The Mind-Numbing Conservatism of Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros

I guess I’ve got some issues to work through.

Here’s Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros swaying through “Life Is Hard” recently on David Letterman:

Well, now, this is beautiful. It is. Alex Ebert wears a white suit and his soul-dandy persona Edward Sharpe with a kind of anxious grace, the same anxious gracefulness you hear in his voice at the song’s beginning. It’s a sermon, unfolding slowly, building to a cry from the mountaintop, dipping again for Jade Castrinos’ verse, until: “Come celebrate! Life is hard!” Tenderly arranged, earnestly and professionally performed, a picture-perfect homage to late ’60s and early ’70s soul and gospel. “Lovely”, you can hear Dave say when it’s over.

Despite everything I’m about to write, I admire this song—in the same way that I’ve always admired Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros more than I’ve ever been moved by them.

The song feels like a sham, a well-crafted gesture toward the acknowledgement of suffering without ever investing in its real, gut-wrenching, head-in-the-oven qualities. This sense begins, I think, with the song’s homage to the past, so dead-on it’s creepy. Not a single note feels misplaced or played in a fever. No one is really losing it. Suffering, in other words, never threatens to get the upper hand.

Which is fitting, because if you follow the lyrics, suffering doesn’t stand a chance. From the top:

Life is beauty through and through

Life is sunny, life is cool

Life is even easy too

But if my word is to be true

Life is something to behold

But if the truth is to be told

Let us not leave out any part

This goes on for a while, as if the singer is afraid to get to the big admission that life is indeed hard. That’s an interesting idea in and of itself. We’re justly afraid, terrified, and willing to dodge suffering at all costs, and in public it’s easy to deny or withhold its existence (unless you’re being paid to wallow in it on a reality TV show). But Sharpe and Co. press on and finally—”Yes, life is hard!”

In 2013 this line sounds naïve, possibly even insulting. An occasion for an “ORLY?” meme. I don’t like to say much about myself in essays like this, but let’s just say that if I’d heard this between 2007-2009, I would have kicked the stereo. To a person who is suffering in an unabated and monumental way, who can’t find a job in this supposedly rebounding economy, or whose health is swirling down the toilet, or whose son is dead while his murderer walks free—well, I can’t imagine what this line sounds like.

Having arrived at the conclusion that life is hard, the band can’t even let it linger. They slide right into a gorgeous, strings-are-weeping exhortation: “Come celebrate! Life is hard!” It’s as if the song can’t actually commit to the thing it’s about.

Album: Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros

Artist: Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros

Label: Universal

US Release Date: 2013-07-23

Image: then, straining to provide some kind of immediately uplifting message, Sharpe sings, “All life is all we are.”


Even the most uplifting gospel song with the most positive message knows to drag you down into the gutter and into the muck before you can get up again. Suffering needs to be truly acknowledged in all of its bare-knuckle, knife’s edge horror if the acknowledgment is really going to matter, even if—as I think “All life is all we are” is trying to say—the final point is that we must accept a degree of suffering in our lives. Otherwise, it’s just pandering.

There’s a fine line to walk between what the song and its performance suggests to me, and what I infer about the people singing it. I would never want to suggest that the band is intentionally disingenuous, just one more hipster psych-folk outfit riding to the bank on the back of an easily digestible, feel-good anthem. I don’t know Ebert’s intentions, and I don’t really care much what they are.

It’s the song and the performance that have to convince me. They don’t. The smile shared between Ebert and Castronis near the end of the performance certainly doesn’t seem fake, and Ebert has divulged enough about his past drug abuse that you can imagine what this song might mean to him. He pours himself into this performance as much as, I think, he can, and as much as he does with every live performance I’ve either seen or heard. Still, it comes out flat.

You’ve had, maybe, a well-meaning friend who didn’t know what to say when you were about to literally or figuratively throw yourself in a river. When your lover of ten years left you. When your mother died. When you got drunk and ran into a stop sign like a stranger at a concert. (“Oh, excuse me, I didn’t see you there!”) When all of these things happened in the same two weeks. This friend with earnest eyes took your hand, swallowed, and said, “Bleh.”

Or it just sounded that way. You were grateful, but you decided then and there to never share your sorrows with that person again. Maybe you even suspected that your friend wasn’t really hearing what you were saying.

That’s this song, and it’s the entirety of the band’s new record, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.

On the one hand, the album makes sweet love to the music and “spirit” of the late ’60s and ’70s, when just the promise of love and happiness seemed like enough. The messages are simple: love one another, love yourself, dance, and remember that even if “Life Is Hard”, you can overcome challenges through a simple change in attitude. On nearly every song, and with great acumen, the band evokes the ghosts of smooth soul; for all the weird touches of keyboard and ambient noise, the record mutes and softens the edges of any piano, bass, and always-clean guitar, emphasizing drums and voice, strings and horns, washing all of it in stadium-sized echo.

(Except that “Love and Happiness” is gritty, almost devoid of echo; you can smell the smoke in the studio.)

From another point of view, though, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros sounds like a fraudulent exercise in nostalgia for a time that never existed. That’s what nostalgia is: a romanticized assertion, an acting upon the historical past, selecting the parts one finds laudable and erasing the messy, contradictory parts in order to justify a certain way of living today. From this viewpoint, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros comes across like Up with People performing at the Super Bowl. Its platitudes and homilies fall into the mud of Altamont, or on their knees in the courtroom where George Zimmerman was acquitted.

The Edward Sharpe persona is ecstatic, sermonizing, which in the strictest, most limited sense means that the lyrics cannot afford ambiguity. Of course, they could, but that’s not what Ebert and the band seem to be after. In its way, Sharpe’s speechifying takes the patterns and beliefs of religious discourse but replaces the words with easy-listening self-help mantras that sound not timeless but American-generic, which makes sense since history in these songs is the enemy, as on the album’s best song, “Better Days”:

Try to remember that you can’t forget

Down with history, up with your head

For sweet tomorrow, she never fell from grace

We might still know sorrow, but we got better days

This is language far and away removed from blunt yet ambiguous American English. The words are like a boxer’s heavy punches that never land. The titles alone sound generic: “Please!”, “Country Calling”, “Remember to Remember”, “This Life”, “Life Is Hard”. (“Let’s Get High” is the most provocative, but it turns out we’re supposed to get high on love. Bleh.) And if I sound like a schoolteacher, let me pour it on: it’s the old saw of every creative writing workshop that specific concrete details actually open up the story (or song) rather than close it off.

No, songs don’t work exactly the same way, since they’re performed. The singer’s voice can engorge the most banal words with meaning, and I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some of that in Ebert’s voice on this song, its pinched soulfulness wrenching more out of “Try to remember that you can’t forget” than the words alone provide. But those punches land truer when the lyrics have more strength or cunning to them than “I woke up feeling new/’Cause now I know this life’s for you”.

If the lyrics are bad poetry, the music is finely crafted artifice, giving the impression of joy and freedom but beholden to carefully placed evocations. The opening guitar lick of “Please!” sounds as much like George Harrison as the title sounds like an early Beatles’ song, and Ebert’s voice on “Two” drudges up any number of sleepy-headed country singers, even a bit of Bob Dylan on Nashville Skyline. Strings and horns fill all the empty space with soulless bleating, while the cleanliness of everything just misses bland pop like The Association, the worst of Simon and Garfunkel, or the fantastically cornball folk of Gentle Soul, for which we must thank YouTube:

While it’s not the band’s fault their album was released on the heels of the Zimmerman trial in the middle of a summer filled with racial profiling, attacks on voting rights, an economy that seems be to improving the old-fashioned way by turning the middle-class against the poor, and more attempts to strip women of their rights than we’ve seen in the past 20 years combined—well, that’s the situation.

That’s always the situation. The political, not merely the “topical”, or the sensational, but the ongoing politics of a country, is always waiting to be addressed in popular music. In fact, the political is always present, even when its presence is the shadow of its absence. Some artists go for it consciously, succeeding like Talib Kweli (“It Only Gets Better”, or even the smooth “Come Here”)…

… or failing miserably like Brad Paisley (“Accidental Racist”), while some simply don’t have much to say. But aren’t they always saying something, whether by assertion or negligence?

The band can do whatever it wants. Music is never required to be anything other than interesting; that is the first and only hard rule. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros are no more required to write “socially-conscious” songs than Gogol Bordello is required to write catchy, iProduct-advertisement-friendly tunes.

But neither am I required to isolate the album from what I see and hear around me. Turns out I can’t. And that’s why Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros sounds fantastically, hopelessly conservative.

Conservatism in America means a hundred different things; the kind that fascinates me and best applies here is conservatism as an apolitical ideology, one that eschews large institutions like a federal government, or any government, which it treats as necessary evils. It’s highly individualistic and tribal; the communities it favors are small, close-knit, and can take care of their own problems. Why establish another department in the fed when your local church can handle it? Never mind what others without such support must endure. The source of power and rights comes not from democracy, but in spite of it. What are those sources? Nature, the self, and tradition.

Traditionalism is the key to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, beginning with their devotion to the past. But it’s a past with all the rough edges smoothed out, lyrically and musically. As one review of the new album points out, the band’s message is typified by something Ebert says in the documentary Big Easy Express: “To see [America] the way they saw it more than 100 years ago, when we were all children dreaming to lift ourselves and the world we come in contact with back into the magic.” There’s not only a willful regression in that statement—the better days ahead are the better days of the past—but also a vast romanticization. In 1913, children were “lifting” themselves by working in the new industrial age without the protection of child labor laws; the world we were coming into contact with was about to turn bloody.

Like so many visions of the past, the one held by the band relies less on history than a particularly nostalgic narrative—in this case, the story of the ’60s and ’70s. It’s as if the band walks back in time to the supposed failure of late ’60s left-wing politics, which was supplanted by political apathy and cynicism under the weight of Nixonian conservatism and devolved into self-loving preening, a politics of the self. There the band picks up the thread, as if the thread was whole and simple, and worth picking up.

There is a strange place where conservatism meets an idealism so often associated with the left-wing, which is why, elsewhere in the world, all of American politics is called liberalism but is regarded as deeply conservative. It’s a place where the people fear and distrust the government they’ve created and divorce it from ‘what really matters’, which are ideals that rise above the messy floor of politics. Largely this relies on a heavy dose of individualism, of small communities and limited voices, and controlling the stories that get told. The more people that get involved, the less we agree. When it embraces the public-at-large, it does so haltingly, and speaks with mysticism and reverie so as to offend no one, even if it excludes half the population. It asks you to dance, but demands to lead.

Pop music has usually avoided the political, yes, but since 9/11 there have been countless “indie” bands that would seem to champion left-wing politics but gravitate toward status-quo apathy and distanced pastoralism, a kind of aesthetic isolationism even as they borrow heavily from music influences from around the world. This isolationism is typified in “Country Calling”; the personal isn’t political, it’s just personal, and please don’t bother me. It’s also not adolescent in the way rock and pop is ‘supposed to be’ adolescent. Instead, it’s childish, nostalgic, though with a winking sense of dissatisfaction and copious amounts of cheap beer. It’s the opposite of Pussy Riot, for whom political actions are best set to music.

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros offers to protect us from politics with love, to protect us from each other by giving ourselves all the power to decide, including the decision to be apathetic, which is the ultimate self-love. As it says in “Let’s Get High”, why bother talking about who’s to blame? What does it matter who did wrong to someone else, especially if you don’t know them? You and I are good, right?

Press photo (photographer unknown)

Instead, what if politics protects us from love? What if it creates rules designed to ensure fairness for all of us, regardless of whether or not we are loved by the right people.

Ultimately, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros is a conservative album by a conservative band which on record cloaks in ideals of progress a defensive, protective apathy. The integrity of the status quo is intact, the virginal land resighted, and the world is only made smaller.

It’s a good time, but in these times, the world seems much bigger.