Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Weird Pretty Music

In 2006 a friend burned me a copy of John Vanderslice's Pixel Revolt. He wrote the above note to go with it: "God hugs your ear mouth with this CD." I've tried to come up with a clearer way to describe the effect of listening to Vanderslice, but I don't know how else to capture his music's strange, synesthetic, and heart-rending characteristics. The gibberish note was right.

Vanderslice has been criticized as being a producer first and foremost, and his songs do deploy the producer's full armament of instruments and effects. Yet the implied criticism of his songcraft is unwarranted, especially when leveled at the highly visual lyrics that produce the synesthesia my friend noted. In “Heated Pool and Bar,” Vanderslice tells three linked stories of a U.S. military figures in Colombia, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo, each story washed in colors that proceed, as I hear them, from green speckled with white, to yellow with a smear of red, to cold slate (though most of those words aren’t used, and cold slate is itself a synesthetic metaphor), with bright flashes and loud noises that emanate solely from the lyrics, as in these verses regarding Colombia:

My cousin is in Colombia
Hunting down the rebels
Over fields of bright and shiny coca

Over the jungle floor
One-handing a 32
He says: “Bring her down low now, I’m ready to go.”

“I hunt kids in camouflage
Rain down bullets in flight, white light,
Barefoot boys run for your lives.”

Throughout the song the guitar that hits every other beat foregrounds the sharpness of the images and the described and implied sounds, evoking the chaos and sensory overload that accompanies decision-making in combat.

His expressive voice is central to the songs and the lyrics focus on narrative and description, giving the songs a cinematic quality. (He's even written songs based on movies: "Promising Actress" retells Mulholland Drive and "When it Hits My Blood" takes up the plot of Requiem for a Dream.) Story-driven songs lead Vanderslice into some esoteric subject areas. Briefly, a list of topics on which Vanderslice has written the best song:

  • Amphetamine production ("Speed Lab")
  • Internet pornography ("Bill Gates Must Die")
  • Four-track recorders ("Me and My 424")
  • Standing in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square ("Do You Remember?")
  • Carnivorous kingfisher birds ("Kookaburra")
  • Witnessing a fatal car crash ("Everything Changed")
  • Time travel ("Time Travel is Lonely")
  • Escaped pet bunnies ("Angela")
  • Military invasion of a town ("The Minaret")
  • Surveillance, esp. with dental mirrors ("Dear Sarah Shu")

His songs are filled with oddities and marginalia, but always made concrete. There's a literary-cum-scholarly bent toward examples and specificity, and it's a tribute to his mind that there's a sustained interest in the shadowlands of contemporary politics and economics. You could say that the old home you shared with an ex-wife had been taken over by someone else and made bland and homogenous; in “My Old Flame” John Vanderslice will tell you that it’s been IKEAed (“bleached out and aired / IKEAed and swept bare”). You could talk about the difficulties of long-distance relationships, or you could name the government agency that’s putting bureaucratic obstacles in the way of your French girlfriend’s efforts to get a visa (it’s the DIA, in “Central Booking”). My only explanation for why other people don't like his music as much as I do—it's lushly produced (in his own all-analog studio), melodic, and unafraid of harmonized vocals—is that his songs' topics and concomitant lyrics produce discomfort. They tend toward despair and suspicion, yet it's the stories he tells in his songs that display the range and ambition of his imagination. Do listeners wish for more conventional paeans to love, heartbreak, and fast living, songs of cobbled-together slogans and faux-deep vagaries?

The answer appears to be yes. Pitchfork's review of Emerald City called it a "carbon copy of its predecessor [Pixel Revolt]," since each was "an album waist-deep in post-9/11 dread and despair." Enough with the political songs, the review said—though "Vanderslice's observations and commentary sounded fresh and fierce two years ago, the same essential message run through similarly sounding songs this time around rings hollow." Yet in 2007, who else was there to write songs reminding us of how little had changed in US politics since 2003, how little we still knew about US actions domestically and internationally, and how political opposition was dismissed as out of touch—a facet of contemporary politics that the Pitchfork review unwittingly reinforced?

Yet the greatness of John Vanderslice resides precisely in his ability to make such troubling topics into something so pretty. It's not an effect that works through juxtaposition—the tone of the music matches the tone of the lyrics. The songs are coherent, enough so that they capture the attraction/repulsion dyad that is not paradoxical so much as mutually constitutive, similar to the Freudian death drive. We are not attracted and repulsed; we are attracted because we are repulsed. His ability to capture that dynamic makes him perfectly suited to address the armed politics of our time, the twenty-first-century continuation of a twentieth-century phenomenon in which fanatical devotion to an idea unleashes violence and destruction. The songs confront what Mark Danner called our "national id," the part of our nation and our politics that we prefer to leave to experts behind closed doors.

Romanian Names, Vanderslice's latest album, steers away from many of these things. Not much politics, fewer strange characters. Less narrative, more interpersonal relationships. According to Vanderslice, on this album "a lot of songs are about the difficulty of being in love, and the difficulty of being in a relationship. . . . When you're in a very, very close relationship, there's a mirror in front of you all the time. So a lot of the songs, for me, are about that mirrored self and that almost suffocating thing that happens." Musically, Romanian Names is more spare, shimmery, and pretty than any of his previous albums. He stays between the poles of raw and haunting that mark earlier work. This album, more than others, appears a perfect realization of his vision.

But what of that vision? Reviewers—whether they considered this album a detour, a welcome return, or a glorious culmination—agree that it represents a departure from politically-minded music. No one has considered the possibility that it continues, extends, or revises those politics. For Joe Tangari of Pitchfork, the album "moved well beyond the post-9/11 dread that dominated Pixel Revolt and Emerald City" and is all the better for it. Yet we still inhabit that world of war, state secrets, emergency powers, and marginalization of dissent. Is Vanderslice's latest album another symptom of a polity bored with politics, content to let the powerful exercise power while we get on with our own lives?

That's not a conclusion we should turn to easily. If there's a thematic line running through previous albums, it's a sympathy with the socially and politically marginalized, an insistence on seeing the world from the perspective of those beset upon by the institutions and structures of power. This applied even to those who end up working within those same structures (e.g., the guard at Guantanamo in "Heated Pool and Bar," a song whose refrain is "you can't be good"). The consistency of this theme can be read in the disapproving reviews who wish he'd just get on with the snappy music. So while Romanian Names shifts to the terrain of private, personal relationships, it still encourages questioning more than hope, and we needn't even understand or do justice to feminism to grant that the personal can be political. Perhaps the institutions that play villains in earlier songs are flawed because they're built by and composed of people like us. And we are flawed people capable of unsavory things. The relevant question becomes not "who is victimizing us?" but "how complicit are we?" If we turn to private life to try to forget the violence done by governments, nations, and corporations, Romanian Names will offer an equally bleak picture, but one that puts responsibility more squarely on our shoulders.

While an escape from drear and gloom eludes us when we examine the content of his lyrics, the sounds that hug our ears provide a clear counterpoint. The beauty of his music, the pleasure to be garnered from it, makes me hope that if we are all complicit then perhaps we can also all take credit for such creation. It's a conclusion that can't be reached by casting aside the political despair, the discomfort, the dismal reminders, only by working through it. As David Foster Wallace said relative to writing a story that loves the reader, "It would take an architect who could hate enough to feel enough to love enough to perpetrate the kind of special cruelty only real lovers can inflict." It can't just be pretty; such pretty music has to be weird, too.