(Why another Shakespeare-framed number? It's kinda like the Bible for secular humanists: you can quote it as often as you like and without explanation.)
"This groove is out of fashion
These beats are 20 years old" -- Strange Overtones, David Byrne/Brian Eno
It may come as something vaguely shadowing your track, behind and away; not so close as to be conspicuous but never far, dogged, nagging--not so intrusive as the cough you can't suppress but more: the itch you can't scratch. The nuisance of knowing there's something you should be liking more but have no idea why your appreciation should be less than it ever was, not the same as it ever was.
When the new David Byrne/Brian Eno collaboration got its first ink in the New York Times, a lot of us were agog, if not a-twitter (which presents an entirely different verb in the instant moment), with anticipation. It was nice to know it would be out soon but that isn't the same as when you would have made sure the release date was marked on your calendar. Thing was, no matter how much you may have liked Byrne in the past, nothing in the 'solo' catalogue has really grabbed you since "My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts" (which wasn't all that far from a Talking Heads album of the era). So when the above lines were included in the body copy of the report as song lyrics, you were, of course, intrigued. Who wouldn't be, eh? Historical context in Adult Contemporary? And self-reference to one's own oeuvre? But also a promise, implicit in that line, that this would be real old-style, old school.
So, you play the album and...
The start of this goes back further. It was the question: what is it about modern music that leaves me cold? The quick response would be: your own lack of warmth...or, the lack of James Blunt in your romantic agenda. On the other hand, a gal pal o'mine avows that "Something" by George Harrison is the greatest smooch music of our time, showing that this can be endlessly debated, as much as the cuteness factor of the Jonas Brothers vs. early Beatles, and those who would "Usher" in more candidates, say Go "West" old man...
But that's not where I'm going with this.
As it so happens, the only news-reading I do on a semi-regular basis is the New York Times. It isn't snobbery; more like, listening to the attributions on the major broadcasters and comparing their breaking reports to yesterday's edition. It usually comes up: Been There, Done That. (Incidentally, also another Eno collaborative effort, this one with John Cale.) So when I cite two authorities from the Grey Lady, you will understand it may look like a generational position paper, or some kind of taste-test ticket-to-ride, but it ain't. Just coincidence.
There was a thesis put forth by Jon Pareles, from what was probably considered a minor "think piece" years back, with respect to why and when people stop listening to new music. And by new I don't mean "new" as in avant garde. I mean new as in anything not old. Like contemporary. Like popular in the present. Like "of the moment". His conclusion: you stop listening at about the same time you settle down to adult responsibilities and raising a family, or, generally, when you hit your late 30's. And it makes sense too, delineating estrangement from the point at which you begin to think of one thing as "my music" and everything else as "their music" (more or less, as I recollect it). Then there was another, more recent, op-ed by Kalef Sanneh on "Rockism" which came to similar conclusions, albeit, to my mind, much more patronizing, smug and age-baiting. Rather than go into them in detail, I feel it fair to say that while the latter sounds its argument in prejudice, the former is more wistful, even conciliatory, in expressing something like regret that we cannot sustain the adventure of living (& listening) in the present as we did in the past.
I cite the above because they are the most cogent and intelligent articles I've read on the subject in some time, speaking to me from the stance of people who actually care about this stuff as much as I once did. In my span of years, I had stayed with the revolution, party and party-hearty, for as long as I could--at least until I found I was the only one left under the banner. Which may not, in actuality, be true, but certainly the cessation of my writing about music, and the culture in general, can be attributed to the fact of editors stopped listening to my suggestions, and then stopped returning my calls.
But I come not to Pareles seizure, but to borrow him. And not to slam Sanneh; for brutes, he’s an honorable man.
At any rate, something had changed; either I, or my appreciation, had become no good. This is not to gripe but to establish that I have, in my time, not been all that different from the aforementioned—if not on the NYT level. Therefore, I have both reason and background for putting forth the following.
When I played “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today” nothing really grabbed me. And that was worse than disappointing. These are master craftsmen of a school I have always enjoyed and I refused to admit that they could have gotten so lame as to think this bland slab of Wonderbread was even worth toasting. So, could it possibly be me? Had I, as described in the “rockist” profile, become so calcified and truculent as to be inured to the subtle beauties of this? Just because it wasn’t a big hit in the charts? (As if that was ever a concern?)
No. What I hadn’t factored in was the Distraction Factor. In the old days, I would have played a new purchase two or three times a day, studied the album art and liner notes (usually under some form of sensory augmentation, it must be said), until I had gleaned every last byte of info from the experience. At most, I would have read a comic book, but that would be an extreme case of stimulust. Today, if not catching up on hanging clothes, checking e-mail, updating the Tivo (or whatever that new cable box is called), or trying to see if I can find something in the ‘files’, then I would be doing them all at once, or twice. I’ve known for a while that I wasn’t bringing enough to the table to make up my share, but now it was getting terminal. Like: I couldn’t even put a little time aside to figure out how to enjoy something?
Well, it comes down to the MEDIUM, I guess. And long-suffering friends (few though they may be) recognize that I might be veering into McLuhan territory. Suffice it to say, I put enough of that on the other blog.
Then, what I actually refer to it the method of transmission, and that would be the iPod. As is my habit and practice, I d-l’ed it to make sure that, when a hook or a line came around, that I’d at least try to put the sinker in my head by looking up the song title. But what struck me was not something new as much as an earlier…inclusion, of… exactly what? I can’t say. Maybe it will come to me in better terms later. Right now, it was this faint nimbus of consciousness that songs had gone so much further than verse/chorus/verse/ chorus/bridge/chorus that there was no reason a title had to be anything more than a tangent to the matter of the rest of the lyrics. So what was I trying to attach to, and WITH, exactly?
Colbert called it his "magic brick", and GOD, I thought that was awfully funny. For a lot of people, however, especially those with high-end sound systems, it is considered as much a pine box in Potter's Field: stripped of all adornment (i.e.; EQ, etc.), the vibes coming out at 128-320kbs into pair of microscopic speakers are tantamount to John Doe's graveyard--a nameless, graceless, barren plot of ground where nothing may grow but rank and bitter weeds. Or at least a premature burial. (Also, one of Poe's most frightening stories, to me.) So then, perhaps it is a casket of hopes, more than a cedar chest? This is something I cannot shake nor fault; it is a given that the analog sound of a vinyl record is superior to the AAD version. Yet this particular subject is not, never was, and never will be, vinyl. It is straight DDD to DDD, which negates that argument. The other one is the missing 'vibes', or, the missing frequencies. Ok. Valid...except when you are a bit long in the tooth, with far-from-factory-spec listening equipment. Yes, I'm not talking dog-whistle sensitivity either. That is then when you want to concentrate on mid-range and not worry about the infinite. However, we are the clever mammals; the one's with opposable thumbs, right? And as I am reminded of the horror of Edgar Allen Poe, so I am reminded of H.P. Lovecraft's "Herbert West: Reanimator"...or the 1985 movie. (Who can say?) WE MUST NOT ACCEPT DEATH! (Ahem...little lurid there, eh?) There should be a way, a trick even, to get more out of this electronic bleed to my earbuds. Hence the title...(...but let's not hammer it too much, pal.) The idea was to find a way to turn the 'coffin' into the 'magic brick'. Yes, it could tell me song titles, and show the art but...
Then it hit me: no matter how strange the phrasing of the singer, and cantilevered the rhythms, if you knew what at least a portion of the tune was about, you stood a better chance of getting into the groove, if only for that anticipation that comes along with any endeavor where you are a participant—passive or active. That moment when you say: Oh yeah…I know that bit! And more: to see it IN CONTEXT!--what came before and what comes after.
Lest you think it is Ego, please let me dissuade you of that notion. It is precisely the opposite. To lose oneself inside the material it is necessary to overwhelm yourself with the entirety of the Other--that whichever you want to assimilate into your being. You must utterly surrender to the work, at least once, every last bit of it, an infostream in the veins where the blood replaces the intellect...but also functions as one.
Because...no matter how much we may say ‘it is the music that matters, not the words’, when you get beyond mindless floorwax (with beats designed to move rooms), jazz and classical, or some ethnic specialty which dazzles on its own merits—completely freed from all associations and filled with an internal modality that moves one emotionally through sheer catharsis—sooner or later, even those of the most desultory curiosity will end up scratching their head and looking for the lyric sheet. If only to find out exactly what it was you were pumping your fist in the air to express, and about whom, you've got to check out the other half of the experience.
Having been aware of the iPod option to store and show song lyrics for some time, I decided to try my hand, literally. I would, for a brief period only, become one of those totally self-absorbed idiots who stop on subway stairwells to answer the phone or push strollers into crowds texting like mad or check their e-mail in the middle of the street, oblivious of the fact that there are others sharing their airspace. I would not only listen but read, while in motion.
Now, there's one more thing to add here as well. There's a lot of amusement these days and even some countenance given to such things as "air guitar" competitions. I don't want to rain on anyone's parade so let's just say, whatever... Others, especially girls, so I am given to understand, like dancing--whatever...blows your dress up. Mosh pits, ah...well, same impulse, perhaps, but...what...is that? Motion and music. AM radio, muscle cars, freeway flying and backstreet cruising--for a lot of us, these values (encapsulated in Springsteen songs circa '72-'79) were an excitation to a part of our brain that was neither related to sex or money or ambition or fantasy or mystery yet could touch on them all simultaneously and find tangents never before envisioned. This was the way we could focus full concentration on the songs and store an emphatic charge of interest without even having to carve out a sacred space in the brain. You only had to do two things at once: drive, and fall in love.
This may seem a bit extreme of a claim but think about it. Or don't. This is my opinion and it doesn't need any defense. You've either been to the mountain top or you haven't.
On the face of it, this might seem to belie the whole bit about learning lyrics. Ah, no, it don't. Top 40 hits, then FM jocks who would add in commentary with the playback lists, then 8-tracks, all made for a very tight set of tunes in heavy rotation. Constant repetition was also a benefit when learning the cadences and speech eccentricities of the singers and thereby enhanced the appreciation. Of course, the final factor can't be ignored either: the slang, the nuanced phrase, the emphasis, the elision--all these things were part of the message. And even if the message was only "I love her/And she love's me" it resonates through the cosmos with only one more line, "But I don't fit/In her society". The "Down in the Boondocks" excerpt merely demonstrates how much more the whole can mean when you fit all the parts fit together. (Which isn't to say that one bit is better than another, or doesn't have a life of it's own. Just ask Herbert West.)
That said, David Byrne's website is most accommodating with the lexical portion. Copy and paste, then... Byrne's strangulated croon has always been among the most extreme in modern rock, but he's pretty articulate--in print. When the words come out, especially when accompanied by music, they don't follow the standard linear exposition. Like poetry, each one finds its own end-of-line, and in its own time, and meter. So, if this is a review, it sure took me a long time to get to the point, didn't it? Lester Bangs is pithy, by comparison. Rather, think of the following as an illustration of the discoveries that free-association and active participation may produce.
But to skip back a graph, there was a reason I said "lexical portion" rather than just "words". in some languages, the look of a word also carries meaning, and, like poetry, a particular stress at one point modifies what came before as well as that which comes after. And then there's the album art. The house that comes as the cover is an orthographic projection which might be from an AutoCAD program or a screen shot from one of "The Sims" suite of suburban dreams. In the modern era, I don't need to tell you that it is the symbols (a/k/a "signifiers", if you like Lacan) that matter most, and are most enriched by the overall gesamstkunstwerk (that lovely, crazy German word for the whole ball of wax, the whole shootin' match).
That it opens with "Home" pretty much reveals what's behind this mind. As the shuffle-cascade emerges from the gauzy synth layers, the allusions are inescapable. References Paul Simon's catalogue (both the "an old photograph" line--"Kodachrome"--and the Simon & Garfunkel refrain) get you as solid as the brick-&-mortar image on the front suggests. This clearly shows how deep the authors can go, indirectly, to play with their audience's roots. There is also quite a bit about David tapping his own as well, a nascent spirituality not present since Rei Momo, yet one always quietly napping in the background of Talking Heads material as well.
“My Big Nurse” embraces something between mother and lover in a waltz-across-Texas-of-“all the possibilities”,which comes in the form of a list of neo-aphorisms. And it is this same sort of piling-up of examples of human frailties and household calamities that builds up through possibly the highest-energy number here, "I Feel My Stuff"--augmented by what is the only guitar solo of any notice and one of the weirdest Eno riffs ever: a crazy arpeggio along a piano keyboard like a skittering spider. This would appear to be a full recitation of non-sequitors except for the fact that the whole draws the strands together to reveal that, even in these helpless circumstances, the one thing we CAN count on, and control, is our “stuff”, as much as the early test pilot’s of Tom Wolfe’s book called it…and leaving it just as undefined. The cut “Life Is Long” could easily be mistaken for “Soul To Soul”, which has equal prominence in the chorus and is delivered with the same punctuation and prominence, but when that kicks in, sinking the hook in with “Chain me down/But I Am Still Free” and that "whoaOaa!" interjections, you get enough organic juice boot from the baritone saxophone boost to slow fuck, or get a Deadhead to truck.
The themes of light, river, water, all re-enforce the wonder of continued existence while alluding to one beyond as well. Moreover, the title cut may be the dreamiest, if only that it goes all the way back to “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens” from “Fear of Music” (1978). With a slight update, the fadeout repeat on “nothing has changed but nothing’s the same” might be seen in the same suspension, even down to the sustained chords of the church organ and questions to “o my brother”. That he’s not addressing Eno (or maybe he is--after all these guys made some savory slabs of albs back in the day) at this point is made plain by “Strange Overtones,” the one song where they seem to be coming out of the closet, so to speak, and openly discussing the situation of their work ethic in first-person singular. “In the music you are playing/I’ll harmonize”, “Your song still needs a chorus/Iknow you’ll figure it out”, and more.
There’s a lot more I could say but rather than repeat myself, in variations, I’ll move on. But, to conclude, if this is sort of a “Second Life” survey course (The Human Condition 2.0), I would call it less 'artifice' than 'artificial life'. (And with Eno around, possible AI.)
So, what was the conclusion? That I could write a better review? Nah. Too old-style to go on and on about this. The learning lesson was that what I had previously described as a "slab of Wonderbread" now feels like a real assimilation into my aesthetic, like whole grain from the neighborhood bakery. I actually hum little bits now and (after seeing his working band do a preview on Colbert this week) am really looking forward to David's appearance in Prospect Park on Monday.
But to get back to the main point, I have now started investigating some music which I had formerly dismissed. I no longer wish to be shut out of the dialogue in the contemporary idiom, nor do I wish to reject out-of-hand any particular school of transmission of the cultural "meme". (And for that, uh...maybe take a look at my other blog or simply accept that Richard Dawkins or William Gibson, or wherever you heard the term--or just try GOOGLE!--has a pretty good binding metaphor for a concept which is as vauge and indefinable as the position and mass of an elementary particle/wave) I was thinking that maybe it was time to go back to Radiohead, and further, to van der Graaf Generator, or more, something as crazy as the late 1960's/early 70's Italian psychedelic/progressive outfit Le Orme.
Then maybe tackle some late-period Jay-Z. Out of curiosity, I did go and look at some 50-Cent and Kanye West lines before sitting down to this. And yup, while the former lives up to his rep as car-speaker breaker, can't see much contiguous content. I will grant, however, that if I were in some pimped-out ride, rolling crosstown, I might feel different. The same goes for the latter. While I may admire Kanye for his unprecedented throw-down of the gauntlet at Prezboy after Katrina, his compositions offer little more. So yeah, don't I belie the fact that I said I have to absorb the whole package? Nope. If there's nothing I like about it at all, there's no reason to begin, like nothing there I feel is worth the effort. I mean: no riffs, no hook, no guitar...you gotta start somewhere...
(Ooops! Must have betrayed my prejudice as a "rockist"...)
O judge, I meant their art has fled to brutish beats, and men have lost their reason, bear with me. My heart is in the coffin there with cease-yr-jive, And I must press pause till it come back to me.