Okay: High Road / Low Road

[2 May 2005]

By Peter Funk

One of the most difficult things to do when examining any art critically is to separate the artist from the art. While many say that the two are completely inseparable, I tend towards the school that says everything doesn’t have to be biographical or fatally connected to its creator. Ah yes, I can hear you saying but don’t you put any truth in such old axioms as where there’s smoke there’s fire or where there’s blood there must be a wound? I suppose. But as this polemic relates to Okay I really want to be right. I want High Road and Low Road to be appreciated for the statements that they are, not trapped within the context of their creator. But I’ve already done that, haven’t I? I’ve boxed them in. The final truth may be that Okay will always be bound to circumstance.

Okay is the musical voice of Marty Anderson. Anderson’s musical journey began as the front man for the band Dilute before creating the Okay persona as a vehicle for expressing his oddly shaped pop songs. That’s where I want the background to stop, but it doesn’t and to pretend it does is critically unfair. Anderson’s creation of Okay became more than merely a conceit, and here’s where circumstance and art become intertwined.

Marty Anderson is sick. He has a chronic stomach disorder that requires him to be homebound and hooked to an I.V. on an almost daily basis. By necessity he moved in with his parents. An unnamed long-term relationship came to dissolution and Anderson had to live a confined existence that meant both physical and mental duress. That’s the short story. Part of me wants you to gloss over this paragraph and read about the music, but part of me also knows that Anderson’s circumstance and the unique vantage point it has given him is part of what makes these two albums so powerful.

The writing of both High Road and Low Road occurred as the United States marched off to war with Iraq. As much as we, as citizens of this country, have discussed into the ground our support or disgust with the (cue dramatic CNN style music and graphics) conflict in Iraq, it’s probable that few of us have seen this national discussion from Anderson’s unique seat. And there are big picture questions being asked. Here’s a home-bound man, in chronic pain, creating music as his only outlet for expression, trying to give voice to a dialogue that he’s forced to observe from a distance. On some level Anderson must have been asking, do I need to even care about this? I have my own shit to deal with. And ultimately that’s both High Road and Low Road‘s declaration: Anderson took our bickering, heard as if through walls, chatter in another room, and made something cohesive and honest out of it.

So, the music. Inevitably the first thing that you’ll notice about Okay is Anderson’s voice. It’s unusual. Chances are you’ve never heard anything quite like it. To call it a croak may be doing insult to the many fine frogs working in ponds today. But with each listen to these albums it becomes an essential element in the mix. And it makes sense. His voice belongs with these songs. Eventually it becomes near impossible to imagine them without Anderson’s voice at the front. It could be the sound of any of us, not the preaching of A List Hollywood stars or the bluster of iconic rock stars but our voices: arguing in our kitchens, at town swimming pools, despairing over televised news, hoping for triumphant epiphanies in the gossip shared at coffee shops, all channeled through this fragile groan.

As to the music itself: you haven’t heard such perfect pop songs in a long time. The songs are simple, melodic, pop songs perfect in their execution. I keep getting drawn to a comparison that lands these songs in a nebulous middle ground between Postal Service’s Such Great Heights and Iron & Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days. Sonically neither of these comparisons is valid. Okay sounds little like either one. But there’s something in the tone of the songs on High Road and Low Road that draw one towards those concise moments of honest pop goodness.

Anderson writes guitar based pop songs that are accented by found noise, keyboards, synthesizer, and a minimal at times shrill beat. The songs range from the mid tempo swirl of High Road‘s “Mind”, which is accented by what sounds like a toy piano, to the slow unwinding of Low Road‘s opener “Bloody”, which sounds impossibly fragile in its lightly tapped keyboard chords, to the upbeat strum of Low Road‘s “Now” which breaks out into a freakishly wonderful fuzzed out guitar break at the 1:48 mark that seems to soar into the room like your favorite crazy uncle.

There’s been much banter on message boards about which of these albums is better. Okay’s press release gives a meandering explanation that involves the word “duality” (scared the shit out of me too) as it relates to the double release. Each works alone but is essential to the other. To me it’s like trying to decide which of your twins you love best: they look the same but they’re different people, each with peculiar quirks and habits that make them their own. Indeed each of these records has transcendent moments: High Road‘s “Mind”, “Good”, “Compass”, and “Sing-a-long”; Low Road‘s “Devil”, “Now”, “Holy War”, “Game”.

Lyrically I’m going to take the easy way out. I don’t want to explicate what Okay is doing here. I already feel like I’ve let the cat out of the bag enough. I don’t want to bias you towards conclusion, point a light on a particular moment as being more valid than another. I want you to struggle with both these records as I have, and grow to love them. Besides, one of the most powerful moments on the records comes at the close of Low Road with the song “Bullseye”. The majority of that songs 8:44 is spent listening to birds chirp. They must be just outside Anderson’s window, singing into a breeze that you can hear scratching at his window. It all seems so idyllic until we hear the gunshots. Or is it the sound of 4th of July fireworks? Is there a difference at this stage? It’s as if you can hear Anderson writing these songs from his solitary vantage, waiting for the moment when we’ll all listen.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/okay-highroad/