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Archive for the ‘When the Levees Broke: Sad Bastard Music’ Category

This is just a really lovely album. An effort by one of those remarkable Canadian groups where everyone’s just a superlative musician (see Broken Social Scene, of which Stars is an off-shoot) and the lyrics are hard-wired for youthful immediacy (see The New Pornographers). Naturally, they’re rife with tunes about braving love the hard way.

Like this one, from their 2004 album, Set Yourself On Fire. Clearly, we’re playing in a theatre of the dramatic. Yet that’s not what makes Stars so lovely. They’re that mix of art and pop, the accessible and the genuine. And, at their best, they’re the sound of well channeled talent, big ideas without needlessly grandiose presentation.

Things begin in larger than life fashion with a spoken word portion by Canadian stage actor (and father to male lead vocalist Torquil Campbell) Douglas Campbell announcing that “when there’s nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire”. That’s actually another cool aspect of the album, much like the songs of rapper Jay Electronica or fellow Canadian Dan Bejar (perennial favorites of mine), the same phrases pop up in new and unusual ways throughout their releases.

Then come those glorious strings. Wooh, are they pretty. The opening notes of the song are sweet and strident, bitter and beautiful. Then, in perfectly confessional tone, Campbell stumbles in with the appropriately flustered line “God, that was strange to see you again”. Well, isn’t it always? Seeing anyone you haven’t seen for a while, particularly a romantic interest, is always a bit perplexing. Nobody ever looks like you thought they would, either too similar or eerily new. Of course he’s all charm, smiling and noting that “yes, [they’ve] met before” in that way we’d all like to act when confronted with an old flame. As the story unfolds, with that ominous “instant it started to pour” and the inevitable chasm of emotional discontent, the young man drops the confessional irony that what she perceived as sadness was really his attempt to “remember [her] name”. Clearly, the two shared something something meaningful, although I think the implication is that the importance of the brief moment they shared isn’t quite balanced.

Back to that beautiful musical refrain. Now the voice of the lovely Amy Millan enters to give the female perspective on the whole encounter. Starting off with the striking image of the man as a “fleck on her porcelain skin”. Now, as he sees “all the beauty” he missed when he was “trying to get in”, he’s forced to examine the mistakes he made in the past. She’s still lovely, and he screwed up. The music stirs and lends her following quatrain a good bit of strength, reinforcing the idea that they’ve both lost “time and a face” – they’re simply different people now. They have some of those same memories, and obliviously they run rather deep for the conversation to break down in the taxi-cab, but the fact is they’re not those same two people who shared that moment so long ago. And ultimately, the woman gets the kiss-off. The man may have the brief pleasure of informing her that the whole time he was trying to remember her name, but there’s something far more satisfying about her soaring decree that she’ll send him “a postcard… the news” from “a house down the road – from real love”. Biting indeed.

Then that haunting whisper of a chorus, “live through this, and you won’t look back”. Stars eloquently nail the difficult phrase, turned into something of a mantra of willpower through repetition, associated with the aftermath of a breakup. Certainly, the two tackle it from different ends, but they’ve both ultimately moved on. We’re left with a coda by the young woman, seemingly the better for the situation, noting her lack of regret for the uglier parameters of the relationship. She’s “not sorry”, even if the repetition might suggest she’s trying to reassure herself that things have gone right. She gains strength and bravery in the situation, noting in precise terms that what’s done is done, that’s there’s nothing to regret, and that somehow that’s okay. Piano creeps in under the beautiful strings and brass and brings the emotional whirlwind to a forceful, elegiac close.

It’s nice to hear a bit of the female perspective in all this, not to mention the woman seems to be the better for the relationship. While he “couldn’t choose”, she “gave what she gave”, and though I could get into my take that she’s probably better off for her willingness to take that chance, it’s a bit beside the point. This is a song of regret and anger, of changed people with (perhaps only slightly) hazy memories of something brief and wonderful. The title of the song says it all, then. Your ex-lover is dead, and there’s no sense trying to resurrect them. Whoever they were is, as German author Hermann Hesse observed in his novel of the river, Siddhartha, part of the ebb and flow. And we take what we take, whether it’s a laugh at a nettling memory or the chance to finally transgress our own hurt, as part of the constantly evolving process. There’s no accounting for those terrifying moments when we run into the ghosts of our past, but to surely know that above all else we have the potential to “live through this”. Bitter, painful, life-affirming. Peter Gabriel said it best – “Life Carries On”.

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The man himself.

Wooh, we have a tough one here. I’m a huge Marvin Gaye fan, even though his albums haven’t really been advertised to my generation. I had the good fortune of finding a “Best-of” in the back of my father’s car, and the total inspiration of that moment lead me to search the Marvin Gaye catalogue for some truly great music. Not only that, but there’s a fantastic PBS documentary called Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On. You should watch it.

But the reason this is so difficult primarily comes down to the fact that the album this song comes from, Here, My Dear, is about as emotionally charged as they come. Big Star were singing about the power of innocent love, Bowie was broken up about a short-lived relationship, but shit gets real when you tumble headlong into divorce. Not just any relationship either, as Gaye lived a life amazingly at odds with the sweet simplicity of the music that made him famous. Sexual dysfunction, infidelity, drug abuse, and deep depression would mire much of Gaye’s later life. In one of those remarkable twists of fate, this dysfunction would fuel Gaye to produce some of our most beloved, socially conscious, and iconic music of the 70s and early 80s. After agreeing to give the royalties of his album to his ex-wife, Anna Gordy, Gaye allegedly attempted to make a mediocre album. The reality is that Gaye briefly considered making a less than superb record, but it was certainly financially against him to tank the album. While he may have finally set out to make a great record, he surpassed all expectations with this fractured, lysergic account of the destruction of a marriage.

Beginning with a spoken word section, Gaye immediately chastises Gordy for her perceived dishonesty in the relationship. He mentions their vows (“honor, and loving, and obeying till death”) and casually indicts them as “turn[ing] out to be lies”. And, in one of the early indications that Gaye isn’t going to pull any lyrical punches, he accuses Anna of lying to God in those marriage vows. “If you don’t honor what you said, you lie to God.” That’s real talk.

The song picks up energy with characteristically pristine vocals and lyrics remarking on the sacrificial nature of Gaye’s love. They’ve “tried a million times” and each one he’s “given [his] love to make amends”. Things not only get trippy musically (Gaye employs a host of his own voices in, what I can only imagine, played out like some sort of psychological Id-Ego-Superego battle) but the lyrics get a little more abstract. Gaye takes on a flight metaphor, acknowledging the destructive nature of the relationship and his need to “leave for [his] health’s sake. And then things get downright nasty – “What to do? Make him pay” he croons, confronting the bittersweet nature of the commerce-romance comparison he’s been cultivating. “For to leave you, my fine, is to pay forever.” At this point, amidst the musical chaos, there’s no pretension about Gaye’s fatalistic tone. He sounds destroyed. Mind you, we’re a minute and twenty seconds into the song…

After closing out the first section of the song with some beautiful singing more characteristic of his early songs (the entire album is interesting in that it’s markedly different from his other music, but similar in that he plays the “in love” portions much like his old songs). This switches to an almost Company-esque, Sondheimy sound and the admission that “when two people part, sometimes it makes them stronger”. Is it clear yet that he was all over the place? Two minutes in and Gaye has verbally attacked Anna, explained his attempts to save the relationship, painted himself as the wounded one, and suggests the possible benefits of the divorce. Yeesh. And then, in one of the great pre-R&B (our R&B) moments, Gaye asks “do you remember all of the bullshit baby?” And it’s not just the fact it so suggests the lyrical coarseness of today, but that there’s so much pain pent up in his delivery. He follows it up with a sucker punch couplet “if you ever loved me with all your heart/ you’d never take a million dollars to part” indicting Anna again for demanding payment from Gaye in court. It’s no surprise that Anna nearly sued Gaye after the album came out, as these songs reek of tell-all.

But if we skip forward a titch, past the vocally schizophrenic section where Gaye demands Anna recognize how hard he worked at saving the relationship, we’re confronted with what might be the rawest line in the whole joint. Outdoing the heartbreak and reality in just about anything you’ll ever hear, Gaye demands to know “if you really love me/ how could you turn me into the police?” The jarring production of the follow-up line “didn’t I love you good?” reveals a man emasculated by the dissolution of his own love. How have they fallen this far? And more importantly, wasn’t anything he did enough? Gaye doesn’t think he’ll ever get better, that the broken heart he’s been left with will persist “a lifetime”. Then, in another of those landslide emotional shifts, Gaye writes the whole thing off and claims he’s “not really bitter, babe”. He wishes her the best and reminds her that she may want him there, but he’s not planning on treading that ground again.

And Marvin proceeds to flip that, stating that he never plans to stop haunting Anna. Pretty messed up, huh? He combines his next two ideas, that Anna’s sinned against him and that he remembers the better times, with disturbing fluidity. It’s like everything in the relationship sits in one embryonic mess. While we as humans generally focus on one particular emotion at a time, flitting between them as we consider a situation, Gaye’s song puts the good, the bad, and the ugly on vivid wax. The ugliness of the lyrics are often upset by his more tender remembrances, the charm of an image like “love after dark and picnics in parks” with the seething nature of a lyric like “you have scandalized my name”. The great songwriter who championed the power of love and compassion in classics like “Mercy, Mercy Me” and “What’s Going On” has given in to those relational demons. Combining “the joy” and the “fuss and…fight” Gaye ends somewhere between ambivalent and furious at the fact that Anna put him “through what [she] put him through”. The song ends with that curious title question, loaded with all of the complexity of a dead romance.

A snapshot of the couple in happier times. On the right you can see Anna's sister Gwen Gordy and her husband/Motown Exec. Harvey Fuqua.

Whew, that was a lot. While the song is roughly six minutes, it isn’t really a long listen. There are somewhat divided sections, but like the almost bi-polar lyrics flitting between optimism for the past/future and a sense of utter betrayal, everything is sort of mashed together in the chaotic mix of the sensual and spiritual which so defined Gaye’s life. His usage of a variety of voices contributes to this, crafting a broken and wounded sound at odds not only with itself (different voices portraying different emotions) but also with the smooth and buoyant music. It’s extremely sophisticated, surprisingly listenable. In fact, it’s so catchy it’s easy to forget that the man who was singing it was nearly broken. The song remains a testament to the ungainly and messy nature of love, the swirling miasma of angst, hurt, and pride. It’s no surprise Gaye can’t stay on one emotion for very long, it’s like the totality of his romance hit him at once. And while other artists have parsed apart the shards of broken love, it’s a credit to Marvin Gaye to have made something that works so terrifyingly well at mapping the broken heart. This is legitimately dark stuff, made for (and with) heartbreak. Vonnegut once noted that “a reader likes a story written for one person because they can sense, again without knowing it, that the story has boundaries like a playing field.” He goes on to add that this “invites readers to come off the sidelines, to get into the game with the author.” Gaye took that concept and directed at it point-blank at Anna. And that means that the album often has such an extreme quality that it’s not entirely comfortable or appropriate for us to listen to it, while it’s simultaneously propelled to a level of deeper truth by the fact that disillusionment is a near universal experience. It’s the sound of breaking, death, and as Gaye would put it elsewhere on the album, anger. To glimpse the abyss of a break-up look no further – Marvin Gaye is waiting there.

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Hey, that was fun! So why not follow up with one of my favorite artists of all time?

Alright, full disclosure, this isn’t the absolute pinnacle of Bowie’s songwriting ability. But if you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt, I think I can make the case that this is actually a surprisingly important song in the Bowie catalogue.

Take a moment and imagine David Bowie. Done? Which one did you choose? You most likely selected Labyrinth Bowie, equating the musical genius with his famous role as the Goblin King. If you dig the music, you might have selected Ziggy Stardust. A fine choice, and the most successful of his personae. Maybe you liked The Thin White Duke – arty/cocaine Bowie. We won’t get into alien David Bowie, funk David Bowie, Aladdin Sane here, but it’s safe to say David Bowie is one of the most dynamic musicians of the last century. And like it or not, his radical musical changes were accompanied by peculiar and often bombastic characters.

But Bowie actually started off in a fairly normal place. His self-titled debut album fit firmly into the music-hall traditions of English music, albeit with some decidedly quirky lyrics about genocide and Batman comics. Still, his follow-up in 1969 – Space Oddity – marked the third in what would become a rapid succession of musical styles and costumes. No longer a faux-blues musician or an Anthony Newley impression, he jumped off the deep end with a set of hyper-literate, folk driven songs. One of those, “Letter to Hermione”, offers up another revealing slice of the Bowie pantheon.

The song is a simple folk ballad. Just voice and guitar, simple and sweet. The crux of the song lies in Bowie’s lyrics, a surprisingly straightforward and honest goodbye to his girlfriend Hermione Farthingale. We won’t get into the odd serendipity of writing a song about Hermione on the eve of the final Harry Potter… but there you go. Now, unlike “Thirteen”, I think it’s fair to say this song veers a tad into the schmaltzy. But the introduction of the elegant guitar and sound of Bowie scatting should be a thoroughly unorthodox thing for those familiar with the man as a performer. And let’s look at some of those lyrics – “I tear my soul to cease the pain” might be a bit hyperbolic, but it’s also a slightly more sophisticated version of what you might hear today. How does that “Jar of Hearts” song go? “You’re going to catch a cold/from the ice inside your soul”? That’s just silly.

But break down Bowie’s lyrics further and there’s actually some fine moments of songwriting at work. Bowie’s strained vocals are apparent throughout the song, and the tightly confessional nature of lyrics like “I’ve been writing just for you” and “I’ll just write some love to you” give it an unexpected element of authenticity. But sometimes a song can be saved by a few brilliant lines, here it’s the uncanny accuracy of Bowie’s impassioned third stanza. After devoting most of the lines to a bitter examination of Hermione’s new relationship, he lets a little truth slip. He wonders, lost in a malaise of jealousy, “Did you ever call my name/Just by mistake?”. Beyond the heavily romanticized lyrics of the rest of the song, we finally get a glimpse of something approaching greater relational truth. It’s not just a rekindling of the relationship Bowie’s looking for, it’s the validation of his manhood. Rejected for a new lover, he’s searching for that masculine validation that so plagues the neuroses of any boy hoping that even if he can’t have the girl, at least he can be a ghost of her past. More than any other part of the song, I think it’s that tiny and revealing admission that so unravels the truth of his position.

Bowie ends the song with some charming scatting, and it’s really that simple. It’s hard to imagine Bowie as a quasi-poet now, but his second solo album really offered him the chance to write a lyrically driven record. He did it to excess, certainly, and “Letter to Hermione” is a slight victim of that English wordiness. But give Bowie the benefit of the doubt, there’s a genuine songwriter at work here. There’s also a young man trying to sort through his emotions in song, and whether it works 100% or not is, at least here, secondary to the fact that he found a way to exorcise those demons. In doing so, he left a little gem of longing.

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Well, I wanted to write about music. And since most everything I listen to is morbidly depressing (or grime) I thought it might be nice to devote the occasional post to the subject, in my continuing effort to turn all that multi-disciplinary interest into something useful.

Originally I intended to name my examination of good break-up/unfortunate-people music “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” after the lovely Wilco song, but I didn’t feel enough attachment to that band. And somehow, the 2006 Katrina documentary seemed an appropriate title for the break-up condition. Throw in a quote from the Cusack classic about audiophiles, High Fidelity, and you have a perfect recipe for lonely forty-somethings everywhere. Cheery.

The song I’m starting with actually isn’t terribly depressing, although it’ll probably kick you in the teeth with sweetness. It’s “Thirteen” by the wonderful American band Big Star, primarily famous today for writing the song that served as the theme for That 70’s Show. Yet Big Star were actually a really cool band in their own right! Their wonderful lead singer, Alex Chilton, passed away last year. His writing partner, Chris Bell, died in 1978 – but this duo produced a host of wonderful power-pop tunes, and this very special song.

Focusing in, the gorgeously sweet “Thirteen” begins with a lightly galloping guitar and Chilton’s plaintive vocal. A slight harmony on the phrase “I’ll take you” adds an almost transcendant quality to the straight-forward affection of the song. It might seem a little too simple musically, but German author Hermann Hesse got this one right when he noted in his classic novel Siddhartha, “Perhaps people like us cannot love. Ordinary people can – that is their secret.” It only makes sense, then, that the most affecting love-songs are about the most common experiences.

The opening line “Won’t you let me walk you home from school?” remains, to me, one of the purest love lines you’ll ever hear. Who hasn’t been there? And what could be more evocative of a pure Wonder Years-esque affection? Chilton and Bell continue to suggest innocent forms of activity, a trip to the pool, a middle-school dance (about as non-sexual as it gets). And that same harmony on “I’ll take you”, warbling and nervy, echoes so much of the simultaneously sheepish and excited tone of a young boy contemplating romance. Equally interesting is the dynamic between the young male character and the father of the girl he’s wooing. Chilton invokes the growth of rock music, the staying power of the Rolling Stones, and the tantalizing new entrance of budding sexuality to represent not only the growing generational divide, but a divide between childhood and adolescence. The repeated use of harmony, this time on “I’ll shake you”, remains one of the needling sounds I’ve yet encountered.

A small instrumental break enters here, a little anxious but relatively secure. This is followed by one final stanza, expressing the hesitancy of his love. He wonders, in one of my favorite lines of anything, “Would you be an outlaw for my love?”. A simple question, but evocative of the sort of larger-than-life romantic expectations of any young boy. The final harmony rests on “I won’t make you”, the simple expression of a boy attempting to figure out if a girl can possibly love him as much as his thirteen year-old heart loves her.

It’s one of the simplest, most heartfelt songs you’ll ever hear. It’s not about sex, although the possibility is there (it really comes down to a reading of “shake”, I’d imagine), but rather a prurient love focused on ideal affection and companionship. Given his interests – swimming, dancing, walking home together, the Rolling Stones, I think the innocence of the ideal would be undercut by the introduction of sexuality into the pure romance (further idealized by only hearing the male side of the story). The Rolling Stones song “Paint It, Black” (itself about the loss of a lover) seems to suggest the direction of romantic complexity, rather than wholly identify it. Likewise, direct questions like “Would you tell me what you’re thinkin’ of?” suggest the insecurity of young love at work.

There aren’t that many love songs (that I can think of) that deal with the immensity of the feeling at such an early age (13). I’ve always liked this one for the sweet, ambling melody and especially the untampered with nature of the protagonist. It’s a place we’ve all been, and one I think it’s heartwarming (and heartbreaking) to visit occasionally given the relatively brief life-span of genuine first love. I can’t recommend it highly enough – it’s in a class unto itself.

Also, don’t forget the wonderful versions by beloved indie artists Elliott Smith and Wilco. The Smith one trades some of the syrupy Big Star production for even more emotional anxiety and endearing nerves, while the Wilco version has their characteristically rustic feel.

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