[25 February 2009]
You know when you get so tense and anxiety-ridden that all the nerves at the back of your neck snarl up into one burning ball? Well, if that gland could make music, it would sound like this album.
—Lester Bangs, from “Monolith or Monotone? Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music
It took me a while, but finally, after dipping my toes in the water by attending a mash-up party, I gathered the courage to go to a rock show. I have been semi-avoiding rock shows literally for years, and the blame falls primarily on an indie rock group called Mates of State. If you don’t know them, they’re a married twosome who make pretty songs using keyboard instruments and slightly off-key harmonized singing. They are so incredibly twee that they sound like the hired band at a leprechaun wake. I saw them at the Coachella Music Festival, which happens every year in a scorched earth corner of California, and before a huge assembled audience they were singing in their jaunty, charmingly tuneless way, dressed like clerks in a yarn store.
The set generated good buzz for them, at least among the people I know, but for me it epitomized a senseless optimism grounded in what we might call the music of being yourself. It’s about sounding awkward, dressing down for your shows, and then building songs out of small tribulations and the irrepressible, myopic hope that today will be even better than yesterday. It’s the furthest a performer can run from performance art without actually hopping off the stage. It’s the sung version of being over at their house for a cup of tea, bantering about the day’s gossip.
But you are not at their house, of course: that is a fairly expensive illusion you pay for, and the casualness of the performance belies the fact that the wall between audience and performer stays as high as ever. Arguably, in fact, the wall is even higher because they’re so offhanded, like it’s some kind of weird luck that they’re up there performing everyday life, and now that they are, casual everydayness has been stolen from you, and you have to pour your adulation on them in order to vicariously get it back.
Worst of all, in the midst of all this brightness, something is terribly wrong. It’s like the moment right at the beginning of Mulholland Drive, where the kindly old people stare and wave for just a second too long at eager young Naomi Watts. Call it what you will: guilt over the war, anxiety over the economy, the whole repressed mass of social ills and personal disasters that just can’t be sung away so easily. The same evenings spent hanging out and worrying about running into an ex-lover. The same suburbs you grew up in, or the Manhattan apartment that is so small you have to walk sideways past the mattress. The job that means doing tons of unpaid overtime. It’s the little things and the big, universal crises, both: the two feed into each other. Let a city—hell, a whole country—segregated by income build up enough places you shouldn’t go, or wouldn’t go, or can’t afford, and what’s left will turn into dreary sameness.
Out of all this comes the music of that imaginary gland Bangs invented, the burning ball of muscles, nerves and stress. You can hear that sound a little bit on the album by A Place to Bury Strangers. On each song the band creates harsh, sinewy distortion, propped up with great old industrial bass and Cure guitars, and sounding distantly like the Jesus and Mary Chain. This everyone knows, but not enough is said about how incomplete the JAMC project really was. On their earliest albums, they gift-wrapped most of their songs in noise, having already built complete (if wickedly cynical) pop tunes. The two things don’t quite integrate, except on the occasional miracle, such as “Just Like Honey”. Later on they wrote other songs that did meld sounds and tunes together perfectly, but the purity of the noise was gone: “Head On” isn’t going to make your ears bleed. Instead it’s a very poppy, measured take on hard rock.
The album that actually was terribly, completely, endlessly noisy was Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, from all the way back in the mid-seventies. It was as grand a statement as Reed was capable of making. Using a bunch of synthesizers set to warble, stutter, choke and sputter out, he layered one computerized feedback squall on top of another until he had just over an hour of “music,” all of which sounds like the triumphant ending to a blistering, uncompromising rock song, or like the sharp peal of sound when a hand-adjusted radio goes from station to station. Reed left, like some coded message to all future musicians, this furious electrical storm wherein culture empties itself into one great ocean of noise. His own elliptical way of putting this was to imagine that the head of RCA’s “Read Seal” classical label had become obsessed with Metal Machine Music and had praised him for quoting Vivaldi and Bach and Beethoven’s 3rd and 6th symphonies. None of that is actually true, but as far as lies go, the Beethoven is particularly significant because those are the “Eroica” and “Pastoral” symphonies, and that’s what Reed wanted to create. He wanted to be the heroic author of a sound wherein the most primal modern desire, that of a pastoral return to brotherhood and sisterhood, was finally articulated and satisfied.
That’s what the album means. The echo chamber of culture, folded back on itself until it is pure “feedback”, is also the scream buried in the desperate relation between performer and audience, both of whom are trying to escape, through art, from the madness of their real existence. So all this real, necessary hope gets multiplied into an uncountable number of records, and movies, and books, and paintings—Mates of State and the rest included—until the individual grain of each work disappears into the simplicity of that desire to be somewhere else, to be something else. But Reed lacked the ability to put his vision into a single moment, so it stretches over an hour like a bad joke.
A Place to Bury Strangers discovered that moment last Saturday night. The concert was designed as a terrific and increasingly intense alternation between recognizable melody and drenching noise. The album sides definitively with pop: for the romantic ballad “Don’t Think Lover”, the band actually brought up some vocalist who otherwise didn’t perform, and he crooned it like a young Dave Gahan still working hard on being the loverman. It felt nice but too soft, even with the sarcastic refrain “Love lasts forever”. The bridge piece to where the concert ended up is also the best song on the album lyrically, the single “To Fix the Gash in Your Head”. Above the instrumental roar, you could just make out Oliver Ackermann singing
I’ll just wait till you turn around
And kick your face in—
To fix the gash in your head
To fix the gash in your head
It reminded me of a very honest song from the other camp, the Regressive Utopians Who Like The Beach Boys, called “The Gash”:
Is that gash in your leg
Really why you have stopped?
Because I’ve noticed, all the others
Though they’re gashed, they’re still going
Because I feel like the real reason
That you’re quitting and admitting that
You’ve lost all the will to battle on
Will the fight for sanity be the fight of our lives?
Now that we’ve lost all the reasons
That we thought that we had
Wayne Coyne sees a friend who’s stopped fighting, who is slowly bleeding to death along with everyone else, and all he can do is scold him or her for being a quitter. Other people have it just as bad, friend; when the current of love is running this shallow, no wonder “Utopia” has be mere sleight-of-hand, getting the audience to sing along to a kid’s book wherein brave Yoshimi battles the pink robots.
Ackermann, on the other hand, explicitly acknowledges the sadism of what he’s doing. He’s going to wait until you stop battling your way forward, until you turn around to see how your fellows are getting on, and then he’s going to kick your face in. In that moment you realize that he’s also doing this to himself, that he is also the subject of this willingness to push the noise too far, to drown in it, to deny absolutely nothing of the horror in order to fix, not ignore, the gash in your head. After that song things reached the point where you knew, from hearing the album and following the general outlines of the melody, what words he must be singing, but they were buried so low in the mix that they became indistinguishable. Finally, on “Ocean”, they brought out some fancy guitars in order to play the complex verse melody, and they did, everything starting out clean and beautiful.
Then, by fiddling with some of his homemade Death by Audio machines, Ackermann summoned the wall of sound, and it kept growing and surging until the bass player stopped playing, then the drummer, and then Ackermann, and finally the sound was going by itself, but Ackermann couldn’t let go of the guitar. He bent low to the ground, whirling the instrument around, watching the cord snake and twist, lost in wonder. He played with it like a kid will with a flame, as though he was poking at the spark that started a bonfire. With nobody manning the machines, what was keeping the sound going, exploding out of the big Marshall stacks until everything else was silent? No longer one person, particularly not Ackermann, now almost ridiculously hunchbacked over his guitar with his Costco boxers showing, moving to an unheard rhythm. The momentum came from everyone in that room, standing on tiptoe, together in an agony of hope.