almost simultaneously, when I was living with a friend who already loved them one summer in college, and when I finally bought my first CD player a couple years later, Marillion's Seasons End and IQ's Nomzamo were the two records that the new medium stood for, to me. The bands' trajectories at the time were vividly similar, and although they diverged when IQ's original vocalist rejoined and Marillion's didn't, their continued cult existences have had similar flavors. IQ haven't tried pre-order funding yet, but they have run their own record-label for many years, and have sold a number of peculiar things to a small but devoted following. Dark Matter, their eighth or ninth studio album, actually appears on the progressive-metal label InsideOut, but they've never been a metal band, and aren't starting now. Like Marbles, Dark Matter has a classic prog-rock structure, although confined to one CD IQ reduce its implications to one twenty-four-minute opus, one twelve-minute mini-epic and three five-ish-minute self-contained miniatures. Peter Nicholls is an elegant singer, but as a lyricist is more a product of his influences than an influencer.
But as prepared as I was to lose IQ to the same disheartening realizations that keep me from loving Marbles even in tribute, I find instead that I'm enchanted in exact opposition. The same amount of love swirls through me, I think, it has just stopped thinking of its main organizing task as writing rules for itself, or stopped thinking of its main responsibility as organization. I still have favorites, they just shift too fast to be symbols of anything, too fast to do anything but listen.
If they were both instrumental albums, Marbles and Dark Matter would be strikingly similar. Dark Matter is more compact, so its transitions are not quite as gradual. Arguably Martin Orford's keyboards are the center of IQ's music in the way that Steve Rothery's guitars are for Marillion, which gives IQ a bit more of a classically rooted progressive identity, where Marillion can drift out into less genre-specific modern rock. And when you add vocals, Nicholls' style is less angelic than Hogarth's, so IQ's flourishes are usually somewhat less portentous.
But what really happens when you add vocals is that Marillion are betrayed and IQ are validated. Nicholls isn't going to be poet laureate of anything, but these are thoughtful, carefully phrased lyrics constructed to guide and define the movements of the music, not just improvised over them and then duct-taped into place. Words syncopate over musical phrases, and then resolve into rhymes that underscore the instrumental cadences. If Marillion is fading towards Radiohead's atrophied nihilism (though obviously this idea requires that you agree with me about Radiohead's decline, too), IQ is converging on a version of the ambitious explicative reserve of Rush circa Signals and Grace Under Pressure. "Sacred Sound" is an apocalypse anthem with the secular alacrity to fight the rapture. "Red Dust Shadow" is a plaintive childhood abandonment lament Everclear could learn from. "You Never Will" is either painfully or terrifyingly bleak, depending on whether you think it's a relationship complaint or a religious one (or possibly vice versa). "Born Brilliant" is a vitriolic attack-confession somewhere between "Tom Sawyer" and Alanis's "Eight Easy Steps". And "Harvest of Souls" is an evasive polemic against ignorance, polarization, privilege, manufactured war and fake peace.
Put together, then, the album is a haunted portrait of imminent socio-spiritual collapse, and the feeling and fear of it. "Harvest of Souls" specifically invokes the United States, which grounds some of what would otherwise be oblique political allusions, but in the end I think this is less about literal imperialism than the underlying moral myopia and weaknesses that sustain factionalism and conflicts to begin with. "What about some golden hours?", Nicholls barks at one point. "I was alive, certainly you were wrong." Deciding who you think he's addressing can probably occupy you for two or three attentive passes through this record. I take the album title, perhaps more than anything else, to hint at the broadest possible answer, somewhere deep in the muddy distinction between human nature and external divinity.
And if these two inextricably linked bands have split apart for me, and it is the opera of human failings I am drawn to even as I'm on the verge of heroic affirmation, then maybe it's all far less complicated than I've tried to make it. Maybe, where I thought I'd have more detailed theories from more obsessive scrutiny, the merciful truth is that filling my non-listening time with other concerns has freed my listening time from expectations, and if I'm losing track of the patterns, they were probably more in my head than in the songs. I've spent a decade, if not a lifetime, in an explicit search for a certain kind of clue. It might be time to concede failure and try something else. Better, it might be time to declare victory and try something else. "These are the last remaining days", Nicholls warns. I better decide how I want to spend them. You never know the difference between finding and losing until you stop measuring what you've lost.