Went to a Dan Deacon show yesterday. Electronica isn’t precisely my thing, but I listened to his recent album on a whim and liked it, so I basically went just for the hell of it. The upshot is that I’m now reevaluating some of my assumptions.
There’s taste and then there’s taste, which is to say there’s more to it then mere preference. There’s sort of a standard story about how underground rock responded to a world drowning in soft banality by reawakening the fire of the human spirit and asserting the values of emotional directness and raw creativity, etc. (It is, of course, deeply ironic that punk, an anti-movement if ever there was one, has congealed over time into a single easily understandable narrative. Read Please Kill Me if you’re at all interested in demystification.) This is mostly wishful thinking, and it’s easy to dismiss it all as ex post facto mythologization, but I can’t, because it actually happened to me.
I’m not really going to go into detail here because it’s none of your fucking business, but rock music had a revelatory effect on me at a time when I didn’t even understand the concept of revelation, let alone the possibility. I can’t dismiss it as shallow aesthetics or counter-cultural posturing, because neither of those things were at all relevant to my situation. The only logical explanation is that I was seized by something undeniably real, penetrated by raw power.
So the point is that rock music feels to me like an open plain of human values and new possibilities and electronica feels like the dead weight of schematics and equations that almost strangled me to death. But this is actually the other kind of taste: it’s just my perception. It’s become clear that the Wheel of Fortune has turned, and the majority of rock music now embodies the same evils it originally opposed. This has, of course, happened precisely because of the previously mentioned Standard Story about rock music (stories are dangerous, you guys). It’s now Understood that you go to a rock show and get drunk and act like a crazy asshole and that this is cool and liberating, which is obviously the opposite of liberating because you’ve obviously just acting out a script you’ve heard about third-hand, i.e. you’re doing what you’re told.
And, like, believe me, despite being an unrepentant snobby intellectual, I am entirely in favor of physical disinhibition. (That was a joke.) I’ve been in actual good mosh pits where people were dancing and having fun, and I’ve seen many more where a few morons just start shoving each other around and everyone else tries to get out of the way. If you’ve never seen this happen, trust me, it’s deeply pathetic. Sometimes you get a big mass of people just wobbling back and forth, and sometimes everyone’s crowded away from a huge empty space because two assholes are just flailing their arms around and nobody wants to be anywhere near them. The saddest incident in my experience was at a Sonic Youth show (post-The Eternal), which, yes, some morons actually tried to start moshing at a Sonic Youth show in the year two thousand and whenever it was, and absolutely no one else was going for it, and the only thing they accomplished was elbowing me in the face.
So I’ve been aware of all this for a while, but I still thought there was a way to thread the needle. I have been in plenty of actual good crowds, so I know it’s possible. Fugazi in particular is famous for having tried to confront this problem directly. As a post-hardcore band that was also seriously leftist and feminist, they had to deal with the fact that a lot of their fans were violent macho assholes (essentially the “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” problem). They insisted that people at their shows have fun and dance without shoving each other around. If people were acting like dicks, they stopped playing and took care of it. (For more information, there’s an audio file floating around the internet called “Having Fun On Stage With Fugazi” that you can check out.)
The culture has moved on somewhat since then, but I think we have to conclude that Fugazi’s project was a failure, because people still don’t know how to have fun at rock shows without being shitheads. I’ve seen bands that try to be cool about it and tell people to play nice, and it never works, because people actually don’t understand the distinction. I realize that “people don’t know how to have fun” is a hopelessly conceited opinion to hold, but it’s honestly a conclusion that has been forced on me by the evidence.
I saw Bleached recently, which, first of all, they’re amazing; they combine full-throttle thrashing intensity with great pop songwriting to create a completely exhilarating experience. Seriously, after the set people were talking in awed tones about how great it was. But they were loud and fast enough to send the “it’s time to act like an asshole” signal to receptive members of the audience, and that’s exactly what happened. I’m not so arrogant that I think I can fully diagnose spontaneous human behavior like this; like I said, the music was actually great and people were actually feeling it, and I’m really only talking about a tiny fraction of the total situation here. But that small group of people in the middle really were acting like this was their big change to be dicks and not like they were actually having fun. What would happen is that the song would start, and they’d shove each other around for about 30 seconds, and then go right back to just standing there like lumps. This is why this isn’t a matter of preference. It’s not about having to choose between going crazy and calmly paying attention, because behavior like this is the worst of both worlds: it’s obnoxious while also being no fun.
I know this is getting kind of involved and by now you’re just dying to hear what I thought about Dan Deacon, but there’s one more thing that it would be irresponsible not to mention, which is the embarrassing and therefore frequently overlooked fact that part of the original motivation for punk was anti-feminism. The fact that typical punk music is largely the embodiment of masculine aggression ain’t a coincidence. The people who talk about how we live in a “feminized” society now are obviously clueless jackasses, but the fact is overt physical aggression is no longer socially acceptable (if it ever was, I don’t actually know), and rock shows provide a permissible outlet for it. So this is the actual political angle here: aggressive behavior is not liberatory because the people who act like this are not at all acting in an uninhibited way. On the contrary, they’re trapped in their masculine inhibitions. They can’t loosen up and have fun, because that’s totally gay, bro. The only permitted means of expression is aggression. (And of course it’s not just men; part of feminism is accepting that women are equally capable of being macho dickheads. I believe this is addressed in the Fugazi recording mentioned above.) This is more evidence of the well-known fact that masculinity is cowardice.
So the point, which I am in fact getting around to now, is that regardless of whether Dan Deacon’s music is my particular cup of tea, his show was a lot closer to what a good live music experience ought to be than most rock shows I’ve been to. Not that there’s one “ideal,” of course, but there are good directions to move in and there are bad directions to move in. Being part of an engaged community is a good thing. Being shoved around by drunk assholes is a bad thing. I mean, this is actually important. If a live show is about something more than entertainment, if it’s about people coming together and having a shared experience, then the question of how people can have fun without ruining everyone else’s good time is the same as the question of how civilization can progress without exploitation.
When it comes to stage banter, white guys sometimes have problems with being huge fucking bores, but Deacon was great. He was on-point politically without being lecturey and self-deprecating without being defensive. This matters because it created a good atmosphere in the room while also helping to normalize anti-oppression discourse, which makes everyone feel like they’re in a safe environment where they can have fun. One thing that The Discourse has struggled to overcome, even with all the silliness of the internet, is the perception that it’s dull and pedantic, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth: the point of being against oppression is so that we can all have fun. So it’s important to be able to enjoy yourself while also being conscious of doing the right thing. Deacon’s best line was when he told half the room to dance like Game of Thrones was made in a world without patriarchy and the other half to dance like all the money from Jurassic World was spent on public schools. So, yeah, maybe a little overwrought, but it was funny, and it was true, and it made people feel like having fun.
There was a lot of goofy audience participation stuff, some of it worked and some of it not so much, but the point is that it did a pretty good job of actually disinhibiting people and getting them out of the frame of how you’re supposed to act at a show. At some metal shows there’s apparently a thing called the “Wall of Death,” where two halves of the crowd rush into the middle and everybody crashes into each other and it’s total violent mayhem. This is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been complaining about: it’s macho assholery in the guise of uninhibited fun. Deacon gets this (he also worked in a crack about healthcare in Scandinavian countries vs. America), so his alternative is the “Wall of Life,” where everyone rushes each other in order to deliver high fives en masse. It’s hopelessly dorky, but again, it actually addresses the relevant issues: it’s a way of going crazy and having fun without being a dick about it. As Deacon put it, instead of rushing each other with reckless abandon, we should do so with full human consciousness. We should be able to have fun while still being people.
I don’t actually have to analyze whether any of this was a good idea or not (I just do it for fun), because it worked. By the end of the show, there were lots of people dancing and having fun while being respectful of everyone else, and it was great. So the point of this post is actually that I’m a little sad. It’s sad that “my” music has such a hard time accomplishing this, when that’s what it was supposed to be for in the first place. It’s sad that Fugazi had to exhort people to behave instead of compelling them organically through the force of their music – the way it was supposed to work, in the stories.
What’s not sad is the fact that the situation is more complicated than just choosing the right kind of music. If it seems like you’re on the royal road to the truth, you’re probably being marched into a cage. The twisted path is the one that might actually lead somewhere. This obviously isn’t about which kind of music is better than the other kind of music. Greatness transcends genre. It’s just that these waters might be a little harder to navigate than I thought. Even when you’ve felt a truth that’s impossible to deny, you can’t just cling to that one thing forever. If aesthetics are to be at all meaningful, your taste has to go beyond your preferences.
[Addendum: Just saw Titus Andronicus and they gave this exact speech before they started. I mean, “exact” in the sense that it was the normal person version rather than the pretentious theory version. Anyway, it’s nice to know that people are still trying.]
I saw Metric last night, by which I mean just now, and I want to get some thoughts down while I’m still, you know, on fire.
I was mainly looking forward to “The Shade,” and it turned out to be way beyond anything I could have imagined. I mean, they played it straight, but for whatever reason the impact of it was totally unreal. I was seriously tensing up like my life was on the line. Emily Haines had a bit about how the “I want it all” part means the thing it clearly means and not the stupid thing that you’d have to be an idiot to think it means, which was obviously unnecessary, but that straightforwardness is part of why Metric is important. The fact that they’re all electronic-y now isn’t any kind of angle or maneuver, it’s just how they’re writing songs at this particular point in time. They did “Cascades,” for example, which is currently their most robotronic song, and they kind of played it up visually, but it wasn’t a “departure” in any way. This whole theme was established right away when they opened with “I.O.U.,” the first track off of their first (released) album. This wasn’t a throwback; they had the usual amount of weighting towards new stuff, though Haines threw in some a capella bits from “Hustle Rose” and “Combat Baby,” seemingly just for the hell of it. The point is that Metric has been fighting the same war all along. They’re one of the few bands around that feels definitively not lost, like there actually is a good future out there and they know what direction it’s in.
They did a group sing-along version of “Dreams So Real,” which actually worked. I mean, this is L.A., so at best half the people anywhere are going to be a bunch of blasé tourist assholes, but people were singing and I felt the ley lines of connection that really do exist beneath the filth-strewn surface of this garbage planet. And that’s the point: it’s a given right now that probably like 75% of the world is just dead gray nihilistic nonsense, so given that, what are you going to do about it? “Who wants to celebrate and who’s just fine to sit and wait?” Maybe this sounds easy, but it’s actually a problem for me. I’m a negative person, and while I consider my stance to be both valid and justified, that isn’t enough. If I actually hate banality more than I love the truth, then I’m a literal nihilist. I can’t allow that to be the case.
The big surprise was that they didn’t do “Stadium Love,” which is one of their big mission statement songs (they also gave up “Dead Disco,” so let it not be said that they aren’t moving forward). This is normally an extremely effective song; it’s powerful enough to completely destroy even a moderately large venue. But it was clear that the reason they didn’t do it was because they didn’t need to: that message was implicit in everything else they did. They’ve got an unbelievable range; they can build up the drama on “Artificial Nocturne,” tear it apart with “Too Bad, So Sad,” hold the tension in “Twilight Galaxy,” and bring it home with the now-traditional “campfire” version of “Gimme Sympathy.” They closed with “Breathing Underwater,” which was, as Haines pointed out, bittersweet, and as a result ultimately didn’t allow for cheap catharsis. Last time I saw them, on the tour for Synthetica, Haines said at the end of the show that she felt like the cowboy from The Big Lebowski. It’s certainly true right now that Metric abides, but given the current situation, it’s not really okay for us to merely take comfort in that fact. That’s why they’re giving it everything, and why they want us to feel the same.
Way to Go is the first full-length album from Survival Guide. You’d probably call it an electronic pop album, but the connotations of both of those terms are misleading. Contrary to the typical “layers of buzzing sounds” aesthetic that the term “electronic” brings to mind, this is a very precise album. It’s not quite minimalist, there are actually a lot of neat effects, but each one makes a specific contribution to the tone of each song, the production is careful and balanced, and many of the songs make powerful use of empty space. As for being a pop album, while the songs are generally short, have simple structures, and borrow from a variety of styles, there’s a pervasive sense of seriousness and urgency that prevents any of it from feeling ephemeral. The overall tone is actually really dark, more in the subtle shadowy sense than the oppressive industrial sense, contrasted by vocals that are both crystal clear and bright as day.
The cohesiveness of the album is what takes it from “impressive” to “serious business.” While the songs use a lot of different styles and tones, it’s not just for fun (I mean, it’s also for fun); it creates a progression of ideas that allows the album to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time (the songs are mostly of standard pop length, but the overall directness and economy give the album a bit of a punk impact). The sequencing, including precise and occasionally surprising transitions, builds an emotional and thematic arc over the course of the album, culminating in a harrowing climax.
The pop angle is also partially subverted, in that the contrast between the inviting song structures and the sober tone makes the whole thing feel kind of unnerving. In fact, it’s more than that; many of the songs are not just ambiguous but outright two-faced. This is apparent right from the title, which, first of all, is kind of overly general and not really evocative, starting things off on unsteady footing. Furthermore, “way to go” is commonly a sarcastic expression, which immediately presents a central uncertainty: is this supposed to be encouraging or insulting?
The other thing the title refers to is death.
“Ugly Side” opens the album with a burst of noise. This is sort of the opposite of setting the tone: it’s a reminder to watch out. The title is, of course, another hint at the album’s two-faced nature, and the song itself carries it though. The combination a strong beat in the foreground and a nervous guitar line in the background gives it an inside-out feeling, with a sort of deranged piano melody completing the atmosphere of uncertainty. The lyrics start out soft and gradually dive into the depths. Each verse feels innocuous at the start, but before long there’s “garbage in tow” and “poison that spreads.”
The other thing about the title is that it means business; we’re not talking about something cute here. The song has a pretty standard “opening single” feel if you’re not paying too much attention, but in fact this only conceals how serious the song really is. The chorus is the exact opposite of uplifting. It’s a passionately delivered statement of hopeless desperation. In particular, it includes a very smart inversion in the line “I can’t shake-shake-shake.” By taking a standard pop song filler line and turning it on its head, the standard pop music theme of liberation through physicality is also inverted; here, not only is the problem something that can’t be shaken off, its physical nature is precisely what makes it intractable. This is emphasized by the aforementioned physical descriptors in the lyrics, as well as the fact that the singer doesn’t have a “shield” to protect herself.
As a whole, the song is neither fully hopeless nor particularly uplifting. The uncertainty builds to a tense, open-ended climax:
Closing my eyes makes me kind of nervous
You’re nearby; I can feel it
I will not succumb to whatever it is you’re trying to make of me
This declaration, though powerful, is ultimately a statement of mere resistance, and this sets the tone for the rest of the album. The alternate version of the chorus drives it home with a sharp, repeated “I can’t.” Victory is not an option.
“Prohibition” goes in for denial, or “how solve your problems using alcohol.” It’s a slow song, but a lopsided, double-time drum line gives it an insistent sense of momentum, pushing into a dense, reverberating haze through which the vocals “whisper how things should be.” Fittingly, it’s the most opaque song on the album, but the horror-movie atmosphere never lets it get comfortable. “The screams are in the distance, but their hearts are pounding loud.” Of course, as the title implies, this isn’t going to work out. Halfway though, the haze breaks, that voice in the background that’s been saying “run, run, run, run” is suddenly right behind you, and there’s nowhere to hide.
“So Super Slow” breaks things open with a direct assault on complacency and obliviousness. The lyrics are a series of direct accusations, carried forward by a hard, straight-ahead rhythm. The delivery is aggressive but also precise, making the underlying rage feel justified. The accusations are contrasted with the singer’s own situation: “I put it on the line and you don’t care.” While this seems like an admission of failure on her part, it actually ends up strengthening her argument. A line like “I made you breakfast, you never showed up” should come across as pathetic; the rational conclusion would be that she shouldn’t have wasted her time. But the framing turns this completely around: it’s precisely because breakfast is made that you’re obligated to show up. The song takes a radically naive approach to the problem of devotion by coming at it from the other side. Instead of waiting to find something that’s worth devoting herself to, the singer commits herself in advance, and then uses that commitment to impose a moral obligation on everyone else to catch up, to make themselves worthy of her efforts. This is a particularly provocative approach in an age of complete information, where we know all the options and they all seem like dead ends.
Yet, while the song uses rock aggressiveness to make its point, it’s not really that much of a rock song. Despite the insistent vocals and the driving beat, the guitar plays coy in the background, leaving the verses mostly empty. The contrast between the vocals and the emptiness, leading into the wrathful anti-siren-song of the chorus, perfectly conveys the feeling of shouting into a void, which is exactly the situation. If you’re talking to someone who has no idea what’s going on, how is exhorting them going to help? The situation in the song is necessarily futile; if you’re in the position of having to yell at someone like this, it’s because you’re out of real options. In this sense, the song’s aggressiveness actually starts to backfire. It’s hard to say things like “you’re doing a terrible job of sticking to my plan” without sounding a little unhinged. Even the one line in the song that would normally read as genuine encouragement, “don’t say you can’t because I know you can,” comes across as domineering.
“So Super Slow” transitions smoothly into its exact mirror image: the supremely chill, discoesque “Get Your Don’t.” The singer’s position is reversed; now she’s the one targeted by devotion, but here it’s an obsession that she calmly rebuffs. What’s enthralling about this song is, ironically, the way it creates distance. The title, of course, is deliberately obfuscatory; despite being a direct quote, the impression that it conveys is exactly backwards. The music pulls you in with a smooth synth line, but the cold tone and mangled chorus keep you at arm’s length, as well as just stating directly: “don’t get your hopes up.” Even the dance break is awkward enough to be off-putting. The vocals pick up but also recede into the background, like it’s a party and you’re not invited.
This song is a great example of how the album uses its electronic effects for good instead of for evil. The verses play it cool, supporting the lyrics and allowing them to clearly make their statement, while the chorus brings out the synthetic droning to push you back, a physical manifestation the theme of the song. The dance break kicks it up into a high, oscillating warble that sticks to the back of your head, gives you a second of calmness to refocus, and then carries it through to the end, leaving you with an ominous feeling that this isn’t over.
The very fact that the song expresses itself so well is actually its own contradiction. It’s so much fun that it ultimately fails as a blowoff. After all, getting your hopes up is kind of the point of music. This is acknowledged by the sharpest line on the album: “You hope these words are the key to your own personal mystery.” Clearly ridiculous, but at the same time, who hasn’t been there? As with “So Super Slow,” this song implies its own futility; the fact that you’re telling someone not to get their hopes up means it’s already too late – and doing so with a song is only going to make things worse. In particular, “it’ll hurt worse on the way down” comes off less like a warning and more like a prophecy.
By this point things are tied in a bit of a knot. These are two contradictory songs addressing the same subject matter, and they each contradict themselves. But the songs aren’t exact opposites; by using negativity to close off the bad options on either side, but leaving space between them, they imply a correct path. For instance, one of the singer’s accusations in “So Super Slow” is that “you’ve got it easy, I’ve been studying,” while in “Get Your Don’t”, she warns not to “jump ahead and read the end before you start.” These lines are actually making the same point: you can’t be complacent, but you also can’t expect to get everything at once. You have to put in the effort to do things the right way, even without knowing how it’s all going to work out.
There’s another hint in the careful line that “Get Your Don’t” traces through its subject matter. The singer refuses to “bare her soul,” choosing instead to “keep [her] gold armor on.” But as the confidence of the delivery makes clear, this isn’t about giving up. It’s an argument that active artifice (it’s specifically gold armor) is not just healthier but better than basic emotional rawness. In terms of popular music, it isn’t just that perfect authenticity is impossible to ask of any performer, it’s also bad for the listener. It’s a con; it makes it seem like you’re getting something you’re not. There’s no such thing as an unmediated experience. Since everything has to go through the veil of subjectivity, pretending like you’re directly conveying your raw emotions is a lie, and it ends up making for worse communication. What’s required, for both the performer and the listener, is to work through the necessary complications rather than to pretend like they don’t exist.
So, despite the overall negative focus of everything so far, it feels like we’re getting somewhere, and “January Shock” picks up on that feeling. It begins with a jarring transition from fading synths to rising acoustic guitar, emphasizing the song’s anomalous position on the album. It’s right in the middle, and it’s the one song that actually feels bright and open; compared to the rest of the album, it’s like the break of day. It seems, at first, to be responding to the negativity of the first half of the album with a message of hope. We’ve all got problems, but “it’s not the end,” and you can always count on the fact that “the sun will rise again.” Unfortunately, this song also has an ugly side.
The first verse is a series of sarcastic statements mocking the sort of excuses that justify a fatalistic outlook. This is simple enough at first, but by the end of the verse it gets a little too real, particularly with the line “love is useless when I die.” It’s true that this isn’t an excuse, but it’s still kind of serious business. The second verse is more straightforwardly vicious, hammering home the point that fatalism ends up becoming its own justification. But it does this by compounding the problem: if “you blew it all in the last seven years” because you “thought you were safe,” then yeah, you’re kind of throwing yourself a pity party, but you’re also actually fucked. When the singer rejects this defeatist attitude with a blithe “not sorry now,” she’s washing her hands of the problem without actually resolving it.
The fact that the lyrics in the verses are actually fairly cruel is the first clue that something’s wrong, but cruelty isn’t really the problem. The arguments are still valid, and the kind of attitude they’re addressing deserves at least a little harshness. The problem is that the verses recontextualize the chorus. If the problem is that you’re stuck in a situation where it seems like nothing is going to work out, then the fact that the world is going to keep moving on without you doesn’t help; it makes things worse. With this in mind, the exultation of the chorus starts to feel a little disturbing. The thundering drums and soaring vocals rise up and tower over you, shining with an imposing brightness as terrible as daybreak itself. It’s not a promise, it’s a threat.
In particular, with the subject of death having been broached, the chorus acts as a reminder of what the actual endpoint of the sun rising over and over again is. Rather than offering reassurance, this brings the first side of the album to a unsettling conclusion. Identifying your problems and making plans doesn’t actually affect the implacability of reality. You can’t control your circumstances, especially not the circumstance of being a temporary physical object. Thus, rejecting fatalism seems to come at the cost of hope; the fact that you have to do something doesn’t imply any possibility of success. This new problem sets up the second half of the album, where the self-assured nature of the first half begins to fade, the pop sheen diminishes, and the negativity turns inward.
“Nowhere Anywhere” begins the process by creating a parallel structure between its two verses that brings two perspectives face to face. The song’s clanging guitar and insistent staccato rhythm create a claustrophobic atmosphere, making the confrontation feel tense and personal. Furthermore, the song anchors itself in specific locations and uses physical objects to provide evocative details, bringing the album down to a more mundane level.
The first verse builds an atmosphere of alienation, starting with the first use of third-person perspective on the album (“he” is literally the first word), and continuing through a series of oppressive physical details. The setting is, in fact, an office building, which is about as alienating as it gets. Furthermore, the lyrics never manage to reach inside to the actual perspective of the subject. “He looks in the mirror, nothing is clear, where’s he taking it from here?” We can tell what’s going on, but what “he” is actually thinking and feeling about the situation remains a mystery.
The second verse sets up the contrast immediately: “I have a hard time wanting to help.” Not only has the perspective shifted, but the focus is now on the singer’s feelings and desires. The setting shifts to the domestic, emphasizing the personal while staying grounded in reality. The physical details are now considered in relation to the singer’s viewpoint and actions, as things that people use rather than as mere objects. The most direct example of the difference is the way that doors are referred to in both verses. In the first, “the locks are turning, doors in the hall, there’s no way out.” A door here is merely a physical obstacle that closes off space, regardless of whether any actual humans are present (or care). In the second verse, the singer won’t “open the door, no matter who for.” Here, not only is the focus on the decision being made, but the importance of the door is in its social context: it’s a threshold that brings people together, or, as in this case, keeps them apart.
And that’s exactly what happens. The parallel construction highlights the failure of the two perspectives to connect, and it also implies the singer’s acceptance of her share of the responsibility. Her target may be hopeless, but regardless of the situation, she’s the one making the decision to disengage. There’s ultimately no point in blaming someone else for your inability to get through to them. No matter how frustrating other people’s failures are, all you can really control is yourself. There are hard limits on our ability to ever really get inside someone else’s head, and sometimes there’s not really anywhere to go from there. Thus, the conclusion is that “we’re two brick walls.” It’s not just that the singer has run into a wall, but the frustration has caused her to turn away herself. The song’s anticlimax is finalized with an abrupt ending, and this sense of resignation leads into the album’s darkest hour.
The inward turn continues with the deeply introspective “One to One.” A dirge-like keyboard presides over a jittery rhythm and repetitive, brooding lyrics. The previously accusatory “you” turns in on itself in lines that start out as accusations but resolve into personal failures: “you put it all on me,” “turn on the light but I can’t see,” and especially, “what do you want from me?” The tone is entirely desperate. The negativity seems to be taking its toll; the singer has tried everything, and she’s at the end of her rope. The vocals are alternately rushed and plaintive, overlaid with a heavy sense of dread, suggesting nothing so much as an impending nervous breakdown.
Which doesn’t happen. Just as the desperation reaches its peak, the song drops off into nothingness. A few scattered notes and beats barely hold the line. And just as everything seems to fade, it all comes roaring back. The piano surges and the vocals build to a final cry of, despite everything, strength. There is, finally, a line that can’t be breached. Even under the weight of everything, it turns out there’s still one viable option – a forced draw. “Say whatever you want to say, it’s always one to one in this game.”
The title track carries this strength forward, though it might not seem that way at first. Its tone is mournful; the soft, choppy vocals are suffused with pain. Lines like “friendly fire, it never ends” are presented without any kind of resolution or even consolation; they’re just the way things are. The fact that people who care about you are going to hurt you isn’t something that can be changed or even really addressed. Even when the song says that the “only way to move is forward,” is doesn’t feel encouraging, it feels like a lament. It isn’t the “only way” in the moral sense, but in the physical sense: it’s literally the only possibility. This is underscored by the marching band-like drums that accompany the chorus. A march isn’t really “encouragement,” it’s forced forward movement. The chorus even drifts off before finishing the title, as though lacking the strength to continue. This isn’t a song providing motivation to move forward, it’s a grim acceptance of the fact that moving forward the only thing you can actually do.
But grim acceptance is actually the song’s positive conclusion. “Way to Go” pulls the same trick as “January Shock,” but in reverse, and harder. It’s here that the album actually retracts its commitment to ambiguity: the contradictory nature of this song doesn’t offer two competing interpretations; the contradictions resolve into one deeper interpretation, the only one that works. Despite how deeply sorrowful the song is, and despite everything the album’s been through up to this point, it can’t be interpreted as a funeral march. “A voice in my head says stand up and be brave.” This doesn’t really amount to encouragement, it’s just a fact, but it’s one place, at least, where you know you can stand, even when you’re on your own. The album has finally arrived at a reliable source of strength: the paradoxical strength of active, considered acceptance. The song insists on this interpretation, less because there’s any compelling reason to than because it’s the only way.
And that might have been a nice ending, but there’s still the issue of whether it’s actually possible to accept the unacceptable. “Shrouded in Steel” is where the terror that’s been lurking in the subtext the entire time finally breaks loose.
This song is actually kind of off-putting at first. It starts out painfully raw: dramatic vocals that barely establish a meter are accompanied only by storm noises and a few guitar twangs, and it stays this way long enough for it to get uncomfortable. It starts off seeming like kind of an overwrought torch song; the first appearance of the chorus – “I was unaware of the pain involved, and I’m a little scared of emotions so strong” – comes across as almost embarrassingly naive.
But by the second verse, the fear starts to seem justified. “There’s no telling fire what to do, and metal can go straight through.” It’s even punctuated with a gunshot to make sure you get the message. The real subject here is the intersection of love and death – the fact that the extent of your devotion is precisely the extent of the universe’s ability to destroy you. In which case, it turns out there really is something to be afraid of.
The title comes from the line “your heart’s not shrouded in steel,” meaning not protected. But that’s not what the word “shrouded” means – it means “concealed.” It means that you can’t hide from your own humanity, your own emotions. The fact that you’re “unshrouded” means that you’re constantly exposed to the fundamental brutality of existence, and that everything you think and feel is on the chopping block. The flipside is that a “shroud” is also what covers a corpse; the fact that you’re not shrouded also means that you’re not dead yet.
After the first half of the song establishes its raw emotional basis, the second half kicks things into gear. The guitar wakes up, and a low, driving beat propels the song forward. The helplessness of the first half transforms into a hard determination that pushes itself through mounting agony. But what’s most important isn’t the change, it’s the continuity. The chorus stays the same, becoming more haunting with each repetition. It stops feeling naive and starts feeling like a radical understatement. The maelstrom of emotions continues to build, reaching the limits of tolerability with the line “it scares me a bit too much to know that someday it’s all going to end.”
Am I being clear about the fact that this song is completely incredible? The power and emotion in the singing here is unbelievable. It would be otherworldly if it weren’t for the fact that it also feels deeply real. You can actually feel the “chill spread fast and deadly,” it actually feels like “cutting away.” The whole thing builds up this incomprehensible amount of emotion while staying sharp and focused and engaging. I think maybe I’m being a little too reserved here. You really need to listen to this thing.
So, okay: this song is about death, and this is what crystallizes the entire album. It’s what makes all of this matter: both the fact that we only have one shot at this and the fact that there’s only one conclusion. And through all of it, we really have nothing more to go on than our own dread. There’s nothing approaching an answer here; that country is going to stay undiscovered.
“Shrouded in Steel” is a pure cry of torment; it not only doesn’t but can’t provide any kind of resolution. It puts everything right on the surface, leaving nowhere to hide. It could be read as an expression of nihilism, if it weren’t for the fact that that’s impossible. Music is transient by nature; performing a song is a commitment to expressing meaning in the face of oblivion. More than that, it’s impossible to actually be a nihilist, because you have to make some kind of decision based on some kind of values (choosing to do nothing is just as much of a decision as anything else). The only way to go is forward. And it’s totally impossible to express nihilism in a song, that is, an intentionally constructed artistic object that conveys emotions. This is why the “nihilism” of punk resulted in an explosion of creativity: it wasn’t actually nihilism; it was actually a revolution of values.
So, if the existence of art is the ultimate argument against nihilism, then the subtext of this song is the fact that it exists at all. It proves that even this amount of pain can’t force a surrender. The point isn’t that the pain is “worth it,” it just exists, it’s part of a deal whose terms have already been decided. But what also exists is the other half of the deal: the fact that we have to keep moving forward in time and making decisions. And this is where finding strength in acceptance stops looking like quite such a raw deal, because one of the things that you have to accept is that nihilism, and consequently any other form of philosophical surrender, is physically impossible. The universe is actually on your side on this one. The final repetition of the chorus echoes out with a piercing intensity, not as a lament, but as a commitment: to accept what’s certain and what’s unknowable, to keep suffering and being afraid, and to keep moving forward.
With the earth having been thoroughly scorched, the closer, “Remembered in a Song,” is necessarily desolate. The suffering hasn’t gone anywhere; the slow, effortful delivery evidences the weight that’s still being carried. But in the context of everything that’s led here, the deep melancholy of the song doesn’t feel maudlin. It’s a clear-eyed, determined gaze into the future – a future that’s not dark.