Worth a Thousand Words
“Shadow and light are everything in photography. They’re the equivalent of time and space (interval and form) in music.”
—Photographer Michael McLuhan, Toronto Star (interview by Ellen Hay)
Just as a photograph captures a moment in time, so can a song find itself the staple of particular images, a certain memory. The best songs are often all about the images they bring to life, with the best of the best songwriters (Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan) filling their songs with what seem descriptions of photographs, of moments in time. When hearing Don McLean sing, “When the jester sang for the king and queen / In a coat he borrowed from James Dean”, who doesn’t vividly picture so regal a performer decked out in a shiny, red windbreaker, jangling bells flopping on his head? Music is as much about the image as photography, with the mind instead conjuring what the camera can reflect.
On their second release, All the Weeping Cameras, Boston band, the Jack McCoys, take this idea a step further using photography as a basis for their album by incorporating varied elements of the art form to tell seven very different stories. On the album, the band (featuring Christian Cundari on guitar, Daniel Madri on guitar, Phillip Ouellette on drums, Tyler Pollard on bass and Matt Savage on vocals) use a slow, steady beat throughout to subtly and succinctly explore the very nature of the static image and what it means to all involved in its creation, from subject, to photographer to the lens itself.
“All the weeping cameras / Are weeping pictures of / How it used to be”, Savage sings on the countrified “Fossils and Artifacts”. “Talk about fossils and artifacts / Our smiles squished into the clay / Though everything that passes through your lens / Is also reflected away”, Savage delivers with his trademark sluggish vocal, on a song that reads almost like a slap in the face to every one of us who has found ourselves defined by images of the past, our faces forever smiling in photo frames that cannot deny we once were young, thin, loved, in love, happy.
“A Star Is” takes the idea of the captured image as tormentor a little further, referring to the “flicker and flash” of the camera as something of a condemnation, trapping us “in photo albums and picture frames / On desks and dressers / Where your height and your width / Are wrestled from your other dimensions”, as does “Amelia” with its depiction of a photograph as something that “burn[s] a [hole] in time”.
Though all the tracks certainly view photography as something undiscovered, often quite fake, perilous to our minds and our memories, not every song is as outwardly damning. “Sinking in Sentences and Paragraphs” offers a swirling mass of images, from soft kisses to footprints, in a complicated and epic tale that waits until its closing seconds to deliver its kick, whittling a relationship down to rolls of film as “A catalogue of streaks and smears / In color and in black and white”. “Half-Written Letter”, easily the album’s best track, is a slight, poetic love song relating a photograph to the defensive walls we put up when afraid of letting others in. Savage beautifully evokes such an image with the short verse, “I’m a photographer / Who climbed in through the aperture / And waited five years to really see you / Through every stiff and phony smile”.
“Photograph”, the album’s seminal piece, seems to get to the heart of the album, somewhat deriding photography as an art form that, although beautiful, colorful and valuable, removes us from reality. “All the whites and grays that settle on you / Settle on me in this room / Where the light was orange and dim / And the wasted time it took / To catch you in mid-smile / Is the whole history of photography”, Savage sings in his best Glen Phillips voice. “Hearts flex and throb under our shirts / And cameras click and paralyze / Whatever fraction of a second suits us”.
While it’s true much of the album’s sentiment is downbeat, it works due to the care taken in sharpening its own imagery, with finely crafted lyrics and confident musicianship. While the ideas are often vague, seemingly unplanned, scattered and distracted—somewhat like our thoughts tend to be when flipping through old photo albums—everything is obviously deliberate, creating a gorgeous comment on the tragedy of missing the moment in the attempt to preserve it.