Maybe it’s the nature of traumatic events to infiltrate everything else in your personal view, I really don’t know; I guess that’s a question for the psychiatrists. What I do know is that after watching on television as Manhattan turned into a rubble-strewn wasteland, I’m finding that certain things make more sense now, when I can relate them backwards to the tragedy and the political mess that’s followed in its wake. It works in the same way a fortune-teller does, I suppose: you take a random prediction, an easy coincidence, and suddenly, it seems to fit exactly with what’s going on around you, usually because you desperately want it to fit. In your normal life, you probably wouldn’t think twice about it; but, in that context, it makes sense. Now, to bring things to the subject at hand—I’d listened to Elliott’s False Cathedrals a half-dozen times over the past several months, and although I’d always liked it somewhat, I couldn’t ever really relate to it, but in light of everything, it all somehow fits, in a way I can’t completely explain.
For one thing, it’s an unrelentingly melancholy album overall (mostly because of singer/guitarist Chris Higdon has got the tortured-soul howl down pat; oh yeah, and he’s also an incredible singer, by the way), and I just hadn’t been feeling that way—when you’re already depressed about something, it’s all well and good to put on that Red House Painters album, say, but would you do that if you were in a good mood to begin with? Doubtful. So I guess, looking back, that I’d been shuffling Elliott aside, unwilling to screw up my happy, willfully ignorant outlook on life ‘til a time when I could appreciate it more fully. And now I’ve found it, unfortunately.
My relation of False Cathedrals to the September 11th tragedy probably has to do with the cover art, first of all—it depicts a half-built, grandiose structure that looks like it’s been gutted by fire and left a ruined skeleton—but that’s hardly the whole of it. The album itself is simply majestic, for want of a better word, just beautiful and soaring, and the idea of cathedrals (whether complete or unfinished) fits with that, as well, as do the events of the past days. Sometimes it takes acatastrophe to rebuild your faith in humanity, to show that there are heroes left in the world, and for me, at least, that’s happened quite a bit lately; I’m still a jaded, sarcastic cynic, but now I’m a jaded, sarcastic cynic with a bit of hope.
What I’m trying to say here, I think, is that Elliott’s latest CD simply couldn’t be a better soundtrack for this catastrophe if it tried, and yet, it’s not the catastrophe itself that it brings to mind, but more the aftermath—the days of doubt and fear, of heroism and bravery. That’s the kind of music this is, music about struggling and hoping, especially in songs like the staggering, uncertain “Dying Midwestern” and the drifting “Shallow Like Your Breath”, which places a destructive, crumbling relationship alongside the real-world analogue of an earthquake (the line “We are the red cross white flag” is particularly eerie). On the down end of the spectrum, “Blessed by Your Own Ghost” could be a subdued hymn of sorts, a prayer for people nobody cares about, while “Drive on to Me” is a beautiful, fierce, triumphant pop song, anthemic like U2 songs used to be, thrown in as if to affirm that everything’s not as bad as it could be.
If the album has a centerpiece, though, it’s got to be the very first track (okay, second, but the piano-and-choir intro of “Voices” doesn’t really count), “Calm Americans”, which seems even more relevant in these times of hyper-patriotism. Over a thundering, howling roar of guitar and drums, the song calls into question U.S. culture as a whole, pointing a finger at the banal nature of our everyday lives—nothing but media/entertainment dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, moderation in every single thing, and nonstop commercialism/imperialism. As someone who’s visited a few countries besides my own and seen the effects even U.S. marketing culture has elsewhere, I can relate painfully to the note of resignation and sadness in Higdon’s voice when he sings his refrain: “It’s all been Americanized that’s all”.
I don’t think many people realize how far America’s influence reaches, in our modern world, or realize that that influence may not be the best thing in the world for everybody. Those of us who are Americans need to always remember that we’re not the sole inhabitants of this planet, even at times like right now; I know it’s difficult, because it’s easy to just be self-centered and not be bothered about anybody else, but we should all consider this a wake-up call. We’re not the only people in the game.
That said, there’s still hope for us; we may not be friends with everybody else, but that takes time, anyway. Things may never be the same again, but there’s a chance they can be better—and that’s something to aim for, at least, even in our day-to-day lives. As the album’s closer, “Speed of Film”, testifies, “This normal life, it’s not so simple”.
// Notes from the Road
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