Pony up

Here’s an old one for the occasion.

Story: in elementary school I had a hippie teacher who played an acoustic version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” with the lyrics replaced by the text of “Jabberwocky.” That’s all.

 

No more heroines

Shirley Manson:

“[Debbie Harry and I] are some of the few women left who do what we do in the way that we do it. We’re getting rarer and rarer. I think people understand that this breed is dying.”

This is right for the wrong reason. There are no female rock stars right now, but that’s becasue there are no rock stars right now. Rock isn’t mainstream anymore. The garage-rock boom of the early ’00s died out, and that was it. All of the top-billed, headline-making music right now is either hip-hop, R&B, electronica, or spectacle pop. Hell, even country’s made a comeback. The only exceptions are legacy acts like Radiohead and minor celebrities like Jack White. Looking for a Shirley Manson figure in this context is like looking for water on Mars.

However, the notion that women who “write their own music and aren’t chasing pop success,” constitute a “thinning bloodline” is as horrendously wrong as anything can possibly be. It’s important to make this distinction because the progress of this half of the dynamic has been overwhelmingly positive. Female rock stars may be a dying breed, but female rockers are almost literally everywhere. We’re getting shockingly close to the point where women being in rock bands is fully normal behavior – it would honestly be difficult for me to avoid them were I trying. Even when I go to see a typical boy-punk band like Wavves1 it’s a near guarantee that there will be women writing songs and playing instruments in the openers. I’m the last person who’s ever going to argue that “things are okay,” but even an inveterate hater like me has to admit that this is a hell of a lot better than it used to be. If Bikini Kill were around today, they wouldn’t be getting alternately harassed and patronized. They would seem like a normal rock band with normal politics. Again, this is not to minimize any of the very real shit that’s still happening, but the fact is this battle has largely been won. Women playing rock music is normal now. Deal with it.

It’s still valid to ask whether we’re missing something by not having heroes, though, because heroes serve different functions than regular artists. Actually, it kind of seems like the functions heroes serve are the only ones that matter. That is, if you’re already into music or you’re reading radical theory or whatever, you don’t need a lot of help. You’re in a position where you can figure things out for yourself; you know where you can look for answers. The person who does need help is the proverbial queer kid in a small religious town – someone who’s too far away from the truth to be reached by conventional means. The value of heroes is that they have this kind of reach. If you’re in a position where you actually need to be saved, a hero is the only option.

The problem with this is that it’s a coincidence. If society were generally just, the people with reach would be the people whose touch matters. This is not the case. In fact, it’s worse than just being a coincidence. The actual situation is fairly chaotic, but as a general rule, it’s more accurate to say that we live in a society that suppresses things that are worthwhile and promotes things that are useless, and indeed often actively harmful. The people with the means to do the talking are usually those with the least to say. For every one Garbage screaming out the truth, there are ten Limp Bizkits stinking up the airwaves and hundreds more Bratmobiles languishing in the shadows.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with the fact that Garbage had a positive effect on people through being on MTV. I mean, I can vouch for this personally. Garbage was the only good band I liked before I liked music. And because I was a stupid kid back then, I never would have heard of them if they hadn’t been on MTV. They didn’t save me or anything, but I’d probably be worse off otherwise. They helped me, and they’ve helped millions of others even more. To the extent that they had to get popular in order to do this, their popularity was a good thing. But they didn’t get big because they had something worthwhile to say; if anything, they got big in spite of it. Which means that any “stardom” effect in play is ultimately just a matter of luck.

It’s important to draw a distinction here between popularity, the general concept describing a situation where lots of people like something, and fame, the specific thing that happens when popularity Ouroboroses itself. While they can occur together, they don’t have to, and the difference is not just a matter of numbers. Someone can have a large number of fans while remaining unknown outside that group and therefore not properly famous; this is what we refer to as a “cult following.” And we’re all familiar with the situation in which someone is famous without there being anything they’re actually known for doing; this can happen even when relatively few people are paying attention to them.

So what we can understand here is that fame is strictly bad: the specific thing it means is that lots of people are paying attention to you without caring about what you’re doing. Fame discriminates improperly. Bad things get famous just as easily as (or more easily than) good things, and fame occupies cultural breathing room that could otherwise be filled with more things that matter. There can’t be a good version of the Grammys; any awards show necessarily resolves itself into red carpet bullshit. Popularity, by contrast, is the enthusiasm without the awards. So it’s actually a good thing, but in the sense that heart surgery is a good thing. You don’t want it for its own sake, and if you can get along without it you’re probably better off. But in some situations it can help you do the thing that you actually want to do. I’d like to emphasize that this is neither an obscurantist nor an apologetic argument; things aren’t better or worse for being more or less popular. Being popular increases your chances of reaching people, but what’s important is the reaching, not the numbers. In fact, the problem with popularity is precisely that it leads to fame; it increases the chances that your bandwidth will start to get clogged up with people who don’t actually care.

The difference between a “rocker” and a “rock star” – and, more generally, the difference between an “artist” and a “hero” – is the difference between popularity and fame. Ergo, heroes are bad. This is kind of a hard point to focus on, because talking about “heroes” makes you think of your own heroes, who are obviously good, but it remains the case that the concept of heroes is bad, and the act of having heroes is bad. It’s natural to want to hype someone who does something that’s important to you, but promotion is different from idolization. You can’t idolize someone you actually know, because what idolization is is the filling in of the gaps you don’t know about with positive-valence generica. It’s taking one important thing and improperly extrapolating from it that someone is important in general, which no one actually is.

So, functionally, what hero worship does is not to shine a spotlight on worthwhile achievements. Worthwhile achievements are worthwhile on their own; they justify themselves simply by existing. That’s what it means for something to be worthwhile. Rather, what the spotlight of heroism brings into view is everything else, the things that don’t actually matter. Again, this seems harmless when the other things turn out to be good. It’s certainly nice that the person who happens to be Beyoncé happens to be a feminist, but that isn’t something you can rely on. In fact, people have made exactly this complaint about Taylor Swift: she’s supposedly “not political enough” and therefore not fulfilling her role as a hero. But the question isn’t why Taylor Swift isn’t political, the question is why do you care? Why do you have the expectation that someone who writes songs (or doesn’t) that go on the radio is going to share your personally favored political viewpoint? Are you not capable of making your own arguments? Do you really think progress can’t happen without the say-so of some rando pop star?

Worse, heroes generally “happen” to be more like, oh, I don’t know, Bill Cosby. The function of heroism is to make people like Cosby look good, and to make people like Dave Chappelle apologize for them. To be clear, Chappelle doesn’t deny Cosby’s rapism, but because he idolizes Cosby, he’s compelled to argue that it’s “not that simple,” and so he comes up with extenuating factors that aren’t actually true. And it isn’t just that Cosby doesn’t deserve the favor, it’s that it doesn’t matter. His work still exists on its own; whatever value it has is still there. And his crimes also exist on their own. The only reason to conflate2 them is if you feel some need to decide whether Cosby is a “good person” in general, which you shouldn’t, because “being a good person” is not a sensible concept when divorced from specific actions. Heroism attempts to square this circle, to draw bright lines of “good” and “bad”3 that paint over the actual facts on the ground.

There is a specifically feminist point to be made here. First of all, there’s a good reason why feminists are particularly susceptible to heroineism. One of the primary mechanics through which patriarchy operates is the casting of men as agents and women as assistants. Typically masculine roles are those such as the warrior, the lone genius, the statesman, or the explorer – people who do things, who are the source of their own achievements. Typically feminine roles are those such as the wife, the maid, the mother, or the muse – people who support or maintain things, who are factors in other people’s achievements.4 The way that these role-sets and their interactions work to promote male dominance is pretty straightforward. So the natural counter here is to point out situations in which women are undeniable creative forces in their own right. When you get wildly original artists like Patti Smith5 or Björk, women who can’t possibly be understood other than as self-possessed agents and originators, it is severely temping to turn them into heroes. Like, if Patti Smith gets inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, then that’s real official proof that women are just as good as men, right?

The problem with this is that exceptions, as a rule, don’t disprove rules. You can just as well interpret the same situation the other way around: women have to be exceptional in order to qualify as creators. There’s nothing stopping anyone from recognizing the achievements of some particular handful of women and then remaining sexist about everything else. That’s exactly how it’s been throughout literally all of history, because there are always, in any context, going to be people who are exceptional in one way or another. You’re always going to see the occasional Queen Elizabeth, Commander Artemisia, or Hypatia of Alexandria – as well as the occasional Margaret Thatcher, Aileen Wuornos, or Leni Riefenstahl. By the same token, though, the overwhelming majority of women are just going to be normal people with normally-valuable abilities. We don’t need more exceptions; we need to start valuing ordinary women, to remove the requirement of exceptionality. Treating a tiny selection of women like superhumans (/”queens”/”goddesses”) does not absolve us of not treating normal women like normal humans. Women having to be exceptional in order to be considered on par with men is the exact thing that sexism is. The measure of progress in music, then, is not whether we have female superstars. That’s always been the case. It’s whether people of average talent and ordinary appeal are being given their fair shake. The glass ceiling that matters is not the highest one, but the lowest.

In short, it’s a trap. Idolization is how patriarchy handles the unavoidable existence of exceptional women while maintaining existing sexist structures. A social system that didn’t account for exceptions would be brittle; it would crack under pressure. The systems that become pervasive are the ones that are flexible, that can adapt themselves to whatever the conditions on the ground happen to be, that resolve problematic happenstances. They’re the ones that cause you to take a genuine feminist influence like Shirley Manson, call her a “grunge goddess” (which is an oxymoron all by itself), and portray her and a bunch of other important female creators as generic representatives of something called “women in rock.”

As you’ll recall, though, the catch is that heroism serves valuable functions, so the real question is: can we make do without it? Even if the concept sucks, it might act as a Wittgensteinian Ladder: we might need it now because things are fucked, even though we’re going to want to throw it away later. While I can’t speak for the past, I submit that, even if this is the case, the time has come. Instead of inflating heroes to shadow over everything, it is within our power to make smaller, more direct connections, where they’re needed.

Obviously, the internet is a big deal here. I’m sure I don’t have to explain the effect it’s had on music distribution. But this isn’t a technological problem. After all, the internet has had just as strong of an effect in the opposite direction. The vast majority of people use the internet to pay more attention to the things that are already the most popular.6 This has nothing to do with the technology itself; the problem is what people want. If you’re trying to connect things with the people who need them, you can find some way to do that at any level of technology. Back in the day there were things like zines and mail-order catalogs and good old fashioned word of mouth. The internet is potentially a huge help – rather, it has been, and it can be an even bigger help – but it can’t help you do anything until you want to do it.

The fundamental problem is that people want heroes. They prefer stars shining from afar to real people existing unglamorously in front of them.7 They aren’t comfortable valuing things on their own; they want to be told that the things they care about are “really” important, that they’re “right” to care. They want to outsource their humanity to someone else. But this can only ever be a lie, because importance comes from the personal interactions you have with something. Other people can acknowledge that those interactions happened, but they only ever belong to you. It’s simply factual to say that Garbage has had a strong influence on a lot of people, but that doesn’t merely add up to “stardom”; each influence retains its individual content, content that can’t simply be exchanged with that of any other equivalent “star,” precisely as those influenced by Garbage describe:

Screaming Females’ guitarist Marissa Paternoster, whose band went on tour with Garbage in 2013, agreed. “Shirley was the most honest in her darkness. Gwen Stefani was a great inspiration for me but she didn’t have that sharp edge that I was looking for. That’s what attracted me to Garbage: Shirley’s transparency and vulnerability.”

What’s really important is not just that this suffices, but that it’s better. I can also vouch for this personally, because, as ideologically disinclined as I am to admit this, I actually was saved. It’s really none of your fucking business, but the important thing is that I wasn’t saved by a hero; I was saved by a person. In my case, this was also luck, but it didn’t have to be. This is the part that’s fixable. It’s not fixable by finding the “right” heroes; it’s fixable by ceasing to lean on the crutch. As soon as you start caring about popularity, as soon as you go looking for “heroes,” you’re putting your finger on the scale and fucking up the balance. But even when something worthwhile gets famous – rather, when it gets popular, because fame is the part of popularity that isn’t justified – we can’t simply accept that as a fortunate coincidence. We have to move away from fame and towards meaning; we have to topple the statue in order to free the spirit inside. This is what it means to kill yr idols.

When I see a fancy photo shoot in a magazine, that makes me feel like whatever’s being talked about has nothing to do with me, like it’s taking place on another planet. When I see someone five feet in front of me plugging in a guitar and tuning up, that makes me feel like I can do things, like it’s possible for me to exist in this world. Maybe that’s just me, but I don’t think it is. Even when people engage in hero-worship, they aren’t really responding to the lights and the dresses. If they were, heroes would be completely interchangeable. But it’s the opposite: people cling only to their heroes, because they’ve found something specific there that has mattered to them. People like glitz because it makes the things they care about seem more important, more “real.” But this is mere reassurance, and it’s false reassurance. It’s cowardice, and we should be brave enough to reject it. We should accept the smallness of the truth. Shirley Manson is not a representative of some kind of general “women in music” category; she is a musician, which is better.8 There are specific things that people found in Garbage’s music and kept with them, and that’s the only thing that matters. The rest ought to be silence. Correspondingly, the answer to the question “who is there for little girls to look up to now?” is everyone. We just have to show them where to look.

This is, of course, a more challenging pursuit. It’s not as easy as getting a couple of good videos on MTV. You have to explore, you have to focus, you have to figure out how to get the right things to the right people. The task is harder now; it’s a little more involved. It requires more of us as individuals. We have to think more personally about the things that are important to us, and also think more broadly about how our actions contribute to creating the kind of world we’re going to have to live in. This is called “progress.” It gets us closer to, one day, maybe, getting things right. And what’s important to remember that progress isn’t natural. It’ll be just as easy to fuck this up, to go back to looking for heroes, create a new circumscribed, media-friendly class of “female rock stars,” and re-erect the wall that so much effort has been put into tearing down. I’m really not interested in letting this happen.

It is better to be a person than to be a hero. Even accounting for the fact that some people are going to accomplish a lot more than others, everyone can be valued for their contributions without anyone being turned to stone and stuck on a pedestal. (Recall the feminist insight that putting someone on a pedestal is a means of preventing them from moving.) This is also a more accurate depiction of reality; it prevents us from being bamboozled by people like Cosby. The real world is not narrow, and no one bestrides it like a Colossus. In truth, no one is any larger than life – or any smaller. Everyone is exactly the same size as life.

 


  1. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Actually, credit where it’s due: when I saw them recently Nathan Williams made a pretty serious comment about not groping the female crowdsurfers, so a lot of men have actually been doing a decent job of getting on the ball here. 
  2. Note that conflation is different from reassessing in the light of new evidence. But if you find something new as a result of this, it will be something that was there all along. 
  3. Villainy is the same thing as heroism, just in the opposite direction. 
  4. Note that the role of the “father” is primarily understood as a provider and a rule-maker, so it’s still a “doer” role. Similarly, female artists are often understood as mystics or “conduits of the spirits” or whatever, which recasts their creativity as passive midwifery of an external, agentive force. Consider further such dichotomies as doctor/nurse, playboy/slut, priest/nun, etc. It’s pretty much everywhere. Also, this goes all the way down to the level of basic biology. People used to have the idea that a sperm was an entire fully-formed person and the womb was basically just a big empty hole where it hung out and grew on its own. 
  5. Patti Smith is a fascinatingly ironic example here, like there’s seriously a book to be written about this, as she is herself an unabashed hero-worshipper with some pretty traditionally sexist ideas about men being creative geniuses and women being muses. As recounted in Just Kids, she originally tried to get Sam Shepard to save rock and roll before reluctantly accepting the fact that she was going to have to do it herself. 
  6. Note that the huge amount of social media noise during the 2016 election, which supposedly destroyed all sources of authority and turned politics into a mess of untethered subjectivity, did not make third parties any more viable, or indeed do anything at all to broaden the scope of debate beyond the usual popularity-contest bullshit – which is exactly how the person whose only ability is competing in popularity contests won. In fact, social media increased this effect: the election might otherwise not have been enough of a popularity contest to make the difference. 
  7. Believe it or not, Adam Smith has a pretty good bit about this: “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.” 
  8. Just in case it’s not clear, I’m very much not saying that gender doesn’t matter. It matters the same way everything else does. Being a feminist means neither reifying nor ignoring gender; it means accepting it as a subject of serious study. 

Save me

Here’s this year’s theme.

(Oh please, it’s only been like a month. I’m perfectly on schedule.)

Good albums of 2016, part 5

White Lung – Paradise

paradise

I was really looking forward to this album, and I was also expecting it to be a big step forward from the already-great Deep Fantasy, which is pretty much the perfect setup for disappointment. Guess what though. What’s really amazing about this is, well, I mean, what was already amazing is just that this is a hardcore band that sounds modern and relevant in the year two thousand and whatever it is, and what was also already amazing is that they’ve continued to do better than that on every successive album, but what’s amazing about this album specifically is that it advances and expands the band’s sound and songwriting – smoother on “Hungry,” metaler on “Vegas,” mellower but still piercing on “Below,” and with a full-throated sing-along chorus on “Kiss Me When I Bleed” (which happens to be about bringing a child into a world of filth and despair) – while also not only maintaining but enhancing their basic force and intensity. It hits you everywhere at once, and it’s able to do this without being “experimental” or branching out into every available affect. It’s both propulsive and towering, both ethereal and bloody, both aspirational and wrathful, both artful and raw. The guitar parts take everything great that guitars are capable of doing and shift, sift, and swirl it all together into a single unrestrained style that speaks in its own new language. And the lyrics similarly confuse their emotional angles to alchemize strange substances and birth untaxonomized monsters. “Demented” insists that “you were born to ruin your life,” “I Beg You” “fights back like a full-blown rotten cancer,” “Dead Weight” is both hopelessly resigned and defiantly committed, “Sister” cobbles together a bizarre narrative out of degeneration and murder, the ironic skyward thrust of “Narcoleptic” comes across as borderline angelic, and “Paradise” is almost chill until it lashes back at itself and dies hard. So context aside, even, this is the kind of work that makes expectations irrelevant. Regardless of what you were expecting before, what you’re expecting now is for anything to even try to be this good.

And none of this “softens” anything; the music still radiates at maximum heat and the tone is still downright murderous. It tears through and apart its ideas in under half an hour while still feeling substantial and not rushed. But it doesn’t let you get all the way to feeling satisfied, because if you’re ever satisfied with anything, you’re doing it wrong. “You are never safe from yourself.” Which is to say not only that this album is deeply impressive but that the explanation of the source of that impressiveness itself is instantiated within the music, itself. This band has developed by taking what they were already great at and doing it harder, and better, and they’ve become something different by doing that. “I’ll give my heart out, I’ll bleed until I’m cold.” This is sort of like the mirror image of reinterpretation. Any one thing has its limits, but one way to overcome those limits is to take what you’re doing all the way through, such that you come out on the other side making the same connection in a different place. The result is that this is more than a cool punk album, more than an exiting new sound, and more than great music. It’s revelatory. (More later.)

Continue reading

Good albums of 2016, part 4

Seratones – Get Gone

get-gone

In addition to possessing strong songs and commanding vocals, this band is just immediately amazing on the level of raw sound. They’re at the extremes of both talent and intensity, and they apply those things towards something original and real. Like, really. This is one of the more “official” declarations I’m going to make here: this is an exciting new band that should by rights be going places. I mean, I’m not particularly optimistic about our society’s ability to recognize quality, let alone greatness, but also hot damn.

On both academic and impressionistic levels, this is an exhilarating combination of lots of different styles and sounds. Hardcore speed and noise, blues rhythm, metal solos, country smoothness and rich, resonant vocals are all pounded together and built up into something that sounds like the good parts of everything. It’s basically a super-drug. And it’s not just like “a bunch of different stuff”; it all works together as a new whole. It’s not a game of identify-the-influences; I’m actually not much of a historian myself. “You can feel it any way you like it.” You just listen to it, and it’s good. That’s why it’s worth bothering to do things like this.

So the band performs this synthesis on a basic sound level, and they do it over the course of the album, so you’ve got the thrash and rush of “Choking on Your Spit,” the calm flow of “Tide,” the long, tough swagger of “Get Gone,” and the slow and soft but also super loud closer “Keep Me,” and they also do it within the contours of each song. “Headtrip” cruises steadily into a wild solo and drum rush before closing off with a solid slam; “Don’t Need It” chills out and then swings back twice as twisted; “Take It Easy” is half what it says, with a second face breathing fire and glaring dread; “Kingdom Come” underlines its gospel tones with slamming rhythm and taut flair; “Chandelier” hits hard “like the rising sun” on the verses and “takes its time” on the chorus, with a stylish drum break setting up the final blow. The singer croons, shouts, shoots straight, rambles, laughs, and wails; the guitars are punk when they’re not classical and metal when they’re not bluesy; the drums can max out the speed, smooth out the tempo, or kick out the jams.

I’m not so gauche as to go overtly political here, but this stuff actually is sort of relevant to certain of our present situations, so I want to get at least halfway to making a point. I think we should try to focus on a little more on the fact that multiculturalism is not about fairness or noblesse oblige or what the fuck ever and is actually about actual greatness, and is furthermore about fun (they have a non-album song called “Necromancer,” which is so named because it raises the dead). This album doesn’t sound like some boring shit like “equality” or “diversity” or whatever; it sounds fucking awesome. It’s the same thing, though. This is the advantage we have as the people who are on the real right side of things. We can compel adherence to the truth. “You’ll hear me whether you want to or not and like it.” Not that you’re obligated to like this specific music or anything, but if you find yourself put off by things you can’t pin down, you’re doin’ it wrong. Being able to synthesize makes you stronger than simply sticking to one gun.

I don’t want to have to talk about this. It’s kind of insulting. Reducing experience to ideology gets it backwards, but things are already backwards; the only reason we have to talk about anything is because there’s a problem. I don’t know if there was ever a time at which things could have been done the easy way, but it is certainly not that time now. We need both things. “A bullet needs a gun to make a kill.” And we’re not going to get anywhere until we turn this around to aim forwards.

Continue reading

Good albums of 2016, part 3

Tancred – Out of the Garden

out-of-the-garden

So I saw this band open for somebody and I honestly almost missed them completely; I only caught the tail end of their set, but they sounded pretty good and I got a good feeling about them (“Pretty Girls” made an immediate impression; it’s a song that’s just weird and silly enough to work). So it’s a good thing I ended up checking them out, because this is a really excellent album. Seriously; I just relistened to it and I was blown away all over again. This was pure luck on my part, but I guess you could take it as kind of a lesson. You have to pay attention and follow up on shit. You can’t just show up, eat your complimentary shrimp cocktail and leave.

Sound-wise this isn’t a revolution or anything, in large part it’s your basic wordy head-case rock band (that’s actually the joke in the first track name), but the songwriting here is extremely killer. It’s constructed out of the basic ingredients of thrashy guitars and monologuey vocal lines, but there are a lot of smart flourishes and invigorating touches – the comedown at the end of “Bed Case,” the superconductive transition between “Hang Me” and “Sell My Head,” the dip before the chorus on “Poise,” the fake ending on “Control Me” – that give it an insistent personality and also make it an exciting, forward-sounding listen. Also on display here is an extreme facility for sharp endings.

It’s an album that takes you on a journey, but it’s one of those journeys where you get lost at every turn. “The dark can take you for a ride. Fair warning.” “Bed Case” is a disorienting intro based on a deep emotional ambiguity, and “Pretty Girls” is definitely not a calm or satisfying ending. It gets dark and introspective pretty frequently (“Not Likely,” “Pens,” “Sell My Head”), but it’s just as quick to lash out (“Rabid like a dog, I could take you out. Don’t test me”); actually, it tends to do both at once. It stomps and storms as often as it shrinks and shivers, and it synthesizes both of those affective styles into one maelstrom. It spins wildly through angst, black humor (“I would kill but a girl’s got poise”), horror, and viciousness, all while being deeply at odds with itself (“It’s crazy how stable I am”), and there’s a disturbing emphasis throughout on casual self-annihilation (“Write my name, cross it out in shame, burn it up, blow away.”).

As the title implies, this album is about living after the fall, but it’s not trying to fix anything or even trying to figure anything out. It’s just about what it’s like to exist in this situation, and the results aren’t pretty. The opener asks itself, “Do I want to save the world, or just cut out its insides?”, and as things go on it becomes pretty clear what the answer is. It’s not depressing in terms of tone, but a lot of the lyrical content is really deeply resigned, while also making frequent use of violent metaphors (“kill” seems to be the singer’s favorite word). Nothing here makes a grab for positivity or even hope, and all that self-annihilation stuff, while not appearing to directly indicate suicidality, takes its toll nonetheless. The songs don’t take the angles you expect them to take, and in not doing so they unearth disturbing emotions as familiar as they are weird (the album art is oriented wrong and it only has a fragment of a person on it). “Bed Case” establishes that it takes place not in between heaven and hell, but in the space where they overlap. “Poise” doesn’t try to make a feminist statement; it just admits that “I would kill to be one of the boys,” and then puts the emphasis on “kill.” “Control Me” inverts the usual positive spin on its subject matter, “Hang Me” is a self-directed witch hunt, and “Pretty Girls” is pretty harsh statement of defeat.

But what all of this actually means is that this is an album of productive irony. If you actually heard someone say, “Kill me just like all your other puppet girls; make me want you,” and you thought they meant it, that would be pretty fucking horrifying, but of course a) if you’re actually saying that, it means you understand what’s going on, and b) even more of course, this is a song, so what it’s actually expressing is the fact that the truth of the situation is being faced and dealt with rather than papered over and ignored. Meaning that this actually is the response to this situation. The gap between the album’s hopeless negativity and its badass rock intensity isn’t a gap; “Pretty Girls” actually is a big rock ending. As dark as this album is, what it has is better than brightness. It has vitality. It’s the farthest thing from a final solution, but, y’know, a lot of the time that’s a good thing. It’s the complete inverse of insisting on one correct politics of response (which is good, because we all know by now how bad that sucks): it’s an insistence on honesty and engagement, no matter how fucked up you have to get in order to do that. “I’m dead into the things you want me to shout”; “I’d feel better in a crypt than up there with you”; “Inside your claws, a million snakes”; “Show me all your teeth.” Maybe none of this is any good, maybe it’s even worse than nothing, but it is where we are right now, and no one is going anywhere until we understand that. “This is how we learn to be happy: the hard way.”

Continue reading

Good albums of 2016, part 2

The Kills – Ash & Ice

ash-ice

Descriptors like “mature” or “confident” are classic faint praise, so I’m going to have to come up with something better, because this is actually a great album. The Kills have always stuck to their guns, and that doesn’t change here, but this is the album on which they become more than themselves. One way to make transcendence work is to keep doing your thing so hard that it ends up having no choice but to become something else, to embrace your chains to the point that they stop being chains. This is a Transcendence Album.

The songs tend to open with out-of-context techno beats (on “Let it Drop” this almost amounts to trolling) before the guitars whip them into shape and the neck-breathing vocals draw them close. But this doesn’t turn them all into the same thing; in fact, the songs are wildly diverse to the point that the album almost feels incoherent. It jostles left and right between radically different tones – distant disco on “Hard Habit to Break” gives way to harsh soul on “Bitter Fruit,” and then to a weirdly dazed march on “Days of Why and How.” The second half brings the slowness with the arhythmic blues of “Hum for Your Buzz” and the passionate (negative) simplicity of “That Love,” alternating with the punchy desperation of “Siberian Nights” and the menacingly dense “Impossible Tracks.” And there’s never a big moment that brings things into focus; it builds intensity only to jealously hoard it. There’s nothing inaccessible about it, but it’s inconvenient enough that you have to take it seriously.

But there’s a deeper level on which the album coheres, on which all of its twists and shards are ultimately one thing. It aims less to slash or bludgeon and more to get under the skin, or even to haunt, to get too close for comfort. “Silence is the loudest shot.” For starters, this is an album about the meaning of constraints. It “wants strings attached, unnatural as it feels.” At the same time, it claims to be “easily led,” “by whatever you like,” but its stylistic stubbornness suggests that this is more like a horse being led to water and refusing to drink. Staying where you are, or giving yourself to someone or something else, or holding onto something regardless of whatever else happens are all choices, and every choice is a constraint. “I never took off my chains; they never took my colors.” And there are a lot of different chains in this world: loyalty, compulsion, circumstance, intimacy, fear, and death. “Doing it to Death” is really the opposite of what you would expect – far from being a passionate commitment, it’s practically resigned, the loopy rising-and-falling guitar line evoking the nausea of eternity. “When the waves come, you face them, and you know we can’t stop it now.” But you can also just keep doing it, “night after night after night,” even if “the plans we’re making are the shape of things that never come.”

Maybe you can tell that I don’t actually have this figured out all that well. That’s the thing about an album like this, though. You can keep coming back to it and keep getting turned around in different directions, and you don’t even have to be looking for anything. The gorgeousness of obvious closer “Echo Home” fakes a serene and uplifting ending, because it’s not actually the closer. It’s followed up by the extreme crescendo of “Whirling Eye,” which doesn’t feel like any kind of ending at all. It just keeps building up intensity towards nothing, like the whole thing is just the pressure drop presaging the real storm.

Continue reading