Don't Dream It's Over
448 · 28 August 03
The September When: The Best of TSW
There is a moment, late in Tom Tykwer's 2002 film Heaven, when one of the characters answers a simple question with a single word, and in doing so determines the nature of the story. I won't tell you what the question is, but it has been the turning point of many other movies in which two people meet each other. The answer is sometimes "Yes", sometimes "No", sometimes a "No" we understand to mean "Yes", rarely vice versa. Most of the time, we already know what the answer is going to be when the question is asked. In fact, most of the time we probably feel as if the question has already been asked and answered by the characters, of themselves, and its literal appearance in the movie is partly a concession to the emotionally inattentive in the audience, partly a belated attempt by the filmmakers to provoke an artificial point-catharsis to make up for their inability to reach a more natural one in the course of ongoing storytelling. It is, of course, incredibly difficult to depict an internal epiphany, so most movies route around them as if they don't exist. Movie romances culminate in kisses or sex because physical contact is so much easier to show than the moments when the characters make the decisions that contact expresses. Heaven has the daunting courage to put three internal epiphanies on the screen. One of the main characters has two, the other, one. In all three cases we watch a person's briefly defenseless face as their life changes, or more accurately and importantly, as their understanding of their life changes. The first one is the most dramatic, the second one sets the plot on its course, and the third one says what kind of movie it is. The third one is the question, asked by a parent, answered by a stranger.
I suppose it is not necessary to have these defining moments in stories. It can be perfectly satisfying to follow a story along straight lines or smooth arcs from one set of truths to another. Real life, mostly, changes gradually and imperceptibly, without epiphanies at all, and surely it's wrong to fault fiction for realism. But I guess I do. Real life's muddledness is, to me, a large part of why we tell stories to begin with. Art is a way to isolate the parts of lives that mean something, and thus to assert their existence. Sudden understanding ought to be no more valuable for its suddenness, but sudden changes are clearer, and in the long run clarity can be more valuable than progress itself. Slow understanding is harder to identify from within, and thus harder to sustain. And so I admire, in storytelling, the ability to set up the conditions in which epiphany is possible. I read, and watch, and listen, for moments. One person asks a simple question, and we watch another person not only answer it aloud, but understand it, fear it, accept it, answer it for themselves, and then finally, a second and a half later, say the word.
This whole thing is different in music, naturally, where moments are longer and storytelling is usually more abstract. I think I'm generally more tolerant of uniform-tone albums than I am of books or movies without turning points. But I'm still just as paralyzed by moments when they happen. The September When were a Norwegian pop band somewhere along the lines of a cross between a-ha and Spirit of the West, or between the Barenaked Ladies and Runrig, or maybe Norway's version of the same resonant urges that in other countries led to Hothouse Flowers, Not Drowning Waving, Juluka or the Call. They put out four albums, between 1989 and 1994, a catalog that is condensed to seventeen album tracks and some miscellany for this 2002 best-of, which I came across in the course of tracking down a Scandinavian mail-order source for Per Gessle's new solo album. I haven't heard the original records, nor any of singer Morton Abel's subsequent solo albums, not because I don't like this sampling, but because I like it so much.
In part, admittedly, I just like this style and era. I like chiming guitars, pinging keyboards, cartwheeling drums, yearning voices. Early-Eighties production excess mellowed into cinematic grace by the end of the decade, and while grunge was noisily fraying the beginning of the Nineties, there were a few people everywhere who just ignored it and kept making gloriously upbeat, unapologetically rooted music, presumably on the assumption that nobody wants to hate themselves forever. Reordered into a chronology, this compilation tracks the September When from a hoarse spikiness on the order of Hunters and Collectors in Robert Palmer suits, to a melancholy bluster like Chris Isaak anchoring the arena-period Simple Minds, to atmospheric restraint to an awkward urgency. This is folk-rock for stadium optimists, or dance-pop for moonlit beaches. It hasn't been fashionable since Bono switched to bug glasses, and nobody on either side seems especially troubled by that. So either it's dated or its timeless, and I'm not sure I ever cared about the difference, but I definitely don't anymore. If you don't feel like listening to my old Crowded House records, go put on something of your own.
But this album isn't sequenced on a timeline, and at least half of why I've become obsessively devoted to it for weeks is that it feels like an album itself, not just an assembly of excerpts. "Can I Trust You" opens it in a shimmery gallop, bass popping rubberily under chirpy guitars and pattering drums. "A Place to Stop" turns a mundane road-song into a plaintively redemptive lament, like Mr. Mister's "Kyrie" haunted by K's Choice. "Cries Like a Baby" is hushed and swaying, "Comes Around" springy and snapping, "I Can Take It" choppy and restless. "Mama, Won't Tell You No Lie" and "Everything Goes for Believers" play costume games, and the cheerfully caustic anti-pop put-down "Sounds Nice" prefigures the stuttery exuberance of the Barenaked Ladies' "One Week", but "Speak Your Mind" evokes the Sound and Then Jerico for me, and the folkier "Waste of Time" reminds me obliquely of the Waterboys circa Fisherman's Blues. "Fish Song" is an open-sea reverie in the lineages of Echo and the Bunnymen's "Ocean Rain" and Great Big Sea's "Boston and St. John's", but "Where You Go I Go" mixes together shards of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" and Simple Minds' "Speed Your Love to Me". "Something Serious" hums and whirs and surges.
The moment that transforms this retrofitted album comes late in it, later still if you separate the four bonus tracks at the end. It's called "When I Drive", and if the set were in original-album order it would have been squandered as track two, too early to be a contrast to anything. Abel sighs into falsetto over muted acoustic guitar, and Tor Øyvind Syvertsen scatters electric firefly sparks across the dark behind him. The words are just about a car as private space, essentially the same text as Gary Numan's "Cars" or the album cover of the Comsat Angels' "Waiting for a Miracle", but the performance gives it the subdued fervor of an unplugged "Jessie's Girl". "Saturday nights / I follow the motorway lights. / I get there in the end", Abel explains, speeding through the night to put off the moment when he has to reach the party, not hasten it, even though he knows that driving home will be sadder than driving there, which must mean he doesn't wish he wasn't going. "Na nana nana", he trails off, as the exit arrives barely two minutes later. It's the tiniest of songs, and it ends right when I'm half expecting it to burst into symphony, just like I'm half expecting Heaven to answer the other way and turn into Wisdom. And when it doesn't, it transforms everything else here, for me. It brings out the frailties of the next-quietest moments, and gives the bounciest ones context and scope. It validates Abel's songwriting, and justifies the grander arrangements and productions by proving that the band knows how to operate without them. It isolates an essential wistfulness we might otherwise have had to argue about. I would have liked this collection, and even this band, without it. But now I love them.
And after the crucial epiphany, everything is possible. Heaven is as abstrusely profound a love story as I've ever seen, a radical romance of sacrifice self-aware enough, it seems to me, not only to survive Tykwer's mythic, almost wordless resolution of helicopters and silhouettes and fearless logic, but to justify it. Kieslowski and Piesiewicz's final script solves the problem of Tykwer's own structurally similar The Princess and the Warrior by excising its first throwaway selflessness so that the second one can't be dismissed as obligation, and thus shifts the moral center from coincidence (where it was in Run Lola Run, too) to human divinity. The September When can pace through the moody, spiritual "Nightflight" on the way to the bright, jittery "Wish for a Warm July" (like early Hunters and Collectors in a later studio) and the effusive white-funk rave "Bullet Me" (like Level 42 dreaming of being T-Rex, or the Thompson Twins dressing up as the Power Station). The four non-album tracks come last, but ought to anyway. "Hodet Over Vannet", a movie-soundtrack single, is an impish beat-box set-piece. The brassy cover of the Beatles' "Come Together" I skip, but I hate the original. "Strengelegen", from a tribute to Gasolin, comes out like a thought experiment in how Anthrax and Public Enemy might have reworked "Stayin' Alive" instead of "Bring the Noise". And the clanging 1995 "Volcano Disco 2000" remix of "Bullet Me" is grievous, but obliquely endearing in its thorough inability to anticipate what dance music would actually sound like five years later. The album flies apart at the end, because it can, or maybe because if it can it must. It's a retrospective from lost and fondly remembered years, and knows that looking back is a way of changing positions in order to look forward. It is a testament to follies as well as triumphs, and you can decide for yourself which is more valuable to recall. Of the three changes in Heaven, the second one, the one that flashes most briefly across the nearly impassive face of a character you only know to care about yet because the performer's name is in the credits, is the most inexplicable and the one I understand completely. I have known, since I was very young, that everything I understand could change at any instant. Something sacred may fall to me. Every time it doesn't, I wonder whether I'm still ready. And if these songs are from when I doubted less, or more passionately, then maybe I love them because they sing to me not just of what was, but of what's still and always possible.