Any discussion about Blackfield circa 2013 is almost invariably going to involve a lot of assumptions about the philosophy of personal identity. Though the duo’s newest LP, IV, bears its name on its Bass Communion-referencing sleeve art, the path that led to its creation has been tread by feet that aren’t now sinking in the path quite as deeply. The events that set the creation of Blackfield into motion came in 2000, when the British prog maestro Steven Wilson and the Israeli pop giant Aviv Geffen met up for a series of concerts in Geffen’s homeland. This two-man adoration society resulted in the creation of Blackfield in 2004, a melancholy, at times depressive collection of songs that draws from Wilson’s signature melodic phrasings he developed working with his most popular outfit Porcupine Tree and Geffen’s strong pop sensibility. This experiment was repeated with enormous success on II, an album that’s front-to-back perfect on all fronts. Wilson and Geffen have their differences—witness the latter’s attempt at rock star glamour clash with the former’s subdued stage presence on the duo’s live DVD—but for one glorious moment, the lightning struck the bottle and all was well.
But then came 2011’s Welcome to My DNA, where the questions about the philosophical identity of Blackfield find their genesis. Wilson, being the widely revered polymath he is, faces numerous dilemmas when deciding which of his numerous projects to work with. Despite Porcupine Tree being at the forefront of the global progressive rock scene, he has taken an indefinite hiatus from the group, opting for a solo career that’s now become even more prog than anything that band has done. With Blackfield, he’s in an even tighter predicament. Being attached to the Blackfield name has given Geffen countless new fans and exposure beyond his native Israel, where he is already a considerable star. Yet as promising as Blackfield’s career trajectory may have looked after II put the band’s name out in a big way, Wilson has never been a songwriter to stick to one thing for very long—and certainly not the four-minute pop song. These gentlemen work well together, but their stakes in this musical venture are not the same.
As a result, on DNA, Wilson handed off the reins of the project to Geffen, turning what was once a partnership with some oscillating skews in dominant presence into a Geffen-centric venture with a few Wilson collaborations. The music didn’t face any huge drop-offs in quality: cuts like “Rising of the Tide” and “Dissolving with the Night” rank amongst Blackfield’s best work, and they demonstrate that Geffen was never forcing Wilson to pick up any slack in the line. However, alongside those stand better-forgotten compositions like the schmaltzy “On the Plane” and the childishly profane “Go to Hell” (whose lyrics consist of: “Fuck you all, Fuck you/I don’t care any more/Go to hell”). Wilson’s sole writing credit, “Waving,” has a catchiness to it, but its chorus, comprised solely of vocal filler, feels entirely phoned in. All of this to say, despite some signature characteristics of Blackfield that are present on DNA, Wilson’s choice to step back and let Geffen dominate the show had ramifications on the identity of the project itself. If personal identity is a stream of consciousness, as John Locke held, then the band has flown out of its main river and off into a new tributary. The old waters are beginning to run only faintly through.
If this personal identity crisis was a concern on DNA, it’s a full-blown problem for IV. Wilson has lead vocals on two tracks, compared to the six on DNA, and his one writing credit on that LP has shrunk to zero. He still is a dominant presence on guitars, but on the whole this is Geffen’s game. To his credit, he doesn’t waste this opportunity; this record contains more epic string arrangements and noteworthy guest contributions than anything this duo has done before. “The Only Fool is Me,” featuring ex-Magnetic Fields member Jonathan Donahue on lead vocals, is Broadway-like in its confessional grandeur, with sweeping strings backing a set of quality lyrics by Geffen (including the stellar line “Nobody loves for free.”) Suede frontman Brett Anderson chips in his pipes for the brooding “Firefly.” Surprisingly, one of IV’s biggest duds is the performance by Anathema’s Vincent Cavanagh on “X-Ray,” where the man’s normally commanding voice devolves into soft rock safeness, which is further dragged down by a flat, awkward metaphor about lovers “being the X-Ray of life.” It seems that the rash of contributors here might have something to do with Wilson’s ever-shrinking role in this once-equal duo. If this is the case, Geffen might do well to just reformulate and rename this project. Even beyond his two lead vocal contributions (“Pills” and “Jupiter”), Wilson’s presence is felt here, but it’s not anything like the Blackfield of the self-titled or of II.
The flow of this river into this new tributary is only made harder by all of the aforementioned moments of Wilson’s presence. Opener “Pills” is quintessential Blackfield: soft, gloomy verses give way to a widescreen chorus, driven home by harmonized vocals and strings—and even a hard-rocking end riff to boot. (There’s also the matter of Wilson’s obsession with pills as a site of cultural observation, a subject for a whole other piece.) His vocals also play a huge part in the chorus of “Sense of Insanity,” the album’s most infectious moment. In it, Geffen’s ability to wrangle a monster hook is on full display, as is the duo’s penchant for cynical observation (“All your heroes ran away”). More than anything, though, it’s a stark reminder of what exactly is missing on the majority of IV. Additionally, it doesn’t help much that these tracks are completely frontloaded; after the majestic “Jupiter”—there are those Broadway aspirations again—the record slumps into its conclusion, where the underwhelming “After the Rain” registers as nothing more than a momentary blip. IV doesn’t have any of the huge missteps of DNA, but it doesn’t have any of its biggest successes either.
For Wilson diehards, it’s his minor role here that will likely be listed as the main culprit behind why IV pales in comparison to LPs like II. That’s not the issue, though. Geffen is a wholly capable songwriter, one who has given this duo a good deal of its best music and lyrics (“Where is My Love?” and “Cloudy Now” stand out in memory). For awhile, particularly on the self-titled debut, his vocals were actually utilized too little. He cannot, however, bear the weight of Blackfield on his own. Neither can Wilson. The strength of these guys’ music comes in their togetherness, their ability to reconcile their unique worlds and forge something distinct. Wilson’s decision to let Geffen run the show, while motivated out of a kind-hearted desire to not let a good thing go to waste, isn’t as much as a change in direction as it is identity. Derek Parfit, in his landmark work Reasons and Persons, offers a hypothetical that helps illustrate this case. A man who regularly teleports to Mars comes to find one day that instead of being beamed to the planet himself, an exact replica of himself is created there. Scientists tell him not only is the teleporter’s functionality abnormal, its abnormality causes lethal heart problems in the person who instigated the use of the teleporter. Because of this, he will die of cardiac failure in a couple of days. The question deriving from this thought experiment is simple: Did this person just die? That is to say, does his identity cease?
For Parfit, this person does survive, even though his initial body dies. All that matters is that someone like him survives; like Locke before him, Parfit believes that personal identity is not constrained by physiological borders. In the case of Blackfield, this teleportation scheme takes on a trickier life. Undoubtedly, there enough on IV that is something like Blackfield, to the point that there’s not a total abandonment of identity occurring. The identity shift that has taken place by Wilson’s diminishing role nonetheless alters this band’s future to the point that, if things do continue in this way, the legitimacy of the “duo’s” identity will likewise diminish. Still, the construction of the group’s image at this point is consistent with Parfit’s notion of identity; for him, a person can be related and indeed bound to a future person who appears to be nothing like the person in the present. Contrary to what one might intuit, this is functionally as good as survival. In contrast to Parfit, what IV demonstrates is that Blackfield is at its finest when it is being what it initially set out to be—not the band it now has to become because the circumstances require it to be so. Wilson and Geffen are a hell of a team, but if their identity as a duo continues along this stream, then the right thing to say will be that the times they have a’-changed. What will be left behind is a memory of this wonderful union compromised of brilliant music with a couple of hiccups here and there—a feat any artist should feel proud of. Even if it sucks, admitting change can stop a person from ruining the good things he’s already made.
// Notes from the Road
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