What You Touch Without Love You Corrode
223 · 6 May 99
Low: Secret Name
Two weeks of sunny pop songs later, I think I might be ready to face silence again. Maybe it seems like a circuitous route, but I don't know any good way to make it shorter. Escapist glee is a healthy (perhaps necessary) response to tragedy, denial not in the sense of pretending evil doesn't exist, but of refusing to grant its authority, and marking the deaths in Colorado with "Dancing Queen" and "Jessie's Girl" follows the same bittersweet and harrowingly human logic that motivates wakes. We can't erase deaths, but we do write the story of their repercussions. We decide what marks they leave. Part of the reason that reacting is complicated is that we don't know quite how we want to remember this. If we write the killers' names in our history books, clearly in a way they've won, but if we let the holes they left seal up again, mourning only their victims, then the ugliest accusation they leveled at us is right: we didn't care. We didn't share their pain until they forced us to. The deaths in Littleton were not a massacre, they were a suicide that flinched. Take away the school and the SWAT teams and the cell-phone calls from kids hiding in supply closets, and let these two boys simply kill themselves in one of their garages, instead of using it as a pipe-bomb workshop, and even the rest of Denver would never have heard of them. We drove them to death; we're only angry because they had the gall to take a few kids we liked better with them. For a couple weeks, I didn't really want to think about that. There are a lot of ways we need to respond, so better to do the loud ones first. Play happy music, and re-deduce that life is, on the balance, good. Don't be alone until you're convinced again.
So OK, I'm convinced. We've had the vigils and rallies; I had my version, too. We're far from through coping as a society, I desperately hope, but the process is underway, and how it moves, from here on out, will be as much a function of the inertia we've already imparted as it will be of our subsequent course corrections. The story is slipping out of the news; I'm already out of step by dwelling on it. Whatever we haven't learned from it yet, at least collectively, we're probably not going to. Now we let go of each other's hands, go home, close our doors behind us, walk into the center of a room, and try to hear, in the way our breathing returns to us off the walls, how we are changed, ourselves. We stop struggling against silence for a moment, as periodically we must, in order to find out what's left of it.
As John Cage demonstrated most succinctly, though, silence is an idea we never actually experience. Stop the city, and you'll hear moonlight crackle and nitrogen hiss; mute the stars and the wind and you'll hear cement humming; block out the infrastructure and your own nerves will find voices. In a way, then, if the rhetorical point of unattainable silence is its serenity, we may be closer with certain music playing than we are with the stereo off. An isolated drum beat, or a guitar note, adjusts our awareness so that the background noise temporarily falls below it, so that the spaces between the notes can seem emptier than they ever really are. Mark Hollis and Stina Nordenstam come close to capturing silence, for me, but there is so much breathtaking fragility in their voices that I spend the pauses thinking about their tentative truces with life, not mine. Low come closer, as close, I think, as any humans ever get to mastering the physics-defying art of using sound to sketch its absence. As Alan Sparhawk's hand hovers over a guitar string, and Zak Sally lets his bass finish subsonic oscillations only it hears, and Mimi Parker sifts through all the words in the language, looking for one valuable enough to say, I am as close to rest as I know how to come without forsaking the circulation of blood. The six Low records are tools for this single purpose, micro-calibrated for subtly different contexts, and most listeners, perhaps including me, aren't prepared to perceive the differences, let alone employ them. As I buy a new Low album, a part of me is wondering why, wondering if pretending I need another one is wishfully (egotistically?) overstating my sensitivity. But a) how else do you learn to recognize tiny variations, and b) this is my particular pathology, and I stopped fighting it a long time ago. I've learned patience, if nothing else, a fanatic's patience, the patience that keeps thinking, digit after digit of pi, that the message from God will start in the next one.
But what this persistence earns me, and if it's an allowable presumption for me to wish things for you this is one of them, is an irreproducible feeling of awe when something that looks like a message suddenly starts, after all. I know, you can always find patterns embedded in chaos, monkeys could eventually write Our Town, etc., but that doesn't devalue the sensation. I put on the seventh Low album, Secret Name, expecting nothing more than the opportunity to gauge my own ambience, and either I'm much closer to Zen then I ever realized, or else Low has split one of the seams of the universe, and this is the stuff that pours through from outside. I think of this as the Repeater effect, because Fugazi's second album is the first place I experienced it; it is possible, through a series of works of art, to establish your own context, to draw your own boundaries of what is expressible, so convincingly that by stepping outside them again you can momentarily transcend comprehension. You can step through the wardrobe, if the Narnia analogy is more familiar, and discover a space that the dimensions you thought you knew preclude. In Fugazi's case the context took two albums to establish, more or less (counting Minor Threat's Complete Discography as one and Fugazi's 13 Songs as the other), and in Low's case it took six, but if you think the exact number isn't critical, try Beethoven's Fifth with just two notes before the resolution, or with twelve, and see how wrong it sounds. Six is Low's perfect number. Six just became Low's perfect number, whether it had to be or not. Yesterday I might have told you any individual Low record was enough to get the point, but now not a single one is expendable.
Trying to convey the experience by describing it is inherently hopeless, of course. Low has spent six albums retreating, and I've followed them, getting closer and closer because it was the only way to hear them at all, and from farther away Secret Name's explosion of noise would probably barely sound like a fizzle. Buzzing that wouldn't qualify as background texture in a Prodigy rant sounds, in a Low song, like the Earth methodically sawing itself in half. These drums won't crash, in your ears, unless you've internalized the way Mimi usually taps them. If you haven't heard how she can making not singing sound tenser than singing, the tiny rasps as she leans into the lines of "Days Of..." won't sound like the hibernating dragon at the heart of the world gradually shrugging off sleep. A thousand other bands have hired string sections; if you don't know how empty these spaces in Low songs would have been before, you won't stagger when you hear strings materialize in them. You've heard other Steve Albini recordings, perhaps (and I used to think I didn't like him, but between this and Vent 414's album I realize that position has become firmly untenable), but you can't appreciate from them what an accomplishment it is to find nuances in Low's performances that escaped their previous producers (including themselves). If you don't listen to this album right now, maybe, the whispering in the background of one of these songs won't pull your head back and forth between the speaker cones, convinced in alternation that a textbook of universal truths is being read aloud in the other one. Reduced to its outline, this album's revelation doesn't sound like much: Low have always made spare, quiet records, and this one is denser and louder. The sun has always risen, and this morning it didn't. I can't give you this experience. I can't hand you the sudden certainty that humans are far more complicated and durable than we ever suspected. I can't be sure this experience exists anywhere you can reach. All I can do is give you the map that took me here and hope the course it marks resembles the one I traveled. Buy the rest of Low's albums. Learn them in order, over the course of years, paying closer attention to each one as you go. Fall far enough into their spell that The Curtain Hits the Cast would have made your top-ten list if it were new the year you get to it. See them play at least once, so you know what the 1998 live album is missing. Learn Stina Nordenstam and Talk Talk and the Cowboy Junkies and Lisa Germano and Ida and the Secret Stars and Stuart Dempster, so you have some sense of how many shades there are to quiet. Reach this album hoping to learn something about yourself, to measure your degree of connection to the world. And discover, as it unfolds, that asking how connected you are to the world is nonsensical. You don't have to be observant to see so much wonder in the world that no idea could be more painful than leaving it. Just look around you. Rapture lies in every direction but, at most, one.
In a perfect world, by which here I mean one in which I had so much time and patience that I could have spent a week slowly working through Low's back catalog before listening to Secret Name, and one in which there were never any tragedies I felt obliged to project onto art that entered my life at the same time, I wouldn't have needed these albums by Empress and Mogwai. I probably wouldn't have needed Stina, or Mark, or Lisa. Low would have sufficed. A saner person than me, I think to myself, every time I walk past the stack of 200-CD changers in an electronics store, or into a record store, or into my own study, could live on a lot less music than I do. I have, at least until I leave the house again or the mail is delivered, 3816 CDs, 975 more LPs and 45s, and one pre-recorded cassette. That can't be sensible. There haven't been 4792 discrete insights into human nature since the invention of matter, and there are precious few pop songs about thermodynamics. I'm not advocating this approach for you, and any day I might wake up and decide it's not worthwhile for me, either. But it has its own rhythm and logic, which I've become accustomed to, and so, operating according to my own rules, I needed new albums to serve two purposes, to recapitulate Low's history laterally (across time, rather than along it), so that Secret Name would be the resolution of octagonal syllogisms, and to distort a reflection of Colorado into something that looks less hopeless. My Sarah Records odyssey has led me to buy a lot of Boyracer records, mostly because there are a lot of Boyracer records, and my last sweep through the band's spin-off projects turned up this Pehr CD, compiling a couple vinyl releases from last year by the exact same trio who form Boyracer, here trading under the name Empress. The alternate identity turns out to be a justified conceit, as Boyracer make frantic, lowest-fi noise-pop, usually led by Stewart Anderson's bracing whine, while Empress make quiet, haunting, atmospheric music, sung (when there's singing) by Nicola Hodgkinson. I've no particular reason to think they intentionally set out to make what sounds like a Low record, but they could hardly have come much closer. Isolated piano and guitar notes echo into vacant spaces, slow drum cadences tick or thump in the background, and Nicola sings with not quite as little affect as Mimi, but pretty close, on the scale of things. Synthesizers wash over, warmly; every once in a while an organ whirs. The occasional treatment of background hiss as an instrument and a touch of tape-loop choir are the only overt manifestations of Boyracer's experimental tendencies, but in the context of Secret Name even these are Low-like. The songs from the debut EP are faster and noisier than the ones from the subsequent LP, for the most part, as if it took the band two tries to shed all their preconceptions, but the CD puts the earlier songs at the end instead of the beginning, so it sounds like the band is losing their composure rather than gaining it, losing it already before they've finished one album, which for me is the best possible testament to Low's endurance. One of the points of exploring another band's style, to me, as with covering another band's songs, is to reveal implications and potential that the original left implicit, so it's unsurprising that my favorite moment on the album, "All We've Seen", is the one that seems most plainly like a Low song with one added element that Low themselves would never have thought of. A distracted bass/snare/ride-cymbal march plods along, sparingly augmented with near-subliminal organ and a guitar part that doubles Nicola's muted, hesitant vocal, all of which is straight out of the Low formula, but then Empress take a sample loop of rain falling, and shape it into a rhythm track. Low would have just let the rain fall. I think just letting the rain fall is a nobler response, an acknowledgement that rhythm is artificial. But chopping up the rain and making percussion out of it is exquisitely human impatience.
Mogwai: Come On Die Young
Mogwai play somewhat faster and louder than Low, too, and at times their instrumentation is actually closer to that of the Willard Grant Conspiracy, down to the little whimpers of slide guitar, sighs of violin, and skittering, cathartic crescendos, but the breathy vocal duet on "Cody" is such an uncanny likeness of Low's aesthetic that I persist in hearing the rest of the album in relation to Low, too, even though it would otherwise probably have drifted away from me. Much of it sounds like Low biding time, actually, to me, but it is redeemed by one bizarre decision, which is to record the meandering instrumental "Helps Both Ways" with a television playing a football game in the background. I was about to write this album off as background music, as I'm sure some people will Low's, music whose center has been intentionally left out so it won't distract you from whatever else you're trying to do while it's playing, but Mogwai have anticipated the objection by including the distraction in the song. This is the only record I know of that sounds like it was performed as background music, inverting the performer/audience relationship so that I'm not ignoring them, they're ignoring me. I doubt we need a new genre founded on this premise, but many of the best insights are only profound once.
Trans Am: Futureworld
I've wondered more than once, over the course of Trans Am's three albums, whether they, too, were an insight that was only profound once, this one the idea that you could have a cover band who were both extremely talented and extremely lazy, so they refused to learn more than one riff from any given song, and thus assembled a repertoire that sounded like an addled and fragmentary encyclopedia of most of rock's instrumental history. Futureworld has a few more pieces that could have come from any of the other three records, pounding rhythm tracks in search of a melody or direction to turn them into songs instead of just segments. The new element on the others, however, is the inclusion of vocals, which would seem to have the potential to turn Trans Am into a real rock band, except that, perversely, all the vocal parts are vocodered to sound like robots. I would have thought that after Radiohead's "Fitter Happier" it would be obvious to everyone that robots make terrible singers, but apparently not. And, in fact, these robots sound surprisingly plausible, and apparently grew up with interesting record collections. The one on "Television Eyes" is a Voivod fan, I think; the ones on "Futureworld" remind me of Thomas Dolby; "City in Flames"' gruff narrator nods toward death metal and Rush epics; an early model intones "Come back to my house", in "Am Rhein", as a come-on line meant for corrugated-metal extruders. The robot that sings the sparkling, New-Order-ish "Runners Standing Still", though, whispers and soars at once, and where all I expected from this record was a clamor of elusive but familiar hooks, to clear the constant roar of such things out of my mind so I could concentrate, instead I discover that our pain is so evident that even our machines hurt for us, and want to help. And this is what I find, then, in this fabricated semblance of silence, as I check to see what I've become, and wonder about the rest of you: all the compassion we need is there, waiting, inside of us. It's virtually impossible to shut up without hearing something wonderful. Everything, no matter how mechanical, wants to be alive. If our society is askew, and spitting out defective hearts, it must be because we've gone to an enormous amount of trouble to insulate our processes from our natural instincts and emotions. We must take it all back, reoccupy the quadrants of the system we've vacated. As you stand there, in your room, in whatever your silence sounds like, look around at your life and see which functions you've given over to reflex or habit. What you touch without love, you corrode. Don't.