Saturday, November 24, 2007

"Don't be so dark."

Impartial - and I use this adjective loosely - judgment is easily clouded by memory. Take a musical composition - for example, the new album of any artist you enjoy. Is it as good as previous releases? Is it as enduring, as unforgettable? Simply apply your particular subjective criteria and voilà, x is sublime, y is mediocre and z is putrescent. Easy as pie, no? But if one associates memories, good, bad and every degree between - and honestly, how can one not do such a thing? - with an individual piece of music or any creative endeavor, is it even possible for that work to be judged solely on artistic merit? Is part of that merit an inherent ability rooted in the structure of notes and chords, the patterns of words and verse, the imagery of brushstrokes and hues, to coil around those memories, cling to them as vine to old stone, changing the biochemistry of both so that something new is created? Does a remembrance force its will upon art? Or do they share a symbiotic relationship? Is the settlement of a piece of art deep within our psyche due to the skill of the creator or through the work of a memory we first - or, more often, at a later date - link with it?

A painting, and a memory or two inside.

Art isn't created in a vacuum, nor is the appreciation of it. No matter what visual, aural or tactile expression lay before our senses, its fabrication was affected by the emotions and experiences of its creator and our enjoyment or disdain of said creation can only be affected by ours. Here, Proust uses the Vinteuil sonata to demonstrate how one comes to truly understand great art:

Listening for the first time to music that is even a little complicated, one can often hear nothing in it. And yet, later in life, when I had heard the whole piece two or three times, I found I was thoroughly familiar with it. So the expression "hearing something for the first time" is not inaccurate. If one had distinguished nothing in it on the real first occasion, as one thought, then the second or the third would also be first times; and there would be no reason to understand it any better on the tenth occasion. What is missing the first time is probably not understanding but memory. Our memory span, relative to the complexity of the impressions that assail it as we listen, is infinitesimal, as short-lived as the memory of a sleeping man who has a thousand thoughts which he instantly forgets, or the memory of a man in his dotage, who cannot retain for more than a minute anything he has been told. Our memory is incapable of supplying us with an instantaneous recollection of this multiplicity of impressions. Even so, a recollection does gradually gather in the mind; and with pieces of music heard only two or three times, one is like the schoolboy who, though he has read over his lesson a few times before falling asleep, is convinced that he still does not know it, but can then recite it word for word when he wakes up the following morning.
I wholeheartedly concur, but what if we move beyond mere rote learning and the gradual application of the process of memory? As we graft a single remembrance - ancient or freshly born, but nevertheless powerful - upon art and watch ce mélange become as complex as our life, we notice new details we might otherwise have missed in such a short span of time. Our subconscious intelligence, always out of reach as it wanders the landscape of our daydreams, finds points on the topology the waking mind never could, despite those repeated listenings or viewings. The bonds shared by the elements making up the work itself are broken down by this memory infusing its own nature within. Thus, we now have a connection to the creation. Enfin, the art, invariably returning the gift, strengthens our own, already existing, memory of a great victory, a tragic loss, a shared moment, a kiss. Rejoining Marcel talking about the complexity of a great work, he declares that the time required to comprehend is long, thus:
[t]herein lies the source of the melancholy that accompanies our discovery of such works, as of all things which can come to fruition only through time.
The motifs we initially loved the most recede into the dark recesses as we plumb the depths and discover heretofore unknown secrets. Is the usage of memory to achieve this end therefore cheating? Is it a false process whereby we don't legitimately understand the nuances of the work, inventing only what we wish to see or hear or feel, having used the applied memory as an aide-mémoire, a crutch?

Does it matter?

The memory we placed becomes as equally important as the art. They share the same hierarchy, reinforce each other. Two have become one. One cannot exist without the other. We come to understand not merely new notes or sonic passages, colors and shades too subtle to discern on previous passes, or figments of our overactive imagination, but our memories themselves and their place within our head and our heart. Their power is increased, the initial impression isn't lost after all, and that can be overwhelming.

People comment in passing about how a piece of music or a particular album “was the soundtrack to my life.” For me, that’s beyond true. Music is as essential as - wait. Didn't I already say this? Oh well. I never claimed to be a paragon of original thought. There are many witty and entertaining blogs to the lower right that'll help you avoid the boredom you'd otherwise be struck with if you were to be brave enough to read on.

Thank you, Lone Reader. And we continue.

Sight may prove to have more practical value in the long run, but I’m deathly afraid of ever going deaf. At least I don’t have the soul-crushing pressure of genius weighing down on me like a Beethoven. The dude wrote the fucking 9th symphony while stone deaf. Think about that. Or not. But if you hate the 9th, or don’t care, just turn off your computer right now and go stab yourself in the eye with a hot poker or something equally ridiculous and painful. The power of music, kiddies. Very personal memories are forever entwined with the notes on the album being spoken about here today. Some good, some bad, some loving, some hurtful, some far too fleeting, others still lingering longer than I might like.

So, instead of merely critiquing an album as I did last time out, think of this as a review of the sounds one would hear upon entering my internal dystopia. How's that for fucking pretentiousness? My original premise was to do a series of short, simple reviews of albums that are, for particular reasons, aesthetic and/or otherwise, close to my heart. Instead, I find myself geometrically expanding the word count and going off on related tangents on only the second time around. Not sure about the future, but in the meantime...

After the stunning, multi-platinum success of the near-perfect Tonight‘s Decision - I'm kidding about the sales figures - the band prepared their next opus and Last Fair Deal Gone Down, named after a Robert Johnson song, blew in like a stark, bitter wind anno 2001. Oh, that’s not a bad thing, mind you, despite the expected impression of such a phrase. Depression, darkness, that’s the name of their game and nothing gives me greater pleasure than wallowing in misery. If the shoe fits, I'm doing something seriously wrong.

The first thing we hear is a quiet line of notes, a ripple in the calm water before a rock is dropped, an insistent beat that cracks the tranquility. The drums are crisper this time around, and there's a veneer of keys everywhere. But make no mistake, the guitar has kick. The new rhythm section of bassist Mattias Norrman and drummer Daniel Liljekvist makes their presence felt almost immediately with a new energy before the calm returns. "It is so sad to see/Dispossession/it has become my obsession." Next, a bedrock of chords. "Here in this dead hour/seconds with you are worthless." And back to the assertive rhythm. Subtle electronics enmesh with simple notes before a final replay of the chorus, the coda of the song, the end of the bond, the deal broken.

After a short, yet mesmerizing guitar intro, a pungent rhythm assaults the ears before moving into an unsettling serenity. "My eyes are of Chrome/it is television." The emptiness of a vapid existence, "layer by layer/I'm peeling away." A dynamic, Who-esque hyperkinetic drum riff swings back before quickly shifting into the steady, imperative march of the chorus, "burn down my house/and make something happen." Not a plea, but a demand. An unsettled heart is easily cast adrift and a stimulus is needed to jumpstart dead emotions.

A vaguely post-rock pop hook contrasts with violence: "we had you down on your knees/we were kicking you in the head/we tried to hang you from the trees/we didn't stop until you were dead." A layer of cosmic static and keyboard work, both the voices and I, proclaim that "We Must Bury You." An alliance split, a murderous fantasy. "Forgive me for not saving you." Was it even worth saving?

Despondent measures and a propulsive rhythm not far behind carry the painful shards of remembrance: "why have you put so many things into my eyes?" The high volume is quickly given a soft coat, les tristesses du coeur. The noise won't let you ever forget "what is it in my eyes/a piece of broken glass/is this your way of telling/another has been found/now I know it's Teargas in my eyes." The conviction with which such simple words are sung lends credence to the sentiment. The lover may remain in body, but not, sadly, in heart. Or vice versa.

The wall of sound returns, thick, instruments so close, the guitar and drums in single rhythm before splitting, a broken rapport, each clearly audible before dissipating into the ether, the spaces filling with ghosts. "I can't say that I am free/as long as they return." I Transpire - am I even here or merely an apparition? I walk over a slow-burning bridge. "There is no way I am going to be free/because their hearts are similar to mine." We are trapped inside the fear we cultivate, our daydream nation. The keys ascend half an octave - a glimpse of joy? No, the getting used to. We must now redefine the world.

The painful tone of a slow ballad, arguably the saddest song in the band's oeuvre. Tonight’s Music vacillates not between light and dark, but between dark and pitch black. "How could this go so very wrong/that I must depend on darkness," the only place of refuge. Irretrievably shattered, where can we go but the most tenebrous place we know? "Tonight my head is full of wishes/and everything I drink is full of her." Preach on, brother Jonas. You can - well, me, anyway - can literally feel the resignation drip off of each syllable. "How could this go so very far/that I need someone to say what is wrong/not with the world but me." If Teargas is the antecedent, the event, and I Transpire the internal struggle to cope, then Tonight's Music is the painful aftermath. Problem is, there's no end in sight.

Pressure builds underneath a single power chord before exploding into a crushing riff, the day to day weight of maintaining oneself in the face of omnipresent temptation. The guitars thunder louder, the speeding heartbeat of falling down. "Am I transparent when I'm clean?"
Am I Clean Today? "I lower myself now/it is a way to forget/about last year's failure." So close to breaking the treaty with ourselves. "Will the darkness around me be so strong/that there is no way I can be seen?" Might as well go all out. Sever.

A peaceful wash of keys, a palliative before the rhythm of the verse and the shadowed shine of the chorus, "I have no lies or truth in what I say/there is no meaning." This is The Future of Speech when talking to you. Arriving at the cliffs, shouting from the rooftop, no one hears because we're saying nothing of consequence to the one who left us behind. A harsh riff is quickly grafted on to push the point home that "it can't get worse."

Alone we are, strolling through the carefully constructed avenues of memory, despondent, aloof. We look upon the facades, those of light crumbling, those of darkness reaching out to caress with a cold touch that is becoming comfortable with frightening ease. We see shadows rush past, faint imprints of past words now humbled. Give to us the honorific of flâneur, and thus, we turn to Walter Benjamin:
In times of terror, when everyone is something of a conspirator, everybody will be in the position of having to play detective. Flânerie gives the individual the best prospects of doing so. Baudelaire wrote: "An observer is a prince who is everywhere in possession of his incognito." If the flâneur is thus turned into an unwilling detective, it does him a lot of good socially, for it justifies his idleness. His indolence is only apparent, for behind this indolence there is the watchfulness of the observer who does not take his eyes off a miscreant.
We observe ourselves and the consequence of crimes committed with the one who has vanished, and those we're now forced to commit alone. Are we incognito precisely because of our current state in this deserted place, or because we are simply invisible to those who remain? Were the bonds broken because of circumstances beyond our control, or something beyond the pale, something unspeakable? Which combination of these is the worst, I cannot
say. And despite our detective work, the question remains unanswered: which one of us was the miscreant?

I'm sure there's a flâneur practicing the art of invisibility in there somewhere.

Dour, streetwise guitar and a syncopated rhythm, the jagged footfalls of the flâneur - yet this time, the observer becomes a participant, latching onto a
Passing Bird. "She's got black hair and she has got a black dress." Sounds great, no? "I hope I can change today/she would never think of changing/too much fucking emo/it's false, I know." At a certain point, we emotionally shut down, and feel that those of everyone else are but a tormenting din. Another deal falls into the rain-soaked gutter, her fault and mine, but "I can't lie down and say I am done." It's never done. We keep looking, fools that we are. I'm sure there's a feminist interpretation that would have a different take on this song than I did, but since I'm a shallow bundle of testosterone that enjoys ogling pretty girls, you can't honestly expect me to know any better.

Electronic rhythms echo into the swirling chorus of guitar, ephemeral like the joyful dream quickly proven false. "Then like a ghost at night/you come around all dressed in white/talking to me/and so I have to drink the water with your poison spilled/for no more will." According to Rimbaud, we have to drink:
The poet makes himself a visionary through a long, immense and calculated disordering of the senses. Every form of love, suffering, madness; he searches for and consumes all the poisons, keeping only their quintessences.
Sweet Nurse, it "seems you have so little time/that you rather put me to sleep/than sit by my side." The heart is malleable and, after being weakened, is stretched and torn. So, was the pain a worthy price for the experience?

A subdued, slinky guitar, the surprising sound of a soothing flute laid above is smashed by a tenacious, chromatic riff. The album's final track, the thematic counterbalance to the rest. The relationships we have with others, with ourselves, are as fragile as the finest crystal. Their repair or, as is sometimes required, their complete reconstruction from the rubble itself, is nigh impossible. The solution? This secret: "when you have no one, no one can hurt you." Just Don't Tell A Soul.

As a bonus, I'm going to add the four non-album tracks recorded during these sessions that later appeared as extra songs on a couple of Europe-only CD-singles. For some reason, Katatonia loves to record tunes that are just as good, sometimes better, than some of the mini-masterpieces that are released with the album proper. Why? Fuck if I know.

Help Me Disappear, help me expropriate an escape from "the nightmares that burn/into my head at night/make them disappear/so i can breathe." Loud/soft dynamics on dazzling display, a revolving riff, the flux of a guitar army and moody solo strings. "Isolated myself/for the sake of freedom." Sometimes we're not the ones who choose isolation.

A tough, sinewy bassline and a folky, erratic guitar oscillation begins this Will Oldham original. Accept the non-fiction of never reciprocating a touch, a dissolved breath, now gone. "And would her loins/would yield a yelp/a beating purr to steal the time with/here's where we walk, hand in hand/O how I despise it/O How I Enjoy The Light."

A methodical, serpentine riff and the sharp crack of skins, we are "left with spring alone/I withdraw from this/I lived so differently/it wasn't good enough." So often lost in thought, a mode that's never good enough. "But everything now is a film on rewind." Back to square zero. "Things once blurred are twice sharpened/when I think of what I could have." We tasted, and what was sweet is now acrid, ashes in the proverbial mouth. Something happened on March 4, and it wasn't pretty. We all have those days.

A soft, haunting incantation, barely audible, "I'm drawing back time to feel things once again/as when I had found them." That initial moment of bliss, when dream was made flesh. The vocal climbs upon the dulcet tones of a flute, soon a wordless choir - and the crush of a heavy, depressing hook.

If I could wish for anything, I would wish for disorientation. Instead I hold clarity within my hands. It is palpable, real. I feel everything is a reminder.
"I had Sulfur in my heart/but not enough strength to give it a spark." The amps shut down to reveal a distant echo, the words bouncing off the vacant caverns of emotion growing deeper, more distant, "I held my head down I know/and you walked around in circles/I'm sure you already knew/if I only knew it too." The fire is on life support; see only embers lying about my feet. The amps come back on, the riff ascends, as does hope, "so much I want to ask you/you have no time to let me do so/there is no light in my pathway/you must tell me where to go."

A shame there's no one around.

For me, the band’s most haunting track and, for certain, carefully locked-away reasons, 6+ minutes that I’ll always cherish. How this got left off the album, I haven't the foggiest.
Henley: So, what should we do with Hotel California?
Frey: I don’t know. B-side?
Henley: Sure, why not.

Katatonia's greatest strength is their masterful manipulation of pace, tempo, volume, all within a simple 3-6 minute structure. Aural poets. Those of the writing variety have a Petrarchan sonnet to work with, a series of alexandrines, some blank verse - now go pen some prose, you lovelorn bastard. It takes a certain skill, cultivated and honed, to compose a lasting piece of literature, and it certainly does with the sculpting of sound, even within a genre as disdained by some as rock and/or roll.

Sure, there are still two years left in this decade - yes, technically three, but Trent Reznor wrote an entire album all about Year Zero, and he’s always real angry and might put a hole in my head something fierce if I don’t go along. The point is thus: barring a major miracle - and some albums have come very close - nothing will top Last Fair Deal Gone Down as the album of la décennie du buisson, and one of the handful that I’ll never, ever get tired of. It’s not a soundtrack to anything. It’s an integral part of my alternately joyful and hollow existence on this inconsequential planet. And when the latter sentiments take charge, I sometimes wonder if I should have joined the famed Delta Blues guitarist and sold my soul, too.

A slice of exaggerated melodrama? Lest anyone cast aspersions my way, I leave you with the words spoken by the late, great Charles Nelson Reilly in one of his finest roles, writer Jose Chung, as he confronts the Selfosophy Psycho:

"That's very downbeat." "Life is downbeat, Monsieur Noir."

"So feel free to use your Onan-O-Graph and your therapies, if that's what it takes to make you happy, and I truly mean that. Good luck to you, buddy.

But please, allow me to wallow in my own misery, in peace, and if I should look up from my downbeat abyss, and find you to be a fool, that's no right for you to commit upon me a foolish act."

Yes, Mr. Chung was indeed killed - not by the Selfosophy Psycho, but by the Nostradamus Nutball. One never knows from whence death, emotional or otherwise, will come.


La Belette Rouge said...

Dear Randal,
Forgive me. I am going to get all quotey on you. As I read your blog I was flooded with associative memory and/or " Remembrance of quotes past." Quote #1) "Enlightenment is not imagining figures of light but making the darkness conscious." Hallelujah, Jung! The more dark the more light—according to C.G.

Quote#2) "We never really confront a text immediately, in all its freshness as a thing in itself. Rather, texts ( or cd's, songs,or blogs) come before us as the always already read; we apprehend them through sedimented reading habits and categories developed by those inherited interpretive readings." Frederic Jameson.

There is a Bukowski poem that came to mind, as I read your post, but as it is triggered by my deep unconscious I don’t know how to have it make sense to your ego or mine.

And finally, I don't know who these depressive musiciand are that have inspired you to take a memory induced flâneurie---yet, I am profoundly curious who has triggered your associative memory into memories of Proust, Rimbaud and my all time favorite star of the "Match Game."

My final association to this post: “The Man with the Blue Guitar.”
All of that free association, I feel like I just finished an hour of psychoanalysis---and I didn’t even have to tell you about my childhood. As per usual, great writing and thought provoking(or, should I say,quote provoking) post :)

Freida Bee said...

I never intended to watch that whole banana split video, but maaanan... can she say, "banana."

I'm not quite sure who all these dark folks are to whom you refer, but I must find out as wallowing in banana split chipperness disgusts me to such an extent as to become erotic unto itself.

I am going to give Katatonia some serious listening to with a sale such as that, but for now, excuse me as I go listen to my favorite band, Ween or Ween, but not before I bow down to your prosaic prowess.

Dr. Zaius said...

This must be a really good post! I don't understand it at all. (Except for Sandra Lou, of course!)

Randal Graves said...

LBR, only a fool can argue with Jung on this point! As for whom, I have to retain some secrets, don't I? :)

Freida Bee, the music is certainly not my cup of tea, but the lovely Sandra Lou is a looker. Et merci.

Dr. Zaius, good sir, if Sandra Lou is in a post, the rest is wasted material just waiting to be excised!

dguzman said...

I loved the Jose Chung's From Outer Space episode of X-Files.

My Inner French Girl said...


Bonjour! Mon ami, you have a gift for evoking the universe of music without ever playing a note. What an incredible post! I'm completely incapable of appreciating music, as I spend too much time focusing on the written word, but your post has me thinking very hard about some of my own musical choices and how memory shapes my opinion of them. I know that when I come upon a piece of art that particularly calls to me, one reason is often not so much the memory I associate with my first encounter with that work, but rather any pre-existing symbols/icons already important in my life (the sea, a night sky, a certain shade of yellow that I associate with a season, etc.). With music, however, much of my appreciation stems specifically from memories I associate with listening to a song, whether it's lazy summer afternoons listening to Sugar Ray on the radio or a Stanley Jordan extended-play live performance on CD that reminds me of the dear, long-missed friend who introduced me to that remarkable musician.

Unlike you, I have a difficult time describing music. I can easily get lost in it, though, which is a good thing because there's little else out there that can transport one to a state of being or mind without having to indulge in illicit substances. I envy you your ability to really feel music, not to mention your superb intellectual grasp of it as well.


Randal Graves said...

dguzman, one of the all-time great episodes!

MIFG, for me, music is the gateway to pretty much everything. It can effortlessly invoke whatever I wish, whatever it wishes. I'm there, instantaneously. Then I often try to get those feelings into language. That's the hard part. :)

My Inner French Girl said...

Randal, you do a much better job of it than I. For me, music is just, uhm, awesome, dude. That's about the extent of my ability to describe the power of music in actual words.